Monday, June 30, 2014

“The Birth of a Nation and the Faithfulness of God”

Preached on June 29, 2014
Scripture readings: Psalm 33; James 5:7-11
A little boy named Jimmy sat on a hilltop in a place where you could see the countryside for miles and miles. The weather was fair, and the wind blew, and the sky was blue and full of clouds. A feeling of wonder gave him goose bumps. He felt the presence of God.
Photos of the journey toward Desert Aire Washington:
June 2014
Jimmy said, “God I feel like you are so much bigger than I am. I love you God. Help me know how great you are.” And God said, “Well, Jimmy, to me a million dollars is like just a penny, and a million years is like just a minute.”
Jimmy said, “Gee, God, could I have one of your pennies?” And God said, “Sure Jimmy, wait just a minute.”
The Book of the Psalms is basically the prayer book, or the worship book, of the people of Israel. It is our prayer book too.
There are words and thoughts in the book of Psalms for anything in the human condition: anything you might feel that makes you confused, or afraid, or ashamed, or happy, or angry. The Psalms are God’s inspired invitation to tell him anything you are feeling.
This Book of Psalms, this book of prayer and worship, gives us a surprising freedom in how we pray. It allows us to be bold. It allows us to be scary. Think of the words that begin another Psalm; words of worship at the start of Psalm twenty-two: “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” These are God’s words.
These are God’s permission for you to say the very same words in your own prayer and worship. In some way the Psalms give you permission to say to God anything you want, just as long as you understand that God has the right to say anything he wants to you.
So, the Book of Psalms runs the spectrum of pretty much everything that you could ever need in order to live as an authentic worshiper of God, in this world. To be a true worshiper of God, with our roots deep in the prayers of the Psalms, is to be very bold and daring people indeed.
Have you ever thought how bold and daring a thing it is to say words like these words that we read in the Psalm this morning: “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love?” (Psalm 33:5) These are bold and daring words. These are scary words.
My first thought was that this way of seeing things came from a special kind of faith; a high level of faith, an especially mature faith. But it doesn’t come from a special faith at all. It comes from basic, simple faith. The ability to say that the earth is full of the unfailing love of the Lord is simply what faith is.
My copy of the Jewish Study Bible tells me that Psalm 33 is a part of the opening prayers of worship in Jewish synagogues, in their regular Sabbath morning service. So these words define what worship is. They tell us what it means for us to live, in this world, as worshipers of God. We say: “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of this unfailing love.”
These are the thoughts of a simple faith. But they are not necessarily the words of a simplistic faith. They are not the point of view of someone who hasn’t lived or paid attention to the way the world really is.
When did the people of Israel ever live through a time when they could possibly think that the world was not a complicated and dangerous place? No, it was always, for them, a bold and daring thing to say: “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.”
When they lived in their own land, and lived by their own laws, in the days when these words were written, they were bold and daring words, because, often enough, God’s own people ignored the righteousness of the Lord. Their land was not full of justice. God’s own people were the worst possible examples of God’s unfailing love.
There is so much to think about here, but one point is that this bold and daring faith is one of the sources of the courage behind the American Revolution and the American Experiment. You would think that those who believed that the earth was already full of the Lord’s unfailing love would never have the drive or the gumption to do anything bold and daring. But enough of the citizens of the first colonies had this faith, that it led them to defend themselves against the taking away of their freedom to govern themselves, or the restriction of the rights they had enjoyed for more than a hundred years since their founding as British colonies. Faith gave them gumption and made them bold, and daring, and active, and scary.
Because the representatives of the colonies, at the Second Continental Congress, in July of 1776, believed that the Lord loves righteousness and justice, they approved the Declaration of Independence where it said that they were: “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions.” They could make that appeal to God because they believed that God loves righteousness and justice.  And their declaration said that they were supporting their independence: “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
They relied on God’s protection because they believed that the earth was full of his unfailing love. And I have to say that they did much more than rely on God. They lived, and they worked, and they fought for what they believed in.
Their agenda was to practice, as a nation, what it was that God loved. It was their recipe for life, as individuals and as the nation that they hoped to become.
