Deeper Love Than We Can Imagine

Sermon by Keith, 11.10.19 Mark 10:13-14, Hosea 11:1-9

Either to their joy or consternation (I won’t know for sure which until after we get their bill for therapy) we have referenced our children in our sermons over the years.  I think there was a disclaimer in the delivery room when they were born that said, “Welcome to the world, PK! Everything that you say and do from this moment on may be used as a sermon illustration.” 

Which in some ways makes perfect sense. You are bound to see all aspects of the human condition–the good, the bad, and the ugly–come out in such close knit relationships, including between a husband and wife, parent and child, and between siblings.  I can say that for the most part, what I have seen and experienced with them has been so joy-filled that when they say or do something that speaks to a scripture text I’m working on, I want to share it with you.

But yes, we have an almost teenager in the house.  Things are changing. The dynamic of the relationship is changing. And that probably means you will also hear some different type of sermon illustrations. But no matter what the dynamic of the relationship I’m having with Lucas or Ben, or even with Laura for that matter, the constant will always be love.

And that is the point about God love that the prophet Hosea is trying to make.  Now if you think that we use stories from our familial relationships in our sermons, especially of our kids, Hosea takes it to the next level.  Early in his prophetic writing, his children become living sermons and the deep messages tied to their names are then used to teach us deeper lessons about God and God’s people. 

In Hosea, you find the prophet marrying a prostitute and having children. And their names become important messages. His first son he names Jezreel to talk about the death, destruction, and murder that took place in the city of Jezreel.  His next child he names Lo-ruhamah, which means “not shown pity” as the people feel that the love of God has left them. And the last child, a boy is given the glorious name of Lo-ammi, “Not my people” because of the separation and rejection God felt because of his people.  Just think of what their playground experience had to be with names like that!

But Hosea, through poetic prophecy about these close familial relationships, teaches us that these names are not looking at the relationships from God’s perspective, but from our perspective.  I feel like God has left me, I feel like I am no longer part of God’s people. These names are about Israel’s unfaithfulness, not God’s undying faithfulness.

The names change, or at least the understanding of the names change.  The living sermon changes to a message of despair to a message of grace. Trouble to grace. Jezreel’s name doesn’t change, but instead of being a reference to a place of destruction, it changes to the literal meaning of that name, “God’s sows.”  God will sow God’s own self in the land so that no one will miss his bountiful love and presence. Lo-ruhamah becomes Ruhamah, because the people will come to know God’s love and grace. And finally, Lo-ammi’s name is transformed to Ammi, because God’s claim on the people as his people has not been changed, but only reaffirmed and strengthened.

Outside of talking about the psychological damage this may do to his kids, this name game makes us ask the question of why would Hosea do this, make his children into living sermons?  As we continue to read Hosea, I think we see why this is important for this prophet. Even in their rebellion and waywardness, Hosea wants to stress that the living God of Israel and Judah loves his people, loves us, more deeply than humanly love can be explained or expressed.  But the closest he can come is relating it to the love of a parent who has loved relentlessly and fiercely a child who kept running away from his or her parent’s love. Hosea gets personal with the names of his children because he wants to stress that we have a relational, personal God.

And I love how Hosea shows that love in chapter 11, a piece of scripture that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says is “among the most remarkable oracles in the entire prophetic literature.” And biblical scholar , HD Beedy said, “In Hosea 11 we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”  What Hosea has us do is pull ourselves up the kitchen table with God and a hot cup of coffee and go through the family photo album.  

How many of you have a family photo album? They are fun to look at.  Pictures of either when you were a child or pictures of your children.  Maybe there are pictures of you in your highchair with spaghetti all over the place.  Or a picture of your daughter playing with dolls. Your son on his first bike. The vacations and family gatherings.  The birthdays and holidays. Now think about what might be in God’s photo album. For the people of Israel, there had to be a picture of them crossing the Red Sea.  God shares the pictures of teaching them to walk, leading them with cord of kindness and bands of love. Can you picture the photograph that would go with these lines:  “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Wow!

