Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sermon: Advent II: The Path Is Illuminated: John the Baptist

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent II: Light and Life to All He Brings
The Path Is Illuminated: John the Baptist

Luke 3:1-6, NRSV 
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 

3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

One: This is the Word of God, for us, the People of God. 
ALL: Thanks be to God!

The opening lines of our scripture verse today seem to be throw-aways. They are the part that I always want to skip, so that I can get right to the good stuff. I want to make the crooked paths straight. I’m ready for the mountains to be laid low and the valleys to be exalted! I am desperate for the rough paths to be made smooth. These opening two verses are filled with nothing but ancient names, complicated pronunciations and outdated geography. But, these first two verses are there for  a reason. They establish the political scene in which this narrative is being told. In the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. The very beginning of this particular story reminds us that the context of our salvation is never divorced from politics. These names are not unfamiliar to us, and they will become critical to the story in a few short weeks as our narrative takes us from Christ’s birth to Christ’s death. Listen again:  

“In the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests.” The inclusion of this information names those in the political landscape who were to be held accountable for carrying out the actions that crucified Jesus. Under Tiberius’s reign, Pilate released Barabbus to the masses, and washed his hands of Jesus’ conviction. Herod had been chasing Jesus since the moment of his birth, when he sent the wise men to find the star at its rising, and ordered the slaughter of the innocents – all first born children under the age of 2. It was Herod who sought the title “King of the Jews,” and this was the conviction under which Jesus was arrested, tried and murdered. This is when Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to exile in Egypt, refugees in a foreign land, seeking shelter and safety. 

Friends, our faith is inherently political. Jesus was killed at the hands of the state. His family sought political asylum after his life, and the lives of so many other children, was threatened by the ruler. We cannot pretend that politics and Christianity are not deeply interwoven. What, then, are we called to do? 

The GOP was derided this week for inviting prayers for the victims and their families after the devastating shooting in San Bernadino, after the New York Daily News ran a scathing headline in condemnation of their passive response. The hashtag #GodIsn’tFixingThis began trending on Twitter, which means that millions of people are shaking their fists in outrage, either because their faith and its practices are being attacked or because there is the perception God has let us down. The problem is that both statements could be true.

This week, an Editorial ran on the front page of the New York Times for the first time in 95 years. It read, “All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of the innocents, in California… But motives do not matter to the dead. Attention and anger should be directed at the elected leaders whose job it is to keep us safe, but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.” Did you hear that? They borrowed our language, Church. The language we have used to describe the flight of Mary and Joseph to Egypt while Herod ordered the murder of all first born children is the “slaughter of the innocents.” They are using our words to discuss the world today, and we have an obligation to speak back. 

It is my best hope to stand in this pulpit, week after week, and try to offer theological insights into the text which can help us make sense of the world. And, week after week, there is a need to hold the text and the world in each hand, and weigh how one affects the other. Karl Barth reminds us that, “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper."

This week, we all sat with a newspaper in one hand, as we listened to journalists and politicians use the language of our Church to tell us what the world needs. If you think for a moment that your faith is irrelevant, or that the Church is unnecessary, this week will remind us all that the world is crying out for a word from us - the believers in an almighty God -  to make sense of the chaos. We watched as the GOP prayed for the victims and their families, and listened as Senator Chris Murphy replied, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.”   But, strangely enough, that is exactly what our text is telling us to do today. 

This week, phrases like "prayer shaming’ were used to describe the rhetoric offered after one too many mass shootings took the lives of too many innocent people. But, prayer is what we do when we have no other way to move forward. It is how we begin. It is the origination of action. But, as journalists reminded us this week: Faith (including prayer) without works is, indeed, dead.

So, now, if we go back and read the text from Luke 3:1-6, we can see that John the Baptist’s cry from the wilderness is coming from a political landscape of corruption, greed and impotent enforcement of the law. It is in the context of this political backdrop that the text tells us, “John went into all the region, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Do you hear the subversive nature of this action? John, a prophet, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, leaves the safety of the wilderness to emerge into a dangerous political landscape, and preaches baptism and forgiveness, not condemnation and judgment. He preaches an actionable and gracious response: Prepare ye the way of the Lord! 

