Monthly Archives: August 2013

Review of Jeremiah: The Fate of A Prophet by Binyamin Lau

Jeremiah the Fate fo a Prophet

JEREMIAH: THE FATE OF A PROPHET, by Binyamin Lau. Translated by Sara Daniel. Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013. Pp.230.  $24.95 (hardcover)

The book of Jeremiah is one of the most challenging to approach in all of scriptures due to its enigmatic arrangement, wide historical context and challenging material. Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau does an incredible service in taking the book of Jeremiah and rearranging the chapters into sections that parallel the prophet’s life and placing the prophet’s words in the surrounding historical context. Set within this broader context we see the struggle of the prophet as he moves from soaring hope for the reunification of Israel and Judah through the disillusionment with the nationalistic struggles of Judah and eventually into the despair of the Babylonian exile. Rather than producing a commentary which deals with each chapter of Jeremiah, Rabbi Lau produces a narrative using: the text of Jeremiah, the recorded memory of the events in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles in conversation with other historical sources and other prophets active at various points in Jeremiahs long career as well as the Rabbinic tradition of interpretation. The end result is a coherent and tragic narrative of a disparaged and disgraced prophet who tried desperately to eliminate the social injustices and corruption of his people and to save the Temple from its impending doom.

The introduction of the work argues that the modern context the prophet might be understood as the public intellectual who must summon all of their intellectual powers and persuasive skills to convince their audience of the truth of their words. Lau argues that prophecy does not depend upon being accepted and among the prophets only Jonah was able to fulfill his mission by convincing the people of Nineveh to see the error of their ways (xiv-xv). Yet the prophet must love the people enough to pay the personal price for their visions, and even be willing to be declared an enemy of the people. Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, as the narrative will tell, will come at a high personal cost.

The book is divided between the three primary kings that Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry took place under: Josiah, Jehoiakim, Zedekiah. Part I begins by setting the stage with the story leading up to the time of Josiah by dealing with his predecessors. Briefly touching on the conflict between Samaria and Judah, in the context of the Assyrian domination of the Trans-Euphrates region, we see a picture of a divided people where savage wars between the nations of Judah and Israel overshadow the blood ties that once united them. (3) During the miraculous salvation of Jerusalem, in the time of Isaiah the prophet and the reign of King Hezekiah, we see the entry of Babylonia into the Judean world with Merodoch-Baladan’s delegation to Hezekiah. When Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, ascended to the throne in 697 BCE he attempted to put the nation of Judah back on its feet but could not resist the lure of Assyrian culture and began to forfeit the cultural and religious heritage of Judah. It is within this context, after a brief reign by Amon, that Josiah becomes king in 640 BCE and the story of Jeremiah’s prophetic career begins.

Jeremiah’s prophetic calling occurs in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign, or 626 BCE, which is a time of great change in the region. This is the time when King Josiah has begun to cleanse and purify Jerusalem from Assyrian culture and worship. The young king is also sending envoys to Samaria to attempt to reunite the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. This grand dream of King Josiah to bring the people of Judah and Israel back to being one kingdom and worshipping the Lord only can be understood within the horizon of the crumbling of the Assyrian empire which is waging a war of attrition on its northern border. (10) Jeremiah’s ministry begins prophesying the unification of Israel and Judah, appealing to their shared ancestor Jacob. Jeremiah is captured by this vision and is convinced that God’s promise to rebuild after the destruction will soon be realized. Yet, as Jeremiah begins to yearn for this change he recognizes a discrepancy between the king’s attempted reforms and the other local leadership who still continue to represent the sinful generation of Manessah, yet Jeremiah believes that God is about to get rid of these shepherds and gather the scattered flock from Samaria. Jeremiah’s most optimistic words go out to the cities of Samaria, but in Judah and particularly in his own homeland of Benjamin Jeremiah witnesses a people “engrossed in their own land and wealth, wrapped up in everyday life, and awash in paganism.” (33) Throughout the remainder of the reign of Josiah and his attempts to reform Judah, Jeremiah will become increasingly distraught over the superficiality of these reforms among the leaders, priests and the people. “Jeremiah sees behind this façade and recognizes the falsity and the hypocrisy, the thin veneer of piety serving as a fig leaf for corruption and warped social values.”(49) When King Josiah dies in 609 BCE, while going out to confront Pharaoh Necho, Jeremiah’s observation of the shallowness of the reforms of Josiah bear their unfortunate fruit as the new king sets the nation on a very different course.

