Monday, October 19, 2020

"Hannah and Her Song" - October 18, 2020

Text: 1 Samuel 1:1-20, 2:1-10


If you are like my family, you may be thinking about how to navigate the holidays in the midst of a pandemic.  We have pretty well decided that as far as extended family goes, it’s going to have to be a virtual gathering.  Which is really sad and yet another casualty of the pandemic.

For those families who will not be getting together, I guess maybe a small consolation is that it helps eliminate those awkward conversations with relatives who are outspoken with their opinions on politics and religion and other hot-button topics, and can’t be appropriate and can’t leave it alone when it is clear their opinions are very different than yours.  The consolation may be that at least you don’t have to be around that cousin who just makes you crazy.

I’m thinking about that this morning because our scripture today includes one of those big family meals on a holiday, and this family had some issues.

Over the past Sundays, our scripture readings have included some of the big names of the Old Testament.  Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses.  This morning our two readings focus on Hannah.

Hannah is married to Elkanah.  Each year the family would travel to Shiloh for a religious festival.  This was before Jerusalem was an Israelite city.  At this point, Israel was more of a confederacy of tribes, with judges providing leadership but with no king ruling over the whole nation, no centralized authority.  There were various shrines, such as the one at Shiloh, where the different tribes of Israel would offer sacrifice and worship.  We’re not sure what festival or observance this was, but it apparently was not only a religious observance; there was a feast, a big meal.  

Now while Hannah was married to Elkanah, Elkanah also had another wife named Peninnah.  Hannah was unable to have children, and because of that Peninnah lorded it over her.  She rubbed it in her face.  In that culture, a woman’s worth was very much tied to her children.  

So the whole family travels to Shiloh for something akin to a family Thanksgiving dinner.  And it is the worst Thanksgiving ever.  Peninnah provoked Hannah, irritated her, mocked her.  And the thing was, when they went home afterwards, Hannah would still have to face Peninnah.  It wasn’t like that cousin that drives you crazy; Peninnah was always there.

For his part, Elkanah is trying to console Hannah.  He tells her that she matters to him, that he loves her whether she has any children or not.  “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he asks.  Now here is a pro tip: while Elkanah’s heart is in the right place, asking “Am I not worth more to you than ten sons” is probably not the best way to offer consolation.

At the dinner table, Elkanah gives Hannah a double portion of this special meal to show his love for her.  But with the ridicule of Peninnah, it is just too much.  She refuses to eat.  She leaves the table in tears.  Like I said, it is not a great Thanksgiving.

In her distress, Hannah goes to the temple.  She prays and weeps bitterly.  She tries to make a deal with God.  God, if you will just give me a son, I will dedicate him to you.  I promise.

It is a bargaining prayer.  Maybe you have prayed like that before.  Lord, if you can just get me out of this jam, I swear, I will change my ways.  I promise.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of this kind of prayer.  It’s not the way I generally pray.  And what if you pray like this and your prayer is not answered?  Maybe it is easier not to pray in such a bold way.

But it does show Hannah’s desperation.  It shows the depth of her pain.  She is even willing to make a quid pro quo with God, saying that if she has a son, he will be dedicated to God’s service in the temple.  And this is not a small thing: she was willing to give up having her son around as her social security in her old age, if God would just bless her with a son.       

The priest Eli observes Hannah and he thinks she is drunk.  “Woman, stop making a drunken spectacle of yourself,” he says.  I mean, there had been eating and drinking and carrying on – everybody was kind of tailgating for the Lord, and Eli assumed Hannah had a bit too much.  Still, this is not an especially good model for pastoral care.  I mean, he could have simply asked her if she was OK.  

But she tells him, No; I am not drunk; I have had neither wine nor strong drink.  Do not think I am a worthless woman.  I am simply a troubled woman pouring out my heart to God.  I have been speaking out of my anxiety and great vexation.  This was true; she had left the big feast and had not eaten or drank anything.

And Eli says, “Go in peace; may God grant the petition you have made.”

And she feels better.  Whether it was Eli’s encouraging words, or whether it was simply the catharsis of pouring out her heart to God, she ate and drank and was no longer sad.  And before long, she had a son, who was named Samuel.

That is the story of what happened.  And then, Susie in Pittsburgh read for us Hannah’s response.  It is Hannah’s song. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, found in Luke, is similar to it and modeled after it.

Hannah’s song speaks of the great reversal that God will make.  

The poor, the hungry, the lowly, the hurting, those filled with sadness will be lifted up.  The rich, the mighty, the powerful, those who have all the control and all the advantages, will be brought low.

Hannah is not asking that God just level the playing field.  She is asking that the world be turned upside down.  Many of the Proverbs view wealth as a blessing from God.  But Hannah’s song offers a different view, the view that God sides with the poor.

Now if things are just turned upside down, if you are just flipping things, then someone is always on the bottom.  But there is another way of thinking about this.  Perhaps it is the case that for those who are calling all the shots, a just and equitable world feels like the world has been turned upside down.  

In Hannah’s world, and down through the ages, many have accumulated wealth and power by taking advantage of the poor.  That is why we find time and again admonitions against abusing the widow and of caring for the alien in your land.

Gaining wealth at the expense of those on the bottom is a time-honored practice.  We see it all the time.  In this pandemic, the wealthiest have done fabulously well, while those who could least afford to lose jobs are the ones who have lost them.  

Hannah’s song, her vision, gives hope to those who are on the bottom – those who are left out and those who are losing hope.

It is interesting that in calling for justice, sometimes the most effective voice is the most vulnerable voice.  Martin Luther King was the great leader, but it was Rosa Parks choosing to sit in the wrong seat that set off the civil rights movement.
The most effective voice calling for action to save our climate is Greta Thunburg, who after all this time is still just 17 years old.
And then the strongest international voice calling for gender equality in education is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban as a teenager and recovered to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.
And then there is Mary the mother of Jesus, a young unmarried woman whose own song heralded the birth of Jesus and the changes he would bring.

In a sense, these women are spiritual descendants of Hannah, a vulnerable woman crying out for justice.

In the Old Testament, not many women are named.  If mentioned at all, they are mostly mentioned as wife of, or daughter of, somebody important.  Hannah is not in a family of means.  She is not married to anyone especially significant.  She has not done anything notable to build a reputation.  She is just an ordinary married woman with no children, which was about as socially insignificant as you could be.  And yet we have not only her name, we have her words – and the words of a woman are especially rare in the Old Testament.  We have her name and her story and her voice crying out for justice.

Hannah’s song ends by saying that God will give strength to the king, God’s anointed.  Do you remember?  Israel does not have a king.  Not yet.  Hannah’s son Samuel will become the great prophet and Samuel will anoint the king, in time anointing King David.  Hannah anticipates a time when Israel will have a king who will establish justice in the land.  She celebrates God’s solution before it has even happened.

Well, what about us?  What about us living in this very strange time, in this sometimes scary and chaotic world in which we have to face multiple crises?

Like Hannah, our lives can be filled with sadness, with pain, with disappointment.  And it is within our faith to ask for something different from God – even to demand something different from God.  That is not the way we usually pray.  But maybe there are those times when we need to take our situation and we need to take God seriously enough to pray in that way.  It’s OK.  God can handle it.

And then this story serves as a reminder for us that God is in the business of bringing about justice.  It is for us to pray for that, to call for that, to work for that.  And like Hannah we can look toward and anticipate God’s victory, even when we cannot yet see it.

Now let me acknowledge that in some ways stories like this can be problematic.  What about those who suffer from infertility and long for a child?  What about those who for whom everything doesn’t work out in the long run as it does for Hannah?  This may story not be entirely helpful for everyone.  

But it does serve to tell us that we can pour out our souls before God – and we can look toward and live into God’s justice, even when we cannot see it yet.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

“A De-Calf Faith” - October 11, 2020

Text: Exodus 32:1-14


After various and sundry plagues, ranging from gross to scary to truly terrifying, Pharaoh finally relented, and while it took the parting of the Red Sea to get over a last minute hurdle, the Israelites made it to freedom.

And the people celebrated.  Let by Moses’ sister Miriam, they sing and dance and celebrate the freedom God has given them.  But the celebration is short-lived.  The wilderness was a difficult place, and the people actually started wishing they were back in Egypt, under their old masters, where at least they could count on food to eat.  But in their hunger God sends clear water from the rock and manna from heaven to eat.

Finally the Israelites reached Mt. Sinai.  The people consecrated themselves to the Lord; Moses went up on the mountain, wrapped in smoke, and God gave him the Ten Commandments.  The most important commandments prohibited the worship of other gods and the making of idols of any kind.  The people agreed to live by these commands three different times.

And then, Moses goes up on the mountain again, where God will give him the commandments on tablets of stone.  Moses takes Joshua, his assistant, with him.  Aaron, Moses’ brother, is left in charge.  And it takes a while.  There are laws and rules and regulations, and there are detailed plans for building the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant.  It seems like it takes forever.  

The people become restless.  Moses tells everyone that he is going up on the mountain to take care of some legal stuff with God and he will be back.  Don’t wait up.  But after 40 days and 40 nights, they start to wonder if Moses is ever coming back.

