Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Present-Tense Faith

Present-Tense Faith
Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126[1]
We are creatures of habit.  We like things to remain stable, predictable, under control.  Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way.  It’s anything but predictable.  And anybody who’s ever tried to control the events and circumstances of their life can tell you that it’s a prescription for insanity!  One of the ways that we deal with the ever-changing quality of life is by living life in the past tense.  By that I mean we look back to a time when everything was just like we wanted it.  We hold onto that ideal image as a comfort when life in the present gets overwhelming.  Of course, if we really went back to that time, we’d realize that not everything was just like we wanted it.  But in retrospect, it’s easy to see the past with rose-colored glasses.
The same thing is true of our faith.  We can get stuck in the past when it comes to our faith.  It may be a past part of our life, or it may be a distant past, like biblical times.  Either way, we tend to idealize the past, thinking that it must have been easier to have faith in that time.  When we do that, I wonder if our faith doesn’t get stuck in the past.  I wonder if we have a hard time really bringing our faith into the present time with all its challenges.
I think that was at least part of what was going on in the people of Israel in our lessons for today.  The people addressed by the prophet Isaiah may have been on their way back from exile in Babylon, which was a long and dangerous journey through a desolate wilderness.  These days, we can romanticize the idea of going “into the wild,” but in biblical times the wilderness was a place that was feared.  It was a place of unknown dangers and scarce food and water.  You could die in the wilderness.[2]  The prophet called them to take their faith in the God who brought the people of the past safely out of Egypt and bring that faith with them on their present journey through the wilderness.  The same God who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isa 43:16) promised to do something brand new:  he would make a “way in the wilderness” (Isa 43:19).  God promised to bring them safely through their dangerous journey, and the prophet called them to bring their faith in the God of the past into the present situation that they feared so much.[3]
It’s also possible that the prophet was addressing people who had already made the journey back to Jerusalem, and instead of finding the home they remembered and loved, what they found was an abandoned city in ruins.  Having made their dangerous journey, they found themselves in even more danger.  The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how dangerous it was for the people who worked to rebuild the ruined city.  Rather than the safety of home, they found themselves under attack from enemies who had taken control of the land in their absence.  At one point, Nehemiah had to have everybody working on the project carry their swords with them as they worked (Neh. 4:17-18)! 
It’s possible that this was the context for our Psalm for today.  It’s true that the Psalmist speaks of their return from exile as a dream come true.[4]  But we know from the historical accounts that the dream took some time to realize in its full perspective.[5] They may have come home, but they had all kinds of challenges to face.  Not only did they have to fend off their enemies, but they also had to find a way to establish a reliable supply of food and water.  They had their work cut out for them.  And so they prayed that God would continue to “restore their fortunes” (Ps. 126:4).[6]
In fact, they prayed that God would work in such a way that those who went out to sow their seeds in tears would come back rejoicing in the harvest.  I can imagine that those who were sowing seeds in tears may have been like farmers who have endured several bad years, and they’re planting the last of their seed stock.[7]  If they don’t get enough rain to provide a good harvest this year, they might be finished.  And so they prayed, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (Ps. 126:4).  Now, the Negeb is a desert in the southern part of Israel, where there are gullies that are dry throughout most of the year.  During the rainy season they fill up with water that the farmers used to make their crops flourish.  Essentially, they’re looking at their situation, one that seemed difficult at best and dangerous at worst, and they’re putting their faith in God to provide for their needs.  They were doing exactly what the prophet Isaiah was trying to encourage: taking their faith in God from the past and bringing it into the present, regardless of how hopeless or desperate their situation seemed.[8]
I think that may be one of the most difficult lessons to learn when it comes to trusting God.  For most of us, it’s relatively easy to believe in a God who worked in the past.  But when it comes to trusting God to do something new in our present circumstances, that can be a completely different matter.  That seems to be one of the hardest challenges when it comes to faith—bringing it into present, with all its frightening changes and uncertainties.  But that’s where the water hits the wheel when it comes to faith.[9]  We have to trust not only in the God who “has done great things” in the past, but also in the God who always promises to do “a new thing” in our lives.[10] We have to learn to trust in God right here and right now.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/17/2013.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 73.
[3] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 72, where he warns that a “retreat from the hostile unknown to the comfort of the familiar,” if it becomes a “permanent posture, becomes spiritual escapism.”
