Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Grumbling


Grumbling
Luke 15:1-10[1]
We are a people with plenty of boundaries. We find all kinds of ways of drawing lines that let in only those who look like us, who talk like us, who live like us, and excluding anyone who is “different” in any way. Whether it’s the fences we build, or the neighborhoods we choose to live in, or the lines we draw to keep “undesirable” children out of our schools, we find a way to keep company only with those who are like us. Even on the internet, observers note that we tend to filter out messages from those who represent a way of thinking we may find offensive. Instead, we only want to hear from those who endorse the same ideas we do.
Although the Christian faith is intended to be radically inclusive, the way we as a people tend to practice our faith can fall into the same kind of exclusion. Bill Moyers, a journalist who was known for his PBS documentaries in the last Century, used to say that religion has a healing side, but it also has a killing side. Now, we’re not the kind of people to commit a terrorist act in the name of God, but there are other ways to carry out the “killing side” of religion. One of those is by rejecting the people we consider to be “less than,” or “undesirable,” or even “sinful”—the very people Jesus welcomed in the name of a loving God. We may not actually “kill” in the name of God, but we have other weapons that can rob a person of life just as effectively.
It might come as a surprise to hear these comments in connection with the parables of rejoicing over finding that which was lost in our Gospel lesson for today. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are probably some of our favorites. They remind us that God never stops seeking us out until he finds us and brings us home. They reassure us that even when we wander astray, God never gives up on us. And when that which was lost is found the proper way to celebrate it is to throw a party!
I’m not sure we fully appreciate this side of Jesus. We can take ourselves and our faith so seriously, that we can miss the fact that Jesus was known among the “religious people” of his day as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Apparently, Jesus’ ability to celebrate the joy that comes from knowing God’s love and seeing that love transform those who were “lost” earned him a “reputation” among the good, upstanding people of the day. They were so busy obsessing about their religious “obligations” that they missed the whole point of it all: living in the joy of God’s unconditional love, and sharing that love with others—all others!
That was the reason why Jesus told these parables in the first place. Again, Luke clues us into that with the way he introduces the chapter. He describes the setting this way: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2). Now, there are some things we need to understand about this. First, “tax collectors and sinners” was something of shorthand in that context. It was a phrase that included everyone who was considered “undesirable,” whether they were actually immoral or just consigned to the category of human “trash” by the good, upstanding people.[2]
It’s easy for us to overlook this dimension to the parables because we tend to identify with Jesus’ point of view when we read the Bible. I think that’s a natural response to Scripture: we would like to think that we’re the kind of people who hear and obey. Therefore, we assume that we’re “on God’s side.” But of course, it’s that assumption that allows us to fall into the trap of the “killing side of religion” by rejecting others and setting up boundaries to keep them separated from us.
The irony in this situation is the fact that those who were consigned to the category of human “trash” were the very ones who responded to Jesus and his message of God’s all-inclusive kingdom![3] In the Gospels they are the examples for us to follow regarding how to respond to Jesus. By contrast the “religious” people kept their distance. Or if they did “stoop” to associate with Jesus, it was only to confirm their assumption that he was misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Despite their narrowness, Jesus continued to reach out to the “religious” people, inviting them to join in the celebration of new life. The parables in this chapter leave it open as to whether they would accept his invitation, or continue to cling to relative safety of their grumbling.
We face the same choice today. We can choose to assume that we are justified in writing off those we exclude as “trash.” If so, we will have forgotten that though we have all gone astray, we want God to be merciful to us, but we’re asking him to withhold that mercy from those we reject![4] Instead of assuming that posture of judging others, we can admit that Jesus has something to say in these parables that we desperately need to hear as much as anyone![5] If we have the ability to hear him, perhaps then we can leave our grumbling behind, and join with him and “all heaven” in rejoicing when anyone from any walk of life who was lost is transformed by God’s love.


[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/15/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, 1073.
[3] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 570.
[4] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:298: he says that we want God to be merciful to us by giving us more than we deserve, but we want those we view as “undesirable” to get no more than they deserve.
[5] Fred Craddock, Luke, 184.

Monday, September 09, 2019

How Much Will It Cost?


