Tear ‘Em Down and Build ‘Em Up: Sermon by Keith, 3.8.15, Lent 3B

During Lent, many of us take up some form of spiritual housekeeping, like giving up coffee or chocolate, or adding something like reading the psalms every day.  In this morning scripture, we find Jesus doing more than just a spiritual cleanup, he takes housekeeping to a new level.

Scripture text: John 2:13-22

This is one of those stories about Jesus that creates some inner turmoil for me, and it should produce a little bit of angst for you, too, as Jesus makes his whip and gets the coins a flying and the cattle bellowing as he drives them from the temple.  Here is why we should have some tension with Jesus over the whole scene:  Along side this surge of righteous adrenaline that is produced when Jesus shifts into his prophetic mode comes the sneaking fear that we might have more in common with the targets of his judgment than with the righteousness of his cause.  Do we stand there cheering Jesus on as he goes about his good work of addressing a wrong, or is Jesus coming at us with his whip?

For many of us, we are drawn to Jesus in what he is doing.  We want to be right there encouraging him as he confronts injustice, hypocrisy, and the misuse of God’s name.  He slips into the role of an Old Testament prophet whose words thrill and empower us when we think about the weak exploited by the powerful.  We have a desire to see wrongs righted, to see and experience God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.  And here is Jesus addressing the wrongs!  We have the temptation to take up a whip with him and denounce the principalities and the powers that bring about injustice in the world.  You can almost hear the “superhero” music playing in the background.  Duh, ta, ta, duh!  Here is Jesus to save the day!  We got your back!

Yet the targets of Jesus’ actions in the temple that day are not kings far away in remote palaces, or forces seen or unseen, or pagan priests who are making sacrifices that have never heard of the God of Israel.  No, driven before him are the money changers, whose tables were tolerated, even encouraged, by the temple authorities.  Just getting this little glimpse and we say, “They should have known better.”

But we forget the reasons all this had happened.  Here was the temple, and back in the Holy of Holies, where the chief priest only went once a year was the place that held the 10 commandments, the words that spoke how to have a right relationship with God and neighbor.  And for festivals and celebrations, Jews would make a pilgrimage from all over the world with Roman coins in their pockets and animals that were bruised and tired from their journey to celebrate at the temple in Jerusalem.  You can imagine how this system of money changes and animals filling the outer courts of the temple happened.  Well, those coins with the image of Caesar can’t come in here!  They violate the law!  And those weak and weary animals, they can’t be sacrifices!  God only deserves the best!  Let’s create temple money that doesn’t have any images on it so people can give in a way they don’t violate the law.  Let’s have on hand animals without blemish that people can buy for their sacrifices.

It is highly doubtful that anyone had any intent on exploiting these pilgrims by the use of God’s good name when these systems were set up.  Odds are all who were involved thought this arrangement was ideal to meet the requirements of the law.  Everyone settled into comfortable behaviors that enabled them to meet personal and institutional goals.  The temple wouldn’t be corrupted by idols and images of Caesar and the pilgrims could fulfill their religious duties.  No one saw the corruption inherent in changing money, and if they did, they turned a blind eye.  The rational behind creating this system became more important than the issues it created.

The condemnation Jesus serves up is not for obscure priests and powers abusing their authority in distant lands, but for people in their time and place who were doing no more than we do in our own time.  Tempting as it might be to pass around a microphone and ask everyone what their favorite wrong they see and experience in the world and talk about how we can take up our own whip of cords and overturn the tables of those injustices, this text talks directly to us.  It pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries and homes, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and drive us out in the name of God.  It forces us to be honest and acknowledge that we often put ourselves and our institutions at the service of powers that are decidedly less than God.

There is a tension here of being faithful to God’s calling in the world and what we can do in our lives and in our churches.  We make compromises and we try to figure out what works best in our lives and the situations we face.  But how we live in that tension is important.  We must constantly be questioning, asking why, basically being a prophet to our own motivations.  We must always be asking ourselves, the world, and yes, the church to do better than we currently do.  If we lose that prophetic voice, we slide into, “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” and our lives can start mirroring the values of the prevailing culture or worse yet, co-opting to serve those things and powers it originally bore witness against.

The reason for keeping the idol of Caesar’s image out of the temple was a good one, but it lead to a system that benefited a few and left others poorer.  How have the individual and family decisions, the lifestyle choices, and how we spend money been justified?  How has what the church been doing in its outreach and programming come to benefit just a few, or benefit those doing that outreach?  There is a tension created between what we think are good motivations and God’s call to love, mercy, and forgiveness.

One way to deal with the tension that we meet as we encounter Jesus in the temple would be to say, “Well, Jesus is criticizing a Jewish institution and practice that we as Christians have moved beyond.  In Christ, we have moved beyond the temple.”  And yes, John does write his whole gospel with the theological understanding that the actual physical temple would be replaced with the temple of Jesus’ body, a narrative foreshadowing Christ’s death and resurrection.  But that doesn’t give us permission to settle too fast to celebrate the Jesus who criticizes someone other than us.  We cannot assume that because Jesus is ‘our’ savior that he is perpetually well pleased with us.

If anything, these words of Jesus should make us take notice of every aspect of our lives to see where we need to hear his voice calling us to repent.  He’s calling us to a type of housekeeping that goes beyond giving up chocolate or holding rummage sales.  Jesus’ call on our lives is to tear down those things that are separating us from God and each other, even if we put them up thinking they would bring us closer to God and each other.

We are celebrating the third Sunday in Lent today.  I’d invite you to spend some time this week doing some spiritual housekeeping with Jesus.  Think about those things in your own life that maybe you have come to see as reasonable compromises in your life of faith, or even things in this church community that made good sense to do when they were started but now have become idols in their own way that keep us and others from fully experiencing the love God has to offer the world.  And come tell us about them.

It is important for us to tolerate and explore through prayer and preparation the queasy anxiety of seeing Jesus with a whip of chords in his hands and hearing him with the righteous judgments of God on his lips—knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, yes, but also to us and even against us at times.  It might be hard to picture an angry Jesus lashing out at us.  But Jesus came into the temple not to be destructive or disruptive, but to draw us back to the heart of God. Amen.

Giving Up Popularity: Sermon by Laura, 4.13.14 Palm-Passion A

Scriptures: Matthew 21:1-11, Matthew 27:15-25

Some weeks ago, Lucas came home from kindergarten visibly frustrated. On his bus ride, a girl who is usually one of his friends had allied herself with another kid, and they were singing, loudly and repeatedly, the popular song “Let it Go.” Have you heard this song? It’s the Oscar-winning “power anthem” from the Disney movie Frozen; the character Elsa sings it as she’s “letting go” of conforming to the repressive expectations of others, and releasing her powers to create an ice castle. In a sense, Elsa “gives up popularity” as she claims her identity.

But Lucas had never heard this song, because Keith and I limit his “screen” time and are often ourselves unaware of pop culture. So, as his friends sang a song they knew and he didn’t, they seemed to be enjoying the power of popularity, and he felt like the odd one out. So he started singing one of his favorite songs back at them:

“There were twelve disciples Jesus called to help him:
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John,
Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus,
Thaddeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew.
He has called us, too. He has called us, too.
We are His disciples, I am one and you!
He has called us, too. He has called us, too.
We are His disciples, we His work must do!”

I tell this story with Lucas’ permission, because it illustrates some dynamics of “popularity.” Lucas and his peers are kindergartners, but already they have entered the serious challenges of a social world in which, moment to moment, shifting power dynamics sort people into the categories of “in” or “out.”

Hearing his story took me straight back to my school years. They are so often a crucible of popularity issues, as rapidly developing youth are beset by the questions of identity and belonging. As a pastor’s kid myself, I regularly felt like the “odd one out,” engaged in activities unchurched peers didn’t understand.

Remembering that loneliness as Lucas told his story, I felt torn. Maybe I should expose Lucas to more popular culture to make it easier for him to fit in with other kids? Or maybe I ought to simply marvel at my 6-year-old, who had the courage to sing a song identifying him, over and against popular culture, as belonging with a particular company of people, the disciples of Jesus Christ.

Because the truth is, discipleship of Jesus the Christ will probably not increase Lucas’ “cool” quotient among his peers as he grows. It means spending time doing things which are less and less a part of America’s popular culture. Frankly, just showing up at Sunday morning worship these days marks all of us here out as “odd.”

And on Palm Sunday, church people engage in especially strange behavior. Think about it. At the beginning of worship, we picked up palm fronds—we in La Grande, Oregon, a long way from where palms grow!—and we marched around singing “the king of glory comes, the nation rejoices.” It’s a once-a-year celebration, in which we put ourselves in the places of people whose symbolic action had extraordinary meaning in an ancient culture far removed from ours in time and space.

But I think the first Palm Sunday was an even odder happening that ours today. We call it Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, and it’s often been portrayed as a spontaneous event in which the whole city drops gives Jesus a royal welcome, in which he is popularly recognized as Messiah. I think we get this picture from Luke’s gospel, where Jesus says that if the people were silent, the stones would shout.

But Matthew’s narrative omits that piece, and I think the recognition of Jesus is less clear. There seem to be two groups present, the “crowd” and “the city.” One commentator notes, “The crowds function as a character in Matthew, as disciples en masse.”[1] It may be that this crowd includes folks who began gathering around Jesus at the beginning of his ministry; who listened to his Sermon on the Mount, and who were amazed at his authority to heal and cast out demons.

