Tuesday, November 1, 2016

“A Place at the Table” - October 2, 2016

Text: Exodus 12:1-13, 13:1-8

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago.  I share a birthday with Ethan Phomvisay and Jeanine Cole, and I know there are some other recent birthday people here this morning.  Birthdays are a time to celebrate - even if we are not particularly excited at the prospect of adding another year to our count.  I was slightly down about reaching another milestone of sorts until I realized that I am now eligible for the seniors menu at Perkins - so I do have that going for me.

When we celebrate – when we get together with friends and family – what do we do?  Of course, we eat.  We share a meal.  So this past week, Susan and I drove to Cedar Falls to have dinner with Zoe – it was a late birthday dinner.

Meals are particularly important for us.  It is not just that we need nutrition, it is not just that we need fuel to keep our bodies going.  Meals are such a part of celebrations because of the community, the joy that is shared, the bonds of love and friendship and family.  Whether it is a fancy dinner or a picnic lunch or hot dogs on the grill, sharing a meal with can be a special experience.

Our scripture today comes from the book of Exodus.  We are following the story line of the Old Testament, but there are some pretty big gaps from week to week.  Last week, we ended with Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, who became second in power in all of Egypt and was finally reunited with his family.  In a time of famine in the land, his family settled in Egypt with Joseph in the Land of Goshen.

The years moved on, generations passed, and as the Bible puts it, “there arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  There was no longer a memory of the Hebrew who had saved Egypt in the time of drought and famine.  By now the Hebrews had become numerous and were seen as a threat.  And so they were enslaved and treated harshly.

God heard the cries of the people and called one to lead them out of Egypt.  Moses was a reluctant leader, but he was the one.  With help from his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, he answered God’s call.  In the words of the great old spiritual we just sang, God said, “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land, Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.”

If you remember the story, you know what Pharaoh’s response was.  Actually, even if you have never heard the story, you can imagine the response.  Pharaoh said to Moses, “You have got to be kidding.”  So God sent plagues of various sorts to encourage Pharaoh to change his mind, each worse than the one before, culminating with the Passover – the first-born of each Egyptian household would be struck down dead. 

Our first reading this morning reports on the Passover.  After this, Pharaoh relented and allowed the Israelites to go, although he had second thoughts about it and it took the parting of the Red Sea to get the people to freedom. 

At the time of the Passover, the Israelites had to be ready to move, ready to go, ready to run for freedom.  And so they were to eat unleavened bread.  There was no time for leavening, no time to wait for the yeast to rise.  They were to eat with a staff in their hands, sandals on their feet, and their loins girded.  For those of you who do not regularly gird your loins, this meant that long robes were pulled up from the back and tucked in, so that you were ready for action – you wouldn’t be tripping over your robe.  The entire meal was eaten quickly – the atmosphere was one of anticipation and readiness.

Our second reading tells of the establishment of the Passover meal as a continuing remembrance.  They were to celebrate this meal each year, and when they did, they were to tell their children that this was “because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.”  The Passover became the most important meal for the Hebrew people, and the exodus out of Egypt became the formative experience that the Biblical writers refer back to, again and again.

The Passover has been kept ever since, down to this day.  Customs have changed.  It no longer has to be eaten hurriedly. You don’t have to have a staff in your hand, ready to go, because now the meal is shared by a free people.

The Passover meal was celebrated in Jesus’ day.  We read about Jesus sharing the meal with his disciples, but then we read about a lot of meals with Jesus.

Jesus eats with his twelve disciples, with Mary and Martha, with Pharisees, with tax collectors, with known sinners.  He fed the 5000.  He attended a wedding feast, and when the wine ran out, he performed his first miracle.  He joined two strangers on the road to Emmaus and shares a meal.  He has fish for breakfast on the lakeshore with his friends.  He told a story about going out into the highways and byways and inviting anybody, everybody, to a great banquet.  

Sharing a meal communicated acceptance and welcome – when you shared a meal, you could no longer be enemies.  This is why people got so worked up about Jesus eating with sinners.  In a culture where who you ate with was extremely important, Jesus ate with all kinds of people.  He ate with all the wrong people.  It just didn’t look right.

In the Lord’s Supper, we remember the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.  Jesus took this meal that was filled with history and symbolism and deep meaning and added new meaning, new symbolism.  He took the bread and said that it was his body.  He took the wine and said that it was his blood.  He said that whenever they shared that meal, they were to remember him.  And while the disciples may not have understood exactly what he was saying, we have the benefit of considering Jesus’ words from the other side of the cross. 

Now, we all have our own history with family meals.  I come from a long line of meat-and-potatoes people.  If I had to pick a representative meal growing up, it would be roast beef with potatoes and gravy and maybe carrots and green beans. 

Some of our other standard meals included tuna casserole, chili, ham and beans, we had grilled hamburgers a lot, and fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy again. 

What we did not have much of was adventurous food.  We stuck with what we knew.  Pizza was about as exotic as it got, and that was Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee Pizza out of a box.  When we went out to eat, which was rare, it was usually McDonalds.

Although we lived in a city of close to 150,000, there were few ethnic restaurants.  I remember a Chinese restaurant opening when I was in high school – a couple of my friends worked there.  It didn’t even cross my mind that I might go there to eat.  A few Mexican restaurants started opening at the same time, and I did like Mexican food.  I remember one occasion, maybe a birthday, when I got to choose the restaurant.  I chose Casa Gallardo and my dad very reluctantly went along with the idea.  Seafood, however, was completely out of the question – Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks was the extent of seafood at our house.

Over the years, my taste has expanded quite a lot.  I love all kinds of food – not just seafood and Mexican and Chinese but Indian, Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese.  And you know what?  My mom and dad, who rarely went out to eat when I was living at home, eat out all the time now.  And their two favorite places are a Chinese place and a Mexican place, where they eat so often that they are friends with the owner. 

Today is World Communion Sunday, a day when we share with Christians all around the world at the Lord’s Table.  Now, you may be wondering, what does my family’s food history have to do with World Communion Sunday?

Our faith can be kind of insular, kind of closed off, kind of like having roast beef and tuna casserole and Chef-Boy-Ardee pizza all the time.  Nothing wrong with that, it’s good stuff, but there is a lot more out there.  Sometimes we can live and act as though our experience of Christian faith is everybody’s experience, and that our way is the one right and true and good way to follow Jesus.

But you know, there are faithful people all over the world who worship in very different places, in very different ways.  Some in cathedrals and some in new suburban church campuses and some in white frame churches and some in cinder-block buildings with tin roofs and some in homes.  Some with elaborate, liturgical worship and some with very extemporaneous worship.  People are worshipping in churches all over the world this morning in a myriad of languages.  And all of us can learn from each other and all of us are stronger together.

This morning we celebrate, as Paul puts it, that “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” 

Tony Campolo told about sitting with his parents at a communion service when he was very young.  He became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of him who was sobbing and shaking.  The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture that says, “Whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”

Campolo wrote,

As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair.  It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, ‘Take it, girl!  It was meant for you.  Do you hear me?’
Campolo continued,
She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it.  I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind.  Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer Communion to hurting people was a special gift from God.
Today, we gather with Christians all around the world at this Table.  We do so to remember that we are all God’s children, we are all part of the family.  We are connected with one another.  We share a meal that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors shared.  We share a meal that goes back 2000 years to Jesus, and before that hundreds of years to the time of the Passover.  This meal is not a reward for good behavior or a sign of our righteousness or insider status; it is a meal to which we are all invited - a meal in which we remember and celebrate the depths of God’s love and grace.

In a few minutes, we will share with sisters and brothers around the world at God’s Table.  And you’re all invited.  There’s a place at the table for you.  Amen.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

“God Meant It for Good” - September 25, 2016

Text: Genesis 37:3-11, 17-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

If you think about it, it is amazing that we gather together each week and consider scriptures written by people who lived in a completely different culture, with a pre-scientific worldview, two to three thousand years ago.  The way they lived was very different from us.  Housing was different, transportation was different, health care was different, retirement was different, family life was different, basic ideas about the nature of the world and the way the world worked were strikingly different.  And yet we turn to these writings week after week, seeking truth and meaning and seeking God.

But the things is, as different as these people may have been, we read stories – stories of real people, stories of real families, stories of real communities that know both struggles and joys, and as different as they were, we can see ourselves in these stories.  And we know that at some level, these are also our stores, and God speaks to us in the midst of this.

Last week we looked at Abraham and Sarah.  Though it seemed unlikely at the time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – and God’s promise proved to be true.

Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac.  Isaac is not a part of our reading today, but some of the realities at play in the story can certainly be traced back to Isaac and his wife Rebecca.  As you may recall, they had twin sons named Jacob and Esau.  It would not be overstating it to say that the two sons had an intense sibling rivalry.  This was only encouraged by their parents, who each had a favorite.  Jacob was his mother’s favorite while Esau was his father’s.

Rebecca helped Jacob to cheat Esau out of both the blessing and the birthright that belonged to him as the oldest.  Jacob eventually fled out of fear of what Esau might do to him.  He went back to the old country and worked for his Uncle Laban, and eventually married his cousin Rachel – except that at the wedding, Laban pulled the old switcheroo and the woman under the veil, the woman whom he had married, was not Rachel but her sister Leah.  He worked for Laban another seven years for the right to marry Rachel.

Now Jacob is back home, he has made amends more or less with Esau, and he has many children.  His entire family history is one of favoritism and treachery and cheating and dysfunction, but Jacob, or Israel as he is known by now, has grown and learned along the way.  He was given the name Israel after wrestling with God.  But the thing is, while he has learned and grown, he hasn’t really changed all that much. 

Our scripture this morning begins, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his children.”  Instantly there is a red flag.  We know that this is a problem.  We know that this is a really bad idea.

What the narrator does not tell us is that Joseph was the first child born to Rachel – the sister Jacob had wanted to marry in the first place and his favored wife.  (That’s another bad idea, but that is probably for another sermon.)

It is not simply that Jacob has a favorite child; he makes no pretense about it.  He gives Joseph a coat with long sleeves.  That is the Hebrew text.  For some reason, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, has this as a coat of many colors.  Now you tell me: what sounds more appealing – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Joseph and the Amazing Long-Sleeved Robe?  It’s really not much of a contest.

Clothing is important.  Clothing matters.  You may not be very particular about the way you dress and you may think that what a person wears really doesn’t make any difference.  And to an extent that is true.  On Sunday mornings here some wear shorts and some wear suits and ties, and it’s all fine.  It’s not about what we wear.

But the fact is, clothing can convey status.  I remember as a kid having some Sears Jeepers tennis shoes, and they were definitely not cool next to the kids who had Converse All-Stars.  What we wear can matter.
An awful lot of people in the ancient world owned only one coat, or robe.  If you wanted a new one, you couldn’t just run to Target or order one off of Amazon.  Every piece of fabric had to be woven by hand, and it was time consuming.  A person might spend months weaving fabric for a robe.  Clothing was a symbol of status, of importance, of wealth.

Whether it was a special long-sleeved robe or whether it was an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – or maybe an Amazing Long-Sleeved Technicolor Dreamcoat – Jacob had given Joseph a robe that not only conveyed status, that not only made people take notice of how special Joseph must be, but that also rubbed it in to Joseph’s siblings every time they saw it.  Jacob did not even pretend to love his children equally.  And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there will be repercussions.

Joseph, for his part, is not embarrassed by the special attention; he seems to revel in it.  He has dreams of his own greatness and is only too happy to share these dreams with his brothers.  “I dreamed we were all binding sheaves in the field,” he says.  “My sheaf stood up and all of your sheaves bowed down to it.”  And then he told them another dream: “The sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  Did I mention that Joseph had 11 brothers? 

Is Joseph arrogant, is he tone deaf, is he trolling his brothers, or is he just a teenager?  The answer is probably, “Yes.”  But this does not help family dynamics in this family that kind of had two strikes to start with.

Joseph’s brothers are out in the fields with the flocks, and Jacob sends Joseph out to them.  Knowing the way his brothers feel about him, you kind of have to question Jacob’s judgment at this point.  But then, if he were that aware of the results of his actions, he would no doubt have done a lot of things differently.

Joseph’s brothers can see him coming from a distance.  Maybe there is something to the coat of many colors possibility – that would stand out from a distance more than long sleeves.  Or, maybe it is just the way he walks, or maybe he is the only one who would be coming to see them out in the fields.  As he approaches, they vent their anger and hostility toward him.

They are so consumed with envy, with jealousy, with hatred that they would kill their own brother – even their younger brother they were supposed to take care of.  They want to kill him and thrown him in a pit and say that a wild animal got him.  But Reuben, the oldest brother, doesn’t want to do him harm.  “Let’s not shed his blood – let’s just throw him in the pit and leave him here,” he says.  He planned to come back and let him out later.  They listen to Reuben and throw Joseph in a pit.  Reuben wanders off apparently, and when some Midianite traders happen to pass by, Judah says that it would be better to sell him into slavery than to leave Joseph to die.  So that is what happens.  When Reuben returns to the scene, he is utterly distraught by this turn of events.  To explain it to their father, the brothers take Joseph’s robe, dip it in goat blood, and take it back to Jacob.  

Jacob surmises for himself that a wild animal got Joseph.  But it is interesting that his sons give Jacob back the gift he had given Joseph – with blood on it.  They are not just getting back at Joseph; they are also getting back at their father.

OK: this is a seriously messed-up family.  I guess one of the things that happen when you read stories like this in the Bible is that you can look at your own family and think, “Hey, maybe we’re not that bad.  Our family isn’t perfect, but at least we don’t plot murder and sell our siblings into slavery.”  We read this and our families seem pretty good by comparison. 

It is a wild story.  The coat may or may not be Technicolor but the characters and the story certainly are.  From Abraham and Sarah down through the generations – to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob and Leah and Rachel, to Joseph and his brothers – the promise has been that God will use these people as a blessing to others.  A blessing to others.  Right now, they are not even a blessing to each other, much less to the nations.  How will this ever happen?

Our second reading comes much later in the story.  In the intervening time, Joseph almost miraculously rises in Egypt, largely on his ability to interpret dreams, to become second in command in all the nation.  In a time of impending famine, he is in charge of all the grain in the country.  And when his brothers come to Egypt, desperate for food, they meet up again with their long-lost brother Joseph.  There is a reconciliation of sorts, but the brothers are still scared to death.  When Jacob dies, they figure that Joseph was just biding his time, just waiting until the old man was gone to get his revenge.  And so they fall down before him and beg for their lives.  They fall down before him, just like in those dreams that Joseph had as a kid.

But time and life have given Joseph perspective.  He tells his brothers, “You meant this for harm, but God meant it for good.”  In retrospect, Joseph can see that what had happened actually served to save his family.  Somehow, improbably, impossibly, Joseph is in charge of all the grain in the one place in the whole region that has any.  In the end, good came out of what was meant for evil.

This is not to say that God orchestrated the whole thing.  This is not to say that God led his brothers to want to kill Joseph.  This is to say that God has a way of working even in the midst of treachery and human sin to bring about good.  God is faithful even if we are not.

Now, if you look at this story and want to find a few practical applications, it’s not that hard.  I’m going to lay it out and just be real blunt about it, if you don’t mind.

#1 – Don’t play favorites.  It’s just a bad idea.  Now, I have to admit that I do have a favorite child.  But if you only have one child, that’s OK.  Or maybe another way of putting it is that they should all be your favorite child.

#2 – Don’t be a jerk.  You probably thought there would be something more profound when you came to church this morning, but this is one of the takeaways from the scripture.  Joseph was severely handicapped in this regard, because his father, Jacob, is maybe the biggest jerk in the Bible, and the apple did not fall far from the tree.  As a teenager, Joseph only thinks of himself, he rubs his favored status in the face of others, and surprise, surprise: the result is not pretty.  We have probably observed similar things.  Maybe we have lived it ourselves. 

#3 – Think things through before you do something stupid.  Again, it’s pretty simple.  Reuben was distraught over what they had done to Joseph.  As the years went on, everybody regretted their actions.  This altered life not just for Joseph, but for the entire family – the brothers carrying guilt and shame and regret, Jacob carrying the burden of loss and grief for many years.  A little foresight on the front end would have gone a long way.

I have a friend named Ken who has several nephews and other family members, all young adults, who live in a place where guns are plentiful.  Along with nearly all their friends and social group, they are almost always carrying a gun.  They are young, they are a little on the wild side, they tend to drink too much and get into arguments.  Now, conflicts are a part of life and disagreements are going to happen.  But when you compound that with alcohol and when everybody has a gun, bad things happen.  Nearly all of Ken’s male young adult family members in that area are in jail, they have been shot, or they are dead.  It’s tragic.  I wonder if Joseph and his brothers were kind of like that.

