If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 26, 2012

A New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote a book entitled Broken Covenant in which he proposed that America had broken its democratic covenant with its people. In its pursuit of individualism, material gain, and imperialism, America has not lived up to its covenant to pursue the general welfare of its people. Bellah’s lamentation is a prophetic cry in the wilderness of America’s broken covenant and commitments to social justice and the common good of the people.

Bellah’s cry resonates with the prophet Jeremiah’s lamentation of Israel’s broken covenant. Jeremiah had seen the sweeping reforms of Judah’s king Josiah seeking to bring the nation back in alignment with the Mosaic covenant. He grew disillusioned with Josiah’s Davidic successors, like King Jehoiakim. He decried reliance upon the “holy temple” as an empty symbol for Judah’s protection against their enemies. The prophet Jeremiah wailed against the injustices of Judah’s leaders, the abuse of the poor and powerless, and the unfaithfulness of her people, which he viewed as a breaking of God’s covenant.

For Jeremiah, even if the nation, Solomon’s temple, the Davidic throne, the holy city of Jerusalem might all vanish and the covenant be broken, still God could have a covenantal relationship with the people.

That’s because Jeremiah envisioned a coming day when a new covenant would be written upon their heart. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the Mosaic covenant, which they broke, like stone tablets dropped on the ground. This does not mean that it will have no relation to the old covenant made through Moses at Mount Sinai.

We are not talking about a new covenant doing away with the essence of old covenant. Jeremiah’s phrase, “new covenant,” may be where Christians derive the title the “New Testament,” but he was not talking about a new Christian covenant doing away or superseding the old Jewish covenant. The new covenant is not a trashing of God’s law for Israel and the prediction of a new covenant without any type of law.

Rather, it will be a new covenant in the sense that it will fulfill the original intent of the Sinai covenant. Jeremiah’s covenant is new in that it will not be written upon stone, but on the tablets of the heart.

What does it mean to have the law written upon our hearts? We might gain some insight from Jesus’ approach to the law in the Sermon on the Mount. When he said, “You have heard it said…” and quotes one of the Ten Commandments, and then says, “but I say unto you…” he doesn’t do away with the law, but rather goes deeper into the heart of the commandment. With some of the commands Jesus does some spiritual heart surgery by going deeper to address the disease within, the inner motivation, the spiritual disposition. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, you shall not murder. But I say don’t be angry against a brother or sister.

The law written on the heart goes beyond the outward commands, rules, regulations, written moral codes, do’s and don’ts. Those do not get to the heart of the matter, penetrating to the real intent of the law and human motives, and highlighting the spirit of the law. If that were our approach to the law we could simply say I have not murdered anyone, therefore I have been faithful to the law. That approach to the law focuses upon outward obedience, rather than inward spirit and a robust relationship with God. Faith simply becomes a matter of obeying the rules.

And don’t we all know people like that? People who live by the rule book, whether the rule book is the Bible, church customs and traditions, the way we have always done it before, or whatever? Living by the rules is not the same as living by the heart.

But, admit it, that approach is much easier than living by some kind of law written on the heart. It’s much easier to check off a list of rules what I have done and not done and feel like I have fulfilled my obligations. It’s kind of like what I used to do when I was a young boy in the Southern Baptist church. Each Sunday morning before going to church my mom would give me a small Sunday School envelope to put some money in for the Sunday School offering. And on the envelope was a checklist of things that we were supposed to mark; Tithe?....check....Read my Bible?....check....attend Sunday School....check....attend worship service?....check.... attend Training Union....check....attend Wednesday night prayer meeting?....check. I got 100%! Goody for me! I have fulfilled my Christian obligations for the week. That’s how some of us have approached the Christian life. I have done what is basically required of me, so that makes me a good Christian. I have fulfilled the “letter of the law.“ Don’t those kind of Christians that live their lives by the rule book just irk you? Particularly when its yourself?

Thank God, things are different now. We live in a different time, culture, and mindset than when we went to Sunday School as children. We follow our hearts, not some rule book. No more of that legalistic, Ten Commandments, no work on Sundays, check off the list Christianity."I’m spiritual, but not religious." That’s my mantra. Tithe….well, uh, I threw in a couple of bucks on Easter....Read my Bible....uh, maybe once last month to answer a friends question....attend Sunday School....isn’t that just for kids?....attend worship service....well, one out of four ain’t bad, it’s better than being a Lily and a Holly....Wednesday Night Prayer….what’s that all about? I don’t need anything on Wednesdays!

Hey, preacher, doesn’t your new covenant business do away with all those laws, rules, customs, and Christian obligations? Isn’t it all about having a right heart? I let Jesus into my heart a long time ago. Are you telling me that’s not enough? If I learned anything in Sunday School it’s that in Christ we are free from the law. So, I don’t need anyone, any book, or any rules telling me what do. I don’t have to be in church on Sunday to worship God. I can do that camping out in the woods underneath the stars. And I learned all I need to know about the Bible when I was a kid going to Sunday School. Who says we need to pray? Isn’t my life a prayer. And laws and rules just cramp my style. Isn’t that what you mean by a new covenant of the heart?

The new covenant, which Jeremiah envisions, is not like the Mosaic covenant written on tablets of stone. That covenant was broken. The new covenant is written on the heart. It’s not a covenant without moral guidelines, without Christian obligations, or without spiritual disciplines. It’s a covenant written on the heart. It doesn’t do away with the law, but gives it depth and meaning. It’s not an outward obedience, but is an inward obedience. It’s not a set of rules for us to check off and say we are good Christians. It is a deep inner relationship with God that shapes our behavior and actions.

