October 16, 2016 – “Vows”

Today’s text is from 1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10.

This reading from Samuel can be broken down into two different parts and I’d like to do that today – to focus on Hannah’s pain in the first section and to focus on her joy in the second section.

To get to the hidden pain that Hannah is experiencing I would like us to put on our history hats today. I wasn’t here last weekend because I was visiting Boston. Now I’ve never been to New England before and I was excited to see what history the city had in store.

There’s something fascinating and eerie about standing in the midst of locations that have hundreds of years of memories. There’s something strange about standing in a cemetery staring at headstones that have dates from the 1700s written on them. There’s something strange about standing on the exact spot that the Boston massacre took place. There’s something odd about being in the church that helped signal the start of the Revolutionary War.

It’s odd because now these locations are surrounded by a bustling city. These historic spots are now buried within the city itself. A city and a people that are so far removed from the events that no one is able to remember the pain of the events that took place at these locations.

The pain, suffering, and death that once happened in some of those spots is lost and hidden away in the past. They’re stored away, never to be seen again. And if we can agree that it’s difficult to see this history on the crowded intersection where people walk absentmindedly over where the Boston massacre took place – where there’s a giant stone medallion marker on the ground pointing out what took place on that spot – then imagine what people are like.

People, unfortunately, don’t have these giant medallions or markers on them that point to the history they have gone through. The people around us don’t have plaques that remind us what they’ve gone through in their lives and that they’ve fought their own battles and perhaps are in the midst of fighting one right now.

Often we’re like the city and people that have slowly overtaken these moments of pain. Often it’s simply easier to pretend that everything is fine in our lives, but especially that everything is fine in the lives of the people and world around us.

We’re told that Hannah is in pain this morning. We’re told that in her deep anguish and bitter weeping she prays to God. She prayers for the pain to go away.

Her pain stems from that fact that she hasn’t been able to have any children. Now a helpful piece of our reading is missing today from the verses just prior to the start of the text – and I’m going to warn you now, if you’re against polygamous marriage then turn away for a moment – because Hannah is upset that her husband’s other wife has been able to have a lot of children.

But this is more than simply a rivalry between who can have the most children. Hannah has none and would just like one. Now, it’s pretty easy to read stories in the Bible and come to the understanding that having children is a blessing – we heard this about Abram and how he was going to be blessed with descendants as numerous as the stars.

And for people who have lots of kids nowadays they’ll often say that they have been blessed by God. Now, this troubles me, and apparently Hannah as well, for a couple reasons: First, claiming children are a blessing from God is a very specific theological claim; and second, if having children is a blessing what does that mean for Hannah and for women everywhere who are simply unable to conceive? Or don’t want to conceive? Or were raped and forced to carry this so-called blessing?

See, Hannah is in deep anguish and pain because, for her, infertility is often seen theological as a curse. And it’s a pain and burden that is hidden away in Hannah. See, it’s not obvious that there’s this history with her.

Sure, people probably ask her why she’s not pregnant yet. Sure, people probably joke with her that “she’s gotta start having kids soon before she gets too old”. People probably recognize that there’s supposed to be this blessing there because theologically and culturally we’ve been trained to assume that women have kids and if they don’t then something’s wrong with the woman.

I always love when stories of women appear in the Bible because they’re few and far between. Women in the Bible aren’t held in very high regard. Their place in society is near the bottom – they basically don’t exist. Case in point: The feeding of the 5,000 is 5,000 men. And you’d think that after all these centuries and millennia since Hannah lived something would’ve changed. And certainly some things have changed for women. But then other things have stayed the same.

And this is where Hannah’s joy is made. Because while Hannah’s society doesn’t value her, God does. While women today as often still treated and talked about like sexual objects with no value, for God there is infinite value to be seen.

God steps in and flips the script and tells Hannah that she is worth everything to God. God steps in and does what God always does – reverses the status quo. God steps in and lifts up the lowly and crushes the rulers. God steps in and takes nothing and makes it everything and takes those with everything and makes them nothing.

By this point this shouldn’t be all too surprising. We see it with Hannah here in the Old Testament and we’ll see it in two months with Mary in the New Testament. We’ll see it with Jesus walking this earth and doing things that didn’t make sense like eating with sinners, healing on the Sabbath, bringing the dead back to life, providing forgiveness where there was once judgment.

Because when Jesus and God look upon you – when they look upon the world – they see the markers of the past pain, suffering, and agony you have gone through. This hidden pain and suffering that Hannah was experiencing was not hidden to God. God was with her in the midst of that fear and terror. She who was once lowly has been lifted from the dust.

For Hannah there was a happy ending. In this lifetime she was lifted from the pit and received the answer to her prayers. But not all of us are as lucky. This life changing reversal that Hannah experienced through prayer isn’t really a formula that we can simply repeat and then expect to have the same results.

Sometimes we don’t see this reversal until we’ve left this earth. Sometimes the pain and suffering we see in this world just won’t go away. No matter how hard we pray, or how faithful we are, sometimes the answers just never appear.

At least, sometimes they never appear in this lifetime. But as we’ve seen from God from creation through Abram – we worship a God of promises and covenants. We worship a God who has given us the amazing gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is the character of God.

That God is a God who reverses the script. God turns the world on its head. God takes systems of power and oppression and crushes them. God takes what was outcast and left for dead and provides abundant life.

This is that promise to you. And it’s a promise for the world. Our challenge this morning is to live our lives seeing the markers, medallions, and sign posts in the lives of our brothers and sisters that are often hidden from view. Our call is to move out into the world to see the hidden pain and suffering that exists all around us and to give away the blessings and promises we have already received from God.

For then, like Hannah, we can sing praise to God. For in Jesus Christ you have been lifted up to new life and through Jesus Christ you have the same power to lift our brothers and sisters in this world to a life that is filled with the joy and peace and grace of a God who changes everything.

October 2, 2016 – “Passover”

Today’s text is from Exodus 12:1-13, 13:1-8.

The connection between smell and memory has been long documented in scientific and medical communities. And I’m sure you’ve noticed this throughout your life as well – you run across a certain smell and it immediately brings you back to a specific childhood memory or a random event in your life where you encountered this smell before.

For me growing up a smell that I always associated with a certain time and place was being at the ballpark. Whenever you went to a baseball game there was just this certain smell to it: Greasy food, charcoal from the people tailgating, and just a conglomeration of other smells that you could only find at the ballpark. But for some reason Miller Park always had a unique smell to it.

As a family we would travel to different ballparks and they never quite had the same smell – they were similar, but there was just something different about the way Miller Park smelled. As we continued to go to games here I would always to be reminded that, “Yep, we’re at Miller Park.” It just had that familiar smell to it.

Well, in recent years I finally became old enough to nail down exactly where that smell was coming from. The team name and the stadium name aren’t random in this regard – Miller Park, to me, has the distinct smell of Miller Lite beer. That was the smell that always reminded me of Brewers’ games. I had been classically conditioned to think of a Brewers’ game from the smells of the ballpark, but one in particular in this case: Beer.

