“A Word to Sustain the Weary” – a sermon on Isaiah 51:1-6

(If you prefer audio to reading, this sermon was recorded here.)

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.”

Good morning everyone. I’m so grateful to get to come back and preach for you again. The last time I was here, I started my sermon by saying that it was an honor as well as a responsibility to get to preach during such a tumultuous time, to bring the word of God to a world in distress. Few of us likely would’ve guessed that six months later, things would have gotten so much worse that it would make six months ago seem like a utopia. To preach today is that much more of a blessing and a burden, and I’m thankful to be here.

I bring up the state of the world right now not to simply clear the air or cause nervous laughter, but because it is crucial to how I read this text this week, and how I think we are all able to hear it today. This text from Isaiah is really good news; extremely hopeful, optimistic, and inspiring. As it took me on a journey this week, though, I experienced a lot of different emotions. The first one is what I want to confess to you this morning, because you might relate to it, and that’s that this scripture made me angry. I scoffed at this passage, and these promises. Partly, because I had a really terrible week at work. I work with people who are currently and formerly living on the streets in Hollywood, and the first two days of my week were spent encountering the devastating realities of homelessness, and the systems that are supposed to be helping. I saw over and over again the way that we fail the least vulnerable in our society and make it nearly impossible for them to succeed or get help, even when they desperately want it. Suffice to say, by only Tuesday afternoon, I had sufficient evidence to conclude that this world is too far gone, that all the systems are broken, and that there is no hope.

I don’t tell you this to bum you out, but to simply be honest about where I’m coming from. I think my reaction to this text may be extreme, but I wonder if it doesn’t resonate with some of you all too? Zooming out from my own work, it’s hard to find hope in the big picture right now. Lines are being drawn in the sand right now on racial politics, and a lot of hate is boiling to the service. As one of my friends and pastors wrote this week, “This is a war for the very soul of this nation.” These last few weeks it has felt like racism is winning the war. Similar exasperating things could be said about our tensions with North Korea, and the negative impacts of climate change on the developing world.

When the news around you is really bad and you read a passage like this, it’s hard (at least for me) to take it seriously. When I read about wildernesses being made into beautiful gardens and God’s victory and triumph, it’s easy to say, “Sure, God, but when? When are you going to do that, because right now feels like a pretty good time, but these promises always seem farther and farther off.” At first, I had no plans to preach on this text for that reason, thinking “Yeah, that’s nice and all, but we need something practical, for right now, that we can really work with.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe good news when the news around you is so bad.

But I was reminded this week of the world into which this prophecy was first proclaimed. The Israelites had lost everything; their land, their religion, their social structures, their whole place in the world. And here comes this word of promise… I wonder how ready they felt to hear it. As I think back to all the times in scripture where these prophesies were made about the future victory of God… Isaiah 2 speaks of an end to war and weapons being beaten into tools for agriculture; Revelation 21 speaks of a new heaven and a new earth where every tear will be wiped away and no more death… All of these passages were originally proclaimed during these times when it was the hardest to hear and believe them, during exile and persecution and devastation. God offers these words at times like these on purpose. The good news that God offers at times like these is not “too good to be true,” they are not empty promises, and most of all, they are not far away. Once I believed that these words might be for me, and for us, today… they began to preach to me in a way that I hope they can preach to you as well.

Now that we’ve spent enough time in our world, I want to read this passage one more time so it’s fresh in our hearts and minds. Try if you can today to hear these words as one author wrote: “A word to sustain the weary.” If you feel tired this morning of all the injustice and hopelessness in the world and in your life, this word is especially for you today.

[Read text again]

A few observations that jump out as we hear this a second time, specifically related to the language that is chosen. (1) There are a lot of imperatives, a lot of commands. This text is urgent. So if we are tempted to believe that this passage is simply some nice things to think about and meditate on, we are missing out on its call to action. (2) The tenses of the verbs change throughout from past, present, and future, active and passive… meaning that this is not a passage only about stuff that’s going to happen later; it’s about stuff that has already happened, and stuff that is going on right now, too. Already, this passage defies any criticism that it’s impractical or too good to be true.

The proclamation begins by calling on those who pursue righteousness, and who seek the Lord. Now, I know enough about this church to know that this describes you. You are a church that loves to do what is right, to talk about justice, and do the hard work of reconciliation. You don’t need another sermon telling you to “do justice”. You’re doing it! Today’s word is for you, and it’s a word of encouragement. An author I read this week correctly pointed out that those who pursue justice are very often prone to discouragement. So for all of us who love justice and feel like we might be losing hope, Isaiah 51 is a word of hope.

