Thursday, November 30, 2023

Advent One: Come On Down!

 


Isaiah 64:1-9
64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

64:4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.

64:5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

64:7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

64:8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. 

 

When I was a kid, being “sick” often meant a “day off” from school, and a full day in front of the pumpkin-shaped screen of our “first in the neighborhood” color TV that was just slightly smaller than the U.S.S. Nimitz. Most of the time, my sickness was a bout of asthma, something I lived with until mostly outgrowing it in later years. My registered nurse Mom would allow me to stay home when it kicked up a bit, especially if it was a “gym day,” as only a doctor’s excuse would get you out of that horror. (For us bookworms and science project freaks, gym was a sentence, not an opportunity.) Plopped and propped in front of the RCA Great Pumpkin, my program of choice were the gameshows, “Let’s Make a Deal,” with Monty Hall, and “The Price Is Right,” with Bill Cullen. Both of these show names would make good sermons, wouldn’t they? “Let’s Make a Deal” could be an exploration of the weird, custom-made theologies propagated by a host of TV evangelists, which have, in turn, spurred an even larger palette of personalized theologies adopted by self-centered, “I did it MY way” Americans. OR, it could be God, saying to humanity, “This isn’t working—let’s try a whole new deal.” “The Price is Right” could be an exposition of the sacrifice of Christ meant to free humanity from both the curse of sin, AND its stigma. OR, it could be a stewardship sermon? If you decide to preach one of these, or if you hear one from YOUR preacher, you’re welcome.

 

Where was I going with that rabbit trail? Oh yeah, when “The Price Is Right” was revamped in 1972, announcer Johnny Olsen began shouting the phrase, “Come on down!” when he invited contestants to the front of the stage to “compete.” I thought of that famous catch-phrase when I read this week’s Advent One passage from Trito-Isaiah: “ O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” 

 

The seminary word, incarnation, describes the “Word became flesh and tented among us” doctrine of the Christian faith. Our belief that God became human and “lived” among humans is not unusual among religious myths. That God—the incarnate Son of God—“emptied himself” of the “privileges” of being divine and came among humans, yet maintained both his divinity AND took on the full human experience, is. This understanding of Jesus has caused him to be labeled a “star-child” by some, an “adopted” son, by others. In true Christian apologetic parlance, Jesus as “fully God” and “fully Man” (called the Extra-Calvinisticum in Reformed theology) is a belief that cannot be proved, but is an essential tenet of the faith. While there are some conservatives who overly emphasize the “divinity” of Jesus, and liberals who do the same with his humanity, the idea of Christ as embracing both “worlds” is at the center of our faith. In short, God DID come down, but not after tearing open the heavens and coming in the spirit of judge and jury against the evils and power politics of the prevailing human race in the first century. Many were not happy with a grace-offering, forgiving Savior. There are those who believe that Judas did what Judas did because he believed Jesus was the Son of God, and his little thirty-pieces-of-silver schtick would force Jesus’ hand to THEN “tear open the heavens” to judge the Roman and religious powerbrokers who were making Christians—and many Jews--dead, or at least miserable. Judas was possibly the first contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal.” Certainly, for him, the price was right.

 

First century Christians could not comprehend the historical breadth of the message of redemption and reconciliation Jesus brought, along with his human “emptiness.” You are reading this sermon today because of the eternal as well as ongoing consequences of this mission, articulated and launched by the incarnate Son of God. First century folk wanted a vindictive, liberating powerbroker in their corner, for a change. When Jesus proved to be a child-embracing, slinky slider away from controversy, “lamb of God,” they were disillusioned, at best. Only those who flocked to his magic and miracle healings were fans, for the large part. The disenchanted joined the mobs later calling for his crucifixion. 

 

The prophet Third Isaiah wanted to see Israel restored after the exile, and wanted those who had persecuted and cast them forth from their homeland, vanquished. We can certainly understand this, in light of their rugged and pogrom-filled past, and even in light of modern manifestations like the Holocaust, or even the most recent terroristic assault at the hands of Hamas. (I’ll not wade into the political controversies over current events in Palestine, but to negatively paraphrase a former President whom I DON’T admire, “There are BAD people on both sides.”) We can hardly blame them. But the Prophet does, in this passage. In spite of the injustices visited against them, their own sins were still what got them banished, and Third Isaiah seems to be pleading to God on their behalf. God forgave; Israel returned to Zion. Again, and again, and again, on all counts. Are we any different, in our own spiritual exiles?

 

And are we any different in wanting vengeance, first, against those whom we feel are “persecuting” us? Instead of modeling the grace-granting Savior, WAY too many modern Christians LOVE to talk about his “second coming,” believing that this time it’s “no more Mr. Nice Guy.” Where do we get this idea that we will be on the horses riding behind Jesus when he DOES return? And we will get to watch the “Judgment Seat” scene as spectators, rather than with the accused? Thankfully, this is all a tale of apocalyptic literature, and probably not as accurate a picture of what will unfold as what Isaiah foretold in his day. Why are we so sure, as Christians, of our own “blamelessness” and innocence in the injustices and “sin” of our day? And why do we feel we have a “right” to promote a street rumble with Jesus against our “enemies”? Maybe it’s time to pull out that old chestnut, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”? Or WE. 

