Friday, October 27, 2017

"Ever Reforming" - November 29, 2017

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

I don’t know about you, but in my lifetime, church has changed.  A lot.  I grew up in a church in which women did not serve as deacons or as ushers.  I remember my mother serving as chair of the pastoral search committee one time, which was basically unheard of, 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. 

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, confronted him:

Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand scripture?  Would you put your judgment above that of many famous men and claim that you know more than they all?  Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain?
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 October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago - 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 it would be a bit of a chore to tweet 95 different theses.

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 time to time, not necessarily every year, but since this is the 500th Anniversary, it seemed right this morning.

Maybe we need to begin with what Reformation Sunday is not.  Reformation Sunday is not a day for Protestants to feel superior or to highlight our differences from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.  Luther protested practices and beliefs of the Church in his day, but he was not the only one, and in the years following, there was a Reformation within the Catholic Church.  We are observing Reformation Sunday because in every age, the Church needs to hold itself up to the demands of the gospel and the needs of its culture and follow in new directions as God may lead.

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.  Maybe it was just a coincidence, but Indulgence Selling really took off as the Church was financing a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.   

This was the time in which Martin Luther lived.  He 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, the bywords of the Reformation were found in Latin phrases, in several solas.

First, sola fide, or faith alone.  Salvation comes by faith.  Now, this does raise the question of “what is salvation?”  And we need to say that salvation is more than just getting to go to heaven – salvation in the scriptures is a broad term and it involves wholeness and meaning and fulfillment and living in right relationship here and now as well as in the life to come.  This salvation comes by faith – by faith alone.

Luther was so careful not to suggest that our goodness has anything to do with it that he was not a big fan of the letter of James.  James says, “faith without works is dead.”  Which is true: faith leads us to good works; it leads us to act on behalf of others.  If we show no evidence of our faith, then a person has to wonder.  But we are not saved by our good works, we are saved by faith.  Luther didn’t want anyone to be confused about that.

Closely related is sola gratia, or 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.  It is possible to get braggy about how great our faith is, but sola gratia says that everything, even our faith, is a gift of God.

Another Reformation theme is sola scriptura, scripture alone.  This has to do with where we find authority.  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.

Sola scriptura 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.  But the scriptures must be allowed to speak to us directly, unfiltered, as it were.  We all must determine the message of the scriptures to us for ourselves. 

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.”
  
I want to mention one more nifty Latin phrase that was a slogan of the Reformation – ecclesia reformandum, semper reformata.  A church “reformed and ever reforming.”

I like that – the idea of semper reformata says that the Reformation isn’t over.  And when I say the Reformation isn’t over, I do not mean the break between Protestant churches and Catholic churches.  In fact, many ties between various parts of the Christian family are strengthening.  When we say that the Reformation isn’t over, that means that the need for the church to constantly examine itself and follow the lead of the Spirit is still there and is always there.

One of my Baptist heroes was a guy named Will Campbell.  Campbell was a self-described “bootleg Baptist preacher.”  He was raised a Southern Baptist in Mississippi and went to Yale Divinity School.  He returned to pastor a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi but found it tough going.  His views on racial equality didn’t sit very well with folks.  He wound up becoming the chaplain at Ole Miss but was fired there, amid death threats, because he supported integration.  So he went to work for the National Council of Churches on a project to encourage minority voting and desegregation in the South.  He helped escort the students who integrated the Little Rock Central High School.  

His ministry had become one of fighting bigotry, but one day he had a revelation from God that he himself was bigoted – he was bigoted against bigots - and in the years that followed he became kind of an informal chaplain to rednecks and Klan members.  He visited James Earl Ray in prison – the man who had shot his friend Martin Luther King.  So by now pretty well everybody hated him.

Many years ago when I was at Virginia Tech, the Campus Ministers Association had Will Campbell come and make a presentation on campus, and beforehand several of us had dinner with him.  One woman asked him what he thought of the institutional church, which was kind of like throwing him a hanging curve ball—you knew he was going to hit it hard.  But this is what he said: “The church is OK.  I don’t have any problem with the church.  Once you accept that the church is inherently evil, then, yeah, the church is OK.”

