This Sunday you’ll hear it all: the bells ring, the names of the faithfully departed, a sermon about trusting God’s promise that we are “in the number” as the good old hymn says.
We’ll sing Allison Kraus’s “I’ll Fly Away” and praise God in Spanish as we echo the angels at Christ’s birth singing “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria…”
We’ll light candle upon candle. You’ll bring pictures of those you love who are now in God’s arms and we’ll have communion surrounded by the saints.
We’ll take in new members who have been walking together in The Great Conversation. 22 souls for All Saints Sunday who want to partner with us in mission.
Warning: it’ll probably move me to tears as I talk about Dan, my good friend now sainted. Warning: it may move you to tears to hear that Christ’s body is for you surrounded by the saints. Yeah, for you, too, just as it is for them.
Warning: that’s OK at LMC. Sometimes worship causes us to tremble…tremble…tremble…
And after you hear it all, you get to eat it all.
Pancakes. Bacon. OJ. All to help send our youth to Detroit that we might help to resurrect that city as Christ is resurrected at the National Youth Gathering this summer.
Daylight Savings Time begins, so we’ll all get together at 10am on Sunday. If you come early you can help set up (and enjoy coffee!). If you come late you can stay for pancakes.
Either way, God will be here. So, come not only for all the saints, but because you are in that number, too. Check it out: http://luthermemorialchicago.org/all-saints-sunday-and-pancake-breakfast-nov-2nd-beginning-at-10am/
1 Kings 3:4-9, 16-28
4 Solomon went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. 5 At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” 16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19 Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king. 23 Then the king said, “The one says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead'; while the other says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’ ” 24 So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. 25 The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.” 26 But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—”Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” 27 Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” 28 All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.
On Wisdom and Reformation and Selah
De-form us, creating God. We’ve become what we do not want to be.
Re-form us, sustaining God. We need to be what the world needs.
That desert New Mexican monastic Richard Rohr is always quick to point out that wisdom is not knowing a lot of facts, or knowing a lot of history, or knowing much of anything at all.
Wisdom, rather, is simply knowing what you do not know and acknowledging it.
Which means we’re all in trouble, right? Because we hate to admit when we don’t know something…or at least we’re hesitant to do so.
If you wonder if that’s true, think to the times where you’re upset because things aren’t going exactly how you’d have them go. Why are you upset about it? Because you know how things should go…and when they don’t go that way, well, you know things are going poorly…
Or take second year high schoolers. Sophomores, as we call them. Sophomore, literally meaning “wise-fool.” Why are they wise fools? Because after having been through the fire of Freshman year, they think they know everything. They think they’re wise, and in that, they are foolish.
Some days, when I’m most honest with myself, I know that I’ve never moved past my Sophomore year. My ego, that place in my being where my fake projected self stands tall and overtakes the Christ in me, that place where I die to my need to know everything and accept God’s grace for the things I’m uncertain of…
Solomon, the son of King David (who we heard about last week), is historically known for his wisdom. In a scene kind of like the genie in the lamp, God comes to Solomon in a dream with this imperative statement, “Ask what I should give to you.” The Hebrew there is not one of request. The word “ask” is more like, “Tell me.” A demand. God wants to know what Solomon desires.
Biblical scholars think this is probably a testing ground for Solomon…God is seeing how the king will respond. Riches, fame, fortune…Solomon could have asked for any of these, of course.
But Solomon seems to understand the weight of his responsibility to lead and govern a people, not just live his life. Wisdom will primarily help him live together with God’s people.
That, dear people, is the seat of wisdom. As W.H. Auden is reported to have said once, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I do not know.”
Jesus would put it a different way, but along the same lines. Jesus would say, “The one who loses his life gains it, and the one who lives only for themselves will lose their life.”
Solomon asked for wisdom. Not for himself, not to improve his score on the Book of Face for that IQ test where everyone inexplicably falls somewhere between Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking (as if all of our IQ’s are 149…amazing how that happens), but so that he can govern well. So that he can do his work. So that he can help others…no matter what others are doing.
And in case the hearer or reader of this story wonders if Solomon is wise, a test case directly follows. A test-case that would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic.
Actually, this scene made it into a comedy once. I’m a huge fan of Seinfeld, and there’s a dispute one day between Elaine and Kramer over a bicycle. To settle the dispute they seek the wisdom of Newman, the lonely neurotic mail carrier who, after a long drag on a cigarette says, “The only option is, of course, to cut the bike in two so that both of you can have a piece.” To which Kramer pleads for Elaine to take the bike herself…thus, as Newman notes, proving he is the true owner of the bike.
It’s comical, especially if you like Seinfeld. Because the thing you know about that show is that no one is wise…they’re all Sophomores, idiots, wise-fools. That’s why it remains so popular.
In this Biblical scene Solomon’s wisdom shines forth. What doesn’t he know? Who is telling the truth. And so he accepts it and passes down this harsh judgment. The optimist in me wants to think he knew the child’s mother would give up control; the cynic in me thinks he was just trying to get this terribly difficult case off of his docket. The whole story has an air of craziness to it, because I can’t imagine anyone being OK with splitting a human being in two.
