Sunday, November 20, 2016

Revised and Expansive: A sermon on the Reign of Christ

What’s a preacher to do when the scripture for the day – several weeks in a row - cuts a little too close to what’s going on in the world? The same thing one does any other Sunday: preach the text. Preach the Gospel. We are people of faith. And if we shy away from our sacred stories because they bear an uncomfortable word, then we are no better than the king who fed a scroll bearing forty years’ worth of prophetic words into the flames.

This is the Word the Spirit has brought to the church this day: a perilous time, when the nation is under threat. The Prophet Jeremiah under house arrest, confined, prevented from gathering with God’s people. God’s word snatched from Baruch’s hand - and in a section we skipped over for length today - God’s prophets had to go into hiding. The scroll with these holy, subversive words taken to the palace and read in private quarters amid the king’s closest advisers, and then deliberately, section by section, consigned to the fire. Burned because the king did not like what he was hearing. Because he wanted to suppress the message being spread by the prophet.

What we have in today’s scripture is tantamount to a book burning. We’re not talking about a single speech here. We are talking about a scroll containing forty years of Jeremiah’s life’s work - his heart and soul, everything God had given him for the good of the nation of Israel, the shining days and the terrible days and everything in between. A masterwork, destroyed.

It would be easy, after such a disaster, to give up. It would be natural — particularly for Jeremiah, who was already prone to depression, and lived in difficult times — to give in to the inner voice of doom. To stand there in judgment, shaking one’s head, saying, “I told you so.” Worse: to entertain fantasies of revenge, as if salvation is to be found there.  But the prophet doesn’t give up, although it would have been so easy to do so. Instead, he stayed rooted in his call, offering us a model of faithful resistance to a world that just wants to get back to normal when it’s everything but business as usual:
First, the prophet speaks the word given by God.

Over and over again, the prophet spoke the words. Sometimes it offended people. But he kept going. Then, the prophet passes the word on to others, so they are equipped to share it. When Jeremiah couldn’t go himself, Jeremiah taught Baruch. Baruch wrote it down so it could be shared. And Baruch spoke it in the temple. And then - I love this part - when the powers of this world try to shut down the transmission of God’s word (because when does that ever work, people?) - the prophet steps up again. This is when God germinates the seeds of the Word that are planted in the weary heart of the prophet, and it cracks wide open again. You may think you have seen it all and done it all and by all that is holy you are tired, but the word of the Lord comes to you and here it comes again:
“Write down all the words that were in the first scroll that was burned.”

Write down all of the words...and more. The scroll was burned. The powerful ones shut it down. Has the message been lost? No. Just delayed. Write the revised and expanded edition, God says.[1]

They're not going to like hearing this one any better, but it’s still worth saying. Justice is justice. Write it. Speak it. Send My Word forth, instructs God — so the prophet continues to raise the uncomfortable questions before the nation as a whole, not neglecting to confront the powerful, not neglecting to speak in the public square:
Do you treat each other justly? Do you follow the Lord’s ways? Stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow. Stop shedding the blood of the innocent,… going after other gods to your own ruin…[2]
And are you caring for God’s creation?
“I will weep and wail for the mountains, and lament for the grazing lands in the wilderness. They are dried up and deserted; no sound of the flocks is heard; no sign of birds or animals is seen; all have vanished.”[3]
Are the rich and powerful growing fat and sleek, prospering, indifferent to the plight of the orphan, the rights of the poor?[4]
From the least to the greatest, all are eager to profit. From prophet to priest, all trade in falsehood. they treat the wound of my people as if were nothing: “All is well, all is well,” they insist, when in fact nothing is well.”[5]
Do you treat the worker with justice?

And do you allow room, in your economic life for rest, as God commanded?[6]

 And to whom do you give supremacy?
“The Lord is the true God! He’s the living God and the everlasting King!”[7]
“God made the earth by his might; he shaped the world by his wisdom, crafted the skies by his knowledge.”[8]
“Stop at the crossroads and look around; ask for the ancient paths. Where is the good way? Then walk in it.”[9]
It is words such as these the prophet carried to the nation, which had him banned from the temple, confined, his words burned, and eventually killed in exile. It is words such as these which Jesus used to confront the powers of his time, words that got him killed.

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, when we remember who rules supreme. When we remember the kingdom - or kindom - to which we belong. We are in the middle of a challenging time in the life of our nation, and a challenging run of texts from the Hebrew Prophets, to be followed by a challenging run of texts about the imminent arrival of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. We may come to church looking for comfort. But the comfort in the Gospel is inseparable from its challenge, inseparable from Christ’s claim upon our lives.

