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Counter-plots and Counter-edicts

Psalm 107:1-6    
March 14, 2018
Counter-plots and Counter-edicts

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

    It is amazing how the tables can turn so quickly.  One moment, you are the king's right hand man, building gallows 8 stories tall to hang the most annoying man in all the land and now you are the one being hanging on the gallows.   In chapter 7 here, we enter into Esther’s second banquet but the book’s seventh banquet.  What happened on the seventh day of creation?  God rested and called the day holy.  What happens at the seventh banquet is a holy event unto itself—the people are about to witness and be brought into their salvation.  

    "Repeating his previous speech nearly verbatim, the king asks once again what Esther wants. What he may lack in imagination, he more than makes up for in persistence. This is an important repetition because a whole day has passed since he asked before. He has had a chance to sleep on his extravagant offer, and he is still repeating it.”  Is Queen Esther really worth half of his kingdom?  Should he really be giving away so much to a person he just recently met?  Apparently a good night’s sleep confirms the king’s offer—yes, the queen is worth it.  

    Esther get’s right down to business.  “‘If I have won your favour, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me…” Remember, the king has no idea that Esther is a Jew.  Quiet frankly, I don’t really think he has a clue that he even issued the edict that all the Jews should be killed (or maybe he doesn’t even care about their lives…).  Esther’s request confuses the king because he doesn’t understand how her life is being threaten or the lives of her people.  To the King, Esther is one of his own kind.  But we know that she is an imposter.  She has been hiding her identity. “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.”  Outsiders get sold, destroyed, killed, annihilated.  The king protects his people.  How could Esther say she and her people have been sold, will be destroyed, killed, and annihilated?  It makes no sense to the king, but makes perfect sense to the reader.  Esther unravels everything that Hamman has done.  Hamman used lies, deceits and bribes to get his way.  Esther tells the truth and reveals the evils that Hamman has planned and drugged the king into.  Carol Bechtel, a scholar who wrote a commentary on the book of Esther says: 

“[ Esther] is patient in implementing her plan of attack. She is brilliant in her analysis of her enemy’s methods. And finally, she is every bit his equal in her power to persuade. Esther’s character is so strong by the end of this chapter that we almost begin to feel sorry for Haman. But not quite. 
In the words of Jane Austen— another author famous for her strong female characters— Haman has ‘delighted us long enough’ (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 18). We are glad to see him go.”

    The king storms from the room. We are not told why by the narrator and we are left wondering did he leave because he is angry at the queen, angry at Hamman, is he trying to seek counsel or advice from someone else in his administration, is he trying to calm down, is he trying to avoid conflict or is he trying to find something to eat?  “As Adele Berlin points out, from a literary perspective, he must leave the room to set the stage for what happens next.”  This is truly a scene from a Hallmark Movie.  Pastor Diane said it best last week, “The story of Esther was made for TV.”  This sounds like something out of one of those cheesy Hallmark movies, only this is our Biblical narrative.  Hamman jumps into bed with Esther to beg for his life and the King walks in on them.  

    “Now it is Haman’s turn to plead for his life. Ironically, he chooses to plead not with his friend the king but with the woman he has so recklessly endangered, the one for whose cousin a fifty-cubit scaffolding stands waiting outside...And throughout this whole crazy affair with Hamman in her bed, Esther, wisely, says nothing at all.  You almost feel bad for Haman until you remember that he wanted to annihilated an entire group of people simply because one of them refused to stand in his presence.  

    "King Ahasuerus can now justify punishing Haman for treason—not the treason of murdering the king’s subjects (an act for which the king himself shares culpability) but the treason of usurping the king’s bed, a unbelievable accusation against a man who has managed to receive the king’s signet ring and has angled to wear the king’s clothes and ride the king’s horse. In the end, the man who attempted to kill a people for a crime they did not commit will himself die for a crime he did not commit.”  “The powerful signet ring King Ahasuerus has just taken from Haman’s hand, the ring that had been used literally to seal the fate of the Jews has now served instead to seal the fate of its user, Haman.”

    But here’s the thing.  Hamman is killed and the King acts like the work is done.  He put in a long day at the office, but he has never “granted the petition Esther so carefully crafted, the one he had promised three times. Mordecai and Esther are being heaped with rewards, but their lives are still in danger.”  And the king, in his normal moronic fashion doesn’t ask “How can you ask for more?” Or, “Why doubt that I would grant you this as well?” “Instead, his response is astounding feeble: “You may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked” (8: 8).  For anyone who might think the king has changed his ways, the narrator is clear—the King is still a moron who cares nothing more than his own pleasure and not about the the fate of his people.  And this is why we don’t want anymore kings.

    So what do we have?  We have a God who takes down tyrants from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.  Mary’s song in Luke 1 is nothing new—she was affirming what God has been doing throughout the centuries.  The final sentence of chapter 3 had read, “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” Here, however, rather than sitting down to drink with the king in isolation, Mordecai leaves the king to emerge from the palace to the street, where the city of Susa rings not with distress but with joy. He wears royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen. He has come a long way from the sackcloth of chapter 3 and the temporary king costume of chapter 6— he has royalty of his own now.”

    The story of Esther so resembles the story of our Lord.  From the cross, to the grave, to resurrection.  What does the story of Esther teach you about the trials you face.  We all have to go through hell just as Mordecai did; just as our Lord did.  And doing so is not God’s way of punishing us, but as a way God is present with us. We should not be afraid to stand up for the lives of others; when someone’s life is on the line, it is okay to wear sackcloth and ashes and enter the kings court even though the king doesn’t like sad people.  For God is faithful to God’s people and we will be redeemed, even if it looks like the powers of this world win.  God will outlive and outlast them all. We will come out on the other side better than when we started.  God looks after God’s own.  And we are God’s own.  The time is coming when we will witness our Lord walking this road to hell and back.  Even though we know the ending, we still need to be reminded of it.  We still need to hear hope in a hopeless situation.  Hope came to Esther and her people, but it was not an easy road that she or Mordecai took.  Hope came to our Lord even though the road to the cross and the grave was paved in blood, pain and tears.  Hope will come to you as well.  Do not be afraid; be brave.

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Snakes in a Church

Numbers 21:4-9    
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22    
Ephesians 2:1-10    
John 3:14-21    
4th Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018
Snakes in a Church
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    A few years ago, the movie titled, “Snakes on a Plane” came to theaters.  Trapped on a plane with venomous snakes seems like it would be my biggest fear.  I hate flying as it is.  I use to love it but after years of being patted down, crammed into sardine cans, turbulence on small commuter planes, and multiple bouts of air sickness, my love of flying has left me.  I almost need to have a Valium anymore to get on them so I don’t know why anyone would ever want to go see a movie about flying with venomous snakes.  Seems terrifying.  I would not be able to sleep and certainly would never be able to board a plane if I ever saw it.  
   For those who love snakes and keep them as pets, I understand they are all a part of God’s creation and provide a great benefit to the eco-system, but I still don’t like them.  Most of the time they leave humans alone and when they attack, it is because they feel threaten, unlike those mean wasps that come out of nowhere and will sting just because they can.  

