2017-11-26 Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Scandalous Love 4/8

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Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Scandalous Love 4/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 19th, 2017
Hosea 3:1

We have been working our way through the Old Testament footings for Christmas. Mostly because our cultural religion has unhitched the images of Christmas that don’t conveniently fit on a Christmas card. And I’m going to tell you, I do not ever want to see the images of Hosea on a Christmas card. The text that was read for us comes from the Prophet Hosea; we’ll get there in a moment. There is a story though, that goes with this and it is a good chunk of the Old Testament. I’m going to try to tell it quickly and hit the high points, or maybe the low points, I’m not sure.

Back when David was the king — you remember David — he killed Goliath with the sling; and David, who played the lyre for Saul; the boy shepherd who became king. When David was king, there was just one nation, Israel. They were a small nation. They were a vulnerable nation to the larger empires. They had to navigate around and try to make do. David was a good king. He built Jerusalem. David was a bored king. He had an affair multiple times and killed another man so that he could have his wife.

Solomon, his son, took over as king. When Solomon became king, his request to God was: please make me wise. And God did make him wise. And when we talk about Solomon, we say: He was a wise king. And that’s a small piece of who Solomon was. Solomon was a sexual addict king. Solomon had multiple wives. Solomon liked to marry women from other nations. Being wise gets boring pretty fast. That’s why men have trouble with middle-age, you know. Life becomes kind of flat; no longer really a challenge to meet. And with boredom, comes an increase in appetite.

And Solomon heard other kings had grand residences. And he did a little bit travelling to negotiate some treaties and he saw those grand residences and he got some ideas about how he wanted to govern. And he liked power. And so, he returned and he centralized the governing of the nation and he started an aggressive building campaign. And he put up suitable buildings to house a centralized government. And he put up a suitable residence for an honored king. And he raised taxes through the roof, to pay for this new level of nationhood. And folks groaned under the weight of the yoke. They said the yoke is unbearable.

Well, people came unglued when Solomon was dating other women and having affairs and taking other women as his wives. The rumor was and the text tells us, that he had somewhere around 1000 wives. People didn’t like that, they called him the immoral king, who marries foreign women and that’s bad enough but then, he built shrines and he worships their gods. And he taxes us, so he can live in luxury.

But Solomon discovered what his father David had discovered and that is: Hey, I’m the king. I can have you imprisoned, or tortured, or executed; or all three. I’m the king. Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about? You seem to have some concerns. His infidelity and his love of opulence sowed the seeds of division throughout the nation. His son, Rehoboam, followed in his father’s footsteps, meeting and marrying women, especially princesses and duke daughters and the children of other royalty from around that part of the world.

When it was time for him to be made king, messengers came from the ten tribes of the north. And they said to him: Your father’s yoke has been unbearably heavy; we hope you will lighten the load.

He travelled to the northern part of the kingdom, to the city up there called Shechem. And the advisors of the royalty — that’s where the critics were for him — the folks who yelled the loudest about the taxes that his father had imposed. He travelled up there to be consecrated as king. And they approached him in person and said: The taxes are too much. You have to lighten the load. It is an unbearable yoke. Your father put a heavy yoke on us. Make our burden lighter.

He said to them: Give me three days to ponder what I will do. He left behind the royal advisors. He went off with his friends on a three-day drinking binge. He came back and he mustered all of the swagger he could and he stepped up after being consecrated king and he made an inappropriate sexual joke. He said: My little finger is thicker than the loins of my father. Yes, it means what you think it means. And I wish I was kidding. I wish I was joking in some way. If you want to read about it, it’s 1 Kings Chapter 12 – the whole story. He’s basically saying: I am the big man here. He said: My father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will make it heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.

It started a revolt and a very short civil war and it broke the nation into two. Rehoboam, remained king of the southern kingdom, now called Judah. And the northern kingdom, now called Israel, they got a new king. But they made some changes.

Now, you spent three weeks talking… listening to me talk about the southern kingdom but… Jeroboam… I’m sorry, Rehoboam – it’s hard to keep all the Boams straight. Rehoboam continued as king of the southern kingdom. He was the first in the line of bad kings. And the last in the line of bad kings was Jehoiakim. You listened to me for three weeks, talk about Jehoiakim; and how the southern kingdom of Judah was eventually sacked by the Babylonians; and all the people, most of the people, were carried off into exile. We’ll come back to them later.

The northern kingdom now, Israel, made up of the ten tribes of the north, they were the ones who had made all that noise about the infidelity of their king. And what really bothered them were the taxes they had to pay to support a strong centralized government and lavish kings and a king living in opulence. And so, their first thing was to decentralize the government. They didn’t build government building. They expected the king to live in a simple residence like them. And they appointed a guy named Jeroboam to be the king. See, my concern was Rehoboam, now Jeroboam. You would think they would be related, they are not.

Now, Jeroboam has a problem: How am I going to govern? I have no authority. How can I be king, I’ve got nothing? And so, he started, kind of, a competition between the tribes and he would be the judge about who got to make decisions, that became kind of, an intermixing between religion, loyalty to the king and nationalism or patriotism. Kind of became a patriotic religion. It became the center point of the nation. Jeroboam, to support this, built two major worship centers. It’s not that big of a nation anymore and it was kind of vulnerable. But, he built two big sanctuaries, rivaling the opulence of the temple that was in Judah, back in Jerusalem.

One in the north, near the Dan River. And one in Bethel, near the southern river. He ordained a new priesthood, to be loyal to him in this new religion. It included annual festivals and pilgrimages and obedience to an unseen god. And in each of these worship centers, he commissioned and installed a golden calf to serve as a symbol of Almighty God. But, his festival days didn’t line up with Passover. And the calves that he installed, that were made out of gold — but they weren’t made out of gold — they were actually made out of iron and coated in gold. We know that now because one of them has been found. This is an historical event, not just stories.

Those calves looked too much like the idols forbidden by Moses. And the nationalism that worshiped the nation was a bit too much. And so, the old-school religious people, the moral people of the community, of the nation, accused him of making his own cult, starting his own national cult to worship him. You can read all about this, in 1 Kings 12, 13, 14, 16. 2 Kings 3 and a good chunk of Chronicles.

There are archaeological digs at both Dan and Bethel. They have found these worship centers. There is evidence of cultic sacrifice. There is cultic feasting that happened. And at Dan, the one in the north, they have found a four-horned alter, and alter with four horns, made of iron and remnants of gold coating – fascinating; absolutely fascinating. There’s evidence that these sanctuaries were used for several hundred years.

Under Jeroboam, though, something else happened. Their northern neighbor, the Assyrians, began to breathe on their neck and not in the good way. They sent a delegation south and said: We are your kingdom neighbors to the north. Either you will pay tribute to us or you will cease to exist. Well, Jeroboam had to do something. And so, he began to pay tribute. And, of course, he didn’t want to take it out of his own pocket and so he took it out of taxes. And now he had to raise taxes to keep doing what he wanted to do. And, of course, they didn’t like that.

The Assyrian delegation had also said to him: You will worship some of our gods. That didn’t really upset people. Nationalism reared its head. And there was, kind of, an exchange going on of: We want to try to get along with our neighbors to the north. And we want them to kind of like us. And so, the church, the national church that Jeroboam had founded, started to kind of lean in that direction. Folks didn’t really object to it all that much. God sent a prophet though. The story of Jonah came. Do you remember the story of Jonah? Do you remember the point of the story of Jonah? It is not: Don’t run from God. That is not the point of the story of Jonah.

Really, the point of the story of Jonah is: Your patriotism gets in the way of your worship. Do you remember where God sent Jonah to go preach, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. The message Jonah brought to them is: Worship my one true God. And the story of Jonah is: They did. They repented. They put on sackcloth and ash and joined him in worshiping the one true God, Yahweh. Their sin had come before God. Do you remember what their sin was? Their sin was they worshiped multiple gods, particularly Dagon, a fish god, who was purportedly half fish, half man. Do you remember what swallowed Jonah? A giant fish.

The message of Jonah was also: Jonah’s God, is bigger than the God of Assyria. Jonah’s God is capable of taking care of men. The allegory of Jonah was about God’s love for our enemies. At the end of Jonah, Jonah is very upset that the people of Nineveh had repented because Jonah was looking forward to them being destroyed. He was actually going to enjoy that. And that didn’t happen, they repented. And, God had to say to Jonah: I love the Ninevites too.

But, it also recalled that first commandment; do you remember the first of the Ten Commandments? Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Because the real issue back home, it wasn’t really about converting the Assyrians, it was about reminding the people of the northern kingdom, Israel, to worship one God. And the real issue at home was folks had become indifferent to God and God’s ways. They worshiped other gods, like the gods of power relationships and gods of advancement and gods of let me get ahead, please.

God articulated God’s challenge this way, at first: You are like a neighbor how moves boundary stones that are what God said to the people of Israel, you’re like a bad neighbor. And if you want to define: Well, what are God’s ways? God’s ways are being a good neighbor. But the people of Israel had a hard time with that; they really wanted to focus in on the sins of their king. And they, kind of, obsessed on their king and the sins of the king and… you’re marrying four women and you’re bringing them here and you’re putting up shrines to their gods and you’re worshiping them. And that’s the real problem before God. And God came back and said: That’s not really the problem. Into this confused, fighting, wandering nation, God sends another prophet. Hosea used the infidelity of the kings, like David and Solomon and Rehoboam and Jeroboam, to turn the conversation around. Hosea represents God’s relentless pursuing love.

Hosea’s wife, Gomer, represents the prostituted life of the people of Israel. The people did not like this and they tried to kill Hosea and he had to run. But the metaphor worked. And there are two reasons it worked. It worked because it was shocking, especially to people who thought they were moral. They’re practicing their religion. They’re keeping the festivals, they’re obeying all the rules, and they’re punishing all the people that should be punished. And, therefore, this is pleasing to God. And to be compared to an unfaithful prostitute was absolutely stunning to them. And I’m sure they were outraged because they tried to kill the messenger. The second reason that the metaphor worked was because it makes an important comparison for us to hear too. The rationalization of the unfaithful prostitute is the rationalization of the moral person. I’m just trying to survive. I’m just trying to get by. I’m just trying to make ends meet. I’m just doing what it takes to pay the bills.

And let’s be really clear here: In Hosea, God is not passing judgment on women or men who find it necessary to use their bodies to pay the bills. God is saying: You people of Israel are so offended by someone rationalizing unfaithfulness, like a prostitute. But you will not see your own rationalized unfaithfulness to me.

The message of God through Hosea is: You people claim to be so offended by the sexual proclivities of your kings. You make accusations and you charge that they are unfaithful. But look where your love lies. Your love of nation and power has become idolatry. The speed with which you run to offer your love to anyone, or anything, that makes you feel important is sickening. And the ease with which you openly follow and justify anyone who speaks with bravado. God says: Having a relationship with you is like being married to someone who is unfaithful; who launders; who sleeps around; who sells themselves to anyone. And rationalizes that it’s okay because you say, well, I really love you, God. You’re like a prostitute and I’m getting screwed.

God’s judgment came out of this. God’s judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel was to let the natural consequences of their unfaithfulness come up on them. They were unfaithful to God which made their faithfulness to the Assyrians convenient. They were trying to cozy up to the Assyrians for protection. Yes, we’ll worship some Assyrian gods. We’ll talk up their military power and strength. We’ll schmooze, we’ll do some business, we’ll make some money, and it’ll all be a good thing. And the Assyrians see how valuable Israel is nd they come to like the Israelites. And so, Assyria invades Israel. There’s a siege on Shechem. There’s some attempts to appease the Assyrian king – they fail. The texts that have been found record 27,290 people being carried off into slavery and distributed around Assyria. You can read the stories in 2 Kings 15, 17, 18; 1 Chronicles 5; 2 Chronicles 30 and 31.

The entire population of the northern kingdom disappeared. They absorbed into the Assyrian population. Just as the southern kingdom, Judah, was destroyed and carried off into the Babylonian empire for being dishonorable. The northern kingdom, Israel, was destroyed for unbelief and unfaithfulness. Belief in God means, what is important to God becomes important to me. Belief is trusting in God’s authority, God’s providence, God’s voice, more than any other voice in my head.

And God tried to say to them: Simply be a good neighbor to one another. Stop moving the boundary markers. Have a center of morality. Unbelief and unfaithfulness has become evident when that desire to feel secure leads to us to always be negotiating with whatever power there is in our life. What do I have to do to please you, so that you’ll like me and I can feel secure?

Unbelief and unfaithfulness become visible when our security comes not from God and our trust in God’s providence because we have no centering principles then, to hold fast and we readily negotiate with whatever god seems to be in power. And we become too familiar and we lose ourselves and we are assimilated into the world around us. And our rationalization is a familiar one: I’m just trying to survive. I’m just trying to get ahead. I’m just doing what I’ve got to do. And God says: Don’t kid yourself. You’re for sale. And you’ve been pimped.

God’s promise is — through Hosea — is that God will buy back God’s people at a high cost, which God will pay. God will be the faithful husband that buys back from a pimp an unfaithful spouse. Not right away, takes a few generations. The population of the northern kingdom, Israel is carried off. The cities are rebuilt and repopulated by the expanding Assyrian empire. About 60 years, the Assyrians were conquered by the Babylonians. And then about ten years after that, the Babylonians are conquered by the Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus, is made aware that there are a remnant people in the midst of this new kingdom, people from Judah. The people rescued from the Egyptians; the people who had survived the great flood.

Cyrus says that his heart is moved by this God. He doesn’t stop worshiping his other gods but he says his heart was moved by this God. And he makes a royal decree; it’s called the Cyrus Cylinder. And the Cyrus Cylinder was found on in the nation of Babylon in 1879, by Hormuzd Rassam, an explorer. And it now resides in the British Museum of History. On this decree, he says that God has charged him to build a house for the people of God in Jerusalem. And he sets free all of those people of that God. Historian Josephus records that Cyrus was changed by this God. That he became quite benevolent. He grew a nation that was great in generosity.

The descendants of people from Judah had held together. They were the exiles. They were a remnant. And so, Cyrus sought out and he put out a decree across the entire empire, seeking these remnant people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah; people freed from the Egyptians; people whose ancestors had survived the great flood. He said: I’m going to send you to your ancestral home. He takes up an offering, a very large offering and out the treasury o of the nation, he sends silver and gold and goods and wagons and beasts. He appoints a new king. And the books of Ezra and Nehemiah talk about the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

When the decree goes out, the invitation to be free from servitude, to return to build a house for The Lord in Jerusalem, people from the southern kingdom, Judah, the remnant, they came out of the woodwork. No one from the northern kingdom returned. Hosea was right when he said that unfaithful Israelites would be swallowed up by history, as if they had never even existed. Kingdoms come. Kingdoms go.

Hebrew scripture sees God as active in human history. And the message of the northern kingdom is that saying we love God is not enough. Saying I believe in God is not enough. Simply claiming to be a people of faith misses the mark. Jesus will recall the lessons of the northern kingdom. Jesus will quote Hosea 5. The Pharisees are bringing their sacrifices to the temple but they have no mercy for the sick, or the outcast, or the indebted, especially the indebted. The Pharisees are all too quick to say: You owe me money. Pay, or I’ll have you imprisoned. They show no mercy, though they receive mercy from God; all too quick to seek a legal judgment. Jesus has some things to say about that.

Jesus will come back and quote for us the burden and the yoke image. He will say: Come to me all of you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke up on you and learn from me, for I am gentle. I’m humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Now, where do you suppose he got that image?

I think each of us has to ponder two questions about our life. What kind of people are we going to be and what remnant will we leave? I think of the southern kingdom, Judah and its descent, sliding down into dishonor. How simple it is, how easy it is, to slide into money and its rewards of power, having the identity of being rich and calling it blessing. Especially if you got rich by failing to pay workers who did jobs for you; especially if you continue your wealth by failing to pay appropriate taxes to care for veterans and vulnerable members of society. How tempting it is to hire friends who are always praising you and call it good. And when things don’t go well, how tempting it is to lie and pitch a tantrum. Dishonor displeases God.

In the northern kingdom, Israel, it’s dissolving into unfaithfulness and how easy it is to have no conviction and no self-discipline. How tempting it is to unhitch ourselves from any centering pole for our morality. And
always make peace by going along, to get along and smiling and nodding; always making the sale; always cozying up to power in the name of survival, in the name of advancement, in the name of accumulation. Just listen to whatever voice tells you you’re important. Worship whatever god promises you what you want. Unfaithfulness displeases The Lord.

