theolog cabin

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

Monday, March 13, 2006

July 18, 2004 (Pentecost 7C)

[preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Everett, WA]
Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42 (primary text)

One of the most emotional sermons for me to preach. Click the time link below to read it.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When I was studying in Berkeley, California this last year, I lived in a house on the same lot with two other houses owned by the seminary. One of my neighbors decided to start holding Taize-style services in his living room every Tuesday evening. Taize is the name of a monastic community in France where many people make pilgrimages every year. At Taize, worship consists of simple chant in dozens of languages, Scripture readings, and silence. Tuesday nights became my time during the week to meditate and have conversations with God. So many times I would share with God all the stressful things going on, the papers I hadn’t finished or the books I hadn’t read. And nearly every time, a voice in my head spoke, saying, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

Frequently when I read this text, I find myself sympathizing with Martha. In my most painfully honest moments, I can imagine a smug Mary smirking at Jesus’ feet, knowing that she made the right choice over her older sister. Let’s just say that old habits between siblings die hard. Scholars disagree about what Jesus’ statement was intended to do; some envision Jesus shouting above the racket of Martha’s chores to get her attention. Others claim that Jesus repeated Martha’s name in order to chastise her. But I see a Martha who can’t sit still, trying to decide which chore to tackle first, tossing an apology to Jesus about how Mary never pulls her weight around the house. I see Jesus gently putting a hand on Martha’s arm, forcing her to stop what she is doing, and speaking words that cause her to take a deep breath and forget everything except the remarkable man in front of her.

We seem to have a lot standing in the way of making the choice that Mary did. We live with information overload, from hundreds of TV channels, to thousands of newspapers and magazines, to the unbridled information of the Internet. We live in a society where work is the measure of worth; the busier you are, the more important you must be. We have inherited a legacy of “Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” and “God helps those who help themselves.” Increased media presence means we are constantly confronted with causes we should care about. While we are called to care for people in need, without a central focus, we become torn and unable to give ourselves to care for others. There are indeed many things for us to be worried and distracted by. In our world, even the quest to sit quietly at Jesus’ feet and listen often falls prey to the urge to make the most of our time. Penciling “spiritual enlightenment” into our schedules will not make it happen any easier. Forcing communion with God into a tiny box on our schedule only means we have reduced it to something else to worry about. Being present with Jesus becomes one of the many things that we struggle to make time for.

But, a devil’s advocate might ask, if we don’t try to spend time with God, how will we ever manage to do it? And I think I’d reply, good point. We won’t ever manage to do it. But the question is phrased in the reverse of the way it ought to be. Taking time out of our schedules for church or meditation or prayer is not really a matter of tracking God down and re-introducing ourselves. After a break from church, it might feel like we are getting re-acquainted with Jesus, but I think that is a potentially misleading way to put it. It seems that so often the time that we take to “find” Jesus becomes the time when we realize that he never left our side.

It becomes the time when Jesus touches our arm and stops us from preparing a banquet for him, because we suddenly realize that his words are food that will never pass away or leave us hungry again. Without that food, the banquet we prepare is only a shadow of what God wills for all people. Our own efforts at caring for others are important because they physically share that Word of God with others in a way they can smell, feel, and taste.

It is easy to hear this text and remind ourselves that we must seek a life of balance, a life where work and meditation are parts of one harmonious whole. After all, if we can accomplish this, then we can make ourselves complete and fill in our own missing gaps. We can fill ourselves with spirituality and healing and faith, and at the same time bring home the bacon, clean the house, and contribute to our communities. But if this is the message we take out of this text, then we are neatly sidestepping Jesus himself. Jesus does not tell us to be both Martha and Mary. Neither does he discourage Martha from her gift of hospitality. Instead, Jesus reminds Martha of her anchor, the one thing she was created to be—a child of God.

Remember also that Jesus does not try to make Martha into Mary or Mary into Martha. In John’s gospel, the two play distinct roles; Martha looks Jesus in the eye and boldly says that he is the Son of God, while Mary kneels again at Jesus’ feet and anoints him with expensive oil. Each of these actions is equally a confession of faith. Neither one tries to do everything. Instead, both follow Jesus in ways that do not contradict their own special gifts. Likewise, we cannot be all things to all people, but we can live our own lives to the glory of God. We are called to discern what God has created us to be—individually and communally—and then to reflect on how to live in a way that witnesses to that creative power of God.