That raised a few eyebrows, as you might imagine, so he went on to explain what he meant by that.  The Church was an institution and like all institutions, he said, at some point the purpose of the institution becomes the perpetuation of the institution.  So instead of changing lives or ministering to people in need or fighting injustice or educating in the faith or building God’s kingdom, the main purpose of the Church becomes the Church’s survival - and that self-centeredness is sinful.  Will Campbell would sometimes say things for shock value, but I had to agree.  It is easy for the Church to lose sight of its purpose.

And that is why after 500 years we are observing Reformation Sunday – to remind us of our purpose.  To remind us that the church is ever in need of reformation.  To call us to a renewed faithfulness. 

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 don’t know what is.

Baptists did not descend from Martin Luther.  We came out of the Separatist movement in England sometime later and were part of the radical wing of the reformation.  (You heard me right: Baptists have been radicals from the very beginning.)  We have a spiritual kinship with Anabaptists who were part of the Reformation on the European continent – people like Christian Fankhuaser, my grandfather 14 generations or so back, in Switzerland.

He was persecuted for his faith – by other Protestants – because he did not baptize his children as infants.  He built a secret hiding place in the barn to hide from the authorities, and he eluded them for over a year before he was finally arrested becasue of his religious views, imprisoned for a couple of years, and finally deported. 

Well, what about today?  Where has this history and reforming tradition brought us?  Today, the Church is at something of a crossroads, and the meaning and purpose of the Church in today’s world is very much in a state of flux.  

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. 

The fastest growing group in this country in terms of religious adherence is those who claim no religious affiliation.  Increasingly, people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  That can mean a lot of things, some of which are very positive, but it is largely a reaction against the kind of self-centeredness and empire-building and focus on self-preservation that Martin Luther and the Swiss Anabaptists and Will Campbell 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.  Ironic, isn’t it?

This is a time of change, but also a time of great opportunity.  The Good News is: the Church has faced challenging times before.  This is nothing new.  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.  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 reminded us, the just shall live by faith.  Amen.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

“Seeing the Heart” - October 15, 2017

Text: 1 Samuel 16:1-13


No job is perfect.  Some of you might argue that some jobs are less perfect than others, and that is undoubtedly true, but the fact is, every job has its down side.

Fred Hoiberg was and is a beloved figure here in Ames, the hometown star who returned to coach the Cyclones and lead ISU back to glory.  He was loved by the fans, but college coaching is not easy.  For a lot of coaches, the worst part is recruiting.  Traveling all over the country, trying to convince high school kids to come to Iowa to play basketball, knowing that your future depends on decisions of 17 year olds, all while dealing with the shenanigans that goes on with unsavory characters in the recruiting world, as evidenced by recent arrests for bribery and illegal payments at several universities.  It’s not for the faint of heart. 

But Fred escaped the world of recruiting.  He went to coach the Chicago Bulls in the NBA – a dream job.  In Chicago he can go out in public, go out to dinner and not necessarily be recognized.  But there is a down side to that job as well: NBA players don’t always defer to the coach, the press can be brutal, and there is a lot less job security.

I have talked to people who love teaching but don’t like all the bureaucracy.  Or they really enjoy working construction but don’t like that it is so dependent on the weather.  Or they enjoy scientific research but hate the iffiness of funding and constant pressure of chasing grants.  Or they like real estate but don’t like the long hours and weekends.

Every occupation has its ups and downs.  I once heard somebody talk about it as “paying the rent.”  He was talking about those aspects of the job that you might not especially care for.  You have to perform those duties, kind of as “rent,” so that you get to do the parts of the job that you enjoy.

Now I realize that for some people, the part they really enjoy is getting a paycheck.  Fair enough. 

Last week, we looked at the call of Samuel.  As a boy, God called him in the night, and with the help of the priest Eli, Samuel answered “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Now, Samuel is a grown man.  He was the last of the judges and the first of the major prophets of Israel.  The people of Israel had pleaded for a king.  They wanted to be like the other nations.  Samuel had warned that they should be careful what they ask for, that the king would take their lands and livestock and tax them heavily, and that God did not necessarily want them to be like the other nations.  But in the end, the people got what they wanted.  Assured and led by God, Samuel anointed Saul as King over Israel.

