Sermon on Ezekiel 37: Not Dead Yet!

Primary Text: Ezekiel 37

Traditionally, preachers use this story to yell at their church. They compare the church to the valley of dry bones. The church has lost its way. The churches is small and weak. The church needs a revival. I have two problems with that. One: it insults the church. And two? It’s thinking way, way too small.

In today’s reading, God takes the prophet Ezekiel and plants him in a valley covered with bleached, bare bones. We don’t recognize it, because our lives are so different now. But for the majority of human history, this is what it looks like to lose. There are no treaties. No negotiation. The only memorial is a valley where no one wants to walk anymore. Ezekiel stands on the battlefield where his nation died. They’re not wounded. They are not martyrs to rally the people. They are gone. And God speaks into that moment. “Can these bones live?”

Now do you see why this cannot apply to our church? The fruit of the Spirit are real in this place. Are we dead? Are we gone? Are all our choices behind us? Are you kidding me?! This building is potential. Our children are potential. And you? You are so much more than potential! You are reality.

This church, this week, comforted the mourning, educated the wondering, and brought beauty out of bleakness. I had random stranger, who thought the place looked so beautiful, so inviting, after our Spring Cleanup that they just had to ring the bell, come in, and look around. You are more than potential. You are reality, and you are alive. No, this story cannot be about the church. It’s about what it is to be human.

God steps into the absolute desolation of loss and asks, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel gives the exact same response we’ve seen all the way through Lent. It’s the doubting hopefulness. It’s the faithful first step. It’s looking with open eyes at the bleakness of reality, and daring to believe that maybe, just maybe, God is bigger, even than this. God takes him to the very edge of hopelessness. “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel wants to say, “No! They can’t… It’s over.” Instead he says, “Lord, only you know.” And that brothers and sisters, is the moment when this victory started. All the miracle and mystery that follows started with one tiny act of faith.

God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. Speak truth to them before they resemble it. Speak hope over hopelessness, and life over death. And as he speaks, he witnesses what must be one of the creepiest visions in all of scripture. The bones start shaking on the ground. You know at the end of Indiana Jones where they open the Ark of the Covenant, and the bad Nazi’s face melts off? It’s like that, but in reverse.

The foot bone connected to the ankle bone. The ankle bone connected to the shinbone. The shinbone connected to the thigh bone. They turned it into a funny song because it’s disgusting! Then muscle and tendons snake over the bones. Then skin slides over the muscle, and they’re just laying there like the living dead. And yes that is absolutely as spooky as it sounds, because you look in their eyes, and there’s no life in their eyes.

Once again, this can’t be about the church. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, and peace. Patience, kindness, and goodness. Faithfulness and self-control. That’s what we work on here, every week. That’s the standard we hold each other to. The opposite of that, life without spirit, is desperation, an endless striving and desperation. To eat and never feel full. To love and never feel known. To feel helpless, hopeless. This is not about the church. This is about life, real life, for human beings.

And once again God speaks to Ezekiel, instructing him to prophesy. Only this time, not to the bones, but to the breath, the spirit, the wind. It’s all one word in the Hebrew. In the beginning, the world was formless and void and the spirit of God moved over the face of the waters. The breath of God. The wind of God. And God shaped humankind out of the dirt and breathed life into it, and it became a living being. This is a re-creation. God is breathing life back into his people.

Again, this is usually the part where the preacher yells at the people. You need the Spirit. If you don’t have the Spirit, you’re the walking dead. You need to open up your heart and make it personal. But that’s not what the story says. The bones don’t ask to be healed. They don’t take any action. It’s not about getting personal with God. It’s about facing the realities of life.

My Uncle Jon suffered a major medical setback. He went from strong as an ox to bedridden and fading fast. One day he called me, and he said, “You’re a preacher. Why is it like this? Help me understand this.” The thing you have to know about Jon is that he adored to his father. My Grandpa was Uncle Jon’s hero. So I told, “It’s the same thing that happens to everyone. First you’re strong and tall. You can say what you want and go where you want. And then you can’t work any more. Then you can’t drive any more. Then you can’t walk any more. Then you can’t talk any more. Everything you’re going through Grandpa went through it first. The suck of it is that he had years to get used to each new step. You have to cram all that work into one month. And I’m sorry, and it sucks, but it’s the exact same road he walked.” And Jon said, “Well, if that’s the way it is. Thanks.” And he hung up the phone.

The hard reality we don’t want to face is that over time, our choices dwindle. But as we lose our choices, as we lose our power, the true choices, the ones that matter, become even more visible. Look at Jesus. He’s nailed to a cross. Massive blood loss. His body is going into shock. He can’t stop what’s happening. Can’t even move his arms. We would look at that and think, “No options left.” Right?