Thinking things through before doing something stupid applies not only to those who turn quickly to violence when conflict arises; it also applies to a culture that allows that to happen.  And lest we get sidetracked by a big societal issue, important as gun violence is, we all face those decisions and situations where thoughtfulness rather than an impulsive reaction would be really helpful.

#4 – Remember who you are.  Remember who you are.  God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and a blessing to the nations.  It was a covenant passed on generation by generation, a covenant God renewed with Jacob, who came to be called Israel.  Israel’s children knew that they were heirs to that promise. 

But to observe their behavior, you wouldn’t know that.  To see the pettiness and arrogance, to see the envy and jealousy, to see the treachery and violence in their hearts, you wouldn’t know that.

We need to remember who we are.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world.  We are children of God.  When time are difficult, when we feel down, when we feel alone, when we are discouraged or troubled or bewildered, it can be helpful to remember that we are God’s children.

And then, #5.  This is where the story ends.  Even if we fail miserably on numbers 1-4, even if we make a terrible mess of things, even when we forget who we are, God is there and God loves us.  Even in our world of dysfunction and violence and sin and evil and just plain meanness, God does not forget us and God does not abandon us.  Even when we are not faithful, God is always faithful.  Even in a world in which so much is meant for harm, God is always working for good.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"A Fall Sermon" - September 11, 2016

Text: Genesis 2:4b-8, 15-17, 3:1-8

In traditional Christian theology, it is called “The Fall.”  That moment when sin entered the human race, became a part of the human condition.  There is a famous little jingle that goes all the way back to The New England Primer, an elementary reader published by the Puritans in 1642: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Well – thanks a lot, Adam.  Thanks for the taint of Original Sin.  We may not make a habit of quoting that little jingle, but we know the sentiment.  In everyday language we sometimes excuse our behavior by saying, “Hey - I’m only human,” which means roughly the same thing. 

Today we are kicking off the fall, appropriately enough, by looking at The Fall.  (I didn’t get a title in the bulletin but if I had, it would say, “A Fall Sermon)  We are starting a new church year with the Narrative Lectionary, a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that follows the narrative – the storyline - of the Bible.  The readings will be different than last year, but again we will start in Genesis and look at key Old Testament stories through up until Advent.  After Christmas, we will read continuously through one gospel, this year the gospel of Luke, until Easter. 

Our scripture today, of Adam and Eve in the garden, is as good a place as any to begin, because it is one of those formative stories in the Bible.  It gets some big ideas out there from the very first pages of scripture.  Creation, humanity, community, sin, grace – it’s all there. 

In Chapter 1 of Genesis, God creates the world in seven days, beginning with the heavens and the earth.  Each day God creates a portion of creation and then pronounces what has been created as good.  Finally, God creates human beings, male and female, in God’s image, and God says that it is very good.

In chapter 2, we have another account of creation, a much earthier version (pun intended).  God creates the human being from the dust of the ground and breathes life into the human.  It is a play on words in Hebrew – God made adam from the adamah.  God made a human from the humus. 

The human is placed in the garden to till and keep it.  The English translation actually understates the relationship of the human to the garden.  The word translated “till” is really closer to “serve.”  And to “keep” the garden really has a connotation of guarding, watching over, protecting.  The Psalm says “the Lord will watch over your going out and coming in from this day on and forevermore.”  The word “watch over” is the same word used here.

So the human is created, God breathes life into the human, and there is a vocation – a calling – to work, serve, to protect, to watch over the garden.  There is a vocation, and there is also a limitation.  It is a small limitation, but it is a limitation.  The human can eat of every tree in the garden.  Imagine acres and acres of fruit trees and fruit-bearing plants.  Apples and oranges and peaches and pears.  Mangos and bananas and coconuts.  Apricots, plums, cherries, pomegranates, pecans, walnuts, almonds, avocados, figs, dates.  Throw in vegetables and berries and grains.  We are talking about an incredible gift.  We are talking about freedom – God said, you may freely eat of any tree in the garden.

But there was also limitation.  The human was not to eat from one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

In the ensuing verses, the woman is created from adam.  The woman is called Eve, which means “life,” and adam becomes the proper name for the man, Adam. 

So you have a man and a woman living in this beautiful garden.  They are to care for the garden and to keep and protect the garden, and they may eat from a veritable smorgasbord of offerings.  They may freely eat of everything in the garden, save for one thing.  Save for one tree.

Now, if you are given all kinds of stuff but told that there is one thing you cannot have, what do you tend to focus on?  What you have or what you don’t have?  What you are allowed or what is forbidden?

If a child is taken to a toy store and told that they can choose any toy in the whole place except for that shiny bicycle over there, what is the one thing they are going to want?

If someone is told that they can focus on any area of research they would like, but that this one area is off limits, which area is going to intrigue them the most?

If you are hiking and find a trail that appears to lead to an incredibly beautiful place, but a sign says do not enter, which trail is going to interest you the most?

Our instinct is to strive, to be ambitious, to attain that which we don’t yet have.  Our instinct is to want more.  And if there is anything we don’t like, it is somebody placing limits on us.  We don’t like being told no, not by anyone.

The man and woman seemed to do OK in this beautiful garden – for a while.  But then one day, the woman is approached by the serpent.  The serpent asks, “Did God say you can’t eat from any tree in the garden?”  The woman replied that she and the man could eat from any tree in the garden except for the one in the middle of the garden – they weren’t to even touch it or they would die.  Now, God had not actually said that, but apparently, just to be on the safe side, the man and woman had added the part about even touching the tree. 

The serpent said, “Of course you won’t die – God knows that your eyes will be open and you will know good and evil.  You will be like God.”

Interestingly, the woman saw that it was good.  She apparently already knew good.  The woman and the man saw that it was good, it looked delicious, it would make them wise, and so they ate.  And when they ate, their eyes were open and they knew they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths.

Then, they heard God walking in the garden, around the time of the evening breeze.  Martin Luther had an interesting take on this.  Luther said that when that first couple heard the wind, they thought it was God.  It was actually just the wind, but they assumed it was God and so they hid.

What the woman and the man came to know after eating the fruit was guilt and shame.  They wanted to cover themselves up.  They hid from God just as they were in a sense hiding from one another.  And when they are found out, they turn to blaming.   The man blamed the woman – she gave me the fruit.  The woman blamed the serpent – he tricked me. 

Now, people have done all kinds of things with this text.  There are those who have argued that women cannot be ordained ministers because Eve was the first to take a bite of the apple.  If you read this story and that is the meaning you get from it, I would worry about you.  I really don’t think that is the point.

There are those theologians who have used this passage to argue for a doctrine of Original Sin – that sin entered the human race by the sin in the garden, and since then there has been a more or less hereditary passing on of sin.  Before the fall, humanity was capable of living sin-free, but no more.

I think that is also may be a little bit too much reading into the story.  To me, this is a kind of universal story about all of us, about the choices that we all make, about the nature of temptation, about our striving for more, about the nature of shame.

I mentioned the great coach Vince Lombardi last week, and I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to quote him again this week.  Lombardi famously said, in a comment that is etched in the American psyche, “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”  The comment kind of spun out of and Lombardi came to regret it.  “I wish I’d never said the damn thing,” he said shortly before his death.  “I meant the effort… I meant having a goal… I surely didn’t mean to crush human values.”

But that attitude, that drive to succeed and to get what you want at all costs, no matter what sacrifices are made or who might get hurt, is deeply rooted in American culture.  We have all seen that.  It is also exactly the kind of thing that our scripture warns about.  Ambition can get the best of us.  Accomplishing and acquiring and accumulating all sorts of things has a big part in determining our sense of worth, and that is not always a good thing.

Peter Marty recalled a cartoon in an old New Yorker magazine.  A wealthy husband and wife with self-satisfied grins sit down to dine at a fancy restaurant.  The waiter introduces them to the menu.  “For your convenience,” he says, “the starred items are dishes associated with success, riches, power, and the like.”

The man and woman were in to upward mobility.  They wanted to be like God.  They were not the last ones with that desire.  Adam and Eve went on to have three children, three boys.  Abel was blessed, seemed to do everything well.  He was the golden boy who somehow managed to get what he wanted.  Abel never seemed to make a mistake, except one.  One day, he went for a walk with his brother.

Cain had a much more difficult time of it.  He wanted everything his brother had.  He resented his brother and blamed Abel when he didn’t get it.  Cain blamed his brother to the point that he knew that if he could just get rid of Abel, it would all be his.  And so he did, but life did not get better.  He spent the rest of his life wandering the earth, carrying a load of guilt for murdering his brother.  He thought that the only way to get rid of the guilt would be for someone to do to him as he had done to Abel – but no one ever would.

