Sunday, December 09, 2012


Mal. 3:1-4; Lk. 1:68-79[1]
Although we are surrounded by the refining industry, I don’t really know that much about it. I know that it involves a great deal of heat and sometimes pressure.  I have, however, seen the process of glass-blowing.  I think there are some similarities.  The glass is super-heated to remove any impurities and to make it moldable,  just like the refining of precious metals like gold and silver.  As other elements are added to gold to make it stronger, the process of glass-blowing actually adds elements not originally present for various reasons—especially to create colors.  The whole purpose is to make the end result a thing of beauty.  When I witnessed the process of glass-blowing, I was sitting at a safe distance from the furnace in some bleachers.  But even at that distance, I found the intense heat of the furnace somewhat disconcerting.  I couldn’t imagine actually being the glass-blower and constantly working so close to such intense heat.  And I certainly wouldn’t want to be the glass in the furnace!
That’s the image the Bible uses for the process God uses in each of our lives.  It’s called judgment, but I think that doesn’t really express the true intent of what God intends to do with us.  As our lesson from Malachi puts it, the image of refining comes much closer to reflecting what that’s about (Mal. 3:2).  The purpose is to remove any impurities that might weaken or disfigure what is being refined.  And the purpose is also to instill qualities that enhance the beauty of what is being refined.  I think that’s what God’s “judgment” is really about—refining us to remove whatever keeps us from being all that we were meant to be, and instilling qualities that shape us into the image of Christ.
One of the most important of those qualities is peace.  According to Zechariah’s song, John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare a people for the Lord to come.  His “preparation” for them was to lead them into the “way of peace” (Lk. 1:79).  And he was to do that by calling them to repentance.  Not just feeling sad or sorry for the fact that they may have said something they would later regret, but rather real, heartfelt, life-changing repentance.[2]  And he made it specific: those who had more than enough were to share with those who didn’t have enough.  And those who had power were not to abuse it.[3]  He was talking about the kind of change that is like purifying precious metals, or refining glass.
The “way of peace” is not an easy path.  It is a hard road that takes humility, the will to change, and the strength to persevere.  For there to be peace in any relationship, both parties have to humble themselves enough to acknowledge their contribution to the conflict.  Peace starts by our being willing to look at ourselves—to take a good hard long look at ourselves: our self-indulgence, our need to control others, and our aggressive behaviors toward others that really amounts to a kind of violence.  But the “way of peace” goes further than just recognizing our shortcomings; it also takes us to the point of being willing to do something about them.  We have to choose, in so far as it is humanly possible, to change and to return to the way of peace.  And then, in order to preserve peace, we have to put forth the effort—sometimes time and time again—to maintain peace.  The “way of peace” is not an easy road!
That’s why we need refining.  In a very real sense, what the Scriptures hold out to us as the ideal for how we are to live our lives simply doesn’t come naturally.  We have to have our bad habits purged— our selfish ways, our reluctance to humble ourselves enough to actually put peace into practice.  And we have to have new qualities instilled in us—qualities like the fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).  Qualities that look like the character of Christ formed in us.  Then perhaps we can actually become the “peace-makers” God intends for us to be as as his sons and daughters.
Much of what the Bible has to say about a future return of Christ includes an aspect of judgment, of setting things right, of refining us. Some of these images can be frightening, just as I was a bit frightened from the intense heat of the glass-blower’s furnace.  But the glass-blower wasn’t afraid.  He was calmly, patiently shaping the glass into a beautiful work of art.  In the same way, so God calmly and patiently watches over us, working with us carefully to make us into a beautiful work of art. It seems to me that we have nothing to fear from the refining process that kind of God has in store for us. [4]  To some extent, we can see that the trials and tribulations of this life are already a part of that process, because the challenges that come our way refine us by removing what weakens us and instilling new qualities.  On the final day, when we all stand before our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, he will finish the task of refining us, removing our impurities and enhancing the beauty God created in each one of us.  I don’t think that’s something to fear, but rather something to welcome—being set free from all that keeps us from being the person God intended for us to be, and being transformed into the image of Christ. [5]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/9/2012.
[2] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:86.  He says, “There is an integrity to the repentant. … Their way of life, their priorities, commitments, personal relationships, passion for peace and justice, and their unplanned acts of compassion all give evidence to their repentance.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 48, where he points out that the specifics of John’s demands relate to the “injustices and inequities” of that society.  Cf. Eileen M. Schuller, O. S. U., “The Book of Malachi,” New Interpreters Bible VII:868, where she points out that Mal. 3:5 puts the refining the prophet speaks of in a similar context.
[4] Cf. Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 187, where she refers to Charles Spurgeon’s famous sermon “The Sitting of the Refiner” emphasizing this point.  She says, “such is the love of this God.”
[5] Cf. Alan Robinson, “God the Refiner of Silver,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 11 (1949): 11, where he says, “God will know that His work has been completed when he sees reflected in the Christian soul His own image”; cf. also Karl Barth, Dogmatics 4.4:56: He adds, “ it is not for nothing that Lk. 3:6 adds the end of the verse: kai opsesthai pasa sarx to soterion tou theou (and all flesh shall see the salvation of God).”

