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 ancestry.com 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. 
 Amen.

“Laboring in Vain?” - September 1, 2018

Text: Isaiah 49:1-7

The beginning of a school year always takes me back to my own school experience.  Moving in, being a part of campus life, going to football games.  I hear students talking about their classes, and unless its physical chemistry it can make me wish I were taking a class.  Well, until I really think about it.

I remember things like typing a paper in seminary--it was about 30 pages or so, with footnotes and everything.  I had been researching it for weeks and now was typing it on a computer, which was something new to me, and new to most people.  It was amazing – you could make corrections, change paragraphs, rearrange sentences, it would even check your spelling and help with footnotes.

I had bought my computer used from Kirk Schulz, a student at Virginia Tech when I worked there doing a campus ministry internship.  His dad was an engineering professor and he was ahead of the curve as far as computers went.  At Tech, students could buy the new IBM PCs at a big discount, and when he bought one, he sold me his old computer for $500, which was a pretty big investment at the time.

It was an amazing machine, but it didn’t do everything, and as I worked on that paper I learned a very valuable lesson: it is possible to lose information that you put into a computer.  Now that wouldn’t happen with a typewriter, but it did on computers, and especially this one.  It was a Radio Shack Model TRS-80, but everybody called it a trash-80.  I saw one just like it several years ago at the Smithsonian Institution.  It originally came with 16K of RAM memory.  After a lightning strike fried our old computer, I just bought a new one with 16 GB of RAM memory.  If you are counting, my new computer has literally a million time more memory than the first computer I owned. 

While it may not happen as often on newer computers, it still happens: you can lose your work.  Anybody ever had that happen?  It’s enough to make a person cry. 

It’s not just computers.  You spend an afternoon putting together some new toy you’ve bought.  A bicycle or a gas grill or a baby bed.  And you are about done when you realize you left out an important part and you can’t fix it without taking the entire thing apart.  Or maybe you have spent hours baking a culinary masterpiece that comes out flat as a pancake.  You have worked for nothing.

Or worse than that, and more to the point: you invest your life, your blood and sweat and tears, and you wonder if all of your effort has made any difference, if it has really amounted to anything.  You may feel as though you have labored in vain.

If you have ever felt that way, you are in good company.  We find these words in our text from Isaiah, which comes from the second of four so-called “Servant Songs.”  The servant at times is an individual and at times is identified as the nation of Israel.  Here the servant has received a call from God and been prepared by God for the work.  “You are my servant,” God says.  “Now get out there and show me something.  Make me proud.”  The Servant goes.  And falls flat on his face.  “I have labored in vain,” he says.  “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”

My dad worked his entire career at Whirlpool, making refrigerators.  He was a repairman and inspector on an assembly line.  Sometimes I envy those whose job involves making things and fixing things, because you can actually see the results of your work.  At the end of the line, you have this nice, finished appliance.  The same is true of farming - you plant, fertilize, cultivate, and finally harvest - you get to see the results of your work.  Of course, you are at the whim of the weather and the markets, there is lot you can’t control, but still – you get to see the results of your labor.

Many of those who work with people don’t have that luxury.  If you are a teacher or a social worker or a librarian or a counselor or a child care worker or a police officer, you may never know the results of your efforts.  It is like being a farmer except that so often you plant seeds without being able to actually see the harvest.

Sometimes, we may feel like we have labored in vain, but it is really too early to know.  At the time, I would have told you that Miss Lilly, my 4th grade teacher, was the worst teacher ever.  She was certainly the meanest. Nobody wanted Miss Lilly. 

In 3rd grade, I made a smattering of grades--some A’s and B’s, some C’s, D’s in writing.  But in 4th grade with Miss Lilly, I made straight A’s.  Miss Lilly scared me into being a good student.  And in eighth grade, you could still tell which students had Miss Lilly in 4th grade, because they were better in math.

I’m not necessarily recommending her methods, which would get a teacher in serious trouble today, but she really made a difference for her students.  I never told Miss Lilly that; I doubt that many students ever did.  I wonder if she knew.

