Posts Tagged ‘sermon’
This is a first draft of my sermon for this Sunday, December 16. I don’t usually post things early, but I thought it might help other colleagues who are also seeking a path to speak of Advent’s promised joy in the face of such tragedy. Please feel free to borrow, quote and adapt, just please credit where appropriate. It still needs editing, and I will probably tinker with it throughout the day. I will post a final revised version on my sermon blog on Sunday.
The scripture reading for the day is Zephaniah 3:14-20.
This Third Sunday of Advent is supposed to be a day about joy.
“Rejoice, daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem!” proclaims the scripture from the prophet Zephaniah.
And yet, shouting and rejoicing seem grossly out of place this Sunday, in the wake of the slaughter of children, a national tragedy. How dare we rejoice in the face of such horror? How dare we talk about joy in the face of such grief and devastation? It’s inappropriate, unseemly, insensitive, untimely. This is not the day. Now is not the time. How dare we?
And yet, it wasn’t the time for Zephaniah either. But he does. How dare he?
Zephaniah, or whoever wrote the book in his name that comes at the end of the Hebrew Bible, mostly likely lived more than 600 years before the birth of Christ, during the reign of the king Manasseh. Manasseh was a client king for the conquering Assyrians, and widely regarded as one of the most wicked and evil rulers Israel ever knew. According to the book of 2 Kings, Manasseh defiled the holy temple with false gods, trusted wizards and fortune tellers instead of priests and prophets, persecuted those who followed Yahweh’s law. In a bit of history hauntingly parallel to our own, he even practiced of child sacrifice, including the murder of his own son. 2 Kings tells us that “Manasseh spilled so much innocent blood that he filled up every corner of Jerusalem with it.” (2 Kings 21:16) Evil. Violent. Tragic. Appalling.
How could Zephaniah preach joy in the face of such evil?
Well, he didn’t start out with joy, for one thing. We only read the joy part today—the last six verses of this tiny little scroll. Zephaniah begins at the beginning—decrying the tragedy, death and destruction that he sees all around him. Speaking as God’s voice, Zephaniah declares punishment for all the evildoers. He describes “a day of fury, a day of distress and anxiety, a day of desolation and devastation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and deep darkness, a day for blowing the trumpet and alarm.” (2:15) I don’t know about you, but that describes my day on Friday with startling accuracy.
Zephaniah doesn’t try to make sense of it all, or explain it, or even figure out who to blame for it—he just names the situation for what it is—horror and suffering and tragedy. A world where children die violently—in ancient Jerusalem and modern Palestine; in Newtown, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon; in Chenpeng Village in Central China and the town of Aleppo in Syria. A world in which violence has become commonplace and lawlessness the law of the land. A world where it’s easier for a troubled young man to acquire a gun and a fake id than it is to find the mental health assistance he needs. Zephaniah names it all. And he names the feelings it provokes—anger and pain and sorrow and desolation and despair. Then he tells us that God is angry and hurt and mourning along with us. That work—calling out the suffering and telling us God shares it—takes up almost the entire tiny book of Zephaniah.
In just the last few verses, slowly, gently, Zephaniah dares invoke joy. The turning point comes when, again speaking for God, he says, “Wait for me. Wait for the day when I rise up.” Not now. Not yet. Not joy realized, but joy promised. Not joy fulfilled, but joy awaiting. Zephaniah does not declare that everything is alright, or even that it will be alright again soon. Nothing about dead children is ever alright, whether two days or 2600 years ago, whether caused by a mass shooting or an abusive king, or war, or famine, or bullying, or addiction, or suicide, or cancer, or anything else. He does not tell us to get over it, move on, or be happy. The prophet speaks of joy because he wants us to know that in spite of it all, God still reigns. How dare he speak of joy in the face of such tragedy? How dare he not.
How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God’s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display.
God speaks to us through Zephaniah: “The day is coming when you will no longer fear evil. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love. I will deliver the lame. I will gather the outcast. I will change your shame into praise. I will bring all of you back, and you can see them before your eyes.”
These darkest days are just when we need the light of this little pink candle most of all. We don’t need this candle’s light when the sun is shining, the tree is twinkling and everyone is happy and bright. We need it now. Today. In the midst of despair. Not because the day of joy is here, but because we need to know it’s still coming. Otherwise, how could we ever go on?
And so, I join with Zephaniah and dare speak to you this day of joy. Just because we aren’t ready to hear it or feel it or receive it does not mean that God’s joy is not still there, waiting for us even as we wait for it. God still moves toward Bethlehem, even if there is room in the inn. “Rejoice, daughter Zion, rejoice and exult with all your heart. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love.” “Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
I usually post sermons as podcasts through my church’s website, but the recording did not work on this one, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my Facebook friends who helped me write it. So, I’m posting the manuscript here for them to see.
