Friday, November 9, 2018

“Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly” - November 11, 2018

Text: Micah 6:6-8, Mark 12:28-34

The world is changing rapidly.  We all know this.  Culture and technology and social dynamics keep changing and evolving.  For better or worse, the world is a different place than it was 20 years ago.

One of the big changes over the past 20 or 25 years has been that more and more Americans, when surveyed, claim no religious affiliation.  I have mentioned before that this group has been called “The Nones.”  Writing a few years ago, researcher Robert Putnam said that “It is now, roughly speaking, 35 percent [to] 40 percent of younger Americans … who say that they have no religious affiliation.”

That’s a big change.  For many years about 5 to 7 percent of Americans said they belonged to no religion.  The shift, Putnam says, is “a quite novel and interesting, significant development.”

Well, it is more than novel and interesting and significant.  For those of us in the church, it is scary.

The reason many people are staying away from the church is not so much that they don’t believe in God or find Jesus an appealing figure.  It is because of the ways that Christians and church leaders have presented themselves in public: as judgmental, hypocritical, and overly political.  Somehow, people have got the message that the Church is mostly concerned with toeing the line, being on the right side of hot-button issues, and gaining political power.  Love and grace and welcome are not the first things that come to mind for a lot of people when they think of the church. 

Our situation is not terribly unlike that of the prophet Micah, who lived 2700 years ago.  It was a time in which there were elaborate outward shows of religiosity but a lack of deep, transforming faith.  Religious leaders had promoted a status quo religion that kept the powerful in power but turned a blind eye to injustice.  And then Micah showed up.  His message of judgment against the faithful – against the religious leaders and those who considered themselves righteous - must have been quite a shock.

If we were to go back to the verses and chapters preceding our reading from Micah this morning, we would find a no-holds barred condemnation of the faith and worship of Israel.  God’s acts on behalf of Israel are made clear.  God had been faithful, but Israel had turned from God.

Last week we looked at the prophet Elisha and the healing of Naaman, the Syrian military general.  Elisha prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Micah lived about a hundred years later and prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah.  He was one of the writing prophets, many of whom we find in the short books at the end of the Old Testament.  Micah is one of those books that is kind of hard to find when you look it up.  But don’t be misled by the brevity of the prophetic books; their message is powerful. 
The prophets thundered against Israel for cheating, abuses of power and privilege, exploitation of the poor and powerless, self-indulgence, and retreat into vain religiosity.  “You cows of Basham,” raged Amos, “who oppress the poor, and crush the needy.”  “Your wealthy are full of violence,” said Micah; “your inhabitants speak lies.” “Because you have plundered many nations,” said Habakkuk, “all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you.” “The people went far from me,” said Jeremiah, “and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”

Pretty tough stuff.  The people had turned from God and failed to live as God had demanded. 

Micah’s understanding was that Israel had turned to elaborate ritual sacrifices while at the same time engaging in wickedness, cheating, violence by the wealthy toward the poor, and rampant lying.  Now, it wasn’t that God was against ritual practice per se.  Ritual can be very meaningful.

I mean, think of our own ritual practices.  Things like communion and then joining hands in a circle after a communion service.  Baptism.   Christmas Eve.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer.  And yes, giving our offerings.

Ritual can be important, but Micah said that these rituals were meaningless without accompanying righteous behavior.  Offering a ritual sacrifice was no substitute for faithful living.

Micah brings an indictment against the people and then turns to a kind of ridiculous hyperbole.  Speaking for Israel, he writes, "OK, we are guilty as charged.  So what do you want, God?  Do you want burnt offerings?  How about thousands of rams?  How about 10,000 rivers of oil?  Would that do it?  Would that be enough?  Would that set things right?”

Just what is it that God wants from us?  Essentially, Micah says that God doesn’t really want anything.  Because God is not after things; God is interested in us.  Faith is a relationship.  Micah 6:8 describes that relationship. What God wants is a certain way of living from us, a way of living that walks alongside God. 

Amos and Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, all of the great 8th century prophets can be summarized in this one verse: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”  This is the high water mark of prophetic religion, and is seen clearly in the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t about laying down a bunch of legalistic rules; he was about living in relationship with God.  For Jesus, it all boiled down to love God and love your neighbor, which is pretty similar to what Micah is saying here.

First, we are to do justice.  Not just like the idea of justice, but actually do it.  This means that we work for the good of all people, especially those who are powerless.  We work to change structures and systems so that everyone is treated fairly and equitably.  There is a social dimension to faith, and as Christians we are to be salt and light in our communities.  We are to live in a way that honors and respects and values everyone.  We do justice and we work against injustice.

Righting wrongs, providing opportunities for those who need it, seeing all people as God’s children, full of worth and value – these are all elements of justice. 

And then we are to love mercy.  If you look in five different translations of the Bible, you might find 5 different words here.  It may read kindness, or loyalty, or love, or grace.  The word that is hard to translate here is hesed – a word that has shown up again and again as we have made our way through the Old Testament – almost every week, it seems, in our scripture reading.  It means something like loving kindness.

Hesed is when you are in serious trouble, you are really hurting, and there is someone who has no reason to help you but they do anyway – they go out of their way to help.  That is what it is to be on the receiving end of hesed. 

I remember a really bad ice storm several years ago.  There were tree limbs down everywhere.  We have a big sycamore tree in our back yard, and every time the wind blows we have a bunch of sticks to pick up.  That happens routinely.  But with this huge ice storm, there were all kinds of limbs and branches down in our backyard, along with an unbelievable amount of the smaller stuff.  I was working on it with both a chainsaw and a rake, thinking that this would take days to clean up.

And about then a woman just showed up in our back yard to help.  I had never met her but she apparently lived nearby.  She had already cleaned up her yard - it was a small yard and she didn’t have much to clean up - but she wanted to help other people.  So she was out looking for people to help.  And she did.  I couldn’t believe it.  That was hesed.  Kindness and mercy and help that was in no way expected, but freely chosen.  She helped out for awhile, and the job didn’t seem so impossible, and then she went on and helped somebody else.

It is interesting that we are to do justice, but we are to love mercy or love kindness.  So it’s not just that God wants us to do good toward others; God wants us to love doing good toward others.  We are not just called to love our neighbor, God wants us to love loving our neighbor.

And then we are to walk humbly with God.  The key word here is walking.  Life is a journey, and walking humbly means that we journey with God; we learn from God.  In Judaism, the word for ethics and morality is “walking.”  It describes how one should go about one’s day-to-day life.  Our walk is never taken alone.  Psalm 23 says, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Walking with God.

The life of faith is not about a bunch of arbitrary rules.  It is not about outward shows of piety and goodness.  It is about walking humbly with God.  As that relationship with God grows, we more and more are led to do justice and love mercy.  As we love God, we are more and more led to love our neighbor.

Micah says that authentic faith is not about outward show or ritual acts; it is about relationships.  Our stewardship theme this fall is taken from Micah 6:8: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”  As a church, we are engaged in all of this and our gifts support all of this. 

The focus on relationships extends to our financial giving.  We don’t receive a bill from the church and we are not asked to pay our dues.  We give willingly and joyfully, out of a relationship.  The Old Testament idea was to give 10% of one’s income as a tithe, or gift to God.  Jesus’ teaching goes beyond this and says that it all comes from God – it’s not that 10% belongs to God; 100% belongs to God.  We are stewards of all of these gifts.  So the question is: how do we use what God has blessed us with and entrusted to us?

We give out of relationship.  God blesses us, and we want to give.  We see needs, and we want to give.  We understand how important our mission is, and we want to support it.

God has created us for giving, and we are at our best when we are giving.  E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary to India back in the mid-20th century.  He was from Baltimore and on trips home from India he would speak in local churches.  One Sunday he was scheduled to speak at a church in a small town in Pennsylvania.

It was his habit to get to the church where he was speaking very early.  When he got to this particular church there was no one there except an older man sitting and playing a simple one-finger tune on the organ.

They got into a conversation.  Jones learned that as a young man, he had been very successful.  He made a lot of money.  Then the Great Depression hit and he lost everything.  He couldn’t find a job until his church needed a custodian and hired him for the job.

The organ that he was playing a tune on with one finger was the organ he had donated to the church when he was young and affluent before the Depression.

He said he loved coming to the church early in the morning before work and just sitting at the organ.  And he told E. Stanley Jones, “The only things I have left, are the things I gave away.  The only things that I have been able to keep are what I shared with others.”

God has created us for giving.  And we are at our best when we are giving.  Cheryl Chatman is the Dean of Diversity and Executive Vice President at Concordia University in St. Paul.   She told the story of her uncle and his life of stewardship.

Cheryl’s uncle was an electrician.  He owned and operated an electrical business.  He was not satisfied just to hire people and provide a job for them.  He strategized about how to give them a sense of self-worth and dignity.

So he started with three men in his mother's garage, teaching classes at night to help them secure electrical licenses.  The class grew and had to be moved to the church’s fellowship hall.  Eventually 46 people regularly attended classes that he taught and are now either journeymen electricians or master electricians.  This resulted in first time home ownership.  It resulted in tuition money for advanced education for their children, four of whom later opened their own successful electrical businesses.

This stewardship trickled down through families and generations.  Aside from the employees and their families, this man provided assistance to senior citizens through gifts of meals, help paying bills, and home repairs.  Chatman’s uncle was a steward who provided opportunities, supported livelihoods, and cared for the elderly.  He was doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  And in the next generation, that legacy continued.  
What does God require?  What does God ask of us?  Not ritual practices, not going through the motions of religiosity.  God wants lives of justice and kindness and humility – God wants people who will walk with God. 

As we offer our financial pledges of support for God’s work today, we are committing to support the work that we all do together, the work of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.  Our financial commitments are symbols of what is in our heart, symbols of our commitment as individuals and as a church to follow Jesus as we love God and love our neighbor.  Amen.

