Category: ‘Sermon’

Bands of Human Kindness and Cords of Love

15 November, 2015 Posted by liascholl

A sermon based on Hosea 11.

A friend asked in a coffee shop recently:

How do you reconcile the idea of a loving God with all that happens in the world?

It’s the oldest question in the world. And when we look at the stark horror of what has happened this week in Paris, in Beirut, in southern Japan, in the Bosso district of Niger, and in Baghdad It’s hard to start anyplace but disbelief and sorrow.

How can we reconcile the idea of a loving God with all that has happened in the world?

This is the question, I believe, that the book of Hosea seeks to answer. In fact, I think it’s the question the whole of the Bible seeks to answer. Why do bad things happen, if God really loves us?

Here’s a little background of our text from Hosea this morning. Hosea is one of the “minor” prophets. The major prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel. Their books are longer, and their content has broad, even global implications. The minor prophets are smaller (although Hosea and Zechariah are almost as long as Daniel) and the content is more narrowly focused.

Minor prophets are not less inspired than the majors. It’s probably just hard to think of them all as one body of prophets.

Hosea’s ministry happens about 100 years after Elijah, and this places it in the eighth century BCE. So perhaps 760 to 725. This is smack in the time of the Assyrian captivity of the Hebrew people. The Northern Kingdom was hauled off by Sennacherib, and the Southern Kingdom, including Jerusalem, was besieged, but not taken.

The book kind of goes like this:
God tells Hosea to take Gomer as his wife, an unfaithful wife (some translations even say “a wife of whoredom.”). Then they have children. They name them God scatters, No mercy, and Not my people. Uplifting, isn’t it? Then Hosea returns to her former lifestyle.

The overarching metaphor of the text is that Hosea is God and his wife is the people of Israel. It is, by the way, a metaphor that makes my poor feminist heart shudder. On the other hand, that metaphor serves a few points: first, to indicate the idea of covenant between God and the people, second, to underscore the inequality of that relationship between God and Israel (remembering that there was inequality in the marriage relationship during this time), and finally, to understand what happens when the covenant is broken—this book is like a lawsuit against Israel for breaking the marriage covenant between man and wife.

But our text this morning? Found in the 11th chapter, it’s a love song, and even a lament. It is also a promise. Think for a minute how you picture the God of the Hebrew Bible. Many say that vision of God is a graceless, mean, angry God. But this text stands in opposition to that. This imagery is so filled with love, longing, and hope.

And ultimately, answers the question, “How can we reconcile the idea of a loving God with the horrible things that happen in the world?”

So what is love? In our text this morning, the word for love is ahav, not hesed. Hesed is that abiding, covenantal love. But ahav is the word for romantic love and parental love, which means to nurture, or to devote completely to another.

I went to the internet to find some definitions of love.

James Thurber, who wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty said, “Love is what you’ve been through with somebody.”

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, says, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”

Victor Hugo, who wrote Les Miserables said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved—loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”

But the best definition I found was from Neil Gaiman:

Have you ever been in love? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life. You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness,…It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.”

What if God’s love for us makes God that vulnerable? Because I think it does. I think you can hear it in this passage today. These are the ways this love poem goes:

God’s love looks like a mother.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. “it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

God’s love doesn’t end.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”

and more

My heart recoils within me; compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

God is saying:


Fall on Your Faces

8 November, 2015 Posted by liascholl

A sermon based on 1 Kings 18.

I wonder if you all know the composer, Arvo Pärt. He was born in Estonia in 1935. He is a rather prolific composer, which includes choral pieces and orchestral pieces. My favorite is a piece called Spiegel im Spiegel, or Mirror in Mirror, which was written for a piano and violin.

In a recent Guardian article Gunter Atteln said, “In order to understand Pärt, one needs to know that he is a religious person. You don’t need to be religious to feel his music, just as you don’t need to be religious to feel the music of Bach.”

But you also have to understand that for nearly ten years, he didn’t write a single piece. In his young life, he composed many songs, but in the 1970s he seemed to go through an existential crisis. He quit composing. One writer said, ” Pärt no longer believed in the musical forms he was depending on.” During this time, he tried many ways to return to music, saying “I hoped, of course, that I [could] find the way out, but also the hopeless was an everyday guest,” He continued, “I was full of energy. It was possible that I explode from all of this situation.”

In 1976, he wrote his first piece with a new style he began to call “tintinnabuli” from the Latin, “little bells.” The style consists of two lines, the first is the melody, which proceeds mainly in steps up and down the scale. The second line underpins each note of the melody with a note from a harmonizing triad that is positioned as close as possible to the note of the melody, but always below. Pärt says, “This is the whole secret of tintinnabuli. The two lines. One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us.”

