Sunday, December 10: Second Sunday of Advent!

Luke 3: 1-6; 15-16 (NRSV)

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

I was paging through a fashion magazine a couple days ago when a news blurb caught my attention. Apparently, some researchers at a major university recently finished a study that found that taking a hot shower or bath can actually alleviate feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. I chuckled at the news, not because it surprised me, but because it's one of those things Christians have been saying for a long time. Ever since a man called John the Baptist came bounding out of the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We recognize that something mysterious and beautiful happens when water touches the skin of a believer in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Dispelling feelings of guilt is just the start of it. A completely new person emerges from the waters of baptism. Her identity is settled once and for all: she is a child of God. Beloved by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and saturated with the Holy Spirit. All this, and the only ingredients are faith, grace, and a whole lot of water.

Anne Lamott writes that "Christianity is about water. 'Everyone who thirsteth, come ye to the waters.' It's about baptism… It's about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rains and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that's a little sloppy because at the same time it's also holy, and absurd. It's about surrender, giving into all those things we can't control: it's a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched."

Nearly every season of Advent that I can remember has included an appearance by John the Baptist. No matter how intentionally a congregation observes the Advent themes of waiting and preparation, the man who came to prepare the way for our Lord is startling. He seems out of place. His strange face certainly wouldn't make for a good Christmas card picture; it would look more like a mug shot than a cheerful holiday greeting. And yet he's the one who reminds us, year after year, that the child we celebrate is the one who saves us. He reminds us to get ready, challenges us to change, and dares us to get wet.

So a lot of churches, a lot of Christians, struggle to greet John the Baptist. He represents everything about Advent that is different from Christmas. There is a comic strip drawn by a Lutheran pastor—one that I've included in your worship bulletins a few times. In this week's edition, one of the main characters is showing off how well he is preparing the way of the Lord: his tree is up, his cards are in the mail, and he got all of his twinkling lights to work. His friend reminds him of a different kind of Advent preparation: the kind that starts with baptism. The first fellow looks forlorn. He has lights strung around his neck and reindeer antlers hanging from his Santa hat, and says, "I don't think this stuff is supposed to get wet."

We are going to remember and witness the sacrament of baptism today, and nothing could prepare our hearts more thoroughly to receive the Christ child than this. A whole lot of water is involved, and not just for Codyanne and me. Each of you will be invited to come forward and dip your hand in water drawn from the baptistery in memory of your own baptism experience. When we receive the sacrament of Communion, we take and eat a tangible reminder of God's grace. And so it is with baptism. The Holy Spirit will work through the ordinary stuff of water with a mysterious and transforming power. Once a Christian has been reborn into the heart of God, their lives are not the same as they were before. Will you feel holier? Maybe. But probably not. In the movie Tender Mercies, the rough and tough Mack is baptized as an adult. "After his baptismal service, he is driving home in his truck and his girlfriend's son asks him, "Do you feel any different now?" And Mack smiles and says, "Not yet."

And then there's the baptismal story of the highly-respected Methodist bishop, William Willimon. He doesn't literally remember his baptism. Like most Methodists, he was baptized as a baby. What's more, he wasn't even baptized in a church sanctuary, but in his family's living after Sunday Supper. He writes about how his baptism was entirely passive, that he didn't do anything but receive the gift. And yet he testifies that he was no longer just the newest member of his family; he was the newest member of God's great family, the church. He was a gift of God, and heaven was mixed up in who he was. Bishop Willimon acknowledges that his baptism could easily be criticized. After all, baptism is a sacrament of the whole church, not a private family affair. Folks like us Disciples might shake our heads and say he shouldn't have received the watery blessing until he was old enough to make a decision, and that a mere sprinkling doesn't quite get the point across.

To all that, Bishop Willimon says, "You at least must admit that my baptism worked."

I can't tell you how it works. I only trust that it does; in the moment the water rushes from your face and in every living moment that follows. God will meet Codyanne in that water, and will be utterly delighted that she has decided to respond to his call on her life. If you've ever wondered what it's like to receive an enthusiastic bear hug from God, I have a feeling it's something like getting baptized by immersion. Well, assuming the water heater is working.

In baptism, God freely gives us gifts of grace, forgiveness, love, identity, and wholeness. We cannot earn the salvation we are given through our baptism into the Body of Christ. All we can do is respond by obeying the commands that go along with it. They are few, but just as the waters of baptism continue to act within us long after our hair is dry, these commands are ours to live into, each and every day. Repent, and follow.

Repent. Turn away from the things that keep you turned away from the face of God. Turn away from sin. We Disciples aren't always so good at talking about sin; that doesn't make it any less a factor in our lives. The plain truth of the matter is this: human beings sin. We like to tell ourselves that only things like lying and cheating are sins in God's eyes, and that we're okay. But any time we fail to love, any time we put our own desires above the needs of our neighbors or the will of God, we sin. Eugene Peterson, the fellow who translated the Message Bible, believes that sin is so pervasive in our lives that when we repent we should just quit whatever it is we're doing—"no matter how hard we're trying, no matter how well-intentioned"— because it's probably wrong. He compares repentance to saying a "loud, authoritative, non-negotiable "no." No to shame and selfishness and fear. No to sin and death and confusion. No to a life lived without God at the center.

If repentance is a resounding no, then "'follow' is the yes of baptized life." Follow Jesus. Pay attention to what he did and said in the gospels. If he tells you to love your neighbor, obey. If he shows you how to be compassionate, conform. Accept him as your Lord and love him as your brother. Expect him to challenge you and comfort you. If you find that you are neither challenged nor comforted by Jesus, you probably stopped paying attention. There is always more time to repent and follow again.

Repentance and discipleship. Turning and following. This is the life we sign up for when we agree to be immersed into Christ. This is who we are and what we do, and it all begins with baptism.

Whether you encounter the living water again or for the first time today, may the parched places of your souls be refreshed. May you be unafraid to surrender to God's love, even if it means getting wet. And may you respond to this holy mystery with great joy and deep peace. Amen.


Sunday, December 3: First Sunday of Advent!

Luke 1:5-25

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’

Zechariah is one of those biblical characters I can really relate to. Maybe it's the nagging fear many preachers have that when its time to proclaim the good news, we could be as speechless as Zechariah. But all nightmares about being mute in the pulpit aside, celebrating the annunciation of John the Baptist's birth is a wonderful way to enter the season of Advent. This is a story of rational doubt and irrational hope. In good gospel form, no matter how irrational the blessing may seem, the God of Israel is at work silencing doubt and fulfilling hope.

Zechariah was a righteous and faithful priest, yet he certainly blundered his way through his encounter with the angel Gabriel. It's hard not to compare Zechariah to Mary, the other recipient of an angelic visit. Luke describes Mary as "perplexed" by the unexpected guest. There's an old painting of the Annunciation of Christ in which Mary is reading a book when Gabriel shows up; she appears to be holding up her hand as if to say, "wait, let me finish this chapter first…. Now what was it you had to tell me?" But Zechariah was miles away from perplexity. He was terrified. The overwhelming fear that charged his body wasn't the reverent fear-of-the-Lord the prophets of wisdom counseled. He was frozen with anxiety, dreading the message of this heavenly herald. To understand Zechariah's alarm we have to understand the social and spiritual impact of childlessness. Infertility, in New Testament times, was seen as a sign of divine disfavor. To be barren, in that culture, was to be cursed. Even though Zechariah was loyal to his vocation as a priest, and faithfully fulfilled the vows of his ordination, he and Elizabeth were heavy-laden with shame. If you believed yourself to be cursed by God, and you suddenly encountered one of his angels, you probably wouldn't be too enthused, either.

