Friday, November 1, 2019

“Keeping the Garden” - November 3, 2019

Text: Psalm 24:1-6

One day last week, I left for work and there was a scattering of leaves on the ground.  I came home that afternoon, and our front yard was just a carpet of red and yellow.  I love this time of year – not the early snow part, so much, but the fall leaves and the crisp days.  I love the beauty of the countryside during and after the harvest.

This truly is a beautiful world, and like many of you, I have been fortunate enough to see amazing things in this world both near and far.  Those who went on the mission trip to Puerto Rico saw beautiful beaches and coastal areas as well as the tropical rain forest.  And we saw the Flamboyant tree, with a wide canopy of orange flowers.  I had never heard of this tree before we went there, and it really was stunning.

I have been to the Grand Canyon.  Susan and I just stood looking out in amazement at the vastness and expanse and beauty and just overwhelming immenseness of that place.  Zoe and I hiked in the Swiss Alps, and some of the best photos were of delicate flowers alongside the trail, with the snow-capped Eiger mountain in the background.  We have seen the endless views and wide-open spaces of the grasslands of Montana – after being there I understand what they mean by Big Sky country.

We have enjoyed the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, and when the fog comes in they really are smoky.  I have seen amazing wildlife in Costa Rica – all kinds of birds as well as sloths and bats and crocodiles and iguanas and howler monkeys.  But then, I have also seen amazing wildlife in my backyard: squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and birds, including cardinals who built a nest right outside our bedroom window, and an occasional hawk.  And once in a while a possum or raccoon.  I have even seen amazing wildlife IN my house.  We had quite a collection of canines at our Blessing of the Pets a few weeks ago.

And it wasn’t a Flamboyant tree, but just this week – before the snow - we had a single daylily in our backyard defiantly blooming when by all rights it should have been shutting it down for the season.

I’m sure you have had similar experiences – experiences of the beauty and power and awesomeness and fragility of nature.  Experiences of transcendence - experiences of God in the midst of God’s creation.

We have been thinking about stewardship this fall in various ways.  We have thought about walking as a way of describing the Christian life, and the way we go about living each day.  We have thought about money – about our resources and the possessions we have, which are gifts from God to be used not just for ourselves but for the good of all.  We have thought about our attitude toward life, the way we look at the world - do we live fearfully in the midst of scarcity or do we live joyfully, trusting in God’s abundance?

This morning I’d like to think about the natural world.  What does Christian stewardship mean as we relate to and live in and are sustained by the world around us?

I don’t have to tell you that the earth is hurting.  The planet is in trouble.  Evidence is all over the place.

The number of birds in the United States and Canada has decreased by 29% since 1970.

Deforestation continues all over the world, destroying wildlife habitat and destroying ecosystems as well as removing trees that store carbon and breathe oxygen.

Weather patterns are becoming more extreme.  Globally, the twenty hottest years on record have come in the past 22 years.  There have been more violent storms.  We keep having 100 year and 500 year flooding events.  Sea levels are rising.  At the same time, many places are suffering from prolonged drought.

Fish and sea life in remote parts of the Pacific are dying because they are ingesting large amounts of plastics.

And then there are the fires.  Wildfires in the Arctic.  Wildfires across the western U.S. – devastating fires in California are in the news right now.  I can’t imagine having to suddenly flee your home fearing for your life.  We hear about this kind of thing in our country, but it is all over the place.  They have experienced terrible wildfires in Australia.  And then there is the Amazon, with fires raging.   The area is known as the lungs of the world, but the ability of the Amazon to capture carbon continues to decrease.

With habitat loss and a warming climate, many species are in trouble, if not in danger of extinction.

I could go on but some of you know all of this better than me.  Some of you work in fields that are impacted by such changes in climate.  These crises we are facing are caused by the way we have treated the earth and particularly by burning fossil fuels, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.  But what I want to think about this morning is not so much the science or the politics or the economics of it, though these are all certainly important.  But this morning, I want to talk about our faith.

The Bible is filled with references to creation and our responsibility to care for it.  Let me mention just three.  We read in our scripture from Psalm 24 today, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”  The world is not ours to just do with as we wish; it belongs to God.  Now self-interest is one reason to care for creation, and a good reason.  Our lives are dependent upon a properly functioning eco-system.  But Christians have a reason beyond self-interest for caring for creation.  The earth is not ours; it belongs to God.  We love and care for creation because of our love for the Creator.

And then in Psalm 150 we read, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”  When we sing the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise God all creatures here below,” we join our voices with the whole chorus of creation in singing praise to God.  All creatures - parakeets and poodles, humpback whales and snow leopards, emus and orangutans.  We are a part of God’s creation and we are to care for the created world so that all creatures may sing God’s praise.

And then in Genesis chapter 2 we read, “The Lord God put the man in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.” God has given human beings a special responsibility to care for creation.  The Hebrew verb “to keep” is the same word used in the familiar blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  We are to nurture, sustain, and care for creation the way God nurtures, sustains, and cares for us.  Think about that.  That is deeply caring for creation.

There is no lack of Biblical material pointing to our responsibility to care for the earth.  Caring for creation is a part of following Jesus.  But I am amazed at the attitudes some Christians have toward the environment – as though a concern for God’s world is somehow a terrible thing.

There was an opinion piece in the New York Times this past week by Katharine Hayhoe.  She is a professor at Texas Tech, where she co-directs the Climate Center.  This is the way the article started:
I’m a climate scientist.  I’m also an evangelical Christian.

And I’m Canadian, which is why it took me so long to realize the first two things were supposed to be entirely incompatible.

I grew up in a Christian family with a science-teacher dad who taught us that science is the study of God’s creation.  If we truly believe that God created this amazing universe… then how could studying his creation ever be in conflict with [God’s] word?

I chose what to study precisely because of my faith, because climate change disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable, those already most at risk today.  To me, caring about and acting on climate was a way to live out my calling to love others as we’ve been loved ourselves by God.
I have heard people say that Christians should stick to spiritual things and stay out of social issues - and they would put caring for the environment under teh category of social issues.  The problem is that that is an artificial distinction.  For Christian, care for creation is a spiritual thing.

Not only does our faith call us to care for this world, I don’t know that we can meet the challenges ahead of us if we don’t see care for creation as a spiritual issue.  Gus Speith, the dean of Forestry at Yale, was speaking to a group of religious leaders.  He said,
I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation and eco-system collapse, and that we scientists could fix those problems with enough science.  But I was wrong.  The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy.  And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don't know how to do that.  We need your help.
I have to admit, the challenges we face are daunting, to say the least.  It can leave us depressed.  In fact, I actually thought about pulling a switcheroo and preaching on some other aspect of stewardship this morning.  But that is usually a sign that something needs to be preached.  We can’t ignore the issue.

I found myself thinking about Ray Schellinger, our ABC missionary who works on immigration and with refugees.  I shared a few weeks back about Ray’s very difficult, sometimes heartbreaking work.  Given the challenges he faced, I asked Ray how he got up and went to work every morning.  And he talked about small victories.

The same might apply here.  In terms of the challenges facing us as Christians and as citizens of this planet, I have to say that there actually are a lot of small victories happening as we consider the challenge of climate change and caring for creation.

There is a movement toward more local foods.  Rather than trucking in foods from far away or flying it in from other countries, folks are trying to use locally raised food when they can.  People raising chickens in the backyard is actually a small sign of hope.

Here in Iowa, we see a lot of windmills producing electricity.  Some think they are an eyesore, but I see them as a sign of hope.  In Ames, we will be constructing a municipal solar energy farm next year.  Community members including our church have bought shares in the project.  It’s a sign of hope.

One of my college friends is a fish biologist who teaches at the University of Arizona.  With a great concern for the environment, Scott now powers his home completely with solar panels and his family drives electric vehicles.  He basically uses no fossil fuels.  Of course, everybody can’t do that – and this probably works better in Tucson than in Ames – but people like Scott are signs of hope.

Electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, geothermal heating, public transportation, eating less meat, repurposing, repairing, recycling, gardening – these are all signs of hope.  Every time somebody plants a tree, it is a small sign of hope.

Of course, all of these changes have been relatively easy.  There will be more difficult, more costly action ahead.

For me, a big place where hope may be found is in young people, who understand the issue in a much more existential way than those of us who are older.  Exhibit A might be Greta Thunberg, who as a 15 year old began spending her school days sitting outside the Swedish parliament.  She held a sign that said “School strike for climate.”

She started out all by herself in calling for stronger action to combat global climate change.  Before long, other students engaged in similar action in cities around the world.  This year, coordinated international actions have involved over a million students.  From 1 student to over a million in a year.  That is a sign of hope.

Other young people are working at solutions to environmental problems, including Boyan Slat, the young man who devised a way to clean plastics from the ocean.  There is hope for technological advances.

But ultimately, as Christians, our hope is in God, the God who created this world and cares for this world.  There is a lot of fear surrounding the challenges we face, fear that can lead to either denial or paralysis.  But the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that we have not been given a spirit of fear.  Fear is not from God.  Instead, we have been given a spirit of power, to act rather than to remain paralyzed with anxiety or guilt; a spirit of love, to have compassion for others; and a sound judgment - to use the information we have to make good decisions.  These are the very tools we need to address the challenges we face.
  
Today is All Saints Sunday.  It is a day to remember the saints who have gone before us.  And not just the “big name” saints, but all saints, including those in this congregation who have gone before us and been examples for us.

Maybe a question for us to consider is: years from now – when people look back on our time - what will be our legacy for our children and grandchildren and those who come after us?  May it be that we had a spirit of power and love and sound judgment.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

“Scarcity vs. Abundance” - October 27, 2019

Text: John 6:1-14

Have you ever had a tough day?  The kind that just makes you want to get away?

