Monday, October 12, 2015

Risky Business

Risky Business
Esther 7:1-6[1]
Some of you, like me, may be fans of “The Lord of the Rings.” I’m not just talking about the movies—yes I have the extended versions and I’ve watched them a number of times. I’m talking about the books, which I’ve also read through more than once. You may not know that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote them as a Christian allegory, but one that was more subtle than that of his good friend C. S. Lewis. There is so much about these volumes that I love. One quote that comes to mind is from Bilbo Baggins, the hero of the Hobbit. He tells his nephew, Frodo, that “It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”[2] At the time, little did Frodo know where his own journey out the door would lead him.
Part of the point of this is that it is an analogy of the Christian faith. I think many of us would like the Christian faith to be like a refuge, a sanctuary to which we can flee to find safety in the midst of a world that can be frightening. But that’s not the nature of faith. If you read the Bible closely, you’ll find that time after time the leading characters who were great examples of faith found their journeys to be full of risk and danger.[3] In many cases, like Abraham and Sarah, people set out on the journey of faith never knowing where they might be “swept off to.” They discovered like many countless pilgrims, that taking the road of faith can be risky business.
I think the story of Esther is a perfect example of this lesson.  You may know Esther’s story better than I—she was a young and beautiful Jewish woman living in the Persian empire with her uncle Mordecai.  When the King was “in the market” for a new queen, Esther was one of the beautiful young women from all over the empire who “tried out” for the position of queen.  The king was vastly more delighted with Esther than any other young woman, and she became the new Queen. But one of the King’s advisers, named Haman, hated Mordecai and all the Jewish people.  So he convinced the king to sign a decree allowing Haman to execute all the Jewish people—because the King didn’t know Esther was Jewish! 
When Mordecai found out, he sent a message to Esther asking her to do something about it.  Now, what you have to understand is that Esther, queen or not, was subject to the whims of the king.  To approach the king without being summoned meant risking death.[4]  But Esther was a courageous woman of faith—like many before and after her, she was willing to risk what most people would never dream of risking!  And so she asked Mordecai to call a fast for three days, and after that she said “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).[5]
That’s the way of faith according to the Scriptures.  Setting out on a journey without even knowing where you’re going, like Abraham and Sarah.  Or facing death in a furnace rather than compromising one’s commitment to God, like the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Or exposing oneself to ridicule and humiliation to obey God’s command, like Mary did when she agreed to bear God’s son.  That’s what faith is about.  It’s not about knowing exactly how everything is going to turn out.  It’s about “hoping like mad in something” that may seem too good to be true.[6] And because our faith can at times call us to a path that is risky, we have to be willing take the leap of faith while “knowing that we do not know”—and in fact we cannot know—how it will wind up for us or where we might be “swept off to.”[7] 
For those of us who want faith to be something protective, something reassuring, something safe, this may seem troubling. There are many these days who look to Biblical faith to provide rational arguments and scriptural “proofs” that they suppose will to make them feel safe in a world that is more and more confusing.  They look for clear-cut codes and fixed dogmas to protect them from the tension of not knowing, of not being sure, of not having all the answers.  But, again that’s not the nature of biblical faith. If you read the Scriptures closely, you will find that faith is full of questions, uncertainty, and mystery![8]  It opens us up, making us vulnerable to the unpredictability of our world.  It challenges us take part in an amazing journey, a pilgrimage of faith that has always been about taking the kind of risk Esther took. And because this journey takes place right in the middle of the uncertainties and anxieties of our day and time, it is a journey that takes all the courage we can muster.
When I began my journey of faith 40 years ago, I certainly wasn’t looking for a life of uncertainty and risky business. I heard the offer of acceptance and God’s love and I knew that’s what I wanted. I could never imagine at the ripe age of 14 what that decision would mean. Nor could I possibly have any idea where the decision to serve as a minister at the age of 17 would lead me in life. I’ll say this: the journey has been anything but boring! But that’s the way it is for all of us. When we make the decision to take the path of faith in Jesus Christ, we are stepping out of our comfort zone and out the door into a life that is full of twists and turns, full of surprises, full of risks. It’s a path that many have walked before us, and their testimonies, both in Scripture and in the great books of the Christian faith, bear witness to us that the commitment to follow Jesus is indeed one that is risky business. But if we have the courage to step out on that road, it is a road that leads us to life.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon written by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm to be delivered on 9/27/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church. Due to illness, the sermon was not presented. Instead it is being published here.
[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 72
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 98-99, where he says, “Faith always involves “a leap into the darkness of the unknown.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 76, where he says that faith impels us “out and on to the edge of all experience, thought, and action,” and compels us “to attempt to leap off into the air, where obviously no [one] can stand.”
[4] Cf. Sidnie White Crawford, “The Book Of Esther,” New Interpreters Bible III:904: “It is part of the irony of the book that the first queen, Vashti, is banished for refusing to appear before the king when summoned, while the second queen, Esther, is asked to risk death by appearing before the king unsummoned.”
[5] Cf. Sidnie White Crawford, “The Book of Esther,” NIB III:905: “Esther's position as a woman in a male court is analogous to that of the Jews in the Gentile world, with the possibility of danger ever present under the surface. Esther has no guarantee that she will be successful.” She observes (p. 906) that Esther’s situation presents us with “the dilemma of the average believer”: “How does one find the courage and faith to do what is right in the face of divine and human ambiguity?”
[6] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2, where he says that “Religion is for … people who believe in something, who hope like mad in something, who love something with a love that surpasses understanding.” He says further (ibid, 31) that “the religious sense,” which I would see as something very similar to faith, awakens when “Something grander and larger than us comes along and bowls us over and dispossesses us . Something overpowers our powers, potencies, and possibilities, and exposes us to something impossible. Something makes a demand upon us and shakes us loose from the circle of self-love, drawing us out of ourselves and into the service of others and of something to come.”
[7] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 19, where he distinguishes “not-knowing” from “ignorance” by saying that we know “that we do not know” and we know that “this non-knowing is the inescapable horizon in which we must act, with all due decisiveness, with all the urgency that life demands.”
[8] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 128-29, where he insists that we cannot know ultimate things, and we are therefore left with “the passion of our non-knowing, our passion for God” and with “our love for God.” He continues (p. 129), “In my view, the very highest passion is driven by not-knowing … when all we can do is push on, have faith, keep going, love and trust the process about which we lack any final assurance.” Cf. similarly, Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 245-46, “The intellect often demands proof that it is on solid ground. The thought of the soul finds its grounding in a different way. It likes persuasion, subtle analysis, an inner logic, and elegance. It enjoys the kind of discussion that is never complete, … . It is content with uncertainty and wonder.”  He continues (p. 246), “Intellect tends to enshrine its truth, while soul hopes that insights will keep coming until some degree of wisdom is achieved.”