[4] cf. Patrick Miller, “In Praise and Thanksgiving,” in Theology Today 45 ( July 1988): 180, where he says that Israel’s songs of praise “are fundamental indicators that wonders have not ceased, that possibilities not yet dreamt of will happen, and that hope is an authentic stance
[5] Cf. H. -J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 449, where he points out that the Psalm reflects “the unique tension in which the community found itself in reorganizing after the return”; although they had experienced “a wonderful liberation,” the “actual realization of the prophetic promise was long in coming.”
[6] cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 400: he sees this as one of the “pilgrim Psalms,” songs sung by those who were en route to Jerusalem for the observance of a feast day.
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1195.  Although some see the tears as a ritual mourning for the fertility god, he points out that the tears in this case “may simply emphasize the urgency of the need already articulated.”
[8] Cf. Artur Weiser, Psalms, 763, in the metaphor of sowing and harvesting, the Psalmist sees the “mysterious power of God which creates new life out of death.”
[9] cf. Miller, “In Praise and Thanksgiving,” 180: “the countless hymns of praise, from the song of Miriam and Moses at the Exodus to the hallelujah chorus at the end of the Book of Revelation, arise out of the structure of faith in the dialogue with God.”
[10] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:382, where he reminds us that one’s present relationship with God “consists of more than a memory of past faithfulness, decisive though that be in certain contexts.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Clearing the Slate

Clearing the Slate
Psalm 32[1]
I would venture to say that one of the last things someone in our day and time might expect to hear as a means of deepening our trust in God is by confessing our sin.  Many of us these days are uncomfortable admitting that we have sinned, and even more so that we are sinners.  But from the biblical perspective, both are fundamentally true:  we have sinned--that relates to our actions.  And we are sinners--that relates to who we are.[2]  But that’s not always an easy thing to do.  In the evangelical world, Christian people can tend toward the thinking that “I’m saved, I asked Jesus into my heart and confessed my sin on such-and-such a date.”  They may feel the need to confess really bad actions here and there, but they tend to think that they’ve already confessed to being a sinner.  They’ve already got that part covered.  In our branch of the Christian world, Christian people can tend toward the thinking that “I’m a good person, I go to church, I try to help people and be kind to them, I volunteer my time.”  They may feel like the demand to confess they are sinners is offensive given all their efforts at living the Christian life.[3]
And yet, the Psalmist insists that acknowledging our sin is something that remains an important part of an ongoing relationship of faith in God.  In fact, he warns that when we refuse to acknowledge our sin, it tends to fester inside us and comes out in all kinds of ways that aren’t so pleasant.  Pride, anger, bitterness, and perhaps even behaviors that are attributed to a more “psychological” origin may relate to repressed guilt.[4]  From the Psalmist’s perspective, refusing to clear the slate made him feel like God’s hand was “heavy” upon him (Ps. 32:4).  I think we can all relate to the sense of foreboding when we know we’ve messed up, and there are going to be consequences to pay, but it hasn’t happened yet.  That’s one more clue that we all need the relief and release the Psalmist says comes as a “blessing” when we confess our sin (Ps. 32:1-2).
And that is precisely what the Psalmist promises in response to the heartfelt, genuine confession that “I have sinned, and I am a sinner”: relief from the burden and release from the sense of guilt.  That’s why the confession of sin is such an important part of learning to trust in God.  As long as we hold back, as long as we refuse to acknowledge who we really are and what we’ve done, there must be some doubt in our minds about whether God really accepts us.  But when we stop fooling ourselves and let go the burden, we find God’s love embracing us, God’s grace abounding, God’s mercy healing us.[5]  When we make ourselves vulnerable by approaching God with the confession, “I am a sinner,” and experience not condemnation or rejection but acceptance and love and forgiveness, we walk away from that experience with a stronger sense of trust in the one who has embraced us.[6] 
Unfortunately, for most of us, “confession” is only something we do at the beginning of  a worship service.  And even then, because we do it every Sunday, in the same way, and at the same time, it can begin to feel like something routine.  But for confession to be genuine, it has to be more than a routine.  It has to be something that is heartfelt.  It cannot be relegated to a few words we mumble on Sunday morning.  Ongoing confession is an integral part of the life of faith.  If we need to be reminded why it is so important to confess our sin, all we have to do is remember that it is God’s love that exposes our sin. [7] There is something about sin so damaging to the human condition that God felt it necessary to die for us all in order to set us free.  If our sin is that serious to God, maybe we should take it more seriously.
