Sunday, July 10, 2016

Straight Talk with Amos

Amos 7: 7-9
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword."

Luke 10: 25- 37
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 26He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" 27He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." 28And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 30Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" 37He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

God’s prophets are a mighty odd group of people. They upheld the word of the lord and bad-mouthed the religion that everyone was practicing. They spoke for the poor people and against the rich. They pointed fingers and they were NOT well-liked.

Elijah was called the troubler of Israel.
Amos was thrown out of the country.
Hosea was called a fool.
Jeremiah got thrown in a cistern.
And tradition says Isaiah got sawed in half. 

It’s amazing that these profoundly unpopular people show up in our holy book. One of the things we don’t think about when we read the Bible is that it’s self-correcting. It contains both the Law of God and the exploits of the patriarchs and kings. But it also contains the critics who worked to keep Israel on track with God. The prophets insulted kings, predicted disasters, and shouted curses and woes.

Today we love Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and the other prophets, but their peers didn’t. So why are they in this great book? 

Probably because people have been making the same mistakes over and over and over again. The prophets' words are as relevant today as they were in the Old Testament.

So the next few weeks we’ll explore what the Lord says through this group with the sermon series: Say What?

We begin with some straight talk from Amos.


Amos has a vision of God speaking to him with a plumb line—a tool that is used to make sure a wall is straight.  The prophets are known for using props to get our attention—like a plumb line or basket of fruit or some bread baked over cow dung.

Amos and the plumb line remind us that God has standards for us to meet. Amos tells the people around him that God is holding a plumb line up to their crooked generation. He’s telling them they don’t measure up to God’s standards.

Amos shakes his finger at Israel and says your walls are falling down. Your foundations are bad and you will suffer because of it. He, and most of the prophets, have two basic messages.

Message #1 You have been unfaithful to God.
The king in Amos’ time made two golden bulls at shrines used for worship. Remember how bad it is to make golden calves? The Israelites had already been there and done that when they were waiting for Moses to come down the mountain. You’d think they would have learned that lesson then. But no. They did it again.

Does anyone else have that problem? You make a mistake and swear to do better and then a few days or week later you find yourself doing the same thing. Yeah. Me, too.

Message # 2 You are not loving your neighbors.
God says of Israel (through Amos):  
They sell the innocent for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
    and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
    they drink wine taken as fines.

Yikes! The people of Israel didn’t see how far they strayed because many of them were busy building nice houses and living an easy life. They worked all week. Had a nice glass or two  of wine with dinner Friday night, went to worship on Saturday morning and started it all over again on Sunday.

But God says, Stop—look!
Don’t you see you that you are serving yourselves?
Don’t you notice some people are oppressed?
Aren’t you helping the poor?
Don’t you see the injustice?

Beware, God is telling them through Amos and the plumb line, your crookedness will pull you down. Your walls will crumble.

And crumble they did. Israel was overtaken in war.  Their leaders were taken captive and moved them out of Israel. Their wonderful homes and walls and even God’s Temple came crumbling down.

Amos was right.

I don’t know about you but I feel like I’m seeing the walls of our society crumbling this summer. We have video footage of people being killed in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas. Because so many people have smart phones and the internet we are witnessing the horror firsthand. We are given a new vision.

I have to wonder, Is there something kind of prophetic about this?

We can record and expose things in our society that haven’t been seen in the media before. Our phones and cameras are shining a light on occurrences that might never have made the news otherwise. 

We, here in small town in Western Pennsylvania, can be witnesses to a traffic stop in Minnesota that leads to the death of a black man. We can read text messages from people about to die in a nightclub. We can watch as people and police officers scramble for their lives in Dallas. We can see news from cars and nightclubs and police body cameras. And it hard to be a witness. 

Today there is no question we mourn for those who were killed in this week’s violence. But I suspect many of us may also mourn the loss of a more innocent worldview.  Today we mourn the loss of the way things were before we all became instant witnesses to crimes committed around the world. Suddenly, our small town and our small lives are caught up in something bigger.

