Declare!

Monday, 18 October 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

17 October 2021

I. Introduction

  • The story of Job is somewhat familiar to most of us, but not many of us have ever read the book from the first verse to the last – mostly what we know is what we have heard about it – and most of that is probably the opening framework of the story, a framework that is most likely not part of the original story
  • In that framework, God boasts to the Accuser in the heavenly court that Job is a righteous and faithful servant – the Accuser disputes that boast, saying that Job is only faithful because God has blessed him – if God were to allow the Accuser to take away those so-called blessings, then God would see Job’s true self
  • God gives the Accuser permission to do that, in four sudden catastrophes Job loses all his livestock, from oxen to donkeys to sheep to camels, and in a freak windstorm Job’s seven sons and three daughters die when the house collapses – and yet Job does not curse God
  • Then the Accuser argues that God is still protecting Job, and God gives the Accuser permission to do anything the Accuser wants to Job, short of taking his life – thus, Job develops sores all over his body and goes to sit on an ash heap – his wife tells him to curse God and die, but Job refuses
  • This is the story that we know, but the huge majority of the story consists of a very long argument that Job has with three friends – the friends come to comfort Job, or at least that is what they say, but what they really come to do is to encourage Job to admit that he has made God angry, so that God can forgive Job
  • The arguments that the friends put forward have their basis in a way of thinking that says that God blesses and rewards the righteous and punished the wicked – in their minds, Job’s loss of so much indicates that Job is far from righteous and faithful – in fact, Job has done something terribly wrong and God is punishing him – to the friends, that is so obvious that they cannot understand why Job will not just admit it
  • Job, on the other hand, argues that he has done nothing wrong – the thing is that Job holds the same idea about the world that the friends hold – the only difference is that Job asserts his own righteousness and accuses God of either being unjust or incompetent – he argues that God must be unjust because anyone can see Job’s righteousness, and God treating him in such a horrible way proves God’s unfairness – either that or God has created the world so badly that it has led to a situation in which the good suffer – either way, the problem lies with God
  • We sometimes hear of people having the “patience of Job,” but Job is not patient – Job is angry – Job is hurt – Job is confused – and Job accuses God and challenges God to come meet him face to face so that Job can give God a piece of his mind – Job’s persistence and impatience is almost shocking
  • This argument proceeds for chapter after chapter, from chapter 3 through chapter 31, debating the nature of evil and the nature of God and the proper sort of relationship between God and humans – a fourth friend finally shows up and from chapter 32 through chapter 37 tells Job and his friends that they have no idea what they are saying, and defends God quite eloquently
  • Then, quite unexpectedly, Job gets his wish and God shows up in a whirlwind – and you are probably not surprised that this does not go well for Job

II. God Questions Job

  • It is interesting that Job has felt it is his right to question God, and God does not deny Job that right – but God does ask Job a very long series of question, beginning with “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” – the questions are relentless – God pushes and pushes, telling Job to stand up and declare answers to God’s questions – but God does not give Job much opportunity to say anything at all
  • The questions probe the details of the creation, from measuring out the foundations of the earth to setting the boundaries of the sea –  the questions ask Job to explain all the mysteries of the cosmos – they challenge Job to tell God about the wonders of creation, the wild animals, the sea monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan, all of the things that are in the mind of God all the time – so what does Job think of that?
  • What God does not do is respond directly to Job’s challenges and complaints – instead, God opens a whole new set of doors for Job so that Job can maybe begin to see what God’s creation is like – and maybe this will give Job a new point of view about the creation, one in which not everything revolves around Job but around God
  • It is a challenging look at the universe, and to his credit, Job’s response is simply to bite his tongue for a while – it is a response that we might copy often in our lives – and after listening to God’s barrage of questions, and after considering possible responses, only then does Job declare anything more to God

III. Declare

  • God is not afraid of Job’s declarations and God is not afraid of ours either – God never condemns Job for challenging God, but God does return the challenge by insisting that Job declare himself before God
  • What God reveals to Job is a universe that is infinitely more complicated than Job can understand – it is a universe in which the sea, which represents the power of chaos, is a baby in whose birth God has been an assistant, just like a midwife – God’s questions tell Job that chaos is a part of life, even if Job wishes it were not – furthermore, even though God uses chaos for God’s own ends, that does not make the chaos unjust – chaos is not unjust, but it is unpredictable
  • This is the world in which we live – it is a world in which a global pandemic can bring nations to their knees – it is a world in which there are hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires and floods and all sorts of disorder – it is a world in which human beings are often the greatest creators of chaos, which leads to wars and systemic racism and all sorts of examples of our own brokenness
  • And yet this is also the world in which God says to the chaotic powers, “Thus far shall you come and no farther” – in which God wraps the chaos in clouds and deep darkness like blankets around a baby – in which God invites us to declare ourselves, our questions, our fears, our failures, and our anger, as well as our love for God and our trust in God
  • Declare, then, sisters and brothers and friends – let us declare all that we feel to God and know that God hears our declarations and understands them in ways that we cannot understand God or the universe
  • We also have the added benefit of Jesus – Job wants to see God and when he finally does, his challenges to God and his complaints melt away – we have also seen God because we have seen Jesus – and Jesus echoes God by saying to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11.28)

IV. Conclusion

  • Let us declare our trust in God even when it seems that the world’s chaos will overwhelm us – let us declare our hope in God even when all feels hopeless – let us declare our love for God even when it feels as if God is far away
  • Let us declare everything to God because God loves us all and God will always hear – Declare, my friends, my sisters, my brothers – declare it all to God

Lamplighter Article, October 2021

Monday, 11 October 2021

Dear Friends,

As I write this in the airport in Albany, New York, on Saturday, 25 September, I notice that this day is the anniversary of nine black students finally entering Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court had overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine that had enabled segregation for many decades, making desegregation the law of the nation. Even so, many states, not all of the in the South, resisted the move to desegregate. Arkansas was one of those states, and the Little Rock Nine became symbols of a recital divide that had been present in the United States from the beginning of the country.