“The Gifts of Everyday Saints” - November 4, 2018

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Last Sunday, we thought about wisdom and discernment as we looked at Solomon, known as the wisest of Israel’s kings.  Under his leadership, the great temple was built in Jerusalem, along with an ambitious program of public works, including a palace for the king.  Beyond that, Solomon lived lavishly.  He became fabulously wealthy and lived a life of luxury.  To support all of this, the people were taxed heavily, and by the end of his reign, the nation was nearly bankrupt.  He was known as the wisest of Israel’s kings, but he did not always make such wise choices.

After Solomon’s death, the nation was divided north and south.  It is during the time of the divided monarchy that the prophets Elijah and Elisha arose in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Elisha was Elijah’s protégé, and at the end of Elijah’s life, Elisha took up his mantle, or cloak - literally.  This is where the expression comes from for passing on authority from teacher to student.

It was in the time of Elisha the prophet that we come to today’s scripture.  Naaman was the commander of the army of Aram, an ancient country that is today part of Syria.  Naaman was a military hero and a powerful man. 

But there was a problem.  Naaman had a secret.  He had a terrible skin disease.  Presumably, he had gone from doctor to doctor seeking help for his affliction.  Unless one was born into the royal family, a person could not rise any higher than Naaman.  But his power and status did not protect him from illness.

Now, Aram was on the northern border of Israel.  There was a history of warring and raiding between the two nations, but at the moment they were at peace.  But during an earlier raid on Israel, an Israelite girl was taken captive, and she was now Naaman’s wife’s servant.

Inexplicably, this servant girl cares about Naaman.  It’s hard to imagine why; perhaps because this slave girl had suffered, she had compassion for the suffering of Naaman and his family.  And so she tells Naaman’s wife that there is a great prophet in her home country, back in Israel, who might be able to cure him.

Although this servant is unnamed and seems a relatively minor character in the story, there would be no story without her.  It is her suggestion that makes everything possible. 

It says something about the depth of Naaman’s desperation that he listened to the advice of this slave girl.  They were at peace at the moment, but the Arameans generally held the upper hand with Israel.  It would be humiliating for this great man to go to Israel, of all places, on bended knee.  But the leprosy threatened to take everything from him, and so he willing to try almost anything, even willing to listen to a Hebrew slave girl. 

Naaman mentions the servant’s suggestion to the king, and to his surprise, the king thinks it’s a great idea.  Of course, there were political implications to consider.  Naaman’s visit would create quite a stir.  The king sends along gifts: silver and gold and ten new suits, the latest in Aramean fashion.  And rather than sending Naaman to the prophet, he sends him to the king of Israel.  This needed to be handled at the proper level.  A person like Naaman wouldn’t just go hat-in-hand to an Israelite prophet. 

The letter sent to king says, “I have sent Naaman to you so that you may cure him of leprosy.”  And the king of Israel is scared to death.  “What, you think I can just cure leprosy?” he asks.  He was obviously being set up.  When he failed to provide the cure, Aram would have an excuse, a pretense, to beat up on Israel again.  It was a potentially dangerous situation, and the king tears his clothes as a sign of his despair.  But word of Naaman’s visit reached Elisha the prophet, who sent a message to the king of Israel.  “Send this guy on over to me,” Elisha says.

It’s interesting that this slave girl, a captive in a foreign land, has heard of the prophet Elisha and believes he can heal Naaman – but the king seems clueless about this.

Naaman and his whole entourage, with horses and chariots and servants, goes to the house of Elisha.  As commander of the Aramean army, he expects to be treated with dignity and respect. 

Naaman and his traveling group pulled up at Elisha’s place.  And they waited.  He was surprised that Elisha did not rush out to receive him.  But instead of being received with honor by Elisha, this Israelite prophet just sends out a servant.  Imagine that!  Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army, arrives at the home of an Israelite prophet.  This had to be the biggest thing that had happened in these parts in who knows when.  This mighty general arrives, and the prophet doesn’t even bother to see him!  A scrawny messenger boy tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River seven times, and he would be clean.

It was a slap in the face is what it was.  Elisha’s prescription was no better than his bedside manner.  The Jordan River was really not much more than a muddy creek.  It was shallow and at times rather foul-smelling.  I mean, if you dipped seven times in the Jordan River, you were likely to get a skin disease.

Naaman is infuriated.  He has come all this way, gone to all this trouble, brought expensive gifts, just to have the servant of an Israelite prophet tell him to go dip in a godforsaken mudhole.  If he were going to wash in a river, they had way better rivers back home.  Of all the nerve!

Naaman said, “I thought the prophet would come out, and wave his hands and call on his God, and say magic, mysterious words to cure the leprosy.  I thought there would be drama.  I thought there would be spectacle.  I thought it would be a big production!”  And Naaman stormed off in a rage.

And for the second time, it is not the mighty and powerful people, but a lowly servant who saves the day and points Naaman towards healing.  His servants approached him and said, “Look, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?

The servant was right.  If Elisha had prescribed a vegan diet, or sent Naaman on a difficult quest, or asked him to do a dangerous mission for God, he would have done it.

That kind of prescription would have been easier for Naaman because it would have meant that he had earned his healing.  It would have meant that he himself was responsible for it.  Likewise, he wanted to pay for the treatment with gold and silver and fine clothing.  But Elisha would not take it.  For Naaman, to simply accept a gift was a lot harder.

But the servant’s words were true.  He would have done anything.  So it made sense to at least give Elisha’s prescription a try.  He goes to the muddy waters of the Jordan, and he immersed himself seven times in the water.

Naaman had to set aside his pride and humble himself.  The text says, “He went down,” and he really did have to go down.  He had to stoop to taking advice from an Israelite slave girl, then he went down to Jerusalem, and then even further down to the prophet in Samaria.  He had to lower himself to the point of being set straight by his own servants, and finally he went down into the muddy Jordan, washing with the very common people of an enemy nation, before he found healing.

“The Doctor” was a movie starring William Hurt as a physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer.  As a teacher in the med school, he is used to people following his commands.  He is in control and in charge, and he is not used to being a patient.

As a patient, he finds that he has to do a lot of waiting.  He is treated like anybody else and has to go by other people’s schedules, not his own.  He is not used to feeling unimportant; he is not used to all the indignities of being a patient.  In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and about dying.  He makes a full recovery, while she does not.

When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them.  Each make-believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease.  The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day-to-day care of patients, seem pleased.

This doctor was not only cured, he was healed.  He experienced a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor.

It may have been that way for Naaman.  He was cured of his illness, and we have to hope that in the process, he was healed as well, that he learned humility, learned to listen to others, and was a changed man after the experience.

November 1 was All Saint’s Day, and today is celebrated as All Saints Sunday.  This is not necessarily a major emphasis of our Baptist tradition, but it strikes me that the story of Naaman is fitting for today.

We recognize, of course, saints of the Church, and we might mention someone like St. Francis from time to time.  But our understanding is that all Christians are saints – meaning not that we are all perfect or especially godly, but we are all God’s people, all loved and called by God.  At Helen Sassaman’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago, she wanted to have “When the Saints God Marching In” as part of the service, so Mindy played it.  That song is talking about all of us.

Two of the characters in the story of Naaman that might seem like minor characters are actually crucial to Naaman’s healing.  First, a slave girl points him toward the prophet in Israel.  And then one of his servants encourages him to follow Elisha’s instructions, again pointing him toward healing.

There is even more.  The slave girl was taken from her home, from her family, from her community.  She was a captive in Aram.  She had every reason not to help Naaman.  Yet she does.  Naaman’s servant who tells him to follow Elisha’s instructions is likely also a slave.  How do you wish good and healing upon one who has done you evil?

The last couple of weeks have been awful, filled with hatred and violence.  But in the midst of that there have been rays of hope and love.

After the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the shooter, a man who had murdered 11 Jews and injured many others, was taken to Allegheny General Hospital.  Even while in the ambulance and in the emergency Room, he kept yelling that he just wanted to kill Jews.

Well, in the ER, his attending doctor was a Jew.  His nurse was a Jew.  They cared for him as they would anyone else.  Jeff Cohen is the president of the hospital.  He lives a couple of blocks from the synagogue, where he is a member.  He heard the gunfire.  He was concerned for his mother, who he thought ma have been in the building.  Yet Cohen went to the shooter’s hospital room.  He asked how the man was doing and if he was in pain.  The man said that no, he was fine.  And then the man asked who he was.  He said, “I’m Dr. Cohen.  I’m the president of the hospital.” 

The FBI agent guarding the patient told Dr. Cohen, “I don’t know if I could do what you just did.”

As I think about the story of Naaman today, in light of all that is going on in our world, I’m thinking that instead of Naaman or Elisha, maybe the slave girl, who does good for one who has done her evil, who points Naaman toward healing, is the person for us to focus on.  This girl may help us to think about the idea of everyday saints.

We are not great military leaders.  We are not national heroes.  We are not amazing, miracle-working prophets.  We are not superstar saints.  But we can do what this young girl did.  We can do what Naaman’s servant did.  In small acts of compassion and caring, we can make a difference.  In our own way, we can try to emulate what the doctors and nurses at Allegheny General Hospital did.  It’s not easy, but we can act justly and we can show kindness and we can follow the way of Jesus even in the face of hatred and opposition.

Each act of kindness and compassion and unexpected goodness contributes to the healing of both ourselves and others – as well as our community and our world.  Each time we care for our neighbor or choose to be generous or help a person in need or express concern for a friend or act to protect the earth or welcome a stranger or give of our time to make our community a better place, we are contributing to healing.  In this season that we think about stewardship, it strikes me that such acts of kindness and caring and compassion are powerful acts of stewardship.

It is not just the big names and superstars.  It is the gifts of everyday saints who make a difference in our lives.  Who are the people that have blessed you, who have made a real difference in your life?  We can look around and see some of those people, some of those everyday saints, here in this place.  And we can give thanks to God.  Amen.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

“Seeking Discernment” - October 28, 2018

Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28

This past week the Mega Millions jackpot reached nearly $1.6 billion.  It was announced as the largest jackpot ever.  As it turned out, that was just an estimate, and the actual amount was only $1.537 billion, the second largest ever.  One individual had the winning ticket, purchased at a convenience store in Simpsonville, SC.  But if the winner takes the payout as a lump sum, it will be only $913 million after tax.  That’s a long way from $1.6 billion.  That’s $700 million less than advertised.  When it gets down to that amount, you have to wonder if it is even worth it, right?

