Saturday, November 13, 2021

“Sustained through Challenge, Challenged for Possibility” - November 14, 2021, Stewardship Sunday

 Text:Isaiah 43:1-3a, 15-21

You know, people generally are not clamoring to be on the Stewardship Committee.  Well to be fair, most people are generally not tripping over each other trying to get on committees, period.  But there is something about stewardship.

I think it is because we all have a certain uneasiness with talking about money.  It’s just easier to get excited about the Worship Committee or the Social Committee.

Of course, as most of us know, stewardship is not really about money.  At least, it is not the heart of it.  Stewardship is about the way we use what God has given us – the time, the talents, the abilities, the influence, the care, the concern, and yes, the resources.  Stewardship is the way we respond to God’s gracious gifts.  Basically, stewardship is about living as a follower of Jesus.

At any rate, our stewardship committee met a while back and we talked about how we might go about our stewardship campaign this fall.  Last year, of course, we were completely online.  So things were quite a bit different.  This year, we are roughly half-online.  

We talked about stewardship moments and the mailing we would send out, and we talked about a theme.  And as we thought about what the last 20 months have been like, the theme we arrived at – I think Joyce suggested it - was “Sustained through Challenge, Challenged for Possibility.”

It is a perfect theme for where we find ourselves.  I don’t need to go into detail about how this time has been challenging.  I could talk about school or family or mental health or being unable to travel or economic challenges, along with terrible losses from the virus itself.  

But as one example of the difficulties we have faced, I happened to read an article just yesterday by Diana Butler Bass.  She is a church historian and author.  We used one of her books for our Lenten study a few years ago and some of us heard her speak in Ames a few years before that.

She was writing about what people are calling The Great Resignation – the number of people who have left the workforce in recent months.  She said,

We’ve all worked really hard in the last twenty months, often doing things we never imagined we could do, work where we’ve learned much but that also hasn’t always been what we feel confident in, good at, or held the greatest emotional rewards.  It has been hard for everyone: young adults entering the working force; mid-career workers, many of whom are also parents and had school-age children at home; those approaching retirement.  People who had to work at home; people who couldn’t work at home.   
Bass was recently was in Norman, Oklahoma, doing her first in-person event since the pandemic began and she said she  experienced something she had not in a long time – the joy of being a teacher.  The personal contact was renewing.  She went on to say that commentators are focusing on economic reasons for so many leaving their jobs, but it seems to her there may be a spiritual component to it.  

Every one of us could tick off challenges we have faced over these last couple of years – personal and professional and family and social.

We have certainly faced challenges as a church.  We went for well over a year of meeting almost exclusively online, with all of the difficulties that brought.  And now we are kind of meeting half-online, and that is a challenge too.

I don’t have to tell you that it has not been an easy time.  But here’s the thing: life has always been challenging.  Even in the best of times.  We have always faced setbacks and personal struggles.

Our scripture for this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah.  His ministry was during a time of – well let’s say challenge, to put it mildly.  This part of Isaiah was written toward the end of the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon.  These were people who had suffered – they had been taken from their homes, from their land, from all that was familiar.  Their survival as a people, not to mention individual survival, was threatened.   

And even in such a setting, the prophet’s words are words of comfort and words of hope:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
   the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.        
In challenging times, God is there.  God had sustained the Israelites through a dark time.

Isaiah goes on to remind the people of another challenging time.  He recounts their liberation from Egypt and the miraculous escape through the Red Sea, when the waters parted.  God had acted in a mighty way in the past, and now, God was again doing a new thing.  The people would return to Jerusalem.

Through the challenges we have faced over these past months, God has sustained us – in so many ways.  When we face those difficult and threatening moments, God says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… when you walk through the fire, I will protect you.  I have called you by name and you are mine.”

We have been sustained through challenging times.  At the same time, the challenges we have faced have brought about possibility.  In her article, Diana Butler Bass went on to write  about work in terms of vocation and calling, and she concluded by saying,

As we move ahead and exercise the more familiar, rewarding parts of our jobs once again, I hope that people will rediscover satisfaction and fulfillment.  And for those who truly discovered their jobs had little to do with calling, I pray they will find work attended with joy — and that the Great Resignation will be the first step toward a genuine spiritual renewal of vocation - the rediscovery of meaningful work.
Through challenge comes possibility.  As a church, we have done some things we would not have imagined a couple of years ago.  Some of these are relatively small things.  This Friday we will have a virtual trivia night.  Anybody, anywhere can participate including friends who join us from out of state and those who could not get out and drive somewhere on a Friday night.

Likewise, we have expanded our congregation in these last two years.  Folks from at least 27 states, DC, Canada, and Germany have worshiped with us and many out of town folks join us each week.  This includes regular attenders who are traveling and folks in Ames unable to join us in person.

In 2020, largely because we were not meeting in our building, expenses were down.  At the same time, without ever passing the offering plate, amazingly, giving went up.  And this presented us with possibility.

At the end of last year, with a budget surplus, we used some of those funds to provide more support for Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance, providing heating and utility help that is needed more than ever.  We sent additional funds to Food at First, which provides a free meal to the community every single day.  We sent a check to the Story County Emergency Fund for Immigrants, helping some of the neediest people in our community.  And we sent additional support to American Baptist United Mission, helping to fund mission and ministry in the United States and Puerto Rico and around the world.   

This past summer we did not have a mission trip.  We used some of the funds budgeted to help support a mission trip to support the ministry of Bruce and Linda Hanson in Honduras.  They are serving through the mission arm of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, but when their church – Ames UCC - was having pre-recorded services, we commissioned them as missionaries in a live service out on our front lawn.  And of course we claim them as our missionaries too, but this challenging time brought about a cool possibility.

The challenges we have faced brought about possibility as we held many services in the front yard – primarily because in the time of COVID it’s a safer environment.  But you know what – it was fun, and it was a witness to the neighborhood.  I was amazed when folks walking along the sidewalk would stop and listen for awhile.  

Now at some point, things will end up at whatever “normal” normal is going to be.  Or maybe they won’t, maybe a world of continual change and challenge is the new normal.  Either way, God will continue to sustain us.  God is good, all the time.  And through the challenge there will continue to be possibility for God’s people.