For me, that is the key both to todays’ text, and to the idea of prayer that we’ve been talking about today. “Who we are, and who is holding and caring for us.”

Let’s look to Elijah. I have always wondered what the big deal about Elijah is… Malachi prophecies that Elijah will return before the day of the Lord comes. When Jesus asks the disciples who the crowds say that he is, the disciples answer, “Some say that you are the prophet Elijah.” When Jesus is standing on a mountain, at the Transfiguration, he is pictured with Moses and Elijah. Later, one of the disciples asks, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus explains that Elijah had come, and that they did to him whatever they pleased. But what is the significance of this prophet who we hear about in the first and second book of Kings?

As I have studied this morning’s text and the passages about Elijah’s life, I began to see something. I began to see Elijah as a prophet during what Thomas Cahill calls “a hinge time.” This is a time when everything changes, and Elijah stands in the middle, connecting the past to the future, bringing about a new and different covenant with God.

We don’t know anything about the call of Elijah to prophethood, but we do know about the time when he was called

Ahab was king and Jezebel was queen of Israel, the Northern Kingdom. The text specifically says that Ahab was the worst king. “He did more to provoke the anger of the Lord than had all the kings of Israel before him.” He worshiped Baal. He killed prophets. He formed illicit partnerships with other nations. Ahab was a bad dude. So God brought drought to the land. Which, of course, brings a famine.

Remember the other famines? Famine drove Abram and Sarai into Egypt. Famine drove the Hebrews into Egypt where Joseph was in favor with the king. That’s how the Hebrews became enslaved to the Egyptians and to Pharaoh in the first place. Famine in the land caused Naomi to flee Israel. Famines were bad. But this one didn’t send the people of Israel out of the land. It did, however, send Elijah to the widow of Zarephath’s home, where God filled up her pot of oil and her stash of flour each day so that she might feed her family and Elijah.

So God sends Elijah to see this wicked king. Elijah challenges Baal, the god of Ahab, to a duel. Two altars are built. Two sacrifices made. The one swallowed up in fire wins. The prophets of Baal dance around their sacrifice, calling on their god. They wait and they wait for Baal’s sacrifice to catch fire. Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal with questions, like “Is your god sleeping? Is your god out traveling?” The altar of Baal does not catch fire. (Editor’s note: this would make an amazing Monty Python movie.)

Just to make the fight fair, though, Elijah saturates the God of Israel’s altar with water. Gallons and gallons he pours over it. He calls out to God, only once, and the sacrifice is swallowed in fire.

Of course, this makes Ahab and Jezebel very angry. But what makes them even angrier is that Elijah’s fire has convinced the people that God is God, and they round up the prophets of Baal and kill them all. The drought ends, rain falls on the land of Israel.

I am sure that Elijah thought that this would make him a hero. I think he thought the nation would turn on a dime, repent, and begin worshiping God again. But it doesn’t happen that way. Instead, Jezebel is seeking to take Elijah’s life.

So he bolts. He runs for the hills. He sits himself under a broom tree and begs to die. Then he sleeps. And sleeps. And sleeps.

It’s easy to see what’s going on here. Elijah is suffering from a loss of his dreams. He is suffering from a loss of hope. He is suffering from depression. An angel comes, taps him on the shoulder, wakes him up, and feeds him. The angel says, “Get up and eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” It’s provisions from heaven, like the manna from the sky.

Elijah gets up, walks forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb… Hmmm. 40 days and 40 nights—reminds me of Noah, when the rains came 40 days and 40 nights. And 40? Wasn’t that how long the Hebrew people wandered in the desert? 40 years? And that number 40? Wasn’t Jesus in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights as his preparation for ministry?

And let’s not forget that Mt. Horeb (which is another name for Mt. Sinai) is where God has done some pretty amazing stuff. God called Moses out of the burning bush there. God gave the 10 commandments there. God also showed Moses the promised land from Sinai. It’s a place of covenant and promise. A place of hope. Being on Mt. Horeb is like proclaiming, “I am going to do a new thing here!”

Then God asks Elijah a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Poor, poor pitiful Elijah. It’s like that song  “Nobody loves me, every body hates me, I’m gonna eat some worms.” Elijah holes himself up in a cave and doesn’t come out until…

The fireworks begin. The wind rushes through. BUT GOD IS NOT IN THE WIND. A might earthquake rumbles. AND GOD IS NOT IN THE EARTHQUAKE. Then fire burns everything in its path. AND GOD IS NOT IN THE FIRE.

Sheer silence follows.

A small murmuring. A still small voice, some translations call it. When Elijah felt the silence, he knew. It’s a new thing. And he slipped his cloak back on, this cloak that is the symbol of his prophethood, takes one look back at his old calling, the old dreams, and says to the Lord, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” The emphasis moves from “poor, pitiful me,” to ““God called me to do this work. I’m gonna get off my butt, stop my crying, and build it again.”

