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Give Your Best for Advent

Malachi 1:1-14
© Stacey Steck

Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so. We sing it each week here at Thyatira. We teach it to our children. Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, was once asked to briefly sum up the whole of the Christian faith. And he replied with the words of that famous little song: Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so. And maybe because we’ve sung it so often, we take it as a given, a truism. Of course Jesus loves me. Who could claim otherwise? And it’s comforting isn’t it? To know that the Creator of every living thing, every molecule in the universe, every speck of cosmic dust loves you? Why, that’s certainly worth giving thanks for on this Thanksgiving weekend.

But do we really know God’s love? Have we really, truly experienced it? And if we have, if it’s more than just the words of a song we have taken to heart, how do we know that what we are feeling is divine love and not something else, like dopamine, that neurotransmitter in the brain that can make us feel all warm and fuzzy? There aren’t any scientific proofs, are there? There certainly isn’t any global consensus. I suppose God’s love is simply an article we must take on faith. And that’s fine. Faith is good. But maybe even more important than knowing that God loves us, is knowing how God loves us. And that is the question the people of the prophet Malachi’s time were asking. “I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ ” What is the shape of this love we claim that God has for us? How is it expressed? We don’t get hugs from God. God doesn’t send birthday or Valentine’s cards. Those “how” questions are important questions if we hope to validate the “that” question. Without some way to quantify God’s love, it’s kind of hard to make the case that it exists.

But maybe there is yet another, even more important question about God’s love. Perhaps I know that Jesus loves me, and maybe I even know how Jesus loves me, but does anyone else know that Jesus loves me, or how he loves me? Can anyone else see it in my life? Does it matter in anyone else’s life? Should they have to guess or wonder? Or worse, do they call into question the love of God by how I act? And this question is the one that interests God in the book of Malachi. You see God knows that the people know God loves them. That’s why they are talking to him, asking those questions. And God is willing to address their question of how by reminding them that they are a chosen people. I chose Jacob, and not Esau, the nation of Israel, not the nation of Edom. You are still here. Edom is not. What more proof do you need, God says? I kept you alive. That’s how! But the conversation doesn’t end there. No, what God really wants them to be thinking about is neither of those questions, but instead the question of what difference it all makes. If my love for you is not evident to anyone else, does it really matter?

As with most of the prophets, Malachi’s message is one of correction, of calling to account the people when they have gone astray. The message of the prophets is no fun to listen to. It doesn’t seem much like love. There’s no healing, no tender words, no encouragement, just judgment and more judgment. Over and over and over again. The longer prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are difficult to read because they are just so darn repetitive. Couldn’t there have been a better way to get the point across that was a little shorter, God? Moses used to always convince God to change the divine mind by pointing out that God would look bad in the eyes of other nations by being so capricious. If it were me, I’d would have told God that being longwinded is a bigger turnoff than being unmerciful. But blessedly, the book of Malachi is of a manageable length, and his oracles do not contain quite so much gloom and doom, blood and gore. In this morning’s passage, it’s the priests who get read the riot act: “Oh that someone among you would shut the temple doors so that you would not kindle fire on my altar in vain. I have no pleasure in you and I will not accept an offering from your hands.” Ouch! God, I thought you said you loved us? How can you talk to us that way? We’re doing our best!

And what is their sin? Well it is that they accepted what was second best, or maybe even worse, at the altar. You may remember from your dedicated reading of Exodus and Deuteronomy that the animals to be used for sacrifices were to be the best animals of the flock, the ones without blemish, the ones that made you feel the pinch just a little every time you had to remember what God had done for you. It doesn’t hurt the old bank account to offer up the runt of the little nearly as much as the pride of your herd. But that’s the way God wanted it. The gift must mean something. And the punishment for disobedience is severe: “Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished.” These priests should have known better than to let people try to get away with fraud. They should have turned those people away at the door and said, “Come back when you’ve brought your best.”

“Come back when you’ve brought your best.” I wonder if that isn’t a good answer to the question that God is asking about whether it is evident to others that Jesus loves me. C. S. Lewis has said that the truest test of a person’s integrity is what they do when no one is watching. Maybe that is why golf is such a divine sport. In addition to being the surest way to feel humbled, it’s the only sport in which the player is obliged to call a foul on themselves that no one else sees. Even if you are playing alone, if the ball moves when it is supposed to be at rest, you have to add a penalty stroke to your scorecard. You can’t move so much as a tiny leaf if it makes your ball roll in the slightest. Golf doesn’t have referees. Your playing partner need not have seen it. But you know it moved. It’s called playing it where it lies, and the reason it matters is not because life and death hangs in the balance, but because it’s the essence of golf. It’s what makes golf a game worth playing. Playing it where it lies is what makes it evident that a person truly loves the game.

Maybe we think God isn’t watching when bring our blemished offerings, however that may take place in our lives. Maybe God doesn’t see that we moved that ball. Maybe God doesn’t know that we didn’t correct the cashier’s mistake in our favor. Maybe God doesn’t care that we tossed that trash out our window. Maybe God doesn’t mind that we don’t wear a mask. Maybe God’s got bigger things on the agenda than the daily decisions we have to make about how we conduct our lives. After all, there is poverty out there, and corruption, and all kinds of big ticket items that really matter, right? Why should God be concerned about whether I shoot a 79 or an 80 at Rolling Hills? What difference does it make if a blind animal is sacrificed? It doesn’t change the flavor of the meat, does it?