These are people who are primed and ready, to recognize Jesus as the “Son of David,” Matthew’s key words for the popular messianic expectations. The way Jesus enters Jerusalem at the start of Passover week is absolutely deliberate. He is not dragged there passively, and he could have chosen to enter on foot, like any other pilgrim.

Instead, what he does is less a spontaneous parade and more a carefully planned “street theater,” designed to send a specific message and provoke a certain response. He begins the procession from the Mount of Olives, the location the Messiah was traditionally expected to appear. He chooses to ride a donkey and colt prearranged at a nearby village; such a steed sends a particular message about the kind of power Jesus as Messiah claims—it’s not a warhorse.

Matthew notes that Jesus is also fulfilling Hebrew prophecy:  “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It is an action designed to display the continuities between Jesus and the whole of scripture. For those with eyes to see, Jesus clearly proclaims that he is not the odd one out but one who integrally fits in the story of God’s chosen people, one who fulfills the vast, cosmic unfolding of God’s saving grace in history.

It seems “the crowd” enthusiastically picks up on these signs. “Hosanna!” they shout, which means “Save us!” but which is also an exaltation of praise for a royal figure. But the other group present, “the city,” is stirred up at this odd scene, “in turmoil,” the text says, using a word that elsewhere in Matthew refers to the shaking of an earthquake. He may be popular among the rag-tag crowds, but the city does not know Jesus, and they ask, “Who is this?”

The tension which will build throughout of Holy Week starts here. This central question is asked over and over again, and decisions are made. We know how quickly Jesus’ popularity will fall; when given the chance to release him, the crowd, influenced by religious leaders who oppose Jesus, will reject him in favor of Barabbas, who the text says is “notorious,” reminding us how dubious a quality “popularity” can be.  Jesus will go, with nary a word in his own defense, to the cross.

Can you imagine the loneliness of riding through that cheering crowd, knowing that even his closest friends will betray and desert him when he’s arrested? I think we do know those feelings from our own journeys, so I think we can we appreciate his courage and faithfulness. He remains steadfast in the seductions of the crowd’s adulation.

Palm Sunday is like “the Temptation Part 2.” Jesus made one choice to give up popularity back when the devil tempted him with the splendor of worldly kingdoms. “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him,” Jesus replied, and in the moment of entering Jerusalem, he chooses again. He chooses the passion of God over popularity.

Holy Week is known as Passion Week. The Passion of God is the Passion of Jesus. The word “passion” comes from the Latin, meaning “to suffer.”  The good news of Palm Sunday is the good news of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the good news of the entire story of God who creates in a desire for love, who repeatedly suffers the betrayal of the beloved, and who ultimately chooses to be “overcome by love” in order to bring us—God’s beloved ones—back into loving relationship.[2] Our God is a God of passionate love, a love which defies all the world’s wisdom and propriety, a God who suffers not because of out-of-control emotions, “but because true love inspires willing sacrifice.”[3]

In the entire course of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we see the One who was in the form of God emptying himself to walk this earth as a human being, choosing to face and absorb the hard realities of human violence, pride, and frailty. Jesus loves, forgives, and stays by our side, overcoming the power of fear, sin, and death, so that we may return to the true communion with the God who passionately longs for us. One author writes, “His passion is not sentimental, but fierce. It goes all the way.”[4]

In Jesus’ passion and compassion, his suffering for us and with us, we know that we are never alone. Any “lonesome valleys” we must walk, whether physical pain, separation from loved ones, the pain of leading in unpopular situations, we know that Jesus has already been there, and Jesus walks those roads at our side, giving us the comfort of companionship and the power to bear on through the pain.[5]

So if you felt odd waving your palm branches today, I invite you to welcome that oddity. It may not make you popular, but it puts you in the company of those who have chosen to center their lives, not in the fluctuating opinions and gossip of the crowds, but in the fierce and steadfast passion of God. We wave these palms today because we recognize Jesus as “the king of glory” and the Lord of our lives. Following him, seeking to walk in his ways, we are also called to receive God’s passion for us as we live in compassion for others. We give up popularity as we accept the invitation to an odd and holy life which imitates and participates in the passionate, life and death commitment of God in Jesus Christ. It is not an easy, but when you feel like the odd one out, remember that he chooses to be with you, passionately giving himself to be on this strange and winding journey with humanity. He will never forsake us.

May we trust and give ourselves over to the grace and peace of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

[1] Audrey West, Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 21:1-11, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 153-155.

[2] Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion, Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans, 2004, 18.

[3] Dean, Ibid, 21.

[4] Sara Miles, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20110411JJ.shtml

[5] K.C. Ptomey, http://www.fpcnyc.org/media/sermons-pdf/2009/090405.pdf

Giving Up Our Lives: Sermon by Keith, 4.6.14, Lent 5A

Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:28-44

I want everyone to close their eyes.   Now, I want you to picture Jesus.  Does everyone have a picture of Jesus?  Ok, now I want to take one step back from Jesus and picture the scene or setting he is in.  Imagine those things around him.  When you have Jesus in his scene, go ahead and open your eyes.  I’m not going to ask you what Jesus looked like, I’m more concerned about the scene you placed him in.  Who would like to share?

Now, did anyone picture him in a cemetery?  I know I wouldn’t have, I usually picture him teaching.  I know when we usually think of graves and tombs with Jesus, we think of the empty tomb on Easter morning.  And typically Jesus isn’t even in that scene.  Of all the Easter bulletins we looked at that had the stone rolled away from the tomb, Jesus isn’t around.  We don’t picture the two together.  But that is exactly where John puts him this morning:  Right in the middle of a cemetery.  But based upon who Jesus says he is, we shouldn’t be surprised that he is found among the tombstones and crypts.  He is the resurrection and the life.  And we can’t have a resurrection with having a death.  We can’t have new life in Christ unless the old one has been buried and put away.

But to understand what kind of new life Jesus just might be calling us to in the resurrection, I found it really hard to start in the graveyard.  I needed to step back from that scene and move to the edge of tombs and dry bones and peer in with those who were also looking into the graveyard.  Those who are dying have a totally different perspective on life than those who are healthy and active.  Bronnie Ware recently published an article titled, “Nurse Reveals Top 5 Regrets People Make on their Deathbeds.”  As one of the people that was close to those who were in their last few weeks of life, Ware had the privilege of hearing what people felt were their biggest regrets they had in life.   I think that looking at these deathbed regrets in light of the one who is the resurrection and the life, we can turn to Christ and experience life as God intended from the beginning.   Because life with the one who is life and gives life is a life without regrets.

The most common regret that Ware heard from her patients was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”  Ware shares that when people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly over it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.  Most people had not honored even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

Now from a Christian perspective, I’d want to use the word ‘calling’ instead of ‘dreams.’  Each and every one of us is created uniquely in the image of God with different gifts and talents to live a full life.  And Frederick Buechner says that the calling you receive from God is first and foremost what you need to do.  You were created for it.  There is a deep hunger to do it and live it out.  And second, the calling is to something the world needs to have done.  He sums it up as “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Anything else that you pursue, including the expectations placed upon you from yourself, family, or the world, bounds you and keeps you from experiencing the life you were created to live.

Men, pay special attention to this second item of regret that Ware shares.  She said she heard it from each and every one of her male patients.  A few of the lady folks said it too, but every man said it.  “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”  They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.  They regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.  Their time was lost to the office or factory at the expense of their families. I think this regret grows out of the fact  that God created us to be in relationship with him and each other.   American society seems to think we were created to be machines, created to be cogs on the wheels of productivity and growth of the economy.  But I’ve never heard someone say, “I wish I’d of spent more time at the office” on their death beds.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs and stay at home, but I am saying we need to weigh the costs of giving up our lives to our jobs.  Our families are a gift from God, and I also believe that our jobs are a gift from God.  But when placed on the scales of importance, the building and maintaining the relationships in the family should far outweigh the building of a job legacy. Our relationship with God should even far outweigh our relationship with our family and it is when these three things get out of whack, dysfunction and regret rule the day.

Third regret, “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”  Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others.  And Ware adds, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming in those relationships. Many of the illness that the people were suffering from on their deathbeds were related to the bitterness and resentment they carried because they didn’t let others know how they felt.

It becomes about reconciliation.  It is about forgiveness.  It is about love.  When we confront our feelings and the hurt by either confronting those who hurt us or ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, it raises the relationship to a whole new healthier level.  Either that or it releases those unhealthy relationships from our lives.  It’s why God sent Jesus in the first place, into the graveyards of our world, and confronted the brokenness of our sin and separation, to show God’s love and rebuild and restore relationships.  Do you remember the Lord’s Prayer sermon skit that Amy and Miller did for us awhile back, and especially when they did, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?”  Amy was angry with her friend and that anger and the thoughts of revenge were eating her up.  When she released that anger by forgiving her friend, Amy was made new, made alive again.  She could now move forward in her relationship with her friend beyond being stuck in anger.  Anger leads to death of relationships, forgiveness frees those relationships.

Number four:  “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”  So many of these people became so caught up in their own lives that they let golden friendships slip by over the years.   There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort they deserved.   People do want to get their financial affairs in order, but in the end, many of the people Ware worked with were even too ill to even do that.  All that mattered in the final weeks were love and relationships.