And yet, I know that when I’m trying my damndest to protect my ego and claim that I’m right in this world, that I know everything, that I and I alone am of most importance, I’ll split all sorts of things in two: relationships, myself, my household, my income, my values…split right in two.
We’ll go to great lengths to be correct in this world.
But when I read this story, the true wisdom that shines through is not from Solomon, but from this mother. This mother who would rather give up control, give up her ego, for the life of another, for the life of love.
I can’t tell you how many times I wish that I could go back in time and tell younger self (and sometimes my not so younger self) to just relinquish the point for the sake of loving my neighbor over myself. I can’t tell you how many times I wish I could just take Jesus seriously when Jesus says that I am to lay down my life for my neighbor. Lay down my need to be correct, lay down my ego, lay down my need for control, lay down my need to pretend I know exactly what to do…
So much strife in my life comes from the foolishness of thinking I have it all figured out. We split ourselves and others in two with our judgments, with our inability listen to that small Christ inside of us, the seat of wisdom, because we know best. We build walls between ourselves and others, with our rightness on one side and their wrongness on the other. We build walls inside of ourselves, I touched on this a few weeks ago when I spoke of the integral life, where we live outwardly projected to the world one way, all the while ignoring the deep true parts of ourselves, I would call it our soul and the seat of the wisdom God has put inside of us, because outwardly we must project that we know all and are in all control, while inwardly knowing that we do not know it all…can’t know it all…
And here on Reformation Sunday, it might be really important for us as a church, as a humanity, to remember this. Because for as much good change the Reformation brought, it also brought a split in Christianity and set up walls and divisions with each side claiming to know all…and we must wrestle with the wisdom, or lack thereof, of those divisions.
Lutheran Pastor Dirk Lange wrote this last week on Huffington Post about the fall of the Berlin Wall, a wall that was erected to keep things in and keep other things out…like all walls, real or metaphorical. And all sorts of fighting and battle plans and underground secret wars were being schemed and fought with this wall at the center.
We called it the “Cold War.” All wars are cold; without conscience. No one in their right mind would be OK with splitting the world in two, with splitting a city in two. And yet, that’s what happened then. It happens now, too. We’re split. We don’t live integrally. Go and touch a piece of the Berlin wall after church; it’s at the Brownline station at Western. It’s still cold. We are not wise in this way.
Some say Lutherans and Catholics are still fighting the cold wars of distrust. Or is that Lutherans and Evangelicals? Or Evangelicals and Catholics? Or Swedes and Norwegians? Or Americans and Mexicans? Or you and your mother? Or father? Or spouse? Or partner? Or pastor? Or used-to-be but no longer friend? Or city lovers and suburbanites? Some of these examples are humorous, some more serious. And some would be humorous if they weren’t so tragic…perhaps you have a cold war of your own raging inside you…those walls within us.
Need we mention other walls in this world? In Israel in Palestine, or perhaps even these church walls that often remain locked from the outside world…
Going back to the article by Dirk Lange, he notes that our other reading for today, Psalm 46, is an important one. In it God is defined as our refuge, fortress, our wall…no need for us to make one for ourselves. With God as our wall we don’t need to protect ourselves with pretending we know all, because God has all things under control.
But more importantly, Lange points out that this Psalm, Psalm 46, is interrupted three times by this little Hebrew word Selah. Many Psalms have this little pause written in them. We often don’t read them in church for some reason, but perhaps we should. As Pr. Lange notes, Selah is untranslatable. It means nothing. And it comes after really contentious lines, lines about cities in upheaval and the ground being shaken.
As most of you know…or if you didn’t, you’re about to find out…Martin Luther’s famous hymn A Mighty Fortress is based off of Psalm 46. And Luther wasn’t sure what to make of this little Hebrew word…he wasn’t sure what to do with it. He writes, “The word Selah is introduced confusedly and altogether without discernable order, to show, that the motion of the Spirit is secret, unknown to us, and by no means possible to be foreseen…” And Luther finally concludes that the word causes us to be brought to a “pausing and quiet frame.” Kind of like our meditation bowl here at LMC. It is our Selah.
Pastor Lange takes Luther’s words and expands on them. He writes, “Selah breaks into our reading, into our meditation, into our life and disrupts the meaning that we create. It breaks through the mighty walls. Selah silences us and our constructions. It silences the mountains shaking and the kingdoms tottering. It disrupts the walls of a medieval church. All is silenced. Reformation.”
Selah, the untranslatable in-breaking of God, the pausing and quiet frame, that is the seat of wisdom, of being reformed. The article goes on to point out that the Berlin wall fell not because we lobbed bombs at one another, not because we raged wars, cold or otherwise, but because the quiet pausing that happened when people walked out on the streets with candles after praying in small camps for years and years.
The wisdom of Selah overcame sophomoric war. The splitting of the world.