This particular perspective on developing a deeper heart of trust in God is one that is not easy to swallow.  The very words, “I am a sinner” get caught in our throats as we say them.  Yet, they are so very important for us to say.  Our confession of sin, our clearing of the slate before God, is a necessary step for us to experience the unconditional love and acceptance God offers us all. [8]  And when we take the risk, when we make ourselves vulnerable, then we know the release and joy of the restoration that God holds out to all of us as a free gift.  When we clear the slate by confessing our sin we can learn to trust God enough to know the joy of God’s embrace.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/10/2013.
[2] cf. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II:50, where he defines sin as “hubris” or pride and says, “It is sin in its total form, namely, the other side of unbelief or man’s turning away from the divine center to which he belongs. It is turning toward one’s self as the center of one’s self and one’s world.”
[3] cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:807.  Cf. also Katharine Grieb, “The Real Prodigal,” The Christian Century (Mar 9, 2004):21: “It is said that there are two kinds of sinners in the world: those who know they're sinners and those who don't.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 147: when we refuse to acknowledge our sin, “the wrong retained and sheltered begins to become part of one’s identity.  It harms and hardens and diminishes. ... In the silence, every affliction and problem takes the form of judgment of God” Cf. also Karl Menninger, What Ever Became of Sin?, 178: “I believe that all the evildoing in which we become involved to any degree tends to evoke guilt feelings and depression.  These may or may not be clearly perceived, but they affect us.  They may be reacted to and covered up by all kinds of escapism, rationalization, and reaction or symptom formation.”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:578: in his silence the one who refused to acknowledge sin “could only be broken on God.”
[5] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1.576: “The divine pardon does not burst into man’s willingness but his unwillingness.”
[6] Cf. Mays, 147: “Confession is the knocking to which the door opens, the seeking that finds, the asking that receives.  Confession of sin to God is confession of faith in God. ... faith understands that we are sinners and God is gracious.”
[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 148: “the practice of repentance can become so routine, inconsequential, shallow, lacking in real seriousness, ... that it is a presumption on the mercy of God and a belief in cheap grace.  For the Christian, the cure for [this]deceit  comes by keeping the crucified Christ in view as God’s judgment on and pardon for our sin.” Cf. also The Confession of 1967, inclusive language version, 9.12, which puts it this way: “The reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ exposes our sin in the sight of God.”
[8] Mays, Psalms, 146: “God’s way is to forgive sinners, and we do not acknowledge his grace unless we present ourselves to him as sinners.” Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:579.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Seeking God

Seeking God
Ps. 63:1-8; Lk 13:1-9[1]
  During this season of Lent, we’re talking about the process of learning to trust in God.  Or perhaps it’s better to say we’re learning to entrust ourselves to God’s loving care.  A central aspect of our faith is the belief that whatever happens to us, we trust that God is working in our lives for our benefit. Theologians call it the doctrine of providence.  But as central as this trust is to our faith, it is also one of those points where we can fall into little more than pious self-interest. [2]  As I look at my own faith, suspect I may be guilty.  I look to God primarily when things are difficult in life, seeking God’s presence to help me when I’m in trouble, asking God to deliver me from my problems.  It seems that I, like many of us, turn the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ into a kind of “Jack in the Box” God whom we call on when we need a favor and whom we ignore when life is good.  We may give lip service to praising God when things are going our way, but be honest, do we really, really seek God with all our hearts in those times?  I can only speak for myself, and I’m not so sure I do.
  Unfortunately, in those times we tend to fall into the trap that St. Paul warned the people of Corinth about when he said “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).[3]  Or we tend to be like the people who came to Jesus and asked him about the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate while they were offering their sacrifices in the temple (Lk. 13:1-2).  Jesus’ answer seems harsh: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did” (Lk. 13:3-4).  But perhaps we should consider whether at least some of the people in the crowd were guilty of the kind of false confidence St. Paul was talking about.  I think Jesus must have sensed that some of them assumed because they hadn’t endured any such horrible tragedy, they were in good standing with God.  And we hear St. Paul saying, “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”  Jesus puts it much more bluntly.  He calls us to repent of the false confidence that thinks that if everything is going my way then God must be blessing me.  He reminds us that we all fall short, and we are all in need of constantly examining our lives to see where we need to repent before our God.[4]  And he also reminds us that God always gives us one more chance to repent (Lk. 13:8).[5]
  How do we do that?  How do we repent? The prophet Isaiah invited those who needed repentance to “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (Isa. 55:6).[6]  But if you’re like me, the only time you really, honestly seek God with all your heart is when you’re going through some kind of difficulty or trouble and you want God to bail you out of it! The Psalmist points us to a different way of seeking God.  He says he “thirsts” after God (Ps. 63:1).[7]  "Thirsting" for God is a way of seeking God that is based on the realization that we constantly need God’s presence in our lives—every day, in every circumstance, whether things are going our way or not. 