They didn’t know what would happen to them on account of their boldness and daring. They didn’t know if they would live to see their mission succeed.
They did believe that they loved righteousness and justice, and that they could do what they believed was right and just in a world that was full of the unfailing love of the Lord (even when that world seemed set against them). They would do what was right and just, even though they might die for it in a world full of the unfailing love of the Lord.
 Another bold and daring thing to believe, as worshiping people in this world, is the faith that says: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” (Psalm 33:12)
One of the major forms of entertainment in the colonies up to the time of the Revolution, and afterward, was the Sunday Sermon. Preachers of that time often compared their community, or their colony, to the stories about people of Israel in the Old Testament.
Preachers would compare the issues and temptations of their day with the wandering of Israel in the wilderness; or the temptation of Israel to worship false gods, or the temptation to ignore the needs of their neighbors or the vulnerable people in their land (namely poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien). In the Old Testament Book of Zechariah it says, “Thus says the Lord of the angel armies, Carry out true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.” (Zechariah 7:9-10) The people of the revolution were used to hearing these words directed straight at them.
The people of the thirteen colonies often thought of themselves as Israel. They often thought of their successes and failures as the results faithfulness or unfaithfulness to a covenant with the Lord.
A covenant is like an alliance or a partnership. It is like a contract, but much, much more than a contract.
A covenant is more like a promise. There are some promises that are so crucial, and so central, to your identity (the core of who you are and what God created you to be), that, even when you do break that promise, the relationship based on that promise does not come to an end.
Probably the best way to think of a covenant with God is the covenant of adoption. It’s like a promise that is meant to be permanent.
It is possible, in a court of law, for any of the parties involved, including the child, to annul an adoption; although it can’t be done without a proven cause. And yet the fact that such a promise has been made runs so deep that it surely cannot be forgotten. In God’s court of law, God’s adoption of us runs deeper than the love of a mother for her child.
It says this in Isaiah. There God says, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are ever before me.” (Isaiah 49:15-16) God’s adoption has its share of successes and failures, joys and sufferings; but it never ends. God never forgets his people.
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” is a covenant like that. Abraham and his descendants were adopted by a God who never let them go. They could un-choose their faithfulness to God, but they could not un-choose God’s faithfulness to them.
The Americans of the revolution knew that they could choose to be happy with God. They knew that they could choose to be unhappy with God. They knew that there were those who chose to live without God: but most Americans, in the beginning, knew that you couldn’t escape from the consequences of living in a world created by God, a world in which God loves righteousness and justice, and a world that is full of his unfailing love.
Was this a good thing for them? Yes it was very good: difficult but good!
The colonists disagreed on some important matters of faith; but most of them and their forbearers came to America to be free in following and living their faith. They came, and they lived, with an ambition to be the People of God in their own way. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”
They believed that this would be good for them. They also believed that it could be difficult. They might make many mistakes and failures. And they might suffer for these. But that would be good, too, in the end, because: “the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Where, after all, in the Bible, is it ever smooth sailing when your God is the Lord? Ask Moses. Ask David. Ask Peter. Ask Paul. Ask God himself, who came in Jesus to give his life for the world.
We Christians, in America, seem to forget what it was like for the people of Israel and for the early Church to be the people whose God is the Lord. We forget the long story of the ups and downs of living in covenant with God.
When we forget this, we get impatient, and anxious, and fearful, and angry; and we go a little weird and wacko. That is why James counsels patience.
He uses farmers as an example. You seed and you harvest. You seed and you harvest. You seed and you harvest. You keep on trusting that the earth is full of the Lord’s unfailing love. And the special, successful discipline that comes from this is usually an antidote for weirdness and wackiness.
The faith expressed in the Psalms, and the patience in James, are the same discipline. As such, they are a cure for the weirdness and wackiness that get a hold of us when we get upset at the ups and downs of living with God by faith.
We live in a world and a culture of crisis, and fear, and anger, and pride, and hatred. And yet we believe bold and daring things like the earth being “full of the unfailing love of the Lord.” Do you believe that the world, as you see it is full of the unfailing love of the Lord? Can others see it?