This, Sisters and Brothers, is a call to justice, a call to action! This is not a sit-back-and-watch sort of platitude. This is the reminder that we, the people of God, are called to help bring about the Kingdom of God, here and now. This doesn’t separate us from the implication that God is called to make God’s own self known in the midst of the turmoil. I am of the opinion that God needs to show up in big ways, especially when the tragedies occur. But there is a tie between the prophetic call of John the Baptist to the indictment that God isn’t fixing this. And that tie is us, the Church. 

We are the ones the world is observing now. Our God is on the line, our prayers are cast as weak, and our faith deemed irrelevant. But, you and I know that our response of grace and forgiveness is the only way to change the world. It is also the most difficult thing to offer. Because the crooked paths have yet to be made straight. We are waiting, just as those who heard the words of the Prophet Isaiah (40:1-5), “Comfort ye! Comfort ye, my people! Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that cries out in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

We live in a world where warfare has yet to be accomplished, where the valleys are low and the mountains are still insurmountable. But, we are called to be the ones who model what it means to be baptized, with water. This means we are imbued with grace - a gift freely given to us - and encouraged to share it. It means we must listen to those with whom we disagree. It means we must push those who need to be held accountable. It means we do the work to prepare the way for the one who is coming after us. We do so by letting go of our pride, embracing our enemy and relinquishing a love of war for a search for peace. 

Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent, our prayer is for peace. There is no week more desperate for a word of peace than this one. This is the day we look for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, when nation will no longer lift up sword against nation and we study war no more. Our salvation is woven into the fabric of political reality of the world. We are called to rise above it, to pray without ceasing, and to preach forgiveness and righteousness. 

So, Church, let us stand up and be the ones who answer the question, “Where is God in this?” Let us be the reason why people see God in the midst of the turmoil. 

In the name of the God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Importance of Being

Earlier this year, I met Ernest Hackmon, long-time Laguna Beach resident, and radio host of a show on Laguna's local radio station, KX 93.5. He was kind enough to ask me to be a guest on his show in February to talk about ministry for and with the LGBTQ community. He had me on the show again to talk about hopes for Thanksgiving, issues of faith, and what it's *actually* like to be a minister.

Thanks, Ernest. It's an honor.



Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: Must I Read the Bible Literally to take the Bible Seriously?

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sunday, September 20, 2015

How Do You Read the Bible?
Matthew 5:17-20, 43-48
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
One: This is the Word of God, for us, the People of God.
Many: Thanks be to God.

