Sunday, August 25, 2019

Rekindling Our Faith, Rekindling Our Imagination - Part 4

Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. For a tent was constructed, the first one, in which were the lampstand, the table, and the bread of the Presence; this is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.

Such preparations having been made, the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary has not yet been disclosed as long as the first tent is still standing. This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right.

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! --Hebrews 9:1-14 (NRSV)

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

If you were one of the newly-freed people of Israel, going to worship at the tabernacle in the wilderness, this is as far in as you could go. In that first place of worship for Israel, there were three parts. The first - the outer courtyard - was where the altar of sacrifice was placed. It was here that, if you were seeking to honor God, to ask for God’s blessing, or make amends for something you had done wrong - it was here that you would come. With grain. With an animal, such as a bull or ram or dove or pigeon. Even with the fat and inner organs from certain animals. You would come to this place with your offering and it was here, in this outer courtyard, where the priests would, if required, slaughter your offering and then place it on the altar of sacrifice. 

If you were of the priestly class in Israel, from the line of Levi, you could go into the next place - the inner courtyard. The Holy place. It was here that you would go about your daily ritual duties. Offering incense morning and evening as you came in to dress and trim the lamps - lamps that were situated beside a table, called the Table of the Presence. Each Sabbath, you would eat the Bread of the Presence - loaves of bread that had been set in place the previous Sabbath as a continual offering to God. These loaves were a visible token for Israel of the communion between God and God’s people. As priests, after eating the bread, you would replace the loaves with freshly baked bread, to be eaten and replaced the following Sabbath. 

If, however, you were the high priest, you were the only person who could enter the next place - the inner sanctuary. The Holy of Holies. This inner sanctum was separated from the courtyard by a curtain. It contained the Ark of the Covenant, which was the most sacred object in all of Israel. It was here, in a box-like container where three sacred religious objects were located. A golden bowl containing manna - the bread that God had provided to sustain Israel in the wilderness. It contained Aaron’s rod, which God had caused to bud and flower when the people disputed his priestly role. Then, finally, it contained the two tablets of stone upon which was written the Ten Commandments. Which represented the covenant that God had made with Israel at Mount Sinai. On top of the Ark was the Mercy Seat. On either end were two gold cherubim. It was between these cherubim where God was present. Hovering over the Mercy Seat in the form of a cloud. 

As high priest, you would enter this space- the Holy of Holies - on Yom Kippur and offer up a sacrifice for all Israel. A sacrifice for all sins committed unintentionally by the people. Part of this sacrifice included two male goats, one of which would be offered up. The high priest would then take the second goat, place his hands on the head of the animal, and confess over it all of Israel’s offenses, their rebellious sins and all other sins. He would then send this goat - this scape-goat - away. Out into the wilderness. Carrying the sins of Israel away. 

This is the tabernacle and the connected ritual around it that the writer of Hebrews is talking about in our text today. This earthly place - this worldly sanctuary - connected to that first covenant made between God and the people at Sinai.

But, do you notice something about this place? Do you notice how far God is in this ritual from God’s people? How there is no direct contact - no direct relationship - between God and God’s people. But that, in order to get to God, you have to go through priests and, ultimately, through the high priest. To get to God. To be in God’s presence.

But, ultimately, God is a God of relationships. I’ve spoken before about the perichoretic nature of God - that God, as the Triune God, is in relationship with Godself, with God’s three persons: Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. That our relational God has created us to be in relationship with God. And also with each other. That we aren’t intended to go it alone. But that God intends we are together. This is the wholeness God desires. This is the shalom God wants.

And so, as God looked at this earthly sanctuary, God could see its weaknesses and its limitations. How it separated God from God’s people. How there was no “way” into the inner sanctuary. No direct “way” into God’s presence for all of humanity.

And so, God determined, as our text says today, to “make things right.” To do something new. To send Christ as our own high priest. Our own mediator. To tear down that curtain that separates us from the presence of God. To break down once and for all the things that keep us from God. To open the “way” for all people into the presence of God. God has flung the door open wide open for us and for all people.

