So Why Shepherds?

A Sermon for Christmas: Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:(1-7)8-20

 

For a year we had been working with this customer. It was an important project, the first of this a major national franchise. The project involved our well-established product-line of jobber outlet and retails systems, and our new product of warehouse systems. The owners’ primary store and all their branches were up and running, and had been for a while. All was going well. I went there on my regular weekly visit. When I walked in the door I knew something was not right. It didn’t feel right.

As I walked in the countermen scurried into the inventory stacks. All the secretaries answered phones that had not rung. The store manager’s head dropped. And there were two or three teams of workers, on ladders pulling communications cables through the ceiling on a path to reach all the offices and workspaces. When the company owner saw me, he paused; his face dropped; he took a subtle but deep breath and waved me into his office. The short version is he told me they were exercising their contract option to return our equipment at the end of the month because they had decided to use their franchise’s computer system, not ours. There are times when you instinctually know things are not right.

Reading Luke’s story of Jesus birth is such a time. Well, it should be. Only we, and our parents, and our grandparents, and all our ancestors for generation after generation, and all our religious institutions, for century upon century, have taken the story for how it is written. Everyone has forgotten the state of the times.

The story begins with a census. Only there are no historical records that confirm that an empire-wide census (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson). Even if there was a census the Romans did not care about your family of origin, their concern was that property was registered at its proper location. Whatever might have happened its primary purpose was a symbol of Augustus’s sovereignty, and to ensure the collection of taxes (Culpepper).

And for a story that is about Jesus’ birth, Luke dedicates 2 whole verses (6 and 7) to this blessed event. So much for the focus of the story.

The majority of the story (10 verses, 8 through 18) are about shepherds. Shepherds, who are leftovers from Israel’s nomadic culture, were the lowest rung on the social ladder. Shepherding was a despised occupation. Nobody liked shepherds. They were a necessary evil. They were smelly and suspect in character. They were sometimes rough, unclean and maybe dangerous. They were scorned as shiftless, and could not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted (Pankey, Merry Christmas; Culpepper; Keener and Walton)

In this morning’s gospel story Jesus is said to be the Son of the Most High, heir to the throne of his ancestor David, who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, (Luke 1:32-33). In this evening’s gospel story Jesus is given the additional titles Savior, the Messiah, and Lord. All of them are claimed by the emperor. Luke’s narrative sets up a sharp contrast between Jesus and Augustus. (Harrelson).

Christmas is our celebration of the expectation that Jesus will be King, on the restored throne of David. So why all the mess about census? Why is the birth announcement distinctly not regal? Why does the news of Jesus’ birth go to shepherds, the lowly and not to the elite and the powerful (Harrelson)? Why does Luke subtly place Jesus over against Augustus? It appears that King Jesus, pretender to the throne of David, is not who we should be looking for.

Last week we explored John the Evangelist’s vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God being the perfection of humanity as image of God (Genesis 1:26). This week Luke, in all this disruption, also seems to point to Jesus as the perfection of humanity as the image of God. Only this evening, there is a different take.

In his December 14th column David Brooks writes:

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism fell with it. Liberal democracy seemed triumphant. Democracies sprouted in Central Europe. Apartheid fell in South Africa. The Oslo process seemed to herald peace in the Middle East.

28 years later is has all gone bad

Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies.

Brooks then introduces Thomas Mann’s The Coming Victory of Democracy. Mann argues

Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible. Yes, humans do beastly things — … but humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth.

Brooks continues noting Mann that

Democracy… is the only system built on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman, on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice and truth.

 

It is not just a procedural or a political system for the principle of majority rule, it is a way of life. It encourages everybody to make the best of their capacities — [it] holds that we have a moral responsibility to do so. It encourages the artist to seek beauty, the neighbor to seek community, the psychologist to seek perception, the scientist to seek truth (Brooks).

What Mann says is what defines any righteous and just governance.

Though Caesars are credited with bringing peace to the world, Luke proclaims that the true bringer of peace is Jesus the Savior (Culpepper). Jesus replacing the Caesars as the true source of peace points to the restoration of the moral base of society, which bearing the fruit of radical equality of all God’s people is the purpose of the Kingdom on earth. This morning, in her song of praise to God, Mary’s intent is that her ministry as the God bearer is to reveal the greatness of God for all the world to see. By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother Mary reveals that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down (Pankey, Proclamation). By re-entering human history, born to an unmarried mother, whose birth is revealed to the least in society, with titles claimed by the reigning emperor, God identifies with

  • the powerless,
  • the oppressed,
  • the poor, and
  • the homeless

which reveals the moral corruption of the status quo Jesus’ birth is turning upside down (Culpepper).