For so many of us our society looked straight and true for so long. And new it feels crooked or unstable. But, I wonder: Are we seeing new problems? Or are we finally witnessing problems that have been there all along? Problems that most of us here have been sheltered from because we’re not black or gay or a police officer.

In the Gospel of Luke (12:2-3) Jesus says, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

Things are coming to light through our cell phones and other technology. We can’t unsee the events of the past few weeks. We can’t unknow the problems in the broader world. We can’t deny that things are off-center. And that makes us defensive. We want to protect our worldview. 

The prophet Amos pointed out the way Israel was off-center. That’s why he got thrown out of town. People didn't want to know what he saw. But he told them anyway.  His message is important, then and now. Amos and other prophets remind us that to truly love God, we have to love our neighbors. That means:

There is no room for racism in our hearts or in our culture.
There’s no room for vengeance in our hearts or in our culture.
Nor is there room for indifference in our hearts or in our culture. 

We are to heed the call of the prophets: Love God and love neighbors.  So how do we do this? 

Jesus shows us what this love looks like in the Good Samaritan parable. Remember Samaritans and Jews were enemies. They didn’t touch or talk to one another.

But, Jesus says the righteous man in the parable was not one of the Jewish leaders, as we would expect. The priest and Levite both tried to unsee the injured man and walked right past him. It’s the Samaritan who was willing to see and act.

We can’t ignore the people who are bleeding in our streets, whether they are black or white or dressed in blue. Whether they are addicts, homeless or mentally ill. We, too, are called to see.

And when we see, we are called to stop what we are doing and tend to the wounded around us. The Good Samaritan didn’t just call 911. He touched, he carried and he even paid the bill for the man—this enemy—so that the wounded man could recover. Not only did the Samaritan see the injured man, he saw him through his healing.
In the parable, Jesus shows us that ministry is inconvenient and expensive. A life of faith costs us something.

Today, I think being faithful may cost us our worldview.

We need to listen to the prophets, receive their criticism and confess the ways that we might be participating in creating an unjust society, even here in our little town. We need to hold up God’s plumb line to make sure it’s straight—in our hearts, in our church, in our community, and in our country. And if it’s not, we need to be willing to admit that something is crooked and tear it down. Only then can we try again to build it straight.

And really, we’ve been rebuilding churches and our societies for centuries. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think that with God's help each time we do it, we put those bricks up a little straighter and stronger. With Christ as our plumb line we get a little closer to God’s truth. Theodore Parker once said the arc of history bends toward justice. God’s justice and truth is coming. We aren’t there yet, but we are being called to participate in what God is building today.

I can’t unsee the violence of this summer. I can’t unknow the things that I’m learning about our society and myself. But I can choose a side.

I choose God’s side, even though it’s the costly side to be on. I choose the side where people are not shot for the color of their skin or the uniform that they wear. I choose the side where traffic violations are equally enforced and those who are working to keep the peace don’t need to fear for their lives. I choose to participate in the merciful, healing, and justice-oriented work that Jesus started.

And first that means tearing down the way I think of myself and seeing the ways that I’ve contributed to the crooked wall. It means confessing that I've been unintentionally racist. It means understanding that I've benefitted from the color of my skin and the circumstances of my birth. It means admitting to the hardest thing of all: I like my life and it frightens me to think about what God might need to change in me. 

It’s inconvenient. It’s costly. But in the end, it’s what all of us are called to do.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Christ is Risen! Pass the Ham.


24 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!

Death is defeated!
The debt of sin is paid!
Hope is rising for the world this morning!

And I confess resurrection is something that I sometimes take for granted. The ritualistic words come so easily and naturally I forget how powerful they really are.

It’s easy to forget how shocking this Good News of Easter really is. We proclaim the resurrection from thousands of years of ritual and distance. We can say, "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!" and it doesn’t change our world view. 