    Snakes still scare me as I am sure they scare most of us. And our biblical narrative doesn't help my deposition of snakes.  You got the snake in the garden tempting Adam and Eve.  Snakes in the wilderness biting the Israelites because they complain too much.  And then you got this idea from John that the son of man needs to be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness.  They all give me me the heb-e-gee-is. 

   But in all seriousness, Jesus is quoting the passage from Numbers when Moses made a bronze serpent to save people who were attacked by snakes, which were sent by God because the people whined and complained.  “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die In the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.”  They spoke out against God, the God who brought them out of slavery.  And God had the snakes bite them and many died.  The people realized their error and begged for help, for salvation.  Moses turns to God and God says, “Make a serpent of bronze, put it upon a pole, and whenever a snake bites someone, look at the serpent of bronze and the person will live (paraphrase).”  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to bring salvation to the people from the deadly snakes, so must the son of man be lifted up to bring salvation to the people from the deadly snakes.

    For John, life before Jesus was condemnation.  The world was condemn.  There was no hope.  Now I know what it says in John 3:17 - “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world...” but understand that when your reality is condemnation, you don’t know any difference.  If you go through life with snakes biting you all the time, that wouldn’t be hell, that would be living.  We didn’t know any life as any better or different before God sent us Jesus.  Snakes were biting us all the time, we were dying, and there was no hope of ever being saved.  When Jesus came to the world, he did not allow this reality to continue but rather redeemed the world.  

    This passage from John really clues us into how God works.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God love everybody.  What does it say:  God loves the whole world.  God doesn’t just love you and me, God love my dog Maple and Louie, God loves the two Japanese maple trees in my front lawn, God loves the skunk who lives a few doors down, God loves the cats who use my driveway as a thoroughfare, God loves people on my street—even the ones who work on their big diesel trucks at all hours of the day and night. God loves this whole, beautiful, strange, ugly world.  And God isn’t compelled to love the world.  God is not under contract to do so but do so freely.  

    But remember, the world is more than just the neighborhood we have love.  The whole world means even the forbidden places that we wish did not exist.  Jesus will prove this point in the very next chapter  when he leaves Jerusalem and travels to the forbidden land of the Samaritan’s.  A place so hated and despised by the people that there were laws over how to avoid Samaria when traveling north.  God sent Jesus into the world to save the world through bringing the people into a relationship with God, even people who we thought were outside God's care--for God loves the whole world.  

    What places do you feel God has turned God’s back on?  Winchester Ave?  Downtown Martinsburg?  Charleston? DC?  The church’s role today is to remind people that God has not turned God’s back on these places, but that God freely loves the whole world.  And God wants to be in relationship with all of creation and God sent us his son to make it happen.  We don’t have to go through life as we once knew it, where snakes or whatever bites us and we died.  It is so much easier to stay hidden in the shadows because there, we can’t see how bloodied or ugly we have become.  The church needs to be there in the shadows, bringing the light of Christ and showing people that there is a better way to live.  

    Life doesn’t have to be a nightmare.  Snakes on a plane is a reality for so many people.  Trapped in an existence that means a certain, painful, hopeless death.  We hold the salvation of the world, in our space.  We bring it in week after week as a reminder of this very passage.  When we see that cross lifted up, we know that no matter what venomous snake might bite us, it doesn’t mean death.  We know we aren’t condemned.  We have seen the light and the light has exposed us.  We see how ugly we have become.  We see the bruises from all the sins we have committed.  But the gospel, this living and breathing word of God tells us that these bruises will heal, that the snakes will not over power us, that our God loves us and forgives us and wishes for us to live—to know life. 
   The church cannot sit by and idly wait on our Lord to return.  There are people and parts of this world, who do not know life anything better.  Their reality is being stuck on a plane with snakes with no hope of ever getting off.  The church has our Lord present.  In bread and wine, in holy words, in people clothed with Christ through baptism, the church is living body of Christ.  And if we won’t go, who will?  The church needs to speak to issues of justice, compassion, mercy, love, equality, etc. because that is what our Lord spoke to when he confronted the leaders of his days.  

    Where are we silent?  Where are speaking loudly?  Are we silent on justice, compassion, mercy, love equality?  Are we loud on things that have nothing to do with these areas?  At the end of the day, every one of us needs to be able to articulate one very simple fact about our God—God loves the whole world not because God has to do so but because God wants to be here and God wants to know you because God loves you.     

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Plots, Parades and Providence

Esther 5:1-6:14    
Psalm 84    
March 7, 2018
Plots, Parades and Providence
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

    The time has finally come.  Her THREE DAY fast has ended and she must now do what for what she has prayed for the strength to do.  She put on her royal robes, enter the king's hall, and she approached the king.  The King, sitting on his royal throne, doing whatever is that he does (which according to the narrator it is just stuffing his face with food and drink), accepts her.  He says, "‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.’" 

    At first, it seems as though she chickens out by asking the King and Haman - the one who wish to do harm to her people - to dinner.  But it was after this dinner that salvation was granted to her people. When else have we seen salvation given to the people after a meal?  Passover.  Holy Communion.  Don't you just feel like screaming, "Why don't we read this book more often in our church?!?!"
   The king immediately goes and gets Haman because Esther always pleases the king and the king never turns down a meal. He calls for Haman, saying, “bring Haman quickly, so that we do as Esther desires.”  “Literally, the Hebrew says, “so we may do the word of Esther.”  This is an ironic twist on a king who only three chapters before was terrified that women might not do the word of their husbands.  Vashti was banished for not coming when the king called, but now Esther has gotten away with coming when the king did not call.  The king who worried about women obeying their husbands is now obeying his wife, and ordering Haman to obey her as well.  
And to add irony to irony, Haman not only obeys a woman, but delights in being hosted by a Jew—a Jew passing as a Persian so splendidly that she puts the lie to all he said about her people’s disruptiveness.”

    But it only gets worse for Haman and the King.  The King is so infatuated with Esther that during this meal he asks her again, ‘What is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’ Esther says, ‘This is my petition and request: 8If I have won the king’s favor, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet that I will prepare for them, and then I will do as the king has said.’  “The King has reiterated his earlier promise, doubling everything he has said before.  On the surface, Esther appears to be repeating herself as well, issuing another invitation to another banquet.  But when her speech is carefully examine, it becomes clear that she has actually thrown in something new.  In essence she asks the king to sign a blank check:  if you are indeed agreeing to grant my petition, come again tomorrow, when you will find out what you have agreed to.  She even poses it as the favor she is doing for him.” 