Being symbols must have been hard for those teenagers. The experience was hard for them, and hard on them. Several could not endure the abuse and harassment and left Central High School. One was expelled for reacting to the abuse, while the abusers and bullies received no punishment. The Civil Rights Era was a hard time for the nation, and in many ways it continues today.

I recently shared on Facebook a couple of powerful memes. One was a quote from Dorothy Day, asserting that we love God only as much as we love the person we love the least. The other was a statement about a teacher who asked an audience which of them would be willing to receive the same treatment as black citizens receive. When no one in the white audience responded in the affirmative, the educator asked why, then, they were willing to allow such treatment for their fellow citizens.

While we do not like to admit it, racism is a reality not just in our country but in the wider world. More than 160 years after the American Civil War, many of our sisters and brothers are subject daily to dehumanizing and unjust treatment that none of us would tolerate for ourselves.

Jesus calls us to live in solidarity with anyone who lives on the margins of society, who lives with oppression and exclusion. Jesus tells us that the standard for how we treat others is how we want them to treat us, regardless of how they actually do treat us. Each year that I have gone with Youth on Mission, I have reminded participants that we do not go to help others but to serve them.

We all know that what Jesus calls us to do can be difficult. Admitting that is no sign of weakness. And yet, this I believe with all my heart: what Jesus calls us to do, Jesus empowers and enables us to do. If Jesus calls us to love and serve others, when we give ourselves fully into his care, we will find that we not only have the ability but also the desire to follow his call.

With the power of Jesus’ call as our motivation, and with the presence of Jesus’ love in our hearts, we can overcome and set right the injustice of racism and every other sign of human brokenness in our nation and in the world. God willing, and I believe God is certainly willing, we can make this world a safe and happy place for all of God’s children.

Grace and peace,

Tommy

Seek the Lord

Monday, 11 October 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

10 October 2021

I. Problems in the North

  • As is often the case in biblical texts, the historical setting is significant in our text for today – the setting is during the time of the divided kingdoms for the people of God – after Solomon died, his son, Rehoboam, followed some bad advice, which led to a split of David and Solomon’s United Kingdom into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south – for a couple of hundred years, the two kingdoms were at odds with one another – while not often actively at war with each other, the two nations were certainly not friends
  • Because Jerusalem and the temple were in the Southern kingdom, the people of the north needed a center for their worship of God – the place the first northern king chose was Bethel – Bethel had been a religious sanctuary for centuries – traditionally it is the place where Jacob had a dream of a ladder or a stairway stretching between heaven and earth – upon waking, Jacob realized that this was a holy place, the gate of heaven, the house of God – thus Jacob names the place Beth-el, which means “House of God”
  • The problem with Bethel for the authors of the biblical texts, however, is that when the Northern King made it the site of the northern temple, the king also included statues representing Canaanite gods – as long as those idols stood in a place that was supposedly dedicated to the worship of Israel’s God, there was going to be trouble
  • When God calls Amos, a herder of sheep and a dresser of sycamores (Amos 7.14) away from his home in the Southern Kingdom to be a prophet in the Northern Kingdom, one of the primary targets of his preaching is the issue of Bethel – what is going on in Bethel and in the political capital in the city of Samaria does not please God
  • Thus, for reasons that may be obvious, the lectionary omits the first five verses of chapter 5 – these five verses comprise a lament over the death of Israel – as far as the prophet understands the will and word of God, the death of the nation is a sure thing – and yet the prophet still holds out some hope for the people – after declaring, “Fallen, no more to rise is the maiden Israel” (5.2), the prophet unexpectedly says, “Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel” (5.4f.) – and this is the theme of today’s text: Seek the Lord and live
  • The king and the powerful people of the Northern Kingdom have perverted justice and lived in unrighteous ways, which we can take to mean that they have lived in unjust and improper relationships with God and with the ones they are supposed to guide in the ways of God – even though this is true, there is still hope for the nation – and that hope consists in seeking the Lord
  • This Lord is the one who creates the stars and constellations, who brings the day and the night at their proper times, who waters the earth with the rains – this is the one for everyone to seek – the one who brings destruction to the strong ones in their fortress
  • God’s judgment on the Northern Kingdom comes because the ones who should know better have trampled on the poor, have taxed the poor heavily for the benefit of the rich – the rich have built houses of hewn stone, but they will not live in them – the rich have planted vineyards, but they shall not drink the wine – the rich have afflicted the righteous, the ones seeking the Lord, and have taken bribes in place of giving justice, and have pushed aside the needy in places where they should be allowed to speak
  • If the nation wants to save itself, or, from the prophet’s point of view, if the nation wants God to save it, the people, and especially the rich and powerful, should seek good for all people – they should shun evil and establish justice in the courts – if they do these things, then, God may be gracious – this is their only hope
  • When we consider the Kingdom of Israel, we may do well to remember that two or three hundred years after its creation, the Assyrians came into the land and laid waste to the cities and sent the king and the rich to other places in the Assyrian Empire and moved strangers into what had been Israel – history and tradition would seem to indicate that the prophet’s words fell on deaf ears – apparently, the nation of Israel did not seek the Lord, or at least not in any way that became manifest in the treatment of the poor and needy

