As of October 26, 2014, I am no longer the pastor of Our Redeemer’s and Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Churches. My wife, Stephanie, and I have taken a call to serve as co-pastors of Agnus Dei Lutheran Church in Gig Harbor, WA. We will begin our ministry there with worship on November 23rd.
Until that time, there will be no posts here at Eutychus’ Window. Steph and I are taking some much-needed time to be with family and friends and renew ourselves in preparation for the new call. Sermon posts will resume after Christ the King Sunday on Nov 23.
When we begin this new call, some things may look a bit different here at the Window. First of all, we’ll be returning to the Revised Common Lectionary, which I have previously used and is common to most Catholic and Protestant congregations. Additionally, Stephanie and I will be alternating our preaching schedule, so the posting here may be on a different schedule. Nevertheless, whatever changes may come, you can anticipate new material here after the 23rd.
In the mean time, God’s blessings to all of you. Thanks so much to Our Redeemer’s and Shepherd of the Hills for extending to me the call that I have served, and thanks to Agnus Dei for extending this new call to us. Steph and I are excited to continue our ministry together!
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-08/Pentecost 20. Reformation Sunday
Text: 1Kg 3.4-28; Mt 6.9-10
The people of Israel wanted a king, but God knew that was a bad idea. God knew that if a person was anointed king, that person would let all the power go to his head. He would abuse his kingship for his own gain; he would use the resources of the nation to make himself wealthy; he would fight wars to stoke his own ego. When God conceded and Samuel anointed Saul as king, that’s exactly what happened. After Saul came David, who was much, much better; but we heard last week about one of the terrible things David did as king, how even he abused his power. Now David’s son, Solomon is king, and it looks like things are headed in a new direction.
Solomon appears to have his head in the right place. He knows enough to know how much he doesn’t know; when the Lord appears to him in a dream and offers him whatever he wants, he humbly admits that he can’t handle this responsibility on his own, and asks for God’s help. “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil,” he says, “for who can govern this your great people?” When Solomon could have asked for wealth or power or slaves or whatever else, instead of asking for something that would make him happy, he requested something that would allow him to be a better ruler; and that makes God happy.
God is happy because God did not appoint a king over Israel for the sake of the king. God did not choose Saul or David or Solomon because they were special or better than anyone else. God made these men king because God’s people needed someone to guide them, to administer the laws and enforce justice in God’s name. In spite of the fact that God didn’t want to anoint a king over Israel, God gave them one in order to bless the nation and to uphold God’s promise. When Solomon asks for something that will make him a better servant to God’s people, he is doing exactly what God has hoped the kings would do.
Though we are no longer governed by a king, this story still illustrates a guiding principle for us. As Christians, we are God’s servants in the story, and we pray to God to give us gifts that will help us better serve the world around us in God’s name. This is what confirmation is all about. Today, our young people will affirm the promises of their baptism. Baptism is God’s gift to the world—in baptism, we are called and claimed by God, and like Solomon, we are given the responsibility and authority to act on God’s behalf. God gives us this gift for the same reason God anointed a king: so that we might serve God’s people and be the conduits of God’s promise for the world. When we celebrate confirmation, we ask for God’s help so we might live out this baptismal calling more faithfully.
We read today how Solomon used God’s gift of wisdom to administer justice in the case of the two prostitutes, acting faithfully in God’s name. If we continue to read the book of 1 Kings, we will learn how Solomon eventually gives into his own greed and lust for power. He levies burdensome taxes and compels his own people into forced labor to build a grand temple for God—and when he was finished, he built himself a house that was even better. In the end, Solomon’s unwise governing caused a revolt that divided the nation of Israel in two after his death. Though God had given him the gift of wisdom, he did not always use it faithfully for God’s purposes.
