Truth hurts, love frees – Sermon for Sun. Nov. 10th, 2013, Narrative Lectionary, passages from the prophet Amos

It’s a real special kinda person who likes to criticize, castigate, and slam other people.   It takes another kind of person who can really take it, I mean listen well to criticism and judgement. As the Ancient Greek playwrite, Sophocles declared,” No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”  Giving and receiving criticism, well it’s just not pleasant.  I guess that’s why we say, the truth hurts.  It hurts so much that we have developed a whole system of little white lies to be polite.  “My your shirt is–colorful; that dish was tasty, I’ve never tasted anything like it”.  We are trying to be nice, to say nice things even if we don’t think them, so that we don’t offend or hurt feelings.


We don’t get any of that from the prophet Amos.  In fact, that whole being nice thing it’s not really very biblical.  Nowhere are we extolled to be nice.  We are definitely supposed to love, there’s no exemptions or exceptions to that.  But love, love isn’t always nice, and it, like truth, can hurt.  The church leader and gospel spreader, Paul writes to a church in Ephesus, that we are to   “speak the truth in love”. Ephesians 4.15.


I think that’s how we need to also hear the words of the prophet Amos.  Because, well Amos doesn’t have nice things to say about or to the people of God in his day.  But let us not forget,  these are not just Amos’ words, he’s not grinding his own axe.  His only agenda is to speak the word of The Lord.  And although these are hard words, they are spoken from a place of love.


God called Amos to leave his own country, the south and preach in the northern kingdom of Israel. Now this isn’t the first time a prophet has words of condemnation.  A couple weeks ago, we heard about Elijah who contended with the King and queen who were worshipping some god named Baal, and just to be clear it wasn’t footbaal–BAAL


With the prophet Amos, the problem wasn’t to whom the people were praying.  They were praying with their lips; they were offering sacrifices, they were singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to The Lord God.   It’s hard enough to knock (tear) down a bunch of altars, high places, and temples to some other god, but today’s word from The Lord we heard from Amos, is even harder.  The problem was with something much more difficult to deal with.  It was with their way of life, their economic system.  And no one wants to hear that they way we are living, the way we are going about our business is all wrong. The people of God didn’t need to worship the idols and gods of the neighbors to become just like them. 


The had developed an economy, a way of running things that was set up so that some people would get really, really rich, as Amos says live in big houses made of stone, get fat from fancy food and lots of wine.  And all these profits, these good things were made at the expense of the rest of the people.  Some had lots, but lots had very little.  Sound familiar?  Well, the hard truth is we are not much better.  Now I know this may be a hard word to hear.  No one, no exceptions, including me wants to be told that they way we are doing things isn’t right.


It should make us uncomfortable to know that we live, work, and most importantly worship God in one of the most segregated cities in the country, where almost a third of the city’s residents and just over 40% of our children, live in poverty. We live in a country that cuts food aid to almost one million veterans, people working jobs that do not pay enough to support families, to elderly and children.   We live in a sick system.  All sorts of tax breaks and incentives and subsidies go to wealthy and to corporations, but we insist we need to balance a budget, it’s being balanced on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable. 


Today, just as in Amos’ day,  this is not God’s will, not God’s intention.  We continue to create our idols and bow to them, today we call them capitalism, we call them success, we call them, “that’s just the way it is”.  Even charity has become an idol.  For some say that all we are to do is give a little bit to the poor,you know a hand out now and then.  No for the prophets of The Lord the problem is deeper. 


We all want our entitlements.  We want cheap gas and other energy, cheap clothing even if the workers are paid pennies a day and live and sometimes die in sweatshops, we want our social security checks that will go far beyond what we have paid into the system.  Remember though as God’s people we don’t just speak the truth, do not hear me pointing fingers at you, we’re all part of the problem–with our purchases, votes, with our silence, and just minding our own business, taking care of our own.


Through the prophet Amos and believing that ours is a God of love, we can hear these words.  Otherwise, it would be so easy to just dismiss us, give up on us, leave us to our own sinful devices.  As I’m sure you’ve heard, and I didn’t come up with.  God loves us just the way we are, but God loves us too much to let us stay that way.  There’s a practice among community organizers, it’s called agitation.  The thing is they don’t agitate everybody, they agitate themselves and each other.  They are pushing one another to grow, to become better, to act stronger and with more purpose.