II. Seek the Lord

  • Let me say, first, that I do not believe that the nation of Israel fell as the result of God’s punishment of the people – as I read the teachings of Jesus, God’s judgment on humankind is not the same thing as God punishing humankind – from what Jesus tells us, I do not believe that God punishes us for being broken and hurting human beings – God has compassion toward us and loves us and works actively to show us what the apostle Paul calls the more excellent way, which is the way of love, which is the way of Jesus
  • At the same time, Jesus makes clear, just as did Amos and the other prophets, that God does judge us in many ways – and God’s judgment is this: we reap what we sow – if we sow injustice in the world, injustice is what we will see – if we sow hatred, anger, apathy, jealousy, malice, and intolerance in the world through our choices and actions, those are the things we will see coming to fruition around us – and yet it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious
  • The call of the prophet, which we can also see in the teachings of Jesus, is to seek the Lord, and to seek good – the prophet does not say positively what he intends by seeking the Lord, but his description of the shortcomings and failures of the Northern Kingdom should give us most of what we need to know in order to seek the Lord
  • To seek the Lord we must seek the wellbeing of all people, whether family or strangers – we must treat the poor with compassion – we must see that God’s justice is present in the world – I have told you before of how John Dominic Crossan, a biblical scholar and historian, described God’s justice – it is not making sure that everyone has the same thing, but rather making sure that everyone has enough to thrive
  • Seek the Lord – establish justice in the places of justice – seek good, that you may live

III. Conclusion

  • One of my favorite books is called Winter’s Tale, a 1983 fantasy novel by Mark Helprin – there is a line in that book that always comes to mind when I think of God’s justice – “For what can be imagined more beautiful than a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone”
  • If we want to seek the Lord, we must live into that concept – the prophet Amos and the prophet Jesus say to us all, “For what can be imagine more beautiful that a perfectly just people rejoicing in justice alone”
  • This is the image of salvation, of liberation, of healing for us and for this world – it is not a withdrawal from the world, and it is not something waiting for us only beyond death – seeking the Lord, rather, means actively loving the world so much right now that we want and work for God’s justice for all people, especially for the poor and the oppressed
  • Sisters, brothers, friends, let us hear the words of the prophets: Seek the Lord and live

Deeds of Power in Jesus’ Name

Monday, 27 September 2021

Deeds of Power in Jesus’ Name

Salem United Church of Christ, Higginsville, Missouri

I. Introduction

  • For a long time, the little interaction between Jesus and his followers concerning the stranger who performs deeds of power in Jesus’ name has been one of my favorite Gospel stories – in just a few verses, Jesus says so much to his followers in every age
  • What is odd is that it seems likely that this story is either a deliberate attempt on the part of John to divert Jesus from what he is saying, which the twelve do not want to hear, or another of the twelve’s frequent exercises in missing the point – either they get it but do not want to, or they do not get it at all
  • In either case, there is much here for us and I hope we can hear the voice of Jesus speaking to today

II. Jesus Teaches the Little Ones

  • Andy Mockridge preached last week on the text before ours for today – in that text, Jesus picks up a child to say that welcoming children, regardless of age, is important for his followers to do – to welcome a child is to welcome Jesus, and not just Jesus but also the one who sent Jesus into the world
  • Then without a break, John jumps in with a whining complaint – and the Evangelist never says that Jesus puts down the child – in my mind, he is still holding the little one, taking a breath to continue, maybe with what comes later in this text – but John interrupts him with this whimpering
  • Earlier in the chapter, the twelve had come to Jesus to say that they had encountered some unclean spirits that they had not been able to cast out – then along comes this fellow doing deeds of power in Jesus’ name – and the sting of it is that he is not even a member of the club – he is not a follower of Jesus at all
  • This is an especially galling situation and it may be just too much for the disciples to take – so it seems because they try to stop him – we might expect that Jesus would respond in a similar way, but he surprises us – he tells the disciples to let the fellow go ahead and cast out demons – acting in and with Jesus’ name, Jesus says, will cause the person not to be able to speak evil of Jesus – and then comes the zinger, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (║Luke 9.50)
  • This is backwards to what many people say – it is certainly the reverse of what we usually think and say – but in this case, when the stranger is doing a “deed of power” in Jesus’ name, Jesus says that this person is working for God’s Vision, even if he is not one of Jesus’ followers – interesting – additionally, a person who even gives a cup of water to a follower of Jesus because that one is a follower of Jesus, and will not lose the reward
  • This takes Jesus back to what he was saying when he picked up the child, where he was going when John interrupted him – all the talk about self-maiming to keep ourselves from “stumbling” and avoiding causing “these little ones” to stumble is hyperbole, exaggeration, which he uses to illustrate the seriousness of how we deal with each other and of how we live our lives as followers of his Way, as people of God’s Vision – we must beware of doing anything, or of saying anything, that might cause someone to “stumble” – and we must not allow ourselves to stumble either – better that we should lop off bits of ourselves than to  do either of those – of course, Jesus does not intend for us to lop off bits of ourselves – but we should know that we need to be careful how we go through our lives
  • Next, when Jesus talks about salt, I think he is talking about being true to who we are, being exactly the ones God has created us to be – I know that I have told you before about a chemist, who once told me that Jesus’ statements about salt losing its saltiness are nonsense – as a chemist, he knew that salt is one of the most amazingly stable compounds on earth – if we mix it in with a liquid, the process for separating out the salt from the liquid is relatively simple – if the liquid boils away or if we remove it by some means, what is left is salt – salt is only ever salt, and even if it sits in a jar for a thousand years, it will still be salt
  • In the same way, for us to lose our saltiness would be for us to stop being who we are – it would mean that we become something that we are not – God wants us to do deeds of power in Jesus’ name – and as salt in the world, as Jesus’ salt is in us, as we are who God creates us to be, deeds of power in Jesus’ name are what we will do

