Saturday, September 4, 2021

“Salty Saints and Bright Believers” - September 5, 2021

Text: Matthew 5:13-16

Can we talk about chemistry?  The school year has started, so I think this is OK.  You know, I don’t get to use chemistry that often, so I saw an opportunity this morning and thought I better take it.

Our scripture today is about salt.  Salt is made of sodium and chlorine – Sodium Chloride.  You can take sodium hydroxide--a super caustic substance used in things like oven cleaners.  It is used in things say, “keep out of reach of children.”  And then you can take hydrochloric acid, a very strong acid that will eat right through your clothes if you spill it.  (Don’t ask me how I know that.)  When you mix the two together, you get salt and water.

Salt is an amazing thing.  The ancient world didn’t know much chemistry, but they absolutely knew the importance of salt.  Jesus used salt to describe his followers.  He said, “You are the salt of the earth.”  We use that expression today to describe a good, solid, dependable person.  

When Jesus described his followers – when he described us – as the salt of the earth, what did he mean?  In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity.  

It was a preservative.  In a time when there was no refrigeration – which includes most of history – using salt was the best way to preserve food.  It was used to brine or cure meats and other foods.  

For most of us, the most obvious quality of salt is that it gives flavor.  What would food be like without flavoring?  

Several years ago I watched a show on the Food Network called "Restaurant Impossible."  It went out of production a few years back, but just this week I saw that it was back on the air with new episodes.  

The show combines cooking and travel and building renovation and marketing and budgeting and conflict management and sometimes family therapy – all interesting in themselves, but then you put those things together with this no-nonsense chef Robert Irvine, and you have great television.  At least on some nights.  

The way it works is that he travels to a failing restaurant, quickly assesses the situation, and then works to turn it around.  He has an interior designer, a carpenter, two days and $10,000.  They might remodel the dining room, tweak the menu, update the kitchen, or change the way the business is managed.  They work feverishly with the limited budget and time schedule, and then they reopen and a crowd of diners tests out the new and improved restaurant.

Sometimes it can be just a small thing causing the restaurant to do so poorly.  Robert Irvine will have the chef make four or five of their best dishes and he will taste them.  And it is amazing how often one of the big problems is that the food is just bland.  Tasteless.

The chef will put a little oil on the grill and then sear a steak, and Robert Irvine will go ballistic.  The chef had used no salt, no pepper, no seasoning.  You can fix everything else but if the food has no seasoning, if it is lacking in taste, you aren’t going to make a go of it.

As it turned out, I watched it this week for the first time in a long time, and part of the problem with this particular restaurant is that the food was just awash in salt.  The cook was using way too much of it.

Jesus says that in people, in the church, in life as in cooking, seasoning matters.

As followers of Jesus, we are to add flavor - to add life, to add zest, to add joy, to add goodness.  Sometimes Jesus’ followers can kind of oversalt things, if you will – aiming for power and control more than life and joy – but Jesus’ point is that we are called to make a difference, to add seasoning that blesses others and blesses our world.

Jesus says that if salt has lost its flavor, then it is good for nothing.  You know, you can get those little salt packets at fast food places.  You might find one of those in the back of the junk drawer that has been sitting there for 25 years, and if you open it and put in on some French fries, it will taste just fine.  I am not speaking from experience here, but some of you might be able to test this out and let me know.  Salt is salt, it just doesn’t go bad.

But here is the thing: in Jesus’ day, salt did go bad.  The salt that we use has been processed and cleaned up so that if you keep it dry, it can last pretty well indefinitely.  But in that day salt was harvested along with other natural substances.  It was never 100% sodium chloride.  When that other stuff went bad, you had to throw it out.

Jesus is saying that his followers are to preserve and protect and add flavor and seasoning to life.  When they no longer do that, they are like salt that has no flavor.

And then Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”  What a big, bold statement – you are the light of the world!  

A little over a year ago, we were hit by a derecho – one of our new vocabulary words of the last year or so.  At our house, we were without power for 5 days.  For some of you, it was longer.  When it got dark, it was really dark.  Candles and cell phone flashlights only go so far.  

Houses in Palestine were very dark.  The lamp, such as it was, was typically a small bowl with oil and a floating wick.  They did not have matches, didn’t have cigarette lighters, and oil lamps could be difficult to re-light.  So when people left the home, the lamp was sometimes put under an earthen basket that allowed enough air for the flame to burn but also insured that it could burn safely.  

But that was not its purpose.  A lamp was not meant to be put under a basket; it was meant to provide light.  When Jesus says that we are the light of the world, we are to help others see the way.  We are to shine our lights so that others can see Jesus.  We are to shine our lights of kindness and compassion.  We are to shine our lights so that truth can be seen and injustice and falsehood and all kinds of wrong can be addressed.  
Jesus has said that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Now on this Labor Day weekend, on this Labor Sunday, We need to hear Jesus’ words not so much as a suggestion or imperative – “You need to be the salt of the earth” – but more as a simple statement of fact.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.

Jesus is saying that our lives matter, what we do matters, and we make a difference.  So this morning, I want to say to you that your labors, your efforts, matter a great deal.

Your work can be a holy calling.  I think of counselors and therapists and social workers and probation officers and nurses and teachers who make a real difference in people’s lives.  But it’s not just that – I think of accountants and factory workers and office workers and barbers and retail workers who are people of integrity and goodness.  We had a plumber out to our house this week.  He was humming and almost singing the whole time he worked.  It was a joy to have this guy working at our house.  We haven’t got the bill yet, maybe it won’t feel like such a joy, but I think in his way he was being salt and light.

I think of students of all ages who are fun people to be around, who are kind and helpful, who study hard but also take time for others.  I think of all those people who are working on big issues, big problems in science and engineering and medicine and social sciences, working to make the world a better place.

What you do is holy work. You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.

What Jesus says, really, is amazing.  And who are we to argue with Jesus?  I don’t mean to leave occupations out here.  And it isn’t just those who are in the ranks of the employed.  I think of all kinds of folks who bring salt and light to their friends, to their family, to their neighborhood, to their church, to places where they volunteer, to our community.  

David Lose, one of my professors at Luther Seminary, wrote:

Perhaps the largest challenge most congregations I know face — indeed, what the twenty-first century church faces, to be quite honest — is to overcome the disconnect most Christians experience between what we do on Sunday and what we do the rest of the week.  

That’s a little hard to hear, but I think Lose has a point.  Some of this may be on clergy who can spiritualize everything to the point that it doesn’t seem to have any real-life application.  And some of this may be on folks who have neatly separated their Sunday experience from the rest of the week.  

When we offer our time and talent and labor to God – whether through our job, through volunteering, through our family, or through being a good friend – we are being salt and light, and it is a holy calling.  Sunday and the rest of the week is all one package; it’s all God’s time.

Proverbs 16:3 says, “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.”  This Labor Sunday is a good time to think about our work in terms of our faith, to think about being salt and light not so much here on a Sunday morning, but in our home, in our neighborhood, at school and in our places of work, and to commit our work to the Lord.

Lillian Daniel is a pastor in Davenport.  She shared that on the Sunday before Labor Day, her congregation is invited to bring symbols of their work to the altar to be blessed.  People bring laptop computers, shovels, notebooks, mops, boots, resumes, maybe an ear of corn.  You get the idea.

She shared that not everybody plans ahead.  So one time she invited people who hadn’t remembered to bring anything to come forward and leave the workplace symbols they had with them.  Yes, she asked them to put their cell phones on the table.

She said that you could feel a great awkwardness.  Only a few people walked forward and placed their phones at the front of the church.  She said, “Don’t be scared, we will give them back after the service - Pastor Seth and I are pretty trustworthy.  And you can keep an eye on them from the pews.”

This generated a lot of discussion at coffee hour.  People talked about being unwilling to part with their phones. Others talked about what it felt like - both the freedom and the anxiety of it.  

We may not be in the habit of asking God to bless the tools of our work.  We may not think in terms of committing our work to the Lord.  But our work can be a holy calling.  For many of us, one of the main places our ministry happens is through our work.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  May God bless your labors.  May God bless your ministry.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Note to Readers

Hello Everybody, 

It has been some time since I have posted here.  We have been putting worship videos on our YouTube channel for many/most Sundays and in the craziness of the past months, I have simply gotten out of the habit of posting sermons here.

This past Sunday, however, we had more than the usual amount of difficulty with technology, including a power outage at church which necessitated setting up for Zoom worship with a cell phone for audio/video at our outdoor service, only to have power return five minutes before the service began.  A few minutes into the service, audio inexplicably went out and we switched back to a cellphone, which worked fine until the battery got low.  We then switched to another cell phone, and that change did not go well.  There was an unexplained echo loop that we worked on for a few monutes - in the middle of the service - until we were finally forced to close the Zoom meeting.  About half of our worshipers were on Zoom.  

So, I have been prompted to post sermons here again.  For those who were "kicked out" of worship on August 29, I apologize, and you can at least read the sermon below.  I have added the recent series on the Psalms and will try to keep posting in the weeks ahead.



“A Song for the Journey” - August 29, 2021

Text:Psalm 121

This summer, we have been looking at a number of different Psalms in worship, and this is the last in a series of sermons from the Psalms.  (Please, hold your applause!)   Our scripture this morning is Psalm 121.  If you look in your Bible, the heading over this Psalm probably says something like “A Song of Ascents.”  Not a Song of Scents, as in Smells; or Sense, as in Common Sense; or Cents, as in Dollars and Cents; but a Song of Ascents, as in going up.  Psalm 120 through 134 are all songs of ascent.