How Much Will It Cost?
Luke 14:25-33[1]
We have a tendency to hear what we want to hear, at least to some extent. There are some things that challenge us deeply, and we don’t much like that. One of the most memorable phrases from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is, “I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” But there are other parts to the speech. Dr. King also said that in the Declaration of Independence, the “architects of our republic” wrote a “promissory note” that all races “would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And he chided America for writing people of color a “bad check” instead!
I’m afraid we have applied our “selective hearing” to Jesus’ words as well. There are some of Jesus’ teachings that we cherish. Sayings like, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Or “Let the little children come to me” (Matt. 19:14). Or “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). These are words that reassure us, that comfort us, that encourage us. But there are other teachings of Jesus that we (purposefully I think) ignore. Like the one about tearing out your right eye or cutting off your right hand in order to avoid sin!
Our lesson for today is probably one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus. This chapter contains some of the most deeply challenging demands Jesus makes on those who would follow him as disciples. Here Jesus says to the crowds, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26)! I would say that has always cut deeply against the grain for those who heard this. In fact, even Matthew’s Gospel softens the harshness of this saying a bit: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37).
Of course, in this passage Jesus also says that those who do not bear the burden of the cross and who do not give up all their possessions cannot follow him as disciples. Those are deeply challenging demands as well. But I think the part about hating your parents, your spouse and your children, your brothers and sisters, and even your own life is probably the most challenging to us. It’s positively offensive. Family ties are some of the most important ones to us. Why would Jesus try to sever family ties that the human race has cherished through millennia?
I think part of the answer may be found, as is often the case in Luke’s Gospel, in the introduction to the passage: “Now large crowds were traveling with him” (Lk. 14:25). This isn’t the only place in the Gospels where Jesus speaks rather harshly to the crowds that followed him. On one occasion he scolded them for following him simply because they had their fill of bread (Jn 6:26). On another, he chided them for the fact that “this generation is an evil generation” because they came to him seeking some miraculous sign upon which they could rest their faith (Lk. 11:29). I think Jesus knew that many in the crowds that followed him had their own ideas about who Jesus was and what he had come to bring them. He rather bluntly rebuked that shallow spiritual “thrill-seeking”!
I think, however, that these “hard sayings” Jesus spoke were not just for the spiritual “sightseers” who flocked to him. They were also meant for his disciples. Jesus warned them that his commitment to God’s kingdom and God’s justice meant that he was going to be cruelly executed on a cross. And he also warned them that they would share that fate. Elsewhere he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Interestingly, the word for “bearing” the cross is a different one here. It is a word that implies bearing a burden that is heavy, and continuing to bear that burden over time. I think Jesus was pressing his own disciples as to whether they were “willing to stay with [him] all the way.” [2]
Another part of solving this problem can be found in the parables Jesus tells to explain the point of what he is trying to say. In both of them, the point of the parable is that it’s a normal part of life to calculate the cost before launching a venture. And that seems to be the point of Jesus’ demand that in order to be his disciple one must “hate” one’s family, continually bear up under the burden of the cross, and give away all possessions. More than once, Jesus made it clear to his disciples that they must count the cost of following him. Following Jesus would be the way they would truly find their lives, but it would also cost them all that they held dear.
I don’t believe that Jesus wants any of us to literally hate our families, any more than he literally demanded us to go get ourselves executed or to give up everything we own. I think the point of this passage is that the commitment to following Jesus is one that takes precedence over every other commitment in life. But it also stands as a warning: those who choose to follow a Savior who was cruelly executed must recognize that decision will come with a cost. And yet at the same time, the promise is that, however much it will cost us to follow Jesus, only by losing our lives for his sake will we truly find our lives.


[1][1] ©Alan Brehm 2019. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/8/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Fred Craddock, Luke, 181.

Divided


Divided
Luke 12:49-56[1]
It’s not hard to see that we are a nation divided. This is not a new phenomenon. The “culture war” that’s been going on in this country has been recognized for almost 30 years. Its origins go back before that to the times of social upheaval we went through in the Sixties and Seventies. As opinions about various social issues changed for some, those who hold onto what they consider to be more conservative values pushed back strenuously. We’ve seen this “war” played out primarily on the field of politics, but most families are affected by it as well. We all know there are certain topics you just don’t talk about at family dinners!
This intense division has also affected most Christian denominations. Recent decades have seen divisions in Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Methodist groups. Those churches that have chosen not to follow the majority view have left their denominations. Unfortunately, this kind of division hurts all churches. Those that leave a denomination over disagreements like these typically experience a decline in attendance. Other churches that stay within their denominations have to try to manage the tension within the congregation. The fact of the matter is, like most families, most congregations are not all on the same page regarding the changes that have taken place in our society.
In our lesson from Luke’s Gospel for today, Jesus makes a surprising announcement. He says that he has come not to bring peace but division! If this sounds confusing to you, you’re in good company. How can the one whom the hosts of heaven heralded at his birth with the declaration of peace (Luke 2:14) say he has come to bring division? After sending out his followers with the task of carrying peace to the towns and villages, did Jesus change his mind and decide to scrap that plan? The message of peace is woven into the biblical promises of salvation through the Messiah, from the prophets to Jesus to the Apostles.
How then could Jesus say he has not come to bring peace, but division? I think part of the answer has to do with understanding the meaning of the word peace. In the Bible, peace is the wholeness that comes from knowing God genuinely and living the life God intended for us. Peace is what happens when God’s reign and God’s justice prevail. It includes all that God is working toward in this world. The “peace” of the angels’ song is God’s salvation that brings reconciliation with God and humanity. This kind of peace is clearly at the heart of Jesus’ message and ministry.
I think that the kind of peace Jesus was rejecting is the “peace” that comes from avoiding conflict by going along with things as they are. He was renouncing the approach that seeks to preserve the status quo no matter what the cost. The peace that Jesus criticized was the approach of keeping up appearances and preserving a “business as usual” attitude toward life. Unfortunately, these are values that many of us would endorse. Change is stressful. Maintaining stability is much easier. But when we maintain the status quo at the expense of the people around us, the price for our comfort is too high!
On the other hand, the kind of peace that brings us true wholeness is the peace that happens when God’s reign and God’s justice prevail. The truth behind our Gospel lesson for today is that Jesus does come to bring peace, but it is a kind of peace that comes with a cost. The peace that Jesus brings will only come from righting the wrongs of injustice, especially the injustice that benefits the privileged few. It is a kind of peace that will only come from exposing the untruth that perpetuates the brokenness of our world.  It is a peace that brings with it the strife and division that God’s justice and God’s truth provoke among those who are comfortable with “business as usual.”[2]
When anyone has the nerve to look at the way things are and say, “this isn’t right,” it has an unavoidable effect: it divides people. Those who benefit from the status quo will fight tooth and nail to oppose anyone who tries to change things. That’s why Jesus said he had come to bring division. He did not shy away from exposing the unjust systems of his day.  He told parables that pointed out how the religious leaders had enriched themselves at the expense of the people, in direct violation of the Torah they claimed to uphold. He pointedly confronted them for abandoning the commandments of God when it was convenient, and yet insisting on keeping the letter of the Law when it suited them. The division Jesus brought was one that came from directly confronting the “powers that be” of his day for abandoning God’s standards of justice.[3] 
The Gospels make it clear that Jesus came to break down the systems of injustice and untruth that exploit and oppress people, especially the most vulnerable. His intention was not to destroy, but to clear the way for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, and for God’s peace that brings wholeness and life. If we would follow Jesus in this way of peace, it will mean that we have to repent. We have to repent of the selfishness that seeks our own welfare at the expense of others. We have to repent of the choices we make that reinforce a “business as usual” attitude and ignores the least and the lost and the left out. And when we do repent and follow Jesus in the way of justice he lived and taught, we must expect that it will provoke the division he warned about.