  In a very real sense, the only way to seek God genuinely and with all our heart is to know down in the depths of our soul that we need God in every aspect of our lives.  I think in part what this means is that we recognize that this life is too big for us to manage on our own.  It doesn’t take too much experience with life to learn that we are in many ways powerless over the people, the circumstances, and the events in our life.  There are just too many complications, too many factors that are beyond our control.  We need someone who is much bigger than we are to guide us and care for us in this life.  We need God to surround us with his “steadfast love” which the Psalmist says is “better than life” itself (Ps. 63:3).[8]
  As we examine our faith during this season of Lent, I think it’s important for us to realize that one of the requirements for developing a heart of trust is the realization that we need God in all of our lives.  We cannot look to other people, or even to ourselves to provide what we need in this life.  When we’ve done our best, sometimes life still sends us failure and loss.  And other people may have good intentions, but if we look to them instead of God, we’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment.  Only God can truly provide what we need in our lives.  That is the most fundamental reason for making the decision to seek God honestly, with all our heart, every day—sometimes every hour—and sometimes moment by moment.[9]  We seek God as the Psalmist did—thirsting for him constantly because we know that our very life depends on him.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/3/2013.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 218: “in a salvation religion there is always the danger for all believers to take the value of their own lives as the primary reason to trust God.”
[3] Cf. Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 169.  He sees the warning as especially applicable to the people in Corinth who thought they were the “strong” ones, saying that their “cocksureness” that nothing will happen to them is unrealistic.
[4] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 169: “Life in the Kingdom is not an elevated game of gaining favors and avoiding losses.  Without repentance, all is lost anyway.”  cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:272, where he says that the calamities mentioned “should stand as graphic reminders that life is fragile, and any of us may stand before our Maker without a moment’s notice.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 4–5, where he points out as Luther observed that the Christian’s life is always “becoming,” it’s always in process, and therefore it is “a continual repentance, a continual new start in a new direction.”
[6] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 177, where he points out that the only requirement for attendance at the banquet that is offered is “hunger and thirst.”
[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 173.  He comments that as “the body cannot live without water,” so “the soul cannot survive without God.”  Cf. similarly, H. -J. Kraus, Psalms 60–150, 19: “‘Soul’ and ‘body’ are like land that is parched and languishes for moisture in the summer when there is no rain.”
[8] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 218: “This verse leads us in prayer to the point of devotion to God alone that must be the goal of all true faith.”  Cf. also Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51–100, 129: he describes the Psalmists’ longing for God as a “great soul-thirst for the living presence of God”.  Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:928.
[9] cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 181, where he points out that in contrast to human pride, the point of the invitation in Isa. 55:1-9 is that “it is all free for those who confess the inadequacy of their own solutions and therefore desire God’s thoughts and God’s ways.” cf. also Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:482: “Only repentance and pardon can open eyes and minds to the ways of God.”

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Learning Faith

Learning Faith
Gen 15:1-18[1]
  Most of us can say that at some point in our lives we have been shaped in a significant way by special people.  If we’re fortunate, we can say that there have been many special people who have shaped our lives.  They may have been parents or grandparents, teachers or pastors, friends or colleagues.  We tend to call them “mentors.”  They teach us something important about how to live and work and be better people.  I’ve had many mentors in my lifetime, from family to pastors to professors to colleagues to friends.  I’ve learned most of what I know about life and love and faith from them.  Some of these people we look to as mentors in faith.  We call them prophets, sages, and saint.  Whether we’re talking about Billy Graham, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa, they are people who seem to have a kind faith that transcends what the rest of us seem to be able to attain.
