Our Divisions Will Kill Us

Go read last week’s sermon as a prelude to this.  I preached that sermon as the Word of God–as ordained ministers do from the pulpit–and though I still struggle to believe I could possibly give the Word of God, if I do that, preaching that sermon gave the Word of God.

I–the guy who writes this blog–have more to say that does not qualify as the Word of God.  I want to follow-up with on how our divisions shatter our world and how we should approach the crisis of today.

I believe we live in a crisis state.  The United States had a policy of separating families–including infants–who illegally crossed the border, many wanting to claim asylum but found themselves unable due to boarder stations not processing people attempting to enter the country.  The United States has deported parents without their young children.  The United States has an active and growing resurgence of vocal and violent racism that claims moral superiority not unlike the Ku Klux Klan before them.

The United States currently exists in deep, painful, and life-threatening crisis of evil, both in the philosophical sense and a real, practical, and horrifying sense for many populations within her land.

I believe the crisis is a an opportunistic infection of a much different disease.

The disease is hateful, vitriolic division.

Do not misunderstand my point.  The opportunistic infection can and will kill us.  I do not write this to downplay the dire crisis situation we find ourselves in.  We need to cure the infection or what we know as the United States will die.

As we seek to cure the infection and heal the damage caused, we need to desperately need to understand what allowed such an infection to happens and treat the problems so it cannot happen again.

I want to start with a troubling Twitter hashtag I saw over the past few days that exemplifies our vitriolic division.  #CivilWar2 has declared war between Democrats and Republicans.  Mind you, the declaration does not go against the infection but against other parts of the body.  It declares a political philosophy morally correct and refuses to accept dissent.  It demonized half of the country and tells those who would gladly join the cause of fighting the infection to fall in line with their political philosophy or suffer the consequences, driving those potential allies into the welcoming arms of the crisis-makers.

I do not speak of new things.  I remember hearing in college–my much more conservative days–that voting Republican means I want women to get cancer.  I remember hearing in my youth–as my mind and philosophies formed–that voting Democrat means I want to murder babies.  I remember hearing that standing right of the line means hating black people.  I remember hearing standing left of the line means I cannot call myself Christian.

I wrote no exaggerations.  Someone told me each one of those things, each multiple times.  As I stepped right, someone called me evil; as I stepped left, someone else called me evil.

I can picture their faces.  I do not exaggerate; people called my changing and evolving positions evil, often adding stupid and immature to the mix.

I could only learn one lesson aside from than how lonely I would feel desiring and working toward politics and ministries of reconciliation and subtly: disagreeing would force me to the outside.  Not having a tribe forced me to the margin, and we have no tribe for subtle, strong centrists who desire the best policies for universal love, universal survival, and universal growth.

I am not evil.  I am not stupid.  I am not immature.  My growth marked improvements in each of those areas, and multiple someones called my growth each of those things.

When everything that you disagree with is evil, nothing is evil.  When everything you disagree with is stupid, nothing is stupid.  When everything you disagree with is immature, nothing is immature.

I have finally arrived at the root of the problem as I see it.  We live in a unique crisis of evil.  I cannot state that any differently.  We live in a unique crisis of evil.

We have so overused that word and vitriolically divided ourselves into two tribes and killed all dissent that when we actually have something evil in front of us, we have no way to call it as such.  By writing this someone will believe I said, “Republicans are evil!”  By writing this, someone will believe I said those who speak out angrily should not be so uncivil.  By writing this, someone will hear a political message.

We all did this by politically dividing our stances on morality and evil.  I found myself marginalized by the American political dichotomy, but I have my tribes, as well.  I find myself ready and willing to tear down other denominations for what I want to call evil when they simply interpret the Bible differently.  I have wholesale condemned people who believe in “Ecclesiastical Separation.”

I can name them as easily as I can name those who condemned me.

We have called the other evil for so long that when evil appears in great force, we cannot call it as such for fear of sounding political or do speak up only to have that fear painfully realized.

Our hateful, vitriolic divisions allowed this to happen.  We allowed this to happen and shattered the safeguards that would have prevented it in the name of political expediency.  We found ourselves shocked that evil could take advantage when we opened the doors wide open.

This crisis can kill us.  The opportunistic evil that comes from our divisions can and will kill us.  We felt morally superior as we allowed this to happen and patted ourselves on the back.

I ask this of every #CivilWar2 political activist:

When this war you declared ends, do you plan to call the other side “our countrymen (sic) again”?  Or do you plan to shoot your guns off and make sure they know you won and demonize them, furthering the divide between you and those who would stand as your allies?

