theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

March 30, 2003 (Lent 4B)

[preached at First Lutheran Church, Vancouver, BC]
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21 (primary text)

Since I didn't like what I preached on March 28th, I ditched it and wrote this from scratch. Click the time link below to read the sermon.

When I first got a Palm Pilot, I spent days going through every possible feature, setting every setting, customizing everything to my own personal life. I put in every single class, assignment, meeting, birthday, anniversary, holiday, every conceivable thing I might ever want to remember found its way into this little tiny device. When I was setting the location, which in turn sets the format of dates and times, I realized that by moving from Seattle to Vancouver, when the longest day of the year came, I had gained a whopping fifteen minutes of extra daylight. Fifteen minutes! Can you believe it! Drive two hours north and you get an extra fifteen minutes on June 21st! I know this might seem silly to those of you who have lived in northern Canada, where you get hours of extra daylight on June 21st, but bear with me here. I was so excited; I didn’t have any games on the Palm Pilot yet, so for fun I’d pretend I was in different cities around the world and see how much extra time I got.

Of course, eventually I settled down and left the Palm Pilot set to Vancouver. Eventually I also realized that I would lose fifteen minutes on December 21st. The gift of extra light wasn’t a gift at all; it was simply an exchange that would even itself out in the end. Now, as we approach the fullness of Lent--after all, Lent means “lengthening”, which is what the days are doing now--it can be so pleasing and hopeful to have more daylight that we don’t think about the corresponding shorter days of the fall, the darker times that are ahead. The longest day is yet to come, the sun has yet to shine in all its glory, the brightest light is not yet here.

There’s an important thing to know about John’s Gospel, and that’s the language he used, the specific key words. We encounter lots of polar opposites, lots of words that are set against each other. Either you are in, or out. Either you are good, or evil. Either you are white, or black. Either you are right, or wrong. Either you are with us, or you are against us. You get the picture. It can be confusing sometimes, because John uses all these opposites, but that’s not what it’s really about. Yes, John does use “light” and “darkness” as opposites, but look at the other words. Instead of setting “evil” against “good”, he sets “evil” against “truth”. And “world”--what is “world” set up against?

It is worth taking some time to think about what we mean when we are talking about light. We are not talking about white instead of black, right instead of wrong, good instead of evil. We are talking about realization, sight, knowing. We are talking about reality, about the way things really are, about true identities. What was the first thing God created? Light. Where was God before creation? In the dark.

It is worth taking some time to think about what we mean when we are talking about darkness. We are not talking about a substance, an evil entity that seeks to bring death and destruction. We are talking about the absence of light, the absence of revelation, the absence of knowing the truth. People--including us--do not love darkness because it is evil, but because it prevents knowledge of evil. We do not love one half of the whole; we love what keeps us from seeing the whole. We say we want to know the truth, but in the words of Jack Nicholson, we can’t handle the truth. Too much light, and we are blinded. Too much dark, and we are also blinded.

Even though we will get fifteen more minutes of light here in Vancouver, the darkness still abounds. Evil cannot be confined to one arena; it spreads through personal and public space, through hearts and minds and mouths, through hands and feet and eyes, through pocketbooks and cell phones and magazines and picket signs and gas pumps, through high-rise offices and suburban houses and tiny straw huts, through Ottawa and Washington D.C. and Baghdad and Pyongyang. Sometimes we can point outside us to evil and sometimes it is present in our closest relationships. Even when we think the light is finally here, evil whitewashes itself and struts proudly at full noon. We grab huge buckets of black and white paint and throw them desperately at those we think should be in the light. Because we are in darkness, we can’t see what is true, and because we can’t do what is true, we can’t come to the light.

Receiving and basking in the light is much more difficult than trying to give the light--or the darkness, for that matter--to someone else. Notice how even in verse 18 of our lesson, when those who believe are not condemned but those who do not believe are condemned, the condemnation doesn’t come from those who believe, it doesn’t come from Jesus, and it doesn’t even come from God. It simply is. Is this a matter of heaven and hell? Or maybe, is this a matter of knowing and not knowing? Of not being able to see God’s truth?

