The voice of the LORD is upon the waters. (Ps. 29:3)
Who am I?
I think this is the central question of our lives. We’re searching for existential meaning. Other questions, why am I here? What am I about? What should I do with my life? These are really all bound up in that first question- who am I?
Some might say that this is the question adolescents and young adults deal with. We imagine that high school and college are times in which youth explore the world, testing their ideas against the realities they find.
When we hear of someone doing the same type of questioning or changing jobs in mid-life, we dismiss them by saying they’re going through a mid-life crisis.
What can we say then about Jesus? Today we find him traveling out into the wilderness to meet John the Baptizer. John’s baptizing for repentance, for a complete change in and among a people. He’s re-forming them into a new people, preparing them for a new way of life. And here comes Jesus, probably established in his father’s carpentry career, a devout Jew. What does he need from John? Does he need to be changed and re-formed?
John seems to have some questions about this arrangement, too. We expect a young child to need his shoes tied by an adult, but not that an adult would come to a child asking that favor. John acknowledges that he should be as the child, receiving something from Jesus. But there is something that drives Jesus to need to be baptized by John. He’s ready to be re-identified.
Who am I?
It’s a question with ready answers. Everywhere we look we can find someone telling us who we are.
My sister in law turned 15 this year. We just celebrated Christmas with her and the family yesterday. When I look at her, I’m really excited to know that she is growing up and has so many possibilities opening up in front of her. I’ve known her since she was ten years old. Her brown hair was long, cut straight across, with bangs dusting the tops of her glasses. She liked to read, to go to camp, to tease her big brother with sisterly devotion. Now she’s becoming a young woman. Her hair is styled, her face perfectly made up, she walks with confidence. And it’s not just her physical appearance. She’s responsible for her horses and raising her 4-H pigs. She’s wondering what she wants to continue studying, what her vocation might be.
For Christmas I gave her a cd. I tried to find songs with some message that might help her know that she will be faced with many people trying to tell her who she is, but that she doesn’t have to listen to those other voices. The cd starts with the lyrics “I’m just a girl in the world, that’s all that you’ll let me be”. I know that someday, someone will look at her and call her- girl- just a girl- and on the basis of that identification, tell her she’s not good enough, or strong enough, or someone else enough, and so she can’t do whatever it is that she’d like to do.
American. Westerner. Immigrant. Foreigner. Woman. Man. Black. White. Asian. Hispanic. Working class.
We are told who we are. We tell others who they are.
What is it that makes us need to know who we are- and to name who others are?
We name others to classify them, to make them different than ourselves, to draw boundaries. Somehow naming other people helps us feel better because putting an identity on another gives us some control over them.
I think our identity crisis is really about fear. We don’t know who we are, or we aren’t who we think we should be. We can listen to the voices around us, trying to name us, and we can think about how we don’t live up to those names. Perhaps people look at us and say, “successful, compassionate, smart, patient, Godly”. Those are nice names to have, but they can be easily lost. In recent years, it seems we’ve heard a lot about abuse by clergy. It’s horrible and it happens in all denominations. Clergy are people we identify as holy and good. But that is simply not an identity that belongs to anyone. If you’ve been a part of our book study, you’ll remember that in Bill White’s book “In Over our Heads”- there is a chapter called “Holy and Messed Up”. We are all “holy” and “messed up”, saints and sinners at the same time. We’re not going to be able to sustain an identity as “holy”. We are not good. As much as we might want to sell ourselves to others as a good person, we’re just not going to cut it. Are you thinking, “tell us something we don’t know!”? Or maybe, “there’s got to be a way to be the good person I want to be!”? Or- are you like me, and knowing that you are not perfect, that you are not good, leaves you terrified. I’m afraid. I’m afraid because we live in a world where we are constantly judged. And I’m trying to become a pastor – and people expect you to be good if you’re a pastor. But I can’t be good. I can’t be perfect.
We’re always trying to reinvent ourselves to fit in, to be ok. In a new group of people, we think we have a new chance. We think we can live up to their expectations and we can be that perfect person we want to tell others we are. But that’s only going to last long. Jeff and I have started watching the TV show “Lost” on DVD. It’s about a group of 46 people who are in a plane crash between Australia and LA, and are stranded on an island. We’re watching the first season, and I find it so captivating because the stories of the each person’s life is shown, and how their former lives are affecting them in their relationships with these strangers. The problems and issues that haunted them before the crash remain struggles. Given a clean slate, they simply can’t create themselves as perfect people.
If we’re so afraid and focused on painting our identity sparkling bright, and trying to sell that to others, we can’t move out into mission and ministry. All our fearful energy is directed at ourselves, and we look at others with suspect.
