Monday, July 26, 2010

When the Lord Speaks

Hosea 1: 1-11, page 636
The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel:
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.”
So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. In that day I will break Israel’s bow in the Valley of Jezreel.”
Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call her Lo-Ruhamah, for I will no longer show love in the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them. Yet I will show love to the house of Judah; and I will save them – not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but by the Lord their God.”
After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son. Then the Lord said, “Call him LoAmmi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.
“Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’
The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.
Hard to find anything good about this lesson.
I’ve been feeling sorry for our choir director, Jennifer Langley, and our organist, Mary Lynn Darden, who have had to pick out music to fit this lesson. There aren’t many tunes to fit the words: “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.”
Even the names are bad in this one. That’s the way it was supposed to be for the children, named to illustrate the adultery of the people, but you know, you don’t see anyone naming their daughter Gomer either.
And then you have Hosea, not exactly given an easy assignment – not that prophets are ever given easy assignments, but I’d rather have Jonah’s job than this one; even considering the part about getting swallowed by a whale, even that sounds easier than marrying a woman, not out of love but because God told you to.
But it’s not like Gomer liked him all that much either – and then there are those poor kids – How would you like being named, “You are not my people and I am not your God.” That kid didn’t do anything to deserve that name.
There’s really not much good about this lesson at all.
Not much good about it, until you get to the last verse, “the people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.”
None of the prophets presented themselves in a way that helped them fit in with society – their dress and their behavior was just as off putting to folks as the words coming out of their mouths – but no prophets behavior is as off putting as Hosea’s as far as I’m concerned.
It’s as though the package their message came in made it harder to receive – and maybe that’s just the way it had to be – or maybe these prophets were just a little crazy.
And you have to be crazy to go on believing what Hosea believed – that “the people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.”
Believing such things is never easy – especially when everything around you serves as proof that what you say will never be true.
The eyes of faith then can’t be the same as the eyes of pragmatism or science. The eyes of faith have to be able to see the data, hear the projections, and still believe that something else is possible.
The eyes of faith – believing that hardship we now face might just come to an end.
The eyes of faith – that the inevitable doom might just be avoided.
The eyes of faith – that two kingdoms divided will one day come together.
We know what this is:
The eyes of faith – that a preschool whose numbers have been dwindling would expand to such a degree that our preschool director, Pam McClure, would have to go out looking for teachers to provide for all the kids enrolled in the fall.
The eyes of faith – that a church, having lost their Director of Christian Education, been forced by financial strain to ask their Youth Director to take on the nurture and education of their children, would be able to pull off the best Vacation Bible School in recent memory thanks to the leadership of Katie Arnold and the dedication of volunteers willing to invest in the children of this church and this community.
The eyes of faith – that a church would not have to cut music programs when they’re only able to afford a half time music director, but because of the hard work of parents and volunteers, would continue on just as vibrant as ever.
The eyes of faith – that a church, who in its 35th year faced a financial crisis; that a church whose watched too many friends walk out the door; that a church forced to cut staff, trim budgets, and stare into the face of a $100,000 deficit.
Rational people would have advised us to pack it up a long time ago.
But you – you with your eyes of faith.
You who refused to give up.
You who believed despite all the odds.
Today I’m so thankful to tell you that we have not only survived an economic crisis, we just closed out the fiscal year with a $75,000 surplus.
Eight months ago, if Hosea were around he might have named us “bankrupt shepherd,” “cash-strapped shepherd,” but we just kept going with Good, trusting that God, who is always good, will unite two kingdoms once divided – would make the impossible possible – would find a way where there seemed to be no way.
You – who never stopped believing.
You – who never stopped working for the kingdom.
You – who never stopped trusting.
With eyes of faith you invested in this church, your time, your talents, and your resources – and you invested when sound advice would have told you to invest somewhere else.
With the eyes of faith you kept on and we are on the right path.
Now that doesn’t mean that the journey is over – that it’s time to rest – that our work is done.
