Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Offending Eyes

Offending Eyes
A Sermon Preached at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady
September 27, 2009 by Dr. Bill Levering

Mark 9

42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

God made you with only one mouth and two big ears, so if you don't listen to me for the next few minutes, your, your, your eyebrows will fall off. This is important because I am going to talk about the colorful, even offensive sayings of Jesus.

When we hear the parables of Jesus we are at a disadvantage because the context is so alien. We are not in a primitive agrarian society that speaks an unusual collection of Greek, Aramaic and a little Hebrew.

Ancient Language was Colorful

More importantly, in a litigious and rational world we have lost touch with prophetic bombast or consider it insane. Strong imagery is left for the political fringe and the religious crazies. Before numbers were the measure of all things, however, people regularly said things like "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" without a disclaimer that they were being symbolic.

The primordial storyteller, Homer, declared that heroes were “speakers of words and doers of deeds” (Il. 9.443). John Marincola writes that "Classical societies were dominated by the spoken word: facility and accomplishment in speaking were, after military achievement, the greatest glories one could win."

Today we measure smarts with numbers: how much people make or what they produce. Then the measure was with words, their quality and effectiveness. And effectiveness often meant a memorable turn of phrase that was as difficult to forget as a iron rod sticking out of your neck.

Jesus and the Family Guy

In the ancient world, speakers couldn't rely on reinforcement from a dozen commercials a day or even the written word. If you wanted to make a pithy point that would be remembered without a transcript or a YouTube video, you would craft a saying that would be remembered clearly. This is why some Old Testement proverbs are so icky. "Like a dog that returns to its vomit Is a fool who repeats his folly.
" Do we have to say things like that in church?

This way of talking is preserved to some extent by comedians. Al Franken's book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot" uses a kind of bombast that is so surprising it is either hilarious or offending. For the older crowd, remember how Don Rickles insulted people? Sometimes it wasn't so funny, but it was usually memorable. Right, you hockey pucks?

Today's version of pushing the extremes is often found on the cartoon show The Family Guy. Peter Griffen, the family guy, is a completely obnoxious husband and father. The show is known for hitting us over the head with a joke over and over and over and over and over . . . . and over . . . . and over . . .. . . .. and . . . . over . . . again until it's sort of funny somehow.

Outside of comedy, we just aren't used to harsh imagery. Strong language is not used much by preachers today, with the possible exception of Jeremiah Wright. We are mostly in the business of making you all feel better about yourselves so you won't slaughter each other in frustration.

But let's pretend that we took normally inoffensive sayings and made them more striking like an ancient might have. Here is how we might jazz up innocuous modern aphorisms:

  • If the shoe fits wear it, but if it doesn't cut off your foot.
  • A fool and his money are soon parted like a thanksgiving turkey from its head.
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor locked in a Iranian prison.
  • When in doubt throw it out into the place of utter darkness and gnashing of teeth.
  • Drink eight glasses of water a day or you will develop pancreatic cancer.
  • A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down into your seething acidic gut.
  • Many hands make light work. Doing it by yourself will kill you like a giant tapeworm.
  • Fool me once, shame on you fool me twice, kick me in the head.

This is kind of fun. Maybe Jesus was right. Perhaps we need strong language to break through our complacency.

The problem is, we have such refined sensitivities now, we throw the baby out with the scalding bathwater and don't even try to figure out what Jesus is going for. We need to dial down our reactions to find the meaning. What does this passage say after we are finished being ruffled?

Abandon hurtful things.

This passage is translated in many ways. The old King James translates, 'causes to stumble' as offends. You may remember this passage as "If your eye offends you . . . " The NIV, another popular version translates this "If you eye causes you to sin . . ."

The fact is that there are problematic things in our lives that are all about us that we don't do anything about. Jesus is all about taking care of the log in your own eye and controlling what you can control. Let's put this in more concrete terms.

  • If you eat popcorn everyday and your love of popcorn has lost you loved ones and life in general, never touch popcorn again!
  • If your car is a hazard to life, your own included, take the car to a cliff and push it off. It's better to walk that do die in a fiery crash.
  • If your life has been destroyed by alcohol, don't go near it. Pour it all out. Don't even try a little bit.
  • If being around Democrats causes you to sin, do not talk to Democrats. Move to Alaska.

All this may sound quite simple, but in practice people often do things that are consistently harmful to them. Like smoking. Or eating crispy duck. I love the Chinese dish called crispy duck. Every time I have eaten crispy duck, the high fat content has given me an upset stomach. Every time. Every time. Every time. Every . . . . time. And every time I imagine that this time will be different. This time I won't eat so much of it, or I'll get a different sauce, or I'll have club soda and bitters with it. (sings a la Peter Paul and Mary) When will I ever learn? When will I ever learn?

God is interested in our complete joy.

Discerning the crispy ducks in our lives is not always easy. We rationalize so well. And after all, there is some limited joy in crispy duck. Smoking cigarettes is sometimes a pleasurable experience. Alcohol and drugs do give short term pleasure. But God is not interested in the short term. God is interested in us having the best life possible. Not a halfway thing. Not pretty good. Not purgatory or a McDonald's happy meal, but a banquet, a bounty, an overflowing fountain, something like, well, . . . heaven. If something, ANYTHING, is getting in the way of that, get rid of it.

