Monday, December 11, 2017

“Choosing and Being Chosen” - December 3, 2017

Text: Isaiah 40:1-4, Matthew 3:1-17

Today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season of waiting and preparation.  Many of the scriptures for Advent focus on Old Testament prophets, in their longing and hoping for God to come and make things right.  One of those prophets was Isaiah.  We heard his words of “Prepare ye the way of the Lord... make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The image is of a highly anticipated royal visit.  Preparations had to be made.  Roads were repaired.  Potholes were filled.  New flyover exit ramps off the interstate were constructed.  The whole community threw itself into making preparations.  But instead of making ready for a ruling monarch, Isaiah said that the time would come to make ready for the coming of God.

Our New Testament scripture involves John the Baptist.  John, of course, was Jesus’ cousin, born to Elizabeth in her old age.  Matthew, writing the gospel, sees in John’s preaching and ministry the living out of Isaiah’s words.  John was preparing the way of the Lord.

Now, this is a season of family get-togethers, of fabulous food and beautiful music and gift-giving.  For a lot of folks, this is their favorite season – like the songs says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Into the joy and excitement of this season, this wild-eyed prophet shows up.  John the Baptist didn’t fool around.  He lived on honey and locusts and wore camel skin.  His preaching was all fire and brimstone, all the time.  The kingdom is coming all right, he said, but don’t think that it is going to be punch and cookies.  Your only hope is to clean up your life like your life depended on it.  He called for repentance – for serious repentance – and then he said that he was just the opening act, that he wasn’t even worthy to carry the sandals of the one who was coming.

John was one serious dude.  His message is jarring to us.  But sometimes that is what we need.  Sometimes we need to be awakened from our complacency.  Some of you may remember those old Mennen Skin Bracer commercials – they would say, “It’s like a cold slap in the face.”  Somebody would slap a guy with Skin Bracer and he would say, “Thanks, I needed that.”

Well, that is John.  He was like a cold slap in the face for people who needed to wake up to the reality of their lives.  He helped people to be ready for the message of Jesus.

John was out doing his thing in the wilderness, but he took one look at Jesus and knew who he was immediately.  “You’re the one who should be baptizing me,” he said, but Jesus insisted, and John was the one who baptized Jesus.

Now, think about John.  He is out in the wilderness.  There is no walk-by traffic.  Nobody just happened to be in the neighborhood, happened to overhear his sales pitch and decide to buy.  You had to really want to hear his message.  You had to be very intentional about it.  You had to make a deliberate choice to go hear his preaching, and you had to make a personal choice to be baptized by him.

Jesus makes the deliberate choice to go to the wilderness to be baptized by John.  When Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God descends like a dove on him, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus says Yes to the anointing of the Spirit, and he proceeds to live into his calling.

Jesus chose to take charge of his own life.  He chose to make changes in his life and in his world.  People want to ask, “Why was Jesus baptized?  Wasn’t he without sin?  Isn’t baptism about repentance?  Why did he need to be baptized?”

That’s a good question, but the fact is, those kinds of questions followed Jesus throughout his ministry.  Both his followers and detractors kept asking that same question: why?

•    Why did Jesus hang out with sinners and tax collectors?

•    At the height of his popularity, with crowds growing, why did he seem to purposely offend people and make following him sound so hard?  Why was he so bad at marketing and PR?

•    Why did he flaunt convention and upset established piety?

•    When Jesus would heal somebody, why did he say to the person healed, “Don’t tell anybody”?

•    Why did he keep using Samaritans and foreigners as the good guys in stories he told?  Why did he make religious leaders out to be the bad guys?

•    Why would he hold up a poor widow as an example and criticize wealthy members of society, on whose generosity the running of the temple depended?

•    Why did he choose a bunch of everyday folks to be his disciples?  Why not respectable people of high social rank? 

•    And then why were there women among his group of friends and supporters?  In that day, it was seen as scandalous.

•    Why was Jesus so self-effacing?  Why did he wash the disciples’ feet?  Why didn’t he insist on the honor and respect due and appropriate for such a prophet?

•    Why did he teach using such obtuse, hard-to-understand parables?  Why couldn’t he just spell it out for us?

•    And why was he so big on forgiveness and loving enemies?  What was up with that?

