The Trial of the Century

(sermon 2/2/20)

My_Trusty_Gavel
Photo: Brian Turner [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

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?

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It’s always important to understand the context of any Lectionary text, but maybe it’s even more important when we come around to such a well-known passage as this one from Micah. Its words are familiar, but what exactly was the underlying situation that brought it about? In this case, the mock trial imagery of this passage is the culmination of the first five chapters of the book. There, the prophet Micah is laying out a criticism of Judah and Israel – the two kingdoms that once made up the single, unified kingdom ruled by kings Saul, David, and Solomon, before splitting as a result of squabbles within the royal family and underlying political, social, and religious divisions between the north and south. Micah himself was from the southern kingdom, but he laid out his criticism on both the north and south kingdoms, and their capitals, Jerusalem and Samaria, with equal measure. He takes the leaders and the powerful in both kingdoms to task because they treat the people unjustly. According to Micah, they mistreat women and children. Their greed makes them take away other people’s homes, property, ability to make a living, for their own enrichment. They come up with all kinds of schemes to feather their own nests, and they carry the schemes out with impunity because they have all the power, and there’s no one who has sufficient power or courage to stop them. It’s all about money and power to them. Judges are bribed to render decisions that favor the powerful over the powerless. Religious leaders pervert religion, interpreting it in ways that give approval, and supposedly God’s own sanction and blessing, to the rich and powerful, who give them power and wealth in return. Then, after enriching and empowering themselves at others’ expense, they surround themselves with walls to keep others away, and, as Micah puts it, they call out for “Peace” when their own mouths are full, against those who have nothing to eat.

After laying out these charges against them, Micah warns the kingdoms that they have earned God’s wrath, and that both of them will be brought down; both their capital cities will be destroyed and turned to rubble.

All of that, then, sets up today’s text – this dramatic scene of the “trial of the century,” as it were. Now that Micah has spelled out the charges, God steps in and adds icing on the cake. God asks what is was that God had ever done to them to make them act so horribly. God reminds them of a number times in their history when they were saved by God’s hand, and when God was faithful and fulfilled the covenant made between them.

Despite this, the defendant in the trial – the “mortal”, the person in power who’s being called out – just doesn’t get it. Maybe reinforced in their cluelessness by those religious leaders who twisted religious principles to give them cover for their actions, the mortal is actually indignant at having their actions criticized. They’re the leaders of the people, supposedly God’s chosen ones, so how can what they’re doing be wrong? They deserve to be enriched, because whatever is in their own best interest is in the kingdom’s best interest; what’s good for them is what’s good for the kingdom. As far as God is concerned, all they have to do is meet their weekly religious obligation – take an hour or so each week, make your sacrifice, your offering to appease, to buy off, God, and then get back to business the rest of the week.

And then the mortal falls back on what they’re comfortable with. They see everything as transactional; everything boils down to a simple business deal where everyone, and everything, has its price. So all right, I think you’re being unreasonable, the mortal says to God, but come on, we’re all adults here, we know how this works. What do you want? Thousands of rams, rivers of oil, are you so unreasonable that you’d want me to even give up my own child? Of course not; let’s be reasonable. What do you really want?

You can imagine Micah shaking his head at how clueless the mortal is, and he blurts out, are you an idiot? You just heard what God wants. It really isn’t any kind of sacrifice, large or small, that just gives you cover to continue hurting the people to feed your own greed and selfishness. What does God want? It’s simple: Do justice. Love kindness. Get off your “we’re the greatest” high horse and walk humbly with God.

It’s important to recognize here that Micah is calling out the kings, the rulers of these kingdoms that were kings by virtue of royal bloodline or military force; they were chosen by the people. God is calling these two kingdoms, nations, into judgment – just as we see in Jesus’ depiction of the final judgment in Matthew 25, the “judgment of the nations.” I don’t know how that works, but apparently, in some way we are accountable both as individuals as well as collectively  as nations, and how the nations have acted.

Through Micah, God was passing judgment on kings. But we aren’t ruled by a king. We have a say in who governs over us. We have a say in how the rich and powerful are regulated to prevent abuses; how the government will provide for the needs of the poor, the sick, the foreigner; and how our society will provide social equity and justice for all of its people. So we have an obligation, as an integral part of our faith, to always work in ways that call our government to accountability, to act in ways of justice and kindness and compassion for all people, in ways that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel hadn’t.