Do we want to wait until the end to remember a dear friend?  It’s about the relationships in our lives that God has given us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not the best in keeping in touch with my friends, but Jesus teaches that friendship is at the heart of the relationship he wants to have with us.  And I don’t want to forget about that.  Later in John, Jesus gives his new commandment, that his disciples love one another as he has loved them.  Why?  Because no one has experienced love greater than someone who has laid down his life for his friends, and now he calls us his friends.

The last one:  “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”  Ware was surprised at how common this one was.  It helped her realize that happiness can be a choice in life.  When people were stuck in old patterns and habits, the ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions and physical lives.  Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content.  Ware says that “When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”  Now, there is temporary happiness  that comes when the circumstances are just right, when things are pleasant and we are free of troubles.  And we know this kind of happiness never lasts when things change.

Then there is happiness that comes from God, it lasts, and it brings about an inner peace regardless of the circumstances.  It’s not based totally on what happens around us, but because of the one who walks with us.  The happiness through Jesus is a contentment that fills the soul, even if the eyes are filled with tears and is not based on success or failure, wealth or poverty, fame or obscurity.

Friends, we all stand on the edge of the graveyard looking in at Jesus.  We claim from the story of Lazarus the power of Jesus to call us out from the things that bind us and will bury us, all the fears, the pains, the griefs, the worries, and the pressures.  He has the power over death and with that power, the gift of new life free of regrets.  And he offers that gift to each and every one of us.  Be free to live.  Amen.

 

Giving Up Superiority: Sermon by Keith, 3.23.14, Lent 3A

Scripture Reading: John 4:5-42

One commentator called the Women at the Well text the scripture a pastor can always fall back on.  It is so deep with meaning, a pastor can always pull something out of it.  Like today.  I’ve preached on it before, but when Laura and I decided to do the sermon series on “Giving it up,” I had to look at the text another way then when I did in the past.  Now we didn’t come up with this series on our own, but all we were given when we found it was a title and a scripture verse. But the title handed me a theme:  superiority.

To share with you what I found, I have to do something a little different.  We are going to use the sanctuary to make a map.  Now, I need Lucas to come stand with me and Don to stand in the middle of the aisle.  What we are making is a map of Palestine as it was in Jesus’ day.  Lucas and I are up here in the north, representing Galilee, an area that is primarily Jewish.  Down on that end is the Jerusalem area which is also Jewish, but also has the temple.  So all the big Jewish holidays happen over there, which means all the Galileans who want to go to Jerusalem for Passover have to travel from here to there, about a journey of about 3 days.  But something was in between.  Samaria.  Now there was a long standing feud between the Jews and the Samaritans.  We won’t go into great detail about it but it basically dealt with how they came to live and worship as they came out of their respective captivities.  They had been family, part of twelve tribes of Israel united under King David and Solomon.  But like most families, there was tension and it split into the northern kingdom of Israel.  Judah was the southern kingdom.  Both fell and were taken into captivity, Israel by Assyria and Judah by the Babylonians.  Now, it was what happened after captivities that caused the major split.  The people who came back into the area known as Samaria had intermarried with the Assyrians and built a new shrine to God in the mountains, actually following many of the old traditions that occurred in the temple in Jerusalem.  But during the captivity of the southern kingdom, those Jews strongly enforced a no-interfaith marriage with the Babylonians.  When they came back to Jerusalem, they quickly rebuilt the temple (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), looked and what the long lost cousins were doing and said, “your not part of the family any more.” and the fight was on.

So, I have Lucas up here to help me.  Here we are in Galilee and you want to get to Jerusalem for a festival.  You have three routes you can go.  You can go straight up the middle, the quick road, taking about 3 days.  But, you have to go through the scary, unclean land of Samaria.  You have been told your whole life that these people are stinky and scary and bad things happen to good little boys who go that way.  If you make it, you will smell of Samarians for days and need to take 10 baths to get the smell off you.

Or you can go up the road to the left, the road that follows the Jordan River.  It is pretty easy too.  It is down hill all the way until you have to do the steep climb up from the river to Jerusalem.  It also is longer.  It takes about 5 days.  But you don’t have to go through Samaria.

Or you can go up the road to the right.  It leads along the coastline of the Sea.  It is a pretty nice walk, too.  Steep at the end when you have to turn and head back up into the hill country that surrounds the hill country of Jerusalem.  And it too takes about 5 days, and again, you don’t have to go through Samaria. So, Lucas, which way do you choose?

Basically, Lucas chose what most Jews at the time did. They avoided Samaria.  They took the long route.  When they did go through Samaria, it was usually as a large group to avoid conflict and contact.  I read one account where a solo rabbi was headed through Samaria and foolishly told someone he was headed to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.  An argument followed on ‘proper’ worship and this rabbi was run out of the territory, narrowly missing his death.

But here we find in our text this morning an encounter that probably should have never happened.  Here was a Jewish rabbi and an unnamed Samaritan woman.  Several worlds collide in many ways at this historic well:  Jewish, Samaritan, Male, Female.

She pretty much sums up what is at stake after Jesus asks for a drink from her, ‘how is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’  Jesus starts breaking down the walls of those worlds in two directions when he asks for a drink.  His entire cultural/religious background looks down on her.  First, based upon Jewish custom, he is forbidden to talk to any unrelated woman unless her husband is present.  But if she had pulled up water from the well for him to drink, it was the same Jewish customs that would have forbade him to drink from the vessel she presented the drink from.  For a Jew, a Samaritan woman was always unclean.  If he touched her water jar, he would be ritually impure.

But the same goes for her, too.  Now, we don’t know much about her standing in the community.  Some commentators have said that because she was at the well mid-day, she must have been a woman of ill repute, not allowed to go there in the morning with the rest of the women.  (many husbands) We don’t know for sure.  So, I’m not even going to speculate too much.  But what is most important is that her entire cultural/religious background looks down on Jesus.  He is actually the ‘lower class citizen’ in this meeting.  His people were the ones who did everything wrong since the time of Solomon and she had religious teachings that knew what to do with someone like him.  He shouldn’t be at her well.  He shouldn’t talk to her, and if he does, she shouldn’t respond.

But he does talk to her.  Here are two worlds that look down on each other colliding at a well that is important to both historically.  Why would Jesus open up this dialogue?  I think Jesus knew that they needed each other.  They both needed a drink.  They both needed their physical and spiritual wells filled with what the other had to give.  Jesus needed a drink of water.  He had been traveling all day and he was thirsty, he was tired, and he was hungry.  She could give him what he needed.  And she needed living water, water that only quenches the spiritual thirst of that human need to know God and pursue the eternal.  He could give her what she needed.

Now, we never do read that Jesus took a drink that day, but I think he did.  When the woman took off, I can picture him taking up her water jug and drinking up his fill.  But what I do knowis that a whole lot of people were filled with something they never expected.  The women and the people of the town met the messiah, a messiah who came from the group they had despised.  And Jesus’ own disciples were now surrounded by new followers of Jesus, new followers that just a few moments before they were afraid of.  They were no longer Jew or Samaritan, but disciples sharing the good news of the kingdom of God everywhere.

Now, in light of giving up superiority, this text tells us three things.  First, we can never assume we know what a person needs.  Jesus knows, but we have to ask.  This woman came to the well, because she too was thirsty.  Besides physical water, Jesus recognizes that she also needs eternal water.  But we don’t have that insight and can’t walk into a situation knowing that we can solve ‘the problem.’  I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to the hospital to visit someone before or after surgery and asked them what they would like to pray for.  You would assume it is for healing, but so many times it is for children, a spouse, or a situation that isn’t even related to why that person is laying in the bed.  At a moment when I would think the physical needs of healing are the most important, we end praying about forgiveness.  It is in those moments when deeper needs are recognized and then can be addressed.

The second thing is we can’t rank people’s needs.  Spiritual needs aren’t superior to physical needs and vice versa.  We are physical and spiritual creatures, and when part of us thirsts, the rest of us thirsts as well.  Feeding someone food or giving them drink or clothing them is just as important as praying with them and sharing the good news of Jesus with them.  Here and other places in scripture, Jesus addresses both physical and spiritual needs at the same time.

Physical thirsts and hungers, spiritual thirsts and hungers, “Your sins are forgiven, get up and walk.” When we are physically hungry, it affects our spirit. And I firmly believe when we are spiritually hungry, we often time reach for physical things to try and satisfy that hunger, like another bag of potato chips or even drugs, when only Christ can satisfy.

And last, this passage says Christ needs us and we all need each other.  I even think it says we need the people outside the walls of the church.  Christ has given gifts to everyone sitting here, young or old, college degree or only an eighth grade education.  Everyone has something to offer and give to the community and the world so that God is glorified and walls of division are torn down.  Some of you have physical gifts to share, some of you have the physical stamina to build and move and carry things, some of you financial resources to give, and all of you can pray, all of you can be a spring of living water that Christ becomes real in the lives of others.

But also have to recognize that living water flows out of others for our sakes as well. It won’t be long before you will be walking out the doors of the church back into the world. You will run into someone that maybe you didn’t even consider worth talking to because they have nothing to offer.  When you do, consider the woman at the well.  She had something to give to Jesus that was just as important as what Jesus had to give to her.  Say hello.  You may discover what they have to give you fills your well beyond your greatest expectations.  Amen.

