Fear and Love sermon: Psalm 111

A sermon I preached back in February on fear and love. With all that’s been going on the world lately, it speaks into the joys and challenges of this springtime as well. 

Psalm 111: Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

There are many sermons that can be preached out of this Psalm, but it’s those last couple of lines that have really spoken to me this week. “Holy and awesome is God’s name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Hmmm. What are we to make of that?

We have plenty of fear in our world. We find ourselves afraid of all sorts of people – Muslims, poor people, black people, gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer people, disabled people, people who don’t speak English. They are different and so we are afraid. There are things we rightly fear – gun violence, environmental degradation, natural disasters — and then there are those that are hyped up by one side or the other to get us to go along with the program.

I read an article this week that suggested that we have made an idol of fear. I can see that. We put our fear front and center. We feed our fear, nourish our neuroses, insist on a vision of the world where something out there has its reason for being to GET ME.

Enh. It’s hard to say. Sometimes there’s a good reason to fear. Sometimes not. The hard part is in the telling. But with God – let’s go back to these words . . .

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. How do we make sense of this image of God? Some of us grew up with a sense of God as the punisher – kind of like Santa Claus, keeping track of what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong. Oop, put him down for Hell. Look at what she did – straight into the firey pit for her. This one, well . . . not good, but he gets another chance. Naughty and nice. The great school principal in the sky. Power, authority, command. That’s a fearful thing. That’s one familiar image.

But that’s not really the sense of God that I tend to carry around with me these days. That seems too much like making God over in our own image. It’s like something we can think up, that we can get our heads around and so we go with it, figuring it must fit.

I tend to think of God as a bit more transcendent than that. Most of us here know God in a bit of a more nuanced way.  There’s this other image of God that we talk about that we often make a little easier to take. We see God as love. Love incarnate. The God who is with us always, sustaining us, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, connecting us. I’m good with that. God as the abiding presence of love and light in our lives, that which casteth out fear.

But what then do we make of this fear bit? If God is love, then where does fear come into the equation?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Let’s take a step back and think about the context for a moment.

We all know Psalms is an incredibly popular book in the Bible. Even when people don’t bother to reprint the entire Old Testament, you’ll still find editions that have the New Testament and the Psalms. There’s a Psalm picked each and every week for the lectionary readings. Psalms are songs – some of praise, some of lament, some of thanksgiving. What makes them particularly interesting, however, is that this is the one place in the Bible totally focused on humans talking to God rather than on the word of God as directed to humans. The Psalms are a human depiction, a human response to God. They’re a prayer, an offering up to God.

This makes sense, for this ancient author, this singer of songs, to speak of fear. It’s a part of human experience. What we have here a human author telling us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

We know that we are afraid. All of us. It seems to be the human condition. So what happens when we dare to gaze toward God and to let our hearts take it all in?

I once stood on a empty beach with someone. It was night time in a state park. It was dark and still, with no lights around. You could look up into the clear sky and see more stars than you ever thought possible. The sky was HUGE. The person I was standing with said: I don’t like this. It makes me feel very small.

I had a bit of a different take on it. My thought was I LIKE this because it reminds me that I’m very small.

We are the heroes of our own story, right? We are the center of our own narratives. There’s not really anything wrong with that – because that’s simply the way we see the world. But it can be too easy to go from there to seeing ourselves as THE center of THE story. We can forget that we’re not truly right smack in the middle of the story of all creation. So it can actually be a good thing to step back and get a little perspective, a bit of humility, a bit of a reminder that greater things than our own narrative are at play. We ARE small. But is that a bad thing?

Can we take all this — this sense of living in this world, with all of the fear that comes with it, this sense of being the center of the story and yet miniscule within the universe — can take we our encounter with God and all of the reactions we have to that moment? Can we take all of this swirl of encounter and emotion and end up in a useful place?

I tell you, these days it often seems like the swirl is what makes the news. We get battered by
tornadoes of chaos and corruption, of
retribution and resentment, of
pronouncements and propaganda.

It’s a whirlwind.

