Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The One who Sets Things Right

Jer 23:1-6[1]

We live in a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.[2] We live in a world where money makes the world go around, where might makes right and the race doesn’t always go to the one who deserves it. We live in a world governed by people elected not necessarily because they are the most qualified for the job, but because they have the slickest campaign. We live in a world where billionaires buy off representatives and senators in order to ensure that they keep getting a bigger slice of the pie.[3] And we live in a world where the ones who control the army also get to control aid money worth billions—funds intended to help the ones who have no food, no clean water, and improper sanitation, but that all too often end up enriching those who hold the purse strings.

Most of this is beyond dispute as a description of “the way it is.” My question, as we approach a time of year when we look for something better coming, is simple: why? Why, when the reality of injustice and violence and oppression and suffering is so obvious all around us, do we think we should look for something better? After all, some spiritual leaders will tell you that the only way to successfully manage our lives is to accept reality as it is. Wanting something different from what we have is a prescription for perpetual unhappiness and dissatisfaction. The way to “get along” is to “go along” with the way things are.

But there is a voice deep within us that simply will not let us go there—not without a fight. Not without the gut-wrenching stress of trying to live in denial of what we know to be the truth. Or not without generous doses of chemical anesthetics designed to make us feel nothing at all. The voice within us tells us the way things are is not the way things ought to be. In fact, whether we like it or not, sometimes that voice screams at us to get us to pay attention to what has gone wrong in our world. Down deep inside, we know that we were not made for the injustice and violence and oppression and suffering that define our world.

In a very real sense, I think it was that same voice that drove the prophets of ancient Israel to proclaim so loudly that the injustice that was rampant in the courts of the king would lead to the nation’s downfall. At least part of the reason for that was because the prophets also had one eye on the covenant Israel had made with their God—a covenant that included stipulations for all people to have an equal access to the means of making a living, a covenant that included the command to welcome the immigrant and the wanderers and the strangers, a covenant that included the demand to care for the weakest in society—those who were impoverished, who were forsaken, and who were excluded from the structures of life.[4]

When the prophets looked at the reality of the way the “covenant people” lived, what they saw appalled them. It wasn’t much different from our reality—the wealthy continued to get richer at the expense of the poor. The upper class indulged in conspicuous luxuries while the vast majority of people lacked basic necessities. The powerful took every possible advantage to gain more power, more wealth, and more land, not thinking twice about whom they were exploiting or enslaving or even murdering.

And right in the middle of all of this injustice, all this violence and oppression, all this suffering, sat the King. Now what we have to understand about the Kings of Israel and Judah is that they were intended to be representatives of God’s reign over the people. They were the ones who were supposed to ensure that all people were treated fairly, that they were free from violence and oppression, and that they were able to thrive in their daily living. They were supposed to be “shepherds” to the people—protecting them, caring for them, ensuring they had their needs met. But the reality of the Kings of Israel and Judah is that, more often than not they were complicit in the injustice that wracked the land, if not the very instigators in the first place.

And because the prophets had one eye on the covenant and the justice God intended for the people, and the other eye on the ones who were supposed to promote and maintain that justice but consistently failed to do so, they began to speak of one who was to come.[5] This one would be a true shepherd, not like the false “shepherds” who exploited the flock. This one would enact true justice, not the usurpation of power and wealth that masqueraded as justice. This one would bring true peace, peace that made it possible for all of them to thrive, not just the top 1% of the upper class, the richest of the rich. This one would be called “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6, NRSV), or “Yahweh is our saving justice” (NJB) or “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right” (The Message)! The prophets were looking for the true king—the one we await during the season of Advent.

I don’t believe that is merely so much wishful thinking, or that it is foolish and positively harmful to look for this one who will set things right. I think looking for something better is wired into us at the very core of our being. Then as now, for those of us who will listen to that voice of conscience within us, it is plain as the nose on your face that the way things are is not the way things ought to be. And that leads us inevitably to look for something better—or perhaps in this case someone better. Someone who will instead oversee all who live and all of creation (no exceptions!) in a way that brings joy and peace and life to us all.[6]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/21/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Timothy Noah, “The United States of Inequality,” published Sept. 3, 2010 at

[3] Cf. Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations,” The New Yorker Aug. 30, 2010; accessed at

[4] Cf, Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreters Bible VI:745, where he points out that the benchmark for justice was “the weakest members of the community, the powerless and the marginalized, the economically depressed and the vulnerable.” He adds, by contrast (p. 746), “We tend to turn the matter on its head and assume that the good society is one that allows those with economic means to hold on to them and not worry too much about those who have nothing.”

