Sunday’s Sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Danger and Fear

Text used – Daniel 6:6-27

  • There have been a lot of words used to describe this year that we’ve had – this year, 2020, that is swiftly coming to a close. To be frank, a lot of those are words that I’m not going to repeat in the middle of a worship service! Suffice to say that many of the words that I’ve heard used to describe this year have been less than complimentary. Because I think we can all agree that it’s been a rough year on so many different fronts.
    • Year full of …
      • Isolation and loneliness
      • Frustration and uneasiness
      • Injustice and unrest
      • Loss and grief
      • Danger and fear
    • I think it’s safe to say there’s never been a year like this one. I know the word has been tossed around a lot, but between the pandemic, the protests, and the election (just to name the top 3 stressors of this year), 2020 has truly been an unprecedented year. It’s been a rock-and-a-hard-place kind of year. And yet today we enter into the season of Advent – a time of waiting for the birth of peace … and salvation … and love the encompasses all. A time when we’re waiting for the birth of an unexpected and unprecedented child into circumstances that are far from perfect and pristine. Because we know – we believe! – that even though the odds weren’t good and the world wasn’t untarnished and humanity wasn’t really ready, it happened anyway. The Star of Bethlehem shone. The angels sang. The shepherds rushed to the stable. And the Christ child was born – born to bring us God’s love wrapped in flesh and bone, in swaddling clothes and stray bits of straw. It happened anyway. Christ was born anyway. God came to dwell among us anyway … not even in spite of the fear and danger, the failings of humanity, the things that hold us back, the broken dreams, and the active “no”s … not in spite of all those things, but because of them, Love happened anyway. Grace happened anyway. God happened anyway. And it is to that reality that we will cling during this crazy, backwards, isolated Advent season. It. Happened. Anyway.
      • Advent sermon series → walk through our Scripture readings – familiar stories and the ancient words of prophets still speaking to us today – with this theme in mind: Against all odds … in the face of struggles and strife … despite hurdles and heartbreak … the Christ-child was born.
  • Starting point = probably an unexpected story → not one we generally think of as an “Advent text”: the story of Daniel in the lions’ den
    • Background for Daniel
      • BOOK of Daniel = basically divided into 2 parts
        • Back half – chs. 7-12 = what we call “apocalyptic literature”: visions, interpretations, prayers, and prophecies having to do with the greatness of God, the end of days, and retribution for the wicked
        • First half – chs. 1-6 = stories that introduce us to who Daniel the prophet was – a mouthpiece for God among the community of diasporic Israelites who had been removed from Jerusalem when the Babylonians conquered the city in 587 BCE
          • Told this at the beginning of the book of Daniel: In the third year of the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and attacked it. … Nebuchadnezzar instructed his highest official Ashpenaz to choose royal descendants and members of the ruling class from the Israelites – good-looking young men without defects, skilled in all wisdom, possessing knowledge, conversant with learning, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. Ashpenaz was to teach them the Chaldean language and its literature. The king assigned these young men daily allotments from his own food and from the royal wine. Ashpenaz was to teach them for three years to that at the end of that time they could serve before the king. Among these young men from the Judeans were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.[1] → So Daniel was one of those exiled Israelites who, in addition to being dragged from his home and possibly his family and everything that he knew, was also hand-picked by the king’s officials to serve in the Babylonian court.
    • So basically, Daniel has been hand-picked to be smart, good-looking, and above all, subservient. He is supposed to amuse the king. He is supposed to keep the king happy and entertained. He may even have chances to assist or advise the king on particular matters. But only so long as he remains in the king’s favor.
      • Similar to appointments in our own government: many people in their positions “serve at the pleasure of the president”
    • 1st rule of surviving in a forced position in a foreign, conquering court = don’t anger or offend the king (obvious)
    • 2nd rule of surviving in said court = don’t anger or offend your rivals → This is the rule that Daniel missed. Daniel is, indeed, intelligent and capable, just as he was chosen to be. And like his ancestor Joseph before him, he is also an interpreter of dreams (with God’s help, of course).
      • Previous chapters of book of Daniel → he interprets many dreams for one Babylonian king after another which earns him great favor and praise → so much favor and praise that he begins to overshadow all others – text just prior to what we read this morning: Darius [the current king] decided to appoint one hundred twenty chief administrators throughout the kingdom, and to set over them three main officers to whom they would report so that the king wouldn’t have to be bothered with too much. One of these main officers was Daniel. Because of is extraordinary spirit, Daniel soon surpassed the other officers and the chief administrators – so much so that the king had plans to set him over the entire kingdom. As a result, the other officers and the chief administrators tried to find some problem with Daniel’s work for the kingdom. But they couldn’t find any problem or corruption at all because Daniel was trustworthy. He wasn’t guilty of any negligence or corruption. So these men said, “We won’t find any fault in Daniel, unless we can find something to use against him from his religious practice.”[2]
    • And so we come to today’s passage: other officers and chief administrators trick the king into signing a law specifically crafted to target Daniel and his religious practice: prayer to God → law makes it illegal to worship anyone but the king himself → other officers and chief administrators catch Daniel in the act of praying to God → haul Daniel before the king, eager to see their rival punished to the fullest and most fatal extent of the new law: When the king heard this report, he was very unhappy. He decided to rescue Daniel and did everything he could do to save Daniel before the sun went down. But these men, all ganged together, came and said to the king, “You must realize, Your Majesty, that the law of Media and Persia, including every law and edict the king has issued, cannot be changed.” So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and hurled him into the pit of lions.[3]
    • But of course, that is not the end of Daniel: At dawn, at the first sight of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit. As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God – the one you serve so consistently – able to rescue you from the lions?” Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.” The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God.[4]
    • “The rest of the story” (a lá Paul Harvey) = the king decides to have Daniel’s accusers thrown into the lions’ pit instead (doesn’t work out so well for them as for Daniel) → king sends out a new decree, declaring “fear and reverence” for Daniel’s God – “the living God”
  • I don’t think any of us would argue that 2020 has been a year in the lions’ den.
    • Daniel faced danger and entrapment on all sides
      • First from the jealous and corrupt officers and chief administrators
      • Next from the letter of the law (despite the king’s anguish and frustration with his own law)
      • Finally from the lions themselves
      • And no matter how strong his faith, I can imagine that Daniel felt fear in some of those moments – fear in the moment when the other officers and chief administrators caught him in prayer; fear in the moment when, despite the king’s own misgivings, Darius sentenced Daniel to death in the lions’ den; fear in the moment when he was lowered and sealed into that pit with those lions.
        • Important point: fear and faith are not mutually exclusive à being afraid doesn’t mean your faith is weak or lacking or ineffective … But it also doesn’t mean that God is not with you.
          • Benjamin Disraeli (former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1868): Fear makes us feel our humanity.
    • If nothing else, 2020 has certainly made us feel our humanity.
      • Feel the fear of our neighbors, family, friends, and loved ones battling COVID
        • Those who are ill themselves
        • Those who are working on the front lines in overextended hospitals and care facilities around the country
        • Those who are experiencing the extreme isolation of this pandemic
        • Those who are struggling financially because of the screeching halt pandemic brought to our economy
      • Feel the fear of our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color neighbors, family, friends, and loved ones in the wake of the violent and senseless deaths of so many: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Atatiana Jefferson, and so many more
        • Feel the fear of our communities and our nation in the months that led up to the election and in these weeks that have followed
      • Fear can be paralyzing. It can be insidious. It can steal even the most basic things from us: our ability to think clearly; our breath and our speech; our compassion and our empathy. But fear can also be inspiring – the thing that stirs us to move with purpose and intention.
        • Move closer to one another
        • Move closer to God
      • Friends, the aspect of our faith that continues to astound me is that, even knowing about the deepest depths and most hidden corners of fear, God chose to come down among us. Because of those deepest depths and hidden corners, God chose to come down among us – not as some avenging force, not as some charismatic leader with an overpowering army, not as some mystical presence to sweep through the land … but as a child. As a vulnerable, precious, fully human child in a manger. God knew the dangers and fears that lived in the world … and God came anyway. God knew the dangers and fears that lived in human hearts … and God came anyway. God knew that those same dangers and fears awaited the Christ-child … that those same dangers and fears would eventually bring about the death of that Christ-child … but in that death, those same dangers and fears would be overcome forever and all time by God’s own love embodied in that Christ-child. And so God comes anyway. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Dan 1:1, 3-6.

[2] Dan 6:1-5.

[3] Dan 6:14-16a.

[4] Dan 6:19-23.

Sunday’s sermon: A Promise in Action

Text used – Isaiah 6:1-8

  • I want to share a picture with you this morning. It was taken by Romain Bréget (found on Wikimedia).[1] If you’re joining us via Facebook Live this morning, I posted this picture right before church, so it should be on our page.