What would be in God’s photo album of you? What about the church?

Sometimes we go back through the old photos because life has hit a rough spot, like maybe when a rebellious adolescent child has done something so horrible that we need a reminder of just how much we love that child.  God in this story has hit a difficult time. And God is responding to Israel’s rejection. Israel ran away from God to pursue other gods. Some of the Israelites in fact went back to Egypt–the very place from which God brought them out of slavery.  Even after God kept them alive during those years in the wilderness; it was God who gave them a beautiful land to call their own, but they mistreated it all, abused their land and its people, ultimately discarding their relationship with God. God lamented, “You want to go back to the place that nearly destroyed you?  Fine, go! I’m done this time. You are on your own from now on!”

Not too unfamiliar behavior for a parent of an unruly child.  My parent’s closest words to this were, “if you choose to go out partying with your friends, when you get arrested for doing something stupid, don’t call me until the morning.”  

But then we see God’s internal anguish and self dialogue.  It appears that God cannot even escape the pain that people can inflict on someone they love.  And there is a dramatic twist in the plot of the story, a twist that would have shocked the people who heard these words.  God’s heart recoils within God’s own being.

The word we translate “recoil” is the same word used in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to describe how God overthrew those cities.  In Hosea’s words, God overthrows God’s own heart. Instead of punishing the child, God takes the punishment upon himself. The consequences of the child’s painful actions are taken into the heart of God. 

And God’s tender compassion is rekindled. They are God’s children after all. They didn’t ask to be chosen by God. God has different eyes to see them. God holds their yesterdays in pictures no one else remembers:  waiting for them to be born, the moments of their childhood, first steps, first words, smiles and cries, and all the big thresholds of their journey–in wilderness, in the promised land. In life and in death, they belong to God as God’s children.

I share a story, not of our kids, but what may be looked at as the infancy of our time as your pastors.  It had to have been within the first month that we were here that one of the members of this church walked up to me after a Sunday worship and said, “You are this church’s last hope.” 

Well, needless to say, that freaked out this fresh out of seminary new pastor. I got over pretty quickly the weight of that statement because I realized that at some point or another, I would mess up things up.  Thank goodness you are a forgiving people! But most importantly I came to see that this church knows that its hope isn’t in the pastors, the programs, or the music played on Sunday, but our only hope is on God in Christ and in his fierce love and compassion that goes beyond our human comprehension. 

That love was made most visible when God bent low and became one of us in Jesus Christ, entering the fray of humankind. God went to the depths of anguish, like a lion roaring out from the cross, giving voice to a painful love for all humanity.

And in his resurrection, Jesus calls us to be living sermons with and for him, because we take on a new name, Children of God, lifted high in the arms of God’s grace and love as a new family.  And it is there we find we are connected to one another, our unknown neighbors, and all of creation to share that message of love, invite others into God’s family, work for justice, and glorify the One whose love we cannot escape. Because it is a love that calls us back home to God’s fierce, loving embrace. Amen.

Pinky Strength

Sermon by Keith, 10.27.19: Mark 10:42-45; 1 Kings 12:1-17

The party has ended.  If you were here last week, you will remember that David was having a huge celebration, a dance party, as he brought the ark of the covenant to the new capital of Jerusalem.  David has been made king of the twelve tribes and it appeared to be the beginning of a time of prosperity and hope for God’s people.

But a lot has happened since then. Things start falling apart quickly.  You start seeing a change when David commits his affair with Bathsheba and has her husband killed by placing him in a vulnerable spot in battle. Jealousy, greed, and selfishness in David’s household and among his descendants have led to coups, rape, murders, and rebellions. 

Royal projects and policies have placed a heavy tax burden upon the citizens to supply crops, animals, and other materials. Both King David and his son King Solomon implemented systems of forced labor. But not of everyone. They both favored certain cities and tribal affiliations, which means their tribe of Judah was let off easy.  The other tribes saw this favoritism and resented it.

