We are witnesses for Christ by being the reaching arms, the healing hands, the teaching words, the running feet, the loving hearts, the very body, of our Lord and our Savior.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we…
You know, every Advent I get into this rhythm. Each of the sermons connects to a candle. Each of the candles connects to a theme. And the theme guides us through the season right up to Christmas.
And I end up starting each sermon in each Advent series in a similar way. I just switch out the theme for the theme for the week. Most years, that means that Advent is that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we practice hope or peace or joy or love.
This year, because I am trying something a little bit different, Advent is that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we wait and prepare and… well, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
But this week, our word is ‘witness’, and that throws things off. Just a little bit. Just enough.
Advent is the season when we witness in holy anticipation—right now in the present—an event that happen so long ago that it’s easy to imagine that it never happened at all: when Christ laid aside glory and came into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, to parents who couldn’t find a decent place to stay for the night.
Except that we don’t.
We hear the story. We might even believe the story. We might even root our lives in that story. But the angels do not come to us on a hillside. And we do not see a star hanging over a humble hamlet in Judah. And we do not walk up to a manger and witness the Christ-child.
And… Advent is the season when we witness in holy anticipation—right now in the present—an event that taken so long to happen that it’s easy to imagine that it will never happen at all: when Christ will return to the world in glory, and usher in God’s reign of love, and destroy the powers of death forever.
Except that we don’t.
We hear the promise. We might even believe the promise. We might even root our lives in the promise. But the clouds do not part. And the heavens do not open. And we do not stand before the Son of Man, seated on a throne, surrounded by angels, and witness Christ as he judges the world with mercy.
And… Advent is the whole long right-now-in-the-present between those two events—those two events that we have heard about, but that we have not witnessed—when we ponder how we are supposed to live here and now, in the in-between, when all that we have is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we…
Our reading today is from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. And it’s a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey book.
On the one hand, we can read this book in a secular and scholarly style, and divide it into three parts, more or less. The first part, written when the Assyrian Empire was expanding and marching inexorably toward Jerusalem. The second part, written after the Babylonian Empire had devoured the Assyrian Empire, and captured Judah, and sent its people into exile. And the third part, written after the Persian Empire had overthrown the Babylonian Empire and let the Jews go home, and rebuild the temple, and start again.
On the other hand, we can read this book in a religious and faithful style, and still divide it into three parts, more or less. The first part, addressed to the people before the Assyrian Empire. The second part, address to the people during the Babylonian exile. And the third part, addressed to the people after the Persian Empire let them come home.
And either way, our reading today is firmly in that second part. The people are in exile. The people are in the in-between. What was is not, anymore. And there are people who did not live in what was; there are people who do not remember it. And what will be is not, yet. And there are people who are not interested in what will be; there are people who cannot see it. And that is when a voice cries out:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
We are in the in-between.
I mean that in a big way. We are in-between the thing that was and the thing that will be. We are in-between Christ come into the world as one of us and Christ come into the world in glory.
And that is a hard place to be. Because it means being from a kingdom of love that has not yet blossomed while living in a world that is utterly broken. It means straddling the line between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-God-is-calling-it-to-be.
And it is tempting to assimilate to the brokenness-that-is and abandon the kingdom-that-is-not-yet. It is tempting to go along to get along… and not make waves… and just figure out how to live—unnoticed and invisible—in exile.
But I also mean that in a small way. Or, at least, a smaller way. We are in-between the thing that was and the thing that will be. We are in-between the First Congregational United Church of Christ that was and the First Congregational United Church of Christ that God is calling into being.
And that is a hard place to be. Because, for some of us, it means sharing space with people who do not remember what was while we grieve the things that we miss. And, for some of us, it means sharing space with people who cannot see what will be while we strive to do a new thing.
And it is tempting to give up. It is tempting to walk away if what was is not again; to find another community that feeds our nostalgia for the church that was remember. Or it is tempting to walk away if what will be does not come fast enough; to find another community that has already blossomed into something new.
It is tempting to assimilate to the brokenness-that-is and treat churches—these little consulates of the kingdom—as consumer goods: to abandon the ones that are no longer the ways that we want them to be, and to look for the ones that are already the ways that we want them to be, and to repeat that process again and again.
And it is in those in-betweens when a voice cries out:
I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we… witness.
And it is true that we are not witnesses to what was—we weren’t there then—but we are witnesses to the story.
And it is true that we are not witnesses to what will be—we aren’t there yet—be we are witnesses to the promise.
And that matters. That matters so much. Because this broken world…
…this world where people live in crushing poverty; this world where climate change threatens whole communities; this world where oppression and marginalization—where violence and the threat of violence—are the lived realities of countless people; this world that is full of dispossessed people living in occupied lands; this world that is full of people who cannot find a decent place to stay for the night or a safe place to spend the day…
…this broken world needs the story of what God has done for us. And this broken world needs the promise of what God is calling into being. And this broken world needs to know that there are people who—even if we have not been to the mountain top and even if we have not seen the promised land—are co-conspiring with God to make that promise a reality.
There’s this one last piece to this.
Last week, I told you that we prepare for Christ to come into the world by serving the Christ who is already in the world, in every pleading face and outstretched hand. And that was half the truth.
This week, I am telling you that we witness for Christ by being Christ to friends and neighbors and strangers and enemies and everyone. We are witnesses for Christ by being the body of Christ in this world: the reaching arms, the healing hands, the teaching words, the running feet, the loving hearts of our Lord and our Savior.
We are witnesses for Christ by bringing good news to the poor, by proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, by setting free the oppressed and declaring that God’s reign of love is blossoming in this world even now.
And when people ask why we do all of that and more—when people ask why we stand up and speak out; when people ask why we are willing to endure hardship, even to the cross and the tomb, for the sake of the least of these—we are witnesses for Christ when we tell them,
Because Christ did the same for us. And if we do this for each other, then we just might discover that Christ has been here, among us, in the in-between, this whole time.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we witness. Today is the third Sunday of that season when we ponder how we are supposed to live here and now, in the in-between.
And part of the answer to that question is that we wait. And part of the answer to that question is that we prepare.
And part of the answer to that is that we witness. Not to the things that we have heard with our own ears, but to the story that we have told. And not to the things that we have seen with our own eyes, but to the promise that we have been promised.
And not simply by telling people that Christ is coming, but by showing people that Christ is here: that the former things have come to pass, and what was is no more; that new things are being declares, and, behold, a new world is springing forth.
So Ahasuerus, Esther’s husband, the king of Persia, issues the decree. On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the Persians will kill every Jew in the Empire.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we… prepare.
Advent is the season when we prepare in holy anticipation—right now in the present—for an event that happened so long ago that it’s easy to imagine that it never happened at all: for Christ to lay aside glory and come into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, to parents who couldn’t find a decent place to stay for the night.
And… Advent is the season when we prepare in holy anticipation—right now in the present—for an event that has taken so long to happen that it’s easy to imagine that it will never happen at all: for Christ to return to the world in glory, and usher in God’s reign of love, and destroy the powers of the death forever.
And… Advent is the whole long right-now-in-the-present between those two events, when we ponder how we are supposed to live here and now, in the in-between.
And today is the second Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we… prepare.
A couple of weeks ago, we watched as the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and turned its sights toward the southern kingdom of Judah. And we watched as Judah survived, a little kingdom surrounded by the biggest and most powerful empire… ever.
Last week, we watched as Chaldea—Babylon—rose up, and devoured Assyria, and marched inexorably toward Jerusalem. And I told you that the Babylonian Empire would conquer Judah, and tear down the temple, and take its people into exile. And they did.
(And I told you that the people would learn how to be faithful to God in new ways. I told you that they would continue observing the statutes and celebrating the festivals. And they did. Even in exile.)
And then the Persians rose up, and conquered the Babylonian Empire, and let the Jewish people go home, and rebuild the temple, and start a new life. And they did, as a little province of the new biggest and most powerful empire… ever.
And today we meet Esther, who is Jewish, and who lives in Persia, and who is a queen in Persia. But—and this is important; the whole story hinges on this—her husband, Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, does not know that she is Jewish.
And—and this is important; the whole story hinges on this—her people are in trouble.
A while ago, Ahasuerus, Esther’s husband, the king of Persia, appointed Haman to be his viceroy, his second-in-command, the-guy-who-is-the-king-when-the-king-isn’t-around.
And Haman went out to the palace gate and watched everyone bow down to him. And he liked it. And then he saw one man—a man named Mordecai—who did not bow down. And Haman learned that Mordecai did not bow down because Mordecai was Jewish.
So Haman decided to destroy, to annihilate, the blot out, the Jewish people. All of them. Every last one.
