Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas Present Ideas

This is just for family and anyone else who might ask me what I want for Christmas. I'll keep a running list as I think of new things, so check back in from time to time.

Gift Cards: gift cards
Ace Hardware gift cards
iTunes gift cards

Theology of the Old Testament - Walter Brueggemann
Jeremiah, Pain and Promise - Kathleen O'Connor
Feasting on the Word Commentary for year B or C
Interpretation Commentary Series, I already have Matthew.
Williams Hebrew Syntax - Williams R.
Seeing the Text - Schertz, M.
The Identity of Jesus - Frei
Why Narrative - Hauerwas
The Nature of Doctrine - Lindbeck

Airport Express
Liturgical Stoles
Cordless Power Drill
Small Cast Iron Skillet (I already have a big one).
Center Channel Speaker

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why Bother

Joshua 24:1-25

I grew up with this text, or rather, a portion of it. Both my parents and my Grandparents have a plaque prominently displayed in their respective houses that read “The Taber House, Choose this day whom you will serve...But as for me and my house, we shall serve the LORD.” My presence with you today is a testament to how my family has adopted this almost defiant challenge as a motto. So when I read those lines in this text, I immediately connected it to my rich family history, and all the things that have happened with my ancestors to bring me to the point in my life when I am actively pursuing God as a vocation.

This text starts with the same reminder for the people of Israel, and Joshua makes sure everybody is there to hear it. One could imagine the scene, everybody gathers together, closes up their shops, ties up their animals, puts down whatever they’re doing, and goes to listen to Joshua deliver the word of God. Then Joshua calls up all the community leaders, for us it would be the teachers, the lawyers, the doctors, and they get to sit in the hot seat, or as our passage puts it, “They presented themselves before God.”

In my Theology class, we all sit in a circle to discuss the readings for that week, and everybody races to get to class early, so that we don’t have to sit next to the professor, and when somebody does have to sit next to Dr. Stroup, we all glance knowingly back and forth as if we know that they’re going to get the brunt of his questions. We avoid it because we’re worried we won’t measure up to his judgement. He’s an imposing presence, but being at his side is nothing near presenting yourself before God. The elders of Israel are about hear the word of the LORD, and they get to sit right under God’s nose while it is spoken.

This word could have been a new code of laws to replace the ones they received in the desert. But it wasn’t. It could have been a declaration of who would replace Joshua, who dies after these events, just as Joshua replaced Moses. But it wasn’t. It could have been an announcement about where the people would go to expand their new promised land next. But it wasn’t.

Instead they got a History Lesson from author of all creation. “In olden times, your forefathers...lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods.” But God intervened, and brought Abraham out of Ur and into Canaan. Abraham was childless, but God intervened. “I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau.” Jacob, the same man who would wrestle with God, father the beginnings of the twelve tribes of Israel, and in chapter 35 of Genesis tells his household to put away their foreign gods in the same city where all of Israel is now gathered. The same man who would lead his family to Egypt, where they survived a great famine, and eventually became slaves.

But God intervened, and brought the people out of their slavery in Egypt, into the wilderness where they became a nation, instead of a slave population. And many battles later, God reminds the people standing in the land given to their ancestor Abraham hundreds of Godly interventions before that “I have given you a land for which you did not labor and towns which you did not build, and you have settled in them; you are enjoying vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.”

God has given the people these things, they did not earn them. It is not a matter of deserving, it is a matter of God giving freely as God so chooses. Joshua tells the people, as Jacob had long ago, to put away the gods of their forefathers beyond the Euphrates, and the gods of Egypt, and to serve the LORD.

Interestingly though, this is an option, not a command. Joshua says “If you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose whom you will serve,” the gods of your forefathers or of the people in whose land you are settled. If God has not intervened in our lives and in our history enough for you, go ahead and worship the gods of other nations, and remember that this was their land first, and that the LORD gave it to us. There’s no downside offered here, only an account of what God has done and a charge to choose to whom we will devote ourselves.

The people speak in one voice: “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD and serve other gods!...We too will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” There is no mention of what God will do in the future for the Israelites. As far as this passage is concerned, the promise has been fulfilled. God has intervened in their history and freed them from slavery, and the people are now committed to serving the LORD despite Joshua’s warnings that they will fall and be punished because they cannot live up to the gifts God has given them.

So why bother? Joshua gives them the out, they won’t be expelled if they choose not to serve the LORD. They aren’t promised eternal life for serving God, or even extra “stars in their crown.” So far as I can see, there’s no advantage in choosing to serve God, the only threat I see is when one falls off the wagon after claiming to serve God and making a new golden calf out of their new valuables. “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness” is an invitation to enter into relationship with God, an ordination of service in gratitude to God who has already done so much for the people of Israel.

