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11.22.20 Turn Right at the Corner Isaiah 40 with Mark 1 Sermon Summary

Shortly after the new corona virus arrived we were told relief was “just around the corner.” “Just stay at home,” we were told. “The summer sun will make it disappear,” we were told. “Everyone wear a mask,” we’re told. These provided some relief but not deliverance. This week we might actually see the corner! There are at least two promising vaccines “just around the corner.”

The Bible also talks about rounding a corner.

Isaiah was writing at such a turning point. Ancient Israel had been exiled to Babylon for 70 years and were on the threshold of returning home. He speaks of a voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the LORD!” Mark picks up this image and applies it to John the Baptist. John’s is the voice from Isaiah.

Isaiah begins with words of comfort. This is the same word as Jesus used in the Sermon on Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Why do we need comfort? Because we mourn so many losses. Isaiah’s audience had lost their homes, their homeland, and their religious base. 

We have lost jobs, schooling, and our mobility. Some of us have lost our health. Some have even lost their lives. 

As he watched the turning point get closer, nearing the corner, Isaiah used visual aids to assure the people of God. The mountains of debt will be made low. The valleys of anxiety will be raised up. And the rough places of strained relationships will be made smooth. 

Finally, Isaiah envisioned a shepherd king tending his flock, gathering the lambs, carrying us close to the divine heart, and preparing a table before us. Mark again picks up this image from Isaiah and applies it to Jesus. It is Jesus who brings us near to God and feeds us in the wilderness. 

Isaiah says, “Prepare your bags!” John says, “Repent and be baptized.” And John says one more thing: One is coming, THE One is coming—our comfort, our deliverer, the LORD. The corner of our comfort has arrived.

Jesus came to John and was baptized. After John is imprisoned, Jesus begins his preaching. His message? Very similar to John’s: “The time is now. The Kingdom is at hand. Repent and believe.”

What shall we do at this corner? At the intersection of this world and the Kingdom? At the crossroads of our sinful lives and God’s righteousness? Isaiah says prepare for it. John says it is coming soon. Jesus says, “It is here; repent and believe.”

Repent means “to turn.” It means to turn from one way to another, from one destination to another, from the ways of the world to the ways of the Kingdom. It is to turn from paths of power, control, riches to path of love. To turn from sinfulness to righteousness. To turn to the right. 

At the corner, turn right. That corner is Jesus. This is the good news of Jesus. The time is now, the kingdom has come, it’s time to repent and believe. 

But Mark says this is only “the beginning” of the good news of Jesus. The good news includes Jesus’ example, his teaching, his suffering and death, and his resurrection and promised return. “Resurrection and promised return.” The kingdom has come and yet its fullness is still coming. The corner has arrived but it takes time to round it.

In Jesus’ resurrection and promised return we are assured that life follows death, that dawn follows night, that healing follows brokenness, and that singing follows silence. There is no darker night than death. There is no greater brokenness than death. There is no more profound silence than death.

But the good news of Jesus is that God has overcome death. Christ’s resurrection promises the dawning of a new day, the healing of old wounds, and the singing of new songs. 

We begin Advent today. It is a season of remembrance, of remembering Jesus’ first coming and remembering Jesus’ promised return. And the Lord’s Supper reminds us that Jesus is present even now.

So let us believe in the light even when it is dark. Let us believe in God’s strength even when we are weak. Let us believe in harmony even when there is dissonance all around.

And when you come to the corner of the Lord’s Table, turn right, and believe in God’s presence even when God feels distant. Amen.

11.15.20 The Coming Kingdom of Hope Micah 7:18-20 Sermon Summary

There are two parallel and seemingly contradictory realities with regards to “the remnant” of ancient Israel. First, there is a remnant because there is a judgment. Second, there is a remnant because of grace. The remnant is a symbol of both judgment and grace.

We recall Paul’s metaphor of the burning edifice built on the foundation he laid. (1 Corinthians 3) He says even though the building may be destroyed, the builder will survive but only as one having gone through fire. He is a remnant.

For the minor prophet Micah, the message for the remnant is that forgiveness and mercy outlast sin and judgment. God’s anger is not forever, but the divine rather prefers clemency. God’s chosen nature is mercy and compassion, and it is active by suffering with us and eventually in our deliverance.

This is helpful to keep in mind when thinking about the divine promises as found in the Minor Prophets. Yes, there are predictions of judgment. Consequences follow our attitudes and actions. For the Minor Prophets, the main concerns were corrupt religion and the collapse of social justice.

But there are also predictions of mercy. Look back over these messages since June. From Hosea we saw that God the faithful spouse will seduce his people again, and the divine mother will once again teach her child to walk. From Amos we heard that the “booth” of David will be rebuilt and that God is a saving God. Last week we realized from Micah that God has chosen us for salvation.

