Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Jesus, Hosea, and Justice as Healing

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Thanks to my good friend, Nick Melton, for inviting me to share a message on justice with the college ministry at Auburn UMC. 

Matthew 9:9-13

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I’d like to start with a story. A slightly embarrassing story that comes from my illustrious elementary school playground football career. I think I was in 3rd grade, maybe 4th. We were outside playing football during PE. It was 2 hand touch of course. It was all boys – except for one girl – Sally. Sally was the tom-boy in our class. A sweet girl, but kind of rough around the edges, sometimes a tad mean. Definitely tougher and bigger than me. So, there we were on the fields of glory, the boys and Sally, and my team is receiving a kickoff. It comes to me. I field it perfectly and take off down the field behind our expertly planned blocking scheme. It was basically like the KICK-SIX play. Epic. I sprint past the other team and there’s nothing but wide open field in front of me. Touchdown… almost. Sally. Somehow Sally had caught up to me. Not enough to tackle me but close enough to trip me. I go flying, and break my arm on the landing. My first broken bone; broken by a girl. Of course I sobbed and the everyone was mad at Sally, game over. I share that story to ask this question: what does justice look like in this story? Is justice having a flag thrown by the ref? Sally being ejected? Maybe I should’ve gotten to break her arm? Or maybe my family should have sued the school or my PE teacher? Maybe it could have been a class action lawsuit against people who take cheap shots on the playground? Or even better, maybe we should have pushed for a law to put playground bone breakers and dream crushers behind bars?!?! Are any of those things justice? What is justice really about? Keep those questions in mind as we explore this story from Matthew’s gospel.

This is a story you’ve probably heard before: the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. It seems simple enough, but there is so much to unpack in this brief encounter. What makes it so interesting and complex is in verse 13, towards the end of the passage, when Jesus tells the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, no sacrifice.’” Jesus is actually quoting the Old Testament prophet Hosea. So not only do we need to explore the dynamics between Jesus, Pharisees, and tax collectors, but we also need to know something about Hosea, his life, and his prophetic message. So, we’ll start the New Testament part and then do a crash course on Hosea. Here we go:

Tax collectors. Everyday Jewish folk despised these guys. They were also Jewish but they cooperated with the oppressive, “gentile” regime of Rome. For as long as they did that, they were considered impure according to Jewish law and socially excluded from Jewish life. Some or most were also corrupt (remember Zacchaeus?). Taking their own slice of the outrageously high taxes they collected. These were not the kind of people any self-respecting Jewish rabbi would want as his disciples. They had sold their souls. No one wanted them. They were sinners under God’s judgment.

Not only does Jesus say, “Hey, you, condemned impure tax collector, come be my disciple!!”, but then he goes to eat with a whole crowd of them. Along with other “sinners,” which probably meant prostitutes. More impure, unclean, condemned folks under God’s judgment who were “justly” excluded from Jewish life according to THE LAW. Not only is Jesus hanging out with them, making himself unclean, but he’s eating with them! Having a meal with someone meant so much more back then. It was perceived by some, the Pharisees, as passive acceptance of these people’s sinful, unclean lifestyles. It showed a profound disregard for “the law” in order to welcome and show compassion and mercy towards those who were excluded. Jesus would not only eat with “these kind” of people; he called them to be his closest followers and take up his mission. This is outrageous.

Which brings us to the folks who were outraged: the Pharisees. These guys – and they were only men – were the strictest sect of Jewish folk in their day. They studied the law of Moses like no one else and made it their life goal to make themselves “righteous” before the law. They were very very serious about not breaking the law. They created more and more laws to keep themselves from breaking the laws. This is a very small group of highly educated, highly respected, probably wealthy men who held positions of power over most everyday Jewish folk. When they see Jesus go to eat with Matthew and his sinner buddies, they are incensed by Jesus’ disregard for the law they love so dearly.

But before we go into Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and dive into Hosea, let’s step back just a little and explore the context of this passage in Matthew’s gospel. We’re in chapter 9. Back a few chapters, in Matthew 5-7, we find Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount; the Beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, several instances where Jesus re-interprets Moses’ law. At the end of the sermon, people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority – not like the other teachers of the law, ie the Pharisees. In a key verse, Matthew 5:17, Jesus teaches that he and God’s kingdom are the fulfillment of the law. He will show them what the law of Moses was all about in the first place. Then, a few verses later in Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes a somewhat confusing claim about the law of Moses and our “righteousness”, our justice, according to the law. He says, “Unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Interesting, because Jesus seems to be disregarding the law in our passage by eating with sinners and calling them to be disciples. If Jesus has come to fulfill the law, to fulfill justice, and if Jesus’ disciples are called to be even more righteous, more just, than Pharisees, then how do we make sense of what Jesus is doing in our passage?

To answer that question, we need to dive into the Old Testament, to the prophet Hosea. When Jesus responds in Matthew 9:12-13 to the Pharisees’ indignation against his seemingly unlawful behavior, Jesus commands them to study Hosea. He quotes Hosea 6:6, arguably THE key passage in Hosea’s message. Here’s the full verse: “I [God] desire mercy, not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, instead of burnt offerings.” By quoting this one verse from Hosea, Jesus is telling the Pharisees to remember the whole message of Hosea. So, who is this guy?

Hosea. A prophet. Sent to proclaim God’s truth to the northern kingdom of Israel before it was attacked, defeated, and scattered by the Assyrian empire. After this defeat and Hosea’ death, his message became popular in the southern kingdom of Judah when that kingdom found itself in a similar position with the Babylonian empire. Babylon would eventually attack and defeat Judah, destroying Jerusalem and the temple, and sending what was left of God’s people people into exile. So, the socio-political context of Hosea’s message is one of impending doom. Foreign armies are threatening. The kings of Israel are increasingly corrupt, foolish, and trying to make deals with other foreign powers as last ditch efforts to save themselves. They have turned from God, worshiped idols, forgotten God’s law, and are generally relying on their own strength. Of course, during this time, they have continued to “follow” their religious rituals. Sacrifices and offerings are still being given at the temple where God is “worshiped.” But the people have forgotten God and are exploiting the poor, there is rampant inequality, injustice, farmers are losing their land, the king/temple is centralizing wealth and power. They are ignoring God, but still going through the motions of religious piety, as if they cared, as if God would have to intervene and save them as long as they “followed the rules” of sacrifices and offerings which they assume will “justify” their actions.

God calls Hosea into this unjust, idolatrous society on the brink of collapse to proclaim a message of God’s judgment, of anger, but also of profound, unending, steadfast love, and – one day – of restoration, redemption, reconciliation. You may remember that Hosea is the prophet God calls to marry a woman, Gomer, a woman who he knows will be unfaithful to him. Some say she was a prostitute. In any case, they had 3 kids together, but then she is unfaithful to Hosea with other lovers. When this infidelity is uncovered, she leaves him or is sent away by Hosea. This was in accordance with the law of Moses. But then God calls Hosea to go take her back, to renew his love for her. Why does God put Hosea through all of this? Because God wants Hosea to feel, to KNOW, in the pit of his stomach, the immense pain that God feels for his people Israel. Hosea proclaims God’s unfathomable love like no other prophet because he felt the betrayal, the rejection, the broken promises, the fleeting commitments, the disappointments of the one who had promised to love him and him alone. God wanted Hosea to KNOW this – not abstractly, not as a nice concept – but to know it in his bones because this is how God loves God’s people. This is how God feels about our idolatry and injustice.

So, what does this verse, Hosea 6:6 mean? Through Hosea, God is pleading with Israel to see the empty hypocrisy of their ways. God wants THEM, not their sacrifices. God wants their hearts, their minds, their bodies – all of them. God wants to bless them, to see them flourish, to see them enjoy and steward God’s creation, to love each other, to love God, to seek the good of their neighbors, of widows, of orphans, of strangers, of the poor.

Hosea 6:6 is setup as a parallelism. Two statements which mirror each other. Mercy – not sacrifice; knowledge of God – not burnt offerings. Mercy is in parallel with “knowledge of God.” Sacrifice is in parallel with burnt offerings. The two things in these pairs are inseparable and we can’t understand one without the other. The people of Israel say they know God, but they have abandoned love of God and neighbor, they show no mercy, they live unjustly – and this shows they do not KNOW God. The Hebrew verb translated here as “knowledge” has a very rich meaning. It means so much more than head knowledge. Its not an abstract, conceptual knowledge ABOUT God; it’s a full bodied, emotional, passionate, deep kind of knowing that permeates thoughts and actions. The same Hebrew verb is used in the scripture, “Adam KNEW his wife Eve and she bore a son” and we all know what that means! SEX! Let me tell you: sex is not about an abstract, conceptual knowledge. Its mutual love and affection; it’s a shared commitment. When I say I know my wife, I don’t just mean that I know her birthdate, social security number, and address; my knowing of her and my love for her and with her are inseparable. THIS is what God wants from God’s people. The kind of deep knowing, in partnership, in friendship, that is lived out in the way we care for each other and structure our society. When Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, he is bringing this whole drama, this love story between God and Israel, back into the light for the Pharisees to see with fresh eyes.

So, when we left Matthew a few minutes ago, we were left with the question of how to understand what Jesus was doing eating with sinners and tax collectors and welcoming them into God’s kingdom – disregarding the law. Especially in light of his teaching that God’s kingdom FULFILLS the law and that our righteousness, our justice, in relation to the law must EXCEED that of the Pharisees. It’s seems contradictory.