The new covenant written on the heart is about a change of character from within, so that we respond to the ways of God as if by second nature. And when I say “second nature” I do not simply mean by force of repetition, though that has its place, such as in Christian disciplines and spiritual practices that form our habits. I’m talking about responding to God from “second nature” as a response from a new nature grounded in sustained, vibrant, intimate relationship with God that inscribes on our hearts God’s ways of love, grace, justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

The new covenant is about a new community that corporately lives in God’s ways “by heart.” As children we learned how to read the Bible and know it “by heart,” meaning by memorization, or “by head.” As spiritually mature adults under this new covenant we will know God ways “by heart.” It is a covenant with a people who know how to live with one another and God “by heart” in faithfulness, in unity, and in trust.

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord....In that day we will no longer need to use the Bible as a rulebook, for God’s Word will be etched upon our hearts. We will no longer need written statements like “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” or leaders to admonish, recommend, and teach us how to work out our differences, for we will know to love and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in all our wondrous differences. We will no longer need to create laws against racism or protest police response to the death of an unarmed young, black man gunned down by a vigilante because he was walking while black, but we will have the laws of justice and equity inscribed upon our hearts.

The days are coming when we no longer need written mission statements to remind us that we are all called and sent by God into the world. We will no longer need preachers admonishing us to be faithful Christians, for that will be the desire of our heart. We will no longer need to be reminded or taught that we should love one another, and to love our enemies, for we will know how to do it “by heart.”

Behold, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with my people. I will write my law on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to one another “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.

Monday, March 19, 2012

"What Doesn't Kill You....":Numbers 21:4-9

*This sermon was preached on the fourth Sunday of Lent at Zion Mennonite Church. Following the sermon we offered the ancient church's healing ritual of anointing with oil.

Once upon a time there was this congregation that became impatient with their pastor. They had been on a journey together for quite a few years. Some said the pastor made some bad decisions. It didn’t help that he wasn’t considered a good speaker. Others said he didn’t provide for their basic needs. Many of those who complained against him wanted their pastor to lead them back to the good old days before everything changed. Many blamed their current problems on him. Quite a few in the congregation wanted to get rid of him. Their conflict grew worse until it affected the health of the congregation, like deadly poison.

This is not a fairy tale. It’s not about a pastor and congregation that we don’t know. It’s a story about a real congregation we at Zion, know all too well. That’s because it is the story about....Moses and the people of Israel. Whew! That was too close for comfort!

Our Lenten scripture text for today is something of an odd story. Some of us may have a hard time knowing just what to do with it. Some may be turned off by a god who sends poisonous snakes among his people to kill them off for complaining too much. Others may wonder about using a brass snake on a pole as some kind of “hoodoo”mumbo-jumbo magic healing ritual. Before we try to snatch some kind of meaning from this bizarre story, let’s engage the story itself.

Following their liberation from the land of Egypt the congregation of Israel journeyed through the wilderness on their way to the promised land. On this leg of the journey they went from Mount Hor to the Sea of Reeds. Along the way the people began complaining against their pastor, Moses, and by implication against God, since it was God who ultimately brought them out of Egypt. Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food or water, well anyway, we detest the miserable food we have been given. Quail and manna! Quail and manna! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Quail and manna! Holy Moses, give us a break. Switch it up a little. How about some sacred cow burgers on sour Israelite bread?

Now, I can sympathize with the complaints of the congregation. No one likes to be without basic physical or spiritual necessities. No one likes the same old stuff dished out to us over and over again. I too have sat in many a church pew with bib tucked into my collar, knife and fork in hand, salivating, only to be fed the same old sermons without any meat and the same old dry-as-toast programs. I have wearily trudged along through the wilderness of irrelevant, dull routine, maintenance oriented, stuck-in-a-time-warp-congregations without any sense of purpose, vision, direction, or future. And you can bet your life that I have complained about it.

But, as a pastor, I can also sympathize with Moses’ position. I have been on the complaint end of a congregation. I have heard the nasty remarks, the blaming, the finger pointing. He’s not meeting my spiritual needs. His sermons don’t feed my soul. Our congregation is so spiritually hungry and thirsty. What’s his problem? He’s not leading us anywhere I want to go. We just seem to be wandering in the wilderness! Boo hoo!

Now, to be honest, there were those moments as a pastor when I had thoughts that came close to wanting God to unleash some snakes in the pews. But, that would be way too random. In moments of weakness and frustration I did entertain thoughts of some congregational members getting a job transfer, moving back home, or, God forbid, that they might, by the providence of God, kick the bucket prematurely. Oops. If my momentary thoughts during extreme frustration with complaining church members were ever to be written down as a form of personal therapy, they might look closely like our story of the poisonous snakes.

Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. I’m wondering why God would send poisonous snakes among the people. I wonder about this poisonous act of God, like I wonder about Noah’s toxic, genocidal flood. But, I also wonder why God would need to send snakes among them seeing that there was already enough poison and venom among them to kill them off as a congregation. What Moses’ congregation needed was something they could look to for their healing.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take the serpents from us.” And Moses prayed for the people. When I read these words it makes me consider what could have been alternative responses of the people and Moses. The people could have gone to their graves without confessing their own sin. They could have stubbornly insisted that they were right all along. That’s how we get stuck in the wilderness f broken relationships and wounded congregations.

And Moses could have said, “Hey, you people got just what you deserved. That will teach you to complain. The chickens have come home to roost.” Instead, the people confessed their sin. And that was the first step in their healing. The congregation of Israel acknowledged their wrong. Isn’t that how healing usually begins. A husband says, “I’m sorry for what I said.” An employer says to a boss, “Forgive me for complaining about your leadership. I was out of line.” A congregation says, “We have sinned not only against others, but against the Lord.” And those who would be spiritually mature would pray for them; pray for their well-being, pray for their healing, pray for their very lives.

So, Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. When I read about this brass snake on a pole I immediately think of the medical symbol derived from the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Asclepius’ rod is a staff with a snake spiraling around it. It is a symbol of healing.

