Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Good News - The Story of a New Beginning


Preached on Sunday, July 15, 2018

Scripture readings: Genesis 3:1-15; John 1:9-14

The Bible tells us about the kind of world and the sort of life that we were designed for: that we were created for. It also shows us a picture of what has gone wrong.
The Next Leg of our Cruise to Santa Catalina Island
June 2018
The part of the story we read from Genesis tells us how things went wrong. If we kept on reading we would see how things got much worse.
But this is no news to anyone. TV, and the radio, and the internet all tell us that too many things are getting worse all the time. We wonder when the next terrorist attack will come, and when the next jet will plow into the next skyscraper. The big world around us shows us that things have gone wrong.
But we see it on the small scale of our own lives. Even in our own homes (or even if we live alone) there can be angers, and stresses, and betrayals, and griefs that eat at our minds. At work, and even on vacation, the things that go wrong can break our hearts, or embitter us, or isolate us.
The Bible tells us that we were designed and created to live in a garden, a paradise, a place of harmony, a place of good relationships. And we lost it. We blew it. The world and human life became broken and dysfunctional things. This happened long before we were born, but it’s a fact of life now.
Long ago the first humans tried to put themselves in a state of independence from God. They thought they could get away with this, even though God is the source of life for all things. God responded to their raid on the forbidden fruit by graciously giving them exactly what they were really asking for. If you want freedom from dependence upon God, then what you really want is a life lived outside the source of life.
They had wanted an independence that was beyond the ability of any creature living in a world made by God. It was as if beings with lungs wanted to live independent of the air, or a fish wanted to live out of water. What hope could there be for a life like that?
And yet God, at their request, did the best he could do in order to give them this unnatural way of life: to be living lungs without air and living fish flopping around on dry land. That first pair of humans found out the hard way that getting exactly what you want can be more a punishment than a gift.
Before the portion of the story that we have read, you can read how God brought all the animals to the man, and the man named them according to their nature. The man was able to clearly read and assess each one of them. But the man did not find among them a companion truly suited to his needs. And since none of the other creatures were capable of giving him the help and the depth of relationship that he needed, God gave him a wife. And the man immediately knew who this person was and how good for him she was.
If we were in harmony with God, we would be like those first humans in the beginning. We would be able to size up anything (and anyone) that came our way. We would know what to do. We would know what was good for us, and what wasn’t. We would know what we needed and what we didn’t need. Any person who came into our life, we would understand, and we would be able to see how that person was a gift from God, and we would know how to deal with that person. We would know what to say to that person, and how to live together.
Our human nature is out of harmony with God. If God brought the very best person, the greatest source of human love to us, we would fail to praise that person properly and give God the proper thanks.
In the temptation, where Adam should have accepted responsibility for his own actions, he blamed his wife instead. And Adam blamed God for giving her to him. And so, in the story, half the human race was divided from the other half, as it has been ever since.
The fall of the human race and the breaking up of human nature shows us who we are. When we do not live in harmony with God, we don’t know how to live in this world. We don’t know what anything is. We don’t know how to relate to our opportunities. We blame others instead of facing ourselves. We allow our pride to divide us from others. It becomes our nature to fight, and hurt, and get hurt.
Before the first humans divided the human race from God, the garden life was a place where you could work and know what you were working for.
With the help of God work can be a blessing but, living in a world that does not work God’s way, you can do all the right things and have nothing to show for it. Farmers know this. You can invest the work of your life in a job, in a marriage, in a way of seeing the world, and end up with nothing.
You can even work so hard, so intensely, that you make the work go bad. The sweat in your eyes makes you fail to see how you are toiling for what you think you want in all the wrong ways. This is what it means to work for thorns and thistles.
Even though we often live broken lives in a broken world, it is not completely natural to us. We see that something is wrong. If we were really designed for the world as it is, and for life as it is, we wouldn’t know any better. We would feel perfectly at home.
But we don’t feel at home. The fact is that most of us know there is something wrong, and sometimes we can imagine the way things should be.
We are not like blind people living in a world where everyone was blind. In such a world there would be no one who would know that there was such a thing as light.
We live in a spiritually and morally hungry and thirsty world. Most of us know that we are missing something. Hunger and thirst tell us that we are made to eat and be filled; to drink and be quenched. At least some of us know that we hunger and thirst for goodness, and for fairness, and justice, and forgiveness, and love, and truth.
This shows us that we were made for a better world than we see around us, and that we were made for better lives than we have the power to live on our own. This tells us that, either the world was once such a place for finding fullness, and harmony, and fulfillment, and satisfaction; or else it tells us that we are made for a better world that is ahead, a better world that is coming.
The Bible and the good news of Jesus tell us about such a world and such a life. It tells us about a paradise that has been lost, and a human nature that has been broken, and about relationships that have been divided. It tells us that we were made for peace with God, and that such a peace would make us able to grow in peace, and in healing relationships with others, and we would have something to give to the world that would make a difference.
The Bible tells us that there will be an end to the world as it is; that Satan and all the powers of evil will be crushed as one might crush the head of a rattle snake when you’ve killed it. The Bible tells us that God has a plan to make each one of us a new person fit for a new creation that is coming.
