First Christian Church
“Divine Damage Control”
The main thing we need to keep in mind as we consider this text is the destruction of the Temple that occurred in 70 AD. This is the root cause for our text today, and the entirety of this chapter is known as “the little apocalypse.” Our text is a prediction of Jesus nearer the beginning of the 1st century, but it is written to the church in the latter part of the 1st century.
With our focus on the destruction of the Temple we can consider our text as crisis literature. The destruction of the Temple was a crisis of gargantuan proportion for the Jewish people. The Temple was understood to be the place of God's residence. God actually lived in the Temple, so with its destruction the people believed and felt as though God was no longer in residence in Israel.
Beyond this the Temple was the religious, political and economic center of the nation. The closest analogy we can imagine is as if an atom bomb was dropped upon Washington DC destroying the entire city. Such an event would leave us adrift on an open sea of chaos and confusion, and so it was for the Jewish people, and specifically Mark's church.
The apocalyptic language reaches deep into the symbols and myths of their religious tradition in order to call up remembrances and feelings of God. To put that another way, it's an attempt to provoke divine transcendence in the face of extreme difficulty.
With an overview of the text we see its doing several things including predicting God's arrival, citing cosmic disturbances, and it brings both judgment and salvation. An even closer look shows us Mark's apocalypse is unique in that the arrival of the divine figure comes at the beginning rather than at the end, and it doesn't end in judgment, and actually ends with a gathering of the faithful.
The gospel writer is not attempting to frighten everyone, but rather is trying to encourage the faithful to “stay awake.” With that brief introduction lets listen to the text once again in contemporary language:
Following those hard times, sun will fade out, moon will cloud over, stars fall out of the sky, cosmic powers tremble. And then they'll see the Son of Man enter in grand style, his arrival filling the sky – no one will miss it! He'll dispatch the angels; they will pull in the chosen from the four winds, from pole to pole.
Take a lesson from the fig tree. From the moment you notice its buds form, the merest hint of green, you know summer's just around the corner. And so it is with you. When you see all these things, you know he is at the door. Don't take this lightly. I'm not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too – these things will happen.
Sky and earth will wear out; my words won't wear out. But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven's angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don't know the timetable.
It's like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don't want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I'm saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.
(Mark 13:24-37; The Message Bible)
When we think of apocalyptic literature usually what comes to mind is The Revelation. I haven't done extensive study of The Revelation, but what I have done has left me with the conviction that the central message is: no matter what happens hold onto your faith in Christ.
The apocalyptic literature that makes up our text today comes with a different central message. Like The Revelation it presents a chaotic and even threatening universe where the “cosmic powers tremble!” In our text the Son of man comes early, whereas in The Revelation the Lamb of God comes to the rescue toward the end. And the central message in our text is not about keeping the faith, as much as its about staying awake.
The other night I had a disturbing dream that woke me at 4am. I stayed awake until it was time to get up, but that's not the staying awake Jesus is talking about here. It's a different way of staying awake, it's more so about a spiritual alertness.
The following are writings from a Jewish woman named Etty (Et-tee) Hillesum (Hill-eh-sum) and she wrote this just prior to her being relocated to a transit camp in Germany during World War 2. A transit camp was a transitional place people were taken to and then assigned to a permanent camp setting like Auschwitz (Ow-switz).
“One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.
Alas, there doesn't seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.
Something has crystallized. I have looked at our destruction, our miserable end which has already begun in so many small ways in our daily life, straight in the eye and have accepted it into my life, and my love of life has not diminished. I am not bitter or rebellious, or in any way discouraged. I continue to grow from day to day, even with the likelihood of destruction staring me in the face. I shall no longer flirt with words, for words merely evoke misunderstanding: I have come to terms with life....
By 'coming to terms with life' I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as part of my life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or refusal to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life, we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it.”
I'm humbled by these words and almost feel ashamed to make comments about them, because in the furthest reaches of my imagination I cannot realistically put myself in her place. With that said I'll attempt to honor her words by using them to bring a deeper understanding to our text.
Perhaps this is also what both Jesus and the gospel writer are attempting by using apocalyptic notions to get us to wake up to our spiritual resources. Our particular text begins with not only the threat of destruction for us as individuals, but for everything we know and love! Listen again: “But in those days, after the tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give us light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25)
We all fear the possibility of a massive earthquake in our area, but this type of cosmic calamity far exceeds the impact an earthquake would have. The Nazi's have forced Etty Hillesum to face the real possibility of her own death, and she, through the grace of God, has been able to accept that possibility, or for many Jews at that time what seemed more like a probability.
Though many Evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians probably interpret the coming of Christ following these cosmic events as a literal appearing of Christ in the clouds – I more so see it as Christ waiting at the doors of our hearts. Waiting for us to open the door and let him in!
My hunch would be that there were Jews in Germany who saw what was happening around them and dealt with it by hoping things would get better over time, even though all evidence pointed to the contrary. I know that denial is often used when people feel overwhelmed with fear. Etty Hillesum is doing just the opposite and is embracing the fear of death to the point it drives her deeper down to the God within.
I think that's what Jesus and the gospel writer are trying to do with these very scary apocalyptic notions. They're trying to drive us down deeper into that scared place within where the only real hope in this world exists. If you will allow God's grace to take you to the sacred spaciousness within God will wrap his arms around you and from there everything and anything can be dealt with. As the psalm says:
And me? I'm singing your prowess, shouting at cockcrow your largesse (laar-zhes), for you've been a safe place for me, a good place to hide. Strong God, I'm watching you do it, I can always count on you – God, my dependable love. (Psalm 59:16-17; The Message Bible)
As we enter into the Advent season our little church is struggling. Our board chair is recovering from two serious medical procedures, and the pianist is recovering from a fall, and we have two people out with COVID, and thank God, neither is seriously ill. When a church enters into circumstances like this the rest of us have to step-up and perform the tasks until the missing people return.
With this in mind I'll call your attention to the little vignette (vin-yet) at the end of our text: “So keep a sharp lookout, for you don't know the timetable. It's like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning....”
Everyone will return to church eventually, and in the meantime we have work to do and God will help us because the hymns and psalms say so:
O come, thou Day-spring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's deep shadows put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Rev. Mitch Becker
December 3, 2023
First Christian Church
“A Practice of Faith”
We can look at our text through the lens of faith this morning and take a closer look at not Jesus the man, but the risen Christ Paul encountered on the road to Damascus. After this encounter Paul continued to grow in wisdom and knowledge by dedicating himself to the cause of Christ. His ministry included fervent prayer and great courage as he faced one challenge after another.
When we take an overview of the gospels, we see many different people wondering who Jesus the man is including John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and even the disciples themselves wondered about the man they were following through deserts, villages and cities. But the Apostle Paul never knew this man. Paul's relationship with Jesus was only with the risen Christ and this is the same Christ we know, because that's the only Christ available following the resurrection.
It is this Christ that Paul describes to the church in Ephesus, and he begins by using the place Christ sits: “...at (the Father's) right hand in the heavenly places.” From this vantage point Christ is able to view all the kingdoms of the world. To help us appreciate such a comprehensive perspective picture for a moment the portrait of the earth from Apollo 17. It is an image of a “Blue Marble” surrounded by the blackness of space. Christ has a similar holistic view of the world.
Though the man Jesus came from a little backwoods' village called Nazareth, as the Christ he now possesses a power that exceeds anything here on earth, and he has been made “...the head over all things.” The Christ can even rise above one of the greatest of limitations – Time. As the text says he is “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
It is this Christ which is above place and time that the Apostle Paul wants the Ephesians to come to know. It is this risen Christ that is available to them in their time, and it is the same Christ that is available to us in our time.
The Mojave Desert where Karen and I lived for nearly seven years is a remarkably barren and lifeless place. The most interesting living things out there are the Joshua Trees that rise up in certain areas, but mostly the vegetation is brown and very dry. We all run the risk of a faith life that looks like the Mojave Desert if we don't actively practice our faith every day.