I feel stuck in the middle between all those things that we shouldn’t do. It’s quite the burden. It’s exhausting. I wish God would send us someone who can show us the way. And now, we have to wait.

2017-11-19 Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Careful What You Seek 3/8

Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Careful What You Seek 3/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 19th, 2017
Luke 1:26-38

So, last night, after the play, the idea came: what if we just left the tables up. And one person said: well, it’d be different. And it is. And maybe we like it, maybe we don’t. But, for today, this is how it is. And I’ve got two responses. First: any complaint you can submit in writing and I’ll be glad to read that and I’ll probably buy a bird and we can…

The second is: this is life. You show up and you think it’s going to be one way and suddenly it’s another way. And you have choices to make about how you’re going to cope with that. And either you cope with it or you don’t. And church is where we practice for life, right? Church, those hymns that we sing, you know why we sing them, right? So that when you’re in hospital or your mother is in hospice, or your spouse is in hospice, or you’re in hospice, you have a song to sing because singing changes us. So, we’re practicing for life.

So, it seemed okay to have chaos this morning. Is it going to work? And what worked was how you made room for one another, and how you talked with one another, and how you scooched over, and how you helped each other find a seat. And the biggest challenge that’s in front of you right now is where to put your eyes when you sing hymns. Because, when normal Sundays, we’re all facing forward and so we’re looking at the back of someone’s head and that okay. But now we’re looking at each other and when you’re singing, on Christ, the solid rock I stand, do you look into someone’s eyes? Is that creepy? Or what do we do? It’s awkward and it’s life, right? What do we do with our eyes? Okay, I’ll look up.

So, we’ve been talking now. We’re looking for that Old Testament foundation for Christmas. And we’ve spent two weeks talking about a terrible king, Jehoiakim, who ruled the southern kingdom of Judah. Jehoiakim was simply the last in the line of kings who were more interested in making themselves and their friends rich. And living in lavish residences and building new components to a palace with cedar walls and living luxurious lives at the expense of the nation.

All of this got God’s attention. And God used the prophet Jeremiah to bring ten charges against Jehoiakim. And if you weren’t here for the last two Sundays, I’m going to review them for you. Wealth is an identity of the nation; failing to pay workers for work performed; false bravado; sexual aggression; nepotism and cronyism; changing allegiances for convenience; lying; having tantrums; creating a culture of accumulation; and failure to care for the servants of the nation, especially veterans and their families. All of these together got God’s attention. When leaders choose money or loyalty to one another over providing care and stability to the nation; God is displeased. The same arrogance that led to Jehoiakim’s rise, led to his demise.

Funny thing about arrogance when it’s combined with greed; it consistently brings dishonor. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God declares a new kingdom is coming. A new king is coming. A righteous branch, who will reign wisely and execute justice and righteousness in the land. This all happened about 600 years before Jesus was born. And we’re laying out those Old Testament roots for Christmas. When Handel wrote The Messiah, he pulled a lot of imagery from Jeremiah. So when you hear The Messiah sung, maybe some of those words will strike a chord in you because you know the back-story now. Jehoiakim was the footnote of a thousand-and-a-half years of history.

Jehoiakim is the footnote of Judaism today. You can refer to Jehoiakim in a Jewish community and everyone there knows exactly what you’re talking about. You’re talking about the last in the line of failed kingship. You’re talking about selfishness. You’re talking about greed. That is the Old Testament foundation for so much of what Christmas stands against.

We leap forward 600 years. We encounter two people: Herod, who is extremely similar to Jehoiakim. This kind of character seems to repeat throughout history. And they seem to find their way into leadership positions. We could go through the list again and point by point it would line up between Herod and Jehoiakim. Greed, sexual lechery, bravado, nepotism, cronyism, deception, lying, explosive tantrums etc., etc.

The Romans did, actually, a fine job of taking care of their veterans. We will give them that. But we know how God feels about that kind of leadership because of Jeremiah. Dishonor and violation displease God. Herod, too, will become a footnote in history, of what it means to be arrogant, greedy and evil. His slaughter of the innocents, following Christmas, is just the tip of the iceberg of what arrogant tyrants are capable of.

But, this time, God has decided to do something different; which brings us to Mary, the polar opposite of Jehoiakim; the one whose son will be this new king. It was almost a year ago, a year ago in advent, when we talked about the three ways we can explain Mary’s pregnancy. Maybe you remember them or maybe you’re aware of them. There are only three. The one way is the way that Luke lays out, that for the pregnancy of a virgin; we can understand the attraction of that witness because it removes the potential for slut-shaming in a shame culture.

Or we could wonder if she and Joseph have been active outside the bounds of marriage. It’s unlikely, but it’s one of three ways it could happen. Or we could roll around in our mind, like a big lopsided marble, our wondering if, perhaps Mary had been the victim of sexual violence and lecherous behavior. Given what we’ve witnessed in our culture, twenty centuries later, with the number of women who hash tagged “me too” and the number of men possessing power over women who have been identified as lecherous, aggressive and violating. It’s not hard to believe that possibility. And it’s not hard to see why, if that’s the gosh-awful truth, it sure would be tempting to incorporate a popular image from the Origin stories, of many kings of the day. Mom was a virgin, who was impregnated by divine mystery.

What’s interesting is if we allow history to speak here and we pause at these two, this footnote of history, Jehoiakim as the polar opposite of Mary. Jehoiakim was grabby. He was tight-fisted. He possessed everything to be in power and power over. Mary was open-handed. She was able to let go of control enough to wonder and to let God work in her and through her.

Jehoiakim ruled by decree. A tyrant, who gave orders and removed anyone who spoke words he did not like; Mary was open-minded. She was able to listen and hear what the message of the angel was for her. His lack of character provided tools to get what he wanted for himself. Her character provided tools for God to get what God needed done. Dishonor is what we see in King Jehoiakim, a historical footnote of selfish, greedy arrogance. What we see in Mary is faith. Pistis is the Greek word; wanting God’s way; wanting God’s kingdom more than my own way; even if it costs me something. His choices led down a predictable path to the destruction of his own nation.

Her choices led down a difficult path of discipleship, bringing into existence a new king and a kingdom. And I’m not sure how to say this, so I’m going to fumble through this part. But, somehow in this process, in ways I can’t entirely explain and probably shouldn’t, exactly what happened to Mary and how she became pregnant was no longer what determined who she was. I think one of the most important components of the Christmas story is it marks the beginning of the process of her discipleship. And contrary to what uptight church folk have said through the centuries, that is not determined by her sexuality. Historical Christianity has had an unhealthy obsession with female sexuality. And I find it interesting that from the beginning the Christmas story sets aside sexuality.

Reading about Jehoiakim in Jeremiah; in Josephus, the historian; in the recorded Rabbinic history; even reading Jesus’ reference to Jehoiakim, we could say undertone, but it’s too palpable to be an undertone. It’s an overtone. It’s a touchable presence. What I’m talking about is Jehoiakim’s futile desperation to find his voice. His life seems to be an anxious search for resonance. Becoming wilder and more frantic, almost un-hearable, to the point where Jehoiakim becomes: a caricature, a comic exaggeration of himself, a buffoon. The Big King.

But, Mary, in this process, finds her voice. And as the story progresses, her voice resonates of the deeper things, like what it means to have a soul. And what it means to be a disciple. So, of course, we want to know, we want to let Jehoiakim pass out of our thoughts. And we also want to wonder, how did Mary find her voice? We want to know exactly. What is the process that she followed?

There are churches you can attend — not this one — that will give you the steps of discipleship. There is a church not far from here, that has it all laid out for you in a pamphlet. Of course, you have to be baptized in that church, by that particular pastor. And then you have to take four courses on spirituality, taught by that pastor and you have to take four courses in scripture, taught by that pastor. And you have to take two courses in celebration of tongues. So, you have to speak in tongues. And then, you’re declared a disciple and you get a different nametag. And you’re identified as unique.

It’s not been my experience of what it means to form disciples. What I know to be absolutely true… I’ve seen all sorts of methods, I’ve seen all sorts of programs, but the truth of the matter is, there’s a whole lot of mystery and it’s an unpredictable, disorganized, messy, transformation of us. That’s discipleship.

Scripture tells us some things about Mary, though, in the midst of her unpredictable moments; her messiness of life. Her life was going this way. She got up that morning expecting it to be the same as it had been every week prior and things changed on this day. Scripture tells us some things about Mary that I think might help us as we think about our discipleship; things that contributed to Mary finding her own voice.

The first thing that Mary does is that she finds in herself something that is distinctive. She listens to the angel who tells her: you are called and you are gifted in some unique ways. We’ll read a little bit later that when Mary is singing with Elizabeth, one of the songs that she sings is: He Took Notice of Me. I thought I was a nobody. He told me I was somebody. She let that voice be the voice that she heard. Not the voice of her critics. You know your critics. Do you have them? Do you listen to them? They beat you up from the inside. Mary heard. This is, I think, what it means to be faithful. Pistis, wanting God’s way for us more than we want anything else. And she was able to hear a higher calling for her life and it gave her purpose and it gave her meaning.

The second thing that happened for Mary is, she got smart and said: isolation is going to wipe me out. I’m going to go and be with Elizabeth, her older cousin, two towns over. There may have been some big sister-ing that went on with Elizabeth, her older cousin, maybe mentoring, although, the mentoring process is equally messy. And anybody… Anytime anybody says: I’m going to be your mentor, watch out, it never works that way. The mentee has to find the mentor at the right time when they’re ready to listen.

She stayed with Elizabeth and there was a whole lot of listening that went on. And there was some singing that went on. But, mostly, though, I’m guessing Elizabeth was the conversation partner Mary needed to process what she was going through. But, Elizabeth was pregnant in a very unexpected circumstance. Mary was pregnant in a very unexpected circumstance. They might be able to say some things. They sang together. I think that’s one of the strengths that the church has to offer us is we’re always going to run into somebody who might see things the way we see things. And we can hear from them what we can’t hear on our own.

And that is the third thing. I wonder how Mary processed her frustration because she was a simple peasant girl, she was poor. And I’m wondering where she processed her feelings about what happened to her, whatever it was. Maybe the only thing that happened to her, she was born poor and she wondered why those folks have it all and we got nothing. We work harder than they do. Or maybe there was abuse and Mary had to process that, so there would have been anger. I read Mary’s song, which follows our text today. Mary’s song is a song about justice coming. God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. God has brought down rulers from their thrones. I wonder who Mary’s talking about there. Could it be Jehoiakim?

God has lifted the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has sent away the rich, empty. Mary’s song, go home and read it today, for our culture, and see what it says to you.

The fourth thing that Mary did in her unpredictable moments, the text tells us: she treasured these things in her heart. She engaged in contemplation. Which feels weird to us because we truly do believe and our practice reveals, we believe that our importance comes through our busyness? We have an increased function of frenetic activity. We can’t get farther than eight inches from our phone. We’ll plug it in bedside. And if we really want to sleep, we turn it upside down so the light won’t wake us. But that’s about as far as we get, except when we take a shower. I don’t want you to tell me how many take it into the toilet with you.

That’s us. We think, by connection, we’re important. What about the importance of being disconnected from this world so that we can contemplate a different way. We can pull back. We can wonder. We can think. We can lose ourselves in God. Is that possible through your iPhone? I haven’t found it yet.

None of these by itself is discipleship. But all of these are the choices that Mary is making. These are the ways that she processed what was happening to her. And these are the ways that she will process what will happen to her son. These are the ways she made decisions about the kind of Mom she was going to be. And you can be certain that was Jesus practiced a lot of it came from what he learned from watching his mother.

All of them, together, lead us to our discipleship. Discipleship, really, is how we are. How we are the imitation of Christ, yes. But, more than that, it’s how we are with each other. How we treat one another. How we act around one another. How we are with strangers, how we make room at the table.

Now, I tell you and I don’t like to end patting you on the back, but I have to tell you, I’ve come, this last year, to realize your discipleship runs deep because of how you are with one another. The People Group, how they are with one another. The WOW Group, Women of the Word. UMW, the bible study on Tuesday mornings, how you are with one another. The Youth Group here, how you are with one another. When you come for a meeting on a committee, how you are with one another. Pick who you imitate.

Jehoiakim seems very familiar in our current culture. Arrogance and greed always lead to the same outcome. Or you could imitate Mary because discipleship always leads to the same outcome. Pick Mary.

2017-11-12 Searching for a Biblical Christmas 2/8

Searching for a Biblical Christmas 2/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 12th, 2017

So we are in this series of talking about how we get to Christmas. And we’ve started talking about Christmas eight weeks out. That was last week. It’s seven weeks to go. Hey; oy vey; Amazon, here I come.

We’re looking at the oldest mention in scripture of the coming Messiah. It is from the book of Jeremiah. About 600 years before the birth of Jesus, there was a prophetic voice, the prophet, Jeremiah. And last week we talked about the desolate one. You heard it in our text today, the desolate one. That’s who Jeremiah is talking to, the desolate one, who dresses in crimson while his people are suffering.

We talked about King Jehoiakim last week, about God’s nine complaints against him, using wealth as identify, committing fraud, using sexual aggression whenever he so pleased, cronyism, nepotism, bluster, quick to violence, changing allegiances when it suited him, lying, having tantrums and creating a culture of money and accumulation. God complained and God said, I’m going to do something about this – I’m going to bring a new king and this king shall be called righteousness. So we talked about that last week. I thought we were done. And then I went back and continued reading in Jeremiah. We’re not done or maybe I should say Jeremiah isn’t done.

We happen to have the privilege of living in a very large landlocked secure nation that is, for the most part, self-reliant; most of the time, that’s a gift. In other ways, one of the things that we’ve missed out on is having to cooperate to survive. Israel is a very small nation; it has to cooperate to survive. Israel is and always has been stuck in the middle.

Six hundred years ago, when Jeremiah was writing, there was this power fight going on. To the North, it was King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. To the South, it was King Necho of Egypt. And it was just this shifting power fight. Israel was a small nation and survival of a small nation always had to do with covenants, allegiances and tribute money.

Jesus picks up on this when he tells that parable about the master who is leaving and gives one servant ten talents and the next servant five talents and then one servant one talent. And I’ve heard this story preached many, many, many times. It’s hardly at all about the talents and it’s hardly at all about the count. The question of this parable that Jesus tells is where do your allegiances lie as the winds of power shift around you? Who do you believe is the king? Who do you believe has real authority? That’s the point of the parable.

In other words, will you put up the picture of the king, your king, on the wall and be loyal, no matter what happens? Or do you hide in the back alley and do stuff on the sly and only after the new king is declared, then you put up that king’s picture? Where do your allegiances lie? That’s the question of that parable. And remember, the master returns and is praising the servant who turned ten talents into ten more and praising the servant who turned five talents into five more, because they were doing business in the name of the master, even though the master wasn’t visibly present. They were busy, evidently, quite clearly busy, because ten became ten and five became five.

Now, last week we also talked about the word righteousness, that Greek and Hebrew, the two words, dikaiosýnē and tsadik, the gift of access to the king. We’ve been gifted, we have received access to the king and now we must act accordingly. We must walk different. We must talk different. We must respond to the world different because we see ourselves; because we are now representatives; emissaries; for our master, for our king. Our loyalty we must wear on our sleeve.

It’s a little bit funny to read the story of Jehoiakim because it becomes apparent really quickly that he thought he was the man. He thought he was the negotiator, he was the smooth-talking king of kings between the kings and he was sure that when all the kings gathered he would be lifted up and made high. He thought he could walk tall, he would strut big, and he was playing the powers like the pawns on the chess board.

And what makes it funny – and I’m going to tell you this up front – in the end, he is so played. They pull his levers like you wouldn’t believe. The kings of Egypt and Babylon play him like a cheap guitar. So any conversation about Jehoiakim is not over until we ponder how we handle when we feel stuck in the middle, between two unconquerable powers.