    But is this all necessary?  Two banquets?  Really?  People lives are on the line and all they can do it eat?  These questions reflect more a modern’s person view of the story.  Think about what we know about the king.  He is a moron.  She is about to accuse one of the king’s highest official.  “Esther’s caution is appropriate to the situation’s gravity and the king’s volatility.” “Haman got his way with the king with lies, misstatements, and bribes.  Esther uses none of these.  Her banquet is no bribe, but a prelude to posing her request.  And her goal is not death, but life. She marshals every resource possible, including good looks and savvy royal psychology, in the hopes of saving her people.” So, yes, two banquets were necessary when dealing with King King Ahasuerus and Haman.

    Then things get interesting for Haman, right?  He thinks he is on cloud 9 after his meal with the king and queen.  He can do no wrong.  He has convinced a moron of a king to exterminate an entire race of people simply because one man would not respect his authority.  The queen throws him two banquets.  But Haman’s joy quickly turns as the guy who started it all is sitting at the king’s gate and he refuses to bow or acknowledge Haman’s authority.  Haman cannot get over the fact that Mordecai won’t stand, so his wife and friends pose an obvious solution for anyone who won’t stand for the GREAT HAMAN.

    “Mordecai should be hung not just high enough to do the job but eight stories high, so that everyone in the city can see...” With the current time table that Esther has laid out, Mordecai would not survive before she can throw the second banquet - que the Lord.       While God is not specifically mention as a character or doing this, most commentaries that I have read all agree that this could not have happened without some divine intervention.  A theme throughout the entire Bible “is the theme of reversal, of divine justice turning power upside down. This theme is so pervasive in the Bible, and so commonplace in Christian discourse, that its radical implications can sometimes be forgotten.”. God might not be a named character, but God is not absent.

    The night before Haman moves forward with hanging the Jew Mordecai 80 feet in the air, the king can’t sleep.  He is having some bad dreams.  He calls for his stewards to make him feel better and the way he feels better is to have them read all his success.  And his stewards read the story of when Mordecai prevent the assignation of the king by two of his eunuchs.  The king forgot how great of a event this was—Haman is not familiar with the story.  The king asks him, what should we do with such a great man.  Haman, full of himself, thinks the king is talking about him.  Haman says, For the man whom the king wishes to honor, 8let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. 9Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honour, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honour.” ’ 10Then the king said to Haman, ‘Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.’” Haman does what the king says, knowing full well that he can’t hang Mordecai in such grandiose ways.  Haman’s grip on power is slipping.  He has messed with the wrong people; with the wrong God.

    Haman thinks he has won.  He thinks he has the power.  But with great power, comes even greater responsibility, and he has blown it.  He has waged war on an innocent group of people.  He has bribed the king.  He has lied to the king.  All he is concerned about is taking down one man and he can’t see that he has taken himself down—God has taken him down.

     Tonight, we need to walk away with three important things to remember:
  • Be brave, but be smart.  Don’t use lies, misstatements, and bribes to win your case, even if the other party does.  You are better than that.  
  • God redeems those who fight on the side of the lowly.  God’s will reverse the powerful and give the power to the lowly.  This happened with Esther.  It happened with Mary.  It happens all the time and it is a sign of God’s presence even when God is not mentioned as a character.
  • Is there any such thing as coincidences?   “Esther’s seemingly impossible task has been rendered easier and easier by all these events... It seems Esther has had some help. But what sort of help was it? ...Haman’s own indomitable presumptuousness has certainly come to Esther’s assistance...but all of these together still cannot account for everything that happened, particularly the fortuitous timing of the king’s insomnia, the selection of bedtime stories, and his sudden awareness of the unpaid debt to Mordecai. In a much magnified and telescoped way, things just worked themselves out. The planets lined up just right. Or God was at work behind the scene”—Rule 39:  There is no such thing as a coincidence.
You think God isn’t present?  You think God doesn’t want to be with us, with you?  Think again.  God is present in these very challenging and difficult times, walking with you, nudging you, delivering you—just like God was with Esther.  But her story is not done.  Haman’s edict still stands. Haman still holds the office as “one of the king’s most noble officials” (6: 9). The Jews are still condemned. The king has not heard Esther’s petition.  The story is not done.  God is not done.  Esther’s story is not over and neither is yours.  
 In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Remembering Resurrection

Exodus 20:1-17    
Psalm 19    
1 Corinthians 1:18-25    
John 2:13-22    
3rd Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2018
Remembering Resurrection
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    At this point in the lectionary, we are going to leave Mark for a few weeks and enter into John.  To be able to properly talk about John 3:1-17 (our reading next week), you need to have heard what we read today in John 2.  So, with that said, we are going to put a bookmark in John's gospel this week and wait till next week to talk about these two pericopes as a whole.  Today, we are going to continue looking at the message of the cross; continuing the theme we have been discussing for the past couple of Sundays.  And to do this, we are going to look at 1 Corinthians - the passage commonly known as the foolishness of the cross.

    It is an interesting phrase, especially when you read it in light of what we heard last week in Mark 8 - "those who want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me."  
Jesus tells us to take up the cross, but the cross is foolish? To understand Paul's phrasing, we really need to look at his entire narrative.  Notice that the cross is not the only foolish thing that Paul will discuss in this letter; The way the Corinthians are acting is very foolish.  They are one bickering, acting greedy, overeating, social-class-loving, messed up congregation. How do you address a congregation like the one in Corinth?  Well, for Paul, you talk about foolishness but foolishness from the perspective of God.  "The gospel does not operate according to the wisdom of the world. The wisdom of the world leads to division, hierarchies in social order, and privileges bestowed on a few."  They are acting like the rest of the world, but is that what they are suppose to be doing?

    Most of this letter is really not about doctrinal issues but is rather about the Corinthians failing to love one another (thus the need for 1 Corinthians 13:1-13).  Social and class divisions are evident in the congregation. Though they were baptized into a creed of neither slave nor free, the believers are struggling with what it means to live in community with those who are beneath them on the social ladder. For example, Paul has to tell the “haves” to wait for the “have-nots” at the Lord’s table and, not just to wait, but to welcome them (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). He also spends time in his letter educating the congregation as to how filing lawsuits against one another instead of settling their disputes among themselves creates a lot of problems(1 Corinthians 6:1-11) and how consuming food sacrifice to false idols in the local temple cause a spiritual crisis for some of their brothers and sisters (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) among other things.  These are all issues that are creating divisions in the community, and they are all matters related to the exercise of social privilege.
   Before Paul can engage the church on these matters of division, he first must remind the believers of the topsy-turvy nature of the cross. "God chose the most shameful thing in the world, because the values with which the world operates -- where some have privilege and status at the expense of others -- look nothing like God’s reign."

    And God's reign is nothing like the reigns of rulers of this world.  God's reign in many ways makes no sense to human wisdom, thought, or reason.  Our God reigns through humiliation, pain and death - Our God's throne is best seen in the cross that Jesus bore—the world calls this foolishness.  And this word foolishness is really too nice of a word.  The greek word is mōria (Root: μωρία) which sounds a lot like moron or moronic because this is where we get the english word moron/moronic.  This means that God’s wisdom is moronic. “God deliberately chose the most scandalous means possible to bring about the world’s salvation—a way that the wisest people in the world would frown upon and the elite would be ashamed to accept. The most knowledgeable in Corinth are using their so-called knowledge and wisdom to alienate and, from Paul’s perspective, to destroy their brother or sister in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)."  God's behavior might moronic by worldly standards, but God’s ways do not alienate and destroy us; they are the means by which we know salvation.  

