Friday, January 25, 2013

“Celebrating the Word” - January 27, 2013

Text: Nehemiah 8:1-10

A few years ago, I spent a day visiting cemeteries with my mom and dad.  My parents are pretty serious cemetery-visitors, going to 6 or 8 different cemeteries in southern Illinois on Memorial Day weekend, decorating graves of parents and grandparents and siblings and assorted family members.  But I had been working on family history, doing some genealogy, and we were going to visit cemeteries where ancestors further back on the family tree, some of their great-grandparents and beyond were buried.

One of those places was Centerville, Illinois.  There is a decent-sized cemetery there.  We found some family members there, including the grave of my great-grandfather’s brother, John Wesley Russell.  He died in 1898, and the tombstone was toppled over on its side.  We never found the graves of his parents, my great-great grandparents.

We told my Uncle Leonard about our little trip to Centerville.  “Centerville is where it all started for the Russells,” he said.  He remembered that as a child, there was a relative who ran a store in Centerville.  My great-great grandparents had moved there probably sometime in the 1840’s.  Lewis Jackson Russell was a wagon-maker.  The cemetery was filled with Russells and Funkhousers.  We haven’t been able to trace the Russells farther back than that, although we know that a generation earlier, we were in Ireland.

Well, Centerville may be where it started for my family, as far as being Midwesterners, but there isn’t much to see there today.  The town looks a lot like that fallen-over tombstone.  There are maybe 4 houses standing and actually inhabited.  That was the whole town.  And there was nothing in the surrounding countryside.  There were cornfields and beanfields, but the farmhouses were missing, the farms no doubt bought up by some big conglomerate.  Nobody lived in the area.  Not that it was ever a thriving metropolis, but Centerville was a long way from what it had once been.  There had to be 100 times as many people in the cemetery as there were living in the town.  It was a ghost town.

Jerusalem may have resembled a ghost town to the Hebrew people upon their return from being held captive in Babylon.  In the year 587 BC, Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and carried off much of the population back to Babylon with them.  They took the educated classes, the prosperous citizens, the skilled workers, the community leaders.  Imagine Ames minus health care professionals and teachers and lawyers and engineers and artists and musicians and business leaders and computer experts and law enforcement officials.  Only a small number of peasants had remained to hold down the fort.  And ancient cities were very much like forts, surrounded by protective walls, usually several feet thick.  These walls, complete with massive gates and watchtowers, inspired feelings of security.

Years passed and finally the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland.  Jerusalem was a sight for sore eyes, even for the many born in Babylon who had never actually lived there before.  They were finally home.  But home was nothing like it had been.  They found Jerusalem in a shambles.  The walls had been torn down, the temple destroyed. The narrow streets that had once held bustling market traffic were now filled with rubble.

Still, it was home, the land God had given to their ancestors.  The returning exiles were poor and had few resources for rebuilding, but they nevertheless set to work.

One immediate need was to rebuild the city walls.  Without the advantage of modern power tools, the building team accomplishes most of the work in fifty-two days.  Now think about that for a minute.  We’ve been waiting for months and months for Olive Garden to be built here in Ames, but working with no back hoe, no cranes, no power drivers or power saws or anything – just hand tools and animals and brute strength, they rebuilt the walls surrounding the city of Jerusalem in 52 days, which is pretty good if you ask me.  The rebuilding and restoration of Israel had begun.

Ezra and Nehemiah emerged as the great leaders of the Jews during this time.  Nehemiah had been the personal valet – or valet, if you watch Downton Abbey – to King Artaxerxes of Babylon, who allowed him to go back to Jerusalem to lead the rebuilding.  He was the governor; Ezra was the priest.  They led a campaign to rebuild Jerusalem.  But just as daunting a task as physically rebuilding the city of Jerusalem was the challenge of rebuilding the nation as a people. 

While in Babylon, religious observance was difficult for the Jews.  “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?“ they had asked.  They had been unable to observe the Law and after a while they forgot about trying.  They had begun to lose their identity as a people.

But now they were back in Jerusalem.  Now the temple was rebuilt.  Now the wall was rebuilt.  Now was a time to return to God.  Nehemiah makes plans for a city-wide revival.  Ezra is the preacher.  He gathers the people on the plaza by the Water Gate, which was securely imbedded in their newly-refurbished city wall.

