Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sermon, "Back to (Bible) School: Poetry," Psalm 136

Sermon 9/24/17
Psalm 136

Back to (Bible) School: Poetry

            Do you like poetry? Have you ever read or written poetry? I think we can feel both daunted and bored by poetry. Daunted if we have to try to figure out what it means. One of my favorite movies is In Her Shoes, based on the book by the same name from Jennifer Weiner. In the movie, one of the characters, Maggie, is dyslexic. She ends up working at a nursing home, where one of the residents is a retired English professor. He encourages her to read to him, and not just read, but he helps her understand what she is reading. The first time she reads to him, she reads a poem. When she’s done, having struggled through word by word, he asks what she thinks. She says, “Good.” He says, “Unacceptable,” and then proceeds to ask her question after question until she realizes that she can figure out what the poem might mean to her, how it applies to her life right now. It’s a beautiful scene that captures how disinterested we can be in poetry, how much it overwhelms us, how afraid we are of getting the meaning “wrong,” and yet, how beautiful is can be when these artful words of others can speak deeply to our spirits.
            Do you like poetry?

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[1]

You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.[2]

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.[3]

The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still water.” (Psalm 23)

            Have you ever written any poetry? I went through a phase of writing poetry when I was in late elementary school and junior high. I was inspired, believe it or not, by an episode of Roseanne, the soon-to-return sitcom from the 80s. The character Darlene, who I loved, wrote a poem on the show, a poem that revealed her deep, unspoken emotions, and I was enthralled and inspired. I thought Darlene was very cool, and I set about to write my own deep, insightful poetry. It was not the greatest stuff. I’ve had pity on all of you by not digging some out of my old journals to share with you today. But truthfully, writing poetry, even bad poetry, helped me process all the myriad and overpowering feelings one has in the tumultuous tween and teen years. Writing poetry gave me a place to creatively process all the stuff that was in my heart at a time in my life when I felt pretty misunderstood.          
            Do you like poetry? Do you like music? Consider all the lyrics to songs that you have stored away in your brain. Consider the songs that shaped you as a child, as a young person, as an adult. Sometimes hearing a particular song can transport us back to a time, a place, an experience, help us recall things so vividly. The lyrics to all our favorite songs are poetry set to music, a kind of poetry that most of us are more familiar with today.
            The Bible is full of poetry. We find it in both the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, though less frequently. In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are considered books of poetry. These books are sometimes also referred to as books of wisdom. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the books of poetry in the Bible are not primarily about communicating facts, even though many of the passages of poetry refer to and respond to historical events. Instead, in the poetry of the Bible, we see the authors pouring out their hearts, sharing their deepest feelings in words they’ve written. To me, that makes the words of poetry in the Bible very meaningful and contemporary, because although our world has changed, I don’t think the range of emotions that we experience has changed. The authors of biblical poetry bring to us the feelings, the spirits, the souls of people of faith who lived thousands of years ago, and we discover that we experience the same intense emotions, and struggle with the same searching questions of faith.