The people decide to take matters into their own hands.  They go to Aaron and say, “We don’t know what has become of Moses.  Make gods for us to go before us on our journey.”   It is more of a demand than it is a polite request.  

This sounds shocking because they had just promised three times to follow God’s commandments, and now they were asking Aaron to help them in breaking the first two – to worship another god and to make an idol.

Aaron is in a tough spot.  He wants to calm the crowd, to placate the people.  So Aaron goes along with their demands.  He asks them to take off their gold rings and bring them to him.  

The question that may come to mind for you is, "Where did these people who had been slaves in Egypt get a bunch of gold rings?"  Doesn’t that sound suspicious?

The answer is that the plagues in Egypt had been so bad that the Egyptians had given rings to the Israelites as an incentive to leave quickly.  God had told the Israelites to ask the Egyptians for gold, and when they did, the Egyptians gave them golden articles, kind of as a payoff to get the Israelites out of Egypt ASAP.

Even as the people were turning in their gold rings to make an object of worship, God was giving Moses instructions on the mountain that he was to take an offering from the people, and gold received was to be used for building the tabernacle.  Rather than a building for God, the rings were being used to break God’s law.

Aaron melts down the gold and casts an image of a calf.  “These are your gods, O Israel,” he says.  The word Elohim, a word for God, is a word that can be plural or singular, so it’s not exactly clear if Aaron is saying this is your god, or these are your gods.  And there is only one calf, so “gods” sounds a little odd.  But Aaron adds, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord.”

While Aaron had given in to the people’s demand for an object of worship, he was steering them back toward the Lord.  They had made a golden calf, but the festival would be to Yahweh, the God of Israel.  

So what we have here may not be so much an image of a false god, but a false image of the true god.  Although in the end I’m not sure if there is much of a difference.

At any rate, the next day there is a festival.  The people bring sacrifices, they have your basic Sunday morning service, but then everything comes apart and it descends into revelry, which basically means immoral behavior.

God sees all of this and God is not happy.  He tells Moses to go down the mountain at once, saying “Your people are acting perversely.”  Before, it had always been my people, but now God says to Moses, they are your people.  They are your problem.  And indeed, God proposes to wipe them out and to give Moses the promise he first gave to Abraham.  He says, “Leave me alone so that my wrath might consume them, but of you I will make a great nation.”

Moses might have been tempted to take God up on the offer.  He wasn’t so happy with the people either.  But he nevertheless intercedes on behalf of the people.  He tells God, “These are your people that you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”  He says, “You don’t want the Egyptians saying that you brought the Israelites out of Egypt just so you could wipe them out in the wilderness.”  And finally, he reminds God of the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In the end, Moses talks God out of it and God decides against the disaster he had planned to bring on his people.  

Now, you can say what you want about God planning to wipe out the people - and you can say what you want about Moses talking God into changing his mind.  It really is an amazing exchange.  But there is no question that this is not a neutral, impartial, detached god.  This is a very passionate and involved God.

So Moses goes back down the mountain, he sees all that is going on, he is furious with the people and smashes the tablets of the law in a scene that helped make Charlton Heston famous.  (For you students, that’s an old movie actor).

There are a number of ideas and questions we might explore here.  First, I want to think about the role of Aaron.  He wants to indulge the people’s request – or demand, perhaps – and at the same time he wants to be faithful to Yahweh.  So he makes the golden calf, breaking the first two commandments, but at the same time says that this will be a festival to the Lord, to Yahweh.  The God of Israel.

Well, you really can’t have it both ways.  That was kind of the point of the first two commandments.  If you are a true worshiper, you need to be all in.  Aaron opts for a half-calf faith, if you will, but was required was 100% de-calf.

Some of you can attest to the difficulty of going completely de-calf, but I’m not just talking about coffee.  Because there are any number of things that can demand our allegiance, that we have a hard time letting go of.  There are any number of things that we can get confused with the real thing, with the true god.  

It is interesting that at least in Aaron’s eyes, the golden calf was not so much a false god but a false representation of the true god.  And in that regard, the golden calf wasn’t the only false representation of God.

What about Moses and the way people looked to him?  For the Israelites, Moses apparently functioned somewhat like the golden calf.  Without Moses, they were lost.  They confused Moses with God.  Now to be fair, there were times when Moses spoke and God answered in thunder, so of course there was an awe about him.   But if the calf was a false material image of the true God, then for some Moses functioned as a false human image of God.

It is possible for us today to put our faith and hope in things and people and institutions and movements and ideologies – even good things, even wonderful people - that should be reserved only for God.  

The other things that struck me as I read this familiar story once again was this whole matter of waiting.  Moses is gone up on the mountain and it just takes forever.  It is hard to wait.

The thing is, these were a traumatized people.  They had lived as slaves for generations, and now they had made an epic flight to freedom.  But even free from pharaoh, the future is unclear.  The people looked to Moses for leadership, for stability and comfort and a word from God.  But Moses is nowhere to be found, and the people start to worry.  They start to wonder.  After a while they get a little panicky.

We know a bit about waiting.  Do you remember back in March – when it seemed like life might be on hold for a few weeks – when we might not get to normal for a couple of months, until sometime after Easter?  Do you remember that?

Nothing is the same and we are all waiting.  And it gets hard.  In our devotion on Thursday night, we looked at the verse in Galatians that says “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.”  Well, that is hard.  This is a very wearying time.  For most of us, this has got to be the most wearying year we can remember.  There is a reason that mental health professionals are keeping extra busy right now.  And so I am a little more sympathetic with those Israelites who did not handle that time very well.  

The people got one another worked up and demanded gods to go before them.  They were anxious.   They were worried.  But what if they had instead encouraged one another and supported one another and helped one another through a vulnerable time?

And then what about us?  We have that same choice and that same opportunity, through this vulnerable time.  We can care and encourage and support one another and trust in the God who will not let us go, even in those wearying times.

“Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we shall reap at harvest time.”  Thanks be to God.    Amen.

“God Meant It For Good” - September 27, 2020

Text: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34, 50:15-21


It is pretty amazing that we gather together each week and consider words written by people who lived 2-3000 years ago.  It was a completely different world.  Housing, transportation, health care, retirement, basic ideas about the nature of the world were very different.  Yet we turn to these writings week after week, seeking truth and meaning and seeking God.

And the amazing thing is, as different as these people may have been, we read stories of real people, real communities that know both struggles and joys, and we can see ourselves in these stories.  We know that at some level, these are also our stories, and God speaks to us in the midst of this.

Last week we looked at the story of Abraham and Sarah, and God’s faithfulness to them.  God told Abram to count the stars, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – and God’s promise proved to be true.

Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac.  Isaac is not a part of our reading today, but what happens in the story can certainly be traced back to Isaac and his wife Rebecca.  You may recall that they had twin sons named Jacob and Esau.  The two sons had an intense sibling rivalry that was only encouraged by their parents.  Jacob was his mother’s favorite while Esau was his father’s favorite.  His mother helped Jacob to cheat his brother out of both the blessing and the birthright that belonged to Esau as the firstborn.  Jacob eventually fled out of fear of what Esau might do.  He worked for his Uncle Laban, back in the old country, and eventually married his cousin Rachel – except that at the wedding, Laban pulled the old switcheroo and it turned out that the woman under the veil, the woman whom he had married, was not Rachel but her sister Leah.  He worked for Laban another seven years for the right to marry Rachel.

By now, Jacob is back home, he has more or less made amends with Esau, and he has many children.  But his entire family history is one of dysfunction.  Jacob is now known as Israel, which means “Striving with God.”  He has grown and learned along the way, but he still hasn’t learned that much.  The very first verse we read this morning says, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his children.”  Instantly, this is a red flag.   We know that this is a really bad idea.

We are told that Joseph was the son of his old age.  What the narrator does not tell us is that Joseph was the first child born to Rachel – the sister he had wanted to marry in the first place and his favored wife.  (That’s another bad idea, but that is probably another sermon.)

It is not just that Jacob has a favorite child; he is so obvious about it.  He has a coat made for Joseph with long sleeves.  That is the Hebrew text.  For some reason, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, has this as a coat of many colors.  Now you tell me: what sounds more appealing – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Joseph and the Long-Sleeved Robe?  

You may think that what a person wears really doesn’t make any difference, and ideally that may be true, but clothing can definitely convey status.  I remember as a kid having some Sears Jeepers tennis shoes, and they just did not stack up next to Converse All-Stars.
Now think about this: an awful lot of people in the ancient world owned only one coat, or robe, or tunic.  If you wanted a new one, you couldn’t just run to Target or order one from Amazon.  Every piece of fabric had to be woven by hand, and that might take months.  Clothing was very much a symbol of status, of importance, of wealth.

Whether it was a special long-sleeved robe or whether it was an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – or maybe an Amazing Long-Sleeved Technicolor Dreamcoat – Jacob had given Joseph a robe that not only conveyed status, that not only made people take notice of how special Joseph must be, but that also rubbed it in to Joseph’s siblings every time they saw it.  Jacob did not even pretend to love his children equally.  And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there will be repercussions.

