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11.01.20 Simple Guidance in Complex Times Micah 6.6-8 Sermon Summary

Minor Prophets proclaimed God’s Word in the crises of war, defeat, and restoration. When Jesus spoke of “wars and rumors of war,” he could have been referring to the times of the Minor Prophets.

There are many explanations when it comes to wars. The prophetic explanation includes corruption of religion and the collapse of social justice. For detailed examples of these look at the last two weeks’ sermons.

Micah was among the first of the Minor Prophets. Like many of the others he accused God’s people of forgetting their past deliverance, of dishonest business practices, and of using violence as a means of gaining or keeping wealth.

For Micah, what were the consequences of continuing down this path unchanged? For one, the rumors of war will become actual war. But he also utters a “futility curse:” You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save, I will hand over to the sword. You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine. (Micah 6:14-15) If you’ve read any of my last twenty sermons, these accusations and consequences are familiar to you.

So what should we do in light of these words? Shall we attend a praise and worship festival? Hold a prayer vigil? Shall we call a fast? Maybe we should assemble and protest? Some say retreat in seclusion?

Micah also sincerely asked these kinds of questions: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with new offerings?Will the Lord be pleased with very valuable gifts? Shall I make an extravagant sacrifice to fix this aching in my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7, paraphrase)

He might have remembered the words of God in Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Instead let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21, 24)

Upon reflection Micah says no. God doesn’t want more religion and ritual, especially when social injustice continues. So what does God want? In these anxious times, in these complex circumstances, what does the Lord require of us?

Micah’s answer is among the most famous verses in Bible: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.

What does it look like to “do justice?” According to James, “doing justice” means to provide for the needy. (James 2:15-17) Isaiah says it is to protect the vulnerable and defend the powerless. (Isaiah 1:17) Doing justice looks like the parable Jesus told in Matthew 25, where he concludes, “Whatever you did for the least of these members of my family—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the isolated, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger-you did for me.”

What does it look like to “love kindness?” Other English translations refer to loving “mercy, faithfulness, or steadfastness.” The Hebrew word is chesed. It is a wide-ranging word we might understand as referring to the divine sustaining of our lives. God meets our needs and guides our lives to the end that we may experience abundance and flourishing.

To love kindness recalls Jesus instruction, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Colossians puts it this way, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so forgive others.” In the way God has treated us graciously to give our lives abundance, so it is to “love kindness” in our relationships with others.

What does it look like to “walk humbly?” The traditional answer includes “self-renunciation.” Today we would say we must lower our ego defenses. It means that we are teachable, we are open and welcoming to new experiences. It means that we remain watchful for wonder.

This is simple guidance in complex times, and not just for ancient Israel. Older translations render this verse, “He has shown you, O Man, . . .” “Man” here is ‘adam, better known as the first man Adam from the creation story. ‘Adam is the general term in Hebrew for “humankind.”

This, Micah is saying, is what it means to be human. We are created from the earth and made in God’s image. This is God’s will for every person: To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

And so let it be our prayer: Lord, we live in complex times, and we face unchartered waters. We have no map to follow well-worn and proven paths. But we do have a compass. Your word is a lamp for our feet, and a light for our path. Give us, through our reflections, our studies, our prayers, and your Holy Spirit, confidence that the choices we make are in alignment with your will for your ‘adam, your image, your beloved children who inhabit the world. Let us do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you. Amen.

10.25.20 Investing in Ambivalence Haggai 1.2-10, 12-13 Sermon Summary

Dualism was rejected in early Christianity as heretical, but it still finds expression in the faith today. For example, people sometimes say that our bodies die but our spirits live on. Instead, Christianity teaches that while our bodies die, they are later resurrected.

Some people make a lot of the “war” between flesh and spirit. Early Christians acknowledged the conflict between our disordered material appetites and our non-material virtues. But they understood the Spirit in baptism to strengthens us to overcome. Some people say the earth is expendable and that only heaven is eternal. But Christianity understands God created the earth good and remember that that Jesus taught the meek will inherit it.

Another example of dualism in Christianity has to do with our buildings. The roots of this dualism stretch back into Judaism. Early Jewish history is identified by its buildings. While in the Wilderness the Israelites worshiped in a tabernacle. Later in their own land they built and restored the Temple. But this was destroyed and a Second Temple period eventually dawned. It, too, was destroyed and today some Jews are awaiting the construction of yet another Temple.

Jewish worship was also evaluated by place. Remember the Samaritan Woman debates with Jesus whether God should be worshiped on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem. Prior to that the Prophets lamented the existence of “high places” where some Jews gathered on yet other mountains to observed rituals dedicated to other gods.

Today people take pilgrimages to the Holy Land or to the beaches of Normandy or Stonycreek Township or Arlington (or any) Cemetery. We do this because places and buildings are sacred. That’s one perspective.

Yet, the Garden of Eden had no building, Moses met God in a bush, and Jesus taught on the seashore. Acts 7:47-49 says, “Solomon built a house for God.Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands;as the prophet says,‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?, says the Lord.’” (Isaiah 66:1)

Luke 21:5-6 reports, “Some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

The author of Hebrews 9:24 writes, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”

If not exactly pure dualism, we still have an ambivalent relationship with bodies, buildings, locations, and rituals. We see this confusion in the sacraments. Some Christians say the bread and wine “really are” the body and blood of Christ. They are said to “contain” the body and blood. Others say these are merely reminders and as such we may not even need them. Some churches teach that water baptism is necessary for salvation; others that baptism in the Spirit is enough.