  • Isn’t this a beautiful spot? A beautiful, secluded, natural spot? Well … sort of natural. You see, this is a picture of something called a holloway or a sunken lane. While it looks like a natural little ravine, this is actually an ancient road of sorts.
    • Not the kind of paved road we’re used to today or even the paved roads that the Romans erected centuries ago
    • More like a local path that has been worn down and worn down and worn down by centuries worth of feet – human and animal alike
      • Holloway in this picture = from the site of a WWII battle in La Meauffe, France
    • Article from website Atlas Obscura: “Appearing like trenches dragged into the earth, sunken lanes, also called hollow-ways or holloways, are centuries-old thoroughfares worn down by the traffic of time. They’re one of the few examples of human-made infrastructure still serving its original purpose, although many who walk through holloways don’t realize they’re retracing ancient steps. … You’re most likely to discover a holloway where the ground and the stone below are soft, such as places rich in sandstone or chalk. No one ever engineered a holloway — erosion by human feet, and horses or cattle driven alongside, combined with water then flowing through the embankments like a gully, molded the land into a tunneled road. It’s hard to date them, but most are thought to go back to Roman times and the Iron Age, although in the Middle East some are believed to stretch back to ancient Mesopotamia. They even have their own ecology, such as the spreading bellflowers that enjoy the disturbed earth.”[2]
    • I find holloways fascinating things because they have literally been born out of human habit – century upon century of people going the same way, literally walking in the footsteps of those who came before them. They’re not marked and named roads. They’re not going to appear on any map (not any conventional map, anyway). And they certain don’t change direction. They may get deeper, but the wandering ways of these sunken roads were set centuries ago. They are long past the point of change.
      • This morning: contrast the unchanging nature of holloways with the ever-changing, ever-unexpected nature of God’s call in our lives
  • Scripture reading this morning = perfect example of the emphatic and unexpected way that God calls us to action → This is the story of Isaiah’s call to be God’s prophet in a troubled time.
    • Background for Isaiah
      • Isaiah the BOOK
        • One of the major prophets (along with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the book of Lamentations in the Bible)
        • Almost certainly the work of a few different editors à distinct linguistic, stylistic, and thematic differences in 3 different sections of Is (1-39, 40-55, 56-66)
        • Certain historical indicators that seem to point to those different sections being written down in different centuries → But remember, much like many other languages, Hebrew was an oral language long before it was written down. Important stories and elements of the Hebrew culture and faith were passed down from one generation to the next through stories, poems, songs, and so on. When we keep that in mind, it makes more sense that the various parts of Isaiah were eventually recorded by different people.
          • Not too unlike the 4 different accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings that we find in the 4 gospels
      • Isaiah the PERSON = prophet in Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah
        • Time of prophecy spanned the reign of a number of kings → started at the end of the reign of King Uzziah (as per our text this morning) and went through the reign of King Hezekiah
          • Starts somewhere in the middle of the 8th BCE
        • Time of prophecy also covered the Babylonian exile → Jerusalem conquered by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar who razed the city, then took all the best and brightest Hebrew politicians, scholars, artists, craftsmen, entertainers, teachers, priests, and so on and brought them back to live in Babylon for an entire generation → Isaiah was part of that group that was taken into exile.
    • But before all of that happened, we begin Isaiah story with his call from God – text: In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting and the house was filled with smoke.[3] → Clearly, God wanted to get Isaiah’s attention! This is some next-level call action here! Being in ministry, I have the privilege of hearing a lot of different people’s call stories.
      • Stories of calls to ministry
      • Stories of calls to other professions
      • Stories of calls to particular experiences (mission work, international placements, volunteer experiences, etc.)
      • And every single call story I’ve ever heard has been beautiful and different and powerful in its own way. To be frank, I don’t think any story of God reaching down into the heart and life of an individual and saying, “My beloved child, I have work for you to do” could be anything but powerful and eye-opening. God is so much bigger, so much greater, so much more than we are, that any brush with the Holy like that feels wild and frenetic and teeming with possibility and the unexpected. I will admit, though, that I’ve never heard a story quite as over-the-top as Isaiah’s!
    • Isaiah’s response to God’s call feels appropriately overwhelmed – text: I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”[4] → two interesting little bits to note here
      • First: Isaiah’s immediate reaction to God’s call = repentance → Isaiah doesn’t even ask for forgiveness or mercy from God. He simply names his flaws, laying bare the least pleasing parts of himself (according to him, anyway) before God.
    • Second: just how tied all of this is to speaking and silence
      • Isaiah’s confession = “I am a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips.” → Heb. “lips” could also be “speech/language”
      • Some of the first words out of Isaiah’s mouth = “Mourn for me; I’m ruined!” → Heb. “ruined” could also be “silenced”
      • I find this fascinating, especially as we live in this culture where it feels like words become cheaper and cheaper every day. If anyone lives in among a people with unclean lips, it is us. How easy it is to shoot off an angry email or write a nasty, intentionally argumentative comment on Facebook or some other online forum. How easy … and how unclean. How easy it is to parrot the soundbyte that we heard on last night’s 2-minute news story without investigating the context or actual facts behind that soundbyte. How easy … and how unclean. How easy it is to take the latest bit of gossip that we heard and pass it on quickly through a text blast or Facebook or even a quick phone call without considering the person at the center of that gossip. How easy … and how unclean. Truly, Isaiah’s dilemma has not changed much in more than two millennia, has it?
    • But as the saying goes, those whom God calls, God also equips, and in keeping with the rest of this odd and fantastical call story, God equips Isaiah in a spectacular fashion. – text: Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” → When I was growing up, there was a row of stained glass windows in my church that depicted various scenes from Scripture: the birth of Jesus was one. So were the crucifixion and the resurrection. Moses and the Ten Commandments was another. And so was this scene – this strange, other worldly scene with Isaiah on his knees and the many-winged angels around him with one of them holding a coal to his lips.
      • Fascinating scene to see depicted in stained glass
      • Fascinating scene to imagine
      • Fire has long been used as a tool for refining things … for good and for ill. Fire refines precious metals to their purest, most precious and costly forms. Fire was also used throughout the Inquisition as a way to try to “refine” the heretical Protestantism out of people to try to get them to return to the Catholic Church, the “true” church.
        • Fire of the burning bush refined Moses’ call[5]
        • God was present in a pillar of fire as the people of Israel fled Egypt[6]
        • God was proved in the fire that came down from heaven when Elijah challenged Jezebel’s 400 prophets of Ba’al[7]
        • Jesus spoke of God’s judgment in terms of fire burning away the chaff and leaving the refined wheat[8]
        • So while God’s use of fire in Isaiah’s vision here certainly has the weight of precedence behind it, it is no less shocking … no less attention-grabbing.
    • Which is exactly what it’s supposed to be because following the burning coal touching Isaiah’s lips, we get to The Point of this story – God calling Isaiah. – text: Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.”[9] → And there it is: the crux of the matter, the moral of the story, the whole point in four simple words. “I’m here; send me.” Not surprisingly, this is a popular verse among pastors. Many have it hanging on the walls in their office or their homes in some form – as a sign, as artwork, as an undeniable and constant reminder. Many others actually have this phrase tattooed on their bodies (some in English, some in Hebrew) as an even more permanent reminder and commitment to that call. “I’m here; send me.” You see, friends, we’ve been talking about God’s promises as we’ve been winding our way through God’s Grand Story of Faith with the Narrative Lectionary this year, and this single verse contains everything that we’ve already talked about.
      • First half of the verse speaks to God’s promise to the people that God will, indeed, remain their God → God is seeking someone to go out among the people and remind them who they are and whose they are. God is seeking someone to speak God’s own words of chastisement and judgment for the actions that have drawn the people away from God, but behind that reproach is love. God isn’t looking for someone to call the people out just because God wants to give them the ultimate public shaming. God is looking for someone to call the people back to God because God loves them. God longs to be in that holy and sacred relationship with the people once more – that relationship promised and renewed and promised and renewed time and time again throughout Israel’s history. “Whom should I send, and who will go for us? Who will help the people remember me? Who will help the people find their way back to be? They are my people, and I yearn to be their God again.”
      • Second half speaks to the relational nature of that promise → Throughout Scripture, God works with people and through people. God doesn’t force people to choose God. God doesn’t force people to worship. God doesn’t force people to pray. God continues to work with these crazy, frustrating, broken human beings that God created. It is God opening the way for people to continue in this relationship that God promised to us. And it is one powerful, moving example of one of those crazy, frustrating, broken human beings saying, “Yes.”
  • Modern-day calls take on any number of variations and forms … but just because it doesn’t look dramatic and charismatic like Isaiah’s call doesn’t mean God’s call in your life is any less real, any less potent, any less packed with potential and unexpected possibilities. God calls us first to faith, but as part of that faith, God also calls us to action. Over and over again. In big ways and small ways. In easy tasks and difficult tasks. With people we love and with people we find it difficult to love. God is calling you to action. “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” “I’m here; send me.” Amen.

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Meauffe_-_Chemin_creux_1.JPG.

[2] Allison Meier. “Holloways: Roads Tunneled into the Earth by Time” from Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/holloways-roads-tunneled-into-the-earth-by-time?fbclid=IwAR3at6jqjT-dPVWZzDZT2cB0igdovqnFzPJz1h8IVIWDWzny7ywGSp6sKz0. Posted Sept. 25, 2014, accessed Nov. 15, 2020.

[3] Is 6:1-4.

[4] Is 6:5.

[5] Ex 3:1-12.

[6] Ex 13:17-22.

[7] 1 Kgs 18.

[8] Mt 13:24-30.

[9] Is 6:8.

