Friday, December 18, 2015

“Shepherds” - December 20, 2015

Text: Luke 2:8-20

Christmas is now only five days away, and folks are making last minute preparations: shopping, wrapping presents, cooking, baking, mailing cards and packages, getting the house ready for guests.  It’s not usually a part of our pre-Christmas preparations, but my plans include mowing the lawn.  It struck me this week that instead of white snow we still have green grass, but I’ll actually be getting the mower out one last time to mulch up some leaves.

For some people, getting ready for Christmas is a much bigger operation than baking cookies, wrapping gifts and mowing the lawn.  Some will go to great lengths to insure that everything is just right.  If you want things to be perfect, then there is no need to decorate yourself; you can hire professionals to do it for you.  They will set up the tree, decorate your home, put up your lights, the whole bit.

Brite Ideas Decorating in Omaha has 350 franchises nationwide.  It’s a booming business.  To decorate your home for the holidays, prices start at about $1500 with no real limit to speak of.  I checked their website and unfortunately, they are sold out of their 14' Color Changing Cherry Blossom Tree, with 20,376 lights, which retails for $13,984.89 (it was not completely clear if this includes set-up and take down.)  Fortunately, their smaller 10’ Color Changing Cherry Blossom Tree with Iced Trunk is still in stock for only $5272.50.  Now mind you, this is just one tree that can be used indoors or outdoors and would serve as one part of your beautiful holiday display.

It’s not cheap, but a lot of people find the whole idea very attractive.  These trained professionals will set up a perfectly coordinated holiday masterpiece, and you can have a light display outside that will have cars lined up around the block.

It’s not just our decorating that may be lacking.  Who has time for baking?  And let’s face it - some of us are not that good in the kitchen.  Why do it yourself when you can go down to the bakery and get all kinds of wonderful Christmas goodies.  Or, you can rent a baker to come to your home and do your baking for you – that way you get the great smell of fresh-baked cookies in your home.  And of course you can also hire someone to do your Christmas shopping.  Doing all of this would make things easier, and the end product might be a lot better than if you were doing all of this yourself.  You would be one step closer to that perfect Christmas.

But the fact is, you could have someone else doing all of these things, and the people you hire could all be models of efficiency and artistry, but it still would not be a perfect Christmas.  There is something about our participation that is far greater than having things just right.

You know, the first Christmas was not exactly perfect, as we generally measure such things.  God seems to work through the everyday and ordinary more than the spectacular or bright and shiny.

The second chapter of Luke is one of the best-loved chapters of the Bible, telling of the birth of Jesus.  The words are beautiful and moving and poetic, but we have heard the story so many times that we can miss the power and the surprise of what is being said.  In our heads, we can have this “perfect Christmas” overlay on the story that tends to gloss over the more difficult parts of the narrative.

Bethlehem is not decorated for the holidays.  There are no beautiful displays around the city square, no performances of the Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol at the local theatre, no candlelight services planned, no festive holiday cheer to be found.  Instead, we find a city filled with people who do not want to be there but are forced by the Romans, the enemy invaders, to go and register so that they can be on the tax rolls.

We don’t find Mary and Joseph in a beautiful home, or any kind of home.  Despite the fact that Bethlehem is Joseph’s ancestral home, there don’t seem to be any relatives to take them in.    They are not even at the Motel 6.  After a difficult trip, with Mary in the last stages of her pregnancy, they wind up in a stable, a place for animals.  It’s the best they can do.  We don’t find candy and cookies and freshly baked holiday goodies.  There is no turkey and dressing on the dinner table –there isn’t even a dinner table.  We find weary, worn out travelers who are exhausted, hungry, and more than a little scared.

From giving birth in an outbuilding for animals to $14,000 color changing cherry blossom LED trees, Christmas has come a long way, hasn’t it?  Now, there is nothing wrong with out seasonal celebrations, and I enjoy it all, but what really matters is the message and the meaning of Jesus’ birth.  And even here, we can miss out on the depth of what Jesus’ birth means for us because of our familiarity with the story.

The traditions surrounding a birth in Jesus’ day were not all that different from ours.  When someone has a child, we celebrate.  You may see balloons in the front yard and a sign saying, “It’s a Girl!”  At one time new dads handed out cigars at the hospital, though now it is more likely bubble gum cigars.  Photos are shared on Facebook with congratulatory comments.  Family members come to see the new baby.  At church, there is a rose to announce the birth, as we have been doing regularly this fall.

But if a child is born to a famous person, things are a little different.  It makes the national news, at least Entertainment Tonight, and we read about it in People magazine.  If the birth is to royalty, it is a major news story.

In Jesus’ day, an important part of the celebration was music.  Local musicians would come and play at the birth of a baby.  It was a way of simultaneously announcing the birth and celebrating the birth.  The birth of a child to a person of power and wealth would be announced with great fanfare and singing.  If the child were a royal heir, there would be a huge celebration with wonderful music.

A choir rehearses.  Made up of wonderful singers, the very best singers around, the director works them hard.  (You know how those directors can be.)  The choir spends hours practicing so that everything is just right.  The music is powerful and incredibly beautiful.  Finally it is time for the big performance.

The choir has worked so hard and the music is so amazingly beautiful – angelic, you might even say – the choir members cannot believe that there will be only one performance.  This was the kind of music that deserved a tour at the finest venues around.  Crowds would love it.

But the director is adamant.  There will be only one performance.  It will not be at Carnegie Hall or an opera hall in Vienna.  It won’t even be at Stevens Auditorium.  There will be no network TV special, not even on PBS.  No, there will be one performance and one performance only, and it will be to a very small audience.  It is a free concert to some hard-living guys watching sheep out in a field.  That’s it.

Music at Jesus’ birth is entirely in keeping with the customs of the day.  What is amazing is that the audience for this beautiful, celebratory music, is some sheep herders.

Of all the people to whom the angels could have made the announcement, it is to shepherds.  Not to dignitaries, not to religious leaders, not to Roman officials, not to the upper crust of Jewish society, but to shepherds.  This sounds odd enough.

What we may not necessarily grasp is just how far down shepherds were on the social ladder.  For us, raising sheep sounds respectable enough, if that is what a person wants to do.  Ranching can be an honorable and profitable business.  But in Jesus’ day, shepherds were on the bottom rung of society, looked down upon because among other things, they were ritually and religiously unclean.  Besides being just unclean, period.  They were dirty and smelly, rough people, poorly educated.

Because of where and how they worked as well as their ceremonial uncleanness, shepherds mostly kept to themselves.  Because they had so much time alone, out in the middle of nowhere, many played a flute or some other instrument.  It helped to pass the time.  You may remember that King David as a boy was a shepherd, and a skilled musician.

Shepherding could be a lonely job, and shepherds did not tend to do a lot of socializing.  If you wanted to tell a group of people who might then go out and spread the word of this amazing birth, shepherds were about the least likely folks you could find.

And so - why do you suppose the angels sang to the shepherds?  It all has a kind of “pearls before swine” quality to it.  Why was this beautiful music announcing the birth of Christ sung to some shepherds out in the field?  I mean, this is like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsing all year to perform Handel’s Messiah, and then performing the concert for a few guys on the building maintenance crew.

I suspect that the reason the angels sang to the shepherds is connected to everything else in the Christmas story.  An occupied country like Judea.  An insignificant town that had seen better days, like Bethlehem.  A poor, unmarried couple.  No room in the inn.  A stable.  Giving birth far from home and family.  Nothing in the whole story says wealth or privilege or power.  Nothing would seem to indicate lofty expectations.

Everything about the birth of Jesus says that this is a birth for all of us.  God’s love does not discriminate among people.  Kings and queens, shepherds and steelworkers, this child is for all of us.

The announcement of Jesus’ birth is made to the shepherds.  And that is Good News for us, because there is a sense in which we are all shepherds.  None of us are perfect.  We all can feel inadequate.  There are those times when all of us, because of our background or experience or age or occupation or because of what we believe or where we come from, can feel like we really don’t fit in.

We may feel like we are nothing special, just regular folks trying to get through life and not necessarily having an easy time of it.  We may feel like other people get the accolades, get all the breaks.  We may feel like the things that really matter go to the rich or glamorous or uber-gifted.

This may be the way that the world works, but this is not the way it works with God.  God is completely unconcerned by such things.  None of us would have written the script this way, but the birth of Jesus was announced to the shepherds.  This child is indeed for us – for all of us.

A pastor in Indianapolis named Kurt shared something that happened just this week.  Kurt had a Louisville Slugger baseball bat that had belonged to his brother, Scott.  His brother had been gone for 38 years.  In a moment of clarity, or so he thought, Kurt decided to take the bat to Goodwill.  He said to himself, “It’s time to let it go.”

He met a guy named Rudy at the Donations door.  After handing him the stuff he was donating he headed back home.  But in the parking lot, he heard the bat rolling around in the trunk.  He had apparently overlooked the bat.  So he turned around and approached the Donations entrance again.

“I forgot something,” he called out to Rudy.  He handed him the bat. “Tell me, what’s the story behind this old bat,” he asked unprompted.  “Well, this bat belonged to my brother, who passed away at the age of fourteen.  Make sure it gets into the hands of a child, OK?” “Will do,” he said.