It is interesting that this gathering does not place at the temple.  You have just rebuilt the temple; why not meet there?  And it is very interesting that it takes place at the Water Gate.  (And by the way, if anybody asks you what the sermon was about today, you can tell them it was about Watergate.)  There were several gates in the walls of the city.  But what set the Water Gate apart was that it was not restricted to “men only.”  At the temple, it would have been men only.  At another gate, it would have been men only.  But the text says that Ezra “brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.”  In this society where women generally were not much involved in the religious life of the community, this revival meeting was for everybody.  This was a foundational event in the life of the nation.  They were becoming a people again.

The Water Gate is a most appropriate place for the people to receive the living water of God’s word.  Ezra rolls out the scroll of Moses and begins to remind the people who they are as members of the family of God.  He advises this congregation that the Law of Moses is not a burden, but a gift, one they can receive with an attitude of gratitude.  And they receive it that way.  God’s instruction was not seen as cramping, restrictive legislation; it was understood as a compassionate guide, a path, a set of wise instructions about how to live together in justice and joy and peace.

The people were sitting on the ground, as was and is the custom in that part of the world, but when Ezra began to read, the people stood out of respect for the Law.  And the Bible says that Ezra read from early in the morning until midday.

Early in the morning may vary from person to person--I know that for some of you, 4 am is early, and for others, 8 or 9 am is early--but any way you cut it, this was a lengthy reading of the scriptures.

As I read our text from Nehemiah, you may have noticed a lot of long, hard-to-pronounce names that really didn’t help us understand the passage.  The appointed lectionary text leaves out those verses and I considered skipping them, but in the end decided to go ahead and read them.  My thinking was, we read a few verses of the Bible and it begins to seem like a really long, drawn-out reading.  We become impatient and we find it hard to listen.  Yet here were people who listened to the scriptures read from early in the morning to midday.  I figured a few long names and a couple extra verses wouldn’t hurt us. 

And so the reading went from early morning to midday.  During the scripture reading, there were priests--Levites--in the crowd, helping the people understand what was being read.  The text says that they interpreted the reading.  Since it was read in Hebrew, they may have been translating it to the more familiar Aramaic.  And they helped them understand what it meant for them now, in this place, in light of their present circumstances.

The people are so hungry for God’s word that they listen intently.  They are reminded that their covenant with God involves promises and responsibilities on both sides.  God has chosen to enter into relationship with them.  What really grabs our attention about all of this is the reaction of the people.  They begin to weep.  (And no, they weren’t just crying because the reading went on and on and on!)  Not having heard the law and not having observed it for so long, they hear the Word of God and are powerfully moved.  They are moved for all sorts of reasons.

Everyone able to understand is there.  Everyone is included, even those considered ritually unclean.  For them, this was a powerful experience – they too were part of the God’s community.

Older members of the nation may have grown up in Jerusalem.  They had not dreamed they would worship again in the Holy City, and to hear the Law read openly, publicly, in a way that gathered the entire community, was an overwhelming experience.

Some had been battered by a lifetime of servitude, of oppression, living as aliens in a strange land.  To now gather and hear the Word of God as free people, in their own land, in their Holy City, brought hope and possibility and renewal and literally gave them a future.

Some heard the Word of God read and then listened as it was interpreted, as it was explained to them.  Some only spoke Aramaic and did not understand the Hebrew reading, and were grateful that it was explained for them.  Some had not put it together before that these were not simply words inscribed on tablets centuries before, but that these words had meaning for them here and now, in this moment, and that God’s Word could lead them and guide them and direct them and comfort them, and they were moved to tears.

Others heard the Law of God and realized how far they had strayed, how far short they had fallen, and were convicted of sin.  As they heard the Law read, they could check off the commandments they had broken.  They were led to change their ways and moved to tears out of mourning over their sin.

Many in the crowd were weeping.  But Ezra and Nehemiah said to the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.”  And what’s more, Ezra says to the people that they should go home and eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send food and drink to those who don’t have anything prepared.  Don’t be grieved, live it up!  For the joy of the Lord is your strength.

The reading of God’s word inspires repentance, praise, thanksgiving, hope, and action.  The people gathered there that day were starved for God’s word.  Some had not heard it read for many years; some had never heard at all. 

How different it is for us.  Most of us have multiple Bibles in our homes.  It is the best-selling and most widely available book in history, but we mostly take it for granted and don’t read it very much.  But in times of loss, times of pain, times of uncertainty, times when we need direction, times when we need comfort, times when we need to be challenged, we turn to the Word of God and it is there.  It will guide us and inspire us if we will allow it.