Sunday’s sermon: Hidden Potential

Text used – Jonah 3:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11

  • So Julia is 2 now – 2½, actually (if you want to get technical) – and she’s started doing this thing lately. Nearly every time you ask her something, she’ll say, “No.” Not surprising, right? She is 2, after all. The funny thing is when it’s something that she actually does want to have or to do. Her automatic response is still, “No,” but half a second later, shoe goes, “But … yes.” “Julia, do you want some milk?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” “Julia, do you want to go outside?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” “Julia, should we read some books?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” (Just kidding … the answer to that last question is ALWAYS yes!) Oh, toddler-hood! It’s an easy thing to joke about, right? “Toddlers always say no. Hahahahahaha!” But do you know when it becomes less funny? When it’s adults.
    • Adults who refuse to listen to each other
    • Adults who refuse to talk to each other
    • Adults who resist any form of communication with each other whatsoever
    • Adults who have decided the other side is
      • Unreasonable
      • Unreachable
      • Unredeemable
  • Enter our Scripture story this morning: Jonah. Most of us probably think of this story as “Jonah and the Whale” or “Jonah and the Big Fish.” I have a tendency to think of this story as “Jonah the Adult Toddler.” I bet you can figure out why. Let’s read the story. [read text] Like I said … “Jonah the Adult Toddler,” right? Jonah … who ran away from God when God said, “Come here.” Jonah … who tried to hide from God in the hold of a ship heading in the opposite direction. Jonah … who was pretty sure he knew better than God. Jonah … who, when he was proved wrong, decided to go up on the mountain and pout. Jonah … the adult toddler. → two separate judgments that Jonah makes in our text this morning
    • First judgment = Jonah’s judgment of the people of Nineveh
      • Now, Nineveh had quite the reputation back in Jonah’s day.
        • Huge city – text: Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.[1]
        • Wild and sinful city Let’s just say the motto for Nineveh could easily have been: “What happens in Nineveh stays in Nineveh.”
          • Described this way in various parts of the OT
          • Also described this way by various ancient writers and historians (Herodotus, Aristotle, etc.)[2]
        • Foreign city
          • Capital of Assyrian empire at the time relations between Assyrians and Israelites were never good
            • Antagonistic
            • Hostile
            • Violent
          • So in Jonah’s defense, God calling him to take a word of rebuke and call to repentance to the city of Nineveh is no small feat. It is a frightening call. It is an intimidating call. And it is a potentially dangerous call. On the other hand, Jonah is by far the first person God calls to do something hard. God called David to kill the giant Goliath.[3] God called Daniel to worship despite King Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous decree, and Daniel ended up in the lions’ den.[4] God called Esther to circumvent Haman’s political manipulations and plans of genocide.[5] God called Shiprah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives, to defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill all male Hebrew babies born in Egypt and ended up saving the life of Moses.[6]
        • As an Israelite, these are all stories that Jonah would have known – stories from which Jonah could have drawn courage and conviction in the face of his challenging call. And yet, when God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah flees. Jonah runs from God as far and as fast as he can in the exact opposite direction.
          • Makes is way to Joppa (modern-day Tel Aviv) and gets on a ship headed for Tarshish (modern-day Lebanon) literally flees west when God has called him to go east
          • And why does Jonah do this? Because of his pre-judgment of the people of Nineveh. They’re supposed to be lawless people. They’re supposed to be scary people. They’re supposed to be immoral people. They’re supposed to be people beyond saving. Surely, Jonah’s never been there himself.
            • Jonah = one of the Hebrew people from the northern kingdom of Israel
            • Jonah served as a prophet for God during a time of relative peace means Jonah got to bring words of affirmation and comfort … You know, words that people liked to hear. Words that people were happy to hear. Words that people found to be a blessing rather than a condemnation. So Jonah’s life was pretty cushy. This whole “taking God’s word of judgment to a giant city full of rough-and-tumble people” didn’t really fit in with Jonah’s vibe.
          • So without even meeting the people of Nineveh … without ever setting foot anywhere near the city itself … Jonah dismisses them as not worth his time. Not worth God’s time. Certainly not worth even the possibility of God’s redemption.
    • Middle of the story
      • Jonah gets on the ship headed for Tarshish God causes a massive storm at sea that puts the ship and its entire crew in jeopardy Jonah finally fesses up that he’s running from God sailors throw Jonah into the sea (at his own request) sea immediately calms Jonah is swallowed by the giant fish and spends 3 days in its belly giant fish vomits Jonah out onto the shore God calls Jonah a 2nd time to go to Nineveh Jonah finally relents – text: And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. … Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[7]
      • But then, something miraculous happens. The people of Nineveh – those scary, evil, immoral people that Jonah had tried so hard to avoid! – heard God’s word through Jonah. They believe God’s word, and they repented. – text: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.[8]  And indeed, God does And indeed, God does turn away from the path of wrath and destruction that God had laid out for the people of Nineveh. God was, indeed, merciful and gracious to them.
    • And here’s where Jonah’s 2nd judgment comes screaming into the story – text: But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”[9]  So Jonah stomps out of the city, heads up to one of the hillsides surrounding Nineveh, and sits down to pout. And there he is, folks! There’s the adult toddler Jonah, full of petulance and backhanded compliments. “I knew you were too nice, God. I knew you were too loving, too forgiving. Thanks for wasting my time, God, since you’re too nice to destroy this city. You brought me all the way here for nothing. Might as well kill me because this is lame. Humph!”
      • Jonah is judging God’s mercy as too broad
      • Jonah is judging God’s forgiveness as too easy
      • In Jonah’s mind, he’s come all this way, he’s gone through all these trials and tribulations (which, let’s remember, were his own doing), he’s shouted himself hoarse delivering God’s word to such a giant city, and he wants to see some punishment! He was to see some real live fire and brimstone! He wants to witness the destructive power of a righteously angry God. He doesn’t want to see this wimpy, predictable, lackluster response from God. Forgiveness, for Jonah, is just not exciting enough. So he judges God’s response as inadequate.
        • God tries to reason with Jonah and teach him in this strange little vignette at the end: Jonah builds a sulking hut on the side of the hill God causes a bush to grow up beside Jonah to provide him some shade (which Jonah thoroughly enjoys) next day, God sends a worm to eat the shrub so it withers and dies God doubles down and adds a full, hot sun and a “dry east wind” to the mix, making Jonah’s sulking hut on the hillside definitively uncomfortable Jonah gets angry again (maybe a touch more justified this time) – text: God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?” Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good – even to the point of death!” But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[10]  God is trying to get Jonah to understand just how misguided it is to mourn the passing of a simple shrub while rooting for the destruction of an entire massive city. God is trying to provide Jonah with some much-needed perspective.
  • So what happens to Jonah? Who knows? That last question that God poses to Jonah about pity for Nineveh’s 120,000 people and animals is the end of the book. Maybe Jonah stayed up on that hillside until he did, indeed, perish. Maybe he stayed up on that hillside until he was too hot, hungry, and thirsty to continue, then went down to seek refuge from the very city that he argued so hard to condemn. Maybe he saw the error of his ways and engaged in a little repentance of his own. We simply don’t know.
    • What we do know: this story isn’t really about Jonah it’s about God and the lengths to which God will go to reach out to us
      • God went to great lengths to reach out to the people of Nineveh à traveled every frustrating, circuitous step of the journey with Jonah
      • God went to great lengths to reach out to Jonah through his stubbornness and indignation
        • A storm at sea
        • The belly of a giant fish
        • A shrub, and a worm, and a hot, hot day
      • And God does this – God goes to these lengths to reach out to the people of Nineveh … to Jonah … even to us today – because God loves us. God loves us enough to see through all the barriers we put up and the false selves that we cling to. God love us enough to see the truth of our hearts and our souls. God loves us enough to recognize hidden potential in us even when we refuse to see it ourselves … when we are too busy getting in our own way.
        • Potential that we don’t see
        • Potential that the world doesn’t see
        • Potential that some, out of their own ignorance and prejudices, may try to diminish, deny, or destroy not unlike the way Jonah wished for the destruction of Nineveh despite the potential that God saw there But God sees through those false judgments and malicious intentions of the world, too. Whether we are the ones hiding our own potential or the world is trying to crush it out of us, God is greater. God sees. God knows. God loves. And God will move.
      • Beautiful thing: God’s love makes that initial move to reach out to us because God sees that potential But it doesn’t stop there. As God’s love claims us and enfolds us, it also begins to change us. God’s love works slowly but surely within us – our words and our actions, our thoughts and our desires, our hopes and our prayers – and transforms us bit by bit into a greater and greater embodiment of God’s love in the world. And in that transformation, even more hidden potential is revealed in us and through us. It’s like a fabulous upward spiral, going higher and higher and getting wider and wider as we draw nearer to God. All because God sees potential in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Jonah 3:3.

[2] Thomas M. Bolin. “Nineveh as Sin City” from Bible Odyssey. https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/nineveh-as-sin-city. Accessed Nov. 7, 2020.

[3] 1 Sam 17.

[4] Dan 6:10-24.

[5] Est 5-8.

[6] Ex 1.

[7] Jonah 3:3, 4.

[8] Jonah 3:5-9.

[9] Jonah 4:1-3.

[10] Jonah 4:9-11.

Sunday’s sermon: Gritty Hope

Text used – 1 Kings 17:1-16

  • The classic 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem called “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”[1] You’ve probably heard it, or at least are familiar with the first line of it:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

  • I’ve always loved this poem because it paints such a beautiful, delicate picture of hope. Hope, the tender little bird perched in the soul. Hope, the light, uplifting melody echoing in the dark. Hope, the warm and welcoming fire that keeps out the chill. That’s the kind of hope that I picture with Emily Dickinson’s poem, and I think a lot of the time, that’s the way that we think about hope in general.
    • Hope that comes with a new phase of life → new home, new job, new relationship, new baby, etc.
      • Hope of endless possibilities and open doors
      • Hope that is effervescent and brilliantly bright
      • Hope that bubbles and sparkles with excitement and joy overflowing
      • Hope that anticipates all good things
  • But that’s not the kind of hope we find in our Scripture reading this morning. In this story, we encounter the grittier, grungier side of hope. → see the same gritty, urgent, audacious hope in both of the main characters this morning: Elijah, the prophet and the widow of Zarephath
    • First, Elijah → prophet sent by God to deliver words of condemnation and a call to repentance to King Ahab
      • Ahab = king of the northern kingdom of Israel in late-to-mid-800s BCE
        • Evil king
        • Married to Jezebel → leads Ahab to abandon worshiping God and instead establish the Canaanite religion of Ba’al in Israel
        • So not only has Ahab himself turned away from God, but he’s led the entire nation of Israel to turn away from God as well.
      • Hence Elijah’s call to be God’s prophet – to declare the word of God in the face of such widespread and state-led idolatry. And so we open with Elijah’s words for Ahab in our passage today: this threat of a national drought so severe that “there will be neither dew nor rain these years until I say so.”[2] Not surprisingly, this declaration infuriates Ahab and Jezebel so much that Elijah is forced to flee.
      • Today’s reading = Elijah running for his life → God instructs Elijah to run and hide himself by the Cherith Brook, reassuring him that the ravens will bring him food → And so Elijah heads into the wilderness. And since he’s relying on the brook for his water and the ravens for his food, I think we can assume he fled with little to nothing. The clothes on his back, and God in his heart. Imagine the desperate hope Elijah must have been clinging to throughout this ordeal.
        • Hope that the birds will come the next day … and the next … and the next
        • Hope that God will not forget him
        • Hope that Ahab and Jezebel’s agents won’t find him
        • Hope tinged with the fearful knowledge and reality that the brook providing the water that’s keeping him alive will certainly dry up because of God’s words from Elijah’s own mouth: “there will be neither dew nor rain these years until I say so.”
      • And in fact, that’s exactly what happens: After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land. The Lord’s word came to Elijah: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon, and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. Elijah left and went to Zarephath.[3]
    • And so we are introduced to the other character in desperate need of hope in today’s story: the widow of Zarephath. The woman with literally nothing left. Nothing but a tenacious and tattered scrap of hope.
      • Elijah encounters the widow collecting sticks outside the town gate → asks her for water → when she brings him water, Elijah goes a step further (giant step!) and asks for some bread as well
      • Widow’s own description of her circumstances is chillingly bleak: “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll at the last of the food and then die.”[4]
        • A couple of interesting things to notice about this enigmatic widow
          • FIRST: as a woman from Zarephath, she was surely not an Israelite (Zarephath = modern-day Lebanon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, roughly 100 mi north of the border between Israel and Sidon) → see this “otherness” when she says to Elijah, “the Lord your God”
          • BUT: she is clearly someone that God has interacted with in some way
            • Yes, she says, “The Lord your God,” but when she says that, uses the sacred Hebrew name for God. She calls God “Yahweh,” a name that was only used between God and the people of Israel.
            • Remember God’s word to Elijah on the dried-up banks of Cherith Brook: Get up and go to Zarephath … I have ordered a widow there to take care of you.[5]
              • Heb. in this phrase is fraught with layers and meanings to wrestle with: “take care of” carries connotations of a task that needs to be endured, but at the same time “ordered” carries connotations of a direct command but also a blessing → It’s a complicated and complex statement. It seems that God knows this particular command is not going to be easy for this foreign widow, but God also ensures that there will be blessing in the midst of this challenge. There will be goodness. There will be hope.
      • And indeed, Elijah brings a miracle and brings this nameless, Gentile widow hope. – text: Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. This is what Israel’s God the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t fun out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. The jar of flour didn’t decrease, nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.[6]
  • Confession: I find this to be a really, really uncomfortable Biblical story because of what Elijah does here. This widow is at the bottom of the social ladder. She’s just told Elijah that she literally has nothing left. And yet Elijah asks of her. “Before you make your last bit of food for yourself and your son, make some for me. Feed me first, then take care of yourselves.” Yes, I know that it works out alright in the end. Yes, I know that Elijah was acting on God’s behalf. But it still sits prickly and troublesome in my soul, especially in the face of the poverty and injustice suffered by so many across this country and around the world today.
    • Scholar put pointed and powerful words to this discomfort: Too many around us are that widow or that child, literally or figuratively. Too many around us feel lost, hopeless, hungry, and thirsty for something beyond the tangibles of daily living, for more than meager leftovers, scraps of food, love, and justice. Many feel there is simply no one willing to empower them with healing and grace.[7] → Too many feel that loss of hope. Too many feel that hope is beyond their reach. Or at best, too many are only acquainted with the grittier side of hope – the desperate, slogging-through-the-mud, last chance kind of hope.
      • Hope that is more like molasses than the effervescent bubbles of champagne
      • Hope that is more frayed and tattered than gleaming and brilliant
      • Hope that is more like a quickened pulse than an outright, joy-filled laugh
      • Hope that has been tempered and knocked down and stripped nearly away so many times that it is a mere shred
  • Friends, we are still in the throes of a global pandemic. The numbers around us are rising rapidly. Our healthcare workers are exhausted and overwhelmed. Our teachers are frantically doing everything they can to teach while keeping a classroom full of masked kids safe. And we have been apart from each other for so long … with no sure end in sight. Friends, we are facing Election Day this week at a time, as Rev. Dr. Nishioka said last week, when our country is more politically divided and hostile than it has been since the Civil War. The constant political rhetoric is ruining relationships left and right: between neighbors, between friends, between families. Friends, our black, indigenous, people of color neighbors are crying out for justice and paying for those cries with the blood of their bodies and with their very lives while white supremacist groups march openly through the streets armed to the teeth. I don’t know about you, but my hope feels fragile. It feels brittle. It feels more like Elijah’s hope along the bed of that dried up creek. It feels more like the hope of the widow gathering the last sticks to make her last meal. It’s not that bubbly, effusive, joy-overflowing kind of hope. It’s the kind of hope that you fiercely cling to by your fingertips, not the kind of hope that you gently shelter in the palm of your hand. But it is still hope.
    • Scripture this morning is so important because it reminds us that God still makes space for that darker, dingier side of hope as well as the sparkling, pie-in-the-sky kind
    • Recently read a book called Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang (director of International Justice Mission’s Institute for Biblical Justice): God is so greatly concerned with injustice that [God] continually invites [God’s] children to face darkness for the purpose of sending us in to scatter it. As we choose to face grave darkness in our broken world, one of the best ways to combat our own pendulum swinging between apathy on the one hand and despair on the other is to also intentionally choose hope. Hope can be impotently naïve and moorless when pursued as nothing more than a sentimental wish. But when hope in grounded in the reality of who God is and the reality of how God works in our world, it becomes a source of great power in the face of even the darkest circumstances.[8] → “Intentionally choose hope.” It doesn’t have to be perfect hope. It doesn’t have to be pretty hope. It doesn’t have to be big hope. It can be the smallest, most tattered scrap of hope you have left. But for God, that is enough. Amen.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-314.

