Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Monday, December 24, 2012

"At the Foot of the Manger" Christmas Eve Sermon


Moving toward Christmas: At the Foot of the Manger
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2012
Luke 2.1-20

Merry Christmas! Christmas is about a lot of things, isn’t it, many of which can drive us crazy. We put up what we hope is the perfect trees and decorate them with ornaments. We string lights on our rooftops and decorate our lawns. (I don’t understand plastic manger scenes and giant inflatable figures, but if they are meaningful to you, God bless you.) We try to buy just the right presents and wrap them with just the right paper. We sing carols and bake goodies. Growing up, most of our Christmas was done Christmas Eve. We’d get to open one present before dinner and the rest afterward, hopefully dodging the socks and underwear. Of course, attending church would be squeezed in there. For many years, until my dad’s bachelor brother got married, Uncle Floyd would join us, “As long as you promise not to get me anything,” which, of course we agreed to and then promptly ignored.

Christmas was both predictable yet surprising. My only sister would always get a doll of some sort and it was devastating when we all realized one year that she was too old for them anymore. We would all go to great lengths to disguise our presents, especially for my incurably snoopy sister. One year, I disguised a record album by placing a cardboard tent over it; it drove her nuts. And my parents would go to great lengths to make sure they spent the same amount on all four of us, right down to the last penny. One year, that meant that we all got identical clock radios.

At the heart of these traditions and memories is the fact that Christmas is about relationships. Christmas is about being together, about creating, sustaining and nurturing our connections with each other. When I moved away and then when Cindy and I got married, we made the journey back to our homes, until moving too far away and then having children of our made going home impossible. Even then, we found ways to be together, always within our local church. Of course, we made new memories and traditions with our children. We know these relationships are important, because it is so painful when we don’t have them or when they aren’t what we want them to be.

The Christmas story is all about being together, about the lengths God will go to be with us. If the story of Jesus’ birth as told in Luke’s gospel were a movie, it would open with a wide shot. The recounting of the historical situation with all of the powerful people is panoramic and majestic. Virtually, the whole known world is encompassed and you can feel the influence of the powerful people. However, as the story progresses, the camera makes tighter and tighter shots, focusing on this little country, then a small region, a provincial town, and then the humblest of people and places. Finally, the camera focuses on a young married couple and their baby boy, lying in a manger.

Yet, as we read on, the camera begins to pull back to wider shot, very different from the first. Here we have an angel appearing to not the rich and powerful, but to despised shepherds. These startled outcasts, far from the positions of influence, are confronted with a host. The host is not the infamous Roman centurion army, but rather an angelic host with a different message. The birth of humble Jesus is good news of great joy for all people, for he is Savior, Messiah, and Lord. This news is so good that the shepherds just have to share it and see it for themselves.

The effect of the Lucan cinematography is stunning, but the point is even more stunning to us. The good news is that Jesus is being born not where expected, but where people need him the most. This is important for us to remember all year long, not just at Christmastime. We need to be reminded that God not only came in the flesh that Christmas time 2,000 years ago. God continues to be embodied in the world, through you and me as we go out into this hurting, broken world that needs to hear that God is with us, that God knows what it’s like to be one of us.

We’ve been making a journey toward Christmas this Advent Season, and as we arrive at the foot of the manger, we realize that our journey is really only beginning. The fact is, we don’t meet Jesus as much as Jesus meets, having made a much longer trip to reach us, taking on human flesh and coming down to be with us. Wherever you are tonight, however your celebrate Christmas, know that God is meeting you where you are and is being born in your heart anew. Cherish the traditions you have, but even more so cherish those with whom you share them. Merry Christmas, everyone! Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Moving toward Christmas: Encouraged by the Promise" Sermon Advent 4


Moving toward Christmas: Encouraged by the Promise
Advent 4 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
December 23, 2012
Luke 1.26-49

If it is true that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, then Mary must have had God in stitches rolling on the floor. No doubt she was planning to marry Joseph and have children. Nowhere in her universe, though, could she imagine a visit from an angel who would tell her that she was going to have a child through the action of the Holy Spirit, much less the Son of God, Savior,  and Messiah. Yet, here an angel of the Lord comes with an offer that she both can and cannot refuse, and all of creation holds its collective breath waiting for her answer: will she or won’t she say, “Yes?”

