Actions Speak Louder Than God

Inspired by Esther 4:1-17

I know I say this about a lot of Bible books but I’m serious this time, if you have not read the book of Esther in its entirety, you must put this on your reading list! It’s a pretty quick read, only ten short chapters but it is one heck of a story! It reads a lot like a twisted fairy tale, as you read it, you’re almost waiting for a dragon or knight in shining armor to appear. Spoiler alert, neither shows up. But that’s because Esther doesn’t need a knight or dragon to come and save the day, she has that well under control. 
How many of you have seen the movie The Princess Bride? For those of you who haven’t, what are you even doing with your life? Kidding! Hey, I wouldn’t be doing my job as your pastor if I didn’t shame you for something! Anyway, this story of Esther is like a sexist version of The Princess Bride with a twist of genocide thrown in for good measure. Like I said, it’s a crazy story! You won’t be disappointed!
However, that’s not all that makes this book so interesting. It is the last book that made it into the Jewish Bible. In fact, it almost didn’t make it at all! And here’s why, there is no mention of God in the entire book. And that was a huge hurdle for the assemblers of the Jewish Bible to get over. And it’s hard to blame them, I mean, if the Bible is supposed to be a collection of books that help our own journey with God, it makes sense that the book has to at least mention God in order to make it in. 
But I’m sure glad they were able to overlook that in this instance. Because allowing it to be included in the Bible, without any mention of God in it, communicates something in and of itself. That tells us that there are many ways for us to communicate what we believe about God to others. It opens doors, opportunities to share God’s love with others in more subtle, nuanced, and creative ways—but more about that in a minute—let’s talk about the actual story first.
Though the book is 10 short chapters, we’re only going to cover the first four today. What I read a moment ago was chapter four but let me first catch you up. Last week’s reading came just before the exile, when God’s people were conquered and forcibly removed from their homeland, being dispersed throughout the Babylonian empire. Then, after many years, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, because there’s always a bigger fish, and the Persian king decided to allow the Jews to return home. 
However, not all of them did, remember, this is generations later and wherever the exiled Jews ended up, was now their new home—which is why our story occurs in Persia, where Esther was born, and the country she calls home. Unfortunately, like many countries who have a diverse population with many people from other countries, comprised of many different ethnicities, racism was alive and well in Esther’s Persia.
And that’s actually how we get this amazing story. So the book starts out with some turmoil between the king and queen of Persia. Queen Vashti was very beautiful and the king, like any misogynistic ruler, liked to show her off any chance he got. And so, a habit of his was to call her whenever he was having a party or hosting other world leaders, so that they could all look at her. Well, Queen Vashti had enough of that nonsense and finally refused to come when she was summoned! 
Well, you’d have thought she was caught with another king! The whole palace was thrown into turmoil! Then they had to decide what they were going to do with this disobedient queen! Do we try her for treason? Do we execute her? This part is pretty comical really. At one point, the king’s leaders tell him that they have to punish her in some way, because, if they don’t, all the women in the kingdom will think they can do whatever they want! It’ll be total chaos!
"Queen Esther" (1879) by Edwin Long
So the king decides, like any mature ruler, to just get a new queen. That’ll teach her! He really was an idiot. So he tasks his servants with finding the most beautiful young maidens, collects them all in one place, like they’re trading cards or something, and then they would undergo a year’s worth of treatments, with creams, oils, perfumes, etc., to make them as pleasant as possible for the king. Then, after their year of treatments, they were ready to be called to the palace for a night, to “audition” for the role of queen. This is where Esther enters the scene. She was one of these young maidens who was summoned to the palace on one of those nights, after which the king chooses her to be the next queen. However, this young maiden turned queen, had a secret, a secret that she hadn’t shared with the general public. 
