Sermon 11/19/2017 “A clear vision”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Judges 4:1-7
Day: 24Pentecost, Proper 28, Year A (Track 1)

“A clear vision”

Our first lesson today is from the Book of Judges, the seventh book of the Bible. Today is the only time our three-year lectionary cycle includes a reading from this book.

Why Judges? Why today? The short answer is this: today, in Judges, the time is roughly the 10th century Before the Common Era. The Book of Judges summarizes a time of political transition, a time when Israel was first emerging as a nation, just before the 12 tribes agreed to be ruled by a king. Next Sunday is the last in the season of Pentecost, otherwise known as Christ the King. The idea behind including this lesson today is to ask ourselves about the extent we are willing to let God rule our lives, both as individuals and as citizens of our nation. (I know, and you know, we’ve gotten this really wrong over time.)

In Judges we learn that this was a time (some 3,000 years ago) when “all the people did what was right in their own eyes,” an activity that the Bible says results in political instability. Today, we might think that being able to do, each of us, what is right in our own eyes is a GOOD thing. The problem is that what we each think is right, even as Christians, is often not what God thinks is right.

For instance, is becoming wealthy a sign of God’s favor, or a sign of having taken advantage of less fortunate people to obtain that wealth? There are sincere disciples of Christ Jesus who believe both of these things, that having a lot of money means God loves us, that having a lot of money means we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What God says is right are the functions the judges performed so long ago: exposing injustice, offering comfort and hope to the oppressed, saving the people from their enemies, preserving domestic relationships and peace, and protecting widows, orphans, and strangers.

All summer long we heard how God made and renewed a covenant with Abraham and his descendants to make them a people too numerous to count and give them their own land. God didn’t give them these things immediately. Rather, he worked through human history, forming Abraham’s descendants into a people with God’s vision. We heard of them being formed and tested by:

  • Barrenness, and having to rethink who is family.
  • Slavery, teaching them empathy for the reversal of fortunes of others.
  • Deprivation, such as lack of food and water, letting us know both that we can count on God to provide and that we need to share what we have.
  • Homelessness, having to scramble to find a place to sleep each night and what having a rock for a pillow is like.
  • Temptations to settle in the wilderness for less than promised, to worship false gods, gods who promised prosperity and ease rather than the stress of having to travel to a Promised Land.

In the time of Judges, the 12 tribes’ neighbors were forming into nations. Nations with kings. Kings who could levy taxes, redistribute wealth, raise armies, and invade their neighbors’ territories. These neighbors had learned how to make iron, how to forge iron weapons. But God’s people hadn’t yet mastered iron technology. So their neighbors had 900 iron chariots, 900 tanks, as today’s lesson tells us. And they had none.

So the 12 tribes needed a king, too; otherwise they would be overrun, right?

OK, so that was a trick question. If God protected them, how could they be overrun? If God didn’t protect them, how could they be safe, even with a king?

“Maybe,” I was told this week, “it’s easier to trust in God from within my own iron chariot.” And that IS true of human nature. But the thing about these 12 tribes in the Promised Land is that God had brought them there and they were God’s people. The judges were people who, ideally, shared God’s vision and spoke for God.

In the telling of its own history, the Israelites created a sort of interpretive framework for describing this period and its judges. The framework is this:

  • Israel forgot their God and each did what was right in their own eyes.
  • God allowed their neighbors to oppress them.
  • Israel remembered and called upon God to save them.
  • God raised up a judge to deal with the crisis.
  • The oppression ended, for a time.
  • Israel again forgot their God.

The people kept forgetting God. The judges, all but one, had a character flaw of some kind. The exception was a most surprising person: Deborah, the only woman judge and a prophetess. So when the Canaanites approached with their 900 iron chariots, not to mention their iron swords and spears, Deborah—channeling Yahweh—called a war general named Barak to arms and called upon the 12 tribes to stand with him. Holding sticks and stones, so to speak. And imagine this: only two tribes responded. I don’t know whether to be more surprised that ANY showed up, or that ALL 12 DIDN’T appear. Our lesson ends with Deborah telling Barak, “I will deliver [the Canaanite General to you].”

Apparently Barak thought Deborah was speaking of herself, that SHE would deliver the enemy war leader, because he said he would undertake the mission only if Deborah went with him. But of course Deborah the prophetess had been speaking for God.

If we read further in Judges we learn what happened. Deborah accompanied the troops. God sent a great rain, the chariots got mired in the mud, and were routed, and the enemy general ended up with a spike through his head after an incident of intended sexual misconduct in his tent.

Improbably, the people were spared. But even this God-given victory takes a clear God-vision to understand that the rain didn’t just happen, that the enemy general didn’t just meet his deserved fate at an opportune moment for God’s people. These weren’t random events.

