Sunday, July 28, 2019

Keeping the Sabbath: Trust!

Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed.

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” --Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11 (NRSV)

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” --Luke 15:11-32 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It must have been tough to be a banker in Israel. Although one could get used to having that one day each week - that shabbat day, that seventh day - to stop and to rest. It was an entirely different thing to erase all debt every seven years. As a creditor, to simply eliminate any outstanding loan payments and entire loans beginning at midnight on the eve of each seventh year. Each jubilee year.

This command though was only part of a series of commands for Israel related to shabbat, to overall financial practices, and to sabbatical years - this series of biblical regulations that were part of what came to be known as the Holiness Code. Part of the collection of laws given to Israel by Moses at Sinai. Each seventh year - each sabbatical year - the land was to lie fallow.  To rest. In the same year, any property that had been taken had to be returned to its original owners and heirs. All indentured service were to be freed. And, then, of course, all debt was to be erased. Gone.

It must have been tough to be a banker in Israel. In fact, it must have been tough to be someone in a position of power, someone controlling others, whether through owning debt, or taking property, or owning others - holding onto power was not an easy thing in Israel. 

Because that’s exactly what God intended.

Over these past three weeks, as we’ve explored what it means to be keepers of the Sabbath. To stop. And to rest. Today, we come to the biggest of the three. The hardest of the three. The third aspect of Sabbath-keeping that really encompasses every element of this fourth commandment and, really, of all the commandments. As we’ve learned how important it is for us to stop and to rest. To remember who we are. And who God is. The text from Deuteronomy today is a striking illustration of the trust that the Israelites are invited to live in. Trust that we are invited to live in.

How hard it must have been for Israel! To go from years and generations of slavery to forty years of absolute trust and dependence on God in the wilderness. Then, to becoming landowners in Canaan, to begin forming and shaping their society and their ways of living together with all of the challenges and messiness that can bring. And, then, God calls for all debt to be erased every seventh year.

One has to wonder how that worked out? After all, isn’t it human nature to want to try to game the system? How might debtors respond? Would they somehow try to manipulate the process to ensure that the largest possible amount of debt remained by the end of that sixth year, so that it could be eliminated? Or how about those bankers? Perhaps they only made loans for six years, even reducing the total amounts they would lend, always with an eye for the seventh year - that sabbatical year. 

But, isn’t that really the point? Because, in our human nature we try to find these work arounds. Because we are afraid. Afraid that things won’t work out. That we won’t have enough money. That God won’t provide. Even though God says God will. Even though our experiences prove otherwise. 

God understands our mindset. The gradual way in which sin creeps in. How we become enticed to build ourselves up at the expense of others. To guard and to protect our worth. And to ignore the need of others. To amass power for ourselves and then to consolidate it. To use it to disempower and dehumanize others. God recognizes the human mindset. And calls it out. God calls out being tight-fisted and hard-hearted. Resenting those in need as though they are taking something away from us. Refusing to see each other as mutual caregivers, that we belong to each other and are to help one another in the same way that God helps us. Because there will always be need in the world. It is our human condition that ensures this.

It’s why the Sabbath command is so important. Because it reminds us that God is God and that we are not. And it leads us to trust. To trust in God, an abundant God, who will ensure that we are cared for. And who invites us to join with God in caring for each other and meeting each other’s needs.

Because this is the way of freedom. The way of freedom won for us in Christ. A freedom that is for everyone, regardless of financial worth or status. A freedom that disrespects power and control. A freedom that sees everyone and everything as coming from God’s creative hand. And as we live into our Jesus-won freedom. As the Spirit works in our hearts to deepen our faith, we grow in trust. Trusting God. That God will meet our needs. And that we are then free to meet the needs of others.

This is God’s ideal. That there be no separation between freedom and welfare. That the justness of a society is measured by its treatment of the dependent. The orphan. The widow. The foreigner. The poor. The lowly. As J. M. Hamilton writes on this chapter in Deuteronomy, “The view of human rights in the Bible ‘defines that treatment which the dependent has a right to expect of society and that treatment which society owes to the dependent.” 

