Walk Humbly: Sermon by Laura, 1.29.17

Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-31

Even if you rarely crack open a Bible, the final verse I just read from Micah is likely familiar to you: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” One of the most-quoted verses of the Hebrew Scripture, it’s like a bumper-sticker summary of what faith is about. But, even if this is one of your favorite verses, I’m guessing that, like me, you may know little else about Micah or the context of his prophecy.

And context, my friends, is important. It may be an awkward metaphor when our local soil is still blanketed with thick snow… But context is the ground on which all our arguments stand, the earth from which ideas sprout and spread seed in the winds of a particular era of history. To examine the meaning and implications of any thought or ideology, we must get as close as we can to the contextual soil in which it is rooted.

So who was Micah? When and where did he live, and how do his powerful words grow out of the fertile mulch of his context?

Micah was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, a Judean man who lived in the days after the descendants of Kings Solomon had divided the promised land into two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom of Samaria and the Southern kingdom of Judah.  These were also the days before the Assyrian empire invaded, conquered, and carried a large portion of Israel’s population off to captivity. This was a time of wealth and prosperity in Samaria and Judah. The Temple in Jerusalem flourished, and people demonstrated their religious loyalties with extravagant gifts.

Yet Micah perceived that all was not well. His view was shaped by his upbringing in a small rural community named Moresheth, which was about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem.[i] He surely witnessed firsthand how local farm workers struggled in an economic system that exploited their labor to the benefit of rich, urban-dwelling landowners. “They covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away,” says Micah in chapter 2, where he also notes how people who don’t like what he’s saying try to shut down his prophetic warnings: “Do not preach” they tell him, “one should not say such things!”

And it’s a little ironic to share this, seeing as our congregation is having our Pizza, Beer, and Gospel gathering tonight, but Micah even says, “If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ such a one would be the preacher this people could accept.”

Later, Micah denounces the rulers of both nations as corrupt, saying they “abhor justice, pervert all equity;” they “give judgment for a bribe;its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us!’”

“Surely the Lord is with us”—how often throughout history have those in power assumed that their attainment of power somehow signifies God’s approval of all their decisions? The divine right of kings or the popular mandate of elected officials—Micah denounces these assurances as falsehoods which have separated rulers from real grounding in the ultimate truth of God.

The question of ultimate truth was just as live a question in Micah’s time as it is in ours. He prophesied God’s word to God’s people, people who desired to walk the way of covenant-faithfulness in a pluralistic world, in which Yahweh was far from the only option for religious devotion. Neighboring cultures worshiped all sorts of other gods and goddesses. As one commentator notes, “Sometimes [Israel] responded by destroying their neighbors, and sometimes they bought some of their idols just to be safe.”[ii]

In Micah’s time, there were conflicting claims about what it meant to be a worshipper of Yahweh or a loyal Judean, just as in our time there are conflicting ideologies about what a true Christian or a true American says, does, and stands for. Struggling to be faithful as God’s people

in our time and place, we also flip-flop between two strategies. On one hand, we try to wall from our presence those things, ideas or people we perceive as a danger to what “true” and “right, ” exercising fearful suspicion against anyone whose belief or practice doesn’t fit our tribal criteria.

On the other hand, we uncritically embrace every religious or spiritual idea as equally valid, without really taking the time to listen and learn either our own tradition or the others’. Neither strategy honors the wideness of God’s mercy or the particularity of God’s love.

Yes, God’s love is for everyone, everywhere, at work bringing justice and mercy in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. The idea that God’s grace is only for the relatively few people in the world who think, act, and worship like we do is an insult to God.

At the same time, the idea that all religions are equal, the tolerance of “all truth is relative,” can be a lazy excuse to avoid the necessary hard work of deep listening for God’s scandalously particular truth.  One author notes, “Tolerance by itself is apathy. To say that all religions are equal is to say that no religion makes any difference.” [iii]

So, where does this leave us? How do we discern God’s will and align with it for faithful action in such a confusing world?

Of course we crave clarity. Of course we crave simplicity. Who doesn’t love three-step-formulas which promise unequivocal rightness? Who doesn’t want plain-spoken practical guidance we can rely on to get us from where we are, with whatever we feel is lacking in our lives, to where God’s people desire to dwell: where God abides with us in beauty, goodness, and Truth with a capital T.