Wrong. Scripture records seven last words. To the crowd he says, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do” To the thief on the cross next to him, he says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” To his mother and his disciple John he says, “Mother, behold your son. John behold your mother.” To God he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” For himself he says, “I thirst” and “It is finished.”

Brothers and sisters, that’s more work that some people complete in a lifetime, and he did it in a few hours, nailed to a cross. If your options feel limited, that’s because they are. It’s the truth of life. It’s not going away. It’s going to get worse. But just because your options are limited doesn’t mean you’re done. You’re not bones beached white on a valley floor.

That’s the message of God to his people. His people are trapped in exile, and they’ve quit. They have totally given up. They said, “We’re dead. We’re over. We’re not a nation any more.” And God says, “Fine, if you’re dead then I’m coming into the grave after you and dragging you out kicking and screaming, because you are not dead. You have life in you, and good-hearted people near to you.”

If Jesus can do all that nailed to a cross, there is still something you can do. Even if you feel like nothing. God turns nothing into something all the time. That’s what God does. That’s who God is. If God can make the world’s first zombie movie and turn it into a prophecy of hope, if God can turn desolation into opportunity and a torture device into a sign of grace, then just imagine what God can do with us. Us! With all this space asking to be used, and all this life still to be lived. In this very place, God took 16 people and a patch of dirt and turned it into over 150 years of laughter and service, just imagine what God can do with our tomorrow.

We can be Ezekiel for this town, and for each other. We can speak truth before the world resembles it. We can look each other in the eye and counter the lies we’ve been trained to believe. We can help hurting people hope that the promises of God are for us, right now. If you’re not dead, you’re not done. And even if you feel dead, God is still not done! All it takes is the tiniest sliver of hope. Faith the size of an itty bitty mustard seed.

God says, “Can these bones live?”

And you say, “Whooooo. I don’t know. They look pretty dead. Not just a little bit dead. Like dead dead. Really amazingly dead. I just don’t know. What do you think?”

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Primary Text: John 9

If God is good, why do bad things happen? The old answer is sin. God is punishing us. There is plenty of biblical evidence to support the idea. Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden. Moses never enters the promised land. The Kingdom of Judah went into exile in Babylon. For thousands of years, sin was the standard answer. And then Jesus came along.

He was walking along, and he saw a man blind from birth. The Bible specifically says he saw the man, not the disciples. Jesus stops, and the disciples ask, “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They’re not even asking why. They already know why. He’s blind. Therefore, somebody sinned. The only question is who. Mom? Dad? Or was it the baby? Maybe the baby thought some sinful thought before it was born and that’s why God made it blind.

What an awful thing to say. About as awful as calling AIDS the gay plague. Or saying hurricane Katrina was sent to punish New Orleans. Or that girls who dress provocatively get what they deserve. Or any of the hundred ways we still blame victims for their circumstances today.

But Jesus refuses to answer their either/or question. It’s not Mom’s fault. It’s not Dad’s fault. It’s not the baby’s fault. This blindness is not God’s punishment for sin. This blindness is an opportunity for the light of God to shine in the darkness.

And here’s the crazy thing. He doesn’t even ask permission. Jesus spits on the ground kneads the dirt into mud, puts mud on the blind guy’s eyes, and tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. Get it? He’s still blind! He’s got spit-mud on his face, and now he has to walk across town to go wash in this specific pool.

Brothers and sisters, I wish I could say this was unusual, but it’s not. Look at scripture. Look at the lives of the saints. God has this nasty habit of stepping into the middle of people’s lives with an interruption and an obligation. Abram had to leave his people. Moses had to save his people. Noah had to build an ark. And if you think that wasn’t a hassle, go listen to Bill Cosby talk about God arguing with Noah. It’s hilarious.

Again and again, God steps into our lives and wrecks everything. That’s what we see. That’s all we can see. The interruption. The obligation. We don’t see the healing until after we take the step of faith. That’s what this blind man did. He didn’t ask for it. He didn’t understand it, but he did it. He trusted, and he hoped, and somehow he made it to the pool. He washed his eyes, and he saw.

That would be a great place to end the story, wouldn’t it? God messes with your life, you respond with trust, and God heals your life. Woo hoo! That works great in fairy tales. Everyone lives happily ever after.

But scripture is too real for that. The formerly blind guy goes back to his own hometown, and nobody recognizes him.  “Hey, isn’t that the blind guy?” “Nah. Just looks like him.” He’s been living off their charity his entire life, and they don’t even recognize him. Jesus is the only one who actually sees him.

And look at the difference. A beggar his whole life, an embarrassment to his parents, and a shame to the community, bent with the weight of ostracism and prejudice, and look at him now! He looks his neighbors in the eye and says, “I am the man.”