 

Advent is a time to turn over a new leaf in the church—the “New Year” of the church year. It is a time of looking forward to the “end of the age,” but not because it will bring the street fight, but the “lion lying down with the lamb.” As Isaiah mellows his desire for the heavens to be torn open and God to “Come On Down!” to fix things, so Advent invokes what should be our joy in welcoming back Jesus, but as the Prince of Peace, not the Marvel Avenger. Isaiah invokes the “God is the potter, we are the clay” allegory as a way of reminding Israel that God is the ultimate agenda setter, albeit one who has given humanity the freedom of will to follow God’s lead OR to chart our own path, which may lead us to vindictiveness rather than valor in victory over hate. Potters don’t force the clay, or they never get the vessel to form. Clay that resists the sensitive, guiding hands of the potter must eventually be discarded in favor of softer clay. Isaiah knew this, Israel has learned it over and over again, down through the ages, and the “new” Christian church seems to be ignoring the lesson, especially when we believe “Jesus is coming” is a rallying cry for a “final solution” to our personal suffering, rather than a balm to save and salve all of humanity. 

 

“Come on down!” is not an invitation for Christ to do OUR bidding, this time. We should be just as fearful of his “second coming” as Herod was his first. Jesus is out to set things right—to give “the clay” another chance to right injustices and sue for peace. Advent One is when we light a candle for HOPE, not a fire to “burn it all down,” friends. It’s not a time for “Let’s Make a Deal” with God, either. God has given us all the ultimate “deal”—redemption from sin and reconciliation with Godself, ourselves, others, and all of creation. “Come on down!” Amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Fat Sheep...

 



Fat Sheep

 

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
34:11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.
34:12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
34:13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land.
34:14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
34:15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.
34:16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
34:20 Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.
34:21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide,
34:22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep
34:23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
34:24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.

 

It's Thanksgiving weekend, so it seems so unfair to be talking about “fat sheep.” Even though it would be a tough sell after we’ve all just chowed down on tons of food as a sign of our “gratitude” for the year’s bounty and blessings, “Fat Sheep” would certainly is both an attention-getting title for a sermon, AND a humorous one, isn’t it? Of course, the prophet is invoking both the classic, biblical image of God’s people as “sheep” to God’s “Good Shepherd,” as well as the “fat sheep” being stingy, overly bullying, and hardest on the “needy” sheep. This latter image is one our culture needs to hear. Fact is, we prey on the ”needy sheep,” when we, in our desire to “protect and preserve” our personal rights and wealth, lobby for, vote for, and approve of legislation and laws in OUR favor, even if it means that the “needy sheep” will grow even more needy. While it’s laudable that more churches and/or religious communities are preparing and hosting Thanksgiving meals for the “needy” each year, I wonder how many of these are so successful, not just because there ARE needy people in our communities, but because volunteers come forth who may—and I say MAY—be motivated by guilt, bred and nurtured by their own largess? Several of the churches I served birthed these Thanksgiving meals for the needy, and we all felt “good” about the throngs of folk who would come. We usually invited ALL who wished to come, so the truly “needy” wouldn’t feel like they were being singled out, and we encouraged church folk who came to intentionally sit with our more needy guests. That said, after the meal was over, and the kitchen was cleaned up, most of us went home to our own lavish feast, and “felt better” because of the “good” we had done earlier in the day. 

 

There is often a fine line between the blessings we acknowledge we receive from God—and for which we are thankful—and our support of systems that may enhance those blessings by denying them, in some way, to those with less status or political power. Much of this is motivated not just by selfishness, but by the belief that economic provision—and prosperity—is like a “pie,” or what logisticians call a “zero-sum game.” Zero-sum games begin with the premise that rewards (financial, or otherwise) are finite and limited. Therefore, the “winners” will get more, while the “losers” must necessarily receive less. From a logistical perspective, no society HAS to structure things like a pie (a zero-sum game). Prosperity increases as productivity increases, and as the “market” grows, in reality, but when we structure it as a zero-sum game, we wind up with “fat sheep” and “lean sheep” (read SKINNY, mal-nourished sheep). We have precisely done this in America. In fact, as I write this sermon “early” this week of Thanksgiving since we are traveling, I read a well-resourced OP-ED piece by Guido Alfani in the New York Times wherein he posits that “the rich” have now abdicated their historic “support” of society—what they once might have labeled “charity.” He states:

 

Today’s rich, their wealth largely preserved through the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, have opposed reforms aimed at tapping their resources to fund mitigation policies of all kinds.

 

And:

 

This is troubling, because the rich have stopped fulfilling the social role that has been their own for many centuries, making their position in society somewhat unclear.