    The congregation in Corinth is literally being torn a part by the world's social standards and values. Paul turns the worlds social standards and values around and says those are foolish—those are moronic.  To live how the world tells you how to live means you are the real moron.  "Paul insists that God has deliberately debunked the world’s system in the cross."

    "But wait. The Corinthians have believed in the scandal of the cross. Why is Paul reminding them of what they have already accepted?  The problem is that the scandal of God’s wisdom has not been translated into their daily lives. It is one thing to say that we are theologian of the cross, it is another to act like it. God, in God’s wisdom, chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise. To Paul, that does not just mean the cross."

    In the very next paragraph (verses 26-30), Paul clarifies his vision:  

26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 
27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,

That is to say, God continues to work through weak-minded individuals like myself to spread the gospel.  If God can use a sinner like me, imagine Howard God will use you in the spreading of the gospel.  And if God can use a messed up congregation like Corinth to lift up the faithful, feed and nourish them with the sacraments and the word of God, and spread the good news; God can use St. John's to do the same.  And we can't get stuck in the way that the world does things.  The church is not a business.  
The church is the holy gathering of people, our leader is a man who was scorn by the world, and we do things that make absolutely no sense to the rest of the world—I mean we create a budget based off our needs and not what we project income will come in and we don’t even call it a budget but a faith-spending-plan.  In effect, by highlighting the topsy-turvy nature of the wisdom of God, Paul is saying to the church: “Why are you continuing to operate by the wisdom of the world? All that you have and are -- your very existence -- comes from God!”   We believe in a God who is not limited by our weakness, social position, wisdom, or strength. In fact, God’s love calls into question how the world creates hierarchies where some thrive and others are cast aside.  If we come from God, we need to look to God for wisdom, not the world."  

    The cross will lead us in the direction we need to go.  The cross will lead us to where we need to be. Though we may struggle to see the pathway or to gain any sense of direction, Paul reminds us that God in God’s wisdom has placed the cross before us as a guide.  And if we follow the cross, it will lead us to our death, but with death comes resurrection.  Remember the cross.  Remember resurrection.  

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Such a Time as This

Esther 4    
Psalm 88  
February 28, 2018
Such a Time as This
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

    Some of you might not know this but Martin Luther did not like the book of Esther.  He argued that it should not be included in the Biblical canon just like he argued that James and Revelation should be left out as well.  Anyone want to harbor a guess as to why?  What character is missing?  God.  God is perceived as being present but God is never named.  God's actions are never identified.  It is really a story about Esther and Mordecai.  Luther had some issues with that, but he lost the argument because Esther is such a good story that every Christian should hear and explore.  

    Early Christians loved reading book of Esther because of its parallels to their own story of Jesus.  Before we had the gospels, we had Hebrew Bible. And then we had bishops and pastors who wrote about how the stories in the Hebrew Bible which they saw as a for-telling of Jesus's coming, life, death and resurrection.  One such person is Bishop Clement. Bishop Clement wrote:

Many kings and princes, in times of pestilence, when they had been instructed by an oracle, have given themselves up to death, in order that by their own blood they might deliver their fellow-citizens [from destruction]. Many have gone forth from their own cities, that so sedition might be brought to an end within them...Many women also, being strengthened by the grace of God, have performed numerous manly exploits. Esther ... being perfect in faith, exposed herself to no less danger, in order to deliver the twelve tribes of Israel from impending destruction. For with fasting and humiliation she entreated the everlasting God, who sees all things; and He, perceiving the humility of her spirit, delivered the people for whose sake she had encountered peril.

This is why Luther lost the argument and the book of Esther stayed in the Bible.  Unfortunately, we still tend to avoid this book today because its lack of God language.  We only have one opportunity to read part of it in worship during year B sometime around September 25-October 1.  And we only hear a few verses of chapter 7 and chapter 9 - 11 verses in total. A book that once held such reverence in the church, is now hardly known by Christians today.

     This is why we are reading it, and we have got to a great part in the book of Esther.  Chapter 4 is the pinnacle of the story.  Will Esther act? Or will she be scared?  What will she do.  Well for starters, she ignores her uncle's grief.  Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth...When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. It appears the royal life has gotten the best of her.  Her people have been condemned to death.  The narrator reports that "in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes."  And Esther seems to be oblivious to it all.  I don't know whether I should be amazed or angry.  Amazed that she could hide herself from the perils of the people, or angry that she has forgotten from where she has come.  

    Yet again, more stupid laws imposed by the king.  no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. Apparently he doesn’t like to see sad people... if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I mean, come on...is he really that busy of a guy that he can't meet with the love of his life or any of his subjects.  He delegates all his work to his aids and will do whatever they tell him to do. Like we talked about last week, this King is moron.  
And Esther, it appears at first, is all to comfortable in her new life as a queen.  But she is only queen because of her beauty and because she has hidden her identity as a jew.  Imagine if she would have been more vocal about her past, would the king have chosen her? Maybe.  But that is not the point here. 

    Mordecai says to Esther, "...if you really do remain silent in such a time as this, relief and deliverance will arise for the jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.  And who knows?  Perhaps it is just such an occasion as this that you have attained the royal estate!” In such a time as this.  I love that.  It is with these words that Mordecai awakened Esther to her responsibilities as a queen.  She might have been made a queen because of her beauty, but she will become a queen by standing up for her people.  She cannot wait in the hopes that someone else will save her people - she must be their savior.

    Luther once said in a totally unrelated quote to Esther:  You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.  I do think that works here.  Esther is responsible for the fate of her people.  Only she can save them.  Mordecai's words moved Esther but she didn't storm into the King's inner court - she tells Mordecai to plan a fast - a THREE DAY fast.  What also took three days?  At this point I the story, Esther takes charge, not Mordecai. She is now making the calls. "The powerless has become the powerful."  Esther is no longer a beauty queen but a real queen, and she knows she cannot even be remotely successful in her endeavor if she does not first fast and pray.

    How many of us, when a major task needs to be done, fast and pray?  Or at least prayed.  When do you pray?  Before you go into a meeting at work, do you pray?  Or if you are lucky enough to be retired, when do you pray?  The other night I was meeting with a confirmand and we were talking about the Lord's prayer.  And I shared the story of when Philip Melanchthon was very ill; near death.  Martin Luther and Justus Jonas go and see Melanchthon.  Jonas recalled later about Luther's prayer, how “he prayed for such things with such reverence—as befits God—and with such hope and faith that he seemed to be holding a conversation with a father or a friend...and throughout the prayer he interjected psalm , so that he was quite certain that everything for which he prayed would come about.” Melanchthon would later recover and Luther and Jonas were convinced that was because of prayer.