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Promises, Promises

Promises, Promises
Lk. 21:25-36[1]
It seems like Advent is the “overlooked” season in our calendar.  The days leading up to Christmas are simply the time to load up on stuff and run around doing twice as much as usual.  But for many of us, Advent is a special time of year.  It means different things to different people.  For some of us, we get into the spirit of giving, whether it may be for someone less fortunate, or for family members and friends, or for all of the above.  For some  of us we get into the whole spirit of festivity, putting up the tree, decorating the house, and having people over to celebrate the season.  For some of us, we get into the Advent readings and Advent calendar and the special services at church, and we find this time to be refreshing and renewing to our faith.  For some of us, Advent means all of the above!
One of the most important aspects of Advent for me is that it is a time for us to focus on the hope that is in our faith.  We in the Protestant world don’t focus too much on the future aspect of our faith, but it is definitely there.[2]  There is a strong element of promise, of hope, of the future in our faith.  And Advent is a time for us to focus on that.  As our Gospel lesson reminds us, one of the major themes in our faith is the promise that Jesus will return with power and glory some day.[3]  Unfortunately, it seems to me that most of us don’t really know what to do with this aspect of the Christian faith.  We know of the extremists who claim to be able to interpret all the signs and to pin down the exact date when future events will happen.
There are others who take the promises of the future in the Bible and use a “name it, claim it” approach.  It’s almost as if the promises in the Bible are a kind of currency you can plug into a cosmic slot machine and pull the lever to get whatever you happen to want to come true.  I think we are just as keen to distance ourselves from those people as we are from the ones who think they can lay out a precise timeline of future events.  But in the process we may be in danger of losing the element of promise and of hope that figures so prominently in our faith.
I think it’s important to go back to the beginning, so to speak, and try to find out what the promises were intended for in the first place.  It seems to me that the point of the promises of a future where Jesus returns is not to give us a basis for predicting what’s to come, or to give us a way to claim for ourselves whatever our hearts desire.  And I certainly don’t believe those promises are intended to create fear in us, or make us worry whether we’ll be “left behind.”  They offer us reassurance that the God who began this creation as something “very good” will not rest until it has been restored to being “very good” again.[4]    And they promise us that God has begun to do that very thing through Jesus Christ.[5]  Yes, there is talk about cataclysmic signs and being caught unaware, but it seems to me that as long as we trust that “we belongbody and soul, in life and in death—to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,” then we have nothing to fear from whatever that day will look like.[6]
In short, I think one of the most important purpose of the promises of a future in the Bible is to show us the character of God.  They remind us that we believe in a God who will “never fail us nor forsake us.”  We may feel like God has let us down, or we may feel abandoned by God, but the promise of the Scriptures is that God isn’t that kind of God.  God sticks around, no matter what.  We may not be aware of it, but God’s always there, loving us, guiding our way, seeking our best.  When we look at the promises this way—as demonstrations of God’s character—I think it gives us a wholly different way to approach them.  Instead of trying to read them like tea leaves to predict the future, instead of taking them as currency we can cash in on, we can use the promises of the Scriptures to help us live our daily lives.
That all sounds really good, but the fact is that when you look around you, many of the people you see are suffering.  Someone has a loved one who is near death.  Someone else has lost a job.  Someone else has gone through a divorce.  Someone else is no longer able to live in their own home.  And so on, and so on.  People are suffering.  Some of us are suffering.  I think when were in that position, we want to know what the promises of the Scriptures have to say to us, right here and right now.  It’s one thing to say that God promises to return to this world in the future to set all things right again, as they were at the very beginning.  But what difference does that make when we’re suffering right here and right now? 
I think this is where taking the promises as pointers to God’s character may be most important.  They show us a God who always cares for us, and so we can cast all our cares on him. They show us a God who never forsakes us, though everyone else we know may turn their backs on us.  They show us a God who loves us with a love that will never let us go.  I think that’s something to hang onto when the suffering of this world makes you question whether you can even make it through another day. 
I believe the promises of the Scriptures regarding Gods’ future are treasures for us hold on to firmly.  As we hear the promises read again this year during Advent, promises we’ve heard read so many times before, I hope we will pay attention to what they tell us about the God we believe in.[7]  I pray that they will rekindle in us a spirit of hope about what God is doing in this world and our place in it.  I hope they will give us courage to entrust our lives—all of our lives—into the loving hands of our faithful God, who always keeps his promises.[8]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/2/12.
[2] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:410
[3] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:410.  He points out that there is a whole category of “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospels that deal with this, no to mention the emphasis found in the rest of the NT.
[4] John C. Morris, “Anticipation,” The Christian Century  (Nov. 22, 2000):1214: he says it is the promise of “a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness.”
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.
[6] Cf. The Heidelberg Catechism, question 1, The Book of Confessions 4.001.  Cf. also Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX: 411, where he says, “the end of time or the end of life holds no terror for those who know God’s love because they know the one who determines the reality that lies beyond what we can know here and now.”
[7] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20: “Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God” (quoting John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.42 ).
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 115: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


1 Sam. 1:9-20; 2:1-10[1]
I grew up playing the game “Monopoly.”  My cousins and I would play it like it was going out of style!  In later years, when I actually read the rules of the game (!), I learned that we had “cheated.”  You see, the game of monopoly operates in a fixed world with a closed system.  There are only so many properties, only so many houses and hotels, and only so much money to go around.  Now, of course, my cousins and I didn’t invent new properties on the board.  But we didn’t abide by the limitations on cash and improvements.  The way we played the game, if a person had the money to buy a house or hotel, they got one.  And when we ran out of cash, we just made more.  We created $1,000 bills and $5,000 bills and we had double hotels on Boardwalk!