The first offering of hope that God gives us is to look to the past. The Israelites are reminded to look back to Abraham and Sarah and the fulfillment of the promises that were given to them. God promises Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, and God will bless the entire world through him. This is a beautiful story for the Israelites to remember, and is crucial to their theology and history. But anyone familiar with that story knows that promise was not simple or easily fulfilled. God made Abraham that promise, and then ten years passed with no children. They tried to take matters into their own hands by having a child by a servant, Hagar, and that did not go very well. It wasn’t for another 15 years that Abraham and Sarah finally had a child… almost 25 years since the initial promise! Can you imagine having to wait that long? Could you imagine finding a genie lamp and making a wish, and then waiting 25 years for it to finally happen? I give myself about 2 months, tops, before I would think I’d been tricked. Being called to remember this story is a reminder that God’s promises may be a long way out, but they are still dependable.

Another aspect of this verse is particularly meaningful for those of us who feel hopeless in our pursuit of justice. This verse acknowledges that Abraham was “but one when I called him, but I made him many.” For those who pursue justice and are asked to wait, it can be a devastatingly lonely experience. Throughout the centuries, some of our best exemplars of justice in the Christian faith have struggled with profound feelings like isolation. Dorothy Day titled her memoir “The Long Loneliness”, and other phrases like “labor of love” and “the struggle” accompany these stories. It is so easy to feel alone when we seek God a world like this. The word of God for those of us who feel this way today is that we are not alone; God has made us many. We can look around this room and see those who are with us. We can look to the past and see those who gone before us.

And we can look to the future and take courage that this is all headed in a good direction. The Lord will comfort Zion, which is the word used to describe the future city of God’s people. God will comfort all the waste places, and the wildernesses will be like the garden of Eden. There will be joy and gladness and thanksgiving! This is the part about the future, and seems at first to be a little out of touch. It’s easy to read this part and say, “How do we get there from here?” How does a desert become a garden?

There’s no simply answer to that, other than to say, we will get there from here. As certainly as God has gotten us to this place, as certainly as we can believe anything about God, we must believe that this is where God is taking us. It may not feel like it in 2017, or even the 2010’s, but if we look back, to the rock from which we were hewn, we can see that the world is on a trajectory to peace and justice. For those of us who dare to believe, we can see the world undergoing transformation, and rest assured in the promises of where this is all going. Is it going to take a lot of help from God? Yes. But God has already started, a truth that this passage can’t wait to tell us next.

God says to listen again! God is going to send out a teaching of justice that will be a light to all people! This next part is so great: “my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.” Did you catch that? God’s salvation has gone out, already! God’s teaching has gone out! On this side of history, we even have the Gospels that proclaim the teachings of Jesus, God’s justice made flesh! It’s already in motion, in the church, outside the church, in the world, in our lives. Monuments to racists are being torn down. People are packing up their tents after years on the street and moving into supportive housing. This week a client who has been waiting for housing since the day I started working there moved in to his place on Thursday. The forces of chaos and destruction and racism and hopelessness are putting up a hell of a fight, but they are losing, even now. Even in 2017. Jesus, who loves quoting Isaiah, will later echo this idea when he says “the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.” All these promises we’re waiting for are already here, working beneath the surface and breaking through in unexpected places until it reaches to the ends of the earth and back again.

But this salvation is also loaded with language of victory and triumph. Other translations use the word triumph or victory instead of “salvation”, and when scripture talks about God’s “arm”, it always refers to strength and might in the sense of a battle or war. I don’t know about you, but I always get a little nervous when God and battle or war get mixed together. We have all kinds of evidence in scripture and church history that says those things don’t always go well together. But we should be reminded that Israel is not at war, because the book of Isaiah goes so far as to talk about Babylon as God’s instrument.

The victory in this passage is not against an army or a people, but victory in a struggle for justice. And it’s important to use the language of victory and God’s “arm” because it reminds us that in struggles for justice, God takes a side. In light of what’s going on in the world, it’s important to acknowledge that God is not neutral on matters of justice. To be clear: we should always be questioning ourselves to ask if we are on the same side that God is on, and we should never take that for granted. But don’t let anyone suggest to you that God is not interested in the struggles for justice in this world. This text and many others remind us that God has an agenda, that others oppose that agenda, and that leads to conflict. God is not going to swoop in one day and make us all feel silly for our squabbles. No, this is a God of victory, triumph, success… the battle is not arbitrary. We don’t fight for nothing. Our struggle for justice is not in vain. Making sure we are on the same side as God is crucial, though, because as we’ve already said, we know who wins in the end.

Finally, the passage asks us to look at one more thing… or rather, two. ““Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath.” This is the ultimate call of this passage. We should look to the heavens, and also to the earth. We can’t only look at one. So much of what goes wrong, I think, with how Christians relate to the world is that we find ourselves in different camps, some looking too much at the heavens, and some looking too much at the earth. If we look only at the heavens, then we forget about the world and its injustices where God is deeply concerned. You might find yourself saying that God is going to take care of all that and we don’t need to worry about stuff like that. If we look only at the earth, we miss out on the promises of grace that God has proclaimed are coming, and are already here. We find ourselves believing that the world is too far gone, and that there’s nothing worth celebrating. This week, I found myself unable or unwilling to look to the heavens, and to see heavenly things shining underneath the earth.