I remember when I was in high school, I was sitting on the front lawn of the school waiting for my parents to come pick me up at the end of the day, and one of my classmates, a very intelligent young woman taking upper-level classes, asked me why I was a Christian. She saw me as an equal who believed in something that did not make sense to her, and wanted to know how I got there. The same question was later posed as the subject of a Bible Study when I was in college. The professor leading the discussion answered his own question with a claim that there is no advantage in being a Christian. It doesn’t make life’s hardships go away, or even less hard. There’s no magic prayer that will fix any of us. Those of us in the Calvinist tradition say that our salvation is not at stake based on anything we do or believe. Why bother then?

This passage provides the answer for me. The people speak with one voice saying “It was the LORD who brought us and our fathers and mothers up from...the house of bondage, and who wrought those wondrous signs before our very eyes.” We are Christians not because it gives us a special connection with God. We are Christians because serving our Christ how we show our gratitude for all God has already done for us.

Our slavery was to sin and death, and had been since the fall of Adam and Eve. But as Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us “The free gift of Christ isn’t like Adam’s failure. If many people died through what one person did wrong, God’s grace is multiplied even more for many people with the gift - of the one person Jesus Christ - that comes through grace.” We were slaves to sin, but now we have been brought out of the house of that bondage, and Christ is our liberator. And we remember that our salvation is not earned, our salvation is created by the same one who created all that is, and is given to us by a God of love.

That is why we choose to serve Christ. We were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. We are freed from sin’s power because we belong to God, and in gratitude to God for all God has done for us, “We will serve none but the LORD our God, and we will obey none but him.”

The people of Israel are gathered at Shechem, and are waiting to hear the word of the LORD. We do not know what is ahead, but we know what God has already done for us, God brought our forefathers to the promised land, turned an old man into the father of a tribe, protected our tribe from a famine, brought our people out of Egypt and made us a nation. God gave the nation of Israel a home, and they chose to serve the LORD.

It is a scene of devotion. The people of Israel don’t know what is coming, but we do know what happened next. Although they are free from their Egyptian slavery, they are still under the power of sin and death. So God intervenes, and Christ breaks the power of sin and death over all of us. We’ve seen more than these Israelites could have dreamed of, and the question is still put to us, Whom will you serve? As a response in faith to all God has done for us, me and my house shall serve the Lord.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thanks be to God?

Matthew 5:1-11

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Amos 5:21-24

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

This is the word of the Lord

Thanks be to God

Thanks be to God? Really? Were we reading the same passage? What’s all this “I hate, I despise” stuff? I thought we worshipped the God of love? Thanks be to God?I’m not sure I am grateful for this word. Give me more of that first one, where Jesus tells me I’m going to be happy later because I’m poor now...

At the seminary, we would read this passage and say that nobody is safe from this text. If you can see yourself in this text, it will convict you. For some reason though, I find myself drawn to it.

Maybe I’m tired of a culture who confuses God with Santa Claus, “Be a good boy or girl and you’ll get what you want.” Maybe I’m angry at the injustices in the world and it’s nice to see that God gets mad too. With all the lovey-peacey fluff floating around maybe I’m drawn to this passage because it’s about a God I haven’t heard as much about: a God of fire and wrath, the Lion of Judah, rather than the lamb. After all, this passage is talking about other people right? This one isn’t about me.

When I decided on this text, I thought it opened with “I hate, I loath your false worship.” That’s what I wanted it to say. I wanted to rail against the people who were just going through the motions and didn’t really mean what they were saying or doing. I even had a children’s sermon about how important it is to mean it when you say you’re sorry, or it doesn’t count.

But it doesn’t say that.

I wanted this text to look at the world and see all the same things I saw wrong with our culture. I wanted it to condemn the people who put our nation in a war with which I didn’t agree and sent other people’s brothers and sisters and daughters and sons to fight it for them. I wanted it to attack the people who’s emphasis of profit over safety dumped oil into our water. I want the prophet Amos to shake his fist at the people who created this economic crisis that threatens the jobs of an entire generation.

But it doesn’t do that.

I want to take this text and reword it so that it agrees with me, and then I get to have that Wrath of God in my hand, to throw at anyone that I think unworthy. I want this text to be a locker-room pep-talk that gets me back in the game so I can score the winning point.

But I don’t get to do that.