Why? Because God is a God of relationships. God wants to be in relationship with us. And God wants us to be in relationship with others. And with all of creation. This is the new thing that God is doing. The “new covenant” that our text speaks of. A covenant of wholeness of relationship. With God and with each other.

This is what our text is talking about this morning. About how God has opened the door in a surprising way. And about how God has acted and continues to act to restore relationships. Relationships that our own human sins have closed off.

In 1619, 400 years ago this month, twenty people from Africa were brought to the shores of this country. To Jamestown, Virginia. And they were sold into slavery. This was the beginning of 250 years of the intentional enslavement of a people in our country. The beginning of a transatlantic slave trade that ripped African peoples away from their rich traditions, their history, and their assets. It led to the systematic oppression of people of African descent in the US and throughout the world. To colonial and post-colonial policies. To racist beliefs, policies and practices. To imbalances of privilege, power, and wealth. And to the continuing demand for low or no-wage labor that are the manifestations of this legacy of slavery.

And if you think the church has been immune to this. That the church has not been a party to this legacy. Think again. For centuries, scripture was used to justify slavery. And, while there were some Lutherans in the south who questioned its morality, along with a few in the north, “on the whole,” R.M. Chapman writes in his book about Lutherans and the legacy of slavery.  “On the whole, Lutherans did not become strong anti-slavery advocates, nor did they champion the cause of free blacks in the North or the South.” Lutherans were complicit in slavery as they largely stood by. Passively. Accepting the practice as the law of the land. And, even though much of our own Lutheran church history emphasizes being an immigrant church, during the Jim Crow era and much of the civil rights era and later years, Lutherans as a whole remained on the sidelines. Silent. With only a few small pockets of advocacy and action.

Too often we hear in ourselves that we are not racist. That we are not privileged. We may have grown up poor ourselves and with few resources. We have worked hard for what we have. And that is true. Yet, what we fail to see is that we have a system of privilege that has made our lives easier. We fail to look at the log in our eye. To see the rights and privileges that we have had. That our ancestors have had. Privileges that have allowed us to access good education. To choose where we might live. To get loans and purchase property and assets. To build wealth. All while many others have not had those same privileges. This unearned privilege runs deep within us. And we cannot escape it.

Yet, God continues to do new things. To rekindle our faith. And to challenge our imagination. Through Christ, God continues to draw us back into relationship. With God and with one another. More deeply. So that we might begin to understand the harm our sin has caused in our relationships. That we might repent of that sin. And that we might begin to work alongside the Spirit to change the world in which we live. To tear down the systemic walls that divide us. So that our world might be the heavenly sanctuary God desires. The place of wholeness God wants. The shalom that God seeks for us, for all people, and for all of creation.

For these - for these new things that God is doing - may our response be, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Rekindling our Faith! Rekindling our Imagination - Part 3

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

What is your image of God? When I say “God,” what’s the first picture or image that comes to mind?

I had an interesting experience this week at the pantry. Kentucky is an unusual place theologically for me. In Minnesota, it’s easier. For the most part, everyone is either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. And, even if they’re no longer active or don’t attend a church, as you talk to people you still get a sense that the embedded theology - the belief systems that are deeply and almost unconsciously embedded - come from Catholic or Lutheran roots.

Kentucky is different. Here there is more of a hodge-podge of belief systems that come from the traditions of those who emigrated here - such as the Scotch-Irish, who were often Presbyterian. Or the German Lutheran. But, some of the belief systems here seem much more home grown. And that what I ran into this week.

As you know, we’ve been holding a healing service on Wednesday mornings before the start of pantry. In conversation with that group, we decided to add a simple service of holy communion once a month. This week was our first communion service. As it came time to distribute communion, I offered it to one of our pantry regulars and he refused. Which is completely his decision. But, after worship was concluded, he felt the need to explain, I think, his refusal to me. So, he mentioned that he’d grown up as a “hardscrabble Baptist.” A hard scrabble Baptist.

I came to learn that hardscrabble was not simply an adjective describing a tough Baptist life. But, instead, that this was a particular division in the Baptist church - at least according to him - that does not believe in the New Testament. Which explained why he refused communion. And the more we talked, the more I learned that hard scrabble Baptists believe that only the Old Testament, or the Hebrew scriptures, are valid because, as he said, they come from God. Whereas, the New Testament comes from man.