The Christ that Paul describes to the Ephesians is always available since there is no limitations of place or time that he is bound to. But relationship implies some type of active interaction. It means making an effort everyday to maintain it, or another way of saying it is: “Steep your lives in God-reality, God-initiative, and God-provisions.” (Matthew 6:33a; The Message Bible)
To return to the Mojave Desert for a moment there are places where things grow like beautiful desert flowers, and there are crops such as alfalfa, onions and potatoes, but these things only grow with water. The crops get there water from the great California Aqueduct, something Karen and I walked along occasionally on Saturday mornings. The water is life, and so it is for the spiritual life as well, and its described as living water in the following parable:
He came into Sychar (Sigh-car), a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob's well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was Noon. A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch)
The Samaritan woman, taken back, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn't be caught dead talking to Samaritans.) Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.” The woman said, “Sir, you don't even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this 'living water?'”
Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?” Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst – not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” (John 4:5-14; The Message Bible)
The operative word there is “within,” so it makes it a bit confusing since the living water is something Jesus is giving the woman, but its source is within her. Therefore, what Jesus is gifting the Samaritan woman with is knowledge. It is the knowledge that within her is a source of everlasting refreshment not of a physical nature, but of a spiritual one.
The good news is that this artesian spring gushing forth living water is available to all of us all of the time, but like the Samaritan woman most people are largely devoid of this knowledge. Beyond that, many people don't want to make the effort to reach the inner spring.
Ironically, there is no time of the year that we better see this spiritual neglect than the season we're now entering. This, of course, holds true for people blinded by the distractions of a hyperactive secular world, but the neglect is not limited to the secular. Many of the religious are also susceptible to multiple distractions and detours that manifest during the holidays.
The best way to avoid the distractions and detours is to have a healthy spiritual desire. We need to deeply desire the comfort and empowerment that comes with being in relationship to the artesian spring of living water within us. Make no mistake, to drink from this inner well is unlike any experience encountered in the world. You might say its an “out of this world” experience that paradoxically results in a clearer perception of the world because the love of God eliminates all fear.
In the following excerpt author Laura Swan, a Benedictine nun, describes the medieval bequines (beg-geens):
The inner spiritual world of the bequines was rich in imagination. These women, and some of their monastic contemporaries, instigated a seismic shift in the province of the imagination, bringing their embodied experience of God and their spiritual journey into a broadened and deepened inner realm. Bequine mystics experienced a fiercely intimate encounter with the Divine – whom they called both “God” and “the One”...
For these women, prayer was being in the presence of God, seeking to unite their minds and hearts with the One they loved (and whom they frequently referred to as their “beloved”). A central goal in life for bequines was unity of will – that their personal will would become so united with the will of God that they essentially functioned as a unified whole. God's heart would be the seekers heart; the seekers heart would find a home in God and God alone. This unity of will would be evidenced by joy, mercy and compassion....
Bequines exhorted their followers to recognize that there existed no impediment to a deep and meaningful prayer life. No matter what a person's station in life, be they educated or uneducated, poor or wealthy, it did not impede or deny them awareness of God in their lives. God yearned to draw close to all.
As God yearns to draw close to God's children, so a deep healthy spiritual desire causes us to yearn to be close to God. When that yearning is present the many distractions and detours the secular world presents no longer influence us in a detrimental way. We are no longer tempted to be led astray like wandering sheep but are freed within the embrace of a loving God to follow the paths God sets before us.
The following is a story about someone who never questioned their faith until a catastrophic life event occurred that made their faith feel as though it was resting upon shifting sand:
Connie's parents were members of the local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witness and grew-up within an environment of strict religious discipline and beliefs. Some of these beliefs included that Jesus was not born as God in the flesh but was simply a human being. Later in Jesus' life they believe he becomes a “lesser” god with Jehovah as the “greater” God, and they believe Jesus resurrected spiritually, but not physically.
The entire list of beliefs that mainline Christianity would consider as heretical is considerable, including they don't celebrate Christmas because its not the date of Jesus' physical birth on earth. Since this was the only religious environment Connie was exposed to as a child, she had no reason to challenge the beliefs, until the catastrophic event occurred.
Connie was nineteen years old in her first year at college when she received the phone call that her mother had been struck by a hit and run driver and was killed instantly. At her mother's funeral she listened to the Congregational Elder recite some of their beliefs, and it was here that she began to call into question what she had previously taken for granted.
As time passed, and she continued her studies she found herself constantly doubting her childhood religious upbringing, and even having dreams that sometimes amplified these doubts. After much anguish and uncertainty, a low-level depression set in and without consciously knowing it she was searching for a way out of her dilemma.
Then one day she was walking through the student union building and spotted a poster advertising a weekly Quaker meeting. For some unexplained reason it appealed to her, but it took several weeks for her to gather the courage to attend. Though most Friends, (as Quakers call themselves) meet at a meetinghouse this meeting took place in the basement of the social sciences building.
Connie walked in to encounter a circle of Friends and she was quickly invited to take a seat in the circle. There was no specified program, and no particular leader in the group. Soon, everyone was asked to enter into a silence and if anyone received a message from the Holy Spirit they were encouraged to share it out-loud. In the ensuing hour that followed only two Friends received the metaphorical tap on the shoulder from the Holy Spirit, but it was enough to literally blow Connie away.
She had experienced the presence of God in a new and powerful way, and she began to envision a way out of her religious dilemma. In the months that followed the core of her religious beliefs shifted from the extreme beliefs of the Jehovah Witness to the quiet solitude of the Quakers, and a newfound conviction of the presence of God in her life.
I began this sermon saying the ministry of the Apostle Paul required great courage as he faced one challenge after the next. It also took great courage for Connie to walk into that Quaker meeting. By taking part in the meeting, she put her prior religious beliefs on the line, and though they no longer served her they amounted to the sum total of her religious worldview.
A growing, healthy practice of faith requires consistent study of God's word and other spiritual literature, and a devoted prayer life. It requires regular worship and fellowship with other people of faith. It requires ceaseless acts of compassion and a commitment to justice. And what may be most necessary if we're to grow in our practice of faith is the courage, we've witnessed today in both the Apostle Paul and Connie.
Courage is the one attribute that determines if we're going to keep moving ahead into a deeper relationship with God. Courage allows us to let go of beliefs and practices that no longer serve us. Courage can push us beyond the illusions we take refuge in into the depths of the living water within us.
Rev. Mitch Becker
November 26, 2023
First Christian Church
“Out On A Limb”
We need to be careful with our text today because at times it's abused and especially by televangelists and prosperity preachers. Sometimes the problem is in the interpretation of “talents.” A televangelist may interpret a talent as a gift like someone's singing ability or being gifted in persuading people to come to church. A prosperity preacher may use talents to promote his/her economic enrichment program.
In the parable a talent is a sum of money and is neither used to represent musical gifts or evangelical accomplishment, nor is it used to line the coffers of the church. Strictly speaking, what the parable is about is instruction to the disciples about how to perform their ministries while waiting in anticipation for the Lord's return.
This is not an uncommon theme for this particular gospel writer who will be making his exit on the first Sunday of Advent. Matthew is big on apocalyptic events or alluding to the end times. We're often not comfortable with this language because it can be harsh like when the worthless servant is thrown into “the outer darkness, where there is a weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
To avoid getting hung-up on the harsh language we need to keep an ever-present eye on the whole of the parable and the more important theological theme it represents, which is the kingdom of God. Like the disciples in Jesus time we're still waiting for the fullness of the kingdom to come, or as we say in unison every Sunday morning, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
To get down to the actual details of the story we see that a wealthy man is entrusting his estate to his servants, and there are three servants in all and each is given a certain share of the estate. As already stated, a talent is a sum of money and the first servant receives a ridiculous sum of money since 1 talent is the equivalent of 6,000 denarii (deh-nair-ree), which is equal to 20 years wages. Therefore, the five talents the first servant gets is equal to a hundred years of wages. A huge amount of money!
When the master returns, he finds that the first two servants have done good business and have multiplied what they were originally given. Because of their good business practices, they're invited to share in the joy of their master, which is their reward. On the other hand, the last servant fails to do any business at all, and buries his 1 talent, which was not an uncommon practice in the ancient world.
Because of this bad things happen to him. In making his defense the servant confesses that he was afraid to take any risks with the money, and in this way, he was only looking out for himself. Because he was afraid to take any risks, he ended up being punished.
People of faith need to take risks in order to stay in close relationship to God. When we're all tucked away nice and cozy in our comfort zones we have no need for God. We have to be willing to go out on a limb from time to time, and the consequence for not doing that is punishment. By punishment I don't mean the God of the Old Testament is going to throw us into the eternal fires. What I mean is we do a pretty good job of punishing ourselves.