We, too, struggle to use God’s gifts faithfully. In baptism, God gives us all the gifts we need through the Holy Spirit; our daily struggle is to use those gifts for God’s purposes rather than squandering them on ourselves. We have been equipped by God to serve and love the world in God’s name and we have been given gifts of time, talents, and wealth to do God’s work; but we often choose to hoarde those gifts for ourselves rather than share them with God’s other children.
This is why we have confirmation. Confirmation is the daily renewal of the baptismal promises we have all made—to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. In our baptism, we are daily called to remember these promises; daily we admit our defeat and die to our own sin, and daily we are raised to new, resurrected life in Christ. Confirmation is not a one-time occurrence, but the daily struggle of every Christian. Today, as our youth embark on the first step of that daily struggle, we bear witness to their journey and welcome them to join us in our daily work of repentance and renewal.
Today especially, we pray for the continued wisdom for these confirmands—and for all of us—to see how much we need God’s help to use our gifts to serve the world. Today especially, we come before God like Solomon did: as little children, not knowing how to go out or come in, asking for God to help us better love and serve our neighbors. God’s gifts are not always readily apparent to us, but they are there. Solomon’s wisdom in the case of the two women at first seemed like foolishness—who in their right mind would offer to cut a baby in half?—and yet, soon enough his wisdom becomes apparent. And so it is with us: God’s gifts are sometimes hidden. Our faith in God helps us use God’s gifts, trusting that God’s wisdom will become apparent.
Sometimes, God’s wisdom looks foolish. Sometimes, eternal life looks an awful lot like death. Sometimes, following God’s call will lead us in directions we do not want to go. We want to look after our own needs and the needs of our congregations, but God’s scope is so much wider. God calls us through baptism to love and serve the world. If we focus too much on just keeping our doors open or our programs running or our positions staffed, it may seem like God’s call is directing us to neglect our congregation and allow it to die while we serve others.
This is why we need confirmation; not just for our youth, but for all of us. We need to be reminded that God did not anoint a king for the good of the king, and God does not give us this congregation for the sake of this congregation. God’s gifts are intended to be shared: if we are not willing to part with the baby, we may just be killing it. Our confirmation allows us to let go of what we hold too dearly so that God’s work may be done through us.
As Paul says, this indeed seems like foolishness to those who are perishing. Common wisdom tells us that we need to look after ourselves first, to get our own house in order before focusing outward. God’s wisdom tells us to take up our cross and follow. This is the wisdom that Christ followed, and he died for it. What foolishness! And yet, it is into that death that we have been baptized, and through the resurrected life which followed that we are renewed and assured of the promises of God’s goodness.
When Solomon stands with sword at the ready and offers to divide the baby in half, it looks like foolishness; and when Christ beckons from the cross for us to come and die, it looks the same. Faith is the ability to see this foolishness for what it is: God’s saving grace, God’s promise at work, God’s eternal life. Through our baptism, God calls us into death, so that we might experience new life; that is the promise these young people will affirm today, and which we will affirm for ourselves with them. The question before us today is: do you trust that promise?
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-06/Pentecost 18
Text: Josh 24.1-15
During my internship, I helped run Vacation Bible School. The curriculum the congregation had chosen that year had an amusement park theme, and it was called “SonWorld.” Each day had a different theme that tied into the main theme of the week. We decided instead of rotating the days, we’d rotate the groups through each theme; that way, each volunteer could lead the same theme each day. The different themes were all based around choice: “Choose Kindness,” “Choose Love,” etc. It was the last one that hit me like a kick to the gut: “Choose Jesus.”
In that section, the curriculum basically told the kids how important it was to decide to follow Jesus, because that’s how you got into heaven. It was intended to be the theme for the final day, to cap the week off with a sort of altar call for the elementary school kids. As a Lutheran seminarian, there was no way I was going to let that ride, so I chose to lead that section, then I reworked all the lesson material and activities to talk about how Jesus chooses us, rather than us choosing Jesus.
