Sunday, December 11, 2022

From Generation to Generation: We Can Choose a Better Way

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

    Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,

        And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus. 

--Matthew 1:18-25 (CEB)

Holy is God’s name, who shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, for those who honor God. Amen.

I’ve mentioned to you before that, when I was 14 years old, my father committed suicide. Painful and traumatic as that experience was for our family, it was made even more painful by the response of my paternal grandfather. My father’s father. Who blamed my mother for my dad’s suicide. Who in his own hurt and pain over the death of his son, my father, chose to strike out. To hurt her. 

Today, we hear a similar story. A story of pain and hurt. But, it is a story with a different ending. A story that teaches us that we can choose a better way.

Being engaged in Joseph’s day was a fully contractual affair. A legally binding contract. Usually decided upon by two fathers. In other words, an arranged marriage. This was the situation between Mary and Joseph. But then, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. As far as he knows, his new wife has been unfaithful to him. As a faithful Torah follower, Joseph knows that, in the case of adultery, the Torah commands that both the adulterer and the adulteress were to be put to death. This is what Joseph could have demanded.

But, quickly, we learn that he doesn’t choose this way. Instead, he decides to divorce her quietly. To call off the engagement. To dissolve the marriage contract. 

But, even this kinder, gentler response is not God’s plan. Enter another divine interruption. An angel. Who appears to Joseph in the middle of a dream. Who first words - as with Mary last week - were, “Don’t be afraid.”  Who says, continue to choose a better way. Choose to stay with Mary. Choose to become an adoptive parent. Choose peace over violence. Choose grace over condemnation.

We might ask why it took the intervention of a celestial being for Joseph to make these choices. To not abandon his partner, even though, under the Law, he was fully justified in doing so. It’s easy for us to condemn him for simply wanting to walk away. To point a finger at him for wanting to preserve his life. Because to remain with Mary would not at all be the easy choice with all that could be put at risk. His reputation. His livelihood. Even other relationships. Walking away was the easier thing. Walking away was justified, wasn’t it? Oh, how we want to condemn Joseph!

But, aren’t we a lot like Joseph? Every day we are faced with opportunities to choose a better way. To put our power and privilege at risk. To do what is right. Yet how often do we decline to engage? Especially when it might put our relationships at risk. Or our jobs. Or our reputation.

Every day we are faced with opportunities to choose peace over violence, whether that is physical, emotional or psychological violence. Instead, like my grandfather, we strike out against or blame those who have hurt us - whether the hurt is real or perceived - and seek to harm them. With our words or our actions. Or both.

Every day we are faced with opportunities to choose grace over condemnation. To go directly to the person who has hurt us and offer forgiveness. Or to confess our error. To stay in the game and in the relationship, especially when it would be so much easier to simply walk away.

There is a reason God has written the law on our hearts. Not to condemn us, but to nudge us in a different direction. To nudge us to be people of a different way. To relinquish the hurt or the shame to which we so tightly cling. To let go of our woundedness, which is what so often drives our need to strike back - woundedness that may come from the situation at hand, but, more likely, from some deep, deep hurt we carry with us.

Imagine if Joseph had not heeded God’s command to take Mary as his wife. What might have happened to her and her newborn child? How might the Christmas story unfolded in a much different way if Joseph had made a different choice?

You and I. We are redeemed by this Jesus. Joseph's son. Emmanuel. God with us. You and I are called to that different way. That different highway envisioned by the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 35 - that Holy Way. A way not traversed by the unclean but by those walking on that way. Where even fools won’t get lost. Where no predators will exist. Only the redeemed will walk on it - those the Lord has freed. Who will return and enter Zion with singing, with eternal joy upon their heads. Where happiness and joy will overwhelm them. Where grief and groaning will flee away.

Sadly, my grandfather never apologized to my mother. Never chose that better way. But, the rest of his family - of my extended family - did. They wrapped their arms around us and held us up, walking the way with us in our grief and loss, loving us, helping us heal and return once again to a place of happiness and joy. They, like Joseph, chose a better way.

With God’s help, you and I can, too. Amen.

Preached December 11, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
4th Sunday of Advent
Readings: Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 35:1-10


Sunday, December 4, 2022

From Generation to Generation: God Meets Us In Our Fear

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”

Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her. -- Luke 1:26-38 (CEB)

Holy is God’s name, who shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, for those who honor God. Amen.

I had a plan. Eighteen years ago, I had a plan. I had a plan for my life and where I was going. Most of you know that, for decades, I worked in the social justice movement. But some of you may not know that, at the same time, I worked part-time as a music and worship director in Lutheran churches, too. I was a life-long musician. That love for music kept me in the church where I worked in many different capacities - choir director, pianist, organist, handbell choir director, children’s music director, and eventually as worship director for an ELCA church in Pasadena. 

But, in 2006 I had a plan. My plan was to go back to school, get my master’s degree in music, retire from my organizing job, and do music in the church full time. 

I bet Mary had a plan, too. She was young, probably a teenager. A virgin. Engaged to Joseph, a simple carpenter. Soon she would be married and then settle down to have a family, because in her culture, having children was most important to ensure the family line. To ensure the generations to come. Yep, Mary had a plan. I’m sure of it. 

But, here’s the thing. My plan. Mary’s plan. Well, our plans are just not often the same as God’s plan.  

Just a year or so after I started graduate school, one day my pastor at the church where I worked sat me down and said, “You should apply for candidacy.” If you’re not sure what that means, to apply for candidacy means to make an application to become a rostered leader in the church. A pastor. Or a deacon. 

I laughed. I laughed at her because that was not anything I had ever or would ever consider. Plus, it didn’t fit into my plan. But, mostly, I laughed because I was afraid. Because, until I joined the ELCA, my entire experience of women in leadership positions in the church was zero. The idea of my becoming a rostered leader terrified me. What would my family say? And what would my high school friends say - the ones I’d gone to school with in that other church, where it was a sin for women to be in leadership positions? 