What does that mean?  They didn’t need elevator music, right? Basically, these were travel songs, songs that groups of travelers would sing on the way to Jerusalem.  The journey was along a road that increased in elevation, especially as one approached the city.  It was a mostly uphill journey, and the Psalms of Ascent were traveling songs for that journey.

You know, traveling has always had its challenges.  I have two siblings, two sisters, and I remember as a child our family traveling to grandma’s house.  We had a 1960 Ford Falcon.  It was an automatic, a fancy 2-speed automatic, if you can believe it.  The car was blue-green, a shade they don’t really use for cars anymore. It had vinyl upholstery on the seats with lines on it, and in the back seat those lines defined our territory – I was on one side, Leigh Ann on the other, and Amy, the youngest, stuck in the middle.  Those lines were not just suggestions – they were absolute boundaries that you were not to cross.  It just made for a better trip for everybody.  Especially my mom and dad, I’m sure.  

Enough fighting went on in the back seat that this rule was necessary.  Susan also has two sisters, and they had the same setup on their car trips.  Maybe you had a similar rule.  Maybe you still do.

Today, when we go on trips to see family, we will usually have our dog Rudy with us.  He is a terrible traveler.  He is actually better than he used to be; you could say that he has improved to terrible.  And then in the summer, because of the heat, we can’t go in somewhere and leave Rudy in the car, so we often take a picnic lunch, which can be nice, but it’s one more thing to take care of before we leave, and who really wants to have a picnic when it’s 96 degrees?

The ancient Israelites did not face these specific challenges, but then again, they had challenges that we definitely don’t have to worry about.

Over the last few weeks, thousands of students have descended on Ames.  Some of you are among them.  Many came from a short distance – maybe from a town in Iowa, an hour or two away.  Others had a longer trip – maybe from the Twin Cities or Chicago, or maybe from a place like Texas or New Jersey or Florida.  And then a good number of students came from other countries, from China or Indonesia or Ghana or Nigeria.  No matter how far you have traveled to get here, moving into the dorm or into an apartment can be a major undertaking.   

What do you do on those long trips?  How do you pass the time while traveling?  For thousands of years, one of the answers has been music.  So we have travel songs.  “Found a Peanut.”  “There’s a Hole in the Ground.”  And then one of the worst songs ever, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

Nowadays we can be a bit more sophisticated than that.  Technology make a difference.  We have radio.  We have Spotify.  We can stream whatever music we want.  If you are going to the ocean, you can play beach music and surfer songs.  Going to visit my parents, I have sometimes played “Indiana Wants Me, Lord I Can’t Go Back There.”

It is interesting that the Psalms contain 15 different songs of ascent – essentially, 15 different traveling songs.  That’s ten percent of the Psalms.  But then, consider that there were numerous festivals in Jerusalem each year, with the biggest and most important being Passover.  These were songs that you would sing every year on your way to Jerusalem.  When you think of it in this way, the Songs of Ascents become a kind of seasonal collection of music – maybe a distant cousin to our Christmas carols, which as it happens make up close to 10% of our hymnal.

I am impressed that as the Israelites traveled, they sang Psalms filled with an awareness and a dependence on God.  Psalm 121 is maybe the best-known of the Psalms of Ascent.  It begins with an acknowledgment of need.

We often use the metaphor of life as a journey.  This can be a helpful image, and if that’s the case, then we all need some help along the way.  When we travel, many of us depend on GPS or a navigation system.  We have to stop for gas – or maybe a charging station.  Our car may break down on the side of the road and we have to call AAA.  And if we are traveling very far we need a place to stay and a place to stop and eat.  We cannot get very far all on our own.  

In the journey of life, we need help.  The question is, where do we turn for help?  “I lift my eyes to the hills - from where does my help come?”

I had always thought of this as a beautiful, poetic phrase, which it is – “I lift my eyes to the hills” - but there is a reason the hills are mentioned.  It is not that they portray strength and steadfastness and power; it is not that we might identify the majesty of the mountains with God.  In this case, it is actually the opposite.  If you were to look to the hills ahead as one journeyed to Jerusalem, you might think of danger.  The hills provided opportunities for robbers to hide and ambush travelers.  And in the hills were altars to the god Ba’al and sacred Asherah poles dedicated to foreign deities.  Who one might call on for help was a real question.  

Beyond that, it could be just plain tough going traveling uphill, most often by foot, and maybe carrying small children.  The hills were not necessarily a welcome sight.  

I lift my eyes to the hills – a place of uncertainty, hardship, potential danger - from where will my help come?  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved… he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Having one’s “foot moved” was an expression of misfortune.  In mountainous areas, losing your footing could lead to a very dangerous situation.  I remember helping roof a house one time – it was on a Habitat for Humanity work site.  It had rained earlier in the morning, and at one point as I walked across the roof my foot started to slide – I was afraid I might fall right off the roof.   

There are a those times in life when our feet may slip.  It can come in any number of ways - through a layoff, a divorce, an illness, through a disagreement that becomes a feud that becomes a personal vendetta, it can come through loss and grief.  It can come about because of a poor choice we have made.  It happens.  As we journey through life, we need to know that God is there and God will keep us from falling.

And we know that God will be there because God does not sleep.  God will not fail to take notice.  

The journey to Jerusalem might take a few days.  When the group stopped for the night, someone would keep watch.  After a hard day of traveling, staying awake was hard.  It was important to stay awake and alert.  There were dangers lurking, both wild animals and unsavory people.

Some of you can have difficulty staying awake.  I know it because I’ve seen it on Sunday mornings.  But I have the same trouble, especially on Sunday afternoons.  

In this journey of life, we need someone to look out for us, someone to keep watch that we can depend on, someone who will be there, who will not doze off.  

“The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.”

There is a reason we call this service “Worship under the Trees.”  How many people would come if we decided to have “Worship under the Hot Sun?”  It’s just not as inviting.

Imagine walking all day on that hot, dusty road to Jerusalem.  You are tired and thirsty and the sun is blazing down.  Then you round a bend in the road and the trees cover you overhead and there is shade.  You never thought you’d be so glad just for a little shade.

In the trials of life, in the hard times, God protects us, shades us, helps us on our way.  In those times when stress and worry and conflict and apprehension beat down on us like the hot sun, God is there.  When we are treated unjustly, when we are afraid, when we are hurting, “The Lord is your shade at your right hand.”
The Psalm concludes, “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  God’s protection is not a fleeting, temporary thing.  God goes ahead of us, God is with us, God is behind us, God is all around us, and God will always be there.  

I look to the hills – from where will my help come?  We actually ask this question all the time.

I look at the syllabus – from where will my help come?

I think about my roommate – from where will my help come?

I look at the bank statement - from where will my help come?

I think of so many suffering from the coronavirus and I think about  hospitals running out of beds – from where will our help come?

We see the devastating images from fires and hurricanes and flooding and earthquakes.  We see and experience the effects of a warming planet.  We see the awful images of war.  We worry about those serving in Afghanistan and so many trying to get out of that country.  We lift our eyes to the hills.  From where will our help come?

This is not just an ancient song voiced by those going to Jerusalem.  It is a question we all ask.

On a long and difficult journey, the Psalmist chooses to be hopeful, to sing of trust in God and remember God’s goodness and care.  

Now here’s the thing: as a song, this is not supposed to be a solo effort.  This Psalm was sung by the community as they traveled together.  Our help comes to all of us together from God, and sometimes the way that God offers help is through the strength and compassion and guidance and acceptance of the community of faith.  So think of this as a great choir of many voices singing together.   

The Psalmist gives us a song for the journey of life.  “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”  Amen.

“Almost Living” - August 22, 2021

Text: Psalm 90

We have read some much-loved Psalms in recent weeks.  Psalm 1 – “Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord… they are like trees planted by water.”  Psalm 139 – “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Psalm 148, which sees all of creation, from the stars and the heavens to the trees to cattle to even seas monsters praising the Creator.  Last week, we looked at the 23rd Psalm - “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  There are many treasured Psalms, but Psalm 90 is probably not going to make a lot of favorite Psalms lists.  It is one of the more sobering, if not downright depressing of the Psalms.

Speaking of the years, the Psalmist writes, “You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning…in the evening it fades and withers.”  Psalm 90 is the only Psalm attributed to Moses.  You may remember that Moses, the great leader and prophet, did not himself live to enter the Promised Land.  Like everybody else, his days were numbered.

One of the realities of living in a university community is that while those of us who stick around keep getting older, the students stay young.  We are so glad to have new and returning students with us here this morning.  And we need the energy and creativity and gifts and enthusiasm that students bring.  But if you look around the sanctuary – or look around your screen on gallery view – you will see folks who came here as students – 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 years ago - and basically never left.  We all get older.

We had our men’s breakfast this past Tuesday at Perkins.  Several years ago, I would tell people that the Men’s Breakfast was basically me and a bunch of old guys.  Now, it is just a bunch of old guys.

Psalm 90 looks at life through a very realistic lens.  Just as the leaves fall from the trees, just as the grass withers, our days too are numbered.  “All our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.”  This Psalm our finitude very seriously.