He went to Ahasuerus, Esther’s husband, the king of Persia, and said,
There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws. So you, O king, should not tolerate them. In fact, if you issue a decree calling for the destruction of this people, I will give you a ludicrous amount of money. I will give you a fortune.
So Ahasuerus, Esther’s husband, the king of Persia, issues the decree. On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the Persians will kill every Jew in the Empire.
I need to take some creative liberty here. Esther and Mordecai are not standing face-to-face. They are passing messages back and forth via amessenger—Esther in her chambers and Mordecai at the palace gates—because that is the only way that a queen and a commoner could speak.
But it’s better if you imagine that Esther and Mordecai are standing face-to-face, looking at each other through the palace gate, each hearing the worry and fear on the voice of the other.
Mordecai tells Esther,
Ahasuerus, your husband, the king of Persia, has ordered the destruction of your people. Haman paid him to order the destruction of your people. And we’re all going to die.
And Esther tells Mordecai,
No one can talk to the king without his express invitation. Anyone who tries is put to death and their only hope is that the king will reach out with his golden scepter and accept them. And I have not been invited to speak with the king. And if I try, I might die.
And Mordecai tells Esther,
Do you think you’re going to get out of it? Do you think the palace gate will protect you? Do you think the crown will protect you? Do you think your husband will protect you? He gave the order! He issued the decree! And if you do nothing—now—you will die!
Maybe the reason that you are standing there, in the palace, with Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, for a husband, is for this moment, right now, when everything is on the line.
Later this year—in late March, in fact—we will have two Sundays with two parables from the Gospel According to Matthew. And I don’t want to spoil it for you, but…
One of those will be the parable of the ten bridesmaids, about how Christ might return at any moment—no one knows the day or the hour—and welcome those who are ready into the kingdom. So be prepared. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
And the other of those will be the parable of the sheep and the goats, about how Christ will return in glory, and judge the nations, and welcome the people who fed the hungry, and gave drink to the thirsty, and welcomed the stranger, and clothed the naked, and cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned, into the kingdom, because as they did for the least, they did for him. So be prepared. Serve Christ wherever you meet him.
And that makes me wonder…
On the one hand, we are not queens.
But we are people who enjoy some privilege, and some power, and some prestige. We don’t all enjoy those things in the same amounts. We don’t all enjoy those things in the same ways. And we all have those pockets of life where we do not enjoy those things at all. But… overall…
We are mostly respectable. Mostly well-heeled. Mostly comfortably middle-class. Mostly descended from pilgrims and patriots. Mostly… mostly… not totally but mostly… doing just fine—and maybe even a little better than fine—thank you very much.
And on the other hand, we are not facing an existential threat.
But we have friends and neighbors who are. There are kids at school… there are adults at work… there are people who we run into at the grocery or the post office… who are wondering how they’re going to make it to the end of the day… who are wondering if they’re going to make it to the end of the day.
Wondering if there will be enough to eat. Wondering if there will be a safe place to sleep. Wondering if there will be enough medicine. Wondering if that bully will finally make good on their threats. Wondering if a stranger will walk into their sanctuary and break it. Wondering if it is even worth making it to the end of the day.
Friends and neighbors. Strangers and enemies. And—and this is important; the whole story hinges on this—every one of them is Christ.
Every. Single. One of them. Is Christ.
So maybe keeping our lamps trimmed and burning is the same thing as always being ready to serve Christ wherever we meet him. Maybe keeping our lamps trimmed and burning means being ready to say, “Maybe I am here for this moment, right now, when everything is on the line!”
Today is the second Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we prepare. Today is the first Sunday of that season when we ponder how we are supposed to live here and now, in the in-between.
And part of the answer to that question is that we wait.
And part of the answer to that question is that we prepare, not for the Christ who we will meet someday, by and by, when he returns in glory… but for the Christ who we meet every day, in the here and now, in every pleading face and outstretched hand.
Because it is precisely by preparing for the Christ who we meet in those pleading faces and outstretched hand that we prepare for the Christ who we will meet in glory.
How long until you swallow up the powers of death—the powers that walked into that club in Colorado Springs and the powers that seem to rule this world—forever How long, O Lord? How long?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we… wait.
Advent is the season when we wait in holy anticipation—right now in the present—for an event that happened so long ago that it’s easy to imagine that it never happened at all: for Christ to lay aside glory and come into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, to parents who couldn’t find a decent place to stay for the night.
And… Advent is the season when we wait in holy anticipation—right now in the present—for an event that has taken so long to happen that it’s easy to imagine that it will never happen at all: for Christ to return to the world in glory, and usher in God’s reign of love, and destroy the powers of the death forever.
And… Advent is the whole long right-now-in-the-present between those two events, when we ponder how we are supposed to live here and now, in the in-between.
And today is the first Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we… wait.
Last week, we watched the Assyrian Empire conquer the northern kingdom of Israel, and take its people into exile, and then turn its attention to the southern kingdom of Judah. We saw the Assyrian army march toward the gates of Jerusalem. We heard the Assyrian emissary tell the people of Judah that they cannot win.
And we listened to the king pray… and we heard the prophet deliver a message… and we saw Judah survive… and keep going as this little kingdom… surrounded by the biggest and most powerful empire… ever.
Almost three-quarters of a century after Judah survived, a different little country rebelled against the Assyrian Empire. The Chaldeans—the Babylonians—rose up.
And the Chaldeans are fierce and impetuous. They are dreadful and fearsome. They seize land where they have not labored and towns that they have not built. They enjoy the fruit of vineyards that they did not plant and olive orchards that they did not tend.
And they are devouring the Assyrian Empire. They are defeating the undefeatable. They are conquering the unconquerable. And they are marching, inexorably, toward the gates of Jerusalem.
On the one hand, there is evil in the kingdom of Judah: destruction and violence and strife and contention; the law is slack, justice never prevails, the wicked surround the righteous, and judgment is perverted. And Habakkuk knows who the Babylonians are; he knows that they are the instruments that God is using to punish Judah for its iniquities.
On the other hand, these are the Babylonians. They are fierce and impetuous. They are dreadful and fearsome. They defeat the undefeatable and conquer the unconquerable. And if they reach the gates of Jerusalem… then Judah will fall… and the people will be taken into exile… and there will be no hope at all… because there will be nothing left at all.
And it all seems hopeless. And crying out seems pointless. And Habakkuk is overwhelmed by the world. So he brings his complaint to the Lord. He cries out—even though crying out feels pointless—“How long, O Lord?“
We spend a lot of time crying out. We might even spend enough time crying out that it seems pointless.
Last week, last Saturday night, O Lord, a man walked into a club in Colorado Springs… and killed five people… and injured twenty-five more. The first call came into nine-one-one at 11:56pm, and the police had the suspect in custody by 12:02am, and somewhere in there a couple of club-goers tackled the gunman and kept him down by hitting him with his own gun.
Six minutes, O Lord, from start to finish. Less than six minutes from start to finish. And he still killed five people and injured twenty-five more.
And I know, O Lord, that I am standing in a pulpit that feels a million miles away from Colorado Springs. But I also know that it takes one person who has absorbed the words of people—of politicians and media personalities and pastors—who preach hate, and who has a weapon of mass destruction, less than six minutes.
And I know, O Lord, that this is just one of the things that troubles my soul. There is destruction and violence, strife and contention, all around us. There is war and there is famine and there is pestilence and there is so much more. All of the powers of death. And the law is slack… and wicked surround the righteous… and judgement is perverted… and justice. never. prevails.
I could make a list, O Lord. But someone taught me that you are holy. Someone taught me that you would not remain silent while the wicked swallowed the righteous. Someone taught me that you are repairing the world. So I just have this one question, O Lord: how long?
How long until the fullness of your reign comes into this world? How long until you swallow up the powers of death—the powers that walked into that club in Colorado Springs and the powers that seem to rule this world—forever?
We know what it is to feel like crying out is pointless
We know that in the face of all that is wrong with the world—in the face of homophobia and transphobia and gun violence… in the face of racism and sexism and nationalism… in the face of war and famine and pestilence and so much more… in the face of all of the powers of death—it can all seem hopeless.
Because one more sermon won’t make a difference. One more protest won’t matter. One more conversation won’t change anything. The wicked will still surround the righteous; Babylon will still be marching inexorably toward the gates.
And it is in that moment that the Lord tells Habakkuk… it is in that moment that the Lord tells us… it is in that moment that the Lord assures us…
There is still a vision for the appointed time. It speaks of the end and it does not lie. It might seem to tarry, but wait for it. Trust in the promises that I have made. Live in faithfulness.
I need to be careful here.
The Lord tells us to wait. The Lord does not tell us to do nothing.