    But how do we deal when prayers are not answered or the situation does not turn in our favor.  Esther could be killed for walking into the king's court.  People pray all the time and yet bad things happen all the time to good people.  For those who claim that Luther’s pray theology is devoid of theodicy, remember that Martin Luther and his wife Katherine Von Bora lost an infant daughter named Elizabeth just a few months after she was born.  They also lost another daughter, Magdalena, at the age of 13.  She died in her father's arms.  In one of the Table Talks recorded by one of his students, they recorded Luther's prayer: 

"I love her a lot, but good God, if your will is to take her, I will give her to you with great pleasure. Then, addressing her: My little Magdalena, my little girl, soon you will not be with me, will you be happy without your father? The tired child tenderly and softly answered: Yes, dear father, as God wants."

I myself, have prayed for so many and to no avail.  I have buried too many of my friends.  Losing Lily, my friend's little girl, just a few weeks ago stills weighs heavy on my mind.  So what then, is the purpose of prayer?  Is it a vessel to which we only ask for miracles and if no miracle happens, do we assume we didn't pray hard enough; didn't do the right things?  Or is prayer something more?

    To make prayer a works goes against article 4 of the Augsburg Confession regarding justification.  A prayer is not a work we do but is rather, a way we can be in relationship with God.  I do not believe the need for prayer and fast by Esther was her way of ensuring success but was rather, her way of sharing with God all that was on her mind.  And there was a lot on her mind. The lives of so many depended on her being brave.
   What is on your mind?  What is weighing you down.  You have to make time with your God.  God wants to know what is bothering you, what you are worried about, what you are afraid of, what you are excited about.  For it is such a time as this that you were born to change the world, change the lives of those around you.  Maybe you are in a Esther situation where hundreds of thousands of lives depend on you being brave, or maybe it is only one life that depends you.  Regardless, take time to pray and never assume that your prayers are not heard by God.  

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Good News???

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16    
Psalm 22:23-31    
Romans 4:13-25     
Mark 8:31-38    
2nd Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018

Good News???

In a world that is built on flash and grabbing our attention, we are constantly evolving to figure out how to grab people's attention before the competition does. Marketing is a lucrative field especially if you are creative and have a way with words. Now I confess to not having a business background and not being an authority on this, but as leaders in the church, much is brought to our attention about how we need to be better marketers. I cringe at the overlap of business terminology and principles with the church but I admit there are some helpful things that can be taken from the field to share our faith and to just be faithful stewards of what's been entrusted to us. 

So back to marketing. There are some very important parts of marketing in the use of creativity and words. One of the first obviously is speed. Can you convey with words or even pictures what the product is as quickly as possible. Second, you need to convey why it has meaning to the audience. What will having this product or experience do for me? And third, how is that meaning-making that the product is going to do, going to make the consumer feel? Are they going to feel like they are beloved and accepted by everyone? Are they going to feel more comfortable than they've ever felt before? (pause)

As I tell you that I am not the most comfortable with marketing and business principles combined with the church, I am point blank going to say that Jesus might have made THE WORST marketer when trying to get people to be followers by today's marketing standards. We heard him last week following after John proclaiming the "good news of God" and saying "the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." And then this week we hear his first prediction of his death (fast: great suffering and rejection by one's own religious leaders included, all sales final) following Peter's great confession of him as the Messiah. And why stop there?! Let's continue with how you can be involved too! If you want to become my followers, deny yourself and take up your cross. Besides, if you want to save your life, you're going to lose it. Good news???!! How is any of this good news? This sounds awful. Rejection-by the people I would normally look up to. Denying myself- not putting me and what I want first. Taking up my cross. My cross. You mean the worst torturous death device Rome had at the time. Even now as we sit here professing we are his, if you aren't sitting here having some second thoughts, I am either not so sure you're human or you have already been through things that no one wants to go through and God has brought you to the other side with a new understanding of what life is really all about. If it's the later. Thanks be to God and make sure you share those faith stories whenever you feel able too. You never know who needs to hear how God has worked. (Pause)

I think the number one reason I say that Jesus was the worst marketer was because he told the truth about what the world would do if you sign on for his program. He didn't wrap it up in glitter or twist the words or make you think following him was something that it wasn't. God bless marketers but, their job is to sell something and yes they have to be "truthful" about it, no false advertising, but they to need sell us something even if we don't want it to make a living for themselves. Telling the truth point blank isn't necessarily the name of the game.

Whew. So where is the good news in all of this? Can it be marketed to a discerning audience if we do it right? And not just twist the words but honestly share the joy and sorrows of this rejection by the powers that be, the denial of self, and the taking up of one's cross? The answer obviously is yes as we sit here... but perhaps not a definitive boom, yes ma'am. And what I mean by all of that is this. For some of us, there is a definitive moment where we get it and our focus snaps right into being 100% all in okay with rejection, denying ourselves as first priority, and being willing to give it all for our faith. I'm going to say about 90% of us are the other that continue to daily struggle with this "good news." I haven't said anything about the benefits of following Jesus notice, and that's because I want to be honest that I think this all is a process. Even as a leader of the church, I am constantly in a process of back and forth with God about fighting those forces that keep me wanting to do anything but deny myself and give it all even my life for the sake of the gospel. (Pause)

In the midst of all of this difficult reality and despite his less than stellar 2018 marketing portfolio by the world's standards, it does seem to me that Jesus' kingdom portfolio is out of this world, pun intended. Laying aside the benefits of course of eventual perfection and life everlasting, the benefits of this good news begin, my discerning friends, with the knowledge that despite the difficulties that come with this following, we are never alone, deserted, or forgotten by God. That seems like a no brainer but that good news is one of the gifts of our theology as Lutherans that other Christians might not be so quick to say. God is with us not only in the good times but in the darkest and worst of times as well, which definitely covers rejection, denial, and cross-bearing. The other benefit of this good news is when you get to these points of rejection and denial and possibly even death for his sake, this is the reality of living life in the most abundant ways that God intended for us to experience it in the first place. No just for you, but for the sake of others as well. Perhaps you have caught glimpses of this. I hope you have because doing for others who can't give back or standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, is the most giving experience I have ever received in my life. (End)

What we are here celebrating today isn't something the world really wants or perhaps we can say, it doesn't know this IS what it really wants. We come here to receive good news of accompaniment and empowerment amongst life's greatest obstacles all for the sake of love. Love that is so strong it can handle all the negativity and twistedness we hurl at it and it still fights for abundance and grace for each and every one of us. We don't deserve it. We might even be on the fence whether we can really buy in to the program and yet, it's always there. It's good news that is hard to package because it's honest and true unlike what we are trying to be sold every day on the market. (Pause) Jesus may not be the best marketer in today's economy folks, but I think I'm okay with going with the underdog on this sale. Amen. 