William Willimon, the chaplain at Duke and later Methodist bishop, told about someone who was a great Sunday School teacher--the best he remembered from his teenage years.  He treated the teenagers like adults, talked to them about problems in his business.  Willimon remembered loving his class.

So when he saw this man at a gathering a few years back, Willimon went up to him and mentioned his memories of that class.  “Yeah, I remember that class too,” said the man.  “Worst class I ever taught.  Dull students, surly, behavior problems.  Yeah, I remember that class.  I told the Sunday School superintendent after two years, ‘Please don’t ask me again.’  The whole thing was a failure as far as I was concerned.”

When we read these words of Isaiah, our ears latch on to the prophet’s honest but despairing cry: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” 

The fact is, most everybody who has really tried to follow Jesus has known this feeling.  If you’ve ever tried to teach a Sunday School class so that everybody gets the point and is excited about the Bible, or if you’ve ever tried to reach out to someone going through a hard time and help them, or if you’ve tried to live out your faith in the workplace and be a positive witness for others, or if you have tried to stand up for what you believe is right when it isn’t necessarily the popular thing, or sought to influence those around you and generally tried to work so that we might live in a more kind and caring and generous world, then deep down you have probably said with the prophet, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”

There was a pastor who tried to measure the effect of preaching on people’s racial attitudes.  He designed a questionnaire intended to measure his congregation’s opinions on race.  Then he preached a series of sermons which in some way attempted to apply the gospel to the issue of race in America.  A very worthy undertaking.  After the sermon series, he gave the same questionnaire.  He found that his congregation was 2.5% more racist after the sermons than before!  Laboring in vain.

But sometimes our failures are not really failures.  Sometimes we have to look for something greater than immediate, quantifiable results.

I think of Ann and Adoniram Judson, the first Baptist foreign missionaries, working in Burma for years without a single convert.  Nothing to show for all their work.  Their labor, it seemed, had been in vain.  Yet today, because of their efforts, there are millions of Christians in Burma, now known as Myanmar.  Because of the brutal repression of minority groups, thousands of refugees from the hill tribes have come to our country from Burma.  They are majority Christian and largely Baptist.

Ten of the last 11 new congregations in our Iowa-Minnesota region are churches of immigrants, mostly refugees from Burma.  One of our newer churches is in the little town of Columbus Junction, south of Iowa City.  The Carson Chin Baptist Church there dedicated their new building two weeks ago.  They have over 400 members.  Our regional gathering in October will be at First Baptist in St. Paul, a downtown church that has been reenergized and transformed by an influx of Karen people from Burma.  Close to two hundred years later, I would say that the Judson’s work was not in vain.

We cannot always see the results immediately.  I pray that someone thinks of me as I do Miss Lilly.  (Not as mean old lady, but as someone who made a difference in their life.)  Sometimes we are fortunate enough to know the results of our efforts, but often we are not.

I visited with Howard Johnson earlier this week.  Howard got going, sharing stories, and told me about former graduate students who were doing well and who kept in touch with him.  It really is a blessing to know that your work has made a difference, but we don’t always get that.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and few things affect us as much as our work.  Some of us here are looking ahead, thinking about how to use our gifts and talents and abilities, dreaming about the kind of career we might want.  Some are happily working in an occupation, others not so happily, others just counting the days until retirement.  And others in retirement may look back on a career, maybe with satisfaction, maybe with mixed feelings.

But the work to which we are called is more than a paying job.  We are called to be disciples.  We are called to be parents, friends, neighbors, caregivers, coaches, community members, citizens.  And again, we may feel like our labors have been in vain, but so often it is too soon to know.  I have a friend whose daughter was in a kind of wild rebellion.  He had a lot of anxiety about the trajectory of her life and after years of parenting, it really hurt.  But in time it became apparent that the love and care that he and his wife put into raising their daughter were not in vain.

The servant cried out that his labor has been for nothing.  But God saw things differently.  The servant had been faithful.  The servant had sown seeds.  And the cry of lament leads to an affirmation of God: “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with God.”

The amazing thing is that the servant’s apparent failure, the laboring in vain, actually led to a promotion.  Isaiah’s call – and now it seems as though the servant is Isaiah himself - wasn’t big enough. “It is too light a thing,” God says, that Isaiah should serve God by restoring the “survivors of Israel.”  “I will give you as a light to the nations,” to all the peoples of the earth, says the Lord.”
 
