An ELCA pastor shares his thoughts about the Bible, spirituality, the world, and LGBT issues.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Sunday Sermon - Holiness

LECTIONARY 23B   Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
8/30/15  David Eck
 

Holiness, holiness is what I long for
Holiness is what I need
Holiness, holiness is what you want from me

So take my heart and form it
Take my mind and transform it
Take my will and conform it
To yours, to yours, O Lord 

     Holiness is a church word. The only time I think I've ever heard it spoken outside of the church is when addressing a revered religious figure such as his Holiness, the Pope, or his Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
     The dictionary defines holiness as "The state of being holy" which is NOT helpful at all! Somewhere in the back of my mind I hear the voice of my Jr High English teacher who told us repeatedly you CANNOT use a word to define the same word. The other two definitions of holiness are "Devoted to the service of God"a nd "morally and spiritually excellent."
     I don't know about you, but I find the prospect of being holy a little bit daunting. I can handle "devoted to the service of God." After all, I'm a pastor! It's kind of expected! But "morally superior and excellent"? Well, that just makes me break out in a cold sweat. I don't feel "morally superior" to anyone. And if I did feel morally superior, wouldn't that make me LESS than holy? It's a Catch-22 if you know what I mean! Then there's "excellent" to which I have to respond "Well, most days I'm just average; other days I'm barely hanging on to all the responsibilities that are on my plate."
     So what does it mean to be holy? What does holiness look like? Does it involve living a monastic existence apart from the world, devoting our lives to prayer and contemplation? Does it involve selling all our worldly possessions and dedicating our lives to serving the poor and oppressed? These are the kinds of things that come to mind when most people hear the word "holiness?" It feels like an impossible standard to live up to. So why even give it a try? I'm not sure any of us can be 100% "devoted to the service of God" and "morally and spiritually excellent." Perhaps Jesus has something else in mind for us in terms of holiness. I sure hope so because if he doesn't I think we're all in serious trouble!

So take my heart and form it
Take my mind and transform it
Take my will and conform it
To yours, to yours, O Lord

     Our gospel lesson for today has a lot to say about the subject of holiness. In fact, it's a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees on this very subject. But before we go into the details of the debate it's helpful to know where Mark places this story in his gospel. In Chapter 6 Mark has Jesus ministering and performing miracles on the Jewish side of Lake Galilee. He feeds over 5,000 people. He also touches and heals many Jews.
     Then, skipping over to chapter 8, Jesus is on the Gentile side of the Lake where he feeds over 4,000 people. He also touches and heals many Gentiles. This is significant because a good rabbi would be expected to conduct his ministry on the Jewish side of the Lake. However, doing the same thing on the Gentile side was more than a bit scandalous! It was basically forbidden!
     I believe that Mark set up this narrative structure on purpose. It shows the dramatic shift that happened in the way Jesus conducted his ministry. He goes from ministering to Jews only to ministering to both Jews and Gentiles. Mark gives us a reason for this change. This reason is the debate in chapter 7 between Jesus and the Pharisees on the nature of holiness. There is something about this conversation that Mark uses to explain why Jesus dismissed some of the cultural and religious expectations of his day, and blazed a new path.
     Mark's audience would have paid close attention to this narrative structure because they found themselves in a similar position. The gospel of Mark was written around 70 CE. This is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. This caused an upheaval in Judaism. They had to figure out what their faith looked like without the Temple as a primary focus. The followers of Jesus were in a similar position. They found themselves asking if they were going to continue with their Jewish identity OR move ahead more vigorously into a Gentile mission that set aside parts of the Law.
     We see this struggle for identity in many of Paul's letters. Disputes over issues such as circumcision, the eating of food offered to idols, and even the wearing of head coverings, speak of a religious movement that was in flux. Some wanted to cling to the old ways. Others wanted to forge a new identity.
     Therefore, this portion of Mark's gospel would have resonated with them quite deeply. It spoke to the struggles they were facing as an emerging religious movement. The way Mark structures chapters 6-8 makes it clear that he understood Jesus mission as one that was focused on both Jews and Gentiles. The reason for this change has to do with the way Jesus understood the nature of holiness. It has less to do with outside religious observances and more to do with what's going on inside of us.
     This message would have hit home with Jesus' followers during the time of the destruction of the Temple. It should also resonate with us since we are the byproduct of the Gentile mission of the early followers of Jesus. If they had not made the switch, we might not even be here today! Our gospel lesson is an essential text in our understanding of the kind of holiness Jesus expects of his followers. So let's jump into the text and see what we can learn about the nature of holiness.

So take my heart and form it
Take my mind and transform it
Take my will and conform it
To yours, to yours, O Lord