When I found out that we had actually “broken” the rules, I began thinking about the world and how it operates.  There are those in our world who operate from the assumption that there’s only so much to go around.  What that usually means is that I have to get mine so that I don’t wind up empty-handed!  And the assumption is also that it leaves others without enough.  But there’s also another way of looking at things.  When I shared my analogy with a friend who was in finance, he enlightened me regarding the way a market economy works.  Other systems of economics operate on the basis of the fact that there’s only so much to go around.  But a market economy works on the principle of creating wealth—by a starting business and tapping a previously undiscovered source of revenue.[2]
As my friend pointed out, when you look at the world from that point of view, the question of how much there is to go around doesn’t even enter the equation.  In fact, it is possible that no one knows how much a market economy can generate.  Instead of a principle of “hoarding,” a market economy works on the principle of “investing.” You see a niche, you come up with a business plan, and you raise the funds you need. Then you risk the whole thing in a new venture.  Will it succeed?  You’ll never know until you make the leap!  But it is a more hopeful outlook on the future than the closed system. It reminds us that we really don’t know what good things may be in store for us in the future.
Like Naomi, Hannah was a woman who feared that her life had no hope and no future.  Although she had a husband who dearly loved her, she had no children—especially no male children.  It may be hard for us to understand the importance of a son in that economic system.  Without a son of her own, after Elkanah died, she would be left destitute.[3]  Women did not inherit property in those days—even from their own husbands.  Only a son could inherit.  If Hannah never bore her husband a son, she would have no one to take care of her in her old age.  Even though Elkanah her husband had other sons, they were the sons of a different mother.  So from Hannah’s perspective, her hope was dwindling, and her future seemed dim.
It is in that context that she goes to the Temple to pray.  As she puts it to Eli, she was “deeply troubled” and praying out of her “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Sam. 1:16-17).  Although Eli initially misunderstood her motives, and even accused her of being drunk (!), he blessed her with the prayer that God would grant her petition.  And like Sarah, and Naomi, and many others who have felt that God had abandoned them and their future was closed, the Scriptures say that God answered her prayer and gave her a son, namely Samuel.[4]  And she praised God as the one who is able to reverse any misfortune, who is able to bring hope from hopelessness and a future from despair (1 Sam. 2:1-10).[5]
What she did next was an amazing act of faith.  She had promised that if God gave her a son, she would devote him to the Lord.  That meant he would not be able to inherit from his father and would not be able to take care of her in her old age!  But she had promised that if God would give her a son, she would devote him to God’s service, and that is what she did with Samuel.  I can imagine she did so with a great deal of “fear and trembling.”  But remember, this is as story about the God of hope and the future.  And we are told at the end of Hannah’s song of praise that God gave her three more sons and two daughters!
I think it’s important for us to remember that God does not operate within a closed system.  God is the God of hope, not the God of despair!  God is the God of the future!  In God’s system, the world operates based on promises that point toward a future with hope and life.[6]  Promises like “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will all know me, from the greatest to the least,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making everything new.”  The Christian faith is at heart the hope that God already doing that through Jesus Christ.[7]  The Christian faith is at heart the faith that God is already doing that through the Spirit of Life poured out on all creation.[8]
One of the challenges of living as a small church in this society is that it can feel like we’ve been left out, or passed by.  We can choose to live within that closed system, thinking that our best is back there somewhere in the past, wondering whether we have a future at all.  Or we can embrace an open future, and operate on the basis of the faith that God is continually at work around and among us—which means our future is alive and full of promise because we have no idea what God can do in this congregation and in this community. I prefer to embrace this open future.  I hope you will join me as we entrust ourselves and our congregation to the God of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, the God who is making all things new through his Spirit, the God who is God the God of hope and the future.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/18/12.
[2] Cf. “Market Economy” at .
[3] Marjorie Menaul, “1 Samuel 1 and 2,” Interpretation 55 (Apr 2001):174
[4] Cf. Bruce C. Birch “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” New Interpreters Bible II:997: “By trusting her plight to God, Hannah claimed the new future God can make possible to those in barren, hopeless circumstances. Her story has roots in Israel’s past. God had remembered Rachel, and she had been given a child (Gen 30:22). God had remembered the Hebrews in bondage in Egypt (Exod 2:24) and delivered them into new life as a people. Hannah opens her misery and need to God and asks for God to remember her”
[5] Cf. William A. Dyrness, “Waiting in Hope,” The Christian Century (Nov 2, 1994):1011.  Cf. also Menaul, “ 1 and 2 Samuel,” 176: “As the Bible bears witness, the work of God in reversing poor and rich, powerless and powerful, barren and fertile has been going on from the beginning.”  Cf. further, Birch, “First and Second Books of Samuel,” NIB II:983: “Hannah’s hope becomes hope for Israel and for us that power is not irrevocably tilted in favor of those the world defines as powerful—definitions that leave many powerless and without hope. Hannah sings of a God whose transforming power can reverse those patterns. She sings of a God who does not accept the world’s power arrangements. She sings of a God whose might is not wielded in a disinterested fashion. God is heavily invested in the welfare of the weak, the powerless, the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, the barren.”
[6] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25.
[7] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.