Jesus comes to John in the wilderness. He is one amid the crowds who have come to learn from this holy man. Whatever his identity before he emerges from the waters of his baptism, it is clear who he is afterwards. A voice from heaven declares, “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased”. In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems that this message is for the whole community of John’s disciples. Jesus and the community know who he is, the Son of God. Once Jesus’ identity is declared, he goes out into the wilderness and begins his ministry. We don’t need to search for our identity, or live up to the identity someone else has put on us, or try to create an identity for ourselves that is beyond our ability to sustain. God has already given us our identity in Jesus Christ. We are united with Jesus in baptism. As we are washed with the waters, human constucted identity is washed away. We are marked with the sign of the cross. Thus we are identified through the symbol of love and sacrifice as Christ’s. Do we want to give up control and allow God to identify us? I think it’s the only way we can experience love- God’s love and a good self-love— if we rest in the identity we are given through God’s grace in uniting us with Jesus.
And if we are identified with Jesus, we are identified as children of the same God, brothers and sisters with Christ. If this is who we are, and if this identity will not be taken away from us, what can we fear? We are freed from fear, ready for mission and ministry.
We opened our service with the Thanksgiving of Baptism liturgy. There’s one line I want to repeat: “By water and your Word you claim us as daughters and sons, making us heirs of your promise and servants of all”. Living out of our baptismal identity, we can look at strangers and name them brother and sister. We can love them because we know who they are. We don’t name their identity in a confining way, but welcome them into our hearts as siblings.
We are the Church, the gathered children of God. At baptism, we welcome new siblings into our family. We affirm that they are named “children of God”. Look around. Your identity is being held in the community’s trust. The community of believers- those who have shared the baptismal promises to teach us and pray for us- are those who remind us who we are- children of God. We are holy, saints, because we are united with Christ, but we will remain “messed up”, sinners, for our whole lives. It is our calling as the church to remind each other of this identity. To offer forgiveness and reconciliation for the sin, and to rejoice and remind each other of the grace of God that has made us holy. We are daughters and sons of God. We are brothers and sisters of Chirst. This is the identity God has given you. God loves you.
May the grace and peace of God be with you, my sisters and brothers in Christ.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Christmas, Herod, Jesus, slaughter of innocents, vision
The splendor of the LORD is over earth and heaven. (Ps. 148:13)
Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ. I hope you all enjoyed a wonderful Christmas! Jeff and I have enjoyed three Christmas celebrations, and are still on our way to enjoying two more. We decorated for Christmas back in November, and we’re likely to remain bedecked until late January. Our central focus is our Christmas tree. I have fond childhood memories of bundling up, walking through rows of trees- poking, prodding, shaking, and measuring until we found our perfect family Christmas tree. I remember the pungent aroma of pine filling our home with holiday perfume. Jeff and I have a fake tree. But I have no less a fond memory of coming upon our perfect tree at a church garage sale. And there was something classically Christmas about our fluffing wire branches and balancing the tipsy treetop on its base. While I may enjoy hours of looking at our tree, its blinking lights, or remembering Christmases past through my ornaments, Jeff’s focus has been centered under the tree. He’s been watching with childlike glee as presents slowly emerged throughout the season. As we entered the weekend before Christmas, questions of when those presents would be opened began. I enjoyed our home gift exchange. But I remember as a child, exchanging gifts, especially at my grandparents’ home, always made me rather anxious. I might not be very excited about a new sweater or socks. But my Mom told me I had to look really happy with any gift I got.
Our practices of gift-giving are bound up in our social conventions. Show gratitude for whatever gifts you’re given. Always write thank-you cards. Be sure to give a gift to those who give you one. Gift-exchanging binds us to others. Sometimes we’re able to give a gift to someone in return for their gift to us. At other times, gifts are simply more extravagant than we could ever reciprocate. Faced with such a gift, we have a choice: refuse the gift and avoid any sense of indebtedness, accept the gift and constantly strive to repay the debt, or simply accept the gift as a gift, given in love, and allow ourselves to be changed by that love, that we reflect it to others. Jesus’ birth is a great gift. In our Christmas readings, we heard the angels declare his birth as good news for all people. And yet today’s Gospel is filled with anything but good news. We hear a horrifying story of King Herod slaughtering all the children under two. Herod is a Jew, serving as a puppet king for the oppressing Roman forces, over his own Jewish people. He is in a precarious position, unlikely to be adored by his own people, and yet not able to be completely accepted by the Roman ruling culture. Here is a portrait of a man in great fear and paranoia, a man for whom any gift carries with it complicated political and personal pressures. Raised as a Jew, one would expect that he would be waiting and hoping for the promised Messiah. But he just can’t accept this gift of God’s love. To accept Jesus would be to free himself from the systems of oppression that he has become complicit in.