On this day where we honor being reformed, perhaps we can embrace these deeper truths: that reformation does not mean building up walls to keep the bad out, but allowing God to be our fortress. And with God as our fortress, we’re invited not into the hiding behind fences and defenses, but into the pregnant pause of selah that lets wisdom set in and gives us space to learn. The pause of losing our life to gain and enter life.
The pause of dying to ourselves and our need to know everything to rise again with the Christ who is all in all. That is resurrection. That is reformation.
Reform us, O God. Reform us.
Hey, how do you reform a life when it feels like everything is crashing down on you, when you’ve erected walls so high to protect yourself that you can’t see outside yourself anymore, when you’ve lost something dear, or you live in fear that you will lose something?
If you’re wondering how to engage your heart, soul, and mind this November-December at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago, wonder no longer! Below you’ll find all the information that you need to be intentional about growing in faith as we lean into Advent. Want something for the soul and faith? Candle carving is your best bet. Want something for the mind and faith? Consider the seminars on Luke or Isaiah. Want more information on the faith-practice of baptism? See you next Saturday!
Baptismal Seminar: It’s for Life!
Saturday, November 8th 10am-11:30
For those preparing for baptism, this short seminar provides an in-depth look at the history of baptism in the ancient church, why and how we practice it today, and how to sustain baptismal identity into the future. This is a required course for parents, youth, or adults considering baptism at LMC.
Leader: Pr. Tim and Deaconess Claire
Spiritual Practice-Candle Carving
Sundays, November 9th-December 14th
Ever wonder what a spiritual discipline can do for your soul? Join Pastor Tim in picking up a spiritual discipline for Advent as we design and carve candles together to put in our home windows. The ancient practice around candle making and candle lighting will be formative for this season of your life. Each session will include instruction, prayers, and Advent hymns.
Pre-registration is required as candles need to be ordered. Cost for a blank candle is $35, and registration is needed by October 30th. Email Pr. Tim (email@example.com) to register!
Leader: Pr. Tim
Texts and Materials: Candle (church will order)
Music in the Gospel of Luke: Advent Edition
Wednesday evenings at Forum: A Study for Ordinary Radicals
November 5th-December 17th, 7:30pm-8:30pm
The Gospel of Luke is full of music, especially music that we sing at Advent/Christmas. Join Deaconess Claire as you explore the theology of the songs, the history of their usage, and the stories surrounding their creation. This is part historical study, part Bible study, and all interesting!
Leader: Deaconess Claire
Texts Needed: Bible
Prophecies?: Studies in Isaiah
Sunday, November 16th 10:15am-10:55am
Join this five week Bible study on four poems in the book of Isaiah asking questions about prophecy, the Messiah, Jesus, and our own time. These songs of the “suffering servant” are read every Advent and Christmas, and yet you’d probably never know where they originated from. This study will expand your mind, your heart, and your faith as you dig deeply in Scripture.
Leader: Intern Chris
Texts Needed: Bible
And because of this, it is said, Solomon gains all other glories as well: fame, riches, a visit from the Queen of Sheba, wives, land, etc. But Solomon is not without his errors. Chapter 11 of 1 Kings is all about how Solomon gave into the temptation to worship other gods…you know, “just in case,”…especially the gods of the foreign wives he took.
From Solomon the kings come and go: Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Abijam, etc. And this is where the role of the prophets becomes quite pronounced in Israel’s history and Elijah and Elisha become thorns in the sides of the Kings of Judah. It seems that while the kings are meant to rule to people of God, the prophets are meant to rule the kings…or at least be their conscience.
This didn’t turn out well for the prophets, often being unable to find a home, have much rest, and live under death sentences.
This is why, I think, we still love to crucify prophets today: they tell us things about ourselves that we’d rather not hear.
Some seminal scenes in 1 Kings and 2 Kings: Solomon’s wise judgment in the dispute over the sons, the building of the temple, Elijah reviving the widow’s son, Elisha and the widows oil, the prophets of Baal getting a sunburn (they died by fire), Hezekiah’s reforms (on which I wrote my seminary senior thesis), and bad king Manasseh. First they get conquered by Assyria and then the whole thing ends on a dire note as Judah is finally re-conquored by Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar. Poor King Jehoiachin was only 18 years old when he had to suffer this defeat…according to the author of 1 and 2 Kings, Israel did not do well being ruled by a monarchy.
It, in fact, was not good to be the king.
Mel Brooks was wrong…
1 & 2 Kings: The author of this book loved the book of Deuteronomy, and records the Kings of Israel (much like 1 & 2 Samuel) in an effort to say that Israel kept being conquered by people because they didn’t follow the rules of God.
9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
On Love Being Messy and Finding Our Way Through Life Together
It’s not without some fear and trembling that I think you, Cyndi, should be feeling in asking one of James’ fraternity brothers to preach and preside at your wedding. I mean, there are almost as many Phi Kappa Psi here as there are family…or maybe that’s the same thing, in many ways.