[8] Jürgen Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalms 127[1]
There was a time when everyone had fairly the same idea about what “church” is and what “church” does.  I’m afraid those days are gone for good—there just is no generally agreed upon idea in our society about what a church is supposed to be and do.  I think if you asked a random person at the mall to define “church,” you would be amazed at the variety of answers you would get.  Even in the church there is precious little agreement.  If you just look at the churches on television you will find a bewildering assortment that would challenge the most perceptive individual to find what they have in common.  With that kind of confusion, it’s no wonder it’s so hard for churches to thrive—do we even know what it is we’re supposed to be doing?  For some, this is a crisis of immense proportions, because it represents an end of their vision for the church.
Naomi was a woman who had come to the end of her vision for her life. She simply could not see any kind of future with hope for her.  She thought that her life was over and she was going home to die among her own people.  But something happened that Naomi didn’t expect.   Her daughter-in-law Ruth insisted on returning to Israel with her, even though she was not an Israelite.  As it turns out, Ruth became an even more important part of Naomi’s life.  When they returned to Israel, Ruth worked in the fields as a gleaner to provide for them.  Without her, Naomi probably would have been destitute, or at best reduced to begging.
But Ruth became a source of new hope for Naomi in a way that neither of them expected.  They had a relative named Boaz who “took them under his wing” in a discreet sense.  Initially, he did so simply by instructing his harvesters to leave extra sheaves of grain in the field for Ruth to glean.  But Naomi realized that Boaz was attracted to Ruth, and so she began to play the role of a “matchmaker.”[2]  And as a result, Boaz and Ruth were married and had a son named Obed, who had a son named Jesse, who had a son named David, who became King of Israel![3]  When things were at their worst for Naomi, I doubt she could have imagined what God had in store for her.
It is difficult to be the church in this culture.  In spite of the fact that it may seem that we as a culture are coming to the end of a vision—a vision for what the church is and does in our world—I think the Scriptures reminds us that God is not finished with us yet!  And I think what we need is to be reminded of God’s vision for the world and the church.  It is the vision that God is working in this world at no less than “making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).[4]  It is the vision that we don’t have to wait for some remote future on a timeline, because “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21); God’s saving reign is working among us here and now.  It’s the vision of Jesus for God’s realm of peace and justice and freedom.  In his vision, this Kingdom of God is already working in this world to make all things new.[5]
In the New Testament, the apostles translated Jesus’ vision into a vision for the church.  And what they articulated was a vision of the Church working the power of the Spirit, giving ourselves away in service and compassion, and living in community with others (Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 4:10).  It is the vision of the church as a kind of “sacrament” of God’s presence, God’s life, and God’s grace in this world.[6]  What that means is that the church is the people among whom a hurting world can find “the life-affirming, life-giving love of God.”[7]  It is a vision of a church that serves the last and the lowest and the least, a church that embraces all, even the unlovable, even the “enemy.”[8]  It is the vision of a church that bears witness to new life in every sphere of life.[9] 
There are many in our world who would say that the church has lost its influence in our culture.  And for those people, a small church like this one is probably just a waste of space.  But to take that point of view would be to overlook the vision that drives this and every other community of faith, whether small or large.  It’s a vision of God’s compassion making a real and tangible difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  It’s a vision of God’s peace and justice and freedom shining through all the doubts and negative assessments and worries that may surround our existence as a church in this society.
It’s not easy being a small church in our world.  We can certainly bear witness to that!  It seems like we have to work doubly hard just to keep up—maybe even harder! Sometimes that can be discouraging.  Sometimes it can even be frightening.  After all, how can a little church like ours keep going year after year? None of us knows what the future holds.  Sometimes we may feel like Naomi, as if our hope is gone.  But as our lesson from the Psalms suggests, if the Lord builds the house, it will stand (Ps. 127:1).  Despite all the odds some may say are against us, we still have a God who is faithful, no matter what. And we still have a vision that is alive and well, and it’s our vision that keeps this community vibrant. It seems to me, when you put all that together, it gives us a lot to be hopeful and optimistic about when it comes to the future

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/11/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Boaz, Pillar of Society: Measures of Worth in the Book of Ruth,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45 (1989): 45-59
[3] See Michael S. Moore, “Ruth the Moabite and the Blessing of Foreigners,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 60 (April 1998): 217 where he calls the Book of Ruth a “powerful statement about the power of human love” as well as “a powerful theological statement about a God who keeps his promises, a creator who takes great delight in blessing his multifaceted creation, a Redeemer who will use any means—any people, tradition or person—to accomplish his gracious will.”
[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 294-95.
[5] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 76-85; 98-99; 190-91; cf. also Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 220, 252-54.
[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power 205.
[7] Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 279.
[8] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 342
[9] See The Book of Confessions, Confession of 1967, 9.31; cf.also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 295, 299, 316, 332, 334, 340.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Creating Justice

Creating Justice
Psalm 146[1]
It’s hard to watch the suffering of other people and not ask where God’s justice and compassion are.  We’ve seen millions of people affected by a catastrophic storm in the Northeast this week.  Events like hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes have provoked the question of God’s justice for centuries.  There’s even a separate subject in the study of religion for it: it’s called “Theodicy.”  It means “justifying God.”  The premise is that, if God is both good and all-powerful, then natural disasters that destroy people’s lives and create massive suffering should never happen.  So some conclude that God must be all-powerful but not good.  Others conclude that God must be good but not all-powerful.  Either way, when we start out like this, we paint God in a corner.  Or maybe we paint ourselves into a corner!