But we are called to be people who look back and forth to the heavens and to the earth constantly. We must be people who look at texts like these that promise us a beautiful future, and then immediately look at the hopelessness in our world, and then watch them collide. We must constantly live and look between heaven and earth until the two become one. We are people who live in between these two realities, between the old that is passing and the new that is arriving, between the now and the not yet. Until every wilderness is a garden, we must constantly look at wildernesses in search of water, anticipating the water that is coming, carving out pathways and channels where it could one day flow; planting seeds in belief that water will come soon to nourish them. The promise –  is that water will one day flow, and that earth and heaven will be made new as one. The call – is to hope with our hearts and our minds, with our hands and our feet.

May God grant us ears to hear, eyes to see, mouths to proclaim, minds to imagine, and hearts to hope; may God embolden our hands and feet to begin moving and acting in the belief that everything God promises will come true, and is already coming true. God, thank you for your word of hope to sustain those of us who are weary in our seeking for justice. Grant us faith to believe it a little more each day. Amen.

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Seeing and Sinning – a homily on John 9:1-41

 

The Gospel of John contains this amazing story, that’s actually pretty famous. Jesus heals a blind beggar. This story has been on my mind for a couple of months, because of its themes and the question at its heart, the question, “Who sinned?” I’ve been writing this sermon in my head for a couple months and I realized recently that this text just so happens to be the lectionary for this Sunday, so I thought it would be as good a time as any to finally put it out there.

This story comes from John chapter 9, and it begins by saying, “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Now right from the outset, we’re clued in to one of the major themes of this passage. Jesus saw a man who was blind (a person who can’t see.) This passage is going to be about seeing: who can see, who can’t see, and what it means to really see. After Jesus sees him, his disciples ask him the key question of the rest of this chapter: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This passage is about seeing, and about sinning.

This question was based on an ancient belief, that actually has its roots in the Old Testament, that a physical disability was linked to sin, perhaps your own, or the sins of your parents passed down to multiple generations. Now, this isn’t a universally held Old Testament belief, I would actually argue that the overall witness of the Old Testament speaks against this belief, but it’s important at this point and at every point to remember that we can often all be looking at the same scriptures and reaching very different conclusions. That was true in Jesus’ time, and it’s true today.

And what is this scenario? A disabled man is sitting by the road begging. Now, if you know much about me, you might understand why this passage has been on my mind for a few months. For almost the last year, I’ve begun a new career working in Hollywood for a drop-in center for people experiencing homelessness. It was a steep learning curve and I’ve tried my best to keep up with how to engage with and ultimately help people who live and suffer on the streets, very often with physical or mental disabilities. As I’ve interacted with people at my work, and especially with my friends and peers in talking about my work, this passage has come up over and over in my mind.

Most notably, this question of “who sinned?”, and Jesus’ response, always jumps to the front of my mind; mainly because, in some form or fashion, I hear this question a lot. People ask me something along the lines of, “How do people become homeless?” This can be a very innocent question, or it can be an extremely loaded question. One one hand, it’s important to know how it happens that someone comes to live on the streets if we want to work towards preventing it in the future. But more often, the intent behind this question is more akin to what the disciples were asking Jesus: “Who sinned, that this person ended up this way?”

My suspicion, is that the reason we ask that question, in that way, is because we see something we know to be awful… a person experiencing unimaginable suffering, and we try to make sense of it by blaming someone for it. And unfortunately, that someone is usually them. If we can pin their circumstances on themselves, then we no longer bear the responsibility of helping them. If they are guilty, they become unworthy of our assistance. We use sin and shame to free ourselves from the responsibility of bearing one another’s burden.

The truth about homelessness is that there are a lot of ways to end up there. Asking how people become homeless is like asking how people end up in the hospital. There are a lot of avenues, some of which are irresponsibility, negligence, violence, accidents, bad luck… but you can’t imagine a doctor saying, “Well, it’s your own fault that you’re here, so you’re on your own!” Sure, it might be useful for a doctor to ask how you ended up with your injury or illness, it may in fact help them treat you, but it should not be a determining factor to whether or not you are treated, or how much treatment you receive. Whoever ends up in the hospital deserves to get well, just as everyone who ends up homeless deserves to be sheltered. The question of how they ended up there is at best a distraction, and at worst it’s a life sentence for a person to continue in their circumstances indefinitely.