Now, I don’t play the lottery myself, although when it gets to that level it has crossed my mind.  But being cursed with an analytical approach to things, I figure that the higher the payout, the less chance of winning.  So aside from a conviction that the lottery is a regressive form of taxation and a poor way to fund government, I guess I am really just too cheap to play the lottery.

You will find all kinds of news stories about the difficulties that lottery winners face.  Sudden wealth can tear apart families.  It can lead to divorce, to abuse of alcohol and drugs.  People give up jobs and find themselves adrift, searching for meaning in life.  Family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers will come out of the woodwork wanting a slice of the pie.  Lottery winners have been robbed, assaulted, and worse.  It’s not always the case, of course, but a large number of big lottery winners regret having won all that money.

Nevertheless, if given the chance, a lot of folks would say, sure, I would love to win $1.6 billion and have to deal with whatever comes with that.  In fact, if given one wish, a lot of people would likely wish for something like $1.6 billion, even if it is just $913 million in a lump sum after taxes.

I bring this up because our scripture today asks us to think about that one wish – if given the chance, if we had one wish, what would we ask for?

This fall, we have been making our way through the Old Testament, considering some of the great Old Testament stories.  Two weeks ago, Joshua asked the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve – as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

After the time of Joshua, with the Israelites now established in the land, the people were led by judges.  The judges came from various tribes.  They led the nation in military battles and established justice in the land.  It was a more decentralized form of leadership, but the time came when the people wanted a king, like other nations.  God said, “Be careful what you ask for,” but in the end God said, OK, if you want one so bad you can have a king.  But don’t blame me if it goes south.”

The first king of Israel was Saul, but while he looked the part, he was a poor leader.  And so God had the prophet Samuel anoint David as the new king.  Though he was clearly a flawed person, David was known as “a man after God’s own heart” and the greatest king of Israel.  Upon David’s death, his son Solomon became king.

That is the short version of how we got to today’s scripture.  And if that is all you know, and then you read 1 Kings Chapter 3, you may think, “Wow!  What a great guy Solomon is.  What a wonderful leader!”  And he was regarded highly by the Hebrew people as a great king – not David great, but a great leader who built the temple.  But there is more to Solomon than what we read in this chapter.

There is a reason that the lectionary reading chosen for today comes from 1 Kings Chapter 3.  If you want to know why we read chapter 3, then read chapter 2.  There was a power struggle after David’s death between David’s sons Adonijah (the oldest brother and the natural choice for king) and Solomon (who has help from political operatives including the military general Benaiah, the priest Zadok, and Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba).  So in chapter 2, there is manipulation, banishment, revenge-taking, exploitation, and lots of bloodshed.  As Adam Copeland puts it, “Solomon learns his winning (though brutal) approach from his cunning old man, King David.”

Our scripture this morning skips over all of that and goes right to chapter 3.  By now, Solomon has consolidated power and all that messiness is in the past.  He has taken care of threats internal and external, and is ready to govern.  But he is young.  He’s a rookie king trying to get off to a good start.  He is not doing badly, but there have been some issues.

Solomon has married foreign wives for the purpose of forming political alliances.  He even married the daughter of Pharaoh, making an alliance with Egypt.  Yes, Egypt - which had held Israel in slavery for 400 years.

Solomon’s wives from other countries often worshiped other gods.  And Solomon himself would make sacrifices at the high places – this refers to places where other gods were worshiped.  So sacrifices were not only made in Jerusalem, but elsewhere around the country, especially as the temple in Jerusalem was being built.  So at one of those high places, those places devoted to worship of gods, you might have a sacrifice to Ba’al at 10:00 then the 11:30 service would be a sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Israel.  There is not quite the call for exclusive devotion to the God of Israel that we heard about from Joshua a couple of weeks ago.  Solomon is no doubt taking some flak for that, which is why the writer of 1 Kings makes mention of it.

Solomon is at Gibeon – the most important of those high places.  He spends the night there, goes into a deep sleep, and God speaks to him in a dream.  And God asks Solomon, “Ask me what you would like me to give to you.”  God speaks to Solomon and says, “One wish, Solomon.  What would you like?”

Solomon responds, “You have shown great and steadfast love to my father David.”  There is that word hesed we talked about a few weeks back - the same kind of loving kindness God showed Moses and Ruth showed Naomi.  God has showed that kind of loving kindness, steadfast love to David, and now God had made Solomon king in place of David.

And Solomon knows that leading the people is a very tall order.  It is beyond him.  “I am just a kid,” he says.  “I don’t know what I’m doing, and the needs of the people are so great.  Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

God was pleased by this and said, “You have not asked for long life or riches or to dominate your enemies but for understanding to discern what is right.  So I will give you that, I will give you wisdom, but I will also give you what you did not ask for.  I will give you riches and honor your whole life.”

I think the key word here in what Solomon is asking is discern.  “An understanding mind, able to discern.”

Discernment is more than knowledge.  It is more than book smarts.  Discernment is knowing what is truly important, what really matters.  And it is connected to action.  We discern the best path forward.  We discern what God would have us do.  Solomon was asking that he might have discernment to know how to lead the nation.   

To have discernment, we need to have humility.  Humility to listen, humility to learn, humility to admit that we don’t know all the answers.  This allows us to be open to possibilities, open to ideas, open to God’s Spirit.  If we think we already know everything, then there is no need to listen to anybody.

Did you notice Solomon’s approach before God?  He says, “I’m just a boy.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  I need some help here.  I’m supposed to be king but this feels overwhelming.”

That is exactly the kind of attitude that God can use.  And when we lose that sense of humility about life, then we can get into trouble.

NBA Hall of Fame player Bill Russell was well known for having anxiety, for getting very nervous before basketball games.  In fact, he would routinely throw up before a game.  He was among the best to ever play the game, and there is no question that he was the winningest player in basketball history, maybe in the history of professional sports.  He won back-to back NCAA championships playing for San Francisco, was captain of the US Gold Medal winning 1956 Olympic team, and then won the championship in 11 of his 13 professional seasons for the Boston Celtics.  Besides playing for the Celtics, he was also the coach in his last 3 seasons.  Despite all of that experience and all of that talent and despite being more successful than maybe any professional athlete ever, he never took the game for granted.

At the beginning of his reign, God asks Solomon what he would like to have.  He doesn’t ask for wealth.  He doesn’t ask for power.  He doesn’t ask for military prowess.  He doesn’t ask for a life of pleasure.  In humility, mindful of what he lacked, he asked for discernment that he might be a wise ruler. 

Our scripture includes a story that speaks to Solomon’s wisdom.  Two women come to him to settle a dispute.  It’s hard to imagine common people coming to the king to settle grievances, but these two women come before Solomon.  They lived in the same house and had babies about the same time.  One woman’s child died in the night, and the other woman accused her of switching babies while she was asleep, so that she awoke with the other woman’s dead child. 

They disagreed as to who the living baby belonged to and presented the case to the king.  Solomon said, “No problem, we’ll just cut the baby in half and you can each have your half.”  One of the women said, “No, please, spare the child – the other woman can have him.”  And so Solomon decreed that the woman who wanted to save the child was its true mother.

At the beginning of his reign, Solomon seems to have everything going for him.  He was known as a wise ruler.  Common people could look to the king for justice.  Solomon was following in the footsteps of his father David, who was a beloved king.  Solomon did not ask for riches or for political power – he asked for wisdom, for discernment.

He seems set up for a great run.  But as it turned out, his reign did not go so smoothly.  I think he lost some of that wide-eyed wonder at being king, at leading the nation.  He lost that sense of humility. 

God said that because he had not asked for riches or for honor, God would grant those as well.  But as time went on, Solomon became addicted to women and to wealth.  He didn’t just build the temple; he carried out a magnificent royal building campaign that nearly bankrupted the nation.  The people were taxed heavily to support Solomon’s lavish tastes.

1 Kings chapter 11 says that Solomon had 700 foreign wives and 300 concubines.  Now I doubt that they actually had a royal scoreboard, but the point is that Solomon’s life became all about excess.  He worshiped the Lord, yes, but also a lot of other gods.  And after he died, the kingdom split north and south.  It didn’t happen in his lifetime, but Solomon’s reign more or less tore the nation apart.
Solomon asked for discernment – for wisdom, but he did not always live wisely.  They say that with age comes wisdom but for Solomon, he seemed to have wisdom as a younger man but then lose it as the years went by.

Jesus said, “Unless you become as a child, you will not enter the kingdom of God.”  A child knows she needs help.  A child knows his need.  A child is open to learning.  That attitude is the beginning of discernment.  That is something like the fear of the Lord, which Proverbs says is the beginning of wisdom.   

Albert Schweitzer said, “Knowing all truth is less than doing a little bit of good.”  Discernment is truth in the service of doing what is good.

I’d like you, for a minute, to think about that dream where God speaks to Solomon.  God appears and says, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”  Except it’s not Solomon, it is you.  God comes to you and says, “Ask me for anything.”  What do you ask for?

Solomon essentially asks that God make him the best king he could be.  What is it you would ask of God?  What would help to make you the best person you could be?

And what about all of us, together?  What would make us the best church we could be?  What would make us the best community we could be?  What would help us to be the best country we could be?  Asking those kinds of questions and truly being open – asking those questions before God with a sense of humility – that is the path to discernment.  Amen.

“Choose This Day” - October 14, 2018

Text: Joshua 24:1-26

You know, making a decision can sometimes be hard.  Choices can be agonizing.  If you have a group of people together – co-workers or friends or family, or maybe just you and your significant other - deciding where to go out to eat, for some reason, can be a paralyzing choice.  I don’t know what it is about that, but we want everybody to be happy, and tastes don’t always align. 

Hard as some of our choices may be, we have to choose.  For some high school students, deciding where to go to college can be very difficult.  There may be very appealing aspects to several different schools, but at some point, you have to make a decision.

