Thursday, July 19, 2007

“Mourning Into Dancing”

Psalm 30; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20[1]

When you look around at our world, there is much to be troubled about. As John Calvin put it, “we are harassed by such a variety of afflictions, that scarcely a day passes without some trouble or grief”![2] My favorite reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, puts it in a more humorous, if more personal way. In the face of the promise that all things are new because of Jesus Christ, he says that all we have to do to confirm that “the old is still there and becoming always older” is look into the mirror![3] I think the pun about “becoming older” is intended!

And when we look around us, we find even more reasons to despair. Places like Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, are wracked with the violence of war and have been for years—in some places, for decades! In Darfur, where civil war has been going on for much of the last 50 years, rebel groups are being systematically exterminated by government-armed terrorists, just as the Tutsis were in Rwanda in the 90’s.

Those whose lives are not directly threatened by the violence of war are in many cases still threatened—either by the consequences of war, or by government corruption, or simply by crises in nature. Aid organizations estimate that 1/2 of the world’s population—roughly 3 billion people—live at the level of subsistence, and are only one drought or flood away from extinction. And in this country, thousands are just a paycheck from being destitute and homeless. And thousands more are homeless.

When you look around our world at the tragic suffering that is so widespread, at the injustice that is so prevalent, it may seem obscene to even talk about “dancing” with joy.[4] How can anyone in good conscience feel happy while so many are suffering so desperately? Sometimes we might get that feeling from Psalms of praise like our text for today. When you look at the tragedy around you—and you probably don’t have to look far—it seems almost delusional to say something like, “Sing praises to the Lord”!

But the praises of the psalms don’t stem from naïve delusions about life.[5] They come right out of the depth of pain and suffering. But they look at that pain and suffering from a different perspective. The Psalms of praise reflect the joy of redemption —or at least the joy of the hope of redemption. The Psalms of praise to God reflect the faith and the hope that “wonders have not ceased, that possibilities not yet dreamt of will happen, and that hope is an authentic stance.”[6]

The praises of the Psalms reflect a joy that is inspired by God—the confidence that God will never fail us or forsake us, but will be with us as a “very present help” no matter what our circumstances.[7] The praises of the Psalms reflect the joy that comes from the assurance that God will keep his promises and make all things right and restore everyone and everything to life.[8] The Psalms praise God because the hope and faith that assurance brings transforms our very lives. In a real sense, the hope and faith we learn from the Psalms is a major element in what in means to be “restored to life.” From that perspective, the praise of the Psalms reflects a joy over being restored to life; [9] it is the “laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated”;[10] it is “rejoicing with the God who Himself has eternal joy and is eternal joy;”[11] it is “the deep confidence that God is good and that God’s goodness somehow prevails.”[12]

If you’re thinking that this sounds like the disciples’ joy over the presence of the kingdom of God in our Gospel lesson for today, I think you’re right. Jesus continually bore witness to the joy of the Kingdom—in his parables, in his proclamation of the Gospel, and in his life. Much of what the Gospel of Jesus the Christ represents is joy from the faith that God’s kingdom of grace and new life is already transforming this world. And that conviction frees us so that we can live joyfully now![13]

Think of the joy that Jesus must have felt when he said, “Blessed are the poor.” Some might wonder who in their right mind would say that! Or “blessed are you who mourn.” What’s so “blessed” about grief and sorrow? But Jesus wasn’t looking at life through rose-colored glasses. He was looking ahead with joy to God’s future, where the sorrowing would be comforted, the poor would be supplied with all their needs, and the oppressed would be set free to live the lives they were meant to live. He was looking for the day when God would turn all the mourning in the world into dancing with joy over the new life he has given us all. And he was filled with joy because he knew that God’s kingdom of grace and new life are already at work making all things new![14]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/8/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, on Ps. 30:5, quoted in H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 355.

[3] J. Moltmann, “Look, Everything Has Become New,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 35.

[4] J. Moltmann, “Joy in the Revolution of God,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 114.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II:1, 654.

[6] Patrick D. Miller, “In Praise and Thanksgiving” Theology Today 45 (July 1988): 186; he calls this “joy in anticipation.”

[7] Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 357.

[8] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 140-41; cf. Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 31, where he says that only God can be the true source of our joy. Cf. also ibid., 18, 48.