Maybe we can find a clue about light and darkness by looking before this passage, by reading the story of Nicodemus and how he came to Jesus and asked how one could be born from above. He came to Jesus at night--alone--in the darkness--and he could not see the truth of what Jesus was telling him. Nicodemus--a Pharisee, an enlightened member of society--was intrigued by Jesus’ message, but was enmeshed in darkness. But as the gospel of John unfolds, we see a miraculous change in Nicodemus. When the Jewish leaders seek to give Jesus an unfair trial, Nicodemus tries to stand up to them. After the crucifixion, Nicodemus helps take Jesus’ body from the cross and bury it. Although he was in darkness, he continued to follow the spark of light which in the end could not be overcome. In the next chapter, we find the story of the Samaritan woman, who in the eyes of her society was a true creature of the night, yet she came to Jesus at full noon, and understood the truth about him almost immediately.

Can you see the successful CEO, with the beautiful wife and the Granville Island condo and the two perfect kids and the Mercedes, slipping out of his crisp clean sheets one night and dressing in a hurry, dashing down the mirrored hall, creeping out to see this strange man called Jesus? Can you see Jesus asking the prostitute from the downtown Eastside for a drink in the middle of a hot August day, and can you see her saying to her friends at lunch that day, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did?” Can you see the fences and boundaries of the world being crossed freely and being redefined when the light falls on them?

We can become so absorbed in the language of light and darkness, of belief and judgment, of evil and truth, that we forget to look forward to the end of the story, the end that we know is coming at the end of Lent. The cruel end of judgment and condemnation and rejection and betrayal. Even though Jesus knows Judas will betray him, he still washes his feet and called him his own, and blesses those who remain in darkness. After darkness has covered the land on Friday, we sit in the darkness of the tomb, but when the stone finally groans and rolls an inch to the side, light spills through the crack, and suddenly we have a difficult choice to make. Do we dare show people how wounded we are, show the truth about ourselves in order to see the truth about God?

In being “lifted up”, the boundaries we draw for blessing or condemnation are often wrenched from our hands and put to God’s purposes. Being lifted up on the cross was the ultimate sign of Jesus’ condemnation. Gazing with horror on that instrument of capital punishment put you in the line of fire; put you in danger of being the next one up there. Yet condemnation here is twisted into exaltation; Jesus’ being lifted up is in the end not degradation, but his glorification. Lifting up a man on a cross has been twisted into lifting a beloved Son into his Father’s embrace.

For God loved the world like this. That sacrifice is being twisted into abundance, that darkness is being twisted into light, that death is being twisted into life, and that the world--------the world, too, is being twisted into life.

And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds through Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.

March 28, 2003 (Lent 4B)

[preached in my preaching class at the Vancouver School of Theology]
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21 (primary text)

I wrote this at the last minute...I wasn't especially proud of it then, nor am I now, but you can click the time link below to read it.

I’m sure you all know John 3:16, from signs at football games and street corners. So let’s repeat it all together, just to make sure we all have it down cold.

“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.”

Okay, now on to John 3:17! Let’s hear it!

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Hello, what’s wrong, don’t you know this one?

It’s a sad fact that in our culture, people often know John 3:16 (or at least its beginning), but never know John 3:17. Maybe it’s that looming C-word-- “condemn.” We like the picture of the bearded Father in heaven with the whole world in his hands, dandling the earth like a child on his knee, cradling it tenderly and loving it dearly. We like the image of the loving Father, it either reminds us of our own fathers or what we hoped for in a father. Unfortunately, the love of John 3:16 is not a mooshy love, not the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. It is a love of pain, of seeing your beloved enter a realm of rejection and embarassment, a love that dares to go beyond our wildest dreams and radically change what it means to be the world.

The world for John is not the blue and white sphere of fragility and beauty that we think of post-space race. It is not the creation. It is not God’s body. It is a place of disbelief, a place where lightness and darkness are not clearly distinguished, a place of rejection, a place of struggle and challenge. It is a place where Jesus is destined to find only rejection and bitterness and death.

But it is a place that God loves. How does God love it? God loved the world like this. That God came and dwelt among the world, and loved it to the end, and by dwelling in it sought to save it from itself. God loved it not to condemnation or judgment, but took the unwalked path and loved it through to eternal life, overturning what it thought was truth. The world’s false truth was its condemnation, but the condemnation came not through another but through itself.

The judgment came through the darkness of the world; those who did evil sought the darkness. But evil seems to have no regard for darkness today. Evil can flaunt itself, disguised as truth, on the city streets, in the public squares, in the corporate headquarters, in the words of our CEOs and Presidents and Prime Ministers, in the actions of our neighbors and enemies and friends, in the gestures of our pocketbooks and vehicles, in the advertisements of our magazines, in the mouths of our parishioners and colleagues. Evil is not always exposed. Evil does not always seek darkness. Evil whitewashes itself to deceive a black and white world. Evil knows that we--the world--will mistake it for truth.