Jesus carried out his calling in completely unexpected ways.  The question that followed him was, “Why?”  Time and again, Jesus’ teaching and behavior baffled his followers and enraged the establishment.

Jesus was a man of his time.  He responded to the world around him - he wasn’t controlled by it, but he wasn’t aloof from it, either.  He chose to do the right thing, and then the next right thing, rather than the conventional or the easy thing.

Why did Jesus do what he did?  Why did he make the choices he made?

Jesus made the choice to serve others, rather than himself.

He made the choice to serve God, not power or popularity.

He made the choice to pursue righteousness rather than personal ambition.

Jesus chose to violate traditions that he considered hurtful to people.  He believed that we were not made to serve traditions, but traditions were created to serve us.

He chose to follow the commandment to love God and love neighbor, even when it was hard, even when doing so came with a cost.

And it did come with a cost.  We all pay a price for acting freely.  But the fact is, we’re going to pay a price anyway.  There is a price to most anything we do – or don’t do.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and mammon.”  We have to decide.  Mammon is money or greed or the pursuit of wealth, but in a larger sense it represents all of those things that we may be tempted to serve rather than God.  We have to choose who or what we are going to serve.  We have to choose what our life is going to be about.

Why did Jesus submit to baptism by John?  It seems to me that Jesus was choosing to cast his lot with humanity.  He was choosing to be one with all of us.  He was choosing to identify with our needs, our struggles, our pain.  He was choosing in baptism to set the course for his life.  He was choosing to identify with the movement which John had started. 

This was a choice he made in his baptism, and it was a choice that he made over and over, again and again.

It’s that way with us.  We follow Jesus daily, making choices large and small along the way, again and again.

Baptism is a symbol of new life, a symbol of God’s grace, a reminder that God says to each of us, “You are mine.  You are my beloved child.”  There is nothing we do to earn that, so baptism is a witness to the fact that God has chosen us.

But baptism is also a choice that we make.  And it is symbolic of all the choices that we will come to make.  In baptism, we are saying that we have chosen to follow Jesus, that we have chosen to continue down that path of loving God and neighbor.  We are saying that like Jesus, we are choosing to trust God, to serve others, to live by the law of love.  We are committing ourselves to Jesus’ way in all of those daily choices that we make, large and small.

This may sound like a huge, cosmic undertaking, and it might sound like a lot of pressure.  Well, don’t worry: we’re not called to be perfect.  We are not called to bat 1000.  There will be bumps along the road, mistakes and failures, even major failures along the way.  But baptism serves as a reminder that we are God’s beloved children, and that in those times when we fall short, we are still loved and still surrounded by God’s grace – in fact, baptism tells us that we are standing in a  river of God’s grace – we are immersed in it.

This morning we celebrate with Lauren in her decision to profess her faith in Christ and to follow Jesus though baptism.  In our tradition, baptism is always done in corporate worship.  It is done in community.  Because we don’t live the Christian life all by ourselves.  We do it together.  We walk the journey of faith with brothers and sisters.  We choose to follow Jesus for ourselves, and that is symbolized in baptism, but we don’t have to follow Jesus by ourselves.  We need each other because it’s not always easy.   

Like Jesus, we have choices, every day.  We don’t have to accept our lives as they are.  We don’t have to accept the world as it is.  We can speak up for what is right.  We can choose a career path that fits our gifts.  We can help a neighbor in need or encourage a person who is hurting or use our gifts in service or get involved in a cause we care about. 

We can make the choice for kindness, for understanding, for patience.  We can refuse to give in to cynicism and to stay hopeful.  We can choose to be people of prayer.  We have choices about how we are going to live every day, and the small choices really do add up.

Jesus did not have to submit to John’s baptism.  But he chose to do so.  He was free to choose, and he knew that the choices he made would matter.

It’s like that with us.  We are called to take our lives, our freedom, the choices we have, seriously.  We are called to choose life, abundant life.  And as we do that, we live out our baptism.  Amen.

“Let Justice Roll” - November 26, 2017

Text: Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

This fall, as we have followed the Narrative Lectionary, we have had a brief tour through the Old Testament, beginning with creation and including Jacob and the ladder to heaven, God speaking to Moses in the burning bush, and God giving the people manna from heaven.   We looked at the call of the prophet Samuel and the call of King David.  In our focus on stewardship we looked at David’s prayer acknowledging God as the source of all we have as well as Psalm 103, a great Psalm of Thanksgiving.