“Ambivalence” is a word combining references to “both” and “strength or worth.” It suggests there is value in both of two positions. It creates a both/and scenario instead of an either/or.

Christianity is perpetually dealing with ambivalence. When people come to me and say, “I am having a spiritual experience,” they imply an understanding that “I, a human who is mere body, am having an extraordinary, spiritual experience.” I am reminded of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who said, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”

De Chardin doesn’t mean to reverse the relative values placed on the body and the spirit, but wants to remind us that in truth both are valuable. It is ambivalent: There is value in thinking of us as spiritual and as physical.

And how do we know this? Because of Jesus who we understand to be the Incarnation of the Word of God. Jesus is the Spirit-conceived, Spirit-filled human for whom after his human body died was Spirit-resurrected.

We know that worship doesn’t depend on a building. We experience worship wherever we turn our attention to God’s presence. And yet buildings are valuable for our experience of worship. To deny this is to deny ourselves, for God uses buildings to minister to us.

Finally we understand the issue raised by the prophet Haggai. In his time the restoration of the Temple had started but the project stalled. The people were satisfied, saying, “It’s good enough.” But God was not satisfied, saying, “No, it is not good enough.”

The people responded, “Look, we worship. We hear the Word, sing, and pray.” God said, “That worship may satisfy you. It may take care of your needs. But I deserve more.” At stake for God according to Haggai is God’s “pleasure and honor.” What brings God pleasure? The care of the neighbor in need. And how is God honored? In part by beautiful places for worship.

At Faith Presbyterian Church our guiding principles for our building and grounds are that they are safe, functional, hospitable, and beautiful. Lately we have been challenged to consider our stewardship of our building and grounds. In other words, Are we maximizing this ministry resource? To outsiders, is the building useful, attractive, and competitive with other buildings?

Here’s why it’s important to consider the stewardship of our building in the eyes of non-church people: John T is our neighbor across the street. Occasionally John will host extended family events in our Fellowship Hall. He has ownership over our building even though he’s never attended worship. One night he noticed a door that had not been completely closed swinging open in the wind. He came and secured the building, shut the door, and told us what had happened.

Many years ago Amy M’s employer used Fellowship Hall for their Christmas parties. When Amy started looking for a church she came to Faith because she was familiar with our building. Amy later married Dan and they had a child. Now this family is an integral part of our faith community and church staff.

What if our building could be not just safe, functional, hospitable, and beautiful for us, but useful and attractive for more outsiders like John and Amy and Dan? God has led us to this question for several years. The pandemic has urged the first question of ourselves: “How can we safely worship God?” But we are also asking, “How can we use this building to serve others?”

In answering this question some of us are dreaming. Some are making plans. Some are raising the question of money. The prophet Haggai had similar concerns. His name refers to religious festivals and pilgrimages. He is concerned about worship after the “plague” of the Babylonian Exile when people were forcibly removed and Temple destroyed. They longed to return home and worship.

After seventy years when they were finally allowed to return they rebuilt their homes and the Temple, but homes got more attention. The Exile had broken their practice and their discipline. We’re told that 30% of worshippers in February no longer worship today. The pandemic has disrupted our practices and disciplines. Ambivalence towards Temple worship tipped towards neglect. Ambivalence towards worship is tipping us away also.

Haggai warned the people. Remember that prophets tell the truth more than the future but that the truth influences the future. The truth Haggai proclaimed is called a “futility curse.” He observed, “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”

It is the same observation of the great preacher Ecclesiastes who famously said, “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!” Haggai criticizes, “You have built your paneled houses but neglected the house of the LORD. Eventually you will reach dissatisfaction, because building only your own is futile.”

Haggai’s first step is worth noting: It is to “consider.” “Consider how you fare.” This word refers to the “setting of our hearts.” Jesus taught the same thing when he said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your heart set? That’s Haggai’s question.

Can you be at least as concerned about “God’s house” and the guests at “God’s house” as you are about your own? In recent years at Faith we have: Replaced cold hard folding chairs with padded cloth ones; replaced a pew with a prayground; purchased a new organ and new hymnals; installed exterior path lights; and hired staff with specialized gifts for targeted ministries with children and youth.

Presently we are upgrading our abilities to capture and broadcast sound and video and working to make Fellowship Hall more conducive for pandemic worship. We are preparing to make more efficient use of our building for us and envisioning greater use of our building by our community.

We are asking Haggai’s questions. Do we care about God’s house? Can we please and honor God more? Are we setting our hearts on God’s kingdom?

And we also have to ask, What can we afford?

Our denomination and presbytery are helping us to answer this, but mostly the answer depends on our congregation. Mostly the answer depends on you and me.

In Haggai’s case within weeks Zarubabbel the governor and Jehozadak the high priest and the remnant of the people began to respond. Then Haggai spoke again to remind them, saying, “I am with you, says the LORD.” Jesus’ last words were also, “I am with you always to the end of the age.”