Now that’s a lighthearted example, but smell has this raw ability to transport us back to a place and time that mere memory couldn’t do on its own. This is why rituals and traditions carry such weight in terms of bringing the past to life. They’re unique ways of remembering – more than just through oral tradition, but in this case tangible ways of experiencing this memory.

That’s in part what the Passover meal does. Now, we’ve leap-frogged through Genesis and straight into Exodus this week. And we’ve skipped over whole narratives, including the birth of Moses, the plagues, and the actual exodus itself is wedged between our split reading today. We’ve seen God create, we’re seen God promise blessings upon blessings to Abram, we’ve seen God’s people be put into slavery, and we’re now witnessing God freeing God’s people from this bondage.

And God is using tangible memory to remind the Israelites to continue looking forward and not to the past. And not only tangible memory through bread and lamb, but tangible memories through time itself. Notice the beginning of the reading – within the first couple of sentences we have numerous markers of time.

We have God telling the people that the month they’re in is going to be the first month of their year and that on the tenth day of that month these Passover preparations are to begin. On the fourteenth day of that month the lamb or goat that was chosen is to be slaughtered at twilight – literally a time between the evenings, a marker of ending and beginning, a marker of transition between daylight and nighttime. That very night they’re supposed to eat the meat, bitter herbs, and bread with haste.

And by morning if anything is leftover they must burn it. These are very specific markers of time. First month. Tenth day. Fourteenth day. Twilight of the fourteenth day. Morning of the fifteenth day. God is setting before the Israelite people tangible memories. Memories and rituals to anticipate and prepare for a new beginning. Memories and rituals that help them focus on the future instead of the past.

And I think we need these tangible memories and rituals because eventually things go wrong. Or, like in the Israelites’ case, perhaps things were never right in the first place. Whether it’s our own lives, families, friends, the life of the world, sometimes things don’t go our way. Sometimes there are problems that aren’t fixed. For some people systems of injustice permanently hold them down. For others getting things like food and water are daily struggles.

And it’s at these points in our lives where we just want to sit back and scream at God. We want to hold someone accountable for what’s going on in our lives. And trust me, it is really easy to point the finger at God and Jesus because they’re the ones who promised us new life in the first place! They’re the ones we read about creating time and space, providing blessing upon blessing and promises upon promises to Abram and the people of Israel only to find this people of God – who were supposed to be blessed – in slavery and bondage.

This isn’t lost on us today and it definitely wasn’t lost on the people of Israel. Because in just a few short chapters they are going to want to go back to Egypt. They’re going to want to go back into slavery and bondage because it appeared that their lives were much better in Egypt than wandering through the wilderness like they eventually will for 40 years.

Because sometimes that’s what life feels like – like we’re just wandering through the wilderness. We knew that God was supposed to have blessed us and that we were supposed to have received the promise of new life – but where is it? Sometimes we can’t see it or feel it or know that it truly has been given to us.

But that’s where tangible markers of time, space, location, and memory step in. That’s why we gather at the foot of the altar every week to receive the simple sign of God’s presence. The simple signs of Jesus’ forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. Because the markers of God’s presence truly are that simple.

The tangible reminders of God’s presence in our lives are everywhere. As the sights and sounds and tastes of summer fade away new ones take their place: Leaves turning colors, the smell of apple orchards and pumpkin patches, crisp air, shorter nights – the tangible markers of God’s promises and blessings to us are all around us.

So as we receive bread and wine today, as we come together as one body of Christ, as we move out into the world as children of God – I challenge and encourage you to soak in all the tangible ways that God is present in your life. Because God is there – sometimes hidden, sometimes obvious – but through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit we will find that an abundance of blessings and promises have been poured out upon us.

So taste God’s presence, hear Jesus’ call, breathe in the Holy Spirit, feel the God of all creation at your feet, holding you hand, and beating within your heart. Because the God of new life reminds you this day and always that you are a beloved child of God.

The Challenge of Following

Note: I find myself away for the weekend, but of course I couldn’t help but write something. In hindsight the following words fit in nicely with the text my congregations are wrestling with this weekend: The story of Joseph in Genesis 37. A story about a brother who is sold and then later forgives his brothers for selling him. Who in their right mind would forgive someone for such an evil act? Apparently Joseph. And most definitely Jesus. Oh, and we’re called to forgive with such reckless abandon as well. And be loving. And gracious. And merciful. And that leads us to the…

The challenge of following. Because, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s what this is: A challenge. When we listen to the story of the first twelve disciples we don’t find them walking the easy road. We don’t find them having all the answers.

We find them dazed, confused, tired, anxious, fearful, and usually doing the exact opposite of what Jesus told them to do. These are people that are now labeled ‘saints’ by many Christians. ‘Saints’ who when they walked this earth couldn’t fathom what Jesus’ ministry was; ‘saints’ who didn’t have a shred of understanding as to what Jesus’ mission was; ‘saints’ who gave up hope and faith once Jesus was considered long dead after three days.

And yet, for some reason, 2,000 years later we, as Christians, have concontacted document after document – millions of pages – of theologies, beliefs, doctrines, apologies describing how we ought to believe.

Rooted in the ELCA, or even just rooted within Lutheranism, we ascribe to the Book of Concord. As it sits on my desk it is a 660 page book that outlines the early Protestant beliefs and theologies.

In great detail it describes and unpacks all the minute details of faith, theology, and doctrine. In excruciating detail it outlines what the early reformers believed.

And it’s seemingly required of every seminarian, pastor, church member, Sunday Schooler, Confirmation student that they memorize and pin these words to their heart of hearts. And I would say that’s fine, that’s perfectly okay, if but for one thing: We can’t even do what Jesus asked us to do in the first place.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

– Matthew 22:36-40

The two greatest commandments. Love God, love your neighbor. We can’t do either. Period. We fail greatly at actually fulfilling these. Not in a million years could we ever hope to love God with all our heart and soul and mind. Not in a million years could we love our neighbor as our self.

Not all hope is lost, however. This is where Jesus steps in and provides mercy and grace that are we are undeserving of. This is where Jesus fills the void and instead of punishing, sends us out in mission for the life of the world.

But here’s where I get hung up: As a church we say week after week what our faith is in the Apostle’s Creed. Week after week we slap “ELCA” on our church signs which says who we are as a church. It says we believe 660 pages worth of doctrines and beliefs. But guess what – we can’t even believe and enact the greatest commandments Jesus told us. Before we even get into believing what’s on 660 worth of pages we can’t even love God or love one another.

Time after time in the Gospels Jesus tells his followers that getting in heaven and following him is effectively impossible. That believing in him is impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit. That on our own we can’t believe.

