Sunday, October 18, 2020

Greatness in God: Isaiah 45:1-7 - 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him-- and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things. Isaiah 45:1-7 NRSV

I began preparing today’s sermon by doing some research into King Cyrus of Persia, who’s named as “God’s anointed” in today’s reading from Isaiah. 

Numerous historians refer to him as Cyrus the Great. He conquered the Babylonian Empire, which the book of Revelation refers to as “Babylon the Great.” Following his death, he was succeeded by Darius the Great, who was succeeded by Xerxes the Great. Later, their Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great. Are you starting to see a pattern here?

History is full of rulers who have “the Great” attached to their name—because they were extremely effective military strategists, savvy politicians, and empire builders. For better or worse, they played a great role in shaping human civilization. 

The Israelites exiled in Babylon had good reason to call Cyrus great—because after he conquered Babylon, he permitted the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their city. The prophet Isaiah names him “the Lord’s anointed” for this reason. 

All throughout Scripture, God uses good and evil persons to carry out God’s purposes. It just so happened that Cyrus ruled his empire a bit differently than rulers who preceded him: he didn’t persecute and kill his enemies. Instead, he was more tolerant and accommodating—especially when it came to people’s religions. This helped him maintain order and security within his empire. 

But God one thing clear: Cyrus is not the one to be worshipped. Even though God calls Cyrus “anointed,” this isn’t about him. It isn’t even about Israel, for that matter. This is about God. Four times, God declares that God is using Cyrus—though not to build up the Persian Empire, which Israel will happen to benefit from. God is using Cyrus as part of God’s greater plan to become known in the world and fulfill the promises God made to Israel. And Cyrus doesn’t even know the God who made him so great…

Cyrus, and other “great ones” had massive egos. They fought, they conquered, they enslaved, and they killed—to make their name great in the world and gain the adoration of their people.

Who are the great ones on today’s world? Their names appear in the Forbes Magazine billionaires list. They’re on TV. They have thousands, if not millions of followers on social media. Their names appear on buildings, business empires, and industries. People come from miles around to be in their presence. We bask in their glory by going to their films, buying their products, and wearing their names on our clothing. We worship like messiahs, giving them even more wealth, power, and fame in hopes that their greatness will make us great. 

But here’s something to remember about Cyrus the Great, and all the great ones who followed him: they all died, and their empires fell to even greater rulers and greater empires. Meanwhile, precious human lives were lost, and God’s life-giving gifts were wasted. 

The more you strive to make yourself and your name great, the further you distance yourself from God. The path toward personal greatness runs in the opposite direction of God’s kingdom. Sooner or later, the ivory towers you build to make your name great will fall back to earth.

Greatness, in God’s world, is not about wealth or winning. It certainly isn’t about having “the Great” written beside your name in the history books. Only God is great. 

One of the greatest ways God acts in the world is by anointing ordinary people like you and me to do God’s work in the world. You are raised up by God to show forth God’s greatness in the world by living according to God’s commands and sharing with others the gifts God has lovingly given you. Instead of wasting God’s gifts to make others see how smart, hard-working, and successful you are, you strive to improve people’s lives. You ease burdens. You alleviate suffering. You affirm people’s dignity and worth. You are living proof that God is great—and that God’s greatness means abundant life for all people, particularly those who are counted as the lowest and the least.

Years ago, I attended a funeral for a church member who had an amazing talent for remembering everyone he ever met. But the people he remembered didn’t always remember him. But he would always say, “It’s okay to forget me. Just don’t forget Jesus.” He’s absolutely right—because there is nothing great that can be had in this world that will endure and remain secure amid evil, suffering, and death aside from Jesus Christ. Great things will come and go in life, but to live greatly is for Jesus’s greatness to live through you. For there is only one name under heaven whereby you are claimed, forgiven, redeemed, and saved. That name and that name alone is worthy of greatness. There is only one greatness that is given to you without cost or merit—God’s greatness, given through the cross, for your sake, the neighbor’s sake, and the world’s sake.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Life in Mean Times: Isaiah 25:1-9 - 19th Sunday after Pentecost

O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled. On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (NRSV)

Last Sunday, the chancel choir stayed after church to record today’s anthem. This was the first time we’d opened our choir folders since March, and the songs we’d been preparing for Holy Week and Easter were right where we left them. Somebody said, “do you think we’ll get to sing these next Spring?”