The treachery and murder in their family compounded the guilt and shame that Adam and Eve felt.  And they saw the continuing cycle of blaming and wanting more.  They could see it in their third son, Seth, and his children.  And their children and their children.  Generation after generation, always striving, always wanting more. And when they got more, they would still want more.  To have more, they would steal and cheat and lie and fight wars, nation against nation.

And if it that didn’t work out, they could always find someone to blame.  The government.  The schools.  The administrators and bureaucrats.  They could blame the church. Blame the media.  Blame their families, their neighbors, their bosses.  Blame their enemies.

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of what we know simply as 9/11.  Freshmen entering Iowa State were only 3 or 4 years old when it happened.  It was that long ago, but I remember it very well.  I was driving to church, not too far from our house, about to turn onto 13th Street.  I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR when they started talking about a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center.  The early reports were sketchy, but as the morning went on it was clear something awful had happened, and we all knew that life was going to change in some way.  There were incredible stories of courage and bravery and sacrifice that we continue to remember and honor.  But what we felt most was deep loss and deep sadness.

What happened on 9/11 fell in that long line of violence and blaming and hatred that goes back centuries, even millennia.  Harry Emerson Fosdick’s great hymn has a line, “Cure thy children’s warring madness; bend our pride to thy control.”  The sentiment of that hymn has always been needed. 

I think of the 15 years since September 11, 2001, and the choices that have been made.  Choices made by all kinds of people, including us.  And sometimes I wonder if maybe the sort of choices made back in the first pages of scripture keep getting made over and over, again and again and again.

The episode we read about this morning is not just Adam and Eve’s story; it is also our story.  It is about choices that we all make, over and over, even when we know better.

The comedian Ron White put it this way: “They told me I had the right to remain silent… I may have had the right, but I didn’t have the ability.”  Knowledge alone is not enough.  Knowing what we ought to do is not always enough.  Falling short is part of the human story. 

In the end, the man and the woman did not die, not on that day.  At least not a physical death.  But innocence died, trust was broken, and the closeness they had felt to God and to one another would never completely be recovered. 

Yet in this story we also have grace.  Grace in that even as they left behind the garden and had to travel east of Eden, God was with them, caring for them, providing for them.  Grace in that while the knowledge we gain does not necessarily lead to wisdom or to making the right choices, it does increase our ability to do good, our ability to bring about justice and righteousness and healing.

And grace in the fact that just as the man and woman had choices, so do we.  We have freedom.  We have the ability to live in God’s grace, to take up the vocation of serving and keeping God’s people and God’s world – or not.  And there is grace in that while humanity kept making choices that just broke God’s heart, God never gave up on us.  Filled with pride, humanity kept saying, “More!”  But in time God sent One filled with humility who went to Calvary and said, “Enough.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

“The New Jerusalem: A Vision of Hope” (Revelation Series #5) - September 4, 2016

Text: Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5

Does anybody here play computer games or video games?  Solitaire on your computer or Angry Birds on your ipad or Madden 2016 on your XBox?  Living on the wild side as I do, I regularly play a word game on my phone and I occasionally play sports or strategy-type games.  One of those games is Sim City.  (That’s SIM City, not SIN city, which would be a different game altogether.)

In Sim City, you are a city planner.  You map out your city and provide all of the infrastructure – roads and streets, bridges, power plants, a water plant, a landfill, and so forth.  You build fire stations and police stations to provide protection for your city; you build schools and libraries and hospitals.  You want to make your city livable so you build parks and other amenities.  You zone land for various uses and basically, you are in charge of all the important decisions regarding your city.

You pay for all of this from the city treasury and you set tax rates and collect taxes from your simulated citizens, or Sims.  And you get feedback from your Sims – they might think that taxes are too high (they’ll probably think that) or there is too much traffic or they want better schools. 

I was playing this game and had built a nice city.  The population was getting towards 200,000 and I had a 76% approval rating, which if you have paid any attention to political polls lately is completely unheard of.  I had just zoned a new subdivision on some prime real estate along a lake and prospects for continued growth and prosperity seemed good.

Then disaster struck.  A powerful earthquake devastated the city.  Fires broke out all over the place.  Much of the city was without power.  Fortunately, there was quite a bit of cash in the city coffers.  I bulldozed burnt out areas, repaired power lines and water lines, rebuilt streets, and did the best I could to restore order.  I nearly ran out of money, but I had the basic infrastructure back to some semblance of working order and I thought things were under control.

But of course the problems ran a lot deeper than I realized.  Thousands of people moved away, decreasing the tax base.    I had no choice but to raise taxes and cut back on services, which only made more people leave.  Angry citizens demanded a stadium to replace the one destroyed in the earthquake.  Crime was rising, there were power shortages, the streets were crumbling, the trash wasn’t being collected, and city employees were underpaid, but my Sims were demanding a stadium.  (It’s a pretty realistic game.)  People were leaving in droves, I still had the same infrastructure to support as when there were twice as many residents, and we were broke.  I was down to a 14% approval rating and angry mobs were demonstrating in the streets.

You know what I did?  I quit.  I didn’t see anything, short of a direct intervention by God, that would save my city.  There seemed to be no reason to go on, because there was no future.  In a word, it was hopeless.   

If there is anything that we need to live, it is hope.  And so often, hope is a commodity that is in short supply.  Let’s face it: life can be hard, and there are so many things that serve to diminish hope. 

John wrote the book of Revelation, more than 1900 years ago.  He was in exile, on the isle of Patmos.  Forced to live away from family and friends – those who had not been killed.  Christians were being persecuted throughout the Roman Empire.  In Rome, they had been fed to the lions and lit up as torches at night.  This is hopelessness.

It was in this kind of atmosphere that John wrote the Book of Revelation.  This is the last of a 5-part sermon series on Revelation.  (Please, hold your applause.)  If we didn’t already know it going in, we have discovered over these past weeks that Revelation is one of the most difficult books and probably the weirdest book in the Bible.  We have read about all kinds of weird images and characters: A wounded yet living lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, various horses and riders, a beast from the sea, a beast from the earth, four living creatures surrounding the throne, mouths with swords in them, cataclysmic battles and destruction and sheer terror.

And yet, a lot of people are very taken with Revelation, seeing it as kind of map that, if properly understood, describes in detail what will happen in the end times. 

Timothy Luke Johnson, is a scholar of New Testament at Candler School of Theology – our theology class used a video series with him a few years ago.  Speaking of the Book of Revelation, Johnson says:
Few writings...have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation...Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation...its arcane symbols...have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing.

If this book is so misunderstood, why is it so popular?  Well, for one thing, the world can be a scary place.  Revelation was written in a particularly scary time for Christians.  Many Romans saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because some refused to worship the emperor.  While some were persecuted, imprisoned or put to death, many chose to accommodate themselves to the prevailing culture to avoid social rejection and economic hardship.

In the midst of such problems, the letter of Revelation was sent to seven churches not to foretell the end of time and certainly not to give 21st century Americans a road map for the end of the world, but to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches of John’s time faced and about God’s presence with them.  John wanted to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the cultural practices of the empire around them.

We too live in a scary time, a time of fear and terror and violence and mistrust.  No wonder people are drawn to apocalyptic visions.  No wonder folks are intrigued about the world coming to an end.  There is a bumper sticker that says, “God is coming and she is mad!”

John writes to Christians and churches living through a very scary time.  And he does not give them details on how the world will end, he gives them assurance that God is in control and that a better day is coming.

Our scriptures today are from the last two chapters of Revelation.  The last two chapters of the Bible.  Now, you might imagine that after so much trial and tribulation, so much devastation on earth, it might end with leaving the problems of this world behind for life with God in heaven.  And throughout this book, there are images of worship in the heavenly court.  But that is not what happens.

John has a vision not of heaven, but a new and transformed earth.  A New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.  When our cities seem beyond hope – not just simulated ones but the real ones – and when our world seems so messed up that nothing but intervention from God will save us, that is exactly what happens:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away.

There are several notable things about the city.  Toward the end of chapter 21 we read that the gates are always open.  Protection from outside forces is not needed; the city is safe, and all are welcome.  There is no secret password.  All of the great jokes notwithstanding, St. Peter is not at the pearly gates quizzing people before they can get in.  There are no security guards, no bouncers, no border patrol.