What a radical view of how we are to care for our neighbor and for the dependent in our society! That it is their right. And that it is an obligation by the community. What a radical view for a society - for our secular society - that has taken its cue from the Enlightenment, rather than from Scripture. Seeing human rights as things to be safeguarded from others rather than a set of obligations that is owed. How radical is that?

But, isn’t it this radical nature of God’s grace that we see in the story of the prodigal son? This young man who goes to his father and insists upon his inheritance. Who then takes it and squanders it in the worst way possible. Who ends up slopping pigs. So hungry that he even considers joining in and eating their food right along with them. Someone who has been a fool. Someone who has earned exactly where he’s ended up. Self-destructed. At the bottom. Where he deserves to be.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, to view this story with a Sabbath lens? As the young man returns home, still scheming how he might convince his father to take him back, his father sees him. Is overjoyed. And welcomes him in. The young man discovers that he is loved and claimed simply for being his father’s child. And he is given a place, working alongside his father, in freedom. Restored to wholeness. His older brother is offered this same place, but it’s so hard for him to let go of the false idea that his worth is measured in what he does. What he produces. What he earns. Instead of who he is - his father’s child.

It’s why the Sabbath is so important for us. If we cannot assess our value and our standing by how productive or how successful or how good we are, the invitation by God and the grace offered by God to simply abide in God’s love, to trust in God’s love - a love that claims us as God’s own - it can feel terrifying. And, perhaps, even a little offensive.

But, we, too, can move from slavery to freedom. We, too, can be awakened from death into life. We, too, can feel our joy made complete. We, too, can experience rest for our souls. If only we Stop! We rest! And we trust. And we let God meet us just as we are.


Preached July 28, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 7
Readings: Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11; Luke 15:11-32

Monday, July 22, 2019

Keeping the Sabbath: Rest!

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. --Genesis 2:1-3 (NRSV)
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. --John 15:9-15 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, we began our three-part series on the Sabbath. We heard last week that once a week, we are to STOP. To let go of how the world defines us - by what we produce. To stop and to live into our humanity. To stop doing and practice just being. One day out of seven.

We can’t just stop, though, can we? Standing or sitting in one place for 24 hours? No. We are to stop. And, then, to rest.

What does rest look like to you?

Rest in scripture is more than simply lounging around all day. Napping. Reading a book. Doing nothing. Rest means much more than simply “having a rest.” Rest is really focused on what happens after one completes one’s work. Rest, in scripture, means completion.

So, it’s no wonder then, that, after God had crafted the world and the inhabitants of that world in six days - at the completion of that phase of God’s work - God rested. It’s as though God finished God’s work. (And, by the way, the Hebrew word used for God’s work is the same word used for ordinary work - the work that you and I do each week). God finishes this phase, stops, and takes a look back at what God has created. God stops to rest and to enjoy what God has made. Because this is integral to who God our creator is. God enjoys the beauty and the harmony of each creature and each feature that, in its very uniqueness, contributes to the whole.

It kind of reminds me of the symphony!

My son grew up on classical music. He grew on a wide variety of music, but, in particular, because I played a lot of classical music on the piano and the organ, he heard a lot of it. And learned to love it.

In elementary school, he took lessons to play guitar. Then, later on, piano. (How many of you learned an instrument in elementary school?) But, what he most loved was listening to the symphony. So, it wasn’t long before I purchased season tickets to the philharmonic for the two of us. First, let me tell you that seeing classical music performed by an orchestra is way better than listening to a recording of it. As its performed, you’re able to watch each instrument being played. To watch the percussionist move back and forth between the tympani and bass drum. To see the trombonists work the slides of their instruments. To see the violists bow their instruments or pluck the strings - each technique very different from the other. But, then, secondly, to hear an orchestra in person is also way better than listening to a recording. To hear, much more distinctively, as the bassoons play a phrase. Or to hear the trumpets enter as the music swells and grows bolder and louder. To see and hear the uniqueness of each instrument. Each very different in look and sound. Yet, each that contributes to the whole.

