Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 26, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 4 — Imperishable Perishing”

Texts:  1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84  •  Ephesians 6:10-20  •   John 6:56-69

In our household, Kerry and I have worked out a pretty simple division of labor.  I do most of the grocery shopping, he does most of the cooking.  He’s a much better cook than I am, so that works out well for me, but I’m still mastering the art of grocery shopping.  There are plenty of prepared foods and canned goods in our cupboards, but since we both value trying to eat fresh and would like to cut down on the amount of preservatives we ingest, I am having to break out of my old habit of shopping once a month and buying only foods that will last.  There’s an art to grocery shopping that I haven’t quite mastered.

It bums me out when I open the fridge and see that something I bought has gone bad.  It’s usually the bread.  Again, I don’t want to buy the national chain breads that have all the preservatives baked right in.  I want the local bakery bread, the stuff with real flavor that you actually have to chew.  I want sourdough or rye or multigrain.  I’m convinced by the smell of the loaf as it’s pulled from the oven and I put it in my cart, imaging how good it will taste set on my plate next to a fresh salad or whatever Kerry throws together in the kitchen.

Then life happens.  Kerry works late, and I’m not in the mood to make dinner, so I run next door to Charcoal Delights and pick up a patty melt.  Or, we’re rushed to get out of the house in the morning and, instead of packing a lunch, we figure we’ll just grab something over the lunch hour.  A few days pass, we open the refrigerator and pull out the bread only to find it’s got mold growing on it and we have to throw it away.

The reign of God is like a loaf of bread.  That’s what Jesus has been saying for the last month.  More specifically, he’s been saying, “I am the bread of life.”  It’s an odd mixture of perishability and imperishability in the Jesus loaf.  On the one hand, we know that Jesus dies on a cross.  If he is the bread of life, he is bread that will perish.  On the other hand, there is a promise that to take part in the life of Christ is to be joined to eternity, to become imperishable.

Today we come to the last week of the summer series that I’ve titled, “Game of Thrones,” during which we’ve followed the rise of the nation of Israel, charted through the house of David.  It also happens to be the last week of these sayings from Jesus found in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John known as the “bread of life discourse.”  We’ve mostly stayed away from all the talk of bread in order to focus on the story of King David’s rise to power, and the tragedies that befell his house.  Last week his son Solomon had taken the throne and prayed for the wisdom to lead.  This week Solomon dedicates the temple, but something happens in gospel that ties these readings together, so let’s stay there for a moment.

Jesus says, “this is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  Do you recall the story from Hebrew scripture in which bread comes down from heaven to feed the people?  // The story of manna from heaven is a story of God’s intentional perishability.  As the Israelites travelled through the desert from slavery to freedom, they were forced to rely on God to provide for their needs.  God sent manna from heaven which could only be eaten on the day it fell.  Moses instructed them gather as much as they needed, and to be sure everyone was provided for.  When some of the Israelites tried to gather up more than a day’s worth, they would awake to find the surplus infested with worms and gone foul.  They would have to throw it out.

The Israelites were escaping from a master who used slave labor to build an empire.  Even though they’d crossed through the Red Sea, they hadn’t yet become free people because they were still living with the empire’s value’s in their hearts.  The forty year journey in the wilderness was the transformation of a people that took a generation to complete.  Once they entered the promised land, they were ruled not by kings but by judges, people of wisdom and faith who guided the people and encouraged them as they lived a different kind of existence than the tribes that surrounded them. They were people called to live a life of radical dependence on God.

But the cost of their difference was great.  The tribes of Israel were surrounded by larger, mightier nations who had amassed great surpluses of wealth that bought armies.  Armies required expansion to provide the goods needed to keep the armies and their infrastructures well maintained. In fact, it’s dangerous to have a standing army around if you’re not prepared to keep feeding it what it wants, since it has the means at hand to unseat you and rule in your stead.  The tribes of Israel weren’t worried about the problems of kings and armies however, since they were too busy being conquered to consider what happens after you win.

So Israel asked its last judge, the prophet Samuel, to name for them a king.  In doing so, the people made a decisive break from trusting in God to provide what was needed, their daily bread, and to go the route of their warring neighbors.

It’s been an instructive journey, traveling with Israel through the reigns of King Saul, King David and King Solomon.  The stories have been filled with the kind of pathos we expect from Greek tragedy or night time dramas.  The people get what they asked for, a king to rule them and an army to protect them; but they also get what Samuel warned them of, a love of power that consolidates wealth in the hands of the few and returns them to the kind of life under empire God had worked to liberate them from when God brought them out of Egypt.  King David — once a sensitive, overlooked shepherd boy — becomes a king so taken with his own success he proposes to build a house for God.  His son, Solomon, begins his reign by marrying a daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, allying himself with empire, then building the temple his father hadn’t.