[5] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Magic Kingdom,” The Christian Century Nov. 22, 1989:1083, who says, “The rule of justice and peace will not be created by the political configurations of the present age. They have already been condemned by God for destroying what should be protected.”

[6] Our Confession of 1967 puts it this way: “It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.”

God is Here to Help

Isa. 65:17-25; Isa. 12[1]

There are a lot of things I think the church has gotten backwards. Whoever came up with the bright idea that the way to motivate people to do better at life was to tell them just how rotten they are? That always worked for me and my kids—NOT! And where is it written that the way to convince people to have faith in God is to threaten them with horrible torture—for all eternity! And why in the world did they depict God as one who essentially hates the vast majority of the people who have ever lived?

Well, I think this also applies to popular notions about the end of the world. Where did people ever come up with the idea that God is planning on destroying creation and massacring humanity? And yet, if you listen to what the church has traditionally said about the end of the world, it would seem that is precisely what they believe! So here’s the ultimate contradiction—whose who claim to be people of faith turn out to be the ultimate pessimists. That is, when it comes to the destiny of everybody else, of course.

And yet, in the midst of all that fear-mongering, what I would consider to be the heart of the Bible’s message continues to hold out a beautiful and exciting hope. We find this perspective in our lessons from Isaiah today. One of the first things that stands out to me is the very realistic nature of the destiny the prophets saw as the ultimate outcome God has in store.[2] He says it this way: “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime” (Isa. 65: 20); and “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21); and “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isa. 65:25). It is a vision of children thriving, and of people living full and fulfilling lives. It is a vision of houses built, and vineyards planted. It is a vision that includes even natural enemies in the animal kingdom living together in harmony. Rather than moaning about gloom and doom, Isaiah virtually breaks into song over the destiny God has in store for the world and all who inhabit it.

And this beautiful vision is based on the “magnificent deeds” God has done and will continue to do.[3] It began with the covenant that consisted of a promise—to Israel’s ancestors and great leaders—that God would give them the gift of peace that would enable them to thrive. But over the centuries, the covenant was broken and peace was marred by injustice and corruption. And so Jerusalem was destroyed and her people languished in exile. But here Isaiah articulates the vision that Jerusalem will be restored. The implication is that God will fulfill all the promises—if not immediately, then eventually.

Isaiah’s vision continues with language of liberation. In a context where the reality of life was such that conquerors continually displaced the people, taking their children away from them, throwing them out of their homes and off their own lands, Isaiah envisions a new exodus for them. Just as God liberated the children of Israel from slavery and oppression in Egypt, in Isaiah’s vision, the people will be brought back from exile to live in their own land free from the fear of conquest.

But Isaiah’s vision doesn’t just concern Israel and her people. In a very real sense, the restoration of Jerusalem leads to the restoration of the whole world.[4] And the liberation of Israel from captivity in exile leads to the liberation of the whole world. Not only do all the nations receive the good news of God’s magnificent deeds, but this destiny God has in store for Jerusalem includes all peoples—even those Israel might have labeled “enemies”—who in that day will join together in worshipping and serving the God of peace and justice and mercy.[5] Isaiah’s vision extends to all creation—even the animal kingdom is to be transformed when God fulfills the promises and liberates the people. Indeed, what Isaiah envisions is a whole “new heavens and new earth”; a whole new creation that is “very good” just as the original creation was at the beginning!

What a vision! In stark contradiction to the fear mongers who seem to delight in painted God as a sadistic mass-murderer, the Bible insists that what God will do at the end of all things will be consistent with what God has always done: Create a world full of beauty; assure a wayward people again and again of the love that will never change; set people free from everything that binds them. It is a vision of God working to restore all things—include our animal friends—to the original harmony of creation.[6]

The God of Creation, the God of Exodus, and the God of the Covenant brings all things and all peoples into beautiful peace and joyous freedom that makes for a full and fulfilled life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think God looks anything like the “god” some church people talk about! The God of this vision is the God who is “our salvation” (Isa. 12:2); or as one “children’s” version of the Bible puts it, the God who is here to help!