Then God says, “Go.” Elijah goes. He follows in the footsteps of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 when God tells he and Sarai that they will start a new nation. He follows in the footsteps of Moses in Exodus 3 at Mt. Horeb, watching the burning bush when God says, “Go to Egypt and get my people out of slavery.” He makes way for the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.” And Elijah forms a path for the Advent of Jesus into the world.

Elijah stands at a hinge in the history of salvation. Bridging the covenant of God with Abram, with Moses and the Hebrew people, bridging the new covenant of God through Jesus, bridging between the Tower of Babel, when the shared language was destroyed, to Pentecost, when languages become one again.

In today’s text, Elijah stands at a hinge in his own personal journey. His call changes after meeting God in the sheer silence. While he continues to look at the past, he is called into a future that is different. No longer a force to be reckoned with, he becomes a bridge to the future—anointing the new kings of Israel and Judah, and anointing the next prophet, Elisha.

And Elijah’s greatest fear, and his greatest wish, under that broom tree never happens. Even though he prays for death, he never meets it. Instead, he travels to Bethel, where Abram build the first altar to the Lord, he walks past Jericho, where Joshua led the people to take the Promised Land, and he parts the Jordan River, like Moses parting the Red Sea. Elijah never dies. He is taken up to God on a chariot.

Each of us stands, at some point in our lives, in this hinge where the silence of God takes us to a new place, a new calling. We may be standing in this hinge today. The Church universal is standing in this hinge. The question is, will we listen to the still, small voice? Will we accept the mantle? Will we get off our butts, stop our crying, and rebuild?

The good news is that we’re not alone. We serve a God who believes in our value and our worth and loves us like crazy, loves us enough to take on that mantle, the cloak of humanity, through Jesus, to join us on our journey.

The only way to hear the still small voice is to pray. The only way to stay connected to “who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us” is to pray. The only way to move through the hinge time is to pray.

You have been given a pledge card this morning that says PRAY. Will you pledge to pray with one another today? I’m asking that during the next moments of silence, that you pray—to decide how to fill out the pledge card. Then, when you are ready, bring it forward to place it on the altar.



Saints and Sinners

1 November, 2015 Posted by liascholl

In the new book, Accidental Saints, Finding God in All the Wrong People, Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattoo-having, curse-word-saying pastor of the Church of All Saints and Sinners, tells of seeking a new saint, one she could model her life after as she began a new church. She found Alma White, who planted a church in 1901. Alma Bridwell White was the founder and a bishop of the Pillar of Fire Church and in 1918, she became the first female bishop in the United States. She was noted for her feminism and “her association with [wait for it…] the Ku Klux Klan, her anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and hostility to immigrants.

Some role model, huh?

And yet, these are often our greatest role models marred? And aren’t we often struck by how flawed our saints are, and how wonderful our sinners are?

Let’s look into the text from this morning…

Our story starts with the son of Solomon, Rehoboam. Israel has made him King. (Remember, Israel is the northern kingdom, so all the Yankees had voted him in). He’s trying to figure out what kind of leader he will be. The Israelite assembly went and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our workload very hard. Lessen it, and we will be loyal.

King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon “What do you advise?” They answer, “Lessen the pain, and they will be serve you forever.”

But Rehoboam ignored their advice and sought the counsel of the young advisors who had grown up with him and now served him. “What do you advise?” he asked.

They said to him, “Say to them: ‘My baby finger is thicker than my father’s entire waist! So if my father made your workload heavy, I’ll make it even heavier! If my father disciplined you with whips, I’ll do it with scorpions!’”

This is Solomon’s son, y’all! And it’s pretty clear from this text that Solomon isn’t the wise and good king that we all thought he was. And yet…

So the people instead turn to Jereboam. Lead us, they ask, but what happens then? Jereboam, to keep them interested, turns, instead to idol worship—golden calves.

So what do we do with all of that? This is another Sunday where I’m flummoxed with the choice. This text can be about leadership, sure. Sort of a “How not to win friends and influence people” lesson.

Or this text could also be about the voices we listen to—I’d call it “The company you keep.” His advisors seemed to give good advice, that would benefit the people. Rehoboam’s friends, on the other hand, gave terrible advice, even lewd advice (My baby finger is thicker than my father’s entire waist!).

Or, maybe, the text can be about all of us… that even within our calling, our livelihood, our lives, we can do both good and bad things. I mean, you don’t see it in this text, but it’s possible that Rehoboam was a decent person, except for this one decision.

But seriously? This is where I keep going with it. That we all have both the capability of bad within us, and the capability of good within us.

It is the human condition. had an essay yesterday about Oliver Sacks. She recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.

“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.

This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses.