Today is our annual Stewardship Sunday, and we make pledges to support God’s work through this church.  As you leave today, you may leave your pledge in the offering plate or you can mail pledges to the church office.  We are giving to support the work of the church, but what we are really giving toward is possibility.

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

Or people may come looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, thinking a traditional service would be nice, and start to discover that spiritual grounding of relationships has a value they had not considered.

Or parents will bring children for music camp and find a community that values children, looks to broaden horizons, and sees every person as a beautiful child of God.  

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

Or students find a community of friendship and support and encouragement that does not treat them as just a part of the pack but as an important individual.

Or folks whose family is far from Ames find that in times of need, they do have a family here.

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

God sustains us through the times of challenge.  And by God’s grace, we become open to possibility.  God continues to say to us, “I am about to do a new thing.”  Amen.

“Ever Reforming” - October 31, 2021, Reformation Sunday

Text: Psalm 46:1-7, Romans 3:19-28


I don’t know about you, but in my lifetime, church has changed.  I mean, a lot.  I grew up in a church in which women did not serve as deacons.  Or as ushers, for that matter.  I remember my mom was the chair of the pastoral search committee one time, this was back about 1981.  That basically unheard of in that church and in that particular Baptist tradition, but nobody had thought to make a rule, either written or unwritten, about a woman being in charge of finding the next pastor.

Today, over half of the students at mainline seminaries are women.  There is a long way to go, and it is especially difficult for a woman to be hired as pastor at a larger church, but there is no question that things have changed.

There was a time when “Holy, Holy, Holy” was the first hymn listed in many hymnals.  There was a certain playlist of songs you could expect on a Sunday morning that didn’t vary all that much from church to church.  Now, there is a wide variety of music, not just contemporary praise music, but world music and new hymns and Taize music, along with the gospel songs and classic hymns, and the musical repertoire of different churches can be wildly different.  Sometimes, the music in a single service can be wildly different.  

When I was growing up, churches held a certain place of prestige and influence in the community.  When I moved to Arthur, Illinois in 1992 to pastor a church there, the country club had just discontinued its practice of giving local ministers a free membership.  I’m not saying ministers should receive such community benefits, I’m just saying that the relationship between church and culture and the place the church has in the culture has changed a lot.

All of this is by way of saying that the culture is always changing, and the church is always in need of reforming, both to address the needs of the culture and to be more faithful to our calling to follow Jesus.  Throughout the history of the Christian Church, there have been groups and individuals who have led the church to be more faithful, more of the church God calls us to be.

In 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and leaders of church and state to answer charges of heresy.  Johann von Eck, the brilliant theologian, questioned him.  And suddenly the words were pouring forth from Luther’s lips:
Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right.  God help me, here I stand.  

Today is Reformation Sunday.  On this date in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses, or complaints, or critiques - to the church door in Wittenberg.  This was the community bulletin board, the social media of the day.  And in some respects it was better than our social media, because who wants to tweet out 95 tweets in a row?

Luther wanted to spur conversation, to bring about renewal within the church, but that act began what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.  We have observed Reformation Sunday here from every once in a while, not every year, but since Sunday falls on the actual day this year, why not?

Besides that, I love history.  And I feel some personal connection to the early Reformation.  A number of years ago our family was able to visit a dairy farm in the Emmental in Switzerland.  In 1608 my forbears built the house that something like my 12th cousin and his family live in today.  The structure is a house and barn all in one.  In the early 1700’s my ancestor Christian Fankhouser lived there.  He was an Anabaptist – the Anabaptists went beyond the reforms of Luther and other Reformers.  Among other things, they believed in believer’s baptism.  They were seen as a threat to the existing order and persecuted – in that area, mostly by other Protestants.
There is a secret hiding place under the floorboards of the barn in that house where Christian Fankhouser would hide when the Tauferjagers, literally Anabaptist hunters, kind of religious conformity police, would come looking for him.  And that place has become a kind of pilgrimage site for Mennonites and other Anabaptists, who are spiritual cousins to us as Baptists.  

After a couple of years of evading the Tauferjagers - I mean, it was a long way from Bern and the authorities really didn’t want to go traipsing through the hinterlands – Christian was finally captured and arrested.  He spent time imprisoned in Trachselwald Castle, which we visited, and then in the jail in Bern, which at the time was a part of the city wall, and we saw that too.

Finally he was put on a boat with around 80 people - other Anabaptists as well as poor people who could not pay their debts.  They were to be sent to Rotterdam and then put on a ship for America.

Now, this was the enlightened early 1700’s.  Years before, Anabaptists were drowned in Zurich.   You like the water so much?  We’ll give you water.  I visited the place on the Limmat River where Felix Manz was drowned in 1527.

I thought about my ancestor Christian Fankhouser as I thought about the Reformation.  It had never occurred to me before, but all of the sentiment to deport people that we hear today – we haven’t changed that much.  I mean, Christian Fankhouser was a taxpaying citizen, from a long-established family, but it didn’t matter.  He became one of “them.”  He was an “illegal.”  It was illegal not to baptize your children.  It is easy to turn on those seen as different.

Christian didn’t make it to America.  He didn’t even make it to Rotterdam.  Most of the people on the boat grew deathly sick around Stuttgart and were let off the boat.  Those who weren’t sick were freed in Holland, where the authorities believed in religious toleration at least a little more than those in Bern.  

He lived most of his life in Alsace, now northwest France, and snuck back to the farm from time to time.  His children did not become Anabaptists, at least as far as the authorities knew, and that is the reason the farm is still in the family – otherwise it would have been confiscated.

Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517.  The Anabaptists came about just a few years later.  The Baptists arose in the early 1600’s, and like the Anabaptists were a part of what is called the Radical Reformation.  It feels good to be a radical, doesn’t it?

The Baptists were persecuted as well, including here in this country.  In colonial times preachers were arrested for refusing to get a license from the state.  The entire congregation of the church in Kittery, Maine moved to Charleston, South Carolina to escape persecution and that became the first Baptist church in the South.

Our history and tradition is one of protecting the rights of the minority, even protecting the rights of those we vehemently disagree with – both because Jesus tells us to love our neighbors and even love our enemies, and because we remember our own experience as a minority religion.  Faith that is coerced is not real faith at all.