Everyone is questioning him, and you can almost see him growing. First, he’s respectful. Then he starts to get a little terse. “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see.” Which puts the preachers in a quandary. It’s the sabbath. You’re not supposed to work on the sabbath. Even to help. You’re only allowed to help people if it’s life threatening. Blindness doesn’t cut it. Plus Jesus made mud, which is kneading. Kneading is specifically not allowed. And then he tells the guy to talk a long walk and wash up.

It’s almost as if Jesus is intentionally messing with the sabbath laws just to make them angry. It’s almost as if Jesus is forcing them to decide what matters more, their religious rules, or that fact that a blind guy can see.

They call the man before them and question him again. “Give glory to God and tell the truth,” they say. So he does. “I was blind. Now I see.” Which makes the even angrier. Then he starts getting sarcastic. “I’ve told you already. You want to hear it again? You want to be his disciple too?” One day ago, he was filth under their feet. Now he’s throwing out one-liners. “You don’t know where he comes from? How remarkable. You’re the religious elite, this guy healed a blind man, and you have no idea where he’s from?”

Then they play the card they’ve been holding all along. “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. The truth of their heart comes dribbling out their mouths.“God stuck you blind because you started sinning inside your mother’s womb.”  The truth of their religion is shown by their actions. They don’t just throw him out. They excommunicate him for the fault of not being blind any more.

He’s abandoned by his own parents. He’s shunned by his own church. That’s what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. He messes up your life, fixes what’s broken inside of you, and the victory costs you the life you used to have. He can’t live his small little beggars life, pitied, and half-loved, and ashamed. That life doesn’t fit him any more. Which is great! Except he’s alone.

That’s when Jesus finds him. Jesus finds him! This is the good shepherd. He knows his flock by name and they know his voice. He binds their wounds. Builds their strength. Leads them through the dark valley. And when they’re lost, he finds them.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” The ones who have been pushed down so long they almost think they deserve it? He opens their eyes. The people with all the power, especially the religious power? He shows the entire world how blind they truly are.

Jesus is upending the order of things. It’s not just the power structures. It’s the ideas that go with them. If bad things happen because of sin, then every horror in history is the fault of the victim, and every one of us who isn’t tall, pretty, and rich doesn’t really count. It’s a venomous idea that reenforces everything cruel and stupid that we still see on the TV every day.

No, bad things are not God’s punishment for sin. They are opportunities for the light to shine in the darkness. Just like he saw something in us, and messed up our life, so that our stunted little life doesn’t fit us any more, that’s what we do for others. We see the people no one else sees. We see the potential where others only see problems. We see opportunity where others only see the cost. And when something hard or horrible happens, we don’t blame the victim. We get to work.

Sermon on John 9: Why Bad Things Happen

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Sermon on Genesis 2: The Hidden Promise

Primary Text: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-17

Before we get to the sermon, let’s clear up a few points of confusion.

Just because the story says man was created first, doesn’t mean he’s better. You could just as easily say that man was the rough draft, and woman is the new, improved version. Human 2.0.

Just because Eve was the first to eat of the fruit of the tree, doesn’t mean she’s the mother of all sin. You could just as easily say that Adam is a weakling because he just went along with it. She was tempted, tricked by the Devil himself. Adam? “Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.”

Even the bit where God says the desire of the woman will be for the man, and the man will rule over her, that line is part of the list of curses! Gender bias, discrimination, and abuse are not God’s plan for the world. They are marks of our brokenness. OK? Ok, on to the sermon.

If the Bible were written by Americans, the story of The Fall would go differently. Maybe something like this. Adam and Eve are taking a stroll in the Garden of Eden. Being naked was fun for a while, but they kept getting paper cuts in inconvenient places. So they complained, and God said, “See that tree over there? That’s the tree of knowledge. Whatever you do, don’t eat any of the fruit.”

So, they went over and ate the fruit, and their eyes were opened. And God said, “Good job! This whole thing was a big test to see if you could think for yourselves, and you sure can. I’m going to go start another universe. I’ll come back in a million years or so to see what you’ve done with the place.”

That’s how we would write it. All choices; no consequences. What you do in the privacy of your own home is your own business. If the president decides to sleep with an intern, that’s their business. Sometimes, we even go so far as to claim our choices don’t change who we are. Like reality TV stars doing horrible things to each other and then saying, “You don’t know me. You don’t know me!” But that’s not what the book says.

Adam and Eve lived in a garden. They talked with God face to face, and the part that always makes the kids giggle, they walked around without any clothes. More specifically, they walked naked, through the garden together, and they felt no shame.