A kingdom united isn’t ready for vacation – a kingdom united is poised to minister to the people, as God hasn’t delivered us just to deliver us.
We have made it to the place where we can stop worrying about closing our doors, which means we are now called to open them wider to people all around.
We’ve made it through a hard patch – and that doesn’t mean our work is over – it means our work has just begun.
I encourage you then – to think about how you might continue to make a difference here, and to get to work. I encourage you to think about who you know that needs a place like this, and to invite them as soon as you can. I encourage you to go on thinking about what needs to be done and to find a way to make it happen.
For we have made it through the storm, and now it’s time to build and to plant.
We have made it through the dark night, and are witnesses to the sun that always rises.
We have made it through, God has brought us through, and we must live as those who have a story to tell, as disciples who can lead the way, as followers of the living God who have refused to give up.
I thank God for you – for the great work that our God is doing through all of you.
What a joy.
What a gift.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Rich Fool and the Poor of the Land

Amos 8: 1-12, page 651
This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit.
“What do you see, Amos?” the Lord asked.
“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.
Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies – flung everywhere! Silence!”
Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying,
“When will the new moon be over that we may sell grain,
And the Sabbath ended that we may market wheat?”
Skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales,
Buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,
Selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.”
“Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise up like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink like the river in Egypt.
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord.
“I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “When I will send famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.
These are hard words from Amos – hard words that have not lost their strength or their meaning despite the thousands of years in between the time when they were spoken by the prophet and today.
There are other words however, who’s meaning changes, whose strength fades.
Have you ever heard someone say that they do something religiously?
Today, when people say that they do things “religiously,” I’m not always sure what they mean.
I think that what they’re trying to say is that they are committed to it, that they are dedicated to it, that they do it, whatever it is, as though their salvation depended on it.
But when I think about folks in our culture and the amount of time they’re willing to give to their religion, I’m tempted to think that doing something “religiously” isn’t really all that impressive.
I walk my dog religiously, someone might say. But what does that mean – that your poor dog only gets walked on Christmas and Easter?
We have a problem in our world today – and it’s not nearly as different as the problem that Amos’ word had although it would be nice if things were otherwise.
The prophet spoke the word of the Sovereign Lord, the jealous God who was running short on patience with this people who couldn’t wait to get finished with the New Moon and the Sabbath so that they could get back to business, get back to making money.
Dr. Dana Kind said it well in Bible study last Thursday, “The gospel became a burden to them,” they were tired of it because their religious practice was getting in the way of their true religion – making money.
Theirs was the gospel of cash – and God’s word was getting in the way – the Gospel became a burden to them and they began to resent it, they started complaining about it – and God decided it was time to stop suspending judgment – that the time was ripe for my people Israel and I will spare them no longer.
The time was ripe for them – and all they did was resent the Sabbath – what will become of us then?
The time was ripe for them – and all they did was resent the Sabbath, not do away with it all together.
The time was ripe for them – as making money took a front seat to worship, silver or a pair of sandals became more important than the poor as the drive to make money trumped everything else – and God’s judgment was the consequence.
In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord.
“I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “When I will send famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.
Harsh words for them – harsh words that I can’t imagine coming out of Jesus’ mouth – but Christ is just as clear about the consequences of selfish actions.
Jesus tells the story about a man who gained so much grain he decided to build up an additional barn to store it in. He worked hard and he looked forward to the day when he would be able to sit back and say to himself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink, be merry!”
That very night his life was taken, and all that he prepared? Who did it profit?
It’s important that this parable here asks the question, “Who did it profit,” as profits are certainly the focus of our passage from Amos as well as Jesus’ parable.
I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Christianity is incompatible with economics, but what is clear is that in the mind of God, economics is not worth being religious about, as where the Christian life can bring something worth having, salvation, purpose, joy, community – the continual pursuit of wealth, a pursuit that values profit over all else will leave you lost and alone.
It’s not that business is bad, it’s not even that money is bad, it’s that there are things more valuable than either – it’s this lesson that the Israelites forgot, and I pray that our society will learn from their mistakes before it’s too late.
