“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.

Jesus in the Meantime – a homily on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

This week’s gospel text is an interesting one. And by interesting, I mean that if you happen to have blinked or yawned during the reading, you probably missed it. For those that listened intently, you were probably waiting for something to happen that never did. That was certainly my first reaction! Our text today is actually two smaller texts put together, as you can see in your worship folders. They are actually the verses immediately preceding and immediately following two miracle stories, the feeding of the five thousand and walking on the water. And interestingly, these two miracle stories are the text for next week. On most occasions, the texts for today are seen as an introduction and an afterthought. But today the lectionary calls them into our focus, and for good reason, as they reveal to us in an intimate way a Jesus who is compassionate and overflowing with power.

What we remember about Mark, here, is that he has no time for introductions or afterthoughts. Mark is the shortest gospel, having no time for a birth narrative or genealogy. Mark sets records in scripture with his use of the words “and”, “then” and “immediately”. Which means, simply, that if it’s here, it’s important. And the best way I know how to illustrate the way in which this text is essential to us is by comparing it to one of my favorite things in the world: movies.

Those who know me know I love movies. Just this week, I spent $40 to watch the full Dark Knight trilogy in IMAX on opening night of the third and final film. I spent 9 hours in a theatre, and several hours before waiting in line. (In fact, much of my sermon preparation this week happened in that theatre.) Movies have a unique way of telling stories, showing us while at the same time telling us what it wants to communicate.

In movies, there are big, flashy scenes. In the Batman movies there are fight scenes with explosions and cool cars and gadgets. But this is not the whole movie. (If it were, it would be a Transformers movie.) In between the action set-pieces, there are scenes of characters dialoguing with one another, experiencing things, philosophizing, growing and changing. It is these scenes that contain the real heart of the movie. We learn about the characters, what makes them tick, what they care about, what’s important to them. Without these establishing scenes that zoom in on the characters and show us their heartbeat, the big flashy scenes would feel empty, or without stakes . I believe that this is what today’s two texts do. They aren’t the flashy, memorable miracle stories. They are the zoom-ins on the character of Jesus that we are given, so that we might read and better understand the miracle stories through them.

So we zoom in on the disciples and Jesus who are weary, worn-out, tired. Jesus invites them to rest, an important, biblical invitation to God’s people. It hearkens back to the Old Testament teaching of Sabbath. Sabbath is the institution that insists we are made for more than working, that we are not slaves but human beings. Sabbath is a reminder to relax, retreat, refuel. And the disciples have certainly earned a break! They have just returned from their “sending out”. In fact, this word used to describe them, “apostles”, means “the ones sent out”, and this is the first time they are given this title. They have been so busy, that the text describes them as having “no leisure even to eat”. In the fast-food, drive-thru, delivery, and microwave-oven world, doesn’t that sound familiar? We spend extra money to help us spend less time to do the things we enjoy. Jesus calls them to rest from their weariness, a reminder we still need today.

Unfortunately for the disciples, this rest will have to wait. The crowds anticipate their movement and get there before they do! You can imagine their frustration in this moment, like getting a phone call from work while you’re on vacation. But we’re not told the story from the disciples’ perspective anymore. The camera zooms in a little closer, just on Jesus. Imagine for a moment that the noise of the crowd dies down, and all you see is Jesus’ face, in slow motion, as he gazes out at the crowd. What face do you expect to see? A tired face? An angry face? Perhaps a little mix of both? Maybe we imagine Jesus sighing, knowing there’s still work to be done, but begrudgingly.

But the face of Jesus we are given is none of those. It is compassion. We are told that Jesus had compassion. This word compassion is not a word synonymous with pity, as it is used sometimes in our language. This is not the compassion that makes an obligatory donation to “Compassion International”. The word for compassion in this text means that Jesus felt it, literally translated, in his bowels. This is the kind of compassion that suffers alongside. And in a way, the tired and worn down Jesus chooses to suffer alongside those who are tired and worn down by oppression, sin and illness. Jesus sacrifices his own need for rest, for the sake of others finding rest. The passage forces us to simultaneously believe in a God who calls us to rest, yet willingly gives up his own rest for others’. The only response to such a calling is “thanks be to God”.