Our scripture this morning asks that we make a choice.  As we have followed the story in recent weeks, Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and God gave the people the Law.  After a 40 year sojourn in the wilderness it was Joshua, Moses’ assistant and successor, who led the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.

Our text today is Joshua’s farewell speech.  He has seen a lot in his many years.  The first part of his speech recounts God’s dealings with Israel.  It is a kind of highlight reel of God’s Greatest Hits - beginning with calling Abraham and Sarah and moving on through generations to the children of Israel crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land.  Now Joshua was asking the people to reaffirm their devotion to God and to renew the covenant with the Lord.

The book of Joshua is the story of the Israelites taking and settling in the land of Canaan.  It is a story of violent conquests and may actually be disturbing to our ears.  It is not what we identify as the heart of the gospel, but it is the story of the Israelites settling in the land that God had promised them.  Our scripture today includes the best-known verses from Joshua, which speak to every age and to us:

“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’”

Joshua called the people to put away other gods.  For the Israelites, these were the gods of the Egyptians and gods of the Canaanites who lived in the land God had given them. 

You might think that this temptation to worship other gods was only a problem for ancient people.  I mean, we’re really not tempted by a smorgasbord of gods, and we don’t have a shelf filled with idols to choose from.  But we do know good and well that there are plenty of things that can demand our allegiance, and just like the Israelites, we can be find those other gods in the land, those other things that can claim our devotion, very appealing.

There was a very wise martial arts teacher.  There was a young student who was very full of himself who one day asked this teacher what he thought about God.

The teacher asked the student to sit down at a table.  He began to pour the student a cup of tea.  And he just kept pouring it.  It filled the cup and ran over.  The student jumped out of his chair to keep from being burned.  “What are you doing?” he asked.

“You are like that teacup,” said the teacher.  “You are so full of yourself that there is no room for God.”

There can be a temptation to place ourselves at the center of the universe.  We may not even be conscious of it, but we can be so focused on self that we have very little empathy or compassion for others.  If faith is a matter of ultimate concern, our ultimate concern can be for ourselves.  We essentially become our own god. 

And then there is the god of consumerism and materialism.  Philip Parham tells the story of a rich industrialist who was disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat.  “Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he asked.

“Because I’ve caught enough fish for today.”  “Why don’t you catch more fish than you need?” the rich man asked. 
”What would I do with them?”

“You could earn more money.”  The rich man was impatient.  “You could buy a bigger boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish.  You could buy nylon nets and catch even more fish and make even more money.  Soon you’d have a fleet of boats and be rich like me.”

“The fisherman asked, “Then what would I do?”  “You could sit down and enjoy life.”  The fisherman said, “What do you think I’m doing now?”

It is easy to want to strive for more and bigger and better, but the problem is, it’s never enough.  I am not saying that ambition is bad or that hard work is to be avoided.  I’m saying that the impulse to acquire and to constantly have more can become a kind of god.

The other gods that may be appealing to us have names like impressing others, idolizing other people, sports, technology, popularity, getting ahead, political commitments, ideology, even family.  All fine in and of themselves, but there is the possibility of allowing them to rise to the level of god – to hold a place in our lives above everything else.  Joshua told the people to put away other gods.

Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  Years before, he had been one of the spies Moses had sent into Canaan to check out the land.  Upon Moses’ death, he had become the leader of the nation.  Now he was near the end of his life and he understood that time was precious.

He did not simply say, “Make a choice.”  He said choose this day.  Not soon, not when you have had a chance to form a committee and study the issue, but choose this day.  Joshua communicates something of the urgency of the choice we have to make.

Now, we all have a lot of choices to make, lots of decisions.  Sometimes the choices that don’t really matter can divert us from the choices that do matter.  And if it is a big decision, we sometimes just want to postpone it.  The really important things can get put on hold.

We know we should go to someone from whom we are estranged and try to mend fences, but we put it off.  We know we should visit an ailing friend or relative, but we put it off.  We want to go back to school and pursue that dream we’ve always had, but we put it off.

We intend to get more involved at church, we want to get involved in service in the community, but it will have to wait -- till we have more time, till the kids get older, till we retire.  We want to step out in faith and we intend to make our spiritual life a priority, but there will be time for that later.  We have good intentions, but not today.

Joshua, having seen a million things happen that he never would have dreamed, knows that time is fleeting and opportunities may not come again.  He says to the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

And then he says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Here Joshua gets at two dimensions of faith.  It is deeply personal, but it also involves the community.  “As for me and my house.”

We cannot decide for any other person, not even our family.  But we can bear witness to others and influence others.   And surely that influence starts in our own homes.  Again, as we mentioned in previous weeks, at that time there might be 3 or 4 generations living together in one household.

Christian faith is deeply personal.  It is a gift of God.  But it’s not a gift to keep for ourselves, it’s a gift to share with others.  We would not come to believe without others and we do not worship and serve apart from others.

I was at a training event with a guy named Ed White.   Ed had served on a Presbytery staff--kind of like our regional staff.  He told about a woman who worked in their office.  She was warm, engaging, a hard worker, a committed Christian.  But she started missing work on Mondays.  A pattern developed.  She would call in sick on Monday.  Tuesday she would come in and be in a bad mood, irritable.  Wednesday she would be her happy self, and the same on Thursday and Friday.  But Monday, she wouldn’t show up for work again and the pattern would repeat.

People on the staff recognized that she had become a crack cocaine addict.  They gave her a choice.  She could go to Seaton House, a drug treatment center, or lose her job.

So she went for treatment.  The whole time she was in the treatment center, she could not see anyone from the outside.  She was in a demanding program with 30 other young adults.  When she was released, she cut off all relationships whatsoever with anyone who had been involved with drugs.  She basically had two groups of people in her life: her church and Narcotics Anonymous.

There is good news and bad news in this story.  This woman celebrated her 1 year anniversary of being drug-free.  She was successful, she was happy, she was serving the Lord.  She had a new life.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that of those 30 young adults who went through the extensive drug treatment program at the Seaton House, she is the only one who celebrated a drug-free first anniversary. 

What was different about her?  The difference was the people she surrounded herself with.   

We need one another.  As we make choices, we need the household of faith, the community of faith.  And the choice we make is not just a one-time choice.  It’s a choice we make every day.  Jesus said we must take up our cross daily and follow him.  We have to choose this day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next.

Joshua said “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Not believe in the Lord, not believe that there is a God, but serve the Lord.  He is talking about living it.  How do we live our faith?  How do we serve God? 

Last week we looked at the Ten Commandments.  Basically what God asks of us is that we love God and love our neighbor.  We serve God as we love our neighbor.

So we are really talking about stewardship.  Serving God with all we have.  With who we are, with our relationships, our hopes, our dreams.  Our abilities and talents and resources.  Stewardship in a nutshell is serving the Lord.

The people respond by saying, “We will serve the Lord.”  And Joshua says, “No, you won’t.  You can’t do it.”  Joshua suspects that they are being glib in their pledge to God.  He warns them that a decision for God is not that easy.  God doesn’t want meaningless words but a genuine life commitment. 

I read a while back about Chad Greene of Hardy, Arkansas.  He drove 550 miles from his home in Northeast Arkansas to compete in a bowling league in Countryside, a Chicago suburb.  550 miles to be in a bowling league!

His wife had died and he moved from Arkansas to the Chicago area to be near his son.  He and his son joined a bowling league together, but his son died about a year later.  So Greene moved back to Arkansas but continued to bowl in the league.  75 years old, and he was making the trip to Chicago and back every other week.  He was named “America’s Most Devoted Bowler” by the American Bowling Congress.

It is amazing that someone could find that much time, have that much passion, that much commitment to bowling.  How many of us have that kind of commitment and passion for the things of God? 

If it took us 11 hours to drive to church to worship with other Christians, how many of us would make that trip?  If it took us 11 hours to get there, how many of us would volunteer to serve meals or read with children or visit in the nursing home or walk in a CROP Walk?  Joshua is asking the people for a serious commitment.

Israel – and we as the church – have to decide again and again about who we are, about defining passions and loyalties.  The same is true of the civic community – we don’t decide who we are as a society by slogans or mere words but by things like public policies and budgets and infrastructure, by the way that those who are most vulnerable are cared for.

Joshua suspected that the people wanted to have it both ways.  They wanted to claim allegiance to God and go on living however they wanted to.  It is like Jesus saying, “You cannot serve God and mammon.”  We do not choose to serve the Lord with mere words; we choose to serve the Lord by actually serving the Lord, day by day. 

Joshua was right when he told the people, “You can’t do it.” We can’t – not perfectly, not completely, not without missteps and failings along the way.  But Joshua was also wrong.  His words were intended as a warning of how serious a choice this was, but when he said, “God is a jealous God and will not forgive your sins,” he was overstating it – or maybe it was a little hyberbole to underscore how important this choice was.  The fact was, God had repeatedly forgiven the people and would continue to do so.  The Good News of Jesus is that in Christ, we are indeed forgiven.

“Choose this day whom you will serve.”  It is a choice for all of us to make, every day.  And while it isn’t easy, it is a choice that comes with a measure of grace.  Amen.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

“Move Forward” - September 30, 2018

Text: Exodus 14:5-7, 10-16, 21-29

Groups often have those epic stories that they tell again and again.  For Baptists it might be the story of Roger Williams fleeing Salem in the dead of winter, being assisted by the Naragansett Indians and establishing Providence Rhode Island as a place that provided religious liberty to all faiths.  Or maybe the story of Adoniram and Ann Judson, who traveled to India as Congregational missionaries.  On the voyage they studied the Bible and decided they were actually Baptists.  And when they got to India, officials would not allow any missionaries into the country.  So they continued to Burma, while Baptists back in the US raised money, and became our first international missionaries.  They labored for seven years before there was a single convert.

For Iowa State fans, maybe it is the story of Jack Trice, the first African-American football player at ISU and only the second African-American to play at a major university.  He died of injuries suffered in his second game, against the University of Minnesota.  Our football stadium bears his name.

Maybe your family has an epic story about your great-great grandparents arriving on the boat or maybe about a family member meeting President Kennedy.