But any rush to “simple truth” may stampede over deeper falsehoods. Premature clarity may be merely a knee-jerk fear-triggered reaction to something we’ve not taken time to understand. And shrugging relativism misses the incarnational wonder of God’s sharp and specific Word. One reality of human sin is that we are biased people who would rather put our trust in the devil we know than in the Christ who confounds us with the foolishness of the cross.

In Micah’s time, the Temple was crowded with people who showed off their “rightness” with God; yet Micah saw how the systems they’d created demonstrated an arrogant, uncaring attitude toward the poor and marginalized. Where, he asked, was true worship of the God who loves and protects the widow, the orphan and the stranger, the most vulnerable in the land? We face similar questions in our time, as we struggle to discern and navigate a clear path of faithful action amidst a deluge of biased information on all sides.

But by the grace of God, my friends, we have been given prophets, courageous truth-tellers like Micah. Micah’s words to God’s people then cut right through to God’s Truth for us now, reminding us of what we already know, offering us a clear measure by which to discern our own and others’ faithful words and actions: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Here we are reminded that God has already spoken, God has already shown Israel and us in numerous mighty acts of deliverance and grace who God is and what God desires. God’s people are created to speak and act in God’s image, the God who is consistently named as compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, and overflowing with gracious love.

Our God is a God of justice: alert to the voices of oppressed and vulnerable people—any person at risk of being treated as less than God’s child by whoever holds majority power.

Our God is a God of loving-kindness: a mercy that surpasses our imagination, a forgiveness that seems foolish to the powers of this world.

And what our God most deeply desires, my friends, is for us to walk humbly with God.

What does this mean? It means returning to our heart-knowing, getting close to the foundational ground of our existence, remembering the humus from which we humans were created and remembering the One who created us from it. From that vantage point, near to the muddy earth on which every human being stands at the foot of the cross, I understand that I am infinitely precious to God… and so is every one else. I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of the life I have been given to share with others; I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of life shared by all the others who inhabit this Earth beside me.

My friends, I believe that to “walk humbly with God” is the most important spiritual practice for Christians to focus on in our confusing and frightening times. Let’s make humility the virtue of this year! Practicing humility does not mean abdicating your convictions. By all means, stand up for what you believe is right! But do so, always ready to turn around, to fall to your knees, to return to the Ground of All Being and say, “Forgive me, I was wrong.”

Humility refuses to make “being right” an idol which substitutes itself for a real encounter with the surprising God in Jesus Christ, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, whose weakness is stronger than human strength. Humility stands with trust and love upon the humus from which human creatures are created,  and, I would add, humility regards everything—especially oneself—with a sense of humor.[iv]

Lastly, as another preacher notes, “…To walk humbly is not to be above someone or below someone, but rather with someone.” [v] My friends, we do not walk alone through the muddy paths of faith. Whatever burdens we carry in this world, we carry them together, all of us upheld by the unending grace and mercy of the God who walks with us and gives his life for us, the God whose power enlivens and empowers us, this day and always.

Amen.

 

[i] http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1251-micah-prophetic-critique-and-pastoral-comfort

[ii] Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 293.

[iii] Younger, 293.

[iv] Though it should be noted that “humor” does not actually have the same root as humus, human, and humility—it comes from a root more related to “humid”—having a quality of wetness rather than earthiness.

https://therandomcatholic.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/human-humble-humus-hum/

[v] http://day1.org/722-god_requires_what

 

The Voice: Sermon by Keith, 12.6.15 Advent 2C

Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6

December has to be the craziest month of the year.  In many ways, if we could step back and look at all the somewhat wild and out of the ordinary things we do this month, we would realize just how crazy this month and how crazy we just might be.  Why is it so crazy?

It is because we are preparing.  You see the husband up on the precariously balanced ladder, getting directions from his wife who should be holding the ladder but is instead giving instructions on where to hang the icicle lights just right.  And it is about 20 degrees outside.  And the wind is blowing.  They are preparing.  You see stores filled with people with a high level of intensity and aggressiveness as they shop, shop, shop; people making their shopping lists and checking them twice.  They are preparing.  With the flip of the switch, the day after Thanksgiving, the radio stations start adding in old nostalgic songs to their playlists about chestnuts and walking in a winter wonderland.  The airwaves are helping us to be prepared.  Even our sanctuary is now set to help us prepare.  We have all the greens this year, but also the smell of the sanctuary that is helping us to prepare.  Not just the smell of the evergreen tree and swags fill the air, but also the cinnamon smell of the cookie tree ornaments hanging from our lights.  People are preparing, we are preparing, because soon it will be Christmas.