Timothy Haut is a pastor and poet in Deep River, Connecticut.  He wrote a poem called Ezra at the Gate: An Imagination on Nehemiah 8:1-10

His hands trembled
As the old prophet stood before the crowd,
The old, the young,
All of them a remnant
Without a memory of this place.
The broken city,
The beloved desolation,
The citadel of shame.
Around him were the ones
Whose tears we still remember:
Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah,
Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah,
Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah,
Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah,
and Meshullam.
Blessed Meshullam--
Whose rough hands, blistered,
Had held hammer and saw,
Had finished the fallen gate,
Laid the beams, fashioned the door,
Installed its bolts and bars.
Ezra saw Meshullam’s tears
As he read the old words,
The ancient law, Moses’ treasure,
Saw that he, and all of them,
Might dream again,
Though not yet of another
Carpenter’s son
Who would raise up
Another broken city,
Restore this beloved desolation
For all of time.
Ezra’s heart leapt
At these wondrous tears,
Saw in them some goodness
In this new day, beginning
All of them waiting
For joy once more
To enter the Old Gate.
Like the people that day at the Water Gate, when we come into the presence of the living God, when we center our worship on God’s word, when we consider its meaning for us, here, now, this day, in this place, when we offer ourselves to God, we cannot help but be changed.

Ezra read the Law to the people, and they were moved.  As Christians, we see the law not as a means to salvation and not as a bunch of arbitrary rules, but as a gift from God which can be positively summarized in Jesus’ commands to love God and love our neighbor.  Seeing the Law in this way, Christ becomes for us not a rejection of the law or an end run on the law, but the fulfillment of the law.

We gather then to give glory to God and to allow God to make a difference in us so that we can go forth to make a difference in God’s world.  And when that happens, we have reason to go forth and celebrate, like the people on that great day.  For “the joy of the Lord is our strength.”  Amen.

Friday, January 18, 2013

“Timing Is Everything” - January 20, 2013

Text: John 2:1-11
3rd Sunday After Epiphany, MLK Sunday

You know what they say: timing is everything. Whether it’s telling a joke, making a dramatic entrance, throwing a pass to your wide receiver, or buying stocks, timing is everything. When the timing is right, people crack up at the joke, they are wowed by the entrance, the pass is completed for a big gain, and you double your money.  Mess it up with poor timing, and the joke falls flat, the entrance is clumsy, the pass is intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and you lose your shirt.

Which is what makes this wedding at Cana such a scene. The timing is all wrong.  The ceremony is not a disaster; nobody stands up and objects to the marriage; the bride is not arrested for assault, which happened earlier this year according to a news report.  The problem is with the wine – it runs out too soon.

This doesn’t sound to us like such a big deal. When Susan and I were married many years ago, the reception was held in the fellowship hall at the Deer Park Baptist Church in Louisville. We got along just fine without any wine at all. Of course, we were Baptists and there wasn’t any expectation of wine, especially with the reception at the church. (If we had run out of mixed nuts or those little mints they have on the serving table, it wouldn’t have had quite the same impact.) At any rate, running out of wine in the midst of a big wedding celebration may sound slightly embarrassing, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that calls for a miracle. If the wine starts to run out, you can always send somebody out to get some more. 

So, it’s a little bit embarrassing. Big deal. Well, in thi
s culture, running out of wine too early isn’t just a little embarrassing, it’s a disaster. A wedding was basically a party that went on for several days. Eating and drinking and dancing and visiting. The wedding was all about joyous celebration with family and friends.

The poor, which included most of the population, had cheese and bread and olive oil for their daily fare, with water to drink. Of course, the water was often of poor quality, but that is what they had most of the time. Wine was a cash crop and while many worked in the production of wine, the poor had little wine to drink, just as they had little meat to eat. But a wedding was different. A wedding was a time for extravagance. Marriages were often arranged years in advance, and a family might scrimp and save and plan literally for years ahead of a wedding. Sheep and calves and every delicacy would be served, and there would be wine in profusion.

Wine was more than just a drink. Wine had been vitally important throughout Israel’s history. Solomon exported wine to Lebanon in return for timber. Legal fines were sometimes paid with wine and it was often used as a medicine. The Good Samaritan poured oil and wine upon the wounds of the traveler who had fallen among thieves. Roman soldiers offered Jesus wine mixed with gall as he was dying on the cross. Even Paul instructs Timothy to take a little wine for his ailment.

Wine was so vital to the culture and economy of Israel that it took on theological significance. Isaiah used the lack of wine as an image of the desolation of Israel; an abundance of good wine was a sign of the arrival of God’s new age. Both Amos and Joel used the image of the hills dripping with new wine to describe God’s favor. Wine was not simply a beverage, but a powerful symbol of joy and gladness and God’s favor and blessing that everyone understood. And so, to run out of wine at a wedding celebration really was to run out of blessing.

