Sunday, June 28, 2020

Out of the Whirlwind: Speaking Our Pain

We are in week three of the Book of Job. In the first week, we met Job. And learned of the wager between God and The Satan - an act intended to set up the rest of this thought experiment. And to raise questions. Hard questions. Questions of faith. Such as why innocent people suffer or even why we believe. Last week, we moved into the dialogue between Job and his friends - friends who had started so well by simply sitting beside the suffering Job in silence. But, then who opened their mouths to speak their truths - truths that Job, too, had believed. That if one does something wrong, they will be punished. Or, conversely, that if one suffers it is because they have done something wrong. Yet, we are, along with Job, beginning to see these constructs - these truths - challenged. By Job’s own experience. By his innocent suffering. 

Today, in this third week, we continue in these chapters of dialogue between Job and his friends. Thirty-five chapters. Thirty-five long chapters of back-and-forth between Job and his friends as Job struggles to make sense of his suffering and as his friends try to hold onto their truths, even in the midst of the evidence that is right in front of them. 

As we pick up this morning in chapter 14, we find Job in deep despair.

“For there is hope for a tree,
    if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
    and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
    and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth branches like a young plant.
But mortals die, and are laid low;
    humans expire, and where are they?
As waters fail from a lake,
    and a river wastes away and dries up,
so mortals lie down and do not rise again;
    until the heavens are no more, they will not awake
    or be roused out of their sleep.
O that you would hide me in Sheol,
    that you would conceal me until your wrath is past,
    that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If mortals die, will they live again?
    All the days of my service I would wait
    until my release should come.
You would call, and I would answer you;
    you would long for the work of your hands. --Job 14:7-15 (NRSV)

In the chapters that precede this text, Job has been unpersuaded by the arguments of his friends. He responds to them, even attacks them. And rejects their claims and their assumption that this idea of retributive justice - that punishment or suffering is a result of one’s sin - is not valid. And that isn’t valid because it. Is. Not. His. Own. Experience.

But, what Job really wants is to speak to God. To see God face-to-face. And to sort out with God this misunderstanding that has somehow strained their relationship. Job seeks reconciliation.

And, so, he turns to God to argue his case. He is beginning to come to terms with his situation. He claims to God his innocence. Pleads that God might remove God’s hand. That God would tell him what he has done to deserve this. That God would speak. And God would not be silent anymore.

Then, Job moves onto the destiny of humanity. The struggle of humanity. He draws comparisons from nature. That even a tree stump has hope. That at the scent of water it will live, will bud and grow and sprout. But this, according to Job, is not the human destiny. The human destiny is one of death. And so Job pleads that God might grant him temporary asylum in Sheol - in this Jewish idea of the underworld. A place regarded as a place of no return. Job asks God to hide him in this place until God relents and finally allows Job to make his case before God.

In the next several chapters, Job continues a powerful and even deeper lament to God. With his own struggle, there is a deepening understanding by Job of the struggle of other innocent people. “If I cry ‘Violence!’ I’m not answered,” Job says. “I shout—but there is no justice.” “There. Is. No. Justice.” How familiar those words sound to us today. “No justice. No peace!” The cry - the protest chant - of those who suffer innocently.

Ellen Davis in her book, Getting Involved With God, suggests that we are not accustomed to challenging God. To blaming God. And so, when we find ourselves doing it, we feel guilty and religiously confused. For some of us, the solution is to give up on God altogether. For others of us, it is to cover our confusion about God with a false sense of piety, a fake holiness. Appearing to be holy on the outside, but evil underneath. Pretending to bow to God but grasping for power and control for ourselves as we oppress others.   

The witness of Job for us, particularly in these times, is that rage and even blame that are directed at God are valid. That to cry out to God, “Why?” is honest and true. And even more, Job’s lament that extends over so many chapters gives us permission in our lives of faith to stay in the moment of lament for a very long time. 

We continue in chapter 19.

