The Book of Hope

At a time when all seems bleak, where do we find hope?

Yesterday we started a re-watch of the Star Wars movies, with the real *first* movie, Episode IV, A New Hope. It’s been almost 40 years since I first saw it, since I watched the iconic credits roll and heard the soon-to-become famous lines spoken by the actors who will always be associated with their characters. The people who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away were in trouble, and they pinned their hopes on a young man who had only just learned about The Force, Luke Skywalker.

Manasseh sacrifices his son.
Manasseh sacrifices his son.

I suspect his story is better-known to most of us than that of the central character in our readings today, although his tale could make its own interesting chapter in an epic movie series. Josiah came from a long line of mostly wicked kings who ruled in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh was the Emperor Palpatine of Judah; he reigned 55 years and “did evil in the sight of the Lord,” shedding much innocent blood. Josiah’s father, Darth Amon, was so terrible that his own servants killed him and put an 8-year-old child on the throne in his place.

Somehow, despite the evil of their leaders, there were still people who wanted to follow God, who wanted something better. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they thought there was a possibility of change. They looked at the child, Josiah, and somehow they saw a new hope.

In a world of confusion where do we find answers?

In the trailer for the new Star Wars movie, which was all over TV this weekend, you hear the presumed heroine say, “There were stories about what happened.” After a moment’s pause, a voice responds. “It’s true. All of it.” Of course we feel relieved to hear the familiar voice of our old friend, Han Solo, and to see his face, offering her these assurances. Why, it’s only been thirty years, if I’m reading the ads the right way! Are you telling me people don’t know what happened?

Yes. Yes. Somehow the story has been lost, but it is not lost beyond all hope. Surely if they remember the story, things will get better, right?

Josiah became king at age 8, and scripture tells us he did what was right. The description of him says “he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.”

He was unusually faithful, and his supporters must have been, too, or it’s hard to imagine he would have survived to adulthood. We meet him eighteen years later, when he decides it’s time to rebuild the Temple. His grandfather let it fall into disrepair; this was one more thing to set right.

Josiah sent his secretary to visit with the High Priest, to give him all the money that will be needed to repair the damage and rebuild what cannot be fixed, and the High Priest, a kind of Obi-Wan, tells him that he has found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.

Now, it sounds strange to us that the book of the Law might have been missing, and it’s not clear whether it was actually lost, or whether the high priest has been keeping it safe until a trustworthy king came along again. But whether by strategy or accident, the book of the law has been lost. There were stories, but were they true?

It’s easy to forget in our age of information that stories were lost, and that history was written by the winners, that treasured documents might be hidden away carefully and not seen again by human eye.

Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law.
Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law.

Josiah had been on the throne for 18 years. It took that long for the high priest to risk it. We believe that scroll held the core of the book of Deuteronomy, the laws carried from the wilderness into Jerusalem and kept in the Temple. The laws warn at length against idol worship and pagan practices, set up dietary restrictions, establish the practice of tithing and marking the Passover, give justice into the hands of priests and judges and set limits on the power of kings, and institutes some measure of fairness in dealings with family members, neighbors and enemies, as well as some measure of brutality that we would consider primitive today.

The results were dramatic. Josiah tore his clothes, a sign of repentance. He realized that although he was a good person, with the best intentions for his kingdom, he was completely ignorant of God’s commands. This discovery could change everything!

Josiah called together his advisors and sent them to a prophetess for confirmation. Then Josiah brought together all the elders in his kingdom and went to the Temple, and he read them the words of the book of the law, and together they affirmed their covenant with the Lord. Josiah would depose all the idol-worshiping priests and bring about the first real celebration of the Passover since before the first king ruled in Israel. He hoped this would make things right.

This is where I would like to say “The End” and bring down the curtain on a scene of the refurbished Temple. (Sort of like the party with the Ewoks.) But Josiah died in battle, and his son, Darth Jehoahaz? Did evil in the sight of the Lord. Things got darker for the people of Judah, until a few kings later, they lost their struggle against Babylon. The Hebrew elite traveled to exile, while the less interesting and valuable stayed behind to live in occupied Jerusalem and witness the dark day when the Temple was destroyed.

In a world of darkness where do we find light?

See what I mean about a movie? Josiah seems like a perfect hero, but instead of overcoming evil forever, he dies a mortal death. Sometimes one good guy – or gal, it looks like it’s a gal in the new Star Wars movie – but sometimes one good guy isn’t enough.

Well, really, one good guy is never enough unless that guy is more than human.

We have a tendency to put our hope in each other, to make heroes out of mortals, and to engage in our own desperate and wrongheaded idol worship. Whether they are megachurch pastors, popular speakers, athletic prodigies, billionaire businesspeople or winning politicians, our society often puts its faith in whatever looks shiniest at the moment.