            Today we’re looking together at Psalm 136. There are 150 psalms, songs, in our Bible, and they fall into several categories. Some are called “royal psalms” – they have to do with the business of the kings of Israel and Judah – psalms about a royal coronation, a blessing on a new rule, a royal marriage, or accounts of a king’s military leadership. Some psalms are laments – individual laments and communal laments – mournful psalms written in times of despair. Others are psalms of thanksgiving. They’re meant to praise God, give thanks for God’s actions. More than a third of the psalms are addressed to the Director of Music. They were meant to be sung as a part of worship. Our psalm for today is like that, meant to be shared musically in the call and response way we read it together today. A key feature of Hebrew poetry is a style called parallelism. Parallelism is a repeated pattern where we find one verse stating an idea, and the very next verse restating the same or a very similar idea in a slightly different way.[4] For example, our Psalm today starts with lines about giving thanks first to “the God of gods” and then to the “Lord of lords” in the very next verse.
            In Psalm 136, the focus is on praising God, particularly because of God’s steadfast love. The psalmist praises God’s faithfulness, driving the point home by repeating these words as every other stanza of the poem. God’s love is forever, God’s love is forever, God’s love is forever. The psalmist writes in a way that will have the congregation repeating these words again and again, etching them into their memory, helping the congregation feel the truth of them. “God’s love is forever” is like the refrain, the chorus of the song, sung over and over.
            Psalm 136 also shows us an example of Israel telling its story. Over and over in the scriptures, we hear reference to the Exodus, God leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. It’s their defining story. Remember, when we talked about the law, the commandments, the Exodus, God’s saving the people is the reason given behind many of the laws for the new nation. So too, in the poetry of Israel, the story of the Exodus is told again and again. It is the story that shapes Israel, that provides the example of God’s faithfulness, that provides their sense of future and purpose, and binds them together as a nation. This psalm, like many others, reminds the people of their core identity. As Christians, we do this with Holy Communion. We tell ourselves the story of Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples, and sharing his life with us again and again, until we know it deep in our bones.
            I wonder, what’s our defining story as a congregation? What’s the story we tell ourselves again and again about our relationship with God? As a church, what story do we need to remind ourselves of again and again? What’s your defining story with God? What’s the message of your life, the way that God is showing up all through your days, again and again? How are you reminding yourself of God’s faithful presence in your life? And I wonder, what’s our refrain? What’s our chorus? What are the words that we need to etch onto our hearts about who God is? God is forgiving. God’s love is unconditional. God’s grace is for you. With God, everything is possible. What refrain do you need to hear over and over again? 
            I want to challenge you, as I challenged the children this week, to try to write your own poetry, your own praise song, your own words that help you share your heart, your feelings, your emotions with God. You don’t have to share your words unless you want to – they can be just for you. And if writing really isn’t your thing, I want you to think about how you might best express your praise for God, your love for God. Is it through art? Painting or drawing? Through music? Dance? How can you open your heart to praise God in a creative way this week? Try something.
“O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Amen.