Martin Luther’s disagreement with the Church of his day had mostly to do with the belief that salvation depended not simply upon faith, but upon one’s merit.  Most people did not have enough goodness to make it to heaven on their own and had to spend time in purgatory, being refined by fire – pretty much literally.  But fortunately there were Saints of the Church who had excess merit—more goodness than they needed.  One could receive some of that excess merit for certain religious acts – for making a pilgrimage to a shrine or for acts of charity.  This was called an indulgence.

In time, indulgences were sold.  The Indulgence Sellers preached a fire and brimstone sermon, got the people worked up, and then offered a way out.  You could purchase an indulgence.  “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” was the jingle.  An indulgence could be applied to one’s own account, as it were, or used to help free a loved one, maybe grandma or grandpa, from purgatory.  

Luther was a complicated figure: he struggled all his life with bouts of depression; he questioned his salvation; he struggled with the medieval view of Christ as a cold and calculating judge.  He feared the wrath and damnation of God - until he began to really study the scriptures.  He read Romans, particularly our scripture for this morning, and discovered that “the just shall live by faith” and “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Luther wrote: “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith…I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself.”

For Luther, a focus on the scriptures led to an examination of theology.  And theologically, there were a few bywords of the Reformation:

First, Faith Alone.  Salvation comes by faith, not by our own goodness.  

Closely related is Grace Alone.  Salvation is a gift of God through and through.  Our experience of faith and our living and breathing each day is a gift.  It is all grace.  Even the ability to have faith is a gift of God.  

Another Reformation theme is Scripture Alone.  The scriptures speak to us and contain the truth we need.  “Scripture Alone” means that others sources of authority do not carry the same weight as the Bible.  This is related to the idea of the priesthood of all believers – we can all interpret the scriptures for ourselves, aided by the tradition of interpretation, aided by our ability to reason and make sense of things for ourselves, and led by the Holy Spirit.  

It is possible for a long tradition to be wrong.  Many Christians long believed that the scriptures supported slavery.  Many Christians long believed that the Bible taught a secondary role for women.  Folks have used the Bible to support all sorts of things.  Luther stood against the weight of church authority and tradition and said, based on scripture, aided by reason and the Holy Spirit, “Here I stand.”
One more slogan of the Reformation – ecclesia reformandum, semper reformata.  A church “reformed and ever reforming.”

I love history, and I have talked a lot about history.  But “ever reforming” means that the Reformation isn’t over.  The church constantly needs to examine itself and follow the lead of the Spirit.

Martin Luther went on to translate the Bible into German, and the Luther Bible is to the German-speaking world what the King James is to the English-speaking world.  He was an ex-priest who married an ex-nun and together they had 6 children, and if that’s not Reformation then I’m not sure what is.

Well, what about today?  Where has this history and reforming tradition brought us?  In many ways, the church was already at a crossroads, and now after many months of a pandemic, everything feels up in the air.  

There are those who see the Church as a quaint throwback to a bygone era, if they even give the church a second thought.  Others see the Church as a bastion against reason and common sense – opposed to science, opposed to progress, opposed to rational thought.  Some see the Church as helping to promote the incivility and intolerance that is so rampant in our world, rather than helping to build community and bring reconciliation.  In many cases, we would have to say that this view of the church is accurate.

Increasingly, people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  That can mean a lot of things, but it can certainly be a reaction against the kind of self-centeredness and empire-building that Martin Luther, the Swiss Anabaptists, and the early Baptists all protested in their own way.

You know who else is protesting that today?  Pope Francis.  The head of the Roman Catholic Church is one of a handful of religious leaders that come to mind as working for change and renewal and maybe even “Reformation” in the church.  And the interesting thing is that today, rather than breaking apart, reformation can off mean coming together with others to share in God’s work.   

This is a time of change, but also a time of great opportunity.  Or as our stewardship theme has it, a time of challenge and possibility.  The Good News is: the Church has faced challenging times before.  And God continues to use fallible human beings - the Church - to bring wholeness and healing and justice and community and reconciliation and salvation.  We know this.  We have experienced it.

We don’t know exactly what the church will look like – this church or the wider church – in 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years.  We’re not exactly sure what it will look like next year.  But we are heirs to a great tradition able to change and innovate and follow God’s Spirit in new ways, in exciting ways, in life-giving ways.  And in the end, as Luther and the Reformers remind us, the just shall live by faith.  Amen.

“Called by God” - October 24, 2021

Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-21

This fall we have been making our way through the Old Testament, looking at some of what you might call the Old Testament’s greatest hits, and this morning we jump ahead several generations from Moses.  The Israelites have now established themselves in the Promised Land.  But after leaders like Moses and Joshua who followed him, leadership and authority and structure has become a little murky.

Israel at this point is not really an organized nation. In fact, as the book of Judges comes to an end, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart.  The people have made it to the Promised Land, but things are far from perfect.  
It is in such a time that Samuel comes into the picture.  A man named Elkanah has two wives, one of whom is barren.  This is a recurring theme – such was the case with Sarah and then with Rachel, and we will find this again in the New Testament with Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.

Elkanah and his family would go to the temple to offer a sacrifice each year.  On such a visit, Hannah pleads with God for a child, promising that she will dedicate this child to God.  She is in the midst of such yearning, heartfelt prayer, but she is praying silently, yet with her lips moving.  Eli the priest observes this and assumes she is drunk.  “How long are you going to make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” he asks.  Hannah explains what is going on, and Eli tells her that God will grant her petition.  God does answer her prayer, and she dedicates the child to God’s service.  When he is old enough, Samuel goes to live with the priest Eli and his family in the temple.

This brings us to our text for today.  The boy Samuel, living in the temple, hears a voice calling in the night.  He hears this voice three times, and each time Samuel gets up to see what the old priest Eli wants.

But Eli has not called him.  And even Eli does not understand what is happening right away.  But eventually, Eli understands.  After the third time, Eli tells Samuel to answer “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Samuel does as Eli instructs, and God speaks to him.  

To be real honest, it’s kind of a scary story.  As a child, I would hear this story in Sunday School and feel bad for Samuel, this little boy living what sounded like a sad and lonely life in this cold, dark temple.  They would have those pictures, some of you remember those Sunday School pictures, of Hannah bringing him a new coat on her yearly visit and Samuel was smiling and looked happy.  This didn’t seem quite right to me.  Even though it involved a little boy, it wasn’t really that cheery a story for a kid to hear.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate it as a great story, because it turns the tables on what we would expect.  To whom would God speak – a veteran priest, or a little kid?  