Oliver Sacks says,

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.

He continued:

My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind.

The human condition means that many of us are broken by our “upbringings, our cultures and our times.” That we get broken, and which means that we then go break those around us.

A friend sent me a newspaper article by Sydney Harris, who died in 1986, called Seven Magic Words. In this editorial, the seven magic words are “See him as the child he was.” Harris continues, “Remember that he began his life with laughing expectancy, with trust, with warmth, desiring to give love and to take love.

“And then remember that something happened to him – something he is not aware of – to turn the trust into suspicion, the warmth into wariness, the give-and-take into all-take and no give.

See him as the child he was.

Because life makes us all saints and sinners.

But it’s also good to remember another word of advice from Nadia Bolz-Weber. She writes, “It has been my experience that what makes us saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners.”

Thank God. We may be sinners. But God’s love makes us saints.



Celebrating God’s Presence

25 October, 2015 Posted by liascholl

Based on 2 Samuel 5:1-6, 6:1-5

I’ve been wondering how to define the word “church.” The dictionary definition is “a building used for Christian worship.” Or “a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrine.”

And the Urban Dictionary, my favorite, says that church means, “to strongly agree, as if it is law.” As in, “Wake Forest Baptist Church is awesome!” to which the reply is “Church!”

The Bible defines an ecclesia, or assembly, first, as the body of Christ, and it is often defined as a local assembly or group of believers. It is also referred to as the body of individual living believers and as the universal group of all people who have trusted Christ through the ages.

I don’t disagree with those definitions, but they leave me wanting. Frankly, it’s not enough to get me up every Sunday morning… It’s not enough to make me wake up everyday and be excited about coming to work. It’s not enough to put up with the difficult pieces of being church together. It’s not enough to drive me to do, give, and serve better.

In the days of my youth, church would have been defined as a community of people who share the same belief. But seriously. if that’s the definition, we’re in trouble. We’re Baptist, who by definition, have two sacraments: believers’ baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper. Who among us agrees on these two things? None of us!

Let’s look at our Bible text this week. It’s the story of David moving to Jerusalem, and ultimately, moving in the direction of building the Temple. Why not just stay in Hebron? Is God any more present in Jerusalem? Why build a building? Is God any less present in the trees and the sky and the Jordan River? Why battle the others for this move? This kingdom? This community?

Although the kingdom of David was impressive, it is the definition of messy. Throughout the entire narrative, you have a bad thing happen, then a good thing happen. David’s activities in 6:1-6 reflect David’s obedience and leadership, and yet, they are marred by battles against the Philistines, and a reminder of the constant military and religious threat that will plague Israel for years to come. The movement of the Ark of the Covenant is triumphant and yet in the next verses, we see the story of Uzzah, who reaches out to save the Ark and is struck dead.

It’s messy. As is the kingdom all through its life. Which makes it a perfect analogy for the life of church, because all of life in community is messy. But without community, life is ineffective, at best, and desolate at worst.

As I work towards defining church, I’d like to define it first, by what it provides.

Church provides healing:
Laurie Brock says:

We all have wounds on our souls. The metaphor of burns works for me. Life burns us. Our relationships burn us. Events burn us. Some of the burns are painful for a while, then heal fairly shortly. Some burns are deeper, those second degree fires that need more time and care to heal well, and the memory of the pain stays around for a bit.

Then we have the deep, scarring third degree burns from our encounters with others. Most of these soul burns occur on our young skin that hasn’t been exposed to life enough to have much of a defense to the scorching behavior of others. We carry these deep, traumatic soul burns with us until we find places or circumstances in our lives where we are called to face the uncomfortable healing process.

Healing comes through community, through sharing our hurts with others, though loving each other in spite of our aches.

Rozella Haydee White on twitter said, “church continues to love me back to life when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death with depression.”

Church transforms strangers into friends:

Ruth Everhart tells a story of visitors in her dwindling church, and how they impacted worship. She writes:

But for an hour, that Body of Christ was able to receive and give the peculiar kind of energy that comes when believers pause to consider scripture, and let the Spirit move between them. It’s the peculiar energy that transforms strangers into friends in Christ. Such a moment is not everything. It is maybe not enough. But it is something. It is worth pausing to notice. It reminds us why the church began in the first place. We are not just individual Christians trying to make it on our own. We are knit together by a peculiar energy into a larger Body, which has a power that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Church supports spirituality:

Jared Byas says on twitter, “Often, the church believes on my behalf. So, from the church I get belief when I can’t believe alone.”

Mihee Kim-Cort, a Presbyterian pastor, writes, “The church was given to us as a way to care for each other, a way to be a glimmering of heaven-on-earth and God’s kingdom-come, the church is meant to be food, meant to be breath, meant to be song.”

Church is not just about us, it’s about THEM.