Yes, I think that on the seventh day, when God rested and viewed all that God had made, God saw and heard the uniqueness of each creature and each feature, and God saw the symphony of his work. And God experienced joy.

Because, this is who God our creator is. Just as a parent, who simply sits back to watch their child play, and learn, and grow. To watch one’s child simply be a child. God enjoys the beauty and harmony of each unique aspect of God’s creation. God creates to enjoy. God creates to relate and to connect to all of creation. And God, in setting apart this day at the end of our week of work - God, who created us in God’s very image - desires for us to find joy and relationship and connection in our rest.

There’s another aspect of the Sabbath, this shabbat, that we read in our Genesis text. In addition to God resting on this seventh day, God blessed the day. And sanctified it. God made it holy. In all of the creative work that God had done before this day, it is only this day of rest, this seventh day, this Sabbath, that God sanctified.

Throughout scripture, when God sanctifies something, God makes it God’s own. Just as God has sanctified us and made us God’s own, God sanctifies and makes this day God’s own. It is a day that belongs only to God. It is a sacred day. It is also the clearest hint for us of how we, created in the divine image, should end our week. How we should find our rest.

It’s how Christ found his. “As the Father has loved me,” Jesus tells his disciples, “so I have loved you; abide in my love.” It is in a rest that abides in God’s love where we find renewal. Where we understand that our life is not self-generated, that our life doesn’t come from us, but that our life is a gift. From God.

In the words just before our reading from John today, Jesus uses the vine and branches metaphor. (After having toured a winery on vacation, I particularly like this metaphor.) “I am the vine, you are the branches,” he tells the disciples. This metaphor and the life envisioned in it stands in striking contrast to the life that our world teaches. The world’s life is a life of individualism, of privatism, and of success that is based on individual accomplishment. A life well lived in the eyes of the world is based on the “survival of the fittest” ideal - where it’s all about me. And about what I do. About what is good for me. It’s a life where we are always in competition with each other. Seeking to be better and more productive than everyone so that we can be viewed in the world’s eyes as “successful.” The best. The biggest. The richest. The most powerful.

How easily we can be trapped into this view of life!

But, the life envisioned in this metaphor used by Jesus stands radically in opposition to that of the world’s vision. This life assumes social interrelationship and accountability. Where we are only as fruitful as we are abiding with others in Jesus’ love. Where we are responsible, not only for ourselves, but for each member of our community of faith. And for our neighbor. And our enemy. For every citizen and for every immigrant, whether documented or not. “This is my commandment,” Jesus says to his disciples and to us. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

This is why Sabbath rest is so important. Because our rest, our renewal, is found in God. As we abide in God each week, we remember who God is. As we hear God’s word and receive the sacrament, we remember who God is. And we remember who we are. A people created by God, invited to abide in Jesus. To cling to the faith of Christ in God. And to find a renewed life. A life that belongs to God and is a gift of God. Life that trusts in God absolutely. And a life that is absolute mutual care and connection to others.

This is what the gift of the Sabbath is to look like. That we Stop! And Rest! And find life and joy in God’s presence and love.

We are made for this love. We are made to live in this love. We are made to share this love. Amen.

Preached July 21, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 2:1-3, John 15:9-15

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Keeping the Sabbath: Stop!

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.  Deuteronomy 5:12-15 NRSV

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, I shared with you pieces of my vacation with my brother and sister-in-law, and an old friend. I mentioned that we very easily fell into the custom of the afternoon siesta. Each afternoon, around 2 o’clock, most of the shopkeepers and restaurants would close down to go home for a late lunch and to rest during the hottest part of the day. Then, around 6 or 7 pm, they would return to their shops and restaurants, re-open them, and remain open until around 9 p.m. each day. This was a long-standing custom in Orvieto - the more rural village in central Italy, where we spent our first week. 