In the midst of it all, is it possible that fear could be a good thing? That it could be a still small place? That it could lead to wisdom? Not that we get stuck there, paralyzed. But that fear stops us in our tracks, just for a moment.

Can we get away from this image of fear as something that compels obedience and instead think of it as a response to something awesome – like “OH. WOW,” where our first our first response may be for our eyes to open wide.

It strips away all of our artifice and our illusions of that we should put our faith in the shiny, glittery things of this earth. It’s a signal to take this stuff seriously.  One of my all time favorite quotes comes from the writer Annie Dillard – she says

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

Crash helmets. Yep. Makes sense to me. People invoke God all the time, for all sorts of ends and causes — and sometimes I wonder if we really have a sense of the gravity of what we do.

I think, however, that this ties back around to our vision of God as love. This is not a sappy sweet love that simply approves of everything. We’ll see plenty of that image in these next couple of weeks in the run up to Valentine’s Day.

Instead, we’re offered – called to – a rigorous view of love as a practice, as something we are called to enact and make manifest throughout the experiences of our days.

We share in the power of God. We act as the hands and feet on God on this earth. We can act entirely in and of ourselves – or we can let God flow through us. Is that a bit intimidating? Umm, yeah. It is an awesome responsibility. In our own human imperfection, there’s no way we can live up to it every single moment of every single day. But it is given to us, this task. It’s kind of scary. We are right to approach it with some caution. Fear is the beginning of wisdom, but faith is its ongoing sustenance.

Such an understanding requires humility on our part. We come humbly to the task. But we also come with the confidence of a child of God. So we rightly acknowledge the fear. Fear may stop us in our tracks.

But only for an instant. Because courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s persistence in spite of fear. So we stop. Humbled. Amazed. And then we are equipped to move forward. That’s the faith part.

We are afraid to love. And maybe rightly so. It is dangerous work. It takes us out of our comfort zones. It calls us beyond our daily routines of engagement with people who look like us and think like us. We can be much more comfortable resting in the image of an authoritarian God (who happens to agree with us) than in one who calls upon us to love.

Fear is the beginning of something. It’s not meant to be an end unto itself. We’re not supposed to take the fear of God – or of anything else – and make it into its own idol. It’s a starting point. And we can start in fear and rely on the things of this world and end up in hatred and suspicion. Or we can start in fear and remember that the object is God and end up in wisdom. We go from fear to wisdom to praise.

Holy and awesome is God’s name.

 

 

Wedding Banquet sermon: Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet. But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

There’s a lot going on in this story. It’s complicated and even confusing when we think about the images of God and Jesus that we typically embrace around here. Jesus starts this out like he does so many of the parables — the kingdom of heaven is like this

There are multiple meanings we could make of the story- and I don’t want to foreclose any for you. But, as with all stories from the Bible, we need to find a way to get a hold of this, to make some sense of it. So I’m going to offer a couple of ideas.

Let’s talk for a minute about this in the context of Jesus’ time, about the world into which Jesus offers this parable. What do we know?

First of all, we know Jesus is not all sweetness and light here. This is not warm fuzzy Jesus. Jesus is angry. This is the beginning of chapter 22 in Matthew’s gospel, right? At the beginning of chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem — it’s the narrative we traditionally think of as Palm Sunday. He’s been traveling around the countryside, preaching, teaching, and healing. And then he comes to Jerusalem. He enters with crowds shouting Hosanna and cloaks and branches on the road. He’s got his disciples with him. And Matthew tells us the city is in a clamor, in a turmoil wondering about this man Jesus.

What happens after that – he goes to the temple and turns over tables and turns out money changers, he withers the faithless fig tree, he gets into it with the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. These are the people who have sold out their faith to the empire. Then we get a parable about a vineyard. And then we get another parable about a vineyard. All of these are pointed at the Pharisees, the religious authorities beholden to the Romans, the servants of empire.

The Pharisees are already ready to go after him – they want to have him arrested, but Matthew tells us they were afraid of the crowds. Because the people believed Jesus to be a prophet. This story we’ve heard is the final straw – because verse 15, the aftermath, reads “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” He has been getting on their nerves, threatening their power, and after this, they’ve had enough.