Even as Zechariah's heart was still pounding, Gabriel revealed the new work that God would do through the old priest and his wife. No more would Zechariah and Elizabeth live outside of the good graces of their neighbors. They would conceive the child anointed to prepare the children of God for the Messiah. They would be conscripted into the story of how our very determined God reconciles and redeems Creation. Their son would traverse a difficult path—no prophet escapes the consequences of delivering God's Word to a defiant people —but his birth would be greeted with joy and gladness.

To borrow a phrase, Zechariah was bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. No matter that he was in the presence of an angel. His response was certain: No way. He simply could not believe that this revelation was true. Even when confronted with a greater reality, Zechariah trusted that barren shame was the ultimate truth of his life. He couldn't imagine that God's love could deliver a miracle. It wasn't any lack of faithfulness on his part. He was in the middle of making an offering to the Lord when Gabriel arrived. Yet no amount of prayers and offerings prepared Zechariah for God's startling answer to his intercessions. He did not expect his prayers to be answered. His hope was tarnished by despair so persistent that he greeted an angel with suspicion. You wouldn't know it by looking at him, but Zechariah was a man bereft of hope.

Zechariah makes sense to me in the same way that doubting Thomas makes sense to me: they were faithful men who struggled with doubt. Their belief in God's goodness was all well and good until it was tested by God's goodness. Gabriel locked Zechariah's lips with a celestial zipper, enveloping him in a veil of silence until his tongue could be untied by the cries of his newborn son. When that day came, Zechariah's faith was as full as Mary's womb, and he was ready to bless the boy with a song of divine prophecy: "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Is Zechariah's story our story? If we peel away the top layer of our faith, will we find a wellspring of hope and trust in God? Or will we discover that skepticism has seeped into our relationship to the Holy?

This is a season of hope, of expectation, of waiting for God to do what God has proclaimed God will do. We rehearse the hope that has already been accomplished through the birth of Jesus so many years ago. We stand in solidarity with folks like Zechariah and Elizabeth, pondering if and when God will send the promised new life. But we also stand in solidarity with all every follower of Christ throughout the centuries who has waited for the Kingdom of God to flourish, who has hoped that the earth might be delivered, once and for all, from the ravages of sin and suffering. Our task is to trust in God's live-giving work even when the headlines cast a shadow on hope. We could easily slip into the rote and ritual of Zechariah's faith, burning the incense even though the flames in our hearts have long since been extinguished. But even the fear and despair of the skeptic can't halt the power of God.

The deepest hope of Advent, the hope that will empower us to dance to Zechariah's joyful song, is the hope that is informed by the past, fearless of the future, and rooted in the here and now. Scott Colglazier, a Disciple pastor, proclaims that "It's not what God will do that is the basis of hope; it's what God is doing that gives rise to hope, and, even more radically, what God is always wanting to do. I don't know what God will do tomorrow, but I know that today God is calling me to open my heart, live life with integrity, move toward my neighbor with compassion and justice, heal the most important relationships within the web of my life. The whole point of the spiritual journey is that God calls people to move forward with trust and courage into the future because God is taking the raw stuff of everyday living and trying to turn it, shape it, create from it something beautiful and good."

Like Zechariah, our hope and trust can easily be misplaced. We can get caught up in fear, in numbness, in doubt. All of that leaves us completely unprepared to welcome the Christchild on Christmas Day. The story of Zechariah is as good a metaphor for the Advent season as any. Today we take our first step into the season of joyous preparation for the Nativity of our Lord. And while we don't do this with Zechariah's silence, our quiet hymns of praise are easily drowned out by the nonstop Christmas extravaganza that surrounds us. We take four weeks, starting today, to steep our hearts in hope and peace and joy and love so that when the angels' song breaks forth, we are ready to join in with profound praise. In this time, we receive a gracious invitation to see and to trust– again or for the first time —how God is transforming this beloved Creation into the Kingdom of God. Not just in the past, not just in the future, but now: God is working for us, with us, and through us, to restore peace to a hurting world.

Nine months of silence was long enough for ecstatic worship to grow within a man who had given up on hope. Gabriel's promise to Zechariah is just as true for us: new life is on the way. God is doing something new, even here, even now. May we learn from his silence and his song, his doubt and his hope, and believe in the good news of Emmanuel, Christ with us. Amen.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

This is an unusual Sunday. Most years, the First Sunday of Advent falls immediately after Thanksgiving weekend. This time the secular and sacred calendars aligned to give us one Sunday in between—a Sabbath day that is poised in the meantime. I can't help but think of today as a gift—an opportunity to reflect on the changing of the days; another chance to give thanks; a moment to anticipate the season of anticipation. Next week the sanctuary will begin a slow transformation through the weeks of Advent. We'll add more signs of Christmas each Sunday, as the days and our hearts grow closer to the arrival of the Christ child. But this week the sanctuary is still in a state of ordinary beauty. As our brother James proclaimed, every good and perfect gift cascades from the Father of Lights. And so today I thank God for the abundant gift of light that flows through the windows of this sacred space, and celebrate what the brilliance of this room reveals about the gospel.

This sanctuary is filled with light. Many worship spaces are dimly lit—and some wear their shadows well, giving worshipers the benefit of a solemn umbrella under which to pray. I prefer the radiance of sunlight, even if sometimes it means the rays reflecting from the cars in the lot blind me if we forget to close the door. For me, the gift of light is a great visual reminder of God, and God's creative power. The book of Genesis envisions that before God spoke anything else into being, God crafted the gift of light. The tall, transparent windows cut into the walls of this building invite natural beauty to surround us as we gather to worship. God is the Source and Creator of all light, and in this place, we can gather within his abundant and luminous grace.

Like many buildings designated for Christian worship, our space is blessed with beautiful stained glass. The four primary stained glass windows along the north and south walls depict the four gospel accounts from the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew is symbolized on your right toward the front of the sanctuary; the artwork shows the Law of Moses and its New Testament fulfillment, the Sermon on the Mount. The Gospel of Mark is represented beside it, illustrating the cup of Christ's suffering. Directly across from Mark, on the South Side of the Sanctuary is the window signifying Luke's testimony to the good news. In that window, Jesus is depicted sharing his gifts of teaching and healing. Finally, in the window closest to the pulpit, is the window memorializing the Gospel according to John. It celebrates the victory and eternal life that is made real through the Word made Flesh.

What these four windows do is transform ordinary light into kaleidoscopes of the gospel. The light that streams through these windows is strikingly beautiful, rich with color. And though they shine with the same light that flows through the clear glass, the light that they capture is deeper, more focused. One of my favorite theologians describes Jesus Christ as a pure reflection of God, as if by looking at Jesus we see God in focus. These windows remind me of that lovely interpretation. The light from the stained glass is concentrated, just as the light and love of God is concentrated in Christ. And through these gospel windows, we recall the teaching, preaching, healing, suffering, and victory that God shared with creation through Jesus Christ.

Just as the wealth of clear light reminds me of the Creator and the stained glass gospel windows evoke the Christ, the lightly colored panels of glass along the sides of the sanctuary walls quietly stir the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. These windows are subtle, a far cry from the bold hues of the windows below. Yet they still transform the light into delicate shades of yellow and blue. To me, they proclaim our responsibility to look at the world through the lens of the gospel. They beckon us to celebrate that our lives are colored with grace and shaded by God's redeeming love.

