Mary Did You Know?

posted Feb 19, 2019, 5:54 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Feb 19, 2019, 5:54 AM ]

Luke 2:1-20

I think Christmas in February in a good idea!

For those of you who aren’t a regular part of worship here at Zwingli Church, a word of explanation may be helpful.  Since late summer we’ve left the assigned schedule of Biblical texts that most churches use in worship on a three-year rotating basis and instead we’ve been doing a year-long survey of the “Big Stories of the Bible.”  Naturally, in December we interrupted that series to do the Christmas texts, but now we’ve returned to that series and lo and behold, here in February – and on a baptism Sunday, to boot – here is the birth story of Jesus.  

And unlike when we do this story in December, the usual distractions of the season – decorated trees and family gatherings and cooking and baking and gift buying and exchanging – all of that is just a memory by February.  In February, we really are – in the words of one of my favorite Christmas hymns – in “the bleak mid-winter.”  Well….by now I hope it’s the bleak LATE winter!

When we consider the birth of Jesus without all the usual trappings we are forced to wonder:  Does Christmas actually have a meaning aside from all the glitter and busyness and partying?  

You know, of course, that I’m going to insist that it does.  That the parties and gift-giving and cookies are all very good and fine – but they are NOT Christmas.  

Without putting too fine a point on it, Christmas is the mind-blowing suggestion that God loves humankind so much that God will go to all lengths to rattle our assumptions about how life ought to be.  

You see, in the face of widespread human assumption that greed is inevitable, that economic and social inequality is just the way it is, that the market ought to decide what’s good and what’s not good, that it’s not just normal but it’s right that people of any given nationality or ethnicity or race or social status will prefer “their own” over others – in the face of all those presumptions (and others) God quietly but firmly says, “No!”

And not only does God say “no” to many of the most deeply imbedded assumptions of human systems, but God goes so far as to join humankind – to literally become a human being – in order to point us in a different direction.  That, of course, is the point of one of Jesus’ names – Immanuel – which translated means “God with us.”  The idea of “God with us” isn’t just a pleasant notion – it’s precisely who/what Jesus is:  God with us.

Which explains the fuss the church has made about Jesus for these now 2000 years.  You see, for Christians, when Jesus says something it’s not like it’s a suggestion – it’s, well, it’s Gospel.  

You and I are perfectly entitled to pick and choose what we care to believe when it comes to the pronouncements of philosophers and politicians and even preachers.  But when it comes to the teachings of Jesus, we do not have the luxury of choice.  This is precisely the consequence of baptism.  You see, baptism isn’t merely a nice excuse for gathering family and friends at the birth of a baby – baptism is a statement of fundamental identity.  Baptism is the way we acknowledge that there are many ways human life can ordered.  Life can be ordered around economic systems – there are capitalists and socialists and more.  Life can be ordered around philosophies – there are existentialists and hedonists and pragmatists and many more.  But when one is baptized, one is publicly casting the lot of one’s life with Jesus.  When one is baptized, one is saying in effect, “I’m leaving the company of those who smile at Jesus and thank him for his interesting words, and instead I’m saying to Jesus, I’m yours, Jesus.  Where do you want me to go?  How do you want me to live?  I’m ready for your marching orders, Jesus.  Where are we going?”

This is hard for Americans.  We are people raised from birth to believe in personal choice as the fundamental right of human existence.  But in baptism there is a sense that we are leaving personal choice behind, and instead we are enlisting in Team Jesus – a team on which we don’t get to determine the game plan.

Yes, I know it’s often a little more complicated than that.  And I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it’s sometimes hard – very hard – to know exactly what Jesus wants when it comes to caring for the sick and erasing economic inequality and figuring out what to think and do about immigration and war and so on.  But my point is this:  Even though it can be hard to know what precisely Jesus would think about these difficult questions – it is, still, the mind of Christ we seek to know – not our own preferences and opinions.  

So, what is Christmas?  Well, there are many ways to put it – here’s one:  By celebrating Christmas we say out loud – my life is ultimately not mine to direct – I belong to Christ and my deepest desire is to know the way of Christ so that I can sure that always and ever I am on the road with Christ.

During the darkest days of the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln – not a man known to be a conventional churchman – uttered some of the truest words ever spoken about moral decision making.  In the midst of heated debate about the moral superiority of the Union cause, a man asked Lincoln if God was on the Union side.  Lincoln is said to have responded, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”

Christmas, it seems to me, is a time to be reminded that God has a side, and that our task as human followers of God is to figure out God’s side and get ourselves on that side.   And how do we do that?  It is John the Evangelist – John the Gospel writer who tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  

This is why we study the life and teaching of Jesus.  Ultimately, we DON’T study Jesus because he’s interesting.  No, we study and life and teaching of Jesus because in so understanding, we learn how to live – we learn the consequence of our baptism.

By God’s grace may we live Christmas lives – ordered by the life and teaching of Jesus – God in human flesh.


Divine Heroes

posted Feb 12, 2019, 2:21 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Feb 12, 2019, 2:22 PM ]

Luke 1:26-56

Heroism has never been an easy thing to define.


Like with beauty, the identification of heroism depends on the values of the beholder.  


In June of 1985 a single individual stood in front of a line of armored tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.  Many around the world saw the pictures of his solitary stance and hailed his courage and heroism.  


But I’m sure he was not viewed as a hero by the Chinese authorities.  And even though the details of the aftermath of the larger showdown between protestors and government authorities will likely never be known, the evidence is strong that many – 100’s or 1000’s died as the government moved to squelch all resistance to their authority.


In 1974 a pop song that had been written in England quickly rose to the top of the charts here in the US.  Those of you my age will instantly recognize it:


Billy, don't be a hero, Don't be a fool with your life
Billy, don't be a hero, Come back and make me your wife
And as he started to go, she said, 'Billy keep your head low'
Billy, don't be a hero, Come back to me.


It’s never made clear what war it was in which Billy fought…. and in which he ultimately died.  Because it was 1974, many assumed it was Viet Nam, but there are hints in the song that the writers may have been thinking of the American Civil War.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter, and interestingly the song never makes clear whether or not the writers associate wartime death with heroism or not.


In our text this morning, Mary hears the call of God.  It isn’t a call to death, but it could have been.  It was dangerous in many ancient cultures to be unmarried and pregnant.  In spite of the danger, Mary says “yes” to God.


Last week we encountered a different call story – Isaiah’s.  As recorded in the text, Isaiah is exuberant in his affirmative response to God’s call.  Had he known the misery and rejection that would eventually characterize his life, he might have been slower to sign up.  


In the final analysis, heroism is a slippery concept – particularly from the perspective of faith.  In both the Hebrew and Greek testaments of Scripture there are words that could conceivably be translated “hero,” but most English translations choose never to use the word.  The word “hero” is not found in most English Bibles.


I’m not interested in settling the question of whether or not we should aspire to be “heroes.”  It seems mostly non-debatable that most of the folk we consider heroes did not set out to claim that title for themselves.  Instead, most “heroes” found themselves in a difficult situation and took self-sacrificing steps to advance the welfare of others.


We could probably argue all day about an adequate definition for hero and at the end still not reach total consensus.  For purposes of today, I’d suggest that one way to conceive of heroism is to see it as courageous action derived from deeply held values.  


Which brings us back to Isaiah and to Mary.  I hold them as heroes of the faith – not because either died “heroically” – but because each was committed to the welfare of others.  Each was a person of love.


In Isaiah’s case, the call was to preach an unpopular message.  In a day when the rich and powerful used their power to maintain their own privilege, Isaiah relentlessly reminded folk that God is the source of power and God wishes power to be exercised in the interests of all – particularly in the interest of those who possess very little power themselves.  


In Mary’s case, the call was to give birth to a man who we love, but who in his own day was viewed as dangerously subversive and ultimately deserving of execution.


How did it happen that Jesus became such a problem for the powerful of his day? Did he wake up one day and out of thin air decide to advocate for the poor and the sick and the immigrants – all those with the least power in ancient Palestine?  I don’t think so.  Human values are shaped by intention.  Parents do not hold the power to perfectly determine the values of their children, but they are nonetheless extraordinarily influential.  And this much is clear – parental action is far more influential than are parental words.  Children who are unconditionally loved and who are challenged to take risks and who are exposed to the model of those who indisputably love others are far more likely to own similar values than are those children who grew up in environments of distrustfulness and anger and self-centeredness.  


We know next to nothing about the day to day parenting techniques of Mary (and Joseph, for that matter).  We do know that when he was twelve his parents took him to the temple (and lost him there for a time!).  But if the proof is in the pudding (and it nearly always is) the way Jesus turned out – his courage and kindness and intelligence and determination speak volumes about the way he was raised.