Wednesdays in Lent - Power, Personnel and Pogroms

Esther 2:19-3:15    
Psalm 77    
St. John’s Lutheran Church
February 21, 2018
Power, Personnel and Pogroms
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

    Out of the 66 books in the Protestant Bible, 38 of those books are known by the names of men, "either men who appear in them, men whose speeches are contained in them, men to whom tradition attributes their authorship, or men to whom they are addressed."  Only two books in the biblical canon bear a woman's name--Ruth and Esther.  Had Lent been longer, we would have looked at both of these books, but alas, this can only be a 5 week series.  

    Only a small percentage of named characters in the Bible are women.  Some of the most memorable women such as the Levite's concubine, Syrophoenician woman, and the woman at the well are all nameless women.  The fate for many female characters in the Bible is not pretty but end either in rape, forced marriage, abandoned, or even death.  "They must prove their worth by bearing sons.  They must survive by their wits and by their tenacity."  Yet, it is stories of courageous women that stand out.  
"Stories of biblical women whose efforts are met by divine cooperation and community affirmation inspire hope for contemporary women, hope that even when women's lives are constrained...,in the end their efforts to persist will pay off in the realization of a better world for both women and men."

    The book of Esther does that.  It is why Esther's story is so important.  Esther didn't seek out power, rather the powers that be sought her out.  She did not want lead a revolution, but the revolution sought her out to be their leader and spokesperson for the King.  She was a shy woman, but a strong woman and because she was brave, many people were spared from a massive genocide.  Esther proves to all of us that she is more than just a pretty face, she is a formidable woman who can take down powerful, unjust figures.  

    "The book of Esther begins by showing the great machinery of the Persian imperial system that serves to pleasure its ruler.  Extravagant and lengthy drinking parties in luxury-laden settings emphasizes the king’s opulence and benevolence.  A Group of royal henchmen rush to ensure the king's happiness, while both the legal system and the postal system serve his direct benefit."  But all is not right in the world of King Ahasuerus.  It started with Queen Vashti refusing to come at the King's command.  It continued once she was deposed as queen and then two foreigners, Esther and Mordecai infiltrate the Royal Haram.  

    Chapter 2 is very good for Esther and Mordecai.  Esther is crowned queen because of her beauty.  Mordecai uncovers a plot by two of the King's Eunuchs.  He foils their plans and wins the favor of the king.  However, King Ahasuerus is a little bit of a pawn.  He is not a leader but rather delegates all his work to aids and will do whatever his aids tell him to do.  The 2nd book of Chronicles tells us how awful the kings of Israel got and it was their horrible leadership that led the people into exile.  
It sounds very much to me that King Ahasuerus is not that much different from the Jewish Kings.  King Ahasuerus only cares about himself and his aids will do whatever it takes to please the king.  The king makes up stupid laws such as in Esther 1 after his queen refused to come and put on a show for his buddies - (verse 22): he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.  

And in chapter 3, after Haman (another foreigner) was promoted, the king says everyone has to bow down to him.  Its a stupid law. And Mordecai refuse to comply.  Now, Mordecai is not bound by some law to only bow down to God because as my commentary points out, "most devout Israelites paid such homage to humans."  Mordecai's refusal to bow is most likely rooted in bad ancestral blood or over anger that Mordecai was passed over for the promotion. We are not told why probably because the narrator doesn't want to detract from what is happening. Notice the parallels between Mordecai's refusal and Queen Vashti's.  Their reasons for not doing what they were commanded are veiled by the narrator and "just as Vashti's refusal resulted in rage, deliberation, and an edict against all the women in the land, Mordecai's refusal results in rage, deliberation, and an edict against all jews of the land." 

    Where King Ahasuerus might just be a very powerful pawn, Haman is the devious character.  He is evil.  Instead of punishing Mordecai for his disobedience, he punishes all the Jews with death.  Notice how this edict, official in nature, can hardly disguise the horror -  "orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.."   It seems that Haman believes everyone in the kingdom, on a single day everyone will turn to their jewish neighbors and kill them simply because the King has said so.  Haman doesn't expect the Jews to protect themselves or their neighbors to think twice about the edict.  Haman is so full of himself.  The king is moron.  They sit and drink while the kingdom is thrown into confusion and utter chaos.

    The prophet Jeremiah beautifully summarizes what has happened here - "Why does the way of the guilty prosper?  Why do all who are treacherous thrive?"  We read this story and think, “Oh this could never happen” but it did.  A mad-man sought and killed millions of people because of their faith, ethnicity.  And this kind of behavior happens still today.  Genocide is not a thing of the past and what allows genocide to happen is for nations and people to turn a blind eye to the massacre that is taking place.  Haman thinks he has won this battle.  He knows his power and influence is much greater with King Ahasuerus than with Mordecai.  He assumes he has this victory in the bag and everyone will see how powerful he is and they will respect him.  But Haman doesn't realize his power and influence can only go so far.  He doesn't realize that the love of King Ahasuerus' life is a jew - nobody does though.  Remember, she changed her named from Hadassah to Esther.  But while Esther might have the king's pleasure, will she be brave enough to use it?  She could go on living in the lap of luxury and nobody would be the wiser, but can she stand by and watch her people be slaughtered?  Will she be brave?  Will she plead her case to the king?  Or is the prophet Jeremiah correct?  Will the guilty prosper?  Will the treacherous thrive?  

    This coming Sunday, Jesus will challenge all those following him by saying, "Those who want become my followers, let them deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me."  Do we need more martyrs? Do we need more people killed for their faith?  Even Peter denied knowing our Lord.  The difficult part of being a Christian is learning when one needs to pick up a cross and when one needs to back down.  It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer that once said, “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  When do we stand up to ruthless king and when do we back down?  As someone who avoids conflict at every level in life, I am probably not the best person to answer this question.  I am terrified of situations like Esther and Mordecai are in. I worry every day about how my actions and words might not only affect me, but my family as well.  What if I say some thing, or do something that gets me fired.  How would that hurt my family, my wife, my son?  Or more importantly, how would me not speaking up hurt my family, my wife, my son?  We will all face these situations.  When is enough, enough?  When is it time to take up our cross?  

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Lead On, Jesus

Genesis 9:8-17    
Psalm 25:1-10    
1 Peter 3:18-22     
Mark 1:9-15    
1st Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018
Lead On, Jesus.
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    When reading the Bible, what is not said is just as important as to what is said.  Matthew and Luke have very detailed accounts for the temptation of Jesus.  Mark leaves us all guessing as to what the temptation of Jesus looked like.  Why?  Probably because it is not relevant and that is important.  Mark is on a mission and doesn’t have time to get bogged down in details.  The fine details do not always matters to Mark. It what is said is all that matters.  So, what does matter to Mark?  Looking at the the text, what matters is:
  • That Jesus was baptized.  
  • That immediately after his baptism, Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, 
  • was there for 40 days, 
  • was tempted by Satan, 
  • was with terrifying/dangerous wild beasts, 
  • and was then waited on by angels.  
That is all that matters.            