Driving away, Kurt said to his son in the car, “That was nice of him to ask about the bat.  He didn’t have to do that.” Kurt thought about the bat, but told himself, “It’s time to let it go.”

Kurt returned to Goodwill later that evening to deliver more of the things he was trying to shed from the past; dishes, books, clothes, various nondescript stuff.  Upon pulling up to the Donations door, he was met by Rudy, who came to the door and called out... “Hey, here he is, he came back just like you said he would.”  Bewildered, Kurt saw someone slowly approach.

“Hey man, I’m Grant.  Listen, I can’t take that bat.  It’s no good here.  You have to take it back.” Somewhat annoyed, Kurt replied, “Oh, OK. That’s fine.”

“Listen,” he said, “I lost my sister to addiction and depression a year ago.  She left me a pair of her flip flops, and the only person who’s allowed to wear them is my daughter.  Your brother wants you to keep that bat safe.”  Kurt said he was stunned into silence which, for him is pretty unusual.

With eyes full of tears, Grant placed the bat into Kurt’s hands with tenderness, as if handing him a newborn baby. “Here he is. You keep it.”  Kurt turned to Grant. “Wait a second, Grant,” he said.  “I want to thank you for the gift you have given me tonight.  Thank you for forcing me to remember.  Really.  I appreciate it.”

The shepherds in the Christmas story might not seem like the main characters, but they are actually at the heart of what Christmas is about.  They are a reminder to us that God works through the most unlikely of people and places and things.  Rudy and Grant, working down at the Goodwill store.  A Louisville Slugger bat that was returned and is a symbol and reminder of love and grace and memory and hope.  A young, unmarried couple.  Rough shepherds abiding in the field.  A stable and an animal feed trough.  A child born in Bethlehem.  And yes, even you an me and an imperfect bunch like the First Baptist Church.

One of the names for Jesus is Immanuel – God with us.  The birth of Jesus is announced by angels to shepherds.  And as is the case all through the Christmas story, this is yet another reminder that God is indeed with us – with all of us, in all of the messiness of life.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

“Angels” - December 6, 2015

Text: Luke 1: 5-13, 18-20; 26-38

Throughout the fall, we have been reading some of the key, formative stories of the Hebrew scriptures, and if you were paying attention this morning, you may have noticed that we have finally made it to the New Testament.

As we come to the New Testament, it is very helpful to have some familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures, because for the early church, for those who wrote the New Testament, the Hebrew scriptures were their entire Bible.  The Old Testament is the Bible of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Peter and John and Paul.  And as we read the New Testament, there are all kinds of quotes and references and allusions to people and events that took place in the Old Testament.  You can’t really understand the New Testament without some familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures.

The prophets spoke of a coming messiah.  Isaiah spoke of the one who would come as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and the church has seen in Jesus the fulfillment of that prophecy. 

As we look ahead to Christ’s birth, we will be taking a look at two groups of characters that we find in the Christmas story.  In a Christmas pageant, at the bare minimum you’ve got Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.  (Now I will say that since we now two new babies in the church and one more due before Christmas, I think we should do a little re-write on the script and have Mary give birth to triplets.  Nobody else seems to like that idea, but I do think it is worth considering.) 

Anyway, traditionally there are Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.  You’ve got some sheep and possibly other animals around the manger.  You’ve got the Wise Men who show up after Jesus is born, but right around the time of birth, there are two important groups of characters.  There are angels and there are shepherds.  We will be thinking together about shepherds in a couple of weeks; this morning we are going to think about the angels.

As I was contemplating angels this week, I thought about going to Evansville White Sox games when I was 7 or 8 years old.  The White Sox were a minor league team of the Chicago White Sox.  I remember my friend Monty and I bringing our gloves to the game, hoping to catch a foul ball.   I remember eating salted in the shell peanuts, only Monty and I would sometimes eat them shell and all because they were so salty and good.  And I can remember exactly one player: Angel Bravo.  He went on to have a journeyman kind of career in the big leagues, but he had that awesome name.  Angel Bravo.  He seemed to epitomize what angels were supposed to be: a kind of larger than life hero.

Our thinking about angels is influenced by popular culture – or maybe popular culture reflects what we think about angels.  There was Charlie’s Angels, that 70’s TV cop show with Farrah Fawcett.  Angels in the Outfield, a movie in which angels are sent to fulfill the wish of a child that required getting the California Angels to win the pennant.  This was followed up by Angels in the End Zone and Angels in the Infield and no, I didn’t see any of these movies.  Of course, there is A Wonderful Life with Clarence the Angel and the line “Every time a bells rings, an angels gets its wings.”  You’ve also got the movie “Michael” in which John Travolta plays a chain-smoking angel.

There are TV shows: Touched By An Angel, where three angels have been dispatched from heaven to help people facing crossroads in their lives, and Highway to Heaven with Michael Landon, where a probationary angel teams up with a cop to help people.  And I just saw an ad this week for a new TV show called Angel from Hell with Jane Lynch playing a really messed up guardian angel.  

And then there is popular music.  Pretty Little Angel Eyes, Earth Angel, Angel of the Morning, 7 Spanish Angels by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, Angel of Harlem, Angel from Montgomery, on and on.  From popular culture, we might think that angels are beautiful women, brilliant but troubled souls who died too young, social workers on heavenly steroids, or heavenly beings with their own insecurities and issues trying to redeem themselves by helping others. 

When the Bible speaks of angels, however, the picture is very different.  Out of curiosity, I did a search and the word “angel” appears in scripture over 300 times, spread over the Old New Testaments as well as the Apocrypha, writings between the time period of the Old Testament and New Testament.

Angels would go ahead of and behind the camp of the Israelites as they made their way through the wilderness.  An angel would often go ahead of the Israelite army into battle.  In the Old Testament in particular, when angels showed up it was more often than not bad news.  Angels told Lot to high-tail it out of Sodom because God was going to destroy the city, and Lot and his family just made it out alive.  The angels warned them not to, but Lot’s wife looked back at the city anyway and turned into a pillar of salt.

When Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to go, God sent plagues on Egypt, the worst of which was the death of Egyptian first-born brought about by a destroying angel.  The angel passed over Israelite households, and this is where Passover comes from.   

In 2 Kings chapter 19 we read, “the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies.”  The prophet Isaiah makes reference to this same incident.

I could go on.  In scripture, angels bring messages and act on behalf of God.  And often it is really, really scary.  With that background, we come to the Christmas story.  Angels show up and they say, “Fear not.”  They keep saying it.  “Do not be afraid.”  There was a reason they keep saying this.  Seeing an angel was a reason to be very afraid.

In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream on two occasions.  The first time, Joseph has learned that Mary is with child and has decided to divorce her quietly, which would actually be a merciful thing to do.  But an angel tells him in a dream that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

And then after Jesus is born, an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to flee with his family to Egypt because Herod wants to kill the child.  Because of an angel’s warning, Jesus becomes a refugee.

Our scripture this morning includes two readings from the Gospel of Luke.  They mark the beginning of the Christmas story.  Zechariah is a priest, married to a woman named Elizabeth.  They are advanced in years.  They have led a good and righteous life but they have no children, which in that culture was an embarrassment, if not a disgrace.  When Zechariah is chosen to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him.  Zechariah is terrified.  He knows very well what the appearance of an angel can mean. 

But it is good news!  God has heard their prayers, and Elizabeth will have a son.  This is so unbelievable that Zechariah has doubts about it.  Because he doubted Gabriel’s word, Zechariah is made mute, unable to speak until the child is born.  The boy is named John.  He is known to us as John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus.

A few months later, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary.  Right away, he tries to assure her that this visit is not a reason for fear or panic.  “Greetings, favored one.  The Lord is with you.”  Mary seems confused and troubled by this, and he continues, “Do not be afraid.”  Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.  The announcement that he has for Mary is that she will bear a Son and name him Jesus.  He shall be Son of the Most High.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.

This is pretty heady stuff, not the sort of thing Mary heard just every day.  Angels generally appeared and brought messages from God at the most crucial moments.  When an angel appeared, it was deadly serious.  But these were not message about death; these were messages of life.  Good news.  Great news.  Amazing news.

There is another appearance of angels in the Christmas story.  In Luke chapter 2, angels appear to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus.  “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Again, the shepherds know enough to be terrified by angels, but they are told not to be afraid and given good news.

Angels have fingerprints all over the Christmas story, but we usually focus more on their message and on the people to whom they speak than we do the angels themselves.  Part of this is because we are not entirely sure what to make of angels.  With the mystery and the mythology surrounding angels - some in the Bible and a great deal of it not in the Bible – as well as all of the pop culture fascination and ideas about angels, we may not know what to think about them.

The Bible actually has different things in mind when it speaks of angels.  Revelation speaks of seven churches and an angel of each church, which represent the spirit of the church.  There are angels surrounding the throne of God.  The book of Revelation is filled with apocalyptic imagery involving angels, which may fall under the more symbolic category, as John is watching a great spiritual drama unfold. 