Which is more than can be said for most of us.  And certainly more that can be said for our culture.  Death is something we do not want to face, do not want to talk about, and even now I know there is a certain amount of discomfort with this sermon.  We don’t enjoy thinking about death.

Former Indy race car driver Scott Goodyear talked about fatal crashes at the Indianapolis 500.  “You don’t go look at where it happened,” he said.  “You don’t watch the films of it on television.  You don’t deal with it.  You pretend it never happened.”  The Speedway itself encourages this approach.  As soon as the track closes the day of an accident, a crew heads out to paint over the spot where the car hit the wall.  Through the years, a driver has never been pronounced dead at the racetrack.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Racing Museum, located inside the 2.5-mile oval, has no memorial to the 40 drivers who have lost their lives here.  Nowhere is there even a mention.

Many of us take this same approach in our personal lives.  Death is something that we just don’t want to think about.

But we come to scripture and find that the Bible has no such qualms about dealing with death.  It is approached as a part of life, and Psalm 90 is one of the best examples.  It was set to music by Isaac Watts in that great old hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.”  “Time like an ever-flowing stream bears all of us away,” we sing.

This Psalm would have us know that time is indeed fleeting.  Nothing will last forever.  Like sock hops and pet rocks and beanie babies, all of us will come and go.  The Psalm says that we may live 70 years, or maybe 80 if we are lucky.  That was far beyond the average life expectancy when the Psalm was written.  Today, we have a number of members of our congregation in their 90’s and it is not uncommon for people to live past 100.  But no matter how short or how long our life may be, none of us live forever.

Psalm 90 begins: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or you formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”  While we exist “from generation to generation,” God is “from everlasting to everlasting.”  While God is eternal, our lives are fleeting.  

Now, if that is where we leave things, this would be pretty depressing.  This would be a terrible way to start a new school year.  “Welcome back students, and by the way, we are all going to die.”

But you know, there is a real freedom in facing our mortality, in knowing our limits.  Facing death can allow us to truly live.

Sharon Salzberg (in A Heart as Wide as the World: Stories on the Path of Lovingkindness) tells of a friend, normally a fairly healthy person, who came down with a terrible case of pneumonia and was very close to dying.  While he was recovering from his illness, she came home and found a message from him on her answering machine.  Just as she was about to call him back, the phone rang.  The caller happened to be a mutual friend, and when Sharon told her that she had to get off the phone to call this friend, she said in response, “Do you know that he almost died?”  Sharon told her that she knew that, and they ended the conversation so she could give him a call.  But just as she hung up, the phone rang again, and it was another mutual friend.   And the same exact thing happened.  Once more, she told the caller she needed to get off the phone to speak to this friend who was sick, and she immediately said, “Well, do you know he almost died?”

Salzburg wrote,

When I finally managed to reach my friend, I said, “I think I may now expressly refer to you as ‘He who almost died.’”  My friend replied, ‘Well, it’s better than being known as ‘He who almost lived.’”  

“How do you mean that?” I asked.  “Do you mean it like, ‘He who almost escaped with his life but at the last moment didn’t?’?”  “No,” he said, “More in the sense of how we can spend a lifetime almost living, rather than being truly alive.”

I was listening to 70’s on 7 in my car this week and a one hit wonder from 1979 came on.  The song was “Born to Be Alive.”  Anybody remember that?  It was a disco song and that phrase, “Born to Be Alive,” was 75% of the song, but both the music and the meaning stick in your head.  We were born to be alive.  Psalm 90 is not actually disco, but that theme is there.

It is possible to go through life never quite living.  To be known as “the one who almost died” is one thing, but how much worse to be someone who “almost lived.”  Facing the reality that we only have one life and that it will not last forever can give us the freedom to fully live and the motivation to pursue those things that really matter. 

Senator Theodore F. Green from Rhode Island had the distinction of being at the time the oldest senator to serve in the U.S. Congress.  If you fly in to Providence, you will land at the TF Green Airport.

Sen. Green was once at a dinner party when his hostess caught him looking at his date book.  “Now Senator Green,” she said.  “Are you already looking to see where you’re going next?”  “No,” he replied, “I’m trying to find out where I am now.”

Like Senator Green, We would do well to find out where we are now.  We can spend so much of our lives either looking ahead to the future, or back to the past, that we miss the present moment.  Gunther Bornkamm, the Bible scholar, noted that it was that way in Jesus’ time.  There were those like the Pharisees who tried so hard to live by the law inherited from past generations that they failed to get into the now.  Then there were those who looked so forward to the apocalypse, when God would bring an end to the present order and separate the righteous from the unrighteous, that they likewise failed to live in the now.  Bornkamm says that Jesus made it possible to live fully in the present without denying the reality or importance of either the past or the future.

Facing the fact that our days have a limit helps us to live in the present moment.  As the Psalm puts it, “Teach us to count our days that we may have a wise heart.”  

John Robert McFarland is a retired Methodist minister.  Years ago, when I was in Illinois, he pastored a church in a neighboring town.  He is a cancer survivor and wrote a book with the wonderful title, Now That I Have Cancer, I Am Whole.    He writes, “I think God has used my cancer to free me from fretting the future (worrying about what I’m supposed to do next) and regretting the past (worrying about things I left undone) so that I can live right now.  I get more “right now” time in a day than I used to get in a year.”

John Robert went on to say, “I think that surely this is what is meant by eternal life, not just life that goes on forever and ever, but that quality in which all the future and all the past come together in the present, when all life is right here, in the “eternal now.”

Think of the present with both meanings of the word in mind.  The present is a gift, and it is now.  Each day is a gift to be lived fully.  “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

Sometimes you will hear somebody say, “Life is too short.”  It’s true.  Life is too short to be petty.  It is too short to hold grudges.  It is too short to wait to do the right thing.  Life is too short to waste our time on things that are hurtful or destructive or take away joy.

At the end of their lives, people do not regret time spent with family.  They do not regret efforts to make the world a better place.  They do not regret the time they took to be with friends or care for others or enjoy the world God has created.  They don’t regret that they danced or went hiking or played the piano.  They don’t regret that they took time to worship, that they were part of a community of faith.  They don’t regret their efforts to serve others.

The point is not to keep busy.  There is a bumper sticker that says, “Look busy, Jesus is coming.”  This is about knowing what matters in life.  Jesus put it this way: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

Today is Johnie Hammond’s birthday, and it is great to have so many family members wiht us today.  Johnie and her family love to have parades.  A birthday, some kind of achievement by a family member – which could be anything from a new job to doing well with potty training, good news of any sort – it doesn’t really matter, at the drop of a hat they will bang pots and pans, march around and have a parade to celebrate.  You do not regret that kind of celebration.

What people tend to regret is years wasted in a pointless argument with a loved one.  What they regret is working 24/7 with no time for the things that really matter.  What they regret is getting so wrapped up in small things that they could not see the big picture.  What they regret is pursuing power or money or fame or what they think is security rather than pursuing joy and goodness and community and following the way of Jesus.  

“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

The Psalmist knew that life would not last forever.  When we acknowledge our mortality, our limitations, it frees us to live fully, right now and give attention to those things that matter the most.  It can save us from being “the one who almost lived.”  

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations – from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”  Isaac Watts’ hymn captures the essence of this Psalm – there is a sobering recognition of the fleetingness of life.  But there is also a freedom, and a great hope that God gives both for now and for all eternity.  “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”  Amen.

"The Good Shepherd" - August 15, 2021

Text: Psalm 23

Like many of you, I watched the baseball game played Thursday night at the Field of Dreams.  I had watched the movie, I had visited the movie sight, and I was pumped about the game.  It did not disappoint – it could not have been more perfect.  Just like in the movie, before the game, the players emerged from the cornfield into center field.

It was interesting that as they interviewed some of the players before the game, they felt like tourists.  One said that they were all glued to the windows on the bus from Dubuque to the ballpark – many of them had never seen so much corn.

Well, Iowa is known for corn.  Corn and soybeans and hogs.  What we are not known for is sheep.  I did not grow up on a farm.  And even for those who did, if you grew up on a farm in Iowa there is only a small chance that you raised sheep.  

Most of us have only a passing familiarity, if that, with sheep, and yet the image of sheep and shepherding is a very common image in scripture.  Jesus is described in the gospel of John as the Good Shepherd.  And the 23rd Psalm is maybe the best-loved passage in the Bible, a familiar and comforting scripture.  We are looking at several Psalms this summer, and it only seemed right that we spend a week considering the 23rd Psalm.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters…

For a lot of folks, Psalm 23 is like an old friend.  And a lot of people who really don’t know a thing about the Bible are familiar with the 23rd Psalm.  But let’s face it: these words were written in a different world.  We can recite the words: “The Lord is my shepherd,” but when you get right down to it, who really wants to be a sheep?

You will find a lot of Psalm 23 re-writes using different metaphors, getting away from the shepherd and sheep image.  “The Lord is my coach…, or “the Lord is my travel agent…”, or “the Lord is my major professor” or “the Lord is my Internet Service Provider.  He giveth me wide bandwidth and protecteth me from spam and viruses.”  The psalm is rewritten in a way that people can better identify with it.  But part of the popularity of these paraphrases is the fact that we would rather think of ourselves as an athlete, or a vacationer, or a student, or a computer user, than a sheep.   