Some of our halfway joys have become too easy for us. We have harmful habits that seem almost to be a part of us. "You want me to stop smoking? That would be like cutting off an arm." Exactly.

"You want me to forgive him? That is not who I am. You are taking away a part of me." Yes.

You can fly little butterfly, but the cocoon has got to go.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Telling Women What to Do

Telling Women What to Do
A sermon by Dr. Bill Levering

Preached at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, September 20, 2009

It's a popular enterprise for religious types to tell women what to do.

It's popular in the Bible. Big sections of Levitius tell women what to do in terms of rules for their behavior. In something like schoolyard ethics, women are proclaimed unclean, essentially that they have cooties for a week every month. Imagine a quarter of women's adult life as untouchable, that is unclean. More telling, if a woman had a male child, she was unclean for a month. If she has a girl baby, two months.

Paul loves to tell women what to do in the New Testament. Keep quiet, don't teach, keep your heads covered, be obedient to husbands.

Religions still tell women what to do, usually in the form of what they can't do. Almost every major religion has a part of it that excludes women from leadership. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and the conservative branch of the Presbyterian church still do not honor the gift of women's leadership. These are usually the groups that are also opposed to having women make decisions of any kind for themselves, domestic, political, or health related.

But it's not just wacky religous types that tell women what to do. In our culture, advertising spends much more time and money targeting women. We tell women how to look, what to wear.

This is never more apparent than at weddings. The list of things that a bride has to worry about is enormous. Something borrowed, something blue, bouquets, veils, trains, makeup, hairdo. The man? He just needs to remember to brush his teeth. Tuxes don't even use cufflinks anymore.

Last year, American women spent 8 billion dollars on cosmetics to keep up with the beauty standards set for them by the advertising industry.

Let's not forget that women only got to vote one lifetime ago and that the abortion wars are all about controlling what is going on in women's bodies. It is not coincidence that the loudest voices in the anti-abortion movement are men's.

But it is not just American culture. If fact, it is worse around the world.
A March 2009 report from the British medical journal The Lancet reports that over 100,000 women died in fires in India in a single year, many of them from domestic abuse. The Lancet reports that many of the 100,000 women who died in fires in India in a single year were actually killed in domestic abuse. Hundreds of women are murdered by fire when recent husbands don't get the dowry they expected. Dozens are forced to throw themselves on their husbands pyres. Still. Today. In India, women only own 1% of real property of any type.

Around the world, women are under-represented in democracies, including ours. They are, in many ways, the oppressed majority.

Telling women what to do is a popular enterprise in health care as well.

  • Only 14 states require maternity coverage. Anthem Blue Cross along with many other insurers has been fighting health care reform. They want to treat pregnancy as an optional condition, therefore uncovered as it is now in many plans.
  • The vast majority of states allow insurance companies to charge women more than men, even though they statistically make 75 cents on the dollar
  • In 8 states if your husband beats you regularly and you go to the emergency room you will not be covered because an abused spouse qualifies as a pre-existing condition.

We have been controlling women significantly more than men. But is that a bad thing? Sometimes we should tell different groups of people differing things. Whether they are insurance companies or women or north Koreans, sometimes different conditions engender differing rules.

The prophets were very bossy, but almost always to rulers and the powerful. Jesus was a little bossy on occasion, usually to individuals and to the powerful. "Woe to you, scribes and pharisees" was something Jesus apparently like to shout. When men brought Jesus a woman who they said sinned, he yelled at them first. Jesus shows us a prejudice for the poor, for the downtrodden, for the persecuted. Who are these people? Statistically, women.

So who are the powerful in the world? Who are the arrogant? Who make war? Isn't it obvious? Men.

If we as religious people are interested in telling people what to do, if we are to speak truth to power, we should be actually telling men to bring justice for women.

It is the voices of women we should listen for in the issues of our day, not the voices of power that are usually male. But in fact, men usually do not listen to women. The communication scientist Deborah Tannen documents what we can find out in listening to any conversation between genders: men interrupt women much more than the other way around.

Jesus introduced an understanding that reverses the power structures of the world, but it will take some getting used to. As civilisation has progressed, it may occur to us that just because men are bigger, they shouldn't boss women around all the time.

What does it mean to listen to women's needs rather than dictating their servitude? This means actively working for equal pay for equal work, this means taking child care seriously as a culture, this means letting women make decisions about their own health. This means removing all barriers to leadership and advancement.

In Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free. When shall we believe this?

Wounding Words, Healing Words

Wounding Words, Healing Words
Sermon preached by Dr. Bill Levering September 13, 2009
First Reformed Church, Schenectady, NY

James 3:8-10

No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

Words by Elaine M. Isaacson

The words for a poem
The words we use every day
We grasp for words
Words caught in our throat
Words uttered that should not
But have been spoken
Words thought of too late
Our lives are made up of words
Words that wound
Words that heal
Words we can never take back
Words we should have said
Never enough words of praise
Often too many words of pain
Of suffering

Sermon by Bill Levering

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." has always been false bravado, since most people clearly remember insults and teasing from their youth but would be hard pressed to remember skinned knees.