Then they eat the fruit and everything changes. No more garden. Now they have to build their own shelter, tend their own crops. But the break goes deeper than that. God finds them and says, “What have you done?” Adam says, “She did it!” Eve points at the snake, “He did it!” And what are they wearing? Clothes stitched from leaves. It’s the birth of the most evil thing in the world: fashion.

Blame and shame enter the world. They are divided against each other. They are divided against themselves. But it goes deeper than that. God enters the scene after they’ve eaten the fruit, and they’re hiding. And God says, “Where are you?”
What? God lost them? The omniscient creator of the universe misplaced the only two people on the planet? No. They’re ashamed. So he does the gentle thing. God lets them hide. And then, after they fess up, he takes them out and makes clothes for them out of skin. Who’s skin, exactly?

Right. God killed an animal and skinned it. So now we have animosity and violence, not just inside us, not just between us, not just with God, but with the natural world itself. Our choice changes everything. That’s the point of the story. That’s what myths do. They explain things we don’t understand.

Why does the spider spin its web? Because Arachne offended Athena. Why does the moon have eclipses? Because the great dragon Bakunawa eats it and spits it out again. And why is the world such a stunning mix of beauty and brutality? Because it was created perfect, but we made a choice, and choices have consequences.

But that’s not fair! I didn’t make the choice. Why should all humanity be punished because Eve was hungry and Adam was a pushover? You’re totally right. It’s not fair, if it’s history. If it’s history, then God is punishing 7 billion people for the choice two people made ages ago. That’s not fair.

But it’s not history. It’s a myth. And myths don’t exist to explain what happened. They exist to explain why. I’m pretty sure none of us in this room believe in the Greek pantheon, but we still teach the stories in school because they still tell us something about what it is to be human.

Don’t get me wrong, obviously I have opinions about the relative truthfulness of this particular creation story, but that doesn’t change what it is. Before it was ever written down, it was told and retold around campfires for generations. Just because it’s a myth doesn’t mean it’s a lie. Myths are one of our most ancient technologies. They pass wisdom from one generation to the next, mother to daughter, father to son, and the only reason this story survived so long is because it said something worth saying.

Every day, we have a choice between obedience and free will, and every day we choose free will. Every moment in my life that I regret follows the same pattern. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but I was curious, or selfish, so I did it anyway, and it resulted in broken relationships. We are Adam and Eve. The story is about us.

We would rather make our choices and take the consequences, than live in a world without choice. And those choices have consequences at every level of reality. We are connected. Our selfishness and shortsightedness echo through the entire world. Every day we choose the tree of knowledge, and we lose the tree of life.

When we harm someone else, we harm ourselves. When we make a choice, we shape our soul. And not just our soul. Our choices shape the planet. That’s a lesson we still need to learn. Turn on the TV any day of the week and you will find ample evidence. But there’s more.

Remember when God pretended not to know where they were? Remember how God taught them to make clothes from animal skins? A punishing God would have killed them. There are hundreds of myths that end that way. Sisyphus pushing his boulder for all time. Prometheus getting his guts ripped out for all time. But this God is different. This God accepts their choice and responds to it.

That’s who God is. God is the creator, who still creates every day, beauty from ashes, hope from despair, new life from death. The hidden truth of the story is that God is taking our choices and turning them into something better.

When God comes down to their level and walks in the Garden, when God searches for them and says, “Where are you,” it foreshadows of the gift of Christmas, what the theologians call incarnation. When an innocent animal dies so that Adam and Eve can survive, it foreshadows the cross, what the theologians call atonement. This is the hidden truth of Genesis. Actions have consequences, but God’s yes is bigger than our no. God is saving this world.

J.R.R. Tolkien tells a similar story in the foundation myth of his world. According to Tolkien, his magical world was sung into existence. Each of the angels taking a part, singing their favorite things into the world, all of it working together into a beautiful song. But then one jerk angel decided to wrest control of the song away from God, singing discordantly. But God takes that discordant tune and adds even more to the song, reworking it so that it all becomes deeper and more complex.

Harmony.

It’s the same story in different words. If Americans had written it, it would be all choice and no consequence, and then God would leave us alone. But that’s not the promise of Scripture. Scripture tells us the truth, that our curiosity and our selfishness come with a cost. This is a truth the best of us know well, the worst of us never learn, and all of us need to remember. But scripture offers us more than truth. It offers us hope. Our choice is not the end of the story, and this book isn’t just a warning. It’s an invitation.

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A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
Primary Text: Matthew 17:1-9

The Olympics are just winding up, and most of those world class competitors are going home disappointed. It takes an amazing amount of drive to reach that level. They all want to win, but the inescapable math of moment means most of them won’t. Lots of competitors, only three medals, only one gold.