I don’t want to jump ahead to next week, when we will talk about using this time of waiting creatively, when we will talk about using this time of waiting to prepare. But I also don’t want to leave you here with the impression that the best response to an overwhelming world is to give up and sit down and do nothing.
Waiting does not mean doing nothing. Waiting means trusting in the promises that God has made: the promises that make doing something worthwhile.
The hard truth—the truth that Habakkuk doesn’t know yet—is that the Babylonian army will reach the gates of Jerusalem… and Judah will fall… and the people will be taken into exile… and the promise will remain.
The people will continue following the way of the Lord, who brought them out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage, and who will bring them out of this, too. the people will continue observing the statutes and celebrating the festivals. And even though being Judean may not me an option anymore—even though the kingdom of Judah may be gone—the people will keep being Jewish.
And they will do that through exile and through return, through this empire and through the next one, through the Shoah and even to this day. The people will keep being Jewish. Because they trust in the promise that God has made.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we wait. Today is the first Sunday of that season when we ponder how we are supposed to live here and now, in the in-between.
And the answer to that question is that we keep living in the hope of the promise that God has made. We live in the hope that the next sermon will make a difference. And the next protest will matter. And the next conversation will change everything. And if not the next one, then the one after that; and if not that one, then the next.
We live in the hope—even in the depths of winter—that the tree will blossom and the vine will bear fruit… that Christ will return to the world in glory… that Christ will usher in God’s reign of love… and that Christ will defeat the undefeatable and conquer the unconquerable and destroy the undestroyable—the powers of death—forever.
We trust in the promises that God has made. We live in faithfulness. We rejoice in the Lord. We exult in the God of our salvation.
Do the smart thing, and lay down your arms, and surrender. Then you can sit under your own vine and fig tree, until we take you away to somewhere else. Until we destroy you.
They cannot win.
Once upon a time, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—the Israelites—lived in a single kingdom. Saul was their king. And then David was their king. And then Solomon was their king. And then it all fell apart.
The kingdom became two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. And things went on like that for a while: there were births and there were deaths, there was planting and there was plucking, there was mourning and there was dancing, there was war and there was peace.
And then the Assyrians came.
The northern kingdom of Israel fell, and Assyria took its people into exile, and they disappeared, more or less, from history.
And then cities in the southern kingdom of Judah began to fall. And now…
The Assyrian army is at Jerusalem’s gates, and the people are distressed, and the king of Judah is tearing his clothes, and the Assyrian emissary is right there, telling them that they cannot win.
Do not listen to Hezekiah your king. No one has won. No king of any nation has resisted our army. No god of any nation has protected their people. Every nation has fallen before our empire. The northern kingdom of Israel fell before our empire. And you will fall before our empire.
So do the smart thing… and lay down your arms… and surrender. And then you can sit under your own vine and fig tree, until we take you away, to a perfectly fine land, somewhere else. Until we destroy you.
They cannot win.
The Assyrian army is not at our gates. But some hard realities are. And I am trying to be as honest as I can. So…
It is a fact that there are fewer people here on any given Sunday morning than there used to be. Ten years ago, our average worship service had about one hundred and twenty people in it. Five years ago, when you called me as your pastor, that number was about eighty. This year, it will probably be about forty.
And worship attendance is not the only way to measure the vitality of a congregation, but it is a fact that there are fewer people at any given thing than there used to be. A few people carry the weight of Sunday School… and soup deliveries… and book group… and Bible study… and everything else.
And it is a fact that we are planning to end the year with a fifteen-thousand dollar budget deficit, and we are planning to start next year with a thirty-thousand dollar budget deficit on the horizon.
And there are reasons for all of that. There are long-term social trends. There is not-really-post-pandemic fatigue. There is the simple fact that we all have too much to do, and we have to prioritize things, and this little consulate of the kingdom of God cannot always be in first place… or second place… or fifth place… or any place.
The Assyrian army is not at our gates. But busy-ness and anxiety and exhaustion and apathy are. And believe me when I tell you that your pastor—who is absolutely not your king—is tearing his clothes and hearing the voice that is right there, that says that we cannot win.
No one has won. No congregation, anywhere, has resisted our army. No god, anywhere, has protected their people. Every community of faith has fallen before our empire of idols: to prosperity gospel preaching, or white Christian nationalism, or just turning inward until they cannot see the world around them. And you will fall before our empire.
So do the smart thing… and lay down your arms… and surrender. And then you can sit under your own vine and fig tree, until we take you away, to a perfectly fine land, somewhere else. Until we destroy you.
Our reading today does this weird thing. It gives us these little snippets of the emissary from Assyria and the king of Judah: the one who says, “You cannot win,” and the one who worries that they cannot win. And it goes right up to the point when the prophet Isaiah tells the servants of the king, and therefore the king, and therefore the whole people, “Thus says the Lord: Do. Not. Be. Afraid.”
And then it skips back. It goes back to almost the beginning of the book, where Isaiah says,
In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains, and the nations will stream to it. And people will say, “Let’s go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that we might learn their ways and walk in their paths.”
And the word of the Lord will go out into the world. And God will judge between the nations and arbitrate between the peoples. And they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift sword up against nation; neither will they study war any more.
It gives us the worst moment—when the Assyrian army is at the gate and the Assyrian emissary is right there, telling them that they cannot win—and then it skips back and reminds us of the truth: that the worst moment will not last forever, that we do not have to win, that God is working everything toward peace.
I know that I’m being hard. I know that this is not the sermon that anyone wants to hear. I know that we do not want to have another conversation about how there aren’t enough people and how there isn’t enough money and how I am worried—how I am anxious—about whether this congregation will be here in five years or ten years or fifteen years.
But the truth is that we are facing some of our worst moments. And the truth is that isn’t the first time. And the truth is that it is not our job to win; it is simply our job to live into the promise: that the word of the Lord will go out into the world, and the people will follow it, and peace will spread across the earth.
And even more than that:
That on that mountain, the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. That on that mountain, the Lord will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the covering that is spread over all nations, and swallow up death forever. That on that mountain, the Lord will wipe away every tear and take disgrace away from the earth; and we will rejoice in our salvation.
Because the truth is that we do not have to be afraid. And we do not need to win. Because no matter what happens to us, God will win… and even when we have trouble seeing it, God’s reign of love is blossoming around us.
Oh… sorry… … …they win.
Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid nations and their lands to waste. And they’ve taken their gods—and I know that they’re not really gods, but just wood and stone, but still—they’ve taken their gods and tossed them into the fire to burn. And I am worried. I am anxious. I do not see how we can win. So I am asking you, O Lord, to protect us. I am asking you, O Lord, to deliver us from Assyria’s hand, that all the earth might know that you alone are God.
And Isaiah delivers a message, “Thus says the Lord: The Assyrians are not going to take this city. I am going to defend it. ‘Cause this is my house.”
And when the moment comes, an angel appears and strikes down one hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrian troops. It is an epic scene and the special effects are awesome. And the rest of the Assyrian army goes home.
And this is the thing:
The Assyrian army is not at our gates. But some hard realities are.
And I think that part of the reason that there aren’t enough people and there isn’t enough money is because a lot of us are worried and anxious and hedging our bets. We are wondering if this congregation will be here in five or ten or fifteen years, and we all have too much to do, so we’re prioritizing things… and we’re moving this little consulate of the kingdom of God down on the list, in accordance with our anxiety.
And some of us are doing that a lot. And some of us are doing that a little. And some of us are only doing that in the backs of our minds, far below the surface, where we don’t even have to admit it to ourselves.
But I am here to tell you: Do. Not. Be. Afraid.
Do not shrink back in fear. Do not busy yourselves with worry. Do not curl up in anxiety.
Because we are a little consulate of the kingdom of God. We are a church that defies expectations. We are a community that does new things. We are a place where everyone has something to give, and everyone has something to receive, and everyone… everyone… every. single. one…. matters
And we are a people who rest on the promise that no matter who you are, and no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are loved and worthy of love and welcomed in not only by us, but by the God. Who. Is. Love.
And I believe that as long as this church holds onto that… and long as we preach that gospel… as long as we shout that from the rooftops…
…then no matter how many people are here, whether it’s not-quite-forty or more than two hundred…
…and no matter how much money is in the bank, whether it’s not enough to pay the bills or more than enough to change the world…
…and no matter who is at the gates… and no matter how things around us might change… and no matter how we might change…
…God will… … …
Look, I want to say that God will defend us and protect us, because we will be living in the house of the living God. But that’s not quite right.
When the Assyrian emissary speaks to the people, he asks them to accept peace through surrender: lay down your arms, and sit under your own vine and fig tree, until we destroy you.
And that is not peace. That is not peace in any way, shape, or form. That is not peace at all.
