Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Trinity Sunday, Year B

Readings for Trinity Sunday, 5/31/15:
Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

Isaiah 6:1-8:
  • Seraphs certainly are strange creatures!
  • Note that even though Isaiah says he "sees the Lord", it is the other things that are described in detail, not what God is like in God's self.
  • Isaiah expresses a deep sense of unworthiness, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips." He doesn't feel worthy to be seeing God.
  • The imagery of the seraph taking the hot coal to Isaiah's lips is very powerful. We read nothing of pain for Isaiah, but it make sense that this cleansing and purifying would have burned him, been painful. That resonates with how we experience being made pure. It takes work and pain. I think of the image of Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawntreader in the Chronicles of Narnia, when he is turned into a dragon. His skin must be painfully torn off by Aslan before he is made clean.
  • "Whom shall I send?" "Here am I; send me." Isaiah has felt unworthy, but he still has the courage (and good sense) to respond to God's call. Can we do the same? Even when we feel unworthy, can we trust that God knows better than we do??
Psalm 29:
  • "The Voice of the Lord" - I guess I've never noticed this psalm before, which speaks primarily of God's voice.
  • It is also visualizing God creating or in relation to a strong and powerful thunderstorm, which may be based on a psalm to the Caananite god, Baal (see Chris Haslam's comments on this) God over the waters, God's glory thundering, breaking the cedars, flashes forth flames of fire, "the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness."
  • What imagery would you use to describe/envision God's voice in your life? I like the process theology metaphor of God's lure, God slowly luring me with God's voice until slowly, step by step, I followed.
  • This psalm also appears in the lectionary every year on Baptism of the Lord Sunday - would reading it in the context of that calendar day change your understanding?
Romans 8:12-17:
  • "spirit of adoption" - As I said last week, I'm always torn by Paul's language of adoption. On the one hand, I'm hesitant to think that we're not born into God's family, God's children. I shudder to think that God only adopts some as children, and not others, which is an unfortunate and often drawn conclusion of such theology. But on the other hand, there is a special-ness about God going the 'extra mile', as it were, to make us God's own. Out of God's deep desire to have us as children. I guess I just want to make sure God has no limits or special qualifications for who is adopted!
  • But, here, maybe I can read Paul's words in a new way. He's not talking adoption vs. natural children. He's talking adoption vs. slavery. Our relationship to God is as children instead of slaves. In this light, his adoption language is more meaningful to me. We're brought right into the family, not kept in God's home for service but out of God's heart as slaves.
John 3:1-17
  • This passage includes perhaps the most famous and most memorized Bible verse in all the world. When I was little, I had one of those little New Testament Bibles that had John 3:16 in the front in about 20 different languages. Many consider "for God so loved the world" the verse to know if you're going to know any.
  • However, I find the rest of this passage much more meaningful. We throw around the phrase "born again" a lot in the Christian community, sometimes as a state to be desired, sometimes with a roll of the eyes for the implication the word has come to have. But what is Jesus really saying here when he says we must be born again, born of water and the Spirit? Actually, I think we are all constantly being born-again. We're always renewing and remaking ourselves as we grow. The question is not whether we are born-again, but how we are born-again. Are we born again through water and Spirit, as Jesus says we must be, or something else?
  • If you didn't do a renewal of baptismal vows on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, this is another good day to do this as a congregation. I've always found it very meaningful.
  • :17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." This is an important verse, and I think it helps us ground verse :16, instead of using verse :16 as an exclusive litmus test type verse.
  • I admire Nicodemus, even if he didn't get exactly what Jesus was talking about. He was willing to ask questions that would set him at odds, no doubt, with some of the other religious leaders. He had to take risks, and taking risks means having some faith. How are you or can you be like Nicodemus? 

