Monday, October 12, 2015

Risky Business

Risky Business
Esther 7:1-6[1]
Some of you, like me, may be fans of “The Lord of the Rings.” I’m not just talking about the movies—yes I have the extended versions and I’ve watched them a number of times. I’m talking about the books, which I’ve also read through more than once. You may not know that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote them as a Christian allegory, but one that was more subtle than that of his good friend C. S. Lewis. There is so much about these volumes that I love. One quote that comes to mind is from Bilbo Baggins, the hero of the Hobbit. He tells his nephew, Frodo, that “It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”[2] At the time, little did Frodo know where his own journey out the door would lead him.
Part of the point of this is that it is an analogy of the Christian faith. I think many of us would like the Christian faith to be like a refuge, a sanctuary to which we can flee to find safety in the midst of a world that can be frightening. But that’s not the nature of faith. If you read the Bible closely, you’ll find that time after time the leading characters who were great examples of faith found their journeys to be full of risk and danger.[3] In many cases, like Abraham and Sarah, people set out on the journey of faith never knowing where they might be “swept off to.” They discovered like many countless pilgrims, that taking the road of faith can be risky business.
I think the story of Esther is a perfect example of this lesson.  You may know Esther’s story better than I—she was a young and beautiful Jewish woman living in the Persian empire with her uncle Mordecai.  When the King was “in the market” for a new queen, Esther was one of the beautiful young women from all over the empire who “tried out” for the position of queen.  The king was vastly more delighted with Esther than any other young woman, and she became the new Queen. But one of the King’s advisers, named Haman, hated Mordecai and all the Jewish people.  So he convinced the king to sign a decree allowing Haman to execute all the Jewish people—because the King didn’t know Esther was Jewish! 
When Mordecai found out, he sent a message to Esther asking her to do something about it.  Now, what you have to understand is that Esther, queen or not, was subject to the whims of the king.  To approach the king without being summoned meant risking death.[4]  But Esther was a courageous woman of faith—like many before and after her, she was willing to risk what most people would never dream of risking!  And so she asked Mordecai to call a fast for three days, and after that she said “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).[5]
That’s the way of faith according to the Scriptures.  Setting out on a journey without even knowing where you’re going, like Abraham and Sarah.  Or facing death in a furnace rather than compromising one’s commitment to God, like the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Or exposing oneself to ridicule and humiliation to obey God’s command, like Mary did when she agreed to bear God’s son.  That’s what faith is about.  It’s not about knowing exactly how everything is going to turn out.  It’s about “hoping like mad in something” that may seem too good to be true.[6] And because our faith can at times call us to a path that is risky, we have to be willing take the leap of faith while “knowing that we do not know”—and in fact we cannot know—how it will wind up for us or where we might be “swept off to.”[7] 
For those of us who want faith to be something protective, something reassuring, something safe, this may seem troubling. There are many these days who look to Biblical faith to provide rational arguments and scriptural “proofs” that they suppose will to make them feel safe in a world that is more and more confusing.  They look for clear-cut codes and fixed dogmas to protect them from the tension of not knowing, of not being sure, of not having all the answers.  But, again that’s not the nature of biblical faith. If you read the Scriptures closely, you will find that faith is full of questions, uncertainty, and mystery![8]  It opens us up, making us vulnerable to the unpredictability of our world.  It challenges us take part in an amazing journey, a pilgrimage of faith that has always been about taking the kind of risk Esther took. And because this journey takes place right in the middle of the uncertainties and anxieties of our day and time, it is a journey that takes all the courage we can muster.
When I began my journey of faith 40 years ago, I certainly wasn’t looking for a life of uncertainty and risky business. I heard the offer of acceptance and God’s love and I knew that’s what I wanted. I could never imagine at the ripe age of 14 what that decision would mean. Nor could I possibly have any idea where the decision to serve as a minister at the age of 17 would lead me in life. I’ll say this: the journey has been anything but boring! But that’s the way it is for all of us. When we make the decision to take the path of faith in Jesus Christ, we are stepping out of our comfort zone and out the door into a life that is full of twists and turns, full of surprises, full of risks. It’s a path that many have walked before us, and their testimonies, both in Scripture and in the great books of the Christian faith, bear witness to us that the commitment to follow Jesus is indeed one that is risky business. But if we have the courage to step out on that road, it is a road that leads us to life.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon written by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm to be delivered on 9/27/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church. Due to illness, the sermon was not presented. Instead it is being published here.
[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 72
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 98-99, where he says, “Faith always involves “a leap into the darkness of the unknown.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 76, where he says that faith impels us “out and on to the edge of all experience, thought, and action,” and compels us “to attempt to leap off into the air, where obviously no [one] can stand.”
[4] Cf. Sidnie White Crawford, “The Book Of Esther,” New Interpreters Bible III:904: “It is part of the irony of the book that the first queen, Vashti, is banished for refusing to appear before the king when summoned, while the second queen, Esther, is asked to risk death by appearing before the king unsummoned.”