That’s what God was doing when a bunch of slaves were rescued from slavery in Egypt.  That’s what’s behind all the laws that God gave them in the wilderness.  It wasn’t just a way to get to a promised land, God’s promise was a land where they could live God’s way.  Where sabbath rest meant that slaves and foreigners and even the land were not abused and used up by our greedy desires.  Where widows, orphans, elderly were not abandoned, where everybody gave a hand to pull someone up by the proverbial bootstrap.  Where debts were forgiven.


With this truth, with the words of Amos, and with preachers and prophets, God’s truth is trying to set us free.  Remember truth in love.  We are not slaves to a sinful system that says our value is only tied to how much money we have, where we live, what the color of our skin is, what language we speak.  We are set free to struggle to break open oppressions so that justice can flow freely for everyone, and not just those who can afford it.  With every purchase, every decision, every vote, every letter or email to a government official.  God is giving us a vision of justice to guide all our choices.  So, if the cuts to SNAP, and the debate over the farm bill are important, our church can help you speak up and speak out, to do your Christian duty to contact your legislator, and put your faith into action.  Out in the lobby, I have some handouts for the ELCA office for Advocacy and public policy.  We are called to show-up and be part of the decisions that impact people’s lives–issues like immigration reform, civil rights for all people, and more.  Our faith calls us to show up when and where decisions are being made. 


Just as we can readily admit none of us is perfect, and we try to live, act, believe, think better.  We are freed by Amos and the prophets, most importantly freed by Jesus to admit, to confess, to be convicted that the political, the economic, the cultural systems of our world are not perfect (oftentimes not even close), and that we can, that God expects us to do something about it.  If you can, this week read the whole book Amos. I will admit it is hard, do not get too depressed, do not quit, read it all the way through, even that last chapter.  For those words are promises, God’s promise that the days are coming, and in Christ they are here, and now a time to rebuild, restore, repair, and replenish.  God is raising us up to the freedom of God’s true promised land, a place for all– no exclusion, no exceptions, no exemptions.  Amen

Divine Sweet Nothings – Narrative Lectionary, 1 Kings 19.1-18

We will begin the sermon this morning listening to a piece of music by the modern composer John Cage.


(Stand without saying anything for as long as we can stand it)


Imagine if you had paid money for a seat at a concert, and the orchestra just sat there, still.  Not a single instrument playing, the conductor just standing there, no one singing, no one even speaking, not for 30 seconds, not for even a minute or two, but for four minutes and 33 seconds.


That is the name of an actual piece of music, Four minutes, 33 seconds.  It is the idea of composer John Cage.  The composer wanted to experiment with silence, but actually not even true silence, because there is always sound.  What did you hear as we sat here?  The sounds of quiet, of expectation, of being uncomfortable, of patience and impatience, the sound of breathing, whispering, murmuring, these for Cage were music.


Of course you weren’t expecting that, you were anticipating some notes, chords, a melody, a tune.  Instead we heard ourselves, heard one another in a way more quiet and admittedly more uncomfortable.Not true silence, just being quiet, just having stillness is uncomfortable and disconcerting.  There is now so much more sound to life than possibly ever before.  We live a noisy life.  Sirens, alarms, notifications, ringtones, music everywhere.  We expect to be if not bombarded by noise, at least to be surrounded by sound.


So as Elijah is up on that mountain, in that cave, seeking refuge, hoping for guidance, looking for that vision of God, he’s ready and prepared.  First he hears the clamor of thunder, wind, shaking and breaking rocks, hears the roar of a blazing inferno.  Even in their destructive cacophony, The prophet Elijah could probably take some comfort, comfort in the predictability–the expected sounds of an awesome epiphany.  These are the sounds that have been heard by God’s people before.  When God has revealed his presence in power and might.  But then something changes, the earth shattering heavenly percussions cease.  And Elijah is there in quiet, in silence.  Well, it could be silence, but evidently the Hebrew is a bit vague or confusing.  So, what Elijah heard or didn’t hear has been translated as: 

a gentle whisper                         New International Version


a sound. Thin. Quiet.                 Common English Bible


a gentle breeze                          Contemporary English Version


a still small voice                      King James Version


a sound of a gentle blowing     New American Standard Bible


a sound of sheer silence           New Revised Standard Version


a soft murmuring sound           Jewish Publication Society



As I was working on this text, this story, I came up with my own translation, could possibly be the  sound of sweet nothings. It is actually close to the words found in the translation called the message, where scholar Richard Peterson — a gentle and quiet whisper.Of God whispering in the prophets ear.  So, I tried a little experiment and I posted on Facebook the question, if God could whisper a sweet nothing into your ear, what would you like, what would you need to hear?  Some of the responses where:


You’ve been blessed!

everything will be okay

forever and always yours

“I’ve got your back.”