But not to Jesus. Jesus responds to the question “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” by saying, “Neither.” Now… this should get our attention. As good, doctrinally sound Christians, we know that Jesus can’t be saying that this blind beggar, nor his parents, had never ever sinned. We know better. So when Jesus says neither, he must be instead saying that neither this man’s sin nor his parents are determining factors in his fate. Jesus refuses to look to the past to evaluate present or future circumstances. To Jesus, this blind beggar’s future is not to be determined by the past, nor the present. Remember, this blind beggar was overlooked on a daily basis; the intentional irony here is that the blind man was invisible; to everyone but Jesus, who threw the act of seeing will cause the blind man to see, and expose the blindness of others. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.

Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Now, we can sometimes get hung up on this between denominations because it sort of sounds like God made this man blind so that Jesus could heal him later and make a big deal out of it. I want to reject that reading on a couple of grounds: one, it sure makes God seem pretty awful to cause a man to be born blind just so that many decades later Jesus could get a good miracle out of it. I think God could come up with something better, and less cruel. Second, it’s not good news to anyone else if this was all some cosmic setup. This man was born blind so that Jesus could heal him and impress everyone… what good is that to others who are blind or in need of healing? Jesus’ healings, if you choose to read it that way, are about showing off what God can do only when God feels like it.

I think instead, we should read it in this past-present-future sense: The disciples want to know who did something wrong in the past to dictate this man’s present circumstance, and have (in doing so) essentially decided this man’s future. Jesus’ response says that his future is glorious, that God’s works have the potential to be revealed in him regardless of anything past or present, and then he brings that future glory into the present moment by opening his eyes. He dismisses even a conversation about the past, and rewrites the present, all because he chooses to see an alternative future, where sin and shame have no bearing on God’s ability to do works of mercy and glory.

I wish that I had more time to go into what happens in the middle part of this story, because there is a lot going on with where Jesus sends him to wash, and it being the Sabbath and how much that ticks off the Pharisees, and just how clever he is in his testimony to them. His parents even get dragged into it, which always complicates things. There’s this powerful moment where they don’t even recognize him and argue amongst themselves whether he’s that same guy they walked past every day. We’re reminded again that they never truly saw him like Jesus did. If they could stand to look at him, they only saw sin, that they were assuming and projecting onto him, so they could ignore him in good conscience. You also wonder if they didn’t recognize him because he had so changed by being able to see. Have you ever seen someone finally let go of a burden or kick a habit or recover from an illness, mental or physical, and they just look like a completely new person? This middle part is also where we get the beloved verse of Amazing Grace from, the “Was blind, but now I see.” Seriously, take the time to read this whole story, slowly, and you won’t be disappointed.

But I have to jump to the end, because as it pertains to “seeing” and “sinning”, the author here is building to a big punchline. The Pharisees ultimately reject the blind beggar and send him off, declaring that he was “born in sin” and has no right to teach them anything. Even with healing staring them right in the face, they are unable to see what has happened, that Jesus might be the Son of God. So Jesus goes and finds the formerly blind man and leads him the rest of the way into understanding, and says this perfectly crafted sentence to really drive home the point: “‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

As a result of Jesus’ ministry, so many people see and understand and are freed and healed for the first time. And, on the other side of the coin, many who try so hard to get it right become blinded because they just can’t get past this fixation on sin. I know that all of you know Christians like that, who think that the Gospel is more about tracking down and weeding out sinners rather than celebrating the life and mercy and glory of God. This is nothing new, it is the tragic tendency of religious insiders to push people out who are the very ones Jesus is intent on healing. The outsiders are brought in, and the insiders hold a sin summit to determine why they shouldn’t be there. Previously, in John 3, Jesus said, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” But here, just six chapters later, Jesus begins to bring a little condemnation and judgment in… but not for the typical perceived “sinners”. In John, the judgment comes for people who can’t see “sinners” for what they truly are… a canvas for God to paint a picture of mercy, glory, and endless possibility.

The passage ends with the Pharisees saying, “Surely we are not blind are we?” And Jesus delivers the punchline: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.”

The chapter began with the disciples looking at a blind beggar, languishing on the streets, and asking “Who sinned?” The passage ends with Jesus telling only the Pharisees “your sin remains”. In Jesus’ worldview, the way Jesus sees, it’s better to be a blind beggar, knowing that you are blind and desperate to see, than to be a fully seeing religious person who believes the way they see the world is how it is and has to be.

When we cast judgment; on the poor, on the persecuted, on the marginalized, when we intentionally elevate ourselves morally over someone else, claiming that they are getting what they deserve, and so are we… we are subject to the judgment of God, far more than if we were that other person. The healing they need is far easier to treat than ours, because the hardest thing to heal is someone’s theology. God’s grace, of course, is without end, and it extends to the lowest of circumstances, and to the highest of high-horses. God’s grace abounds even in our theological weakness.