[5] Cf. Sidnie White Crawford, “The Book of Esther,” NIB III:905: “Esther's position as a woman in a male court is analogous to that of the Jews in the Gentile world, with the possibility of danger ever present under the surface. Esther has no guarantee that she will be successful.” She observes (p. 906) that Esther’s situation presents us with “the dilemma of the average believer”: “How does one find the courage and faith to do what is right in the face of divine and human ambiguity?”
[6] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2, where he says that “Religion is for … people who believe in something, who hope like mad in something, who love something with a love that surpasses understanding.” He says further (ibid, 31) that “the religious sense,” which I would see as something very similar to faith, awakens when “Something grander and larger than us comes along and bowls us over and dispossesses us . Something overpowers our powers, potencies, and possibilities, and exposes us to something impossible. Something makes a demand upon us and shakes us loose from the circle of self-love, drawing us out of ourselves and into the service of others and of something to come.”
[7] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 19, where he distinguishes “not-knowing” from “ignorance” by saying that we know “that we do not know” and we know that “this non-knowing is the inescapable horizon in which we must act, with all due decisiveness, with all the urgency that life demands.”
[8] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 128-29, where he insists that we cannot know ultimate things, and we are therefore left with “the passion of our non-knowing, our passion for God” and with “our love for God.” He continues (p. 129), “In my view, the very highest passion is driven by not-knowing … when all we can do is push on, have faith, keep going, love and trust the process about which we lack any final assurance.” Cf. similarly, Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 245-46, “The intellect often demands proof that it is on solid ground. The thought of the soul finds its grounding in a different way. It likes persuasion, subtle analysis, an inner logic, and elegance. It enjoys the kind of discussion that is never complete, … . It is content with uncertainty and wonder.”  He continues (p. 246), “Intellect tends to enshrine its truth, while soul hopes that insights will keep coming until some degree of wisdom is achieved.”

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Life of Joy

A Life of Joy
Psalm 1[1]
When you look at the way we as a people live these days, I’d say we’re obsessed with happiness. Self-fulfillment is the number one item on most agendas. We are healthier and wealthier than any other generation in the history of the world. So you’d think that would translate into our being the happiest people ever. But the sad reality is that the more we have, it seems like the more unhappy we are. More than that, it seems that we grow more insistent that we know what’s best for us, and that we don’t need anyone or anything—even the Bible—to teach us how to live. When we insist that we know what’s best and refuse let anyone tell us how to live, we’re only digging our ruts deeper.  I would say that approach to life typically doesn’t pay off.
Our Scripture lesson from the Psalms today insists that true happiness, what I would call joy, is found only in one place. The Psalm makes it clear that joy is found only through “delighting” in God’s truth, in God’s instruction found in Scripture.[2] Now, “delight” is a word that we don’t hear much these days, so it may not communicate to us. I would say that “delighting” in God’s truth refers to the practice of spending time every day, in fact “day and night,” reading and studying and thinking about the truths of Scripture. And the reason for this is to be able to live a life that is more closely aligned with God’s will. The outcome of that kind of life, according to our Scripture lesson for today, is true joy.
Now, if you’re like me, you may find yourself wondering about this passage. It makes some pretty big claims. It promises that those who follow this approach to life will not only find true joy, but also “In all that they do, they prosper” (Ps. 1:3). And yet the reality of life is such that there are plenty of people who faithfully align their lives with God’s will but do not seem to prosper, outwardly at least. And we can bear witness to the frustration found in other Psalms that there are plenty of people in this world who live their lives with little or no thought to God’s ways but, outwardly at least, they seem to prosper. Some of them prosper greatly.
So it would seem that we face some obstacles to the way of life prescribed by this Psalm in the realities of our world. For many of us, trying to read the Bible can seem like an exercise in futility. We may start off with all the determination in the world to make devotion to Scripture a regular part of our lives. But when we actually sit down to read the Bible, it can often leave us feeling cold. In fact, it may leave us feeling bored. Let’s face it, the Bible is not an easy book to read, especially in some translations. And there are some passages of Scripture that leave you feeling less than uplifted.
In light of this, what are we to make of the claim our Scripture lesson for today makes? I think we have to start by getting clear about what it is that we’re hoping to gain from a discipline of regular Bible study—day and night, as the text puts it. We may not always understand everything we read, even though we have an abundance of resources available to us. We may not always find that our devotion to Scripture gives us some “takeaway” to help us at the time. But then, that’s not always the way Bible study works.[3] If we expect that every time we read the Bible we’re going to be “blessed” in a specific way, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. The discipline of studying and meditating on Scripture “day and night” is one that changes our lives over time, as we continue to practice it over weeks and months and years.