The people then asked God to give them a king. And so he did, reluctantly, but the kings turned out to be as fallible as the people and judges had been. If only there were someone without character defect, someone infallible, someone with our best interests at heart, who God would send to be with us always, to teach us how to see as God sees and to judge as God judges. If only that person, sent by God, could make a difference today in how we view each other as we struggle with our own time of political transition.

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Sermon 11/5/2017 “Who’s a saint?”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Revelation 7:9-17
Day: All Saints Sunday, Year A

“Who’s a saint?”

I sing a song of the saints of God, / patient and brave and true
“who toiled and fought and lived and died / for the Lord they loved and knew.
“And one was a doctor and one was a queen / and one was a man living on the green
“they were all of them saints of God / and I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Jean Fouquet, All Saints, c. 1450, public domain image

Don’t you just love that hymn? I do. All Saints Day just wouldn’t be the same without our declaring, in song no less, that we all want to be saints.

Except I don’t want to be a DEAD saint. Eventually, sure. Eventually I want to be one of that “great cloud of witnesses” our Prayer Book talks about (ref. Hebrews 12:1). That “great cloud of witnesses” referred to by our Prayer Book are the DEAD saints, those who have lived for Christ Jesus and died in and for Christ Jesus and who are now with Christ Jesus. You know, those who were martyrs for their faith.

THOSE saints are doing whatever dead saints do. Singing praises to God, according to popular tradition; watching out for us and all of creation, according to other traditions; keeping Jimmy Stewart from ending his life prematurely and earning angel wings in the process, according to a movie TV dishes up every Christmas; “going from strength to strength” according to our last Prayer Book. (Our church erased THAT thought, you understand, lest we begin to think that saints could be made in heaven after we die. Heaven forbid we avoid church here in this life!)

Given how much I LOVE worship, for me a saint is someone who attends worship each and every time we hold worship. Not just being here, but someone who understands that our whole community of saints that is Church of the Resurrection matter, that God has given us something to do, both individually and as a whole. Otherwise, why do we exist? We’d just be, what? Breathers. People consuming food and oxygen and grabbing all we can get for ourselves and genetic heirs.

Yep, for me a saint is someone who does something I value. How do you define a saint?

The Apostle Paul frequently addressed his letters to “the saints in” whichever church he happened to be writing to. He meant that everyone in that church was a saint because they were trying to live as Christ’s disciples. So, by this definition we are all saints.

Our church does define a saint in this way. Lesser Feasts and Fasts says, “The church is the communion of saints,” a “people made holy through their mutual participation in the mystery of Christ.”

While this is true, I dare you to go out on the street and ask them to define “saint” or “communion” or, for that matter, “holy,” much less “participation in the mystery of Christ.” I tried my own dare this week, well, a piece of it. I asked non-church people what a saint is. Here are a few of the answers I got:

  • “A member of a really bad National Football League team.”
  • “Someone who’s goody-goody all the time.”
  • “Someone who does something I need but don’t deserve. Like, bringing me the TV remote so I don’t have to get up and get it.”
  • “Someone with a church named after them.”

After that that I didn’t dare ask for a definition of “holy.” But we saints know what “holy” is:

  • Something set apart for God’s purposes.
  • Something filled with God’s spirit.
  • Something cherished by God.

Not goody-goody. Not holier-than-thou, but humble. Because we know that we are saints, and we know that we are made holy only because we belong to God. We know that it’s not what WE do that makes us saints, or makes us holy. We know that we are good people, not because people are good, but because God is good and because we are made in the image of God.

We saints have aligned our lives with God’s purpose for us. We have learned to draw on God’s Spirit to do whatever otherwise impossible task God has given us. We know that God loves us beyond our wildest imagining. And, knowing that we are loved, we know we have plenty of God-love to give away.

As I mentioned, according to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, we are made holy through “mutual participation in the mystery of Christ. What this means is that we are made holy through participation in the Eucharist.

Today we are privileged to witness the making of a new saint. Today, Layson Charles Vann begins his journey of saying “yes” to God—begins his saint journey. Layson’s parents are helping their son claim and live into his God-given sainthood. Layson’s grandparents are sponsoring him in this venture called life, committing to teach him what being a saint is all about. And our job, as part of the still-living “great cloud of witnesses,” is to show Layson what holy love, what God-love looks and feels like in action:

  • Unmerited
  • Unconditional
  • Absolute; and
  • Unending

Why? So that, when he can, Layson will choose sainthood for himself. As a saint, Layson will become the person he was created to be, accepting whatever God has set for him to do in this life, so that he will be ready for his forever life.

And, having had the privilege of seeing a bit into Layson’s soul, I know this: there will be music for him.

“I sing a song of the saints of God, / patient and brave and true
“who toiled and fought and lived and died / for the Lord they loved and knew.
“And one was a doctor and one was a queen / and one was a man living on the green
“they were all of them saints of God / and I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”

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Sermon 10/8/2017 “Vineyard tales”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Matthew 21:33-46
Day: Proper 21, Year A

“Vineyard tales”

You might as well sit back; I have some vineyard tales to tell you today.