But we are remiss if we ignore the bold teaching of this passage. That moment when we, in good faith and with good intentions, look at someone, decide they are sinner, and declare them as such, and blame them for their circumstances… When we see pain and ask, “Who sinned?”… the answer, in that moment… is we did. We sinned.

Grace and peace to everyone. Thanks for listening, and may God gives us eyes to see like Jesus, to see everyone we encounter with open and hopeful and glorified futures, and nothing less.

How to Vote with God – an election day message from Jeremiah

Tomorrow is the big day. We will all vote and bring to fruition this 18 month-long election season, which has been divisive, anxiety-inducing, disturbing, and unnerving. We’ve seen the worst in each other, the worst in ourselves, and will have to come terms with the outcome; which, at this point, very few will be able to take any satisfaction in. I wish I could say that this will all come to an end tomorrow, but I think we all know that’s not true. There will be some fall-out, some hard feelings, and backlash.

I’ve been fairly opinionated on who and what I support, and I understand if some of you are coming into reading this with suspicion, that I’m going to lay out a biblical argument for the candidate I have chosen, or particular propositions. But this post is not for that. This post is something of a sermon about what should be on the minds and hearts of the Christian who walks into a voting booth tomorrow. It’s a sermon about how to live in a place and participate in its well-being. As the reader, it is up to you to interpret how this applies to your own ballot, to your local elections and measures, and ultimately to your candidate. I don’t seek to change anyone’s mind or anyone’s vote with this sermon. If anything, I hope that it will only change your posture: the way you see yourself as participating in the process of voting, in engaging with the world in a political way. If we agree on nothing else, I hope we can all agree that we want to vote in Christian kinds of ways; ways that make this world that God loves more like the one God is reconciling us to become. Voting is only one tiny part of how we do that, but it is a valuable one.

As we anxiously enter our polling places, maybe the comforting words of scripture come to our minds. I know that many of us, when we need a verse of comfort, often turn to Jeremiah 29:11. Most of us can quote this on command:

 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This is great news for a country in a state like ours, and no one could blame you for quoting this to yourself this week, or at any other period of stress in your life individually or in our shared life politically. It’s important to remember that God is pulling us toward a better future, and that there is always hope. God is not crumpling us up like a failed art project to start over, but is always finding new ways to work with the mess we’ve made to bring a hope and a future.

What is a huge bummer, in my opinion, is that everyone quotes Jeremiah 29:11 and never reads the rest of Jeremiah 29. It’s common Christian practice to take a single verse and make it into a mantra or “life-verse”, and I do think this has some value. But often it robs the verse of much of its meaning, because the Bible is not a collection of helpful sayings and sentences, but a dynamic collection of various writings that bear witness in hundreds of different ways to the work of God in history. When we take out a sentence, we sometimes take it from the middle of a poem, from a letter written to a specific audience, from a history book or a parable. At worst, we can end up believing some terrible things because we don’t do diligence to the source of our “verse”. (This is called proof-texting, and has done immeasurable damage to Christians and those they encountered for thousands of years.)

Reading Jeremiah 29:11 in its context is so much better. You find out who it was originally intended for, what it meant to them, and you can see yourself even better in it. And then you come to discover that these promises of God have been fulfilled in the past, and you learn exactly what it is that God expects out of us in order to find this “plan” that God has laid out for us.

What does this have to do with voting? Well, Jeremiah 29 is a letter written to the people of God who are in exile. And I have come to believe, and suspect that you might too, that our current situation as Christians in America can best be described by this same narrative: exile. We are strangers in a land where we once had a foothold, a primary seat at the table, and now we are all scattered and disillusioned and fiercely divided. Now, we can argue about how we got here. (I’ll save that sermon for another time, but if you want my thoughts, read the book of Micah.) But at the present moment, in America, we Christians are in Exile! There are conservative Christians and liberal Christians and everything in between, none of whom can really get along at all, and our leaders don’t really stand for any of us. As many news sources have announced, (and many great scholars have been saying for fifty years,) the Evangelical political machine has all but died, and we’re all left not knowing quite how we got here or what to do about it. It’s a horrible situation. It’s what has caused our churches to die, for young people to leave church altogether, and for an election like this one to even be possible. Something is dying.

But the news is not all bad. For one thing, we’re not the first people to go through this, and now more than ever we can look to the part of our Bibles we’ve been neglecting and see teachings that have long been forgotten. (Trust me, those pages aren’t as crinkly as the other ones in American Bibles.) Secondly, it’s okay not to be afraid that something is dying, because we happen to be people who believe in a God that brings things back from the dead. (Your mind might jump to the Resurrection of Jesus, but you can stay in the prophets and read Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones and get a sense that God can even bring Exiles back.)