     The setting is a familiar one. The Pharisees and some of the scribes are angry at Jesus…again! This is hardly the first, nor the last time, this would happen! In this particular instance the disciples were "eating with defied hands." This means more than practicing good hygiene. It means they were not following the Jewish ritual of hand washing that was performed before eating a meal.
     As a side bar, Mark lists some of the other religious observances yhe Jews followed including not eating anything from the market unless it was ritually cleansed, AND not eating from any cups, pots or kettles that were not ritually cleansed. The implied reason for this sidebar is that the disciples didn't strictly follow any of these religious laws and this was a bone of contention with the Pharisees.
     Jesus answers their criticism by quoting the prophet Isaiah: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." In other words, what's going on inside is far more important than what's going on outside. One could follow all the ritual rules of the Law and still be a horrible person.
     In case the Pharisees failed to understand what he was trying to teach them, Jesus made it abundantly clear: "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." [NRSV]
     Jesus had drawn a religious line in the sand. His interest was true holiness, not hygiene. True holiness begins inside of us and then radiates outward into the world. It doesn't work in the opposite direction.
     Jesus would make this observation repeatedly throughout the gospels. In Luke 17 Jesus told the Pharisees "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you."  [Lk 17:20-21] The Greek word translated as "among" also means "inside." The kingdom of God begins INSIDE of us, NOT outside of us. It begins in our hearts, minds and spirits, and then radiates out into the world.
     The Pharisees failure to understand the true nature of holiness exasperated Jesus so much that he called them "white washed tombs." "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees," Jesus said, "for you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth."  [Mt 23:27-28] That's pretty harsh. You know that had to hurt! This is one of the strongest rebukes Jesus spoke that is recorded in the gospels.
     I believe the reason why his rhetoric was so harsh is that this was a very important subject to Jesus. As he moved from a primarily Jewish mission to one that included both Jews and Gentiles, he would always look at people's insides rather than judging them by how well they followed the ritual rules of Judaism. This made many of the Pharisees very angry. It's one of the reasons why they plotted to kill him. He threatened to upset their whole way of living and they didn't like it one bit.
     So where does this leave us as we ask the question: "What does it mean to be holy? What does holiness look like?" The answer should be perfectly clear. We don't have to live a monastic existence, devoting our lives to prayer and contemplation, in order to be called holy. We don't have to sell all our worldly possessions and dedicate our lives to serving the poor and oppressed in order to be called holy.
     True holiness begins inside of us. as we walk with Jesus, day by day, he begins to transform our negative thoughts and emotions so that we become more and more like him. The light he gives birth to in our hearts, minds and spirits radiates out into the world and fills it with light as well. This is light is a thousand times brighter than any external appearances of religion we could follow.
     Meister Eckhart, a 14th century monk, put it this way. "The outward work will never be puny if the inward work is great.  And the outward work can never be great or even good if the inward one is puny or of little worth. The inward work invariably includes in itself all expansiveness, all breadth, all length, all depth.  Such a work receives and draws all its being from nowhere else except from and in the heart of God."
     Friends in Christ, may we strive to be holy, not by outward appearances but by a radical reworking of our hearts, minds and spirits. May we allow Jesus to transform us from the inside out so that the world might be transformed by the radiant light of Christ.

Holiness, holiness is what I long for
Holiness is what I need
Holiness, holiness is what you want from me

So take my heart and form it
Take my mind and transform it
Take my will and conform it
To yours, to yours, O Lord.

AMEN


Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Threads: Pulling Meaning From The Tangled Mess" by Nancy Kraft

     This book is a must read for all LGBT people of faith.  Rev. Nancy Kraft, a friend of mine, tells it like it is in her honest and moving spiritual memoir Threads: Pulling Meaning From The Tangled Mess.  Included in this book are personal stories, commentary on biblical texts and quite a number of stories of ministry with the LGBT community.
     I love this book because Nancy is the real deal.  She never sugar coats the truth about the challenges of life and the struggles we all face in trying to understand God.  There are wonderful insights on nearly every page in this book that will inspire and challenge you at the same time.
     Nancy's faith journey is far from perfect, which is what I love about her. In Threads, Nancy never toots her own horn, saying "Look at what I did."  Rather, she always points to God saying, "Look at what God did." Nancy is quick to remind us that God is full of surprises and if we just let the Holy One guide our lives, we're in for some wonderful and unexpected twists and turns along the way.  You can buy Threads on Amazon.  I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sunday Sermon - What Are Your Superpowers?