It makes it hard to interpret Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in this morning’s reading from 1 Kings.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, quoted on the front of your bulletin, spells out the difficult dynamics of this scene.  The temple is intended to serve as a visible reminder of God’s commitment to the nation of Israel, but also stand as a tribute to the power and wealth of the regime that got it built — not only for its citizens, but for the nations that surrounded them.  It was an act of establishment that said, “look what we have built — may it stand forever.”

The spirituality of establishment takes root in all of our lives, in our national politics and in our personal dramas.  It is the quest for immortality by our own efforts, the legacy projects we take on to make sure our names outlive us.  In order to be remembered, whether by the history books or by our grandchildren, we work to amass fortunes or achievements that will be the benchmark for those who follow us.  We adopt the cultural values that surround us in the workplace, striving for notoriety, recognition and promotion.  We live the values of self-help and self-actualization instead of trusting in God for what is needed this day and making sure that everyone has enough of what God has provided to make it to tomorrow.

There’s a really anti-Judaistic way of hearing Jesus’ words when he says, “this is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.”  When we’re caught up in our tribal prejudices we can hear these words as a kind of replacement theology, as in, “God’s gift of manna to the Israelites is inferior to the gift of God in Christ Jesus that the church claims as its own.”  I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying at all.

Rather, I think Jesus is calling to mind the whole history we have been studying this summer.  The history of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery under Pharaoh to its slow, subtle re-adoption of empire values that brought them to the place where we will leave them this Sunday.  Solomon dedicated the temple, but is the last king to rule over a unified kingdom.  After his reign the nation falls apart until, generations later, they are taken once again into exile.  Living under Roman occupation, Jesus reminds the people that placing their hope in empire’s tools to defeat empire’s ways has never worked out well for them.  Jesus invites them into a mystery, one in which imperishable life comes only through perishable means.

Empire will not defeat empire, and wealth will not solve the problems of poverty.  The reign of God calls for life lived by a completely different set of values.  We hear them listed in the passage from Ephesians, where the author speaks of the “whole armor of God” as the “belt of truth” and the “breastplate of righteousness” and the “shield of faith,” but most importantly “as shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  If you’re troubled by the militaristic imagery, trying hearing it as a direct challenge to militarism.  The whole litany invites us to live our lives by a different set of values.  Where the world dresses for war, we are called to dress for peace.

The ancient Israelites were not the only ones to put their trust in empire.  Whether we look at the lives ruined by faith in the stock market, nations devastated by ethnic cleansing, or neighborhoods divided by wealth — mapped out by the haves and the have nots — we live in a world that expects us to put our trust in ourselves, and punishes those who don’t play the game of self-sufficiency well enough to win; the poor, the differently-abled, the undocumented.

Jesus invites us back into lives of radical, uncomfortable dependency.  Lives lived not for ourselves, but each other.  One day at a time, one meal at a time.  Bread without preservatives — fresh if eaten today, now; bread that will not wait until tomorrow to be eaten.

In Jesus, God is calling each one of us to lay aside our desire for self-sufficiency and to invest ourselves in one another.  “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks.  “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  Many who had followed Jesus up to this point were turned off.  “This teaching is difficult,” they responded.  “Who can accept it,” and they left him.  But Peter and the others remained, giving us the words we sing each time the Word of God is read in our assembly, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As we leave summer behind — and with it the stories of David, Saul and Solomon — we take with us the reminder that the pull to establish our legacies, to build our empires, is strong and is with us still.  As we move into the Season of Creation, we will be reminded of the price paid by the very earth for the kinds of empires in which we now live.  This day, as much as any era before us, we are challenged to reshape our lives with a radical reliance on God at the center.  It begins with the practicing of eating the bread laid out for us at this feast, daily bread, that moves us from unsustainable ways of living into life imperishable.  Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 5, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 1 — Whistleblowers”

Texts:  2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a and Psalm 51:1-12  •   Ephesians 4:1-16  •   John 6:24-35

I want to start with a difficult question this morning.  Are you ready?

Who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?

I don’t know.  Maybe it’s not that difficult of a question, but I want to be sure you heard the question I was trying to ask.  I didn’t ask, “who tells you when you’re wrong?” or “who’s always telling you that you’re wrong?”  I asked, “who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?”