Even with the Spirit’s help we still get in the way. Even with the Spirit we still try to control and take over and dole out God’s love and forgiveness and grace and mercy on our own. Because to love the world, and its people, as God loves it would require giving forgiveness and grace and mercy and love as Jesus did.

That’s the challenge of following. It was never meant to be easy. It was never meant to be fun. It was meant to be life changing and life giving.

So what do I believe? I believe that God is love and that we are called to love God and love our neighbor. And since I, and we, will fail our entire lives trying to accomplish just these two things, why on earth would I begin to try and believe the myriad of other theologies that have been developed in the two thousand years since Jesus?

We are called to serve and love as Jesus did. Period. It is, and can be, that simple. Although, as Jesus pointed out, it’s anything but simple.

And that’s the challenge of following.

September 18, 2016 – “Abundance”

I must first apologize; I’ve gotten a bit behind in posting my sermons lately – the beginning of September has been a whirlwind. So, without further ado:

Today’s text is from Genesis 15:1-6.

“Don’t be afraid.”

You know, the more I hear this phrase in Scripture the more I think we should be afraid. Or, perhaps it means the fear can finally end. Maybe it means that with God by our side we can’t possibly fear anything. Although that’s easier said than done, I think.

Now, by this point you’ve probably noticed I have quite the affinity for anything outer space. So as we blaze through the beginning of Genesis I’ve been pretty excited about reading these creation texts. And although we’re 15 chapters removed from the beginning of Genesis we still have a beautiful reference to creation today.

“Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then God said to Abram, “So shall your offspring be.”

Now, I’ve looked up at the night sky in the Milwaukee area before. And if God told Abram this same thing tonight Abram would be lucky if he could see a few dozen stars in the night sky. If this story happened later this evening Abram would be pretty disappointed. Not only at God’s lack of confidence in his counting skills, but also at the sheer lack of stars in the night sky. What kind of blessing would that be?

But move out to the countryside, far away from the glaring lights of the city, and a different picture is painted. Luckily for Abram this was the night sky that he viewed. One that shone with the brilliant light of countless stars. But notice that shift in perspective – depending on where Abram might have stood – countryside or city – he would’ve had a different understanding of God’s promise. Because usually a change of perspective is a good thing. It’s especially helpful when you’re lost.

If you’ve ever had the chance to walk through a corn field I would encourage you to do so. And I’m not talking about the city slicker version called a “corn maze” where there are nice wide paths knocked down and where the entrance and exit are two very specific and findable locations. Now, those are fun, don’t get me wrong – they’re fun for a nice stroll on a chilly October afternoon. But the kind I’m talking about are the original version – just a field of corn planted on acres of land with only narrow strands of space between each row.

When I was a kid I used to venture into these true corn mazes with my sister. You’d run up and down the narrow paths, your arms would be getting sliced up by the blades of corn leaves – you’d have to cover your face at times to make sure the same fate wouldn’t happen there – and you’d eventually be buried in the heart of a field of corn.

You knew you were far away from the proverbial entrance when you could no longer hear the voices of family who had stayed behind. Often shivers of fear would hit you because direction didn’t make much sense in a corn field. Finding north or south or east or west became a tricky task.

And it’s ironic to get lost in a corn field because just feet above your head was your answer. If you could’ve just managed to stick your head above the tassels at the top of the stalks you’d know which way to go.

But there were other ways too – the sounds of people in the distance. The shadows cast by the sun. The direction the corn was planted. The slope of land you were on. But each of these required replacing fear with calm. Each required you to hear the words, “Don’t be afraid.”

And when you’re lost or when you’re feeling dead and deserted like Abram these words don’t seem to bring any calm or peace. And yet for Abram the answer was right above his head. The answer was in the stars and the answer was found in God. But again, easier said than done.

Often it feels like the answers to all our problems dangle just feet away from our reach – just out of our sight. For Abram this was solving his heir problem by his own means – or how getting lost in a corn field often results in wild running in circles. In both cases it seems like progress is being made – an answer is being found, right? More like manufactured.

Before being told not to be afraid by God, Abram was panicking. What was he going to do? How was he going to carry on his legacy and family name? And so instead of trusting God’s presence in the world around him he began to plan for a one generational fix. But God had bigger plans in mind.

God usually does. See, whenever we hear that word from God to “not be afraid,” we should be very, very afraid. Not because God doesn’t hold us secure, but because God does hold us securely.

We should be afraid because God is about to walk with us into that corn field and say – it might seem like confusion and fear and desolation and nothing but death in here, but do you see the sun above your head? You can use that for direction. Do you see the rows planted at your feet? You know which way they’re headed. Do you see the ground falling off to your right? You know where the valley is. Do you hear the sound of family and friends? You know where they’re located. Do you see the sky above your head? Drink it in, relax, breathe, feel my presence and know that I am God.

Like Abram, we should be afraid, because God takes nothing and makes it everything. God takes a few loaves and fishes and makes an abundance. God takes death and makes it life. We should be afraid because God is forever jumping out from around the corner and surprising us. God is forever pulling us down paths that seem challenging or difficult or dangerous. We should be afraid – until we realize there’s nothing to fear.

There’s nothing to fear because Jesus has already secured everything that matters for us. There’s nothing to fear because even in the most frightening situations God is by our side. But this is easier said than done. It’s good in theory, but hard in practice because we need to remember the markers of God’s presence in creation, in the world around us.

Like Abram, we need to remember the promise given to us in God and given to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a promise that isn’t always obvious, a promise that sometimes seems far away or simply hidden from view. But, if we change our perspective and put our trust in God anything is possible.

Because when we hear the words, “Do not be afraid,” we can know that we truly have nothing to fear because Jesus Christ holds us secure.


September 11, 2016 – “Creation”

Today’s text is from Genesis 1.

What color is creation? If you had to pick one specific color that would align with what the average color of creation is what would it be? Blue? Green? A mix of the two to identify earth’s water and plants? Or maybe black since the universe appears that way? Or maybe white for the light of the sun?

Now, there is a potential answer, by the way. The 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey was a project undertaken between 1997 and 2002 by a group of Australian astronomers. Now their goal wasn’t to determine the color of the universe. In fact, it was to look out 2.5 billion light years from earth to see the large-scale structure of the universe. Just under 400,000 objects appeared in the survey – most of which were galaxies.

But then a group of astronomers from Johns Hopkins decided to take this survey in a different direction. They analyzed the objects in the image to determine what the average color spectra was using the data gathered during that 6-year survey.

And they actually came up with a specific color. It’s a variation of white – a color which was given the unofficial name of “Cosmic Latte”.

Now, this very prestigious sounding name for the average color of the universe forgets one thing: That’s not how we live. The universe is so grand and large we can’t even fathom its size. Creation means something different for us than it does for the rest of the universe.

Creation for us means living on this chunk of rock – even more specifically on a certain continent next to a large body of water. Our view of creation is grounded and rooted in the very minute world around us.