Our Christian life leads from font, to table, to cross: We baptized a baby last week, and set her on the road to discipleship. Remember all the things we said about the water: water is washing, and soothing, and slaking thirst, and drowning. It is death and it is life. Remember all the things we say at the communion table: it is a meal, where we nourish our bodies, where we celebrate the great banquet where none are excluded, where there is always enough, and it is also a funeral meal, where we remember that it is a gift offered to those Christ already knows will abandon him before he dies. Even the first resurrection story is filled with challenge, more than comfort.

King Jehoiakim wants to enjoy his comfortable winter chambers by the firepit. The nation would like it very much if things could get back to normal. It’s a lovely dream; but that’s all “normal” ever was, a dream. Because “comfort” was only comfortable for some, and “peace” only “peace” for some. To abandon them for our own comfort is to abandon the Gospel.

Prophets, attend! We have been given a Word for our time. Though there may be those in our nation who say, "Hush! Your Word disturbs our peace," and urge us to quiet ourselves, we are called to proclaim it again, more boldly. For here is the way our God works: never settling for a retread of the past, but going beyond, calling us to speak and work for the revised, expansive vision of human community, a community ruled according to kindness, justice, and righteousness.
“I am the Lord who acts with kindness, justice, and righteousness in the world, and I delight in these things, declares the Lord.”[10]
God is writing the revised and expansive edition. ​It’s gonna take a while. There’s still time to get involved. Prophets, are you in?


[1] Jeremiah 36:32 [2] Jeremiah 7:5-6 [3] Jeremiah 9:10 [4] Jeremiah 5:28 [5] Jeremiah 8:10-11 
[6] Jeremiah 17:19-24 [7] Jeremiah 10:10 [8] Jeremiah 10:12 [9] Jeremiah 6:16 [10] Jeremiah 9:24

Text: Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-38 then 31:31-34.  Preached at McFarland UCC

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Power of Memory

How many things do you think we forget in a day? The answers from the professionals range from 4 specific tasks or items - along the lines of charging our phones, picking up the milk or where we placed our keys - to 99% of what we observe to the very scientific answer "a lot."

The continued existence of the Western way of life in our time demands a sort of amnesia[1]. To go about daily life in the way of the average North American suburbanite is to forget -- and so we must be very skilled in the art of forgetting. It is necessary, when I go to the mall, that I must forget about the many pairs of shoes gracing the back of my bedroom door. At the grocery store, faced with aisle after aisle of options, it is necessary that you forget about the lettuce growing limp, the cheese moldering in a drawer in your refrigerator, the person who has one can or none in their cupboard, not ten cans or freezer or fresh to choose from.

The economy's health demands that you forget the person who may or may not be working this Sabbath day to stitch the sweater you will be buying on Black Friday. It is necessary, for the sake of the economy, or empire (pick your E word, they may be one and the same), to forget the first inhabitants of the land over which this newest oil pipeline is intended to run, and its current inhabitants, for that matter.

I remember a little girl who could not go to sleep one night because she was sad about the polar bears, whom she had just learned were losing their habitat due to the melting of the polar ice cap. Truth be told, I had forgotten, and I found myself disconcerted, until I managed to forget again.

We must forget, on a daily basis, the polar bear and the Great Barrier Reef, or we would fail to buy our next car, or take our next business trip, or perhaps offer a prayer of confession with too much earnestness.

"Come, let us forget together," says the voice of Empire. "Let us be at ease together. Go to sleep. Do not think overmuch about past or future."

Forgetting has its gifts; it seems to hold the world's hurt at bay for a while. There are so many hurts that if we were to hold them all tenderly we would be leaving trails of tears all over the sidewalk. The Empire's offer sounds like a reasonable compromise toward daily survival.

So we accept the invitation to live in today, and when fear of tomorrow, or pain of yesterday intrudes, we cushion it with more sensory input, more work, more stuff -- embedding ourselves ever more deeply in the trappings of empire.

This forgetting business is the root of all sorts of brokenness. Contrary to its promise to make things easier, it causes dis-ease. Forgetting steals something of our humanity. It is a spiritual sickness, separating us from God, from creation, from neighbor.

If forgetting is the disease, what is the best remedy? Remembering.

My AP history teacher had a banner printed over his classroom blackboard: those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  Remembering is good for more than passing a history test or becoming a Jeopardy champion.  Remembering, if done properly, is an act of resistance.

In school we do a lot of intellectual remembering - using our brains; remembering from the neck up. This is good, and worthy - and incomplete.