III. Deeds of Power in Jesus’ Name

  • You see, God does not want or need bouncers at the entrances to the Vision of God – God wants greeters – we do not need to be like the disciples who had an exclusive idea of who could be a part of God’s Vision – we do not need to guard the doors of the church and winnow out the undesirables because there are no undesirables – God invites everyone, and God works in the lives of everyone to persuade them to participate in the Vision, knowing full well that not everyone will accept the invitation – even so, remember  that whoever is not against Jesus is for Jesus
  • Then the deeds of power that we do in Jesus’ name are the acts of love, of grace, of mercy, of kindness, of hope, of service that we do for  others – they are the cup of water that we give to someone who is thirsty – they are the food we give to someone who is hungry – they are forgiving someone who has wronged us, even if they do not ask for it – they are living  in solidarity with the little ones whom the world pushes to the sides and the shadows because of whom and how they worship, or of whom they love, or of the color of their skin – these are the deeds of power we can do in Jesus’ name
  • As we do these sorts of deeds of power in Jesus’ name, we act with the presence of Jesus’ salt in us, we act as salt in the world – we are true and authentic followers of Jesus – living lives of love and service to the world, doing deeds of power in Jesus’ name is who we are

IV. Conclusion

  • The call to us is to live in service to others – it is to walk circumspectly through our lives, striving to give no one reason to stumble – it is to do deeds of power in Jesus’ name
  • This is what we do – this is who we are

Blessing and Cursing

Monday, 13 September 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

12 September 2021

I. Introduction

  • We have all heard it – we may all have said it at some time or another –  parents taught it to children when I was young, and it was the standard rejoinder to playground taunts – “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – the problem is, of course, that it is a lie
  • Maybe that is too harsh – maybe it is not a lie, but simply wrong – but perhaps that is a distinction without a difference – I know that parents have comforted their children with these words for a long time – I know that when parents have told their children to ignore the taunts of bullies their intentions have been good – parents have wanted to protect their children from hurt, whether physical, emotional, or psychological, but that little rhyme simply does not accomplish what the parents intended
  • What we have learned since my childhood is that words can cause harm – sometimes the harm of words is more severe than physical harm, in part because it is less visible – people will notice a child who comes into a classroom with a black eye and be able to help the child, but what of the child, or adult, who comes into a classroom or the workplace with a bruised or broken psyche? – what if the wounds are not visible? – the more difficult thing is to try to care for and support people, whether children or adults, whose wounds and hurts are to their personalities and psyches and not to their physical bodies alone
  • There is power in words and how we use them – the author of the Epistle of James knows this and warns his readers, and us, to take great care when using their words

II. The Power of Words

  • The author begins with a warning to teachers to be careful of their words because the standard of judgment that they will fall under will be stricter than the standard that others will receive, whether the judgment comes from God, which tells us that mercy will triumph (James 2.13), or comes from the people around us, which can be awfully harsh and unmerciful
  • The author of James leaves open the question of who the teachers are – because we are in a church, most of us might have thought of those who have taught us in our church lives – we might have thought of Sunday School teachers, of pastors, and preachers – I do not want to downplay the importance of these people being good teachers, but instead of thinking that the statement applies only to official teachers, I think we should apply the statement to anyone who is a leader, to anyone who has a degree of influence over others
  • Thus, we are all of us teachers at various times in our lives, whether or not we have some sort of training for it, or certification, or official authority – by claiming to be followers of Jesus Messiah, we are to embody his teachings to the best of our abilities and understandings – we are all teachers to of what living in a relationship with Jesus Messiah looks like
  • There is power in our words – the author of the epistle gives us a number of illustrations of what he means when he talks about the tongue, about our language and how we use it – a bridle is a small thing that a rider uses to guide a horse – a rudder is a small thing that a pilot uses to guide a ship – a small fire can often spread to a conflagration that will consume an entire forest
  • I am not so quick to assume that the tongue is an evil thing, a restless evil full of poison – but it can be – and that is our dilemma – we can heal or we can harm – we can help or we can hurt – the author says that it ought not be so, that a spring cannot produce both fresh and brackish water, that a fig tree cannot produce olives or a grapevine produce figs – but the tongue can produce both blessing and cursing – and that is a real problem for the followers of Jesus and for the world around us

III. Blessing and Cursing

  • As followers of Jesus, we have a difficult job in the world – the good news of Jesus Messiah has to be spoken in words and in actions – but there are so many voices all speaking at once, and our voice is not always clear
  • Yesterday we marked the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on 11 September 2001 – that day two decades ago was a hard day for us all in the United States, and for many around the globe – we felt confused, angry, somehow violated – and yet I have always thought that the greatest sorrow of the days following 11 September was the reaction of Christians who could have made a difference in the world – truth be told, I hate to make such comparisons – I am sure that families who lost love ones on that Tuesday morning would disagree with me, and I would not blame them – what happened that day was a tragedy that the whole world felt – the loss of so many innocent lives was unconscionable – no one, no individual, no group, no nation should ever have to endure those sorts of losses – but so many Christian voices simply added to the sorrow of the day by calling for vengeance – how many times did we read of Christian leaders saying that we should bomb other nations back into the Stone Age, even though we did not immediately know who was responsible for the attacks? – if we read it or heard it or thought it even once, that was one time too many
  • In addition to calls of retribution, other Christian people claimed that the attacks were God’s judgment on the nation for any number of perceived “sins” – whether thirsting for vengeance or declaring the tragedy as God’s judgment, these Christian leaders’ voices overrode the voices of others that sought understanding and reconciliation of the societal rifts that made such an attack possible
  • Those voices, those tongues, claiming to speak on behalf of Christians started fires, or fanned the flames of fires, that continue to burn today – they started fires in hearts and minds that continue to consume and light more fires – one result of that is that we now have a generation of people in this nation who have never known the nation in a time of peace – that is a staggering thing of which to take note
  • So I have to ask, what could have happened if those Christian voices had blessed instead of cursed, how radically could we have changed the world? – If Christians who proclaimed peace could have had the ear of the nation, if they had taken the opportunity to have spoken the good news of God’s reconciling love, of peace and forgiveness, of hope and mutuality, could it have made any difference?
  • I do not know how things could have been other than they are – I do not know if peaceful Christians could have persuaded the leaders of our nation and world to have acted with compassion and equanimity – but things did not turn out that way
  • We all of us have the power to use words to bless and to curse – I believe that the good news calls us to be people who bless – certainly we bless our families and friends, but we also have a calling to bless enemies, to bless those who oppress and abuse – this is a much harder thing to do, but I believe that the call is clear