Everything is a popularity contest, with polls and surveys and statistics used to determine agendas, styles and flavors. It’s a vicious circle.

The Hebrew people had their own vicious circle. They didn’t like the results they got with God, so they worshipped other gods. If there was no rain, they worshipped Ba’al. If one sacrifice didn’t work, they made a bigger one. They made their situation worse with each terrible decision.

I’ve stood here a lot of times in the past year and said words to the effect that things can’t get much worse, but I imagine they can. Our general disregard for one another, our obsession with weapons, our prejudice against people who look different or think differently continue to collide until we cannot listen to the stories anymore. The stories get lost, because there are so many of them.

We see these cycles play out again and again. Josiah ruled for thirty-one years out of 347 years of kings of Judah. Eight were good, and he was the last of them. He could disrupt the cycle, but he couldn’t end it. The people of Israel and Judah fell out of relationship with God; no one person could fix it.

And there is no one person, male or female, who can get us out of this mess in which we seem bent on breaking every kind of code God has set down for us, for treating our families, our neighbors and even our enemies.

There is no one human person who can do it.

A new hope?
A new hope?

At a time when all seems bleak, where do we find hope?

Our hope is in the Lord.

And every Advent we hope – WE HOPE – that the cycle will be disrupted. We practice anticipation. We wait for the One who is coming, God breaking into the world, the Word of God, coming into the world to save us from isolation and despair, to show us how to love each other the way he loves us. And that sounds good, but it is not enough. Those words, the ones meant to guide us, are already written down. We are not waiting for a new story this Advent; we are being prodded to behave as if we have already heard the old one, to put down our weapons and outgrow our fears and remember the stories and gather together as one people, God’s people.

The Living Word, Jesus Christ, is our Book of Hope. It’s time to renew our covenant with him.

In the name of the One God coming into the world, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen.

A slender thread of hope (a prayer for pastors)

A slender thread of hope
A slender thread of hope

Dear Lord,

Our dining room table is piled high with seasonal decorations, most still in boxes, but we did manage to hang a string of lights around the kitchen window.

It feels like a slender thread, electric wire and bulbs, a pop of color with a little shine, casting a warm glow inside our home.

And it offers a moment of respite from the things still to do, the list of sermons to preach and prayers to offer and church decorations to find, not to mention the things left to do at home.

It’s not the first First Advent when Christmas has seemed impossibly distant, not in days (those will speed by, I know), but measured in hope. Less than a week ago, I wondered what bad news would come, would require mention in today’s sermon, and the world, as it does with sickening regularity, complied.

This week a man in Biloxi shot and killed a woman at the Waffle House when she told him to put out his cigarette. What is wrong with people? What makes us think a gun is the solution to a disagreement?

Other first Advents, I’ve preached about trampled shoppers, and hostages in Mumbai, and natural disasters, and the execution of young men, and the pervasive sin of racism, and acts of pure terror delivered not only by strangers but by our own countrymen. And it is hard to know where to find hope after this week’s additions in Minneapolis and Colorado Springs, this week’s reminders in Chicago, this month’s violence and terror in Mali, Beirut, Paris…

Where is our hope?

Our hope is in the Lord.

The words feel trite until we look deeper, uncover the stories, the stories of all the days Jesus walked among us, the subtle forms of threat used against him by the authorities. It feels trite until we remember that nothing they said or did stopped him from being the truth, the light, the hope that you will have ultimate victory over the death-dealers.

It feels distant, but I am holding on, even if a string of lights is all I have to bind me to your hope this morning. Help me preach it, Lord, I pray. Amen.

Advent Carol – Now It’s Time to Light the Candle

Now it’s time to light the candle,
Soon God’s promise will be here.
Young and old we wait together
For the Savior drawing near.

Light will overcome the darkness:
See the hope the Christ Child brings.

Now it’s time to light the candle,
Messengers prepare the way.
Wolf and lamb lie down together;
Righteousness marks God’s new day.

Light will overcome the darkness:
Live the peace the Christ Child brings.

Now it’s time to light the candle,
In God’s name we will rejoice.
Bells and organ play together,
We will shout in one loud voice!

Light will overcome the darkness:
Sing the joy the Christ Child brings.

Now it’s time to light the candle,
Shining love in Jesus’ name.
When all people join together
Earth will never be the same.

Light will overcome the darkness:
Be the love the Christ Child brings.

~Martha Spong, 2015 – try REGENT SQUARE for a bright tune (email me for a PDF), PICARDY for a more contemplative option

Permission is given to use in worship; please leave a comment saying where you are.