And then there is another font of light in this room, a steady shine that is not refracted through the windows or cultivated in an electric bulb. It is the light that is reflected through those who have heeded the Psalmists' cry to worship the Lord with gladness and thanksgiving. It is the light of Christ that has found a home within the hearts of the faithful. When we gather as a congregation to lift our voices in praise of the Father of lights, our spirits shine like the sun. This image is doctrine in the Christian Quaker tradition, a group that I spent some time with before I found the Disciples of Christ. Quakers believe that there is a light within each child of God, a brilliant glow of spirit within our souls. It is the Spirit of God, harbored safely in our hearts.

I first saw this with the eyes of faith when I was a teenager at church camp. During the closing worship, each camper was given a candle to hold. As I looked around the campfire at each flickering light, I suddenly understood that these candles only mirrored the light that sparkled from within. I trusted that Christ dwelled as a light within the hearts of all who accepted the gift of his love.

As Christians, we are created and called to reflect God's grace with our lives. The faithfulness of one Christian multiplies the light of Christ more fully than all the stained glass windows in all the cathedrals of the world. Without a doubt, the most important reflection of God's light within this space is the one that emanates from the pews.

The philosopher Alexander Papaderos tells a story about how he came to know that he was called to reflect the divine light of God.

"When I was a small child during World War II, I found several broken pieces of mirror on the road where a soldier's motorcycle had been wrecked. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine -- in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get the light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

I kept the little mirror, and as I went about growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. But, as I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child's game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light -- truth, understanding, knowledge -- is there, and it will only shine in dark places if I reflect it."

In the coming days, the daylight will wane. Nights will become longer, and days will shorten into the winter solstice. And yet even as the light fades, we will join with other Christians to celebrate the Advent of a light that does not change with the seasons. May we reflect this light today and always, multiplying it with our praise, our songs of joy, our acts of generosity, and our constant thanksgivings to the source of all goodness and mercy. Amen.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

John 17: 20-14

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world." (NRSV)

I did a little experiment this week. I ran a word search on my sermon files to find out how many times I talked about community since I've been a member of this community. The word "community" came up in 25 sermons. That is just to say that if your instinct is to roll your eyes and wonder if I haven't already preached about this before, you have good instincts. I have, and I will again. It's not that I don't recognize and value the importance of personal expressions of faith. I simply cannot imagine personal faith that is not lived out within the sacred space of Christian community.

For me, faith is rooted in relationship. Most Christians understand that there is a mysterious and beautiful relationship at the heart of God. We praise a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a paradox of three in one. The biblical witness continually points to relationships. Both the Hebrew and Christian testaments focus on the relationship between God and his people. And both testaments use a lot of holy ink on human communities— families, tribes, nations, kingdoms, and finally the church.

Our scriptures not only portray communities as they are, but they are also rich with hope as they imagine reconciled relationships between God and the varied creatures of his dominion.

The passage we heard today from the Gospel of John is just a brief piece of a much longer prayer. Jesus has a lot to pray about the night of his betrayal. He enters a deep communication with God, lifting up not only his own fears and faith, but also his concerns for the men and women who believe that he is God's word of salvation.

He prays for his Disciples, and then he prays for us—for we are part of those future Christians who believe in him through the testimonies of our spiritual mothers and fathers. Jesus prays for the church, the community of the faithful who bear the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel. He doesn't pray that the church will be wealthy, or well respected, or theologically orthodox. He prays that the church—that we—may all be one.
If we are to be honest, this is a difficult message to hear. The church is broken. The forefathers of our Disciple tradition were keenly aware of this. They believed that the lack of Christian unity was a great crisis in the Body of Christ. They were appalled that Christians denied one another access to the Table of the Lord's Supper. The Stone-Campbell movement tried earnestly to restore the Church to unity by emphasizing the simple practices and beliefs of the New Testament. It is no small irony that the movement has suffered not one but two fractures on account of differences of religious opinion.

The unity of the church is tested when Christians question the faithfulness of other Christians on account of theological differences. And it is tested when pride is valued more than unity. Most of us have probably heard more than enough about the public fall of the evangelical leader Ted Haggard.

This week the Daily Show, a comedy program that revels in lampooning the headlines, ran a clip of one prominent evangelical leader after another denying that they had anything to do with Ted Haggard, despite the fact that many had worked closely with him through the National Association of Evangelicals, the organization that Haggard led until last week. Without comparing Reverend Haggard to Jesus, the denial of his colleagues in ministry certainly echoed the words of Peter.

Instead of demonstrating difficult though honest unity to the world by condemning Haggard's breach of trust while standing by him as a colleague and friend, many Christian leaders simply denied that Ted Haggard had ever really been an important part of the Christian community to begin with.

It's easy to point out when other people are damaging the unity of the church. It isn't so easy to turn that lens on our community and ourselves. When Jesus prayed for those who would believe in him, he longed that unity would prevail not only between communities of faith, but also within each community of faith.

I met a woman studying to become a minister in the Mennonite tradition a few years ago. She spoke of the first time she attended chapel at her non-Mennonite seminary during the first week of classes. She was startled and uncomfortable to realize that part of the worship experience included receiving the bread and cup of communion. She explained that in her community, members celebrated the Lord's Supper together perhaps only once a year, and then only after a long and searching process of reconciliation among the members of the fold. Receiving Communion without that process, let alone with Christians she barely knew, felt like a cheapening of God's grace.

As a Disciple, I used to think that the only way of keeping Communion central and significant is to gather around the Table each week. Yet my Mennonite friend reminded me that Communion is to be celebrated by a unified and reconciled church. Though it was a rare occasion in her tradition, the Lord's supper was as central and significant as could be. It meant that broken relationships had been restored, old hurts forgiven, and open arguments resolved. Though my friend eventually participated in the Eucharist meal at her seminary, I know that she receives the gifts of bread and cup most deeply when she shares them with the fully reconciled community of her home church.

I pray that as individual believers and as a congregation, we can embrace the reconciliation and forgiveness that is recalled at the table of our Lord each week. We are never going to be perfect. Relationships are full of struggle. All communities encounter conflict, but the healthy ones address it with boldness and humility.

For conflict to truly be resolved, and not simply swept under the carpet, we must take responsibility for our own actions. When I was at church camp in high school, our counselors encouraged us to make amends before the camp community celebrated the Lord's Supper. I remember waiting for a fellow camper to come apologize for hurting my feelings earlier in the week. He never did, yet I was so wrapped up in my sense that he owed me an apology that I did not search my own heart to consider if I had any bridges to rebuild.

The unity of the church is not something to consider only when a clear sign of disunity arises. To be a faithful and welcoming community that is in loving union with one another and with God, that polar star of Christian unity must always be held in sight. We must take Jesus' prayer for unity seriously and personally, and continually seek God's help in answering that prayer.

For we do not simply have on our shoulders the well-being of our own beloved community of faith. The unity of the church is the clarion witness to the mysterious and beautiful unity between God and his son Jesus. When we are a united church, a forgiving community, a reconciled people, we give glory to God. And when God is glorified by the citizens of his holy Kingdom, the world will know of his love and his grace. Just as we sing in that great hymn of peace, let it begin with me. Let it begin with us. Let it begin. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Numbers 21: 4-9:
"From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." (NRSV)

They didn't expect to linger so long in the wilderness. When the Israelites followed Moses out of Egypt, they thought that things were going to get good. Their God had delivered them from the slavery, and they had set off into the sunset with freedom in their blood and prosperity on their minds. But their journey stalled out in the wilderness, year after winnowing year.

The book of Numbers recounts how poorly the Israelites took to their long desert stay. They complained. A lot. They usually leveled their grumbles against Moses, but this time around they spoke against God as well. Their grievance is almost comical. Not only do they not have any food, the food is bad. They murmur that they might have been better off in Egypt, wistfully wishing they could trade their freedom for a more appetizing meal plan.