“O that my words were written down!
    O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
    they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
    My heart faints within me! --Job 19:23-27 (NRSV)

Well, this is surprising! Even as he is in the midst of deep despair, Job suddenly expresses hope. Unexpectedly. Our New Testament lens immediately suggests that the Redeemer mentioned is Jesus. But, if we are to understand this from Job’s perspective, we must look more deeply at the Hebrew. The word in Hebrew for Redeemer is go-el. In Jewish tradition, a go-el was a person who was obligated under family expectation to care for a member in need. In his words here, Job is affirming his hope that he will be vindicated by a redeemer of his own kin, who will be a witness on his behalf before God. And who will declare Job’s innocence before God. Job accepts his human destiny - that he will die. But at the same time, three times in this passage, he states his confidence that he will see God. That he - and not some stranger - will see God. And that, with his redeemer, he will be vindicated. Acquitted. Exonerated. Freed.

There is a witness in Job that teaches us that, because God is in relationship with us, we can freely and honestly speak to God and trust that God hears us and the pain we are experiencing, whether it is personal or that of our broader world.  

This, ultimately, is the paradox of Job. That it is this full admission of pain that eventually opens the door.  To hope. And for us, in particular, even in the midst of chaotic and uncertain and even painful times, we, who know this Redeemer in Christ, have all the more reason to hope. 


Preached Sunday, June 28, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 4.
Readings: Job 14:7-15, 19:23-27; Psalm 121.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Out of the Whirlwind: Unveiling Truth

We continue our story today in the book of Job. Last week, we met Job. And we heard about the wager between God and The Satan - the setup of this fictional thought experiment that is the book of Job. A thought experiment that explores many different questions. Questions about suffering and especially about innocent suffering. Questions of faith. Hard questions that ask us about the nature of our own faith and why we believe.

Today, we tackle another question. A question concerning truth.

As a result of the wager between God and The Satan, Job has lost all his wealth. He has lost his children and their spouses. He has lost his health. Yet, he has not cursed God. Chapter 2 ended with Job in silence. With his friends. Silently sitting. Silently grieving for 7 long days. It is here where our story resumes, beginning, in chapter 3.

Afterward, Job spoke up and cursed the day he was born.
Job said:
Perish the day I was born,
    the night someone said,
    “A boy has been conceived.”
That day—let it be darkness;
    may God above ignore it,
    and light not shine on it.
May deepest darkness claim it
    and a cloud linger over it;
    may all that darkens the day terrify it.
May gloom seize that night;
    may it not be counted in the days of a year;
    may it not appear in the months.
May that night be childless;
    may no happy singing come in it.
May those who curse the day curse it,
    those with enough skill to awaken Leviathan.
May its evening stars stay dark;
    may it wait in vain for light;
    may it not see dawn’s gleam,
    because it didn’t close the doors of my mother’s womb,
    didn’t hide trouble from my eyes.  --Job 3:1-10 (CEB)

After seven long days of silence, Job speaks. The first words out of his mouth are a curse. Job curses the day of his birth. Lamenting that he was ever born. 

It is important for us to understand Job’s position in society. He had been at the top - a patriarch, enjoying great wealth, privileged, highly respected. Early on we are told at the beginning of the story that he was the greatest of all the people in the East. He has the most to lose. And this was a long way for him to fall.

So, he curses the day of his birth. And if we were to continue on for the rest of the chapter, we would notice that his lament does not stop with his birth. He begins to complain about God. Not to God. But about God to his friends. How far he has fallen! Innocently fallen! We can understand his grief and his anger, can’t we? Especially because all of the suffering he is experiencing is not his fault. Or is it?

Enter Job’s friends. We continue in chapter 4.

Then Eliphaz, a native of Teman, responded:

If one tries to answer you, will you be annoyed?
    But who can hold words back?
Look, you’ve instructed many
    and given strength to drooping hands.
Your words have raised up the falling;
    you’ve steadied failing knees.
But now it comes to you, and you are dismayed;
    it has struck you, and you are frightened.
Isn’t your religion the source of your confidence;
    the integrity of your conduct, the source of your hope?

Think! What innocent person has ever perished?
    When have those who do the right thing been destroyed?
As I’ve observed, those who plow sin
    and sow trouble will harvest it.
When God breathes deeply, they perish;
    by a breath of his nostril they are annihilated. --Job 4:1-9 (CEB)

Job’s friends had begun so well. Sitting with him in silence. The silence that finally allowed him to put words to his grief. But, then, they go so horribly wrong. Eliphaz, Job’s friend, opens his mouth to respond. And it is not good.

You see Eliphaz has created his own truth. A construction of his own reality. One that is based on two things. First, his reality is based on conventional wisdom. What we might call common sense. Or what everybody “knows.” 

