Saturday, November 13, 2021

“Sustained through Challenge, Challenged for Possibility” - November 14, 2021, Stewardship Sunday

 Text:Isaiah 43:1-3a, 15-21

You know, people generally are not clamoring to be on the Stewardship Committee.  Well to be fair, most people are generally not tripping over each other trying to get on committees, period.  But there is something about stewardship.

I think it is because we all have a certain uneasiness with talking about money.  It’s just easier to get excited about the Worship Committee or the Social Committee.

Of course, as most of us know, stewardship is not really about money.  At least, it is not the heart of it.  Stewardship is about the way we use what God has given us – the time, the talents, the abilities, the influence, the care, the concern, and yes, the resources.  Stewardship is the way we respond to God’s gracious gifts.  Basically, stewardship is about living as a follower of Jesus.

At any rate, our stewardship committee met a while back and we talked about how we might go about our stewardship campaign this fall.  Last year, of course, we were completely online.  So things were quite a bit different.  This year, we are roughly half-online.  

We talked about stewardship moments and the mailing we would send out, and we talked about a theme.  And as we thought about what the last 20 months have been like, the theme we arrived at – I think Joyce suggested it - was “Sustained through Challenge, Challenged for Possibility.”

It is a perfect theme for where we find ourselves.  I don’t need to go into detail about how this time has been challenging.  I could talk about school or family or mental health or being unable to travel or economic challenges, along with terrible losses from the virus itself.  

But as one example of the difficulties we have faced, I happened to read an article just yesterday by Diana Butler Bass.  She is a church historian and author.  We used one of her books for our Lenten study a few years ago and some of us heard her speak in Ames a few years before that.

She was writing about what people are calling The Great Resignation – the number of people who have left the workforce in recent months.  She said,

We’ve all worked really hard in the last twenty months, often doing things we never imagined we could do, work where we’ve learned much but that also hasn’t always been what we feel confident in, good at, or held the greatest emotional rewards.  It has been hard for everyone: young adults entering the working force; mid-career workers, many of whom are also parents and had school-age children at home; those approaching retirement.  People who had to work at home; people who couldn’t work at home.   
Bass was recently was in Norman, Oklahoma, doing her first in-person event since the pandemic began and she said she  experienced something she had not in a long time – the joy of being a teacher.  The personal contact was renewing.  She went on to say that commentators are focusing on economic reasons for so many leaving their jobs, but it seems to her there may be a spiritual component to it.  

Every one of us could tick off challenges we have faced over these last couple of years – personal and professional and family and social.

We have certainly faced challenges as a church.  We went for well over a year of meeting almost exclusively online, with all of the difficulties that brought.  And now we are kind of meeting half-online, and that is a challenge too.

I don’t have to tell you that it has not been an easy time.  But here’s the thing: life has always been challenging.  Even in the best of times.  We have always faced setbacks and personal struggles.

Our scripture for this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah.  His ministry was during a time of – well let’s say challenge, to put it mildly.  This part of Isaiah was written toward the end of the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon.  These were people who had suffered – they had been taken from their homes, from their land, from all that was familiar.  Their survival as a people, not to mention individual survival, was threatened.   

And even in such a setting, the prophet’s words are words of comfort and words of hope:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
   the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.        
In challenging times, God is there.  God had sustained the Israelites through a dark time.

Isaiah goes on to remind the people of another challenging time.  He recounts their liberation from Egypt and the miraculous escape through the Red Sea, when the waters parted.  God had acted in a mighty way in the past, and now, God was again doing a new thing.  The people would return to Jerusalem.

Through the challenges we have faced over these past months, God has sustained us – in so many ways.  When we face those difficult and threatening moments, God says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… when you walk through the fire, I will protect you.  I have called you by name and you are mine.”

We have been sustained through challenging times.  At the same time, the challenges we have faced have brought about possibility.  In her article, Diana Butler Bass went on to write  about work in terms of vocation and calling, and she concluded by saying,

As we move ahead and exercise the more familiar, rewarding parts of our jobs once again, I hope that people will rediscover satisfaction and fulfillment.  And for those who truly discovered their jobs had little to do with calling, I pray they will find work attended with joy — and that the Great Resignation will be the first step toward a genuine spiritual renewal of vocation - the rediscovery of meaningful work.
Through challenge comes possibility.  As a church, we have done some things we would not have imagined a couple of years ago.  Some of these are relatively small things.  This Friday we will have a virtual trivia night.  Anybody, anywhere can participate including friends who join us from out of state and those who could not get out and drive somewhere on a Friday night.