God is with us always: Through this pandemic and through this societal upheaval. But “consider” this: Through these circumstances may God be calling us to upgrade our ministry? It’s worth asking, because God will be with us through that also.

May we not experience the “futility curse.” May God bless our homes and our nation because we also consider God’s pleasure and give God honor. I invite you to join Haggai’s audience. In the following weeks and months they “considered,” they thought about how their hearts were set and where their treasure lay. Jesus said, “Seek first God’s Kingdom and all these things will be given to you as well.” Let us hear. Let us consider. Let us respond. Amen.

10.18.20 The Godly Nation Amos 9:11-15 Sermon Summary

Since June I’ve been sharing from the Minor Prophets. They’re referred to as “minor’ because they are short. They appear at the end of the Christian Old Testament. They were written and revised in three periods and contexts: 

8th Century Northern Kingdom of Israel, threatened by Assyria

6th Century Southern Kingdom of Judah, threatened by Babylon

5th Century addressing the fallout

Each week I’ve shared select verses because of repetitive verses and some particular history that we don’t know or that doesn’t readily apply to our day. Still we listen for God’s “Word for today; for us,” and I encourage you to read each Minor Prophet in its entirety. 

So in June and July we looked at Habakkuk, Hosea, and Malachi related to the sins of the nation of God.

In August we listened from Jonah on the topics of prayer and faith.

In September we started Amos and looked at spirituality and repentance.

Beginning next week and until Advent we will hear from Haggai on reconstruction and from Micah on hope.

This is my final message on Amos. In it we’ll revisit some topics from weeks past and re-envision with the Minor Prophets what it means to be a “godly nation.”

All of the prophets accuse the “godly nation” but the nation did not listen. What were some of the charges? 

The catch all accusation is idolatry. Literally it is the worship of other gods which is prohibited in the second commandment. But it is figurative of unfaithfulness in general, compared to an adulterous spouse, trusting anything other than God.

For example, for safety the unfaithful nation trusted military might and unholy alliances with other nations.

For power the unfaithful nation trusted political manipulations, religious and political collusion, and bribery in the courts.

For wealth the unfaithful nation trusted dishonest business practices, legal exploitation of the poor, and taking in pledge the only coats people had for protection and keeping them overnight.

There were other criticisms. The unfaithful nation failed to take care of vulnerable people or limited their rights. In particular are mentioned widows who have no husband, orphans who have no father, and aliens who have no land or come from a different heritage.

“Choose life” God said to the newly forged godly nation. But not all lives were flourishing. Not all lives mattered the same. The evidence was an uneven distribution of resources. People of privilege ignored the disadvantaged and arrange to never see them, both physically by living apart from them, and philosophically by blaming them for their disadvantages. 

The godly nation forgot their own humble beginnings and became prejudiced against other nations. They had a presumption of divine favor and that was perhaps the root of it all. “We are chosen,” they said of themselves. But if God is sovereign then ALL nations are chosen. So says Amos, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel, says the LORD. Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, [“Yes, exactly—we’re your chosen ones!”] AND the Philistines  from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)

But it goes further: “The eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth—except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the LORD.” (Amos 9:8)

Like many of the prophets, Amos speaks of a “Day” of redemption and the “raising up” of the house of David. Except in our passage Amos calls it a “booth.” It’s the same word as the shade shelter Jonah made for himself as he waited for Nineveh to be destroyed. It refers to a human-made, temporary, and fragile structure.

Perhaps Amos is reminding us that nothing is “too big to fail.” “All things are subject to judgment,” Amos is saying to us. Still, on that “day” God will, “Repair its breaches, raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in days of old.”

And so “the booth” will be rebuilt and “all nations” will call upon the name of the LORD. Amos’ vision is of perpetual abundance: “The time is surely coming” he says. No later than the harvest is complete than the plows are back in the ground. When it’s time to sow next season’s seed they will just be finishing production of last year’s crop.

When God restores the fortunes of his people they shall rebuild and live, they shall plant and reap.

And only after the charges of the prophets are rectified can the unfaithful nation once again be the godly nation. 

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Amen.

10.11.20 The God who Saves Amos 2:4-11 Sermon Summary

The Apostle Paul is not known for his prophecies but rather for his argumentation. His longest sustained argument is the letter to the church at Rome. He begins by listing non-Jewish (Gentile) practices that would be particularly offensive to Jews. 

His Jewish audience would say “Yea, Paul, formally Saul! Yea, Paul formally a Pharisee! Yea, Jews, God’s favored people!”

But then Paul writes the first verse of chapter two: “You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” This is a tactic he learned from the prophet Amos.

Amos starts with oracles against Israel’s enemies. Six times he begins, “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammonites, and Moab. He accuses them of having burned cities, traded slaves, slaughtered innocents, conducted merciless warfare, exiled whole communities, and being unforgiving.

At first people would respond, “Preach it, Amos! The LORD our God, the LORD is one! Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD!”

But then in chapter two Amos writes, “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment upon Judah and upon Israel.” “Wait a minute,” we hear his audience say. “What have we done?!”

Amos replies that these people are, “chosen, yes; but chosen to know the Law. Yet you do not follow it.” Their worship is mixed with idolatry. They have dishonest business practices. They are apathetic towards the socially marginalized. They violate family covenants. They exploit the poor with the legal system.