Another medical symbol is the caduceus with two snakes intertwined around a winged pole. This symbol was appropriated from the Greek god Hermes, the winged messenger of the gods. According to Greek mythology Hermes came across two fighting snakes. He threw his magic wand at them. They became entangled around the pole and stopped fighting. I’m just guessing, but there must be some symbolic truth there somewhere for conflicted relationships and congregations and their healing.

What do we do with this idea----that gazing upon a brass snake on a pole, an image of what can harm or kill us, becomes the channel of healing? Now, I understand that that this part of the ancient story may be a bit hard to swallow. Gazing upon an image of a deadly snake as a channel for healing just sounds a bit primitive and bizarre, if you ask me.

But, I at least have to ask you if this is true: “Can that which hurts us heal us?” I am reminded of snake venom antidote for animals. Small amounts of snake venom are injected into animals to create antibodies that protect animal from snake bites. The same could be said for many human inoculations against harmful diseases. That which could harm us, or even kill us, heals us or protects us.

Wasn’t it the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” His saying resonates with many who have undergone struggles in their lives and have come out stronger persons for it. Granted, significant traumas in life can do us more harm than good. And we definitely do not want to make God into a cosmic teacher who sends bad things our way to teach us good lessons. In other words, God doesn’t hurt us to heal us. We don’t need that kind of cruel God.

And yet, there is something to be said about how God can take our wounds and use them in our healing. God can take the bad things that happen and use them for our good. God can take the poisonous snakes in our lives and make them a channel for healing.

Wasn’t that the case with Joseph, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. After going through the pain and poison of being rejected by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, Joseph later re-encounters his brothers as a ruler in Egypt when they come to him during a famine. Joseph is healed from the wounds of his past and forgives his brothers saying, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

All of us have endured different kinds of life trauma, wounds, and poison. Death of a loved one, the pain of illnesses, broken relationships. There is usually enough venom in those events to break our spirits. And sometimes it’s easier to allow the toxins of depression, resentment, and bitterness to course through our veins and destroy our lives. But, often what we have to do is to face these toxic events head on and move through them and beyond them to the healing places of hope, faith, and forgiveness. I believe that it is not God who causes these tragic and toxic events, but it is God who works through these events channeling them toward our healing and making us stronger at the broken places.

I don’t believe God caused the perplexity and poison that Zion has experienced over the past few years. At times it may have felt like we were wandering in the wilderness without any direction. But, complaining and blaming others has not healed our pain and poison any more that it did for the children of Israel in the wilderness.

I do believe that as some of us have faced our poison, admitted our woundedness, and have asked for forgiveness, that there is the hope for healing and wholeness. Not only that but I believe that what hasn’t killed us off, can, with the help of God, make us stronger.

You see, God has this odd ability to take the serpents of our lives----the traumas, wounds, and toxic relationships----and turn them into channels for our healing and strength. There is no greater symbol of this truth than the cross of Jesus Christ. John recognized this truth in his Gospel where he compares Moses lifting up the brass serpent on the pole to Jesus being lifted up on the cross:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)

As God turned the poisonous snakes into a symbol for healing, so God transformed the toxic tragedy of the cross into the symbol for life eternal, life in all its fullness. Not that God caused the poisonous crucifixion, but that God brought life out of it. This is the story we are in anticipation waiting to celebrate on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. If God can transform poisonous snakes into healing, the cross into life, then surely God can transform our tragedies into triumph, our wounds into healing, our weakness in strength. God, let it be so.

Anointing with Oil

Are there wounds that any of us have that need healing? Are any of us going through pain or perplexity that is poisoning our lives? Are their toxic relationships that require God’s healing balm? Has complaining, resentment, and blaming caused the venom to remain within you? Is there any bitterness and poison still left at Zion from our sojourn through our own recent wilderness journey?

We want to offer the ancient healing practice of anointing with oil. It may seem a strange symbol of healing for some of us, as odd as a brass snake on a pole or a man hanging on a cross. But, it may be a channel for healing, forgiveness, wholeness, and strength for you and this bitten body, the church. We invite any of you, who would find it meaningful, to prayerfully go to the front or rear of the sanctuary to receive the sign of the cross in oil upon your forehead as a symbol of your desire for healing and hope, faith and strength.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have life in its fullness.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

An Ethical Covenant: Exodus 20:1-17

*This sermon was preached on the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon.

Judge Roy Moore, Alabama’s former chief justice, will be forever tied to the Ten Commandments. He considered them to be the moral foundation of US law. So, he placed a wooden set of tablets of the Ten Commandments in the courtroom behind his bench. This caused quite a bit of controversy, along with his opening prayer for jurors before listening to cases. A suit was filed against him for violation of the first amendment of the Constitution.

This did not intimidate Judge Moore. He was determined to continue his practices, with the support of a large conservative constituency. In 2001, Judge Moore, installed a 5,300 pound stone monument of the Ten Commandments in the state’s judicial building in Montgomery. He was ordered to remove the stone monument by a federal judge, which he refused to do. This controversy catapulted him into the national news, caused a national discussion about religion and public life, and made him something of a folk hero among the conservative Right. Judge Moore felt he was not only fulfilling his oath of office to uphold the law, but was also defending a higher law and belief in the sovereignty of God.

Are the 10 commandments the moral foundation of US law? A universal law for all humanity? Timeless spiritual and moral truths? How do we understand the place of the Ten Commandments in our personal and corporate lives? The Constitution’s first amendment had it’s own commandment for the US government and states: Thou shalt not establish one religion or favor one religion over another or prohibit the free exercise thereof. Judge Moore understood the Ten Commandments to be the moral foundation of US law and was, in some sense, establishing that religious belief in his courtroom. Many conservative Christians would agree with Judge Moore that our national law is grounded in the law of the 10 Commandments and supported him. The problem with that view is that…it is just not true and his act was, in fact, against the law.