 

While Alfani’s piece goes into much more detail and offers economic and statistical facts to support his assertion, in a nutshell, he suggests that the “fat sheep” are quite content to keep “grazing” in the lush fields, expanding their economic waistlines, all the while thumbing their noses at the “lean sheep” that are not faring well. Government—that once protected and helped provide for the “lean sheep”—has moved away from “safety net” policies, in response to the lobbying and influence of the increasingly entrenched systems of the “fat sheep.” Come Thanksgiving day, the “fat sheep” now need accountants and lawyers to help them “count their blessings,” while the “lean sheep” are left to be thankful that they have not yet been evicted because their rent or mortgage payments are behind. 

 

Whether you agree with what Alfani asserts, the fact is, wealth inequality in the United States is at its widest disparity in history, and is growing at an alarming rate. Another recent article I read in the Washington Post analyzed the effects of the generous tax cuts passed by past administrations, finding that the wealthy almost exclusively saved or stashed away the resulting windfall, rather than investing it in production or commerce. Hence, there has been no significant (or even measurable) “trickle down” to the middle or low-income classes. In short, the tax cuts meant the “rich got richer” and the “poor got poorer.” The “fat sheep” won out, again.” 

 

This is what the prophet Ezekiel is addressing with his message. We would do well to mirror his concern in a season wherein we both celebrate our blessings AND follow the lead of what God kept trying to tell Israel: “I will BLESS YOU, that YOU may, in turn, BLESS OTHERS.” “Fat Sheep” ARE to be “their brother’s keeper,” as should be the duly elected government “of and by the people.” Israel was told by God that as God’s people, they should not abide an economy that produced “lean sheep.” 

If you engage in a healthy debate with any “fat sheep,” you will hear things like: “Charity is what the CHURCH should be doing. That’s what THEY’RE for.” Of course, the church (AND the synagogue, AND the mosque) engage in helping out the “lean sheep,” but as I always point out, the idea that religious bodies should be “the ones” to take care of feeding, clothing, and sheltering the “lean sheep,” exclusively, is patently ridiculous.

 

Why? Because if you took EVERY dime given by religious people to EVERY offering plate or EVERY church/synagogue/mosque in America—EVERY dime—we could barely cover the SNAP (food stamp) program! It’s what we call “economies of scale.” Religious bodies are a small fraction of the economy, and cannot be expected to “foot the bill” for meeting all of the needs of those in need. Fair taxation and prudent division of the government budget could more than take care of the “basic” needs of those who find themselves in need of a boost. 

 

Of course, there are other studies that factually dismantle the SECOND assertion of our “fat sheep,” namely that folk who need this “boost” are inherently “lazy,” or “just want a handout.” Time and time again, it has been shown by sociologists that 99 percent of able-bodied persons WANT to work, if they can earn a fair wage, and WANT to be self-sufficient, just like everybody else. They, too, would like to be able to pursue the “American dream,” but were either unfortunate to be born into the “lean sheep” side of the tracks, or have fallen prey to some unexpected hardship that put them in a precarious financial position.

 

People of faith—especially those who read the Bible—are commanded to “welcome the immigrant,” to “feed the poor,” and restructure life so there may no longer be “lean sheep” without a path to survivability and even prosperity. Argue all you want about the virtues of “capitalism,” or about economic policy, but Christian people have no excuse for supporting that which allows for so many “lean sheep” in our societal midst. 

 

As I reminded us earlier, God told Israel that God blessed them that they might BE a blessing to the rest of the world, including the sojourner, the stranger, the immigrant. God will expect nothing less from the Body of Christ. I’m sure you have heard it before, that we in America who have been blessed with decent employment, a steady and usually fairly lucrative career, a prosperous family, and a plan for retirement, are among the “fat sheep” Ezekiel is speaking to in this prophecy. Unless we open our hearts, heads, and lives to ways WE can bless others because WE have been blessed, we will be on the outside of this prophecy—and the will of God—looking in. This Thanksgiving, as you counted your blessings and gave thanks to God, I pray you also opened your “ears to hear” a few new ways that—post-Thanksgiving—you may bless others. It may be giving of your resources (time, talents, treasures) to people or service organizations in need, or it may be THINKING of the “least, the last, the lost” (“lean sheep”) the next time you go to the voting booth. We “fat sheep” who are guilty of voting only for OUR best interests, and to preserve OUR rights, will be found guilty of more serious infractions by the God who sent Ezekiel with a message. Amen.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Talent Show...

 


Talent Show…

 

Matthew 25:14-30
25:14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;
25:15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away
25:16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.
25:17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.
25:18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
25:19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.
25:20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.
25:21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
25:22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’
25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
25:24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;
25:25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
25:26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?
25:27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.
25:28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.
25:29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

 

The ”Parable of the Talents” may be one of the best known parables in the Bible, outside of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. In its surface, it seems relatively easy to interpret. Two guys use their financial/entrepreneurial gifts to parlay the master’s money into bigger gains, while the third—who lives in fear of the master—buries his “talent” in the ground, so it will not be stolen. It’s easy to use this as a kind of “clobber” parable, highlighting the two who invest the money to make MORE money for the master, while denigrating the fearful one who just seems to be trying to stay out of trouble with him. But we may not have it right with this interpretation.