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/14/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. John W. de Gruchy, “A New Heaven and a New Earth,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 105 (November 1999): 68, “Biblical hope is not located somewhere beyond the world, but in this world.”

[3] Cf. de Gruchy, 66: the prophets are not in denial of the harsh realities faced by the people of Israel, but they hold onto faith in the God of Covenant and the God of Exodus.

[4] Cf. de Gruchy, 69: in Isaiah’s vision, “Peace in Jerusalem brings peace to the world.”

[5] Cf. de Gruchy, 69: “Biblical hope cannot be nationalistically or ethnically confined.”

[6] Cf. Christopher Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:551; cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 246.

Recovering Wonder

Ps. 65; Luke 18:9-14[1]

It seems to me that we as a people find it incredibly hard to be astonished about much of anything these days. I’m not sure why that is, exactly. Maybe it’s because we can only imagine what someone can portray for us on some kind of screen. Maybe it’s because we have been so shocked at human behavior that we have no more capacity for astonishment. Maybe it’s because we’re too wrapped up in our own man-made lives. After all, it’s hard to feel awe and wonder at much of anything when we’re surrounded by steel and concrete and glass all the time.

In our Psalm for today, we hear a call to worship, which also means a call to awe and wonder. And why are we summoned to worship God? Because God has acted with awe-inspiring signs of deliverance! And what specifically astonishing deeds has God done to inspire such awe? The Psalmist says it this way, “You visit the earth and water it”; “you provide the people with grain”! You might be tempted to interrupt at this point—these are things that we are able to control all by ourselves. We don’t need God to provide food or keep the cycle of precipitation going.

Okay, I’ll give you that one. But the Psalmist also calls attention to the astonishing deed of creation: “By your strength you established the mountains.” Some of you might be persuaded here, but others may still be shaking their heads. We can construct a plausible explanation for the origins of the universe without resorting to God, thank you very much!

Well, I think that’s a stretch, but for the sake of argument I might give you that one, too. The Psalmist has one more answer—the astonishing deed of salvation: “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgression.” I think I may have most of you now, but there may still be some who are skeptical. It’s that old bug-a-boo of “sin” that keeps us under the thumb of religion.

I’m afraid we have gotten to the place where we’ve lost all sense of wonder. The Psalmist, like many of the biblical witnesses, insists that the work of God is something astonishing—from the vastness of the cosmos to the tenderness of new life. It ought to promote a sense of awe and wonder; it ought to provoke fear and trembling. But I’m afraid that increasingly it doesn’t—why is that?

I wonder if our religion doesn’t play a significant role in all of this. You may find this hard to believe, but in my opinion religion tends to use “God” primarily as a means of controlling our lives. When we diminish God in this way, it’s no wonder that we lose the capacity for awe and wonder. In a very real sense, we turn our God, the living God who has been acclaimed as the creator of the cosmos and the redeemer of those who trust him, into just another version of Baal. If you don’t recognize the name, that was what the people of antiquity called their various “gods”. There was the “Baal” of weather, and the “Baal” of crops and the “Baal” of flocks and the “Baal” of family. You get the idea—every aspect of life was viewed to be under the control of a man-made deity. But in a very real sense, those other gods were simply the means for people to feel like they were in control of their lives. They “used” their “gods” to get what they wanted in life—children, food, and safety.

Before we start shaking our heads at the naïve foolishness of those “primitive” people, we should remember that we’re not much different. We want the same thing they did—control over our lives. I remind you that for every astonishing deed the Psalmist mentions as a reason for honoring God, we can come up with an explanation that puts us firmly in control of every aspect of our lives. [2] At least in our own minds.

I wonder if this isn’t at least part of what was going on with the one who exalted himself in Jesus’ parable. His prayer is one that is only superficially couched in terms of thanksgiving. The real content of his prayer is self-congratulation. I think that’s one of the serious pitfalls in a religion that turns God into a means of controlling our lives—it’s really a matter of worshipping our own ability to make our lives turn out the way we want them to.

And notice that the way in which this religion of self-congratulation manifests itself is by despising those we deem “less than.” And so the one who exalted himself in prayer not only congratulated himself, but also did not fail to use the opportunity to demean the tax collector.