God offers a correction of Israel’s self-understanding as a holy tribe living unto itself.  God wanted more for Israel.  God cares for all of humanity, not just the chosen tribe.  Israel’s purpose was not to stand apart from the nations as an exemplar of holiness, but to engage the nations, serve the peoples, make creation better.
        
This past week was the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  King did not start out by speaking to a quarter of a million people in Washington.  It all began with the Montgomery bus boycott – it was a local and then a regional issue and became a national concern and led to changes in our laws.  Martin Luther King in time understood his calling not simply as working for equality African-Americans in the south, but as working for God’s justice for all people everywhere.  At the time of his death, he was in Memphis working for the rights of poor people.

We may sell ourselves short.  What we may see as laboring in vain may be very valuable.  It may be just the kind of work God needs.  And it may lead to a larger calling.

So often, if we have any sense of call at all, it is to something small.  A larger sense of call is often missing in so much of what we see around us.  We divide into tribes and are concerned only for our own.  I was touched by John McCain’s funeral yesterday.  What people from all over the political and social spectrum appreciated about Senator McCain was this sense of a bigger picture, of a calling and a solidarity with others beyond the divide of tribalism.  And in the big picture of things, we are all in the same tribe.  We are all on the same team.  We are all God’s children.

God calls us to something more, something greater, to a concern beyond our own narrow self-interest.  Like Isaiah, we are called to be “A light to the nations.”

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob...I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.”  The servant who felt a failure was given an even bigger task.

Here’s the thing: if the qualification for a greater calling is failure, then I’ve got good news for you!  We are all getting a promotion.

God has called you to use your gifts to serve God and humanity.  Any work that creates and builds up and supports and helps and that in some way serves others and makes the world a better place is God’s work.  And we can serve God by living out Jesus’ values in most any work.

But we are called to more than a job.  We are called to be disciples.  We are all called to the work of love and compassion and justice and reconciliation.  And we are all up for a promotion.

You have been chosen by God.  You have been called by God.  Know that your labor is not in vain.  And know that God is faithful.  Amen.

“Together” - August 26, 2018

Text: Acts 2:42-47

In June, we had a Sunday morning service at the one-room Hoggatt School, where our church met in the 1860’s.  In July, we met for worship one Sunday morning at Brookside Park together with the UCC and First Christian Church.  And here we are this morning out on the front lawn for our Worship under the Trees service. 

I love these services and I have to say that this Sunday is always one of my favorites.  There is just something about being outside.  We are literally outside, of course – we are outdoors - but we are also outside of what we usually do.  This is different from a typical Sunday.  And we need that every once in a while.

This morning we are outside, but if we had to, we could do without a building.  I mean, it’s nice to have a building but you can have a church without one.  Wellspring Community Church, a church we helped start in Des Moines, has in its constitution that it will not own property because it wants to put its emphasis elsewhere.  I’m really glad we have our building, even with some maintenance challenges, but it’s not really a necessity.

That kind of raises the question: what else could we do without?  I’m not suggesting it, but a church can exist without a pastor.  A church can function without any professional staff.  Some churches operate this way and do quite well.

When we get right down to it, what does it mean to be a church?  What are the essentials?  What is at the core of it all?

Our scripture today is an account of the very early church in Acts.  They did not have buildings or clergy or tax-exempt status.  They did not have organs or copy machines or hymnals or a sound system or a custodian.  They did not have an annual conference or convention to attend.  They did not have published curriculum or a Sunday School.  They were kind of making it up as they went along – they did not have a guide book or church manual. 

They had no precedent or model to follow.  At this point, they did not have a New Testament to guide them.  I mean, they didn’t even have a church basketball team.  But they were the church, they were full of life, they grew, and the account of their life together can be helpful for us today.

Luke gives us a kind of summary statement: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  That verse is a description of their life as a church in a nutshell, and the next few verses flesh out the picture a bit.

They attended to the apostles’ teaching.  This meant listening to the apostles, who were still present among them, and learning from them.  They understood that they didn’t have all the answers and that there were things to learn.