But we as Christians do more than just prepare for Christmas, we prepare for Christ.  Last Sunday, Ellen Jones helped us mark the first Sunday of Advent, a season that lasts right up until Christmas.  Advent is that time of year when we prepare for the arrival of Christ.  We prepare to celebrate his first arrival, that humble, quiet birth in Bethlehem.  But we also prepare for his second coming, that day that Jesus promised at the end of the book of Luke and the beginning of Acts when we would see him coming again in his glory.  The Sundays of Advent go backward in time, from the future return of our King down to his modest birth on Christmas.

And during this time of preparing, we, as individuals and as a community of believers, do all kinds of physical things to prepare for Christmas.  We hang the lights, we fill out and mail cards, we shop for gifts, and menus are planned as we prepare for visits from family and friends.  Here the sanctuary is decorated, we light a new candle every Sunday to mark time through the Advent season, and Joan has been in the back meticulously counting candles to make sure have enough for everyone on Christmas Eve. But there is more than just the physical parts of preparing for Christmas.  There are the spiritual things we do to prepare ourselves for Christ.  It’s easy to prepare for the holiday of Christmas.  But how do you prepare for Christ?  I bet there are some of you out here right now who could exclaim this early in December, “I am ready for Christmas!”  But my question for you is, are you ready for Christ?  And I think we can get so distracted by getting ready for Christmas, we forget who we are getting ready for.

Thank goodness we have someone just as crazy as we are to help us prepare for Christ as we get ready for Christmas.  He shows up like clock work every second Sunday in Advent.  No, it’s not Rudolph or Frosty or even Santa.  They are the list of those helping us get ready for Christmas.  It is John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locust who helps us get ready and be prepared for Christ.  He had no church but the desert wilderness by the Jordan River.  He was a wild nobody.  Luke even begins this section by letting us know who the “somebodies” of the day were.  The lengthy list of the Roman political and Jewish religious leaders of the day reminds us of the power structure and systems that existed at this time.  But it wasn’t the emperor, the governor, the local kings or priests that God chose to prepare the people for the coming Christ; it was this long-haired, locust eating prophet calling out in the wilderness.

This wasn’t his idea.  This was his calling, God’s purpose for his life.  John was talked about hundreds of years before this scene from the prophet Isaiah:  “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord!”  John had been called by God to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah—Jesus was about to begin his pubic ministry, and John was preparing people, getting them ready for Jesus and his message.  He did that by teaching people to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

For John, to prepare for the coming Christ meant to turn around, to change direction in both actions and attitudes.  Repenting doesn’t just mean feeling remorse or regret for an act or decision and then getting up and doing the exact same thing over and over again, it literally means going in an entirely different direction.  Stop the crazy acts that you are doing and turn around, turn back towards God, because in that turn around, you will meet the coming Lord.  John’s hearers were going one way, unprepared for Christ.  They might have thought their religious affiliation or their political ties were going to save them.  But, John told them to turn their lives around and go another way.

“What then should we do?”  they ask John.  How do we prepare?  How do we repent?  How do we change directions?  It is interesting that three different groups ask John what they need to do to prepare, covering the entire gamut of those who were considered “in” and those who were considered “out” by the political and religious leaders of the time.  They begin with the closed group of those who believe they are OK because they have the membership card of being Abraham’s descendants who are oppressed by the Romans.  The next group is the tax collectors who move between the occupied Jewish community and the occupying Roman authority.  They are agents of the political reality, making decisions of self-interested compromise every day.  The third to ask are the occupiers, the soldiers.  They wield the sword of the world’s power, but they too are capable of sensing they needed to turn around and change what they were doing.