We’ve used the metaphor of a journey this Advent, as we are moving toward Christmas. On the First Sunday of Advent and the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, we’ve realized that we have come from places not of our own choosing, utterly dependent upon God’s grace. Through the prophet Joel on the Second Sunday of Advent, we also admitted our involvement in the brokenness of the world and our need for a savior. Then, last week, we heard from Isaiah how we’ve been sustained in our journey by the vision God gives us of life through his Son. Today, as we get near the end of our journey, we are encouraged in our own journeys of faith by the promises that God makes to us through the most unlikely of people, his servant Mary.

However, as we know all too well, the journeys we take don’t always go as we had planned. In today’s reading we find that “the way to the manger” is surprising and unexpected. The direction that God takes Mary is not one that she would choose for herself, and even when she said “Yes” to God’s invitation, though she doesn’t know how, life will never be the same for her again. What’s interesting in the story is that Mary does not have a problem to be solved like so many women in the Bible. She is not barren or without a husband. Presumably, life is good. Sometimes, though, God is not the answer to our problems; rather, God is the cause of our “problems.”

The challenge that Mary’s story poses for us today is, “Are we going to be open to what God is doing in our lives?” Admittedly, this is hard to do when life is coming at you fast and furious and even out of control. Like Mary, we may be tempted to say, “God, could you just favor someone else for a change?” Yet, just as God was present at creation, not only bringing order out chaos, but working in, with, and under the chaos, so we have to trust that God is working in, with, and through our chaos. We don’t do this because of who Mary is or what she does, but because of who God is and what God does through her.

We tend to think of obedience to God as doing what God tells us to do, to knuckle under to God. But I think that obedience is more about paying attention to what God is doing, to be ready to say yes, even if we don’t fully know what this means for us and our lives. Part of that openness means listening to how God is working through others as well. Mary’s story is tied to Elizabeth’s story, a kinswoman who confirms that God is doing something incredible in, with, and through her life. I’ve mentioned before how God worked in my life, through disorder and chaos, to bring me to seminary and the ordained ministry, over the course of eight years, in fact. But God worked through many people as well, helping me to hear God’s call on my life.

One thing I can attest to is that it is precisely those times in my life when things did not go as I had planned, when the journey changed, that God was the most present and the most real to me. As you make this final leg of the journey to Christmas and beyond, look in the chaotic and unexpected moments for where God is present, and listen for God’s voice in others. One small plug: some of you are being approached about serving on church council in the coming years. This is not about filling slots with warm bodies; this is about the leadership this congregation needs for this next year and beyond. For you and others, please give it prayerful consideration and say, as Mary did, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Moving toward Christmas: Looking Ahead" Advent 3 Sermon


Moving toward Christmas: Looking Ahead
Advent 3 (NL3)
December 16, 2012
Isaiah 61.1-11

I learned about the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook when I logged onto Facebook on Friday. I knew something was wrong by some of the terse entries of some of my friends, and as I scrolled through the feeds, I came across a link to an article from Minnesota Public Radio. I don’t read a lot of news accounts about events such as this because I know the information is sketchy and will change with time, but I did learn that a lot of people were killed, most of whom were children. Embedded in the article was a video of President Obama’s statement. Again, I don’t normally watch such things, but it was short and I was curious what the President would say. Like me, he was reacting with sadness and from the point of view of the father of two daughters. My response was compounded by the fact that both of our daughters are also teachers. However, what struck me the most was the President’s closing words, that it was now time to “bind up the brokenhearted and give comfort to the mourning,” words straight from today’s reading.

So, the reading from Isaiah 61 comes at the right time in so many ways, though it seems like an odd place to end our run through the Old Testament that we began in September. Next week we shift to the story of Jesus as found in the New Testament gospel of Luke. Yet, aside from the fact that we’ll hear some of these words on Jesus’ lips in a few weeks, we are also reminded that the writings of the prophet we call Isaiah span over three centuries, more than one person could write. These words from chapter 61 were proclaimed to the Jews who had returned from the Babylonian exile and were trying to rebuild their homes, the temple, and their lives. Their situation was, as Rolf Jacobson notes, that “things weren’t as good as they hoped, and they weren’t as good as God hoped.”