More goodness, more courage, more faith (a prayer for pastors)

#Pray final 111515

Dear God,

I pray for courage to speak the truth.
I pray for humility when I learn things I did not know.
I pray for honesty to admit my ignorance.
I pray for sturdiness of spirit, to not be guilty of false fragility.
I pray to understand the world better and persevere longer in study and listen more actively to the experiences of those around me.

I give thanks for all the preachers and pastors
who strive to serve You, Lord,
especially the ones who are teaching us
there is more to the world than what we see,
more than the news wants to tell us,
more horror and loss
and sometimes more goodness.

Thank you for the
people who show us
more goodness,
more courage,
more faith.

May we be among them. Amen.

No Mortal

In 5th grade, I was in a Sunday School class that took us through the Old Testament using drama. We acted out the stories, even wearing costumes. At the end of the school year, we had what amounted to an Old Testament fair, with 5th and 6th graders as the figures in living dioramas. The part I played was from Hosea, a story we definitely learned in the G-rated version. This is what I remember about it.

Hosea was a prophet, a faithful man of God. He married a woman named Gomer, and after they had some children, she ran away. Things went from bad to worse for her, and she ended up in slavery. Hosea went down to the place where slaves were being auctioned, and he bought her freedom. He forgave her for running away, and they went home together. There’s a lot more to the story of Hosea and Gomer, but for today, those are the essentials. A book of prophecy that begins with a metaphor about marriage ends with a metaphor about motherhood, and that’s where we find ourselves (Hosea 11:1-9).

On the day I played Gomer, I was a 4’6” 10-year-old with short hair and bangs. A mom in our class dressed me in old sheets draped in a pseudo-Grecian style, which was surely not quite the right thing but intended to evoke the fallen woman Gomer had become. A somewhat untamed wig topped off the costume, clipped to the top of my head. It must have been a mess to begin with, possibly out of the family dress-up closet rather than the mom’s own hair accessory wardrobe. I stood in prop chains, on a raised platform, with the big, long hair hanging down my back, and I’ll admit to you, I was excited to be portraying an ancient woman in a dramatic situation, because I had no idea what it really meant to be enslaved. I had no idea what it meant to be a woman at risk, on the run, in all the worst kinds of trouble and now under the control of whoever might pay the price for me.

Beside me, as if I were the volcano model at a science fair, there was a poster board explaining the story of Hosea.

Hosea was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. He was the first prophet to leave a written record of his own, instead of being written down by someone else later. The rulers of the Northern Kingdom were all terrible, even wicked. They were unfaithful to God, and they led their people to worship pagan gods like Ba’al.

The poster included a map, showing the location of their capital, Samaria, and the nearby nation of Assyria, which would soon come down upon them and end the Northern Kingdom. It had a timeline with the names of all the kings, some who didn’t rule very long because they were assassinated by their own people.

I stood on the auction block, and when parents or other adults stopped to listen, I spoke the piece I had learned, telling (a G-rated version of) Gomer’s part of the story. As the crowd of after-church coffee-drinkers thinned, I kept my eye out hopefully for someone else to come and listen, so I saw the two well-dressed ladies coming toward me, and I heard it when one stage-whispered to the other, “How could her mother let her hair get like that?”

I felt angry and embarrassed for my mother, who of course had no fault in the matter because IT WASN’T EVEN MY HAIR!!!!! How could they not see I was wearing a wig? My face burned as they walked by, averting their eyes, not even stopping to let me tell the story. I felt ashamed, as if I had somehow let my mother down.

I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. Hosea 11:4
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11:4)

Why does scripture make use of metaphors of marriage and family? Because nothing weighs heavier than our sense of family loyalty. And no betrayal feels worse than a family betrayal, whether it’s by your parents, or your children, or your spouse. These are the people who ought to treat us right. These are the people who ought to know better.

So the story of a runaway wife and the the poem about a runaway child make sense as metaphors for a nation’s faithlessness to God. They should have known better. This was their God! Their God BROUGHT THEM OUT OF EGYPT, OUT OF SLAVERY!!! This God gave them the Promised Land and this God let them have kings when they wanted kings, even though it was bound to work out badly. As it did. God was a caring and indulgent parent. Now what?

Anyone who has ever been in trouble with her mother – and that’s definitely me, on many occasions – might recognize the maternal aggravation cycle in the nine verses we read today.

  • Frustration: I cared for you, I nursed you, I held your hands while you learned to walk. How could you do this to me?
  • Resignation: Well, I can’t do anything about *that* choice! I’ll have to let her learn her own lesson.
  • Anguish: I am angry about the choices he has made, and I can see they will lead to no good! I’m angry enough to lash out! But I won’t.
  • Reconciliation: Really, I’m more hurt than angry. If she wants to come home, I’ll be here to open the door.