Protestants have historically been squeamish about making too much of Mary. I think that’s a shame.  In fact, I think we’d be well served to make more of Mary – much more!  I think we’d be well served to do so because in many respects Mary’s call to service resembles that of most of the faithful.  


There is a temptation to imagine that only a few of God’s people are “called.” We hear “call stories” and nearly always they are the stories of how people came to be pastors or missionaries. In fact, I’m convinced that every single one of the baptized – each one of us in this room is called by God to lives of intentional – even heroic – service.  Call partly has do with work – so whether we are called to preach, or raise kids, or milk cows, or prepare taxes, or teach school, or plow highways – you get my point – these are divine callings.  All work is holy and to be done well and with care and in ways that value all people and sustain the integrity of the created order.  


In church we don’t say enough about work and its place in faith.  I believe work is part of God’s call and is to be entered into with determination to do it in ways that are consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the teaching of all the prophets and apostles.  If there is a form of work that cannot be done consistently with the values of Jesus, then it is a activity that is unworthy of the follower of Christ.  But almost all work – whether in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company or in the classroom of an elementary school, or in tool and die shop, or in the cab of a John Deere tractor – almost all work can be done either in ways that honor Christ, or perhaps dishonors Christ.  Our call is to do our work in ways that honor Christ.


Preachers do not have a better or more lofty “call” than do others whose call is exercised in the so-called “secular” world.  (To be clear, I don’t even believe there is such a thing as the “secular” world, but that’s a conversation for another day.)  If I’m right, then your call is just as real and just as important as is mine. 


Is it easy to follow Jesus – to respond to his call?  Jesus himself pondered that question and answered it with a riddle:  “Come to me all you who are weary and heavily burdened.  Take my yoke upon you…. for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”


Jesus doesn’t dispute that following him involves wearing a yoke and carrying a burden – but he insists that the yoke and the burden are manageable.  


Responding to the call of God is, I believe, an everyday sort of affair. Every day – whether it’s with family or with co-workers or in the voting booth, or with patients or students or children – we are called to live the Gospel.  Every day we are called to be beacons of light and purveyors of hope and grace.  Every day we are called to advocate for justice and for the care of creation.  


Every day, I suppose, we are called to heroism – to the self-sacrificial love of God and neighbor.  


This is the call of God.  It is my call and it is your call.  


Thanks be to God!  Amen!

I Saw the Lord

posted Feb 4, 2019, 7:09 PM by Cameron Hubanks

Have you ever seen God?


This is the sort of simple question that can tie us up in knots.  On the one hand, we’ve been taught from childhood that God is spirit – God has no body – that God is invisible – largely because God isn’t contained by the physical universeGod MADE the physical universe, and therefore isn’t a part of it.


One of my favorite hymns puts it this way:  “Immortal, invisible, God only wise.”  


But the Bible – Old and New testaments – is filled with accounts of people who encounter God – and do so seemingly in physical ways.  


What shall we make of these accounts – can God be seen, or not?


It’s easy, of course, to turn this question on its head – to agree that God is spirit and of course cannot be seen…. but then to smile slyly and add – but if God is all-powerful, what’s to stop God from making Godself visible?  If God can’t do that, then perhaps God isn’t really all-powerful?  


I’m being a little playful, here, but for a reason.  Arguments about God often lead us astray and cause us to make God small.  Really now – if God is truly infinitely existent and if humans are finite (and surely we are finite!) – then perhaps the amazing thing isn’t that we can’t precisely figure God out – perhaps the astounding thing is that we can imagine God at all!!


These kinds of arguments and debates are ancient, and they have vexed humankind from the earliest days of our collective capacity to grasp the hardest questions of meaning and existence.  The book of Job – even though it doesn’t come first in the Old Testament canon – may be the oldest Biblical book in terms of when it was written (versus when what it records may have occurred – obviously Genesis comes first in that regard).  The book of Job is consumed with the important question of how there can be such a thing as evil if God is good.  


If you’ve read the book, you know that it isn’t shy about the question, but neither does it answer the question.  In a magisterial section of divine pronouncement God addresses Job’s friends – a trio of guys (of course!) who’ve been dressing Job down and essentially insisting that the bad things that are happening to him must be a consequence of some sin he’s committed.  Job professes innocence and so the group of them get nowhere.  And then God shows up (don’t ask me in what form – he/she hasn’t a body, of course) and regally dismisses Job’s erstwhile “comforters.  It’s pretty clear that part of what God is insisting is that there’s no way for finite humans to grasp the ways of infinite God, and so it would be better for humans to focus their attention elsewhere – like in loving God and neighbor (things we CAN understand and still don’t always do such a good job at).


These dilemmas of knowing and meaning are not new – the ancients pondered them just as we do.  We must be careful in ascribing simplistic thinking to our ancient ancestors.  Surely it is true that in terms of science and psychology they knew far less than do we…. but in many other ways the ancients were no less sophisticated than are we.  


It’s with this little bit of background that we must allow ourselves to be awed by the content of Isaiah 6 and 11.  What is described here is SUPPOSED to blow our minds.  On the one hand we’re SUPPOSED to think to ourselves, “Why, that’s impossible!”  And then, having acknowledged our own captivity to human limitation, we’re invited to imagine a realm of reality far, far beyond what seems humanly possible.


In the first text – in chapter 6 – young Isaiah has a vision that knocks his socks off (assuming he wore socks…. which he probably didn’t!).  He sees a figure on a lofty throne – a figure attired in regal clothing so expansive that the robe itself fills the temple.  Is that a ridiculous notion?  Of course it is – that’s the point.  This figure is seated on a throne in a place where no throne belongs (thrones belong in palaces, not in temples) and the figure wears clothing so extravagant that it can hardly be contained in the room.  And to make matters even more crazy – there are figures – seraphs (I think we’d call them angels) hovering in the air around the one on the throne – the one identified as “the lord.”  Now bear with me a moment, because this is sort of complicated.  The first occasion of the word “lord” in this text is the usual word for someone who rules over another.  These flying figures, however,address the seated one as LORD – a different Hebrew word than the one we’ve just referenced – this usage is the ancient stand-in word for the Jewish name for God Almighty – YAHWEH.  So, in verse one, Isaiah merely refers to the one on the throne as “a lord” but the seraphs describe the seated one as YAHWEH – as God Almighty – the one who is and was and is to come.  This figure isn’t just a king – this figure is God!!


And Isaiah is terrified because Isaiah knows something we all know – you can’t encounter God like this and live.  God is too holy and too pure and too righteous.  God is so perfect that all that is imperfect will be burned away in the presence of such holiness.  And Isaiah is right, of course, but God is God and can do what only God can do and that’s exactly what God does – God sends one of the flying creatures to Isaiah with a burning coal (of all things!) and touches it to Isaiah’s mouth.  It sounds devasting, right?  But again, we’re dealing with God here and God’s point is straight-to-the-point – under normal circumstances you don’t want a burning coal to come into contact with any part of your body, but these are not normal circumstances, my friends.  In this case, the burning coal is going to purify and make Isaiah eligible to be God’s own messenger.  And as if to drive the point home, the one on the throne wonders aloud, “Who can we send to those who need words of hope?  Who will go for us?”  Give Isaiah more than a bit of credit – he jumps up and down and says, “Oh! Oh!  Send me!!”


And what is the message that the one on the throne commissions Isaiah to carry?  For that we must jump ahead to chapter 11.  There are two things here (at least) to pay attention to.  The first is the matter of the stump.  What’s a stump?  A stump, of course, is what’s left after a tree has met its demise.  It’s a sign of loss – of death – of destruction.  In this case, the stump is called the “stump of Jesse.”  That likely seems a bit enigmatic to us, but it needn’t.  It’s merely a poetic way of referring to the regal family – to David (well, David’s father – Jesse) and their descendants.  The ancient Jews saw the royal family – David and his descendants as a sign of national pride and by time Isaiah announces these visions the royal dynasty is a puny shadow of what it once was.  And because of this the nation lamented.  Isaiah is sent to announce that the former greatness can be restored – but not by going backwards (that is, not by making Israel great again, like it used to be great), but by going FORWARD, and making Israel and ALL OF HUMANKIND great in a way it never was before, but great in a way that God has always intended for all of humankind.  


The image of chapter 11 is poetic and beautiful and stunning.  “The wolf will share life with the lamb.  Goat kids and leopards will peacefully share the same pasture.  Calves and lions will nurse from the same mother.  Small children will encounter rattlesnake nests and suffer no harm.”  


