Purpose, Light, and Life

A sermon for 1st Sunday in Epiphany; Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

 

As I was driving home from a meeting in Osceola Friday afternoon, I heard a story on NPR about a granddaughter tracing her grandmother’s experience as a Jewish refugee in Norway and then Sweden in WWII. Her grandmother was smuggled from the threat of Nazi prison camp, where she would have most likely met the same fate as her parents and younger brother, to safety with strangers who welcomed her into their family, twice.

Though more dramatic, it touches the same moral chords as David Brook’s Thursday column How would Jesus Drive? Brooks begins with Pope Francis’ New Year’s Eve homily in which he states that the most influential people, the true artisans of the common good are everyday folks. Brook’s notes

  • how speeding up so I can’t merge into your lane, reveals a society that is basically competitive, not cooperative
  • a friendly wave after I let you in reveals a place where a kindness is recognized, and gratitude is expressed.
  • getting over to the right lane and waiting your turn in a crowded highway exit lane, rather than cutting in at the last moment, reveals a sense of fairness and equality.

He is wise and accurate in the observation that driving requires us to make thousands of small moral decisions. He ponders “How would Jesus drive?” (Brooks).

The granddaughter’s story is centered around large, perhaps dramatic, moral decisions. Brooks’ column is centered around moral decision so small most of us don’t recognize their moral importance. Both connected with Mark’s 59-word story of Jesus’ baptism; and its themes of water, torn apart, and a dove. Let’s Explore.

The dove, as a symbol of the Spirit appearing as Jesus emerges from Jordan’s waters, reminds us of the chaotic waters of creation. Their time in Egypt would have exposed Israel to the idea of water as a place without role or function (Genesis 1:2) The ‘deep’ is a watery abyss God pushes to edge of the cosmos and holds there, as a part of God’s creating order out of chaos, has similarities with Babylon’s creation epic Enuma Elish (Keener and Walton; Harrelson). Genesis’ imagery of darkness contributes to the sense of the water’s threat. From Genesis we imagine the water as the useless formless void of chaos, in which nothing can exist, from which the Word, the light and life of creation, the incarnate Jesus, the Son of God, emerges (Pankey). It looks a very different than the safe, still surface of the water in baptismal fonts.

Jesus sees the heaven being torn apart. The is not a careful tearing easily restored. The image reminds us of the gigantic power of creation separating day from night, and form, and use from void (Pankey). It is an apocalyptic vision suggesting that a divine revelation is at hand (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen) It is not like God is tearing it all down to begin again; it suggests that God is acting to set the cosmos back on its intended track (Hoezee). Its purpose, form, and order is as powerfully disturbing as the water’s useless formless void of chaos. We are not at all sure that the shredding of the barrier between heaven and earth is a good thing, because we know it is going to disrupt how our thousands of daily moral decisions are made and seen.

It is clear that Jesus’ baptism is not a purification ceremony. Ancient biographical writings expect the hero to prepared for his mission (Perkins). Barrie Bates writes It’s as if the waters of his baptism have washed away what was hiding the true Jesus (Bates). The revelation of the divine mission, the preparation for the mission, the clearing away of anything hiding the divine appointee’s identity directs our attention to the phrase “like a dove” which is sounding more and more like Jesus coming to know who he is, and what his calling is (Perkins).

All of this helps us to understand who Mark understands Jesus to be. But, we do not get off untouched. God calls Jesus “Son of God.” In Psalm 2 (vs 7) and Isaiah 44(2) the title refers to the whole people of Israel (Perkins). So, we find ourselves challenged; what do we need to do to wash away the buildup of life’s troubles and discover who we really are, and what God’s call for us is. We are baptized in Jesus and “marked as Christ’s own forever.” So, each and every one of us is the beloved, with whom God is well pleased; each and every one of us was forever transformed in our baptism each; and every one of us continues to be transformed, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small changes (Bates).

We all know that there is still darkness, chaos, disfunction, and purposelessness in the world (Pankey). When I left the story of the granddaughter’s pursuit of her grandmother’s story I was wondering “Why do some people fade away in the face of chaos or evil? Why do some people take a courageous stand, and / or take courageous action?” The answer is clear. God’s love brings all things into purpose, light, and life. It is as Brooks shares, Pope Francis saying, the most influential people, the true artisans of the common good are everyday folks (Brooks). That influence, our influence is the strength that comes from the presence of God/Jesus/Spirit given us at Baptism. It is the same strength with which God chased off and holds back the chaos of darkness and water creating the space in which the cosmos, including us, can be, and prosper. It is the same strength that tore open the heavens revealing divine love for Jesus, enabling Jesus to thrive in the chaos of the wilderness – which is the very next story in Mark’s Gospel. It is the same strength that it is available to all who know and accept God/Jesus/Spirit. It is the influence of everyday folks making thousands of moral decisions every day guided by their divine calling to bring purpose, light, and life into every situation.