    This temptation is rough on Jesus but it doesn’t thwart Jesus’ mission.  It doesn’t deter his desire to do what he was sent to do.  As soon as he comes out of the wilderness, he does what we have been talking about for the past month and a half - “The time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” The man has been to hell and back, but that doesn’t stop him.  That’s the kind of savior we have.  The work is hard, but he won’t stop.  Jesus gets right back up and picks up where John has left off because the world needs to hear about the kingdom of God.

    This kingdom of God is important for Mark.  Mark mentions the Kingdom of God 14 times throughout his gospel.  This kingdom of God is not a place, though, but a power.  It is God’s dynamic potency that will put right all that is wrong with the world.  This eschatological kingdom, invading time and space, is active in Jesus himself. God has ruled. In Jesus that rule is mysteriously irrupting. The resurrection, the dawn of a new age, warrants that God will rule. And this all came about the day our Lord was baptized and then immediately drove into the wilderness by the Spirit.

    We have to understand that the temptation of Jesus is so much more than a job interview.  God wasn’t testing Jesus to make sure he was strong enough for the job, cunning enough to stand up to the religious leaders hell-bent on taking him down, or brave enough to face death.  The temptation of Jesus is a way that God is bring about the kingdom of God.  For example, let’s look at the wild beast that Mark mentions.  It is not a beast that was once wild.  They are not domesticated animals.  
We translate this Greek word as two words, wild beast, but in the Greek, it is just one word (Transliterated:) thēriōn/θηρίον.  Greek Dictionaries translate the word as meaning an animal 2) a wild animal, wild beast, beast 3) a brutal, bestial man, savage, ferocious.  (The book of Revelation uses this word the most.) These beasts are not like your neighborhood dog or even you average black bear.  These are terrifying creatures that could kill anyone, yet they are tamed/confronted by our Lord.  

    Think Daniel in the Lions den scary.  Just as God calmed the wild beasts for Daniel, Jesus calmed his wild beasts.  Theologically speaking then, in the temptation narrative in Mark, Jesus began to confront the brokenness of the world in the wilderness.  It started with wild beast but it won’t stop here.  Our Lord is not afraid to confront anyone or anything—and Jesus will not make compromises with anyone; Satan included.  

    What needs confronting in your life this day?  Do you feel overwhelmed?  Do you feel like there is no way out?  Our Lord has been there.  Our Lord knows the way out.  There is nothing that our Lord is scared to confront, not even the cross.  What do you want our Lord to confront this day?  Tell it to our Lord.  Do not be afraid to tell our Lord what is terrifying you this day.  

    You know, God confronted evil in Parkland, FL.  I have seen this thing going around (and have heard it said for many years) that asks God why God would allow so much violence in schools and God’s response is that God is not allowed in schools.  That statement is a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross statement.  Theologians of glory say that we must appease God or bad things will continue to happen to us and to our children.  But what does our gospel teach us?  What did we learn last week in the transfiguration.  God isn’t stuck on a mountain but our Lord came down off that mountain and marched right on into Jerusalem to face the the cross.  What did we hear today in Mark 1? God goes into the wilderness.  Our Lord is driven by the spirit into the wilderness, confronts and tames the wild beast.

     A theologian of the cross would say that God is everywhere, especially in those those very difficult and deadly times.  Our God is in best known in the suffering of the cross, not just in the glorified moments.  God was not absent in Parkland, FL.  Our God could be seen in the teachers protecting their students; our God could be seen in the police and FBI officers running into a building where there was an active shooter present; our God could be seen in the doctors, nurses, EMTs, Paramedics, Firefighters as they attempted to save lives of those shot; Our God could be and will be seen in the tears of parents who lost children at the hands of evil.  Our God is best known in the cross, in the suffering and you can’t keep God out of our world or out of our schools, out of our work places, out of our churches.  Our God goes where God needs to be and if God needs to be in a school, God will find a way to be there.  God always goes to where we are suffering and promises that death, humiliation, and pain will not win.  

    Satan will not win whatever battle he is ragging against you or this world.  Christ defeated him once and he will continue to do so again.  Under the Spirit’s protection, backing, aegis—Jesus stands at the center of God’s in-breaking kingdom as both beneficiary (at his baptism) and wrestler (at his temptation).  Satan tried and failed to thwart God’s kingdom by having John arrested.  God had Jesus take over where John left off.  Satan tried and failed to thwart God’s kingdom in the temptation of our Lord.  Our Lord is more cunning than Satan.  Satan tried and failed to thwart God’s kingdom by handing our Lord over to the cross.  But our God would not let Satan have the last word.  Our God would not let death win.  If God can do this for our Lord, what is stopping our God from doing the same in your life?

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Love and Death

Isaiah 58:1-12    
Psalm 51    
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10     
John 8:1-11    
Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018
Love and Death
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    Some context to John 8.  In John 7, there is a lot of divisions forming among those in authority and the crowd.  Jesus’ words are dividing the people and infuriating the temple leaders. Nicodemus, one of the temple leaders, who came to Jesus way back in chapter 3 after Jesus over turned the tables in the temple (and we got that wonderful line from John 3:16), defends Jesus to the temple leaders.  Nicodemus says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  The leaders respond, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”  Nicodemus is taking the stance that they should hear Jesus out before they outright condemn him.  The leaders on the other hand have already tried and convicted him before they ever hear his side of the story.  And now, they going to trap him and turn the crowd against him.  

    Then we go into chapter 8 - the woman caught in adultery.  This story is plagued with problems both socially and ethically from the start.  “What was the real motivation for the action of the scribes and Pharisees here? Was it a real concern for the Mosaic Law? Probably not, since the statement is made (8:6) that this is to “test” him, in order that they might have grounds to accuse him.”

    And what about the man who was caught in the act of adultery as well.  “It is interesting in light of this to note that the accusers themselves misrepresented the Law. The Law states that in the case of adultery, both the man and woman must be put to death (Lev 20:10, Deut 22:22). But the Law as quoted by the scribes and Pharisees said, “Moses commanded us to stone such women.” Why was reference to the adulterer omitted? Perhaps because one of their own had agreed to trap the woman so that the controversy with Jesus could be provoked. (I mean how else could they have caught this woman so conveniently?)”  They laid a trap for Jesus by singling out a vulnerable woman.  They put her life on the line to prove a point, to turn the crowd against Jesus so that they can regain their power and popularity.  But our Lord is a bit more cunning than they ever could have realized.  

    Jesus’ response took the accusers by surprise.  Those who are without sin, cast the first stone.  But that isn’t really the strange part of the text.   What did he write with his finger? We are not told what he writes probably because it is not important but why mention it at all. Checking with a few commentaries, one commentator said, “Probably because the act of writing itself was regarded as a symbolic act. In Exod 31:19, the first set of tablets were inscribed by the finger of God. The first time Jesus stooped to write, it is specifically mentioned that he wrote with his finger (8:6). This may well constitute a symbolic allusion to the person of Messiah: he writes with the same authority as God, because he is God.