Covid-19 is a nightmare without ending—and every time I get to thinking that the worst is behind us, something happens—like an outbreak at the White House. The longer it goes on, the harder it becomes to imagine the future without it.


The same holds true for all the political chaos; racial strife; economic downturn, climate change, and a shrinking church. Is doom and gloom all that the future has in store for us? Will there ever be celebration?


From what we know about the history of Old Testament Israel, the celebration in today’s reading from Isaiah may appear foolish and short-sighted. The mighty Assyrian Empire had been the greatest existential threat to God’s people. Ninety years prior to this moment, they conquered the northern Kingdom of divided Israel. They invaded the Southern kingdom besieged Jerusalem as well. The Southern Kingdom ultimately survived, but they had to buy Assyria off with nearly all the silver and gold from the temple and the royal palace.


Ultimately, the even-mightier Babylonian Empire arose and conquered Assyria. For the tiny Southern Kingdom, this was cause for celebration. God had delivered them from their greatest enemy. But twelve years later, Babylon besieged Jerusalem—and ultimately conquer the Southern Kingdom.


But there is one important truth to remember: every person, power, or empire that sets itself up against God and God’s purposes will fall. Those who seek power and riches through plunder, oppression, and bloodshed will be subject to God’s judgment. On the other hand, those who are plundered, oppressed, and persecuted will be vindicated by God. Therefore, there’s nothing foolish about rejoicing in God’s salvation. It’s a promise that holds true, no matter what the circumstances. Suffering and evil come and go, but God’s kingdom is forever.


Unfortunately, God’s people lost sight of this promise. As their world grew more dangerous, and their society more unstable, fear ruled their lives. They put their trust in power and riches instead of God. They neglected their fundamental duties to God and neighbor. Individuals became so self-absorbed that poverty and oppression spread through the population like wildfire. Is our society any different?


A few weeks ago, I quoted a university study that found that majorities of Republicans and Democrats believe violence will be justified if the opposing party wins the election in November. What does that say about us? It says that we have no faith in cooperation, peace, justice, and compassion. The only possible way for the future to be brighter is for my side to win, and the other side to go away.


Today’s crises define our reality so much that we become convinced that’s all there is! Let’s be honest: Our mindset is that death will have the last word. That impacts how we live more than we can comprehend. As yourself: is your life a gift and your neighbor’s life a treasure? Or is it all a game, where the one with the most toys wins? What do you believe?


Remember: evil and suffering come and go. Poverty, grief, sickness, political chaos, war—all of these temporary. They are not your ultimate destiny. If all you see in your future is doom and gloom, you will live accordingly. Fear will rule your life.


Trusting God’s promises, on the other hand, faith rules your life. By faith, God lays the groundwork for God’s glorious future within you. Every time you take time to pray, read Scripture, and be in the presence of God, God wins a victory. Every time you gather around Word and Sacrament, God wins a victory. Every time you feed the hungry, God wins a victory. Every time you forgive or seek forgiveness, God wins a victory. Every time you sacrifice yourself to build up the other, God wins the victory.


Evil deeds and evildoers come and go. So does wealth and success. Your deeds of faith, hope and love; peace and justice lay the groundwork for eternity.


God’s victory will probably not be complete tomorrow or even next year. We are living in the meantime, and these are indeed mean times. But why should your mind be set on all doom and gloom? Don’t waste the gift of the present moment in dread for tomorrow. Don’t allow yourself or your neighbor to live shrouded in fear and shame. Welcome God’s future into your present. Share the love that is in you, and join God in winning victories with every person you love and bless.


This life and this world are where God’s victories are won. Right here, right now.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Real Deal: Isaiah 5:1-7 - 18th Sunday after Pentecost

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

There was a time when shopping online was a reckless gamble. Will a hacker steal my credit card number? Will a thief swipe the package off my front porch?