IV. Conclusion

  • The choice is always before us – will we belie our words with actions, or will our actions be consonant with our words? – which side of our nature will we allow to have control of our lives, the side that curses or the side that blesses?
  • I have not given us much direction in this sermon – I know what I think we should do, how we should live, but no one will ever compel us or demand that we live as blessings in the world, not even God
  • May we ever bless even as God in Jesus Messiah ever blesses us

Mercy Triumphs

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

5 September 2021

I. Trouble in the Community

  • One of the difficult aspects of the division of the Bible into chapters and verses is that sometimes the ones who made the divisions did not pay as much attention to the text as perhaps they should have done – our portion of the epistle of James for today is an illustration of one of those infelicitous breaks
  • Chapter 1 ends with an important statement that sets the stage for what follows in chapter 2 – that statement is a description of “religion that is pure and undefiled” – it is caring for orphans and widows in their distress and keeping oneself unstained by the world
  • It is not a statement that admits of a great deal of dissent – it fits quite well with the words of the Hebrew prophets for hundreds of years, and with the teachings of Jesus – the statement declares that insofar as God favors any people, the ones God favors are the poor and marginalized in the world – God favors the poor, the outcast, the broken
  • Then, to keep oneself unstained by the world does not mean disengaging from the world, but going to the world favoring the ones God favors, acting as God’s ambassadors of love to the world – it means choosing to live in the ways of God rather than the ways of the world
  • What comes next, in our reading for today, is, first, a description of a situation in which some of James’s community are, in fact, ignoring the ones God favors and allowing the world to stain their lives and ministries in the process
  • Imagine that two people come into a gathering of the community – one of the people wears fine clothes and gold rings – the other one comes in wearing dirty clothes – the implication is that the one wearing the nice clothes and rings is rich, although the text does not say that – the person at least has the appearance of being rich – and the text says directly that the one wearing the dirty clothes is indeed poor – how does the community respond to these two people
  • That some in the community respond by giving the one who appears rich a place of honor in the assembly (“Have a seat here, please”), while dismissing the poor one (“Stand over there” or, “Sit at my feet,” literally, “Sit under my footstool) is beyond doubt – they are making distinctions – otherwise, James would not have to deal with the issue
  • As far as James is concerned, the community is making a mistake by favoring the rich – if they are going to make a mistake, they should at least make it in favor of the poor – favoring the poor is, after all, pure and undefiled religion – at the same time, James does not advocate for mistreating the rich – favor the poor, yes, but treat everyone well
  • The problem is that in this world, the rich are never rich enough – they use any means available to get more, than as now – whether going to court or enacting blasphemous processes or weighting unjust systems to their advantage, the rich always want more and often get it – so James tells his community that they transgress God’s Instruction to God’s people – the community needs to remember God’s “royal law,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”
  • No one follows God’s Instruction fully – all human beings are fallible – like James’s community, all people make mistakes – thank God for mercy – thank God that God does not hold our brokenness against us – and remember that the measure of the judgment that human beings receive in this world and beyond is the degree of mercy that we exhibit in our lives – if we are merciless, others will likely be merciless in dealing with us – with God, and sometimes even in this world, mercy triumphs over judgment

II. Mercy Triumphs

  • This is a key to understanding what God wants us to be and to do in this world – mercy triumphs – God is merciful and so should we be merciful, too – our truth, however, is that too often we are not merciful – and worse, too often we do not even want to be merciful
  • James gives us a moving example of what mercy looks like in action – let us say that we come across someone who is naked and hungry – do we say, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” without providing the means for them to do so, or do we do something about it? – do we supply their bodily needs or do we not?
  • Let us not be confused by this term, “bodily needs” – bodily needs are not food, drink, clothing, and shelter alone – justice is a bodily need – respect is a bodily need – hope is a bodily need – and by the presence of God in our lives through Jesus Messiah, we have an abundance of all these things and our ministry, our calling, is to share them freely
  • Mercy is in short supply in our world – if we spend five minutes looking at social media or the news, we will see a myriad of examples of name-calling, vitriol, and venom – we will see anger, hatred, scorn, ridicule, and so much more – what we see precious little of is patience, kindness, love, and mercy
  • We have a difficult struggle as followers of Jesus, to carry the message that mercy triumphs into the world – we cannot live long without mercy, and we certainly cannot live well – the measure of mercy that we use in our dealings with others is the measure of mercy that we receive from others and from God
  • We can make a mighty difference in the world simply by living in and sharing the mercy that God has shown us – when the world expects retribution and vengeance, imagine what could happen if we demonstrate mercy instead
  • Showing no favoritism to the rich, treating the poor with respect and dignity, meeting the full spectrum of bodily needs in this world are all indications that mercy triumphs – and God calls us to be dispensers of God’s mercy

III. Conclusion

  • In his play, “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare wrote one of the most famous statements about mercy – he wrote:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, [Jew,]
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
[That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation.] We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy…. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)

  • Let us render the deeds of mercy indeed – let us tell and show to the world all around us that Mercy Triumphs over judgment

Lamplighter Article, September 2021

Monday, 30 August 2021

Dear Friends,

I did not say anything about it in worship or any other setting, but on 19 August, I marked eight years as the pastor of Salem Church. Perhaps you do not feel this way, but it seems to me that the time has verily flown past us. Whether this time has passed slowly or quickly for you, none of us can say that it has been uneventful.

Quite apart from the regular, quotidian passage of time and events, with the regular comings and goings of meetings, gatherings, celebrations, memorials, and bumpings-into, these last eight years have brought no shortage of plans and hopes, many that have required adaptation along the way.