People in the Bible were not always sure that what they were dealing with was an angel.  Jacob wrestled with a man, and in the end it is unclear if this was really an angel or the Lord.  Three men visit Abraham and turn out to be angels.  There is a humorous incident in which Balaam’s donkey recognizes an angel while Balaam himself does not.  And then in Hebrews we are told to extend hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, many have entertained angels unaware.

So here is the deal.  I’m not completely sure what I believe about angels today, but then the whole point of angels is not to point to themselves anyway.  The bigger issue is that God has ways of getting our attention.  God has ways of accomplishing God’s purposes.  There are spiritual forces at work in this world, and God is still in the business of speaking to us.

Angels are messengers from God.  And maybe the question for us today is: are we open to hear what God has to say?  Are we open to receiving God’s message?  And are we open to those messengers God may send our way?

In the Bible, people are almost always surprised or caught off guard when angels show up, and I suspect it is that way for us – when God speaks to us, we are not necessarily expecting it.

How does this work?  Who are the angels, the messengers, that speak to us today?  God’s message may come to us in all kinds of ways.  Through help provided by a stranger, through something we read, through a song, maybe through a dream, through a friend who speaks truth to us, maybe with a sudden realization that hits us like a ton of bricks of what it is God has been trying to say to us. 

The great preacher Fred Craddock told a story that happened when he was a young preacher in a small town in Tennessee.  There was a little girl who attended church faithfully.  Her parents sent her to church but never came with her.  They would pull in the church’s circle drive, drop her off, and go out for Sunday breakfast.  The father was an executive for a big chemical company, very ambitious, upwardly mobile.

The whole town knew about their Saturday night parties, given not so much for entertainment or out of friendship, but as a part of his career advancement program.  The whole town knew about the wild things that went on at those parties.  But every Sunday morning, there was the little girl.

One Sunday Craddock looked out at his congregation and there she was.  He thought, “There she is with a couple of adult friends.”  Later, he realized that it was mom and dad sitting with her.  When the invitation was given at the end of the service, mom and dad came down front to join the church.

After the service, Craddock, the young pastor, asked them what had prompted this.  “Do you know about our parties?,” they asked.  “Yeah, I’ve heard of your parties.”

“Well, we had one last night.  It got a bit loud, kind of rough, lots of drinking.  It woke up our daughter, who was asleep upstairs.  She came down the stairs and was on about the third step.  And she saw the eating and drinking and said, “Oh, can I have the blessing?  “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.  Goodnight, everybody.”  And she went back up the stairs.

Things quieted down quickly.  People began to say, “It’s getting late, we really need to be going, thanks for a great evening,” and within two minutes the whole place was empty.

Mom and dad started to pick up the crumpled napkins and half-eaten sandwiches and spilled peanuts, and then they looked at each other.  And he said what they both were thinking: “Where do we think we’re going?”

God had spoken to them.  It wasn’t the angel Gabriel who delivered the message.  It was their little girl.

You can say what you want, but it seems to me that they were touched by an angel.  And if we pay attention, we may be too.  Amen.

Friday, November 20, 2015

“Sowing Tears, Reaping Joy” - November 22, 2015

Text: Psalm 126

This is the season for giving thanks.  Most of us don’t labor in the fields or depend upon farming for our livelihood, but nevertheless we can celebrate that we have made it through the long growing season and the hard work of the harvest.  We can celebrate in earth’s bounty and we can rejoice in all of God’s blessings.

There are no better expressions of thanksgiving than those found in the Psalms.  The Psalm we read this morning, Psalm 126, seems at first glance to be perfect for Thanksgiving.  What better holiday than the feast of turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie to read about shouts of joy and mouths full of laughter?  What a great time of year to say, “The Lord has done great things for us!” For many, it is  easy to give praise to God for all of the blessings of life.

For the writer of this psalm, however, this was definitely not the case.  This psalm was written not in a time of joy, but at a time when the only thing the people had going for them was the memory of joy.  It was written in a time of sowing seeds in sorrow, of weeping for all that has been lost.  If you read this Psalm closely, you will find that none of the joy is in the present tense.

The last two Sundays, we have been in the northern kingdom of Israel, first with the prophet Elijah and then last week the prophet Hosea.  This Psalm is set in Judah, the southern kingdom.  Israel was taken into captivity in Assyria.  After that, Judah was defeated by the Babylonians and much of the population, including the leading citizens and skilled workers, was taken into captivity in Babylon.  After an exile of 50 or 60 years, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland.  There was great joy and celebration.  It was a wonderful, long-awaited homecoming.  It was like  a dream.

But they were soon confronted with the hard reality of the situation.  They returned to a desolate landscape, to a temple that had been destroyed, to a place that was but a shell of its former self.  They worked hard to rebuild but still faced the specter of enemies.  Crops and prosperity and blessings and even hope seemed to dry up like now-dusty riverbeds.

In other words, although there had been past glories, from the Exodus out of Egypt to the Golden Age of King David to their recent return from exile in Babylon, the Israelites now faced what seemed like a very difficult and precarious moment.  Which is to say that the times in which they lived were not completely unlike our time.

Judah would have understood an age of terror.  A time of war and violence.  A time of economic uncertainty and political upheaval and a time of fear.

Despite all of this – despite the circumstances in which Judah found itself – we read this psalm of hope in what is likely only the beginning of a long, hard season – the beginning of winter, if you will.

Where does the hope come from?  In Psalm 126, hope comes first of all from memory.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.  Our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy.”

Where do we find hope?  Hope comes from recalling the stories of those who have gone before us, whose faith brought them through trials and tribulations only to experience blessing and renewal once again.

It comes from the belief that trouble does not last forever, and “while weeping may endure for the night, joy comes in the morning.”

It come from taking the long view, from believing, like Martin Luther King Jr. who so often quoted Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It comes from the foolish but somehow trustworthy faith that, with God, you can sow seeds in the tears of winter, and reap a joyful harvest in the spring.

Just like the psalmists, we learn this faith from our own experiences of God, our own experiences of joy, and from those that have been handed down to us.

What is it that gives you joy?  As you look back at your life, what is a joyful moment that stands out for you?
You may think of those special times of celebration in life – births, graduations, weddings, baptisms.  You may think of family gatherings – maybe even around the table at Thanksgiving.  You may think of good times shared with friends, maybe working together with others to accomplish something meaningful and important.

Maybe it is feeling of the breeze as you ride a bike on a beautiful day, or the swish of a perfect jump shot, or finishing a beautiful quilt you had been working on forever, or preparing a wonderful meal for others.  Maybe what comes to mind is the memory of a special place you have visited.  I can think of hiking with Zoe in the Swiss Alps, or a trip Susan and I took to Maine.  Maybe music gives you joy and calling to mind that special song can bring hope.

Sometimes, life can look bleak, and the only joy we can muster is the memory of joy.  Yesterday I got up and put gasoline in the snow blower.  This was followed by gasoline raining from under my snow blower onto the garage floor.  I apparently have a significant leak in the gas tank.  We have six inches of snow on the ground, and all I can do is remember that it was 65 just a week and a half ago.  I can remember the good old days of last winter, when I put gas in the gas tank and it stayed there.

The Jewish people faced a dire situation.  There was no joy in the present; hope came from the memory of joy.

The Psalm prays that God would “restore our fortunes like the watercourses in the Negeb.”  In the Negeb desert, there are to this day dry streambeds that can suddenly become a raging torrent during a thunderstorm.  These streambeds may be dry, the land all around may look parched, but someone familiar with the area knows that rain water will come.  Though the present looked bleak for the people of Judah, there is a promise that blessings will come and that present circumstances would not last forever.

We move from tears to joy by recalling God’s presence and blessings in past times.  But then, the Psalm moves to the future tense.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

When I was a kid, I remember singing the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  It is an old gospel song.  (Raise your hand if you are familiar with it.)  The hymn is “Bringing in the Sheaves,” but my sister didn’t get the words right.  She would sing “Bringing in the Sheets.”  We thought that was pretty funny.

Well, what is a sheave?  (Actually, if you have just one, it’s a sheaf.)  Sheaves are bundles of cut stalks of grain.  If you are 5 years old, sheets make a lot more sense.  This was a laundry hymn.  You do the wash, you hang the sheets on the clothesline, and then you bring in the sheets.  There might even be rejoicing, because it’s nice to have fresh, clean sheets.

Even as a kid, this hymn had an “old-time religion” feel to it.  We don’t sing it much anymore.  As far as I can tell, it is not included in any of the currently published hymnals.  We’ve got a pretty good collection of 12 or 14 hymnals here, and it’s not in any of them.  I finally found it in an old, old hymnal, Tabernacle Hymns, published in 1947.

Maybe we don’t sing it because we don’t use the language of carrying sheaves.  It’s not only the language that is archaic; we don’t farm that way anymore, and if we were to sing about a 16-row combine, it wouldn’t have quite the same poetry.

“Sheaves” may not be a part of our everyday vocabulary, but we know about sowing and reaping.  We know about planting and harvest.  The Psalm speaks of sowing tears and reaping joy.