Did you know that bronze winners are measurably happier than silver? You can see it in their faces. The bronze winners are thinking “Whoo hoo! I got a medal!” The silvers are thinking, “Could’ve had a gold.” Mathematically, it makes no sense, but in our heads third feels better than second. How we think about it changes how we experience it.

Today we celebrate mountaintop experiences through the lens of the Transfiguration. If you grew up in church, you’ve heard this story before. How Jesus took his closest friends up a mountain, and in an instant their whole perspective changed. We tell it every year because it happens to all of us. Not the shining person on a mountaintop thing, the perspective shift.

Maybe it was the day you found out you were pregnant. Maybe it was “I do.” Maybe it was graduation, or your first kiss, or the day you retired. Maybe it was the first day you realized that life has hard limits, not just in general, but for you. Thankfully, others have walked this path before us. We don’t have to walk away from the great moments of our life feeling like losers.

The first thing to know about mountaintop experiences is we are not in control. Moses was called up the mountain by God. Jesus invited the disciples to join him. The call always comes first. Moses could have climbed the mountain any day he wanted, the disciples climbed plenty of mountains in their lives. It only became a moment worthy of scripture because God invited them. First we listen. Then we move.

Christianity recognizes God as a Trinity, which means God is not just the unknowable other, God is not just an amazing teacher, but God is present, guiding our hearts and opening our minds, resonating in the stillness of prayer. Because we believe this, we search for the echoes of that voice in the distilled wisdom of tradition, in the ancient words of scripture, and in honest fellowship with our brothers and sisters. Not to abdicate our individual agency, but to exercise wisdom worthy of the responsibility.

You have been invited to the mountaintop because God sees something in you that you don’t yet see yourself. And even though you don’t always understand, and sometimes you make mistakes, none of that matters. God called you. God knows you. God loves you. When we accept that, accept that we’re not in charge and that’s OK, it frees us to respond joyfully.

Second thing to learn about mountaintop experiences. The rest of the world will not understand. Did you see that American figure skater fall? His name is Jeremy Abbott. He took a brutal fall. Then he got up, skated through pain, and scored a personal best. He didn’t medal, but he walked off with his head held high. And when some folks online started making fun of him, saying that he choked, he had this to say:

“They’ve never had to do what I had to do. Nobody has to stand center ice before a million people and put an entire career on the line for eight minutes of their life when they’ve been doing it for 20-some years. And if you don’t think that that’s hard, you’re a damn idiot.”

“So some people can handle it better than others, but everyone has that mental struggle, everyone goes through the same doubts. I am not alone. They just come at different times and different moments. Some people have their moment at the Olympics, and some have theirs at the national championships.”

“I’m proud to be standing here. I’m a four-time national champion and a two-time Olympian, and no one can take that away from me. So whatever people have to say about me, that’s their own problem because I’m freaking proud of what I’ve done and I’m not going to apologize for any of it.”

When you answer the call, to become what you believe God is calling to you to be, the people around you will not get it. They just won’t. The other disciples didn’t understand. And the people Moses left behind? “Oh look, he’s off to talk to God, face to face. He’s been gone a long time though. I know. How about we make a giant golden idol and throw a party!?” Because that always works out well. He’s up on the mountain talking to God. Did you think he wouldn’t notice?

Expect that people won’t get it. They weren’t there. They didn’t see what you saw. They didn’t hear what you heard. That experience changed you, and you can spend the rest of your life pretending like you’re still who you used to be, limiting yourself to everyone else’s expectations, or you can live your life. At the end of days, only one person will have to answer for the life you built and the world you made. [whisper] It’s not them!

The third thing to know about mountaintop experiences is that you cannot live there. Peter’s reaction is so amazingly textbook. “Lord, let’s build three shelters. One for you. One for Moses. One for Elijah.” Let’s capture this moment and keep it… or share it! Imagine if we could bring everyone else up here. It would change everything! The whole world could come and consult Jesus, Moses, and Elijah for advice. Wouldn’t that be great?

It would be great, except that dream is infinitely too small. The Transfiguration was never about giving advice to a tiny corner of the world. It was about giving Jesus and the disciples what they would need to persevere, through a work so difficult and so important that we’re still talking about it 2000 years later. Their work didn’t actually start until they came down off the mountain. That’s where the water flows. That’s where the cities rise. That’s where life is lived.

If you stay on the mountain, you never change anything! A wedding is not a marriage. A funeral is not grief. Graduation is not a career, regret is not reform, and baptism is not faith. Life starts after you come down from the mountain top, and step into the dirt.

But even though you can’t stay there, you can bring something with you. Moses brought the Law, and it changed his people. The disciples came back with no physical thing they could hold, but with an idea. It was the slowly dawning realization of what would become a fundamental article of the Christianity faith. The core claim of Christianity, consistent for 2000 years, is nothing more or less than this: when you look at Jesus, you see God as God truly is.