The Psalmists have a very different view of God’s justice.  Part of the reason for that is they begin with the conviction that God is the one who created all the heavens and the earth.  And this God is the one who “remains faithful,” which means that God reigns over all this beloved creation with goodness, power, and love.[2]  And if you want to know what that looks like in specific terms, the Psalmist spells it out in our lesson for today.  It means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, [3]  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. [4]   The idea is that God is always working to create justice, peace, and freedom for his beloved creation.
And what does that justice look like?  God’s justice means setting things right.  The Psalmist defines it in terms of concrete steps to help those who live on the margins of social power and privilege to make their lot in life better. [5]  When you look at the suffering in the world and ask what God is doing about it, the answer is that God is creating justice—a way of life that makes it possible for everyone to thrive equally.  What God is doing in our world is extending mercy that is tangible, exerting compassion in action. [6]  And this isn’t just something God does from time to time.  According to the Psalmist, God always does these things.
So if we ask, “Where is God?” when we see suffering and injustice in the world, the Psalmist’s answer is to say wherever you see the hungry being fed, that’s where God is.  Wherever the prisoners are being set free, that’s where God is.  Wherever you see the oppressed lifted up and the immigrants and widows and orphans embraced, that’s where God is.  Those actions are the very definition of the justice God is always working to create in our world.
But one question remains—how does God bring this wonderful restorative justice into the world?  The answer is through people like you and me! When we look at the injustice and suffering in the world, and we either question God’s goodness or we get angry that things aren’t different, perhaps we should be directing our attention toward ourselves. For some strange reason, God has chosen to carry out the work of justice, peace, and freedom in this world through flawed and fallible people like you and me.  So if there’s a shortage of justice and an abundance of suffering, perhaps we should be looking to ourselves as the culprits. The fact is that we all have opportunities to create God’s merciful justice in this world.  And we have these opportunities to extend God’s goodness and compassion and love all the time.
So how do we do this?  Well, I think it begins with a change of perspective.  Instead of seeing people who are different as “other,” learning to extend God’s justice and love to all people begins by recognizing everyone we meet as a beloved child of God. [7] I think we can only extend God’s compassion to those around us who are suffering and in need if we begin here.  Then we can go beyond merely feeling sorry for the disenfranchised or giving money to causes that support the marginalized.  Then we can actually go to their side and enter their homes and find tangible ways to relieve their suffering.  Then we can actually put into practice God’s compassionate justice. [8] And when we’re doing that, that’s when we become the hands and feet of the God who always works to create justice, peace, and freedom for those who are in need

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/4/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 147: “it is the will of Yahweh the Creator to renew his creation (Ps. 104:30; 96:10–13; 98:8–9; 146:6–9).”
[3] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalm 60-150, 552.  He points out that this refers to “the liberating verdict of God by which those human beings are rescued who, though innocent, are accused and incarcerated.” Even when it comes to those who may be guilty of wrong-doing, God’s justice comes to them as grace and mercy rather than condemnation!  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84: “According to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, the love and grace and mercy of God, …, are the demonstration and exercise of the righteousness of God” (384); Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 127: “The opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice.”
[4] J. Clinton Mccann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1264: these verses portray “a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.”  He adds that they constitute “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.”  Cf. similarly H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 553.
[5] Cf. Robert W. Wall, “Where Wisdom is Found,” Christian Ethics 2009, 31: “The care of poor and powerless believers is a hallmark of God’s covenant-keeping people (cf. Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 24:17-21; Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Acts 2:45; 4:32-35; 6:1-7; 9:36-42).”  Cf. also Borg, Heart of Christianity, 139: “God cares about justice because the God of the Bible cares about suffering.”
[6] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121; Nicholas Wolferstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today 48 (April, 1991) 16.
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 134, where he says that we can only exercise compassion when we see ourselves in others, and see them in us. Cf. also Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, 25, 36, 60.  He gives what I think to be one the best definitions of justice: it means to recognize “the intrinsic claim of every person to be considered a person.”
[8] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217–18: One contemporary preacher puts it this way: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy.  One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.  The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Where is Justice?

Where Is Justice?
Job 42:1-6[1]
It may be hard for us to admit this, but there are a lot of people out there who simply cannot put their faith in God for a lot of different reasons.  For some, if they had parents who weren’t there for them, it’s hard to trust that God will be there for them.  For others it’s a matter of disappointed idealism.  They embraced the faith heart and soul, but somewhere along the way, the hypocrisy of people in the church undermined their faith.  For others it’s a matter of not being able to reconcile with the fact that the Bible and our faith aren’t always completely consistent. For many, however, the main problem has to do with questioning God’s justice.  When they go out into the world and try to do something to help the people who are suffering, what they see is rampant injustice.  And it breaks their heart to the point that they simply cannot believe in the loving God the Bible and our faith tell us about!
I think Job knew something of that struggle.  He had lived his whole life based on a faith in God that was defined by a simple principle: those who obey God are blessed, and those who disobey God are punished.  Therefore, in the logic of this rather simplistic faith, those who are blessed with prosperity and success must enjoy God’s favor, while those who endure hardship and suffering must have somehow offended God.  That seemed to work for Job for a long time: he had amassed a great fortune and had a large family of grown children.  Then it seemed as if the very ground under his feet gave way.  In one fell swoop he lost everything—everything he owned and everyone he cared for.  In Job’s world, there could have be no more clearer indication of God’s disfavor.