[2] 1 Kgs 17:1.

[3] 1 Kgs 17:7-10a.

[4] 1 Kgs 17:12.

[5] 1 Kgs 17:9.

[6] 1 Kgs 17:13-16.

[7] Gláucia Vasconcelos Wilkey. “Proper 5 (Sunday between June 5 and June 11 inclusive) – 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24): Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 100.

[8] Bethany H. Hoang. Deepening the Soul for Justice. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 26.

Sunday’s sermon: Prayer is Complicated

Text used – 1 Samuel 1:9-20; 2:1-10

  • Well, y’all, I have to be honest with you: it’s starting to feel like this year of Narrative Lectionary readings are all about difficult texts.
    • Began with story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden → never an easy story to tackle because it forces us to look at the active and complicit role we play in disobeying God
    • Continued a few weeks later with the story of the first Passover → tough story because we catch a glimpse of God’s vengeance in the final plague: the death of every first born in Egypt
    • Last week’s story about the Israelites and the golden calf and Moses talking God out of punishing the people harshly for their rebellion → not exactly a warm and fuzzy bedtime story!
    • Thread that binds all these challenging stories together = the steadfast nature of God’s promise
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of our human fickleness and failings
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of injustice and oppression from those in power
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of God’s own frustration and indignation over human stubbornness and doubt
        • Promise of God’s presence
        • Promise of God’s love
        • Promise of God’s hope, even in situations where hope seems most minimal
  • And then we come to today’s text: the story of Hannah, her prayer, and her son, Samuel. → painful story in and of itself
    • First, let’s fill in some of the gaps around today’s portion of the story.
      • Elkanah has 2 wives: Hannah and Peninnah → Peninnah has children, Hannah does not
      • Earlier in 1 Sam 1: Every year [Elkanah] would leave his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD of heavenly forces in Shiloh … Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the LORD had kept her from conceiving.[1]
      • Also revealed in the earlier part of 1 Sam 1: Peninnah would tease Hannah mercilessly because she had no children
    • Today’s story opens on just one such time: Hannah is particularly distraught and so she goes to the temple to present herself to God → And in Hannah’s words, we hear a prayer that is especially, painfully poignant as we recognize October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month – text: Then [Hannah] made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”[2] → I think it’s hard for us to understand the true power behind Hannah’s prayer and her vow. She is pleading with God with every fiber of her being for a child, and her longing is so deep and desperate that she is promising to give that child back to God if only she can bring him into this world.
      • Not a prayer simply relegated to the pages of Scripture and history → This is a prayer prayed by women around the world every day. “If only, God, then I’ll give you this … I’ll do that … I’ll be this … I’ll change that … Anything you want, God, if only …” If only, God … if only.
      • Hannah’s prayer exemplifies everything that is both culturally wrong and wholly right when it comes to our attitudes about prayer → Hannah’s prayer is raw and real. It is revealing in the most intimate of ways, bearing her heart and soul openly to God. It’s the kind of prayer that we aspire to … but also the kind of prayer that makes us uncomfortable to witness. It’s not the “Minnesota nice” form of prayer: “Please and thank you, God, if you have time.”
        • Rev. Joanna Harader: Hannah’s prayer is simply not proper. She is far too bold before God. Far too emotional. We are much more comfortable with the way Jesus taught us to pray. Head bowed, eyes closed. (O.K., that’s not actually in the Bible, but we know that’s how it works.) “Your will be done; give us our daily bread.” It’s a modest, humble, controlled prayer. There is much good in the prayer that Jesus taught us. It is our model. That is why we pray it—or a version of it—almost every Sunday. [But] I want to lift up the virtues of the improper prayer; of Hannah’s gut-wrenching, emotionally charged tirade and bargaining session.[3]
    • And so Hannah is there in the temple, distraught to the point where she is sobbing uncontrollably. And then we have this strange and uncomfortable interaction between Eli, the priest, and Hannah.
      • Hannah is standing there praying and crying – text: Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent.[4] → We can just feel the passion and the fervor in Hannah’s prayers, can’t we, because we’ve all prayed prayers like this at some time, haven’t we? Prayers into which we pour every ounce of ourselves – our hopes, our dread, our desperation, our longing, and our whole hearts.
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for ourselves
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our loved ones
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our neighbors
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our country and our world
        • These are the soul-bearing, soul-altering prayers of our deepest selves – the prayers that we pray in anxiety and distress, the prayers the give voice and hope to the most fervent hopes and fears of our souls, the prayers that cannot help but have a lasting effect on the course of our whole lives.
      • Eli finds Hannah pouring her heart and soul, her words and tears into this whole-body prayer. – response is awkward (to say the least): Eli thought she was drunk. “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her. “No, sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!”[5] → Did you just cringe? ‘Cuz I did! In the midst of this greater lesson prayer, Eli gives us this delicate and uncomfortable lesson on snap judgments, right? Eli assumes he knows exactly what’s going on, so he reprimands this lone woman who’s acting a little odd, expecting her to apologize and repent. But instead, Hannah pours out her heart to him, begging him to believe that she is not drunk but instead is distraught. Yikes. A reminder that you never know what struggles someone is bearing in silence.
    • After Hannah’s explanation, Eli sends her off with a blessing à Hannah heads home with Elkanah → text: The Lord remembered her.[6] → Hannah becomes pregnant with Samuel
  • And, friends, there’s so much that’s challenging wrapped up in that turn of events!
    • So many difficult questions:
      • Were Hannah’s prayers so much better … so much louder … so much more effective than the prayers of thousands of others who have prayed exactly the same thing with no result?
      • Was there something special about Hannah that God chose to remember her while refusing or neglecting to remember so many others who have felt the same pain and prayed the same prayer?
      • Was there something about Eli’s blessing that tipped the scales in Hannah’s direction, that turned a spotlight onto her plight and drew God’s attention in an undeniable way?
      • I don’t think the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” and yet we cannot help but ask them, can we? Because whether we realize it or not, we all know someone who has struggled with fertility, with pregnancy loss, with the loss of a child. Statistics say one in four women will suffer some sort of miscarriage or pregnancy loss in their lives. One in four will pray the same kind of prayer that Hannah prayed. Some will conceive … or conceive again. And some will not. And that leaves us wrestling with just how complicated prayer can be.
        • Complicated in the asking – the how, the why, the words
        • Complicated in the waiting
        • Complicated in the response – whatever the response
    • Prayer is the rawest, realest, most fragile and precarious act of faith that we can engage in because it involves nothing but our greatest vulnerability.
      • Involves naming our weaknesses and our deepest longings to God
      • Involves holding them out in hope that God will act – trusting that God will act – but without any kind of assurance that God will act in the way that we want God to act
      • Involves uncertainty … And human beings are not very good at uncertainty. I think our golden calf story from last week proved that pretty well.
        • Paul speaks of prayers like this in Romans: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.[7]
        • Kate Bowler, author and assistant professor at Duke Divinity School (in Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved): I plead with a God of Maybe, who may or may not let me collect more years. It is a God I love, and a God that breaks my heart.[8]
      • Sometimes we get to pray the prayer that Hannah prays at the end of our Scripture reading this morning – a prayer of joy and thanksgiving that is literally overflowing from her soul just like her tears overflowed as she prayed in the temple at the beginning of our text. And sometimes we are left aching and wondering. And I wish with all I am that I could tell you why this morning – that I could wrap this all up for you in a neat, easy theological package and say, “Here’s the solution. Pray exactly this way, and God will always do what you ask.” But I can’t.
        • What I can tell you: Getting an undesired response to prayer is not a reflection on the way you prayed – the form, the frequency, the fervor, or the faith behind your prayers → There’s a lot of really bad, really twisted, really harmful theology swirling around in Christian circles today that will try to tell you that if you’re suffering, it’s because you haven’t prayed hard enough or faithfully enough. This theology will try to tell you that cures and miracle fixes and the answer to all your problems lies right around the corner if you’d only get your prayers “right.” But that’s wrong. Do you know what lesson we can take from this difficult text on prayer and pain this morning? God’s presence. God does indeed hear our prayers. God holds sacred space for them all – the happy ones and the sad ones, the desperate ones and the delighted ones, even the most boring and basic ones and the ones that we cannot even put words to. God is there with us in the midst of prayer, arms open, heart open, grace open and beckoning. Because in the end, friends, that is why we pray: to remind ourselves that God is, indeed, there as promised, and to remind God that we are here and we are willing to engage in our faith … even when it is gut-wrenchingly, soul-achingly hard. Amen.