The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. --Jeremiah 33:14-16
This is the first week of Advent, which means we get to talk about hope.
And this week, of all weeks, I couldn’t spend all this time thinking about hope without thinking about everybody who spent the week hoping they would win the Powerball jackpot. Millions and millions of people waiting and hoping that their number would be called, hoping that their lives would be changed, debts cancelled, woes about bills and expenses forever banished, mean bosses vanquished. All those fantasies about what you could do, what you would do with such a windfall.
Josh and I bought a ticket too, and indulged in some fun daydreaming together about how we would spend and distribute $580 million. It was lots of fun. We had a good time talking and anticipating and hoping. All the good we could do with that kind of money!
As a pastor, I was hoping too. Of course my first hope was that we would win, but my secondary hope was that one of you would win. Just like every other pastor in this country, I prayed that if it wasn’t me, it might be one of you. Even the pastors who rail against gambling still hope for the chance to call up a church member who just won $580 million and have a conversation about tithing.
Then, of course, came the disappointment. I didn’t win, and neither did any of you. Two families were the lucky ones, but the rest of us are just left with useless scraps of paper in our pockets.
Thankfully, my friend Mary Luti posted this: “A Prayer for All the Times You Do Not Win Powerball.”
If you, O Lord, are not bitterly disappointed
that, not having won, I will not be able to solve
the financial problems of my congregation
and build several houses for the poor in Honduras
with a generous donation from my winnings
(after I take care of my family and friends,
pay off the mortgage and the plastic and buy a Mercedes),
then I’ll be fine, I’ll get over it, even ‘though
the thought of all the good I could have done with that money
is painful, even ‘though you could have used me
to make a difference. Oh well.
There will be another day. I have my numbers picked
for when the jackpot gets big again. Bless them.
There’s so much I want to do.
For you, of course. Amen.
The hope of which we speak on this first Sunday of Advent is a very different kind of hope from the hopes we place in a Powerball ticket.
Ours is the hope of the prophets.
Prophets are not fortune tellers, predictors of the future like Nostradamus or something.
To prophesy in the Bible is to tell of the promises of God—promises of peace and not destruction, promises of grace and salvation and home and justice.
It’s like what we read today from the prophet Jeremiah: “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”
What is that promise? A leader who will do what is just and right in the land. Salvation and safety for the people of Israel and Judah, and for Jerusalem.
And our hope is that God will fulfill that promise.
You can see how different that is than the Powerball kind of hope. Early in the week, when I was thinking about this distinction, I put it out on my Facebook page, and quite a few of my friends weighed in with their thoughts, which are integrated with my own.
First and foremost, the difference between the Powerball hope and the Gospel hope is the difference between luck and trust.
The Powerball is all about luck—and your chances are one in 176 million, which is not very good odds.
The Gospel is all about trust—confidence that God will come through, not just for one in 6 billion of us, but for the whole world.
Our own Eden Kuhlenschmidt said, “difference between the false hope of this world and the true hope of God’s promises.”
That’s the other difference—hope for one vs. hope for all
With Powerball, one lucky family, or maybe two, experiences salvation, freedom from debt and a change of their lives.
But Gospel hope is not just for one person or one family, although it’s personal for each of us. The Gospel Hope is for the whole world, for the salvation of everyone, so that we experience a change in the way the whole planet runs, into ways of justice and righteousness and peace and salvation for all.
Everyone’s a winner. It’s a sure bet.
Another difference is in time
Powerball hope seeks immediate gratification. By 11:30 on Wednesday night, you knew if you were a winner or a loser, if your hopes were fulfilled or not.
Gospel hope doesn’t happen so quick like that, although the Gospel warns us to be ready for it to happen “in the blink of an eye.” After 2000 years of hoping for Christ’s return, we’ve realized we’re dealing more with a long-range confidence.
Gospel hope proclaims that, no matter what comes, God will be in charge at the end. God will see you through. Peace will prevail, no matter how long it takes.
In the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
What it is we are hoping for is different too.
A friend I grew up with, who no longer considers herself a Christian, wrote this:
“The lottery is the hope for freedom from poverty and obscurity in this life. The Gospel is the hope that the 80 or so years we spend on this planet aren’t pointless because there’s something else afterwards. It’s too depressing to believe that the struggle against poverty and obscurity is a waste of time in the end.” (Melissa)
My cousin wrote: The gospel actually leaves you with a better life 10 years later instead of the strife and drama lottery winnings come with. (Carrie)
Jim Jensen, St. Luke’s insurance agent, mused: “Unfortunately we don’t celebrate God’s new winners like we do the lottery winners.”
One of the first things that people were quick to point out is that, unlike the Powerball, the Gospel is free. You don’t have to pay to play, that God’s grace is a free gift for all.