Probably not, but isn’t that where integrity begins to unravel. “From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised.” What kind of love can we be proclaiming if we are willing to take advantage of it? What kind of love do we demonstrate that we take for granted? How can we be trusted with the greater things if we cannot be trusted with the small stuff? “Come back when you’ve brought your best.” When I play the ball where it lies, I don’t do so because I’m afraid other players will judge me if I don’t, but because I want them to know that I love myself, and the game, enough to play by the rules. My integrity, and the integrity of the sport, are more important than my score.

It’s true, of course, that there would be no one in church, not even the pastor, if we attended only when we’d brought our best. Well, no one except my mother, of course. We are wretched sinners, all of us, imperfect in innumerable ways. In fact, the greatest mistake we can make as a church is to suggest, in even the smallest way, that only certain people are worthy of coming to church. None of us are worthy. But you don’t know the number of people who don’t come to church because they feel ashamed of their behavior, feel that they are not good enough, feel they have to get their act together before they come, feel that they are being judged. And maybe passages like this one from Malachi are part of the problem, if we can’t see past the judgment to observe God choosing us, and not giving up on us, in spite of our inadequacies; if we can’t see this exhortation to integrity as an example of how God loves us, so that others can see that Jesus loves us. There is a fine line between shame on one hand and the exhortation to be better on the other. But somehow, we must be able to combine the appeals to “Come as you are” and “Come back when you’ve brought your best.”

I often tell people that the Bible is probably the most difficult book you’ll even read. That is because it is filled with stories and beliefs from cultures so foreign to our own time and place that not even the most learned experts can agree on the meaning of certain words or passages. The result of this inability to truly inhabit the story, as perhaps we would a story about Grandma’s biscuits with gravy, is that we rely on a rather surface reading, and belief. I’m not suggesting that we all need to be experts in Hebrew and Greek for the Bible to mean something to us, but I am suggesting that we may need to dig a little deeper if we are able to authentically answer the question about “how God loves me.” It is easy to see how the hymn “Jesus Loves Me” is so satisfying. It makes it so easy for us. “Because the Bible tells me so.” The world’s complicated enough, right? Do I really have to make it more complicated by understanding all that stuff in the prophets? Probably not, but I wonder if not going any deeper isn’t a little like bringing a blemished animal for the sacrifice.

If we don’t read all the way to end of the Old Testament, we don’t see that God loves us enough to answer cynical questions like “How have you loved me?” We don’t see that God continues to be faithful even when angry, and even when we make our inadequate offerings or kick our golf balls to better lies. We don’t see that God loves us enough to continue to exhort us to do the right thing. In Genesis, God declares the rainbow as a sign that the world will never again be flooded, but there are no guarantees about other kinds of natural disasters wiping out humanity. There is no guarantee that God isn’t just going to walk away from the whole mess, and you couldn’t really blame God if that happened, could you? But no, God hangs in there with us.

As we enter anew the patient and expectant season of Advent, perhaps it is a good time to be attentive and faithful to what God is saying through a prophet like Malachi, who gives us the opportunity to reflect on the quality of our offerings to God. Perhaps you’ll find renewal by examining your integrity about time and attention. In this season we affirm is all about God, do we really make it all about God? Are we praying with as much energy and enthusiasm as we do searching out bargains at Kohls or Amazon? Are we attending to the bodily needs of ourselves or others in a way that matches our admiration for the incarnation of God in Christ that we celebrate in this season? Perhaps you’ll find that Advent is a good time to take one or two of those areas of your life in which you wish you had just a little more integrity and actually be a little more intentional about them. Perhaps you’ll simply remember to practice the Cub Scout motto of “Do your best.” However you choose to use the gift of Advent, may it be a blessing that leads you to a deeper knowledge that God loves you, and how God loves you, and helps you become that sign to others of that divine love. Amen.

Natural or Divine Selection

Ezekiel 34:11-24
© Stacey Steck

With all due respect to those who believe the world was created in six days, I believe in evolution, and even the Darwinian notion of “natural selection,” that idea that the various species of our planet, of God’s creation, improve through the survival of the fittest, through the strong outlasting the weak. Natural selection can be a brutal process. Adapt or die, the logic goes. The early bird gets the worm, the others starve or at least have to look further. Imagine an ecosystem in which some giraffes have long necks and others have short necks. If something were to cause low-lying shrubs to die out, the giraffes with short necks would not get enough food and they too would die out. So, after a few generations, all the giraffes would have long necks. It so happens that as yet, the evolutionary advantage of male pattern baldness has not been established, but I have no doubt that when it does, it will prove the old proverb that the higher the forehead, the greater the wisdom.

“Because you pushed with flank and shoulder,” the prophet Ezekiel reports God saying, “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Sounds like some Biblical natural selection going on there in Ezekiel. The strong sheep are lording it over the week sheep. That means they will get more to eat, right? And then become genetically superior and pass that advantage on down to their offspring, right? That is supposed to be a good thing for the species, right? But God seems opposed. The strong sheep are condemned for pushing and butting and scattering. That doesn’t seem fair. They are just doing what sheep are supposed to do. How can God argue against God’s own way of creating? But pastor, you said you believed in evolution? Ah, yes, I did say I believed in evolution, but I didn’t say that God wasn’t behind evolution. I think that natural selection is God’s good idea, but I also think it is clear that the laws of natural selection have their limits and that ultimately, what matters is divine selection. “I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged,” says the Lord. Divine selection – not of the fittest, but of the flimsiest.