The tree of life is found along the streets, by the river of life, and the leaves are for the healing of the nations.  All the nations.  There are no distinctions.  People are brought together in this city, is it s a place of healing, and it is for everyone.

Nothing in this city is unclean.  No one whose ways are evil will be here.  All will be united by a love for Christ and for one another.

There will be no need for the sun or the noon.  God’s presence is so illuminating that no other light is needed. 

And there will be no temple.  A place to meet God is not needed, because the divine presence permeates the city.  There will be no need for a priest, one to point to God, because God is there.

This holy city, the New Jerusalem, is described mostly in negative terms – in terms of what it is not.  No pain, no tears, no evil, no sun, no temple.  A vision of the new and unknown is most easily described by what it is not.  But what it is, John relates, is a place of welcome, a place of healing, a place of goodness, a place of peace.

Now some of you, those who are practical-minded, may be asking, “Well, OK… so what’s the point?”  Isn’t this just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-bye, religious gibberish that really has nothing to do with my life today?

I have to tell you, I’m one of the first to tire of irrelevant, pie-in-the-sky religion.  You might call this vision of John pie-in-the-sky if you want to, but there is a sense in which it is extremely timely and relevant and meaningful and practical. 

For John’s hearers, these were words of hope and comfort – exactly what they needed to hear.  Life was filled with pain.  Hope was in short supply.  This vision of peace and safety and welcome and healing, this vision of a city that was beautiful and good and free of the evil and the faithless and the corrupt was a word they needed to hear.

We cannot go on meeting practical needs and doing relevant things unless we know that what we are about ultimately matters and that what we are working toward will ultimately come to be.  As we work for peace and justice and goodness and righteousness and welcome and inclusion and brotherhood and sisterhood, we can be encouraged by knowing that this is where God is headed.  This vision tells us that it is not all up to us.  The problems in the world might leave us feeling helpless and hopeless, but there is a new day coming, a new world coming, a new city coming.

There may be a temptation to say, well, if God is going to break in and set everything right, then why do we bother?  What is the point in our working to make the world a better place if in the end God is going to break in and fix everything anyway?

Well, maybe we are instruments God is using to bring about this new world, even if we can’t see it.  It says that God will make all things new – not that God will make all new things.  There is a continuity to life and a continuity to relationships.

Further into chapter 21, John describes the city - the gates, the walls, the materials, and so forth.  And he says the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the names of the twelve apostles.

The twelve apostles.  Those very human, sometimes clueless disciples of Jesus.  They finally got it together, they led the church, imperfect as it was, imperfect as they were, and their names are on the wall of the city of the New Jerusalem.  Which says that what we do really does matter.  They had a part in building the city, and maybe we do too.  This vision is not one to make us give up because God is going to take care of everything anyway, it is a vision to give us hope and encourage us in working and serving, because what we do really does matter.  Every effort to make the world a better place, every work done for the common good, every act of kindness, every prayer that is said, every ditch that is dug, every expression of love matters.

I would add one more thing.  John’s Apocalypse ends with a very ecological vision that says something about the way we care for creation.  There are those who believe that the way we treat the earth does not matter in the end.  The world is ours to use and to benefit from as we see fit, but in the end the earth is not really our home, our true home is in another place.  You will hear this expressed subtly and sometimes not so subtly.

Just as this vision of John’s says that what we do really does matter, it also says that the earth really does matter.  And this has been true throughout the book.  Ever since chapter four, we have had recurring appearances by the four living creatures, who represent all of creation.  And in the end, the earth is not abandoned for a home in heaven but God come to us, on this earth, in the New Jerusalem.

If we list the worries and fears that we have, and if we get to talking about long-term and big-picture worries and fears, the way that we have abused and degraded God’s creation, the concerns about changes we have wrought on the atmosphere and resulting changes in climate may be at the top of the list.   John’s vison says that this earth matters, that our world is not just a layover on our flight to heaven, that caring for all of God’s creation should matter to us

Since it is now football season, I am allowed to quote Vince Lombardi, the great football coach.  He once said:

Good football coaches have in the back of their mind a picture of a perfectly executed offensive play, the perfectly run defensive formation.  Although the coach has never seen a group of players execute it perfectly, still the coach has in his mind a vision of what it would look like if everyone did it correctly.
This is the vision that John gives us.  A vision of the day when the kingdom of God will break through in all its fullness, a vision of a future we have with God when everything will be made right.

We won’t see that perfect city in this life.  But we can go on living and serving with hope, because we know what the future holds.  Amen.

“Getting Paid to Go to Church” - August 28, 2016

Texts: Galatians 3:26-28, 1 Corinthians 12:4-14
(Worship Under The Trees service)

There was an interesting news item a few years ago out of Shreveport, Louisiana.  Bishop Fred Caldwell is pastor of the Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church, a large African-American congregation with a membership of about 5000.  The church had about six active white members.

In Caldwell’s eyes, Shreveport is one of those Southern cities where the Civil Rights movement never quite took hold and the power structure was never forced to change.  “Shreveport is one of the last strongholds of the Confederacy,” he said.  “Racial prejudice here runs deep.”

He also said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.  He certainly isn’t the first to make that observation –Martin Luther King may have been the one to popularize that phrase - but it is true, and not only in Shreveport but in America generally.

All of this had weighed on Caldwell’s mind for a long time, and finally he had an idea – an idea, he says, that came from God.  To bring more diversity to his church, he offered to pay white people to attend services: five dollars for Sunday mornings, and $10 for Thursday night services.  (He reasoned that people were busier on weeknights and so he ought to pay a little extra for the Thursday services.)

Of course, there was reaction.  Some people were shocked.  Some members were afraid that it might bring in the wrong kind of people who were coming for the wrong reasons.  But then, Caldwell said, one could make the case that Jesus majored in the wrong kind of people.  Others said it was wrong to pay people to come to church when there were poor people who could use the money.  Caldwell responded that Judas said the same thing to Jesus, and he wondered if the people asking that were giving their money to the poor.  Some expected that longtime members would have a problem with paying newcomers to come to church -- but a number of members in fact offered to help pay people to come.

Well, it is an interesting concept, the kind of thing that most of us instantly have an opinion about.  But I think the bigger issue is what this pastor was hoping to accomplish.  He certainly raised the issue of segregation.  More white people – not a lot, but more – have attended his church since, and most didn’t want the $5.  His offer made it clear that they really were welcome.  And his offer made the news, raising the issue for a lot of folks - not to mention giving his church a lot of free publicity, more than you could buy with a few $5 bills.

It is no secret, and it is not surprising, that people like to go to church with folks who are like them.  And so churches tend to be made up largely of one socioeconomic group, or ethnic group, or racial group, or tilt toward a certain age.  Many churches will target a particular niche—maybe the 20-30 age group, or seekers, or the classical music crowd.  There are cowboy churches in Texas.  There are new churches in places like Arizona and Florida, in areas with lots of retirees, intentionally formed as churches for senior adults. 

The appeal of a particular church to particular grouping of people isn’t all bad.  And it can’t be avoided; it’s just the way the world works.  It’s hard to be all things to all people.  It’s hard to do both country music and Bach at the same time.  There is a certain sense in which members of any group, whether it be a church or Rotary or Little League or the crowd at the Monster Truck Rally, will be at least somewhat alike.

Several years ago, church growth experts were talking about what they called the “homogeneous unit principle.”  Congregations that grew, they said, were made up of a fairly homogeneous group, and attracted those same kinds of people.  They went a step further by proposing this as a strategy—kind of the opposite of Bishop Caldwell’s strategy. Churches should aim for folks who were just like they were. 
They proposed it because, they said, it worked. 

The question is, in the church, should it be that way?  If we only want people just like us, can it really be called the church of Jesus Christ?

To me, there are a lot of reasons why it is good for a church to have a broad mix of people.  There are practical reasons.  We live in a diverse community, and so it only makes sense that we reflect our community.  If we are serious about ministering where we are, we need to be diverse.

And then, there is a power and excitement that comes with a widely varied group.  There is something energizing about a church with all kinds of people, where everyone is not just like me.  There is something energizing about new ideas, fresh perspectives, and having a little variety in our life together as a church family.

There are practical reasons for wanting diversity.  But to me, the practical arguments are far outweighed by the theological argument for diversity.  If we are claiming to follow Jesus, we might want to look at Jesus’ first followers.