  That’s why we look to them as mentors and role models.  We call them saints because we recognize that they seem to have a higher level of faith in their interactions with God. It’s tempting to put them “on a pedestal” to separate them from the rest of us.  That can be just a convenient way to let ourselves off the hook so that we don’t have to try to rise to a higher level. But a better approach would be to respect their faith in a way that challenges us to grow in our own faith.  We recognize them as special people so that we may follow their example in an attempt to attain at least a small degree of their faith. 
  I think Abraham and Sarah were people like that.  At an age when most people should be enjoying their twilight years in the safe and comfortable surroundings of home and family, they set out on what must have seemed like an improbable journey.  They left everything behind because God called them to go to a place yet to be determined!  And they did so based on a promise--that God would bless them and would make of them a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3).  That must have seemed a strange promise, given the fact that they were childless and both of them were in their seventies!  And yet, despite all the odds, Abraham and Sarah had a kind of faith that enabled them to look past all that.
  Over the years, God continued to interact with Abraham and Sarah, repeating and confirming the promise to bless them.  In our lesson for today, it would seem that Abraham has been doing some thinking about the promise.  In fact, in response to God’s reaffirmation of the promise of blessing, Abraham responds with a strange kind of faith: he asks a fairly direct question that might seem to contradict the whole notion that he had any faith!  God appears to Abraham in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1).  In reply, Abraham asks what God could possibly give him since he and Sarah were still childless.  As the Good News Version puts it, ““Sovereign Lord, what good will your reward do me, since I have no children? (Genesis 15:2, TEV).[2] 
  That may seem like a strange way to express faith.  In fact, in many traditions, questioning God is considered to be the opposite of faith.  And yet it is through his questioning that Abraham rises to a higher level of faith.  Because of his question, God reinforces the promise using a means of “signing a contract” that was common in that day.  That’s what the ritual involving the animal carcasses is about.  In essence, if you wanted to make a contract with someone, you would use this ritual as a way of saying, “May the same thing happen to me if I break my promise.”[3]  And I think Abraham walked away with a faith that was stronger for having questioned.
  It seems to me that one way to learn faith is to pursue our questions.  I think that ignoring them or suppressing them actually deprives us of the opportunity to grow.  It’s understandable that we may not want to face our questions about God head on.  Some of them can be frightening.  Especially the ones that deal with the mystery of human suffering.  It can be incredibly difficult to face the question of why bad things happen to good people--especially when you’re the one bad things are happening to![4]  But like Abraham, when we face our questions, or perhaps even better, when we voice our questions to God, we give ourselves at least the chance of growing in our faith.  It provides an opportunity for us to deepen our trust in God’s promise based on the “awareness that God really is God.”[5]  It creates an opening for us to affirm with the Psalmist that “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).[6]
  As we examine our faith during this year’s season of Lent, I think it’s important for us to realize that at least one way of developing the heart of trust and the eyes of faith is to give full voice to our questions about God.  We may never get an answer to all our questions, but when we allow our questions to come out into the open, we open our hearts to experience the awareness that God really is God, and that we can entrust our lives into God’s loving care.[7]  It seems to me that’s how people who have the kind of special faith Abraham and Sarah had develop that special kind of faith.  It’s a way for the “rest of us” to learn faith.  It’s a way for us to imitate the faith of the saints who have gone before us (cf. Phil. 3:17), and so learn a higher and deeper faith ourselves.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/24/2013.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 141: “Clearly, the faith to which Abraham is called is not a peaceful, pious acceptance.  It is a hard-fought and deeply argued conviction.”  Cf. also C. Westermann, Genesis 12–36, 219
[3] Cf. Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, 181.
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 133: “Trust is active and real precisely when one is aware of one’s vulnerability, of one’s ultimate helplessness before the threats of life.”
[5] Brueggemann, Genesis, 143. He defines faith as “a certitude that is based not on human reason but on a primal awareness that God is God.” With reference to Abraham, he continues, “The same God who gives the promise is the one who makes it believable” through “the new awareness that God really is God.” Cf. also Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” New Interpreters Bible I:445, where he says that Abraham’s response to God’s reassurance is that he “trusts in the one to whom his faith clings.”
[6] Cf H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 337, where he says that the psalmist trusts God despite the afflictions he faces because he “has anchored his life entirely in Yahweh.”
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” 787, where he says that for the Psalmist anxiety is not a failure of never, but a “failure of trust.”  He says, “Left to depend on ourselves instead of on God, we fail to experience joy (v. 6) and life in all its fullness (v. 13).”