 

The FIRST thing the commentators tell us is that this is NOT a parable about entrepreneurial proficiency! It’s one of Matthew’s “kingdom” parables, and offers a few lessons about how God’s people use their gifts in service to God’s kingdom. It’s a very hard paragraph to allegorize, as some have written, in that the Master is described as a “harsh man,” and gets angry at the infamous “third servant” who buries the talent, as he could have at least “invested it with the bankers” to earn interest. If we try to allegorize the parable as the “kingdom of God,” the Master doesn’t work as an analogue for God, in that he is “harsh” and his suggestion of “earning interest” was against Jewish rules. If the Master is God, God doesn’t come off well, at all. We should resist the temptation to fully allegorize this.

 

That said, it STILL is a good story about how the servants are each entrusted an amount of wealth, “each according to his ability.” There is nothing WRONG with the idea that some people have abilities that are “endorsed” more by society than others. We ALL are gifted, and ALL of our gifts are needed in the church and in the world. That some do better with large sums of money than others is not a sinful thing, nor is it a sign of inequity. Since this parable is using money as its subject, it stands to reason that the “Master” doles out his wealth according to the demonstrated ability of his servants to handle it. Actually, the story DOES suggest some “risk-taking” by the Master, in that he gave a full “talent” (which was a huge amount of money in that day) to the untested servant. He doesn’t do well with it, but at least the Master took a chance. God does that with us, when our gifts may be either underdeveloped or underutilized.

 

Here's a modern parable that I think kind of parallels this. During my first year in seminary, I served as a student assistant pastor in a large Presbyterian church that had excellent pastoral and staff leadership, and was growing in leaps and bounds. The senior pastor was a real mentor to me, believe me. That church had an annual and HUGELY popular Strawberry Festival to raise a considerable amount of money for missions. The long-time volunteer coordinator of the festival had recently “retired,” and a “young mom” stepped up to volunteer. On Wednesdays after class, I would go to the church to lead the junior high youth group in the evenings, but first I met for an hour or so with the senior pastor. On this particular Wednesday, he informed me that the young mom was coming in to start to go over plans. The senior pastor showed me a 20 or 30 page “instruction manual” as to the steps necessary for a successful Strawberry Festival. (This festival was essential to the church’s mission budget, and HAD to be successful!) As the senior pastor was walking me through this “manual” he had typed up, I kept thinking that it might be over-bearing for this new volunteer coordinator to have such a daunting thing “dropped” on her, but he was the senior pastor. He tucked the manual into the side drawer of his desk, and the young mom joined us in his office. After introductions, we all sat down. After a prayer together, the senior pastor asked her how her planning for the event was coming along? (I kept thinking of the manual in the drawer.) The young mom opened a large, three-ring binder she brought with her, and began to go, systematically, through her thorough, and in some ways quite innovative arrangements she and “her committee” had been planning. The senior pastor asked an occasional question, but at the conclusion of her presentation, thanked her for her great work and closed our meeting with prayer. Then, he turned to me and said, 

 

“Do you see what we did there? Had our new coordinator come in and seemed like she was just spinning her wheels, I would have pulled one page of that manual out of the drawer and handed it to her. We would go over it together, and if she was still looking stumped, I would have pulled out the second page. My guess is that we wouldn’t have gotten much beyond the third page before the lights would have gone on for her. She never would have seen the rest of the pages, unless she specifically asked for more help. However, she was obviously well organized, and even had some wonderful, new ideas, so all that was left to do was send her forth with a blessing!” 

 

I never forgot this lesson. In the parable from Matthew, we can affirm EVERY gift of our people, with the caveat that God wants us to USE our gifts and not hide them or bury them in the sand. Only the servant who did so was criticized. And while not all of our gifts are needed in the church, rest assured they ARE needed somewhere in the community. I have stated several times that one of the most disappointing things I have witnessed in my many years in ministry was the conflict and even chaotic disruption often occurring in families over an inheritance, and most typically a small one! However, the SECOND most disappointing thing I have witnessed has been the personal denigrating and discounting of one’s spiritual gifts by folk in the pews. This was most evident when church leadership intentionally tried to offer various classes and “tests” to help members ascertain WHAT their spirituals gifts were, and then sought to use these often latent gifts to choose candidates in the annual “nominations” process. We so often heard, “Oh no, I could never do that—I don’t have any experience.” It’s amazing how many folk have a low opinion of their gifts and abilities, even when they are identified. And as to experience, why not “begin” by serving God and your church with your gifts? On the plus-side of this story, I have actually had a few church members who DID this, and began to develop their gifts so fruitfully that they even found employment in the secular community, thanks to their new-found talents! And a few others expanded their sphere of discipleship activities to District or Conference level positions, as they grew to be “noted experts” in their field of church service.