You know, for me, the definition of church encompasses these things as we care for one another. But it also encompasses another thing as we care for the community around us. If you look really closely at the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, you find that God’s purpose for Israel was never about taking care of the people of Israel. Over and over again, Israel is meant to be a light unto the nations, a blessing to others, people who take care of the poor and needy.

And that is the image for church, too. When I think about the role of church in the world, the only thing that I know is that we’re to be working for justice, expanding the idea of the image of God in humanity, curing loneliness, helping others heal from trauma, loving our neighbors and our enemies.

God intends us to be a church for others. Did you hear that? God intends us to be a church for others. Yes, it’s important how we are with one another, but may be more important how we treat people in our community.

Because the church is not anything if it is not vital to the community around it.

So that’s my definition of church. Church is a group of people who are bound together by faith in God, as different as those faiths may be, who gather together to heal their hearts, transform their relationships with God and others, and care for the communities in which they live.

And from what I’ve been seeing, we certainly are a church together.

The best analogy I can find for church is our marching in the PRIDE parade. Walking down the street, holding a sign that says, “Wake Forest Baptist Church,” at that moment, I could see the vision of the Kingdom of God. Standing up for people who have been oppressed. Saying to others, “God loves you—all of you!” Making sure that LGBTQ people have equal rights and have a place at the Communion Table.
But not stopping with LGBTQ folks. Making sure that there are equal rights for all people. And especially, all of us who feel those first, second and third degree burns.

But I see it here, too, in our successes in the last year. Look at all we have accomplished. We have gotten through another time of defining our relationship with the University, we have moved our offices, successfully, across the road. We have changed some of the behaviors that were leading to conflict, the way we communicate and make decisions. We have celebrated new marriages. We have laid dear friends to rest. We have welcomed visitors, inviting them to the Table through the bread from the outreach committee. We have shared worship together, and watched as our worship volunteers have blossomed in their service. We’ve begun anew with our children, and they’re engaging with the Gospel in new ways. We have endured staff changes, and office changes. And we have increased our giving, both financially and service-wise, and we are meeting and exceeding our financial challenges.

It is now our time to “celebrate in the Lord’s presence with all our strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.” If you haven’t done it yet, please reach around and pat yourself on the back. You deserve it.

And let us take time to thank God, too, who has made it all possible.

But we’re not done yet. There is still much to do. David’s years in Israel as king were only the foundation for what was to come—new life through Jesus Christ. It was all ordained by God, carried by God, loved by God, fulfilled by God, and gathered by God. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We’ve only just begun.

The Prison of Bitterness

18 October, 2015 Posted by liascholl

Based on Ruth 1:1-24

The book of Ruth is found just after the Book of Judges. In the first sentences, the book of Ruth places itself in the time of judges during a time of famine. Naomi, her husband and sons, move to Moab, where the sons marry. Then the father dies, the sons die, and Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are left together.

You know, many people believe that the Hebrew people of our Bible were not an evangelizing group. That there was a matrilineal aspect of Judaism that could not be circumvented. But they’d be wrong.

There are lots of examples of just the opposite. Examples of the expanding nature of Judaism, it’s response to outsiders, and the welcoming nature of the religion that goes beyond our current understanding.

Ruth is an example of how outsiders can become good Jews. Ruth becomes a good Jew, “whither thou goest, I will go, your God will be my God.” In fact, she becomes such a good Jew that she is a progenitor of David and Jesus.

Amy-Jill Levine says, “the book of Ruth does not concentrate on international relations or community apostasy, war or death. Rather it speaks of food, plenitude, and “loving-kindness and loyalty” not shown by the deity but by a Moabite woman.” It is Ruth who practices Hesed (lovingkindness) More than anything else, the story of Ruth is a story of inclusion.

Ruth 1, CEV
During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.

But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.

Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.

Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”

Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”

Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.

So both of them went along until they arrived at Bethlehem. When they arrived at Bethlehem, the whole town was excited on account of them, and the women of the town asked, “Can this be Naomi?”

She replied to them, “Don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty. Why would you call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has deemed me guilty?”

Thus Naomi returned. And Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, returned with her from the territory of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Last Sunday, we talked about the finding ourselves in the Biblical narrative, both individually, and collectively. I asked you all to vote, in a very non-scientific way, as to where you see our congregation in the narrative. Are we in the cosmic beginnings? Are we in the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the generations? Are we in the exodus? Are we in the time of the Kings, or in the divided kingdom? Or are we in the exile, either the Assyrian or Babylonian? Or are we in the time of the entry back into the land with Ezra and Nehemiah.

You overwhelmingly decided that you perceive that we are in the Exodus, no longer enslaved in Egypt, although perhaps longing for older, safer times, but not in the land of milk and honey just yet. Maybe we’re asking the question, are we running away from something or running toward something? And how will we get there?