Mary must have been fearful, too. Because, immediately after the greeting, the angel quickly says, “Don’t be afraid.” Something so typical in all of the call stories we see in scripture. Where so often the first words out of the divine messenger’s mouth are, “Do not be afraid.” Mary had so much more to fear than I did in my call story. What would her family say? What would Joseph say? What would the community say? Not only would her plans be turned upside down. But, there was a very good possibility that she could be accused of adultery, stoned. Perhaps, even killed. 

I walked away from the conversation with my pastor that day with no intention of applying. But, not Mary. She was the one we would call Christ-like, not me. She quietly said, “Yes. I am the Lord’s servant.”

We tell ourselves a lot of stories. And, as you know, God eventually convinced me what my story should be. Last week we heard how God makes room for each one of us in God’s story. As we listened to all of the names, some of them very unexpectedly on the list, we heard the message that, like them, we and our story belong. 

But, here’s my question for you. Are you telling yourself the right story? Is it your story that you’ve discerned for yourself? Like my original plan for the rest of my life? Or is it possible that the story you think is yours really isn’t and that, by holding onto it, you’ve pushed away God’s story for your life. 

Each one of us - like Mary - is called to be “all in” with this thing we call discipleship. All in. Are you “all in” with God’s story? Or all you “all in” with your story? Is it your plan? Or God’s plan? 

Now, I’m certainly not here, expecting that you will be called by God into rostered leadership. Or expecting any of you to get pregnant. (If you’re laughing because you, like me, are way too old to even think it is possible, I would remind you of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Do you think age matters to God? Never say never.) 

Yet, each one of you, like me, has been called into the story that is so much larger than ours. Into God’s story. What’s your plan? Or rather, what do you discern to be God’s plan for your life? Who will you be like in this story? Like me, who walked away in fear. (Or at least who tried to walk away.) Or Mary. Who simply said, “Let it be with me as you have said.” And then gave birth to the Savior of the world.

Whatever your plan, God says to you, “Do not be afraid.” Amen.

Preached December 11, 2022, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Second Sunday of Advent
Readings: Luke 1:26-38; Isaiah 11:1-10

From Generation to Generation: There's Room for Every Story

A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah,
whose mother was Tamar.
Perez was the father of Hezron.
Hezron was the father of Aram.
Aram was the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab was the father of Nahshon.
Nahshon was the father of Salmon.
Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.
Obed was the father of Jesse.
Jesse was the father of David the king.

David was the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.
Solomon was the father of Rehoboam.
Rehoboam was the father of Abijah.
Abijah was the father of Asaph.
Asaph was the father of Jehoshaphat.
Jehoshaphat was the father of Joram.
Joram was the father of Uzziah.
Uzziah was the father of Jotham.
Jotham was the father of Ahaz.
Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah.
Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh.
Manasseh was the father of Amos.
Amos was the father of Josiah.
Josiah was the father of Jechoniah and his brothers.
This was at the time of the exile to Babylon.

After the exile to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel.
Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel.
Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud.
Abiud was the father of Eliakim
Eliakim was the father of Azor.
Azor was the father of Zadok.
Zadok was the father of Achim.
Achim was the father of Eliud.
Eliud was the father of Eleazar.

Eleazar was the father of Matthan.
Matthan was the father of Jacob.

Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary—of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.

So there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Babylon to the Christ. --Matthew 1:1-17 CEB

Holy is God’s name, who shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, for those who honor God. Amen.

From generation to generation. That is our theme throughout this incarnational season of the church year - this time from Advent through Epiphany. It is taken from Mary’s song of protest and praise - a song sung by her in the midst of challenge. In the midst of her vulnerability. Even in these moments, Mary could see God’s vision. That dream of God captured in the reading from Isaiah that we heard last week and, again, today. Perhaps, repetition is helpful for us - that this vision of God for a new way of being for all nations might be more fully and deeply embedded in us. A vision of peace. Of wholeness. Of shalom.

It was a vision that was bigger than Mary. That is bigger than we are. That Christ comes for our collective liberation. That this work of God’s redemption continues and is meant to be lived out and passed on. From generation to generation.

So, it’s perhaps no surprise that, on this first Sunday of Advent, we begin at the beginning. With Jesus’ family tree.

I’m curious how many of you have done any genealogy work on your own family tree? My work really began with my mother, decades ago, when she created a wall hanging for the 50th anniversary of my paternal grandparents. My brother, a cousin and I have continued that work. Over the past decade or so, thanks to, that simple wall hanging has grown into an extensive tree reflecting generations in my family. Not only on my father’s side, but on my mother’s, as well.

Why do we do this work of tracing the generations of our families? Although I can’t answer that question for you, for me it has been a way of identifying where I come from. And who I am. In learning the stories of my ancestors, my story is told, too. 

There is, for example, the story of my father’s family. Fourteen children. Four boys and ten girls. A huge family with not alot of money, at least at the beginning. So, their entertainment was to sing together as a family. To play instruments, especially piano and accordion. To go every Friday night to community dances, which happens to be where my mom met my dad. And, because they lived in such a rural place, nearly 40 miles away from the nearest small town, it also meant that my father and his older brother learned how to fly (and crash) a small Cessna, so they could travel to places they might otherwise not have experienced. Perhaps, that’s how I get my travel bug.

If we look at Jesus’ lineage, we see that he, too, comes from a large family. In Matthew, this family is traced all the way back to Abraham. Then to Isaac, then Jacob with his twelve sons. Then to David, who God promised - covenanted with - that his line would never end. On and on Jesus’ line is traced through the chosen nation of Israel and its ancestors. From kings to prophets to priests. To show us two things about his identity. That Jesus embodies the royal lineage of King David, whose line would be carried on by the Promised One, the Messiah. And that he also embodies the covenantal authority of Abraham, through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. For Matthew’s audience, Jesus may appear to be a simple carpenter, but he is, in fact, the fulfillment of both the promise to Abraham and that of King David. Jesus is the royal successor to David. King. And the promised Messiah. Savior. King and Savior, come to bless all nations. 