She had lived her life hiding the fact that she was Jewish, due to all of the racism that Jews had to endure. Her family thought it best to hide that part of herself, for her own safety, and so that’s what she did. And for those of you who have not had to endure racism, that may seem pretty extreme. But believe it or not, people of color still do this in a variety of different ways. Especially those who are light-skinned enough to pass as possibly white or multi-ethnic, or to those of us who don’t “sound” like a person of color. Let me give you a couple examples from my own life. As proud of my last name as I am, there are times when I ask for it not to be used; maybe it’s for a flyer we are creating for a church event, or even on my business card that some of you are fond of handing out. You won’t find my last name on it. 
Why? Because I don’t want any stereotypes of Hispanic names to be the first thing that comes to a person’s mind when they see it, especially in association with Bethlehem. I would hate for that to be why someone doesn’t come and check us out. Here’s another one, when my wife Sara and I are house hunting or car shopping, I always ask that she be the first face they see. Again, so that any stereotypes that may come into play, at least won’t come first. Now, for those of you who haven’t had to endure racism, that might sound extreme, maybe even a little paranoid. I have one request of you, on behalf of every person of color living in an extremely racist society, please don’t draw those conclusions too quickly, especially knowing that you haven’t and will never walk in our shoes. 
But back to our story. At this point, the story takes a very serious, tragic turn. Through a series of unfortunate events, the details of which I’ll let you read for yourself, the king finds is necessary to decree that all the Jews have got to go. And I don’t mean that he wanted them to move—he wanted them dead—and so the royal decree commanded all the people in the kingdom to “wipe out, kill, and destroy all the Jews, both young and old, even women and little children.” Oh, and it also ordered their property to be seized. Sound familiar? For Esther, this meant that she was now faced with a choice. She could keep her identity secret and remain alive. But she also realized that she may have an opportunity here to save her people by using her position as queen, if she revealed her true self.
This is where our reading jumps into the story. Her family warns her that this is a dangerous idea, that she should not assume she will be given leniency just because she is queen. I mean, look at what happened to the last queen and all she did was not come when summoned! Not to mention the fact that there was this law that people could only go to the king when summoned. To arrive otherwise was a death sentence. In spite of the danger, Esther could not bring herself to remain silent while her people were exterminated. 
Even if it meant her own death. And so that’s what she does. She goes to the king to reveal herself and ask for mercy on behalf of her people. And what does the king do? Well, you’ll have to read that for yourself! What a wicked pastor I am! I’m telling you, you won’t be disappointed! It plays out very dramatically with lots of theatrics! I really do want you to read this for yourself. But also, what the king ultimately does isn’t important to this sermon.
What I want you to chew on from this half of the story, is the hidden nature of God. Remember, God is never mentioned in this story directly, but knowing scripture like we do, and knowing Jesus like we do, it’s nearly impossible to read this and not see God’s influence throughout this entire story. I mean, where do you think Esther’s willingness to die on behalf of her people comes from? If that doesn’t have God written all over it I don’t know what does! Why? Because God is revealed not only in words, not only in the naming of God, but also in actions, especially in sacrificial actions, in actions that cost us something. You know the old phrase, “actions speak louder than words.” Well, in the case of the book of Esther, actions speak louder than God! And I believe that allows God to shine all the more radiantly through this old, old story that never mentions a word about God. 
And my hope, is that it allows us some breathing room in our own ministries, in our own faith walks, as we discern where to be vocal about our faith and when our faith is simply calling for action. I think it’s easy for us to be pretty hard on ourselves for not being as vocal about our faith in public as we think we should be. In this story of Esther, I hear a different calling, a call to act, to put our money where our mouth is so to speak—to allow our actions to open the door for God to shine, brightly, into a dark world. Maybe the real challenge here, and why I love this book so much, is figuring out how to communicate God’s love, without using words, using only our actions. May we be ever ready, especially in the chaos of this Advent and Christmas, to speak God’s love without words. Amen.