            This weekend, I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota called, “Why Christian?” The premise of this conference was that each of the 15 speakers who addressed us would be answering the same question: Why am I a Christian? The speakers were all women, many of them pastors, some were professors, and all of them were prophetic, honest and intelligent. My current pastoral hero, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans dreamed the idea of this conference up over a year ago, and after a few phone calls to some of the people they had come to know and respect, this remarkable event came together.
            I listened (and tweeted) with rapt attention as these women, these unusual, beautiful, odd, courageous, gifted, diverse and called women, told us the story of why they claimed the identity of “Christian.” The panel included speakers who were white, black, brown, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, gay, straight, genderqueer, trans*, short, tall, pregnant, mothers, single, divorced, musically gifted and overachieving. Many of them acknowledged that they confessed to be Christians, despite the hurt that the church had caused. Most of them acknowledged that they did so because they came to claim the Scriptures as the story of their very own lives.
            My friend and seminary colleague, Mihee Kim-Kort, was one of the speakers. She is a Korean-American Presbyterian minister, married to a super-Caucasian Presbyterian minister, author, blogger, speaker, activist, young adult pastor and mother of three (including a set of twins). In her spare time, she managed to answer the phone to say “yes” to the invitation to come and speak. She approached the question, “Why am I a Christian?” by re-framing it to ask, “Who do you say that I am?”
            This, of course, is the question that Jesus asks Peter. If you recall, Peter’s quick response is, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus proceeds to teach the Disciples about everything that is to come: that he must suffer and die. This is the story of our Incarnate God, friends. God chose this messy, fragile, earthen vessel into which to pour God’s very self, knowing that damage was likely and scars were a guarantee. This is the question we are posing for ourselves over the next several weeks: Who do you say that I am? How do our lives reflect the image of God in which we have been created? Would it surprise people if we told them we were Christians?
            Today, our primary question is about the Bible. Being a Christian has precious few requirements. There’s no surgical procedure at the hands of a rabbi on the 8th day, no dietary restrictions, no mandates about which direction to face when we pray. Being a Christian is a practice that requires only two things: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. We claim the name of Christian because we are able to do these things since it was Jesus, God in the flesh, who showed us how.
            In order to see how God did that, though, we have to return to the stories of our tradition. The problem is that the Bible is viewed as being as dangerous as the church, to many. The Bible is filled with stories of temptation, deception, lies, duplicity, arrogance,  murder, seduction, patriarchy, greed… and that’s just in Genesis!
            If I’m being cynical about it, I could confess that it seems as though the Bible is a collection of stories which tells us all about how much people reject God.
            But, if you catch me on a good day, I’ll tell you that truly, deep down, I know that the Bible is a collection of stories which tells us all about how much God loves us.
            The problem is: both things are true.
            The Bible says many things: it tells us about how God created the world and called it Good, and then… just 10 chapters later, it tells us about how God destroyed the world because there was nothing good left in it. God tells Abram and Sarai they are going to have a child in their sunset years, and then orders Abram – now Abraham – to take that precious, long-awaited child to Mt. Moriah and sacrifice him. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” as Job reminds us. So, how are we to read the stories about a God who seems less loving and more punitive, and hold them in tension with the stories about a God who loves the world so much that he sent his only begotten Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
            This is not a book with a very good editor.
            There are inconsistencies.
            There are stories that have clearly not been fact-checked.
            There are omissions, of names and people.
            There are exaggerations and probably a lot of plagiarism.
            So, how on earth are we to read this book, filled with mysteries and wonder and laws and rules. It is boring, it is fascinating, it is wonderful, it is horrible. It is like reading pages of tax code in conjunction with paragraphs of a Danielle Steele novel.
            Except, that this book isn’t a book. It’s words. And, these words have been spoken through the ages, from generation to generation. I have a lot of respect for stories that have hung around this long, because it means that these words were worth saying.
            But, let’s remember what we hear in the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That means these words have been around longer than the creatures who knew how to speak them. The Word existed before creation, before time. The Word was with God. The Word was God. If we are willing to consider the poetry of this, maybe it will begin to tell us how we are to read the Bible. Not as stories, not as myth, not as allegory, not as factual, but as words that are TRUE.
            If these Words were not true, if they didn’t resonate with the human experience, then we would have stopped speaking them a long time ago.  Let’s take our Gospel lesson for today, in which the Scribes and Pharisees are giving Jesus a very hard time, since it was their duty to defend the dot and tittle of interpretation of the Scriptures. Keep in mind, the Scribes were the ones who spent their days ensuring that the scriptures were recorded so that they could be kept and passed on. The words on the page meant a lot to them. It was their work, their vocation, their life. Their calligraphy was the blueprint of faith for the next generation. They were striving to answer the question, “What must we do to please God?” And they believed fully that the answer was contained in the words written in their careful and precise penmanship. These words on the page were sacred, and these words were theirs to defend.