Maybe that’s how you feel – stuck between your mom and your sister. Maybe that’s how you feel every time you go to work – you are in middle management, some people who started the same time you started have been bumped higher, faster. You’re stuck in middle management. How do you cope? What do you do? You’re stuck. We may strategize, we may make a plan, we may formulate commitments but we can’t control how other people are going to act and react. We’re stuck in the middle. We’ve all had that boss, the one who it doesn’t really matter what you do, it doesn’t really matter how great it is – they get what they need, a sense of power and authority, through attack. You’re stuck. You’re stuck.

And there is only so much we can control. And how are we going to cope with those feelings of powerlessness? Do you come home and take it out on the kids? Do you smack your employees around verbally? Are you rude to the wait staff at the restaurant? Are you obnoxious to the checkout person at Home Depot? Do you come home and retreat to your favorite porn sites where you’re in charge? Or do you take the bottle and start in with your alcohol? Or do you just double down and God bless them, I’m going to stiffen my lip and I’m going to control my way out of feeling powerless? Oh, you’re a real beauty to be around, let me tell you.

The Apostle Paul was going to pick up on this same problem later on. It’s a different set of leaders then. He’s writing to the early church and the frustration they’re feeling under the boot heel of the Roman Empire, the powerlessness that they felt and the hostility that it caused in the church. Paul writes, there’s always a lot of things about your life you can’t control. And sometimes, life is pretty awful. But you can control you and you can control how you act. You can always be intentional about where your allegiances are placed and how that is displayed in your life. What are you wearing on your sleeve? Because when someone knows where your temper buttons are, you’re going to be played. And just in case you think all you need to do is get yourself together and put enough positive motivational stickers on the mirror so you’re talking to yourself good in the morning, master of the universe, if you could just get this together.

We have this story of a small nation king who is played like a cheap guitar because arrogance always leads to the same outcome. People suffer. People celebrate when the arrogant person dies and there is laughter at foolishness. Wise people watch. Wise people become students when arrogant people become footnotes of history.

We have a few people like that, that if I say their name, you’re going to go, oh yes. The first one that comes to mind is Napoleon Bonaparte. Everybody things small man’s complex but if you look at the history books, Napoleon was 5’8” – that’s not small. It doesn’t matter, does it, because of how we know him. He’s a fool who let arrogance get the betterment of him and he invaded Russia. And he thought he could overpower the Russian army and beat the winter. And he was wrong on both accounts.

In 1862, Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg let an exaggerated sense of self-confidence take the moment and arrogance won the day. In 1876, General George Armstrong Custer let arrogance and racism and hostility lead him to underestimate his opponent. In 1941, Adolf Hitler thought he could invade Russia and beat the Russian army and the Russian winter. And it didn’t work out any better for him. Racism and hostility and arrogance. In 1954, Henri Navarre at Dien Bien Phu – racism and hostility caused this French General to underestimate the Vietnamese army.

That is Jehoiakim. We’ve lost this sense of what a historical footnote he was to be learned from, because arrogance always brings the same result. And Jesus seems to be a very good student. Jesus knows and understands the writing by the prophet Jeremiah. He also seems to know the small print between the lines because he studied the rabbinic history. The rabbis have a lot to say about Jehoiakim and his place in tradition.

And Jesus quotes Jeremiah. Jesus interprets Jeremiah. He uses Jeremiah’s calling out of Jehoiakim to pass judgment when Jesus talks about true honor versus false honor, when he comes down hard on anybody who hires workers to do a job and then doesn’t pay them an appropriate wage and when Jesus says: is the temple a house of prayer or a den of robbers. There is another time when Jesus refers to Jehoiakim. Last week, I shared with you the nine complaints that God brought against Jehoiakim through the prophet Jeremiah. Wealth his identify, fraud, sexual aggression, nepotism and cronyism, using bluster, quick to violence, changing allegiances, lying, having tantrums, money and accumulation as an identify in the nation.

There is a number ten. It comes to us in the book of Second Kings, the 23rd and the 24th chapter. The book of Kings is about military movement – a lot of military positioning and strategy mentioned in Second Kings. And Second Kings records the name of the king and refers to his army or his soldiers as his servants.

So the book of Second Kings would say, King Nebuchadnezzar and his servants moved here. King Jehoiakim and his servants moved here. Chapters 23 and 24 in the book of Second Kings talk about Jehoiakim, his indifference to the suffering of his servants and their families. Identifies it as evil in the eyes of the Lord for the nation to neglect its veterans. Very clearly take care of the servants of the king.

Well, there’s more story here and I feel compelled to share it with you. What happened was that Jehoiakim was installed as king under the approval of King Nebuchadnezzar, because King Nebuchadnezzar was in Babylon and King Necho was in Egypt and Israel and Judah and Jerusalem were the two nations in the middle. And so Jehoiakim got the approval of Nebuchadnezzar. He promised to be a good neighbor, promised to pay his tribute money for protection from the Egyptians.

Then Jehoiakim, about a year into his term, decided he didn’t like that arrangement and so he marched down and started talking to the Egyptian king, Necho and said: I tell you what, I’ll pay you the tribute money – you protect me from the Babylonians.

Jehoiakim was big on bluster and bravado and he was good at feeding his own ego. He called it patriotism. Love of the nation, he called that. He booted out all of the experienced military and government officials who told him what he did not want to hear. And he elevated his friends and the sons of his biggest contributor far beyond their skill set. He effectively destabilized the military and the government by doing this. And then he shifted allegiances again and he stopped paying tribute to Egypt and he marched to the North and said, I’ll pay tribute to you, oh Nebuchadnezzar. Then he turned and with lots of bluster he made threats against the Egyptians and thinking he was safe under the protection of King Nebuchadnezzar in the North.

And King Necho of Egypt saw him for what he was and said, you are a dishonorable king, I challenge you to battle, bring your soldiers. And Jehoiakim had to go. And remember, Jehoiakim had elevated his friends into leadership based on their loyalty to him not on their skill set. Combine that with inexperience and his poor leadership and you know exactly what happened on the battlefield. It was a disaster.

King Jehoiakim’s soldiers were routed on the battlefield. After the war was over and they’d come back, he took some of the widows of the soldiers that had been killed on the battlefield as conquests and he took care of them and their families. The remainder he ignored. He was indifferent to their pleas for things like bread. And so now, we know where Second Kings is coming from.

Not long after that, it was King Nebuchadnezzar from the North who marched south and got into a battle with the Egyptian king, Necho. That didn’t go well for either of them. But King Necho got the better of the day. And on the way, marching back home, King Nebuchadnezzar said, you know what? I am getting tired of this Jehoiakim. And he marched on Jerusalem. Marched through valleys and marched through cities on the way – wiped them out. People fled into the hills, into the rocks, into the shrubs.

As the Babylonian army approached Jerusalem they tried to button down. But many of the inexperienced leaders that had been elevated by Jehoiakim abandoned their posts and fled. They had reason to be afraid. Historian, Josephus recorded — along with the rabbinic literature of the day — that Jehoiakim and the nation of Judah had 10,000 soldiers. Nebuchadnezzar was marching with 20,000 soldiers.

They laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege lasted for about a year. Food ran out in the city. People were starving. They hadn’t stocked up because they had believed the bravado of their king. Finally the Babylonian army is breaking through the wall of the city. They get it broken open. And it’s the night before they’re going to invade the next day. And Jehoiakim and a few of his core people decide to do something really brave. Under the cover of a moonless night, they bravely tried to run away.

Jehoiakim was captured. He was brought before King Nebuchadnezzar, who called him a wicked wretch, a coward and a covenant breaker, who had forgotten his former commitments. Turns out that King Nebuchadnezzar had allowed Jehoiakim to be made king and part of the reason was, Jehoiakim had made a secret covenant that in exchange for being given power over Judah, he would rule the nation in such a way, he would prepare the nation to be handed over peacefully and absorbed as part of the Babylonian empire. This is treason which he tried to get out of through all that finagling he did with King Necho in Egypt.

King Nebuchadnezzar now saw him as dishonorable and marched him in front of his people in fetters, in chains and then forced him to walk, shackled, north into Babylon and then ordered him executed and his body was dumped outside the city walls with no funeral. Nebuchadnezzar said this is the honor deserved by one such as this.

Unfortunately, it’s still not the end of the story. King Nebuchadnezzar also saw the people of Judah had been influenced by rationalizing the perversion of Jehoiakim. He regarded the nation as wicked and ordered its destruction. The population was carried off, enslaved in Babylon for generations and Judah, the nation to the south, existed no more. The nation was destroyed by dishonor.

Here’s why I told you this story. In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is talking about discipleship. And he chooses, Jesus chooses a very unique metaphor to talk about discipleship. He says, what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not first sit down and ponder whether he is able with 10,000 soldiers to meet a king who comes against him with 20,000 soldiers? If not, while the other king is far off he will send a delegation and ask for terms of peace.

Everyone who heard Jesus knew exactly what he was saying. Jesus is mocking Jehoiakim, tongue in cheek. He’s taking that caution about don’t think too highly of yourself or you’ll be embarrassed and he reframes it and adds a reference known by everyone that recalls to mind a dishonorable footnote of history king who simply refused to engage in the realities before him. Jesus defines honorable as seeing things as they really are and not overinflating ourself or our abilities, because arrogance always brings the same result.

In our text today, in this story, we get a very clear view of dishonor in Jehoiakim and a very clear word that dishonor displeases the Lord. And just by recalling the complaints that God brought against Jehoiakim, we can get an equally clear vision of God’s definition of honor. Instead of wealth as our identity, disciples see wealth as a tool for people who put God first. Instead of fraud, disciples find honor in transparency and fairness. Instead of bluster and bravado, disciples crave calm, tranquil conversations where the truth is told.

Instead of sexual aggression which objectifies another person and seeks to possess, disciples see others as having sacred worth and disciples respect appropriate boundaries. Instead of nepotism and cronyism, the hiring of family and friends, disciples seek what is best for the nation and understand that we are great when we are good. Instead of conveniently changing allegiances, depending on where we perceive power to be and a commitment of values as long as they suit our purpose, disciples have one allegiance – God first; God’s values are the standard of our lives.

In place of lying and defending lies, disciples work very hard to tell the truth. In place of throwing tantrums, disciples don’t have to get their way to be content. Instead of a culture of money and accumulation, disciples seek the Kingdom of God – and the promise of the Kingdom of God is there is enough for everyone. And instead of discarding the inconvenient, disciples lean into meeting responsibilities, even when they cost us something.

Jeremiah is the first Old Testament writer to mention the coming of a Messiah. And the prophet Jeremiah proclaims what will become the core message of the Messiah. And that is that we are at our best when we discipline ourselves toward the highest ideals of God’s kingdom. We are representatives of our king. And honor pleases our king. Whether we’re stuck in the middle of an unwinnable situation we can’t control or tempted to play along with the forces of arrogance and greed and power. Jeremiah told us and Jesus showed us; life makes sense when we put God first.

2017-11-05 Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Competition 1/8

Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Competition 1/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 5th, 2017

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Eight weeks. Eight weeks till Christmas. Whoever went woo-hoo, we need to talk. You hadn’t thought about that, had you? And how much anxiety; you’ve got to remember to breathe. And Christmas is coming. And people are coming. Do you ever want to skip Christmas?

Yes, what it has become, sure does make it tempting – although — you might want to watch the movie, Christmas with the Kranks. Remember that movie, with Tim Allen, and Dan Aykroyd, and what happens when one family tries to skip Christmas. It brings a lot of unforeseen consequences, especially when their grownup daughter comes back from serving abroad, expecting Christmas to be as she remembered it as a child. And they were just saving the money to go on a cruise. That movie is good. It’s part of our Christmas movie genre. The movies that we all have pirated, and we all have them now, and we get them out and watch them at Christmas, right?

What else do you do on Christmas Day while the turkey is cooking in… ? Well, you put Christmas stuff… Mickey’s Christmas, from 1938. You remember that one? Yes, some others are there. I haven’t given a lot of thought to those movies until just now, but they all form us, and they all shape us. I think part of the reason that it’s so tempting to want to skip Christmas is: Christmas in our cultural religion has lost its connection to hope. It’s become an economic event. It’s become the cultural movie event. It’s become, looking for the warm, fuzzy, and how do I spin-up enough Christmas spirit to get through this? You know what I want to say. Well, maybe you do.

And I’m not about to go off the other end of the spectrum and say: well, Jesus is the reason for the season. Which may be true, but it usually translates into just as many lights, just as much stress, just as many mall trips, and presents, and wrapping paper. But, it’s different. Superior, because we’ve said the words: Jesus is the reason for the season; which makes us better in some way. So, I’m, basically, ready to throw it all away, frankly. I don’t know if that’s clear. But, I think the reason is because we’ve lost the connection to hope. And so, I’d like to spend a few weeks talking us back into what Christmas means.

And you might want to fasten your seatbelts because, today, I’m going to share with you, I’m going to point you to, something that you may have an inkling about, but is nowhere to be seen in our cultural religion. Words like hope show up in Christmas cards. That’s nice. But we have no connection to what that really means.

The prophetic text that Bill read for us today, Jeremiah, is one of the first in the Old Testament where we get an inkling of what Jesus is about. The first mention from the mouth of God that there is one whom he will send; who will mean something different.

What’s happened here, 600 years before Jesus walked the earth, is God is lamenting the loss of good shepherds to lead the people Israel. God is especially frustrated, disappointed, and in fact angry at the current king, King Jehoiakim. You might ask: well, we thought God was about love, what did Jehoiakim do to offend God?

Well, rabbinical literature is quite expressive in its description of King Jehoiakim as an atrocious tyrant. He spent money on himself that was not his. He was critical of others for what they did until he wanted to do it and then it was okay. He was sexually aggressive to any woman he desired. He had woman seized and held to be his play-things. He married multiple times. He had multiple affairs outside of those marriages. He gave jobs, big jobs, to his friends, expecting kick-backs. He would hire people to do work, and then he wouldn’t pay them once the work was completed. He was known to lie. He was un-trusted. He had tantrums.

Jehoiakim committed fraud to enrich himself. And in doing so, God’s charge against him is that he has now made the nation’s focus its economy. And God said: you worship the functions of money, more than you are close to me. The purpose of the culture of Israel in that day became money and accumulation. Jehoiakim made the whole conversation about what he was going to get; what his friends were going to get; and what his enemies and anyone who challenged him was going to get.

Jehoiakim claimed he believed in God. But the people see right through him because he echoed no values of God, in how he acted. He was terrible at diplomacy. He used big talk and bluster. And finally, he said: we’re going to invade Egypt and show them how powerful we are. We will show the world. We will demonstrate our strength. It was a disaster; half the army was routed.

A year later, when the Babylonians, up to the north, were on the march, Jehoiakim tried to flip relationships and allegiances and he tried to unite with Egypt for protection. He went to Egypt and they laughed at him. And they said: we’re going to chase you out of our country. And if we catch you, we will execute you. And he ran. And the Babylonian king arrested him and had him executed summarily. Jeremiah goes on to record that Jehoiakim died with no funeral. The people of Israel did not lament for him. His body has been treated like that of a donkey which has died. His body has been cast out into the heat of the day and the frost of the night. This is the glory of one such as this.

Jehoiakim was bad. He was a bad shepherd of the people. And today we heard God speak: it is you who has scattered my flock, and driven them away from me. You have not attended to them in my ways, so I will attend to you for your evil-doings.

Money as identity; sexual aggression and confusion; taking care of our own; using big talk and strutting; changing allegiances when it serves our purpose; deception; lying; tantrums; and a culture of money and accumulation. These are God’s charges against Jehoiakim through Jeremiah the prophet.

Needless to say, Jeremiah was not a popular prophet. But the purpose of Jeremiah was not only to make charges, identify God’s problem with where the nation was, but also God’s solution. God promises to gather the remnant of the flock and put the people under the care of a new generation of leaders; leaders who will be good shepherds; who will be wise and watch over the people; protect them and keep them from getting lost.

Better yet, this is the first inkling we hear, God is going to raise up through David a righteous branch. And he shall reign as a king and he shall execute justice wisely. And bring righteousness to the land. This righteous branch is none other than Jesus, the one to be born at the time of the Emperor Augustus, when he too was playing games to gain what he could get. This branch, Jesus, comes to reign with justice and righteousness. To provide safety for all of God’s people. To find and gather lost sheep; and to be to them, a good shepherd. 600 years before Jesus was born, this description was given. And this is the name by which he shall be called; the Lord is our righteousness.