Giving Up Expectations: Sermon by Laura, 3.16.14 Lent 2A

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 12:1-4, John 3:1-17

We just heard two classic texts of Judeo-Christian tradition. From Genesis, the story of God calling Abram at Haran, begins Israel’s foundational story. And for many Christians, scripture doesn’t get much more foundational than John 3:16. Complete it with me if you can: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

These scriptures have been read and interpreted so many times, we may be tempted to simply review our last recorded memory, nod our heads, and move on: yes, I know that one. I know what it means, and I know how to apply it in my life. These are texts that come with expectations.

Today, John’s gospel gives us a double portion of classic verses. We also get Jesus’ famous words to Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (the same word can also mean again or anew). Church tradition has often focused on these words as a command or prescription for entering Christian faith. “Are you born again?” you may have been asked, which is another way of saying, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” The question is asked with a sense of urgency, provoking a life or death decision each person must make.  I believe those who ask this question have good intentions. They want to invite others to a relationship with Jesus. All believers have a call upon us to share Christ’s love with others.

But sometimes this strategy has an opposite effect. It can alienate people who experience it as a “litmus test”[1] to determine whether one is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of God’s chosen people. If you affirm your born-again status—or at least your interest—it’s a sign that you are worthy of attention; answering “no,” on the other hand, means you must be well-warned of the eternal danger to your soul, and if you still won’t accept Jesus, you are left to your unhappy fate. The message people sometimes get is, believe in Jesus and be born again so that you can live forever (like us) if you do not, you’re already condemned. Sad for you, but oh well, you had your chance. Have any of you had this kind of experience?

But when we go back to the text itself and look again, this use of Jesus’ words turns out to be painfully ironic. This text from John’s gospel in no way offers us signs for determining another person’s potential for spiritual survival, nor does it give us a formula for receiving eternal life. And frankly, it’s not so much an evangelistic tool as it is an invitation for believers to release the expectations which keep us from growing into mature faith.

I would agree, however, that this scripture raises life or death questions about our relationship with God. Birth, after all, is a life and death experience. It is also a profound mystery. Just when we think we know the mechanics of it, how to best make it happen for mother and child, the best prenatal care and best birthing practices, something unexpected happens. There are tragic deaths, and there is miraculous life.

Birth is the metaphor Jesus chooses when Nicodemus comes to him in the middle of the night with his urgent question. Only he doesn’t phrase it as a question, does he? “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God; no one can do the signs you do apart from God.” It’s a statement which sounds like an authoritative spiritual fact. “We know,” he says, and that statement has all the weight of status as a Pharisee with rigorous religious practice. “We know what faith is all about and how to manage it,” he might as well be saying.

Except that Jesus has just done something which confounded everyone’s expectations. This conversation with Nicodemus comes on the heels of the Jerusalem temple episode, when Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables with prophetic zeal.

I imagine there is a push-pull in Nicodemus between his head and his heart. His mind wants confirmation of what his heart is sensing. Jesus has the feel of the Messiah, the anointed one of God, but his mind cannot accept what that implies for his faith. Following Jesus puts everything at stake, his previous plans and expectations for life, his status in the community, the comfortable warm container of the faith he’s practiced for so long. But giving them up might mean the difference between life or death.

At about 9 am in May 2002, four mountain climbers were descending Mount Hood. The safest practice, using fixed belay points, can be time-consuming, and after their summit, the climbers anticipated the rest and safety of Timberline Lodge. The group had practiced using ice axes to stop themselves in a fall. So they chose to descend without fixed protection, roping themselves to one another. In Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales notes that Mt. Hood has a reputation as “a beginner’s mountain.” But, he writes, “It’s a dangerous illusion, because success depends on doing everything perfectly.”[2]

Of course, things rarely go perfectly on mountains or in life.  The conditions keep changing. If our plans or expectations keep us from changing with them, we are in real danger. The climbers hadn’t noticed that the snow had become less solid, and they were ignorant of the physics of their rope system. Their top man was their most experienced climber, but he slipped, and all the men on the rope went down with him. When they landed in a crevasse, two of the four climbers were dead.

Gonzales notes how the group’s prior experience, training, plans and expectations betrayed them.  “Secondary emotions, emotional bookmarks, and mental models all conspired to encourage a sense of confidence…even as stress worked to stifle any warning voice and mask cues about the changing environment.”[3] Gonzales writes, “A closed attitude, an attitude that says, ‘I already know,’ may cause you to miss important information…Survival instructors refer to the quality of openness as ‘humility.’” [4]

I don’t know about you, but “humility” is not one of my favorite spiritual virtues. I want to believe that my abilities, experience, and hard work are things I can rely on to sustain my life. I want to hold onto what I was taught, growing up in our culture: that survival and future prosperity depend on our efforts to manage and control ourselves and our environment. It feels vulnerable and risky to give up this expectation.

And the truth be told, being born is a vulnerable and risky proposition the first time around, let alone being “born again.” Jesus chose this metaphor well aware of how messy and painful the birthing process can be, how between the dark, close safety of the womb and the full light of day is a passage which might make us feel we are being turned inside out.[5]

Furthermore, none of us can manage or control our birth—or our rebirth. None of our knowledge, training, or experience makes it possible for us to birth ourselves. It is God’s gift to give and accomplish. [6]  It is God who labors with and for us, and God who births us from above, anew, again, that we may see and enter God’s kingdom, so that we may experience not merely life after death, but partake, here and now, in an eternal kind of life.

“Be born of water and the Spirit,” says Jesus. It’s not a command, but an invitation. God wants to conceive and give birth to something new in Nicodemus and in us, a faith, freed from the bondage of expectations, open to see and respond to the changing conditions of the Holy Spirit’s movement in our world.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asks, straining to see beyond the literal outrageousness of these words. Maybe he wants know what he’s supposed to do. Jan Richardson notes that he sounds a lot like Mary responding to the angel Gabriel’s outrageous invitation earlier in Jesus’ story. Before she says “yes” to bearing and birthing the only Son of God, she asks, “How can this be?

Richardson suggests that this question, from the lips of a biblical character or from our own mouth, indicates that the Spirit is “up to something.” We may speak these words in the darkness of a time when all seems to have gone wrong, a job lost, a relationship broken, an unbearable loss.   “More often,” writes Richardson, “when the question appears, it is a dead giveaway that God is in the midst of bringing about something big, something life-changing or even world-changing, something we could never have dreamed up on our own.”[7]

A new vocation, direction or relationship.  New freedom to innovate vital ministry in our changing world.  Something glorious and gracious we never before imagined.  How can this be? “The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. “You can hear it but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

We see how Abram responds to God’s outrageous invitation—“Go, leave everything you know behind, to a place I will show you, and I will bless you to be a blessing for every family of the earth.” Abram released his expectations and went.

And we know how Mary accepts God’s outrageous invitation with incredible openness, incredible humility, allowing new life to be birthed through her.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

How does Nicodemus respond? We don’t know exactly. We see him anointing Jesus’ body before burial, but we are left wondering if resurrection faith was birthed in him. Our gracious loving God will not force us to be born anew, but is willing to labor with us no matter how long it takes or how messy our rebirth.  But I think we still have a life or death choice. We can hold onto or let go of prior expectations; we can remain where we are, or we can welcome the life God wants to birth in us.

My friends, the good news of the gospel is that God has issued us the outrageous invitation. God wants to birth us into the fullness of life in Jesus Christ; the Spirit is already at work, inviting us to give up our expectations, that we might grow into open, humble, resilient, and mature faith; that we might “become children of God, born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[8] God so loves us and our world, God already gave us the only Son, but God wants make us God’s children, too, and bless, through us, the world. How will we respond to Christ’s invitation?

May it be with us according to your Word, gracious Life-Giver, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.


[1] a phrase Jan Richardson uses in a reflection on John 3:16 in Week 2, Day 5 of her Beloved Lenten Retreat.

[2] Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival, New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, 97-98.

[3] Gonzales, 124.

[4] Gonzales, 91.

[5]Jan Richardson again, as above.

[6] Deborah J. Kapp, Pastoral Perspective on John 3:1-17, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 72.

[7]Jan Richardson, as above.

[8] John 1:12-13

Giving Up Control: Sermon by Keith, 3.9.14, Lent 1A

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

I came across something this week that really spoke to me about this text.  And I wanted to share it with you.  It is a commercial that really isn’t selling anything.  It comes from an organization in India called the NAIK foundation.  I don’t know much about them, except that they are a charitable group working in community development among India’s poor.  The commercial tells a story of a boy who finds some money.  Now, I can’t really tell you how much he finds, the bill says 50 on it.  50 Rupees, maybe.  If that is the case, it would be worth about .80 cents in the US.  But in a country where about 1/3 of the population makes about a dollar a day, what he finds is a lot.  This kid feels rich…and tempted.  It might be compared to finding somewhere between $25 and $50 on the ground while out on a walk.  Let’s watch and see what happens.

(show video)

I was kind of nervous about showing you that ad at the beginning of sermon.  That little boy is a lot cuter than me and your mind might stick with him.    But I love his story and how it is the perfect entrance into these first passages about Lent.  These are texts that we might at first think temptation is the main topic.  But it’s not.  Yes, the serpent or the devil are in both, and yes, something tempting is offered in both, and one story is what happens when Adam and Eve give into those temptations, and the other one is a story of what happens when Jesus doesn’t give into the temptations he is faced with.  But that’s just part of the story, and to get the whole picture, we have to go to the beginning.