Evil does not know that even the polarized language of John is about to be overturned in the person of Christ. Evil does not know that even a small glimmer of light that cannot be overcome is enough to cross the boundaries and see the truth struggling to take shape. Even those who are of the world, those who reject and seek to destroy, do not yet know that their rejection only strengthens the glimmer of light. Jesus’ choice of Judas appears to destroy him. Like the snake in the wilderness, he is lifted up on the cross to be broken and left for dead.

But the world does not yet know that what was meant to snuff out the light only turns up the intensity, putting a spotlight on the cross, putting a spotlight at the tomb on Easter, putting a spotlight on the one who seemed to be overcome. Suddenly the identity of Christ could be no clearer. Lifting up a man on a cross has been twisted into lifting a beloved Son into his Father’s embrace.

And as love has been twisted into sacrifice, death will be twisted into life, darkness will be twisted into light, and the world, the world too will be twisted into life, not by mere belief but by being illuminated. For this is how God loved the world, that life was sought and achieved for all. Amen.

March 25, 2003 (Annunciation B)

[preached at Lutheran/Anglican morning worship at the Vancouver School of Theology]
I don't recall all the texts we used that day, but I believe they included:
Isaiah 7:10-14
Luke 1:26-38 (primary text)

Follow the time link below for the full sermon.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

[at this point I unbuttoned the pleats on the side of my alb (white robe).]

I want to show you something. When my aunt made this alb for me, I asked her to include some sort of hidden pleats on the side. Not in case I gained weight--let’s not even go there--but since this was a garment I’d be wearing for long into the foreseeable future, I wanted the pleats there to give extra room in case I happened to be pregnant in the future.

That being said, I am fully aware that if I were to suddenly be pregnant now, and never married, my chances at being ordained and called to serve a congregation would be completely zapped. While pregnancy and motherhood and fatherhood and new life and families are so often wonderful blessings, sometimes they are the end of dreams, the slamming of doors, the disappearance of opportunities. Sometimes they are the advent of fear, of shame, of despair.

Sometimes I wonder along with Mary--troubled, disturbed, perplexed, pondering Mary--just what sort of greeting the angel brought her. Greetings, favored one? What kind of favor is this? I’m engaged but not married, physically but not emotionally mature, and now this? Gee, thanks. Thanks for giving me a bad reputation and a child everyone will whisper about, and I’m just supposed to believe that he’ll overthrow the Romans and restore the golden age of David? Whoa! Look, Gabriel, I don’t know what you mean by this, but no thanks, I’ll take my chances with Joseph. He’s a nice enough man, and I know he’ll take care of me and our children. Sure, some virgin out there has to bear the Son of God, but it doesn’t really have to be me, does it?

Mary’s story bears a strong resemblance to the joyful stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, where childless women pray and pray to God and are blessed with a special child. Just as in creation, the Holy Spirit broods over Mary, leaving new life in its wake. Just as in Sarah’s story, an angel asks, “Is anything impossible with God?” Just as in Hannah’s story, Mary identifies herself as a “servant of the Lord”, and sing a song of praise after annunciation. Unlikely births to unlikely mothers are the threads stitching together the Hebrew Bible. There is one vital difference. Mary did not ask for any such thing to happen. God’s action has gone above and beyond any dream of man or woman. Unlike her relative Elizabeth, whose story we hear intertwined with Mary’s before and after this passage, Mary’s annunciation comes suddenly, unrequested, unanticipated, and without warning. One might even say that before Mary hears the rest of Gabriel’s story, her annunciation is even unwelcome.

Note how the details from Gabriel don’t cause Mary to leap for joy. But they do bring her to a crucial point in the story; her agreement with God’s plan. Her response is to help participate in that plan and bear and raise the Word of God, so that he will do the things Gabriel has foretold. It is an answer born of compulsion but not of force, and not of degradation but of acceptance. Acceptance of her role in God’s plan, acceptance that she is the person being called into covenant with God, acceptance of her rights and responsibilities in that covenant. She responds with a word that echoes throughout the centuries, through Israel’s history, and through to our time.

Hinneni. Here am I. The words of Samuel, the words of Isaiah, the words of Abraham. The words of those who know they cannot fulfill God’s expectations, yet they can do nothing else but try. For this we have come into the world.

Hinneni. Here am I. The words of those whose mouths are touched with fire, whose lives are living sacrifices, whose bodies are temples for God. The words of those who anoint kings and raise up messiahs. The words of those of unclean lips, the words of virgins, the words of childless mothers, the words of wondering prophets. Who will go for us?