Lectionary Notes for Pentecost Sunday

Readings for Pentecost Sunday, 5/24/15:
Acts 2:2-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Acts 2:1-21
  • I have to admit - speaking in tongues is something that I don't connect to, don't understand, and frankly, usually don't take seriously. My only witnessing of speaking in tongues has left me more than a little skeptical. But I can't deny its frequent presence in the scriptures - so where does that leave me? Last year, a girl of approximately 9 year of age read this passage in church on Pentecost, and she whipped through Phrygia and Pamphylia like they were her hometowns. It was amazing. If I think about her reading this passage so flawlessly, I think I can get my head a little bit around the idea of speaking in tongues. When an unlikely vessel communicates an even more unlikely message, with unlikely abilities?
  • Pentecost. In some ways, these scene is one of the most exciting in the Bible. This is the moment of truth - Jesus is dead, risen, and ascended. The disciples have been taught, prodded, encouraged, but most of all, entrusted with the good news. Will they carry it on? Will they stand up in the face of opposition and accusations? Yes! The start of the church.
  • Everyone who calls on God's name will be saved!
  • Notice that Peter quotes how God's spirit is poured out on all flesh: songs, daughter, young, old, slave free. Seriously, where do we get the idea that God only speaks through some people, who we deem acceptable?
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
  • manifold: many and varied
  • Leviathan: same name as Jonah's whale is given - a big sea 'monster'/creature, or just generally a big thing of its kind: the 'Leviathan' of the redwoods would be the biggest of the trees. (check out Dictionary.com)
  • The dependence of creation on the Creator. While I don't like to think of God hiding God's face from me, the psalmist makes the point that we are dependent on God.
  • "I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being." Amen!
Romans 8:22-27:
  • "whole creation has been groaning in labor pains" - I like this image - the whole creation is expecting - in expectation of what God is working in us.
  • "wait for adoption" - I'm always torn by Paul's language of adoption. On the one hand, I'm hesitant to think that we're not born into God's family, God's children. I shudder to think that God only adopts some as children, and not others, which is an unfortunate and often drawn conclusion of such theology. But on the other hand, there is a special-ness about God going the 'extra mile', as it were, to make us God's own. Out of God's deep desire to have us as children. I guess I just want to make sure God has no limits or special qualifications for who is adopted! But I can also picture the hope of a child waiting to be adopted.
  • Hope - "we wait for it with patience." Ah, some are better at this then others, no?
  • "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Yes, exactly. Thank God for the spirit interceding. God hears us, even if we can't speak it.
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15:
  • "from the beginning" - those he speaks to know the whole story, or apparently all of it Jesus them to know to fulfill their roles.
  • :7 "It is to your advantage" - I doubt the disciples saw it this way. Who wants a weird-sounding Advocate instead of Jesus who they know and love?
  • "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." Bear, from the Greek bastazo^, meaning, to lift up, to bear in mind, to consider. Perhaps this statement from Jesus still applies to us today - Jesus is always wanting to fill us in, share more, but we are never able to bear it, it seems.
  • "When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth." What a unique way of phrasing this - "all the truth" (emphasis added). What is all the truth?
  • The Spirit is not speaking things the Spirit comes up with, the Spirit is not originating direction on its own - the Spirit is like a messenger, conveying what is heard, and what is to come. The Spirit is the Vessel for God's communication with us, at least in this interpretation from John. Interesting words for Trinity Sunday . . .