If we would stop dividing ourselves, and especially stop dividing the Body of Christ, we could fight evil.  Now we have to watch it do its work until we can stand united again.

I am reaching out to you, asking that you ignore our divisions and stand united against the crisis of evil we currently live in.  We shattered the safeguard; help me rebuild it.

Peace,

– Robby

I did this. We did this.

Note: I usually do a series during the summer, and I guess this summer’s series became “Difficult, challenging, pointed sermons preached from a manuscript.”  I do not plan to continue it, but this sermons certainly matches last week’s sermon in difficulty.

Sermon on Lamentations 3 – I did this.  We did this.

“I did this.  We did this.”  The poems of Lamentations land like a self-inflicted gut-punch, reading like a mournful and terrible confession of realization.  “I did this.  We did this.”

At what point do we admit that we broke the world?  When do we finally say, “I did this.  We did this.”?  At what point do we stop pretending we are the rain drop that did not cause the flood or slow flake that did not participate in the avalanche and finally just say, “I did this.  We did this.”?

We divided ourselves based upon our own rules.  We declared all who disagree stupid, evil, non-Christian, and burned every bridge between us that we could.

We named dissent and difference of opinion evil.  We called so much disagreement and dissent evil that evil no longer has meaning and we no longer have language to recognize the abhorrent as such.

We allowed evil to happen in the name of political party.  We ignored the failings of those we agreed with, allowing their greed and power-seeking activity to continue because we agreed with them in spoken philosophy.

We withheld love.

When do we finally say, “I did this.  We did this.”?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The poet laments God’s wrath.  The poet feels the pain of God’s wrath and cannot help but lament.

How does God express God’s wrath?

Does God actively punish the poet and his people?  Does God actively bolster and strengthen the soldiers of the poet’s enemies and actively weaken and undermine the efforts of the soldiers of the poet’s people?  Does God actively force the poet’s people into a foreign exile and actively allow the destruction of the temple?

Or does God allow the natural consequences of their sins to take root?  Do the sins of the poet’s people weaken them naturally, spread them too thin and make them too confident?  Do the natural consequences of their sins condemn them to failure without God’s intervention?

Or did the poet just feel abandoned when the sins of the poet’s people finally lead to their destruction and demise?  Did sin finally cause so much damage the poet’s people imploded upon themselves.

The specifics do not matter to the poet.  God’s wrath is pain and destructions.  The poet laments God’s wrath.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Why does the poet lament?  Why does the poet “passionately express grief or sorrow”?  What right does the poet have to lament?  The poet himself says it.  “Why should any living [person] complain when punished for [their] sins?”  What right do we have to complain?  We did this to ourselves.

Our sin condemned us.  We became complacent.  We forgot God.  We abused our resources and ourselves.  Our sin—not the sin of someone else but our sin—lead to our demise.

Why do we complain and mourn?  Why do we complain when we did this to ourselves and why do we mourn what our sin caused us to lose?  Why do we lament our world?  We did this.  We broke our world.

We did not speak out.  We saw evil and we remained silent.

We continued to participate in the divide.  We threw insults and slung mud and dehumanized the “other”—even our friends and family—because they disagreed.

We turned our backs on those in need.  We used a policy of “worth” and “true need” to determine who we did not turn our backs on.

We congratulated ourselves for our sins.  We patted ourselves on the back for deepening the divide and celebrated how much “good” we did while we withheld love from those most in need.

Why do we lament our broken world?  We broke it and celebrated the initial wreckage.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The poet laments not feeling God.  He may have no right to lament, but he laments out of pain and without anything else to do.  And the poet laments the sin that brought him and his people to this point.

In his lament, the poet sees the path to healing: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.  Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven.”

The poet calls his people to repent.  The poet calls his people to confess their sin and own it, realizing that they did this.  The poet calls his people to turn from their sin and return to the life and path God intended for them.

And the poet calls his people to lift their hearts to God.

The poet will continue to suffer even as he starts on this path.  This path of healing does not immediately relieve pain but much like rehab after tragedy, the healing this path provides will hurt.

But healing will come.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We lament as we look at our world and God appears so far away.

Suffering happens in our back yard.  Sex trafficking—the sale and abuse of human beings—happens less than three miles from this sanctuary.

Suffering happens to the weakest and the least.  I need not name specifics; we all know what happens to the least of God’s children.