 

It's important to note that some folk pooh-pooh their own gifts because of negative experiences in the past, when they tried to utilize their giftedness. Comments from overly-critical parishioners (maybe even PASTORS, in some cases?) or spouses have the power to suppress motivation! Some develop the “third servant” syndrome with “help” from others, who even provide the shovel and the dirt. 

 

So let’s recap. The parable is mostly trying to tell us that ALL of us have been gifted with “talents” by God, who best knows us and knows what our personalities, history, and desires best suit us for in the gifts market. No matter which “servant” we are in the story, we have an important gift, and are challenged to take the necessary “risks” to use it (or them) to the fullest, NOT “burying” them by letting them sit idle on the shelves of our life inventory. Taking the parable in this manner, we receive a positive, motivating “push” to get to work with what we have as our tools. Note Matthew’s version of the parable ends with one very positive verse—that those who USE their gifts and MULTIPLY their usefulness in ministry will be given even more tools, wisdom, and opportunity to advance the kingdom, bless their faith community, and glorify “the master,” GOD. Then, Matthew does his famous “false dichotomy” thing and suggests that those who “bury” their talent(s) will be subject to “the outer darkness.” I see little inspiration, let alone motivation, in this indictment, which is most certainly tied to the author’s anger and disappointment in his fellow Jews.

 

As for us, let’s leave the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” alone. If you do what you do only because you fear retribution, what you do will have little love beneath its wings, and its only “reward” will be relief that the lights are still on and you aren’t grinding your jaw. As one of my mentors would say, your view of the nature of God will color your spiritual journey. If your God is one who threatens the “outer darkness,” you will run from that, but not necessarily toward any light, and you most certainly will struggle with receiving any love from that God. Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

A Hairy Challenge...

 


A Hairy Challenge…

 

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
24:1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.
24:2 And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors--Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor--lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.
24:3a Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
24:14 "Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.
24:15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
24:16 Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods;
24:17 for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed;
24:18 and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."
24:19 But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.
24:20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good."
24:21 And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the LORD!"
24:22 Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses."
24:23 He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel."
24:24 The people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey."
24:25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

 

Foreign gods. What a pain in the backside. My gallon of milk and I hate lining up behind those who worship foreign gods (buying lottery tickets) at the convenience store. Whose convenience? Or how about those voters who make a beeline to the polling places to vote to assure that THEIR rights and THEIR property are protected by candidates who promise to do so? After all, higher taxes to benefit poor people and to educate kids from “the other side of the tracks” is NOT something they cotton to. Foreign gods. Or how about showing up at the school board meeting to side with parents wanting to ban “sexual” books, or books that DARE accuse THEM of racism? There they go, dragging out the foreign gods again. “I want what I want when I want it…”—foreign gods. Unregulated, free-market capitalism? Foreign gods to true believers, who believe in justice, equity, and equal opportunity. 

 

OK, I’m being tough on some of the “hot button” American issues, but when will we hold some of them up against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who said “let the children come unto me,” and “as much as you have done it unto the least of these…”? If one wants to argue for “biblical authority,” one must hold to the authority of the obvious and foundational statements of Jesus, such as these. 

 

Put away your gods! Joshua is saying this, but this preacher agrees. We are so GOOD at creating our own gods, and when that comes up short—which it always does—we begin to form God in our own image. Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century anthropologist and philosopher, was famous for saying that most of humanity’s view of God is that God is just themselves, writ large. BOY, was HE right! The Jesus of the Gospels was never the doctrinal purist, the dogmatic preacher, or the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” messenger that so many in the modern church try to make him out to be. This view of Jesus Christ is truly a false god. Why do we do this? Because it is much more convenient and comforting to understand God in a way that we’d be happy inviting him over for an evening of Trivial Pursuit, or a beer. We like to think that God thinks like we think, partly because we are largely uncomfortable with PEOPLE who don’t, and therefore a deity who doesn’t. SO, as Feuerbach said, we just remold God to look more like a god we’d be happy with.

 

The view of God that we get from the scriptural witness MUST be seen as at least partly distorted by this human tendency to shape God. Regardless of how “inspired” the scriptures are, the human storytellers, writers, and redactors are part of the narrative. Still, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we can see a decent “picture” of God emerge, and we get the best picture from Jesus, who said, “If you’ve seen ME, you’ve seen the Father.” However, Jesus was not a popular “image” of God in his day, hence his succumbing to capital punishment. Paul and the Gospel writers “shaped” him, too, to allow for their views and prejudices, but again, the truth slips through, and it is mostly to be found where Jesus “breaks” or negates the popular stereotypes we have of God. Loving neighbor wasn’t a radical idea, but loving one’s enemy WAS. Favoring and leaning into the poor and disenfranchised, including accepting them as equals, was NOT a thing; at best, they were treated as “charity cases” by religious folk and leaders. Jesus hung out with them, accepted them, and even endorsed them. Jesus was inclusive; religious rules he rebuffed were exclusive. Lines in the sand, walls separating people, and doctrines that had to be swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, or you were an outcast, were NOT on the agenda of the Savior! 