Some days the color of creation is a blue sky with green trees next to us. In a short time the color of creation will be red and yellow leaves. In a few months the color of creation will be nearly pure white with snow covering every inch of the world around us. “Cosmic Latte” assumes creation is static and unchanging. On a grand scale the universe appears very generic and boring. But on a human scale creation is anything but.

Often the creation around us is chaotic and frightening. 15 years ago chaos and fear consumed this nation when thousands of people lost their lives in multiple terrorist attacks. In the years since we’ve gone to war with various countries, peoples, groups in order to try and stop the chaos. In the 15 years since it feels like we live in a pseudo-chaos free country – like we’ve put up a thin barrier between us and the possibility of another 9/11 happening. Yet it feels like we’re always on edge, waiting for it to happen once again.

Chaos in our creation doesn’t seem like it’s gone away. Yet that’s exactly what the writers of the book of Genesis say happened during creation. But before we get there I want to connect the accounts of Revelation and Genesis again. We’ve gone from the last book in the Bible to the first one this week because, as we talked about last week, they both paint a picture of creation. They both can be taken literally, metaphorically, allegorically, poetically.

And before we have a debate over the proper interpretation of the account of creation I want us to focus on the theological implications of the Genesis account.

When we usually say, hear, or think of the word, “creation,” I’m sure a lot of things come to mind. When we hear the word, “creation,” in a religious setting it’s natural for us to immediately think of how creation came to be. But perhaps there’s another lens we can use – a lens that focuses on why instead of how.

Because creation is more than a one-time event. As we talked about last week we find God still creating at the end of time and this morning we find God creating at the very beginning. We find God’s fingerprints to be all over the creation that surrounds us. But I think we find more than just the ghostly reminders of God’s presence in the creation around us – we find the very presence of God.

Let’s just take a moment to wrap our heads around that idea. That God is in every inch of creation. That God is in fact the very fabric of creation. That every single thing around us is interconnected not only with us, but with the very being of God.

I find this to be an incredible reminder of our place in creation. I find this to be a comforting and reassuring thought in the midst of an often chaotic and violent world. In a time and place where we can look deeper into the universe, into creation, than ever before and realize just how small our home is in comparison to the rest of creation we realize that God isn’t located in one space or time lightyears away.

Because when we step back and view creation from that distance it looks the same. When we view God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit to simply be distant observers who occasionally join us on this earth then the world around us looks very bland – and very chaotic. It looks very “Cosmic Latte”. It looks fragile and helpless and insignificant.

One of my favorite pictures of the earth that showcases our small place within the scale of the universe was a picture taken by a spacecraft orbiting Saturn. The planet of Saturn takes up nearly the entire frame and is backlit by the Sun. But there’s more to the picture than that. In it, you can see 3 other planets from our Solar System – Venus, Mars, and Earth. But our home planet of Earth only takes up a few pixels of the image. It’s simply a speck of blue amidst a vast field of darkness.

Everything we’ve ever known in our lives appear in that tiny, blurry group of pixels. And looking at it it’s easy to get caught up in how “Cosmic Latte” it feels. Because when I hear “Cosmic Latte” I’m especially reminded of a nice coffee. And this time of year I’m reminded of all the new fall drinks that will hit the shelves soon. It’s a sign that the seasons are about to change. It’s a sign that the creation around us is constantly changing and transforming and never standing still.

But “Cosmic Latte” can also mean that bland, off white color. It can mean creation when viewed from so far away that it seems bland and all the same color and unchanging and pointless.

It’s easy to view our lives from that vantage point as insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But our God lives for the seemingly insignificant and forsaken.

The God of all creation is in the minute, the destitute, the forgotten, the worthless, the left for dead. The God of all creation is located within us – no matter what category or group or social structure we fall into.

Because in God’s eyes we are worth everything. In Jesus’ eyes we were worth dying for. In the Spirit’s eyes are worth breath of life that fills our bodies. If there’s anything that this text from Genesis tells us it’s that we are created by God. Saved by Jesus. Loved by the Spirit.

Theologically this text tells us everything we need to know – that we are made in God’s image. That we are part of the very fabric of creation. And that we are loved by a God who sent his own Son to this very Earth. Sent here for you. To join us on this journey of life – a life that takes us through the very heart of God – through the very fabric of creation.

September 4, 2016 – “Creation”

Today’s text is from Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5. It is our final weekend in the arc of the Narrative Lectionary’s yearly cycle.

As I was driving home on Friday I noticed more traffic than usual. As I drove southbound on the Interstate, the northbound lanes were hardly moving and seemingly backed up for miles. But then I remembered what weekend it is. Not only the first weekend in September, but Labor Day weekend and the unofficial last day of summer. It’s everyone’s last chance to get out of town for a long weekend and get up to a lake, or a cottage, or perhaps just find a place away from the noise and busyness of the city.

But it also made me think: Why do we always have this need to get away? I’ve heard the joke, and made the joke myself, that after taking a vacation you sometimes need to take another vacation from your vacation. I mean, how weird is that? That we purposefully take time off and usually away from where we live, but then when we come back we’ve gotta take a breather from the fact we were taking a breather.

It makes you wonder what’s so fantastically wrong about the life that we spend 99% of our waking hours in if we’re constantly on the lookout for a break or time away. But that was the case for the early Christian church.

We’re the book of Revelation today for a one-week stint before we jump all the way back to the beginning of the Bible next week with Genesis because both books talk about creation. We land in Revelation this weekend because it speaks of God actively creating. It speaks of God, who after all this time is still creating new from old, still taking what is already here and changing it.

Revelation says a lot of things. Taken literally, metaphorically, allegorically, poetically this book seems to be an odd ball in the Bible. But really it doesn’t say anything different than what we already know about God. Our reading for today speaks about a God who is always creating. It speaks of a God who began creating in Genesis and at the end of time is still creating. So what does that say about the here and now? Is God absent from creating? Is God taking an extended vacation this Labor Day weekend from creating?

While that Sabbath rest is good, working on Mondays is part of God’s M.O. as well. Creating new things even in the year 2016 is still part of who God is. But for the writers of the Old and New Testaments there almost seems to be this longing for the new world. Theirs is a longing for the time spoken of in our reading today – when the earth is made new, when chaos is no more, where suffering is gone, where darkness has vanished. This is the future hope that is spoken of and clung to.

Sometimes it’s all we have. Sometimes our lives descend to the place of mourning and suffering and pain and tears and there just isn’t a way out. And so at the bottom of that pit all we have is the promise given to us in Jesus Christ – the promise that we read about in Revelation today.

But our lives are a both/and. Because heaven isn’t some faraway place that’s hidden from view until some future date. If you want to know what heaven looks like I guess I’d point you to the reading today where we find out that heaven is a new Jerusalem located on a new earth. Strange, isn’t it? After all this time where we thought heaven was high above us, God still shows us one final reversal of thought.