I’d be afraid. James, I’d be afraid. Afraid of stories that might pop up. Afraid that you’d have a sermon based all on the song “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, patron saint of the Phi Psi house at Valparaiso University. A sermon that entreated you to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and no when to run…
I’m not going to do that.
Actually, it’s very easy for me today because in the rush of this day, you’re not going to remember much of what I have to say, or what most people say, though many will have advice for you I’m sure.
I’m not going to tell you not to go to bed angry. Sometimes you’ll do that.
I’m not going to tell you to send one another kissy text messages every day as a way to keep the romance, the spark. Sometimes you’ll do that, but mostly your text messages will be something like, “What do we need from the store?” or “Can it be a take-out night?” and “Pick up my pills at the pharmacy”…that one is especially romantic.
The sermon at a wedding isn’t intended to try to tell you guys how to live successfully with one another. I trust that you’ll find your way together, mostly because, after being with you over these last few months as we’ve sat together I’ve figured out a few things about you two, and one of of your biggest assets is that you don’t put up with one another’s shenanigans very well.
If we weren’t in church I’d probably say that you don’t put up with each other’s crap very well.
And that is an asset, mind you. Being able to call one another on our stuff is a good thing…
You won’t remember much about today, but if you do remember one thing, I want you to remember is this: love is messy. You already know it in part, but nothing like an “I do” cements it.
Messy like finger-painting. Messy like cat hair that sticks to your clothes.
Love is not neat and tidy; love cannot be put in a box. Love is messy.
Love is messy because we are messy and we are lovers.
And, this is the thing: no matter if we’re type A or type B personalities, if we’re ninjas or knights, we don’t have a whole lot of tolerance for other people’s messes.
In fact, when things get too messy in our lives, we often just opt out.
This is why Jesus invites us to love one another with a love like God’s…not with a love like ours.
Because if we only love with a love like ours, a love that we’d prefer, it’d look like romance novels and text messages with kissy faces and never having to go to bed angry. It’d look like a neat house and two car garage and anniversaries that are always remembered…
And when that doesn’t come to reality, well…so often we just opt out.
Instead, the love of God as shown through Christ is one that gives of itself for the other person. It knows love primarily by loving something else, rather than just by being loved. So much of our world today longs to be loved and thinks that is love. But you truly know love only by loving.
Loving when one of you storms out of the room. And, by the way, I storm out of God’s room all the time when I’m angry with God…and have no doubt that God still loves me when I do so.
Loving when one of you is forgetful. Loving when one of you says something they don’t mean in a fit of passion.
I think I’ve said this line in almost every wedding sermon or pre-marital counseling that I’ve ever done, but marriage, Cyndi and James, is not what you do when you’re in love. Marriage is what keeps you together until you fall in love again.
But, that means sometimes it’ll cost you something. It’ll cost you being right in every argument; it’ll cost you not having the last say all the time. It’ll cost you swallowing your pride and saying you’re sorry. It’ll cost you the vindication of pulling all the blankets onto yourself because you’re so mad at the person that you think they shouldn’t get the blankets…and anyone in a relationship here knows what I’m saying…
But remember what Jesus says, “No greater love than to lay down your life…”
I read that as laying down the need to be right all the time. Laying down the need for the last word. Laying down the need for vindication.
Because love is messy…and the grace you give in love is the grace you’ll one day need by your lover.
I think another way of saying that is that it is in loving that we truly are able to be loved.
So James and Cyndi, as we take these vows, as we promise to love one another, hold in your hearts the self-giving love of God, not the fleeting love kissy text messages. There’s plenty of time for that, and that all will happen.
But share with each other the deeper love that God gives to us. In doing so you’ll find that you, indeed, will find your way through life. Together.
Joshua 24:1-7, 11-12, 14-17, 18b
Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness a long time. When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet of head of you which drove out before you two kings of the Amorites! It was my doing, not your doing.
I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them;
you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant. Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
How Could You Forget the Hornets?!
Remind us who we are, God. Remind us whose we are.
You’ve all been duped. This sermon looks like a plain old sermon in line with the Old Testament readings we’ve been doing with this lectionary. But it’s not. It’s a stewardship sermon.
Don’t try to leave. The ushers have been instructed to use force to keep you in your pews. We gotta talk about this…and it fits with the Joshua text here. Because stewardship is about our lives, not just our money. And here’s the thing: it is a lot easier to just avoid dying in this life, than it is to truly live.
Let’s start with a story, though.
I remember about two years before my grandmother died she grabbed my hand and led me to the back room of her house in Miami Springs, Florida. On the shelf in the closet back there was a huge King James Bible. And I mean huge. Huge in the “we can use this as a door stop” huge.
And she opened it up and on the inside cover I saw names. Rows and rows of names.
All my ancestors. This was our family Bible.
And we got to the third inside page where the names started to curve around the edge, because we were running out of room, and there I found my name and Rhonda’s name, newly added.
Our family Bible, still in the family after her death, just added Finn’s name last year, and will add new baby’s name next year.