But the contradiction fades when we understand justice the way Jesus did, the way Hosea did. The Pharisees were confused and outraged because they studied the law to justify themselves, to insulate themselves from “sinners”, to exclude, to protect themselves and their power over others, to set themselves up as the ones to be imitated and respected, as the ones to enforce the laws on others and punish them for their disobedience. But Jesus takes them back to the deep, prophetic well of Hosea, to reveal God’s heart, the heart of justice: mercy, compassion, steadfast love and faithfulness, solidarity, co-suffering, sacrificial service, healing, restoration, wholeness, hospitality, peace, reconciliation, LOVE. When Jesus teaches that our justice and righteousness must exceed the Pharisees, he means that we can’t be content with mere obedience to law, as good as that may be. Rather, we are called and empowered to seek the restorative, redemptive intent of the law through concrete acts of mercy which lead to restoration, healing, and wholeness on personal, communal, and societal levels.

The immediate context of Matthew 8 and 9 bears out this re-orientation of justice towards restoration and healing through acts of mercy. There are 9 stories of Jesus healing folks or exorcising demons in these chapters. All these acts of mercy are demonstrations of God’s kingdom. Jesus has come to welcome the sinners, the excluded, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, into a pursuit of justice and righteousness, of healing and wholeness, in God’s kingdom. Jesus comes as a physician, a healer. The end of Matthew 9 describes Jesus as a shepherd who has compassion, ie mercy, on the crowds, the sheep who are harassed and helpless, as he heals, restores, and brings wholeness.

Now, do you think the Pharisees listened to this teaching? No, of course not! What’s crazy is that Jesus REPEATS this exact verse from Hosea to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:7 after they get all upset about his disciples picking grain to eat on the Sabbath day, which was “breaking the law” of not working on the Sabbath. They still didn’t get it. Then, this same idea comes up in Matthew 23 where Jesus is EXCORIATING the Pharisees about their hypocrisy. Matthew 23:23 says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In other words, I’m glad you’re so concerned about following every iota of the law that you make the effort to measure a tenth of your kitchen spices to obey the laws about tithing, but you don’t love people, you don’t care about the real needs of real people. You miss the forest for the trees. I like your commitment to obeying the law, but not if you’re going to miss the whole point of the law in the first place.

But the biblical evidence in Matthew for this deeper understanding of justice and righteousness founded in mercy doesn’t stop there. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats to describe the final judgement before God, the ultimate act of justice. What will be God’s criteria for justice and righteousness? Strict obedience to the law? Ceremonial purity? No. It’s mercy. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner. Acts of mercy alongside “the least of these my brothers and sisters” will be the evidence of our entrance into God’s kingdom. Justice as mere obedience to law apart from mercy leads to separation from God. It leads to death.

Is this simply works-based salvation? No, its not. Are we not saved by grace through faith? Yes, we are. God’s love for us has not, does not, and will never depend on our actions. We are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and nothing else. Our works of mercy, of pursuing justice, wholeness, peace, and the common good for all do not EARN our salvation. They are our joyful response to the love of God we experience deep in our hearts. How can we do nothing when we look at our world, our communities, our neighbors, our own lives and see the profound suffering, brokenness, pain, discrimination, hate, and apathy that surround us and invade our lives? God’s creation is moaning, all of us, earth, wind, sky, plants, animals, the entire universe is groaning for the promised restoration of God. And God longs to restore us as well. Hosea captured this longing in probably one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture:

Therefore I [the Lord] am now going to allure her [my people Israel]; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of [trouble] a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the [idols] from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will [KNOW] the Lord. “In that day I will respond,” declares the Lord— “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth, and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will plant her [my people Israel] for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’

Behold the heart of our God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, longing for our redemption, for our love, for the wholeness, healing, flourishing of not just “God’s people” but for all people, all creation.

The problem is that we don’t want this. Not really, not actually. If we do, our lives don’t show it. The way of the Pharisees is too easy, too enticing, too safe, too comfortable, and we settle for it far too often.

So, back to my playground football broken arm story. What does justice look like? Is it throwing a flag, a lawsuit, a national ban on playground football? No, justice looks like a healed arm, back on the football field, with my friend Sally, playing and enjoying God’s good gifts, full of life. That’s a process. My bones had to be re-set, put in a cast for protection so they could heal. Then my muscles had to regain their strength. It involves forgiveness. Repairing relationships. And trusting each other again.

Now, I get this is a kind of a trivial analogy. It was a simple fracture that healed easily. But I share it to call our attention to the many fractures in our lives and our world today. These are not “simple”. They are what doctors call “compound fractures”. The ones where bones have torn through muscles and skin and are sticking out, exposed to infection, rot, and decay. We are probably aware of these compound fractures – human trafficking, racial injustice and white supremacy, grinding, dehumanizing poverty, war, genocide, sexism and misogyny, hunger, global migration, wealth inequality, discriminatory laws and law enforcement, environmental destruction, the desecration of life in so many myriad of ways.

What do we do? Jesus calls to be even more righteous, more just, than the Pharisees. God longs for our restoration. Do we care? Are our own hearts broken by these compound fractures that break God’s heart? Are we, like the Pharisees, busying ourselves studying the Bible, being “good” people, reading theology, winning arguments against atheists or other “heretics”, just so we can protect ourselves, insulate ourselves, justify ourselves, and stay out of the “messiness” of things like politics and economics? Have we bought into the Pharisaical notion of justice that excuses us from any responsibility to seek the common good so we can sit around in the pews and wait for God to snatch us up into heaven?

Mercy calls us to respond in concrete ways to seek the healing and wholeness of our hurting neighbors. Who are they? What are their stories? Too often, “doing justice” is limited to changing laws and policies, to understanding “issues”. Please hear me out: this is not bad. We need to work for more just laws and policies and for people to understand the issues deeply and thoroughly. But its not enough, justice doesn’t end there and its not where I think I should begin my pursuit of justice. As a person who doesn’t experience much injustice, my first step of mercy is to listen, to serve, to lament, and feel the weight of suffering caused by the brokenness of our world. One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, says it this way: “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues.” And deal with them we must.

As we love people who are hurting, God graciously opens our eyes to our own brokenness, and how our brokenness and the brokenness of those we love are interconnected, one and the same. Ultimately, seeking justice will cost us – those who like me enjoy the privileges that others do not. Our hearts will be broken, our lives will change, repentance will not be easy. But this is what God desires: mercy, not sacrifice. We must come to see that Jesus, and he alone, is Lord and Healer – not us. Doing justice cannot be our attempt to fix or save others as if we had no need of a healer. Another favorite author of mine, Claudio Oliver, captures this conviction:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer… when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda. God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed.

It may not sound like it, but this is very, very good news. We are not called to save the world by seeking justice and righteousness. As the prophet Micah said, we are called to walk humbly with God – all of us broken folks together – as we do justice and love mercy.

God desires mercy, not sacrifice. A Christian pursuit of justice must be oriented towards the healing, restoration, and wholeness of all people – ourselves included. It begins with concrete acts of mercy. The question is: Do we care? Have our hearts been broken by the pain and suffering of our world? Or do we hide behind our privilege refusing to care, refusing to listen? May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Break our hearts for what breaks yours, O God, our Healer.

What’s that in your hands?

A sermon I’ll be sharing at Pepperell United Methodist Church in Opelika, AL tomorrow morning (8.10.2014).

Exodus 4:1-20

I’m not sure how much y’all keep up with current events, but if you’re like me and you like to stay informed about what’s happening across the globe then you know that the news this week has been grim. There’s violence, injustice, degradation, and just plain brutality nearly everywhere you look. Some of these problems have just recently begun but others have been with us for years, decades in some cases. One website I found listed 11 active “wars” in the world today along with 8 “serious armed conflicts”. Untold thousands – millions even – have lost their lives in this violence. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the massive scale of human suffering occurring every single day; children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, neighbors – their lives filled with pain and sorrow. Along with all this violence, we hear about our brothers and sisters in West Africa facing a public health nightmare – the Ebola virus. I don’t mean to be all negative this morning – there’s a lot of good happening in the world that we don’t hear about. But goodness gracious, the news this week has just been heartbreaking.

These are big problems. But, for the most part, they’re all in distant places – or at least they seem distant. But we’ve got our own big problems closer to home too. In Tuskegee where ARM [Alabama Rural Ministry] is currently expanding its work, the community is struggling. The poverty rate has been over 35% and the unemployment rate over 16% for the past 30 years.

I’m not sure about you but when I hear about these kinds of big problems I tend to feel powerless, overwhelmed, paralyzed. Do you feel that way too? What causes our feelings of powerlessness, our inaction, in the face of big problems near and far? Why don’t we, followers of the risen Lord, do something? Why don’t we become people who make a difference? These are the questions I want us to consider briefly this morning in light of all the bad news in our world this week.

 Thankfully, we know and worship a God who is no stranger to suffering, who doesn’t ignore the big problems. As we turn to the story of Exodus, we find another big problem: God’s people, the Hebrews – millions of them – are brutally oppressed as slaves in Egypt. As you heard in last week’s sermon, when God’s people cried out God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant, God saw what was happening to them, and God understood their pain (The Message, Exo 2:24-25). But God doesn’t stop there. We know what happens next: God calls out to Moses from the burning bush. God has chosen Moses to be the leader of God’s mission for the redemption and restoration of the Hebrew slave. But right away Moses is not interested: first he doubts himself and then he questions God’s own identity. God is open to Moses’ questions and patient with his doubts. God promises to be with Moses and then reveals His true name, I AM – Yahweh – the one who will redeem God’s people from their suffering and restore them in a good land “flowing with milk and honey.” In the face of massive suffering, God is present and acts to redeem and restore because Yahweh is a saving God who doesn’t ignore the cries of those who suffer. Our text this morning picks up the ongoing dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush. So, Moses has just received God’s invitation to join God’s work of redemption and restoration for the Hebrew people. How does he respond?

