Monday, October 30, 2017

Sermon, "Theology at the Theatre: Les Misérables," Romans 5:1-11

Sermon 10/29/17
Romans 5:1-11

Theology at the Theatre: Les Misérables

            How many Harry Potter fans do we have out there? You might be saying to yourself, “I thought we were talking about musicals, about Les Miserables today!” and we are. I promise I’ll get there…in a minute. I love the Harry Potters series. My childhood pastor actually got me hooked on them – he was reading and enjoying them, so I gave them a try. Some of you know that I even have a Harry Potter closet under the stairs, like Harry sleeps in in the first book, set up in my parsonage. I claim this is for my niece and nephew to enjoy, but it’s at least 50% for me! Anyway, through the years, author J.K. Rowling has continued to expand and explore the world of Harry Potter that she has so masterfully created, and she is pretty free with her comments about the series and characters. The villain of Harry Potter is the evil Lord Voldemort, and people pretty universally think he’s awful. But Harry also had a nemesis all through his school years, a rich, prejudiced, mean & nasty fellow student named Draco Malfoy. Draco seems to express some regret for his actions by the end of the series, but he’s never exactly one of the good guys. Nonetheless, Draco’s character has lots of fans, and J.K. Rowling has written about how this fact troubles her. She says: “I have often had cause to remark on how unnerved I have been by the number of girls who fell for this particular fictional character (although I do not discount the appeal of [actor] Tom Felton, who plays Draco brilliantly in the films and, ironically, is about the nicest person you will ever meet,” Rowling writes. “Draco has all the dark glamour of the anti-hero; girls are very apt to romanticise such people. All of this left me in the unenviable position of pouring cold common sense on ardent readers’ daydreams, as I told them, rather severely, that Draco was not concealing a heart of gold under all that sneering.”[1] She does go on to say that there is “some unextinguished good at the heart of Draco,” but she still doesn’t understand why so many people imagine that Draco turns out to be not-so-bad after all.
            Personally, though, I’m not surprised at all that people imagine a more forgiving, loving future for Draco than the life he experiences through the Harry Potter series, that people want to imagine stories about how his heart is changed, and he lives a different life in the imaginary future. I’m not surprised that people imagine Draco’s redeeming, and I think the reason goes beyond young people having a crush on the actor who plays Draco. Instead, I think people are drawn to imagining a redeemed Draco Malfoy because redemption is our favorite story. Redemption in everyday use means “the action of regaining…possession of something in exchange for a payment, or clearing a debt.”[2] If you take your recyclable soda bottles back to the store, you can redeem that 5 cents extra you paid when you purchased the drink. In theological language, in God language, redemption takes this meaning to a deeper place. Redemption is “the action of saving or being saved from sin, [from]…evil.” The idea is that we have been lost to the power of sin and evil in our lives, but that God “buys us back,” offering up the life of Jesus as payment for the consequences of our sinfulness. Our hope in redemption, our hope in this idea that someone, something, can save us from our sinfulness, save us from the evil path we sometimes choose instead of the path of good? As I said, I think it is, as a culture, maybe as a human race, one of our favorites stories. Today we will sing one of our faith tradition’s favorite songs, “Amazing Grace.” Why do we love it so much, this song? Because it is a redemption song, a story of being saved even though we put ourselves on the wrong path so many times, a story that lets us hope in God’s unlimited power to redeem us from sin and evil.
Les MIsérables is a redemption story, a work that examines through the lives of its characters themes of redemption and how we do – or don’t – long for redemption and offer redemption to others. The musical Les MIsérables is based on the incredible novel by Victor Hugo, composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil. The action takes place in France in the early 1800s. The key player is a man named Jean Valjean. As the musical begins, Valjean is being released from prison, where he’s served for 19 long years, serving in hard labor. He served 5 for stealing the loaf of bread, but an additional 14 years were added to his sentence for trying to escape from prison. He gets a ticket of leave, and bears a brand on his chest with his prisoner number 24601, both of which identify him to people as an ex-convict and make it hard for him to start fresh. He can’t find work or a place to live.
Finally, a Bishop offers him food and a place to stay, but Valjean steals silver from the Bishop and flees. He’s caught by the police, who are ready to throw him back into prison. But instead, the Bishop comes and vouches for Valjean, saying the silver was a gift, and also giving him a set of silver candlesticks which the Bishop says Valjean forgot. The Bishop says to Valjean: “Remember this, my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood, God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God!”[3]
Valjean is overwhelmed with this act of mercy that gives him a chance at a new life. “Why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love?” he wonders. “He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?” Valjean asks. “Take an eye for an eye. Turn your heart into stone. This is all I have lived for. This is all I have known. One word from him and I'd be back beneath the lash, upon the rack. Instead he offers me my freedom. I feel my shame inside me like a knife. He told me that I have a soul. How does he know? … As I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin, I'll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is nothing now. Another story must begin.”