I was in a wedding party once where the bride dropped the candle she as using to light the unity candle.  She dropped it on the Bible.  I could just imagine the Bible going up in flames at the wedding.  That would not be a good symbol for beginning a life together.

It was kind of like that with running out of wine.  This was not the way to start out your life together – running out of God’s blessing.  For the family, it really was a disaster.

The text does not tell us how long this wedding had been going on, but in mid-course, far before the festivities are to be over, the wine runs out.  Mary, apparently a close friend of the bride’s family, gets wind of this and reports it to Jesus.

Now to Jesus’ way of thinking, Mary doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of timing either. “They have no wine,” she says to her son.  And she clearly expects him to do something about it.

But Jesus seems to think this is another instance of bad timing: “Woman,” he responds, taking an oddly formal tone with his mother. “Woman, what concern is that to you or me?  My hour – my time – has not yet come.”

But Mary knows better.  She doesn’t raise an eyebrow at his tone or argue with him about timing.  She simply turns to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.”

It could be that, like a good Jewish mother, Mary knew her son would come around.  He might protest, but eventually he’ll listen to his mother.  Or maybe, Mary knew how to tell time better than Jesus thought.  She was, after all, the one who brought him into the world, the one who watched him grow, the one who dried his tears as a child and followed him when he became an adult.  Perhaps Mary recognized that whenever her son was on the scene, it was no ordinary time.

Despite whatever misgivings he may have had, Jesus acts.  There were six very large stone jars used to hold water for Jewish rites of purification.  Jesus told the servants to fill them with water, all the way to the brim, and then draw some out and give it to the chief steward.      
When they did, the water had become wine.  Not just any wine, but fine wine, far better than what had been served up until that point.  The steward was amazed.  And again, it is about timing.  Everybody serves the good stuff first, and then when people’s senses are a little, shall we say dulled, they bring out inferior wine, the $2.99 Aldi stuff.  But the steward says to the bridegroom, “You have saved the good wine until now!”  Of course, the groom didn’t know what he was talking about, but he wasn’t arguing.

Did you catch how much wine we are talking about?  Something like 150 gallons.  Something like 1000 standard size bottles of wine.  A lot of wine has already been served, and now they break out 1000 bottles of fine wine for this village wedding.  When Jesus supplies a need, he really supplies a need.  No one would be able to leave this wedding thirsty; abundance and blessing overflowed.

It’s all about timing.  C.S. Lewis commented that the miracle of changing water into wine is a miracle of the compression of time.  God is always changing water into wine.  No wine exists that didn’t start out as water.  It’s all of the intermediary steps that take time--the root of the vine taking the water, the bloom, the maturation of the fruit, the gathering, the fermentation, the aging and finally the wine.

Timing is everything, and not just in this scene at the wedding in Cana but across John’s Gospel.  In fact, there are two kinds of time.  One is chronos time, the kind of time with which we track the everyday events of our lives.  It is measured in seconds and minutes and hours, in days and weeks and months.  You have an appointment with the dentist on Tuesday at 9:30.  We generally watch the evening news at 5:30.  The mortgage is due the 5th of the month.  This is the 3rd Sunday, so we are going out to lunch.  Chronos time is the everyday kind of time that we spend waiting in line or sitting in class or driving to work – mundane, ordinary time.

But that is not all there is.  There is another kind of time, kairos time, a time filled with possibility and grace.  This is God’s time, and it breaks into our ordinary lives at unexpected times and in unexpected ways to reveal a glimpse of the divine.  So when Jesus speaks of his “hour” he isn’t talking about looking at his Timex; he is talking about the time when God’s glory will be revealed.  He is talking about the cross and resurrection and the time when God’s glory will be known and God’s mercy and grace will be available to all.  That time, that hour, Jesus says, has not yet come.

But maybe it has.  Mary seems to know what time it is better than we might expect.  For Mary seems to believe that Jesus can not only do something about this disastrous loss of blessing, but that he will.  

John reports tha this happened "on the third day."  Timing is everything.  This third day is a sign of the ultimate third day to come.

Whenever there is need and Jesus is on the scene, resurrection and abundance are right around the corner.  When Jesus is there, anything is possible.