The 12 disciples were a motley bunch.  There were hard-working fishermen.  There was also Matthew, a tax collector – hated by most of the population as a Roman lackey – and Simon the Zealot, a member of a political party dedicated to the violent overthrow of Rome.  Folks from opposite ends of the political spectrum were in Jesus’ inner circle – it is like he had Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz both on his team, and it is hard to see them hitting it off all that well.  There were also women who were prominent among Jesus’ followers, which was absolutely scandalous in that day.  In fact, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ primary financial supporters were a small group of women.

Jesus did not shy away from relating to Samaritans, who were hated by the Jews.  He hung out with people who were not exactly the upstanding citizens of the day, and because of that accused of being a “glutton and a winebibber.”  (Which might raise the question, “When was the last time you heard someone called a “winebibber”?)  To be just real honest, Jesus didn’t seem to care a bit about anything like a “homogeneous unit principle.”

When we look at the early church, the diversity among believers broadened to include both Jews and Gentiles.  Paul worked with churches made up of all kinds of folks – rich, poor, of different races and different religious backgrounds and different nationalities and different occupations.  It got messy – at times it was extremely messy - but in the middle of all the messiness, there was Christ, and there was hope, and there was a witness to the world of love and care and peace.
As Paul puts it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”   The culture took note of the church because of the love members had for one another, and because the church cared for the poor and needy around them, whomever they were.

Welcomefest was Wednesday night at ISU, and we gave away around 400 plastic cups with info about our church as well as some pens and some Hershey’s kisses to students.  It is always fun and very interesting to see all the students at Welcomefest.  One guy came up and I handed him a cup and we talked a bit and then he asked me, “Is this a white church?”

I was a little bit taken aback.  The two of us working at our table happened to be white, so obviously we had white members, but he was asking if this was a white church.  I had never thought of that as our identity.  The student who asked was a black guy, and I’m not sure, but I supposed that what he was really asking was whether he would be welcome and feel comfortable here.

I said that we weren’t all white and we had some racial diversity and we would like to have more, but yeah, the majority of members were white.  He didn’t stick around to talk, and I have to say that I really didn’t feel good about my answer.

If I were asked that question again, I would say, no, we are not a white church.  We are not a white church or a black church or an Asian church.  We are a people church.  And it doesn’t really belong to us, anyway.  It’s God’s church, not ours, and all God’s children are welcome here. 

When we gather as a group of diverse individuals and together become a family, when together we become the church, we are reflecting what God’s kingdom is like. 

In the Church, we need all kinds of people.  Our reading from 1 Corinthians uses the analogy of the body: we need each part working well in order to function and be healthy.  Ninety-nine percent of your body can be working just fine, but if your back goes out, or your kidneys stop cooperating, or you’ve got a toothache, or an eye decides to take the day off, you can be in real trouble.  We need all of the parts working together.

I’m thankful for all of the gifts in the Body of Christ.  I’m thankful for all the gifts that are offered by members of this community.

I’m thankful for musicians who lead us in worship with their instruments and voices. 

I’m thankful for Sunday School teachers who care for children and who lead adults and who help us as we study the scriptures and apply our faith in our daily lives.

I’m thankful for people who quietly work behind the scenes, baking cookies and visiting people who are sick and working in the nursery and giving people rides and bringing flowers for the sanctuary and maintaining the library and painting stripes in the parking lot.

I’m thankful for those with artistic gifts and those with organizational skills and those who are mechanically inclined and those who can operate a miter saw or paintbrush or pipe wrench.

I’m thankful for all of the great cooks.  In a few minutes, I’ll be even more thankful!

I’m thankful for those who with their faithful presence lift the spirit of others.  I’m thankful for the laughers and the smilers and the gigglers and the huggers.  I’m thankful for those who persevere even when life is difficult.  And I’m thankful for those who help others to persevere.

I’m thankful for those who are people of deep prayer.  I’m thankful for long-time members, for those who offer experience and wisdom.  I’m thankful for newcomers who bring new ideas and fresh energy.  I’m thankful for students who bring excitement and ask questions, and jump right in sharing their gifts.  And I’m thankful for children who teach us so much about trust and joy.  I’m thankful for those who come from faraway places and from other countries, bringing their unique gifts and perspectives.

I’m thankful for all of the gifts I am too obtuse even to recognize but which nevertheless bless me.

We need all of these gifts.  We need each person, with all of our differences.  Maybe we need each other because of our differences.

God, for some reason, chooses to work through us.  We are the Body of Christ.  And we need the gifts of every person.

Bishop Caldwell paid people $5 to go to church.  It may not be in cash, but we also get a payoff – we all must get something out of coming to church - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.  What is the payoff for us?

Today that question may be easier to answer.  There is going to be a good meal.  We are outside, it’s fun, it’s different.  You don’t have to get dressed up. 

But week in, week out – what is the payoff?  For me, the payoff is this.  We come from different places; we have different hopes and dreams, different gifts, different experiences.  Even our ideas about faith and our theological understandings may be different.  And all of this – all of this - is good.  All of this is wonderful.

Because while we are all different, we come together to become a family—a family where we are welcomed and we are accepted.  We become part of a community where we can be stretched and challenged and grow, and where we are nurtured and loved and cared for, and where under God’s grace we are discovering together what it is to follow Jesus - and in the process, what it is truly be ourselves. 

That is the payoff.  And friends, that is worth far more than $5.  Amen.

Friday, August 19, 2016

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Terror, and Hope” (Revelation Series #4) - August 21, 2016

Text: Revelation 6:1-8

Classes begin tomorrow at Iowa State, and later this week for the Ames and Gilbert school districts.  Around here, it has been joyful pandemonium as students have been moving in all week.  This morning we are glad to see students who are back as well as new students.  And other new faces.  Welcome, everybody!

So you show up for worship at this church in Ames and discover that they are deep into Revelation.  If I were attending a church for the first time, I have to be honest: that would probably scare me.

Just to be up front about it, we are not the kind of church that constantly goes on and on about end-time prophecy and when Jesus is going to return.  We actually might go a few years without mentioning the book of Revelation around here.  But John’s Apocalypse is a part of our Christian scriptures.  It is part of the Bible, and strange as it is, it is worth knowing what is in the book and perhaps reclaiming it as a scripture written for the church.  John wrote in a time of terror, a time of anxiety, a time of fear, a time of political uncertainty and social upheaval.  Does any of this sound familiar? 

One of the enduring images from Revelation is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  They elicit fear and terror.  They signal danger.  There are many folks who are not particularly familiar with the Bible or who don’t make a habit of reading Revelation who nevertheless know about the Four Horsemen.

The famed sportswriter Grantland Rice penned the most famous lead in sportswriting history.  It was published in the New York Tribune on October 18, 1924:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
They don’t write like that anymore, do they?  The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, the nickname Rice gave its starting backfield, inspired fear and foreboding – the Four Horsemen brought impending doom as they ran roughshod over opponents.

A couple of weeks ago, as we read in Revelation chapter 5, the Lamb – Jesus Christ - was found worthy to open the scroll.  In our text today, as the first four seals of the scroll are opened, horses and riders are revealed.

First there is a White Horse.  A conquering horse.  The key is that the rider has a bow.  On the front of the bulletin cover, you will see an image of a woodcut by Albrecht Durer, from the 15th century.  The first horseman is farthest away, holding a bow.  The fiercest fighters of the day were archers on horseback, and the Parthians were especially known for their mounted archers.  The Parthians – an empire centered in what is now northeast Iran - repeatedly drove back and defeated the Roman army, putting an end to its eastward expansion.  They were a reminder of the limits of the security Rome could provide.  Those Christians who participated in emperor worship or in sacrifices offered to Roman gods were compromising their convictions for powers that were limited and could not be relied upon.

The second horseman is on a Red Horse.  This horseman takes away peace and brings violence.  If the conquering horseman represents danger from without, this horsemen represents danger from within.  In Durer’s woodcut, he is closer to the reader, indicating that the danger from within may be greater than the danger from outside forces.  He unleashes hostilities so that bloodshed comes to the populace.  Rome tried to cultivate an appreciation for the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.  This peace allowed for roads to be built and for food and commodities to be available.  But it came with a price.  Dissenting voices were silenced.  Many Christians suffered.  A lot of people accepted executions and widespread persecution as necessary to preserve the peace.  But such peace was not really peace, and the second rider warns that this peace will be taken away.

The third rider is on a black horse.  He carries scales and speaks of wheat and barley being sold for 10 or 20 times the usual amount.  It is a message of economic uncertainty, of famine and scarcity and inflation that come with war.  In Durer’s woodcut, this is the largest image, indicating that economic fears are perhaps the closest to us.  For a lot of people, this is what keeps them up at night.