Before it’s too late, remember that there is more to life than profit – that there is something more worth having – that time with your family is worth more than the money you could earn working through the weekend.
That time with your God is worth more than the money you could earn working on a Sunday.
Those relationships with your neighbors are worth more than the money you could gain cheating them.
There is more to life than profit – thanks be to God.
But isn’t it hard to believe it, when all around us people are focused on nothing more than profits.
There is hope however – every time I want a chicken sandwich on a Sunday I resent Chic-fila, but its proof that success in the marketplace can be gained without losing your integrity.
There it is, proof that money can be made without selling your brother or sister short.
Proof that a business can be run successfully without giving it everything you have, making profit your foremost concern.
Proof that the God who holds us back, demands our allegiance, never lets us forget the poor in our midst, doesn’t want us to fail, but desires that we not only have life, but life abundant.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I Also Took Care of Sycamore-Fig Trees

Amos 7: 7-17, page 651
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, “What do you see Amos?”
“A plumb line,” I replied.
Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined;
With my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”
Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. For this is what Amos is saying:
“Jeroboam will die by the sword,
And Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.”
Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Now then, hear the word of the Lord. You say,
“Do not prophesy against Israel, and stop preaching against the house of Isaac.”
Therefore this is what the Lord says: “Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword.
Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country.
And Israel will certainly go into exile, away from their native land.”
Last Sunday’s paper was full of patriotism – there was anticipation for 4th of July parades, there were advertisements, but with a patriotic flare - as the likes of Walgreens threw in the stars and stripes for the backdrop of their normal circulars, and there was concern that our country was turning away from her true foundation – faith in God, even in the advertisements.
The Hobby Lobby paid for a full insert of quotes from great figures of American History – Ben Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington. I’ll read the quote from Thomas Jefferson: “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
Not bad for a deist.
Even better for a guy who produced his own Bible by cutting out the parts he couldn’t believe in by the standards of his own logic.
So as a Christian I value his words even more as they take seriously the judgment of God – and his words serve as a good introduction to today’s lesson that begins a series of sermons from the prophets Amos and Hosea.
Though it seems clear that Jefferson did believe in God, we know that he was not a run of the mill Christian. He was a radical in his time, and that makes him an even better introduction to prophetic literature as the prophets were not run of the mill religious types either. They prove that God speaks where God chooses to speak – not necessarily from the holy of holies, but from the radical voice that we are reluctant to hear.
The prophet is a distinct office, though like the priest the prophet is called to “mediate between the worlds of the sacred and the profane.”
The priest however mediates with authority – the authority of blood-line, son of the priestly lineage – the authority of purity, fulfilling the requirements of diet and lifestyle mandated by scripture – the authority of the Temple, administering in the holy places – and the authority of the Bible, serving as scripture’s chief interpreter.
The prophet on the other hand is of no particular lineage, is not particularly pure, preaches not from the pulpits of society but from the street corners, and only interprets that scripture engrained in memory, come to life on the street.
Amos the prophet is an outsider – and in our lesson for today his words are ignored by one who should have known enough to listen but didn’t hear.
The priest in our story is Amaziah, and if you have any notes in your Bible they may tell you a little something about him – he wasn’t a priest at the Temple, the one in Jerusalem – he was a priest at the temple at Bethel. There was only supposed to be one temple in Israel, but when the northern tribes started doing so well economically they just decided to build their own with their own group of priests appointed by the king.
The Temple in Jerusalem was built to be a house of God, and I suppose Amaziah and the other priests assumed that it would be nice for God to have a second house – a summer cottage I guess they were thinking.
They made it nice – full of gold, incense, there was even a nice gold calf for God to sit on.
The priest Amaziah must have assumed that if God had anything to say, then surely God would say it while sitting in the temple – why listen to the prophet Amos, what could he know?
He wasn’t from a priestly family, didn’t appear particularly holy, had the wrong accent, and didn’t preside at the temple so what could he know?