Joseph, for his part, is not embarrassed by the special attention; he seems to love it.  He has dreams of his own greatness and is only too happy to share these dreams with his brothers.  This does not help family dynamics in this family that kind of had two strikes to start with.

One day Joseph’s brothers are out in the fields with the flocks, and Jacob sends Joseph out to them.  Joseph’s brothers can see him coming from a distance.  As he approaches, the brothers vent their anger and hostility toward him.

They are so consumed with envy, with jealousy, with hatred that they would kill their own brother – even their younger brother they were supposed to take care of.  But Reuben, the oldest, doesn’t want to do him harm.  “Let’s not shed his blood – let’s just throw him in the pit and leave him here,” he says.  He planned to come back and help him out later.  The others listen to Reuben and throw Joseph in a pit.

Reuben wanders off apparently, and when some Midianite traders happen to pass by, Judah says that it would be better to sell him into slavery than to leave Joseph to die.  So that is what happens.  Reuben returns and is distraught by this turn of events.  The brothers take Joseph’s robe, dip it in goat blood, and take it back to their father.   

Jacob surmises for himself that a wild animal got Joseph.  But it is interesting that his sons give Jacob back this gift he had given Joseph – with blood on it.  They are not just getting back at Joseph, they are also getting back at their father.

This is a seriously messed-up family.  I guess one of the things that happens when you read stories like this in the Bible is that you can look at your own family and think, “Well, maybe we’re not that bad.  Our family isn’t perfect, but I guess it could be worse.”

It is a wild story.  The coat may or may not be technicolor but the characters and the story certainly are.  From Abraham and Sarah down through the generations – to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob and Leah and Rachel, to Joseph and his brothers – the promise has been that God will use these people as a blessing to others.  A blessing to others.  Right now, they are not even a blessing to each other, much less to the nations.  How will this ever happen?

The second part of our reading comes much later.  Joseph winds up in prison in Egypt but rises almost miraculously, largely on his ability to interpret dreams, to become second in command in all the nation.  In a time of impeding famine, he is in charge of all the grain stores in the nation.  And when his brothers come, desperate to buy grain, they meet up again with their long-lost brother Joseph.  There is a reconciliation of sorts, but the brothers are still scared to death.  And when Jacob dies, they figure that Joseph was just waiting until the old man was gone to get his revenge.

The younger Joseph wouldn’t have thought twice about it.   But now he is older and wiser.  He has experienced hardship and he has grown from it.  And time has given him perspective.  He tells his brothers, “You meant this for harm, but God meant it for good.”

Joseph can see in retrospect that what had happened actually served to save his family.  In a time of severe famine, somehow, improbably, impossibly, Joseph is in charge of all the grain in the one place in the whole region that has any grain.  In the end, good came of what was meant for evil.

This is not to say that God orchestrated the whole thing.  This is not to say that God led his brothers to plot to kill Joseph.  This is to say that God has a way of working out God’s purposes even in the midst of treachery and human sin.  God is faithful even if we are not.

Now, if you look at this story and want to find a few practical applications, it’s not that hard.  Here are a few:

#1 – Don’t play favorites.  Generally, as a parent or an employer or an educator, it is a bad idea.  Now, I have to admit that I do have a favorite child.  As much as I love Harry and Rudy, Zoe is my clear favorite.  Of course, Harry and Rudy are a cat and a dog.  If you want to have a favorite child, just have one child.

#2 – Don’t be a jerk.  You may be thinking, I came to church just to be told “Don’t be a jerk?”  Well, sometimes we need to be reminded of the simple things.  Joseph was handicapped in this regard, because his father, Jacob, is maybe the biggest jerk in the Bible.  As a teenager, Joseph only thinks of himself, he rubs his favorite status in the face of others, and the result is probably not what he would have wanted.  I hate to be so obvious, but one of the takeaways is, don’t be a jerk.
#3 – Think things through before you do something stupid.  Again, it’s pretty simple.  Reuben was distraught over what the others had done to Joseph.  As the years went on, everybody regretted their actions.  A little foresight on the front end would have gone a long way.

I have a friend named Ken who has several nephews and other family members, all young adults, who live in a particular area where guns are plentiful, and almost all of their friends and social group are carrying.  They are young, they are a little on the wild side, they tend to drink too much at times, and they tend to get in arguments.  Now, conflicts are a part of life and disagreements are going to happen.  But when you compound that with alcohol and when everybody has a gun, bad things happen.  Nearly all of Ken’s male young adult family members in that area are in jail, they have been shot, or they are dead.  It’s tragic.

We can make poor, impulsive choices as individuals and we can also make poor, impulsive decisions as a society.  A little thoughtfulness, a little foresight, might serve us well.

#4 – Remember who you are.  God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and a blessing to the nations.  It was a covenant passed on generation by generation.  Israel’s children were heirs to that promise, a promise they no doubt had been hearing all of their lives.  

But to observe their behavior, you wouldn’t know that.  To see the pettiness and arrogance, the envy and jealousy, to see the treachery and bitterness and violence in their hearts, you wouldn’t know that.

We need to remember who we are.  We are children of God.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world.  When times are difficult, when we feel down, when we feel alone, when we are discouraged or troubled, we need to remember who we are.

And then, #5.  This is where the story ends.  Even if we mess up, even if we fail on numbers 1-4, even when we play favorites, behave like jerks, act without thinking and forget who we are, God is there.  God loves us.  Even in our world of dysfunction and violence and sin and evil and just plain meanness, God does not forget us and does not abandon us.  God forgives and God gives us, like Joseph, the strength and ability to forgive.

God is always faithful.  Even in a world in which so much is meant for harm, God is always working for good.  And our calling is to join God in that work.  Amen.

“Count the Stars” - September 20, 2020

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

For the last 26 weeks – exactly half a year – we have not had any in-person gatherings.  No worship, no committee meetings, no Bible Studies or Sunday School classes – although we did have an official work day in August.  For the first time in 6 months, we are gathering in person, at least some of us are.  Preaching primarily to a camera over these past months has been a weird experience, although it feels pretty normal, pretty routine now.  But this – speaking not only to those who are at home, gathering on Zoom, but to those who are here, in person – this is weird.   Different and really good.

One of the difficult things about this pandemic is the uncertainty of it all.  How long will this last?  When will things be sort of normal?  How much different will normal be?   Or, is normal an outdated idea?  How is this going to affect us all in the long run?  Is this going to change the way we do church?  There are just an awful lot of things we do not know.

We all live with uncertainty.  It is the unknowing, the living without good answers, that can get to us.  It certainly got to Abram and Sarai.

Last Sunday we looked at creation and the fall, in Genesis chapters 2 and 3.  In Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai enter the picture.  God says to Abram, you don’t really know me, but I want you to leave your country and your kindred and go to a land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation.

And Abram and Sarai go.  They go to a place they do not know.  They are unsure where they are heading.  And they don’t really have a history with this God who is leading them.  It is a leap of faith.  They arrive in the place God has for them, but it’s not easy.  There are triumphs along with serious setbacks.  In a time of famine they have to go to Egypt.  Abram’s nephew Lot made the journey with them, but there are squabbles with Lot and disputes over grazing land.  Because of these disputes Lot and Abram they decide to separate, with Lot settling to the east and Abram to the west.

And then God says to Abram, look out in the distance, north and south and east and west.  All of this I will give to your descendants forever.  They will be like grains of sand they shall be so numerous.

But here’s the thing: Abram and Sarai had no children.  Before they even left Ur of the Chaldees, it was notable that they did not have a child.  They had been in this land that God had shown them, living among the Canaanites now, for some years.  Still no child.  But God repeats this promise that they would be parents of a great nation, parents of a multitude.

It is one struggle, one mishap after another.  Lot gets caught up in the middle of a war between adversarial kings and is taken prisoner, and Abram has to go into battle with his household and his allies in order to free his nephew.

And in our scripture this morning, God speaks yet again.  God says, “Do not be afraid.  I am your shield.  Your reward shall be very great.”

It is a little unusual.  Abram was not afraid of enemies.  He had just overcome enemies in battle and rescued Lot.  But God says, “I will be your shield.  You reward shall be very great.”

Abram was not interested in the shield part nearly as much as the reward part.  He says, “God, can you be a little more specific?  This reward part – I’d like to talk about that.”

God said, “Do not be afraid,” and it is clear that Abram was feeling anxiety.  But it was not about safety and security so much.  Abram is thinking, “I don’t really need a shield, what I need is a family.  I need descendants.  At this point, a guy that works for me, a servant, Eliezer of Damascus – he is as close as I have to an heir.”

Now you may notice that descendants are a huge deal in the Old Testament.  You can find page after page of genealogies.  Why was this so important?

We need to understand that people did not talk about eternity then.  They way that you were part of eternity was through your descendants.  Your children were the way that you lived on.  And so descendants were crucial.  Abram was becoming rich with flocks and fields and gold, but that did not matter.  To be truly rich one needed children.  Descendants in a sense made the other blessings of life durable and lasting.

God replied to Abram, “Eliezer of Damascus will not be your heir.  Your very own child, your own flesh shall be your heir.  Count the stars if you can.  So shall your descendants be.”