What I’m asking is, who do you trust enough that you allow them to offer you correction?  Who gets to tell you the things about yourself that you’d rather not hear?  That you’d rather not know.

Who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?

I think most of us keep that list pretty short, and for good reason.  It’s a hard world we live in, and it takes hard work to establish the kind of self-confidence that allows each of us to go about the business of being ourselves.  If we allowed just anyone’s assessments of our work, of our families, of our parenting, of our relationships to count… well, many of us would have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, right?

We have names for the layers of self-protection we establish to shield ourselves from other people’s assessments.  We tell children they need to toughen up, develop a thicker skin.  As adults we organize ourselves into hierarchies, so that we know which people’s opinions count and whose opinions can be disregarded. This is all part of the process of establishing the divide between the “personal” and the “public.”

If you were here last week, then you heard part one of the story from 2 Samuel, the story of David and Bathsheba.  David, who while a younger man the scriptures took great pains to describe as unfailingly faithful — even toward those who were not faithful to him, has lost his integrity as he has gained power.  Being a king has replaced being a shepherd, and the longer David plays this power-drenched public role, the further away he is pulled from the overlooked, ruddy-faced boy who tended to his father’s flocks.  His role disconnects him from his soul.

At the end of last week’s sermon I invited you to pay attention to the places in your life where you feel yourself pulled to perform your “public” identity.  Knowing that it’s hard to observe yourself in the present moment, I asked you to try to remember to slow yourself down, to check in with yourself, and to ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?”  I asked you to notice what thoughts or feelings arose for you in response to that question of being yourself, and to consider writing those thoughts and feelings down.

Those inner responses to the question of what would happen if we were truly ourselves in any given situation are a kind of tally of the price of our integrity.  These inner responses speak to us simultaneously of the price we are willing to pay for our public personas and the price at which we will sell out our inner selves.

We see examples of this played out in public every day.  For the last nine months, the country has been served weekly updates in the child abuse scandal at Penn State University.  Like the story of David and Bathsheba, the story from Penn State features men of power, wealth and influence taking what they desired and doing whatever it took to cover up their misdeeds.  Like Uriah, the victims are men sent to the front lines of a terrible and violent battle. Like Bathsheba, the victims’ stories have been treated as the backdrop to the stories of the crimes of more famous, powerful men.

As we, the public, watch the drama unfold, it is the question of integrity that has troubled us the most.  We wonder, “how could a person do such a thing,” or “how could they have known this was happening and done nothing?”  It’s horrifying to us that any person with a conscience could have stood by and allowed a predator access to children.

I wonder about the messengers who procured Bathsheba for David.  Do you remember that detail from last week’s story?  David sees Bathsheba bathing from the rooftop of his palace and he makes inquires after her.  One of his courtiers responds, “is not this Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”  Then David sends messengers to bring Bathsheba to him, knowing she is a married woman, and knowing she cannot refuse her king.

But what were the messengers thinking?  I suppose they were divided between their roles as attendants to the king and their souls as people with their own consciences, their own convictions.  What answers might they have heard arising from their own hearts if they had bothered to ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?”

David’s messengers remind me of the grad assistant in the Penn State scandal — the relatively unknown man, the one who wasn’t making hundreds of thousands of dollars, but was simply working with and around men of great power and influence — who saw a child being harmed, but rather than reporting it to the police, kept the matter internal; instinctively, perhaps even unconsciously, protecting the interests of the powerful over the weak.

What would happen if the messengers, if the grad assistants, if middle and upper management, acted on the mandate of their souls instead of the dictates of their roles?  What would have happened if they were truly themselves in these situations?  What price would they pay?

 

The world watched something of the like take place about ten years ago, when Time magazine named three women its Persons of the YearSherron Watkins was the Enron vice president who sounded the alarm on that company’s improper accounting methods.  Coleen Rowley was the FBI staff attorney who brought to light the agency’s failure to investigate credible information on one of the September 11th co-conspirators.  Cynthia Cooper called out corporate giant WorldComm on cooking the books to conceal $3.8 billion in losses.  Each were whistleblowers on the unethical and negligent behavior of their corporate and governmental superiors.  They were women who spoke truth to power at great risk to themselves and their careers.

In an era defined by abuses of power and cover ups, these women’s actions earned them the title, “Persons of the Year.”  In a world of spin, we are all hungry for someone to tell it like it is.  The question, however, remains: who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?

When the prophet Nathan comes to confront David, he is a trusted advisor.  It was Nathan who’d brought a word from the LORD to David, when David planned to build a “house” for the ark of the covenant.  It was Nathan who shared God’s vision for an everlasting house with David.  Nathan was able to speak truth to power because in his role as prophet and advisor, he never forgot that his soul rested in the LORD, the God of Israel.