Notably, John does not demand that any of these groups leave their places.  Repentance is a change in direction of actions and attitudes that requires them to stay where they are.  They do not run from their sin, they seek forgiveness for it from those around them.  They stay where they are, but they are to be different where they are.  John identifies what each group needs to repent from and turn to.  From those who would claim the protection of status, affiliation, or membership, John demands that generosity replace self interest.  The needs of the other should take greater priority, higher status, than one’s own protection or security.  From those, who like the tax collectors, have learned survival skills in an unjust system, John demands integrity.  No more stealing, no more gaming.  They must demand less for themselves so that others may be treated fairly.  And finally from the soldiers, whose tool is raw power, John demands respect for others.  John tells these that the fruit of their repentance will be seen not in personal gain but in true modesty.

So, how do we prepare for Christ?  We repent!  What would John’s words be to you if you were standing on the banks of the Jordan and you asked, “What then shall I do?”  First, identify what is separating you from God in your life.  This will take some quiet time during this crazy time of year.  Turn off the TV, the radio, the internet.  Take a break from shopping and decorating.  And just sit, and think, and identify those things that separate you from God in your life.  And just because you are coming to church on Sunday doesn’t mean you don’t have some brokenness in your life that needs to be addressed.  Are you materialistic?  Do you like to be surrounded by things, more things than you could ever need or want? Are you selfish?  How are your thoughts?  Are you impatient with others?  Do words spill out of your mouth that are hurtful and angry?  Identify those things.  And then the second, do the opposite, right where you are and where you live and work.  Ask for forgiveness from those you have hurt.  If it is time to clean out the closet, both literally and figuratively, do it.  Change direction in your life.

Are you ready for Christmas this year?  More importantly, are you ready for Christ?  Are you ready to celebrate his first coming?  Are you ready to receive him, when he comes again in all of his glory?  If you listen closely, over the songs about Rudolph and Frosty and White Christmases, over the craziness that surrounds us this time of year, you will hear a voice, a voice of one calling in the desert:  Prepare the way for the Lord.  That is the message of this second Sunday of Advent, prepare your life, prepare your heart, prepare your whole being by turning toward Christ, seek his forgiveness and wholeness, and expect his grace.  Because it is only by his grace we are able to make that turn-around and be prepared for the day we see him, not in a card or manger scene, but for the day we will see him face to face.

 

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.

Poured Out: Sermon by Keith, 1.12.14, Baptism of the Lord A

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Rodger Nishioka shares a story of a ninth grader who just finished confirmation at his church.[1]  Kyle and his family had attended Rodger’s church sporadically since they moved to the area when Kyle was in the fifth grade.  But when the invitation to join in the confirmation class was given to Kyle, Rodger was surprised at the enthusiasm in which Kyle and his family gave in saying yes.  They all came to the orientation and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly gatherings for study and exploration.  And Kyle flourished!  Kyle rarely missed a class and was always engaged in the conversations.  He developed some wonderful relationships with the other youth in the group that he hardly knew.  And since Kyle hadn’t been baptized, on that Pentecost Sunday that the confirmands came before the church, he was baptized.  As Rodger puts it, “It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, their mentors, and the entire church.”

But then Kyle disappeared.  The party was over and he was gone.  Rodger knew something had gone wrong.  After a bit of time, he checked in with Kyle and his family.  They were all a little surprised that they were receiving a check in from the pastor.  Roger recalls the mother’s words, “Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done.  I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything.”  And Rodger knew something had been missed.  He realized that for Kyle, and many people, they think that the baptism of the infant or the young adult or the adult is the culminating activity of faith, and that we are all done.

Jesus’ baptism gives us a chance to exam and explore our own baptisms.  In our day and age, typically baptism has been boiled down to dealing with our sinful nature.  We hear the radio preacher cry out, “Repent from your sins and be baptized!”  But Jesus clearly had no need to repent from his sins.  John loudly cried out “Repent!” to those crowds on the banks of the Jordan River.  “Repent because the kingdom of God was at hand.”  John is proclaiming something bigger than just sins.  The Greek word that we see just previously before this passage to describe John’s baptism is the word metanoia, and it suggests a transformation or turning of the whole heart and mind and even of the body.  This turning can and does involve sin, but it is more than just that.  For Jesus, there is a turning from one direction to another.  Up to this point, he had been a carpenter in Nazareth, and that was his identity in the eyes of that community.  But Jesus had another identity, an identity given to him before the foundations of the world, an identify God affirms at Jesus’ baptism when we hear the voice from the heavens boom and Spirit descend like a dove.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  In his baptism, Jesus was turning toward this God given identity of Beloved Son and embracing his relationship with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.