In the face of continuing anxiety and uncertainty, God says to Abram, “Count the Stars.”  The stars were a kind of symbol of God’s promise.  (And I have to say, I the stars of the sky are a more appealing metaphor than grains of sand.)

You know, we have those clear nights when you can see the stars, but there is too much light for us to really see the stars very well.  If you go way out to a place far from activity, far from homes and traffic and far from towns and cities, you can really see the stars.  Go camping in the Badlands and look up at night and it is completely different than looking into the sky in Ames.

But a few weeks back, after the Derecho had hit, we went outside one night.  We didn’t have any power.  Nobody around did.  No house lights.  No street lights.  There was no traffic.  It was still.  We went outside and looked up and we could see the stars so clearly.  We pointed out the Big Dipper and we looked at this amazing sky just full of stars.

I think about Abram and Sarai.  Of how they had said yes to God and traveled in faith to an unknown destination, an unknown future.  At this point, we are all in that boat.

Some by choice – I think of new students who have come to Ames, to this new place, filled with so many unknowns.  But even if you have lived here for a long time, we are now in this new place, this new situation, and not very much is certain.  It’s not just college students who have moved to Ames for their first semester.  It’s all students.  High school and middle school and elementary students who are trying to navigate online school.  And some who will go to school in person tomorrow for the first time – or later in the week for the first time, depending on what group you are in in the hybrid learning model.

Think about parents.  And teachers.  Nobody signed up for this pandemic, and life right now is filled with stress and nothing is certain.

Most of us do not handle uncertainty very well.  Many of us do all we can to minimize, if not eliminate, the unforeseen.  I admit that I want to know what is going on and I want a certain amount of control.

When we go on a trip, I have it mapped out in advance.  Even with GPS, I usually consult the map.  If we have to make a purchase, whether it is a vacuum cleaner or toaster oven, I consult Consumer Reports.  If we are buying a car, I read reviews for weeks.

There are students who don’t like to sign up for a class unless they have a scouting report on the professor and expect to get a decent grade.

But for all our trying to control things, life just cannot be controlled.  For all our efforts to minimize risks and figure out the future and manage what is coming down the road, we can’t do it.  The unexpected always comes into play.

Abram and Sarai had faced uncertainty.  And they will continue to face uncertainty.  And in uncertain times, we are faced with this question of trust.  To move forward in a time of uncertainty requires trust.  Did they trust, could they trust the God who had led them thus far?

“‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

This is a well-known verse that is cited in several places in the New Testament.  “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  

We live in a time of anxiety, but then, what time has not been a time of anxiety?  We have to deal with the gulf between the future that we hope for and the unfulfilled reality of the moment.  All of that is magnified, perhaps, in this time of pandemic.  But from the time of Abram and Sarai on to today, there has always been this disconnect between the world as it is and the world that we hope for.  We want things to be right and hope and pray and maybe believe they will be, but it’s not yet.

In such a time, Abram believed God’s promise.  He trusted God.  And God reckoned it, or counted it as righteousness.  The good news is that when we cannot have complete trust, when our faith is yet imperfect, God takes the trust that we can muster and counts it as righteousness.  Righteousness it not so much about what we do; it is more about what God does within our relationship with God to make things right.

God’s promise is that even though we cannot necessarily see how we will get from here to there, God will see us through.

God says to us, “Count the stars.”  Count the stars and know that we can trust in the love and grace and goodness of God.  Amen.

"Adam, Eve, You and Me" - September 13, 2020

Text: Genesis 2:4b-8, 15-17, 3:1-8

Today, as we kick off the fall, we are also starting a new year with the Narrative Lectionary – a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that follows the narrative – the storyline - of the Bible.  We will start in Genesis and look at key Old Testament stories through the fall up until Advent.  After Christmas, we will read continuously through one gospel up until Easter - this year it’s the gospel of Luke.  After Easter we will look at stories of the early church through Pentecost.  And then it’s anybody’s guess what happens after that.  I mean, things have not exactly been going according to plan over these past months, anyway.  But generally, that is where we are heading.

Our scripture today is as good a place as any to begin this trek through the Biblical story.  It is one of those formative, key stories in the Bible.  It gets some big ideas, big concepts, big issues right out there from the very first pages of scripture.  Creation, humanity, community, sin, grace – it’s all there.  

Genesis chapter 1 is the more familiar story of creation.  God creates the world in seven days, beginning with the heavens and the earth.  Each day God creates a portion of creation and then pronounces what has been created as good.  Finally, God creates human beings, male and female, in God’s image, and God says that it is very good.

In chapter 2, we have another telling of the creation story, a much more earthy version (pun intended).  God creates the human being from the dust of the ground and breathes life into the human.  It is a play on words in Hebrew – God made adam (human) from the adamah (the fertile soil).  As close as we could get in English is to say that God made a human from the humus.  

The human is placed in the garden to till and keep it.  The English translation understates the relationship of the human to the garden.  Rather than just “till,” the meaning is closer to “serve.”  And to “keep” the garden really has a connotation of watching over, protecting.  The Psalm says “the Lord will watch over your going out and coming in from this day on and forevermore.”  The same word is used here.

There is a deep connection to the land that we find in this story.  I was talking to someone recently who had moved here from California and she commented on how there is a connection to the land, almost a reverence for the land that is felt here that she had not noticed so much in other places.  That may be true.  Many of you grew up on farms or are involved in farming and agriculture.  Many of you take great joy in gardening and flowers and landscaping and caring for the land.  From the very beginning, there has been this human connection to the land and a call to care for it, to serve the land and protect the land.  We are tied to the land and according to this scripture, we were formed from the land.  Which, if you think about in a purely biological systems way, is actually true.  The elements in our bodies were formed in the stars and come from the soil of the earth.  We are not just formed from dust, we are formed from stardust, literally.  It’s amazing.  
So the human is created from soil and breath.  God breathes life into the human, and there is a vocation – a calling – to serve and watch over the garden.  There is also a limitation.  The human can eat of every tree in the garden.  Imagine acres and acres of fruit trees and fruit-bearing plants.  Apples and oranges and peaches and pears.  Mangos and bananas and coconuts.  Apricots, plums, cherries, pecans, walnuts, almonds, avocados.  Throw in all of the vegetables and berries and grains.  We are talking about an incredible gift.  God said, you may freely eat of any tree in the garden.

But there was also limitation.  The human was not to eat from one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  

In the ensuing verses, the woman is created from adam.  Adam really does not carry a gendered meaning – it just means human.  God takes the rib and forms the woman, who is called Eve, which means “life,” and adam at this point become the proper name for the man, Adam.  

So you have a man and a woman who are living in this beautiful garden.  They are to care for the garden and to keep and protect the garden, and they may eat from a regular smorgasbord of offerings, save for one thing.  

If you are told there is just one thing you cannot do, one thing that is off limits, what do you tend to focus on?  If a child is taken to a toy store and told that they can choose any toy in the whole place except for that shiny bicycle over there, what is the one thing they are going to want?

Our instinct is to strive to attain that which we don’t yet have.  And if there is anything we don’t like, it is somebody placing limits on us.  In the pandemic, that is half of what the mask debate is about, right?

The man and woman seemed to do wonderfully in this beautiful garden – for a while.  But then one day, the woman is approached by the serpent.  The serpent asks, “Did God say you can’t eat from any tree in the garden?”  The woman replied that she and the man could eat from any tree except for the one in the middle of the garden – they weren’t to even touch it or they would die.  God had not actually said that, but apparently, just to be on the safe side, the man and woman had added the part about even touching the tree.  

The serpent said, “Of course you won’t die – God knows that your eyes will be open and you will know good and evil.  You will be like God.

Interestingly, the woman saw that it was good.  She apparently already knew good.  The woman and the man saw that it was good, it looked delicious, it would make them wise, and so they ate.  And when they ate, their eyes were open and they knew they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths.

Then, they heard God walking in the garden, around the time of the evening breeze.  And because of the guilt and shame they felt, they hid.

What the woman and the man came to know after eating the fruit was vulnerability.   They hid from God just as they were in a sense hiding from one another.  When they are found out, they turn to blaming.   The man blamed the woman – she gave me the fruit.  The woman blamed the serpent – he tricked me.  

Now, people have done all kinds of things with this text.  There are those who have argued that women cannot be ordained ministers because Eve was the first to take a bite of the apple.  If you read this story and that is the meaning you get from it, I would seriously worry about you.  

There are those theologians who have used this passage to argue for a doctrine of Original Sin – that sin entered the human race by the action of the man and woman in the garden, and since then there has been almost a herditary passing on of sin.  The man and woman’s action in the garden is called The Fall.  Before the fall, humanity was capable of living sin-free, but no longer.  There was a little ditty popularized by the Puritans that said, “In Adam’s fall, we sin all.”  Don’t you love that?

I think that is also perhaps a little too much reading into the story – a little too ambitious.  Again, I don’t think this is the main point to be gained from this story.

To me, this is a kind of universal story about all of us, about the choices that we make, about the nature of temptation, about our striving for more, about the nature of shame.