But when God speaks to the people—when God speaks to us—God asks us to accept peace through abundance: turn swords into plowshares, turn spears into pruning hooks, and grow a new world, until you are transformed.
I believe that God will defend us and protect us. And I believe that God will change us. And I believe that, one day, we will not be in the house of the living God, but in the world of the living God, enjoying a feast beyond compare—of rich food and well-aged wines—rejoicing in our salvation.
And everyone will win.
Sometimes things are big and complicated and overwhelming. And sometimes things are gracefully simple.
There is this restaurant in Lecce, in Italy, called Bros’. By any objective standard, it is a good restaurant. By any objective standard, it is an excellent restaurant. It has reviews that call it Amazing! and Innovative! and Outstanding! It has a Michelin star.
You may have seen this floating around the internet. A travel writer went there with a group of friends, and wrote a review, and that review went viral. And this is the line that stuck out to me:
It’s as though someone had read about food and restaurants, but had never experienced either, and this was their attempt to recreate it.
Over the course of four-and-a-half hours, this writer and her friends were served twenty-seven tiny courses: six cold noodles and a single slice of bread, a tablespoon of crab, a sliver of oyster loaf, citrus foam served in a mold of the chef’s mouth, a teaspoon of olive ice cream… and so on.
And I am not saying that Bros’ is a bad restaurant. Again, by any objective measure, it is an excellent restaurant. It has glowing reviews. It has a Michelin star.
And I am sure that the kitchen is clean and the ingredients are fresh. I am sure that every dish is prepared with the utmost care and that the chefs are trying to provide their guests with an experience that they will never forget.
But even the best reviews make that experience sound big and complicated and overwhelming.
I have never eaten at Bros’. But I have had meals that are big and complicated and overwhelming. I have had experiences that are big and complicated and overwhelming. And I don’t think that any of them have been bad. Some of them might even have been good.
But, honestly, most of them have been… fine.
And the best meals of my life have not had the most impressive ingredients, or been prepared using the most expensive ingredients, or been made by the world’s best chefs. Michelin has never been near them.
The best meals of my life have been nothing more than the right humble ingredients, put together in some simple way, and served with love.
Because sometimes things are big and complicated and overwhelming. And that isn’t wrong. But most of the best things in life are gracefully simple.
We’ve jumped ahead a bit since last week, and the world has changed.
The kingdom that David ruled and that Solomon ruled has fallen apart. And now the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—now the Israelites—live in two kingdoms: Israel, in the North, with its capital in Samaria; and Judah, in the South, with its capital in Jerusalem.
And those two kingdoms are surrounded by all sorts of other kingdoms, filled with all sorts of other people: Edom and Moab and Ammon and Aram and more.
And in our reading today, we meet Naaman, who is a good soldier and a mighty warrior—and an Aramite—as he stands in front of the house of a prophet.
Naaman traveled from Aram to Samaria because a young Israelite woman told him that there is a prophet there who can cure this skin problem that he has. He got a letter from the king of Aram, and he brought it to the king of Israel, and the king of Israel here… to this prophet… named Elisha.
And now he is standing in front of Elisha’s house… with horses and chariots and a retinue… and his expectations are high… and he is imagining something big and complicated and overwhelming.
This prophet is going to come out of this house and meet me right here. He is going to call on the name of the Lord his God and wave his hand over these spots on my skin. He is going to pronounce an invocation and perform a series of mysterious gestures. He will say the words and do the thing. And I will be cured by the power of the foreign god.
And so it’s all a bit of a let down when Elisha does not come out of the house. It’s all a bit of a let down when a messenger comes out of the house, and walks up to the assembled crowd, and tells Naaman, “The prophet says that you should go to the river Jordan—over that way—and wash seven times. And then you will be cured.”
And Naaman things,
That can’t be right. That can’t be it. That can’t be all there is to it.
I could have washed in a river—I could have washed in a better river, like the Abana or the Pharpar—at home. What an absolute waste of time!
And Naaman storms off in a huff, the crowd trailing behind him, toward Aram.
It is easy to think that this whole thing has to be big and complicated and overwhelming. It is tempting to think that this whole thing has to be big and complicated and overwhelming. And I will admit that I have, sometimes, fallen to that temptation.
It is tempting to think that worship should be a production… with a sixty voice choir and a ten piece praise band and a four manual organ… with a hip young pastor and beautiful motion graphics and lights that change to fit the mood of the service… with a sanctuary that is full to the rafters and dozens of children and a passing of the peace that goes on for twenty minutes.
It is tempting to think that the pastor—or, better yet, the pastoral staff—should be busy… always available and responsive, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week… constantly ready to meet in the office, and visible at every community event, and making time to visit with every congregation member over coffee at Sunrise Cafe… crafting epic sermons and leading enlightening Bible studies and invoking the name of the Lord our God!
And it is tempting to think that the gospel has to go on for volumes… with sections and subsections on the one true God and the deity of Jesus Christ… on the fall of humanity and the salvation of our souls… on the mission of the church and the sanctification of its people… on the things that were, and are, and are yet to come.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. I have been to some of those churches. And some of them feed some people’s souls. But…
I have also been to some of those churches… where it felt like people had read about Christ and the gospel… but had never experienced either… and this was their attempt to recreate it.
And I want to be clear: it’s not just big churches or evangelical churches or whatever churches who fall to this temptation. We are not a big church or an evangelical church or a whatever church, and it is easy for us to fall into this temptation.
After Naaman storms off in a huff, the crowd trailing behind him, toward Aram, one of his servants comes up to him and says,
If that prophet had told you to do something difficult—to find a prickly plant at the bottom of the sea or steal a sacred fire from the top of a mountain—you would have done it. So why not do the simple thing? Why not go wash in the river?
And we don’t know why Naaman listens to his servant; we don’t know why Naaman washes in the river. But he does. And through that simple act—and even though he is not an Israelite, and even though the Lord is not his God—he is cured. And it’s not in our reading today, but he changes: he vows not to offer sacrifices to any god but the Lord.
The truth is that all of this… is simple.
Worship does not have to be a production. Worship is simply a sincere thanksgiving and an open listening for the voice of the still-speaking God. Worship is simply the loosing of the bonds of injustice, the breaking of every yoke, the sharing of bread with the hungry, and the invitation of the marginalized into fellowship.
And the gospel does not have to go on for volumes. The gospel is simply the truth that the kingdom of God is at hand… that good news has come to the poor and release has been proclaimed to the captives… that the blind see and the oppressed are free… that a new world is right there—right here and all around us—and all we have to do is step into it.
(And the pastor—and all of us—probably still need to be a little busy. But healthy human levels of busy.)
And what feeds people’s souls… whether it is in a warehouse-sized megachurch, or a majestic cathedral, or a little country church… whether it is Michelin-starred restaurant’s Calotte de Boeuf or grandma with a grilled cheese and some soup… is love.
There is a trick here, of course.
We are called to love. We are called to love God with everything that we are. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to love complete strangers. And we are called to love our worst enemies. We are called to love. We are called to feed people’s souls.
But we are also called to invite people to the source of that love.
And this whole thing is not about calling on the name of the Lord our God and waving our hands over the places where it hurts. This whole thing is not about pronouncing an invocation and performing a series of mysterious gestures. Even though that is exactly what God might, sometimes, call us to do.
That is just the show. And the show can be important. But… still… it is just the show.
This whole thing is about inviting people to the river… where they can wash themselves clean… and meet God.
And that might be hard; but it is gracefully simple. It is loving people enough to invite them meet the source of the love that we show them.
And when we do that—when we love and invite people to meet the source of our love—we fill the world with love… a little bit at a time… until the whole world is flooded with love… and the kingdom that is at hand… blossoms.
Every great magic trick has three acts. The pledge, the turn, and the prestige. The ordinary, the extraordinary, and the astounding.
Every great magic trick has three acts.
The first act is called the Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards or a bird or a lovely assistant. The magician shows you this thing, and maybe even asks you to inspect it to see if it is, in fact, real and unaltered and normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t.
The second act is called the Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. The cards change, or the bird disappears, or the lovely assistant is cut in half. And now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because, of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know; you want to be fooled.
But you won’t clap yet. Because the turn is not enough. The cards have to change back. The bird has to reappear. The lovely assistant has to be put back together again. And that’s why every great magic trick has to have a third act… the hardest part… the Prestige.
Every great magic trick has three acts. The pledge, the turn, and the prestige. The ordinary, the extraordinary, and the astounding.
Last week, we met King David, the all-caps-and-in-bold KING OF ISRAEL to whom all other kings would be compared. But no one can be king forever. Well, almost no one. So, this week, we meet David’s son and successor, Solomon.
And the first thing that you need to know about Solomon is that he is fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God, loved and worthy of love. And the second thing that you need to know about Solomon is that he is wise. And not just wise, but more wise than anyone. else. ever.