            So, when Jesus shows up and starts noodling with the interpretation of seemingly straightforward things like, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” they get a little bent out of shape. It seems as though Jesus hasn’t just moved their proverbial cheese, but he has unapologetically eaten it, too. He heals people on the Sabbath, and tells the diligent Scribes that they have no right to condemn him. They are perplexed by this man, because not only does he know their words, but he manages to use these words against them.
            This causes a fair bit of tension between them. They become the object of his teachings more often than not. Woe to those who are like the Scribes and the Pharisees! For they provoke the irritated exhale of the Son of God.  Something marvelous happens in this passage, though. Jesus finally stares into the eyes of the scribes and acknowledges that their work is critical. He takes the steam out of their locomotive by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” In telling the Scribes that their work is not unimportant, that it is necessary and essential for the law to be upheld, he honors their diligence in overseeing this archival project. But, he offers an important insight into his work on earth: he is here to fulfill the law.
            We all know that the work it takes to become a gifted attorney means to know the law so well that you can read it in new ways. All of our words require interpretation. It is one of the reasons we find ourselves arguing with our Christian sisters and brothers about the Bible in the first place: each of us can read the same passage and each of us will have a different understanding of its meaning. This is one of the blessed freedoms we are given, that all of us might be able to read these words and hear how they sound to us.
            In this passage, Jesus liberates us to read the scriptures in a new way. He’s pushing the Scribes to see that the solution to the great problem of interpretation is not shredding the scrolls and muting the Prophets. This would lead to a world without ground rules or history; there would be no parameters, no promise.
            Jesus says that he comes, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. To me, this means that Jesus demonstrates the fullness of the words on the page, not in the self-limiting way we interpret or translate them, but in the Spirit of what God is intending for us. Let’s go back to the example of Abraham and his long-awaited Isaac. Let’s consider that though this is a horrific story of the implication of obedience to God, at all devastating costs, it is also the story of the ram caught in the thicket. It is the story of God’s faithfulness and Abraham’s promise. What if this word is meant to tell us about the ways in which God offers provision for us, rather than the way God takes away what is precious to us.  The fulfillment of the law and Prophets in Christ means that we may reach a day when we no longer need them.
Jesus speaks these words to the Scribes and Pharisees:  Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This seems pretty pointed, given that the Scribes and Pharisees are sitting right there, but I’m willing to believe that the Word-Made-Flesh-And-Dwelling-Among-Us is probably choosing his words carefully. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Whoever breaks one of these commandments will go directly to the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Rather, he says, “whoever breaks one of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This tells me that the kingdom of heaven might just be for all of us, even the ones who forget how to keep the rules.  And, I’d wager that being least in the kingdom of heaven is far better than being greatest in the kingdom of earth.
            Jesus goes on to use one of my favorite phrases in the Bible: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I love this use of language that only Jesus employs: You have heard it said… but I say... Only the Word Made Flesh could convince me that this new way of hearing might be acceptable. After all, it is much more in my nature to love my neighbor and hate my enemy. I’m good at that. I excel at it. I would be the proud victor of the Love My Neighbor Series. Make me a medal, commission the trophy, organize the parade. This is what I am made to do!
            However, theologians like to call this passage, “The great reversal.” If you read the Gospel of Matthew, especially the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see that it’s filled with crazy things like the last being first and the first being last. The great reversal is a terrible inconvenience to those of us who have raced to the front of the line, only to find that the concession stand is closed. The kingdom of heaven boasts a pretty fantastic banquet table, but we all need to remember that the ones who will be served first are those who are the hungriest. In this passage, Jesus is “starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and, at the very same time, redeeming this world that he loves and that will, in due time, put him to death.”[1]
            What, then, does this text tell us about how we are to read the Bible? After all, it doesn’t answer the question of whether or not we should take it literally or figuratively, with a grain of salt or with utter obedience. It hasn’t settled if this is the inerrant word of God or the inspired Word of God. What Jesus tells us in this passage is simply that we need to hear these words (after all, he didn’t come to abolish them). But, when we hear these words, we should do so with an understanding that they are our guide, the syllabic pathways of God’s persistent outreach to us in all possible ways. Through creation, promise, rainbows, steadfastness, prophets, providence, deliverance, forgiveness, and finally… incarnation, God employs all possible resources to continue to communicate the only Word that matters: love.
            So, Jesus, who do I say that you are? You have heard it said that you are John the Baptist, possibly Elijah. But, I say that you are the Word – the Word made flesh, and dwelling among us – and you are True.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3076