Likewise, we have expanded our congregation in these last two years.  Folks from at least 27 states, DC, Canada, and Germany have worshiped with us and many out of town folks join us each week.  This includes regular attenders who are traveling and folks in Ames unable to join us in person.

In 2020, largely because we were not meeting in our building, expenses were down.  At the same time, without ever passing the offering plate, amazingly, giving went up.  And this presented us with possibility.

At the end of last year, with a budget surplus, we used some of those funds to provide more support for Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance, providing heating and utility help that is needed more than ever.  We sent additional funds to Food at First, which provides a free meal to the community every single day.  We sent a check to the Story County Emergency Fund for Immigrants, helping some of the neediest people in our community.  And we sent additional support to American Baptist United Mission, helping to fund mission and ministry in the United States and Puerto Rico and around the world.   

This past summer we did not have a mission trip.  We used some of the funds budgeted to help support a mission trip to support the ministry of Bruce and Linda Hanson in Honduras.  They are serving through the mission arm of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, but when their church – Ames UCC - was having pre-recorded services, we commissioned them as missionaries in a live service out on our front lawn.  And of course we claim them as our missionaries too, but this challenging time brought about a cool possibility.

The challenges we have faced brought about possibility as we held many services in the front yard – primarily because in the time of COVID it’s a safer environment.  But you know what – it was fun, and it was a witness to the neighborhood.  I was amazed when folks walking along the sidewalk would stop and listen for awhile.  

Now at some point, things will end up at whatever “normal” normal is going to be.  Or maybe they won’t, maybe a world of continual change and challenge is the new normal.  Either way, God will continue to sustain us.  God is good, all the time.  And through the challenge there will continue to be possibility for God’s people.

Today is our annual Stewardship Sunday, and we make pledges to support God’s work through this church.  As you leave today, you may leave your pledge in the offering plate or you can mail pledges to the church office.  We are giving to support the work of the church, but what we are really giving toward is possibility.

What does that look like?  People who have been away from church for years, if they ever were a part of a church, will stumble in, looking for some kind of hope, and find to their amazement worship and music and community that help them start to connect with the community of faith and the message of Jesus – things they desperately need.

Or people may come looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, thinking a traditional service would be nice, and start to discover that spiritual grounding of relationships has a value they had not considered.

Or parents will bring children for music camp and find a community that values children, looks to broaden horizons, and sees every person as a beautiful child of God.  

Or an offender will be sentenced to probation with the Center for Creative Justice and come to CCJ at a rock-bottom place in their life.  They are forced to reflect on their life, they are held accountable for their actions but also treated as a person with potential who has been given a second chance, and a year later, they will be in a much better place, with a bright and hopeful future.  

Or students find a community of friendship and support and encouragement that does not treat them as just a part of the pack but as an important individual.

Or folks whose family is far from Ames find that in times of need, they do have a family here.

Or, a person has a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and is filled with worry.  And then they come to First Baptist to take part in a singing group or a boxing group and not only does it help them physically, they find a wonderful community of support.  They find hope.  They find joy.

God sustains us through the times of challenge.  And by God’s grace, we become open to possibility.  God continues to say to us, “I am about to do a new thing.”  Amen.

“Ever Reforming” - October 31, 2021, Reformation Sunday

Text: Psalm 46:1-7, Romans 3:19-28


I don’t know about you, but in my lifetime, church has changed.  I mean, a lot.  I grew up in a church in which women did not serve as deacons.  Or as ushers, for that matter.  I remember my mom was the chair of the pastoral search committee one time, this was back about 1981.  That basically unheard of in that church and in that particular Baptist tradition, but nobody had thought to make a rule, either written or unwritten, about a woman being in charge of finding the next pastor.

Today, over half of the students at mainline seminaries are women.  There is a long way to go, and it is especially difficult for a woman to be hired as pastor at a larger church, but there is no question that things have changed.