Sermon, "Dreaming: Another Joseph," Matthew 1:18-25

Sermon 5/17/15
Matthew 1:18-25

Dreaming: Another Joseph


            It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Ok, maybe not. But today, we’re having a little bit of Christmas in May. We’ve been talking about dreams and dreamers in the Bible, and it just seemed wrong to skip over Joseph and his dreams about the birth of the Christ-child, even if it seems a little out of season. I have to admit, when we’re in the midst of the season of Advent, I get annoyed when we’re in the lectionary year that focuses mostly on the gospel of Matthew, because Matthew, unlike Luke, focuses on Joseph in the birth narrative, instead of Mary. The way I figure it, women are featured so rarely in the Bible, compared with men, and after all, Mary is the one who carries and gives birth to Jesus – you’d think it would be obvious that she should be center stage. But no, Matthew’s gospel manages to somehow make even the birth of Jesus about Joseph, not Mary.
            Still, for today, talking about Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view makes sense for us, because, for whatever reason, the scriptures recount that Mary learned of God’s plan through a visit from God’s messenger, an angel, with Mary apparently fully awake. But Joseph, although he’s visited by a messenger of God, is dreaming, asleep when all this takes place. And since we’re talking about the stuff of dreams, today, we’re sticking with Joseph. Besides, I find his perspective interesting for our conversations about dreams. Because Joseph’s dreams are about someone else. His dreams are more about what God is doing in someone else’s life than in his own. And we need to think about what that means.
            Our text tells us that Joseph and Mary were engaged, but not yet living together, when Mary was discovered to be pregnant – “with child from the Holy Spirit” we read. We’re not sure how Mary shares this news with Joseph, or even if she spoke to him of it directly, and we don’t know if he knows about this “Holy Spirit” piece or not. But presumably, the presence of the Holy Spirit doesn’t make him think there isn’t someone else involved, because Joseph moves to “dismiss” Mary – to divorce her, a formal separation that would be needed in this society even though they weren’t yet married. He does this, we read, because he’s a “righteous man,” a just man, who doesn’t want to expose her to public disgrace, and instead chooses a private, quiet reaction. He could have brought her up on charges, had her tried for adultery, but Joseph seems to want to protect her from that possible end. When he’s planned to do this, he has a dream. A messenger from God tells him “do not be afraid” to take Mary as your wife, because her child is from the Holy Spirit, and her son, who will be named Jesus, will save people from their sins, and fulfill the words of the prophet, saying a child will come who will be God with us.
            Joseph as a dreamer in the scriptures stands out to me in a few ways. First of all, we have to presume that this unfolding of events was not the dream that Joseph had for his life. As he imagined wedding Mary and starting a family with her, I imagine he did not anticipate this chain of events. In some ways, his personal dreams are dashed twice – first when he thinks he must divorce Mary, and then when the messenger tells him that Mary’s son will be from God, not Joseph. However Joseph handles things, this can’t be what he imagined. Not only is it probable that Joseph’s personal dreams are suddenly, at best, vastly altered by the angel’s news, but Joseph also becomes a sort of secondary character in his own life story. His dream is replaced, and he’s not a central focus in what happens instead. In the scriptures, we hardly hear a word of Joseph after the birth narrative. Occasionally, Jesus is referred to as the carpenter’s son. But we don’t see him towards the end of the gospels. Only Mary. Still, the messenger tells Joseph “do not be afraid” to take Mary as a wife. Do not be afraid. These words appears hundreds of times in the scriptures. Do not be afraid. What, exactly, would Joseph have been afraid of? I wonder, what exactly would Joseph be risking to listen to the angel and follow God’s new dream for his life? 
            For the past couple of months, I’ve been taking part in a program where you can complete research surveys online from different universities. Psychology students doing their research coursework use participants to carryout out their studies, test their hypotheses. Some of the surveys are unique and interesting, but some of them are repetitive, and I feel like I’ve done the same survey a million times No doubt, these surveys are from lower class levels, where students are just learning research methods, conducting on their own experiments that already have proven results. One of the surveys I get repeatedly is a variation on a similar scenario, that all boils down to the same question: how much of a risk-taker are you? Most recently, the scenario was: I’m a vineyard grower. If bad weather destroys my vineyard, I lose $30,000. A big storm is predicted to come my way, but usually the storms only hit my region 30% of the time a storm is predicted. Insurance costs $9000. Last year, my vineyard was hit, but I didn’t lose my crops. I’m cash-strapped. Do I buy the insurance, or not?
            These surveys make me think about what it means to be a risk-taker. I’ve never considered myself a thrill-seeker. You’re never going to catch me bungee-jumping. I don’t like roller coasters or rides that generally spin you around fast or flip you upside down. I’m not likely to do something that has a strong possible result of physical injury. And so in my head, in my narrative of my self-identity, I’ve always thought: I’m not a big risk-taker. But this past year, I’ve started to change my thinking. I’ve been blessed to have a sabbatical year that turned out differently than I expected it to in some good ways, a year that has brought some clarity and some possibilities for my ministry before me. But when I started out, I was taking a big risk. I had no real plan of how I was going to survive the year financially, and no clear picture of what might be coming next for me. The research grant that I’ve been working on with you and other churches wasn’t even yet on my radar when I requested this sabbatical year. I just knew God was calling me to be doing something different than I had been. I just knew that keeping on the same pattern I was in was not serving God in the way I thought I was meant to be. I don’t think I realized until I was well into that I had taken a big risk in order to try to be faithful to God’s dreams for me. I don’t mean to sounds like I’m telling you how great I am, how bold I am. It’s more that I realized that when I believe the risk is really worth it, really means something, maybe it is worth taking, even if you aren’t usually a thrill-seeker. When it comes to following God, maybe we can all be risk-takers, because when we really give our lives to God, that step of faith is really a step firmly grounded in God’s dreams.
            I asked us to think about what Joseph was risking by following God’s dreams. I think Joseph risked being made a fool of, first of all. As a man in his society, he wouldn’t get in trouble for wedding Mary even if she carried someone else’s child, but he would certainly be considered a fool. He might have endured humiliation and ridicule. Perhaps people whispering about him. And more than that, he’d risk always being in a sort of secondary place in Jesus’ life, while raising him as his child. In the only scene we have of Jesus as young boy in the Bible, Jesus says to his parents, “Didn’t you know I would be in my father’s house?” He’s referring to God, not to Joseph, of course. Joseph would have to know that he was and wasn’t Jesus’ father, and live always with that tension. Still, the phrasing of the messenger’s words: “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife” – these words suggest that Joseph wanted to take the risk, and needed just those words of encouragement to follow through. Joseph trusted in God’s dream, no matter how foolish he might look, no matter how diminished his own role might be. I think of the apostle Paul, who frequently referred to himself as a fool – a fool for the sake of Christ. Following God might involve doing things that other people find astonishing – foolish even – when we choose to be last instead of first, humbled rather than exalted, when we choose poverty over riches, and serving rather than being served. Would you be a fool, for Christ? A risk-taker, to follow God?
            Do not be afraid! What would it look like if we weren’t afraid to follow God? If we weren’t afraid to appear foolish to others? If we didn’t mind playing second fiddle to the grand melody that God is writing? Are you a risk-taker? What would it look like, if Apple Valley were a congregation full of risk-takers? Of fools for Christ? For Joseph, it meant a different life than he ever could have imagined. But it also meant having a front-row seat to God becoming flesh and living among us, with us. Worth the risk. Whatever God asks of us, no matter how foolish God’s plans might seem at first glance, don’t be afraid. It’ll be worth it. God promises. Amen.     