And Jeremiah 29 is specifically written to those in Exile who are asking this important question: “How do we live, as people of God, in a place and a time when being the people of God doesn’t carry as much weight anymore?” I think if we’re honest, this is the question of this election.

If you feel so bold, take a moment to read Jeremiah 29:4-14. If you want, read all of Jeremiah 29, or read all of Jeremiah! It won’t disappoint. But I want to highlight a few messages for Exiles like us from this letter of Jeremiah, from the words of God to God’s people who found themselves in a similar situation. Each one will first be a word of what to do as people who find themselves in exile, and the second one will be a word of how to participate in that by how we vote.

1.  Get Comfortable, and Be Present. God says to those in Exile that it’s going to be a while. Verse 5 says to build houses and plant gardens. In other words, this Exile might be for a while, and you’re not going anywhere. One thing you will learn if you spend time in the prophets is that, for God’s purposes, the Exile was not an accident. It was a judgment, and the Bible bears witness to God letting the Exile happen as part of the journey of the people of God. It’s not a time to get angry or cast blame as to how we got here. It’s a time to build houses and plant gardens. Get comfortable in this place that God has led us to. We may not be a “Christian nation” anymore, but God is still God, and God is just as much God in Sweden, in Iran, in Russia, in Australia and Austria as God is God here today, yesterday, and tomorrow, and God has led us here. 

To be honest and obedient in where God has led us is to be present and local in our participation. It means that where we have found ourselves matters, both in place, and in time. Don’t spend your time longing for a bygone era, wishing to go back there. Don’t flee to another place where you think God might be more God in. Be where you are, be when you are, and seek God there. Pay attention to local elections and measures, and seek God’s best in the minutiae. Chances are that more of your neighbors’ lives be be affected by the Propositions that you didn’t research than by who gets to live in the White House.

2. Invest, and Think Ahead. Verse 6 expands this idea by telling Exiles to get married, to have children, and for those children to have children. It makes this point again that this Exile might be for a while, so put down roots where you are rather than being anxious about where you wish you might be. More so, it is a call to invest in the future. Maybe the hope that you have may not come to fruition in your lifetime, but the choices that you make now will affect how many will experience God in the future.

Thinking ahead means voting in such a way that goes beyond the immediate moment and its needs and asks what kind of world we are creating for our children and our grandchildren. It means not only caring about how candidates and propositions determine the things that we think are the most important, but how they will come to affect multiple generations ahead of us. What world are we creating for them? When they read the history books, what will they think of the decisions we made?

3. Everyone’s welfare is your welfare. This is the most important teaching that I think the prophet Jeremiah has for our political engagement as people of God. When we quote Jeremiah 29:11 out of context, we are hoping for God’s prosperity and welfare. When the verse says, “plans to prosper you”, a better translation is “plans for your prosperity/welfare/peace”. That word is a noun, and it’s the Hebrew word “shalom”. You’ve probably heard of it. It has a wide meaning, but is often translated “peace”. More than that, it means God’s perfect peace realized on Earth. And that is what we’re all after, isn’t it? Well, earlier in the passage, God actually tells us exactly where to find that shalom. Verse 7 says, “Seek the [shalom] of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its [shalom] you will find your [shalom].”

Boom. Wow. This is the message of Jeremiah, the hope for participating where we feel exiled. This is fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:11. Every time you’ve quoted this verse seeking God’s plan for your welfare, you were only four verses from its fulfillment. Do you want God’s peace on you, on your family, on your church or on your country? Seek God’s peace for everyone in your city, and you’ll find it. This should come as no surprise for followers of Jesus, and yet it always seems to still catch us by surprise.

As people in Exile, the way we find God’s favor for ourselves and for our country is by seeking welfare for everyone. This is not Welfare with a capital ‘W’, though that may be part of the answer. But as people of God who enter a voting booth tomorrow, please remember this if nothing else: if you vote for your own welfare, for yourself or your own betterment, and you are not also voting for the benefit of everyone who finds themselves in your city – you will not find your welfare there. You will find peace and prosperity for yourself and your family when you seek it for everyone else, especially the least among you. This is the lesson that Israel forgot and brought them to Exile. This is the lesson that America forgets time and time again.

4.  Ignore False Prophets. It’s interesting that when we name the famous prophets of the Bible, we name Jeremiah and Isaiah and Micah and Ezekiel. The truth is there were tons of prophets at that time, and those four were some of the least popular. For the most part, they were hated and despised, because they told the actual word of God, rather than what people wanted to hear. There are prophets who feed into what you already believe and your current prejudices, who stir up things in you to get you riled up for a cause, or distracted from another one. The prophets who are truly from God don’t tend to get much credit until long after their time, and sometimes not even then.