Before we begin Advent next Sunday, we wind up this excursion the Old Testament with the prophet Amos.  You have got to love Amos.  He is an equal opportunity prophet in that he points out wrongdoing wherever he sees it.  He goes after pretty well everybody.  Amos is willing to speak God’s truth whatever the consequences.  He does not hold back and he does not mince words.  He just let’s ‘er rip.

Now, there is some biographical information about Amos that is worth knowing.  In the first place, he is not what you would call a professional prophet.  He is not a priest, he is not seminary trained, he was not a member of the school of the prophets (which was a thing.)  He describes himself as a herdsman and dresser of sycamore figs.  So he is not a professional prophet, certainly not a court prophet who would be an advisor to the king, but a shepherd and farmer who is called by God to proclaim the truth.  The second important piece of information we know about Amos is that he is from the southern kingdom of Judah but he prophesies in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

So, imagine an untrained lay preacher from Mexico, who comes along and points out the corruption and hypocrisy of our society and tells us that we are all going to hell in a handbasket.  That’s Amos.  He is a disturbing outside voice.

Amos is the earliest of the prophets whose name is attached to a book of the Bible.  He is an older contemporary of the prophet Isaiah.  Amos begins his book by pointing out the sins of Israel’s neighbors.  “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment…”  he says, and proceeds to point out the faults and the evil of Damascus. It’s like, “here is this list of wrongdoing, three big things, no wait, there is even more, it’s even worse than I had realized.”  He continues with condemnation for each of Israel’s neighbors. 

Now, Israelites hearing this prophecy might want to cheer Amos on as he points out the transgression of Israel’s neighbors.  “Way to go, Amos, let those Moabites have it!”  But that would be a mistake, because he saves the better part of his condemnation for Israel.

Amos wrote at a time of relative peace and prosperity for Israel.  The economy was good and after years and years of near-constant conflict, Israel was not at war and not under the thumb of a regional power.  But a closer look revealed trouble.  There was widespread neglect of God’s laws, and a rising inequality in the nation – an increasing disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor.  There was a neglect of justice and a lack of concern for those in need.  All of which make Amos sound very contemporary.

We might want to applaud Amos for his truth-telling and his willingness to speak truth to power.  I mean, this is what a prophet is supposed to do, right?  But here is the thing: no one escaped his words of judgment.  No one escapes his words of judgment.  One Old Testament scholar put it this way: “If you like the prophet Amos, you don’t understand him.” 

Just to hear Amos’ words, it can sound almost shocking.  A lot of us have a favorite verse of scripture, right?  John 3:16 – “for God so loved the world.”  Last week, our scripture was from Philippians – “The peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  There are those verses that especially speak to us.

Well, how about this for a memory verse: “I hate your worship.  I am sick of your songs.”  This is Amos’ message.  Hear his words again:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings and offerings of well-being,
   I will not accept them;
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
  I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  
Wow.  Pretty strong stuff.  What are we to take from this? 

There have been those who argue that this is an indictment of ritual and formalism in worship, that worship can become formulaic and cold, a kind of going through the motions.  Well, that may be true, but that can be true regardless of worship style – worship can become kind of going through the motions whether it is highly liturgical or very informal.  But that is really missing the point.  That is not what Amos is saying. 

The point is not that what’s wrong with worship.  The point is what’s wrong with worshippers

The problem is offering worship to God and then going out and living as though our words of praise and worship are meaningless.  The problem is saying very pious words but then going out and failing to love our neighbor.  The problem is claiming to worship a God of love and justice and then acting in hateful and corrupt ways.

The issue is integrity.  We can sing beautiful hymns, we can bring sacrificial offerings, we can erect impressive cathedrals, we can have a big, growing, happening congregation.  And it’s not that these things are unimportant.  The point is that without compassion, without a love for neighbor, without regard for what is right, then all of these things are empty. 

Integrity means to be whole, to be undivided.  It means that what we proclaim on Sunday, we try to live out through the week.  It means that we don’t try to put on a false piety on Sunday just as it means that we don’t try to hide our faith throughout the week.  It means we are who we are, and that who we are is a people committed to love and justice and righteousness.