But as foreshadowed by Samuel’s concerns, Saul’s reign was a little bumpy.  He did not prove to be a good ruler and in the end, God asked Samuel to go and anoint a new king over Israel.

This is where we get to the part of the job that you don’t particularly enjoy.  God asks Samuel to anoint a new king, but Samuel did not relish this assignment.  This was worse than recruiting or grant writing, worse than working weekends.   

The fact was, this should not have been necessary.  The whole point of monarchies is to have a hereditary ruler.  The oldest son was supposed to succeed his father as king.  But God had other plans.

The biggest problem with Samuel anointing a new king was that Saul, who was now king, would not exactly be thrilled with the idea.  Samuel was not feeling real good about his relationship with Saul anyway.  There had been some conflict, and while Samuel as prophet had not hesitated to confront Saul with his sin, to go as far as anointing a new king would certainly put his life in jeopardy.  Samuel rightfully feared for his life. 

But he does it, because God had asked him.  He does it, because he is committed to serving God and because he knows it needs to be done.  Some of you can relate to that.  In our occupations, as parents, in our family life, with friends, we can face those difficult tasks that we don’t enjoy, but know need to be done.

And so Samuel heads to Bethlehem, where Jesse and his family lived.  God told Samuel to go to Jesse’s house, and that he was to anoint one of his as the new king.  Samuel doesn’t make a big commotion about it; he is trying not to attract attention.  But word gets around.  And he approaches the city, the city elders head out to meet him.  They are shaking in their shoes.  They don’t fear Samuel himself so much as the possibility that Samuel is bringing his controversy with Saul into their city.  What was to follow?  Would there be bloodshed?  Would the king draft their young men into military service, or commandeer their fields and flocks?

Samuel assures them that he comes peaceably, that there is no cause for alarm: he is there to offer a sacrifice to God.  Which was the truth - but not quite the whole truth.  Samuel was on a dangerous mission, and what he was doing would be considered treason.  The sacrifice is his cover story, so to speak, although a sacrifice and communal meal would certainly be a part of anointing a leader.  God told Samuel to say, “I have come to offer a sacrifice” – basically telling Samuel, “You don’t have to tell them everything, just share what you can safely share.”  Samuel tells the elders that they are welcome to come, although the rest of the story makes it sound as though none of the elders took Samuel up on his invitation.

Samuel and Jesse and Jesse’s sons purify themselves for the sacrifice—they go through ritual washings to be prepared for the worship of God.

The first son that Samuel sees is Eliab.  He was big and strong and good-looking--he looked like a king.  He is right out of central casting.  “Surely, this is the one,” thought Samuel.  But it wasn’t Eliab.  The Lord said to Samuel, “Mortals see only appearances but God sees the heart.”  Then Abinadab walked before Samuel, but it was not him either.  Jesse presented all seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said, “Sorry, the Lord has not chosen any of these.”

Now while we can understand the focus on appearance – we understand it because we live in a culture that cares a great deal about appearance – there is another factor to consider.  Serving as king meant being the political leader, the head of state, but it meant more than that.  This was a time when the king would lead the army into battle.  Being big and tall and strong wasn’t just about looking the part, it was also about doing the job.

Samuel had now met Jesse’s seven sons.  At this point, Samuel may have wondered if he got the message right.  Here he had been all nervous about it and as it turned out, he wasn’t going to anoint a new king anyway.  Maybe he had the wrong family, maybe it was supposed to be Jesse in Jericho.  He asked Jesse, “I don’t suppose you have any other sons, do you?”

As luck would have it, there was one more son, David, the youngest, who was watching the sheep.  David was just a kid, certainly not what you would think of as king material.  But Samuel said, “Nobody sits down till David gets here.”  David arrived, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; this is the man.”  Samuel took the oil and anointed him, and the scripture says, “The spirit of the Lord was with him from that day onwards.”