It is interesting that Jesus’ first miracle, or sign as John calls it, is not some big splashy pyrotechnic kind of event.  He is not raising someone from the dead, it is not a public healing, he doesn’t feed the 5000 or calm the storm or walk on water.  In fact, hardly anyone even knows about it.  Mary and the servants and Jesus’ disciples are the only ones in on it.  The bride and groom don’t know, the guests don’t know, the chief steward who discovers that the good wine has been saved for later does not know.  The miracle is not for public consumption.  Jesus simply sees a need and responds.  Or more accurately, a need is pointed out to him and he responds.

And maybe that is for the best.  Miracles are not just for those extraordinary moments.  Miracles are not just for the holiest persons among us.  Perhaps, each day is filled with miracles if only we will look and listen.  How many times a day are we blessed in ways we don’t even realize?  Albert Einstein once commented, “There are two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.” How many miracles are there around us of which we are unaware?

And how often, right in the middle of what seems to be mundane, everyday chronos time, does God step in, and it becomes holy time, kairos time.

This past Tuesday was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  He would have been 84 years old.  In his life and ministry, Dr. King was often criticized for poor timing.  He needed to slow down, he needed to wait.  His response essentially was that we cannot simply live by chronos time.  This is kairos time, God’s time, and it is always the right time to do the right thing.

In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King answered the published statement of eight white clergymen, moderate church leaders who claimed they were not necessarily against King’s aims but that his actions in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely.”  King penned a response from his jail cell.  In response to being called an “outside agitator,” he wrote:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.  Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.  Like Paul, I must respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of our interrelatedness.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. 
And then in response to being called an extremist, he wrote:
Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.  Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”  And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”  And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?  Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?  In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified.  We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism.  Two were extremists for immorality.  The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.  Perhaps (we) are in dire need of creative extremists.
It’s all a matter of timing.  And maybe the question for us today is, “Do we know how to tell time?”

Maybe it’s 8:45 on a Monday morning and it’s time to wake up for your 9:00 class.  Maybe it’s 9:30 on a Tuesday morning and all that’s in front of you is a pile of invoices.  Or maybe it’s 6:30 on a Thursday evening and time for the weekly card game.  Or it’s 7:30 Saturday morning and time, finally, to sleep in.  This is all true but it is only part of the story.  The other part is that God is at work - in our occupations, relationships, our involvements, our family life - to bring about redemption and hope and healing.

How would we look at all the ordinary, mundane elements of our lives if we believed God was with us, working through us to care for God’s people?  Because whatever time we think it may be, it is also God’s time, and when God is around all things are possible.  Amen.

Thanks to David Lose for his fine article on the Working Preacher blog, which helped shape this sermon.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

“You Are Mine” - January 13, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-22

We were recently traveling, on the way to Arkansas, and we saw a new hotel that had gone up.  I notice such things, partly because we occasionally stop somewhere along that stretch.  It was a decent-enough looking hotel, and it had a cool feature: there was an indoor water park.  I knew that only because there were tubes coming out of the building and going back in – giant chutes that were obviously part of a big waterslide.

I can remember when waterslides were a new and cool thing, at least in my part of the world.  I still like waterslides.  There is an excitement and thrill to going down this long slide and then – whoosh – hitting the water. 

Water can fun and thrilling.  It is cool and refreshing.  But try telling that to somebody whose home was washed away along the New Jersey coast.  Try telling that to someone whose whole neighborhood was underwater in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Water can be delightful, but it can also be destructive and overwhelming.  It can be deadly.  We’ve had trying experiences with water right here in Ames, with flooding and damaged homes and businesses a couple of years ago, and again several years before that.

Our text from Isaiah speaks of those times when we go through the waters – and it’s not talking about waterslides. 

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.
Through the waters.  Through the fire.

Sometimes is it literal.  Wildfire out west.  Hurricanes along the coasts.  Flooding in the Midwest.  A house fir leaves one’s home in smoldering ruins.

More often, it is metaphorical.   When do we go through the waters?  When do we go through the fire?

There are as many answers as there are people.  Losing a job.  Losing a loved one.  Facing a health crisis.  Facing a scary future.  Watching a loved one mess up their life.  Watching yourself mess up your life.  Addiction to alcohol or drugs or gambling or work or any number of things.  Relationships falling apart.  Dreams that seem to be slipping away. 

Fire and flood represent all that can consume not only life and limb, but hope as well.

Isaiah’s words written to a bruised, bloodied and beleaguered people.  They are in exile in Babylon.  Their homes, their city, their nation was in ruins. But God still loves them and still offers comfort and hope and the promise of redemption.