Queen Jezebel and King Ahab, from “free Bible images clip art”

Almost 3,000 years ago, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ruled Israel.[1] And, even if you have never heard or don’t recall the story of Ahab and Jezebel, you might recognize this queen’s name. Even today, “Jezebel” is a synonym for treachery because she got blamed for the evil in their story. This wasn’t just “blame the woman;” Jezebel was a Philistine who tried to turn Israel to the worship of Baal, and thus was despised by the people. But Ahab was guilty, also.

So here’s the story. A man named Naboth of Jezreel had a vineyard. Now Naboth means “prophecies,” so we are thus warned that his is a precautionary tale. And Jezreel was an important military stronghold in Ahab’s kingdom; this was some vineyard, highly desirable. Unfortunately for Naboth, his land was located near one of Ahab’s many palaces, and Ahab wanted it. So Ahab offered to swap some lesser land for Naboth’s vineyard, but Naboth refused.

At this point Ahab and Jezebel made a devious plan to have Naboth falsely accused of treason. And the plan worked. Naboth was condemned, executed, and Ahab took the vineyard. God then sent the prophet Elijah to forecast the death of Ahab’s whole family and to tell him that the kingdom would be given to others to rule.

Elijah’s prophecy came to pass: Ahab and his entire family died in very messy ways. I will spare you the details, but theirs were very messy deaths, so gory that the people of Israel remember the story to this day. That’s vineyard tale number one.

A hundred years later, the prophet Isaiah reused this story. He changed the details, though, enough so that the king against whom Isaiah used the story wouldn’t recognize, at least at first, that he was being accused of being another Ahab. If we were using the Track 2 readings, the Isaiah passage would have been our first reading today instead of the Ten Commandments.

In Isaiah’s version of THIS vineyard tale we hear of a vineyard whose vines refused to produce good fruit and a landowner who loved the vineyard dearly. The landowner clearly represented God. And the vineyard was all of Israel and its people. Just to be sure that his reference to the Ahab story wasn’t missed, Isaiah’s “zinger” was this: “[God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed.”

This Sunday’s gospel illustration from “free Christian clip art from Hermanoleon”

I’ve told you these two vineyard tales so that you will hear the arc of the events from so long ago in leading up to our gospel lesson. Because our gospel lesson today was a set-up, a set-up by Jesus using the well-known vineyard motif that were so deeply embedded in Israel’s history. In Jesus’ version there was a productive vineyard, plus a group of bad tenants who coveted the profitable enterprise and tried to obtain the vineyard by violence and murder. Jesus asked the people listening to him tell this story what should be done to the evil tenants. Their answer showed that they knew the Ahab story. They said, “The owner will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

That’s when Jesus closed his “I gotcha” trap. He switched metaphors on them, switched stories. He told them, using another quote from Isaiah, that the one—he, whom they had already rejected—would become the very thing on whom God’s future kingdom would rest. And Jesus told them that the vineyard, the kingdom itself, would be given to other tenants. Jesus was warning the Jews that they were heading for Ahab’s fate.

The Pharisees got Jesus’ message all right, and they were very unhappy about what he had said. The Pharisees wanted to arrest Jesus right then and there, but they only didn’t do so because they feared the crowds, who regarded Jesus as a prophet.

That, right there, was a huge indictment of those particular Pharisees. The people half understood who Jesus was: they thought that he spoke for God, that he was a prophet. The Pharisees didn’t even credit Jesus with that much authority. THEY feared the crowds. Shouldn’t they have feared God instead? Even if Jesus was “only” a prophet, they should have feared God because, as a prophet, Jesus would have been delivering God’s message. Of course, we know that Jesus was much more than a prophet, that he WAS and IS and WILL BE the very one on whom the Kingdom of God rests.

Lest (using our 20/20 hindsight) we get too indignant with those Pharisees, perhaps we should ask ourselves who WE are in this story.

Are we the renters, the tenants, of the vineyard? And if so do we even KNOW that someone else—GOD—owns the whole property, the whole Kingdom, the whole vineyard, the whole world we inhabit? What kind of fruit are we producing in this vineyard we are renting? Good fruit of the spirit? Bad fruit? And how much of God’s produce are we giving back to God, who owns the whole kit and caboodle, anyway, owns the whole vineyard, and us, and everything in it?

Or are we the “slaves,” the people the owner has on tap to do his bidding in the vineyard that is this world? Do we understand that God has sent us to collect the rent, to collect the produce? Are we afraid to go, to speak up, afraid of the reception we will get in THAT vineyard, when THIS vineyard is so much more safe, inviting, safe, supportive, fun (did I mention safe)?