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Life of Joy

A Life of Joy
Psalm 1[1]
When you look at the way we as a people live these days, I’d say we’re obsessed with happiness. Self-fulfillment is the number one item on most agendas. We are healthier and wealthier than any other generation in the history of the world. So you’d think that would translate into our being the happiest people ever. But the sad reality is that the more we have, it seems like the more unhappy we are. More than that, it seems that we grow more insistent that we know what’s best for us, and that we don’t need anyone or anything—even the Bible—to teach us how to live. When we insist that we know what’s best and refuse let anyone tell us how to live, we’re only digging our ruts deeper.  I would say that approach to life typically doesn’t pay off.
Our Scripture lesson from the Psalms today insists that true happiness, what I would call joy, is found only in one place. The Psalm makes it clear that joy is found only through “delighting” in God’s truth, in God’s instruction found in Scripture.[2] Now, “delight” is a word that we don’t hear much these days, so it may not communicate to us. I would say that “delighting” in God’s truth refers to the practice of spending time every day, in fact “day and night,” reading and studying and thinking about the truths of Scripture. And the reason for this is to be able to live a life that is more closely aligned with God’s will. The outcome of that kind of life, according to our Scripture lesson for today, is true joy.
Now, if you’re like me, you may find yourself wondering about this passage. It makes some pretty big claims. It promises that those who follow this approach to life will not only find true joy, but also “In all that they do, they prosper” (Ps. 1:3). And yet the reality of life is such that there are plenty of people who faithfully align their lives with God’s will but do not seem to prosper, outwardly at least. And we can bear witness to the frustration found in other Psalms that there are plenty of people in this world who live their lives with little or no thought to God’s ways but, outwardly at least, they seem to prosper. Some of them prosper greatly.
So it would seem that we face some obstacles to the way of life prescribed by this Psalm in the realities of our world. For many of us, trying to read the Bible can seem like an exercise in futility. We may start off with all the determination in the world to make devotion to Scripture a regular part of our lives. But when we actually sit down to read the Bible, it can often leave us feeling cold. In fact, it may leave us feeling bored. Let’s face it, the Bible is not an easy book to read, especially in some translations. And there are some passages of Scripture that leave you feeling less than uplifted.
In light of this, what are we to make of the claim our Scripture lesson for today makes? I think we have to start by getting clear about what it is that we’re hoping to gain from a discipline of regular Bible study—day and night, as the text puts it. We may not always understand everything we read, even though we have an abundance of resources available to us. We may not always find that our devotion to Scripture gives us some “takeaway” to help us at the time. But then, that’s not always the way Bible study works.[3] If we expect that every time we read the Bible we’re going to be “blessed” in a specific way, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. The discipline of studying and meditating on Scripture “day and night” is one that changes our lives over time, as we continue to practice it over weeks and months and years.
I think another aspect of this has to do with the real-life benefits a regular discipline of Bible study. We are a results-oriented people in many ways, and we want to know what we will get if we invest the time to actually engage with Scripture “day and night” as the psalmist suggests. I have to say that it’s unlikely that we will find ourselves understanding all that there is to know about the Bible. There are Bible Dictionaries and Bible Handbooks that can help us here, but we’re not going to emerge as an expert who can answer any question about the Bible. I have a doctorate in biblical studies, and there are plenty of questions about the Bible I can’t answer! Rather, the outcome of this kind of regular engagement with the Scriptures is that it opens us up to the life-giving, transforming presence of God.[4] When we devote ourselves to the discipline of taking in the Scriptures “day and night,” we are connecting ourselves with the true source of life, and well-being, and joy. I think that’s what the promise of “prospering” is about—it’s about knowing true joy in life regardless of our outward circumstances.[5]