In the Jonah story we were challenged: God can save, but will we participate? Hosea taught us that we participate by sowing goodness because doing so reaps goodness (Malachi and Amos say the same thing.) Micah told us how to sow goodness in the simplest of ways: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Haggai envisioned a return to ministry as he urged us to “consider” how we are doing and whether it is time to rededicate ourselves and our church (through our giving) to God’s mission. 

And this week Micah teaches us that mercy outlasts judgment, grace outdistances sin, and gives us the vision that our “sin will be cast into the depths of the sea.”

The remnant has suffered–at least there is a remnant!–but there will be more. There will be restoration.

How does Micah see that future so clearly? He sees the future so clearly by looking at the past. Our passage ends, “God will show faithfulness to Jacob, and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as God has sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.”

Looking back allows us to see forward. Rehearsing the stories “from the days of old” prepares us to see the coming “day of the Lord.” This is the last message on the Minor Prophets for the time being. We are on the threshold of Advent. In Advent we often hear from the priest Zechariah. Perhaps we can consider him to be the last of the Minor Prophets, because he summarizes so well the hopes of the Minor Prophets when he speaks for the first time after his son John the Baptist is born:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
    that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)

Let us remember God’s promises. Let us remember God’s deliverance. Let us remember God’s salvation through the forgiveness of our sins, through God’s tender mercy, and through the light of Jesus Christ.

Let our prayer this week be: Eternal God, your promises are ever new because you are not bound to our time. But to us, your promises can appear only “of old.” Many of us in this time are feeling the strain of waiting. We need your Spirit to renew our hope and to uphold us. Give us faith, we pray–the faith of Micah, the faith of Zechariah, and the faith of Jesus–all of whom trusted their lives and their times to you. May we be so faithful. Amen.

11.08.20 When our Leader Elects Us Micah 5:2-51 Sermon Summary

Over the past several months we have listened to the major concerns of the Minor Prophets. In broad terms their concerns fall under religious corruption or the collapse of social justice. The solution they urge is “repentance,” the turning of our hearts to the LORD and then acting accordingly. 

Sometimes a minor prophet will promise a new leader. Micah does this. His new leader is King Hezekiah of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. His father Ahaz was a weak king. They ruled at the end of the eighth century as Assyria was attacking the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Hezekiah impressed Micah. He gave Micah hope—and not only Micah but Amos and Isaiah also. At first Hezekiah didn’t disappoint. He centralized worship in Jerusalem and suppressed unofficial worship practices in other places. He expanded the city limit of Jerusalem to accommodate refugees from North. He strengthened their defenses and took strategic initiatives. 

Now prophets are truth-tellers and they tell the truth about human sinfulness, about God’s righteousness, and about God’s faithfulness. These prophetic truths impact the future. Because humans are sinful and God is righteous and faithful, actions have consequences. Prophets speak of “judgment.” Because God is faithful and righteous, goodness prevails.

Prophetic truths often come as promises. Promises evoke faith. Faith orients us toward the future. We anticipate a time when truth and righteousness prevail, when religion is not corrupt and society is just. But what about unfulfilled promises? What if there is an extensive delay? What if we experience a traumatic contradiction, like the military might of Assyria?

What happens to the faith? What happens to the faithful? The promises remain but the faith and the faithful must change. We reinterpret the promises, maybe extend the fulfilment or broaden the scope so that the promises can be reapplied.

This is what Micah did. Long ago people demanded a king. God chose the young shepherd David. David became great, even legendary. He was the model of a faithful king and kingdom. He was strong in the LORD and a shepherd of the people. He made the nation secure and provided for all. 

Everything associated with David became sacred, including his birthplace Bethlehem. And God made a promise during this time in ancient Israel’s history: God would always provide a “David.” By Micah’s day, that was 200 years ago and things hadn’t gone so well since David. The faithful and their faith had been tried.

So Micah reinterprets the promise about David and he applies it to Hezekiah. To paraphrase Micah: “Do not forget Bethlehem, the little town of David. A ruler will come as of old. At the end of a woman’s pregnancy he will come. He will be a shepherd who gathers all God’s scattered children. And they shall live secure. He will bring peace.”

The faith of the people in the time of Micah could continue. Isaiah and Amos did the same thing. And so did Matthew about 800 years later. As we near Advent we remember Matthew quoting Micah: “King Herod called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:3-6)

Just as Micah had done with Hezekiah, Matthew reapplied the promise about David to Jesus. This is what the faithful do. We reinterpret and reapply God’s promises to our time and to our circumstances. It’s why we listen for God’s Word today. This is how faith is kept alive.

This week in the United States we elected our leader. Every four years this gives us a sense of control and a sense of freedom. This sense is an illusion. The Bible teaches that true freedom exists not in electing our leaders, but in the realization that the Most High God, the King of King and Lord of Lords, has elected us.

This is the promise about David as it comes to us in Christ. “I am always with you. I have chosen you. I have elected you. You are free from the fear of death and from the power of sin. You are free to become the children of God.”

Whatever our circumstances may be, in response may our faith apply this promise to our lives that we may hope anew for pure religion and a just society. Amen.

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.