It sounds something like this: but… but… but… (I can hear my mom saying, “No buts about it!”). As we heard in our text from Exodus 4:1-20, Moses is not on board with God’s plans. Three separate times, he tries to avoid God’s invitation. Moses is well-aware of Israel’s suffering; he saw it happening as a young man. He may be aware, but, much like us, he feels powerless to do anything. So let’s look at Moses’ three “buts” and see if they don’t offer us some insight into our own feelings of powerlessness:

  1. In v. 1, we find out that Moses lacks credibility and trustworthiness among his people. He fears they won’t listen to After all, he’s a runaway murderer turned shepherd. Why would they believe him? Don’t we feel the same way sometimes? I think we tend to feel like we need more before folks will listen to us – more money, skill, knowledge, training, degrees, expertise, experience, awards, more prestige, more authority? If only we had more we could make a difference because then people would listen. Like us, Moses is looking for that something more that will guarantee he won’t be ignored.
  2. In v. 10, we discover that Moses can only see his weakness. He’s afraid he’s just not cut out for this kind of work. Moses can’t be a spokesperson – he can barely speak! It’s just not his gift, his talent, his personality; God created him to be a shepherd, not a politician. Do we not make the same excuses? Are we not also blinded by our own weaknesses? We all have our lists of things we’d like to improve, right? Maybe someone who doesn’t have any weaknesses to worry about can solve the world’s problems but that’s not us. We’ve got our own issues. We’re not cut out for this kind of work. Like Moses, we struggle to see beyond our own weaknesses.
  3. Finally, in v. 13 we find Moses trying desperately to convince God that this plan is all wrong: “Please, my Lord, just send someone else!” Wow – at least he’s being honest. Moses is convinced he’s not the person for the job. But there’s a major flaw in his thinking: for some reason he thinks that he alone (or hopefully someone else) has to accomplish God’s work. Aren’t we sometimes paralyzed by this same kind of narrow, individualistic thinking? We think we have to solve the world’s problems alone, that we have to be the heroes and heroines, that the solution depends entirely on us. But no one person can handle that kind of pressure – not Moses, not us. It just leaves us powerless and stuck.

I think we’re a lot like Moses: we know about the pain and suffering, we’ve heard the invitation to join in God’s mission of redemption and restoration, and we just don’t think we’re up to it – we don’t have what it takes, we’re not the right people.

But God disagrees… and ain’t that some good news! Every time Moses says “But… but… but…” God asks him a question. God’s not backing down; He pursues Moses patiently and passionately, wanting Moses to trust Him and His power working in and through Moses’ life. God wants Moses to see that what he already has and who he is are more than enough for God. How does God do it? Let’s look at those 3 questions:

  1. After Moses doubts his own credibility, God asks in v. 2, “What’s that in your hand?” Odd question. Surely God can see for Himself, right? God knows that Moses is a shepherd and every shepherd carries around a shepherd’s rod; a wooden staff for herding sheep and fending off predators. Of course Moses is holding a shepherd’s rod – that’s his job, his vocation, he’s a shepherd. For Moses, this rod is just an everyday tool, a piece of wood that represents his lowly profession. But when it’s used in God’s mission, this piece of wood is transformed into a sign of God’s awesome power to redeem and restore. God will take this marker of Moses’ low social status, his lack of credibility, and transform it into a marker of God’s calling and anointing. All Moses saw was his little ole staff; he had no idea what it would become and how God would use it once he joined God’s mission of redemption and restoration.
  2. After Moses doubts his ability to communicate, God asks a series of questions in v. 11: “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord?” Yahweh, God the Redeemer, is also God the Creator. The Creator God who fashioned Moses already knows Moses’ weaknesses even more than Moses does! And this Redeemer God is committed to seeing Moses overcome these weaknesses. God promises to help Moses, to be his Teacher and Guide. It turns out that God’s big plan for the restoration and redemption of Israel also includes Moses’ own personal healing. All Moses can see is who he is, but God sees who he will become when he trusts in God’s help and joins God’s work.
  3. Finally, after Moses tells God how he really feels, we see that God gets angry with Moses, but not in the way we might expect. God’s anger doesn’t lead to punishment or abandonment. God’s anger – God’s passion for seeing Moses take up his place in God’s mission – ultimately leads to a relationship of teamwork and shared responsibility between Moses and his brother, Aaron. As Moses pleads with God to just send someone else, I think God detects the overwhelming sense of pressure that Moses is putting on himself. What does God ask? “Moses, have you forgotten who you are? You’re not just a lone shepherd! You’re a brother! And your brother, Aaron, happens to be an excellent speaker! I never meant for you to do this alone, Moses. I’m not looking for a hero.” Moses refuses to look beyond himself, but God asks him a question that reminds Moses of the relationships he has that can help him accomplish God’s work. Moses doesn’t have to take this risk alone. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for Israel will not be accomplished by heroic feats of individual power. God wants a team, a new kind of family.

It seems that all Moses can do in this story is think of excuses. Benjamin Franklin once said that “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Good thing Ben Franklin isn’t God! God doesn’t give up on Moses; God doesn’t give up on us. Maybe this morning you think you don’t have anything to offer God, nothing that can be of any use in God’s mission of redemption and restoration in Opelika, Lee County, Alabama, and the world. I think God may be asking us today, “What’s that in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff and that was enough for God – it wasn’t a sword or ruler’s scepter – just a simple staff. What do you have? A skill? A story? An experience? Maybe just free time and a listening ear? Each one of us here is a unique person that means we ALL have a unique role to play in God’s unfolding drama of redemption and restoration. Will you offer what you have to God?

Maybe all you can see this morning is your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your failures. God knows you – inside and out, backwards and forwards, past, present, and future. And guess what? God still wants you! God will be with you, your Teacher, your Guide. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for all people includes you and your personal healing. Will you trust God to be with you? To help you overcome your fears, your weaknesses, your doubts and to make you whole? Will you join God’s work knowing that you can’t accomplish it with your own strength?

Finally, maybe you’ve forgotten who you are this morning; thinking that you have to solve all of life’s problems on your own. Take a second to think about all the different roles you occupy. For me, I’m a son with a mom and dad, a brother to two other brothers, a husband to my wife, a father to my daughter, a co-worker with other co-workers, a friend among other friends, etc… We all live as members of a larger network of relationships that sustain us and make us who we are. And remember that God is Trinity, a community of three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. When we join in this Trinitarian God’s mission of redemption and restoration, we’re invited into a deeper fellowship with God, each other and our neighbors. We’re in this together. Are we willing to join hands and be the people whose life together shows the world a different, more loving way?

I love how this text ends. In verse 18, Moses tells his father-in-law Jethro that he needs to return to Egypt to see if his family is still alive. Now, either Moses is too scared to tell Jethro the real reason he’s returning to Egypt or maybe he still just doesn’t believe it. Whatever the case, the important part is that he goes. He may not understand how God is going to use him or how he’ll be changed in the process, but he packs up his things, trusts God, and hits the road for Egypt to face his people’s suffering head on. We don’t have to all be Moses, but I think we can learn something from his faith.

God has called us into His mission of redemption and restoration for all creation – beginning right here in Opelika, in Pepperell village. The kingdom of God is at hand. In the face of all the suffering we see in the world today, God is asking us, “What’s in your hand? Don’t you know that I created you? Do you know who you are?” We may not be able to see the end result, but let’s say yes to God, pack our bags and head towards Egypt anyway. Amen.

[See also, Dr. Al Tizon’s related post of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer “Deliver Us from Amnesia”]

Genesis 40: Don’t Forget – You’re Not Forgotten

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[My sermon this morning at 6:8 Community Church continuing the story of Joseph. My thoughts on being forgotten, God’s hesed, and remembering others.]

We’re forgetful people: our keys, wallets, purses, phones (and wedding rings if you’re my wife). We forget all kinds of things. But the worst is when we forget another person… kind of like this: [show Home Alone “Kevin’s Not Here” clip].

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I used to think that clip was ridiculous. How could you forget your son?!?! After 8 months of Isla, I totally understand how it could happen. My memory gets worse every day. For Kevin, being forgotten turned out ok. He even enjoyed being alone. And, sure, he had to face some challenges but he made it. Of course, we know it’s a movie, and a comedy at that.

Slide3Reality is far less humorous. Being forgotten is a deadening experience – emotionally, spiritually, even physically. When we’re forgotten by those we know and love, we begin to lose our sense of belonging and purpose and, eventually, hope. When I forget someone, it means that, in some way, there wasn’t space for that person in my life. This happens to all of us in all kinds of way. We’re forgotten by our friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, even our church.

Slide4But we find ourselves on the flip side too; we often forget those we know and love. And then once we consider those outside our everyday social networks, our memory problems only get worse. Do we remember the poor? The hungry, the homeless, the widows and orphans – the prisoners, the immigrants and refugees, those caught in violent conflict or abusive situations? What about the elderly, the home-bound, the sick, and the intellectually and physically disabled? Or even single parents, the long-term unemployed, or those caught in depression? Remembering those who live in these kinds of difficult, painful, and sometimes even oppressive situations can be especially hard. It feels easier to forget. Even if that person is us; sometimes we’d rather even forget about ourselves. What does it mean for us to remember when remembering is so hard?

I’ve met a handful of people who are all too easy for me to forget. I want to tell you about one of them. About 7 years ago on a mission trip to Liberia, West Africa, I met a shy little girl on a beach. I noticed her staring blankly at us white folks, watching in the distance as we played joyfully with other Liberian kids. I could tell she wanted to play too so I stopped to talk with her. I found out that, like many in Liberia’s capital city, she was a fisherman and was out selling her catch; probably 8 or 9 years old. It’s hard to stop and play when you know what not selling those fish could mean for you and your family. She told me her name… but I forgot.

Slide5I conveniently forget about this little girl because her life holds up a mirror to my own. In it I see God’s unquenchable desire for justice, righteousness, and comprehensive peace for all people. I see my complicity in sinful social structures that desecrate her life and deny the abundant life that Jesus desires for her. I see that she is my neighbor and, whether I realize it or not, I need her just as much as she needs me. My story is incomplete without hers. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….”