Everyone has, and Jesus was no exception.  He had just finished a long theological discourse as a way of defending himself against his critics, who among other things did not like the idea of him healing people on the Sabbath.  And now, he just wanted to get away and rest.  In a boat with his disciples, he goes off across the Sea of Galilee to the other side. 

But the crowds can see where Jesus and his disciples are going and follow him around the lake (the Sea of Galilee isn’t really a sea).  The crowd followed because Jesus had been healing the sick.  You start healing sick people and the crowds will follow you around. 

Jesus gets to the other side of the lake and he goes up high on a high hill.  Jesus gets away from the crowds, away from the controversy, away from the stress.  And then he looks out, and what does he see?  People.  Coming in droves.  Hundreds of people. 

Jesus sees this large and growing crowd, and what does he say?  Well, it isn’t what we might expect a person to say.  He doesn’t say, “What does a guy have to do to get some rest around here?”  And he doesn’t say, “Well, I guess I can pull out my ‘No Greater Love’ sermon.”

No, Jesus sees the crowd and he asks Philip, who happened to be from a nearby town, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?”

Jesus is a prophet.  He is a teacher and a healer.  He is not a caterer.  Why would this be his reaction on seeing the crowds?  John clues us in that Jesus knew what he was going to do.  This was just the setup.  Philip said, “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food for this crowd!” 

Andrew, one of the disciples, reports that in the crowd there is a boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish - but what would that be among so many people?  It is hard to imagine that in this big crowd, there was just this one kid with the foresight to pack a lunch, but that is the report.

This boy with the lunch has 5 barley loaves.  Barley bread was the food of the very poor – one commentator said that it was held in contempt as a grain for animals.  This was not a loaf of multi-grain bread from Panera.  And don’t think that he had a couple of nice salmon in his lunch box.  Think something more along the lines of sardines.  There were great quantities of small sardine–like fish in the Sea of Galilee that were often pickled.  This boy had some bread eaten by the poorest of the poor and a couple of pickled sardines.  He is young boy, he is very poor, and he has about as meager and pitiful a lunch as you could imagine.  It is not very promising.  It is about as far from promising as you could be.

But Jesus doesn’t wring his hands over what they don’t have.  Instead, he blesses what they do have.  He has his disciples tell everyone to be seated on the grass.  He took the loaves and fish, he gave thanks, and he distributed them to the crowd.  And it was enough.  It was more than enough.  Everyone had all they wanted and there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets.  The pitiful lunch offered by one of the most unlikely people in the crowd was more than enough.

You know as well as I do that this is more than simply a story about food.  It is about generosity and stewardship and about God meeting our needs.  It is about the choice we have to live with an attitude of scarcity or to live with trust in God’s abundance.  It is not just about food for our bodies, it is about food for our spirit. 

How do we look at the world?  The predominant mindset is one of scarcity and fatalism.  There isn’t enough to go around.  We can’t afford to worry too much about others; we have to look out for ourselves.  And even if we tried, we really can’t make much of a difference.

It’s no wonder we think this way.  A lot of people are not asking, “When will I be able to retire?”  They are asking, “Will I ever be able to retire?”  Others are simply hoping and praying for a decent-paying job.  We would all like to be generous, we really would, but we can’t afford to be too generous or there will not be enough for us.

It’s not just money.  For some, time seems to be an even scarcer commodity.  We are pulled in a million directions, with all kinds of demands on our time.  There is never enough time.

In so many instances, there is this narrative of scarcity that is the predominant story.  Security is scarce.  Patience is scarce.  Kindness is scarce.  Understanding is scarce.  Forgiveness is scarce.  Imagination is scarce.  

The tension between scarcity and abundance is always with us.  It was certainly felt in Jesus’ time, and no matter that we live lives of ease and comfort and opulence compared to first century folks, we still live with this tension between scarcity and abundance.

It is with this background that we read John, and what do we find in his gospel?  We find pure abundance.     
 
In the first chapter of his gospel, John speaks about Jesus as the Word from whom we have all received grace upon grace.  The first miracle, or sign, reported in John is when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Jesus instructs the servants to fill some jars with water, and they fill them to the brim.  The result is a profusion, not merely of wine, but of excellent wine.  Abundance.

At a community well in Samaria, Jesus tells a woman about living water gushing up to eternal life.  No just a trickle, but water all over the place.  Abundance.  In Jesus’ address to his disciples before he is arrested, he says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.”  Not just room for a few, not an exclusive view of eternity, but an expansive and inclusive kingdom.  Abundance.  And then John closes his gospel by noting that in addition to the things he has told us, there is so much more that if it were all reduced to writing, there wouldn’t be enough space in the world to contain the number of books that would be required.  Abundance.

Whether it is wine at a wedding or rooms for eternity or picnic food, with God’s grace there is always more than enough.  In John chapter 10 Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

In a Christian Century article, Charles Hoffman wrote:

The church of my youth majored in a miserly view of God’s grace.  Its message was grim.  Life had no edge, no elegance and no joy, but was… largely limited to preparations for the hereafter… That early religion held no attraction for me, but I was bound to it by the guilt and fear it engendered in me.

All of that changed when a new minister walked into our church.  He was winsome, engaging, honest and without guile.  One Sunday morning he preached the most important sermon of my life.  His text was John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  I still remember the message: Christ calls us to a life of fullness, affirmation and joy.  In that moment the Word reached out and claimed me.
How would life be different if we really lived out Jesus’ way of joy and abundance? 

Philip and Andrew represent us – they represent the church.  “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food… We’ve got some bread and a couple of fish, but it couldn’t possibly be enough.”  Their vision was too limited.  They were too captured by the story of scarcity.

Like anywhere else, it is so easy in the church to focus on what we lack.  If only we had more members, if only we were in a different location, if only we had more Sunday School teachers, if only we had a bigger choir, if only we had more young people.  If only we had a decent preacher.  If only…

Malaak Compton-Rock traveled to South Africa working on an economic development project with very poor women.  She returned from her trip and went directly to the Salvation Army in Brooklyn where she volunteered in an after-school program.  She told the kids about her trip and they said they wished they could go on a trip like that.  It got her to thinking.  She wound up starting an organization called “Journey for Change.”  She takes groups of twelve to fifteen-year-old kids from New York City to South Africa to volunteer in very poor communities.

The first group of kids who went were involved in that program at the Salvation Army in the Bushwick neighborhood.  Bushwick is a working class neighborhood with a lot of problems.  Less than 50% of the students graduate at Bushwick High.  These were thought of as at-risk kids – at risk for teenage pregnancies, at risk for dropping out of school, at risk for getting involved in gangs, at risk for drugs.

These Bushwick kids were paired with college-aged mentors and worked in Soweto and other shanty towns in South Africa with AIDS orphans and granny families – families headed by grandmothers because the other adults had all died of AIDS.  One of the things Compton-Rock felt was important in organizing the program was to give these kids, who were often on the receiving end of assistance, an opportunity to be on the giving side.  And it has made a huge difference in their lives.  These kids start to dream much bigger dreams.  They learn that they have a lot to give and that their gifts really matter.  Basically, they go from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset.  They learn that there is enough, and that they are enough.

Early in the year, a planning team here at our church broke into two groups.  Each group was assigned to plan an engaging activity for the church – one over the summer and one in the fall.  In June we had a Sunday morning service and cookout and fishing that afternoon at McFarland Park.  The fall group planned our Harvest Festival for today.  I love the idea of a harvest festival because it is all about abundance.  God provides for us and blesses us with a bountiful harvest.  With God, there is more than enough.

I read a very interesting article just this week about a church in Lauderdale – it’s a small suburb just north of St. Paul, kind of tucked in between Minneapolis and St. Paul.   Peace Lutheran Church is in an out of the way location, across the street from the sound barriers along Highway 280.  I’m familiar with the area because it’s just blocks away from where I took classes at Luther Seminary.

The church is not in a location that draws visitors, and it had declined to the point that it had 20 members.  They had enough money to keep the doors open for about 18 months.  Basically, they had 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

They hired a part-time pastor, and decided that if they were going to die anyway, they might as well go for it.  They were going to die well. 

So here is what they did: they decided to take “love thy neighbor” to a practical extreme.  They leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.  There would be no litmus tests, no income requirements, they didn’t care if you were Lutheran or atheist.  They would get your furnace running, make your kitchen handicap accessible, ensure your car started in time for work. “Your quality of life can be improved if the toilet works,” said one member.

Pastor Dave Greenlund knew that Peace would get few takers.  Lauderdale is a mix of working people and those who’ve seen better days.  These were not people who talked about their troubles, and there was the natural suspicion of anything religious - the assumption that “free” would come with a lot of proselytizing.

Only two women responded.  One needed concrete repaired and the footings fixed in a rotting garage.  Another hoped that her house could be painted.

The church stayed at it.  They cleaned homes for shut-ins, built chair lifts, rewired old houses for widows whose husbands had kept the lights on with the duct tape method. They did not preach or expect recipients to come to church.  They would simply help.  

In time, word spread.   If an elderly widow’s furnace broke on Christmas Eve, people came to know that you could call the church.  The idea was infectious.  Non-members joined the cause by the dozens.  Donations from the grateful kept the church afloat.  An abundance of love and kindness and community proved bigger and more important than financial limitations.


The church is still small.  They have quadrupled in membership – to 80.  They are still a poor church.  When their air conditioning went out, they could not afford a new system.  So a local contractor offered to refurbish units that had been discarded by a school.  But the contractor showed up with new units instead - the owner said he wanted to “pay it forward.”   