At the core of the failures of those two kingdoms, according to God, is that they allowed their own self-centeredness and greed to cause them to forget God’s faithfulness – God’s continuing to provide for them and care for them, as part of the covenant God had made, and never broken, with them. As one example, God reminds of them of what happened when they had crossed “from Shittim to Gilgal.” This is a reference to the Hebrews completing their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and finally crossing over into the promised land – Shittim was the last place they were before crossing over the Jordan River into the promised land on its western shore, at Gilgal. That crossing wasn’t just a physical movement; it was the culmination, the fulfillment of God’s promise; it was the evidence that God was being faithful to the covenant between them. This morning, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper, among other things a remembrance and a recognition that we’re in God’s covenant, too. We can, and do, sometimes forget that, and we don’t always live our lives in ways that recognize and honor that covenant. We recognize that even though God was condemning two kingdoms, two nations, for not acting with compassion and equity for all of God’s people, that same charge from God applies to us all as individuals, too. And as a part of our partaking of this meal, this sacrament, we’re recommitting ourselves to be true to that covenant that we’re living within. So this morning, eat the bread. Drink the wine. Recommit to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And demand a society that does the same.

Thanks be to God.

 

Raise Your Flag

(sermon 1/12/20 – Baptism of the Lord)

raise your flag

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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The author of Matthew’s gospel had a problem. Just as any author, ancient or modern might do, he sat down at his version of a blank legal pad and began planning how to structure his work in a way that told his story – in this case, the story of Jesus – in a way that emphasized the points he wanted to make. But one of the first things he had to deal with was a debate going on among the believers about Jesus’ baptism. He had Mark’s earlier gospel sitting in front of him, and other sources as well, to draw from as he composed his own work, and Mark dealt with Jesus’ baptism very simply. In the midst of Mark telling how John the Baptist was baptizing people for repentance and forgiveness of sins, Jesus shows up, seemingly like anyone else, and asks John to baptize him. Mark’s John the Baptist doesn’t seem to recognize in advance that Jesus is the messiah. He apparently doesn’t see any potential theological difficulty with the idea, so he basically shrugs his shoulders and says OK, come on in, the water’s fine. No big deal

But in the ten years or so since Mark wrote his version of the story, Jesus’ followers had started to develop a more complex theological understanding of how Jesus’ reconciliation, his atonement, between God and humanity worked, in which Jesus himself would need to have been sinless, in order, they argued, to be an adequate “sacrifice” acceptable to God to forgive the sin of all humanity. And if that were the case, then why did Jesus get baptized like any other mortal, if Mark was right and baptism was all about repentance and forgiveness of sin?

So as Matthew crafted his account, he had to deal with that. In his account, he doesn’t deny that forgiveness of sin is one meaning of baptism, but he offers an additional meaning to it that helps to soothe some theological discomfort. Matthew’s John the Baptist is in on the knowledge that Jesus is special, the anointed one, when he arrives to be baptized, and he protests – as some believers in Matthew’s time would have – that it would be inappropriate for John to baptize him; in fact, it should be the other way around. But in Matthew’s account, Jesus says no, he should be baptized, in order to “fulfill all righteousness” – which, in Matthew-speak, as he lays out throughout his gospel, means to do in all ways the things that are pleasing to God. So Jesus being baptized is something that would please God.

Now for a moment, I want to move forward to the present-day. Several times a month, George and I will get together with a group of friends, to share a meal together, maybe go out to a show, occasionally play a board game, maybe enjoy some good bourbon and conversation and laughs. Now, there isn’t a person sitting around the table who hasn’t gone through some really thin, difficult financial times in their lives, and everyone gathered there is aware of and grateful for the fact that they’re reasonably secure now. From time to time, though, as the conversations might ebb and flow, someone will say something about some great food – maybe some extremely high-quality beef, or hard-to-find pork, or some delicious exotic cheese they’ve had the pleasure of enjoying; or having enjoyed some exquisite turkey that was organic, free-range, raised by a farmer who they knew; where the turkeys all listen to Beethoven and get daily massages, and the farmer reads them bedtime stories; or maybe having met some famous person, or some other similarly elitist comment – sort of like a real-world version of Lucy van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” telling the other kids who are catching snowflakes on their tongues, that she never eats December snow; she will only eat January snow. And often, when that happens in the conversation, someone else might joke to the person speaking that they’re “raising their flag” – meaning that they’re raising their flag of privilege and elitism; that their privilege is showing. Sometimes, instead of actually putting it into words, as the other person is going on, someone will just silently make the gesture with their hands of raising a flag up a flagpole, offering a gentle, good-natured ribbing to whoever’s speaking at the moment, and we’ll all laugh, and the conversation will go on from there.

I mention that because I think that in a way – a more positive way, to be sure – a large aspect of Matthew’s understanding of baptism, and what fulfilling all righteousness,” doing those things that are pleasing to God, lies in something similar. To Matthew, in addition to baptism signifying forgiveness of sin, it also signifies the flag that, being baptized, we’re now called to live under, and to be loyal to. So Jesus being baptized, then, symbolizes that Jesus is part of this movement – certainly, in the way we typically use that term, but mostly in the sense that he is at the very center of a literal moving of world history, of human existence, in a new direction, into a new era – an era of the partial incoming of the kingdom of God into this life. Through the act of his baptism, God has raised this flag over Jesus, both identifying God’s pleasure and Jesus’ central part in it all.