I think another aspect of this has to do with the real-life benefits a regular discipline of Bible study. We are a results-oriented people in many ways, and we want to know what we will get if we invest the time to actually engage with Scripture “day and night” as the psalmist suggests. I have to say that it’s unlikely that we will find ourselves understanding all that there is to know about the Bible. There are Bible Dictionaries and Bible Handbooks that can help us here, but we’re not going to emerge as an expert who can answer any question about the Bible. I have a doctorate in biblical studies, and there are plenty of questions about the Bible I can’t answer! Rather, the outcome of this kind of regular engagement with the Scriptures is that it opens us up to the life-giving, transforming presence of God.[4] When we devote ourselves to the discipline of taking in the Scriptures “day and night,” we are connecting ourselves with the true source of life, and well-being, and joy. I think that’s what the promise of “prospering” is about—it’s about knowing true joy in life regardless of our outward circumstances.[5]
I’ll be the first one to admit that making this discipline a regular part of your life is challenging. I’ve spent many years, even decades, seeking to make reading, and meditating on, and praying through the Scriptures a part of my life “day and night.” And I can bear witness that it takes a definite commitment and the will to persevere in order to continue to do this year after year. But I can also bear witness to the fact that when I maintain this discipline, I definitely experience more joy in life than when I let it slip. As our Psalm for today advises us, this is a serious matter.[6] The Bible is not something we read just because we have nothing better to do.  Our Psalm for today warns us that turning from Scripture and living by our own counsel is a way of life that “perishes.” It’s simply not sustainable. But on the other hand, embracing God’s truth with one’s whole heart leads to a life of joy. It’s up to us to decide which path we will take.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/20/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:684, where he says that the word typically translated “Law” is the word Torah, and would better be translated as “Instruction.” He says, “‘Instruction’ here refers not to a particular corpus of stipulations, but more broadly to the whole sacred tradition of God’s revelation. It is helpful to recall that the Torah for Judaism—the Pentateuch—contains both stipulations and identity-forming stories of God’s dealings with the world and God’s people.” Moreover, (ibid, 685), he says that the use of the word Torah in this introduction to the Psalms indicates that “the psalms are to be received in a manner analogous to the Pentateuch—that is, as an identity-forming, life-shaping source of God’s instruction.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 41: “Here, ‘torah of the Lord’ is used in a comprehensive sense to refer to the whole body of tradition through which instruction in the way and will of the Lord is given to Israel. … This psalmist knows torah in the written form, Scripture that one can read and absorb (see Josh. 1:8). It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and will of the LORD and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness (40:9; 37:31).”
[3] As Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1:123 reminds us, “[the] very fact of the language of God Himself becoming an event in the human word of the Bible is … God’s business and not ours.  … The Bible is God’s Word so far as God lets it be his Word, so far as God speaks through it.” In other words, God speaks to us through the Bible on God’s terms, not ours!  Cf. similarly, Cf. Anthony B. Robinson, What’s Theology Got to Do With It?, 55: “the Word of God is something that occurs when the Spirit and the Scriptures connect in listening and speaking.”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 41-42: “This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight, not because it is an available instrument of self-righteousness, material for a program of self-justification, but because the LORD reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it. For this psalm, torah is a means of grace.” Cf. also McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:684. He says, “In contrast to scoffers who arrogantly refuse all instruction, happy persons delight in God’s instruction, having it always before them. What is commended, therefore, is not a close-minded legalism, but a posture of constant openness to God’s instruction.” Cf. also the now classic R. McAfee Brown, The Bible Speaks to You, 48, where he says that the Bible itself is “a means by which God reveals himself to us, since it is by reading the Bible that we find him confronting us.” Cf. also Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, 23-24: “In our reading of this book we come to realize that what we need is not primarily informational, telling us things about God and ourselves, but formational, shaping us into our true being.” 
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 43-44, were he says that according to this Psalm there are only two ways for life’s journey to take; the way of the righteous “leads to the fulfillment of life” as depicted by the tree which constantly bears fruit. He continues, “The fulfillment is not so much a reward as a result of life’s connection with the source of life. The second way is really an illusion. It has no more substance than chaff that the wind drives away…. The wicked are grounded and guided within themselves, a way that has no connection with the source of life. That way will perish.”
[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:685. He summarizes the message of the Psalm by saying, “The happy or righteous persons are those who are constantly open to God’s teaching, thus always connected to God, who is the source of life. … The wicked, on the other hand, are those who refuse to attend to God’s teaching, thus cutting themselves off from the source of life. That they ‘perish’ is not so much a punishment, but the inevitable outcome of their own choice not to be related to God. In short, wickedness in Psalms is fundamentally to be self-centered rather than God-centered.” He points out that this understanding of life is one that “differs profoundly” from the typical outlook in our culture. He says (ibid., 687), “What is so unsettling about all of this is that what Psalm 1 and the rest of the psalter call ‘wickedness’ is perhaps what North American culture promotes as the highest virtue—autonomy. … The irony is tragic—the pursuit of self-fulfillment yields self-alienation. … Failing to trust God and to make connection with God as the source of life, persons cannot be ‘happy.’ … In biblical terms, to be autonomous, to be alienated from God and other people, is to ‘perish.’”