The Good Shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures, but we generally don’t want to lie down in green pastures because, well, we don’t want to stop.  We are on the go; we have things to do and people to see.  We don’t want to slow down; we don’t want to rest.  But the thing is, we will eventually slow down and come to a stop, whether it is our choice or not, and it may not be in a place as pleasant as the green pastures the shepherd has led us to.  

The shepherd cares for us and knows our needs.  Whether we know it or not, we need a Good Shepherd.   

The Lord is my shepherd… He restoreth my soul.  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…

Sheep are often characterized as stupid and foolish.  That characterization may not be entirely accurate; some have argued that cattle ranchers are responsible for that ugly rumor, all because sheep do not behave like cows.  Cows are herded from behind, but that will not work at all with sheep.  Stand behind sheep making loud noises and they will just run around behind you, because sheep want to be led.  You can push cows, but you lead sheep.

Sheep will not go anywhere that someone does not go first – and that someone would be the shepherd, who goes ahead to show them that everything is all right.

Now, to throw another animal into the mix: when Susan and I were first married, we had a cat named Mary Ralph.  She was named after a no-nonsense nun, and the name fit perfectly.  She was quirky, even for a cat, and while she was just this little black cat, people were scared of her - with good reason.  I’ve told some Mary Ralph stories before.

Before moving to Ames, we lived in Arthur, Illinois, a small town.  And Mary Ralph started following us when we would go for a walk.  We would have to go back and put her in the house, but finally we decided “what the heck,” and we let her follow us.  So we went for a family walk around the block: Susan and I walking, Zoe in a stroller, our dog Conway on a leash, and Mary Ralph bringing up the rear.  We walked to the end of the street and turned at the Methodist Church, and she was still with us.  We got to the next corner, at the bed and breakfast, and she was lagging behind.  She would eventually make the turn, but then she always had a hard time making it to the next corner.  She would see a leaf blowing in the wind, or a sound would startle her, or there would be a rabbit, or she would have a stare-off with a cat looking out somebody’s window.

I would have to go back and get her to re-focus on the walk, and sometimes I would just have to carry her home.   I was about the only one who could do that – if a stranger tried to pick her up, we might have to pay their medical bills.  This going for a walk with Mary Ralph experiment did not last very long; she was soon banned from family walks.

We can all be a little like Mary Ralph in that we have a hard time following.  And at times it probably appears that Jesus is trying to herd cats more than lead sheep.  We don’t necessarily like being led – we might like the idea of setting off on our own, charting our own course.  We can feel like the grass is greener in other pastures.  But we are at our best when we follow the Good Shepherd.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd who came to show us how to live.  And Jesus does not ask us to go anywhere that he has not already gone.  The Good Shepherd restores our souls and leads us in the right paths.

The Lord is my shepherd.. yea, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy road and thy staff, they comfort me…

Sheep can scare pretty easily.  And they have a real knack for getting lost.  We might think that the image of sheep is a terrible picture of what we are like.  But the fact is, we may be more lost than we think.  We can be lost in a relationship that’s offered more hurt than love, in a job that leaves us depleted and spent.  We can be lost in the guilt of not being good enough or smart enough or successful enough for someone whose judgment cuts deep.
Some of us have gotten lost in battles against declining health.  We can be lost searching for meaning and direction.  We can get so lost that we lose sight of who we are and who we were created to be.
And we can surely get lost in grief.  Many of us have passed through the valley of the shadow of death.  We have experienced hurt and sadness and disillusionment.  We have lost loved ones.  For me, that has been very recent.  We have all traveled through that deep valley.  In such times, we need to know that like a Good Shepherd, God is there with us.

The Lord is my shepherd… Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup overflows.

A ten year old boy named Brian was in trouble with his parents.  He was banned from electronic devices and was not a happy camper.  He was sulking and not much fun to be around.  As it happened, that same evening there were guests over for dinner, and the group was big enough that a separate kids’ table was set up.  

It had not been smooth sailing with Brian, so in a nod to their son and effort to include him, even though he was over at the kids’ table, Brian was asked to give the blessing for the meal.  Everyone bowed their heads, and Brian prayed: “'God, I thank you for this table which you have prepared before me in the presence of my enemies.  Amen.”

I read that somewhere but I’m not sure it actually happened like that.  But for sheep, it is pretty obvious what it means to
have a table prepared in the presence of enemies.  The enemies may be wolves, coyotes, mountain lions.  Assorted predators.  Sheep can be very vulnerable.

For us, it may not be so obvious, but we surely face enemies.  The enemy might be illness or poverty or addictions or anxiety for the future.  The enemy might be bigotry, racism, injustice.  And sometimes, we can be our own worst enemy.   

We live in a time in which enemies seem to be glorified – in other words, we want to make people into enemies.  Simply because they have a different opinion, simply because they see things differently, we think of them as enemies.

Whatever else it means, for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies means that in those frightening and troubled times that we face, God goes before us and God stands beside us, giving us courage and strength.  

The Good Shepherd loves all of the sheep.  And here is the thing – here is the really hard thing: that includes those whom we think of as enemies.  That includes those whose lives seem to stand against what Jesus stands for.  That includes all those who are lost.  Like that one lost lamb, God’s desire is to bring them back into the fold.  God’s desire is for love to win.  We are called not to hate our enemies but love our enemies and pray for the power of God’s love to transform our enemies – even as God’s love transforms us.

The Lord is my shepherd …surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The notion that goodness and mercy are following us is a nice sentiment, a hopeful thought, but if they are always following us, like maybe at a safe distance, maybe 100 yards away or so, what good does that really do us?  Well, digging a little deeper may help to understand the meaning here.  Instead of just “follow,” the sense of the word is really closer to “pursue.”  Imagine goodness and mercy pursuing us with dogged determination.  We cannot get away from God’s goodness and mercy.

No matter how far we may feel from God, goodness and mercy are there.  When we face trials and tribulations, we are pursued by goodness and mercy.

When we are worried, when we are filled with anxiety, when we feel inadequate, when we feel that we are not up to the task, there they are: goodness and mercy.

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of confidence.  It reminds us through rich images what it is like to live a life of trust in God.

And it tells us that God’s presence, God’s companionship, can transform every situation.  There will still be dangers.  There will still be deathly valleys, there will still be enemies and challenges.  But we do not need to fear.  God is always there.  And trust and confidence in God leads to a life of peace and joy.  

We have a Good Shepherd.  Amen.

"Making an Entrance" - August 8, 2021

Text: Psalm 100

Longtime Cyclone fans remember coach Johnny Orr.  Johnny was a highly successful coach at Michigan and surprised everybody by coming to Iowa State, which had not been to the NCAA tournament in 40 years.  He was a real character and had some great teams here.  I wasn’t here in those years, but I was at a Cyclones game in 2013.  Iowa State was playing Michigan.  Johnnie Orr was the all-time winningest coach at both schools.  Shortly before tip-off, Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg, who had been one of Johnny’s star players, entered the arena floor with Johnny.  The band broke into the Tonight Show theme, as they had when Johnny was coaching, and he raised his fist, as he had done years before.  There was pandemonium.  It was quite an entrance.  (And the icing on top was that we beat the Wolverines.)

We may not be a star athlete or famous coach or celebrity singer or famous politician, but we all make an entrance in one way or another.  Usually we don’t give it much thought, and most of our entrances are not especially memorable.  Although if we are going to something like our high school reunion or a big wedding – or maybe own wedding - we may give more than the usual amount of thought as to what we wear and how we carry ourselves.  

I bring this up because our text this morning actually has to do with making entrances – and it involves considerably more than what we wear or how we walk.

A few weeks ago we began looking at some of the Psalms.  We started with Psalm 1 – a wisdom Psalm that told us that the person who delights in God’s word and follows God’s way is like a tree planted by water – they will grow and thrive and bear fruit.

We took a detour for a couple of weeks, but last Sunday, as we met together with our friends from First Christian and Ames UCC, we looked at Psalm 139, which tells us that wherever we go, God is there.  We cannot run away from the love and the presence of God.

This morning we are looking at one of the most familiar of the Psalms.  Psalm 100 is a great Psalm of Praise; one writer said that this has probably been sung and chanted in temples and syangogues and churches more than any other Psalm.  We sang a version of this Psalm that was written in 1561 by William Kethe.  The tune was written by John Calvin’s musical composer, Louis Bourgeois, with a tune name Old Hundredth, a tune we most often identify with the Doxology.

Choir anthems aside, we may not sing Psalm 100 a lot, but we hear it a lot.  We often use it as a Call to Worship.  Our banners today were made by kids in Music Camp a number of years ago – I think maybe our very first Music Camp - and this is the scripture they put on the banners: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord.”

This is a psalm of praise that was likely used as something of an entrance Psalm as worshipers entered the temple.  There was an outer court of the temple, an area where people gathered and visited and where you might convert your Roman currency to temple currency – this is where Jesus had his little run-in with the moneychangers.  This was an outdoor courtyard – kind of like our narthex except bigger and better and outside and it surrounded the entire temple.  OK, it really wasn’t very much like our narthex at all.

So there was an outer court, and then for worship you would move into the inner court, or the temple proper.  Psalm 100 was an entrance song that people might sing as they entered the temple for worship.  “Come into God’s presence with singing… Enter God’s gates with Thanksgiving and courts with praise.”  Psalm 100 was used and up to this day continues to be used as a hymn, a prayer, as a call to God’s people to prepare and enter into worship.