Matthew might have found a way to address that theological issue regarding Jesus’ baptism. But others remain. In the earliest years of the church, and up until this day, for example, many have suggested that it was at his baptism, and not at the time of his birth – at the time of the Holy Spirit descending upon him and God’s voice of loving approval – when Jesus became God incarnate – as we say, “fully human and fully divine.”

And of course, Matthew’s literary take on baptism didn’t really settle the issue he was trying to settle, either. It continues to this day. Many of our literal neighbors, our Evangelical siblings in the faith, emphasize the idea of baptism primarily signifying forgiveness of sins – and most significantly, that it signifies our choice, the exercising of our free will, to “raise the flag” as it were, to be followers of Christ. On the other hand, we Mainliners, and certainly we Presbyterians, recognize baptism as a sign of forgiveness of sin, but we especially emphasize its being a seal of God making a unilateral covenant with us to be part of this identity, this movement, of Christ-followers and the kingdom of God – and especially, that baptism doesn’t signify us choosing to raise our flag, but rather, it’s a sign of us recognizing that God has chosen to raise that flag over us – that, as I sometimes say when baptizing an infant, we don’t believe baptism is a sign of what we’re doing, but rather, it’s a sign of what God has already done.

Beyond that ongoing theological debate between Evangelicals and Mainliners, one thing is definitely true: after our baptism, we are indeed called by God to “raise our flag” – to visibly do those things that please God, that “fulfill all righteousness,” which, to Matthew, is always acting in ways that are loving and merciful. After our baptism, we’re called by God to act in ways that make it clear to those around us that, in gratitude for the love, mercy, and grace that God has showered us with, we’re trying to live and treat others with that same kind of love, mercy, and grace. Regardless of the finer points of how we understand or want to emphasize baptism, all Christians – all who profess to have followed Jesus into those waters of baptism and come back up out of them wth him – are called to be a visible witness to the world of an alternative way – a better way – than what we see around us on a daily basis. And what do we see? Greed. Arrogance. Selfishness. Violence. Threats of war. Cruelty. The dehumanizing, belittlement, or worse, of people just because they aren’t sufficiently like ourselves. The hoarding of wealth and resources that has created and kept the vast majority of the world’s population in abject poverty.

Every Christian is called, you and I are called – lovingly called, but called nonetheless – to reflect God’s love for us outward to others, by opposing all of those distortions of God’s will, of God’s righteousness – and not just to speak out against them, and not just to pray about them, but to concretely work and fight to end them, regardless of where we find them; in whatever situation, whatever institution; in whatever corporate policy or educational policy or governmental policy; in whatever person, whatever office or position. We’re called to let every human being know that they are loved, and not just to let them know they’re loved, but to actually love them; to actually offer them compassion, and mercy, and justice. To that point, the great twentieth-century priest and theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote, “In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that bridges all divides and heals all wounds.” That, friends, is a flag of privilege that. out of gratitude and love, we should all be ready, willing, and proud to raise.

Thanks be to God.

Bifocal Lents (sermon 2/22/15)

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Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” – Genesis 9:8-17

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In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:9-15

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 We’ve been talking about Lent any number of ways lately. We’ve written newsletter articles about it, and blog posts, and Facebook updates and newspaper articles, and we’ve designed a new series of Wednesday worship services for it. Now we’re in the midst of it, beginning this past week with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes, and now this, the first Sunday in Lent. These forty days of reflection, solitude, and penitence are symbolically connected to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, which itself is symbolically connected to the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after they left Egypt, which also symbolically connected to the forty days of rain during the story of Noah and the flood. Each of these things has embedded within it a sense of being separated out; affording, maybe even demanding, a time of self-reflection, and especially causing an amplified focus and reliance on God.

The idea of observing Lent can be a hard sell for us today, for a number of reasons. To turn away from the distractions of our daily lives is a hard thing to do. It’s hard for us to stay focused on something for forty minutes, let alone forty days. Our lives move so much more quickly today than when people first thought about setting aside forty days for introspection and refocus. One of the things that was nice when I first went to Honduras about twelve years ago was that where we were going, there was no internet connection available. There was no cellphone coverage. To go to that orphanage meant that you were going to have to give up all the instant technology that you’d gotten so dependent upon, and I know that a number of us felt a kind of withdrawal for the first couple of days that we were there. But after getting through that, we began to really focus on what was really in front of us, and all around us. Getting to know and love the kids, the natural beauty, the very different culture. Coming to see the reality of corruption and civil unrest, and of poverty on a level never seen before. Letting these experiences speak to our hearts, and to change our hearts. We got to be in that experience, that “zone,” for less than a week, before heading back to the States, and our phones came back to life, and we were resubmerged in our own constantly on, constantly live, ultimately dispersed lives. Finding one’s self in that zone of intense focus, without the normal distractions, has been truly life-changing for hundreds of people who have gone through it, and that was just to experience it for less than a week. Imagine how a life could be transformed by truly experiencing it for forty days.