The kingdom Jesus is bringing is not the restoration of a regal earthly kingdom. Jesus is bringing the kingdom of moral authority of righteousness and justice. The birth of Jesus is a sign of God’s abundant grace (Culpepper).

  • For a child has been born for us, and authority rests upon his shoulders
  • The people who walked in darkness see a great light
  • The joy of the nations has been multiplied
  • The yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, has been broken
  • The boots of the tramping warriors are burning fuel for the fire
  • He will establish the throne of justice and with righteousness and uphold it from this time onward and forevermore
  • His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
  • The love of the Lord of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:2-7).

These are treasured words They are ours to mull over, to quietly consider the meaning they bring. (Gaventa and Petersen) (Culpepper). They are ours to use as inspiration that our lives may reveal the love of God. They are ours to use as strength for restoration of our moral base, and perhaps quietly being a model for others witness and ponder.

Amen and a blessed Christmas.


References

Almquist, Br. Curtis. “Meet Jesus Again.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 23 12 2017. <ssje.org/word/>.

Black, C. Clifton. Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20. 24 12 2017.

Brooks, David. “The Glory of Democracy.” 14 12 2017. newyorktimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/opinion/democracy-thomas-mann.html&gt;.

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <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.

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

Pankey, Steve. Merry Christmas. 21 12 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491&gt;.

—. The importance of proclamation. 20 12 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491&gt;.

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

 

A Time to Choose

A sermon for 6th Sunday after the Epiphany; Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8,
1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37Epiphany 6,

In 1985 I worked for a small software company, and it was my job to coordinate all our interactions with existing customers. When the owner decided to move offices, I was tasked with keeping us available to our customers through the entire move. But remember in those days there were no cell phones, there was no internet, we did everything by land-line which meant we had to have an office. I arranged to have the existing lines left on after the new lines were turned on. I arranged for one desk and chair to stay behind and another to go on ahead. The plan for the move was to start Friday afternoon, move Saturday, finishing setting up on Sunday and be open for business as usual on Monday morning. It was a good plan. There were no obvious difficult places in this short journey.

And so, we started. Friday afternoon everything except one desk was packed and ready to be put on the truck. Then the phone rang. The contractor spoke to our boss, and everything had to be delayed to Monday. There was some sort of delay involving the paving, which kept the building inspector from doing the final inspection, which kept the fire inspector from issuing the certificate of occupancy, which meant we could not have the keys. Without getting into all the details, in a miniature Exodus style, we journeyed in stages. What was to take 3 days, took an entire week. The next Friday evening we were finished.

Moses is almost finished. His task of leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt is almost finished. His task of leading Israel through the wilderness is almost finished. His task of bringing Israel to the Promised Land is almost finished. Moses’ life’s work is almost finished.

This morning we heard the end of Moses’ 26-chapter farewell sermon (Ellingsen) (Clements). In the very next verse, Joshua assumes leadership of the camp, the leadership of the people of Israel, as they begin to take possession the Promised Land. Moses’ final words are a challenge. Israel has a choice; they can choose to follow God and thereby choose life and prosperity, or they can choose to follow something else and thereby choose death and adversity.

If you recall the story of the Exodus journey, it is not at all an obvious choice. It is a choice that is complicated with Israel’s history of choosing not to follow God, and as a result suffer all sorts of death and adversity.

This is not the only time Israel faces this choice. Scholars teach us that all the Pentateuch was actually written down while in captivity in Babylon in sometime in the 6th century BCE. In returning from exile, they are entering the Promised Land again (Bratt). It is as awesome a challenge as the journey from Egypt, and thus, they chose to re-enact the choosing liturgy. They call upon what many consider a discredited faith, after all, they are in captivity in the land of another god. They call upon the God who shepherded them through their meta-journey to shepherd them once again as they struggle to break the bonds that bind them to a strange land, as they struggle to cross a wilderness to cross the Jordan and repossess their land. And they can only do this by acknowledging their prior failures, confessing their complete dependence on faith in God, and recommitting to divine loyalty through a new wilderness journey (Clements).