Both flood and fire figure heavily into Israel’s story.  It was through the water of the Red Sea that Moses brought their ancestors up out of Egypt.  God’s presence was made known through the burning bush and a pillar of fire.  It was through the waters of the Jordan that the Israelites eventually entered the Promised Land.  There is the story of Meshach, Shadrack and Abednego surviving the fiery furnace.

As I read this passage, my thoughts turned to water and fire, and the question is, “Why doesn’t God keep us from the fire?  Why doesn’t God keep us from the waters?”  You’ll notice that God does not say, “I won’t let the waters reach you.  I will put out the fire so that you won’t have to face it.”

No, it says that when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  When you face the fire, it will not consume you.  Whether we will have to face the waters or the fire isn’t even a question.

God does not shield us or protect us from life.  But God is always there, with us, alongside us, going before us.  “When you are in over your head, I’ll be there.  When you are in rough waters, you won’t go down.  When you're between a rock and a hard place, there will be a way out.   Do not be afraid, I am with you. “

Now, these are words of great comfort to us.  Isaiah speaks of God as the one who goes through the fire with us, through the water with us so that we will not be overwhelmed.  That is comforting and encouraging.  But it is also a challenge.

It is a comfort because living life in general, and trying to live faithfully according to the ways of Jesus in particular, can be anything but easy.  It is good to be reminded that we are not alone, that God is with us in the midst of it all.

But this is also comes to us as challenge because it means we should not shy away from the paths that can lead through fire and water.  We belong to God, who has named and claimed us.  We stand with God, who has redeemed us.  And with God alongside us, we can persevere even through fire and water and confront those situations that seem so rife with difficulty.

The Gospel reading for this morning in some ways parallels the reading from Isaiah. It is the story of Jesus’ own baptism. 

Now, Luke reports the story a bit differently from Mark and Matthew.  Luke was familiar with Mark – it was the first gospel written.  And Mark reports it all very simply, like John and Jesus are the only two people in the world.  Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan – not by Jordan in the John, but by John in the Jordan – and there is a voice proclaiming, “This is my beloved son.”  It is to the point, and it is dramatic and powerful.

Matthew adds the detail that Jesus comes and asks John to baptize him.  John says, “I’m not worthy to untie your sandals,” but Jesus says, “No, this is the right thing to do,” and John baptizes him.

Luke is different.  In Luke, John the Baptist makes those comments to a crowd of people – he just says, “somebody is coming whose sandals I’m not even worthy to untie.”  Then it goes on to make a parenthetical statement about John getting thrown in prison for some pointed comments John made about Herod.

And then we read, “Now, when everybody was getting baptized, Jesus was also baptized.”  The spotlight isn’t really on Jesus.  He is just one of the crowd.  “All of these people were baptized and Jesus was too.”

It doesn’t sound right.  It sounds like Jesus is in line with everybody else.  To hear Luke tell it, John the Baptist doesn’t even know how to do lines right.  Jesus should have been in the Express line.  You know how you go to the airport and there is a super long line, but the mega-frequent flyers just waltz right to the counter in their own line?  Jesus should not have had to just wait in line with all kinds of humanity, he should have gone right to the front of the line.

But no, to hear Luke tell it, there is just one big line.  And there is Jesus.  Right with everybody else.  The poor, the outcast, the rich, the powerful, the hurting, the prideful, the desperate, the comfortable.  Right with everybody else – the fashionable, the destitute, the complainers, the pious, the irreverent.  Right with everybody else.  And right there with you and me.

God is with us.  And the words that Jesus hears are words God says to each of us: you are my beloved child.  I am pleased with you.  I am proud of you.  I love you and you are mine.

Here is what is amazing about all of this.  God is well pleased – but Jesus has not done anything yet.  He hasn’t!  He has not yet started his work.  God’s love and approval is right there at the very outset.  It is not earned, it is simply given.

Imagine how the world might be different if we all lived with that sure and certain reality that we are loved by God.  What if, at every step of our journey, we heard those words – I love you and you are mine, I am well pleased.

We all have a first memory - that first moment that we can remember as a child.  That first memory may be one of delight or joy, or it may evoke sadness or anger or bewilderment or who knows what.  Imagine that in the midst of that situation, that earliest memory, the first words spoken to you are these: “With you I am well pleased.”

Imagine, or remember, your first day of school - that first moment when you entered a new world of structure and learning.  Imagine hearing from your teacher, as the first words out of his or her mouth: “You are a great kid.  School is going to be so much fun.”

Imagine going to Brownies or Cub Scouts or some after school program for the first time, and hearing those words from the leader: “You are a fantastic scout.”