I’ll be the first one to admit that making this discipline a regular part of your life is challenging. I’ve spent many years, even decades, seeking to make reading, and meditating on, and praying through the Scriptures a part of my life “day and night.” And I can bear witness that it takes a definite commitment and the will to persevere in order to continue to do this year after year. But I can also bear witness to the fact that when I maintain this discipline, I definitely experience more joy in life than when I let it slip. As our Psalm for today advises us, this is a serious matter.[6] The Bible is not something we read just because we have nothing better to do.  Our Psalm for today warns us that turning from Scripture and living by our own counsel is a way of life that “perishes.” It’s simply not sustainable. But on the other hand, embracing God’s truth with one’s whole heart leads to a life of joy. It’s up to us to decide which path we will take.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/20/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:684, where he says that the word typically translated “Law” is the word Torah, and would better be translated as “Instruction.” He says, “‘Instruction’ here refers not to a particular corpus of stipulations, but more broadly to the whole sacred tradition of God’s revelation. It is helpful to recall that the Torah for Judaism—the Pentateuch—contains both stipulations and identity-forming stories of God’s dealings with the world and God’s people.” Moreover, (ibid, 685), he says that the use of the word Torah in this introduction to the Psalms indicates that “the psalms are to be received in a manner analogous to the Pentateuch—that is, as an identity-forming, life-shaping source of God’s instruction.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 41: “Here, ‘torah of the Lord’ is used in a comprehensive sense to refer to the whole body of tradition through which instruction in the way and will of the Lord is given to Israel. … This psalmist knows torah in the written form, Scripture that one can read and absorb (see Josh. 1:8). It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and will of the LORD and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness (40:9; 37:31).”
[3] As Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1:123 reminds us, “[the] very fact of the language of God Himself becoming an event in the human word of the Bible is … God’s business and not ours.  … The Bible is God’s Word so far as God lets it be his Word, so far as God speaks through it.” In other words, God speaks to us through the Bible on God’s terms, not ours!  Cf. similarly, Cf. Anthony B. Robinson, What’s Theology Got to Do With It?, 55: “the Word of God is something that occurs when the Spirit and the Scriptures connect in listening and speaking.”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 41-42: “This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight, not because it is an available instrument of self-righteousness, material for a program of self-justification, but because the LORD reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it. For this psalm, torah is a means of grace.” Cf. also McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:684. He says, “In contrast to scoffers who arrogantly refuse all instruction, happy persons delight in God’s instruction, having it always before them. What is commended, therefore, is not a close-minded legalism, but a posture of constant openness to God’s instruction.” Cf. also the now classic R. McAfee Brown, The Bible Speaks to You, 48, where he says that the Bible itself is “a means by which God reveals himself to us, since it is by reading the Bible that we find him confronting us.” Cf. also Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, 23-24: “In our reading of this book we come to realize that what we need is not primarily informational, telling us things about God and ourselves, but formational, shaping us into our true being.” 
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 43-44, were he says that according to this Psalm there are only two ways for life’s journey to take; the way of the righteous “leads to the fulfillment of life” as depicted by the tree which constantly bears fruit. He continues, “The fulfillment is not so much a reward as a result of life’s connection with the source of life. The second way is really an illusion. It has no more substance than chaff that the wind drives away…. The wicked are grounded and guided within themselves, a way that has no connection with the source of life. That way will perish.”
[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:685. He summarizes the message of the Psalm by saying, “The happy or righteous persons are those who are constantly open to God’s teaching, thus always connected to God, who is the source of life. … The wicked, on the other hand, are those who refuse to attend to God’s teaching, thus cutting themselves off from the source of life. That they ‘perish’ is not so much a punishment, but the inevitable outcome of their own choice not to be related to God. In short, wickedness in Psalms is fundamentally to be self-centered rather than God-centered.” He points out that this understanding of life is one that “differs profoundly” from the typical outlook in our culture. He says (ibid., 687), “What is so unsettling about all of this is that what Psalm 1 and the rest of the psalter call ‘wickedness’ is perhaps what North American culture promotes as the highest virtue—autonomy. … The irony is tragic—the pursuit of self-fulfillment yields self-alienation. … Failing to trust God and to make connection with God as the source of life, persons cannot be ‘happy.’ … In biblical terms, to be autonomous, to be alienated from God and other people, is to ‘perish.’”