Although, when we read the whole story, God was really speaking to both of them, and both needed the other in order to hear God.  On his own, Samuel did not comprehend that God was speaking to him.  He needed Eli.  But the message God had for Samuel was a message of judgment on Eli’s family.  His sons were corrupt and blasphemous and made a mockery of the priesthood, and Eli had sat idly by and let it continue – he was complicit in it.  God had a message for Eli, but Eli needed Samuel to hear it.  Both Eli and Samuel needed the other.

That is often the way it works.  We can have a hard time hearing God all by ourselves – we need each other.  Young Samuel needed the experience and maturity of Eli, who perceived that God was speaking.  But somehow, Eli wasn’t hearing God himself - maybe he wasn’t really listening – and it was the boy Samuel who gave him God’s message.

No matter what our age, we all need some help in hearing and responding to God, and in figuring out whether God is the one speaking to us.  This story is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on God’s call on our lives.

Now, to hear those words, “God’s call,” a lot of folks assume that has to do with being called to ministry or being called to be a missionary.  Or maybe being called to some grand, difficult task – like Moses being called to lead the people out of Egypt.  Sometimes that is the case, but the fact is that God has a call on each of our lives.

What does Jesus say to his disciples?  “Come, follow me.”  That is a call for everyone.  What does Micah say?  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”  God has a call for each of us.

God called Samuel not just in the middle of the night, but in the middle of a bleak time, a difficult time.  A time of upheaval and uncertainty.  A time of political tribalism.  
How did the scripture put it?  “The word of the Lord was rare.  People did what was right in their own eyes.”

The call of God may come in difficult times.  Maybe it is a voice calling in the night, but maybe it is anger at the way things are that prods us to do God’s work.  I was at the AMOS meeting on Monday night, and heard about the difficulty so many people have in finding decent, affordable housing.  There are those for whom advocacy for affordable housing for everyone is a calling.

God can call us in all sorts of ways, and our discomfort and disillusionment and aggravation with the way things are well may be a starting point for a sense of call.

Our call may come suddenly in the night, as it did for Samuel, or it can come through a gradual sense of purpose and direction.  

We live in a world where the notion of hearing God’s voice sounds, well, a little crazy.  The idea that God might speak to us, whether it is through a voice or a dream or righteous anger or a growing awareness or a deep conviction - however it happens, the idea that God might speak to us is for many people a little bit suspect.  And the ability to hear God’s call, to perceive that God is speaking to us, can be just as hard for us as it was for Samuel.  Again, that is where Eli comes in.  That is where we need one another.

Some of you remember Ross Talbot.  I loved Ross.  He was a longtime member of our church.  He had been chair of the Political Science department at ISU.  Ross was a skeptic.  He always saw two sides to everything and he wasn’t afraid to ask questions.  For years he taught our theology class along with Virgil Lagomarcino, Mary and Martha’s father.

I can remember being here for candidate weekend, when I came here as the prospective pastor.  There were a few gatherings with various groups in the church.  There was a dinner, I answered questions, and I preached on Sunday morning.   

I don’t remember what the conversation had been exactly, but Ross said, and this was in a big all church gathering, “It seems to me that a lot of people talk about the will of God when what they are doing is just taking their own preferences and baptizing them with God’s blessing.  And he asked what I thought about that and how do you know it’s God’s will?

Well as I said I came to love Ross but maybe not from that very first interaction.  But he was absolutely right on target.  How do we know God is calling us?  We can ignore God’s call on the one hand, but we call also claim something as God’s call or God’s will when it suits our own purposes.  We’ve seen it often enough.  It might be a bigtime evangelists who says it is God’s will for folks to contribute so that he can him to have a Lear for his ministry  (and in those cases it is almost always a “he.”)  But we can be tempted to do the same thing on a  much smaller scale, maybe not even realizing tha is what we are doing.

I don’t remember exactly how I responded to Ross, but part of the answer we find in our text this morning.  The community can be so important.  We can help one another to discern the way God would have us go.  And it can be helpful to talk with folks who are maybe not exactly like us.  It worked for Eli and Samuel.  
Now there is another thing about the call of Samuel that strikes me.  You don’t necessarily get it simply with today’s reading, but it comes through in the background, in the lead-in to this morning’s scripture.  

When we read about Samuel’s family in the previous chapters, we learn that Samuel was not a Levite.  He was from the tribe of Ephraim.  This meant that he was not eligible to become a priest.  He was not eligible to ever become a priest – that’s just the way the system worked.  Yet God chose Samuel.  God spoke to Samuel.

Eli’s sons are from the priestly line, and it is their birthright to serve in the Temple.  But they have not acted justly.  They have used their position for personal gain instead of service to the Lord.  They were not concerned about God and God’s people, but only about themselves.  So God looked elsewhere.
It turns out that God is bigger than the structures we try to build.  And so God did not speak to the “official” or the expected persons, but to a kid from the tribe of Ephraim. 

We can try to put limits on whom God may call or how God may work, but God is a lot bigger than our plans and ideas.  The scriptures are filled with unlikely choices.  Look at Jesus.  Jesus does not call priests and prophets, he does not call movers and shakers – he calls fishermen and laborers as his disciples.  Some of his best friends and followers are women.  Power and position and prestige do not mean so much in God’s world.  Everyone, even those seen as outsiders, have a place in God’s kingdom.

Now, there is another thing to take note of.  The Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, they had escaped Egypt.  But it did not insure a perfect life – life was still hard.  And then they crossed the Jordan, into the Promised Land.  And still, life was filled with difficulties and conflict.  It would be hard to think of a time when Israel did not face significant challenges.

Think about Jesus.  Life was not always a bed of roses.  Think of the early church.  There was persecution and hardship.  

It’s not just Biblical times.  Let’s face it: life is hard.  Doing the right thing is hard.  Answering God’s call does not insure that things will be easy.  Samuel said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  And God asks Samuel to go to Eli – his mentor, his father in the faith – and tell him that his family is heading for ruin, that his sons have acted blasphemously and he has sat idly by and done nothing.
Not an easy job for a kid.  Or for anyone.  But the thing is, God doesn’t necessarily call us to things that are easy.  Telling truth that is difficult to hear isn’t easy.  But then, a lot of the things God calls us to are difficult.  