The first four commandments are about a corporate relationship with God. The “preamble” to the Ten Commandments states, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt…” This is a law addressed to the Jewish people and their covenant relationship with God. These first commandments particularly run counter to the fundamental Constitutional right of freedom of and from religion, which is based upon individual conscience. There is no way these four commandments could be enacted into law in the US.

The last six commandments are by no means the foundation of US law either. The fifth command, to honor father and mother, and the seventh commandment against adultery, may be moral imperatives, but hardly legal codes that could be enacted within US law. Adultery can be a legal grounds for divorce, but making adultery illegal would probably be struck down as unconstitutional. In the same manner the tenth commandment on coveting could never become US law. It has to do with an inner disposition rather than an overt act, like stealing.

That leaves us with commandments six, eight and nine----no killing, stealing, or lying. Lies may be considered perjury in some cases and illegal, while telling your wife, through a concealed grimace, that her undercooked liver was wonderful is not punishable by law.

That leaves the two commandments about killing and stealing. These two may be echoed in US law, but killing is justifiable in self-defense or if instituted against declared enemies by US government and military policy.

All this is surely shaky grounds for the Ten Commandments being the foundation of US Law. Besides, the Founding Fathers and Framers of the Constitution established a consistent and clear message against this type of state and judicial establishment of religious moral codes. Thomas Jefferson specifically railed against attempts to claim that the common law incorporated the Ten Commandments when he criticized judges for "lay[ing] the yoke of their own opinions on the necks of others by declaring that [the Ten Commandments] make a part of the law of the land." John Adams also questioned the influence of the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount on the legal system. The Ten Commandments are not the foundation of US law.

But, aren’t the Ten Commandments timeless, universal moral truths? A closer look at just one of the Ten Commandments should be enough to counter this claim, at least in the form in which it is written. Take, as an example, the command against coveting or the desire to possess another person’s property. This is a prohibition against wanting what your neighbor possesses----wife, male and female slaves, ox and ass, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Coveting comes before stealing as the desire to possess another’s property and particularly that which supports his means of livelihood. What would we consider timeless and universal in this commandment?

Surely not the things the commandment uses as examples of things we might covet. Note what the commandment lists as a man’s possessions, things that belong to your male neighbor----ox, ass, slaves, and wife. Is slavery, which is the possession of another human being, part of this timeless, universal truth? Is owning other human beings as property God’s eternal truth? Some Christians once thought so.

Is it a universal and eternal truth that wives are the property of their husbands, like ox, donkey, and a nice sharp plow? That was the belief and practice in ancient patriarchal societies, including the cultures of the Bible. Unmarried women were considered the property of their fathers. When daughters were married they were property transferred over to a husband in marriage through a “bride price”---- money paid by the husband to the parents of the bride.

A ritual vestige of this understanding of women as men’s property remains a part of some marriage ceremonies up to our modern day. It is reflected in the father “giving the bride away.” This ritual act reflects its origins in a time of arranged marriages in which daughters, who were their property of fathers, were given away to their husbands for a bride price. Today the ritual has become simply a blessing of the father or both parents.

This is the cultural context of the tenth commandment. Surely understanding women as property is not a timeless, universal truth. These commandments fit a particular historical and cultural context.

Remember, the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are not the only commandments within the Torah, or Law of Israel. Jewish tradition has 613 commandments. The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments are but a small part of the Law. Although the Ten Commandments are important to both Judaism and Christianity, they are only a fragment of Israel’s Law and part of a larger covenant relationship.

The Ten Commandments are not a universal code of conduct, timeless moral truths, or the foundation of US law. The Ten Commandments are part of the Law, Torah, which is essentially an ethical covenant God has made with a particular people, the people of Israel.

This does not mean the Ten Commandments have no relevance for Christians. But, as part of Israel’s Law, their relevance and application to the church is a contested issue. If we think of the Ten Commandments in the larger context of Israel’s law, there are various views on their relevance for Christians. Most often Christians turn to the apostle Paul for our interpretation of how the Law relates to Christians. According to the traditional view, Paul rejected the Torah once he converted to Christianity. This Paul proclaimed Christ to be “the end of the law.” (Romans 10:4). This is the Paul who said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. (Galatians 3:13)

The traditional Pauline view of the law was particularly shaped by Augustine, Martin Luther, the Reformers, and their antagonistic view that Catholicism was a religion of works. This traditional Pauline view goes something like this: Before Christ came humans lived “under the law,” but were unable to meet its demands. The law’s purpose was to highlight human sinfulness and our inability to live up to the law. The law is a curse in that it simply convicts us that we are sinners. No one can be justified, that is “get to heaven,” by the works of the law, but only by faith. Christ came and we are justified by faith through grace, not by works of the law, including the Ten Commandments.

So, in this Pauline scheme of things, faith and works are in opposition to one another. In this view Judaism is a religion of law and justification is by works, not by faith. Christianity is a religion of grace and justification is by faith, not by works. Christianity superseded Judaism. Paul started out as an enemy of Christianity, then was converted to Christianity and became an enemy of Judaism. Huh? And as a good Jew Jesus practiced his Jewish faith and the law and said we would be judged by our works and all that would eventually be done away with in his name. Wait a minute, this doesn’t sound quite right. And it doesn’t sound right to an Anabaptist ear or to the book of James that considers faith and works inextricably linked.

There are some problems with this traditional view of the law and its stereotyped caricatures of Judaism and Christianity. First of all, we have these words from Paul himself, which seem to contradict the previous view of Paul concerning the law. Paul himself says: Do we render the law void? God forbid! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31). What shall we say then? Is the law sin? By no means! (Romans 7:7) This Paul says that the law is holy, just, and good. (Romans 7:12) What gives? Is Paul contradicting himself?