But this is not simply a worship element – a kind of plug-and play component that is good for getting a worship service started.  Psalm 100 is packed with meaning – maybe unexpected meaning.  This Psalm has something important to say both about our worship and about our lives.

First – and you might not catch this, I usually don’t – this is actually a deeply political statement.  In fact, I thought about giving this sermon the title “The Politics of Praise” but I thought that might scare you.

Everything is so politicized these days – why do you have to go and politicize a Psalm?  Well first, don’t blame me – blame the Psalmist.  Where do you find a political statement in these words of praise to God?  Well, let’s think about these words again.  “Know that the Lord is God.  It is he that has made us and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.”

Why would you need to say “the Lord is God”?  Isn’t that redundant?  I mean, who else would be God?

That is exactly the point.  These are powerful words because in the ancient world – which is not really all that different from our world – ultimate power was often thought to belong to the king or some other ruler or authority.  “Know that the Lord is God,” we say.  Not the king, not the empire, not the powers that be, not The Man, not market forces, but the Lord is God.

“It is God that has made us and not we ourselves.”  We have myth of the self-made person.  We talk about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  That was never true anyway, but as someone once said, somebody has to give us boots in the first place.  We are not self-made; we depend on each other, and as this Psalm reminds us, it is God who has made us and not we ourselves.

Where does our ultimate loyalty and trust lie?  If it is in our family or clan or social group or our identity as Americans, or in or own strength or intelligence or wealth or good looks, or if it is in an institution, even wonderful institutions, even the church – we will find ourselves disappointed.  Because they are not God.  Only God is God.

And so is this is a powerful statement about ultimate power and ultimate loyalty.

The other thing that really strikes me about this Psalm is what happens when we live a life of praise – when we go all in on giving thanks to God – not just in worship but in everyday life.

Kenneth Samuel went to court to settle a landlord-tenant dispute.  The judge referred the case to arbitration.  He wanted the two parties to work it out with the help of an arbitrator.

So Samuel showed up for the arbitration.  He entered the room with details that supported his claim and was pretty much convinced that a mutual settlement was impossible.  The two sides just had a completely different view of things.  The arbitrator entered the room and said that after reviewing the case, she believed that a mutual settlement could be reached.

Samuel thought to himself, “Yeah… right!”  But then the arbitrator proceeded to have the two parties talk about what common interests they shared.  Both sides kept bringing up points to support their side of the argument, but the arbitrator kept bringing the two back to what interests they had in common.

Three hours later, to Kenneth Samuel’s great surprise, they had signed a mutually agreed upon settlement.  Samuel wrote,

I entered the arbitration room with anger and doubt.  The arbitrator entered the room with hopeful expectation.  Thankfully, the hope she brought into the room overcame the doubt I brought into the room.  What we bring to the issues of life sets the tone for what we will receive.

He is absolutely right.  The guardedness or openness we bring to a relationship sets the tone for how that relationship will develop.

The cooperation or competition we bring with us to a work environment sets the context in which we do our jobs.  It can make all the difference.

The open-heartedness or closed-mindedness we bring with us to church goes a long way toward determining what we will receive from the worship experience.    

Samuel said, “It is difficult to enter a situation and find fulfillment if within ourselves, if we’ve already exited the room before we even enter.

I know that on Sunday mornings, some of us are exhausted from a long week.  If you are like me, there may be so many last-minute details to attend to on a Sunday morning that we may not arrive in a great frame for worship.

Mindy and Emma and Patricia and Joe can attest that there were many weeks of Zoom worship where we would have some kind of technical meltdown seemingly right at 9:40 am, from the computer crashing to the internet going out to having no audio on Zoom, and my focus was so much on the mechanics of it and the technology of it that really entering into worship was not easy.  

I know that some of you at home have been on Zoom calls all week and the prospect of yet another one on Sunday morning is not necessarily exciting.  Or maybe none of these things are going on, but nevertheless we can enter the sanctuary, or the virtual sanctuary, without a lot of thought or anticipation about it one way or another.

Kenneth Samuels learned from an arbitrator that what we focus on can make all the difference.  When we are focused on praise, we are open to God.  As Paul put it, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

We are not talking about coming to church with a put-on, plastic-y smile.  We are not talking about fake optimism.  We are not talking about optimism at all.  We are talking about a life that even for all of the absurdity and craziness and injustice and pain around us chooses to focus on the love and faithfulness of God.

Psalm 100 points us toward a different way of living – a thankful, joyful, powerful way of living with gratitude.  

“Enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving, and into God’s courts with praise; be thankful unto God and bless God’s name… For the Lord is good, with steadfast love that endures forever, and faithfulness to all generations.”  Amen.

"Like a Tree by the Waters" - July 11, 2021

Text: Psalm 1

I was in Wal-Mart the other day, heading toward the pet supplies, when I noticed the song playing on the PA system.  It was “Just What I Needed” by the Cars.  A new wave, punkish group that I listened to in college.  I had the 8-track.  There is no way a retailer would have played The Cars on their PA system back then, but all these years later it has become shopping music.  (That’s how you know you are getting older.)  Well, it’s an energetic, catchy song, and I ‘m sure that is what they are looking for.  You won’t find a lot of songs in minor keys being played while you are out shopping.

I’m sure there is a whole industry built around shopping music, because music is such a big part of life.  But the way we interact and participate with music has changed dramatically in the last 100 years or so.  At one time, music was something that people did – you sang or you played, we ourselves made the music.  This all began to change with the invention of the phonograph and by now, for most people music is something we listen to.  It is more of a commodity, a product, something that we collected on albums and then cassettes and CD’s and something we can now just stream when we feel like listening to it.  

One of the few exceptions to this is the church.  In the church, music is still – mostly – participatory.  We all take part in it.  Everyone is encouraged to sing whether you are a great singer or not.  And you don’t have to be a pro to be in the choir or play your oboe or trombone in an ensemble once in a while.  One of the really difficult things about this past year is that it is hard to sing hymns at home by yourself on a Sunday morning.  Music is a community effort.  

Music has always been an important part of the church, and before that, the temple and synagogue.  In scripture, we find songs and hymns in a variety of places, but especially the Psalms.  The Psalms functioned as the song book of the temple and for much of history, as the song book of the church.  

The Psalms are somewhat unique in scripture.  We think of the Bible as God’s words to us, and it is, but when we come to the Psalms, they are just as much our words to God.  We read the Psalms and we find the whole range of human emotion – from love to rage to joy to fear.  We find expressions of anguish and guilt, of despair, of anger, of hatred even, as well as relief, and trust and confidence and hope and love.  The Psalms are poetry that was often and still is often set to music.  We will come across those Psalms that begin with instructions to the choirmaster or the musicians.

We often use Psalms as Calls to Worship or responsive readings.  Snippets of the Psalms find their way into our hymns.  But we less frequently consider the Psalms as texts for preaching.  We will be doing that over the coming weeks, looking at several of the Psalms, and we are starting today with Psalm 1.  It functions as an introduction to the psalms as a whole.  (Now there are 150 Psalms in all but don’t worry, I won’t be doing a 150-week sermon series.)

Psalm 1 is part of a group of Psalms that would be categorized as Wisdom Psalms.  It sets the stage for the whole collection of Psalms by saying that if you are smart, you will be willing to learn and to immerse yourself in the word and the ways of God.

“Happy are those who do not take the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, nor sit in the seat of scoffers, but their delight is in the law of the Lord.”

Now we may have a pretty good idea of wickedness and what it is to take the advice of the wicked.  And walking in the path of sinners – that is speaking to behavior.  Don’t follow the ways of those who are just going to get you into trouble, who are going to lead you into sin.  But to me, the heart of what this Psalm is about is this great phrase “don’t sit in the seat of scoffers.”

What a fantastic word: a scoffer.  A scoffer is one who mocks or jeers or refuses to heed the truth.  A scoffer is a person who will not learn, who is not open, who refuses instruction.  And you might notice that the scoffer is sitting.  “Don’t sit in the seat of scoffers.”  Not up and about, not involved.  At least the regular sinners have a path that they trod upon, but the scoffer just sits there and refuses to participate, refuses to hear the truth, refuses to learn and grow.

That is one way of living.  Over and against that is the way of the righteous.  They are like trees planted by water.  They are deeply rooted.  Like the song says, they will not be moved, and they can grow and produce fruit.

We lost a tree in the derecho last August.  Actually, on Friday before the storm on Monday, the city removed a dying tree near the curb.  And then in the storm that Monday, two trees were badly damaged and we had to take out the maple in the front yard.  So this spring we wanted to plant another tree in its place.  We have a honey locust in the front yard that is getting pretty big so we were looking for a smaller, ornamental tree.  

I went to get a redbud and as it turned out, in the aftermath of the derecho there was a big run on trees this spring.  They had a bunch of redbuds with sold tags on them.  There was only one left, and it would be several weeks before they could deliver it, they were so backed up.  So I got Bob Parrish with his truck to help bring it home, and I planted it.

It’s a nice little tree.  But you know, we looked out a couple weeks ago and it wasn’t looking so great.  It has been hot and windy and the tree had not developed deep roots.  The tree was droopy.  So I got out the hose and watered it.  I’ve been watering it regularly.  Those who delight in the law of the Lord are like well-watered trees that grow and flourish, while those who follow the advice of the wicked are like that young tree wilting in the heat.