Suffering happens in the name of greed and power.  I am reminded daily of the suffering and torment our sisters and brothers in Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia suffer to simply satiate the whims of power of those with guns and soldiers.

Suffering happens, and we stand in complacence or participation as the world breaks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We must repent, confessing our sin, owning our sin, and turning away from our sin.  We must do what God desires and what will heal our world.

We must speak up instead of closing our eyes to the suffering and torment the sins of our world cause.

We must bridge our divisions that have allowed politicized evil to not only happen but stand as the norm instead of the deviation.

We must vocally abhor evil from all evil doers, especially those who look and think like us.

Our repentance will not immediately relieve the pain of our sin or heal our world.  Our sin has shattered our world and the shattered world we have created will require extensive, painful healing.  Nothing will heal quickly or painlessly.

But if we lament our shattered world and our sin and we repent, confessing and turning away from our sin, healing will come.

I lament our shattered world though my sin shattered it.  I try to repent of the sin I lament.  I seek the painful healing our world desperately needs.

Please—please—do the same.  Amen.

Self-Care and Novocaine

I need to confess today.

Actually, I confessed multiple times last week, but today I confess publicly:

Before Thursday, when I found myself with zero choice, I had not seen a dentist since age twelve.

Going to the dentist after so long scared me.  The actual dentistry did not scare me–the needles and drills and scraping sound terrible but also restorative–but the cost and the shame scared me.

I have ignored broken teeth.  I likely need numerous root canals and fillings.  My teeth look like they haven’t been cleaned in nineteen years–and I owe a gracious “Thank you!” to everyone for not mentioning it.  I will need to some something expensive about the salvageable teeth.

Do you know how much shame I feel writing that?  I asked my nurse sister about interactions between amoxicillin and pseudo-ephedrine–because I cannot just have dental problems, I also need to have sinuses that act up concurrently–and I prayed she would not ask me the doctor prescribed me amoxicillin so I would not have to confess I had not seen a dentist in nearly two decades and only found one out of extreme pain and swelling and that the visit included Novocaine and antibiotics, which only means one thing.

I also have two kickers: one, I have had continuous dental coverage for the past five years and spotty but at least occasional coverage for the past thirteen, probably some before I know nothing about; and two, my wife works in the dental field.

I have no reasons aside from shame and fear.

The fear comes from cost.  I will not spend a lot of time griping about dental costs and how worthless dental insurance is beyond cleanings and x-rays and how it should cost more to receive dental implants in the United States than to take a month off of work, live in Europe for a month, and receive dental care from a UCLA-trained dentist.  It really should not cost less to do it twice in Europe than once in the United States.

No, not an exaggeration or hypothetical.  Literally know someone who did it and had that exact cost experience.

A realization fascinated me as I drank my chocolate malt for lunch because Novocaine: no one made me feel ashamed at the dentist.

They acted confused and shocked a dental lab technician’s husband had not seen the dentist in so damn long, but they did not shame me.  They had, and have, the goal to get me back in to clean and x-ray my teeth and chart a plan of attack to get my mouth healthy.

How much suffering had my shame and fear caused me?

I believe I stumbled upon a thing, not unknown but also known widely discussed.  We do not go to counselors because strong people can take care of themselves.  We do not go to doctors because we fear blowing sicknesses out of proportion and hypochondria, or we need to improve our self-care to justify having a doctor try to fix our problems.  We do not admit our exhaustion because good pastors/ministers/church leaders/parents/teachers/… … … do not get worn out given our amount of work.  We do not admit that we need help with our faith and our church life because a strong, faithful Christian would not need it given our place in our faith journey.

Eventually it festers until we do not have a choice and we have to let the giant needle go in and have the blade and pliers remove we we maybe could have salvaged had we just taken care of it initially instead of letting it get so bad it risked hurting us irreparably.

Or worse, letting it fester long enough to hurt us in a way we cannot recover from in.

We have a problem, though.  My dentist appointment went as well as getting a tooth ripped from your mouth can go.  The last time I saw a doctor, though–after going to the ER because my indigestion tried to convince me my heart would explode and that doctor telling me a thirty-year-old can no longer not have a primary care physician–the PCP gave me zero answers to any problem I brought to her.  We did no actual diagnostics because the blood work came back normal, and all of my stomach issues were chalked up to my weight and she told me losing weight would solved them if one possible diagnosis ended up being correct.

I realize the level of my obesity.  I have struggled with my weight for 23 years, more and more as I age, and I know some minor weight-loss and mildly alleviated some of my symptoms, but never fully and never some of the newer symptoms I have.