The Lord told the serpent, the devil, in the garden, that one of the woman’s children would crush the serpent’s head and the serpent would strike the child’s heel. That is the first picture, or prophecy, in the Bible that shows us the healing and the salvation of the human race and the whole world. Everything else is built on this promise.
The serpent is Satan, the Devil, and all his minions, and all the forces of darkness, and all the sin rooted in human hearts, and all the rebellion in human beings that poison nations, and families, and each one of our individual lives.
We are all children of the man and the woman in the garden. We are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. We cannot crush the serpent because the serpent is a part of us. At least we are allies of it. It is our very nature to be allies of the serpent, even though we have been made in the image of God and made for life with God. We are divided against ourselves, and so we cannot defeat, for good, the evil in the world and in ourselves.
So God became human to fight the battle that must be fought. God entered the world as Jesus, the son of Mary.
His coming into the world was his own doing. It was his free, and gracious, and miraculous act of love.
There is something in the love of God that is parental, which we call the Father. There is something in the love of God that submits and serves, which we call the Son. The Bible also calls this submitting and serving Son, the Word of God, and the light that enlightens everyone and everything.
The Son, the Word, the Light, says everything about God and everything about us. When he comes to us we see true glory, and holiness, and love, and worth; and we see ourselves just as we are. And this Son, this Word, this light in the nature of God is what led God to become human, to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.
God became human as Jesus to invade us and establish a beachhead in us. In Jesus God built a perfect human life; the kind of life of faith, and compassion, and wisdom that we were created to live.
In Jesus God suffered the injustices, and the griefs, and the pains, and the death that human sin made a part of our life. He suffered the experiences that sin in our nature deserved. He who was without sin died the death our sins deserved.
He was beaten and whipped bloody by those who arrested him and prepared him for death on the cross, but our sins were in those fists that beat him, and in the lashes that tore his flesh. Nails were driven through his hands and feet. His whole body’s weight hung upon those nails, but all the sins and injustices and evils of this world hung upon him. The pain and blood of the cross are the pictures of the extreme and infinite love of God for you. They are his power to reach into you, and claim you, and make you whole.
He bore our punishment on the cross. He went through the gate of death because he was human, and because he was God he broke the power of death, and he broke the power of sin that brought death into the world.
On the cross it was as if all the evil and sin of this world, and of our own hearts, struck the Jesus’ heel and killed him, but Jesus lived again and crushed the serpent’s head.
If we will receive Jesus we receive everything that he is, everything that he has. We receive his grace and his forgiveness.
Everything we have, from then on, and every step forward, is the result of that forgiveness. We never receive the victory of Jesus in order to brag, or to be better than anyone else, or to look down on others. Apart from Jesus we don’t have anything to call our own, but Jesus makes us his own. He makes us children of God.
Even when we first meet God, in Christ, we may be afraid of him because we can see that he wants to take away the hard-won gift that Adam and Eve and the human race have struggled so hard to hold onto. Jesus looks snakey and suspicious because we are used to hiding from the true light of God. That light hurts our eyes and we can’t see what’s good for us.
We don’t want to see ourselves just as we are. We don’t want to know too much about our responsibility. We don’t want to completely escape from the crippling and destructive desires within us, because these desires may give us the only pleasure that we have known; even though they are hurting us and those around us.
We may think we that want God and what God has to give us, but we don’t want it all. We want to pick and choose what God will deal with in us and what we can keep for ourselves.
And, so, the light shows us that the old sin of Adam and Eve is at work in us, wanting to be independent from our very source of life. It is as if we want to be sober and drunk at the same time. It is as if we want to be sick and well at the same time. In that sense we want to live a lie, even when we see all the goodness of God waiting for us in Jesus.
But God is full of grace and truth and he shows us this through his Son. There is no grace or truth outside of him.
We have to die with Jesus and rise with Jesus by receiving him. We have to die to our stubborn independence in order to rise in a life of grace alone: the beautiful and freely given mercy of God alone.
And we have to die and rise with Christ so that we die to our version of the truth and listen only to him. We have to die to the lies we have told ourselves, about our lives, and about our real priorities, and about our true responsibility. We have to die to ourselves, and rise in God’s truth about us and about the new life he sets before us.
Receiving Jesus, the word and light of God, means the deepest surrender. It feels like the greatest risk in the world. It’s like floating on your back when you are afraid of water. It is like sky diving and jumping out of that plane when you are afraid of heights. We have to lose ourselves and give up ourselves in order to put to an end to a life that needs to stop, and to receive a life that comes from God.
The life God gives is a life that we cannot manufacture for ourselves. The life we receive from God has its beginning before the creation and it will never end, and there is no shadow and no fear in it.
This new life will enable us to go forward in harmony with God. It will make us into givers of grace and truth to others, and to the whole world. This new life is the end of something old that we know too well, but this life is only the beginning of something else. To receive Jesus, you have to be ready to begin what only God knows.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Wonderful World of Wisdom - Foundations


Preached on Sunday, July 8, 2018

Scripture readings: Proverbs 1:1-9; Colossians 1:15-29; John 1:1-14

A family was getting ready to go to the Christmas pageant and their son had already put on his royal looking costume, and he was holding his little golden box to give to the baby Jesus. His dad, knowing his son’s special weaknesses, gave him this warning; “Boy, in this play remember to be the wise-man and not the wise-guy.”
