Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Finding Life


Finding Life
Deuteronomy 10:12-22[1]
It’s hard to mention Moses without thinking about the Ten Commandments. And the Ten Commandments may remind us of Judge Roy Moore. He’s the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who commissioned a 5,000-pound monument depicting the Law of Moses. What you may not know is that “the Rock,” as it has been called, went on tour. That may not seem like a big deal, until you think of what it takes to lug around two-and-a-half-ton sculpture. It rode on a flatbed truck and had to be lifted off and back again with a five-ton, fifty-seven-foot crane![2] What a perfect image to portray the commandments as “burdens, weights and heavy obligations,” as one commentator put it.[3]
That’s how we tend to think of the Ten Commandments, the Law of God, and the Hebrew Bible in general: as a burden. We tend to think that the people of Israel labored under the burden of demands they could never fulfill, trying to win God’s love, trying to earn salvation by their good works. And we see Jesus as the one who set us free from that burden by bringing salvation to us as a gift. As a result, we might be tempted to think that the Ten Commandments, the Law of God, and the Hebrew Bible in general are pretty much irrelevant.
But that’s not what our prophet for the week, Moses, has to say about the matter. We may not be accustomed to thinking of Moses as a prophet, but in the Jewish world, including that of Jesus’ day, Moses was the prophet above all others. He spoke the word of God to the people. In our lesson for today, he begins with a question: “What does the Lord require?” (Deut. 10:12). It’s a straightforward question and at first the answer sounds clear enough: “to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
The problem comes when we read on: “and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being” (Deut. 10:13). That doesn’t compute for us on several levels. Most of us don’t equate “loving God and serving him” with keeping the commandments. But the witness of Scripture is clear that loving and serving God means “walking in all his ways.” Knowing God truly has always made a difference in the way people live out their lives—in every aspect of life.
Part of the reason why our Scripture lesson doesn’t compute for us is because it seems like Moses is saying that finding life depends on what we do. Somehow, it seems that our salvation is a matter of earning God’s love. And yet, Moses specifically says that the Lord chose people to live in relationship with him because he “set his heart in love on your ancestors” (Deut. 10:15). The original covenant with Israel was based on the same love as the new covenant. Keeping God’s commands was never a means of gaining or achieving salvation apart from God’s grace. 
If that’s the case, then why were the commands given at all? Why did Moses insist that the people keep the commandments? While it was never a matter of earning a relationship with God, the commandments were a way of defining what a genuine relationship with God looks like. They spell out in daily practice what it looks like to “walk in all God’s ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” The Bible teaches that it’s a part of God’s original intention for the human family: to lead us into a relationship characterized by love and faith that are not coerced and by heartfelt obedience that puts God’s will into practice in daily living.
I think the final aspect of this passage that doesn’t compute for us is found in the line that keeping the commandments is something that was intended to be “for your own well-being” (Deut. 10:13). They were meant to instruct us about how to find the life that is truly life, the life that God intended for us all to have in the first place. That is the heart of what the Law or Torah was about: instructing us in what it looks like to “walk in God’s ways.” And when we do so, we realize that God’s ways are not burdensome at all, but rather they are paths that show us the way to find life.
We’re not used to talking about the commandments in this way.  We’re much more familiar with talking about them as a burden, a weight, or a heavy obligation—like a 5,000-pound monument made out of Vermont granite.  But that misunderstands their role in God’s purpose for his covenant people, both then and now. The purpose of that covenant is to form a relationship. Not surprisingly, what God looks for is for his people to commit themselves to this relationship wholeheartedly. In that context, the purpose of the commandments is to spell out what it means to live a life defined by love for God. They were given as the parameters within which to live our lives—parameters that are intended to enable us to find a life that is full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love, both toward God and others. Elsewhere, Moses calls this way of living “choosing life” (Deut. 30:19-20). As we learn what it means to love God, to serve him wholeheartedly, and to walk in his ways, we find the life that is truly life.


[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/5/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Joshua Green, “Roy and his Rock,” The Atlantic Monthly (October 2005);  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/10/roy-and-his-rock/4264/ .
[3] Cf. Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue,” in The Christian Century (March 7, 2006):17.