These images are meant to bring to mind the curses of everyday life – unemployment, inability to afford quality health care, discrimination because of skin color or sexual orientation, destructive climate change, intractable family estrangements – and to suggest that in the economy of God there is no violence, no want, nobody with too much and nobody with too little.  In the economy of God the powerful do not lord it over the poor – instead the powerful use their power for the good of all and even the poor have something to offer for the advantage of all.  


There is a sense in which this text reminds us why we gather week after week here in this sanctuary.  Do we come here to escape the world?  Maybe for a moment – but not ultimately.  No, I believe we gather week after week after week to be reminded of God’s vision for us and for all of humankind.  We gather to be reminded that cancer is deadly, but it will never get the last word.  We gather to be reminded that the scourge of opioid addiction is real, but that God offers hope for pain-free life attained without the use of dangerous substances.  We gather to be reminded that the troublesof this life are real, but that there is one seated on a throne and that one is waging a war against the forces of pride and domination and illness and death and we are invited to enroll on the side of hope and good and health and justice.  


Like Isaiah was called, the one seated on the throne still calls to each one of us, “Who can I send, and who will go for us?”


With Isaiah, and probably with huge lumps in our throat, let us all, individually and together stand up and announce, “Yes God.  We believe in this vision of fairness and health and justice and hope.  We believe you love all people and we want to enlist in this divine campaign of opposing injustice and violence and division.  We want to be part of bringing good to all of humankind – indeed to all of the universe.”


Is this notion audacious?  Of course it is.  By human standards, it’s absurd.  But we’re talking God’s standards here, not yours and mine.  So, let’s get with the program and let God take us wherever God wants.  


But we’d better buckle our seatbelts!!  It may be quite the ride!  Amen!

How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song?

posted Jan 28, 2019, 2:12 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Jan 28, 2019, 2:13 PM ]

Psalm 137, Jeremiah 52-34

How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song?

Hope is essential for human flourishing.  And sometimes hope is hard to come by.

It didn’t take me long early in my tenure as conference minister for the UCC in Iowa to understand something very discouraging about an awful lot of the congregations that my staff and I worked alongside.  The United Church of Christ in Iowa consists of about 175 congregations.  An awful lot of them – maybe a hundred, give or take, look an awful lot like Zwingli United Church of Christ here in Paoli.  They are small and on the edge of town, or maybe even in open country.  

But unlike our context – in the vibrant economy of Dane County - the further west one goes in the Midwest, the harder and harder it gets to sustain community life.  Ironically, the roots of the current difficulty in those places lies in past success.  People of European descent – folk from Germany and the various Scandinavian countries settled western Iowa roughly 150 years ago.  The land was fertile and the weather was (mostly) benevolent and these farmers did well.  They built up barns and schools and houses and co-ops and in some larger communities even hospitals.  And everywhere they started churches – Lutheran churches and Catholic churches, of course.  But even though it wasn’t part of their heritage, Methodist Churches were started and significant numbers of what would become UCC churches.  These farmers had families – big families – and so the schools and churches and libraries were full.  Grocery stores were abundant and eventually came implement dealers and more.  By the middle of the 20th century western Iowa was abuzz in robust community life and burgeoning wealth.  

But there is the law of unintended consequences.  Two things were happening that decades down the road would doom these small but then robust communities – the first was agricultural efficiency and the second was educational excellence.  In the first case, the smart and hard-working farmers teamed with the best minds at places like Iowa State University – known at its founding as Iowa Agricultural College – to produce more and more corn and soybeans and more and more hogs and chickens and do so with less and less human labor.  It is no exaggeration to say that the land that once supported 10 or more families – each with 4 to 8 children (a total population of perhaps 60 to 100 people) is today farmed by one old white guy.  Coupled with the lack of need for people to farm the land is the fact that the children of these 1950 farmers were educated so well that there was no limit to what they could do – well, there was one limit.  Whatever it was they aspired to, it probably couldn’t be done in Calumet, or Sioux Rapids, or Hull or Ida Grove.  So they took their shiny new degree from Iowa State or the University of Iowa and moved to Des Moines, or Minneapolis or Chicago and they did well.  And Mom and Dad were button-busting proud of the kids – as well they should have been.  

But back home, the schools shrank.  There wasn’t enough business to support the grocery store anymore.  The implement dealers consolidated as did the co-ops.  And the churches shrank and shrank and shrank.  Many closed while others hung on by a slender cord and feared the future.  And when they could no longer afford a full-time pastor, one of my staff members, or perhaps I would be called in to help them figure out what had gone wrong.  “Why are the Sunday School rooms all empty?  Why is there never a child in worship anymore?  Do we have a future?  Has God forsaken us?”  

Over 2500 years ago a somewhat similar lament arose from the far-down-the-road descendants of that rag-tag assembly of slaves who managed to escape Egypt under the leadership of that unlikeliest of leaders, Moses.  A long time elapsed from Moses to the days when David and then Solomon ruled Israel.  During those many years the people grew wealthy and prosperous.  But after Solomon the nation began a long and slow descent.  It didn’t happen overnight, but the results were insidious.  The analogy between western Iowa and ancient Israel is not a perfect analogy.  In the case of ancient Israel, part of their decline was an erosion of faith.  Whether or not the churches of Western Iowa can be convicted of eroding faith is debatable, but this much is undebatable – when things look better in the rear-view mirror than they do through the windshield, there’s going to some sort of hell to pay.  When the past looks better than the future, relationships fray and people become prey to unscrupulous leaders who promise to easily restore past glory.  

In ancient Israel, things had gone down-hill for 400 years and by 600 BCE, this once proud and powerful nation was threatened on every side.  In the midst of crisis false prophets arose who promised that Babylon and Egypt would never be able to take Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, after all, is the home of Yahweh – the one and only God – the defender of truth and holiness.  And in the midst of crisis and wishful thinking, other prophets – Jeremiah to name one – had to courage to challenge people to get ready for destruction.  

The story is too long (and perhaps too tragic) to fully rehearse this morning – but suffice it to say that Israel fell to Babylon and the brightest and best of the citizens of formerly proud Jerusalem were carted off to a foreign land where their captors teased and tormented them about the prowess of their supposedly superior God.  “Sing to us those glorious hymns we’ve heard so much about,” they would taunt.  

It is this demoralizing state in which Psalm 137 is written – “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  

There is so much that could be said at this point, I only have time to say the first word in what is an ancient and always necessary conversation.  If we learn nothing else this morning, let us learn this – that the prerequisites for vibrant faith are often misunderstood.  Before being carried off to Babylon, Jeremiah had to face down critics who pooh-poohed his warnings with an appeal to the temple.  “Jeremiah,” they would shout as they pressed their fingers into his shoulder, “this temple is the temple of GOD.  And God will never let it be destroyed.  So long as we stay in the shadow of this place, we are safe – S.A.F.E.!!”

But they were wrong.  God let that temple be destroyed right down to its foundations.  

Too often when I met with the membership of some small church in northwest Iowa someone would lament their inability to any longer maintain their once beautiful building.  Someone else would lament the death of their Sunday School.   Someone else would lament their inability to any longer support a full-time pastor.  Lament after lament after lament.  

It wouldn’t be fair to say that God didn’t care about the temple just as it wouldn’t be fair to say that God doesn’t care about the institutional vitality of churches in Northwest Iowa – but honesty forces me to say that while God certainly does care a bit about those things – God doesn’t place the same priority on them as do we.  

You see, God cares about peace and about justice and about relational health and human kindness much more than God cares about buildings and Sunday Schools and church committees.  

It isn’t part of our text this morning, but Jeremiah had something pointed to say about the exile that that awaited those around him.  In chapter 29 he pointedly urged, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

This, I think, is the point:  true faith is contained in a focus on others.  In the New Testament Jesus put it this way, “Love God, love neighbor.”  Jeremiah put it similarly, “When you wake up in the morning, take a look around and ask God how you can be a blessing to whoever you happen to see.”  

Or to put it another way, the surest way for a church to die is for it to focus on itself.  True faith – true vitality – is found in seeking the welfare of the other.  

This is, of course, what’s wrong with the sentiment behind slogans like “Make American Great Again.”  Does God love America?  Of course God does.  But God loves Canada and Honduras and Germany and Afghanistan and China just as much.  And any sort of religion that doesn’t persistently and creatively and determinedly seek the welfare of the whole of the human family isn’t true religion and it’s doomed to die.

So…. how can we sing the Lord’s song when things look bleak?  I think we best sing the Lord’s song by every day wondering and plotting how we will be a blessing to others.  