[1] Frost, Robert, “The Road Note Taken,” http://classicalpoets.org/10-greatest-poems-ever-written/
[2] Angelou, Maya, “Still I Rise,” http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/world-poetry-day-28-of-poetrys-most-powerful-lines-ever-written-a6944301.html
[3] Shakespeare, William, “Sonnet 18,” http://classicalpoets.org/10-greatest-poems-ever-written/
[4] “Psalms,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psalms

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sermon, "Back to (Bible) School: History," 2 Samuel 7:1-12

Sermon 9/17/17
2 Samuel 7:1-12

Back to (Bible) School: History

            Today we’re looking at the books of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, that we consider History books. These include the books immediately following the Law books, the first five books in the Bible, up to the section of Bible that we call Poetry, which starts with the book of Job. So the history books of the Bible are Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Are you “good” at history? Was it a subject you enjoyed in school? I’ve always enjoyed history, but I often struggle with dates, chronology. I can tell you what happened, just don’t ask me when it happened. When it comes to the books of the Bible, I often have to remind myself of what is happening when. If you read our summer newsletter, you’ll know that I have been reading some of our biblical history books as part of my personal devotional time, particularly trying to get a clearer sense of chronology as I read. Chronologically, the biblical books of history take us from the time that Joshua, successor to Moses, leads the Israelites into the Promised Land, all the way to the time described in Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Jewish people are allowed to return to their homeland after a long time of exile in foreign lands. This covers a span of about 1000 years. We have 1000 years of history in these 12 books of the Bible.
The word “history” comes from a root word that means literally someone who is wise and learned. From there, the word came to mean “finding out,” figuring out the narrative.[1] To know your history, to know the story of where you came from, what has happened, to find that out is to be a wise, learned person. Sometimes we like to think of history as unbiased, as simply a statement of facts. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. Not open for dispute, just how it is, right? Of course, that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, which we know from personal experience. History isn’t just facts – it is a narrative, a story, and a story always has a point of view. Think of biographies that you might read. Depending on who is writing the biography, they might tell very different stories, different histories, of the person’s life. Two biographies from different authors of any of our US Presidents might read very differently.
Many of you know that I’m my family’s genealogist. I’m the one who does the bulk of family research, and I try to keep good records, and figure out family puzzles. Sometimes, I make discoveries that surprise everyone in our family. Not long ago, while researching my great-great grandfather Julius Motsch, who became Julius Mudge when he came to the US from Germany, I discovered several things that no one in my family seemed to know. First, although we all knew that Julius changed his named from Motsch to Mudge, I found the passenger manifests from the ship he traveled on from Germany, and discovered that when he left Germany, he was listed as Gustav, not Julius! No one in my family remembers ever hearing such a thing. Knowing I should be searching German records for Gustav, not Julius, made my genealogical inquiries much more fruitful. I also discovered that Julius and my great-great grandmother, Mary Margaret Starr, actually divorced and remarried a few years later. I was shocked when I read about their divorce in a newspaper article from the early 1900s. Apparently, my great-great grandmother was accused of running around with other men, but apparently she and Julius reconciled. Surely, this was something that at least my great-grandfather must have known about, but I know that my grandfather had no idea that this had ever happened. It wasn’t a part of the history that anyone shared over the years, just like Julius never shared that he’d once been called Gustav. These things might be facts, but they were not a part of the history that we’ve told ourselves as a family.
We’ve also had a lot of conversation recently in our national dialogue about our history and how we tell our stories as a nation. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a white supremacist rally followed shortly after the renaming of a town park from Lee Park, named for Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee, to Emancipation Park, honoring the end of slavery in the United States. These events have opened a national dialogue about racism and history and how we tell our history. What does it mean to make a monument or name places in honor of people whose beliefs and views don’t align with the values we uphold, or at least try to uphold? Is it “erasing history” to rename a park? Or is it trying to tell a more truthful version of our history? Whose story are we telling in history? 
Think about how many of us learned about Christopher Columbus as a child. In elementary school, we learned about Columbus “discovering” America. We also learned that he was brave and thought the world was round, while others thought it was flat. It wasn’t until we were older, for me at least, that we learned about Columbus not really knowing where he was, ending up in the Americas by mistake, and that basically everyone already knew the earth was round. And later still, we learned that maybe Columbus wasn’t actually a very nice person, and maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have a holiday named after him. Many communities and groups, including our Annual Conference, are now choosing to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, instead of Columbus Day, a way to honor all the people who were living in these lands long before any Europeans arrived here. 