There is a deep sanity and health in this. We forget that the American Revolution was a long, and bleak, destructive, and (often) almost hopeless war. There were far more defeats than there were victories. The state of war lasted from 1775 until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. In those long years our nation was held together most of all by those who held onto faith and patience.
The best thing that could happen in our country today would be for more people to become worshiping people who know the health and the sanity of living by faith and patience. But how can they, until they meet the God who became one of us in Jesus Christ, who lived, himself, by faith and patience? How can they live with the sanity and health of people who can live by faith and patience until they meet the God who showed his unfailing love for this world by dying for all of the sins and evils of this world on the cross? 
What does America hear Christians and our churches saying today? What do they see us doing? Does America hear the infinitely patient voice of the unfailing love of God? Can they see that we love righteousness and justice as God does? Can they see that we are daring and bold about it? Can they see any unfailing love in this?
Can they see the real reason for what we do? Can they see that our very reason for loving righteousness and justice is that we want to love this world and all the people in it as God loves it? Can others see the evidence that we want to be daring and bold about loving our world, and our neighbors, with God’s unfailing love?

Until Christians themselves show this God and speak with the voice of this God, until they show what it means to fill this world with the same unfailing love that God has for it; how can anyone else know what it means? Only then, perhaps, then, we can truly be the nation whose God is the Lord?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

In God's Joy and Service

Preached on June 22, 2014. My first official sermon preached as pastor of the Riverside Presbyterian Church of Desert Aire, Washington.
Scripture readings: Zephaniah 3:9-17; Luke 10:1-3, 17-24.

I remember the summer when I was nineteen. I had just finished my studies at the local community college, and I was gearing up for going away to a state college.
My faith garden; May/June 2014
I was nervous all summer long, knowing that school would be different. I knew it might be a lot harder. And I would be put together with a lot of new people. And I knew that I needed money (a lot more money) than I had in the past. I was worried about money.
My Baci (“babcia”), my Polish grandmother, was spending that summer with us. One morning, she was in the kitchen cooking, as usual. And I went out to get the mail, and brought it in, and was sorting through it on the kitchen table, and there was an official looking letter for me.
I opened it. It was the announcement of a scholarship that had been awarded to me. All of a sudden Baci was on top of me. She had me in her arms, and she was hugging me and kissing me, and she was spinning me around the kitchen, and saying, “Oh Denny! That’s so wonderful!”
My Baci was very good at joy; much better than I have ever been, or probably ever will be.
The joy of my Baci is a good picture of the joy of the Lord. As I studied the scriptures for these verses, I was reminded that there are several Hebrew words for joy.
Where Zephaniah tells us that the Lord will rejoice over his people with singing, the word rejoice describes what my Baci did that summer day when there was something to celebrate.
That particular word for joy and rejoicing is “gil” or “yagil”. It means to circle, or to make a circle: like Baci when she was making circles with me around our kitchen. Sometimes “gil” is a dancing word.
More of faith garden
Or it’s what a football player does in the end zone when he makes a touchdown, if he’s still on his feet. It’s what a winning team does on the field or the court, at the end of the game.
It’s what young kids do when they’re happy. They start running in circles and jumping up and down. It is like Snoopy’s happy dance.
Zephaniah tells us that this is the joy that the Lord wants with his people. It’s what the Lord wants to do with us. Deep in the heart of God is a fountain of joy that sweeps around, and around, and around.
Jesus is God in the flesh and he shows the same kind of joy. When the seventy-two disciples came back from their mission journey, they shared their joy with Jesus and he shared it right back at them. Then, in verse twenty-one, Luke tells us that Jesus was “full of joy in the Holy Spirit”. The Greeks also had several words for joy. And this one (agalliaomai) is the Greek match for the Hebrew-dancing-joy.
So picture Jesus among that crowd of seventy-two, doing an ancient Hebrew dance around them, or grabbing them at random and swinging them in circles. It isn’t a far reach to say that.