Basically, this church took its five barley loaves and two fish and chose to look at what it had and who it was through the eyes of abundance rather than scarcity.

It is very easy to give in to the prevailing attitude of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough, there is never enough.  But the good news is that with God, there is more than enough.  There is an abundance of hope and joy and love and grace and possibility.  And when we share what we have, our gifts are multiplied.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.     

Saturday, October 19, 2019

“Your Money and Your Life” - October 20, 2019

Text: Proverbs 3:1-10, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12

Our niece Hope graduated from college two years ago in December.  After graduation, she moved to San Diego and got a job at a credit union.  It wasn’t by design, exactly; she was moving there because that is where her boyfriend, now husband lived.  But she needed a job and found that one. 

Our nephew Tyler, meanwhile, graduated from college a semester later.  After a first job that wasn’t so great, he now works at the Evansville Teachers Credit Union.

Last spring, our nephew Parker graduated from the University of Southern Indiana, the same school that Hope and Tyler attended.  Do you want to guess where he works?  Of course, he has a job at yet another credit union.  So we have a little joke about credit unions being the new family business.

I was in town a little over a month ago and saw Parker.  It was his second week on the job and he was in training.  I thought I would ask a credit union-type question so I asked him if they had any CD specials.  He just gave me a blank stare.  For him, at that point, I suppose that a CD was something that old people might listen to music on.  A CD special might be if somebody like me found the Eagles Greatest Hits for 50 cents at a garage sale. 

Well, money may not be a career for everybody, but it is a matter that we all have to wrestle with.  And the fact is, it is hard to talk about money.  Just bringing up the topic can lead to anxiety. 

There are those who say they don’t want to have anything to do with the church, because the church is always asking for money.  In my experience and at most churches I am familiar with, that is actually not the case at all.  We really don’t talk a lot about money a lot.  If someone were to say, don’t talk about money, just stick to the Bible – well, when we look at scripture, money is a huge topic.  One commentator noted that there are more than 2300 verses in scripture that talk about wealth, money, and possessions, and that 11 out of Jesus’ 39 parables focus on these matters.  It is Jesus’ #1 topic.

There are so many issues we face as a society, large and small, that have to do with money.  Affordable housing.  Income inequality.   Technology and modernization and automation and employment.  

The cost of medical care can wipe out whatever savings a family might have and is the leading cause of bankruptcy.  So many families are living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from a real crisis.  Debt is a heavy burden for so many people; for those who carry a balance on their credit cards, the average balance is over $9300.  Over 44 million people have student debt, with the average amount over $38,000.  It is such a widespread issue that 68 members of Congress either have student loan debt themselves or a family member with such debt.  The average debt for those members of Congress is $37,000 – mirroring the wider population.  This affects everybody.

Money – and to be more precise perhaps, the lack of it - can be a real source of anxiety, and churches are by no means immune to this.  Churches can find it difficult to talk about money.   But as we all know, ignoring issues does not make them go away.  And because scripture speaks so frequently about our possessions and resources and the way we use them, we need to take time to listen to what the scriptures say.

Psalm 24:1 reads, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”  The view of scripture is that it all belongs to God.  All that we have is a gift from God, and we are simply caring for God’s gifts.  This is the idea of stewardship in a nutshell.  We are to wisely care for all of God’s gifts – our friends and family and relationships, our time, our work, the world around us and the earth itself, as well as our resources and possessions and wealth.  Our decisions about money are not just about us.

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)  Jesus observed the kind of hold that riches and greed and the constant need to acquire more and more could have on a person, and he warned against it.  Money is important, but it is not God.

And yet, we talk about the Almighty Dollar.  Materialism can have an almost religious hold on us.  Our life can become all about earning more, about bigger and better and newer and shinier and more impressive.  But that is no way to live.  It is a god that will disappoint us in the end.  The famed theologian Lily Tomlin noted, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”  Or as Paul put it, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

We may act like we can separate our financial life from our spiritual life, but the fact is we only have one life.  What we do with what we have has spiritual implications.  What we do with our money is connected to and actually influences the deepest yearnings of our heart.  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”

The way we use our resources is very important.  Do we control our money and possessions, or do they control us?  Are we consumers, or are we the ones being consumed? 

Our scripture readings today point us toward a different understanding of money.  The reading from Proverbs says, “Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.”  And the reading from 2 Corinthians says, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  

Giving is not to be understood so much as a command to be enforced but as an opportunity we are given.  We are created for giving, and it is simply a better way to live.  When we live tight-fisted, we close ourselves off – we are unable to receive the blessings around us. 

One of the biggest stories relating to giving recently, at least around here, is the Carson King story.  You probably know who I am talking about.  A guy holds up a sign during the College Gameday broadcast from Ames several weeks ago saying “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” and the way to give.  It was caught on camera, and people actually sent money.  He just did it for laughs, but when money came in he decided to donate it to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.  And it went viral.  It became a massive story that had a number of twists and turns and controversy, but in the end people donated $3 million to the hospital.  A guy makes a joke about beer money on national TV and the hospital gets $3 million.  It was really amazing. 

Why did people give toward that?  The need was always there.  But the publicity surrounding it magnified the need.  And people gave, in a sense, for what they got out of it – but what they got out of it was not a financial return.  What they got was joy, what they got out of it was the satisfaction and the blessing of being part of something bigger than they were and of working together to help make a difference for children in need.  I imagine that most people gave cheerfully.

Well, we are talking about money today in part because this is the day for our annual Budget Forum.  We meet after Church School to review a budget that has been proposed for our church for the coming year and to adopt a goal budget.  Now I realize that this is not the kind of stuff that ordinarily gets everybody excited.  Business meetings are not everybody’s thing, and business meetings to talk about budgets are definitely not everybody’s thing.  They are not necessarily my very favorite thing, either, but I have come to think of church budgets differently.

With a budget, what matters is not so much the numbers themselves, but the ministry that those numbers represent.  And while it is true that the numbers may not change dramatically from year to year, continuing and building on important, vital, compassionate, life-changing ministry year after year is something to celebrate.

Somebody wrote an article with the title, “The Shocking Truth about Church Budgets.”  The article stated that on average, 82% of church budgets go for buildings, personnel, and administration – things that are not even mission and ministry.

That is not an uncommon attitude.  But I couldn’t disagree more.  The church is not a social club that just looks out for itself, or a community of people who have it all together and join to celebrate that fact.  To be a part of the church is increasingly a counter-cultural commitment.  And the church is more and more a mission outpost. 

People who have been away from church for years, if they ever were a part of a church, will stumble in, looking for some kind of hope and solace, and find to their amazement worship and music and preaching and community that help them start to connect with others and connect with the message of Jesus – things they desperately need.

Or people may come looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, thinking a traditional venue might be nice, and start to discover that spiritual grounding of relationships has a value they had never considered.

Or parents will bring children here for music camp and find a community that values children, looks to broaden horizons, and sees every person as a beautiful child of God.  Kids who may not fit in so well in a lot of places are embraced at Music Camp, and everybody has a fantastic week.

Or an offender will be sentenced to probation with the Center for Creative Justice and come to CCJ at a rock-bottom place in their life.  They are forced to reflect on their life, they are held accountable for their actions but also treated as a person with potential who has been given a second chance, and a year later, they will be in a much better place, with a bright and hopeful future. 

Or students will show up, facing any number of issues, from fitting in and finding a social group to struggling with academics to dealing with family stresses to questions of vocation and concerns for the future – and find here a community of friendship and support and encouragement that does not treat them as just a part of the pack but as an important individual.

Or someone is new to Ames, looking for friendship and community, and they find here a true family of faith where they can both receive support and find a place to serve.

Or, a person has a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and is filled with worry.  And then they come here to take part in a singing group or a dance group and not only does it help them physically, they find a wonderful community of support.  They find hope.  They find joy.

What do these things look like in a church budget?  They get labels like “facilities” or “administration” - ministers, musicians, church staff, utilities, building maintenance, snow removal, instrument tuning, insurance — but all of these things are ministry - real life, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.

I did not even mention the continuing, day-by-day, week-to week ministry to those of us who are already a part of our church.  This is ministry that we all value dearly.  And besides all of this, we support a great deal of ministry beyond the walls of our building – both with our involvement and with our financial support.  While certainly not among the largest churches in our region, we are near the very top in dollars given to mission beyond our church. 

We do not contribute in order to take care of the building or pay the bills, important as that may be.  We do all of this for the sake of the ministry to which we have been called.

When I think of the way that I have been blessed, I want to give generously.  And when I think of how important and life-giving the work is that we do together, I can give joyfully.  I can be a cheerful giver.

The challenge of giving is much like everything else in life.  And the familiar Proverb we read this morning speaks to all of this.  “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”

What would it mean to acknowledge God in our use of money?  What would it mean to acknowledge God in our decisions about giving?  What would it mean to acknowledge God in the way we invest our money?  What would it mean to acknowledge God in the way we advocate for public policies that have economic implications?  I’ll give you an answer on that one: it might mean not just talking about the middle class all the time but talking about the poor, talking about the marginalized. 

Some of you are old enough to remember the comedian Jack Benny.  He had this persona as a miser, a real tightwad.  He would do this sketch where a robber would come up and say, “Your money or your life.”  And Jack Benny would just stand there, not saying anything.  The robber would say, “Well?”  And Jack Benny would say, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

That was classic comedy from actually before I was born.  Somehow it isn’t quite so funny now.

But the question is not really our money or our life.  Our money – the way we use it, the way we think about it, the way we share it, the way we invest it – this is very much a part of our lives.  And scripture speaks to us with a word of guidance and a word of hope: “In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will direct your paths.”  Amen.
 