Herod doesn’t have the depth of vision to recognize God, Rome, or himself. He just can’t place things in the right order. He doesn’t recognize that he is a limited person, with limited power. Or perhaps he recognizes his limitations all too well, and so he is trying desperately to protect himself from anyone who would be a threat to his position. He closes his eyes to the casualties of the Roman occupation. He is like the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh in the story of Moses. Who is so focused on himself, that he orders mass killings of young children. Who only worries about himself as his people are suffering under the oppression he helped to create. Who rejects the one God sends to save all people. Clouding his vision is an image of himself in central importance, in power, in control. Who can God be to one so trapped in an illusion? Does Herod see God as sanctioning his ruling role? Or is he in opposition to a God who would favor the oppressed? These wise men from the East, who tricked Herod, must have recognized in Herod’s eager questioning about the birth of the new king, not joy that God has sent a savior into the world, but self-centered fear. But Herod isn’t the only one who is lacking a depth of vision. I wonder if you can think of anyone else who can only see about this far in front of his or her face. Could it be me? Could it be you? What do we do with the good news of Christmas? What do we do with the knowledge that God comes into our world as a dependent infant? That this Jesus spends his life teaching and healing, and eventually dying to bring in the kingdom of God?
We celebrate among family and friends, sharing gifts of love and generosity. Here at Zion we extended our celebrations to join in ethnic festivities and neighborhood parties and provisions. But now that our season of giving is over and a new year is beginning, I wonder what we will do with the good news of Christmas? Does the birth of a savior really mean good news for us? Herod didn’t think so. But he did recognize the power of this savior to change the world. He had enough faith to recognize that being on the opposite side of this new king would be dangerous to his career. He just couldn’t get the depth of vision to recognize that this savior was coming to save him. Herod couldn’t recognize that while salvation might mean relinquishing his power over others, it would bring him more freedom and peace than he was able to experience while he was enslaved to his vision of self-importance. What is our depth of vision? Even though we aren’t in Iowa or New Hampshire, I don’t think we have been deaf to the political process in full swing around us. I’ve been hearing that pollsters are learning that Americans are now more concerned with issues of money- the economy and health care- than foreign policy and our war. Does our vision stop at our country’s borders? Do we need to hunker down and declare ourselves the last enclave of Christian society? Or is it just the reality of our lives that we need to take care of our own matters before we have the resources to expand beyond our immediate needs? Herod’s story leads me to question my depth of vision and my self-focus pushing God to the periphery. Psalm 148 leads me to consider breadth of vision. This ancient song asks me, “what does not praise God”? And I begin to realize that my breadth of vision is altogether too narrow. When Friday’s storm hit and I thought to myself, “really, another winter storm”, all I cared about was myself and the fact that I’d be spending another three hours in the car, inching along and hoping I wouldn’t crash. I really needed to open my eyes wider and see the absolute beauty of the fresh snowfall. What joy could be mine if I only considered the delicate intricacies of each tiny snowflake, a silent testimony to God’s awesome creative power. Or if I had sat nearer the earth and considered how the bulbs I so carefully planted this fall were slowly preparing for their new spring birth and that this fresh snowfall would provide the necessary moisture for their life. Even a Christmas tree declares God’s praise. We spend so much of our time in filtered and temperature controlled buildings that I think we miss something that the ancient Hebrew people must have caught on to. They were aware that God’s praises are sung by fruit trees and shining stars, snow and fog, even the great sea monsters. It is good that God’s praises are found on the lips of those gathering in churches around the world this morning, but it is not only on our lips that praise of the Creator is sung.
The great promise of Christmas is this: that unto us a savior is born, Christ the king, who is God with us. But this promise is much greater than our near-sighted and narrow vision often allows. Jesus Christ, through whom all of creation came into being, comes to creation, born in Mary’s womb. The fear that is a part of living with a self-centered focus is not a fear we need live with. Jesus Christ comes to all creation, to those forces of nature we do not understand and cannot control, to the stranger in our world who we do not know and whom we may fear, and to us, however powerful or insignificant we may feel on any given day. God does not leave us alone with our troubled vision. God comes to us and will keep coming to us even when we lose sight of God.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: jail, John the baptist, marriage, marriage prep, Messiah
Sermon Dec 16th
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matt 11: 2-11
Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. We meet John the Baptist again this week. But here, near the middle of Matthew, we meet a different John than we met at the beginning. Last week we saw the crowds coming out into the wilderness, to John, to be baptized. We heard a powerful, prophetic voice declaring: “Prepare the way of the Lord! …One who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals!… His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!”