Of all the sons, David was the least expected.  Just a shepherd boy.  The leading prophet of the nation had come to visit – it would be hard to overstate how important an occasion this was - and David wasn’t even part of the gathering.  Seven is the Bible’s number of fullness and completion.  But David is the eighth son.   Eight connotes extra, leftovers, not as important, not really needed, an afterthought.  And when Samuel comes to visit, David does seem to be an afterthought.

What kind of choice was this?  David was young.  He had no experience.  He was untried.  He had never led an army, never even served in an army.  He had never been on a diplomatic trip, had no experience in negotiation, didn’t know what was involved in running a kingdom. 

The key is found for us in verse 7: “the Lord does not see as a mortal sees; mortals see only appearances but the Lord sees into the heart.”

The Lord sees the heart.  Now, the really ironic thing about this story is the description of David.  The text says he was “handsome, with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes.”  Apparently, he was not as good-looking as Eliab or some of his other brothers, but it is interesting that this description is included.  It almost illustrates the point.  While “the Lord sees the heart,” you get the feeling that in telling the story, years later, the writer couldn’t help but mention that King David was a good-looking guy even as a youngster.  Even though focusing on appearance is implicitly criticized in this story, the writer just couldn’t help himself.

When we look at another, what do we see?  Do we see appearances, or do we see the heart?

We live in a culture that is in many ways obsessed with appearance.  It’s all about optics.  And it is very easy to make judgments about others and judgments about what is of value based solely on appearance.

You may have watched American Idol of the Voice or one of those shows where they have what would appear to be an unlikely person, someone who is very young or who doesn’t really give off that “star” kind of vibe, who absolutely belts out a song with a powerful and beautiful voice.  Mandy Harvey delivered a stunning performance on America’s Got Talent, performing a song that she had written as she played guitar and sang.  She has a beautiful voice and perfect pitch.  And she is deaf.  She sings barefoot so she can feel the percussion and stay on beat.  It was an unlikely story.

It is easy to make determinations about other people based on what we see and what we think we know.  And it is very easy to be wrong.  We can fall into stereotypes and typecasting, and that can be dangerous.  Stereotypes lead to pre-judging – to prejudice.

Bryan Stevenson, a noted civil rights attorney who happens to be black, arrived for court early in order to prepare for an upcoming case.  This was the first appearance in this particular court for Stevenson.  He sat down at the defense counsel table as he had hundreds of times in his career, and waited for his client to arrive. The presiding judge walked in and saw Stevenson sitting there.  He admonished Stevenson, “Hey! Hey! Hey!   I don’t let my defendants sit there without their attorney – you go out in the hallway and wait for your attorney to arrive.”

Stevenson said, “I’m sorry, your honor, I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself.”  He told the judge his name and that he was the defense attorney.

And the judge laughed at him.  The prosecutor laughed at him.  He chuckled a bit himself, not wanting to disadvantage his client.  But somehow, it seemed absurd to the judge and prosecuting attorney that a middle aged African-American man could be an attorney.

Stevenson, a Harvard educated lawyer, dressed professionally in a suit and tie, wanted to know why the judge would simply assume he was the defendant.  And he wondered if that judge valued the testimony of black witnesses and claims and petitions of black defendants the same as others.

We are called to look beyond appearance, beyond race and age and outer signs of beauty.  It’s not that we do not see those things, it’s not that we don’t appreciate all of God’s children in all of their diversity.  But we are all far more than what others may see on the outside.  The Lord does not look at outer appearance, but the Lord sees the heart.

Simply by looking at another, we cannot measure heart.  We cannot measure love and kindness and commitment and empathy.  We cannot know intelligence or skill, or ability to learn, or willingness to serve.  None of these things have to do with appearance.

There is a new show on TV this fall called The Good Doctor.  It is about Shaun Murphy, a young man with autism and savant syndrome.  He has difficulty with social engagement and communication, but he is a brilliant doctor.  But nobody sees him and thinks that this is a brilliant surgeon.