It was interesting, however, to note that, when my friend and I arrived in Rome for the second week, this tradition was nowhere to be found in this large, bustling city. Even so, we still continued the restful pattern we had experienced that first week in rural Italy - the time of rest in the middle of the day in a cooler space. To nap, if we were tired. To read, if we weren’t. And, particularly, to be together.

Because, after the first few days, that’s eventually what began to happen naturally. While we might disappear into our rooms for a short period at the beginning of our siesta time, we inevitably found ourselves gathering together in the living area. And, then, with the setting sun, moving onto the covered patio with a glass of wine. To catch up on our lives. To share our joys. And our challenges. And, yes, to sometimes irritate each other (as my brother and I occasionally do). To simply stop. And to be human. And to find rest.

Today, we begin three weeks learning about and living into what it means to keep the Sabbath. Sabbath, or Shabbat, in the Hebrew. A word that simply means to stop. To cease. To be at a standstill. This word that is at the center of the Fourth Commandment. And not only at the center of the commandment, but at the center - the hinge - of the Ten Commandments. The hinge between the commandments that address our relationship with God and those that address our relationship with each other.

I think we have a really hard time with the idea of a Sabbath. In our 24/7 world, where we are constantly busy. Where technology keeps us constantly connected to work. Where the average American checks his or her phone 80 times a day while on vacation, where parents are hiring coaches to help them raise “phone-free” children. The idea of keeping the Sabbath seems foreign to us. Perhaps, even ridiculous.

Yet, it is this commandment that is the longest and most descriptive of the ten. It is a command that is on the level of the command not to murder. This fourth commandment is not a throw-away comment by God. Given to Israel, first by God at Sinai and then, in our Deuteronomy text today, repeated by Moses to Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land. It is this commandment - this practice - that God insists we do. Regularly. Why? Because God knows it is the hardest lesson - the hardest practice - for us to do. 

It was for Israel. They had been enslaved in Egypt for some 400 years. It had been deeply ingrained in their psyche that their worth was determined by what they produced. Their value was defined by their output. They were measured with each other based upon it. They compared themselves with each other, striving to produce more and more so that they would be viewed as valuable and important to their slave masters. Their lives literally depended upon what they did.

But, they are no longer slaves. They are no longer owned by a master or locked into a system that dictates their worth based on their production. They’re now free. The will need to learn how free people live. Alongside other free people. With God as their master, rather than Pharaoh.

This why this commandment is so important. Because, while the other commandments take the people out of slavery. It is the Sabbath command that takes the slavery out of the people. So that they may truly be free.

This was a hard lesson for Israel to absorb. It is a hard lesson for us to absorb. Because we forget this most of the time. This is why, God tells us, we have to do it regularly. We have to keep the Sabbath regularly. To step out of the mindset and activity of the world around us. The measuring, the comparing, the competing, the striving, the producing, the consuming. We have to regularly stop doing and practice just being. Because neither our value, nor our worth are to be defined by the values and worth of the world.

All the other creatures and the earth itself already does this. We, too, are commanded by God to succumb to the cycles of rest and renewal that God built into the fabric of all existence. Cycles that we are determined to transcend. 

One day in seven - the commandment says - we are to remember that we are not God. On purpose. That we are neither better, nor worse, than anyone around us. That we are all connected and belong to God and to each other.

After all, isn’t it this what it means to be human? Isn’t it this what it means to be free?

But, again, we forget this most of the time. Even as we seek to find meaning in our lives, there are forces around us that shape how we do this. Our 24/7 connectivity saturates us with messages that strip us of our freedom. And our humanity. They suck us into a relentless comparison and division. A ranking and a judging. A striving and a measuring. And we begin to believe - and to act - that the world can’t run without us. 

Sure, spirituality is nice. God, of course, is real. But, do we really need God? We’ve pretty much got it all together, don’t we? 