LECTIONARY 21B  Ephesians 6:10-20
8/23/15  David Eck

     If you were a kid in the 60's or 70's, it's highly likely that you watched the hit TV series Batman. You remember Batman: Climbing up walls that you knew were filmed on a horizontal surface; zipping around town in the eye-popping Batmobile that has tucked away in a secret, hidden cave; battling colorful bad guys and bad gals such as the Penguin, the Joker, the Riddler and Catwoman.  And, finally, all those marvelous gadgets that Batman and Robin had at their disposal to vanquish their foes and save the day. It was adventurous, entertaining and oh so campy. Even as a kid I was in on the joke. I never missed an episode and knew I was guaranteed to have a good time. Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Batman!
     As a kid I dreamed of what it would be like to be Robin, Batman's faithful side-kick. I dreamed of living in Bruce Wayne's mansion where Alfred the Butler would serve me breakfast. Then I'd spend the day in the Bat Laboratory inventing new gadgets that Batman and I could use in fighting crime in Gotham City.
     Well, that might not have been your fantasy as a kid but I'm fairly certain that no matter what decade you grew up in, there was some superhero who caught your eye: Power Rangers, Transformers,  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Wonder Woman, and the list goes on! The reason why we like these mythological heroes is that they give us the courage to believe that good will triumph in the end and evil will always be defeated. Amazingly, all this can happen within the span of half an hour!
     Is it any wonder that Jesus encouraged us to be like little children? Who doesn't want to live in a world where good and evil are so easily identified? Who doesn't want to live in a world where the scales of justice are always tipped in favor of those who fight for what is good and right and just in our world?
     This brings us to our second lesson where Paul talks about life as if it's a superhero TV show: "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm."
     Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Batman! Do you see what I mean?
     Paul is telling us the world is a dangerous place, the boogeyman is real, and we need to prepare ourselves for a battle of epic proportions: A battle of good against evil, a battle against nefarious forces, both seen and unseen. The Message states it this way: "This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels."
     In order for us to win this fight Paul says we need to "Put on the whole armor of God" so that we may be victorious over every sinister force that makes it's presence known in our lives. If that doesn't sound like Batman, I don't know what does!
     If Paul were writing this letter today I doubt he would use the phrase "whole armor of God" which sounds like it belongs in the Middle Ages. Instead, he would speak of the "superpowers" we possess that enable us to be victorious against any force or person who seeks to oppress, demean or enslave us. What I'd like to do this morning is "test" each of these superpowers and see how we can use them as we fight for what is good and true and just in our world.
     The first superpower is the "belt of truth." The literal purpose of a belt is to keep our pants from falling down around our ankles. Likewise the belt of truth keeps our spiritual pants from falling down around our ankles. It prevents us from embarrassing ourselves. Therefore, we should always seek to be truthful. We should never deceive others or have any hidden agendas. Instead, we should seek to be people of integrity whose words and deeds do not contradict one another. We should strive to be honorable, trustworthy, reliable and dependable. 
     Truth is, without a doubt, one of the most important superpowers we have at our disposal. It has vanquished many villains who seek to destroy others through lies and deception. Don't leave home without it!
     The second superpower is "the breastplate of righteousness." How many superheroes do you know who do not have some kind of high tech armor to shield their vital organs? Some of this armor is impressive like the kind Batman wore. Others are more subtle like the suit worn by the Flash. Yet both of them protect the wearer from harm. Likewise, Paul tells us the breastplate of righteousness protects us from the attacks of those who tell us we are weak and can be easily defeated.
     The word "righteousness" means "Equitable in character, innocent, holy, or just." When we can claim this for ourselves we will, indeed have super human strength. It enables us to say the words of Romans 8 with powerful, unshakable confidence: "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
     Let anyone try to pierce that armor. It's Not. Gonna. Happen.
     The third superpower is "shoes" that enable us "to proclaim the gospel of peace." That's quite a mouthful, to say the least! Good As New paraphrases this as "peace" as "your hiking boots" which reminds us that "peace" is a powerful path to walk.
     Think about all the superheroes you know. Do any them spazz out and panic? Do any of them scream like little schoolgirls when evil surrounds them on all sides? I don't think so. Most superheroes I know remain calm, cool and confident, unless your Christopher Nolan's version of Batman, and that's another story altogether!
     To those who learn to harness it peace is an amazing superpower. It's the superpower I carry with me every night shift at Mission Hospital, where I am required to remain calm and grounded in the worst circumstances you can possibly imagine! It's one of the superpowers Jesus gave to his disciples during the final meal he shared with them: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."  [Jn 14:27]
     The fourth superpower is the "shield of faith." Immediately Captain America comes to mind who can do absolutely amazing things with his shield! It's sort of his version of the Swiss Army Knife. Likewise, we can do amazing things with the shield of faith. Jesus reminds us that if we had a shield of faith as tiny a mustard seed we can say to a mountain "Move from here to there," and it will move.  [Mt 17:20] With the shield of faith at our disposal Jesus reminds us that "Nothing will be impossible for us.”
     There are many ways we can define what faith is. But my all time favorite comes from Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking: "Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you're going, but going anyway. A journey without maps."
     Faith is the shield that protects us from the flaming arrows of the evil one. It is, as the book of Hebrews says, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  [Heb 1:11] It may the the one superpower that turbocharges all the rest. Don't leave home without it!
     The fifth superpower is the "helmet of salvation." Good As New calls it our "spiritual hard hat." A number of superheroes have some pretty fancy headgear. While some of this is decorative, the purpose of a helmet is to protect our skulls from being crushed. It keeps our brains from being turned into scrambled eggs!
     Likewise salvation is the superpower which reminds us that our lives are covered and protected by Jesus. In the battle between darkness and light, the light has already won. John put it this way in his gospel: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."  [Jn 1:5]
     The helmet of salvation reminds us that the battle is already won! Ultimately nothing can harm us because even death has been conquered by Jesus. He has delivered us from all evil. He has released us from our sins. His saving power will sustain us in this life and bring us into the next where we will be with God for all eternity. The helmet of salvation gives us the courage to proclaim the words pf Psalm 23: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me."
     The sixth and final superpower is "The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." Up until this point, all the superpowers I've mentioned have been defensive. The sword of the Spirit is the first and only offensive weapon on Paul's list, and this makes a lot of sense. 
     Think about the story of Jesus' temptation by the Devil in the wilderness. In each of three temptations the Devil challenged Jesus to do something: 1) Turn stones into bread 2) Hurl himself off the wall of the Temple 3) Worship the Devil who would give him all of the kingdoms of the world in exchange for it. In all three of these temptations, Jesus responded to the Devil by quoting scripture: "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." and "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him." If Jesus needed to use this superpower as he faced one of the most difficult spiritual battles of his life, it's a safe bet that it's an important source of power for us as well.
     Using the sword analogy, the Word of God can be seen as something that helps us "split our thought in two." In other words, the Scriptures help us to discern right from wrong, a wise decision from a mistake, a safe path from a dangerous one." There is no way we will survive the attacks of the cosmic powers of this present darkness without it!
     So, my cape crusaders, are we ready to do battle? Are our superpowers intact? Let us put on the full armor of God so that we will be well prepared to fight for what is good and true and just in our world.  Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday Sermon - Lady Wisdom