There is far more to all of us than what might be gathered based on our outward appearance.  Now, this is not to say that when choosing a leader, criteria don’t matter.  Iowa State is in the middle of a presidential search, as many of you well know.  Well, I guess we are closer to the end of a presidential search.  And the fact is, criteria can be very helpful.  Resumes are useful.  Of course you look at track record.  But at some point, the criteria are not really the main thing.  The resume is not the main thing.  Appearances are not the main thing.  How much more so is that true in God’s kingdom.

God does not always choose the tall, strong person who looks like a model.  God had called Samuel as a child.  And now, God used Samuel to call another unlikely leader.

Sometimes it’s the unqualified, the inexperienced, the unlikely, the one nobody would expect.  Sometimes that is the person God calls.
       
Sometimes God calls the youngest son of a small-town shepherd.

And sometimes, the unlikely person that God is calling is you.  Amen.

"Seeing the Burning Bush" - September 24, 2017

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


Have you ever noticed something that just doesn’t look quite right?  Something seems out of place, something seems amiss.

I once saw some Amish kids playing baseball.  A young girl came up to bat – and something seemed wrong about the whole picture.  I looked again and it was obvious - she was wielding an aluminum bat.  The bat just screamed modern technology.  I didn’t know what to think about it.

I remember pulling into our driveway one time and seeing what looked like black mold along the front of the house.  I was instantly mortified.  I went to take a look.  It turned out that it was just a bunch of box elder bugs, warming themselves in the sun on a cool fall day.

Maybe you have been away on vacation.  You come home and something doesn’t look right to you.  It’s the lawn.  What’s wrong with the picture?  The grass is not knee high.  It’s neatly manicured.  A thoughtful neighbor mowed the lawn while you were away, without you knowing about it.

Or you open the paper and look at the baseball standings.  Something is not right.  You look closer.  The Chicago Cubs are still in first place.  Something is clearly wrong here.

When things do not appear to be right, when something look out of place or are unexpected, it pays to take a closer look.  You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know that.

This morning, we come to a story that involves a closer examination of something that just doesn’t look right.  It is an experience in the life of Moses.

We are moving fairly quickly through the early stories of the Old Testament.  Last week we were with Jacob, who has this dream in which God speaks to Jacob.  God will be with him and make his descendants into a great nation, and as numerous as the dust of the earth.  But in today’s scripture, that dream seems a little iffy.

Jacob’s son Joseph had been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, but God has 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, like in the dream. but they were so numerous they were feared by Pharaoh.  And do they were made slaves and treated ruthlessly, but they only became more numerous, which made Pharaoh fear the Israelites all the more and treat them even more harshly. 

Pharaoh was so fearful, in fact, 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 Egyptian women in the process – they told him that 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 Pharoah’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 land of Midian.  He married a woman there, Zipporah, and he got along well with her family.  Moses settled into life as a shepherd.  It was a comfortable life.  Sure, he remembered his people back in Egypt and wondered about them from time to time.  But he took a certain satisfaction in being a shepherd – an occupation that was detested by the Egyptians.

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

Moses does as he is asked.  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.

Our Nominating Committee will be meeting soon, and it occurs to me that this is a great text for Nominating Committees.  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.

It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of names in the scriptures.  In Genesis 2, the man names the animals.  Later Abram and Sarai receive new names – they become Abraham and Sarah.  Last week, Jacob named the place where God had spoken to him in a dream Beth-El – the House of God.  Later God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and Israel becomes the name of the nation.

Names are of great significance.  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, those who are important to us.

How had Moses come to this place?  His life was saved because of Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah.  It was saved because of his mother Jochebed who hid him in the bulrushes and his sister Miriam who stood watch and who offered to find a nurse for this Hebrew child.  His life is saved because of Pharaoh’s daughter who is not named here but whose name is later in scripture suggested to be Bithia.  And then we have Pharaoh – who is unnamed.  These five women act subversively to save the life of Hebrew children and specifically of Moses.  And we know their names.  Pharaoh, the most powerful man around, is fearful and his name unknown.

