Sunday, December 10, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Suffering," Ezekiel 2:6-3:4

Ezekiel 2:6-3:4

And as for you, human one, don’t be afraid of them or their words. Don’t be afraid! You possess thistles and thorns that subdue scorpions. Don’t be afraid of their words or shrink from their presence, because they are a household of rebels. 7 You’ll speak my words to them whether they listen or whether they refuse. They are just a household of rebels!

8 As for you, human one, listen to what I say to you. Don’t become rebellious like that household of rebels. Open your mouth and eat what I give you. 9 Then I looked, and there in a hand stretched out to me was a scroll. 10 He spread it open in front of me, and it was filled with writing on both sides, songs of mourning, lamentation, and doom. Then he said to me: Human one, eat this thing that you’ve found. Eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. 3 He said to me: Human one, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you. So I ate it, and in my mouth it became as sweet as honey. 4 Then he said to me: Human one, go! Go to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. (Common English Bible)



“Escape Routes: How the Christmas Story Points Us Forward,” Week Two

Mandalay Bay stands over the south end of the Las Vegas Strip like massive colossus, a forbidding sentinel that demarcates the boundary between what is simply Sin City, and what is the massive, sensory-overload, adult Disneyland that is the Strip.

Along the way up to the Mandalay Bay, a series of billboards appears on the side of the road, bearing messages of thanks and inspiration all the way up until the very last billboard, which simply says “#VegasStrong,” a reference to the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States that a) had only taken place weeks prior to when Carrie and I had visited a month ago, and b) broke the previous record that had only been set less than a year and a half prior, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

But during our weekend there, it was simply hordes of tourists taking in exactly what Vegas advertises: the fountains at the Bellagio, acres upon acres of gaming tables, and about as much skin as one could see short of being in a nudist colony.

It was as though nothing had ever happened right there, just several short weeks ago.

Las Vegas was still the same escape it had been for decades. And that was, I am absolutely certain, by no means an accident. It is, rather, exactly what we want, and have successfully demanded, from the world.

This is a new sermon series for a new church year—while the calendar year doesn’t turn over for another four weeks, the church year begins with the season of Advent, a preparatory time set aside for us to live out the exhortation of John the Baptist, who, quoting Isaiah, encourages us to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His path.

We look at our own path to Jesus and typically want it to be as straight and as easy as possible as well—a simple beaming up to the mother ship when the time comes would do for us, never mind the fact that the journey is what defines the destination.

So how can we prepare a way when we are trying to escape the world upon which that path rests? Can we instead escape the hell we create in this world and this life, confident that our doing so veers us away from hell in the next?

That is the premise of a book by Johann Christoph Arnold, a pastor in the Christian communitarian church, the Bruderhof, who sadly passed away this past spring. Just before he passed, I had settled upon his book, Escape Routes, as the template for this year’s Advent sermon series, and I hope to do that justice. We began this series last week with a passage from his chapter entitled, “Success,” and move on today with another passage, this one from his chapter entitled, “Suffering:”

Many of us flee from an unblinking view of human reality into entertainment or consumption. Paying to be distracted, we let our hearts become callous and are unable to see the world from another’s perspective.

But materialism is not the only false escape from suffering; selfish and sentimental religion is a culprit that’s just as guilty. When religion becomes a fantasy buffering us from life’s harshness by telling us to ignore the present and worry only about the afterlife, it has become an opiate. It’s nothing more than a dangerously addictive sedative that calms our feelings of anxiety or guilt. Knowingly or not, pastors or priests whose motto is “once saved, always saved” are perpetrating fraud. They hawk an easy gospel promising cheap grace—and seem to forget that once we really escape the prison of self-absorption, we will immediately find ourselves among others in a wider human community for which we have responsibility.

Seen from a global viewpoint, such efforts to evade pain appear delusional. A few million of the world’s people live in comfort, but billions do not, and one billion of them are so poor that they barely have enough to eat.

Arnold almost picks up right where we left off last week about the limits of materialism and the fleeting pleasures that it can offer us, but there is something even deeper to his words here: that it is our use of religion to ignore this world that enables such short-term misuse of both people and resources.

