Monday, October 21, 2013

God's Best to Our Worst

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 51:10-14

            Two years ago, a man called the church and asked to come speak with me. When we met, he told me that his son had died from suicide over twenty years before. At his son’s funeral, the pastor lamented that it was too bad that the man’s son was in hell, using the opportunity (a funeral!) to warn others against suicide. This warning, of course, ignores the fact that most people who are considering suicide feel as though they are in hell already.

            So, two years, this man, this grieving father, came to talk to me about heaven. In particular, he had a little booklet about heaven that he had carried around for about ten years. He’d read the slick pages over and over until they were soft and floppy. He wanted to question me about the specifics of heaven. In particular, he was very concerned about the idea that we will be able to recognize other people in heaven.

            He felt that if he was able to see who WAS there; he would also know who WASN’T there. His little booklet told him to anticipate a great reunion with many loved ones. This man believed it would never be heaven for him if he had to spend eternity knowing that his son wasn’t there. He asked me how heaven could be a perfect place if, while he was there, he would know that his son was suffering elsewhere.

            This man, like many others, grew up and had been told again and again about suicide as an unforgiveable sin. Some people have been taught that it’s unforgiveable because you can’t repent. Some people have been told that taking one’s own life is usurping God’s power and privilege. We even, still, talk about suicide like it’s a crime: we say “commit” suicide. I try to use the phrase “die from suicide”.

            What does this have to do with David, who died of old age- probably in his seventies? As we’ve been studying David on Sunday mornings and talking about the cross on Wednesday nights, one of the issues arises repeatedly is the idea of God’s justice. We want to think of God being “fair”- even though fairness is not a Biblical principle in any stretch of the imagination.

            We like the story of God calling the little brother, the youngest, the sheep-keeper . We like knowing that he was musical and had a heart for God. We like the idea of David killing Goliath and speaking forcefully for the living God of Israel. We are drawn to the deep relationship and promises between David and Jonathon.

            But then we think of David using his kingly advantage to seduce Bathsheba and to have her husband, Uriah, killed. We think of him over-indulging his sons and placing them among his advisors when they were likely too young. He neglected to lead his military generals. He was a mercenary for a while with the Philistines. He conducted an illegal census of the people of Israel. He killed the remainder of Saul’s family, except Mephibosheth- Jonathon’s son who was crippled in some capacity.

            We wrestle with the idea that David did these terrible things and yet remained God’s beloved. There are events in David’s life that were perceived to be God’s punishment for his actions, yet God did not withdraw God’s love from David. God did not turn his back on David. God did not undo God’s promise of bringing redemption to Israel and to the world through David’s descendants.

            When I met with that man two years ago, we talked about the nature of God. I asked the man if he had ever thought that his son might be with God now, might be at peace. He looked at me like I was crazy. In twenty-plus years, no one had ever asked him this outright. I asked him if he thought soldiers went to heaven. He said yes- because they kill in the line of duty and they can repent. I asked about executioners and people who kill someone else in an accidental death. Yes, because they can repent- he replied- they can go to heaven.

            We talked about his son, about his struggles and pain, about why he might have come to the decision he did. I asked the man if he thought God was with his son in those struggles. Yes, he thought God was there, but then his son did what he did. In the long conversation we had, we went around and around. This man had spent these many years believing his son was in hell. He just wanted to understand how he, the father, could expect to find heaven a perfect place, when he would obviously know that his son was not there.

            We do not live in a world of fairness. Even with laws and governments, there is very little justice because of our entwined and enmeshed systems that contribute to and perpetuate the struggles of many people. Given what we see and experience all the time, it is very important to remember that God does not function in the same way that we do.