The ancient Bible joy is a physical joy. It’s completely un-cool. Jesus has a dancing joy. In Jesus, God has real feet like our own feet for dancing out that dancing joy.
Now I will tell you why this is important to me. Sometimes the secret of joy is not a feeling or an emotion you have within yourself. The secret of joy comes from knowing that you are the light of someone else’s joy. You know that there is someone, someone who wants to hold you and swing you around in circles.
This is the secret of a happy church. God doesn’t only want to swing us around individually. Well, he may want to do that as well. But his joy is for us as a whole; as a body, as a family, as a community, as a congregation.
More of said garden
I was embarrassed by being the focus of someone else’s joy. And my moping around and worrying about money, and about my future, looked stupid and foolish in the light of the loving joy of a person who was much better than me.
A church or a congregation must learn not to mope. A church must learn not to carry a burden of responsibility too heavily; not to worry, not to be embarrassed, and maybe not to apologize for what it doesn’t have or what it hasn’t done.
At the same time, learning to accept the joyful love of God does not put an end to ambition. If you are convinced that you are joyfully loved, you have more hope and ambition than ever.
The proof of being the people of God and people of faith is to live a life that is changed because you know that you are joyfully loved. But the proof is in knowing that your bragging rights are not found in your own power and your own accomplishments. Your bragging rights are found in the grace and the mercy that claim you.
That is real grace. God wants to bring you joy, and he does it in many ways: through many reminders of his beauty, his love, and his strength.
The strongest way God has of sharing his joy with you is by reaching out to you from his cross.
In the letter to the Hebrews (12:2) we are told that Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame” that is treating the shame and pain of it as if it were nothing, nothing at all, compared with the joy that was set before him.
A view from the cucumbers
And what was the joy that Jesus saw before him, that made it all worth while? It was the people he was going to claim through the cross. It was you. You were the strange unspeakable joy in Jesus’ eyes when he died on the cross.
Now in all the Greek words for joy, the joy of the cross was not a dancing joy. It was graceful joy. There is a word for joy that is related to grace. The word for that joy is “chara”. The word for that grace is “charis”: “chara” and “charis”.  It is the joy of the Lord to give you his grace. It is the grace of the Lord to open your heart to his joy.
What more can we see about the secret of joy? When the seventy-two returned with joy, they said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 10:17)
Do you know what those devils like to do to people like you and me? They like to fill us with the fear that paralyzes us: to give us the fear that curdles our stomach; to give us the fear that makes us run in such a panic that we lose our way. More secretly those devils like to fill us with the fear that saddens us, depresses us, and beats down our ability to live thankfully and hopefully.
The disciples, in their mission for Jesus, found that speaking and working in their master’s name had the power to make the most frightening powers of darkness run and despair. Jesus is stronger than any devil, and you can take Jesus with you, into your greatest fears, into your greatest paralysis, and into your greatest sadness.
You can rely upon Jesus. You can call upon Jesus, and he will deliver you. He will be at home with you and make you at home with him.
Jesus will overcome. He will share his strength with you. Your circumstances may not change but what will change is your not being alone without someone who gets joy from loving you.
The joy comes afterwards, when you have lived to tell the tale, as we all will. It becomes part of the good news that you can tell others about.
I would say that this belongs in the garden
What else can we see about the great secret of joy? When the disciple shared their joy at the amazing things they were a part of, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.” (Luke 10:18) That’s what Jesus saw.
But what did most other people see? Most people only saw a bunch of untalented and untrained amateurs, spreading out along dirt roads through little villages, who didn’t know what to expect, or what to say or do, and most of the people who saw them were really surprised.
The disciples were surprised too. They were so joyful, because they were so amazed. They could represent Jesus. They could work and speak in Jesus’ name.
The name of Jesus, here, could mean his authority; but what is that? What is authority? When I was a kid, we would play cops and robbers, and the cops could say, “Stop, in the name of the law.”
But those were the days of TV westerns, and we knew that we could say that because we were the law. We were “Lawman”. Doing something in Jesus’ name doesn’t work except to the degree that we are committed to being Jesus, and trusting that he will always be with us and in us. We must be Jesus-men, and Jesus-woman, and Jesus-kids, with Jesus in us. Together, we must be the Jesus-church. We are his and he is ours. What more can we want?