I get to read this text and let it lay me bare the same way it would have laid the rulers of Israel bare. I don’t like it. But this text is not one of comfort to a suffering people, it’s one of Judgement on a people who think they are immune from suffering because they do everything right. And I don’t like it. I don’t want our heavenly Father to be angry with me. I want to do something to fix it, find a way to soften that anger, or at least blame someone else so God won’t be angry with me. I don’t want to have a place in this text. But this text has a place for me whether I like it or not. Right next to everyone else who has tried to put their words in God’s mouth over the centuries. The text grabs us when we think we can bribe God into doing what we want and says: “But even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them... I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

Let me stop there, and we can reassure ourselves that God still loves us, even when God is angry with us. That’s one thing that never changes. But we can’t just look for a happy-fun god in the Bible, because we spend a lot of time deserving God’s anger. We can’t duck out of this mess we’ve made with a few well placed sacrifices, or a few perfectly orchestrated songs. We can’t buy God off with a one time deal, or a limited time offer. We can’t have a party in God’s honor and expect God to be pleased enough to forget all the times we get it wrong. That’s not what God’s about. God created us, and God knows that we’re better than this mess we’ve made of the world. But we’re not going to earn it with offerings of material goods or with songs. We’re not going to win God over by giving back a portion of what God gives to us. God isn’t impressed by our wealth or cleverness or our own insight. The more time we spend trying to impress God, the more we hear “Take away from me the noise of your songs.” God wants to see us make a change in our world.

And So God says to Amos, “Let Justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

I remember when I was nine or ten, we had a huge series of thunderstorms, and a flash flood warning was issued for Morganton, where I grew up. We had these woods behind our house, and all the water from the storms flowed down to the bottom of the hill, and filled up what was a ditch in drier weather. I could hear the water dripping down onto the brim of my hat, filtering down from the tops of the pine trees to reach the bed of leaves that made up the forest floor. My father and I went exploring this brand new river, hiking deep into the woods seeing where it led, where it came from. The water was rushing in from all sides, all converging at the bottom of these two hills that formed the gully that was now a streambed. It pooled up in some places, several feet across, but only a few inches deep, and the leaves in those sections floated out to the edges, settling in a ring around the pools. In other places it was deep enough to fill up your rain boots if you made the mistake of stepping into it, and it was always moving, finding new places to fill as the rains continued to filter through the pine trees. The movement was strong enough that it pulled limbs and dead trees that were too big for a nine-year-old to move with it, collecting in narrower places to form its own dams, moving what seemed to me to be immovable, only to let it settle in a new place, changing the landscape of the woods. That memory, and the image of a storm-fed river changing everything about the landscape it touches is what comes to my mind when Amos writes “Let Justice roll down like waters.”

David LaMotte, a songwriter and peacemaker, recently gave a talk about the myth of the hero as a vehicle of change. “As a culture,” says LaMotte, “We tend to believe that what changes things is heroes, dramatic people doing dramatic things in dramatic moments.” But while heroes certainly exist, LaMotte says that big changes come out of movements, lots of regular people making small changes over time, rather than one larger than life person making one larger than life action in one larger than life moment. Those larger than life moments deserve a festival, like a fourth of July party, with fireworks commemorating a day when about 34 people signed a letter that started a nation. But this didn’t happen over night. Neither did a group of slaves taken out of Egypt become a nation just by crossing the red sea. It took 40 years of learning to live with one another in the wilderness, under a new set of laws to morph them into the people of God.. Likewise our nation didn’t just wake up one morning tired of being English, and we wouldn’t have a constitution, the document that sets us apart from other nations that came before, for another eleven years after we decided we were through with English rule.

Thousands of small changes. Thousands of tiny water droplets, filtering through the pines, creating the flood that changes the landscape. And once the rains stop, we’re still not done. because though Justice has rolled down like waters, we still have righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Always moving, always changing, like the Linville river, gradually cutting into the rocks to form a magnificent gorge, or to cut into the mountain itself to form the famous caverns. Thousands of years, thousands of water droplets, and an ever flowing stream providing life to the valley below.

Or like the Jordan river, which once dried up so the people of Israel could cross into the promised land, and eventually, thousands of drops of water later, baptized Jesus and began his earthly ministry. A ministry that proclaimed that this world would be turned upside down, and the poor would have a kingdom, and that mourners will be comforted, and that those whom the world has walked over would receive the world. An ever flowing stream, filled with living water, that would fill those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. It’s not a pool that we can go to when it’s convenient for us. A River that cuts through the landscape, changing everything around it, and the central point of life around it. It’s a continuous movement, not a singular moment. When we see the ever flowing stream, we know that God’s path is through the waters. It is not our place to skip across the stream like thrown stones, barely getting wet. If we want to bring change to this world, because we know we can be better than it is right now, we have to swim deeply.