And if we accept Jesus’ view and practice of the law, then the traditional Lutheran and Protestant view of Paul concerning the law becomes even more problematic. Jesus was a faithful, observant Jew. He followed the laws and rituals of his Jewish faith. He said, “I have not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it.” That does not mean he came to bring it to an end, but rather that he came to fill it full, to give it teeth, to deepen its meaning.

What do we do with Matthew’s Jesus. Matthew sees Jesus is a new Moses. Herod, like pharaoh, tries to destroy the baby. Jesus flees and is called out of Egypt, like Israel. Like a new Moses, Jesus delivers a new law on the mountaintop. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus draws out the meaning of the law, including some of the Ten Commandments, not to do away with it, but to give it deeper meaning. You have heard it was said….but I say unto you. His words don’t contradict or do away with Jewish law, but rather take it to a deeper level.

So, what’s the solution to these differing views of the law, which will shape our view of the relevance of the Ten Commandments for us? One recent proposal that has gained ground is to simply understand this: The negative statements Paul makes about the law are addressed to his Gentile audience. We must keep in mind Paul’s audience when he speaks about the law. Only by reading Paul with this in mind can we understand his attitude toward the law….as it relates to Gentiles. The law is God’s ethical covenant with the Jewish people, not with us Gentiles.

Although the law is good and still has a role to play, particularly for Jews, the law is not part of God’s covenant with the Gentiles. There the law ends. The curse of the law is when it is imposed upon Gentile believers, like you and me. The Torah is for Jews. It is what sets them apart from other people. It is their ethical covenant with God. The Gentiles have been brought into a new covenant with God, that includes both Jews and Gentiles, through the grace of Christ. This does not destroy the law as Israel’s ethical covenant with God. Paul never speaks against Jewish observance of the law. He is emphasizing that Gentiles have a different covenantal relationship with God than do the Jewish people. The law is God’s ethical covenant with the Jewish people. With this understanding the law still has relevance as part of God’s covenant with a particular people, the Jews.

When it comes to ethical covenants that are particular to a people, what might one look like for Zion? Of course, we, as Gentiles, follow the new covenant of Christ Jesus apart from the law. We have a new ethical covenant shaped by following in the way of Jesus. But, speaking to our own context, what particular ethical agreements might help shape us as a community where we are at right now? Let me offer Ten Suggestions for our own ethical covenant.

Some would say that because of our modern attitude toward the Ten Commandments we should rename them the Ten Suggestions. I have called mine the Ten Suggestions, first, because probably nobody at Zion likes being told what they should do. And secondly, because these are mine and not God’s. They are suggestions about how Zion can covenant to live together as God’s people here and now. Here they are:

The Lord your God, brought you out of land of Goshen, which is also a place in Egypt, and other Mennonite places, out of the house of the Amish Mennonites, along with some of you Gentiles from other places and religious backgrounds, therefore:

1. Thou shalt not have any other gods before you----that includes the elephant and donkey gods of the Republicans and Democrats, or even the music gods of classical, traditional, or contemporary. Neither worship the Evangelical or Mennonite gods as if they were a different or superior than the one God of the Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Nazarenes, and Pentecostals.

2. Thou shalt not make for yourself any idol or bow down to them. Serve no national ideology, whether it is conservative Right or Liberal left or simply the good ole US of A, as absolute. Neither shalt thou make idols of flags, anthems, or even the Constitution. Thou shalt not construct any image of a pastor or church to bow down to; images that no real pastor or church could stand up to.

3. Thou shalt not use the name of Lord your God in vain by claiming your own limited viewpoint as God’s or swearing to God that you will do something for God if God does something for you.

4. Remember Sunday is a holy day to gather for corporate worship. Let not kids sports, trips to the coast, your garden, or general laziness keep you from consistently gathering for worship on this blessed day.

5. Honor your fathers and mothers; those elders of the church who have great wisdom to offer. Honor your church leaders, and pastoral staff. Thou shalt not take them for granted. Treat everyone with the respect you would offer to your own family members, for they are brothers and sisters in Christ.

6. Thou shalt work out your differences with others before you desire to murder them. First, go to that person and try to work out your differences in private. Second, if that doesn’t resolve the conflict add a third party, potentially a mediator. Third, if you are not reconciled after that, bring your conflict to a body of church leaders, like the elders. Fourth, then they may need to bring it before the whole church, which would be kind of embarrassing. Hopefully, your relationship will be reconciled before then or you will be so tired of talking about it with others that you will want to say to your brother or sister, “I’m tired of this. Let’s just drop this nonsense and be friends.”

7. Thou shalt not commit adulthood, if that means forgetting the spontaneity, playfulness, freedom, creativity, innocence, and hospitality of your inner child.

8. Thou shalt not steal the joy of serving God from others.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not pass on false rumors, no, more than that, pass on no gossip that is negative or hurtful to a fellow Zion member or any of your church leaders. Or God, who knows you like the back of her hand, will be your witness on the day of judgment.

10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s property; his new car, house, farm, barn, vacation home, flat screen TV, ipod, ipad, iphone, i-yi-yi, because they are all going to end up as rust or as obsolete as 8 track tapes by next year.

To put it simply: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the law and the prophets.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A People’s Covenant of Blessing: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16


*This sermon was preached on the second Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2012 ar Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon.

Where is the blessing? Where is Abraham’s covenant of blessing? God promised that through Abraham many nations and peoples would arise and that his children would be a blessing to all peoples. Isn’t it somewhat ironic that the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have way too often been throughout history a curse rather than a blessing to the peoples of the earth. Crusades, pogroms, witch hunts, wars, and terrorism are but a few of the curses that have come upon the earth through the ancestors and spiritual descendants of Abraham. So, where is the blessing?