Yet, in the meantime, we’re so disconnected from our true selves that we can barely handle it when emotion of any kind arises. It throws us off balance. We chronically over-commit, under-resource, and exhaust ourselves. Who in the world even has time for Sabbath? If we step off our spinning carousel, it will all fall apart. We’ll never be able to put it back together again. Plus taking a Sabbath is self-indulgent. Shouldn’t rest a reward for a job well done? Isn’t this part of the Protestant work ethic in our country? We wear it like a badge of honor. “How are you?” someone asks us. “Busy!” we reply, as if it is our busy-ness that is proof of a well-lived life. Look at what we’re doing! Look at how well we’re producing and consuming! We’re not going to waste any time with a Sabbath!

And do we really need God?

Unless we regularly stop, sisters and brothers, we forget that God is God. And that we are not God. We forget that we are creatures. With bodies and minds and hearts that need to be tended. That are dependent upon the love and care of a creator who is ready to meet us when, or if, we simply stop moving long enough to be met. And we forget that we are in this together. Alongside everyone else. That we need one another, because life isn’t meant to be done alone. And, finally, human beings who forget their humanity are arguably the most destructive force in the universe.

So, stop! And, then, “come,” Jesus calls. “Come. You who are weary. You who are tired of toiling. Of striving. Of struggling. You, who have lost heart. Come. Find your life again. Find your humanity. Find your soul. Let go of the world’s yoke and take on mine. For it is light. Because it is a yoke of grace. Practice this. Each week. Take on the life I desire for you. A life of obedience and righteousness. So that you, like Israel, might learn to let go of that which enslaves you. Of that which binds you up. Of that which reduces your humanity.”

Stop! Keep the Sabbath. And live. Live into this commandment that gives life. And relationship. With others. And with God. Who frees you. Who loves you. Just because you are you.


Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Life We Claim: The Creeds - Our Christian Life

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:1-9 (NRSV)

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Holy Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

It’s good to go on vacation, but it's always really good to get home, isn’t it? At least that’s how I felt last week. If you didn’t know, I was in Italy for two weeks with friends and family. The first week we spent in a little hilltop village in central Italy. The second week was with a friend in Rome. 

I love history and, as usual, I was blown away by some of the history I learned. This little hilltop town is one of the seven hill towns in central Italy that were settled by the Etruscans in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries before Christ. It’s believed that Orvieto - this little village where we spent a week - was founded by this group of people and developed into the central meeting place for leaders of all of the seven hill towns. It’s also believed that it was these Etruscans who eventually founded Rome. And it was, as they say, those “Roman barbarians” who eventually conquered and eliminated the Etruscans and their rich culture. 

Fascinating. It’s in learning history, I think, that we learn more about ourselves and where our own stories fit into that long, flowing river of history.

I had another experience that also connected me to another story - the story of the church and of the people of the early church. I was able to tour the Catacombs of San Sebastian. If you know your Roman history, you may know that, as people died, they were buried in tombs along the roads leading out of the city. Eventually, they ran out of space, so they began to bury their dead in unused rock quarries on the outskirts of the city. Over time, as the early church grew, Christians, too, needed a place to bury their dead because, according to their beliefs, cremation was not allowed. So, they, too, began to bury their dead in the caves and passageways carved out below ground. 

After fire broke out in Rome in 64 AD, rumors began that the Roman emperor Nero had set the fire deliberately to clear land for a palace for himself. Nero shifted blame to the Christians, who were already widely disliked because they didn’t participate in the religious festivals of the empire that were considered essential to civic life. The church and its leaders began to be persecuted. So, the church went underground. In the catacombs I visited, archaeologists have discovered an early chapel underground. It is believed that it was in that very place where the bodies of Peter and Paul, martyred, were originally enshrined.

So, why is any of this important for us here today? For me, and I hope for you, too, it is a reminder for us that we - as followers of Christ - come from a long history of believers. Of people who were so dedicated to worshiping God and living as disciples that they even did it underground. In the midst of persecution. Because they believed that what they believed was true. That their faith was based on genuine truth.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve been immersed in the Creed. In the three Articles of the Creed, thinking about the three persons of the Godhead. The Three in One. What we hear in the shema from the Deuteronomy text that God, our God, is One. Yet, three. As I said in Week 1 of our series, each time we speak the Creed, we step into that long, steady river. A great two thousand year story of believers, missionaries, and martyrs. People who under interrogation, refused to bow down to the gods of the empire. Who stood their ground and declared, “I believe in God the Father almighty…” And who were executed for saying so. 