And this verse concludes by saying that Jesus had compassion, because they “were like sheep without a shepherd”. This is not the first time this phrase is used in the Bible, and therefore calls our attention to its roots. The phrase occurs first in the book of Numbers, as God instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as a leader for the community as they enter the promised land. This invokes for us, then, the idea of the founding of a new kind of community, and the inauguration of a new leader, a transfer of power for a developing kingdom. In our story, the new kingdom is a collection of people that would pursue God hastily, going ahead that they might meet God there, and the new leader of this community is Jesus, full of compassion, even when he is empty of everything else.

Now, we fast-forward thorugh two big Jesus miracles, the “action scenes”, and cut to “the healings at Gennasaret”. Just as before, the crowds subvert any attempts to give Jesus or the disciples rest. The text is general about the healings, which probably suggests that there were very many of them. Jesus’ healing ministry has incredible impact here. You can imagine the film version of this would be in “montage” format, with some soft music playing in the background, as the sick are brought on mats and find life again. The look of wonder on the face of the sick and their loved ones, that same look of compassion on Jesus’ face. We might see a flashback to the young man who is lowered through a roof on a mat by his friends. Then we see more sick reaching out to touch the end of Jesus’ garment. Some might mock them for their superstition, but this text passes no judgment. Instead, their unorthodox faith is rewarded. Anyone who touched it was healed. Another flashback to the woman who is healed of her bleeding. Perhaps one more flashback to Jesus’ inability to heal in Nazareth, as we once again see a direct correlation between people’s faith in Jesus to heal and his ability to actually do so. In Nazareth, there is doubt and hostility, and Jesus can do nothing. In Gennasaret, there is superstition and wild hope, and Jesus is so overflowing with power and compassion that even the furthest edges of his clothing can heal the sick.

And it is not just physical healing that takes place here. The word that is used to describe the result of touching Jesus’ garments is, actually, the Greek word meaning to save! Those who touched Jesus’ garments were not simply healed. They were saved! Salvation is physical, it is emotional, it is tangible, and it is holistic. Salvation is raw, and salvation is here!

We are indebted to those who assembled our lectionary texts for highlighting such obscure passages for us this morning, passages we might normally skip past looking for “the good stuff”. The very act of reading these verses as holy scripture this morning is a practice-run of slow, meditative faith. A journey of faith is not simply lived or experienced as one monumental highlight to the next, but more often in the quiet in-between, the every-day. Even in the everyday, the repetitive, the monotonous, Jesus is still Jesus; unrelenting compassion, teeming with salvation, anticipating our faithful and risky response.

 

Grief and Resurrection – a sermon on John 11:1-45

Our text today comes to us in the middle of the Lenten season. As we are waist-deep in the chaotic waters, knowing that Good Friday is looming and praying that Easter may come, our text calls us to reflect on the nature of God in the midst of great tragedy. The raising of Lazarus is the “seventh sign” in the gospel of John, and many of us read the story to simply say, “ooh, ahhh, Jesus raises someone from the dead”. But we are mindful that Jesus never does miracles for their own sake, but to show us what God is like. And we are mindful that this story does not simply tell us of a dead man rising, but is a long, 45 verse human story of grief, loss and suffering. And this, the last sign of Jesus, reveals to us once more the God who spans the breadth of our scriptures from the beginning and points us toward the surprising, new ending that none of us expected. This story is not simply about Jesus who raised a dead man once. This is a parable of how a God like ours responds to the death that seemingly overwhelms our human experience

The story begins telling us how much Jesus loves the family of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We are invited, then, to read this story thinking about how Jesus responds toward those whom he loves. So how does Jesus take care of the people he loves the most? It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a little extra-special treatment for people that are really close to Jesus. When my friends show up to the coffee shop I work at, I usually swing them a little ten to twenty percent discount, because that’s what friends do. So when Jesus doesn’t do that, right after we are told just how much Jesus loved this family and should totally give them a free splash of soy milk in their Americano… we are caught off guard. We are told as children to believe we are people who Jesus loves, and Jesus loves the people in the story – we wait in anticipation to see how Jesus treats them, and us.