[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/18/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Moltmann, Crucified God, 39, where he speaks of the necessity of “the painful demonstration of truth in the midst of untruth.”
[3] Cf. Luz, Matthew, 112, where he says, “The message of ultimate peace … and of the love of God for the underprivileged has a political dimension and evokes the resistance of all those who defend power and privileges.”

Charades


“Charades”
Isaiah 1:10-20[1]
For many of us, “Charades” refers to a parlor game that we used to play back in the day. You had to get your “team” to guess a word or phrase based solely on your efforts to act out the idea. It was harmless and fun; at times it could be hilarious. But that rather innocent use of the word “charade” is very different from its true meaning. To put on a charade is to pretend to be something you’re not. It’s a matter of “play-acting” or “faking it” in order to disguise your true identity and intentions. A charade is oftentimes meant to deceive someone. It is a matter of dishonesty at worst, and at the least it is a matter of hypocrisy. The parlor game really has little to do with the charades we play in life.
And, make no mistake about it, we all play charades in life. None of us is as upstanding, as good, or as honest as we’d like to think we are. And we’re certainly not as good as we’d like others to think we are. As much as we’d like to believe we are “what you see is what you get” kind of people, there are parts of our true identity that we conceal from others. As fallen and flawed people, whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve all either done things we shouldn’t have, or we’ve not done things we should have. This applies as much to our practice of faith as it does to any other area of our lives. Perhaps even more so, especially when we come to church.
This is the gist of the message the prophet Isaiah had for the people of Judah. In fact, I would say this was the gist of the message all the prophets delivered to the Jewish people. The people had pledged to be true to God, to love and serve him above all else, and to follow his ways. Those ways were embodied above all in the Torah, the teaching of God. That teaching could be summarized in two great commands: to love God with everything you are and to love others genuinely. But the Jewish people failed to actually fulfill their commitment to live out the faith that they professed.
Like Isaiah, the prophets essentially “called” the people out for the charade that their practice of faith had become. We tend to think of a “prophet” as someone who predicts the future, especially warning of gloom and doom. But the reality was that the prophets were preachers. And their message was the same: the people had pledged to follow God’s ways, they had promised to love God and love others, but their lives betrayed the fact that they really had no intention of making good on that promise. Instead, they thought they could somehow fool God by engaging in worship that was hollow and superficial—simply “going through the motions,” or putting on a charade.
That is the message of our lesson for today: the people of Judah thought they could show up to “worship” God and then they could go out and live their lives however they pleased. But Isaiah says in the name of the Lord that this is nothing more than a “trampling” of his courts (Isa. 1:12)! Thinking they could simply show up for a few religious ceremonies and call it good was something that was “futile,” an “abomination,” and “evil” in God’s eyes (Isa. 1:13). All of those words in the Hebrew Bible are also associated with the worship of false gods. In a way, Isaiah was saying to the people that they came to the temple under the pretense of worshiping God, but the way they lived their lives betrayed the fact that it was not God they were worshiping, but rather the idols of their own making!
We might wonder what it was that made their worship so offensive in God’s sight. I think our lesson makes it clear that the “evil” that they were perpetrating was a failure to follow God’s standards of justice. Rather than caring for the most vulnerable in their society, they were only concerned about getting what they wanted out of life. And they didn’t care whom they trampled in the process. And they didn’t care that it was a direct violation of God’s Torah, God’s commands. Throughout the Bible, caring for the immigrants, the disabled, the widows, and the orphans in society was the benchmark for God’s justice.[2]
Because the people failed to practice even the most basic aspects of God’s justice, the prophets like Isaiah warned them that they would suffer the consequences. This was not simply an arbitrary punishment. When any society ignores justice, they are headed for collapse. But Jesus went further than that. He said that how we treat the most vulnerable people in our world is the basis upon which we all will be judged! He said it this way: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:35-36). And to make sure we don’t miss the point, he added, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45).
Throughout the Bible, the gift of God’s love and grace and mercy to us calls forth a response: that we love God with all our hearts and that we love others sincerely. But the simple truth is that it is always easier to “honor God with our lips, while our hearts are far from him,” as Isaiah could say elsewhere (Isa. 29:13). The kind of worship that God seeks from us involves devoting our whole hearts to God. And one of the ways we do that is by putting God’s justice into practice in how we treat the most vulnerable people in our world. Anything less amounts to a “charade.” And the only way to change that is to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:16-17). That won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen without making an effort to learn to align our hearts with God’s will so deeply that practicing God’s ways becomes like second nature to us. That’s what it takes to live authentically instead of putting on a “charade.”