The doctor did not try to actually find a problem, instead just making it about my weight.  Even if we can blame the weight 100%, I need to know what the weight does to my body instead of implying fat people just get heart burn and stomach pains magically because of fat.

Many times, when you try to help yourself and seek the help of someone who has the skills to help you when you cannot help yourself, that skilled person shames you for needing help in the first place.  The idea of “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps!” guides so many in positions to help.

“If you just do the right things, the bad things will stop.”

The church does this, too.  We forget about the cross and the empty tomb, instead making people think they can be good enough–or not good enough–for church and for the help that the church provides.  We forget we need of Jesus in our own lives and something higher than ourselves saves us, too, and we believe people need to lose enough “sin” weight before we can take their needs and problems seriously to try to help them.

We see some people as “fallen” and others as “hopelessly fallen” even though we all are “hopelessly fallen.”  We contribute to the shame that makes people not want to seek help, instead opting to suffer until they cannot suffer the pain any more and succumb to it.

We withhold love to those we deem unworthy and shame them for their unworthiness.

We need to take care of ourselves and reach out for help when needed.  We need to admit when we are inadequate to fix our problems.  We need self-care and care from outside ourselves.

And we need to be open to caring, not blaming and shaming but just trying to help.  We need to love without reservation or requirement.

Also, Novocaine is terrible and even though it far outweighs the alternative, it is terrible.

Peace,

– Robby

Stand Up Against Your Allies

Beginning Notes: For the second time since starting at Grace, I used a manuscript.  I use a manuscript when the words will not come to me as I prepare or when I need to choose my specific words–and not just my thoughts–before I begin to preach.

This Sunday I needed to choose my words carefully and thoughtfully.  I only trust myself so far when anger and sadness guide my voice around what we treat as a political issue when politics should have nothing to do with it.

If I traverse a minefield, I want a very specific map drawn out for me.

Unlike most weeks, I preached exactly what you read here (with a couple of minor edits for my sanity).


Sermon on Matthew 25:34-46 – Stand Up Against Your Allies

I often need to ask myself these questions I ask you today:

“How do you respond when your friends and allies do horrific things?”

“Do you speak up when those whom you align yourself do terrible things?”

“How do you respond when atrocities become politicized and evil becomes a bargaining chip for the powerful?”

“Are you willing to provide witness when you see evil, or do you cower or, worse, justify atrocities to protect the atrocious out of loyalty?”

I chose to preach on this passage today, Sunday, June 24th, 2018, to respond to the world.  I rarely choose a passage based solely my own heart—and rarely reuse so quickly—but the spirit directs me and a phrase, “the least of these,” has not left my mind in ten days.

I believe we live in a unique and abnormal time with unique and abnormal challenges.  Today we have challenges beyond the growing pains of the progression of time and how we change the ordering society.  I sound alarmist to myself, and I want you know to know that I doubted the wisdom of including this thought of unique struggle, but I need to say it: we live in a unique and abnormal time.

Despite the uniqueness and abnormality of our current world and political climate—and the difficult challenges we stare down today—our call remains the same.  The call of the gospel does not change, and the example of Christ does not change.

I want to reflect deeply on Jesus’ words the spirit placed on my heart.  “…whatever you did for one of the least of these [sisters and] brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Whatever you do for or to the least, you do directly for or to God.

Very simple and very convicting; God judges us most strictly on our treatment of the lowest and least amongst us.

Jesus gives a list of “the least”; the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger—translatable to “the exile, the immigrant” or “the foreigner” or even just “the guy who wandered up to you on the street”—all qualify as the least.

Your treatment of them is your treatment of God.

If we do not dig below the surface of that list, I have nothing to preach about.  We joyfully and intentionally do what we can with what we have here at Grace.  We do not always know the exact right course of action—especially now as we discern the practical expression of our mission “Following Jesus . . . Serving Others”—but we strongly desire to help.  We feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, provide resources to clothe the naked, and we open our doors to the stranger.

We desire to help and comfort the least of God’s children.  I do not qualify, and I do not downplay.  I will not take that away from this congregation.

Let us start to dig below the surface of that list a little bit.  Nothing on that list immediately strikes an uncomfortable nerve.  We just fill in the blank of “Why?” that Christ left blank with “Innocent Neediness,” but Jesus makes no mention of innocence or guilt in his least.