Many of us find it comforting when God judges others. It lets us know someone is worse than we are. We feel safe in the middle—not a saint, not a devil. It’s like being late, but not the last person late, to a meeting. We say to ourselves, “At least we’re not as bad as they are!” 

This can lead us to say, “Actually, we’re pretty good. Actually, God loves us. God loves us more. God loves us best. God loves us only. Let others suffer God’s judgment.”

But then Amos and later Paul proclaim the truth that we, too, are judged according to love.

Instinctively, we defend ourselves. This goes all the way back to Garden of Eden. We hide, make excuses, and justify ourselves. The religious leaders of Amos’ day said, “Go back to the south! Go back to shepherding and fig-tree farming. You shall not prophesy! You shall not speak. You shall not tell the truth. You shall not protest.”

Sometimes today we hear the same kind of defenses. You shall not . . . enact laws for the good of all; say “black lives matter;” call wealth an idol. You shall not . . . admit and allow diverse interpretations; say America is exceptional; take a knee. You shall not . . . plea for the plight of the poor and imprisioned; say health care and housing and food security are human rights; say salvation depends on faith and works. You shall not speak truth. You shall not prophesy.

We’ll listen to the truth when it’s applied to others but we don’t want it applied to us. In the Newer Testament James says this is like looking in a mirror and forgetting what we look like as soon as we turn away. Why do we forget? Because we see others and begin to judge them. 

“Go back to the mirror,” James and Amos say. “Remember your calling.” First Peter says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) So also Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Go back to the mirror. Listen to the prophets. So what if we don’t? Amos, Paul, James, Jesus, and Peter all agree. If we don’t listen to the prophets, we will experience God’s judgment beginning here in this life.

But that’s not how it all ends. In Amos God remembers. “I brought you out of Egypt. I provided for you in the Wilderness. I defeated the Amorites before you. I gave you prophets and nazirites.”

God has shown us grace many times in the past. God is a god who saves. God, we hope and trust, will continue to save us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Let us go back to the mirror, listen to the truth, and remember our calling. And let us remember that God is a god who saves.

09.27.20 Portents and Prophets Amos 3:1-8 Sermon Summary

 “You only have I known, among all the families of the earth.” This is what God says to ancient Israel. The people of God are a chosen people, a known people. What does it mean to be chosen and known? Apparently to Amos it includes being able to “see.” And what we are chosen to see is our “iniquities.”  This is a churchy word meaning our guilt, our shortcomings, our less-than-God-wants-for-us lifestyles.

Even though we are chosen, sometimes we don’t see. Why is that? One reason is that our eyes are not healthy. Jesus says our eyes are the “windows” into our bodies. Only looking on light makes our bodies light. Sometimes we don’t see because we are looking on darkness.

Jesus also taught that we don’t see because we have a “log” in our eyes, even as we criticize others for having a “splinter” in their eyes. It is a metaphor for finding fault in someone else when we have the same fault in ourselves. This causes us not to see.

Sometimes we don’t see because our eyes are closed. Amos was criticized by a contemporary prophet names Amaziah. Amaziah said only positive, feel-good prophesies should be uttered. He refused to see what Amos saw. Jesus told a parable about a rich man who overlooked a poor beggar at his gate. The eyes of these men were closed.

Paul writes of some people suffering spiritual blindness, and thus they don’t see.  And when Jesus heals the blindness of a man blind from birth, the man’s parents refuse to acknowledge it because they are afraid of the religious rulers. They have chosen not to see out of fear.

But God wants us to see. Seeing is key to our salvation and to the salvation of the world. And to Amos, there are two sources of “seeing.” One is causal relationships that should be obvious. The other is the prophets speaking God’s Word.

The obvious relationships Amos identifies include friendships between two people who have chosen each other. He asks whether a lion roars without prey. Do birds fall out of the sky unless they are hunted? When the battle trumpets sound, does it not cause alarm? For Amos, if cause and effect relationships are obvious, they should be observed and heeded.

And just as obvious is the relationship between God and the prophets. When God speaks to the prophets, God speaks through the prophets to the people. And so we are to look at signs, look at portents, and listen to prophets.

If we do not, God says through Amos, “I will punish you.”  A more direct translation of the Hebrew renders, “I will visit your sins upon you.” God recognizes that choices have consequences, and while those consequences may feel like punishment, and even use the language of punishment (which the Bible often does), in fact it is simply the law of karma.

The law of karma is taught throughout the Bible. Paul says, “One reaps what one sows.” (Galatians 6:7) We are judged according to our deeds. (Psalm 62:12; Revelation 20:12) Jesus teaches the law of karma in the parable of the goats and sheep. (Matthew 25) He also teaches that “good trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44) He assures his disciples that false prophets can be known by their fruit. (Matthew 7:15-16)

We are subject to law of karma. But God is not. God is sovereign over karma. God is absolutely free. Contradicting the law of karma, God can choose not to reckon our guilt to us. God can also redeem us despite our guilt. This freedom of God’s is the definition of “grace.”

Both the law of karma and God’s grace are mysteries. And as the chosen we are called to see such mysteries. We are called to recognize the movement of grace, of God’s undeserved favor, and also the law of karma, of cause and effect, of sign and meaning.