Monday, September 14, 2015

Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith
Psalm 146[1]
I told you last week about how difficult it was for me to go through two divorces. What I didn’t tell you was how hard and long I prayed for God to keep both relationships intact and both of my families whole. When those prayers went seemingly unanswered, I had a real crisis of faith on my hands. I had trusted God to make things work out right, and when they didn’t, I wasn’t sure I trusted God to keep his promises. As I pointed out last week, I’m sure I’m not the only one to have gone through that kind of crisis of faith. We hope and pray that if we do what is right and if we hold true to God, our lives will turn out the way we want them to. But the fact is that life isn’t that neat and tidy and predictable. We can make all the right choices and do all the right things, and still all our hopes and dreams can come crashing down. That can pose a serious challenge to our faith.
Our lesson from Psalm 146 for today addresses the question whether we can trust God to keep his promises. The answer is an unqualified affirmation that God always holds up his end of the bargain. The psalmist puts it this way: “Happy are those … whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever” (Ps. 146:5-6).[2] The psalmist makes it clear that the God who has the power to create all the heavens and the earth always keeps faith with those who trust in him.[3] That means he always keeps his promises. As the New Living translation puts it, “He keeps every promise forever” (Ps. 146:6).
The Psalm goes on to elaborate on the kind of promises God keeps forever. He “gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry”; he “frees the prisoners”; he “opens the eyes of the blind”; he “lifts up those who are weighed down”; he “protects the foreigners among us”; and he “cares for the orphans and widows.” These are the kind of promises that God keeps forever. They are promises of restoration and new life. They are promises of mercy and love that redeems and restores and renews our lives. They are promises that demonstrate who God is: the God who knows our deepest joys and our deepest disappointments and lifts up those who have been broken by life.[4]
You may notice that these promises are “slanted” in a certain direction. They are promises for the downtrodden; like Jesus’ beatitudes they are for the lost and the least and the left out. [5] There is nothing here about guaranteeing that those who already have more than enough will gain even more. Nor do we find anything about climbing the ladder of success or having that beautiful house on an acreage or the “perfect” marriage and the “perfect” family. I think this points out one of the reasons why we may struggle to trust that God will keep his promises: we expect God to give us what we want in life. But when we do that, we have put our faith in promises that God never made in the first place!
I think another problem with our approach to God’s promises is that we have a certain idea about how and when those promises will be fulfilled. We come to God with very definite requests (or maybe it’s more accurate to call them demands) and we expect God to deliver just what we want just when we want it. But it’s been my experience that we are notoriously bad at knowing what we really need and therefore what we can expect from our lives. And we are even worse at predicting the time for what is best for us to happen.
So what can we trust in? According to our Scripture lesson for today, we can trust that God will “keep the faith.” When the Psalmist says that the Lord “keeps faith forever,” he is affirming that God will always be faithful to us, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. He will always keep every promise: promises to “never forsake us,” to support us and sustain us with his loving presence. Promises to set right what is broken in our lives, if not immediately, then in his own time and in his own way. And what we may have to understand is that the promise may point to the ultimate future; it may be that we will have to wait for the renewal of all things in the Kingdom of God to see these promises the Psalmist outlines for us finally fulfilled for all those who hope in God.
Even if we have to wait, we have some assurances to hold onto. The first is that we’re talking about the God who has the power to create all the heavens and the earth.[6] The God who is powerful enough to make this vast and beautiful creation has the power to keep his promises. The second assurance is that our Scripture lesson speaks in terms of what God always does.[7] The wording in some translations may not bring it out clearly, but the implication in the Hebrew Bible is that these promises reflect the very character of God.[8] The only way for him not to keep these promises is for God to stop being God. And the third assurance is that even if we have to wait to see the fulfillment, it will surely come. That is the point of the final statement: “The LORD will reign forever. He will be your God … throughout the generations.” Since God is the one who reigns over all things—from creation to the final redemption of all things in the new creation—we can trust him to keep his promises.[9]
Our God keeps the faith. He keeps the promises he’s made, promises of restoration and renewal. He always has, as the biblical story demonstrates again and again. He does so now, even though oftentimes we may not understand it. And the declaration that “the Lord will reign forever” means that he always will. Our God always keeps the faith.