Both developed strategic international alliances through marriages to the daughters of foreign rulers. Solomon built cities to store the chariots, horses, cavalry, and other goods he amassed. He made shields and goblets of gold. On a good note, he built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem and led another massive procession, with innumerable sacrifices, to transfer the ark to the inner sanctuary of the temple.  A new glorious temple where all the people could come to worship God. But then Solomon turns around and built worship sites for the gods of all his foreign wives, and “walked after” and worshiped these foreign gods.   

What happened?  Things looked so promising, so hopeful for the covenant people and their king.  Scripture says that Solomon turned away from the Lord. You could compare it to an open hand slowly getting tighter and tighter until you have an iron fist choking off the people.  He was wise and prosperous, but he used his wisdom for self gain. He used and misused people, the people God had called him to serve and guide, for his own benefit. In his power-brokering with foreign leaders, he made alliances not only with the kings and ambassadors, but also with their gods. 

The conditions for civil collapse and division started with King David. They became more amplified under Solomon, coming full steam ahead to the breaking point when Solomon’s son, Rehoboam became king and we find with today’s passage with the confrontation between him and Jeroboam.

A quick note on Jeroboam’s story.  The R-named dude is Solomon’s son. The J-named dude was actually a faithful servant of Solomon, not related to him at all and no royal lineage.  One day, while he is working, along comes a prophet who tears his clothing in 12 pieces and gives 10 of them to Jeroboam. The prophet then says that the kingdom will get split and Jeroboam will lead 10 of the tribes.  This is all that happens. Nothing in scripture says Jeroboam led a rebellion nor even bad-mouthed Solomon. But word gets to Solomon about this prophecy and he sets out to kill Jeroboam. He flees to Egypt until Solomon dies and had now returned home. And because of the prophecy and the harsh rule from Solomon, Jeroboam had a big following when he returned.

Here, Rehoboam had an opportunity to keep the nation united.  But he had learned the ways of power, or you could say misuse of power, from his father. The people let him know that if he will lighten the burden that Solomon had put on them, they would follow him. And he did what might be considered the smartest thing in the whole story: he asked for advice.

The older advisers who had served under Solomon council him that if he serves the people, they will serve him forever.  I find it interesting that these advisers are the ones who recognize that Solomon may have been a bit too harsh on his people and see the precarious situation the nation was in. It makes you wonder just how much Solomon may have actually listened to his advisers. 

But when these elders offered the advice to Rehoboam to be a servant leader, Rehoboam was too worried about being weak and losing his grip on power. So he disregarded their advice and moved on to others, the men that had seen and experienced the fun of having power with the prince as he grew up.  They tell Rehoboam what he wanted to hear: Close your grip tighter upon the people. Give them the iron fist, a fist so strong that its pinky finger is stronger than the waist or thigh of Solomon. And that iron fist, instead of holding the kingdom together, rips it apart.

The question this passage asks of us is, “How is power to be understood?”  Our culture says that how you get and use power is that you rule others with an iron fist.  That’s how Rehoboam understood power.

But as we look at Christ and his life, death, and resurrection, we as his followers ask a different question, “How is God’s power understood?”  Power takes the form of service. Power takes the form of emptying one’s self for the other. Power takes the form of sacrifice. Power takes the form of serving those more vulnerable than yourself.  It is using the resources and skills that we have in the direction of easing the burden of the oppressed and not adding to it. Power looks a lot like a cross.   

Think about the power God has, the power to create the universe.  And God used that power to become a flesh and bone human, not to be exalted on a throne, but to be lifted up a cross.  In that vulnerability, God has now lifted us up to be a new creation in relationship in him and win our salvation by the Holy Spirit.  Power, God’s power, Christian power is going like this (tight fist) to like this (open hand).

I have a friend that when he finished college, got a job at a camp for troubled youth.  Many of these kids were in this camp because they did some pretty serious bad stuff. And from day one, my friend was told that to get these kids to listen to you and respect you, you had to rule them with an iron fist.  And that is what he did. He ran his group of boys like they were in the military, constantly on their case, screaming at them for the smallest infraction, not giving them any grace.