Imagine the first day at high school - maybe you are new to the area and are sitting in a room of strangers.  The teacher walks in and announces to each and every student waiting in anticipation: “I can see that you are an excellent student.  This is going to be a really great class and a really great year.”

Imagine you have just arrived to try out for the team, or audition for the choir or band, and the first word from the coach or the director, before you have even tried out is, “I am so glad you are going to be on our team.  We need a great point guard like you.  Or, I am so glad you are going to be in our choir.  I was just praying for somebody like you to anchor our soprano section.”

Imagine the first day of your first job, you are excited but nervous, feeling anxiety, and before you even punch the time clock the boss’ first words to you are, “We are so lucky to have such a talented person on our team.”

Imagine meeting your future in-laws for the first time.  You are feeling unsure about the whole thing, you are frankly worried about how this is going to go, and their first words to you are, “We are so thrilled to have you in the family.”

Imagine that in every situation in life, the consistent message we receive is that we are loved and accepted, even before we do anything.  It isn’t earned; it is pure grace.

God’s message for us – for all of us – before we even do anything - is, “I love you and you are mine.”  Before we are anything else, we belong to God. 

David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, wrote:

In an era when so many of the traditional elements of identity-construction have been diminished – we change jobs and careers with frequency, many of us have multiple residences growing up rather than living in a single community, fewer families remain intact – there is a craving to figure out just who we are.  In response to this craving and need, baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are, God’s beloved children.  We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.
To know that we are God’s beloved children can change everything.  To know that God calls us by name and that God is with us even through the fire, even through the waters, can make all the difference.

As a church, we have been on a journey of envisioning and discernment for the future.  And it can all feel a bit daunting.  We are not the biggest or richest or coolest or hippest or most happening church out there.  We don’t live in a society that is just beating down the doors of churches.  We are not situated just smack in the middle of a neighborhood full of churchgoers.  We have some ideas of where we would like to go, of perhaps where God may be leading us, but we’re not really sure.  There are plenty of challenges that we could enumerate if we wanted to.

But you know, this morning I’m thinking that none of that really matters.  Because God says to us, you are my beloved children.  With you I am well pleased.   When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; they will not overwhelm you.  When you walk through fire, the flame will not consume you.

Living with that faith and confidence in the love and care and providence of God, we don’t have to be afraid for the future.  We can face the water and the fire that will inevitably come.

As individuals, as families, as a church, God is with us as we face whatever challenges the future may hold.  God says to us: Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  I am with you.  I love you and you are mine.  Amen.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

25 Years of Ministry - January 6, 2013

On January 6, the church recognized Susan and me on 25 years of ministry.  Dr. Marshall Peters, Aiddy Phomvisay, and Susan also brought brief messages at the service.

Text: Isaiah 40:28-31

Thanksgiving Day was the 25th anniversary of my ordination.  I was ordained by Oakhill Baptist Church in Evansville, Indiana, the Southern Baptist church that I grew up in.  The ordination council was composed of about 15 people, all men.  Most of them I had know for most of my life, and getting through the ordination council wasn’t too difficult (although if they had known I would become an American Baptist, it might not have gone so well).

Next month, Susan will celebrate her 20th ordination anniversary.  After seminary, Susan was serving in ministry for close to six years before she was ordained.  Ordination was a tricky thing for a Southern Baptist woman in those days.  (Of course, now it has gone from tricky to pretty well impossible.)  Susan was ordained after becoming an American Baptist.

So, here we are to celebrate 25 years of ministry.  This is a humbling thing.  I know that many of you have worked for 25 years in your profession without being recognized.  I also remember a Ministers Council retreat where we recognized those present who had significant ordination anniversaries – some newer pastors were in their 5th or 10th year of ordination, others were maybe 20 or 25, and I think Royce Jones was 40.  And then there was John Anderson – 70 years of ordination.  So while it seems like a lot, maybe 25 isn’t so much.

My thought was to talk about “What I Have Learned in 25 Years,” which sounds interesting enough, but I only have about 8 minutes.  That would surely take at least 10 or 12 minutes.  So, I’ll save that for another tine, maybe even next week.

A recent study showed that around 50% of clergy leave the profession in the first 5 years.  It is a sobering statistic, really an amazing statistic and I hardly believe it, but it is cited by Kristen Stewart in her 2009 article, “Keeping Your Pastor: An Emerging Challenge,” published in the Journal for Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Whether the number is actually 50%, there is no question that ministry can be a real challenge, and a substantial number of folks can’t hack it or they have the good sense to move on, depending on your point of view.  That study certainly puts the challenges of ministry into focus.