We may all be very different people, but one thing we have in common is that we have experienced pain.  The pain of loss.  Losses of all sorts.  The pain of sickness, the pain of loneliness, the pain of heartache, of betrayal.  The pain of trying to find where you fit in in this world.  We know the pain of worrying over children, over friends, over loved ones.  The pain of worrying over this world.

We know tears.  The Psalm says that those who go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy.

This is a Psalm about sowing seeds in hard times.  Now, we are not in a season of planting; this is the season of harvest.  You don’t plant your crop in November, and the notion of sowing tears does not sound like something that will bring the harvest you really want.

Yet this psalm tells us to go ahead and plant seeds in unlikely times and places.  It’s a psalm that tells us to journey on, and the harvest will be great.  Joy will come.  Laughter will burst forth.  We will reap a joyful harvest somehow, some way.  We believe this because it has happened before, and we walk in the faith that God will lead us there again.

Psalm 126 is really about all those things that give meaning to life.  It is about what makes life worth living.  We sow, and we reap.

To live a life of honor and integrity is in a sense sowing and reaping, and it is hard work.  It can mean staying up late and getting up early.  It can mean long years of preparation, years of schooling and study.  It means that when you give your word, you stand by it.  It can mean self-denial – putting others before yourself.  It means that to love somebody, anybody, means that someday your heart will be broken.  And yet it is always worth it: you may sometimes sow in tears, but one day you will reap in joy.

To raise children is a way of sowing and reaping.  There’s the pain of childbirth, but then there’s the joy of a new baby.  The thrill of that new baby, as we remembered last week, is followed by sleepless nights, trips to the emergency room, temper tantrums, parenting teenagers, and then shedding tears as they go off to college or as you stand at the front of the church to marry them off.  Nothing is guaranteed, but if we are fortunate we eventually get a reasonably mature, grown-up human being.  We may sow in tears, but one day we will reap in joy.

Many of you are teachers.  Teaching is all about sowing and reaping.  You work hard, you put up with all of the bureaucracy that can surround the job, you endure students who seem to not have the least interest in what they are learning, but then one day you run into a former student who is successful and making a real difference, and after all of that sowing, there is a harvest.

Building a church family involves sowing and reaping.  You take a hundred or so people who don’t look alike or think alike or act alike, and try to build a more or less harmonious community of faith.

Most parents consider themselves lucky to get two kids to behave in the car; why should we think that we could get a diverse group of people, a motley bunch like us, to work together as a family of faith?  Yet we all invest the gifts we have; we give of our time and talent and resources while we honor what others contribute.  And lo and behold, something that is greater than ourselves, bigger and better than any of us individually, comes into being.  Lives are changed, needs are met, people are served, good news is proclaimed.  We may sow in tears, but we will reap in joy.

God has blessed us before.  God will bless us again.  The joy we have experienced in the past and the prospect of joy in the future become a part of our present, and we can be people of Thanksgiving even in hard times.

Now here’s the deal: Thanksgiving can be tricky.  For some, this is a season filled not with the anticipation of reunions and wonderful food and football and card-playing and shopping trips for those so inclined, but rather the dread of family dysfunction, or the reminder of a loved one who is gone.  Thanksgiving can be hard because we are not able to provide that Martha Stewart-type beautiful meal that is held up by media and tradition.  This is a time to give all of those worries to God as a seed and pray for a harvest of peace.  

For others, this may be a season to reflect on the gifts we have, and to practice the difficult discipline of believing that what we have is actually enough.  It is a small seed of gratitude that can perhaps bring a harvest of enough sanity to navigate the craziness of Black Friday without bankrupting ourselves in either checkbook or soul.

Or maybe Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a season that is so hectic for you that just thinking about it makes you tired.  Perhaps you have to make trips to connect with family members at Thanksgiving, and when you get home you know it will only get busier during the Christmas season.  Maybe you need to take a deep breath, remember what really matters, and plant a small seed of hope.
Psalm 126 tells us, not only at Thanksgiving but in every time of the year, that what God has done in the past is the measure of our hope for the future.  The dry places in our lives can again be overflowing streams.  The seeds that we sow, the work that we do, the love we share, the gifts we offer, these are all prelude to a joyful harvest.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Thanks to Rev. David Haley for his sermon that helped inspire this message.

Friday, November 13, 2015

“No Matter What” - November 15, 2015

Text: Hosea 11:1-9

A few months ago I shared a bit about the movie Groundhog Day, and since that time, I have been inundated with requests for more stories from comedy movies of 25 years ago.  OK, maybe not exactly inundated.  But I do want to start off this morning with an incident that took place in the movie Ghostbusters.

The basic story is that three unemployed parapsychology professors (and I think that is actually redundant, I have never heard of an employed parapsychology professor) begin a business to capture unwanted ghosts.  There is a scene in which the Ghostbusters are in jail, having been arrested because their ghost detention chamber allegedly failed to meet EPA standards.  They are trying to convince the mayor that the threat posed by ghosts in the city of New York is real and that they should be released from jail so that they can fight against this grave threat and protect the city.

One of the Ghostbusters tells the mayor that the city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.  The mayor asks, “What do you mean?” 

One of the Ghostbusters responds, “What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor.  Real wrath-of-God type stuff.

And then they describe it: “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies!  Rivers and seas boiling!  Forty years of darkness!  Earthquakes, volcanoes!

Another adds: “The dead rising from the grave!  Human sacrifice!  Dogs and cats living together!  Mass hysteria!”

It’s hard not to love this movie.  But I mention this cinematic classic because of the wrath of God business.  When the ghostbuster Ray Stantz says, “What he means is Old Testament,” we know what he is talking about.

There is a great deal of violence and death and destruction in the Old Testament, and there is this popular perception that the Old Testament depicts a God of wrath while the New Testament God is a God of love.  There are those who have always felt this way.  Marcion, an early Christian leader who was eventually deemed by the church to be a heretic, said that the wrathful Old Testament God was a lesser and completely different God than the God of the New Testament.

Well, I will give you that it is easier to find wrath and judgment and destruction in the Old Testament.  But in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find a growing and evolving understanding of God and the way God works in the world.  And alongside pictures of God’s judgment we have beautiful and moving pictures of God’s love.  A good example is our text today in the book of Hosea.

Like Elijah, whom we looked at last week, Hosea is a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel.  He lived about 100 years after Elijah.  Unlike Elijah, he is a writing prophet.  That is, we read about Elijah in 1 Kings, but we read words that the prophet Hosea wrote in the book of Hosea.  In our Bible, Hosea is the first of the 12 minor prophets.  They are not called minor prophets because their message is less important but because these 12 shorter books were all contained together on one scroll, while the books of prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah might take up one or more scrolls all by itself.

Hosea contains two basic metaphors for God and the way God relates to humanity.  The first is the metaphor of a husband of a wayward spouse.  God asks Hosea to enact a picture of God’s relationship with Israel by marrying an unfaithful wife.  Hosea is told to marry a prostitute, and he marries a woman named Gomer.  Hosea and Gomer have children who are given the names Not Pitied, Not My People, and I Am Not Your God to illustrate the fact that God’s patience is gone, that after generations of Israel turning from God, of turning a blind eye to justice, of failing to live as God’s people, God has had enough.  So Hosea’s children are given these names.

But God can’t follow through.  God’s love is too deep, and in chapter two we read that the opposite of what the children’s names announce will happen.  Israel will be pitied, they will be God’s people, and they will say, “You are my God.”  By now Gomer has long since left Hosea, but Hosea goes to redeem Gomer, buying her for the price of a slave and bringing her home.  It is a picture of God never giving up on Israel and God redeeming a wayward humanity.

Now the story is a bit problematic in that living, breathing people are treated as object lessons, but it is nevertheless a powerful image.  Israel has been unfaithful, but God will remain faithful and continue to love God’s people. 

The second metaphor, which we find in our scripture for today, is of a parent.  Chapters 4-10 are basically judgment oracles.  Israel’s transgressions are plain for all to see and impending doom is upon the nation.  And in fact, Assyrian armies would soon be descending on Israel and its capital of Samaria, which was under siege for three years.  But despite all of it sin, despite all of its waywardness, despite its infidelity, God cannot give up on Israel.  And we come to the tender words of chapter 11.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them.
We have this powerful, maternal image of God loving God’s people as a mother loves a child. 

Now there were those in the early church who, influenced by Greek philosophy, argued that God is unmoving, pure truth, pure logic, not swayed by human emotion.  The human Jesus represented passion and suffering, but God the Father did not suffer.  And in fact, what came to be called patripassianism – literally the suffering of the father – was ruled a heresy.  God cannot suffer, the Church said.  There was more to it, and what they objected to most was what they saw as a blurring if not erasing of lines between the three persons of the Trinity, but still.  The legacy is that we have wound up with the image of God as cold and detached and above it all, and Jesus as the caring member of the Trinity.  God is a harsh judge while Jesus is our friend.

Well, enough Historical Theology.  The larger point is that when I read passages like Hosea chapter 11, it is hard to imagine God as detached.  God feels.  God cares.  God has compassion.  God is deeply moved.  God is affected by the actions of God’s children.  And it is hard to read these words and say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him.”  It is great to have babies, new children and grandchildren, in the congregation.  There are more babies on the way, with two due next month.  Those tiny babies are so precious to their parents.  The parents will shelter them, feed them, change dirty diapers.  They will spend countless hours caring for them and playing with them and sleepless nights attempting to get them to go back to sleep.  Parents will spend long nights nursing them through sickness. 