There was a time when “Holy, Holy, Holy” was the first hymn listed in many hymnals.  There was a certain playlist of songs you could expect on a Sunday morning that didn’t vary all that much from church to church.  Now, there is a wide variety of music, not just contemporary praise music, but world music and new hymns and Taize music, along with the gospel songs and classic hymns, and the musical repertoire of different churches can be wildly different.  Sometimes, the music in a single service can be wildly different.  

When I was growing up, churches held a certain place of prestige and influence in the community.  When I moved to Arthur, Illinois in 1992 to pastor a church there, the country club had just discontinued its practice of giving local ministers a free membership.  I’m not saying ministers should receive such community benefits, I’m just saying that the relationship between church and culture and the place the church has in the culture has changed a lot.

All of this is by way of saying that the culture is always changing, and the church is always in need of reforming, both to address the needs of the culture and to be more faithful to our calling to follow Jesus.  Throughout the history of the Christian Church, there have been groups and individuals who have led the church to be more faithful, more of the church God calls us to be.

In 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and leaders of church and state to answer charges of heresy.  Johann von Eck, the brilliant theologian, questioned him.  And suddenly the words were pouring forth from Luther’s lips:
Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right.  God help me, here I stand.  

Today is Reformation Sunday.  On this date in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses, or complaints, or critiques - to the church door in Wittenberg.  This was the community bulletin board, the social media of the day.  And in some respects it was better than our social media, because who wants to tweet out 95 tweets in a row?

Luther wanted to spur conversation, to bring about renewal within the church, but that act began what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.  We have observed Reformation Sunday here from every once in a while, not every year, but since Sunday falls on the actual day this year, why not?

Besides that, I love history.  And I feel some personal connection to the early Reformation.  A number of years ago our family was able to visit a dairy farm in the Emmental in Switzerland.  In 1608 my forbears built the house that something like my 12th cousin and his family live in today.  The structure is a house and barn all in one.  In the early 1700’s my ancestor Christian Fankhouser lived there.  He was an Anabaptist – the Anabaptists went beyond the reforms of Luther and other Reformers.  Among other things, they believed in believer’s baptism.  They were seen as a threat to the existing order and persecuted – in that area, mostly by other Protestants.
There is a secret hiding place under the floorboards of the barn in that house where Christian Fankhouser would hide when the Tauferjagers, literally Anabaptist hunters, kind of religious conformity police, would come looking for him.  And that place has become a kind of pilgrimage site for Mennonites and other Anabaptists, who are spiritual cousins to us as Baptists.  

After a couple of years of evading the Tauferjagers - I mean, it was a long way from Bern and the authorities really didn’t want to go traipsing through the hinterlands – Christian was finally captured and arrested.  He spent time imprisoned in Trachselwald Castle, which we visited, and then in the jail in Bern, which at the time was a part of the city wall, and we saw that too.

Finally he was put on a boat with around 80 people - other Anabaptists as well as poor people who could not pay their debts.  They were to be sent to Rotterdam and then put on a ship for America.

Now, this was the enlightened early 1700’s.  Years before, Anabaptists were drowned in Zurich.   You like the water so much?  We’ll give you water.  I visited the place on the Limmat River where Felix Manz was drowned in 1527.

I thought about my ancestor Christian Fankhouser as I thought about the Reformation.  It had never occurred to me before, but all of the sentiment to deport people that we hear today – we haven’t changed that much.  I mean, Christian Fankhouser was a taxpaying citizen, from a long-established family, but it didn’t matter.  He became one of “them.”  He was an “illegal.”  It was illegal not to baptize your children.  It is easy to turn on those seen as different.

Christian didn’t make it to America.  He didn’t even make it to Rotterdam.  Most of the people on the boat grew deathly sick around Stuttgart and were let off the boat.  Those who weren’t sick were freed in Holland, where the authorities believed in religious toleration at least a little more than those in Bern.  

He lived most of his life in Alsace, now northwest France, and snuck back to the farm from time to time.  His children did not become Anabaptists, at least as far as the authorities knew, and that is the reason the farm is still in the family – otherwise it would have been confiscated.

Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517.  The Anabaptists came about just a few years later.  The Baptists arose in the early 1600’s, and like the Anabaptists were a part of what is called the Radical Reformation.  It feels good to be a radical, doesn’t it?