But would it surprise you to know, this is not the first time Israel has been asked to make the choice Moses challenges the to make. Twice Joshua requires Israel to choose: be loyal to God and have life, or be loyal to another god and face death (Howard). Nor is this the last time. All the post return prophets put the same choice before Israel. And finally, Jesus, the Son of God, put the same choice in a different form, before Israel, before all humanity, they can choose to believe in me, as the Son of Man, and live in God’s gracious presence, or not and know darkness and chaos.

When we are honest with ourselves, we know that Jesus’ challenge to choose is not the last time we have faced Moses’ challenge. Through the first five or six centuries, there were varying versions of Christianity and the early Church faced the challenge choose God/Jesus/Spirit and life or choose darkness, chaos, and death. In the 16th century, the Church was faced with the upheavals of the reformation, and all must choose how to follow God/Jesus/Spirit, or another way. We see it as a choice of styles; then it was much closer to choosing God/Jesus/Spirit and life or choose darkness, chaos, and death. This time of choosing flows into the 18th century when some people chose to journey to a new promised land where they could choose God and know life in the presence of God’s grace.

In this country in the 19th century, after the Civil War people in the former Confederate States faced a great anxiety. There had been a surety that God was on their side and would assure their victory. Defeat, put them in a bind similar bind as Israel, in captivity. Again, it was a time to choose God and life, a time to acknowledge their failures, not only in war, but in the oppression of a peoples, and by accepting God’s redeeming work, they could accept God and know life (Bratt). Some did. But, some decided to abandon any larger issues of faith and national destiny; they chose their self-interest and gave no attention to the larger fate of the nation. That choice has led many into darkness and chaos. In the 20th century the sordid brutality of those who chose to keep oppressing a people because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their nation of origin persisted.

Since 1790 when only male property owners had the right to vote there have been 28 legal changes affecting the right to vote. Since 1870 when the 15th amendment gave the right to vote to former slaves and protected the voting rights of adult males of all races there have 23 legal changes affecting the right to vote (Rowen). In the 21st Century, we have faced more choices; some have chosen to make a stand of non-discrimination against those differing sexual orientation and to continuing to fight for racial and gender equality, and religious equality.

In the past two years, we have seen how we are asked to choose life. But have you ever wondered what this looks like this time? It looks like it was before, choosing life looks like

  • Loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and to keeping his commands, decrees, and laws.” (Deut 30:16)
  • tilling and keeping creation’s gardens (Gen 2:15) (Howard)
  • nurturing leading causes of life (Gunderson)
  • loving our neighbors – all of them
  • doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) (Bratt)
  • feeding the hungry, dressing the naked, and tending to widows and orphans
  • releasing the oppressed
  • allowing a voice for the silenced
  • showing deference for the disrespected
  • finding the image of God in those declared un-human, humanizing the objectified, and sharing Solomon’s song with those made sexual objects (Lewis).

What have we, as a nation, chosen? I suspect we have chosen economic prosperity. We have commoditized or monetized:

  • agricultural products
    • and seen small local farms collapse
  • retail business
    • and witnessed far too many local stores and business close
  • airlines, car manufacturing and seen all sorts mergers lead to bigger profits
    • at the cost of millions of jobs, and decline of the related families
    • corporate citizenship as many leading US corporations, have chosen to go overseas for tax benefits
      • a move that also deprives our nation of revenues, which could be used to help those in need; and it also, deprives stockholders of dividends, which are important to those living on 401ks
    • housing
      • you know the continuing story of 2008 collapse
    • education
      • and are seeing school loans that are so large they are delaying graduates from buying cars, starting families, and buying houses
    • medicine
      • there has been merger after merger of pharmaceutical companies and medical suppliers sometimes to improve business but often to eliminate a competitor and rarely, if ever, to get a badly need product to the people who need it
    • hospitals
    • and now insurance companies.

As a nation we have not chosen to live in the presence and service of God.

I believe that as a nation we are standing at another border. Once again, we are being asked to choose:

  • life and prosperity, or death and adversity (Deuteronomy 30:15)
  • life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness or the tyranny of false hope
  • living in the presence of the Lord God or the formless void, darkness and the chaos of waters (Genesis 1:2).

