Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reflections on the text – I Kings 18 - The Contest with the Priests of Baal

Read the text here: I Kings 18
Or better than reading - listen to the setting of this text in the magnificent oratorio "Elijah" by Felix Mendelssohn.  This performance is given by students from Boston University.  The other performers are listed with the video.  The section which includes the contest with the priests of Baal begins at 0:34:50 and concludes at 0:55:16 with the aria "Is Not His Word Like  Hammer."
Life and Death
Perhaps the title is too extreme; perhaps it is too black and white – Life and Death.  Many of us get very uncomfortable when confronted with either/or – black and white statements.  We prefer things to be a bit more nuanced; a bit more grey.  We like to consider options as it regards our spiritual and even our moral life – many of us chafe at the suggestion that there is right or wrong and that there is nothing in between.  And we are very good at creating rationalizations with which we justify our accommodating approach.  But yet, in our political life the trend is moving in the direction of seeing things as black or white, right or wrong, my way or the wrong way!
Those 21st century American politicians and others would like Elijah in our lesson today from 1st Kings.  For Elijah the nation of Israel is dangling from the precipice and either will return to the covenant with Yahweh and life or will completely abandon the covenant and replace Yahweh with the Canaanite or Phoenician god Baal and this is the way that will lead to the death of Israel.  Life or death – for Elijah, it was that simple.
A little context might help. And there are two parts to the context – part one is the context of the story itself.  King Ahab has married Queen Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who is a very devout follower of Baal.  She brings her own religious leaders, builds places of worship throughout Israel and encourages the people to join her in worshipping this new pantheon of gods.  At the same time she is ruthless is hunting down and killing any prophets or priests or others who object.  So for Elijah, in other words, this whole fight is actually about HIS life and death as he is a marked man. And after this story will become the focus of a nationwide manhunt!  The people therefore are being seduced to worship this foreign god.  Now it is not so much that there is a conscious decision to choose Baal over Yahweh, but rather an effort to worship them both – this was the ancient way after all.  You never knew which god was going to be more powerful on a given day, so you performed acts of devotion to them all, in order to cover your bases.
The 2nd part of the context concerns the time of the actual recording of this story in writing.  Undoubtedly this sequence of stories about Elijah and Elisha and the history of Israel was passed down orally for centuries, but after the Babylonian invasion, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the forced exile of the leadership these surviving leaders and thinkers began to see that there was a great danger - a life and death danger! Too many of those who had been forced into exile in Babylon had begun to assimilate and become Babylonian. They were turning their backs on the traditions and the laws and the culture of Israel.  After all, it appeared as though the Babylonian god Marduk had beat Yahweh, and they better keep their options open.  This led directly to the writing down of these stories and the recording of the laws and traditions.  It was a life and death issue!
“Choose today who you will serve,” says Elijah.  One or the other!  You can’t have it both ways.  If you choose Baal, fine – but don’t pretend you can worship both/and – make a choice.  And then Elijah proceeds to initiate this very dramatic contest between Baal and Yahweh.  He even allows the priests of Baal to go first.  But to no avail, there is no response.  “Call him louder!” Elijah mocks. “Maybe he is sleeping or using the restroom or away on vacation!”  Still nothing.  Then it is Elijah’s turn and he builds an altar, digs a trench, slaughters a bull and pours three large jars of water over top of the sacrifice.  And then Elijah prays! And in that moment we see it: Life or death – for the representatives of Baal or for Elijah.  Life or death – for the lives of the people of all times and places as they must choose whom will they follow, whom they will trust, whose promises are secure.  Life or death!
It is tempting, I suppose, to see this story as interesting and dramatic but not really relevant us in our own time.  After all, we are not pagans.  We do not worship Baal or Marduk or Zeus or Apollo or Athena anymore.  Or do we?  Remember that these gods all represented an essential dimension of human life: prosperity, success, fertility, love, wealth, security, violence, war, victory, power and so forth.  We may not use the name Zeus to refer to power, or Venus to refer to love or Baal or Marduk to refer to success and prosperity and war – but we, in our society all worship these very same gods and like Elijah’s audience we too are often guilty of trying to have it both ways – we worship God in Christ on Sundays, but we spend the rest of our time pursuing these other societal gods.
So what is wrong with all these things?  Is it bad to want to be successful or to have victory or to be in love?  No.  It is a matter of perspective.  Anything that claims our ultimate devotion then becomes a god.  The point of the contest in this lesson is that placing our ultimate devotion in anything besides the God and father of Jesus the Christ will lead to death – spiritual death at the very least.  Rather, the Holy Spirit calls us to life – abundant life!  Turn away from the idols we have created; turn away from the false promises of our societal gods and look to God who loves you, has showered you with grace and will never abandon you.
It’s about life and death! So, in whose promises will you place your trust?
Lucas Cranach 1545