Jesus shows up late; and if we’re honest, this experience is true for us today as it was for them. And it forces us to reflect on a central question to the human experience: where is God in our time of need? This is the hardest portion of our text to interpret, and causes a huge amount of disagreement. Why does Jesus wait for two days? He says, “This illness is not to death, but for the glory of God.” But what does that even mean?? Some are more comfortable with that than others, talking about God’s timing versus our timing, and others think that Jesus is toying around on purpose, because bringing someone back to life is a better miracle than healing someone who is sick. Some of us are not very comfortable with that – why can’t God’s timing include actually caring about how I feel and the pain I’m in right now? Why would God risk losing their faith altogether just to make a point? That God seems really manipulative, and rather cold-hearted!

The question that we’re asking turns out not to be “Why did Jesus delay in this story?”, but actually, “Why does God always delay in my life?” This question is ancient, and yet I would suspect that a good percentage of us asked it this very week in some form or fashion.

The story forces the question, but neglects to answer. In fact, the reason that this question remains so hotly debated is that it is never definitively answered. Some texts like Job meditate on it and dare to dive in… today’s text simply shows it. It’s honest. It’s brutal. It tells us that Jesus delays, even for those he loves. Where is God in our time of need? It lives within the question. And then it tells us the rest of the story.

When Jesus does arrive, Martha and Mary each meet him with pain in their voices –a profoundly raw expression of faith as old as our oldest scriptures. Martha comes first to meet Jesus, while Mary remains grieving at home. Eventually, Mary comes to meet Jesus too. Both of them have words for Jesus, the same words we had a moment ago. “Where were you? If only you had been here!” Mary is so hurt that it takes her a while to work up the courage to face him. I can relate to this as a non-confrontational person – when I’m mad at someone, I tend to avoid them for a while. In my head, I mastermind this grand confrontation where I give a speech that belongs at the end of a masterpiece courtroom drama, and the person I’m accusing weeps at their shame and begs for my mercy… but I secretly know that when I actually see them I’ll just cry and babble some nonsense.

But we are too quick to judge these two women. And this comes from a conviction that I don’t think is actually true or biblical. Many preachers I’ve heard condemn these women for having weak faith, or compare and contrast Martha and Mary because Mary doesn’t come around till later and has less of a profound statement about who Jesus is.  But I think these preachers believed something that is not true and I’m afraid many of us believe it too. I’m afraid that too many of us believe that it’s not okay to be upset at God.

A few years back I saw a note on Facebook was trending from Kay Warren, the wife of famous Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren. For those of you who aren’t familiar with their story, their son unexpectedly committed suicide about a year prior to this Facebook note. Kay writes about what it is like to experience that loss, but more about how hurt she was by many well meaning Christians who expected her to “move on” faster. I’d like to read a small portion of it:

As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever. Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). [People ask] “How are you”. This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”

How many of us can identify? That someone has used faith, implicitly or explicitly, to shame those who feel the deepest hurts of human existence? And yet throughout Scripture, the greatest heroes and heroines of faith are those who cried out to God in all their rawness and honesty and demanded an answer. From Abraham to Moses, Hannah, David, Naomi, the Psalmists and the Prophets and the writers of Ecclesiastes and Lamentations! The Bible represents a rich, illustrious tradition of saying exactly how you feel to God, even directed toward God, and receiving an answer. When we cry out to God in the rawness of our emotion, like Mary and Martha, it does not come from a lack of faith – rather, it is the deepest kind of faith that can feel the entire weight of human suffering and still look toward God for something, anything, in response.