We can sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” and then go eat a ham dinner as if nothing has changed in the world. Today, we embrace the promise of resurrection, but we don’t stop to think about the reality of it. I mean what would you do if your dead mother, brother or father walked in and sat down beside you? Would you say, “Oh hi, I wondered when you would be resurrected?” Or would you flip out?

Luckily, when we read the Bible stories of the resurrection we are reminded about just how “out there” the news of someone being resurrected eternally from the dead really is. When we read the resurrection stories we are reminded that the resurrection of the body of Jesus Christ is mind-blowing and figuring out what it really means for our own lives isn’t always easy.

If you have your Bible open to Luke 24, do a quick scan. Do you see words like Alleluia? Joy?
No, the Easter story isn’t full of people singing and celebrating. The resurrection stories in the Bible are full of frightened people who are confused by what they are experiencing. The story has skeptical people who don’t believe what the witnesses tell them. And the story has faithful people who proclaim the mystery of resurrection even though they can’t prove it. Resurrection morning shows us people who are frightened, skeptical and faithful—sometimes all at the same time.

Let’s look closely at this powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in Luke.

Early Sunday morning Mary and the other women get to the tomb and do not find Jesus’ body. The tomb is empty. But there are not hoorays or high-fives. It’s more likely that one turns to the other and asks, "Is this the right tomb? Did we turn left when we should have turned right?"

"Oh no, I recognize that bush," another one might say.

So they are puzzled and maybe a little bit nervous as they wonder what happened.  Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes appear to the women. They hit the ground bowing down in fright. The appearance of angels and the announcement of resurrection scare the women—not just in Luke, but in Matthew and Mark, too.

In Mark they are alarmed, trembling and bewildered.
In Matthew they are afraid (and filled with joy).

The women at the tomb didn’t know what was happening or would come next in their lives. They had spent the last few years following Jesus and they had no idea where their journey would take them now that he was dead. Even in the face of resurrection they still don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to explain it or what to make of it.

Perhaps you’ve been to this place where you are frightened because you don’t know what comes next. Maybe you are on a path heading toward graduation or starting a family. Maybe it’s getting to be time to retire or you are about to battle cancer.  Maybe you suffer from addiction and want to get clean. Or maybe you are at the end of your life and wondering what physical death will be like and what comes next.

We all come to these points in our journey where we are at the end of something and we can’t see beyond it.

It’s as if life is a path in the woods, green trees and shrubs line each side we come around a bend and suddenly there is a huge rock blocking the path. It looms in front of us, big and frightening because we know we will have to go off the path to get around it.

It’s like the giant stone that covered Jesus’ tomb. It blocks our view of everything else. We can’t see over it or around it. We don’t know what is on the other side.

Our friends and family try to talk us around the stone and through these big life transitions. They’ve seen the what’s on other side. But it can be so hard to explain it. 

Our words can’t really capture the experience of getting married or having a baby or changing jobs or going through chemo.  Our imaginations have trouble picturing what we have not personally experienced, like death.  And so we are like those at the tomb. Frightened about what is next.

The Bible has a promise for us when we are frightened by what’s happening in our lives. The Good News is that fear doesn’t get to have the last word. Trust that people have walked that unknown path before you and angels may guide you (maybe these are one in the same?). Jesus himself has walked that path and will accompany you.

In the story, the angels are the guides. They ask the women why they are looking for the living among the dead. Jesus has passed through death. The tomb is not the end. The stone is rolled away. A new path is becoming visible for them. The men in shiny clothes remind the women that Jesus promised that he would rise again. The women remember Jesus’ words and rush back to tell the other disciples the Christ is risen.

When they get to the disciples and they breathlessly share the amazing news that Jesus is risen, all they get are raised eyebrows. The disciples think, “Really? “

"Surely, these women must be overreacting and telling idle tales," the men think. "Nobody would trust a woman with this important information. God would not choose a group of women to be the first preachers of the gospel or to instruct us on what God is doing next." 