Psalm 1 points ahead to the whole collection of Psalms and says, take heed.  Listen.  Be open.  Be willing to learn.  If you meditate on God’s word, you will be happy.  You will be blessed.  You will grow.

Now the problem presented by this Psalm is that it goes again a lot of what our culture values and teaches.  Our culture says that happiness is found in self-fulfillment.  If you can do what you want to do, you will be happy.  But this Psalm lifts up happiness as delighting in God’s ways, not in simply pleasing ourselves.

And then prosperity is a goal for many of us, and we know what that means.  It means wealth, it means accumulating things, it means attaining what we want.  But that is not the way this Psalm sees it.  If we delight in God’s ways – and presumably live by these ways – then we are by definition prosperous.  And God’s ways involve caring for our neighbors, caring for those in need, caring for God’s creation, not simply caring about ourselves.

Time and again in the Psalms, we find complaints and laments and anguished cries that the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous face suffering and humiliation.  It’s like 14 years in a row, the Jayhawks win the conference while the righteous are forced to suffer.  It ain’t right.  So, the Psalmist defines prosperity in a different way.  And the Psalmist takes the long view on prosperity – that the righteous are rich in what matters most, and that this will be seen, this will be made plain in due time.

Maybe most surprising is the understanding of righteousness itself.  We tend to think of righteousness as following the rules and doing the right thing.  In other words, righteousness all about me.  But according to the Psalms, righteousness is a matter of being connected to God and connected to one another.  It speaks of “the congregation of the righteous.”  It is about knowing that God is there.  “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.”  Righteousness has to do with our connection to God and to the community.

It is easy to read something like Psalm 1, a beautiful piece of poetry, and feel smug about things.  Thank God I am among the righteous, and look out sinners, God is coming for you!   It’s kind of like that New Yorker cartoon that shows two dogs.  One is saying to the other, “It’s not enough that we succeed.  Cats must also fail.”

We can read this Psalm in a moralizing way, in us vs. them, wise vs. foolish, saved vs. unsaved, blessed vs. cursed terms.  But I’m not sure this is all cut and dried.  The Psalmist lays it out in a kind of either/or way, but I’m not so sure that there really are two kinds of people.  Martin Luther said that the Christian is at the same time saint and sinner.  I’m not sure we can so clearly count ourselves on one side or the other, certainly not of our own doing.

Instead, it may be more helpful to see this as a reminder to ourselves of how we are called to live.  We can live in a way that seeks to get ahead, to accumulate for ourselves while we ignore the needs of others, that wants to not just succeed but see the cats lose.  But in the end that way of living is not very satisfying.  Instead we can choose to live the way of the righteous.  It is the way of Jesus, who said that the heart of living by God’s law was loving God and loving neighbor.

Now, it won’t be easy.  We will see folks who live by another set of standards and seem to prosper.  And we ourselves will have plenty of stumbles along the way.  But in the end, this is the way, the only way, that really leads to blessings and happiness.  Which makes it something worth singing about.

Jim Taylor is a Canadian journalist and writer.  He reflected on the Psalms and said that the problem we face is that the world has changed in 3000 years.  It is not so much that the language of the Psalms is a problem; it is the images and metaphors in the Psalms that can be a challenge.  We don’t live in a time of warrior kings and invading armies and sheep and shepherds.  So he wrote a little book called Everyday Psalms in which he paraphrases the Psalms using language and images of today.
This is his take on Psalm 1:

Happiness can’t be captured.
Like a wild bird or a bouncing ball,
It is always just beyond your grasp.
It is not found in fads or fashions,
nor in climbing to the top of the heap.
Happiness comes from immersing yourself in God.
Instead of struggling to stay on top,
Yield yourself to the deep flow of God’s universe.
You will not drown,
You will be swept along by forces beyond your imagining.

Foam on the surface blows about;
Driftwood piles up on sandbars;
People obsessed with themselves end up as rotting debris on rocks.  But the current rolls on.

To find happiness, let yourself be carried away
by something stronger than a social eddy.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

“Not Just a Hometown Prophet” - January 17, 2021

Text: Luke 4:16-30


Ken Chafin was my preaching professor in seminary – just a wonderful guy.  Ken had us read textbooks on preaching, he lectured about preaching, and we had to write a sermon outline every week.  But the best – and the scariest part - was preaching labs.  

We all had to preach several sermons in front of our peers.  The class not only formed the congregation; for each sermon, several other students filled out evaluation forms.  Some in the class were pastors of churches while some had never preached a sermon in their life.  And for the record, the inexperienced preachers by and large were better - they hadn’t picked up bad habits and were more open to learning.  My memory is that we were all pretty generous in our evaluations, knowing we would be evaluated too.

I know some of you have taken a preaching class, but one way or another, we all have some experience having our speech evaluated.  Our scripture for today is Jesus’ inaugural sermon recorded in Luke.  He has just started his ministry – Luke devotes just a couple of sentences to it, says that Jesus was getting rave reviews from everyone, but basically this is the beginning.  He is at his hometown congregation, and they are evaluating his sermon. Let’s join them, with our evaluation sheets in hand.

Synagogue worship was fairly informal compared to worship in the temple.  There would prayers, reading scripture, comments on the scripture, and almsgiving.  On this day, Jesus was invited to read the scripture.  He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Now it takes a while to find a given scripture in a scroll.  It’s not like turning to a page in a book.  He unrolls the scroll, and he reads from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll – again, this tool awhile - and gave it back to the attendant.  This functioned as a big, dramatic pause.  There was great anticipation.  And when he spoke, this is what he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wow.  This was powerful.  People commented on how well he spoke, how proud they were.  They marveled at him.  “Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy?” they asked.  Then Jesus continued.  But rather than wow the crowd with a moving, inspirational sermon, Jesus says, “No doubt you are going to quote to me the proverb, “Doctor, heal yourself.”  Take care of your own people, your own town.  And then he said, “You are going to want me to do here in my hometown the things I did in Capernaum.  Well, I know that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

What?  Jesus seems to be going out of his way to antagonize the people of Nazareth.  The great preacher Fred Craddock said that the opening of a sermon is like driving a bus.  As you start off, you’re just trying to get everybody on board so that they will take the trip with you, and so you want to connect with the hearers.  Unfortunately, Jesus had not read Fred Craddock’s book.  

Jesus goes on to remind the crowd of instances in which God’s favor is shown not to good Israelites, but to Gentiles.  Remember when there was a severe famine, and Elijah went not to one of the Hebrew widows, but the widow at Zarephath and she was the hero of the story?  Or remember when there were many lepers in Israel, but the leper who was healed was Naaman the Syrian?”

What is Jesus thinking?  It is one thing to be provocative; it’s another to be stupid.  What’s the use of having a hometown Messiah if it’s not going to benefit the hometown?  Where did Jesus get off?  

Why did Jesus seem to go out of his way to offend his hometown congregation?

Well, there are a couple of possibilities.  There is this quote from the poet Maya Angelou.  She said, “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”  Jesus could not be the prophet he needed to be – he could not be the savior he was called to be – if he just told the home folk what they needed to hear.  And so to truly be free, to truly be Jesus, he could not be tied to his hometown.

There is maybe another reason.  The scripture Jesus read was basically his purpose statement.  And it pointed to the idea of Jubilee and the Jubilee year – every 50 years, debts were to be forgiven, indentured servants were to go free, land was to be returned to the original family.  Jesus was about healing and release and recovery and reconciliation.  This was Good News for the poor, the troubled, the oppressed.

Maybe the people in Nazareth were relatively privileged.  Maybe they were not in need of his ministry in the way the people in Capernaum were.  He was not going to make a big production just for the sake of impressing the home folks.  

For whatever reason, Jesus lays out in no uncertain terms that he is not just a Hometown Prophet – that his ministry will have a far greater scope.  The people had heard that he put on a good show in Capernaum, but he was not about show.  
So of course, the crowd became enraged.  They did a 180 and mob mentality set in.  The punishment on the books for false prophecy was death.  They chased him to the edge of town and intended to throw him off the cliff there.  Luke does not tell us how exactly, but Jesus was able to walk away.

So: Check your evaluation sheets.  What kind of grade does Jesus get?  From the crowd, he gets a big fat “F.”  

There were good reasons the people in Jesus’ hometown reacted so strongly.  First, there was the problem of familiarity.  They knew Jesus—or they thought they did.  This was the kid they had watched grow up, the boy who had worked with his father in the carpenter’s shop.  Who was he to think he could just come in and tell them the way it was?

Jesus’ words were harsh, but if it were someone else, they may have been a little easier to digest.  But having known Jesus for years, they could not recognize him as a prophet.  Certainly not as a messiah.

I wonder if we sometimes have that same problem.  Jesus can be too familiar.  Too much of a pal, too much “our” guy.  Have you ever noticed all the paintings of Jesus that have him as a blond, blue-haired white guy?  Have you noticed that we tend to attribute to Jesus good middle-class American values?  Making him somebody who could probably serve on the board of the Chamber of Commerce?  (No offense to those of you who may be on the chamber.)  Familiarity can blind us.  Jesus is a friend, yes, a friend who is always with us.  But Jesus is not our lackey.