The Israelites aren't simply whining. Their impatience and frustration is twisted into a complete lack of trust in God. They have no sense of his providence, no faith in his care. Despite the grace they have experienced, they have lost confidence in God.

What God does seems harsh: he sends snakes to infest the Israelite camp, snakes that terrorize the whole tribe and kill everyone who is bitten. This punishment is a pun. The Israelites pine for Egypt, and God offers them a potent reminder of the idolatrous poisons of the land they had left behind. Snakes, in Egypt, were the symbol for a popular goddess. The Israelites want a little taste of Egypt, and God provides.

As soon as the Israelites repent, God's anger gives way to mercy. As a response to Moses' prayer on behalf of his people, God instructs him to make a fiery serpent.

That bronze serpent became a tool for salvation. It literally saved people from dying of their wounds. That's a powerful object. Jesus referred to the bronze serpent when he spoke with Nicodemus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, saying, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in me may have eternal life." Though the story in Numbers comes across as foreign, God is doing what God has been doing ever since his beloved Creation turned away from him: making a way for people to be saved from their sin. This is a familiar story, a story we know well.
The people must have rejoiced. Despite all they had gone through, despite the fact that there were probably still snakes roving their encampment, God had heard their expression of repentance and responded with a tangible source of salvation. This installment of the Israelite saga in the wilderness is effectively over; the next verse has them setting out for another leg of their journey.

And now we're going to fast forward a couple of centuries. The descendents of the original wilderness tribe settled in the promised land, fought in many battles, established a kingdom, split into two nations, and experienced the ups and downs of life as God's chosen people. Their story is pretty fascinating; I definitely recommend reading the book. As each generation gave way to the next, the culture and context of the Israelites and Judeans changed. And what do you know—the bronze serpent Moses made in the desert stayed with them. So let's listen to our second scripture reading today, 2 Kings 18:1-6.

"In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.

He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan. Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the LORD and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the LORD had given Moses." (NRSV)

The plot thickens. What was once a source of salvation for their Israelite ancestors had become an object of idolatry for the Judeans. They certainly knew the origin of the bronze serpent. They knew that it had a lot to do with the survival of their tribes, back before the comfort of a stable civilization and Kingdom. And so they celebrated it as an object worthy of worship.

I would imagine that King Hezekiah's decisive action to destroy the national religious treasure was not very popular. Who was he, this young whippersnapper of a king, to crush such a holy relic? Didn't he know that God had worked through that bronze serpent to save the tribe of Israel from death?

King Hezekiah was a faithful leader; the text of 2 Kings tells us as much. He discerned that something had gone very wrong with his kingdom's relationship with the bronze serpent. He did not deny that it had helped his ancestors survive the wilderness. But he recognized that as the context of God's people changed, it no longer served a purpose. They were no longer under siege by poisonous snakes. Not only had the talisman ceased to save the people. Because it had become an idol, it actively did the opposite.

Some of you may know that I attended a conference last winter that was sponsored by Disciple Home Missions. The goal of the gathering was to give pastors and lay leaders an opportunity to learn about congregational transformation and revitalization. We had time to talk about the churches we serve, as well as hear from pastors who have helped congregations that seemed to be on the brink of closure to become vital, growing congregations. The most inspiration speaker I heard was Pablo Jimenez, who preached on these passages we're considering today. Reverend Jimenez is the former head of Disciple Hispanic Ministries, and he's currently serving on the staff of the Christian Board of Publication. He drew surprising connections between the biblical story of the snakes and the state of many contemporary congregations. He understood the bronze serpent as a metaphor for ministry. He reminded us that ministries are supposed to be "instruments for the salvation of people", conduits for the healing spirit of God to reach his children.

"Ministries," he proclaimed, "are supposed to lead people out of sin, leading them to salvation. [They are] supposed to help people change their lives for the better, providing opportunities that most people cannot reach on their own."

Just as the bronze serpent served a very real purpose in a specific time and place, responding to the life-and-death needs of the Israelites when they were in the wilderness, ministries are also bound to a particular context. The church, as Christ's hands and feet on earth, has the responsibility to pay attention to the needs of the people in our community and develop ministries that respond to the joy and pain of the here and now. The preacher sent a jolt through the room when he stated it plainly: "When ministries do not change, they become mere religious relics, just as the bronze serpent became a relic after the Children of Israel reached the promised land, leaving behind the desert and its fiery serpents."

I doubt I could have made that connection myself, which is why I'm so grateful for chances to hear prophets like Reverend Jimenez preach. I do think that many congregations suffer from the bronze serpent syndrome. And one of the most common bronze serpents in many churches is the memory of the glory days, when new buildings were constructed to accommodate the many families that joined up to participate in Christian Endeavor and Sunday School. The cultural climate that encouraged people to participate actively in communities of faith gave congregations a wonderful opportunity to be in ministry with lots of people. Like South Bay Christian Church, most Disciple congregations used to be significantly larger then than they are now. That didn't mean they were any more faithful to the gospel. The context around us has changed. The neighborhood is different, and the world is different. Yet so many Christians believe that the best way to be church is to be big.

Christian communities throughout the centuries have mostly been small. For every magnificent parish cathedral, there have been many more humble house churches. Yet somehow, so many congregations like ours have convinced themselves that just because supersized communities of faith were once engaged in ministries that led people to salvation, that's the only way to do it. Instead of looking around and realizing that they are no longer ministering in 1950s America and learning how to respond to the needs of God's children in 2006, so many congregations have all but stopped participating in life-giving ministries because they are worshipping the bronze serpent of the past.

I'll tell you some areas where I think we, as a community, have joined King Hezekiah in crushing the bronze serpent. This congregation is generous with its resources. You could have locked up the keys to the Fellowship Hall, guarding the wonderful memories of the worship that took place in that building. Instead, this congregation moved to share that space with another congregation that is ministering to Korean-speaking Christians in life-saving ways. The greatest gift that congregation gives us is not a monthly rental fee; they bless this campus with their passionate witness for the gospel. Another movement away from the bronze serpent syndrome is the Come and Be Fed outreach. I've mentioned that ministry in sermons before; it is a powerful illustration of this congregation's commitment to hands-on ministry on behalf of the poor.

But I'll tell you one thing I learned at that conference: congregations that are dying tend to close off their greater communities. They are so intent on keeping up the institution that they completely lose sight of the mission that Christ gave his Church: to serve. Come and Be Fed shows that South Bay Christian Church is paying attention to its community and actively developing ministries that obey God's commandments to love and to serve.

As a congregation, we must resist the temptation to worship the bronze serpents, whatever they are. That isn't to say we shouldn't honor the victories of the past. The oldest church in my hometown of Stow, Ohio, is a Disciple congregation. Last month they celebrated their 175th anniversary. Of course a great deal of attention was given to where the church had been. Yet in the newspaper article about their anniversary festival, the pastor of the congregation emphasized that the point was to know where they'd been so they would know where they were going. He told the press, "We have a rich history here and we want to celebrate and uplift the people who have worked to keep this church in this community. We want to relive some of the past as a way to help deepen our commitment to ministry and outreach."

We must continually evaluate our ministries to be sure that they are still tools for God to work salvation. If we recognize that our ministries have become religious relics, we need to transform them. We need to be the congregation we are now, not apologizing for our smaller size, but finding ways to grow in faithfulness and commitment to serving God's children. We are only less of a congregation if we allow yesterday's serpent to poison today's mission. There is work to do, and God is calling us to move forward on this journey with hope, courage, and trust. Amen.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Click here to read 1 Kings 3:16-28.