            In a fair system, Jesus would not be from David’s line. He’d be from a lineage of fine, upstanding citizens. All the women would be pure and perfect. All the men would be robust and faithful. Jesus would be from Lake Woebegon- where are the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average. And what consolation would that be to us? God comes and lives among us, but lives as the crème de la crème? Instead, Jesus spends his toddler years as a refugee, his youth in a backwater as the son of a carpenter, his early adulthood working with his dad and friends in community life, his ministry years with fishermen, tax collectors, and women, his moments of death as a criminal and one wronged by both religious and civil leaders. This is God’s experience as one of us.

            And we shouldn’t be surprised by it, since we’ve known from the moment that God didn’t kill Adam and Eve, gave Cain a second chance, preserved Noah, called Moses (the murderer), and used David to bring Israel into a place where they could truly be a light to the world, if they so chose. God doesn’t do fair. God does grace. God does power. God does God’s justice.

            Our justice would result in Mary Magdalene showing up on Easter morning and weeping over Jesus’ lifeless body. God’s justice, God’s ways, have her met in the garden by her rabbouni, her teacher and Lord- Jesus the Christ. Our ways would have us muddle along, hoping to get things right. Instead, God’s ways have Jesus meet us too… in all kinds of times, places, and people.

            Our ways would have squashed David like a bug after the Uriah and Bathsheba incident. Our ways would declare that some sins are unforgiveable- even those committed in the depths of despair. Instead, God’s ways continued to use David, defining him not by the worst thing David ever did, but by the best thing God ever did. If God does that for David, isn’t that surely what God does for each of us? Not seeing us by the worst thing we ever do or that ever happens to us, but by the best thing that God ever did.

            That’s what I told that man two years ago and what I’ve prayed every day since for him to receive and understand. It’s what I want you to hear on this Sunday as well. The God of resurrection, the Christ of baptism and holy community, the Holy Spirit of constant renewal does not see or define us by our worst, but through God’s best.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

God's Servants Are Never Retired

1 Samuel 3:1-21

            Since Samuel is a child when God calls him and his work as a prophet begins immediately, this story usually focuses on that fact alone. We use that information to underline the fact that God calls and works through all kinds of people- regardless of age, experience, or even knowledge of the Lord (see: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord”). Many of us have heard this part of the story lifted up so many times; we begin to miss the other details in the story.

            Pretend you never heard this story before. This is entirely fresh to you- as an adult. You have not been hearing about Samuel for 20, 30, 40, 70 years. Instead, you’re hearing this for the first time.
What might stand out to you?
-       Eli knows who is talking to Samuel.
-       Eli is punished for his sons’ misdeeds (or for ignoring them).
-       Eli’s call is undone so that Samuel can be called.
-       Samuel’s first experience as a prophet is to retire his predecessor.

How is God’s character portrayed in this story? Is this a God you want to serve? A God who calls and speaks through children, that sounds hopeful and promising. A God who withdraws favor without warning… less hopeful. If this were the first Bible story you ever heard as an adult, what would you think about God?

            It’s important to remember that 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings are written down for the preservation of the life and lineage of David. Everyone else is a footnote in that story. The recorders are not interested in what happened to Samuel, Saul, Eli, or anyone else beyond their role in the story of David.            

Eli is a temple priest in the time of the Judges. The book of Judges closes with the acknowledgment that there was no king in Israel, so everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Part of this statement is technically untrue. There was always a king in Israel. Who was the king? God. With God as a king, the leaders of the people were ones who pointed to God and to God’s expectations. This would have been Eli’s call and work. At some point, he wasn’t able to do that work. He apparently fell short in training his sons correctly or in sufficiently correcting them when they “did what was right in their own eyes”.  

            This passage opens with the note that the “word of the Lord was rare in those days”. Does that mean that the Lord wasn’t speaking or that people weren’t listening? I know for a fact that I can tell my son to four or five times to put on his shoes before it finally happens. Is the word of his mother rare, unheard, or unheeded (or some combination thereof)? So Eli has given his life to the service of God. Maybe that service interfered with his ability to be a good parent. Nevertheless, Eli is released from service, which has the distinct look of falling out of favor with God.