Part II deals with the reign of Johoiakim (609-598 BCE) and his pro-Egyptian regime. This is a time where Egypt experiences a renewal of power and influence. Egypt lays a heavy tariff on Judah, which Johoiakim passes onto the people of the land. “Jehoiakim strikes a winning combination: economic reliance on Egypt, spiritual and national reliance on the Temple, and a general atmosphere of compliance with the leader. What can go wrong?”(78) Jeremiah’s prophecy rails against all three of these items stating that reliance on Egypt will lead the king and his followers to their demise, that the temple is like the tabernacle at Shiloh that was destroyed by God after it was corrupted by the high priest’s sons, and the king and his loyalists will fall into the hands of Babylonia. Jeremiah finds himself struggling against the leaders of his nation, the priests and other prophets and is viewed as a traitor to the very people he is attempting to save from their coming doom. Jeremiah finds himself caught between the message of impending doom he feels compelled to pronounce and the persecution this pronouncement brings. The nation’s ability to rely on Egypt falters in 605 when Nebuchadnezzar begins his conquest, and Judah becomes subservient for three years, but in 601 when Egypt enjoys a brief resurgence Judah again sides with Egypt and rebels against Babylon. Jeremiah is able to see Babylon as the instrument of the Lord’s judgment and yet he still holds a single thread of hope that the people will repent and the terrible coming destruction of the Babylonians will be averted. Yet, in 597 Nebuchadnezzar in a brief campaign recaptures the rebellious cities of Judah the reign of Jehoiakim and the three month reign of his successor Jeconiah come to an end and the time between the two exiles begins under the Zedekiah, who was Josiah’s youngest son, after he swore loyalty to Babylon.

Binyamin Lau continues to masterfully tell the story of Jeremiah and the people of Judah in the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the final deportation of the Judean people as a punishment for breaching of their treaty with Babylon. King Zedekiah finds himself surrounded by those who have seized power in the leadership vacuum left by the Babylonians taking most of the previous leaders into exile in 597 BCE. When Babylon returns to the north in 594, Judah finds itself with the other nations in the area becoming a part of an Egypt led alliance. To the consternation of many of the leaders in the land as well as many other prophets, in particular Hananiah, Jeremiah continues to proclaim that the nation is to serve the King of Babylon and live and he passionately pleads for the city to turn from its course and avoid the destruction that is coming. Yet again the prophet’s words will fall on deaf ears. Even though King Zedekiah has some sympathy for Jeremiah and his prophesy the king finds himself powerless in the face of those who are leading the nation on a path of confrontation once again with Babylon. Even after Jeremiah’s words come true with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BCE, the people still refuse to pay attention to the prophet who for decades has tried to save the city and temple from this fate.

Jeremiah’s story is one of bitter disappointment. Throughout the story and prophecy of Jeremiah, Rabbi Lau is able to illuminate parallels in modern day Jerusalem. “The streets of Jerusalem still throng with false prophets who earnestly claim, ‘the tradition of our forefathers is in our hands; the Third Temple shall not be destroyed!’ Once again they seek to lull us into a sense of false security, to make us forget the grave responsibility we shoulder: to be worthy of this national home, the Jewish state.”(225) It is also very easy to make connections between the political and religious movements in modern day Israel and similar political and religious rhetoric in the United States. This is an insightful journey into the world of the prophet and illuminating in approaching not only Jeremiah but the world of the Hebrew Scriptures.

purple rose 01 by

Vanity and Identity-A Sermon at Rejoice Lutheran Church, Frisco Texas, August 4, 2013

Vanity and Identity

It is nice to be able to share a video of one of my sermons, this is from Rejoice Lutheran in Frisco, Texas where I will be serving beginning the end of September. If you click on the underlined Vanity and Identity it will download the powerpoint for the visual images projected with the sermon.


purple rose 01 by

Jeremiah 9: 2-26: Death in and of the Land


Speaking for the Earth

Jeremiah 9: 2-16

2 O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place,
that I might leave my people and go away from them!
 For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors.
 3 They bend their tongues like bows;
 they have grown strong in the land for falsehood, and not for truth;
 for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, says the LORD.
 4 Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin;
 for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer.
 5 They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongues to speak lies;
 they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent.
 6 Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!
 They refuse to know me, says the LORD.
 7 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts:
 I will now refine and test them, for what else can I do with my sinful people?
 8 Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceit through the mouth.
They all speak friendly words to their neighbors,
but inwardly are planning to lay an ambush.
 9 Shall I not punish them for these things? says the LORD;
and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?
 10 Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains,
 and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness,
 because they are laid waste so that no one passes through,
 and the lowing of cattle is not heard;
 both the birds of the air and the animals have fled and are gone.
 11 I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals;
 and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant.

 12 Who is wise enough to understand this? To whom has the mouth of the LORD spoken, so that they may declare it? Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness, so that no one passes through? 13 And the LORD says: Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, or walked in accordance with it, 14 but have stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals, as their ancestors taught them. 15 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am feeding this people with wormwood, and giving them poisonous water to drink. 16 I will scatter them among nations that neither they nor their ancestors have known; and I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them.

In Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax the words of the Lorax are ignored by the Onceler and the effects of the Onceler’s actions are felt by the birds of the air and the animals of the field. Human action becomes tied to the well being of the earth and animals-and this is a very biblical thought. Within Jeremiah it is not only the people of Israel who will suffer for their inability to live in harmony with vision of shalom, it is the mountain and the wilderness and the pastures that are also laid waste (which the pastures and fields would be devastated by an invasion and forests become converted to siege engines), cattle and birds become the food for the invading army as well as the people fleeing the fight and the only animals that remain are the scavengers. Although this is a very dark view of the coming days for Jeremiah’s people it also reflects both the reality of warfare of that time and this connection between the faithfulness of God’s people and the well being of the earth.

It is also interesting that the primary thing lifted up as the cause at this point is falsehood, deception and lies. Either God or the prophet (or both) wish there is someplace else they could go away from this people because trust has been broken and now nothing that is said is able to be trusted.  Lies, in the prophets words, have become a game where people intentionally lie to one another and yet in a world of speaking points and zingers I sometimes wonder what happened to truthful speech. In a world  where fear often makes truthful speech difficult (particularly around any controversial issue) Oftentimes the lies that cover up an action cause as much or more damage to trust as the action itself and they poison the waters of a relationship.  Between God and God’s people the waters of the relationship have been poisoned and it is reaching for a painful (for both parties) ending.

Ringed Round By Death


Jeremiah 9: 17-26

17 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider,
and call for the mourning women to come;
 send for the skilled women to come;
 18 let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
 19 For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
“How we are ruined! We are utterly shamed,
because we have left the land,
because they have cast down our dwellings.”
 20 Hear, O women, the word of the LORD,
 and let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament.
 21 “Death has come up into our windows,
it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets
 and the young men from the squares.”
 22 Speak! Thus says the LORD:
 “Human corpses shall fall like dung upon the open field,
 like sheaves behind the reaper, and no one shall gather them.”

 23 Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24 but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD. 25 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will attend to all those who are circumcised only in the foreskin: 26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and all those with shaven temples who live in the desert. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.


An invocation of the rituals of death is what is called for in the disaster to come, but there aren’t enough people to cover the process of mourning. In our own situation it would be likened to a situation where there are not enough funeral directors, counselors, pastors and others to lead the funerals and so others are having to learn how to lead the mourning. In the ancient world, mourning was women’s work and the public display of grief was a way in which the dead were honored (which for most of us is a foreign concept-many of the Lutheran funerals I preside over the family members ‘bravely hold back tears’).  But here we have a situation so dire that there are not enough mourners to go around and so the daughters of the survivors are all taught their identity as wailing women, and mourners, as those who give voice to the pain of death. They are entering a time where bodies once honored cover the ground like the sheaves of wheat after a harvest or like the excrement in a cattle pen.  Death enters from every direction and is all around, coming into the home, the public spaces and it doesn’t discriminate between children, the young adults or the elderly. Life may continue but it is ringed round by death.

Wisdom and wealth have failed as a source of life. In wisdom literature, particularly in the book of Ecclesiastes, the wise person realizes that these can not be a source of ultimate meaning or joy. Ecclesiastes in many cases understands what Existential philosophy would discover two millennia later that:

16 I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

 18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. I said to myself,

“Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine– my mind still guiding me with wisdom– and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.

 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. 10 Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:16-2:11

Wisdom or wealth are not enough, they are ultimately ‘hevel’ (the Hebrew word translated as ‘vanity’- it is literally smoke, mist or vapor) they are worthless. Nor is ethnic identity or religious practice enough for none of these can bring one into the vision that God had for God’s people.  Jeremiah’s argument here foreshadows what Paul will say to his communities in the New Testament:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. Galatians 5:6

Surface rituals are not leading the people to a practice of steadfast love, justice and righteousness, instead they have substituted what Brueggemann refers to as ‘surface rituals’ (Brueggemann 1998, 101)and what God is seeking is not a mark on the flesh but a transformation of the heart, which God will promise later in the book of Jeremiah.

The Transplanted Rose-A Poem and an Update

purple rose 01 by

As I continue to follow the path laid before me
Blown by the Spirit’s movement to once again pull up roots
To be transplanted in some new place, some new soil
One would think that after so many places, so many gardens
That leaving would be easier, but rather it grows harder
For the rose’s roots became intertwined with the other roots
From the garden where I have grown and healed for three cycles
And I will miss the beauty of the other flowers

I grieve any pain my dislocation causes the garden
And yet, such is the cost of love and connection
Somedays I see only the trail of broken hearts left behind
And not the gift of their friendship and companionship in my sojourn
Each garden, each place, each climate, each connection
Have nourished my growth, fed my spirit and allowed me to bloom
And within my memory I carry the care and compassion of so many
And I long for the day when my roots are again planted.