Hinneni. Here am I. The words of those who hear a faint call. The words of those who give up former lives to live lives for other people. The words of those who have felt the rush of the Holy Spirit, the breath of life. Words I will bear with me every time I wear this sign of baptism [here I displayed the words of Isaiah printed on the inner hem of my alb] since Isaiah’s response to the call is inscribed here. The words of the church as it seeks to discern Christ’s voice among the tumultuous din of sound bytes, advertisements, bombs, factories, technology--the voices of the world. Speak, for your servant is listening.

One may question the irony of why such a joyous occasion as Annunciation is always located in Lent. Perhaps it is so we may return to our vows as Christians, seeking to hear the voice of God and answer it with “Here I am.” Or perhaps it foreshadows the cross, the broken body, the wounds, the Pieta--the grieving mother with her fallen son. We rejoice in the incarnation of our Lord, only to know that his state execution is looming on the horizon.

But we give thanks to God that there is more beyond the horizon, beyond that curve of earth that encompasses all we can see, there is a new life, there is resurrection, there is a table where all are fed, there is a basileia where the voice of God rings loud and true in our ears. Until then, may God give us strength to continue seeking the voice and following it, and when we are face to face with annunciation, may we follow the “roads of light and storm”, as Denise Levertov puts it. Let us not turn away from them “in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief.” Let us, in spite of what the world will think, say with a mixture of apprehension and surrender, Hinneni. Here I am. Here we are. Let it be with us according to your Word. Amen.

Monday, February 27, 2006

February 23, 2003 (Epiphany 7B)

[Preached at First Lutheran Church, Vancouver, BC]
Isaiah 43:18-25 (primary text)
Psalm 41
2 Corinthians 1:18-22
Mark 2:1-12

Click the time link below for the full sermon. (It was a poem-like experiment!)

Forget what happened before, don’t dwell on it.
Surprise! Watch! I am doing something new, don’t you see it emerging?
I will make a path out of your desolation and water in your desert.
Creation will honor me, jackals and ostriches,
because out of disorder I give life, water out of dryness,
to refresh my people, the people I created to celebrate what I do.
Yet you ignored me, you saw no point in following my ways!
You starved our relationship, you forgot who I was,
I didn’t ask anything impossible of you.
You couldn’t even be bothered with remembering me.
Instead you heaped your problems on me, your sins put you into debt.
But I am the one who will forget all these things because of who I am.
I will wipe away what is in the past and stay with you forever.

Forget what happened before, don’t dwell on it.
“do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old”--
does God really mean it?
does God really mean, “forget that my Spirit brooded over the waters of creation”?
“Forget my rainbow in the sky after I dried the earth”?
“forget my covenant that came to Abraham and Sarah through strangers”?
“forget how I led you out of Egypt through towering walls of water”?
“forget the anointing of the shepherd’s son David to rule my people”?
“forget the prophets who opened their mouths for my Word to come out of”?
“forget my promises to you”?
“forget what I have done to make you my people”?
“forget who you are”?
Can we really forget? Completely, utterly, forget without hesitation?
Forget on purpose? Make ourselves forget? Is it okay to forget?
Not forgetting the grocery list or the thank you card or the council meeting,
but forgetting things that define who we are.
Forgetting the Apostle’s Creed or the Words of Institution,
forgetting that Luther preached faith, not works,
forgetting where we were born, or who our parents were,
forgetting that we are baptized, forgetting we are fed at the table,
forgetting the times God whispers softly in our ear,
or forgetting that we as a people have experienced loss and grief.
How can God want us to forget these things that shape us, form us, make us who we are?

If our very being bears witness to these things and remembers them,
but we refuse to move forward,
how can we see the new things that are in front of us?
If we cling to promises that have failed us,
promised happiness, a promised job, promised health, promised recognition, promised love,
if our hearts are filled with anger or tears, we cannot see what God does quietly in a corner.
If we frantically try to regain something, or fulfill what was expected of us,
we cannot become what we are meant to be in the days to come.
If we are enslaved to self-reliance and self-sufficiency,
if we rely on power and force and glory to bring results,
we cannot anticipate God’s future, or see it already springing up around us.