             These contemporary questions are the same questions we can bring to the biblical text of history. Whose story are we reading? What’s the point of view that we read in the Bible? What are the themes that are emphasized for us in this particular way of telling the history of Israel? In the scheme of things, on the world stage, Israel is a little nobody people. They’re a tiny nation. It’s hard to find much about Israel outside of the Bible from this time period. There are little snippets, written from the point of view of people who don’t really care about this little nobody people. But in the Bible, of course, they’re everything. Today, we turn to a text that’s key in Israel’s sense of history, identity, and future.
            In our text for today, we find ourselves in 2 Samuel. Samuel was the last in the line of Judges of Israel, the leaders of Israel in the time between their formation as a nation and their first King, Saul. Samuel was a judge and a prophet, a spiritual advisor for the people. Samuel, acting on God’s commands, anoints first Saul, and then, when Saul fails to follow God, David as king over Israel. But it takes a long time between Samuel anointing David and David actually coming into power as king. In fact, by the time David becomes king, Samuel has died, and a new prophet, Nathan, acts as spiritual advisor to David. Here in chapter 7, David has finally been named king over all Israel, and he tells Nathan that he wants to build a temple for God. After all, David is now living in a palace, a house of cedar, but God, represented for the people in the ark of the covenant, a container that holds the Torah, the law, the book that represents God’s relationship with Israel, God in the form of the ark of the covenant gets carried around and housed in a tent. David feels like this isn’t right. If David has a house, a palace, then God should have a house, a temple.
            At first, Nathan tells him, “Yes, build this. God is with you.” But shortly after, Nathan returns to David, after receiving a vision from God. God says, “Are you the one, [David], to build me a house to live in?” I’ve never lived in a house, but have been moving about, God says. And in all the time I was moving among the Israelites, have I ever said, “Why haven’t you built me a house?”
            God continues, “I took you out of the pasture where you worked as a shepherd boy and made you the leader of Israel. I’ve been with you wherever you went. Through me, you’ve been able to defeat your enemies. And I will make you a great name. I will make a place for my people Israel, and plant them there, and give them a time of peace from their enemies. And I, says God, I will make you a house David. God continues, just after our text closes, to say that God will make David and his house, his descendants “sure forever,” David’s kingship, his line, “established forever.”
            The message that Nathan delivers to David from God might seem simple, but it is a very important statement for Israel’s sense of identity and their hope for the future. Nathan’s words are sometimes known as the Dynastic Oracle.[2] A dynasty is when one family stays in power over a long length of time. And what God says through Nathan here in this passage is that David and his descendants will be established as the family who rules Israel forever. That’s a significant promise! And so during later times in Israel’s history, when there was a disruption in power in the line of David, when the people were conquered by foreign rulers, when someone in the line of David wasn’t ruling Israel, the people looked for, longed for a time when a descendant of David was king again. When people were imagining a messiah, that as an anointed one, a king, they would imagine someone who would restore the throne of David, restore someone from the House of David to the role of king. You can imagine, then, why some of the gospels writers take great pains to show us that Jesus is a descendant of David. The gospel writers wanted to demonstrate that in Jesus, a descendant of David, these words of promise made way back in 2 Samuel are fulfilled forever. Whoever else might rule on earth, Jesus is the ruler, the ruler from the house of David, and yet the highest of all, a ruler beyond even beloved David himself. This passage, this bit of history has a big meaning, big significance in the story of Israel, in the story of the church, and how the early church tied itself to the promises of God’s covenant, how we tie ourselves to that covenant.   
            The other part of this text that I find compelling is God’s insistence: I’ve never asked you to put me inside a building! I’ve been just fine where I’ve been, moving among you all this time. Now, God eventually does allow David’s son Solomon to build a temple, and it serves some important purposes for the people of Israel, drawing them together as a worshiping community. But the point remains: God wants us to remember that God has always and will always be with us, and maybe trying to box God in, limit God to dwelling in a stationary place isn’t the best idea we’ve ever had. It might seem like we’re trying to make a special place for God in our lives. But sometimes it’s really a sign that we want to get God into our lives in a controlled way, where God can be involved in certain parts of our lives and not others. In this text, I think God reminds us that that is not how God works. God doesn’t want a corner of our world, a corner of our hearts. God wants us to know that God is already in all of it, our whole world, our whole lives. How will we let knowing and trusting that change us?
            As we see how God is at work in the story of Israel, as we remember that God is not boxed in, but on the move, as we give thanks for God’s promises that we see fulfilled in Jesus, ruler of all our days, we get a sense of the richness of biblical history. And we can ask ourselves: what is the story of our own lives? What is our history with God? When we look back over our days, and we look to the future, where do we see God at work in our lives? Our own history is the story of our identity. Who am I? Who are you? How are our lives shaped as disciples, as people seeking and struggling and growing in faith through the years? Just as God promises to David, so too these promises are for us. For all of our days, in all of our stories, God is with us, beginning to end, to beyond. How will we let that promise shape our history, and our future? Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon, "Back to (Bible) School: The Law," Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:1-9