And the chosen are called to recognize the truth in the voice of prophets. “The lion has roared; who will not fear?” God says in Amos. “The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?“ (Amos 3:8) The prophets have spoken. Amos and the other Minor Prophets have spoken.

What signs have they seen? What are the signs to which we are to pay attention? What are the unsustainable trends that result in God’s judgment?

Here are five:

  1. Concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small minority
  2. Spending beyond our means as individuals and a nation; borrowing from the future
  3. Environmental misuse
  4. Reliance on incarceration over restorative justice to deal with criminals
  5. the obesity epidemic 

Or we might consider the “Seven Deadly Social Sins:”

  1. Wealth without work
  2. Pleasure without conscience
  3. Knowledge without character
  4. Commerce without morality
  5. Science without humanity
  6. Religion without sacrifice
  7. Politics without principle

These are signs pointing to a judgment. And the judgment is not God’s active punishment but rather karma’s “visiting our sins upon us.” These are the results of choices we make. Amos says to us today, “Repent! Make different choices. Change the future. Avoid God’s judgment.”

This is the mission of the church: To heed the signs, to heed the words of prophets, to bear witness with our words and actions that God’s judgment is real, even among the chosen as we believe we are. And unless we heed we may well experience the judgment of the law of karma and not the mystery of God’s grace.

We Protestants often want to say good works are not important. But Jesus said, “My good works testify to the truth of who I am. Don’t believe me? Believe my good works. Only those who believe are among my sheep and are included in the flock of God.” (John 10:25-26, 37-38)

Good works point to God. The signs point to God. The portents point to God. The prophets point to God. Jesus points to God. Amos points to God. The choices we make matter. Unsustainable choices lead to judgment. Just choices lead to righteousness.

Hear this good news: As the chosen people of God we can see the signs. We can hear the Word of God among the prophets. We can change our choices. We can change our lives and invite others to do the same. We can be the force for good in this world, the force for transformation, if we will see in the portents and listen to the prophets for the Word of God. Amos urges us to observe the portents, to listen to the prophets, and to enter the Kingdom of God. May we do so to the glory of God. Amen.

09.20.20 Seeking God Matthew 6:25-34 Sermon Summary

This morning we learned from the prophet Amos that we are to “seek God and live.” Seeking God, according to Amos, means to reject evil and love good. We learned that the Kingdom of God is a place where everyone receives what is fair in order to live. It is a place of justice and righteousness. 

Jesus, well aware of the prophecy of Amos, does what Jesus often does. He takes the promises that are national and even universal and applies them to individuals. And so it is that part of the Sermon on the Mount takes up the theme of Amos and calls us to “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, that all the other things we seek may be added to us as well.”

There are so many other things to seek in this life. We are easily distracted from seeking God and from loving good. When we seek these lesser matters we end up worrying. And so Jesus addresses our worries. His advice? “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.” 

But Jesus also urges us to seek God today, for God is fully present to us today. God is not more present to us tomorrow, after we have spent more time in prayer, after we have studied and memorized more of scripture, after we have invested in more time of prayer. No. God is fully present to us today. God can’t be more present to use tomorrow than God is present to us today.

Jesus knows that seeking other things first, besides God’s kingdom and righteousness, pushes us into tomorrow. And this focus on tomorrow causes us anxiety and worry, because we don’t know what tomorrow brings. We cannot control tomorrow. Jesus knows if we seek God today, God will satisfy us today, and we will have peace. “So do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus says. “Tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today has enough trouble for today.”

Today we celebrate Communion. Communion is special because of the promises God attaches to it. It is special because of our presence to one another as the Body of Christ as we serve and receive from one another the bread and cup. And for our congregation, Communion is special because it is infrequent. While we ordinarily celebrate Communion each week, during this pandemic we are celebrating once a month.

But as special as Communion is for us, God is still present to us in all times. God is always present, and most immediately so for those who seek God. “Seek God and live,” said Amos. “Seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first, and all the other things will be added to you as well,” said Jesus. 

May we seek God here, at the Lord’s Table, where the Spirit makes present the risen Christ. May we seek God throughout this week, where God has sent us to bear witness to his presence. May we seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and may we find life, and may we find that all our worries are satisfied in the presence of God. Amen.

09.20.20 The Lamp of the Body Amos 5:6-15 Sermon Summary

People find God in various places. Some discover God in joyful ecstatic moments, or valleys of despair and darkness, or in quiet contemplative prayer. Others find God in inspiring words of scripture and tradition, in the natural world, or intimate relationships with people or animals. Still others find God in the mysteries of science or mechanisms of history, in harmony and melody, or in visual art and poetry.

Experiencing God is life-giving. It is our created nature to seek God and live. It’s natural to look to the church or to religion or to accoutrements of worship to help us find God. These are among the first places I look and I often find God.

And all this is OK so long as God is found. But God is always ALSO beyond where God is found. Amos says to me and to us all to seek God for life. Seek God beyond where you find God, beyond where you’ve found God in the past, and beyond where you’ve been told to find God. Seek God, and God alone, for life. And then Amos then makes it practical.