[9] Walter J. Burghardt, S. J. “Gospel Joy,” The Living Pulpit (Oct-Dec 1996): 38-39.

[10] J. Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 72, 73, 74.

[11] Barth, Church Dogmatics II:1, 649.

[12] Nouwen, Mourning Into Dancing, 51.

[13] Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 78, 80, 190-91; cf. also J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 97-98.

[14] Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Joy,” in The New Being, 150; cf. J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 152-53.

“The Path of Life”

Psalm 16; Gal.5:13-25[1]

I can think of a no more fitting way to commemorate the values that led to the formation of the United States of America than by designating this day as “Immigration Sunday.” There are two reasons for this. First, we are a nation of immigrants, and that is part of what makes us great. My grandfather’s grandfather came here in 1852 looking for freedom after the democratic revolution in Germany failed. The man who runs our local bakery was one of the “boat people” who escaped from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Our housekeeper, who has been a part of Kristi’s family longer than me, is a newly naturalized citizen from Mexico. The man who runs our favorite local burger joint is a Presbyterian layman from Seoul, Korea. The physician who prescribed the machine that is making it possible for me to sleep for the first time in 15 years is from India. And our beautiful new niece was born in China. We are a nation of immigrants, and that is part of what makes us great!

Second, the Bible makes it clear that God is a God of wanderers—from Abram to David to Jesus himself, God has wandered with and in his people, who migrated out of desire or necessity. It should come as no surprise that hospitality is one of the prime expressions of faith in the Bible. God’s people were to practice hospitality and kindness because we all share the same Father in heaven.[2] The same is true for us today because in the stranger who is hungry and naked we encounter Christ.

Our Psalm text for the day is a song of trust in the Lord. What we have to understand, however, is that in the Psalms trust is more than just a feeling or a “spiritual” experience.[3] “Trust” is a commitment to way of life and a kind of conduct that is shaped by the commands of God. In Psalm 16, the psalmist alludes to the first commandment: “you shall have no other gods before me”! Here, genuine faith in God is expressed in a life that is committed wholly to God and that avoids the idolatry of anything that would claim one’s ultimate allegiance.[4]

The Psalmist expresses confidence that God will show him “the path of life” by rescuing him and protecting him from danger. There is, however, another sense in which God has shown him the path of life. The Psalmist alludes to fact that God has directed him to “the path of life” through God’s word (Ps. 16:7). From the perspective of biblical ethics, this extended sense of “the path of life” is defined by God’s truth and God’s justice : “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” (Micah 6:8). Throughout the Bible, a chief mark of the commitment to this “path of life” is compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the alien.[5]

This is “the path of life”—it is the path of justice, of goodness, of love that makes life thrive. The kingdom of God represents a completely different set of values from those that we typically cherish: renouncing one’s rights instead of demanding them; instead of grasping for as much as we can get, giving all we have away for the benefit of others.[6]

I think Paul has this in mind when he speaks of being led by the Spirit of God to bear the “Fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is what a life that is under the guidance of the Spirit looks like. And the motto of such a life is: “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but serve one another through love” (Galatians 5:13).

When I listen to what is being said about immigrants—whether documented or undocumented, it doesn’t look much like the fruit of the Spirit or the path of life. Much of what I hear is angry and bitter and selfish. But scripture, our confessions and our consciences remind us is that we as Christians cannot fail to consider immigrants—regardless of their legal situation—as fellow human beings created in the image of God, and as brothers and sisters in Christ.

One of our men will be leading us in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” later in the service. Although the title and some of the words are a bit militaristic, don’t let that fool you. The hymn was written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, who was active in the anti-slavery cause.[7] It was used during the Civil War to inspire young men to fight for the cause of abolition. Granted, many of the soldiers who fought in the Union armies were not there because of any conscious commitment to freeing the slaves. But many were. And they sang that song because they believed that they were fighting for the cause of God’s justice. And what specifically were they fighting for? For the rights of people who had been brought here against their will and forced into slavery—people who were resident aliens far from their homelands.

I hope we can join in with him in singing this song as a way of committing ourselves afresh to God’s truth, which is the truth of love; and to God’s justice, which is the justice of compassion; and to God’s kingdom, which is a kingdom defined not by building fences but by giving oneself away in service to others.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/1/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Book of Confessions, “The Confession of 1967”: “God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family.” (9.41)

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 86.