Surprise! Watch! I am doing something new, don’t you see it emerging?
The Hebrew word used here means “Behold, me!”
Surprise! Look out! Pay attention! Check it out!
Lift up your head, lift up your heart, wipe your eyes and SEE!
I am overflowing with excitement about what I’m doing for you right now!
Can’t you see it springing up like a seed sprouting in your gravel path?
Behold, I do a new thing!
I plant a new life, I sing a new song, I knit a new people!
I whisper a new word, I push forth a new breath, I leap with a new dance!
I light a new flame, I touch a new heart, I bear a new child!
Because of promises kept, and in spite of promises unkept,
You can lift your eyes and see this new thing I am doing in your presence.

I will make a path out of your desolation and water in your desert.
Paths are made for walking, and so we can only walk through desolation,
God will not lift us out of it or away from it.
Because we are in it, we can see the new thing that springs forth,
the road that emerges from the wilderness,
the water that springs up from the barren and dusty rock,
that surprises us when we behold it.
The sandstorms and the thick dust of the past will not blind us forever.

Once I traveled to a salty desert, thick with blinding, stinging white salt instead of sand.
No trees. No plants. No shrubs. No buildings. No rocks. No people.
Truly desolate.
Yet the intense quiet was overpowering,
You could do nothing but remove your shoes and socks
and walk reverently in the salty roughness,
listening for a voice,
and finally hearing the wind racing over the crystals,
which all sang with remembered vibrations
and picked up and stung whatever happened to be standing there.
Filled with voices and singing the air whipped by,
signs of life in a corner of death.

Creation will honor me, jackals and ostriches,
because out of disorder I give life, water out of dryness,
to refresh my people, the people I created to celebrate what I do.

Jackals, dragons, dodos, ostriches,
camels, horses, fish, orangutans,
bacteria, starlings, cockroaches, parrots,
scorpions, sea horses, geoducks, turtles,
everything that relies on water out of dusty earth,
everything that relies on life out of dust that enfolds us and dust that we become in death,
everything that springs forth out of earthen vessels,
everything that leapt into being when God breathed,
all these and more honor the one who gives life at the right time,
the one who calls attention to the new thing now in progress.
A new creation is now arising out of the dust of the desert.
God molds a new people out of what had surrounded us and blinded us.

Yet you ignored me, you saw no point in following my ways!
You starved our relationship, you forgot who I was,
I didn’t ask anything impossible of you.
You couldn’t even be bothered with remembering me.

We are not used to burnt offerings and sheep and sacrificing animals,
but for Israel they were a way of feeding the entire nation in God’s name,
and nurturing their relationship with God.
How can we behold the new thing God does
if we do not answer the invitation to come and see?
How can we see the path God raises up
if we refuse to look down and blink to clear our eyes?

Instead you heaped your problems on me, your sins put you into debt.
When God is ready to leap for joy because of the new thing that is beginning,
we insist on living in a world that is passing away,
we cling to a past that we are enslaved to.
With a burned offering our sins would rise up like smoke,
be borne away by the wind and forgotten.
But instead these sins, this way of being,
hangs heavy around our shoulders.
Death, holocaust, separation, carelessness for life,
the sins of ourselves, our mothers and fathers, our ancestors, our nation, our society,
taste bitter in our mouths and follow us wherever we go.

But I am the one who will forget all these things because of who I am.
We all know the phrase, “forgive and forget.”
The two do not always go together.
We know God forgives, we hear it week after week, Sunday after Sunday,
but to think of God forgetting is both frightening and freeing.
We were created, knit, and gathered as God’s people,
but even God is willing to forget this
because the new thing that springs forth is more powerful,
more freeing, more intoxicating,
more sweeping, more embracing
than anything ever done before.
Why do we cling to forgotten promises?
Why do we walk in the ways of our ancestors
even if their paths go nowhere?
When we struggle through the desert,
what do we do if we can’t see the water that springs up from the rock?
Even if we cannot see it, it will still be there,
even if we cannot set aside our old patterns of behavior,
God will forget for us, and in time give us new life.

I will wipe away what is in the past and stay with you forever.
Our pasts give us strength, they form us, they identify us,
but even more strongly, we are identified as people of God.
Churchgoers or not, believers or not, cradle Lutherans or not, seekers or not,
questioning, doubting, turning away, returning,
looking for hope, for comfort, for inspiration, for healing,
stronger than family, nationality, ethnicity, category, occupation,
God is forming us anew into a people of praise,
a people of need, a people of joy, a people of sadness,
a people of anticipation, a people of wholeness,
a new thing.
Can you not see it among us already?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

November 24, 2002 (Christ the King A)

[Preached at First Lutheran Church, Vancouver, BC]
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46 (primary text)

Click the time link below to see the full sermon.