It is a fundamental flaw to our approach to Christianity—to see it only as an escape route from the hell of the afterlife rather than also of the hell that can exist in this lifetime, something that the prophet Ezekiel was vehement in pointing out in his own…vivid way.

A confession at this point in my message: I haven’t preached much at all on Ezekiel before because, truthfully, getting him right can be exceptionally difficult. His prophecies are action-packed and apocalyptic, and it is not always easy to discern where literality stops and imagery, symbolism, and metaphor begin. And this passage, from early in his book, is really no different, as the prophet is depicting himself eating a scroll given to him by God, and saying afterward that it tasted sweet, like honey.

But once we get past the shock value of imagining someone actually consuming a scroll and claiming that it tastes like honey, it is much clearer what Ezekiel is claiming that he has done: internalized the Word of God. This fortifies an already strong spiritual constitution for Ezekiel—as God says to him, “You possess thistles and thorns that subdue scorpions!” Thistles and thorns are not always thought of as such good things—unless you’re a Portland soccer fan—and that is because we are more often the scorpion who tries to dodge the thistles and thorns.

When we suffer at the sting of scorpions ourselves, though, whether in the form of interpersonal nastiness, insults, and trolling, or in the form of far bigger, systemic hurts around us like assault and harassment that continue to reveal themselves—and the pain that they have caused for decades upon decades—in waves.

And while Arnold’s book—and, by extension, this sermon series—is called Escape Routes, he makes it abundantly clear to us that we are not supposed to simply try to sit tight and wait until we’re raptured up, or to escape into our own bubbles of entertainment and distraction. It is not that entertainment is inherently bad, but when we use it as a numbing agent, to make us forget what we have done or left undone, it becomes capable of doing more harm than good.

It becomes one more thing for us to have to overcome in order to be whole and well. It becomes the scorpion that can manage to wriggle through our thistles and thorns.

It is entirely natural to want to escape whatever suffering we experience. But sticking our heads in the sand to our suffering is not an escape—it’s a form of denial, and one that is as old as we are.

Suffering demands that we face it, and the pain we feel is our acknowledgement of it. Listening to our own minds and bodies, then, when we are feeling pain and understanding the cause of it goes an awful long way in our own abilities to transcend and overcome our own suffering.

Helping others do the same, though, is one way in which Ezekiel’s ancient Judah falls short, and is partly why Judah and its capital Jerusalem fall to Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Ezekiel makes it clear that Judah’s rebellion against God is the cause of the lamentation and woe the scroll he consumes contains, and we learned last week from Jeremiah that the woe comes from Jehoiakim’s selfishness and self-centeredness in his pursuit of material wealth at the expense of his country and countrypeople.

The propagation, rather than prevention, of suffering of the children of God at the hands of the kings and men of power rotted the kingdom from the inside out. And just as rotted wood crumbles quickly, so too will a rotted kingdom or a rotted church.

The funny thing about Las Vegas that Carrie and I learned while we were there was that it really was a manufactured fa├žade rather than much of anything authentic. Many of the big spectacular structures are hollow, like a movie set. They look impressive, but I imagine are capable of quickly crumbling and falling apart.

And their entire purpose was to act as a temporary escape, a numbing agent, for people.

The #VegasStrong hashtag, then, is not so much about those buildings, but about the people. Just as the heart of God’s kingdom here on earth is not any one building or location, but the people.

The people who are resilient, loving, strong, fierce, capable of withstanding so much and imagining so much more.

People who are warm with the light of God, yet also possessing of thorns and thistles such that even the most intrepid scorpion would hesitate before.

People who are preparing to meet their Messiah face-to-face in a manger just two weeks from now.

We are those people. You are the thistles and the thorns as well as the roses. You are the light as well as the heat of the fire. And you are the disciples whom God has fashioned out of sinners.

That same God beckons you forth still to Bethlehem—to watch and wait, yes, but also to rejoice.