Amos is one of the most popular minor prophets which is surprising because his is not a positive message and he doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. Maybe it is his authentic concern for society; he tells the truth. Maybe it is the images he conjures. Amos wrote for the North and then was adapted for the South, so he has a universal feeling message. Or maybe Amos is popular because he’s one like us—a normal guy who shepherds and farms but has a message nonetheless.

Amos lived in a time of peace and economic expansion but expansion benefited only rich and powerful. Other people were being left behind. The military powerhouse Assyria was distracted by other nations, so the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were allowed to thrive. But their fortunes were about to turn.

They kept religious festivals as part of their tradition and part of their national religion. But the rich exploited the poor and the powerful took advantage of the marginalized. Prophets don’t tell the future so much as they tell the truth, and it is the truth determines the future. And the truth is: God prefers justice to injustice; shared wealth to concentrated wealth; and abundant life for all to the lavish life of a few. 

That is what Amos preached because God judges according to truth, according to God’s preferences. If we don’t align our lives with God’s truth and with God’s preferences we also will experience God’s judgment. 

How do we align our lives with God’s truth? For Amos the answer is by seeking God. We seek God in various places as we’ve already seen. One place we didn’t mention is the Law, the set of dos and don’ts, rules to abide by. If we do them, God is pleased and our lives align and we avoid God’s judgment. Amos says not necessarily.

There are good things in this life: Worship, law, spiritual experiences. But these are not ultimate. They are not the ultimate good. Only God is ultimately good. Jesus knew this. One day someone approached him as asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

So Amos preaches, “seek God and live.” Don’t seek spiritual experience or holy pilgrimage or rule-keeping. Seek God and live.

The people of Amos’ time were seeking God and prosperity, seeking God and dishonest gain, seeking God and legal loopholes. And Amos proclaims this has led them to God and adultery, to God and injustice. They didn’t seek God and social justice or God and social righteousness, so they didn’t find God and they wouldn’t find life.

And so Amos concludes: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” The Northern Kingdom did not listen. They continued in their unjust ways, in their double-mindedness, trying to serve God and money—something Jesus said one couldn’t do. About 40 years after Amos the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, never to return again. 

“Seek God,” Amos says, by rejecting evil (which is what “hate” means) and clinging to good (that is, to “love”) and finally “establishing justice in the gate.” With “gate” Amos is referring to the courts where legal disputes are settled.

In college I discovered that we don’t have a justice system, we have a legal system. The legal system has to do with laws, whereas a justice system has to do with community. Now while just laws exist unjust laws do also. This is true in America. We have unjust legality. We do have laws to overcome discrimination, but the system doesn’t always work.

In 2018 our denomination’s 223rd General Assembly met in St. Louis and led a march against the Cash Bail System. When someone gets arrested bail is set. If you pay the bail you get released until your court date. But what if you can’t afford the bail? You remain incarcerated though you are NOT convicted of a crime. In other words, the wealthy are released and go free while the poor are detained.

Two-thirds of people in jail today are there because they cannot pay bail. Two-thirds of people in jail live below the poverty line. And this situation is unconstitutional. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required.” Even more, the presumption of innocence is obscured under these circumstances. 

The results of prolonged incarceration are obvious and well documented. People in jail lose their job, lose their kids, and lose their housing. Their physical health deteriorates and their physical safety is jeopardized. The recidivism rate is high among this population in part because many of them make a plea deal to get out, setting them up for increased hardships with the legal system in the future. 

Of course we have interests in public safety and court appearances being made. And people should pay for their crimes, but AFTER being convicted, not before. Thus our denomination advocates for an end or the reform of the cash bail system. Here in Colorado Senate Bill 20-161 was introduced in February to reform the system. This summer the bill failed. 

This is a modern day example of a legal system discriminating against the poor. You can search and find many other examples of wealth discrimination. And why should we care? We should care because our religious life is not divorced from our social life. Our religious convictions inform our political positions (not the other way around). The survival of a nation depends on justice because the Kingdom of God consists of just nations. 

Jesus said the eye is the lamp of the body. If the eye is healthy the body will be full of light. If not it will be full of darkness. Amos and Jesus agree: Seek God, seek good, seek justice, and live. Look to light and live.

May we pursue justice, not just legal obedience, that we might survive God’s judgment and enter the Kingdom of God. Amen.

09.13.20 Four Faiths in the Parable of Jonah Sermon Summary

The parable we know as the book of Jonah is among the best known stories for its raging sea storm, giant man-swallowing fish, and eleventh-hour repentance unto salvation among the people of Nineveh. It ends with the prophet Jonah sitting east of the city still hoping God will smite the Ninevites. Along the way four examples of faith emerge to instruct the people of God.

THE MARINERS’ FAITH

When Jonah fled the presence of God’s Word by boarding a ship to Tarshish, the LORD caused a mighty storm to stop him. After several attempts to save themselves, including even prayer to the God of Jonah, the mariners on the ship listened to Jonah’s advice and threw him overboard. “And the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” 

The mariner’s faith was motivated by fear, relief, and awe. Their relationship with God was not all that they were created for, but at least they did have something. They show that even after all our futile attempts to save ourselves have failed, they can lead us to a kind of faith or faithful action. 