And then the fourth rider is on a sickly, pale green horse.  This rider is Death.  This is where Johnny Cash ends his song.  Along with death is Hades.  If you look at the woodcut on the cover, Death is the nearest but the smallest horseman, and beside it is Hades.  You may not notice Hades at first.  It is in the very corner, a bizarre figure with a huge mouth – it appears that a king is in Hades’ open mouth.  Hades is pictured this way because the Old Testament personified Hades or Sheol – the place of the dead – as having a voracious appetite and opening its mouth wide to devour the powerful.  Death does its work through war, violence, famine, disease, plagues, and wild beasts. 

This is pretty brutal stuff.  Now, we need to remember that these are symbolic images.  The point is not that we are to be on the lookout for a rider on a White Horse with a bow galloping down Welch Avenue, and that when that happens we will know the end is near.  That wasn’t the point for John’s readers, either.  What these Four Horsemen represent is a kind of timeless truth.  There are always forces at work in our world that are threatening.  War, violence, crop failure, illness, economic distress – most people in most times and places have to at least deal with some of these.  Human institutions and material things will fail us, and in the end, we all have to face death.

Now, it is hard to know what to do with a passage such as this.  But given that what the Four Horsemen represent is a kind of timeless reality, we might redefine the Four Horsemen for today, perhaps for college students, like Grantland Rice did for college football way back when:

Outlined against a sun-filled August sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases.  Their real names are Organic Chemistry, Advanced Thermodynamics, Statistics, and Macroeconomics.
John paints a terrifying picture for his readers. And as we continue reading, it only gets worse.  Since we only have one more week in Revelation, I’ll try to briefly describe what happens up to the last chapter, which we will look at two weeks from today.

I read through the whole book of Revelation in one sitting.  I I would encourage you to give it a shot and then share your impression.  To me, chapters 6 through 20 read an extended hallucination, a bad acid trip - I have to be honest.  The images just keep getting weirder and more violent and more disconcerting.

In this book we have the Seven Seals.  The Four Horsemen are revealed with the first Four Seals.  Then there are Seven Trumpets.  More devastation is unleashed.  There is a Woman with a Child and a Dragon who threatens the Child.  There is a first Beast, with 7 heads and ten horns, and a second Beast, in cahoots with the first, who forces everyone to worship the first beast and marks everyone with the mark of the beast, the number 666.  The number 7 is perfect, so 666 represents imperfection.  Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger notes that in a system where Hebrew letters have numeric value, the letters of the name Nero Caesar adds up to 666.  Throughout history people have tried to identify a political opponent or the pope or some dangerous new idea as the Beast, but it is much more likely that the Beast is the Roman Emperor.

There are Seven Plagues and there are Seven Bowls of Wrath.  There is a Whore of Babylon, with Babylon again representing Rome.  There is wave after wave of judgment and bloodshed and terror.  

In the end, the army of the Beast assembles at a place called Armageddon and is defeated in a great battle by an army led by a rider on a White Horse.  The rider’s name is Faithful and True.  This is followed in chapter 20 by a thousand years in which Satan is bound and the martyrs of this time of terror will reign with Christ.

The part about the thousand years is not really a prominent part of the book of Revelation, but lots of people have taken those verses, added a few verses from 1 Thessalonians and from the book of Daniel and from Ezekiel and elsewhere and constructed an elaborate theology about when Christ will return and how it is all going to work.  There are those who argue that things will get progressively worse until Jesus returns and ushers in the thousand years – that is pre-millenialism.  You will sometimes find people who are gleeful at how terrible the world is – they can almost be giddy about it because it means Jesus is coming soon.  This is where all of that comes from.

Others believe that the world will get better and better, and there will be a thousand year golden age before Jesus returns.  Jesus returns after the millennium, so that is called post-millenialism.

My take on it is that like the other numbers in this book, the thousand years are not meant as a literal number.  They represent a large amount – a long time.  And then as I have said before, John was not writing so that people 2000 years later could come up with detailed schemes for Jesus’ return.  There is no mention in Revelation of an antichrist or a rapture or a tribulation or really even a well-defined return of Christ.  All of these ideas come from other places.

If you don’t believe the thousand years are literal, that is amillenialism.  Or John Anderson offered another choice: he said he was pan-millenial.  That means it will all pan out in the end - or it will all come out in the wash.

Well, after looking at the Four Horsemen, I have just skimmed the highlights of chapters 8-20, setting up the conclusion to Revelation in a couple of weeks. 

Most of the stuff we read in the Bible – most of the stuff we read, period – is linear.  Chronological.  And not just chronological, but just plain old logical.  This is not necessarily the case with Revelation.  The seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven bowls of wrath, all of the trials and tribulations outlined in the book – this is not a coherent, linear, step 1-2-3 description.  It is more of a spiraling vision.  In a sense, John says the same things several times using various images.  To try to treat this as a logical, step-by-step narrative is to miss the point.

Now, I know there is a question hanging over all of this – it is a question that maybe everybody is asking, me included.  The question is, “What is the point?”  Where is God in all this, and what in the world does this have to do with us today?”

Well, I’m glad you asked.  John was writing to a fairly beleaguered group of believers.  They were facing hostility and oppression, and in some cases had to make a difficult choice of going along to get along in the culture, or living counter-culturally as followers of Jesus Christ.  To say Yes to Christ could mean saying No to Caesar, and to do that, the stakes could be high.  John himself had paid the price; he was living in exile on the island of Patmos.  Back in chapter 2, John was told to write to the church in Smyrna, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  There is no difficult symbolism there; John is flat-out saying that some to whom he is writing will give their lives for their faith.

Believe it or not, this wild, crazy, weird, violent, sometimes bizarre letter written to seven churches in what is now western Turkey was intended to give hope in a very difficult time.  It told them that the powers that oppressed them were limited powers.  True power belonged to God, and God would have the ultimate victory.  It gave them hope of life beyond the difficult future many of them faced.   

Sprinkled throughout this book, we again and again have that assurance.  And one of the best examples comes shortly after the Four Horsemen, in Chapter 7:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…
Then one of the Elders said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
We all face trials in life – perhaps nothing approaching what John’s first readers faced, but then again, life can be hard – for all of us.  And I mean even harder than Advanced Thermodynamics.  We can all face painful situations.  The promise for us is that even through the most desperate of times, God is there, and that in the end God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  Amen.

“Worthy Is the Lamb: The Power of Sacrificial Love” (Revelation Series #3) - August 7, 2016

Text: Revelation 5:1-14

Like many of you, Susan and I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics on Friday night.  This was not as easy as it should have been.  If any of you have Dish Network, you know what I’m talking about.  Dish and Tribune Media are in a prolonged dispute, and the bottom line is that if you have Dish, you can’t watch any Tribune-owned stations, including Channel 13 in Des Moines.  We basically haven’t watched NBC for a couple of months.  But for the Olympics, we got out the rabbit ears and tuned in.

Now, once you have watched TV with a DVR, it is really hard to go back to “regular” TV.  We are used to being able to pause when there is a phone call or some interruption.  And when you can’t quite catch what was said, it is nice to just rewind and listen again.  We thought we saw Harrison Barnes walking with Team USA, but couldn’t rewind to see if it was actually him.  (Fortunately, there was a good shot of Harrison a moment later.)

I bring this up not to gripe about Dish Network or to say “Woe is me, I have to watch over the air TV,” and I don’t share this to bring up our hometown Olympian.  Instead, I am thinking about the theatrical opening of the Olympic Games, which was a celebration of Brazil’s history and culture and musical heritage.  There were segments dealing with colonization and immigration and slavery and even global warming; there were all kinds of music, and you had Gisella Bundchen as the Girl from Impanema.  This was all accomplished through costumes and choreography and staging and a cool set and a really great projection system and wonderfully creative writing and directing.   Light and colors and images and shape and sound as well as human actors and dancers and musicians and performers all combined to tell the story of Brazil in a stylized and entertaining way.

I think that it can be helpful to think of the Book of Revelation as being something akin to the presentation at the Opening Ceremonies.  It is like a stage production, with characters and images and sight and sound.  It is stylized and visual and symbolic, and just to look at it, it is not always clear what is going on.  John is narrating the show, but he does not jump in and try to explain everything the way the Matt Lauer and Meredith Vierra did on NBC.  (And that may be a good thing). 

Our scripture today again is filled with colorful characters and strange images.  I talked to someone this week who had read this fifth chapter of Revelation, and their comment was, “That’s really weird.”  Well, I need to tell you: this is not the weird part.  This is the relatively normal, relatively mundane, fairly straightforward part.  When you get to the next chapter - that is where it really starts to get strange. 