LECTIONARY 20B  Proverbs 9:1-6
8/16/15  David Eck
 

     JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO!!! How many times have we thought this, or said it out loud, to an unhappy spouse, to a boss who was a bully and could NOT be pleased, to a counselor from whom we were seeking guidance. JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO!!! How many times have we prayed our children or grandchildren would say this to us!
     Every day of our lives we are required to make choices: Big choices, little choices, sometimes life-changing choices. I don’t think there is anyone in this room who got up this morning thinking, "I’m gonna make some BAD choices today! Woo hoo! Let the party begin!"
     Every one of us wants to make the best choices possible: In our food choices which affect our health, in our life choices of relationships and jobs, in our environmental choices as we try to make the smallest carbon footprint possible, in our stewardship choices as we manage the time and resources God has given us.
     We all want to make the best choices possible: Choices that lead to prosperous paths, choices that bring joy and happiness to our lives, choices that make us and our loved ones feel safe and secure. None of these choices I've named should ever be made off the cuff. In fact, when we make these choices quickly there is a strong possibility we'll make a bad decision.
     Have you ever bought a shirt that was 75% off retail because it was such a bargain. Then you got it home and thought to yourself "You know, this is the ugliest thing I have in my closet. What was I thinking?"
     Have you ever experienced love at first sight and were immediately convinced that this was the right person for you? You fell hard and heavy for them. Then, several weeks into the relationship, you discovered the steamer trunks of emotional baggage your beloved brought with them? Come on, it's confession time. Most of us have been there!
     When making choices in life a general rule is that it's not a good thing to make them quickly. We need to give at least a little bit of thought to the choices we make in life. When they're life-changing ones, it's best to do a little research, seek the wisdom of others,and prayerfully consider our options.
     This brings us to our first lesson for today which presents us with a choice between two tables where we can metaphorically dine in life: Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly. The tricky part is discerning which table we're dining at. The tricky part is trying to figure out if we're making a good decision or a bad decision in life. In this instance, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO doesn't cut it. 
     The writer of Proverbs is telling us that both tables have their appeal. It may not always be easy at first glance to figure out what table we're dining at! So, let's look at the two tables, Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly, and see what they can teach us about making good choices in life.
     We begin with Lady Wisdom. Verse 1 says "Lady Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars." The word HOUSE used here refers to a school of learning which became associated with the wisdom movement. SEVEN HEWN PILLARS refers to the pillars surrounding the central courtyard of a house for someone who is wealthy and prosperous.
     Gary & I saw houses like this in the ancient city of Pompeii. All the rooms open up into a central courtyard that was used for lounging, entertainment and eating. Part of this courtyard had a roof over it that was supported by three columns on each side, and one column at the far end. The walls which surrounded this courtyard were decorated with colorful frescoes.
     So the visual picture we get of Lady Wisdom is a beautiful woman in a white toga with a laurel wreath around her head. Her house is absolutely stunning. She shows us into the central courtyard and we know we're in for a treat! Verse 2 says "She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table." The Message paraphrases this beautifully, "The banquet meal is ready to be served: lamb roasted, wine poured out, table set with silver and flowers." Lady Wisdom has prepared a banquet for us.  It's quiet a feast! Like an Old Testament Giada de Laurentis or Rachel Ray, she has prepared the very best for us and we know it's going to be absolutely delicious.
     Verses 3-6 say "She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, 'You that are simple, turn in here!”' To those without sense she says, 'Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.'"
     I know the invitation sounds a little insulting. "You that are simple," "Those without sense" However, the word "simple" in this text is not Forrest Gump or some sort of brain dead person. The Hebrew word for simple is PATHAH which means "to open." i.e. One who is open to any influence; someone who is impressionable and easily molded. "Those without sense" can be translated as "Those who lack judgment." The root word means "to separate or divide." i.e.Those with an inability to distinguish between right and wrong.