Saturday, October 12, 2019

“The Walk of Life” - October 13, 2019

Text: Micah 6:6-8, Colossians 2:6-7

I walked in my first Crop Walk in 1984.  I was a seminary student doing a campus ministry internship at Virginia Tech.  I walked with some of our students in the Blacksburg CROP Walk.

My next CROP Walk was in 1992.  Susan and I and 6 month old Zoe lived in the small town of Arthur, Illinois, and for as long as we were there, I participated in the Douglas County CROP Walk.  A couple of years into it, the chair of the CROP Walk, a pastor in a neighboring community, moved to a church in another city.  He called and told me that I was now in charge of the CROP Walk.  No committee meeting or anything - I was the chair. 

We varied the route a bit from year to year, walking in and around and between the small towns in that county.  The walk was between 6-7 miles, which was shorter than the original 10-mile walk.  A couple of times, when we walked a route entirely in the country, I had to find a farmer on the route willing to let us put a port-a-potty on their property, and then I had to call Midwest Pottyhouse to order a port-a-potty.  (And by the way, Midwest Pottyhouse is a great company name because I still remember it.)

One year we drove through a hailstorm to get to the walk.  And one of the more memorable CROP Walks was 1998.  Mark McGwire of the Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs were chasing the all-time home run record and it came down to the last day of the season.  They were both playing that afternoon as we walked on the CROP Walk.  The county was 50% Cub fans, 50% Cardinal fans.  (Well, maybe 5% Chicago White Sox fans in there somewhere.)  With a long walk, we always had a Sag Wagon.  If you were too tired to go on, the Sag Wagon would pick you up and take you to the end of the walk.  Susan was driving the Sag Wagon that year – it was our 1988 Plymouth Colt - and so that we would know what was happening in the home run race, she was supposed to honk the horn once if McGwire hit a home run and twice if Sammy Sosa hit a home run.  (We didn’t have smart phones then, but we did have car radios.)

In 1999 we moved to Ames, and I was amazed at how much money our church raised in the CROP Walk – despite our relatively small size we were always close to the top in amount raised.  This was due to the efforts of John Anderson and Harris Seidel.  (If you didn’t know John, he was Joyce Davidson’s father.)  John and Harris were both very dedicated and even if they could not be there the day of the walk, they would walk at a different time.  John often walked from Northcrest to Perkins for the men’s breakfast and used that as his CROP Walk – one year I could not make the CROP Walk and so I walked with John to Perkins.  John was such a fixture at the CROP Walk that the year after he died, our Ames CROP Walk was held in John’s memory. 

Many of you have walked in the CROP Walk over the years, and if we include sponsors, then even more have participated.  It has gotten easier over the years, as we walk about 3 ½ miles, with a shorter option for those who need it.  This is not so much about making it easy as a recognition that there are many folks who participate who physically can’t go the long distances.  We have had some memorable walks, including walking in the cold, having canine walkers representing First Baptist, and last year, walking in a driving rainstorm.  

Well, today is CROP Walk Sunday, and so I’ve been thinking about the CROP Walk.  There is a reason that Church World Service raises funds through a walk.  One of the slogans is “We walk because they walk” – a reminder that there are millions of people who have to walk each day for food and for clean water.  We walk because they walk and we walk no matter what the weather because if you need water to drink, you have to walk no matter what the weather.

A walk to raise money or raise awareness makes sense because walking is a powerful metaphor.  The word walk is filled with meaning.  In scriptural terms, to walk has to do with the way we live.   The way we relate and participate in the community.  In Judaism, the word for ethics and morality is “walking.”  It describes how one should go about one’s day-to-day life.  And then there is our reading from Colossians.  It reads, “Continue to live your lives in Christ, rooted and built up in the faith…”  But in Greek the word translated as “live your life” is literally “to walk.”  (You can see that in the footnotes in our pew Bibles.)  Continue to walk in Christ.

Walking makes it sound easy.  And comfortable.  Not a run, not a frantic effort, just a walk.   

If something is an ordeal, a person will say, “Well, it’s no walk in the park,” like a walk would be the easiest thing ever.  In baseball, if the umpire calls four balls, you get to go to first base.  It’s called a walk and you can just mosey on down to first with no regard for how fast you get there. 

But contrary to popular perception, walking can be plenty difficult.  If you have joint pain or use a walker or wheelchair, walking isn’t so simple.  I read this week about a six year old girl with cerebral palsy who took her very first step.  It was a joyful moment, but it was far from easy.  In terms of our life, in terms of our spiritual journey, some walks are harder than others.  If you have experienced heartbreak and loss, if you have experienced those times of desperation – and I should probably say when you have experienced those times - you know that our walk of life can be very difficult.

The 23rd Psalm 23 says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Our walk may lead to some difficult places, but we do not walk alone.

In the coming weeks we will be thinking about issues of what we might call practical Christianity.  In the big picture, the word for it is stewardship.  I try to steer away from the word stewardship when possible because a lot of folks hear it and only think money, but stewardship is much bigger than that.  It is really about the way we live our lives.  It is about our walk.

Richard Rohr is a spiritual writer.  The Theology Class may be familiar with him as they used a video he was featured in last year.  Rohr wrote,

Christianity is a lifestyle - a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving.  However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself.  One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” . . . The world has no time for such silliness… The suffering on Earth is too great.
In simple language, we night say that you can talk the talk all you want, but it means nothing if you don’t walk the walk.  What we really believe, what we truly believe, will be seen in the way that we live.  To say that we are a Christian, to say that we follow Jesus, doesn’t mean much unless we actually try to follow the way of Jesus.

The prophet Micah took up this theme more than 2700 years ago.  Saying that what God really wanted was not vain words or empty ritual, he wrote, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God?”  Now, that is really not three distinct things – attention to justice and mercy is a part of our walk with God.

Life is a journey, and to walk humbly with God means that we journey with God.  The life of faith is not about arbitrary rules or outward shows of piety and goodness.  It is about living our life with God as our companion.  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.

To walk humbly with God is to live a life focused on love and justice and kindness and faithfulness.  To be honest, for most of us it is probably less about Sundays and more about the way we live the rest of the week.

This is a time of year when mission – making our faith active - is at the forefront for our church.  Last Sunday, many of you were here for our Great Day of Sharing, as we participated in projects aimed at serving our community and beyond.  We were involved in our neighborhood by participating in Make Campustown Shine, picking up trash around Campustown.  We were involved in the wider community by making blankets for newborns at Primary Healthcare and singing and visiting residents at Northcrest.  And we served people in need both across the U.S. and around the world by assembling hygiene kits for Church World Service.  Just this week, additional hygiene kits were shipped to the Bahamas to help victims of Hurricane Dorian.

The other big mission effort for our church this time of year is the World Mission Offering.  We join with more than 5000 American Baptist Churches in receiving this offering which supports our mission work around the globe.

A couple of weeks ago, several of us went over to Boone to hear ABC Missionary Ray Schellinger.  He is our Global Consultant for Immigration and Refugees.  People who are forced to leave their homes, their communities, their countries and seek shelter and safety is a huge worldwide issue.  Ray works with churches in places like Lebanon as they reach out to refugees there, who make up close to 25% of Lebanon’s population.  Think about that.   It would be like having 90 million refugees in the United States.  Among other things, Baptists in Lebanon are providing schooling for Syrian Muslim children in refugee camps.  They are assisting refugees with food and transportation and access to healthcare.  In a country like Lebanon where the Christian community and especially the Protestant community has mostly kept to themselves as a small minority, this has taken the Baptists of Lebanon far beyond their comfort zone.  And it is bringing new life to these churches.

Ray especially shared with us about immigrants at the southern U.S. border.  He shared heartbreaking stories of families who had fled the threat of death in their own countries and walked for weeks or even months on the dangerous trip to the U.S. border, only to be treated like criminals and have their vulnerable situations taken advantage of.  He works with a number of shelters in Tijuana and other places – shelters run by churches or other groups that initially thought they would provide housing for a small number of asylum seekers for a few weeks, but it has turned into large numbers of people for months at a time. These people are serving faithfully and compassionately in extremely stressful conditions.

After sharing so much disturbing information, I asked Ray how he goes on.  How does he get up every morning and continue this work? And he talked about the small victories - how much it meant to people who felt utterly abandoned to be treated with kindness and respect.  How opportunities for schooling for children, opportunities for traumatized people to talk to a caring person, how having their stories heard and having someone pray for them meant so much to people.

Ray is just one of our international missionaries.  Our mission work is done with compassion and integrity and great commitment, and it is worth supporting.  It is a way for us to walk alongside brothers and sisters in need.

We are called to walk humbly with God.  We are called to walk alongside others.  It is a daily walk.  It can be difficult.  I think there is a reason Micah wrote, walk humbly with your God.

Michelle Singletary is the personal finance columnist for the Washington Post.  This week she wrote a column and suggested that people should tip well at restaurants even when service is not so great because the tip is big part of the wages these people earn.  I was struck by her follow-up column:

I’ve written about a lot of personal finance topics — the cost of retirement, health insurance, economic inequity — but which topic has received the most comments?
Tipping…  The outrage factor about tipping is titanic, with hundreds of readers arguing passionately that it’s their right to withhold or greatly reduce a tip if service was unsatisfactory… I was stunned by people’s lack of empathy for folks who wait on them.  And the name-calling and swearing was over the top.
She ended it: “Of course, you are free to do what you want with your money.  I just provide a forum for us to respectfully discuss such issues.  So, stop swearing at me!”

What does this have to do with walking with God?  A lot, I think, actually.  We may not agree all about tipping and that’s OK.  But a lack of empathy for others, and the feeling that it is OK to spew profanities at someone you have never met is an absolute epidemic.  Walking with God is about all of life, remembering justice and kindness even in such everyday matters.  