It is not an easy choice (Lewis). To choose God is messy (Howard). It is not a majority decision no matter what we hear people say. It stands over against many cultural values revealed in decisions, that so many others make. It may be costly, just ask the prophets. It requires true trust in God/Jesus/Spirit. It is the subtlety of what Paul is talking about: choosing God/Jesus/Spirit not Paul or Apollos or whichever religious leader is popular today. It is what Jesus is doing when he is saying “you have heard … but I say,” and then lays out choices that emphasize the values of relationship (Howell).

I believe that as a nation we are losing our ability to choose God as seen in our relationships with other people, especially those who we disagree with. Watch Facebook and social media carefully, and you will see it. More and more frequently I see people defriend another, or just give up what has been a value to them. More and more I hear leaders not arguing about diverging views of this or that policy but about the quality of a person who holds a dissenting view. We are losing our ability to disagree and still be in a relationship that reflects the image of God. And that is death.

Today is set before us life or death, being and seeing the other as the image of God or being and seeing the other as less than, which means as not human, and this is death for both. Today is set before us life or death, trusting the power of God who raised from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep or the all-consuming formless void, darkness and the chaotic waters of nothing.

I know you are a good and generous people; you give of your time, your considerable skills, and your money to supports Jesus’ ministry to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is right here, right now. Which is a measure of choosing. I know that all of us are all free to: continue living into that choice, are free to make the choice for the first time, or free to renew a choice gone fallow.

As for me and my house we will choose (Joshua 24:15) to continue the journey and follow the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5) loving our neighbors as the image of God in whose image we live and breathe and have our being (Acts 17:28).

References

Bratt, Doug. Epiphany 6 A Deuteronomy 30:15-20 . 12 2 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy (NIBC) Numbers 36:13. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 12 2 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 2 20127. <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.

Howard, Cameron B.R. Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:1520. 12 2 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Howell, Miguelina. “The Gift of Reconciliation, Epiphany 6 A.” 12 2 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Choose Life. 12 2 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Rowen, Beth. U.S. Voting Rights. n.d. 12 2 22017. <infoplease.com/timelines/voting.html>.

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

 

Profound Limitations and Depths of Faith

 A sermon for Proper 24: Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

JT’s diagnosis is crushing. Cerebral Palsy evokes images of crippled children; however, when symptoms appear early physical therapy can help retrain the brain, and three days old is about as early as you can get. Weeks go by; life settle into a routine, and something like normalcy begins to set in. And then the symptoms change. JT and his parents go back to the Children’s’ Hospital PICU. Adjusting medications don’t stop the seizures. Changing medications isn’t effective. JT has a different kind of seizure that leads to a high definition MRI which reveals a significant shrinkage of JT’s brain. The diagnosis is a mitochondrial DNA defect, which is not treatable.

These are times when our limitations are profound, and we learn the depths of faith. There is nothing one can do beyond being present as the countenance of God, and even this is limited by the realities of miles upon miles of distance (Almquist). Where is the justice?

This morning’s Gospel story is about justice. We are used to hearing about the tenacity of the widow, and that if we are tenacious in our prayer life, our prayers will be answered. Most, well many, okay some preachers make adjustments to account for unanswered prayers while still holding up the widow’s tenacity as a model trait. And ~ it is a valuable model; ~ however, this past week, tenacity did not draw my attention. This past week I’ve been drawn in by “locker room talk.” And yes, I am going to mix politics and religion in the pulpit, in what, I hope, has been prayerful discernment.

Mr. Trump said what he said, and I’ll leave it to you to decide what you are to decide. However, the excuse that it is just “locker room talk” requires attention, at least in part because October is domestic abuse awareness month, and the alleged abusive behavior parallels domestic abuse. “Locker room talk” is not an excuse for any language that justifies or encourages any kind of abusive behavior. To try and use it as such does great damage to the recent years of hard mentoring work by high school and college coaches across the country as they seek to teach young men how to respect young ladies. It diminishes the efforts professional sports have taken to hold professional athletes accountable for their abusive treatment of women. It is up to you to decide the truth of the allegations. Either way, I strongly believe the excuse of “locker room talk” is a grave injustice to everyone. It diminishes our ability to see ourselves and others as the image of God we all are. It diminishes our ability to live into our baptismal vows as consecrated people, set aside for God’s purposes. It thwarts our efforts to be stewards of justice for all. And by “for all” I mean “for all” I’m not just adding women.