The passage we just heard from Ezekiel is preceded by a pretty sharp condemnation of the shepherds of Israel, not the kind who keep watch over their four-legged flocks by night, but the kind who are charged with providing for the their two-legged subjects. Ezekiel writes in a time when the nation of Judah was trying to make sense of what had happened to them, how it could have come to pass that they were overthrown by King Nebuchadnezzar and his hordes from Babylon. And Ezekiel is there to bring God’s message about why. Why? Because you were faithless to the one who was faithful to you. Why? Because you oppressed the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, after God rescued you when you were down and out. Why? Because you took advantage of God’s creation for your own gain when God had asked you to take care of that creation for everybody’s benefit. “Why?” is a natural question to ask at a time of crisis. But the answer may not be what you hope to hear. In this case, their own failures led to judgment. To be sure, most of the blame fell to the leaders, the royalty and the clergy who exercised their power in ways that put to shame God’s trust in them. But it was everyone who suffered, a whole nation, every man, woman, child and beast, in exile. If only those shepherds had taken care of their flock the way they should have. But no, they allowed certain sheep to bully other sheep, and God wasn’t having any of it.

Perhaps that sounds kind of abstract and hard to imagine. Well, let me give you an idea of what it looks like today. This week, the Associated Press released a truly shocking expose of sheep abusing sheep, and bad shepherds failing their flocks. More than 10 million women work on the palm oil plantations of Indonesia and Malaysia, a huge agrobusiness that produces the raw material for all kinds of products that you use every day. It is found in everything from potato chips and pills to pet food, and also ends up in the supply chains of some of the biggest names in the $530 billion beauty business, including L’Oréal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Avon and Johnson & Johnson, all of them helping women around the world to feel pampered and beautiful. The brutal irony of the palm oil business, however, is that very few the 10 million women working in the field feel pampered and beautiful, but rather are subjected to widespread exploitation and abuse, exposure to extremely toxic pesticides, regular sexual harassment, rape, and even murder, and all that despite lots of international attention, and laws that are supposed to prevent this kind of abuse. A lot of ink has been spilled on this subject, but still the brutality goes on. No one brings to account this system that pays these women five dollars a day while permitting their supervisors to brutalize them on a regular basis. Too many people are profiting from it. Too many men are benefiting from it. The upshot of this report is that these abuses are widespread and horrific, with little or nothing being done about it. Where are the Babylonians when you need them?

Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day we celebrate that God sent someone to reign over our lives who does not take advantage of us, but who cherishes us, who practices divine selection. The kings of the Old Testament may not have known anything about Darwinian natural selection, but they believed that their selection as kings of Israel and Judah entitled them to do as they pleased, in spite of the law they had been given, and the prophets like Ezekiel who kept reminding them. These kings, and indeed all who are responsible for allowing a system like the palm oil industry to flourish unchecked, were practicing a different form of evolutionary thinking, the one that has been labeled Social Darwinism, the one that holds the belief that certain people, certain races, certain genders, have been bred over time to be stronger or more important than others. They misunderstood what divine selection was all about. They thought that by accident of birth as the child of a king, or child of a priest, that God’s rules didn’t apply to them. And so they allowed, and probably even encouraged, the kind of behavior that led to a divine wrath that sent them to their demise.

In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells the story of a king who takes seriously the way some animals have treated other animals. It’s the famous separation of the sheep and the goats, with the stinging refrain, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” And of course those who gave the hungry food, and the thirsty drink, and who clothed the naked and who visited the sick and the imprisoned, these sheep were the ones who received blessing. The goats, on the other hand, received “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Sound familiar? It’s really just a retelling of our passage from Ezekiel, with sheep and goats rather than sheep and sheep, and Jesus putting a finer point on the subject, spelling out for us in everyday terms what is expected of us. This is the kind of king we celebrate on Christ the King Sunday, the kind that holds to account those who believe they are chosen above others, who think the blessings of creation are primarily for them, those who think they can abuse and exploit others with impunity.

God is suspicious of kings, even the good ones. From the first moment the people of Israel demanded that Saul should be their king, mostly because in a Darwinian sense he stood a head taller than any other man, God objected. Be careful what you wish for, God says through Samuel. But against God’s better judgment, Saul became king and it didn’t go well. So the next time, God chose the king. God chose David, the youngest of seven, the shepherd of the family, the one considered least likely to make anything of himself. You know the kind. Runts, they call them. The ones that natural selection leaves behind. But this shepherd, the one that was divinely selected, went on to become the model king, the one to whom God promised that a descendent of his would always sit on the throne, the one God said through Ezekiel so many years later would be shepherd to the Israel of the future. But David wasn’t perfect, was he? No, at times, he fell prey to the same sense of superiority that marks social Darwinism. And so when he abused Bathsheba and had her husband killed to cover his tracks, when he took that census whose real purpose was to show everybody how great a king he thought himself to be, when he did those things, God held him to account. Yes, natural selection must give way to divine selection, and God always chooses to protect the weak.

And so God reserves true kingship for the only one truly able to handle it. “I myself,” God says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” And so it came to pass that God came to earth in human flesh to live as a king should truly live, not enthroned in a castle but washing feet, not lording it over the servants, but serving them as if they were lords. Divine selection. God choosing to live with us. Divine selection. God choosing to die for us. That’s not what kings do, is it? No, but it’s what Christ did.