[1] 1 Sam 1:3, 4-5.

[2] 1 Sam 1:11.

[3] Joanna Harader. “1 Samuel 1:4-18” from Spacious Faith: Spiritual Practices, Worship Pieces, and General Ponderings blog. https://spaciousfaith.com/1-samuel-14-18/?fbclid=IwAR3KlF7lQc9datN_eKwvUKk6FIeF9KqKcyYPaBiRoXoH0vImREoBJsHpCgo. Posted July 20, 2008, accessed Oct. 18, 2020.

[4] 1 Sam 1:13 (emphasis added).

[5] 1 Sam 1:13b-16.

[6] 1 Sam 1:19.

[7] Rom 8:26 (NRSV).

[8] Kate Bowler. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. (New York, NY: Random House, 2018), xv.

Sunday’s sermon: Trying to Fill the Void

Text used – Exodus 32:1-14

  • You may have heard that the Nobel Committee is starting to release the names of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in various categories. One of the most interesting awards this year comes in the category of physics.
    • This year’s physics award[1]
      • Honors decades of research about black holes
      • Shared by 3 people:
        • Half to Roger Penrose (University of Oxford) → showed mathematically that black holes could exist
        • Half shared by Reinhard Genzel (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and UC Berkeley) and Andrea Ghez (UCLA) → provided the most convincing evidence that the black hole at the center of our very own Milky Way galaxy does, in fact, exist
    • So what’s the deal with black holes, anyway? What are they?
      • From an article in The Atlantic this week: Black holes are among the most mysterious phenomena in the universe. Forged from the cores of dead stars, they are so dense that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light, which renders them invisible. Entire stars, once luminous, can be extinguished if they cross a black hole’s boundary, and pass the point of no return.[2]
      • Same Atlantic article included a paragraph that really intrigued me
        • Mentions recent research (published in Jan. 2020) that revealed scientists had found the closest known black hole to Earth – only 1,000 lightyears away and located in the Telescopium constellation: That nearby black hole is no threat to Earth. No known black hole is. If anything, we benefit from their existence. The stellar explosions that produce black holes also spew elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen into space. The collisions of black holes and neutron stars help spread heavier elements, such as gold and platinum. These elements make up our Earth, and our own selves.[3] → And the idea that stuff of our every day – our planet, our atmosphere, our homes, even our very bodies – were quite possibly spun from the vast void of a black hole resonated in a powerful way with me this week as I thought about this morning’s Scripture – a story about a golden calf and the void that the Israelites were trying to fill … and the voids that we try to fill in our hearts and souls and lives today.
  • So let’s talk about the Israelites and that golden calf.
    • Uncomfortable story on a number of levels
    • Grand Story of Scripture up to this point
      • Israelites have been led out of Egypt by Moses (accompanied by his brother Aaron, his right-hand man)
      • Despite Pharaoh’s sudden and violent change of heart, Israelites managed to evade the pursuing Egyptian army when God parted the waters and Moses led the Israelites across
      • Israelites have begun to wander in the wilderness … and have begun to get sick of wandering → already doing some grumbling and doubting
      • Most recently: Israelites have arrived at Mount Sinai → Moses has gone up on the mountain to speak to God
        • While on the mountain, Moses is receiving instructions from God → 10 commandments[4], instructions on all sorts of other instructions (about proper worship, proper sacrifice, proper treatment of others, proper festivals, proper construction of the tabernacle, about observing the sabbath, and so on)
  • Problem: this discussion between God and Moses was taking a long time! → That’s where today’s reading comes in: The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”[5]
    • First reason that this Scripture is uncomfortable: the anxiety level of the Israelites → Here they are in the middle of the wilderness having followed this Moses fellow out of Egypt … and how he’s gone and disappeared. He’s disappeared up the mountain claiming to be talking to God, but all that the people at the base of the mountain can see are clouds and lightning. All they can hear is thunder. And all they can feel is the absence – the absence of Moses and, by association, the absence of God. And that absence has made them anxious. It’s made them fearful. It’s filled them with so much doubt that they start casting about frantically for something else – anything else! – to worship. They feel that deep, dark void within themselves, and they are desperate to fill it in whatever way they can.
      • Even more uncomfortable because maybe this hits a little close to home, especially in these crazy, mixed-up, contentious, separated times in which we’re living right now → we are …
        • Anxious about COVID
        • Anxious about social and economic ramifications of the pandemic
        • Anxious about blatant and violent racism rampant in our society today
        • Anxious about the political contention and unrest
        • Anxious about all of the other things that we would normally be anxious about if the world weren’t totally upside-down
          • Relationships
          • Finances
          • Raising children
          • Loved ones’ wellbeing
          • Future plans
      • And all that anxiety sort of hollows us out. It exhausts us and wears us down until we feel that void within us, too, doesn’t it? And when it does, very often, we aren’t so different from the Israelites in our story.
  • So even as we feel that anxiety along with the Israelites, we witness them try to fill that void: appeal to Moses’ brother, Aaron, for “gods who can lead us” → Aaron relents (seemingly without any qualms??) and instructs the Israelites to give him all the gold they have → Aaron melts down all their gold and cast the golden calf → Aaron builds an altar to the calf → Israelites get up early the next morning to have a worshipful festival for the calf[6]
    • Major, inexcusable mistake that Aaron makes – text: When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!”[7] → Heb. that Aaron uses for “Lord” is, in fact, the most holy name for God … the name that the Israelites use only for God and God alone … the name that is so special, so sacred that when they encounter it when reading Scripture, they don’t even say the name → This is the name Yahweh. This is the most holy and precious name for God. And Aaron has used it not speaking of the God who made sacred covenants with their ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob … not speaking of the God who has led them out of slavery and through danger … not speaking of the God who has called them God’s own beloved and treasured, chosen people … but of the golden calf. The false god. The inexcusable, completely incomparable, wholly inadequate substitute.
    • Ways we try to fill that void = not so different from the Israelites
      • Purchases: cars and “big toys,” clothes and shoes and jewelry, knick knacks and home décor and things that fill up our spaces
      • Relationships – some healthy, some not
      • Addictions – alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc.
      • We try to fill that void within us with whatever we think might bring us happiness and peace … and maybe they do for a moment as we feel that dopamine hit. But that euphoria doesn’t last, and before long, we’re back where we started: anxious and wanting for more. → feel like there’s a black hole inside us and try to elevate all sorts of things to “false god” level … but false gods, they remain.
  • Not surprisingly, God’s reaction to this major transgression on the part of the Israelites is not good. → this is the other uncomfortable portion of this text
    • God’s reaction is swift and fierce – text: The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen who stubborn they are. Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”[8]
      • Definitely an uncomfortable impression of God
        • A God who is offended
        • A God who is hurt
        • A God who is frustrated
        • A God who is feeling slighted
    • But it’s crucial for us to look at the story as a whole, not just these verses isolated in and of themselves.
      • What comes next? → Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites[9]
        • Intercedes for the lives of the people
        • Intercedes for the covenant that hangs by a thread
        • Intercedes by recalling the words that we read only a few weeks ago – God’s covenant with Abram that God would make his descendants “as many as the stars in the sky”[10]
      • Result of Moses’ intercessions – text: Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.[11]
    • As a whole, even in the face of the discomfort that this whole story stirs within us, we’re reminded of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
      • Heb. “changed his mind” is much more nuanced than we can grasp in the English translation = connotations of compassion, comfort, and allowing oneself to be sorry → This is the picture of God that we are left with in this story. So often, we talk about how we as humans are created in God’s own image, and when we do that, we tend to talk about the happy, heart-warming, exciting parts of being human: creativity, love, joy, and so on. But today’s story shows us that being created in God’s image also includes a compassion born out of altercation and struggle. It shows us that being created in God’s image includes comfort in the face of some really difficult, contentious, painful circumstances. And it shows us that being created in God’s image includes the capacity for forgiveness – both seeking it and giving it, frequently at the same time.
        • Brings it around to Jesus’ role in the Grand Story of faith and declares the good news of the gospel for us
          • That Jesus makes that intercession for us first, foremost, and forever
          • That the grace extended to us through the life and death and resurrection of Christ bridges even the most contentious moments in our lives
          • That we are only made truly whole – that the only thing that can truly fill that void within us gnawed out by anxiety and doubt and fear and frustration – is the love of God
            • A God who has been there
            • A God who knows all about our mishaps and loves us still
            • A God whose forgiveness is greater than we can even begin to imagine
            • Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Marina Koren. “What Earth Owes to Black Holes” in The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/10/what-black-holes-bring-to-the-galaxy/616631/. Posted Oct. 7, 2020, accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

[2] Koren.

[3] Koren.

[4] Ex 20:1-21.

[5] Ex 32:1.

[6] Ex 32:2-7.

[7] Ex 32:5.

[8] Ex 32:7-10.

[9] Ex 32:11-13.

[10] Ex 32:13.

[11] Ex 32:14.