Because that same tradition reveals a God deeply moved by our cries – while “Jesus wept” may be the shortest verse in the Bible, the truth of it pervades every page – Our God is a God who weeps for broken humanity. It could even be argued, biblically, that God’s action on our behalf is influenced by the very cries we just spoke of. The foundational act of God in the story of Israel, the Exodus, began when, as it tells us in chapter 1:

The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.

Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as being saddened, grieved, moved to pity, angry, restless, jealous… The God we claim is not the ambivalent, disinterested, uninvolved god of Greek philosophy or deism. Our God has fire, personality, zeal, and the deepest level of interest in our sorrow and joy! What’s interesting is that the different words used to describe Jesus’ emotions in this passage include anger, but also compassion. Jesus experiences a wide range of emotions in this short time, and scholars can’t agree about whom Jesus is angry at. But when Jesus weeps, it is at the brokenness of humanity; because of sin, because of grief, because of death and suffering… Jesus weeps because he is sad. His anger, whatever toward, gives way to compassion. As the Old Testament recounts over and over, God is slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love.

I lived in Oklahoma City for four years while I was doing my undergrad. Oklahoma City, besides having a basketball team, is famous only for its tragedy. The Oklahoma City bombing, prior to 9/11, was the largest act of terrorism in U.S. History. The city wears the scars of the attack to this day, and recounts the stories of fear and disbelief from that chaotic day. Just to the east of the memorial stands this statue (pictured above).

The statue simply reads, “And Jesus wept”, quoting our passage today. The Jesus depicted in the statue looks away from the site of the attack weeping. It stands as a beautiful and tragic reminder of a God who feels our deepest pain and weeps at our brokenness. But it’s still not the end of the story.

Finally, we are brought to the explosive, brilliant conclusion that the God who seems to arrive too late, the God who hears our cries and weeps with us, is not only a friend with an ear to listen, but is also the Lord over life and death. Because this is true, every story can have a surprise ending. See, the Jews that saw Jesus weeping had two responses. The first was a nice, emotional response: “See how he loved him!” But then the hard questions came back: “Couldn’t this man who heals blind people have stopped him from dying?” Ultimately, a God who is compassionate and sympathetic is a deeply moving, helpful sentiment, but if that God has no power to right the wrongs in our world… what’s the point? God would be no more useful than a good friend during a hard time.

But God is the giver and sustainer of life, the Creator of all that is. And the wild, creative force behind everything that can be! And Jesus makes it clear in his prayer that he is not simply a human performing a miracle, but the Son of God unleashing the full power of this God from Genesis to Revelation. This is not a miracle to look at and say “ooh, ahhh, yay Jesus” like turning water into wine or walking on water. To this brilliant, unexpected conclusion, we can only say, “Behold the Lord, the giver of life!”

Jesus commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and he does! It’s enough to say Mary and Martha did not expect this; on an obvious level they did not anticipate someone who had died coming back to life. But even on a theological level, they understood that resurrection was supposed to happen at the end of time. But Jesus throughout the gospels is saying that everything God is… it’s happening in your midst. “I am the resurrection and the life!” You don’t have to wait until death or until the end of times to experience Resurrection. Resurrection begins now, and continues on. Jesus redefines resurrection to mean deep life now, and long life for tomorrow. And he will do it again on Easter Sunday.

This means that all of the ways in which we experience pain and death in this life have the possibility of a surprise ending. Our God experiences it as deeply as we do, and can partner with us to change the course. Whether it is a broken relationship, a cycle of violence, a city marred by a tragedy, addiction that can’t be broken… so many of our realities seem predetermined, like the ending has already been written. But in Christ, the end of the story can always be a surprise. In this story, and especially on Easter, we see God overcome the literal, final death that pervades our experience and charges our metaphors of pain with meaning. If God can overcome that, God can do anything for those whom God loves.