Our text this morning is a perfect example of exodus thinking, brought down to the personal.

Let’s look at the story.

Naomi and her husband left Israel, during the time of the Judges. Remember where we are? Just after entering the land, after Joshua, before King Saul. Apparently there was a time of famine in Israel (although there’s no Biblical record of this time), and they went to the land of Moab for safety. While in Moab, Naomi’s sons marry, but her husband and sons also die there.

There’s a couple of things you should know about Moab—first, that Moab is associated with hostility and sexual perversity. Deuteronomy 23:3-6 excludes Moabites from the Assembly of God. So there among their “not people,” Naomi’s family died.

Naomi decides that it’s time to return to her people, to Israel. As she is about to go, she says to her young daughters-in-law, “return to your homes.” Orpah, decides to return to her home. There she will have the hope of marrying again, of having children. Ruth, on the other hand, decides to follow her Naomi.

You know the words, probably by heart… “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”

The Narrative Lectionary text ends here, but I selected for us to go on and read more about Naomi, since she’s a great example of a person in the midst of exodus. Naomi and Ruth travel until they come to Bethlehem, where the whole town stirs. They ask, “Are you Naomi?” but she answers, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away frull, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi, when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has rought calamity upon me?

Call me Mara. Mara, Hebrew for Bitter. Naomi rejects her name, which means Pleasant, for another name, Bitter.
Naomi is bitter because she has returned from Moab empty. According to Amy-Jill Levine, Naomi defines “full” and “empty” only in relation to offspring; but the terms, and so women’s worth, have wider applications. “Full” reappears in 2:12, where the full reward Boaz wishes for Ruth goes beyond children to include security, marriage, and—given the immediate context—food. “Empty” is repeated in 3:17, in the context of grain.

And meanwhile, Ruth is in contrast to all that Naomi has said. Naomi isn’t empty, she has Ruth by her side. She isn’t empty, because of the family connections she has in Bethlehem, and with Boaz. She isn’t empty, because she will not go hungry. She isn’t empty, because she will again have family. She isn’t empty, because she has a future.

So back to our exodus, our into a new promised land. Like Naomi, or she who would call herself Mara, we have a choice to make. Will we be Bitter or Pleasant? Will we be empty or full?

Sometimes it’s really hard to say really hard things up here, but I’m going to try.

Some of you are stuck in the desert and are choosing to see only emptiness. You look across the aisle at another church member and think of the past and choose to call yourself Mara.

Some of you look at our church leadership and what they’ve done and are doing, and choose to call yourself Mara.

Some of you look into the pulpit here, in the pastoral care, in the leadership and the administration and choose to call yourself Mara.

If you look at the people of the Exodus, you should know that there are those who do not enter the promised land. You can look at many different reasons why they didn’t enter the land, but the key to it is that they choose to be bitter. They chose to be Mara. And they worked to make sure that others wouldn’t enter the land, either.

Because bitterness is all about choice.

Maya Angelou says that “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”

We’ve talked about this before… In order to move through a feeling, you have to FEEL it. And release it. Bitterness is anger stretched out.

And frankly, if you are Mara? It’s your loss. You are the one who refuses to see the love that is all around you. You are the one who doesn’t see the blessings of food that is plentiful. You are the one who doesn’t see the possibility of family. You are the one who doesn’t see how God is taking care of us all along the way.

Maybe it’s not bitterness holding you back. Maybe it’s anger or fear. Maybe it’s a lack of control, or powerlessness.

Imagine with me for a moment that there are already those of us who are in the promised land. We are building a community of friendship. We are doing justice work. We are having fun, loving one another, laughing a lot, planting gardens, and worshiping God.

Do you want to remain Mara?

Or do you want to join us?

Would you like to know how?

If you really want to come into the promised land, I’m going to give you a homework assignment. When you go home today, write three things you love about your life. Then write three things you love about your church family. Do this every day. And every time you have a negative thought about this church? Or about a member of this church? Or about staff? Go write three more things you love about this church family.

Because the only way to get through bitterness is through gratitude. In this Rock, Paper, Scissors world, the only thing to beat bitterness is gratitude.

I’m sure you’ve all heard some iteration of this Buddhist story:

Two monks are walking along a country path. They soon are met by a caravan, a group of attendants carrying their wealthy and not-so-kindly mistress and her possessions. They come to a muddy river, and cannot cross with both mistress and packages – they must put one down and cannot figure out how to do so. So the elder monk volunteers to carry the woman across the river, on his back, allowing the attendants to carry her things, and then all can go on their way. The woman does not thank him, and rudely pushes him aside to get back to her caravan.