By not taking risks and therefore not depending on God's grace we end up punishing ourselves mostly in the form of guilt. Though we may not be consciously aware of it in our heart of hearts we know we're falling short of what is expected of us. The term they used to use when I was a Pentecostal was “convicted.” We feel convicted because something crucial is missing in our lives, and that something is the presence of God.
Sometimes I've been known to do the right thing, so let me lead with such an example. Karen and I were on a flight returning from Hawaii and very soon at take off I experienced a panic attack. It came out of nowhere for no particular reason. My heart began to race and I was sweating and desperately desired to exit the airplane. I coped with it by focusing on things outside of my body, and several strained hours later we landed back home.
But the experience was so upsetting that now I was afraid to board another plane. Of course, we still had places to go and things to see, and in not too long afterword the time came to board another plane. As you can imagine during the whole time in anticipation of the flight I wrestled with demons. Finally, the day of departure arrived, and I found myself walking down the jet bridge wanting to turn and run with every step.
The moment of truth arrived when I reached the open door of the cabin. Though my feet were still moving forward I was frozen inside no longer moving myself forward – I was being carried by the grace of God. The image that comes to mind is the poem “Footsteps” where there is only one set of footsteps in the sand because the author was carried by God. You know the poem.
That makes something that continued to be quite difficult sound easy. It wasn't and in the plane I had to stay focused on the outside with my little electronic Yahtzee game, and my Bible and journal and staying in conversation with Karen and anyone else willing to talk.
In short, it was a long time coming back from the initial panic attack, and here's the rub. What would have happened if I had turned back at the door of the plane and gave in to the fear of flying? What if I had never taken the risk to board another plane? Simply put, fear would have won, and it would have left me feeling guilty about not trusting God and following through in faith. Do you see how guilt translates to self-punishment?
Since that first flight following the panic attack we've flown to Greece, Costa Rica twice, and even to Thailand which is a 21-hour flight. I still take my electronic Yahtzee game and still pack a few sleeping pills, that are about 20 years old, as “back-up” just in case I freak-out. These are “crutches” but its ultimately my faith in God that keeps me moving forward.
The quintessential story about risk taking and overcoming fear in the New Testament is the story about Peter walking on the water to be with Jesus. The quintessential story in the Old Testament is the sacrifice of Issac by his father Abraham. Let's listen to it again in contemporary language:
After all this, God tested Abraham. God said, “Abraham!” “Yes?” answered Abraham, “I'm listening.” He said, “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I'll point out to you.” Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place God had directed him.
On the third day he looked up and saw the place in the distance. Abraham told his two young servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there to worship; then we'll come back for you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to Isaac his son to carry. He carried the flint and the knife. The two of them went off together.
Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father?” “Yes, my son.” We have flint and wood, but where's the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “Son, God will see to it that there's a sheep for the burnt offering.” And they kept on walking together. They arrived at the place to which God had directed him. Abraham built an altar. He laid out the wood. Then he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood. Abraham reached out and took the knife to kill his son.
Just then an angel of God called to him out of Heaven. “Abraham! Abraham!” “Yes, I'm listening.” “Don't lay a hand on that boy! Don't touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn't hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me.”
(Genesis 22:1-12; The Message Bible)
Abraham, like me at the door of the airplane, was probably frozen inside and was only able to move ahead by faith. Perhaps faith is knowing, though the knowing is largely unconscious, that God is going to be there after the dreaded event takes place. When I crossed the threshold of the open door to the plane, I had all my coping mechanisms ready to go, but it was my faith in God that mattered most.
God was going to be there in the plane with me, and maybe Abraham is trusting that God will care for him after the dreadful event takes place, and Peter trusts that Jesus is not going to let him drown. There is a common theme that runs through all these stories of faith and that is there is a terrible unknowing that precedes each faith testing experience.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died in a Nazi concentration camp once spoke to this and this is what he said: “I can believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. I believe that God will give us the strength we need to help us, to resist in all times of distress. But God never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on God alone.”
Risk taking is therefore crucial to the development and maturing of our faith in God, and it is exactly what the last servant in our text refuses to do. He's not going to invest the money given to him because he's afraid he'll lose it and then be punished. Because he fails to take the risk he's punished anyway, and though what is alluded to is a type of apocalyptic punishment, it is guilt or self-punishment that is more likely to occur.
Which brings me to the close of this sermon and one final consideration to make. What if I had refused to go into the plane and had actually given in to my new found fear of flying? So far, the main thesis of this sermon has been we should step through our fears with faith, but what if that's not possible? There are some fearful situations we may not be ready to take on, and that means we're left wallowing in guilt.
If I'd not walked into that plane the result would have certainly been an ensuing struggle with guilt, and then something quite different would have been required. That something is the focus of the meal we're about to celebrate together. Forgiveness is also a gift from God and when we fail to move ahead by faith we can find refuge in forgiveness. As the Pentecostal's say, “We're covered by the blood,” or even more eloquently in the words of the Apostle Paul nothing: “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:39b)
Rev. Mitch Becker
November 19, 2023
First Christian Church
“The Art of Lambasting”
Amos appears in the eighth century before Christ into a nation struggling economically and surrounded by hostile enemies. Israel never had competent kings like Judah to the south did such as David and Hezekiah (Hays-uh-kye-uh). At the beginning of King Jeroboam's (jeh-ruh-bow-um's) reign Israel did enjoy both economic growth and expansion, but the second half wasn't so great, and after he left the throne Israel began to slip slide toward its demise.
This is the context in which the prophet Amos emerges, and Amos isn't a prophet like Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Amos is a sheep herder whom God Calls out of the flocks to prophesy to the people. Ironically, Amos proves to be one of the cleverest and most potent of all the prophets. Not unlike the other prophets he brings a message no one wants to hear, but he does it in a way that assures they will hear.
The opening chapters of the book of Amos begin by lambasting the hostile enemies which surround little Israel, and he does it remarkably well for a shepherd. Listen to this:
God's message: Because of the three great sins of Damascus – make that four – I'm not putting up with her any longer. She pounded Gilead (Gill-lee-uhd) to a pulp, pounded her senseless with iron hammers and mauls. For that, I'm setting the palace of Hazel on fire. I'm torching Ben-hadad's (Ben-ha-doad's) forts....It continues with: Because of the three great sins of Gaza – make that four – I'm not putting up with them any longer (this is followed by a listing of their sins.) Because of the three great sins of Tyre (Tire) – make that four – I'm not putting up with them any longer (then a listing of the sins.)
This continues with one kingdom after another until the final lambasting: God's message: Because of the three great sins of Israel – make that four – I'm not putting up with them any longer. They buy and sell upstanding people. People for them are only things – ways of making money. They'd sell a poor man for a pair of shoes. They'd sell their own grandmother! They grind the penniless into the dirt, shovel the luckless into the ditch....(Amos 2:6; The Message Bible) and so forth.
He suckers them in with a systematic put-down of the potential enemies that exist on all sides of little Israel, and then gives Israel itself both barrels! It soon becomes apparent that Israel was always the intended target of this lambasting. So, from the get-go Yahweh's not happy with his people and this sets the tone for our text today.
Our text involves the people asking for “the day of the Lord,” which is understood to be a time when Yahweh would come and vanquish all their enemies. But Amos counters their wishes by explaining to them that the day of the Lord will be one of darkness, not light, and they should dread that day, not hope in it. The dreadful illustration he uses to make his point is a man that escapes the jaws of a lion only to end up confronted by a bear, he then seeks refuge in a home where he is bitten by a poisonous snake.
This is a poignant image of the judgment of Yahweh, and then the text begins a systemic deconstruction of the worship practices of Israel in which it appears Yahweh isn't the least interested in their worship. The condemnation of worship practices includes, “I despise your festivals,” and “the music of your assemblies are like a clanging noise.”
It isn't until we arrive at the end of the text that we begin to understand Yahweh's disinterest, and what he really wants from them: “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it – I want fairness – rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want.” (Amos 5:24; The Message Bible) Now that sounds like something God would say because it shows God's concern for others.