But, genealogies give us not only glimpses of the happy or joyful times in our families’ histories, but also stories of challenge and hardship. Sometimes evil. If I look carefully at my grandfather’s history, I learn that the same year he was born, his four-year-old sister died. Two years later, another sister died in childbirth. The following year, when my grandfather was only 3 years old, his mother, my great-grandmother Marian, died at the very young age of 24. Three months later, his father married Marian’s sister, Katherine. If I move to my mother’s side, I find a great-grandfather who was murdered. 

In the midst of the joy of our families, lies tragedy and heartache. Struggle and conflict. And, sometimes, family members who lose their way. This is so with my family. I wonder if it is so of yours.

This complexity is so with Jesus’ family, which contains serious blemishes.

For example, in Jesus’ line, Manasseh and Amon appear - two incredibly evil kings. Or there’s King Jechoniah, an unhappy king who was exiled not once, but twice. Then, notice the women who appear unexpectedly in Matthew’s genealogy, something unusual in ancient times. Many of them experienced their own trauma and heartache. There is Tamar. Jacob’s daughter-in-law whom he impregnated. Or Bathsheba. Unnamed in the family tree, but mentioned as the wife of Uriah, whom David killed so that he could take Bathsheba as his own. And impregnate her with a son she would lose seven days after his birth. Or consider Rahab. A prostitute who hid the Israelite spies as they were scouting out the Promised Land. Or consider Mary herself. A teenager who found herself pregnant and unmarried at a time when such a condition could result in stoning. All of these women, with the exception of Mary, foreigners, often in conflicted circumstances. Yet grafted - adopted - into Jesus’ family tree. Just as you and I have been adopted in, as well. 

What’s your family story? My guess is that it is as messy and wonderful as my family's story. And that of Jesus’ family. In those long lists of names, we remember the trauma and triumph of those who came before. Each name holds a story. And, in Matthew’s genealogy, their story gives way to Christ’s story. A story that encompasses all of our stories, complicated as they are. Weaving them together with generations past and present. Welcoming us in. And inviting us to share Christ’s story and our story, too. Of liberation and freedom. Of peace. Of shalom. With all the generations to come. 

Because, in Christ’s story, there is room for every story. Past. Present. And future. Amen.

Preached December 4, 2022, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
First Sunday of Advent
Readings: Matthew 1:1-17; Isaiah 2:1-5 

Living Out the Covenant: Guns and Butter

Assyria’s King Sennacherib marched against all of Judah’s fortified cities and captured them in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah. Assyria’s king sent his field commander from Lachish, together with a large army, to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. He stood at the water channel of the Upper Pool, which is on the road to the field where clothes are washed. Hilkiah’s son Eliakim, who was the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Asaph’s son Joah the recorder went out to them.

Then the field commander stood up and shouted in Hebrew at the top of his voice: “Listen to the message of the great king, Assyria’s king. The king says this: Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you. He won’t be able to rescue you. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will certainly rescue us. This city won’t be handed over to Assyria’s king.’

“Don’t listen to Hezekiah, because this is what Assyria’s king says: Surrender to me and come out. Then each of you will eat from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own well until I come to take you to a land just like your land. It will be a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you by saying, ‘The Lord will rescue us.’ Did any of the other gods of the nations save their lands from the power of Assyria’s king? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Did they rescue Samaria from my power? Which one of the gods from those countries has rescued their land from my power? Will the Lord save Jerusalem from my power?”

When King Hezekiah heard this, he ripped his clothes, covered himself with mourning clothes, and went to the Lord’s temple. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests to the prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son. They were all wearing mourning clothes. They said to him, “Hezekiah says this: Today is a day of distress, punishment, and humiliation. It’s as if children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength to see it through. Perhaps the Lord your God heard all the words of the field commander who was sent by his master, Assyria’s king. He insulted the living God! Perhaps he will punish him for the words that the Lord your God has heard. Offer up a prayer for those few people who still survive.”

When King Hezekiah’s servants got to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say this to your master: The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid at the words you heard, which the officers of Assyria’s king have used to insult me. I’m about to mislead him, so when he hears a rumor, he’ll go back to his own country. Then I’ll have him cut down by the sword in his own land.”

This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In the days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war. --Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4 

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God, our Creator; Jesus Christ, our Redeemer; and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter. Amen.

Guns and butter. Guns and butter. What do you think is the relationship between guns and butter? Anyone? Anyone study business? Or economics? If you could choose one over the other, which would you choose? Guns? Or butter?

There actually is a relationship between these two things - guns and butter. It comes to us from the study of macroeconomics. (Are your eyes glossing over?) The guns versus butter model shows the relationship between how much a nation invests in its security and defense. And how much it invests in butter. Or, more fully, spending on social things, investing in things that improve or increase social welfare, such as schools, hospitals, parks and roads. Every nation has to decide which balance of guns versus butter best fits its needs - a choice that can be influenced by both external and internal factors. And a choice that can have an impact not only on a nation’s people, but also who are elected as its leaders.

The phrase originated around the time of the first World War. In 1914, Chile was the leading world producer of nitrates. What are nitrates used for? Yep. Gunpowder. Chile had taken a neutral stance in the war and, although it continued to provide almost all the nitrates the US needed, it still made us a little nervous that we didn’t have control over the production. This led to the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916. This directed the administration to manufacture nitrates for fertilizer - in times of peace, and munitions in times of war. The media presented this as “guns and butter.” Guns in war time. Butter in peace.