. This was a John sure of himself, sure of his message, sure that the promised messiah would be coming. Now we meet a John imprisoned. He’s been cast into jail because he’s irked the political powers. The voice that once proclaimed prophecy is now locked away from the public crowd. Yet his followers remain faithful, coming to him to comfort, to learn, to bring him news and food. I sense that John knows he is nearing the end of his life. At any rate, he’s locked in prison and his characteristic ministry in the wilderness is over. Nearing the end, I wonder if he wants to be assured that his life had a purpose, and that he will leave his own legacy in the world. He had spent his life working to prepare the people for a messiah, someone sent from God to save them. Now he wonders, was all his work worth it? Did he point to the right man? Will this man fulfill the hopes of the people? Did his life produce something that will leave a legacy that will live beyond him? His disciples have brought him news of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was the one he thought would fulfill his prophecies. John doesn’t have much time. He needs to know- is this Jesus the One? Or is there going to be another? Do John’s followers need to keep up his ministry of preparing a way for the coming messiah? Or can John rejoice that his mission has been accomplished and rest in the joy that God has sent a savior. As I’ve read our passage from Matthew, I’ve especially been struck by one verse, “2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I wondered, why would John hear what the Messiah was doing, and then send to Jesus to ask Jesus to confirm that he really was the Messiah? John’s only answer is Jesus declaring what he has done. No more proof that Jesus is the messiah than what John already had. I started getting pretty disappointed in John. Come on John, you’re hearing all the amazing things Jesus is doing, how could you doubt that he is the Messiah? You have all the proof you need. Why not just trust what’s before your eyes? But then I remembered how difficult it can be for me to trust that what I have prepared for has come into existence. Let’s look back to me, two years and one month ago. It was a Wednesday evening. I had just finished sweeping and washing all the stairs in the main building on Wartburg Seminary’s campus. Earlier that afternoon Jeff and I had been at St. John’s Lutheran Church, meeting with Pastor Steve for our final marriage (or in our case, engagement) preparation class. On our way home, I had been whining about how I didn’t want to talk about what it’ll be like when we’re married if we weren’t ever going to get engaged. So that night, after Jeff and I ate dinner in his room, when Jeff brought out a book full of letters I had sent him through summers at camp, a semester abroad, and two years while he was at school at that other Lutheran college, I didn’t see that the fulfillment of our preparation was taking place. So I found myself, dustbunnies clinging to my face and around the cuffs of my pants, opening up a letter with an engagement ring taped inside. And I screamed and we cried and I said yes. So here I am today, married, living out the fulfillment of that first preparation, that initial hope.
Maybe John just needed some proof tangible enough that he could hold it in his hands, cling to it and be sure. Like the proof I was convinced a ring would provide. But we both had all the proof we needed. I knew Jeff loved me because of the way he treated me. John knew Jesus was the Messiah because he was doing the work that the Messiah would do. John the Baptist looks to Jesus as the fulfillment of his work and his hope. Jesus offers the proof his life’s work: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them”. Jesus is the savior John was waiting for. Jesus is the savior we are all preparing for. We are in the midst of a preparation season. We’re preparing for a great festival. Stores are open extra hours so that we have plenty of opportunity to go and buy something for everyone on our list, and a little something for ourselves, too. Jeff and I wrote our lists of gifts to buy, and people to send Christmas cards to, and its making me a little nervous to know that most of those gifts aren’t ready, and although I’ve now picked up our 35 cards, I’ve only written two, and only given out one of those because the addressees- my parents – conveniently came to me. As a psychology student, I remember seeing a stress inventory. Experiencing the holiday season was automatically around 30 points on a year-long countdown to a 100 point stressed out rating. Why does preparation equal stress? I think it’s because we’re working hard at preparing for something, but our vision of what we will accomplish with our preparation isn’t quite the reality we will create.
I wonder if our preparation could equal hope? Could our vision of family gatherings have at its center just humbly being with each other, being thankful for the love of family, and being thankful God is so capable of loving that God actually loves that one gossipy aunt or the cousin who just can’t get his life together?! John the Baptist has worked hard at leading a whole people into preparation. Now removed from his place of preparation, he’s left to wonder at the product of his preparation. He hears that Jesus is healing those who are ill, restoring senses and abilities, and giving words of hope to the hopeless. But was this John’s vision of what would come out of his preparation? Last week we heard John conjuring visions of a powerful redeemer, who would come with fire, an anointed king who would restore the sovereignty of Israel. Perhaps some of us have been working to prepare ourselves this Advent in holier ways. In my December newsletter, I spoke of beginning Advent and Christmas rituals and disciplines. Jeff and I have been enjoying our family devotions around the Advent wreath. We at Zion have been preparing as a community by following Jesus’ example of caring for the sick, lonely, and poor. Tomorrow the Fellowship Hall and Marander room will be transformed into Santa’ workshop as volunteers wrap hundreds of presents for the children in our WOW program. Later this week, boxes containing a Christmas feast will be sorted and delivered to those in need in our neighborhood. These are good practices, preparing our hearts, hands, and minds for the coming of the kingdom of God in which there is justice, mercy, and compassion. The thing is, Christ’s coming isn’t dependent on our preparation. The farmer in the epistle of James might till, fertilize, and water so that the seed grows into a healthy plant with a good harvest. But the farmer can’t make it grow if it won’t. Jesus wasn’t born in that humble stable in Bethlehem because enough people did good things or prayed the right prayers. Jesus Christ is preparing a place for himself in you. Jesus comes to us in the hug from a friend, in the shared prayer, and in our sense of the beauty of creation adorned with fresh snow. Jesus comes to us today in the Word, read and proclaimed, and in the Meal, simple elements of Christ’s self-sacrifice. You’ll go home this morning, and continue to prepare. It is the season of preparation. But I hope you also find that your preparation is patient hope. Sure and patient hope that God has come, is come, and will come to you, and to all the world.