Update: I am moving to take the call as the pastor of Rejoice Lutheran in Frisco, Texas which means leaving behind the many connections I have formed at Trinity Lutheran in Papillion, Nebraska and the broader Papillion and Omaha areas. The actual transition will take place in the second half of September, but as my current congregation now is aware of this move it begins the grieving process for both me and them. Several of my earlier poems like Tension and Waiting were also written while contemplating this decision. I’m not sure how this transition will affect my postings on SignoftheRose, I plan to keep up with the blog but if my posting slows down it will be due to the requirements of the move or the new position.

Jeremiah 8:4- 9:1: The Headstrong People and the Heartsick Prophet and God

Stallions charging

I am trying something a little different as I start again with Jeremiah: rather than breaking each section into several posts throughout the week I am going to try to do one larger post for those who enjoy this type of Biblical reflection but to where those who don’t read this part of the blog don’t have multiple posts weekly on Jeremiah. I have also been given the honor of reviewing Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah: The Fate of the Prophet and that should be coming in the next couple weeks as well as integrating some of his insights into my journey through Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 8:4-17
4 You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD:
When people fall, do they not get up again?
If they go astray, do they not turn back?
5 Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?
They have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return.
6 I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly;
no one repents of wickedness, saying, “What have I done!”
All of them turn to their own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.
7 Even the stork in the heavens knows its times;
and the turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their coming;
but my people do not know the ordinance of the LORD.
8 How can you say, “We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us,”
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie?
9 The wise shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken;
since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what wisdom is in them?
10 Therefore I will give their wives to others and their fields to conquerors,
because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely.
11 They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
 saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
12 They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time when I punish them,
they shall be overthrown, says the LORD.
13 When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD,
there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.
14 Why do we sit still? Gather together, let us go into the fortified cities and perish there;
for the LORD our God has doomed us to perish, and has given us poisoned water to drink,
because we have sinned against the LORD.
15 We look for peace, but find no good,
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
16 The snorting of their horses is heard from Dan;
at the sound of the neighing of their stallions the whole land quakes.
They come and devour the land and all that fills it, the city and those who live in it.
17 See, I am letting snakes loose among you,
adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the LORD.

If you have been following through Jeremiah to this point you could be forgiven for thinking you have read much of this before. Much as people agonizing over the brokenness of a relationship or the ending of a marriage often revisit the same material again and again trying to make sense of the reality of the changes they are dealing with, we see God continuing to struggle through God’s own disillusionment and emotions. As I’ve mentioned before the God portrayed in Jeremiah struggles with very human emotions and struggles against the coming disaster, desiring any evidence of a return to the way things could have been. Yet the falsehood of the people, which begins at the top with the prophets and the priests, has set them on a course that is moving away from God. Over and over we hear God saying, turn, return, repent but the people are charging towards their own destiny as a horse charging in battle. Even the law has been corrupted by the scribes, whether it is by their interpretation of it or their actual recording of it we do not know, but this is a world where only a select few were literate and they were the interpreters of God’s will to the people.

Two things that caught my attention reading through this, one is the reference to the fig tree, in verse 13, that neither puts our figs and even its leaves are withered. I am becoming more and more convinced of the influence of Jeremiah’s imagery on the New Testament, and in Mark 11(as well as Matthew) we encounter Jesus encountering a fig tree with no fruit, cursing it and it withers-which is a direct allusion to the temple. In earlier posts I have also talked about the vine/vineyard imagery. Both figs and grapes are common parts of the agricultural life of the people in Judah. The other image is the transition to snakes in verse 17, which may also point back to Numbers 21 where the Lord sent snakes among the people in their journey in the wilderness and Moses eventually was commanded to make a bronze serpent that the people could look upon and live.

God continues to agonize over the judgment that is coming upon God’s chosen people. If there was some way to restore the relationship without the removing of God’s protection and the harsh reality of the coming Babylonian invasion God seems open to it, but the direction of the people has moved away from God’s pursuit, and soon God’s people will also join in the grieving.


Jeremiah 8: 18-9:1
18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
19 Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:
“Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”)
20 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
21 For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
9:1 O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!
Who is doing the weeping here, is it the prophet or is it God, or perhaps it is both. The prophet is so closely tied into God’s emotions and yet these are his people too. There is a heartsick God and a heartsick prophet who are mourning for the people whose path is taking them to a place where they will experience hurt and destruction. It is like the parent watching a child go down a path that they know will cause them pain but no words they say will turn them away, or it is like the person who loves the addict but has to allow them to follow the path they are on until they are ready to receive treatment not as a punishment but as a new opportunity. The old African American spiritual points to the reality of a the region of Gilead, East of the Jordan, being famous for a balm, an aromatic resin famous for its properties of easing pain and covering the smell of a festering wound:

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 2006)

But in contrast to not only the words in the song and the hopeful nature, Jeremiah and God see no healing, even in Gilead. There is no prescription medication or course of treatment that will ease the pain of what is to come.

purple rose 01 by

Tension- A Poem


A life stretched between two different worlds
Trying to hold onto both until the tension becomes too great
And one must be grieved, lost and held in a memory
While another springs to life full of new possibilities
Straining in that moment of tension and potential energy
Praying the spring does not snap and emotions can remain steady
As the world convulses and changes around me

An Authentic People: Being the Body of Christ- A Sermon from July 28, 2013

Aime Nicolas Morot, Le bon Samaritain (1880)

Aime Nicolas Morot, Le bon Samaritain (1880)

Last week I talked about who we are, that at our root we are baptized children of God, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by God’s Holy Spirit. That nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord and nothing can take that away from us, nothing can change who we are, that we are God’s chosen people. So I guess the next logical question to come out of this is so now what do I do with this? How do I live out of this?You see for a lot of Christian traditions the way they understand the journey of faith is it ends when they make a choice for God and that is the high point and you have reached the goal, but as Lutherans Christians we understand it differently…God made a choice for us and we spend the rest of our lives trying to live out of that incredibly gracious calling that God has for us, to make sense of the new world of possibilities that creates for us. And God does have a dream for us and a calling for each of us in the midst of our lives. And God has always had this dream and vision for working through God’s people. Of us being the body of Christ, to use Paul’s language, of being the hands and feet of Christ reaching out into the world. If you remember through the Story that we went through last year God begins by setting a family and then a people aside to be a blessing to the world. As we recall from Genesis 12: 1-4

Genesis 12:1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”

James Tissot, Abraham and the Three Angels

James Tissot, Abraham and the Three Angels

Abram, later renamed Abraham was not set apart for his own benefit, but so that all the families on earth would be blessed through him. His life was to be a blessing to others and he was to live out of this calling and adventure that God set before him. Did Abram lose sight of this vision at times, yes, did he focus on his own understanding and his own strength, yep, but God kept calling him back to the vision that God had, to the adventure God had laid before him. God never abandons Abraham and Sarah or leaves them. Later when it was no longer just a family, but an entire nation Moses reminded them (Deuteronomy 4: 37)

37 Because he loved your ancestors, he chose to bless their descendants, and he personally brought you out of Egypt with a great display of power.

And in Isaiah we see some of the vision that the people were to be if they could live into God’s vision of shalom and peace:

Isaiah 2: 2-5
2 In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of all– the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship. 3 People from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” For the LORD’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. 4 The LORD will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore. 5 Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Paul captures this vision in Romans when he speaks of creation’s redemption is waiting on us:

Romans 8: 18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.
19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.
20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,
21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.
22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.
24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it.
25 But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)
Creation is waiting on us to become the people we have been created and called to be. Paul has a lot of confidence in this vision of what we as a gracious people can be and how powerful that would be, but as I think about it-Paul has every reason not to trust people, Paul who has seen the very churches he founded bicker and squabble over leadership, spiritual gifts, money, power, becoming intoxicated with the way things are in the world, becoming impatient for God to come and act now, and yet, in the midst of all of this, Paul has an amazing confidence in God to take these people with all their problems and addictions, these people who don’t know their right hand from their left and for them to be transformed by God’s love and turned into a gracious people who can reflect this transforming love of God into the world by being transformed into the people they were always created to be. People who can love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves. Yet I think often we are like the lawyer in Luke’s gospel, we come in asking the wrong question:

Luke 10: 25-37
25 One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now to be fair, when the people of Jesus time talk about what we translate as eternal life they are talking about a very earthly reality, it is the new creation and it is something that God going to do on earth and it is tied in with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. In effect this lawyer or scribe asks, “what must I do to be a part of what is going on with this kingdom of God you are always talking about.” It is something Jesus’ has pointed to so many times that he lets the lawyer answer the question:

26 Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
27 The man answered, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
28 “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

I think we also know the right answer, if you listened last week you know that for Jesus love is the law, you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and soul and mind and strength, from the very heart of the Jewish understanding of the law (Deuteronomy 6:5) and love your neighbor as yourself ( Leviticus 19:18). Jesus had been calling people back to this throughout his ministry, it wouldn’t have been a surprise and it wouldn’t even have been very controversial, yet doing it-that is another matter, and how far does it extend, who can I justify excluding from this, who is my neighbor and who isn’t

29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Where can I put up fences, where can I draw a line between holy people and unholy people, between righteous and sinners, between insiders and outsides, who can I eliminate, help me see where the boundaries are. You certainly can’t mean everyone…not the Samaritans, the Romans, the revolutionaries, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the sinners and tax collectors, the prostitutes, the uneducated, the out of work, the poor, those who speak different, who believe different, who act different, who worship other gods, surely not them. Who can I leave out?