Monday, May 11, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Ascension Sunday, Year B

Readings for Ascension Sunday, 5/17/15: 
Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Acts 1:1-11:
  • Luke's account to Theophilus, Part II. The ascension is such an interesting part of what happens to Jesus, in that, for most, it is something we care about least. Where does it fit in our Christian faith? Is Jesus' ascension important?
  • For me, the importance of the ascension is that we are now left without Jesus physically present - that means we have to do it now - we have to do the work that he has been teaching and teaching about. No excuses, no right-there Jesus to do it for us. Just the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate. Jesus' ascension means that Jesus really is asking us to get to work.
  • Ah, those men in white robes again. They're almost like stage directions in a script - they let you know what's going on that is not, apparently, obvious in any other way. I think if I ran across them they would raise more questions for me than they would answer!
  • Luke says that Jesus gives instructions, and shares "many convincing proofs", and is with them for 40 days speaking about the kingdom. It's little verses like these that drive me crazy. Where is all this stuff Jesus said and did? Why didn't Luke record it? Why do we only get to have such little snippets of somebody that we adore so much? Gr!!
Psalm 47:
  • An audience-participation psalm: "Clap your hands!" Lots of musical settings for these words, and no wonder - they make you want to sing and clap!
  • Of course, there in verse 3, is God with subdued people under 'our' feet. Gives the whole psalm the tone of a war-victory psalm of praise.
  • "He chose our heritage for us." I like this verse. God chooses our heritage for us - God chooses our history, our people, our story. I'm all for free will, but I manage to balance that, tricky though it sometimes feels, with a clear sense that God has a hand in or at least an eye on all that goes on in my life. Even better to think of it woven into the tapestry of as weighty a word as "heritage."
Ephesians 1:15-23:
  • I especially like the first part of this passage, verses 15-19. These verses sound like great words of blessing to speak on someone, a person of faith. To pray that God grants wisdom and revelation, enlightenment, riches of Christ's inheritance, knowledge of the immeasurable greatness of God's power. . .
  • Aside from that, this passage seems very typical of a lot of the epistle writing. Here is set up the metaphor: Christ as the head of the church and of the body, the church as the body of Christ, and thus under Christ, who is over all things, filling all things.
Luke 24:44-53:
  • Luke's part 1 account of the ascension. Compare and contrast to his testimony in Acts. I think here, the account is more backward reflective - calling up Moses, the fulfillments of the Old Testament prophecies, talking about what has happened up to this point, whereas Acts is setting the stage for what has yet to happen.
  • "And they were continually in the temple blessing God." Indeed - I think we just can't imagine what these first weeks and months for the disciples must have been life. The emotional roller-coaster they must have been on. But to finally just be driven to give thanks - their friend and teacher was still going to be in charge of their lives.
  • Looking back on Luke, moving ahead into Acts. We must take what Jesus has lived, and then live it ourselves. I guess that would be my 'theme' for the day.