The world is a lot more democratic than when King Jehoiakim, the last king of Judah, was defeated by the Babylonians. Perhaps not in Indonesia or Malaysia, but in these United States, the responsibility for leadership is spread out among many more people. That’s a good thing. It is far less likely that a whole nation will suffer for the sins of one man. But as Peter Parker’s grandfather once told the budding young Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The truth is that the judgment in Ezekiel’s time that was reserved for the king is the same judgment that will fall upon each of us if we act as if natural selection and Social Darwinism are to be our guide in exercising dominion over our bodies, our families, and our world. But if we allow Christ to reign in our hearts and lives, if we practice divine selection, if we choose to help the least of these, if we demand justice for palm oil workers, if we care for our environment, we will find ourselves in good pasture, with living water, inheriting the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world by the God who chose us to share the divine image. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Not to Your Glory

Judges 4:1-10
© Stacey Steck

If all you knew about war was what you see in the movies, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is glory in war, or more specifically, that there is glory to be gained in war. Perhaps you’ve seen it measured by how many orcs an elf can kill in the Lord of the Rings, or by how many Romulans a Klingon can slice and dice with a Bat’leth in Star Trek, or by a showdown with the enemy’s best swordsman in a samurai movie, or by the courageous assault on an enemy position in any number of John Wayne World War II movies. In these tall tales, the warrior generally goes into battle with the notion that even if he or she does not come out alive, there will be some glory conferred upon them for at least their noble attempt, if not their victory. Their names will be remembered, their exploits retold. By their participation in the fight, they will earn their fame, and a valuable measure of glory.

Perhaps that is what the Israelite commander Barak had in mind when he learned that he would be leading the troops into battle against the hated and oppressive Canaanites. As we heard, his people had been oppressed cruelly for twenty years, due mainly to their own faithlessness, but oppression is oppression and twenty years is a long time. The cries for help of his people go up to God, and God, with that wonderful sense of divine mercy, once again relents and gives them another chance, and touches Barak on the shoulder with the call to battle. Now, Barak most likely knew the stories of his own people who did valiant deeds and who were remembered, people like Ehud, the left-handed assassin who delivered Israel by deceiving and murdering the evil King Eglon of Moab, just eighty years earlier, the last time they asked God to bail them out. His were a people who remembered the exploits of their heroes, whether they were Jacob or Joseph or Moses or Miriam or Joshua. We might reasonably imagine Barak getting somewhat excited about following in their footsteps and getting the call to be remembered as a great deliverer, perhaps even in a song, as Moses and Miriam were remembered in song, as Deborah of our story this morning would be remembered in song in the following chapter of the book of Judges. His fame was there for the taking. No doubt he thought he was a capable military leader, and no doubt he believed God was on their side, but just for good measure, perhaps to hedge his bets, perhaps to share the blame should something happen to go wrong, Barak asks the prophetess Deborah to accompany him on the battlefield as they confront and chase down the General Sisera and his 900 hundred strong contingent of chariots of iron. With the Lord’s chosen on his side, his fame would be secure. And then he gets those sobering words, “I will surely go with you;” she says, “nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will see Sisera into the hand of a woman,” and as sure as he was one moment of his impending glory, in the next it is taken away. “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory.”

It is to Barak’s credit that he went ahead and did it, although if there is something more compelling than the prospect of glory, it is the fear of infamy. To back out then would have landed him in the company of that class of persons whom history forgets or disparages, and so he soldiers on with his ten thousand men, where they do indeed prevail, albeit with God’s help. We are told that as the battle was joined, “the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak,” and the enemy is easily defeated. You may remember the rest of the story, in which General Sisera escapes the battlefield only to take refuge in what he believes is the house of a friend, only the friend decides Sisera deserves a tent peg through the side of the head while he sleeps, and so she gives it to him, and the fame is hers, as Deborah predicted. If there is any consolation for Barak it is that we are still talking about him several thousand years later, and perhaps that would not have happened had he decided that in the absence of glory, the battle was not worth the fight.

I do not think it is too great a stretch to suggest the world would be a very different place had our nation’s veterans not decided in the same way as Barak, that even without the promise, or even possibility, of glory, they would commit themselves to the fight. These are men and women who know that the Hollywood image of war is far from its reality, that there is more gore than glory on the battlefield, and that if there is any glory to be won, it will likely be claimed by those higher up the chain of command – the generals, the politicians, and the commanders-in-chief – while they are forgotten in their trenches and their foxholes. They are the PFCs and the grunts and the squawks and the bin rats and the boomers and the deck-apes and the pingers, and all the other names for the people who deserve the glory if there is any to be had, but who fight and die even in its absence. They may have enlisted with some national pride in their hearts, or yearning for some adventure or seeking some GI Bill money for their education, but if any of them signed up for glory, they learned pretty quickly that it’s in short supply, and probably destined for those least deserving of it. And then they went ahead and served anyway.