[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/11/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; James 1:27.

Truly Rich


“Truly Rich”
Luke 12:13-21[1]
I think it’s fair to say that we as a people are obsessed with our possessions. We continually occupy ourselves with getting more—a better computer, a nicer TV, a newer phone, just to mention a few of the “hotter” items on the market. Experts recognize that this consumption of consumer goods is the engine that drives our economy. And this isn’t just about “the one who finishes with the most toys wins.” It’s ingrained into much of our decision-making. In a society where we seek to secure our future by our own efforts, we are constantly calculating ways of ensuring that our account balances are heading upward. And for us, that just makes good sense. It’s hard not to think that our lives consist in “the abundance of possessions.”
Part of this is simply a matter of living in a market economy. But there are many aspects of the way we live in this economy that betray the power of wealth over us. For example, many of us play the lottery. We see it as essentially “free money.” But we fail to recognize the bigger picture: “jackpots” are filled with money from people who buy lottery tickets. And many of them cannot afford to be spending their money that way. So those who “win” get rich at the expense of others. The fact that we rarely stop to consider this bigger picture betrays the way our wealth can influence us to neglect the welfare of others.
In part, that’s one of the reasons that Jesus criticized the rich farmer in our parable from Luke’s Gospel for today. Again, we might think his actions were prudent. Who wouldn’t store up a bumper crop in order to wait to sell for a better price in a lean year? We would see that as simply “good business sense.” But Jesus rather bluntly calls it “greed.” In our world, planning for the future is essential, because we are all aware that there will come a day when we can no longer provide for ourselves. But seeking to secure our own future this way implies that we believe our lives consist in “the abundance of possessions.”
That’s what the farmer in this parable believed. He says to himself, “Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). This might sound like a good thing. Who among us doesn’t want to be able to retire comfortably?[2] Who among us doesn’t worry at least a little about having “ample goods” to provide for our needs? Like the farmer in the parable, it would seem that many of us believe we can secure our own future through our wealth. And so we occupy ourselves, as he did, with storing up “ample goods” so that we can “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”
In the parable, there is a background that plays a role here, but it may not be obvious. As in many of Jesus’ parables, the excessive wealth of some meant that others had to do without basic necessities. And one of the flaws in this farmer’s thinking is that he’s thinking all about himself, not about anybody else.[3] Although he has a bumper crop, he’s obviously wealthy enough that he doesn’t even have to sell his crop to cover his expenses. More than that, given his extensive landholdings, hoarding his crop will very likely adversely affect the food supply of the many others who are his neighbors. But he’s obviously not even thinking about the welfare of these “neighbors.”
The real problem with this outlook on life is that it neglects the dangers of wealth that Jesus so often warns against. Seeking an “abundance of possessions” has a way of turning into hoarding everything we can get our hands on. Finding our security in our wealth can lead us to ignore the source of our true security. It can motivate us to “store up treasures for ourselves” but to ignore what it means to be “rich toward God.” In other settings, Jesus explains that true riches are those that cannot wear out or disappear. Being truly rich comes from knowing God’s unconditional love for us, and sharing that love with those around us.
Although some of us may disagree, in the Bible our faith affects our attitude towards our possessions. When we encounter God’s love in Jesus Christ, it’s supposed to change the way we live our lives. And Jesus makes it abundantly clear throughout the Gospels that this extends to what we do with our possessions. As he pointed out so clearly, we cannot “serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). I think at least a part of what he was trying to say to us is that our wealth has a way of mastering us if we’re not wise in the way we use it. That’s why St. Paul warns us that we must “put to death … greed (which is idolatry)” (Col. 3:5). Wealth has a way of going from a simple means of exchange to a golden calf that we serve in place of God.
I think most of us would hear Jesus’ warning, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15) and think that applies to someone else, someone who is “really” rich. But in reality, it addresses us all with a choice as to which master we will serve. Choosing to serve “the abundance of our possessions” will rob us of the opportunity to be “truly rich.” When we become so consumed by our wealth that we ignore others, we are living in direct contradiction to the will of God. Being “truly rich” comes only as we find our lives in the new life that God offers us all.  It is a life of learning that becoming content with God’s love turns whatever we have into everything we could ever need. It is a life of loving God in return and therefore serving those around us in love—especially by sharing what we have with them.  Jesus calls this “being rich toward God” (Lk 12:21), or truly rich.


[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/4/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 257: “the rich man’s vision of the future sounds uncomfortably like one that most of us have for our retirement years. Are we really planning prudently? What gives our life meaning now, and what will give it meaning then?”
[3] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 490-91.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Truth Springs Up