God is so far beyond our comprehension — so literally awesome, so literally mercy-full — that the best we can do is project what we do know onto something we cannot know fully. Every person has a parent – good or bad, present or absent. We understand what a father or a mother is, from our happy experiences and also from our terrible disappointments.

We call God Parent, Father, Mother, and we describe a family relationship, but in these verses from Hosea, we are reminded that the Lord is more than a human parent. Those of us who have our moments and more of failing our parents say “Thank God!” when God’s anguished heart changes in verses 8 and 9 :

How can I give you up, Ephraim?

    How can I hand you over, O Israel?

How can I make you like Admah?

    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me;

    my compassion grows warm and tender. 

I will not execute my fierce anger;

    I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and no mortal,

    the Holy One in your midst,

    and I will not come in wrath.

Thank God that God is more than a human parent. 

Thank God that God has god-sized mercy on us. 

#Pray final 111515

God remembers cities destroyed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah, cities and the people in them. God does not want all of the Northern Kingdom to be destroyed. Angry though God is, God will not act on it, “for I am God and no mortal.”It’s hard to talk about the words of scripture today without some words about other cities in the world. In Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad, mothers and fathers are weeping for their children and children for their parents. Paris stands out because it doesn’t happen there so much, the suicide bombs, the automatic rifle fire. It stands out because we went there in college, or a friend sent pictures from her honeymoon, or a family we know is there right now, in my case.

I struggle, as you may, to take in the details of terrorism, which has at its root a desire to control not only by random killing, but by leaving the survivors in fear. I struggle to understand why a difference of belief should be the fuel for a fire of destruction. We live in a nation founded on the idea that religious differences make a richer society, that they should not be a threat to anyone. We may not always execute that ideal perfectly, but it’s part of who we are meant to be.

So it’s baffling to face opponents whose extreme religious views – whatever their faith – not only divide them from the world but make them hostile to the rest of us.

And I wonder what God thinks of them. In that cycle of frustration, resignation, anguish and reconciliation, where is God now?

There’s a point in running away, in acting out, in doing the wrong thing when adrenaline captivates us with a wicked high. We feel invulnerable, immortal, or maybe don’t even care if we are *are* mortal. That may be the suicide bomber’s passion, too, a chemical reaction that magnifies the importance of what we are doing in a way that transcends actual reality.

It may have been what motivated Gomer, a search for something exciting, a thrill beyond the normal daily tasks of nursing her babies and teaching them to walk.

She is the mother gone wrong, perhaps our worst nightmare until the fresh horrors of the modern world.

When Gomer stood alone on the auction block, did she wonder where God was? Did she ask God to help? Did she imagine God was finished with her? The world certainly thought she wasn’t worth much anymore. I wonder how she felt when she looked up and saw Hosea in the crowd? When she heard his voice offering a bid? When he took her home again to her children?

In that story, none of us can stand invisible in the crowd, playing only the role of the spectator. We are Gomer. Each human being is in some way, at some time, this everywoman. We are the ones who make mistakes, the ones who run away, the ones who let God down. We are the reason God is angry and disappointed.

It’s easy to point the finger at others and forget that we, too, are part of the cycle of frustration, resignation and anguish. It’s easy to forget until we are hoping for reconciliation.

Thank God that God is no mortal. 

Thank God that God has god-sized mercy on us all. 

Red Cups (a prayer for pastors)

O Lord!
I like to get it all done early,
and I must confess,
the red cups
have cheered me on
for years now.

They come too early,
but I have to write
and liturgies
and choose hymns
and plot out readings.

Two pastors, hard at work.
Two pastors, hard at work.

I confess to leaning
on the caffeine fuel
in the red cup
and the Sufjan channel
on Pandora
to set my mood.

A pastor needs
to get there early,
to make things ready,
to set the scene
and make the plans,
and if the red cup helps
so be it.

And I’ll confess, too,
that I liked the cups
with snowmen and carolers
and doves and reindeer
and abstract generic
holiday images, filled
with seasonally elaborated

red cup
A vintage Red Cup, 2006.

But I don’t believe for a minute
that ombre shaded cups
constitute a declaration
of non-faith,
nor do I need
a coffee shop to bring
the Christ Child
into my world.

(He was never on the cups.)

I’ll trust you for that,
trust you to take care of
breaking through,
shining a light into our darkness,
while I type verse numbers,
and recruit candle lighters
and drink more coffee.

Come, Lord Jesus.

(I’m almost ready.)