Secondly, his truth is based on assumptions. Some of these assumptions arise out of his own experience. What he’s seen and learned along the way. Other assumptions come from more universally-agreed upon principles. Such as, if you do something wrong, you will be punished for it. These constructs are how Eliphaz views the world. It’s why he suggests at the end of the reading that maybe, just maybe, Job has done something wrong to deserve this. 

I grew up a redneck. I’m serious about this. My dad, for example, voted for George Wallace. He was a complex man. So I grew up with a certain construction of reality - a way of viewing the world. When I moved to Los Angeles at 19 and I began to experience living and working together with people from many different places, with many different beliefs, and of many different colors, you can imagine how that construct was challenged.

I recall a conversation with a couple of work colleagues, one Mexican, the other black. They were relating to me stories of being stopped without any cause by the police. DWB-ing they called it. Driving While Black. Or Driving While Brown. The construction of my own reality could not let me believe that this happened. Because, in my own experience, I was never stopped by the police without a reason. So, if it didn’t happen to me, certainly, it couldn’t happen to anyone else. And, certainly, not because of the color of their skin.

But, then, my son had an experience that blew this construct to pieces. Some of you have heard this story. He attended California Lutheran University, which was located in Thousand Oaks, northwest of Los Angeles in a very white, very wealthy suburb. We lived in the heart of Los Angeles. My son loved the urban wear look - you know, the pants hanging down, the hoodie. You get the picture. He also drove a 1966 Dodge Dart. A neighbor of ours had given it to him for free. Michael had spent some of his hard-earned money that summer before school on new rims. Rims that were really dope. And urban.

One Sunday night, after a weekend at home, he left to return to school. It was in the wintertime and it was pretty cold outside. The heater in his Dart didn’t work. So, he pulled up his hoodie, put on some gloves, and took off for school. About 45 minutes later, I received a call from him. He told me that he had been stopped by a sheriff’s deputy near school, just after he’d gotten off the freeway. There were no tail lights out in his car. He swore he wasn’t speeding. But, what was more curious was what happened when he pulled off to the side of the road and the officer approached his car. He shined his flashlight in my son’s face. And seemed surprised. “Oh! This was a mistake,” he said. “You can go!” My son didn’t understand what had happened. But, I did. Once the officer got beyond the hoodie and the gloves, the tricked out vehicle, he saw that my son was white. And he let him go. No warning. No ticket. Nothing. 

And the construct of my reality was expanded to accept the truth that my black and brown friends had told me all along. And I deeply regretted and grieved that I had not believed them in the first place. 

This is what is happening here. Both with Job and with Eliphaz. Their own constructs of reality are being expanded in the midst of Job’s suffering to include new experiences, new realities. But, along with that expanded reality, comes loss. Loss of dreams and expectations. Loss of hope. And, so, Job continues his lament. But, this time, it is directly to God.

We read in chapter 7.

But I won’t keep quiet;
    I will speak in the adversity of my spirit,
    groan in the bitterness of my life.
Am I Sea or the Sea Monster
    that you place me under guard?
If I say, “My couch will comfort me,”
    my bed will diminish my murmuring.
You scare me with dreams,
    frighten me with visions.
I would choose strangling
    and death instead of my bones.
I reject life; I don’t want to live long;
    leave me alone, for my days are empty.

What are human beings, that you exalt them,
    that you take note of them,
    visit them each morning,
    test them every moment?
Why not look away from me;
    let me alone until I swallow my spit?
If I sinned, what did I do to you,
    guardian of people?
Why have you made me your target
    so that I’m a burden to myself?
Why not forgive my sin,
    overlook my iniquity?
Then I would lie down in the dust;
    you would search hard for me,
    and I would not exist. --Job 7:11-21 (CEB)

We are in the midst of incredible times. Everything we know. Our own constructions of reality - like those of Job and Eliphaz - are being challenged, expanded, even blown completely apart. We lament this. We grieve the loss and suffering of it all. The loss of life from COVID-19. The loss of life from racism and racist acts. The economic loss. The loss of companionship and community. 

Everything we know is being challenged. What else is there to do but to sit in the midst of it - in the midst of our grief and lament - and to ask God why. Like Job. Why?