We know from other parts of scripture that God has what the Catholics call a “preferential option for the poor.” By that they mean God is especially concerned about the economically poor and marginalized people of society. In our society the marginalized would include people of sexual orientation other than heterosexuals, people whose lineage goes back to Africa or Asia, people of compromised physical or mental health, and people in the winter of their lives.
These are the people God is especially interested in, but God's really concerned about everyone. God loves all his children. And the scriptures repeatedly show us that God wants first the marginalized, and then the rest of us, to all get a fair shake. One illustration that comes from the New Testament tells us what God is looking for, and how the early church met God's concern: “The whole congregation of believers was united as one – one heart, one mind! They didn't even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, 'That's mine; you can't have it' They shared everything.” (Acts 4:32; The Message Bible)
This is something of what God has in mind for both the Israelite's and us, and in this regard, I think our church is doing pretty well. Last year we were six for six meaning we gave money to all six offerings sponsored by the General Church. The next opportunity will be the Thanksgiving offering which goes to universities and seminaries within the sphere of our denomination, and according to the DMF website this offering includes scholarships and pastoral care that goes directly to students.
I wouldn't necessarily consider seminary students as marginalized, though some undoubtedly are, and they are all God's children who've received a special Calling to serve the Church, and they certainly deserve our support.
Recently our church provided a celebration of life service for people not directly associated with our church, but children of God none-the-less. These folks were in the early stages of grief having suffered the loss of a loved one taken from them by cancer. Due to the abruptness of her departure some of them were in shock and a celebration of life was an important step to take in the grief process. The service gathered the loved ones together to say this has happened, its real, and we move on together from here.
Some of the people who attended might be considered marginalized or even poor, but all were God's children in need of care. This might not be justice in the strictest sense of the word, but it is meeting peoples needs, and it is a way of caring for people outside of the walls of this church. Beyond this our church contributes to the Salvation Army, and we all give to various charities, food drives, and other community activities that support the well being of others.
We also facilitate three Narcotics Anonymous groups with marginalized people struggling to reach a lasting sobriety. Our church provides an important service to them, and the society we exist within.
But sometimes we fail and fall short of the justice God intends for us to administer in the world. Down on the corner of Front and Race streets you can often find someone standing with a sign that sometimes reads: “Cereal killer...anything helps” with cereal spelled c-e-r-e-a-l. Perhaps you've seen him?
On the day I wrote this sermon I was returning from purchasing a latte at the “Bean Me Up” coffee stand and someone was standing at that corner with a sign. I don't remember what the sign said, but I do remember his face. I had to stop one car back and I could see him quite clearly, and he looked directly at me with a expression of desperation that made your heart ache.
I thought of handing him a dollar, but it occurred to me the light would soon turn green, and I'd have to stop where no one expected me to stop, and I didn't want to interfere with the flow of traffic and possibly get rear-ended, so I kept moving. But now I'm haunted by that face, and all in the midst of writing a sermon about justice and righteousness. What brings me comfort is knowing there will be another opportunity, soon.
One of the most successful ministries I've ever been a part of was the monthly lunch put on by the women of First Christian Church, Shadyside, Ohio.
The target group for the lunch were the kids who attended the high school located in the neighborhood. When the ladies first presented the idea to me I thought, “Well, that group doesn't really represent the poor and marginalized in the community.” But after a few months of watching the ministry grow, and the different kinds of kids that came, I began to change my mind.
There were children of all types who came including poor ones, lonely ones, popular ones, sports jocks and a troublemaker here and there. It was a cross-section of the entire student body and sometimes that basement was full to capacity! A big draw to the monthly event was the quality of the food, and also the way it was administered with care and genuine friendliness.
We weren't trying to save people. We were just meeting a basic need, and like the NA groups or the people who came to the celebration of life, the need being met was happening in a church. Does everyone make the connection between the need getting met and the justice God requires – of course not. But then that's not what's ultimately important.
What matters is that we're listening to the prophet's message about justice and righteousness in a world that lacks sorely in both. What matters is that we're doing what God wants us to do in this needy world. What people make of that is beyond our sphere of influence. We're not here to save the world because we're not God. We're just trying to listen to God and do what we hear, and we're not perfect, and we're always going to fall short of the glory of God.
Earlier I spoke about feeling guilty about not giving the “cereal killer” a dollar, and when that sort of thing occurs it's important to remember that such feelings do not come from God. Guilt is a product of the ego and it has to do with punishment or the fear of punishment, which probably originates in childhood with the fear of parental punishment.
With this in mind how do we come to terms with scripture like we have today with the day of the Lord characterized as a man escaping the jaws of a lion only to be confronted by a bear and finally bitten by a snake. Well, consider that love and fear in the Old Testament is pretty much a wash. It's the gospel where love wins and it's the ministry of Jesus that we're trying to emulate.
The prophet Amos has a no-nonsense approach to delivering the message he has personally received from God, and in this sense he's no different from the other prophets. But when we study any of the prophets, we must keep in mind that the ancient Israelite's assigned very human-like characteristics to God.
God frequently appeared in actual human form and would display the full range of human emotions. Jesus refined this perception of God and showed us through both his teaching and his active ministry that God requires of us, and to borrow from another prophet: “...to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8b)
Rev. Mitch Becker
November 12, 2023
First Christian Church
“Spit and Polish”
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and, yet he was a member of the Sanhedrin which was made up of mostly Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin was like Congress and the Supreme Court combined. The Sanhedrin was both the judicial and administrative body of Israel in Jesus' time, and quite powerful. They're the only ones who could hold the king accountable, except possibly the queen.
If you'll recall in the Gospel of John Nicodemus is the one that comes forward and questions Jesus about God's kingdom that leads into a discussion about being born again. And after Jesus is crucified its Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (Air-uh-mat-tea-uh) that wrap Jesus' body in burial herbs.
I think it's only fair that while we look at Jesus' demoting and criticism of the Pharisee sect that we keep in mind the role that that these two Pharisees, Nicodemus and Joseph, played in Jesus' life and ministry. It suggests there may have been other Pharisees who were interested in the new Jesus movement and played some positive role in the establishment of the early church.
Let's take a closer look at the way Jesus deconstructs the Pharisee sect using an excerpt from Eugene Peterson's interpretation of this gospel text:
The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers of God's law. You won't go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don't live it. They don't take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It's all spit and polish veneer. Instead of giving you God's law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals.
They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called Doctor and Reverend.
(Matthew 23:2-7; The Message Bible)
Judaism at the time of Jesus was both oppressive and frustrating. There were 613 commandments one must follow to be right with God, and most of them were about food preparation and consumption.
One aspect of Jesus' mission was to try to simplify the Jewish Faith by centering it on compassion, grace and forgiveness. He wasn't trying to birth a new faith. He was trying to revamp his own faith. The central concept he uses to bring this altogether is what he calls the kingdom of God. Richard Rohr used to say something like Jesus came along and isolated the best parts of the Old Testament and applied them in his teachings.
Jesus wants to make his faith accessible to the poorest of souls which includes peasants, the sick, lame and blind, lepers and demon possessed. After all, Jesus is a peasant himself coming from the backwoods village of Nazareth. He's acutely aware that Judaism has become so inundated with rules and regulations making it unusable by common folk, and actually detrimental to the culture creating a faith vacuum.
So, he uses the two-edged sword approach to “edit” the Jewish Faith. One of those edges we see in our text today is his way of negatively critiquing the Pharisee sect. He's saying, in effect, that if you behave like the Pharisees, you'll never enter the kingdom of God.
For example: If you make a performance out of your good deeds, though people may pat you on the back, God's not impressed. If you help someone out just do it quietly. And don't make a big show of your prayer life – just find a secluded place by yourself and sit quietly in meditation and soon you'll begin to be aware of God's grace.
On the other edge of the sword, we find this beautiful description of how one enters the kingdom of God found in the Sermon on the Mount. This amounts to a positive example of Jesus' way of bringing in the kingdom:
What I'm trying to do here is get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving....Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. (Matthew 6:31, 33-34; The Message Bible)
That is just packed with spiritual instruction beginning with the encouragement to relax into God's giving. The ego or False self pushes and prods us to get, get, get all the while ignoring God's promise of grace. God knows what we need, but how often do we decide what's best for us and then hastily, or even recklessly, go about acquiring it? The False self says, “I want what I want, and I want it now!”