Still, when Nathan comes to confront David about his rapacious, dishonorable and ignoble conduct with Bathsheba, and his violence against Uriah, he tells a parable.  He tells the story of a wealthy man and a poor man.  The wealthy man had many flocks, but the poor man had only one little lamb which he loved like it was his own daughter.  Nathan reaches into the king’s heart and touches his covered up soul, the soul of a shepherd who still, somewhere, remembered what it meant to care for a thing and to love it though it was powerless and completely dependent.  He touched the soul of the king as it had existed before it had been scarred by the objectifications of war and plunder, where people’s lives are treated as spoils for the conquerors.

David hears the story of the wealthy man’s greed and violence and pronounces his judgement, “as the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Just as an aside, I want to comment on a translation thing here that I found interesting and amusing.  It’s an odd judgement that David passes.  First he says that the man deserves to die, then he says that the actual punishment will be a fourfold repayment.  Giving the death sentence for the theft of a lamb seems like overkill, but reducing the sentence from death to a 300% return on the loss seems arbitrary?  What gives?

Apparently, what the NRSV has translated as “the man who has done this deserves to die,” is literally rendered something like “this man is the son of death.”  Some Hebrew scholars suggest that “son of death” is a pejorative, as when we call someone a “son of a gun” or worse.  In which case, David essentially swears against the man, passes judgement on his character, and suggests that a penalty be paid.

That’s when Nathan hits him between the eyes.  “You are the man!”  And from there he pronounces God’s judgement on David and names the penalty that will be paid.  Because David has cut down Uriah and stolen from his household, God proclaims that the sword will never depart from David’s house and that his own wives shall be taken from him.  What David has done in private will be done to him in public.

Finally David is able to recognize how far he has strayed.  He is no longer the shepherd, but the sheep in need of rescue from his own self.  Whatever excuses, whatever rationalizations or justifications he’d made for his behavior, David can finally see with clear eyes the distance between his soul and his role.  The divide between his private behavior and his public persona.  In recognition of what he has done, David confesses, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Consider for a moment how desperately the world needs Nathans.  How grateful we are for Sherron Watkins, Coleen Rowley, and Cynthia Cooper for uncovering the dysfunction in our systems of commerce and governance.  How we wish someone had stepped in and spoken up at Penn State before some many childhoods were lost.  The world needs more Nathans, because the world is full of Davids and Bathshebas and Uriahs… and messengers.  The world is full of people with power, and victims of power, and — perhaps, most relevant for many of us — messengers, middle management, people just doing their jobs and keeping their heads down.  Looking the other way.  Completing the task, not questioning it.

A story like David and Bathsheba’s, Uriah and Nathan’s, has so many entry points for each of us.  Rarely are any of us just one character in this story.  We are victims of power left unchecked.  We are cogs in the machine.  We are authorities not to be questioned, by our children perhaps, or our students, or our patients, or our employees.  Hopefully, we are truth-tellers as well.

In the epistle to the Ephesians, the author recognizes that we each fulfill different roles in community, we are given different gifts for different ministries.  This diversity of gifts and variety of functions are meant, however, to serve a unity of purpose.  The author exhorts us to “speak the truth in love” and to grow up into Christ, the one in whom soul and role were ever united.  This passage from Ephesians concludes, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

It is a letter that speaks to us of the unity, of the integrity of the body — of our own bodies and our own lives, and of the body we inhabit with one another, which is the body of Christ.  In our worship each week we try to embody this with practices of confession and absolution that precede the meal we share together at this table, where we feast upon the bread of God that “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” which is not simply bread, but is in fact Christ Jesus, the undivided life of God, broken and distributed for the sake of the world.

Sisters and brothers, I don’t know who gets to tell you when you’re wrong.  If you share my luck, you are surrounded by friends and family who have learned how to call lovingly to you, to remind you of who you were when you were still young, still unscathed by the battles of life, who can shepherd you back to the sound of the genuine — that voice that resides inside yourself that is your soul, the place of God-created truth that lies at the center of your being.  If you cannot hear it from anyone else then, I pray, listen to that voice which is God calling you back to yourself and learn once again to confess all that separates you from yourself.

Whatever you have imagined would happen if you were truly yourself, the price of not being the self you were created to be is so much higher — for you and for those around you.  Your integrity and our health is inseparable, because we are inseparable.  We are one body, being built up in love.

Amen.

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