That is precisely what his three “friends” tell him—over and over again.  He must have done something to deserve his suffering.  Job insists that he has maintained his integrity, despite what had happened to him.  And they reply over and over that he wouldn’t be suffering if he hadn’t done something to deserve it.  The bulk of the book of Job consists of them going around and around with this argument—Job maintaining his innocence, and his friends maintaining the simplistic view of faith in terms of  reward and punishment they had all been taught from childhood.[2]
Finally, Job exhausts himself with his struggle, and gives up.  That’s when God appears and asks Job a whole series of questions that seem to “put him in his place.”  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks Job (38:4).  Again and again, God’s only response to Job’s complaint about his suffering is to ask things like, “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?” (38:18); “Do you give the horse its might?” (39:19); and “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?” (39:26).  Of course, as Job realizes, the answer to all of these questions is “No.”  
That brings us to our lesson for today.  Job realizes that he has ventured into matters that are over his head.  In effect, Job asks, “Why am I suffering so, when I have always done right?”  And the answer he receives is “You don’t even understand the question.  How will you even begin to understand the answer?”  The answer to Job’s question is that there is no answer—at least not one he can comprehend.[3]  Job himself admits as much: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). And I think that is the answer to our question as well.  When we see the injustice of suffering in our world, and we ask how a loving God can allow this to happen, there is no answer that can sufficiently explain it. 
And yet, there is more to the matter than simply saying we can’t understand and so we have to just surrender to the faith that God knows best.  Because one thing the Bible insists is true of God is that God is faithful.  God never forsakes us, no matter what.  And I believe this was true for Job as much as for anyone else.[4]  God never abandoned Job, even in his misfortune, especially in his affliction.[5]  It is the lesson of Jesus on the cross.[6]  Although some have said that God abandoned Jesus on the cross, I don’t believe that for a second.  God was right there, suffering in the person of Jesus.[7]  And I think part of the reason for the cross is to show us that God is always right there, suffering with anyone who is afflicted in any way or at any time.[8]
The reality of injustice in our world is so troubling that I don’t fault anyone who cannot believe in God because of it.[9]  I have experience a share of injustice in my life.  And at times I’ve been angry and come close to giving up my faith.  But the resolution to that crisis is found neither in giving up on God nor in the simplistic presumption that God won’t let bad things happen to good people.[10]  It is found in continuing to believe in the God who is always there, the God who never abandoned Jesus, the God who never abandoned Job, and the God who will never abandon us, no matter what may come our way.[11]  The answer is found in continuing to believe that God will never abandon you or me or anyone in this world, especially in the midst of suffering.  God’s justice is the justice of compassion, and in my mind that means that no matter what we may have to endure in this world, God is always right there with us, suffering right beside us, supporting us, and working in and through our lives to bring good out of every injustice.  God’s justice is found in God’s faithful presence—God will never forsake us, no matter what!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/28/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] In the end, as Stephen Shoemaker, in GodStories, 165, points out, God commends Job for his questioning!  From God’s perspective, it’s as if Job’s doubts were truer than his friends’ beliefs!
[3] Anchor Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Job, Book of, ” by James L. Crenshaw, III:861.
[4] Cf. Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job, xxvii, where he says that in the end Job is able to surrender to that which is beyond his ability to comprehend because, “He has faced evil, has looked straight into its face and through it, into a vast wonder and love.”
[5] In fact, over and over again, in the midst of his doubts, Job continues to express the hope that God will vindicate him.  Cf. J. Gerald Janzin, Job, 264. 
[6] cf. René Girard, “Job and the God of Victims,” in L. G. Perdue and W. C. Gilpin, ed., The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job, 226: “The Jesus of the Gospels becomes, for the Christian tradition, the decisive event revealing the reality and meaning of the God of victims, of the God, the Logos, by which the world is created and constituted and who takes the side of the poor, the needy, the oppressed. What Job calls for, the Gospels focus on.”
[7]Cf. Jürgen Moltman, The Crucified God, 243, where he says that God “suffers the death of the Son in the infinite grief of love”; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78; cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[8] Cf. Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God, 192.
[9] See Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 61-62: “Anyone who claims to believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God without taking into account this devastat­ing evidence [i.e. the Holocaust] either that God is indifferent or powerless, or that there is no God at all, is playing games. … If Love itself is really at the heart of it all, how can such things happen? What do such things mean?”
[10] Cf. Carol A. Newsom, “The Book of Job,” New Interpreters Bible IV:630.
[11] Cf. Newsom, “The Book of Job,” NIB IV:632.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Downward Mobility

Downward Mobility
Mk. 10:35-45[1]
Most of us were raised on some form of the American Dream: if you work hard enough, your children will be able to have it better than you did.  These days, it seems that we are beginning to see the limits of that dream for middle-class people like you and me.  For the first time in a long time we are beginning to reckon with the reality that our children may have it worse than we did.  They may have more difficulty finding good-paying jobs.  They may not be able to afford to buy a home.  They simply may not be able to make the kind of income it takes to sustain the lifestyle we had.  For the first time in about four or five generations, we are facing the reality of downward mobility.