Isaiah brings much-needed good news to people who are having a hard time looking ahead. He reminds them that our God is a God who builds up and restores, who makes all things new. In so doing, he points out that God pays special attention to those who need hope the most, the captives, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the imprisoned, and those who mourn. Indeed, God comes to all of us and meets us in the places of our deepest needs, but he comes to these hurting ones especially. Isaiah sustains us with a vision of what life looks like on the other side of our darkest, most difficult journeys.

I asked a friend of mine who has been recently divorced which kind of people were most helpful as she was going through it. She said that one of the groups who was the most helpful were those who have gone through it and come out the other side. These people did not sugarcoat the difficulty of the journey, but still gave words of encouragement to her that she would make it through, that she would come out the other side and be okay. They were able to tell her that what she was going through was normal, but it would get better. In other words, they were “Isaiah” to her, bringing words of comfort, renewal, and hope.

There is a missional sense to God’s story in general and to this text from Isaiah in particular. Being missional means that you and I are called to bear witness to what God is doing in the world and join in the work. Like the Jews—who were set aside by God as God’s chosen people, not for any special favors but rather to be a light to the rest of the world—we are a people blessed by God to bring blessing to others. Most importantly, we are to be signs and bearers of hope to those who can’t see the end of the darkest of journeys.

For many years there has been a Kansas City businessman who anonymously hands out $100,000 each Christmas around the country $100 at a time, most recently in New York and New Jersey. To one such couple he said, “You are not alone; God bless.” That’s the message of Isaiah and it is also Jesus’ message, the one who took on human flesh to give us hope in the midst of despair. It’s the message of St. Lucia, whom we also remember today, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. If you are in a place where you can’t see the other side, know that you are not alone and God is with you. If not, and know someone who is, find a way to bring Isaiah’s good news to them in some way. We may not be able to see it from here, but we are looking ahead to being in the place of God’s promise. Amen.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Moving toward Christmas: Moved by the Spirit" Sermon Advent 2


Moving toward Christmas: Moved by the Spirit
Advent 2
December 9, 2012
Joel 2.12-13, 28-29
A man bought a mule that the previous owner guaranteed would do whatever he said. All he had to do was whisper in its ear. However, when the man whispered in the mule’s ear as instructed, the mule didn’t obey. Upon returning the mule to the owner with this complaint, the owner picked up a 2x4, whacked the mule in the head, and declared to the man, “First, you have to get his attention.” The Jews living around Jerusalem in the time of Joel believe that God has whacked them in the head big time and has certainly gotten their attention, but with a devastating swarm of locusts instead of a 2x4.
Can we set aside for today the question of whether God brings disasters on people or communities? I don’t believe God does that, but rather works in, with, and through disasters for his purposes. But the point of our reading is that the Jews believed that God was getting their attention and not just through a plague of locusts that had destroyed virtually everything in its path, but also through another even larger threat. It’s as if you have been wiped out by Hurricane Sandy and then you have the “fiscal cliff,” a cancer diagnosis, the breakup of a marriage, or the imminent death of a loved-one hanging over you as well.
However, Joel’s message is not all doom and gloom. Remember that whenever we read the prophets, if there is judgment there is also hope. If there is demand there is also promise. Joel reminds the people that when you don’t know where to turn, turn and return to the Lord your God. How do we do this? Joel says we are “to rend [our] hearts,” returning “with all [our] heart.” In other words, we are to open our hearts to God and what God is doing in our lives. Why should we do this? We open our hearts to God because, as Joel says, God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
We also do it because our priorities get mixed up and we get sidetracked on our journey of faith. Opening our hearts to God and what God is doing is hard because they are inundated with all sorts of stuff. We end up being imprisoned to all of our gadgets and toys rather than enjoying their blessings. It’s like a group of friends who are gathered together, but don’t talk to each other because they are busy texting somebody else. We do the same thing with God, ignoring our relationship with God because we are getting so caught up in other things. Bad as they are, I don’t think the things we call sin are the worst sins. I think the greatest sin is indifference. We ignore God and his desire for relationship with us, and doing so, become indifferent in injustice as well.
We are in the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Too often, our preparations take us away from God rather than closer. I find myself rushing through things like sending Christmas cards that should be meaningful; it’s just something to get done. Today is the second Sunday of Advent, a day typically given over to the John the Baptist, the one who prepared the people for the first coming of Jesus. John’s message of preparation was very similar to Joel’s: repent, or turn around and go the other way, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Advent is a time for us to remember, as if we can forget, but do anyway, that we need a savior. However, Advent is also a time to remember that God has promised to give us one as well.
Advent is both invitation and promise, an invitation to get back on track with our relationship with God and a promise that God will not only take us back but do some amazing things in our lives. For God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh, anyone and everyone, making a direct relationship with God not only possible, but guaranteed. All of this is through Jesus Immanuel, God with Us. We are invited to turn and return today and, moved by the spirit, we are challenged to ask how our preparations for Christmas open up our hearts to what God wants to do in, with, and through our lives. For me, I’m not going to rush the Christmas card thing, taking a bit more time to think about those people and asking God to bless them. So, return to the Lord your God, with all your hearts, for God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, longing to welcome you home. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Moving towrd Christmas: From the Depths" Sermon for Advent 1