In the eyes of parents and grandparents, babies can do no wrong.  What is amazing about all of this is the fact that as babies, we do nothing to deserve the love and care we receive.  Our parents willingly shower love and attention on us.

This is the way it is with God and us.  God’s love for us is just a given.  And that love remains with us through our lives. 

The prophet continues, “… I taught Ephraim to walk” (Ephraim is another word for Israel it was one of the larger northern tribes.)  Parenting does not stop once the child can feed herself or himself and is potty trained.  Being a mother or father never ends.  Parenting is walking with our children as they explore, discover, run, fall – as they experience life.  Parents are present to dry tears and celebrate successes. 

As a parent, there will be times when we will have to discipline inappropriate behavior.  We’ll have to put the kid in “time out.”  There will be those times when we demand that bedrooms to be cleaned or enforce time for homework or say No, you can’t have another cookie.  There are those times when we have to say No for the child’s own good.

And as a parent, there will be those times of letting go.  From letting go of the bicycle as you are running alongside so that your son can learn to ride for himself to letting your daughter take the keys and drive off in the car by herself for the first time, parents have to allow children to make decisions and choices and be responsible for themselves.

This is the way God thought of Israel.  God called the Israelites out of Egypt.  God journeyed with them and led them through the wilderness.  God provided for their needs, giving them manna every morning and drawing water from rocks.  God had cared for Israel like a child, but as Israel grew, it had not followed in the way that God had led.

The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols… I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
It is 2:00 am and your teenager’s curfew is 11:00.  She has not called or texted.  You have called the parents of the friends she is supposed to be with.  Both of those friends are in bed asleep.  You keep calling, keep sending text messages but get no response.  You check Facebook for clues.  You are thinking about calling the police when the front door suddenly opens and there she is.  You are so relieved; you want to hug her and hold her close and at the same time you could strangle her.

This is what God is feeling.  Both anger and love.  The anger is really a part of the love.

Part of parenting is knowing that sometimes, children have to learn for themselves.  You may want to step in and save your child from the results of their behavior, but sometimes being a parent requires you to let them learn from their mistakes, learn to be responsible.  And we cannot always shield children from the consequences of their actions, as much as we might want to.  And so the prophet says,

They shall return to the land of Egypt; Assyria shall be their king.  The sword rages in their cities; it consumes their oracle-priests and devours because of their schemes.
As a parent, the choices that your child makes can sometimes make you want to pull your hair out.  You may remember your son or daughter as an innocent child while you watch in agony as that child wrestles with drug addiction or alcoholism or repeated incarceration.  It is like that for God with Israel; it has reached the point where God seems resigned to let the consequences of Israel’s behavior play out.  And Israel will suffer the consequences of decisions and actions it has taken – the Assyrian army was at its doorstep.  And yet – despite everything – God just cannot give up on Israel.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel? …  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

Here in the middle of the Hebrew scriptures, set in the midst of judgment oracles, we find these tender and powerful words of love.  God will never give up on us.  Whether we have brought suffering on ourselves, whether we have turned from God, or whether we have simply suffered from the pain that is so much a part of our broken world, God will always be there.

The current issue of the Christian Century included a number of short essays submitted by readers on the subject of song - ways that music had influenced the writers or touched their lives.  One especially spoke to me.

Nancy Bauer-King, a pastor in Wisconsin, wrote:

It took me 45 years to catch on to the value of a faith community.  Then one Sunday, halfway through the first verse of the opening song, I got it.
I had completed my first year as a pastor and was standing behind the pulpit singing no. 133 in the Methodist hymnal: “What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms.”  I knew the people well enough to know some of their personal histories.  I knew the hymn well enough to look out over the congregation as I sang.

Ruth and Roger both lost spouses to cancer and then found each other.  Bernie’s first husband killed himself with a shotgun.  Ben and Gloria buried a two-year old child.  Bob’s wife and two grandchildren were killed in an accident with a semi.  Jim’s son was in prison.  J.C. lost an arm in a mishap with a corn picker.  Sandy recently joined a support group for incest survivors.

Then it hit me: they were all singing.  How could they sing?  How could they experience such tragedies, yet come to worship every Sunday and sing?
We know the answer because we have experienced such pain and loss ourselves.  The answer is that we have had experiences of faith that transcend our suffering.  The answer is that we have felt the everlasting arms holding us up when we could not go on on our own.  The answer is that we have learned through hard experience that whatever happens, God will be there.

Hosea’s words are a powerful reminder of God’s unfailing love.  “How can I give you up?” God asks.  The very notion is offensive to God – “my heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”

God is not an unmoved mover, a deity who sits in heaven above it all, observing creation.  God is a passionate God who suffers with us, a parent who always loves us, always cares for us, always wants the best for us - no matter what.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

“Going All In” - November 8, 2015

Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39

It’s interesting how words and phrases enter our American vocabulary.  Frequently, there are words and phrases that are part of a subculture that but gain popularity to where they become a part of mainstream usage.  Such language may come from technology or youth culture or urban culture or from a particular ethnic group, but it can come from other places.  It is interesting to me how much the language of poker playing is a part of our everyday conversation.

Many of poker’s words and phrases evoke a kind of romance and drama and derring-do that we hope might rub off on the more mundane activities of life.  So we talk about upping the ante, stacking the deck.  We’ll talk about something we are unsure of as a wild card.  We call somebody’s bluff or we want to be completely up front about something and so we’ll put all our cards on the table.

Another of these expressions, maybe of more recent vintage, is “all in.”  It refers to the moment when a player—whether out of bravado or recklessness or desperation—bets all of his or her chips on a single hand.  Thanks to the Texas Hold ‘Em craze of the 1990’s and 2000’s and the public’s appetite for dramatic hyperbole, this poker phrase crossed over into general use.  “I’m all in,” we say.

The all-in moment in poker is a thrilling win-or-lose-everything crisis of dramatic clarity: you’ve wagered all you’ve got and you can’t go back.  But in regular life, the phrase “all in” is almost always a gross exaggeration.  

A few years ago, Alex Rodriguez wanted to assure Yankees fans that the team was serious about winning.  He said, “We’re all in.  This is the most urgent we’ve been.  It’s going to be exciting.”  Well, the Yankees did not win the World Series.  But the players got paid anyway, and they were not all compelled to retire.  As it turns out, they really weren’t all in.  Last year, Cleveland Cavaliers fans were asked to go all in on LeBron James and their hometown team as the NBA playoffs began.  I don’t think the team really meant that. The Cavaliers did not win it all, but the team doesn’t expect its fans to cancel their season tickets and to watch reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond” instead of the NBA on TNT.

The phrase “all in” is sometimes applied to politics.  Candidates say they are “all in” on immigration reform or raising the minimum wage or tax reform, but if these policies prove to not be so popular with voters or do not get enacted, chances are they are not going to retire from politics.  They are not really betting everything on it. 

“All in” is most often misused.  In most cases, a person is supportive of something – but not really “all in.”

Abraham Lincoln on preserving the union?  All in.  Mother Teresa on serving the poor?  All in.  The free-climber Alex Hannold climbing sheer rock faces without a rope?  He is all in.  If you quit your job, mortgage your house, and cash in your retirement so you can start your own business, you really are going all in.

And then there is Elijah at Mt. Carmel, challenging the prophets of Baal.  In our scripture this morning, Elijah was definitely all in.

How did it get to this point?  First, let’s back up a bit.  Last week we looked at King David.  He was far from perfect, but his reign represented the Golden Age of Israel.  David was succeeded by his son Solomon, known for his wisdom.  Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem.  But Solomon is the last of the kings of a united Israel.  It didn’t last long.  After Solomon, the kingdom divided north and south.  The southern kingdom of Judah and northern kingdom of Israel are frequently allies; they share the same history and the same faith, but they are never again a single united nation.

The southern kingdom of Judah is ruled by descendants of David for over 400 years.  These kings permit and at times encourage the worship of foreign gods, and there are a lot of corrupt and ineffective rulers.  But Judah’s track record is a lot better than that of Israel, the northern kingdom.  Israel faces numerous coups and rebellions and there is a succession of short-lived dynasties and rulers.  And if Judah strayed from God, Israel was generally a lot worse.

One of the longer-ruling kings of Israel is Ahab.  While he had a relatively long reign, it was not necessarily a good one.  1 Kings 16 says that he was “more evil than all the rulers before him,” which is really saying something.

Ahab married the Phoenician princess Jezebel.  This was a political move, a marriage intended to cement ties with a neighboring country.  Jezebel is a very strong personality and a real power in Israel.  She greatly expands the worship of Baal and Asherah, who are storm and agricultural and fertility gods.  We are told that King Ahab himself is a worshiper of Baal.  The king of Israel had turned his back on the God of Jacob, his ancestor for whom the nation is named.