Here’s a small – to be honest, exceedingly modest – starting point.  This past Thanksgiving we gathered donations for area food banks and we did pretty well at it.  We could, of course, do this more often than a couple times a year.  Every month we celebrate communion – that is, we celebrate the ways God feeds us, spiritually and physically.  Next Sunday is communion.  Let’s begin to make every communion Sunday a food bank Sunday.  Food is a basic human need.  Thank goodness the government shut-down is over and TSA workers won’t be needing that assistance, but there are plenty of others who do.  And we can help – we MUST help.  

“Seek the welfare of the city where God has placed you,” urged Jeremiah.  Let’s look around us – how can we advance the welfare of the communities where God has placed us?  This, I believe, is our mission and if we live in it, we – Zwingli Church – will be vital and robust and blessed.  

Amen?  Amen!!

Straight Roads

posted Dec 10, 2018, 3:45 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Dec 10, 2018, 3:49 PM ]

Luke 3:1-6

Perhaps you’ve noticed that people think in amazingly varied ways.  Just when I think I’ve got someone figured out, they do something that blows my mind.  

Long ago I learned that one of the secrets of building deep and satisfying relationships is the capacity to be curious rather than knowing.  The “knowing” person assumes that he understands pretty well how most people think; what they want; how they’ll react.  The “curious” person assumes that people are fascinating and often unpredictable; she relates with people in ways that demonstrate eagerness to understand what they want and how they’ll think and how they’ll react.

I want to be the curious person and not the knowing person – but it’s hard, to be honest.  It is deeply ingrained into almost all humans to assume (without really thinking about it) that most people will naturally think about things pretty much as I do.

Years ago, I was serving a church and a situation arose that prompted me to ask the congregation for a significant change in our terms of employment.  There was one member of the Church Council who was convinced that this suggested change was a very bad idea.  It happened that he worked from a public location and many church members regularly passed by his desk.  As they would pass by he’d engage them in conversation about this matter.  He’d shared his deep concern and ask what they thought.  Most (apparently – obviously I only knew of these conversations from what others reported to me) nodded politely and moved on.  This church member left these many conversations pretty deeply convinced that nearly all the church shared his concern.

The matter was ultimately to be resolved by a vote at the Annual Meeting.  This member (with whom I maintained a decent relationship) came to me before the meeting and in an oddly conspiratorial tone whispered to me, “I hope you’re preparing yourself.  Your proposal will never pass.”

But when the votes were counted, the proposal passed.  Not unanimously, but neither was the vote close.  It was something like 48-4.  I happened to get a look at the Council member’s face when the vote was announced.  He was stunned.

Did this make the Council member a “bad person?”  Not at all.  He and I continued to work together and do so quite well.  But the story illustrates very well the difficulty of separating one’s own strong feelings from the assumption that everyone else must feel pretty much as I do.

The fact of the matter is, people very often DON’T see things the way I do.  The astute person recognizes that and adopts curiosity as their primary learning mode rather than certainty.  The wise person is much more into asking questions than in announcing facts.

What might any of this have to do with Advent?  Perhaps this:  Whether or not Advent is perceived as something to be eagerly desired or something to be wary about depends a lot on perspectives so personal as to be hard to predict.

Last week after worship one of our faithful members wondered whether the sermon was my version of “fire and brimstone.”  Well…. to be honest I hadn’t thought of it that way…. not at all.  But upon reflection I think that member was right, and I’m grateful for the question.  It helped me learn something about myself.

Here’s the danger about any one sermon – it’s never the entirety of the Gospel.  Any single sermon is almost always like that ancient story that most of you have heard many times – the story about a committee of blind folk who were taken to experience an elephant and then asked to describe it.  One of them – the one who felt its trunk – said that an elephant in like a hose.  Another had embraced a leg and that one said an elephant is like a column.  Yet another had leaned against the animal’s side and he was quite confident that an elephant was like a wall.  The final member had handled the elephant’s ear and she reported that it was exactly like a carpet.  If there were more members, they might have grabbed the tail and described it as a rope or felt a tusk and described it as a spear.

An elephant, of course, is like all of those things.  But an elephant is NOT entirely like any one of them.  That’s part of the danger of preaching (or many other complicated things) – no single sermon fully contains the Gospel.  In fact, any single sermon – taken out of context of years of sermons – probably distorts the Gospel.  

So, let me repeat my Advent question:  Is it good news or not such good news that God just might show up when we are least expecting her?

The answer, as you’ve all figured out, is that it depends.  In the case of the crossing of the Red Sea, the unexpected coming of God was very good news for the Hebrews, but not so much for the Egyptians.

In today’s short text we are introduced to the most famous Advent preacher of all times – John the Baptist.  John went about the countryside outside Jerusalem behaving oddly and preaching provocatively.  Most of what we hear from John’s mouth sounds like black and white certainty – though late in his life he reveals a moment of deep (and I think, endearing) uncertainty, when he sends a messenger to Jesus asking whether he was the one for whom they were waiting, or whether they needed to keep looking.

Why did this matter to John?  Because John was the remarkable leader who knew that life was not about himself.  Over and over again, John insisted that his message was about “the one to come” – it was about Messiah – it was not about John.   Here in Luke 3 we are introduced to John’s preaching with a metaphor from civil engineering.  It’s actually a quote from Isaiah.  In ancient days as well as today, mountains and valleys are lovely to behold, but they are impediments to travel.  Today, thanks to Alfred Noble and his invention of dynamite and thanks to heavy machinery builders like Caterpillar and John Deere, high ridges can be cut through and deep valleys can be filled and level roads can be built to facilitate travel through the mountain and over the valley.  Such a road can be made straight and level – as opposed to a road which would otherwise be crooked and steeply sloped – and therefore difficult to traverse.

In a nutshell, here’s the point:  Has life ever been difficult for you?  Are there days – maybe even yesterday, or (God-forbid) perhaps tomorrow or next week when a crisis will erupt in your life or in the world generally and you will need God?  On our better days, we all know that a life of fullness and meaning cannot be lived by oneself.  We need others – we need God.  The fact is, we need God every single day – though when things are “okay” it’s easy to forget that.  And the fact of the matter is this: without fail, God wants to help.  God is never reluctant to care for God’s beloved – for you and me.  God wants to come to each of us and to be exactly – not necessarily what we want – but exactly what we need.  But sometimes there are mountains and valleys that stand in the way of God getting to us, and those mountains and valleys are – as it turns out – of our own making.  To put it bluntly – God can rarely get to me, unless I let God in.  God can rarely serve me and show his love for me unless I let down my defenses and open myself to God’s care and grace and love.  

That, perhaps, is what Advent is about.  Advent is about tearing down mountains and filling valleys so that God can come to me and provide care and grace and power and whatever else I need to live life to the fullest.  These mountains and valleys take many different forms – they may be pride, they may be busyness and work, they may be unfortunate histories, they may be wealth, or grief or pleasure or numbness.  Almost any human experience can be a barrier to the coming of God.  God wants to come to every human – but God mostly gets to those who tear down mountains and fill in valleys – whatever those barriers might be.  

Perhaps this season of Advent is a time when God is inviting each of us to take stock of our lives and figure out what might be blocking us from a deeper experience of God.  And then, whatever it might be, we must ask for God’s help in dynamiting the barrier and ask for God’s help in taking the dynamited debris and use it to fill in valleys.  

It’s never exactly easy to do this, but let me assure you, neither is it impossible.  For with God, nothing is impossible!

I started by suggesting that it’s dangerous to assume we know how others are thinking – none of us can know for certain whether our friend longs for God or dreads the thought that God might come.  Perhaps we can start by longing for the good God of life to get into our own lives and to change us.  Perhaps that’s the necessary starting point.  And when that happens – who knows? – God may use us to get to others!  It spreads, you see!

Come Lord Jesus.  Come!  Amen.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place!

posted Dec 3, 2018, 2:26 PM by Cameron Hubanks

2 December 2018  --  Exodus 14:5-29

“Get out of jail free” is a tempting offer.  As a pithy enticement it has its origins in the game of Monopoly.  Among the various Chance cards one might draw is the valuable “Get out of Jail Free” card.  

Wouldn’t it be nice if those facing a human predicament could just flash a “Get out of Jail Free” card and be on their merry way?

In a day when complicated truths are depreciated in favor of simplistic sentiments that can be tweeted in no more than 280 characters, the notion that some reality might be impossible to so simplify is viewed by some with dismissive disdain.  In the face of an explanation requiring patient thought, there are many today who roll their eyes, and turn away.  If it can’t be simplified, it must not be true.

In the face of this dumbing-down impulse there stands the one and only God whose love and patience and grace may be free, but is assuredly not simple.  