In fact, Amos incriminates himself saying, “I was neither a prophet, nor a prophets son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees.”
Not much of a résumé, not much of anything in the eyes of a priest – but more than enough in the eyes of God.
Amos becomes one of those few people in human history who know that they’ve seen God face to face – and it turns out that God didn’t need a golden calf to sit on – in fact God is more like Amos than we would dare to imagine as God doesn’t embody one of the holy priesthood or the powerful monarchy, but one of the carpenters constructing a wall.
The book of Amos is a book about God’s love for justice and God’s hatred of injustice. What specific injustice God sees in the world of Amos isn’t immediately clear from our passage for today – what God is so angry about isn’t mentioned - but what is clear is that Amos knows where to find God while the king and the priest do not.
What is clear is that God is out among the people, and not just out among them supervising or observing, out among them holding a plumb line as one of them.
We have a big problem in the world today and I tell you it’s not so different from the problem that Amos’ world faced – we need God but we don’t know where to look – so we go looking in the holy places and among the holy people – we separate ourselves from certain segments of society, we find ourselves all alone, and we find ourselves convicted by the judgment of God.
Amos calls us back however – reminds us that God is among the people – and not the ones who we would call special or important – among the ones who we would shy away from, ignore, devalue, and hardly give the time of day.
God’s word came to Amos through God the carpenter – and the one who cared for sycamore-fig trees wasn’t too uppity to recognize God there.
So I charge you to go and do the same.
Go out into the world today remembering that God is out there at work.
Go out into the world today knowing that God is speaking from the mouths of the afflicted.
Go out into the world today expecting to come into the presence of the holy when you are in the presence of the lowly – for when Amaziah and the King confined themselves to the sanctuary of the temple they cut themselves off from God.
There were three who passed by a wounded man on the road, but only one stopped to help. Only one Samaritan remembered that in serving the oppressed, in hearing their cry for help, you are walking into the presence of God.
Unlike the politician who serves in the sanctuary of Washington, you must hear the cries of the people.
Unlike the priest who serves in the sanctuary of religiosity, to hear God you must hear the voices of God’s people.
You must be like Amos, the gardener, who never distanced himself so far from the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant, the afflicted, the downcast, the unemployed, the underemployed, that he forgot that their voice calling for justice is the word of the Lord calling for justice.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Only in the Cross

Galatians 6: 11-16, page 826
See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that that they may boast about your flesh.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.
Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.
Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit brothers and sisters. Amen.
The theme of the day is Freedom, as on this 4th of July we celebrate our nation’s independence from Great Britain, and as we read once more from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia we hear again words of freedom – freedom from the law.
Last Thursday in the Men’s Breakfast Bible Study as we read this final section of Galatians, Dan Horan was reminded of John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who wanted his signature to be so big that King George would have no choice to but to see it, as here, in the same fashion, the Apostle Paul seizes the pen from his scribe to summarize and close out his letter using his own great big letters.
He siezes the pen for emphasis, as what we have here in chapter 6 is the most important part – Paul rehashes the theme of his letter that we have been reading from for five weeks now – that the cross, not the law, brings salvation. So salvation is not something that you can earn by your own piety, but is a gift. Therefore there can be no room for boasting, no discussion over who is holy and who is not, as in Christ Jesus we are made one – there are no divisions of male and female, holy and un-holy, have and have not, for we are all equally in need of a savior, a savior who we have in Christ Jesus.
But the freedom that comes from such a salvation that is not earned but given freely is not grounds for sinful living, because self-indulgence leaves open the opportunity for not freedom, but slavery, to alcohol, drugs, wealth, power, ambition, or fleeting pleasure.
Here at the end of the letter Paul summarizes all that has come before which we have dealt with in previous weeks, but this is also his chance to really hammer home his point, really sell his audience on his interpretation of the gospel, convince them of the benefits of conversion – and here come the words, “Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”
Here at the end of the letter – the Apostle Paul, great promoter of the Gospel – emphasizes not the great benefits of Christianity, but the suffering of the cross and the marks of Jesus that he bears on his very body.