Jezebel, it turns out, is not someone to cross; you don’t want to be on her bad side.  Prophets of Yahweh, the God of Israel, spoke out against Baal worship, and they paid for it.  Jezebel had many prophets of Yahweh killed.

God does not appreciate what is happening.  These are God’s own people, God’s children.  God had cared for them, provided for them, brought them out of Egypt, given them the Law to guide them.  And now God’s own people, led by its king, are turning to other gods.

The persecution of the prophets continues, and God instructs Elijah to go and confront Ahab.  When Elijah and Ahab finally meet, I love the way that Ahab greets Elijah.  He says, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”  Obviously, there is some history between the two.

Elijah responds that Ahab is the one bringing troubles on the nation, with his turning from Yaheweh to worship Baal, but there is a sense in which Ahab is right: Elijah is a troubler of Israel.  But that was his job.  And being troubled is exactly what the people needed.

Apparently, the decisions and behavior of Ahab and Jezebel had not “troubled” the people, not nearly enough.  Under their administration, the worship of other deities had grown by leaps and bounds.  Prophets of the God of Israel had been murdered.  Ahab’s rule was characterized by injustice.  Ahab is seen by the writer of Kings as the worst ruler ever, but it doesn’t seem to bother the people very much.

And so God calls Elijah to stir things up, to wake the people from their national slumber.  Elijah asks Ahab to set up a meeting on Mt. Carmel with the 450 prophets of Baal. 

The people gather, and Elijah confronts them for their wishy-washiness, for their wholesale inability to choose between the God of Israel and other gods.  Basically, the people are covering their bases.  They worship the God of Israel, yes, but they also worship Baaland and Asherah too - you know, just in case. 

The problem is that if you are worshiping a bunch of Gods, then you are not really worshiping any God.  “How long will you limp along with two opinions?” asks Elijah.  “How long are you going to treat the worship of God so casually, like you are trying to decide between paper and plastic at the grocery store?  How long are you going to sit idly by while the nation turns to Baal, leaves behind the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and goes to hell in a handbasket?

That should get the people’s attention!  Elijah lays it on.  But the people don’t have anything to say.  They just kind of clear their throats and look at their feet.  When faced with a critical decision, they do nothing.  And like they say, not to decide is to decide.

So Elijah challenges the assembled prophets of Baal to a showdown.  Each will offer a sacrifice on the altar and call down fire from their god.  It will be clear which god is the more powerful – which is real and which is an imposter.  Everybody seems to love the idea.  It’s game on. 

Elijah really is risking everything.  If he fails, if God does not respond, there would seem to be no future for God’s relationship with Israel.  Elijah really is all in.  And here’s the thing: Elijah is a complete underdog in this confrontation.

First, it is Elijah vs. 450 prophets of Baal.  Elijah says that he is the only prophet of Yahweh remaining, but we know that is not exactly true.  In the previous chapter we read that there are 100 prophets of the Lord being hidden in a cave.  But Elijah has a flair for the dramatic, so we’ll let him get away with it.  At any rate, here on Mt. Carmel, it is 1 vs. 450.

And then, for Elijah this is a road game.  Opposing teams don’t want to play at Hilton Coliseum because of Hilton Magic – it is a really tough place for an opposing team to win.  Well, Mt. Carmel is part of a mountain range in northwest Israel that was a center of Baal worship.  This is their home territory.  The prophets of Baal have homefield advantage.  They’ve got Mt. Carmel Magic. 

And then, look at the contest.  It is to call down fire from the sky.  Well, Baal is the god of storms, the god of lightning. This is Baal’s thing.  It’s right up his alley.  This is like challenging Serena Williams in tennis.

And the contest is that the first team to score wins.  Baal’s team wins the coin toss and gets to go first.  It is a huge advantage.  It could all be over before Elijah even gets a shot at it.

So the prophets of Baal prepare their sacrifice and call on their god.  It goes on and on.  They dance wildly around their altar, hour after hour, crying out to Baal.  They cut themselves, as was the custom, to show their sincerity.  It is a pathetic display.

Meanwhile, Elijah gets a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.  He is taunting his opponents, trash talking.  “Maybe your god wandered off.  Maybe he is sleeping.”  The account in Scripture is actually cleaned up in our English translations.  In Hebrew, it’s more like, “Maybe Baal had to take a rest room break,” but Elijah doesn’t say it so politely.

For all of the efforts of the prophets of Baal, nothing happens.  Finally it is Elijah’s turn.  He knows a thing or two about drama.  He pours water over the altar, again and again, till everything is completely soaked and a trench around the altar is filled with water.  He knows how to play to the cameras.  There are oohs and aahs from the crowd.

The stage is set.  The crowd is pumped.  Elijah calls on God, and there is no pleading necessary, no ranting and raving, no cutting himself needed.  There are instant results.  Fire from heaven consumes everything - the sacrifice, the wood, the rocks, the dirt, even the water in the trench.  God seems to enjoy this as much as Elijah.

There could not be a more decisive victory.  There is no doubt left as to which god is the real god.  Imagine what a boost this was to the beleaguered worshipers of the God of Israel.  You would think that after this, the people would turn to God en masse.  But it doesn’t happen.  Worship of other gods alongside the God of Israel or instead of the God of Israel was widespread and continued; in fact, it would be generations before Israel was by and large monotheistic.

This is a wild and dramatic story.  It is easy to focus on the pyrotechnics and the drama.  But for us, I think what really confronts us is this idea of limping along with two opinions, of not deciding which God to follow.

I’ll be honest.  I have never met an actual worshiper of Baal.  People we know by and large don’t claim to be disciples of Jesus while worshiping a pantheon of deities on the side.  But if we look at it in another way, there are plenty of gods at whose altar we may sacrifice.

The scripture mentions the offering of oblation, which probably doesn’t mean anything to most of us, but this is basically a Gift Offering – an offering to show loyalty to the god you worship.

Like it or not, realize it or not, we all give gift offerings to the gods we worship.  And the gods that we bow down before do demand something of us.  We may worship a god called Self-Sufficiency.  We don’t depend on anyone or anything.  This is the core of who we are.  Of course, this closes us off from God as well as others.  There is a price to pay.

The gods we worship go by names like Possessions.  We can tell ourselves that we deserve the latest fashions, the most cutting edge gadgets, a beautiful house, a great car.  We can wind up orienting our lives around these things and living for these things while we miss out on the real joy of life.

We can serve a god called Work, but there can be a price to pay.  Workaholism can be costly.

There are any number of gods out there – they go by names like Image and Control and Money and Comfort and Feel No Pain.  But these gods can demand a lot from us.

Is your god worth serving?  A good way to decide is to consider what that god asks of you.  Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  Jesus encapsulated God’s demands on us as loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  This is a God worth serving.

Most of us will not face a once in a lifetime, pyrotechnic event like Elijah.  But we are all asked to go all in on God – to give ourselves completely to the One who created us and loves us and cares for us.  Maybe that happens as we make a daily choice to follow the way of Jesus and to worship the God of love and grace and hope and compassion, leaving those other gods behind.  May it be so.  Amen.

“Putting God at the Center” - November 1, 2015

Texts: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5, Psalm 150

I tend to be a political junkie, and I’ve watched at least a part of all the presidential debates of both parties.  It is hard to stay engaged all the time, but Zoe put me on to fantasy politics.  It’s like fantasy football, but you basically buy shares of candidates that rise and fall based on what all of the thousands of participants think that candidate’s chances of winning the debate are.  (And when I say buy, I mean using the virtual play money you get with the game – I don’t want you to think that I’m gambling on presidential debates.)

The share prices fluctuate wildly during the debate, and so even if you are not that interested in what the candidates are saying, you can be buying and selling and wheeling and dealing throughout the debate. 

Nerdy stuff, I know.  But watching politics is an age-old pastime, dating back to Biblical times and beyond.  We actually got a good dose of it in our scripture this morning.  

Last week we heard the story of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.  Ruth, you may remember, is from the country of Moab but she returned with Naomi to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem, in Israel, after both of their husbands had died.  Ruth married Boaz, a relative of her deceased husband, and Ruth becomes the grandmother of Jesse and the great-grandmother of King David.

Ruth and Naomi lived in the time of the judges - leaders of Israel under a decentralized form of government.  A judge was not a hereditary position.  Some of the judges are fairly familiar names to us.  There was Gideon, who defeated the Midianite army with only 300 men equipped with trumpets.  There was Samson, of Samson and Delilah fame.  And there was Deborah, who judged over Israel and was a prophet and warrior.  It is amazing that around 1000 BC, a woman was chosen to lead Israel.  Three thousand years later, plenty of countries still haven’t done that.

But the people in time grew tired of judges.  Breaking tradition, Samuel in his old age had named two of his sons to succeed him as judges.  Samuel’s sons were corrupt, known to take bribes, and generally a piece of work, and that was it.  The people wanted to have a king, like all the other nations.