When we do the same - when we say “I believe in God” - we become part of something bigger than ourselves. Something that is in us individually, but that is also outside of ourselves and bigger than any one of us. Because, if we think salvation is about “me and Jesus” - about “me and my eternal reward” - we miss the point. If we come to the Lord’s table and we raise our voices in song, thinking this is a nice religious activity, we miss the point. As James Howell writes, it is “[o]ut of our isolation” that “we are called together to share the one thing that matters, the broken body and the shed blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We find our place in Christ’s family. We sing, each voice distinct, but yet immersed in the great chorus of the angels and saints, no soloists allowed, an ever-burgeoning cascade of differing voices coalescing into a sunning, beautiful harmony of praise.” 

All this when we say the words, “I believe.”

But, it’s easy to get distracted, isn’t it? We see it in the opening lines of our Matthew text. The eleven disciples, after the resurrection, went to the mountain in Galilee where Jesus directed them to go. Notice in verse 17 that, when they saw Jesus, they worshiped him. But, then, the text goes on to read, “...but some doubted.” Doubt is mixed with worship - similar to the “fear and joy” that the women experienced at the empty tomb. There’s some ambivalence. Some doubt. Some hesitation. In fact, the Greek word translated as “doubted” is distazo. It’s the same word that is used to express Peter’s reaction as he began to walk on water. He looked at Jesus and then felt the wind and he became distazo. He became conflicted, which is better translation for this word than doubt. Conflicted.  

In Matthew, the disciples’ faith is not a certainty beyond being conflicted. It is a faith that lives between trust and despair. Between certainty and faith. Notice that, in the text, Jesus doesn’t overcome their conflictedness. Instead, he allows them to remain in it. And turns to them with his word.

Isn’t that how Jesus responds to us? As we go about our daily lives, we, too, become conflicted. Distracted from God, from who God calls us to be, we lose sight of God and of our promise to believe in this God. But, then, we gather here. And, in Jesus’ words and in his body and blood we are once again reminded of our Easter faith. Of Jesus, who joined us in our suffering, took it on himself, and who, in his resurrection, God exalted and installed as the Lord of our universe. A universe turned upside down by the resurrection. And, once more, we are centered. Remembering whose we are. Where we come from. And we continue on the journey that countless others have been led on. Centuries of believers. Unknown disciples. Followers of this God in whom we say we believe.

Something else on vacation that I easily fell into the pattern of was that of an afternoon siesta. In Orvieto, in particular, the shopkeepers close their shops around 2 p.m. Everyone goes to cool homes during the heat of the day to eat and to rest. During this period, after a short nap, I would often read one of my favorite murder mysteries. Just for fun. Over the two week period, I read five crime mysteries!

What’s interesting about these stories is the way that the events unfold. Often, it seems like the various details make little sense. Someone has mud on their boots. A wine glass is broken on the floor. A towel is missing from the bathroom. These random, often trivial, facts seem inconsequential to the story. But, then, someone - a detective - steps into the circle of suspects and begins to piece the story together. Explaining what happened. Why the mud is important. Or the broken glass is a critical clue. Or what difference a missing towel makes. It is only at the end that all of the various little details - the seemingly insignificant clues - become important. Only at the end that the whole story makes sense.

I think this is what our Christian life of discipleship is like. We follow, doing our best to not be conflicted. Gathering here weekly with each other, to be fed with the Word, and to be refreshed for the journey - this sprawling, meandering journey of discipleship, the details of which often make little sense in the moment. 

Aristotle said that the mark of a good story is that, as you are following it, you have no idea how it will end. But, that, when it does end, you realize that it had to turn out that way. Easter is like the narrator tipping us off on the end of the story. We stand together in this circle and Jesus steps in and explains it all. And it is then, and only then, that everything begins to make sense. 