In this story the dove personifies the Spirit. In the flood story (Genesis 8:6-12) the dove is a symbol for a new creation and a new hope (Harrelson). Jesus drives to fulfill that hope by bringing purpose, light, and life to all people. We can too, as we drive around to all the everyday purposes of a full life.


References

Bates, Barrie. “Christ’s Own for Ever, Epiphany 1 (B).” 7 1 2018. Sermons that Work.

Brooks, David. How Would Jesus Drive? 4 1 2018. <http://nyti.ms/28KGh5f&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 7 1 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 1B Mark 1:4-11. 7 1 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs. Commentary on Mark 1:4-11. 7 1 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “The chaos of baptism.” 3 1 2017. Draughting Theology.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Curch. 1/7: Risk and Trust. 7 1 2018. <livingchurch.org/2018/1/7/1/7 Risk and Trust>.

 

 

 

Tending the Connections of Life

A sermon for Proper 23: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 66:1-11, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

 

Last week we explored how we are consecrated or set aside for God’s service, in our baptism. The first story in the bible of being set aside is in Genesis 1. Actually, there are two versions of the same event; the other begins in Genesis 2. You recognize that they are the creation stories, prior to the encounter with the “most crafty” of all the wild animals God made.

In the first creation story after God has made human, in God’s image, God gives human

dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth (NRSV Genesis 1:28)

 In the second account, God made human and then “put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (NRSV Genesis 2:15). Some have used our dominion over creation as rational to use creation however we see fit. Only, we don’t have dominion over creation, just fish, birds and the living things that move. Secondly, while dominion does mean rule, it does not imply how; one can rule benevolently, and since we are created in God’s image, we are expected to rule in God’s image (Harrelson Gen 1:26). In the second story, we are to tend or cultivate which literally means to serve (Harrelson Gen 2:15). So we can see from the very beginning we are created to be stewards of creation. That calling continues after the fall.

In the Old Testament, a steward manages the household for someone. The same is true in the New Testament, with an additional word meaning guardian. Paul refers to himself as “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (NRSV 1 Corinthians 4:1). In the letters we read that stewardship includes time, talents, possessions, and self (Eph. 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet 4:10). Alms specifically refers to benevolence, compassionate support for the poor and needy (Sakenfeld).

This rather broad brush approach leads us to understand stewardship as the calling to tend to the household of God, including the divine mysteries, through the sensible use of   our time, our possessions, our talents, and ourselves, including care for those   who live on the margins of life. But what that might look like?

In Jeremiah’s day, it is a rather unexpected calling. Israel is in exile in Babylon. Hananiah, a rival prophet, is proclaiming God will return them to Israel in a couple of years (Bratt). Jeremiah says no! If they submit to their captivity, they can live. In fact, God wants them to bloom where they are; do all those things you have been doing: building, planting, living usual family life cycles. God doesn’t want them to live in secluded corners, but be public about your lives, and while they are at it, look after the welfare of their captors. They are to live life as their ancestors did in Egypt and flourish (Bratt; Nysse).

At times being a good steward requires that you are aware of what God has given you (Ellingsen). On his way through Samaria Jesus encounter ten lepers, who are as excluded from the Samaritan community as are they are in Israel, and pretty much everywhere. They are not considered really human; they are treated as if they don’t exist. Lepers are supposed to cry out a warning if the encounter anyone on the road. When they see Jesus, they cry to him “Have mercy on us!” Jesus tells them to go show themselves to a priest, which is what the law requires before a leper can be declared clean. And they do. That is all we know, except that on the way, one, the Samaritan, an outsider among outcast, notices he is clean and turns around to go tell Jesus “thank you.”

A couple of commentators wrote about the gratitude of the Samaritan Leper. However, for this morning I’d like us to explore how his turning around is an act of stewardship. First, he notices he has been cured. His first act of returning and thanking Jesus demonstrates how he intends to be a steward of this gift of renewed life. Also, Jesus crosses multiple social boundaries to heal the lepers; the Samaritan crosses social boundaries to approach a Jew and to recognize the relationship between them (Pagano). He cultivates his cure, and the harvest is a healing that blossoms as shalom between himself and Jesus (Epperly). And let’s not forget to notice, it is the Samaritan’s choice, to return to Jesus. Part of being a steward is being aware of what God has given into our care. Part of being a good steward is saying thank you, as a first step in cultivating what is your responsibility to manage for the glory of God.