After all this time that we thought the world around us was going to hell – century after century of people claiming the coming year would be the end – because the earth and its people were destructive and turned from God’s ways – it turns out that heaven is on earth. This chunk of rock spiraling around the sun and galaxy is actually okay, after all. Because for some reason God is creating a new earth and a new heaven. New, new, new.

Perhaps we could make the argument that the earth is being created anew because sin and humanity tarnished it. But what about heaven? Apparently it’s being created anew as well, just like the earth. Perhaps that’s because new creation is in God’s DNA. Perhaps that’s because God can’t help but take the very fabric of creation and transform and change it.

New creation is akin to a new identity. In Jesus Christ we are created anew and given new identities: Children of God. In Jesus Christ we are a new creation – in Jesus Christ, God stepped foot on this earth as one of us. And Jesus spoke surprising words to us like, “The Kingdom of heaven is here, now”.

Again, that’s strange, isn’t it? That this creative force is all around us, constantly making things new. That perhaps this far off day that we’ve been waiting for is actually already around us – currently in the making – currently in the process of being made new.

And this brings us back to our 3-day weekend. What does new creation look like in a world where suffering and death are so prevalent? What does being created anew look like when there is a 100% chance that our lives will end in death? What does being made new look like when it looks like the exact opposite is happening on a daily basis?

Where is this God of all creation? It seems like God’s taking a break sometimes. It seems like God forgot some of us – forgot to change and transform us so that we wouldn’t have to die years before we’d planned – forgot to make us new by curing us from our ailments and lifting us out of the pit.

Where is this God who is found in the very fabric of creation? Because sometimes creation seems evil, unfair, harsh, deadly, wrong. I can see the appeal of wanting this new heaven and new earth. I can see the appeal of wanting to get out of this life that ends with a 100% chance of death – sometimes after a long life and sometimes too soon. But often it’s the ‘too soon’ part that catches us off guard. Often it’s the diseases and natural disasters and people dying from lack of things like food and water that make us wonder why God has taken a vacation away from God’s people.

It may seem like that. It may feel like God has taken a trip out of town to get away for a bit. But new creation cannot happen without death. Change cannot happen without movement. Transformation cannot happen while being static. And the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of heaven cannot be far away because just like God it is everywhere. Just like creation it not only surrounds us but is physically a part of who we are.

One day, it could be tomorrow, next year, 50 years from now – one day we will each turn to the next chapter in our lives – it’s usually called death. But in Jesus Christ it is simply part of a longer journey. A journey that involves the constant change, motion, and transformation of creation. A journey that never ends, but instead is constantly being made new.

This is the creation that we are a part of. This is the creation that is woven together by God’s very being. It is a creation that is constantly being made new and it is a creation that will one day live under the light and love of God in a new heaven and a new earth. But until that time I invite you to look at the world around you and your own life as a miracle of creation that is already in the process of being made new.

I invite you to see the world around you – the broken, mundane, and so often beautiful world around us – and see God’s kingdom, God’s presence, God’s very being. Because we are not alone in this frightening journey called life because we are a part of creation and because of Jesus Christ we are part of God.


August 28, 2016 – “Challenged”

Today’s text comes from the 4th and final chapter of Jonah.

We’ve come to the beautiful conclusion of the book of Jonah. We’ve spent the past few weeks moving through this narrative to find that there’s so much more to the story than just Jonah being eaten by a fish.

We’ve seen God tell Jonah to travel to the east and instead he goes west. We’ve seen sailors who didn’t believe in God saved and God’s own prophet rather die than try and be saved. We’ve seen Jonah reluctantly travel to Nineveh and preach a 5-word sermon to the city. And then the entire city repented because of it. Jonah achieved greatly as a prophet – he spoke a word from God and the people actually listened – he should be excited, but he’s not.

He’s in fact beyond angry at God. He’s so mad at God that he’d rather die than see the people of Nineveh forgiven. He’s so angry at God that the fact that God chose mercy over Jonah’s definition of justice leads him to call this act from God evil.

Now this is the same God that Jonah professes his faith to – the same God that he says is, “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” He’s right, but then he goes on: “And you know what God? I get you giving me those things, but the people of Nineveh? If this is how you’re going to act I’d rather just die. Justice? Mercy? They’re awesome for me and my people, but not for my enemies. If those people who are evil and sinners and terrible people get this gift then I no longer want it.”

I don’t know who your enemies are. I’m gonna assume that most of us don’t have enemies in the same sense that Jonah does. Certainly terrorist groups threaten the safety of innocent people worldwide, but in our communities here we don’t face that threat on a daily basis. But I don’t think we need to have enemies like Nineveh in order to act like Jonah.

It’s so easy to say that God is gracious and compassionate and slow to anger and abounding in love – but what does that mean. What does it mean? What does a gracious God look like? How about a compassionate one? Or one that’s slow to anger? Or one that’s abounding in love?

We say these words all the time. We claim that God sent his Son because he loved the world, we claim that God’s message is for all people, we claim that in Jesus Christ everyone has the opportunity to be near to God. But then this word ‘opportunity’ gets in the way. Jonah stared down a city that had destroyed his friends and family and nation and preached God’s word knowing that God did ridiculous things like save people he disagreed with and who said, ‘no thanks’ to believing in God and who did not deserve an ounce of God’s mercy and instead a mountain of God’s hellfire.

And so Jonah left Nineveh, perched himself east of the city, and waited. Waited for the fire to rain down from the sky and obliterate this people that didn’t deserve God’s mercy or compassion or love. A people, who, when Jonah looked into their eyes only saw his own hatred and fear. A people, who, when he looked into their eyes only saw his own judgment.

It’s hard to blame Jonah for doing that – it’s easy to do. It’s so easy to kick back and say, “you, you, you – sinners.” It’s easy to be the critic, easy to point out the faults that other people seem to have and then completely forget about the mountain of problems that we have. It was easy for Jonah to do with a group of people that amounted to terrorists for the people of Israel. And we do it all the time when we label groups of people or those we don’t like as sinners, or disgusting, or just plain wrong because they’re different from us.

And I think that’s because we think we’ve done something to earn or deserve God’s grace and mercy and compassion and love. It’s a broad brush stroke to make, but in the end I think we’re more like Jonah than Jesus. Speaking from personal experience it’s easy to think that I’ve somehow won God’s love or earned my salvation by believing – well, what does believing even mean? How can I ever be sure that I’m A) Believing the “right” things, and B) Believing enough?

Look at Jonah. When God told him to go right he went left. When God told him to preach to a certain people he refused. When God asked him why he should care if Nineveh is saved Jonah simply said, “just kill me already.” Jonah loved the idea that God would be compassionate to him and forgive his sins, but to do that thing that Jesus said, to “forgive others as he’d been forgiven”? That’s where he gets hung up.