Sunday’s sermon: Table of Refuge, Table of Grace

Text used – Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8

  • There’s a show on the Food Network called “Cutthroat Kitchen.”[1] Some of you may be familiar with it.
    • Hosted by Alton Brown
    • One of those reality competition shows for chefs
    • Basic format
      • 4 chefs compete in 3 rounds
      • Each round is themed (“pub food,” “fish and chips,” “red velvet cake,” etc.)
      • Chefs have 1 minute to gather all the ingredients that they need for their dish
      • Chefs get 30 mins. to prepare their dish
      • Chef with the least pleasing dish is eliminated after each round
    • Twist
      • At the beginning of the episode, each chef is given $25,000. Throughout that episode, the chefs are given the opportunity to use that $25,000 to buy items and restrictions to sabotage their competitors – things like …
        • Cooking with one hand taped into an oven mitt
        • Cooking with only children’s-sized pots and pans
        • Having to run through a maze of velvet ropes to get from their prep area to their cooking area
      • Sabotages are also auctioned off during the rounds, so not only are the chefs frantically trying to make the best dish they can as fast as they can, they’re also trying to calculate how much money they have left, who might have a better dish than they do and therefore need to be hindered, and worrying about whether their fellow competitors are going to stick them with a culinary disadvantage.
    • Winner keeps whatever they have left from the $25,000 they were given at the beginning of the episode
    • Now, many of you know that I love to watch cooking shows. I’ve watched Cutthroat Kitchen a few times, and to be honest, I have trouble with it because of the whole premise of the show: the sabotages. I know that’s why most people watch it. I mean, let’s face it: it’s funny to watch a professional chef trying to turn out a gourmet dish using nothing but plastic cutlery or canned versions of the beautiful, fresh ingredients that they originally selected. But the reason I love watching these cooking shows is because I like seeing what these incredible chefs come up with. I like to watch their creative process and see the beautiful, delicious-looking dishes that they produce. It’s inspiring! And when they’re so drastically hindered by such ridiculous restrictions, that takes some of the fun out for me. It ceases to be about the food and instead becomes about the strategy and the scheming. And Lord knows we witness enough strategy and scheming in our world today without scripting any more.
      • Reason why “Cutthroat Kitchen” struck me as the perfect contrast with today’s Scripture reading
        • Reality show: all about the intrigue and the sabotage à meal end up coming second
        • Scripture: all about the meal despite the intrigue and sabotage that was happening in the lives of the Israelites
  • Today’s Scripture reading = story of the 1st Passover meal
    • Backstory (because we’ve skipped quite a bit between Joseph’s story last week and today’s passage):
      • Moses = son of a Hebrew slave in Egypt → in order to save his life, his mother placed him in a basket and set the basket in the river → basket and baby were picked up downstream by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a son in Pharaoh’s house → ran away from Egypt as an adult after killing an Egyptian taskmaster for abusing a Hebrew slave → married into Midianite tribe and lived as a shepherd, watching his father-in-law’s flock → encountered God in the burning bush → God revealed Moses he is called to free the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt → Moses returned to Egypt and demanded that Pharaoh set God’s people free over and over again and got turned down by Pharaoh over and over again → God brought the plagues on the land of Egypt to try to convince Pharaoh to set the Hebrew people → Pharaoh continued to deny the people their freedom, even doubling down by making their working conditions harsher and demanding even more work from them[2]
    • Brings us to today – preparation for the final plague: the death of the firstborn – God in text: I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.[3] → Now, I will admit that this part of the Grand Story of our faith is a difficult one to wrestle with – a God who would sweep through the land and take the lives of all the firstborn. As people of faith, part of our jobs is to struggle with some of the stories that make up our collective history – to struggle with what they mean for us today, to struggle with how they speak to our faith, to struggle with what they tell us about God. And your spoiler alert for today, friends, is that I don’t have the answers to this one. There are definitely some darker, harsher, more uncomfortable threads in our Grand Story of faith, and this is certainly one of them. So if you feel uneasy about this particular facet of this story, that’s okay. I do, too.
      • God forewarns Moses and his brother (and right-hand man), Aaron that they need to make preparations
        • Much of the text for today is details about preparations for the meal itself – what the Israelites should eat, how they should prepare it, how they should eat it, even how they should be dressed when they eat it. – text (sample): Don’t eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over fire with its head, legs, and internal organs. Don’t let any of it remain until morning, and burn any of it left over in the morning. This is how you should eat it. You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry.[4]
        • Preparations to protect the Israelite households from what is to come – text: They should take some of the blood [of the lamb] and smear it on the two doorposts and on the beam over the door of the houses in which they are eating. … The blood will be your sign on the house where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.[5]
        • Preparation for leaving because surely Pharaoh will free the Israelites after this final act and God will fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham – text: Moses said to the people, “Remember this day which is the day you came out of Egypt, out of the place you were slaves, because the Lord acted with power to bring you out of there. … Today, in the month of Abib, you are going to leave. The Lord will bring you to the land … that the Lord promised your ancestors to give to you, a land full of milk and honey.[6]
      • In all these preparations, God was directing the people to set a table – a table of resistance and freedom, a table of promise and hope, a table of refuge and safety in the face of real and impending danger. → God (through Moses) ensured that this critical element would be an established and essential part of the Grand Story of the Israelites faith – text: You should perform this ritual in this month. You must eat unleavened bread for seven days. The seventh day is a festival to the Lord. Only unleavened bread should be eaten for seven days. No leavened bread and no yeast should be seen among you in your whole country. You should explain to your child on that day, “It’s because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.”[7]
  • And of course, this is the same table that was set by Jesus and the disciples thousands of years later in that Upper Room just hours before Jesus’ arrest.
    • Matthew: On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?”[8] → As faithful and observant Jews, Jesus and the disciples made the preparations and carried out the same holy meal that their ancestors had so many millennia before. They honored the sacrifice. They honored God’s promise to the people and the people’s faith in God. They honored that glimmer of hope in the darkest, most desperate of times.
    • But of course, Jesus knew dark and desperate times were just around the corner as well, so he added an element to nourish and sustain the disciples own faith: While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven.”[9] → Jesus set for the disciples a table of sacrifice and redemption, a table of grace and steadfast love, a table of promise and hope.
  • And so today, we come to that same table. And on this special Sunday – the World Communion Sunday – we come with siblings in faith all around the world celebrating this same meal … this same grace … this same hope.
    • World Communion Sunday[10]
      • Established by Rev. Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933
      • Grew out of the congregation’s Division of Stewardship as an attempt to bring churches together for a service of Christian unity
      • Adopted as a denominational practice in 1936
      • Promoted by the Department of Evangelism of Federal Council of Church (precursor to the National Council of Churches) to extend the celebration of World Communion Sunday among other denominations and other countries in 1940
      • From the Presbyterian Mission Agency article about World Communion Sunday: “Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world, demonstrating that the church founded on Jesus Christ peacefully shares God-given goods in a world increasingly destabilized by globalization and global market economies based on greed.”
    • And so today, we come. We come to this table of refuge, this table of grace. We come with siblings all around the world seeking community and a place to belong … a place to be loved. We come with siblings who are weary and heart-sick, siblings who are desperate for a light in the darkness in which we live. We come hungry for hope. We come hungry for freedom. We come hungry for forgiveness. We come hungry for love that will never run out. Because that was God’s promise in bread and wine. That was God’s promise millennia ago with Moses and the Israelites. That was God’s promise millennia ago with Jesus and the disciples. That is God’s promise today and tomorrow and forever. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cutthroat_Kitchen.

[2] Ex 2-11.

[3] Ex 12:12.

[4] Ex 12:9-11b.

[5] Ex 12:7, 13.

[6] Ex 13:3-5 (minor parts omitted).

[7] Ex 13:5b-8.

[8] Mt 26:17.

[9] Mt 26:26-28.

[10] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/special-days-and-emphases/world-communion-sunday/?fbclid=IwAR0VyNS7TaKvDDf-SBgI–ssLxPpOhV_sCSw1vx9_MauZL3jiKrMm2Za_84.

Sunday’s sermon: Twinkle Twinkle, Precious Star

Text used – Genesis 15:1-6

  • Every single night, I sing to my children before they go to sleep. The boys take turns choosing the night’s lullaby – “Beautiful Boy,” “St. Judy’s Comet,” “House at Pooh Corner,” “Candle on the Water,” or “Goodnight My Angel.” And then I sing them a short hymn: “Love the Lord Your God.” After that, Julia insists that I sing her one more song: “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” [sing song] Familiar, right? Maybe something you’ve sung with your own children or grandchildren, brothers or sisters?
    • History of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”[1]
      • Started as a poem called “The Star” written in 1806 by English poet Jane Taylor
      • Paired with melody from a French folk song (“Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”) sometime in the 1830s
    • In truth, stars have fascinated humans as long as we’ve been able to look up at the sky and wonder.
      • Songs and poems
      • Stories and rhymes
      • Ancient philosophy to modern particle physics
      • Astrology and astronomy
      • Different folk lore from different cultures around the world tell the story of how the stars came into being
        • E.g. from Mindanao in the Philippines: One day in the times when the sky was close to the ground a spinster went out to pound rice. Before she began her work, she took off the beads from around her neck and the comb from her hair, and hung them on the sky, which at that time looked like coral rock. Then she began working, and each time that she raised her pestle into the air it struck the sky. For some time she pounded the rice, and then she raised the pestle so high that it struck the sky very hard. Immediately the sky began to rise, and it went up so far that she lost her ornaments. Never did they come down, for the comb became the moon and the beads are the stars that are scattered about.[2]
      • Even the writers of Scripture were fascinated by the stars.
        • Mentioned in the 1st creation account in Gen: God said, “Let there be light in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night.[3]
        • Mentioned time and again throughout the psalms and the writings of some of the prophets as evidence of God’s handiwork in the world[4]
        • Inextricably linked to the life of Jesus
          • Birth heralded by a star[5]
          • Stars go dark on the moment of Jesus’ death[6]
        • Stars falling from the heavens = portent of the end of days in a number of different passages[7]
  • And then we come to today’s passage – a short, little interaction between Abram and God full of stars … and full of promise.
    • Background → This story comes about halfway through Abram’s journeys with God.
      • Has already been called by God to leave his homeland to travel to the land of Canaan[8] (huge territory that covers present day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel)
      • Has traveled in Egypt with his wife, Sarai, and had dodgy interactions with Pharaoh[9]
      • Rescued his brother, Lot, from rival kings[10]
      • Blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem)[11]
    • Abram’s been a busy guy! He’s been traveling. He’s been tangled up in dangerous political intrigue thanks to his brother. He’s built altars to God as he went along. And then we come to today’s passage.
      • First – God’s word to Abram as reassurance and comfort – text: After these events, the Lord’s word came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.”[12]
        • Heb. “reward” is more than just a divine payout – “reward” = wages, fare, expenses, maintenance → So God is promising Abram that he will be taken care of. God is promising Abram that God will be there for him, that God will provide for him – will keep him, will preserve him, will support and sustain him. There’s a longevity implied here. God’s not talking about a one-time, jackpot-type of reward. God’s talking about a long-term care plan. That’s God’s first promise.
      • Abram = not super convinced – text: But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.” He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”[13] → Clearly, Abram is having a rough time. He’s feeling discouraged. He’s feeling resentful. He’s feeling frustrated. Inheritance in ancient times was everything – being able to pass on your possessions, your land, and your name to your eldest son, or, if you didn’t have any sons, to the men that married your daughter/s. And yet Abram has found himself with no heirs.
        • Hear his frustration in his tone (I think we can even call it a bit accusatory): “Since you haven’t given me any children” → Abram is saying to God, “Look, I’ve done everything you’ve asked. I left my homeland. I’ve traveled hundreds of miles. I’ve built you altars. I’ve followed you all over the place. And still, you haven’t given me any children.” Yes, Abram’s probably bitter and a bit surly in this moment. But there is pain and desperate longing beneath the surface of this accusation. There is the ache of one who has longed for a child and yet has been left longing. I have to confess that my heart breaks a bit for Abram in this moment.
      • Come to God’s great promise – text: The Lord’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” Then [God] brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” [God] continued, “This is how many children you will have.”[14] → Just imagine what Abram would have seen in that moment. He’s in the middle of the desert. It’s the middle of the night. There are no electric lights to pollute the night sky, and it is truly full of stars – more stars than Abram’s eyes can even take in, more stars than Abram can even fathom, certainly more stars than Abram can count. That is God’s promise: not only will you have an heir – a child of your very own – but your descendants will outnumber the stars.
        • Abram’s response – text: Abram trust the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character.[15]
  • And while that may be the end of our passage this morning, that’s just the beginning.
    • Remember, we’re working through the Narrative Lectionary again this year – telling the Grand Story of faith from the beginning.
      • Started last week with the first part that makes up the foundation of this Grand Story: creation
      • Today’s story introduces the second part of that foundation: promise → The whole rest of this Grand Story that we’re telling and retelling – this story that we’re living and reliving day in and day out as people of faith – is a story that hinges on this promise: that God will bless Abram and his wife, Sarai, with descendants more numerous even than the stars. Because that’s everyone else in this story that we’re telling. That’s everyone else in this story that we’re living. Even us.
    • More numerous than even we can imagine → Thousands and thousands of years after Abram, with all of our advanced technology and scientific innovations, our society that has progressed to not only staring up at space but has actually sent people into space … even we cannot number the stars. We don’t have any idea how many stars there are. And we never will.
      • Introduce Indescribable: 100 Devotions About God and Science by Louie Giglio[16]: book of 100 short devotions for kids that weave science and faith together → In all honesty, there are a few things about this book that I don’t love, but the majority of the devotions in here are great. We use this book every other night with our boys before bedtime.
        • Read portions of #55: “A Star is Born”: The Whirlpool Galaxy is called a grand-design galaxy, and it is made up of hundreds of billions of stars, maybe as many as 500 billion! It’s an incredibly beautiful spot in the universe, and it’s also a very special one. That’s because the Whirlpool Galaxy is a place where stars are born – a sort of baby hospital for stars. You see, in the beginning, God created the first stars in an instant when [God] said, “Let there be light!” Since then stars have formed when giant clouds of space dust and gases pull tighter and tighter and tighter together until … a star is born.[17]
    • You see, we can’t know exactly how many stars are in the universe because there are more stars being born, spinning faster and faster into creation even as we speak. That’s why God’s promise to Abram in this passage is so incredible! It’s a promise that renews. It’s a promise that continues to bear fruit. It’s a promise without end. Just as the universe continues to spin more and more stars into creation, so God’s promise is made new in and through us each and every day.
      • Promise that God will care for us and provide for us
      • Promise that God will be with us
      • Promise that God will love us unconditionally
      • Promise that God’s love will shine brightly in us and through us → As Carl Sagan famously said, “We are made of star stuff.” We are made of promise and hope. We are made of potential and possibility. We are made of God’s intention and truest love. It is the heart of ourselves. It is the heart of our story. So twinkle twinkle, precious star. God knows exactly what and who you are. And that is, indeed, good news. Amen.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/story/did-mozart-write-twinkle-twinkle-little-star#:~:text=As%20for%20%E2%80%9CTwinkle%2C%20Twinkle%2C,music%20together%20dates%20to%201838.).