The list feels different if we fill in the “Why?” blank with something:

  • The hungry because they gambled their entire paycheck away.
  • The stranger filled with hate.
  • The thirsty because they spent the money for the water bill on heroin.
  • The naked by choice and situation to make money.

These seem lower than the innocently struggling.  They fight losing battles—battles of sin and battles of illness and addiction—that make them hungry, thirsty, naked, and a stranger, and they cannot claim innocence, at least in part.

Jesus did not say the innocent when he said the least and yet we condemn the guilty whose actions have made them hungry, thirsty, naked, and a stranger.  We convince ourselves they deserve their situations and feel sinful helping them.

We can dig deeper.  Each of these make us uncomfortable but we have not politicized these pains—at least not yet.

Let us go a bit deeper.  How about these “least”:

  • The victims of violence and terror who thirst in the desert, fleeing to a place they believe will provide them hope.
  • Those in rags who hope to find a land of plenty.
  • The hungry who seek a home that does not have abject poverty.
  • The infant stranger ripped from their parents’ arms.

How do we treat these least?

Do we compassion and love for them, or do we dehumanize them and see them as animals?

Should they receive the treatment of people—as human and deserving as us, just different in situation—or the treatment of pawns in a vile political game?

Do we love them, or do we hate them?

I do not speak of immigration policy today.  I know I cannot fully discern the right policies of who can and cannot enter our boarders.  I cannot give you a Christian and scriptural immigration policy for the United States.  I believe we must not divide ourselves on political lines in that discussion, but I understand the positions of a completely closed and completely open border, and we must find a policy that does good while also providing protection.

I do not speak of immigration policy.  I speak of policies that dehumanize anyone, that treat humans worse than most dogs, that describe a people as roaches, that indefinitely inter anyone, and that do anything to separate a child from their loving and safe parents.  Those policies do these things to God because they do those things to the least of God’s children Christ spoke of—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger.

Doing harm to the least does harm to God.  Politicizing harm and insulting outrage at doing harm to the least politicizes harm and insults outrage at doing harm to God.

Do you respond in horror or do you turn a blind eye and downplay doing harm to the least of God’s children?

Sometimes we cannot directly help with resources, but we can witness to good and evil and speak out against evil, or we can turn a blind eye.  We can feel outrage toward atrocity, or we can ignore forced and intentional pain and suffering and look away.

What you do for the least of these—speak up or turn away—you do for God.

What are you doing for and to God?  Amen.

Stop Hiding

Sermon on Genesis 3:8-12 – Stop Hiding

We need to set up the scene.  This immediately follows creation.  God gave Adam and Eve one instruction—one singular rule—and this passage happens as a direct result of them failing to follow that rule.

We cannot ignore that; they broke the rule, and that indiscretion had consequences.  Remember what the passages says they did: they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, giving them awareness of everything, including sin and shame.

Actions have consequences.  They gained this knowledge and they could not unlearn it.  They suddenly had to be aware of their bodies, their thoughts, their desires, and how selfish they became.  They had to be aware of things they could desire, things that would harm them and damage their relationships.

Adam and Eve had acute and intimate awareness that they broke the one rule, that God had a reason for that one rule, and the consequences they would suffer for breaking that one rule.  Their knowledge of shame and desire and brokenness makes them feel shameful and broken.  Something changed, and they now felt the need to cover and hide themselves.

Adam and Eve sinned, permanently and irreparably breaking their relationship with God and with each other, and they had painful awareness of that.

No matter how you read the creation story—six literal days, six periods of time, or an allegory for evolution—the story ends the same: humans became aware, enabling them to sin and desire things that will destroy relationship.  Adam and Eve failed and every further relationship suffered because of it.

They hid their shame.

We do not like to fail.  When we do something bad, we often become like children.  Remember your childhood when you broke something and very carefully placed it just so appeared unbroken until someone else touched it, hopefully placing the blame for breaking the thing on them instead of you?  Or maybe for the married klutzes in the room, last week or last month when you did not want your spouse to realize the thing broke—like a knick-knack that has no real value but you cannot replace because you bought it states away on a vacation—so you just place it just so and hope it does not come up for a decent amount of time?

When things get messed up—often without true fault—we act like children and try to hide it out of shame.  When we do something wrong and stand at fault—like, say, eating from a tree that will give you all knowledge without considering if you want all knowledge—the shame usually trumps our willingness to vulnerably admit something broke, a either trinket or a relationship.

Sometimes hiding works on Earth.  The person you hide from suffers the same state of imperfection you do.  We do not always know when someone else does something wrong to us or in a way that affects us.