It’s an idea that was born on a mountaintop, but it didn’t stay there. It means there’s no difference between the Son of Man walking in the dirt and the Son of God shining on that mountain. It means the light isn’t shining down from above, it’s standing right here next to us in the dirt, and it’s shining out into the night.

We do not have the privilege of a quiet, personal religion, because we do not follow a quiet, personal God. We follow a superstar who shines at us from a mountaintop two thousand years in the past. Then the light went out, he came down from the mountaintop and shone all the brighter. Friend of sinners, breaker of chains, and healer of harms. We are his hands and his feet and this world, and our playing small helps no one.

Answer the call. Expect opposition. Accept how you’ve changed, and then take it out into the world. Even when you fall, you can hold your head high, because your life is not defined by one day, or one choice. Life happens in the valley.

Sermon on Matthew 17 – Mountains and Valleys

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on the usefulness of tradition

http://ift.tt/1kE6yNZ

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Sermon on Leviticus 19 – The Big Stuff

Primary Text: Leviticus 19

We’ve all heard the phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Very good advice. Unfortunately, the next line is usually, “And it’s all small stuff.”

If it’s all small stuff, then so is the phrase, “it’s all small stuff”, which makes the entire thing a big meaningless loop of stupidity. The only reason we can ignore the small stuff is because there is big stuff.

Like truth. A truth that exists beyond our mind. A truth that we can touch but never fully grasp. A truth we can approach, but never own.

Or justice. A justice that gives us purpose, pushing us beyond ourselves and our family, beyond our town or our nation, beyond our culture or class.

Like love. A love that resonates with the pain of the broken and sings that pain into the community, so that together we can grieve, and together we can heal.

Or choice. The freedom to learn from our mistakes. The difference between a God of wrath and a God of mercy, between a warning and a threat.

These things matter. And today it’s my job to wrap all of it up in a box with a cute little bow. Make it simple. Make it clear.

There’s only one problem.

It’s not simple.

If it were, we wouldn’t need a book, and a cross, and two thousand years of preaching to figure it out… But I’ll do what I can. :)

This is as simple as I can make it. You ready?

Our reading from Leviticus features a refrain. Did you notice? Look back at Leviticus 19. Find the single sentence that repeats, again and again, through the chapter.

“I am the Lord your God.”

Last week, I told you we can read the whole Bible as a warning or as a threat. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. It’s the part we focus on, because it’s the part about us, but it’s not the whole story. This right here, this sentence is the story.

“I am the Lord your God.”

All of scripture in one sentence.

Ok? Ok! Glad that’s done. Our hymn of response is #418, Take Time to be Holy…

What? You want more?

Exactly. That’s why it’s not simple. You can break the whole book down into one sentence and you’re still left with questions.

“I am.” Who is? What does that even mean?
“I am the Lord.” What kind? And who asked for one?
“I am the Lord your God.” Whose? Mine? Ours? Theirs?

That’s what the rest of the book is for, to take that one sentence and expand it. The entire Bible, from beginning to end is God’s self-revelation. Or let me put a finer point on that. The entire Bible, from beginning to end, is the human record of our progressively dawning acceptance of God’s self-revelation.
“I am the Lord your God.”

Look at Leviticus 19. This is who God is. Respect your parents. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Blah blah blah. We’ve heard it before, right? Don’t be a jerk. That’s what everyone says this book is about. Just don’t be a jerk and you’ll be fine.

Ok, then explain to me verses 5. “When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up.” What in the world does that have to do with not being a jerk?

The first thing you have to know is, this was an optional sacrifice. The second is that it was the only time you were allowed to eat meat. If you killed an ox, a lamb or a goat, you made this sacrifice. The fat went to God, one leg and the breast went to the priests, and the rest went home with you.

And you weren’t allowed to keep it more than two days.

Do you get it?

How many of you can eat a three quarters of a cow in two days? How about a sheep? Maybe a goat, like if it was a runty little ones that faint when you scare them, but even that’s a stretch. You only have two days. Anything left on day three has to burn. So what do you do?

You share. Why? Because, “I’m the Lord your God.”

Look at verse 9. “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner…”

Do you get it? You don’t squeeze every ounce of profit from your enterprise. You don’t put up gates and fences to keep all the people away. And you sure don’t dump your surplus fruit on the ground and let it rot to drive up the price.

Or look at it the other way. Do you take all your effort and profit and turn it over to the priests and let them distribute it evenly? Do you let the whole world pick over your crops and then take whatever they happen to leave behind? No. You run your business well, and you intentionally leave some slack so that people with gumption can get out there, do some work, and get enough food to get by.