Family Drama

Inspired by Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:17-19

Advent is finally upon us. It is probably my favorite season of the church year. I think that’s because it’s so counter-cultural. While the rest of the world is in full crazy Christmas mode by this time, Advent whispers to us, ever so gently, “Hey, slow down. Christmas isn’t here yet. This craziness, isn’t Christmas. There are other things to attend to besides these things. But Advent is different things to different people. For much of the world, it is simply the chaotic month leading up to Christmas that exploded on Black Friday.

In the liturgical life of the church, it is a season of hope, a season of waiting, a season of calm, in spite of how the rest of the world experiences it. It’s the eye of the storm, filled with peace and comfort. But for many, even us, it is anything but a peaceful time. It is filled with busyness, with frantic shopping, with social events, with financial burden, and of course, no Advent would be complete without family drama: Where will we gather for the holidays? Who’s cooking? How are we getting there? If he starts talking politics I swear I will leave! Ah yes, family drama at its finest. And we haven’t even got to Christmas yet!

Families argue. Couples fight. We stress out at this time of year. It’s natural. It’s normal, mostly. And most of us get over it. We makeup and move on, or at least we move on. We do that because we love each other. All of this is why this reading from Habakkuk is so perfect for this first Sunday in Advent. I’m going to be honest with you though, when I first read it, I didn’t like it. And I had no idea what in the world I was going to do with it! But then I remembered Advent and all that this season entails, good and bad, and I realized that this reading from Habakkuk had all the ingredients that we need. It’s full of arguing, and it’s full of hope. It has a sense of despair, and it contains a promised future. It is full of juxtapositions and dichotomies, just like Advent is. So let’s dig-in to Habakkuk.

To give you a little background, Habakkuk was a prophet along with Jeremiah in the city of Jerusalem just before the exile, just before the Babylonian empire conquered and sent God’s people out of their homeland. And by this time it’s too late for the city or the kingdom to be saved. Unlike Jeremiah from last week, Habakkuk is not there to tell them how they can escape destruction.

Habakkuk is there to spell out their doom for them, and give them hope for a future, which, I know, seems pretty contradictory, but such is faith. And it all begins with an argument between two family members: Habakkuk and God. Like I said, what would an Advent be without some family drama! Habakkuk voices what was probably on everyone's mind! “How long O Lord, will I call for help you not listen?” he asks. “I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us.”

The prophet doesn’t hold back. He takes this complaint to God like it’s a lawsuit. I imagine Habakkuk red in the face, trembling, practically foaming at the mouth, as he yells at God at the top of his lungs! “How long, O Lord!” How long? And then God answers. And lo and behold, it’s probably not what he expected. I mean, if I yelled at one of my parent’s like that as a teenager, I’d have been popped in the mouth! But not Habakkuk.

He was probably expecting to be struck down by a lightning bolt right where he stood. But that’s not what God does. Now don’t get me wrong, I imagine God responding with a raised voice too, but with passion, not so much with anger. God begins by confirming their worst fears, that the Babylonians will indeed invade and conquer. Not exactly the news he wanted to hear. And so, Habakkuk and God continue this back and forth argument.

Then, Habakkuk says, ok, I’ll keep watch, and see how God will respond to my complaint. And God responds, again probably not the way he wanted God to respond. He wanted an immediate solution, an immediate rescue out of the predicament they were in. But God, always full of surprises, instead says, “There is still a vision.” A vision for the future. Always the optimist our God is. But in the moment, I’m sure that was not comforting to Habakkuk or any of God’s people. “A vision?” they probably thought, “We don’t need no vision statement right now God! We need rescuing, right now!” But God is relentless in this hope business! It’s almost annoying really. No matter how dire the circumstances, God never tires of delivering hope.

So God continues, “If [the vision] delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late.” In other words, whenever it arrives, it will arrive exactly when it was supposed to. It’ll be right on time! And Habakkuk, always the realist, takes a look around at the predicament they find themselves in, at the fig trees that don’t bloom, bare vines, withering crops, unproductive fields, abandoned sheep, and lost cattle—a very bleak picture he paints—and he too responds in a very surprising way.

After painting this bleak picture, the prophet Habakkuk says, “I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.” And I thought to myself, “Rejoice? How can you rejoice Habakkuk? Everything is falling apart! Nothing is going right! And you’re rejoicing?” I went from arguing with God over this passage to arguing with Habakkuk!

And that’s when I realized some things that I can rejoice in, when I’m in the midst of turmoil and anguish and arguments with God—that I have a God who welcomes those arguments, that I have a God who wants me to name my complaints, to take God to task when things aren’t going right, that I have a God who will not stop giving me hope, no matter how much I may not want to hear it in the moment! Because God is relentless in this hope business.