Our text today is a courtroom drama, and even though it was recorded centuries before the birth of Christ, it's a familiar story. The very same case could be tried today in a court of law—or, just as likely, in the court of public opinion known as the daytime talk show. But more importantly, it's familiar because it is a story about family. No matter our context, no matter where we are situated on the timeline of Creation, we can recognize the compassion of a true mother.

At first I wanted to preach this text because of the powerful story it tells: a wise King suggests an unusual but effective test to determine the rightful mother of a newborn child. But the power in this story is really its characters. So today we're going to spend a little time with each participant in this struggle.

Both of the women involved in the dispute are prostitutes. They probably wouldn't have been in the situation if they did not live in the margins of Israelite culture. So far as we can tell, neither of the women is married. And so there is no one else in the house to see it happen, no husband to awaken and intervene when the first mother rolls over in her sleep and fatally injures her infant son. I do have sympathy for that woman, at least in that devastating moment when she wakes up and realizes what she had done. But whether it is her grief that corrupts her or if she was a cruel woman to begin with, she does the unthinkable. She creeps through the dark and lonesome house and makes a frantic attempt to switch her lifeless baby with the one who still breathes and hungers and hiccups.

She takes what isn't hers. She doesn't simply trespass against the living boy and his mother. She abandons her own flesh and blood. If he wasn't a living boy who could grow into a child and become a man, he was nothing to her, simply a token to exchange for a second chance.

The villain of this story does nothing to redeem herself in the light of day. Standing before the King, she lies. Her testimony is false, her words broken and meaningless. It's no surprise that when the sword is drawn and the life of the kidnapped baby is threatened, she is happy to let him be sacrificed at the altar of her spite.

Let's talk about that King. After all, Solomon is the celebrated hero of the story. When word of his amazing gift for discerning the truth sweeps through his Kingdom, the people are in awe. They recognize that God's wisdom dwells within him. Now, this story is often read as we read it today—taken out of context. This unusual trial and verdict take place soon after King Solomon has awakened from a dream. This is all happening pretty early in Solomon's reign over Israel. He's only been king since chapter two of the book of Kings, when his father, the celebrated King David, went to sleep with his ancestors. (That means he died.) So here we are in chapter three, and King Solomon has the esteemed privilege of encountering God in a dream.

This is a dream many long to have—the Lord shows up and asks Solomon what he should receive. What should I give you? Solomon could have said anything. He could have asked for wealth or beauty or more soldiers for his army. Solomon had an opportunity to receive anything he wanted, and he asked God for wisdom. He said, I'm really small, like a child, actually, and I have a lot of people expecting me to lead them. So give me, your servant, understanding. Give me the ability to discern between good and evil. Give me wisdom, your wisdom. So great a King, and so aware that he was empty and helpless without God's help.

So what's interesting about this story is that Solomon comes across as powerful and wise, but the reader knows that Solomon is only gifted with such confidence and discernment because he had confessed his need to God. He had admitted that he was no better than a little child when it came to knowing what was best for his people. I know why my seminary professor always pestered us to read everything that comes before and after any passage we intended to preach. If we just see Solomon playing the wise judge, we're likely to miss that it's God's wisdom doing the heavy lifting. Solomon was wise enough to know that he knew nothing. In his weakness, he made room for God's understanding.

I have to say, as much as I concur with the awestruck Israelites that Solomon drank deeply from the well of God's wisdom, I think that the true mother in this story is an unsung heroine. Despite the fact that she is a prostitute, vulnerable to the scorn and distrust of good society, she publicly stands up for herself and for her infant son. She will not let her child be stolen from her without a fight, and she fights well. She seeks out the King, and presents her argument as articulately as any lawyer. Yet as passionately as she fights for her right to mother her own child, she is just as quick to sacrifice her experience of motherhood to save her boy.

Solomon may possess the wisdom of discernment, but the victimized mother possesses the wisdom of love. The scriptures testify that compassion for her son burned within her. Her heart is scorched by the fierceness of her love for the child she had conceived, delivered, and nursed. Though pains her, she is willing to give him up if it meant that he could live. That is the wisdom of love. By revealing that she puts the life of the child before her own, the plaintiff proves that she is the true mother, and her son is saved from both the kidnapper and the sword. Solomon returns the child to her arms, unharmed.

There is another character in this drama, and I'm not talking about the crying infant. God's wisdom is at work, and in the Hebrew tradition, the wisdom of God is personified. She speaks in the language of poetry in the book of Proverbs, calling for all people to seek her out and learn her ways. She is, in a way, a literary technique, a metaphor. She gives voice to what could otherwise be a dusty and lifeless theological CONCEPT. Wisdom is not simply a set of rules to obey or disobey. Wisdom takes to the street in the poetry of Proverbs. She is loud, dynamic, bossy, and more precious than diamonds. She is a teacher, a guide, a voice leading us away from evil and toward the will of God. Wisdom calls us into our best selves, and challenges us to live in a way that is in harmony with Creation. She is an active, invisible presence in the story, giving insight and strength to the humble King and the brave mother so that the truth can be discerned.

Lady Wisdom, as she is sometimes called, is an unusual biblical character. She is neither spirit nor angel, but she embodies the mind of God. Her presence is not about burning bushes or even visionary dreams; she is subtle. Even as a literary figure, she testifies to a God who isn't afraid to get mixed up in the world. The argument that God created the world and walked away just doesn't stand when Lady Wisdom shows up at the gates of the town, preaching the way of life. The traditions about Lady Wisdom are so much about the very real presence and activity of God that Christians would later recognize the connection between the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, Christ Jesus his son. God is involved with his people, God has a will for us, God is continually making himself present in our lives, in ways that are seen and unseen. We must seek God as persistently as he seeks us.

I don't want to turn this story from the First book of Kings into a simple morality tale. Of course we know that we should endeavor to have wisdom like Solomon and be compassionate like the true mother. What this story can be for us is a guide for discerning how God works in the world. Here we can practice seeing God’s movement in something as ordinary as a family controversy, and practice recognizing what it looks like when human beings—whether they are prostitutes or kings—follow the will of God. Where we accept our weakness, we make room for the spirit. Where we see compassion burning, we are likely to find the presence of God. Where we find the truth revealed, we have surely encountered Wisdom. May it be so.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Today we will consider the point in Israel’s history when an Egyptian slave woman named Hagar experienced God’s grace. Our text for today enters the story partway through the saga, so a little background information is necessary. Back when Abraham was still Abram, God promised that he would be blessed with many descendants. But Abram and his wife, Sarai, were barren. They had no children, and so God’s promise seemed impossible. Sarai was tired of the impossible promise, and tired of the shame her culture heaped upon her for being childless. So she did what women of means could do in such a situation. She volunteered her slave, Hagar, to be a surrogate mother. Once Hagar conceived, Sarai detected contempt in the eyes of her slave. Abram took the hands-off approach to his quarreling wives, and told Sarai that Hagar was hers and she could do whatever she wanted. So Sarai was cruel to Hagar, and before long Hagar fled to the wilderness. There, by a spring of water, Hagar encountered an angel of the Lord. She received some good news and some bad news. She was to return to her unkind mistress and submit to her authority. But she was also informed that the child in her womb would also be the patriarch of many descendants. So Hagar returned to her masters’ house and gave birth to a son, Ishmael.

Soon after, Sarai and Abram become Sarah and Abraham, and despite Sarah’s old age, they also become parents to the long-promised boy, Isaac. At this point we encounter Hagar and her boy in Genesis 21: 8-21.