God spoke, and the Spirit moved over the chaos and creation was: the earth, the oceans and waters, the sun, the moon, the stars, the trees, the grass, the birds, and the fish.  And the sixth day, God created Adam, the first human, and declared “it was very good.”  Now, God didn’t say this because Adam was the most perfect thing God had made and it took him 6 days to figure it out, after all God also made the creeping things that day.  We rank right up there with the worms.  But God said it because he looked out over all of creation, all of it, and declared it very good because it was complete.  Now everything could live in relationship with each other as God intended.  That’s very good.

God created so that a relationship could exist between the Creator and creation.  The creation story first and foremost is a story about God.  And that is good.  But it is when we make it a story about us, when we move God to the sideline, that’s when the story becomes not so good.  That’s what happens to Adam and Eve.  They attempt to make the story about them.  God puts Adam in the garden to till and keep it, to be a part of it, to literally be a slave to it.  “Adam, I’ve surrounded you with everything that is good for your needs.  I will even walk with you in garden, I will give you a partner as you name the animals and do the work of the master gardener I created you for.  But, do not eat of tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

What happens next opens up lots of theological questions, like “Who created the serpent?” or “How do animals talk?”  I don’t want to go there, not today anyway.  But what I want to look at is what the serpent tempts Eve and Adam with.  Adam was right there, so the fall isn’t all her fault, guys.  He tempts them with the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Even though they are surrounded by everything God has declared good, the serpent says that they can have the power to declare what is good and evil, too.  Just like God.  And they bite. And suddenly all the good things they are surrounded by don’t look so good anymore.  They look upon their own bodies as something that must be hidden by the plants that were once food.  Even being in the presence of God is something that is no longer good, but something to be feared and hide from.

What happened?  What’s this story about?  What does it tell us that when surrounded by the good gifts of God, Adam and Eve choose to turn from those gifts and the one who provided them?  This story is about trust and control.  The serpent convinces them that God can no longer be trusted, that God just might be holding back on the really good stuff.  And if trust in God is eroded, then the relationship with God is broken.    Adam and Eve’s story shows that when that trust is gone, they attempt to control and define what is good for their lives.   But when Adam and Eve aspire for that control, they damage their relationship with God, they spoil the bond that exists between the two of them, and they even mar how they live in and with the creation.  What they have done is attempt to play the role of creator, because they can’t trust the Creator, the one and only one who has authority to define what is good.  Maybe lack of trust in the Creator is the commonality of all of temptation, because lack of trust seems to be the basic root in desire for control.

So, what could be so wrong with an ice cream cone (or four of them) as we saw in the video we watched?  Maybe that young boy only tasted a cone once before and the sweet taste has lingered on his thoughts since then.  And what could be so wrong with bread?  Jesus was famished.  The thought of his mother’s homemade bread probably crossed his mind a thousand times since he went off into the desert.  What’s so bad about showing the religious leaders and the people of Jerusalem that Jesus was truly the Son of God by throwing himself off the temple?  Angels would surely catch him and set him safely on the ground.  Then all the people would turn their hearts and minds and praise to God, no more divisions, no more religious fights.  All would be united behind Jesus.  And look who was on the throne when the tempter unrolled the maps of the world before Jesus on that mountain:  Caesar.  He ruled with an iron fist and thousands across the empire had been enslaved, imprisoned, crucified or thrown into the arena for entertainment.  Who wouldn’t want Jesus, who Matthew calls the Messiah early in his gospel, on the throne, replacing the Pax Romana with the Kingdom of God on earth?  All these things the tempter offers up to Jesus looks not only good from our perspective, but very good.

So, what is good?  Can we discern the good?  First I have to say it cannot be done outside of a trusting relationship with God and trusting who God is.  Then it gets harder.  Temptations of materialism, security, and prestige are not foreign to us, and I mean us as individuals and as a church and society.  Whatever form temptation we may experience, we can pass through it only when we trust God to provide what we need and what is truly good. It starts with understanding that God is a God who creates in love for the sake of relationship, and since the fall, a God who acts in love as a relationship restorer.  As you go through scripture, everything God does is to restore the broken relationship that exists between the Creator and creation.  He sent the prophets, he gave the law.  And God even gives up control, when he sends his Son, himself, Godself, in Jesus, the Word made flesh living with us.  But that doesn’t mean he was temptation-proof.  He was fully human, and I think fully capable of giving into the temptations before him.  But his humanity lived in perfect relationship with his divinity, and in that relationship, humanity embraced and trusted the divine.

Maybe that is how we start trusting.  We first recognize that we aren’t God and by the grace of the Spirit, we also recognize that the One who is God is worthy of our trust.  We start depending on him for what we need.  And then we give up control, trust God, and become relationship restorers, too.  Jesus knew the path to a restored relationship with God wasn’t through satisfying his own hunger at the snap of his fingers.  But he did feed the thousands on the shores of Galilee so that they could come to a deeper understanding of the love of God.  He didn’t throw himself from the heights of the temple to prove who he was, but he did overturn the tables of the moneychangers and said they had made his Father’s house into a den of robbers when it should be a place where all are welcome.  He didn’t take a throne.  He took up a cross.

And it is there he faced his final temptation that came at him echoed in the words of the tempter in the desert.  “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  And in a way that I wouldn’t have chosen, because in so many ways it makes no sense to me, Jesus died.  What looked like the end was the new beginning to something very good.  My relationship, your relationship, creation’s relationship with its Creator was restored by means of an empty tomb.  The ultimate relationship destroyer, death, was overcome.  Who would have seen it coming?  Not me.

That little boy we watched in the video was a relationship restorer.  He gave up what control he held in that 50 rupees so another could be lifted up and restored.  And my call to you, friends in Christ, is that during Lent, you give up control and trust the one who is in control, too.  During these forty days, look around.  Ask yourself, how can you use the good gifts that God has given you not to build up your own security or your own prestige, but to be a relationship restorer as well?  When you do, you just might hear a whisper from God, “Now that is very good.”

 

Until the Day Dawns: Sermon by Laura, 3.2.14 Transfiguration A

Scripture Readings: Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to the disciples at the closing of their high mountain experience.  These are familiar words in the Gospels. Angels often use them, as surprising God-encounters unfold. “Do not be afraid,” Gabriel tells Mary, announcing her pregnancy; “Do not be afraid,” the angel chorus tells shepherds upon the eve of the Messiah’s birth. “Do not be afraid,” says an angel of the Lord at the end of Matthew’s story, to women who encounter an empty tomb.[i]

“Do not be afraid”: those words contain both comfort and command. We might hear in them an assurance that what seems fearful is not truly a threat. They could also be a command for us to loosen our stranglehold on our current perceptions and shed the paralysis of fear, that we may take present and future action in alignment with God’s direction.

But it’s interesting to me that they are not spoken until the end of today’s story. Certainly the whole Transfiguration might be considered a hair-raising experience! It exemplifies Twentieth Century religious thinker Rudolph Otto’s idea of the “numinous,” an experience he thought undergirded all religions, for which he used the Latin phrase, “mysterium tremendum et fascinan. It sounds like something Harry Potter shouts waving a wand, but it’s meant to describe the uncanny experience of something “wholly other” and frighteningly powerful, nonetheless draws our fascination. [ii]

In the Transfiguration, there is mysterium on the high mountain, a stand-in for every holy mountain in scripture. Something “wholly other” is revealed when Jesus’ face and clothing shine with incendiary light, and as he confers with Moses and Elijah, the heroes of scripture, the Law and the Prophets personified. Nothing in the disciples’ reason or experience could have prepared them to be eyewitnesses at this moment.

But fear doesn’t seem to enter in until the voice from the bright cloud announces “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” Tremendum, indeed. The reverberation of that voice must have caused avalanches continents away, so of course the disciples fall to the ground. But I don’t think it’s only the magnitude of sheer power that makes them tremble. It’s what the voice is saying.

“Listen to him!” It’s another phrase with both comfort and command. There is a confirmation in it, an affirmation that Jesus is the One they’ve been waiting for. But there is also an imperative, reminding us what we’ve heard Jesus say and telling us to pay attention.

Just previously, in Matthew 16, Jesus had begun to teach that the Messiah must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and be killed, to be raised on the third day. “God forbid it,” Peter responded, rejecting this plan, but then Jesus rebuked him in the strongest terms, and said “If any want to become my followers, them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

For six days, these words and their implications must have churned within the disciples, implications not only for their beloved teacher, but also for the disciples themselves. At the very least, they rule out evicting the Roman oppressors alongside a conquering hero. And no one who had actually seen Roman crosses could have any illusions that Jesus meant an abstract path of enlightenment. But the desire to deny Jesus’ words lingers. Surely the Way of the Cross could not really be God’s intention for the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel?

Last week I went to George Fox Seminary in Portland for the “Face-to-Face” portion of online coursework I’m currently undertaking. I’d been warned that the “Christian Ministry for Reconciliation” class would be emotionally intense, and it was. Day 1 began with the challenging topic of racial reconciliation; day 2 was all about reconciliation between men and women; and day 3 we studied the messy but sometimes miraculous work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Professor Laura Simmons did not want us holding any of these topics at an abstract, academic distance, and she led us into conversation in which we wrestled with our deepest feelings about our relationships with others, our hopes and fears, our grief and our longings.