And on top of that, Habakkuk ends by saying that God will give him feet like a deer to walk upon the heights. In other words, God will give him the ability to walk on difficult terrain. Have you ever followed someone even though you disagreed with them? Or followed someone even though you couldn’t see where they were taking you? That’s a special skill, isn’t it? That’s what Habakkuk is doing here. He’s looking around at his world and probably thinking, “I don’t see any signs of hope here God. I don’t see how your promise of a future could possibly be real. However, I know you, and that’s going to have to be enough right now. So, I’ll rejoice in that.”

As we dive headfirst into this Advent, with all its chaos, stress, debt, and family drama, my hope for us is this: that we can accept the hope that God continues to give to us, that we can believe the promised future that God continues to proclaim into our lives, especially when things look bleak.

That no matter what, no matter if everything this Christmas isn’t perfect, no matter if we couldn’t give all we wanted to give to our loved ones, no matter if all the decorations went up, no matter the family arguments that will indubitably ensue, Christ will come to us, Christ has come to us, and Christ will continue to break through all of that to be by our side. In spite of it all, Christmas will come. Now that can fill you with a sense of dread, but my prayer for you, is that it fills you with a sense of relief, when you need it the most, and with the prophet Habakkuk, be able to rejoice in those moments. Amen.

Preparing for Exile

Inspired by Jeremiah 1:4-10, 7:1-11

For the sake of any visitors we might have, this Fall we have been journeying through the great stories of the Bible, and we started with Genesis at the beginning of September and now find ourselves in Jeremiah. It has been a fascinating trip, seeing God travel with God’s people over the centuries, through the many ups and downs that life had thrown at them. And at this point in the arc of their story together, they find themselves on the brink of yet another disaster.

And it’s been that way for a while now, at least the last three Sundays worth of stories. Last week we were at the point where the kingdom of Judah, the last remaining kingdom of God’s people, had been all but overrun by the Assyrian empire. Only the capital city of Jerusalem remained untouched. But, with a little help from God, the city remained intact and was not taken by Assyrian forces. But the threat that Assyria would return, with an even bigger army, was ever present.

"Jeremiah", by Michelangelo, from the Sistine Chapel
However, some time has passed, not a long time, but enough that God’s people have become comfortable again—which brings us to the prophet Jeremiah. In today’s reading, we actually get two stories, one from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, and one from a little later in the book. The first story is the call of Jeremiah to be a prophet for Jerusalem. It’s a conversation between him and God that immediately endears the reader to both of them. At times the conversation is reminiscent of one between a parent and a child, at other times between a student and mentor, and still others as between an employer and employee.

Regardless, it’s a very relational conversation, to say the least, very personal, very intimate. It really is a gift for us to get a glimpse of it. God begins with words that I think every child would love to hear, “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart.” Who wouldn’t want to hear that from a parent? The idea of knowing a child before they were born is something that Sara and I can relate to. Having endured many miscarriages before our girls were born, when they finally did come to us, they were, and are, literal living, breathing, dreams fulfilled.

God continues, “I made you a prophet to the nations.” That’s quite a job to be tasked with! And so, Jeremiah responds like so many others had before him, and probably the way you and I would respond, “Who me?” Most people would probably come up with the best reason as to why this is a bad idea! And for Jeremiah, it was his age and inexperience. He goes so far as to call himself a child, someone who doesn’t even know how to speak properly! God’s not buying it.

Because God knows something that Jeremiah had not yet discovered. That not only will God provide words for Jeremiah, not only will God provide legitimacy for Jeremiah, but God will be by his side, every step of the way, as God had been, even before he was born. This is something that God needs Jeremiah to understand, before he begins his work as a prophet, in order for his message to God’s people to be effective. And this will be clear in a minute.

So, Jeremiah begins the hard work of being a prophet. And if I think being a pastor is hard, there’s no way I’d want his job! Although, there are quite a few similarities between a prophet and a pastor. A prophet is called to be a truth-teller, and so is a pastor, even when the truth is difficult. A prophet is called to be a voice for God, and so is a pastor, even when that voice speaks difficult words. A prophet is called to love people, and so is a pastor, even when that comes in the form of tough love. But we are also very different employees of God’s.

A prophet is called when there is no hope left. As I’ve mentioned before, when a prophet is called to the scene, it’s already too late. And so, a prophet’s message is usually filled with doom and gloom, especially in Jeremiah’s case. Now, for some pastors, like myself, who have walked with a congregation to its closing, I can relate to this kind of work too but most pastors, thankfully, are not called to that kind of work.