Well done, good and faithful servant.

“Rest yourself. I got this.”

Keep going!

It’s ok.

Yes calling you shows I have a sense of humor!

“Go back to bed.”

Welcome home

Don’t beat yourself up

And one I find refreshingly honest – “eat more chocolate!”




So, there’s a something, some kind of sound, exactly what we do not know.  What we do know is it’s not bombastic and fantastic — it is different, and whatever it was, it draws Elijah out, out of his cave, out of a place of hiding, fear, and despair.  Now he was ready to listen, to follow as God sent him on another mission.  Elijah was able to carry on.


We all need to hear something from God.  Our spirits need to hear that whisper, that rumbling, a still small voice.  Sometimes we really need a word from God, perhaps it is in times of grief, as we miss a loved one who has joined the saints with God, maybe it is in a time of confusion, a feeling of purposelessness, meaninglessness.  Maybe life has just gotten too to be much.  So, this morning you can take a moment, we’ll have a time of quiet for you to think, to listen to your heart, and listen to the presence of one your brothers and sisters, all the saints all around us, and then you can write on the piece of appear your own prayer, what word you want, you need to hear God whisper to you.


But as we know Elijah didn’t stay hidden in the wilderness.  He returned to face his world, to face the challenges.  So after your write that prayer, write what you feel God is calling you to do, calling you to change in your life or in our world.  Instead of collecting these slips of prayer paper, you may take it home.  This may even be a spiritual discipline you take up, to each day do this, in the morning before you face your day, or at the night as you finish one day and move to another.


Elijah was a prophet in his day.  He spoke God’s word.  Sometimes things went well for him, and sometimes they didn’t.  Today, All Saints Sunday we remember that by God’s grace we all are saints.  Some of us have gone to be with God as saints in light, but we are saints in this life.  People claimed at the waters of baptism to be God’s voice (prophets),God’s hands, God’s love.  Some days this all works out, and somedays it doesn’t.  So we come here together to hear I whatever way God whisper into our ears a word for us.  amen.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Aug 25

What do you want to be when you grow up?  What did you want to be?


Now why did you want to do that?  We focus on occupation, jobs, why?  Did anyone think, wise, or funny, or giving? No our answer to that question is a job.  Why?


   Money?  What does money give you?  The things you need, security? 

For some money, having money, spending money, is a status symbol. 


But, really all it boils down to is I think respect.  We want respect whether its as a teacher, a police officer, a mom or a dad, an receptionist, mechanic, a nail technician, whatever.  We want,  I’m pretty sure to be respected, to have our voice heard.


But sometimes it may be hard to know what to say, and even the most articulate, the most wise, the highest authorities may be dumbfounded.


For example, what would you say if a man with guns and ammo walked into your office, your job, the store where you shop, what if someone walked right in here?  What would you do? 


Would you say this to that man: : So just stay there calm, don’t worry about it. I’m gonna sit right here so they’ll see that you tried not to harm me, ok? Ok.  Would you say to this potential shooter or murderer?   It’s going to be alright sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you though, ok? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’ve just given up. And don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life


Those are just some of the words that Antoinette Tuff said to the man with 500 rounds of ammo and a gun as he stood in a school office in Georgia earlier this week.  There were a lot of other things said, and if you can get a chance to listen to that 911 call recording I encourage you to do that.  It is terrifying; it is heart warming.  Now as many of us know Mrs Tuff is not a hostage negotiator, she’s not a psychologist, but she is the school book keeper and she is Christian.  Later in the call when she, exclaims “Oh Jesus”. It isn’t some thoughtless byword, but the deepest prayer.


Mrs Tuff has gone through something that hopefully none of us will ever have to.  However,the world we live in is terribly uncertain, frightfully violent.


There is fighting between nations, between neighbors, between strangers, and within families.  It is reasonable to fear strangers, who knows what they might be thinking, who knows what weapon they will use?   Fear and uncertainty fills the hearts of the people.


I could be describing today, just as easily as I am describing the world of the prophet Jeremiah.  The people of Jerusalem, sandwiched between the great nations of Egypt and Babylon, thought political alliances and the armies and weapons  of one nation or another would keep them safe.  Within this space of fear, the people clung to the belief that their holy city Jerusalem would never be destroyed.  That they could count on God to give them success, give them wealth and prosperity, that God would always be on their side and got their back.