     The image we get in Proverbs is of an impressionable young person who is being invited to dine at wisdom's house. It is there that they will learn to distinguish between right and wrong; they will be influenced in a good and positive way and learn how to make better choices in life.
     Now we turn our attention to Dame Folly. She looks quite different from Lady Wisdom. Verse 13 says "Dame Folly is loud; she is ignorant and knows nothing." Folly is personified here as a lady of the evening, if you know what I mean! We picture her in the window of a bordello in Amsterdam. She is trying to lure us into her establishment.
     In other translations of this text, they describe Dame Folly as someone who is "brazen, empty headed and frivolous," [The Message] "Acts on impulse, is childish, and knows nothing."  [Lamsa]
     The Broadway equivalent of Folly is any woman in the cast of Cabaret. She is sexy, provocative and enticing. [If you like that kind of thing!] Whatever image comes to your mind as alluring and seductive this is how you should picture Dame Folly.
     Verses 14-16 say "She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, 'You who are simple, turn in here!' And to those without sense she says, 'Ooh, stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.'"
     Notice the identical phrasing that us used by both Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly: "You who are simple," "Those without sense." Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly issue the same invitation to come and dine at their table. But what each of them offeres is as different as night and day.
     Again, the Message has a good time paraphrasing Dame Folly's invitation: "Are you confused about life? Don't know what's going on? Steal off with me.  I'll show you a good time! No one will ever know. I'll give you the time of your life!"
     This is the difference between Wisdom and Folly. Both give the same invitation, but what they offer is something different. Human nature, for whatever reason, seems to be drawn to the house of Folly rather than the House of Wisdom. We see this in the newspapers all the time as people from all walks of life make tragic and self-destructive decisions: Adultery, corruption, murder, abuse of power, accumulation of wealth at the expense of others, escape from reality through drugs and alcohol. 
     There are just some of the meals that are offered at Folly’s house which begs the question “Why is the forbidden so enticing?” I guess its sort of like a child that is told by a parent they cannot do this or that. Suddenly the forbidden becomes the very thing they want to do. We often do crazy things and make bad decisions in order to obtain what Folly offers us. We enter the House of Folly with our blinders on, ignoring the consequences of our actions, until they hit us upside the head like an 18 wheeler going 120 M.P.H.
     The results of dining at the House of Folly are stated clearly in vs. 18 "But they do not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol." The best translation of this verse comes from Today's English Version: "Her victims do not know that people die who go to her house; that those who have already entered are now deep in the world of the dead."
     When we enter Folly's House, we might have a good time for a season but ultimately we will pay a heavy price for it. This is the difference between the two houses: Wisdom offer us a fuller life where we "walk in the way of insight" Folly offers us rotten fruit in a flashy wrapper where we end up "deep in the world of the dead." The Message translates vs.18 rather chillingly as follows: "But they don't know about the skeletons in her closet that all her guests end up in hell."
     There is a lot we can learn from these dual images of Wisdom and Folly. I would encourage everyone to read Proverbs 9 this week preferably in several translations and absorb its meaning. As we make choices in life I hope we will keep these two images in mind and continually ask ourselves: Are we going for the cheap thrill OR something that is lasting and eternal? Are we going for something in a flashy wrapper OR something that may have little style but lots of substance? Are we going for the things that will lead us to a fuller life OR that will ultimately lead us to misery and unhappiness?
     Friends in Christ, life is a series of choices. I have seen godly men and women who were brought to their knees because the entered the House of Folly instead of the House of Wisdom. Unfortunately, no one is going to stand around and tell us what to do all the time. We are going to have to make most decisions on our own. I pray that God would grant us the discernment to know the difference between dining at the House of Wisdom and dining at the House of Folly. AMEN