I’ve never seen that in a Christmas card, have you? It’s a bit of an odd name. But if we miss it, we’re going to miss the deep meaning of Christmas, given to us by the Old Testament.

We’ve talked about righteousness in New Testament Greek. The word is dikaiosýnē. And you could probably tell me what it means. We’ve talked about it enough times. It’s that word from the royal court, having to do with who is given access to the king. Dikaiosýnē, it’s a gift. Access to the king, God on high, it’s a gift. That’s the implication. And also, the implication because of the royal court: act like you have earned your way in and you’re in trouble. In the royal court, you would lose your head over something like that.

The point of dikaiosýnē is: because you have been given access to the king, you should act differently. You should walk as someone, you should talk as someone, you should behave as someone who’s representing the king because you have had access.

Old Testament word for this is, tsadik, which means exactly the same thing. We see it in the story of Esther, and her questions about access to the king, who happened to be her husband. Access to the king is granted as a gift. You must never act as if it’s a possession or a right or an entitlement.

And Jeremiah takes this idea, this word tsadik, and he makes an interesting application to the king of the day, Jehoiakim. He is speaking to Jehoiakim. And he says: you are not acting in ways adequately representational of the gifts God has given you. You are acting as if you are entitled to the power you wield. But you are dividing, and distracting, and scattering people that you’ve been entrusted to lead. You will be torn down. You will be cast out. You will suffer your own definition of glory.

Jeremiah goes on and says: access to power, real power, is in our relationship to God. The Lord is our righteousness, not you, Jehoiakim. Jeremiah is being defiant. Jeremiah is thumbing his nose at the power of his nation. And Jeremiah is saying: my loyalty lies in the Lord. Not in your ways of unrighteousness, Jehoiakim. I will not make peace. I will not call you good. I will not play nice. You may threaten me. You may attack me. You may slander me. You may arrest me. You may kill me. But, the Lord is our righteousness.

This is where we first get an inkling into who and what Jesus will be. And what he is all about. This gets in the way of our cultural Christmas celebration because it clarifies for us; Jesus is not Frosty the Snowman, who melts when things get hot. And Jesus is not Santa Claus, a ho-ho-ing gift-giving, right-jolly old elf, coming down our chimneys to shower us with expensive toys and treasures. In fact, these things are exactly opposite of the theology of the biblical text. If we believe that presents are a sign of God’s favor then we have missed a component, a character of our king.

Jesus is a shepherd. He gives more attention to the lost sheep and lambs than those who are safely at home in the flock. The Lord is our righteousness. There’s nothing cute, or joyful, or cheerful, about it. Probably doesn’t fit into our fantasies about what it means to spin up a good dose of Christmas spirit. But if we ignore it we’re going to miss who Jesus really is. And we run a huge risk. In fact, I think we’ve missed it for years; missed what Christmas means.

Jeremiah is asserting what Jesus lived. There is no barrier. There is no terror. There is nobody. There is nothing that can keep us from God’s love. And we should live as loved, loving people. And therefore, there is no reason to back down or to cower or to give in to unrighteousness. And to me, that’s an awesome reason to have hope.

The message for the season is: righteous living is about our relationship through our access to God; nothing more; nothing less. And what I want to ask you to think about this morning is: what would it look like for your household to have a Christmas that honors Jesus? What he’s about. I figured this out, if we wait until advent to start, it’s too late. We’ve already made our trips to the stores. If we’re smart, we’ve already done our shopping. It’s all in the bag.

I have to hurry here, because sometime this week, the easy listening station is going to start playing Christmas carols, 24 hours a day. Sure, go buy presents at the store, but make a commitment that the purpose of your Christmas is not to carry the economy of our nation. Sure, overdo it a little bit at Christmas dinner, but be clear that small portions and eating slowly and the contemplation of the things for which you are grateful, feeds the soul much more than the belly.

Sure, go to a party or two, and maybe even drink the best wine with your friends. But, what if the purpose of the Christmas party was to raise money for a life-changing charity? What if it’s no longer about getting? Maybe, if you think about it, and you plan ahead a little bit, this is going to be the year when your household finds its Christmas spirit, when you go to feed the homeless on the hardest day for shelters to find volunteers – Christmas morning. Most of them don’t serve a meal.

Maybe this will be the year that your family begins a new tradition of giving significant resources. The previous years have gone to things that you know are going to get thrown away by April 3rd. Significant resources in someone else’s name; making a gift to save the family, or Amcor, Heifer Project, or UMOM, in the name of another person. And that’s your gift to them. I gave $500 in your name, to Heifer Project. I gave $500 in your name to the women’s shelter. The Lord is our righteousness.

Maybe this will be the year when, if you’ve been prone to having tantrums when your siblings are in town, this will be the year when you make a commitment to have a different behavior set. You don’t go immediately to verbal violence or to spiritual violence or to physical violence. Or maybe this will be the year when social action against greed and selfishness on behalf of the vulnerable becomes important in your life, you understand the meaning of Christmas.

To experience the righteousness of Christmas is to keep being drawn deeper into a close relationship with God. It’s to discover that social justice and personal peace are parts of a Godly way of life. It’s what happens when we put God first.

Jeremiah knew that you can’t be a good shepherd and abuse the sheep. You can’t be a righteous leader and misuse your power. And Jesus felt exactly the same way. This is why the both invited us into a right relationship with God; one that takes seriously the need to look beyond ourselves and what am I going to get out of this. And execute justice and righteousness in the land.

So, go ahead, put Frosty on your roof and leave cookies for Santa. But don’t miss this opportunity to focus your attention on the coming of Jesus; the one who shows us that the Lord is our righteousness. If you miss it you’ll be skipping Christmas.

2017-10-29 Life and Death Stuff: A Really Scary Sermon 7/7

Life and Death Stuff: A Really Scary Sermon 7/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
October 29th, 2017

Luke 16:19-31

You may think that it’s difficult to follow and worship and it is; but can you imagine how hard it is to lead you, to be a pastor who’s charged to lead the church? I find it much better to stand behind and say, go ahead, because trying to corral you and shape you and move you… and I’m not saying that as a complaint, I’m saying that you are a gift for me to work with. You saw today just a sliver, a piece, of our leaders in action, of our church in action, of you in action. I could stand up here for the next hour and just run through the ministries of this church and how this place, this congregation, you all, is where lives are changed.

And it is astounding, it is amazing and I’m going to stop talking about it because I don’t think words help. Sometimes we just have to be in awe and the best thing to do when we’re in awe is shut up and I’m good at that. I want to start this morning by thanking Sean George. My understanding was you were all on the edge of your seats last week as he shared his story. He is a gift from God, who sees God active in his life. He is a true minister of the Gospel. He sees his story and he’s willing to share it. That is the church at its best and I believe there are quite a few of us who have stories to tell.

That’s why I don’t wear a robe, because I want you to know it’s us, it’s just us and any of us on any given day could stand up and bring the word of God in our lives as we understand God in our lives. Thank you to Sean George for his story. Our text today is hard. I almost wore my Halloween costume. My Halloween costume this year is Mr. Incredible, or Bob Incredible and I didn’t wear it for a couple of reasons. I wanted to wear it because you really need to be an incredible person to contemplate this text. It’s difficult is the beginning and it just goes down from there.

And the second reason I didn’t wear the costume was I didn’t want it to be a distraction, but more importantly than that, superheroes don’t tell you this: those things ride up on you. And I didn’t need to stand here doing this for twenty minutes. It would be a distraction. Thank you. You need to be somewhat of a superhero to live out this passage. You’re going to be standing counter to culture. We are in that tough section of the Gospel of Luke, the part that we gracelessly leap over trying to get to the Resurrection where someone comes back from the dead, but that’s what this text is about: will we listen to someone who has returned from the dead, will we let that individual reshape our lives?

And the answer, for the most part, is, let’s talk about the Resurrection! Yeah! We’re distracted. We smooth everything over and we make nice: God loves us, this we know, for the Bible tells us so. But today, the Bible also tells us some things about us that God doesn’t like and I think we can trust Jesus to be our guide. By the 16th chapter of Luke, which is where our passage comes from today, Luke has been hammering on the dangers of riches. Jesus has told a story about one brother he encounters who keeps property from his younger brother, inherited property; he keeps it for himself. Jesus tells a parable about a rich fool who builds barns and only once they are erected, he dies. And God calls him a fool.

Jesus notices that the rich in the community get together and they indulge in grand banquets and they should be inviting the poor, the lame, the lost, the last and the blind. Jesus tells a story about a prodigal son who takes his half of the inheritance before dear old dad is even dead. He goes to the far country and squanders it, he cheapens his soul in riotous living. And our text today, this isn’t the first we’ve heard of this problem, it actually starts back in the 11th chapter of Luke, when Jesus says, you Pharisees, you worry about getting the outside of the cup clean, but the inside is where the real dirt is.

You’re looking to justify your greed and your wickedness and you wrap it in religion, but did not the one who made the outside also make the inside? And inside of you Pharisees is greed and deception. Jesus continues. He says; give money to show what is on the inside, but woe to you who make a show of ritualized faith but neglect justice and being the love of God. Forget meaningless rituals, God doesn’t care. Focus on justice and being the love of God. Jesus goes on to say that what we have hidden on the inside of us will become visible through what we do with our money.

The Pharisees hear Jesus talking about this and they scoff at his teaching because they were lovers of money. This text that Bill read for us about Lazarus and the rich man, the nameless rich man, has two messages and the first one, painfully clear, I don’t need to spend much more than a couple of sentences on it. There’s no massaging our way around this and that is that achieving wealth and success does not mean that we have God’s favor and on the flip side, being a failure in the terms of the world does not remove you from God’s favor. That’s hard to hear in our culture.

The second point of this text is significantly more difficult and we have to think about it, but we try not to think about what it says to us about what we do with money. We avoid thinking about how our money and what we do with it shows what’s inside of us by arguing our positions. Things that we’ve heard on our favorite television news channel, we become a songbird for MSNBC, or we become really good at arguing and justifying ourselves because of what we heard on Fox News. We become very good Democrats or very good Republicans. We play offence, defense, with planks from our political party.

And we’re walking the whole time away from being kingdom people, because God doesn’t care about Democrats and Republicans. There is no biblical call to politicize your life. The call is to be followers of Christ, imitating him. And what we do when we become Democrats or Republicans is we either defend the poor man and argue his case to the end, or we defend the rich man, both of which are silly because Jesus has already pronounced his judgment. Or we engage in a 20th-century argument, is Jesus a socialist or a capitalist, which is really a misnomer at best and at worst is a distraction, because neither of these things existed when Jesus walked the earth.

The best we can do is extrapolating some conclusions that are to our liking and we’re really good at justifying what we do. And it feels good because we’re talking and it feels good because we think we have final word and we enjoy the sound of our voice so much that we let ourselves off the hook, which is not ours to do. Of all of the details that Jesus could have included in this story, he chose very few. The rich man knows the name of the poor man, that’s one of the details Jesus includes. In fact, he stands on his side of the chasm where it’s hot and tries to command the poor man to bring him water.

And the poor man does nothing, like the rich man had done nothing when they were both alive. There’s definitely a reversal of fortune happening in this text, something about you get what you gave. Maybe that’s what Jesus means when he says, what is hidden inside of you will be seen. There’s another detail that Jesus chooses to include among the few and that is there is a door in this story. The rich man knows the name of the poor man but closed the door because he was uncomfortable seeing him.

The rich man is capable of engaging in some critical thinking, which in this case really means coming to a feeling of peace about oneself by criticizing what’s happening to someone else, coming to a place of peace by being critical of someone else. Anybody can be negative, right? Find someone to criticize. Constructive criticism, we call it, but it’s just criticism. It takes no effort, requires no creativity whatsoever and there’s no risk involved because there are plenty of people around you who love to criticize just as much.

The hard task, the heroic effort, the incredible rescue, is to consider a situation where twenty things that you don’t like are happening, twenty opportunities for lecture are presenting themselves to you and you find the one thing, that person, your sibling, who you know how much you love to correct your siblings, even when you’re an… oh, especially when you’re an adult. Your child, we all knows how to be critical and we call it good parenting. Your neighbor: oh, if only they’d do things to your liking. Your adversary, your enemy: twenty things they’re doing that you don’t like, that you’d like to improve in them and that’s where you start the conversation.

The hard task is to find one where they’re doing something well and you start the conversation there. I have seen marriages destroyed by criticism, which is utterly lack of respect. I have seen parent/child relationships destroyed because a parent had to get in one more word and the kid popped and said: we’re done here. I have seen neighborhoods explode over criticism. I’ve also seen kids who are amazingly perceptive of all the ways they’re being told how they’re doing it wrong by everyone around them, I’ve seen those kids turned around by a single positive influence.

I’ve seen siblings with a long history of doing battle turn around and change their relationship with one another because one sibling makes the decision, I’m going to be positive; I’m no longer the critic. I have seen people who have given up in despair and are sure that no one cares have their lives turned around and their attitude changed when they encounter one person who stops, helps in a small way – buys them a sandwich, calls them brother – and then goes on.

Yes, of course it doesn’t always work. Yes, of course there’s always criticism of the past history and separation and power plays to overcome. Yes, of course it’s hard to work with people who are still angry at us for past criticisms. Yes, it’s terribly difficult to get over criticisms that keep coming when we’ve decided I’m not about that anymore, like younger brothers who, after taking their portion and fleeing to the far country and spending it, come home on a last whim hope that dear old dad will be a sucker and take him in and care for them. But now it’s being paid for by responsible people who never left, responsible, rule-keeping, and polite – at least to your face – upstanding family members who pay the bill.

We read this story and we cannot help ourselves but wonder why Lazarus doesn’t get up and do something like get a job, like seek medical assistance for whatever that was, like try, like take a bath and if we wonder those things, you can be sure as shooting that the rich man in the story wondered them, too and more. What did you do to deserve this? How did you get there? Why did you do something so stupid? Why is God punishing you? I don’t make those kinds of decisions. You’re a fool. I don’t deserve what you got. I know what you should do, let me tell you.

The words of responsible people who have managed some level of comfort haven’t changed one bit and neither have our tactics designed to keep out people we’ve labeled as irresponsible. Ways of communicating unwelcome and inaccessibility come in a whole lot of ways. Locked doors become suburbs where undesirables cannot afford to live, become a nation politicized into building a wall it cannot afford to keep out people it deems undesirable. It’s easy to be critical, it takes no effort whatsoever, requires no creativity. Our text today tells us it all leads to the same place.

It takes effort, sometimes heroic levels of effort, to make our lives about unlocking and opening and including and affirming. Our text today tells us that that kind of effort leads to a different place. It leads to the kingdom of God. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann says that the opposite of poverty is not property. Moltmann says the opposite of both is community. As most of us know, too many dollars can weigh an awful burden on the soul and as most of us know, we are very much addicted to our money. As a sign of success, it gives us a purpose, accumulating gives us meaning and importance.

But money in this story isn’t really about any of these things; money in this story is simply the door between them and us. And the problem of the story is not the money; the problem of the story is not the poverty. The problem of the story is the door between them and us, what we put between ourselves and what we find to be undesirable. It was Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity… you know what Habitat for Humanity is about. We think it’s about building houses for the poor, salvation through hammers and nails and plaster, but Millard Fuller corrects us when he says, the way of salvation is the relationships that it builds between people made by God.

The opposite of poverty, the opposite of property, is community. This correct reading of this text is from the perspective of God’s kingdom, the kingdom ideal of community salvation. I defy anyone to show me anywhere in scripture where it says personal salvation. It’s always community; it’s always when we are together; how we include everyone. Community happens when we honor the biblical promise that there is enough for everyone. Salvation finds its way in when the door is open. The kingdom question that we all need to ponder is, what does it mean in our lives to have an open door?

As you think about your economic position, as you think about your politics, ponder that question: what does it mean to have an open door? I know Jesus told this story and I think he probably enjoyed it. He told this story to money-hungry, money-loving Pharisees, but I think he also told it for us. Another detail that Luke included in the story is that Jesus was angry and he was angry for a reason. He was angry because he could no longer stand, couldn’t swallow it anymore, the way people loved things that they could get for themselves more than the things God wanted to give them.