The stewardship gleaning from 2nd Timothy is just a little subtler. Paul does not separate Jesus from the Gospel. To preach to Gospel is to preach Christ. To preach Christ is to preach the Gospel.

There is a unity here we should pay attention to. Over the millennia, the centuries, the decades and the years we have separated God and creation. It may be the result of the development our cosmology, which is a whole new way of understanding how creation developed. However, it happened, we tend to think there is God; God acts; and now there is God plus something else, creation. First, there was one, now there are two. Only creation is not autonomous from God any more than Jesus is separate from the Gospel. So when we are stewards of creation we are stewards of creations and God.

An easier way to think of this is not to think of what portion of my stuff do I tithe from, but how am I going to cultivate God’s stuff? And since money is meaningless to God, we begin to seek what is meaningful to God. It doesn’t take long to see it is the relationships between ourselves; between ourselves and others; and between ourselves, others and God.

I have mentioned before how quarks, the most basic particles of creation, exist only in relationship. Creation is fundamentally a web where everything is connected to, related to everything else. As stewards of creation, our calling is to cultivate all those relationships. We are to cultivate and nurture the relationship between ourselves. We are to cultivate and nurture the relationships between ourselves and our neighbors. We are to cultivate and nurture the relationship between ourselves and strangers. We are to cultivate and nurture the relationship between ourselves and the foreigners, the aliens in the land. We are to cultivate and nurture the relationship between ourselves our neighbors, strangers, and aliens in the land. And all it takes is awareness, gratitude, and benevolence. All that takes is the grace of God that precedes and follows us in our work through Jesus.


 

References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 23 3C | Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7. 9 10 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Doyle, C. Andrew. “The Future of Stewardship.” n.d. 7 10 2016.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 9 10 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 9 10 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Frederick, John. Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:815. 9 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 23 3C | Luke 17:11-19. 9 10 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

—. Proper 23 C 2 Timothy 2:8-15. 9 10 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18c/>.

Lewis, Karoline. The Rhythms of Faith. 9 10 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Pentecost 21 C: Gratitude and Grace. 15 11 2015.

Nysse, Richard W. Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 47. 10 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Pagano, Joseph S. “The Test of all Happiness is Gratitude, Proper 23(C).” 9 10 2016. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

West, Audrey. Commentary on Luke 17:1119. 9 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

Trinity Triangles

A sermon for Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

In the beginning there was chaos and darkness; Israel has been carried off into captivity, her people are surrounded by all sorts of stories from foreign countries, all sorts of other gods. There were creation stories:

from Babylon of Enumia Elish and Tamiet,’ [i] ;
from Egypt of Re, [ii] Osiris, Seth and Horus; and
from Mesopotamia of Marduk and Assur. [iii]

The results being that Jews were being drawn away from God. So by divine inspiration, some of the priest in captivity wrote Israel’s story of creation by the One Living God. It was very different, one God as creator of all things, heavens, earth, water, land, light, sun and moon, and all life, and of course it was fiercely monotheistic [iv] And while it expresses the science of the day, it is primarily a theological statement focusing on God’s intent not God’s methodology. [v]

Terence Fretheim writes: 

Israel takes the available knowledge of that world and integrates it with theological perspectives, recognizing thereby that both spheres of knowledge must be used to speak the truth about the world. [vi]

In many respects it’s a story about relationships.

 

Perhaps because it’s Trinity Sunday, but more likely because I’ve just finished this year’s workshop on Family Systems and its emphasis on relationship triangles, that I’m seeing all sorts of relationship triangles today. The first is the triangle between Israel other gods, and God. The foreign stories are drawing Israel away from God, the introduction of a Hebrew creation story draws Israel back into relationship with God. It should be God and God alone, but because we’ve read ahead we know that doesn’t happen.

The second relationship triangle is revealed in the story we read this morning. (By the way, a second follows written by a second set of authors.) This second triangle is between God, creation and Israel; or today, between God, creation and us. There are two key concepts I want to explore. The first is the image of God.

In the last half of the sixth day 

 … God [says], “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; … So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Notice all humanity, male and female are created equally, in time and equally in the image of God. Other than radical equality of all people, what else does it mean to be the image of God? Roger Nam writes it’s elusive. [vii]  Over time our understanding has moved from an assigned role, to a source of sanctity and innate worth, to a 20th century vision of divine partnership. [viii] Walter Brueggemann notes a closeness that reveals God’s attentiveness, and a distance that allows freedom of action. [ix] But it is Fretheim who writes of being created in the image of God to mirror God to the world [as] … an extension of God’s own dominion. He notes God’s first words to humanity are about their, about our, relationship to the earth. [x] Being made in the image of God speaks to who we are, our relationships with each other, our relationship with all creation, and our relationship with God and the free will we have in all this. And thus we move to the gift of dominion.