The Baptists were persecuted as well, including here in this country.  In colonial times preachers were arrested for refusing to get a license from the state.  The entire congregation of the church in Kittery, Maine moved to Charleston, South Carolina to escape persecution and that became the first Baptist church in the South.

Our history and tradition is one of protecting the rights of the minority, even protecting the rights of those we vehemently disagree with – both because Jesus tells us to love our neighbors and even love our enemies, and because we remember our own experience as a minority religion.  Faith that is coerced is not real faith at all.

Martin Luther’s disagreement with the Church of his day had mostly to do with the belief that salvation depended not simply upon faith, but upon one’s merit.  Most people did not have enough goodness to make it to heaven on their own and had to spend time in purgatory, being refined by fire – pretty much literally.  But fortunately there were Saints of the Church who had excess merit—more goodness than they needed.  One could receive some of that excess merit for certain religious acts – for making a pilgrimage to a shrine or for acts of charity.  This was called an indulgence.

In time, indulgences were sold.  The Indulgence Sellers preached a fire and brimstone sermon, got the people worked up, and then offered a way out.  You could purchase an indulgence.  “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” was the jingle.  An indulgence could be applied to one’s own account, as it were, or used to help free a loved one, maybe grandma or grandpa, from purgatory.  

Luther was a complicated figure: he struggled all his life with bouts of depression; he questioned his salvation; he struggled with the medieval view of Christ as a cold and calculating judge.  He feared the wrath and damnation of God - until he began to really study the scriptures.  He read Romans, particularly our scripture for this morning, and discovered that “the just shall live by faith” and “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Luther wrote: “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith…I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself.”

For Luther, a focus on the scriptures led to an examination of theology.  And theologically, there were a few bywords of the Reformation:

First, Faith Alone.  Salvation comes by faith, not by our own goodness.  

Closely related is Grace Alone.  Salvation is a gift of God through and through.  Our experience of faith and our living and breathing each day is a gift.  It is all grace.  Even the ability to have faith is a gift of God.  

Another Reformation theme is Scripture Alone.  The scriptures speak to us and contain the truth we need.  “Scripture Alone” means that others sources of authority do not carry the same weight as the Bible.  This is related to the idea of the priesthood of all believers – we can all interpret the scriptures for ourselves, aided by the tradition of interpretation, aided by our ability to reason and make sense of things for ourselves, and led by the Holy Spirit.  

It is possible for a long tradition to be wrong.  Many Christians long believed that the scriptures supported slavery.  Many Christians long believed that the Bible taught a secondary role for women.  Folks have used the Bible to support all sorts of things.  Luther stood against the weight of church authority and tradition and said, based on scripture, aided by reason and the Holy Spirit, “Here I stand.”
One more slogan of the Reformation – ecclesia reformandum, semper reformata.  A church “reformed and ever reforming.”

I love history, and I have talked a lot about history.  But “ever reforming” means that the Reformation isn’t over.  The church constantly needs to examine itself and follow the lead of the Spirit.

Martin Luther went on to translate the Bible into German, and the Luther Bible is to the German-speaking world what the King James is to the English-speaking world.  He was an ex-priest who married an ex-nun and together they had 6 children, and if that’s not Reformation then I’m not sure what is.

Well, what about today?  Where has this history and reforming tradition brought us?  In many ways, the church was already at a crossroads, and now after many months of a pandemic, everything feels up in the air.  

There are those who see the Church as a quaint throwback to a bygone era, if they even give the church a second thought.  Others see the Church as a bastion against reason and common sense – opposed to science, opposed to progress, opposed to rational thought.  Some see the Church as helping to promote the incivility and intolerance that is so rampant in our world, rather than helping to build community and bring reconciliation.  In many cases, we would have to say that this view of the church is accurate.

Increasingly, people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  That can mean a lot of things, but it can certainly be a reaction against the kind of self-centeredness and empire-building that Martin Luther, the Swiss Anabaptists, and the early Baptists all protested in their own way.

You know who else is protesting that today?  Pope Francis.  The head of the Roman Catholic Church is one of a handful of religious leaders that come to mind as working for change and renewal and maybe even “Reformation” in the church.  And the interesting thing is that today, rather than breaking apart, reformation can off mean coming together with others to share in God’s work.   