For at least two years leading up to 2020, we had a dedicated group of individuals planning for our 150th Anniversary of the founding of Salem Church as Evangelishe Salems Kirche, as our cornerstone reads. There were special events and commemorations on the schedule for each month from September 2019 through August 2020. Who knew that a once-in-a-century global pandemic would strike and cause us to have to rethink and reschedule so many things? Certainly not I, and if you knew, please give me a heads-up if something similar is coming.

There have been losses that we have experienced through the pandemic. Dear friends to whom we could not say goodbye as we wished we could do, as we had been wont to do for as long as we can remember. It has been a hard time in many ways. The numbers of new COVID infections has risen dramatically in the last few months, and we have had three exposures in Salem gatherings recently, so we are well aware that the pandemic is not over. We must all of us remain vigilant and careful to do all that we can to bring it to an end.

At the same time, we have made some positive adaptations. Due to the necessary mandate to put a temporary halt to in-person gatherings, we made use of techniques that had long been available to us and that we had not used previously. We began live streaming our services and the response has been eye-opening. Through the months, we have improved the quality of the live streams. Now we are so well used to being able to view the videos of our services whenever we can or must that I would suppose that few of us would wish to end them. I cannot but think that this has been a good development even if circumstances forced us into it.

Then, sadly, in the last few weeks, there have been some additional deaths in our community, losses that have shaken many of us deeply. The takeaway for me from these passings is that there are no guarantees about tomorrow. The only day we have is this day. Our friends in twelve-step programs often remind us to live one day at a time, and from the day-to-day struggles of life, to the onset of a global pandemic, to sudden and tragic losses, to changed plans, to joys, and to celebrations, time proves our friends correct.

As the psalmist says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” This day, every day. Each day a gift from God. We have shared these gifts for eight years, and while I do not want to look too far ahead, I know that whatever comes, God will still be with us.

Grace and peace,

Tommy

Come Away with Me

Monday, 30 August 2021

Come Away with Me

Salem United Church of Christ, Higginsville, Missouri

I. Introduction

  • This text is the only part of the Song of Songs that appears in our common lectionary, which a number of Protestant denominations use – I have to think that the reason for this scarcity is that we Protestants are not quite sure what to do with the Song
  • We do not even know what to call it – in many our English language Bibles, the title is the Song of Solomon, due in part to the ambiguous first verse of the book, which some take to mean that Solomon is the composer of the Song and others take as a dedication to Solomon, while in versions of the Bible, the title is the one from the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs
  • There are a couple of problems that we have with the Song – one is that, along with the book of Esther, the Song is one of two biblical books that never use any name of God or any title for God – we might want to ask why any text that never mentions God would be in the Bible, but that is a story and a discussion best left for a Bible study rather than a sermon
  • The other problem is that the Song of Songs is a collection of unabashedly secular love poems, songs that celebrate eroticism and human sexuality – this has been a particularly thorny issue for the Church, and the way to deal with it has been to view the entire book as a metaphor of God’s love for the Church and for followers of Jesus – this somewhat mitigates the discomfort of the erotic nature of the poems, but it does not remove that discomfort altogether – and to be fair, the effort to make the Song a metaphor did not begin with the Christian Church – the history of that work began among the Jewish rabbis
  • Interpreters of the two methods of understanding the Song, the literal and the metaphorical methods, have often thought of their methods as mutually exclusive, but we need not see them in that way – just as we should never try to separate the spiritual and the physical because they are integral to each other, neither do we have to separate the methods
  • I have said in other places that poetry rarely has a single meaning, but speaks to us all individually, and because we are dealing with poetry in the Song, I think that both methods have something to say to us today

II. The Voice of My Beloved

  • Another interesting and important fact about the Song of Songs is that the voice that dominates the poetry is a feminine voice – even in our poem for today, we do not hear the voice of the beloved directly – we hear his words through the lover’s voice
  • The lover first hears the beloved (v 8), and then sees the beloved coming from a distance, leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills, behind a wall, outside a window, looking though the lattice – and only the lover tells us what her beloved says to her – Arise, my love, and come away with me
  • The beloved tells his lover that the winter is past, that the rain is over and gone – there is life and fertility in the earth – flowers and fruit appear as is proper, adding their fragrance to the air – the birds sing – and the beloved says again, Arise, my love, and come away
  • For some reason, the lovers must be discreet – maybe they want to keep their love secret, or perhaps only private, simply for their own sakes – maybe others would not approve – but whatever the reason, the beloved calls the lover to come away so that he might hear her sweet voice and see her lovely face
  • Despite the need for secrecy, or privacy, the lover remains passionate – she knows that she and her beloved belong to one another, and she invites the beloved to “pasture his flock among the lilies” – the lover invites the beloved to come in the evening, when the shadows flee, and until then to run freely as a gazelle or a stag on the mountains
  • It is beautiful love poetry – moving, passionate, tender, eager for the beloved – and it can stand on that merit alone – why should there not be a celebration of human love in the Bible? – in all its forms and expressions, human love is a gift from God – and the Bible gives us plenty of examples of the worse side of human endeavor, pain, sorrow, hatred, anger, violence, and the rest
  • But there is more to the poetry, as you might expect