To love others as he’d been loved? To be merciful as God is merciful? To truly enact the attributes of God? That’s where Jonah says, “no thanks”. That’s where Jonah says, “Wait a second, God, this faith thing isn’t supposed to be easy? This faith thing actually means seeing other people as you see them? Well then I’d rather just sit here and die.” At least he’s honest. At least he admits that how God operates doesn’t make sense to him and so instead of seeing the world and creation through God’s eyes he’d rather just die.

I like Jonah because he signed up to follow God but forgot to read the fine print. I like Jonah because he loved the gift that he’d been given – but then he realized that other people different from him got it too – and suddenly he began to act like a 5-year-old who realized they weren’t going to get all the toys they saw at the store. It dawned on him that saving the world meant something different to him than it did to God. He finally realized and admitted out loud that he cares more about a plant that was providing him shade than the safety of the human beings that lived in Nineveh. Again, at least he’s honest.

The book of Jonah ends with a question. Here are the final 3 verses again:

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

This isn’t meant to be an easy question. In our own terms, again, should we celebrate if ISIS repented and received no punishment? Should we leap for joy at God’s mercy for a people who commit acts of evil? That’s what Jonah’s facing. That’s what he’s up against. That’s why he’d rather die. Because he didn’t read the fine print. He didn’t realize what he’d signed up for. He forgot that following God, following Jesus for us, means going to the cross. It means dying because we can’t wrap our heads around God’s version of mercy and justice and compassion.

It doesn’t make sense. We were never told it would. Because if we truly knew what being “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, relenting from sending calamity,” meant, then we would be God.

So, what’s the good news? Jonah was still saved and loved by God. The sailors were saved and loved by God. The people of Nineveh were saved and loved by God. It didn’t matter what direction Jonah turned or how hard he fought against who God is because God still worked through him anyway. Despite Jonah’s best efforts to run away from God he just could not. God forever kept up with him. And God never turned God’s back on him or gave up on him.

The same holds true for you and me. Whether we think we’re more like Jonah or Jesus, whether we think we’ve got this Christianity thing figured out or not, whether we think our enemies should be saved or destroyed – in the end it’s not up to us. In the end the world is not judged through our eyes. In the end God’s creation is seen for what it is: A part of God.

Like Jonah, we’ll fight against the fine print of what it means to follow God and Jesus. But in the end Jesus will forever stand by our side and will forever do what Jesus does best: Love the world and everything in it. Most of the time it won’t make sense – it’s not supposed to – but in the end we worship a God who is, “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity”.

In the end we worship a God who leaves Jonah, and us, with a question and a challenge: To see the world as God sees it. To love the world as Jesus loves it.

Because in Jesus Christ you have been saved and loved unconditionally. And so has the world. And it doesn’t make sense and so all we, and Jonah, can say is, “Why?”


August 21, 2016 – “Justice”

Today’s text is from Jonah 3.

There has been an anger burning in our city in recent days and weeks. But also burning for decades and centuries as well. It’s an anger that we’ve witnessed in other cities across this country too. It’s an anger for justice, for accountability, for order of law, an anger for the world to just work.

It’s an anger that is often well placed. We’re angry because something hasn’t worked out in the way we want. We’re angry because justice hasn’t been served in the way that we want it. But, just like Jonah, I think we need to examine what we even mean when we say, “we want justice.”

Of the 7.2 billion people currently on this planet, 2.4 billion of them are Christian. One third of the world’s population considers themselves to be Christian. And there are certainly 2.4 billion definitions of what justice and mercy are. There are going to be billions of statements of faith and theological ideologies and systems of belief. But I think that gets lost in the fray when we claim God to have blessed us or a certain people or country. I think it’s easy to take our belief systems and place them near the top of importance. That’s, in part, what growing up in the United States does to our faith – it makes it seem superior.

Right now in another country, in another hemisphere, there are over 11,000 athletes from 207 nations competing for 918 medals at the Olympic Games. Years and lifetimes worth of hard work sometimes come down to a mere 10 seconds. And yet, for over 90% of athletes, they’ll return to their home countries without a gold, silver, or bronze medal. Most athletes will never experience the feeling of standing on the medal podium and hearing their national anthem being played.

As of Friday, the United States led the medal count with 100 overall medals. Coming in a distant second was China with 58. Now, it’s typical to expect the U.S. to dominate in the Olympics. It’s typical to expect the best from the U.S. no matter what arena we may find this country in.

It’s typical because we’re constantly bombarded by claims that the U.S. is the best nation on earth. This leads us to wonder why our enemies can’t be defeated since the U.S. is the best. What could possibly stop this nation from succeeding? Perhaps the idea that we are the best.

Chapter 4 gets chopped off in our reading today, but toward the end of it God effectively compares the people of Nineveh to a gourd. In the grand scheme of things it may look and seem like Nineveh is anything but that. We’re told it’s a massive city with hundreds of thousands of people that rules the surrounding areas and destroys anyone standing in their path. Their power seems immense and unstoppable.

But here we find this great people at the whim of God. We find a city and nation that seems powerful and awesome begging God for mercy. We find that it’s God who creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys.

We find God asking Jonah to stretch his theologies and beliefs around justice and mercy. Because what is justice for you and me is going to be different than what our neighbors believe. And sometimes God’s justice and mercy don’t seem just or merciful at all. Jonah has been calling God out for this the entire time! He calls what God is doing evil. If you’ve ever wondered if God can handle your anger look no further than Jonah.

But let’s put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes. He believes, like any good Israelite would, that God has specifically blessed their nation. Jonah believes that God’s grace and mercy and love and forgiveness extend as far as the borders of Israel. If we fast forward for just a moment, we see that this is the issue of the early Christian church. When we say Jesus died for the world do we just mean Israel? Were other people supposed to be included too?

So, this is the dilemma Jonah finds himself in. But it’s more than a slight bending and stretching of his beliefs about who receives God’s mercy – because he finds God asking him to preach to not just anyone, but enemies. Imagine you received a word from God that told you to go into the heart of ISIS held territory and preach a word of repentance. I know I’d keep that sermon short – and Jonah does, it’s only 5 words long in Hebrew – he’d make a good Lutheran.

But this raises a serious question: What does justice look like for a group like ISIS? Or what does justice look like for Nazi Germany? How about us? I think we know what justice looks like for the U.S. We’re leading the world in the medal count in the Olympics and we lead the world in the incarceration rate as well. Justice means jail for this great nation. Justice in Wisconsin and Milwaukee means having the highest incarceration rate for black males in the entire nation. So Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin wins the gold medal for putting black males behind bars the most of any state in this country.

Like Jonah, we have our own definitions of what justice and mercy are. Like Jonah, we have been raised in a culture and society that elevate how we think of ourselves and have been taught to place ourselves above others. Like Jonah, we become angry when a version of justice and mercy are put forward that don’t line up with what we’re thinking. In fact, it’s easy to be angry enough to claim that justice and mercy that extend to others in ways we don’t like is in fact evil.