The invitation today has to do with walking.  First, very literally, I would invite you to walk in the CROP Walk.  It’s not too late, we have Fellowship Time after worship and I guarantee that you will get sponsors.  I would also invite you to give to the World Mission Offering - to walk alongside those around the world in need of hope, in need of help, in need of support as we share in the work of peace and love and justice and reconciliation – as we share in the work of the gospel.

And then, I would invite you to think about your own walk – your own life – your walk with God.  What do you need to do to strengthen that walk?  What do you need to do, perhaps, to get back on the right path?  And who do you need to walk alongside as you walk with God?

God has called us – God has called you – to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  Amen. 

“By Request: What Is God’s First Name?” - September 15, 2019

Text: Exodus 3:1-15


When we set out a suggestion box at the end of May and asked for sermon ideas and suggestions, I knew that some interesting things might turn up.  I did not promise to use all of the suggestions because, well, you never know.  But in the end I was able to use each suggestion.

This is the last week for this series, and it has been so fun that I may just try it again.  As far as interesting questions, the one for today may be at the top of the list.

Here it is: “My three year old granddaughter asked me – ‘What is God’s first name?’”

What is God’s first name?  It’s not a question I was expecting.  It wasn’t too hard to figure out where this question had come from.  I told the grandmother, “Well, you could just tell your granddaughter” (let’s hypothetically say her name is Quinn) “you could tell her, God just has one name – like Beyonce or Cher.  Or Barney.  Or Elmo.  Or Ariel.” 

That might be good enough for a three year old.  Or it might not.  I initially didn’t actually plan to preach on this question, but I kept thinking about it.

You know, we are all theologians.  Theology basically means thinking about God.  And it may be that three years olds are some of our best theologians because they are willing to ask questions.  They are not so limited in their thinking.  They don’t have all of this accumulated baggage that some of us have.  And the more I thought about it, I realized that this is actually a fabulous question.

What is God’s first name?

When we meet someone, what do we want to know?  What do we ask them?  We want to know their name.  There may be other questions – if you are around campus, some of the questions are  where are you from, what is your major, do you live on campus, did you go to the game, and so forth – but for pretty well anybody, we want to know their name.  I’ll walk our dog around the neighborhood, and little kids come up and want to know if they can pet the puppy.  And do you want to guess their other question?  “What’s your dog’s name?”  If they know that he is Rudy, then they have actually met him.

What is it about names?  Why are they so important?

A name is just a means of identifying a person – or a dog, or something.  Why is it such a big deal?  In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously says, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  A name is just a tag, just a means of identification, right?

Well, that is true, but I think the desire to know another’s name means more.  It has something to do with relationship.  With knowing another.  When we know another’s name, they are no longer a stranger.  We have a better understanding of them – we have a handle on them.  It’s no coincidence that a name is referred to as a handle. 

Names can be filled with meaning.  That was the case for so many Biblical names.  When Sarah overhead messengers from God telling Abraham that in her old age, Sarah would have a child, she laughed, as any 90 year old woman would do.  And when the child was born, the child was named Isaac – which means laughter.

Then you’ve got Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons – Esau, which means “hairy” – a name which definitely fit him - and Jacob, who was born second, grabbing at Esau’s heel as he entered the world.  Jacob means “heel-grabber,” and it pretty well prophesied the way his life would go in connection with his brother.

This kind of thing happens again and again.  Samuel means “God has heard.”  Ruth means “friend.”  Names were so important that significant events could lead to a change in one’s name.  After wrestling with God, Jacob, the heel-grabber, becomes Israel, which means “strives with God.”  And this becomes the name for the nation.

Jesus gives Simon the name Cephas, or Peter, which means “Rock.”  And the name Jesus means “God will save.”

The name of God has been an issue from the very beginning.  In the scriptures, it plays out most poignantly, perhaps, in the story of Moses at the burning bush.  Moses had fled Egypt for his own good some years before.  Now he lived in the land of Midian and was married to Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest.  But his thoughts were still with his people, living in bondage in Egypt.  And one day, while tending flocks for Jethro, his father-in-law, Moses sees a bush that is on fire and continues to burn without being consumed.

He approaches to check it out and hears a voice calling to him.  It calls his name.  “Moses!  Moses!”  The one speaking from the bush knows him.

Moses responds, “Here I am.”  And the voice tells Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.  

It is God speaking to him.  And God proceeds to tell Moses that he has observed the suffering of the Israelites and will use Moses to free them from Pharaoh.  Moses is to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let me people go.” 

Moses seems almost more concerned about how he will be received by the Israelites than by Pharaoh.  He says, “If I go to the Israelites and say, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask what is his name, what shall I say?”  In other words, if I am going to have credibility, I need to know your name.  I need to be able to show that I really know you, that you have indeed spoken to me.

It may be helpful here to understand the mindset during Moses’ time.  While names are important for us today, they were an even more important matter in Moses’ day.  A name was often thought to express the essence of a person, as we have seen from some Biblical names.

Beyond that, knowing another’s name implied having some power over the person.  And so, you did not just broadcast your name to anybody.  All of these factors played into the importance that one’s name had in the theology of Israel.  In the name of the Lord, one experienced the very presence of God.  And so God’s name had to be protected from insincere usage – or put more positively, the name of the Lord was to be revered, or hallowed, as Jesus puts it in the Lord’s Prayer.

God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and says, “I am who I am.  Tell them that I Am has spoken.”  I love the artwork on the bulletin cover.  If you look in the flames, you will see the words “I AM.”

This name of God was considered to be so holy that the people would not speak it out loud.  In Hebrew this is the consonants YHWH, or yud-hey-vav-hey, which is spoken as Yahweh, or Jehovah.  When YHWH shows up in Hebrew, Jews are taught to just say adonai, which means Lord – and in most English versions of the Bible, this is translated as THE LORD, generally in all caps.  

As Christians, Jesus puts both a face and a name on God.  We sing about the name of Jesus – as we did this morning – but we don’t talk so much about the name of God.  There are names, plural, for God – really more descriptions of God: rock, deliverer, savior, judge, helper, mighty fortress, father, mother, counselor, advocate, prince of peace, and so on.  But we don’t often used God’s name of Yahweh.

I was struck by an article I read recently by Julie Zauzmer.  She was reflecting on reading a book by Michael Coogan titled God’s Favorites.  The book is about the idea of chosenness – being a chosen people, as both Jews and Christians have understood it from ancient times up to the present.

Zauzmer wrote:

Coogan’s description of this yud-hey-vav-hey god (Yahweh or Yehovah, if you want a common pronunciation) as a character with certain unique personal attributes… felt somewhat jarring to me…  Partway through, I realized one reason why: in Coogan's writing, God had a name.  We’re not used to that. 
That God would reveal that name is a reminder that God is a personal God, a God who desires relationship.

Knowing another’s name is important.  It changes the relationship; it changes the way we think about things.  It is one thing to be acquainted with the guy at the hardware store.  It is another thing to know Howard in the paint department. 

Some of you remember the sitcom “Cheers.”  It was set in a bar in Boston and filled with characters like Sam and Diane and Woody and Norm and Cliff.  The attraction of Cheers, as captured in the theme song, was that it was a place where “everybody knows your name.”  It was a show about community.  About belonging.  About acceptance.  And that was captured in the idea that everybody knows your name.

Besides our given name, there is the phenomena of nicknames.  This too is seen in the scriptures – remember Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John?  Jesus calls them Sons of Thunder, a reflection of their volatile personality.

We may use nicknames that are terms of endearment or adulation.  I still remember, for some reason, shooting baskets with a friend at an outdoor basketball court at church.  This was treated as more or less a public court.  We were maybe sixth or seventh graders, and a group of older guys came along.  They wanted to play full court – in other words, the whole court.  So they asked us to play.  They just bestowed names on us.  They called Brian the Brown Bomber.  He had brown hair and he liked to shoot from outside.  They called me Dependable Red.  Red hair, and I could play.  Those were pretty charitable nicknames.  But names have power.  It felt good for these older guys to include us.  I mean, they could have just run us off the court.  But they included us, and the names were a part of that.

The way we name things, the way we name others, is immensely important, more than we probably realize.  Names can be used to bless and build up, but they can also be used to hurt, to divide, to manipulate, to put down.  I could go through a list of hurtful names, but there is no point in it.  Most of us have been on the receiving end of such names.  There is far too much name-calling that goes on, and we don’t need to relive it.

So many of our public disputes are about what we name things.  Is it discrimination or religious freedom?  Is it security or bigotry?  Is it investment in the common good or wasteful government spending?  What something is named makes a big difference.

And names can become tainted by misuse.  Perfectly good names can become loaded terms.  Words like liberal. Evangelical.  Even Christian.   

One of the 10 commandments has to do with the way we treat God’s name.  Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name – that is one of those cases where in Hebrew it is Yahweh - in vain.  We are not to misuse the name of God.  This is not only, or not even primarily, talking about cursing that incorporates God’s name into it – although that would definitely be using God’s name in vain.  The commandment really is about using God’s name for our own purposes.   

Well, back to that original question asked by our three year old theologian.  She knew that names matter, and at the heart of it, I think her question had to do with wanting to know God better.  What is God’s first name?

Well here’s the thing: while we may want to know God, God definitely wants to know us.  God wants to know and be known.  The Bible might be described as the story of God’s self-revelation to us.  God reveals God’s own self to us in many ways.  Through creation: “the heavens are telling the glory of God; the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”  Through the Law.  Through the prophets.  Through all the scriptures.  Through the Spirit.  And finally through Jesus, who came to show us who God is and what God is like and how God wants us to live with one another.  This is a God who wants to be known. 