This is a time of change, but also a time of great opportunity.  Or as our stewardship theme has it, a time of challenge and possibility.  The Good News is: the Church has faced challenging times before.  And God continues to use fallible human beings - the Church - to bring wholeness and healing and justice and community and reconciliation and salvation.  We know this.  We have experienced it.

We don’t know exactly what the church will look like – this church or the wider church – in 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years.  We’re not exactly sure what it will look like next year.  But we are heirs to a great tradition able to change and innovate and follow God’s Spirit in new ways, in exciting ways, in life-giving ways.  And in the end, as Luther and the Reformers remind us, the just shall live by faith.  Amen.

“Called by God” - October 24, 2021

Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-21

This fall we have been making our way through the Old Testament, looking at some of what you might call the Old Testament’s greatest hits, and this morning we jump ahead several generations from Moses.  The Israelites have now established themselves in the Promised Land.  But after leaders like Moses and Joshua who followed him, leadership and authority and structure has become a little murky.

Israel at this point is not really an organized nation. In fact, as the book of Judges comes to an end, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart.  The people have made it to the Promised Land, but things are far from perfect.  
It is in such a time that Samuel comes into the picture.  A man named Elkanah has two wives, one of whom is barren.  This is a recurring theme – such was the case with Sarah and then with Rachel, and we will find this again in the New Testament with Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.

Elkanah and his family would go to the temple to offer a sacrifice each year.  On such a visit, Hannah pleads with God for a child, promising that she will dedicate this child to God.  She is in the midst of such yearning, heartfelt prayer, but she is praying silently, yet with her lips moving.  Eli the priest observes this and assumes she is drunk.  “How long are you going to make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” he asks.  Hannah explains what is going on, and Eli tells her that God will grant her petition.  God does answer her prayer, and she dedicates the child to God’s service.  When he is old enough, Samuel goes to live with the priest Eli and his family in the temple.

This brings us to our text for today.  The boy Samuel, living in the temple, hears a voice calling in the night.  He hears this voice three times, and each time Samuel gets up to see what the old priest Eli wants.

But Eli has not called him.  And even Eli does not understand what is happening right away.  But eventually, Eli understands.  After the third time, Eli tells Samuel to answer “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Samuel does as Eli instructs, and God speaks to him.  

To be real honest, it’s kind of a scary story.  As a child, I would hear this story in Sunday School and feel bad for Samuel, this little boy living what sounded like a sad and lonely life in this cold, dark temple.  They would have those pictures, some of you remember those Sunday School pictures, of Hannah bringing him a new coat on her yearly visit and Samuel was smiling and looked happy.  This didn’t seem quite right to me.  Even though it involved a little boy, it wasn’t really that cheery a story for a kid to hear.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate it as a great story, because it turns the tables on what we would expect.  To whom would God speak – a veteran priest, or a little kid?  

Although, when we read the whole story, God was really speaking to both of them, and both needed the other in order to hear God.  On his own, Samuel did not comprehend that God was speaking to him.  He needed Eli.  But the message God had for Samuel was a message of judgment on Eli’s family.  His sons were corrupt and blasphemous and made a mockery of the priesthood, and Eli had sat idly by and let it continue – he was complicit in it.  God had a message for Eli, but Eli needed Samuel to hear it.  Both Eli and Samuel needed the other.

That is often the way it works.  We can have a hard time hearing God all by ourselves – we need each other.  Young Samuel needed the experience and maturity of Eli, who perceived that God was speaking.  But somehow, Eli wasn’t hearing God himself - maybe he wasn’t really listening – and it was the boy Samuel who gave him God’s message.

No matter what our age, we all need some help in hearing and responding to God, and in figuring out whether God is the one speaking to us.  This story is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on God’s call on our lives.

Now, to hear those words, “God’s call,” a lot of folks assume that has to do with being called to ministry or being called to be a missionary.  Or maybe being called to some grand, difficult task – like Moses being called to lead the people out of Egypt.  Sometimes that is the case, but the fact is that God has a call on each of our lives.

What does Jesus say to his disciples?  “Come, follow me.”  That is a call for everyone.  What does Micah say?  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”  God has a call for each of us.

God called Samuel not just in the middle of the night, but in the middle of a bleak time, a difficult time.  A time of upheaval and uncertainty.  A time of political tribalism.  
How did the scripture put it?  “The word of the Lord was rare.  People did what was right in their own eyes.”