After traveling some way on their own, the younger monk turns to his master, and says, “I cannot believe that old woman! You kindly carried her across the muddy river, on your very own back, and not only did she not offer thanks, but she actually was quite rude to you!” The master calmly and quietly turned to his student, and offered this observation: “I put the women down some time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Finding Our Place in the Story

11 October, 2015 Posted by liascholl

Based on Deuteronomy 6:1–21; 6:4–9

I was talking with a friend of mine this week. She’s the pastor of a congregation in a situation like many congregations. It’s a congregation in danger of dying. With an aging population, a neighborhood around them where the demographics are completely different than the families who are members of the church, and they have a huge, old building that’s dark and has lots of deferred maintenance hanging over them. They called my friend three years ago, thinking that with her progressive theology and young family, that she’d save the church.

The first year was full of hope. The second year, a little less hope. And now, the church needs a miracle, and my friend isn’t feeling like a miracle worker.

We talked about the fact that her congregants thought she would bring in young church members. She said, “I do bring them in. But they don’t feel welcome. Heck,” she said, “My own family doesn’t feel welcome.”

We were talking about Biblical texts, so I asked a question. “Where in the Biblical text would your people say they are?” Would they be an exodus people? Or an exile people? “Definitely an exile people,” she said. Which exile? Egyptian, before Moses? Assyrian? Babylonian? She said, “Babylonian,” which is the second exile when the Babylonians took the Israelites out of Judah, the Southern kingdom.

So I said, “They are captives in Babylon?” She answered, “No. They are the remnant left behind.” The 14th century poem, Siege of Jerusalem said:

And whan the Temple was overtilt, Tytus commaundys
In plowes to putte and alle the place erye;
Suth they sow hit with salt, and seiden this wordes:
“Now is this stalwourthe stede distroied forevere.”

and while I’m not a middle English translator, I’m going to give it a try:

And when the Temple was overthrown, by Commander Tytus,
In plows to put and all the places everywhere;
So they sowed it with salt and said these words:
Now is this strong city destroyed forever.

The earth was salted by Babylon. So my friend’s church considers themselves the remnant of people left on salted earth.

Brené Brown says, in her new book Rising Strong, “The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness. We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity.”

Having this conversation with my friend, and working through this narrative lectionary, brought up questions for me of where we are, as a community, at this time in our history.

Are we in the cosmic beginnings? A time when all is new and our challenge is more about understanding than anything else? Think about each of the stories of this time: beginnings in the Garden of Eden, terror in the story of Noah’s ark, confusion at the Tower of Babel.

Or are we in the time of generations? A time where we’re choosing to build, to grow? A time of moment-by-moment guidance directly from God? Think about Abram, leaving Haran to go to Ur… The time of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah. Or maybe Joseph… Mostly, this is a time of following God, a personal God, into a promise.

What about a desert time of exodus? Moses has led us into the desert. Will we worship another God than God and wander here for 40 years? Are we trying to understand how to live in community? Are we stagnated afraid to move, are we lost? And, by the way, are we running away from something or running towards something?

Or maybe we’re at the time of judges? Judges 2:11-12 sums it up, “Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger.” It’s a time of multiple leaders, some who are good and some who are not so good.

But maybe we’re at the time of kings? A time of internal growth, of internal prosperity, with a clear enemy outside of us? A time with clear leadership, a time of building.

Or do we find ourselves at a time of exile? Have we been so influenced by outside forces that we’ve pulled out of community? Have we been destroyed by an enemy? Do we feel like the exiles said, “How can we sing our songs in a new land?” Or another question, have we been carried off in exile or are we the left behind?

Finally, are we at a time of re-entry? Of deciding how to rebuild? When Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, they build walls first, but then they had to decide whether to rebuild the Temple.

So, let me ask. Where do you think we are in the narrative. Do you mind just holding up your hands if this sounds most like us?

The time of cosmic beginnings…

The time of the patriarchs and matriarchs?

The time of exile?

The time of the exodus?

The time of the judges?

The time of the kings?

The time of the divided kingdom?

The time of exile, either of northern or southern kingdom?

The time of return from exile?

Thank you.

Brené Brown says:

The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness. We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity.

So let me ask you this:

How are the stories we are telling about ourselves diminishing our inherent worthiness?

How can we tell the story in a way that reminds us that we are loveable and loved by God?

How can we tell the stories in ways that protect our faith narratives—no person or organization is able to write our spiritual story or think of us as anything less than spiritually worthy.

Finally, how can we tell our stories in ways that honor our creativity and ability? Brown says, “Just because we didn’t measure up to some standard of achievement doesn’t mean that we don’t possess gifts and talents that only we can bring to the world. Just because someone failed to see the value in what we can create or achieve doesn’t change its worth or ours.”