Names tell us something important.  And Moses wants to know who this God is.  “Who shall I say sent me?”

But God would not be domesticated.  God would not be controlled by Moses or anyone else.  God understood what Moses was asking, and responded by simply saying, “I am.”  That’s it.  “I Am.”  It is the Hebrew verb “to be.”  I am who I am, I will be who 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, or Yahweh, it is generally written as LORD, in capital letters.  God’s name was thought of as so holy that it was not spoken.

There are other words for God in the Hebrew scriptures, such as elohim and adonai, but when in English we read LORD in the Old Testament, it is this sacred name of God, “I am.”

Moses had other questions for this God who spoke to him from the burning bush.  He really did not want this job.  He tried to beg off as a poor public speaker.  But God would not be deterred.  Moses was the guy.  God becomes perturbed at Moses’ hesitance and tells him he can enlist his brother Aaron as his spokesman and press secretary. 

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 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.  God may speak to you in the middle of a hard day’s work.

It also strikes me that Moses was uniquely qualified for this job.  Moses was educated, he had grown up in Pharoah’s household, he was familiar with the workings of the state.  And he was free.  How many Hebrews could say that?  God used the unique qualities that Moses possessed.

At the same time, God’s call can be challenging and it can frankly be a little scary.  When we are called to do something that is important and worthwhile, that responsibility can be very sobering.  It certainly is for Moses, and he tries to beg off.  He comes up with excuses.  God speaks to Moses’ concerns, but here is the thing: in the end, it was still up to Moses.  There was still freedom involved.  We always have a choice.

What if Moses had said, “No way God, find yourself somebody else?”  What if Moses just flat refused? 

And beyond that, what if Moses had never noticed that burning bush in the first place?  What if he had never stopped to look closer and investigate?  What if he had never heard that voice speaking from the burning bush?

The answer to these questions is, “I don’t know.”  Could God have found somebody else?  Of course.  Could God have spoken to Moses in another way?  Of course.  On the other hand, do our actions change the outcome of things?  Do our choices matter?  Of course they do.

Thankfully, despite some hesitation, Moses said yes to God.   

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?

For Moses, it is out in the field.  It’s while he is in the middle of a workday.  This certainly was not something he had planned on.  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, 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.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, September 8, 2017

“Where Do You Come From?” - September 10, 2017

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Where do you come from?  This time of year especially, with new students and lots of new faces, that question gets asked a lot.  What’s your major?  Did you go to the game?  Where do you live?  Where are you from?  It is asked enough that I’m sure students get tired of it.

But it is an important question.  And around here, the answer could be literally anywhere.  The vast majority of folks in our church did not grow up in Ames, so most of us are from somewhere else.  On a given Sunday you can find folks who are from Texas or Minnesota or Illinois, or Brazil or Korea or Ghana or Laos, but those who actually grew up in Ames are a fairly small group.

So the question gets asked: “Where are you from?  Where did you come from?”

I dabble in genealogy.  Find it fascinating.  At the root of it all is a question about history and identity.  The past is filled with mystery, with question marks, and the big question is, “Where did we come from?”  I decided to do the DNA test that will tell you where your ancestors are from.  You order it online and they send you a package with a little tube to spit in.  (This is just an aside, but it is surprising how much spit they require.)  You seal the tube, ship it off, and in 6-8 weeks they send you the results with information about where your ancestors lived from a few hundred to a couple thousand years ago, along with some other information.  So I did this and waited.  In the meantime, they sent a couple of email updates.  “Your sample has arrived at our facility.”  “Your sample is now being processed.”  “We’re busy running your DNA through the lab.  We’ll send you an email when your results are ready.” 

It was nice of them to think of me, but while they sent these messages every week or two to let me know that the process was moving along well, and I’m sure to heighten anticipation about the final results, things were obviously not going well, because eventually I received an email that read, “Unfortunately, after multiple attempts, we were unable to use the sample you sent.”  Are you kidding me?  I sent perfectly good spit, and now they are saying that they can’t use it?