Now, I must admit I had brushed off the warnings of emotional intensity, thinking myself prepared by various experiences. But I hadn’t counted on what would transpire in this group who had so recently been strangers to me. How Christ’s light would shine from the faces of my colleagues voicing their longing for a world in which their sons and daughters, no matter what their race or gender, would be equally respected and free from violence. How my heart would break anew, listening as people voiced the grief we all felt in confronting the painful realities of racism and sexism and our sinful complicity, our limitations, and our fear of change. Those were holy moments, when things were revealed to be “wholly other” than our former perceptions.

Arriving back home, I spent much of this past week frankly overwhelmed by a dizzying new level of awareness. I saw with new eyes the panorama of suffering in our world and how God redeems our relationships for grace and peace.  I wondered what changes in me this new awareness would make.

For us the cross is no longer an instrument of execution; but to take it up and walk Christ’s Way means following him, wholly and willingly entering into the darkest, messiest places, relationships, and experiences of life, carrying nothing but the light of Christ’s life within us. It may not mean our literal death, and let me be unequivocally clear that following Christ is not about passively submitting to abusive relationships! If you are in such a relationship, Christ wants to lead you to a place of peace and wholeness! No matter what, following Christ to that place is a messy journey, working through old patterns and stepping out in courageous faith, and the Way of the Cross takes us into risk, vulnerability, and uncertainty again and again. The Cross is the way Jesus closed the gap between us and God; it is the way we must go if we would minister in his name.

Still, my mind rejects it. Surely there’s a better way to hope and healing. Surely there’s an easier way!

Maybe that’s what Peter is longs for on the mountain. We like to fault him for thinking he can freeze-frame the moment or capture God in a box, but his impulse to build shrines actually comes from the Festival of Booths, Israel’s celebration of the Exodus, in which people build “booths” as remembrance of God’s mighty acts in the desert, when the bright cloud dwelt in the tent of meeting. This is a “ramped-up” version of the wonders in the wilderness, and Peter wants to be hospitable to the holy presence. Maybe he wants a stable way to carry it forward.[iii]

But Peter’s desire reminds me of folks in my group last week who wanted immediate solutions to the problems of racism or sexism. They sought to “fix” things without really coming to awareness of their personal stake in those issues. They sought to be agents of transformation without being themselves transformed.

I think our rush to “fix” multi-layered problems can be an effort to stay in control and manage the discomfort of risk, vulnerability, and uncertainty. Following the command to “listen” to Jesus is to be called away from quick fixes and enter a long, slow way, in which change starts with our own conversion.

This past week, pondering my own new awareness, I found myself face to the ground. I was in “child’s pose,” if you know yoga; like a small child, forehead to the floor, knees curled up underneath. It’s a good stretch for the back and shoulders! And it was a good position to contemplate fear of change—the disciples’ and my own.

It was also a good position from which to imagine the next part of the story, something we often miss: Jesus the Christ, the One in whom all the power of the universe has just shined forth, simply comes to each disciple and touches them. I love that detail! Before he says another word, Jesus touches: a gentle hand, warm, real, tangible, true.  It is a gesture which physically grounds the disciples, reconnects them as human beings in relationship with a fully human man who loves them. Only then does this One we’ve been told to heed say, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid”: there it is.  I think it comes here in the story, because it doesn’t so much speak to the mysterium tremendum as it does their fear of what may come in the journey ahead.  Let’s not kid ourselves: the way of the Cross is fearful. But to hear Jesus clearly, we need to listen to the words which precedes this “do not be afraid.” “Get up,” Jesus says, and it’s not simply a command to stand. Jesus is literally saying “Be raised;” he’s using the same word the angel will use with the women at the tomb at Jesus’ resurrection. “Do not be afraid…He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”[iv]

“Get up; be raised.” These are resurrection words, my friends; “Do not be afraid” must be heard alongside that powerful hope. On the mountain we’ve gotten a glimpse of resurrection light, which lies through and beyond the Cross. We get up and follow Jesus into dark places, holding onto it, as 2Peter says, like a shining lamp, holding onto it until the day of resurrection dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts, trusting that suffering and death are not the end of the story. We are raised up from overwhelming fear and failure to new life and new possibilities we can scarcely imagine.

My friends, we are about to enter the Season of Lent in which we examine ourselves, our relationships with God and others. We ask to see how God has been displaced from the center of our lives, and we repent—we turn around—from destructive attitudes, habits and practices, so we may follow Christ anew, relying on the Holy Spirit’s guiding. Our hearts may be broken open with new awareness. How have we become resigned to a world of sin and violence? Where can we make amends?

These are hard questions, opening us to change which is never easy. But the grace of resurrection lights our way, as Jesus comes alongside us, touches us, and says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” God is at work in the darkest places of our lives and our world, reconciling all things to Godself, transforming us first, so that as Beloved Children, we might shine forth and share the peace of Christ, the healing of all Creation, Have courage, friends; Be raised and Do not be afraid. Amen.


[i] Borrowing from David Lose’s summary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3085

[iii] Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol 2., 65.

[iv] Matthew 27: 5-6

 

When Repentance Happens: Sermon by Laura, 3.10.13 Lent 4

Text: Jonah 3-4

Friends, we’ve passed the midpoint of Lent; we are on the fourth leg of our pilgrimage through some of the Bible’s 40-Day Journeys. So far, we’ve floated the flood with Noah and heard God’s promise to stick with his creation no matter what; we’ve been up and down Mt. Sinai with Moses and heard God’s promise of forgiveness; and we’ve endured wind, earthquake, and fire with Elijah and heard God’s promise of profound purpose. In each adventure, alongside each towering figure of scripture, we’ve encountered a God whose majesty is matched only by his mercy.

Now, you might expect today’s journey with Jonah is a sea-faring adventure. It certainly begins that way! Commanded to proclaim God’s word in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Jonah flees in the opposite direction instead, getting on a boat to Tarshish. When a great storm overtakes it, and the ship is about to break into pieces, the sailors toss Jonah overboard. God provides a large fish, which swallows Jonah. After three days and nights, the fish spits Jonah out on dry land, and God gives Jonah another opportunity to live out his calling. It’s the journey of that second chance we follow today, a dry-land adventure which takes us from the cool water into the blistering heat, both of a desert plain outside a doomed city and of Jonah’s burning, angry heart.

Anger. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to dwell on my experiences of it. Many of us have learned to fear anger, our own and others’, and we anxiously rush to douse it when we begin to feel its heat. But Eugene Petersen offers another view in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, studying Jonah’s story as her reflects on vocational ministry. He writes, “Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool. When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that…[s]omething isn’t working right…Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood…Anger is infused by a moral/spiritual intensity that carries conviction: when we are angry, we know we are on to something that matters, that really counts.”[1]

Petersen’s perspective will be useful in Nineveh, where Jonah does go, albeit not very enthusiastically. He does the minimum necessary to comply with God’s call, walking one day into the enormous city, proclaiming, “Forty days and Nineveh will be no more,” It’s arguably one of the least inspiring sermons on record. But it turns out to be one of the most effective!

What happens next is, honestly, a little over-the-top. If you think a whale swallowing a prophet is fantastic, the repentance of Nineveh is even more so. Nineveh was infamous as a bastion of brutality and corruption. Yet, the extraordinary good news of this story is that, even for the worst of the worst, repentance happens. The people of Nineveh believed God. As soon as they hear Jonah’s words, everyone from the king on down to the sheep and cows drop everything and begin fasting, wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and crying out to God for mercy. Just picture for a moment all those hungry cattle roaming around wearing sackcloth– No half-measures for those Ninevites! “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands,” the king decrees. “Who knows? God may change his mind.”

And that’s just what happens. God sees Nineveh’s repentance, and God relents from destroying the city.

Now, it seems to me that whenever people take God at God’s word and open themselves to transformation as profoundly as the Ninevites in this story, there ought to be much rejoicing. But how does Jonah react? He’s just helped facilitate a notoriously violent city turning from its evil ways.  Is he pleased, or at least awestruck that his meager words have had such an impact?

Nope! Jonah is not pleased, not pleased at all! Venting his anger at God, you can almost see him stomping his feet like toddler in a temper tantrum. But we finally learn why he fled to Tarshish when God first called him. “I knew this would happen!” he says, before delivering the punch line of the whole story. “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Now, these words are part of a formula describing God which is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. We just heard a more elaborate formulation of them with Moses in Exodus 34, when God forgives Israel for the golden calf incident. That version of the formula heavily weighted God’s compassion, but it also clearly asserted God’s righteous judgment: yes, God keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation and forgives sin, but God by no means clears the guilty.

But Jonah’s version of this formula leaves judgment entirely out. From his perspective, God is being too merciful to Nineveh, a city full of the enemies of his people, who, in fact, wipe out Israel’s northern kingdom in 722 BCE. Jonah wants Nineveh punished, and God is not acting the way he believes God should. God’s mercy is absolutely overriding God’s justice. In his anger, Jonah feels asks God to take his life on the spot.