Here is my other concern. In dismissing Mr. Trump, I fear we will also dismiss the depths of the injustice he and Bernie Sanders have touched on. There are many, millions, of people who for forty years or more have not benefited from the economic growth in the world; and many have been harmed by laws and policies that enable the growth. Coal miners in West Virginia, automobile manufacturers in Detroit, air conditioner builders in Indianapolis, Milwaukee Tools workers here in Blytheville, have all lost jobs because of changes in the world trade conditions.

I don’t believe the market changes by themselves are unjust; however, the failure to provide displaced workers and their families with alternative careers is an unjust action by officials, who neither feared God nor respected people (Luke 18:2). The bias has worked its way into the legal system. Last week a Federal court found against two computer techs who were forced to train their replacements who came into the US on H1-b work visas, that are not supposed to “adversely affect the working conditions” (PRESTON). We have also heard over the last few weeks that US Bankers, at least at Wells Fargo, neither feared God nor respected people, as they fired 5,000 people for basically following instructions. Yes, two executives have lost their jobs, but with little financial repercussions, and the stockholders have an $185 million fine to pay. These workers’ anger and fears are just, and they can be dangerous.

You may be aware the new President of the Philippines has started a literal war on drugs. To date, some 14,000 addicts and drug dealers have been killed. President Duterte has compared himself to Hitler, though he later recanted. The link to my concern is that his actions are seen positively as signs of a willingness to act. He remains very popular, 83% of the people trust him. A citizen said

I see something that I have not seen in a long time in the Philippines, which is that he cares. He cares for the small guy, which is very important to me (ALMENDRAL).

Here is the link to Jesus’ parable. With no way to support themselves, widows are the most at risk of all people in Israel (Hoezee, Proper 24 | Luke 18:1-8). By law widows, second, only to orphans, should receive special protection (Lose). The parable is a much about a corrupted judge as it is about the widow’s persistence. Today, we must be concerned not only with judges but with a justice system and perhaps a government that neither fears God nor respects people.

I am reasonably sure that part of the reason we see business and governing decisions that neither fear God nor respect people is that we have bought our own story that the capitalism will cure all ills, and then we have sat by as the commoditization of everything is leading to the diminishing of everyone. We can no longer hear the cry for an end to bigotry and misogyny, and the abuse of women, or workers. We can no longer hear the cry for justice even as we passively allow justice to be leveraged for our own advantage (Lewis). We no longer see our neighbors as the image of God. When will we lose the ability to see ourselves as the image of God? And without that vision how do we live into our baptism and calling as consecrated stewards of all God’s creation?

These are times when our limitations are profound, and we learn the depths of faith. A core theme of scripture is God’s radical love for everyone of any distinction we can imagine, and then some. I know the limits with JT’s illness. I know our calling as consecrated stewards of Jesus’ ministry to share the presence of the Kingdom of God, is to be as relentlessly dedicated to justice as the widow is. I know that with your prayers and support I will find outer limits and deeper faith as I walk with JT’s family in the time to come. I know that together with consecrated stewards of Jesus’ ministry to share the presence of the Kingdom of God, from faith communities of every distinction, we can continue works of mercy and bring justice to all.

References

Almendral, Aurora. Rodrigo Duterte, Scorned Abroad, Remains Popular in the. 13 10 2016. <nytimes.com/2016/10/14/world/asia/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-rating.html>.

Almquist, Br. Curtis. “countenance.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 9 10 2016.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 24 | Jeremiah 31:27-34 . 16 10 2016.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 16 10 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Frederick, John. Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. 16 10 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

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 24 | Luke 18:1-8. 16 10 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

—. Proper 24 C 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 . 16 10 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18c/>.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher Just Justice. 9 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

Lose, David. Commentary on Luke 18:1-8. 16 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Preston, Julia. Judge Says Disney Didn’t Violate Visa Laws in Layoffs. 13 10 2016. <nytimes.com/2016/10/14/us/judge-says-disney-didnt-violate-visa-laws-in-layoffs.html>.

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

TAYLOR, JEMONDE. “Returning to Pray, Proper 24(C).” 16 10 2016. Sermons that Work.

Wines, Alphonetta. Commentary on Jeremiah 31:2734. 16 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

God selfies

A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2,12-17, or Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14

Some weeks ago a discussion among several priest colleagues, raced across the web about whether one makes a cross or a smudge during the imposition of ashes. Some argued for an ash cross, as a reminder of our own duplicity in the actions leading to Jesus’ death on the cross, and Jesus’ resurrection which leads to our redemption. Others, including myself, argued for a smudge as a reminder of our sinfulness. At least I am wary of getting ahead of ourselves with an Easter reminder. Although we know the Easter is real, the journey needs to be complete, and that includes the difficult road to Good Friday.