Maybe the bigger issue was resentment that Jesus had taken God’s favor to others – others whom they didn’t care for.  Capernaum, where Jesus had already had success, had a strong non-Jewish population.  That was one thing.  But then his stories about the widow of Zarapeth and Naaman the Syrian were completely uncalled for.

It galled them that Jesus had used their own scriptures against them, turned their own tradition against them.  They wanted a manageable Messiah.  They did not want someone barging in to remind them of a part of their own tradition that they would just as soon forget: that God’s favor extended beyond the confines of Israel.

At the root of it all, they were offended by God’s grace, grace toward those of whom they did not approve.  

And here again, we can be like the folks in Jesus’ hometown.  We can feel under siege, like the good people of Nazareth.  The world feels out of control, and we want God to be on our side.  Like the people of Nazareth, we can be offended by God’s grace, which actually embraces those who are different from us.  

We want a predictable messiah.  What we don’t want is a savior who will challenge us and maybe even change us.

In his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached just a few weeks before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr.  closed by speaking of how he would want to be remembered.  King says not to mention his awards and honors, which in the end are shallow and not really important.  But he says,
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.  I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.  I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.  And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.  I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.  I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

He was referring to Jesus’ words from scripture.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, proclaiming good news to the poor.  What this all adds up to is offering God’s grace to folks who are on the outside, grace to those on the margins.  Then, as now, that can anger people.

As it was for Jesus, as it was for Martin Luther King, Jr., faithfulness can be costly.  King was assassinated in 1968, but there was another tragedy in the King family in 1974.  Martin Luther King, Sr. – Daddy King – was preaching at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  The church was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out.  A gunman missed King.  But the church organist was struck and killed.  The organist was Mrs. King.

Colleagues from around the nation came to support the King family, including Gardner Taylor, known as the Dean of African American preachers.  Taylor recalled the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had experienced this great loss, yet gave testimony to its abiding faith.

Taylor visited with King Sr. that week.  He recalled:

Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening.  He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “  He stopped awhile.  Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said is going to preach [he was called to ministry].”  Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.”  
Jesus’ inaugural sermon did not earn high marks from his hometown congregation – but I have a feeling that Jesus wasn’t in it for the grade.  Amen.

“Jesus and the Pitchfork” - January 10, 2021

Text: Luke 3:1-22


Children grow up before you know it, don’t they?  Take Jesus, for example.  Two weeks ago, he was a baby, born in Bethlehem, and then last week a 12 year old at the temple, causing consternation for his parents.  Here we are one week later, and he is a grown man.  Time flies.

Our scripture today focuses on John the Baptist.  As you may have already noticed, Luke likes to set things in the historical context.  “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee… and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests.”  This is a kind of timestamp.  Tiberius began his reign in the year 14, so this is the year 28 or 29.  Jesus is around 30 years of age.  

Just as Jesus has grown up, so has John.  The last time we read about John, he was not yet born.  He was leaping with joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary greeted her.  Now he is out in the wilderness, the crowds flock to him, and he rains down judgment.  It is not exactly a warm and fuzzy message.

John is challenging the traditional powers, challenging religious authority.  He says, you don’t have to go to the priests at the temple in Jerusalem, you can come out here in the wilderness and repent of your sins.  That list of political and religious authorities that Luke begins with may be more than just a timestamp – John, and Jesus whom he points to, represent an alternative to those powers, a completely different kind of power.  Luke is painting a big contrast.

John lays it on pretty strong.  “You brood of vipers,” he says.  “And don’t even get me started about Abraham as your ancestor.”  He is saying that their ancestors’ merit and their family identity is not enough.  They are responsible for their own lives.

John calls for repentance, for change of life, and people are drawn to it – maybe because people know they need to change their lives.  And so they ask, “What shall we do?”

John’s response is very interesting.  If you have two coats, share with somebody who has none.  If you have extra food, share it.  If you are a tax collector, don’t rip people off.  Soldiers were among those who came to John – presumably Roman soldiers who were part of a peacekeeping force.  John tells them, don’t shake down people on the streets for protection money – be satisfied with your pay and don’t resort to extortion.  

The bar seems kind of low.  Maybe they were expecting John would say something really hard.  Don’t cheat and steal doesn’t seem that tough.  Share the extra you have doesn’t seem that hard.

This may seem easy, but it can be deceptive.  If you have an extra coat, share it.  Well, the hard part is deciding what is extra, isn’t it?  I’ve got an everyday coat I wear, really a ski jacket.  I’ve had it for years.  Then I have an older parka that is my snowblower and blizzard coat.  And a dress coat.  And a rain coat.  And a lighter jacket.  And a windbreaker and a couple of fleece jackets.  And some sportcoats and suit jackets and – well, what do we really need and what is extra?  

When do we cross the line - on coats or anything else – to more than we need, to indulgence?  The challenge is to live a life of openness and sharing and caring for those who do not have enough rather than a life of accumulating for ourselves.  There were people who literally did not have clothes to wear.  Do you share your extra coat?  That coat represented security.  John calls for the vulnerability of sharing.

I love that what he calls for is so tangible.  He doesn’t just say, be concerned for justice - he spells out how to do it.  And this isn’t just for the uber-rich – he calls on regular people, like tax collectors and soldiers – to treat others fairly and not just look out for themselves.

People are wondering if perhaps John is the Messiah, and John says, “No, one greater than me is coming; I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.  I am baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with the fire of the Holy Spirit.”  And then he says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This sounds pretty hard core.  What is John is talking about?  A winnowing fork?  Some of us wouldn’t know a winnowing fork from a salad fork.

Here’s the way it worked: before grain was ground for flour, it needed to be as clean as possible.  After harvesting and threshing, it contained a lot of chaff – the outer husks of the grain and other stuff you did not want in your bread.  To winnow, you might take a basket of grain and go outside on a windy day and pour it into another basket.  In doing so, the chaff would be blown away while the heavier grain would fall into the basket.  Another method would be to use a winnowing fork.  After grain had been beaten out of the husks, or threshed, you would have grain on the floor mixed with chaff.  You would take the winnowing fork and throw the grain into the air, allowing the chaff to be blown away.

It is interesting to me that Jesus is pictured by John with something like a pitchfork.  This seems seriously fire and brimstone.  Did you know that the devil is never described in the Bible as having a pitchfork, but Jesus is?  All these years, we’ve seen those cans of Underwood Deviled Ham, with the little red devil with a pitchfork, and it turns out they were wrong all along.  Jesus is the one with a pitchfork!  This being Iowa, with Grant Wood and American Gothic, I would have thought that this image of Jesus with a pitchfork would have caught on, but for some reason it hasn’t.

The question, of course, is what John meant by this image.  It sounds as though John is saying that when the Messiah comes he will separate the good from the bad, and the bad will have a price to pay.

But this is not the way Jesus characterizes his own ministry.  Jesus was not about separating people, but bringing people together.  He was not about excluding people, but including people.  He did not treat people as chaff to be discarded.

Here is the thing: chaff is mostly part of the wheat plant.  So maybe this is not about separating good and bad people, but maybe it is about working on those parts of our own lives that need to change, that we may need to leave behind.  We all have some chaff.

In a reflection on these verses, Tom Ehrich asked if perhaps we have misunderstood John here -- if we have misplaced the emphasis of his words.  Luke goes on to tell how Herod the ruler was offended by John’s rebuke and imprisoned John for a time.  Ehrich says that John’s offense lay in insisting that the coming of Jesus represented a need for people to decide between good and evil.  That was not what Herod wanted to hear, and it’s not necessarily what we want to hear either.  

Ehrich wrote, “John said what few dare to hear, which is that life matters, how we take each day matters, our behaviors draw us close to God or not, and, while not all in life will be wonderful, all will be filled with the wonder of God.”

The choices we make matter.  We can choose to accumulate for ourselves or share with others.  We can choose to not rock the boat or we can choose to stand up for what is right.  We can love our neighbor or we can ignore our neighbor in need.  We can look out for our own tribe or we can value all of God’s children.

Like you, I was – astonished and mortified - to see an angry mob descend on the Capitol on Wednesday.  It was hard to believe what we were seeing.  Something that got my attention in the midst of all of it was a giant Jesus Saves banner that some of the rioters were carrying.  It was really striking.  

How did we ever get to this point?  To me, the scene was not just sickening; the actions of some of the people there were blasphemous.  People were using Jesus as a kind of mascot for their own cause.  

John said, “Don’t tell me how you are children of Abraham.  What matters are your actions.  Today, John would say, “God couldn’t care less about your Jesus signs or your Jesus talk.  God demands a new way of living, faithful living that shows love for your neighbor.  

I mentioned this at our devotion on Thursday night.  As we talked about it, we agreed that we can all make Jesus our mascot to bless whatever choices we make.  John the Baptist calls us out on that.  We all have choices to make about how we live and whether we will choose Jesus’ way.

Jesus made a choice himself.  In humility, he submitted to John’s baptism.  He was there, among the people.  He was baptized like everybody else – he did not think himself above others.  He recognizes his connection to the community.  He does not act like he is special.

But there is confirmation that he is special.  After his baptism, as he was praying, there is a voice from heaven saying, ”You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  For Jesus, his baptism was an experience of affirmation of his identity and calling.  God is delighted in him.