Therefore, Jeremiah goes to God’s people in Jerusalem, in the temple to be exact, with a reality check that can only come from a prophet. He tells them that this is God’s temple, not there’s. And as such, God sees everything that goes on there! And what God was seeing, God wasn’t liking! They had become so comfortable, in spite of Assyria breathing down their neck, that not only were they taking advantage of immigrants, taking advantage of orphans, taking advantage of widows, not only were they committing murder in the temple, committing adultery in the temple, committing perjury in the temple, but now they were sacrificing to other gods in God’s temple!

And that last sin, at least for the author, was the last straw. And so, God tells them, this level of comfort that you have in this place, this level of presumed safety that you have in this place, is false! Especially because, it isn’t going to last.

You see, God knew something else that they didn’t. God knew that the temple would soon be destroyed, that the entire kingdom would soon fall into enemy hands, including the capital city of Jerusalem, the city that has somehow escaped tragedy for a long time. And it isn’t even going to be the Assyrians that do it! The Babylonians are going to take over the Assyrian empire and they are the ones that will soon take this little kingdom, or what’s left of it, for their own.

But that’s beside the point, the point is, everything that they have found comfort in, is about to go away. More than that, they are not only going to lose their temple, not only are they going to lose their country, they are going to lose their land, as the Babylonians will exile them by systematically relocating them by force. Since we started this journey back in September I have been hinting that some terrible times are in store for God’s people in this narrative, and though they’ve been through a lot already, the worst is about to happen.

And so, they will have to relearn what it means to be God’s people—without the comfort of the temple, without the safety of a nation, even without their own land beneath their feet. But I don’t want us to get too ahead of ourselves. I see these stories from Jeremiah, as one more attempt by God to prepare them for what is to come. And yes, it comes in the form of some tough love. And I’m sure many of us have been the recipient of tough love by those who raised us and know that it’s not much fun but also know just how necessary it is sometimes.

Because God knows what’s ahead for them God needs them to learn this hard lesson because when they are ultimately exiled, they will need to know, right down to the marrow of their bones, that God is still with them! That God is not tied to a temple, not tied to a kingdom, not tied to the land, but is tied to their very hearts! Which is why it was so crucial that God convinced Jeremiah of this, way back when God first called him.

And so it is with us. A major part of our faith lives is preparing us for exile, preparing us for those times in our lives when nothing seems to go right, those times in our lives when God seems farthest away, those times in our lives when comfort seems like a dream, when safety seems like a fantasy, those times in our lives when we feel taken by an enemy of some kind. It is in those times that the message of God through Jeremiah is so crucial—that it is God’s will to dwell with you, to be with you, to walk with you—in spite of where life takes, in spite of what you’ve done or left undone, in spite of your losses—God’s wants to be with you. And I think it’s safe to say, God gets what God wants. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The War of the Words

Inspired by Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4

Today’s story from Isaiah comes from the same time period as last week’s story from Micah. In fact, the prophet Isaiah was a contemporary of the prophet Micah. The big difference between the two is that Micah was a prophet from a little town out in the boondocks of the kingdom, and Isaiah was a prophet in the capital city of Jerusalem where our story takes place. In Micah, the Assyrian empire was at the doorstep of the kingdom of Judah, ready to pounce on them like a lioness after her prey.

Assyrian palace relief at the British Museum
And in today’s story, the lioness has pounced. The Assyrian army has taken every city in the kingdom but one, Jerusalem. This story of Assyria’s conquest of Judah was widely recorded. Not only does it appear here in scripture but also in Assyrian documents, and even in these huge Assyrian palace reliefs, part of which you can see here. So apparently, this was a huge story back in Isaiah’s day, this was breaking news, major headlines.

So, the Assyrian king has taken every part of the kingdom of Judah except its capital city Jerusalem. His army is at the gate of the city. And his commander, from the city limits, begins to taunt the people of Jerusalem, in what may possibly be, the first recorded incident of “fake news.” Think about it, this commander tells them, Don’t listen to your king Jerusalem! He’s a liar! He won’t save you! Just surrender now and no one has to die! I’ll tell you what, if you give up now, I’ll let you stay in your own homes, and you’ll be able to eat from your own gardens and drink from your own vines. Well, until we come and take you all to a new land, but that’s beside the point.