Lectionary Notes for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Readings for 6th Sunday of Easter, 5/10/15:
Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

Acts 10:44-48:
  • "even on the Gentiles" - this is the key phrase here. This is a second-Pentecost experience of sorts, and the focus is on the receiving of the spirit by those who are outside the Jewish faith. This had been a stumbling block for Peter - he had been mostly in mission to the Jews. God is always expanding our sense of who belongs, and who is our neighbor, and who is our brother and sister.
  • "Can anyone withhold?" How often do we try to withhold others from receiving what God would give to them? We like to decide who gets grace and mercy and love and acceptance, and even membership into our communities of faith. We take dangerous steps in so doing, taking God's role instead of our own. Can we withhold what the Holy Spirit would give?
Psalm 98:
  • Oof - watch out - there's "[God's] holy arm!" I just don't get this image - it's like "macho man" warrior-God imagery. Doesn't do much for me.
  • "Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy." Great imagery. How would you create this image?
  • This is a psalm of joy and thankfulness for God's action in someone's life, in the life of a whole people. How do you celebrate as an individual? As a community? Do we celebrate as nations? A world? How do we express our joy in God? Through worship? Action?
1 John 5:1-6:
  • "loves the parent loves the child." That's interesting logic from John - Love God, love Christ. Love God, love humans - we're God's children too, right?
  • loving God = obeying God's commandments. That's the connection John makes. So, what does the way you choose to obey God's commandments say about how you love God? Looking at it from this direction, I'm afraid sometimes it would look like I don't love God nearly as much as I claim!
  • "[God's] commandments are not burdensome." We don't act like this, do we. We act as though we are martyrs when we adhere to God's commands.
John 15:9-17:
  • Again, as last week, 'abide' is from the Greek meno^, which means literally "to stay at home, to stay where one is, to not stir." It has the sense of "lasting" or "remaining." We are 'at home' in God's love, not wanting to stir from that place. And God is at home in us, if we let God.
  • "to lay down one's life for one's friend." What a gift indeed. Perhaps someday we'll find ourselves in a literal situation of needing to lay down our life. But if not, in what metaphoric ways are we called to lay down our lives for our friends?
  • Jesus calls the disciples friends - what an honor!
  • "love one another" - in this intimate scene, Jesus so wants his disciples to love one another. In your community of faith, do you, the disciples of Jesus, love one another, as friends? True friends?