Jan Wijnants, The Parable of the Good Samaritan (1670)

Jan Wijnants, The Parable of the Good Samaritan (1670)

30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. 31 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. 33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’ 36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Go and live like this, and you will know what the kingdom is all about, live in a world where you build walls to separate us from them and you will never know. Live in mercy and grace, unafraid of what might happen, unafraid of the contamination of unholiness, willing to risk that in caring for someone else: a stranger, a beaten down one left on the side of the road that you also might be looked upon as the ceremonially unclean social outcast and religious heretics that most of the Jews believed the Samaritans to be. They were in many ways worse than the rest of the gentiles for in their eyes they were an unholy mingling of the chosen people with the other nations and they worshipped the same God in the wrong way at the wrong places and they refused to admit that the ways that the real Jews did it was right. Generations of hostility marked the border between Jew and Samaritan, Yet Jesus calls us to imagine a world beyond walls, where our own actions make neighbors of those in need and our love is a part of the healing of humanity and the rest of the world.

I want to invite you to imagine with me what the body of Christ, as Paul called the early church would look like if we could be captured by this kind of a vision. I want you to imagine what it would be like if everyone was here not because they felt they were supposed to be, or that they were trying to take care of the afterlife, or that they were here because mom or dad, of husband or wife, or friends thought they should be but rather imagine for just a moment if everyone was really here because they loved God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and every song sung was a love song toward the God who loved us and would not allow us to be separated from that love, every prayer was in the confidence that God not only heard but cared for the words that were said, and we trusted that we were here in this place because as the Greeks in Jerusalem said to the disciples, “Sir, we want to see Jesus”. And what would it look like for the body of Christ to live out of that love, carrying it out into the world unafraid of the boundaries that had been set up between righteous and unrighteous, between classes and races and sexes, between us and them and we really were planted like the trees of life around the trees on each side of the river of God in the new creation with leaves for the healing of the nations. Where we are so grounded in the love of God that we really can love ourselves and from that place of love we can risk going out to love our neighbors. Where we begin to lean into the new creation and we begin to heal ourselves and heal the world, for as Paul points to the world is indeed waiting on the revelation of these children of God. And it begins with acts of love, caring for the man on the side of the road or the person going through a divorce, or the child who doesn’t seem to fit in, or the mother dealing with a screaming infant, or the person who doesn’t speak English or who can’t seem to find a job. It means being willing to be a part of Christ’s reaching out into the world through us to be a foretaste of the feast to come in the new creation. Sometimes it means bearing the disbelief of a society that cannot believe that we would give away some of our money to someone else, or that we would reach out to talk to and touch those who no one wants to touch. There is a story of a young priest who went to see Mother Teresa in Calcutta and after following her around during the day was struck by how unreligious her work seemed and then when he remarked to her how unclean and unholy it seemed she reached down and picked up a man dying who weighed very little and turned towards the this young priest and said here is the body of Christ given for you, for it was there in the poor that Christ was appearing and she was able to serve him.

purple rose 01 by

Freedom for Fear and Shame: Grace in our Lives-A Sermon from July 21,2013

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most common command in the bible is “do not be afraid.” And yet fear is a very real force in all of our lives and it causes us to do some things we are often not proud of. Fear causes us to shut ourselves off from others and even from God, and shame does this as also. Fear and shame are a little different, fear is related to something external, it can be another person, something in our environment, something that might happen, but it is fixed on something outside of oneself. Shame is focused internally, it focuses on the fear that someone else will not accept us if they know something about us, that they won’t like or love or care about me anymore. That they won’t want to be near me, it is the fear of disconnection with other people. Both fear and shame have a profound impact on our lives, they begin to tell us “we aren’t good enough” or “who are you to believe that you can do this” and they can keep us trapped inside that which is known and safe. We may shut ourselves off from other things or other people.

There has been a lot of coverage in the news over the last couple of weeks of the George Zimmerman trial, and I’m not going to go back into the trial itself, nor am I going to try to guess what the jury should or should not have decided. But the incident between George Zimmerman and Travoyn Martin was an episode based out of fear. You see, it arose out of one man seeing another man walking through the neighborhood on a stormy night, reacting out of fear and confronting him and eventually killing him. George Zimmerman believed Trayvon was a threat and he reacted out of that. Now we can’t go back and change the past, we can’t wave a magic wand and make everything better, but can we imagine a better future.  This one of the things posted last week that I really liked was from Jermaine Paul, who is a singer, but he wrote, “How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.” That’s a different world than what we live in, but it is a world worth imagining and a world worth fighting for. I think it is a world that Jesus envisioned and  we are going to hear more about as we go through the sermon today, but it is not the world I grew up in.