There are those stories that are told and retold.  Our scripture today, maybe more than any other, was that story for the nation of Israel – they loved to tell about how God rescuing them from Pharaoh’s army and brought them out of Egypt.

Last week, Joseph and his family were reunited in Egypt and after a lifetime of intrigue and family rivalry, things seemed to be on track.  But this morning, the Israelites are in slavery.  What happened?  How did they get to this point?

I’m glad you asked.  God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah was continued through Jacob, whose family was now in Egypt.  They stayed there long after the famine, and grew very numerous, so much so that it made the Egyptians nervous.  As the scripture says, “There arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  Long after Joseph was gone, his efforts on behalf of the nation were forgotten, and the Israelites were seen as a threat.  And so they were forced into slavery.

Four hundred years after Joseph had come to Egypt, the Israelites were “oppressed so hard they could not stand,” as the old spiritual puts it.  The Pharaohs had some serious building projects and needed the cheap labor.  The Israelites were treated harshly, brutally.  God heard their cries and called Moses as a leader, speaking to him through the burning bush.  A reluctant leader at first, Moses nevertheless went before Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go.”  But of course Pharaoh was not going to do that without a little push, a little incentive.

So God sent plagues upon the Egyptians.  There were ten plagues in all: the Nile turned to blood, there were plagues of frogs and gnats and flies, a pestilence came upon livestock, there were boils and hail and locusts and darkness.  It was basically one big disaster movie.

But Pharaoh was stubborn and still would not let the people go.  God told Moses, one more plague and Pharaoh will relent.  The Egyptians will in fact drive you away, they will be so eager to get rid of you.  It was the plague of death, and every firstborn in Egypt died.  This death passed over the Israelites who had dabbed lamb’s blood on their doorposts.  With this, there was a great outcry in the land and Pharaoh relented.

The Israelites packed up quickly – so quickly they didn’t wait for their dough to rise, and this is where unleavened bread for the Passover meal comes from.  As God had promised, the Israelites asked their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold jewelry and clothing, and they gladly gave it to get them as a parting gift to get them out of the land – a kind of reparation for the 400 years of forced labor.

So the Israelites left.  They took the bones of Joseph with them, as he had asked so many years before.  God went before the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  They traveled a roundabout way and camped in the wilderness by the sea.  They were free and they were now actually wealthy.  But when the reality of their leaving actually hit him, Pharaoh had a change of heart.   To give up this massive pool of free labor wasn’t easy.

And so, he hurriedly got his army ready, with 600 choice chariots along with other chariots – apparently there were 600 limited edition turbopowered chariots along with some standard-issue chariots, many soldiers, and top members of his officer corps.  The people saw the Egyptian army advancing on them and panicked.  The Red Sea was before them and there was no escape.  They faced certain death, they thought.

“What, were there no graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die?” they asked Moses.  “We told you to just leave us alone and let us serve Pharaoh.”  It sounds a little like the Stockholm syndrome, or maybe the Alexandria syndrome.  How could they have wanted to stay in Egypt?  How could they prefer to stay with their captors?
And what about all of the plagues?  What about the miraculous signs?  How could they have witnessed all of that, how could they have seen God work wonders to bring them to this point, just to doubt and want to give up, just to wish they had remained as slaves?

Well, their cries and complaints actually ring true.  As bad as it may be, it can be easier to hold on to what we know than to journey into the unknown.  The hell we know may seem better than the heaven we don’t know.

And so here they are, on the edge of the sea, Pharaoh and his army approaching, the people melting in fear.  Moses tells the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm and see God’s deliverance.  God will fight for you – you only need to keep still.”

But immediately, God overrules Moses.  There are different instructions.  “Why are you crying to me?  Tell the people to move forward.”

It had to be confusing.  They had been through so much, they had come all this way.  They finally had freedom, and not just that, they had wealth!  And just at the moment when when they were beginning to feel the exhilaration of freedom, here came the Egyptian army.

Moses followed God’s instruction, the people moved forward, and as they did so, Moses stretched out his arms and the waters parted.  The Israelites walked through on dry ground.  The pillar that had been ahead of them now went behind them.  The Egyptian army followed, but they became confused by the pillar of fire and cloud.  The chariots became stuck in the mud.  And when Moses stretched his hand again, the waters covered the Egyptian army.

This escape through the waters is retold again and again through the Old Testament.  Chapter 15 is filled with songs of jubilation at the great victory.

We might read this and while celebrating the daring escape, we may lament the violence of it.  It’s kind of like the flood, where pretty much everybody dies.  We are not real excited about all of the loss of life.  But we have to consider this scripture in its context and remember that the people had been oppressed in slavery for a few hundred years.  God had sent plague after plague, but Pharaoh would not relent.  Eventually the refusal to obey God caught up with them.

This morning I would like to think about two very interesting themes that we find in the story.  First, the people said to Moses, “What, did you bring us out here to the wilderness to die?  We told you we would rather stay and serve Pharaoh.”

Well, the fact is, when we leave behind slavery, when we leave behind those things that have a hold on us, it can be painful.  It often has to get worse before it gets better.
Walter Brueggemann said, “It is difficult to sustain a revolution, because one loses all the benefits of the old system well before there are any tangible benefits from what is promised.”

It’s kind of like remodeling your kitchen: eventually it will be nice – there will be a bright and shiny place for preparing meals and gathering with friends and family.  But in the meantime, there is chaos, noise, and dust.  In the meantime, you may not have a way to prepare food at all.

Moving toward freedom can be scary.  The Israelite experience of freedom was deeply confusing.  They were freed with gifts of gold and silver, and then they were pursued by an army.   Moses told them to be still and see what God would do – and then God told them to stop standing still and move forward.  And then the pillar that had been leading them moved behind them, and they started to walk into the sea.

We can be like the Israelites, clinging to ways of living that are unhealthy, that are maybe even killing us, but at least familiar.  We can hold on to patterns of behavior that are destructive, not life-giving, but it just seems easier to continue as we are than to change.

John Killinger tells about a man who is alone in a hotel room in Canada.  The man is in a state of deep depression.  He can’t even bring himself to go downstairs to the restaurant to eat.

He is a powerful man - the chairman of a large shipping company - but at this moment, he is absolutely overwhelmed by the pressures and demands of life.  All of his life, he has been fastidious, worrying about everything, anxious and fretful, fussing over every detail.  And now, at mid-life, his anxiety has gotten the best of him, so much that it is difficult for him to sleep and to eat.

He agonizes about everything: his business, his investments, his decisions, his family, his health, even his dogs.  Then, on this particular day in this Canadian hotel, he hits bottom. Filled with anxiety, completely immobilized by his emotional despair, unable to leave his room, lying on his bed, he moans out loud: “Life isn’t worth living this way.  I wish I were dead!”

And then, he wonders, what God would think if he heard him talking this way.  Speaking aloud again he says, “God, it’s a joke, isn’t it?  Life is nothing but a joke.”  Suddenly, it occurs to the man that this is the first time he’s talked to God since he was a little boy.  He is silent for a moment and then he begins to pray.  He describes it like this: “I just talked out loud about what a mess my life was in and how tired I was and how much I wanted things to be different in my life. And you know what happened next?  A voice!!  I heard a voice say, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way!’  That’s all.”

He went home and talked to his wife about what happened. He talked to his brother who is a minister and asked him: “Do you think it was God speaking to me?” The brother said: “Of course.  That God’s message to everybody.  That’s the message of the Bible.  That’s why Jesus Christ came into the world - to show us that ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’
A few days later, the man called his brother and said, “You were right.  I’ve had a rebirth.  I’m a new man.” 

He is still prone to anxiety.  He still has to work hard. But, now he has found a source of strength.  During the week, he often leaves his work-desk and goes to the church near his office.  He sits there and prays.  He says: “It clears my head.  It reminds me of who I am.  Each time as I sit there in that sanctuary, I think back to that day in that hotel room in Canada and how lonely and lost I felt and I hear that voice saying: ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’”

The Israelites had known oppression for 400 years.  Established patterns are hard to change.  Moving toward freedom isn’t easy. 

An ancient Jewish commentary compares the rescue at sea to a man walking alone with his son on a dark night.  They walked single-file on the narrow road.  When the man sensed a thief ahead, he moved his son behind him to protect him. When the man sensed a wolf behind them, he moved his son in front of him.  When both a thief and a wolf approached at the same time, the man put his son on his shoulders to protect him from both threats.

God was with the Israelites, going ahead of them in the pillar of cloud and fire when they needed leading, and going behind them when they needed protection.  And in our times of despair, our times striving toward freedom and wholeness, God goes with us, providing us what we need.

The second thing that grabbed me in this experience of the Israelites was God’s word to them.  Moses said, “Just hold on, God will fight for you.”  But God quickly said, “No Moses, tell the people to move forward.”

We can be incapacitated by the enormity of what faces us sometimes.  We can want to look to the past, we can want to hang on to the way things are, we can be pretty passive and wait for God to somehow change things.  And God changes things to be sure, but God works a change in us and with us and through us.  God calls us to be participants.  As our American Baptist tag line puts it, we are the hands and feet of Christ.

We can want to look back, we can want to stand still, but God says, “Move forward.”  Look ahead.  Move toward the future and work toward the future that God is calling us to.

The obstacles can seem insurmountable.  I mean, being stuck between a sea and an advancing army with turbocharged chariots is pretty daunting.  But in the face of hardship and difficulty, in the face of dangers, toils, and snares, God says to us: Move forward.  Move forward and I will be with you, going before you, going behind you, going alongside you.  Amen.

“The Lord Was with Joseph” - September 23, 2018

Text: Genesis 39:1-23

September 23, 2018

I was contacted this week through by a distant relative.  Fred Russell is probably a 4th or 5th cousin according to DNA tests.  His family was stuck on his Russell ancestors and hoping I could help.  I had to tell them that I had also hit a brick wall, probably a generation or two before our ancestral lines would meet up.

Apparently the ancient Hebrews did a better job of keeping track of their genealogy than many of us.  We are in Genesis again this week, moving on in the continuing story of the family that began with Abraham and Sarah.

Last week we looked at the call of Abraham and Sarah.  God called them to a new land that God would show them, and God was with them as they ventured toward an unknown future. 