It’s more than a list, of course, it’s a memory. The names there, and my name there, and Finn’s name there, re-members us into a long line of love and history and arguments and forgiveness and…
It reminds me not only who I am, in many ways, but centers me into who I am to be in this world. And the fact that it is written in a Bible is not insignificant, of course.
My grandmother, especially when it came to memories, was a character beyond belief. Her memories always ended on sour notes, it seemed. Like the one time I asked her about her favorite Christmas and she said, “It was when I was 8 and I got a new bike!” to which she then added, “…of course everyone in the house was too drunk to teach me to ride it that day…”
Kind of like when I got a tattoo and she, with a cigarette in one hand and a Manhattan in the other, said “Geeze…I don’t know why anyone would do that to their body…”
I’ve told that story before. But it’s worth repeating. And I’ll probably tell it to Finn and Smalls about a million times, too. Because those stories, and especially more important ones, like when grandma and grandpa lost their first baby, or when they adopted my aunt, or when they all of a sudden got pregnant with my father after being told that they couldn’t anymore, or like how my great-grandfather was a sheriff who never used his gun, or how my great grandmother used to kill snakes in her yard in Ponce de Leon, Florida using a garden hoe. And we’re talking poisonous snakes.
For years I thought my father meant that she used a hose, like a watering hose, and I had visions of my grandmother swinging a hose around her head like a lasso, wrangling snakes…
Or how it was said that my great-great grandmother, Tina, could stop bleeding my quoting scripture and laying her hands on a wound.
Because these stories are the stories of me. They beg of me questions like, “What verse will I contribute?” if we want to get all Walt Whitman on it. But even more humbly, “How am I to be in this world given my family, my identity?”
You know my grandmother’s last words still ring in my heart. My father was helping her get to the bedroom to the living room after cancer had ravaged her body, and she slapped his hands away saying, “I can do this myself.” And she walked over to the chair on her own, sat down, and breathed one last breath. She could do it herself.
And, of course, she couldn’t do it herself. She was at my parent’s house because she couldn’t live alone anymore. She made the last plane trip of her life just that weekend before, flying from Florida to Carolina, to rest in the care of family, to rest in the care of God.
We always think we can do it alone. And in some ways we can. In most ways, we can’t.
This reading from Joshua is of Joshua’s last words to the nation of Israel. He dies right after saying all this. Notice what he does for them: he takes them to the backroom of this new promised land that they entered, he takes them to the closet in Canaan, after they had fought the battle of Jericho, after they had beaten back enemies like Egypt, and he recounts to them, essentially, what is their family Bible.
Their history. He reminds them of who they are and whose they are. And he basically said that, now that they’re done trying to just survive, how will they now live?
And I can almost hear him, in this telling of history, saying, “And you remember the escape from Egypt? That was a great day. And you remember when those groups of hornets attacked the Amorite kings?! How great was that? How could you forget the hornets?!” in the same way my grandmother would laugh and tell me about how one day I hit my older brother because he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to, and when she chided me on it, I said matter of factly, “But Grandma, I had to hit him! He doesn’t listen!”
She couldn’t believe I didn’t remember this event that happened in 1983…which means I was 3 years old. Of course I had forgotten. We easily forget.
We easily forget because life puts us in places that make it easy to forget. We get placed in the rat races of life, in with booming or fading careers, kids, partnerships, new cities, new places…and we spend time just trying to survive.
And then a funeral calls us back to our family and we say things like, “We should get together more often than just for funerals…” And we never do.
But Joshua’s last words, after recounting this history for the people, he says, “Who are you going to serve? Will you serve the other gods of this world, or will you serve the living God who brought you this far by faith?” Another way to ask that question is, “Now that you are where you are, and that you’ve heard where you come from and what God has done for you, how will you be? How will you live?”
How are we to be? How will we live?
Look at these windows here. When these were put here in the early 60’s, these stained glass contemporary windows, not everyone was excited that they would be here. Today I don’t think people can imagine LMC without them, but they were contentious when they were deciding whether or not to put them in. The artist who did them, Richard Caemmarer, just was featured in an article of The Lutheran magazine. Copies are at the back if you’re interested.
But they were expensive. Very expensive. Not totally popular. And now we can’t imagine this place without them.
Or consider this sanctuary itself. Built right before the stock market crash in ‘29, the bank used to stand at this door over here and wait for the offering to be collected so that the church didn’t default on its debt. Families mortgaged their own houses to pay for this sanctuary. Some started a “penny-a-day” campaign to make sure they were intentionally saving.
Howard Mundt, so many years ago, fashioned this altar and this ambo. Staining it to match the church. Linda, his wife, still prepares the Eucharist we place on it every Sunday.
David Miller, pastor here for many many years, now Pastor Emeritus of Luther, was here in these pews just last week. He comes as often as he can, still a pastor to me as much as I am a pastor to him.