If we buy into the myth that change comes from dramatic people doing dramatic things at dramatic moments, all we have to do is wait for the moment, and then be ready to act. Wait for the Day of the Lord, and then proclaim the good news. Wait for God to prove Godself, then decide to act. Wait for the two roads to diverge in the yellow wood, and then take the road less travelled. Wait for the Day of the Lord, and then take part in the establishment of the kingdom. But we’re not waiting for the day of the Lord anymore. The dramatic action has happened. Christ has been crucified, and Christ is risen. The day of the Lord has come. Now we live in the age of the Spirit, and it’s not dramatic Damascus road moments that change the world for the better. It’s not festivals or offerings or benefit concerts. It’s the mission of Paul, traveling throughout Europe telling the gospel even when nobody will listen. It’s the growing awareness that the poor aren’t different from us, so we help them not because it’s a tax deduction, but because it’s what needs to be done. It’s a movement, a movement of the Spirit within us and through us that makes us uncomfortable with what Amos has to say to us, and forces us to make the small changes, the thousands of water droplets, filtering through the pines, that effect real change in the world. Very few of us are tasked with making the decisive moments that move history forward. And even those who are called to those dramatic acts are charged with making all the small changes that lead up to the larger than life moment. But we’re not here to wait for the day of the Lord. We’re here to filter through the pines, and change the landscape around us, piece by piece. We’re called to work on behalf of the Kingdom of God in the age of the Spirit. Let’s get to work.

In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit, Amen.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Beautiful agony.

Today is Ascension Sunday, marked by the Acts text from earlier this morning. Next week, we’ll celebrate the birthday of the Church at Pentecost. But today, we’ve seen the resurrection, and we know that battle against sin and death is won. Christ has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us, and we’re left here waiting.

We’re waiting for a world that will be made right again, for a world where we can see God’s presence in everything we do. We’re anticipating the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, and we’re surprised that it has happened yet.

Of course, this world in which we are left hasn’t yet heard that the battle has been won, so they’re happy to ignore us until we become a problem and then persecute us when we do, which is where we find ourselves in 1 Peter 4:12. Listen now for the Word of the Lord

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Continuing in Chapter 5:6:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the Word of our Lord shall stand forever Thanks be to God

Wait, what was that about a fiery ordeal? I didn’t sign on for that. I’m here for the potlucks and the coffee. Nobody asked me about suffering when I joined the church. I thought once I became a Christian that would mean that my suffering was over, and God would protect me forever and ever amen. You’re welcome to your suffering if you like, but now that God’s on my side I don’t need to anymore. That’s how you know I’m saved, because I’m blessed, and don’t suffer...But that’s not what the text says.

We’re American Christians, and whether or not one thinks that we live in a “Christian Nation,” we certainly don’t have to face the same kind of persecution with which the church to whom this letter was addressed lived every day. This letter is addressed to the exiles of the Dispersion, which means these exiled are Jewish Christians living in other countries. These peoples would have lived as second class citizens, if they were citizens at all, and could be banished on the whim of local governors, and were deprived of their own homeland, even if they thought of where they lived as home. This was a time before the Roman Empire made persecuting Christians a national pastime, so these are persistent local persecutions. The kind of thing where merchants won’t sell you their goods, just because you used the name of Christ in blessing your meal. The kind of thing where will slap you with a lawsuit without any proof, just so you’ll go away. The community is pushing Christianity out in every way it can because it is different. Christians aren’t being thrown to the lions, but they might be lynched. So where can we, who live in a wealthy country and in a safe community, stand in this text? Because we don’t suffer like that.

Maybe not like that, but we do suffer. We suffer from all kinds of stress, we suffer from disease, our finances aren’t as secure as they used to be, our families fight, our friendships end, as do our marriages, and we are left needing so desperately to be restored, supported, strengthened, and established, but our suffering for a little while lasts a whole lot longer than we like. And our conversion doesn’t call the cavalry to conquer our doubts and end our suffering.

So why be a Christian then, if we still have to suffer? After all, we, as creatures, are programmed to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Wouldn’t we get more converts if it gave us an easy out from the hardships of this world? And yet it doesn’t. It’s not easy, and it’s counter-intuitive, and it’s risky. Discipleship flies in the face of what we are hardwired to do, because not only does it away from those things that please us, but it tells to pick up our crosses and go to our deaths along with Jesus. God, you love us, why are you asking us to take on some of Christ’s suffering? You’re all powerful, can’t you just make it go away?