Is our day so very different? Nations are at each others throats. Random acts of senseless violence are on the news.  The American Way of life that worked for some people seems to be threatened.  Believing that prosperity is God’s vision for us and our way of life so many people have turned to various forms of violence to preserve a sense of security.  With guns and more guns and with laws that allow us to use those guns  shoot first.


I don’t know about you but some times I feel it’s just gotten to the point where I feel  powerless even speechless.  What do we say in and to this world?


Our bible readings this morning tell us that in terrible times, God is not silent.  God is calling up prophets, prophets like Jeremiah, who in the Bible are not so interested on telling the future, but instead telling God’s truth.  Now for most of these prophets, and especially for Jeremiah, this truth was unpleasant, it was unwelcome.  His warnings against playing one nation off another were not welcome.  His call to faithfully following God and not the power of weapons was not welcomed.  It is not a life of ease and respectability.  Jeremiah even complains that he didn’t want this job that God has given him.


But, God didn’t stop at Jeremiah.  We can believe that God was at work in Antoinette Tuff, in her church giving her a way to save lives, so that while shots were fired, not one person was in that school was killed that day, not even the man tormented by mental illness, desperate, distraught, and bent on destructive died that day.


God has been calling people like Jeremiah –prophets who don’t foretell the future, but tell the truth, God’s truth.  People, mostly but not exclusively women our grandmother and great grandmothers who fought so that on Aug, 26, 1920 the 19th Amendment to our Constitution,the one giving women the right to vote could be announced as law to our nation.


  God lifted up the voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And Congressman Lewis and others 50 years ago at the march on Washington.  And yesterday as speaker after speaker called this nation to our unfinished business of securing rights to all the people.


But as Mrs  Tuff should point out to us, you don’t need to be great orator, a certified ordained preacher, God gives us the words to say to this world.  So we end as we begin.  What do you want to be when you grow up, or rather what is God calling you to grow into being?  God is calling us to stand up straight, to be the voice for the voiceless–to work against all the violence in this world– to pray for healing, not just of a few here and there.  How are you going to let God speak through you at home, at work?


And don’t spend time thinking up excuses, God’s heard them before, from Moses to ?jeremiah an more.  But God doesn’t want us to let evil, fear, keep us down and silent. In our culture of spending money as a way to feel good, to gain respect, how are you going to call those around you to something, better,  we pray that we may never be in the same situation as Antoinette Tuff, but wherever we are God knows us, has known us from the beginning. 


And I’ll conclude with the words of artist Lupe Fiasco, who will be here in Milwaukee this weekend. You may or know him, you may not agree with all he says, but hear these words


It’s so loud inside my head

With words that I should have said!

As I drown in my regrets

I can’t take back the words I never said, never said

I can’t take back the words I never said


I think that all the silence is worse than all the violence

Fear is such a weak emotion that’s why I despise it

We scared of almost everything, afraid to even tell the truth

So scared of what you think of me, I’m scared of even telling you

Sometimes I’m like the only person I feel safe to tell it to

I’m locked inside a cell in me, I know that there’s a jail in you

Consider this your bailing out, so take a breath, inhale a few

My screams is finally getting free, my thoughts is finally yelling


No matter how old or young we are God is calling us to grow into being not just quiet and bowed down beneath the evil of this world, but to stand up, to respect ourselves, respect others and speak God’s words of life.  Lets grow up, grow up in Christ.  Amen.

Speak with Authority

Everyone’s got an opinion today. OK, opinions have been around since the beginning. However with the proliferation of posts on Facebook,  blogs, media,  opinions just seem to be everywhere.  Experts,  newscasters, talk show hosts, paid commentators, the guy/gal sitting in front of the computer,  everyone feels like they have to get in their 2cents. It seems like everyone is talking, and no one is really listening.

Perhaps that is the main difference between true and false prophets. True prophets approach this task with humility, openness to God and to the people around them. True prophets are not eager to be heard. Often her words are difficult, not because they are are simply harsh, but because God’s Word is in the business of healing. True prophets know that they are part of the problem, that the call to renewal is directed to themselves just as much as it is to others.  Demons are real and  the systems we all are a part of  are broken.  Yet the ultimate goal is not destruction but reconstruction (resurrection).  Listening deeply to God’s Word of love and mercy and listening to one another allows us to speak with authority and authenticity.  To hear is to be heard.