People become satisfied with nice clothes and feeling important; God wants to give us the kingdom. People become content with living and passing by beggars on the street, when God wants to give us brothers and sisters. People are happy to choose and pick parts of the Bible that support the life they want to live, when God wants to give us a new life together. What we seem to miss is that we’re really victims of our own thinking.
When we succeed in cutting ourselves off from each other; when we learn how to live with the misery of other people right there by convincing ourselves they deserve it; when we defend our own good fortune and our own luck as God’s blessing and we decline to see how our selfishness is quilted into the suffering of people we see; then we are all losers in God’s kingdom. Not because of what God will do to us, but simply because of the consequences that come for how we live our lives. Who do you think made the chasm in the story? Do you think God made that chasm? Was it God or the rich man?

Sometimes I think that the worst thing we have to fear is that God is going to give us exactly what we want. But what if we hear this text and we begin thinking and reordering our lives to be more simple; reflective of where our hearts really are; reflective of our concern of being in good relationships with people and being life-change agents for God’s kingdom; choosing to listen before we start rationalizing; and choosing to love by keeping the door open?

And what if rather than believing that it’s a task, a list of checkable items that we’re going to accomplish and then arrive at, which objectifies people because we see suffering as a problem for us to solve. Once we solve it in people we can see then our task is done but we’re objectifying people to do that. What if we approach people as a never-ending opportunity to be unsure of ourselves, our position, never quite clear that we’ve accomplished the kingdom and so we’re always reliant on the mysteries of God?

I think we can trust Jesus to be our guide, but this is a superhero text. I think you’re up for it. It’s different from what’s familiar to us, but I think you’re up for it. Let what we do with our money reveal what is hidden inside each of us.

2017-10-22 Life and Death Stuff, Ethan: Unlikely and Unexpected 6/7

Life and Death Stuff, Ethan: Unlikely and Unexpected 6/7
Mr. Sean George, Chandler United Methodist Church
October 22nd, 2017

Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

Jonathan asked me to speak this morning because I had told him about a story that I shared at a library program for adults back in April. Although he was unable to attend, he thought the story would be appropriate to share here as well. That event was planned around the theme of wisdom connected to children and childhood, and I framed my story around the unlikely and unexpected wisdom gained from my firstborn son, Ethan, but there is plenty of “Life and Death Stuff” in this story, too. So I will start with the unlikely and unexpected events leading up to Ethan’s birth.

My wife Janine and I are more than 11 years apart in age and back then we were even farther apart in geography. Janine is a northern California girl, who was living in San Jose at the time, and I am a Southern boy, then living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She was recently divorced, with two children, and fairly comfortable being independent after her first marriage. I was a graduate school student who had just been dis-engaged from my first fiancée. So how did two people like us end up meeting? Well, online of course, but bear in mind that this was 1996, less than a year after the internet had become available to the public. So our situation then was much less common that it would be today. Despite the protective warnings from my parents and Janine’s friends, we decided to meet in person, then eventually moved her from northern California to south Louisiana, and got married on Valentine’s Day 1998.

As unlikely and unexpected as it was for us to meet and marry in the first place, the idea of having children together was even more doubtful. Janine had had a tubal ligation after her first two kids but she was willing, and even eager, to get that situation reversed. The bigger issue was that, at that point in my life, I had long since decided that I never wanted to have children of my own, for a variety of reasons. Well, flush with true love and newlywed bliss, I reconsidered that choice. Janine had the reversal procedure and we gave it our best effort. The first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage but we obviously didn’t give up, and soon Janine was pregnant again. The second time around, everything progressed pretty normally and the ultrasounds showed nothing unusual. So we chose not to have the amniocentesis because we didn’t want to know if it would be a boy or a girl. Against all those odds, my wife and I were going to have a baby, and it was the happiest I had ever been in my life. We were confident that this child, born of our all-conquering love, would be special, one-in-a-million…you know, just like every other loving parent thinks.

On Monday, November 15, 1999, Janine went into labor and I drove us to East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie, LA. At 6:38 PM our baby boy came into the world and he was even more special than we had imagined…

So special, in fact that the nurses took him directly to intensive care and we had to wait hours to find out exactly how special he was, in medical terms. The doctor came to us late that night and explained that our son had Trisomy 13. We finally got to see Ethan around midnight but we did not get to hold him until the next day, and even then we had to be careful not to dislodge the various tubes and wires that were keeping him alive.

If you are unfamiliar with Trisomy 13, as we were then, the short explanation is that it’s a genetic condition related to Down Syndrome (which is Trisomy 21) but T-13 is both more rare and more severe. About 95% of cases end in miscarriage or stillbirth and, of the T-13 babies who are born, less than half survive their first two weeks. Unlikely and unexpected. Ethan’s initial physical manifestations included a severe cleft lip & palate, so he basically had no separation between his mouth and nasal cavity. He had under-developed eyes and ears, an extra vestigial finger on each hand, and internal trouble with his heart, stomach, and urinary tract.

He also had strawberry blond curls and the cutest little apple face. Make no mistake, Ethan Brockner Favrat George was still our precious one-in-a-million child.

I want to be clear however, that Janine and I did NOT make that decision consciously. We did not intentionally forge the wise path of loving and celebrating our child despite his medical condition, nor did we bravely refuse to let despair overwhelm us. We did deliberately discuss the situation that night at the hospital but the truth is that our conversation was just an acknowledgement of something that happened subconsciously in both of us. Somehow, we had simply accepted the situation (as painful as it was), remained grateful for our beautiful child, and focused on the best way to operate within those parameters that were beyond our control. Those were unearned gifts, not triumphs of will. We were not heroes, and we were clearly not in control. Ethan was the hero, our hero, and we all know who was in control.

Well, like all heroes (and other new babies, too) Ethan had milestones but his were different than most– things like coming off the ventilator machine and breathing on his own, then graduating from IV nutrition to breast milk, which was pumped through a tube down his throat. That led to getting milk and mucus down his windpipe, and the beginning of daily periodic suctioning to clear his airway. He had his first corrective surgery. One day he finally opened one eye just a little. Then he stopped getting morphine and, eventually, he graduating from the life-support crib to a regular open crib. All that was in the first two weeks.

Through all this, despite those gifts I mentioned, of acceptance, gratitude, and perseverance, Janine and I naturally had our moments of frustration. We found however, that some of our family and friends had other issues, like denial, pity, and anger, which made it hard for them to visit Ethan, and some, could not stay long in his presence when they did visit. Even a hero like Ethan couldn’t overcome all his challenges as quickly as he had conquered us, and sometimes people can’t abide what is beyond their control or comprehension.

During Ethan’s third and final week in the hospital, as we made preparations to bring him home, he had a new milestone– his first apnea episode. Changing his diaper one day, Janine and I noticed that he had stopped breathing altogether. Well, the nurses immediately swung into action with suction and the tiny oxygen mask and, just before they decided to reinsert the ventilator tube, he started breathing again. The whole episode lasted three or four minutes and the timing was perfect because it put us on notice.

Still, on December 6, three weeks after his birth, Ethan FINALLY came home. He quickly established the new home routine: feeding and suctioning every three or four hours, sleep deprivation for Janine and I (like all new parents), and three more apnea spells spaced out over that week. Ethan had his first “regular” doctor visit, and we met with the ChildNet caseworker to start planning for various services that Ethan would need as he grew up.

The following Tuesday came the next milestone, although this one was more for Janine and I than for Ethan. I had been out of the house for a few hours and, when I came home for lunch, I walked in on Janine and my mom frantically trying to revive Ethan from another apnea spell. That was the day Janine and I realized that fighting so hard to resuscitate him really served our own interests more than it did his. We knew that the time would probably come when he would not recover anyway, and we were certain that all three of us would benefit more from Janine and I simply holding and loving Ethan when the time came for him to go… So we decided to stop intervening during his apnea spells.

With this decision in mind, Ethan got baptized that afternoon and that night shortly before midnight, sure enough, Ethan stopped breathing again. Instead of scrambling to suction him, we picked him up and held him between us, stroking his cheek and telling him how much we loved him. After being out for a few minutes, Ethan had a couple of spasms and then a strong exhale… But a few seconds later he inhaled spasmodically, and again a few seconds after that, and then we realized that Ethan was breathing again on his own. Unlikely and unexpected would be an understatement.

Ethan’s new normal became four or five apnea spells per day, with each one lasting between three and five minutes, and he kept recovering from them without any assistance from us. Paradoxically, when we quit scrambling to save Ethan’s life every time he stopped breathing, all three of us were able to enjoy our life together a lot more. Starting then really, as Ethan joined us on errands and activities, we packed in a lot of gloriously normal living. Over the following weeks, Ethan went back and forth to the airport with us to pick up visiting family & friends, went shopping with us, and went to church on Sunday (where he had his own receiving line, thank you very much).

Let me take a moment here to mention that many of those people at St. Charles United Methodist Church, who lined-up to meet Ethan that first Sunday, had not only been praying for us but also provided many meals to us over those weeks. When I told this story in April, I made a point about the wisdom of that kind of meal ministry in church communities but I’m sure many of us here are familiar with that already.

Anyway, Ethan travelled up to Baton Rouge with us on Christmas Day to celebrate with more family and friends, went to a minor league hockey game with us, rang in the new year with fireworks and a toast (our champagne glasses and his feeding syringe), and helped us tour the visiting family around the French Quarter. Then he went back to the airport with us several times to send them all back home. Throughout those weeks of whirlwind activity, Ethan was not always chipper and pleasant but no other new baby would have been either. Fussy babies are not always fun but that is about as “normal” as it gets. Of course, there were more doctor visits than normal and, over the course of those four weeks, Ethan had 57 apnea episodes, all of which came and went just as they would have if we had chosen to stay home.

On the morning of January 4th, after seeing off his west coast grandparents at the airport, Ethan went to the doctor and we discovered that he had developed an ear infection– not unusual for a baby, and a good explanation for his extreme agitation the previous day. The doctor prescribed an antibiotic and Tylenol with Codeine to ease the pain, and Ethan got the first doses of both medicines at his noon feeding. Fortunately, he rested well that afternoon, apparently pain-free. Unfortunately, the Codeine also seemed to depressed his respiratory system and, although he had not had any apnea spells on Sunday or Monday, he had 14 between 1:00 Tuesday afternoon and 10:00 that night. Despite that, we had an otherwise quiet evening, just the three of us eating dinner and watching television. Ethan’s fifteenth apnea episode began at 10:11 PM. He began to recover from it at 10:15, taking a few breaths, but then he stopped again.

After ten minutes of him not breathing, we realized that he was not coming back this time but we waited until 10:45 to call our Hospice nurse. In retrospect it seemed to Janine and I that, following all the excitement of the holidays, Ethan had waited for everyone to go back home. He had given us one full day together, just the three of us, before saying goodbye. I’m sure the Codeine had a lot to do with it but it felt to us like a final heroic effort on Ethan’s part. At this point I have come to understand that it was simply God’s inexplicable timing working through a combination of those other two factors. Either way I still cherish it as a blessing.

Now before I offer my reflections, I want to lighten the load by reminding everyone that Janine and I did have another son, Aidan, in March 2001. For those of you who haven’t met him, or may just be wondering about him since his absence, he is now 16 and a junior at Perry High School. We love him tremendously, of course, and he is well-acquainted with his older brother’s story. Fortunately, Janine and I both agreed on that because we believe life and death are inseparable.

Earlier I mentioned that some family and friends had trouble dealing with Ethan’s situation (and some of them still do). Ultimately, I think all those negative reactions have to do with the way different people handle the reality that we are not always in control of our lives as much as we might like or insist. I chose the passage from Job this morning partly to show that this is not a new problem. In fact, it was already a very old problem 2000 years ago when Jesus himself admonished the disciples not to worry so much about their lives, with those well-known words toward the end of Matthew 6 and Luke 12, about the birds and flowers. If you have been part of this congregation for any length of time, you know that this is something we talk about fairly often. Do we wisely seek or recognize, much less accept, God’s grace in the face of the unlikely and unexpected aspects of life and death or do we ignore it, deny it, pity it, rage against it, or perhaps force it into our own petty framework of deserved consequences? We eagerly assume that the pleasant surprises in life are rewards and the painful ones are punishments, and we arrogantly explain or question who deserves what, and why. Well, we all heard God’s response to Job when he hurled those indignant questions to the sky following his difficulties. If you haven’t read Job in a while, you might also want to check out what God had to say about those friends who claimed Job’s problems must have been some kind of “just desserts.”

In the interest of full disclosure I have to tell you that, while I never had any trace of denial or pity with Ethan, I did have to face my own anger issues. One night, perhaps a week after Ethan had been home, he was crying constantly and inconsolably, and we could do nothing for him. I was overcome with anger and blew up at Janine. If I‘m honest with myself, I have to admit that it was entirely because I couldn’t handle the lack of control I had in the situation. So I am painfully aware that I am not always good at this and, actually, I am surprised that I wasn’t any worse at it than I was during Ethan’s short life.

I often feel like a complete failure in the face of such things, like parenting Aidan, teaching other kids in public schools, being unemployed for months after our move to Arizona, and caring for other family and friends who depend on me— all situations where I have no real control. Then of course there the feelings of powerlessness that come with natural disasters. Just ask the folks in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, California, Oregon, Montana, India, Bangladesh, etc. about how much we are in control of our lives. Another problematic response is that, whether people believe in God or just random chance, some folks think we are just along for the ride and there is nothing we can do about any of it. My own approach is to keep reminding myself of the duality that I am not in charge but I must keep doing what I can, and vice versa, although I keep doing what I can I am not in charge. While we cannot control our circumstances, we can at least try to control our response to them, and the actions we take do have some impact. I believe that Christ calls us to action, both for our own sakes and for the benefit of others. Somehow, with Ethan, I was mostly able to channel my response in a constructive way. Maybe because it was so obvious that the situation was out of my hands, I knew I had to rely on God’s grace and that, as we say in our liturgy text, freed me for joyful obedience. So I’ll end with an epilogue, showing how God and my heroic baby boy enabled me to respond in a positive way to that out-of-control reality– how Ethan truly was a blessing.

Despite the difficult situation and negative reactions of some family and friends, Janine and I actively worked to share Ethan with as many people as possible, even beyond our personal circles. As a professional librarian, I had been storytelling and helping people find information since before Ethan came and went. One of the reasons I was able to share such detail with you today, more than 17 years after the fact, is that during Ethan’s life, before blogs were common (and Facebook didn’t even exist yet), I set up a personal website and posted weekly or sometimes daily updates about Ethan and explanations of his medical issues. On one level, I did this to avoid multiple repetitive phone calls to family and friends that were scattered around the country but I also intentionally hoped to help other families who found themselves in a similar situation, by sharing both useful facts and a personal connection. It was also something I did gladly, and I know it helped me and others get through the pain.

I received several messages over the years, mostly from people who expressed appreciation, but some from folks who were rather irritated with me. You see, along with the factual content, I had also concocted a silly superhero storyline to go along many of those posts, featuring “EthanMan” as the hero. Some people told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was inappropriate and disrespectful for me to “make fun” of my son’s condition. Now those people are certainly entitled to their opinions but I think they were missing the point. From my perspective, I was “making light” of the situation not making fun of my son or others like him, and I did have some awareness of the concepts I have been discussing, accepting my lack of control and relying on God’s grace. To be honest though, my main motivation in writing the “EthanMan” vignettes was simply to give my son a gift. I really just hoped that one day Ethan might be able to enjoy being the title character in a superhero story. My hope in sharing this story today is that all of you can see who the hero really was and remember who is in control.

Amen.

2017-10-15 Life and Death Stuff 5/7

Life and Death Stuff 5/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
October 15th, 2017

John 11:1-45

I want to start by recognizing discipleship when I see it. Eugene Peterson wrote a book called: The Long Obedience. The book is about practicing following Jesus, year after year after year, saying it takes a lifetime of commitment to make discipleship happen, a long obedience. So I want to recognize 52 years of marriage in Gayle and Martha– long obedience. Yeah; right over here. Maybe raise your hand? After the service, you can hug them and congratulate them and spill coffee on them. It is par for the course, right? I will obey her.