Our understanding of suffering is that those who are able to avoid it do so, the association we make in our own minds is that the powerful do not suffer, only the weak do. If a person falls on hard times, we talk about them as the “weaker brother,” and offer to help them only out of our strength, but we preach Christ crucified, which is foolishness to those who desire logic. Our God doesn’t need to follow our logic, our God isn’t bound by what is dreamt of in our philosophy.

Our God is powerful enough to take our sins onto himself, that we might be spared the wages of sin that we had earned. It begins with God taking a share in our suffering. But not just a share, God took all shares upon himself in the crucifixion. And in that moment, God also suffered the profound abandonment that we all fear. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It wasn’t glamorous, It wasn’t glorious, it wasn’t a superhero moment, it was a man’s desperate cry as Christ was separated from God. Our God loves us enough to suffer at our hands for what we had done, and continue to do. Our God is powerful enough to claim that suffering, go where by definition God was not, and come out on the other side.

And so the suffering is no longer our own. But neither are we our own. Rather we belong to God, who adopts us through Christ’s death and resurrection.

When I was about ten years old, my Dad had us installing some new drainage pipes in the Burke county red clay of our back yard. We of course chose to do this in the middle of July, when temperatures could be described as fiery. Burke County is not especially famous for its red clay, but I can attest that Burke County red clay, when exposed to heat, reacts like any other red clay in the world. That is to say, it turns to brick. So I’m waist deep in a hole that I’ve been working on for hours trying to dig a pipe out of the ground so we can spend more hours putting a new pipe in, and I’m thinking that this is quite the ordeal, out in this fiery weather, and maybe Dad’s testing us. Teaching us the hard way so that we’ll appreciate it that much more when he shows us the easy way, that we’ll shout for joy when the glory of the magical power tool that will make my shovel obsolete is revealed.

So I look up at my father, who was of course, on the back porch, in the shade, with a large glass of ice tea in his hand, watching us work.

“Dad” I say, “Is there an easier way to do this?”

“Sure,” He replies, taking a long slow sip of his drink, “Have sons.”

Like a child learning to do chores, it would be easier on us if it was all just done for us, but we are asked to do it anyway, because our heavenly Father knows that we’re not taking on Christ’s suffering, we’re taking up our own crosses to claim not only our suffering, but also our redemption. We are responding to this act of perfect love out of gratitude for what is already done on our behalf. A child washes a load of laundry, or mows the lawn, or cleans the house, or digs a ditch for a drainage pipe. A Disciple follows this example and takes part in the suffering on Christ’s behalf, not because Christ couldn’t get by without it, or because God will reward us with an extra star in our crown or whatever. We act because we have to respond in faith to what God has done for us, even though it means choosing to the suffering that accompanies that action.

We were suffering before we were in Christ, so in that sense, not much is changed. What has changed is that now we have the Father to restore us when we are empty, Christ to support us when we are falling, the Spirit to strengthen us when we grow weak, and through all this God establishes us as territories of God’s own kingdom, and as members of God’s own household. We still suffer, but we do not suffer in bondage to sin and death, rather we suffer along with all creation in the birth pangs of a new age, and we know God shall wipe away every tear from our eyes.

This passage tells us that while we are suffering, the Spirit of God is resting on us. That spirit resting on us sounds to me like a firm hand, holding us to our task until it is completed, because it is so easy to back away from our calling. It is a weighty blessing, a crown, but a crown of thorns, and it keeps us grounded on this Ascension Sunday, because we still have work to do.

This time last week, I was driving to Savannah, GA on my honeymoon. A number of y’all attended the service where Leah and I married one another. I spent most of that weekend in a haze of excitement and nervousness, but the image that penetrated that haze was of my families, Barnard, Boshell, Potter, and Taber all working together at the rehearsal dinner. We carried food for one another, served one another bread, opened and poured wine, and taking care of all the other minor inconveniences that we do to show each other love around a dinner table. In some small way, the work, and the tiniest bit of suffering that accompanied it, mirrored the Kingdom of Heaven for me. It’s not a state where there is no suffering, it’s one where that suffering is totally overshadowed by the love we hold for one another. We barely even notice that we’re tired, or that we’ve spilled something on our new outfit, we are suffering, but it’s so minor next to what we are doing for one another. This is the work we have been waiting for, this is why we remain in a suffering broken world.