Our baptism represents the choice we have made to follow Christ.  It represents repentance and trust and faith and is an experience of God’s grace.  In our baptism, God says to us, “You are my beloved daughter…you are my beloved son.”

As Christians, we are called to live out our baptism by following in Jesus’ ways, by continuing his ministry on this earth.  We don’t think of ourselves as needing a winnowing fork to live the Christian life, but maybe that’s not a bad image.  We consider various ideas, throw stuff out there and allow the wind of the Spirit to decide what’s good and what’s not, what builds up and what doesn’t.

It’s not just obvious choices between good and bad; we have to separate the important from the merely urgent, the good from the best.  We have to learn to separate those things that are attractive but fleeting from that which is solid and lasting.  

We have to learn to separate those core beliefs and values and commitments that matter most from those more peripheral matters that are not so important and on which we sometimes need to just agree to disagree.  A winnowing fork just might come in handy.

This is not to say that the choices facing us are always easy.  But in all of our decision-making, we live in God’s grace.  In those times when the way does not seem so clear, we can rest in knowing that God says to each of us, “You are my beloved child.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

“Searching For Jesus” - January 3, 2021

Text: Luke 2:41-52


As a seminary student I spent a year at Virginia Tech, serving as a Campus Ministry Intern.  Over spring break, I took 12 students to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to work at a place called the Graffiti Center.  In the midst of drugs and poverty and empty buildings as well as early stages of gentrification, the Graffiti Center had a significant ministry, and we were there for a week to work and to learn.

On Sunday morning, I took the students to worship at the historic Riverside Church, the cathedral–like church built by John D. Rockefeller.  Riverside is dually affiliated with the ABC and the UCC.  It was St. Patrick’s’ Day and Riverside’s pastor at the time, William Sloan Coffin, as Irish as they come, was in rare form.  It was quite an experience for some mostly Southern Baptist kids from Virginia.

The transportation alone was quite an experience.  After the service, we went to the subway station to ride back to Graffiti.  We were going to “Take The ‘A’ Train,” just like in the song.  We waited for what seemed like a long time.  Then an express train pulled up on the track behind us.  We realized that the express would take us to where we needed to go, and faster, so we all got on.  That is, all of us got on except for William.

William was a freshman.  He was kind of backward, very socially awkward.  If you had to choose one of the twelve students to get lost from the group, it definitely would not have been William.

We were on the train for a minute or so when we realized that William was not with us.  I was responsible for this group and I can’t tell you the awful sense of panic I felt.

We got off the train at our stop and waited.  And waited.  No William.  He didn’t take the next train.  Or the next.  Or maybe he did, but he didn’t get off where he was supposed to.  Of course, this was before everybody had cell phones.

I sent a couple of students back to the station near Riverside Church and a couple others to check a few stops further down the line.  A couple of us waited at our stop, and the others went back to the Graffiti Center.  I also instituted an immediate buddy system.

If I knew all of the details at the time, I would have been even more concerned.  William did not remember which stop was ours; in fact, he couldn’t even remember that we were working at the Graffiti Center.  He only had 25 cents in his pocket.  All he could remember was the name of a big Catholic Church a couple of blocks from the Graffiti Center.  But he did remember that we had eaten in Chinatown the night before, and that it wasn’t all that far from Chinatown to the Graffiti Center.  So he got off at Chinatown and wandered around, asking a few people if they knew where St. Stanislaus was, or whatever the name of that church was.  Finally, miraculously, he ran into a homeless person who happened to be a regular at the Graffiti Center, and Frank walked him back.

That was a long time ago, but it still scares me when I think about it.  If you have ever lost a child – even if it is someone else’s child and even if the child is 18 years old – you know what it is to have that sudden feeling of panic and terror.  Maybe you are in a store and you turn around and your 3 year old just isn’t there, and it just scares you to death.  

Mary and Joseph absolutely knew that feeling.  They had been to Jerusalem for Passover.  It was a big trip. They traveled with a large group of friends and family.  On their way home, they were on the road a full day when they started to worry.   They had assumed that Jesus was with his cousins and some other boys his age, on the road ahead of them.  But he wasn’t.  He wasn’t behind them, either.  He wasn’t anywhere to be found.  They kept expecting him to show up, but he never did.  

Feeling that dread and panic, they decided they had to go back to Jerusalem.  They arrived back in the city, checked the place they had stayed, checked the market, asked friends there if they knew where Jesus was, but no luck.  It was another whole day before they finally found him.

Where was Jesus?  Jesus was in the temple, sitting among the teachers and asking questions.  

I love that Luke includes this story.  It is the only glimpse we have of Jesus as an adolescent.   Luke is especially interested in sharing key developmental moments in Jesus’ life.  We have his birth as well as his circumcision and presentation at the temple.  We have this episode at age 12, shortly before he would officially become an adult member of the community at age 13.  And then we have Jesus’ baptism.  Here, we have a glimpse of Jesus the Tween.  He is not that adorable baby in the manger, but he is not an adult with complete independence and authority either.  He is in-between.  

His parents find Jesus in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions.  And everybody was amazed by what he had to say.  He’s 12 years old.  

Well, he might be 12 years old and he might be Jesus, but like any 12 year old he can drive his parents crazy.  When they finally found him, Mary says, “What’s the matter with you?”  That’s a rough paraphrase.  

There is a fantastic medieval painting of this scene.  It was painted in 1342 by Simone Martini of Sienna.  Check this out.  

click here for the painting

Mary asks, “What were you thinking?” while Joseph asks the same thing through his gestures.  But take a look at Jesus’ face.  As a 12 year old, everybody has that look on their face at some point.  His arms are crossed and he has that look of exasperation with his parents.  It looks like he is rolling his eyes.    

There are a lot of reasons I love that Luke included this story, but I appreciate that there is this episode that includes the dynamics of adolescence – of that time between childhood and adulthood.  

Jesus is 12.  Everybody heads back to Nazareth but he stays at the temple.  Most 12 years olds were not really into deep discussions of Torah, but Jesus was different.  I mean, everybody is a little different, but this was Jesus.

Mary says, “Your father and I have been worried” and Jesus says, “I’m in my father’s house.”  He is back-talking his parents.  And then - he is obedient, a child going home with his parents.  That is what it is to be in between childhood and adulthood – in between dependence and autonomy.  He is learning be his own person.  He will eventually go his own way but he will always have this close bond with his family, concerned for his mother even in his final hours.

Mary and Joseph find him having a deep conversation with scholars at the temple, displaying a spiritual depth they had not seen before.  They were somewhere in between “I’m so proud of you” and “What is wrong with you?”

This is a story of Jesus’ humanity.  He was human as we are, and he could drive his parents crazy just like we could, and just like our children can.  But this story also gives us a clue as to what and who Jesus was becoming.  He had been “about my Father’s business,” as some translations have it.  He was learning and immersing himself in the study of scripture.  

Looking at the whole episode, it strikes me that the unsung heroes of this story are the teachers in the temple.  They are hardly even characters.  We don’t know exactly who they are, or their names, and they don’t say anything.  But I love the community learning that happens here.  The teachers in the temple include Jesus in the conversation.  He comes, like others, to learn, and they don’t dismiss him because he is a kid.   And what happens is interactive.   

Jesus is learning and asking questions, but he is also offering his thoughts and answers.  Everyone was amazed at his understanding.  

It is not patronizing – the teachers don’t say “isn’t it cute, this 12 year old knows his scripture.”  Jesus is genuinely included.  He is learning the tradition, even as he in time will expand the tradition and go beyond the tradition.  It also strikes me that his parents traveled one day’s distance, then had to travel back, then it took perhaps a day to find him.  You can imagine that the teachers saw to it that Jesus had a place to stay and food to eat, that they looked out for him until his parents showed up.

I think about the role of young people in the community of faith.  They are learning and growing, but they are also fully a part of the community right now, and we can learn from them.  I appreciate that this often happens in our church.  Of course we have all depended on younger people, maybe on the 12 year olds we know, to help us with technology over these past months.  And there are plenty of families where one or both parents are working from home while kids are also at home trying to do online school, and everybody is learning together how to make it all work.

But it is more than that.  The questions and perspectives and ideas of everyone are important and valuable.  Younger people can offer new ideas and new perspectives that we need to hear.  The teachers in the temple model an inclusive, community approach to learning.

This is the first Sunday of a new year.  Thank God for that.  The last year was awful, but if we learned anything it is that we cannot predict what the future will hold.  We enter this year maybe a little wiser.  We know there will be change.  We know there will be challenges.  And we need the contributions of everyone as together we navigate the road ahead.  

Now one more thing this morning.  The text says that Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus.  You know what?  They were not the only ones.  His disciples did not fully understand the grown-up Jesus.  Neither did folks in his hometown.  Nor the religious establishment, nor the political/economic powers that be.  And the same is true today.  I have to confess that it is true for myself: I don’t always understand Jesus.

You might say that like Mary and Joseph, we are all trying to find Jesus.

A lot of Jesus’ stories and sayings leave us scratching our heads.  It can be hard for us to understand the depth of Jesus’ love and commitment and self-sacrifice.  It can be hard to understand the idea of power in weakness, or that the last shall be first, or the notion of loving our enemies.  It can be hard to understand how the poor and the meek and those who mourn can be blessed.  We can’t fully understand life and love that is greater even than death.

But we are learning.  Like Jesus at the temple, we are all learning.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.