Filed under: Sermons
Christ the King Sunday
Happy Christ the King Sunday!Did you know it is Christ the King Sunday? Well, if you didn’t before you arrived at church, at least you did when you picked up your bulletin! If nothing else, simply because it is a break from the “however many-ith Sunday after Pentecost” listing. So here we are, bellies still full of turkey, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole. And now thrown into the Christmas rush! Perhaps some of you are a little bleary-eyed from 4am shopping Friday morning? I’m perfectly rested. I didn’t leave my inlaws’ house until 6am. Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is in full swing. Tis the season for glitz and glamour, lights and tinsel. We celebrate Jesus’ birth with parties, gifts, and brightly decorated homes. Plaques and pins remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season”. Last year in Dubuque, as I bustled around our little apartment, baking cookies and wrapping presents, I was also watching one of the various Christmas specials the Family Channel had on. One commercial caught my attention. At first, simply because I couldn’t tell what I was being sold. It opened with a typical Christmas scene, bright, white snow, softly jingling bells. Then we see Santa Claus, the jolly old man himself. But instead of bidding his reindeer “on Dasher, on Dancer…” he humbly walks up to a church’s nativity display and kneels in prayer. It’s a church commercial- intended to say something about our priorities around Christmastime. And to get people to come to their church. Friday morning, the day after Thanksgiving, we are officially on the superspeed train towards Christmas. As I followed my sister-in-law into Walmart for her guitar-hero must-have-Christmas present, I could not help but notice the Christmas transformation. There were brightly-colored bells, green trees, super helpful sales associates, and up above the cash registers- even the line number signs were gift-wrapped. And all this to celebrate the birth of a little baby?! <pause> Our whole country is eager for the Christmas season. I think the Christmas decorations up Hwy 251 were already lit around Halloween! So why doesn’t our church jump into the festivities with a bulletin that declares: Christmas is coming!? Why “Christ the King” Sunday? Lights and ribbon are brought out this weekend. Isn’t that an appropriate way to welcome a king? Many of us just enjoyed feasts. That’s a royal tradition. And I think we could keep going on about the appropriateness of celebrating the nobility of Jesus in conjunction with our seasonal customs. We could keep going on… until we open our Bibles to the reading from Luke today. Now, we might think- surely there must be some misprinting of the text, this must be a reading from Lent or the Holy Days. We’re supposed to be thinking of Christ the King, pomp and circumstance, royal diadems, precious gifts. I’ve read my Bible, I know there are verses we could pull out to talk about God establishing great rulers, or Jesus being a king in David’s royal line, or maybe even something about the voice of God present at Jesus’ baptism. Wouldn’t those be better stories to celebrate Jesus being king? But that’s not what we heard today. We got a story from the cross. Jesus is crucified in the midst of a jeering crowd. It is a crowd who has heard something of Jesus’ ministry, for in their own mocking they confess that Jesus has saved others, that he is called the messiah, the chosen one of God, and that he is the king the oppressed and occupied Jews have been long awaiting. They mock him, torture him, indeed even crucify him, because he is a king unlike any they have ever known. This is a king who has eaten with the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, even the criminal. This is a king who has been moved to tears because of the death of a friend. This is a king who has healed the blind and lame, instead of walking blindly by. What kind of king is this? I don’t think many of us here have had much experience with royalty. I haven’t had much outside the media reports of the latest doings in the British royal family. Maybe I have a little more sense of the doings of the rich and powerful in our world. I’ve seen coverage of Bill Gates, Bono and Oprah out among the poor around the world as they try to raise awareness of poverty and disease. I hope they’ve been able to do some good work, but they sure haven’t been getting the same response Jesus is getting here in Luke. Jesus is experiencing the most humiliating death possible. He is naked and staked into a pole. He is being killed among criminals, as if he were one himself. The very shirt on his back is claimed by another while he is still alive. And even his people and his God are dragged into the sphere of humiliation, as the occupying forces display their power over the one some thought would be the savior sent by God to rebuild the Hebrew nation. In one of my favorite book, JRR Tolkien writes of one character, “all that is gold does not glitter”. As we are surrounded by much that glitters this holiday season, I invite you to think of this phrase and Jesus. Jesus Christ comes to us as a powerless infant, born amidst the filth of a stable, conceived by an unwed mother. Jesus the Messiah is most fully known as king when he is raised in humiliation on the cross. Today, we know Jesus’ presence in the very simple elements of bread and wine. These are basic foods that even the poor would have eaten in Jesus’ time. You will be told, The Body of Christ, given for you; the Blood of Christ, shed for you. This is how the king is known- in his giving up of himself- for you.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: celebrity, epic, epic movie, leprosy, movie, prophet
2 Kings 5:1-15a
Luke 17: 11-19
I really like the story we read from 2 Kings. It has this dramatic quality to it. I can see the movie trailer- a grand opening scene of battle, spears on armor clashing, horses neighing, Naaman triumphantly victorious. Then the scene changes and the music mellows. Now soft strings playing a heart wrenching melody. Naaman the husband, ashamed of his disfiguring skin condition, his wife trying to assure him of her love. Then we hear a note of hope- their young Jewish slave girl speaks of healing in the land of Israel- a prophet with the power of the Jewish God. Perhaps it would go on to show the Aramean king frantically gathering his wealth to send to the Israelite king, in an attempt to use his influence to have his favorite military commander healed. Or the Israelite king tearing apart his clothes in fear and despair, knowing he cannot heal and fearing this to be an Aramean plot to have a reason to wage war.