Slide6When I forget that little girl’s story, I forget myself. Whenever we forget about others – rich or poor, strangers or loved ones – we all end up a little more forgotten, a little more lost, a little more alone, a little farther from God’s dream of justice lived out in diverse communities. No one should be forgotten. But we’re sinful people, wounded people: we all forget and, in differing ways, we’re all forgotten.

So let’s take a few minutes to remember Joseph’s story. At this point, Joseph reminds me of the lyrics of that Chumbawamba song circa 1997: “I get knocked down! But I get up again!”

Slide7He’s a natural born leader who gets sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers. But he gets back up and becomes the head of Potiphar’s household! He gets knocked down again when Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of raping her and he gets thrown into prison. But he gets back up: he’s appointed as the head prisoner. Joseph seems to keep landing on his feet… for now. Follow along as I read from Genesis 40 about what happens next to Joseph in the prison:

Some time later, both the wine steward and the baker for Egypt’s king offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officers… [and] put them under arrest with the commander of the royal guard in the same jail where Joseph was imprisoned. The commander of the royal guard assigned Joseph to assist them. After they had been under arrest for some time, both of them… had dreams one night, and each man’s dream had its own meaning. When Joseph met them in the morning, he saw that they were upset. He asked [them], “Why do you look so distressed today?”

They answered, “We’ve both had dreams, but there’s no one to interpret them.” Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Describe your dreams to me.”

The chief wine steward described his dream to Joseph: “In my dream there was a vine right in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. When it budded, its blossoms appeared, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, so I took the grapes, crushed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”

Joseph said to him, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three branches are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and return you to your position. You will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just the way things were before when you were his wine steward. But please, remember me when you are doing well and be loyal to me. Put in a good word for me to Pharaoh, so he sets me free from this prison. I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and here too I’ve done nothing to be thrown into this dungeon.”

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “It was the same for me. In my dream, there were three baskets of white bread on my head. In the basket on top there were baked goods for Pharaoh’s food, but birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”

Joseph responded, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three baskets are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and will hang you from a tree where birds will peck your flesh from you.”

The third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a party for all of his servants. Before all of his servants, he gave an audience to the chief wine steward and the chief baker. He returned the chief wine steward to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had said would happen when he interpreted their dreams for them. But the chief wine steward didn’t remember Joseph; he forgot all about him.

Joseph doesn’t land on his feet this time; he’s face first. How do we know?

Slide15First, we notice the repetition of the word “dream.” It appears 65 times in the Old Testament. 22 of those are in Joseph’s story and 10 are in this chapter! Ten repetitions in the same story mean that dreams are a big deal! Up until this point in the story, dreams have been dangerous. Remember what happened when Joseph told his family about his dreams? His brothers wanted to kill him! His dreams have gotten him into this mess. When we hear “dreams” 10 times in Genesis 40, all our warning lights should be flashing red. We know what happened last time. Trouble is coming.

Slide16Second, we hear Joseph’s desperation as he pleads for help from the wine steward and laments his situation. He’s been stolen, kidnapped – a victim of human trafficking, a slave with no rights. And he’s a Hebrew in the land of Egypt – a foreigner, a stranger, one who doesn’t belong.

Slide17And one who’s easily forgotten. Joseph begs the wine steward to remember him, to be loyal to him. But when the wine steward is restored to his position in pharaoh’s court – just as Joseph said – he forgets to tell pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph gets knocked down, and he’ll spend two more years in prison before he gets up again.

Slide18The wine steward forgets. Joseph is desperate and forgotten. What’s God doing in all of this? At first glance, nothing! Joseph mentions God but we don’t hear God’s voice. But God is present and working for Joseph’s well-being. We can see it in v. 8 as Joseph boldly declares that interpretations belong to God.

Slide19Then Joseph takes a risk on this truth by offering himself as God’s dream interpreter. And guess what? God is faithful. Joseph’s interpretations are right on the money. This proves the intimacy of Joseph’s relationship with God. It also gives Joseph a reputation as an expert dream interpreter with a person who is very close to pharaoh.

What’s God doing? God’s remembering Joseph. In Genesis 39:20-21, just a few verses before our story in Genesis 40, right after Joseph is thrown into prison, we read that “the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him” in prison. God’s loyal, steadfast presence enabled Joseph to be in a position of caretaker where he was given this opportunity to interpret dreams. God is loyal once again by giving Joseph these interpretations. God has not forgotten Joseph.

But Joseph is still rotting in prison! What gives God?! Joseph is doing everything right, but nothing changes. And all because the dang wine steward has a bad memory? Gimme a break God! Haven’t You forgotten Joseph too?

Slide20Let’s slow down. Remember when Joseph pleads for the wine steward’s help? He uses a very important word. Joseph begs the wine steward to “be loyal to me.” It’s the Hebrew word hesed. And, it’s the same word that appeared in Genesis 39:21, the verse we just read, to describe God’s “loyalty” to Joseph. God shows Joseph hesed in the prison and now Joseph asks the wine steward to shown him hesed. Why am I telling you this? Because this word hesed is the key to understanding how God is at work in Joseph’s life and in our own.

Slide21Let’s zoom out for just a bit to talk about hesed. It’s translated in a number of ways in the Old Testament: “mercy,” “kindness,” “steadfast love,” “goodness,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” Basically, it’s God’s unrelenting love for God’s people which brings them back into right relationship. It’s the love that keeps God pursuing after us even as we continually reject God and run the other way. God is not distant from us – God created us because of God’s overflowing hesed for us; God continues to be with us because God is full of hesedfor us!1Hesed is God standing in solidarity with us through all our sin and suffering, refusing to leave us, always pursuing us, and always making a way for us to return home to God’s love. Hesed means that God NEVER forgets us.

So, let’s zoom back in to Joseph. God has shown Joseph hesed by empowering him to interpret dreams. In doing so, Joseph is given a potential way out of prison. BUT… Joseph can’t go anywhere unless the wine steward reciprocates God’s hesed. Without the wine steward’s willingness to identify himself with a Hebrew slave in front of the king of Egypt, Joseph is stuck. God remembers, but the wine steward forgets. God shows hesed; but the wine steward refuses to stand with Joseph. This leads us to hesed’s second dimension.

Slide22It’s not just about God’s relationship with us: it describes the way God intends our relationships to be with others – faithful love, mercy, kindness, solidary. It’s the heart of our community. God’s hesed for us empowers us and is made complete when we reciprocate it through our hesed for others. We see this dimension in none other than Micah 6:8, “[God] has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”2Do you hear it: “embrace faithful love” or “love mercy”? That’s hesed. It’s inseparable from doing justice and walking humbly with God and others. As God stands with us and for us, we are called to be partners in God’s hesed and to stand with and for others as a community that tangibly, visibly embodies and enacts God’s hesed.

Slide23Now we can answer the question: if God doesn’t forget Joseph, why is he still locked in prison? Because the wine steward didn’t share in God’s hesed. He therefore failed to bring God’s desire for Joseph’s freedom and justice to fruition. The wine steward could’ve participated in God’s hesed by standing with Joseph and giving him an audience with pharaoh. But he forgot. God is full of hesed for Joseph but this hesed must be extended and shared in a mutual relationship between Joseph and the wine steward. It’s incomplete because it’s unreciprocated.

Slide24As we turn now from Joseph’s story back to our own, I want to be sensitive to the fact that some of us here this morning may feel a lot like Joseph: desperate and forgotten. Even if no one here feels that way, we know that our world today is full people who do. We actually don’t even have to think outside our own city limits to find desperate, forgotten people. Others of us may be more like the wine steward. Life is no piece of cake, but we probably wouldn’t describe ourselves as forgotten. And we may even admit how we struggle to remember others. In reality, I think we’re all a mix of both Joseph and the wine steward – both forgotten and forgetting others.

Slide25What is God saying to us today? First and foremost, we are not forgotten; you are not forgotten. No matter what kind of prison our lives have become – nothing separates us from the faithful love of God. Does this mean that the doors to our prisons will suddenly swing open? I don’t think so. What I think it does mean is the same thing it meant for Joseph: God’s hesed is providing a way out for us but we have a role to play too. Like Joseph, we need faith to take a risk on who we know God to be. Joseph knew God as the giver of dream interpretations and he took a concrete step of faith based on that truth. Who is God to you today? Is there a step of faith you can take with God?

But notice also that Joseph would’ve never been in a position to interpret those dreams had he not cared for the wine steward and baker first. He noticed they were upset and asked what was wrong. Could it be that the way out of our prison actually begins with caring for others? How might God be empowering you to care for someone else? Maybe the healing for our forgotteness begins when we remember others?

In any case, what we trust and believe is that God’s hesed– God’s faithful, steadfast remembrance of us – always come first and isn’t dependent on our actions. It’s a gift of grace: God has not forgotten you.

Slide26For the wine stewards, what does it mean for us to remember others, especially those we find it convenient to forget? When the wine steward is restored to his position of authority in pharaoh’s court, he’s given the opportunity to influence pharaoh – the most powerful man in the world. At this point, we might think that Joseph needs the wine steward to be his “voice” before pharaoh. You know a “voice for the voiceless.” We hear that a lot when discussing how to help forgotten people living in desperate situations. But that’s not it. Joseph has a voice! The man interprets dreams! He’s not voiceless. Let him speak for himself! The wine steward didn’t need to be Joseph’s voice. He needed to use his own voice to get Joseph an audience with the pharaoh. See the difference? Why stand in someone else’s place when they can stand for themselves?! Open the door for them and stand beside them! Don’t be their voice… be their audience!

This is what it means for us to remember others: we make space for them beside us. We become an audience, ones who listen, a people who show hospitality, whose hearts are open to the pain and suffering of others, and share that burden with them. This morning, you might just be a “wine steward” to someone else. You may be the person positioned to partner with God’s hesed to bring someone else one step closer to the redemption, healing, and wholeness God desires for them. Who are we forgetting? Who in our lives needs an audience? Who is God calling us to remember?