[2] http://getwokebooklist.com/sacredtexts/asia/pft/pft34.htm.

[3] Gen 1:14-16.

[4] Ps 147:4; Ps 136:9; Ps 8:3; Ps 19:1; Dan 12:3; Is 40:26; Amos 5:8; Is 13:10

[5] Mt 2:

[6] Mt 27:45.

[7] Mk 13:25; Mt 24:29; Rev 6:13.

[8] Gen 12:1-9.

[9] Gen 12:10-20.

[10] Gen 14:1-16.

[11] Gen 14:17-24.

[12] Gen 15:1.

[13] Gen 15:2-3.

[14] Gen 15:4-5.

[15] Gen 15:6.

[16] Louie Giglio. Indescribable: 100 Devotions About God and Science. (Nashville, TN: Passion Publishing), 2017.

[17] Giglio, 117.

Sunday’s sermon: Once Upon a Purpose

Adam and Eve” by Omenihu Amachi

Text used – Genesis 2:4-7, 15-17; 3:1-8 (read in the midst of the sermon)

  • Last year, we took a journey through Scripture together. We started in September, and from then until the end of May, we read through the arc of the Grand Story of faith. We started in Genesis, reading through bits and pieces of the Old Testament until Christmas – enter the Baby Jesus, enter the New Testament. Then we read through bits and pieces of the gospel of Mark until Pentecost.
    • Did this because we were following a new lectionary – Narrative Lectionary
      • Devised in 2010 by Profs. Rolf Jacobson and Craig Koester at Luther Seminary in St. Paul
      • Purpose: to “follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church. The texts show the breadth and variety of voices within Scripture. They invite people to hear the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the prophets, Jesus, and Paul. Listening to the many different voices within Scripture enriches preaching and the life of faith.”[1]
      • Best part: Narrative Lectionary = 4-yr. cycle → different readings every year that take us through that “sweep of the Biblical story”
        • Helps us to become more and more familiar with that grand arc of God’s Story of Faith: creation → covenants → prophets → Messiah → early church → And everything in between. It’s important for us as Christians to be familiar with this age-old story because it’s our story. → story that we continue to tell and live into each and every time we pray, each and every time we share our faith, each and every time we turn and return to God
  • So here we are in September again, ready to start the next cycle. And where do we start? The beginning. The very beginning. Creation.
    • First, begin with some basic background → In “scholar speak,” this is called Biblical historical criticism.
      • Important to remember that all of these stories were being told for centuries before anyone wrote them down → And just like any story that gets passed down and down and down and down and down, the stories changed somewhat. Some details were forgotten. Others were embellished. Sometimes the order or the names of the characters got shifted around a little. Sometimes the same story was told from a different perspective. That’s the nature of telling a story, hearing the story, and telling the story again.
        • E.g. – family story told by two people at once → Both people were there. Both people have some of the elements of the story in common. But they also both have their own, personal experiences. One person heard this. The other person saw that. They both felt and thought different things about the same situation, and all of those differences color their telling of the story. And parts of the Biblical narrative are no different.
          • See this in the gospels
            • A few stories/passages that are incredibly similar
            • Some stories that are shared but told differently
            • Some stories that show up only in one or two of the gospels
            • Each individual gospel is someone’s individual account of Jesus’ life and teachings.
          • OT “Documentary Hypothesis”: idea that 4 different authors contributed to the Torah – first 5 books of the Bible (Gen, Ex, Lev, Num, Deut) → We’re not going to dig deeply into this hypothesis today because it can get fairly technical and extensive, but one of the ways that scholars delineate which source contributed which part of the text has to do with the name that the author uses for God. In some sections of the Torah, the name “Yahweh” is used for God. In other sections, the name “Elohim” is used.
    • 2 different creation stories in Genesis = perfect illustration of this
      • Story from Gen 1 = narrative of God’s creation on each individual day peppered with God’s declaration that that new creation is “very good” → ends with God resting on the seventh day
        • Account of God creating humanity is both short and broad in its scope: God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”[2]
      • 2nd creation account in Gen = sort of the exact opposite
        • Small amount of detail given to the creation of the world and the creatures within in BUT much greater focus on God’s creation of and relationship with humans – Friends, listen for God’s story in today’s Scripture reading: [READ SCRIPTURE]
          • Shares a few elements with the Gen 1 story of creation but also includes a lot of different details
  • Now, before we tackle the main message of today’s Scripture reading, we need to address the elephant in the room … or rather, the snake in the room: Eve … the fruit … the snake … and sin. For centuries, the blame for that Original Sin has been placed on Eve’s shoulders. This passage has been used as a weapon against women to subjugate them and deny them opportunities.
    • Began with Latin Fathers back in the 2nd and 3rd centuries → shifted the blame of sin from both Adam and Eve to rest it squarely on Eve’s shoulders → attitude passed down from generation to generation throughout the church
      • Used to keep women out of leadership
      • Used to keep women uneducated
      • Used to keep women subservient
      • Used to keep women entirely dependent on men for centuries
      • Used to justify prejudice and violence against women for centuries → twisted and distorted in some of the most unjust, malicious, evil ways
    • And while I wish I could say we have grown past this image and twisted, harmful theology, friends, there are still plenty of people around the world today that still use this passage as justification for hate and discrimination against women. I cannot tell you the number of colleagues I have who have felt the painful reverberations of the way this passage as been warped and manipulated. Strong, intelligent women called by God to serve churches here in America today have been told they’re too pretty to be the pastor … have been told people are amazed a woman can preach so well … have been told that they can “have” the children’s message but the “real” sermon is for the man on staff (even if she is the senior pastor and the man is the associate) … have been told they can’t be the real pastor because they’re women. I cannot tell you the number of women I know who have experienced inappropriate interactions – both physical and verbal – with men in their church because those men refuse to see them as authoritative leaders called by God … simply because they are women. And as heinous and inexcusable as all of that is, we know that it’s so much worse for so many women around the world. And friends, that is not what this passage is about.
  • So what does this passage say, then? What’s the point of this 2nd creation narrative from Genesis? Why start the story here?
    • 2 parts of today’s story → creation part and the fall from grace
      • 1st part = creation
        • God creates this beautiful world and then creates humanity – text: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.[3]
          • Heb. “take care of it” = watch/guard it, save it, protect it, revere it – connotations of being careful and attentive
        • Comes with the implication of moderation and preservation – text: And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”[4] God gives creation to Adam so that Adam may care for the world – so that Adam may find sustenance and shelter in it, so that Adam may find joy and recreation in it, so that Adam may find reverence and sacredness in it. So that Adam may find purpose in it. Not so that Adam may do as he pleased with every blade of grass and flower, bending the natural world to Adam’s own will and whim, wasting the lives of all creatures – walking, crawling, swimming, flying – for sport. Adam is given stewardship of this creation … not supreme rule.
          • Scholar: The Creator who gives life also gives meaning and purpose to life. We are called to serve as caretakers in God’s good creation – stewards of a world we did not make and can receive only as a gift held in trust. … The freedom God ordains is expansive but not boundless. There are limits to the exercise of our creaturely freedom.[5]
      • 2nd part of the story = the fall → humanity’s first failure in that care of creation
        • Adam and Eve encounter the serpent
        • Serpent convinces them to eat the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden
        • Adam and Eve disobey God’s command and eat the fruit
        • Interesting discrepancy in Eve’s story vs. what God said to Adam
          • Important to note: When God gave the directive not to eat the fruit from the tree, God gave that directive to Adam before creating Eve → So Eve never heard those words from God. Clearly, Adam must have conveyed them to her because she conveys them to the serpent as part of her argument against eating the fruit … but her words do not exactly echo God’s own.
            • God (text): “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you it from it you will certainly die.”[6]
            • Eve to the serpent (text): “God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”[7]
            • Scholar highlights the crucial difference: This interaction holds the first distortion of God’s words. God never said, “Don’t touch the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”; rather, God warned not to eat of it. The woman did a curious thing in that she restricted her own freedom and said God had done it. Here we see the first cracks form in the relationship between humanity and God.[8] → Cracks in the relationship between humanity and God. The point at which our own self-indulgent, misguided, internally-driven purpose overrides God’s purpose for us, and we turn away. Sin.
        • Another scholar puts this a different way (encompassing all creation): God sends us into the garden because the garden needs service and preservation, and we are God’s instrument for caring for creation. Even though this mission is compelling and should be all-consuming, we share a human propensity for distraction. In the midst of caring for the garden, we will inevitably find fruit, and we will think that the fruit looks good to eat. … We will use our God-given intellect to rationalize doing things that are not part of our mission, or we will just settle for doing as others tell us, when we need to concentrate on God’s mission in the world.[9]
    • And when we hold those two things in tension – God’s call to purpose in this world and our “human propensity for distraction” – we find the reason for beginning this year’s journey through God’s Grand Story here in this creation account from Genesis. We find the ultimate purpose to which we are called – following God, being in relationship with God, and caring for all God’s creation (flora and fauna; animal, vegetable, and mineral; humans and neighbors of all colors, creeds, and persuasions). And we find a reminder of just how easy … how absent-minded … how inviting it can be to stray from that purpose. Once upon a purpose, there was God … and creation … and humanity. And the story continues. Amen.