Last week on Sunday we had Lois Belden visiting us from Oklahoma. Married here many moons ago, Lois and her grown children remarked at how alive we are here, so happy to check back into this spiritual home and see a vibrant Holy Spirit rushing through here.
All of this, believe it or not, is part of your history now, too. You may not remember it, you may have even not known much of that, but here it is. As you walk these halls these voices echo through this place as clearly as the voice of God in Christ who first called them, who first called you, here.
Speaking of not knowing or not remember, just because we aren’t mindful of something doesn’t mean it’s not part of us. I remember when my other grandmother called my mother and said, “Well, your Uncle Don died…” to which my mom replied, “Wait, who is Uncle Don?! I have an Uncle Don?” They’d never spoken of him. A whole section of my mother’s family Bible uncovered; an obscure name amongst the others. Wild Uncle Don from parts unknown.
“Choose this day who you will serve,” Joshua says to the gathered Israelites in the back room of this new land. That call, though, is not so much about making a decision to follow one path or another; it is more of a decision of whether to live into the path already blazed by those who came before them, blaze it in a new way, but in a way faithful to the God that brought them here.
In the Cottage Meetings we’re having here at the church, we’re asking similar questions about our future. How will the possible things that happen here be a part of our history? For years this community was just trying to survive; I know because I’ve read the back records. But those days are gone. Now we have to figure out how we will live with growing numbers and more need. Will some of our future ponderings be contentious? Certainly. Not unlike installing these windows. Choosing to host a pre-school in partnership with a fellow community of faith, should we choose to, is a big undertaking. Much like deciding to open our space to those who don’t have many doors opening for them if we decide to expand our Wednesday night meal program. How do these things fit with our past? How might God be calling us to live in the future?
Which is why Joshua’s question is so important even for us here today. And the answer is not a given, of course. Real thought is needed here. How will we live into the path blazed before us?
You know, the Joshua of the New Testament, well…his Hebrew name is Joshua, Yeshua…you know him as Jesus, often did this with people. Remember in the Gospel of John where he encountered the woman at the well? She comes in the hottest part of the day so that she’s not seen; she’s avoiding those around her. She’s just trying to survive. After their encounter she told people, “He knew all about my past.” And somehow Jesus knowing and naming her past let her live into her future without fear. Instead of just surviving, she starts figuring out how to live after her encounter with Christ.
Jesus was all the time connecting people’s pasts with their future of salvation.
The message of Jesus is one that reminds us of God’s presence in our past, and assures us of God’s presence now and in the future and so all the guilt of a past that is troubled, or anxiety of a future that is uncertain, is a storm calmed by the words of God in Christ, “I love you; you are mine.” And we are now tasked with figuring out how that compels us to be in this world.
So how does that encourage us to be in this world? How does that encourage us to be toward one another? To our spiritual lives and homes? In one of the cottage meetings we heard a group of young adults say that the church is too timid in making clear what we need financially to achieve our mission here at Luther. So here’s an upfront ask: if you’re not regularly giving to the church of your treasure and your time, I’m asking you to live into the path that brought you here and make that commitment. I’m not talking about volunteering, I’m talking about partnership. I’m not talking about writing a check, I’m talking about participating in the vision that God is living out through us here. And yes, I’m talking about sacrifice. As Gandhi once said, “Worship without sacrifice is not.”
Live out your faith. And not just here, but everywhere. The sacrifice is worth it; it makes us whole.
In your bulletins there’s a strip of paper, go ahead and get that out. We’re going to do what Parker Palmer, that contemplative activist, calls “Quaker Powerpoint.” He’s a Quaker, obviously, and his whole latter half of life has been about calling people to attend to their true selves, their inner selves. Or to put it differently, he’s about helping people to answer the question posed by Joshua in today’s reading, and posed by God in Jesus through the own call placed on all our lives: how will we live? Will we just avoid death, or will we live?
We’re going to make a mobius strip. Hold your paper like this, and twist at one end, and put the two sides together. My Confirmation students will know how to do this…we did it just a few weeks ago. The mobius strip, with just that little twist, becomes a piece of paper with two sides, into an enigma, a piece of art, with only one side.
Palmer says that a life lived true to the inside, to what Quakers call “the light of Christ” dwelling inside of you, to the spiritual heritage placed within you, is a life of only one side. Hipsters call it “authenticity.” Psychologists call it “your true self.” I call it living an integral life, where your insides match your outsides, where you live into who you are.
And who are you? You are the people called by God. You are called into this place. You are a people called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. You are a people called from your vocations by Christ to live differently in this world. You are a people with a family history and a spiritual history that compels your insides to match your outsides.
And, more personally, we are all people who create parts of ourselves, outward identities, that don’t live into the truths I just mentioned.
What might it mean to make our outsides match our insides? What changes, choices, behaviors might we have to change, what call might we have to say “yes” to in order to take our lives from being flat and two sided, and live into the mobius strip of integral living we’re called to by God? If Christ redeems our past and assures our future, we are free to be people who lead integral lives!
One more story about my grandmother, another one I’ve told before.