Loving your neighbor isn’t always easy.  Caring for the downtrodden isn’t always easy.  Working for justice isn’t easy.  Bringing hope where there is despair isn’t easy.  Sharing good news in a bad news kind of world isn’t easy.  We are called to follow Jesus, and let’s face it: following Jesus isn’t easy.  

It’s not easy – but it is the way to truly find joy and peace and hope.  It isn’t easy – but it is what this world desperately needs.  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Amen.

“Holy Ground” - October 3, 2021

Text: Exodus 2:23-3:15, 4:10-17

Last week we were with Jacob, who has this dream in which God speaks to him.  God will make his descendants into a great nation.  But at the moment, this dream is not doing so well.

Jacob’s son Joseph had been sold in to slavery in Egypt by his own brothers, but God had used this for good.  Joseph rose to a position of power and prominence in Egypt, and in a time of famine, the whole family had settled there.  But generations go by, and the Israelites were no longer honored or welcomed in Egypt.  Jacob’s descendants were numerous - so numerous they were feared.  They were made slaves and treated ruthlessly.

Pharaoh was so fearful of the Israelites that he ordered the Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah to kill the male Hebrew babies when they were born.  They ignored this directive, however – they were in the business of life, not death - and when Pharaoh learned the babies were living, he called the midwives in.  They had an explanation and even managed to insult the Egyptian women in the process – they told him that the Hebrew women were not like the Egyptians – they were strong and vigorous, and by the time the midwives arrived the baby had already been born.

So Pharaoh took the next step of ordering that every boy born to the Hebrews must be thrown into the Nile River.  This was at the time when Moses was born.  In an act of desperation, Moses’ mother put him in a basket and set the basket in the bulrushes along the river.  Pharaoh’s own daughter found the child, took pity, and took him in and raised him as her own.  So rather than be thrown into the Nile, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace.  Moses’ mother was hired as a nurse for him.

So Moses grew up as a part of Pharaoh’s household.  But as a grown man, there came a time when he witnessed an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave.  Moses was so angered that he killed the Egyptian.  He wound up having to flee the country.

He wound up in the country of Midian.  He married a woman there, Zipporah, and he got along well with her family.  She was from an important family – her father, Jethro, was the local high priest.  Moses had settled into life as a shepherd.  That morning, he got up and had his eggs and bacon - turkey bacon, of course – read the Midian Tribune, saw the kids off to school and headed out to the fields.  It was just a regular day.

Moses was out tending the flocks when he noticed something that did not seem right.  A bush was on fire but was not burning up.  It just kept burning but it was not consumed.  This bush drew him like a magnet.  And when he came closer, he heard his name being spoken.  He knew that it was God.  The voice said, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”

It was no small thing to stand in bare feet on the hot sandy ground in the heat of the day, but this was a sign of reverence and respect.  God had a message for him.  Moses heard the words of God as both good news and bad news.  The good news was, God would deliver the Israelites from bondage, out of Egypt.  The bad news was, God wanted Moses to be the one to lead them.

Moses says, “Gee, it sounds like a great opportunity and all, but I’m just not sure that I’m qualified.”  God says, “I know what I’m doing and I will be with you.  And the sign will be, after you lead the people out of Egypt, you will worship me right on this very mountain.”

Now what kind of sign is that?  You are supposed to get the sign first, not after the fact.  It’s not really a sign at all.  But Moses has other questions.

“If I go to the Israelites and say that the God of your ancestors has sent me, and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”  Moses wants to know God’s name.

To know another’s name is to know something about them, to have a handle on them.  The Hebrews believed that by knowing another’s name, you knew what another was about – in a sense, you had some measure of control over them.  But then again, names are connected with intimacy.  We know the names of those who are close to us, who are important to us.

Moses wants to know who this God is.  “Who shall I say sent me?”

But God would not be controlled by Moses or anyone else.  God understood what Moses was asking, and responded by simply saying, “I am.”  It is the Hebrew verb “to be.”  I will be.  I am who I am, I will be what I will be, I am up to what I am up to.  I am in charge, I am in control, I am God.

And this actually becomes God’s name.  The proper name of God is “I am who I am.”  In Hebrew it is the consonant letters YHWH, usually pronounced Yahweh – and this is where Jehovah comes from - but this name was considered so sacred that the Hebrews did not utter the name itself.  And so throughout the Old Testament, when we have these letters YHWH, it is generally written as LORD, in capital letters.  God’s actual name was thought of as so holy that it was not spoken.

Moses had other questions for this God who spoke to him from the burning bush.  He really did not want this job.  God offered some party tricks to impress people – to show that God had sent him.  He could throw a rod on the ground and it would become a snake.  He was given a couple of other signs, including pouring water from the Nile onto dry ground and it would turn to blood.

Even with all of this, Moses tried to get out of God’s call.   He tried to beg off as a poor public speaker.  But God would not be deterred.  Moses was the guy.  God becomes a little perturbed at Moses’ hesitance and tells him he can enlist his brother Aaron as his spokesman and press secretary.

Now there were good reasons for Moses’ reticence.  He had grown up in Pharaoh’s household.  The Israelites may not really trust him.  I mean, he had fled the country after killing an Egyptian in anger.  But Moses was uniquely qualified for this job.  Moses was educated, he was familiar with the workings of the state, he knew Pharaoh.  And he was free.  How many Hebrews could say that?  God used the unique qualities that Moses possessed.

God speaks to Moses’ concerns, and I think the role of Aaron is so important.  When we are called to a difficult task, when God wants us to do something really tough, how important it is to have help.  To have a community, to know that you are not in it alone.

I’m wondering this morning, where is it that we meet God? How do we experience the Holy?  Where do we find our burning bushes?  Where is our Holy Ground?

It is interesting that God appears and speaks to Moses right smack in the middle of an ordinary day, while he is tending the flock.  We may be tended to think that God speaks to us at church, or while at prayer, or when reading the Bible.  And don’t get me wrong, that happens, but God is not limited.  God will be who God will be and God will do what God will do.