But as Jesus said, we cannot expect to experience God’s deliverance, salvation, forgiveness, and renewal when we effectively exalt ourselves as “gods”.[3] In contrast to this rather cynical and mechanical religion that is so popular even today, the message of the Psalms is that the only way to experience God as savior is to honor God as creator and provider.[4] It may seem counterintuitive, but it is when we humbly acknowledge God’s astonishing deeds of creating us, redeeming us, and sustaining us, that we also place ourselves in the position to experience God as the one who exercises tender mercy and unfailing compassion.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/24/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:934: “In terms of security, we are convinced that we either do have or should have things under control. As for prosperity, we are generally convinced that we have earned it. From this perspective, of course, praise is due not to God but to ourselves.”

[3] Cf. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Commentary IX:341: “Trusting in oneself is obviously a posture of blindness to one’s position before God.”

[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 34: “Because ‘the LORD reigns,’ human beings may and must praise in wonder and joy, pray in dependence and gratitude, and practice the piety of trust and obedience.” Cf. also McCann, “Book of Psalms,” 793.

These are the Days

2 Tim. 3:14-17; Jer 31:31-34; Lk 18:1-8[1]

If you watch any TV at all, you are well aware that we have a whole bunch of elections just around the corner. You may be tired of hearing about it. And if you are following any of this, you know that candidates from all sides of the political field are promising to change things. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we’ve been promised so many changes, I’ve stopped believing all of them. What’s more, it’s easy for me to want to just give up on the whole sorry mess. But you know as well as I do that giving up isn’t the answer. For one reason or another, we keep trying to work for change, year in and year out, even though it sometimes seems like nothing ever changes in the way this world works.

Last week we talked about how we can count on God to always be there for us as a supportive presence. But if you’re like me, in times like these you may want more than a “supportive presence” from our God—you may want change, real change, change we can see in the world around us and in our own lives. Unfortunately, the notion of God actually intervening in our lives is complicated. Some people believe God is always working in miraculous and supernatural ways. Others believe that God isn’t capable of changing anything in our world. We see this view reflected especially in people who have suffered unspeakable atrocities, people like Elie Wiesel. And because they have suffered so much, we must always remind ourselves to treat them with utmost respect—especially when it comes to their loss of faith. Elie Wiesel was studying the Talmud and Kabbalah when he began his journey through the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. As a result, Wiesel concluded that God is impotent, helpless, unable to prevent injustice and violence, unable to really make a difference for those who place their faith in God.[2]

I think it’s likely at least some of the people Jeremiah addressed must have felt that way. Everything that meant anything to them was gone. I could imagine they were asking whether God was anything more to them than a “supportive” but ultimately powerless presence. And Jeremiah looked at the people in exile, with all their doubts and discouragement, and said to them in the name of the Lord, “the days are coming.” Days of restoration—to their homeland and the lives they had left behind. Days of rebuilding—homes and families and communities. Days of returning—returning to hope and faith and joy.

But more than just giving them their lives back, Jeremiah’s message was that God had in store something hard to imagine: a whole new relationship with God. Instead of an arrangement where God’s actions on their behalf depended to some degree on their fidelity and obedience, Jeremiah said to them in the name of the Lord that “the days are coming” when God would make a whole new arrangement—one that depends solely upon God’s unfailing love and unshakeable faithfulness. This relationship would be one in which God would actually make some changes—beginning with transforming the people of faith into people who want nothing more than love God with all their hearts and to honor God with their lives. Jeremiah, in the name of the Lord, promised a whole new way of understanding “I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:33).[3]

How could this happen? What magic would be able to take these people—flawed and fallible people like you and me; in fact probably just like you and me—and turn them into “instant saints”? Well, in some contexts, the prophets and apostles spoke of it as a transformation by the Spirit, something intangible and even to some extent perhaps even hard to trace.[4] In our NT lesson for today, St. Paul takes a more “pragmatic” approach: He suggests that it is the Scriptures themselves that are the tool God uses to make us “wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15); they are the means by which we are trained in “righteousness” and become “competent” for the work we are called to fulfill.