The Book of the Proverbs gives a lot of healthy attention to both kinds of guys. And not all the guys are guys. There are a lot of women in Proverbs and they get a lot of attention too; but there are three women who are the most important people in the whole book. There is Lady Wisdom. There is Foxy Folly. There is Vera Goodwife. Well, to make it simpler, there is Wisdom, and Folly, and the Noble Wife who is one hundred percent lady and one hundred percent woman.
This Book of Proverbs is presented to us as the wise sayings of Solomon. The Books of Kings tells us that Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs, but that’s way too many to fit in the book of Proverbs as we have it. And the Book of Proverbs itself tell us that not all of the proverbs in the Book of Proverbs are his.
Since Solomon was wise he knew how to listen to the wisdom of others. His book honestly tells us who some of those people were: a wise man named Agur (Proverbs 30.1), who might have been an Ishmaelite from the descendants of Ishmael, the half-brother of Isaac; and the last chapter in the book comes from the mother of Lemuel who was the king of a neighboring country (Proverbs 31.1).
There are so many proverbs and there’s so little organization to them. Every now and then you find groupings. The noble wife, at the end, has the biggest topical grouping of them all. So, the wisdom of women is the big ending and the happily ever after of all wisdom. Proverbs has a sense of humor, by the way.
There’s a pair of proverbs about talking to fools that really is a joke. Here’s the pair in Proverbs chapter twenty-six, verses four and five: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” So, it says: “Don’t do it, but go ahead and do it”. Or it says: “Darned if you do and darned if you don’t.”
You have to admit that’s pretty good. I think it’s a hint that trying to be perfectly wise will make you a fool if it doesn’t drive you crazy. And Solomon will say something like that in his later book “Ecclesiastes” chapter seven.
First of all, we must ask: What is wisdom? Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are the wisdom books of the Bible. They’ve been set apart as that for two thousand years. What is wisdom? Read those books.
Still they give us clues; right from the start. The proverbs are for “attaining wisdom” as verse two tells us. You need wisdom, first of all, in order to find out what wisdom really is. That’s what wisdom is. Wisdom teaches you what is wise and what isn’t.
There’s something even better. What is wisdom? Proverbs tells us almost from the start. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Proverbs 1.7) Proverbs 9.10 says it better: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
I think the whole world, as it is now, is farther from wisdom than at any time in history or prehistory. It is more important than ever, in the world as it is now, to have the right wisdom to make the right choices and set the right priorities. And the world, as it is now, makes it harder to learn the wisdom that we need to make the hardest choices ever.
I think (and please guide me if I am astray here) that, in the world as it is now, the highest values are information and conformity. Both of those are dangerous substitutes for wisdom. They will never lead you to wisdom.
When you look back at our wisdom books, in the Bible, the words that point the way to wisdom are fear and knowledge. But our world no longer understands the ancient language of wisdom. In the Bible world, “fear” and “knowledge” are (or can be) love words.
Maybe something in our ancient-world heart (and not in our modern-world blood pump) can help us understand. In families where love is built on the foundation of beautiful promises, when spouses say, “I know my husband” or “I know my wife”, it means something revolutionary to the world as it is now.
Such love can make mistakes, but such love is the kind of knowledge that makes the other person beautiful. You know and love every pause, every joke, every knuckle, and crooked toe, and wrinkle of that person. You look at them and see the lost beauty of the youth that they spent loving you, and trying to love you better, and yet that lost beauty isn’t really lost at all, but dearer than ever.
The lifetime of loving that one person has also made you beautiful in a way that only your spouse can see and know. A sometimes-trembling love has somehow saved your life and there is a wisdom and knowledge coming from that which influences every day of your life and every definite plan and every open-ended, wait-and-see view of the future. Such a love has given you wisdom.
The knowledge of the Most High is that kind of love. It’s built on that kind of experience. Even when you haven’t known the Most High for long, your knowledge sees something that runs up and down the ages. Your brand new Lord Most High becomes your very own Ancient of Days in no time at all. The knowledge of wisdom is foolishness unless it’s the knowledge of love in the Most High.
It’s the same with the fear of the Lord. The only kind of fear acceptable to God is when our fear is a love-word for God. Fear works on different levels and not all those levels are love. If you fear chain-saws, then you might never know the beauty of using one. If your fear turns into respect, and you respect that chain-saw, it will prosper and sing in your hands. If you really fall in love with that chain-saw, you might learn to carve tree trunks into grizzly bears, over even into the strong, beautiful likeness of your husband or wife. That is when fear becomes a love-word.
Deeper still, when your children or grandchildren want to learn how to use a chain-saw, there you see fear and love fit like hand in glove. You want those children to grow up with the most healthy and beautiful fears that their little tender hearts can hold because you love them. And your fear and your love go hand in glove (and you better make them wear gloves when they hold that chain-saw) as you introduce them to object of your love and joy, so that they can love, and enjoy, and lovingly fear that machine with the shattering voice, and those sharp teeth.
Great Fear and Great Love are not enemies, or strangers, in the ancient heart of wisdom. So, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
But what does the beginning of wisdom mean? You can’t go wrong if you call that fear the first step. Woe! Woe, unto you if you don’t start with the first step. Step one: put the chain on the chain-saw. Step two: put gas and oil in the chain saw. Step three: start your motors gentlemen.