 

In the Hebrew Bible, we see this “clearer view” of God break through the “history-written-by-the-winners” narrative, in the persons and messages of the prophets. They were generally not welcome, when they showed up, because their message reminded people of the REAL God, and God’s expectations of them, namely that they love one another, welcome the stranger, and strive for a just community of faith and life. After all, they were human, and we humans live on a continuum, of sorts, between our OWN interests, the needs and interests of OTHERS, and ultimately, at the other end, the interests of the Divine. In justifying where they locate themselves on this continuum, some have brought the ends together to form a circle, which brings their OWN interests right next to GOD’s interests. And “the other” is then clear across the circle, “opposed” to those of mine and God’s. The prophets were circle-busters. The truth of God (and Jesus, of course) are also circle-busters. The only circle they endorsed were ones that were drawn to encircle and INCLUDE all of God’s children. 

 

When Joshua says, “CHOOSE this day whom you will serve,” he’s drawing HIS line in the sand. To serve the God of Israel, means obeying the “whole counsel” of the Word of God, not just the parts that support our views. “Choose this day” means not hedging one’s bets until something better comes along. Lines in the sand of THIS sort are pretty unforgiving, and have no patience with dilly-dallying. CHOOSE THIS DAY.

 

The modern Christian disciple would do well to take a regular inventory of the “other gods” we have lined up on our mantle, and to challenge ourselves with Joshua’s words: “Choose this day whom you will serve…” The good news is that this introspection is not hard to DO; the bad news is that it is hard to yield to and to live with. Personally? Not a week goes by that I don’t make a few gods to justify my desires and whims. But because I am part of a worshiping community, and live with a faithful, God-fearing partner, my gods and I don’t last a week, unchallenged. 

 

This reminds me of a humorous story from the days of the old, black-and-white “Dick Van Dyke Show.” If you’re old enough to remember, you will recall that Van Dyke plays Rob Petrie, a TV show writer, who works for mythical TV variety show host, Alan Brady, played expertly by Carl Reiner. When Rob’s wife, Laura (played by Mary Tyler Moore) “exposes” the fact that Alan Brady wears a toupee. In an hilarious scene, Laura goes to Alan’s office to apologize and plead for her husband’s job. As she enters the office, there sits Alan Brady with an assortment of “head” manikins on the desk in front of him, each sporting one of his designer toupees, while Alan sits behind the desk unadorned. As she enters, he says to the manikins, “Well, fellows, here’s the blabbermouth who put YOU out of business!” The scene is one of the best ever on TV!

 

I have “discussions” like this with my designer gods, every time the Holy Spirit, my pastor, or my wife (pretty much synonymous) “blabs” that I am trusting in them. How about you? What does your “god” inventory turn up? And what will it mean for you to honestly reckon with them? How will this alter your faith? Your life? There’s your “homework” assignment for this week!

 

OK, another “hair” story. Years ago, as kids, we used to love to watch portly WJET-TV anchorman, Bob Sutherland, do the news. He was very large, gave the news kind of hunched over the news desk, and wore a terrible toupee. One night, as he read the news, a studio ventilating fan blew the toupee off the back of his head, and in front of his face. He grabbed it off his head, exclaiming with his gruff and somewhat-raspy voice, “Well, we don’t need THAT, anymore!” I don’t think he ever appeared with it again. 

Whether you have a humorous “chat” with your collected false gods, or dispatch with them as abruptly as did Mr. Sutherland, you (and all of us) are challenged by the words of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you will serve!”

 

Just remember, to answer as did Joshua—“as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”—probably means making some serious changes, even if you ARE already a committed disciple. And like those toupees, “removing” our “foreign” gods will leave us bald before the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus! Amen.

 

 

Friday, November 3, 2023

Wet Feet...

 


Wet Feet…

 

Joshua 3:7-17
3:7 The LORD said to Joshua, "This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.
3:8 You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, 'When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'"
3:9 Joshua then said to the Israelites, "Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God."
3:10 Joshua said, "By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites:
3:11 the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan.
3:12 So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.
3:13 When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap."
3:14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people.
3:15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water,
3:16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho.
3:17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

 

Watch out for those Girgashites! Sounds like a great rallying cry, to me! Who were they? (Or who were ANY of the seven groups Israel expected God to “drive out from before” them, for that matter?) From what we can deduct from the Bible, the Girgashites were the fifth ethnic group out of Canaan. Does that help? Of course not. How about this—on a really whacked-out website from a fundamental Bible college, I read that the “Girgashites” is a name the author gives to one of the “seven evil spirits” that may inflict themselves upon us. And they were real NASTY ones, too! “Earthy,” fixed on things of this earth, and “analytical.” Sure sounds evil to me! Unless you are a farmer or an accountant. Where do people GET these ideas? And who is gullible enough to buy them? There must be a bunch out there, as a whole Bible college full of them exists!