If we reflect back on Jesus’ ministry, he spent the bulk of his time with a small group of disciples, teaching them.  Learning is a big part of what it is to be church together.  This includes hearing the Word read and proclaimed each Sunday.  It means studying the scriptures and the history of the Church.  It also means listening to one another and learning from one another – having open minds and open hearts and open eyes.  It means being open to new truth.  And it’s not just for youngsters or those new to faith.  In the Book of Acts, we find as big a name as Paul learning new things and making some very big changes.

These early Christians devoted themselves to fellowship.  These were people committed to one another – devoted, the text says, to one another.  Now around here, we have what is called “Fellowship Time” once a month, where we have refreshments after worship.  In the summer, we do this every week, and while it is pretty popular, I’m not quite sure this would rise to the level of “devotion.”  Fellowship – a true sharing with one another, caring and compassion and responsibility for one another – is a lot deeper.  The time we spend together in meals like we will have today or having cookies and coffee after church is just a start on that kind of deep fellowship.

To me, what is most notable about these first Christians is the care they demonstrated toward one another.  They shared meals, shared laughs, shared hopes, shared dreams, shared pain.  If someone were in need, they would sell possessions so they could provide for one another.  What they had was not just for themselves; it was for the larger community.  We tend to be very individualistic – it’s the American way – but these early believers were focused on the community.

And then, they worshiped.  They were devoted to “the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”  The “breaking of the bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper, or communion.  This was a church that worshipped together frequently and fervently.  Worship not simply a duty to take care of so they could get on with the rest of their week, but something that grounded their lives. 

We read that this community enjoyed the goodwill of the people.  A community such as this would no doubt stand out in the wider society.  When people are cared for, folks notice.  When needs are attended to, word gets around.  Life was hard, really hard.  Life expectancy was short.  There was a lot of hurt and a lot of misery.  A community that expressed such love and concern, that had such a deep fellowship and that gathered together for in heartfelt praise and prayer would attract the notice of others.

This passage concludes by saying, “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”  Growth, you may notice, is not at the top of the list.  Attendance and baptism statistics were not the most important thing.  The growth is attributed to God, not to the congregation, and it seems to be more a by-product.  This church was devoted to teaching, to fellowship, to worship, to prayer; they shared their gifts, shared their resources, shared meals, provided for everyone, had glad and generous hearts, and enjoyed the good will of the people.  So - of course they grew. 

Now to recap: no building, no pastors, no deacons, no guitars, no PowerPoints, no coffee shop, no developed theological positions, no mission and vision statement.  What they had was a strong sense of God’s presence and a dynamic sense of fellowship and belonging that drew people in.

If you had to describe the church that is profiled in this passage of scripture using only one word, what would it be?  I would choose the word Together.  This church learned together, prayed together, worshiped together, ate together, indeed they lived together.  What was powerfully attractive about this church was the quality of its life together.

This was a church that looked out for everyone, a church in which everyone mattered and everyone belonged. 


When you get right down to it, was does the church have to offer that you can’t get somewhere else?  You can get better coffee down the street.  You can find other opportunities to serve and if you just want a sermon, you can find a better one online.  (I mean, it would be hard, sure, but you could do it.)

More than anything else, what the church has to offer is true community found in Jesus Christ.  And yet our way of living today makes developing such community very difficult.  We live busy lives, with long work weeks, various responsibilities, and kids in a plethora of activities.  Students face all kinds of time demands.  Given the hectic pace of life, how can we build the kind of meaningful community that changes lives?

This is not a small question.  I think about the kind of issues confronting many of us, and it seems to me that in many instances, what we need as much as anything is community.

We face issues of aging.  Some are concerned for their own health, and others for the health of parents.  We face issues of parenting and all that that can entail – new parents and parents-to-be and parents of children and youth and parents with empty nests.

There are students facing all of the challenges that can bring – issues with roommates and money and juggling work and school and study.  There are questions of vocation and what do I want to do with my life, as well as dealing in one way or another with what it means to be a follower of Jesus as a college student.

There are those of us here today who are in times of transition in many ways – transitions in schooling, transitions in employment, transitions in relationships, transitions in life - folks feeling very much up in the air about things. 