Plans


Plans
Psalm 145:1-10; Jeremiah 23:1-6[1]
Over the course of the last 40 years, I’ve taken a number of personality inventories. It’s something that most denominations require pastoral candidates to do. I guess some folks must think pastors may be “crazy.” Imagine that! If you’ve ever taken personality inventories, you know that they measure things like whether you like being around people, how you process information, and how you make decisions. One of them measures whether you like structure or whether you prefer to improvise. You will probably not be surprised to learn that I like structure. I’m a “planner.” I think I’ve shared with you the fact that, at the ripe age of 31, as a new Seminary professor I proceeded to plan the next 30 years of my career. Needless to say, my life didn’t unfold “according to plan.”
If we’re honest about it, I think most of us would have to admit that our plans for our lives don’t turn out the way we envision them when we are young. I think it’s just a fact of life: we mortal beings predict the future rather poorly. And yet, we make our plans. That’s not a bad thing. I think the problem comes when we hold tightly to our plans as if our very lives depended on them. When that happens, we can behave in ways that aren’t very constructive: we can become tense, rigid, selfish, and even at times mean and bitter. Planning is a good thing, as long as we have the wisdom to hold our plans loosely.
The people of Judah whom the prophet Jeremiah addressed were definitely not living out their lives “according to plan.” They had been torn away from their homes, uprooted from their land, and forced to live in the last place on earth they wanted to be—Babylon, modern day Iraq. The temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins, and with it, their faith that God would never let an enemy army destroy them. I would imagine they felt their lives were over.
It’s not that Jeremiah didn’t warn them. Like other prophets of his time, Jeremiah confronted the people of Judah with the fact that they had been “faithless” (Jer. 3:12) toward God. They had given themselves over to the worship of false gods. They had broken the covenant with God with their blatant disobedience. In spite of that, they assured themselves that they were safe because they believed that Temple and the throne of David would protect them (Jer. 7:4).
In our lesson from Jeremiah for today, the prophet lays much of the blame at the feet of the “shepherds” of the Lord’s people. In other words, the leaders: both the religious and political leaders, both priests and kings. In this, Jeremiah reflected a theme that is found in the books of Kings and Chronicles: as the leaders went, so went the people. When the leaders did what was right in the sight of the Lord, the people did also, and all was well. When the leaders did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, so did the people, to their mutual ruin. Of course, life isn’t always that cut and dried. But in the case of Judah, Jeremiah made it clear that the “shepherds” were the ones responsible for scattering the flock and driving them away into exile.
Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, the Lord promised through Jeremiah that he would gather them from the foreign land and bring them back. He would raise up leaders who would truly shepherd the people. And most importantly, he would raise up a king who would practice righteousness, and bring safety to both Judah and Israel. In another chapter, the Lord promises through Jeremiah that “surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11). Although their lives had not gone according to their plan, the prophet Jeremiah assured them that God still had plans for them.
And yet, the fact of the matter was that they were going to have to live out their lives in exile, far away from anything they knew to be “home.” The people who had been taken captive to Babylon would not live to see the return to their own land. That’s why Jeremiah gave them some very practical advice. Instead of wasting their lives in grief over broken dreams and unfulfilled hopes, he instructed them to build homes, get married, and have children, and to see that their children built homes, got married and had children (Jer. 29:5-6). The lives they had may not have looked much like their plans, but they could still find meaning and purpose in the lives they were given.
Our confession of faith today affirms that there is nothing that can happen to us that “God does not bend finally to the good.” I would imagine that plenty of us have been through experiences that make that hard to swallow, let alone believe. When that happens, I think we need more than just the shallow comfort that “it’s for the best,” or “it’s God’s will.” We need to know that God will not abandon us, and our lives still have meaning.
When all of our plans have been thwarted, we need a way to hold on to the confidence that God truly is the one who “keeps faith forever.” We need something to reassure us those words mean something real to us right here and now. The real challenge when it seems that all is lost is how to see that our lives still have meaning and purpose. We need the courage to hold onto the faith that, even when our plans fail, God promises to fulfill “plans for our welfare …, to give us a future with hope.”