Israel’s claim to be God’s people and its commitment to follow God’s law was belied by the reality of its national life.  A fabulously wealthy elite was living the good life while many were barely subsisting.  Corruption was rampant – corruption on the part of the very people who loved to bring their offerings to the temple and be seen as upright and religious. 

If you take the time to read through the book of Amos, it is amazing that he even lived to write the whole book, so pointed are his words.  He could not have been popular with anyone in power.  It is a hard book to read.  But then, the best-known words from this prophet, and what we hear as words of hope are found in chapter 5 verse 24: “Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Water is a good metaphor for what Amos was trying to convey because water was a very precious resource in that part of the world back then, even as it is now.  There were wadis – small creeks – that were dry for much of the year, but there would be flash flooding when it finally rained.

That is not the way justice was supposed to be – not once in a while, not an occasional outpouring that interrupted the norm of corruption and oppression and favor for the rich at the expense of the poor.  God’s justice is to be the way the world works.  Not a dry creek bed that occasionally flows, but a mighty river, an ever-flowing stream.  “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Our church is part of a community organizing group called AMOS.  AMOS is an acronym for A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, but of course it is one of those purposeful acronyms because as an organization that works for justice, you could do a lot worse than taking the name of this Hebrew prophet who had such a strong call for justice.

Most churches do a pretty good job with mercy, and our church certainly does.  When people are hungry we provide food.  When people need housing we work through Good Neighbors to help make housing available.  We support and participate with Habitat for Humanity.  We go on mission trips.  We are generous in providing help.  That is mercy.  Justice goes a step further by asking, “Why are there so many hungry people?”  “Why is it that a person can work hard and still not be able to afford a decent place to live?”  So in AMOS, our efforts as an organization are hopefully in the tradition of this prophet who called for a world that was just and equitable for all people.

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the message of Amos as well as anybody.  Hid message was that our faith and Christian commitment cannot be separate from concern for our neighbor.  Our faith commitment demands a social commitment.  Love for God requires love for neighbor, and if we show no love for neighbor, then our claim of love for God is empty.

Now, there is something interesting about Amos’ words.  Amos is not asking us to go out and design a water delivery system.  He doesn’t say, go construct a canal, build some culverts, run a new pipeline, and get that water to flow.  We are not asked to build a river of justice.

The river is already here, he says.  Our job is simply to let it flow.  We are not the source of justice or righteousness.  God is the ultimate source.  What we are called to do is clear out those things that are damming up the flow, restricting the waters.  “Let justice flow.”   

In other words, we are not responsible for everything.  The river can take care of itself and given half a chance it can wash away any obstacle.  We are simply called to work on those things that keep justice from flowing.  Stuff that has gotten in the stream by accident, things we have put in the way on purpose.  There are those things that may benefit a few folks, even while there are people dying of thirst downstream.  Our job is to do what needs to be done to let justice roll.

We have seen it time and again through history.  In the colonial period, many Baptists, along with others, were persecuted – the notion of religious freedom even for minority faiths was considered crazy, even blasphemous.  But there came a time, following the Revolutionary War, when that view was washed away by the waters of justice.  And that same kind of “sudden change” that comes after decades or even centuries of waiting keeps on happening.  

Women getting the right to vote.  The Civil Rights movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act.  The Berlin Wall coming down.  Fifteen years ago, it was would have been hard to imagine that attitudes would change and laws would change to give LGBTQ persons the rights and opportunities they have today.  In recent days, there have been revelations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse made against one public figure after another – from Hollywood to the Iowa Legislature to newsrooms to Washington DC to Senate campaigns.  Stuff that has gone on for years, apparently with little to stop it, is suddenly, it seems, not going to be tolerated any more.

Eventually justice will roll.  Martin Luther King Jr was fond of quoting Theodore Parker, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  

The point is, it is not up to us to have to do everything – justice and righteousness is God’s work – but we are called to let it flow, to clear away the impediments to justice and righteousness.