And then, the commander makes a pretty compelling case as to why they should surrender. He says, you can wait for your God to save you if you want to, but look around you. Did any of the gods of all the other nations save them from me? And then he lists them one by one! Did their God save them? Did their God save them? Did theirs? Did theirs? Nobody had to answer that question. Everybody knew. It’s all that’d been on the news! The answer was, no. Their gods didn’t save them. In fact, our God didn’t save our siblings to the north in the kingdom of Israel. And then the commander goes for the jugular and asks, “Will the Lord save Jerusalem from my power?” Like I said, it was a pretty compelling case. How could they argue against that?

And so Judah’s king is so saddened by these words he rips his clothes. Ripping your clothes to express sadness or anger was a thing back then. Don’t question it, just go with it. So he seeks the advice of the prophet Isaiah. He’s probably thinking, maybe this is it! Maybe this is the end. Maybe the best I can do for my people is surrender. But he’s not lost all hope, and so he asks the prophet to offer up a prayer on behalf of the city. Isaiah does him one better! He says, “Don’t be afraid of the words you heard.” I’m going to spread a rumor (more fake news), a rumor that will make the Assyrian king go home. And that’s exactly what happens. And Jerusalem remains intact to see another day.

Now, if you take a step back, or take a birds-eye view of this story, what we really have here between the Assyrian king and Jerusalem is a cold war, “a state of political hostility characterized by threats, propaganda, and other measures short of open warfare.” In other words, no pun intended, it’s a war of words. Now hold that thought for just a moment.

Because the last thing we read was a vision that Isaiah had, a vision of a future Jerusalem, a future filled with God’s people being taught God’s ways as God walked by their side, a future filled with hope, a future filled with peace. Here’s how that vision ended, “Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.” And that’s when I heard that familiar phrase of beating swords into plows in a way I never had before.

You see, usually, when we think of that phrase, beating swords into plows, we think big, we think of nations, we think of armies, ceasing to use their weapons, sometimes weapons of mass destruction even. And although I’m usually pushing you to think big, I want you to think small in this instance. I want you to think of the weapons that we everyday folk use most often. And no I’m not talking about handguns or assault rifles, don’t get me started on those! I’m talking about words.

I connected that phrase, beating swords into plows, with this war of words that those two kings were having with each other, and that made me think of the war of words that is plaguing our great nation today. Now, I’m no sociologist, but I don’t think our current use of words as weapons began with the internet. However, I do think the internet has given us a vehicle, which we can commit hit and runs with, like never before!

Maybe we’ve always been like this and the internet, particularly social media, has just shed a light on it, exposed it! But the words we hear today, and by “words” I don’t mean foul language, I mean the way we communicate with each other, and not just on social media, but the way that politicians use words, the way our newscasters use words, the way our media uses words: as weapons; just seems out of control!—the personal attacks, the name-calling, the lies, the deceptions, the lack of empathy, the lack of respect, the lack of humanity.

Where will it end? Is there an end? Or are we just on a road to a place where anything goes? I was talking to somebody the other day, about a particular politician, and he said, “I just can’t think of anything positive to say about him.” My response was, “So then don’t say anything!” When did saying nothing become a non-option? I mean, isn’t that what Thumper’s mom taught him in the movie Bambi? “If you can’t say someth’n nice, don’t say noth’n at all.”

Now, I want you to hear me clearly. I’m not talking about criticizing a policy. I’m not talking about criticizing someone’s behavior even! I’m talking about saying downright evil things about someone’s personhood, especially when we don’t even personally know the person! And where does that even get us anyway? What does it accomplish? I was watching a video that was recently released from a protest outside of a Confederate monument somewhere in the South. A guy pulls his truck over and just starts yelling at the top of his lungs at these protesters, and from the sound of it, I think there was just a couple of them, we’re not talking about a lot of people. And he’s yelling obscenities at them and tells them that Jesus hates them and that Jesus wants them to go to hell.