Love, war, miracles, kings— these are the things of which epic movies are made!
And Naaman would have loved to know that there might be an epic movie about him. He is the great warrior of Aram, the land we now call Syria. His armies have been victorious! They have defeated Israel in battle. But like any epic hero, he is not perfect. He is marred by leprosy. What a twist of fate that now Naaman’s hope for healing comes from the witness of a young slave girl.
Naaman shows himself to be every bit the proud and well-recognized warrior. He must be used to people bending over backwards to serve him. Picture him, accompanied by great wealth, seeking to be healed, already humbled by needing to go to Israel for healing. He waits for this great prophet, this Elisha, who will be able to heal him. Perhaps he’s heard of Elisha’s predecessor Elijah and some of the great miracles he performed. Maybe he remembers how Elijah challenged the priests of the god Baal and in a grandly dramatic style called fire to a soaked stack of wood, proving that Israel’s god is the God with power. Did Naaman hope for some great show?
He was quite disappointed! The prophet doesn’t even come out to meet this great and powerful warrior. Elisha sends a message, with simple instructions- “go and wash in the river Jordan”. I can see Naaman pouting like a little boy. What happened to the extraordinary healing ceremony he had been picturing? What about how important a person he is? Where’s the recognition of his fame? What’s the deal with this prophet’s apparent scorn? And why should he go wash in Israel’s puny river when he could more easily bathe in the great rivers of his homeland?
Naaman loses sight of what he wants, and of the miracle he has been promised. It’s a good thing his servants act as friends and tell him to get over himself and receive his healing. Then he is able to recognize that there is a real God in Israel.
I want Naaman to be the star of the next epic movie. I want to watch him out on the silver screen because I don’t want his story right in front of me, as a silver mirror- showing me my own faults as I pick out Naaman’s. His story comes to me as Scripture, not cinema. One thing Scripture does is act like a mirror, showing us as we really are. What am I shown about my true sinful self? That I think I’m worth something. That when God speaks through the humble words of another- I’m not always ready to listen. That I still think my way is better than what anyone else has to offer.
When have we valued our own importance so much that we lose sight of what is freely offered to us? Our central belief is that God loves and claims us based on God’s own mercy and not on our merit. Our Lutheran focus on grace can be so difficult for us to grasp. We celebrate when a child is baptized with the simple element of water. And yet sometimes we falter when someone gets up in our face and asks- when were you saved?
When were you healed? Naaman wanted a big show or a daunting quest to be a part of his healing story. But God heals because God is a healing God, not because of a five-star performance.
As far as I know, Naaman hasn’t gotten a movie devoted to him yet. But he does get mentioned again in our Bible. As Jesus begins his ministry, speaking in the synagogue, he reminds the Jews that God’s prophets fed and healed those outside the Jewish circle. A foreign widow rather than the many starving Jewish widows received bread from Elijah, and a foreign warrior rather than the lepers of Israel received healing from Elisha.
Our reading from Luke highlights that the one leper who recognized Jesus as God there with him was a Samaritan, an outsider, a foreigner. Now, the other nine lepers did just as Jesus told them. They went off to the priests and they were healed. Their skin condition had made them outcasts in society, but they still knew society’s rules. They knew that only the priests could declare them healed and clean, able to join society once again.
But one returned to Jesus and praised him as God. This outsider might not have known all the Jerusalem Temple rules, but he recognized a miracle of God when he experienced it! He was not so entrenched in society’s hierarchy as the other lepers. His eyes were open to accepting God’s power being revealed in this teacher, this Jesus.
Naaman, the Samaritan leper, and God. What a cast! Surprising plot twists occur when God is found to be healing those outside the Jewish “in-group”. The expected thunder and lights of a miraculous healing are not to be found. The underdog becomes the celebrated model of thankfulness and praise. What a story!
But I’ll let you in on a little secret from the director. The credits aren’t ready to roll. The story’s not finished. Now we are the characters. God is still among us, healing, working miracles. God will continue to be true to God’s character- revealing Godself to and through the outcasts and foreigners. Will we celebrate God’s presence in the other? God is reaching out to us, to heal and to love, in the quiet and the simple.
