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.”