            We’ve already discussed how God comes across in this story (uncaring, cold, capricious). Is that your experience of God? Is that the scope of God’s character as revealed elsewhere in Scripture? If you think about the Bible as a whole, how does God come across?

            Part of reading this story is pulling away from its narrow understanding of vocation. When we do that in the story, we also have to do it in our daily lives. We have a tendency to judge our own worth and the value of those around us based on the work they do for pay or on the “success” of their relationships. Paid work has more value than unpaid work. Parenthood has more value than being an uncle or an aunt. Being a widow or widower has a higher perceived rating than being divorced. The CEO has more value than the kindergarten teacher who has more value than the garbage collector.

            Our culture has a ranking system based on perceived contributions to society and status therein. We study people for how they fit into the categories we’ve been taught. Occasionally, we’re able to move things around, when a child receives a clear call from God- for example, but otherwise, we keep things the same. Furthermore, as society works to uphold that framework, God’s favor is subtly (or not) attached to the status of higher value. Surely a better position, family success, material wealth… etc. are all signs of God’s favor. And which comes first- God’s favor, then success? Or success, and then God’s favor?

            When the writers of 1 Samuel begin to write for the main purpose of recording the life of David, it seemed obvious to them that Eli had lost God’s favor. How could God call Samuel, if God doesn’t first “uncall” Eli? And once Eli is no longer the chief priest, who cares what happens to him?

            Except that his priesthood is not the only way God could use him. It may well not be the only way God did use him. Eli is still a father, perhaps still a husband, a father-in-law, maybe a grandfather, a neighbor, a Jew, a child of God. While he might no longer have paid work, he is not outside of God’s plans or God’s ability to use him.

            So we too have multiple vocations… paid worker, volunteer, spouse or partner, sibling, child, parent, friend, neighbor, citizen, library card holder, sandwich maker,… etc. The end of any one of these roles does not indicate a withdrawal of God’s favor. It does not signify the end of that relationship. It does not put you or me or Eli or anyone else beyond the ability of God to use or to bring about God’s kingdom through us.

            When Peter and Andrew stopped fishing, they started following Jesus. They became disciples. However, they were still husbands, children, friends, and Jews. They still had other defining characteristics. Each of those vocations was now shaped by following Jesus. Their other relationships changed, didn’t end, but were changed by their new understanding of what it meant to be a child of God.

            That same meaning is part of our lives. All that we do is shaped by what it means to be a child of God- as we have seen God revealed in Jesus. When we hear the Scriptures, we are called to always listen with new ears. Each of us is also a Bible interpreter- not for ourselves or to make things easier, but for the sake of the people around us and for God’s sake.

            Despite how the story is recorded, God wasn’t done with Eli. Neither is God done with any of us when one chapter ends and another begins. God’s favor is not revealed through success or failure, but through grace and the ever-present promise of renewal and abundant life. That’s good news that we are to take to heart. And, more specifically, that’s the good news we are to take into the world.


Audio here: 


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I AM is Enough (Sermon 9/29)

Exodus 2:23-25; 3:10-15; 4:10-17

            When I was graduating from college, I accepted a position to be the deputy news director of KNOM radio in Nome, Alaska- (KNOM, Yours for Western Alaska). I took this position over offers in for positions in England and in Boston. At the time, it seemed like God had given me many choices and I got to choose from several great options.

            Moving to Nome led to loving Alaska. Loving Alaska led to meeting and dating Rob. Marrying Rob led to staying in Alaska. Staying in Alaska led to restricting where I was available for call. Restricting meant that I was available to come here. Coming here meant that we learned to live with and love each other. Living with one another means that I was here to do the premarital counseling for Joyce and Bryan, preach at their wedding, pray during their medical emergencies, frustrate Bryan by my softball ineptitude, have the privilege of baptizing their children.