III. Come Away with Me

  • There is a long history in many religious traditions of mystics using this sort of romantic and erotic imagery to express devotion to God or to the gods – read the writings of St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross or Julian of Norwich for some examples from Christian history, or of Rumi, from Muslim history, of the mystic devotion to a loving and beloved God
  • Thus, without letting go of the emotional and tender love poetry of the Song, we can also extend it, broaden it, to express our devotion to God, our beloved and to express God’s love for us, tender, passionate, and eager
  • Like a lover, God invites us to come away – God does not invite us to a life based on creeds or practices – God does not invite us to a life of commitments to boards and committees – God does not invite us to a life trying to dominate or to control others – God does not invite us to a life based on politics of one form or another – God does not invite us to step outside the world to share love with God and with one another
  • God invites us to come away to be with God in the midst of life – God invites us to life of embodied loving relationship with our beloved – God invites us to share fully in the love that created the universe
  • God created us for love – God created us to love and to be loved – God created us to share love with everyone – but this is not syrupy, sentimental, unawakened love – it is love that is completely aware of who we all are and of who God is – God is the one who loves us all, without exception – and nothing can separate us from that love – nothing we do, nothing we say – come what may in our lives, God is both lover and our beloved, and so are we
  • God says to us all, Arise, my love, and come away with me

IV. Conclusion

  • When our daughter was nearing graduation from high school, she and I took several trips to visit colleges that she was looking at for herself – in those long ago days of the early 2000s, we listened to CD’s in the car – on one of those trips, we listened to the first Norah Jones album a lot – the title of the album is “Come Away with Me,” and I could not stop thinking about the title track – “Come away with me,” Norah Jones sings, “…and I will write you a song” – “Come away with me and I’ll never stop loving you” – “So all I ask is for you to come away with me”
  • That is what the beloved says to the lover in this love poem – and it is what our loving God says to us – arise, my love and come away with me – the winter is past – the rain is over and gone – life and light are all around us – so all I ask I for you to come away with me – come away and live in love

The Words of Life

Monday, 30 August 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

22 August 2021

I. Introduction

  • Today we come to the end of a series of texts in John 6 that proceed from and interpret the sign of the feeding of the five thousand – keep in mind that signs point to something beyond themselves – the language that the Evangelist uses makes clear that at least at a basic level the sign of the feeding of the multitude points to the rite of communion, which seems already to have been a common practice in the Jesus movement
  • if that were not enough, the feeding of the multitude also points to a great deal more – it points to the provision of God and to the abundance of God – it points to history, especially to God’s work in giving food from heaven to God’s people during the Exodus, but brings history into the story’s present by saying that God is giving bread from heaven once again – this time, however, the bread of heaven is different from the bread in the wilderness – whereas the people who ate the bread in the wilderness died, the people who eat the bread of heaven that Jesus embodies will have the life of God’s new age, which begins in the present and does not end and is more about a quality of living each moment than it is simply about immortality – the food and drink that Jesus offers are true food and true drink and bring true life to all who share it – true life, which is the life of God’s new age, enters into the world in the ones who eat Jesus’ flesh and drink Jesus’ blood, which means sharing completely in his life, teachings, works, sufferings, death, and resurrection
  • Every historical question, every historical story comes to a “so what?” moment – we say, “Alright, this happened…so what?” – in this portion of Jesus’ story, here in the last verses of John 6, we reach a significant “so what?” moment – and it leaves us with questions that we have to answer today

II. The Questions

  • The text today begins with a clear and powerful statement that all who eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood abide in Jesus and he abides in them – as I said last week, I believe that the disturbing language is intentional, whether it comes from Jesus or from the Evangelist – the shocking image gives Jesus’ audience pause, as it should us – but Jesus does not leave it there – he continues to press his point that life comes from God and that God is in him and that he will be in all who participate fully in the essence of who he is
  • Let me say again that Jesus uses the language that could be upsetting, but he does not intend for anyone to take his metaphor literally – to eat his flesh and to drink his blood is to share completely in all he is and does – to eat his flesh and to drink his blood is for Jesus’ followers to embody Jesus in our own context – to eat his flesh and to drink his blood is to be the hands and feet of Christ, to be the body of Christ – but as almost always happens in the gospels, very few in his audience seem to get the point – and many who do get it do not like it
  • You see, these sayings of Jesus are disturbing not just for the crowds or for his opponents but also for many of his disciples – “This teaching (literally, logos, “word”) is difficult,” many of the disciples say, “who can accept it?” – Jesus knows they are complaining about this difficult word, but instead of making it easy on the disciples, he asks a more difficult question – “Does this offend you?
  • Maybe this does not seem to be a more difficult question to us – maybe we do not think of it much at all – John’s Gospel is often confusing and apparently obtuse, so this might seem to be simply another instance of that – but the question pushes the larger group of disciples to consider why they are following Jesus at all – and for many of them, the word is too difficult and they turn away from Jesus and go about with him no more
  • This leads Jesus to turn to the twelve to ask a question – at the beginning of the chapter Jesus feeds five thousand, and when he does not give them what they want they exit the story – then some religious leaders in Capernaum complain about Jesus as a person, as a nobody, really, and eventually turn away – then many of his disciples complain and finally turn away – then, at the end of the chapter there are twelve remaining disciples – so Jesus turns to them and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” – it is a sad and disappointing progression, until Peter speaks up and says that there is no other place they can go because Jesus has the words of life

III. The Words of Life

  • The questions that Jesus asks his disciples and the twelve (Does this offend you? and “Do you also wish to go away?) are the questions we have to ask ourselves and answer today – no one can tell us how to answer them
  • When Peter answers Jesus’ question about leaving, he gives the Evangelist’s answer for an ideal disciple – Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” – but is Peter’s answer our answer?
  • The choice of how we answer is ours, always and only ours – when we come up against Jesus’ incarnation, when we hear his teachings, when we see his actions, is our response to say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” – or do we say, “You have the words of life” – we should not take these questions blithely or lightly – they are serious questions for us to consider, so let us not answer too quickly or without careful thought – this is where the “so what?” comes into play
  • Following Jesus, trusting in Jesus is not easy – it is difficult in many ways – I would go so far as to say that if trusting Jesus is easy for us, then we may in fact be trusting in something we have created – if we think Jesus loves the people we love and hates the people we hate, if we think Jesus wants us to force others into living the way we live, then we trust in ourselves and our idea, not in Jesus
  • Trusting Jesus places us in a new, transformed, and transforming relationship to one another, to the world, and to God – declaring and living into trust in Jesus says that we strive to value what and whom God values – it says that we will work to be the hands and feet of Christ, to be the body of Christ in the world today – it does not say that we will always succeed, but it does express a desire to be more and to do more for the Vision of God
  • To trust in Jesus is to put our lives into the hands of the one who has the words of life, who is, in truth, the word of life for us and for all the world