In fact, one night, not too long after he ascended to the throne, Solomon had a dream where God appeared to him. And God said to Solomon, “Ask what I should give to you.”
And Solomon could have asked for anything. He could have asked for a long life, or for wealth and fame, or for the destruction of his enemies.
But instead of asking for any of those things, Solomon asked for a wise and understanding mind… the power to discern between good and evil… the tools to be a good king.
(And that’s a pretty good prayer. That’s the kind of prayer that I should be praying—that all of us, probably, should be praying—a lot more.)
So God gave Solomon wisdom. And, because Solomon had asked for wisdom, and not those other things, God also gave Solomon wealth and fame and other good things.
And our reading today is a little… magic trick… to show us Solomon’s wisdom.
The first act. The pledge. The ordinary.
Two women… two prostitutes… who live alone together… come and stand before King Solomon.
Both of the women had sons just a few days apart from each other. And, in the night, one of those two sons died. And now, each of the women is claiming that the living son is their son. And they are arguing about it in front of the king.
And I want to be fair here, because grief can make people do crazy things, and it is possible that both of these women really truly do believe that the living child is their child. And even if they don’t, there are no maternity records or DNA tests. So King Solomon certainly doesn’t know.
An ordinary baby; and no way to decide who he belongs to.
The second act. The turn. The extraordinary.
King Solomon takes a sword and proposes a simple solution, “We’ll just cut the baby in half. And you can have one half. And you can have the other half. And everyone will have exactly the same amount of baby. And everyone will have exactly the same amount of happiness.”
And in that moment, one of the women cries out, “No! Give the boy to her. Just don’t kill him.”
And in that moment, the other woman cries out, “No! Cut the boy in half. Neither of us will have him.”
And King Solomon, who is wiser than anyone. else. ever. hands the boy over to the woman who would rather give the boy up than watch him die. And he declares that she is the mother.
And that is a terrible magic trick… because one woman would rather watch the child die than take the win… and grief can make people do crazy things… and Solomon still doesn’t really know who the mother is.
An extraordinary moment… and it could fool us if we wanted it to… but it is not enough.
The third act. The prestige. The astounding.
It is easy to hear this story and thing that the act of crying out… proves that the woman who cries out… is the biological mother of that child. And that’s possible. That would be nice. I would like that to be true.
But… and I know that our reading today is about a baby… I know that there are biological mothers—and biological fathers and biological grandparents and biological siblings and biological whatevers—who have put their child out for being queer, or getting pregnant, or using drugs, of failing to do as they were told, or otherwise falling short of being the child who they are supposed to be.
And, again, I know that our reading today is about a baby, but… about one in thirty adolescents (kids between the ages of thirteen and seventeen)… and about one in ten young adults (folks between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five)… experience homelessness each year.
And some of those are part of families who are homeless and together. And some of those are part of families who are homeless and separated. And some of those are part of families who have homes that they are not welcome in. ((https://nn4youth.org/learn/youth-homelessness/))
And what I am saying is that biological mothers do not always cry out for their children. Sometimes it is up to other people—people who know that there is no such thing as other people’s children—to cry out.
And, maybe, the act of crying out does not prove that someone is a parent or a grandparent or a sibling or a whatever. Maybe, the act of crying out is what makes someone a parent or a grandparent or a sibling or a whatever.
And maybe, in this story, the biological mother is the one who cries out. And maybe, in this story, the other woman is the one who cries out. And maybe, in this story, it doesn’t matter, because it is the act of crying out—the desperate willingness to put the well-being of that vulnerable and threatened child above her own deepest desires—that makes that woman a mother to that child.
Maybe wisdom is not about uncovering the facts, but about discerning the truth of that astounding love. And maybe the magic is not about revealing the child’s mother, but about turning someone into a mother.
In a couple of sermons recently, when our readings were about the covenant between God and the people of Israel, I riffed on this bit that Paul wrote to the church in Rome about how we—who have no part in those commandments and who are not bound by that covenant—have been grafted into a priestly people and a holy nation.
You see, when we were groaning in our slavery to sin… when we were covered by the stains of our iniquity… when we were crushed under the weight of our debts… when we were vulnerable and threatened… God cried out for us.
God laid aside glory and came into the world for us. God lived and loved for us. God went to the cross and the tomb and the gates of hell for us. God overthrew death and rose from the grave for us. And in that act of astounding love, God adopted us.
And this is the thing…
We do not worship God because God is powerful. We do not sing songs of praise to God because God is insecure. We do not strive to obey God because God is scary.
We love God… because God loves us with an astounding love… because God is love.
And the way that we love God is by loving everyone: friends and neighbors and strangers and enemies and everyone. The way that we love God is by crying out for anyone who is vulnerable or threatened or marginalized or oppressed. The way that we love God is by becoming parents and grandparents and siblings and whatevers to all of those people who need parents and grandparents and siblings and whatevers.
And that is magic.
You see, every great magic trick has three acts.
The first act is called the Pledge. It’s an ordinary world, blessed and broken. You can inspect it. You can run your fingers along it. You can see that there are no hidden buttons or secret compartments.
The second act is called the Turn. It’s an extraordinary act, when God cries out for all of creation, and takes it under their wings, and opens up the places that we could not see to reveal the seeds of a world that we could not imagine.
And the third act is called the Prestige. It’s an astounding call, when God asks us to nurture those seeds… and God instructs us to grow a world rooted in love… and God transforms us into children of God and neighbors to one another and humans as humans were always meant to be.
Right now, in this moment, Nathan is on his way to tell David—the king of Israel—exactly what God thinks about what David has done.
Last week, we met Joshua and the Israelites as they told the story about all that the Lord had done for them and reaffirmed the covenant that the Lord had made with them.
And this week, we meet Nathan. And there’s been a bit of a time skip. So let me catch you up.
After the Lord brought the Israelites—the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage, the Lord led to the land that he had promised their ancestor Abraham that they would inhabit. And the Israelites conquered that land, and took it from the people who lived there.
They lived on land where they had not labored and in towns that they had not built. And they enjoyed the fruit of vineyards that they did not plant and olive orchards that they did not tend.
And, for a while, the Israelites were ruled by the covenant that the Lord had made with them. And, for a while, the Lord would raise up leaders as they were needed.
But the Israelites looked at the nations around them and saw that they had kings to govern them and go out before them and fight their battles. So the Israelites asked the Lord for a king. And, while the Lord was not keen on the idea—while the Lord knew all of the problems that a king can cause—the Lord raised up a king named Saul.
And Saul ruled. And then Saul turned away from the Lord. So the Lord raised up a new king named David, who overthrew Saul, and who became the king of Israel. And not just ‘the king’, but the king… the great king… the all-caps-and-in-bold KING OF ISRAEL to whom all other kings would be compared.
And the Lord made a covenant with David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”
And this week, we meet Nathan, who is on his way to tell David—the all-caps-and-in-bold KING OF ISRAEL—exactly what the Lord thinks about what he has done.
This is a famous story. There’s a Leonard Cohen song about this story.
One spring day, David saw a beautiful woman. And he asked around. And he learned that she was Bathsheba, whose husband was Uriah, who was on the front lines of David’s army in their war against the Ammonites.
And David… had her brought to him. And they slept together. And then she went home.
But then Bathsheba sent word to David that she was pregnant. So David sent for her husband Uriah. And David said to Uriah, “While don’t you go home for a few days and, um, ‘wash your feet’… if you know what I’m saying’?”
But Uriah refused. His brothers-in-arms were out in the field killing and dying. And the Ark of the Covenant was in a tent on the battlefield. And he was not going to betray them by staying in the comfort of his own house and enjoying the company of his own wife.
And David kept urging him. And Uriah kept refusing him. And David knew that Uriah was never going to go home, and he was never going to wash his feet, and he was absolutely going to find out what David had done.
So David changed his strategy. He sent Uriah back to the war; along with a letter for his general. And the letter told the general to send Uriah to the worst of his fighting, and then to pull back the other soldiers, and to let Uriah die on the battlefield, so that David could cover up his crime.
And when David got the news that Uriah had died in the war, he shrugged his shoulders, and said, more or less, “The sword devours now one, and now another, and what can you do?”
And when Bathsheba got the news, she mourned.
And when an appropriate amount of time—but not too much time—had passed, David had Bathsheba brought to him again. And he married her. And they had a son.
This is a famous story. There’s a Leonard Cohen song about this story. There are centuries of spin about this story.
There are people who say that before the army rode out to war… women would get letters of divorce from their husbands… in case they died in battle. So it’s not like this was really adultery, because it’s not like Bathsheba was really married.