The call of God may come in difficult times.  Maybe it is a voice calling in the night, but maybe it is anger at the way things are that prods us to do God’s work.  I was at the AMOS meeting on Monday night, and heard about the difficulty so many people have in finding decent, affordable housing.  There are those for whom advocacy for affordable housing for everyone is a calling.

God can call us in all sorts of ways, and our discomfort and disillusionment and aggravation with the way things are well may be a starting point for a sense of call.

Our call may come suddenly in the night, as it did for Samuel, or it can come through a gradual sense of purpose and direction.  

We live in a world where the notion of hearing God’s voice sounds, well, a little crazy.  The idea that God might speak to us, whether it is through a voice or a dream or righteous anger or a growing awareness or a deep conviction - however it happens, the idea that God might speak to us is for many people a little bit suspect.  And the ability to hear God’s call, to perceive that God is speaking to us, can be just as hard for us as it was for Samuel.  Again, that is where Eli comes in.  That is where we need one another.

Some of you remember Ross Talbot.  I loved Ross.  He was a longtime member of our church.  He had been chair of the Political Science department at ISU.  Ross was a skeptic.  He always saw two sides to everything and he wasn’t afraid to ask questions.  For years he taught our theology class along with Virgil Lagomarcino, Mary and Martha’s father.

I can remember being here for candidate weekend, when I came here as the prospective pastor.  There were a few gatherings with various groups in the church.  There was a dinner, I answered questions, and I preached on Sunday morning.   

I don’t remember what the conversation had been exactly, but Ross said, and this was in a big all church gathering, “It seems to me that a lot of people talk about the will of God when what they are doing is just taking their own preferences and baptizing them with God’s blessing.  And he asked what I thought about that and how do you know it’s God’s will?

Well as I said I came to love Ross but maybe not from that very first interaction.  But he was absolutely right on target.  How do we know God is calling us?  We can ignore God’s call on the one hand, but we call also claim something as God’s call or God’s will when it suits our own purposes.  We’ve seen it often enough.  It might be a bigtime evangelists who says it is God’s will for folks to contribute so that he can him to have a Lear for his ministry  (and in those cases it is almost always a “he.”)  But we can be tempted to do the same thing on a  much smaller scale, maybe not even realizing tha is what we are doing.

I don’t remember exactly how I responded to Ross, but part of the answer we find in our text this morning.  The community can be so important.  We can help one another to discern the way God would have us go.  And it can be helpful to talk with folks who are maybe not exactly like us.  It worked for Eli and Samuel.  
Now there is another thing about the call of Samuel that strikes me.  You don’t necessarily get it simply with today’s reading, but it comes through in the background, in the lead-in to this morning’s scripture.  

When we read about Samuel’s family in the previous chapters, we learn that Samuel was not a Levite.  He was from the tribe of Ephraim.  This meant that he was not eligible to become a priest.  He was not eligible to ever become a priest – that’s just the way the system worked.  Yet God chose Samuel.  God spoke to Samuel.

Eli’s sons are from the priestly line, and it is their birthright to serve in the Temple.  But they have not acted justly.  They have used their position for personal gain instead of service to the Lord.  They were not concerned about God and God’s people, but only about themselves.  So God looked elsewhere.
It turns out that God is bigger than the structures we try to build.  And so God did not speak to the “official” or the expected persons, but to a kid from the tribe of Ephraim. 

We can try to put limits on whom God may call or how God may work, but God is a lot bigger than our plans and ideas.  The scriptures are filled with unlikely choices.  Look at Jesus.  Jesus does not call priests and prophets, he does not call movers and shakers – he calls fishermen and laborers as his disciples.  Some of his best friends and followers are women.  Power and position and prestige do not mean so much in God’s world.  Everyone, even those seen as outsiders, have a place in God’s kingdom.

Now, there is another thing to take note of.  The Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, they had escaped Egypt.  But it did not insure a perfect life – life was still hard.  And then they crossed the Jordan, into the Promised Land.  And still, life was filled with difficulties and conflict.  It would be hard to think of a time when Israel did not face significant challenges.

Think about Jesus.  Life was not always a bed of roses.  Think of the early church.  There was persecution and hardship.  