Almost to Easter, but knowing Good Friday comes first, we pause to reflect on the rich tradition of the Old Testament brought to the forefront by our text today. Jesus wants to remind us what God is like in our darkest times. Though absence and distance are so often the words we use to describe where God is in our darkness, we draw on the words of our mothers and fathers of faith who cried out to God and God responded, because God simply can’t help but feel experience our pain alongside us. And when God responds, things happen that we don’t expect, but that always bring new life, new beginnings, and surprise endings. May we be encouraged to always turn to the God of all Life in the face of death, whether near or far, in all honesty and humility, and may God finally come to us and make all things new. Amen.

Learning to Believe – a homily on John 3:1-17

If you’re anything like me, you were caught by surprise at the end of this passage. Here we are listening to an interesting story about Nicodemus and some confusing dialogue, and all of a sudden John 3:16 pops up out of nowhere! I sometimes forget this verse is from the Bible, and not just a bumper sticker or a highway billboard. But the fact is that this verse, which has become so embedded in our psyche and memory, IS in the Bible, and is specifically found in the middle of this story. As iconic as this verse is, we find it in a particular context, which adds to, and I believe transforms, our understanding of it. We may find that this verse means something less than we thought it did, and at the same time that it may mean more than we ever thought it could. This is passage is full of “christian-ese” phrases and verses, but they come to us in a story about an aspiring believer learning how to believe.

We are introduced immediately to Nicodemus, who is a recurring character in John’s gospel, and who, we quickly come to find out, is a complex individual much like ourselves. He is introduced to us as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and later a teacher of Israel. We are led to believe he is a very significant Jewish leader, perhaps a member of the Sanhedrin. The passage tells us that he comes to Jesus by night, which many have interpreted to mean that he is afraid to be seen with Jesus. However, it was not uncommon for Pharisees to do their studies late into the night, and even to hold discourse and debate into the later hours of the evening. Which I suppose means that when I was a college student, I had far more in common with the Pharisees than I ever thought!

For John, light and dark, day and night mean something else entirely. Throughout the Gospel, darkness is a symbol for misunderstanding, and light is the symbol for wisdom and knowledge of God’s kingdom breaking through into the darkness. So perhaps John is emphasizing that Nicodemus is coming to Jesus from a place of naivety or “unknowing”. This makes his first words rather ironic. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi” or teacher. Himself, a teacher, Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus’ authority as a teacher. But then Nicodemus leads off his statement with the words, “We know.” Nicodemus is about to tell Jesus what he knows, and is hoping for some kind of affirmation, or maybe a congratulatory sticker. But Jesus’ response is far from what Nicodemus is expecting. Instead of a “Way to go, slugger!”, Jesus’ response throws us into a confusing dialogue. Nicodemus says, “We know”, and Jesus essentially responds, “Eh…no you don’t.” Jesus catches Nicodemus from his point of knowing and makes him listen to something he can’t understand.

Jesus responds saying, “Very truly,” which is the English way of translating what in the Greek actually says, “Amen, amen”. This is the first of many “double amens” in John, a device that is used to call to attention and focus. Jesus says that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, suggesting that while the kingdom is very real and present and active, not everyone can see it. This is the verse from which we get the phrase “born again”, another possible but less likely translation. This phrase has in our day taken a life of its own, often used as a distinguishing mark for Christians. Are you born again? Are you a born again Christian?  And the phrase is usually used to emphasize a choice that a person made, to “accept Jesus into their heart”, making them born again. And in the Wesleyan tradition we do affirm a choice, that we choose God knowing that God has chosen us. But I’m forced to tell you this morning that this passage is not about us and the choice that we make. Being born from above in this text is not about the decision that we make, but it’s about the response to God’s work in us already. As one commentary put it, this passage is about the fact of new birth, not the human experience of it.