 

Speaking of coming back to Planet Earth…we don’t fare much better when we read in other Bible texts that God’s people are “commanded” to totally wipe out these seven groups. The world in 2023 is dealing right now with a war between Hamas and the nation of Israel, with both sides pledged to wipe out the other. Who said the Bible was outdated? It’s the Girgashites who had better watch out! God is going to “drive you out,” but since God doesn’t have a driver’s license, God will just ask Israel to “drive Ms. Daisy” so Israel may “inherit” the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Remember, history is written by the winners. I wonder what we would hear from the Girgashites? We can imagine an interview with Fred the Girgashite:

 

Interviewer: We’re here today with Fred the Girgashite, who just had his family wiped out by an army of Israelites. He lost his land and his animals, too. Fred, what happened?

 

Fred: Well, I was minding my own business, doing some farming and tending to my animals, when this band of marauders rode through. They burned down my house, murdered my family, killed many of my animals—maybe took a few—and stormed off.

 

Interviewer: How did you survive, Fred?

 

Fred: Well, I jumped into a watering trench, and one of my cows that was killed by the invaders fell over top of me. 

 

Interviewer: Did you have any warning of this attack, Fred?

 

Fred: No, not at all. The ones who attacked us said they were doing God’s bidding, though. I don’t get that? My people have been on this land for hundreds of years. I can’t speak for “God,” but if this was THEIR land, maybe God might have said something to us back when we settled here then? Why would any God want to give people permission to pillage and plunder our land?

 

Interviewer: What will you do now, Fred?

 

Fred: Well, I’ll have to find some inconspicuous spot to bury my family, and then I’ll move on and look for new land, as this Israel bunch is now going to settle here, I guess. I don’t understand why they just didn’t ask us if they could share the land? We might have been able to work something out.

 

Sorry for the little drama, but I’m still puzzled, as was our mythical friend, Fred. Did God really encourage Israel to just TAKE the land they would call “the Promised Land”? Again, remember that history is written by the winners—even Bible history. Enough of my moralizing; we just have to push past what seems like a tremendous injustice perpetrated by “God’s people,” and hope that God would never really use them as God’s hand to “drive out” (pillage, plunder, and slaughter) OTHER people whom God created and loved, too.

 

So, pushing past…Let’s see if we can extract a more positive message from this lectionary passage from Joshua, today.

 

We begin with an Indiana Jones moment. The Ark of the Covenant is involved. Is it a “radio transmitter for talking to God,” or is it a religious talisman symbolizing God’s presence among God’s people? I’ll vote for the latter. Does Jesus become the “Ark of the New Covenant” in the New Testament? An interesting question! Think about the parallels: you touch him, power goes out, as the woman with the issue of blood found out; he has much power over water, as the disciples in the boat during the storm on the Sea of Galilee found out; and he doesn’t destroy the law of God, but “fulfills it” (contains it?), like the Ark does the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Go a little further: what was in the Ark along with the tablets? Manna—the “bread of life” for Israel in the wilderness. Jesus proclaimed himself the “Bread of Life” in the New Testament. Coincidence? I think not!

 

In this passage from Joshua, when the feet of the priests bearing the Ark touch the Jordan, its waters “pile up,” allowing Israel to cross. This is a popular Bible magic trick, and one that Jesus parlays in the New Testament, both by walking on the water and then by calming the storm. He also does the thing with the fish in the nets and the tax payment in the mouth of a carp, but that is for another sermon and another day.

 

There are a lot of things that happen in the Bible at what we might brand as “the last moment,” meaning just before they NEEDED to happen, such as this priests getting their feet wet so that the waters would part. What is that all about? Is God a lousy planner, conjuring up the remedy at the very last moment? I know my wife would NOT be happy with this “last minute” stuff; she likes to have lots of notice and lists full of steps before we head out the door on a journey of any kind! Is this an act of faith, the priests dipping their toesies in the Jordan. Probably.

 

Imagine the scene: millions of Israelites on their way to the “Promised Land,” sleeping in their tents along the Jordan. Joshua sends word that they are to leave their tents, pack stuff up, and get ready to cross the Jordan. They are all lined up, but wondering how wet everything will get, and just how deep the river is this time of year (answer: very, and it was flooding, to boot). The priests carrying the “charged” Ark of the Covenant (I say charged, because we know what happens when the wrong people touch it, even by accident) move toward the water, while all of the folk are watching. The priests know what “power” is somehow “contained” in the Ark, and now they are going to step into the water. While electricity wouldn’t be “tamed” until Ben Franklin came along, these guys must have been at least a LITTLE ambivalent about stepping into the muddy, flood waters of the Jordan with this giant “Aladdin’s Lamp” on their shoulders. But step they do, as like all good priests, pastors and rabbis, they trust God. Besides, it’s what they get paid the “big bucks” for, isn’t it? The waters part, Israel again walks across a body of water on dry ground, blah, blah, blah…

 

So, what’s in this for us? We have bridges, ferries, and boats to get across large bodies of water, in our day. Theatrics are not a requirement for portaging. But maybe we DO have to “get our feet wet.” God seems preoccupied with which directions our steps take us: step forward in the direction of what God is leading us to do, and things may happen to create new, dry, and lighted paths for our journeys; step back in fear, hoping for some “advance” trick to prove God is preparing the way, and nothing happens. Time to again pitch our tents on the wrong side of the river and hope God figures something ELSE out. We have tons of churches with such encampments, and only a handful that got their feet wet on faith. 