Sermon, "Dreaming: Daniel," Daniel 2:1-47

Sermon 5/10/15
Daniel 2:1-46

Dreaming: Daniel

            Today we turn our attention to a book of the Bible we don’t often hear much about in worship: the book of Daniel, one of the books of prophecy in the Bible. Daniel is a book of the Bible that only appears once in the whole three year cycle of lectionary scripture readings, the suggested readings for the Christian church year. Even still, it is just one of four texts suggested for a particular Sunday, and I realize that in the 17 years I’ve been preaching, I have never preached a sermon on the book of Daniel before! Of course, there a couple stories from Daniel you might be familiar with: Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, which are usually great Sunday School stories. But the book of Daniel is much more than that – more complex and complicated, certainly.
            The Book of Daniel is both a book categorized as prophecy, and a book categorized as apocalyptic literature. Today when we hear the word prophecy, we don’t always know what to do with it, really. We’re most likely to think of a prophet as a fortune-teller of sorts. Someone who predicts the future. But that’s confusing psychics and prophets. Prophets were truth-tellers. Prophets were truth-tellers, particularly when no one else wanted to say how things really were. You know what I mean – we do it all the time. Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one wants to speak unwelcome truths out loud. A prophet is the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes. A prophet would tell it like it was, say how bad things really were, talk about where the path they were on would lead if things didn’t change. But a prophet didn’t necessarily want what he or she speculated to come true. Instead, a prophet wanted people to stop and repent before things had gone too far. In its simplest version, you might think of prophecy like this: a parent tells a child that if they don’t get their grades up, they will flunk out of college, live at home for all of their days, and never get a real job. The parent isn’t predicting the future, even though this might be exactly what will happen. Instead, they’re truth-telling. If you don’t change, this is the probable future consequences of your current actions. In this ways, the book of Daniel is a book of prophecy, and we’ll talk more about that.
            Daniel is also apocalyptic literature. And this is even more confusing and harder to understand than prophecy is. An apocalypse in Greek literally means an “unveiling” or an “uncovering,” the revealing of a mystery. Several sections of the writings of the prophets are considered apocalyptic, like in Ezekiel, where the prophet has a fantastical vision of a wheel in the middle of wheel, and other crazy images. One entire book of the New Testament is considered apocalyptic literature – the book of Revelation. Messengers of God, angels, reveal many things to John of Patmos, and they’re recorded by John in Revelation. But apocalyptic also has the contemporary meaning of being about the “end of the world.” That’s because apocalyptic can mean a “decisive and terrible event,” “unrestrained,” and “disaster.” In many cases, the visions of the prophets don’t sound comforting. They sound scary. Like the end of the world must be coming about if something so cataclysmic were to take place. And so, for as long as the apocalyptic, mystery-revealing writings of the prophets have been around, people have been trying to figure out what this means for us, and specifically, when does it mean our world is going to end. And pretty much every generation looks around at the world and thinks: things are crazy. So this must be it. The end is near.
            The temptation to do this is great, despite Jesus reminding us that even he didn’t know the day and time of the end of days, so to stop worrying about it. That’s why it is helpful to remind ourselves that Daniel and other prophets are truth-tellers, and ones for whom God has chosen to uncover some mysteries. That’s simple enough, and powerful enough. It would be hard to read their writings without seeing in our own world some of the very things they were talking about. But that’s a good thing, reminding us that God’s word is timeless. But the Book of Daniel was written not about future events thousands of years beyond its writing, but about the events and happenings unfolding right then. So what does this story of Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar so long ago tell us about our lives right now? We figure that out by understanding what the story was about back then.
            This text takes place when Israel had been conquered by a foreign power – the Kingdom of Babylon. Many Israelites were exiled and living in foreign territory, including a man named Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar had ordered that a group of young men drawn from the elite of Israel who were “without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace” be brought to his palace to be taught the literature and language of his people. They were to serve as counselors, wise men, ready to serve the king. Daniel was one of these men. Eventually, the King has terrible nightmares, so he summons the magicians and sorcerers and enchanters of his people to interpret his dream for him. Only, to test their wisdom and ability, he won’t tell them what he dreamed! No, they have to tell him what his dream was, and then tell them what it was about. Of course, they tell him no one could possibly do this. He threatens to have them executed, torn limb from limb, all of the wise men – including the Israelites he had set aside to be trained. When Daniel finds out about this chain of events, he prays to God – which our morning prayer today drew from – and then goes before Nebuchadnezzar. He tells him that no mortal can tell what he dreamed and interpret it. But, God can reveal this knowledge to someone – God, the revealer of mysteries.