But the simple truth is that the king sent for her, and he had all of the expectations, and he had all of the power, and it’s not like Bathsheba really had a choice.
And there are people who say that Uriah… disobeyed a direct order from his king… and that this was a capital crime. So it’s not like this was really murder, because it’s not like Uriah was really an innocent man.
But the simple truth is that the king sent him into battle, and he had all of the expectations, and he had all of the power, and it’s not like Uriah really had a chance.
And this week, we meet Nathan, who is on his way to tell David—the all-caps-and-in-bold KING OF ISRAEL who has committed adultery and rape and murder—exactly what the Lord thinks about what he has done.
Nathan is in a strange position.
You see, Nathan is a court prophet. The Lord speaks to Nathan and the Lord tells Nathan what to say. But Nathan takes the messages that the Lord has given him and delivers them to the king… to the government… to the powers that be.
And he knows that his position depends on not saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong way.
So when Nathan steps into the room and stands face-to-face with David, he tells a story…
There was a rich man and there was a poor man.
And the rich man had flocks and herds like you would not believe. And the poor man only had this one sweet little ewe lamb who ate from his plate and drank from his cup and slept in his bed. And he loved that lamb.
Well, one day a traveler came to visit the rich man. And he didn’t want to take one of the lambs from his flocks and herds to serve for dinner. So he just took the poor man’s one sweet little ewe lamb.
And when David hears this story, he gets mad. He shouts that the rich man deserves to die for what he has done, and that he will have to give the poor man four lambs as restitution for what he has done, and even that won’t make up for it.
And that is when Nathan, who has a message from the Lord, and whose livelihood depends on the king, tells the all-caps-and-in-bold KING OF ISRAEL, “You are the man! You had everything and you could have had more. And yet you committed adultery and rape and murder because you saw a pretty girl.”
And when David begs for mercy, Nathan can only tell him, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before the Lord; your throne shall be established forever. But you will still pay a price.”
Nathan, the court prophet, looks at David, the all-caps-and-in-bold KING OF ISRAEL, and speaks truth to power.
I know… at least, I imagine… you can tell where this is going. But it’s true. We are Nathan.
We are a respectable, well-heeled, comfortably middle-class, descended-from-pilgrims-and-patriots, mainline Protestant congregation in a small town in Iowa. We don’t make waves, we don’t cause trouble, we don’t make a scene. We just get together on Sunday mornings, and hear a word of good news, and we go along and get along.
And we don’t. get. …
But we are Nathan. And God has spoken to us and God has told us what to say. God has given us this message… this good news… this gospel.
You are loved and you worthy of love and God loves you. God laid aside glory and came into the world as one of us, and lived the life that we cannot live and loved the love that we cannot love, and went to the cross and to the tomb, and on the third day rose again… for you. Because of that, you are reconciled; because of that, you are forgiven. No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life’s journey.
And the thing is…
This gospel cannot stop at the doors that lead out of this sanctuary, or the doors that lead out of this building, or the apron that leads out of the parking lot.
Because if there is anyplace where this gospel is not true…
…if it is not true for a single person who lives in a mansion or for a single person who sleeps under an overpass…
…if it is not true for a single person patrolling the halls of a penitentiary or for a single person languishing in the segregation unit…
…if it is not true for a single person who I love with all of my heart or for a single person who I just can’t stand to be around…
…then it is not true here, either.
This good news must be good news for everyone. This good news must be good news everywhere. This good news must be good news all the time.
And that means that we need to carry this message, this good news, this gospel, this truth that no matter who you are, and no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are loved and you are worthy of love and God loves you out beyond the doors that lead out of this sanctuary and the doors that lead out of this building and the apron that leads out of the parking lot.
We need to carry this truth everywhere. We need to live this truth everywhere. We need to demonstrate this truth everywhere.
Until everyone knows… without an ounce of doubt… that they are loved, and they are worthy of love, and God loves them.
And the other thing is…
Not just anyone can go to the all-caps-and-in-bold KING OF ISRAEL and tell him the truth. But Nathan can. Because Nathan is a court prophet. And Nathan can walk the halls of power.
And not just anyone can go to the powers-that-be in our world and tell them the truth. But we can. Because we are a respectable, well-healed, comfortably middle-class, descended-from-pilgrims-and-patriots, mainline Protestant congregation. And we can walk the halls of power.
And I would never suggest that we breach that wall between the church and the state.
But we have the ears of kings—maybe, every once in a while, we even have the ears of all-caps-and-in-bold KINGS—and we can tell those kings the truth: that the greatest riches are found in charity, that the greatest justice is found in charity, and that the greatest power is found in love.
As hard as this is to hear, there is not one person here who has not broken their covenant. There is not one person here who does not stand in a field of shattered promises.
We are a people of covenant. We are a people of promises.
When we baptize a child, or confirm a teenager, or welcome an adult as a new member, we ask them to make a set of promises. And we make a set of promises to them.
Will you…? We will, with the help of God.
When we install a pastor, or declare ourselves to be open and affirming, or agree about how we will handle conflict, we ask each other to make a set of promises, and we make a set of promises to each other.
Will you…? We will, with the help of God.
We are a people of covenant. We are a people of promises.
And as hard as this is to hear, that means that we are a people of broken covenants and shattered promises.
A few weeks ago, we met Abraham when God called him away from his country and his kindred and his father’s house, and promised to make him into a great nation, and promised that his descendants would have this land, in Canaan.
And then… some things happened.
Abraham’s great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren went down to Egypt. And, when a new Pharaoh came to the throne there, he enslaved and oppressed the descendants of Abraham. And the descendants of Abraham—the Israelites—cried out.
So God raised up a hero and led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage. And God led them to the land that God had told Abraham that his descendants would inhabit. And they conquered the people who were living there. And they took their land and their towns and their vineyards and their olive orchards.
And now, we are here, watching the Israelites renew a covenant and make a promise.
Our reading today has two parts.
In the first part, Joshua—the successor to Moses and the leader of the Israelites—tells the people about the things that God has done for them. It is the beginning of Israel’s national story. It is the beginning of Israel’s who-we-are story.
The Lord your God brought you and your ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and did great things in your sight. The Lord protected you along all the way that you went and among all the peoples through whom you passed, and the Lord drove out before you all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. All to give you this land, that the Lord had promised your ancestor Abraham that you would inherit.
And in the second part, Joshua tells the people about the choice that they have to make: they can serve the Lord in sincerity and in faithfulness… or they can chase after other gods.
And then there is this strange moment…
Joshua has the people riled up. Joshua has told the people the beginning of their who-we-are story. Joshua has inspired the people.
And then he asks the people, more or less, “Will you put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the river and in Egypt? And will you serve the Lord?” And the people reply, more or less, “We will, with the help of God.”
And Joshua tells the people, more or less, “No you won’t. This is going to be hard. And you will fail. You cannot serve the Lord.” And the people reply, more or less, “We will, with the help of God.”
And Joshua tells the people, more of less, “You are witnesses against yourselves. If you mess this up, you will be called to testify against yourself and to give an honest account of the ways that you have broken then covenant and shattered these promises. Are you absolutely sure that you will serve the Lord?“ And the people reply, more or less, “We will, with the help of God.”
When they say, “Yes,” he tells them, “no.” When they say, “We’re all in,” he tells them, “You most certainly are not.” And when they tell him, “We will serve and obey the Lord our God…”
He takes a stone… and he sets it in the sanctuary… and he tells them, more or less, “This stone has heard everything that the Lord has said to you. And it has heard everything that you have said to the Lord. And it will be a witness against you if you deal falsely with your God.”
And if you know the rest of the story, then you know that this stone gets called to testify a lot. Because so much of the story of Israel is a story about a people who turn away from the Lord, and who the Lord has to call back to this covenant again and again.
I have told you this before, but we are not Jewish. Israel’s national story is not our story; and Israel’s who-we-are story is not our story. We have no part in these commandments and we are not bound by this covenant. Our story is different.
God loves the world this way: God creates and sustains a world and gives it to itself—to all of us—as a gift. And we break it.
So God comes into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, and lives the life that we cannot live, and loves the love that we cannot love. And we betray him, and arrest him, and hang him on a cross, and lay him in a tomb. We ensnare him with the chains that our own sin has forged and place him among the dead.
And then… God… gets up. And steps out of the tomb. And rejects our brokenness. And says, “I am not done with you, yet.”
And, somehow, through all of that, we who have no part in these commandments and who are not bound by this covenant are grafted into a priestly people and a holy nation like a branch is grafted onto an olive tree. And the old covenant is not diminished by the new covenant that we are given: love.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love strangers. Love enemies. Love the least of these. Love. Love. Love.
And it is easy to treat that as though it is… simple. It is easy to treat that as though it is… easy.