The last verse of our lesson today brings up in me that same uneasy defensiveness I felt when I had when I saw that curriculum that said, “Choose Jesus.” It’s a popular theology, especially among our more fundamentalist sisters and brothers in the Church, and it tells us that our decision to love, serve and worship God is what is required for us to be saved. It is dangerous because it can give the impression that God either has no control over who gets into the kingdom because it’s all about our personal choices, or that God is so temperamental and petty that God is eagerly waiting with an eraser to remove our names from the book of life as soon as we show the least sign of doubt.
The God whom Joshua proclaims in the story today is not that kind of God. The God whom Joshua wants us to know is a God who as already walked with us through thick and thin; a God who has already bent over backwards to be with us, especially when we have been faithless and doubting; a God who would rather die on a cross than leave us behind to stew in our own stubbornness.
It’s the final line of Joshua’s speech that makes it onto all the cross-stitches and picture frames and paperweights at the Christian book stores, but it is the history he shares before it that final line that gives its meaning. The people to whom Joshua is speaking were born in the wilderness, the children and grandchildren of the people Moses led out of Egypt. Their parents saw God part the waters of the Red Sea, send manna and quail in the wilderness, and call forth water from the dry rock; and yet, their parents were also the ones who complained against Moses and against God again and again, asking, “Why have you brought us into the wilderness to die? It would have been better for us to live as slaves in Egypt!”
When Moses brought the Israelites to the land of Canaan so many years ago—the land promised to Abraham and his offspring by God—it was the parents of these people who were convinced that God had led them through the wilderness to abandon them to the Canaanites. They did not believe God would keep God’s promise and refused to enter Canaan. So, God gave them what they wanted; the Israelites wandered for another 40 years until that entire generation had died in the wilderness and God’s people were willing enter the land of the promise.
Then Joshua led these people into the land their parents rejected, and God delivered the land to them as promised. Joshua now reminds them that God has chosen them, and as evidence, Joshua names all the things that God has done for them. Today, Joshua tells them, they have a choice. They are free to follow the gods that Abraham served across the Euphrates, but it was not Abraham’s gods that made them the promise. They can serve the gods of the Egyptians, but it wasn’t those gods delivered them from slavery. They can even serve the gods of the Canaanites, but it was not the Canaanite gods who gave them this land. None of these gods have not done a whit for these people: what could they possibly gain by serving them?
On the other hand, they have seen what the LORD has already done, and that in itself is evidence enough of what the LORD will continue to do for them. They can serve those other gods, or they can serve the God who brought them out of Egypt and into Canaan. Their choice cannot change what God has already done for them, nor will it change the fact that God’s promise to Abraham—and to them—still holds.
Choosing to serve God is not about ensuring salvation or blessing; choosing to serve God is about remembering what God has done for us, and trusting that God will continue to do for us. We do not make a one-time choice to “give our hearts to Jesus;” instead, we must choose again, day after day, whom we will serve. That is the calling of our baptism: to daily drown the old sinner within us and daily rise to new life with Christ.
Some days, we will make the wrong choice. We will choose to serve our budget or our desires or our fears, and we will be disappointed; but that doesn’t change what God has done for us, nor does it mean that God will abandon us. Instead, God remains with us, and always invites us to choose God, to place our trust in God’s promises rather than our own insecurities or whims. We know that after the Israelites inhabited God’s promised land, they often chose to serve other gods; but in all that time, the LORD never abandoned them, never un-chose them, never gave them up to their own destruction. God remained with them, always calling for them to make the right choice.
In order to make the right choice, it is important for us to tell these stories. Like Joshua, we need to constantly remind ourselves and one another what God has already done for us, because otherwise, it becomes too easy for us to end up serving other gods like the Israelites of old did.
We must remember how God brought our ancestors to this place, protected them as they crossed oceans and prairies to establish themselves and their families here and entrusted them with land to support themselves. We must remember how God remained with them, and how they established the congregations of Swift Falls, St. Pauli and Rolling Forks to worship the God who gave them these things, and how those congregations came together to form Shepherd of the Hills so that the people of Swift Falls could all worship together as one community, support one another, and celebrate together what God has been doing in and around Swift Falls for generations.