Today’s lesson from Isaiah shows us the tension and complexity in making the choice between guns and butter. As our story opens, Jerusalem is surrounded by the Assyrian army. They’ve ravaged the countryside - knocking off, according to Assyrian history, 46 Judaen cities, all heavily fortified. People from villages surrounding Jerusalem have fled into the city. It’s overcrowded. Resources are stretched. Food is scarce. Water, too. The temple treasury has been depleted by a tribute demanded by the Assyrian king, Sennacharib. Even the king’s treasury - that of King Hezekiah - has been depleted. Jerusalem is under siege. 

At his king’s command, Sennacharib’s field commander approaches the city. King Hezekiah sends out three of his high officials. Yet, it soon becomes clear that the field commander isn’t really interested in talking to them. Instead of speaking to them in Aramaic, the language they request, he speaks to them in Hebrew - a language the people of Jerusalem will understand. Their vernacular. Why? To spread propaganda. Propaganda that is intended to invoke fear in their hearts for what will come. The guns. And propaganda intended to convince them to abandon Jerusalem -- this place of hardship and starvation -- and surrender to him to be taken to a much better place. To a land he describes in eerily familiar words. A land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Think “land of milk and honey.” Think butter.

How easy it would be for the people to fall into this trap! Perhaps, this is what terrifies King Hezekiah so, leading him to tear his clothes, to engage in rituals of mourning, to go to the temple. And to send his officials to seek out the prophet Isaiah. He knows how exhausted his people are. So exhausted that, as our text reads, it’s as though children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength left to see it through.

It’s an interesting verse, this birthing metaphor. It brings us back to other water and birthing images we’ve seen over these past many weeks. The birthing of a new creation from the waters of darkness and chaos. The rebirthing of our world in the story of Noah and the flood after its near total corruption. The birthing of a new nation, chosen to be a people to show all nations the way of God. Then, today’s image. Of a mother about to give birth, but so exhausted that there is little hope that the child can be born. 

Perhaps that’s where you are right now. Tired of things in the world as they are. The wars that cause vast numbers of refugees. The corruption that seems to only get worse. The many divides in our world. The lack of agreement around caring for our planet. Perhaps you are tired, too. Exhausted from the many ways we just seem to fall so sort of any possibility of peace. Much less any vision or hope for the future. 

But, there is an alternative view. A way that is not about the guns, but about the butter. A profound vision of peace. Where nations no longer learn about war. Where people are more concerned with cultivating food than producing weapons. A vision of shalom. 

That’s what we hear from the prophet Isaiah as he, literally, sees the Word of God. And sees God’s future for that remnant in Jerusalem. And for you and me, too.

What will the future hold? Guns? Or butter? 

This new age, envisioned by God, pregnant with possibilities, will take us to the mountaintop. A mountaintop that is less about a place than a way of being. That’s not about restoring the temple or Jerusalem, also high up. But, it’s about our citizenship in God’s kingdom - an upside-down kingdom led by an upside-down king. Christ, the King. Who leads not with guns, but with butter. Who comes sacrificially for us. To show us the way. A way of justice, and mercy, and peace. And who leads us to salvation - to that shalom way of life that ensures wholeness in every way for every one. So that all nations might flourish. So that all people might have fullness. So that we - you and I, included - might live. Forever. With all the butter we can imagine!

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached November 20, 2022, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Christ the King Sunday
Reading: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Living in the Covenant: Micah and What God Wants

Listen, all you peoples!
        Pay attention, earth, and all that fills it!
    May the Lord God be a witness against you,
            the Lord from his holy temple.
Look! The Lord is coming out from his place;
        he will go down and tread on the shrines of the earth.
Then the mountains will melt under him;
        the valleys will split apart,
            like wax yielding to the fire,
            like waters poured down a slope.
All this is for the crime of Jacob
        and the sins of the house of Israel.
        Who is responsible for the crime of Jacob?
                Isn’t it Samaria?
            Who is responsible for the shrines of Judah?
                Isn’t it Jerusalem?

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace.
When Assyria invades our land and treads down our fortresses,
        then we will raise up against him seven shepherds and eight human princes.

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. 
--Micah 1:3-5, 5:2-5a, 6:6-8 (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the holy Trinity - Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

Elections. How are you doing in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election? Perhaps all you want is to not hear about elections for a long, long time. Perhaps you want to say to me, “Are you serious? Haven’t we had enough election stuff to last us for a good, long while? Just be done with it."

And I get that. But, with my son, both of us being political nerds, we've have spent the last several days reading and sharing back and forth nearly everything we can get about why people voted the way they did.

The exit polls are interesting. As accurate as polls can be. They give us some sense of where voters are. For example, 38% of voters thought the Democratic party was too extreme. And, lest you become arrogant, 39% of voters thought the Republic party was also too extreme.

Then there are voter’s priorities and attitudes. According to a recent poll, about 45% of voters who supported a top GOP House candidate called inflation their number 1 issue from a list of 5. Fifteen percent chose immigration and fewer than that picked any other issue as their top priority. But among voters who backed the Democratic candidate, about 43% called abortion their top issue, with 18% picking inflation and fewer than 15% picking any other issue.

Overall, roughly a third of voters cited inflation as their reason for voting. A third of voters cited the stripping away of a key right for women. And a third of voters cited fear for the future of our democracy as their key issues. As reasons for voting.

Yet, regardless of the issues, or the partisanship, or the way people voted, elections are always a referendum on leadership. On how well leaders are or aren’t doing what they were elected to do. You could say that elections are an indictment of our leadership.

So, too, with the book of Micah, which is at the center of our worship today. It is a referendum on leadership. An indictment by God spoken through the prophet Micah directed toward the leaders of Israel. 