I don’t think it’s free at all. No, you don’t have to spend $2 to play, you don’t have to have money at all, but it will cost you—everything. God doesn’t demand anything from you in order to receive grace—but in response to that grace, you are compelled to give everything you have, your life, your time, your love, your resources, to God’s purposes.
But the math is all different. People play Powerball trying to spend a little and get a lot. Turn $2 into $580 million. Did you know that your odds don’t actually increase the more you play? It’s a myth, because the lottery doesn’t work like chances in a raffle. No matter how many tickets you have, your chances are still just one in 176 million.
As my friend Jodi put it, “God gives us way better odds than the lottery does. God might talk about a narrow path, but it is nowhere near as narrow as the lottery path.”
With God’s promises, the more you invest in hope, the bigger the hope grows and the bigger the payout. Give it all, get it all and more. Whatever you put in comes back to you in full measure and more. The more you put in, the stronger the hope grows.
The Gospel hope doesn’t cost you a thing, because it is God’s gracious gift. But it will cost you everything to follow it. And it will be worth every penny, every hour, every sacrifice.
In my initial Facebook posting, I made a note that told my friends not to mock anyone who played the lottery, because it is fun to hope and imagine what you would do with all those winnings. One friend, an Episcopal priest, responded this way: “It’s fun to hope and imagine what you’d do with the Gospel, too.”
That’s what Advent is for. For hoping and imagining the Gospel promises being fulfilled in our lifetime, or even in us. Imagine the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Imagine a world of peace and justice. Imagine the world living together in harmony with God’s design. Imagine right relationships, security, trust, fulfillment. And know that those are not wild fantasies and lottery dreams—they are the hope of the prophets, the sure bet, the free grace, the covenant of peace and justice and righteousness and safety and salvation from the God who was and is and is to come. For the time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2008, 384 pp.
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2009, 391 pp.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2010, 400 pp.
I needed escape reading during the last month’s intensity of Holy Week, tornado recovery and moving into our newly renovated church building. I wanted a distraction from the daily stresses, a world I could escape into at the end of a long day or long week. These books were perfect for that. As young adult literature, they were easy and fast to read. The twists and turns of the intense, unfolding story hooked me in fairly quickly.
The books are all narrated in the voice of their protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. I must confess that I never learned to love Katniss. I loved many things about the character that Suzanne Collins created—a young woman who is not defined by her love interests, who acts with courage and bravery and grit, who must contend with gender stereotypes and manipulate them in order to preserve her life, who has a strong voice of her own. I love that young women have such a great character to relate to. I just didn’t like her, and couldn’t imagine joining her company. That made for an interesting experience of reading the books, because I wanted to know the outcome of the story, even as I didn’t care much what Katniss (the narrator) thought or felt about it.
The world that Collins created was so compelling because it was so believable as a post-apocalyptic version of North America. Panem is like American society through a fun house mirror. Certain aspects (usually the good ones, like equality, opportunity and freedom) shrunken into nothing, and other aspects (usually the bad ones like inequality, greed, consumerism and spectacle) enlarged and engorged beyond their normal proportions. When you see Panem, you see American society. Even though it looks so different, you still know it’s the same thing.
That makes the books an interesting critique of political and economic systems. I read the first book, The Hunger Games, about a week before Palm Sunday, and I was captivated by the parallels between it and the story of Jesus contesting the Roman empire. It became the start of my Palm Sunday sermon, which you can listen to here. Catching Fire and Mockingjay turn more explicitly revolutionary, and provide interesting insights about how we might subvert the seemlingly indomitable powers-that-be in our own society. Love triumphs over death, collaboration over competition. There are ways that the game can be played that destroy the game itself.
The trilogy is a great read. It has lots of theological themes, even if there is no mention of God or religious life in Panem. I recommend it for some fun summer reading, or an interesting conversation starter with so many others who are reading it—especially young people.
Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.
Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.
We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.
The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.
It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:
People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.
The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”
The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.
So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.
For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.
We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good. That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.
I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.
Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already. A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”
So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.
And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
The apostle Paul writes with some dizzying logic sometimes, doesn’t he? He calls those of us who follow Christ “ambassadors of reconciliation,” but then he goes on to leave a trail of irreconcilable contradictions about how we reconcilers are seen in the world. “We are treated with honor and dishonor, verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as fake and real, unknown and well known, as dying, but look, we are alive. We were punished but not killed, going through pain but always happy, poor but making many rich, as having nothing but owning everything.” Contradictions upon contradictions. This list is more like a seesaw or a tennis match than my vision of what it means to be an “ambassador of reconciliation.”