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sunday Sermon - Elijah and Bread

LECTIONARY 19B  1 Kings 19:4-8                                           David Eck  8/09/15

     We make lots of journeys in life. Some are long, others are short. Some are enjoyable, others are painful. Sometimes the sailing is smooth and easy. Other times the wind and waves threaten to capsize our boats. Sometimes the way is very clear. Other times we have no earthly idea where we're going, but we move forward nonetheless.
     We make lots of journeys in life: From childhood to adulthood. From sickness to health. From single to married. From full time student to employee with benefits. We navigate parenthood, being a widow, taking care of an elderly parent, divorce, remarriage. We sail the relatively calm seas of vacations, pay raises, times of rest, times of celebration.
     Some journeys have God's handwriting all over them. Others feel like solo excursions with no help from God whatsoever. But no matter what the journey may be. No matter how long or short, difficult or smooth, there is one thing I know is true: God promises to travel with us! God tells us that we will be given the grace and the strength we need to complete whatever journey lies ahead of us.  I know sometimes it's difficult to believe this. I know sometimes it's hard to claim this promise for ourselves and for our loved ones. But it is a promise that God makes to us nonetheless.
     In Romans 8, Paul affirms this promise, saying "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
     He says it again in 1 Corinthians 10: "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." That's always a hard one to claim for ourselves; especially when we feel like we are being pushed to the breaking point and beyond.
     Jesus, makes this same promise in the gospels. In his parting words in Matthew's gospel he says "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Notice he doesn't way I will be with you on a part time basis as I can fit you into my busy schedule.  It says always: no preexisting conditions, no term limitations. Jesus promises to journey with us always!
     The only condition I can find on this promise is that we have to take the journey one step at a time; not living in the past or in the future, but living in the here and now: "Do not worry about tomorrow," Jesus says in Matthew 6.  "Don't worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." Can I get an "Amen" on that?
     Reaching back into the Old Testament, the same promise is there as well. My favorite place it is found is Isaiah 43: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior."
     I could go on, but I think you get the point! God promises to travel with us! God tells us that we will be given the grace and the strength we need to complete whatever journey lies ahead of us.
     This brings us to our First Lesson which is right in the middle of a larger story that is told about Elijah. This part of the story we know well! Listen to The Message's translation of this text and see if you can't relate to what the prophet is feeling:
     "Elijah went on into the desert another day's journey. He came to a lone broom bush tree and collapsed in its shade, wanting in the worst way to be done with it all—to just die: 'Enough of this, God! Take my life. I'm ready to join my ancestors in the grave!' Exhausted, he fell asleep under the lone broom bush tree." 
     Have you been there before? Have you reached the point in your life where you feel like saying "Beam me up Scotty...I'm ready to go. I don't want to stay on this planet a second longer. If one more piece of bad news comes my way, I just don't think I can take it."
     To say that Elijah was a red hot mess would be an understatement! To say that Elijah was stressed out, burned out, depressed, exhausted and just plain tired would begin to fill in the details of exactly how Elijah was feeling! He had been on a epic journey, and if we read his entire story, we will discover that it was one wild and crazy ride, filled with displays of miraculous power, mass murder, death threats, and that's just chapter 18!
     When we meet Elijah in chapter 19, we see that he has lost his perspective and possibly his faith. He is unable to go a single step further. And so he plops himself down in the desert under a broom tree and asks God to take his life
     To get a complete mental picture of this scene, it is helpful to know that a "broom tree" is NOT a "juniper" as the KJV suggests. A broom tree is a shrub, called a RATAM in Arabic, which casts so little shadow it would be used for shade only when there was no other refuge from the desert sun. Therefore, we should picture Elijah sitting under a giant cactus or one of those majestic but scraggly Joshua Trees we see in the southwestern US. It is a pitiful sight, indeed!!
     But the most wonderful thing about this story is that when Elijah is at the end of his rope God does not leave him hanging there. In our first lesson, we don't hear God saying "Oh, ye of little faith" like Jesus would do later in the gospels in fact, God doesn't way a single word! After Elijah throws his little pity party God does something gracious, loving and unexpected.  Listen to the story. Again, I will use The Message's translation of the text:
     "Suddenly an angel shook him awake and said, 'Get up and eat!' He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water.  He ate the meal and went back to sleep.
     The angel of God came back, shook him awake again, and said, 'Get up and eat some more—you've got a long journey ahead of you.' He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb."
     God sent his angel chefs to Elijah's side! They provided him with food for the body, and water to rehydrate his cells.
But this was no ordinary meal! The food that was set before Elijah is described as a "Cake baked on coals, and a jar of water." The only other place in the Old Testament where we find the Hebrew word used for coals (resapim) is in Isaiah 6:6, referring to the coal that touched Isaiah's lips to purify him, when Isaiah expressed his reluctance to accept God's call to be a prophet.
     The word used for jar (sapphat) is another uncommon word, appearing only in 1 Samuel 26:10-16 and 1 Kings 17:12-16. In the latter set of texts, it refers to the jar of oil belonging to the widow of Zarephath. Because of God's provision, this jar miraculously remained full during the drought, and provided food for Elijah and the widow. Thus the very vocabulary used to describe Elijah's food and drink recall another prophet who felt unworthy, and also reminds us of God's provisions for Elijah in the past.
     Brothers and sisters in Christ, this story is good news for those of us who feel stressed out, burned out, depressed, exhausted OR just plain tired! It is good news for those of us who are worn out from the journey of life and feel like we cannot possibly take another step forward. The story of Elijah reminds us that God is faith to God's people and promises to travel with us! God tells us that we will be given the grace and the strength we need to complete whatever journey lies ahead of us.
     God is our strength when we have no strength! God is our food when our spirits are starving! God is the unexpected gift of holy hot cakes and water delivered, not by Dominos, but by an angel! It is the unexpected grace of a good night's rest and a restored perspective in the morning! God is not going to leave us hanging! 
     God is not going to let us throw a pity party for ourselves [At least not one that lasts for a very long time]. The good news of our first lesson is that God will provide us with whatever we need in order to make it through the journey of life. We might not always get what we want but God promises us that we will get what we need in order to complete all the journeys God will have us embark on while we are here on planet earth.
      But this promise is not the exclusive domain of the Old Testament. The same feeding is promised to us by Jesus in the New Testament who refers to himself as the "bread of life." In case, we weren't paying close attention, this message has been hammered into our heads for three weeks running in the Revised Common Lectionary. This might seem like overkill at first glance. It definitely drivers pastors crazy as we try to preach on the subject of bread for three weeks in a row!
     However, the reason why they did this is, quite possibly, to emphasize that this is the only lesson we really need to learn. Jesus is bread enough for all of us! He is big enough to feed us and to feed the world! He is manna in the wilderness which fed the Israelites. He is the loaves and fishes that fed a crowd of 5,000 with plenty of leftovers to spare. He is holy hot cakes and water for a burned out prophet.
     Jesus is bread enough for all of us. He gives us the strength we will need for all of the journeys in our lives, however difficult or overwhelming they may be! Can we trust this truth? Can we claim for ourselves that Jesus is our manna, our daily bread; the grace and the strength we need to complete whatever journey lies ahead of us?
     I hope so, brothers and sisters, I hope so. Jesus is the Bread of Life. He promises us that whoever comes to him will never be hungry and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty. He is the bread we need to complete whatever journeys lie ahead of us!