He rips up his ticket of leave and takes on a new identity, working hard to live a good life, constantly helping others whenever he has the opportunity. There some other stories unfolding in Les Mis: Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette falls in love with a young man named Marius. Marius is involved in student rebellion, a group of young revolutionaries who are concerned for the plight of the poor and seek to overthrow the powerful government, particularly after the only advocate in the government for the poor and downtrodden dies. Valjean hates seeing Cosette fall in love, recognizing that he will lose his role in her life if she marries and moves on, but because of how much he cares for Cosette, he throws his lot in with the rebellion, which eventually fails, in order to protect Marius for Cosette, never revealing his identity. (The anthem the choir sang, “Bring Him Home,” is Valjean’s prayer to God to protect Marius.) But throughout all these events, the main story unfolds. A police captain, Inspector Javert, has hated Valjean since he was discharged from prison. Javert, who was born in a prison to a criminal mother, lives his life according to law and order. There is no room for grace and mercy in his life. And when he realizes that Valjean is the ex-con with a new identity, Javert pursues him relentlessly through the years. He’s obsessed with bringing Valjean to his idea of justice. Says Javert, “So it is written on the doorway to paradise that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price!”
Eventually, though, Jean Valjean gets the chance to kill Javert when Javert is caught out by the student revolutionaries, trying to infiltrate their movement. At the least, Valjean has the opportunity to let others kill Javert and not speak up for him. How easy would that be? Instead, Valjean saves Javert’s life, and Javert, in turn, lets Valjean go so that Valjean can save Marius’s life too. After he lets Valjean go, Javert unravels, unable to figure out why either he or Valjean acted with mercy. He says, “Who is this man? What sort of devil is he to have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free? It was his hour at last to put a seal on my fate, wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate! All it would take was a flick of his knife. Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!” “I am the law and the law is not mocked.” “And must I now begin to doubt who never doubted all these years?” Javert cannot reconcile mercy with the order of law that has guided his life. In turmoil, he commits suicide.
Les Mis is about two people struggling with the idea of redemption. Javert can’t imagine that anyone is deserving of redemption – and therefore he doesn’t extend it to others, ever. He can only imagine that we are redeemed by following the rules, and so he seeks to do that with expert precision, and feels that anyone who fails to adhere to the law in complete perfection is worthless, irredeemable. No one can be perfect under the law, though, and when Javert himself ignores the law, his world crumbles. Jean Valjean, on the other hand, can’t imagine that he is worthy of redemption. But when the Bishop offers him redemption so easily, so freely, so lovingly anyway, despite his unworthiness, Valjean can’t doubt it, can’t ignore the gift of grace he’s received, even if he feels like he is unworthy of it. He has experienced redemption, and it transforms him, frees him to live a life serving others, even transforming him into someone capable of offering grace and redemption to his very worst enemy.
            This contrast between seeking our worthiness from perfect adherence to law, and discovering that our value comes from being redeemed by God’s free gift of grace is exactly the theme that Paul takes up in his epistle, his letter to the Romans. Paul has spent the first four chapters of Romans explaining how Gentile followers of Jesus – non-Jewish followers of Jesus – have come to be included in God’s plan of saving grace even though they are not part of the covenant, bound by the law of Moses, that the Jews have been part of for centuries. It isn’t that we are so good at following the law that earns us a place with God, Paul argues. Even Abraham, to whom God first gave the sign of the covenant in the act of circumcision, even Abraham didn’t find his place with God because of that covenant. Abraham’s relationship with God was built on faith and trust in God’s grace and God’s promises. Our hope is in God, Paul writes, and our hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love “has been poured into our hearts.” We were sinners, and Jesus gives his life for us anyway. Paul uses the language of reconciliation – we are reconciled to God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We are redeemed by the actions of God in Jesus, and that can be our boast, our joy, our celebration. We can’t boast in adherence to the law – we’ll never hold up to that set of rules. But we can boast in the gift of grace that God gives us, the gift that is available to each and every one of us. Paul writes with passion and conviction in Romans. It is some of his most eloquent, in depth work. Because the redemption story is Paul’s favorite story too.
            Where are we in this redemption story? Sometimes, I think maybe we’re a bit more like Javert than we’d like to admit. Both Javert and Valjean struggle to accept God’s grace for themselves. Indeed, it is an awesome gift and we can spend our whole lives in wonder, giving thanks for this gift that seems too good to be true. But because grace seems too good to Javert, he can’t extend grace and mercy to anyone. He can’t imagine that anyone can be redeemed from their wrong choices. What about you? Have you accepted God’s redeeming love in your life? Are you withholding redemption from someone, unable to believe that God’s grace is for them, too? If you are, my prayer is that you will set them – and yourself – free from the idea that we must be good enough to earn God’s love and mercy, that you must earn what God wants to give as a gift. Jean Valjean felt bowled over by the power of God’s redemptive grace in his life. It was so powerful, this gift that he experienced through the Bishop’s forgiveness, that his whole life was transformed, and he couldn’t stop extending mercy to others, whenever he had the chance. What about you? What about us? How are you letting God’s redeeming love change your life? What’s the new life you can live because God has redeemed you from the power of sin and evil? What opportunities to shower others with grace and mercy do you have, waiting for you to take action?
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Rowling, J.K., as quoted in Time magazine,
[3] Boubil, A., and C. Schonber, Les Misérables. All lyrics quoted here and following available online at