Reconciliation, in my mind, means making things go together smoothly, even though they might naturally conflict. The dictionary agrees with me that to reconcile is to “make two apparently conflicting things compatible or consistent with one another.” Paul doesn’t seem to reconcile any of those things—he just holds them up and says, “We’re both! Dying and alive, honored and dishonored, fake and real, known and unknown. We’re both!”
This holding together of tensions, this being “both-and,” is very much what I think we are supposed to remember every year on Ash Wednesday.
Butterflyfish is a bluegrass band writing faith-inspired children’s music, led by my friend Elizabeth Myer-Boulton and her husband Matt, who is the new president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Matthew has written a song that I think speaks to this “both-and” tension. It’s basically a little parable, and it’s called “Great and Small.” The words go like this:
Deep down here inside my pocket there’s a little piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m feeling out of shape, or
To keep my fears at bay
It says you are great
Deep down in my other pocket there’s another piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m getting into shape, or
When I’m walking tall
It says you are small.
‘Cause you are great and small, you are tiny and tall
Remember through it all, you are great and small.
Isn’t it true? Don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed great? When we are frightened or discouraged or rejected or vulnerable or powerless, we need to be reminded of the power we have as one person to change the world in love. We are great. And don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed so very small? When we are self-centered or narrow-minded, ego-driven or unrelenting, unforgiving or ungracious, we need to be reminded that in the vast universe and the long arc of history, we are small.
Some people think that the season of Lent and the ashes of Ash Wednesday are all about reminding us that we are small. After all, we are about to put ashes and dust on our foreheads, and repeat the phrase, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For some, remembering we are dust is about remembering all the ways we’ve acted like dirt, and try again to act like the spirit of God. While repentance is a good thing, and confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiving grace is an important part of remembering that we are small, these dusty ashes upon your foreheads are not about calling you a dirtbag. They are about reminding you that you are a human being, created by God from the dust the earth. In Genesis 2, God created human beings by scooping up the rich, dark soil, adamah in Hebrew, and (whoosh) blowing life into it. You are of the earth. You are made of the stuff of this world. Like everything else in this world, you will live and you will die this one precious life, in this one fragile body, and then that lifeless body will return again to dust. Among all other creatures and lives, surrounded by all the dirt of the earth, each one of us is one tiny speck in the vast universe. We are so very small.
But that’s not all. Whenever we remember we are dust, whenever we remember that we are adamah, made of clay, we also have to remember what else we are made of. What other ingredient, apart from the earth, comprises humanity at the dawn of creation? (Whoosh) The breath of God. You are dirt and to dirt you shall return, but you are also the breath of God, and to God you shall return. Inside of you dwells the spark of the Almighty God, the power of God’s spirit animates your life. You are filled with the power to love, to give, to serve, to rejoice, to overcome, to hope, to be transformed. Even more, you can transform the world around you by your work and your love, your witness and your welcome, your peace-making and your graciousness. The eternal breath of God breathes in you. You are great.
Every Ash Wednesday, we remember what it is to be human, to be made from dust and the breath of God. The opposing contradictions of great and small, known and unknown, clarity and mystery, life and death—they all are reconciled in each and every human life. We are indeed ambassadors of reconciliation. When our lives reflect our true nature, we are simultaneously reflecting the transient beauty of the world and the eternal beauty of God.
Great and small. Dust of the earth and the very breath of God. You are both, insists Paul. You are both, says the author of Genesis. That’s what it means to be human—to be both great and small, and equal measure of dust and divinity.
As we enter this Lenten journey toward Easter, we are invited to remember who we are. Where in your life do you need to remember you are small? How is God reassuring you that you are not God, that the world does not rest upon your shoulders, that all this will come to an end and you are not in control? Where in your life do you need to embrace your greatness? How is God calling you to do big things in the name of love, to transform the world with grace and hope right where you are?
We have for you tonight, in addition to the ashes for your forehead, and a taste of the bread of life and cup of salvation at the table, a couple of pieces of paper for your pocket. Can you guess what they say? One for each pocket. You are great. You are small. I invite you to carry them with you as the season progresses, as a reminder that in you, in your oh-so-human-life, lies their reconciliation. The great and the small, the dust and the divinity, in you—an ambassador of reconciliation. Thanks be to God.
This sermon was originally offered at the joint Ash Wednesday service with my congregation and the local Disciples of Christ church in town, February 22, 2012. You can download the song “Great and Small” at Butterflyfish’s website, www.butterflyfishband.com.
Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell, HarperOne, 2011, 202 pp.
Last Easter, a friend of mine used Rob Bell’s inspirational sermon from sometime around 2006, which was originally called “The Cross,” but soon became known as “Love Wins.” (You can purchase it from www.marshill.org, but I found a podcast here.) I found that catch phrase, and the accompanying stickers, a great summary of Easter faith, and immediately knew it would be the title of my Easter sermon this year. Back in early February, I planned it out. I put it on flyers. I even ordered 276 “Love Wins.” stickers to pass out to the congregation on Easter morning. (That’s nearly 100 more than we needed, but they were cheaper in bulk.)