In Matthew, the baptism of Jesus is not the end.  He didn’t go back home and tell his mom, Mary, about his swim in the Jordan with Cousin John and then head back for the workshop.  It may have marked the end of his identity as a carpenter in Nazareth, even though I can imagine he may have picked up a hammer now and then, but it marked the beginning, the launching, of his ministry.  It is his commissioning to begin the public ministry for which he was created and to which he is called.  Surely, Jesus’ identity is confirmed in his baptism, but we know that personal identity isn’t a static thing.  Identity is also about purpose.  Being claimed as God’s beloved means that Jesus has been called to be and do the will of God in the world.  And we even see this in Jesus as his identity as God’s Beloved grows throughout his public ministry.

Friends, whether you were baptized as a squiggling baby in the arms of a preacher you don’t remember, as a young adult on a Pentecost Sunday after weeks of a confirmation class, or as someone who has years of hard living showing in gray hairs and deep lines in the face, you have an identity given to you by God.   Whether you are a student, a cook, a farmer, a doctor, or lawyer or retired, if you have no letters of credentials after your name, or a whole trail of them that you have to use the back side of your business card to list them, you have a deeper, truer identity.  That identity is from God and given by God and is formed by God.  Friends, you are the beloved children of God.  (Here I think I will stop and say, “__________, you are God’s beloved daughter.”  “_______, you are God’s beloved son.”) And this identity as God’s beloved supersedes any titles you have earned or degrees that it took years to get.  Because you don’t earn God’s love.  You can’t earn it.  It is freely given as a gift of grace from God because God is more interested in a relationship with you than he is in the titles and accolades that the world my push you to get.

In his baptism, Jesus receives both affirmation of his identity and receives his commission for ministry in the world.   Jesus gives everything—his dreams and deeds, his labors and his life itself. Jesus gives himself to God’s people, taking his place with hurting people.  And so do we, both as individuals and as a community.  Our commission is different and the same as Jesus’ commission.  We are not Jesus, we are his disciples.  In following him and his example found in his baptism, we cannot make ourselves comfortable, cannot do only what will be appreciated, and cannot be satisfied with the way things are.  Our baptisms demand that we struggle with what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s important and what’s not.  The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of a community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.

And that means there will be no guarantee about what will happen next.  For Jesus, he spent the next 40 days in the wilderness, I believe, discerning what it meant to be God’s child, hungry, lost, and being tempted.  Coming out of the water’s of baptism does not provide a special protective layer from the powers and threats of the world.  If anything, being claimed as a child of God will make us more of a target of the pain and suffering the world can throw at us.  That can be seen in the life and ministry of Jesus.  He spends all the days and years that follow that afternoon in the Jordan discovering the meaning of his baptism as he lives into his relationship with God the Father as he heals, preaches, teaches, and shares the love of God with those he meets.  And that journey leads him to a cross.  He dies because he takes his baptism seriously. When Jesus cries on the cross, “It is finished,” it is at that moment that his baptism is complete.

When Rodger Nishioka had a chance to sit down with Kyle and his parents, he tried better to explain what had been missed, how Kyle’s baptism wasn’t the end, but just the beginning.  He shared with the family that not just Kyle was missed by the church, but that people wondered what happened to the entire family.  He explained that Kyle’s mentor hoped to be able to continue the relationship they had built and his friends hoped to continue doing ministry and having fellowship with him.  Roger apologized for himself and the entire church community for not doing a very good job of conveying what baptism was.  “Kyle’s baptism and confirmation was not simply about his profession of faith,” Roger shared.  “It is about his continuing to grow in his understanding of what God is calling him to do as he lives out his identity as a child of God.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, if you are not baptized, I’d invite you to come talk with Laura or me about being baptized and acknowledging your true identity from the one who has claimed you.  Let the journey begin.  I can’t guarantee that it will be safe, but I can tell you it won’t be boring.  And if you are baptized, I invite you to remember your baptism and where your baptismal journey has brought you so far.  The journey isn’t over.  It continues every day of your life.

Amen.


[1] This story of Kyle is shared in Rodger Nishioka’s commentary in Feast on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, pages 236-240.

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.