“Truth Springs Up”
Psalm 85[1]
  When we observe the prevailing views expressed by the people of our nation, it’s hard not to join the lament from Isaiah that “Justice is driven away, and right cannot come near. Truth stumbles in the public square, and honesty finds no place there” (Isa. 59:14, TEV). If you’re tempted to read this as an endorsement of one segment or party of our society over another, don’t. In my view, the disintegration of the norms of civility, justice, and truth runs across the board. It’s hard to even listen to the news because this failure of justice, rightness, truth, and honesty is so pervasive. We’re confronted with it almost everywhere we turn. It can be deeply discouraging.
  But this sermon is not about despair. It’s about the hope that the Scriptures hold out to us: that God is a God of mercy, mercy that extends to all, regardless of whether they are rich or poor; white, black, brown, or golden; tall or short; thin or overweight; nearsighted and losing one’s hair, or young and fit. God’s mercy does not discriminate based on gender, age, disability, or political affiliation. Our great hope is not that somehow we will finally have a leader who will set us back on the right path, but rather that God in his mercy will set things right. It might not happen quickly, or even in our lifetimes; but the promise is that ultimately God’s truth will prevail, and right all the wrongs.
  That is the message of our lesson from the Psalms for today. At the outset, it might seem a bit confusing. The Psalmist praises the “God of our salvation” for “restoring their fortunes.” But then he goes on to ask God to “restore us again,” to let go his anger, and to “revive” his people. It would seem that the Psalm comes out of a situation in which the people have experienced God’s salvation, but it has not fully transformed their lives the way they may have expected that. There’s a sense of discouragement in the questions, “Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?” (Ps. 85:5). There is a longing for God’s truth to prevail.
  It’s hard to know for sure the exact setting of many of the Psalms, but it would seem that Psalm 85 describes the situation of the people of Israel immediately following their years of exile in Babylon. After decades of anticipation, their release from exile failed to live up to their hopes. The temple lay in ruins. The city of Jerusalem had no walls to protect them. Instead of returning to a “land flowing with milk and honey,” they returned to a land that had been devastated by war and left a wasteland. They were weak, poor, and disorganized. That their commitment to God was failing can be seen from the prophets of that day. Their lives were harder than ever, and it seemed that God’s truth was nowhere to be found.
  And yet, in the midst of that discouragement, the Psalmist held out to his people the hope that God would speak “peace” to them, and that his salvation would be fulfilled. However, that salvation may have been different from what they were looking for. They were looking for God to “restore their fortunes” by allowing them to prosper again. Instead, the salvation promised by the Psalmist was that “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (Ps. 85:10-11). The promise was that justice and rightness would be restored, that truth and honesty would once again prevail.
  This sounds very different from what most of us envision as “salvation.” It is concrete; it concerns what happens in this world, not the next. In this text, “salvation” is what happens when God’s “unfailing love,” when God’s faithfulness, when God’s righteousness, and God’s peace define the way his people live. Each of these words is loaded with meaning, but I think you get the idea: salvation happens when God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” It is a way of life that is spelled out quite specifically in the Psalms. God’s salvation means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, 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. God’s truth prevails when the last and the least and the left out are able to thrive along with everyone else.
  Unfortunately, we still live in a situation like that of those Israelites returning from exile. We have experienced a taste of what salvation means through our faith in Jesus Christ, but we live in a world where God’s justice, peace, and freedom are not fully realized. We experience God’s salvation in the midst of the brokenness of our world and the injustices perpetrated continually against those who live on the margins of society. It can be discouraging to us to see this as well, but the promise of the Scriptures is that God will one day right all the wrongs.
  The hard truth is that our society has never been as just or as upright or as civil as we’d like to believe. Beneath the veneer of morality, there’s always been a dark side to our culture. The church in our culture has always had to deal with the specific ways in which our nation has failed to practice God’s will. At the same time, we in the church have failed to stand with those who are in need and against those who selfishly seek their own interests. Our hope in this situation is not that we will pull ourselves up from this morass. Rather, it is that God will come to right all the wrongs, to establish the justice that enables all people to thrive, and to bring the peace that makes us all whole together. And yet, if this truly is our hope, then it will define the way we live our lives today. As we look forward to the day when God’s Kingdom prevails and God’s truth springs up and restores us all, let us renew our commitment to put into practice God’s justice, peace, and freedom.


[1] © Alan Brehm 2019. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/28/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Outcasts