It’s not just Biblical times.  Let’s face it: life is hard.  Doing the right thing is hard.  Answering God’s call does not insure that things will be easy.  Samuel said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And God asks Samuel to go to Eli – his mentor, his father in the faith – and tell him that his family is heading for ruin, that his sons have acted blasphemously and he has sat idly by and done nothing.
Not an easy job for a kid.  Or for anyone.  But the thing is, God doesn’t necessarily call us to things that are easy.  Telling truth that is difficult to hear isn’t easy.  But then, a lot of the things God calls us to are difficult.  

Loving your neighbor isn’t always easy.  Caring for the downtrodden isn’t always easy.  Working for justice isn’t easy.  Bringing hope where there is despair isn’t easy.  Sharing good news in a bad news kind of world isn’t easy.  We are called to follow Jesus, and let’s face it: following Jesus isn’t easy.  

It’s not easy – but it is the way to truly find joy and peace and hope.  It isn’t easy – but it is what this world desperately needs.  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Amen.

“Holy Ground” - October 3, 2021

Text: Exodus 2:23-3:15, 4:10-17

Last week we were with Jacob, who has this dream in which God speaks to him.  God will make his descendants into a great nation.  But at the moment, this dream is not doing so well.

Jacob’s son Joseph had been sold in to slavery in Egypt by his own brothers, but God had used this for good.  Joseph rose to a position of power and prominence in Egypt, and in a time of famine, the whole family had settled there.  But generations go by, and the Israelites were no longer honored or welcomed in Egypt.  Jacob’s descendants were numerous - so numerous they were feared.  They were made slaves and treated ruthlessly.

Pharaoh was so fearful of the Israelites that he ordered the Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah to kill the male Hebrew babies when they were born.  They ignored this directive, however – they were in the business of life, not death - and when Pharaoh learned the babies were living, he called the midwives in.  They had an explanation and even managed to insult the Egyptian women in the process – they told him that the Hebrew women were not like the Egyptians – they were strong and vigorous, and by the time the midwives arrived the baby had already been born.

So Pharaoh took the next step of ordering that every boy born to the Hebrews must be thrown into the Nile River.  This was at the time when Moses was born.  In an act of desperation, Moses’ mother put him in a basket and set the basket in the bulrushes along the river.  Pharaoh’s own daughter found the child, took pity, and took him in and raised him as her own.  So rather than be thrown into the Nile, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace.  Moses’ mother was hired as a nurse for him.

So Moses grew up as a part of Pharaoh’s household.  But as a grown man, there came a time when he witnessed an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave.  Moses was so angered that he killed the Egyptian.  He wound up having to flee the country.

He wound up in the country of Midian.  He married a woman there, Zipporah, and he got along well with her family.  She was from an important family – her father, Jethro, was the local high priest.  Moses had settled into life as a shepherd.  That morning, he got up and had his eggs and bacon - turkey bacon, of course – read the Midian Tribune, saw the kids off to school and headed out to the fields.  It was just a regular day.

Moses was out tending the flocks when he noticed something that did not seem right.  A bush was on fire but was not burning up.  It just kept burning but it was not consumed.  This bush drew him like a magnet.  And when he came closer, he heard his name being spoken.  He knew that it was God.  The voice said, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”

It was no small thing to stand in bare feet on the hot sandy ground in the heat of the day, but this was a sign of reverence and respect.  God had a message for him.  Moses heard the words of God as both good news and bad news.  The good news was, God would deliver the Israelites from bondage, out of Egypt.  The bad news was, God wanted Moses to be the one to lead them.

Moses says, “Gee, it sounds like a great opportunity and all, but I’m just not sure that I’m qualified.”  God says, “I know what I’m doing and I will be with you.  And the sign will be, after you lead the people out of Egypt, you will worship me right on this very mountain.”

Now what kind of sign is that?  You are supposed to get the sign first, not after the fact.  It’s not really a sign at all.  But Moses has other questions.

“If I go to the Israelites and say that the God of your ancestors has sent me, and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”  Moses wants to know God’s name.

To know another’s name is to know something about them, to have a handle on them.  The Hebrews believed that by knowing another’s name, you knew what another was about – in a sense, you had some measure of control over them.  But then again, names are connected with intimacy.  We know the names of those who are close to us, who are important to us.