They asked if I wanted them to send another kit.  So we went through the whole thing again, and finally, about a week and a half ago, I happened to check my email and there it was.  “Your DNA test results are now available.”

I eagerly clicked the link to see the results, but they were really not much of a surprise.  The family tree that I knew about, along with my light skin and red hair - well, at one time red hair - suggested a certain profile, and my DNA test results definitely fit that profile.  My ancestry is heavy on Great Britain and Ireland, with some Western Europe and Scandinavia thrown in.  The Scandinavian part was a mild surprise, but then the Vikings overran Normandy and parts of Great Britain, not to mention founding Dublin, so perhaps that’s where my Scandinavian ancestors entered the picture.

Where do you come from?  It can be a big question, because it can have to do with a lot more than simply a street address or matters of geography. 

Where we are from is not just an ice-breaker question when we meet a new person.   The place we are from has meaning to us personally – it can serve to ground us and give us a sense of who we are.

At the Farmers Market a couple of weeks ago, I bought some corn and tomatoes and radishes from a particular vendor in part because the guy was wearing an Indiana t-shirt.  I asked him if he went to school at IU or if he was from Indiana.  I imagined having something in common to talk about but.  The place we are from can create those shared connections.  But he said that no, it was just a shirt he got at Goodwill.

I walk the dog every morning and when it is cool, I often wear my Evansville sweatshirt.  I graduated from college more than 30 years ago, but somehow there is still this connection.  The place we are from, or maybe the places we are from, can matter to us.  This past week it has certainly been obvious that the school we went to can create a strong allegiance – it can be part of our identity.

“Where are you from?” “Where is home?”  “Who are your people?”  We share our stories to identify our origins – and at least in part, to define who we are.

Today’s scripture from Genesis is a story that tells us who we are and where we are from.  The opening chapters of Genesis are some of the best known chapters of scripture.  They contain foundational stories, but they are neither history nor science as we understand those disciplines today.  The first chapters of Genesis are more in the category of poetry – they are important stories that help us to understand life and God and the world and our place in it.  This is truth with a capital T.

In some circles, reading this account of creation raises questions about when the earth was created or whether dinosaurs and people were on this planet at the same time.  For some, it is a rebuke and proof that evolution is false and that science can’t really be trusted.

To reduce these powerful and moving words to a scientific argument – or to be more precise, an anti-scientific argument – is to miss the point entirely and really to do damage to the Biblical message. 

The creation narratives tells us who we truly are and where we really come from.  It affirms the reality of a good God, a good world, and a beloved humanity.  It tells us about a God who loves all of creation.

In other words, Genesis is not trying to be an alternative to carbon dating, and understanding it in that way completely misses the point of the scripture – it misses the power and beauty and inspiration and the spirit behind the written word.  The story of creation tells us something much more powerful.

Where do we come from? We owe our existence to a loving God who delights in us and in all of creation.

Some have suggested that the first chapter of Genesis was a hymn, or at least a hymn-like liturgy, because it contains these repetitive phrases.  Again and again, we read, “And God saw that it was good.”

That one phrase, which we hear over and over, tells us a couple of important things.  First, we come from a God who sees.  Seven times in this story, God pauses to reflect on God’s handiwork.  Again and again, “God saw.”  Well before the work is done, God steps back to behold all that is taking shape.  Like a musician who thrills at a moving harmony, like a poet who is inspired by a beautiful turn of phrase, like an artist who considers every brush stroke, like  a woodworker who attends to every detail, this is a God who lingers over creation — every leaf, every stream, every creature, every child.  God is not in a hurry, and God’s interest in the world is much more than simply utilitarian.  It’s not just about making the big picture work.  God observes.  God reflects.  God notices.  God cares.    We come from a God who pays delighted attention.

Christopher Chabris and Dan Simons did a research experiment.  Volunteers were asked to watch a video of students passing a basketball and count the number of times the ball is passed.  During the video, a gorilla walks through the action and is visible on screen for nine seconds.  The interesting thing is that about half of people watching the video did not notice the gorilla at all – like it wasn’t even there.  This was called the invisible gorilla experiment.  The gorilla wasn’t really invisible, but it seems that way because people often don’t see it.