The True self can relax and wait for the gift God has in store for it, and when it's given can respond appropriately. 2
And there is the instruction to pay close attention to what God is doing in the immediate moment, and to not fret about what may happen in the future. The False self is obsessed with Time, both the past and the future, and God is present in neither. God is only in the present moment, so that's where we must learn, through much devoted practice, to stay in.
This is where meditation of some sort becomes crucial to a healthy spiritual life. By meditation I can mean a meditative sit, but there are countless ways to arrive, and learn to stay in the present moment including knitting, painting, playing music, and long walks to nowhere in particular. Whatever helps you to let go of the past and future is meditative in nature.
A quick example of how worrying about the future keeps us trapped in Time is my visit last week to Dr. Peters the dermatologist at Jamestown. My imaginary fear was she was going to slice off moles which than require time to heal, and consequently make life awkward and uncomfortable. When I got there, she gave me the once over and told me I have some dark and irregular moles, but no worry, and she'll see me in six months to check them again.
I have to admit, I didn't torture myself with fearful imaginings of the future as I sometimes do, but wouldn't it be wonderful if I could skip the fretting altogether! I'm moving in that direction, but it's still going to be awhile before I reach that blessed place of being able to stay in the present moment with God regardless of what's happening in my life.
Cynthia Bourgeault (Bore-jo) has more to say about these matters, and she's bringing it all into a context of hope:
In the contemplative journey, as we swim down into the deeper waters toward the wellspring of hope, we begin to experience and trust what it means to lay down self, to let go of ordinary awareness and surrender ourselves to the mercy of God....then we discover within ourselves the mysterious plenitude to live into action what our ordinary hearts and minds could not possibly sustain.
….we are released from the grip of personal fear and set free to minister with skillful means and true compassion to a world desperately in need of re-connection.
Hope is not imagery or illusion. It is that sonar by which the body of Christ holds together and finds its way. If we, as living members of the body of Christ, can surrender our hearts....and listen for the sonar with all our worth, it will again guide us, both individually and corporately, to the future for which we are intended. And the body of Christ will live, and thrive, and hold us tenderly in belonging.
Lets unpack Cynthia's ideas: She begins by saying we need our meditations to take us to a deeper place within us. A place we largely ignore with our constant distractions, busyness and fretting. If we can give-up our everyday state of consciousness we may discover what true hope is. We may discover a spaciousness and generosity that enables us to do extraordinarily things.
From this place of real hope comes a compassion that reaches out to a desperate world to restore life-giving relationships. This is the body of Christ healing a broken world.
The Apostle Paul uses the human body to describe the body of Christ. He says the human body has many parts but its still one body. So it is with the Church where there are many separate members but all are one through our baptism into Christs body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14) So here, the body of Christ is the collective membership of the Church made up of those who've been brought into mystical union through baptism.
What Cynthia is describing is the way we're brought into mystical union with Christ through some form of contemplation. In this respect, contemplation amounts to re-baptism. We're just being baptized again, over and over, every time we surrender ordinary awareness to God consciousness.
You can see how Cynthia's description of the body of Christ is more than a collective of baptized members. She's giving us a body of Christ that's active and healing the world. This mystical body of Christ is not dependent upon numbers of people in the pews or an active Children's Church or devoted Bible study groups. This body of Christ requires people of faith, like us, who are willing to be baptized time and again through some type of contemplative practice.
Rev. Mitch Becker
November 5, 2023
First Christian Church
“God's Waiting Room”
Our text opens with Moses climbing Mount Nebo so the Lord can show him the Promised Land that he'll not be allowed to enter, which may seem a bit cruel. God tells Moses this is the land that would be given to the patriarch's and their descendants. After Moses is shown this sweeping vision he dies and God buries him in the land of Moab (Moe-ab), and that wraps-up the journey through the wilderness for the people of God.
The people mourn the appropriate amount of time for Moses, and then Joshua enters the picture. Joshua has received the spirit of wisdom, and therefore has been empowered by the laying on of hands by Moses, and he becomes the new leader of the people of God.
The text ends with recognition of the special Calling of Moses. One of the commentaries written by Margaret Odell encapsulated well how Moses was seen by the people after his death:
Curiously, what is celebrated is not his character or his heroism, or even his faith. What is important is that he is the one whom God knew face to face, and through whom God performed such signs and wonders. In memory, then, Moses remains the one through whom God became fully known. Though he appears to be excluded, he is the key to their memory of God's mighty acts of deliverance, and therefore of their ongoing covenantal relationship. In memory, then, Moses remains the glue keeping Israel and God together.
This is an important time of transition. They are in-between leaders with Moses committed to memory, and as important as that is the new leader is just coming on board having been duly prepared, but without experience. Joshua hasn't done anything yet, other than a military encounter with the Amalekites.
This amounts to a time of liminality for the people because though they've been pointed in the right direction they're not going to move without a leader. They're in mourning for their previous leader and are awaiting Joshua to take the helm.
We've all experienced such times of liminality in our own lives with marriages, loss of loved ones, major moves to different parts of the country just to name a few. Can you remember what it was like as you stood at the edge of the old life preparing to move into the new one? For the most part we avoid such times because we don't like the feeling of now knowing what may happen next, but liminality is crucial in spiritual development.
Father Rohr, as he does so well, can tell us more:
We keep praying that our illusions will fall away. God erodes them from many sides, hoping they will fall. But we often remain trapped in what we call normalcy – “the way things are.” Life then revolves around problem-solving, fixing, explaining, and taking sides with winners and losers. It can be a pretty circular and even nonsensical existence.
To get out of this repetitive cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. There alone is our old world left behind, though we're not yet sure of the new existence. That's a good space where genuine newness can begin. We must get there often and stay as long as we can by whatever means possible. It's the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way.
This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don't encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God's waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the Divine Doctor.
At our age we've all spent ample time in the waiting room waiting to see a doctor. We avoid this because waiting to see the doctor often includes a fair degree of anxiety as our egos typically lean toward the negative, and we go over endless scenarios of doom and despair. Some people have learned to circumvent this behavior, but most of us still fret a great deal.
Father Rohr is encouraging us to do something the ego avoids, and that means overriding our normal response to trust that God has something better in store for us. That, by the way, is a definition of faith. He's encouraging us to consciously and intentionally walk into God's waiting room or as he puts it, “to get there often and stay as long as we can.”
As well, by consistently involving ourselves in whatever spiritual discipline leads us into liminal, sacred space, eventually it becomes the place we most want to be. At that point we know a transformation has taken place which makes us capable of identifying with the following words of the gospel: “It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” (Matthew 6:19; The Message Bible)
When God's waiting room becomes your heart's desire you know that something has changed significantly within your interior life. The psalm expresses it like this: “Now you've got my feet on the life path all radiant from your shining face. Ever since you took my hand, I'm on the right way. “ (Psalm 16:11; The Message Bible)
We left off with the people's memory of Moses as the glue that holds God and Israel together. Moses' death would be the final separation between him and God's people, and there had been many separations prior to his death the most pronounced being the forty days and nights on the mountain. But the people of God are now left to press on into the Promised Land under different leadership, though Moses had pleaded with God to allow him to enter with the people. The explanation for Moses' exclusion is that God was angry with him because of what happened when the people were given the water from rock. God says: “This is because you broke faith with me in the company of the people of Israel at the Waters of Meribah (Mare-ah-bah) in the Wilderness of Zin (Zin) – you didn't honor my Holy Presence in the company of the people of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 32:51; The Message Bible)
Apparently, Moses took credit for the miraculous flow of water that preceded from the rock rather than assigning the miracle to God's grace (not sure I could validate this explanation with scripture), and this angered God to the extent he denied Moses' entry into the Promised Land. And God was quite adamant about this as he tells Moses after Moses pleads for mercy: “Enough! Speak no more to me about this matter!” (Deuteronomy 3:26)
This conjures up the image of The Wizard telling Dorothy in no uncertain terms: “Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful OZ! I said come back tomorrow!”