When we remember how God has continued to bless us and provide for us, how can we turn away to serve the gods of budget or attendance? How can we instead place our trust in the god of the building or the god of how-we’ve-always-done-it? Have any of those gods given us the blessings of this community? Have those gods fed our children or comforted us during times of loss? No; but the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob has. The LORD has been with this congregation since before there ever was a congregation, and the LORD will continue to be here with us until long after this congregation is gone.
Choose this day whom you will serve. It is important, but not because our salvation or our eternal life hangs in the balance. It is important because if we choose to give into serving the fears and the temptations that lure us away from God, we will be disappointed, but if we instead choose to serve the LORD, those fears and temptations will never destroy us. God has already chosen us. God has already promised us the kingdom, and nothing can take that away. Even if we falter, God never will, and God is always there, inviting us, calling us: Choose this day whom you will serve.
As for me, I trust in what God is doing here. I believe in this congregation and the work God has given us to do, because I have seen what God has already done. God’s promise has held since before Abraham and Sarah forsook their gods to set foot across the Euphrates, and God’s promise will continue to hold until after Jesus comes back. So as for me, I will continue to serve the LORD and trust what God has in store for this congregation.
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-07/Pentecost 19
Text: Ex 19.3-7, 20.1-17
Our story today is about a journey. The Israelites are headed back to the land that their ancestor Jacob left to join his son Joseph in Egypt. In Egypt, they have lived for generations as slaves, but God has now brought them out of that foreign land and out of slavery. Today is the next step along their journey to freedom, for, as God says, “I have brought you to myself.”
The journey of Israel to God at Sinai is a journey that has its beginning way back in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve leave the garden. Ever since the beginning of our species, we have been wandering, searching for freedom. In the stories of the past few weeks, we have heard how God has been at work as we wandered. God created us good, but in our search for “freedom,” we turned away from God to follow the desires of our own hearts; and yet, in doing that, we only found ourselves enslaved to sin. Ever since then, God has been with us, attempting to cleanse us from that sin which separates us from God and corrupts God’s good creation. When the Great Flood didn’t cleanse the world from sin, God changed tack, and began combatting the power of sin with blessing.
God blessed Abraham and Sarah and their descendants; not because they were special or because they were more righteous than anybody else, but because God had a plan to bless the entire world through them. When Abraham’s descendants languished in slavery in Egypt, God, true to the promise made with Abraham, brought Abraham’s children to freedom and to God’s very self. What happens today is an important turning point in the story of God’s promise.
Today we learn that God has brought these people out of slavery and protected them in the desert—first from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, then from starvation with the manna and from thirst with the water from the rock—because God has a purpose in mind for them. God first made the covenant with Abraham and Sarah for this purpose, and now that purpose is coming to fruition. God has created and freed these people to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
We talked this summer about what it is to be holy; it means to be dedicated to God and set aside for God’s special work. The work God has given them is to be priests. In the Church, the priest acts as a mediator between God and the congregation by delivering the sermon, administering the sacraments and leading the worship service. This is what God is calling Israel to do, but for the whole world. The priestly kingdom of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants will be the mediators between God and all creation. In order to do God’s work, they must be holy—specially prepared for it.
That is why God gives them the Law. When we think of laws, we tend to focus on how those laws infringe on our freedoms, but that is not what God is doing. Last week, we read how God helped these people escape slavery in Egypt to gain their freedom. The Law is given to complete the deliverance God began in Egypt, so these people may live as God’s holy and priestly people.
Notice how most of the 10 commandments are given as negative formulations: “you shall not murder,” “you shall not commit adultery.” By firmly marking what is forbidden, God leaves us plenty of room to be free. Imagine you are in a room with many different doors, each a different color. It leaves more options open to say, “Don’t use the red door” than it does to say, “Only use the green door.” God gives these laws to protect the people’s freedom by forbidding them from doing harm to one another. As long as we do not harm one another, we are free to do just about anything.