Moses wants to know who this God is.  “Who shall I say sent me?”

But God would not be controlled by Moses or anyone else.  God understood what Moses was asking, and responded by simply saying, “I am.”  It is the Hebrew verb “to be.”  I will be.  I am who I am, I will be what I will be, I am up to what I am up to.  I am in charge, I am in control, I am God.

And this actually becomes God’s name.  The proper name of God is “I am who I am.”  In Hebrew it is the consonant letters YHWH, usually pronounced Yahweh – and this is where Jehovah comes from - but this name was considered so sacred that the Hebrews did not utter the name itself.  And so throughout the Old Testament, when we have these letters YHWH, it is generally written as LORD, in capital letters.  God’s actual name was thought of as so holy that it was not spoken.

Moses had other questions for this God who spoke to him from the burning bush.  He really did not want this job.  God offered some party tricks to impress people – to show that God had sent him.  He could throw a rod on the ground and it would become a snake.  He was given a couple of other signs, including pouring water from the Nile onto dry ground and it would turn to blood.

Even with all of this, Moses tried to get out of God’s call.   He tried to beg off as a poor public speaker.  But God would not be deterred.  Moses was the guy.  God becomes a little perturbed at Moses’ hesitance and tells him he can enlist his brother Aaron as his spokesman and press secretary.

Now there were good reasons for Moses’ reticence.  He had grown up in Pharaoh’s household.  The Israelites may not really trust him.  I mean, he had fled the country after killing an Egyptian in anger.  But Moses was uniquely qualified for this job.  Moses was educated, he was familiar with the workings of the state, he knew Pharaoh.  And he was free.  How many Hebrews could say that?  God used the unique qualities that Moses possessed.

God speaks to Moses’ concerns, and I think the role of Aaron is so important.  When we are called to a difficult task, when God wants us to do something really tough, how important it is to have help.  To have a community, to know that you are not in it alone.

I’m wondering this morning, where is it that we meet God? How do we experience the Holy?  Where do we find our burning bushes?  Where is our Holy Ground?

It is interesting that God appears and speaks to Moses right smack in the middle of an ordinary day, while he is tending the flock.  We may be tended to think that God speaks to us at church, or while at prayer, or when reading the Bible.  And don’t get me wrong, that happens, but God is not limited.  God will be who God will be and God will do what God will do.

Often as not, God is found not so much in the spectacular but in the commonplace, not so much in the dramatic but in the simple things, not in the expected but in the unlikely.  The possibility that God may meet us anywhere and everywhere makes all ground in a sense Holy Ground.   

Rita Nakashima Brock told about visiting an ancient church in the Mideast.  High over the altar was a mosaic of Moses kneeling in front of the burning bush.  Behind Moses’ back, where he couldn’t seem them, the mosaic was filled with bushes, every one of them on fire.

Part of finding Holy Ground is being open to the possibility that God might speak to us.  It is being open to potential and possibility.  It is being open to life.

Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado contains the remains of the cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people.  Park rangers lead walking tours to some of the less accessible sites.  Just before an arduous trek a ranger sat the group down for an explanation of what they were in for.  “Folks,” she nearly shouted, “in the next two hours you will hike into a canyon, climb rope ladders with at least 300 rungs, and crawl through narrow passageways on your hands and knees.  If any of you have any history of heart disease, I do not recommend you coming.  Now, are there any questions?”

The group was silent.  They were pretty intimidated.  Many were wondering whether they would be able to make it.  Finally, up popped the hand of a twelve-year-old girl who was just breathless with excitement.  “Do we really get to hike into a canyon and climb 300 steps on a rope ladder and crawl on our hands and knees through the rocks?  Is it true?  Do we really get to?”

The ranger smiled, “Now that’s the spirit I’m looking for! Let’s go!” And so off the group went.

God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, but it took Moses being open and curious and interested for it to work.  I wonder how many times God may be speaking to us but we are too preoccupied or disinterested or unengaged to notice.

Whenever we stand in the presence of God, we’re on holy ground.  We follow Jesus, known as Immanuel – God is with us.  And since God is with us, even here, since God is all around us, even now, that makes every inch of this planet holy ground – a place where God may speak to us.

As we walk this Holy Ground, let us be open to those burning bushes.  And let us walk alongside each other as we answer God’s call.  Amen.