Filed under: Sermons
As I come into this new community in Rockford, I am learning from others what seasonal joys Rockford holds. What do I hear? Edwards Apple Orchard.In Pastor’s Bible study this Thursday, folks spoke of it with a discernable twinkle of joy in their eyes. Kathy and Mark have described for me a vision of fall joy: they and the youth, hanging out together, sharing steaming cider and piping hot apple donuts, bees excitedly buzzing around, drawn by the fresh sweetness. This afternoon, I’m hoping to join in on this celebration of the fruits of the fall harvest. Harvest time has always been a joyful time. It is a time when all the bounty of the earth, the life-giving fruit earned in a spring and summer of hard work, is collected, counted, stored and sold. It is a time to celebrate. When harvest is brought in, or our paycheck arrives in the mail, what is our first thought…is it relief or joy that there is sustenance for us and our family- knowledge that we will have food for our next dinners? Is it a remembrance of the hard work we have done to earn this wage? Is it gratitude to God for providing us with a harvest, with a way to earn our living? Or perhaps it is dreaming of what might come next- what our money can buy for us. Brad recently lent me the book, “When Peace Like a River”. At one point, it recounts a story of the young protagonist, and his first job. His father is ill and the family is slipping into poverty. The kindly dimestore owner hires Rueben to tear down a rotting corn crib that has been sitting unused. So one bitterly cold winter day, Rueben heads over to work. His crowbar isn’t bent quite right, so he strains and strains, sweat pouring off his jacket-clad body. Finally, after a long morning’s work, one rotten bar pops off. He works hard to tear the old crib down. Every piece removed is paid for by great exertion. After a few days, he has accomplished his task. He receives a crisp $25 dollars in reward for his hard work. He proudly sits with his little sister, dreaming of all $25 could buy. His dreams are for fun and extravagant gifts for himself. It takes him a while to recognize that his wealth needs to be shared with his family, so that they can have food again. What we work hard to create, to grow, to earn, we think we deserve all. Philosopher John Locke’s idea of property was that whatever we mixed our sweat and blood, our labor, into- this belonged to us. It reminds me of a little kid, marker in hand, writing his name on each of his toys, declaring, “this is mine”. This is mine, I created it, I worked for it, I earned it, it belongs to me. In Amos’ world, the people had certain religious regulations that were supposed to help them let go of possessiveness. The Sabbath was a sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, whole day of rest, for everyone. Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Slaves, and even donkeys were not supposed to work at all. Do you think this was a rule to make sure that the richest folk had yet another day of leisure? No, it was rather the poor and the overworked who needed the protection and rest of the Sabbath. The poor were further protected by regulations that when farmers harvested their fields, the corners and missed stalks were to be left so that the poor could later come through the fields to collect wheat so they could have bread for their families. Is it implicit in God’s commands to provide for the poor that God intends there to always be poor folks? In creating these regulations, does God say, “I created humanity to live in a system in which there will be some rich and some poor and so I also instituted these regulations about harvest and Sabbath just to throw a bit of charity in?”. The tone of Amos’ prophecy condemns a society in which the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown. Is this so different than our own world? We hear about the fading of our middle class, even when most Americans consider themselves to be middle class. We hear that only a very few people control most of the wealth in the world. In the age of globalization, we are learning more about how the relative wealth of our country is a factor in the poverty of one small family on the other side of the world. Even among us, gathered today to participate in the Word of God, we know that we each have different resources and needs. Here in this church, we confess, “I believe in God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth”. We tell each other that God is the source of all life, all being, and the One who sustains our existence. It is God who makes the seed with the capacity to grow into a fruit-laden tree. It is God who creates in us a desire to nurture the tree so that there is a bountiful harvest. So when it comes time to collect and count the harvest, remember who is Lord of the harvest. The fresh ripe apple is a gift from God. God gives us all we have- life, resources, love- and it is meant to be sufficient for all people. Jesus goes ahead of us, declaring the dishonesty and greed of our world, crushing down our economically-motivated barriers. You are invited to be a part of God’s kingdom today. You are invited to join in the meal that is prepared and hosted by Jesus. A meal that neither excludes one person nor promotes another. Jesus invites each of us, calling us brothers and sisters, equals in His eyes. Come and share in this feast, God has given God’s only Son so that we might banquet together.