However, those of you who have been confirmed probably remember Luther’s explanations of the commandments in the Small Catechism. He reminds us that “You shall not murder” also means “…we may not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.” “You shall not commit adultery” also means to “lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his or her spouse.” Though God gives these commandments in terms of what we cannot do, we read and understand them in terms of what we can and should be doing. This seems a lot more restrictive, like “only use the green door.”
These commandments of God’s can seem restrictive if we forget why God has given them to us. If we understand these laws as our roadmap to salvation, then yes, these commandments become burdensome and heavy because we can’t keep them perfectly; but this is not what God intends for us. That is why, when God’s Son came to earth, he seemed to be breaking all the laws that God had so intentionally given. He had to remind the good, religious folks that he had come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. God’s Law is intended to give us freedom—though perhaps not the kind of freedom we might expect.
God gives the Law to complete the work begun in bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt: God is working to make them a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These commandments do not give us the freedom to do whatever we want, they give us the freedom to love and serve God and our neighbors so that we might fulfill God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham to bless the world through their heirs. These commandments teach us how to be priests for the world.
The freedom comes in knowing that our relationship with God—our salvation—is not dependent upon how well we follow the Law. God only gives the Law after God has brought the people out of Egypt and sustained them in the desert. God has already chosen these people and already loves them—nothing will change that. God reminds them what God has already done for them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” and then proceeds to list the commandments. The relationship has already been established through what God has done for us; now, we are invited to participate in God’s promise to bless the world, and the Law guides us in how to do that.
As Christians, we do not follow all the laws and commandments that God gave to Moses on the mountain, but we are no less a part of that promise. Paul writes in Romans that, through Jesus Christ, we non-Jews have been “grafted” onto the promise given to Abraham and Sarah, just like branches onto a grapevine; God’s promise now includes us, too.
We experience this “grafting” in our baptism. When we are washed in the font, we journey with the Israelites through the Red Sea, traveling from slavery and death into freedom and life. Like the Israelites, God makes this covenant with us, too: God first reminds us what God has done for us—at the Red Sea, in the wilderness, and on the cross—and then lays this responsibility on us to become a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. In baptism, our lives become dedicated to God and God’s work, just like the Israelites were dedicated at Sinai; and just like at Sinai, God’s purpose is not only so that each of us gets to feel great about being loved by God and freed from death, but so that we might become part of God’s work of saving the whole world from the corruption of sin.
For better or worse, God has chosen to work through people like us. If we want to see God at work, we have to get up and participate. When we see injustice, when we see pain, when we see evil and ask why God is allowing this to happen, that is God’s call to us to step up and do something. With the Law as our guide and baptism as our assurance, we can do anything, free from the fear that we might do it wrong or make it worse, because regardless of the outcome, we are doing God’s work. Moreover, God has given us the Church to be a learning, caring community where we can fail and falter and stumble around blindly together, so that in the process we might learn here together how to be God’s priests out there.
That’s what real freedom is: not the ability to do whatever we want without somebody looking over our shoulder or telling us what to do, but to have God the Creator constantly with us, guiding us, correcting us, and always loving us and helping us to be better. Freedom is knowing that no matter what God is always there, directing us to make the world better, even when it seems like we can do nothing but make it worse. Freedom is trusting that God will keep God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, to the Israelites, and to us: that one day, the world will finally be free from the corruption of sin.
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-04/Pentecost 16
Text: Ex. 14.10-14, 21-29; Mt 2.13-15
What do you think of when you think of freedom? What is so great about being free?
As Americans, we have a fascination with freedom. Our history is full of people yearning to be free—free from religious oppression, free from political tyranny, free from poverty or the status quo or limited opportunities. Our collective longing for freedom is still visible today; many of our contemporary debates can be understood in terms of opposing views of freedoms. For example, there are many in our country who long to be free from gun violence, and many others who wish to remain free from restrictive gun laws.