Or do we do our own bidding, forgetting that we are the owner’s and that we have the owner’s mission? Do we mistake the symptoms of the evil with the cause? Instead of going to the vineyard to do the owner’s work, do we go instead to get laws passed against sticks and stones and other assault weapons, then congratulate ourselves on doing the owner’s work? Or do we say things like, “THOSE tenants must have been mentally ill to have acted that way, and then prescribe ways to identify and treat such mental illness. And then congratulate ourselves on doing the owner’s work?

“NO!” I say. You can do these things if you feel you should. But let’s not confuse the symptoms with the illness. We, as a people, are confusing ourselves with the “landowner.” What this vineyard needs is fruit of the Kingdom of God, fruit of the landowner, good fruit. And what the landowner counts as good fruit is love and justice.

In John chapter 15 Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus himself is the good fruit. We are to be Jesus in the vineyard that the owner has entrusted to us. And to do that we have to be in the vineyard, we have to do the owner’s work and speak the owner’s name. Otherwise, how will the other people in the vineyard know that the owner isn’t just another absentee landlord?

[1] You can read this 9th century BCE story in 1 Kings 21 and in 2 Kings 9.

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Sermon 9/24/2017 “Hunger amid the flocks”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Exodus 16:2-15
Day: Proper 20, Year A

“Hunger amid the flocks”

Our Collect each week “collects” the readings to find their common thread, and gives that thread back to us as a short prayer. Today’s Collect does a particularly good job of finding the connection between all our lessons. (Don’t worry: I’m not going to preach on all our lessons!)

What our Collect gives us today is the idea that when we get anxious we are probably focusing on the wrong things, focusing earthly things, things that don’t endure. Earthly things are fleeting, flimsy. At best, they distract us from what is truly important in life.

Here is a short list of “earthly things:”

  • We get anxious about money, or the perceived lack thereof.
  • We worry about power, status, and our “place in the pecking order.”
  • We worry about what others think of us, and whether they, or life, has treated us fairly.
  • Not to mention anger, bitterness, vengeance, and its cousin: despair.

This is a lot to potentially be anxious about. Even when we are not anxious about these cares of life, there’s death to fear. But these earthly things are not gospel; gospel is Good News.

And the Good News today is that our Collect contrasts the earthly things of our anxieties with what it calls “heavenly things.” These are things we do in the here and now that orient us toward the new reality of our God-life to come. These heavenly things are not just for a future when we are in God’s Kingdom. They are for now, for the journey, because heavenly things both build God’s Kingdom and endure forever.

So, what are these “heavenly things?” I started to make a list by contrasting with the earthly things. But soon I realized that my list of “heavenly things” is none other than the “fruit of the Spirit” that the apostle Paul talked about:

  • Love (specifically, love of God, love of others, and love of self, in that order).
  • Joy (which is to say, an attitude of thanksgiving for what we have).
  • Peace (a willingness to let you have what you have, even if what you have is more or better than what I have).
  • Patience (the practice of waiting for God’s timetable rather than forcing things to happen according to my plan).
  • Gentleness (letting you be you, even when you are so clearly WRONG in my estimation).
  • Goodness (choosing God’s economy rather than the human calculation).
  • Faith (that our creator exists, is a continuing force for good, loves each of us beyond measure, and wants a relationship with us).
  • Meekness (I don’t have to be first, in charge, or in control). AND
  • Temperance (moderation in all things).

These are heavenly things, the things we are to hold onto, practice, and even (as our Collect says) even to love.

So let’s look at our first lesson through the lens of our Collect. In our first lesson today, the people who God had freed from slavery in Egypt began to complain against their leaders, Moses and Aaron, in the wilderness. They were out of bread and they remembered the “good old days” of slavery. They apparently had selective memory about having been fed their fill of meat and bread, but had forgotten the harsh task-masters, back-breaking toil, and lack of freedom to control their own lives.

So, the people did what people often do in these dire situations: they turned on their leaders. “Can’t you see we’re starving here?” they asked. “Did you bring us into the wilderness to kill us? We’re HUNGRY.”

Unknown artist, Manna reigning from heaven on the Israelites, from the Maciejowski Bible circa 1250, via WikiMedia

The wonderful thing is, God heard them. We can complain to God. And God will respond (as God sees fit, of course). And God told Moses he would give the people bread to eat, bread from heaven, “daily bread.” Food from God that could not be stockpiled, stored, or a competitive advantage gained by using it. “A little test,” God said, to see if the people would follow his rules. “Just eat the God-food today, be thankful, and trust that there will be God-food tomorrow.”

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Let’s see if there are any hints about how the people will do with this test. Here’s the first hint, in the form of a question: Were the people still carrying the gold and silver they fleeced from the Egyptians on their way out of slavery?

We heard the answer in today’s Psalm, didn’t we? The answer is “yes.” Today’s lesson is from Exodus chapter 16. In Exodus chapter 32, the people built a golden calf from the jewelry their children were wearing. Then they worshiped the calf, thanking this idol for freeing them from slavery in Egypt.