This week tasteless personal insults reached a new low when a Congressman shouted at the President of the United States. Unthinking verbal attack has been around as long as we have had speech, I imagine. It was certainly present in Biblical times. The epistles are full of warnings about slander and gossip. The passage from James asserts that is is almost impossible to control the tongue (without God's help, we assume).

Today I would like to talk about the rotten things we say to each other and what God has to say. After a painstaking review of the discourse of my life and after consulting several experts in playground talk, I have come up five definitive categories of rotten things we say to each other. They are Get Lost, Shut Up, You're Worthless, I Hate You, and Die.

While I know at this moment you are scanning your favorite put-downs to see how they fit, I am going to plunge forward anyway.

1. Get lost!

At some point in our life, somebody didn't want us around. We annoyed them or challenged them or simply were in the wrong place. People said, "Go away." "Beat it." "Take a hike." "Vamoose." "Scram." "Make like a tree and leaf." "Don't go away mad, just go away."

But God says to us: "Come to me, and I will give you rest." Isaiah tells of a God who calls to us and says "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you;"

Even when we feel unworthy of sticking around with the cool people, God welcomes us. Jesus tells of the prodigal son who returns and says to the father, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' "But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe, and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate; for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again.

When people tell you to get lost, God calls "Come to me!"

2. Shut up!

My father just hated this phrase. I'm not sure why. He would say, "I'll be quiet, but I won't shut up." We have heard many versions: "Keep your mouth shut. "Pipe down." "Shut your pie hole." " Put a lid on it." "Why don't you just be quiet?" As Archie Bunker on that old sitcom said, "Edith! Stifle yourself!"

This is different from "Get Lost." Sometimes people want to keep you around just to use and abuse. "I am more important than you are," these folks are saying. "And I want to keep you around to remind myself of that." It may be that our ideas confuse others at times. But when societies stifle the press or alternative opinions, you know things are bad.

God's response is again the opposite. When people in economic bondage in Egypt complained bitterly, God said, "I have heard the cry of my people." Later when the land was conquered and the people scattered; when the sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept, God said, " I have heard the cry of the afflicted." When Jesus tried to get people to understand how their concerns were heard by God, he said, "Ask, and it shall be given."

When people tell you to shut up, God says, "I am listening."

3. You're worthless!

Although you may not hear this in so many words, it is the basis for most insults. You're worthless because you are stupid or ugly or too tall or short or bald or fat or thin or messy or too sexy or too hairy or too insensitive or too bald or pimply or simple or complicated or bald or uneducated or too loud or disabled or weak or smelly or black or awkward or weird or pushy or self-centered or needy or mean or a Yankees fan or blond or Jewish or redneck or bald or whatever.

Although in debate class they taught us that attacking the character of the speaker was never the way to argue, ad hominem rhetoric is the dominant form of political discourse today. We disagree with each other like we were in a courtroom or a playground. What happened to the idea that two people of good character can disagree about the means to mutually shared goals?

The first chapter of Genesis makes it clear that we were created in the image of God. We are created holy. In the passage today, James points out how our abusive speech makes no sense: "We curse those who are made in the likeness of God."

The parables of Jesus are full of stories of our value. We are the pearl of great price God makes a great sacrifice for. We are the one sheep the shepherd leaves the others to search for. We are the treasure in a field. We have been created holy! Each of us. It is means and false to suggest otherwise with our insults.

When people tell you you are worthless, remember that God says you are holy.

4. I hate you.

Sometimes people's feelings about us, reported with meanness, can be weapons. " I don't love you anymore." "You disgust me." "You make me sick." Even a six year old screaming at her mother "IhateyouIhateyouIhateyou!" gets some emotional traction. We all want to be loved. When it doesn't happen, it's bad enough, but to have it shoved into our ears is a formidable assault.

The most famous verse in the New Testament talks about the feelings God has for us. "For God so loved the world . . ." And at this point, we also talk about not only how God feels about us, but about how we feel towards each other. The mark of our community is the connection we have with each other: As John says " By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

When someone says, I hate you, know that the truly important force in the universe feels differently.

5. Die

"Die sucker." "I hope you rot in hell." Last month on the Internet, we were treated to a YouTube video featuring
Arizona pastor Steve Anderson who was praying for President Obama to rot in hell. When facing criticism about this last week, he stepped up his rhetoric praying that God "strikes Obama with brain cancer so he can die like Ted Kennedy.’

Our words can belittle and diminish each other and this is not God's intent for us or for how we should treat each other. Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life and have it to the full." Jeremiah writes " For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

This may sound too simplistic, but God does not want us to die. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live."

Our Choice

So. The people will, in various ways, tell us things about who we are and what they wish for us that may not be in our best interests. Here our basic choice: Who are you going to listen to?

After Jesus had spoken some fairly strking things, he asked the disciples if they were still with him. Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." Our faith may not always be easy or simple, but it is a faith in a God who is rooting for us at every turn. Always remember what God tells us: "Come to me. I am listening to you. You are holy and I love you. I want you with me always."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hymn - Lord Help Us Love You More

Lord Help Us Love You More
(2008) Bill Levering
to Festal Song (Rise Up O Men of God)

Lord help us love you more
with heart and mind and soul.
We offer up our patchwork life,
and long to serve you whole.