AMEN

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Sunday Sermon: Jesus, Send Us a Sign!

PROPER 13B  John 6:24-35
8/02/15  David Eck


     Have you ever asked God to send you a sign? By this I mean some kind of signal that you were headed in the right direction; a beacon of light that pointed the way forward. You may have asked for a sign while you were trying to make a difficult decision that was potentially life-changing. You may have asked for a sign when confusion surrounded you and you had no earthly idea how to move forward. You may have asked for a sign when you felt overwhelmed by all the demands that were being placed upon you, and knew you had to let go of something.
     Have you ever asked God to send you a sign? I'm pretty certain all of us have done this more than once in our lives. Some of us save signs for big things like new jobs or finding the love of our life. Others ask for signs all the time: "God, help me find a parking space in this crowded shopping mall.  Amen." You might laugh but I'll bet you've uttered that prayer at least once in your life, or at least spoke it in your heart!
     Signs play an important role in our lives. Not surprisingly, they play an important role in the Bible as well. Let me give you a few examples. God sent Noah a sign after the flood in the form of a rainbow.  It was a sign of God's promise to never flood the earth again. [Gen 9:12]
     God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush that was not consumed. The reason for this is that people believed no one could encounter God directly. Therefore God sent signs of the Divine Presence because that is all human beings could handle.  [Ex 3] Then God continued to send more signs, in the form of the ten plagues. each was meant to convey a message to let God's people go from their captivity as slave labor in Egypt.
     Isaiah received a big, glowing sign that left no doubt he was called by God to be a prophet. It was a vision of the hem of God's robe filling the temple, seraphim flying around, temple pillars shaking, and God's house being filled with smoke.  [Is 6] Remind me not to ask for that kind of sign any time in the near future!
     When we reach the gospels, signs of the kingdom begin popping up everywhere. Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons. He calmed a storm with three words "Peace, be still." He walked on water and raised Lazarus from the dead.
     Each of the four gospels has many signs contained within them. Each of these signs was performed to teach those who had observed them about who Jesus is and how God's kingdom operates in our world. The gospel of John is particularly filled with signs. He uses this specific word "sign" all throughout his gospel as he talks about Jesus. For John, a sign is "something that points beyond itself." In every instance the signs John describes point to Jesus' true identity and source of power.
     Last week we read about one of the biggest signs of them all; the feeding of the 5,000. This week we read about the crowd who completely misunderstood what this sign meant. As our story ended last week, the disciples had gathered up twelve baskets full of leftovers, after 5,000 people had feasted well.
     During the course of the night, the disciples set sail for Capernaum where Peter's house was located. While they were in the middle of the lake a strong wind arose which is pretty common on Lake Galilee. Then Jesus, who had initially stayed behind, performed a pretty spectacular sign. He walked 3 to 4 miles across the water and got into the boat in the middle of Lake Galilee.
     Then next morning the crowd in Bethsaida realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, so many of them went to Capernaum since they knew this was Jesus' home base for his ministry. When the crowd began to gather, Jesus said something very interesting to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw SIGNS, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life."
     It was quite clear to Jesus that the crowd has misunderstood the sign of the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. It had reminded them of a story about their ancestors who were fed by God on a daily basis with manna, quail and water as they made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Since they were well fed yesterday, they were here today, expecting the same thing…free food! Somehow they got the impression that Jesus was exactly like Moses. He was God's emissary who was being used by God to feed the people. They had witnessed a miracle, a sign. But they misunderstood what the sign meant.
     Friends in Christ, the same thing can happen to us as well when we ask Jesus to send us a sign. Signs can be misunderstood, because they need to be interpreted. Since a sign is "something that points beyond itself," it also contains the possibility that we will miss the direction its pointing toward.
     Let me give you an example.  I can count on both hands the number of times in my life when God's direction came in the form of what I call a neon sign: My decision to go to seminary. Accepting the call to be pastor of Abiding Savior. Finding the love of my life. Adopting Jason and Michael Dawn as our children.
     "Neon signs" are rare in our world. They are moments of divine clarity that scream at us "This way, dummy!" We are left with no doubt regarding the path we're supposed to travel. For whatever reason, God doesn't choose to operate this way very often. Most of the time, it's the Holy Spirit, the still, small voice of God, who sends us signs. She gently pokes and nudges us until we get the message. This can be frustrating when we have important decisions to make.
     But our gospel lesson makes it very clear that even neon signs can be misinterpreted. The crowd was looking for free food, another miracle, but Jesus had something different in mind. This is crystal clear when the crowd asks Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?"
     Jesus, shaking his head in frustration, says "Truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I AM the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to ME will never be hungry, and whoever believes in ME will never be thirsty." [NRSV]
     It's very clear that Jesus is telling them They misinterpreted the sign of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. It was NOT supposed to point to more free food. It was supposed to point to the One who offered something far greater than the physical nourishment the loaves and fishes provided.
     I AM the bread of life. All the signs I have performed are supposed to point to me! I AM the direction you're supposed to go. I AM the way you're meant to follow. I AM the food you need to live life in all of its abundance.
     The purpose of the sign was NOT to point people toward another miracle. The purpose of the sign was to point to the greatest gift God was giving the world: Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.
     John states this purpose so clearly and beautifully in the introduction to his gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth."
     Friends in Christ, it's clear from our gospel lesson that the crowd was content to settle for far less than they should have. I believe they would have been happy with an endless All-You-Can-Eat  loaves and fishes buffet. But Jesus had something else in mind that was far greater than they could have ever imagined. He was offering himself as a miraculous supply of loaves and fishes. He was offering himself as daily manna that would feed us all with love, grace, and forgiveness until we have our fill with leftovers to spare.
     As we come to the end of our story we don't know if the crowd ever understood what Jesus was trying to tell them. but, hopefully, we understand it now. When we ask God to send us a sign, we should really be asking God to send us Jesus. It's a lot better than a parking space at the mall or even a road map of where were supposed to travel next.
     The truth of the matter is, signs are not supposed to do anything but point us to Jesus. Because when we have Jesus, we have everything. he is the right direction we need to travel. He is the beacon of light who illumines our path. He is the Bread of Life who feeds us better than a truckload of love and fishes. We should settle for nothing less!
     I'd like you to sing a simple song with me that sums up what our gospel lesson is all about. The next time we have a difficult, life-changing decision to make; the next time we are confused and have no earthly idea how to move forward; the next time we feel overwhelmed by all the demands that are being place upon us; I hope we ask for one thing, and one thing only: I hope we ask for Jesus, who is the only sign any of us could ever hope or wish for:
In the morning when I rise, in the morning when I rise
In the morning when I rise give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus.
You can have all the rest, give me Jesus.

And when I need a sign, and when I need a sign
And when I need a sign, give me Jesus
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus.
You can have all the rest, give me Jesus.  AMEN

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday Sermon: Feeding the 5,000