But, it’s different from the end of my murder mysteries. In those, the dead remain dead. The widow goes home alone. The convict ends up in jail. In the Gospel, the dead live. The widowed are reunited. The jails are emptied. And we recognize that it had to turn out that way. 

As we read our lives of discipleship backward - if we read the last chapter of our Christian lives first - we discover a journey that has been guided to its end. An end that is destined by the secret hand of the author. By this God in whom we say, “I believe.”

I invite you to believe in this God. To be part of the church, of those who believe in the resurrection. To be part of those who trust, not in themselves, but in God - the Three in One. To believe in the last chapter of our Christian life. And to be with all those before and after us who have trusted and will trust in God’s great, glorious future surprise. Amen.

Preached July 7, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 4
Readings: 1 Timothy 3:14-4:11; Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Matthew 28:16-20.

The Life We Claim: The Creed - God, Our Creator

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  Genesis 1:1-5 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Holy Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

How many of you begin your day with a kiss? Perhaps, in the morning, as you’re preparing to walk out the door and go to work - perhaps you stop briefly to give you husband or your wife a little kiss. Or perhaps, it happens when you drop your children or your grandchildren off at school during the school year. That sweet little face upturned and waiting for a kiss - their sendoff to school. Or maybe, your children or grandchildren are older and, if they are anything like my son was in high school, the last thing he wanted his friends to see was him giving a quick little kiss to his mother before heading into school. 

These small gestures that we share with those we love each day can often happen without much thought. They seem like such a natural part of our lives in relationship with others. Yet, it is these small gestures - those little perfunctory kisses - that bear witness to something that is very deep. And very large. And very profound.

Today, we’re beginning a series on the Creeds. Each week, we recite a creed in worship. Sometimes, it’s the Apostles’ Creed. Sometimes, it’s the Nicene Creed. Sometimes, it’s the Athanasian Creed (Do you even know that one?). And, sometimes, it’s even a new creed that your pastor sneaks into the liturgy. We say the words like we give those kisses. Almost without thinking. Without much thought about what we’re actually saying. 

So, beginning this Trinity Sunday, we are going to take a deeper dive into the Creed. Into the depth of what it is we believe and why we believe it. To find out if there really is anything of substance to hold onto in the church. To ask questions. To be asked questions. To test our minds and our souls. And, particularly, to continue to grow into a kind of spirituality and faith that is not just some free floating, nebulous belief, but a faith comes from someplace. And that is going someplace. Someplace significant.

John Howell in his book on the Creed shares this lovely legend that circulated in the early church. “...[A]fter the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples that first Pentecost, Peter spoke the words, 'I believe in God the Father Almighty…' And, then Andrew added, 'And in Jesus Christ God’s only Son, our Lord.' And so they went around the table, a dozen disciples, a dozen sentences forming the Apostles’ Creed."

Now, this likely not how it happened. We’re pretty certain that the Apostles’ Creed originated sometime around the end of the 2nd century perhaps in response to a heresy that was being spread. Or, perhaps, they wanted to capture the big story in just a few words. God’s big story. After all, if we look at the Creed, it’s a pretty good summary of the sixty-six books of the Bible, isn’t it? It gives us a bird’s eye view of a story that spans thousands of years - in just thirteen phrases.  It helps us get our arms around the story of God’s mighty acts. Or maybe, it helps God get God’s arms around us.

The word, “creed,” comes from the Latin word, credo. It means “I believe.” This isn’t, though, the same as saying, “I feel,” or “I want,” or “I think.” Instead, it’s saying “God is.” That this is who our God is. And what our God has done. And continues to do. (One of the reasons I particularly like the New Creed, which we spoke throughout the Easter season is that, unlike the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds, the New Creed, developed by the United Church of Canada, is in the present tense. It’s a reminder for us that this God and this story of God is not only in the past. But it is in our present. And will be in our future.)