Maybe we should go back and look at Abraham’s covenant of blessing. Abram was an old codger of ninety-nine years when the Lord appeared to him. Even at such an old age, God was not through with Abram. Take heart, you who are the elderly of Zion. God is not through with you yet either! God wants to bless others through you, as he promises the same to Abram at a ripe old age.

God told Abram to “walk before me and be blameless.” This means that God wants an ongoing relationship with Abram defined by wholeness. Their relationship is to be more than a weekly or monthly drop by the church, an occasional prayer to God, and without ulterior motives like what you get out of the deal in the end. The covenant between God and Abram is grounded in a continuous, close, and candid relationship.

The God of the impossible promises Abram and Sarah that their descendants will be “exceedingly numerous,” “a multitude of nations.” You’ve got to be pulling our leg God! That’s a joke, right? A multitude of nations from two old geezers without any kids? Stop! You’re making me laugh! God’s covenant with Abraham is based upon a practical impossibility. Abraham and Sarah have no children and they are beyond the childbearing years, to say the least. I’m talking the impossibility of newborn baby cries coming from Hope Village! The only kind of “fruitful” we might expect from Abraham and Sarah is prunes or fruit of the loom! And yet, God bases a covenant promise upon a practical impossibility. Not only will they have a child of promise, but a multitude of nations will spring forth from them! What seems impossible to us is possible to God.

Not only did God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah promise that they would have as many descendants as the “sands of the sea,” an unfathomable thought, but according to chapter 18:18 Abraham would be a “blessing to all nations.” Many peoples descendant from Abraham and his faith will be a blessing to the whole earth! What an amazing, mind boggling, impossible covenant of blessing. And yet, being a blessing to the earth turns out not to be an impossibility. In time it will come to pass, if Abraham’s children are faithful to the covenant of blessing.

Are there blessings you would like to see in your life right now that seem impossible? My life seems more a curse than a blessing. I will never make it through this tough situation. Remember God’s covenant of blessing with Abraham and Sarah! God can make a way where there is no way!

Are there blessings you want to see here at Zion that you think could just never be? We have been through too much. Those patterns of behavior are just too ingrained. Remember God’s covenant of blessing with Abraham and Sarah! God can make a way where there is no way!

Are their blessings you want to fall upon family and friends, on your community, on your nation, upon all nations and the world? Why pray for such nonsense? People don’t change. This world will never change. Remember God’s covenant of blessing with Abraham and Sarah. God can make a way where there is no way! Amen?

But, I understand the resistance to signing on to a covenant of blessing. Just look at the world around us. Probably what is more laughable than having a child at an old age, because it is so unbelievable, is that the covenant says that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to the nations. Just consider the three Abrahamic faith traditions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Have we seen any greater curse to the earth than in the conflicts, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Christian bashing, outright hatred, prejudice, war, and deadly conflicts between children of the same father?

We don’t need a history professor to remind us of the curses of Abraham’s children in the Christian Crusades against the Muslims, modern hated and discrimination against Muslims since 911, innocents incarcerated with no due process and other Muslims tortured at Guantanomo Bay prison, ground zero mosque controversy, a Christian organization pressuring advertisers to pull out from the TV show All American Muslim because it presents positive images of Muslims, the ongoing, intractable, and deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Semitism, Jews stereotyped as Christ-killers, pogroms against the Jews, holocaust, persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, and on and on the cursed tale goes! A blessing to the nations? Phooey!! Abraham’s covenant of blessing has been broken so many times by his heirs that it should be declared null and void!

And yet, there are those who practice Abraham’s covenant of blessing as if it was still intact, still relevant, still utterly important not just for Abraham’s descendants, but for the survival of the earth. Here are just a few leaders who model being a blessing across the Abrahamic faiths.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer- was a blessing to the church for founding the Confessing Church amid a compromised German Christian church and a blessing to the Jews for resisting the curse of Nazism to the point of death.

Andre Trocme- was Christian pacifist pastor who taught his faith community in La Chambon, France the nonviolent way of Jesus. Even with the risk of life, his people hid Jews in their homes fleeing Nazi persecution. These Christians were a blessing to the Jews.

Elias Chacour- is a blessing to both Arabs and Jews. As an Archbishop in Israel for the Melkite Catholic Church, an Israeli Christian, and an advocate of nonviolence, Chacour works at reconciliation between Muslims and Jews

Naim Ateek- is a Palestinian Christian who is a blessing to Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims. He founded Sabeel as a center for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.

These are but a few of the countless names and faces of persons and groups who have been working to live out Abraham’s covenant to be a blessing to all nations, particularly those who claim Abraham as the father of their faith traditions.

To bring Abraham’s covenant of blessing to our front door, we can personally work on being a blessing to each other here within our own congregation. We can participate in God’s covenant of blessing whether or not it has become null and void. Here are some ways to become a blessing to each other that I heard from a little birdie!

Forsake nitpicking- If you want to be a blessing to others, then let go of that itching desire to nitpick. The word finds it origin in the practice of tediously and meticulously removing the eggs of lice from someone’s hair. It is a fitting term for when we scrupulously search for minor details, trivial errors that we can criticize. I do hope you noticed the misspelling in the bulletin this morning. Someone ought to speak to those young people about combing their hair for Sunday. If I were planning this kind of activity I would have made sure that it was announced weeks in advance. Does nitpicking ever accomplish its desired ends? Not really. It only gets under others skin. Geeez! Chill out, people! Cut others some slack! Be a blessing to others.

Throw out the critical attitude- People with a constant critical attitude are, let’s admit it, a curse to others. When we only think of the negative side of things, when we are critical of what others present to us, we become a real drag, particularly when no alternatives are suggested. Anyone can tear down an idea or action with very little effort. I wouldn’t have worded the proposal that way, but who am I? I don’t care for this or this or this in the event you’ve planned. You can count me out on being part of that. Yes, the music was wonderful, but we went way over time. If we are going to have an attitude, at least make it over something big, like hunger, poverty, war, or Rush Limbaugh!