I want to end by saying that we, as a church, are already doing this. We remember and partner in God’s hesed every time we collect items for the Ardmore Food Pantry as part of our communion celebration. We remember as we serve with organizations like Chore Connection who put us in relationship with the elderly and home-bound, people like our friend Owen. With each game of bingo at PALM and every day of work with Six:Eight Cares, we remember. Every time we gather with our neighbors at Linwood Park, who knows – maybe we’re listening to a Joseph who feels desperate and forgotten? When we take the opportunity to remember, we make space for the kingdom of God to break in; for God’s hesed to be made tangible and visible.

Slide27These intentional practices of remembrance over the past five years have rooted us in this community. We’re tied to this place by the bonds of hesed. Through our roots of remembrance here in Ardmore, God is now preparing a way for us to link ourselves with communities on the other side of the globe. As Jason mentioned this morning, we’re now exploring a partnership with Vineyard churches and ministries in Indonesia – a place that we probably don’t remember very often. It’s the most populous Muslim country in the world, plagued by political and social upheaval, struggling against various forms of poverty; a place where Christian communities face real suffering for their faith. Part of the work we’re being invited into is to listen, to be an audience, to stand with our Christian sisters and brothers, remembering them with arms linked together for the journey into God’s global kingdom.

Even though we forget each other, the God of Joseph has not forgotten us! We’re invited as a faith community to be partners in God’s faithful, saving love, to stand in solidarity with one another and all those who are forgotten so that all people – in Wynnewood, Ardmore, Havertown, and Indonesia! – would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are remembered, that they belong, and that God loves them more than they can know. So now may God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

1 See Psalm 136, Exo. 34:6, and Jer. 9:24 for examples of the centrality of hesed in Old Testament theology.

2 See also Hosea 6:6 and Ruth 1:16-17.

I AM Peace

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Over the past several weeks we’ve been exploring the lives of some major “peeps” in God’s story: Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. We’ve seen a lot and hopefully we’ve learned a few things too, but there is still so much to see, so much we’ve had to skip over for another day.

This morning we’re taking a little leap forward in the story; over the Exodus, through the journey in the wilderness, and just past the entrance into the promised land. We come to an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition that looks more like a stalemate, like a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper. A time of “is this what it’s supposed to be like God because I thought I heard something about a promised land, milk and honey, wide, spacious, freedom, security? Are we back in Egypt? Did we go the wrong way?” This is the “period of the judges”: after Moses, after Joshua, and now Israel is asking: “Who’s our leader? Where’s God? Are the promises still true?”

Enter the judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah & Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jepthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and – last, but certainly not least – Samson. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Today we only have time for one: Gideon. Actually, we only have time for the first episode in Gideon’s story, but we’ll hear a little more about him next week. For now, let’s listen to God’s “recruitment” of Gideon:

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 On Thursday I got a very excited email from pastor Jason. It was a message forwarded from the Vineyard Church USA office with 6:8’s OFFICIAL, signed letter of adoption into the Vineyard Church USA! We’re now “Vineyard” approved and you can even find our church on the Vineyard USA online church locator! While we’ve been a Vineyard church for a while now, it feels good to be official. One of the Vineyard’s core values, and ours as well, is living in light of of God’s Kingdom: “a dynamic reality that is the future reign of God breaking into the present through the life and ministry of Jesus [in the power of the Holy Spirit].”[2]

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We say that the Kingdom is “now-but-not-yet”; it has arrived but it’s still arriving. You might even say it’s an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition from the “now” to the “not yet” that looks more like a stalemate. The “not-yet” of the Kingdom seems to be much louder and more real than the “now.” It’s easier to imagine God’s Kingdom way off in the future, up in the clouds, but right now, in this mess? When we look around at our lives and our world, it seems like we’re in a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper.

Watch the news and you’ll probably hear about Syria: 100k dead, 4.2 million internally displaced, 1.7 million refugees. You heard about the royal baby, but probably didn’t hear of the 13 children born that same day, and every day since, to Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp where over 120k people eke out a life in the desert. The future doesn’t seem much brighter; I saw an article on Friday about the expected 50% increase in global violence due to climate change. It hit home for me because I have friends in Liberia who suffered through 14yrs of civil war where the rising price of rice bred anxiety, fear, and manipulation; leading them to war. When food prices spike due to shortages caused by irregular climates or the need for more “bio-fuel”, i.e. corn ethanol, to “combat” climate change, my friends in Liberia are once again put at risk.

But all of that’s on the other side of the world, right? Surely things are better back home? The AP released a study this week reporting that 4/5 – 80% – of American adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”[3] Last week I heard that the Philadelphia public schools re-hired 290 of the nearly 4000 employees they laid off at the beginning of the summer due to hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls.

And that’s just what makes the news. We all know there’s more. This “not yet” of the Kingdom hits even closer to home; it’s right here in the seats this morning. It’s here because we brought it here, it’s inside us; we can’t avoid it. The turmoil we see outside is just a mirror of the pain, fear, uncertainty, bitterness, and anger that we feel inside. Maybe you feel it, maybe you’re ignoring it, or hiding from it, or just completely oblivious. At some point though we all experience the not-yet: the incompleteness and inadequacy; the lack and the lies. Where are we going? Where is the Promised Land, the Kingdom? Where are we?

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We’ve arrived at “the period of the judges.” Much like us, the nation of Israel is in a tough place. Judges 2 spells out the situation clearly: God delivered Israel from Egypt and gave them the Promised Land, God was faithful to the covenant and expected the same from Israel. Israel was unfaithful, they abandoned God, worshipped the gods of people living in the Promised Land, and so God gave them over to be ruled by these foreigners. When Israel cried out to God, a judge – a deliverer, a savior, a mini-Moses – was raised up and God would be with the judge, who would set the people free and bring peace and rest to the land. Then the judge would die and the people would abandon God once more… and the cycle would begin all over again. Stuck in the mud, wheels spinning.

But each time the cycle repeated, things got a little worse. The first judge, Othniel, turns out ok; the last judge, Samson, is another story. He’s driven by lust and demands to be married to a foreigner, an idol-worshiper. He goes down in a flame of glory fighting a personal battle that does little for the people of Israel. Then the story gets even worse. The last few chapters of Judges end with a civil war between the tribes of Israel; anarchy takes over. The last verse of the book sums it up: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[4] It sounds eerily similar to Adam and Eve in the garden, with the serpent whispering, “Did God really say… What seems right to you Eve? Adam?”

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This is the story we jump into when we find Gideon hiding in the wine press threshing out wheat in Judges 6. Israel has turned from God once again and has done “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – idolatry of some sort.[5] As a result, God gives them over to the Midianites who plunder their land. “Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian” reads verse 6 and so they cry out to God. God hears and sends a prophet to chastise them for their unfaithfulness. In verse 10, God speaks an ominous word through the prophet: “But you [Israel] have not given heed to my voice.” You’re not listening, you’re deaf.

Enter Gideon! Things have gotten so bad that God needs to send a special messenger – an angel – in addition to a prophet just to get through to these people. So the angel appears to Gideon and says “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior”! Gideon looks up, rolls his eyes, “puh-lease… have you been living in a wine press? Don’t you see what’s happening? And you say God is with us?” Now, when most people in the Bible encounter an angel, they have a different reaction: shock, awe, silence. Gideon, he’s totally oblivious. Just like the prophet said, he’s deaf to God’s voice. He responds in bitterness, arrogance even: “What has God done for us lately? You’re wrong dude – God’s not here. It’s us and the Midianites. We’re on our own.”

Now, I’m pretty sure you can be forgiven for not realizing that you’re speaking to an angel… but look at what happens in verse 14: “Then THE LORD turned to him and said…”[6] This is God speaking directly to Gideon, completely ignoring his “Why is all this happening?”, and telling him “Go! Deliver Israel. I’m sending you. Vamoose!” Surely Gideon catches on, right? Wrong. He just has more questions, more excuses, more doubts. Gideon has ignored God’s voice through the prophet; otherwise he would know why Israel was facing so much distress.  Gideon doesn’t hear God’s voice through the angel either; he can’t imagine how God could be with him. Gideon doesn’t even hear God; he’d rather hide out in a wine press than get involved in some rescue mission with this strange man who just showed up out of the blue.

First, Gideon responds in arrogance and bitterness. Then, he gives excuses and doubts. The fact that God is still in the conversation at this point is testament enough to God’s patience and grace. In verse 16, God responds: “But I will be with you.” It’s a direct quote of Exodus 3:12, when God re-assured Moses at the burning bush. It triggers something in Gideon’s memory, the ice is beginning to melt in his brain. He’s curious now because this person – he still doesn’t realize who he’s talking to – also just assured him of total victory over Midian. He’s interested, so he asks: “How bout you give me a sign to back up this claim you’re making?” He’s timid, cautious, taking it slow, playing it safe. He politely tells God: “Hey bro, wait right here just a sec while I go cook something up for us. Just chill.” The Creator of the universe says, perhaps biting his tongue, “Ok, sure Gideon, I’ll wait.”

Preparing a meal for a stranger was an expected act of hospitality that Gideon follows in hopes that he can maybe get a little more info on the identity of this person who claims that God is with him and that he’ll defeat Midian. Of course, God hasn’t come to chit chat. As ridiculous and slightly humorous the situation may be at this point, it’s no laughing matter to be deaf to God’s voice. Israel, God’s chosen, beloved people are “greatly impoverished” and crying out for relief from the calamity they’ve brought on themselves. God is longing to bring them peace, but Gideon wants to have an interview. When the food is brought out, the angel takes over. No more wasting time. He immediately instructs Gideon to place the food on a rock and pour out the broth. Gideon says, “Well, wait just a minute. I prepared this fine meal for us to enjoy together and don’t you know food is kinda tight right now so why would I just waste it?” Gideon doesn’t say that, although that’s what we would expect from him at this point. He doesn’t question, doesn’t doubt, no excuses – he just follows direction. Then, as we like to say, God SHOWS UP.