Often as not, God is found not so much in the spectacular but in the commonplace, not so much in the dramatic but in the simple things, not in the expected but in the unlikely.  The possibility that God may meet us anywhere and everywhere makes all ground in a sense Holy Ground.   

Rita Nakashima Brock told about visiting an ancient church in the Mideast.  High over the altar was a mosaic of Moses kneeling in front of the burning bush.  Behind Moses’ back, where he couldn’t seem them, the mosaic was filled with bushes, every one of them on fire.

Part of finding Holy Ground is being open to the possibility that God might speak to us.  It is being open to potential and possibility.  It is being open to life.

Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado contains the remains of the cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people.  Park rangers lead walking tours to some of the less accessible sites.  Just before an arduous trek a ranger sat the group down for an explanation of what they were in for.  “Folks,” she nearly shouted, “in the next two hours you will hike into a canyon, climb rope ladders with at least 300 rungs, and crawl through narrow passageways on your hands and knees.  If any of you have any history of heart disease, I do not recommend you coming.  Now, are there any questions?”

The group was silent.  They were pretty intimidated.  Many were wondering whether they would be able to make it.  Finally, up popped the hand of a twelve-year-old girl who was just breathless with excitement.  “Do we really get to hike into a canyon and climb 300 steps on a rope ladder and crawl on our hands and knees through the rocks?  Is it true?  Do we really get to?”

The ranger smiled, “Now that’s the spirit I’m looking for! Let’s go!” And so off the group went.

God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, but it took Moses being open and curious and interested for it to work.  I wonder how many times God may be speaking to us but we are too preoccupied or disinterested or unengaged to notice.

Whenever we stand in the presence of God, we’re on holy ground.  We follow Jesus, known as Immanuel – God is with us.  And since God is with us, even here, since God is all around us, even now, that makes every inch of this planet holy ground – a place where God may speak to us.

As we walk this Holy Ground, let us be open to those burning bushes.  And let us walk alongside each other as we answer God’s call.  Amen.


“Surely the Lord Is in this Place” - September 26, 2021

Text: Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-19


If you were with us last Sunday, we looked at the story of Jacob and Esau – brothers who had been in conflict even before they were born.  The family is dysfunctional; their parents Isaac and Rebekah only add to the rivalry and conflict between the brothers.

In a moment of what had to be delirious hunger, Esau sold his birthright – the right of the eldest son to receive a double portion of the inheritance – to Jacob, who was the younger brother by a few minutes.  Esau given away his birthright - for a bowl of stew.

The birthright is gone, but there was still the blessing that Isaac would pronounce on Esau, the oldest son.  In our first reading this morning, we learn how Esau lost that as well.

Feeling the time was near, Isaac asked Esau to prepare some food and bring it to him so that he could give his blessing before he died.  (As it turned out, Isaac had many years of life ahead of him.  Nevertheless, his eyesight was gone and he felt that it was time to pronounce the blessing that a father gave to the oldest son.)

Rebekah overhears the conversation.  And she intervenes to make sure that Jacob is the one who actually receives the blessing.  While Esau is out hunting game, Rebecca prepares a meal from their own flock.  She has Jacob dress in Esau’s clothes, with goat skins around his neck and on his hands.

It’s almost a comical story.  Jacob goes to Isaac, who is blind, and tells him he is Esau.  He smells like Esau and he feels hairy like Esau.  But he sounds like Jacob.  He asks how he came to have returned with game so quickly and Esau, who is actually Jacob, says that God gave him success.

There are obvious red flags – I mean, it almost reminds you of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf dressed up like grandma.  But in the end, Isaac buys it.  He says, “Oh well, I guess it’s Esau.”  And he gives Jacob the blessing.  He says, “May peoples serve you and nations bow down to you.  You will be lord over your brothers… cursed be those who curse you and blessed be those who bless you.”

Of course, Esau returns soon afterwards with the food that Isaac had asked for.  When they realize what has happened, Isaac is beside himself.  But Isaac says, “The words have already been spoken; I can’t take the blessing back.”  And Esau cries out, “Father, is there no blessing left for me?”

Isaac is furious by what has happened.  Esau, even more so.  He plots to kill his brother, but decides to wait until after the old man dies – which he assumes will not be long.

Rebecca’s role is interesting.  She always seems to know exactly what is going on.  She was the one to whom God gave the prophecy that the older would serve the younger, and it’s not clear that anyone else knew this.  As a person with no formal power, was she working toward the fulfillment of that prophecy, helping it along, you might say, in the only way she was able to?  Or was she just playing favorites in a destructive way?  I don’t know.  Maybe the answer is “yes.”

At any rate, at this point she knows that there is a serious problem.  She tells Jacob that for his safety, he needs to get out of Dodge.  She sends him to her brother Laban, back in the old country.  To get Isaac on board with this plan, she tells him that Jacob must marry one of their own people.  And so Jacob flees.

Before this, Isaac had given Jacob the blessing intended for Esau.  But just before he leaves, Isaac pronounces another blessing on Jacob, this time knowing that it is him.  If this is the way it is going to be, then he is getting on board with it.  He says to Jacob,

May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land… that God gave to Abraham.

So Isaac sends Jacob off.  The text says that “he came a certain place” and stayed there for the night.  Now, place names were very important.  Again and again, we read that Biblical characters gave a particular name to a place.  But Jacob came to “a certain place.”  An unnamed place.  Which basically means, no particular place.

And here, in the middle of nowhere, running for his life, Jacob stops to rest.  He was no doubt feeling loneliness, anxiety, terror, fear of what might lie ahead.  

There in a certain place, no particular place, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, Jacob lays his head down to sleep on a stone pillow.

Do any of you have trouble sleeping?  Maybe you once in a while have a little neck pain or shoulder pain and you try to find the right pillow that will both give support and comfort.  Maybe you prefer a down pillow, or a supportive foam pillow.  Maybe you have spent a lot of money on a particular orthopedic pillow.  But you know what?  Nobody chooses a stone pillow.  You lie down on a stone pillow when that is all you have – when you have no other choice.

It occurs to me that we may have to lay our heads on a lot of stone pillows.  Like Jacob, we may be running from something.  From the past, from a decision we need to make, from a commitment, from a relationship we need to repair.  The stone pillow we are looking at may be a financial crisis, an illness, it may be grief, it may be loneliness, it may be wrenching conflict.