So, who is Micah? Well, to begin with, we call him one of the minor prophets.  Do you know who some of the other minor prophets are? Well, to make it easier, let’s think of who the major prophets would be. Prophets like Isaiah. Or Jeremiah. Or Ezekiel. 

Then, who might be a minor prophet? Think Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah. Micah! And there are a few more, a dozen to be exact. We categorize the prophetic books in scripture as either major or minor, not because of how good or skilled the prophet was. But, simply, by the volume of writings we have by them. Isaiah, for example, consists of 66 chapters. By contrast, Obadiah has one chapter, divided into 21 verses. 

Micah was a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah. If you recall, under King Solomon, the nation of Israel had split in two. The northern kingdom, which had retained the name Israel, built its capital in the city of Samaria. The southern kingdom, now known as Judah, kept its capital city, Jerusalem. Each of the two nations were ruled by a series of kings until, in 720 BCE, Israel, the northern kingdom, was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire. It now had Jerusalem in its sights. Micah, over his lifetime, was a witness to all of this. And, seeing the handwriting on the wall, directed his messages primarily toward Jerusalem. A wake-up call for her leaders.

That’s what we hear in the first three chapters of this prophetic book. A critique of those leaders who, in reality, do not know justice, who hate the good and love the evil. It's a troubling indictment from Micah who uses very visual imagery to enhance his critique about how they have been preying upon the powerless: torn flesh, protruding bone, broken bone, and human flesh cut and boiling in a cauldron.

But, are all the leaders corrupt? That’s the nagging question in this first part of Micah, which looks carefully at everyone--rulers, priests, and prophets alike. In so many other prophetic writings, we hear about the external forces that are bearing down on the two kingdoms. But, here we are warned about the internal forces that destroy a nation: the internal longing for power that comes from within those who have authority and positions of leadership in the community. Over and over the critique is that they - all of the leaders - can be bought for a price. And that when their priorities are about gaining power and riches for themselves and not justice for the community they serve, they destroy the people who depend upon them. As if they are ripping off the skin of their people, breaking their bones, and chopping them up like meat for soup. 

Don’t they see this, these leaders? According to the prophet that’s what’s most terrifying - that the lure of power and the abuse of that power is so seductive and so deceptive that they are not even aware that they have become entrapped by it. These prophetic words of Micah in these first three chapters have us fully convinced that there is no hope for this corrupt community. That its destruction is inevitable. 

But, "as for you," the fifth chapter begins. But, "as for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah." This is the hope we find in these words of the Prophet Micah. In these words about tiny Bethlehem. This small village from which will come great things. This town of David. From which will come the fulfillment of God's covenant with David, the promise that his kingly reign, his line, will never end.  “From you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, will come a ruler whose origin is from old, from ancient days.” 

Into the midst of political turmoil and upheaval of Micah’s time we hear words that speak to the longing we all have, a longing for ourselves and for the communities in which we live. A longing for security and for peace. Peace and security that often comes from the most insignificant, small and surprising places. 

But, then, what do you want from us, God? That’s the question Micah sets out to answer in these closing words of his book - those words we know so well that we might even have them hanging on our walls at home. He begins chapter 6 by asking this question in two parts. 

First, how should we then approach and bow down before God? How should we make sacrifice - or in our language, how should we worship God? Should we bring a year-old calf? Or perhaps greater sacrifice - an extraordinarily generous one - thousands of rams, torrents of oil? Perhaps that is not enough, what about our firstborn children? Is that enough to please God? What, God? What do you want from us?

It's here that Micah reminds the people - and us - of all that God has done. The wondrous act of deliverance as Israel was led out of bondage. The wondrous victory given to us through that king out of Bethlehem - our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. “Don’t you know the story?” God asks them. And us. “Haven’t you heard about my saving acts? Don't you yet know how to be my people?”

Your extravagant gifts. Your gilded and excessive worship. Not what God wants. And not that worship is a bad thing. Empty worship is a bad thing. Worship that does not lead to the transformation of our hearts - that doesn’t lead us to act. What God wants is deceptively simple. One. Two. Three. 

Do justice. Preserve the rights of everyone in the community.

Embrace faithful love. Love in God’s timeless and unconditional way.

Walk humbly with God. Be aware of your need for God, who journeys with us as a partner throughout each of our lives. 

Three simple things. 

Is this possible, we might wonder? Is it possible to be that committed, that inclusive, that loving? It becomes clear to us that God doesn’t want what we own. God wants who we are. Or, at the very least, God wants the world to see whose we are.

Simple. But, oh, so difficult. Only possible with the help of God.

May it be so, God. May it be so. Amen.

Preached November 13, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Reading: Micah 1:3-5; 5:2-5a; 6:6-8

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Living in the Covenant: Elisha Heals Naaman

It’s easy for us, when we read First and Second Kings, to think of this as a history of Israel. And while these books do tell the story of Israel and the succession of its kings, the author isn’t writing just for the sake of history. The author is as much a theologian (trying to understand things) as he is a historian. He’s writing a prophetic history of how the word of God in the Torah and the prophets was the true story of Israel’s God. So, Kings is written from the perspective of someone living long after the exile of the northern kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem in the south, and the exile to Babylonian. This theological history seeks to explain why Israel and Judah are in exile - because their kings and their people have resisted the word of God and persisted in their rebellion. Leading all the way up to exile. 

It’s the story we have heard from the beginning of our readings this fall. God creates a world of beauty and shalom for all of God’s creation. Humanity strays and resists God. Then God works to bring us back into relationship. Over and over and over again. This is the story of the Bible. The narrative arc of scripture.

Today, we read a story about Elisha. Elisha, not Elijah. Elisha was the successor prophet to Elijah. This is a hinge text - helping us make our shift from the monarchy - the reign of Israel’s kings - to the prophets, sent by God to confront and correct Israel’s leaders. They were unsuccessful. Israel’s leaders continued to persist in patterns of idolatry, injustice, and rebellion until finally they were completely wiped out. The kings were wiped out. A remnant of the people would continue. A people who would ache for something or someone better.