I’m sure you have heard it said that it feels as though we are in apocalyptic times. Perhaps, I’ve even said that. It may feel like that. But, I would remind you that the word apocalypse means unveiling. What if this time is an unveiling? An unveiling of the constructions of reality that are not true? That are not consistent with God’s truth? What if God is at work in the midst of our world, in the midst of the evil in which we find ourselves, in the midst of these times, working to unveil these untruths and to rebuild a world of truth? Of new truths? Of new constructions of reality that are God’s reality? God’s truths? Truths that are based in the saving acts of Christ and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit? That are about justice and peace? And wholeness and equity? Constructions of reality that are expansive enough for everyone - for all that God has created? 

Perhaps the question for Job - and for us - isn’t “Why?”. Perhaps the question is, “What if?”.

Preached Sunday, June 21, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 3
Readings: Job 3:1-10, 4:1-9, 7:11-21; Psalm 25:1-7

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Out of the Whirlwind: Sitting in Silence

Today, we begin five weeks in the Book of Job. One of three Wisdom books in the Hebrew scriptures. Can you name the other two? Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs shows us that God has ordered the world so that it is fair. Then, Ecclesiastes observes that this isn’t really so. And it makes us wonder whether God is wise and just. This is one of the questions that is explored in Job. Along with a couple of others, including whether God runs the world with justice and why people suffer, especially why innocent people suffer. These are the primary questions we will explore over these five weeks in Job, which is where we begin today.

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing. --Job 1:1-22 (NRSV)

The story of Job opens in the make-believe land of Uz, an obscure land far away from Israel, in an unknown time. This seems to be on purpose so that our focus isn’t so much on the when and where, but on the who and the why. 

Job is a very wealthy man. Our story tells us that he was greater than all the people of the east. His wealth had not spoiled him, though. Job was a man of integrity - a sound and honest man, who feared God and shunned evil. He was so faithful in fact that he would proactively offer sacrifices for his children. Just in case they might sin and, in sinning, blaspheme God. 

Job’s integrity was noticed by God, which is where we move next. Into the heavens. 

And we see God surrounded by his team, his heavenly council.  Part of God’s team, too, was one called The Satan. This was more a job title than a name. A better translation of his title was, perhaps, The Accuser or The Adversary. He is like the chief prosecutor in the heavenly realm - the one who is to prevent any sentimentality from eroding the order of the cosmos. Including such sentimental things as faith or the love between God and humanity. The Satan thinks this idea of covenantal love - of sacrificial love - is a divine delusion. And so, when we hear this story in the context of the covenantal love between God and Israel, we understand that it is this that is at stake.

God, almost naively, points Job out to The Satan. "Isn’t he wonderful? Did you notice Job? What integrity! What a man of faith!" But The Satan won’t have any of it. “Do you really believe that? Do you think Job believes in you for no reason? Haven’t you blessed him with riches and wealth? Of course he would believe in you? But, take it away and see what happens? See then that he will curse you to your face.” And the experiment begins. And so, too, the destruction of all that belongs to Job.

He first loses his herds and his caretakers. Then it's his flocks and his shepherds. And, then, his sons and daughters.

We wait to hear Job curse God, but he doesn’t. He engages in acts of mourning, but, even in the midst of his grief, he does not curse God. In fact, he continues to worship God.

But, The Satan isn’t finished yet. The wager isn’t over. There’s another part. If we continue on into chapter 2, we see the heavenly scene repeated between God and The Satan. This time the wager is Job’s health. The Satan strikes his body with severe sores from head to foot. Even Job’s wife tells him to curse God. “Are you still clinging to your integrity?” she challenges him. “Curse God, and die.” But Job will not have any of it.

It’s a hard image for us, isn’t it? That God and Satan are up in heaven using us like pawns on a chessboard. Playing games with our lives. Or with our health. It feels like that at times, though, doesn’t it? We try to be good people. We worship regularly. We say we believe. But, do we? On what does our faith depend? On what we can get from God? “God, if I believe, you’ll give me that new job, right?” Or, “If I go to church faithfully, you’ll restore my health, won’t you?” Don’t we make the same kind of deals with God as in Job's story? Isn’t our faith often a transactional faith, believing in God only if God will give us what we want? Do we love God for what we get out of the relationship? Or do we love God for who God is?

After this has happened to Job - after he has lost everything, we read at the end of chapter two, that he simply sits in silence. But, he doesn’t sit alone. His three friends - Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar - come to console and comfort him. When they see Job they don’t recognize him - the sores have so engulfed his body. They weep for him. They tear their garments in mourning. And, then, they sit with him. Silently. Present with him in his suffering. 