The NFL season has started and so maybe it is time for an annual quote from the great coach Vince Lombardi.  He famously said, in a comment that is etched in the American psyche, “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”  The comment spun out of control, like a viral tweet, and Lombardi came to regret it.  “I wish I’d never said the damn thing,” he said shortly before his death.  “I meant the effort… I meant having a goal… I surely didn’t mean to crush human values.”

But that attitude, that drive to succeed and to get what you want at all costs is deeply rooted in our culture.  It is also the kind of thing that our scripture warns about.  Crossing the boundaries of what is good and helpful and healthy both for ourselves and for others can come with a price.  Breaking faith with God, breaking faith with others comes with a cost.   

The man and woman wanted to be like God.  They were not the only ones.  Adam and Eve went on to have three children, three boys.  Abel was blessed, seemed to do everything well, managed to get everything he wanted.  Abel never seemed to make a mistake, except one.  One day, he went for a walk with his brother.

Cain had a much more difficult time of it.  He wanted everything that Abel had.  He resented his brother and came to the point where he thought if he could just get rid of Abel, his problems would be solved.  And so he did - but life did not get better.  He spent the rest of his life wandering the earth, carrying a load of guilt for murdering his brother.  

The treachery and murder in their family compounded the guilt and shame Adam and Eve felt.  And they saw the continuing cycle of blaming and wanting more.  They could see it in their third son, Seth, and his children.  And their children and their children.  Generation after generation, always striving, always wanting more.  And when they got more, they would still want more.  They would steal and cheat and lie and fight wars, nation against nation.

And if it that didn’t work out, they could always find someone to blame.  The government.  The school.  The administrators and bureaucrats.  They could blame the church. Blame the TV set.  Blame their families, their neighbors, their bosses.  Blame their enemies.

This episode is not just Adam and Eve’s story; it is also our story.  It is about choices that we all make.

The comedian Ron White put it this way: “They told me I had the right to remain silent… I may have had the right, but I didn’t have the ability.”  Knowledge alone is not enough.  Falling short is part of the human story.  

In the end, the man and the woman did not die, not on that day.  But there was a death, in a sense.  Innocence died, trust died, and the closeness they had felt to God and to one another would never completely be recovered.  

At the root of it all, this is a story about relationships – between humans and the land, relationships between individuals, between men and women, between us and God.  In all of those relationships, there can be brokenness.  We know this; we have experienced all of this.  But in this formative story, we also see God’s grace.

Grace in the fact that even as there were consequences for their actions – the man and woman left behind the garden and had to travel east of Eden - God was with them, caring for them, providing for them.  Grace in that while the knowledge we gain does not necessarily lead to wisdom, it does increase our ability to do good, our ability to bring about justice and righteousness and healing.

And grace in the fact that just as the man and woman had choices, so do we.  We have freedom.  We have the ability to live in God’s grace, to take up the vocation of serving and keeping God’s people and God’s world – or not.  And when we have fallen short, we have the ability to start again, to mend broken relationships, to return to God.  And as we will find as we continue this journey through scriptures, God never gives up on us.  Amen.

“We’re All Essential” - September 6, 2020

Text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-20


I got a haircut this past week.  It was the second time I had gone to the barber shop since the pandemic started.  I thought about just letting it go and trying to recreate the hairstyle I had as an 18 or 19 year old college student, but I just can’t pull it off anymore.  And at some point it starts to get on my nerves, so I get a haircut.

Well, my barber is on Welch Avenue.  I headed over a couple of blocks, I went in and sat down in the chair and I said, “Mark, you are working in a war zone!”  It was true in more than one way.  Welch Avenue is completely torn up, as they are putting a new sewer line in.  There is a chain link fence along the sidewalk on either side of the street, and the rest of it is a chaos with bulldozers and dust and assorted construction debris.  It’s a mess.

Of course, you can’t park nearby, and even when they finish the project, they are adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks for pedestrians but getting rid of street parking.  So his barber shop is not easily accessible and it’s not going to get that much better.  Another barber had a chair in his shop for years, but she left close to two years ago when the city announced it would eliminate street parking on Welch.  It’s not an easy time for my barber.

But that is not the only difficulty he’s facing.  Right now, it is not even the main difficulty he is facing.  There is a pandemic going on.  For a couple of days last week, Ames led the nation in new COVID-19 cases per capita.  And here is Mark on Welch Avenue, maybe the epicenter of the epicenter.  He’s wearing a mask, customers wear masks, but it is pretty hard to socially distance when you are cutting somebody’s hair.  And he’s in the vulnerable age group.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, established as a federal holiday to honor workers and commemorate their contributions and struggles to bring justice and dignity to the workplace and to society.  And this year we may be thinking about Labor a little differently.  We may be thinking about work a little differently.  There is this phrase that has become a regular part of the vocabulary: essential workers.

In a way, it is a problematic phrase because it implies that the rest of us are not so essential.  But I appreciate that this has shone the spotlight on a number of folks whose labors may go unappreciated, or underappreciated.

Think of all the people without whom we would not have food on our tables, or houses to live in, or clothes to wear.  Think of all the people who make it possible for us to have electricity to light and cool our homes, automobiles to drive, computers to connect to the world.  Think of child care workers who make it possible for so many of us to work.  
Think of those workers without whom garbage would pile up on the street.  And not just garbage; think of those folks who haul off the piles of tree limbs after a derecho.  It’s essential work.  Think of those who stock the shelves at grocery stores, or help us figure out what kind of gadget we need at the hardware store.  With many people trying not to venture out, think of the army of folks who deliver groceries and restaurant orders, and of course pizzas.

What about factory workers who manufacture and assemble the things we need, including just now masks and gloves and hand sanitizer?  And think of all those in shipping and receiving and transporting the goods and food we depend on.

And for goodness sakes, don’t forget the barbers.

We could go on and on.  And maybe that is the point here: our work is important.  All kinds of work are important.  All work that helps and builds up and supports and contributes to a good and just and healthy society can be God’s work.

In this strange and uncertain time we are living in, we have perhaps been made more aware of that.  I am so grateful for teachers and all who have a part in education.  I am so grateful for doctors and nurses and healthcare workers who put their lives on the line in the midst of a pandemic.  I am so grateful for scientists and researchers who look to solve problems and improve the way we live and find cures to disease.  I am grateful for public servants who truly serve their communities and for first responders who are there in times of need.   God bless them all.

Many of us spend a big portion of our waking hours either working or getting ready to work or thinking about work or maybe complaining about our work, so this is worth considering in light of our faith.

The fact is, a lot of people are nervous about their jobs, particularly in this time we are living through.  Folks are concerned about holding onto their jobs if they have one or finding a job if they don’t.  

My dad worked for the same company his entire adult life.  That is increasingly rare.  He worked for Whirlpool, making refrigerators.  At one time, Whirlpool employed 10,000 people in Evansville, Indiana.  Now when we go to visit my parents, we drive by the massive Whirlpool plant that has been mostly shuttered: all of the jobs have been eliminated or moved elsewhere, many out of the country.  A small manufacturer is now in the building but probably uses about a tenth of the space, if that.   

The workplace is changing; a longterm study by the Bureau of Labor Statictics found that on average, held 11.7 different jobs between age 18 and 48.  That number is actually declining slightly, but it is much higher than it was for my dad’s generation.  Another phenomenon of the contemporary workplace is that the gulf between those who earn the most and those who earn the least continues to widen.  One study showed that in 2018, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies made on average 278 times more than the typical worker.  In 1989, it was 58 to 1.  In 1965, it was 20 to 1.  

And all those essential workers?  Many of them are making minimum wage, which is not enough to live on, not enough to afford even a very basic place to live.  I don’t begrudge superstars and celebrities and business tycoons who make millions of dollars, at least I try not to, but it seems that there are folks who do not get the respect and appreciation they deserve.

The scriptures actually speak to this.  Jere read for us this morning from 1 Corinthians chapter 12.  Paul is speaking of the church, using the image of the body.  All parts are important.  You might say that all members of the body are essential.  All play a valuable and necessary role.  The brain and the heart and the lungs might think they are the parts that really matter, but if your kidney is on the fritz, you are in trouble, and if your little toe is in terrible pain, it affects the whole body.  In verse 26, Paul goes on to say, “If one member suffers, we all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, we all rejoice together with it.”

While this metaphor of the body is true in the Church, I think this also holds true for life in general.  

On the Labor Day weekend, we might do well to think of those whose labor gets overlooked.  And we might also think about those in the church whose efforts can go unnoticed.  Without these “unsung heroes” of all ages, candles would not be lit and choir anthems would not be heard in worship services.  Or worship would go unbroadcast.  

We begin Church School classes next Sunday and we are thankful for those who teach and who make classes possible.  We give thanks for those who work with children and youth and those who greet worshipers, even Zoom worshipers.  Think of those who keep the building and grounds maintained and who prepare the church dinners.  And think of those who are encouragers and supporters and comforters and pray-ers and helpers and so many who give generously to support all that we do.