If we casually read the story of Barak and Deborah we might think that Deborah’s reminder to Barak that “the road on which you are going will not lead to glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman,” indicates that the glory of this battle will accrue instead to Jael, the woman who in the end kills the general Sisera. Taking nothing away from the heroic women in the story, however, that casual reading will overlook the fact that from Deborah’s perspective, and that of the Bible, the glory here belongs to none other than God. For indeed, it is God who answers the Israelites’ call for help. It is God who proclaims victory even before the battle begins. It is God who throws the army of Sisera into a panic. It is God who once again delivers a stubborn people who probably don’t deserve it. There is a role in the story for Barak and Deborah and Jael, but in the end, we are meant to remember that without God, their deeds are meaningless, and probably futile. “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory.”

There is never a bad time for a message about humility, and perhaps the commemoration of Veterans Day is one of the best times to remember that we are not God, and that the reason there are veterans to remember at all is because as human beings we have abjectly failed to overcome our inclinations to violence, and to seeking glory, and to forgetting God. How does our story begin this morning? “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” They forgot their Creator. They forgot their Redeemer. They forgot their Sustainer. They fell into the age-old habits that plague us still today, and they found themselves in an awful mess. For all of our glorious achievements as the human race, our buildings, our music, our art and literature, our compassion and wisdom, there is always that infamous part of the story that clings to us like our shadows on sunny day. And if we could lick it, we’d have no need of God, and I think God would be OK with that. But you know that we can’t, and God knows that we can’t, and if we can remember that unpleasant fact just a little more often, we just might have a chance of living a little more peacefully, and having fewer and fewer wars that call for more and more of our sons and daughters to serve without glory, and suffer without reason.

Each Veterans Day, our nation, and many other nations, honors the service of the veterans of the our wars. They may have served many years ago or they may just be starting boot camp. It doesn’t matter. They are still veterans. But the truth is that no matter where they are, or what they are doing with regard to their military service, they are serving us again this morning by being a reminder that in nothing we do, should we do it for our own glory. Perhaps there is glory somewhere to be had, but someone else must confer it. Perhaps we will have our fifteen minutes of fame, but they will be fleeting. Perhaps our names will be remembered four thousand years from now, but probably not. But if we do what we do for the glory of God, we can be assured that nothing we do will be in vain, but rather be a testimony to the words that opened our worship this morning, “Our God our help in ages past, our help for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.” And with that assurance, we can do mighty things in the name of the one who truly is worthy of the glory. As we remember today those who fought without the expectation of glory, may it be as a reminder to all of us who serve to do it for the right reason, that God might be glorified. Amen.

Joshua’s Altar Call

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
© Stacey Steck

And so the pendulum swings. From Democrat to Republican and back again. And remarkably, the world goes on. Just like every generation believes that the one coming after it is going to hell because their music is so scandalous, every political shift is met with cries that it is the end of civilization as we know it. It doesn’t matter which party. Each is sure that the other has it all wrong. And remarkably, the world goes on.

It doesn’t take too careful a reading of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, to note that the same pendulum swings through its pages, but that the world goes on. Times are good. Times are bad. Times are good again. People are faithful. Then they are not so faithful. Then they exhibit their faith again. A good leader comes along. A bad one follows. A good one comes to save the day. God seems present. God seems absent. God steps back in. Over and over again. It may just be that the human condition is inherently unstable, that we just cannot find that happy medium that lets us hum along without wildly swinging from one extreme to the other.

And Moses’ successor, Joshua, seems to sense that the pendulum might just be about to swing in the other direction, or at least that it could. We’ve been reading through Exodus the last few months, and that story turns a page with Moses’ death. The new leader, Joshua, guides the people into the promised land, helps them to overcome their enemies, and allots the twelve tribes their long anticipated lands. Times are good. God seems to be on their side. Enemies are defeated. What can go wrong? How about everything Moses warned them about throughout the whole book of Deuteronomy? In that part of the story, Moses proclaims again and again what God has done for the people and warns them again and again that they must obey the commandments and respect the covenant. Deuteronomy 12:28 sums it all up: “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.” So that it may go well with you.

And they were doing pretty well as Joshua nears the end of his life. They even had a major disagreement amongst themselves they settled without a fight, using negotiation and conversation instead of weapons. Imagine that! But Joshua knows how delicate these moments are and so he issues his altar call in hopes of keeping the ship sailing in the right direction for as long as he can. Yes, what we read today is an ancient near eastern altar call, that time honored tradition of seeking a commitment from the faithful. You didn’t know Joshua was the first Baptist did you? Yes, Baptists are well-known for their altar calls. They are a decision-based faith. Virtually every worship service MUST end with an altar call, or a chance for people to profess their faith in Christ. This is even true at funerals. In case you’ve never seen one in action, the set-up is usually a long discourse on how thoroughly rotten and sinful we are, followed by how we are destined to eternal damnation, or worse, if we continue in our evil ways. And then, of course, is the presentation of the merciful antidote and salvation that is Jesus Christ. And then people are invited to publicly come forward, down to the altar, and make their decision for Christ. It usually doesn’t matter that everyone in church is already saved. They’ll still do an altar call every Sunday. That moment of decision is crucial for Baptists. And it was for Joshua that day.

Are you going to follow the gods of the peoples we just conquered? Or are you going to follow the God who brought you out of slavery? Are you going to follow the gods who Abraham’s ancestors followed? Or are you going to follow the God who led Abraham here? That’s the stark choice he lays out before them. You can go with the God with whom it is one hundred percent certain that “it will go well with you and your children.” Or you can take your chances with the gods of the past, the gods of the defeated, the gods of a long way away, over the river. The invitation is clear: “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.” C’mon down to the altar, and make your choice.