Sermon 9/10/17
Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:1-9

Back to (Bible) School: The Law

This week we’re starting a new sermon series called Back to (Bible) School. Each week, we’ll be looking at different parts of the Bible, particularly the texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. I’ve been encouraging folks all summer long to sign up for our Disciple Fast Track Bible Study, a twelve week study that takes us deep into the writings of the New Testament. And it isn’t too late to sign up – we start this Wednesday evening, and I would love for you to be a part of it! It is never too late to learn more about the Bible. You never have “advanced” far enough that you couldn’t enjoy a Bible study, and you are never too new to the Bible and too inexperienced in reading the Bible that you should fear studying the scriptures is not for you. It is one of the best ways I can think of to explore and deepen your faith, studying the scriptures, and studying them together is a special blessing of a community of faith. So alongside our Bible study Wednesday nights, we’ll also be trying to learn more about the Bible during worship.
I’m particularly interested in not only encouraging you to read the Bible regularly, but also in helping you feel like you are understanding what you’re reading. We learn a lot of reading comprehension skills when we are in school. Having excellent reading skills is one of the things that will set students up for success in any number of other areas of learning and in any number of future life endeavors. In the midst of these Back-to-School days, I looked around online to remind myself of some of the ways elementary teachers talk to student about reading comprehension skills. How do you figure out what something you’re reading is all about? I found lots of great tools creative teachers use, like this poster, that encourages young readers to ask lots of questions: “What is happening in the story? What’s happening with the character? Is the character changing? What do I think will happen next? What is the problem? Was the problem solved? If so, how? What does this word [that I don’t know] probably mean [based on the words around it]?” (1) For adult readers, fluent readers, when we’re reading books and newspaper articles, magazines, even messages from our friends online, we employ these reading comprehension skills all the time and don’t even think about it. We automatically are asking ourselves these kinds of questions when we read. It eventually becomes second-nature for us. But in my experience, we do this weird thing when we start to read the Bible. We stop using all of the skills that we’ve built up over the course of our lives and approach the Bible in a completely different way.
I’m not sure why exactly that is. I think we get a bit hung up with the Bible. I think sometimes people are scared of understanding it incorrectly, and so we can get overwhelmed or confused, and it makes our minds a little muddled when we come to the text. Or, we’re so aware that we consider these words sacred and holy that we can’t believe we have any skills that could be useful when we’re reading the Bible. Whatever the case, I want to encourage you to put to use all of the skills you already have when you read the Bible. Ask those same questions teachers might ask young students to consider: What’s happening here? What’s happening to the people? How do people change? What’s the problem and how does it get resolved? How can I figure out what this means based on what comes before and after?
In this sermon series, we’re going to look in particular at some of the types of literature we find in the Bible, and we’ll think about how we read different types of literature. For example, if you go in a bookstore or library, you’ll see that books are group together by genre – cookbooks are all in one section, and biographies are all together. Reference books have a spot. Fiction is in one place, and non-fiction is in another. Newspapers and magazines – everything gets its own spot. We expect a certain type of content, a certain style of writing when we read a newspaper, and another type and style when we read the latest book in from a mystery writer. If we read a book of poetry, we wouldn’t go hunting for facts, probably. Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you! That’s not something that’s meant to be a fact, even if all the words are true. The purpose of a poem is different than the purpose of a textbook, and how we read each of those things, then, should be a bit different.
As our Fast Track looks at the New Testament, here we’ll look at the 4 main types of literature in the Hebrew Bible (although not only!): Law, History, Poetry, and Prophecy. Today, we’re starting with the law. If you’re ever read through all the details and specifics of modern day legal language, you might know that it can be tedious and incomprehensible to someone without legal training. Thankfully, the biblical books of the law are a bit different. The first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, are known as the Torah, the law books of the Bible. Through these five books we see origin stories, stories that lay out exactly who Israel is and who Israel is called to be as God’s people. And a large chunk of the law relates to the journey of the Israelites from living as slaves in Egypt to entering into the land that God promised them as their own people, God’s own people. These books are not the only sacred text of Judaism, but these five books are at the core of Jewish faith and identity still today. They’re called books of law because once Moses and the people leave Egypt, God, speaking through Moses, works to set up a covenant, a set of rules for living that will govern the Israelites in their new home.   
If you were trying to set up a brand new nation, a brand new community of people living together, where you were writing your laws from scratch, what would it be important to include? I think there was some reality show a couple years back that tried to ask these questions, throwing together a group of people and asking them to create a mini-government of sorts. I’m not sure how it worked I suspect that it wasn’t as easy as folks thought it was going to be. I think that ideally, people don’t uphold the laws of a community only because they are laws. Hopefully, for example, most of us don’t drive 100 miles per hour not only because it is a law, but also because that would be dangerous, putting our lives and the lives of others at risk. But laws provide a framework that the community agrees to uphold at least because they are laws, ordering a community, if nothing else.