This camp had a policy of not letting the campers know what was called “No Future Information.”  NFI’s for short. As they were out on a hike in the late afternoon and one of the campers asked “What’s for dinner?” My friend just shouted, “NO NFI!” This kid looks at my friend and said, “Dude, do you have to talk to me that way?” It kind of took my friend back and made him think about how closed off he had become to these youth because he was supposed to be strong, tough, and controlling.  Iron-fisted.

That night he had a long talk with his campers and ended up apologizing for how he had been treating them. From that day forward, even though he still ran a pretty tight ship, he never had any problems with the boys. Other counselors asked him what he did, and he told them he became vulnerable, working with the boys instead of trying to control and lord over them. This shift from being iron-fisted to vulnerable ended up having a profound effect on the entire camp and how the counselors worked with the campers.

Today is the Sunday we celebrate the reformation.  We could talk about the abuses of the church that Martin Luther was protesting when he nailed those 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and how the split that caused is similar to the split with Rehoboam and Jeroboam experienced.  But, we will save that for a Sunday school lesson sometime.

What I want to do is share a quote from Luther about the Christian life that speaks to this idea of understanding what power looks like for those who follow Christ. “A Christian,” Luther said, “is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

That’s the paradox that we live into on a daily basis. Lordship takes its expression in service. Luther’s paradoxical teaching of Christian freedom and power, following Christ, joins lord and servant into one person. By faith alone, God sets a person utterly, completely, free in Christ to share in Christ’s presence, purpose, and power.  But love binds that person as an utterly dutiful servant, subject to everyone. And it is with this love that we discover that our hands outstretched have more power than any iron fist. Amen.  

We Want to See Jesus: Sermon by Keith, 3.22.15, Lent 5B

Scripture readings: Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

We all have expectations.  Some of them good, some not so good.  You all had a pretty good idea what to expect when you came to worship this morning, and you have a general expectation on what Palm Sunday will look like next week. Everyone will get a palm to wave, and we will read what is called the Palm/Passion narrative.  So, no big surprises for next week, but we know sometimes our expectations let us down.

Most of you know that Laura has been experimenting with a special diet to find out what some of her stomach issues, which means she is trying out some different ways of cooking different foods.  Like pasta.  She is trying to avoid gluten, just to see if it might be one thing causing some of her issues.  She found this mouth watering pasta dish recipe that had all kinds of yummy stuff, including gluten free quinoa pasta.  The expectation was this was going to be fabulous, the recipe looked good.  Let’s just say, quinoa pasta just doesn’t taste as good as good old whole-wheat pasta.  Not that what she made wasn’t good, but my mouth had an expectation for what I thought it should taste like.

Besides food, we have an expectation of what it will be like to meet someone new, especially someone we have heard of before, and especially someone that we have heard good things from before.  There is an expectation of how it will go.  “Hi, my name is_____.”  “Great to meet you.  I’m Keith.”  “What do you do for a living?”  “I work over at________.  How about you?”  “Oh, I ________.” and so on and so forth.  We start with small talk, trying to get a glimpse of this person that we have been told about, going a little deeper at every turn in the conversation to find out more about this person, to see if the rumors are true, to see if they meet our expectations.

But that’s not how it worked out for these Greeks who show up while Jesus is in Jerusalem.  Now, we don’t really know much about these Greeks or really where they are from.  They could be from Greece, but the term “Greek” was sometimes used as a generic term for anyone who spoke Greek.  As that tongue was the language of commerce throughout the Roman Empire, they could be from anywhere around the Mediterranean.  But what we can deduce from this passage is that since they were called Greeks, they probably weren’t Jewish.  They were probably what was called a ‘God-fearer’ by the Jewish community.  They were Gentiles who had embraced Judaism up to a point.  They celebrated the Jewish holidays and went to synagogue services, but typically didn’t get circumcised or follow the strict dietary rules the rest of the Jews did.