This doesn’t mean there is no place for criticism. Constructive criticism can be a blessing. Thanks for your proposal. Can we possibly do this instead or change this slightly. I’m open to other ideas. Here are my ideas on how we can stay within a proper timeframe. What do you think about this? Be considerate of others feelings, work, and gifts. Be a blessing to others.

Avoid the dreaded domino effect- This is a relationship and communication pattern Jan Wood picked up from our church audit and everyone nodded their head to when shared. Are we being a blessing to others when we pass on negative information or judgmental attitudes about someone else, which causes the dreaded dominos to fall? I don’t think so. How about passing on a blessing instead? I heard Sarah was very nice the new girl in the youth group. Let’s tell others to thank her. Did you notice all the work that she did at the Quilt workshop. I’m gonna send her a thank you note. How about you too? I just had to stand up in church today and thank everyone for praying for us and encouraging us instead of being critical of my troubled son. Be a blessing to others.

Foster a positive outlook- Don’t you find that people who have a positive outlook on life to be a blessing? Even when you may feel sour, frustrated, or down, when you find something positive within a tough situation, aren’t you more of a blessing than a burden to others? I know this is tough work and sometimes you need just to feel bad and we have all too often failed at being positive. But, when we intentionally focus on the positive, our attitudes can make a positive impact on those around us. Be a blessing to others.

Look for the best in others- Quaker spirituality recognizes that there is a spark of divine light in every human being, no matter how despicable they may seem to be. Christian theology recognizes that we are all created in God’s image. This doesn’t mean we overlook the sins and personality disorders of others. But, looking for the best, the positive qualities in others can be more difficult. That’s why it is an even more critical practice if we want to be a blessing to others. Jan Wood, a Quaker, had us practice this in our congregational dialogue. She asked us to consider that everyone has certain backgrounds and experiences from which they share their lives and perspectives. Good communication is to respect and affirm others as they share from their own experiences and perspectives. Be a blessing to others.

Focus our corporate energies on our commonalities- Rather than focusing our energies on where we differ with others, let is focus on what we share in common, then we can be a blessing to one another. Again, this is not to ignore differences in perspectives or practices among us. It is to say that we have plenty in common to work together on than that which would divide us.

Let’s affirm together our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. You will be seeing copies of a summary of the confession in your pew Bibles soon. Let’s recognize that we may share different perspectives but worship the same Lord and God! Let’s join in our congregational conversations to share with each other in our common concerns and direction. Let’s work together on the recommendations that come out of our church audit. Let’s come together on this upcoming visioning process to shape our common vision. Let’s join in ministry projects that we can work together on and be a blessing to others, like the Quilt workshop, Vacation Bible School, and Bridging Cultures. When we come together around that which we share in common we will, with the help of God, be a blessing to others.

God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah that through them would come many peoples, a multitude of nations. And through them the earth would be blessed. Go from this place today, God’s people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, to be a blessing to others.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: portrait of a prophetic preacher

*This was a presentation I gave to four Faith Journey classes at Western Mennonite School.It included audio excerpts from his sermons and speeches


The "I Have a Dream" speech is what most people associate with Martin Luther King Jr. King’s delivery before the Lincoln Memorial, the “Great Emancipator,” in Washington DC on August 28, 1963, was highly symbolic. As a public figure Martin Luther King Jr. is probably known first and foremost as the leader of the civil rights movement in the US in the 60s and also as an extraordinary orator (speech maker). Having grown up in the 50s and 60s I had a basic awareness of King as a public figure and a dynamic speaker. On my family’s black and white TV I saw his social impact on US society around integration and his focal leadership of the civil rights movement, or should I say the Southern Freedom movement. Few people at the time were unaware of his powerful impact on US society. His march on Washington was an epic event and his “I have a dream” speech was like a bell of freedom heard around the world.

It wasn’t until after King’s assassination and my own call into Christian ministry as a Baptist preacher that I began looking at King in a different light. I was drawn to King more as a Baptist preacher of social justice. King himself often said, “In the quiet recesses of my heart I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.” It’s this aspect of King’s life I want to briefly share with you as a major influence on my life as a Christian and a preacher.

King’s Call to Ministry

It was almost inevitable that King would become a preacher. Reflecting on how God called him into Christian ministry and to lead the Southern Freedom movement, King once said:

My father was a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher and my great-grandfather was preacher. My only brother is a preacher and my father’s brother was preacher. I guess I didn’t have much choice but to be a preacher. I grew up in the church and it was good to me, but one day I realized it was inherited religion. I had never had an experience with God that you must have if you are to walk the lonely paths of this life.

Then as a young pastor I was called to serve a church in Montgomery Alabama, where a woman named Rosa Parks was a member.

She decided she was tired of being tired and would no longer sit at the back of bus. I didn’t know what to do but I knew what Jesus wanted me to do. So we stopped riding that bus. For 381 days, we walked.

Then one night at around midnight, when the house was quiet; and King’s life and baby girl were asleep, he got a telephone call. And it wasn’t a midnight call from God! On the other end was a vicious voice saying mean and hateful things; finally the voice said, “N….r” if you don’t get out of town we will blow your brains out and burn your house down.”
Then the caller hung up. King went on to say:

I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was my precious baby and my wife. I went to the kitchen thinking a little coffee might help me, then I brought to mind all my recent philosophy and theology, but that didn’t help. I realized I couldn’t call upon my Daddy, 180 miles away in Atlanta. I realized I couldn’t rely on the experience of others with God. I had to call upon God myself. I said, ‘God I am trying to do what is right in your sight, but I am weak and tired.’ Around midnight I heard God say, ‘Martin stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for Jesus. I will never leave you alone.’ Does God speak to you? If so, in what ways?