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/13/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1264, where he contrasts “wickedness,” which in the Psalms always means the decision “to trust something or someone other than God,” “happiness is not the absence of pain and trouble but the presence of a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116: “if the revelations of God are promises, then God ‘himself’ is revealed where he ‘keeps covenant and faithfulness for ever’ (Ps. 146:6).”
[4] McCann, “Psalms,” NIB IV:1264: “In view of v. 10, which explicitly affirms the eternal reign of God …, vv. 6-9 come into focus all the more clearly as a policy statement for the kingdom of God. The sovereign God stands for and works for justice, not simply as an abstract principle but as an embodied reality—provision for basic human needs, liberation from oppression, empowerment for the disenfranchised and dispossessed.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 129: “the God who in his almighty power created heaven and earth is on the side of the people who have to suffer violence because they cannot defend themselves. Their rights are his divine concern.” Cf. also ibid., 130: “God, …, creates justice for the people who have been deprived of it, and for those without any rights, and he does so through his solidarity with them.”
[6] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 441: “Hope attached to his reign is founded on a reality that does not pass away. The God of Israel is king of the universe; ‘maker of heaven and earth’ is a title of the God who rules all.”
[7] Cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 129: “just as in Paul the justification of the sinner becomes the revelation of God’s righteousness in the world, so in the Old Testament the establishing of justice for people deprived of it is the quintessence of the divine mercy, and hence of the divine righteousness.”
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116: “In proving his faithfulness in history, he reveals himself. For the essence and the identity of the God of promise lies not in his absoluteness over and beyond history, but in the constancy of his freely chosen relation to his creatures, in the constancy of his electing mercy and faithfulness.”
[9] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 441: “Not only does the Lord rule forever but in his rule he keeps the faith forever.”

Saturday, September 05, 2015

God's Saving Justice

  The "back story" for this week's sermon is the biblical teaching about justice. Justice is a relative term in our society.  Two parties come to court, each with their own idea of what justice looks like in their case, and the court has the responsibility of weighing the facts and rendering a decision.  It seems that most of us see justice as whatever is good for me.  
  The Bible has a very different idea about justice, however.  You could say that the Bible’s view of justice is very “results-oriented”!  The Psalm 146 spells it out fairly clearly: prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. God's justice is a justice that saves us.
  Simply put, God’s justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, especially those who are downtrodden by society as a whole.  God’s justice does not favor the rich and powerful, the privileged and successful, or the beautiful and the famous.  God’s justice makes it possible for everyone to thrive—rich and poor; white, black, brown, and yellow; tall and short, thin and overweight, nearsighted and balding, young and old.  It does not discriminate based on race, creed, color, or national origin.  It does not discriminate based on gender, age, disability, or political affiliation. God's saving justice is for all people equally.
  One thing we might miss about this Psalm and the way it's worded is the affirmation that this is always the way God operates. The Hebrew Bible clearly depicts these actions as characteristic of who God is. God always acts in this way. Thus when Psalm 146 says that God "keeps faith forever," it's saying that God always carries out this kind of saving justice because it's the very nature of who God is!