Labor Day is a good time to be reminded of all those in our church - in our churches - who often go unnoticed.  And then, what about our families?  Is it possible that there are family members whose labors go unnoticed?  Who shops for groceries?  Prepares the meals?  Cleans the house?  Does the laundry?  Mows the lawn?  Manages the finances?  Takes out the garbage?  Helps the kids with their homework?  Runs a chauffer service for soccer and dance and piano lessons and school activities?  Who helps to lift everyone’s spirits?  Who is a positive and comforting presence?

Labor Day reminds us that there are a lot of people who play important roles in our community, in our church, and in our lives and whose labors may be taken for granted.  Yet they are essential.

All work is important. And for us as followers of Jesus, how we go about our work is important too.  Ephesians 4:28 says that we are to “labor and work honestly so that we may share with the needy.”

What does it mean to work honestly?  There are people who spend half of their day playing computer games or checking social media, forcing everyone else to work harder.  Part of our calling as Christians in the workplace is to give an honest day’s work.  

And part of being a Christian at work means doing quality work.  Our faith calls us to do more than just a shoddy, halfway job.  If I’m having my car repaired, I’ll take a dependable atheist who does quality work over a garage with Christian fish symbols on their sign but incompetent mechanics.  Following Jesus should make a difference in the kind of work we do.  And when we are not working honestly, as the scripture says, we are hurting the whole body.

Now, not all of us are employed in a paying job.  Some are retired or on disability, some work in the home, some are students.  Some may be looking for work.  Think of your occupation as the daily activity in which you spend the most time and energy.  Whatever that is, it is a place in which people of faith are needed.  We need caring, compassionate people in the laboratory and the grocery store and the doctor’s office.  We need caring and compassionate parents.  We need people of faith in the neighborhood and out in the community and at Northcrest.

This Labor Day, let us remember those who struggle with matters of meaningful employment.  Let us honor all people for all useful work and especially remember those who may be overlooked or unappreciated.  And above all, let us remember that our first calling, our highest vocation, is not to any particular job, but simply to be followers of Jesus.  Amen.

“More than Footnotes” - August 23, 2020

Text: Acts 17:16-34


Paul winds up in Athens kind of by accident.  Maybe you know what that is like.  I mean, it’s possible that some of you ended up in church this morning kind of by accident.  Well, here is how it happened for Paul: he essentially was run out of Thessalonica.  His preaching was upsetting to some at the local synagogue, and now a mob was looking for him and Silas.  Since they could not find them, they had the authorities arrest the man in whose home Paul and Silas were staying, a man named Jason, who had to post bail before being released.

Meanwhile some other believers told Paul and Silas they had best get out of town.  So they went to Berea, where people were more receptive and a number of people came to Christ.  But Paul’s detractors in Thessalonica got wind of it and came to Berea, stirring up trouble.  Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea, but for safety’s sake some friends brought Paul all the way to Athens, a long way from Berea and Thessalonica, where Paul was now waiting for Silas and Timothy to meet up with him.

So for Paul, Athens is just a stopping-off point, a layover on a hurried journey.  And after facing opposition and danger, Athens was a place where he might catch his breath.  He didn’t, as it turns out, but he could have.

While there, he noticed that this city was different.  People from all over the world were in Athens.  Thinking and reasoning and knowledge and philosophy were highly valued – it was a place committed to learning.  Not only did the Athenians have some diverse beliefs and spiritual sensibilities, those who had come from other places brought their beliefs with them.  It was a very pluralistic society interested in the marketplace of ideas.

All of which makes Athens about as close to a college town as we get in the Bible.  If you had to choose a Biblical city that was most similar to Ames, it might be Athens.  There are actually several college towns named Athens – Ohio University is in Athens and the University of Georgia is in Athens.  

Here in Ames, knowledge is valued, thinking and reasoning are important.  Here, we have folks from all over the world.  The university is a marketplace of ideas.  And like Athens, Ames is a place where many gods are worshipped.  

What are these gods?  We can sacrifice mightily for the gods of tenure and promotion, class rank and membership in prestigious social groups, fashionable clothing and sleek new vehicles, homes in desirable neighborhoods and careers that command big salaries.  Nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves, but such pursuit can consume our time and energy to where there is very little left for God.  Like Athens, there are plenty of gods worshiped here.

Living in a university community can be very stimulating and exciting, yet it can be challenging for one who would give witness to the gospel.   

Paul models how we might share our faith with integrity.  The gist of it is: he connects with the culture.  He doesn’t begin by castigating the crowds for all of the various gods he sees; he begins by complementing them, seeing the good around him.  “I see that you are very religious people,” he says.  He quotes one of the Greek philosophers, who said, “In God we live and move and have our being.”  Paul finds common ground, engages the culture, speaks their language, and then he shares what he believes.  He doesn’t put down the Athenians’ beliefs, but at the same time, he is unapologetic about what he believes.

This passage provides a model for how we might share our faith, how we might relate to the culture around us.  It would be worth exploring that further, but this morning, I want us to look at the last couple of verses: the results of Paul’s preaching.

Here in Athens, it’s not all that impressive.  We read earlier in the book of Acts about the church growing by leaps and bounds with new believers.  Three thousand were converted in one day after Pentecost.  Here, lots of people were interested in hearing Paul talk but many found it all kind of odd.  But a few did believe.   

We read, “Some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

Who were these people?  Why were Dionysius and Damaris mentioned, and not others?

You know, when we read scripture, we often come upon names like this.  It’s every worship leader’s worst nightmare: a long list of strange, hard-to-pronounce names.  What’s the deal with all these minor characters in the Bible that we seem to know little if anything about?  

In this case, we know just a little about them.  Dionysius is an “Areopagite,” the Areopagus being not only the place, also known as Mars Hill, but the Areopagus being the ruling council of Athens, a small, aristocratic group.  It is clear why Dinoysius is mentioned – he is a very prominent citizen.  It was noteworthy that of the few who believed, there was among them one of the most prominent people in town.  

And then, there is a woman named Damaris.  We know less of her.  One commentator conjectured that since women of status would not be in a public place such as the Areopagus at that time, that this had to be a woman of low social standing.  Another possibility is that this was a foreign woman, perhaps even a Jewish woman, who may well have been educated and of some means.

Some early manuscripts of Acts have her described as “the esteemed woman Damaris.”  We really can’t say a lot about her, but Luke wrote this account some time later, and the fact that she is mentioned at all means that she probably was “esteemed” and that she likely played an important role in the church at Athens.  She is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

Likewise, Dionysius was remembered, and according to tradition he was the first bishop of Athens.  He was martyred for his faith and like Damaris, Dionysius the Areopagite was recognized by the church as a saint.

What is really crucial here is that Paul is just passing through town.  He didn’t even plan to come here, kind of wound up in Athens by accident.  While here, he preaches the gospel.  While the response was less enthusiastic than in some places, the nucleus of a church in Athens begins to form, with Damaris, Dionysius, and others.  Paul doesn’t hang around--he is not there long.  If the church in Athens is going to make a go of it, it will be up to people like Damaris and Dionysius to make it work.

We see this over and over in the scriptures – folks who appear to be minor characters, names we know very little about – like Jason, back in Thessalonica.  Paul and Silas were run out of town, and it was people like Jason who carried on the work and built the church in that city.

There are so many names that appear to be just footnotes.  But there is a story, there is a living person behind every name.  And what we might consider to be “minor” characters are not so minor after all.

This is where we come into the story.  We may not be a Paul or a Peter or a Mary.  There aren’t too many of those around.  But we can be a Damaris or a Dionysius or a Jason.  And the fact is, the church cannot survive without such people, folks who make crucial contributions but may not get a lot of press.

Remembered or not, there is a story, there is a life, there is a flesh and blood person behind the names in scripture.  These people were faithful right where they were.  Without Jason, Paul and Silas may not have made it out of Thessalonica alive.  Without Damaris and Dionysius, the church isn’t planted in Athens.  It is through so many faithful people, people like you and me, that Christ’s work is done.

We are in the season of political conventions, so let me share a story from the world of politics.  Some of you will remember Richard Daly, the legendary mayor of Chicago.  Mayor Daly ran the well-oiled Chicago political machine and was known as a really tough guy to work for.

One story goes like this.  One of Mayor Daly’s speech writers felt he was sorely underpaid and demanded a raise.  Daly responded as could be expected.  He said, “I’m not going to give you a raise.  You are getting paid more than enough already.  It should be enough for you that you are working for a great American hero like myself.” And that was the end of it...or so the mayor thought.

Two weeks later Mayor Daly was on his way to give a speech to a convention of veterans.  The speech was going to receive nationwide attention.  Now, one other thing Daly was famous for was not reading his speeches until he got up to deliver them.  So there he stood before a vast crowd of veterans and nationwide press coverage.  He began to describe the plight of the veterans.  “I’m concerned for you.  I have a heart for you.  I am deeply convinced that this country needs to take care of its veterans.  So, today I am proposing a seventeen point plan that includes the city, state and federal government, to care for the veterans of this country.”  Now by this time everyone, including Mayor Daly himself, was on the edge of their seat to hear what the proposal was.  He turned the page and saw only these words: “You’re on your own now, you great American hero.”

Well, that may be an apocryphal story, but it makes the point.  Everyone’s contributions are valuable.  We need the Peters and Pauls, no doubt, but we also need Silas and Timothy and Damaris and Dionysius and Jason.  In the church, we are all needed, we are all valuable, and we all have a contribution to make.   