The people were starving, they said. But they were weighed down with this totally useless gold and silver, this metal that would soon lead them astray. The people had faith that this metal would save them, rather than God. Maybe they thought that they could run to the nearest Great Harvest bakery for bread, out there in the dessert, if they ran out of food.

A funny thing happened while I was looking to see if the people still had the gold and silver they took from the Egyptians. I discovered that they also had animals, flocks and herds of animals of their own that they took with them when they left Egypt. So, here’s another question for you: Why were the people hungry if they had all those animals they could have eaten?

Here’s my theory: Perhaps they didn’t perceive their animals as food. People’s wealth back then was related to how many animals they owned. Their income came from their animals. No one would want to eat their wealth. No one would want to eat the source of income. Perhaps they expected to need their flocks and herds in the Promised Land, to avoid being poor there.

The picture we get here, once we stop taking this incident at face value, is a people in a new reality trying to hold on to their old ways. Yes, they were hungry. But food was all around them. And what they valued most—wealth—is one of those things that will not endure. Worse, what we see here is that by holding on to something mis-perceived as valuable out there in the wilderness, they endangered their relationship with God.

But God is patient. God lets us murmur. And God responds, at times even when we are hungry but surrounded by food. God is faithful and supplies our needs, whatever they are, and what God gives us is not always what we want or think that we need. But God knows what we truly need, and he knows what will sustain us and keep us safe.

I always wonder how the scripture lesson applies to Church of the Resurrection as a community. What are we holding onto from our past, that’s blinding us to our present and endangering our future? Could it be that we are actually surrounded by the very thing for which we hunger most?

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Sermon 9/14/2017 “A matter of perspective”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Exodus 14:19-31
Day: Proper 19, Year A

“A matter of perspective”

I was studying our first lesson for today, wondering if you have ever been where the Israelites were. The Israelites had the sea in front of them and the enemy army behind them, coming to get them.

Of course you have! But we have a different description of this place, don’t we? We call this spot being “between a rock and a hard place.” Or maybe we call this place, “Between the devil and the deep blue sea.” Whatever we call this place, though, we don’t want to be here. This is a BAD place, a scary place. Which is better: Death by drowning or death by spear? Which would YOU choose?

I don’t like either choice. But I know this place, with a bad outcome bearing down on me and no way out. And I’ll bet YOU know this place, also. The very last thing you are going to want to hear from me today is that our attitude in this place is important, our attitude is critical. But that’s my point, so listen to see if you can follow me to that conclusion: When we are between a rock and a hard place, our perspective really counts.

So here goes.

People describe this place to me, all the time. Here’s a few descriptions I have heard lately, none by people from this church. But see if you think they qualify as being between the sea and an enemy army:

  • Addition, liver disease
  • Cancer, metastacized
  • Depression, thinking about ending it all
  • No job, about to become homeless

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

How did the Israelites get to this place of danger? Our lesson says that God led them there. WHAT? Surely this can’t be right? Can it? Less than a day’s march out of Egypt, following God’s guidance, and here come the Egyptians, wanting their slaves back. Or wanting their gold and silver back. Or wanting vengeance. Or both.

But did you notice what happened here on the banks of the water? God led the Israelites to the water, pushed his own people to the water’s edge, then he placed himself between the people and the oncoming army. All night long, God protected his people.

Here’s the first place where attitude matters. Do you say, “God wasn’t protecting his people at the water’s edge. It was night. Of course, the army didn’t attack at night. The Egyptians were waiting for morning, to attack in the light.” Or do you say, “Thank you, God, for saving us this night from the Egyptian army. Come day, we know you will save us again.”

I truly believe that God wants to hear the answer to this question. What is our prayer in these times of crisis? Where do we put our faith? In the night? In the might of the Egyptians? Or in the will and wisdom of God?

Do we believe that we are at the water’s edge because God led us here, or not? Do we believe that there is a Promised Land awaiting us on the other side, or not?

I wonder if the Israelites even knew that God had their backs? I wonder if the Israelites praised God for bringing them to the water’s edge? I figured they murmured. We are murmuring people. This was early in the Israelites’ wilderness travels. They hadn’t yet learned to trust God. And we, all of us, are short-sighted people. We see what’s near at hand, but miss the big picture. We see the enemy coming right for us, but we don’t even notice that God is right here with us, protecting us, and that God WILL prevail.

But something has to die for a new reality to be born.

At creation, God breathed order and the waters of chaos receded. What died THAT day was the void. At least it got shoved back out of the way enough for creation to occur. And the VOID has been pursuing us ever since. Wanting its territory back, wanting to drag us down into nothingness with it, but God himself is here, sheltering and protecting us and sustaining all his creation.