Certainly, per Eugene Petersen’s diagnostics, Jonah’s anger is saying with conviction that something is wrong in the neighborhood! But Petersen would also caution Jonah not to be too hasty to point fingers.  “What anger fails to do,” he writes, “is tell us whether the wrong is outside or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us—our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry…But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us—wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart. If we admit and face that, we are pulled out of our quarrel with God and into something large and vocational in God.”[2]

God does not take Jonah’s life, but asks a question, inviting Jonah to carefully track his anger.  “Is it right for you to be angry?” A more literal translation would be, “Is it good that it burns to you?” Now, the word “good” here can mean righteous or ethical, as our translation implies, but it can also mean “good” as in beautiful or pleasurable.

Have you ever taken pleasure in anger? It sounds strange, but I’ve seen it in action. I know a young woman whose older sister had been the terror of her childhood. She learned to tiptoe around this sister so as not to arouse her sister’s notable temper. One day, when the two women had grown up, the older sister entered into Alcoholics Anonymous and began to work the Twelve Steps. In steps 8 and 9, a recovering person makes a list of people they believe they have injured in some way, and then they seek to make amends with those people, except if doing so might cause further injury. The older sister came to the younger one and sought to make amends. At first, the younger sister reacted numbly, but later, her anger burned inside of her, and she threw the amends back in her sister’s face, and she felt a fierce pleasure recounting all the ways she perceived she’d been injured.

Forgiveness is not easy, not just because true repentance is in short supply, but because people who feel wronged do not easily release their anger. There’s a kind of dark pleasure in listing those wrongs that seems to make up for the lack we might otherwise feel. Our anger reliably heats us up with a self-righteous sense of ourselves in a great battle against injustice.

“Is it right, is it good, for you to burn with anger?” God’s question seeks the deeper truth, the way our anger can become a self-serving crutch which actually distances us from justice.[3] God’s question seeks to reveal the deeper truth: as we have received God’s mercy, we are called to extend it to others.

In the story of the sisters, forgiveness finally came, as the younger sister tracked her anger and realized her equal need for mercy. But, like many of us, confronted at the center of our sinful need, Jonah refuses to answer God’s question.  He just gets up and leaves the conversation, setting up camp where he can passively watch the city. Maybe in forty days, doom will still come for Nineveh.

But Nineveh now seems to be in better shape to God than angry Jonah! And it turns out that God may relent from punishing, but God’s mercy is relentless! Since a sojourn in a fish’s belly wasn’t enough for Jonah to make the connection between God’s mercy for him and God’s mercy for Nineveh, God appoints more, curious, messengers. The shade bush and the worm are deployed, revealing that however hot the heat of the day, the heat of Jonah’s self-serving anger is still more perilous.

“You are concerned about this short-lived bush,” God remarks, “Should I not also be concerned about Nineveh’s 120,000 people who are even more clueless than you about my steadfast love and mercy—and what about all those animals?” One of the things I love about the book of Jonah is that God doesn’t forget those poor animals wandering around in sackcloth!

The other thing I love is what this story does to us by ending with a question. And here’s a fun little exegetical tidbit. Jonah’s angry speech to God earlier in chapter 4 adds up to 39 words in the original Hebrew, just shy of 40, which is understood to be a “complete” number.

God’s speech in response to Jonah, ending with this question, also adds up to 39 words. So it turns out, the story is not yet complete. It’s not complete without us. We might have laughed at the miserable prophet, but now we are also called up to answer.

So I ask you this Lent, what is burning you? Is it right, is it good for you to anger? Will you sit there, stoking the flames while it burns you up, or will you let it go and enter into a much greater joy, receiving and participating fully in God’s incredible mercy?

Take heart, because if Nineveh can repent, than anything can happen! And the forty days Jonah proclaimed to Nineveh have only just begun. God’s mercy and forgiveness for us are not complete, until we begin to share that mercy and forgiveness with others.

How will you complete this story?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


[1] Eugene Petersen, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 157.

[2] Petersen, as above.

[3] Haskins, 79.

 

Remedies for Stiff Necks: 2.24.13 40-Day Journeys in Lent

Texts: Exodus 34:1-10, Deut 9:7-10:10

In the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Toula, thirty-something daughter of Greek parents, wants to go to travel agent school but knows her father won’t like it. Enlisting her mother’s help, Toula complains, “Ma, Dad is so stubborn. What he says goes. ‘Ah, the man is the head of the house!’” In response, her mother leans in close and says, “Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”[i]

Whatever your opinion of the gender dynamics pictured here, let this little interchange draw your attention to a body part we might take for granted—our necks. Necks are marvelous, if you think about it. They have the flexibility to turn our heads almost any direction. We’re not owls, of course, able to turn our necks 180 degrees, but we can usually turn and look over a shoulder to see what’s behind us, helpful when backing a car out of a driveway! Take a few seconds and try out your own neck this morning. Is it feeling flexible? Can you turn to look at the people sitting on either side of you, maybe, or behind you?

No doubt Toula’s mother was also aware how the neck is not only the conduit of vital breath and nourishment, but in a way it also acts as the bridge between the head and the heart, between our inner life and its external expression. The neck is like a telephone switchboard by which our brains communicate with the rest of our bodies, making connections between ingoing and outgoing calls, a “mediator” between “feelings and thoughts, impulses and reactions.”[ii]

Trouble comes when the neck’s lines of communication get overloaded; tension and lack of flexibility result. Maybe we’ve literally been carrying something too heavy, or maybe we’ve suffered whiplash, emotional and spiritual stress can also lodge in our bodies. A build-up of anxiety or the feeling overburdened might lead to the painful lack of flexibility most of us have experienced at some point: a stiff neck.

“This is a stiff-necked people,” Moses says in Exodus 34. That phrase that first came into the conversation between God and Moses a couple of chapters earlier, when Moses’ first 40-day sojourn on Mt. Sinai—also called Horeb—ends in disaster. The people of Israel have sinned against God. They have broken the covenant God established with them, asking Aaron to make a golden calf, which they worshipped in place of God. God tells Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” It’s not so much a medical as a spiritual diagnosis he’s making, and it certainly isn’t a compliment!

The words “stiff-necked” translate a Hebrew a figure-of-speech derived from oxen that refuse to be led in plowing a field. An ox with a stiff or hard neck could not be turned or guided in the necessary direction. To call the people “stiff-necked” is to say they have a stubborn spirit, unresponsive to God’s guidance.[iii]

Now, there’s no doubt that what they’ve done is awful. But I can’t help but feel some sympathy for the people of Israel. Some of us get stiff necks from one night tossing and turning on a hotel bed; these folks have been taken quite a bit further from the familiar. For four hundred years, the parameters of their lives were dictated by Egyptian slave masters. Now, encamped at the foot of a desert mountain, their leader has begun teaching them new ways to live in relationship with God and one another, but then he disappeared into a “devouring fire” on the mountain. Will he ever come back?

In their place, I’d be feeling the neck pain of unbearable anxiety. And what remedy could they find for it in this unknown place?  Vast promises of a future they can barely imagine are little comfort. They need something tangible to focus upon, something to give them a sense of control. So they turn away from waiting on an untamable and unpredictable God, by “defaulting” into the habits and practices of Egypt, the kind of “do-it-yourself” religion of the ancient world, offering prayers and sacrifices to appease the whims of capricious gods.[iv]

Sometimes, when I have a stiff neck, if I’m patient, the problem will resolve itself. Other times, I try everything I can think of to fix it myself. Maybe if I stretch it this way or that way, the kinks will work themselves out. Should I put hot or cold on it? (I try both). Maybe I take a pain-reliever, then try to massage the spot for myself, so that, soon, I also have a stiff shoulder and arm!

Eventually, I discover that I just can’t help myself. I need someone else, a chiropractor or physical therapist, to help me return to normal flexibility and maybe even teach my body new ways to hold and release the stress which caused the pain.

In yoga class, it occurred to me that we might name such a person an “inter-stretcher.” I’m playing on the word “intercessor” here, someone who negotiates between two parties who might otherwise be unable to communicate.[v] In the case of a spiritually stiff neck, I think the remedy is an “inter-stretcher,” someone to helps us stretch through and beyond the fear and insecurities which lock us up so that we can respond with flexibility and turn and follow the leading of the Spirit of God.

The good news for Israel is that they have such an inter-stretcher. Before he comes down to deal with the golden calf, Moses intercedes for the people with God, such that God relents from destroying the people and starting over with Moses. But now, while God says he will keep his promise to send an angel before them to the Promised Land, God’s presence will no longer go with the people and dwell in their midst. Yet, Moses knows it will not suffice for God to be merely “for” them,

God must also go “with” them. The ways of slavery are so entrenched in people, they cannot imagine the new life God is promising them.[vi] To move through their fear and embrace the habits and practices of God’s chosen people, blessed to be a blessing, to learn to trust and be shaped by God’s purposes, they will need a constant sense of God’s presence dwelling with them. Without God’s presence, there will be no distinction between Israel and any other nation.

Moses returns to God, again interceding for the people, first offering himself to atone for the people’s mistakes. God does not accept that offer, but is open to dialogue. Remarkably, Moses just keeps at it, reasoning and petitioning. His work as inter-stretcher, it seems, is not only to help Israel move through their stiff-necked resistance to God’s purposes, but also to help God stretch God’s mercy beyond all expectations.

Anyone who’s ever wondered if their prayers really mean anything ought to pay attention here. God is not offended but responds positively to Moses’ persistence; God has entered into an intimate relationship with Moses in which this kind of dialogue is welcomed,[vii] and God takes what Moses says very seriously.