But, today and for the next two Sundays, we hear stories of the prophets. 

Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease. Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.

She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.

Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”

So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”

When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”

When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”

But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.

Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.

He returned to the man of God with all his attendants. He came and stood before Elisha, saying, “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel. Please accept a gift from your servant.”

But Elisha said, “I swear by the life of the Lord I serve that I won’t accept anything.”

Naaman urged Elisha to accept something, but he still refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, then let me, your servant, have two mule loads of earth. Your servant will never again offer entirely burned offerings or sacrifices to any other gods except the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master comes into Rimmon’s temple to bow down there and is leaning on my arm, I must also bow down in Rimmon’s temple. When I bow down in Rimmon’s temple, may the Lord forgive your servant for doing that.” (2 Kings 5:1-18 CEB)

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

Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Ever heard that rhyming phrase before? I heard it for the first time when I was living in Minnesota. Let me tell you - you’ve never really heard it until you’ve listened to someone with a nasally, Midwestern accent say it. You know that “Minnesota friendly accent.” Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. 

Speaking of easy. Do you remember the marketing campaign by Staples office supply store several years ago that had “Easy” as its tag line? I had one of those “easy” buttons on my desk at work. And whenever someone would come into my office and ask me an easy question or for something that was easy for me to do, I would punch the button and say, Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!

But, seriously, we do like things easy peasy, lemon squeezy. In fact, our society is driven by ease and convenience. From fast food. To online banking. To Amazon orders. We want things to be quick and easy. If something is too cumbersome or time-consuming, we shy away from it. And try to find alternatives. Easier alternatives. 

Yet, at the same time, if something is too easy, what do we do? Well, we don’t trust it. Ever heard a conversation like this? Well, that was easy. Yeah, a little too easy if you ask me. Don’t get your hopes up. Haven’t you ever heard the phrase that if something is really worth having, it’s worth waiting for. Or worth the extra effort. Parents, how often have you said that to your kids?

That paradox is what we find in today’s story from Second Kings. 

Naaman is introduced to us as a “great man” and “highly regarded” by his master, King Aram. He is a warrior. A mighty warrior. Who has brought great success to this king of Aramea, one of Israel’s fiercest enemies. He is successful, respected, victorious in battle. If we look closely at these introductory verses we see that, in fact, he has won these battles because the LORD has given victory to him and to the Arameans. The LORD. Immediately we get a sense of the universality of this story - of how God acts not just through God’s own people, but through other nations, as well. And their leaders. Even when they are not aware that God is working through them.

But, Naaman has a nagging problem. He has a skin disease. Robert Alter calls it “skin blanch,” meaning he lacks pigmentation in his skin. 

Because of his “success” on the battlefield, Naaman has a very close relationship with his king. It is also because of one of those same “successes” that Naaman has captured a young Israelite girl who has been brought into his household as a slave to his wife.

The young woman, unnamed and unnoticed, makes a comment to his wife: “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” The word gets to Naaman, who hears the suggestion, but doesn’t really listen to it. Because, rather than go to the prophet, as she suggests, he goes to his king. Which is how the trouble begins. 

The king agrees to send a letter to Israel’s king. Along with it he prepares an incentive. Ten kikkars of silver - worth $252,565 as of yesterday. And 6,000 shekels of gold - at yesterday’s value of $3,530,100. Plus ten changes of clothing. I have no number on that today, but, trust me, they were valuable in that time! So, here’s this huge incentive for Israel’s king to help Naaman be cured. And what happens? The king - interestingly unnamed here - misconstrues King Aram’s action. There’s no love lost between these two nations. Immediately, he suspects a trap. That, when he fails to heal Naaman, the Arameans will attack. 

Enter Elisha. He intervenes to suggest that Naaman come directly to him. And he does. Our text says that Naaman - with his horses and chariots, a full military contingent. (Was it any wonder that Israel’s king was afraid?) - Naaman goes to Elisha’s house and waits outside.

Rather than come out and prescribe healing directly to Naaman, Elisha sends a messenger with a cure. Go wash in the Jordan seven times. Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Naaman is angry. “Couldn’t this cure be a little grander?” he wonders. Why not wash in the rivers in Damascus, which are so much better than the little, muddy Jordan? But, his servants - his servants - talk him down. He goes. And is healed. And converted. “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”

Do you notice that conversion isn’t required for healing? In fact, the healing comes first. With no demand from Elisha that Naaman worship God. His worship of God comes from his being healed. His being made whole.

Do you also notice the unexpected voices in this story? Those small, seemingly insignificant players? The slave girl. Naaman’s servants. They are ones - rather than those with power and wealth - through whom God seems to be working most fully to ensure Naaman’s healing. How many times do we see this in scripture? How God works through the most powerless to move God’s reign forward.

How have you experienced God working through the unexpected voices, the small, seemingly insignificant saints in your life? Those offering a well-placed word of hope? Or those who simply modeled faithfulness for you? Those are the ones who, especially today, we are remembering. The quiet voices of those most often insignificant to our world. 

But, not to God. Because these are the ones - we heard earlier - these are the ones who made it through the great ordeal. Who now live that promised life of shalom. A life a wholeness. A life of peace and joy. A life in the very presence of God. A life that we will experience one day, too.

Or as St. Paul writes, For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now we know in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12 NRSV)

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached November 6, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
All Saints Sunday
Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-18

Living in the Covenant: Solomon's Wisdom

Last week, we heard the story of David and his sin against Bathsheba, her husband, Uriah, and, particularly, about David’s sin before God. We heard him confronted in his sin by the Prophet Nathan. His repentance. And God’s forgiveness.