Will you love? We will, with the help of God.
Love is not just a word that we say. Love is no just a feeling that we have.
Love is a thing that we do. And, maybe, if we do it enough, love can be the thing that we are.
And love is a thing that we fail at.
Because the truth is that is it easy to say that we love people. And it might even be easy to stir up a feeling of love—or, at least, a feeling that we can confuse with love—for people. And it is easy to love within the bounds of capitalism or whiteness or middle-classness or Iowa-niceness.
But that is just…
I’ll be honest. I don’t know what that is. A shadow of love? A reflection of a reflection of a reflection of love? A love that is love… or the idea of love… or a hope for love… but that isn’t, y’know… love in all of its wonder and all of its glory.
And the truth is that, as much as we might want to love—as much as we might strive to love—the love that we love is nothing compared to the love that the God who is love… loves.
The love that we love is nothing compared to the love that creates and sustains a world… that comes into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land… that lives the life that we cannot live and loves the love that we cannot love… that wears the chains the our own sin has forged and goes to the cross and to the tomb… that gets up, and rejects our brokenness, and says, “I am not done with you, yet.”
Our love is nothing compared to that. Our love is a love of broken covenants. Our love is a love of shattered promises.
And, believe it or not, that is good news.
We are a people of covenant. We are a people of promises.
And as hard as this is to hear, there is not one person here who has not broken their covenant. There is not one person here who does not stand in a field of shattered promises.
And it is a little heartbreaking to know that once we hear that—once we know that—we feel that temptation to give up and walk away. And that is an option. And people take that option every day; we give our lives to the things that we can do… and we give up on doing any better.
But the beauty of the gospel is that, even now, the God who loves the love that we cannot love—the God who is the love that we cannot love—is taking our broken covenants and our shattered promises, and our mangled humanity and our fractured souls, and this whole messed-up world… and putting it back together again… and filling the cracks in with gold.
So that, one day, what was broken will glitter and what was shattered will shine in the light of God’s enduring and abundant love.
And our part in that is not to be perfect. Not under our own power or on our own terms.
Our part in that is to turn ourselves over to God. And to do our best. And, when we fail—and we will fail—it is to pick up the pieces, and to testify against ourselves, and to confess the things that we have done, and to start putting things back together, and then to do better.
And in doing that, we fail forward. We learn to love a love that is more like the love that creates and sustains, that stands with and speaks out for, that redeems and restores. We learn to love a love that is more like love… until, maybe, one day, it is love.
We inch imperfectly ever closer to the life of love that God—who keeps their covenants and fulfills their promises—has promised.
We like these commandments. We include them in our lectionaries and have posters of them in our churches. Sometimes, we even memorize them.
On July 31, 2001, the new chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court had a monument placed in the rotunda of the court building: a two-and-a-half ton block of granite—three feet wide and three feet deep and four feet tall—covered with quotes from the Declaration of Independence, and the national anthem, and some of the founding fathers.
And, on the top, two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, more or less, carved right into them.
And on August 1, 2001, that new chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court stood by that monument and declared:
Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.
Obviously, it couldn’t stay.
The Constitution of the United States says—right there, in the First Amendment, as the first thing in the First Amendment—that there can be no establishment of religion in this country.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, the Constitution of the State of Alabama says that the state cannot give preference to any religion.
And a monument to the Ten Commandments reeks of religious establishment and religious preference.
So the monument came down. And the chief justice was relieved of his office. And while he has tried to run for things a few times since, his political career has mostly gone down in flames, and now he lives on the fringes.
Our reading today is about those ten commandments.
About three months after God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God gave the people a covenant: a way to be a priestly nation and a holy people.
And it started with those ten commandments… that say, more or less:
You shall know the Lord your God, and you shall know what they have done for you, and you shall have no other gods before them.
You shall not make idols for yourselves; and you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
You shall remember the sabbath day and keep it holy: you shall do all of your work on six days, but you shall not do any work on the seventh.
You shall honor your father and your mother. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.
For generations, Jews and Christians have revered these commandments. We include them in our Torah Portions and in our lectionaries. We have posters of them in synagogues and in churches. Sometimes, we even memorize them. Sometimes, we even try to put up monuments to them.
For different reasons, of course.
For Jewish people, these are not simply the ten commandments. They are the first ten commandments; they are just the beginning.
There is a tradition that says that there are six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments in this covenant: things to do and things not to do, things for men and things for women, things for holy days and things for every day, and more.
You shall put the one who kidnaps another person to death. You shall not wrong the resident alien. You shall be a priestly people and a holy nation.
And I need to be careful here, because there is a stereotype of Judaism that says that Judaism is all about following these six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments… and creating extra commandments so that no one gets too close to breaking the real commandments… and finding ways to get around the commandments. There is a stereotype of Judaism that says that Judaism is legalistic.
And that’s wrong.
Judaism includes these commandments, but it cannot be reduced to these commandments. And Jewish people have spent millennia reading these commandments, and meditating on these commandments, and arguing about these commandments, and living with these commandments, and understanding these commandments.
And Jewish people have spent millennia putting these commandments in a context that prioritizes life… and love… and grace. So that—and I am oversimplifying here—Judaism is not about rigidly following these commandments or about finding a way to skirt around these commandments, but about using these commandments to be a priestly people and a holy nation.
And nothing that I am about to say is meant to run counter to how Jewish people understand and practice and care for these commandments.
We are not Jewish. We are Christians.
Our entire thing is rooted in the idea that, through the life and death and resurrection of Christ, we who have no part in these commandments and who are not bound by this covenant have been grafted into a priestly people and a holy nation like a branch is grafted onto an olive tree.
We were not brought here by these commandments. We were not brought here by this covenant. We were brought here by… we were only brought here by… we were brought here only by… the grace of God, who we encounter in Jesus Christ, who brought us into a new covenant.
And yet… we still like these commandments. We still include them in our lectionaries. We still have posters of them in our churches. Sometimes, we still even memorize them. Sometimes, we still even try to put up monuments to them.
These ten commandments are good commandments.
We should know the Lord our God, and we should know what they have done for us, and we should have no other gods before them.
And we should not make idols for ourselves; and we should not bow down to them or serve them.
And we should not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord our God.
As we should remember the sabbath day and keep it holy: you should do all of our work on six days, and we should not do any work on the seventh.
We should honor our fathers and our mothers. We should not murder. We should not commit adultery. We should not steal. We should not bear false witness against our neighbors. We should not covet anything that belongs to our neighbors.
The problem with commandments, even good ones…
…especially when we include them our lectionaries and only half listen… especially when we put them on posters and never quite read them… especially them we memories them and do not ruminate them… especially when we carve. them. in. granite…
…is that they can become idols.
And we can find ourselves genuflecting before them without even understanding what they are or what they demand from us.
There was this thing floating around the socials a while ago. I don’t remember the letters. But I remember the spirit.
People ask me why I left the church.
I left because the people who were there told me good news: they told me that God had come into the world as one of us to bring good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim release to the captives and set free the oppressed, to declare a time of the Lord’s favor.
I left because the people who were there introduced me to a gospel: that God loved me and that I was called to imitate that love for friends and for neighbors, for strangers and for enemies, for the outcast and for the marginalized, and for the whole wide world.
I left because the people who were there gave me good commandments: to know God, and to know what God has done for me, and to put no other gods before God.
And then, when I tried to live a life rooted in those things, the people who were there got mad.
Bring good news, but not that good news. Recover your sight, but don’t see what is blinding you. Proclaim release to the captives, but not those captives. Free the oppressed, but not those oppressed. Love and love and love, but not those people and not that way.
People ask why I left the church. It was because the people who were there loved the monument that they had built more than the one who they had built it to.
And it is true that I think that the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court all of those years ago—and, honestly, most of the people who want to put up monuments to the ten commandments—do exactly that. It is true that I think that they love the monument more than the one who the monument is supposed to point them to.
But it is also true that I think that we… even we… even I… do that, too.
Look, this is hard to put into words, but I know how easy it is to think that the-things-that-we-do-in-worship are the same as worship. And I know how easy it is to think that being a church-shaped-organization is the same as being the church. And I know how easy to think that encountering the things that are supposed to point us to God is the same as actually encountering God.
But that’s not how it works.
We can go through the most high church smells-and-bells liturgy and still not worship.
We can have all of the right programs and all of the right ministries and a building filled to the rafters and still not be the church.
We can have the hymns and the organ… and the candles and the crosses… and the prayers and the sermons… … … we can even have these ten commandments carved into a two-and-a-half ton block of granite… … …and still not encounter the divine.
And… we can share a simple meal with someone who is hungry… or sit silently with someone who is lonely… or get loud at a demonstration… and find ourselves wrapped up in the God who led the Israelites out of slavery to Egypt and led us out of slavery to sin.