Jacob lies down to sleep on a stone pillow and he has a dream.  It was an odd dream.  In his dream, there was a ladder, or ramp.  We usually call it Jacob’s Ladder, because “Jacob’s Ramp” just wouldn’t sound the same.  (I might add that Led Zeppelin used the imagery in “Stairway to Heaven,” but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Jacob.)  We did sing that great spiritual, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” a song of hope and promise, that draws from this dream of Jacob’s.

In his dream, this great dream, there is traffic between heaven and earth, angels ascending and descending.  Jacob had felt that he was traveling alone, but in reality he was not alone at all.  Heaven and earth are connected, we are all children of God, and God is with us.

Jacob’s dream brought a promise for the future.  A roadmap.  Before, he knew he was heading toward his Uncle Laban’s house.  But now, his traveling would be different.  His journey was purposeful.  Now he not only knew where his feet were going, he knew where his life was going.  Just as God had promised to Abraham and Isaac, God now promised to Jacob that his descendants would be like the dust of the earth, spread in all directions.  

…all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land…

Jacob had received the blessing intended for Esau.  And then Isaac had again pronounced a blessing on Jacob, knowing that it was him.  This third blessing comes directly from God, and it seals the deal.

It was at a particularly low point in his life that this dream comes to him.  It may be that in those difficult times, those desperate times, we are open to the dreams and the visions God has for us, dreams that can bring an infusion of hope and promise.

Arthur Gossip was a Scottish preacher of years gone by.  His wife had died suddenly.  He preached at his congregation shortly after her death.  The title of the first sermon he gave after his wife died was, “When Life Tumbles In, Then What?”  He said, “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it.  We have nothing else.”

In those times when we live in the shadows, when we most need a word from God, we can find that God is there.  It was in a time like that that Jacob had his dream.

Jacob was a scoundrel.  A real piece of work, as they say.  What had all of his scheming really got him?  He had the birthright and the blessing, but at the cost of having to leave behind his family and run for his life.  The words of blessing intended for Esau but given to Jacob might turn out to be just words.  And it is hard for a dead man to receive an inheritance, whether it is a regular portion or the eldest brother’s double portion.  At a low point, God gives Jacob a dream that would guide him his whole life.  And Jacob said, “Surely the Lord is in this place!”

Now, Jacob had his moments.  There were those times when he seemed to forget about the dream or doubt the dream.  There were those instances when he seemed to resist living out the dream.   But the dream was always there, a dream of hope and promise and of God’s presence.  

Richard Farmer tells of something happened when he was around 10 years old.  His grandparents gave him a Christmas present, a little cartoon projector, that required a bit of assembly.  His grandfather explained how it worked, and Farmer was able to put it together himself.  

He said that he never forgot his grandfather’s words:  “I have the smartest grandson in the world!”  Years later, his grandfather didn’t remember the incident, but Farmer certainly did.  He said that for all of the years following that day he thought that he was bright, skillful, teachable, quick to catch on.  He said, “I would probably have remembered if grandpa had said, ‘I have the dumbest grandson in the world.’  And my life might have demonstrated my belief.”

Jacob’s dream changed the course of his life and blessed him all of his days.  What a powerful thing to hear God say to us, “I am with you.”  Jacob took that stone and built an altar and named that place Beth-El, which means “House of God.”  

From his birth, God had chosen Jacob.  From this point on, Jacob would also choose God.  This morning, God would say those same words to each of us.  “I am with you, I will keep you, I will not leave you.”  And wherever we may be, we can all say, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”  Amen.  

“Selling Our Birthright” - September 19, 2021

Text: Genesis 25:19-34


Last Sunday, as we kicked off the fall, we began with the very beginning – with creation.  From there, the Biblical story moves quickly – the drama of the first sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, humanity trying to become like gods and build a tower to heaven, the great flood and Noah’s family and the animals in the ark, to the reality that violence can never stop violence, and so God commits to another path and offers the rainbow as a sign of that promise.

And then we meet Abraham and Sarah, who trusted God and left their home for a new land that God would show them.  God promises to make their descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky, but it seemed a little iffy - Sarah and Abraham were childless and in their 90s!

But God’s promise was trustworthy.  Our scripture this morning is the story of Abraham and Sarah’s grandchildren, Jacob and Esau.

Like their grandmother Sarah, their mother Rebekah was unable to bear children.  Isaac prays to God, who answers his prayer, and beyond the usual childbearing age, Rebekah is found to be expecting.  Rebekah has not been through a pregnancy before, but it seems to her that something is not quite right.  This is something more than a baby kicking.  She asks the Lord about this, and God speaks directly to her, saying “Two nations are in your womb, the children born to you shall be divided, and the older will serve the younger.”

True to God’s word, Rebekah gives birth to twin boys.  Now these days, most couples have baby names picked out long before the child is born.  Even if they haven’t decided for sure, they have thought about it and have the options narrowed down.  Of course, with our modern medicine we can know, if we want, if the child is a boy or girl.  We can have all kinds of plans made.  

You may have caught the story in the news a couple of weeks ago.  There was a gender reveal party in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Upon learning the news of his child’s gender, the expectant father shot his pistol in the air in the backyard in celebration.  A neighbor, hearing gunfire, called 911 and the gender reveal party resulted in 3 schools being placed on lockdown.  That was relatively minor compared to the California couple who shot off fireworks at their gender reveal party and caused a massive fire that burned 22,000 acres.

With Isaac and Rebekah, the fireworks came after the birth.  They did not have names picked out in advance but used descriptive names, chosen in the moment.  These were clearly not identical twins.  The first child was red and hairy, and so he was named Esau – which means “Hairy.”  Then the second boy was born, grabbing at Esau’s heels.  He was named Jacob, which literally means “Heel-grabber.” It proves to be a fitting name.

You have probably known of instances where one child is favored over another.  Sometimes siblings joke about which one is mom and dad’s favorite, and sometimes it isn’t so funny.  The Bible makes no bones about the fact that Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, and Rebekah loved Jacob more than Esau.

Esau was a hunter, an outdoors-type.  He was tough and rugged, and Isaac loved him.  Jacob was a quieter sort.  Rather than hunting, he liked to hang out around the tents.  His mother loved him.