What is curious about this altar call, is that there is a distinct absence of an altar, unlike in other covenant or sacrificial ceremonies that are recorded from the period. Back in the eighth chapter of Joshua is the story of Joshua renewing the covenant between God and the people, an event for which he erects “an altar of unhewn stones, on which no iron tool has been used,” just like the one Moses used to seal the covenant in blood in the twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus, at which time all the people said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” At these significant events, they would pile up stones and make them a focal point, a visual reminder and a physical marker of what the Lord had done, a place they could refer back to whenever they needed a refresher on their commitments. There’s no altar in today’s story, maybe because Joshua wants to emphasize that now that they’ve claimed this land, but he is doing what he had learned from Moses, to gather up the people and put them on the spot, and make them decide whom they would follow, and lay out the consequences for if they didn’t.

So Joshua is a Baptist, and maybe he’s a fisherman too. You see, he’s pretty smart about getting them on the hook. He’s got the bait on the hook and he casts it in there. And then he waits. There’s no obligation to follow God. He doesn’t force them at gunpoint or threaten them with expulsion. They actually get the choice. They can follow or not. And of course, they nibble, don’t they? “Yes! Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; we will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” The bait is in their mouth, but Joshua is not done yet. He wants to make sure they are sincere. And so he questions their capacity. He’s anticipating the pendulum. And so Joshua says to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” Can you really do it, he is asking, because it’s a tall order. Do you know what you’re getting into? And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He sets the hook and reels them in. There’s no going back now.

Presbyterians don’t have altars. We have communion tables. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t a decision-based faith too. We just think about decisions a little differently than Baptists and other traditions, or at least emphasize different elements even if we are more alike than we imagine. We don’t do altar calls at funerals, for one thing, thanks be to God. But we do call upon people regularly to make decisions about following Christ. It’s just that we don’t think about it in terms of one big, momentous, public decision in response to a preacher’s invitation, but a series of small, daily decisions that call for a constant examination of what’s right and what’s wrong that come in response to the Holy Spirit’s constant whispering in our ears and in our hearts. The decisions we tend to emphasize are the ethical decisions that confront us in our lives as parents, workers, and citizens. Can I put that other person first, as Jesus tells me I must? Can I offer myself in service despite the consequences, as the Apostles did? Can I drink the cup of bitterness and sorrow, as Jesus did? Can I be just a little more generous in response to God’s generosity toward me? Can I take the log out of my own eye before trying to remove the speck in someone else’s? Can I forgive 70 times seven times? These are the kinds of daily decisions that really, really matter, the ones that need to be made not when we are comfortably sitting in a pew, but in the heat of the moment, when circumstances require us to make a decision even when we don’t feel prepared to make it.

The other way we Presbyterians tend to think about faithful decisions is by focusing more on Christ’s decision for us, than on our decision for Christ. In some ways, that’s precisely why we don’t have an altar, but rather a table at which we celebrate Christ’s decision to give his body and his blood for us, or his decision to invite us to the table, or his decision to let Judas betray him, or his decision to come and pitch his tent with us and even to sit at table with us in the first place. You see, it was God’s choice for us, and Christ’s choice for us, that makes our choices for God possible. Perhaps our decisions to follow Christ are made out of fear of what might happen if we don’t choose to follow him. But I hope they are made more out of gratitude for being chosen by him in the first place, and because we can recognize that choosing him is a way to honor his choice for us, and to make the world the place he wants it to be. It was not enough for the Israelites to simply say that they would follow the God who led them out of Egypt. Saying yes is pretty easy, isn’t it? But then you have to follow it up. Then you have to obey the 613 commandments and you have to follow Jesus’ distillation of them to the twin commandments to love God and love neighbor. And loving that way isn’t something you can do by just saying it once. That’s not the way Christ did it.

The decision we are called to make every day is not only whether we will love, but also how we will love. Those are two sides of the same coin. We must choose whom we will serve, and how we will serve the one whom we choose. And though our faith, and our decision making, may at times feel like a swinging pendulum, though the world around us seems like it is swaying back and forth too rapidly for us to even keep our eye on, though the choices that confront us aren’t ever as clear as we wish they would be, we are invited to embrace the choice that Joshua made, and called his people to make, when he said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” May God bless each one of us, our families, our nations, and our world, as we make those decisions daily in the faith we have been given by the God who chose us. Amen.

A Faith Worth Living For

Revelation 7:9-17
© Stacey Steck

As you know well by now, I like to preach from the lectionary, the suggested three-year cycle of biblical texts designed to take the church through most of the Bible. The lectionary takes us into parts of the Bible we might ordinarily choose to ignore. Like the Book of Revelation. But the downside to following the lectionary is that it limits us to those passages included in the lectionary, many of which favor the kinder, gentler parts of the Bible. Indeed, you will be interested to note that of the more than 624 passages of Scripture used in the three year cycle, only three of them are from the book of Revelation, and all of those deal with the subject of worship in the heavenly realm. Outside the scope of the lectionary lie most of the fire and brimstone passages we usually associate with the book of Revelation.