Friday, May 17, 2013

Reflections on the Pentecost texts – Genesis 11 and Acts 2

Read the Genesis text here: Genesis 11
Babel Borough or Pentecost People
Pentecost: The rush of a mighty wind… doves… the tongues of fire… the courageous preaching… the Gospel proclaimed in many languages… the color red!  These are some of the images that are a part of our Pentecost celebrations.  And to that we in the Wartburg Parish, as well as many other congregations add confirmation… affirmation of baptism… prayer for the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost is a wonderful celebration of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the sending forth of Jesus’ disciples of all times and places to bear the Gospel of Christ’s love and unconditional grace to all people.  All of this joy and celebration is wonderful and appropriate, but at the same time we must be careful that it does not obscure the other side of the festival – the dark side. The struggles and the pain that led to this day.  Like the Feast of Easter celebrated outside of the context of Holy Week and Good Friday, it is far too easy for us to loose sight of the depth and profundity of the gift that is given and celebrated on this day.  If we stay on the surface then we risk trivializing this wonderful feast day and the gift that is given.  Which is why we are reading the story of the Tower of Babel on this day, in addition to the usual Pentecost reading from Acts 2.
The story of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11, comes at the conclusion of what is called the pre-history (chapters 1 through 11) and right before the calling of Abraham and Sarah and the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  It is a curious story, especially when taken out of context.  Remember that in the very first few verses of Genesis 1, God brings order and creation out of chaos and in the stories that follow, chaos continually threatens to break through, overwhelm and destroy God’s good and wonderful creation.  Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood – in all of these stories chaos and disorder threaten as the humans constantly fail and God is constantly re-creating and pushing back the powers of chaos in different ways in order to bring life and order.  In this last story, we find the humans, the descendants of Noah, building a city to protect themselves and in the center of this city is a great tower. 
Now the usual traditional interpretation of this passage tends to focus on human arrogance and disobedience, but there is more here than that alone. The opening of the passage makes it clear that the people are motivated principally by fear.  They are afraid of being “scattered” and they want to make a “name for themselves” which means that they want to establish and perpetuate a single culture – their culture, their way of life.  They want to protect what they have, guard against the danger of being scattered and keep all other influences that might challenge or force change at bay.  So, the motivation is fear, and that leads them to a plan that focuses on isolation and uniformity. 
Fear / Isolation / Uniformity!
This is their solution and this is their security! And God thinks it is a lousy idea.  God comes down and breaks apart their isolation; God creates diversity and in this way God shatters the fear that has inspired them to withdraw into themselves.  If you want to resist the forces of chaos, God proclaims by this action, then put fear behind you, come out of your isolation and embrace the gift of diversity and differentness!  Fear, isolation and uniformity are seductive.  They promise security and perpetuation but in the end will only lead to self-destruction
The situation with the disciples is not much different than that of the people of Babel.  Where do we find them at the start of this Acts 2 text?  In isolation – hiding, confused and afraid!  They are being defined by their fear.  And as the story continues the issue of uniformity will take center stage as the disciples (led by Peter) attempt to hold on to the old traditions and laws of their past that have been completed and supplanted by the cross of Christ.  The disciples want to keep others out; they want to protect their pre-conceptions and traditions. They are willing to welcome others, but only if those others become like them first (See Acts 10, 11, 15ff and the entire letter of Galatians).  But God is about breaking isolation and replacing uniformity with diversity; God is about shattering fear!  And ultimately the disciples are able to embrace the gift of community and diversity!
We still struggle with many of the same issues.  We too often want to pull ourselves back and isolate ourselves from others, especially from others who might be different from us or others who would challenge us and our tightly guarded pre-conceptions.  We too often encourage uniformity and discourage and dismiss diversity.  And why?  Because we are still infected with the fear of Babel! We would still prefer to be a Babel borough, defined by our isolation and uniformity and inspired by fear; than a Pentecost people who embrace diversity in all its forms and reach out to bring others into a community inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Our celebration of Pentecost gives us the opportunity to reject the safe and easy way of Babel and to embrace the gifts that come from the Holy Spirit – the gifts of diversity, culture, inclusivity, love and grace.  Today we affirm, at Pentecost, through Word and Sacrament, Confirmation and Affirmation. We reject Babel and affirm that we are a Pentecost People! Called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit and sent out to do the work of the Christ!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reflections on the Text - Revelation 22:12-21