Those who know my story know that I spent four years in the Corps of Cadets and another 4 ½ years in the Army and they taught me a lot of the same things. They taught me a lot of what we commonly think about as courage, but courage as they taught is was to be bigger, badder and stronger than whoever else might be a threat. So instead of someone else being a threat you then you can be a threat to them but over the last thirteen years I’ve had to learn about a much different type of courage. The word courage comes from the latin word for heart ‘cur’ and courage literally means to be able to tell the story of one’s heart. That’s vulnerability, that being able to open up to who you really are. To be honest in my time in the Army you didn’t open up who you are but you pushed it down inside and you built up your own little suit of armor around yourself so that you were impervious to anything anyone might say or do about you. But real courage is being willing to take off that armor and to be open and vulnerable knowing that you are able to show who you really are. Knowing that you can be hurt and wounded because your armor is down, that someone might not accept you or the things you create or do. It is the courage to be who you are because who you are is valuable.

We live in a culture that doesn’t understand the very well, we live in a culture where our biggest idol is not money or power, at least as I’m coming to believe our biggest idol is security. We are so desperate to feel safe and secure. A lot of these things come in different forms and we are afraid to have enough to retire, afraid that someone might break into our house, someone might strike as a terrorist in the heart of our city. Yet, I think we have become more and more willing to surrender pieces of who we are to feel safe. We begin to give away pieces of our identity in order to feel safe. Yet, I need to be honest with you: security is a cruel, cruel god. If security is your god, then faith becomes transformed into certainty. There is no longer any room to question or to doubt, and yet when faith is transformed into certainty you are a short, short step from extremism. Faith as the bible understands it is about relationship and a journey, and if you notice from the stories of the bible the disciples often don’t get it and yet they keep following behind Jesus and in the journey they learn and grow. Love becomes trumped by the law. We begin to lock things down, making it more about absolutes and less about getting to know and love others. The world becomes transformed into them and us and we build up walls between us and them. Some of the walls are physical and some of the walls are emotional and social. This was the image of the wall I grew up with:

Berlin Wall

This is the Berlin Wall, it was built before I was born and while I was in college I got to see it come down, it was the wall that everyone knew about as I was growing up. The Berlin Wall separated East from West Berlin, two groups of people who were not really separate ethnically, sometimes even a family was split apart by the wall, but they were divided by two political systems. The wall separated two groups of people and it kept one group in and one group out and it was built out of fear, for security and honestly I believe it also was built out of a sense of shame.

But we come to know a very different God in Jesus, you see for Jesus faith is learned by following and we are following the one for whom love is the law. If you remember Jesus’ two great commandments, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus goes even further in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells them “you shall love your enemies” or in John’s gospel when the disciples are gathered around the table and he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you are to love one another.”And love comes up again and again and again as what Jesus commands and that is much different than trying to get it all locked down into a particular way. And as we follow Jesus we realize the world is no longer broken down into them and us, but rather as Paul can say in Galatians:

28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3: 28)

All these things that in Paul’s life that had been the defining things became unimportant. Are you a Jew like or are you a Gentile, not a Jew, are you like us or are you not. Are you a slave or are you free, are you a man or are you a woman, rich or poor, college educated or not and we can put all those things in there, but ultimately in Christ all those things no longer matter. And Paul had to learn this in his own life. If you remember Paul’s story, he started out as a Pharisee and he understood that there were certain things that made him right with God and he was so convinced that these early followers of Jesus were wrong that he was out to wipe them out. He stood there looking on as they stoned Stephen and then he was on his way to Damascus to find any of Jesus early followers he could and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. Until Jesus met him on the way. Paul recounts this way of thinking in Philippians 3:

4 though I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! 5 I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin– a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.

Paul may have been righteous, and I don’t think Paul had any sense of guilt for the way he followed the law, but it was a righteousness without love. And Paul realizes that now everything has changed because of what is now important in his life. Paul continues:

7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ

You see Paul had to go through this transformation in his own life, from a world where he was separated from those who were not like him: I am a Jew and beyond that I am a Pharisee and a very zealous Pharisee, so zealous I persecuted these early Christians. I’m righteous, these other people are unrighteous, I’m a saint, they are a sinner, I am good they are bad.

And then we encounter Jesus, and have you ever noticed that Jesus is always getting in trouble for being with the wrong people at the wrong? Almost all his controversies are because he either is healing on Sabbath or he is touching and eating with the wrong people. He touches a leper, that should make him unclean- and yet instead it makes the leper clean. He is sitting at the house of a Pharisee and then a woman comes in and anoints him with perfume and washes his feet with her tears, and while the Pharisee is thinking, ‘if this Jesus was really a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is and not let her touch him’ but instead Jesus says to him ‘do you see this woman, when I came in you didn’t anoint me nor did you wash my feet, but she anointed me and has washed my feet with her tears and her sins which are many are forgiven.’ Or he hangs out with sinners and tax collectors, like Matthew. This is Carvaggio’s painting of the calling of Matthew:

The Calling of St. Matthew by Carvaggio (1599-1600)

The Calling of St. Matthew by Carvaggio (1599-1600)

Jesus is on the right pointing and Matthew is in the center of the table with a bewildered look on his face, with his fingers pointing to himself as if to say, ‘me, you are calling me.’ This is how Matthew records it in the 9th chapter:

9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.