Think for a minute about the phrase, “a calculated risk.” What comes to mind? Doing your research before buying shares of Bombardier on the Toronto Stock Exchange, or Lucent Technologies on Wall Street? Considering the likelihood of success before undergoing an experimental surgery? Doing the numbers on mortgages and loans before buying a new home? Taking out a loan to send your son or daughter, or yourself, for that matter, to an expensive private school that will hopefully lead to success?

Think for a minute about calculated risk. A friend of mine was driving to school one day and was stopped at a stoplight when she noticed a middle-aged woman walking unsteadily across the street. While she was watching the woman carefully, the women suddenly looked her in the eyes and mouthed, HELP ME. My friend rolled down her window and asked the woman what the problem was, the woman said, “I’m lost and I don’t know where to go. I’m new to the city and I can’t find my way home.” Images and warnings flashed through my friend’s mind--should she pick up a total stranger who definitely looked unstable? The woman’s breath smelled like alcohol--was she safe? What would happen if she did not unlock her door?

We value safety and security so much that any risk we take is usually carefully weighed. We are taught to consider each option and choose the one that yields the most good--for our families, neighborhoods and communities, but more often, for ourselves. When we calculate the benefits, we are usually figuring out how we can end up with more than we started with. Growth, progress, improvement, getting ahead--these are important to us and to our society. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” of course. But in practice the venture should be well-planned, well-considered and well-constructed. How risky do we really get? And what gives us the courage to take risks?

The goats in today’s gospel had all the risks figured out. They knew Jesus was the Messiah, they knew he would come to reign again, they knew how important it was to acknowledge and honor him as king. They had calculated the benefits of being a Christian and decided it was worthwhile. Go to church for a few hours a week, listen to the sermon, give a few dollars here and there, do a few hours of volunteer work, go to the Bible study, take the kids to Sunday School, and of course, when Jesus came again, fall on your knees and worship him as the King over all. And in the end, you got eternal life. What a deal!

The sheep, on the other hand, were a little slow--just like sheep in real life. They didn’t have a confession of faith or a Sunday routine. They didn’t have a plan for earning eternal life. They didn’t have a two-stage Christology or a three-stage Christology or any Christology at all. The Greek word for “nations” here specifically means Gentiles, so they were not Jewish, and possibly not Christian at all. All they did was share their limited food, water, clothing, shelter, and time with those who were in need. They hadn’t taken any time to calculate the risk, to do the math, to figure out if they could afford to help people like this. They didn’t have a “personal relationship” with Jesus--they didn’t even recognize Jesus when he was right in front of them.

No wonder, then that both groups are shocked when they receive the unexpected. The sheep saw more than they realized, while the goats saw less. Calculating the risk of helping others did not account for this hidden presence of Jesus. In fact, calculating this risk kept some from seeing Jesus. Obviously some don’t know Jesus as well as they thought they did. Jesus can’t be predicted; we don’t know in advance where he will make himself known to us. Without taking an UNcalculated risk, we risk missing Jesus altogether.

So is it possible to resist our human and rational longing to carefully compare pros and cons before making a decision? Are we called then to be impetuous and not think things through? What if we need some time alone, some quiet time to think and make what seems to be the best choice? Is this a bad thing?

Our logic is a gift from God and should not be neglected. But at the same time, if our logic allows us to explain away our call to serve, it keeps us from seeing the true need of the world. This is the danger of living in a world where there is no end to the poor, the suffering, those in need. There are always more to help, and so we can take our time, think it over; if we miss a few, we know there’ll be others. Do you give your toonie to the shivering kid whose styrofoam cup is half empty this morning? Or do you say to yourself, “After I get my morning latte, I’ll give the change to the next kid.” We use our reason to temper our risks, to make them easier to handle and less likely to really affect us.

When a call went out for volunteers to offer beds and shelter to travelers stranded in Vancouver after September 11th, I seriously thought about calling. I live close to the airport, I have a fold-out couch, I am short, it seemed like a perfect way to help out. But I am also a single, young woman who would feel very vulnerable with a complete stranger sleeping in my living room. The sad realities of our world, the structure of sin we live within, makes it difficult for us to take chances like this. If I had volunteered anyway, would you have congratulated me? Or would you have raised your eyebrows and thought, “How lucky you are that you happened to get a good, decent person. Who knows what could have happened? How brave!” The risk, once it was calculated, proved too great.