    And what does Jesus do with that authority?  He forgives the woman.  He offers her a second chance at life.  Jesus says, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’  How do the temple leaders use their authority?  They play Russian-roulette with a vulnerable woman.  ”How was Jesus different from the other religious leaders of his time? I think it was because of his capacity to be compassionately present to all sorts of people and to all kinds of situations.”
   So, how do we speak compassionately to everyone, even those who commit such grave sin? May I suggest we take today’s events as an example to live by. Today, theses ashes crossed on our forehead remind us that we are mortal creatures.  It means that we will all face death and there is nothing we can do to change that very fact.  That is the law - Genesis 3:19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’  But the gospel of this day is that those ashes will wash off, they are not permanent. That cross underneath of those ashes (that you might not always be able to see) means life, and you are given a second chance.  That cross cannot be washed way with a little soap and water.  That cross can withstand the test of time, it can even withstand your body turning back to dust.  That is how we live as Christians. We do not stand in line to condemn it stand in line to love. 

    That is what Lent is all about, my brothers and sisters.  Exploring what it means to have a savior so loving, so graceful, so humble that he would come down to the world, stand in front of those wanting to stone you and say, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her, at him." If you wish to be forgiven, then forgive. 

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Bleaching Jesus

2 Kings 2:1-12    
Psalm 50:1-6    
2 Corinthians 4:3-6     
Mark 9:2-9    
Transfiguration of our Lord
February 11, 2018
Bleaching Jesus
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    "And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them."  These words sound like they should be in a Tide Ad, right?  You all remember those ads from Last week in the Super bowl. these were the most memorable and funniest commercials of the whole game.  The commercials were weird, yet told a story of clean shirts and pants.

    This story from Mark 9 is a little strange and a little funny as well.  Peter saying some things that do not make much sense, though at the time it probably did make sense.  And you got this word we translate as bleach (λευκαινο).  Strangely enough, this word is only used twice in the entire New Testament Canon - in the entire Bible.  Once, here in Mark 9 and once in Revelation 7:14 - So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!"

    And that got me thinking.  Revelation is all about the end of time, right? So what if this word was picked up by the writer of Revelation, a book written about 20 or 30 years after Mark (maybe this writer got his/her hands on a copy of Mark's gospel), because the early church understood this idea of washing/bleaching is a word used to describe the end of time.  Maybe we should be viewing the the transfiguration story as not a story about what is happening now but a glimpse into what will happen in the future.  

    The transfiguration story is weird.  It almost seems out of place.  We don't have good words for it.  Don't believe me?  Try teaching a 4 year old about the transfiguration and then you will see just how hard it is to explain it.  This text defies all logic and explanation; like why did Jesus have to be transfigured?  We don't necessarily need this act to understand the gospel, but we do need this story to understand what is to come.  Hence, why I think the transfiguration story is not really about the immediate concern of preaching the good news, but does have eschatological importance, I.e. it is important to understand what we have to look forward too.

    Up to this point in the gospel, Jesus has been going from town to town preaching the good news of God's reign.  He has been healing, teaching, and preaching.  He preached in Mark 7 that anyone who wants to be his disciples need to pick up a cross and follow him.  He taught his disciples and crowd that he would go to Jerusalem, be tried, and crucified.  But is this a part of God,s will? Has Jesus been doing it right?  The voice from heaven confirms this.

    The transfiguration gives us, the reader, the knowledge that God is endorsing Jesus.  We heard the voice from heaven once before in Mark 1 at the baptism of Jesus when the voice says, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" though it is unclear as to whether anyone but Jesus heard the voice.  We the reader hear it, but the Greek is unclear as to if the crowd heard the voice.  However, it is clear that everyone on the mountain hears the voice from God - "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"  

    There are some clear differences to the two phrases.  The baptism phrase is a 2nd person pro-noun - you, "you are my son."  But at the transfiguration, the phrase is clearly demonstrative - this is my son.  If the disciples or we have any doubts about Jesus, God settles them.  "This is my son, the beloved - LISTEN TO HIM."

    We all like to forget that last part.  I think we can all handle the "this is my son part" but listing to Jesus.  Who does that?  Or who is willing to do that?  For example, I was talking with some other pastors on Facebook about using things in worship that might not always be fun or appealing.  Worship today is all about making people feel good.  It is very consumer driven. "Pastor, I will stop coming to church if you don't start choosing those old hymns" or my favorite, "I'll come back to church is you change (blank) or do (blank)."  No.  Sometimes we do things in church not because they are popular but because that is what the church does. 

    The church preaches Christ crucified.  That isn't exactly the winning message for today's world.  If we want to be Jesus’ followers, we must pick up our cross and follow him.  We must be willing to give up everything for which we have worked our entire lives for Jesus.  That is not the American dream.  It is the opposite of the American dream, but yet we still preach Christ crucified every week.  We do things as a church not because they will make us popular, but because this is what the church does - we follow our Lord.  

    And our reward is that in rare, strange moments, God glory breaks into our world and we glimpse the glory of God shining bright just as Peter, James and John witnessed.  In these rare moments of doing the will of Lord, God gives us a glimpse of the glory of what will be to sustain us.  When we do things as Christ commands as in preaching the good news, as in baptizing the faithful, as in partaking in the eucharist (Jesus did say, "do this in remembrance of me", not just only the first and third Sunday but every time you gather), we glimpse the glory of our Lord, of our God.  

    It is in these precious moments that we are sustained because we are given evidence of the holier things that await us.  It is in these precious moments from God that we can rest with the assurance that God is real and will not fail us.  But what is even more important is that the full revelation of what God looks like is still to come.  God's glory is also revealed in blood staines and holes in his hands and feet.  It is why we place the transfiguration story right before Lent begins because today is only the beginning of what is to come.  The transfiguration is about the future and it is pointing  us to the cross.
   What we do here, in these holy, precious moments is important.  God’s glory glimpses through as it did on the mountain many years ago.  And it is in these moments, these safe moments, that we want to stay.  But we also need to remember that God’s glory is revealed in the pain; the hurt; the blood, sweet and tears.  The cross reminds us that our God is willing to take on our flesh and humiliation so as to reveal to us a God true nature; who cares about our needs, knows our pain, knows death. God’s glory was revealed in a bloodied corpse, scorn by the world.  We so often want the Jesus transfigured on the mountain but what we need is the Jesus transfigured on the cross.  There will be times in life when things are great and going our way and having the Jesus on the mountain is just fine.  But life is not always fair and easy.  Often, we will face great trails and tribulation and the Jesus on the mountain will not do.  It is the Jesus on the cross that will get us through.   A God who has been to Hell and back can give us so much more comfort than a God stuck on a mountain.  May you be bleached in the blood of Lord and see what awaits you is a God who wants to be in the muck with you. May you you build your dwellings not on the mountain, but at the foot of the cross. 

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      
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