Not only is Moses denied entry, but his life ends all together which discloses a mysterious bond between him and the Israelite's. Because his death, as well, can be seen as a sharing of the suffering and punishment the Israelite's underwent during their journey through the wilderness. One example of punishment is when God sent snakes to bite the people:
They set out from Mount Hor (Whore) along the Red Sea route, a detour around the land of Edom (E-dumb). The people became irritable and cross as they traveled. They spoke out against God and Moses” “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to die in this godforsaken country? No decent food; no water – we can't stomach this stuff any longer.” So God sent poisonous snakes among the people; they bit them and many in Israel died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke out against God and you.” (Numbers 21:4-7; The Message Bible)
Moses is punished for failing to give God credit for the miracle of water from rock, and the Israelite's are punished for their whining and complaining, and it all takes place during the wilderness journey. Wilderness can be seen as an extension of liminal space. The Israelite's wilderness experience challenges their certitudes with questions like: Where will our next meal come from, and when are we going to get a drink of water?
These outward challenges to certitude culminate in inward challenges of certainty having to do with faith in both Moses and God: “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to die in this godforsaken country?”
This narrates a major crisis of faith, but liminal space can also occur in terms of moments. The other evening after picking up Karen following orchestra practice I experienced a liminal moment while driving through Carlsborg. It was dark and rainy, and suddenly I didn't know where I was, it all looked so different. I became momentarily disoriented, but soon regained my bearings after recognizing Sunny Farms Country Store.
It was only a minor event, but it serves to illustrate why we avoid liminal space. The disorientation creates anxiety and uncertainty that the ego detests. The ego or False self has several defense mechanisms it uses to guard against anxiety and uncertainty including repression, denial, and projection with denial being probably the most dysfunctional and unhealthy.
To briefly consider why these are dysfunctional we only need to think of what happens when we lose someone we deeply love. The first stage of grief is denial that may initially serve a purpose, but some people get stuck in that stage or perpetuate it through the use of drugs or some other addictive practice. It then becomes unhealthy because it doesn't allow the person to responsibly negotiate the stages of grief to eventually reach the blessed stage of acceptance.
As people of faith, and to use a metaphorical example, we must grab hold of Jesus' hand and hold tight!. Whether it be brief and momentary or protracted liminal experience – prayer, scripture, worship, Christian community, and ceaseless acts of compassion all serve to help us negotiate the anxiety and uncertainty that comes when we're in God's waiting room.
One famous story in scripture that illustrates this is when Peter sees Jesus walking on the water and goes out to join him: Peter, suddenly bold, said, “Master, if it really is you, call me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come ahead.” But when he looked down at the waves churning beneath his feet, he lost his nerve and started to sink. He cried, “Master, save me!” Jesus didn't hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand. Then he said, “Faint-heart, what got into you?” The two of them climbed into the boat, and the wind died down. (Matthew 14:28-32; The Message Bible)
Rev. Mitch Becker
October 29, 2023
First Christian Church
Due to the golden calf incident the relationship between God and his people have changed, and Moses isn't happy. At this point we know that God has freed his people from their bondage in Egypt and has established a special relationship with them as his “treasured possession” and “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Beyond this they've been given the Ten Commandments and direction in how to build a tabernacle which is a sort of traveling sanctuary.
The tabernacle brings God into their immediate presence since at times it's filled with God's glory. The problems emerge when the people seem dead set on sinning as they so well displayed by worshiping an idol made of gold. The golden calf incident appears to have traumatized God, and now God wants to remove his presence to a safer proximity from his people.
Moses will have none of this since God earlier promised to accompany the Israelite's all the way to the Promised Land and will even clear-out the existing people in the land prior to their arrival. It may be hard for us to conceive of a God that is this emotionally sensitive, but that seems to be the case. To put it succinctly, God's feelings have been hurt and he's going to keep his distance!
This gives God very humanlike characteristics that we can all identify with, since separation and distancing is a typical response to someone that hurts us. At times we must override the inclination to distance in order to stay in relationships that matter to us. This may mean searching for ways through prayer or study or therapy to find forgiveness – a forgiveness that often exceeds what is humanly possible.
Since God is the author of forgiveness, we might expect the story to move in that direction, but instead God finds an innovative route and tells Moses: “And I will send an angel before you....Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Exodus 33:2-3)
Let me jump in here with some personal commentary. When we study the Old Testament and consider the Book of Exodus, we see a God that is very much like us. In fact, at the end of this text God will appear in human form, and with some irony, show Moses only his backside.
I think (and here comes the biblical text according to Mitch) that our understanding of who God is has evolved over time. Today's text is thought to have been written about 14 centuries before Christ. The ancient Hebrew people see God as emotionally sensitive, and willing to eradicate whole peoples for the sake of the chosen ones, and God appears to be avoiding a closer relationship with his people because their stubbornness may cause him to murder them!
Now I ask you, does that sound like the God that Jesus describes in his teachings? Does that sound like the compassionate, caring, healing, forgiving God of the gospels? Our understanding of God evolved considerably in those 14 centuries prior to Christ's arrival. And in the 20 centuries since then our understanding of God has evolved even more so and I often share cutting-edge theology with you via Richard Rohr or Marcus Borg or James Finley and so on.
So, Moses is not happy with God's change of plan and he's being persistent in trying to change God's mind. I often cite The Message Bible because it can bring out the emotional dimension of the scriptures. Listen as Moses reveals his disappointment to God:
Look, you tell me, 'Lead this people,' but you don't let me know whom you're going to send with me. You tell me, 'I know you well and you are special to me.' If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don't forget, this is your people, your responsibility.
In Hebrew the word is “chutzpah” (huts-pah) which means a boldness to the point of being rude, or another word we might use is “audacity.” Moses is confronting the Creator of the Universe describing God's responsibility and sharing his disappointment with God's plan. Remarkably, God responds by saying:
"All right. Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name.”
Moses is on a roll now, and from here it's almost as if Moses wants to see the extent of his influence with God. So, he asks God for a personal appearance, and God grants it, but again with conditions. God will let Moses see him, but only his backside which shows us God has a sense of humor.
The Old Testament is chock-full of these personal appearances with God. God reveals himself in various ways beginning with a conversation with Adam and Eve, and later in various forms with Noah, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and others. In all of these appearances God takes on some type of human form or expression.
The Old Testament is called old because the first writings date back to 14 centuries before Christ. The oldest writings are Genesis and the books of Moses referred to as the Pentateuch (Pent-tau-tuke). The New Testament containing the Gospels of Jesus Christ don't appear until the first century after Christ's birth, and with the New Testament God comes to us not as a conversation or as a backside fading into the distance, but rather comes forth in a cold cave in a small village in Israel as a human baby.
This is a God that is trying every which way to be in intimate relationship with his creation. In our text today we see God bending his will and changing his mind to stay in relationship with one of his prophets, and beyond that with his chosen people. At this point it's fair to ask the question how far will God go to stay in relationship with us?
The answer to that question is we don't know what God will do next. What we do know is God came to us as a baby that grew to be a boy and then a man who walked among us. Ever since he was crucified there has been talk of his return, but what if the way he returns is now through each one of us? What if The Way is God's way of returning to us one faithful follower at a time?
This explains the Apostle Paul's words to the Corinthians when he says: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) Christ returns through each one of us as we participate with the Spirit in following The Way he left us.
But it's apparent something has gone wrong, because The Way is largely being ignored. Even though it was put into writing 500 years prior to Christ's birth it's still far from general knowledge, though because of modern technology it has become widely accessible.
But instead of people committing to the right-brained, intuitive, spiritually disciplined practice of The Way we have taken a wrong-turn and have become focused upon a left-brained, rational, materialistic approach to life. This mindset finds it's origin and propagation through the accomplishments of science and technology. Therefore, the battle for the human soul can be understood as a struggle between science and religion.
I deeply appreciate the accomplishments of the scientific method. I would not be standing here today if it were not for the medical team that removed a cancerous tumor from my kidney. Many of you can attest to the same sort of medical deliverance.
But it's gone too far, and people are thinking too much about the wrong things. Indeed, we have to think a great deal in order to be healed by the Spirit of God, and such thinking needs to be centered on what Jesus calls the kingdom of God and other matters of the soul as opposed to thinking about new and creative ways to acquire the desires of the ego.
In this vein the scriptures lend ample guidance including:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Psalm 23:1)
Don't hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or – worse! – stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it's safe from moth and rust and burglars. It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being. (Matthew 6:19-21; The Message Bible)
One of the problems that keeps humanity from moving forward and growing in Spirit the way God intends is the conflict between science and religion that many of us attest to, yet the two discipline don't need to be seen as conflictual. Perhaps they simply play two different roles in culture. To put it simply and succinctly: science tells us what is happening, and religion assigns meaning or tells us why we exist.