Now, I’m paying $120 a year for an Amazon Prime membership, which gets me next-day delivery on just about everything I order. 

But one risk I never anticipated was counterfeit merchandise. The explosion in online shopping is a counterfeiter’s dream—because when your business is to get as wide a range of products to the consumer as quickly and cheaply as possible, it’s easy for counterfeiters to insert their wares into the supply chain and have money in hand before the consumer even knows they’ve been ripped off. 

They aren’t just counterfeiting designer wristwatches and handbags. Electronics, cosmetics, toys, shoes, cookware, wines, and even medicines can all be faked. And some of these fakes can kill you. 

Not only that, counterfeiting hurts legitimate businesses, while propping up the world’s most dangerous criminal enterprises.

I think of counterfeiting like the wild grapes that had taken over the vineyard we hear about in our first reading from Isaiah.

A vine-grower plants what was slated to be a top-notch vineyard. They choose the most fertile of fields, clearing the soil of stones, planting choice vines, building a watchtower, hewing out a winepress. This costly investment in time, labor, and capital yielded wild grapes: small, sour, barely edible grapes that are, essentially, weeds. It would be more appropriate to classify them an invasive species—because they spread rapidly, and can quickly destroy the crops you actually want to grow.

At this point, the vine-grower is stuck with a vineyard whose very existence endangers the other vineyards, orchards, wheatfields, and gardens. The only viable option is to destroy the vineyard. 

This parable speaks of how deeply God was personally invested in the people of Israel. God had chosen them out of all the nations to be God’s own; God delivered them from slavery in Egypt and settled them in the promised land. When they went astray, God sent prophets to call them to repentance.

Yet for as fully and completely as God was invested in this people, they were a curse to themselves and a scourge to the creation. Instead of justice there was bloodshed; instead of righteousness, the innocent cried out in agony. 

But here’s the thing—just as wild grapes are still grapes, these were still “Israelites.” They were happy to accept all the benefits of being God’s chosen people, but with none of the responsibilities. They were counterfeits. 

So how are you and I supposed to hear this parable? I ask, because I do not believe that we should take this merely as a description of how awful the Israelites were in the sixth century before Christ. 

Here’s the challenge Isaiah’s parable puts before us: we are God’s people. God has called us and claimed us as God’s own. We are the Body of Christ. We are Church for the sake of the world. But are we the real deal, or are we faking it? Is your Christianity about rights and privileges, or gifts and duties?

What’s more important to you—having your church grow, or you sharing with other people the treasure you’ve found in Jesus? What bothers you more—your suffering neighbors, or people who don’t share your beliefs and values? If you consider America a Christian nation, does that mean eliminating the separation of church and state—or people loving the neighbor as themselves, and looking out for our most vulnerable citizens?

And here’s where the rubber really meets the road: on a scale of one to ten, how greatly do you desire repentance? Are you prepared for God to reveal the depravity in your heart? Are you willing to let God clear away all the convictions, commitments, and ambitions that have taken root in you, that you bear wild grapes instead of the fruits of the Spirit?

What this parable teaches is that when God’s love meets the reality of human sin, repentance can be costly and painful. We are deeply invested in the people we are today. The thought of God coming in and overturning everything is quite scary.

To repent is to be crucified with Christ. It means that your present self—with all your desires and commitments—is put to death in order that a new creation will come alive. That doesn’t mean your abandoning your families, quitting your job, and selling off everything you own. But it does mean a radical change in who you are and what you value. You think differently. You see yourself differently. You relate to others differently. If you’ve ever thought of shopping online as risky, it’s nothing compared to inviting God’s power into your life. 

Speaking personally, I don’t know where the wild grapes grow in me, or how deep the roots go. I know I lack the willpower to cut down what I’ve so painstakingly built up. I also know that this world scares me, and I don’t have the strength to face it. But God raises the dead, and that God’s love changes everything. The work of the Holy Spirit is to cultivate the seeds of the fruits of the Spirit, which heal the world. When God’s love is real and true in you and me, we can meet today’s challenges, see the church grow, heal this broken world, and build a more promising future. 