Whatever the means—more tangible or more spiritual—it’s clear that prophets and apostles and saints throughout the ages have looked to God for more than just a “supportive presence” in answer to all that is so troubling about our world. And they have been bold to promise in the name of the Lord that the “days are coming” when God’s presence will transform the people of faith, along with all humankind and the whole of creation. In fact, in many cases they have been bold to declare that “these are the days” when God is fulfilling the promise to fill the whole earth with the life-giving knowledge of God, with God’s saving justice that makes it possible for everyone to thrive together, with God’s shalom that brings life.

With this in mind, we can take the lesson of Jesus’ parable to heart—we can find the faith not to lose heart in the face of all that is wrong with our world. We can face it confidently, knowing that God is in the process of changing things. In the parable Jesus calls it “giving vindication” (Lk. 18:7-8). But that’s not punishment or vengeance, but rather God’s gracious work of setting things right again. Restoring the land and their lives, rebuilding homes and families and communities, returning us all to hope and faith, renewing the joy of living. We can return to the task of working for change in our world inspired by the vision that there will come a time when God’s “commonwealth of peace and freedom” will be more than just a hope and a dream; it will define all life on the face of the earth. It may seem hard to imagine, let alone believe,[5] but we can take comfort in the assurance these are the days when God is changing everything. And God is beginning that process of renewal by transforming us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/17/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See Elie Wiesel, Night, where he recounts his horrific experience.

[3] R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, 191: “what is promised is not so much a radically different covenant but a renewed form of the earlier, broken covenant.”

[4] Clements, Jeremiah, 190: “Although the word ‘spirit’ is not used, the implication is certainly that God’s Spirit will move the hearts of Israel to be obedient to the divine law.” Compare Ezekiel 36:24-28.

[5] Tillich, “Behold, I Am Doing a New Thing” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 182: “The new being is born in us, just when we least believe in it.”

Count On It

2 Tim 2:11-13; Jer. 29:4-7; Ps 66:12[1]

It’s hard to know what you can count on these days. You might expect that from a cynic like me. But when you look around, so much of what we have counted on seems to have fallen by the wayside. Here’s one for you—“stay in school and you’ll get a better job.” Well, that works up to a certain extent. But it’s a little disconcerting when the guy asking you if you want fries with your burger is wearing a button that says, “Ask me about my Ph. D.” How about, “all for one and one for all”? No, I wouldn’t count on that either. Seems it’s more “every man for himself” these days. What about “until death do us part”? Nope—I don’t think you can count on that either in this day and time.

Here’s one that we should all agree you can count on: “I will never fail you nor forsake you.” If you can’t count on God, who can you count on? I think the answer is that it depends on what your “counting on.” If you’re “counting on” God to make your dreams come true, you may find yourself disappointed. In fact, I think it’s all but certain you will find yourself disappointed.

So where does that leave us in relation to God? It belongs to the heart of the Bible’s witness that God is faithful—that God keeps all promises. I think our lesson from 2 Timothy affirms that faith: “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” I think that means we can count on God to continue to love us, to help us, to always be there for us as a supporting presence—even in the worst of times, even if we are at times “faithless” (2 Tim. 2:13).[2]

Now, many in the history of the church have understood this “promise” more in terms of a warning than an assurance: they think it means that if we fall short or lose heart or in some way undermine the faith, God will remain true to himself by punishing us accordingly![3] After all, it does say, “if we deny him, he will deny us”! But whatever “denying” and being “denied” means in this context, it has to take into account the fact that Peter specifically “denied” Jesus three times, and yet he was not “denied” but restored! [4] Even that kind of “denial” didn’t consign him to eternal condemnation. Perhaps that’s the point—even if we go to the extent of denying Christ the way Peter did, God’s faithfulness provides a way back for us.[5] Even in that extreme case, we can count on God to remain committed to us.[6]

And yet, we all face times when it seems God has in fact turned his back on us, has in fact denied us, has in fact broken faith with us. I would say that the letter of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon was written in one of those times. Some of the Jewish exiles probably gave up hope altogether. Some were so desperate for fulfill all their presumptions that they deluded themselves with false hopes. As it turns out, there were “so-called” prophets who were stirring up the exiles with the idea that “any day now we will be on our way home.” But Jeremiah says, “Build homes, get married, have children. See that your children build homes, get married and have children.”[7] Jeremiah believed that they would be in exile a lot longer than they wanted to be.