10 Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”


I actually like that translation, even though they take a little freedom with the word there, for I think we often think of being at the table with Jesus being like this:


Where everyone is holy and righteous and good, yet people in Jesus day saw it being more like this:


Lords supper modernWhere Jesus is there with the sinners, tax collectors, all the wrong people the people they didn’t want to hang out with. Sinners and tax collectors in Jesus day were no less likely than the people in the picture above. In my own experience I keep being stretched as I encounter Jesus among the least likely people I expected. Matthew continues the story

12 When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor– sick people do.” 13 Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”


We come from a tradition, the Lutheran tradition, that gives us a great place to wrestle with this because the person we take our name from, Martin Luther, wrestled mightily with this. Luther started out as an Augustinian monk, the most rigorous of the religious orders of his day, and Luther strove to do everything the right way, to live according to all the rules to try to be right with God and Luther never felt he could achieve that. Staupitz who was Luther’s superior in the order as well as his confessor, after sitting through hours and hours of hearing Luther confess is reported to have said, ‘Luther you come in here confessing every little thing you have done, you can’t so much as fart without coming here fearing condemnation and yet I’ve never once heard you confess anything remotely interesting.’ Yet Luther was afraid that he couldn’t keep all the commandments and love God. He was convinced that God didn’t love him, at least before the reformation breakthrough where he realized that God loved him well before he ever began his journey that led him to monasticism. It transformed him so much that later in his life he could tell his friend and younger colleague, Philip Melancthon who was trying to get everything right and was afraid of making a mistake, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ evermore boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.”

Paul also had to come through this transformation from being viewing righteousness as being a part of the law to being transformed by the righteousness of God that comes through the love of Christ. As he writes in Romans 8:

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Who can take that away from you? Nobody. You have been freed from the power of sin and death, now that doesn’t we don’t find ourselves struggling, but the victory has already been decided. Paul continues

3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. 5 Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit.


So who gets to say who we are, who gets to have that word. Is it others who say that we should be afraid of those who are different from us, who ask us to build walls between ourselves and others. No. Is it our own selves telling us that we are not good enough, smart enough, worthy enough. No. It is the God who made us the baptized children of God, who marked us with the cross of Christ forever and sealed us by the Holy Spirit. That God who promises that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, nothing in our lives, nothing in heaven or on earth, no rulers or powers, nothing.Who are you, you are baptized children of God and no one, nothing can take that away from you, and you are loved. And it is in that love that we can imagine the way the world looks in light of that love, Jesus spends most of his ministry talking about the kingdom of God, talking about his vision of the way life should be. This was not a new thing, in the Old Testament this would have been talked about in terms of living in God’s shalom, God’s peace and vision for the world and harmony with God and the world around them. That is why the two great commandments are you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And as we begin to claim who we are in light of this love and identity those things like fear and shame which cause us to give away potions of who we are begin to lose their hold on us. Now this isn’t easy, I certainly don’t claim to be the one who has mastered this. There are times in my own life where fear kept me paralyzed or shame made me believe that I was unloveable. I can own that, and the reality is that I didn’t earn it. Martin Luther would say that “God’s love doesn’t find that which is pleasing to it; God’s love creates that which is pleasing to it.” We weren’t right with God on our own, God went out and made us right, God goes out seeking us because that is who God is. That gives us a great opportunity. You see, in the midst of Jesus ministry he never built any walls, but he sat at a lot of tables and tables bring us together. He sat at tables with those many in his day would have excluded. I had the opportunity to hear Bishop Mark Hanson, the Bishop of the ELCA a couple years ago and he related a story how when he was elected bishop a colleague who he trusted told him, ‘your calling is to take the walls that divide us and turn them into tables for conversation.’ I think that is what Jesus did, he took the walls that divided Matthew from the rest of the community, ‘he’s a sinner, he’s a tax collector’ and he brought him to the table where he was included as well as the other sinners and tax collectors. That’s what Paul did in going from the ministry that divided Jew and Gentiles to being the apostle to the Gentiles. And grace frees us from that shame, that fear that we need to create a different and better past, indeed grace is freedom from having to seek a better past. The reality is that who you are is accepted right now, God has made you and claimed you. So take down the walls and join those at the table. Amen.


 purple rose 01 by