Lord help us love you more
with all that is our mind.
With logic, sense, and lofty thought
we seek to be refined.

Lord help us love you more.
Our hearts are rich and bright
with feelings, dreams, and longings pure.
Use all to spread your light.

Lord help us love you more;
Our souls are from your grace.
All souls seek oneness with your love.
Help us to know your face.

Help us to know ourselves
that we might love all true.
Help us to care for your good world
to show our love for you.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

“Humility and Economics” - A Sermon by Bill Levering

September 28, 2008 - First Reformed Church of Schenectady

There are moments of crisis in the affairs of countries that transcend partisan politics and challenge the broad moral and political trends that produced the crisis. We are living in one of those moments.

It is a moment filled with passion and fear. Political philosophies and personal pensions are at risk. The frailty of an unchecked economic system run completely by the invisible hand of the market has been shown to be ultimately unhealthy for our country.

The history of deregulation in America.

The giddy deregulation of the airlines in 1978 by the Carter administration made us imagine that the market itself was a moral force for efficiency and goodness. This idea was greatly championed by the Reagan administration who relaxed the Depression-era laws that kept financial players in separate corners. You will remember this is when insurance companies became bankers became stockbrokers. Then Clinton, pressured by Alan Greenspan and others, did away with the law altogether with the result that the mortgage crisis now involves most every financial player, instead of a manageable subset of the financial sector. More recently, George Bush has overseen the gutting of all kinds of governmental oversight, from the EPA to the SEC. As a nation we all began to believe in bigger and bigger business and smaller and smaller government.

All this was based on the growing suspicion that greed had been removed from the list of deadly sins. Greed, in fact, became the norm for life in America. Even the innocuous and unquestioned greed institutionalized in home ownership became a part of our expectation of life. Possession is nine tenths of the law and the possession of a home is 100% of our understanding of success in America. This slip into destructive, self serving economics was not the first time this happened to a country. Listen to the voice of a political leader from the past.

"Faced by the failure of credit (the money changers) have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."

- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, 1933

Greed is selfish and destructive to economies.

Dictionaries define greed as "an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves." As much as we might imagine otherwise, no one in this rooms needs anything more than they have right now. No one here will ever be forced to starve to death or be without a dry place to sleep or live without clothing. The absolute worst case scenario for most anyone hearing these words is a diet of mostly carbohydrates, cramped quarters, and limited travel. Could you live on a diet of rice and beans in a small room without a car? For some the answer is, of course, that's the way I live now.

So we don't need anything more. Do we deserve anything more? Because we are smarter or taller or prettier or have access to more resources or even if we work harder, do we deserve more stuff? This is the basic question that Wall Street has answered one way and Jesus answers another. Jesus begins his understanding of moral engagement with 'love your neighbor as yourself," but he ends his life with an even more radical ethic of sacrifice for the other. Paul understands this shift and articulates it painfully clearly in the passage this morning from Philippians.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Phil 2:3-4 (NRSV)

Greed is predicated on the idea that one individual is better than another so they can horde resources beyond their wildest needs. Greed is bad because it presumes the exact opposite of the gospel of humility. It says "Do everything with ambition and think of yourself as better than those around you. Look to your own interest first and if you have anything left over, take care of your family."

Greed is bad in its communal expression because it leads to unhealthy piles of capital and control. Piles of money corrupt and big piles of money corrupt in a big way. Even though disproved and in the face of the current crisis, people forget that the concept of trickledown economics was a failure. Large consolidation of resources leads only to banking arrogance, gouging monopolies, and an over-emphasis of the profit motive. As Francis Bacon wrote centuries ago, “Above all things, good policy is to be used that the treasure and monies in a state not be gathered into a few hands.” We believe in political democracy, but have lately practiced a kind of economic oligarchy.

Instead, we should collectively be putting our money where our altruistic mouth is. "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others." Sometimes this is easy. When I sell my car to my daughter, I am looking out for her interests. I may not make as much as I could. I may fix the transmission before I sell it to her. I may actually lose money on the deal, but it will make me happy to know she is safe. We all understand this. Translating these familial feelings to the world at large is the task of our faith.

Translating these feelings and principles of faith to the public arena calls for great courage to stand up to the bully of greed. Being humble is not necessarily being quiet.

It is time to understand greed in our lives and in our politics. It is time to again affirm the role of government in protecting the assets of nature and of the working class by ensuring that they are not consumed for the greed of a few. Freedom is certainly a foundational value of our country, but when a small percentage of people make others less free through economic injustice, it is not only against the principles of our faith; it is an act against the common good. I am not interested in a grey world of a totalitarian government. But a world of unbridled self-interest, however enlightened, will kill us all.

What this means to individuals.

For individuals, this has political, corporate, and personal implications. It means that we can no longer afford to be cowed by the charge that we are in favor of big government because we favor equitable economics. Being humble is not necessarily being quiet. Support politicians who understand our common good and not a common greed. Ask not what the economic system can do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom and dignity of all.

As individual stockholders, we need to look at our voting rights and consider the decisions of corporations as embodying values beyond profit. Corporations legally are merely groups of people treated as one entity. They are not honor bound to profit at all costs. We are now offended by employment terms of corporation executives, but where was that indignation when the annual meeting came around? Did we assume the market simply dictated such practices? The lesson of this year is that the market is an immoral force. We need to rethink how to value people economically and say things like no salary will be more than 10 times the wage of the lowest paid worker.