What’s your treasure: is it the vineyard you build up for yourself? Or is it the life of Christ in you, bearing fruits of the Spirit, for the benefit of all?

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Greatest Regeneration: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 - 17th Sunday after Pentecost

1The word of the Lord came to me: 2What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 3As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
  25Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
  30Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live. (NRSV)

There are no four words that drive a young person to boredom faster than “back in my day.” 


I know this, because when I was young, I heard plenty of adults say, “back in my day, we walked ten miles to school, uphill both ways, barefoot, in the snow, because we had no snow days,” et cetera, et cetera.


But now, I have my own version of the lecture!

Back in my day:

§  You couldn’t use the internet and the phone at the same time

§  Notebooks and tablets were stacks of paper bound together with a metal coil

§  Our toys, crayons, cribs, strollers, and car seats have all been banned by the government for being toxic and deadly—but somehow, we survived.


I think every generation is critical of its children. “Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today! Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?”


But fingers point in the opposite direction—with today’s emerging generations accusing their forbears of making college unaffordable, driving up the national debt, ruining the environment, and giving no thought to the generations coming after them. 


In today’s first reading, the people are in exile—and fingers were pointing to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. They said, “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In other words, “our parents sinned—but we inherited the punishment.” Yet fingers also pointed God’s direction: God was punishing them for their parents’ sin, which is extremely unfair


In response, God says, “I’m not being unfair; you’re being unfair!”


God had showed tremendous compassion towards every generation that came before them—but people kept on worshiping idols, oppressing the poor, persecuting the righteous, and committing violence. These sins have consequences. 


So God sets the record straight: those who reject righteousness and commit iniquity shall die. Those who reject iniquity and embrace righteousness shall live. Every individual shall be responsible for their own sin.


And that’s not to say that this will make everything “fair.” Many righteous people were exiled or died in the conquest of Judea. Many unrighteous generations lived and died without ever suffering the consequences. 


But this was the generation that could make history. They can be the ones who confess their sinfulness (instead of denying or deflecting it). They can be the ones whom God’s amazing grace turns brings to repentance. They can be the ones who receive from God a new heart and a new spirit; who turn and live.


But first, they need to get over themselves. They need to stop pointing fingers and hurling blame. 

There is no faster way to reject God than by denying your need of repentance. It’s the sinner who says, “I don’t need to repent, but you do!” Human beings are far more likely to find fault in others than themselves. This is especially true if the “other” was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong people. 


We also reject God with our demands for fairness. No one should be given supports or advantages we never had. “If I had to eat sour grapes, everyone should have to eat ‘em,” we say. And, “if you give me sour grapes, I hope your teeth hurt when I make you eat them!” Because that is what’s fair


But God values something much more than fairness: God values life—and people’s lives—above anything. We all have our own ideas about what’s fair and unfair, but God is all about life. 


“Turn to me, and live,” says the Lord. That is what it means to take responsibility: you stop pointing fingers; you quit the blame game that you’ll never win anyway. You stop demanding that God make everything fair (from your point of view). Instead, you seize the moment for what it is: the proper time to receive the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. You confess, “I’m a sinner—and only God can give me a new heart and a new spirit;” and God does it. You put to death the works of death. You allow God’s claim on you and your destiny to be complete. 


Life will never be 100% fair. But when you do justice and love righteousness, you’re not treating others according to what you think they deserve. Instead, you are serving the other according to what they need, because they bear the image of God—just like you do. Sacrificing yourself for others in Jesus’s name doesn’t diminish you. It transforms you. You see resurrection. You have hope for a brighter, better future.