From the Depths
Advent 1
December 2, 2012
Daniel 6.6-27
Is it just me, or is it a fact of the life that the more you are in a hurry the slower you’ll get there? Perhaps a corollary of this truth is that the more you want something the slower the time goes. I think that there’s a fine line between anticipation and anxiety, often exacerbated by impatience. Today we begin the season of Advent, the period leading up to our celebration of Christ’s birth, and the line between anticipation and anxiety might be blurred. I wonder about our reactions as we entered worship today. Some of us may ooh and ah over the decorations. Maybe some of us feel a heightened excitement and anticipation. But some may also feel some anxiety over what needs to be done: shopping, Christmas cards, baking, etc. Finally, some may feel sadness because one of more of our loved ones won’t be celebrating Christmas with us this year.

Wherever we are, and it’s possible to be in several places at once, we may find ourselves both on this journey toward Christmas yet stuck in a place that may or may not be of our choosing. Daniel finds himself in just such a situation, on a journey of faith, both in a place of his choosing and not in a place of his choosing. On a recent episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, Hetty, the head the LA office, was asked if she regretted killing someone earlier in her career as a Federal agent. After noting that the death of one person saved many lives she added, “I didn’t choose this life, it chose me.” One has to make choices in a life that chooses us.

The book of Daniel is set in a much earlier time than it was written. It was written about a century and a half before Jesus walked the earth, during a time that the Jews were being persecuted by the Greeks. But it was set about three and a half centuries earlier during a time when the Jews were exiled in Babylon. It was written to encourage Jews as they struggled with how to live as Jews while living under an occupying government. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, Jews who had been exiled to Babylon were permitted to return to Jerusalem if they wished. Or they could stay and many, like Daniel, chose to stay. Daniel not only found himself rising to a position of prominence, he found himself as a target of jealous officials. So, Daniel finds himself in a place we often find ourselves: how do we live as people of faith in a place that makes that difficult, if not impossible. In other words, it’s tough to be an Advent people when the culture is celebrating Christmas.

Daniel doesn’t go looking for trouble and, though he could have avoided it, he simply does what he has always done, live his life of faith. He persists in his life of faith not knowing how the story is going to play out. I am struck how the three main characters are all engaged in some kind of anticipation and waiting. Presumably, the conspirators are celebrating and looking forward to a new day without Daniel. We know that the king spends an anxious night, hoping Daniel’s God will do something, but afraid to hope for a good result. But what about Daniel, how did he spend the night? Was it warm and cuddly like some of our children’s Bible stories hint? Or, was it full of anxiety, with fierce lions watching his every move, waiting for the angel’s hand to slip from their mouths?