The good news in this text is the message that only one thing is required, and it is not something we can earn or deserve. It really is good news that we cannot fill ourselves up with the one thing that we need. Jesus’ words to Martha and to us are not only comforting, but also pleading and urging. They are the words of someone who is filled with sadness that so many things come between us and God. They are the words of a Savior who wants desperately for us to hear the Word of God and be filled by it, sustained by it. Perhaps Mary was not the smug sister who gained approval from Jesus. Instead she could not resist the Word of Life that was before her. She had found the pearl of great price, the reign of God, for which she would give up everything.

Instead of balancing our own act, Jesus here expects us to be unbalanced, with no choice but to be oriented to the life-giving Word of God. He calls us to realize that the many worries and distractions are only illusions compared to the deep reality of God present. As the church father Augustine once wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is why our inability to make ourselves complete is good news; it confirms that we are children of God, created by God and for God. As we were made in God’s image, so we are made to reflect God’s person in word and action. Think of each person as a mirror, with flaws and imperfections, yet positioned to reflect God. What are we if we have nothing to reflect?

When Jesus says directly to Martha that his presence will not be taken away, he is telling her and us that he will always be in front of the mirror, enabling us to reflect him to others. Even when the distractions of today pass like shadows and our efforts to fill ourselves up prove empty, God’s promise to abide with us in Jesus remains. May it always be so, now and forever. Amen.

May 30, 2004 (Pentecost Day C)

[preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Everett, WA]
Acts 2:1-21 (primary text)
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17

I still can't believe they let me preach on a major festival! Click the time link below for more.

At seminary, you get lots of practice in trusting the Holy Spirit, whether you want to or not. Just the decision to go at first means that you have to trust that God really does want you to leave your life, your job, your family, your home behind. Going to seminary is not just like getting any other degree. It’s about trusting the Spirit to transform you into someone that can lead God’s people. My most difficult challenge at seminary was to realize that no matter how late I stay up studying, how many papers I write, how much I try to do the right thing, all my efforts by themselves are not enough to make me into the right leader.

As I and my fellow students were placed in internship sites this spring, the guidance of the Holy Spirit became even more necessary. After all, students choose which seminary to attend, which classes to take, and how they will conduct their academic lives. Not all of us were lucky enough to choose where to go on internship. It was daunting to think that filling out and reading applications would be enough to choose the right site. Some people felt the need to circumvent the system entirely and arrange their own internship. A friend of mine recently visited her internship site and the town where she would be living for the next year, and instead of being excited, she was disappointed. This is when it’s hard to trust that the Spirit really is at work.

Trusting the Holy Spirit can be even more difficult when you graduate from seminary. The ELCA has this large assignment process, and it isn’t always clear why people are sent to certain places. Students requested specific regions and then found out that they were assigned somewhere completely different, somewhere they specifically did NOT want to go. This is when it’s really, really hard to trust that the Spirit is at work--when life seems to be sending you somewhere completely opposite to where you want to go. This isn’t limited to pastors, however. Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own life. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if the Spirit is sending you somewhere or calling you to something, or if something else is at work--someone or something higher up in the system, your boss, your manager, the economy, the government, your family, your own shortcomings. Sometimes we try to separate the Spirit from the ordinary people that influence our lives, so that when we get conflicting messages about where to go and what to do, we can sort out which are from God and which are not.

This might lead us to ask a basic question: So, just who is the Spirit anyway? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus has a few things to say about that. He uses the Greek word “parakletos”, which has a lot of different translations. Comforter. Helper. Counselor. Advocate. Exhorter. We cannot understand who the Spirit is without understanding what the Spirit does. This is not a Spirit that drains us dry or demands what we cannot give. This is not a Spirit that lets us remain in the safety and comfort we have created for ourselves. This is a Spirit that will be our companion, and will also work on our behalf. This is a Spirit called alongside us to help. This is a Spirit that does not just swirl aimlessly around us, but abides with us and in us.

This is a Spirit that gives us words to speak, words that turn the world upside down. It calls us to do the impossible and gives us the strength from God to do it. In the story of Pentecost, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, proclaiming that God will pour the Spirit upon all flesh. Those considered least qualified in the community--the children, the teenagers, the elderly, those who are not free--will be those who speak the word of God to the people. The separations of language and culture will be overcome by the Spirit working through not only the words, but also the ears of each person.