I spent the hours preceding our wedding in a beautiful agony, waiting for the arrival of the moment when I would see Leah walk up the aisle. It’s not the dread of bad news that saps all of ones energy to act. But it is exhausting and debilitating. It’s not the excitement of a Christmas morning where one can’t help but wake up earlier than an uncoffeed parent would prefer, but it is an anticipation of what is to come. It’s not the nervousness that comes with hearing back from a job interview, but it is something on which my life hinges. It’s a suffering in which one can rejoice, because the suffering is not the end of the story. For me, it was a wedding, for the church, it’s being exalted by God, and it all happens in due time.

The suffering is important, and reflects the work we need to do in a world that still needs its savior. We become Christians because we have seen a part of that work, and feel compelled by gratitude to take join in the fiery ordeal that is a part of this task.

We join the church because the community of faith means we don’t have to suffer alone, we have such a great chorus of witnesses telling us, “I remember when I stood there, and I remember when it was hard. I also remember that ours is the God who works wonders, and who’s path to the promised land is through the waters. It is still hard, and we do suffer. But we can, with God’s help, get through this.”

Our brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering, the birth pangs of the expectant mother, the excited terror of the groom waiting for his bride, the weighty blessings of a church called to live in a suffering world. Our suffering is not a sign that God has abandoned us to our sinfulness, it is a sign that our world still needs its savior. Our savior is risen, our savior has ascended to heaven, and our savior will come again to complete the work of creation’s redemption. Because the God of all grace has called us to his eternal glory in Christ, and the end of the story is not a suffering crucified God, or even a rising from the dead. Neither is it an ascension that leaves us staring in wonder, or a gift of the Spirit. Our story will end as it began. The God of all creation shall restore that creation, and will support us as we love one another, and will strengthen the relationships between us and God, and will establish a world where all will know that the Lord is God. When God finishes all the work that God has been doing, God will bless that day and call it holy. And it will be good.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oh Peter.

Oh Peter from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Our third scripture reading this afternoon comes from the 14th Gospel of Matthew. This story comes right after Jesus dismisses a recently fed multitude, and has gone up onto the mountain to pray by himself. The disciples are out on a boat in the middle of a storm. Listen now for the Word of the Lord.

Matthew 14:25-33

Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.

Just then, Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged, It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
And Jesus said, “Come.”

Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”

Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” When they got into the boat, the wind settled down.

Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s son!”

The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
Oh Peter. You’ve got to give it to him, he certainly tries. He is by no means lukewarm, and definitely at least tries to keep the Lord always before him. When he sees Jesus out on the lake, we can almost hear him say to himself, “If Jesus can do that, I wanna too!” So at a word from the Lord, Peter gets out of the relative safely of the boat, and joins Jesus in the storm.

Oh Peter, why’d you get out of the boat.

Imagine Peter telling the story to some folks later: So there’s this storm right? And we’re all out in the boat trying to keep her afloat, and she’s doing a pretty good job of protecting us from the waves that are battering us. Then we see Jesus out walking on the water. So we start freaking out, and Jesus calls out to us and says “Chill out, it’s me, no worries.” So I get the big idea to call back, and I say “If that’s really you, prove it! Tell me to come out there with you!” And Jesus yells back “Well come on then!”

Oh Peter, why’d you get out of the boat. We all knew where this was going, we all knew you were just going to sink.