            Daniel proceeds to tell him his dream: You saw great statue, with a gold head, and then a section of silver, and then bronze, and then iron, and the feet of iron and clay. And a great stone, not made of human hands, came and destroyed the statue, and became a great mountain that filled the whole earth. And Daniel says that the statue represents Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and the rulers and kingdoms that will come after him, and the stone represents the kingdom of God, more powerful and more enduring than any human kingdom, which lasts eternally. Nebuchadnezzar worships Daniel, and says to him, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery!” This pattern continues in various forms throughout Daniel. Daniel interprets the king’s dreams – mostly in ways the show that the king is fallible, and on the wrong path, and following the wrong gods. Daniel even tells the king that he will lose his mind for years and behave like a wild animal. And indeed, the king does just that. But rather than punishing Daniel, the king honors him, and eventually, he comes to worship this God, revealer of mysteries, whom Daniel follows so faithfully.
            We’ve been talking about dreams these past few weeks. And for me, the important part of this text is not so much trying to figure out which kings and which kingdoms the king was dreaming about. The important thing for us to look at here is what happens when there’s a difference between our dreams and God’s dreams, between our plans and God’s plans. Nebuchadnezzar had a vision of leading and ruling forever and being a mighty conquering power. God had other plans.
            Have you ever had a moment to stop in your tracks and realize your plans and God’s plans weren’t the same? I had always planned on pastoring a church for 5 years, and then going to get my PhD at Drew in New Jersey where I went to seminary. But as I got closer to that time, things kept seeming to not fit and not fit. The professor helping me with my application kept telling me that what I wanted to do was more like a Doctor of Ministry project than a PhD project, and giving me ways to fix that. But the topics she was suggesting weren’t interesting to me. It took me a while, but eventually, I realized I had been trying to convince God to make my plan into God’s plan. God had other ideas. Years later, when I found the Doctor of Ministry program I had never been interested in before, it just clicked, and I knew I had finally gotten in sync with God’s plans.
            I think of my childhood church. Like many churches, they were trying to attract young people into their congregation. They hoped to see more young adults and young families with the children. Sometimes pastors joke about young families being the “holy grail” for churches. If we could just get young families, everything would be ok! So my childhood church started a coffeehouse style worship service. It had cool skits and cool music and a cool setting. And no one came. Well, a few people came. But not young families. Who started coming was actually a group of middle-aged men and women with mental illness and mental health struggles. And the church had to decide: would it go with their own dreams, or God’s dreams? It turned out, there wasn’t really a need right then for a coffeehouse service. That wasn’t really the need of the community, what would best serve the people around the church. What was needed was someone to love and cherish and accept people who had had some serious struggles in their lives. Fortunately, the church was able to choose to follow God’s dreams, instead of their own plan. Most of the folks that got connected to that group nearly twenty years ago now are still connected to the church, and it changed the church for the better.
            Sometimes God’s plans for our lives can seem like mysteries, and we’re looking for a Daniel to reveal them to us. But sometimes we have a Daniel in our lives already, a truth-teller, and we’re just not listening. Sometimes we need lots of hints, lots of truth-telling, before we get the picture. Often, God’s dreams and our dreams are right in line with each other. Sometimes, our dreams aren’t bad, but they’re not best – and that’s what God hopes for us – abundant life. I encourage you to spend some time in the weeks ahead thinking about your dreams for yourself and for our congregation. Sometimes we plan and plan and plan and ask God to bless our plans. We can go about it that way – but it is the hard way. It is easier, and more rewarding, to seek after God’s plans – with the blessings already built right in. Listen to the people around you. Where does God need your gifts at work in the world? How are we listening to our community, those around us at Apple Valley? What do we need? How would God reach them? How could God use us? Nebuchadnezzar, who was not an Israelite, not a follower of the God of Daniel, still was able to listen to this truth-teller who could tell him his dreams – even when the dreams spelled bad news for his own vision of his future greatness. If he can do it, surely we, already seeking to follow God, have a head start. It can be hard – to let some dreams go, to watch some dreams change into something unrecognizable, to embrace new dreams. But what God intends to reveal in us and through us will be worth the journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.   