We’re fifteen days away now, brothers and sisters. Keep the faith.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
 
December 10, 2017

Sunday, December 3, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Success," Jeremiah 22:11-19

Jeremiah 22:11-19

This is what the Lord says about Shallum son of Judah’s King Josiah, who succeeded his father Josiah as king but who is now gone from this place: He will never return! 12 He will die where he’s been exiled and never see this land again. 13 How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption and his upper chambers with injustice, working his countrymen for nothing, refusing to give them their wages. 14 He says, “I’ll build myself a grand palace, with huge upper chambers, ornate windows, cedar paneling, and rich red decor.”

15 Is this what makes you a king, having more cedar than anyone else? Didn’t your father eat and drink and still do what was just and right? Then it went well for him! 16 He defended the rights of the poor and needy; then it went well. Isn’t that what it means to know me? declares the Lord. 17 But you set your eyes and heart on nothing but unjust gain; you spill the blood of the innocent; you practice cruelty; you oppress your subjects.

18 Therefore, this is what the Lord says to Jehoiakim son of Judah’s King Josiah: They won’t grieve for him, saying, “My brother, my sister!” They won’t grieve for him, saying, “My master, my majesty!” 19 They will give him a donkey’s burial, dragging him outside the gates of Jerusalem and dumping him there. (Common English Bible)



“Escape Routes: How the Christmas Story Points Us Forward,” Week One

As kids—I know I did as a kid—we often come up with something entrepreneurial to try to raise money to supplement our meager allowances. A lemonade stand. A dog-walking service. My cousins and I once took rocks from my uncle’s yard, cracked them open with hammers to expose their sparkly, glittery innards, and then tried to sell the rocks back to him. Which we successfully did, purely (I believe) out of pity.

Fewer of us undertake such an endeavor with no such monetary reward, or one that involves significant monetary sacrifice. But an elementary school kid in Cambridge, Massachusetts, named Liam Hannon has in a ministry to feed his homeless neighbors, as the Boston Globe conveys:

“It started because I didn’t want to go to summer camp,” said Liam, a fifth-grader at the Morse School. “I just wanted to give back to my community because some people might need it.”

Scott Hannon, 49, liked the idea. “I said, ‘Great! Let’s go rent a food truck and make lunches for a bunch of people.’”

But his son gently pointed out the obvious. “Liam was like, ‘Dad, they live right there.’”…

The Hannons’ apartment overlooks Central Square, and Liam, like most kids growing up in a busy city, sees people panhandling, some not far from the building where he lives.

One day, he got up the nerve to approach the strangers in need, with his father at his side, and gave out 20 meals he’d handpacked…

Son and father now know their regulars by name…They have vegetarian offerings and make lunches for people with peanut allergies. Together, they’ve prepared spicy stews and vegetable dishes, but their staple is a homemade PB&J.

Scott said they began by spending a few hundred dollars of their own money. Now they’ve set up a gofundme.com account and go to local food banks to pick up needed supplies.

There are two critical aspects to Liam’s story I want to draw your attention to: one is the financial sacrifice involved, with his family spending hundreds of dollars of their own cash on feeding people. The other is holding these people in a high enough regard to care about their needs and preferences, like allergies or a vegetarian diet. Honoring those needs and preferences means that you see the person as a person, with human dignity. In caring for others, that matters. For Christ, that matters.

This is a new sermon series for a new church year—while the calendar year doesn’t turn over for another four weeks, the church year begins with the season of Advent,  a preparatory time set aside for us to live out the exhortation of John the Baptist, who, quoting Isaiah, encourages us to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His path.

We look at our own path to Jesus and typically want it to be as straight and as easy as possible as well—a simple beaming up to the mother ship when the time comes would do for us, never mind the fact that the journey is what defines the destination.

So how can we prepare a way when we are trying to escape the world upon which that path rests? Can we instead escape the hell we create in this world and this life, confident that our doing so veers us away from hell in the next?