Suffering is not normally a selling point of Western Religion; suffering is not really a selling point for anything. We want to become a part of organizations that will improve our lives, not make them harder, we buy things that make life easier, not more complicated, but many of the great world religions have embodied such hardship as the path to enlightenment.
Lilburn is now home to the largest Hindu Temple in the Southeast, and one of the reform movements that splintered off from Hinduism in much the same way that Christianity splintered off from Judaism, only about a thousand years before, is a religion that embodies suffering perhaps better than any other. Jainism is among the great monastic religions, and in many ways this religion has similarities with Paul’s brand of Christianity – especially concerning freedom from the desires of the flesh. We read last week in chapter 5, that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The Jains attempt to attain such freedom by liberating themselves from all passions, all needs, and all attachments.
I recently read about the life of a Jain nun named Mataji. Mataji gave up everything; she renounced her wealth and her home to live the life of a wandering beggar with no possessions and no money. She even renounced her family, as any attachment, even attachments to other people, are considered hindrances to freedom.
I think we know what this kind of freedom is about – in the past few weeks Lily has been learning to walk, but the freedom she gains from walking comes with a cost – she can’t be both free to walk and attached to her mother and I, so in a way she must detach a part of herself from us in order to be free to walk.
The story of Mataji takes detachment from loved ones much more seriously however. Her story was recently written down in a collection of short stories written by William Dalrymple in his search for the sacred in modern India. Her story stands out as Mataji was not able to attain complete detachment however, and in the face of her religious practice she found herself overcome by grief at the death of a friend: “When I realized she had left, I wept bitterly. We are not supposed to do this,” Mataji says, “and our guruji frowned at me. But I couldn’t help myself.”
In the event of mourning the loss of her friend she was also met by guilt, as her grief revealed her failure as a nun. She was not able to detach herself completely, and found herself hindered by attachment to another human being. In the death of her friend, Mataji found that she was not free by the standards of her religion, and here we find the difference between being a Jain and being a Christian.
Paul advocates freedom from the sinful nature – freedom from selfishness that forgets that others exist, freedom from pleasures that please ourselves in the moment while taking advantage of other people, freedom from self-righteousness that elevates self over neighbor, freedom from self-aggrandizement that inflates the ego at the expense of awareness of other people, and freedom from self-promotion that only concerns itself with one when one is in reality one among many.
Freedom from the sinful nature – the same freedom that the Jains pursue – Paul says that we must be freed from self-interest that we might be freed too, freed to love one another.
The point of freedom according to Paul is not to free yourself from others, but to free yourself from selfishness that you might become attached to others.
We are freed to love, not just ourselves, but each other.
And so, should we choose such freedom, we are invited to a life of pain and hardship.
When we are freed from self interest, freed to love another, we set ourselves up for the heartbreak that Paul describes here as the marks of Jesus.
For Christ knows the kind of pain that the freedom to love can bring, as loving another person comes with risk, the potential for rejection, most symbolized by the cross – the sign of God’s profound love for you, a love poured out and the marks of cruel rejection.
We are freed from self-interest, freed from the sinful nature that thinks only of ourselves, and you are freed to love one another just as Christ first loved you.
Do not be foolish thinking that this way of life is without heartache, pain, and suffering, but do not be fooled into thinking that there is another way of life worth living.
Here at the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians Paul doesn’t water down the truth, doesn’t shy away from the pain that the Christian life brings with it – but this great promoter of the gospel doesn’t relent from his claim that the way of the cross is the only way.
“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything: what counts is a new creation,” all that counts is a new creation – where you, the people of God, pour out the love of God to each other willingly.
This way of life is not easy, certainly not pain free – but no other way is worth pursuing. No other way embodies the Gospel, and no other way is worth your life.
On this 4th of July we celebrate our freedom – and we celebrate the lives of all those who gave of themselves to make that freedom a reality. With this gift comes the invitation to go and do the same – to give of yourself for other, to live and to love – for there is no greater calling.