God knows.  Adam and Eve hoped they could hide, ignoring the fact that the creator of that Tree of Knowledge that gave them all the knowledge they wished they could erase from their minds or give back also created them and would have to know everything and see everything to create a Tree of Knowledge.

God knew Adam and Eve messed up, and they all knew Adam and Eve’s actions broke their relationship.

In Adam and Eve’s case, hiding simply exasperated the situation; they added lying and deception to the problem and did not give God the opportunity to possibly fix it.  In our relationships, hiding has the same result; it simply further breaks the relationship, especially once everyone knows the truth but even before when it remains a secret.

I believe we live in relationship with God, and that relationship facilitates the healing God gives.  God can heal everything, but God healed us not through waving his arms and making everything okay but through Jesus walking amongst us and having relationship with us before giving himself for us.  Without relationship, the healing from Jesus does not happen.

Relationship requires vulnerability and honesty.  We cannot expect healing from God if we do not lift the parts of our relationship we broke and our wounded hearts up to God to vulnerably ask for healing.  God knows all—God sees our fig leaves and sees us hiding behind the trees—but God heals us through relationship and we cannot have relationship if we continue to hide.

You cannot have relationship if you do not vulnerably admit your brokenness and weakness, either with God or with each other.

This must go beyond selfishly asking God for forgiveness to avoid condemnation.  We live in relationship with each other.  We have friendships, romantic partnerships, the guiding relationship between parents and children, and life as a family in the Body of Christ.  Those relationships cannot heal if we do not confess the actions that wound each other and address the wounds we create.  These relationships exist between broken people instead of a broken creation to a perfect creator, and we can only offer imperfect and incomplete healing apart from God, but any healing requires the same vulnerability.  We cannot heal in hiding.

We need to start confessing for real.  The liturgy feels nice and sounds nice, but if we do not lift our broken hearts to God, we cannot get the healing we need.  If we say sorry out of obligation but will not willingly and vulnerably name our misdeeds, especially when no one confronts us, the wounds our misdeeds create will not heal.

You are broken.  You have wounded multiple people.  You have broken relationships with each other and with God.

Confession and repentance can provide opportunity for heal; hiding and claiming innocence does nothing but exacerbate the wounds.

Do you want healing or bigger wounds?

Confess for healing, to God and to each other.  Amen.

Rest for You and Your Relationship with God

Sermon on Deuteronomy 5:12-16 – Rest for You and Your Relationship with God

Why follow the Law?  Why participate in the Sabbath?  Why rest?

These questions may seem like an attempt to circumvent the Law, but we can only benefit from understand our faith and out tradition more.  If we can answer those “Why?” questions, it can help us to improve our lives and our relationship with God.

This passage serves as a great conversation point for that question, and I think we can work toward a help answer by answering this question:

What purpose does the Sabbath serve, both for our Israelite brothers and sisters and for us as followers of Christ.

I will apologize now: we have some boring stuff to hit first at the beginning of this sermon.  Spoken this will not suffer the same tedium but written I cannot do what I will do preaching.  Just hold on for about 200 words and then I will get less boring.

The Hebrew word for Sabbath translates to rest if you go for the cleanest and simplest option.  You can also say “ceasing labor” or “bringing labor to a standstill.”  You can also say “to take a holiday.”  You do not necessarily need to remember all of that, or even care about it, but it should start to paint the picture of “rest” that defines Sabbath.

The Ten Commandments make Sabbath a proper noun, defined as a day of rest at the end of the week.  It has a simple rationale: God rested, so humans can and should rest.  The rest goes beyond just beer and football—God gave it a holy component, a focal point of God—but Sabbath means rest.  Stop laboring and rest in God.

How far should we take that?  Should we go as far as some of our Jewish brothers and sisters and not turn on a light during our holy rest?  Should we not even care about our holy rest because the Sabbath command changed after Jesus and we not longer follow a legalistic interpretation of scripture?

I do not have a rigid, black and white answer for this question—like many things, the Christian church has argued over this point for 2000 years—but we can point to what Jesus and his disciples did for guidance.

If you look at where the New Testament uses the word “Sabbath,” you have three basic things.  You have Jesus teaching in the temple, you have Mary Magdalene waiting until after the Sabbath to prepare Jesus’ body, and you have Jesus and the disciples breaking the Sabbath according to the Pharisees1.  I want to look at those times and examine what the Pharisees believed and what Jesus did.