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sermon: A Party for the Prodigal

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Worship led by Beer & Hymns OC 
August 16, 2015

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:

11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

One: This is the Word of God, for us, the people of God.
ALL: Thanks be to God.

            “There was a man who had two sons.” If you have spent any amount of time in or near a church, it is likely that you know how this story goes. It is one of the most recognized stories from the Bible, and one of the most perplexing.  Right away, we are invited to hear about these three characters and are welcomed into their world, their story. There is a father, who is mysteriously singular in his parenting tasks. There are two sons, brothers, who are different in every way. The older son is responsible, frugal, and loyal. The younger son is selfish, short-sighted, and reckless. Of course, you know the end of the story. The younger boy asks for his share of the inheritance, and leaves the farm, spending his money on prostitutes and gambling. He loses everything and realizes that the servants at his father’s house have a better life than he. So he returns, pitiful speech prepared, and is greeted not with judgment but with relief. His father welcomes him home, prepares the fatted calf and they feast. Meanwhile, the older son has become furious over the turn of events. But, the father forgives his brother, nonetheless.
            If I asked you to pick a character in the story with whom you most closely identify, you wouldn’t have much trouble deciding. Either you love the younger son – the one who is welcomed home – or you identify with the older, loyal son. It is rare that we find ourselves identifying with the father figure. He’s a mystery – why did he give the son his inheritance, when this is tantamount to the younger son saying, “You’re worth more to me dead than alive, and I want my share.” And why, even if he is tremendously relieved, did he welcome the younger son home with such reckless abandon? No consequences? No stern lectures about how things are going to be from now on?
            I have always identified most closely with the older brother. He is the responsible one who never rocks the boat. He does what is expected. He stays close to home. He is frugal and wise and completely faithful to his father. He is begrudging of his younger brother and downright hateful upon his return. I cannot say that I blame him. As an only child, I always craved siblings, but this story caught me off guard. It seems as though even siblings aren’t exactly best friends. Or, frankly, the secret to a healthy social life. They can highlight everything you strive not to be, embody the characteristics you pride yourself most in not displaying, and somehow still manage to endear the affection of your parents. Siblings are, in short, the worst. Or, at least, this one is. My sympathies have always been aligned with the older brother, the loyal and faithful one who doesn’t even get a goat with which to celebrate with his friends.
            But, if I’m being fair, what would he celebrate? It seems as though he’s unmarried, so there are no progeny coming his way. Would he delight in a fine day in the fields? A particularly beautiful sunset? The cost of living a very safe and responsible lifestyle is that it is without drama. It has probably never occurred to him to ask for a goat, which it seems likely his father would have happily given him. Rather, he is content to feast on his dinner each night, just like he’s always done. Perhaps he took too much joy in the fact that there was more meat for him once his brother left. Perhaps he noticed the subtle ways in which life was better for him, more plentiful. His father spent nights wondering about his lost son, and this child rejoiced when he got seconds on dessert. No man is without sin.
            The younger brother is certainly a character. He will be remembered through the ages as the “Prodigal Son.” Prodigal, in case you’re curious, simply means “one who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way.” I’ve always assumed there was a redemptive undertone to this title – the one who was lost, and then was found, but this is not the case. He is marked for all of time with the title of Spendthrift. I have a hard time associating with this character, because I find him so distastefully unlike me. He’s arrogant, rude, and cares only of his own way in the world. He is the one who approaches his father and asks for his share of the property. To him, it has no value except for what it can give him. This child has likely not known hardship. He has grown up comfortably, with little concern for day-to-day security. Because of this, it has no value to him. So, he gathers all he has and travels to a distant country, squandering everything in debauchery. Then, of course, things get hard. As it would happen, a famine comes upon the land in which he is living. He has nothing and there is little to spare, so he hires himself out to feed pigs.