So it turns out, even more remarkably, that the true remedy for a stiff-necked people is a God who is anything but stiff-necked himself! In ongoing relationship with people like Israel and people like us, people who are often frozen in fearful resistance, God reveals himself to be open to change which makes a new way for us and for the world. This may seem to contradict traditional notions of God as unchangeable.  But, as scholar Terrence Fretheim notes, “It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God’s steadfastness has to do with God’s love; God’s faithfulness has to do with God’s promises; God’s will is for the salvation of all. God will always act, even make changes, in order to be true to these unchangeable ways and to accomplish these unchangeable goals.”[viii]

Ultimately, God changes God’s mind again, and agrees to be present with the journeying people, even proving that willingness to Moses. Moses comes back up the mountain for a second 40-days,and nestled in a cleft of rock, God covers Moses’ eyes with God’s hand passing before him that Moses can see, not God’s full glory, which would kill him, but God’s goodness, summed up in the proclamation of God’s name:

‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,yet by no means clearing the guilty,but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

This is a seminal moment in Moses’ journey, and in ours: the God who delivers people from slavery, the God we so grievously disappoint in our stiff-necked stumbling, is a God so good that he freely wills to change rather than forsake the people he has chosen.

This God is untamable and unpredictable, worthy of awestruck worship and obedient regard; but this God is never malicious or capricious, only faithful and forgiving, characterized most completely by his freely given, steadfast love.

God takes relationship with us with terrible seriousness, desiring for us the fullness of life in covenant with him. When we break that covenant, God steps in again and again to make us right with him. And we here know just how far God is ultimately willing to stretch to be with and for us on our life’s journey. God is willing to stretch all the way from heaven to earth, to be with and for us in Jesus Christ, boldly stretching out God’s mercy with God’s own arms on the cross.

The Lenten call is to return, to turn our heads back from whatever way we’ve gotten disoriented, to face our loving Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The good news is that, even when we cannot make that turning, when our necks have stiffened up with anxiety, despair, or just plain lack of imagination, when the bridge between our heads and our hearts is broken, God turns toward us and makes a new covenant in Jesus Christ, stretching with and for us and making for us a way through the pain.

Friends, let us now receive with humble gratitude God’s loving “inter-stretching” in Jesus Christ, that we may move through and beyond our stiff-necked stasis, and turn our heads to face with courage the road God is leading us to walk. Let us, in turn, stretch out our own arms with and for all the others we encounter, people in need of God’s gracious love all along our journeys. Amen.


[ii] Ken Dychtwald, Bodymind, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1970, 189.

[iv] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 257.

[vi] Alan J. Roxburg and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009, 116-118.

[vii] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 285.

[viii] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 287.

The Beginning of the Rainbow: Sermon by Keith, First Sunday in Lent, 3.17.13

Friends, our Lenten sermon series was called “Forty-Day Journeys,” and we preached on various stories in the Bible where people experienced something over 40 Days (just as Lent is a 40-Day Journey).

Texts: Genesis 7:1-18, 24Genesis 9:1-3,8-17

 “Right…What’s a cubit?”  Now, who knows where that comes from?  Right.  I discovered this Bill Cosby comedy routine when I was in Middle School and would go to my cousins’ house in South Dakota.  We would listen to that tape for days on end, over and over again, laughing our heads off at this picture of Noah and his reaction to God’s command to build an ark at a time when the earth supposedly knew no rain.  Noah’s story is the first of the forty day journeys that Laura and I will be looking at over our 40 day journey to Easter during Lent.  It rained 40 days and nights.  But this is also a story that most people outside the church also know.  Because of people like Bill Cosby, Far Side cartoons, and modern movies like “Evan Almighty” and the upcoming movie called “Noah” staring Russell Crowe as Noah that help keep this story alive in the modern psyche, whether it is the churched or un-churched.  The new “Noah” movie is slated to come out on the big screen in 2014, but has already run into snags due to, you guessed it, flooding.  Hurricane Sandy’s “rains of biblical proportions” brought the production to a temporary halt last year.

From what I’ve found, there are generally two images that come to mind with the Noah story.  The first is this pretty picture, especially directed at children, of all the animals on the ark, and rainbow hanging in the sky.  It gives you this warm, fuzzy feeling inside. There is even a camp song singing about the arky, arky.  I have to admit we actually have two quilts hanging in the boy’s room with images of Noah, his animals, and the ark.  It has become a pretty picture of church nurseries and toy sets.

And then there is the darker side, the side of God getting angry enough to wipe out all of creation and save a remnant of humanity and birds and the beasts to repopulate the earth.  During the middle ages, this story was not taught to young children.  It usually was taught to people until they were 12 years old or older, because of the mass destruction that is pictured.  We have a friend from seminary who said she cried for days when she found out what God did to the animals.  She wasn’t that worried about the people.  It’s this image that I know I’ve struggled with over the course my time as a Christian.

But to fully get into this story, I think we actually have to step back on several different levels.  First set aside your modern sensibilities.  If your first thought was, “Since there was no flood and people didn’t live that long, I don’t have to listen to this.”  Then you might miss out what the ancient tellers of this story were saying about us and more importantly about God.  All these stories are here for a reason and if we just discount them because they don’t fit our modern mind, we may miss out on some good news.

So where do we begin?  Let’s start with Adam.  Based upon the genealogies in Genesis and how long it says people lived, Adam was still alive when Noah was born.  Can you picture it?  Little Noah sitting on great-great-great-great-great-great grandpa’s lap and Adam telling him, “Let me tell you about the time I used to walk with God in the garden.”  But Noah grew, and he could see the world around him wasn’t a garden anymore as he experienced first hand the brokenness of the creation.  I can picture Noah going up to Adam in his rocking chair and asking, “What happened?”  “You are old enough now, Noah.  Let me tell you about the time I broke God’s heart.”

And that’s what happened to God.  His heart was broken.  You would be hard pressed to find through this portion of scripture that God was angry.  God was saddened by what he saw happening on earth.  The bite of the apple that Adam and Eve took was just the beginning of the violence that was corrupting God’s “very good” creation.  Things spiraled out of control after that.  Proper human relationships were being violated.  Animals went against their created nature and turned upon their human stewards.  Everything was out of balance in struggles for power.  Grieving over his creation, God resolves to destroy the destroyer.  God grieves because he loves what he has created.  What’s at tension in God’s heart is his unstoppable purpose to create a peaceful cosmos and his immovable compassion for destructive, violent humanity.  So God, in heartbroken love, determines to drown it all in the void of watery chaos, a void that is reminiscent of the chaos that existed at the beginning.  Do you remember the first creation story?  God moved over the formless void while his Spirit swept over the face of the waters.  And it is there that God begins to create, giving light and form and life to the chaos.  In the flood, the watery chaos is allowed to come rushing back in and destroy the creation.  And as the waters subside, God recreates his creation, but with a new understanding of what humanity and creation are capable of, and a new promise of how he, as God and Creator, will deal with his fallen creation that he loves dearly.

God commits to new relationship rules with Noah, his family and descendants, all life, and the earth itself in the covenantal promise that God seals with his rainbow.  Nothing is required from creation.  The covenant only sets limits on God.  “As for me…never…never…never will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  God pledges to set in the sky his war bow, unstrung and pointing away from the earth.  Next time you see a rainbow, notice that it points up and remember that every time God sees it, he is remembering his covenant with creation and humanity.

The covenant that God gives shows how creation, the plants, the animals, all that God has created, including humanity, is one and is interconnected.  What affects one affects all.  The deep purpose of nature is diversity in unity under God’s possession and God’s purposes.  Yet humanity continually and consistently fails to accept the limits placed upon it by God.  We were created to live in harmony with all of creation, but we continually attempt to take possession of what is God’s.  All creation suffers the consequences of the resulting violence, (PAUSE)

but this is not the last word to Noah and those who survive the deluge:  “Abound on earth and multiply on it.”  In spite of the evidence to the contrary, humanity and creation are blessed because God remains loyal to the disloyal.  Since humanity does not and maybe cannot end the downward spiral toward violence, God covenants to do so.

Some of us may not like the picture of God that this creates, a God who is adaptable and changing.  But it also paints a picture of God who is touched to the heart by his creation and willing to accept the hurt that we direct toward him, each other and all of creation, in order to keep hope alive.  The God of this covenant is unchanged only in refusing to give up on humanity and creation.  He steps into this covenant not as an objective judge handing down a divine sentence, but a lover grieving their beloved’s violence while all the time seeking reconciliation.

Friends, God’s purpose for a unified, harmonious cosmos remains in conflict with humanity and our corrupting influence.  Lent recognizes this imbalance.  We can repent, accept our finitude, and stop grasping for control, or will we continue the violence that so breaks the heart of God?  As we turn our faces toward the cross, we find God again saying in love, “Enough!” But instead of giving a watery chaos, God gave of himself, stepping into creation in Jesus Christ.  In his love for us and all that he has created, God goes so far as to overcome the greatest result of the violence we have brought upon ourselves, and that is death.  Christ invites us on that journey to the cross and the void of the grave with him, so that we can be recreated with him to live into the love and purposes God intends for our lives.  It is there we see and experience the Easter dawn, whose resurrection light will reveal a rainbow in the dark western sky behind us.