Some are facing financial struggles and are concerned for how to make ends meet.  Some have faced loss and are struggling with grief.  Some look at all that is happening in society, all that is going on in the culture, crazy stuff, alarming stuff that is in the news every day and they are deeply concerned and maybe a little afraid for the future.  Maybe a lot afraid.

These are all concerns for which there are no easy answers.  Yet what a difference it makes to know that in the midst of such difficulties, one can depend on the support of a caring community of faith. 

The church described in Acts faced an entirely different set of challenges than we face.  These were people who lived in a time that could not be more different than the times we live in.  And yet there were real similarities.

We may have stressful lives, but so did they.  They too faced change and transitions and upheavals.  Most people in the first-century world lived on the edge of existence – life was brutal and there was no social safety net.  By becoming a follower of Jesus, many left behind family and friends.  Some lost their livelihood.  Many would suffer persecution, if they hadn’t already.  How did they respond to this?  Led by God’s spirit, they forged a powerful community of faith.

How do we build community?  Maybe we have to start in small ways, person by person, day by day, as we open ourselves and share our lives together.  As we live out what it truly means to follow Jesus, community comes naturally.

This week I talked to Sharon Strohmaier.  She is the director of Iowa Religious Media Services, a media lending library.   We often use resources from IRMS in our church school classes.

I called to ask Sharon about resources for our theology class and she told me about an experience she had recently – and she said it was OK to share this story.

Sharon was having lunch with a friend, and at the next table was a mother with an exceptionally fussy child.  The kid was whiny and crabby and apparently very tired.  He was doing his best to make the experience unpleasant for the other people at his table.  But Sharon had noticed how patient this mother was.  She was very kind and comforting and kept his unhappiness from escalating. 

The mom got up to leave and Sharon, sitting at the next table, spoke to her.  She said, “I just want to tell you what a great mom you are.  You have been so patient and so caring with your child.”  This young woman looked at her, kind of stunned, and said, “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.  Can I give you a hug?”  And Sharon said, “Sure.”

Our worship this morning is important.  When we worship, we remember who we are and whose we are and we offer praise to the God who created us and loves us and cares for us.  Worship is important.

But what follows our service is also important as we share a meal, share time together, share our lives.  So often it is the little things, like a kind and encouraging word to a stressed mother, that can make a world of difference.  That mother probably won’t forget those words anytime soon.  It is that kind of sharing of our lives together that truly makes us the church.

For those early Christians, the most important word was, “Together.”  Maybe that should tell us something.  Amen. 

“A Whole New World” - August 19, 2018

Texts: Psalm 46:1-5, 11; Corinthians 5:17-20
 

Classes begin tomorrow at Iowa State, as many of you well know.  Ames and Des Moines teachers have to go back tomorrow and classes start on Thursday.  The beginning of the school year is upon us.  And there is excitement that comes with it.  Maybe some dread, too, but there is excitement.  And a lot of changes.  New classes, new schools, new schedules, new stuff, new expenses, new friends, maybe a new place to live.  And for those not directly involved in the educational system, here may be new neighbors and there is certainly more traffic. 

You know what comes with all of these changes?  New perspective.  New experiences can help us see things in a new way.  And it’s not just students.  If your child has left for college and you now have an empty nest, that changes your perspective too.

This morning I would like for us to think about perspective – about the way that we see the world.  You may have heard of the Rorschach test.  It is a psychological instrument in which the client looks at a series of ink blots and tells what he or she sees.  The responses that are given provide information about the client. 

Psychologists disagree on the usefulness of this tool – you can ask our resident psychologists here what they think of it - but there is no question that two people can look at the same thing and see very different things.

Douglas Adams was waiting for a train in Cambridge, England.  He had some time before his train, so he bought a newspaper to do the crossword, and got a cup of coffee and a package of cookies.  He went and sat at a table.  There was a guy sitting across the table, wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase.  Everything seemed pretty normal, nothing unusual, when suddenly the man in the business suit leaned across, picked up the package of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

Adams said that this is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with.  He wasn’t sure how to respond, but in he just ignored it.  He stared at his newspaper, took a sip of coffee, and tried to figure out what to do.