LECTIONARY 17B    John 6:15
7/29/12  David Eck


     Sometimes Jesus is a little bit sneaky, and I hate it when he does that! Sometimes he asks what appears to be an innocent question, but there's a lot going on underneath the surface: "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus asked. A sneaky question, indeed!
     John thought it was sneaky. He says Jesus asked this question to "test" the disciples. Jesus wanted them to squirm like a worm on a griddle for just a little while…and that's sneaky! Jesus knew EXACTLY what he was going to do as he stood in front of a crowd of 5,000 people. Yet he wanted the disciples to feel the full weight of the situation before he acted.  Sneaky, indeed!
     The setting of the gospel lesson is the fertile plains which surround the city of Bethsaida. The reason why I think this is the case is that John says "Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee." "The other side" is code language for crossing from the Jewish side of the lake to the Gentile side. Since Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem before our story takes place, it makes sense that they would travel to Bethsaida, which is on "the other side" of Lake Galilee. It is also the home of Peter and Andrew's fishing business. Therefore, it would be a good place for them to restock their supplies and get a little bit of R&R.
     A second reason why I think this is the setting is that John says "there was a great deal of grass in the place." After having walked much of this territory back in January, the fertile plains of Bethsaida fits this description better than any other location.
     So, as our gospel story begins, we imagine a boat docking on the shore of a vibrant city. It's filled with people who are buying, selling and trading. Smells and noises fill the air as Jesus and his disciples stop by Peter's fishing business to restock their supplies. When they are ready to depart, they set up camp at the base of a mountain, not too far from the city.
     Then, little by little, people started showing up. Some came to hear what wisdom Jesus had to offer. Others were hoping Jesus would perform a miracle and cure them of their ailments and infirmities. As the day went on, they kept coming, and coming…and coming, until there were 5,000 people trying to squeeze in close so they could catch a glimpse of this man everyone was talking about.
     This is the setting for Jesus' sneaky question: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” I'm sure a few of the disciples laughed out loud. Philip is the first to speak up, "Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." He was merely stating the obvious! In Mark's version of the story, the disciples say to Jesus, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat."  [Mk 6:35-36]
     Jesus' sneaky question was met with a less than enthusiastic response. But can we really criticize the disciples for the way they reacted? We may not have stood on the fertile plains of Bethsaida, but everyone in this room has been in a situation where we felt like 5,000 people were clamoring for our attention. Everyone of them wanted something from us, and we felt totally incapable of meeting their needs.
     Life can sometimes be overwhelming. We look at what we possess in terms of time, abilities and financial resources. Then we look at the needs of our families, the demands of our jobs, the challenges of being the church in 2015, and the suffering that exists in our world, we feel completely overwhelmed. You know it's the truth!
     But the error in this kind of thinking is that we aren't hearing Jesus' question correctly. Jesus asks the disciples, as well as us, “Where are WE to buy bread for these people to eat?” But what all we hear is "Where are YOU to buy bread for these people to eat?" We assume it's our personal responsibility to meet the needs of everyone around us. This is a recipe for burnout and feeling overwhelmed in life.
     But this is not what Jesus is asking us to do. Jesus is asking us to work with him. It's not a solo effort, it's a partnership! Let that sink in for a moment! Then try to recall a moment in your life when you were wrapped up in your own personal whine-fest. When I use the term whine-fest, I'm not referring to fermented grape juice. I'm referring to an endless litany of woes where all we talk about is how tired we feel, how overwhelmed we are, and how we simply cannot meet all the demands people are placing on our mental, emotional and physical selves.
     When we find ourselves wrapped up in one of these whine-fests, chances are we've left Jesus out of the equation. We've convinced ourselves that it's up to us to personally save the world and feed the crowd. Well, Friends in Christ, that's not our job description. Instead, Jesus is asking us to work with him. It's not supposed to be a solo effort, it's a partnership! The disciples failed to understand this. We often fail to understand this as well.
     But, thanks be to God, there is one person in the crowd who understands Jesus' sneaky question. He isn't a religious scholar or a savvy business person. He is simply a "boy, a youngster, who pulls out of his sack two fish and five small barley loaves. Then this young man shows them to Andrew, who is just as clueless as Phillip. Andrew looks at this meager offering. Then he looks at the crowd of 5,000 people and he states the obvious: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 
     Again, we see that the disciples don't understand Jesus' sneaky question. They still think the "we" is them personally, or this obviously clueless and idealistic boy. Yet this boy in the crowd is doing EXACTLY what Jesus is hoping the disciples would do: Offer whatever meager resources they had and trust that, somehow, Jesus would take care of the rest.
     We know how the rest of the story goes. Jesus tells the crowd to sit down. He then goes over to the boy who hands Jesus his offering of two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus blesses the loaves and fishes and distributes them to the crowd. 

     The brilliance of the way John tells the story is that the disciples do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! In other gospels, they are the ones who distribute the loaves and fishes to the crowd. But in John's version Jesus is the only one who hands them to the crowd while the disciples sit there and watch the miracle unfold. I'm sure the disciples have a few loaves and fishes tucked away in their bags, but they aren't going to share them with anyone. They are saving them for themselves. Therefore, they miss an opportunity to become a part of something that is SO much bigger than themselves.
      The one who helps Jesus, and participates in the miracle, is a boy whom the disciples would not have given the time of day. When all is said and done, 5000 people are fed and twelve baskets of leftovers are collected. It is a sign of the generosity of Jesus which always comes to us in overflowing abundance. But this abundance may not have been possible if it wasn't for the faith of a boy in the crowd who offered what he had and trusted Jesus to do the rest.
     Friends in Christ, St. Paul said "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;  God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are."  [1 Cor 1:26-28]
     "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus asks us this morning. When we look at what we possess in terms of time, abilities and financial resources. Then we look at the needs of our families, the demands of our jobs, the challenges of being the church in 2015, and the suffering that exists in our world, we feel completely overwhelmed. However, the good news of our gospel lesson is that it's not our job to feed the hungry crowd all by ourselves. It's not a solo effort, it's a partnership. Jesus will gladly take whatever we have to offer and multiply the gift until it overflows in abundance. Let us give generously from all the blessings God has given us. It might seem foolish to some, but to Jesus is is the wisest decision we will ever make! AMEN