Does it remind you of disciples who fled the trial of Jesus? Does it remind you of Peter denying Jesus? Does it remind you of others who know the risk to themselves is too great? Does it remind you of yourself? As Jesus’ words die away, we are pointed towards the shadow of the cross and the earthen lump that is Golgotha. Soon Jesus will be arrested, tried, and crucified, and his face will truly be one that needs food, drink, clothing, and companionship. But not one stays with him, because the risk is too great.

How can we undertake the risk even if it is too great? Can we have the grace necessary for good works and not be conscious of it? Can we resist explaining risk away, but not be foolhardy? We are called to live in-between knowing the possible outcomes and blind obedience. We are between the poles of world-wise maturity and non-calculating innocence, and we must learn to live within that tension, neither cynical...nor naive.

It is a risk to follow a king who cannot promise safety or security to his followers. It is a risk to follow someone with no resume, no money, no troops, no friends in high places. It is a risk to follow a shepherd instead of an earthly king. Christ separates the sheep and goats before the final sundown as one who loves and gives, not only as one who judges. The Reign of Christ invigorates us because the sun has not yet set, and even now, we can see its seeds among us. Present and future pull on us strongly like the poles of knowing and innocence, and we live somewhere in the middle, trusting that God will guide us each step of the way.

HELP ME, the lost woman said again. My friend took a deep breath and unlocked the door, and told the woman to get in. The woman knew her address but had gotten confused and scared, and could not find her way home after wandering a few kilometers away. As the car pulled up to the woman’s home, she turned to my friend, looked directly into her eyes again, and said, “You are truly an angel sent from God.” Before my friend could reply, the woman was out of the car and heading up towards her front door.

Who could have calculated that risk?

Give us courage, O God, to take even the uncalculated risks and not turn away from your Son in the face of the needy. Help us to not confuse seeing with serving. Amen.

Friday, February 24, 2006

June 17, 2001 (Pentecost 2C)

[Preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Everett, WA]
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15 (primary text)
Psalm 32
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

I think I figured out a solution. Click the time link below to see the complete sermon. (it's an early one...I'm not entirely proud of it, heh.)

David didn't know it, but that afternoon when he climbed the steps to his palace roof for some fresh air after the scorching mid-day desert heat, he was about to trigger an avalanche. When he saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing in the distance, he succumbed to curiosity and asked someone to find out who she was. Why do we get the idea that her identity did not really matter to David? Her husband, after all, was one of David's loyal soldiers, but that did not stop him. Immediately he sent his messengers to retrieve her and gave in to his temptation.

When Bathsheba told David that she was with child, David was concerned for her reputation, but he was also concerned about covering his tracks and concealing what he had done. Right away he sent for Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, and cordially offered him a few days off so he could go home and be with his wife, which would explain her condition. Uriah, being an honorable soldier, refused this luxury because his fellow soldiers could not have the same pleasure. Since David's first attempt to cover his sin failed, he then plied Uriah with rich food and wine and made him drunk. But this didn't work either; Uriah just fell asleep without returning to his home and wife.

David was at the end of his rope. He had tried to cover his sin with minor deceptions and had failed. In his mind, he had to take drastic measures: he sent a message to his top general, Joab, and specifically asked him to place Uriah in the front where the bloodiest fighting would be. He even asked Joab to command the other soldiers to abandon Uriah on the battlefield, to draw back from him so he would be killed by the opposing army. And the ultimate irony was this: David had Uriah carry this message to Joab. Uriah delivered his own death sentence, and as far as David was concerned, Uriah had given him no choice. David had tried to fix things so that no one would be hurt and no one would be the wiser--no one would find out about his sin with Bathsheba. But when this didn't work, David needed a fast and permanent solution to his problem--one where direct blame could not be traced back to him.

At first, his solution seemed to work perfectly. Uriah died as expected at the hands of the enemy, Bathsheba mourned him, and then David promptly married her. Bathsheba eventually gave birth to a son. As far as David was concerned, all had ended well. But by progressing from sin to sin to sin, David unleashed an avalanche of sin, leading to injury and death just as an avalanche of snow would. David coveted his neighbor's wife, committed adultery and murder, abused the power given to him by God, and became insensitive to the pain he had caused and blind to his wrongdoing. Far from being a leader and protector of his people, he had resorted to using them to cover his mistakes, even to the point of killing them. It took a visit from the neighborhood prophet, Nathan, and a confrontational story before David could see the greed and callousness behind his actions. Fortunately, David's faith in God and willingness to listen to Nathan helped him realize what he had done and ask for forgiveness.