David Lose writes that biologists would tell you that we’re designed to look out for our own wants and needs over all others, and that this is where the concept of the strongest and most self-interested surviving comes from. Theologians, he says, would tell you that this is what human sin is: self-interest, selfishness that puts our needs above the needs of others, but actually limits “human flourishing” and contradicts God’s desire for us to love one another. The law, then, at its most basic level, is something that God gives us to curb us from our tendency to put ourselves first. The law creates boundaries that enable us to flourish as a whole, that “create room in which we can live with each other.”  Lose concludes, “That’s the law, in its first use, functioning as a gift from God to tell us – children and adults alike – “no” so that we can then say “yes” to a richer and more abundant life together.” (2)
For the Israelites, the Ten Commandments are a starting point of the new community that they’re building. A way that they will agree to live together, so that all people in the community have the chance to flourish. The Ten Commandments are perhaps the most famous section of the law of Moses. Many of us memorized the commandments when we were young, and we tend to memorize them in their simplest form. But as we listened to them again today, I hope you heard that they have more depth to them. They’re a bit more complicated than the simple words we might know.  The first several deal particularly with our relationship with God. I am your God, the one who brought you out of slavery. Don’t forget it, and don’t have any other gods. Don’t make idols, or worship anything other than me in any form. Don’t make “wrongful use” of the name of the Lord. To me that goes far beyond simply not using God’s name while you’re cursing, although I also consider that a bad idea! How often do we use God’s name wrongly, to hurt instead of heal, for our purposes instead of God’s purposes? Five verses are spent focusing on the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Not only are we meant to rest, but we’re meant to let others rest too. The words in Deuteronomy ground our need for Sabbath not in God resting at creation, but in the fact that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. They should remember, always, what it was like to have to work without rest, and never make things so that they and others cannot seek rest going forward.  
The rest deal more with our relationships with each other in community, and are simple, shorter, more direct. Honor your parents, because doing so will help build a long-lived community in a new land. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t say things that aren’t true about one another. And don’t covet things that belong to others – family, homes, property, livelihood. So, the commandments provide a framework for our relationship with God and one another.
Shortly after these commandments are given, we find a short passage that emphasizes the importance of knowing, deeply knowing these words, not as an “at least” minimum requirement, but as something that is at the heart of our relationship with God and others, something that guides our lives, our actions, a covenant for living together that leads to experience God’s blessings. The Promised Land that Israel is about to enter is described here, as elsewhere, as a land flowing with milk and honey, meant to signify a rich, sweet abundance.
We find next the words known as the Shema in Judaism. Shema means Hear, the first word of chapter 6 verse 4: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. God is God alone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Jesus will, in the gospels, affirm this as the greatest commandment, pairing it, as Deuteronomy does elsewhere, with love of neighbor. Keep these commandments in your heart, the law says. Recite them to your children. Talk about these words when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and gates.
As a way to honor these words, the Shema is still recited daily by many faithful Jews, morning and evening, at Shabbat services, at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day in Judaism, before bedtime, when one’s death is imminent. And indeed, these words have sometimes been kept on doorposts, and bound to hands and head.
These last verses of our text tell us that keeping these commandments is as important as knowing them, living with God’s word in such a way that it is a part of all that we do. How will we do that? Keep these commandments – not just because they’re God’s law, but because we have a deep desire to live in communion with God and one another? This week, I have a challenge for you. I want you to take a moment right now to write down the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-5. And I want you to carry those words with you all week, and try to follow the directions of the text we’ve shared today. Share these words with your children or folks in your household, and pray them in the morning and at night, and when you leave for work and when you come back home, and each time you come through the door. I challenge you to try it for a week. See what it does to your days to make these words the first and last words of your day, and the words that mark your comings and goings. This is how central God wants to be in our lives, how much God desires for us to be living with God at the heart of all we do. And that’s the heart of the law: it’s beyond just, “Well, I didn’t break any of the Ten Commandments today!” That’s the law reduced to its lowest meaning, but not the fullness of the gift God means it to be for us. This week, let’s see if we can experience the fullness of the gift of this covenant, these words that shape us as God’s people. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Amen.