The sibling rivalry that began before these brothers were even born continued and intensified, and the parents stoked the fires of this rivalry.  Esau was physically strong and he was the first born.  He enjoyed all the rights that came from being the eldest son.  But Jacob was clever and ambitious and a schemer.

Once Jacob was cooking a stew.  Esau came in from the fields, and he was famished.  Maybe you have felt like that before.  You haven’t eaten for quite a while, you have been working hard, you feel weak, almost overcome with hunger.  “I’d give almost anything for a nice, juicy steak about right now,” you say.

Esau felt that way, except that he literally meant it – he really would give almost anything for a good meal.  Jacob says to him, “Sure, you can have some stew – but first, you need to sign over your inheritance.”

This seems like a profoundly bad deal.  Can you imagine ordering a delivery pizza and instead of being told, “That will be $18.99 plus tax,” you are told that it will cost you your inheritance?

Amazingly, Esau agrees to this.  He says, “I am so hungry I am going to die, and then what good will my birthright be?”

We will come back to Esau’s choice in a minute, but first, what about Jacob’s offer?  What kind of brother would ask for his sibling’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew, a “mess of pottage” as the King James renders it?

In that culture, there was a strong social imperative for hospitality.  If hungry strangers showed up at your door, you would offer them a meal.  It is what you were supposed to do.  But here, Jacob’s own brother was hungry, and he was asking for Esau’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew.  It sounds awful to us, and would have sounded even more awful to the first readers of this story.

In his almost blind ambition, it seems that Jacob will stoop to anything.  But if he comes off looking bad in this exchange, what about Esau?  The price that Jacob asks is amazing; what is even more amazing is that Esau is willing to pay it.

He says, “I am so hungry I could die – and then what would my birthright mean to me?”  Someday, his birthright might mean something – but in the meantime, it wasn’t going to put food on the table.  Life was short.  Esau was concerned about right now, not some possible day in the future.  And so, he agrees to it.  Jacob makes his brother swear to the deal, and the passage ends with these words: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.”

Looking at Esau’s action, we would have to conclude that he was short-sighted.  Irresponsible.  And to be honest, he doesn’t come across as the sharpest knife in the drawer.

But there is more here.  This says something about the power of hunger.  There are those who will sell their birthright, give up their future, for a bowl of stew, a mess of pottage.  

We have seen it happen way too many times.  Folks will throw away their future, tear apart their family, for what they crave in that moment.  Addictions can do that.  There are those who have such a hunger for power that they will sell their soul – set aside their values, hurt other people, do whatever it takes – in exchange for the chance at grabbing hold of power.

There was a teenage girl in Texas who wanted to be a cheerleader.  She was afraid she would not make the squad, and this goal just consumed her.  And not only her, but her mother.  In their world, it would mean status for both.  If one girl was out of the picture, they felt like she would surely make the squad.  And so the mother came up with a plan to hire a hit man to kill the mother of this potential rival, believing that in the wake of her mother’s death, this girl would not try out for the cheerleading squad.  I am not making this up; this is a true story.

Granted, that’s a pretty extreme case.  But it says something about the hunger for status, for power, for wealth, for gratification – it can be an almost irresistible force.

Esau had to choose between immediate gratification and a deferred blessing.  On paper, it doesn’t look like much of a choice.  But he was hungry and the stew was right there.  It looked good.  It smelled fantastic.  And he could have it right now.

When our daughter Zoe was a lot younger, our family went to Ft. William Historical Park near Thunder Bay, Ontario – it is a kind of historical re-enactment park.  It came time for lunch, and we went to the restaurant they had on the grounds.  Susan and I opted for the beef stew.  Zoe ordered a sandwich or wrap or something.  The food came and Zoe looked longingly at our stew.  It looked good and it smelled good, and when we let her try it, she was mad at herself for not ordering it.  It was delicious – I mean, it really was fantastic stew.  This had to be close to 20 years ago, but if you ask Zoe today, she is likely to say that her greatest regret in life is not ordering the stew when we were in Canada.

OK, I’m sure she probably has bigger regrets, but that is her standard answer.  That stew was really good, but still, it was just a bowl of stew.  

What was the birthright?  For Esau and Jacob, it meant that the oldest son would receive a double portion, twice the inheritance of the other sons.  But it wouldn’t matter until Isaac died.  Esau couldn’t see it.  He didn’t know when that would be and it couldn’t be quantified exactly.  

Poor Esau.  Poor, dumb boy.  We would never make a choice like that, would we?

Let me tell you about Bill.  Bill went to visit the doctor.  He is a middle-aged, overweight, highly stressed male.  He smokes and he drinks, sometimes to excess.  When he went for his annual physical, his slim, tee-totaling, smoke-free young doctor let him have it.  Unless Bill cut down on his drinking, gave up smoking, cut down on calories and learned to relax, he was headed for a heart attack.  His doctor said he was a “cardiac arrest waiting to happen.”

Finished with his lecture, the doctor challenged Bill.  “Now, what are you going to do about this?”  Bill didn’t have to think about it.  He looked the doctor right in the eye and said, “I’m going to find an out of shape doctor who smokes!”

We have been told, over and over, of the dangers of climate change.  We see a warming planet and more serious weather events happening all the time, massive hurricanes, constant wildfires, 500 year floods, rising sea levels.  But it is so hard to make changes in our long term interest.  It is easier to just think about right now.  It is not that hard to sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

As followers of Jesus, we are not immune to this in a spiritual sense.  In the pursuit of cultural cachet or access to power, we can be tempted to sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

What would you say is our birthright – our heritage as Christians?  What are the values of Jesus, those things that matter most that we need to take care to hold onto?  And how can we be tempted to set them aside?

I’ll let you think about that for yourself.  For me, one of the things that came to mind is found in Galatians where Paul says, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  These are worth holding onto.  These are worth valuing.  And it is easy for us to leave things like kindness and patience and self-control behind in our pursuit of who knows what.  And Christians are losing, if we have not already lost, a reputation as people of grace and compassion and love.       

Esau’s choice seems hard to imagine – careless, irresponsible, short-sighted.  But it’s not just Esau.  Thankfully, even when we fall short, God offers us all grace and works through flawed people like Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau and you and me.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

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.