Monday, October 02, 2017

Sermon, "Back to (Bible) School: Prophecy," Ezekiel 37:1-14

Sermon 10/1/17
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Back to (Bible) School: Prophecy

            This week is the last week in our series studying the kinds of literature we find in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. We’ve looked at the Law, the history books of the Bible, and poetry or wisdom literature in the Bible. And today, we turn our attention to large chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures that make up the writings of the prophets. I think prophecy as a biblical genre is probably the most misunderstood, because we use the word prophecy to mean many different things.
            What first comes to mind when you hear the word “prophecy”? Often, people think immediately of predicting the future, a kind of fortune-telling. We seem to have a fascination with anything that suggests we could accurately predict the future. I saw some posts going around on facebook in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I think, linking the dates of the storm and certain verses from the gospel of Luke. Some folks might be avid readers of their daily horoscope, astrology, the thought that the position of the planets and the time of our birth shapes the events of our daily lives. I used to read mine pretty regularly when I was a teenager, waiting for predictions of true love to come my way! Taurus is my astrological sign, and here’s my horoscope from yesterday (from one website at least!): “A couple, perhaps friends, could visit today. Perhaps you've moved into a new home or redecorated and want to show them around. They'll be impressed and you'll enjoy the company.”[1] I’m sorry to report I had no visitors yesterday, and I haven’t moved or redecorated, unless you think of cleaning diligently before the Trustees walk-though of the parsonage as redecorating!
            What’s the appeal of trying to predict the future? Why are we fascinated by anything that appears to be a prediction of future events? I can only imagine that it is our general anxiety over things unknown, and our general dislike of things that we can’t control that makes us want to believe that something, someone, somewhere can predict the future with accuracy. Otherwise, we have to live with the unsettling reality that things outside of our control, like disaster and illness, can just come on by and bring upheaval to our lives with there being nothing we can do to stop it. The idea of predicting the future, I think, is about control and security.
            That’s not, however, what the prophets in the Bible were all about. Prophets are truth-tellers. Prophets are truth-tellers, particularly when no one else wants to say how things really are. You know what I mean: 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, when no one else is brave enough to say so. A prophet tells it like it is, says how bad things really are, talks about where the path we are on will lead if things don’t change. But a prophet doesn’t necessarily want what he or she speculates about to come true. Instead, a prophet wants people to stop and repent, wants them to get back on God’s path before things go too far the wrong way. 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 happens. Instead, they’re truth-telling. If you don’t change, this is the probable future consequences of your current actions. Prophets are visionaries too – they don’t only tell the bad things that might happen if we don’t get our acts together, they also try to hold before us the truth of the potential good that might come if we do change our ways. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”[2] King was a prophet: a truth-teller, calling us to account for our racism, and holding before us a vision of what could be, a world where his children no longer faced discrimination and prejudice. He certainly was not predicting the future. He was offering up a vision of the possible paths we might take as a nation. A prophet.
            In the Bible, there are what we call “major” prophets and “minor” prophets. These aren’t more or less important prophets. Rather, the designation refers to the length of the book in the Bible. We have long writings from prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, and just tiny entries from those like Obadiah and Nahum, books you might not even have heard of! The books of prophecy in our Bibles are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
Today we’re looking at a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, a passage known as The Valley of Dry bones. Ezekiel was a priest living in exile in Babylon, with other Israelites. I think it is hard for most of us to imagine our whole community being conquered and living in exile in a foreign land, but the time of exile, in the sixth century BC, was Israel’s most devastating experience since their slavery under Egyptian rule. They were a people whose religious roots were deeply tied to their land – the Promised Land – and living in exile represented a great turning away from faithfulness to God.