And then we come to this story  —  this hypothetical situation that Jesus is posing:

We’ve got a king with a son who is getting married – we’ve got an invitation to all the best people — to this fancy event. The king has gone all out to prepare. But his invitation gets mocked, gets ignored. He sends an emissary or two and they get messed up, even killed. This is all wrong. So the king deals with them — in terms that would make sense to the people who are listening — to those who were listening in Jesus’ time and to the audience that Matthew had in mind later, which was also probably a Jewish one.

Then we get a turn that we’re more comfortable with — the king says  “Invite everyone.” Everyone. No conditions — last week we were talking about conditions, right? Or the lack of conditions? Everyone is invited. That sounds like the God we preach in this church, right? All are welcome.

There was a story a year ago about an Atlanta couple, Carol and Willie Fowler, whose daughter Tamara cancelled her wedding at the last minute. The reception dinner for 200 was paid for and planned, so the couple prayed about it and then turned to an organization that works with the homeless. They invited 200 homeless men, women, and children to a celebration.  It was a grand event.

We get that. What an incredible parallel to the banquet Jesus describes. Everyone belongs at this table. Pretty incredible message for this weekend. Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, an annual event where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are encouraged to tell their stories. Tomorrow is Columbus Day, where we paradoxically celebrate the “discovery” of this continent — and the genocide of the native peoples who had been living here for centuries. We live in a world where people have to somehow prove their worth, to prove their very humanity. We measure people based on their wealth, their looks, their productivity.

That’s not the measure God takes. We are all invited to the table.

So if Jesus had just stopped there, we’d be in pretty good shape. Let’s put ourselves at that banquet okay? Close your eyes for a minute. Get a vision of yourself at that banquet, gathered around that table. You can see it, can’t you? This works, this inclusive vision. Right?

But Jesus, does he stop there? Nope, he does not.

Somebody gets singled out here. The King comes out and there’s a man without a wedding robe. Now, our first question would be – okay, people invited in off the street, what’s the big deal. But most sources seem to agree that it’s pretty likely that provisions were made – people had access to wedding robes, whether their own or those provided by their host, the king. So regardless of interpretation, the general agreement is that this is a deliberate act by this person.

My father has been known to describe me as contrary. So I feel for this person a bit. He is being contrary. But if you look pretty closely, it could even be considered an act of treason – this being the king and all. The whole story comes together to suggest that the stakes are pretty high.

So here comes the king:  “Friend” – how’s that for a loaded word? not sure whether he really means that, but it’s a civil way to address somebody. We don’t get the tone, but regardless, this is pretty restrained. The king’s giving ‘em a chance.

And what happens – okay – put yourself there, standing in front of the king – nothing. Not a word. Speechless. Are you there? Can you feel it? Maybe you’re watching or maybe that’s you. Doesn’t say a thing.  Talk about awkward.

I write thousands of words each week for my online classes. It’s what I’m required to do and most of the time it’s not a problem. But every once in a while, I find myself staring at the screen and going “I don’t have a single thing to say.”

That’s not the only time I’m speechless. I logged on to the New York Times – the newspaper’s – website yesterday – and here was the breaking news that greeted me

Four Bombings Kill Over 50 People Around Baghdad

Some Remains in Mexico Are Not of Missing Students

Football Clouds Justice at Florida State, Records Show

Hundreds Attend dictator Duvalier’s Funeral in Haiti

Stray Shot Kills a Child in New Jersey

We know I could keep going. Sometimes we just stand there, struck mute by the pain and horror of the world.

This is different from silence, which can be restorative, nourishing. Sometimes we just need to hush, right? And listen. It’s not always better to say something than to say nothing.

I don’t think that’s where we’re going here. Silence can be valuable. But it can also be deadly.  Sometimes an answer is called for. And we’re not talking about excuses – we’re talking about taking this seriously, being real.  Our language – and our silences – shape the reality we live in.

We preach a loving God around here – and I absolutely believe that to be true. But what I hear here is that there are things that matter.

It’s not just the absence of a robe that gets this guest in trouble.