So, here these God-fearers were in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  And they must have heard some of the stories about Jesus since they want to see him.  They may have heard about him turning water into wine, someone may have shared the stories with them about how this man had fed five thousand or given sight to the blind.  They may have wanted to ask Jesus about this rumor they had heard about this fellow named Lazarus being raised from the dead.  My guess is they were a little excited about what they heard about Jesus.  Because when they found out Jesus was there that day, they try to get his attention by coming in an indirect way.  They play a little game of telephone, passing the message on through the only two disciples with Greek names, Philip and Andrew.  It is hard to exactly say what the Greeks expected in this chance encounter with their request, “We wish to see Jesus.”  But I don’t think they had their expectations met.

Here is why:  Jesus doesn’t walk over to them and give them some miraculous sign or at least a hug.  He doesn’t tell them that he is the one who is fulfilling all those prophecies that they had learned about in synagogue school.  In fact, we aren’t even sure if Jesus even gives heed to these Greek’s request.   It almost seems like they drop out of the scene almost as quickly as they show up.  Their “we wish to see Jesus” is answered by Son of Man language, a parable about a grain of wheat, and serving him.  If we could see them in the scene, my guess is they would be standing off scratching their heads.  It almost seems as if Jesus is going off on some tangential trajectory.

Or is he?  I think Jesus wants to be seen, but not in the way these Greeks had planned.  For Jesus, this encounter marked a turning point where Jesus will be seen by all people who will be drawn to him when he is lifted up.  What John is very clear about is the kind of Jesus they—and we—will see if we really look.   Because upon hearing this request, Jesus immediately looks ahead to the cross.  He seems to be saying, “Don’t look to me know, but look to what is about to happen, then you will truly see me.”  The hour he speaks about, the glory he prays for, the fulfillment of his mission and destiny he anticipates – all of this revolves around his cross, his obedient embrace of sacrificial love to the point of death.

And this forces us to think about who we think we are looking for when we wish to see Jesus.  Who did you expect to encounter this morning when you came through the doors of the church this morning?  How we answer that says a lot about who we see Jesus as and our expectations of him.  But our answer also sheds light on us and the expectations as his disciples, because it is here we encounter Jesus Christ and follow out into the world.  Did you come looking for a teacher, someone who would give meaning to your life?  Was the one you seek after a comforter, a friend who would walk with you in your grieving?  Do you look for a mighty warrior who will vanquish the evil in the world?  Do you wish to see Jesus to satisfy your spiritual desires or have your spiritual gas tank filled so you could face another hectic week?

I’ll be the first to say that I think each of the gospel writers would come to a little different conclusion of who they want us to see when we look at and to Jesus and what it means to follow him.  But for John, to know who Jesus is, truly is, is to see the revelation of the good news that is made from seeing Jesus lifted up on the cross and ultimately lifted up in his resurrection.  And what it means to follow the one who is lifted up is to know what it means to be drawn more deeply into the kingdom of God through our love for, service to, and sacrifice on behalf of those around us.  Jesus comes to demonstrate God’s strength through vulnerability, God’s power through what appears weak in the eyes of the world, and God’s justice through love, mercy and forgiveness.  Jesus was lifted up for the sake of the world, and he calls those who would follow him to the very same kind of life and love.

In this encounter with the Greeks, Jesus reveals to the world God’s love and how that love is lived out and experienced.  Like the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, here Jesus teaches us that that the good news is that death must precede the new life that is found in him.  Jesus is headed for the cross and invites us to give up our own lives to follow him.  It is through the cross that we experience the new life he offers.

Is this the Jesus the Greeks want to see? Is it the Jesus we want to see? Is that the Jesus you want to see?  That is the question you need to ask yourself during this week of Lent.  I do know that the Jesus who reveals the heart of our loving God by going to the cross is the Jesus John wants us to see, encounter, and expect to experience in our lives.  The Jesus who is raised again on the third day to demonstrate that love is more powerful than hate and life more powerful than death is the Jesus we are called to follow and serve. This is the one, in the end, who has promised to draw all of us to him.  Amen.