And regardless of whether you’re of the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation-X, Millennials, Generation Z, or Gen-Alpha—you can all be part of the Greatest Re-generation, captured by the graciousness of God; turned from death to life; given a new heart, a new spirit, and a new destiny to be lived out from this time forward.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Scandalized by God: Jonah 3:10-4:11 - 16th Sunday after Pentecost

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live." But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" (NRSV)

I consider the story of Jonah and the Whale as one of “Sunday School’s Greatest Hits.” A man tries to run away from God, but God sends a fish to swallow him whole to give him three days to think about what he’d done. The fish coughs him out, and he finally obeys. But that’s not what the story is really about.


Today, I want to think outside the fish—because the book of Jonah paints shocking portrait of God that is very hard to swallow!


Jonah was a Northern Kingdom prophet—meaning that when Israel split apart after the death of King Solomon, he was in the half that Jerusalem was not in; where Samaria was the capital (hence the term Samaritans).


Throughout its history, the Northern Kingdom was at war with the Assyrian Empire. During Jonah’s time as prophet, the Northern Kingdom reconquered a significant amount of territory the Empire previously captured. At this point, the Norther Kingdom was feeling quite secure and self-confident.


So one day, out of the blue, God calls Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh—which was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Its ruins sit opposite the Tigris River from the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq. Jonah’s mission was to call its people to repent of their wickedness.


But why would the people of Nineveh give heed to a God they didn’t worship, who identified with a puny little nation their mighty empire will one day conquer? For Jonah, this was a fool’s errand and a suicide mission, all rolled into one.


Yet as we know, God doesn’t take no for an answer. After three days’ detention inside the fish, Jonah reluctantly goes to Nineveh, and delivers a one-sentence proclamation: “forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Astonishingly, the Ninevites obeyed God! The king issued a call to national fasting and repentance. When God saw how they turned from their evil ways, God had compassion for them and relented from destroying them.


At this point, Jonah has become the bible’s most effective prophet! God’s chosen people didn’t obey the other prophets, like Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. At least not so quickly. But the hated Ninevites did!


Yet, Jonah is enraged. In his mind, God should’ve destroyed them—and life would’ve been better for everyone. Jonah is so scandalized by God’s compassion that he would rather die than live under a God such as this.


Are you not inclined to agree with Jonah, that life would be better without certain people in it?


Consider this: earlier this year, researchers at Vanderbilt University found that “majorities of Democrats and Republicans viewed the other party as such “a serious threat to the United States and its people…that ‘violence would be justified’ if the opposing party won the 2020 presidential election.


Inside of every human heart is a little Jonah who seeks the destruction of your enemies. When greedy, violent, and immoral people are punished, you feel vindicated. You feel good to not be like “those bad people.” If, on the other hand, God is compassionate towards bad people, God is being unfair to you. It’s like your faith, obedience, and good works don’t matter.


Ultimately, the reign of God is uncomfortably greater and more inclusive than we do prefer it to be. God’s compassion is so vast that it is actually offensive—a sucker-punch to the ego.


A person’s wickedness doesn’t make them matter any less to God than a fully righteous person. Even when God punishes, it is an act of compassion. God’s desire is repentance, not destruction. God’s compassion is what turns people away from sin to righteousness; from death to life. Jonah, on the other hand, is unrepentant. Jonah is steadfast in his objection to who God is. But God is steadfast in compassion to Jonah.


And that’s not to say that God is excusing Nineveh’s bad behavior—or Jonah’s. Violence is wrong; lying is wrong; corruption is wrong; oppression is wrong; arrogance is wrong—no matter who does it. Invoking God’s name to curse another human being is blasphemy.


The conquering, warrior God who smites the wicked; who’s compassionate with conditions—can you really trust him to forgive you and welcome you to heaven when you die? What happens if that person whom everybody hates is you—or someone you care about?


Why is God constantly gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing? Because if God refused compassion, creation would cease to exist. Everything would die, with no possibility of rebirth. Evil would win.


It is only divine compassion that transforms death into life; hatred into love; and evil into righteousness. If there is anything to be sought from God in this divisive, chaotic time in our nation, it is that God’s compassion will awaken the better angels of our nature; calm our fear; crush our pride. It is only compassion and goodwill that will spare us a hell of our own making.