And to that end, the relationship with God is a two-way relationship.  It is not just that we know God’s name; God knows our name.  God is interested in us.  God is invested in us.  God has compassion for us.  God wants the best for us.  Isaiah 43:1 reads, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

God desires a relationship with us, and from our side, the way to deepen that relationship begins with wanting to know God.  Which maybe starts with asking great questions like, “What Is God’s First Name?”  Amen.

“By Request: 1 Corinthians 13” - September 8, 2019

(Worship Under the Trees - held indoors due to rain)

We have been doing a little experiment of sorts this summer: we asked for suggestions from the congregation and I have been preaching on topics and questions that the church has suggested.  In most cases, these have sprung from interests or concerns or questions that people have.  How do people get called to ministry?  What is the relationship between science and faith?  What do we mean when we talk about grace?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  And more.

All great suggestions.  The suggestion for today is a little different.  Instead of a question or topic, the suggestion was a particular scripture: 1 Corinthians 13.  1 Corinthians chapter 13 is one of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible.  It is called the Love Chapter.  It is a staple at weddings.  The poetry is beautiful.  “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” 

I don’t think this suggestion was made because someone had a bone to pick with this text.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was a matter of not understanding this scripture and wanting clarification.  I think it is something more like the way we want to sing a favorite song.  The way we want to hear again a favorite story.  There are those special places that we want to go back to again and again.

In the same way, there are those scriptures we want to go back to - like the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd…”  Like John 3:16: “for God so loved the world.”  Like Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require: but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  And like 1 Corinthians 13.

And so we look again today at a text that is a favorite for many of us.  It is beautiful and inspiring and it has a message that we need to hear.  But here is the thing about the Love Chapter of the Bible.  We sometimes think of it as though it comes from Paul’s Letter to the Wedding Planners.  As though it is written to extol the wonders of romantic love, or to reflect on the power of love in an abstract and theoretical way.  

But this is not the case.  Not at all.  These words were written to a church – to a congregation of people who as it turns out were seriously messed up. 

Church dysfunction and conflict is a function of the fact that we are all human beings.  Any group of human beings is going to have issues of one sort or another.  But here is what was going on in the church in Corinth.

This was a church that argued over all kinds of things.  It argued over food and the propriety of eating meat that had been sacrificed to foreign deities.  It argued over which star apostles were the biggest stars.  There were debates about sex, with Paul conceding that it is better to marry than to burn with passion.  There was an instance of a man having an affair with his mother in law.  Rich people were stuffing themselves and getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper while poor people barely got anything.  People were all braggy about their spiritual gifts.   And that’s just a start.

The Love Chapter of the Bible was written to this church, to these people.  Nadia Bolz-Weber called the church in Corinth “Paul’s little church plant gone bad.”  The church was bickering and dysfunctional and they had turned church into a kind of competitive sport.

In his letter, Paul reminds the people that the church functions as a body, and if one part of the body is hurting, the whole body is hurting.  You can’t say, well, it’s no big deal, it’s just a kidney.   

And then Paul says, I will show you a more excellent way – not by focusing on who has what gift or where a person came from or what their salary is, but rather by focusing on love. 

So while this passage is a favorite at weddings, this is not about romance.  But this certainly speaks to couples.  It speaks to marriages.  It speaks to families.  This is a word for all kinds of families, nuclear families and church families and co-workers and neighborhoods.  This is an issue for the human family.

Paul says that without love, the gifts we have don’t really amount to much.  In the church in Corinth, there were people with tremendous gifts: teachers, healers, great preachers.  Some had the gift of prophecy.  There was enthusiasm, there were willing workers.  They had everything needed for a vital church except for one thing.  The missing ingredient was love. 

Vince Lombardi was the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.  Lombardi was once asked what it took to make a winning team.  He said:

There are plenty of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game.  Then you come to the third ingredient: if you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care about each other.  You’ve got to love each other.  Each player has to be thinking about the next guy and say to himself: ‘If I don’t block that man, Paul is going to get his legs broken.  I have to do my job well in order that he can do his.’
Vince Lombardi will never be confused for some kind of relationship guru, but he has it exactly right about love.  This is not simply about having a warm feeling for your teammate, although you may have that.  It is about our actions.  Love is willing and working for the best for the other.  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

You might think about these qualities in the midst of family life.  Are we patient?  Are we kind?  Are we envious?  Are we boastful?  Are we irritable or resentful?  Do we have to have our way?  This is hard stuff.  This is the nitty-gritty of being family, whatever kind of family we are talking about.

I was reading about redwood trees the other day.  Redwood trees can grow up to four hundred feet in height – roughly the same as a thirty-five-story building.  They are the largest and tallest trees on earth.  Interestingly, they do not reach these amazing heights by sinking their roots deep into the ground. They grow to these heights by sending their roots out horizontally and connecting with the other trees.  They are tall, because they bear each other up.

That is a perfect metaphor for our lives.  Through love we bear one another up.  Through love we help one another to believe and to hope and to endure, even through the difficult times.  Redwood trees are a testament to the power of love.  And like those trees, we grow taller and stronger -- we are better people - when we are connected in love as a community.

Love is so important that Paul says our love must exceed our knowledge.  “For we know only in part.”  Let’s face it: living here in Ames, we are surrounded by knowledge.  This has got to be one of the top places for knowledge per capita in the country, maybe on earth.  I am all for knowledge.  Knowledge and learning and education is important to our church.  But knowledge alone is not enough.  Knowledge does not insulate us from the problems of life, and none of us have it all figured out.  There are so many problems we face for which there are no easy answers and on which we need to proceed with great humility.  We need knowledge, to be sure, but we need love in even greater measure. 

If you wanted to capture the essence of Christian faith – strip away all of the peripheral matters and get at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus – there is one thing.  What it is all about is not a doctrine or a set of rules or a creed or a confession.  When you come down to it, it is about faith and hope, and at the core of it all is love. 

Jesus showed us that love is always something you do.  Love is always an action.  Jesus lived a life of love, a love that would endure whatever the powers threw at him.

The choir anthem this morning is a song we sing every once in a while as a congregation – “Siyahamba,” or “We Are Marching in the Light of God.”  With the anthem this morning, we got to hear the verses, which are less familiar.  And I was struck by the last verse: “We walk in the strength of the Lord, God’s love is ever sure.  We shout that the world may hear, we sing a joyful song.”

Do you know what this song is about?  Do you know who was singing this?  This is a South African freedom song.  Sung by people hoping and praying and working for an end to apartheid – people who were suffering oppression and injustice and the indignity of racial segregation and second-class status in their own country.  And yet this song is not filled with bitterness or a desire for vengeance; it does not come from heavy hearts or troubled spirits.  This is a joyful song.  If is filled with faith and hope and at the center of it all, love.  Because God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Steve Donst shared a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13.  I have adapted his words, and share them with you now:

What if I could stand up here and say the most wonderful things, and sound impressive and answer everyone’s questions, but I didn’t love anyone - what would be the point?

What if we were the most incredible church where every pew was filled, the preaching was always inspirational, we had a choir that always sang perfectly and we served the best coffee in town but no one felt love - what would be the point?

And if as a community we teach our children lots of information and knowledge and they can recite the books of the Bible and know all the right answers but they don't know how to love, then we’ve failed them.

If we pray every week for the poor of the world and yet we don’t feed the hungry and reach out to the poor of our community, where is the honesty in that?

If we don’t love, then what’s the point?
Love is kindness in action, offered simply and humbly.

Love is not meant to make us look good, score brownie points with God, or draw attention to ourselves.

Love is co-operative; there are all kinds of ways of doing good and God is happy to use every way there is.  Love only cares that what’s needed is done; love has the best interests of the other in mind.

Sometimes we grow weary and give up - we can’t think of what else can be done.  But God never gives up; God's love continues and new possibilities are always appearing.

What we know now is never the whole picture.  What we do now is never the whole story.

In some ways we’re like children: we do what we can and what we know to this point.  But there’s still more for us to learn, to grow into, to accept.

Some day we’ll look back on where we are now, and wonder how we could ever have wondered and doubted and refused to accept what was happening.  In some ways, it's like looking in an imperfect mirror.  There’s a reflection there, but it’s not quite right, not totally true.

We are the body of Christ, the image of God - but not perfectly, not completely, not totally truly … not yet.

The day will come when we will see.
The day will come when we will know.

Until then, we live in faith, trusting God’s love.
Until then, we live in hope, hoping for God’s love.
Until then, we live in love, showing God’s love as best we can - because love is the point of it all.  Amen.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

"By Request: Prayer as a Way of Life” - September 1, 2019

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Luke 5:11-21

Shelly Pennefather was a basketball phenom.  She grew up in a big Catholic family and played basketball with her brothers.  By the time she was a teenager, she was unstoppable.  Her high school team in Denver won 70 games without a loss in her first three years and won three state championships. When the Air Force transferred her dad to New York before her senior season, nothing changed. Utica's Notre Dame High went undefeated, too.  She never lost a high school game and won four state championships.

Pennefather played college basketball at Villanova.  Over her career she broke Villanova’s all-time scoring record for both women and men. This was before there was a 3-point shot, and her record still stands today.

In 1987, she won the Wade Trophy, given to the best women’s college basketball player.  There was no professional women’s league in the US when she graduated from college, but professional basketball overseas offered good money.  She signed with the Nippon Express in Japan, the place where her whole life would change.

The pace in Japan was much slower -- the Express played only 14 games in four months.  Away from her college teammates and the chaos of her large family, she felt homesick and alone in a faraway city.  Her second season there was especially tough.  She did everything she could to keep busy, reading books, learning Japanese, teaching English.  But she still felt a deep emptiness. 