[4] J. David Pleins, Psalms—Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice, 51; H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 236.

[5] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

[6]J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 163-96; Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 293-312.

[7] See the article, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Battle_Hymn_of_the_Republic .

“What Can Be Done?”

Psalm 42-43[1]

When you look around at the world today, I think it’s more and more prevalent for people who care to feel helpless and hopeless. We tend to think of young people as the future, and that can be reassuring—until you step off into the alternate reality called MySpace! If you’ve ever browsed the MySpace pages of the good kids, you find links to other kids who are doing all kinds of things! The older I get the more I feel disturbed by the way things are going. It’s all to easy to say, “What can be done?” and give up.

The 1999 film The Insider is about a former executive within one of the major tobacco companies who is fired and decides to blow the whistle on them. In 1994, several of the major tobacco CEO’s testified before congress that there was no evidence that nicotine was physically addictive. The Insider is about a real interview between Dr. Jeffrey Wigand and Mike Wallace of the CBS show “60 Minutes.” What Dr. Wigand reveals is evidence that not only did the tobacco executives know that nicotine is addictive, they also added other chemicals to enhance the addictive power of their products!

Of course, in public they denied all of this. The tobacco companies launched a major smear campaign against Dr. Wigand and the CBS producer who arranged the interview, Lowell Bergman. In the end, however, the truth came out and the tobacco companies were forced to tell the truth about what they had been doing. This, of course, led to a multi-billion dollar lawsuit and reforms in tobacco advertisement [of course, none of this applies overseas, where their campaigns to create young new addicts world-wide are hugely successful!]

Before 1995, who would have believed that such powerful corporations would be made to admit their wrongdoing? I’m sure there was much hand-wringing in those days—“what can be done?”

Psalm 42 and 43 belong to a time when it seemed that there was nothing to be done. Society has collapsed: morally, due to abandonment of true standards of justice; politically, due to widespread corruption; and nationally, due to a crisis like the Babylonian exile—when all the best and brightest of Israel were deported. The situation is one that seems hopeless: the Psalmist can say, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’ ” Because God seems absent, the situation seems beyond redeeming.

And yet the Psalmist cannot help but cry out to God for help. He expresses his longing for God in words that call to mind a man trapped in a desert wasteland thirsting for water. That is the intensity of the Psalmists longing. What is important here is that his longing is for God—not necessarily for justice, or vindication, or redemption, but for God. In the midst of what seems like a hopeless situation, the Psalmist’s cry is, “send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.” Ultimately, the Psalmist knows that the final answer to all his needs is the presence of God.[2]

How does this Psalm direct us in our day and time? When we look around at our world and feel helpless and hopeless, what can we do?

Well, for one thing, I think we can realize that simplistic solutions don’t really help. The cry, “What can be done?” is often used as a banner for those who claim that every thing would be right again if we just return to the good old days. Unfortunately, when you look more closely, you find that the “good old days” weren’t all that good! In past times, many believed that the way to change the world is to educate people—if they are educated they will make better choices. The current generation of children have undergone the most extensive anti-drug and anti-smoking campaign in history! Yet smoking among young people seems to be on the rise! Others advocate that legislation is the answer. They think that if we can just elect the right people in Austin and Washington, we can get back on track. The final “solution” is to just chuck it all—withdraw and let the world “go to hell in an hand basket”! But none of these alternatives really help us when it seems hopeless.

I think one thing that we can do is to choose to follow the voice of conscience that warns us against the compromises our culture would force on us. As Dr. Jeffrey Wigand’s story shows us, following your conscience can be difficult and costly, but the alternative is to loose your very soul.

I think at the end of the day, however, what the Psalmist shows us is the best answer. When everything seems hopeless and you feel helpless, the best “solution” is to hold on to the vision of God’s kingdom—that the God who made heaven and earth and all that is in them is able to restore all things in his new creation. And along with that, we can trust that God will sustain us with his presence in the meanwhile.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/24/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] A. Weiser, Psalms, 352; P. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 134, 329; C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 52.

“Mischief’s Course”

Psalm 5; Luke 7:36-50[1]

In the funeral scene from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, after Brutus justifies his murder, Mark Antony rises to eulogize Caesar. Antony takes advantage of the situation to incite the very crowd that was about to crown Brutus to run him out of town. It’s clear that Antony does so intentionally, for after his speech he remarks that the mischief he has let out will now take its own course. But what Antony doesn’t know is that mischief’s course will lead to his own death in the end!