Filed under: Sermons
August 19thJeremiah 23:23-29; Luke 12:49-56
Fire. Family division. Rock-crushing hammer. No peace. These are some of the images in the texts we read this morning that surprise me. They are not the words I’m expecting. When Jesus declares that he has not come to bring peace, for some reason, I think of Christmas. In my mind I see Christmas cards. Cards with cute little angels, baby-round faces, blowing shining trumpets, declaring “Peace on Earth”. It is this super-sweet sentiment that I tend to share around Christmas, as I join others in celebrating Jesus’ birth. Peace, happiness, warm fuzzies, isn’t this stuff what Jesus is all about, what we’re supposed to get in return for being religious?!But today we hear Jesus counter this. Jesus says he came not for peace but for division. This speech makes me wonder who this Jesus really is. As I’ve been studying and preparing this week, pondering these words of Jesus, the reading from Jeremiah helped me to place Jesus’ words in the context of Jesus speaking as a prophet. Prophets are people who understand God’s will and encourage others to follow God’s will. True prophets don’t worry about talking all nice and gentle, they don’t waffle back and forth, they don’t say, “well, maybe it might be nice if you were just a little more fair to your employee, I think they might need some of that money to feed their family, but I know that’s hard and well, I just want everyone to feel ok”. No. A true prophet says the matter like it is, and calls people into right relationship and right action. Prophets often use images of things we can relate to – fire, hammers, wheat, straw- to get their point across. Wheat and straw. In the comparison between these two, Jeremiah names the difference between God’s word and the words of the false prophets.
In Jeremiah’s time the little country of Israel was surrounded by much stronger and larger countries. Jerusalem was the center of Israel and the center of Jerusalem was the temple, where the people worshipped God and where they believed God lived. We entered Jeremiah’s world today as the stronger countries are eyeing up the valuable land of Israel. In fact, the Northern Kingdom has already been conquered and the leaders of Jerusalem and the temple have been captured and taken away to the country of Babylon.
The people of Israel interpret these events like some people interpret events today. They believed that bad things happened to bad people. I think sometimes it can be easy for us to see someone down and out and assume that they did something to deserve whatever is happening to them. And the more we think about what a bad person that person is and how they deserved what they got, the easier it is for us to think that we’re that much better. The people in Israel fell into this trap. They saw their leaders being taken away and they thought those people had been disobeying God and that they were getting what they deserved. They didn’t think about their own lives and whether they were being obedient to God. False prophets pretended they were speaking from God and told the people that they were safe and that nothing bad would happen to them. Except for Jeremiah. Jeremiah stood up and told the people that this was just the beginning of hard times, if they continued down the road they were on. The people were ignoring God, and worshipping other gods. Jeremiah had the courage to tell them that they needed to change! But that’s not always the news we want to hear.
Wheat and straw. To my eyes, untrained in farming, they don’t look much different. They both look like grains or grasses, golden in color. But the definitive difference is that the wheat has these kernels at the top, full of nutrients and energy, ready to be used to make a hearty loaf of bread. The straw has no productive capabilities. The best it might be used for is to mix in with clay to make bricks back in Jeremiah’s day, or for animal stalls and bedding.
Jeremiah compares God’s word to wheat, but the false prophet’s words to straw. We might think of it as the difference between having a lunch of a whole-grain peanut butter and jelly sandwich with carrots versus one of a bag of Fritos and a Snickers bar. One satisfies and sustains, while the other might look or sound good, but will end up sickening us.
The Word of God tells it like it is. Sometimes that can feel like a hammer crushing us down, when what we have to hear is that we aren’t living right. But in the end, it’s a whole lot better for us than being told shiny and sugary lies about how everything is ok.
In our service today, we will be praying and anointing for healing. The fact is that there are those among us who are sick, burdened with physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, and mental struggles. I know that our culture often says that we should be happy. In my college community, we often talked about our Minnesotan tendency to automatically smile and answer “I’m fine” when someone walked up to us and asked how we were. I often assumed that no one was really asking how I was, they didn’t really want a story about how I was doing as I left family and high school friends to join that new community.
But to deny the reality of the struggles we face is to be false, to proclaim peace where there is none. When through Jeremiah, God proclaims that God is a God both near and far, from whom we cannot hide; I hear a word of grace. I hear that God wants to be with us even when everything seems to be going wrong. I hear that God doesn’t need us to plaster on a smile over the pain that is eating us up inside. The God who chose to be known in Jesus Christ, shamed, outcast, beaten, and crucified, chooses to be with us in our most difficult times.
As I begin this year, my internship year, I am considering what a church is and exploring who I will be as a pastor. These lessons help to me to do that. They remind me that Church is not about receiving warm fuzzies, becoming more prosperous, or about leaving all our problems behind. We are the Church- called to join Christ present among those who suffer in any way. We have the freedom to be who we are, to share our struggles. Led by the Spirit, we also remind each other of God’s unconditional love. Sometimes I find myself a little afraid to follow Jesus into the hurts of another’s life. Sometimes I might wish that when I asked how someone was doing, they would just say they are ok, so I don’t have to think hard about how the way I live might be hurting them, so that I don’t recognize my responsibility to care for my neighbor. But I hope that throughout this year, we, the Church, will continue to grow into sharing our lives, speaking the truth, and reminding each other of God’s ever present love. God has given us a great gift in each other. God’s very presence is with us when we gather- either here as the worshipping congregation, or in a meeting of two or three. We are called to join God in the sharing of our struggles and our joys with each other. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God does send us peace, but it is not the peace of pretended happiness. God’s peace is with us, and found in our relationships with each other. It is the peace that comes from God’s unconditional love- to us, wherever we are, however we feel.