But he also pointed them to the hope that, in the midst of the mundane routines of life in foreign exile, they could find God’s peace. Despite all their disappointed hopes and dreams, they might just find themselves having the experience recounted by the Psalmist. After going through fire and water, just when they may have thought their life was over, God brought them to a “spacious place”—a place where, much to their own surprise and contrary to their expectations they could find peace.[8] It wasn’t where they thought they would live out their lives, but it was a place where they could thrive.

It may sound harsh to say it, but we cannot count on God to make all our dreams come true, or to live up to all our presumptions about what our life is supposed to look like. I think one of the lessons that so often eludes Christians in our day and age is that there is a vast difference between faith and presumption. Presumption makes our loving creator and redeemer into a “God-in-the-box” who gives us everything we want. Faith entrusts oneself to Gods loving care because of a conviction that God is trustworthy. Even when we find ourselves in a place we didn’t want to be, if we can let go our expectations and accept the grace to thrive in surprising places, we may discover that we can count on God never to forsake us, to see us through whatever comes our way, to bring us to the “spacious place” where we can thrive. [9]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/10/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, 109; cf. also William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 517-18, 520.

[3] See, notably, John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 219.

[4] This is a difficult phrase, and it doesn’t seem to fit the rest of 2 Tim. 2:11-13, which encourages Timothy and others to endure hardship for the sake of the Gospel. Hanna Roose, “Sharing in Christ's Rule: Tracing a Debate in Earliest Christianity,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27.2 (2004): 143-146, makes a convincing argument that “denying” relates to the promise of eternal reward for martyrdom.

[5] I think our understanding of this passage also has to take into consideration the fact that God has responded to “the apostasy of the creature” with grace, not condemnation. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:506-512

[6] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:844, where he refers to the tradition rooted in Judaism that “God remained faithful to the chosen people, even when they proved faithless time and time again.” In that light, it makes sense to conclude with him that “denying” is a deliberate and determined action, not simply a failure of nerve.

[7] William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 138 and G. L. Keown, P. J. Scalise, and T. G. Smithers, Jeremiah 26-52, 80, see in this the promise of God’s grace in exile.

[8] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 38, where he suggests that it is precisely this work of liberation that constitutes the “great deeds” with which the “whole earth is filled” according to Ps. 66.