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Gideon got the sign he was looking for and a little extra too. All of a sudden the mighty warrior is on his knees, crying out to God: Oh LORD GOD, help me, have mercy, spare my life. God hasn’t come to kill Gideon; He’s come to bring peace: “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.”[7] When Gideon finally sees, when he finally hears God’s voice, what does he do? He worships: “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace.” The Lord is peace. Finally, some good news.

Slide10

God answers Gideon’s “why?” with “Go!” It’s not that God doesn’t care – why would God still be involved with a guy like Gideon if God didn’t care deeply? God does care about our “why’s”; God hears; God listens. God didn’t answer Gideon’s question, but I think God does something even better: God calls Gideon out of hiding to join God in the work of peace. Gideon wants justice but God calls him to be a judge. Not the answer we expect.

God answers Gideon’s “but how?” with “I AM”! Gideon protests, “How can I save Israel?” God says, “YOU CAN’T! But I can and I will. You’re asking the wrong questions Gideon. This isn’t just about you and your family and your personal peace. It’s about me and my people, my promise, my Kingdom. You’re included but the victory is mine.” Apparently, Gideon knew of how God delivered Israel from Egypt through Moses, but he obviously forgot the song Moses sang after that deliverance: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”[8] Gideon wants the credentials, the status, the power but all God can offer is God’s self. Isn’t that enough?

God answers Gideon’s uncertainty and ambivalence with “I’ll wait.” God is willing to wait with us through our bitterness, our arrogance, and our anger. God is willing to bear our insecurity and our doubts, all the times we fail to hear God’s voice, even when we’re talking face to face. God waits because God “cannot help but be gracious.”[9] There’s a time for waiting, but there’s also a time for action.  Gideon wants to interrogate but God interrupts. Is it time for us to be quiet so God can move us towards peace?

Slide11

God answers Gideon’s fear with “Peace.” This word that’s translated as “peace” is the Hebrew word shalom. It’s not the kind of I-got-a-peaceful-easy-feeling kind of peace. It’s so much bigger, deeper, and longer lasting than that. Shalom is the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with every created thing. It is what community looks like when God is at the center of every heart, every relationship, and every system. It’s what God desires for all people and all creation from the very center of our broken hearts to the broken schools in Philadelphia, throughout the broken homes in our country, and straight across our aching world groaning in the pains of childbirth for its renewal. Gideon wants this peace and God says “I AM PEACE.” Will we join in Gideon’s worship?

Gideon had to encounter and submit himself to, and worship the God who is Peace before he could join God’s work for Israel’s peace, for his own peace. I think, down deep, we all want this peace, this community of love being worked out in justice, healed hearts, shalom – the “now” of the Kingdom. But we’re all a little like Gideon; hard of hearing, wanting to be cautious and have all our questions answered so we don’t have to take any risks. But God is the same today as God was with Gideon. God can wait with us, can take our questions, our complaints, our anger, and then tell us the same thing Gideon heard: “Shalom to you.” What will we do? We want peace but are we willing to worship the God who is peace with our whole selves, not just this morning, but every day, in every moment?

Now you may say, “Well, God came to Gideon and spoke to him and showed him a miraculous sign. I’d worship God too if God would do that for me! Gideon had it easy.” You’re right. As far as I know, God hasn’t called out fire from any rocks around here… not yet at least. I haven’t heard of any angels coming down lately either. Of course, why would God send an angel when God has already come to us as a living, breathing human being who walked and talked, who died and rose again? Why would God call fire from a rock when God descended like tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit was poured out over all flesh? God has come. God is here.

And, you know, God realizes we’re forgetful, so Jesus gave us a sign, a way to remember what God is up to.

Slide12

He took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. He took wine, gave thanks, and poured it. He said, “This is my body. This is my blood. DO THIS IN REMEMBERANCE OF ME.” Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez describes the celebration of communion as “a memorial of Christ which presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of his life – a total giving to others. It is a thanksgiving for the love of God which is revealed in these events.”[10] In this sign, we see, and feel, and taste the truth of Paul’s words in Ephesians:

Slide13

You may be asking God “Why?” this morning? Maybe you’re not even on speaking terms. You may be giving God excuses, delay tactics, avoidance measures. You may have all kinds of questions about who God is and who you are and what God is doing in the world and in you. You may just be completely oblivious. I don’t have all the answers for your questions or all the solutions to bring shalom to the world. But, if I’ve learned anything from Gideon this morning, it’s this: the first step, the foundational step towards shalom is to worship the God is who Shalom. I can’t answer you’re why, but I can answer you’re where: right here in front of you in this broken bread and this poured out juice, in the God you meet here, the God who has set this table and welcomed us all; right here in the community that gathers around this table. God has called us beloved children, has offered all of God’s self, can we be quiet and hear God’s voice today? Can we be still and worship the God who is Peace?


[1] Judges 6:11-24, NRSV.

[4] Judges 21:25.

[5] Judges 6:1.

[6] Judges 6:14.

[7] Judges 6:23.

[8] Exodus 15:2.

[9] J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation: Judges (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), 63.

[10] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 148.

[11] Ephesians 2:13-20.

Simple or Simplistic? Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

[CLICK HERE FOR THE AUDIO]

Morning yall. I’m Joe Davis and I’ve been serving as the pastoral intern here at 6:8 since September. So, as I begin, I’d like to start off with a confession. It’s just something I’ve noticed around 6:8 that has really bothered me. I don’t want to sound mean, but I think it’s my duty to say this. So, here goes: I’m sorry Jason and 6:8 but you just can’t call yourself a real church if you don’t have one of those customizable, changeable letter, marquee church signs! How are supposed to tell Ardmore about Jesus without a weird, corny, simplistic slogan that we change every week??? Just imagine how effective our church would be with a sign like this:

[“Hang out with Jesus. He hung for you”]

Or, how about this one?

[“Jesus will make you happy, happy, happy”]

Still not convinced? I saved the best for last.

[“Life scrambled? Jesus specializes in omelets”]

You know, we’ve been exploring the teaching of Koheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes for the past 11 weeks. Each week we’ve learned something new about what it means to be a wise person. IF we would have had an awesome church sign, we could have put up what we learned each week to remind ourselves, but since we don’t have one, I guess we can just review everything we’ve learned so far.

So, who is the wise person for Koheleth? It’s the one who…

  • surprises us in hopeless situations with the kind of strength that endures, yet is often forgotten
  • embraces all of life and lives in hope
  • has a good name formed in the crucible of life joys and pains
  • invests their resources in the kingdom of God
  • puts limits on desire to find healthy balance
  • lives by promise, not explanation
  • values, sacrifices for & invests in people
  • walks in reliance & faith through life’s seasons
  • understands wisdom as that which makes sense in light of eternity
  • chooses to be happy & does good
  • is not cynical, but hopeful
  • is boldly respectful, full of integrity & obedient to the voice of God

It all seems so simple. Don’t you think? It’s perfect material for a church sign! But, you know, now that I think about, putting this simple wisdom up on a church sign would probably make is seem simplistic, right? But, what’s the difference? What separates simple from simplistic? Good question.

We say something is “simple” when it’s plain, ordinary, easy to understand, clear, or profound. Truth is simple. We say something is “simplistic” when an idea is dumbed down, or an issue is trivialized, when the core of a problem is being avoided. A simplistic response gives the appearance of simplicity by ignoring the complex reality of the situation.

Church signs are almost always simplistic. Compare those signs we saw to the words of “Amazing Grace”: “twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved… twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” Simple, profound, beautiful, truth. I don’t think this needs much explanation. The difference between simple and simplistic seems pretty clear.

Leonardo da Vinci described simplicity as “the ultimate sophistication.” Walt Whitman called it “the glory of expression.” Jesus calls us to have the simple faith of a child (Luke 17:18). Simple; not simplistic. I think we’re pretty good at detecting the difference most of the time. But what about this wisdom from Ecclesiastes? Is it simplistic? Or simple? That’s our question this morning.

Our text today is found at the very end of Ecclesiastes. Listen and follow along as I read Ecclesiastes 12:9-14: “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

This passage is known as the epilogue to Ecclesiastes. It refers to Koheleth in the third person, while the rest of the book – except for the very first verse – refers to him in first person. That lets us know that these verses were not written by Koheleth, but by a later author – maybe even two different authors. We’re gonna look at this passage in two sections: verses 9-11 and then verses 12-14. To begin, we’ll take a brief look at the first section, v9-11, and then focus a little more on the second part, v12-14.

In verses 9-11, Koheleth is affirmed and endorsed as a trusted, wise sage. The author says that his wisdom is the real stuff; both pleasing and truthful, artistic and good for instruction. He uses images from animal husbandry to let the reader know that wisdom stings. It mentions a “goad,” which is like a cattle prod, and the reference to “nails” is probably talking about a stick with nails at the end for herding animals. Not exactly a fun image.

In verses 12-14, it gets really interesting. It’s basically saying, “Well, here’s all you need to know about Koheleth and his wisdom in a nice bite-sized, bumper sticker-church sign slogan!” We’ve spent 11 weeks talking on and on about this stuff and it all boils down to these 6 words: “Fear God and keep his commandments.” Really? If I were the Jewish student who just sat through weeks (months?) of learning all of Koheleth’s strange, grumpy teachings, I’m gonna be a little frustrated when I come to this verse. “This is Judaism 101! Of course we fear God and keep his commandments! What else is new! Why didn’t you tell me it was gonna to end this way!?!”