           


Sermon, "Dreaming: The Wisdom of Solomon," 1 Kings 3:1-15

Sermon 5/3/15
1 Kings 3:1-15

Dreaming: The Wisdom of Solomon


            Many of us have probably heard scenarios or seen film clips or Disney movies or been asked some variation of a question like this: You find a magic lamp and a genie appears telling you you have three wishes. What do you wish for? Of course, I’ve always thought your first wish should be to ask for unlimited wishes! But sometimes in these stories we discover a bit of a morality tale – the wisher asks for something selfish, or foolish, or doesn’t realize that wishing always comes with a price, like in the short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” where the wish for 200 pounds is granted through the death of the wisher’s son, or the story where the man wishes for sausages, and then wishes the sausages attached to his wife’s nose, since she made fun of his wish, and then finally has to use his third wish to remove the sausages. But all of these stories share the basic question: if you could wish for anything what would you ask for?
            We stumble on a Biblical version of that question in our reading for today, as we look at another dream in the Old Testament, this time skipping ahead to 1 Kings. The books of 1 and 2 Kings recount a period in Israel’s history after the time of the judges when Israel becomes a monarchy. God had wanted the people to rely on only God as their king, but the people kept clamoring to be like other nations. So God let them have a king. Only, the first round didn’t go so well. Saul was the first king, and though he started out well, eventually the power seemed to go to his head, and Samuel, the prophet, next anointed David to be the king. David is remembered as the favorite of all the kings of Israel; the standard to which all other kings would be held; the “good old days” of Israel.
            It is not David’s oldest child who succeeds him, but instead Solomon, child of David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hitite. Remember, David had Uriah killed in battle so that he wouldn’t find out that David had had an affair with Bathsheba, who then became pregnant. That child died, but after a period of mourning and repentance, David and Bathsheba had more children together, including Solomon. When David is near death, Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan urge David to select Solomon as the new king.
            During his reign, David had wanted to build a temple, a “home” for God. But God told David this task would not be his, but his son’s. Now, after a tumultuous transition of power, Solomon is king. We’re told that Solomon loves God and follows God just as his father David tried to do. He makes offerings to God at the high places. In the context of this passage, this means literally the highest places in the area – these places were considered holy, where you could literally be closer to God. So Solomon regularly worshipped God at the high places. At one such place, Gibeon, after making an offering to God, God appears to Solomon in a dream. God says to Solomon, “ask what I should give you.” And Solomon replies: you were always with my father David, who was just and upright and faithful. And now I’m king, but I’m inexperienced, and I don’t know much about governing this great people of yours. So give me understanding to discern between good and bad so I can lead your people.” God is pleased with Solomon’s request, and not only says Solomon will receive wisdom, but also riches and long-life as well. And then we read, “Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream.” But Solomon offers more acts of worship to God, and treats all of his servants to a feast. Just after our text today, we see Solomon’s wisdom in action, as he deals justly and with a discerning mind to the conflicts his people bring to him. 
            What do you think of this exchange between God and Solomon? If we just told God what we wanted, would God say yes? Some people, I think, view God as a sort of genie in a magic lamp, who whimsically approves or denies wishes depending on God’s mood, sort of like a temperamental Magic 8 Ball. Have you seen the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty? Although it is a comedy, I think there are some interesting theological points in the movie. In one scene, Bruce, who gets to take on all God’s power and responsibilities for a brief time – is answering all the email prayer requests that come to God. Bruce thinks it will be so easy. But he soon gets frustrated trying to keep up with the millions of requests individually, so he just replies “yes” to all the requests. You’d think that would be great, right? Everyone’s requests to God answered with a “yes, sure, whatever you want!” But in the film, when everyone gets a “yes,” the results bring total chaos. For example, everyone who prays to win the lottery does – but since so many people win, everyone gets only $1 or so, and everyone is upset, not happy. The point is: God responding to our needs is maybe more complicated than we humans can understand.
            Still, here’s the question I think is more important: Do we believe that God wants to know our heart’s desire? Does God want to know what we want? Does God want to know what our dreams are? When I think about our hopes and dreams and how God answers our prayers, I think the image of God as our parent is so very powerful. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, by blood or by gift of the heart: do you want to know what the children in your life want? Do you want to know their heart’s desire? Do you want to know what they dream about doing and being and becoming? Of course, right? But despite that unconditional love, you, in your wisdom, won’t always grant every request. In fact, because of your love, you won’t say “yes” to every request. But when you hear the deep longings, the true expression of the heart’s desire of the child in your life – wouldn’t you seek to do everything you could to help that dream come true? Wouldn’t your child’s dream fill you with joy?
            I believe that God wants to know everything about us. Sure, God knows us already. But God loves best, I think, when we open ourselves up to God, when we let our hopes and joys and dreams and fears and doubts be known of our own accord. And when God knows that what we’re dreaming will bring us life, and will bring love and light to others, I believe that God responds to us like God responds to Solomon – fulfilling in us what we’ve imagined and beyond. 
            And so then the question is left up to us: Do we know what we really want? If God came to us like God did to Solomon and said, “Ask for what you want,” what would you ask for? Maybe your first impulse is to ask for a million dollars, or that new car that you always wanted. But is that your heart’s desire, truly? In our book study text, Dare to Dream, Michael Slaughter tells us our God-purpose in life is something that honors God, blesses other people, and brings us joy – all three of those things. Honors God. Blesses others. Brings you joy. What might do that in your life? I promise, God wants to know how you might answer that question. God wants to help you answer it if you can’t. And I believe that God wants to say “yes” to that dream for you. And then astonish you by how much beyond even that dream God will draw out of your life.
            God is saying to you: “Ask what I should give you.” How will you answer? I think God would love to know. Amen.