One source, of many, that feeds the notion the two are in conflict is the story about Galileo and the Catholic Church:
Galileo accomplished much contributing to the advancement of science including developing and refining the telescope. With his telescope he determined Venus orbited the sun and he identified the moons around Jupiter. But he is best remembered for championing the theory that the earth is not at the center of the solar system promoting earlier published ideas of Nicholas Copernicus.
This challenged the churches belief that the earth was fixed at the center and the sun revolved around it since to cite one particular scripture verse in Joshua 10:12 God commands the sun to stand still. But the problems didn't arise because of the church's resistance to new scientific discoveries. For example, Jesuit astronomers confirmed the discoveries in Galileo's book: “The Starry Messenger” as early as 1611.
The biggest problem was Galileo's personality. He tried to push the truths he uncovered too hard not giving the Pope and other church leaders time to adjust to his revolutionary ideas.
Two-hundred years later the Catholic Church fully accepted Copernicus' heliocentric theory of the solar system that Galileo passionately promoted, but that just reflects the official policy. Many in the church were convinced of the truth of the heliocentric theory long before 1822.
This is only one example of the many contrived issues between religion and science. The two disciplines are simply two different ways of describing God's creation. The conflicts that arise say more about human behavior than they do about these two disciplines.
In summary, we see that Galileo and Moses have something in common as they were both persistent prophets of their time. Galileo led humanity out of ignorance and into knowledge about the physical universe that surrounds us. He did this at great personal sacrifice and lived under house arrest for the last 17 years of his life.
Moses took great risks in confronting the all-powerful Yahweh and insisting that God keep his promises. What happened between Moses and God shows us that God's mind can be changed with persistence and prayer, and clearly illustrates God's willingness to remain in relationship with his creation.
Rev. Mitch Becker
October 22, 2023
First Christian Church
In the Bible there are two subjects that surface time and again. The first being the concept of forgiveness that runs throughout the biblical text and is highlighted in the New Testament in the parable of the prodigal son. The second is the concept of idolatry that is spotlighted in the story about the golden calf which is our text for this morning.
There are a variety of ways to approach this text and one way involves the realization that God's people haven't yet seen God. They know God is supporting them in their journey through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They're given both manna and quail to eat, and water from a rock so they don't starve or die of thirst, and except for a couple appearances to the religious leaders Moses is the only one who actually sees and hears God.
Moses has become their direct link to the deity and you can understand their concern when he doesn't return from the mountain. The duration of his absence is considerable amounting to forty days and nights, and they can't go after him as they've been restricted to climb the mountain on the penalty of death.
In desperation they turn to his brother Aaron, and ask him to make them a god they can worship. Something they can see and touch and identify with apparently tired of God being so distant. Oddly enough, Aaron gives in to their request and asks for the jewelry they brought with them from Egypt.
When God learns of the golden calf it makes him rip-roaring mad and he wants to incinerate his people! Moses attempts damage control and pleads with God to not punish the people. Beyond that he wants to assure that God will stay with them all the way to the Promised Land.
Moses reasons with God by telling God the Egyptians will think little of him if he frees the people only to slaughter them later. He also plays the covenant card reminding God of the promises to the patriarchs. And God, like he did with the Assyrians in the Jonah story, changes his mind and decides not to eliminate his people. Never a dull moment in the Old Testament.
It's easy for us to identify with the behavior of the ancient Israelite's since in many ways we haven't changed much. Don't we sometimes in times of desperation want God to appear or at least provide some sure sign of his presence to give us guidance or wisdom or emotional support or all the above?
We do until it occurs to us that a real-life personal appearance might be a bit much to handle. We all want to maintain the freedom to sin if we choose.
We can understand their desire for a god they can see and touch, but the Apostle Paul is quite clear about idols: “Some people say, quite rightly, that idols have no actual existence, that there's nothing to them, and there is no God other than our one God.” (1 Corinthians 8:4; The Message Bible)
One way to think about idolatry and why people want a god they can see, and touch is because things that are accessible are more so controllable. An invisible god is hard to predict and even harder to manipulate or direct, but a tangible god is always accessible and can be made available at will. A tangible god creates the illusion that you're in control, but this doesn't indicate a healthy spirituality.
When I replaced the living, invisible God with the tangible god of an alcohol addiction it made me feel I was in control of my life. Beyond that, with alcohol I could control my own emotional life and bring myself to a place of illusionary contentment time and again. Of course, when I woke up in the morning I was often plunged back into a hellish hangover. But when your young such experiences are manageable, and soon you're ready to do it again.
Addiction has much to do with being able to create and recreate the illusion that your the master of your own fate. It is a very godlike practice which works for a time, but eventually the practice itself will destroy you, along with the relationships that matter most.
One of the most effective ways to avoid addiction or any form of idolatry is to cultivate a prayer life that keeps you in relationship with the true, living God. In the following James Finley counsels us in the contemplative life:
A contemplative practice is any act, habitually entered into with your whole heart, as a way of awakening, deepening, and sustaining a contemplative experience of the inherent holiness of the present moment. Your practice might be some form of meditation, such as sitting motionless in silence, attentive and awake to the abyss-like nature of each breath.
Your practice might be simple heartfelt prayer, slowly reading the scriptures, gardening, baking bread, writing or reading poetry, drawing or painting, or perhaps running or taking long slow walks to no place in particular. Your practice may be to be alone, really alone, without any addictive props or diversions. Or your practice may be that of being with that person (who when in their presence) you are called to a deeper place.
The critical factor is not so much what the practice is in its externals as to the extent to which the practice incarnates an utterly sincere stance of awakening and surrendering to the Godly nature of the present moment.
You can see that what he's describing is the opposite of any addictive practice since addiction is all about being in charge of the moment, as opposed to surrendering to it. Another way of looking at it is contemplation leads to the ability to wait patiently upon God's grace which is always available to us whenever we're willing to let go and let God. The following story may help us to see the wide variety of practices that can seem innocent on the surface, but on closer examination are addictive and therefore idolatrous.
Ernie retired at age 65 after working in construction as a drywall finisher for 35 years. He had lost his wife several years prior to retirement and never had any children. He didn't really want to retire but had to because of health reasons. His wife had always been the extrovert accompanying her to various festivals and concerts and keeping them in touch with relatives in the area.
But with her passing Ernie became something of a recluse and rarely left the house only on occasion to eat at a restaurant downtown they used to frequent. When he was married his wife would allow him to watch a football, basketball or a baseball game on the weekends, but she became irritable if he tried to watch more than one game. Now that she was gone he was free to watch as many games as his heart desired.
As technology allowed not only could he watch more than one game a day, but could actually watch more than one game simultaneously! It was not unusual for Ernie to spend the majority of his waking hours watching sports. Ernie did not view his habitual practice of sports watching as negative or counter-productive, and it served to fill up the empty place that was once filled by his work and wife. Needless to say his life was permeated with boredom which often led to despair, and at times he even thought of ending his life.
Then, one day a close friend whom he often worked in construction with died and he felt obligated to attend the celebration of life at a local church. At the gathering that followed he ran into an old friend from high school and they talked about the passing of their mutual friend. During the conversation his old friend said that he was hosting a weekly Bible study and fellowship at his home and told Ernie he was welcome to join them.
Ernie initially thought little of the invitation, but one afternoon while watching two football games at the same time he began to seriously entertain the possibility of going to one of the Bible studies just to check it out.
The next week on the evening of the Bible study instead of turning on the game he put on his coat and drove over to his old friend's house. There were maybe 8 people in the front room, and they read from the Letter to the Philippians and talked about what it meant to them. When Ernie would join in the conversation, he was often defensive and argumentative (r-gyou-men-tuh-tiv) looking at things from a scientific/psychological point of view.
He found that his arguments were not especially persuasive, even to him! The same held true the next week, and he kept going back because though he was “losing” the arguments, he felt a need beginning to be met. Over the course of several weeks, and with much encouragement from his new found friends, he was baptized and became a member of their church. In looking back at that transitional time in his life he can see that his rational, left-brained arguments were being countered with the love of Christ.