But Nicodemus misses this point out of confusion. He thinks Jesus is referring to actual birth. He is once again shown that his place of knowing is falling out from under him. We are reminded that among those who believe in Jesus, not everyone believes rightly. Another phrase that comes to mind used to describe Christians today is “believers”. We are known as people who believe, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. But Nicodemus is a person who believes, and yet he is shown here as being naïve. If this were the last we heard of Nicodemus, we might think that he never truly “got it”. But as I said earlier, Nicodemus is a recurring character, and later in John we see him defending Jesus’ case among the Pharisees, and helping Joseph of Arimethea to put Jesus’ body in the tomb. Nicodemus is not just the “believer” or the guy who misunderstood Jesus. Nicodemus is a work in progress. And aren’t we all? Perhaps as important, or even more important, than initially believing or understanding is growing and maturing in our faith. Because believing is something we do once. Growing and maturing is something we never stop doing, and just like being born from above, it is something that God does in us more than we do on our own.

Now that Nicodemus has expressed his misunderstanding and confusion, Jesus goes on to say: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” As if we weren’t in the dark enough already… But we’re reminded that since this is God’s work and not our own, it cannot be broken down and described in “8 simple steps to being born from above”. When we’re dealing with God, it is often the case that we don’t understand all that is going on, and frankly I think we ought to prefer it that way.

But it is interesting that Jesus uses birth as the primary metaphor for this change. At the time of this gospel’s writing, there was a heavy emphasis among Jews, early Christians, and even some of the heresies beginning to emerge, on a person’s “origin”. It was believed for the most part that a person or thing is ultimately determined by their origin, where they come from. And I’m convinced that this is still true today. We were all told growing up that we could be anything we want to be when we grow up, yet most people lead pretty predictable lives. Those who grow up poor tend to stay that way, and most people live in the same geographical region their whole lives. We celebrate those people who come from obscurity and find success because, generally, it’s not the norm, and socially speaking, it’s very hard to do. Where you are born, typically, can say a lot fairly accurately about what the rest of your life is going to look like.

So for Jesus to speak of the kingdom of God as a new birth is very interesting. If identity is so closely tied to origin, what might happen if one could be given a new origin altogether? And if that origin is “from above”, as Jesus suggests, what might it mean for the rest of our lives to be shaped by our new location of origin?

As I was thinking about origins this week, I was reminded that Jesus’ origin, in this gospel of John, is described very differently than in the other gospels. Matthew and Luke have their versions of the birth narrative, but John does something very different. John’s gospel opens with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

So John tells us that Jesus’ origin goes back all the way to the beginning, to God’s original act of creation, and even before. And we are reminded here on Trinity Sunday that to be born anew, to be born from above, is to find our own new beginning right there as well. And we therefore find our new story and our new identity wrapped up in what God has been doing all along.

From this point on, Jesus begins to describe what it might mean to begin understanding the “heavenly things”. There is an interesting allusion to a story of Moses and a serpent, which may not be familiar to all of us. The story goes that in the wilderness, the Israelites were attacked by poisonous snakes, but God provided a way that they could be healed. Moses lifted a snake up onto a pole, and whoever looked upon that snake was healed. This is in anticipation, of course, that Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, and by that act, all might be saved. There is an irony at play here, though. This conversation began with a Jewish leader acknowledging that their God, Yahweh, was at work in Jesus, and allowed him to do great works. He might even compare Jesus to Moses himself. But Jesus, rather than comparing himself to Moses, is more like the snake that Moses lifted up in the desert. We are again confounded by God’s ways of accomplishing God’s goals for humanity, and reminded that God is always behaving in unpredictable and new ways.

