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I read once that preachers are called at times to comfort the afflicted and at times called to afflict the comfortable.  A daunting task to be sure.

In addition, I firmly believe that all good preachers preach first to themselves and invite the congregation to listen in.  We get a string of prophetic readings during the season of Epiphany, and they are dang uncomfortable.  Hard texts to hear, and hard texts to preach.

I don’t think, however, that I am being faithful if I just ignore these texts.  If I merely preach what I think my congregation wants to hear, I’m a pretty lousy priest in the end.  We all need to be reminded about the world we live in, even when we are uncomfortable, because it remnds us what God sees in the world.

So to that end, my sermon from last Sunday.

 

What the Lord Requires — Micah 6:1-8

I’ve always loved court-room dramas, especially ones like To Kill a Mockingbird.  The trustworthy defense lawyer who mounts a great case so no jury in their right mind would convict.  I cherish the clues along the way that help build the case.  I love the suspense of waiting for the jury to come back from its deliberations.  And I am always disappointed when the jury comes back with a conviction when, like in the case of Tom Robinson the African American man convicted in Mockingbird, it is so painfully obvious that the person is innocent.

It’s a court-room drama we get this morning in our lesson from Micah, the YHWH is bringing a case against the Israelites.  “Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and the let the hills hear your voice.”  In this drama, the mountains and hills make up the jury pool, and once they’re seated the Lord begins.   God starts by asking what was done to make the Israelites pay no attention either to God or the covenant they made on Mt. Sinai.  The Lord reminds the Israelites that he was the one behind their release from slavery in Egypt—the great Exodus—and God brought them to the Promised Land when they passed from Shittim into Gigal, places on either side of the Jordan River.  God reminds them of all the acts of salvation done on their behalf in years past; God wants them to remember because it is painfully obvious to God that Israel has forgotten.  They were there on the mountain to agree to the covenant when they utterly depended on God, but now that things were good, God and the covenant didn’t seem nearly as important.

“What have I done to you?” God implores.  “In what way have I wearied you?”

Israel emerges in this courtroom play as the kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar.  Instead of answering the questions asked by the Almighty, Israel responds, “With what shall I come before the Lord?  Shall I come before with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?”  Now that I’ve been caught red handed, how do I make amends, God?  Is it bringing you the offerings you want?  Do you somehow want more?

The offerings quickly escalate from burnt offerings and calves a year old—both pretty routine—to thousands of rams, vats of oil and the giving of a firstborn child.  Israel is wanting to make things right with God at this point in the trial, wanting to be reconciled, but doesn’t see how this is possible in a religious sort of way.  Israel asks if anything can be given to wipe away the sin, if God would be pleased by any offering.

A third party—probably the prophet Micah himself—answers with what has been called the Golden verse of the Old Testament.  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  In other words, if you show up and make all kinds of the right offerings to God, it still won’t matter if you continue doing what you are doing.  If you continue to ignore the widows, to take advantage of the poor, to cheat folks out of their money—all things denounced earlier in Micah’s prophecy—it won’t matter what you do.  What God requires is a change in heart shown by your actions to others and in your relationship to God.  It isn’t more time spent in the temple; it’s about conversion.

I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t a lot like Israel in our day and age.  While we’ve been dealing with a great recession—and I don’t want to downplay the hardships faced by some of our sisters and brothers during the last few years of economic difficulty and uncertainty—most of us still have been blessed with a great deal.  Sometimes we have a tendency, like the Israelites, to make our faith solely about our worship attendance: if we make it to church for communion on any given Sunday then we’re in the clear with God and can go on with our lives without a second thought for the rest of the week.

But God wants so much more.  God desires a relationship.  The Lord wants us, like the people of Israel, to see the world from God’s vantage point.  Because God does see the ones impacted by the recession, and the ones who don’t have enough food, or who can’t get clean water.  God cares and wants his followers to care as well.

I want to strongly recommend a book to you, it’s written by Rob Bell and called Jesus Wants to Save Christians.  On the back cover he writes, “There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more that $20 million.  Our local newspaper [in Grand Rapids] ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty.  This is a book about those two numbers.”

Here’s an excerpt for you:

One billion people in the word do not have access to clean water, while the average American uses four hundred to six hundred liters of water a day.   Every seven seconds, somewhere in the world a child under age 5 dies of hunger, while Americans throw away 14% of the food we purchase.

Nearly one billion people in the world live on less than one American dollar a day.  Another 2.5 billion people in the world live on less than two American dollars a day.  More than half the world lives on less than two dollars a day, while the average American teenage spends nearly $150 a week.