It’s the absence of an answer.

It’s a failure to respond. To speak to the needs and the heart of the community.

We are talking about lines to be drawn, behavior that is acceptable — or unacceptable. Not belief. We’ve turned Christianity into something that’s about what we believe or don’t believe. For Jesus it’s not a question of belief. That’s not the standard he’s talking about.

It’s not about what’s in here, up in our heads.

It’s about what’s out here, all around us.

The offense is in the behavior – this unexplained refusal to participate in the life of the community. The king has opened his table to all, welcomed all — and this guest showed up, but refused actual engagement.

We serve a loving God, but it is okay to let. Jesus. challenge. us.

This is what makes us different from the fire and brimstone people — we know this invitation and table are open to all. Just look at the literacy event we just had here  — what a perfect banquet, totally in the kingdom’s vision — young and old, gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, good and bad – okay, I ain’t going to call anybody bad, but we all have our good days and our not so good days, right? Gathered in God’s name to celebrate our common mission, to learn, and to join together in God’s work in this world.

But this story is also what makes us different from the prosperity gospel people — those who look at all this as what we can GET from GOD. This whole Christianity thing is not just about what GOD does for US. It is about OUR responsibilities in the COMMUNITY. It about how we function in RELATIONSHIP to ONE ANOTHER. Here we are – God is telling us to PARTY with one another – and somebody is going to say no.

In those terms, there is a wide range of acceptable behavior. And then there are forms of disrespect, of I’ve-got-my-rights-and-my-freedom-and-to-hell-with-you, of I’M-GONNA-STAND-MY-GROUND-EVEN-IF-YOU-END-UP-DEAD, of contempt and ignorance and flat out ugliness to one another.

That.is.not.okay.

So God says no. That is not acceptable. Talk to me. No? Not going to talk to me? Not going to enter a conversation about this? Then no.

So this guy gets hustled out and cast out. Through his actions, he separates himself from God’s presence and from the company of those who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus. It’s a refusal of fellowship of community.

He’s cast out of the light and back into the outer darkness, back out onto the streets with all the other folks who decided to ignore the invitation, those who chose not to participate.

Those who not on condition of belief, but by their behavior, separate themselves from God’s promise.

Because many are called. The invitation is there. But few are chosen. And you know why? Because they opt out. They refuse to engage with their neighbors. They turn up their nose and reject the fellowship and the conversation. They opt out of the community.

They don’t know what they’re missing. WE know what they’re missing. We’ve gotten a look at the fellowship of the table, one that calls for the generosity of spirit for all.  But they elect to go another way.

They are missing a great party.

Dry Bones sermon: Ezekiel 37: 1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley and they were very dry.

We know that valley. We see it in our lives. The dry bones of our best intentions, our failed efforts, our fractured relationships. We all hit some serious dry spells.

We see it in the world – in the broken bodies of persistent racism, hate crimes, of war and famine. Of slaughtered Syrian civilians, young black men who can’t find jobs, gay teenagers who commit suicide because of the rejection they face, impoverished Honduran campesinos, women beaten by the men they love. In scorn for people with mental illness or who speak a different language or who travel in a wheelchair. Children who don’t have enough to eat and who are.not.loved.

It is a dry valley and it is full of bones.

The world is a very bleak place indeed. But

He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.

There.

Right there.

Hope.

We have hope.

There is hope and we find it in the word of the Lord that comes to us through the prophetic voice.

But hang on a minute.

Where do we find the prophets these days?

I mean, we know that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible still speak to us today:

There are those familiar words from Micah:

“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? “

And from Isaiah: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. “

Those words still resonate with life and breath for us today.

And of course we know Jesus came along and had some things to say

But where else do we find prophetic voices in our modern world?

There are lots of answers to that question. I’ll offer a few. But I also I leave it open to you to think about this question in the days ahead. Who speaks words over dry bones and makes them whole?