Yet, as I also mentioned, forgiveness does not always mean escaping the consequences of one’s sin. The dysfunctional aspects of David’s actions led to the death of that first child he had with Bathseba, the sexual assault of a daughter by one of his own sons, the murder of that son by another, and a third son who attempted to overthrow David and who lost his own life in the process. 

Today’s reading is about King Solomon. He was the second son of David and Bathsheba. He was not David’s oldest son so, according to tradition, should never have become king. But, unlike last week, when we saw Bathsheba with no agency, by the time a successor to David must be named, she claims her agency to ensure that the line of succession will be turned upside down. And that her son - Solomon - will ascend to the throne. After a great deal of political turmoil, Solomon has taken the reigns of the kingdom - most likely as a teenager. It is here where the reading begins.

The king went to the great shrine at Gibeon in order to sacrifice there. He used to offer a thousand entirely burned offerings on that altar. The Lord appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”

Solomon responded, “You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You’ve kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. And now, Lord my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David’s place. But I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. But I’m here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size. Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had made this request. God said to him, “Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies—asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment— I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. I now also give you what you didn’t ask for: wealth and fame. There won’t be a king like you as long as you live. And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life.”

Solomon awoke and realized it was a dream. He went to Jerusalem and stood before the chest containing the Lord’s covenant. Then he offered entirely burned offerings and well-being sacrifices, and held a celebration for all his servants.

Sometime later, two prostitutes came and stood before the king. One of them said, “Please, Your Majesty, listen: This woman and I have been living in the same house. I gave birth while she was there. This woman gave birth three days after I did. We stayed together. Apart from the two of us, there was no one else in the house. This woman’s son died one night when she rolled over him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep. She laid him on her chest and laid her dead son on mine. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the daylight, it turned out that it wasn’t my son—not the baby I had birthed.”

The other woman said, “No! My son is alive! Your son is the dead one.”

But the first woman objected, “No! Your son is dead! My son is alive!” In this way they argued back and forth in front of the king.

The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead.’ The other one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and my son is alive.’ Get me a sword!” They brought a sword to the king. Then the king said, “Cut the living child in two! Give half to one woman and half to the other woman.”

Then the woman whose son was still alive said to the king, “Please, Your Majesty, give her the living child; please don’t kill him,” for she had great love for her son.

But the other woman said, “If I can’t have him, neither will you. Cut the child in half.”

Then the king answered, “Give the first woman the living newborn. Don’t kill him. She is his mother.”

All Israel heard about the judgment that the king made. Their respect for the king grew because they saw that God’s wisdom was in him so he could execute justice. (1 Kings 3:4-28 CEB)

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

Imagine if Aladdin appeared here today right in our midst. You are offered three wishes. What are your wishes?

There are many tales throughout history of some supernatural power that offers someone a wish. Or two. Or three. I’m a child of the 70’s - remember “I Dream Of Jeannie? Of course, there is also Aladdin, who I just mentioned. Can you think of any others?

Then there's the story about the married couple? Both of them were 60 years old and celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. During their party, they were given a gift. They opened it and found a lamp. Out popped a genie who congratulated them on their anniversary, then offered each of them one wish. The wife wanted to travel around the world. Poof! Into her hand popped tickets for a world cruise. Then, the genie turned to her husband to ask what he wanted. His response? “I wish I had a wife 30 years younger than me.” The genie picked up his wand and “poof!” The husband was immediately 90 years old. (Sometimes we need to be very careful for what we wish!)

Now God isn’t a magic genie or a magic piggy bank - even though we might like to think so. But, in today’s story, God comes to Solomon - this teenage king - and actually says, “Ask for anything you want. And I’ll give it to you.” I wonder if I, as a teenager, would have had the presence of mind to ask for what Solomon did - a “discerning mind.” More literally in Hebrew - a “listening heart.” 

In Hebrew, the heart was not the place of feelings or emotions, as we think today. But the center of understanding and will. It’s the heart that determines what our spiritual direction will be. It’s also the heart where God influences and determines who we will be. So, to ask for a “listening heart,” Solomon is asking for unity between himself and God. And that this unity would influence his own reign as king.

It was a pretty impressive request, coming from one so young. God was pleased by it. And, in addition to giving Solomon that “listening heart” God also gave him other things - things Solomon didn’t ask for. Wealth. Fame. And a promise that, if Solomon would continue in God’s ways, he would life a long life, just like his father, David.

Then, in the second half of today’s story, this listening heart is immediately put to the test with the story of the two sex workers.

It’s important for us to understand that, being a sex worker or a prostitute in ancient Israel did not carry with it the same moral judgment then as it does today. It likely meant that both of these women were widowed, with no family and, thus, no means of support other than prostitution. They lived together. Each with a baby.

We might wonder why Solomon’s first test concerns women, especially women who were single parents and sex workers. Perhaps it’s because, at least for God, justice belongs as much with the wealthy and the powerful as it does with the least in our society. And it is a wise leader who will work to ensure that everyone - rich or poor, powerful or powerless - that everyone experiences justice.

Very soon, we will be casting our votes in an election. If one measure of justice in a society is the well-being of the most vulnerable, might this be something for us to consider as we go about the business of electing leaders? Who is the best choice on the ballot for a leader that will work to ensure that everyone experiences justice? Who should we vote for - the leader that protects only our interests? Or the leader with wisdom who protects the interests of everyone, who works to ensure that social and economic inequities will be addressed and that no one will be ignored? 

Or as one theologian writes, “Wisdom arrives when the soul discerns its destiny, when life aligns in sync with the soul. Wisdom pleases the Lord when it is not self serving, but other serving.” 

Solomon will make many mistakes in his reign. Yet, he is given the gift of wisdom - a discernment that allows his soul to be in sync with God. But he is not the only one in our story with wisdom. So, too, is the heart of the true mother of the child. And, isn't she, perhaps, the real hero of this story? That she, for the sake of her son, is willing to give up her life with him? This is the same Wisdom - the same, self-sacrificing love - that we experience from God through Christ Jesus. Who came to us, to be with us, to serve us - that we, too, might live lives of service, especially to those most in need.