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (NRSV)

Her name means “stranger.” And that is what she was to her masters, Abraham and Sarah. They did not know her; even though she lived under their roof and bore Abraham a son, she was nothing more than a stranger among them. We can count what we know about her on one hand: she was an Egyptian, a slave, a mother, an outcast. But she encountered God in the wilderness twice. We do not know her, but she knew God. And so the stranger becomes part of our spiritual history. What does she teach us?
The book of Genesis tells the story of the beginnings of the Israelite people; it is an account of their formation as the chosen ones of God. Abraham and Sarah are the great ancestors of Israel; through their son, Isaac, a nation was born. Yet it would be hard to argue that this story is told from their perspective. If they told the story, surely they would have softened Sarah’s cruelty, and made Hagar out to be more of a troublemaker. There they were, the family chosen to give birth to God’s great nation, and Abraham and Sarah were far from perfect. They were complicated people, neither all good nor all bad… which is to say that they were human.

The Old Testament is composed of stories that bear witness to God through the language and history of the Hebrew people. And as with any account of a nation’s history, we are bound to hear about the nations and peoples they encountered along their journey. We cannot understand Israel without spending some time in Egypt; we cannot know King David without getting acquainted with his enemies the Ammonites. Their stories are intertwined, woven into a shared history. For the most part, we hear the story from the perspective of the Israelites. But this unique family drama from the early archives of Israel’s history seems drawn through the perspective of Hagar, the Egyptian.
We don’t get to stay back with Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre to witness the great feast celebrating Isaac’s birth and the promises it fulfilled. Rather, the narrator invites us to wander into the wilderness with Hagar. We see her hope draining away as her water supply dwindles. We witness her despair as she leaves her child beneath a bush, knowing that he cannot survive the harsh wilderness without water. And we hear her wretched cries resound through the vast and unforgiving desert.

We were not led into the desert to watch Hagar mourn her son. In the wilderness we see a miracle unfold, a spring of water burst forth in a land where no water has any business flowing. We might expect, as the spiritual descendants of Isaac, that God would pour all of his care and blessing into the chosen son, the legitimate child of Abraham and Sarah. Certainly, this is what Sarah expected of her God. Instead, even while the feast for Isaac is being served, God saves the son who was not chosen, the forsaken son of the Egyptian slave-woman. God hears the cries of the boy and sends his angel to comfort and counsel Hagar to pick up her boy and take him to the wellspring. The boy and his mother are delivered.

One of the overarching themes of the Old Testament is God’s habit of rooting for the righteous underdog. Time and time again, the stories and prophecies of the Hebrew Witness proclaim God’s compassion for the oppressed. God will deliver his people from slavery and proclaim a year of Jubilee, a time for all debts to be forgiven. God will send prophets like Isaiah to bring good news to the oppressed and proclaim liberty to the captives. The thing is, the righteous underdog is usually Israel. After all, throughout Israel’s history, enemies constantly threatened the small nation. The former slaves would become exiles, and later, in New Testament times, inhabitants of an occupied land. The Israelites knew through all of those trials that the God of justice stood with them.

And yet way back in the Genesis of Israelite history, here is a story where God’s mercy and justice is extended even to one who is a stranger. God’s desire for justice could not be contained within the chosen people; when Sarah and Abraham cast out an Egyptian, she was not denied God’s mercy.

The boy who cried in the wilderness, Ishmael, was the son of a stranger. But his name bears witness to the God we know: Ishmael means God hears. In the wilderness of Beer-sheba, God heard his cries. And this is what the story of Hagar and her boy teaches us: God hears when his children weep. No matter if the child is celebrated or cast off; God hears.

People are often very keen on determining just how wide God’s mercy really is, just how far his love reaches. Some almost seem to prefer that salvation be limited to the ones they deem worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. Sarah believed that her status as the chosen mother of a chosen son made Hagar and Ishmael unworthy to receive their inheritance of God’s love. She could not imagine a household that had room for both of Abraham’s sons. But our scriptures reveal that God’s compassion reaches beyond even the ones that he has chosen. God chooses, God hears, God saves. Thanks be to God it isn’t up to Sarah; thanks be to God it isn’t up to us. Amen.


Sunday, October 8, 2006

I decided to go off-lectionary for a bit and spend some time exploring the great stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. So the text for this sermon is Daniel 6.

The story of Daniel's adventure in the Lion's Den is standard fare in Sunday School. If you grew up in church, you might have watched the tale reenacted with puppets, or made a lion out of construction paper, or heard one of the many Children's versions read during Story Hour. The story is popular beyond the church, as well. A brief version of it is included in the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a reference book of American culture. The story of the man who was miraculously protected from hungry lions makes for an exciting lesson about a faithful man's deliverance from death.

But let's go deeper.

I want for us to really understand what's going on here, and so a little refresher on the history of the Israelites is in order. For a short time, the Israelites had one united and sovereign Kingdom, ruled by David and his descendents. But the Northern part of the Kingdom broke away, and the divided house soon collapsed. The Northern Kingdom went first, but the Southern Kingdom of Judea was eventually destroyed by the conquests of the Babylonians. That's when the Babylonian Exile began. Thousands of Judeans were deported to Babylon. Daniel was a member of the Jewish community in exile. The Babylonians were smart; they didn't force able-minded people into positions of manual labor. A man like Daniel, with an excellent spirit, could achieve a measure of success in the foreign land. When we first encountered Daniel, he was not some low-level assistant. He was one of three administrators with a lot of responsibility for the Babylonian Kingdom. His supervisor was none other than King Darius himself, and the King clearly liked and trusted Daniel. A major promotion was in the works for our Israelite hero. He stood to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor Joseph, who held a position of authority in Egypt.

The other administrators didn't like Daniel. They had no reason and every reason to grumble about his leadership. There he was, a foreigner whose homeland had been defeated by Babylonian forces. Exile wasn't supposed to mean a fast track to the top for Daniel, and yet he had distinguished himself so highly that he was about to become their boss. They wanted to take him down on principle. But it turned out he was a little too good for their rotten scheme. His character was honorable, his record immaculate. So they played the religion card. "We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God."

They hammered out the perfect plan of attack: flatter the King by drafting a law prohibiting prayers to any other authority—divine or human—for thirty days. And then camp out under Daniel's window and wait for the evidence to fall into their waiting arms.

One of the most important details of the story comes next. "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before."

Daniel and his people had lost their homeland, their temple, and the basic freedom to live and work where they pleased. But Daniel's faith would not be tethered by any ruler. His soul would not be managed by any edict. The conspiracy against Daniel threatened to enslave his spirit, but Daniel's spirit was as fierce as a lion. The narrator of this story is clear as can be: Daniel knew full well of the new law prohibiting his daily prayers, and he prayed anyway. What's more, he didn't lock his piety away behind the relative safety of a cellar door. Daniel disobeyed the law openly, kneeling before his open window to pray to the God of Israel.

To me, this is every bit as awe-inspiring as the lock-jawed lions.

Prayer, for Daniel, was as natural as breath. Three times a day, without fail, he fell to his knees and offered himself to his Lord. A prayer attributed to Daniel is preserved in the second chapter of the book bearing his name: "Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him." Through prayer, Daniel knew God. Prayer connected him to the Living Source of Life. And through prayer, Daniel knew himself. Raising his voice in praise to the God of his Ancestors—the God of our Ancestors— gave him an unwavering sense of identity, even in a foreign land. No matter how high he rose in the ranks of Babylon's leadership, three times a day he turned toward Jerusalem: heart, mind, and body.

With the royal decree limiting prayer only to the King, Daniel's praying took on another shape in his life. Prayer became a form of resistance, a public sign of his obedience to a greater law. Prayer became a form of civil disobedience. Daniel rejected not only the idolatry of the edict, but even the temptation to simply take the truth underground for thirty days.