But I don’t think Jonah got to that point on his own. I think he was raised to believe that he, and the Israelites, were chosen and blessed in a way that other peoples and nations weren’t. I think he was raised to believe that God was truly merciful and just and loving, but those attributes of God only applied to him and his group of people. Because the moment they applied to his enemies suddenly his God was evil.

That’s interesting. If Jonah received the gift of mercy and grace from God it was out of love. If his enemies received the exact same gift it was now an evil act. But if you told me that if a 5-word sermon somehow changed the hearts and minds of ISIS and they received no punishment for their crimes I’d probably wonder what type of warped justice God practices.

And that’s okay, we’re free to ask God that question. But, we’ve just got to be prepared for God to ask us the same question in return. We’ve got to be prepared for God to come to us in love and ask us if what we practice is truly justice and mercy – because throughout the narrative of the Bible it’s obvious that God puts into practice a justice and mercy that are lightyears different than what we could ever dream of.

We’ve got to be prepared for God to challenge us not just to bend our theologies and beliefs, but to shatter them. Because it’s easy to get comfy in our faith. It’s easy to think that we’ve won the gold medal and to kick back and relax. But the God of all creation reminds us daily that we’re not in charge. The God of all life reminds us every minute that life and death aren’t up to us. The God of love reminds us with each moment that we are not creator or judge.

The God who sent his own Son to bring about your salvation reminds you with every waking breath that you are a child of God. That every single person on this planet is a child of God. Neither makes sense. It doesn’t make sense for the people of ISIS to be children of God and it sure as heck doesn’t make any sense for you and me to be a child of God. It doesn’t make sense because we can’t ever hope to comprehend or understand God’s character or why God has chosen us.

But in Jesus Christ, you have been chosen and set free. Not because we’ve believed all the right things, or followed the rules, or walked the path that God set before us. No, in Jesus Christ the world was set free because God loves it and everything in it. In Jesus Christ we find the world to extend far beyond our horizons.

And, like Jonah, glimpsing a fraction of who God is can throw us for a loop. Because being great and blessed and justified have nothing to do with greatness and strength, but instead brokenness and weakness.

I think Jonah is interesting because we are Jonah. God says we’re saved, but so are those people that we hate and don’t understand, and so we end up kicking and screaming as we go into heaven. But this is the God we worship – a God who, in Jesus Christ, did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unfathomable – saved you and me and the world.

August 14, 2016 – “Eaten”

Today’s text is from Jonah 2.

In 1916 the poet Robert Frost published a poem that 100 years later is still in the public conscience. It’s titled The Road Not Taken and in part goes like this:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both | Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Familiar words. Like anything it can be interpreted in many different ways, but a common way to view this poem about reaching a fork in the road is to take the one less traveled – to not follow the crowd. To be different. To go and make your own way. But when Frost wrote this poem he had a specific person in mind. He was thinking of someone, who, on their walks together could never make up their mind when they came to a fork in the road.

They were indecisive – as it says in the poem, neither path was necessarily right, both were equally worn, but at some point a decision was made. A decision was made to go left or right at the fork in the road. And it was this decision that haunted the walker. It was this decision, to say go left, that forever left them wondering what the path to the right would’ve been like. It was a decision that if they ran into trouble or problems along the way made them wonder what would’ve happened had they chosen differently. Their indecisiveness, regret, and blame they assigned themselves over such a minute decision about the path they had chosen had, as Frost put it, “made all the difference.”

That no matter what decision this person made, they’d always be sorry they didn’t chose the other path. And that made all the difference. At least, that’s how it feels sometimes, doesn’t it? Sometimes life throws us a curveball when we were expecting a fastball and we swing and miss. Perhaps we were expecting something different – maybe we were expecting that we were going to be traveling down another path and suddenly a decision we made – sometimes decisions that are out of our hands occur – and we wonder, “what if?” What if this hadn’t happened? What if I hadn’t been diagnosed with this disease? What if I hadn’t said, ‘Yes?’ What if I had chosen differently? What if I hadn’t been forced down this path? What if?

What if Jonah hadn’t chosen to die instead of just going to Nineveh? You know, Jonah is an interesting person. He’d rather die than see his enemies forgiven by God. He’d rather choose the path that leads to his own demise rather than help out another group of people. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the coward’s way out. It sounds like more than just indecision – it sounds like coming to a fork in the road and just turning around.

Jonah’s lucky he got that choice. He’s lucky he had that third option. He’s lucky he had the choice to run away from God and jump into the sea even if it was cowardly and crazy and foolish to think that he could outrun God. He’s lucky he even had that option because so often in our lives we don’t always have the option to turn around. Sometimes it might even feel like we’re not even given options to choose which path to take. Sometimes it feels like we’re just along for the ride and someone else is making the choices for us and taking us down dark and frightening paths that only bring about pain and suffering.

And so here we are seeing Jonah jump into the sea – choosing door number 3 – instead of journeying down this path that we call life. Jonah made a choice – but then God took it one step further – until Jonah’s choice made him. Jonah made a decision and that made all the difference, or at least so we think, because sometimes in life we make choices and sometimes choices make us.

In the belly of a fish – it the pit of despair and fear and terror – Jonah cries out to God. Jonah raises prayers of thanksgiving and praise and repentance and promise. I like to think of this portion of the story to be Jonah hitting rock bottom. I think this imagery of Jonah inside the fish is better seen as someone who has reached their wits end. Someone who has given up hope. Someone who – when forced to go down a path they don’t want to travel – simply sits down and refuses to move.

Can we blame him? Jonah’s at rock bottom because he’s afraid. And so I label him a coward. But who am I to throw stones? We all have different ideas of what rock bottom is. We all have different scenarios where we would jump into the sea in order to avoid a decision that is a lose-lose. We will all one day encounter a path we didn’t choose to go down and suddenly this choice will make us. And we will hope and wish and dream for another path, another life, another chance at something better – and it will feel like nothing can make a difference.

And then God steps in. Jesus stands by our side. The Holy Spirit clothes us with strength. And we will see that we don’t walk this path alone. We will find that a choice has already been made for us – a choice that has already determined our salvation. We’ll find that Jesus has already chosen the path of ultimate pain and suffering and death. Jesus too chose to die, but unlike Jonah, he also chose to be raised to new life. And that new life he gives you.

Now that doesn’t mean our lives our going to be perfect. They’re not. It doesn’t mean that every bump in the road is going to be smoothed out. They won’t. It doesn’t mean that we’ll always feel Jesus’ presence or know exactly where the path we’ve chosen or been forced to travel leads.

But I think that too often that’s the narrative that’s pushed. I think we, and I think I say we as Christians, and perhaps as people too, like to create those false narratives in our minds that life is somehow fair or one day the tide will have to turn our way or that just because we know Jesus has saved us we still won’t fight and kick and scream against the path we find ourselves on.