And these protestors remained calm throughout. I probably would not have, I was practically yelling at my computer screen while I watched the video! And at one point in the video, one of the protestors, asked the screaming fella, in a very calm voice, “Do you feel better?” And at least the guy was honest because he yelled back, “No! I don’t feel better!” It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so ugly—but back to swords and plows.

Statue by E. Vuchetich at U.N. Headquarters, NYC
I believe that Isaiah’s vision of the future, a vision of people beating their swords into plows, beating their weapons of war into farm tools, into tools of growth, into tools of nurture, into tools of life, I believe that vision included us, today, you and I, here and now. And I believe, that one of those weapons that we are called to beat into plows, is our words. How else are we to expect a change to happen, in the way that the world communicates with each other, if we don’t expect that change to happen right here? And if you’re one of those people that had a parent like Thumper’s mom, and this comes natural to you, then great! This sermon’s probably not for you. It’s for the rest of us, including myself!

I’m reminded of an old African-American spiritual called Down by the Riverside. It’s a pre-Civil War song that found renewal by those protesting the Vietnam War. The lyrics are simple but quite powerful. Here’s a sampling: “Gonna lay down my sword and shield. Down by the riverside. Gonna lay down my sleepy head. Down by the riverside. Gonna lay down my burden. Down by the riverside. Gonna try on my long white robe. Down by the riverside. Gonna stick my sword in the golden sand. Down by the riverside. I ain’t gonna study war no more. Ain’t gonna study war no more.”

The “riverside” is a reference to the transforming work of baptism, where God calls us into something new, into a way of life that is different than what the world has known. Where we find warfare, we are called to peace. Where we find hate, we are called to love. Where we find cruelty, we are called to kindness. Where we find weapons, we are called to plows. Where we find hurtful words, we are called to use life-giving words. So let us put that into action today, you and I, here and now, by this seemingly simple act, in writing these cards to the victims of fire, to our neighbors to the north, in Paradise—with our words of care, not harm; with our words of life, not death; with our words hope, not despair, with our words of love, not hate. Thanks be to God. Amen.

God's BIG Picture

Inspired by Micah 1:3-5, 5:2-5a, 6:6-8

As I mentioned last week, at this point of the story of God’s people, as we journey through the great stories of the Hebrew scriptures this Fall, the once unified kingdom of Israel has split in two, each with its own king. And they have gone through many kings now, as this story is about a hundred years after last week’s story of the healing of Naaman. This week’s story comes from the southern kingdom of Judah, but it’s really not much of a story, as it is a sampling of the prophet Micah’s reaction to what the kingdom was going through.

These are uneasy days for the southern kingdom. There is a tension in the air that can be felt by all. There are news reports of some very troubling things happening all around them, as well as within their borders. Troubling times indeed. First off, they heard that the northern kingdom had fallen and their capital city Samaria was under siege. They are also hearing reports that the Assyrian empire was growing like wildfire, able to consume the mightiest of nations, and they were at their doorstep.

And there was the little kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as her capital, in the midst of all this chaos, with kingdoms literally crumbling all around them. So many questions were probably swirling around their heads. What can we do? Should we fight? Will God come to our rescue even though God didn’t rescue the northern kingdom? Should we just give up and count our losses? Not to mention questions like, why is this happening to us? Why are there so many threats all around us?

What did we do wrong? And that’s where the prophet Micah steps in. Because according to Micah, they knew darn well what they did wrong. But part of a prophet’s job is being a truth teller, and so that’s what he does. Way back when the kingdoms were still united as one, under King Solomon’s reign, they were warned not to worship other God’s. Stick with me, was God’s plea. I’ll remain faithful to you, God said.

But what do they do? Worshiped other gods. I mean, when your own king is doing it, why not? If the top dog can get away with it, why can’t we? And so they did, for hundreds of years. And now the prophet Micah steps in to remind them, that this was never the way it was supposed to be. So, this book starts out full of judgment on them. The whole book, by the way, is very short, you could read the whole thing easily in one sitting. But Micah is full of surprises. Which makes sense because Micah’s God is full of surprises.

Micah does not remain in judgment over them. Would he be justified if he had? Absolutely! They broke the first commandment! Have no other gods! They broke that over and over again! Forget the other nine, they couldn’t even get past number one! Now God, through Micah, could have easily said, I’m done with ya’ll. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me…for hundreds of years, well, shame on me! I’m out! And what could be their defense? There was none. But like we all know, God is full of surprises.