If you don’t say that you must begin with the first step, first, and not the last step, first, then you’re going to end up married to Foxy Folly, or you may lose an arm or two. Every journey, including the journey to wisdom, begins with the first step. Take the right one first step, or you will have a long job of back-tracking to do to find your Lady Wisdom.
But the beginning of wisdom is much more than a first step. The beginning of wisdom depends on every step.
God’s wisdom for our lives, for each one of us, is a moving target of which God is the focus. God is not only with us, but God is also ahead of us, at the same time, leading the way.
When I was serving the church in Davenport, I was in Lions Club, and we had a special summer meeting for which we met at the gun club and went trap shooting. Well, I had experience shooting at things before, and I wasn’t first in line, and so I had the chance to set my thinking in the direction of trap shooting wisdom.
Because I wanted to make more than my first step wise, I didn’t aim at the spot where I saw the clay pigeon. I aimed for where I knew the pigeon was going to be, and I surprised everybody. I mean I impressed them. For someone who had never done it before I did it better than a lot of the others.
The fear-love of the Lord, as a moving target, is the beginning of wisdom, meaning that it is much more than the first step. The fear-love of the Lord is the core and heart of your trajectory. The goal of God’s wisdom for you is God himself leading you there. God has a trajectory, and God’s wisdom shares his trajectory. It’s as if the beginning of an apple is the heart of a flower that becomes the seed in a tiny pod that becomes the center of a juicy, ripe sweet fruit. The center is always there, but the center has a trajectory. It’s always changing.
Wisdom is a road with a first step and with many steps needed to reach the destination. Wisdom is a flower that turns to fruit, and from fruit to a tree. It not only has a beginning in time: it has a target, and it has something worth celebrating that you could never put into words, if you only judged it by its beginning.
Wisdom is what life is for with God. Yes, wisdom must begin, but, in God’s wisdom the target is also the beginning, and the end is the greatest beginning of all.
Beginning, in Hebrew, almost means simply that it’s number one. The fear of the Lord is the number one of wisdom. It’s step number one, and it’s number one all the way after that.
Even the end is the beginning. Wisdom is for getting there. And the achievement of wisdom is the work of love.
It’s the work of love, and “God is love.” (1 Jn 4.8)
“Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction; and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” (Proverbs 1.8) Love desires wisdom, for one’s own sake and for others. Proverbs is about love, and relationships with others, and with communities, and with those in need, and with those who have power over you, and with those who work under you. Proverbs is about love and relationships with your work, and your family, and your home. It’s about your relationship with yourself. It’s about love. It’s about God. And, so, in every way, it’s about love.
There is, in Proverbs, and in wisdom, a goal. The goal is all of us together, and all creation, and God, and love, and connection, and belonging, and love. It’s really the secret to understanding Proverbs, and the Old Testament, and the Gospel.
We are made for fellowship with God. God is connection within himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the everlasting Son carries this fellowship to us, in our world’s lostness and brokenness, which all we share. Jesus, the everlasting Son, comes out of eternity and down to us, in time and space, to restore a lost relationship that was intended to be our whole life and home. Jesus, the everlasting Son, comes down to us to restore a lost resemblance, and Proverbs identifies that resemblance.
When, through Jesus, we begin with God we understand and know the Most High and how we are to embody in our love everything that God is and everything that God has done for us.
In Proverbs chapter ten, verse twelve, it says: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” Hatred is the fruit of the fall of the human race from the image of God to the image of sin. Whatever makes us tick seems to naturally stir up strife and conflict; in marriages, families, nations, and humankind. We stir up strife against the love, and the forgiveness, and the salvation, and the rescue that God creates for us in Christ.
But the love that has not been broken or fallen (the love of God) covers all those offenses. The love of God was poured out on the cross for us, and for the world, to cover our offenses: to heal our sins, and blot them out, and make us new in Jesus, the Son of God.
Wisdom working in us shows us how to heal the brokenness of others caused by the conflict of sin. Wisdom shows us what to do and say in order to make people new and to make the past forgotten.
“All day long the wicked covets, but the righteous gives and does not hold back.” (Proverbs 21.26) The righteous one, here, is God who gives to us, through Jesus, the cross and the resurrection. In this process of giving, through the cross and the resurrection, God and does not hold back.
Our knowledge of the Most High changes us. This knowledge of God, and God’s righteousness, gives us the wisdom to give and not hold back. Our knowledge of the Most High restores our lost resemblance to God. The Book of Proverbs is a book about God’s wisdom restoring us so that his wisdom becomes our resemblance to him, in Jesus.
God is our true home and, in Proverbs, the Wisdom of God invites us home and prepares a meal for us, and this meal is the bond of the home of God’s wisdom being our home, because our food and refreshment are there. Remember that seven, used here, is the sign of fullness, completion, and perfection: “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her maids to call from the highest place in the town, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” To him who is without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave simpleness, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9.1-6)
The cross and the resurrection are the food of the Lord’s Table: the food of wisdom. It feeds us with the wisdom of knowing that we are changed by a righteous love that is not our own. We know that this righteous love does not hold back, no matter how small the portions may seem at the time. The wisdom of God was love in the form of self-sacrifice. That’s the wisdom we find in the food here in the Holy Communion of the Lord’s Table.