If we had read a little earlier in the book, we would have learned that the reason for the great worshiping in heaven described in Revelation was the worthiness of the Lamb, the lamb who could open the scroll that John saw in the right hand of the one seated on the heavenly throne. We would have seen four strange but living creatures, and 24 Elders robed in white, and myriads of myriads, worshiping with all their might, showing us something of what true worship is all about. We would have been terrified by the opening of six of the seven seals on the scroll in the hands of the one seated on the throne, a scroll that does not contain a lot of good news, at least not in the traditional sense, for as the first four of the scroll’s seven seals are opened, the well-known Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear and are granted dominion over the earth with authority to conquer, and kill, and take no prisoners. God’s judgment has been unleashed upon the earth. As I said, not exactly good news as we have come to expect it from our Bible. As the seal on the fifth scroll is broken, John sees under the heavenly altar an untold number of the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had been given. They cry out for justice, waiting for God to avenge their deaths. And then the earth comes apart at the seams when the sixth seal is broken: earthquakes strike, the sun goes dark, the moon becomes as blood, the stars fall from the heavens like well-ripened fruit, even the sky vanishes, and all the people of the world tremble in fear at what might come next, and the stage is set for the opening of the seventh seal, the seal which just may unleash the end of the end: and then there is a pause, a break in the action, a moment of hope in the midst of chaos. And John hears that twelve thousand members of each of the tribes of Israel have been sealed, marked with the name of the Lamb and with the name of God, and saved for their blamelessness and purity. And then, this is what John records next: (Read 7:9-17). And if you want to find out what happened next, when the seventh seal was opened, feel free to keep reading at home. Let us pray.

Let me begin this morning with the nineteenth century French poet, Charles Baudelaire, who not only translated the works of Edgar Allen Poe into French but who fancied himself a literary kindred spirit with Poe, even if he was not. Baudelaire wrote a series of prose poems in the years shortly before his death and in these poems, he reflected on both the rise of the age of modernity and on his own miserable and melancholy life. His story, “The Soup and the Clouds,” is both short and worth reading aloud as we think this morning about “that multitude that no one could count…those who have come out of the great ordeal…who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” This is what he writes:

My dear little mad beloved was serving my dinner, and I was looking out of the open dining-room window contemplating those moving architectural marvels that God constructs out of mist, edifices of the impalpable. And as I looked, I was saying to myself: “All those phantasmagoria are almost as beautiful as my beloved’s beautiful eyes, as the green eyes of my mad monstrous little beloved.”

All of a sudden I felt a terrible blow of a fist on my back, and heard a husky and charming voice, an hysterical voice, a hoarse brandy voice, the voice of my dear beloved, saying: “Aren’t you ever going to eat your soup, you good-for-nothing cloud-monger?”

Quite a rude awakening from a pleasant dream, wouldn’t you say? A reverie interrupted by violence, a comedown from a high place, and precisely what is happening in this section of the book of Revelation. The glorious picture of heaven is blown away by the violence of God’s judgment as the seals are opened. The glimpse we receive of heaven is sweet but real life intrudes upon fantasy; there is hell to pay for following Jesus and John is about to tell us what it looks like.

As beautiful as are the images in today’s passage, there is a hint of the ugliness with which much of the book of Revelation is concerned. As we heard, one of the elders asks John from where have this great multitude dressed in white come, and then he answers his own question: they are those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” In other words, they are those who have persevered in the faith, who have lived their lives in such a way that they have drawn the ire of the powers that be. They are different, with different customs and a different take on the whole empire thing. At first, they were just considered fringe element Jews who followed a specific teacher, some local idiot savant named Jesus. But when they began to distinguish themselves from the rest of Judaism, these “Christians” lost their status as a protected religion and were fair game for scapegoating and persecution. It became “Blame the Christians first, ask questions later.” The age of the martyrs is replete with stories of the faithful who, rather than deny Christ as Peter did those three famous times, faced the full force of the Empire and met their demise at the hands of the executioner or in the jaws of a lion. And so it was to the faithful who would face these ordeals in the coming years that this seventh chapter of Revelation would speak loudly and clearly. It will be tough, but in the end, God will comfort you and take care of you forever.

To give you an idea about what the faithful faced, consider this story of a martyrdom about which we know quite a bit. In the year 203, a well-to-do mother named Perpetua was arrested with several others, including a pregnant slave girl named Felicitas, for practicing the Christian faith. After describing her arrest, her subsequent baptism, and her family’s initial attempts to persuade her to recant her faith, this is what Perpetua had to say when it came time to make the final decision: “We were placed on a sort of platform before the judge, who was Hilarion, procurator of the province...The others were questioned before me and confessed their faith. But when it came to my turn, my father appeared with my child, and drawing me down the steps, besought me, ‘Have pity on the child.’ The judge Hilarion joined with my father and said: ‘Spare your father’s white hairs. Spare the tender years of your child. Offer sacrifice to the prosperity of the emperors.’ I replied, ‘No.’ ‘Are you a Christian?’ asked Hilarion, and I answered, “Yes, I am.’ The judge then passed sentence on all of us and condemned us to the wild beasts, and in great joy we returned to our prison.”

A few days later, Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions were taken to the amphitheater where each met their untimely demise at the claws and jaws of wild beasts. Perpetua and Felicitas were run down by a mad heifer, but as they survived two attacks by the beast, they were led out to be killed by the gladiators. Legend has it that Perpetua’s faith was so evident that she affected the executioner so greatly that she herself had to guide the sword to her throat so that the poor man could carry out his duty. Saints Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions were subsequently canonized and their Feast day is celebrated on March 6. It is perhaps somewhat ironic, or maybe just appropriate, that their names, translated from the Latin, and taken together, mean Perpetual Happiness.