So, as Howell writes, "when we say the words 'I believe,' we are, in effect, flinging ourselves upon God. Attaching ourselves to God. It’s the equivalent of 'I promise.' It’s not an opinion we’re expressing. It’s a promise that our lives and our love, our minds and our hearts, and everything we do, are steadfastly set now and in the future on God. And God alone.”

When you say the Creed each week, do you realize the promise you’re making?

The Creed, though, isn’t only about believing. It’s also about remembering. In ancient times, hundreds of Christians under interrogation by the Roman empire, refused to bow down to their gods. They would stand their ground. And declare, “I believe in God the Father almighty maker of heaven and earth…” And on and on through the Creed. Until they were executed.

Long before these moments, they had left their old lives behind. Risking everything by choosing Christianity. Not in the very posh way we choose Christianity today. But, knowingly choosing, and knowing that they could lose everything: families, homes, livelihood. Even lives. New converts were instructed in the faith for months, instruction that included fasting, abstaining from all entertainment and sex, and being prayed over diligently by elders in the church. And then, at an all-night prayer vigil beginning on the eve of Easter (Can you imagine worshiping all night long?), they would wade into a pool of water. And would be questioned: “Do you believe in God the Father almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son? Do you believe in the power of the Holy Spirit?”  Do you? Do you?

Then, after their confession of faith, they would be anointed with oil, dressed in white robes, and given a drink of milk and honey - a powerful reminder of the Promised Land and a symbol of their new life in Christ.

Every time we say the Apostles’ Creed, we step into this long, long, flowing river. A two thousand year story of believers, missionaries, and martyrs. 

The word “creed” originally meant “to give my heart to.” When we say the words of the creed - “I believe” we are claiming this life. Not only with the faith that lies within us, but a faith that is also outside of us. A faith that is part of something far bigger than we are. That we can’t even begin to imagine. 

Now, this has been a long introduction to the Creeds - to this life we claim. Before we go this morning, I’d like to briefly look at the First Article. I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Do you ever wonder why we use Father instead of Mother? We know God is not male. That God has both male and female characteristics. The Bible itself is full of feminine images for God. So, why do we open the Creed by confessing our faith in “God the Father?” Anyone?

We call God “father” for one reason only. Because when Jesus spoke to God, he called God “Abba” - an Aramaic word that a little child would use when curling up on his or her father’s lap. And a word that the same child would use into adulthood as a term of endearment and affection. It’s a word that reflects an intimate relationship. A word that, when Jesus used it, the disciples noticed it. And marveled at his use. Jesus’ whole mission was to invite them to curl up on the lap of almighty God, to look up, and simply say, “Abba.” 

It’s why the prayer Jesus taught them begins with “Our Father.” Because, he wanted them to understand that they didn’t have to go it alone. To believe alone. Not only did they have a loving God - a loving Father - to love and protect them, but they also were saved to be part of a community. Part of a family. Part of the body of Christ. It meant, in the words of Tom Wright, that they, like we today, were signing on for the kingdom of God.

The second part of this article looks at the work of God. Creating. It’s the profound work and the profound theological claim that we heard in our reading from Matthew 6. That God is a creator who cares for all that God creates. All of creation. Every creature. A God who clothes the grass (and the lilies) and who will clothe and care for us, too. Because God loves God’s creation. And God loves God’s creatures. And God loves us. As Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “To say “I believe in God the Father’ is to say, ‘I hold and believe that I am a creature of God; that is, that God has given and constantly sustains my body, soul, and life.’”

This is the beauty and the promise we hear in the First Article and throughout the Creed. A promise of a God who loves us deeply. Who desires to be in relationship with us. Who constantly seeks to pull us back into relationship with godself and back into community with others who also seek to believe and to understand this mystery that is the Holy Trinity. This is mystery and this life we claim whenever we speak the words, “I believe.” 

May God help you to live fully into this promise. And this life we claim. Amen.

Preached June 16, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
The Holy Trinity (Pentecost 2)
Readings: Matthew 6:30-34, Genesis 1:1-5.