These scenes happen in each of the first three gospels and John has many examples similar to the second.  We will use Matthew but the Mark and Luke versions would work.

Read the beginning of the interaction in Matthew 12:

 12:1At that time Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry so they were picking heads of wheat and eating them.  2When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are breaking the Sabbath law.”

3But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those with him were hungry?  4He went into God’s house and broke the law by eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests were allowed to eat.  5Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple treat the Sabbath as any other day and are still innocent?  6But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.  7If you had known what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice, you wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.  8The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath.”

– Matthew 12:1-8 CEB

The point of that disciples should jump out at you.  The Pharisees concerned themselves with only following the rules without any concern as to why or the consequences.  The letter of the law meant everything for them and even served as a reason to condemn others who could not or did not follow it to their frustratingly strict standards.

Hungry people need to eat.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has its problems, but he hit the nail on the head saying you must address physiological needs before other needs.  I guarantee starving people will not connect with God in prayer and strengthen their relationship with God unless they fix their starvation first.

If you view the Law as something to follow to somehow make it, then of course you cannot eat on the Sabbath no matter your hunger.  If you instead view the Law as written to benefit humans and not to enrich God or serve as the test for salvation, then you can see that God would not desire you to go hungry just to prevent you from doing some physical activity on the Sabbath like plucking grains.

God does not need human Sabbath; God desires humans to have Sabbath, but God does not need it.  The Law is for Humans, not for God.

The story goes on and Jesus broke the Sabbath again.

9Jesus left that place and went into their synagogue.  10A man with a withered hand was there. Wanting to bring charges against Jesus, they asked, “Does the Law allow a person to heal on the Sabbath?”

11Jesus replied, “Who among you has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath and will not take hold of it and pull it out?  12How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So the Law allows a person to do what is good on the Sabbath.”  13Then Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did and it was made healthy, just like the other one.  14The Pharisees went out and met in order to find a way to destroy Jesus.

– Matthew 12:9-14 CEB

The Pharisees interpreted the Law like this: schedule your healings on six days and if you happened to meet the healer on the seventh day, you must suffer an additional day because the time did not work out.  Suffer to honor the Sabbath.

I will not mince words: the God of love does not want you to suffer.  This does not mean you will not suffer on this broken creation but that God did not create you for suffering.  If the opportunity to end your suffering appears, holy rest can wait for your healing.  If the opportunity to end suffering for someone else appears, holy rest can wait for you to heal.

Clearly Sabbath should serve humans, but do we truly need it?

Jesus needed it.  Legalistic rest that we follow because someone told us to does nothing for our souls, but having rest in God and rest from our labors restores our souls.

One small verse from Luke:

5:16But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.

– Luke 5:16 CEB

Jesus rested to restore his soul and have time with God.  He did not get away just to follow a rule; he got away for his soul and his relationship with God.

Legalistically resting serves no purpose because you do not rest in God when you desire to simply follow the Law.  Rest, in prayer, away from your labors, worrying less about the amount of “work” you do and more about your connection to God, will restore your soul and improve your relationship with God.

You need to get away from your labors for rest.  Bankers need to get away from money, doctors need to get away from medicine, pastors need to get away from preaching, everyone needs to get away from their labors.  Jesus needed to get away and pray.

Allow yourself to rest.  Do not force yourself to rest to make sure you followed a law, but also do not allow yourself to do your labors without rest because Jesus broke a human interpretation of Sabbath.

Rest in God, however that looks for you.  Amen.

1Matthew 24 also uses Sabbath, and in a different way, but it does not really contribute to or contradict the rest of the sermon.

Am I worthy? Am I good enough?

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 – Am I worthy?  Am I good enough?

I may seem like I pigeon-holed this in, but I want us to worship in a “Season of the Spirit.”  We talk about the Holy Spirit one Sunday a year and then put her back into the little box of things we believe in but disconcert us.  Every year I want to spend more time just exploring the idea that the Spirit gives us gifts and God calls us to ministries using the gifts the Spirit blesses us with.

Those gifts come with a call from God, but our answer usually comes out as questions.  We ask those questions that make is so we never have to actually answer God’s call:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

Most of us start asking the moment someone first tells us we fail the test.  Some of us get to learn that from theologies that state we cannot earn salvation but imply that we actually can as long as we do not commit “those sins” or do not rack up too many sins.

As a kid, I had a conversation once with a trust adult—the who does not impact the story much—about being “naughty” and struggling to do the same naughty thing over and over again.  He told me that my soul was a whiteboard and when I prayed to God, God wiped it clean, but whiteboards can only get so clean and eventually it would get too dirty for God to forgive me.