Jesus responds simply, “Come.” And in that short command, Peter hears enough that he’s willing to do something as ridiculous as trying to walk on water with Christ.
Maybe he heard the Word that was with God and was God in the beginning. Maybe Peter heard the voice that called out “Let there be light!” Or the word given to the ancient Israelites “Hear O Israel: The Lord is God, the Lord alone!” Perhaps in Jesus’s command to walk on the water, Peter heard the words recorded by Isaiah, “Comfort, O Comfort my people.”
Peter certainly heard the voice that said “You give them something to eat.” We know he heard the words of the Parables contained in that simple command. He heard the voice that cast out demons and healed the sick and lame. He heard the words of the sermon on the mount. He heard the voice that said long before, Come, follow me.” Christ is doing something that reveals that he is God, and Peter hears all of that authority in Jesus’s voice, and gets out of the boat.
Oh Peter, why’d you get out of the boat. We all knew where this was going, we all knew you were just going to sink. You’re just a poor sinner, you can’t walk on water.
Jonah makes a great foil to this story. He gets the command from God to “Go” and immediately gets on to a boat, hoping to run away to the farthest reaches of the earth to prevent another people from experiencing God. He expects the hull and mast to protect him from not only the storm they encounter, but his identity as a prophet. His attempt is an image for the way all of us try to run and hide from what God has created us to be, because we can’t get past our own weaknesses and fears. So we hide on a boat until someone throws us out into the raging waters, and a large fish comes to swallow us. Jonah hears the command, and books passage on the farthest ranging boat he can find. We’ve all heard this same call. And we can’t help but build little boats around ourselves to protect us from being honest and vulnerable. But when Jesus speaks in this passage, Peter gets out of the boat, and joins Jesus in the storm.
Oh Peter, why’d you get out of the boat. We all knew where this was going, we all know you were just going to sink. You’re just a poor sinner, you can’t walk on water. Come back to where it’s safe, stay out of the storm, we don’t want you to sink.
Peter does begin to sink, and for some reason, rather than running to the boat, he cries out “Lord, rescue me!” And Jesus does, and says to him: Oh Peter, my beloved little idiot, why did you doubt? I didn’t call you out here because it’s safe, I called you out here because you belong here, with me, in this raging power that you cannot understand or control.
This is a great pulpit. Great big piece of wood to lean on, Great place to *thump* for emphasis when a prophet says “THEREFORE!” It’s also a nice sturdy barrier to protect those of us who preach from those of us who hear. This is a great pulpit, but there’s this terrifying little brass plaque on the back that says “We would see Jesus.” And though I’d like to use this pulpit as a boat to protect myself, that little piece of brass grabs me and proclaims in my ear that there’s a storm out there, and I’ve got to get out and walk in it.
We do love these things that provide limits, boundaries, control. Especially when we’re doing something that risks as much of ourselves as preaching does. But we don’t need to hold onto these little boats, our futile comfort blankets that we think keep us afloat when it would be easier to be overwhelmed. We don’t need the boats, because the voice that spoke creation into being, the Son who redeemed us, and the God who reigns over all, the Word made flesh, who is foolishly in love with us, says “Come.”
Although Peter sank, his great triumph is that of all the disciples, he alone was willing to trust God enough to get out of the boat in the first place. Likewise we will sink, from time to time, I don’t doubt that. We will begin to have doubts that will drive us down into the chaotic waters. Sometimes we have to sink before we remember to cry out “Lord, rescue me!” But our God is powerful enough to save us, and loves us enough to drown alongside us when we will not be helped. The world asks us, as we ask ourselves, why in the world would we go into this storm, why would we leave behind the safety of what we build around ourselves.
Oh Peter, why’d you get out of the boat? We all knew you were just going to sink. “I’ve got to get out of the boat, even if I sink, because that’s where Jesus is. Never mind the storm, my God told me to come. That’s why I get out of the boat.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
My Soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faits. Selah

You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah
And I say, “It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
With your strong arm you redeem your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah

When the waters saw you, O God,
When the waters saw you, they were afraid;
The very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
Your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

We’re in the midst of Lent right now, which means that our confession is still waiting for the assurance of pardon. That assurance will come at Easter. Throughout Lent, however, we are mirroring Christ’s fasting in the wilderness. We willingly put ourselves in the place the psalmist describes in the first ten verses of today’s text. We approximate spiritual desolation to prepare ourselves for the Joy of the resurrection. Because we need both, we need to know and understand the fullness of our own humanity, and that means we look for a while at the darkness, so that we can know what it is to be blinded with the light of Easter Sunday. But in looking at the Lenten Barrens, We can also remember the hollowness of when it was not an affectation, but an experience.

My soul refuses to be comforted. I’ve been there. As described here, it’s as if even though the psalmist wants so desperately to be comforted, but their own nature prevents it. I’m confident that we’ve all been there. I’m sure some of us are there now. And Lord, when we raise up our heads it’s not to sing a song of praise but a defiant shout challenging why would you, who is supposed to love us, call us into this mess. You who are sovereign, put us here and we’re covered in filth and cannot find our way out of it.

We don’t sleep. We look around and see the injustices in the world around us, people suffering at the hands of nature in Japan, people suffering under the heel of dictators in the middle east, people suffering in our poorest neighborhoods from crime and hunger, people suffering in this room, from hurt, from fear, from the anxieties we pile up on ourselves because we have so much that is expected of us, and we want to be good. So we don’t sleep. Because the world you created and called good has fallen and we are trapped in that fall. Our cry is not, at these moments, How great thou art, it’s where are you. Because where we are, in these first ten verses, we can’t see you, and our soul refuses to be comforted.

Where are you, oh God? Because we’re trapped in a saccharine poem about how you carry us through the hardest parts of our lives and that is why we only see one set of footprints. And we’re looking for the magic prayer that will make it all better, and we’re looking for the perfect poem to assure us that you are walking with us. But there’s a hurricane while we walk on this beach, and the only thing we can see carrying us is the tide as we’re swept away.
God, We know you’re out there, when are you going to show yourself?