There is something inherently self-destructive about evil. When you choose to do what you know to be wrong, you give away a part of yourself. If it’s a little thing, you don’t necessarily notice it. But when it’s something big, it’s another story. Unfortunately, little compromises tend to lead to big ones.

There seems to be something programmed into the nature of life itself that eventually undoes evil. I think part of the reason for this is that when we choose to lie instead of speaking truth, when we choose violence over peace, when we choose selfishness over love, we are only hurting ourselves in the long run. When we choose actions that destroy the net of human relationships, we are cutting the very cords that support and sustain us. When we spew venom and hatred at someone else, we are poisoning the very waters we live on.

We live in a world that sometimes seems as if it has gone mad with greed and hatred and selfishness and lies. It’s all too easy to be frightened by it all and simply hide away. Unfortunately, however much we hide we cannot escape it. The problem with evil is that it spills over onto everything and everyone. It ultimately affects many more than just a particular “victim” or “perpetrator.”

When evil gets around to assaulting us individually, we can easily find ourselves taking the viewpoint of the Psalmist in today’s lesson. The setting of Psalm 5 is one of a hearing in the Temple precincts, where the victim of slander seeks to be exonerated by God. He sees himself as innocent of the slander, and as one who is in the right in God’s sight. By definition, therefore, his opponent must be in the wrong, and therefore must be “evil.” Not only does he assume that God will favor him in the outcome, but also that the “evildoer” cannot even appear before the Lord.[2]

Anyone who has experienced slander knows the feelings that the Psalmist is expressing. When you’re the victim of slander, there’s really nothing you can do about it. That’s why slander is so evil—you can destroy a person’s life simply by saying something they cannot refute.[3] And that kind of helplessness in the face of slander fuels the rage we can sense in the Psalm.

Although he is confident of vindication, the crisis is so severe that the Psalmist seems to think that the only way for him to be satisfied is for his “enemy” to be destroyed![4] The Psalmist takes comfort at the prospect that the “wicked” will be destroyed—in fact, he seems to positively gloat about it! We may find ourselves taking comfort from similar thoughts in view of the problems in our world today.

But that is not the truth of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ! A look at our gospel lesson for today shows us that “righteous” and “evil” are not necessarily what we make them out to be.[5] As Jesus dines at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a woman who is simply identified as a “sinner” approaches Jesus and washes and anoints his feet. Of course, the fact that Simon is a Pharisee means by definition that he’s “righteous.” I’m sure that Simon thought about as highly of the woman as the Psalmist thought of his “enemy.” I would think that he had already relegated her to the fires of perdition.

But Jesus responds differently, and in so doing turns the tables. He responds to the sinful woman with compassion and forgiveness, and her reaction makes it clear that Jesus’ kindness has brought healing to her.[6] Jesus turns the tables on Simon by showing precisely that his hateful disdain for this woman is in fact an evil that is far more destructive than any “immorality” she may have committed. In essence, the “sinful” woman goes away restored, and Simon is left to stew in his own bitterness! So who is truly “right” in God’s sight and who is truly “wicked”?

One thing that the Gospels make clear is that there is no place in the kingdom of God for a self-righteous attitude that spews hateful venom on anyone—no matter how appalling their “sin” might be! No one who has had a life-changing encounter with Jesus the Christ can pray the way the Psalmist does—presuming to be right with God while calling down destruction on the “wicked”—without feeling the pangs of hypocrisy.[7] Just like the evil of the “wicked,” so also the self-serving indignation of the “righteous” must submit to God’s kingdom.[8]

Elsewhere the Gospels tell us that Jesus shows us a different way to resolve the problem of evil than simply designating the “wicked” for destruction!

Jesus shows us the way of reconciliation; he shows us the way of forgiveness.[9] I think we can take comfort that Evil will not stand—not because it will be destroyed, but because it will be redeemed. Yes, even a “sinner” thought to be beyond hope and help will be redeemed. And yes, even a self-righteous Pharisee eaten up with hatred and bitterness will be redeemed. That is the way of God’s “righteousness”—to bring evil to its end by redeeming it![10]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/17/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] H. –J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 154-58.

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 58.