This year, as we go to the ballot box, may this, like Solomon, be our wish, too - that our hearts might be fully in sync with God. And our actions, as well. May God grant it, through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Preached October 30, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Reformation Sunday
Reading: 1 Kings 3:4-28

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

ReMember: David's Regret

In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab, along with his servants and all the Israelites, and they destroyed the Ammonites, attacking the city of Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.

One evening, David got up from his couch and was pacing back and forth on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone and inquired about the woman. The report came back: “Isn’t this Eliam’s daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers to take her. When she came to him, he had sex with her. (Now she had been purifying herself after her monthly period.) Then she returned home. The woman conceived and sent word to David.

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor.”

David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”

“You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power. I gave your master’s house to you, and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. Why have you despised the Lord’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. Because of that, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own, the sword will never leave your own house.

“This is what the Lord says: I am making trouble come against you from inside your own family. Before your very eyes I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight. You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day.” --2 Samuel 11:1-5, 12:1-12 (CEB)

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

Three in one. Three in one women in our culture today will be sexually assaulted. And though the numbers are not good for men either and I do not want to negate the very real experience of boys and men who also experience sexual assault, it is women and girls who are, too often, disbelieved in our world today.

This is not a text that I want to preach today. It is not a text that I even wanted to read today. Because this is a text about rape and an attempt by the perpetrator to cover up and escape from consequences of his actions. But, more than this, it is the story of what happens to leaders - and to us - when we forget our place in the order of creation. In God’s order of creation.

As today’s story opens, there is an immediate foreshadowing of the horror of things to come. “In the spring,” we read. “In the spring, when kings go off to war…David remained in Jerusalem.” David has become, as Robert Alter writes, a “sedentary king.” Lazy, not fulfilling his obligations or responsibilities as king, sending others to do his work. This is hinted at in verse 2 of our text that tells us that David - in the evening - gets out of bed. A traditional siesta would begin shortly after the noontime meal. This means that David has been in bed for hours before he finally gets up in the cooler evening to stroll on the palace roof - a building placed high on the hill so that the king could look out over all Jerusalem. The only other example we have in scripture of a king walking on the roof of his palace is that of Nebuchadnezzar who, while on the roof, proclaims, “Look at Babylon! I built this great city. It is my palace.” 

The monarchy under David has become lazy. Arrogant. Institutionalized. This story will be the pivot point in David’s life. The downhill slide will begin here.

As David is walking on his roof he sees a woman bathing on her roof, part of the rite of cleansing herself after her period - a ritual commanded in Leviticus. This is a woman who is following ritual law. A woman whom we later learn is named Bathsheba. It is unusual that she would be named. Only nine percent of the personal names in the Hebrew Bible belong to women. Yet, not only is she named, but her ancestral family is named, as well as that of her husband’s. Perhaps this is, as theologian Wil Gafney writes, an attempt to identify her as a “good” woman - as coming from a “good” family, so that she doesn’t become identified in the way women who are raped are identified by their “character” - by what they were or weren’t wearing, or by what they were or weren’t doing. There are many preachers - too many preachers today - who still accuse Bathsheba of being a seductress. Even when the text does not say this. Even when it is clear that she has no agency here. David - from a position of power - sends for her. And takes her. In every sense of the word.

Soon we learn that she is pregnant. We know the child belongs to David because of that earlier tidbit of information about her ritual bathing. It is then that David enters into a manipulative and murderous plot to arrange for the killing of her husband Uriah on the front lines of battle. With Uriah out of the way, David is free to marry Bathsheba, pregnant with his child, to save his reputation. To simply add her to the other women he has collected along the way.

Then, just as David has sent so many others to do his work, God sends someone - the prophet Nathan - to do God’s work. Not in the manipulative way David has used his messengers to perpetuate evil, but through a human messenger to carry a message of conscience. Through the use of a parable.

Robert Alter writes that the poetic construction of this parable spoken by Nathan would have been immediately apparent to anyone native to ancient Hebrew culture - that David himself should have known that this was a parable and not a true story. Yet, he is so caught up in his arrogance, so blinded by his guilty conscience, that he immediately demands justice for the poor man - the one less powerful who has been harmed by the one with power. It is only when Nathan confronts David about the many layers of his sin and its consequences, that David repents and acknowledges his sin. Only against God. Not, though, against Uriah. Nor Bathsheba. Nor their unnamed, infant child who will die because of his sin. David’s repentance seems somehow lacking here. 

Later, though, David will acknowledge his deep sense of regret and shame and anguish in Psalm 51, which we used as the basis for our confession this morning. In it, he will plead for God to be merciful, to blot out his sin, to wash him, to clean him, to teach him, to purge him, to make him listen and to create in him a clean heart. To restore and sustain him.

It may seem odd that we end these seven weeks of remembering with such a story of pain and regret. Yet, as for David, Psalm 51 speaks to the deepest fear of our human hearts - that we might, because of our own actions or mis-actions, completely divorce ourselves from God’s love. That we might blot ourselves out of God’s own memory.

Yet, for us - as for David - divorce is not possible. The remembrance of the depth of harm we do to ourselves, to others, to the world, ignites in God an even greater remembrance of God’s love and forgiveness. For us. God’s memory of love for sinners is so much greater than God’s memory for harm. 

David did not lead a sinless life after this episode. But he - as we so often do - returned again and again to God, begging to be remembered - not for what we have done, but for who God is.

Even when we, like David, remember with regret, God remembers us with grace. This is always the end of the story. Thanks be to God! 


Preached October 23, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Pentecost 20
Readings: 2 Samuel 11:1-5, 12:1-12; Psalm 51