We are desperate, oh Lord, for you. We’re starving for the glory we keep hearing about in the hymns our grandparents sing to us. Our hands are stretched out without wearing out of fear that if we take even the briefest rest, we’ll miss the moment when you reveal yourself. Our hands are stretched out without wearying because we want to feel the joy well up from within us, but no matter how long we try, we are enveloped in a darkness where rather than being filled with your glory we feel a profound hollowness. And the taste of our Grandparent’s hymns sours in our mouths when we try to swallow them.

All we can taste is the condemnation and how richly we deserve it. And so we ask the questions, echoing the psalmist. God, we know you’re out there, but where are you now, when we feel so abandoned? God’s absence confirms our fears that we have been passed over, and that God’s steadfast love, for us at least, is at an end. The Theologians rationalize to us that God is still with us, and the words of poets try and comfort us with empty assurances and we try and pretend that we’ve got it all together, but our soul refuses to be comforted, and we don’t sleep, and our own hypocrisy stops our mouths from testifying to what we once knew in our core. And we are in mourning, because as far as we can see, God has turned away from us. And that change means our death.
But then, I read verse eleven again, and see it differently. “It is my grief that the right hand of the most high has changed.” The Spirit moves through the language from “I am sick at heart, for the right hand of the most High has changed,” to “The Right hand of the Most High has changed my grief.”

And we remember.

We remember like we are sneaking up behind ourselves, afraid that if we name it before it’s formed, or even think too hard about it, we’ll startle the truth, and scare it away. Because we’re in the wilderness and still cannot see the God who loves us enough to die for us. We still cannot see the God who chooses us even and especially when we consistently reject her. Even though God keeps our eyelids from closing we still cannot see an end to this tomb, all we see is our own emptiness in the face of it. But we can remember. And by remembering, we can trust.

And so I call to mind the deeds of the Lord. And I remember who you are. You are God. You are the God who says to the waters “Be still”, and they are still. When the same water that destroys cities in floods after hurricanes, or threatens nuclear disaster after earthquakes, or washes away entire peoples after tsunamis, when these waters see our God, the very deep trembles.

We’re still in the wilderness, We’re still blind to what God is doing, and all we can see ahead is the road to Jerusalem and the shameful death on the cross for ourselves. But we remember that our God redeems his people with a strong arm.

God redeems us when we’re in these first ten verses by giving us verse eleven and moving our despair into hope. “And I say, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the most high has changed.”

It’s not much action, but when we are entrenched in a war against our own souls and will not be comforted, turning our hearts is huge, and exactly what we need. It moves the stories at the end of the psalm from ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so” into voices saying “We are your kinsmen, and the air is thick with their company.” The company of voices who have been in that desolate wilderness. Our spiritual kinsmen have seen the mighty works of the Lord, and they have seen that God brings God’s people out of that wilderness and into the promised land. And we remember that these are our songs, and our stories, and that God will lead us through once again.

We, in our desire to play at being God and control our own destinies might prefer that God reveal the endgame to us, but that is not, at least in my experience, how God chooses to act in our lives. So God transforms our introspective despair into a memory that identifies with a God who’s path is through the mighty waters. Once we accept, with God’s help, that these stories are, in fact, ours, we cease to trust in ourselves but in the God who raises the dead. In that moment, we know that we too will be raised up out of our despair.

The psalmist wrote in a time before Christ’s death and resurrection, and so identifies with the struggles of a people brought out of slavery through the waters and into nationhood and a land of plenty. We’ve seen God do even greater things. We’ve seen God become one of us, die for us, and break the power sin and death have over us. We are in the midst of Lent, wandering with Christ in the wilderness, wandering with the Israelites in the desert, wandering through our own refusal to be comforted, and their stories are our stories. And knowing their stories, we can know that our story doesn’t end in our darkness, but in God’s redeeming grace. We cannot see past the cross yet, but we can remember that the story doesn’t end there.

This text shows us that when we cannot see through our darkness, God turns our lament into remembrance. We remember, according to this text, that our God works wonders, and we are empowered to act through our memory of faith. Because we remember that God’s love is steadfast, and God is faithful, and compassionate, and remembers us, because we are precious in God’s sight, and honored, and he loves us. Therefore the God who calls into being things that are not, whose path is through the waters, will lead us like a flock, and though God’s footprints are unseen, we know that we don’t need to see. Because our God, the God who loves us, is the God who works wonders. And we will find the grace we’ve always had when God leads us to the promised land of Easter morning.