Let’s come. Let’s leave our simpleness or find its blessing. Let’s eat, and live, and walk with the Lord.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Blessed Heritage is the Blessing Heritage


Preached on Sunday, July 1, 2018
Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; 1 Peter 2:9-25

Walking near Crab Creek, north of Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
May 2018
A mother came into her kitchen and found that it was being destroyed by her young children. They were definitely up to something. There was a mess of flour, and milk, and eggs everywhere it shouldn’t be. “What on earth are you doing?” she yelled.
The youngest answered first. “It’s almost America’s birthday, and we want to make it a birthday cake!”
It’s a good thing to want to celebrate this birthday. There are a lot of good reasons to do this. Birthday’s celebrate hopes and dreams, and they celebrate the heritage of the life carried in a person, or in a community, or even a nation.
Our nation’s birthday was an important day in my family, growing up. In his later years, my dad lost enough weight to fit into his old Navy uniform again, and he would put it on first thing in the morning and march out of the house, carrying the flag, and setting the flag in it’s bracket on the front of the house and saluting the flag at attention. My mom liked to spend part of the day watching Jimmy Cagney play George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, which seemed to be on TV every Fourth of July. By the time I was twelve, I took over setting fire to our fireworks.
The dog and cats celebrated the evening of the fourth by hiding. Some of the neighbors fired guns loaded with blanks, just like they would do on the stroke of the New Year.
The Nez Perce tribe in Idaho celebrate Independence Day in the middle of their summer powwow. The last week in June and the first week in July they celebrate what they call Talmaks. It’s also called “Presbyterian Camp Meeting of the Nez Perce Indians”. They’ve been doing this since 1897.
The Nez Perce were the tribe that sent messengers east to the settled lands of the United States, back in 1831, to ask for “the white man’s Book of Heaven”. Their mission was to ask a wise man to come to their people and teach them the message of the Bible.
A lot of Nez Perce people have long considered themselves to be a Christian tribe. The Nez Perce Wars were fought by the part of the tribe that didn’t want the Book. That part of the tribe is still fighting, to tell you the truth.
As the Presbyterian Camp Meeting would tell you, the most important part of the powwow is worship, study, and prayer.
The next most important part of Talmaks is the Fourth of July. A lot of the Nez Perce men enlist in the armed forces and become veterans. Independence Day is a big day for them: serving their country as warriors along with celebrating their identity as a Christian nation.
Well, they like to call their tribe a Christian nation. The truth is it doesn’t always look that way. As a nation, they aren’t very united that way, but a lot of them do their best to make it so.
That’s sort of like us, isn’t it? I remember the days when, if you asked someone if they were Christians, their answer could very well be: “Of course I’m Christian, I’m an American!” Although, back in the day, I also remember that the people who answered that way did so with a tone of voice that wasn’t convincing at all. We real Christians usually didn’t believe them.
By the way, did you know that, legally speaking, Christ is the King of Poland, and the Virgin Mary is the Queen of Poland? It’s in their constitution, but I wonder if they’re doing a very good job following their King and Queen.
We want our nation to be truly Christian, and that means we want our nation to act in the spirit of Jesus doesn’t it? We want our nation, in this world, to have a role like the role Jesus has in this world. Then, as old as I am, I take a look at what I’ve wanted our country to do in the past, and it didn’t always seem very much like Jesus when it was all done. It’s hard to be a Christian nation if that means being a nation where the people see to it that their government behaves like Jesus.
This shouldn’t surprise us, though, if we know even a little about the Book of Heaven. That Book regularly tells us that even when God himself makes a collection of people into His Chosen People, it’s very hard for them, with all of God’s help, to live up to that.
There are certain themes and ideas that run all the way through the many books of the Bible from cover to cover. From cover to cover, the Bible is the love story of God for his broken creation from birth, to failure from the start, to the sacrifice of God, in Jesus, on the Cross. To the wedding and the happily ever after in the Book of Revelation. That’s one theme that runs through it all.
Another theme is God’s proposal of marriage, over and over again, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to Joshua, to David, to the prophets, to the disciples of Jesus (which means us). This is our engagement, as disciples of the Lord, to be his bride, to be his people, to be his nation and kingdom.
Well, the Church could become the heart of a Christian nation. But it’s awfully hard to be that kind of heart of a nation without being heart sick.
Our readings from Deuteronomy and First Peter tell us a bit of what it’s like to be God’s nation, God’s people. Our Bible readings tell us, in that sense, what our heritage is when we celebrate the Church’s birthday on Pentecost. Our readings tell us, as the heart of our world and as the heart of our nation, what our heritage is. It tells us the heritage of how we go about helping our nation celebrate its life as we beat quietly, deep inside it, as any healthy heart usually does.
The first clue, in our scriptures, to our God-given heritage, if we stand in our nation and in our world as its heart, is that this heritage is a miracle. The miracle, as Moses puts it, is that God chooses us to be his people even though he could have chosen anyone else. How could God have chosen Israel, or us?
Although everything in heaven and earth belongs to the Lord, “Yet the Lord set his affection on your forefathers, and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all nations, as it is today.” (Deuteronomy 10:14-15) What a surprise, that God would settle for us. Earlier in the Book, the Lord and Moses tell Israel that they weren’t chosen because they were great (7:7) or good (9:5) but only as a demonstration of the Lord’s powerful faithfulness (Deuteronomy 7:8-9 and 9:29).