Just a few weeks later, Rob Bell published his latest book—Love Wins. And all hell broke loose. I’m guessing most of you have heard about the controversy. Bell has been villified among evangelical preachers, with Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary here in Louisville leading the way. This battle between preachers has captured media attention, and been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Courier-Journal, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
While I am not unwilling to talk about hot theological topics, opening up an already politically charged conversation about heaven, hell and salvation on Easter morning, when the congregation is packed with visiting extended family (many of whom regularly worship in local evangelical churches, but come with mom on Easter) and C&E Christians, was not what I had in mind. But I had all these stickers. And flyers, already printed. I was excited about “love wins” as an Easter message of hope and new life overcoming death.
So I had to buy the book and read it in time for Easter, and then negotiate a theological controversy on Easter morning without preaching a 20-30 minute expository sermon. In the end, I think it turned out pretty well, and gave me a chance to talk about my beloved United Church of Christ and our commitment to welcoming all the people and all our questions. Here’s what I said:
In the book, Bell questions the classical evangelical understandings about hell and wonders how, if God loves us so much, God could then condemn us to eternal punishment just because we didn’t get the message in time. He asks questions about heaven, about salvation, about resurrection and grace. In the end, he concludes, love wins. Always. Eventually. Not without judgment or justice or consequences, but love wins.
So, before I could preach my pre-planned Easter sermon, before I could give you all these items I had ordered, in bulk, I had to go and read the book. And I did, cover to cover, and I did not find anything in it that was either new or objectionable—and Bell himself says as much. He covers familiar debates that have existed throughout the history of Christianity in a new way. We in the United Church of Christ have always believed that faithful questions are more important to faith than unquestioned certainty. You can doubt the existence of heaven or hell, question the resurrection of the body and God won’t cast you aside and neither will we. That’s why our welcome is wide and we generally err on the side of love over judgment, grace over purity, mercy over punishment—because we believe that we are all sinners, no one knows all the answers, but in the end, with an Easter God of resurrection, love wins. I’m not sure exactly why this controversy has gotten so heated, except that some people really cling tightly to their need for eternal damnation. As Doug Pagitt, one of Bell’s friends, wrote in his defense: “Is it possible to overstate the love of God? Is it really possible to tell as story of God that is more graceful than God actually is? Is it really possible to give God too much mercy credit?”
On this Easter morning, when life has overcome death, when the stone has been rolled away, when the powers of destruction and violence are defeated, I would say absolutely not. Love wins. (You can hear the full sermon here.)
As for the book itself, I don’t have much to add beyond the brief review I offered in the sermon. As a member of the mainline, progressive wing of Christianity, I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. Bell’s book covers terrain we have been discussing for 200 years. In the pulpit, I did not anticipate most of our folks would find it objectionable or controversial either. Many found it exciting and refreshing to name those questions publicly on such a high holy day.
However, especially here at the borderlands of the Midwest and the South, single-digit miles from the Southern Baptist seminary of Albert Mohler, we are surrounded by people who have never heard these questions before, or by those who have dared to ask them in the open and been shunned for it, or those who secretly ask but fear losing family, friends and faith for giving voice to their doubts. All around us in our community are people who have rejected God because they reject those beliefs about God. People stumble into our church all the time, led (I believe) by the Holy Spirit, seeking to find faith and community through their questions and doubts. People come with fear about going to hell, even though they aren’t sure what they think about hell.
Bell’s book is worthwhile not because it offers new information or different perspectives or deeper explorations, but because it presents a lifeline to anyone who wants someone to hold their hand while they explore those questions, to reassure them that this is not new territory, that someone else has walked this path and lived, with faith, to tell about it. It’s a resource I can offer to those who ask, tentatively, fearfully, about heaven, hell and salvation for all the people.
Over the last few months, these words have come as a whisper to me in quiet moments of prayer and harried hours. They have been a summons and an invitation, a demand and a relief.
I recognized their source in scripture immediately, from the traditional Ash Wednesday reading in the book of Joel:
Return to me with all your heart… blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
After busy and exciting 150th anniversary year, culminating in a climactic Foundations capital campaign in the Epiphany season, our church has been changing, acting, growing, giving, sacrificing, leading, learning, doing, working and serving God at an almost frenetic pace. It’s time to call a fast.