Well guess what: God notices the gorilla.  God also notices the butterfly and the dandelion and the child that nobody seems to notice.  We are created by and made in the image of a God who sees, a God who notices.

God saw – God noticed.  And God saw that it was good.  We come from and we are part of a world that is good.  Before there was evil, there was goodness.  Before there was Sin, there was Blessing.  Before there was acrimony and fighting, there was harmony and cooperation.  We can be in such a rush to insist on human sinfulness and get to the idea of Total Depravity that we forget that the beginning is just brimming with goodness and blessing.  After each day of creation, God says, “It is good” and after creating humankind, God looks over the creation and says, “It is very good.”   God looks over all that God has created and says, “It’s all good.  It is very good.”

I admit that it sounds a little foolish, or at least a little contrarian, to think about the goodness of the world just now.  Fires, hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes.  Not to mention the pain that God’s children can inflict on one another, including racism, terrorism and the threat of nuclear war.  It is a troubled time.

How do you get through such difficult times?  Part of the answer is to remember God’s care, to notice and reflect on the goodness of this world, and to do our part to spread the goodness around – not to ignore the pain around us, but not to let that pain define us, either.  Because goodness and the ability to notice - to see goodness - is part of who we are.

What would it mean if we really believed – even in such a troubled world – that at the heart of it, God’s creation is good?  What if we really believed that the default setting of our world – and of our own hearts – is not tainted with evil, but filled with goodness?  What would it be like to bless God’s world without reservation or stinginess or fear?  What would it be like to truly live out the goodness that is our heritage? “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”  This is our foundation, this is our beginning, our roots - this is our where we come from. 

Where do we come from?  We come from a God who is in the business of creativity.  According to Genesis, God created something new each day.  God was an innovator at the world’s beginning, calling forth beautiful things that did not exist until God called them into being.  The question is: is God still at it?  Do we believe in a God who is dynamic and vibrant, or who is static and stagnant?  Is God’s creative work finished, or is God still in the business of creating, or making things new and of making new things?

Frederick Buechner writes,

Using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water, every twenty-four hours God creates something new out of them.  If you think you’re seeing the same show all over again seven times a week, you’re crazy.  Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again.  And the you that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same again, either.
We come from a God who is constantly creative and is still making things new.

Where do we come from?  We come from the morning and the evening, the light and the darkness.  Now, some forms of religious faith are filled with dualisms: the spirit is good and the body is bad.  Light comes from God and darkness comes from the devil.  But you will not find that in Genesis.  The God who is spirit blesses the body and calls it good.  The God who creates light calls the evening “good.”  The God who brings order also hovers over the chaos of the deep.

In her book on spirituality and darkness, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no.  To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up.  To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life.”  We come from a God who blesses and who is found in all of life.

Where do we come from?  We come from the likeness of God.  We are created in God’s image.  God’s mark is imprinted on our very being.  We might ignore it or deny it or distort it, but whether we acknowledge it or not, we reflect something of God’s joy, God’s hope, God’s love, God’s beauty just by virtue of existing.  Just by being us.  It is an awesome thought, but the testimony of scripture is that we reflect God’s image.

Awhile back I found my grandfather’s obituary.  He died in 1943.  He was 40 years old.  My mother was 7 years old and Uncle Marvin was 5.  Reading that obituary was very sad.  They lived out in the country in southern Illinois, and today Interstate 64 is about ¼ mile from where their house was.  Sometimes I stop at a gas station a couple hundred yards from where my mother lived as a child.  That is a part of where I come from. 

What is interesting is that if you go back far enough, our family trees will intersect.  It was pretty funny when it came out a few years back that President Obama and Vice-President Cheney are distant cousins.  The thing is, if you go back far enough, we are all connected.  We are all family, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all children of God, we are all of us created by a God who loves us and calls all of creation good.

Where do you come from?  The Good News is that we come from the best of beginnings.  We come from a glorious Creator.  We come from the loving heart of God.  We are all God’s beloved children.  The challenge for us it to live like it.  Amen.