Peter means the same thing when he writes this: “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (2 Peter 2:10) We “are a people of God, that you may declare the praises of him who brought you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (2:9)
There is no light in us, but there is wonderful light pouring into us from Someone who is not us, but who loves us perfectly in spite of who we are.
That is, surely, a wonderful light. Isn’t it?
No nation, and no church, is chosen by the Lord because it is great and good. It is chosen because God is love, and God’s love is absolutely faithful. God has never, ever, left his people. God has never left Israel. God has never left the Church. God has never left his violent, broken world. The history of the Chosen People of Israel as a rebellious nation is told in the Bible. The history of the Chosen People of the Church as a rebellious nation is told to us in history.
It’s the same story, the same history, the same heritage. It’s the same story here with us.
Knowing this is a very great relief. Thank God, we are not in our own hands alone. We are in the hands of the perfectly faithful Lord. It’s a great and perfectly humbling, humiliating miracle. It’s all about being love. Apply this to yourselves. Apply this here and now, in this place. Apply this to our nation. This is a heritage worth celebrating.
We were a small population on the shore of the Atlantic; colonies of the greatest naval power in the world of that day, and God saved us. George Washington and the small, poorly trained and poorly paid colonial armies lost most of their battles. When they won, it always seemed like an accident, like luck, or like the intervention of God.
Our heritage of somehow being brought into being from outside ourselves, to belong on the inside of the center of the history in this world flows from this. Our nation seems to have a purpose from God for changing this world for good, though we were once so small and weak, at the start.
Now we belong. We are insiders, and this should remind us that we were once outsiders. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. It means our heritage is a God who loves outsiders and loves to make them insiders.
The method for getting into our heritage as a nation in God’s hands is described when Moses and the Lord tell his people that part of their obedience is to love God by imitating him. “Walk in his ways.” “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” (Deuteronomy 10:16) Our heritage is not an itemized check-list of rules, but a matter of the heart.
Walking in the Lord’s ways is like being a little child following their father in the snow. The child sees their father’s footprints and jumps to make sure that their feet go into those big footprints.
The last thing the child wants is to miss a single step. You might call this a fear, but it’s the fear motivated by love. You bite your lip at every step you take, and every good step is joy.
At every step gone wrong, you don’t stop but you try for the next step. It’s more like a dance than a walk. It’s all a matter of the heart and, with God, your alien heart has become a child’s heart and new every morning.
Our heritage of being the outsider brought in is the heritage of an alien finding a new, safe, free, beloved home. This has the strange power of not making you selfish about coming home and wanting to keep home for just yourself. You love the hospitality of the Lord, and this is part of the path of his footprints that you are jumping into, step by step, in a dance that is bigger than you are.
You and I all live in the hospitality of God, and your own heart becomes a place of welcome. You become the welcomers of outsiders. We know that the church is not only for us but, most of all, for others. We know this.
Those who have a Latin/Spanish culture have a saying: “Mi casa es su casa.” (My home is your home.) When the outsiders come to your house, they are not guests, they are family. If they are family then they aren’t held to the standards of guests. They are better than guests.
When outsiders come to your church, they are not guests. They are family who are welcome to make themselves at home-church with you, and they graciously share their ways with you and it is part of the joy you feel because they have come inside from the outside, and you know what it is like to do the same. With God you are strangers who have found a home.
Peter says the same, only he says to show the same hospitality to outsiders when you are with the outsiders outside your own house, or outside this house. You know you are an alien, so that they don’t feel like aliens to you. You and they are the same and this is a great miracle. But this is not a miracle that you indulge in by living down to it. You stoop down to lift others up.
You don’t just go along with everything. Peter says: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” In other words, don’t use your friendliness as an excuse for going against the Lord’s values: remember that you are still an alien yourself for God’s sake. “Live as servants of God.” (1 Peter 2:16)
When the church has the heritage of hospitality built on the sympathy of your own alien experience, then the church will go outside itself. We will volunteer to be aliens in a world of people who feel perfectly at home without us, and who don’t realize that they are aliens who do not know yet what’s so good about coming inside God’s love.
They might well see something wrong with you, and they will see you as the aliens with themselves as being the ones who belong as insiders. But something will click and they will see something good behind you and come in before they know it. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)
Goodness, in the languages of the Bible, has nothing to do with a daunting list of rules. True goodness doesn’t earn a gold star on a chart.
True goodness is experienced as thriving. True goodness is like serving chocolate gelato (like ice cream but much richer) to someone who has never eaten it before. True goodness is having someone smile at you when they have put a bowl of chocolate gelato in your hands.
That’s what a servant of God wants to do. That’s the heritage of a church that is being a servant. How can we find a way to give chocolate gelato to our neighbors and to the communities around us, so that they glorify God with us on the day of his coming? How can we give them something richer than they have ever tasted before?
You know that if you pass your neighbors some chocolate gelato over the fence, they will likely come to your door. If the Church could pass out that chocolate gelato, we’d have people coming in. But it’s got to be something surprisingly stunning.