THE NINEVITES’ FAITH

After Jonah proclaimed destruction in the town of Nineveh and the king of the city heard it, all of Nineveh performed acts of repentance. They fasted, wore sackcloth, and sat on ashes. All these are ritual accompaniments to prayer. Even the animals were subject to these prayerful acts, and perhaps this is why the parable makes a point to spare even the animals in the end. 

The Ninevites’ faith shares with the mariners’ faith an element of fear and destruction. The difference is the Ninevites received God’s Word and responded to it. They did not wait for their situation to get worse. They heard of God’s holiness and resolved to walk in it. 

THE FAITH OF JONAH

Twice Jonah recites doctrinal formulae that prove he was listening during Sabbath School. As a good Hebrew he worshiped, “The LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” And he had learned that God is, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

But Jonah’s faith did not pass from his head and his mouth to his heart. His faith was not transformative. It did not change him from what he was, which is judgmental, vengeful, and resentful. He prays that God would take his life for, “it is better for me to die than to live.” And the parable ends with Jonah stubbornly refusing to participate in the joy of God’s salvation.

THE FAITH OF THE PSALM

Finally we come to the place with which we began, the psalm that is Jonah chapter 2. Scholars debate whether it is a later addition to the parable, and I believe it is. The psalm is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance that has already happened. The text says that Jonah “prayed” using a word that only ever elsewhere means “a plea for help not yet rendered.” The psalm does not sound like the Jonah of the rest of the book, especially the bitter man at the end. 

I imagine the psalm existing independently from the parable, but bringing the parable to mind because the images and metaphors of the psalm align so well with the events of Jonah’s flight. (See also Psalm 18:1-16.) I think the later editor gave us a tip to hear this as an insertion by telling us Jonah prayed “from the belly of the fish,” using not the same word for “belly” as in the original, but a synonym. 

And one of the reasons a later editor inserted the psalm is because it exemplifies the kind of faith God wants us to have—not just a fearful faith like the mariners, not merely an obedient faith like the Ninevites, and not just a doctrinally true faith like Jonah’s. God wants us to have a faith characterized by thanksgiving for the deliverance God has brought about in our lives: “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!” (See also Psalm 116:1-19.)

THE FAITH WE HAVE

The parable of Jonah calls the people of God to a gracious, forgiving, and inclusive faith, a faith based on love and gratitude towards God and a desire to see all people delivered. Whatever our faith may be like today, whether more like the mariners’ or more like Jonah’s, may God come to find in us a faith like that in the author of the psalm. Amen.

09.06.20 Following God in Spirit Jonah 4:1-11 Sermon Summary

When God called Jonah to Nineveh the first time Jonah ran. He spent “three days and nights” in the belly of a big fish. Then in the book there is a psalm. Finally Jonah goes to Nineveh and they repent! Here we are at the final scene, but this is not the end.

Jonah is among the most colorful characters in scripture, which is impressive because his story is only really three chapters long when you take out the psalm that was inserted later. After Jonah followed God in body by preaching through Nineveh, and after the Ninevites followed God in body by fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes, they also followed God in Spirit. They repented.

But Jonah never repents. He wants Nineveh punished at the beginning. And he still does here at the end. When God failed to punish the Ninevites, it “displeased Jonah and he became angry.” Jonah should have known. In fact he did know. 

In his Sunday School faith fashion Jonah knew the “right” answer: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” But Jonah never let that knowledge into his heart. He never let it change him.

Being the drama king he cries out, “Just let me die!” and stomps off to the East. God asks him if he’s right to be angry and Jonah gives God the silent treatment. He builds a shelter for himself and waits to see what happens. He’s still holding out for punishment, and he’s willing to wait.

Here’s a really interesting part: God causes a bush to grow to give Jonah shade. Jonah already had shade. That’s what the shelter is for. Then God causes a worm to kill the bush. And this makes Jonah angry again. 

Why did God cause the bush to grow and the worm to kill it? Here are four reasons.

First, it reminds Jonah of God’s sovereignty (as if the storm, the fish, the lots weren’t enough). Sovereignty means that God is free: Free to let us make choices like Jonah did; Free to override those choices as God eventually does; and Free to change the divine mind, as God did with Nineveh.

Second, it reminds us that no matter we can do for ourselves we still need God, and God is still there. Jonah had shade he made for himself. God provided more pleasant shade.

Third, God caused the bush and the worm to expose just how shallow, selfish, and emotion-centered Jonah is. Jonah is angry all over again. God asks again, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Before, about Nineveh, Jonah was silent. But now, when it’s about the bush, about him, he answers: “Enough to die.”

Jonah cares more about his comfort than about the Ninevites’ lives, more about his feelings than about God’s truth. And God’s truth is that he cares about Jonah, and God cares about the Ninevites. Black lives matter to God, and so do the lives of white supremacists. God’s truth is that God loves you, and God loves your enemies.

Jesus knew this. When we follow God not only in body but also in spirit we become like God. This is why he says, “Turn the other cheek to the one who strikes you” (following God in body), and, “Pray for and love those who persecute you” (following God in spirit).

Not so Jonah. Jonah is shallow, selfish, and short-sighted. This scene reminds me of another parable about two brothers. The younger one spends his inheritance on dissolute living. The older one works the family farm. The younger returns to a welcome party which the older one refuses to join.