I chose to read a scripture from the prophet Isaiah – it is one of my favorites.  And I think it fits well with the practice of ministry.  The text speaks of “rising up with wings like eagles.”  For me, this is what grabs my attention and makes this a memorable and inspiring passage.  There are those times in ministry when it feels like we are soaring.  Christmas Eve.  Easter morning.  A wonderful cantata.  Music Camp (especially right after it is over).  The baptism of a new Christian.  Mission trips that are both great fun and that open our eyes to the need and the possibility around us.   The joy of seeing young people grow in the faith and do well and get excited about following Jesus.  The feeling of really making a difference in someone’s life.  Sometimes, we are soaring.

It isn’t always like that, or course.  The prophet goes on and says that God gives us the strength to run and not grow weary.  It’s not flying, but running without growing weary is pretty good, you have to admit.  I think of all those recurring tasks, the work of ministry that keeps on coming.  Sermons, week after week.  I know someone who compares the task of preaching to the mythological figure Sisyphus, who was condemned to push this immense boulder up a hill.  As soon as it reached the top, it rolled back down and he had to start pushing it up again.

The work of the ministry keeps on coming: there are Bible studies and appointments and visits and committee meetings and choir rehearsals.  You get through one and there is another staring you in the face.  There are newsletters and bulletins and mailings of various sorts.  There are mini-crises and sometimes full-blown crises.  There are building issues and, yes, denominational meetings.  Sometimes there are even church basketball games.  Calendars are busy, life is busy, there is a lot to do, and to be able to run and not grow weary through it all can be a wonderful gift.  I am a jack-of-all trades kind of guy and for me, the variety of it all is part of the appeal.  I’m not complaining, I love all this stuff, but it is a blessing that God gives us strength to run and not grow weary.

But there are those times when that is too much.  There are those times when we are just plain tired.  There are times when we are too sad, times when we are too unsure of the path to take and the best we can do, the best we can hope for, it to just put one foot in front of the other and go on – to walk and not faint.  Now to walk and not faint doesn’t sound very ambitious.  If a genie were to grant us three wishes, that probably wouldn’t be one of them.  But the prophet says that God gives us the strength to do just that, and there are times when we need that kind of gritty, persevering, strength that comes from God. 

And in fact, maybe the strength to walk and not faint is the bigger gift.  In a list of items like this, the “biggie” always comes last.  “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  Or on a game show, a contestant is told, “You have won a case of Turtle Wax, a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat, and a new car!” There is a buildup to the really big gift.  And there are times when being able to walk and not faint is nothing short of a miracle.

Just as those times of soaring easily come to mind, I can remember times of just trying to walk without fainting.  I was president of the Ames Ministerial Association on 9/11.  It felt very heavy.  We organized a community prayer service and we trudged forward, offering God’s hope and strength.  There have been those kind of moments scattered over 25 years.  I have had dear friends become ill and then lose the battle with cancer.  I have been with folks experiencing great pain.  There have been those phone calls in the night when you know it can’t be good.  I have stood with parents who are deeply concerned about children and don’t know what to do.  There have been those times when it seemed as though possibilities were really opening up for the church, and then seemingly overnight, a whole slew of young families take jobs in other cities.  And on and on.  Sometimes it’s hard.  Sometimes all we can do just hang in there, to walk and not faint.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that this is not simply the way it is with ministry.  This is the way it is with life.  This is true for all of us.  Sometimes we fly, sometimes we can run and not grow weary, and sometimes it is all we can do to stand up and put one foot in front of the other.

To come to a milestone like 25 years is to me a celebration of God’s grace.  God has been with me and God has been with us in all of the times of life – those times when we are soaring and those times when we are barely trudging along, and all of those times in between.

Like the song says, “for all those dangers, toils and snares that he has brought me out.”  There have been those hard times, but God has never failed me yet.

One of the ways God provides for us and sees us through those dangers, toils and snares is through a caring community.  I never aspired to live in Iowa and didn’t imagine we would be here going on 14 years, but that surely says something about this church.  Ministry is a shared endeavor, something to which all Christians are called, and more than half of my ministry has been here in Ames.  I am grateful for this church and I am grateful for caring friends and colleagues.  I am grateful for excellent regional staff over the years, people Like Les Rempel and Gary Reif and Gary Grogan and Soozi Ford and Marshall, who is not only a fine executive minister but a good friend.  Ministry is a shared effort, we are all in this together, and “God hasn’t failed us yet.”  Amen.