When she died we were cleaning up the house and cleaning out the house. And on her writer’s table I found her checkbook. And I started to thumb through it. And for a woman whose dying words were “I can do it myself,” she certainly didn’t live that way toward others. Because she was constantly giving of her treasure, and her time (lordy, I can’t tell you how many times I called her and she was away driving someone else to a doctor’s appointment, even as her own cancer progressed) to others. To her church. To her alma mater. To the smile train, her beloved charity of choice. She didn’t see her church as a charity, by the way…that was her community.
Anyway, as I thumbed through that I thought to myself that, despite how crass her language was, despite her own issues, she lived a life that reflected her values. She didn’t forget the hornets.
Enough tangents, and back to the question at hand: how will you then live? Integrally? Whole? Connected to history and assured of a future? As for me and my house…
Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17
19:3 Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell
the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” 7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 20:1 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
There Goes the Neighborhood
In the wilderness of life, Lord,
Keep us free.
Free from our Pharaohs,
…and from becoming Pharaoh.
So Israel has escaped from Pharaoh and Egypt, and now they’re fully in the wilderness, wandering around, trying to figure out how to live together, how to be neighbors in a new neighborhood that they haven’t quite moved into yet.
The idea of wilderness in Scripture is an interesting concept. Those of you familiar with your Bible know that just after his baptism in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus heads into the wilderness to ponder what kind of Messiah he’ll be…maybe if he’ll be one at all. He’s tempted there. Tempted to take power, show power, be power.
And here in the Exodus story we see a mirror of those Gospel texts…or perhaps the Gospel mirrors this text. Either way, it’s clear that the wilderness in Scripture is meant to embody that place where you go to figure things out.
And it’s a place of temptation.
Walter Brueggemann, that beautifully bald (is there any other option?) theologian, author, and poet speaks about this Exodus text as a radical move for the community of Israel. It’s radical because it is, as he calls it, the “anti-Pharaoh” text of the Torah. It’s the text about how Israel is going to now live as a neighborhood of people instead of as an oppressed people.
It’s the anti-Pharaoh text because the community comes together and receives these commandments from God, and these commandments are preventative measures to keep Israel from being under a Pharaoh. The common numbering is 10…although Jews, Christians, and even Catholics and Protestants can’t quite figure out how to number them the same way.
But look at them, a list of “shalts” and “shalt-nots.”
And to be very honest with you, the “shalt-nots” are always easier to keep. As I tell my Confirmation students, it’s a lot easier to stay away from an established electric fence then it is to figure out where to put the fence.
We love shalt-nots, don’t we?
In fact, I dare say that the whole Christian Industrial Complex, the morality police, have created a whole list of shalt-nots in this world.
Because shalt-nots are easy to follow. Thou shalts are tough.
It’s relatively easy to say, “Thou shalt-not have sex before marriage” in comparison to “thou shalt feed the poor.” So which one do you think the morality police harp on?
And of course, the irony of those two statements is that one is explicitly in the Bible and the other one isn’t…
In his lecture on this, the beautifully bald Brueggemann picks out “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” as among the most counter-cultural commandments today. And I agree.
We are not encouraged to Sabbath in this world, especially in the States. For a country that is highly religious, we’re not so good at taking time out of our week to honor the God we profess. Brueggeman is so strict with this commandment himself, so counter-cultural with it, that he doesn’t even watch football on Sundays, reserving the whole day to be intently with family and leisure activities. That, my friends, is dedication.
But of course, that’s easy for him to do. He lives in Atlanta and football there stinks. He readily admits that. And folks, let’s be honest, with the way the Bears played last week, well it might not be so hard for you all to adopt it as a practice, too…
But see, the point here is that when “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” is paired with “you shalt not covet your neighbors cattle or ass or livestock,” we’re pretty good at the latter and not with the former. Because we can avoid the latter. We avoid shalt-nots. But we must do the former. We must do shalts. That’s harder.
By the way, with these last commandments, “covet” here in the Hebrew doesn’t just mean, “desire.” So often we envy, we desire things, and we can’t really help it. Our feelings are what they are, right? But in the original language, covet here is more like “desire with intent to do something about it.” Like stealing. Or slandering. Desire with action.
Oh yes, slander is covetous. Take that person whose life you envy. The way you steal that away from them is by talking bad about them…that’s covetousness. Perhaps we’re not so awesome at not coveting after all…
But back to how these are anti-Pharaoh laws.
See, the question for Israel now is, “how are we to live together?” And in the vacuum of power, well, everything sucks, right? And usually the natural tendency is to centralize power. And yet, notice how these commandments, the 10 Commandments, don’t do that. They don’t provide power to one person.
The first commandment isn’t “Listen to Moses” or “Listen to Aaron” or “Listen to Miriam.” The first commandment is “I am your God. You shall have no other.”
Which, of course, includes yourself. You can’t centralize power unto you, either. You’re not a god.