Isn’t this what God does for us? What God does for us in Jesus? Who has entered into our own pain and suffering and that of the world. Who has taken it upon himself. Expecting nothing in return, no wager or transaction. All done in love. 

I recently watched a video of a young African-American woman - Kimberly Jones - who was in pain. Not physical pain per se, but the kind of anguished and angry pain that comes from a sense of hopelessness and despair. A young woman who recounted the pain of what it has been like to be black in America for 400 years. Shackled. Enslaved. Families broken apart and traumatized. And, every time her people try to move ahead, try to be free, they are again enslaved. Lynched. Massacred. Incarcerated. Shut out of systems of power. Traumatized over and over and over again. 

Perhaps the first step for us as people of privilege is to simply sit with our sisters and brothers of color. To enter silently into their grief with them. With no expectation of anything in return. No attempt to fly in and “save” them. But to simply sit with them. To be with them in their suffering and pain, in the way that Job’s friends did for him. The way we do it for each other. The way Jesus did for us, for everyone, and for all creation. To simply be with us. Out of love.

May we do this for our friends and family. May we do this for our community. May we do this for our sisters and brothers of color who have been in so much pain for so long. Amen.

Preached June 14, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Pentecost 2
Readings: Job 1:1-22, Psalm 17

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Power of God's Love: Many Gifts, One Spirit

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

It’s been a hard week. As it began, we first witnessed the hanging in effigy - on Memorial Day - of our governor, a racist practice used to stir up images of lynching and to stoke fear. Then, on the same day, George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was murdered by police, calling for his dead mother. And crying, “I can’t breathe!” On Tuesday, we learned that the Justice Department is investigating the death of another black man, Ahmaud Arbury, shot down execution-style as he was jogging through his neighborhood in suburban Atlanta. On Wednesday, we learned that we had topped 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 here in the U.S., with a recognition that people of color are dying at four times the rate of white people. On that same day the 911 tape became public from the death of Breona Taylor - an black EMT shot by Louisville police entering her apartment using a no-knock warrant with no identification or warning. And we heard the cries of her boyfriend, “I don’t know what’s happening. Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.” Then, on Thursday, as we began to see the aftermath of the uprising in Minneapolis and watched it expand throughout the country, we heard these words over and over again: “No justice, no peace!” On Friday, we turned on the news to hear of more uprising throughout our country, as well as news that another 2.1 million jobs have been lost, bringing the total to almost 41 million people out of work. And then yesterday, after days of businesses opening up, we hear that coronavirus cases are spiking once again.

It’s been a hard week. And if we’ve been able to simply turn off our television or radio or ignore this on our smartphones or computers because it has simply been too much to take, then I wonder what it must feel like for those who can’t escape it. For those who have suffered for days and weeks, and months and years, and decades and centuries. And who continue to suffer. 

It’s hard to find words today. Yet, on this Pentecost Sunday, I’m reminded of the words in Romans 8, that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

So, I sigh. And I pray that God, who searches my heart, knows, and that God’s will may come to you today in the few words I do have...

We are in two places in our readings today. We’ll begin in Corinth, because this is where we’ve been for the past few weeks. We know of the divisions in the church there - divisions that boil down to status - the belief that certain people are better than others. It’s this context where Paul writes these words in 1st Corinthians 12.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. You know that when you were Gentiles you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak. So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. --1 Corinthians 12:1-13 (CEB)

One of the problems in Corinth was that those who had been given the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues believed that their gift was better than all the others. By all accounts, the church in Corinth had been given a very full measure of the Spirit’s power. So, Paul sets about teaching them how they might discern God’s work in the activity of these many gifts. And, also, how they might value their brothers and sisters in Christ across that variety of gifts.

Or how they might discern what God is up to or what God may be doing in this place. Questions that we might, particularly, be asking at this time.

To begin with, Paul says that through God’s Spirit, God first bears witness to Jesus as Lord. One way to know whether a movement is led by the Spirit is to listen for its claims about Jesus Christ. Through the Spirit, we know Jesus on the cross, in the Lord’s supper, and in the resurrection. Through the Spirit, the church testifies that Jesus - not money, or security, or self esteem, or paranoia, or power, or anything else, but Jesus - is Lord. Gifts that come from the Spirit proclaim Jesus as Lord. 