[9] Cf. Patrick Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreter’s Bible VI:795: where he says that the Lord’s peace (shalom) often “will not fit what we expect or want.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Faith in a Time of Triviality
2 Tim 1:1-14; Lk. 17:5-10[1]
Christian faith can be incredibly discouraging. That may sound like the ultimate oxymoron to you, but I think it’s true. If you find that surprising, you may be shocked by this: the fact of the matter is that we’re not the first Christians to experience this discouragement. Our Scripture lesson for today conveys St. Paul’s response to the fact that Timothy and the believers in his care were discouraged. It would seem that they found themselves in a setting where it was getting increasingly difficult to live the Christian life. It’s hard to understand all that may have gone into the situation, but for some reason, they were struggling with a sense of being ashamed of their faith (2 Tim. 1:8).[2] I don’t know about you, but that surprises me. I wouldn’t have expected Christians in the First Century to feel ashamed of the faith. It makes me wonder what made them feel ashamed.
I wonder if they felt ashamed because they found themselves feeling discouraged from going against the grain all the time. Taking up a counter-cultural lifestyle can be energizing, especially at first. But after months and years of swimming up stream, it can get exhausting. I wonder if Timothy and the believers in Ephesus were feeling the pressure of the sacrifices and ostracism and opposition that can be a part of what it means to be a Christian.
It would also seem that Timothy and the band of struggling believers he was serving were feeling ashamed because they were losing out to some competitors preaching a different gospel.[3] We don’t know all that these “impostors” stood for, but what we do know is that they imposed harsh demands on those who bought into their spiel, while indulging their own pleasures to their hearts delight. They wormed their way into congregations by creating conflict with the established leaders, and then used the influence they gained to milk the people for money (Some things never change!). It would seem Timothy and his flock felt ashamed of the gospel because these “impostors” were so successful at gaining converts, while they were struggling to survive.
I don’t know about you, but part of what discourages me about the Christian faith these days is the way so many people seem to make it something trivial. It seems like there are so many who approach the faith in terms of gimmicks and cheap clichés. They do whatever it takes to “succeed” at church—even if it means stripping the guts out of the gospel. You may think I’m exaggerating, but one group in Corpus Christi actually gave away an estimated $2 million worth of prizes on Easter Sunday to get people to come to church.[4] Prizes included bikes, furniture, flat screen TVs, and 16 cars! On Easter Sunday! As appalling as that is, in my opinion it is just the most blatant example of what happens every Sunday—selling people a Jesus who will make all their dreams come true. When it seems like the whole world is running to those who take such a “consumer-friendly approach,” it makes it hard for those of us who try to stay true to the path of the cross to continue to put that message out there, week in and week out.[5]
But I think something St. Paul told Timothy might help us here. He reminded Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). In a very real sense, St. Paul reminds discouraged believers of all times and places that we are not called to “succeed,” but rather to keep the faith. And God’s powerful and loving presence is always there to inspire us as we strive to present a compelling alternative to all the cheap tricks and silly slogans.[6]
It would seem that from time to time we can all get discouraged about our faith. When that happens, I think we need to remember the lesson Jesus tried to teach his disciples. They came to him asking for “more faith” to be able to live up to the challenging demands of Christian discipleship, and he answered that they didn’t need more faith but rather an sense of what faith is all about.[7] Faith is not a matter of performing spectacular feats; rather it is about continuing to speak the Gospel and live it out every day, regardless of the outcome. When we struggle with discouragement in our day and time, we can remember that it is not our “success” but rather our perseverance that demonstrates God’s powerful and loving presence among us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/3/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:839.
[3] Cf. Alyce M. McKenzie, “2 Timothy 1:3-7,” Interpretation 60 (July 2006):319.
[4] “Easter eggs and more than $1M in prizes at S. Texas megachurch,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times March 27, 2010; accessed at Cf. also “23,500 attend church's Easter services featuring 16 free cars, millions in prizes,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times April 4, 2010; accessed at .
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 99: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
[6] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 84-86, where he speaks of the Spirit of God as the “the life-force of the resurrection” which is being poured out on all living beings to enhance “vitality,” which he further defines as “love of life” which is “nothing other than true humanity.” Cf. also ibid, 97, where he says, “In this world, with its modern ‘sickness unto death’, true spirituality will be the restoration of the love for life—that is to say, vitality. The full and unreserved ‘yes’ to life, and the full and unreserved love for the living are the first experiences of God’s Spirit.” It seems to me that this “love of life” can go a long way toward empowering us to persevere in our faith.
[7] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible IX:322: “They assumed that they had faith but would need a greater faith in order to measure up to Jesus’ challenge to confront and forgive those who have sinned. Jesus shatters their illusions about faith; they don’t even have faith comparable to a tiny mustard seed. … The point is not that they need more faith; rather, they need to understand that faith enables God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience. The saying is not about being able to do miraculous works or spectacular tricks. On the contrary, Jesus assures the disciples that with even a little faith they can live by his teachings on discipleship.”

Send Lazarus!

1 Tim. 6:6-19; Lk. 16:19-31[1]

I think most of what the Bible has to say about money falls on deaf ears with us. Money is so much a part of our existence, it seems impossible not to place at least some degree of trust in it. For me, I began learning to trust in money when I was a boy. My parents and grandparents went through the great depression, so they had a lot to say about money. Mainly, money is what keeps you from going destitute. They kept gold coins and jewelry in their safety deposit boxes as security against another catastrophic deflation of currency. My Aunt Ruth gave me a $2 to keep in my wallet at all times so that I would never be “broke.” My grandfather taught me about compound interest and about the importance of putting your money to work before I became a teenager. In a wide variety of ways they reinforced the notion that money is what keeps you from going destitute. They taught me to trust in money.

But I suspect I’m not the only one who has a hard time with our Scripture lessons for today. I think St. Paul’s advice that we who have this world’s goods not set our hopes on “money, which is here today and gone tomorrow” (1 Tim. 6:17, MSG) comes across to us like a Latin mass. We hear the words, and we understand that they’re supposed to be important, but we don’t have a clue what they mean.[2] Our whole way of life is oriented around setting your hopes on money. Which one of us can say that we are not setting our hopes on money—at the very least when it comes to retirement? To some extent, that may not be a bad thing. It’s simply a feature of what it means to live in an economy where currency is the primary means of exchange.