It’s so simple. Or, is it simplistic? Most commentators point out that this teaching does not sound like something that Koheleth would say. At no point in Ecclesiastes does Koheleth link the fear of God to the keeping of God’s commandments. You know, Koheleth was a unique guy. One commentator I read described him as one who had “pitched his tent at the far edges of the camp,” meaning that Koheleth’s message was “on the extreme edges of ordinary biblical teachings.” Koheleth says some weird stuff unlike anything else found in the Bible. In light of the radical nature of Koheleth’s teaching, the thinking goes that verses 12-14 were added to intentionally smooth off those uncomfortable, “unauthorized” edges of Koheleth’s hard-to-swallow wisdom. Not that these verses contradict or undermine his teaching; they just reign it in and anchor it in the stream of traditional Old Testament thought. It tightens the ropes on Koheleth’s tent pegs to make sure he stays within the mainstream camp, even if he’s still on the edge a bit. So, is this summary teaching – “Fear God and keep his commandments” – just a simplistic gloss, that tidies up all of Koheleth’s complex, uncomfortable, untraditional, sometimes jarring questions so we can ignore them and move on? Or is it a simple, clear-eyed, profound distillation of Koheleth’s wisdom that should guide us on our own journeys?

The answer? Well, I think it depends. Let’s go back to verses 9-10. They say, “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.” These verses are a ringing endorsement of Koheleth’s wisdom and teaching. But there is something implied here we must be careful not to miss, here it is: this wisdom did not fall from the sky, it was not written in a day, and it’s not a bunch of easy, shallow answers to life’s tough questions. Rather, it is wisdom forged in the fire of intellectual struggle, through repeated crises of faith. It is the end result of a quest for truth, for making sense of the world, a lifelong process of observing, wrestling, and questioning. This guy did the work, he put in the hours, and he found pleasing, truthful words.

What we need to know about Koheleth is that he is “the most real of the realist” of Biblical authors. He is the one “least comfortable with conventional wisdom, and the most willing to challenge its unexamined assumptions.”[1] Let that sink in. Koheleth is a sage; he writes wisdom. Wisdom literature in the Bible is not necessarily about God in the proper sense. It’s more about a human response to the words and acts of God and God’s creation. The books of Job and Proverbs and some Psalms fit into this category. Wisdom writers tried to make sense of life based on observation and practical experience in order to guide human beings into the path of successful living. Sages were about right being and doing – not just about right thinking.

Koheleth doesn’t pull any punches. He’s got real questions and he doesn’t pretend like he has all the answers. In Ecclesiastes 11:5, he admits to feeling a great deal of mystery concerning God: “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.” Wow, what an image. Do you know how “the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb”? For Koheleth, knowing the works of God are even beyond that; God is mysterious, fearful for Koheleth. But, he keeps believing and keeps up his search for wisdom even with his uncertainty and his questions. He has a Hebrews 11 kind of faith; he was sure of what he hoped for and certain of things he did not see.

Koheleth doesn’t give up on God. Yes, what happens in this world may seem meaningless, but God holds us all responsible for following our hearts and eyes to find happiness. Throughout his teaching, we hear seven calls to enjoy life and rejoice in the good gifts God has given.[2] Yes, God is mysteriously sovereign, but God is also the giver of gifts that make life joyful. If Ecclesiastes were a song, Koheleth’s repeated cries of “Meaningless! Meaningless!” would be like the bass line, but the melody would be joy! And in any song, it’s the melody carries the theme – not the bass line. Verses 9-11 confirm that Koheleth perseveres through his trials and all his deep, vexing questions about life and God. He not only perseveres, he “counts it all joy” as James would say in the New Testament.[3]

So, back to our question on this teaching: “fear God and keep his commandments.” Is it a clear, profound, and simple teaching or a misleading, shallow, and simplistic slogan? Well, when we consider Koheleth’s life, we see that this teaching is not simplistic at all. He goes through the fire and his faith is refined. He didn’t back down on the hard questions. He wasn’t satisfied with any simplistic answers he was given. He didn’t gloss over the complexities of life. He faced them head on. He stayed the course. At the end of his journey, this is the simple wisdom that has sustained him: he feared God and kept his commandments and found that this path led to a fulfilled, joyful life. “Fear God and keep his commandments” is simply true and not simplistic because Koheleth lives it.

But that’s Koheleth. What about us? We’re obviously in a different situation; our journey is ongoing. We’re still in the thick of it. The ball is in our court. The jury is still out. Will “fear God and keep his commandments” be a bumper sticker for our lives? Just another simplistic slogan we memorize to make ourselves feel better? That’s one choice. I hope we don’t choose it.

Koheleth’s lifelong journey towards wisdom in Ecclesiastes shows us another way. When we live our faith like Koheleth, “Fear God and keep his commandments” can become the foundational, profound, simple truth of our lives as well. Will it be hard? Of course. We’ll be searching for deeper understanding and doing lots of practice, which means that we’ll probably get it wrong on a regular basis. Remember that image of the goad, the cattle prod? Wisdom is about guiding us, prodding us, out into the world where we experience all that it means to be human: joy, pain, sadness, grief, grace, love, forgiveness, and peace. In these experiences with God and each other, we inevitably run into some tough questions; some that may shake us to the core.

Have we really examined ourselves – as both good and sinful? What is the ground of our faith? Do we know why we’re here worshiping this morning? Who is this God we sing and pray to? Has our faith become simplistic? Are our eyes open to the reality of suffering and injustice or do we cover our ears and close our eyes to escape the pain? These are hard questions. I don’t mean to belittle anyone by asking them. These are questions I’m trying to ask myself, too. If these questions are new for you, that’s ok. If you’ve been ignoring them, that’s ok too. It is a scary process. We may come to different answers, we may get hurt a little along the way, but these are the kinds of questions we need to engage if we’re to follow Koheleth’s wise path.

Many of you probably know that today is Palm Sunday, which means Easter is next week, and we’d well to remember the story. This is the day we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The city is full of excitement for the Passover feast. Then, Jesus arrives – on a donkey! People say he’s the Messiah! The crowds gather and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people of Jerusalem – the disciples even! – thought they knew Jesus. They thought they knew what the Messiah would do. Everyone had their expectations; many felt sure that he would overthrow the Roman rule and liberate them. But, they were all very, very wrong. By the end of the week, their shouts of “Hosanna!” had turned into “Crucify!” How does this happen? What allows a person to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday? I think at least one major component is an unexamined faith built on simplistic slogans that we “know” in our heads but do not live out, and test, and refine in the everyday experiences of our life together.

Fear God and keep his commandments. Is it simple? Or simplistic? That depends on our response. As we submit ourselves to the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit, here’s a few things we should keep in mind about this teaching.

First, the word “and” doesn’t quite capture the depth of the connection between what it means “fear God” and “keep his commandments.” It makes it seem like you could have one without the other. However, the fear of God is evidenced by the doing of God’s commandments. But, can you really do God’s commandments without fearing God? Maybe you could for a while, but it probably wouldn’t last. The only person who can really do God’s commandments in a meaningful, sustained way is the person who fears God. You can’t separate the “doing” from the “being.” You can’t be a person who fears God without doing God’s commands and you can’t really do God’s commands without being a person who fears God. The “whole duty of everyone” is both “being” people who fear God and “doing” God’s commandments – all at the same time. We have to remember that our being and our doing are intimately connected; one necessarily affects the other.

As Westerners, we naturally focus on the “doing” part. We like “action steps.” So, we should probably begin with the “being” part. How do we begin to be people who “fear God”? Well, I mentioned earlier that this teaching was added in order to integrate Ecclesiastes into a more traditional, mainstream understanding of Old Testament faith. As it turns out, this teaching is almost literally straight out of Deuteronomy. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, God made a covenant, a deeply binding promise, with them. This covenant had laws attached to it that Israel agreed to abide by. They would be God-fearing people by “doing” the commandments contained in the covenant. In the context of a covenant relationship, “fear of God” is about loyalty to the covenant; it is the same as “love” and “service” and ultimately, it’s about worship. This is not the fear that creates distance, but the love that keeps us together in covenanted community. Of course, Israel didn’t live within the covenant. They failed again and again, but God remained faithful. Then, in Jesus Christ, God showed his great faithfulness once and for all. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God invites all people into a new covenant life through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been included in a new promise.

Now, it’s important to remember that God’s promises were with a people – not with individuals. We are called to live today as the body of Christ; many members, but one body. So how do we become people who fear God? We start by living in covenant, in promise, with each other. We call this community. It happens as we look each other eye to eye and confess our need for one another, that we’re in this together, that God has chosen us to be his people, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[4]. We can’t become people who fear God on our own because loving, serving, and worshiping God is impossible outside of a covenanted promise with God and with other people. God has called us to be a people who make and keep promises to each other. Praise God! Our promises are not dependent on our own faithfulness, but on the power of our God who is always faithful. Will we break our promises? Sure, but God is ready to forgive us. We must be ready to forgive each other as well as we do God’s commands with “fear and trembling”[5] together in community. Is it simple? Yes. Is it easy? Nope.

I think the “doing” part is actually a little easier to wrap our heads around. When this teaching about doing God’s commandments was written, it would have referred to the Mosaic law found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Since we unfortunately don’t have time to look through all those wonderful books of the Bible, we’ll just use one of Jesus’ statements. When someone asked him what the greatest commandment was, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[6] Only a person who fears God would do this command. Is it simple? Yes. Easy? No, not at all.

As we come to close, we need to recognize that we’re all at different places in our journey with God and with each other. If you come out to the Ignite class after church on April 8th, Lindley will be teaching you a very helpful model for how to understand the spiritual journey. According to this model, some of us are just in awe of God right now and soaking it all in, others are wanting to learn all they can, still others are leaders and teachers. Then there are some who have left leadership behind for a more inward journey, a few may feel like they’ve hit a wall – I think Koheleth hit lots of walls – but there could be some, who, like Koheleth, have made it through the wall and have been made new, who feel God’s love like never before and only want to serve God and others with all that they are.