Daniel's bravery – not in the lion's den, but on his knees before the open window— became a hero to Mahatma Gandhi early in his vocation as a pioneer of nonviolent resistance. Daniel was Gandhi's model of resistance to unjust legislation. When he was working on behalf of the Indians suffering from oppression in South Africa, Gandhi counseled his brethren to "sit with their doors flung wide open and tell those gentlemen that whatever laws they passed were not for them unless those laws were from God."

There are always consequences to civil disobedience. Anyone who publicly breaks a law faces the penalties of the law, even if the law is wrong. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that when he and his fellow civil rights activists disobeyed the segregation laws, they were inviting imprisonment, hatred, and abuse. They expected to land squarely within the fangs of racist Americans. They used that predictable retaliation, hoping that the sight of innocent suffering would transform the hardened hearts of their oppressors.

Darius didn't even want to follow his foolish edict, but the law was the law. King and Kingdom would lose all integrity if he didn't consistently enforce the laws of the land. And so Daniel was thrust into the lion's den with nothing to protect him but the God to whom he had prayed a million times before.

Which was all he needed.

What happened to Daniel in the lion's den was a joyful triumph for people of faith. God saved his servant. Daniel's deliverance from death is one of the greatest, most vividly imaginable stories in all of our Holy Scriptures. It gives hope to the hopeless and proclaims that God will make a way where there is no way. The blameless hero was nearly killed on account of his devotion, yet his devotion to the Most High God summoned an angel to seal the jaws of his predators.

In the lions' den we learn that the rules and regulations of the world are not the final authority over God's children. Corrupt laws are turned to ash, death itself is left empty-handed, and even the most foolish King makes a wise decree: revere the God of Daniel.


I found a book in our church library called Alone with God. It was written in 1917 by a woman named Matilda Erickson. It's the sort of book you could glance at once and immediately dismiss; surely, a volume so old and yellowed doesn't have anything too enlightening within its tattered covers. But listen to what Matilda had to say about Daniel. "When prime minister of Babylon, [Daniel] found it possible to meet God alone three times each day. All that the men asked of Daniel was that he stop praying for thirty days—just thirty days. Many Christians have stopped praying much longer than that, when the only lions in the way were carelessness and spiritual laziness."

Daniel isn't a hero because he was saved from the lions. That was God's doing, God's power revealed. Daniel is a hero because he threw open his window and prayed. His best bravery was spent on his knees. He defied Babylon, and our God stood with him in that defiance to establish life where Babylonian law sentenced death.


It has been said that the Bible comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. In the gospels, Jesus teaches that his followers must lose their lives for his sake in order to live. The part about everlasting life is comforting, but the dying for it can be a bit unnerving. We love that Daniel's faith in God saved from death in the lions' lair… but don't linger too much on the fact that his faith in God landed him there in the first place.

Daniel's story teaches us what it means to be truly faithful. God does not challenge us to be privately pious, concealing our devotion from polite company. God dares us to take our faith public, living out the commands of our God – even when that means irritating the culture or breaking the law. God longs for us to choose the lion's den with Him rather than the palace without him [paraphrase from Matilda Erickson].

Ancient Babylon thirsted for a witness like that of Daniel's. And so does our own time and place. Our witness to the goodness of God is a prayer that must be prayed and a window that must be opened. This tired world needs to encounter the God we know through Jesus Christ, and the only ones capable of giving voice to his glory are the ones who know him.

We will face lions, but none more dangerous than a life emptied of God. Like Daniel, we will be delivered. Like Daniel, we will be saved.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

According to the Message, this is what happened in the house in Capernaum: “He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, "Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.” Now, the New Revised Standard Version is a translation. I trust that Mark’s original text probably says something closer to its language of Jesus taking a child and putting it among the Disciples. Yet Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase captures the tenderness we believe that Jesus would have demonstrated toward a small child. He cradles and embraces the little one. This is the language of love. The first lesson children are taught in Sunday school is that Jesus loves the little children, and this scripture bears witness to that love.

It can be hard to hear the fullness of this gospel text about power and greatness, humility and servanthood, discipleship and childhood, and what it really means to welcome God. Our own culture and context can deafen us to the Bible. We live in a culture that values children. We have an educational system that provides schooling to rich and poor children alike. And though laws are often broken, the mere fact that children are legally protected from abuse, neglect, and labor is significant. In ancient times, children were socially on par with slaves. They were completely powerless. Even today, children are endangered in certain cultures. So while we hear Jesus’ call to welcome children in light of our culture that, as a whole, agrees that children are to be cherished and protected, we might miss how off-key this lesson sounded to the Disciples’ ears. This is yet another example illustrating the upside-down, topsy-turvy Kingdom of God, where a servant is the greatest and one can welcome God by welcoming a child.

So as Disciples, our lesson is that we are to take the risks of servanthood. “Greatness is achieved in Jesus's eyes, not just by the fact that we serve others, not just by the fact that we pour out our time and our talent for the sake of others, greatness in the eyes of Jesus is found in the willingness of his disciples to receive, to accept, and indeed to really welcome those they would normally consider un-receivable, unacceptable, and unwelcome.” Including a child.

As wonderful and necessary that lesson is, it isn’t the one I’m called to preach today. In my study this week, I practiced a prayerful way of reading the Bible that was taught by St. Ignatius, one of the great guides of Christian spirituality. The Ignatian method of bible reading encourages Christians to put one of God’s greatest gifts to use—our imaginations.

“Generally, Ignatian prayer works best with narrative material in which actual characters live a story of faith. The idea is to place yourself into the text as a careful observer -- a fly on the wall. Ignatius commended the use of the five senses in such meditation. You taste, hear, see, smell and feel your way through the passage. Occasionally you become one of the characters, seeing the story unfold from his or her viewpoint. Most of all, the aim is to help you perceive the narrative from the viewpoint of Jesus so that you may more fully participate in his mind, heart, and work.”

While the Ignatian method doesn’t replace traditional bible study, it is a wonderful way to interact with the living word of God.

So I imagined my way into the gospel text. So much to see, so much to relate to. I started by acknowledging how very tired the whole group must have been, walking so many miles to fulfill their mission. I felt the Disciples’ fear and bewilderment when Jesus again preached that he would be killed and after three days rise again. I overheard the bickering about which Disciple would be greatest—and I recognized their shame and heard their silence when Jesus wondered what they were arguing about. It’s easy for me to relate to the Disciples in the Gospel of Mark, for he is the evangelist who is most brutally honest about their many blunders.

But just as I thought my practice of the Ignatian Method would lead me to remain with the disciples and see the whole story through their searching eyes, Jesus draws the child into the circle. And as I contemplated the simple beauty of the Son of God cradling a little child in his arms, I realized that I wanted, and needed, to be the child. I squeezed my eyes shut and summoned every drop of my imagination into becoming the object of Jesus’ lesson, the little one whom he embraced.

Most of the folks who gather for worship are grown-up Christians. We’re supposed to be learning the lessons the Disciples had to learn, because we are part of the communion of saints before us who spent their lives trying to faithfully follow Christ. And so I am not surprised that every commentary and sermon I read about this passage interpreted it in light of what it calls the Disciples to do to do.

Its lesson is important and startling. Welcome a child, serve the powerless, and you welcome and serve not only Christ but the One who sent him. We need to be challenged to understand what this really means. I have a friend who is both a pastor and a mother, and she is using this opportunity to remind her congregation that they can’t just welcome her kids when they are on their best behavior; if they really want to welcome her kids they have to welcome, in her words, “crumbs in the pews and poop and all kids of unwelcoming things.” Jesus isn’t calling his followers to welcome Precious Moments figurines of children; he cradles before them a living and breathing child who needs care.