For individuals, it means understanding our own private capital differently. D.H. Lawrence once wrote a poem that begins "Money is our madness, our vast collective madness. And of course, if the multitude is mad, the individual carries his own grain of insanity around with him." We carry this insanity when we risk our current relationships for future comfort. We carry this insanity of greed when we, like Imelda Marcos buy items of a passing style or, like Howard Hughes, pursue paranoid personal safety over the needs of people who are starving or sick.

The humility Jesus shows us has all kinds of subtle implications for personal relationship, decision making, and our way of life, but in its most blatant application, we give the best cut of the pie to someone else. It's not that we are slime, but that others are a part of God, and things just work better when people treat each other with such kindness.

The fruit of this humility is not grumbling resentment, but a freedom from the oppression of things, freedom from the race of more, and freedom from the hollow triumph of self. The book of Philippians is all about the joy Christ brings to all people. Each section is about how the joy Christ brings is for each of us. Joy comes in the connections of the spirit and the celebrations of what is true. Let us conspire for joy in our society. “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking (God’s) blessing and help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.” (JFK inaugural)

1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Phil 2:1-4 (NRSV)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Retooling for Peace

"Retooling for Peace"

Sermon Preached December 2, 2007 at First Reformed Church

The first Sunday of Advent, a Communion Sunday

By Bill Levering

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning
Judah and Jerusalem . In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Mathew 24: 36-44

"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Old Testament prophets are not fortune tellers. They do not read tea leaves. Prophets are folks who make take high principles and translate them into particular practical situations. Sometimes they tell people about the logical consequences of their bad behavior. Doing what we are doing now will end in big trouble. This is the Al Gore model of prophesy. Sometimes prophets tell folks how the particularity of God will play out. They will extrapolate divine trends and tell how we can get on board the gospel train.

The prophesies that we read in Advent talk about the coming day of the Lord or the kingdom of God or the coming person who will make everything right. These are insights of spiritual people about the nature of the divine and the application of that to the future. When a great leader was needed by the people, the prophets saw that God provided one. By extension, they understood that the ultimate needs of the people would be met by an ultimate leader, a Prince of Peace.

For the next two weeks we will be considering Biblical images of God's presence in the future that concern a peaceful condition.

Like the civil war general, Sherman, the prophets figured out that war was hell. Peace, by opposition, was heaven and God must be very interested in the latter.

You might imagine that the vision of peace that Isaiah provides is an impractical and overly romantic image with no practical application. Upon inspection, however, this powerful set of verses, repeated by Micah, shows a clear understanding of how peace arrives. As we move through the bible passage, we find a clear progression of particulars on peace. It involves education, mediation, and transformation.


Nations will come to the holy mountain to be taught, out of Zion shall go instruction. Before problems change, ideas change. The importance of the right kind of education is reinforced in the final verse of the passage in terms of what will NOT be taught anymore. "We ain't gunna study war no more."

Since the prophets showed the practical sides of principles, we should also consider how this would come about. How can nations learn peace? Well, for example, the Ford Foundation brings together young politicians from America and in South Africa to talk together about the challenges and solutions of political pressures on principles. Together they form support networks that strengthen the resolve of peace in the face of the pressure to war.

In the wars in our hearts and in our homes, we may also have to consider that some education may be necessary. For example, we may not have learned how to simply be nice to people. We may need to learn how to be considerate of others in a culture that is trying to teach us greed at every turn. We may need to learn about Islam, or we may need to learn Spanish to live in peace with our neighbors.


After education begins, but before peace arrives, the Old Testament passage says a forum for judgment and mediation is necessary. This is no saccharin notion of human relations without conflict, but the hard nosed idea that there will always be differences of priorities and ideas. We cannot have peace without a way of dealing with conflict other than war. This often involves a legal system or the mediation of third parties.

In international affairs, this suggests more attention to the world court and to the United Nations and to our government's greater respect for their authority.

In domestic affairs, we need to realize that even in the final days, human relations can be helped by an arbiter, a referee; a trusted third party that assists all kinds of relationships to stay connected. Even in the final times of peace, it appears, there will be marriage counselors. Going to get help in times of conflict turns out not to be a sign of defeat or even of a problem, but the way things are supposed to be handled.


Finally, and most interestingly to me is the business of the transformation of resources. Swords are retooled into plows and swords into clippers. There is a great economy in God's plans and this is another example. The tools of war are not thrown into the fire, but transformed into tools of growth and nourishment.

For individuals, the tools of violence are mostly words. This means not that we stop talking, but that we learn how to say things that support people.

For nations, we may need help in forming new directions. Our nation has a vibrant economy and there are many who quietly think that war is required for this vigor. Since 1960, through Democrats and Republican administrations, we have spent about 50% of our discretionary governmental income on the military. We need new ideas about new kinds of pruning hooks, new ways of reusing the resources we have already taken from the earth. Politically, this has always been phrased as decisions about guns or butter. There must be something else besides butter that we need that isn't a gun.