Today we are with Abraham and Sarah’s great-grandson, Joseph.  A lot has happened in the intervening time.  Sarah gives birth at age 90 to the child of promise, Isaac.  Isaac and his wife Rebekah have the twins Jacob and Esau, rivals with one another all of their lives.  God’s favor falls on the scoundrel Jacob, who as he ages matures, at least a bit.  He wrestles with God and leaves the experience changed.  And his name becomes Israel, which means “Striving with God.”  The nation is named for him.

But the family dysfunction is palpable as we read the pages of scripture.  There was favoritism in Jacob’s family of origin.  Isaac favored Esau awhile Rebekah favored Jacob.  The results were not pretty, but unfortunately Jacob did not learn from this.  He clearly favors his youngest sons, children of his favorite wife Rachel, which is a story in itself.  He especially favors Joseph.  This leads to all kinds of issues.

Jacob has a beautiful coat made for Joseph, the coat of many colors – or as they have it in the Broadway musical, the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Joseph is arrogant and flaunts his favoritism.  He tells his brothers of his dream in which they are all bowing down to him.  As a young man, he is not a real likable person.  With the coat and then the dream, his brothers reach the limit.  They mean to kill him but his brother Reuben convinces them to throw Joseph into a pit instead.  In the end, they pulled him up out of the pit and sold him to Midianite traders who were passing by.

They took Joseph’s coat, his coat of many colors, and dipped it in goat blood.  They took it back to Jacob, who was distraught that his favorite son Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

This brings us to today’s scripture.  The Midianite traders went on to Egypt and sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharoah’s high officials and captain of the guard.  He was in a foreign land and he was a slave, but Joseph nevertheless did well in Potiphar’s house.  He is not only strong and able; he has a good mind.  He organizes.  He plans.  And he is very good with people – he has excellent leadership qualities.  Before long, Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of the household.  He is over the other slaves, he is in charge of purchases and upkeep.  He has the keys to the home.  Joseph becomes a trusted advisor and overseer in Potiphar’s house.  God blessed Joseph and God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph.

But there was this issue with Potiphar’s wife.  We read that Joseph was handsome, a good-looking guy, and Potiphar’s wife had a thing for him.  She tried to seduce him, tried to interest him, but Joseph would not think of it – Potiphar trusted him completely and he would not betray that trust. 

But one day when Potiphar was away and none of the household servants seemed to be around, Potiphar’s wife tries again to entice Joseph and grabs his robe.  Joseph runs out of the room, and she still has his robe in her hands.  So she calls all the members of her household and says, “My husband has brought this Hebrew into our midst and that man made advances toward me.  I screamed and look, he ran and left his robe!”  Potiphar comes home and she reports the same thing.

Did you catch what happened there?  There is a racial or cultural dimension to it.  “This foreign man, this outsider, this Hebrew tried to take advantage of me.  That little detail of pointing out that Joseph was a Hebrew was important, and very intentional.

They say that “clothes make the man,” but in Joseph’s case, clothes proved to be the unmaking of the man.  First it was his coat of many colors, and now his robe or whatever garment it was that had gotten him in trouble.  
Now, in a sense this episode is not the way it usually works.  It is usually the man taking advantage of the woman.  But in another sense, this is the way that it usually works because what we have is a case of the powerful preying on those without power.  The male boss makes suggestive comments to a female subordinate because he can get away with it.  In this case, Mrs. Potiphar makes suggestive comments and comes on to a Hebrew slave because she can.  And did you notice that Joseph doesn’t even have a chance to deny it?  No one would believe the word of a Hebrew slave.

At least, the word of a slave would not be accepted publicly.  But there is some reason to believe that Potiphar had his doubts about his wife’s version of the incident.  The text says that Potiphar was enraged and took Joseph and put him in prison.

But the consequences could have been a lot worse.  Often a slave accused of such a thing would be executed.  That would be more typical.  Joseph suffers wrongfully; he is thrown in prison.  But by the standards of the day he got off relatively easy.

Well, it happens.  It has happened for centuries.  We have to admit that this morning’s scripture seems ripped from the headlines, as they say.  But much more often, a man is the one in a position of power who abuses a woman.  The behavior can range from comments and looks and whistles to something much, much worse.

This has been a very difficult week in our community, a heartbreaking week.  A young woman, close to graduating, a talented athlete and wonderful person with her whole life ahead of her, has her life taken in broad daylight on the golf course.  The death of Celia Barquin Arozamena has been heavy on all of our minds.  I confess that I considered ditching the planned sermon and just focusing on a response to that crushing loss.  I didn’t quite do that, but I think it does need to be mentioned, because it is in the air this morning, whether we talk about it or not.

This comes on the heels of other incidents and crimes against women, ranging from workplace discrimination to harassment to public figures who resign because of misconduct, which happens almost every week.  This week it was reports from the Dallas Mavericks basketball front office of inappropriate and abusive behavior toward women extending over 20 years.  And then just yesterday a Senate aide resigning after allegations of sexual harassment.

The news can be dismal.  We have had doctors molesting Olympic gymnasts and Hollywood producers taking advantage of young actresses and the case of Bill Cosby, who will be sentenced this week.    And of course there is Mollie Tibbetts, fresh in our minds.  When it comes to men mistreating women, there is a wide range of severity, of course – from unwanted comments to deadly violence – but the fact is that so many have suffered simply because they were a woman and a man chose to abuse them.

You know, yesterday was my birthday.  (It was Ethan’s, too.)  I would have preferred to have a nice, happy, fun sermon today (and maybe you would have too), but it felt like this needed to be said.  So, this is slightly an aside from the Joseph story – we’re getting away from it a bit here - but not completely.

Joseph was the exception – it is more often a woman who is the victim of unwanted advances, and worse - but the common thread is the powerful abusing those without power. 

A question we may have this morning is, “Where is God in all of this?”  When we are treated unfairly, unjustly, when we suffer because of the evil intent and actions of others, where is God?  For Joseph, God was with him and God had been with him all along.

Joseph’s life was a series of peaks and valleys, highs and lows.  One after another.

In our college group we often go around and share highs and lows.  What was a high point of your week and what was a low point?  Joseph knew all about highs and lows.

He is Jacob’s favorite.  His dad gets him this awesome coat, the coolest thing around.  It’s a high.  But then his brothers turn on him and he is thrown in a pit.  Low.  It looks like he will die but his life is spared and he is pulled from the pit – high.  But then he is sold into slavery in Egypt – low.

Joseph rises to a position of prominence and responsibility in Potiphar’s house – high.  He is wrongly accused and thrown in prison – low.  Eventually, he will rise to second in power in the whole nation.  Ups and downs, highs and lows.  And God is with him through it all. 

Joseph’s life was filled with ups and downs.  A lot like our lives, really.  Highs and lows, joy and pain, victories and losses.  And God is with us through all of it.

Now you might ask, “If God was with him, why was Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers?  If God was with him, then how was he wrongfully thrown into prison?”

Well here’s the thing.  Everything that happens is not God’s doing.  Everything that happens is not God’s will.  We have free choice.  We can choose to cooperate with God’s intentions or we can choose to take another path.  We can follow Jesus’ ethic of love for neighbor, or we can choose to live for ourselves and ignore the humanity of our neighbor.

When that happens – when we are the one who is suffering because of the actions of another – it does not mean that God has abandoned us.  God is with us in our pain, with us in our hurt.  And despite what can sometimes be our best efforts to the contrary, God is always working for good.

Romans 8:28 is a wonderful verse.  It is often translated, not very accurately, as “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.”  But a better translation is, “in all things, God is working for good.”  It does not mean everything works out for the best.  It does not mean that whatever happens, it’s God’s will and we have to wait to see the good that will come from it.  No, things happen that grieve God’s heart.  There is an awful lot that happens that is not God’s will.  But whatever happens, in all things, God is working for good.

In his life, Joseph suffers one injustice after another.  He was a victim of human trafficking, sold by those who had power over him.

He was a victim of human slavery.  Although he was apparently treated well and given responsibility, we can’t forget that he was a slave, owned as property.

He is a victim of racism, stereotyped because of his background and culture.  Potiphar’s wife said, “Look what this Hebrew did,” and she didn’t have to explain what she meant.

He was a victim of sexual harassment.  A person with power over him was pressuring him.

He was wrongly accused and wrongly incarcerated.  No one even bothered to hear his testimony.

Now, there is a saying that you may have heard.  “God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good.”  

There are times when we may wonder about that.  Is God good when there is a tragic death?  Is God good when you lose your job and you are left wondering how you are going to make it financially?  Is God good when a loved one suffers a serious illness?
God is good, not because God is some kind of spiritual Superman who flies in and saves the day and not because if we follow Jesus everything will be sunshine and roses.  God is good because we are never forgotten by God.  God is always there, always for us and always with us.  And God did not forget Joseph.

In prison, Joseph again rises to a place of responsibility.  In time he is freed and becomes a trusted advisor to Pharoah.  He eventually rises in position to become the second most powerful person in the land of Egypt.  He reunites with his brothers, whom he forgives.  His whole family moves to Egypt, and Jacob is reunited with his son Joseph, whom he thought had died.

After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers are fearful and wonder if he will bear a grudge.  But Joseph responds, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”  In a time of famine, Joseph’s position and prominence in Egypt made it possible to save the family.

We are all blessed by God.  We are blessed in the good days, in those times when future looks bright.  We are blessed in the difficult times, when the outlook may seem bleak.  In all of our days, God is with us, working for our good and for the good of all.  And we are never forgotten by God.  Amen.



"Destination: Unknown" - September 16, 2018

Text: Genesis 12:1-9

One of my good friends in ministry preached his last sermon last Sunday.  Well, I’m sure it’s not his last sermon, but it was his last sermon at his church, his last Sunday at the church, and he is retiring.

He came to our Ministers Council meeting in Des Moines on Thursday as his last official duty.  I think he came mostly to see colleagues before moving, and it was good to see him.