Not because we’ve lost our way, or been pursuing the wrong things, or because we have lapsed into sin and indulgence. Not because God demands that we deprive ourselves in order to prove our love to God. It’s time to call a fast because we have been faithful, and we are tired. We have followed the vision God put before us, and we have experienced great things and amazing transformation. It’s time to call a fast so that we remember our success is not due to our own efforts, but to God’s grace. We know that there is more work to be done, more sacrifices to be made, more change and growth to undertake. But it’s time to remember that we are God’s, that this church is God’s, and that it’s not all about us. It’s time to call a fast.
Fasting traditionally refers to going without food. Catholics fast from meat on Fridays during Lent. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan. Jews fast from sunup to sundown on Yom Kippur. Many Christians “give up” something for Lent—usually an indulgence, like chocolate or beer or sweets or fast food. But fasting does not need to be limited to food. I have several friends this year who are fasting from Facebook, and a church member who shared via Facebook that she is fasting from elevators.
This kind of a fast has its place—it is a nice reminder of the holiness of Lent, it can correct bad habits and indulgences, it is a daily practice of giving something up for God. But I think the fast we need, the fast my heart yearns for, is deeper and more significant than putting down a favorite luxury only to pick it up again after Easter. I am hungry for God. I am lonely for the luxury of spending time with the Holy One. Ignoring my craving for chocolate will not satisfy my craving for connection with God. Making more room in the waistline of my clothes will not necessarily make more room in my life for God.
Joel says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” I need grace and mercy. I need to slow my own anger, and return my love to abundant proportions. I have not relented from punishing myself and others. I have not shown grace to them or to myself. It is time to fast from busyness, from judgment, from complaining, from worry, from harried hours, from control. It is time to spend time with the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
Fasting is making room for God. We say “no” to the things that bind us to ourselves and this world, so that we can make room to say “yes” to God. It’s time to call a fast.
Watch this beautiful, moving version of the story of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the wilderness. Think about the ways Jesus says “no.” (Hint: It’s not just to the Tempter). Notice the ways Jesus says “yes” as well—the way time alone with God is joy as well as struggle.
“For my thirtieth birthday,” it begins, “I gave myself some time away from it all.” Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. “And now,” he says at the end, “I’m back.”
My friends, for the coming 40 days of Lent, I’m joining the prophet Joel in calling a fast. I want time in the wilderness with Jesus. Will you join me? Will you wrestle with saying “no” to a stronger, more competent and productive you, in order to make room for the strength of God to carry you? Will you slow down, let go, give up, forego in order that you might be blessed by the birds, moved by the moon, enamored of the spring flowers? Will you show your weakness, let go of your busyness, give up some control, that you might come to know the ministrations of angels? “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Come, let us enter the fast together.
Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 49:8-16
Speaking in God’s voice, Isaiah writes: “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me.” It’s such a familiar, ordinary kind of image. “I won’t forget—see? I wrote it down right here on my hand.” What do you write on your hands? Telephone numbers? Directions? Grocery Lists? Things to bring to a meeting, an event? Students write crib notes for their tests. At least one politician has gotten in trouble for writing debate notes on the palm of a hand. We can deduce that this practice is as old as the Bible itself, at least the era of Isaiah.
Every time you look down at your hands, the reminder is there. What is the reminder written on the palms of God’s hands? You are, Isaiah says. You are written on the palm of God’s hand. Your name, concerns about your well-being, all the needs of the community of God are inscribed in the palm of his hands.
When I first heard this image, I found it incredibly moving. I mean, to think, we, you and me, matter so much to God that we are written in the palm of God’s hand. Surely we will not be forgotten, if we are written in such a handy place?
But the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled by having my name written on God’s hand. I don’t know about you, but the only time I bother writing something on my hand is when I am actually quite inclined to forget it. I write it there because I just know, if I don’t, I’m going to forget. And I actually gave up writing things on the palm of my hand a long time ago, because I discovered that I would almost always sweat, smear or wash them off by the time I needed to remember them. I’d just end up with some illegible smudges in the wrinkles of my skin—not a helpful reminder at all.
This troubled me. I mean, on first glance, I loved the idea of our being so close to God’s mind, so important to God’s memory that God would write our names, yours and mine, right there in the palm of the hand. But then I thought—that means God might forget us if not for the reminder—and what if it gets all sweaty and smudgy? (We’re not talking literally here, of course—either about the palms or the smudge, but I just did not like where the metaphor led me.)
And then, I realized I’d just over-thought myself out of a sermon, and I wondered what I was going to stand up here at say to you. Because really, what I want to say to you today is what Isaiah was trying to say with this image about the palms of the hands—God loves you so much that you, little old you, little old me, that we are always on God’s mind, inscribed right in the palm of his hands. That you and I are on God’s mind, in God’s thoughts, in God’s heart, and in God’s hands.