Last Thursday David Brook’s Column Ease and Ardor [i] contrasted the essayist Michel De Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. Brooks writes that Montiagne grew up in a polarized, religious worn torn France; suffered the death of children and his best friend. This external disorder is reflected by internal disorder. Montiagne attempted to study his own mind. Brooks notes:

He observed himself with complete honesty, and accepted his limitations with a genial smile.

His honest self-examination lead to an emotional/ spiritual balance.

 

Brooks writes that Johnson

was charming but not amiable  … [and he] sought a life of improvement and ardor [passion].

Johnson’s life had its own disorder,  likely Tourette’s syndrome, a fear of insanity, and nighttime fears and jealousies. Johnson’s efforts for self-control were external, and social. Brooks notes:

he was moralist, writing essays on vices and pains that plagued him: envy, guilt,, boredom and sorrow, … he battled error and vice. … His goal was self-improvement and the moral improvement of his readers.

 

In concluding Brooks writes:

Montaigne was more laid back, and our culture is more comfortable with his brand of genial self-acceptance and restraint. … but Johnson was a witty but relentless moral teacher in a culture where people were likely to grade themselves on a generous curve, …

It struck me that both made life time honest self-examinations. The connection between the Books’ column and the web discussion is the appreciation of true self-examination, by whatever method is honest and works for the individual. That is core to this day and our intention of beginning a Holy Lent.

 

Rev. Dr. Amy Richter asks: So why the ashes?  She believes ashes 

remind us that we are mortal and echoing the creation story where God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the ground …  Humility is about being grounded in the truth of who we are [and that] we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. [ii]

 

Ash crosses or smudges, Brooks and Richter sent me back to the creation account of Genesis 1. [iii] The idea of people in God’s likeness, is borrowed from the local custom of kings erecting selfies, then known as statues, reminding subjects who has dominion. The New Interpreters’ One Volume Commentary notes:

Given this background, humans are called to be living images or likenesses of God and extensions of God’s dominion over all the earth. God entrusts humans with responsibility to exercise their dominion (1:28) in God’s image of care and concern for all creation, including its most vulnerable members [iv]

That’s a long way of saying we are to care for each other, and all of creation, the way God so loving made us from the dust of the earth.

 

And so it’s back to what Jesus is getting to, what you do matters. Crosses or smudges, who cares if it is a sign of honest self-examination and the beginning of being more like the people we are made to be. Internal or external examination, who cares if it is a sign of honest self-examination and the beginning of being more like the people we are made to be. Give something up, take something on, 100 days of… or 7 weeks of … who cares if it is a sign of honest self-examination and the beginning of being more like the people we are made to be. And just in case any of us begin to think we are there, and Matthew indicates there are some who do, well the journey to be the people we are made to be continues … all the way to Jesus feet, nailed to the post of a cross.

 


[i] David Brooks, New York Times, Opinion Pages, op-ed columnist, February 27, 2014
[ii] Amy Richter, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/02/18/ash-wednesday-abc-2014/, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2014 What audience?, March 5, 2014 
[iii] My preference for Genesis 1 over of the more familiar Genesis 2 is a topic for another day.
[iv] David Petersen, Beverly Gaventa, The New Interpreters’ One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, 2010, Genesis 1:28), 

Who shapes whom

The reading from Jeremiah this week is the source of a favorite church camp song about God being the potter and us being the clay. It’s not quite so comfortable in context. However, it is not the threat from Jeremiah that I see as significant today as it is the nature of the relationship the metaphor sets up. God is the potter, we are the clay. Too often we get it the other way round.  In “The River of God” Gregory of Riley describes the many and varied sources of our image of God. Early on he make sit clear he is describing the process of the development of our image, which says nothing about the person of God. Part of our journey to spiritual maturity is to move away from efforts to manipulate God, through prayer and good works, to discerning God’s call.

In Philemon we have an example of such a change. Paul is encouraging Philemon to  change his relationship with Onesimus from master – slave to brother in Christ. To undertake such a change is to allow ones self (including secular values and world views) to be reshaped by divine values, to be reshaped by the loving hands of the divine potter. There is nothing to imply such changes are easy, nor safe. Which I rather suspect is what Jesus is on about in this week’s ‘hard sayings.’