Ezekiel describes in this passage an image God brings to him that represents what the exiled people of Israel look like emotionally – like a valley dry bones – skeletons. “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. [The Lord] led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry,” we read. Then God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel is smart, and says, “You know, God.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy that God will breathe into the bones and cause them to be covered with flesh and come to life again. Ezekiel does as he’s told, and it happens just as God describes, and the bones live again, given flesh and breath. These newly living beings say that their bones are dried up and their hope is lost. But God responds to them: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord … I will put my spirit within you and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.” Ezekiel knows that God is faithful, even when we are not, and so Ezekiel knows that Israelites are not abandoned. Eventually, Israel does come home from exile, and slowly, they come back to life, and reclaim their identity. 
Some of you may have seen that I asked some questions on facebook in a couple places; I asked three questions about this text. First, I asked 1) When have you felt like "dry bones?" 2) When/how/did you experience some way of God breathing new life into you? And 3) What does that phrase “in your own soil” bring to mind - what's your soil? People seemed to know exactly what it means to feel like dry bones – not in body, but in spirit. Folks shared that there were “too many” dry bones times in life “to count,” or talked about years of struggle trying to have a baby, or how it felt like dry bones to be inundated with hateful words and messages online. One pastor, retired in the last few years, said trying to find a new identity after years of ministry sometimes felt like dry bones. Some felt like they were “dry bones” right now, and it was hard to imagine an end to it. What about you? When have you felt like you could fit right in to that Valley of the Dry Bones? Have we ever been “dry bones” as a congregation? Community? Nation? World?
            Many folks have experienced new life, finding direction, finding a calling, a purpose. I asked Dede Scozzafava if I could share her response in particular. She wrote, “Sometimes I feel like "dry bones" when I am just going through the daily motions of living. Almost like functioning on auto pilot...going from point A to point B and not really taking the time to think about the what and the why of the action. But sometimes God reminds me that I need to take a deeper dive than wading through the superficial surface waters. God directs me to see through different eyes and listen through different ears ... sometimes that interface changes my course and makes me evaluate the purpose of my actions. My soil is my faith ... sometimes growing...sometimes thirsting...sometimes looking to be nourished...sometimes nourishing others...sometimes balanced...other times unsteady...” We know what it is like to be dry bones, don’t we? I hope, too, that we also know what it is like to have God put flesh on our dry bones and breath into us God’s Holy Breath, Holy Spirit, Holy Wind. But I hope for us it is more than just a passive thing. I hope we aren’t just dry bones laying around, waiting for a breath from God, a word of hope from a prophet, when we already know that we serve the God of Resurrection and Life.              
            What do we do when we’re feeling like dry bones – as an individual, a community, a people? This is a question we can we can work on answering together. But here’s what struck me. Ezekiel kept his trust in God, listened for God’s voice, and did whatever God asked, even though he, too, was in exile, just like all those souls in the valley. Ezekiel seemed to have no doubt in the power of God to make dry bones live again. In The United Methodist Church, we still have in our Book of Discipline something called “The General Rules.” They were the rules that guided the early Methodists, when they met together with John Wesley, founder of the movement. Look them up this week, and read them in full. But here’s the gist: First, do no harm. Second, do good. And third, “attend upon the ordinances of God.”[3] These ordinances are practices or disciplines that help us stay connected to God. Wesley lists being part of the worshiping community, sharing in communion, praying alone and together, studying the Bible, and fasting as ordinance we ought to practice to ground ourselves in life with God. Even when we feel like dry bones, these practices help us stay ready, stay faithful, stay listening for God’s voice, ready to let new life and God’s breath fill our hearts again. It’s watering and tending the soil in which God seeks to plant us, digging deep. And eventually, in God’s right time, they’re the practices that make us ready for new life. Can these bones live? God knows. And with God, the answer to the question of new life is always yes. Amen.  


[2] King Jr., Martin Luther.