It’s not communism and it’s not capitalism. It’s not Republican. It’s not Democrat. It’s personal, and respectful. It’s empowering for both sides and it works best in a small town where people know each other. But we don’t like this solution. It’s a loss for us and a hassle for them. We don’t want this answer. So why should we do it? Because, “I am the Lord your God.”

Verse 13 “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.”

Do you get it? You can cuss out a deaf guy. He’ll never know. You can trip a blind guy. What’s he gonna do? Go down to any Home Depot next summer and ask the day laborers how often they get stiffed after they finish a job. There are systematic differences built into the world. There are power imbalances that make it possible, that make it easy, to take advantage of people. Not for you. Why?

“I am the Lord your God.”

Don’t favor the poor, or be partial to the rich. Be fair. Don’t judge each other, warn each other. Love your neighbor as yourself. Give people the same second chance you want for yourself. Don’t just avoid evil yourself. Build good in the world. Why?

“I am the Lord your God.”

This is not God beating up on you, or laying impossible demands on you. This is God being who God is. This is God teaching us who God is, as far as we can grasp it. And because the Lord is our God, this is God shaping who we are, as far as we can stand it.

Which explains verse 20. “If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed. The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the Lord.”

These verses horrify us, and they should. The ideas that some guy could rape a slave and make it all OK by killing a ram should make us sick. But before you walk away, show me the place in there where the slave gets punished or killed, which is what would have happened, what still happens to slaves today.

You can’t find the part where she’s punished, because this law places the blame exactly where it belongs, with the one who had the power. This law exists to protect the woman who didn’t even have a choice.

Remember. I didn’t say this is the literal, inerrant, verbally inspired word of God. It is the word of God as written by human fingers. It is the voice of God as heard by human ears. It is the dream of God for what this world could be as glimpsed by human minds. Thank God those minds are still growing.

Each verse, each progressing chapter says, “This is as much of God’s truth and justice, love and choice as a human mind was able to hold on the day these words were written.”

Wait a second, doesn’t that put us in a position to judge scripture? What’s to keep people from just picking the verses they like and leaving all the rest?

Jesus.

This book is not the ultimate self-revelation of God. The second person of the trinity is the ultimate self-revelation of God, as stated in the prologue of John, and confirmed in Nicene Creed, he is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father,” He is the ultimate revelation of God.

Every time we read the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.” What we’re really reading is the name of Jesus written across centuries in progressively clearer letters. Every day more truth. Every day more justice. Every day more love. Every day more freely responsible choice, because that is who God is.

There you have the whole book from beginning to end, as simple as I know how to make it. That is as much of God’s truth and justice, love and choice as a my human mind was able to hold on the day these words were written.

Ask me again tomorrow. :)

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Sermon on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – Free to Choose

Primary Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

We’re approaching the end of our winter series, “Do Sweat the Big Stuff”, but I have to warn you. For some of you, this is going to be the most frustrating sermon in the whole series. For others though, it’s going to be the most useful. Just as this scripture offers a choice, today I’m offering you one too.

Did anyone here grow up with something hot in their house? A stove? An oven? Something like that? How many of you were warned not to touch it? What were the exact words? Do you remember? “Don’t touch that. If you touch that, you’re going to get hurt.” How many of you heard that warning more than once? Ok, now for the fun part. How many of you touched it anyway?

Take it up a level. What about money, and planning for your future? What rules of thumb did your parents or your teachers try to teach you about money? Save more than you spend. Buy low, sell high. Balance your checkbook. And by show of hands how many of you went out there, did exactly what you were told and now you’re all millionaires? No? You tried it your way, you made some mistakes and you learned.

Take it up a level. What about relationships: friendships, and significant others. Anyone give you advice about that? Don’t change who you are just to be with someone. Don’t stay in abusive relationships. If you’re out on a blind date, watch how they treat the staff, or kids, or animals. Keep your pants on and take it slow. And how many of you followed that advice, found the love of your life straight out of the gate, and lived happily ever after?

Are you getting the pattern here? What if we take it up another level? Finding your place in the world, becoming your best self? The world is overflowing with advice about how to live life well, which only serves to reinforce the point. We don’t follow advice.

We listen to it, go make our mistakes, and if we’re lucky, we learn.
It’s no accident that everyone in the room shares some kind of hot stove memory. Learning the hard way is the fastest way to learn. Everyone knows this, but we don’t stop to think about why. Break the story down. You get the warning, you do it anyway, you experience consequences, and then you learn.