Outcasts
Luke 10:25-37[1]
Growing up, I always felt a bit like a “misfit.” It seemed that I was different from everybody else, and I struggled with where I fit in. In fact, I carried that feeling with me into adulthood. I simply tried to do what was right, I tried to do my best, I tried to be as straightforward and transparent as possible. But it always seemed like I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Of course, I realize that many of us feel that way about ourselves. We see others as “with it” or “all together” or “on track,” while we think we fall short. Sometimes we may have even felt that way in our families. Those challenges can lead us to think of ourselves as “outcasts.”
Of course, the reality is that the world is full of people who are truly outcast. While not all societies have actual “caste” systems that rigidly regulate relationships, I would say most of us have a functional equivalent. If you don’t come from the right family, or if you didn’t go to the right school, or if you don’t have a certain amount of education, or if you don’t make a high enough salary, you are outside the group. If you doubt that we have this in our culture, look at the entry requirements for some country clubs around the nation. While we’d like to think that skin color no longer serves as one of those criteria, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to find people who exclude others on that basis as well. Our world is full of outcasts.
I’m not sure many of us have ever drawn the connection between outcasts and the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For us the parable has become so commonplace that travelers even have a club named “The Good Sam Club,” whose members pledge to stop and help someone who is broken down on the side of the road. This would have made no sense to Jesus’ audience. In his day, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan in the eyes of the Jewish people.  Samaritans were the “unclean Samaritans,” the “unwelcome Samaritans,” or the “hated Samaritans.”[2] A Samaritan was the definitive outcast to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day.
That’s what would have made this parable so shocking to the people Jesus originally told it. He was turning their world upside down. The Priest and the Levite, who would have been honored religious leaders, come off not looking so well. And the Samaritan, who would have been despised in the eyes of Jesus’ audience, turns out to be the “hero.” More than that, he turns out to be the one who shows them how to truly fulfill the command to “love your neighbor as yourself”: by showing mercy!
It’s hard for us to imagine how shocking this parable must have been when Jesus told it. His Jewish contemporaries would have expected him to tell a parable about a particularly righteous Jewish person who showed mercy toward a Samaritan. That person would have been viewed as exceptionally compassionate, but the story would have left intact the Jewish people’s sense of ethnic and religious superiority over the Samaritans. And it would also have allowed us to walk away from the story with all of our prejudices intact, comfortable in the assumption that we’re loving the “right” people.
But the parable of the Good Samaritan exposes a flaw that most of us carry in our hearts. Although the scribe knows the Scriptures well enough to give the right answer to his own question, it’s one thing to know what is right and another thing altogether to do it! His question “who is my neighbor?” betrays his desire to restrict the range of “love” to those whom he judged to be “worthy” of that love. Unfortunately, we all fall short in this regard: we are quick to love those who are “like us,” but we all have our own version of who is an outcast, so different from us that we don’t believe the command to love applies to them.
We might be able to hear this parable with our assumptions and prejudices intact if it had taught us that we should love our neighbors, including the “despised” outcasts like the Samaritans. But Jesus turns the tables on us as well. The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t teach us to go out and help the outcasts! The outcast in Jesus’ parable is not the one in need of help. The outcast is the one who truly practices the command to “love your neighbor as yourself”! At the conclusion, Jesus tells this Scribe something he probably found hard to swallow: to go and do as the outcast Samaritan has done!
The irony is that many of the people we relegate to the category of “outcast” for whatever reason often have a better grasp of what it means to love their neighbors than we do. Often they are generous, compassionate, kind, and go out of their way to help someone in need. And they do it simply because that’s what’s in their hearts. Many who go to what we consider “Third World” countries come back with stories of how the people there enacted the love of their neighbors in a way that affected them powerfully. In fact, some theologians call it the “reverse mission”: when we who come from wealthy, “Christian” nations go to serve those we consider to be “in need,” they challenge us with the way in which they live out love, and mercy, and kindness. I think that in order to love another, any other, as a neighbor, we have to first be able to see ourselves in them, and see them in us. I think that’s the kind of change of heart that Jesus was seeking with this parable. We love our neighbors when we’re willing to see in every person the face of a neighbor, when we embrace in them the Christ who said “I was an outcast.”


[1] ©Alan Brehm 2019. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/14/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 151: “This man who delayed his own journey, expended great energy, risked danger to himself, spent two days’ wages with the assurance of more, and promised to follow up on this activity was ceremonially unclean, socially an outcast, and religiously a heretic.”

Against the Stream


Against the Stream
Lk. 10:1-11[1]
  Most of you know that I try to exercise as much as possible. Besides maintaining my physical health, it helps me keep my head on straight—or at least as straight as possible! I’ve recently added a new activity to my “repertoire”: swimming. I’ve spent a lot of my life in the water, so you’d think that would be a natural choice. But increased age and weight have made it more difficult for me to swim laps in recent years. The problem is that in order to keep afloat, I have to swim at a pace that I can’t sustain for long. What’s made the difference for me is that I’ve finally decided to try out some of the training gear that helps with that. Without it, just swimming in a pool feels to me like swimming against the stream.
  I realize that water sports may not be as common here as they are on the Gulf Coast, where I spent much of my life. If you’ve ever spent any time in the water, you know that with most kinds of water sports, going against the current, or into the wind, or against the tide, or into the waves, can be challenging, to say the least. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you very likely won’t make much headway. And in some situations, you can get yourself into trouble quickly. The currents in the ocean can drag an adult far from shore and send even the safest water craft out to sea. As with many endeavors like this, just getting into the water can carry with it certain dangers.
  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus warns those who would stand for the Kingdom of God of the dangers it can involve. In this context, he is sending 70 of his followers “on ahead of him” to prepare the way for him. But there is something different about this journey: he has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:51). And as he’s already warned the twelve, the end of that journey will be his death. That impinges on the mission of the 70 as well. The situation has changed. Instead of being welcomed with joy and amazement, now Jesus is beginning to face opposition and even danger. And he sends out “laborers into [the] harvest” (Lk. 10:2) with the warning that they will also face opposition.
  The instructions Jesus gives them may seem strange at first. They’re not to take a purse, a bag, or even sandals (Lk. 10:4)! It would seem that the situation was urgent, and Jesus wanted them to go about the work of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and doing its work without any distractions. On the other hand, some of his instructions reflect the practices of wandering teachers in that day. Jesus clearly wanted his messengers to be different from those who were viewed with suspicion because they took advantage of the situation by taking support from as many “houses” as possible. He wanted their mission of peace to be consistent with the Kingdom of God.
  At the same time, however, Jesus warns them that not everyone will welcome them. Not everyone will accept the “peace” of God’s Kingdom that they have come to offer. Throughout the Gospels, it is clear that some welcome the good news Jesus brings, while others adamantly reject it. When that happens, the message of salvation offered freely to all becomes a warning of judgment to those who refuse God’s Kingdom. And so Jesus instructs his messengers to enact a ceremony that might seem strange to us: wiping even the dust of a place off their feet as a warning to them. Doubtless, this warning would not have made them any more welcome to people who had already rejected their offer of peace!
  In light of the cross, those who align themselves with Jesus and with his message and mission of promoting the Kingdom of God will face danger, just as he did. Jesus himself warned, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Lk. 10:3). And even though they apparently did not risk their lives on this occasion, the call to follow Jesus and to carry out the mission of the Kingdom of God would lead many of them into danger. And some of them would lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel. They were “swimming upstream” in a time and a place where that put them in great danger.
  A lot of this may sound strange to those of us who still hold the belief that our country is a “Christian nation.” Or at least that we have a constitutional right to practice our faith according to the dictates of our conscience. I think many of us just expect others to be courteous at the very least. As a result, we may be surprised when we follow Jesus and we find ourselves faced with opposition and even hostility from the culture in which we live. The sad truth is that many people in our culture have given themselves to kingdoms other than the kingdom of God: Wall Street, or Hollywood, or Washington, or Madison Avenue. These other kingdoms have convinced people to find their worth as human beings through wealth, beauty, power, or possessions. The Kingdom of God contradicts those claims, and if we live by the values of the Kingdom, we are always going to be swimming against the stream!
  Perhaps, like Jesus’ original disciples, we should not be surprised when some respond to the message of the Kingdom of God with hostility. After all, we are contradicting the principles that they believe define their worth as human beings. While those other “kingdoms” may promise happiness, only following Jesus in living out the Kingdom of God can bring true fulfillment. Despite all opposition, we who have embraced the call to follow Jesus and have made the commitment to practice the values and to proclaim the message of the Kingdom may find ourselves feeling discouraged. When it feels like our efforts to be faithful to God’s Kingdom have us swimming against the stream, we can take heart that God will continue to bring his Kingdom among us, and through us to those we encounter.


