Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Note to Readers

Hello Everybody, 

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

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

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



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

Text:Psalm 121

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost Living” - August 22, 2021

Text: Psalm 90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salzburg wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Good Shepherd" - August 15, 2021

Text: Psalm 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have a Good Shepherd.  Amen.

"Making an Entrance" - August 8, 2021

Text: Psalm 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text: Psalm 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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