Almost universally, whenever we think about being free, we think of it in terms of “freedom from;” we want to be free from restrictions or impositions to live the way we want to live. This is why we sometimes have a hard time understanding the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
Our story today begins after Moses and Israel have left Egypt, and when they are only a few days on their journey, Pharaoh sends out his army to either destroy them or bring them back. The Hebrews are so afraid of the advancing Egyptian army that they actually begin complaining to Moses about freeing them. The same people who had been crying out to God from their slavery for generations, aching to be free, now ask Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die? We told you back in Egypt—didn’t we tell you?—we told you that it would be better to live in slavery to the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” To American ears, this sounds absolutely backwards: better to live as slaves than to die free?! We would be more likely to agree with Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
To us, nothing is more important than freedom; and in this story, God seems to agree. God is so anxious to free these people that God actually brings them through the sea, parting the waters so they can walk on dry land, and destroying the army behind them. God is—pardon the expression—hell bent on freeing these people; not just because they cried out to God for deliverance, but because God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would inhabit the land of Canaan. God renewed that promise to Jacob in the reading we heard on Wednesday, telling him that, when the time was right, God would bring Jacob’s descendants out of Egypt back to the land God had given to Abraham.
It is this promise that drives God to free these people. Now the time is right for God to fulfill the promises made and return them to the land God has given them. What is truly ironic is that now that God is acting, the people don’t want it! Now, they would rather be slaves because at least they know that they will be fed. They would rather have slavery because, when it comes right down to it, some things are more important than liberty. It is better to be alive and to have food security than to be able to determine your own choices in life. While we look back and realize that this Exodus from Egypt is God’s blessing on the people of Israel, they didn’t see it that way. If they had their own way, they would have stayed.
For several weeks now, we’ve been talking about how God doesn’t bless us for our own benefit. God didn’t make the promises God made to Abraham and Jacob and Joseph for their sakes. God’s promises and God’s blessings are for the benefit of the whole world. The freedom of Israel is God’s blessing not just to the Israelites, but to humanity. The freedom God promises is not the kind of freedom we imagine, where we are at liberty to do whatever it is we feel like or to determine our own futures. The freedom God promises is not “freedom from,” but “freedom for.”
Next week, we will read about God’s giving of the Law. Laws necessarily infringe on our freedom; we them because it is necessary to reign in our individual freedoms for the good of the community. The following week, we will hear the people of Israel swear before Joshua that they will serve the Lord, who delivered them from Egypt. In many ways, these people will have no more freedom from authority or servitude than they had in Egypt. They will, however, be freed for the work of God, what Jesus often called the “kingdom of heaven.”
This is the kind of freedom with which God blesses us. Martin Luther famously wrote in his essay on The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none… [and] a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” In Christ, we have been freed from that which holds us back. As Christians, our relationship with God is not dependent upon our obedience to God’s laws or to any other laws of religious or secular authority. We are no longer bound by the power of sin or the power of death. Yet, as Christians, we are also bound to serve God. At our baptism, we are given responsibilities; we are dedicated to God’s work. Our lives are given to the service of God’s kingdom, and we are made subjects and servants of all, just like our lord Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve.
The whole point of God’s kingdom and God’s blessing that we receive in our baptism, is that while freedom from is a great thing, God doesn’t care about any of that. God doesn’t free us so that we can have the luxury of choosing where to live or who to marry or which way to vote. God frees us from the worry that, by failing to properly live up to God’s laws, we might damage our relationship with God and lose God’s love or forgiveness. God frees us for service to our neighbors, the world, and God’s kingdom.
This “freedom for” is how God is blessing the world through us. By freeing us for the work of God in the world—by freeing us to love recklessly, to serve fearlessly, to fail extravagantly, and to try again tenaciously—God is at work in us to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth. That is why God freed the Israelites. That is why God drug through the sea and across the wilderness—kicking and screaming at times—to freedom and the land that God had promised their ancestors. God had work for them to do, so God freed them for that work.