I cited several historical movements toward justice.  There is a long way to go, still, on most of these issues, and plenty of other concerns to be addressed, especially in the matter of the separation between haves and have-nots, which was a major issue for Amos.  But here is the thing: in each and every one of those changes that brought greater justice and freedom and equality, there were religious folks who stood in the way - who said that infidels (as they defined infidels – and that included Baptists) should not have religious freedom, or we should protect women by not bothering them with the vote, or that the Bible supports the separation of the races, if not slavery.  Even in recent days, there has been the spectacle of so-called religious leaders minimizing sexual harassment and abuse and standing with perpetrators.  Some of the same people who have always preached about family values.

In each and every case, the issue is power and control and not wanting to give it up.  Amos didn’t really care who was perverting justice or abusing the poor or preying on the weak: he called them on it.  He spoke the truth, even to power.

I have to say, I am not entirely comfortable saying all of this, because I recognize that Amos would have something to say to me.   (This is where the “if you like Amos, you don’t understand him” part comes in.)  It is easy for all of us to be in favor of justice and righteousness until there is a chance it might cost me personally.

If you had to put it in a nutshell, Amos’ question for our day might be: “Do you love your comfortable way of life and your desire for power and control more than you love Jesus? 

The prophet’s words are as timely today as they were in Amos’ time.  “Let justice roll like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Amen.

“Giving Thanks and Thankful Giving” - November 19, 2017

Text: Psalm 103, Philippians 4:4-7

We live in a time of worry.  Terrorism, mass shootings, hurricanes, tornados, flooding, global warming, political polarization, rising hatred, stranger danger, road rage, identity theft, computer hackers, the cost of healthcare, financial scams.  There is plenty to worry about, and it’s certainly not limited to those big societal issues.  We may worry over relationships, health, work, school, money, aging, our children, and the Cyclones’ offense.   

Yet the Apostle Paul says, “Don’t worry about anything.”  These words are timely, because we live in an age of worry.  But this also sounds naïve.  How could a person not worry?  To not worry, you would either have to be completely detached from reality, or deliberately in denial.  “Don’t worry about a thing!”  If you are like me, when you hear someone say that, you probably translate it as: “you better worry.”

Yet in writing the church in Philippi, Paul does not ignore or deny the situation faced by those whom he was writing.  As Christians, as a small minority religion, they faced persecution in the Roman Empire.  Paul was not unaware of this.  In fact, he understood exactly what he was talking about: he was writing from a jail cell.  He was suffering for his faith.  But he also understood that there are prisons of our own making that can be just as daunting as those imposed upon us.

Paul had found that a life of joy, a conscious choice of gratitude, could transform worry into peace.  “Don’t worry about anything.  Rejoice in the Lord always.  Offer prayer and thanksgiving to God.  And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Rather than being naïve, praise even in the midst of difficult times is a far better way to live.  A conscious choice for gratitude can change our lives.

Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday per se, not in the way that Christmas and Easter are.  People of all faiths and people of no faith can certainly be thankful.  But in a deeper sense, thanksgiving is the ground of all religious feeling.  Thanksgiving is the heart of worship – we gather each week out of gratitude to God. 

The theme of Thanksgiving is found throughout the Bible, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Psalms.  Psalm 103 is a great psalm of thanksgiving.”Bless the Lord my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.” 

This psalm, attributed to King David, begins with words of personal thanksgiving.  If you had to make a list of what you are thankful for, where would you start?  Probably with the ways in which you have personally been blessed. 

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
   and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
   who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live.
God blesses us with all the good things we need.  And the greatest blessings may be the ones we most take for granted.  You may remember a 60 Minutes program that featured a man in Texas who was arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit.  Witnesses to the crime knew at the trial that this was the wrong man.  It was a case of mistaken identity, but he was convicted anyway.  The system failed him.  Appeals were denied.

This man was a professional, an engineer.  He and his wife had two young daughters.  He was a model parent, an upstanding member of the community – and he was in prison.  60 Minutes did a little bit of investigating, the kind of stuff a defense attorney or prosecutor should have done in half a day, and aired this man’s case in a program.  There was such a furor that finally the man was released from prison.

He was interviewed in a follow-up show.  “What did you miss the most?” he was asked.  He said he missed the little things that we all take for granted.  Things like fresh air.  Taking a walk.  Being with family.  American writer Cynthia Ozick says, “We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”

Some of greatest things in life are things over which we may give little thought.   The Psalmist knows this.  “Do not forget the Lord’s benefits… God crowns you with love and mercy and satisfies you with good.”  Look around and be aware and appreciate all of the good things we enjoy in life – these are all gifts of God.