These concepts of education, mediation and transformation for peace reach their fruition in Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches in his parables and in his very life the way of non violence. Jesus becomes the ultimate mediator, dealing with the conflicts between our humanity and the divine. Jesus becomes the final image of the transformation, turning even death into life.

Jesus also makes it clear that our need to attend to these things is not some low priority, either. In the Matthew passage for today and many others, Jesus tries to motivate us to take life seriously with images of the end times. Don't wait for God to fix everything in some distant future. Sign up for classes tomorrow, make an appointment of counseling today, write your congressman when you get home from church. You never know, Jesus says, you never know. Take time to do the important things now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

God Help Us

God Help Us

A Sermon Preached by Bill Levering

at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady

on September 23, 2007

(sung) Our God our help in ages past; our hope for years to come.

Many of the slogans and catch phrases that crystallize Christianity are set to music, much like the idea of 'amazing grace' that we looked at last week. This week, we will look at the phrase, often spoken as a prayer, sometimes as exasperation. “God help us!”

Many, if not most of the Christians that I run into have a notion of how God operates in the world that is very immediate. Christians commonly think of God as assisting them mechanically in their daily needs. That God would see to it that a parking space was available to them when they needed it.

I must admit that this idea bothers me a bit. I want to give you fair warning however. If you are offended by the idea that God may not be in the business of insuring our individual prosperity, you may wish to leave now, before the offering.

God is not the tool of our selfishness.

Prayer or faith or favor does not mean that you are going to get treated any differently by the conditions of the world. Jesus noted that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

I admit that sometimes it appears otherwise.

The second lesson today from I Chronicles was a little slice from a genealogy that got a little attention five or six years ago. Bruce Wlikinson published a book called The Prayer of Jabez. It was a big thing. The contextual problem is that in this long list of names, only Jabez gets singled out for getting what he wants. Were these other folks not praying enough or in the right way? It was optimistic for the biblical writer to assume it was because of prayer. God's purposes are not under our control. Yet, this passage has become a focus for praying for prosperity.

Wilkinson’s book The Prayer of Jabez sold 8 million copies in 2001 alone. That’s a lot of books! A piece on the jacket promised it would "help you discover how the remarkable prayer of a little-known Bible hero can release God's favor, power and protection."

There was also a wide array of official "Prayer of Jabez" merchandise including key chains, mugs, backpacks, Christmas ornaments, scented candles, mouse pads, jewelry, and a framed artist's conception of Jabez himself. This may very well have turned out to be a story of prosperity, because at a minimum the story of Jabez was very financially helpful to Bruce Wilkinson. I must disagree with this idea that believing in Jesus will make us money. It is simply not how Jesus talks about things at all.

God does not and should not help us be selfish as individuals or as nations.

Listen to part of the "War Prayer," by Mark Twain, published after his death. "O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire. . . blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!"

We need help all right. We need the help of humility. We need new habits of the heart. We are stubborn children stamping our feet for more candy.

The prophet Ezekiel understands what we need when he hears God say, "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh."-

How can God help us? In general, God speaks to our hearts.

God is the helper of the heart.

Of course, I am not here to limit God. By definition God is omnipotent and can do whatever God wishes. But as I look at the New Testament, the words of Jesus and the experience of people who call upon God, I see that as a spiritual principle, God is the helper of our hearts, not the aid to our ambitions.

The standards and patterns of life that people who consider the nature of the divine figure out help us by establishing values that lift us out of the small orbits of our own whims.

The revelation of God in scripture comes to the community of faith. We become the body of Christ. God helps our heart by showing us that we are not alone. The presence of God in the world as Jesus is the highest sign and signal of God’s presence with us in all of our struggles.

God’s presence also comes to us in community by people gathering to discern what is holy or simply best. Especially in the reformed tradition, we gather together as workers with God to understand the working of the Spirit, to share discernment of what is right.

We are also helped by God in the very knowledge that we are not in charge of the world. As simple as it seems, to know that we are not God means that we don’t have to manage the world. We are not in charge. Our prayers do not regulate the flow of sunshine and rain. There is another power in charge of the nature of things. Relax. You are not in charge of the world.

God may not arrange parking spaces for us, but God stands with us as we search for them, as we cope with not finding them, as we celebrate getting one.

God helps by showing us hope.

Jabez was the name chosen for that baby because in Hebrew, the word sounds like pain. The prayer of Jabez is the prayer cried by his mother in pain. And we cry "When will there be an end to pain?" The answer is the miracle of Jabez, the miracle of birth out of the despair of relentless pain. It is not that Jabez made a bunch of money, but that out of excruciating pain came life.

We can also pray for help in the midst of pain.

  • In the midst of mourning, we can pray for the healing of our hearts.
  • In the midst of pointless and counterproductive warring, we can help each other remember the ways of peace and humility.
  • In the midst of the politics of personality in our state, we can understand that God gives us the heart to care for each other.
  • In the midst of more jails and less justice, more guns and less grace, we can call on God to help us remember that there is a kingdom of heaven within us, waiting to be born.
  • In the midst of a Christianity determined to judge and exclude and use the name of God to justify classism and corruption, we can call upon the name of God that transcends our pettiness.

We can lift our eyes to behold a presence that is greater than our selfish mechanisms. A presence that is beyond life and death, powers and principalities, beyond things now present and things to come.