            As an older-brother type, I take a certain pleasure in considering the foolish man, who once was rich and arrogant, but finds himself feeding the pigs of a stranger in a strange land. If you’ve ever seen “Avenue Q,” you know that this is called “schadenfreude,” or experiencing joy in the suffering of others. The lofty has been brought low! The first is indeed last! Isn’t this the stuff of Gospel promise?
            Except that Jesus tells us in the story that, “he came to himself.” The only way this could happen would be in a moment of desperation and clarity. Here he is, lost, alone in a strange land, far from those who have loved and cared for him and with no way to return because of his shame. There is another part of me who sees not an arrogant man, but a lost little boy. My heart warms a bit. Then he begins his resolution:  ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ Then, I don’t feel so sympathetic. Jesus frames this story as one of repentance and rejoicing over a lost sheep, as though this boy is repentant. But it’s not clear that he has repented of anything except poverty. It is only his own suffering that causes him to return to his father, not a change of heart.
            Then we encounter the most perplexing part of the story. The part I have the most difficult time understanding. The father, seeing his lost son in the distance, runs to him.  Jesus tells us that he was “filled with compassion,” or as I humbly recognize is the opposite of schadenfreude. He feels concern for the suffering of his son, and he runs to him, embraces him, and stops him halfway through his apology (just before the son can insist that his father treat him like one of his hired hands). He tells the servants to bring out a robe – the best one – and to give him a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.  He is falling all over himself to honor this arrogant and selfish boy.
            On my best day, I can see this as a beautiful reunion between a heartbroken father and a lost son. I can recognize the sense of relief that comes with the reappearance of your precious boy, who left of his own accord with no clear intent to return. I can imagine my own overwhelming relief at the joy of seeing the face of my child whom I worried I would never see again. But, this father is more gracious than me. My embrace would be quickly followed by a lecture, a stern talking-to, finger wagging. But this father says, “Go and
get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
            Then comes the part of the story that we’re all waiting for. The older son called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ This is when it gets good, right? The older brother becomes angry and refuses to go see his sibling and his father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
            I share the older son’s fury. This isn’t fair. You and I both know that life isn’t fair, but this seems to highlight the absolute injustice of the world. I stay, and I get nothing, but he squanders everything and gets a party? Where is my party?! But the father reminds his oldest boy what he most needs to hear, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Including this spendthrift brother, this burden of loss, this terrible anxiety that is now relieved. What they share is more than property or even the bond of family. What they share is the same emotional responsibility for the lost son, and all that entails.
            But this story isn’t about me. And it’s not about the sons. It’s about the father. Jesus tells this story to the grumbling Pharisees because they, like me, are more concerned with the disreputable company Jesus is keeping rather than the awareness of their need for grace and acceptance. If we are to look for ourselves in this story, we cannot be found through the righteous indignation of the older son. We cannot be found in the debauchery of the younger son. We cannot be found in the sympathy of the father. No, we can only be found as the child who receives grace when we deserve none. The only way for us to comprehend this story is for us to recognize ourselves in the relief of forgiveness, even when we don’t ask for it properly.
            That’s because this isn’t just a story about us, and our tendencies. It’s a story about God. Our perspective must shift to comprehend what Jesus is teaching: grace above legality, compassion over shadenfreude, forgiveness without a lecture. We are all homeless prodigals, and all of us deserve less than what God gives. This is not a great comeback story. It’s not the story of a boy pulling himself up by his bootstraps or loyalty being rewarded. It’s not the prodigal’s poor and misguided apology that forces his father to set the banquet table any more than our remorse encourages God to prepare the table for us, THIS table. We cannot throw our own party. The good news is that we don’t have to. It’s already been done for us. All we need to do is show up and celebrate with the one who loves us most.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Above is the call to prayer, "Sweet, Sweet Spirit," led by Lauren Francis, Kristen Howerton and Mandy Flemming. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sermon: YOU are the Man!