When they passed through the water of the Red Sea, at that moment they were freed. Before the crossing, they were fugitive slaves, pursued by angry masters; but on the other side, they were free people. In journeying through the waters, they left behind the slavery of Egypt and came out the other side freed for the work of God, freed to live lives of service to the world.
The same thing happens to us in baptism: God calls us through death into life. In the world we are enslaved by death in the powers of the world that constrain us and the sin that binds us. In baptism, God calls us through the waters, and we come out the other side freed from all those things, freed for the work of serving God in the world. Sin, death, consumerism, political partisanship, even our undying need for freedom itself no longer have any hold on us. Instead, we are given a sign of God’s love for us, a reminder that our primary identity is not as a consumer or a constituent or a data point, but as a child of God, and an agent of God’s kingdom.
We continue to tell this story of the Red Sea crossing because it reminds us that God’s freedom is not for us alone, it is for all creation. We can use that freedom to justify our inaction and our judgement on the sinners of the world, but this story reminds us that this is not the thing for which God has freed us. God has freed us so that the world might be blessed through us. God has freed us for action, for forgiveness, for service; God has freed us for the love of the world.
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-03/Pentecost 15
Text: Gen 39.1-23; Mt 5.11-12
In January of 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing over 200,000 people and injuring over 300,000 more. Among the dead was a Lutheran seminarian named Ben Larson. Ben had been in Haiti with his wife Renee and his cousin Jon, working with a Haitian boy’s school in Port-au-Prince caring for people in need. During the quake, all three were inside a concrete structure that collapsed. Jon and Renee walked out, and Ben did not.
When they came back, everybody thanked God for their safe return. Everybody believed that God had protected them. There were also many who wondered why God did not save Ben, why Ben was not protected by God’s care. More than that, why had God not protected the 200,000 other people who died in that disaster? The question left lingering after this earthquake was why God would save some and not others, why God would allow anything like this to happen at all. Where is God in tragedy such as this?
This is the question into which we are invited when we read the story of Joseph. Joseph is a man who, we are told, is blessed by God; and yet, he suffers terrible misfortune. Joseph is the favorite son of Jacob, who has 11 other sons (and one daughter) besides. Jacob’s favoritism makes Joseph’s 10 older brothers so jealous that they decide to kill him. Eventually, the settle for selling him into slavery. Joseph is sold to the Egyptian Potiphar, and when things finally seem to be going well again, he is falsely accused of a crime by his master’s wife and thrown into prison.
The story shows us that God’s blessing does not protect us from evil or harm. We say in our prayers and sing in our hymns that God spares us from danger, but the reality is that as followers of Jesus, we are no more or less likely to be hit by a bus, win the lottery, be diagnosed with cancer or die in an earthquake than anyone else on God’s earth. If the benefit of worshipping God is supposed to be safety, then we may as well give it up.
As we learned last week, God does not bless us to make us happy. This is another way of saying that God’s blessing is not for our benefit or our safety. God’s blessing is for the benefit of the whole world. From the beginning of creation, sin has been at work in the world and it will continue to be until the end of time. God is working in the world to overcome sin, but not by destroying or defeating it; we learned this from the story of Noah. Instead, God is working to overcome sin in the world through blessing. That is the blessing that God gave to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob, and to Joseph—that no matter what might befall them, God would remain with them.
The bad things that happen to Joseph are the result not of God’s plan or God’s failure to protect him. What happens to Joseph is the result of sin—the sins of his brothers and the sins of Potiphar’s wife. The same is true for us. The cause of all evil in the world is sin, even when it comes to earthquakes.
Just over a month after the 7.0 quake in Haiti that destroyed entire cities, an even stronger earthquake, measuring 8.8, struck Chile. A total of 723 people died. The reason why such an even bigger earthquake had fewer than 1% of the casualties of the smaller one is poverty, a problem of human sin. In Haiti, where poverty is almost universal, people lived in poorly constructed houses and had less access to emergency response and public sanitation following the quake. In Chile, on the other hand, buildings were well-constructed, the government had the money to finance disaster relief, and there was already a reliable infrastructure to support the survivors.