I love hearing the long list of nations and languages. It reminds me a little bit of the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremonies for the Olympics. Nations you didn’t even know existed, and nations who will probably never receive a medal, for one brief moment, they are all equal and united together as fellow members of humanity, even if they can’t understand each other.

Some of you probably know that I spent two weeks in Mexico City this winter as part of a required cross-cultural experience. The group of seminary students from across the ELCA learned some important things about language. My hypothesis is that language is built in layers in our brains. The first layer is the one that determines most how you interact with others. For most of us, that first layer was English, and for some like me, it was a very thick layer. The layers of language below this first layer are the different languages you have learned in your life. Usually in order to get to the next layer down, you have to go through the layers in sequence. For example, my second layer was Japanese, the language I learned in high school. For the first few days, I would find myself wanting to speak Japanese in Mexico. It took nearly the full two weeks before I had a Spanish layer operating above the Japanese layer.

While I still was nowhere near being fluent in Spanish, by the end of the trip, even those who were at the same level as me were able to understand a great deal of Spanish without translation. We attended a church service that was completely in Spanish and were all able to pay attention and follow basically what was going on. We visited people in their homes--people who could not afford to purchase the land they lived on or build sturdy homes that weren’t made of scrap metal--and although we always had a translator close at hand, the real communication came through their faces, the looks on their faces as they talked about their family or their garden, when they talked about the policies of intimidation that kept them chained to lives on the margins for decades, when they talked about the violence in their struggle for survival. These places that would normally seem God-forsaken to us suddenly had beauty and dignity, revealed through a language deeper than the spoken word.

This is a Spirit that cannot be shown to us as a single entity. Just as Jesus explains to Philip that God the Father cannot be seen apart from what has already been shown in Christ, the Spirit is seen and known only because it abides with us and with the entire people of God. The Spirit teaches us and reminds us of Jesus’ message of radical love because it dwells within us, around us, and beside us.

Pentecost, our festival of the Holy Spirit, is for the Jewish people a remembrance of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses. They remember how God gave the law as a guide and an advocate to Israel, and established a relationship between God and the people. For us as Christians, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit writes a new law on our hearts and makes our bodies into living temples of God. The grace of God that dwells with humanity consecrates our lives and makes them holy, transforms our everyday interactions into places where the Spirit can shine forth.

Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us and our efforts to live as God intended. On our own we cannot begin to succeed, but with the Holy Spirit abiding within us as a community, we can hope that God will work through us to be the presence of Christ in the world today. This is a world that Jesus says cannot receive the Spirit, because it neither sees nor knows it. Our calling as a community of faith is to recognize it dwelling within us, and to follow its guidance even when it turns the world upside down.

When you think about the vast diversity among the human race, sometimes it’s pretty mind-boggling that we are called and gathered by the Spirit to be one. Think of your worst enemy. Think of people who have done something terrible, something unforgiveable. Think of people you would rather not even touch. Think of people you fear, or people you are disgusted by. Think of people you can’t even begin to understand. Think of people you have a hard time respecting. Think of people who can’t seem to listen to you. Now think about this: the world we live in seeks to separate us from each other. The world is unable to see or know the Spirit’s work to make speaking and listening really possible between people. This is the radical love Jesus talked about, love that turns the world upside down. This is what the Spirit of truth is about.

I think we would be missing something if we thought that the church as a whole is always about the work of the Spirit. Let’s be honest. Sometimes it isn’t. Even though the Spirit abides in us and with us, we are still part of the world that is beloved by God, yet remains blind. We still struggle to see where the Spirit is leading us and receive its guidance. It’s difficult to remain in fellowship when our convictions and opinions seem opposed. It isn’t always pleasant to be taught or reminded that we are called to walk in the ways of peace.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Jesus’ words of farewell here are both comforting and disturbing at the same time. If the peace of God is not the peace of the world, we ask uneasily, then how can we attain it? That’s exactly the point. We can’t. Peace according to God is not the absence of conflict, or the relieved feeling of security. God’s peace is not about cease-fires or treaties or alliances. If we live in peace, but others do not, then it is not the peace of God. We genuinely want the world to have peace. Our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers have given their lives for peace. But the peace of God requires something more.