As we’ve been working our way through the “Big Stories of the Bible” we’ve encountered some pretty unpleasant stuff.  Adam and Eve defy God by eating from the one tree explicitly forbidden to them.  Cain kills Abel in a fit of jealous rage.  Noah watches from the vantage point of a floating barn as the rest of humankind goes to a watery grave.  Isaac’s sons conspire together to rid themselves of their bothersome little brother Joseph by selling him in to slavery.  (At least they didn’t acquiesce to the suggestion that he be killed!)  There is a high point when Joseph graciously saves those same brothers by interceding on their behalf with his boss the Pharaoh – but generations later all their descendants live in slavery under a different Pharaoh who has no memory of Joseph and the way his foresight and managerial skills saved all of Egypt.  

In the face of all this tragedy, one could be forgiven at wondering whether maintaining faith in a good and powerful God is a sensible proposition.  At least we are excused for wondering what in the world God might be up to.

Does it make any sense to commit oneself to a God who doesn’t snap her fingers and make everything good and easy and pleasant?  Why doesn’t God print up a large pile of “Get out of Jail Free” cards and dispense them freely to cancer patients and people in degraded marriages and to parents with ungrateful children and to children with abusive parents?  Why doesn’t God solve global climate change and why does God permit strong nations to advance their own welfare over those which are weak?  Why, why, why?  

I’ll tip my hand right off the start:  I don’t really know.  Lest you imagine that I raise these imponderables because I have a brilliant solution ready to announce at the conclusion of a fifteen-minute sermon – I need to acknowledge that I have no such magic card up my sleeve.  These questions are hard – they are unspeakably hard.  Countless humans of good will and of imaginative intellect have struggled with these questions for thousands of years.  Not yet has a twitter-worthy answer been found.  Not surprisingly, there are many women and men who have jettisoned their faith in anger and perplexity at this state-of-affairs.  

But in the face of these realities, there are stories of faith and salvation.  Some of them are Biblical stories.  Others are everyday stories of grace and kindness and love and patience.  Among these stories are those of the famous, but there are also those of the “un-famous.”  These stories confront us with people who refused to deny the problem of evil, and yet remain committed to the age-old suggestion that there exists a good and powerful God.  

It is precisely that God that we meet again in today’s story.  From the perspective of the underdog, today’s story is happier than some of those other stories, but it is not necessarily any more comforting for you and me.

A refresher:  After Moses encountered God in the bush that burnt but was not consumed, Moses gulped and did the assuredly absurd thing that “I AM WHO I AM” asked him to undertake.  He went back to the land of his upbringing – to Egypt.  He went back to his adopted family – the household of Pharaoh – to the place where he was nothing more than a wanted fugitive – a murderer.  And he went back to the people of his birth – the Hebrew people – people who viewed him with jaundiced eyes and suspected he had sold out to those who enslaved and misused them.  

Not only did he do the absurd thing of going back but he returned carrying an absurd message.  To Pharaoh the message was, “Let my people go.”  To the Hebrews it was, “Follow me.”  How likely was it that either would really listen to him?  Not very!

But he did it.  Without belaboring the story, Pharaoh eventually (with an expletive, I’ll bet!), told the people they could go.  And the people – many of them, I’d guess, against their better judgement – followed Moses toward a destination that seemed absurdly distant and impossibly unattainable.  But like people of all ages who live in misery and discontent – they allowed themselves a moment of hope and set out on a trek that was about as improbable as any trek could possibly be.

Almost immediately the entire project went (figuratively!) south.  No sooner had the people mobilized themselves and set out, when Pharaoh and his court came to their senses and changed their collective mind.  Letting the slaves go, they realized, was economic suicide.  They couldn’t do this.  Consequently, elements of the army were mobilized – the best charioteers where scrambled and a chase commenced.  Talk about a one-sided scenario!  This was a bit like the horrendous show-down in Tiananmen Square in Beijing almost 30 years ago.  Tanks against the unarmed.   We remember the image of the single man who stood resolutely against an ongoing tank.  What we don’t remember so clearly is the powerful evidence that many died on that horrendous day.  

And it looked like it would be precisely the same for the Hebrews.  Unarmed slaves against highly trained charioteers looks like the making of a massacre.  

And it was a massacre – but not of the Hebrews.  As the slaves looked ahead and saw a body of water they could not cross and looked behind and saw the military machine of their oppressors, they knew they were finished.  With anguished cry they called out to Moses – accusing him of enticing them into certain death.  And I’m pretty sure it was with a large dose of his own uncertainty and fear and anger that Moses called out to God – to I AM WHO I AM – the one who had invited him into this classic mess of being between a rock and hard place.  

We all know what happens next – God tells Moses to hold out his staff and the water divides and the people cross on dry land.  And not only that, but when Pharaoh and the murderous charioteers follow, the waters reclose, and they are destroyed.  

For a day, at least, the people celebrated.  There was dancing and singing and celebration – celebration that only those who face certain death and come through unscathed can really know. 

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is hard for people.  We tend to think of it as a four-week warm-up for Christmas.  Clearly Advent and Christmas are related, but the relationship is complicated.  What Advent is saying is actually well illustrated in the story we’ve just rehearsed.  What Advent seeks to remind us is that God is coming and depending on whether you are an Egyptian or a Hebrew, having God show up can mean two very different things.  

For those in need, God showing up is the best of all possibilities.  God hears the cries of the downtrodden and sooner or later God acts to bring justice.  But the downtrodden are often beat down by somebody else and the arrival of God is probably not good for those currently on top.  One of challenges of preaching a story like this in the context of 21st Century America is figuring out who are the Hebrews and who are the Egyptians.  

Which takes me back to the matters I mentioned in starting this sermon.  It’s easy for almost all people to imagine that God ought to take my side and make things go well for me.  I suspect that’s what the Egyptians thought – that they were good people and surely God (or the gods) would bless them.  As it turns out, God saw things differently.

I’m not God.  I don’t know for certain how God sees me, or you, or this nation, or any other nation.  What I do know is that God is passionately in favor of kindness and justice and mercy and love.  What I know for certain is that Advent reminds us that God comes – often when God is least expected – and that God looks to find justice and grace – God looks to find those who are lost – God looks to find those in need – and then God acts.  

In a different part of Scripture we are reminded that God’s ways are not human ways – that God’s hands are not tied by human conceptions (or misconceptions) of what God ought to do, or ought not do.  

Advent, I think, should be a time for humbly admitting that we understand God far less than what we sometimes think.  Advent should be, I think, a time for opening our eyes and our hearts to however God may choose to come.  

If we do, I think we will meet God.  God might come exactly as we’d hope – but it’s equally possible God might blow our minds by doing something utterly unexpected.  Sometimes we sing, “Where He leads me, I will follow.”  Let’s gulp and mean it.

Welcome to Advent.  Come, Lord Jesus.  We’re not sure how you’ll come, but we’re doing our best to be open and ready.

Come, Lord Jesus.   Amen.

The Economics of Church

posted Nov 27, 2018, 3:44 PM by Cameron Hubanks

When you ask non-churchgoers why they don’t go to church there will always be one response high on the list of reasons – “They’re always asking for money.”

Have you ever noticed how troubling are the words “always” and “never?”  Have you ever heard a loved one begin a complaint, “You never….” or “You always….”?  Have you ever begun a complaint by saying, “You never….” or “You always….”?  Sadly, most of us have.

There’s an obvious problem with “always” and “never” – hardly anything is “always” or “never” true.  When we begin a complaint with one of those words, our conversation partner can almost always (smiley face!) imagine a time when she or he didn’t…. or did!!  Instead of initiating a helpful conversation, the charge of always or never mostly conjures up an objection.  “Why just a month ago, I remembered to put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher!”

Good, honest, interesting conversations rarely use the words “always” and “never.”  Almost and never aren’t good conversation starters…. They are mostly conversation enders.

Here’s a fact that’s “almost always” true:  Most churches aren’t “always” asking for money.  In fact, I’d suggest that most churches don’t talk about money enough.  After all, we live in a culture that is saturated in messages about wealth.  Some of it is straightforward (like advertisements for investment firms) and some of it is oblique (like the famous person who wears clothing you or I could never afford.  The kind of car you drive, the house you live in, the nature of your job – all of these things convey messages on multiple levels – and one of those levels is always about money and wealth.  

It doesn’t matter if we wish it weren’t this way – try as we might, there is a money element to almost everything we do.

And if church is the one place where we do our level best to avoid money talk – we send an inadvertent message that I think is very dangerous.  When in church we fail to talk about money, we leave the impression that God is not interested in money.  And nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, God is very interested in money – or to put it more precisely, God is very interested in how each one of us uses our money.  