The help we need most is a noble hope. This is the gift of God.

(sung) Our God our help in ages past our hope for years to come.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Justifying Ourselves

Justifying Ourselves

by Bill Levering July 15, 2007

You have heard dozens of sermons about the parable of the Good Samaritan. There are laws named after it. Its message is universal. But today, I want to look at the frame of the story, what is going on around it. There is another drama being played out here. The story that Jesus tells is within an exchange between himself and a lawyer. It occurs at an open Q and A that can be more exciting than any lecture. It was the rabbinic dispositional way of teaching. We get at the truth by investigating it, by asking questions, however cheeky. It was and is the Socratic method of teaching used by teachers and givers of children’s sermons throughout the world.

As any political reporter will tell you, the press conference question and answer period is the most exciting time. The reporter gets to ask questions that the speaker may not be ready for. The reporter can ask questions based on his or her assumptions rather than accepting what the speaker is presenting. A few months ago I was speaking at the Kiwanis club across the street and I decided not to give a presentation at all, but to move right to questions and answers. Folks didn’t seem to mind at all.

We love the children’s sermon because it so often involves asking children questions that may elicit cute responses. How many of you were the good students who were always waving their hand begging for endorsement. If you know the answer, the desire to be called on can be overwhelming. If you know the answer, it is your chance to be correct, to be smart, to be successful. Ooo, ooo, I know, I know! In the rabbinic and Socratic tradition, however, a good question is better than a good answer. Ooo, Ooo, I’ve got a great question!

The lawyer who asks Jesus questions in the gospel lesson today has some great questions. He begins with a stock question about Jesus’ main platform. What do I have to DO to win what God has for me? Jesus asks him a question back about what a religious lawyer would know best: Jewish law. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer’s answer is great. Right to the point, and often used even in our worship services as the summation of the law and the prophets. “Correct Johnny!” Jesus says.

And then the lawyer pushes Jesus a bit. Luke apparently thinks he was trying to be a smart-alek, because he says “but wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

It’s a great question. To whom does Jewish law apply? Just to Jews? What are the lines of our justice? Do we have to treat prisoners in our custody as if they had basic human rights? Are Palestinians due equal treatment? Do we have to give illegal aliens food stamps? If the person who hits me is a criminal, do I have to turn my other cheek? If my sheep is stolen by a Samaritan, whose law applies, his or mine? When someone declares that another nation is my enemy, are those people no longer my neighbors? “Who is my neighbor?” is a great question that may have more applications today than it did then.

But . . . Luke didn’t like the questioner’s motivations. Something else is going on. Luke sees a man using questions the wrong way. Luke calls into question the questioner. Now this is a good looking bright group of people. We are used to asking insightful questions as well. What would Luke’s comments be about our questions of God?

What do we have to DO?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Do I have to believe in Jesus?

Where is a good parking spot?

Isn’t the bible irrelevant to modern life?

What do we have to DO?

How can I get my life back on track?

Aren’t all churches and denominations mere cultural artifacts?

What do I have to DO?

What questions do we have of God and what is our motivation for asking them? More importantly, what question would God as of us in return?

The question that Jesus asks the lawyer about the Good Samaritan does not have a clear answer. It is a Zen koan like what is the sound of one hand clapping. Only if you presume that neighbors are nice people, can the lawyer answer that the man from Samaria was the neighbor. Anyone who is kind is my neighbor and anyone who isn’t is outside the law?? The logic of this whole dialog does not hold up. But the story is not about logic and it is about more than the breaking of moral boundaries.

We approach God with the important questions of our life, as we should. The story in its largest context should cause us to look at our motivations in the interrogations we have of the divine. What tortuous strictures do we use to tie God down so that we can get an answer that makes us feel good? Why are our questions all about us?

Isn’t there a better question than “What do I have to DO to get to heaven?”

More importantly, God has a set of great questions for you. I wonder what they are? Here are most of the questions Jesus asks people in the New Testament. See if any of them fit.

What is your name?

Who are you looking for?

What is written in the law?

Do you see anything?

Who do people say that I am?

Who do you say that I am?

Do you love me?

What do you want me to do for you?

Whose likeness is one this coin?

Why do you bother her?

Why do you call me good?

Do you love me?

Why are you so afraid?

Why do you weep?

How many loaves do you have?

Which one is the neighbor?

Couldn’t you stay awake?

Why don’t you understand?

Do you love me?

You will always have many questions for God. More importantly, what question does God have for you?

Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Blessing in the Active Voice

Matthew 5: 1- 12

Luke 6: 17 - 26

Luke 6:17-26

6:17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

Blessings in the Active Voice

Jesus must have been a great preacher. The gospel writers remember his style and content quite clearly. They remember the settings of his sermons: preached from a boat, on a mountain, on the plain. Like any good speaker, Jesus apparently repeats some of his best material. I imagine the disciples may have even rolled their eyes a bit at hearing some of the same things over and over again. But they remembered. The passage from Luke we just read is the beginning of what is called the Sermon on The Plain. Matthew records what is called the Sermon on the Mount and it begins with some of the same elements. What we call the beatitudes. They are like the passage from Luke we just heard, but a bit more extensive:

[3] "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[4] "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

[5] "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

[6] "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

[7] "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

[8] "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

[9] "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

[10] "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[11] "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Blessing in the passive voice.