I think we all need to be scandalized by God’s compassion—because this increases our confidence in God’s promises and our eagerness to share God’s compassion with the world!


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Grudges, Grievances, and God: Genesis 50:15-21 - 15th Sunday after Pentecost

 15Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

zoocreative / Hands Across the Divide

For as long as there have been siblings, there have been sibling rivalries.


Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, murdered his younger brother Abel in a fit of jealous rage—after God inexplicably favored Abel’s offering over his own. 


Then you have the fraternal twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca: Esau and Jacob. Jacob cajoled Esau into trading his birthright for lentil stew and bread. Later, Jacob tricked his dying father into giving him the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, the elder brother. 


The sibling rivalries then exploded among Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter. Joseph was the twelfth child born to Jacob, but he was the favorite—because Rachel, Joseph’s mother, was the favorite of Jacob’s four wives. One way he favored Joseph was by dressing him in “the amazing technicolor dreamcoat.” He also spared Joseph much of the manual labor that he required of his brothers. But Joseph was naturally charismatic and had a talent for interpreting dreams. He had the audacity to tell his older brothers, “one day, you will bow to me.” 


Unsurprisingly, his brothers bore a grudge against him. In fact, they were plotting to kill him—until Reuben, the oldest son, intervened. Then Judah, son number four, had the idea to sell Joseph off to Midianite traders (for eight ounces of silver). They then dipped Joseph’s colorful robe in goat’s blood, took it to their father, and told him that his favorite son was dead.


For Joseph, this began an odyssey that would take him from slavery and imprisonment to becoming the Prince of Egypt. Joseph’s charisma, his dream interpretations, and his administrative talents ultimately saved Egypt from a seven-year famine—and while other nations were starving, Egypt had plenty to go around. This is what ultimately brought the brothers to Egypt, and right to their forsaken brother’s door. When they show up, Joseph quickly recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him—and for a while, Joseph uses that to his advantage to size them up and seize control over the situation. Eventually, he shows himself to his brothers. What a hit their egos must have taken when they were forced to bow down to their brother, the Prince of Egypt—just like Joseph said they would.  


In our first reading for today, Jacob has just died. This put the brothers in a precarious position: if he wanted to, Joseph could have killed them. So, the brothers approach Joseph, and tell him that their father asked him to forgive them. By the way, this is a lie; Jacob never said such a thing. But Joseph did not hesitate to forgive. And his forgiveness played an important role in God’s plan of salvation for God’s chosen people. But if these brothers—Joseph especially—held onto their grudges, the story would’ve ended far differently. 


And in their defense, I understand why the eleven brothers bore a grudge against Joseph. Joseph was spoiled and arrogant. I can understand them bearing a grudge against their father. No parent in their right mind would treat one of their children like royalty and expect them all to get along. 


Grudges begin with legitimate grievances. Something was said or done that fractures a relationship. It isn’t necessary that someone acts maliciously against you. 


When you bear a grudge, you are embracing the brokenness of the relationship. As the offended party, you assume a position of power—to deal with them however you please. In most cases, this doesn’t lead to human trafficking or murder. But the grudge is expressed in your refusal to peaceably co-exist. You are right, they are wrong—and what was, “is now, and ever shall be.” 


In the end, grudges kill—because ruined relationships ruin people. They make it impossible for legitimate grievances to be addressed. They fuel the fires of division that devolve into looting and shooting. Civilization denigrates into a winner-takes-all death match. 


But God commands forgiveness because human beings cannot flourish in perpetual conflict. Grudges are burdens God never meant for you to bear. Grudges embrace the past; forgiveness embraces the future. When human beings, in a spirit of humility and gentleness, can come together and talk honestly and humbly about their grievances, healing can happen. 


This is not easy. It would have been extremely hard for Joseph to forgive his brothers from prison. Forgiveness and reconciliation cannot always right old wrongs and make everything fair. You’re forgiving a debt that cannot be repaid to you, or you’re assuming a debt you never ran up. But it isn’t all about you. It’s about the relationship. You’re investing yourself in the other, believing that you can build a brighter future with them, rather than against them.