Forty percent of people in the world lack basic sanitation, while forty-nine million diapers are used and thrown away in America every day.  1.6 billion people in the world have no electricity.

Nearly 1 billion people in the world cannot read or sign their name.  Nearly one hundred million children are denied basic education. …  Four out of five American adults are high school graduates.

Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half the world does on all goods.[1]

In addition to these unbelievable truths, Bell give us these tidbits to chew on a few pages later:  “The US accounts for 48% of global military spending.  Less than 5% of the world’s population purchases nearly half of the world’s weapons.  In 2008, the US spent more on defense than the next forty-five countries combined.  The US spends more on defense than on all other discretionary parts of the federal budget combined.”[2]

If God were laying out a case against us, there’d unfortunately be a lot of evidence.   And sometimes when a case like this is mounted against us we want to respond like Israel, we feel so guilty that we don’t know how to dig ourselves out of the hole.  “How can I stand up before God, and show proper respect to the high God?  Should I bring an armload of offerings?  Would God be moved if I sacrificed my firstborn child, my precious baby, to cancel my sin?”[3] Like Israel, our focus goes to how we make it up to God when faced with our failings.  We think maybe if we do more, we can somehow make amends.

And yet that’s not the response God is looking for.  Listen to the words from Micah again from the Message Bible, “But [the Lord] has already made plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”

That’s our call, as followers of the living God.  In the weeks ahead we’ll be talking more about how to put these three requirements from God in to place in our lives, but  in the meantime, I think it means this: We are called to be the Body of Christ.  To be, as Rob Bell puts it, people who have committed themselves to being a certain way in the world.  “Our destiny, our future, and our joy” he writes, “are in the Eucharist, using whatever blessing we’ve received, whatever resources, talents, skills and passions God has given us, to make the world a better place.”[4]

How is God calling us to share our gifts with the world and to deepen our connection with God?  Will we open ourselves both to God’s evidence of our failings and also to God’s deep mercy and desire for us to be so much more?  I hope that we will, and trust that, if we do, God will have the case against us thrown out.


[1] Rob Bell and Don Golden.  Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Zondervan, 2008.  122-23.

[2] Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, pgs. 127-8.

[3] Language from the Message Bible (Micah 6:6-7).

[4] Bell, 163.

 

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I mentioned a book by Rob Bell this past week in my sermon, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile.  It’s actually by Rob and Don Golden.  Both these guys are tremendous pastors and also have a real heart for the life God is calling us into.  It’s a tremendous and thought provoking and very challenging book.  Where Rob and Don end up is on how we, as the Body of Christ, can be a Eucharist for the world.  I won’t say much more than that, except that it is well worth the read (and you can get it through the Central Mass Libraries if you want to check it out).

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My first Sunday at St. Mark’s was on Sunday, January 16.  It was a truly wonderful day!  Here is the text for my sermon on that day.

 

“Come and See” — John 1:29-42

Our reading this morning from the Gospel of John takes place sometime after Jesus has been baptized, and presumably after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  We’re simply told that John the Baptizer saw Jesus walking near the Jordan River one day.  John had previously encountered the religious authorities who wanted to know if he was the Messiah or not.  John tells them that he wasn’t even worthy to untie the Messiah’s sandals.  So when John spots Jesus nearby he proclaims: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  John tells any who would hear how the Messiah was coming into the world: not as the “All-Powerful… Deliverer” but as the “sacrificial… lamb.”[1] Jesus comes not in a display of might but with an unassuming nature to bring about transformation in all who would follow him.

We’re told that it takes another day for this to really sink in with those standing nearby, because John has to say it again.  When he does, two of his disciples really hear his words and decide to go and follow Jesus.

Jesus hears these two walking behind him, so he stops and turns to speak with them.  “What are you looking for?” he asks.  “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they say.   Teacher, where do you teach?  Where do you live?  The Gospel writer himself has already tipped us off to this answer in his prologue a couple of verses earlier. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” or as the Message Bible puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Jesus looks at these two men eager to follow him.  “Come and see,” he replies.  And they do.  They spend the rest of the afternoon with him.  They end up spending their lives with him.

Thirteen years ago this week Melissa and I were sitting almost exactly where you are sitting today, coming to see the new rector.  In our case, we had endured a long and difficult interim period with two different priests, both not-so-gifted preachers, if you catch my drift.  We were somewhat new to the Episcopal Church and had be hired as the part-time youth ministers for our parish during the interim, but we weren’t sure if we would continue.  We came that Sunday morning somewhat tentatively; we decided to take a wait and see approach with the new guy.  We wanted to be sure he could preach, if he was an authentic follower of Christ, if we could be guided by his leadership.  And if not, if he wasn’t, we’d finish our commitment with the youth through the school year and then leave.