Of course, it is true that God doesn’t “need” my money.  God is spirit and exists in a realm apart from material need.  In a genuinely true sense, God already owns everything that exists – from the Milky Way to the coins in my grandson’s piggy bank – God already owns it all.  

That being so, what causes God to be interested in money?  If God is beyond envy, what motivates God to care?  

I think there are at least two reasons why God cares:

  • God cares because God is worried that we’ll love the things God has made more than the God who made them.  God isn’t worried about this because God is petty and insecure – God worries about this because having made us and loved us, God knows what is best for us.  God wants you to be joyful and fulfilled and God knows that too narrow a focus on money will not bring you joy – it will mainly bring you fret and anxiety and lust and depression.  God wants you to be free from fret and anxiety and lust and depression.  What God wants for you is joy, and God seems to know that less preoccupation with money serves to raise the odds that we’ll experience joy.
  • There is a second reason why God cares about how we think about and how we use money:  God aches for those who hurt.  God aches for those who are poor and who live in danger of violence and who are ill and who don’t know opportunity and privilege in the ways that most of us do.  Sharing with these folk for whom God especially cares is one way to get better lined us with the mind of Christ.  Though it may not seem intuitive, It seems that sharing is another way to find joy!

The text we heard this morning might be just a bit perplexing.  It’s actually a part – a relatively small part – of a much larger conversation between the Apostle Paul and the believers in Corinth.  In a nutshell, that larger conversation goes like this:  In a prior letter Paul had laid out a crisis that the followers of Jesus who lived in Jerusalem were facing – a life-threatening crisis of famine and persecution.  He asked if the Corinthians would share from their abundance for the welfare of folk they’d never met and would never meet – and they said they would.  But time went by, and they didn’t.  Paul had made this same request of others – and some of those were less wealthy than the Corinthians and those others had already come through with generous offerings.  But there was nothing from Corinth.  Finally (in frustration, I think) Paul has it out with these folk – folk who owed their very faith to the sacrifices he had made on their behalf.  

It matters to know that the church in Corinth was blessed in many ways.  The members possessed a variety of talents and spiritual gifts.  They were – many of them – materially wealthy.  But it’s also clear that they were a contentious group.  They fought among themselves and divided themselves into factions and sects.  In many ways it seems they were smug and self-satisfied.  But it’s not clear that this was a church marked by joy.  

Earlier I made the assertion that God cares a lot about how you and I use money.  I draw the conclusion mostly from the frequency with which Jesus and the prophets talk about wealth and wealth-related questions.  But even though money and its use gets talked about a lot in the Gospels, there isn’t a highly developed, coherent theology of money to be found in the Bible.  We are, it seems, asked to study these questions diligently and draw conclusions together about how to use money in faithful ways.  

That being so, you can expect that I will talk about money regularly – not all the time – but more than just rarely.  And even though there isn’t a ready-made Biblical theology of money, there are strong hints here and there that point us toward joy.  Here’s one of them – it’s from Jesus and his so-called Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel – “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore tried to quote this during one of the debates.  He didn’t quite get it right – saying, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.”  That might be true (I think it probably is), but that’s not what Jesus was saying.  Jesus was saying, whatever you choose to make your economic priority – that’s what you’ll come to love.    If you make your house your priority – that’s what you’ll love.  If you make low taxes your priority – that’s what you’ll love.  If you make your family your priority – that’s what you’ll love (which is a tricky one – but we won’t unpack it today).  And…. if you make God your priority…. that’s what…. that’s who you’ll come to love.  And in loving God with passion and conviction and steadfastness…. comes joy.  

In a few minutes we’ll make a short time of silence to give you opportunity to mark down your intention for financial support of Zwingli Church during 2019.  Since God rarely (if ever) shows up on our doorsteps to ask for support, giving to one’s church becomes a proxy for giving to God.  It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s close.  

(An aside – a better proxy, perhaps, per the text we heard from Matthew 25 last week, in the context of Native American Sunday is this: when we give to the poor, we give to Christ the King!)

My appeal to you today is not mostly that Zwingli Church needs your money so badly – my appeal is that we all need to give.  We need to give enough so that it’s noticeable.  When I calculate my yearly budget, the amount that Ruby and I designate for “charity” is one of the bigger categories.  It’s the not the biggest, but it’s close.  And over our 27 years of marriage, the money we’ve given away adds up to a stunningly large number.  

And even though I can’t prove it, I think that giving has mostly resulted in joy, and gratefulness, and greater dependence on God.  

I don’t believe in the so-called “health and wealth” Gospel.  I don’t believe you will make more money just because you give to God, and I don’t believe you will necessarily be healthier because you give to God.  Here’s what I believe – that giving generously to God has turned my heart more toward God and more toward that which God loves than what it otherwise would have been.  I think that’s been good for me, and so I share that with you with the strong suspicion that it might also do the same for you.  

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  



posted Nov 12, 2018, 8:55 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Nov 12, 2018, 8:57 AM ]

11 November 2018   Exodus 3:1-15


So…. it’s not an everyday thing to be spoken to from a burning bush, right?  

And given the circumstances, Moses might be forgiven for a bit of hesitancy at what the voice asked of him.  

Two weeks ago we considered the bravery of Shiphrah and Puah – the two midwives who slyly wriggled away from Pharaoh’s demand that they engage in the horror of infanticide and kill baby Hebrew boys at the occasion of their birth.  

Pharaoh’s hideous demand partly serves to highlight the bravery of these two women and partly it serves to set the context for the birth of Moses. 

As it turns out, Moses was born in perilous times.  Moses was born in a time when a powerful man thought he’d make himself more secure by attacking folk with nothing – folk who possessed nothing that might threaten the Pharaoh – nothing, perhaps, except a driving will to live and to make something better for themselves and for their children.  

It is in that context that a woman of the tribe of Levi (we aren’t even told her name) gives birth to a beautiful baby boy.  She knows the animus of the powerful Pharaoh, but she is a mother and she loves her child and she is driven protect him whether it was legal or not.  

For three months she hid him, hoping against hope that somehow the obscenity of the peril that she and her child faced would somehow pass.  But of course, it didn’t.  And as the days passed and as it became harder and harder to conceal the child, her desperation (and, it seems, her creativity) grew.  We are told she devised a plan.  She obtained a papyrus basket and plastered it with tar.  She made a mini-ark – a vessel of salvation!

The mother of the infant was observant, and she was bright.  She knew that a young and wealthy Egyptian woman regularly walked along the backwaters of the river near their home.  And so she set the child afloat and instructed her daughter to hide nearby.  Sure enough, the wealthy young woman came by and saw the tiny vessel among the reeds and heard crying and had her servant retrieve this odd object.  The woman – a daughter of Pharaoh, as it turns out – took pity on the child.  And as the baby’s mother and her daughter had undoubtedly planned, the young girl stepped forward at that moment and offered to locate a nursemaid to care for the child.  And so the baby’s mother was hired to care for her own child. 

Eventually Moses went to live with his adoptive mother.  He became a man of privilege – pampered and educated just as a son of Pharaoh would undoubtedly been raised.

The baby’s name, of course, was Moses – which sounds like the word to pull out of water.  

One day the young man Moses went out to the labor camps and got a first-hand taste of the life which by accident (or the grace of God) he had been spared.  And while watching the abusive technique of the Egyptian slave master, his blood boiled, and he struck the Egyptian and killed him.  

Moses had thought his impulsive act had gone unseen, but that was not the case.  There were Hebrew slaves who had seen what had happened and the next day he was confronted by a couple of his kinfolk.  These Hebrew slaves undoubtedly saw Moses not as kin, but as oppressor, and Moses panicked and ran for his life.  He realized now that his murderous action made him a pariah to all.  His own people did not embrace him and surely when Pharaoh learned what happened, he would exact his own brand of harsh justice. 

Eventually Moses settled in the semi-wilderness of Midian, far from Egypt.  There he found both work and a wife – and in the same household – the household of a priest named Jethro.  

This is the backstory to this morning’s text.  You see, the voice from the bush that burned but was not consumed was responding to the groans of the Hebrew people back in Egypt.  This is, Scripture teaches us, what God always does.  The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – and Jesus and Paul for that matter – though they are still far in the future – is a God who aches for the poor and abused – for those who are in peril.  It was true then and it is true today.  And though God’s ways may sometimes seem to be slow and even ineffective – God invariably acts on behalf of the poor and dispossessed – a fact the wealthy and privileged ignore to their own peril.

And so God reveals Godself to Moses and commissions him to be the agent of the salvation for the Hebrew slaves.