[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/7/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

God's Delight


God’s Delight
Prov. 8:22-31[1]
I’ve spoken before about the problems of our “virtual” culture. Most of us are constantly staring at some kind of screen or other. On the one hand, I’d have to admit, that I really appreciate the access to information, photos, and videos from around the world. Having spent a fair amount of my life hunting down a book in a library somewhere, it’s really nice to be able to look up the information I need on the web. Having instant access to pictures and images from around the world makes the news seem somehow more real. And, of course, I myself am a connoisseur of internet music, movies, and TV.
I think, however, that the problem with our “virtual” culture, is that we may be in danger of losing our ability to just enjoy the beauty of life. We get conditioned to having a certain level of stimulation from the screens we watch, and that makes it harder for us to just “be still” and watch a sunset, or children playing, or simply to cherish the company of another person. Although it has been disproven that we humans now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, there is an abundance of information available that makes it clear that the way we pay attention is changing. Primarily, it shows that, with so much more information available, we are more likely to lose interest in some activities more quickly.
Our lesson from Proverbs presents us with a beautiful image of a very different approach to life.  It depicts God creating all things like a master craftsman or a skilled artist. If you’ve ever tried to create something in that way, you know that it takes sustained and careful attention. That’s the way God relates to his creation. After all, Creation comes from God’s desire to have a relationship with those who can choose to return God’s love and share God’s love with one another. And like a skilled artist takes delight in a sculpture or a painting, God takes great delight in all creation. That means that all creation, including the human family, continues to be the object of God’s sustained and careful attention.
Though the book of Proverbs pre-dates Jesus by several centuries, there is already hint here of God being more than a single solitary being far removed from anyone or anything. In Proverbs God has a counterpart and God is actively involved in our lives. In our lesson “Wisdom” is God’s counterpart, not only applauding with joy at every aspect of creation but also working with God to make sure everything fits—as a master craftsman. I like the way Gene Peterson translates it in The Message: “I was right there with him, making sure everything fit. Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying his company, delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family” (Prov. 8:30-31).
The interesting thing about “Wisdom” as God’s counterpart in Proverbs is that Wisdom is personified as a woman! “Lady Wisdom” gets involved: she cries out in the streets, seeking those who are simple-minded and going astray from the truth and calling them to return and live the life God intended for them. In the New Testament, Jesus pretty much assumes this role. He is the one who calls all people to God’s love and God’s life. And as we are reminded on Pentecost, God has another counterpart that gets overlooked at times—the Spirit. In the Bible, it takes all three, God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, and the Spirit who sustains us, to fully understand who God is.
This is the image of God in the Bible: God in relationship, God in community, God involved in our lives.[2] If it’s true that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), it should come as no surprise that God has counterparts in the Bible, since love requires a counterpart, an “other” to love. This one God who is three—Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—exists in a relationship of love and community within Godself. This is central to our faith, because the love represented by the relationships in the Trinity is the basis for our community and for everything God does in our lives.
In our day, not many people have much use for the idea of God as Trinity. It seems an abstract and far-fetched concept for theologians to debate. To those of us in the church, it may seem like just words we recite in the Apostles’ Creed that don’t really affect us in real life. But the point of the Trinity is that God is a God of love—not just love that observes from afar, but love that reaches out to us and seek a relationship with us. The God who creates and redeems and sustains us is a God who shows us a love that is constantly present among us, that gets involved in our lives, and that takes action to fill our lives with love. [3] The ultimate goal is that our lives might reflect that same love in our relationships with one another.
As our affirmation of faith for today puts it, our God is the “One God who is the Creator and Sustainer, the Savior and Lord, the Giver of life within, among, and beyond us.”[4] If we understand this image of God through the lens of our Scripture lesson, we see God as one who takes great delight in the beauty of the natural world, and takes great delight in the human family. That’s right—all this talk about Trinity means that each one of us benefits from God’s unfailing love and care, God’s constant presence and support, and even more than that, we are all people in whom God takes keen interest and great delight.