This election, we’ve seen religious leaders, pastors, professors, and candidates spout religion and quote verses in support of their candidates. Both of the major candidates profess Christianity at their convenience, and otherwise fail to uphold anything remotely close to it. You can Google a Christian defense of Trump, Hillary, and everything on the ballot. However much it is possible for you, tune these people out. Seek out Christian leaders who you trust, who you actually know, not just ones who made videos you used to watch or pastors a big fancy church you’ve heard of. If all else fails, seek out true prophets of the past, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Jesus. Study them, and see if you don’t find them speaking truth into your ballot.

And finally, remember to hope. Exile may be for a while. Whoever is elected, whatever gets passed or not, God will be God, and God is bending this whole world toward Shalom. This passage brings this message in full force for those of us who need to hear it, that if we heed these words and at the end of our Exile:

“When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will give heed to you. You will search for me and find me, if only you seek me wholeheartedly. I will be at hand for you – declares the Lord – and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places to which I have banished you – declares the Lord – and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

As you vote tomorrow, vote with hope. Vote knowing that however fed up you are with how things are and how they’ve become, that God is still God, and you are here to seek God’s best for where you are. Seek God’s best for your city, and you’ll find God’s best for yourself. Seek God’s best for the generations who will come long after you’re gone, and you’ll find it for yourself. Seek God’s Shalom in the voting booth, and everywhere you go afterwards.

Peace, my friends, and Godspeed.

Matthew 5:38-48 – Love Your Enemies

Whether or not we say it often, and whether or not we like to preach on it, Jesus proclaims to deaf ears… “Love your enemies.” I believe  wholeheartedly that this is the most profound and unsettling of all of Jesus’ teachings. However, it is also the logical conclusion of them.

Remember, this is the same Jesus that says the greatest commandment is to love God with everything, and to love your neighbor as yourself, extending neighbor to include everybody. It strikes me that in this passage Jesus isn’t asked what the TWO greatest commandments are, but he gives them both. The general consensus is that this is because the two commandments are inextricably linked. I want to take it a step further. I think for Jesus, these are the same commandment.

Think about it. Why is it that if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us? It’s almost as if this same channel of forgiveness that flows from God to us and from us to others, and if we close it at one end, it becomes closed off entirely, not by God’s choice but by our own.

The most powerful example is when Jesus says that when he was thirsty you gave to him to drink, when he was hungry you fed him, and when he was naked you clothed him, and the disciples ask him, “When did we see you like this?” And Jesus replies, “Whatever you do for the least of these you have done unto me.”

It seems that for Jesus, loving God and loving others are not just intertwined, they’re the same thing. This is what John is getting at when he says, “Beloved, let us love another, for love is God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God for God is love.”

John understood very well that our love for others IS our love for God. They’re not things you work on separately. It is the same love.

And if we are called to love God and others in this way, and that love is extended to everyone, the first question we all have is, “Does that really mean everyone? Everyone??” And I think the purpose of our first passage is for Jesus to answer that question: “Yep. Everyone.” The passage goes on to explain that God is this way, that God causes the sun and the rain to come on the righteous and unrighteous. Let’s not misunderstand here: rain, in Jesus’ time, was not associated with sadness and depression like it is in our culture. Rain, in an agricultural society, was imperative, it was celebrated. People had entire pagan cults to worship gods who they thought could bring rain. So this passage is not saying that God causes good and bad upon good and bad people, it is saying that God causes all kinds of good for all kinds of people.

And I think it’s no surprise that Matthew ends this passage with “Be perfect”. This is the hardest, most-radical and counter-cultural teaching of Jesus in this Sermon and probably ever. At the heart of this teaching is the conviction that how we love our enemies is the same as how we love God.

I wonder if we really only love God as much as we love our worst enemy.

And we all fall short of that, and God’s grace meets us at the point of our failure. But we strive for perfection, believing that in the end, sacrificial, radical, pervasive love ALWAYS wins.

Mark 6:45-52 – The Profundity of Theophany

Awesome title right? This is a lesson I wrote to teach at Tempe’s Youth Group. I’ve actually programmed this to post at the same time as I’m giving the lesson, which is awesome in way too many ways. I retooled it so it’s less presentation and more blogy,  but if you want to know what it was like in presentation form, just imagine me saying all of this while standing in front of this flannelgraph (which, yes, I made)!

So in the Bible we have this story where Jesus goes walking on the water because his disciples are in a boat way ahead of him. The freak out and think he’s a ghost, but Jesus says it’s him. Peter asks to come out on the water, and he does, but then he gets scared and starts to sink. Jesus catches him and tells him to have faith. Many sermons about this passage have been preached about how if we trust Jesus, we can do the impossible, but we have to trust him, but even if we don’t trust him, he’ll catch us. And that’s all fine and dandy and there some good truth there. This is the story we all heard growing up, right?