Read the text here: Revelation 22:12-21

The End is the Beginning
We have come to the end.  The visions have faded away and we find ourselves in the dark cave in Patmos where John is writing the final words of his letter.  He has taken us on quite an adventure, we have seen fantastical visions but now he returns to the beginning, to where he started and again confronts his readers: Jesus is coming soon!  What difference does that make to you, how you live your lives and how you relate to others? 
This prompts another important question: do you believe it?  Do you believe that Jesus is coming soon?  John wrote this sometime around the year AD 100 and we are now in the year AD 2013.  That is almost 2000 years ago and Jesus has not come yet.  At least, not in the way we expect – on the clouds in glory.  But yet, Jesus comes to us each and every day.  One of the points that John makes over and over again in Revelation is that Christ is present with us in the midst of our lives and that Jesus IS here now working to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  The problem is that too often we are like the disciples in the Ascension story from Acts 1:1-11.  We spend too much time gazing into the sky looking for Jesus to come dramatically in glory, distracted by our own pre-conceptions of visions of terror, apocalyptic destruction, violence and rapture.  When in fact Jesus is standing right next to us loving us. Jesus is embracing us in our struggles and griefs.  Jesus’ constant presence with us is not dramatic, it is not violent, it is not accompanied by terror or trumpets or angels.  Jesus is present with us every moment of every day in love and grace.  I think we too need to be tapped on the shoulder, like the Angels do to the disciples, in order to remind us to lower our gaze, give up our pre-conceptions, accept God’s love and get to work.  For Jesus’ presence in the world is affected through the saints – through you and me.
In many ways the Book of Revelation brings us full circle.  The Bible begins with the creation account in the Book of Genesis, and the Bible ends with the Book of Revelation focusing on God’s work of re-creation.  Both creation accounts are centered right here on earth.  The idea that there is some other place called heaven to which we would be raptured is completely foreign to the Bible and to the Book of Revelation in particular.  There is no rapture.  There is no separate, distant place.  Redemption and salvation and re-creation are centered here upon the earth that God has made and that God loves passionately.
In the Gospels Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God who is born naturally in very humble and poor circumstances and who dies violently humiliated on a cross.  This is not really the Messiah everyone was looking for.  And in Revelation, where we expect a powerful warrior, a strong and victorious lion instead we get a defeated Lamb who wears robes soaked in His own blood and who fights only with the creative Word that comes from his mouth. 
In the letters that Paul sends to many of the same congregations to whom John of Patmos is writing, Paul stresses over and over again that God’s love is available to ALL.  That God reaches out to us and brings us into His amazing love NOT because we obey all the rules, not because we are good people, not even because we believe all the right things – but based solely and completely on God’s unconditional grace.  In the Book of Revelation the vision of the New Jerusalem has 12 great gates that stand open eternally inviting ALL to come and enter into God’s incredible loving presence.  The nations will be drawn to the city and will enter for God invites everyone unconditionally to enter in.  Those who remain outside remain outside because they have chosen to remain outside.  In the end, according to Revelation, it is the surprising and amazing love and grace of God that triumphs.  There is no timeline in Revelation.  The visions themselves are not even sequential.  In fact there is a repetitive aspect to them.  Why? Because the point is to invite all to enter through the gates and accept the gift of the love which God offers to us through the Lamb, Jesus the Christ.
Finally, the Book of Revelation is a book of worship.  Worship is woven into the very fabric of this book.  Just like Revelation is not just about ME, but is rather about the community of believers, ultimately worship is also not about ME.  It is not about making ME feel good and spiritual.  Worship is a community event designed to feed and strengthen believers in faith through Word and Sacrament and then to send this community back into the world ready to bear Christ’s loving and healing presence into all the world in order to do the work of the Kingdom.  As we leave the Book of Revelation, as we leave John in that cave on Patmos we are again confronted with the ultimate question which lay at the heart of the Book of Revelation, which curiously enough is also the very same question that sends us forth weekly from worship – “What difference does it make?  What difference does it make that you have been claimed by Christ in your Baptism?  What difference does your faith make in the way you live your lives, manage your relationships and set your priorities?”  Perhaps, as the angels is Acts say to the disciples, it is time for us to lower our gaze, to look seriously at this creation that God has made and given us responsibility for and get to work!