Our nation is like a big bowl of chocolate gelato in a painful and desperate world. We should be so glad about this, as a nation, that we would also enjoy those who come knocking on our nation’s door. It’s the real meaning of disciples, the church, and the blessed nation being a city on the hill.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14) Some people think that the city on the hill is simply visible to all: that it is simply an example to others, and not their actual destination for arrival.
Jesus was really saying: “You are the new Jerusalem.” Jerusalem was the city on the hill. You could see it in the distance, for miles and miles. But Jerusalem was much, much more than visible. Jerusalem was a destination. It was the place where people would love to come and stay for the purpose of worship and offering their sacrifices and themselves to the Lord. In message of the Old Testament prophets, the nations of the world were all going to come to Jerusalem. All the old enemies and destroyers would come there to worship. “In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” (Isaiah 2:2)
When a nation truly has a heritage from the Lord, it will be like a temple where all the nations will want to come. It’s a great blessing. In the story of the whole Bible, from beginning to end, a nation belonging to God will draw all the nations in. That’s the heritage that those who hunger for a Christian America will discover. We will just be too good.
Under God, we are blessed to be a blessing. The Lord said it to Abraham, and it applies to the Church, and to any people of God. “You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
Now, I’m going to quote a politician of yesterday.
In his “Farewell Address” Ronald Reagan took up the theme of the city on the hill, and he got it right. He was a good, smart, decent guy. Here it is.
“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace - a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.
That's how I saw it; and see it still. How stands the City?
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: after 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm.
And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Our heritage is not always something you are born with. A heritage may be a gift given in hospitality by those who were there first. But our heritage, as the people of God in the Church, is the heritage of being aliens who have come home. We give to other aliens, as they come to us, the same heritage that the Lord has given us in Jesus. We make people who were not a people into our own people, in the church. This is sacred. This is the gospel; that we are saved by gift, saved by grace, and saved as we come home by faith. In the Church of Jesus, the Bride of Jesus, we welcome the aliens home.
Any nation that would be a Christian nation will have the same heritage as those who belong to Jesus. That nation will do for others what Christ has done for us. Every church that that loves the gospel, the good news of Jesus, will be eager to welcome outsiders. Every nation that loves the good news of what God has given their country will be eager to welcome outsiders. The church that enjoys the blessings of God will bring people in. The nation that enjoys the blessing of God will bring people in.
The church has to be like Jesus: welcoming wandering outsiders home. We have no choice besides this one, or (if we do have a choice) we have a choice of heaven or hell. The Church, or what seems to be the Church, will live or die by this choice. “For you were like sheep, going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:25) How we give grace to those on the outside will be the sign of our belonging (or not belonging) to the Shepherd who welcomed us aliens from outside.
In the day when God visits us, all nations will live or not, according to the heritage they asked for and chose for themselves.
The Bible tells us about the heritage that belongs to those who were outside and welcomed in. That’s the only heritage that God can give us. Let that be our heritage, as a Church and as a Nation. Let’s live by that.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Memorial Day – Seeing God at the Heart of Things


Preached on Memorial Day Sunday, May 27, 2018
Scripture readings: Psalm 46:1-11
Walking near Crab Creek, north of Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
April 2018
In the Psalm we read this morning, no clue remains as to who wrote the psalm, or when it was written, except that it was written after one of the many times that war came to the doorstep of Jerusalem and almost destroyed it. It was written by someone who had stood upon the wall of the city, because everyone in the city had become a soldier, and looked out at the thing that might destroy him, and everything in life that was familiar to him, and everyone he loved.
It was ugly. There was a heavy terrible smell in the air of fire, and old blood and gore, and fresh blood and gore, and death. The air was full of sound: hoarse shouting, orders barked, battle signals, cries of the wounded, the groaning and cracking of war machines (catapults and battering rams) the whizzing of arrows and the rattle they make around you when they don’t hit something soft.
There was a lot to watch, as well, if you wanted to show your face long enough to take it all in: the changing of troops, new trenches (within bow-shot now of the city) for the enemy archers, signs of tunnels dug to undermine your walls.
How many are out there? What are we up against?
There are too many for us. The enemy’s bigger than we are. It was a human hurricane, an ocean of armies, raging outside.
The defenders called their home Mount Zion, but they didn’t feel as if they lived on a mountain now. Zion had never really been a mountain. Now, the mountain felt more like a sand bank in a rising tide.
Then, we aren’t told how it happened, but the crisis passed. The enemy was gone. There were enemy dead to be buried or burned, and their own dead to be buried. There were the shattered weapons and the wreckage of war to be salvaged or disposed of.
There was exhaustion, and grief; and relief, and a wild crazy thrill of hope that swept through them as they watched broken spears and useless chariots consumed in bonfires. They had met the impossible, the terrible, and they had come through it.
How had they done this? The writer says that they had a secret weapon, a hidden defense within their walls. He says, “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” They had something on the inside that kept them going when things went wrong on the outside.
An ancient city and its nation, however high its walls, couldn’t protect itself or stick it out in a siege without a permanent, reliable supply of water. This was a problem for Jerusalem, because it had only one source: the tiny trickle called Siloam.
The spring Siloam was tunneled under the city to be safe from invaders. When a siege was long, and the cisterns were empty, everyone drank from the same small stream. It wasn’t a river at all. It never had been. It was just barely enough. But it was enough.