Sometimes, grievances never get worked out. People won’t always respond in-kind to your good will. You will have to share this earth with people who are toxic to you, who go out of their way to make you miserable. Don’t let them tell you who you are. Don’t let them be the ones who rule your life. You’re a child of God—and God’s compassion will be stronger and greater than the worst that human beings can do. God delivered Joseph from the wrath of his brothers, and God will deliver you, too.


Sunday, September 6, 2020

Surrender to Compassion: Ezekiel 33:7-11 - 14th Sunday after Pentecost

"So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked ones, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life. Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: "Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?" Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (NRSV)

DSC_0250 by aagelaki on flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Back bone connected to the shoulder bone

Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone

Neck bone connected to the head bone

Now hear the word of the Lord!”


These are some of the words from the classic spiritual “Dem Dry Bones,” which was inspired by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming alive.


God called Ezekiel to be a prophet in an apocalyptic time. Ezekiel was in exile in Babylon, as were many of his kinfolk. By the time we arrive in chapter 33, our first reading for today, Jerusalem has been under siege for nearly three years. The armies of Babylon surrounded the city walls so that no one could go in or out. This was God’s judgment—because the people were morally and spiritually corrupt. The rich exploited the poor; the strong oppressed the weak; false gods were worshipped within the walls of the Holy Temple.


Today, Ezekiel speaks the final warning: repent or perish.


As you might imagine, this was not good news for a displaced people who wanted desperately to go home—any more than it was welcome news for those who were fighting for Jerusalem’s survival. By now, Ezekiel has been prophesying these same dire warnings for ten years. But nobody cared.


And there’s something quite satisfying about seeing the wicked punished for their sins. Is it not just that those who practice violence and oppression ultimately reap what they sow? But God says to Ezekiel: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.”


Does this surprise you?


Think about it: would not this world be a better place without some people in it? Then you wouldn’t have to lock your doors at night, get background checks, or go through TSA checkpoints. Then we could beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. So why doesn’t God strike the wicked down—or give us permission to do it for him?


One of the biggest sins plaguing our world today is the widespread but unspoken belief that some people are not worthy of compassion. They may not even be worthy of living. They have criminal records. They take more from society than they give. They embrace the wrong values. They don’t deserve compassion.


There has been so much violence in the city streets lately—and it is appalling that some are cheering the deaths of persons of color in police shootings—or police officers killed in the line of duty—believing they got what they deserved? There’s nothing just in denying the other the compassion that you—or someone you love—may need in the future.


We have lost our faith in compassion. We seek peace not through cooperation and understanding, but through conquest and domination—like Babylon did.


Far too many people worship a god who hates their enemies as much as they do. But you can’t get any further from the true God than this.


I imagine Ezekiel’s greatest challenge as God’s prophet was persevering in compassion for God’s people—when they stubbornly ignored God’s Word and kept doing evil. I can’t imagine the agony on his soul, seeing God’s warnings of judgment coming to fruition.


Yet even though there’s no hope for Jerusalem, there is still hope for the people. “Turn from your evil ways and live,” God said. There is no boundary you can cross that would put you beyond the reach of God’s mercies. So quit going your own way and surrender to divine compassion.


Godly righteousness is unconditional love and boundless compassion—that persist in the face of human evil. The proof is the cross. There is nothing righteous about the death of the wicked. Only tragedy. The challenge for us today is to reframe how share community with peoples we’d rather not share it with. Your healing cannot demand another’s domination or annihilation.


Compassion is the only way towards healing—be it of nations, communities, churches, or individual lives. And the world needs godly compassion more than factions and fighting. The world will not be a better place; you will not be a whole person; you will not truly know God—without God’s compassion healing us, empowering us, and binding us together. 


And when it becomes impossible—or even hazardous—to persist in compassion to people who won’t have any part of it, you pray for them and for yourself, to receive God’s compassion through faith. You need God’s compassion just as much as Ezekiel did, even if you’re not a prophet! It is only by God’s compassion that you can heal, that you can thrive through these dreadful, dreadful times.