 The story invites us to use our imaginations because it leaves a lot of room for us to do so. This is not fanciful speculation but rather an opportunity to think about how we might live out our lives of faith as we connect our stories to God’s story shown through the Bible. The story invites us to consider how many of us are eager to be on our way to Christmas, but find ourselves stuck in the depths. How many of us are waiting for God to do something, but are having a hard time seeing it?
 Our journey toward Christmas begins with the realization that we may be in places not of our own choosing and quite unsure how the story is going to play itself out in our lives of faith. However, we are reminded that the God who has called us and claimed us as his own will bear us through wherever we feel stuck and alone, even though we may not know how or what. For, as Darius the King and Daniel both recognize, our God is a living God, one who not only invites us to anticipate what he is going to do in our lives and in our world, but to expect the unexpected. We persist, just as Daniel did, not knowing how God will work, yet trusting Immanuel, God with Us to carry us on our journey. Whether filled with anticipation, anxiety, or both, may you know that God will bring you from the depths and on the way. Amen

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Lord of the Heart" - Sermon for Christ the King


Lord of the Heart
Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2012
Jeremiah 36.1-8 21-23, 27-28; 31.31-34

You find your blood coming from places it is not supposed to come from, or there is a lump in a place it’s not supposed to be. Perhaps your hand shakes when it shouldn’t and doesn’t do what it should. Maybe you are a bit short of breath, get tired more easily, or have some chest pains. Maybe it’s that you won’t step on a scale between now and New Year’s, nor will you schedule a physical until well after winter. In other words, you know something is not quite right and that you should go to the doctor, but you don’t go because the doctor is going to tell you something you don’t want to hear and what you need to do to fix it.

Doctors are truth tellers, and sometimes the truth hurts; the same can be said for prophets. Prophets bring a word from God to God’s people and most often the diagnosis is not a pretty one. We tend to think of prophets as people who predict the future, but they are most often forth-tellers rather than fore-tellers. Jeremiah is just one forth-teller, a truth-telling doctor who identifies sickness in the body of Judah, the southern kingdom in Israel. In the eyes of the King Jehoiakim and the people, Jeremiah is the Dr. Death of prophets. However, unlike our penchant for ignoring doctors, much as Jehoiakim and the people would like, they cannot ignore Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s diagnosis of Judah’s condition is a familiar one: they have repeatedly broken the covenant God made with them through Moses at Mt. Sinai, a covenant that was written on stone. Furthermore, in the face of pressure from super powers such as Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, they abandon God’s protection by seeking earthly protectors. What is worse, the people have presumed on God’s promise that the house of David would last forever, tempting kings such as Jehoiakim to do whatever they please. Ironically, Jehoiakim has an encounter with a scroll just as his father, Josiah does. (By the way, the scroll Josiah discovers is what we know as the biblical book of Deuteronomy.) However, whereas Josiah’s encounter leads to repentance on renewal, Jehoiakim responds with contempt for the word of God.

Of course, Jehoiakim’s trashing of God’s word does not prevent the word from being spoken. Jeremiah writes a second scroll and many observers believe that this scroll not only contains the word of the first, essentially the first 25 chapters of Jeremiah, but words of hope as well. (That’s why we read chapter 31 after chapter 36 today, because it follows both chronologically and theologically.) However, we also read chapter 31 last because God never speaks judgment without hope. God’s goal for Dr. Jeremiah is not punishment or getting even, but rather restoration and renewal.

You see, with God it is all about relationships, God’s relationship with us and our relationship with each other. That’s why God focuses on the heart, which in the biblical world is not just the place of emotion, but also the center of our being. It’s almost as if God is going to wipe the hard drives of our heart and writes a new program. Yet, this programming has much less to do with what we believe or imposing rules for behaving. In other words, back to the medical metaphor, it’s not just taking our medication, having surgery, eating right, and exercising regularly, though can be important. In fact, it’s more like a whole new operating system than a program. Instead, God invites us into a new way of living, a deep relationship of trust in his will for us.

About 650 years after Jeremiah’s words, the followers of an itinerant rabbi named Jesus saw in him the fulfillment of God’s promise of a new covenant. Jesus is God’s word made flesh written on our hearts. As we celebrate Christ the King today we realize that the reign of God comes through his persistent will to forgive sins, to transform lives, and to be God in spite of countless rejections. God writes Jesus on our hearts and in doing so invites us into a relationship with him and each other, not of dominance and subjection, but rather of mutuality and service. No matter what our situation, God never gives up on us and is determined to will love us back into relationship, a relationship of love. Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"Answering the Call" Sermon Pentecost 25

Answering the Call
Pentecost 25
November 18, 2012
Isaiah 6.1-8

 Wow! This weekend and today in particular is as busy as it gets. People were making lefse for the Scandinavian Experience at Pathstone Living this coming Saturday. Then we had Wesley Swanson’s funeral yesterday. Today we are receiving new members, baptizing Weston, celebrating Commitment Sunday, packing boxes for Operation Christmas Child, and topped off by a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. I’m full already and haven’t even had communion, filled out a pledge card, or eaten turkey yet!
 