They also serve the common good. This is Paul’s second criteria. Do our gifts serve the common good - our common life together, not only in the church, but in the world? The Spirit is all about building up the group rather than enriching individuals. While we each may receive gifts from the Spirit, they are to be used for the body as a whole. If not, or if they can’t be shared, then they are not from the Spirit. And, as was happening in Corinth, to rank one’s gift as better than the other is completely odds with the purpose of each gift, which is given for the good of all.

The third point that Paul makes is that, whatever God’s Spirit is doing, it will probably not be characterized by tidiness. Wherever we find the Spirit’s gifts, it will be messy. What Paul noticed in the Corinthian church is that they were enthusiastic about the more dramatic manifestations of the Spirit’s work, such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, or healing. They ignored the quieter work of the Spirit which is to draw them into a community that respects all of its members. Paul is trying to redirect some of their enthusiasm to the more excellent way of faith, hope, and, especially, love, so that they will return to valuing one another more than themselves and their own gifts. That brother or sister in Christ matters more than all of the spiritual gifts in the congregation, according to Paul. And this will be messy. But, Paul’s goal is not a neat and tidy life in community, but a loving one.

These are the criteria for discerning the work of the Holy Spirit among us. The Spirit proclaims Jesus as Lord. Offers its gifts to the church for the common good. And activates love for neighbor in all of the messiness it may bring. 

Now let’s go back in time a little to Acts and the first outpouring of the Spirit. We read from Acts 2:

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. --Acts 2:1-4 (CEB)

The disciples are gathered together in one house, devoting themselves to prayer, and waiting for the arrival of the promised Advocate. 

The future for them is uncertain. Jesus is no longer physically with them, but they wait. And hope. And trust. And, after these past few months, perhaps we, too, can relate. 

And then these signs of the Holy Spirit - fire and wind - descend on them and the Spirit pushes them out of the safety of the room in which they have been staying.

Fire and wind are powerful symbols. They have the potential both for creation and for destruction. Perhaps they are appropriate symbols for the work of the Spirit in this moment. As we wait in the wreckage of what was or what is coming, as we wait for the birth of what will be, we are called to see visions and to dream dreams. 

We might ask of ourselves what of our old lives, both personally and communally, needs to be burned away? What needs to be renewed? Will we allow the fire of pandemic and uprising to burn away the economic inequality and racial inequity that has led to so much unnecessary and unjust loss of life? Will we allow the fire to burn away mass incarceration and an industrial system that has served no one well? Will we allow the fire to burn away an economic system where too many workers are considered “essential” but are not compensated fairly for their work? Will we allow the fire to burn away the idea that equal access to health care is not a human right?

Yet as the Spirit fire burns and winnows, as the Spirit wind tears down and destroys, we know that the Spirit creates. We have seen unprecedented cooperation between scientists and researchers all over the world. We have seen healthcare workers and many others work in sacrificial ways to save lives. We have seen white people stand as allies with their black and brown sisters and brothers. We have seen people of faith reaching out in our neighborhoods in creative and caring ways. We have seen the face of the earth and the sky renewed. 

So, what needs to be burned away in our personal and communal lives in this time? What needs to be renewed? Or, in our language of worship, of what do we need to repent? And in what ways do we need to witness to the life-giving work of God in Jesus Christ? 

We have been given gifts to discern the answers to these questions. We have been given gifts to help us seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We have been given gifts to witness that Jesus. Is. Lord. In our homes. In our church. And where it is needed right now the most, in our world. 

So, come, Holy Spirit. Burn, blow, breathe, move upon us all. That earth and all that’s in it may thrive. That earth and all that’s in it may love. That earth and all that’s in it may live in the harmony and wholeness you desire for us, for people of every color, and for all of creation. Come, Holy Spirit. Come.

Preached online June 7, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Day of Pentecost
Readings: Acts 2:1-4; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Mark 1:4-8; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b 

The Power of God's Love: Death, the Last Enemy

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:1-26; 15:51-57 (NRSV)

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

I’ve mentioned before that, when I lived in California, I lived and worked in downtown Los Angeles for several years. Beginning in 1999 and continuing for three years, I would drive to work and pass by the construction site of what would become the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. During that time I watched it grow into a huge, kind of monstrous, 11-story, contemporary cathedral. 