We are the Disciples learning how to truly welcome, but we are that child, too, hungry for love and acceptance, needing to know that no matter how small we are, we are great in the eyes of God. Our journey with Jesus starts when we realize, with all the simplicity of a child, that Jesus really does love us. Just as Jesus cradled and embraced that little one in Galilee, he welcomes each and every one of us to rest in his arms.

It is all too easy to teach a child the opposite. I remember the burning feeling I had when I was yelled at in my childhood church for running in the sanctuary during the midweek ministry program. I was sternly told that I was in the house of the Lord. The sanctuary no longer felt safe; the Father’s mansion suddenly didn’t seem to have room for me. No one but Jesus could have drawn me out of my shame. No one but Jesus could erase the harsh words that separated me from feeling like I was welcome in the sanctuary. No one but Jesus.

Fred Craddock tells a story. “Used to have a kid down home who’d believe anything you’d tell him. You could say, “The schoolhouse burned down. We’re not having school tomorrow.”

“Oh boy!” He’d believe it.

“They’re giving away free watermelons down at the town hall.”

“Really? Free watermelons?” He’d go running off.

“Did you know the president of the United States is coming to our town tomorrow?”

“He is? Really? Whoopee!” He just believed everything.

I remember once there was an evangelist who came to our town, and he said to that kid, “God loves you and cares for you and comes to you in Jesus Christ.” And do you know, that kid believed it? He actually believed it.”

I hope that you believe it, too.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jesus and his Disciples are making their way to a new territory, a new set of villages in which to teach and heal and bear witness to the goodness of God. And as they journey to Caesarea Philippi, the unfamiliar landscape draws forth a new set of questions. Jesus asks what the people are saying about him. The Disciples certainly would have been keeping up with the public perception of their prophet, and so they are quick to answer what they have heard. That this man from Nazareth is something special goes without saying, and so people have speculated that he might be an incarnation of John the Baptist, or Elijah, or perhaps a prophet sent by God to proclaim a new word for the Israelites.

Jesus' question is more than a straw poll. Knowing what other people say about Jesus can be helpful as we prepare ourselves to answer the second of Jesus' questions. One of my first assignments in seminary was to analyze and compare how the reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther understood who Jesus is and what his life and death means for humanity.

It was an exhausting paper to research, full of nitpicky details and fine distinctions. It felt like calculating how many angels dance on the head of a pin. And yet, when I timidly met my strict German professor for a conference about the paper, we ended up talking at length about my own understanding of who Jesus was and is. I was surprised to realize how much learning about the church's traditional interpretations of Jesus Christ informed my own confession of faith.

On the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus pushed the Disciples to answer for themselves just who they thought they were following. Whether he was blessed by unique wisdom or courage, Peter alone responded, and his answer was correct: their rabbi was no ordinary man, but the Messiah.

Peter thought he knew what it meant to stand in the presence of the Messiah. He believed that Israel's hope for a restored earthly kingdom was fulfilled in Jesus. After centuries of slavery and exile, turmoil and oppression, the Israelites would finally emerge from under the iron thumb of their most recent enemies and be sovereign over their promised land again. Jesus would be the victorious King, born from the house of David. All of these expectations swirled in Peter's head as he proudly proclaimed Jesus' true identity.

The Disciples’ high hopes were dashed, as Jesus took Peter's spark of understanding as an invitation to go deeper into the real meaning of Messiah. The Disciples had seen a lot since Jesus called them out of their fishing boats. They had seen Jesus scatter Demons, vanquish leprosy, chill fevers. They had seen loaves and fish split into five thousand servings, and paralysis give way to movement. They had heard the astounding authority in Jesus' words. They had seen more than enough to believe that Jesus was the Christ, worthy of their trust and adoration.

Yet nothing prepared them for this new teaching. What is this about suffering and rejection? What is this about death? I wonder if Peter even heard the part about rising again after three days, so appalled was he at the thought of his beloved master denied by their brethren.

We hear this teaching in much the same way as the Disciples. We did not gather today expecting the doom and drear of Lent. This is the time of the Christian year in which we simply hear the stories about Jesus. We're supposed to be growing in our Discipleship of the risen Lord by rehearsing the gospel accounts of miracles and parables. And yet in the midst of our journey with Jesus, suddenly we find ourselves on another road altogether. We thought we were going to Caesarea Philippi, but it turns out the path leads to Calvary.
Jesus wants his Disciples to understand who he really is.

And if the finger is pointed in our direction, if we take on the boldness of Peter and proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, do we know what that means? The life and death and life of Jesus will reveal an utterly unexpected Messiah, and an utterly unexpected God. For Jesus is not an exception in the life of God, a momentary lapse of divine power. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the sharpest reflection of the heart of our Creator. The fierce tribal god of battles and retribution turns out to be a falsehood. The cheerful and shiny god of smashing success is just another idol. Jesus reveals that the God who lit the stars and stirred the seas, the true God, is loving and compassionate. His faithfulness to his people renders him completely vulnerable, and so through Christ we learn that the One who created us is the One who suffers with us, and for us. And though we might believe that the opposite of power is vulnerability, the Messiah lives and dies to show us that the greatest expression of power is the vulnerability of sacrificial love.

To claim Jesus as the Messiah demands that we recognize the breadth and the depth, the joy and the sorrow, of who Jesus is and what he brought about. Why did the Disciples bother to leave their nets behind and follow this strange teacher throughout the hills and plains of Galilee? And, for that matter, why do we bother to follow him in this time and in this place?

This week I encountered one pastor’s answer to this question that took my breath away and had me drawing stars in the margins of the page. Why do we follow? “Because Jesus told Nathanael, the Samaritan woman and others the truth about themselves. Because he fulfilled the longing of Israel. Because he brought healing and forgiveness that embodied the new regime of which he spoke. Because he practiced and pictured the character and possibility of all people, and breathed purpose and destiny into all creation.

Because he opened out an everlasting communion with the Father that made the Romans, the conventional powers and authorities, all the destructive and craven impulses of the world, even death itself, seem paltry and pitiful. He formed around himself a community, and gave them the practices and the gifts to be his body through pain and joy. His were the words and deeds of eternal life, and there have been none to match them before or since.”

Peter’s lack of understanding frustrated Jesus, and if we join Peter in denying the fullness of who Jesus is, we will frustrate our Lord just as surely. Jesus spoke harshly to Peter not because he didn’t love this bold yet flawed Disciple. Jesus knew how crucial it was for those closest to him, those who had heard and responded to his call on their lives, to know the truth about their leader and the mission he shared with them. No one can say that Jesus didn’t warn his followers that proclaiming the gospel could result in suffering and death.

Just as Jesus could not evade the cruelty of the cross, neither could his followers. "If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me." This is not a battle cry for martyrdom; this is an honest evaluation of the cost of discipleship.

Peter thought he was on the road to Caesarea Philippi with a man whose reputation echoed that of Elijah and John the Baptist. He found out he was following the Messiah on a path to Calvary, and for the life of him, he could not discern any good news in this detour. Yet what we overhear in this challenging passage is a story about a disciple ever so slowly realizing that he is in the presence of the only one who can lead him home.

In this geography of discipleship, Jesus is the leader. We must either follow or get out of the way. If we cannot accept the God whom Jesus reveals, if we cannot abide that our Savior should be anything other than an untainted idol of success, we will be rebuked and told to get back. The journey will continue without us. But if we look at this incredible map and see the way, the truth, and the life, we will be given the grace and the strength to take up our cross and follow him to the lowest hell and the highest heaven.

At this intersection, who do you say that He is?