The disciples don’t believe the news.

In Luke’s gospel, only Peter goes to the grave. After which the Bible tells us he leaves wondering what had happened. He doesn’t know what to believe!

The people at the tomb are frightened people. The disciples are our second group—the skeptics.

Those who had been at the tomb are trying to explain the unexplainable to people who were not there. Their words can’t capture the way the angel’s clothes were shining. They couldn’t fully describe what it felt like to see the empty tomb and hear the announcement that Jesus is risen.

The gospels show us people who are frightened and skeptical about the resurrection. But you’ll notice that even through their fear and bewilderment some of them are faithful. Even though they didn’t see it with their own eyes, they begin to proclaim resurrection.

They tell the crazy news that Jesus’ dead body was raised up and somehow walked out of the grave. Even today, the world is full of faithful people who say crazy things because that’s what God calls them to do. 

Like me for example. I am here to tell you that Christ is risen. Not as a soul flying off to heaven, that’s easy to believe. But as a body that walks and talks and eats. If you aren’t a little bit incredulous, a little bit skeptical, you are not realizing the impact of this event.

In one way another, I seek to proclaim the mystery of faith week after week:

The church founders say it this way: 
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again

But my way sounds something like this:
The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us hope.

The mystery of resurrection is not something that I can prove to you with facts, but share with stories and experiences. Sometimes when I try to puzzle out resurrection for myself, my brain starts to hurt because there are so many questions—If we are made up of atoms and molecules that get reused over time, who gets which atoms for eternity in heaven? Which body do I get in the resurrection—my six-year-old body? My 19-year-old body? My 80 year-old body? A new glorified body?

There is a difference between proclaiming truth and proving it.

As witnesses we can proclaim God’s truth. And in faith, that is what I do. But, I really wish I could prove it! I wish that I could put it a neat package and deliver into your hands. I wish I could gift wrap all the proof you would ever need to believe in the resurrection, but I can't. Because that’s not how faith works.

In our life of faith, we can describe what we see even if we can't wrap it up and hand it to someone. It’s like these bubbles floating in the sanctuary. I can see them. I can point to them. I can describe them. But the moment I try to grab one so that I can hand it to you—it’s gone.

I can offer you proclamation. But I can’t give you proof. You'll have to take it on faith.

I can offer you my witness and my faith. I can tell you what I glimpse on the other of that big stone of ignorance that blocks our path. And it’s beautiful.

My proclamation is there is nothing like knowing that through Jesus Christ you are loved, you are forgiven, and you are called to be in the presence of an amazing God. For me, the resurrection means that I am forgiven of my self-doubt, which is really a form of self-centeredness. I am free to live without the guilt and negative thoughts that can hold me back sometimes.  I can let go of my worries, mistakes, and insecurities because they are not of God. I can take a deep breath in prayer and know that my biggest fears are tiny in God’s vast universe.

But your life is different from mine. Your sins are different from mine. Your glimpse past the stone that blocks the path comes from your own experiences with Jesus. Your proclamation is unique to you. 

And if you don’t know what your proclamation is, today is a good day to pray about that. If your proclamation is generic like Christ is risen! or Christ died for my sins! you may want to dig a little deeper. What are your sins that Christ forgives? What frightens you? What are you skeptical of? 

God is calling all of us here to the most important work in the universe: loving God more intimately and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and maybe for you that means learning to love yourself. God is calling all of us to live and proclaim s new life in Christ. We do this most effectively when we use our own words from our own experiences.

When we do this. When we talk honestly about our experience of God and resurrection, when we describe our fears or questions in our own words, we proclaim  the risen, active Christ who is at work today in our own lives. And we grow in faith.

When we proclaim from our hearts, we can help each other see past the big tomb stones that block our path. We can help people know that when they are facing death (or graduation or job termination or cancer treatment) that it is not the end. Because of Jesus, there is something on the other side.  Because of Jesus there is hope.

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

What does it mean for you?

Alleluia. Amen.