In our case it turned out very well.  For you all, well, I for one have been praying that it will be likewise.

The invitation Christ makes is to come and see, yet how often in life—and especially how often in our spiritual lives—do we take a wait and see approach?  How often do we stand back unwilling to commit or engage because we’re uncertain of what lies ahead?  How many times do we waver because we need to think things through more fully or check things out or test our hypotheses about Lord knows what, instead of hearing the proclamation of the Baptizer and following Jesus?

How many times do we hesitate when faced with Jesus’ invitation to come and see?

Best selling author Donald Miller describes this dilemma in what has become one of my favorite books of the past year titled A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  Don wrote a deeply personal spiritual memoir a few years ago that did very well, and he begins this new book by recounting a phone call he received from a couple of guys wanting to make a film of his memoir.  He learns pretty quickly, though that while his pensive internal wrestling makes for good writing, it doesn’t make for a good movie, unless, as he states, you have James Earl Jones narrating your inner dialogue.  So he sets out on discovering what makes a good film, how to create a story people really care about.  He attends a three-day story-writing workshop in Los Angeles, and learns that “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”[2]

When he gets back home, Don sees his friend Jason, who has a thirteen-year old daughter.  Jason’s daughter has been dating a guy “who smelled like smoke and only answered questions with single words: “Yeah,” “No,” “Whatever,” and “Why?”[3] And to top it off, Jason and his wife recently found pot in their daughter’s room.  They aren’t sure what to do: grounding hasn’t worked, instead pushing her further away.  They were running out of answers, and it was getting worse.

Then Don said something that surprised even himself.  He told Jason that his daughter was living a terrible story. Jason asked what he meant, and Don went on to describe what he learned in LA.  He told Jason a good story involves a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it, although he wasn’t quite sure how this applied to Jason’s daughter.  So Don said, “I don’t know, exactly, but she’s just not living a very good story.  She’s caught up in a bad one.” Jason had a ton of questions, and Don, thinking maybe Jason was interested in movie-making, spent an hour talking about all that he had learned.[4]

A few months later Don saw Jason again, and he asked how things were going with his daughter.  “She’s better,” Jason said, and when Don asked why, he replied that his family was living a better story.[5] He went on to tell Don that as he reflected on what they had spoken about, he realized that he hadn’t invited his daughter in to a better story.  Instead she had latched on to the most exciting story she could find, the one with the rebel teen.  So Jason went online to do some research and found out that there was an organization building orphanages around the world.  He called the organization and found out it took $25,000 to build one of their building.  The family had just taken out a second mortgage and didn’t have that kind of money, but it had the makings of a good story.

So he called a family meeting.  Jason recounts it this way, “I didn’t tell my wife first, which turns out was a mistake.  But I told them about this village and about the orphanage and all these terrible things that could happen if these kids don’t get an orphanage.  Then I told them I agreed to build it.”

“You’re kidding me,” Don replied.[6]

He wasn’t.  And it didn’t take long for his wife to forgive him for not talking with her first and to say as well how proud she was of him.  It wasn’t much longer after that that his daughter, Annie, climbed into bed with them one morning—like she used to when she was a kid.  She told them that they all needed to travel to the village in Mexico to take photos of the kids to help them raise the money.  A few weeks later she dumped the monosyllabic boyfriend.  Jason summarized it this way, “No girl who plays the role of a hero dates a guy who uses her.  She knows who she is.  She just forgot for a little while.”[7]

“Teacher, where are you staying?” we ask.   “Come and see.”

Jesus is inviting us into a better story.  He wants us to follow him and live a life that is so much more than the ones we live by ourselves.  He encourages us to come and see now, not to stand on the sidelines waiting for some elusive future moment.   When we engage fully in the things of God, we not only live a better story, we also work with God as co-participants in transforming the world.

What kind of life is Christ inviting us into as a parish in the days ahead?  What role will you take?  There will be challenges to be sure—those first followers have no idea of either the great joys or great sorrows in store for them—but it takes those things to make a good story.

I am tremendously hopeful and confident about the future of St. Mark’s and the work and life we will engage in together as we seek to authentically serve Christ.  Jesus has come into this neighborhood too, and invites us to follow him.  The journey before us is about to begin, and I hope you will join with me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, as we come and see where he will lead us.  Amen.


[1] Greg Garrett, “John 1:29-42: Homiletical Perspective.”  Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. 263.

[2] Donald Miller.  A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  2009.  Pg. 48.

[3] Miller, 49.

[4] Miller, 50.

[5] Miller, 50.

[6] Miller, 52.

[7] Miller, 54.

 

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