Jonah is eaten and then beautifully vomited onto dry land. But he’s still mad. And I think that’s okay. I think as Christians we too often sugar coat and dress up life to hide and cover the ugliness involved. Too often we hear messages that sound wonderful, but forget to acknowledge the pain and suffering that lives within us. Let’s stop doing that. Let’s admit that sometimes life just sucks. And sometimes it never gets better.

It doesn’t get better for Jonah. Sure, a fish ate him and then puked him back up, but apparently life still isn’t going the way he wants. But no matter what decisions he makes or doesn’t make – and no matter what decisions we had the option of making and even those we had no say in – those, in the end, aren’t what make all the difference. What makes all the difference is the decision that God and Jesus have made for us.

It doesn’t matter how much Jonah turns his back on God for the path he’s being sent down because God, in Jesus, has decided to never turn God’s back on us. In Jesus Christ we have a savior who went down to the pit with us. Sometimes in this life we’re never lifted out. Sometimes in this life all we’re guaranteed is that Jesus remains by our side whether we want him there or not.

Sometimes life sucks. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes we hit rock bottom in the depths of the sea. But in Jesus we have a savior who stands by our side. In Jesus we have a God who lifts us up to new life. In Jesus we have a Spirit that clothes us with hope and joy – because even when our lives have gone horribly wrong or taken a turn for the worse – we can know that through Jesus Christ we have been rescued; we have been saved; we have been freed; and we have been made whole. And that, truly, is what makes all the difference.

August 7, 2016 – “Flight-or-Flight”

Today’s text is from Jonah 1.

You’ve probably heard this story before. You’ve probably heard this infamous telling of Jonah – a man who is swallowed by a large fish. But there is so much more to the story than that. I would encourage you to read all four chapters of Jonah at once, it’s a fairly short read, because Jonah is, I think, a story unlike any other in the Bible.

And I say that because Jonah is so unlike the usual prophet or follower of God that we run into. Jonah runs away from God, Jonah prays to God, Jonah preaches against a wicked city, and then Jonah becomes angry at God’s graciousness. In the end Jonah tells God, “See, this is why I ran away from you in the first place! Because I knew that you are kind and loving and merciful! And the people of Nineveh deserve none of that.”

It’s an interesting argument to make against God. A strange way to reject God’s calling. A weird way of thinking that one’s bias against someone else will prevent God from interceding. But we’ve seen this outside of Jonah, as well.

Jesus tells his disciples a parable about workers in a vineyard. A landowner hires workers at different hours of the day and has them work in his vineyard for an agreed upon wage. The workers who started at 9 in the morning and finished at 6 at night get paid a denarius. The workers who started at noon and finished at 6 as well also get paid a denarius. The workers who started at 5 in the afternoon and finished a mere one hour later with the rest of the workers also get paid the same amount: A denarius.

Needless to say those who put in a full day’s labor are upset that they got paid the same amount as the people who only worked an hour. The landowner’s response to his workers is the same that Jonah will eventually hear from God:

“I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Are you envious because I am generous? That’s one of my favorite lines from Jesus. And it’s a question that will eventually be posed to Jonah.

But that’s chapter 4. We’re in chapter 1 today and we find our main character running away from God. We find Jonah on the run – literally going in the opposite direction from where God told him to go – all because Jonah knows that God will be gracious with this sworn enemy of Israel. Jonah runs because he knows the heart of God isn’t wrath and death, but mercy and new life.

And Jonah doesn’t think those people deserve that. He thinks they deserve to be destroyed. If he had it his way they would have fire rained down upon them until the entire city – and every person in it – was obliterated. And so Jonah runs.

He runs because he’s trying to play God, but isn’t fully on board with who God truly is. He runs because he’s fine with grace and mercy being extended his way, but to people who have killed and destroyed his own people throughout the centuries? He’ll pass.

Are you envious because I am generous? Yes, he is. More than envious, in fact – angry. Sometimes I feel the same way – and maybe you do as well. Sometimes God’s game plan seems a little off. Sometimes we can only sit back and wonder what God is asking of us. And every so often we end up going in the opposite direction.

Sometimes, like the workers in the vineyard, we wonder why people who are different from us, people who hate us, people who are downright evil and malicious – why would God’s mercy and grace extend to them? Why would they get the same gift as us?

What’s so interesting about this first chapter of Jonah is seeing that gift of mercy and grace given to people who seem undeserving of them. The sailors on the boat – we’re told they worship other gods. We’re told that they don’t even know who the God of the Israelites is. We’re told the sailors are doing everything in their power to rescue themselves – even throwing stuff overboard to try and lighten the ship. They’re actively praying and working in order to bring about their salvation.

And then there’s Jonah. We don’t find him worried about dying. We don’t find him rushing to help the sailors. We don’t find him praying to his God. Instead, we find him sleeping below deck. He’s not doing anything to bring about his salvation, in fact he’s doing the exact opposite.

And yet God still brings about salvation for everyone involved in this story. Salvation and mercy and grace are had for the sailors aboard the ship even though they had zero faith before this moment. And salvation is still had for Jonah – someone who is so angry with God that he’d rather die – salvation is had because God takes what should’ve been Jonah’s death in the violent sea and turns it into life when this large fish saves him from the waves.

I like to think that more often than not, we’re like Jonah. We know that God is God – the God of the land and the sea. We know that God is merciful and just and loving. We know these things. It’s just that putting them into practice is a lot harder than it looks. Being merciful to those who hurt us isn’t easy. Being graceful to those who don’t deserve it is difficult. Loving those who hate us seems impossible. So, when God points us toward a group of people we don’t understand or don’t like or we think don’t deserve God’s mercy and grace sometimes we run in the opposite direction.

Sometimes when God calls on us to tread the difficult and narrow path we shake our heads, “No.” And that’s okay. Because no matter what direction we turn, we will find that God is already there. Whether we go east or west, or north or south, we will find that God has already beaten us there. Because we follow the God of all creation. Our Lord is the Lord of sea and land.

Jonah is doing his best to run away from God. And sometimes we do too. But the amazing promise that we – and everyone else – has from God is that God will come to us. Sometimes we just can’t make that journey back.

And even if we do, sometimes we still don’t get it right. We’ll find that Jonah eventually makes it to the city of Nineveh – but he still doesn’t get it. He’s still angry with God’s abundant mercy and grace for those people. But God still provides and takes care of Jonah anyway. Because that’s what God does. No matter where we are in life – whether we feel close to God’s heart or a million miles away – it doesn’t matter, because God is always by our side – whether we think we deserve it or not.

Because whether we think this gift is ours or not we’ll find out it’s not up to us, it’s up to Jesus, and that matter has already been settled – because God loves you so much that even if it feels like we’re drowning in a violent sea that’s sometimes called life – God is there with the promise and free gift of new and abundant life for you.