The thing we don’t notice is that every step matters. Suppose I set up a big cast iron stove in the center of our house, fired it up and walked away. My three-year-old Emma would burn her hand. When that happened, not if, when that happened, what would she learn? Not to touch the stove? No. She’d learn that she is not safe. Our home is not safe, and her parents are not going to protect her. She wouldn’t be able to put it into words, until 20 years and lots of therapy later, but that’s what she’d learn.

The warning limits the loss. “Don’t touch the stove. If you touch the stove, you’ll hurt your hand.” Without the warning, you don’t know why you got hurt. Is it only stoves that hurt? Only things that are metal? Does it only hurt once, or every time? What else out there might hurt me? You don’t know! The warning limits the loss, and the consequences confirm the relationship.

“I told you not to touch that. Now come here and I’ll fix you up.” You with me so far? The fact that somebody warned you proves they are worth listening to. Not only are they smart, they tried to protect you! The consequence confirms the relationship.

Now take that entire idea back to Deuteronomy, “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” God isn’t threatening us. God is warning us. This is how we learn. The warning limits the harm, and the consequence confirms the relationship. This is parenting on a global scale.

Start at the basic, physical level. If you steal from people, and murder people, you are going to experience physical harm. Don’t do that. Next level, basic security. If you live in a preliterate society and you refuse to honor your father and your mother, you abandon your social safety net. Don’t do that. Next level up, belonging. All those rules about how you dress and cut your hair, all the rituals and festivals that define a culture. Abandon those and you’ll find yourself alone. Don’t do that. Esteem and self-actualization. Go live a petty, selfish little life, constantly defensive and never safe, always consuming and never content, rush and rush until you fall over dead and complain how you don’t have enough time. Hate yourself and everybody else. Treat the greatest gift in the universe like it’s some unwelcome burden.

Or don’t.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Protect the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Become the restorer of broken walls and the rebuilder of neighborhoods. Wake up, and grow up, and live. God made you to live!

So now you know. There are two ways to read this text. Either God has a list of rules, and punishes rule-breakers. Or God built the universe with rules, and we experience consequences. Angry God gives us clearly written rules so we will be without excuse on judgment day. Loving God gives us clearly written rules, so that the consequences we experience will not poison us toward life, but will turn us back toward God.

If we believe in an angry God, that makes Jesus the one who protects us, by standing in our place and taking our punishment. If we believe in a loving God, Jesus is the one who reveals just how far God is willing to go to win us back from those things that destroy us. My point today is dead simple. We can read the Bible, the entire Bible from beginning to end, as either a warning, or a threat. Either God is saying, “Watch out, or I’ll punish you,” or God is saying, “Be careful, your choices matter.”

But wait a second.

Isn’t that a false choice? Either God punishes us for breaking the rules, or God made a system that punishes us for breaking the rules. Isn’t it the same thing?

No.

If I made a list of rules that were impossible to keep, and then punished Emma for breaking them, you would be right to call me a monster. But what if I built a house with absolutely no potential for harm? No sharp corners or hard walls. No loud noises or food that required chewing. No responsibilities or consequences. Even if she somehow managed to grow up without lasting psychological harm, would she ever be able to leave? Now way! To warn is not the same thing as to threaten. Not by a mile. Choice is risk. Choice is life.

You can read the Bible both ways, so how do we choose? Remember, Jesus is the standard by which we judge scripture. He put people over the law. When he could have punished, he forgave. And the one time he got angry and started turning over tables, the guys he went after weren’t actually breaking the law. They were providing a “service” to the poor, for a “small extra fee”, and sharing a cut with the priests. If we look at that Jesus and see God as God truly is, then God cares more about people than about rules.

The world is full of little choices that don’t really matter one way or the other. This is not one of them. Is God warning you, or threatening you? Your answer changes how you see God, how you treat people, and how you feel when you look in the mirror.

However, just because this book is a warning, and just because the warning is for our good, don’t get confused. It’s still a warning. God loves us with a relentless, creative love. God turns night into day, brokenness into beauty, and death into life. That’s what God does. That’s who God is, was, and ever shall be. But our actions still have consequences. They have to. That’s how we know the love is real.

Benediction: Now you know why I hate this over-protective helicopter thing we’re doing with our kids nowadays. You can’t have a stove in your house without building a wall around it to keep the kids away. You can’t have a teeter totter or a merry go round because someone might fall off. Round off all the corners and cover them with foam, and while you’re at it, cover all the ground with wood chips or rubber, because heaven forbid someone actually experience grass. Half of them don’t know how to throw or catch because no one is allowed to walk to the park and play a pickup game. We are desperate to create a world without risk, or harm, which is to say a world without choices or growth. Reduce risk? Sure. Limit harm. Absolutely. But eliminate it? First off, impossible. Secondly, stupid. Risk is choice. Choice is life. So go, not to protect people from the world, but to prepare them for it.

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