After the incident had passed, David expressed his guilt, shame and repentance by writing Psalm 51, the same Psalm we repeat every Ash Wednesday, the same Psalm that is sometimes part of our liturgy, the words that ask God to create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit in us, to keep us in his presence and give us his Holy Spirit, to restore us with the hope of salvation and uphold us with the Spirit. David knew he had lost many of these things in the avalanche of sin unleashed with Bathsheba and pleaded with God to have mercy.

As a sequel to Psalm 51, David then wrote Psalm 32, our psalm for today. In this psalm David expresses the sheer joy of forgiveness and the rock-solid security of God for those who come to him with their confessions. When David writes, "While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer," we can almost feel the burden of his shame and guilt, weighing on his shoulders like a heavy load on a hot and dry day. Even after being stricken with the realization of what he had done, David's faith in the Lord led him to confess and enabled him to experience the wonder and joy of God's forgiveness--God's willingness to wipe the slate clean. The gods of other nations cannot match God in both his justice and mercy. "Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord."

Now, the unnamed woman in our Gospel lesson would surely agree with David's words. She didn't need a Nathan to come to her and point our her sin; she knew that her profession placed her on one of the lowest rungs of society's ladder. And when she was compelled to be in the presence of Jesus, her sin rested heavy on her shoulders just as it did on David's. But her repentance, too great for words, was to humbly minister to Jesus' feet. Feet in Biblical times were usually dusty, dirty and in need of cleansing. By bathing and anointing his feet, this woman demonstrated her wordless faith and love for Jesus and enabled her to experience a cleansing of her own. Her actions also showed repentance and sorrow for the life she had led, and it is this repentance that made her redemption so sweet and her joy in forgiveness so pure. Just as in David's story, it is necessary to experience the bitterness of knowing our sin before we can fully experience the blessing of forgiveness. Without knowing how much we have been forgiven, we cannot love God as fully as we should. (5:30)

When we participate in confession in our worship, we also journey through the bitterness towards reconciliation with God. The first part of our confession is repentance, where we admit to God that we have sinned in thought, word and deed, just as David did in Psalm 51. We are faced with our shortcomings and mistakes and humbled by the fact that we can never get rid of sin on our own. Even though we are the ones who actually repent, we do so because the Holy Spirit gives us the faith we need and compels us onward.

But confession would not be complete without absolution, in which God forgives us and welcomes us back into his family. It's as though sin has hit a couple of grand slam home runs and we keep striking out, and in the middle of the game, God simply wipes all hits, runs and errors off the scoreboard, giving us a fresh start as though the sins had never existed. In absolution God makes us righteous--that is, we are "put right" with God, and can dine at his table and share our lives with him. David's joy in Psalm 32 reflects the spirit of absolution. God had not ignored or covered up David's many sins. He had wiped them away.

Because the Holy Spirit plants the seeds of faith in us, we can truly believe that God loves us and forgives us, giving us peace instead of heaping sin on our conscience like a heavy burden in the middle of the desert. As Jesus said to the nameless woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Her faith allowed her to experience forgiveness. Faith also motivates us to make confession in the first place, and without the true realization of our sin beforehand, the absolution is empty. And faith also equips us to hear confession and forgive others. It strengthens us to support others who may come to us with an unexpected situation or a problem, because absolution can flow through us to others in everyday life, not just on Sundays.

David--the most praised king of Israel--and the unnamed woman--one of the lowest of the low in Gospel times--and all of us in between experience repentance and absolution in different ways. For David both came through a confrontation with the prophet Nathan. The woman entered our Gospel lesson repenting through her humble actions and received loving absolution from Jesus. And every Sunday we repeat sobering words of repentance and reassuring words of absolution to experience forgiveness. We can also search for other ways, perhaps less word-focused and more action-focused, to repent and be absolved on the other six days of the week, and when God calls us to help others experience his forgiveness, we can answer. The king is not simply lowered by repentance, and the prostitute is not simply uplifted with absolution. We are all brought low together and then elevated as one.

public service announcement

Just so you all know, I've been working on getting expandable posts to work so I can keep the amount of text at least somewhat eye-friendly when I begin to post sermons. So far I can get them to work, but they are showing up on ALL posts instead of just the ones I want to be expandable. (See the "Read more" link? It shows up even when there is no more to be read.)

Blogger's help seems to be of two minds on this topic, so at the moment I'm leaning towards creating some other links to sermons from posts, if that makes sense. Hopefully you'll see me filling in the backlog shortly.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

test post

This is a test of the expandable post system. Did it work?