So on THAT day, God breathed again at the edge of the Red Sea, and the waters parted. A new reality came into being. Again. “All” we have to do is open our eyes and see the Lord at work around us. All we have to do is to thank God for our salvation. Can we perceive this from the edge of the brink? If so, then we can let our fear die in the water of chaos as we run through to the other side, to the land that God has promised us, to the Land that Christ Jesus has prepared for us and gone ahead of us to occupy.

What’s that? You think this story is a metaphor? If so, this story is a really good metaphor. And you are in excellent company. Someone (I’ll tell you who in a minute, if you don’t guess for yourself first) thinks that what needs to die in the water are the evils of our day:

  • Greed and war
  • “High places where [people] are willing to sacrifice truth on the altars of their self-interest,” and
  • Imperialistic nations trampling other nations with the iron feet of oppression

The someone who preached THIS sermon, in 1954, then went on the preach about having a DREAM… Yes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., thought that our first lesson today was a metaphor.

But maybe, like me, you don’t think this story is only a metaphor. Maybe you think this even actually happened. I do. And Timmy does.

“Who’s Timmy?” you ask. There’s a story that we preachers love to tell about Timmy. He was a young boy playing in the park. Every so often he would pump his fist in the air and shout for joy. And a woman walking by asked him what he was so happy about.

“I learned in Temple,” Timmy told her, “that God saved the Israelites at the Red Sea. And that makes me very happy.”

This troubled the woman greatly so she explained to the boy that she had heard on National Public Radio that the region had been under a severe drought at the time and the Red Sea was probably only 11 inches deep. She didn’t want the boy to go through life expecting miraculous interventions from a God she didn’t think exists.

Timmy’s joy did fade. For a few minutes. Then he was even more joyous than before. “Didn’t you hear me,” the woman asked.

“Sure,” Timmy told her. “But then I realized that God had drowned the Egyptians in only 11 inches of water.”

Perspective really does matter. Not because with a so-called “good” perspective God saves us and a “bad” one God doesn’t. But rather because when we are following God, we get to where we get because the Lord has brought us here. And, whether we can perceive this or not, God is right here with us, no matter the outcome. And the land that God has promised us awaits us, when we are the Lord’s people and do as the Lord commands. Win, lose, or draw. Living or dying, we are the Lord’s. But attitude matters in between.

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Sermon 9/3/2017 “The burning bush”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Exodus 3:1-15
Day: Proper 17, Year A

“The burning bush”

Last week, Pharaoh’s daughter pulled Moses from the Nile and raised him as her son. Today’s lesson skips over a huge piece of Moses’ life. The “missing piece” is Moses coming to terms with his identity as a Hebrew rather than being an Egyptian prince. Our lessons even hide the fact that Moses had killed a cruel Egyptian slave-master and had tried to cover up the deed. He had ended up fleeing Egypt, though, to avoid being killed in retaliation by his adoptive grandfather, the Pharaoh.

Moses had settled in Midian, a foreign land, and had married Zipporah, a foreign woman (well, SHE wasn’t foreign in Midian). They had a son, Gershom, whose name meant “I have been  an alien.” Names always mean something in the Bible, particularly in Hebrew scripture, so we suspect what Moses had been thinking about those 40 years he was in Midian. Yes, that’s right: Moses was 80 years old now. He was 40 or so when he fled Egypt and he had had 40 years to think about being alienated, being an immigrant, being a refugee.

 

Meanwhile, in Egypt, THAT Pharaoh had died and the plight of the Hebrew people had gotten even worse than it had been before. Exodus chapter 2 ends, “And God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (Well, God hadn’t STOPPED noticing the plight of his people in Egypt, but that’s another story for another sermon on another day.)

This is where our first lesson begins today, with us noticing Moses keeping watch over his father-in-law’s sheep. Our lesson casually mentions that Moses’ shepherding took him near Mount Horeb, which it calls “the mountain of God.” Did Moses go there seeking God, or just happen by Mount Horeb? We can’t tell. So, I’m free to speculate.

Today I’ll guess that Moses hadn’t taken notice of God there or anywhere else; he was just minding his sheep (well, his father-in-law’s sheep), thinking about the unfairness of being an alien to everyone; being an immigrant and a refugee everywhere; being a Hebrew but given to the water; being rejected by Hebrew and Egyptian alike, without even sheep of his own.

Scripture doesn’t say so here, but Moses was a stutterer. An 80-year-old stutterer. And THIS is who God chose to render justice in Egypt.

I confess, as many times as I have heard this story, throughout my whole life, I’ve been so heartened by God coming to Moses I’ve overlooked HOW God came calling. Yes, there was a burning bush, but I was much more interested in what God said to Moses and what Moses did in response. I’ve rather overlooked the bush itself. I forgot that NOTHING is in the Bible by accident, that nothing is there by coincidence, or even just casually. So why was the BUSH there?