Wherever we are on this journey, Koheleth’s life gives us a sure sign to guide us: fear God and keep his commandments. Our personal responses will not be the same, but they should all be pointing in this same direction. Will this be the simple truth that under girds our life of active faith lived out as a community in Ardmore, Havertown, and beyond? This is our whole duty. In the power of Holy Spirit, let’s be it; let’s do it – together.


[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Old Testament Survey, “Ecclesiastes,” 249.

[2] Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:8-12:1.

[3] James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time, 132-136.

[4] 1 Peter 2:9-10, NRSV.

[5] Philippians 2:12.

[6] Matthew 22:37-40.

Marriage: A Gift of Grace

[Just to clear up any confusion: I wrote this sermon for a preaching class I’m in this week. I wrote it with my sister-in-law Hannah and her fiance Nate in mind. While I won’t have the honor of delivering this at their wedding (however, I do have the honor of being a groomsmen!), I hope it encourages them and all of us who are striving to faithfully love each other in all our various relationships.]

Weddings are big occasions. While they can be wonderful celebrations of love, friendship, and family, they can also be a lot of work. Of course, I’m a man, so I actually have little idea of all that has to happen, except for one thing: gift registries. I don’t know who invented this tradition, but we’re officially NOT friends. Of course I enjoy receiving gifts – who doesn’t – but going to all those stores and signing up for plates, and silverware, and bed sheets is just not my thing. But, as couples often do, my wife Cassie and I made a compromise when it came to making our gift registries: I would come along and help but only if I got to be in charge of the little barcode-scanner gun. I had a great time at Sears – you know those little scanners kind of sound like lasers?! I was actually a little excited when we left Sears and went to Bed, Bath, Beyond, but then it all fell apart. What happened? Apparently, BBY thinks that couples need an employee to follow them around the store so they can ask us a 1000 times if we’ve thought about nice it would be to have our own pasta maker, or sweet tea kettle, or some other vaguely useful kitchen appliance.  Oh, and this employee got to hold the barcode scanner – not me; that was a deal breaker. (Nate, I hear you had a similar experience?) After it was all said and done, we ended up with a lot of very nice gifts that we really needed and appreciated very much. Weddings are full of gifts aren’t they? Registries, parties, showers. Amidst all the shreds of torn wrapping paper, the sparkling ribbons, and the big pretty bows, we should be careful not to forget that one, essential gift that we can’t put on our registry: marriage. Hannah and Nate, your marriage is the best gift you’ll receive today.

In his novel Hannah Coulter, one of my favorite authors Wendell Berry speaks of marriage beautifully through the words of the main character who is most appropriately named Hannah. She describes her marriage with a metaphor – a “room of love”; a place “where giving and taking are the same, and you live a little while entirely in a gift.” Now, since there are kids around, I don’t think we need to go into all the details of what happens in the “room of love.” At any rate, I think Hannah helps us understand how marriage works as a gift: it’s a place “where giving and taking are the same,” where what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, where we’re simply together and free to offer ourselves and receive the other in love. Sounds like grace to me. Marriage is a gift because, in marriage, we open ourselves to grace.

What makes this possible? Our lives are opened to grace in marriage because marriage is a covenant – a solemn promise which requires the commitment of all we are for another. But marriage is a covenant that points beyond itself to another, greater covenant – God’s promise of love and justice towards us and all creation through a particular people, which was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are here today, Nate and Hannah, to consecrate your lives in covenant with one another. A covenant founded on the promise of our God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” The marriage covenant you make today is a gift of grace because it binds you together with the God who exists as communion of perfect love, who is supremely good and eternally faithful – a God whose promises never fail.

Of course, this promise is simply too big for you to keep on your own. You’re not standing here today because you’ve sat down with each other and come to some understanding about how each day of your lives will unfold in order to maximize each other’s happiness. Let’s face it: you have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into up here! Thankfully, you’re not alone. Your promise to each other is made within a community bound together in the covenant of baptism. In a moment you’ll exchange rings. These rings deeply symbolize your personal commitment to one another, but they are also a very public announcement of your marriage. Your married life should reflect this dual purpose of your rings: intimately personal yet lived publicly within the grace of a community of fellow believers. As members of community, the gracious gift of your marriage is transformed into a gift of love and hospitality for others. They say it’s better to give than to receive; how will you share the gift of your marriage with others?

Marriage is a gift of grace, founded in the gracious covenant of God, to be shared with each other and with your community for a lifetime. However, every time we open ourselves to receive grace, we simultaneously expose ourselves to the wound of grace denied. The very people we love the most, the ones we commit our lives to, are the ones who hurt us the most. We are all wounded people who wound others in return. There is no avoiding this truth. Hannah, Nate: you will hurt each other and being married only makes the pain worse. Will you shut yourselves off? Will you fight back in anger, in fear? Will you accuse and point fingers? Will you keep score? You’ll be tempted to do all of these things and more. None will do any good. Unfortunately, marriage leaves you with only one option: forgiveness. The grace-gift we share in marriage is sustained by our acts of forgiveness.

Henri Nouwen says it best: “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” God has created us with limits. We don’t know everything, we don’t see or hear everything, and we can’t be in two places at once. We’re also created uniquely with different needs, wants, struggles, hopes, and joys. On top of that, we’re always changing and growing. These realities make it hard to love each other well and we often do it poorly. After all, we’re not God.  Forgiveness, then, in the words of Nouwen, is about continually being willing “to forgive [each other] for not being God – for not fulfilling all [your] needs.” Forgiveness is not easy; it’s nearly impossible. Again, we come back to grace: we love and forgive because God has first loved and forgiven us. Nothing is impossible for God. Learn to forgive each other, just go ahead and plan on it.

Nate, Hannah: live freely in grace. Embrace the gift of your covenant. Love each other as God has loved you. What an awesome day of celebration this is! What a display of grace! What a gift! Praise God from whom all blessings flow! May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and always. Amen.

Tangled Visions of Wheat and Weeds: Matthew 13:24-32

rootsMatthew 13:24-32 :: “He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

Here’s a question I know we’ve all heard dozens of times before: what is your vision for ministry? It comes with the territory of being in seminary. It’s a daunting, yet very important question. Will you serve an inner-city church? A small town ministry in Alabama? A remote village in Asia? A seminary? An advocacy group? Will you preach, or teach, or develop outreach ministries, or practice development, or shape national policy? What kind of mark do you plan to leave on the world? We’re leaders and leaders have visions.

In this parable, we find a man with a vision – a vision of wheat. The parable is simple enough. A man owns a field and he decides to plant it with wheat. He goes out, by himself, and sows “good seed”, not the everyday stuff a poor tenant farmer could buy, but the good stuff. Unfortunately, this man has enemies; one of them sneaks up to the field at night and sows weeds just after the owner has planted his good seed. For a while, the weeds grow next to the wheat undetected; it was difficult to distinguish between the weeds and the wheat during the early growing stages. They couldn’t stay hidden forever though. When the workers notice them, they run off to the owner and say, “What happened? I thought you bought the good stuff? Your wheat field is covered in weeds!” The owner knew he planted good seeds. He also knew that these were no ordinary weeds; these were poisonous weeds which were actually illegal to plant under Roman law. This was an attack!

Immediately, the workers want to take action and save the wheat: “So we should probably go get rid of these weeds right away, don’t you think!? These are dangerous. They’ll ruin your harvest.” The owner surprises them, “No. You’d better not do that. You can’t see it but these weeds are now connected to the wheat. Their roots are all tangled together. You can’t pull up one without pulling up the other. We must let the weeds grow together with the wheat.” But the owner doesn’t lose hope. When the time for harvest comes, the weeds will be easy to recognize so they can be gathered first and discarded. Even when the field is covered in weeds, the owner never loses his vision of wheat.

Later on in this chapter, Matthew records Jesus’ own explanation of this parable, but I’d like to offer a different perspective. Let’s imagine ourselves as the landowner. The “good seeds” we plant are our very lives, our work, our service of love to God and others as ministry leaders.  For us, the “vision of wheat” is our vision of the fruit we hope to see from our lives, the mark we hope to leave, the transformation we long to see.

So, we have these visions of ministry full of pure, rolling fields of wheat glistening in the sun, right? We plant ourselves in love for God and neighbor, and one day we look up to see those “amber waves of grain” ripe for God’s harvest… If only it worked like that… Unfortunately, as leaders who follow a murdered, crucified Lord, we too have enemies and we need to be ready for the weeds… lots of weeds.

Yes, we’re good leaders. We do our best to be faithful, to love well, to plant the “good seeds.” But one day we’ll look out over our “field of ministry” and the sight may terrify us: poisonous weeds threatening our fragile wheat – conflicted communities, fractured families, disappointed disciples, flaky friends, corrupt colleagues, struggling sinners, hurt, pain, suffering, opposition, and yes, even personal attacks. Weeds. What will we do? It’ll seem like we’re failing, but it won’t even be our fault! But then our “workers” will come knocking, wanting answers: “I thought you were committed. I thought you would do better. What happened pastor? Is this your vision? Why so many weeds? Where’s the wheat?”

At these moments, we’ll face a true test of our discernment. Will we respond in fear and anxiety, running run through our fields yanking up weeds and destroying our visions in the process? Or will we have the humility to confess that the weeds we seeing growing in the lives of others are actually the same weeds growing in our hearts as well? If we choose this humility, we realize that our visions for ministry have been and continue to be indelibly shaped by the sin and suffering we experience deep in our own lives and in the lives of others. Our vision for ministry, blurry as it may be, must include the weeds; we must flex, adapt, and make room to include the sin and suffering of others because the roots of those weeds are tangled up with roots of our visions. Like the land owner in our parable, our only choice is to let the wheat and weeds grow together. The harvest belongs to God; we will have to live with these weeds and take our stand on the faithfulness of the One who has called us and who promises to bring our “good work” to completion at the final harvest.