Because here’s the thing… The way that we tell this story can and will determine our future. And why does that matter? Because the future isn’t already determined. Because with our creativity, our knowledge that we are spiritually worthy and loved by God, we can choose the next story of our evolution.

The majority of you said that you believe that our story intersects with the Biblical record right here…

(The church overwhelmingly said they think we’re in the Exodus)

So let’s tell this story…

Tents and Revivals

9 October, 2015 Posted by liascholl

Based on Mark 10:17-31

I read an article in Christian Century by Craig Barnes, the President of Princeton Divinity School. In it, he said, “I can still smell the wet canvas and sawdust of my father’s revivals. Like many old-school country preachers, he believed that any self-respecting revival was held in a tent.” Do you remember revivals? In your tradition, I believe you still have them. In fact, your Pastor Aaron told me recently he was preaching one.

I remember revivals. Ours didn’t have tents. But they were always in the summer. And I remember what they didn’t have: air conditioning. And they didn’t have comfortable seats. They also didn’t seem to have a time limit… But I remember what they did have, too. They had fancy preachers (I never figured out why our own pastor couldn’t preach a revival, but it was always a specialist). They had ice cream socials with peach ice cream. They had loud preaching and long songs, like Have Thine Own Way, Lord, and Just As I Am without One Plea…

You know what else they had? They had a lot of talk about hell. And they had a lot of talk about sin. And they had a lot of talk about how we weren’t making the mark, and how we were going to go to hell. And they had a lot of guilt.

Did I mention that they were long?

Because they were. The 16th verse of Mold me and make me, After thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still. Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way was exhausting. So then the preacher would say, “The Lord has told me there is someone here today ready to turn away from the fires of hell…. With every eye closed and every head bowed, pray with me… If you want to accept Jesus today, raise your hand. If you know you’re called to serve God through Christian ministry, raise your hand… I see you. If you want to rededicate your life to Jesus today, raise your hand. I see you. Put your hand down.”

It was quite a show, wasn’t it?

Now some of those preachers were great men (by the way, when I was a child, they were all men). And some of them really, really loved the Lord. But the way they motivated people to come to Jesus used to kill me… The plan seemed to be, let me exhaust you to the point where you nearly fall over, let me tug on all of your guilt, let me manipulate you to come to Jesus.

Because I thought, any way you can get there, you should get there.

And I believe that to be true. That each of you has a way that you’re going to get to God. And it is truly your own way.

But I think that the methods that preachers use should be similar to the method of Jesus, who, by the way, never says, “The wages of sin are death,” or even, “Give your heart to me.”

Instead, we have a picture of evangelism by Jesus himself in today’s scripture.

A man comes to Jesus and asks, “How can I have eternal life?” Do right, Jesus says. The man says, “I have done good my whole life.”

Then Jesus says, “Do good. Sell all you own and give it to the poor.” Some say that Jesus saw through to the man’s greatest love. Some say that Jesus saw through the one way the man was working around the law. I think Jesus saw that following God means we let lose of everything, and use our resources to support humanity.

But there’s a piece I left out.

Did you notice the word in the Scripture reading? It says, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him.” How do you think the author knew that Jesus loved the man? I think about the look Jesus gave. Or maybe Jesus reached over and made a gesture of some sort, rubbed his hand, shook his hand. Maybe Jesus hugged him.

How do you know that Jesus loves you? And that God loves you? We know it in creation—that this good world was created for us to enjoy. We know it in the Scriptures—over and over again we here of God’s hesed, the faithful love of God. We know it from our grandmamas—the way they knew it, too—that God was walking alongside and guiding their steps. We know it from our preachers (except, sometimes, we don’t know it through guilt and talk of hell). We know it from the person sitting next to us in worship, we can see it in their eyes.

The love of Christ made manifest today looks a little different from the way that the man knew it with Jesus there… because it comes to us from one another, we feel the love of Christ through one another.

And may I remind you of another part of this text? After Jesus says that it’s nearly impossible for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, more difficult than getting a camel through the eye of a needle, the people gasp.

How can it be so hard?

Jesus reminds the people that it’s impossible for us to get into the kingdom of God. But that all things are possible with God.

Craig Barnes wrote again about those tent revivals:

What I remember most about those hot nights was the altar call. Just before the choir began singing, “I Surrender All,” my father would stand at the front and say, “Jesus was dying to love you. All you need to do to accept this love is to step out of your seat, come down the aisle, and give your life over to the forgiving love of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what you have done, whether it was very bad or very good, you can’t get to God without surrendering all of it to Jesus.”

Somewhere along the way, I lost summer revival services. I found all the parts of them difficult. I didn’t like the long preaching, I didn’t like the guilt and manipulation. I didn’t like the sense of impossibility of God’s love. But this article this week reminded me of what I miss—I miss the call to surrender to God.

But that call to surrender has to be based in God’s deep love of us.

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