[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/29/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

The Plumb Line


The Plumb Line
Amos 7:7-15[1]
As many of you know, I spent a year studying in Germany over 25 years ago. It was an amazing experience in many ways. The pace of life was much slower, by design. I lived there the year “the Wall” came down and East Germany along with the rest of Eastern Europe opened their borders. One of the interesting aspects of living abroad was getting accustomed to the housing arrangements. Some aspects of that experience were more “interesting” than others. If you’ve been abroad, you know what I’m talking about!
One of “weird” facts about the apartment we lived in is that the building was 400 years old! It was prime real estate, because it was right in the heart of the “pedestrian zone” of Tübingen. And yet, because the building was 400 years old, the corners weren’t quite square and the walls weren’t quite plumb. To be sure, the building had been renovated, probably more than once. It had all the necessary appliances and the décor was fairly modern. And I’m sure the walls were straight up and down when they were built. But after 400 years, those picture-postcard buildings in that quaint German University city were all leaning on each other! Four Centuries offers a lot of time for buildings to settle!
Amos, our prophet for this week, lived in a time when the commitment of the people of Israel to “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God” had had time to “settle.” Those who were at the top of the social ladder were living in relative prosperity. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, prosperity has a way of undermining spiritual and moral values. As Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). Amos could see by the conditions of the day that especially the leaders of Israel were more concerned about serving their own wealth than about serving God.
Unfortunately, that kind of obsession with wealth has a way of blinding us to our own spiritual poverty. The word of the Lord that Amos received was almost “sneaky,” in that he began by predicting the downfall of Israel’s enemies. One by one he declared God’s judgment on the nations surrounding Israel. And I can imagine that as he proclaimed his message of judgment on those around them, his audience nodded in approval. They were blind to the condition of their own spiritual house.
But Amos finally came back to the people of Israel. And he pronounced even stricter judgment on them because they should have known better: they were God’s people. And yet they failed to practice the most basic principle of God’s justice: to show compassion to the most vulnerable among them. This was the “plumb line” by which God measured their lives. But instead of practicing compassion, their mistreatment of the poor echoes like a refrain throughout the book of Amos. He said that they were “trampling on the needy, and bringing ruin to the poor of the land” (8:4). The corners of their spiritual house were not square, and the walls were not plumb.
In all of this, the prophet’s message of judgment was this: “You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed. You treat the righteous like dirt” (5:7, NLT). And perhaps the most shameful aspect of their behavior was that it was all so that the powerful in Israel could further enrich themselves. It was all so that they could live in the lap of luxury: they built “houses of hewn stone” (5:11), feasted on couches made of ivory (6:4), and drank wine by the bowlfuls (6:6). And yet, because they had not followed the “plumb line” by caring for the most vulnerable, the walls of their spiritual “house” were leaning so badly they were on the verge of collapse.
I don’t think there is much debate about the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in our country. Income data over the last several decades makes it clear that a greater portion of wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very rich. And with some notable exceptions, they seem to be using their influence to continue to enrich themselves. In Amos’ day the solution was straightforward: “establish justice in the public square” (5:15). In our day, it may seem more complicated. But the plumb line remains: showing compassion to the most vulnerable in society. Jesus said it this way, “as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).
When I was in Germany, I also witnessed the fall of the oppressive regime in Romania. In the aftermath, humanitarian aid came pouring in from all over Europe. And my church in Germany sent several of us with supplies to some churches. Along the way, I met with a missions supervisor in Vienna. He observed that the church in Eastern Europe had thrived under communism: the churches were bursting at the seams. But he said the church in Western Europe had languished under capitalism. I’m afraid that prosperity tends to have a deadening effect on our relationship with God.
The antidote has always been to serve the needy. We live in a time when the most vulnerable in our society seem to be getting poorer and needier every year. And, of course, the real question is how to find true and workable solutions to poverty. I don’t pretend to know the answer. But it seems to me that the walls of our spiritual house are leaning. It is a time when, perhaps more than ever, we must hold fast to the plumb line of God’s justice: showing compassion to the most vulnerable in our world.