This is what those disciples had. They were surprised, but they were learning.
They were still normal people, just like us. And Jesus would have more than enough opportunities, in the future, to ask them, “Where is your faith?”
“Where is your faith?” But something great was going on here, something that truly defeated and frustrated the Devil.
Standing in a better garden than my own
It was not the power, or the ability, or the competence, or the skill of the disciples. It was the gracious power of Jesus in ordinary people.
You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know what to say or do. But you are on a mission. You are someone who has been sent here to do a job: to do lots, and lots, and lots of jobs.
And there is the power of Jesus.
There is a saying that life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. I am certain that if I have ever done any good at all in my life, it has had nothing to do with my plans.
In a strange way, whatever good I have done doesn’t even have anything to do with my job: because there are jobs and jobs. There are jobs you get paid for. There are jobs that are roles in life that you think you have, in terms of your gifts, and your abilities, and your understanding of life.
But there are other jobs that belong to you (to each one of us), and you and I know very little about these secret, God-given jobs. If we are lucky, people will tell us later what we really did, once upon a time, without our knowing it.
This is what I know. I have a job in life that I don’t know anything about. I don’t know what I will do or say, or what it will look like when I get to it, tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Whatever it is, I will do it as a human being who belongs to Jesus, and who loves Jesus, but who also needs a lot of help following Jesus. Our help comes from others and it comes from Jesus himself.
Jesus will come through, and one way or another, that will defeat the Devil. And that is where our joy will come from.
Jesus says, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)
Now here Jesus does not say, “Wipe that smile off your face.” He is saying, “Yes! You have a lot of things to be joyful for. Now, let me tell you the greatest thing to give you joy. You belong to the family that has its home place in heaven. You belong to me and my Father.”
Heaven is about so much more than living forever. It means belonging forever, and being rejoiced over for ever.
It's my neighbor's garden, to which I was a contributor
Remember that Jesus is celebrating along with his disciples. They are right to be joyful, and so are we. Jesus wants to celebrate with us. He wants us to be joyful.
So Jesus points to a deeper joy. The disciples of Jesus were celebrating success and power. Jesus told them to celebrate something much better and much more important. He said, “Celebrate that you are written in heaven, in my book.”
Jesus’ book in heaven is about love, and mercy, and belonging, and everlasting life. Christians who celebrate the power of God without celebrating the mercy of God are in danger of forgetting the secret of that power.
The power is all about mercy. Otherwise we would never know anything about it. The people who remember the mercy will be better at giving mercy to others: which is what the good news is about.
The people in the villages may not have known who Jesus was before he came to them. They still would not have known who Jesus was if the disciples had only come through and talked about him by name. The people in the villages knew all about Jesus because they disciples did what Jesus did among them.
The healing and the deliverance that the disciples brought were not only acts of power. They were acts of grace, mercy and love. The disciples of Jesus were grace-people, mercy-people, and love-people.
Neighbor Ottis, my farming partner, and his sunflowers
When Jesus followed his disciples into the villages where they had gone, and met the people who had met his people, he was no stranger to them. They were not afraid of Jesus unless they were set against him. When they saw Jesus, they received him as the master of grace, mercy, and love.
The kingdom of God is not just about power. The kingdom of God is about grace, and mercy, and love. If we remember that, then we will have a joy that is gentle, and humble, and healing, for others.
There is a great ambition in reaching out for this. The end of moping is not the end of a great ambition. Now that they knew the joy of Jesus, the disciples wanted to do more than ever.
It will be like the joy of my Baci, who didn’t have one proud bone in her body. Her authority in my life had nothing to do with power. It was only love.

Her dancing me around the kitchen floor embarrassed me in all my teenage pride and it showed me what I was missing. Let’s remember the joy of being rejoiced over by somebody else who happens to be named Jesus, who is (in his very being) all the fullness of God. Then people will see the simple dancing joy of God reaching out to them through us.