While we were in Mexico, we watched a movie entitled “Romero,” about the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Perhaps some of you have seen the movie as well. If you haven’t, I strongly recommend it. Archbishop Romero was assassinated during the civil war in El Salvador because the Spirit led him to seek the peace of God for all of his people, not just for the wealthy or the privileged. He had this to say about peace:

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.

The world gives peace that can be erased in the push of a button. But the peace of God, which is the fruit of the Spirit, abides with us. My time worshipping with Anglicans at my first theological school taught me a wonderful doxology that I still repeat to myself every now and then: “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” That power is the Spirit, working to gather us and lead us in ways that do not depend on our own motivation, ways that defy the ways of the world.

When we share the peace in worship services, we are sharing a sign of the peace of God that is breaking into the world as we know it. We share a sign of the peace that brings us together in opposition to the forces that work to keep us apart. We share a sign of the peace that we are called to extend to all. We share a sign of the peace that would be impossible without the Spirit working within us and through us. We share a sign of peace that goes beyond safety and security, and a sign of the Spirit that sometimes guides us into uncomfortable or dangerous places. And when we do so, we remember the words of Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Simple words for complicated problems. Perhaps they are just simple enough.

Because we are not sharing in Communion this Sunday, passing the peace is not part of this worship service. But it seems fitting to do so on this festival of the Holy Spirit. And so I invite you right now to rise and share the peace of God with each other.
The peace of God be always with you.
Let us share that peace with one another.

July 20, 2003 (Pentecost 6B)

[preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Everett, WA]
Amos 7:7-15 (primary text)
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Another attempt at preaching on the first reading! This one went a bit better (I think) than the one in February of the same year. But my memory could be sketchy; I am posting these three years after they were preached. Click the time link below to read the whole sermon.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Traditionally the preacher preaches on the Gospel text. But this evening, we’re going to look at a few things about our reading from the book of Amos, a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel before it fell to the Assyrians. Since the Bible texts were actually shortened on Sunday to accommodate a longer service, I’m going to read the Amos text in full for us now.

A reading from the book of Amos, chapter seven, verses one through fifteen.
Amos 7:1 This is what the Lord GOD showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king's mowings).
2 When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, "O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!"
3 The LORD relented concerning this; "It shall not be," said the LORD.
4 This is what the Lord GOD showed me: the Lord GOD was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.
5 Then I said, "O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!"
6 The LORD relented concerning this; "This also shall not be," said the Lord GOD.
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.
8 And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword."
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.
11 For thus Amos has said, 'Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'"
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there;
13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,
15 and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'

Here ends the reading.

“The land is not able to bear all his words.” We’re not talking about long-winded authors or preachers here (at least I hope not). We’re not talking about textbooks or speeches that seem to go on forever. We’re not even talking about the billions of words you can find on the Internet today. We are talking about words from the mouth of Amos, words that are few but heavy, words that cause the nation of Israel to strain under their weight.

The words of Amos that we are probably most familiar with are these from chapter 5: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” But they are preceded by heavy, heavy words: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies...Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” And they are followed by more harsh words in chapter 6: “Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.” God gave Amos an incredibly difficult message to bear to Israel, a message that pointed out and rejected their hypocrisy and pleaded with Israel to be right with God, inside and out, to worship fully and live lives of mercy towards the poor and the oppressed.

The first two visions Amos relates here in chapter 7 are harsh and heavy; they show a God who has abandoned his people and consumed their sin with disasters that consume their lives as well. But in both of these visions God turns away from utter destruction. God refuses to wipe the slate clean, because it would wipe out his people. God will not lay a burden on us that is too heavy for us to bear.

So instead, God shows up in Amos’ third vision, standing by a wall, with a plumb line in his hand. Now, a plumb line is a kind of level; it’s a length of string with a weight tied to the bottom of it. Because gravity pulls it straight down, you can use it to align vertical edges of a house’s walls, for example, to make sure they are straight. They are still in use today--you can find instructions on the Internet for how to make one. So why does God need a plumb line? The point of this vision is that God places a plumb line among the people--a standard, something that can be used to measure us, something that does not change with popular opinion any more than gravity or level-ness changes. Think about when you hang a picture, and you eyeball it to make it as straight and level as possible. When you actually find the level and use it to check the picture, how often have you actually succeeded in making it perfectly level using only your eyes and your sense of balance? This plumb line was a standard that could not be applied to others without applying it to ourselves.