[4] Mays, Psalms, 59.

[5] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 114. He wisely points out that our definitions of “righteous” and “sinner” usually reinforce social values that empower the “righteous” and oppress the “sinners.”

[6] Paul Tillich, “To Whom Much is Forgiven …,” in The New Being, 9-10: “Forgiveness creates repentance.”

[7] Mays, Psalms, 56.

[8] W. Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 85-86.

[9] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 130-31; Paul Tillich, “To Whom Much is Forgiven …,” 7-8: “Forgiveness means reconciliation in spite of estrangement; it means reunion in spite of hostility; it means acceptance of those who are unacceptable, and it means reception of those who are rejected.”

[10] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.”

“God’s Justice”

Psalm 146; Luke 7:11-17[1]

Justice is a relative term in our society—it depends on your perspective. To some extent, that is built into our system of justice. 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.” I guess you can say that justice “is in the eye of the beholder.”

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 for the day spells it out pretty clearly: God’s justice means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the “strangers” or resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. It means that those on the margins of social power—those who are not a part of the group that passes out legal decisions—not only have someone who advocates on their behalf with the “powers that be,” but also have someone who takes concrete steps to make their lot in life better.

Simply put—God’s justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive. God’s justice is no respecter of special interests! 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. It does not discriminate based on how many cars you own, the kind of car you drive, or even if you have a car! You get the idea—God’s justice makes life flourish for all—no exceptions!

I think the nature of God’s justice is dramatically illustrated by the story of some 50 African slaves on the Spanish schooner La Amistad. On June 27, 1839, the Amistad left from HavanaCuba. transporting the Africans to another part of Five days later, one of the Africans named Cinqué managed to free himself and the other captives. They took the ship but spared the lives of the two slave owners, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, with the understanding that they would return the ship to Africa.

However, they deceived the Africans and steered the Amistad north along the coast of the United States where the ship was sighted repeatedly. After 2 months at sea, they dropped anchor half a mile off Long Island, New York. Some of the Africans went on shore to procure water and provisions, and the vessel was discovered by the USS Washington under the command of a Lt. Gedney. He took custody of the Amistad and the Africans, and he took them to the state of Connecticut and presented a claim for possession of the vessel, the cargo, and the Africans.

That was just the beginning of the judicial maze of selfish interests who claimed the right to the vessel and the Africans. Everyone from Lt. Gedney to Mssrs. Ruiz and Montez to the government of Spain got involved, filing suit to claim ownership. Even Vice President Martin Van Buren tried to use them for political “capital” with the southern States in the upcoming election. And I’m sure every one of them had their own idea about what “justice” should look like—meaning that they wanted the courts to rule in their favor. With all the selfish interests involved in this case—some of them very powerful—it’s a wonder that in fact the courts declared the Africans to be free men and women who had been illegally kidnapped. They were given their freedom, and an anti-slavery group raised the funds to transport them back to their home in what is now Sierra Leone.

In my view, this is an excellent example of what the Scriptures call justice. These people, who were illegally taken from their homes and their families, were given the chance to return to their lives. That’s the kind of justice that the Bible advocates. It gives everyone the chance to live the lives they were meant to live. Of course, defining what that looks like in specific situations isn’t always easy: what about someone who has committed a terrible crime? What about someone who lives from one drink to the next in a ramshackle shack under a bridge? What does God’s justice mean for those who have lost the joy of living because they traded it away for the comfort and convenience of wealth? Our world presents us with all kinds of situations that erode life. While there are no easy solutions in most of these cases, I think one thing that God’s justice means is change—from selfish to selfless living. God’s justice is for us all, and it enables us all, both the upright and the outcasts, to live a life that is full and meaningful because it directs us to the path of life.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/10/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

“(Not) Waiting on the World to Change”

Psalm 104:24-30; Acts 2:1-21[1]

One of my favorite contemporary musicians is a young man—a very young man—named John Mayer. He released his first album in 1999 at the ripe old age of 22. Not only is he one of the most accomplished guitarists of his generation, but he also has a talent for songwriting. One of his current hits is a song called “Waiting on the World to Change.” In fact, with it he won a Grammy Award this year for the “Best Male Pop Vocal Performance” (his second, by the way). In it, he makes the claim that the younger generation is not disinterested or uncommitted, they’re just waiting on the world to change. He says they see those who hold the power not playing by the rules, so they figure they can’t really make a difference until something changes.[2]

I can certainly understand the sentiment. It seems the more you learn about Washington and Wall Street these days, the easier it is to get cynical about our world. It seems that politicians these days couldn’t tell the truth to save their lives. And corporate CEO’s like Ken Lay have given a whole host of new meanings to the phrase “robber baron.” When you take it all in, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that it’s better not to get involved at all.