The Psalm continues by giving thanks not only for personal blessings, but for communal blessings and thanks simply for who God is.

The Lord works vindication
   and justice for all who are oppressed.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities.
As a father has compassion for his children,
   so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.
For those who feel downtrodden, “the Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.”  For those who are hurting or lonely, “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  For those feeling burdened by sin or guilt or shame, “God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities... as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”  To those who feel unloved, or those whose loss fills them with pain, we are reminded that “as a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him...the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.”  Nothing separates us from God’s love, not our sin, not our pain, not the losses we must endure.

You know, sometimes the action has to come first and the attitude will follow.  Sometimes they will talk about “fake it till you make it.”  This does not mean ignoring reality, but when we are not feeling very thankful about life in general and can yet find it within ourselves to give thanks anyway, we may be surprised at how expressing gratitude can change our perspective.  Ellen Degeneres described gratitude as “looking on the brighter side of the life, even if it means hurting your eyes.”

In Costa Rica, I was very limited language-wise.  But one of my go-to words was, “Gracias.”  It is amazing how far gratitude will get you.

In my interactions with Spanish-speakers, I could not complain, I could not gripe, I could not whine, I could not express worry.  But I could express gratitude.  And if you had to choose one thing to express, I think gratitude would be it.  Going through the day with an attitude of thankfulness makes a difference.  Going through life with an attitude of gratitude can make all the difference in the world. 

What all of this is all getting at is that Thanksgiving is an attitude that does not simply depend on our circumstances in life.  A number of years ago, on spring break working at a church in New York City, I sat in a circle during a Bible study.  We were going around the circle telling something we were thankful for.  Franco was a homeless person.  He lived down the street from the church in a little shack he had put together out of cardboard in a vacant lot.

He said he was thankful he had made it through a cold winter--some people he knew had not made it.  He was thankful for this church that cared about people and made him feel welcome.  He was thankful for his health.  Here was a person with few of the things we think of as basic necessities of life -- yet he had a sincere gratitude that far surpasses that of an awful lot of people with big houses and nice cars and good jobs and healthy bank accounts and loving families.  Thanksgiving is an attitude that does not depend on the circumstances we find ourselves in.  This Psalm of Thanksgiving could be said by Franco on the street as well as it could be said by a millionaire living a few blocks away.

One writer put it this way (anonymous writer):

Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire.  If you did, what would there be to look forward to?

Be thankful when you don’t know something, for it gives you the opportunity to learn.

Be thankful for the difficult times.  During those times you grow.

Be thankful for your limitations because they give you opportunities for improvement.

Be thankful for each new challenge because it will build your strength and character.

Be thankful for your mistakes.  They will teach you valuable lessons.

Be thankful when you’re tired and weary because it means you’ve made a difference.

It is easy to be thankful for the good things.  A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who are also thankful for the setbacks.
This does not mean that we would prefer the difficulties and setbacks, but we can maintain an attitude of gratitude even in the midst of hard times.  As Paul puts it, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice!”

The third portion of Psalm 103 is a call to praise.  In light of God’s blessings and in light of who God is, praise to God is to come from every living thing.  All of creation joins in praise to God.

The highest act of praise is worship.  It is in gathering together in worship that we, as a family of believers, give thanks to God.  We can surely give praise to God when we are alone, but there is a uniqueness and power in corporate worship as an act of Thanksgiving.  In our gathering, in greeting one another, as the candles are lit, in the music, in our singing, in the reading of God’s word and in the proclamation of God’s word, there can be an attitude of thanksgiving and gratefulness.  Every act of worship can be an act of praise to God.

One of the ways we give thanks and offer worship to God is in our offerings.  In Old Testament times there was an offering called a Thanks-offering.  To express gratitude to God, the people would bring an offering of thanks.  When we give our tithes and our offerings, we are expressing our thanks to God.  We give thanks through thankful giving.

In this season of thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to express our thanks to God as we commit to support God’s work through this church.  In recent weeks we have been hearing from members about how this church makes a difference in their lives and in the lives of others.  This morning we will be making pledges both to support the ongoing work of First Baptist and to fund capital improvements as part of our 150th anniversary year.