Micah pairs his judgment with hope. Which probably sounded crazy! Here they are, in the midst of chaos, kingdoms crumbling around them, an enemy empire breathing down their neck ready to consume them, and Micah has a word of hope? Huh? But, let’s keep moving through our reading. From where are they supposed to look for hope? From where is it supposed to come from? Bethlehem, Micah says. Bethlehem? Even Micah has to add that this is the least significant place in the kingdom! Talk about surprises! I mean, this would be like if California was in the midst of a statewide crisis and the governor asks me—because, you know, prophet, pastor, we’re all the same—asks me, where will relief come from Pastor Ron, and I say, Penryn. Even the governor might say, Penryn? Where’s that?

That’s how ridiculous this idea of hope from Bethlehem was! It’s only claim to fame was that it was where King David was born. That’s it! Other than that it was barely a speck on a map. And you know, when the chips are down, when you’re in a tight spot, when the enemies are circling round you, and you ask for help, you’re expecting a better answer than Bethlehem or Penryn! Right? By the way, my apologies to the great people of Penryn…all 831 of them. I feel bad for making them the butt of a joke. It had to be somebody though!

Anyway, there was very little hope that could be gleaned from this news. But Micah continues, a ruler is gonna come from Bethlehem, whose origin is from remote times, from ancient days. Ok, at this point I’m wondering what Micah is smoking. But he continues, things are going to get worse before they get better, and by better he means a baby of peace. A baby? We don’t need no baby Micah! And we surely don’t need peace right now! We need a warrior Micah. Someone to put the Assyrians back in their place, once and for all! But Micah doesn’t budge. And how can he? His message of hope is from God!

And so there they are, on the edge of despair, with this cryptic message of hope, wondering what to do. You don’t have to read too many headlines these days before despair begins to flirt with you. Just the other day there was a tragedy that hit too close to home for many of us. As I’m sure most of you have heard, late Wednesday night a lone gunman opened fire in a Thousand Oaks bar and grill that was hosting a college night event. Many students from California Lutheran University were in attendance.

Twelve were killed, including an officer, before the gunman took his own life. CalLu is where we took a van load of our youth to attend the Western States Youth Gathering two summers ago, becoming a place very special to us all. Tragedies like these, the political climate of our nation, global warming, nations at war, terrorism, our mental health crisis, there is a lot going on in our world that could easily lead us to despair. What are we to do? How can we make things better? If we’ve done something wrong, how can we make it right?

That’s the question that the people of Judah ask Micah at the end of our reading. With what should we come to God with, they ask. With our generous offerings? Do we have to offer our children? In other words, you name it Micah and we’ll do it! Micah looks them dead in the eye, probably shaking his head, and says, you already know what to do—and you’ve known for a long time now—but sure, I can remind you again, “do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” So what if the world looks like it’s about to crumble around you! You still got work to do! So go do it! And let me worry about the rest, says the Lord!

Because of course I still need you to work for justice because you live in an unjust world, says the Lord! Of course I still need you to embrace faithful love because you live in a world filled with so much hate, says the Lord! Of course I still need you to walk humbly with me because you live in a world that values pride and egomaniacs, says the Lord! I need you, says the Lord, to deliver hope to a hopeless world, even when, especially when, you have none for yourselves, because maybe, just maybe, in delivering hope, when you are hopeless, you will find some for yourselves in the process!

You see, we can’t see the big picture. God can, but we can’t. In this message of hope from Micah, God is saying, let me take care of the big picture. I got you. I got you. You just take care of the small stuff, says the Lord. God isn’t asking us to solve the world’s problems. But we can help out right here, can’t we? Do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. Leave the big picture to God. Because back in Micah’s day, the center of God’s big picture was the little town of Bethlehem. The Penryn of the southern kingdom.

And yet, God had big plans for that little town, right? As we sing this next hymn, try your hardest to not think of Christmas, I know, that’s going to be hard. But what I want to do, is think of God’s big picture, the big picture that we cannot see. And think of that big picture as your source of hope when you can’t find it anywhere else. And know, that nothing will stop God’s big picture—nothing. Thanks be to God. Amen.