Something, today, beckons me from the bush and invites me to “turn aside” and look, invites me to see the bush itself, improbably, illogically, burning with fire but not burnt up. Something invites me today to look inside the bush and wonder, “Why a bush?”

I’ve always assumed I knew the answer: THIS is how God protected Moses. A burning bush is how Moses could have had a conversation with God and lived.

Turns out, though, I was flat wrong. God can have a conversation with us however God wants to. Can’t he? I know; you’re going to tell me about free will, how Moses got to choose whether he was going to converse with God.

And Moses DID choose to investigate the burning bush. See, the God who created Moses, who gave Moses a burning curiosity to begin with, on this day gave him a burning mystery to be curious about. And sure enough, Moses’ curiosity caused him to explore what was up with the bush.

What Moses discovered was that there was something IN the bush. More accurately, Moses discovered that there was some-ONE in the bush. Amid the fire. Not burned up.

Does this remind you of anyone later in the Bible? [Congregation accurately named “Daniel.”] YES! And what about three young men, friends of Daniel’s (Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego) who were thrown into a burning furnace but who were not burnt because an angel of the Lord was there in the furnace with them?

Moses didn’t know anything about Daniel and these three young men, who lived a millennium or so after him. But this is our clue that Moses’ burning bush could be a foretelling, a hint of great things to come. Miraculous things to come. GREAT things to come. Yes, a foretelling.

Moses saw an angel of the Lord in the burning bush. But the angel, God’s messenger, didn’t do any of the talking. This is most curious. Aren’t angels supposed to deliver messages? (Hmmm. Maybe it wasn’t time for THIS messenger from God to speak.) Instead, the Lord God himself, our lesson says, spoke to Moses, called Moses by name. And Moses responded the way that other great people in the Bible would much later respond. Moses said, “Here I am,” just like who? [Here the congregation accurately named the priest and prophet Samuel, the great prophet Isaiah, and even Mary the mother of Jesus, who later responded, “Here I am; let it be according to your will, Lord.” To which I replied, “Yes, yes, yes! More foretelling!”]

All of this from the burning bush on THIS day.

Did you know that Moses’ burning bush was a thorn bush? The word translated here as “bush” carried the meaning “prickly.” I laughed out loud when I read this. Doesn’t God always appear amid the thorns? Don’t we usually blame God for the existence of thorns? And rightly so. We know God could eliminate life’s prickly bits, but God doesn’t. We know that God CREATED thorns in the first place. After we sinned in Eden, Genesis chapter 3 says. So, there is a direct correlation between thorns and our sin. In THIS light (no pun intended) aren’t you reassured to know that God was in the midst of these thorns. Aren’t you comforted to realize that, where God is, we are not burned up?

Given this information, a burning thorn bush with God in it makes a lot more sense than a burning bush randomly stuck out in the dessert. I contend that what we have here at the foot of God’s holy mountain is a foretelling of the cross of Jesus—out of time and out of place—reassuring us that God has heard our cries, promising us that God will not forget us and will not overlook injustice, letting us know in a blaze of glory that our curiosity will compel us to explore that God is here with us, and telling us millennia in advance (beyond a shadow of a doubt) that the Lord’s prime messenger will no longer be silent and will redeem us from our defiance in Eden. This burning bush even has the Lord’s Spirit shining with the glory of the Lord, pointing the way to God’s holy mountain.

So where do we encounter a burning bush today? For me, the burning bush is right here at this altar. That’s where I bring my sense of alienation and ask God to use me for whatever purpose he created me. But sometimes I encounter a burning bush out there, when I least expect to see one. For example,

  • Maybe (and you can let me know whether you agree with this) I saw a burning bush last week reflected in a priest who used to be a hate-filled KKK member, who now proclaims God’s love for all people.
  • What about our food pantry, a place that gives away physical sustenance in the name of the Lord, when by all measure of logic that pantry shouldn’t even be possible? Is that a burning bush?
  • What about a homeless man I read about who, being given $500, bought food and clothes for other people? Is THAT a burning bush?
  • After the eight o’clock service this morning I heard about Mattress Mack in Texas. He owns a bunch of mattress stores and he opened them up and invited whoever needed a place to sleep in to sleep on his mattresses. A burning bush in the middle of a flooded city.

Do we encounter burning bushes today? And if so, where?

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Sermon 8/20/2017 “Blood and soil”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Genesis 45:1-15/Matthew 15:21-28
Day: Proper 15, Year A

“Blood and soil”

Getty image, modified to reflect what the people were shouting

Those of you who have been following the news this week may have seen the photos of last Friday night’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. If so, you will have seen images of clean-cut young White men with tiki torches marching and chanting “blood and soil, blood and soil.”

I didn’t know until this week that “blood and soil” was a Nazi ideology, a Nazi belief. The idea here is that one’s ethnicity or race (one’s blood) and the land (home territory) that one’s people possess can restore a nation to greatness.