There is no small element of irony in this, of course.  Does God fail to grasp that Moses is no hero to either the slaves or the Pharaoh?  Of course God gets this.  In some strange way, I think God choose Moses PRECISELY because he was so obviously ill-suited to the job.  Or maybe not – maybe Moses’ history – his understanding of privilege and power and influence – made him precisely the person God would need to set the Hebrews free.  

This text is full, of course, of meaning for us, the reader.  If we had time we could consider the meaning of holy ground and the symbolism of God instructing Moses to remove his sandals.  We could easily spend a sermon or two on God’s name as revealed here – I AM WHO I AM.  And then there are the fascinating details – why does the bush burn but never be consumed?  

But I think we do best to nod knowingly at Moses’ reluctance to embrace God’s commission.  C’mon God, if Moses does agree to return to Egypt, isn’t he likely to meet a violent end?  I think we are expected to realize that answering God’s call here is dangerous and more than slightly absurd.  

Had we more time we’d delve more deeply into this, but here’s the upshot – after offering several excuses why God was barking up the wrong tree (or out of the wrong bush), Moses did as God instructed and eventually God used Moses to set the Hebrews free.

I can only speculate on the fears that Moses needed to confront as he prepared to take on the responsibility to which God had assigned him.  It is true that Moses had lost his native people and his native land – he had fled Egypt under duress in order to save his own skin.  But Moses had landed on his feet – so the speak.  He married well and had a steady job for a man of influence and respect.  And then comes God the one and only – God the living God – and turns Moses’ newly settled life on its head.

It may be tempting to read a story like this as extraordinary.  It may be that the magnitude of the task laid at Moses’ feet was remarkable – but I am convinced that it is nothing but ordinary to expect that then and now God calls the baptized – everyone of us – to accept challenges that we fear and that we know we are unequal to.  This is precisely the way God works.  Over and over again we encounter this same story – God asks folk to do things just a bit too difficult to reasonably accomplish.  It is a Biblical pattern, and it is pattern among people today.  

God hears the groans of the poor and the sick and the despised just as clearly today as God did in ancient Egypt.  But instead of resurrecting Moses to carry the message of liberation, God is turning to you and to me and challenging us to embrace a challenge that is, by rights, just a bit too big for us.

Will we respond?  Can we gulp (as I’m sure Moses did!) and after offering our excuses, stand up straight and respond – as Moses eventually did – “God, if you think I can do this – if you think we can do this – then with your help, we’ll do it.”

It’s scary and it’s dangerous.  It’s also exhilarating and liberating.  By God’s grace and with God’s help let us be people who carry the liberating message of the Gospel to those who need to be freed and to those who need to do the freeing.  

God help us.  Amen.

The Joy of Letting Go

posted Nov 6, 2018, 5:13 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Nov 12, 2018, 9:13 AM ]

“There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.”

Proverbs 14:12

On Wednesday afternoon the confirmation class and I were engaged in a survey of 2000 years of church history at the speed of an Indy-race-car.  I’m not sure they were getting much out of it, but in the back of my mind I was relating it to today’s sermon.

Just as a fish has no conception of life outside the water, so humans have only a very limited capacity to really grasp what life is like for those with experiences dramatically different from that of our own.  And it is especially difficult for us to grasp what life might have been like for people who lived long ago under circumstances far different from our own.  

Our survey of church history came to a breaking-point at an easy-to-remember moment for all of us – Ulrich Zwingli!  Most people have likely never heard of Ulrich Zwingli, but for members of this congregation, at least, his name rolls almost thoughtlessly off our tongues.  I’m told some of you are even descended from Zwingli!  

But how many of us really have any conception of the church in Zwingli’s time?  Remember, Zwingli was exercising his church leadership 500 years ago.  500 years is a very long time – it’s at least 20-25 generations ago!  

You and I, by the accidents of birth, live in a time when Western culture and society carry what seems a distinctly Christian flavor.  And that’s at least partly true.  Our culture and society have indeed been shaped – for good and for ill – by approximately 500 years of Protestant influence.  It’s no accident, of course, that the number 500 years is the same number of years that have passed since Zwingli led the church (and the government, we should hasten to add) in Zurich, Switzerland (and before that, in Glarus, which partly accounts for his widespread fame among Swiss immigrants in our immediate area).  

It's debated whether or not Zwingli really ran the government in Zurich, but it’s clear that he at least exercised out-sized influence over both religious and political affairs in his time.

Was that good?

That question probably has no clear-cut, yes-or-no answer, but it does demand thought.  You see, the church long before Zwingli already had experience with possessing and wielding political dominance.  For the first 300 years of its existence, the church was either ignored, or else actively persecuted by the political authorities of the day – the Roman Empire.  It had not a bit of official influence.  And nonetheless, during those 300 years of being either ignored or persecuted, the church grew at a mind-numbing rate.  We need to understand that when Constantine decided to become a Christian in 312 CE, it’s not likely that he did so because he’d had a vision of the truth of the Christian Faith – it’s far more likely that he did so because by then so many people in the Empire had become followers of Jesus that he knew he needed to get lined up with the people, because fighting the faith was a losing proposition. 

To put it bluntly, for nearly 300 years the Empire tried to extinguish Christian Faith.  By the time of Constantine, it had become crystal clear that persecution of the church as a means by which to destroy it had failed.  

What does any of this have to do with our text?  Just this:  The very things that made Christianity so amazingly attractive when it was dangerous to be a Christian began to be tamed and domesticated once Christianity was no longer an illegal faith and instead became the official religion of the government.  

I think one of our challenges as followers of Jesus in the 21st Century is to acknowledge that much of faith in our day has been tamed and domesticated.  The audacious teachings of Jesus have been watered down and/or ignored.  We think that the dominant values of society and culture are Christian, when it is far more likely that human values have seeped into the church and made us indistinguishable from what it means to be “good citizens” of the nation.

Almost 30 years ago, two at-the-time unknown American church leaders wrote a provocative little book – “Resident Aliens.”  Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon suggested that a devious thing had happened to the church in the United States.  That instead of making society look like the values of Jesus, the values of culture and society had leaked into the church and the church mostly looked like America rather than vice versa.  

If there is any Biblical text that demonstrates how tamed and domesticated the church has become, it is one like this one from Luke 6.  

Blessed are you who are poor.  Blessed are you who are hungry.  Blessed are you who weep.  Blessed are you when folk hate you and exclude you and defame you.  Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  If someone abuses you, turn to them the other cheek.  If someone is begging from you, give them even more than what they are asking for.  Lend generously to others and if they are unable to repay, chalk it up to God’s account.  Do not judge and do not condemn, because the standards by which you judge others will be the standards by which you will someday be judged.

The text ends with the simple point I want us to all go home wondering about:  Give just as generously as you can figure out how to do.  The image clearly presupposes that Jesus’ hearers already know that they are supposed to give.  But that when they do, they are calculating how to make their gift look bigger than it really is.  Jesus’ teaching presupposes a primitive agricultural culture.  It assumes that all his hearers know that you can measure grain generously or with a “thumb on the scale” (so to speak).  Maybe the best we can is imagine what every cook knows about measuring brown sugar.  If you want your cookies to turn out, then a cup of brown sugar means a packed cup of brown sugar.  Your cookies won’t be quite right if you stir up the contents of the canister and then fill the cup (apparently all the way) with that loosely packed sugar.  No, you need to press it down with the heal of your hand to be sure the cup is heavy and dense with the brown deliciousness of that molasses-infused material.  

That’s how God wants us to give.  Generously and with abandon.  And not grudgingly, but with joy.

But why?  What does it matter that we give?  Just this:  if we give more than what we think we can really afford, we will be pushed to wonder whether it really does all belong to God and whether God will really take care of us if we risk generously caring for others.  

When I was about middle-school-aged (we didn’t call it middle school in those days, of course), I got my first job for pay – cutting the grass of some of our elderly neighbors.  For most of those lawn-cutting jobs, I was paid the princely sum of $4.  It really did seem a lot of money to me!  I remember so clearly getting paid after the first job was completed holding those four one dollar bills in my hand and hearing my Mom remind me, “Remember, 10% of that belongs to God.”  

Now in fact, it all belongs to God, but that’s a different (if important) point.  I was (mostly) a compliant child, and so dutifully I added together my weekly earning earnings and calculated 10% and put that amount in the church offering plate.  And more or less I’ve done so ever since.  I realize you don’t see me put a check in the offering plate, but you should know that my bank and the US Postal Service are good enough to cooperate so that a contribution to the church shows up in the church Post Office box once a month.  Ruby and I have other significant giving commitments, but all told, we continue to give away about 10% of our income.  