If you can remember back a couple of weeks ago - I guess it was actually 3 Sundays ago now - we were in Revelation chapter 4.  It is a vision of worship in heaven.  There are four living creatures around the throne, representing all of creation, and 24 elders a bit farther from the throne.  In keeping with Hebrew sensibilities – the name of God is too holy to be spoken – John simply refers to the One on the throne.  And the logistics and choreography of it all is intended as a direct challenge to the worship of the emperor, who would hold court on a throne surrounded by advisors and subjects and favor-seekers who would offer applause and praise.

The vision John is given of heavenly worship is a reminder that the One we worship holds real power, true power, and is far greater than any power in this world.  Next to the God of all creation, Caesar and the power of empire are weak and puny.

From that scene – and again, thinking of Revelation as an extended stage production – from that scene, we continue to our scripture for today.  The One on the throne is holding a scroll that is sealed with seven seals.  An angel calls out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals?”  Apparently, no one is worthy.  No one in heaven or on earth is able to open the scroll and read what is written.  At this, John begins to weep bitterly, but one of the 24 elders says, “Hey, take it easy there.  Don’t worry.  The Lion of Judah, the Root of David has conquered and can open the scroll.”

The Lion of Judah and the Root of David hark back to the Old Testament.  Judah is one of the tribes of Israel, the tribe from which the kings came, like King David.  The Lion of Judah is a reference to Christ.  Jesus is found worthy to open the seal.

John looks again at the throne and sees the four living creatures and the elders and there among them is a lamb.  The description is very strange.  The lamb is standing as if it had been slaughtered.  Which makes no sense; if you have been slaughtered you are certainly not standing.  And the lamb has seven horns and seven eyes.  We have a stuffed animal lamb at home, but you wouldn’t want a stuffed animal looking like this.

We are told that the seven horns represent the seven spirits of God.  In the symbolism of numbers, seven is a perfect number.  The lamb is from God, of God, has God’s own spirit.  The seven eyes tells us that the lamb is all seeing.  From this point on, the Lamb will be the primary way that Christ is spoken of in Revelation.

Now, to expect a powerful lion but instead see a slain lamb is rather shocking.  And the vision seems pretty underwhelming.  This lamb is the great conqueror?

A number of years ago, the American Baptist Biennial was in Providence, Rhode Island.  We went to the biennial and took some vacation time after the convention – we went to Boston and Plymouth and Cape Cod.  At Plymouth, we went to see Plymouth Rock.  I mean, it’s what you do.  There is a park along the ocean, and a platform and a wall surrounding Plymouth Rock.  (They don’t want anybody chipping off a piece as a souvenir.)  You look down and see this rock, and it’s not that big.  Lots of people have bigger rocks sitting in their yards as decorative landscape stones.  The rock has 1620 chiseled into it – I assume that part wasn’t there when the Pilgrims landed.  I remember seeing this rock and thinking, “That’s it?  This is the famous Plymouth Rock?”  

Plymouth Rock is a tourist destination, and for many people it has a lot of meaning.  But it has meaning not because it is an impressive geological formation, but because of what it represents – the place where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World. 

Sometimes less can be more.  John sees this Lamb, and at first it might seem like a letdown.  This is no Lion.  This is no mighty figure.  But the Lamb has power because of what it represents.

The Lion of Judah evokes a strong and powerful ruler.  The kings of Israel were lions of Judah.  John is told that the lion is worthy, but what he sees is a lamb.  What’s up with that? 

In a sense, the Lion is the Lamb.  Or the Lion has become a lamb.  The Lion has conquered, but not in the way that people expect, because the conquering hero is a lamb that has been slain.

When human beings conquer, they do so by inflicting death and suffering on opponents.  Roman armies had extended the borders of the empire through such conquest, capturing and subjugating people of many tribes, languages, and nations.  Captives most often became slaves, living at the lowest rung of society.  They were not even considered citizens.

Minus the slavery - at least minus the formal slavery - this is still the way it works, and we are unfortunately reminded of that nearly every day.  You conquer and you rule through force, with a powerful army and the coercive power of the state.  And if you don’t have an army, and don’t lead a nation, you can still go about this strategy of conquering through threat and domination and terror.

The Lamb, however, operates in an entirely different way.  The Lamb conquers through sacrifice, through faithfully enduring suffering, and the result of his victory is that those of every tribe, language and nation are not enslaved but made free.  They are brought into a new relationship with God and with one another.

The Lamb conquers not with the sword, not with military might, not with coercive force – but through the power of love – the power of self-giving, sacrificial love.

When John wrote to the seven churches, there was a battle going on.  His readers had to choose whether to worship and serve the Lamb – who conquered through the power of sacrificial love and brings life – or the beast, who shows up in a few chapters and who rules through the coercive power of death.

In the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, the countries entered alphabetically in Portuguese, the language of the host nation.  I am thankful that they did.  The United States is Estados Unidos in Portuguese, so they entered with the E’s.  I was long asleep by the time the U’s rolled around.  Somehow I especially noticed the second country to enter – South Africa.  The South African team entered the stadium, and they were full of joy and excitement, some of them practically dancing their way into the stadium, like many of the teams.  What stood out to me was what a mix of humanity they were.  Black athletes from various tribal groups, white athletes of both Dutch and British descent, and I’m sure more, athletes of Indian ancestry and athletes of mixed racial heritage.

I remembered that it wasn’t that long ago that South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of its policy of apartheid, which separated the races and kept the white minority in power.

Nelson Mandela was a leader of the African National Congress, which fought against apartheid.  Mandela was arrested in the early 1960’s and sentenced to life in prison.  What he did in prison was amazing.  Despite facing what were often humiliating conditions, he chose to treat the guards with respect, with kindness.  He would ask about their families.  He genuinely cared about them.  While he had every right to be angry and bitter, he appeared to be at peace, even in hellish conditions.  The guards came to love and respect Mandela.  

Finally, he was released from prison in 1990.  The first free elections were held in 1994, and Mandela was elected president of South Africa.  But he did not use his office to exact revenge.  He knew that the only way forward as a nation would be as a united people.  He was gracious to the outgoing President F.W. deKlerk, who became vice-president.  He established a Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the horrors of the country’s past but offered amnesty to all who would testify, allowing the country both to heal and to move forward.

He famously cheered for the hated all-white South African Rugby team, the Springboks.  Rugby itself was a symbol of racial division.  The Springboks were a symbol of white identity but for blacks, the team was a symbol of apartheid, a symbol of oppression.  Mandela received a great deal of criticism for his support of the team and was seen by many as selling out.  But he got to know the team and led them to serve as peace ambassadors to both white and black communities.  When the Springboks unexpectedly won the 1995 World Cup in Johannesburg, he wore a jersey with the name of the team captain on the back and personally awarded the trophy.  The thing was, the whole country was behind the team before that last game was played, and this played a big part in easing racial tensions and bringing national unity. 

Mandela’s personal bodyguard force was half black members of the African National Congress and half white officers from the South African police force.  His chief bodyguard was a white man who had thought of Mandela as a terrorist but came to love and respect him as the father of a new South Africa.

Nelson Mandela nearly did the impossible in bringing the nation together, and he did this despite constant threats both from racist whites and from blacks who felt he was too accommodating to the white minority.

Mandela is a case study in the power of sacrificial love over the power of coercive force and violence.  In the early 1990’s, civil war was a very real possibility.  And no one could have blamed Mandela for giving those who had propped up an evil and inhumane system what they deserved.  But revenge and payback would have destroyed the country.  Instead, Mandela chose forgiveness and love and personal sacrifice.  And that wonderfully diverse, joyful, enthusiastic South African Olympic team walked in to that stadium on Friday night because Nelson Mandela chose the path of love.

The Lamb conquered through love, through sacrifice.  Through laying down his life for others.  And because of this, heaven and earth join together in worship.  The elders offer bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints – of those on earth.  Worship on earth and worship in heaven are linked together.  And the scene reaches its highest point as John’s gaze goes beyond the four creatures and the 24 elders to see millions and millions of angels surrounding the throne, singing “Worthy is the Lamb.”

It is a song that we can join is singing when we worship together, offering praise to God and praise to the Lamb.  But it is also a song that we join in singing when we ourselves reject the power of coercive force, the power of violence and death, and embrace the power of sacrificial love.  It is a song we sing when we choose to live for others and not simply for ourselves.  Amen.