The people were warned that a king would take their sons as soldiers and their daughters as domestic staff, that he would take their best fields and olive groves and cattle and sheep and horses and that a king would tax them heavily to support his lifestyle.  It was a “be careful what you ask for” kind of deal, a warning to the people, but the people were insistent.  They wanted a king.  So God said, “All right, you can have a king, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Saul was the first king.  It started out all right, and Saul certainly looked the part, but in time he turned from God and proved to be a poor leader.  So God looked for a new king and chose the shepherd boy David.  As a youth, David defeated the Philistine giant Goliath.  He became a musician in Saul’s court; when Saul had a troubled spirit David would play the harp for him.  As he grew older David became a great military leader.  But Saul became jealous of David’s success and popularity.  Saul became paranoid and tried to kill David.  It led to a civil war.  In the end, Saul died in battle along with three of his sons, including Jonathan, who was David’s best friend.

David becomes king of Judah, the southernmost tribe, while Ish-bosheth, the remaining son of Saul, is installed as king of the northern tribes of Israel.  After protracted fighting, David is finally victorious.

This is the rather long back story to our scripture for today.  In the wake of Ish-bosheth’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah are united.  David then leads Israel in battle, capturing the Jebusite fortress of Jerusalem and establishing it as capital of a united Israel.

David consolidates power in the new capital and is a popular leader.  He is magnanimous toward Saul’s remaining family and supporters.  He is faithful and a person of integrity; the Bible describes him as “a man after God’s own heart.”  In terms of building national unity and encouraging faithful worship, there is one symbolic act remaining: bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  

If nothing else, you probably know about the Ark of the Covenant from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The ark contained the law – the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets Moses had brought down from Mt. Sinai.  But the ark was more than that – it represented the very presence of God.  It was the holiest and most precious treasure of the Hebrew people.

During Saul’s wars, the Philistines had won a battle and carried off the ark to the Philistine city of Ashdod.  But it had not gone well for them; the people of the city were afflicted with mice and hemorrhoids.  How’s that for a plague?  So the ark was sent to another city, but the citizens there suffered the same result.  The Philistines decided they wanted  no part of the ark and sent it back to the Israelites along with what was basically a “we’re sorry” offering of five golden mice and five golden hemorrhoids.  (Anybody who thinks the Bible is dull just needs to read it a little more.)

The ark was now on the fringes of Israel, basically just sitting on a farm.  David decides to retrieve the ark and bring it back to the center of Israelite life and worship, to the new capital city of Jerusalem.  It is an occasion of unbridled joy.  There is great rejoicing with instruments and singing and dancing and exuberant celebration, with King David himself leading the way. 

The story of David’s rise to power speaks to us in several ways.  First, it says something about the nature of leadership.  Just looking at things pragmatically, David was a shrewd politician.  The way that Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son who had been king of the northern kingdom, came to an end is that a couple of assassins took him out.  That is the way the long civil war ended.  Thinking that this would please David, they brought Ish-bosheth’s head to David.  

Guess what? David was not pleased.  He had never wanted this civil war, he had never wanted to fight Saul, and this is not the way the war was supposed to be fought.  There was an honorable way to do things and this was not it.  To him, Saul was more of a sad and tragic figure than an enemy, and even if Ish-bosheth led an opposing army, this was Saul’s son.  So rather than being pleased, he had the two assassins executed.

I know, the story is filled with violence and in places it reads like a movie script.  You can say whatever else you want, but what David does is politically smart.  This helped to bring Saul’s people on board.  For those who supported Ish-bosheth, David doesn’t have to be the bad guy.  David comes off as an honorable king.

Likewise, the move to Jerusalem was brilliant.  First, everyone said that Jerusalem couldn’t be captured, that it was essentially an impregnable fortress, but David captured it anyway, which made him look pretty good.  Moving the capital there showed political smarts.  It was a neutral site, so to speak, not identified with any of the tribes in particular.  It was a little like establishing Washington DC as our nation’s capital.  It’s not in any state but is its own district.  The move to Jerusalem would cut down on complaints of favoritism for David’s tribe, or any other.  It would be a shared capital, truly a national capital, and none of the tribes could claim special status or ownership.

And then bringing the ark to Jerusalem cemented this new capital as the center of national life.  The ark was a matter of national pride.  It harked back to the time of Moses.  It was a symbol of God’s presence with the people.  There is no question but that David was a shrewd political operative.  When it came to ruling, when it came to building a nation and getting the people on board, David knew what he was doing.  In fantasy politics, I would definitely buy stock in David. 

To say that David was a smooth political operator is not necessarily a bad thing.  We don’t have to view his actions in a cynical or opportunistic light.  David can be seen as truly doing what is best for the nation.  He was setting a model of integrity and fairness, a model of equality among people and tribes.  He is beginning a reign in which, at least at the outset, all people matter, a reign in which truth and integrity are front and center.  And above all, he is establishing a kingdom in which he will put God first.    

After Ish-bosheth died, the leaders of all the tribes of Israel came to David and said, “We are your bone and flesh.  For some time under Saul, you were really the one who led Israel.  The Lord made you to be the shepherd of Israel.”  And they anointed David king.

The people had been warned before that a king would take, take, take.  Take their sons, their daughters, their servants, their flocks, their fields, their horses.  This is what kings do.  But David is supposed to be a shepherd to Israel.  One who will give, give, give.  One who protects.  One who nurtures, shelters, provides food.  To be a shepherd of the people is a huge shift in what it means to be a king.  It’s a tough assignment.  David has royal power, but he has the responsibility to use that power not for himself but for the sake of others, for the sake of the nation, to further God’s kingdom.

David will struggle with the right use of power, struggle mightily at times.  Time and again, God will hold him accountable.  Because of choices that he makes, David will experience heartache and tragedy.  Because even the king is accountable.  Even the king has a king.

This leads us to the ark.  The Ark of the Covenant had been taken away by the Philistines.  It is in Israel, but barely, basically abandoned on Abinadab’s farm.  David brings the Ark to the center of Hebrew life, to the center of the nation.  Representing God’s very presence, the Israelites were reminded that in the end, God was the one with real power.  God was the one who was finally in control.

This confronts us with the question, “Where is God in our lives?”  Is God on the fringes, off to the side, out in the boonies at the end of a dirt road, as it were, or is God right in the thick of things?  Is God at the center?

Do we set aside an hour every Sunday for worship and then set God off to the side for the rest of the week?  Or do we see God as being with us in all times and places – with us in the good and the bad, both in times of joy and times of sorrow?

Putting God at the center means that we develop the values and the practices and try to follow the ways of Jesus even in the midst of thorny problems at work, even when dealing with painful situations in our family, even when facing disappointment, even in the midst of financial challenges and crushed hopes and broken relationships.  Or even when leading a nation, as was the case for David.

It’s not easy, to be sure.  But we can begin to put God at the center as we give ourselves to God in worship.

Psalm 150 is the last of the Psalms.  Some scholars think that it was added to the collection as a fitting conclusion of praise to God – a kind of capstone on the Psalms.  It is attributed to King David, who was not only a shepherd and military leader and ruler, but as we have said, a skilled musician.

Praise God in the sanctuary, praise God in the firmament, or the expanse of the heavens.  Praise is to be offered not only here within these walls as we gather for worship, but over all of creation.  Praise God with trumpet and lute and harp and tambourine and dance, with strings and pipes and cymbals.  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
The way we orient our lives toward God, the way we can move God toward the center of our lives, is through worship.   

This morning we will gather at the Lord’s Table as we share together in communion, celebrating God’s love for us and God’s presence with us.  Brian Wren is an English hymn writer – we sing some of his hymns.  He was leading a workshop on worship at a church in the U.S. that concluded with a communion service.  They were taking communion by intinction – tearing some bread off of the loaf and dipping it in the cup.

This was a church where things were done decently and in order – they cared about decorum and the dignity of worship.  As worshipers came to the front for communion, they were tearing off tiny little pieces of bread and then very carefully dipping them in the cup.  But a little girl was in line and it came her turn.  She tore off a big old hunk of bread and then kind of sloshed it in the cup and ate it. 

People were offended – they thought it was completely inappropriate.  But Brian Wren said that she was the only one who came admitting her need, the only one who expected to be fed, and the only one who found joy in the meal.

Worship can change us.  All of us - even kings.  We bring our need and we can find joy and hope and healing.  And God can meet the deep hunger in our hearts.

We are like the Israelites.  In worship we are reminded that God is at the center of our world and the center of our lives.  We are also like David – we are both broken and blessed, saints and sinners at the same time, and we are loved by God, the true king, the real power, who calls us to be the givers – who calls us to be the shepherds of this world.  Amen.

Friday, October 9, 2015

“The Ten Commandments: A Gift for a Free People” - October 11, 2015

Text: Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:4-9

The poet Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  We can all resonate with that.  We don’t want to be boxed in or walled off.  We don’t like being told what we can and cannot do.  It’s a free country, we say.

There is something in us that chafes at rules.  We don’t like to be told that we have to conform.  There is a rebellious toddler or maybe teenager in all of us that wants to rebel.  High school students dream about going to college and gaining their freedom.

And so you go to college, and all of these rules you may have had at home are gone.  You can come and go as you like - you don’t have to get it OK’d or tell anybody.  You can stay up as late as you want and you can study as much or as little as you like.  You decide which classes to take.  You can indulge in whatever pursuits or activities you want. 