To be honest, the exterior design wasn’t appealing. But the interior was breathtaking - in its simplicity and spirituality. One truly seemed to sense God’s presence in that space.

One aspect of the interior that I particularly love is a series of tapestries that surround the sides and back of the worship space - tapestries designed by artist John Nava. Most prominent are those along the south and north walls. Twenty-five fresco-like tapestries that depict 135 saints and blessed ones from around the world. People like Pope John the 23rd and Mother Teresa, from the 19th and 20th centuries. Or Ignatius Loyola, sainted in the 17th century. But, perhaps the most special figures in these beautiful tapestries are twelve figures that are untitled, including children. That represent the many anonymous holy people in our midst. In this space, one feels surrounded by the communion of saints. 

Now you might wonder why I’m talking about this cathedral and these tapestries, and particularly, the communion of saints. After all, this isn’t All Saints Sunday. It’s not the end of the church year. Yet, it is this communion of saints that Paul refers to in these opening verses of chapter 15, which we just heard. Those from whom the members of the Corinthian congregation have received their tradition of faith. In addressing the dispute over the veracity of the resurrection and the dispute over whether the resurrection of the dead will happen in the last days, Paul begins with a reminder to the church in Corinth. That he has passed a tradition of faith onto them, challenging them to hold on firmly to the message he first proclaimed to them. And that message? That Christ died for their sins and his. That Christ was buried. That he was raised from the dead on the third day. That he appeared to Cephas or Peter, and then to the twelve. And then to more than five hundred brothers and sisters. Then to James, Jesus’ earthly brother. And then to all of the apostles. This roll call of the earliest of the saints. Paul uses it to help them understand that this tradition - this eyewitness testimony to the resurrection - has passed from believer to believer to believer. And then to them. And that Christ’s resurrection from the dead can only be true.

But Paul does not stop there. He argues that, if it is true that Christ has been raised from the dead, then it is also true that the Corinthian believers will also be raised from the dead. If this is not true, then their faith has been in vain. Futile. Pitiful. Useless. Without hope. 

But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. And he is the first of what will be many in the last days, when Christ comes a second time. After the kingdom of God, which he has initiated on earth, comes into its fullness. And when all the dead will be raised in bodily form. 

What did this mean for them? What does this mean for us? 

Perhaps Luther says it best: To [Paul] the resurrection is like putting on a beautiful new garment called...immortality. It is [a garment] spun and woven by Christ’s victory. For the victory of Christ [over death] was wrought for the purpose of clothing you with it and of cleansing you from your sin and death, so that nothing of your corruptible body remains…For God did not create man that he should sin and die, but that he should live...This [life] is not brought about in any other way than that we first shed this old, evil garment through death. We must be divested of it entirely, and it must turn into death. (LW 28, p. 2020)

With death we shed our old body, our old garment. This garment that carries with it our misfortunes and frailties. Our error and folly. The evil that we experience on earth. This old garment turns to dust. 

And at the end of days, this new time, this beginning of the new creation will happen when God will raise all the dead and will demonstrate God’s power over the power of death first witnessed in Christ’s resurrection. We will put on our new bodily garment.

It is in that first resurrection, though, that the future of this new world of life has already begun. We, believing in this risen Christ, trusting this tradition of the faith that has been passed onto us over and over throughout the centuries - we live in this in-between time. This time between a world of death and a new world. Of life. This time between - where God in Christ through the Holy Spirit continues to work to bring about new life. New life that is already in our midst, because the future has begun. 

This is the hope that we hold onto as believers in this faith that has been passed onto us through the communion of saints. This is the hope we hold onto as believers in Christ’s resurrection in the midst of this pandemic. This is the hope we hold onto in this time in-between, as we wait to shed our old worn bodily garment and put on our new one - our incorruptible one given to us and to the communion of all the saints. This is what we believe. This is what we hope. This is what we know. 

Or, as Luther writes: Now we say, Scriptum est, but then we shall say, Factum est.

Death has been swallowed up. New life begins. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Preached online May 24, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Easter 7
Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57; Mark 12:26-27a; Psalm 1

The Power of God's Love: The Greatest of These is Love

Today’s story takes us back to the city of Corinth, which was the home of a Christian community founded by Paul. Paul, as an apostle, traveled between cities, planting churches and then, checked back in with them, after he has left. Today’s reading is taken from a letter - likely one of four - that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth after hearing that they were experiencing conflict. As you listen, I invite you to take the clay and begin to shape it into the form of a human body. We read...