The city, and the nation it stood for, could rely on the stream of Siloam to refresh them when everything else depressed them. Siloam symbolized all the gifts and traditions that enabled them to hang on.
First, there are two things that go together. Siloam stood for what was good in Jerusalem. Siloam stood for what they had to be proud of. Siloam stood for everything that what we call patriotism focuses on.
The odd thing here is that what the psalm held onto as the great goodness of his people and his home had very little to do with the common ideas of greatness. Siloam represented what was small. The spring of Siloam was small, not a river at all, but it was what they had. Jerusalem, the great city, wasn’t more than a town, and Mount Zion was only a hill.
The good things in Jerusalem were the little things. The greatness and goodness of Jerusalem weren’t in its high walls, or in the palace that Solomon built, or the golden shields of the royal guards.
Long ago, Moses had told Israel what its greatness would be. He said, “What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you.” (Deuteronomy 4:8)
The greatness of those laws didn’t consist of being an impressive system of do’s and don’ts. The greatness of those laws were fairness, compassion, honesty, generosity, and freedom, and protection for the vulnerable: the widow, the orphan, and the alien. (Exodus 22:21-23)
It was a greatness that they seldom appreciated. It was a greatness that they often broke. It was a greatness of the heart that came from God. And that was the secret of where true greatness lies: depending on God and imitating the heart of God who loves whatever is little and calls the little things his home.
When the nation finally lost that, the spring that refreshed them dried up: not literally or actually, but it dried up so that what they fought for was a fiction. The truly memorable sacrifices aren’t made for glory, and power, but to protect a way of life that is found in what this world sees as the little things: a sweet little stream of decency and compassion.
The writer of the Psalm had a love for little Jerusalem, and its ways, because they were God’s ways that loved the little things. It was a love of home, more than a love of gain and glory. This is what made God’s people strong. This is what made the words of the Psalm so beautiful. It’s the same thing that makes a family great. It’s the same thing that makes a church great. It’s love.
The second thing the stream stood for was unity. There was only one place to go for a drink, whether you were rich or poor, young or old. You knew that you were all the same. You were all in the same boat. You knew that you depended on the same things, and you worked for the same things.
I think that Memorial Day means most to people who simply love. They love the people who have loved home and the little things that are beautiful and that are made to be shared by people who will work hard and take care of others.
Memorial Day is about home. Memorial day lives in people who have not let themselves be divided into groups of “us and them”. It’s for those who have decided that we are all in this together.
But the most important meaning of the river whose stream make us glad is not a thing at all, but God Himself.
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall.” (Psalm 46:4-5)
The poet on the wall thought, at times, of what it meant to fight for his little Jerusalem, that huddle of houses, the women who gossiped in line as they filled their jars from little Siloam, the families who were so great because of the way of life they had tried to follow. This thought strengthened him, as he drew his bow, or dodged the incoming arrows. If he thought about it, he realized that his life actually depended on the fact that someone was fighting for him.
This was the secret for hanging on. The good things that he loved: his land, his city, his people, all that was good was there because God was there.
Of course, God is everywhere, but these people tried to love goodness more than greatness. In some strange way, God is great because he doesn’t care about greatness: God cares about goodness in the little things and he stays faithful to that and makes his home there.
The universe seems to honor power or energy or creativity. But the unseen world values love. The universe will come to an end, but the unseen world will go on forever, because it is built on love.
The people on the wall of the city trusted this. They had the will to fight the impossible battle because they depended on this. There is a strength and morale that is boosted by knowing that you stand for something, and by having confidence in it.
But it’s even more important to know where this goodness comes from and to see our nation, our town, our church from God’s point of view. God’s point of view is not from the outside looking in. God is inside the things that are most worthy of love. God is inside whatever is most worthy to worry about, even though God tells us not to worry. God lives with those things and he is at work. We have to see this: “God is in the midst of it.”
When we look at nations, governments, cities, towns, churches, it might not be easy to see exactly what God is doing, but we have to see God at work, and we have to make a commitment to work where ever our Lord is at work.
In Jesus, God came into the midst of things, of home, and town, and church or synagogue, and nation, and everyone had to decide whether they would let him be there, in the midst of everything with his heart on display, standing for the little things and the little ones. Displaying his passion for the little things, he stood with them, and with the scorned and the rejected.
The little things, the little ones, the childlike, the vulnerable, the scorned, and the rejected stood with him. Those who spoke most about power and being smart rejected him and crucified him: and so, in Christ, God died for the sin of the world.
In our wars, in our nation, in our towns, in our families, in our church we stand in the midst of things with Jesus: or either with Jesus or against him. We have a nation which, at its best, has stood for the little things and stood up against those who stood for power, and gain, and glory. We’ve stood for the humble, and the little, and the free. We’ve stood for those who needed grace, as people who know that we need grace.
Part of the Lord’s grace to our nation is that even those who don’t know him by name have still stood with him for the little things. And, so, we have fought and lived, as one, for these little, humble things that make families, and homes, and nations good and worth fighting for, just as Jesus has fought and died for us.
Without knowing the Jesus who was to come, the writer of our Psalm and the people of Israel needed to see the presence of God at work in the heart of their nation.
We need to see where the Lord is at work in the world as it is, and not in the world as we want it to be. We need to see where he wants us to work with him in the little things and make our home with him there.