Sin is the root of our problems, and this is bad news for us, because sin dwells within us. Each of us, no matter how virtuous, harbors immense power for destruction, and each of us has been and will continue to be a means for sin to corrupt God’s creation through violence, hatred, ignorance, oppression, bigotry, and apathy. And yet, in spite of our culpability, God’s blessing to us is the promise that this sin cannot and will not separate us from God’s presence, and that no evil we commit will ever be beyond God’s power to forgive it and create good from it.
This is the story of Calvary. Jesus did not come to die because God planned it that way. He died as a direct result of our own selfishness and our need for control. He did not die for our sins but because of them. He did not take our justly deserved punishment for us; instead we unjustly punished him for bringing us God’s love. Jesus’ crucifixion was our outright rejection of God and God’s kingdom. His death is the greatest evil ever to occur on the face of the earth, and it was committed by the very people he came to save. But, like Joseph’s brothers, what we intended for evil, God used for good.
This is the blessing God has given us, the promise that God had made with us: that there is nothing in heaven or earth, nothing we could ever do or fail to do that will ever overcome God’s love for us and God’s power to create good from evil. Our ultimate rejection of God became God’s ultimate victory over the sin that crucified Jesus. That’s what resurrection is: as much as it is a dead man returning to life and walking out of a tomb, it is sin being turned to God’s purposes, just as Jesus’ death became an instrument of God’s life. God’s blessing is that even our most grievous sins against God and God’s kingdom can and will ultimately be used to accomplish God’s own will.
Because of God’s promise, even though Ben Larson and hundreds of thousands of others died in that quake in Haiti—an event which can only be described as a tragedy of the highest order—what is following that tragedy is serving God’s purpose. Ben’s death devastated his family and his community, but I have seen firsthand how, along with the pain, they have also received blessing. His absence is painfully felt by the Church he loved and served, and yet his ministry continues even in death as more people learn about him and his work through Jon and Renee. Ben is still preaching gospel of Jesus. From unspeakable tragedy—great evil—by God’s power, great good has come.
This is what it means to rest in the presence and the blessing of God. I does not mean we will be safe from harm or spared from pain. In fact, we may sometimes even suffer on account of God’s kingdom; but in the end, none of that can separate us from God, because God is everywhere and in everything, even the suffering and injustice of an innocent man dying an unjust and torturous death on a cross. God’s blessing is that there is nothing that can happen to us—not being sold into slavery by your own brothers, not being unjustly imprisoned, not even being killed senselessly in an earthquake—that God cannot use to bless the world through us.
God doesn’t orchestrate our suffering for some greater ends, and our pain is not a sign of God’s abandonment. God is as busy at work creating now as God was at the beginning of the world. Before there was anything, God created order from chaos, light and matter and life came from nothing; now God is busy creating good out of evil, blessing out of sin.
We—God’s children, called and claimed by God through the waters of baptism and nourished by the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist—have been chosen and equipped like the first humans in God’s garden. We have been given the task of assisting in God’s work of creation. We are flawed, but God uses us anyway, just like Joseph’s brothers, and Potiphar and his wife, and the chief jailer, and the Pharisees and chief priests; through us—even through our failures—God is blessing the world.
The gift of God’s blessing—the blessing called grace—is that when we try and fail, we can try again, knowing that God continues to love us and use us to bless God’s world. We have been freed from the consequences of failure by Christ’s death and resurrection. Even our failure can be resurrected by God’s power and used for God’s purposes, and through us, all the world is blessed. That is why we are here this morning, why we worship this God of love. We have come to hear the words of God’s steadfast promise, to hear God’s invitation to us to be a blessing to the world, and hopefully, to accept that invitation.