Any book that you pick up that is going to tell you about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus starts by rummaging around in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and then they take a big leap over the Gospels and they land in the Upper Room. They quote three texts that Jesus quotes. The words of institution; this is my body broken for you; Isaiah, this is a new covenant in my blood; and the ransom saying: the Son of Man came not to be ministered to but to minister to others and to give his life as a ransom for many. And then they go to Paul. I have a problem with this. It happens in every book about the death of Jesus, written by authors in our cultural religion. My problem is: really? You are going to tell me that Jesus never contemplated the meaning of his death? You’re going to tell me that Jesus came and ministered among us and then at the end when he was arrested, even though he predicted it, it was a surprise? And it had no meaning for him? I cannot buy it; I cannot even speak it; I cannot even swallow it because actually there is a text that tells us the exact opposite happens.

If I’m a teacher and one of my students doesn’t understand the lesson that I’ve been hammering into them for two months, six months, a year; as the teacher I have a right to be frustrated, even angry. But if one of the students doesn’t understand something I haven’t been teaching, it’s not reasonable for me as the teacher to be frustrated or angry with the student. I have no right. So Jesus is with his disciples; they are around the campfire at Capernaum. Jesus is talking about his coming death and Peter hears this and interrupts Jesus and says: no Lord say it isn’t so; we can’t let that happen. And Jesus sighs in frustration and speaks to Peter gruffly; calls him Satan; says you are too concerned with things of human interest, and you’re not concerned with things of God’s interest. This is the fight that is present in us and we have to listen as Jesus interprets his cross for us. The fight in us between the ways of the world and the ways of humanity and what makes sense to us versus the ways of God; it is a fight in us all. What does it mean to be a disciple in the presence of difficult challenges?

I think how we interpret this text about the raising of Lazarus is the same fight happening in us. Is it simply a miracle story about Jesus raising his friend? Kind of an interesting idea because Jesus has already said: I’m on my way to my death and so if Lazarus has died, Jesus is going to see them pretty soon. Mary and Martha could have just said: say hi to our brother. So there is a little bit of trouble with it as just a simple miracle story. Something larger is going on in this text. How is Jesus interpreting his cross?

Occasionally, one of my roles as your pastor is to burst a spiritual bubble. You come to me and you tell me that in the night you couldn’t sleep because you are anxious, you had a vision of Jesus; then I am constrained as a trained theologian to caution you and to remind you that sometimes being over tired and stressed out and eating too much Italian sausage pizza can have that effect on a person. Somebody comes to me and says I’m hoping for a miracle. My response is probably going to be: in Chandler?? We are a science town. We are educated, engineered, teacher people. We manage things by staying on top of them. We are not superstitious; we are practical and we love knowing.

The book of Exodus said that when the Hebrews were finally released by the Egyptians they made their way into the wilderness. They crossed the sea and so now there in the wilderness, they ran out of food in the desert. They were going to starve to death and Moses beseeched the Lord in prayer and — wonder of wonders — there was a white flaky substance on the ground the next morning. Manna, they called it. The text tells us you can make it into bread. They survived by this miracle. My seminary Old Testament Professor, though, cautioned us not to be quick in thinking this is a miracle. He said there is a particular species of nocturnal beetles in the Middle East that secretes a white milky substance that dries and then it flakes up and it has a distinctly sweet taste. The thought of those primitive Hebrews sustaining themselves on bug droppings adds some fun to the story. And there is something — if I’m totally honest with you — there is something comforting, oddly, about knowing that there is a reasonable explanation for what those unsophisticated Jews took to be a miracle. What was comforting was: we were back in control. We were back in the driver’s seat. There’s nothing here that can’t be explained; we said. Our sophistication, are intelligence, our education is undisturbed. Our explanation of human ways this time won out over needing to rely on God for an explanation.

What do you suppose Jesus would call us? This is the fight in us all; the challenge of being educated disciples. So how do we handle this text today? Jesus goes out to the tombs and in a voice loud enough to wake the dead, he shouts: Lazarus come out and this mummy looking corpse appears. Then Jesus shouts: unbind him let him go and they do. There stands Lazarus alive. I have done a lot of funerals. I can think of a lot of grieving families who would give probably everything that they have to have available to them, someone they could call on who would come and bring life back; restore their loved one to life. But in the middle of that as a pastor I have witnessed a lot of in explainable weird things happening. People that by all rights and expectations should not survive but they do. I find myself willing to consider that maybe Jesus is the source of weird things and should not be dismissed simply because I have a few degrees and an appreciation for science.

The message of Lazarus — just to cut right to the chase — is God is not done yet; God is not done with you yet. I know we all live with choices that we regret. I know that we’ve all been in places and rationalize behaviors that make us go; Phew! God’s not done yet. I know you think no one could ever love the real you. God’s not done yet. It’s very comforting. There is something of a miracle in that and if I were to try to explain it to you, I would step from what I know into what I don’t know and I would steal from you mystery. Mystery is sometimes a gift. Very comforting that we have a God we cannot explain. The strange thing about this text, though, is it’s not done with us. The reaction to raising Lazarus from the dead: at least on the part of the good people; the Bible believing religious authorities; the cultural religious experts in the text — their response is not joy or celebration, or any of that. Their reaction is finalizing of their determination to kill Jesus. They’re going to get organized and they’re going to get it done.

Mary and Martha are thrilled to have their brother back. But the religious folk, the moralizers, the law keepers, well, they’re not thrilled whatsoever. In fact, the gospel writer John implies that it was this event, the raising of Lazarus from the dead that led directly — do not pass go, do not collect a dollar — to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. John says it was this sign, the raising of the dead that got him nailed to a cross. Why? What’s so bad about a little life amid death? Well evidently everything is wrong. But now we have the fight. You know that fight between our desire to control and have a handle on things and an explanation for everything and God’s mystery, and God’s movement and our inability to explain that leaves us feeling out of control. It’s that fight, now on the next level. People of authority defending an organization of their making; we know some of these folks because they troll us on Facebook. Their self-appointed mouth experts on just about everything and it doesn’t matter what you post, it doesn’t matter how you argue; they’re not listening. They are waiting for you to be done talking so they can drive the next knife in following the first ones. There is no conversation with these trolls. There is not. They are present to us so and if you’re one of them; after church, we need to talk.

This is the fight on a new level. People of authority defending an organization of their making; their control of the situation; things they thought they had put to bed. Defensive machinery starts to clank and rumble and the conversation becomes defending what they know to be true; reinterpreting facts strictly for from the perspective of their side; defenses put in place to ensure that in their world what’s dead stays dead. That’s the way it is. They know what it is, period.

In the story Jesus arrives, Lazarus is dead and the first thing that his sister says to Jesus is: Lazarus is dead. Case closed. We are done. You’re too late to help him. You’re too late to help us. We’ve already buried him; lost cause; no hope here. Adjust to the facts of life; God is done here. This is the defense of our side; a clear statement that we know what’s going on; a refusal to be open to listening because we know. We will not consider an alternative perspective because we know.

We don’t have to look very far for Jesus to tell us exactly what he thinks about people who won’t consider another way, who won’t listen.

There’s a story about another man named Lazarus who is poor, lives in poverty his whole life, sick and hungry, deprived. The dogs of the village lick his sores and he can’t stop them. He dies. There’s a rich man who was never poor, who was never sick, who was never hungry, never wondered about his next meal, and was also never good at compassion at all. He dies too. The rich man gets to the afterlife and the rich man is surprised to find himself in hell; he says it’s hot. And poor Lazarus now reclines in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man calls out across the chasm that separates them; pleads with father Abraham says: oh please let me go back and warn all my self-satisfied wealthy relatives that this is the way things work out in the end for self-focused, greedy people; so they can change their ways and do right by the poor. Father Abraham hears him and says: forget it. If they won’t listen to the prophets, Moses and all the others that tried to bring God’s message to them; what makes you think that they will change even if a man like you comes back from the dead? Go to hell. Jesus told that story to the same group of people who are now critiquing him in our text today. People who have determined they are going to be right and their perspective will be heard. They’re not open to listen; they’re not open to contemplate; they’re not wondering anything. They’ve locked things down and they are in control. Such a great interest in controlling their world; they have their greed, their power and their facts and they are not listening to anybody

Here is Lazarus now, standing in front of the tomb, come back from the dead, a living sign in the life-giving power of God in the presence of Jesus. God’s not done with you yet. That is terrible news if you’re one who has to be in control. When Jesus shouts: unbind him let him go; I wonder if Jesus is shouting to make sure he’s speaking loud enough for anyone, even nearby, to hear. He shouting to a recently dead person and he’s overheard by dying people because a lot of us are bound up in the ways of death. We don’t need to listen because we know. Our way, wrapped and restricted by worldviews and political positions and planks, arguments that we’ve heard on our favorite new show, that restrict what can and cannot be; what we will and will not think; what we should and should not consider. All of us are Lazarus and all of us are in the crowd. We are not dead yet, but all of us are headed toward a tomb and that frightens us. So we play the game that has been played forever. We acquire as much as we can and we justify who we are and what we do with little platitudes that cause us comfort in the moment. You only go around once, amen. You can’t teach old dog new tricks, amen. People can’t change, amen. This is the way I was raised, amen. I don’t see another way, amen. I don’t have another option, amen. You got to take care yourself first, amen. Hooked bound caught wrapped; we are stuck; platitudes and politics and we call it factors beyond our control or we call it the facts of life, but really it’s the facts of death. We are entombed and it’s not much of a way to live because there’s no joy in it because it’s all about us fighting against the power of death.

But if we pause today, there is this one who comes out to our tomb where we call home, our tomb. He leans in and peers in. He is weeping because he thinks it’s a shame that anyone dies before having really lived. He opens his mouth and he draws a breath and he shouts with the voice that surprises us. Loud enough to wake the dead: you the dead, come out! Something in us that has resigned us to the place of death stirs and rises. What then? What will be the last word? Will it be our response: oh no, I’m stuck, I’m comfortable here, leave me alone. Or will we rise that we might hear him shout again: unbind, be let go.

Jesus has been offering commentary on death and resurrection the whole Gospel of John. In John 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in his darkest hour and Jesus gives him life and light. In the fourth chapter of John there’s a woman at the well and she is stuck; resigned to her despairing life. Jesus gives her life back to her. In John 5, there’s a man who has been sick, paralyzed 38 years, Jesus gets him on his feet and moving, gives him back his life. In the eighth chapter of John there’s a woman caught in adultery and they bring her to Jesus for stoning and Jesus hands her life back to her at his own expense, I might add. The religious authorities will be back and they will bring a bigger stick. In John 9 a blind man who’s been blind since birth is given sight and now in the eleventh chapter of John Lazarus is raised from the dead. This resurrection is a promise to us all. It is the resurrection we celebrate at Easter and if we have been paying attention to the teacher the resurrection is nothing new. Jesus gives people back their lives. It’s what Jesus does.

So when Jesus goes to his cross, he’s counting on a God he has seen in action. It is the next logical step in the developing faith of a disciple. What we see in Jesus, he is more interested in living out the ways of the kingdom than he is worried about dying. What a great example of faith. Faith is believing in God’s different way of living life so strongly that you’re willing to act on it. You’re willing to live it no matter what; wanting God’s kingdom so deeply that you’re willing to live it into existence, even if it costs you everything. That’s what real power looks like.

The most frightening threat that the Roman Empire had over its subjects was death. Do what we say or we will end you. The fact that they used death kept a lot of people in line, like the Greeks before them. What we see in the raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ response to authority attempting to assert itself with violence. When Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave Jesus is very clearly shouting to anyone who will hear: your biggest threat puts no fear in me. God’s kingdom triumphs over death. God is not done with you yet.

In the early church it was said that the community thrilled on the reading of this story because it assured them of God’s movement in this world toward life. They were smart people, they understood that sometimes God could intervene and bring rescue and that was to be celebrated. They understood that God was sometimes not able to intervene or that the ones chosen to be God’s intervention were cowardly or indifferent or unable or unwilling. This became a prayer of the early church: God, please help us to not miss your call in our life. They also understood that sometimes the powers and principalities and the authorities with their greed WON. Sometimes the powers of this world will win. They grieved and they waited. The early church learned to wait because all kingdoms of this world will rise and fall. What thrilled the early church was the promise present in this text that they may very well individually personally not survive living out God’s ways in this world. Many of them were martyred and none of them was immune from dying. Even Lazarus in the end died. What’ thrilled the early church is the promise of this text. God has final word. God’s kingdom endures forever. God’s not done with you yet.

2017-10-08 Life and Death Stuff 4/7

Life and Death Stuff 4/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
October 8th, 2017

What is most amazing to me and we noticed this last week – and it wasn’t until somebody in the congregation said, did you understand or did you hear how wonderful the choir was? The stage makes all the difference. And I thought you know, there’s a whole lot of truth in that because the stage that was here was soft wood and the problem that we had on all things was that the sound would get to here and it wouldn’t go any farther and so we of course mic’d the stage and that helps a little for the sound it gets, but now you really get to hear how awesome the choir is. I think you need to find them and tell them, I love how you bring the word into worship. I love how you catch my heart. I love how you hold onto one another and I know I love how you love.

One of the big problems that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement … he didn’t really intend to found a movement, he just started being a Christian as he understood it, and others followed along and there was the presence of the Spirit and things took off. But one of the problems John Wesley had his whole life, we know this because one of his final writings was on this very topic – he lamented the mystics of Christianity — folks who feel that they are close to God but they are missing joy. They’ve given their life over, their whole life has been shaped, they have been discipled, they have been formed and have become and they find themselves close to God, reliant on God but they are so morose – you just kind of don’t want to be around them.

John Wesley wrote — one of his final things that he wrote in his life was — I cannot think that when God sent us into the world God had irreversibly decreed that we should be perpetually miserable in the world. A tenet of the faith I understand is that mirth is vain and useless if not sinful but why does the Psalms so often exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord, to tell us it becomes the just in the Lord to be so joyful if we are not to be joyful people? He goes on to say, perhaps the best measure of one’s closeness to God is your ability to be joyful in all moments.

Well I want to tell you a story and it is a little bit about joy but it’s also more about the importance of how we interpret and how we listen to scripture. Anybody can read scripture – you drive down the road and there are tons of churches and on their signboard, in the word, the word, we’re reading the word, we just have a simple reading of scripture and you can glean a lot. You can also misunderstand a whole bunch because you’re reading in the third language of a good portion of scripture.

The New Testament, most of it happened in Aramaic which then was written down in Greek, which has then been translated into English so do you understand Greek enough to translate it into English? I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to do all the words but I know enough to know that we get it wrong a lot and so we must be careful and cautious – a topical reading can tell us a lot but it can also be unhelpful and so I want to tell you the story that Shannon read a piece of today – the story of Nehemiah.

The story actually begins years before the text that Shannon read when the Babylonians defeated Israel and carried off a whole bunch of people – they knocked down the walls of the City of Jerusalem and they carried people into exile. This happened in lots of towns, for years and years and years, the Babylonians were invading and conquering and carrying off. And if you happened to know somebody a town three towns over that you’d met at the market five years ago, they’d disappear and you might run into them when you got carried off to Babylon and made into a servant in someone’s house.

Some beautiful stuff, beautiful scripture came out of the exile period: stories of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace, old Kind Nebuchadnezzar and his column of gold and demand to be worshipped by the people, Daniel in the lion’s den violating the rules that forbid prayer, and that beautiful psalm, Psalm 137 that was the inspiration of the song by Don McLain … by the waters, the waters of Babylon, we lay down… do you not all have Don McLain’s album at home? We lay down and wept and wept for the Zion. We remember… anyway Don McLain wrote that, he didn’t even write the song, he didn’t even write the tune – it’s an ancient tune and he put it on an album. It’s that longing of the heart for the way things used to be.

And what happened as is usually the case when you have an empire take over other nations, the empire declined. The Greeks have been moved out, the Romans drove out the Greeks and now the people of Israel have been released and they have come home to Jerusalem. Hooray we get to go home, and they arrive at home to find that there’s not much home left. The bricks that once were the walls of the city are scattered. The bricks that once made up the houses, the adobe mix that made up the house, there was not much of anything left. People camped for years trying to rebuild something of a life and the people go into a funk. You know that funk that comes to rest on you when you can’t see the future, all you see is more grinding your way through survival. You get along but not a lot of life in those moments. They live in a destroyed town and they are discouraged and they are disheartened and their ability to see the future just keeps getting smaller. The future becomes can we survive through today?