The two sermons are different in many ways and the beautitudes are different, but today I’d like to focus on their similarities. Specifically, how they both are in the passive voice.

Now, when I was in school, if you used the passive voice (the egregious error of the passive voice, as my English teacher Mr. McLain would say) you were marked down. The passive voice is a cagey way of saying something happened without saying who did it. “Mistakes were made” was Ronald Reagan’s famous way of talking about errors in Iran in his 1987 address before congress. Things aren’t quite clear when you use the passive voice.

Sometimes the subject in the passive voice is assumed. We assume in the beatitudes that God is the one doing the blessing. Jesus could very well have said “God is blessing the poor.” But he didn’t. He said “Blessed are the poor.” Now Jesus is a cagey character. He often says things to get us thinking. In this stump sermon, delivered at least twice, he chooses very carefully to use this passive voice. Perhaps he is suggesting something more than just God is doling out sweet rewards to certain classes of people.

What if the active translation of these blessings has to do with us? What if we are the forces behind this blessing business?

We are called to bless.

We believe God works through us. We believe we are the body of Christ. The resurrection appearances of Jesus say over and over and over “Feed my sheep.” Jesus is all about serving others through us.

Yet when we read the beatitudes, we are like lottery ticket holders waiting for our number to be called, listening for the category that most includes us so that we can be assured of our blessing, our winnings. Even Matthew, who writes later, takes Luke’s edgy ‘blessed are the poor” and makes it into the innocuous “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Thanks goodness. That surely must mean me. Or the mourning. I do that. I’ve certainly been hungry. Yep. The beatitudes are really all about me. Me. Mimimimi. My personal blessing religion. No?

The Greek word used in the beatitudes for blessing when used in its active form in the New Testament is all but once used with us as the active agent. Later in the same sermon, Jesus says, “bless those who curse you” using a different word form.

We are so eager to be on the receiving end of the divine gravy train that we have failed to hear our responsibility here for all these years.

The Beatitudes are NOT the announcement of the divine lottery winners, but a job description. A job description for all of us together. If any one of us felt the burden of this completely, it would be overwhelming, but Jesus delivers this message to the crowds, the church, to us. This is not one of the special teachings for the elite few. This is the message for the masses. It takes a village to bless. Let’s walk through the beatitudes in Luke and see what this might mean.

Bless the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

This means not blaming to poor for being lazy or having bad study habits or whatever. What is the best thing that would happen to the poor. What would God do?

Does God love poor people more? Many theologians have said yes to this question. Does this mean we are suppose to love or bless poor people more? Could be. Blessed are the poor may be our call to arms rather than God’s loving one child more than another. Blessing the poor may require us to know their names, or at least their condition. How exactly does a family of three live on $50 a week? In Nigeria, how exactly does a family of eight live on $50 a year?

Bless the hungry so they will be filled.

Remember the beginning of one of the feeding miracles. The disciples come to Jesus looking to send the hungry people away. He tells them “You give them something to eat.” (Mark 6:37) We are the blessors and the blessees all at once.

This means collecting the cans and living modestly and designing a way of living so that hunger is a thing of the past. Bread for the World is a great cooperative religious program that gets at the substance and cause of poverty all over the world. Our denomination is an active and enthusiastic sponsor of their work.

Bread for the World, U2 singer Bono, and others have joined together in the “One” campaign to provide “fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs education, health, clean water, food, and care for orphans . . . at a cost equal to just one percent more of the US budget.” This is a way we bless the hungry.

Bless those who weep now, so that they might find the time of laughter.

Weeping is a necessary part of life, but not a part that needs to last forever. There is a time for everything. As Steven ministers know, we walk with people in their grief. Shawls and brownies are all a part of our mutual caring that Christ calls us to.

And so this congregation has sought to be God’s blessings to people in grief in the hospitality that so many show after services. Daniel’s warm and deep ministry is a reflection of our corporate understanding of how important it is to care for one another. To love one another as Christ has loved us.

Bless those who are hated.

Rosa parks wasn’t always celebrated in our land. It wasn’t always safe to talk about how invading Iran may not be a great idea. People were beat up for suggesting the war in Vietnam was short-sighted.

We need to bless the prophets of our age, even if we disagree with them. Perhaps especially if we disagree with them. Pray for your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Sound familiar? So let’s make this injunction clearer. Bless people you hate.

Blessings are for you too.

Now I know that life has not always been kind to you. I know that each of you need some blessings in ways no one else but God will ever understand.

But unless we together contract to bless each other, contract to act out the blessings of God, our faith is too self-serving. If you love children, you can understand the concept of sacrificing your needs for the greater needs of someone else. Putting kids through college or even putting kids in shoes often requires that someone go without something. And yet those sacrifices of love are their own blessings. The rewards of love live in the heart and are the true blessings of God. The rewards of love live in the heart and are the true blessings of God. It is the true kingdom of God.

When people sneeze, it’s common to say “God bless you.” I suggest to you this morning that the Godly response is also, “Can I get you a tissue?”

This is all good news. This is not just another list of commands, it is the real hope of how the world can be. When blessing is how we act, then we will rejoice in that day and leap for joy. Hot diggity dog.