(1) Life in Fifth Grade, as quoted in “21 Anchor Charts That Nail Reading Comprehension,” https://www.weareteachers.com/21-anchor-charts-that-teach-reading-comprehension/

(2) Lose, David. “Law, the First Use.” http://www.davidlose.net/2013/10/law-the-first-use/

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon, "Singing the Story: Victory in Jesus," 1 Corinthians 15:50-58

Sermon 9/3/17
1 Corinthians 15:50-58

Singing the Story: Victory in Jesus

The last hymn in our hymn story series is a southern gospel classic, “Victory in Jesus.” According to the Origin of Songs website, Eugene Monroe Bartlett, Sr.  “was born on Christmas Eve in 1885 near Waynesville, Missouri …  [He] dedicated his life to Jesus at an early age … Bartlett lived in the south and enjoyed a reputation as a fine music teacher. Based in Arkansas, he traveled the entire southern portion of the country holding singing schools for anyone interested. These … schools trained aspiring musicians in vocal technique, sight reading,” using a unique method called shape note singing, “and conducting and [they] were influential in the development of church music as a whole for much of the remainder of the century.
“Bartlett … was a very successful business man, and decided to invest his money [and eventually with it he] founded the Hartford Music Company in Hartford, Arkansas sometime in 1918.  Within the first year of business he sold more than 15,000 copies of his hymnbook. Many writers, singers and musicians received their first opportunity in gospel music at Hartford Music Company including Albert E. Brumley who wrote ‘I'll Fly Away’” (which we’ll sing later on.) (1)
Of all of his songs, nearly all have fallen out of regular use save one, our focus for today, “Victory in Jesus.” “In 1939, a stroke rendered Bartlett partially paralyzed and unable to perform or travel.  He spent the last two years of his life bedridden.  Amid such bleak circumstances, he wrote his final and most beloved song … The … verses and refrain enthusiastically tell of one's own personal salvation experience from beginning to end. It's said that Bartlett missed traveling and teaching, but he could still study the Bible, a study from which he gave us this wonderful song during a time when much of the earth sat on the brink of World War II.”  (1) Despite all of his successes, it is from this song, born of Bartlett’s faith through suffering, that we remember today.
            “Victory in Jesus” draws on the imagery we find in 1 Corinthians 15. Our scripture lesson today comes from the first of two letters that we have from the apostle Paul to the growing early church community of Corinth. Chapter 15 is a weighty chapter, and I recommend you take some time this week to read this whole thing. In it, Paul tackles the themes of resurrection and eternal life. He starts by reminding the Corinthians of the good news that Paul has proclaimed to them, which he sums up as this: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and then resurrected, and Paul counts himself as a beneficiary and messenger of the grace of God received through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On these points, Paul’s audience seems to agree.
            But apparently, some of the Corinthians have been arguing that we, humans, are not resurrected after death. This isn’t surprising – in Judaism and in other religious traditions that would have been part of the culture of the Corinthian community, many dismissed the concept of eternal life. But for Paul, such a conclusion means that his whole life’s work is meaningless. He makes a kind of logic argument. He says: Jesus died and was resurrected as human being. He was fully human, even as he was fully divine. And if he was fully human, and Jesus was resurrected, then resurrection is possible. You can’t, Paul argues, believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but not human resurrection in eternal life. If humans don’t experience resurrection, neither can Jesus. And if Jesus wasn’t resurrected then Paul’s work and our faith are in vain, because Paul has been mispresenting God, we are still mired in sin because death was not conquered, and we have no hope. In fact, Paul says, if this life was all there was, how could he have the courage to risk this life for the work of Christ? But in Christ, the last enemy, death, is destroyed, because God has power over all things, power realized in Jesus.
            Paul says another topic he’s heard being discussed by Corinthians is speculation over how we experience resurrection. What will our bodies be like? Paul uses the metaphor of a seed and a plant. A seed doesn’t grow unless it “dies,” that is unless it is buried, planted. And you can’t tell anything from the seed about what the plant will look like. So many similar seeds, and such an overwhelming variety of plants that grow from them. This is what it is like with us. We can’t be resurrected without death. And this body, this life – it’s perishable, mortal, weak. And finally, we get to the text from today, Paul’s conclusion in this long chapter. These words might sound familiar to you because they are often part of the graveside service at funerals. Paul says he’s going to tell us a mystery. We will be transformed – perishable to imperishable. Mortal bodies changed into eternal life in God. Then, Paul says, the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Trusting in this, Paul says, we should be steadfast, faithful, persevering, excelling in God’s work, because we know that our work is not in vain.
            There’s a phrase, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good.” There’s a lot of layers to what that could mean, but to me, I think of how we can get focused on doing good so that we get rewarded with eternal life. That makes for a pretty shallow relationship with God. It’s like being in a relationship with someone because they buy you nice presents. Not very deep. But for Paul and some other early Christians who faced considerable persecution, threats and actual harm in so many forms, being heavenly-minded meant being fixed on life’s ultimate goal – being completely united with God – instead of on the promises of earthly rewards that come and go.