Until while doing volunteer work that next summer, at a soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  She went to a retreat and was asked to read a Bible verse that spoke of communion with God.  And suddenly she knew that she was not alone, that God was with her and had always been with her, even in the lonely times.  This experience of God’s presence led to her decision to become a nun.

But she did not join just any order.  She joined the Poor Clares, one of the strictest religious orders in the world. They sleep on straw mattresses, in full habit, and wake up every night at 12:30 a.m. to pray.  They never rest more than four hours at a time. They are barefoot 23 hours a day, except for one hour when they walk around the courtyard in sandals.

The Poor Clares are cut off from society.  Now Sister Rose Marie, she will never leave the monastery unless there’s a medical emergency.  She gets two family visits per year, but has to visit with her family through a see-through screen.  She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, at a ceremony marking the renewal of her vows, she can hug her family.

That service was held this summer.  The Mother Superior allowed her college coach and three teammates to sneak into the line of family who had the chance to hug her.  Her mother, who is 78, will be able to hug her again is she lives to 103.  

The Poor Clare nuns enter this radical way of life because they believe that their prayers for humanity will help the suffering, and that their sacrifice will lead to the salvation of the world.

But why would someone with so much to offer the world lock herself away and hide her talents?  Who, looking at one of the biggest professional contracts in their sport and at the top of their profession, would subject herself to such strict isolation and sacrifice?

I read this story of Shelly Pennefather, now Sister Rose Marie, and found it fascinating and moving.  (You can read it on espn.)  And I thought of this story as I read one of the topics suggested for a sermon: “Prayer as a Way of Life.”  Another wonderful suggestion.

When we think of prayer as a way of life, completely separating oneself from society and devoting one’s life to prayer like the Poor Clares is one way to do it.  And to live that kind of life certainly shows an absolute devotion to prayer.  You don’t just make that kind of choice on a whim.

For most of us, however, if prayer is going to be a way of life, it will have to be understood differently.  To think about prayer as a way of life, we have to first think about what prayer really is.

The psalms offer us a picture of prayer.  And it is a multi-faceted picture.  People cry out on behalf of themselves, their loved ones, their community, their nation.  They cry out for justice.  In pain they curse their enemies.  In lament they mourn losses.  In joy they offer God praise and adoration.  In worship they speak of God’s glory.  In confession they ask for forgiveness.  In confusion they try to discern the ways of the Holy.  In hope they pray for the nation, for the future, for children.  Pretty well every human emotion is shared with God.

We can sometimes reduce prayer to a kind of take-out order.  “I would like this and this and this.  And make that to go.”  As it turns out, that is not the Biblical understanding of prayer.  Prayer is much bigger than that.  


Prayer is essentially a connection with God.  An ongoing relationship and conversation with the Holy in which words may be used. 

Toward the end of 1 Thessalonians Paul gives some assorted final instructions.  In the passage that Rita read, Paul says “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  How are we to “pray without ceasing?”  I mean, you have to cease praying at some point in order to go about living, right?  You can’t do your job, you can’t go to class, and you can’t have your Fantasy Football Draft if you are praying all the time, can you?

If prayer only means to close your eyes and bow your head and talk to God, then, no, you can’t do that 24/7, even if you are a Poor Clare.   

In our scripture from Luke, Jesus is going about his ministry of teaching and healing.  He heals a man with leprosy, and the growing crowds become even greater.  For his part, Jesus seems to want to limit the crowds and tamp down his fame, telling the man he had healed not to say anything about it - but to no avail.

And then, what is most pertinent for us today, he goes away to a quiet place to pray.  And it wasn’t just this one time; it was a regular practice.  We see Jesus doing this in other instances; the verse says, “He would withdraw to deserted places to pray.”

For Jesus, there was a regular rhythm of prayer and action, of worship and service, and it was his life of prayer that made the action possible.  Prayer was the fuel that got him through.  He lived a life of prayer.

I had a weird thing happen this week.  I’m working on this sermon about prayer on Thursday afternoon, and the phone rings.  Janelle, our office manager, had just left for the day.  I answer the phone and the person asks if there is a pastor around.  I said, “You’re talking to one,” and she says she has a question about prayer.  It’s about a verse in the Bible, 1 John 5:15: “and if we know that God hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.”  But she had been praying and was wondering when those requests were going to be obtained – when her prayers would be answered.

The verse does make it sound pretty simple.  I quickly looked up the passage and noted that the verse just before speaks of asking God anything according to God’s will.  So it is not just a blank check.  You don’t pray for a million dollars to arrive in the mail and it shows up the next day.  The passage is speaking of praying in a way that aligns with God’s will.  And then she mentioned she had been praying for a long time for another person to change.

That is especially difficult, and many of us have prayed those kinds of prayers.  The Bible speaks of persistence in praying.  But there is also the reality that God does not force any of us, even toward a good purpose.  We all have free will.

The answers to our prayers might be yes or no, but a lot of times it is maybe or eventually or give it time.  Or maybe the answer is, I want that as bad as you do, but it’s not entirely up to me.  Or not infrequently, we’re not sure what the answer is.  Or maybe there are those times when an answer, as we think of answers, is not the main point. 

I asked this person how she had come to call our church, and she said she was new around here and didn’t have a church and just wanted to talk to a pastor. 

Once in a great while I get a call like that, but the timing of it – while I was thinking and sermonizing about prayer – was really curious.  But that short conversation was a reminder of how complex prayer is.  And how important it is to us.  And it was a good reminder that prayer is not so much a transactional enterprise. 

Prayer is not a matter of we ask and God delivers.  Prayer is much deeper than that.  It is about cultivating a relationship; it is about immersing ourselves in the ways of God so that the things we hope for and dream about, and the things we work for and strive for – the things we pray for - are aligned with God’s ways.  It is about transforming our hearts toward love and justice and compassion and truth and being aware and open to God’s work and presence in the world around us.  It is about sharing the depths of our souls with God.

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen captured what it means to think of prayer as a way of life:

To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God.

As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings.  Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone (as Jesus did), prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts - beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful - can be thought in the presence of God.  Thus, converting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue.  This requires that we turn all our thoughts into conversation.  The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts.  (Clowning in Rome)
Prayer is about thinking and living in God’s presence.

Now it is important to set aside time both for personal prayer and for prayer as part of a community.  Nouwen also said that without community, individual prayer becomes self-centered, but without individual prayer, the prayer of the community becomes a meaningless routine. So we need both individual and community prayer - one without the other is problematic.

Both personal and corporate prayer are essential, and when we are mindful of God’s presence throughout our daily activities, then prayer become a way of life.

For me, a time when this happens more easily is as I walk our dog in the morning.  Taking in the beauty of the morning, noticing the trees and flowers and sky and clouds and sunshine.  It is a time to be mindful and grateful for the blessings around us.  I may think about the day ahead or concerns that I have, or maybe I am totally in the moment, maybe I'm more focused on Rudy's adventures as we walk, but I can be mindful of God’s presence in the midst of it.

When we think of prayer in that sort of way, it can change things.  We are able to simply be in the presence of God.  This may be what Martin Luther had in mind when he said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” 

And so, our singing can be a prayer.  Our work can be a prayer.  Our activities can be a prayer.  Our study can be a prayer.  Our drive to work can be a prayer.

Anne LaMott wrote this wonderful little book that we used for a Lenten Study a couple of years ago: Help, Thanks, Wow.  She says those are the three essential prayers.  When prayer becomes a way of life, we go through our day in a kind of conversation with God, as Nouwen describes it, and as the day unfold, we can be quick to ask for Help, quick to give Thanks, and quick to exclaim Wow.

Most Sundays, we pray The Lord’s Prayer as a part of worship.  Part of what we pray is, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  If that is truly our prayer, then we will also be working toward those ends.  And those things we do to help our neighbors, to work for a more just society, to build community, to care for God’s earth, to visit the sick, to nurture children, all of these activities are a kind of prayer.

Prayer is more – it can be more - than periodically having a talk with God.  That is very much a part of prayer, to be sure – it’s an essential part of prayer.  But prayer as a way of life is an ongoing awareness and attitude of God’s presence with us – through the good and the bad, through the joys and pains of life and through our day-to-day living.  May it be so.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

By Request: “A Scientist (?) Looks at Life from a Faith Perspective” - August 25, 2019

Text: Genesis 1:1-28, 31

Can I talk about Fred Borgen this morning?  Would that be OK?  Fred is one of the most positive and encouraging people that I know.  And he has a tremendous interest in people.  You will often see him speaking to students after the service.  He is especially interested in vocation and careers.  I have noticed him putting students in contact with people out there who are working in the field that they are studying.  Fred was into social networking way before there was an internet.  Aside from the cat videos, Facebook is almost superfluous to Fred.

His interest in people is a good thing because as most of you know, Fred is a psychologist.  His professional interests include personality and college majors and careers. 

This is all background for today’s sermon, believe it or not.  Our sermons this summer were requested by church members.  Worshipers had the chance to drop their ideas into the sermon suggestion box.   I’m operating on the theory that at least one person in the church will be interested in each sermon.

The suggestions were given anonymously, except for one (although a number of people have come forward to ‘fess up).  One slip of paper just said “Borgen,” but I knew which one.

Here is Fred’s suggestion: “A scientist (chemist) looks at life from a faith perspective.”  While my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, I would not describe myself as a scientist or a chemist – that’s where the question mark in the sermon title comes from.  But Fred, with more respect than I deserve, was calling me a scientist.  Now I will say: it’s an intriguing subject.  I took Fred’s suggestion as really asking for both something about my personal experience – of the journey from chemistry to ministry, and something about the relationship between the two – between science and faith.