            All of those things, ostensibly, became possible when I said yes to KNOM. Some doors opened and others closed (some temporarily and some permanently). I was thinking about that this week as I looked at the verses we have from Exodus. The Israelites- the descendants of Abraham and Sarah- are in Egypt. When God made promises to Abraham and then, later, to Jacob, the covenant included the flourishing of generations, the strength to be a blessing to others, and the gift of land. God promised people, presence, and place.

            When Exodus begins, the Israelites are not where they are supposed to be. After Joseph’s brothers (Jacob’s sons) sold him into slavery, he eventually became a very successful assistant to the Pharaoh. In a time of famine, Joseph had overseen the storage of enough food to sustain Egypt and their neighbors. Thus, the Israelites were among those who arrived to eat and multiply through Joseph’s resourcefulness (inspired by God).

            Thus, generations after generations were born in Egypt until there arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. This Pharaoh looked at the numerous people who were NOT “his” people and, thus, enslaved them. While I am in no way trying to blame the victims of slavery here, part of the problem is that the Israelites never returned to the place in which God had covenanted to bless them. They grew comfortable in Egypt and didn’t go back to Israel- the land that was their inheritance and insurance.

            So when Moses is in Midian (having fled a murder charge in Egypt), God speaks to him from a flaming bush. Consider the character of God in this story. God doesn’t surround Moses with flames. God doesn’t pin Moses down so he has to listen. The bush burns, but is not consumed. Moses can’t help but get closer to investigate and then God speaks to him. This reveals God’s compelling, but not coercive nature. When considering what God can do and does, it is hard to look away.

            Moses tries to resist. Five times he has a great excuse for why he can’t do what God asks- Moses is a nobody, he’s not eloquent, he doesn’t want to go, he’s afraid, he doesn’t know God’s name. Moses wants a sign, a signal, he can use when he goes to people so they know that he’s really from God. He wants a badge or a number- Moses, God’s Moses, Agent 001.

            Instead, God says, “I am who I am. Tell the people ‘I am has sent me.’” What kind of name is “I am”? God goes on to tell Moses, “You can remind them that I am the God of their ancestor- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel.” Presumably, the Israelites will recognize God’s call through Moses’ words and respond. They need to get back to where they’re supposed to be- to the place of covenant and blessing. It’s not that God is not with them in Egypt or even that God is not blessing them in Egypt, but the specific promises of God to them involve being back in the land of their ancestors.

            This is the good news for Dottie, and for all of us who are children of God. The font is the place of promise- God’s covenant of welcoming, of redeeming, of presence, people, and promise. The font isn’t the source of these promises- it is the reminder and the refresher.

            When we are baptized, we come into a new life- a life that is united with Jesus’s own death and resurrection. It is in Jesus that God clarified the “I am”. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the bread of life and the living water.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus is God enfleshed. Jesus as the Christ reveals to us the nature of God.

            The God who is revealed in Jesus is love. God is not sometimes loving or usually loving. God is love. This is the love that is. Love that says “I am”. Love, that through baptism, says, “Dottie, I am with you. I am in you. I am wherever you go. I am not letting you go. I am always with you. I am never leaving you alone. I am guiding you.”

            The God who attracts, the God who knows what Moses is capable of, the God who is made known to us in Jesus… this God says, “I am.” And, though we long to have that be a longer sentence… it is still complete in those two words. And “I am” is enough. It is enough to know that God is. It would be enough to know that God had blessed our ancestors. It would be enough to know how God had spoken through prophets. It would be enough to know that God had come among as Jesus. It would be enough to know that God had resurrected once.

            But we do not live in a God who says, “I am done.” God says to Moses, to Dottie, to all the baptized, and to all creation, “I am.” That’s an identity we can’t escape. That’s a bush that burns, but is not consumed. It is a reality that weaves in and out of what we perceive to be our choices (KNOM, Rob, LCOH), but in truth is the guiding hand of the Spirit and the power of God at work in the world, moving us to where we need to be.

            “I am” is enough. It is enough of a name to know, to call upon, and to be claimed by… For because of “I am”, we are.