People make a lot of plans for retirement.  Retirement itself may or may not go according to plan, but most people give it some thought and get ready for it.  You put away money in a retirement account.  Maybe you go to a couple of planning for retirement seminars.  There are pension considerations and insurance considerations.  How do you take Social Security?

And then, do you stay where you are or do you move?  Do you downsize?  Do you move into a condo?  Do you get on the waiting list at Northcrest?  Do you head for a nice retirement community in Florida or Arizona?  Or do you think about the snowbird routine, living in a place like Ames but escaping for a couple of months in the cold of winter?

And then, what do you plan to do?  Travel, hobbies, volunteer, spend time with family, maybe look after the grandkids?  For some, that’s not enough and they may take a part-time job to stay busy.  For others, continuing to work may be more of a financial necessity.

My friend and his wife are moving to Illinois, their home state.  He is from the Chicago area and his wife is from a small town downstate – and their annuity will go a lot farther downstate, so that’s where they are going.

A number of you are in retirement, others are getting closer and maybe thinking about it.  Well, our scripture today has to do with a couple in their golden years, Abram and Sarai.  But the way they spend those years is not what we might expect.

Following the Narrative Lectionary, we are making our way through the Old Testament this fall.  The first 11 chapter of Genesis look at life on a cosmic scale – things like creation, the fall, and the flood, which we looked at last week.  Starting with chapter 12, we look at one particular family and it all starts with Abraham, or Abram as he was first called.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  75 years old, looking forward to slowing down a bit maybe, looking at retirement community options, getting ready for the annual Senior Center benefit, when God speaks to him.  “Go to a land I will show you.”  And it means go immediately.

Of course it was difficult to just up and leave.  And of course it is shocking thing is that Abram didn’t even know where it was God would show them.  But we might miss the first part.  “Go from your country and kindred and your father’s house.”  Family relationships meant everything.  There was the nation and then the tribe and then the clan and then your immediate family – your father’s house.  3 generations might live together in the same house.  Abram and Sarai would be leaving everything.

75 years old.  Can you imagine doing what they did?  They don’t know where they are going, what they will find there, what life will be like.  They don’t know how long this journey will take.  They can only imagine the danger ahead. 

We do all we can to minimize, if not eliminate, the unforeseen.  If we go on a trip, we have it all mapped out.  We have our GPS system and google maps to tell us exactly where we are and exactly how to get where we are going.

We are not people who do well with risks.  If you are like me, you don’t make a big purchase without researching it.  When it comes time to buy a car, I read Consumer Reports and various car websites for weeks.  We don’t like to sign up for a class unless we have a scouting report on the professor and expect to get a decent grade.  We want to know what we are getting into.

But for all our trying to control things, life just cannot be controlled.  For all our efforts to minimize risks and figure out the future and manage what is coming down the road, we can’t do it.  The unexpected always comes into play, and while we may not be quite as clueless as Abraham and Sarah, we don’t have quite as good a handle on the future as we may think.

There are all kinds of doorways to the future in life, events that usher in the unknown.  Going off to college, graduating, getting married, seeing your children go off to college, buying a house, and yes, retiring.  These are events that can change the course of our lives.  So can illness and divorce and getting laid off.

If we look back on our lives, most of us would not have come close to predicting the twists and turns our lives would take.  Looking forward, we would seem to have little in common with Abraham and Sarah.  Setting out, not knowing where they were going?  At an advanced age?  We cannot imagine that.  But looking back, we realize that we are more like them than we might think.

They were headed to a land that God would show them.  That is exactly where we are headed.  We do not know where we will be at some point in the future.  Many of you did not know that the land God would show you would be called Iowa.  And it is even possible that a few years from now you will live here in Ames, perhaps living in the very same house you are in now, and yet things will be so different you will for all intents and purposes be living in a new land.

While we may not know exactly where the road is leading and what conditions we may find, God has given us the ability and the freedom to make choices and at least decide which road we will take.

There was an incident reported in the newspapers a while back about a bus driver in the Bronx.  He simply drove away in his empty bus one day and kept going.  He wasn’t going anywhere in particular, he was just going.  No one knew where he or the bus were until he was picked up by police several days later in Florida.  He told police that he was just sick and tired of driving the same old route, day after day, month after month, year after year, and he decided to drive a different route and go on a trip.

As he was being brought back to New York, it was clear that the bus company was having a hard time knowing what to do.  By the time he arrived back in the Bronx, he was a genuine celebrity and a crowd of people was on hand to welcome him.  When the company announced it would forego legal action and give the man his job back if he promised not to pull a stunt like that again, cheers went out in the Bronx.  Clearly, there were a lot of other bored and unhappy people around who would have loved to do what this man did.

Sometimes, we just need a change.  We need something new – we need to do something different, go somewhere different, be someone different.  Often, God can be in these times of feeling unsettled.  Choices we make and changes we make often come in God’s Time.  As God led Abraham and Sarah, God leads us in making choices and making changes and setting out on new journeys, whether it is a journey to a new place or a journey to a new way of living or a journey to a new understanding of God and ourselves and others.

The journey is not always easy.  It can involve struggle.  A long trip to an unknown destination couldn’t have been easy at Abraham and Sarah’s age.  It’s not easy at any age.

Pam Tinnin said that as she was considering entering seminary at age 47, the idea of graduating and trying to get a church at 50 was overwhelming.  She remembers talking about this with her older sister and saying in a rather anguished voice, “But if I go now, I'll be 50 years old when I graduate.”

Her sister asked her, “Well, how old will you be if you don’t go?”  That seemed to help put it in perspective for her.  She went to seminary, and has now served churches in Kansas and California.

God’s call to Abraham seemed overwhelming.  “Leave your home, go to a place I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation.  In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  All the families of the earth.  Pretty heady stuff.

We couldn’t really blame Abraham if he said, “God, I think you’ve called the wrong person.  Why don’t you go find somebody else?  I am too old.  Sarai and I are too set in our ways.  And more to the point, God, it just doesn’t seem like a good plan to have an older, childless couple be parents of a great nation.”  

We may feel overwhelmed by what is before us; we may feel that God is calling us to do the impossible.  But what we need to know is that if God has called us, if God is with us, then we are up to the challenge.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great Baptist preacher, said, “Always take a job that is too big for you.”  How’s that for a philosophy of life?  If God has given us a dream, if God has given us an opportunity, God will be with us.  We never know what we can do, never know what God can do through us, until we try. 

Now, there is a lot to be said for permanence, a lot to recommend it.  There is certainly a lot to be said for stability.  But it is possible to be so focused on maintaining things as they are that we are led astray.  We can be so committed to maintaining things the way that they are, the way they have always been, that we can lose sight of our purpose, lose sight of what really matters.

This is certainly true for the church.  It is possible to make caring for the institution more important than caring for souls.  This doesn’t have to happen, of course, but we all know that it can happen and does happen.

It has been argued that the ancient Israelites actually were healthier, spiritually and ethically speaking, when they were journeying than when they sought permanence.  By one way of looking at it, they knew God best when they were building temporary shrines in the countryside, and they turned from God when they built Jerusalem and became devoted to property, wealth and power.  That is a story that has repeated itself countless times over the centuries.

God called Abraham to go.  That is about the gist of the call, just go.  Go to a place that I will show you.  No roadmap, no GPS, no reservations, just go.  He is 75 years old.

15 or 20 years ago, Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis used to have a weekend travel special.  On Friday, you could get their special for some insanely low price – for something like $249 you would get two round-trip air tickets and two nights lodging at a good hotel.  The catch was, you didn’t know where you would be going.  That was half the fun of it; it was an adventure.  You might end up in Spokane or San Diego or Memphis or Pittsburgh.  You didn’t really know where you were headed; you just agreed to go.

What you did have was a guarantee of a decent place to stay and you knew what the cost was.  You might not want to move to San Antonio, but it could be a fun place to visit.  You could even enjoy Cleveland for a weekend, and you knew you would be back home in a couple of days.

Abram and Sarai had no such guarantees.  They didn’t know where they would live, they were pretty sure they would never be back, and they did not know the cost.

Our journeys and our new beginnings may be the result of choices that we make – choices to go to a new school, take a new job, begin a new relationship.  Choices to set off at age 75 on an entirely new undertaking.  We may not know all of the details, but we generally have an idea of what to expect and what the cost may be.

I mentioned that permanence can lead us astray, but in a broader sense, this is probably a moot point because permanence may not really be possible.  The journeys we take do not all involve loading up the car or getting on an airplane.  There are journeys of the spirit, journeys of life that we take, sometimes whether we want to or not.  Even if we live in the same place our whole life, there will be journeys to take.  There will be change.

I think back to my first year in college.  I had a double major: chemistry and political science.  That was not at all a good combination and lasted less than one semester.  I went with chemistry.  I was going to be a chemistry professor, or maybe get my chemistry degree and go on to law school, do something like environmental law.  Minister was not really on the top 10 list.  But as it turned out, I did not know what the future would bring.

While students are at ISU, your major may change, your friends may change, and there is a good chance that where you live will change.  But even more than that, who we are and what we value and our goals and aspirations and commitments change.  And you may realize now that I’m not just talking about students; I’m talking about all of us.  What will not change is that God will be with us.

A television documentary showed blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing.  That sounds impossible – I mean, it’s hard enough if you can see.  Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught how to make right and left turns. Once they had that down, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them, shouting, “Left!” and “Right!”  As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course, and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skiers' word.  For the blind skiers, it was either complete trust or catastrophe.

That is a picture of the Christian life.  There are times when we are, in reality, blind about what course to take.  We cannot see what is ahead.  Or what we can see is only blurry.  We must rely on the One who can truly see.  Christ’s presence and Spirit give us the strength and direction we need for the journey ahead.

We are not just marching into darkness, we are marching in the light of God.  We do not know exactly where the journey is leading us, but we know the One who is with us on the journey.  And that is enough.  Amen.

“The Ark and the Rainbow” - September 9, 2018

Text: Genesis 6:11-22, 8:6-12, 9:8-17

We have had a couple of beautiful days now, but over the past week and half, it rained nearly every day.  There were flash floods, water standing in fields, and plenty of wet basements.  Bob Parrish described it perfectly, I thought.  He said, “I don’t mow the lawn because the grass is high, I mow because it’s not raining.”