That is the premise of a book by Johann Christoph Arnold, a pastor in the Christian communitarian church, the Bruderhof, who sadly passed away this past spring. Just before he passed, I had settled upon his book, Escape Routes, as the template for this year’s Advent sermon series, and I hope to do that justice. We begin with a passage from his chapter entitled “Success:”

“We’re always in danger of ending up possessed by our possessions. When this happens, it is a sign that we have lost our dignity as human beings and become mere tools for creating wealth. Inevitably, we’ll treat other people as tools too. Strangers to our own humanity, we’ll find ourselves adrift just when we thought the good life was within our grasp. The real truth is that money and happiness are incompatible. Jesus said, “It is as hard for a rich man to enter heaven as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

“A hard saying,” Jesus’ disciples murmured. It’s hard, because you don’t have to be Bill Gates to qualify as rich—not in the eyes of a malnourished child in Iraq or a refugee family in Bangladesh or Mexico. Relative to millions in the world, many of us are the man who may have trouble entering heaven…

We are facing a…clash between good and evil, heaven and hell, the culture of life and the culture of death. The low prices that fuel our comfort depend in part on the suffering of people we don’t see, in sweatshops and factories we prefer not to imagine.”

Jesus may offer us an escape route from the trials and tribulations of this world, but if all we see Him as is that escape route, then we have made Him into a far smaller Messiah than He is, or ever was. If we are to escape our hurts and pains, it is going to be through helping others escape their hurts and their pains.

It is hundreds of years before Jesus, but that is the fundamental truth that Jeremiah condemns Jehoikaim for forgetting. The king of Judah has ensconced himself in his own lavish palaces and possessions, and has defined his own worth from them, rather than from his birthright as the earthly king of the people of God. This earns him the rebuke we read today from the prophet Jeremiah, who sees the coming Babylonian conquest—as other Hebrew Bible prophets do—as divine
punishment for the excesses of the kings and men of power in Judah.

How terrible it is, then, for someone to build for themselves a palace and a stable of possessions on the back of injustice, with worth being placed in the possessions themselves rather than in the people who have made them—and in the people who cannot make them. The things we accumulate for ourselves are not the ends in our lives—as the old saying goes, he who dies with the most toys…is still dead—yet at every turn, that is exactly how we treat our things: as the ends.

Consider that the stereotypical American dream, which Arnold touches on in this chapter, is fairly well-established at this point in time, and is really very similar to the way of life Jehoiakim has become accustomed to: a well-manicured, prosperous household that looks great on both the inside and the outside, that is the source of admiration—if not outright envy—of our neighbors, and which projects an image of both stability and financial means to the outside world.

What an absolute crock.

Prosperity, at its most basic level, needs to be redefined and then removed from the pedestal of worship upon which it rests.  Jesus was not prosperous in any earthly sense of the term. He was homeless, relied on financial backers, and never came up with anything like Facebook or Uber.

Yet still He and His teachings have changed the world.

The sacrificing of resources to lend human dignity to others was at the core of that ministry—up to and including the sacrificing of Jesus’s life as one of those resources.

It is Christ-like, then, to sacrifice of yourself to lend human dignity to others, whether as dramatically as Jesus or as humbly as young Liam Hannon. It is Christ-like to embrace as your own not the stereotypical American Dream, but the Bethlehem Dream, the Nazareth Dream, the dream which says that your prosperity is defined not by your economic worth, but by your spiritual worth.

That’s a simple, but life-changing concept. We get asked what our net worth is, or ask what someone else’s net worth is, and what if that response came in spiritual net worth, not material net worth? Your worth to God, rather than to the almighty dollar, and your worth to the Holy Spirit rather than to a nameless, faceless economy of scale.

According to the latter, Jesus wasn’t successful or prosperous at all. He was an abject failure. But according to the former…He changed everything.

Spiritual worth, then, can be prosperity. Indeed, that is prosperity. It is success, redefined and reimagined.

I wish you as much of that success as possible in your own path towards Jesus, even if—especially if—it makes *your* path a little less straight, and His a little more so.

Because in truth, that may well be what the church is in a bit more need of this particular Christmas…a path that is bit most twisty and windy for ourselves, but because of that becomes a bit straighter and easier for Jesus as revealed in the guise of other people.

We’re one week down, with three more to go until that Jesus is indeed revealed. Keep the faith, my brothers and sisters. We’ll arrive at Bethlehem soon enough.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
December 3, 2017

Original image courtesy of TripAdvisor.