Finally, he reached out and took a cookie for himself.  “That will take care of it,” he thought.  But it didn’t.  A moment or two later the other guy did it again.  Since Adams hadn’t said anything the first time, it seemed even harder to say anything now.  So he took another cookie himself.

It went back and forth like this.  There were only 8 cookies in the package, but still, it seemed to take forever.  Finally, after all the cookies were gone, the other man stood up.  The two exchanged looks and the other man walked away.  Adams breathed a sigh of relief.

In another moment or two it was time to get ready for the train, so Adams stood up, picked up his newspaper, and there under the newspaper was his package of cookies.
Two people experienced the same event but saw it in very different ways. 

If I asked everyone to look out window and tell me what you see, there would be different responses – someone might see a red pickup truck, someone else might see that they mowed the lawn next door, someone else might see see that they had a big party last night, judging by all the beer bottles.

It is not just that we notice different things and interpret what we see a bit differently.  There are also instances where what we are able to see is limited by what we believe is possible.  A small example of this is when you see someone that you know – not a good friend but an acquaintance -- in a place where you don’t expect to see them.  You see your plumber at Hy-Vee, and you know you know this person but can’t quite put together how you know them.

This doesn’t just happen in such small ways.  It also is true of our larger outlook on life.  In Thomas Kuhn’s classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he argues that science is dependent upon some prior vision in order to make progress.  It isn’t just a matter of a scientist walking into a lab, doing research, and making a surprising discovery.  It is also a matter of having an expectation of what we might see, before we can see it. 

Albert Einstein said, “We see what our theories permit us to see.”  We have certain expectations of what we might see, what is possible, and these expectations enable us to see.  Our vision is limited by our imagination. 

We can feel sometimes as though our life is in a rut – but we can’t get out of the rut until we can begin to imagine new possibilities.  Our perspective - the way we view the world – really does matter.

In our scripture this morning, Paul argues that being in Christ changes the way we see the world.  It changes the way we see others and the way we see ourselves.  “If anyone is in Christ,” he says, “there is a new creation.”

Growing up in church, I heard that verse from a young age.  I had always heard this as when someone followed Jesus, someone committed their life to Christ, then they were a new creation – they were changed.  That understanding is OK as far as it goes, but it’s not exactly the sense of the text.

A literal translation would be, if anyone is in Christ – new creation!  Or even better, If anyone is in Christ – boom!  New creation.  It’s not just that that person is changed, but all of creation is new.  The New English Bible might translate this best: If anyone is united in Christ, there is a new world. 

The world, of course, doesn’t actually change.  What changes is the way we view the world.  As Paul puts it, “we no longer regard anyone from a human point of view.”  This sounds kind of odd – I mean, how could we do anything but regard others from a human point of view?

What he is talking about is the way that human sin clouds our vision.  We see from our own narrow perspective, we see with our prejudices and self-interest and bias.  God’s spirit helps us to see others, to see the world, in a new light.  It’s not that we are perfect or free from self-interest, by any means, but as we follow Jesus, the Spirit more and more guides our vision.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul also spoke about the way that we see things.  In I Corinthians 13, Paul said, “We see now through a glass dimly.”  Our vision is limited.  But part of being “in Christ” is having our vision, our imagination, expanded so that we may see more clearly – more like Christ.

How does this happen?  It happens in a lot of ways.  It can happen through experiences.  Some of us have been on mission trips to Appalachia, to a Native American children’s home, to an inner city mission.  Some of you have served meals at Food at First or you have got involved with YSS.  Right now we are beginning a sister church relationship with a church in Puerto Rico.  Understanding what life is like for other people expands our vision and helps us to gain perspective.

Getting to know folks from different places, from different parts of the country, from different parts of the world, getting to know people who are different than we, who believe differently than us helps us to gain perspective.  And when we can see all of these people as God’s children, it can change us. 

We gain new vision as we study the Bible, as we worship, as we spend time in prayer, as we are open to new leadings of God’s Spirit.  It can come through the difficult times of life, through those dark nights when as our scripture from Psalm 46 puts it, we experience God as our refuge and strength.  That can change us.
 