Rādâ means to rule, to have dominion. [xi]  It is authority of

… masters over servants (Lev 25:43) king over subjects  … [but it] can be used for either benevolent or harsh rule. However, it must be understood as the same kind of rule God would exercise in the natural world, a world God created good in all of its parts. [xii]

The second creation story reveals God giving the command to cultivate, literally to serve creation. [xiii]  Fretheim writes that it must be understood in terms of care-giving, even nurturing, not exploitation. [xiv] Being created in the image of God and commanded to take care of all creation as God’s self would is an awesome responsibility, an awesome expression of divine love.

Genesis reveals a triangle of relationships between and God and all creation brought into being with strength and desire no other creation story reveals; between God and humanity who, with extraordinary love, is endowed with God’s image, and between humanity and all creation with freedom to be and act that mirrors the divine whose image we reflect. When this relationship triangle is in the balance intended created life is the resonance of the creator; it mirrors the internal relationship between God, Jesus and the Spirit.

Our concept of Trinity does give us a way to imagine the unimaginable life of God.  More importantly it gives us the imagination to live the life we are created to live.

 


 

[i] David Petersen L Petersen, Beverly R Gaventa, New Interpreter’s One volume Commentary

[ii] Scott Hoezee , This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching

This Week‘s Article: Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php

[iii] Roger Nam, Commentary on Genesis 1:1-2:4a, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2096

[iv] Nam, ibid

[v] Walter Brueggemann, GENESIS, A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING, Interpretation, James Luther Mays, Editor, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor, Paul J. Achtemeier, New Testament Editor, 

[vi] TERENCE E. FRETHEIM, THE BOOK OF GENESIS, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS, New Interpreter’s Bible 

[vii] Nam, ibid

[viii] Walter J Harrelson, New Interpreters’ Study Bible

[ix] Brueggemann

[x] Fretheim, ibid

[xi] Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary.

[xii] Harrelson, ibid

[xiii] ibid.

[xiv] Fretheim, ibid

Divine, Humanity, All the Rest

I have been absent for some time, mostly enjoying the beauty of the South Carolina beach. Today I return to the discipline of sharing thoughts about the coming Sunday’s lections, or other spurious contemplations. It seems unfair to be saddled with the Trinity as a reset point; on the other hand Genesis and creation coupled with Matthew’s great commission is full of relevant provocations. (12 + pages of notes so far.)

Perhaps it’s because just before I left for the shore I finished this session of Family Systems Conferences I’ve been seeing triangles all over the place. Yes, sometime the symbol (apparently I need to yield a lot), but far more often in relationships. It is important to know that triangles are not bad by definition but descriptive; the trouble comes with imbalance and meshing of self with other; but I wander. The same is true for Sunday’s readings (not the wandering, the presence of relationship triangles).

In Genesis we glean a relationship triangle between God, creation, and humanity – empowered to dominate creation as God created, i.e with inestimable love, which we better hear a tending to.

In Matthew we glean a relationship triangle between Jesus, the newly commissioned disciples, and all nations.

I’m noting that when we distance God and or Jesus in either relationship domination becomes exploitation and discipling becomes making. The focus shifts from the intricate  balance between God/Jesus, humanity/disciples, and creation/others to us. In short we try to be like God. Oh wait that comes later in Genesis 3; and oh what a mess that story reveals.

relationship quality reveals relationship quality

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible commentary on Jeremiah 4:23ff mentions the vast ecological destruction as creation falls apart, implying a return to the chaos prior to God’s creative work. The observation connects that state of creation, the environment, with Israel’s relationship with God. I  probably won’t go there this week; however it does raise the interesting question: Can we glean something about our relationship with God in the state of the environment? 

I’m not thinking in terms of divine punishment. I am wondering if our misuse, abuse, of the environment as we seek to extract more and more resources, is easier to do because we do not believe the world belongs to God, because we do not have a deep relationship with God, and therefore God’s creation.  Furthermore, for those who see environmental destruction, the most popular response (my observation) is a turn to technology, turning to “another god.”  Rarely is there honest discussion about real behavioral changes in our relationship to the environment, as reflective of our relationship with our creator God.

It’s a notoriously complex subject, with many divergent opinions, conflicting research, and little respect for other’s views.  … and that sounds disturbingly familiar.