The only problem is, one of our versions of this story, from the gospel of Mark, doesn’t say anything about Peter getting out of the boat. Apparently, for Mark, there is something else going on in this passage, something deeper, that is more important to get than anything about stepping out of a boat, having faith to do the impossible. Like one of my favorite authors and pastors says, there’s always a story behind the story, and the omission of Peter’s part of the story really shows this here. Why would Mark even put the story in his gospel if he was going to leave out the main part? Because the most important part of the story, for Mark, has nothing to do with faith, miracles, or Peter at all.

efore I go on, I need to be clear here: I’m not saying that Mark has it right here and the others do not. What we understand about the Bible being composite literature is that different authors had different emphases, motives, audiences, and told the same stories in different ways. If anything, I’m taking the Bible more seriously by insisting that Mark’s seeming omission was not an error, but an intentional highlight that has depth and meaning for his first readers and, by default, us today.

The key word to remember as we proceed is the word “theophany”. This comes from two Greek words, “theos” meaning God and “phainei” meaning to appear. Together, they mean a God-appearance, a God-sighting. There are many examples of theophanies in the Old Testament, most notably with Moses at the burning bush and on Mount Sinai, and Elijah on Mt. Horeb. If you read these passages (Exodus 3, 20, 1 Kings 19) there are themes and motifs consistent with our story in Mark.

The first is the presence of a mountain. The story opens with Jesus on a mountainside praying. Mountains bear incredible symbolism in the ancient Jewish world, and especially with these theophany stories. It’s like when you hear someone say, “So a guy walks into a bar…” You know immediately that that person is telling a joke. When a biblical story talks about a mountian, to a similar extent, the early readers would immediately think of all the foundational historical events that happened on mountains.

Secondly, walking on water is not an entirely new concept. Job 9:8 reads, “Who alone stretches out the heavens and tramples down the waves of the sea.” Tramples. How about Psalm 77:19 – “Your way was in the sea and Your paths in the mighty waters, and Your footprints may not be known.” Jesus walking on water is a deeply symbolic act of something that only God does, and a good Hebrew that new the Old Testament would know these texts by heart.

The third and probably strongest case for theophany is in the wording of Jesus’ intent. The stoy says Jesus intended to “pass by”. What? His disciples are afraid for their lives and confused and in danger and Jesus is going to walk on by? This makes no sense to us, but to an early Jew, this was incredibly meaningful, for to “pass by” is the language of theophany. God told Moses that God would “pass by” when he gave the law to the people for comfort and discernment. Elijah was told to wait in the cave because God would “pass by”. When God passes by, comfort, awe, discernment, and peace follow.

The final clues are in the words of Jesus. Jesus says, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.” The msot obvious thing here is “do not be afraid”, which is the wording used in basically every angel visit EVER (and at the burning bush). But the more profound statement is “It is I.” The Greek used is “ego eimi”, which literally translates “I am”. This is important, because the Hebrew of “I am” is something we’re all familiar with: “Yahweh”. The divine name. The name God gives to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus here isn’t jsut saying, “Hey guys, it’s me, your friend Jesus!” He’s invoking the powerful name of the God of Israel.

As we can see, at the very heart of this story, the sotry beneath the story, is a theophany, a God-apperance. The early readers would have recognized this. They would’ve remembered how in the past when theophanies happened, when God “passed by”, it brought hope and peace and change.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because Jesus was intending to pass by, but that’s not what he does. Jesus intended to offer comfort and peace and hope and change by showing a theophany, but something happened that would’ve shocked and surprised the early readers. Jesus got into the boat. In light of these theophany stories, this is an abrupt and radical change. I would even say that the real miracle here is not Jesus walking on water, because God can do that, no problem. While it may have shocked the disciples to see, the readers who already knew Jesus was God, would’ve been far more astonished that Jesus, who intended to “pass by”, instead got into the boat.

I want us to consider how profound this idea is here, because it’s not a new one. Essentially this is the Christmas story. God became man, the word became flesh, at the darkest time in Jewish history. God throughout history had operated in this particular way, through theophany. God certainly acted in very real ways like the exodus and exile, but God’s appearances were always “passing by”, giving comfort, revealing presence. But what we celevrate at Christmas is that God changed this strategy. God stepped into history through Jesus, allowing people to actually see God in a new, refreshing way. God essentially says through the incarnation, “Ive been trying all along to show you how to live in right relationships, but you’re just not getting it. Here, let me show you. Watch this!” That is the story behind the story here, a reminder of the way Jesus changed EVERYTHING. A reminder that in our darkest times, God isn’t just saying, “Hey, it’s ok, I still love you, don’t be so down!” God is saying, in those dark times, “I’m not passing you by. Move over, I’m coming in. I am WITH you.” May we as followers of this Christ, the ultimate demonstration of God’s love, accept that love and allow to change us and move us from those dark places into restoration and life.