It is hard to consider sticking with a regimen of introspection and humbly turning ourselves over to God even more deeply for the whole period of Lent. But there’s another aspect of it that I think is even more significant.

When I was first studying preaching, we were supposed to prepare a sermon on a particular passage, and the most obvious message to draw out of the words, at least for most of us in the class, was that we need to be more giving of ourselves – we need to be less selfish and more emptying of ourselves to serve others, just as Christ emptied himself for us. That was all well and good, the instructor said, and maybe it’s a very relevant and important message that a lot of people need to hear. But if the person hearing your message is someone whose issue wasn’t too strong a sense of self, but rather, was too *weak* a one; if your message is heard by someone who’s given of themselves to others so much that there doesn’t seem to be any of her or him self actually surviving, then it’s a wrong and even dangerous message to encourage even more self-emptying and self-destruction in the name of serving others.

The instructor made a valid point. And Lent can face a similar problem. What Lent should mean to each of us can be very different, based on where we’re approaching it from. Yes, it’s probably true that for many, if not most of us, the struggle we need to deal with as we come into Lent is that of humbling ourselves in order to come into God’s presence and to hear God’s word for us, and to recommit our lives to God. We Americans don’t generally do “humble” well; in fact, humility is often held up as a sign of weakness or even moral failing. Whether we look at what our society tells us about what our personal lives, or our national and international posture should look like, being humble and not pressing ourselves onto others rarely rates very high on the charts. So if we find ourselves in that location, it’s good and important to see Lent through the lens of needing to humble ourselves in order to find God in this time.

But there are a lot of people in the world, in the country, in this city, in this congregation, who likely have another frame of reference. There are many people who don’t have any shortage of humility; who don’t think too highly of themselves. In fact, they think too little of themselves. Our communities and our families are full of people whose self-image, whose sense of self-worth has been completely battered to the point that it can be almost non-existent. That’s the point where humility becomes humiliation. They’re told in countless ways that they aren’t smart enough, or successful enough, or good-looking enough, or enough like the way society says they should be, and they live lives filled with the quiet despair of feeling they don’t measure up, feeling worthless, or at least worth little, and certainly less than God would ever want to love.

And if that’s the place you’re standing in, then the worst possible thing you can hear, especially from a pulpit, is that you need to humble yourself even further. To be told that you’ve got to humble and debase yourself even further is a distorted, fatiguing, and even harmful message to get out of Lent. If that’s your vantage point, then you need to see Lent through a different lens. Understand that the humility that’s called for during Lent isn’t an end to itself, but rather, it’s meant to help you truly come into God’s presence and to feel God’s love. And it’s hard to hear God speaking into your heart if you believe that God wouldn’t speak to you at all.

We aren’t going through this season in some sort of masochistic love of beating ourselves up and wallowing in suffering for its own sake, as if suffering itself reconciles us with God. The main purpose of Lent is to feel and experience God’s love for us – especially as we see it illustrated through Jesus’ life and his journey to the cross and beyond. In order to be able to reflect on that love more deeply, some of us need to humble ourselves. But some of us will need to actually lift ourselves up. Some of us will need to allow ourselves to accept that we are good, and lovable, and worthy of God’s embrace, before we can hear God’s voice this season. All of us need to recognize that what’s important about Lent isn’t the details of how we get to the end point, but rather, that we actually get to it. And the end point is this: Just as we heard in our first reading, in the story of the flood, God loves us so much as to establish an everlasting covenant of love with us – one that completely overarches us and covers over us, just like the rainbow in the story that God said is a symbol of that covenant. And for the record: if, by chance, you find yourself in a place where you think you’re so worthless, you’re such flawed, damaged goods that your failings and shortcomings are too great to stay covered over by that covenant of love; that you’re going to poke through that protective rainbow, as it were – know that if you break through that one, that just like in our window, there’s another one just beyond it ready to cover over you and keep you within God’s love and care. And beyond that one is another one. And another one. And another one. You can’t ever exceed or escape God’s love and compassion for you. That’s the ultimate message behind meditating on Jesus and the cross during Lent, regardless of where you start your journey, regardless of your vantage point, regardless of what lens you need to see it through.

Thanks be to God.