Is 10% some sort of magic amount?  It is not.  I want to be very clear about that.  This is not about some kind of rule or law.  But when I say that, I also want to be clear that the image of giving in a way that exemplifies packed down brown sugar is important.  I think every Christian – whether more wealthy or less wealthy, needs to regularly and systematically give away enough of our income so that we notice the impact that giving has on our budget.  If what we give has no more impact on our personal finances than our coffee spending does, than it’s probably not nearly enough.  

We do so not to earn God’s favor.  That idea is obscene.  We give because God is a giver and out of love and gratefulness we want to be a bit like God.  We give because humans – you and me – are all too likely to imagine that we run the show – and when we give away just a bit more than what we think we can reasonably afford, we are pushed to wonder whether we really do trust God to take care of us.  

Give and it will be given to you.  I think this means, give and you will be taken care of.  By God.  Period.


Profiles in Courage

posted Oct 30, 2018, 5:18 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Oct 30, 2018, 5:19 AM ]

Profiles in Courage

Those of you having attained a “certain age” (that is, at least as old as me!), know that the sermon title this morning – Profiles in Courage – is not at all original.  In 1957, then U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy released a book of 8 senatorial profiles – 18th and 19th century political leaders who had the courage to go against popular opinion in the country and prevailing sentiment in their own parties – to take political stands which they believed to be morally essential.  In each case, this stand had a cost – usually loss of election.

Our text this morning presents us with a far more ancient example of political and social courage – the determination to do right even at great personal risk.  It is unfortunate that the names of Shiphrah and Puah are probably unknown to even one percent of Christian church-goers, for these two women exemplify the sort of moral integrity and determined toughness to stand in the face of pressure to conform and instead live according to their deepest values.

Come with me into a rehearsal of this story.

In our year-long series of the “big stories of the Bible” we’ve come to the place where the descendants of Abraham – the one to whom God had promised posterity and blessing – have achieved one of those promises (they have multiplied greatly – there are many of them), but certainly not the other (instead of experiencing blessing and being a blessing – they are slaves).  

A quick review:  Abraham and Sarah eventually became parents to Isaac.  It was an untimely birth in all imaginable aspects – Sarah had deemed the promise of a child in her old age to be so absurd as to have laughed when God repeated the promise to her husband, Abraham.  And to Sarah’s profound credit and gracious humility, when the child was born – when she was 90 years old! – she named him laughter!  A name, I think, of delightful consequence.  For certainly she and Abraham laughed with delight at this child’s birth, but it is plain that with this name she was poking a bit of fun at herself.  It is easy to imagine that every time she stepped out of their tent to call the boy in for a nap, or for a meal, and called “Isaac” (which sounds like the word for “laughter”) she would be reminded of her own laughter at God’s promise and probably wince a bit and say to herself, “By God’s grace I will be more faithful – I will be more trusting.”  I think there is a reminder here to each of us to be more humble in recalling our own failures to truly trust God – rather than our smarts, or our wealth, or our heritage.

In any case, Isaac grew and eventually he and his wife Rebekah had twins – the famous siblings Esau and Jacob.  Jacob, it is clear, was a scheming scoundrel, but God loved him in spite of his failings, and eventually he (by his 2 wives, Leah and Rachel, as well as the two servants of his wives) – gave birth to twelve sons (and, we should add, at least one daughter – an apparently ravishingly beautiful girl named Dinah, whose story is tragic, but we haven’t time for that today).  I’ll leave it to you to speculate on the family rivalries, jealousies, and intrigue that result when one man has children by two wives AND additional children by the servants of those two wives.  In any case, eventually the majority of those 12 sons sold their second youngest sibling into slavery.  Joseph – the one sold into slavery – was perhaps insufferable, but he was also smart and resourceful and at least eventually learned to depend on God.  Again, to make another long story short, Joseph ended up in Egypt where his intelligence and skill at interpreting dreams caused him to become a top aide to the Pharaoh.  In that position, he eventually became the savior of his family – of those very brothers who sold him into slavery.  One of the most famous lines of Genesis is uttered by Joseph when his brothers learn that the one they treated so horrifically bad is the one who has saved him.  They expect retribution and instead Joseph says, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”

So, in the midst of a terrible famine, Joseph (and the Pharaoh he served) welcomed his father and brothers and their wives and children and servants to Egypt and to salvation from starvation.  And all of them – 70 souls in total – were welcomed as honored guests.

But things change over time.  Eventually Joseph died and so did the Pharaoh for whom he had worked.  And as generations passed the leadership of Egypt passed to a Pharaoh who had no memory of Joseph.  All he knew was this horde of despicable shepherds who lived on the wrong side of the tracks (out in Goshen).  These Hebrews bred like rabbits and while the Egyptians were delighted to take advantage of them and use them as forced labor for their public-works projects and over time eventually abuse them and dominate them so that eventually they were nothing more than slaves.  

But even though they were enslaved, still they had more and more and more children.  Pharaoh – being a shrewd man – worried that this horde could become unmanageable.  He worried that some foreign enemy might conspire with the Hebrews and there would be an uprising with devastating consequences for political and social stability in his realm.  So, a plan was devised – kill all the male children.  This act of savagery would demoralize the people and it over time reduce the potential for armed rebellion and there would still be young women to work as slaves.  

It’s an obviously cruel plan – a genocidal plan, to be honest.  But Pharaoh was undoubtedly a ruthless man with little concern for niceties like morality, respect and justice.  And of course, like all despots, Pharaoh would need the cooperation of “smaller people” to implement this plan.  This is, of course, the way it always is with ruthless and murderous leaders.  They rarely dirty their own hands with their immoral plans, they call on those who adore them to blindly follow orders and do the necessary evil.  In Pharaoh’s case, he decided to implement his plan through the midwives who attended to Hebrew women in the final days of their pregnancies – through Shiphrah and Puah.  

But Pharaoh didn’t count on one important thing – that there might be folk in his realm who answered to a higher authority than to the leader of the country.   It turns out that Shiphrah and Puah were not willing to disobey God in order to obey the Pharaoh.  When called to account, they invented a laughable little story – the Hebrew women aren’t wimps like your women, Pharaoh.  By time we get to the pregnant women, they are already nursing their little ones – boys or girls.  

Here in the first chapter of the second book of the Bible we encounter one of the most repeated themes of the Bible – that God loves and looks out for the powerless and that those with power are called to care for and protect those who will otherwise be used and abused.  

A few months from now we’ll encounter a story from the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry where he announces that the core of his ministry of salvation is the offer of relief to those who are sick, who are blind, who are imprisoned, who are lame, who are poor.  It is probably the central statement of what Jesus is all about – about offering life to those who suffer – those who suffer at the hand of disease and disaster AND those who suffer at the hand of the powerful.  

There is a foolishness that circulates among church people in our country – a foolishness which suggests that there are things the church ought keep silent about – things like money and social issues and politics.  I understand how controversial these things are, but the idea that the church should shy away from them in essence neuters God and relegates God to the sidelines of that which we know are really the important questions of life – questions of wealth and power – questions of social justice and moral values. 

When we began this series on the “Big Stories of the Bible” we began with creation.  Which begs an uncomfortable question:  How much of the universe did God actually create?  Did God only create the parts of the universe that are nice and not very controversial?  Does God have opinions about money and power and the ways people use and abuse other people?  It’s pretty clear that God created every single aspect of the universe – every single aspect of human endeavor – and that when the church closes its eyes to certain aspects of common life, we betray our unwillingness to follow God into the really important questions of life.  It is clear that God has strong feelings about the use of wealth and about social justice and how the powerful either empower the weak, or else keep them powerless and unhealthy and enslaved.  If God has strong feelings about these matters, then so must the church and so must we.

Shiphrah and Puah are first in a long line of Biblical characters who challenge us to consider our own response to the orders of those in power over us.  Do we answer first of all to them, or to God?  When justice and fair-play and kindness and respect are diminished, are we willing to say, “In the name of God, we disagree – we dissent.”  At personal risk, Shiphrah and Puah did precisely that – they said to Pharaoh, “We cannot, and we will not obey you.”  

Centuries later the Old Testament prophets hammered the people of Israel for their fawning over and trust in wealth and power rather than in the gracious God of oddly-construed power and of love and of seeming weakness.  Centuries after the prophets, the apostle Peter stood before the religious and political authorities of his day and in the face of their demand that Peter and his colleagues be silent, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

For generation after generation over the centuries this same question has remained:  Will we – like Shiphrah and Puah – be radical in following and obeying God – even at personal risk?  By God’s grace, that is exactly what we will do.  

God help us.  Amen.

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