Several weeks ago our choir sang a brand-new anthem commissioned for our 150th anniversary.  It included new music to the old hymn, “How Can I keep From Singing?”  Do you remember how it begins?

My life flows on in endless song/ Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn/ That hails a new creation
Even in the midst of the struggle we can perceive God’s new creation – God helps us to see the world in a new way.

The process of education is all about gaining knowledge that allows us to see things from different points of view.  Of course, it is possible to have such a closed mind that you can get two or three degrees and never change your perspective much on anything, but at its best, and as followers of Jesus, learning can speak to our faith and help us grow – help us to see life in new ways, more of the way that Christ sees.

Fred Craddock told about a former theological student of his, Jim Strain, who writes screenplays.  Strain says that that background, especially a class with Craddock on the Parables of Jesus, impacts all of his work.  He wrote a screenplay for the old TV show MASH.

For those too young to remember, MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.  The show was about this hospital unit in the Korean War – it was a great show with all kinds of colorful characters.  There was a chaplain in that MASH unit who was a Catholic priest, Father Mulcahey, and Jim wrote an episode involving the priest.

Father Mulcahey at some point became very attracted to one of the nurses.  And the attraction seemed to be mutual.  They started spending a lot of time together.  He had taken the vows of his priesthood - vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  But he was attracted to that nurse.  And the whole story was about that struggle.  In the end, he finally tells her that he cannot pursue this relationship because of his vows, and he reaffirms his commitment to God and the priesthood.

Jim told Craddock that he had an awful time selling the script.  He was told that he should change the ending, to make it more realistic.  “What would make it more realistic?” he wondered. 

“He goes for the nurse!  He disavows his priesthood!  Don’t you understand what people want?”  And Jim said, “No.”  He didn’t understand “what people want” because he had a different vision.  He saw the world with new eyes.

Seeing the world with new eyes can be difficult.  It might even get us in trouble.

What if, instead of immigrants, we just saw people - with hopes and dreams and needs and gifts?

What if, instead of seeing rich and poor and old and young and liberal and conservative, we just saw friends and neighbors?  What if we looked at others and simply saw beloved children of God?

Pastor Christina Berry told about going to work every day, getting off the freeway, and there they would be, standing there with cardboard signs.  “Homeless.  Need help.  God bless.”  She wrote:

I knew that if I looked at them, they would come over to my car window, holding out their hands, begging.  And I knew that the best way to help was to give my money to shelters and agencies.  I knew that what I was thinking wasn’t very charitable – “Why don’t you go get some help and get yourself a job?”  I also knew that what I was feeling --- a little bit of fear, and some disdain—was not really Christian, and I didn’t like that about myself.

So I decided to try to see those men and women as God sees them.  I decided that every one of them had once been a sweet little baby, held by a mother, gazed at by an admiring father wrapped in a blanket, waving tiny hands, and I decided that I would look at those men and women in that way.  And it just about undid me.  Every day, I would see the same man standing there disheveled, looking a little bit drunk, and I would think about him as a baby, some mother’s child, and it nearly broke my heart.  I tried to see him as Christ might see him, and I had to stop it, because it was just too sad.
Seeing with new eyes, with new vision, seeing that whole new world out there, can be very freeing, but it can also cause heartache.  And it can change things.  But first, it changes us.  Because our new way of seeing begins when we look in the mirror.

What do you see when you look in the mirror in the morning?  Most days, I don’t necessarily see a new creation.  I see the same guy with a gray beard and thinning hair and bills to pay and a to-do list a mile long.

Too many people see someone beaten down by life, someone of little worth, someone who can’t get it right, someone who is not smart enough, not capable enough, not good enough.

But that’s not what God sees.  God sees us as God’s beautiful children of God.  And not only that, as ambassadors for Christ.  Ambassadors, who represent Christ to others.  Ambassadors, who see others as Christ sees us, and through that vision bring help to bring reconciliation.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation… So we are ambassadors for Christ.”       

If anyone is in Christ, there is a whole new world.  Our new world starts with seeing ourselves as Christ sees us.  And we are ambassadors for Christ as we see others, as we see the world, through Christ’s eyes.  Amen.