In this strange time that we are living through, there are all sorts of ways large and small that we can share the love of Jesus with others.  And it is through people like you and me – more like Damaris and Dionysius than we are Paul - that Christ’s church is built.  Each one of us has a story, each one of us has a gift to share, and in God’s world we are far more than footnotes.

I didn’t plan the sermon this way, but as we look ahead to our workshop this morning it occurs to me that this is basically the philosophy behind AMOS.  We all have a story, we all have a gift to share, our voices all matter, and when we work together, we can make this a better and fairer and more just community.  May it be so.  Amen.

Derecho Sermon - "Count it Joy" - August 16, 2020

Text: James 1:1-4


It would be an understatement to say that this has not been a typical week.  On Monday morning I picked up all the sticks in the yard and mowed the lawn.  And it looked really nice.  It was getting darker in the west and I was glad to get it done before it rained.  Then we heard about a strong storm coming, and it got really dark.  We checked the weather on TV but the satellite went out, and the sirens went off, and we went downstairs.  And the winds blew and the power went off.  

I went upstairs briefly to check on things and saw that there was definitely something down in the neighbors’ backyard.  But the winds were still pretty strong and it was hard to see - everything was a kind of grayish green - so I went back downstairs.  When we finally came back up to check things out, we had a good bit of tree damage and I could see that what was down in the neighbors’ backyard was the roof of our shed, with various other pieces here and there.  There was also a massive limb from our next door neighbor’s tree down on the power lines that run at the back of our yard.

Other than those of you who are joining us from out of town, most of you probably had similar experiences.  In fact, even some of you from out of town had this kind of experience.  Just when you thought 2020 could not get any worse or any weirder, a derecho comes along.  At least we learned a new word this week.  

I haven’t had a chance to check, but I expect that we have fewer people with us this morning because I know that there are folks who still do not have power and there are more who don’t have internet service.  Such things did not used to be necessary for worship but in this strange time in which we live, at this point they are.

We have been making our way through Acts but given the week we have had, I thought we might switch things up this morning.  I’m mostly going to be reflecting on this past week.  Our scripture is from the letter of James, traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus.

We actually came across James a few weeks ago in Acts 15 – James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and it was James who, speaking for the sense of those gathered, said that Gentiles coming to Christ should not be burdened, as he put it, with Jewish law.

As he begins this letter, James says “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.”

Well, there’s a contrarian viewpoint for you.  And we have certainly faced trials over these past months.  In what way can trials be reason for joy?  And if trials make for joy, does that make 2020 the most joyful year ever?

Well, let me tell you about my experience this week.  Monday afternoon, people starting assessing the damage and cleaning up.  I looked at our backyard and wondered how I would ever manage the mess.  Tree limbs down and besides the bigger stuff, sticks just covered the ground.  Instead of a snowstorm it was a stickstorm.

I had an electric chainsaw, which was pretty useless at that point, and a hand saw that was not in good shape, but I had some good loppers and I started cutting limbs down to size as I could and dragging them out to the street.  And a bunch of neighbors just appeared to help, including a couple of friends visiting the high school kid next door and a guy who had spent the night visiting the new neighbors who had moved in behind us – I actually met them when we were all out surveying the damage.  We waved and I said, “Well, welcome to the neighborhood.”  With 8 or 10 people working, we pretty well cleared two yards.  Then the new neighbors behind us helped me carry pieces of our shed from their yard back to our yard.  

A shared crisis brings out the best in many people.  There was a community spirit that afternoon that we rarely experience.  We were in it together.  There was actually some joy in it.  

Without air conditioning, we ate outside and hung out outside more this past week.  For me it was a reminder of a time when folks sat outside on the front porch to escape the heat, and people would visit.  I remember front porch swings like my grandma had at her house.  We had a little bit of that vibe this week, as folks were outside and neighbors had a chance to visit.  I’ve talked to some neighbors more this week than I had in 6 months or a maybe a year, I’m embarrassed to say.

This week also reminded me of mission trips.  I thought of our trip to Puerto Rico last summer.  We worked in the heat there, and somehow you get used to it.  There was no hot water for the showers, and you manage.  And it occurred to me that we were without power for a few days, but there are lots of places where power outages happen almost every day.  And then, while this week has not necessarily been easy, I think about the community we worked in and that church in Luquillo – they were without power for 6 months.  Can you imagine?

And that Puerto Rican church, despite the difficulties it faced, took a mission team to assist in a community harder hit than they were.

This week has been a reminder, perhaps, not to take things like dependable electricity and good clean water for granted and to remember those who face the kind of conditions we dealt with this week all the time.  It was also a reminder to be thankful for utility workers and all those who make our electrical grid work and all of the conveniences we enjoy possible.  There was gratitude and with that, joy.

And then there is technology.  Never mind not having air conditioning: we had to suffer without internet!  It was actually a good thing, maybe, to give up TV for a few days, to spend less time on our screens and devices.  

When we are all facing storms, our impulse as followers of Jesus is to think of others.  The neighbor who needs help cleaning up.  The friend who could use a cooler of ice.  We were touched when a friend and colleague offered us the use of their generator after they had regained power.  It was too late to save the food in our refrigerator, but we appreciated them thinking of us as much as the generator itself.  (Or close to as much, at least.)  In that sharing and caring for one another, there is joy.

After the storm we thought about college students.  Imagine that you were a freshman - I suppose some of you may not have to imagine - and that Monday was your move in day.  It it is exciting, but still, there is anxiety as you get ready to move in to college.  And at least as much anxiety for the parents.  You have to go to Lied to get a COVID test before getting your room key, and then in the middle of everything there is a torrential storm, hurricane force winds, and a massive power outage.  What a way to begin at Iowa State.

It’s been a tough week.  But again, James says, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because these trials lead to growth.

It is tempting to see this as simply a pious platitude.  And it would make more sense to say, whenever life is super easy, consider it all joy.

But then it occurred to me: when has life ever been super easy?  Even pre-2020 life had its share of storms.  We don’t have to be in a global pandemic or experience a Midwestern hurricane to experience trials.  If we are honest, there are derechos all around, and there always have been.  There are health derechos that can come suddenly.  Many are facing a formidable economic derecho.  There are family derechos and certainly school derechos.  There are derechos of injustice and derechos of need.  And all of these can be tests of our faith.

So how can we say, when you face these derechos, consider it all joy?  Well, it’s been a tough week and I am not going to answer that for you.  Partly because I’m not sure I can, at least not very well, and partly because this is perhaps worth our reflecting on for all of us.  But it does seem to me if we are unable to find joy in the midst of storms, we may have a hard time finding joy, period, because we are all the time facing storms of some kind.  So maybe joy is not entirely dependent on the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Frederick Buechner wrote words that speak to the storms we face, from God’s perspective:
Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you.

It has been a hard week, and it may be a hard week ahead, but I pray that you are able to find joy and glimpses of God in the midst of it.  Amen.

Worship in the (Virtual) Park - August 2, 2020

Text: Numbers 22 – Balaam story


(This is my "mini-homily for our shared service with First Christian and Ames UCC - each pastor shared a short message on "What I Have Learned During the Pandemic).


I want to begin by going on record as saying that this scripture text, the story of Balaam’s Ass, was not my idea.  And in all fairness to Eileen, it was not her idea either.  I’m not pointing a finger at anyone, but it wasn’t me and it wasn’t Eileen.

But in retrospect, this is actually a perfect scripture for this morning.  The real point of this crazy story is about listening and paying attention and having eyes to see what is right in front of you.

The pandemic has given us a chance to slow down, to listen.  And if like Balaam’s donkey we are paying attention, we can learn from it.

I have learned a lot of things.  I have learned that that I like curbside pickup.

I have learned that most of the meetings we have can work pretty well via Zoom.

I have learned how to make a face mask from a bandana.

And not insignificantly for me, I have learned that I don’t miss sports as much as I thought I would.  That surprised me, and it actually pains me to say that, but it’s true.  When people are losing their livelihoods, when health care workers are placed in danger, when people are dying, you gain a perspective on what really matters.

One of the things that has struck me is how contemporary our scriptures are in such times.  Week after week, ancient words seem to speak to the moment we are in.  We recently read from Acts about the establishment of the office of deacon.  You may recall that Greek widows were not being cared for as the Hebrew widows were, and deacons were appointed essentially as a response to structural racism.  Pretty contemporary.  And I think it was the second Sunday of online worship that we read from Mark 13 of a coming apocalypse.  That has never been a favorite text for me, but reading about an apocalypse while we were living in an apocalypse, it had new meaning.

We are living in an apocalyptic time.   The word apocalypse means revealing, and things are being revealed to us - if, like Balaam’s donkey, we will pay attention.  

This time has revealed the inequalities of our society.  Many workers deemed “essential” are paid minimum wage and have no health insurance, while those with the most, like Iowa’s wealthiest person, have received millions in stimulus payments.  I talked with pastors at two of our immigrant churches.  They have had many members test positive for the virus, including one of these pastors.  A healthy 34 year old man in his church has died.  It’s no coincidence that our immigrant churches have suffered the most.