[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/15/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Thus Says the Lord


Thus Says the Lord
Ezekiel 2:1-5; 36:25-28[1]
I wonder whether we really believe in the possibility of new life any more. I wonder whether we ever believed in it. When you listen in on conversations about people, or about communities, or about society as a whole, there’s not much hope to be found there. It’s my impression that the way we talk about others can be rather negative. I’m not sure where this cynical approach to our fellow human beings comes from. I would say there’s probably not one source, but many. And chief among them would be the experiences of our own interactions with people who are less than kind to us, to put it mildly. Our experience makes it hard to believe in new life.
I find this to be troubling, because at the heart of our faith is the promise and the hope of new life through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. That new life isn’t something we wait to receive when we pass from this world. It’s something that’s meant to change the way we live here and now. And the message of the Scriptures is that there is no one who is ever “too far gone” to find new life in Jesus Christ. But our negative outlook on people, as evidenced by the way we talk about them, flies in the face of our faith. I wonder if we really believed in the promise of new life whether the way we talk would take on a different tone.
The prophet Ezekiel had plenty of reasons to have a rather negative outlook on his situation. He, along with a fair amount of the people of Judah, had been conquered by the Babylonians. And as a result they had been deported to Babylon, a place far away from everything they knew. That included, in their minds, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Like most other people in that day, the Israelites believed that their God ruled over their land. But they were a long way from their land. They were living in forced captivity in a foreign land ruled by foreign gods. Given that assumption, you can understand why they might have given up hope.
Right into the midst of that seemingly desperate situation, Ezekiel had a vision that must have knocked his socks off. It was a vision of God: not tied to the land of Israel far away, but right there with him in Babylon. And the gist of the vision was that God is not restricted to one land, but rather he can go wherever he wants. In addition, the vision assured Ezekiel that his people were not “out of sight, out of mind” to a God dwelling way back in their homeland, but rather he is a God who sees what is happening everywhere. Ezekiel, along with many of his people, may have given up hoping in God, but God had not given up on them!
Like many of the prophets, the book of Ezekiel recounts his “call” by God to speak on his behalf. God was well aware of the spiritual condition of his people, and he was sending Ezekiel to confront them about it. In our lesson for today, God instructs Ezekiel to tell them “Thus says the Lord GOD” (Ezek. 2:4). And in fact, that phrase becomes a refrain throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel, along with “The word of the LORD came to me.” God was not finished with his people, and he sent Ezekiel to be the one through whom God would declare his message of hope and new life to them.
One of the central passages where Ezekiel expresses that hope is in chapter 36. There, Ezekiel reminds the people that because of their failure to live for God with all their hearts, they had “profaned the name” of God in their exile. And yet, despite the people’s failure, through the prophet God announces that he is going to renew his people. He says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you,” and “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezek. 36:25-26). The idea is that, by his Spirit, God would radically and thoroughly change his people so that they would live for him. And they would live for him not because of external demands or the threat of punishment, but because God would change their hearts and give them his Spirit. The idea is that they would then want to live for God.
Many of us even in the church live our lives with a kind of “functional atheism.” We speak the words of faith when we come to church, but we live our lives as if there were no God. Or at least as if whatever God there may be doesn’t really make any difference in our lives. Bad things still happen to good people. Those who are truly wicked in this world seem to get along just fine, thank you very much. And those who are truly good struggle and suffer at the hands of the power-mongers. If we believe only the evidence we see that powerful people tend to take advantage of others, it’s no wonder we wind up with a negative outlook on the prospect of new life.
But just as in the days of Ezekiel, so today the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ will not leave us with hardened hearts. God continues to work in each of our lives by his Spirit to give us new hearts—hearts that love God and love our neighbors because we have experienced God’s love for us. Hearts that know the joy that comes from seeds of new life that God’s Spirit continues to plant within us. Hearts that continue to hope that the suffering we see in this world is not God’s last word on humanity. Perhaps when we let that really sink in, we will have a different outlook on life in general. Perhaps when we learn to trust the promises made in the name of the Lord, we will be open to new life in ourselves and in others.


[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/8/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.