[1] From “What is the narrative lectionary?” section, https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_faqs.aspx?fbclid=IwAR3BDmu06cmxC8YduElc_f6htjLr72lgIPf9euMTfpC47fOF0CZTpygB7u4.

[2] Gen 1:27-28.

[3] Gen 2:15.

[4] Gen 2:16.

[5] Allen C. McSween, Jr. “First Sunday in Lent – Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2.  (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 26.

[6] Gen 2:116-17.

[7] Gen 3:3 (emphasis added).

[8] Lisa Sharon Harper. The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. (New York, NY: Waterbrook, 2016), 46.

[9] Jon L. Berquist. “First Sunday in Lent – Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville,  KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 31.

Sunday’s sermon: Sleeping: Holiness in Rest

Text used – Psalm 23

  • Throughout the summer, friends, we’ve been working our way through Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life[1], and today, we find ourselves on the final chapter … the final sermon in this series.
    • Arc of the book (and arc of the sermon series) has followed a typical day in the life of the author and attempted to find moment of sacredness and connection with God even in the most mundane and routine tasks → Throughout the summer, we’ve talked about …
      • The blessing of waking up – of starting each morning awash in the grace and overwhelming love of God
      • Brushing teeth and eating leftovers – of the blessed embodiedness and physicality of our faith and the way God loves and blesses our bodies
      • Losing keys and fighting with spouses – of the undeniable importance of confession and forgiveness in our lives and in our faith
      • Checking email and calling a friend – of the connectionality and sacred community that we find with God and with one another
      • Making the bed, sitting in traffic, and drinking tea – finding sacredness, sanctuary, and flashes of the holy in some of the most automatic and least expected moments of our days
      • And so it’s only fitting that as we wrap up our series, we do so by wrapping up the day: with rest, with sacred Sabbath rest, with returning to sleep so we can wake up and do it all again tomorrow.
        • Especially appropriate during this time of year → fall is a time when we shift from the busyness and activity and extended hours of light in the summer to the more measured and deliberate slowing-down of autumn
          • Starting to think about closing cabins for the summer
          • Starting to think about putting gardens to bed for the winter months ahead
          • Starting to think about farmers harvesting the crop that they’ve spent all summer tending
          • Starting to watch the light diminish slowly, bit by bit every day as our particular patch of the world tilts further away from the sun and we prepare for the extended darkness and cold of winter
          • It feels like our part of the world is preparing for sleep as well.
  • Here’s the thing, though: we’re going to come at this idea of rest from a slightly different angle than you’ve maybe heard this morning. Very often, when we talk about rest and faith, we’re talking about times to seek relaxation and renewal in God. It’s a conversation about being refreshed. It’s a conversation that feels much like taking a deep breath – cleansing and calming and reassuring. But Warren comes at the idea of going to sleep and rest and faith in a different way. – Warren: Our need for sleep reveals that we have limits. We are unable to defend ourselves, to keep ourselves safe, to master the world around us. Sleep exposes reality. We are frail and weak. We need a guide and a guard. No matter how much I love or fear something, ultimately my human need for rest kicks in. Even when my kids are sick and really need me, I can’t stay awake with them day and night for long. Our powerful need for sleep is a reminder that we are finite. God is the only one who never slumbers nor sleeps.[2] → For Warren, the rest that we find in God is a reminder that God is God and we are not. It’s a reminder that the world does not revolve around us – that the world does not, in fact, require our attentiveness, our activity, our overextendedness, or even our worry to continue its course through the heavens. The world will keep on spinning whether we will it to or not. God will continue working in this world even when we do not. God delights in working in and through us, but God’s work is not dependent solely upon us. Because, indeed, God is God, and we are not.
    • This is a blessing! → meant to relieve some of the weight that we have placed upon our own shoulders
      • As parents/grandparents
      • As partners/spouses
      • As children of aging parents
      • As workers in whatever industry you find yourself in (especially teachers/school administrators and staff and health care workers right now ♥)
      • When we go to sleep at night, we cannot function in these roles that make up the fabric of our lives. When we wake up again in the morning, we can once again don whatever hats we need or choose to wear, but when we sleep, we must lay those hats down. We must pause. We must breathe. We must let go and let God.
    • Now believe me, I know that’s often easier said than done, especially in times of great stress and worry. I have spent plenty of nights awake at 3:00 a.m. going over and over this decision or that upcoming event, this parenting dilemma or that task that remains unfinished. And there are plenty of nights when, even if I sleep all the way through, I don’t get as much sleep as I should because I stay up too late or get up way too early in order to get more work done. And, y’all, I know I’m not alone in that.
      • Warren quotes data from a National Health Interview Survey: Nearly 30 percent of adults average less than six hours of sleep per night, significantly under the recommended seven to eight hours. Only about 30 percent of high school students reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night, though they need around ten. In one national study, over 7 percent of people between twenty-five and thirty-five admitted to actually nodding off while driving in the past month.[3] → Clearly, we need more rest. Clearly, we have taken on the burden of too much – too many tasks, too much worry, too much to think about and turn over and over in our minds. Clearly, we have elevated the notion of productivity over basically everything else in our lives and our days.
  • In this vein, Warren introduces a particular phrase in this chapter → It’s a revolutionary phrase. It’s a phrase that just might turn your life upside-down. Are you read for this? The phrase is: “the blessedness of unproductivity.” “The blessedness of unproductivity.” This basic idea behind this phrase: those moments of pause, of rest, of putting everything down remind us that God’s got this. This idea of the blessedness of unproductivity is why our Scripture reading for this morning is so perfect. Psalm 23 – a psalm of rest; a psalm of letting go; a psalm to remind us that God was and is and always will be there for us, providing and guiding and guarding and blessing.
    • Very 1st verse sets the tone: The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.[4]
      • Role of a shepherd = something many of us have lost touch with, I think → It’s not the tender, picturesque life of laying about in the fields that Hollywood has conjured up over the decades. Shepherding is rough. Shepherding is constant. Shepherding is taking the well-being of an entire group squarely on your own shoulders – the guiding, the protecting, bringing the new lives into the world and helping the oldest and sickest ones to leave this world as peacefully and comfortably and humanely as possible. Right off the bat, Psalm 23 recognizes not that we play this shepherding role for anyone else but that God plays this shepherding role for us.
        • 2nd part of that first verse underlines the total provision of this shepherding role: I lack nothing → Heb. = literally “not” + complex word that means doing without, being deprived, being deficient → So because God plays that shepherding role for us – that guarding and guiding role – we are not deficient. We are not deficient in what we need. We are not deficient in what we have. And most importantly, we are not deficient in who we are. So often, our busyness and overextended productivity stems from our own insecurities – insecurities about who others think we are and insecurities about who we think we are. We overwork ourselves day in and day out because we do not feel like we are enough. And yet right off the bat, Psalm 23 tells us that because God is our constant source and companion, we are truly and unquestionably enough.
    • Goes on to detail all the ways in which God provides for us: He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff – they protect me. You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over![5] → Everything that we need – food and water, safety and guidance, blessing and breath itself – come from God. Note that not a single one of those verses says, “Because I did this, God provides,” or “Because I earned this, God rewarded me,” or “Because I believed exactly the right thing … because I followed exactly the right doctrine … because I was a member of the right and only church … God was with me.” None of the provisions – none of those “enoughs” – are tied in any way to any action on our behalf. This psalm is all about how and what God does for us simple because God is God and we are not.
      • Along these lines, Warren poses a powerful and thought-provoking question → First, she makes a great point about our utter and undeniable reliance on God: Each night when we yield to sleep, we practice letting go of our reliance on self-effort and abiding in the good grace of our Creator. Thus embracing sleep is not only a confession of limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God. [She then poses her question:] What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested – people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.[6]
        • Echoed in the final verse of the psalm: Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.[7] → Notice that God’s goodness and faithful love will not sit idly and disinterestedly on the sidelines of life waiting for us to make time. “Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.” While we are working, while we are worrying, while we are weeping, while we are wandering, God’s goodness and faithful love pursues us. While we are praising, while we are playing, while we are preoccupied, while we are procrastinating, God’s goodness and faithful love pursues us.
          • Heb. “pursues” = verb that carried considerable insistence and doggedness → It is a thoroughly active verb. It is a tenacious verb. It is a verb with grit and endurance – one of those verbs that takes on a life of it’s own. That is how God pursues us. That is how God cares for us. That is how God provides for us. That is how God loves us. And that, friends, is why God is God and we are not. So rest easy. Rest true. Rest unburdened. Because God’s got you. Truly, thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Tish Harrison Warren. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2016.

[2] Warren, 144.

[3] Warren, 145.

[4] Ps 23:1.

[5] Ps 23:2-5.

[6] Warren, 152.

[7] Ps 23:6.