God gave us so much more than our brains. Remembering done properly frees the whole body to remember. We remember with our sense of smell; the scientists tell us that's the sense most closely linked with our memory centers. We remember with our muscles. Muscle memory (athletes? musicians?) comes from hours of practice, somehow knowing the “how” of doing something without even needing to consciously think about it.

Building those patterns is important so we can draw on them in urgently needed moments, when we’re under stress. This is why we are a community of faith, not solitary practitioners. This is why we gather to worship, not try to follow the way of Christ on our own.

Our worship is a practice of freedom – an act of remembering together; an act of resistance against a world that actively urges us to forget. More and more often, we are getting out of our heads and remembering with our whole selves in worship. We are singing freedom in so many musical languages - in traditional hymn, and jazz, and acapella spiritual and African rhythm. That music sometimes inspires our bodies get into the game, and ALLELUIA, freedom is coming - the Holy Spirit is in the house.

Freedom is profoundly unsettling. Worship to equip us for leaving is going to have to rattle the foundations of empire. It might have rattle us, too.

One lesson this thorny passage from Exodus is teaching us is that God knows we are good at forgetting. Even before freeing the people from captivity God sets out instructions for remembering this crucial saving act. God knows we will need it to get us through trouble time and time again.

It's not like we encounter only one Pharaoh throughout all of history. The Empire shows up with different names, in different disguises. It's not like George Lucas came up with Star Wars from nothing! There’s Pharaoh in Egypt, and Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, Rome under the Caesars, colonial powers of Europe carving up Asia, Africa and the Americas...Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Our own country, the United States of America, has had Pharaohs and been Empire. There are places we are doing it now, and we are always at risk of doing it again. There are Pharaohs in our workplaces. You may have survived a Pharaoh in your home, in a personal relationship. Their presence may be uncomfortably close. You may be staring down a drug-or-alcohol or food-based Pharaoh.

They all say the same thing: forget. Forget who and whose you are. You belong to me. Let me decide for you.   And for every cry of every one of God’s children facing any Pharaoh, God proclaims FREEDOM with a voice to shatter the night.   God says, REMEMBER.  You are my child. I will not abandon you.

The instructions for the Passover observance tell the people of God it is not just a good thing, but imperative to remember. Not just with our HEADS but with our whole beings: Body, attitude. Community.

In the face of these domineering Pharaohs, our solitary brains are not gonna be enough to remember with, folks. This is going to have to be a whole-body, whole-community remembering.

Remember what the Lord did for you, when he brought you up out of Egypt?  We need to be able to both SAY it and DO it for one another. With one another. Get ready to move, Moses said, God is about to do something big. Put your shoes on. Act as if this is an urgent business.

Remember? You are MY people. I will lead you up and out of this place. Remember this day, body and soul. Remember what I am doing. This is who I am. In the night of chaos and crying I will be with you. You are marked for freedom. You are mine.


[1] NIB 787

Preached October 16, 2016 at McFarland UCC.  Text, excerpts from Exodus 12 and 13. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

In the Middle of It All

Look at all this beauty! “You may eat freely,” God said - consume freely, take it all in, make it a part of you -

So you accept this gift of unguardedness, wandering freely. You open your heart to receive the world, using the fullness of your senses; feel the warmth of the sun on the back of your neck, say thank you for the blessed choice of the mosquito to take her meal elsewhere; enjoy the taste of water when you scoop it to your mouth, know the particular scents of the morning and evening, hear another creature’s movements somewhere in the garden, your soul enlarging with each particle of creation -

And then your eye settles on the tree. You remember the word, “except.”

It’s all yours, except for that one tree.

A curious word, except. Here we are, so close to the beginning of Creation, and there is already an “in” and an “out” group, what’s ok and what’s not. “In” and “out” makes the possibilities feel a little more limited.

In the fertile land, the story says, God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Go about your business. Enjoy the expansiveness of God’s garden. Delight in the diversity of creation. Wander freely and let your senses absorb the richness which surrounds you. Care for all of it. Eat your fill, except – see that one, there, right in the middle of everything? Eat from that one, and it’ll kill you. Have a nice day. Enjoy your freedom. Try not to think about the tree.


That not-insignificant limit might have been easier to take if the tree were at the edge of the garden instead of If it took a day trip to get out to the tree; if you had to go out of your way to see it, a bit of thoughtful tourism perhaps, a diversion. Somewhere in the corner, or on one of the side paths you didn’t travel every day, where you could credibly pretend it didn’t exist, now and then, instead of constantly catching glimpses when you were vulnerable and unprepared to deal with it.