Earlier this week, as I thought about our scripture and looked out the window at the rain coming down, I had to laugh because it was so timely.  This morning we look at a very familiar story of Noah and the Ark. 

Now before we get too far this morning, I need to say something about the nature of Genesis.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis, that portion of the book that comes prior to the story of Abraham, have a unique quality about them.  They are not so much historical accounts as they are stories told down through the years, stories that convey deep truths, stories that address the deep questions that people had – and still have.

“How did the world come to be?”  The story of creation tells us that God created the world and all that is in it.  Why are there sin and evil and violence in the world?  The story of Adam and Eve in the garden tells us that humans choose to disobey God.  We have free choice and we can often make choices that have adverse consequences.

Why are there so many different languages?  Why do people have trouble understanding each other?  The story of the Tower of Babel gets at that question.

And so, we have to wonder, what question is the story of Noah and the ark trying to answer?  What is this all about?

We often think of the story of Noah and the ark and the flood and the rainbow as a children’s story.  And with all of the animals on the ark, it is certainly a story that spurs our imagination and one that children really like.  When Zoe was little, a friend of ours made a beautiful little vest with pictures of Noah and all the animals getting on the ark.  A lot of church nurseries have scenes of the ark and all the animals.  It’s cute and it’s fun. 

But when you look at it closely, it is not a kid’s story at all.  It is a terrifying story.  Noah’s family and all of those animals on the ark - monkeys and zebras and lions and giraffes – that’s fun.  Countless people facing the rising flood waters, animals panicking and drowning as the waters rise – not so much.

The scripture says that God saw that all the earth was corrupt and filled with violence.  Noah alone was righteous.  So God had Noah build a great ark, and Noah and his family and every kind of animal boarded the ark.  The rains came and it rained 40 days and 40 nights.  Save for those on the ark, all living creatures were wiped out.  Months later, the ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat.  The waters subsided over time and eventually a dove returned to the ark with an olive leaf.

It is really a terrible story.  What question is the story of Noah and the ark trying to answer?  At first glance, we might read today’s scripture and think that it explains the question of where rainbows come from.  But the question is deeper than that.  Maybe the question is, given all of the problems in the world, all the evil, why doesn’t God just wipe it all out and start over?

You know, there is something very appealing about making a fresh start.  You start out putting an idea to paper, but it just isn’t going anywhere, so you wad it up and toss it in the trash can and start with a nice clean sheet.  Golfers can’t resist taking a mulligan every now and again.  Or for some of us, again and again.  And do you remember Etch-A-Sketch?  A child using the etch-a-sketch can just shake it and start over with a blank screen.

There are all kinds of fresh starts, getting rid of the old and starting over with the new.  What about God?  Does God ever get so aggravated with humanity – with the sin, the selfishness, the corruption, the hatred, the violence, that God just wants to shake the world like an Etch-A-Sketch and start all over?

God came close with the flood, but the story ends with a word of hope.  It ends with a promise.  The world might seem to be going to hell in a handbasket, but God is still there, and God’s purpose is redemption, not destruction.  God makes a covenant with Noah.  The rainbow is a sign from God, a promise that the world will never again be destroyed in a flood.  It is not just a sign from God, it is a reminder to God – the rainbow is to remind God to have mercy on us.

Many ancient civilizations had stories about a great flood.  Archaeologists and anthropologists have made some interesting findings related to a widespread flood.  But the Biblical account is not simply a rehash of what we might find in early Babylonian literature, for example.  What is different is the meaning attached to the flood and what it tells us about the nature of God.  And what it tells us is that God is not in the business of destruction, but God is in the business of redemption.  The rainbow is a sign of God’s grace and love, and a reminder that even through the storms, God is there.

The storms can come in many ways.  We can face our own personal storms.  Storms of grief, storms of desperation, storms of anxiety, storms of illness, storms of fear.  All of this and more can come at any time.  The rainbow is a promise that in the midst of these storms, God is with us and God is for us.

It is interesting that the covenant is with all of creation, not just humans.  God will not destroy creation, but what about us?  Polluted waters, polluted air, depleted ozone, what to do with nuclear waste, depletion of scarce resources – and of course looming large, global warming.  We have not taken care of this earth as God intends.  God will not destroy creation, but we seem to be giving it a good shot.

Then you’ve got terrorism, war, and cycles of violence and retribution, racism, bigotry.  We give minimal attention to a host of social problems social problems while billions and billions on weapons of destruction.  God has promised not to destroy humanity, but we seem to be working on it.

If God cares for all of creation, and if God seeks the redemption of the world, not its destruction, then maybe we ought to think about getting on God’s side.

Living under the sign of the rainbow means living by God’s grace.  It means knowing that God is for us, not against us, and that even in the midst of the storms of life, God is there and God is for us.  God’s purpose is not to bring destruction but to seek our welfare.

Well, like I said, it really is a tough story.  The really hard part of this story is the very beginning, and I want to go back to that for a moment.   It says that God saw that everything and everybody was evil and wanted to destroy it all.  I have a hard time fitting that idea of God with what I read throughout the scriptures.  I have a hard time fitting that with the God I know. 

Well, two thoughts.  First, we don’t get this in English, but the word for corrupt – when it says that all the earth and all flesh is corrupt – is the same word used when God says  I will destroy them.  The word for corrupt and destroy is the same word.  Humanity is corrupt, so I will “corrupt” them.  It doesn’t work in English, but in a sense it is saying that human beings brought this on themselves.  They reaped what they had sown.  That can help – somewhat.

But maybe it is even more helpful to go back to that very first question: what is this story trying to tell us?  What is the bigger point?  I think it is saying that within the heart of God, there is a struggle.  There is a conflict.  A conflict between God’s justice and God’s mercy.  Human beings are capable of doing awful things.  They can and they will do terrible evil to each other.  We know this, we have seen this.  And God is a God of justice.  The evil that humans do is deeply offensive to God.  It can make God just want to start over.

But as strong as God’s justice is, God’s mercy is even greater.  God’s compassion and forgiveness and God’s desire to give a second chance to us is even greater.  God’s love wins out.

A number of years ago there was a PBS program about the book of Genesis hosted by Bill Moyers.  One of the participants in that conversation was a newspaper editor.  Bill Moyers asked him what would be the headline for an article that would tell the Noah story, and he responded with something like “GOD DESTROYS WORLD.”  But quickly, another panelist, Samuel Proctor, the retired pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City (and an American Baptist) offered an alternative.  He said the headline would be: “GOD GIVES HUMANS SECOND CHANCE!”

Daniel Migliore is a retired professor at Princeton Seminary.  He and his wife Margaret have done a lot of work with inner-city kids in Trenton, New Jersey.  One day in re-telling the Noah story to some children, Dr. Migliore asked the children a question: “Now then, boys and girls, where do you see rainbows?”  “In the street!” several replied.  Migliore thought they misunderstood the question, but on further investigation, he discovered the truth.  These kids lived in high-rise tenements were rarely in open spaces.  About the only place they saw rainbows was in street puddles that had become slicked with oil from a car with a leaky engine.

There’s something sad about that, but there’s something hopeful as well.  In the midst of daily life, in the midst of the difficulties and hardships of life, there is grace.  These children need a rainbow in the greasy puddles of their everyday world.  God finds a way to give us all signs of God’s grace and love.

In the very early pages of scripture, God commits God’s self to this broken world – this beautiful, wonderful, messed up, corrupt world.  The rest of the Bible is essentially the story of how God will care for this broken creation, leading finally to the incarnation – to God becoming one with us in Jesus to heal the brokenness in our lives and in our world.

Like those children who saw rainbows in the oil-slick streets, what we need is the vision to see God’s rainbow in the messiness of our lives.  These are difficult and uncertain days for many, but even in times of worry and apprehension, God’s rainbow is there. 

As most of you will remember, earlier this summer a soccer team and their coach were trapped in a cave in Thailand when heavy rains came and the cave flooded.  The team went missing on June 23.  Divers began searching for them on June 25 but had to suspend their searching for hours and even days at a time when rains came and flooded them out.  Nine days after being trapped, the boys were located by a British diving team.  The next day, seven Thai Navy Seals, including a doctor, made the 6 hour journey to the boys, bringing supplies.  Four of them, including the doctor, stayed with them underground for the rest of their time in the cave.  They were the very last to exit.

The soccer team was trapped about 2 ½ miles from the entrance, at the end of what one diver called an underground obstacle course of rocky chambers, half-flooded canals and fully submerged sections.  One of those fully submerged sections was 350 meters in length, more than 3 football fields, and the water was so muddy, he said it was like “swimming in coffee.”  Experts said that realistically, given the shape they were in, they expected that if all went well, 60% of the boys would make it out alive.  But the odds were decreasing all the time, and more heavy rain was on the way.  So they made the difficult decision to go forward with the rescue.

On the way out of the cave they spent at least 3 hours submerged in water.  Each boy was accompanied by two divers.  The rescue effort involved more than 10,000 people working over three weeks, including over 100 divers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers and 2,000 soldiers.  They used more than 700 diving cylinders and pumped more than a billion liters of water out of the cave.  Beyond that, millions of people all over the world were praying for their rescue.  And every single boy and their coach were saved.

The rainbow was a sign that God’s love and mercy will not fail us.  The story of those young soccer players caught in a flood and the amazing lengths that 10,000 people went to rescue them is a picture of the height and width and breadth and depth of Christ’s love, a love that we can count on, a love that will not let us go.

Timothy Haut is a pastor/poet who speaks to the place we find ourselves, and our need for rainbows.  (slightly altered, originally written for Lent)

The leaden clouds
loom in the western sky,
threatening rain… again.
We shudder in the shadows,
unwilling to face another storm.
Where is our Noah,
with firm hand and steady eye
to sail us toward hope’s horizon?
You are the ark,
O Lord;
Your arms our only safe place.
Carry us through the tempest
to morning’s dry land,
the waking welcome
of birdsong and green leaf,
and the faint shimmer of hope’s rainbow
against the looming clouds.
You are our ark, O Lord.