I think the general reaction to this is one of disbelief.  We simply cannot accept that something has gone so wrong with our society that what was once our greatest strength—the ability of anybody to work hard and pull themselves up—is no longer valid for most of us.  We are going the way of societies where the “have’s” continue to have more and the “have-not’s” continue to lose ground.  It is becoming more and more difficult for those of us in the middle class to sustain our way of life.[2]  If you doubt that, just ask anyone who’s trying to send their kids to college!
I think this is another matter of justice—it goes along with the other issues we’ve been dealing with.  When any society moves in the direction of concentrating more and more of the wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, you can expect that injustice will prevail.  Economists who study world-wide trends even have a way to measure the relative distribution of wealth—it’s called the Gini Coefficient.[3]  While it’s not fool-proof, it makes sense that when most of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, you can expect to see a disparity in opportunity and quality of life.  In a word, injustice.   We’re used to talking about these matters in relation to so-called “Third World” countries.  It would seem that the chickens have come home to roost! Now we’re facing this problem right here.
As with the other issues of justice we’ve discussed, I don’t think it’s too bold to say that in this matter as well we are reaping what we’ve been sowing.  The growing disparity between rich and poor in our society is a direct result of what we are doing.  And what we are doing is ignoring what the Scriptures consistently teach us is the way to life.  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says that the Gentile rulers were used to “lording it over” others.[4]  That sounds like it doesn’t just apply to ancient times; in fact it sounds fairly contemporary to me.  In Jesus’ context, it was the aristocratic land barons who made the rules, and of course they made the rules to benefit themselves.  These days it seems to be the corporate barons and their political cronies who are guilty of that kind of blatant self-interest.
But Jesus said that approach won’t work.  He said that the way it should be is for the “greatest” to be servants of all, and for the “first” to be the slaves of all.  While he was talking about the Christian community, I don’t think he was just talking about church here.  I think he was also talking about what it means to thrive in human society.  When the “great” among us only seek to benefit and further enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us, it leads to the disintegration of society.   Something like what we see going on around us.  It fuels a growing dissatisfaction with what the rest of us have.  When we all live begin to like that, feeling discontented with what we have and thinking the only way for us to be happy is to get a bigger slice of the pie, it becomes a recipe for hostility and frustration and anger toward those around us.  In a word, the disintegration of our society.
But Jesus said that the way to life is found elsewhere.  It’s found by giving ourselves away as he did: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  When the “great” sacrifice themselves for the sake of all, then we see society as a whole begin to thrive.  Then we see real justice, peace, and harmony in our world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but as John Lennon put it, I’m not the only one.[5]  Most of my favorite theologians and spiritual writers have the same dream.  It is a dream of a world in which we all follow Jesus’ example of self-giving instead of constantly wanting more and more. 
We used to believe in that.  In fact, we had a saying for it: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”[6]  We knew that meant that the more you had, the more advantages you could count, the more you were expected to serve.  The more opportunities you were handed, the more you were expected to give yourself away for the benefit of others.  Throughout our history there have been those “great” ones who gave up their privilege and position for the sake of others.  That seems have gone by the wayside these days.  But maybe it’s time we try to recover the kind of “downward mobility” Jesus was talking about.  He calls us all to take up our crosses and follow him![7]  He calls us to a way of life that seeks not to take but to give, that seeks not to be served but to serve.  It’s a way of life that leads to life.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/21/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in his book, What’s The Matter With Kansas?, discusses why more of the middle class is not indignant with rich politicians who continue to favor the very rich with their policies.
[3] See “Gini Coefficient,” Wikipedia, accessed at  For an analysis of this, see “Unbottled Gini: Does it Matter, and If So, Why?” The Economist 20 Jan 2011; accessed at
[4] Cf. David Seeley, “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45,” Novum Testamentum 35:3 (1993):234-250, argues that there was in fact a tradition of rulers serving the people in the Greco-Roman world.
[5] Cf. John Lennon, “Imagine,” Apple Records, 11 Oct 1971.
[6] It originates with Jesus, cf. Lk. 12:48.  John F. Kennedy was famous for quoting (and misquoting) this verse.  See Mark Liberman, “The Tangled History of a Mangled Maxim,”  Kennedy did come close a speech in 1961: “of those to whom much is given, much is required.”  See John F. Kennedy, “Address of President-Elect John F. Kennedy Delivered to a Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Jan 9, 1961; accessed at .
[7] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 101, calls it, “the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless.”  Cf. also Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 195.  Cf. also Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:654: “The self-denial associated with the cross does not always mean martyrdom, even in Mark.  Another form of self-denial has been emphasized throughout these chapters: denying the human demand for honor, power, and status.”

Monday, October 15, 2012


Mk. 10:17-31;  Amos 5:11-15[1]
In 1990, I had the opportunity to participate in a mission trip to Western Romania.  I was living near Stuttgart, Germany and studying at a local university on a Fulbright Grant.  Just a few months before, the Berlin wall had come down, and with it, most of the “iron curtain” that kept Eastern Europe under Soviet domination and isolated from the rest of the world.   Just a few weeks before our trip, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been overthrown by a grass-roots revolution.  In the aftermath, as it became apparent how desperate the Romanian people were, humanitarian aid poured in from all over Western Europe.  So the church I attended decided to send several of us with a trailer full of food to distribute to families in the churches of Western Romania.