He told me I could sin enough for God to stop loving me.  He just said it in a really convenient package for him.

Those terrible lessons—lessons we all learn from people who we love and, in theory, love us—lead to the great existential questions of every potential seminary student asks, or potential minister, or even potential camp counselor:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

Am I?  Or am I fraud?

I relate to Isaiah’s call story so well.  Even as a confirmand preaching on Confirmation Sunday, Isaiah’s call story felt more like my own than even Jeremiah’s.  God called someone broken and imperfect to a ministry beyond their ability and worth.  The man God called knew the true state of his soul, his brokenness and failings, and told God as much, and God provided the strength and redemption to do the great task.

We will talk about the language Isaiah uses to describe his brokenness in a moment, but first I need to point something out.  This scene happens in and around the temple.  According to human standard and Jewish tradition, Isaiah meets the ritual cleanliness standard.  The temple staff welcomed him into the temple without concern or problem.

Isaiah meet the human cleanliness and worthiness standard.  In all honestly, he probably exceeds human standards of worthiness.  He already served as a prophet of some success before this scene.

He passes the human tests—passes without exception—and yet Isaiah still asks himself those questions:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

He answers them with a resounding and fearful, “No!”  Isaiah looks at himself and he sees himself in an honest light.  He starts getting worried because humans cannot look upon God, and he sees himself as worse than a regular human.  He believes, in that moment, that he will die because he gazes upon God.

His description of himself speaks volumes.  Effectively every English translation uses the word “unclean” but “leprous” has the same accuracy and a certain descriptiveness “unclean” lacks.

I do not recommend doing this, but you could do an image search for “leprosy” and see what leprous skin looks like.  Imagine a mouth riddled with sores, festering and oozing, cause great pain and making one permanently unclean.

He does not have actual leprosy in his mouth, but his words make his mouth “leprous.”  Imagine the words and thoughts coming from a mouth you describe like that.

I do not believe Isaiah speaks of cussing and “blue language” here.  I believe God probably rolls God’s eyes at how much we worry about that sort of thing.  Instead, I believe Isaiah—and the Israelite people—spoke with mouths that spewed out hatred, judgement, and acting as God, doing God’s job of being judge and declaring worthiness.  I cannot back that up with specifics, but I believe that strikes God as more important than F-bombs and off-color jokes.

God hears Isaiah when he very honestly and very accurately answers those questions:

“I am not worthy.”  “I am not good enough.”

God responds.  “I will make you worthy.  I will clean you.  I will empower you.  I will make you good enough.”  God does not say, “Yup, you pass without my help.”  God does not assure Isaiah of his worthiness.  God does not scold Isaiah for making his brokenness known or expressing his fear born out of his brokenness.

God makes Isaiah worthy and good enough, God alone

God must because Isaiah nor any other human or council or committee can.  God does not use a human standard to determine who has enough worth or goodness to answer God’s call, God does not use some sort of measure of righteousness to determine who God will call, God does not use human methods to clean Isaiah or prepare him for this great task.

Isaiah did not somehow attain worthiness on his own.  Isaiah did not need to attain that worthiness on his own.  When Isaiah did not have enough as a broken human, he had God to rely on and draw from.

God answers those questions that we ask ourselves, just not in our way:

“Am I worthy?”  “I will make you worthy.”

“Am I good enough?”  “I will make you good enough.”

“I cannot do it myself.”  “Rely on Me.  Draw from Me.”

God calls you in your broken state.  God does not have a holiness and righteousness test to determine who to call.  I could tell you so many platitudes and examples right now, but I want to say this in plain language:

God called you and you are worthy of God’s call.  Period.

We have a culture of worthiness and purity, somehow believing that we must attain some sort of level or cross some sort of bar to minister and answer God’s call, a funny belief because God calls us right now, today, even in our broken and unworthy state.

You are broken.  I cannot write any words or give you any direction to make that not true.  You are broken, in need of saving, and not enough to do it on your own.

God saved you.  Jesus died for you.  The Holy Spirit lives within you and blesses you with talents and gifts.  Stop acting like the same God who saved you in your broken state would somehow decide   unworthy of God’s call in your life.

God called you, broken and wounded, to a mission on this Earth.  Answer that call.

We should celebrate the season of the Spirit.  Each of us has a gift we do not deserve but we have.  Use them to answer the call God places in your life, today.  Amen.