Boy, those were the good old days, weren’t they, when a believer could be led to death by heifer “in great joy.” In fact, I believe we have a dairy farmer in this congregation who could provide a heifer or two if there is anyone who’d like to prove their worthiness and faith in Jesus Christ. Are there any takers? C’mon, now, doesn’t that sound like a formula for perpetual happiness?

Is martyrdom the ultimate expression of faith? Is willingness to die for the sake of Jesus Christ the pinnacle of the Christian life? To tell you the truth, I think martyrdom is the easy way out, for it is a lot harder to remain faithful for a lifetime, to be consistently faithful from beginning to end, through thick and thin and through good times and bad, than it is for that one moment even when your life is on the line. This is not to take anything away from the martyrs, who probably wouldn’t have been able to confess in the face of death without a lifetime of faithfulness, but maybe there is something harder to do than die. And that is to live.

There may indeed be a place for martyrs even in this day and age, but I for one hope it is not my fate. And though not everyone is called to be a martyr, we have something in common with them. We are called to persevere in the faith, to be willing to make faith a way of life. This is our calling: read the Gospels, read Paul, read this chapter of Revelation, it’s all about perseverance, and it’s not easy. But time and time again in Scripture and even today in our passage, it is promised to those who persevere “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more...and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Fear not, there is hope for those who persevere. But if martyrdom is no longer fashionable, what are we to do today to demonstrate our capacity for perseverance? I want to suggest to you that the 21st century counterparts to those who were willing to lay down their lives for the sake of Jesus Christ, are those who are willing to change their lives for the sake of Christ, because if there is anything more terrifying than facing the executioner’s blade, it is the prospect of changing oneself.

Sister Bridget McKeever is a nun in Indiana. The way she tells her story, she was about to be off to a parish Christmas party on December 23 one year, when she was summoned by a phone call to a part of town she had never been to, to the poor Hispanic section, to be specific. She was summoned there by a family grieving the loss of their three year old son, run over by a truck while he was out picking up recyclables with his father. Sister Bridget was given unquestioned access to this family’s grief because she was a religious person, and so, as a nun, she entered their home and offered what pastoral care she was able, and she saw the conditions in which this family lived: in a two-room shack, with children sleeping on the floor, the only employment a housecleaning job for the mother and trash picking for the father. Sr. Bridget did her best to comfort this family in their hour of need, and she did it very well; they were very grateful. She even mobilized the parish to respond to this tragedy as only a church community can do — with food and clothing to overflowing, and with Christmas gifts for the rest of the children. They even got the local funeral home to donate the casket and the burial services, and the church was packed for the memorial funeral mass. And then they all went home. Sr. Bridget continued to visit the family for a while but finally she too stopped going and the family of the little boy went on living their extraordinarily difficult lives.

Sr. Bridget is haunted by the episode now years later, feeling guilt and futility over the way she handled the situation. I offer you her own words to conclude her story: “When I scrutinize my guilt, I believe that it arises from my failure to examine and address the causes of the tragedy. The futility [I feel] comes from the feeling that my intervention changed nothing. It gave the impression that people cared, but I and the whole community only cared to the point where we could respond without changing. We did not want to change, and we left the family as we had found them — powerless in an overwhelming and oppressive system.” Listen again to the heart of it: “It gave the impression that people cared, but I and the whole community only cared to the point where we could respond without changing. We did not want to change.”

Friends, we are called to faith as a way of life, which means not only that we must be flexible enough to change when change is forced upon us, and not only that we must always remain open to the possibility of change, but also that change is what we must actively seek out, and embrace, and lay claim to as a foundation of our faith. Our faith must do more than give the impression that we care, it must demonstrate it. Our faith must do more than have a name. It must have a content. Our faith must be something we are willing to live for as well as something we are willing to die for. It may sound paradoxical, but “faith as a way of life” is simultaneously the easiest thing and the hardest thing we are called to do. On the one hand, all we need to do is let our faith be reflected in the way we live our lives and we’ve got it made. But on the other hand, all we need to do is let our faith be reflected in the way we live our lives and we’ve got it made. You heard me right. They are the same thing. Nothing could be easier or harder than that.

Allow me to offer you one final example. One evening a few years ago in Minnesota, Flora and I participated in the local celebration of Take Back the Night, a national event to end violence against women. Despite reports in the local press that a mere two hundred people participated, all 500 or more of us marched from a local park, through downtown, past the big granite church on Fourth Avenue of which I was the pastor, and back to the university where it started, waving banners and signs, chanting slogans and sayings, and doing our best to draw attention to a social sin that affects each one of us in ways we can only begin to imagine. And all along the parade route, people emerged from homes and apartments and businesses to see what the commotion was about. They could hear what we were shouting and they could see that we were about something just and good and righteous. How could anyone object to standing up against violence against women? But despite our efforts and invitations, not a single one of the people standing in yards and doorways or looking down from windows or balconies, not a single one joined the march. Not women, not men, not students, not parents. Nobody else joined the parade.

How easy it would be to join a simple parade. How difficult it must have been to join a simple parade. All we need to do is let our faith be reflected in the way we live our lives and we’ve got it made. All we need to do is seek out and embrace change. All we need to do is persevere. Are you up for the challenge? Are we up for the challenge? Are we ready to appreciate the one who is serving us our soup instead of gazing into the clouds and fantasizing about her? Amen.