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
SundayAugust 2, 2015

“YOU are the Man!”

2 Samuel 11:26 - 12:15

           When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him,
           “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.
           Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”
           Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
           Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.
           Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”
           David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”

Then Nathan went to his house. The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill.

One: This is the word of God for us, the people of God.
All: Thanks be to God.

Last week, we heard the story of David and Bathsheba, and concluded with the hope that God can redeem the most broken of people, the most blatant of sinners. If God can redeem David, think how much God can redeem us.
           Today, we hear the story of David’s conviction. David, the beloved of God, the one from whom our Savior has descended, the king of Israel, has been caught. After all, before any sort of redemption, there must be confession. The prophet, Nathan, comes to David and tells him a parable about a rich man who has many flocks, but when a traveler comes to visit, he takes the beloved lamb of a poor man. One who has much takes the sole, tender possession of one who has little. David hears the parable, and doesn’t recognize that this story is Nathan’s wise attempt to convict him of his guilt.
           “The bait is set and David seizes it: what the rich man has done is unconscionable. David is incensed and swears a rather elaborate oath in the Lord’s name that the rich man must restore the poor man’s lamb many times over. It may be that David also issues the death penalty for the rich man. At the very least, the rich man will pay dearly; he may also have to pay with his life. ”[1]
           But then the blow is struck by Nathan: “You are that man!” In Hebrew this phrase is only two words long, and is the second of three important two-word phrases that drive the plot in this story. This is a story that includes much detail, but the pivotal moments are told with great economy of language. When Bathsheba comes to David to announce her pregnancy, she says, simply, “harâ anokî,” ָא ֹנ ִכ י ָה ָר ה “I am pregnant.” Two words to change their lives. Two words upon which hang the possibility of choice and consequence. The choice David makes is clearly the wrong one. In a host of already bad decisions, he opts for the most harmful solution to his present problem. He has Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, deliver his own death sentence to the general who sends him to the front lines of battle.
           After David receives word of Uriah’s death, he sends for Bathsheba and makes her his wife. But, these things displeased the Lord, and the prophet Nathan was sent to convey God’s displeasure. Parables are God’s way of speaking to those who have ears to hear. So often, parables seem to confuse more than they explain. But, perhaps this is an indication of David’s connection with God. The parable Nathan shares cuts to the chase; David gets it. And, Nathan’s response to David’s reaction: “You are that man!” (attâ ha-îš) demonstrates the simplicity of his conviction. God knows! Nathan knows. David has not escaped judgment.
But, David’s response is his own two-word phrase after hearing God’s judgment through Nathan, “I’ve sinned against the LORD” (ah-ah-tî la-YHWH). Much is communicated with very few words in this narrative. Big things hang on two-word phrases.
I’m pregnant. harâ anokî
YOU are the man! attâ ha-îš
I’ve sinned against the Lord. ah-ah-tî la-YHWH
This is the entire story of what could have been David’s fall from grace. But, one thing is critical to note. This doesn’t end with a press conference or excuses. David does what many of us can’t: he confesses that he has sinned against the Lord.
           God has every right to be angry. God says to David, “I anointed you king. I rescued you from Saul’s hand. I gave you a house, wives, the house of Israel and Judah. AND, ‘if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.’” WHY, David? Why? Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in God’s sight? For a man who has everything, why has he sought to take what belonged to another?
            The consequences of David’s actions are real. God says that he will give his wives into the hands of his neighbor. Trouble will be raised up in David’s house, and the sword will never depart from it. If ever we wonder about God’s willingness to punish the righteous, we can see from this account that no one is exempt from the judgment of the Lord, including the one “after God’s own heart.”
            There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that what David did was wrong. Nathan’s visit and parabolic re-telling of David’s actions are to ensure that David himself can understand the gravity of his actions. Can he? Is it possible for the anointed one of God to feel contrition, guilt? To be accountable?
            What we hear in David’s response is an absence of denial. “He hears Nathan’s parable, hears the two-word conclusion, attâ ha-îš (“You are that man!”) and replies with a stunningly quick and brief two-word confession: ah-ah-tî la-YHWH (“I’ve sinned against the LORD”). It almost seems too quick, too brief. We’d like to hear David say more, be more contrite, than just two words. And yet, with only two words at hand, David doesn’t deny, he confesses. Immediately, quickly, without excuse -- in front of Nathan and God and all others who witnessed this dialogue. There he is: Great king David, a man after God’s own heart, an adulterous, murderous sinner. And yet, there he is: adulterous, murderous, sinful David,confessing. Perhaps he is a man after God’s own heart after all because he is somehow able to hear God’s judgment and immediately accept it and the results that follow upon it.”[2]
           But, what we want for someone who has done such wrong is an admission of guilt, a litany of sorrow and grief, an acknowledgement of the hurt he has caused. We’d like to hear him talk about how he knows his wrongdoings and how his sin is always right in front of him (Psalm 51:3). We’d like to hear him say that he knows God is correct in judging him (Psalm 51:4b). We’d like to hear him beg for mercy and forgiveness (Psalm 51:1-2, 7-13). But that response doesn’t happen, at least not with Nathan present.
           But, let us not forget that there was “a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” That chord is what resonates in Psalm 51, the prayer for cleansing and pardon, which David writes after Nathan’s prophetic visit.
            Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
            Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
           Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
           Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt-offerings and whole burnt-offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

“Remembering the fullness of this story can help us see all of life as the theater for God's wily, costly, persistent performance of redemption.”[3]