 

I know, there will be some who will try to say that the disaffiliating churches were the “faithful” ones with wet socks, and the others are the “stay behinds,” but I would argue quite the opposite. Which of the two were looking to do a new thing? Where the disaffiliating churches “went” is old ground. In fact, they were quite proud to label themselves “traditionalists.” The real soggy socks crowd are those people and churches willing to step out on faith and open the doors of our churches to people heretofore shunned or locked out. Which of the two parties actually had a vision of the future of the church? 

 

OK, I’ll get down off my disaffiliation horse…what does the “wet feet” thing mean for the individual Christian disciple? Stock answer: we must be willing to “step out on faith,” get our “feet wet,” and trust God. These are not bad things, at all. In fact, they pretty much come with the territory, at least the territory inhabited by Yahweh. But is there more to the “get your feet wet” story? Maybe.

 

Poor people often have wet feet because they spend a lot of time in unsheltered spaces, their shoes or boots leak, and they rarely have the luxury of settling in a place they can call their own. Our wet feet may help us literally find some common ground with them, and that may be a necessary first step in helping them find dry ground on which to cross into a better place. I buy my socks from the people at Bombas. They make a good, warm sock, and with each pair I buy, they donate a pair of socks to someone in need. In my fantasy, these donated socks are going to someone with wet, cold, feet who will be greatly comforted—and maybe even empowered—by having a new, dry pair of socks to put on. It’s a start. Of course, I can’t vouch for their being much truth to my fantasy, but I at least am comforted by the fact that Bombas donates socks, and that won’t happen if I get mine at the Walmart.

 

Refugees fleeing dangerous and/or tapped out countries often arrive in a new land with wet feet. They are people who most often truly “step out on faith” that they can find a new land for themselves and their families, aren’t they? The greatest threat to a potential new future for them are the “dry sock” folk on the other side of the border who see them as a threat. I’m not saying that all objections to “open borders” may not have some merit, but the politicly-charged opposition to immigration and receiving refugees in our nation is not only anti-Gospel, it is unsustainable. If “dry sock” people only had ANY IDEA what life would cost them if they were ever successful at closing our Southern border like they want to, they would freak out! Where I live, almost 100% of the landscapers, roofers, and “handymen” are persons of brown skin who speak Spanish. And I’m in Yankee territory! Down South, the farmers and ranchers who grow our food and textile crops would just fail without such laborers, and many (if not most?) of them are “illegals” in the parlance of the “dry sock” folk, or “undocumented” in the vernacular of the Bombas folk. Either way, we need them. They and their wet feet stepped out on faith and now we have the “laborers in the vineyard” we need. Get them some dry socks and help them find a “promised land” of their own. Joshua would be happy with you.

 

I remember when I would start to get my kids ready to bed at night, and we took off their shoes, how many times they had wet feet. I don’t know why, but I guess when kids play hard, either they find puddles to romp in, or their feet sweat like crazy. I would rub those little, wet feet, and put on some dry socks before I tucked them into a warm bed. Again, our “wet feet” may keep us in solidarity with the “little ones” of the world, whom Jesus commanded be freed to “come unto me.” Children are of utmost importance to God, and people of faith are called to love them, protect them, comfort them, provide a future for them, and help keep their feet warm. 

 

I’ll bet you can think of many, many others whose “wet feet” are an inseparable part of their experience? They may be people LIKE us, or NOT people like us, but they are all children of God! Those of us with multiple degrees, dry homes and offices, and reliable transportation that doesn’t involve slogging through water are challenged to find common ground with the laborers, the outcasts, the refugees, the poor, and the children. Get your feet wet, from time to time and see how you like it. And then, what you do to sooth your own feet, do unto the least of these.

 

“Greater love has no one than that they lay their life down for a friend.” Jesus said that. Laying one’s life down means sacrifice, but not necessarily DYING for them. The priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant got wet feet on behalf of all of Israel behind them. So it is with the first ones to step out on faith when God beckons us to go forward. Wet feet people are almost always laying their life down for SOMEONE, even if it is just in that moment. Was it worth it, slogging ahead with wet feet with that heavy Ark on their backs, for those priests? I’m guessing, YES. Were they showered with praise by the throngs who followed, and who benefitted from their first steps of faith? I’m guessing, NO, at least the texts we have doesn’t make mention of it. So often the servants of all are not recognized for their unselfish, obedient servanthood. No one notices, but God does. Who do you think has the ultimate power to make the last, FIRST, and the SERVANT of all become the GREATEST of all. Who among us hasn’t at least sampled what it means to intentionally NOT want something for ourselves, but for another, and yet, we wind up with such an unexpected blessing? This is “wet feet” living at its best, friends! 

 

No wonder Jesus washed the disciples’ feet…Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What's Next?

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