And then the commandments say, “And as your God, I must make it clear that you’re not to use my name as a weapon or tool for power.” Or, as it says, “you can’t use God’s name in vain.” But that’s what God really means; God won’t be our tool.
And if you think of how Pharaohs spring up in this world, they usually do so because they claim some sort of inherit power, some sort of dominance, birthright, something that sets them above all else. And while God does call Israel “chosen” they are chosen not so that they can dominate, but so that they can make it clear that domination is not the way of God.
You cannot sign God onto your agenda! The essence of the second commandment. This is why I won’t even sign God onto my Dodge Caliber with a religious bumper sticker…
And then the call to remember the Sabbath rings loud and clear. And how is the Sabbath against Pharaoh? Well, the story has Israel working in the mud pits, making bricks, 24/7-365. The Sabbath, the idea of rest, is the idea that we, as God’s creation, are deserving of wholeness, of a period of fallowness, of a time of growth without production.
And it flies in the face of power. Because power in the ancient world, and power today, lies in producing. God’s story, though, and the story of God’s people, has always been that power is not found in what you do, but in who you are.
And if you’re a servant in Babylon reading this, as those first readers were, working non-stop to try to prove who you are, that is some radical news. The ancient readers of this were of that type, literally slaving away.
But you modern readers, us modern readers? Well, Babylon is not a nation anymore, but it is certainly real. And I know some of us reside there, a slave to trying to prove who we are by what we do.
By God, take a Sabbath. And I mean that. That is our call, our duty, our commandment. It is a gift to us.
And then after honoring mom and dad (showing that mom and dad are our neighbors!) we get to the “thou shalt nots.” No stealing. No adultery. No lying. No coveting with intent to steal.
And, you remember that famous Nixonian phrase, “If the President does it, it’s not a crime”? Well, on paper Nixon was a Quaker, but in practice…well…see, the Pharaoh could take anything they wanted. Your land. Your spouse. Your life. Your reputation. Your livestock and livelihood. Your job. And if the Pharaoh wanted it, they could have, and there went the neighborhood.
But these commandments are set up so that no one is allowed to do that to another person. No Pharaoh can come in and take something by right or power.
And if they did, you could point to them and say, “See here! This is not allowed in this neighborhood.” These commandments were given by God in the assurance that no one was to be Pharaoh over you ever again.
But, and this is more important folks, these commandments also said that you could not be Pharaoh, either.
You are not your own God. You cannot use divine right for your agenda. You cannot just work all the time…your time is not your own. You cannot just take whatever you want. You must honor your neighbor.
In the kingdom of God all is forgiveable, but not everything is permissible.
The 10 commandments are God’s response to the question, “How should the neighborhood go?” Like this. God is central, you will rest, honor your heritage, and no taking of others things. There goes the neighborhood.
Jesus, as he is wont to do, distills it all down for us. Because, you see, when you have 10 commandments of thou shalt and thou shalt nots, we have a tendency to continue to want to make everything into a thou shalt not to make them easy, and so the ancient religious authorities started asking ridiculous questions like, “If your ass falls in a well on the Sabbath, is it legal to get it out?” By ass, of course, I mean donkey…or do I?
The point remains the same. A permission giving commandment that gave freedom for rest had been turned into a severe, strict, thou shalt not.
And so Jesus, following his Rabbi Hillel, notes that the commandments should all be able to be followed on one foot saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and mind. And then love your neighbor as yourself.” The two tablets in two short phrases.
And in that little phrase, Jesus takes all the “thou shalt nots,” all the easiest commandments to follow, and makes them all “thou shalts.” Difficult ones. Ones that deserve wrestling and thought and a good bit of mental and moral energy to complete. No easy outs in this life.
Because this life is not about avoiding the bad, dear people. This neighborhood is not about making sure you’re in the right. This life, this neighborhood, is about doing the good. It is about taking the risk to be the good in the world as God is good.
And in case we’re not sure what that looks like, Jesus offers us his life. A life given out of love for God, and out of respect and love for neighbor. For when others cursed him, he didn’t follow up with a curse but a blessing “Forgive them, God…they don’t know what they’re doing.”
And when they killed him he didn’t follow up with more death, but with salvation. And empty tomb, showing that in God’s kingdom, God’s neighborhood, God’s shalom, all tombs are empty.
And I have a hunch that we need to hear this again today. Because we spend a lot of our time trying to be Pharaoh in this world. And we spend a lot of our time letting the Pharaohs of the world have power over us. Fear is a Pharaoh. Sadness is, too. Depression. Anger. Bosses with dead-end agendas. Work weeks. Anxiety. What is your Pharaoh? Over what are you Pharaoh?
And all the while Christ is standing on one foot, inviting us into a life of love and peace and salvation…and all the while we’re toiling away at trying to make it all work.
When God, in Christ, has done it all for us. Not as a Pharaoh, but as a servant himself.
And as Christ walks by healing the sick, eating with the outcast, and raising the dead…well, there goes the neighborhood. Or at least, that’s how the neighborhood should go.