So Nehemiah is their leader – he’s the governor and as their leader he tries to get the folks moving into a future and he says, let’s rebuild the walls of our city and we will restore some feeling of physical security to the city’s populous. Now you need to understand the walls of the city proved useless when the Babylonians came; a wall does very little to keep others out. You just tour England or Italy or France and you will find how effective a wall is at keeping people out; walls are not impenetrable. Folks get around them.

But Nehemiah understood how folks work and he said, all right let’s rebuild the walls of the city because any time there is rebuilding a wall or rebuilding the nation or rebuilding the people, folks get excited about that and there was this political hubbub but there’s another thing that happens when there is recovery effort going on. There are people who use it as an opportunity to overcharge for their work and service – it’s called profiteering and it used to be illegal. Nehemiah sees how this profiteering disheartens people because if you can’t trust each other in the community then you don’t have much of a nation at all.

There was also another thing that was going on and that was there were people who claimed to be rebuilders capable of rebuilding – we call them carpenters, they were really stonemasons and they come around and say, I’ll help you rebuild your house but you’ve got to pay half up front and so you say, okay I understand, I’ve got to help you buy the bricks and got to help with this and pay some workers, and you pay half up front and never see them again. And so Nehemiah insists… he goes to the mat for this and a good chunk of the good of Nehemiah has to do with how do we get people to be honest with each other, to be solid members of the community?

And he is seeking to restore the moral fiber of the nation by insisting and he does this other thing – he insists that the division between those who have and those who have not is diminished, in other words, he imposes taxes on the wealthy and he redistributes that through public projects. And he says the purpose of these reconstruction contracts is not to make the rich richer. It’s to enrich the nation. He also forbids land grabbing and easy cash high interest loaning practices of the wealthy that puts lots of money and a whole lot of land in their pockets and it enslaves the poor to their debt and it also leaves the community in disarray. In rebuilding the city, Nehemiah cements the bonds of community that makes everyone responsible for one another. He is very successful in forming a nation.

Ezra was Nehemiah’s friend, Ezra is the religious lead, he’s the pastor and he goes around reminding people in the process of rebuilding their nation, he reminds them of their connection to God. And the people wonder about God, specifically their thinking is, how did God let something terrible happen to us? What did we do wrong that warranted the bad thing that happened to us – the exile? We’ve been carried off for generations, why do bad things happen to good people? That was the conversation among the people. And Ezra tries to provide some answer to that. He recalls to the people that God never promised bad things wouldn’t happen, especially when you’ve got an empire on the loose occupying and overthrowing and carrying off servants. He said, that was not the action of God. God did not punish you in that; that’s the action of an empire that’s out of control. God was with you and your ancestors as they were carried off. God was carried off too.

Then it comes time for the seasons of reflection and the people have kind of reached a new low place. Remember that funk? When you’re dealing with people who don’t have a lot of hope in a season of reflection, you’ve got to be careful because you can get full blown depression getting a head of steam pretty fast, and the people ask Ezra as the priest – can you liven up the Ceremony of Reflection? Let’s make it a celebration of the rebuilding of our city; our commitment to you will be that we’d you to read all of the laws of God during the Festival of Booths. The people thought that they were going to work a deal with God. We will listen to your laws, we will try to be more faithful, we will be public in our commitment to you, and we’ll do good things for you God so you can do good things for us. And so as the people they were gathered, they were waiting to work their deal – it was going to be based on their ability to come through for God. God could get on board with that momentum and it would just be a blessing for everybody.

Then the people are gathered and Ezra steps up to the podium and begins to read and as a people they hear again the stories. They hear again God’s commandments, they hear of God’s saving hand; God’s faithfulness and the people begin to weep. They stand inside the security of their newly walled city, they catch a glimpse of a future, they begin to have some semblance of where they’re headed as a people, they have hope and they are filled then with a sense of awe at what God has done for them and God’s presence with them and then right after that it all comes crashing down because they hear of God’s commandments and they are filled with a sense of utter despair at their own shortcomings and inabilities. And they realize how far they fall short of working a deal with God, dependent on them coming through. And the problem is they’re just doing a topical reading of scripture.

And of course they hear the law and it bears down on them. There’s a conflict that happens in the text. The Levites among the tribes are shall we say the enforcers of God’s law and they offer a topical translation to the crowd and there is an interpretation that they’re offering which is no interpretation – it’s God’s word, read it. If you’re suffering you must not be living up to God’s commands – it’s all on you, bad things happen to bad people just figure out where you’re naughty. And life will get better if you behave better. It’s a self improvement course right there in the bible among the Levites. And the problem with this equation is the focus is on the people and our ability to live up to the standards that God has set for us. The message focusing on me is not good enough. That’s what the Levites are communicating to the people and the people are again in utter despair.

When the message is you’re not good enough, there is no hope. For if we’re looking to be critical when can you be good enough? Have you ever had that person in your life and it took you a while to figure out that they pretty well decided their purpose in life was to be critical of you? And some of you right now are touching the marks from where they kicked you while they were riding you. And it left marks. They determine that at some point no matter what you did, they’re going to be critical of you. Maybe you had a teacher or another adult in your life and no matter how good the class was, how good you performed on your paper, how hard you worked, how much you got right, every paper just came back to you bleeding with what you could do better. All you got was a grim nod which communicated pretty clearly I don’t know why you’re breathing. Would you want to go out of your way for that teacher? I certainly did not. Do you want a relationship with that teacher? I did not. Would you want a relationship with that kind of a God? Well what kind of a beacon is that to other people if that’s the message of the church? You’re not good enough. And there’s not much hope for you. And it’s all on you. And if your life sucks well it’s your own fault. A lot of churches I’ve been in, that’s the message.

What kind of community does that create? It’s a relationship with God that starts in sin and never gets out of sin and the big deal in the conversation is my sin. And so Nehemiah and Ezra see what’s happening among the people in the crowd and they step back up to the podium and they offer a new way of reading old scripture. They override the Leviticus topical translation and interpretation and they direct the attention to the greater message that stands behind God’s law. Ezra knew that people didn’t need any more guilt, especially on a day of celebration, especially after seasons and generations of despair, more guilt does not help. Ezra was trying to remind them that God was present to them in all of these things, that the law was given simply to shape people.

I’m sure God would be thrilled if we change our behavior and suddenly become perfect, I think God might be as surprised as we are – to be a little more thoughtful, to be a little more intentional, but the overriding message of the bible is not that. The overriding message of the bible begins with God looking upon creation and saying, it is good. And the only promise that God makes to us is I will be with you in all things. And it is the very existence of God’s presence loving us, seeking us that move us beyond judgment. I don’t know about you but I still carry in me those old tapes that I got from a third grade teacher who I thought she was going to hit me, for the way that I wrote in cursive. I still hear her voice play in my head and it’s a critical voice. I don’t need that anymore. How do you get those voices out of your head?

The way I get that voice out of my head is I try to get focused on: God does love us. God keeps finding me, God keeps bringing me, God never has let me go. Joy – Joy, that open mouthed awestricken exuberant sense of joy comes. Have you ever had a teacher that spoke to you about what you did really well, and they said, oh I know you forgot a few commas, that’s not important – you’ll figure that out – what you really did well is to frame your argument with a beginning, a middle and an end and then you stopped, that was great. Do it again. Have you ever had a teacher that was gracious to you? Sure they had rules and sure they brought out, but they brought out your best by believing in you and telling you in all different ways – you’re good enough, give me your best, and you did. Do you have that teacher’s voice in your head or do you have the other teacher’s voice in your head?

Maybe you’ve got to forget the third grade teacher, forget her name and you’ve got to remember the seventh grade teachers, Mrs. Raymaker… think about what she said to you. That becomes a beacon in us – it wells up in us and is preserving and it makes the community rich. And although the people stood judged by God’s law, Ezra and Nehemiah say to the community, savor the word of God’s presence as sweet wine and fat meat, and they tell the people that joy should be the proper response on the occasion of the day. Not necessarily because the walls had been rebuilt and everybody gets a new house, but because we are the people of God and God is with us.

We all say awful things, we hurt the people that we love, we don’t listen like we should, we all take wrong turns in life, we all do things that we later regret – and the point of this is not to obsess on those things and make them larger than they should be. The point here is: what can we learn from our screw ups? And then how do we move with a God who is always on the move, how do we move into a new future? The point is God’s grace is sufficient whatever our need.

Go back to John Wesley here – his contemporaries always said God’s grace recedes as your sin increases. There is this relationship – the more you sin, the worse you sin, the less God’s grace is present to you. John Wesley said oh no, oh no… God’s grace marches step by step, side by side with our sin no matter what it is. Our sin is not the big story of the day. God’s grace is.

The importance of interpreting the text correctly became the focal point of Judaism and not very long after Nehemiah, the practice that first came into being that when a child would undertake their first lesson in reading the Torah, a golden drop of honey would be dripped on the first page of the Torah to remind the young student of the essential sweetness of God’s word.

A little weird here the transition I’m going to make but just recently they found what they believe to be the oldest written saying attributed to Jesus and where they found it was in Egypt because it had been wrongly attributed by scholars to the Goddess Isis through a misreading and a misinterpreting of the lettering for Isis or Isa which is Jesus. They thought the Egyptian Goddess said this, which was really weird because she never said things like this, which got a student of scholarly history to look at this and they’ve decided they’ve understood that this is the oldest saying written down that is attributed to Jesus. It was attributed to have been written right around 90 years after he died – they are the familiar words of Jesus from the gospel record – taste and you will see that the Lord is sweet. Those are words of joy and I tell you this because I think you’ll get this because of who you are.

What I hope that people say about our church; what I hope that everyone who comes here experiences is that when they came here, no matter where they came from, no matter what their life was before this, that the acid taste of guilt in their throat gave way very quickly to the sweetness of grace, the lusciousness of joy. Honey to taste… that’s the kind of church we have. Thanks be to God.

2017-10-01 Life and Death Stuff 3/7

Life and Death Stuff 3/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
October 1st, 2017

Acts 16:16-24

We have known our dentist for about ten years. We met her late in the evening in the fall of 2008. Two of our kids had gone in the backyard to play catch with a baseball and one of them tried to use their mouth to catch the ball and broke a tooth. We looked in our line for emergency dental care in Chandler and this dentist came up. By the time we got there it was about 10:30 at night. She had come back into her office, opened up, did what was necessary and she has been our dentist ever since. She is phenomenal. That is the kind of dentist I want; somebody who is that good and goes that far above to handle your pain because pain in your mouth is debilitating at low levels.

We been going to see her and for a while… The family is really good; they go every year like they should. I put it off and then I have to reschedule and then I forget to reschedule. I love going to her office because I’m pretty sure I’m going to see someone there from another part of the world or maybe two or three people there from different parts of the world and I enjoy by their dress, guessing where folks are from. Sometimes I’ll be able to strike up a conversation and I’ll hear a story about where they’re from; or how their life is; or what’s happening for them; or whatever the conversation leads to. I like that, it makes me smile. I also have a hang up; I will tell you what it is. I hate being late. I’m going to confess my parent’s sin. It’s always better to confess other people sins, not your own. When I was growing up we were late getting everywhere we went. So when I became what I am as an adult; if you call me an adult; post-pubescent we will just go with that. When I became something of an adult, I said I don’t want to be late anywhere that’s my hang up. So I try to be at least a few minutes early and maybe even a lot early just in case something’s going to happen.

So I like to arrive early and I’ll wait in our dentist’s waiting room and another thing that has made me smile and it’s been a very pleasant surprise; several times I’ve been in the waiting room and I have heard — a patient has come out and is standing and tries to: can I make a little bit of the payment now? Can I pay a little bit later? Can we work out some kind of arrangement? And our dentist is such that she will say, and I’ve heard her say this a couple times in a couple of different ways. We all have rough patches and you don’t always have to pay to get what you need. In other words, don’t worry about the bill; this one’s on me. Then she’ll say: you’ll get through this rough patch and you’ll be able to pay and it will be fine later. And the person will say: no, I’ll pay you for this when I can. Don’t worry about it. That’s the kind of dentist we have. It makes me smile.

Well I got a little bit behind in my dental care and I got to go to the dentist. It had been three years, three years, and so of course you have to have the deep cleaning. It is a form of punishment for waiting that long; that is how they design it. That means they’re going to go in there with electric tools and they are going to get you. We discovered I had a cracked molar, probably from chewing ice. Let that be a lesson to you. It’s hard not to chew ice. I do not chew ice anymore. Please don’t ever come up to me and be sympathetic for this. It is my own fault and I don’t want your sympathy. That’s not where this story is going. I found out that they didn’t need to pull the tooth just grind it down and put a crown on it. So that’s what they did. If you’ve ever been through the grinding down of the tooth; we also discovered Novocain doesn’t work on me. So they have to get out the big guns, she does it and my whole face goes wa-wu-wa. I can’t swallow very well; it is not a great sight. If you have ever been thru the crown process you know there is grinding and then they put a temporary crown on and then you come back a couple weeks later and they put the crown on. So I had done that and I thought everything was good to go.

Have you met anybody that you kind of see Jesus in them? It is sort of cool sometimes but you are kind of afraid to be around them because you see Jesus in them because Jesus is not always kind. The word of the word of the Lord does not always come to you in ways that you want. Sometimes the word of the Lord comes to you and insights you to stand up when you’d prefer to be seated. Or to sit down when everybody else is standing?

Neil Leftwich is one of those people for me. Neil Leftwich is a colleague of mine; we’ve known each other for a long time. Neil Leftwich is now the West District Superintendent. I don’t see him very often, which is okay because I see Jesus in Neal. Yesterday we had a memorial service for our longtime friend and my colleague, Jackie Somerville. Red is the liturgical color for the burial of an ordained person; it exemplifies movement of the spirit. Neal was here yesterday and we had the service and afterwards we were talking and I see Jesus in Neil. Neil said to me, did you see that article in the paper this morning about the thousands of children in Arizona who are going to lose all of their healthcare coverage? I said I haven’t seen that yet; I’ve been a little busy. He said: can you even imagine what it’s like to be a parent who has a child and you lose healthcare coverage? How do you parent in that moment? Do you just wrap your kid in bubble wrap and put them in the closet and say: be still? Neil said that. What would that be like? Because Neil and I are both United Methodist Clergy and one of the perks that come with the job is full medical coverage.

So yesterday after the memorial was over… This has been hurting, WoW, there seems to be a lump; what is going on? So I peeled back my cheek and there’s this protrusion, this yellow thing sticking out of my gum. I went: oh dear Lord, I know where I have to go. So I called and they said yes that is noteworthy. You should probably come in and so I drove to my dentist’s office and they fit me in and had emergency visit and yes it was true. There was infection and so there was draining and there was cleaning and there was removal of the crown and there was more grinding and there was a root canal start and there were sutures and now there are antibiotics and pain medication. Whoooo! I was getting up out of the chair and my dentist began to speak apologetically and say: I think I’m going to have to charge for at least part of the root canal. And I turned to her as I got out of the chair and I said: Doctor I expect you to charge me full price for everything that you’ve done here. She said no I can’t do that. I said: I expect you to. I expect to pay my co-pay. Sometimes she doesn’t charge the co-pay. She’s looking at me and I said: I know what you do for other people. I know how you let other people not pay the bill sometimes. My task here, I’m the rich guy; I have the resources and the insurance. I need to pay full price so that you can continue to do what you do for the people of our community.

She said: you are sweet and I said: no I’m not. All I want to be is decent; let me be decent. I want to be really clear here. I do not tell stories where I am the hero of the story and I am not the hero of this story. I’m just a decent person, maybe, who tried to do what I could to help the hero get the job done. We will come back and talk about the Scriptures another day. I tell you this today on World Communion Sunday because there are a lot of forces in our community and our world who want to divide us up and split us up and make us self-focused, so that our first response to any demand from someone not like us is: get away from me. I want to challenge you to continue to be decent, decent. Go out of your way. Find ways to do a little extra. Find ways to pay full price for somebody else doesn’t have to. Find a way to extend yourself and change this world and maybe, maybe, someone will look at you and say I see Jesus.

2017-09-24 Life and Death Stuff 2/7

Life and Death Stuff 2/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
September 24th, 2017

Psalm 40:1-11

Fortunately the underlayment was not in bad shape and the termites were abated. Some of you said did we really have to do all that? We really had to do all that. Our trustees have been about this and, thankfully, we have trustees who say we’re going to do it right and we’re not going to get in a hurry. Things that you hurry to do seldom work out well and taking the time necessary really paid off.