This was a new one for me. Thank you, Kentucky! However, as we spoke, I couldn’t help wondering what his image of God was. Because if one only believes in the God of the first testament - a God that appears to be a pretty angry and violent God (and I have thoughts on that to be shared another time). If he believes in the God of the first testament, what must his image of God be. And, connected with this, how does he find hope?

This is what the writer of Hebrews is up to. Now I haven’t preached the first two sermons in this series to you, so, my apologies if this is at all repetitive. But the community to which the letter to the Hebrews is written is an expatriate community of Greek or Hellenistic Jews. Far from home. Yet, still bound nostalgically to their native land and even to the sacrificial religious system that was still functioning in the temple. Not yet destroyed.

The challenge this Hebrew community of faith was facing was one of apathy. Longing for the religious system of their youth, their faith was becoming empty. People were drifting away. Their congregation was losing its sense of vitality. Gosh, have you ever experienced this?

So, the writer of Hebrews is trying to jump start their imagination. To provide them with different images of Christ. To get their imaginations going and, particularly, to expand their understanding of who Jesus was. And why Jesus mattered.

So, in the first week of our readings, we heard a “high” Christology. That sounded much like the Jesus of John’s gospel. That in former times, God spoke through the prophets. But, that in these times, in this new age, God speaks to us through God’s Son. God’s heir. God’s co-creator. Someone who is the exact imprint of who God is. So that, finally, we begin to truly understand the nature of God.

Then, in the second week, we heard a “lower” Christology. About Jesus as pioneer. Keeping with our Kentucky theme - Jesus as Daniel Boone. Paving the way for us. Going before us. Our brother. Our human brother. Who knows what it is like to live our life. To experience our joys. To weep with us in sadness. To understand us fully. Just as Israel’s high priest understood the Jewish people.

Do you see the skill of the writer? How he seeks to connect Jesus to the religious system the Hebrew community was nostalgic for. A system of sacrifices, led by a human high priest, called and appointed by God to make sacrifices on behalf of the people. Sacrifices that were to atone for the sins of the people.

It is this image - Jesus as high priest - that the writer to the Hebrews expands on in today’s lesson.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
    according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. -Hebrews 4:14-5:10 NRSV

So what was a high priest? Because we hear the title “priest” different images may come to mind. Some good. Some, perhaps, not so good. But the high priest was not simply like a priest or a pastor in today’s church. The high priest in Israel had a specific role. And identity. The high priest was called specifically by God. Set apart. From generations of other high priests. To act in a specific role. One in charge of all things pertaining to God. And, specifically, to offer gifts and sacrifices on behalf of the people for their sins.

Yet, even though set apart, the high priest was not immune from sin. He was as human as you and I. Subject to human weakness. Needing to sacrifice on behalf of himself as well as the rest of the people. It was this weakness - this human-ness - though, that made him sympathetic to the people.

Yet, it is, in a way, like being a pastor. Called by God. Feeling unworthy. Struggling as you do between my saint and the sinner sides. Often looked upon as a leader and example, and knowing that there is likely no bad thought that you have had that I haven’t. No mistake that you’ve made that I haven’t. Yet, understanding your struggles. And what it means to be human.

This is why the writer to the Hebrews names Jesus as the “great high priest.” Because like the high priest of old, he, too, was called to the position of Son by God. Called and appointed to serve God’s people. To incarnate. To become human. To experience what it is that we experience. Our joys. Our sadness. Our wins. Our losses. Our struggles. Everything that we experience. Everything that is human. And then to invite us to approach him boldly in prayer. To Share our joys. Our sadness. Our wins. Our losses. Our struggles.

This is the importance of the incarnation. God knows who we are in Jesus. God knows who we really are. And has sympathy for us. And, then, opens the door for us. Through Jesus. Who became the sacrifice. For us. For you. And for me. Becoming the source of life and salvation for you and I, and all who believe in him.

May you reflect on this. May it spark new life in you. May it jumpstart your imagination. And, may it rekindle your faith. In God. And in the love God has for you and for all people. Amen.