[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/16/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. Based in part on a sermon by the same title from 5/26/2013.
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology, 101: The biblical image of God is “God in community, rich in relationships. ‘God is love.’”
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Science and Wisdom, 185: “According to Wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, for example), this creative Wisdom can also be called God’s Word or God’s Spirit. But what is meant is always the presence of God immanent in the world and present in all things.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 46.
[4] Presbyterian Church in the United States. A Declaration of Faith. 117th General Assembly (1977), reissued by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991.


Monday, June 10, 2019

The Spirit of Truth

The Spirit of Truth
John 14:8-17; Acts 2:16-21[1]
Given our sometimes maddeningly diverse world, I’m afraid people tend to fall into two camps when it comes to “Truth.” Some, like Pontius Pilate long ago, sagely ask, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Others cling ever more tightly to that version of “Truth” they have embraced, insisting as the Roman Catholic Church did in the Middle Ages that it is “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”[2] I’m afraid this kind of “all-or-nothing” thinking has plagued the church for centuries. Indeed, all organized religions are characterized by their ability to define and maintain their identity, even when the means they use to do so may seem to contradict the faith they profess.[3]
Unfortunately, that tension in the church originates in Scripture. It is a tension between what we might call “exclusion” and “embrace.”[4] There are many passages of scripture that emphasize “God’s people” as unique, distinct, set apart from other peoples. And, as we discussed not long ago, along with that goes “boundary markers” that are absolute in order to reinforce that identity. It is the language of “exclusion.” It says to those who are different, “You don’t belong.”
But then there are also many passages in Scripture that emphasize that God’s ultimate purpose in choosing a people for himself is to bring all peoples into the embrace of God’s love and God’s life.  Along with that point of view go visions of a far-reaching and all-inclusive mission to carry the good news of God’s love to all nations. It is the language of “embrace.” It says, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”
Our Scripture lessons for today highlight this problem. In our lesson from Acts, Peter uses verses from the book of the prophet Joel to explain what was happening on the Day of Pentecost. He boldly proclaims, “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’” (Acts 2:16-17). Peter was quoting from Joel 2:28, which in its context was a part of God’s promise to restore his people and restore his life-giving presence among them. That might seem to limit the promise of the Spirit to Jewish people, but in Acts, the idea of the Spirit poured out on “all flesh,” as well as the promise that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21), clearly implies that the promise is opened to all people.
On the other hand, in our lesson from John’s Gospel, Jesus seems to speak about the gift of the Spirit in a very different way. The setting is that Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. But they are confused. They cannot fathom the idea that the Messiah would abandon them. In response, Jesus promises to send them “another Advocate” (John 14:16). The word “Advocate” here could also be translated “Comforter,” “Counselor,” “Helper,” or “Friend.” I think the main point is that the one Jesus was sending to them would be with them in the same way that he had been with them.
Jesus calls this helper, “the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17), because he’s talking about the Spirit of God, the one who makes God’s presence real in our lives, and the one who would continue to make Jesus’ presence real in their lives and ours. But the strange thing Jesus says about the “Spirit of Truth” is that while “he abides with you, and he will be in you,” “the world cannot receive [him]” (John 14:17). This seems to be a very different take on the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. It seems to say that the Spirit is reserved only for a limited group, not poured out on “all flesh.”
What are we to make of this? Is the Spirit of God poured out on everyone, or just a particular group? Even within the Gospel of John, which affirms that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3:16), the language of our Gospel reading seems strange. Part of the answer can be found in the fact that the community of believers John was addressing faced severe threats, like the loss of livelihood, or family and social ties, or possibly even loss of their lives. In the face of these kinds of threats our natural fears harden into isolation. Instead of embracing others, we see them as a threat from which we must protect ourselves. And we tend to restrict those who belong to our “group,” and limit the gifts that go with our faith, like the gift of the Spirit.
Beyond the context of our reading from John’s Gospel, I believe we have to think more clearly about what the gift of the Spirit represents. It represents God’s presence in this world, and I don’t see a whole lot of justification in Scripture for placing any limitations on that. The Spirit represents Jesus’ continuing presence in this world, and it doesn’t make sense to restrict the presence of the one who identifies with the poor and marginalized people in our world. If we see ourselves as those who are called by the “Spirit of Truth” to be the people of the God who embraces all people in his love, then we cannot isolate ourselves from “outsiders” whom we judge “different.”[5] If we are going to follow the “Spirit of Truth,” we will not only love God but also love our neighbors, all our neighbors. [6] And that means recognizing every human being as a beloved child of God. As Ray Stevens sang it, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” If they are precious in God’s sight, they must be precious in ours as well.




[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/9/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] This was Vincent of Lerin’s view of the faith that guided the Roman Catholic Church in the medieval ages. See The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1700, s. v. “Vincentian Canon.”
[3] John D. Caputo, On Religion, 32-33: “Institutionalized communities are defined by their identity and the power to maintain their identity, which includes the power to excommunicate the different.”
[4] See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 22-31.
[5] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 69-79.
[6] Caputo, On Religion, 111: “Religious truth is tied up with being truly religious, truly loving God, loving God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), and there are more ways to do that than are dreamt of by the faithful in the traditional confessions.”