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.


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.