So God places this plumb line among his people, for them to measure themselves against and take account of their actions. Instead of destroying evil and the people together, because they are completely intertwined, God sets forth a standard that can reveal this to Israel. And God makes a very careful and serious promise here as well. “I will never again pass them by.” God will not overlook our needs, or ignore us. But God will not let us blunder aimlessly without giving us a model, without setting an example of what he expects of us. God will not destroy us in order to cleanse us--think of the promise made to Noah after the flood--but our own ignorance of the plumb line has the power to destroy us. With the plumb line, God is putting his cards on the table and challenging us to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

For the Jewish people, the plumb line set down by God was the Torah, the law of Moses, which was both a gift of God and a requirement for life. For observant Jews, every facet of their lives is determined by what is recorded in the Hebrew Bible. For us as Christians, we see through a different lens, and we have a different plumb line set by God. For us, that plumb line is Christ. The words and teachings of Christ, the example set by Christ, and the meal that is Christ. Jesus Christ--his life, his death, his resurrection--these are all proof that God has not passed us by. The very presence of the plumb line indicates God’s grace, that he will not let us flounder about without reaching out to us, trying to teach us what it means to be God’s children, trying to show us what will bring life by becoming human like us.

Amaziah knew--or thought he knew--that the land, the nation of Israel, the king’s government, could not bear all these words. His primary concerns were stability and security, a comfortable pace of life where things did not change much. The locusts, the fire, and the plumb line meant little to him--instead he accused Amos of treason and being unpatriotic, unable to see beyond Amos’ ominous words of destruction. He probably thought he was being merciful by shooing Amos and his troublesome words off to Judah, to go stir up trouble there. After all, he could have killed Amos for predicting the king’s assassination. And something about the location of these predictions was especially suspicious; Amos had dared to say such things right on the king’s doorstep--at Bethel, the king’s sanctuary, where professionally trained prophets predicted long life for the king and prosperity for the nation of Israel. Look, says Amaziah, this isn’t what people pay you to do. Nobody wants to hear such depressing and disturbing predictions, and they’re not true, anyway. Go do your prophet thing somewhere else.

And Amos replies, Look, I don’t do this for a living. I do this because God has given me a message that I can’t keep silent about. I’m an average guy, I do regular things. I have a normal job herding goats and trimming trees, I don’t work for the government. I’m not anybody special. I didn’t go to college to be a prophet. I didn’t come from God. God made me do and say these things because you need to hear. Then Amos says, you don’t want me to prophesy against the government, fine--God has words for you, too. And he breaks loose on Amaziah with harsh predictions about his wife, his sons and daughters, his land, and his very life.

Who are we in this story? When I first read it, I identified with the role of the prophet Amos--one who says, I am just a normal person who is learning how to do an abnormal job, thanks to a decision by God. Perhaps all of us today can identify with Amos, knowing what it is like to be Christian in a society that loves spirituality but disdains commitment.

But perhaps we can also see ourselves in the role of the people, who suddenly see a prophet in their midst and judge for themselves whether he or she is valid. How often do we simply screen out those who speak prophetically, those who call us to respond to injustice around us? Those who call us to see the plumb line? Don’t get me wrong, I have ignored my share of petitioners, signature gatherers, protesters, and sidewalk prophets. I’m sure you have too. It’s a sort of defense mechanism that allows us to stay focused on our own lives, on what we have to do that day, with a minimum of guilt. It allows us to sustain our belief system, our mode of operation, without challenges or threats. We carry on with our own business, everyone else carries on with theirs, and those who try to prod us out of complacency are the weirdoes. What’s unsettling in this situation is not that we disagree with those who disturb us, but that we can ignore them to the point where their existence has no influence on our own. We are effectively erasing people by not allowing them to bother us. Just like Herod in our Gospel lesson, we, too, kill our prophets. We kill those who disagree with us by using the terribly underrated weapon of apathy. Why? Because living with those who critique us and our way of life is simply too painful.

The land is not able to bear all his words. The people are not able to bear all his words. We are not able to bear all his words. But the miracle, the grace in this bleak picture, is the plumb line that God has extended to us, the example of Christ to whom every nobody was a somebody, and every person who had been erased was restored. This plumb line, this new standard for us, did not remain immovable and remote to preserve itself. It gave its very life so that it might become one of us. And thus, the standard that is impossible to achieve is suddenly something we are able to bear, something we are strengthened to bear. And God will never again pass us by.

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