IV. Conclusion

  • The words of life are challenging and difficult words – they are words that push us to consider in what and in whom we trust – they are words of hope and life for all people – they are words of love, grace, and mercy
  • Do these words offend us? – Do we also wish to go away from Jesus? – that choice is ours
  • But to whom can we go? – Jesus, the bread of life, the living bread, the one who comes down from heaven, Jesus has the words of life for us and for the world

True Food, True Drink

Monday, 16 August 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

15 August 2021

I. Introduction

  • We are so used to the language of Communion that we sometimes forget how shocking it actually is, or at least how shocking it can be to ears not used to it – most Christian churches participate in the ritual of Communion at some point – some churches do it every time they gather, even daily in some cases – others do it less often, from monthly to annually – but almost all of us do it, and we use some form of language that says we are eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ – we have to admit, it does not sound right
  • Most of us take the language metaphorically – we are not literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, but that the bread and wine or juice are physical signs pointing to a spiritual reality – I think that too many of us, however, too easily divorce the physical from the spiritual, which Jesus rarely did, if ever – we say things such as, “It is only a symbol” or “merely a symbol” as if the things themselves have no connection with the things they represent – the things, however, are not less than what they are – as symbols they are more than they are in themselves – so there is no such thing as being only, or merely, a symbol
  • Something happens in us when we share in Communion – the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but they become signs that point us to the teachings, work, death, and life of Jesus, and to the cost of being one of his followers

II. Scandal and Offense

  • The fact that every time we share Communion we hear words so similar to these words of Jesus to the religious leaders who oppose him, means that we can forget how scandalous they would have been to some people in Jesus’ world, and for a variety of reasons – one religious reason, for example – when Jesus names himself as living bread he is equating himself with Moses, or worse, with God – the reference once again is to the manna in the wilderness, but Jesus says that whoever shares in this gift of God will live forever, and that it is not for one group of people alone, but for the whole world – this is also a scandal for many, especially for those of us who think that God is ours alone
  • Then when Jesus’ opponents fight among themselves about how Jesus gives them his flesh to eat, things really go sideways – not only does Jesus use some disturbing images, his choice of words, or at least the Evangelist’s choice of words, is scandalous in the extreme – Jesus begins by using the usual word for eating, but from v 54 forward the literal meaning of the word that the NRSV translates as “eat” is much coarser, much less polite – the sense is more along the lines of “gnaw,” or “crunch noisily” – its usual usage is to describe how animals eat – so not only does Jesus use language that might make his audience think of something upsetting, but he uses language that implies that the ones who eat his flesh do it like animals noisily gnawing on their food – Jesus’ audience almost has to take great offense at his words
  • This is exactly where the religious opponents get caught – they cannot get beyond the language of eating the flesh and drinking the blood – they understand the metaphor in a literal sense and it draws all their attention, so much so that they cannot see the point that Jesus makes
  • Jesus offers them true food and true drink – these are not literal, physical things – Jesus is not talking about bread and wine – neither is he really talking about flesh and blood – to eat Jesus’ flesh and to drink Jesus’ blood is to share to completely in his teachings, works, death, and life that whoever does it finds that they belong to Jesus, body and soul – as Jesus says, everyone who shares in all that Jesus does and says abides in him, and he abides in them
  • And Jesus does not want this to be easy for his audience – he wants them to gnaw on it, to crunch it “noisily” in their minds, to think about it carefully – being a follower of Jesus, both then and now, is not easy, and nor should it be – following Jesus brings scandal and offense to Jesus’ followers because we stand against the ways of the world, against the ways of violence and death, against the ways of injustice, against the ways of hatred and apathy, against the ways of nations and of humankind – Jesus’ followers also stand for the poor, for the outcast, for the ones on the margins of life, for justice, for hope, for peace, for life for all people
  • Following Jesus is costly and we must never downplay that cost – the benefit to us and to all, however, is even higher, and it is worth all that we can give

III. True Food, True Drink

  • Throughout the sixth chapter of John, Jesus has used the metaphor of bread and eating to get his audiences to listen to him – first the crowds who wanted a good breakfast and then the religious leaders who wanted to discount everything he said, all misunderstood what he has been saying to them – so here, he puts it as plainly as he can
  • He points to participation in his whole life and ministry, from its beginning until this very day – the whole of who Jesus was, is, and will be, is the bread that comes down from heaven and whoever shares in the fullness of who Jesus is shares true food, true drink, and shares in the fullness of life
  • The food and drink that Jesus gave to his ancient audiences and gives us today are true food and true drink because they fill us with the fullness of God’s life and Spirit so that we can then share generously with others and still have more than enough left over for ourselves – God is the God of abundance who gives us the food that endures – it is true food and true drink that bring the fullness of God’s love and life into the world
  • True food and true drink come to us as we give ourselves fully in service to God and to the world through Jesus Messiah – true food and true drink do not belong to us – they are the gifts of God – and they are ours to give away

IV. Conclusion

  • As I thought and studied and prayed this week, I kept coming back to one idea that gets at what Jesus I believe says in this gospel story – we find it in the Epistle to the Galatians, where we read these words: I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2.19b-20a)
  • This is what Jesus is saying to the religious leaders in Capernaum and to us – in his teachings, work, death, and life we find true food, true drink
  • The cost of participating with Jesus in his true food and true drink is high – it costs us everything – and the benefit is higher still – it is full life, full communion, with one another and with God