Gerald Kirkman was my high school chemistry teacher.  He was a big athletic guy with a sharp mind and a great sense of humor.  He played college football at Indiana State and was a PE major, not taking it very seriously, until one day an assistant coach pulled him aside and said, “Kirkman, you are a decent player but you are not going to make a career of this.  You are a smart guy and you need to find yourself another major.”  (No offense to any PE majors out there.)  That assistant football coach was also Indiana State’s head basketball coach, a guy named John Wooden.  Yes, the John Wooden who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA championships.

So I can say that Johnny Wooden had an influence on my life, because Mr. Kirkman decided to become a chemistry teacher.  He was a great teacher and was elected president of the National Science Teachers Association.  North High School offered a second year of chemistry, Advanced Chemistry.  We had to come in an hour early, before school started, to have time for the labs.  Mr. Kirkman was a great guy and I loved it.   

I went to college in my hometown, at Evansville, and majored in chemistry with a minor in environmental studies.  I did well and became president of the American Chemical Society student affiliate.  I worked two summers at Mead Johnson, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in town. 

But other things were happening in my life through those years.  I became involved in campus ministry and began to feel a call to ministry.  And eventually that was the path I took.

I don’t think it really occurred to me that the scientific approach to life, if there is such a thing, could not mesh with a spiritual approach to life.  And in fact, I felt like I was better prepared for seminary than some of the students who had gone to Christian colleges and majored in religion. 

A background in chemistry helped me to think analytically.  It helped me to ask questions, to consider possibilities.  And if someone were so inclined I would encourage them as a pre-theology student to major in chemistry or biology or a similar field as a good preparation for seminary – and to take some psychology and sociology and religion courses along the way.

I also remember as a seminary student coming home and preaching at my home church.  Sitting there in the congregation was my chemistry professor and research advisor, Dr. Beckman.  Some of the chemistry faculty felt like I had squandered a promising career and kind of disowned me the spring of my senior year, after I had applied to seminary.  I think this was Dr. Beckman’s way of giving her blessing on the choice I made.  A progressive Presbyterian who came to hear me preach as a then-Southern Baptist seminary student, she had this sense that faith and ministry and science could all be toward the end of making for a better world.

Years later, after coming to this church, I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities.  My thesis project involved university congregations.  Basically what I was doing was Sociology of Religion – a scientific approach to a question about faith communities.

I’m kind of embarrassed by talking about myself so much this morning, but I guess you can blame Fred for that.  But it strikes me that my background is similar to many of you.  I think about our church - we have students and professionals in agronomy, soil science, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, plant science, agricultural science, forestry, food science, animal science, dairy science, veterinary science, computer science, and other sciences – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out - along with all kinds of engineers.  And then we have social science people in our church as well, including Dr. Borgen.

With all of these sciences represented, the question may be, which is the highest science?  Which is the most “sciencey” science?  You might think of a progression from less exact to more exact sciences – from biology to chemistry to physics to mathematics.   But centuries ago, one science stood above all others.  Do you know what it was?  It was Theology.  Theology was known as the Queen of the Sciences because it dealt with ultimate matters.  And sciences – discovering natural phenomena, solving mathematical equations, working out the laws of physics – science was understood as thinking God’s thoughts after God. 

Well, it has been a long time since theology has been thought of as the Queen of the Sciences.  But some today go so far as to see faith and science as opposed to one another.  This view comes both from secularists who see no place for matters of the spirit and from religious fundamentalists who see science as the enemy. 

The Tom Troeger hymn we sang, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” speaks of the way that science and faith need each other and complement each other.  The hymn ends, “Blend, O God our faith and learning till they carve a single course; till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, the Source.”

Now, there are a number of folks here today more qualified than me to speak on “A Scientist Looks at Life From a Faith Perspective.”  I found myself thinking about Bob McCarley.  For those who did not know him, Bob was a chemistry professor and chair of the department chair at Iowa State.  Five years ago, on the Sunday before school started, I sat with Bob and Jenna at a table during fellowship time.  I remember Bob having this engaging conversation with a new student.  And then, two days later, Bob was gone.  I looked up something I shared at his funeral.  I was talking about some of his family’s memories of Bob and I shared this:

Kyanne (Bob’s daughter) told about one of those epic family trips.  They made a palette in the back of the station wagon and the four kids would lie down and go to sleep, but one was supposed to ride shotgun and keep Bob awake.  One night Kyanne was riding shotgun.  It was a beautiful night, the sky was filled with stars, and Bob talked to her about his work.  Talked to her about chemistry.  He described the intricacy of molecules and the beauty of the way things worked and fit together in the universe.  He said that the world was so beautiful and so amazing, there had to be a higher power.

That is a chemist looking at life from a faith perspective.  And interestingly, for Bob, science actually pointed toward faith.

His views were essentially captured by the Psalmist who wrote, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”  If the ancient world had known what we know, the writer could have just as easily written, “The atoms are declaring the glory of God and the molecules proclaim God’s handiwork.”

Our bulletin cover artwork this morning is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.  It captures the wonder and awe of the stars in the sky.  At its best, science and art and faith all involve wonder.  Science is about being open to new possibilities.  There was an article in the Des Moines Register recently about Parkinson’s Disease, which I took note of because of Elizabeth Stegemöller’s research. 

Dr. Jay Alberts of the Cleveland Clinic was participating in RAGBRAI.  If you are new to Iowa, this means riding your bicycle across Iowa for a week with thousands of other people - and eating lots of pie.  Alberts was on a tandem bike with Cathy, a Parkinson’s patient.  The ride was intended to bring attention to the need for funding for Parkinson’s research.  But Alberts and Cathy stumbled onto an important finding: Cathy’s physical abilities improved after a day of pedaling, and then improved more after another day.

Alberts knew exercise was important, but how important was driven home to him on RAGBRAI.  On a tandem, Cathy was forced to go at his speed, which was significantly faster than hers.  On the bike, Cathy didn’t feel as stiff.  She was pedaling faster, and her brain function was better.  As she wrote postcards and mailed them to her family from across Iowa, her handwriting became more legible.  “It was a serendipitous discovery,” Alberts said. “Science can happen anywhere, even in the cornfields of Iowa.”

Science is about trial and error, about experimentation and observation.  It is about paying attention.  And it involves being willing to change your assumptions.  Basically, if you are doing science right, one needs to have humility.

There is something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was a physicist looking at subatomic particles, and the Uncertainty Principle says that both the position and the velocity of an object cannot be measured at the same time.  You can know exactly where something is, or you can know exactly how fast it is going, but you can’t know both at the same time.

I think it is awesome that science has a principle about uncertainty.  Isn’t that beautiful?  And my goodness, that certainly translates to faith.  There is plenty that we don’t know.  There is plenty we are not quite certain about.  And an approach of humility is essential in faith, as in science.  The notion that the way I interpret the Bible, the way I understand the world, the way I think about life and about God might need to change, that there just might be room for growth, that the Spirit might speak to me, that God might lead me in a new way, is essential to faith.

Our scripture this morning is the story of creation.  God painstakingly creates the world, working all day, calling it quits for the day, looking over what had been created and calling it good.  The light, the dark, the waters, the plants, the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, fish and sea life, wild animals and cattle and creeping things of every kinds, and finally human beings.  Human beings, created in the image of God.  And then God said that it was very good.

It is a wonderful, powerful account of creation.  It is beautiful and poetic.  God takes great care with this creation and God regards it all as good.  It tells us that the universe and this planet and all that is in it is created by God and loved by God.  It gives us a sense of our place and our value in this world.

I don’t know about you, but I do not read the story of creation and think, “Oh – this negates carbon-13 dating.”  To me it would be ludicrous to read this and understand this as a 21st century science text.  Instead it inspires wonder and joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging in God’s world.

Science can answer the question of how, but we need faith to answer the question of why.  Science can collect data and tell us what is, but faith has something to say about what should be.  And so science and faith need one another.

Faith that ignores the world out there is shallow.  We need the very best scientific understanding, just as we need the guidance of spiritual understanding.  When faith tries to control what is true in the realm of science, it is never a good thing.  The earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around the earth, but the Church has a history of condemning people who did not believe those things, based on its understanding of scripture.

The world of science also needs the influence of faith.  We need sensitivity and concern.  We need compassion and integrity toward the end of applying science to help build a better world.

Think about all of the issues our world is facing:

  • Nuclear weapons
  • Clean water and equitable water distribution
  • Natural disasters like flooding and wildfire and our response and prevention
  • Medicine and new therapies and bio-medical ethics
  • Artificial intelligience
  • Cybersecurity and information systems and privacy
  • Genetics
  • The use of scarce resources and protecting the environment
  • Energy policy
  • Policies around natural areas and land use
  • And looming over all of these, global climate change
In every single instance, science and faith need one another to address difficult issues.  We don’t inhabit a world of the spirit, with another natural world out there.  It is all one world.  It is all God’s world.  And God said that it is good.

Too much religion is concerned solely with individual salvation.  Which is important - and very much a part of our Baptist tradition.  We need lives committed to Jesus Christ.  But when we are committed to the way of Jesus, we cannot ignore the world out there – the world that God loves.

These are some thoughts from a scientist, of sorts, viewing the world from the perspective of faith.  Or maybe they are the thoughts of a person of faith viewing the world from the perspective of science.  Or maybe the two are pretty well the same. 

The word religion literally means to bring back together – re–ligio (think ligaments).  Re-ligamentize.  Your religion is the way you make connections with God and people and the world out there – the way it all holds together.  At its best, our religion brings together scientific understanding and the power and understanding of our faith as we serve God and Love our neighbor and God’s world.  May it be so.  Amen.