But from another perspective, that can be disastrous.[3] St. Paul said it most plainly (though he is mostly misquoted!): “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Of course, this opens the door to recognizing that it is we who are the problem. Money is just one among many means of exchange in the various economic systems that have come and gone in the world. As such, it can be neutral. But it is our desire for money, and what it represents to us, that is the problem. We look to money as if it were a genie who can make all our wishes come true. In a very real sense, St. Paul wants to warn us that having money is not what gives us true life; rather it is “godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). Trusting in God who supplies our needs and being satisfied with what we have is what leads us to the life that is truly worth living.

That’s all well and good, but we still live in this culture where “money makes the world go around!” How can we learn to be satisfied, to be truly content with what we have, given the fact that we live in a world that is so completely oriented around buying and getting more? Perhaps St. Paul gives us a clue here when he instructs those of us who have this world’s goods to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18). Sharing generously is a means of learning to be content with what we have. I’m not talking about the token charity that we use to salve our guilty conscience—I’m talking about real generosity. It is a matter of solidarity: letting ourselves “be affected by the suffering of other human beings”; it is a matter of “sharing their pain and tragedy.”[4]

You may be thinking that we’ve gone from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak: How can we have the confidence, the courage, and the faith to do as Paul says—to share what we have generously? Father Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers should listen to Moses and the prophets. We still have Moses and the prophets, but I’m not sure we do any better job hearing them than the rich man or his brothers.[5] We also have Jesus, the apostles, and the saints through the ages, but I think it’s all too easy for us to “bracket” them out of our reality. So what do we have, or perhaps better, whom do we have who can teach us to share what we have generously? Who do we have who can be prophets to us, who can convict us and rebuke us and instruct us and point us toward the life that is truly worth living?

We do have Lazarus. In fact, we have many Lazaruses all around us: the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised. But I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is whether they can help us. In the parable from our Gospel lesson, in spite of the fact that the rich man begged for Abraham to “send Lazarus” to help him, Abraham explained that he could not help. We might say that the rich man already had his chance to learn from Lazarus, and he refused. But we still have a chance to learn from the Lazaruses of our world.

So how can the poor, those who suffer injustice and oppression, and those who have been cast out in our world teach us how to share ourselves generously? Well, it seems to me that if we take Jesus seriously when he says, “I was hungry,” then we have to reckon seriously with the possibility that the Lazaruses of our day are the very ones in whom Jesus, the crucified Lord is present.[6] In a very real sense, they become our prophets and apostles, because they bear witness to us about the good news of a God who is present with us in our suffering.[7] They are our prophets and apostles because they teach us that the life that is truly worth living always has been and always will be characterized by compassion and generosity.[8] Although Lazarus could not help the rich man who ignored his plight, I think perhaps he might help us. I think he can point us to the Lazaruses all around us, poor and oppressed and outcast people who represent the God who shares our suffering. And when we take to heart this good news that the “crucified people” around us proclaim, we have the chance to be converted to a life of sharing the suffering of others. When that happens, we have the chance to live the life that is truly worth living.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/26/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Wade P. Huie, Jr., “The Poverty of Abundance,” Interpretation 22 (Oct 1968): 403, where he observes, “the biblical word about the poor and the rich can pass by me, for I am not poor and do not feel rich.”

[3] Ralph Wood, “A Passion for Lesser Things (1 Timothy 6:6-19),” The Christian Century (Sept 13-20,1995), 843: “few desires corrupt our hearts more than the desire for financial security.” Cf. also J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:828

[4] Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 19.

[5] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 192-98, where he explains the theological framework that the Pharisees used to justify a “gospel of wealth.” It illustrates the ease with which any of us can turn Scripture into a justification for whatever we want.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 127, 129.

[7] Sobrino, Where is God?, 23.

[8] Cf. The Study Catechism: Full Version with Biblical References Approved by the 210th General Assembly (1998), question 16, , which puts this into the framework of the reason for our creation: “God created us to live together in love and freedom” and “to be loving companions of others so that something of God’s goodness may be reflected in our lives.” Cf. also Cf. Huie, “Poverty of Abundance,” 409, where he points out that while Lazarus needed the rich man to provide food and clothing and medicine, the rich man needed Lazarus to teach him “what it means to be human.”