As an act of worship and as an expression of thanksgiving, we would invite you to present your financial commitments as we receive our offering this morning.  It is a commitment to support God’s work through this church and to our ongoing ministry together.  It is a commitment to bless the past and continue to work with God in building the future.  And this is an expression of thanksgiving to God, a way to “praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.”  Amen.

Friday, October 27, 2017

"Ever Reforming" - October 29, 2017

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

I don’t know about you, but in my lifetime, church has changed.  A lot.  I grew up in a church in which women did not serve as deacons or as ushers.  I remember my mother serving as chair of the pastoral search committee one time, which was basically unheard of, but nobody had thought to make a rule, either written or unwritten, about a woman being in charge of finding the next pastor.

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

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

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

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

In 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and leaders of church and state to answer charges of heresy.  Johann von Eck, the brilliant theologian, confronted him:

Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand scripture?  Would you put your judgment above that of many famous men and claim that you know more than they all?  Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain?
Suddenly the words were pouring forth from Luther’s lips:
Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right.  God help me, here I stand. 
Today is Reformation Sunday.  On October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago - Martin Luther nailed 95 theses, or complaints, or critiques - to the church door in Wittenberg.  This was the community bulletin board, the social media of the day.  And in some respects it was better than our social media, because it would be a bit of a chore to tweet 95 different theses.

Luther wanted to spur conversation, to bring about renewal within the church, but that act began what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.  We have observed Reformation Sunday here from time to time, not necessarily every year, but since this is the 500th Anniversary, it seemed right this morning.

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

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

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

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

For Luther, a focus on the scriptures led to an examination of theology.  And theologically, the bywords of the Reformation were found in Latin phrases, in several solas.

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

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

Closely related is sola gratia, or grace alone.  Salvation is a gift of God through and through.  Our experience of faith and our living and breathing each day is a gift.  It is all grace.  Even the ability to have faith is a gift of God.  It is possible to get braggy about how great our faith is, but sola gratia says that everything, even our faith, is a gift of God.

Another Reformation theme is sola scriptura, scripture alone.  This has to do with where we find authority.  The scriptures speak to us and contain the truth we need.  “Scripture Alone” means that others sources of authority do not carry the same weight as the Bible.

Sola scriptura is related to the idea of the priesthood of all believers – we can all interpret the scriptures for ourselves, aided by the tradition of interpretation, aided by our ability to reason and make sense of things for ourselves, and led by the Holy Spirit.  But the scriptures must be allowed to speak to us directly, unfiltered, as it were.  We all must determine the message of the scriptures to us for ourselves. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know who else is protesting that today?  Pope Francis.  The head of the Roman Catholic Church is one of a handful of religious leaders that come to mind as working for change and renewal and maybe even “Reformation” in the church.  Ironic, isn’t it?

This is a time of change, but also a time of great opportunity.  The Good News is: the Church has faced challenging times before.  This is nothing new.  And God continues to use fallible human beings - the Church - to bring wholeness and healing and justice and community and reconciliation and salvation.  We know this.  We have experienced it.

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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

“Seeing the Heart” - October 15, 2017

Text: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Seeing the Burning Bush" - September 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob’s son Joseph had been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, but God has used this for good.  Joseph rose to a position of power and prominence in Egypt, and in a time of famine, the whole family had settled there.  But generations go by, and the Israelites were no longer honored or welcomed in Egypt.  Jacob’s descendants were numerous, like in the dream. but they were so numerous they were feared by Pharaoh.  And do they were made slaves and treated ruthlessly, but they only became more numerous, which made Pharaoh fear the Israelites all the more and treat them even more harshly. 

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

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

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

He wound up in the land of Midian.  He married a woman there, Zipporah, and he got along well with her family.  Moses settled into life as a shepherd.  It was a comfortable life.  Sure, he remembered his people back in Egypt and wondered about them from time to time.  But he took a certain satisfaction in being a shepherd – an occupation that was detested by the Egyptians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Moses, it is out in the field.  It’s while he is in the middle of a workday.  This certainly was not something he had planned on.  Often as not, God is found not so much in the spectacular but in the commonplace, not so much in the dramatic but in the simple things, not in the expected but in the unlikely.  The possibility that God may meet us anywhere and everywhere makes all ground in a sense Holy Ground.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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