King’s call to ministry came as part of his family heritage, his involvement in church, his own experience of God beyond “inherited religion,” a congregational invitation, a social and historical context of racism and segregation, a woman tired of discrimination, and his personal experience of God’s voice.

King’s Religious Education

King skipped 9th and 12th grade and entered Morehouse College at the age of 15. In 1944, as a high school senior, King won the local and regional Elks oratorical contest.

He went to Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA, where he was elected president of the student government and graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1951.

King did doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Doctor of Philosophy on June 5, 1955, with a dissertation on, "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman".

In the 1980s questions arose concerning the originality of parts of his dissertation. It was determined that portions were plagiarized, but that his dissertation still "makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship." Early on King had hoped to go on to teach theology. His liberal theological education profoundly shaped his political activism as a social reformer.

King’s Early Congregations

King was a product of his black church heritage. It shaped his practice, and preaching. King grew up in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia where his father was a pastor. King preached his first sermon there in 1947 and was ordained in 1948. King served as an associate pastor on breaks from seminary and his doctoral studies and served as co-pastor with his father from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.

King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954 at the age of 25, which is pretty young to be a lead pastor. Although I was a youth pastor at 24, I didn’t become a lead pastor until I was 34. King served Dexter from 1954 to 1960. It was at Dexter that King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

King’s Preaching and Public Speaking

King’s public speeches grew out of the black church and its preaching tradition. He brought together the texts and symbols of his faith, theological study, with the words of American leaders, history, and a social vision for the nation. King’s project was to “redeem the soul of America.” The power of King’s speeches are derived from his black church preaching tradition, his prophetic social vision, and his theological education. Great preaching appeals to both the head and heart.

At first King, as a young intellectual, was repulsed by the emotionalism of his black church heritage and its hand clapping, shouting, and “amening.” He would come to encourage these elements of black church tradition not only as a means of connecting with his audience, but for empowering them for action.

There is a rhythm in African-American preaching that King used effectively. One form of rhythm is the call-and-response, derived from African music. In African music it is a verbal or rhythmic pattern of back and forth music conversation. In preaching it is the conversation between preacher and congregation punctuated by expressions like “Well,” “Help him, Lord,” “Preach it!” “Amen!,” “Hallelujah!” King would call “How long shall we have to suffer injustices?” and the people would respond “God Almighty!”

The African rhythms of preaching are also found in the King’s language when he used 1) Alliteration- (The repetition of the first sound of several words in a row)- not… by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character; 2) Assonance- (The repetition of similar vowels sounds followed by different consonants)- That magnificent trilogy of durability; and 3) Anaphora- (The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several sentences)- How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long, not long, because… 4) Epistrophe- (The repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of several sentences)- In the midst of…I’m gonna still sing, We Shall Overcome…In the midst of…I’m gonna still sing…

It was King’s use of the black preaching style, his prophetic vision of social justice, and his keen intellect, that made his preaching and speeches powerful forms of mass communication and mobilization for social action. As a preacher, those are things that I appreciate about Martin Luther King Jr.

King, the Inconvenient Hero

I have had the privilege of knowing a neighbor, friend, and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr.--- Dr. Vincent Harding. I invited him to lead a national Mennonite peace gathering I organized when Mennonite Church USA met in Atlanta in 2003. Vincent was an African-American Mennonite pastor who went to Atlanta in 1960 as a representative of the Mennonite Church and founded the Mennonite House, a place for voluntary service and a gathering place for the Southern Freedom movement, which is what Vincent names the so-called “Civil Rights movement.” He was the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and the Institute for the Black World, both in Atlanta. Vincent taught church history at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, was the senior academic advisor for the PBS series Eyes on the Prize on the Southern Freedom movement, and initiated the Veterans of Hope project, collecting the stories of peace and justice leaders around the world.

Vincent Harding, in his book Martin Luther King; The Inconvenient Hero, points us to the post-1963 King, who was more troublesome and dangerous, a King most Americans opposed, particularly when he came out in opposition to the Vietnam War.

Vincent Harding wrote the prophetic anti-Vietnam speech that King gave at the Riverside Church in NYC on April 4, 1967. A year to the day he delivered the speech, King was assassinated.

Vincent presents us with an “inconvenient hero,” a hero I admire more than the sanitized hero we name streets after and build monuments to. This King railed against the three great evils of militarism, materialism, and racism. This King opposed the Vietnam War. This King fought for the rights of the poor. This King critiqued the privileged minority in the world and the inequitable distribution of resources. This King challenged white power and privilege.

This is the inconvenient hero that we so readily praise on his birthday, but find difficult to follow in today's social and political contexts. Like the radical Jesus who challenged the oppressive systems of his day, we have domesticated both Jesus and King into more palatable figures who remain distant from the enormous gap between the rich and poor, granting privileges to the wealthy and large corporations while forgetting the poor, the gutting of social welfare and domestic programs, continuing systemic racism, unchecked greed and consumerism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent on the military-industrial complex, and the establishment of thousands of U.S. military bases around the world to protect U.S. interests. These are the realities that go unchallenged by an America who celebrates King's birthday. This is the inconvenient hero who we can sigh over, name streets after, and name a national holiday after now that this prophet is gone. Everyone can sing the praises of a dead prophet! Few follow a living one.

In 1969, following King's assassination, poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr. penned these most appropriate words that we should keep in mind concerning King, the inconvenient hero:

Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
cannot rise
to challenge the images
we fashion from their lives
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
So, now that he is safely dead
we with eased consciences
will teach our children
that he was a great man...knowing
that the cause for which he lived
is still a cause
and the dream for which he died
is still a dream,
a dead man's dream

It is King, the inconvenient hero, the prophetic preacher that has inspired my faith journey.