Though he was oblivious to it it was that love that he was looking for all along. The love filled the void left by his wife and work that he for so long tried to fill by watching countless sporting events on television. He could now see the futility of it all, and was deeply thankful for the “chance” meeting at the celebration of life, and the generous spirit of his old friend from high school.
We'd like to think that Ernie's situation is not the rule, but rather the exception. Sadly, in our fast paced culture where desires can get immediate gratification and the technology feeds social isolation idolatry in many forms runs rampant. Whether it be sports or smart phones, gambling or pornography, working excessively or overindulgent shopping the practice of idolatry in our time is often an attempt to fill a void that can only be filled by the love of God.
It's not hard to understand the desire of the Israelite's to have a god they can see and touch, and they narrowly missed annihilation. This is usually where idolatrous practices lead to: despair, depression, or even annihilation. Idolatry is always a poor substitute for what we're all looking for and that is the redemptive love of God that restores meaning and the rock-solid assurance that we're being cared for.
In the words of the French mathematician Blaise (Blaze) Pascal (Pass-sgal): “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every (human being) which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the creator, made known through Jesus.
Rev. Mitch Becker
October 15, 2023
First Christian Church
“Having the Upper Hand”
This parable is about identifying who Jesus is along with what's the source of his authority. That's why the religion scholars ask him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Though this parable is often referred to as: “the parable of the wicked tenets,” that's a bit misleading because it's really about who Jesus is and where his authority comes from; and it's a portrayal of the gospel story as a whole.
It begins by describing Jesus in a number of ways including he's the son who comes to take stock and claim the holdings of the Father. He's also violently rejected by the tenets the Father left to tend to the store, so to speak. The Father identified as the “householder” in the parable also redeems the son after the rejection occurs, and finally the son's redemption leads to the final judgment of the wayward tenets.
From a strictly theological point of view the son coming to reclaim the Father's holdings represents the restoring of the world to its divinely created order. If we take into consideration the scope of Jesus' activity in the world. we see this restoration taking place. We see it in the healing of the sick, blind and lame, and in sinners being redeemed, and it's all done for God's glory!
To bring this into context with our denomination, the Disciples of Christ, I can quote our identity statement which is in part: “...to bring wholeness to a fragmented world.” Jesus also has a name for this restored world which he calls the kingdom of God.
This restoration encounters considerable friction from those who have a vested interest in the world's brokenness. This is where the wayward tenets come into the picture – the tenets being the symbolic representation of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders Jesus sees as blind guides, though not all of them to cite Nicodemus as one shining example of a legitimate Jewish leader.
It was the chief priests of the Temple who initially ask him the question about who he is and where his authority comes from, and it's important to note that these “tenets” the householder has chosen to care for the vineyard have a legitimate role to play since they were chosen by the Father.
It's important to note their legitimacy since the parable wants to point out that they've been unfaithful to their appointment, and are attempting to claim the vineyard, that symbolically represents Israel, as their own.
God's appointed tenets no longer see themselves as leaders of Israel, but more so in actual ownership of Israel. Another way of saying it is the tenets were entrusted to care for the flock but have rebelliously robbed God stealing the flock for their own self gain.
This brings us to an important aspect of the parable where we need to be cautious about pointing fingers at the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, but rather try to put ourselves in their shoes. How are we tempted to see ourselves in ownership of our God given ministries, rather than seeing ourselves as called by God to perform our ministries in faith and with compassion?
Beyond this, how do we lend ourselves to a spiritual blindness due to pursuits of self-interest? To put this into one clear phrase: how do we confuse service with entitlement as the tenets in the parable appear to be doing?
The word that pops into my mind is “humility.” It is a humble attitude that keeps us from being consumed by self-interest and focused upon our Call to service to both God and the world. The following Richard Rohr meditation helps to bring this into focus:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit” are Jesus' first words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3). And though Jesus made this quite clear throughout his life, we still largely turned Christianity into a religion where the operative agenda was some personal moral perfection, or obtaining some kind of salvation, “going to heaven,” converting others rather than ourselves, and acquiring more health, wealth and success in the world.
In that pursuit, we ended up largely aligning with empires, wars, and colonization of the planet, instead of with Jesus or the powerless. All climbing and little descending, and it has all caught up with us in the (21st) century. A spirituality of descent frees us to surrender to God our often-messy lives.
Authentic Christianity is not so much a belief system as a life and death system that shows us how to give away our life, how to give away our love, and eventually how to give away our death. Basically, how to give away – and in so doing, to connect with the world, with all other creatures, and with God.
Father Rohr has often said in his writings that a healthy spirituality is more about subtraction than addition, and that probably explains in large part why there are so many people in our culture that are not interested in things of the Spirit. This all brings to mind my own story which is the story I can tell the best. I'll tell it in the hope that it helps you to see your story.
It is not difficult to look back over my life and see the things I've had to give away in order to continue my journey with Christ. What first comes to mind was giving up my addiction to alcohol, and a biggish step that was. It was more of a process of starts and stumbles and starts until finally the goal was reached. But not until major trauma was introduced including a car accident and time in jail. The result was a lasting sobriety. To attend the university, I had to give up my hometown and family; and after graduation from OSU, I worked an extra year at Paul Franklin's Chevron so I could care for my beloved dog Omar, but the day came when I had to let him go to. The result of leaving everyone was a seminary education and ordination. Another huge step forward in my journey with Christ.
After my first three pastorates, that all came with considerable struggle and consequent growth in spirit and professional skill, I was called to let go of the Pacific Northwest and travel to an entirely different culture in Ohio. The result was my first truly successful church and my courtship and marriage to my wife of now twenty years.
You can see that the biggest steps result in the greatest gains. There are many people who intentionally go through life avoiding letting go of the things that matter to them, and the price they pay can be enormous. Refusing to let go, and therefore to grow in spirit, and other ways, often means to end up in depression or despair or to become cynical and angry, or to even fall into addiction. We have to let go to grow, and its that simple and it's that hard.
Jesus and the Apostle Paul and the whole of scripture shows us The Way to let go and grow into a deeper relationship to God, and the lessor letting go of things can be seen as preparation for the ultimate letting go, which is the letting go of the False self.
That's the ultimate letting go because when the False self-exits the doorway to the True self is opened wide.
Unfortunately for the human race there are few who are able to go all the way. This is what Jesus means when he says: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
For an example of the difficulty of following The Way the recent loss of my mother has left me in a perpetual state of grief. It's not debilitating grief, but it often surfaces, and I'm trying to move through it in a way that promotes spiritual health and emotional well-being.
The other day I deleted my mother's email address which caused me to recall the way she used to read my sermons and give me feedback. My sermons provided a way for us to stay in touch, and deleting her address left me feeling bereft (brrr-rift). But deleting the address was another way to turn a page and move on. Being fully involved in the grief process is critical if you want to stay spiritually and emotionally healthy.
Deleting her address was relatively easy compared to making the trip to Molalla to view the body, which was another important step in the grief process. And that was easy compared to making the trip to the Metolius River for the internment of her ashes with my family. From the point of view of spiritual health each of these steps are ways to honor the process and responsibly let go of the past to embrace a future with God.
With each step we make on our spiritual journeys one gets a bit closer to the ultimate letting go which is the letting go of the False self, or the ego, or the person that you identify with your name. All the False selves in the world have a name like Mitch or Karen or Lisa or Stephanie or whatever. And at this point I could go on to describe the False self, but I'd rather tell you what the True self is because that's our real goal.
Its a bit futile to describe the True self with mere words, because the True self isn't really of this world. It transcends the world and at the same time is foundational to it. If we want to live content from the center of our existence we have to seek and eventually find our True self. Jesus would say, “...and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
The day I wrote this sermon while driving down Hwy. 101 a car passed me and cut me off when he reentered the lane. Apparently, going five miles over the speed limit wasn't fast enough for him. This is an example of what you let go of after you find your True self. All the mindless rushing around and being in a hurry, and the being for or against, and the being totally right or totally wrong, and the need to win and be on top – all that once seemed to matter no longer does.
The True self is accepting of both good and evil because both are seen as necessary, and there is no hurry to make judgments, and its even comfortable living with ambiguity. The True self is awareness itself and that's very different from thinking. Father Rohr would say, “This is your soul. This is God in you. This is your True self.”
One way to describe who Jesus was is he's one who lived from his True self and this is also the place from which he derived his authority.
Rev. Mitch Becker
October 8, 2023