But as much as I’d prefer to choose that option myself, it’s definitely not a Christian perspective on things! For the last several weeks we’ve been talking about the lessons of Easter—that God is in the process of transforming everything and everyone.[3] That the new life that came to light in the resurrection will renew all creation. That the life and love and joy and hope we have through Christ are a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.[4]

All these lessons also apply to Pentecost, because it is through the Spirit of God that we experience these wonders. Everything that God offers us with the gift of salvation—new life, love, hope, joy, freedom from everything that binds us, the restoration of all things—is the work of the Spirit of Life (Rom. 8:11, CEV: “God raised Jesus to life! God's Spirit now lives in you, and he will raise you to life by his Spirit”).[5]

In our Psalm text for today, the Spirit is the one who brings life, the one who renews creation, the one who promotes the glory of God. This text reminds us that in Scripture there is nothing that falls outside the reach of the Spirit. The Psalmist says that the Spirit sustains the whole of creation (Ps. 104:29-30)![6] And the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts affirms that the Spirit is constantly present in everyone and everything that lives. Pentecost constitutes the fulfillment of God’s promise that “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17/Joel 2:28).

I wonder if we’re prepared to accept the implications of that amazing statement. What happens when God pours out his life-giving Spirit on “all flesh”? It seems to me that what happens is that all creation participates in “the unbounded fullness of the divine life.”[7] When God pours out the Spirit on “all flesh,” the Spirit fills everything with new life![8]

Like the resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost points us to the time when God will be “all in all”: “when … the God who has created everything and redeemed everything will so indwell his creation” that God fills everything and everyone with his life and his beauty and his love.[9] And what Pentecost means to us is that we already experience that life-giving presence now!

Like the resurrection, Pentecost is an anticipation of God’s promise to make all things new. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead means that “in the midst of the history of death, the future of the new creation and the glory of God has already dawned in this one person.”[10] And the outpouring of the Spirit of life on Pentecost means that God’s new creation has not only dawned in this one person—also in all of us who follow him![11]

When you look at the world we live in and its overwhelming problems from that perspective, it’s not so easy after all to take the path of cynicism and to stay safely uninvolved. The fact of the matter is that the extent to which we embrace this hope affects way we put our “hope in action.”[12] If we see ourselves as a community of people who are a people defined by the resurrection of Jesus the Christ and by the outpouring of God’s Spirit of life, then we will orient our lives to the hope of redemption that goes with them[13]—which means we will “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice.” It means we will seek to be instruments of the life and peace and joy and freedom and love that we have been given through God’s Spirit.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/27/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Mayer himself says it this way, “I tried to express the feelings of helplessness that come with knowing what needs to change in the world but also knowing the futility of trying.” John Mayer, “(Not) Waiting On The World To Change - Entry No. 1,” posted at on April 26, 2007. In this entry, he advocates working for change in the area of global warming.

[3] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256.

[4] Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 220, 254; J. Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 87.

[5] J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 204-5; Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 296; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:15; J. L. Mays, Psalms, 336-37.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-10, 96, 98-103.

[7] Moltmann, God in Creation, 9, 14, 67-69, 91, 96, 212-13, 258, 270.

[8] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 191.

[9] Moltmann, In the End, 155, 158.

[10] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 98-99.

[11] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 294-95.

[12] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 222, 225, 275

[13] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 293.

“Open Invitation”

Rev. 22:12-17, 20-21[1]

As many Bible readers will attest, there is a curious “tug-of-war” going on in the Bible. Several of them, actually! There is the one between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. There is the one between the more “institutional” approach to religion of the keepers of the Temple and the more “ethical” approach of prophets. There is also a “tug-of war” in the Bible between what one theologian calls “exclusion” and “embrace.”[2]

There are many passages of scripture that emphasize “God’s people” as unique, distinct, set apart from other peoples. And along with that go observances that reinforce the barriers, like food laws and observing a Sabbath day. It is the language of “exclusion.”