Their father comes out to plead with the older brother: “Your brother was lost, but now is found.” And the parable ends there. Just like Jonah. 

Our parable says Jonah built his shelter East of the city. “East” is a symbol for being separated from God’s presence, as in “East of Eden.” God wants Jonah to rejoice, to experience God’s grace with thanksgiving, to have love for Ninevites people and their animals.

But the parable of Jonah, like that of the two brothers, ends unresolved. It’s an open-ended invitation for Jonah to become less selfish.

Finally, the bush and the worm teach that God doesn’t leave Jonah out there alone. The father doesn’t leave the older son out there alone. God is trying to save Jonah from himself, and saving us takes time. 

To conclude, let us think of the ways we are like Jonah. Here are six things that keep us out East.

1. Not letting God be God, that is, not trusting God to be God. We want God to hold the same values and the same grudges as we do. 

2. We think we know better than God. We know the Bible better than God (“But the Bible says . . .”). We know about justice better than God. We know about eternity better than God. We don’t let God be God because we know better than God.

3. We hold on to past hurts. Jonah was written after the Assyrian invasions (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria). Israel was still hurting and increasingly angry with God. The parable invites Israel to trust God and to let go. 

Holding on to past hurts leads to bitterness. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “The one thing certain about bitterness is its blindness. Bitterness has not the capacity to make the distinction between some and all.” Which leads us to number four.

4. We maintain simple, dichotomous prejudices. “Jerusalem is good; Nineveh is bad.” “All protesters are the same.” “All cops are the same.” “All conservatives are the same.” “All liberals are the same.” Such prejudices separate us from others—from others in whom God is also at work.

5. We have a narrow view primarily determined by emotions. Hurt, anger, and prejudice are self-serving, self-preserving emotions. But they don’t give us the whole picture. Without a story that includes everyone, despite our emotions about it, like Jonah and the older son, we can’t see the Kingdom of God.

6. We need religion that is not just head-strong, but heart-felt. We need a religion that penetrates our hearts and transforms us. It isn’t enough to think about God. It isn’t enough to follow God in body. God wants us to follow in spirit also.

Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. These are the greatest commandment. Do this and you will live.”

May we set aside our bitterness and prejudice, set aside our pride and our slogans. May we let God be God and trust God to transform our hearts. May we follow God not just in body but also in spirit, that we may enter fully the kingdom of God. Amen.

08.30.20 Following God in Body Jonah 3:1-10

Disobedience and sin are closely related, But obedience and sinlessness are not the same.

Jonah was disobedient. God had called him and he ran. He knew what to do and didn’t do it, which is one definition of “sin” according to James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.”

Later Jonah is obedient. But he is not repentant as we’ll see next week from chapter four, and as we’ve already mentioned from chapter two. Jonah is what Stephen Covey calls “maliciously obedient.” He does what he’s told defiantly.

God told Jonah to proclaim repentance to the city of Nineveh. What were the sins of Nineveh? Jonah 3:8 mentions acts of “violence,” and Nahum 3:1 refers to Nineveh as the “city of bloodshed.” What ancient Israel had experienced of the Assyrians and their capital city Nineveh was unrelenting military cruelty.

But there is probably more. The word Jonah uses, “overthrow” is the same word for judgment used in the story of Sodom. Isaiah 1 describes Sodom this way: “Your hands are full of blood. . . Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan plead for the widow. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”

Ezekiel 16 says this: Sodom had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty. So Nineveh represented militaristic violence and cruelty, but they also represented social injustice.

When Jonah arrives and preaches through the first day the people repent. Then the king repents, and even forces the animals to penitence. I have an interesting take on this which I’ll share in two weeks.

So Jonah is the first to follow God in body. He went to Nineveh. Then all of Nineveh follows God in body by wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and fasting.

Jonah proclaimed a coming judgment which was followed by repentance. Over the past two weeks our Democratic and Republican presidential conventions also proclaimed doom. They warned of the virus, America’s decreased standing in world, economic collapse, and the erosion of our culture.

How would these prophets have us repent? Shut down the country, reform the systems, and maintain statues and monuments. The better question is: In what ways are we like Nineveh? Like Sodom? Like Samaria, which was destroyed by the Assyrians? Like Jerusalem which was nearly destroyed and eventually was by the Babylonians? In what ways is America like any of the objects of God’s judgment in the Minor Prophets?

In what ways do we need to repent, as individuals, as a city, and as a nation?

Or have we nothing to repent of?

Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:9ff), both of whom went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee, standing by himself, thanked God that he was not like others, including the tax collector. He fasted and tithed. The Tax Collector meanwhile, standing far off, looked down and beat his breast.

Tax Collector, Jesus says, went home justified. The Pharisee did not. Luke gives us his interpretation of the parable:  Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. This as we’ll see was Jonah’s attitude.

Both Jonah and Ninevites followed God in body, Jonah into the city and the Ninevites with fasting and wearing sackcloth. The Ninevites were delivered from their sin and like the Tax Collector, they went home justified. Jonah did not experience the joy of salvation. He did not go home justified. And as we’ll see next week, Jonah has yet to come home at all.

May we not be like Jonah. May we follow God not only in body but also in spirit.