Painting by Velazquez Diego (1599-1660)
An audio recording of this sermon as well as all of the sermons from the series can be found at the Wartburg Parish website, media page.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reflections on the Text - Revelation 21

Read the text here: Revelation 21:10-22:5
A Tale of Two Cities
What do you think of the city?  For much of human history cities have been played a very important role.  In the world of the Bible, the city is central to a people’s identity and sense of community.  Cities such as Rome and Jerusalem were more than just places where lots of people lived.  They were the seats of power and the homes of Kings and Emperors. Cities accumulated great wealth and drove the economic life of the nations.  In the Bible many of the characters we meet are defined by their home city – David of Bethlehem, for example, who then goes on to establish Jerusalem or Saul, later Paul, of Tarsus, for example.  In Revelation John of Patmos writes to the churches that are located in 7 major cities of Asia Minor.  As we prepare to enter into John’s final vision we need to understand that the city was a central part of life for people living at this time.
And so, we have come to the final chapters of the Book of Revelation. But to understand the power of this final vision of the New Jerusalem we need to go back to chapters 17 and 18 to re-acquaint ourselves with John’s earlier vision of yet another ancient Mesopotamian city – the City of Babylon.  The Assyrians had destroyed Babylon some 600 or so years before John wrote his apocalypse.  But that traumatic experience suffered by the people of Judah still made Babylon a powerful symbol of the lust for power that ultimately will consume itself.  John uses this ancient name to represent the city of Rome. Rome was built on 7 hills and so Babylon is pictured as a harlot seated on a beast with 7 heads.  The harlot Rome goes about the world seducing people of all nations by her outward glory and power and wealth.  But underneath it all she is rotten to the core, says John.  That glory and power and wealth is accumulated by devouring the poor, the powerless and the weak and is completely dependent upon violence.  Ultimately Babylon will destroy herself.  Her insatiable need to accumulate wealth and treasure and her dependence on violence to maintain its glory and power will be her undoing. 
So then – believers in Christ, those of you who have been called by the Lamb - why do you allow yourselves to be seduced by this faithless harlot of Babylon?  Why do you insist on putting your infinite trust in possessions, luxury and the accumulation of wealth?  Why do you depend on violence upon violence to make you secure?  Why do you glory in the unstable power and fleeting glory of this seductive beast? 
Contrast that then with the vision of the New Jerusalem. The wicked city of Babylon is a harlot who seduces and devours and represents unfaithfulness; by contrast the New Jerusalem is a Bride who is a pillar of fidelity.  This Bride is adorned in a magnificent garment woven from the righteous deeds of the saints while the harlot drinks the blood of those whom she has devoured and is adorned in a splendor that comes from the exploitation of other people.  The New Jerusalem is a city of light where God is the only light needed to illuminate the city.  Babylon is a city of darkness where the darkness hides the evil human destroying activities of the city.  The New Jerusalem has 12 gates which stand open inviting and welcoming all to enter into God’s presence day and night; the foundation of the New Jerusalem has the names of the apostles inscribed indicating that it is built on the work of the human Apostles, while the beast Rome eats and devours humans.  Babylon is filled with impurity and deception, but there is nothing impure or false in the New Jerusalem.  In fact, in the center of the New Jerusalem grows the Tree of Life whose fruit is now available to all and whose leaves will heal the wounds of all who suffer.
Central to John’s description of the New Jerusalem is this: there will be no Temple! For his original audience this would have been shocking (Ezekiel’s description of the restored heavenly Jerusalem included a Temple – Ez. 40).  Every city had a Temple in the ancient world.  How else could you communicate with and experience God’s presence? But in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem there will be no need for a Temple, because God will be constantly and eternally present to all who dwell therein. You will no longer need to seek the Lord, because God’s presence will permeate all of New Jerusalem.  And to make this point even more profound John sees that the name of the Lamb will be inscribed on the foreheads of all the faithful.  Which means that all of the Saints will be High Priests and will have constant access to the presence of God.
We will look at the amazing conclusion next week.  But for now please consider two things.  First, to which city do you belong? Do you put your trust in the power and wealth of Babylon; do you look to luxury and possessions for meaning in life and do you count on violence to provide security?  Or can you open yourself to the Lamb who was slain and look to God’s love, mercy and grace for meaning.  What does that mean in practical terms? On what do you place your trust? What gives your life meaning and purpose?  Do you live in ways that reflect Babylon and conspicuous consumption or Jerusalem and unconditional grace and love for all?
Second, worship is woven into the very fabric of the Book of Revelation.  The response of the faithful to God’s love and grace as shown forth in the Lamb who won the victory through weakness is non-stop continuous worship.  This raises questions for us as well as to how we set our priorities and how we define our stewardship of God’s gifts.  Too often stewardship is defined only as having to do with giving money to the church.  But Revelation calls on us to see that true stewardship has to do with the setting of priorities that are responsive to the gift of life and salvation that comes from the Lamb.  John of Patmos calls upon us to give of ourselves fully to the service and worship of the Lamb.  How will you respond to this call?

This amazingly beautiful work is textile fabric art by Karen Goetzinger.