There are also many passages of scripture that emphasize that God’s ultimate purpose in choosing a people for himself is to bring all peoples into the embrace of God’s love and God’s life. Along with that point of view go visions of a far-reaching and all-inclusive mission to carry the good news of God’s love to all nations. It is the language of “embrace.”[3]

This “tug-of-war” is going on within the Book of Revelation, as we have seen several times in our Bible studies. The question is what do we do with it? Just about everyone who reads the Bible finds a way to resolve this “tug-of-war,” usually by defaulting to one side or the other.

Many theologians remind us, however, that the Biblical calls to “separate” oneself with an identity distinct from those around us in fact constitute commissions to serve as ambassadors for God’s love and mercy and justice among those who are “strangers.” The language of “exclusion” in the Bible is intended for the most part to be understood not as a privilege but as a call to service, to mission.[4]

The book of Revelation doesn’t easily resolve in that fashion. As I’ve mentioned before, it seems that there are some dynamics going on in the background of the book that get in the way of this biblical transformation of exclusion into embrace. It seems that the communities John was addressing were facing severe threats from those outside the Christian community. In the face of possible loss of livelihood, or family and social ties, or possibly even loss of limb and life, it seems that this message of commission to service hardened into the language of retreat and isolation, into the language of “outsiders” being banished and excluded.

I wonder if our situation is much different from theirs. Most of us don’t face the loss of limb or life over our Christian faith. But it seems nevertheless that we have retreated and isolated ourselves from those whom we judge “different.” It seems that we too have made the lines between ourselves and “outsiders” more rigid.[5] One of the great tasks facing the Christian family today is to overcome this dynamic that robs us of our impulse for mission. One way to overcome this ideology of “exclusion” is to recapture our identity with all peoples.[6]

The 1997 movie As Good as it Gets illustrates, I think, both our dilemma and the possibility of resolving it. The film is about three very unlikely people—Melvin, Carol, and Simon—who form a community in the midst of the isolation of a mean and uncaring New York City. Melvin is a misanthropic novelist—a person who hates people but makes a lot of money writing stories about people! He is obsessive-compulsive, and demanding, and mean. And he’s really just trying to protect himself from getting hurt. Simon, Melvin’s neighbor, is a gay man who is struggling to work as an artist. But Simon is haunted by the ghost of his parents, who have shunned him completely for his lifestyle. Carol, a single mother, works in a corner café and works to care for her son whose asthma is actually life-threatening—at least due to the incompetence of the “adolescent” doctors who work in the county hospital’s emergency ward.

As different as they may seem, this odd threesome are connected by their common humanity. Of course, that’s not readily apparent at first. Melvin eats breakfast every day at the diner where Carol works, and he only wants her to wait on him, which is good since the others have refused to do so! And Melvin regularly berates and attacks his neighbor Simon, mostly because he hates Simon’s dog!

But life has a way of playing just the right jokes on us: when Simon is brutally beaten, Melvin has to take care of the dog! But as ugly as the little thing truly is, he opens himself and begins to care a great deal for this creature. When Simon gets out of the hospital, Melvin agrees to drive him to New Jersey to ask his parents for help; but he asks Carol to come along for “moral support.” The trip is revealing—that Melvin is in love with Carol; and that Carol, despite herself, is actually falling for Melvin. She discovers that, under his intentionally offensive behavior is a very sensitive and caring human being. So sensitive and caring, in fact, that he actually moves Simon into his apartment to support him until he gets back on his feet!

It is a story filled with the surprises that are in store for us all if we will get out from behind the walls we have built to keep people away from us and to keep us safely away from them. As one reviewer puts it, the moral of the story is: “Don't judge people too quickly. Never write anyone off. Even the weirdest and most irritating people are full of surprises. Everyone is capable of love.”[7]

That’s the kind of perspective we need in order to overcome our rigid lines of exclusion we have drawn and embrace the people around us—all the people around us—as human beings whom God loves and longs to redeem.[8]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/20/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] M. Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 22-31.

[3] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 224.

[4] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 224-25, 284-85, 289, 333-38; J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83-85.

[5] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 72-79

[6] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 69-71, 100, 118, 140-47.

[7] Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat, “Film Review: As Good As It Gets”; accessed at

[8] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 214.