I learned a lot of lessons on that trip.  One of them was how easy it is for a Westerner to spend the equivalent of a month’s professional wage in Eastern European terms on a souvenir for his wife!  I think I should have thought that one through a little more carefully!  But more importantly, I learned that the church in Eastern Europe, contrary to all expectations, was actually thriving under their various authoritarian governments.  The deprivations they had to endure seemed to make their faith deeper, stronger, and more central to their daily lives.  By contrast, the churches in Western Europe languished.  Though there were some free churches that were holding their own, huge cathedrals all over Europe sat mostly empty week after week.  One mission leader suggested that the deprivations of life in Eastern Europe seemed to make their faith thrive, while the prosperity of the West seemed to choke the very life out of faith.[2]
The Scriptures and the Christian tradition have been consistent from the start: there is something about wealth that has a way of taking over your heart and life. [3]  It is unavoidable.  Jesus said it this way: “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24).  He wasn’t the first to say it.  Prophets like Amos repeatedly warned against the dangers of wealth.  In the Gospels Jesus echoed that warning again and again. For example, In the parable of the Sower he said that the seed in the thorny ground didn’t bear fruit because “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mk 4:19).  The challenge is clear—one can either embrace wealth or one can embrace faith.[4]
The man in our Gospel lesson for today faced that challenge.  I think we should take seriously his claim that he had kept the commandments since his youth.  Jesus doesn’t dispute it, and he doesn’t even dispute that a life of obedience to God’s is the way to eternal life.  Nevertheless, I think there was a serious disconnect between Jesus’ definition of “obedience” and this man’s definition.  His view may have been more in line with the theology found in the book of Deuteronomy, which encouraged the idea that those who are godly are blessed with wealth, and those who are not blessed with wealth must not be godly. [5]  Jesus challenged this simplistic equation by calling the man to sell all his possessions, which in his mind represented God’s blessings for his obedience, and give the money to the poor, who deserved their poverty due to a lack of obedience. But it was more than he could accept.  He simply could not do it.  Jesus called him to a higher level of obedience, and instead of rising to the challenge, he walked away grieving.[6]
It’s incredibly easy to justify our love of wealth.  What once was a luxury only the few could afford has now become a “necessity” that everybody has to have. Think about it—what is the “normal” size TV now?  I would say it’s 42 inches, but when I bought my 42 inch TV a few years back, it was a “luxury.”  Now the “luxury” models are 52 to 70 inches! We live in a society where the accumulation of wealth is not only encouraged, it is positively necessary if one wants to avoid being destitute in retirement!  So how can we possibly hear Jesus’ challenge to choose either faith or wealth?[7]   I’m not sure many of us ever do. We get incredibly attached to our stuff.  We’re proud of our possessions.  It’s next to impossible to let our favorite things go.  And in all of this, we can be positively blind to what our wealth does to us—and what it does to the way we treat those we view as “beneath” us.[8]
So how do we avoid making the mistake the man in our Gospel lesson made?  First and foremost, we must recognize that “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” means caring about poverty and the suffering it spawns in our world.  Throughout the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, the heart and soul of what God wants from us is to practice mercy, compassion, and generosity to others.[9]  I think we must also recognize that the prophet’s call to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15) means working to eradicate poverty in our world.  Not as a token pretense, but really and truly working to eradicate poverty.  And I think we must recognize our own attachment to the wealth we cherish.  They say that admitting the problem is the first step to recovery!  When we can admit our attachment to our wealth, then we can remember that the saints and heroes of our faith have consistently taught us that the only way to free ourselves from our wealth is to give as much of it away as we possibly can!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/14/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] A similar phenomenon has been observed in the comparison between Latin
America and North America.  In fact, some speak of a “reverse mission” on the part of the poor in Latin America to convert their wealthy brothers and sister s in the North!  Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 58-59; and Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7 et passim.
[3] R. Schnackenburg, Jesus in the Gospels, 194-95.   See also Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 40-43; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 196.  See further, John Sheila Galligan, “The Tension between Poverty and Possessions in the Gospel of Luke,” Spirituality Today  37 (Spring 1985): 4-12.  She warns against “the seductive lure of the power, pleasure, and security that are the by-products of being wealthy.” Cf. also Joel Green, Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 148: “Wealth becomes a master if it is not mastered.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2.548: “Jesus’ call to discipleship challenges and indeed cuts right across the self-evident attachment to that which we possess.”
[5] Cf. A. Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 483.
[6] Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 100, 103.
[7] Cf. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 188: “After we have done our best to make this text say something less upsetting to our system of values, Jesus looks intently at us and continues quietly to affirm that life is to be had not by accumulating things, but by disencumbering ourselves.”
[8]J. Moltmann, “Political Theology” Theology Today, 21.: “Only the poor really know the oppression of wealth’s exclusiveness. Only the hated know the misery which hate causes. The rich, the oppressor, the hater are always a bit oblivious to the misery they cause, even if they are well-intentioned.”  See also J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 330; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 268-69; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 175; Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 194; Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 177-78; Küng, On Being a Christian, 597.
[9] See Isa. 1:17; Mic. 6:8; Jas. 1:26–27.  Time and again Israel was commanded to care for the poor and destitute (cf. Exod. 22:22; 23:11; Lev. 25:25; Deut. 14:29; 15:7; 24:12, 17; 26:12) because this emulates God’s care for the poor (cf. Deut. 10:18–19; cf. 1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 10:14; 12:5; 35:10; 140:12; Eccl. 5:8; Isa. 11:4; 25:4; Jer. 20:13; Lk. 16:22).