This time has revealed glaring racial disparities.  Following the death of George Floyd, I have learned a lot about our racial history that I was embarrassed not to have known.  And now I am embarrassed for our country because I do know it.  

This pandemic has revealed the depth of division in our nation as basic science and public health practices are viewed with suspicion.

At the same time, the pandemic has revealed much that is positive.  In the early days of near-lockdown, I noticed birds singing more than I had before.  I appreciated the quiet in the neighborhood.  I have since noticed bumblebees visiting our hostas.  There is a lot to be said for a slower pace.

The pandemic has revealed how important communities of faith are to so many people.  Over the last 4 ½ months, worshiping with Zoom, we have had, improbably, our best attendance in years.  Part of that is that there’s not much else to do, but the bigger thing is that this time has revealed a hunger for community, a hunger for connection that we may have taken for granted in the past.  

I have been struck by the way people are reaching out to care for one another.  I have appreciated the way people have reached out to care for me.

We talk about wanting to get back to normal, but one of the things I have learned is that normal is way overrated.  There is a lot of normal I’d rather not go back to, and there are parts of pandemic life I hope we can hold on to.   

Arundhati Roy, writing back in early April, said,

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.  This one is no different.  It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.  We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas and … smoky skies behind us.  Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.  And ready to fight for it.
One of the things I have learned is that things can be different, and by God’s grace I pray they will be.  Amen.

“How to Have a Church Fight” - July 19, 2020

Text: Acts 15:1-21


I kind of grew up on church fights.  The fighting was not so much within our church, though we had our disagreements like most congregations.  The conflict was mostly between churches.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in southern Indiana.  Looking back, we were a typical, conservative but not overly rigid congregation, a generally warm-hearted church, but in the culture of Southern Baptists in that area, we were considered freakishly liberal.

I have shared the story before of how our church was booted out of our local association.  We were dismissed for two official reasons and at least one unofficial reason.  Officially, we were voted out for not conforming with the official doctrine of the association.  First, we were practicing open communion.  We welcomed any Christian to share in the Lord’s Supper, while the official party line was extremely restrictive.  And then we were condemned for accepting what was called “alien immersion.”  That is one of the craziest expressions I have come across in church life – it sounds like we were baptizing extraterrestrials.  What it meant was that we accepted the baptism by immersion of churches whose beliefs were not completely 100% like ours.  It doesn’t sound that radical, does it?  American Baptists were suspect but considered marginally OK, but Disicples of Christ or Church of Christ people definitely needed to be rebaptized.  We were way too lax on this sort of thing.

Those were the official reasons.  Among the unofficial reasons was the fact that our pastor appeared on a 5 minute devotion on TV sponsored by the local Council of Churches and we were much too friendly with the Presbyterians down the road.  Looking back it seems ridiculous, but we were just too cosmopolitan and too integrated into the community for some of the other pastors’ tastes.  And it probably didn’t help that our relatively small church had won the Baptist Association softball league that year.

Over the years, I have seen serious church fighting – again, more often between churches, but within churches as well, which is especially painful.  So I come to our scripture today with this history, with this background, and maybe some of you have had similar journeys.

What we read about today is the first big dispute in the early church.  Paul had been converted on the road to Damascus, and he was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles.  In the ensuing chapters in Acts, we read about Barnabas taking on Paul as a kind of sponsor, and the two engage in a missionary journey, traveling to the island of Cypress and then through parts of what is now Turkey, winding up at Antioch in Syria.  It is quite an adventure.  There is success, both in leading Jews to become followers of Jesus and in leading Gentiles to Christ.  There is also opposition; at one point, Paul is stoned and left for dead, but he gets up and moves on to preach in another city the next day.  Paul and Baranabas return to Antioch and they give a report on how God is working, especially among the Gentiles.

Not everybody is happy about this.  There are those who have come to Antioch from Judea who believed that yes, the gospel was for everyone, but following Jewish law and especially circumcision, which was a sign of the covenant with God, was a part of that.  It was a requirement in order to be saved.  

It is very interesting what happens.  The Antioch church doesn’t go rogue.  They could have said, “Forget those people in Jerusalem,” but they don’t.   They respect the apostolic community.  They understand that they would have never even heard the Gospel had it not been for them.
So the Antioch church sends a delegation to Jerusalem.  And notice what happens when they arrive.  They are warmly welcomed by the apostles and the elders.  There’s a mutual respect.  The mother church doesn’t say, “Here come those renegades.  Here come those radicals.”  They are embraced as brothers and sisters.

This meeting is known as the Jerusalem Council.  And it is a wonderful model for working through differences.  Everyone has a voice, and the church takes time to listen.  The Spirit, of course, turned the tide of the meeting when Simon Peter spoke and said, “We believe we will be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Finally James spoke.  This was James the brother of Jesus, who had become the leader of the church in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem church is nearly all Jewish in background and is the old-school center of the Jesus movement.

James puts what is happening in context, saying that the prophets spoke of Gentiles coming to God, and it was now happening.  They don’t actually take a vote, but there is a consensus, and James speaks as the Spirit has led the community.  He said that the church should not impose further burden on Gentiles who were coming to God.

The decision was no needless rules.  No stiff requirements on that which is not essential.  But then he goes on to say, let’s simply tell them, don’t behave immorally and don’t eat food that is going to especially offend Jewish brothers and sisters.  It sounds like a bone thrown out to those on the other side of the issue, and it almost sounds a little bit patronizing, like Gentiles are really into fornicating and they need to keep that in check if they are going to be in the church.

But I think what he is saying is, we have freedom, and we live in grace, but we need to think about the way our freedom affects others.  We need to use our freedom in a way that builds others up and be sensitive to other believers.

I know that God was in this decision, because in most every Jerusalem Council–like moment I have been a part of, there is no agreement in the end and the sides often go their separate ways.  Churches split, denominations split, people get mad and leave.  Here, they continue and they move forward.

There are two things worth thinking about: the process and the outcome.  I like that everyone seems to have their say.  Those who felt like Gentiles should follow the Law had their say.  Peter spoke, Paul spoke, Barnabas spoke, James spoke.  Everyone listened to each other, which we don’t always see in our discussions and debates.  It was a thoughtful and respectful process.  This kind of listening and deliberation and prayer and waiting for the Spirit to lead is extremely difficult, even when you are being intentional about it.

Several years ago, there was a great deal of conflict in our denomination over acceptance of LGBTQ persons.  This was and is true within churches to some extent, but the conflict was especially in associations and regions and at the national level.  It’s not like we are all in agreement now, but there isn’t the same level of conflict.  Our more decentralized structure has a lot to do with that, especially when compared to the Methodists, who are about to split over the issue.

Back when this was coming to a head among American Baptists, our Ministers Council, the professional organization for ABC clergy, decided that instead of being reactive about it or avoiding the issue, instead of sniping and fighting, that we would have a respectful conversation and listen for God’s Spirit to speak.  We called these gatherings, one held in each region, Jerusalem Councils, based on this story.  We were not trying to solve the issue for the whole denomination; we were going to talk about how our organization would approach it,

Some were immediately upset that we were even going to try to have a conversation.  Our national director took a lot of flak.  Dealing with differences in a straightforward way was very threatening, but we did it.

In our region, we had a very good turnout of clergy at Grand View University.  They had a nice meeting room and it was a neutral site.  There were some heartfelt stories shared.  I remember one person in particular saying that he wasn’t sure where he stood on this, exactly, and his background was more conservative, but that he had himself been a victim of discrimination and he could empathize with those who felt marginalized.  He said that he could not be judgmental toward those who were serving in good faith.  I appreciated those honest comments.

I would like to say that it all went well, but the fact was it did not go well at all.  A lot of folks had no intention of listening to others.  And I heard stories from other regions where it went far worse than it did for us.

That was 15 years ago, and the notion of people who significantly disagree getting together to have a respectful conversation seems more difficult now than it did then.  We are used to listening to people who believe just like we do.  We are not accustomed, and we are mostly not willing to sit down and have conversations with people with whom we may strongly disagree.

Beyond the process of respectful listening, it would be hard to overstate how crucial this decision was.  To be honest, the side that carried the argument should not have won.  Tradition and power, not to mention inertia, were on the side of those who wanted conformity to the Law.  But in reality, what happened was simply an extension of the narrative we have been following in the book of Acts.

There was concern that Greek widows were not being cared for appropriately, so deacons are appointed and the church expands.  The church was for those from a Greek culture as well as a Hebrew culture.  There was Philip, sent to explain the scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch.  Barriers are broken and the gospel is taken to Ethiopia.

There is Ananias, sent by God to Damascus to meet Saul of Tarsus and help him regain his sight,  Saul, better known as Paul, is joined by Barnabas and they take the gospel to new places.  And now the doors of the church are flung wide open as Gentiles are fully welcomed into the church.

The process is to listen, to share, to be open, to allow everyone to be heard, and to listen for God’s Spirit.  The decision is: we are all saved by God’s grace, every one of us.  So let grace abound.  

There is an old saying: in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things, charity.  May it be so.  Amen.