We can think of some —

Dr. Martin Luther King. Cesar Chavez. Gandhi. Malcolm X. Fannie Lou Hamer. Barbara Jordan. Ella Baker. Marian Wright Edelman. poets. artists

“To climb ever closer to God is not to move away from our troubled and troubling neighbors, but closer to them,”  that from the author and new monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

From Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who in 1980 was gunned down by a government because of his advocacy for the poor of his country: “The world of the poor teaches us how Christian love should be. It should certainly seek peace, but unmask false pacifisms, resignation and inactivity… The world of the poor teaches us that the magnanimity of Christian love must respond to the demand of justice … and not flee from the honest struggle.”

Or the writer Alice Walker who said “I must learn to love the questions themselves.”

There are indeed prophetic voices all around us.

But we’re still in the middle of the story here, aren’t we?

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

We know not all endings are happy. We know things get broken that cannot be fixed. Mistakes that can’t be made right. (I’ve got plenty of those.) We know there are people whose hearts are very hard. Unjust systems that are fully entrenched. The world is ugly sometimes because of the evil that human beings do. And sometimes because bad things just happen.

It is what it is. We’ve heard that, said that before.

But often, often there is hope. There is hope for the living from God.

Then he said to me “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

From the four winds there is breath and there is life. Now we could make sense of this in any number of ways, but I’m going to suggest one way we might read this passage today – because scripture always speaks to us where we are at any given moment, right?

First I’ve got to tell a bit of a story. This is not a story about being a gay Christian – though that is a story I tell sometimes. Instead it’s a story about talking about gay Christians.

This past week I read a couple of blog posts. One was by a sort of hip, millennial, conservative evangelical woman – one whose writings I like. She admits that she prefers the whole one man-one woman definition of marriage. But she also takes on the whole debate about the issue. She speaks of the parable of the Good Samaritan and then she says this:

“it was instantly and perfectly clear that the gay community had been spiritually beaten, stripped of dignity, robbed of humanity, and left for dead by much of the church . . . We don’t get to abandon the theology of love toward people; the end does not justify the means. That is not Christ-like and it is certainly not biblical . . . I am convinced we need no more soldiers in this war. We need more neighbors.”

Ok, that’s pretty prophetic. But hang on.

The next day I read another piece, this by a gay Christian man. He referred to this first piece I just quoted and talked about meaningful conversations he had about the topic of being a gay Christian. And he ended with this

“And so I’ll keep saying it because I am reaping such a harvest, such a renewal of life is growing in the ground of my soul: I am gay and I am Christian. I’m a gay Christian. You are straight and you are Christian. You are man, woman, genderqueer, black, white, brown, and Christian and the kingdom is where we meet and grow together. Sling arms over shoulders. Open our hands and choose to see the best behind our eyes. Choose to stay even when it scares us.”

Now that’s pretty prophetic too.

But let’s go back to the 4 winds piece. What really brings life into this is not just their individual words. It is the conversation.

Not one wind.

Not one voice.

More than one.

Voices in conversation. People talking and people listening. Lots of differences there, but in conversation with one another. Come from the four winds – from all directions. A multiplicity of voices joined together. People talking to people who are different from themselves.

We don’t all have to have the grand prophetic voice of Ezekiel or Isaiah or Martin Luther King.

I suggest to you tonight we ordinary everyday people can together be a part of the prophetic voice that breathes life into this troubled world.

When we join together in conversation, in human connection with others — from the 4 winds, from the 4 corners, from good neighborhoods and troubled ones, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, gay and straight, and on and on and on across difference — when we treasure all of these voices — especially the quiet ones that don’t always get heard — and when we engage those voices in conversation, the result breathes new life.

It joins us together, sinew and bone, life and breath. We can all be engaged in the prophetic voice – inhaling and exhaling that breath of God when we join together.

It is found in relationship, when we hold back the harsh word and enter into a moment of genuine connection. Open to the moment of mutual transformation through engagement with a sister or a brother, another beloved child of God.

It is not a mistake that the words conversion and conversation are so close. We can feel this full in our bodies and deep down in our souls. We commit to staying in conversation with the world, to the witness across difference — and in so doing this prophetic voice breathes new life into the dry bones of our world.

And we shall live.

And we shall know that the Lord God has spoken.