And now we come to John 3:16 and 17. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus gives us the ultimate gospel message, that salvation is possible and tangible because of the unending love of God. Judy did a wonderful job a few weeks ago of explaining the Trinity as the “circle dance of love”, that the primary characteristic of God in God’s three-in-oneness is love, pouring itself out to each other. This passage affirms that it is God’s love, not God’s judgment or condemnation, that is the basis of salvation. And we are reminded that being born again, born anew, born from above, is to find our origin and our identity in this same love and to participate in it collectively. On Trinity Sunday, we affirm that God is, in God’s own self, a relationship of love, and that we are invited to join in that relationship. And because of that love that always pours itself out, salvation is possible for the entire world! And in this passage, we are not asked to make a decision or follow these three steps, but to simply bask in that love, and to let it overwhelm us past the point of understanding. We are invited to move past the point of believing and into the ever changing, growing and maturing that the love of God calls us to, and to never grow complacent or feel like we’ve arrived, because God is always doing a new thing. We are reminded this morning that just like Nicodemus, we are a “work in progress”, but the good news is that God just can’t help but love us into the kingdom if we will allow it.

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.

Theology of Diversity – A Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

The Word of the Lord.

More than ever before, I fear we need a nuanced theology of diversity and unity. This week, thousands are marching in the streets of Baltimore to show the world that things are not the way they are supposed to be. We need a nuanced theology of diversity and unity, and I believe we have the earliest renderings of one here in the story of Babel. But just like so many texts before it, certain readings of this story have done more harm than good, and led many to believe that diversity is a curse rather than a blessing; or they reduce the story, to condemning merely pride, and not the deeper sin at work – isolationism, fear of the other, uniformity. As we read this text closely, I hope that we can all see that unity and diversity are meant to be held together in God’s beautiful creation, and that God does not punish but corrects the course that creation was intended for all along – a creation teeming with difference and complexity, but which comes together in service to one another and the Creator. A creation where particular races are not unequally punished; where churches don’t wall themselves up from a world they call unclean; where we stockpile fewer weapons and open more food-banks. I’m sorry to begin this class on such a dour note; but I believe that these real world issues are at stake when we approach scripture. And in our text this evening, at stake is our understanding of God’s desire for unity, diversity, and identity.

I love these early stories in Genesis, because they are so fundamentally concerned with those issues that cut right to the core of who we are. Genesis 1-11 is called Primeval history by biblical scholars because it contains these pre-historical, fantastic stories that have less to do with telling us specific things that happened back then, but rather these amazing tales about the same things we still ponder now. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Is there any justice in the world? What is evil? What is family? How do communities form? These basic philosophical and sociological questions are met in Genesis with theological responses, giving glimpses more than answers; opening our eyes wider rather than focusing our gaze. This story, maybe more than the others, invites us to see ourselves and our world through its lens. Although it names the city Babel, there are no other names in this story. Instead, the phrase “all the earth” is used five times, and I believe that “all the earth” is meant to include us. The way it describes humanity, and how God responds, will be just as true today as it was for those earliest communities. It is, in many ways, a parable more than an origin story. It is about issues we face today.

When we read the text closely, we see that Babel is more than a tower, but a City, and the City is far more concerning to God. Think about it: this story is usually called: “the Tower of Babel”. This symbolism becomes an analogy for human pride and arrogance, when we try to construct something that makes us seem like god, we compare it to this story. But let’s hear their building plans again, and see where their priorities really were: “Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; OTHERWISE we shall be scattered abroad on the face of the earth.” That otherwise is important, it’s the whole reason for their building. They’re afraid to be scattered. What does that have to do with the tower? Their main goal is not to reach up to heaven, like so many readings have said, but they are building because they want to all stay together, safe and secure. The tower seems like an afterthought – not only to them, but especially to God! Ironically, despite their best attempts to put the top of their tower “in the heavens”, God still has to “come down” to see it. It turns out that the tower was little threat to God’s superiority. But God is very concerned about their holing up in a City: “Look, they are all one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do.”