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. --1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (NRSV)

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

The Corinthian congregation was beset with division.

Situated in a cosmopolitan and diverse city, the church was immersed in a pluralistic culture. People came into the community with many different beliefs, from different classes, slaves and free, Jew and Gentile, from a variety of national and ethnic groups present in the city.

So, it was only to be expected that this diversity would be present in the church and would lead to division and conflict. Some of the examples of this division and conflict, and of the problems addressed by Paul in his letter include factions within the congregation, including members who had brought lawsuits against each other. There was an abuse of Eucharistic practices where certain people, mostly of lower class, were being excluded from communion. There was even a man engaged in a very public affair with his step mother. Perhaps most troubling to Paul was that the church seemed to have accepted a spirituality that led some to deny the resurrection.

The church was a mess.

Last week I mentioned that much of the division came from a desire for status. Some of this status revolved around the issue of spiritual gifts and whether certain gifts were better than others. As our reading opened, we heard Paul mention a few of these gifts. Did you catch them? The gift of speaking in tongues. The gift of prophesy, the ability to speak the prophetic word. The gift of generosity.

These were only a few, but there were many other gifts present in the congregation - gifts poured out on them by the Holy Spirit. Gifts such as administration, hospitality, leadership, discernment, healing, knowledge, evangelism, teaching, miracles, mercy, service, and faith. Among others.

In the chapter that precedes today’s reading, Paul begins to address this dispute over certain spiritual gifts and whether some are more important than others.

To do so, he uses a comparison with the human body.

This was a metaphor that the community would have been familiar with. It was common in Greek and Roman political speeches to use this metaphor of the body to encourage social unity based on a certain hierarchy...that certain parts of the body were more important than other parts. That those that were weaker were dispensable. That those that were more important were treated with greater respect and honor.

Paul turns this cultural understanding upside down. He writes of a “more excellent way” of being the body - of being the body of Christ - urging the Corinthians to understand that every part of the body is important. That no part is unnecessary. That the weaker parts are as important as the stronger parts. That when one part of the body rejoices, all rejoice. And that one part of the body suffers, all suffer.

Paul challenges the church in Corinth to understand that, as they are reveling in their newfound gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit, they have completely missed the point. They have failed to understand that their gifts were ultimately to be used for the edification - for the building up - of others.

Because this is what love does. Because this is what love is. Love is a gift that is greater than the ability to prophesy, to fathom spiritual mysteries, to speak in other tongues. Love is a love that loves the other more than oneself.

Love is what God is.

It’s at the cross where Love is found. Where Christ is patient and kind. Not envious or boastful. Not rude or seeking advantage. Not irritable or keeping a record of his complaints. Not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but in the truth. It is at the cross where Christ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

For the Corinthian church. For you. And for me.

This love is the force that can make Corinth a community again. This love nourishes and sustains all Christian communities, including ours. This love shapes us and our love, as this passage in 1st Corinthians 13 becomes the poetry and prayer that puts us in touch with what we now are not and reminds us of who and what we were meant to be. It is the foundation of our freedom that allows us to maintain and establish relationships and that turns us outward. To live caring and compassionate lives, not only in our church, but outside our church and especially for the neighbor in need.

Each of us comes here in all our diversity and differences. With numerous gifts and abilities. We are not asked to leave this diversity and difference at the door. Unity and diversity - like the body and its parts - are not incompatible.

But what we are asked to do is to love one another in the same kind of self-sacrificing way of Christ on the cross.

Find a piece of clay or Play-Dough or make your own. Then, out of it, form a clay figure. Imagine if everyone in our community did this. Would you notice that we come in all different colors and shapes, from all different places and experiences? With all different kinds of opinions and gifts? That this is how God has created each one of us to be? But, do you also notice that, together in our diversity, we are a beautiful and unified body of Christ.

May you know that you are unique. May you know that you are an important part of this body of Christ. May you know that you have been given amazing gifts by God to be used to lift others up. And may you know that you are loved by me, by this community, and most importantly by God. And that through God’s love for you, God, you have been set free to love and serve.


Preached online on May 17, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Easter 6
Readings: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Mark 12:28-31; Psalm 119:1-8