I went back to the scripture reading to try again. I realized I had been so focused on sitting in the palm of God’s hand that I had completely overlooked a much better metaphor.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”
I was once a woman with a nursing child, and I still miss it. I loved the way my body responded to his needs. The way the milk welled up inside me at the sound of his cry—or the cry of any lonesome baby. The sensation of being full to overflowing, then emptying into a hungry baby belly. The joy of holding him close, playing with his feet and hands while he ate. The pride I felt in watching his legs and arms grow fatter on the nutrition my body produced. The power of knowing that I could provide everything my baby needed, no matter where we went. The amazement at what my body knew to do, its ability to provide. The mystical connection to the God that created me, and to all the women who had nursed children before me.
What I loved more than anything, what I miss most, is the intimacy we shared. This tiny child depended on me for his nutrition. I responded by offering him my body. Especially in those early months, we could not bear to be apart from one another—he for hunger, me for the need to empty myself for him. I could not go for more than a couple of hours without experiencing his absence from my body. I ached for him. My body yearned to give itself over to him. Forgetting him, forgetting my role as his mother, was impossible. I carried my love and care for him not just in my mind, but in my body. My body would not let me forget, even for a moment.
Our God is a nursing mother. She feels a connection to us in her very body, filled to overflowing with love, ready to pour into our hungry selves. We are impossible for God to forget, for that love for us is carried in God’s very body. God delights in our growth and strength, marvels at our creation, provides for us everything we need. God will not, cannot neglect us. Our connection to God is so intimate that it is physical.
When we talk about being held in the arms of God, it’s not just hands outstretched, like a baby bird you are observing with gentleness. It’s also cradled like a baby, cradled and rocked, soothed and snuggled. When we say, “God knows, and God cares,” we aren’t just talking about the mind of God—we are talking about the very body of God, which aches with our absence and yearns to be reunited with us. When we cry out like a newborn child, knowing that we are hungry or lonely or dirty or afraid, even if we cannot get up and make our way to God, if all we can do is open our mouths and wail in despair, God comes to us, picks us up, rocks us gently and places us next to her heart.
God holds us in the palm of his hand, at her nursing breast. We dwell inside God’s beating heart.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Highlighted Passage: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23
I have always been fascinated by the construction of cathedrals. In the Middle Ages, when the cardinals of Europe were competing with one another to build the most magnificent edifice, craftsmen and laborers used the simplest of tools to build these spectacular buildings. Construction provided employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of workers, most of which would never live to see the fulfillment of their labors. Cathedrals took centuries to build, and the life expectancy of most workers was less than 50 years. The laborers and masons and glasscutters spent their whole lives, from an apprenticeship in their preteens until their old age, working on the project, in the hopes that their great-great grandchildren might someday worship there.
While we may build our church buildings today in a mere year or two, the process of building Christ’s church is still something that happens across centuries and generations. As Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, the foundation has been laid in Jesus Christ. Paul, himself only one “degree” removed from Jesus and the disciples, builds upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Each subsequent generation is tasked with continuing to build the church, to spread the good news. Like the cathedral builders of old, we inherit a project that has already been started, and we will not live to see its completion. However, if we do not continue the work that was started by those who came before us, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not know a place to discover the grace of Jesus Christ.
My church is in the midst of the commitment phase of a capital campaign, with a planned giving period of three years. (I just have to share my glee—last Sunday was our Celebration of Commitment, and we surpassed our $350,000 goal by more than $50,000!) The theme of our campaign is “Foundations: Our Faith, Our Time, Our Future,” and we have been working with the image Paul presents in this passage. Our church was founded in 1860. The building we currently inhabit was built in 1915, and expanded in 1951. We have only one member left who was baptized in the old building prior to 1915. There are a few who were present in the 1951 expansion, but they were young people, not leaders of the church at the time. We are living in a building built by others who came before us. As we plan and imagine renovations for the future, we realize that we are not building for ourselves and our programs—we are building something for the next generation to inherit, a place for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to gather to worship and come to know Jesus Christ. We don’t know what their worship will look like, or what ministries they will launch, or how the Gospel will be made known in their generation—but we want to offer them something, an inheritance, a building where they might find shelter and connection to the holy.
In my church, we are dealing with a literal building right now—but, as it was for Paul, the building is a metaphor for what we really about, which is building the community of Christ, the Kingdom of God. How can we build God’s community, God’s message, our faithfulness so that those who come after us will continue to know the Gospel?
The question Paul’s image provokes is: how’s the building project going? Are you using the best materials available, with prayer and study? Are you dedicated to the work, or are you just throwing it together? Will your efforts to build the community of Christ stand up to the test of fire, or will it crumble under pressure? Who is being glorified by your efforts? Are you building to the glory of God and the spread of the gospel to future generations, or are you building memorials and statues to human heroes today?