And we have seen the dangers that come when we unify in fear. Nazism, racism, sexism are all built on this same foundation as the City of Babel – that to be safe we must fear the things and especially the people who are different and separate ourselves from them – either by eliminating them, persecuting them, subjugating them or building walls between us and them. When we shut ourselves off from the other, evil takes root. How can selfless love exist in a place where everyone looks like ourselves? In Genesis 11, God is not condemning the Tower. God laughs at the Tower. But God fears what will happen if they follow through with their isolated City, and we have certainly proven God right in that case.

Keeping this in mind, we see God deal with this City; not through an act of punishment or cursing, but a corrective in line with the original plans of creation. Way back in the garden, God commands the first humans to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. God gives this commandment again after the Flood, to the family of Noah. So twice now in Genesis the command has been given to fill the earth, but in this story we try to do the opposite. We want to wall ourselves up and stay safe, making sure we all speak the same way, look the same way, think the same way. This was never God’s plan, as we see in the beautiful diversity of the rest of creation. God creates ALL the birds of the air and creatures of the sea and beasts on the land – and as we have discovered this amazing planet throughout history we find more and more unique and amazing things. God does not want one people, one nation, one language – on the contrary, the Book of Revelation envisions: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

At Pentecost, there is this beautiful picture of the coming of the Holy Spirit, where instead of uniting everyone in language, using the logic of Babel, instead everyone hears the message in their own language. They don’t leave all speaking the same tongue, but encountering the Gospel in their own distinct articulation. Like a great musical number that can be played by different instruments, in different rhythms, and with multiple harmonies, so the creation of God deserves to be encountered and expressed in ever-new ways. When God scatters them with new languages, it empowers Creation to encounter God in new ways, and to experience God’s best gift to the world: unity, within our diversity! God does not curse the world with new languages and nations. God blesses the world with diversity, whether they like it or not!

We have been given glimpses of this idea, of diversity and unity held together as companions and not adversaries. Creation, Pentecost and Revelation, in these big moments of past, present and future; a multitude of unique creations sharing a creator and a purpose; many languages hearing one Gospel; and finally every nation and tongue singing one song. This imagery permeates scripture. Even Paul, in describing what it is like to be in the community of God, says it’s like one body with many different parts. No one part should wish that it is a different one, or worse, think that another part is less important than they are. But as one body, we exist as a collection of parts moving toward one purpose. The City of Babel would have a body made up of only heads, babbling in vain, or a body of legs walking around in circles. As funny of an image as this is, we know there is more at stake. When our theology of unity and diversity is not robust enough to celebrate both, the City of Babel becomes Nazi Germany, or the Jim Crow south, or Westboro Baptist. The Bible celebrates the complex interplay of diversity and unity because if we lose sight of it, we quickly lose ourselves; or, worse, we lose each other.

The only name in the story is Babel, and we are told that it is named after its confusion. They wanted to make a name for themselves, but they are named after their ironic failure to do so. What will we be named for? As we build our cities, whether our City is a small group or a Seminary or a committee or even a Church, what will our name be called? If we fill our cities with people who are just like us and shut the door behind them, perhaps we need God to enter in and scatter us about again. God may bless us by shaking up our “cities”, whether we like it or not. The truth about names is that, just like at birth, we do not get to name ourselves. The more we pursue a great name for ourselves the faster we will lose it. Like so much irony in this story and in the Gospel itself, a great name is a gift given to those who don’t even want it. What name will we be given?

As I close tonight, I want to leave us with this benediction: May we become settlers who love to be scattered, unifiers who love diversity, and builders of unfortified cities with open gates. May we be a Church that rebukes the world for building Cities of Babel and carrying out its laws. May God enter swiftly in as at Babel, as at Calvary, to save us from ourselves and the desperate situation we are in. And, more than ever, may we never use God’s name in vain for our selfish tendencies. And until the day when we will have learned these lessons in full, may we pray for God’s mercy for fewer casualties along the way. Amen.