Hmmmm. That concept worked out really well for the Nazis, didn’t it? The concept of “blood and soil” is that “back to the land,” or rural living and closing ourselves off to outsiders will restore us to some romanticized view of the past. I say “romanticized” because “blood and soil” hides a few more things within the concept: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and ethnic cleansing, to name just a few.

Did you notice how very young the marchers were? AND the counter protesters? We clergy persons, we were the oldsters in attendance, with a mission to be a calm, rational, stabilizing, and prayerful presence. We were Jews, Muslim, Buddhists, and Christians of many denominations, who for the most part were greatly older than those we were there to serve. We marveled, because most of the many clergy present haven’t seen a 20-something-year-old in our places of worship, unless visiting “blood” on home “soil.” So here, I thought, was THEIR altar: on the cusp between “blood and soil” and the message proclaimed on a banner over our heads across the street: “our diversity makes us stronger.”

With this background, given the events of last weekend and this week unfolding around us, is there any wonder that everywhere I looked in today’s lessons I saw “blood and soil?”

Our Old Testament lesson, for example, continues the story of Joseph, the fourth generation of the patriarchs of our faith. Last week we heard that Joseph was sold by his older brothers—his “blood”—into slavery onto foreign “soil.” Why? Because their father loved his youngest child the best, had even given Joseph a special coat, long-sleeved the lesson said, one that made clear that THIS SON wasn’t expected to do any work.

Wasn’t Joseph extra special? Just ask him! Tattling on his brothers to Dad. Dreaming about the future. Telling his older brothers that they would bow down to him. As if! So, when the chance arose, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt and told their father that he had been killed by a wild animal.

In today’s lesson, Joseph’s dream had come to pass. Joseph had seen a famine coming and had helped the Egyptians store up enough grain to last until the famine was over. And now here were Joseph’s brothers, bowing down to him and asking him for food.

Joseph’s response was forgiveness and reconciliation. No blame. No recriminations. “You are my people, my blood,” he told them. “I forgive you and I will share my new soil with you. What I have is yours.”

In this way, we see God doing what God always seems to do: overturn the expected order of things. The younger will rule the older. The smaller will beat the giant. The blind will see better than the sighted. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

We know that God actually DOES love some more than others. God loves the very ones we despise more than the people we love, more even than us. This shouldn’t trouble us in the least, because God loves US INFINITELY, and others “more infinitely.” But we act as if God’s love is in limited supply and we try to rid our soil, if not our planet, of the people we think are more favored than us. And if we can’t get rid of the people, maybe we just try to hide them. You know, make them invisible again.

For example, did you notice last week that Joseph’s coat is no longer described as “many colored?” No rainbow coat, no reminder of the covenant after the flood. THAT, we are told, was the translation of only the Septuagint. No, the coat was “long sleeved,” if translated properly. Really? Or are we trying to hide rainbow-colored things in the Bible because of the cultural connotations of rainbows in our time?

We try to erase God’s love for all, to make God’s understanding of “blood” match our own. If we make our soil small enough, we can become the big person in that world, again.

Why do we do this, over and over again? Here’s my theory. There is something that exists (for lack of a better word) whose existence cannot be explained because its existence isn’t logical. This existence is “No-Thing,” as the German theologian Karl Barth said, the very chaos that God pushed aside at creation. The goal of No-Thing is to undo creation. And No-Thing is very good at finding the fault lines in our human operating system to pit us against each other.

One of our prominent fault lines is where we must choose between “blood and soil” and letting the stranger in. Our gospel lesson today tells of an incident when Jesus confronted his own urge to claim “blood and soil.” A foreign woman—a Palestinian woman we would call her today—dared to approach Jesus and ask him to heal her daughter. The woman knew full well who Jesus was, too, because she called him “Son of David,” his Messianic title.

Jesus responded, “Blood and soil, blood and soil,” and in a rather un-nice way. Jesus called the woman a “dog” and said he was here for only his own blood, thank you very much. In the end, though, the woman’s great faith won Jesus’ admiration and unleashed his love and healing.

“Blood and soil” lost round one that day. And “blood and soil” lost permanently on the day the Son of David rose from the dead. On THAT day Christ’s blood became the only blood that counts, and the “soil” of the Kingdom of God the only sure place to stand.

There’s a reason I’ve spent today talking about “blood and soil” [looking around at all the backpacks on the altar stuffed with school supplies]. I know that you have already staked a claim to the blood of Christ and the soil of heaven. And I’m counting on you to continue to ACT, not politically but together across the “blood and soil” line to witness to God’s greater love for “not us” than “us.” From our very first days in this Commonwealth during massive resistance to integration, in an area of our City where immigrants are but can barely afford to live, Church of the Resurrection has always been a place that recognizes the Other as our true kin. Here we share the Blood of Christ, the Soil of Salvation. How shall we share THIS blood and THIS soil together to a world of young adults who may never enter our doors?

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