One of my favorite quotations from Reinhold Niebuhr reminds me to always take the long view of all our efforts at building, whether we are constructing a church, community or ministry:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
Or, as Paul puts it, “all things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
Highlighted passage: Micah 6:1-8
(My church is in the heart of a major capital campaign right now, so that experience definitely colors my reflections on this week’s text. So did my reading of Amy Oden’s commentary at workingpreacher.org, which offered helpful context information and many ideas that influenced this writing.)
Usually, we see the famous words of Micah 6:8 as a program for our living. Faithfulness to God is doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. However, when paired with the earlier verses about making an offering, I realized that this scripture is not just a guide to living, it is a guide to giving. And more than just a guide, it is a description of the process I am seeing right now in my life and the lives of so many others in our church during this capital campaign. It’s a process of struggling with what God requires of you.
The anthem “Offertory” by John Ness Beck portrays this tension and resolution in music. Our choir will be singing the anthem on Sunday immediately preceding my sermon, but you can catch it on Youtube here:
These verses in Micah are a back-and-forth, conflicted conversation between God and the people.
God summons all of creation to bear witness to the argument, even to arbitrate between the sides. The mountains, the hills, the very foundations of the earth—God calls down all of creation to judge in this argument with humanity.
You would anticipate that, after God has summoned these arbiters, God would launch a polemic against humanity and all our misdeeds, naming our sins and condemning us for our unrighteousness. After all, that’s what any good lawyer would do. But God is not a lawyer.
God is a mother. God does not yell at the people, condemn them, or recite the case against the people. God applies guilt to the people: “After all I’ve done to you, you treat me like this? What have I done to you, except love you, care for you, protect you? Who brought you up out of slavery in Egypt? Who provided leadership for you in Moses, Miriam and Aaron? Who delivered you into the promised land? What did I do to deserve this? After I’ve done all this for you and more, you still disobey me?”
Like any good child in this classic argument, the people reply, “What do you want from me? Nothing I do is ever good enough for you. What kind of offering, what kind of sacrifice could ever repay you for everything you have done? Why do you hold it over my head like that? Do you want me to give you thousands of rams? 10,000 rivers of oil? Should I sacrifice my firstborn child for you, my own blood? Would that make you happy? What will be good enough to get out of this debt I owe you? What?”
Do you all recognize this fight? Have you had it with your parents, your children?
What does your mother answer, when you reach that point in the argument? What does she want from you? She does not want to be paid back for all that she has given and sacrificed for you, for the work of bringing you into this world and raising you and keeping you safe. That is not what she wants at all, is it?
“I want you to love me, listen to me, walk with me, and do the right thing.” That’s what your mother would say, right? Well, that’s what God says. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God. Love me. Listen to me. Walk with me. And do the right thing.
I think many of us, when we start to think about our giving to God through the church, start to have this same argument with God. We look around us at the mountains and the hills, the foundations of the earth, and we realize that everything, including our life, belongs to God. When we spend time contemplating God’s goodness to us, we realize all the ways God has loved, protected, nurtured, and delivered us. When we hear the call to give, when we hear God, in turn, making demands on us, we start to think that God wants us to pay it all back somehow. We get anxious and overwhelmed, because we know that if we had to pay it back, it would take everything. We get all worked up and agitated about our ability to match God’s sacrifice with our own. What do you want from me, God? What could possibly be good enough to pay you back for everything you’ve done for me? Do you want me to give up everything? Do you want me to sacrifice every indulgence, every happiness, out of guilt for what I owe you? What do you require from me, God?
But God does not want to be repaid for God’s sacrifice, any more than our mothers do. But, for the people in Micah and for us today, God wants to place a demand on our life, a call for us to give and sacrifice in return.
“I have told you already what is good. What do I require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” When it comes to our giving, God does not want us to hurt ourselves, to unduly suffer, to beat ourselves up and prostrate ourselves in abject poverty. God wants what our mothers want—our true love and obedience, dedication and respect. God wants us to listen, and do the right thing. To do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
God does not ask if our gift is sacrificial enough, if it is painful enough—God simply asks if it is just, if it is fair enough. Is our gift a fair measure, an equal sacrifice? God does not ask if our gift is large enough, God asks if our gift is made in the right spirit. Do we love kindness and generosity, or do we loathe it? God does not ask if our gift is faithful enough. God only asks if our gift puts us closer to walking humbly with our Savior. What is God asking, requiring of you? To do justice–that your money and resources, which all belong to God anyway, are properly used and aligned with the justice of God’s purposes. To love kindness—that you have learned not just to do acts of kindness and generosity, but to love and welcome the opportunity to be generous and kind. And to walk humbly with your God—to walk the path of love and obedience, so that your footsteps match up with God’s path.
Because God knows what our mothers know—that doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God will not only make us good, compassionate, loving people—it will bring our souls to peace and even joy.