But freedom comes with a price.  You have to make choices.  You have to make decisions.  Navigating the dangers and temptations and complications of life on campus can be hard.  And then, you have to pay bills.  You have to keep your grades up.  The decisions and choices and responsibilities keep coming, and as we move through life they only get bigger. 

We all want freedom, but unlimited freedom with no constraints at all can feel like chaos.  There are those intersections, sometimes in rural areas and sometimes in subdivisions, where there are no stop signs.  You’re never quite sure who has the right of way, and it can be dangerous.  It can literally be an accident waiting to happen.

Some guidelines for living, some basic rules for behavior, can be very helpful.  They can be a real gift.  We all need boundaries, for our own sakes.  Fair and just rules, rather than being a straitjacket, can be a real gift.  They can be very freeing.

Living in community demands that there be certain boundaries, that we practice a way of living that gives freedom and at the same time nurtures and protects all of the members of the community.  Written or unwritten, the rules that we live by are important, and we do well to reflect on these rules from time to time.

This is what is going on in our scripture for today.  It is one of the most familiar parts of the Bible – the Ten Commandments.  But this is not the first time Moses has given the Law to the people.  This is the second time the commandments appear in the scriptures.

Last week we were with Moses on Holy Ground, as God spoke to him from the burning bush.  Moses went on to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  It wasn’t easy; it took ten plagues sent by God including locusts and frogs and flies and the Nile turning to blood and finally the Passover, before Pharaoh relented and allowed the people to go.  Even then, Pharaoh had a change of heart at the last minute and sent his army after the Israelites.  But the waters of the Red Sea were parted and the children of Israel crossed into freedom.

Freedom, they found, was not all that it was cracked up to be.  When you have been in slavery for 400 years, freedom can be hard.  Facing the challenges of life in the wilderness, they looked longingly on their days in Egypt when at least they had food to eat.  But God provided manna from heaven and saw them through their time in the wilderness.  And God gave them the Law, a way of living for a free people.  Brian McLaren wrote, “Through the ten plagues, we might say, God got the people out of slavery.  Through the ten commands, God got the slavery out of the people.”    

Our dog Rudy had surgery recently and had to spend a considerable amount of time wearing a cone – the cone of shame, as they call it, a plastic cone around the neck that keeps a dog from biting at stitches.  Finally, we were able to take the cone off for short periods of time while he went for a walk or ate his meal.  When it came time to put the cone back on, he seemed happy to get it on – as though he was undressed without it.  For a few weeks, I had to hold his bowl of food off the floor so he could get at it with the cone on.  When the cone came off, at first he wanted me to hold his bowl for him while he ate.  He had gotten used to life with a cone, just like the Israelites had become accustomed to life under Pharaoh.

For centuries the people had lived under the demands of a harsh taskmaster.  If you didn’t follow Pharaoh’s rules, you didn’t live long, and so the Israelites learned to obey the rules and live in fear.

But the God who led the Israelites to freedom is a God who longs for us to live in the freedom of love and grace, not in the bondage of fear.  And so like parents who provide guidance and encouragement for their daughter as she goes off to college, God provided guidance for God’s people as they prepared to start a new life in the Promised Land.

Moses gave the Law to the people.  This was reported back in Exodus.  Since then, the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness and finally made their way to where they are almost ready to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  It is nearly the end of Moses’ life.  Moses himself will not make it into the Promised Land.  But before they enter this land that God will give them, Moses reminds the people of the commandments, of God’s ways of living for a free people.  So here in Deuteronomy, which functions almost as a really long farewell address from Moses, he again reminds the people of the Law of God.

With the Israelites’ history as people who have just emerged from slavery in the background, Brian McLaren paraphrases the commandments in this way:

1.  Put the God of liberation first, not the gods of slavery.

2.  Don’t reduce God to the manageable size of an idol – certainly not one made of wood and stone by human hands, and not one made by human minds of rituals and words, either, and certainly not one in whose name people are enslaved, dehumanized, or killed!

3.  Do not use God for your own agendas by throwing around God’s holy name. 

4. Honor the God of liberation by taking and giving everyone a day off. Don’t keep the old 24/7 slave economy going.

5. Turn from self-centeredness by honoring your parents.  (After all, honor is the basis of freedom.)

6. Don’t kill people, and don’t do the things that frequently incite violence, including:

7. Don’t cheat with others’ spouses,

8. Don’t steal others’ possessions, and

9. Don’t lie about others’ behaviors or characters.

10.  In fact, if you really want to avoid the violence of the old slave economy, deal with its root source – in the drama of desire.  Don’t let the competitive desire to acquire tempt you off the road of freedom.

I like McLaren’s version of the commandments because they remind us that these are rules for living in community.  This is the way the God’s people are to live together.  This is a way of living that will allow a community to flourish.

A couple of things about the Ten Commandments.  First, the Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran, and the other Protestant traditions number them a bit differently.  “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other Gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol” is all one commandment by some counts; others have this as two commandments, and those who count two divide it up in different ways.  And then, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; you shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor” is number 10 for most groups but it is divided into 9 and 10 for Catholics and Lutherans.

This is not a big deal, everybody has the same commandments but just number them a little differently.  If you count the various numbering systems we could easily have 12 commandments.  It could be the 12 commandments, but we’re sticking with 10.  Kind of like the Big 12 Conference. 

A couple of other things to note, maybe more important than that.  Some of the wording of the commandments, especially in regard to motivation and the effects of observing the commandments, sounds strange and maybe even troubling.  “Do not worship idols ‘for I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents to the third or fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.’”

It is troubling to think that God would punish children for the sins of their parents, but I’m not sure that you have to read it that way.  This may simply be a statement of fact about the way life is.  In that day, three or four generations might live together all under the same roof.  The adversity a person might suffer for breaking the law really would affect several generations.  That is just reality.  And so this statement about children being punished for the iniquity of parents serves to illustrate all the more that the law represents a way of living in community and that it is not just for us, it is for the sake of others as well.

A further illustration of this is found in the commandment regarding Sabbath keeping.  We live in a crazy-hectic world.  With all of our devices and smart phones, we are available and we are plugged in 24/7.  We can work around the clock if we want.  Hard work is highly valued and some of us can feel guilty if we are not doing something.  In this kind of world, keeping the Sabbath is not an arbitrary rule from a God who doesn’t want us to have fun; it is a great gift.

I grew up in an era in which you didn’t mow the lawn on Sunday.  You just didn’t.  Now I live in a neighborhood where it seems like everybody mows the lawn on Sunday.  We might get a big rain and you can’t mow on Saturday, so everybody is out there mowing on Sunday.  Every yard will be nice and neat, except for ours.  Now, I don’t think it is a mortal sin or anything; on rare occasions, maybe if I’m going out of town, I’ll get out the mower on a Sunday - but I try not to.  It doesn’t mean that I think my neighbors are being heathen, it is just that for me, permission to take the day off from that kind of work is a real gift. 

The command regarding Sabbath says that nobody is to work.  Not you, not your children, not your slaves, who were part of life in that day; not resident aliens living in your land, not even animals.  The people are told, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”  This command is for the sake of everyone; it has within it a measure of mercy, especially for those who have to toil at hard labor.

And then, honor your father and mother so that your days may be long.  By honoring parents, by honoring elders, we create a culture in which we will be honored as we grow older (which to be honest sounds more important all the time).

Our reading this morning included what is known as the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and might.”  It is called the Shema because it is the first word of this verse in Hebrew.  Hear O Israel, Shema Yishrael. 

In Mark chapter 12, Jesus is asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?”  His answer is from Deuteronomy chapter 6, the Shema, combined with Leviticus 19:18.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  This is a summary of all the law.  If you love God and love your neighbor, that pretty well covers it.

All of the commandments fall under the categories of loving God and loving one’s neighbor.  The first three have to do with our relationship with God.  Sabbath is about relationships with both God and others, because we not only observe a day for rest and worship, we also are to provide it for others.  The remainder have to do with relationships with our neighbor.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

We live in a world that is exponentially more complex than the world of the Israelites as they waited to enter the Promised Land.  But these same rules for living, this same law, can free us.  It can provide the boundaries that will allow us to thrive and prosper and grow.

Norman Neaves tells of traveling at Christmas break from North Carolina to his home in Oklahoma City.  The drive was uneventful until he got to the mountainous part of western Arkansas, in the Ozarks.  By then, a heavy snowfall threatened to close the roads.  It was near-whiteout conditions and the roads had not been plowed.  The highway patrol recommended that everyone stay off the roads until the plows had a chance to at least plow a single lane of traffic.

But Neaves and his wife were determined to make it home for Christmas.  They kept going at about 25 mph on twisting mountain roads, and it was often impossible to tell exactly where the road was.  The deep snow had covered all the markings.  He was only able to stay on the road by using the reflectors on the side of the road as guideposts.  By driving between the reflectors he was able to determine the course of the road.

The Ten Commandments are like that.  They help us to get our bearings in the storms of life and they show us where it is unsafe to travel.  They lead us on the path to freedom. 

God is in the business of setting people free.  And far from throwing cold water on our party, the Ten Commandments are meant to allow us to live joyfully and fully and freely.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.