It was discovered that the – once it all was taken up – termites came in from outside and walked along the cracks and got over in the steps over there, over, under the ramp and up the pole or the post and into the ceiling over there. And between the first two lights you can begin… you can see, if you get under it, you can look up and say, oh yes, termites. So, it was all taken care of. There was a lot of spraying, and I thought that would smell this place up, but it didn’t. And now it’s all underneath and sealed up.

And this is red oak. And it was going to sit for a week and a little more and then it’ll be stained, and we’ll begin wearing it out, soon thereafter. And that’s the purpose of everything in the church. Some people say shall we bring coffee in the church? Sure. Add your stain to the rest. So, it’s what carpet’s for, is catching coffee. And what is that a new stage for except scratching? That’s what we do. That’s how it is. So, when kids bounce balls in the church, great! And if it breaks the wallboard, we’ll fix it, because that’s what wallboard is for.

And, well, we’ve made it through this last week. And I want to tell you there are some scriptures that you should read all by themselves, although, not very many. Most scriptures are a lot like operating a sewing machine. You can oftentimes fix a small tear by using a single loop, but, not very many. Using a sewing machine you have to pay attention to what comes before and what comes after the next stitch. And every stitch is tied to the next stitch by a single thread. And so, today, I feel like I’m stringing a little.

Like Psalm 40, we can read it all by itself as a psalm of praise, but if we do that we’re missing out on so much of the breadth and the depth of this text. We have to read it in progression. It’s a psalm… the psalms are especially like this; like sewing. Psalm 23 is visible in this story, as is Psalm 69, as is the story of Jonah. And it’s reflected all in Mark 4 where Jesus is in the boat with the disciples and the storm comes. We’ll get to that in a minute.

But I’m talking, I guess, about purpose in life and I’m talking about meaning in life today, because, that’s what this text is about. And it seemed like a relevant text to talk about because there’s water involved in the text. And so let’s start with water. Tuvalu is disappearing. You do know that right? Tuvalu is going to go away and you’re saying, yay!, what’s Tuvalu? Tuvalu is a small chain of islands in the South Pacific and the tide is rising. With global warming and the melting of the icecaps water levels are coming up noticeably. And it’s going to be a few years, and only a few years, before Tuvalu disappears. There is a certain inevitability to what’s going to happen.

New Orleans resides behind a levy. And the elevation of New Orleans is from 20ft below sea level, for a good portion of it, and it rises all the way up to 2ft below sea level. New Orleans exists behind a very nice levy system. But there is a certain inevitability about what’s going to happen. The Florida Panhandle was not habitable until the Army Corps of Engineers drained and rerouted a whole bunch of swamp water in the late ’30s. And this happened because a few thousand people were killed in two hurricanes, one in 1926, and one in 1928. There is a certain inevitability about building and living in the Florida Panhandle.

This is precisely how the psalmist feels when he cried, save me oh God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire. There is no foothold for me to lift myself up. Flood waters sweep over me. There is a certain inevitability and I’m not meaning to say, wow, we’re great to live in Arizona, because, that’s probably not what’s going to get us in Arizona. But something’s going to get all of us. No one has survived forever. We all will die. It is inevitable and I think it would be better if we stopped pretending otherwise.

Where is it that you and I feel a sense of inevitability? Is it when you just went in for your physical and the doctor’s office calls and says we need you to come back in for more tests? Your blood… is it when you can’t seem to help a wayward child of yours? Can’t seem to get them on track. Nothing seems to work. Is it when your spouse left work at five o’clock but doesn’t come up until close to nine? And any time you ask, well, what happened, where were you, they become defensive. Or is it when your particular addiction gets its spiny fingers around your throat and you can’t seem to shake it?

Psalm 40 though, our text for today, is a psalm about rescue. It’s about I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined to me, heard my cry, drew me up out of my desolate pit and my miry bog; set my feet on solid ground. Of course, we want to know, how does this happen? What is going on here? Because all of us know of times we need rescue. Psalm 40 tells us, it begins with waiting, but waiting is a terrible word. It’s a bad translated word, waiting, and then it adds patiently waiting and we think of sitting in our chair; this is my waiting psalm. I’m waiting on the Lord. And, yes, no that’s not what the text implies. The original Hebrew has to do with I waited intensely for God. There’s a physical involvement. I am into what is happening here. This is not patient waiting. This is a lifeline waiting. I am sinking and I need something.

We throw up a cry like a lifeline hoping God will grab it and lift us out of it. The text proclaims that hoping intensely is not disappointed. We’ll come back to that hoping intensely. Well, actually, we’ll go there right now. What happens when we hope intensely is we throw everything on the table. We sort it out and we start making choices for how we’re going to live now. We’re in the waiting room and we’re sorting. Have you ever been in the waiting room and you’re sorting out your life, going, I got to quit that? I got to stop. You’re changing how we think about things. That’s hoping intensely for Almighty God and God’s way does not disappoint.

Now, the alternative is when we’re sitting in the waiting room or we’re sitting bedside in the hospital room and we’re sorting and we begin to rely on ourselves. Pull yourself up. Buck up. Stiffen that chin. Tighten that upper lip. You can’t cry. Or we start talking to ourselves in the sense of I’m going down into the bog. I know I am never coming back up. There’s… despair has got me. All I can do is be bummed. And we are. We’re making choices.

But the text of Psalm 40 says when we intentionally wait for God, when we are intense in our hope for God’s way to change our way, not some solution coming from the bank, not some solution from a sale at Target, not some solution from an intellectual insight where we go, aha, I can solve this, but when we hope intensely in God’s way, somehow a way forward comes to us. This is the power of God’s kingdom. Let me tell you what I mean. And this is why it’s so important that we’re looping together texts, because this starts to make sense, if we see the bigger picture.

There’s nothing new happening in Psalm 40. This is Psalm 23 in repetition. Psalm 23 is on land and it’s about a sheep being lost. Can the sheep find itself? No it cannot. A sheep bleats and a sheep wanders and becomes more lost. And when fear finally gets a hold of the sheep, the sheep just stands there, and trembles. And God comes as a good shepherd and scoops up the sheep, rescues the sheep, and puts it on a new path.

Our text today, Psalm 40, is Psalm 23 repeat. Just add water. Can we paddle our way out of water when we’re lost? No we cannot. It’s the story of Jonah who didn’t like what God had asked him to do and so he said, get lost, and then he proceeded to try. He got on a boat and he tried to sail away. He tried to be self-interpreting, self-determining, self-reliant. He was engaged in a lot of self-talk. And he got on a boat and he tried to go in a new direction; a direction he defined. And when waves came and the boat looked like it was going to swamp he said to his shipmates, I am the cause of your suffering, throw me overboard. Self-destruction. Self-reliance, self-determination, self-talk, self-destruction.

God sends a fish to scoop him out of the water and then, in the belly of the fish, Jonah proceeds to self-define. He’s talking about himself. He’s talking about what he’s going to do and how he’s going to solve this. And how other people didn’t understand him and how God doesn’t even understand him. And then, for just one simple sentence, he gives into the idea that he needs to open himself to God and let God define him. And, suddenly, he’s barfed out of the fish. He finds himself standing on the beach covered in fish barf, that smell that will not let you go, but he’s on solid ground. He’s been rescued.

And, as our text today Psalm 40 proclaims, life begins anew. You didn’t think you were going to make it through that patch. You didn’t think you were going to survive. Here you are. We may be exhausted, we may be dripping wet, but what could have happened hasn’t happened yet. And we are, in that moment of realizing our survival, lifted up. That’s what our text tells us; our eyes are lifted up. Our being is lifted up. And, you know what; we’re only on verse three in Psalm 40. All of this is in the first three verses.

And now the text shifts a little bit. The author says, oh, but this is just the beginning of God’s working in your life. God expects some things from you now. You’ve been rescued. Great! God expects some things from you and there’s some things listed out in Psalm 40. The first one… and then let me tell you what all of these things are about. You got to quit what got you lost in the first place. You got to quit what got you lost in the first place. And then so there’s a list of things, so that God is changing, in the author of Psalm 40.

The first one is got to give up your idols. Where we may have trusted other gods or other forces in the world; now we trust God alone. And this is where we’ve got to empty our pockets on the table and say, well, I was counting on personal strength to get me through that. I’m a strong… yes. That’s idolatry. I was counting on my prayer life to get me through. Yes. That’s idolatry. I was counting on some shock therapy to help me cope with… yes. That’s idolatry.

God does not want idolatry and God doesn’t want us to run to the church and suddenly begin engaging in meaningless repetitive motions. Those don’t mean anything to God either. The text tells us that too. Burnt offerings and making offerings just to make offering; no. Stop that. God is looking to restore our souls. This is Psalm 23. God is looking to restore our souls and, evidently, part of the function of restoring our souls involves giving up our idols. Get rid of those distractions.

The second thing that the text tells us is that God wants a new obedience from us; an embrace of the ways of righteousness. This is Psalm 23:2. He leads me in the paths of righteousness. It means giving… living our life differently. Living intentionally. No longer flapping around like a fish out of water, no longer thinking, I got this. No you don’t. No longer seeking our purpose apart from God’s definition of us. It’s our chance to be our better selves. It’s practicing those ways that lead to inner peace and truth-telling. The importance of truth-telling is that we become unflappable, because, we don’t have to remember lies to defend. We can be calm and secure with who we are because we know whose we are.

Now, we’re 21st century Americans, so we imagine this new rescued life is a life of utter freedom and liberty without expectation. But the reason we expect that is because we haven’t read the Bible. The Old Testament is all about community. There is no off on your own. There are 640 commands in the Old Testament. Most of them are about justice, about right relationship with our neighbors, about living together in a community and thriving and caring for one another. About putting fairness before profit, of course, with our friends, but, especially with people we don’t like.

That’s the first two. Along with our rejection of idols and an embrace of a new obedience God expects us to be a voice for justice in our community; a willingness to speak up. And then the text takes a weird turn and in verse 11 begins a song of lament. We’re not prepared for this. This is out of order of the… understood logically the sequence is all wrong. A complaint or a lament should have come way back at the beginning before the rescue, so, what’s going on? Why do we have a lament now after the rescue?

Well, one of two things has happened. Either the speaker in our text today has not followed the shepherd. Oh, yes, he hoped intensely for the Lord, he threw up his lifeline, he was rescued, but, he wanted a quick fix. And he didn’t get rid of all of his old idols. He kept around some of the magazines and the remote was pretty handy to his hand. And the credit card was pretty important to his time, and the Xbox, and he kept all his old friends. And he started to embrace this idea of a new obedience, living life differently, but he found out that it was hard and he fell back into old patterns. And then thinking about the ways of God only three times a week if he was… and then one time a week on Sundays because he saw it on TV.

And he started to speak with good intention of God’s work in his life and a commitment to justice. But then his friends made fun of him for it, kind of rolled their eyes at him and clucked their tongues and looked at their watches like, are you done talking yet? And our speaker in Psalm 40 is back where he started. He didn’t give up what got him lost in the first place and he’s in rising water. And I kind of want to ask you to raise your hands if you know this, but I kind of don’t, because I think all of us know that path of successfully un-rescuing ourselves.

The other option, for why this song of celebration in Psalm 40 has now led to a lament, the speaker in our text today followed through. He reached up to God. He threw up his lifeline and he said; God, only your way can lead me out of where I am. And he followed through on the ways of righteousness. He rejected his old idols. He quit logging in to lose time. He let his subscriptions run out. He drove home by a different route. He found some new friends. And he sought to be obedient to God’s ways. He started getting up early to walk and to reflect and pray while he walked. He made some new… he joined a group and he became a voice in the community for God’s justice.

He got involved with a homeless shelter and one night he was down there serving and this question started to bug his soul, as he scooped beans and corn, working on why are people hungry in our nation of plenty? And he did some research. And he started making phone calls and he started writing letters and he started talking with his neighbors. And he started to be a bit active about his work of justice and what does the world do when it hears the voice of God? What does the world do to respond to justice?

Well, greed gets paranoid and old masters grow angry. Powers and principalities begin to shake with rage. And then they set traps and they undercut authority and they threaten and they fire and they begin smear campaigns. And this is a message we’ve heard many times before. Psalm 23 says you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Psalm 35 says it this way. They concealed their net for me because I follow you. Or Jesus said it this way. Blessed are you when people put you down or speak lies to discredit you because you’re faithfully speaking a word they don’t want. That’s what it leads to and you know this. It is inevitable.

Now, I think we come out of the Old Testament and Jesus comments on what we’ve been talking about this building of the kingdom, this coming of the kingdom and God’s ways leading us out and finding a new way for us to walk. And his comment about it is in Mark 4 verses 35 through 41. The disciples are in the boat. Jesus is sleeping in the stern of the boat. A storm comes and waves rise and it all happens very quickly and the waves are coming into the boat. And the disciples are scared and they wake Jesus and he rubs his eyes and he goes, oh, peace. Be still. And the wind ceased.

And, he said to his disciples, why are you afraid? Have you no faith? And we think on this text, all by itself, and we ponder and realize that the disciples survived the storm because Jesus calmed the waves. And we notice if we draw in our text from today, Psalm 40 that the speaker begins by celebrating rescue. And so naturally we interpret these texts to mean that Jesus can calm the storms of your life. Jesus can rescue you; supernatural power of Jesus. Jesus will rescue you from the storm of cancer or the loss of your job or a difficult child. Whatever storm is raging Jesus will rescue you.

Well, now we’ve got a big problem on our hands, if we’re going to tell the truth, because, a lot of people don’t survive the storms of life. In fact, all people will not survive the storms of life. Day after Christmas, 2005, a quarter of a million people were washed away by a tsunami wave. Cancer metastasizes. You can’t find a job to replace the income of the one you lost. Your child’s learning disability is not quickly overcome. Reporters seeking justice are threatened or poisoned or killed, or, simply disappear. The problem is that we have defined faith incorrectly. Our cultural church has led us to understand faith as our willingness to intellectually ascribe to supernatural intervention. Just believe the rescue of Jesus is all about supernatural intervention. Have more faith.

But that’s not what faith means. Not even close. The word is pistis [?] in Greek and pistis, faith, is believing in God’s way; God’s different way of being. Believing in God’s way so strongly that you’re willing to act on it; wanting God’s kingdom so deeply that you’re willing to act to bring it into existence even if it costs you everything. That’s faith. It’s a commitment to living a different kind of life, the one that Jesus describes, where we don’t seek revenge on our enemies. Where we settle with our neighbour before it gets to court. Where we tell the truth even if it costs us something. Where we sacrifice to be compassionate. Where we don’t discard people who are no longer convenient to us. Where we don’t pray in public to put on a show. Wanting God’s kingdom so deeply, this different way of walking that Jesus exemplifies for us, that we’re willing to live that. That’s faith.

In Mark, right before this story of Jesus calming the storm, Jesus has done a couple of things so far. The first thing he did was he called disciples. They left their old life behind and they were being made new as they followed him. And then they were sent out. They left behind their idols. They took on a new obedience. And now they’re being sent out to publicly proclaim the way of God to the world.

And the second thing that Jesus has done is he has been telling stories about God’s kingdom. And now in the boat he begins to act it out, sending disciples out with him, with the message of Psalm 40; you have hoped intensely for God. The way of God rescues you. You are being led in ways of righteousness. Reject your old idols. Embrace a new obedience and be a voice for justice. All of that is happening in the boat. In the boat we find God’s purpose. God’s purpose for us is in the power of the kingdom of God that Jesus represents that we’re sent to share with the world. And the answer is not in the supernatural power of Jesus. The answer is in rescued people living out God’s kingdom.

We have to be careful because none of these texts, not Psalm 40, not Mark 4, not Psalm 23, not the story of Jonah promise individual Christians that we will be delivered from the storms of life. What they promise is: kingdom people are part of a grand enterprise that will succeed. If you give your life to God, if you reject your idols, if you embrace a new obedience and you make yourself to be a voice for justice in the world, then, no matter what storm you encounter, you’re giving your life to a cause that will not fail. It’s larger than you. You may not survive, but, the witness of your life will. What you’ve given your life to will go on.

God’s bigger than the storm. God’s kingdom is bigger than your measly life or my measly life. And there’s a different kind of comfort in that, one that rings true, with real life and real hope. We are kingdom people; thanks be to God.