What about us, though, twenty-first century Christians? How do we wrestle with these questions that Paul discusses? What do you think about when you think about life and death and life beyond death? There are so many questions that we understandably have about death and life after death, because of course, we only know this life, and it is hard to imagine something so outside of our daily experience. So we find these questions in the scriptures, like when the Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus with his answers, but still ask: To whom will we be married in heaven if we’ve had more than one spouse? Or like the Corinthians, who wanted to know what kind of bodies we get at the resurrection? Or the questions we might have: I asked my pastor when I was in junior high – won’t heaven be boring? He, a math major in college, drew his idea of eternity for me on an x-y graph. (I was not convinced I had been wrong in my original question!) We wonder. We yearn to know. Paul himself calls some of these things a mystery, the same word we use when we celebrate communion to acknowledge that we don’t know exactly how God does what God does to present with us in communion. Just so, how could we know the mysteries of life, death, and life beyond death?
When I was in 4th grade or so, my older brother was teasing me in the way that older siblings do, but his teasing wound up with me being scared – I was thinking about death and trying to imagine would it would be like not to feel anything – as if even adults could get their minds around such a thing, much less 9 year olds. I talked to my Mom about it, and she realized that despite being a life-long Sunday School and church kid, it never occurred to me to be thinking about eternal life with God. She set me on a course of prayer and reading the Bible that shaped my faith in countless ways. I took so much comfort in the words of scripture. I didn’t understand everything I read, but I got the gist: when we follow God, our future is safe in God’s hands. For a long time after that, my image of eternity was shaped by C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. In the last book in the series, The Last Battle, the world of Narnia ends and several of the characters find themselves in heaven. Aslan, the Christ-figure, the great lion, keeps calling to them to go “further up and further in,” and they find that heaven is like the worlds they know – Narnia, and earth, only they discover that the Narnia and earth they knew were but shadow copies, as different as a shadow is from the real thing, as different as seeing a reflection in a window is from looking at the thing itself directly. In eternity, they experience at last the real thing. Lewis narrates, “The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looks as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there, you will know what I mean.”
            It was not until I got into seminary that I really struggled again with thinking about eternity. I’ve told some of you about part of this before – I confronted in seminary that gap between what I wanted to know about God and life with God and what I actually could know. I wanted to know all the answers, and was suddenly confronted with all that I didn’t and couldn’t know. I had more questions about eternity than could be satisfied by my images of heaven from The Chronicles of Narnia, and I was overwhelmed with anxiety about what would happen to me, to those I love, to the world. I scoured the scriptures for God’s promises about eternal life. There’s certainly a lot in the Bible to consider. The pictures of eternity are as varied as the genres of writing in the scriptures and the authors themselves. I didn’t find the defining answer: this is what happens in eternity. But what I did find was this: God loves us. God is good, all goodness. God’s purposes are good. God is ever faithful. God promises that we will be with God. Therefore what is in store for us is good, and we can depend on that. That might not sound like much. But for me, it was everything, a step in trusting in God and not my own answers that marked a sturdier faith, one that didn’t depend only on what was in my ability to comprehend!
I don’t mind confessing: I don’t know what happens after this life any more than I believe a caterpillar knows what it is like to be a butterfly, or what it will be like to turn into a chrysalis of mush in order to get to the butterfly part of life. I don’t know the details of what happens when we die, what heaven might be like, or if any of our visions or imaginings are even in the ballpark of the truth of what comes after we complete this life. But what I do know is that I’ve read these words from 1 Corinthians at countless funerals, read them to countless families who are grieving the loss of a loved one. And these words that once felt strange to my tongue, when I frankly hadn’t experienced much in the way of grief in my own young life, these words have become some of my favorite: “Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ.” I’m not sure I always understood those words, and I’m not certain that in the midst of grieving, people always catch the impact of them, the punch of them, the taunt of them. But Paul is laughing at death! Because he knows that death has no real enduring power over life. Death thinks it has buried us. Ended us. But death doesn’t realize that we are seeds, planted. Perishable, but made imperishable in Christ. I’ve learned this as I think about the loved ones I have lost to death, but who are still so alive to me, to my family. Death was not able to cancel out the power of their lives. Of their love, or ours, or God’s. Even death has no power to stop the work of God, the love of God, our life in and through and because of and with God. Where, O death, is your sting? It is nothing, and Christ and life are everything! Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow. Instead we just leave buried our doubts and fears. We leave buried our prejudices and hostilities. We leave buried our insistence on our own way, our grudges, our anger. But what God draws forth from us is new life. Resurrected life. Real life, which we experience in part now, when we let God resurrect us, a foretaste of the full realization of God’s hopes and dreams that are promised for eternity. And nothing will stand in God’s way.
And so we hope, even as we wonder! We put our trust in God, who is good, who is love, who is grace, and who promises us life with God forever. And in the meantime, we do the work of God, knowing that our labor is not in vain. For death is swallowed up in victory. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ. Amen.

(2) Wilder, Thornton, Our Town, Act III.