Because the thing is…
Being the church—being the body of Christ—is not about memorizing the commandments. It’s not about saying the words or performing the rites. It’s not about having an altar or wearing the vestments. It’s not about running the programs or putting on the events. And it really isn’t about building monuments. Even if those are all nice things; even if the monuments are big and impressive.
It is about life… and love… and grace. For ourselves. For friends and neighbors. For strangers and enemies. For the whole wide world.
Especially for those who live in a world that does not give them life… that does not show them love… that does not offer them grace: the least of us all.
And all of the rest of it—the words and the rites, the altar and the vestments, the programs and the events… even the monuments… even the commandments—are there for us to wrestle with, and argue about, and live with, and understand, and mess with… to understand and to reclaim… to use… to find more life and more love and more grace… until we are a holy people.
Until the whole world is holy.
The Israelites say to Moses, “A life in slavery would have been better than a death in freedom.” And Moses says to the Israelites, “You forgot about the other option.”
Over the last couple of summers, we have had a handful of early morning services at TYCOGA Vineyard and Winery. It is a beautiful setting, and the Arndts are generous hosts, and we all enjoy the opportunity—when the weather cooperates—to worship by the vines… vines that members of this congregation planted… vines that members of this congregation tend… vines that continue to grow and produce today.
And on those mornings, I drive out of Davenport going north on US Route 61. I drive past the exit that would normally take me into DeWitt. I leave the path that I can drive on autopilot. And I end up on a path where I have to pay attention.
And there is always this moment… when I start to wonder if I missed the turn and drove right past the winery. There is always this moment when I start to wonder whether I should look for a place to turn around… and start heading back south… and pay more attention to what I’m doing.
A couple of weeks ago, we met Abraham, who God promised to make into a great nation, whose descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And last week, we met Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, who was in prison in Egypt.
We didn’t read this part of the story, but Joseph got out of prison. He rose to prominence in Egypt and he became second only to Pharaoh. And when there was a famine in Canaan, his father and his brothers and their families came to Egypt and this family of named protagonists was reunited in a happy ending.
And there is more to the story, but the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were prosperous in Egypt; the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—the Israelites—became more numerous and more powerful than the Egyptians themselves.
Joseph and his father and his brothers and their families passed away. And a new Pharaoh ascended to the throne. And he looked at these foreigners—who did not follow the ways of the Egyptians and who did not worship the gods of the Egyptians—and he oppressed them. He enslaved them.
And there is more to the story, but God heard the people’s cries, and raised up a leader, and led them out of Egypt.
And now, in our reading today, the Israelites have just robbed the Egyptians blind and are running out of slavery. Right now, in our reading today, the Israelites are standing on the shore of the sea, with nowhere left to go, watching the entire Egyptian army close in on them.
So the Israelites turn to this leader who God raised up up to lead them out of Egypt—the Israelites turn to Moses—and say, more or less,
What? There weren’t enough graves in Egypt? You were worried their cemeteries would overflow? We are about to get slaughtered. And it is all your fault: you and this… God of yours. It would have been better to live as slaves in Egypt than to die on this godforsaken beach!
Over the last couple of years, tensions have been rising in our congregation… and our communities… and our nation.
There have been contentious conversations about how we talk about bodies and how we talk about history. Books have been pulled from classrooms and stolen from the Story Walk in Westbrook Park. There have been high-profile shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, and Highland Park, Illinois… and Ames, Iowa… and Maquoketa Caves State Park… just a little ways up US Route 61.
And those things were just… on top… of everything else.
And I know I am an outspoken pastor. And I know that I keep pushing us to be an outspoken church.
I know that I want people to know us as the church welcomes everyone… and that gives to and volunteers at places that serve the poor and marginalized and outcast in our community, and across our country, and around the world… and that facilitates gracious conversations about difficult topics… and that takes informed positions on contentious issues… and that acts on our deepest convictions.
I know that I want people to know us as the church that is for comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education… that is for looking honestly at our history, claiming the legacy of the best and learning to be better than the worst… that is for reading books and against banning them… and that talks about and takes positions on and advocates for reasonable laws that promote gun safety…
And I know that we’re not all on the same page about everything. And I know that not all of us want people to know us as that church. And I know that there’s a lot more I could say about that. But…
Over the summer, a couple of people came to me, and said, more or less,
Maybe we should tone it down a little? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the entire Egyptian army is out there, and being loud and outspoken—making waves—is risky. It might even be dangerous. But maybe it we are quiet and kept to ourselves—maybe if we don’t make waves—we will be safe. And that army will just… walk right by.
And I need to be careful and I need to be clear. I get it.
It’s a little weird because I can’t really talk about it. But there was a moment this summer when there was a… thing.
You see, someone told me… loudly… unexpectedly… for a couple of hours… exactly what kind of pastor they thought I was. They questioned everything that I do. They told me that I am not preaching the word of God. They asked me why I am dragging this church down with all of this disgusting political social justice bull—
And I… backed off. I did not hang the pride flags that a stranger sent us to replace our stolen banner. I did not preach on controversial issues for a while. I kept an eye on the doors… and paid attention to the slams of car doors outside of the house… and made sure that other people were around at the church.
I got nervous. I got anxious. I got scared. And I started looking for a place to turn around.
And then, let’s be honest, I got over it.
But I have colleagues who have lived that way. I have friends who have left their churches and moved away from their communities and walked away from ministry altogether. I know people who keep their local police informed about what is going on at their churches and around their homes. All because someone decided that they said the wrong thing in a sermon; all because someone decided that they were the wrong kind of pastor.
So I get it. I really do.
It seems safe to be the church that listens to the shoutiest voices, and stays quietly in its narrow little lane, and does not make waves. It seems safe to be the church that is different, but just a little bit… or that is the same as every other church, exactly… or that no one notices, at all.
It seems safe. It is not safe. It is just… acclimating to fear.
When those Israelites turn to Moses, they are afraid.
They have good reasons to be afraid. They have just robbed the Egyptians blind and are running out of slavery. They are standing on the shore of the sea, with nowhere left to run, watching the entire Egyptian army close in on them. They can see the chariots and the horses and the soldiers and the spears. They are between the devil and the deep blue sea.
And when those Israelites turn to Moses, they tell him, more or less, “A life in slavery would have been better than a death in freedom.”
And then Moses turns to the Israelites and tells them, more or less, “You forgot about the other option.”
And this pillar of cloud puts itself between the Israelites and the Egyptians… and Moses stretches his staff out over the sea… and the winds rise… and the waters part… and the Israelites run across the dry land to the other side… to the option that they had forgotten about… to life in freedom.
And I don’t like the next part of the story—I would prefer it if the Egyptian army just stood dumbfounded on the far shore—but the cloud lifts… and the Egyptians pursue… and the wind calms… and the waters crash down… and the entire Egyptian army drowns.
I have heard—and this might be true—that the most common command in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.”
And I know—and this is absolutely true—that the good news is that we have been brought out from slavery to sin to freedom in Christ.
And I think that might mean that we should not be afraid… of welcoming everyone… of being generous with our time and talent and treasure… of having gracious conversations and taking informed positions and acting on our deepest convictions… of speaking up and speaking out…
…maybe even for comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education… and for looking honestly at our history, claiming the legacy of the best and learning to be better than the worst… and for reading books and against banning them… and for reasonable laws that promote gun safety… and more…
…even when we have good reasons to be afraid.
And I know that—if we live without fear—that is going to mean leaving the path that we can walk on autopilot and ending up on a path where we have to pay attention. And I know that there will be moments when we start to wonder whether we should look for a place to turn around.
Over the last couple of years, tensions have been rising in our congregation… and our communities… and our nation. And I know that all it takes for the worst impulses of humanity to triumph, is the silence of the best impulses of humanity.
And I know that a life lived in slavery to fear is no life at all.
We have not robbed the bullies blind. We are not running away from oppression. There is no army behind us. We are not walking along the dry land at the bottom of the sea, hoping that the wind will keep up, praying that the waters will not come crashing down.
We have the privilege of being mostly safe and mostly secure. And that means that we have the privilege of standing up for—and speaking out on behalf of—those who are not.
And I know that it might be a little wild. And it might even look a little dangerous. And there might even be moments when we are absolutely uncertain about what we are doing.
But I also believe… I believe… I really believe… this is not some rhetorical device… I really believe that the still-speaking God who has accomplished our deliverance and the deliverance of this whole world from the power of sin is calling us a life of freedom in Christ:
The freedom to welcome extravagantly, and give foolishly, and love recklessly. The freedom to build a world where there is no fear at all. The freedom to live lives that are full of grace.