This fullness may not be what Isaiah experienced during his vision of God in the temple, but it gives us a hint. In our reading today, the distinctions between the earthly temple and the heavenly throne room melted away and became blurred. Isaiah was so overwhelmed by the enormity, grandeur, and utter holiness of God that he cringed in terror.

 Now, I’ve never experienced a vision like this, but I have an inkling of what Isaiah was going through. You see, I suffer from CPS, “Crummy Pastor Syndrome,” and it flares up whenever I attend pastor’s conferences like this past week (twice, even). What happens is that, in the presence of presenters who regale us with all of the stuff we should be doing I realize what a dud I am and how far short I fall as a pastor. My some of you in other occupations suffer from something similar. However, unlike CPS, for which I have yet to discover a cure, God takes care of Isaiah’s uncleanness by burning away any and all impurities through the application of a hot coal.

 Now, it occurred to me that this was a terrific metaphor of baptism, and wouldn’t it be great if instead of using water for Weston’s baptism that we had a Weber full of hot coals and touched one to his lips? Why stop there? We could use coals for the absolution after the confession, coals to light a fire under us as we are filling out the commitment cards, and while we are at it we could even cook the turkeys! No? I didn’t think so. Of course, the common thread that runs throughout our lesson and all of these events is not coals, but rather calls. Isaiah is so overwhelmed by the grace, mercy, and love of God he eagerly answers God’s call. “Here am I, Lord. Send me!”

 This unmerited and unearned gift of God’s grace does not come with any strings attached. However, implied in that gift is a call, not a guilt trip like CPS, but rather an invitation to join God in his redemptive work to love and bless the world. As we say to our Save By Grace (Confirmation) youth, “You are blessed to be a blessing.” Being overwhelmed by God’s grace and mercy is, in fact, the basis for good stewardship and its call on our lives. We respond to the call with our commitments of time, talent, and resources. This overwhelming grace also invites us to respond by joining together in a community of faith. Furthermore, we respond to God’s grace by giving ourselves away, to each other and to our larger community.

God’s call does not come only once, but rather every day as we live out our baptismal vocations in various ways. God’s call does not come only through our church work, but rather through all facets of our lives, in whatever roles we find ourselves. God’s call, though it’s an offer we cannot refuse, doesn’t come as command but rather as an invitation. How is God calling you to live out your baptism in daily life? How is God calling you to connect more deeply with this community of faith? How is God inviting you to grow in generosity through the use of your resources, for our mission here and in the larger world? There’s only one thing we need to answer the call, to be forgiven sinners, and God has taken care of that already through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. How can we not respond to God’s inviting call saying, “Here am I, Lord; send me?” Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Who's the Saint? All Saints Sunday Sermon

Who’s the Saint?
All Saints Sunday (NL3 Elijah & Elisha)
November 4, 2012
1 Kings 17.1-24

Growing up in the early 50s and 60s I watched games shows like To Tell the Truth, where panelists determine which of two contestants is the imposter. There was What’s My Line, where the panelists try to discover a person’s occupation. And there was I’ve Got a Secret, with panelists trying to discover something embarrassing, unusual or amazing about a person. Given our text for today and it is All Saints Sunday, we can play a similar kind of game show, one I call, Who’s the Saint? Is it Elijah, newly minted prophet and man of God? It couldn’t it be the unnamed widow from Zarephath, a foreigner and Baal worshiper, could it? Or, is it her son who was raised from the dead; is he the saint?

We tend to think of a saint as someone who is really, really, good, such as Mother Teresa or the long-suffering person who cares for their children or spouse during difficult times. Or, we think of a saint as someone who has died and gone to be with Our Lord, such as those we’ll be honoring who have passed away this past year and remembering our other loved ones. Sometimes we combine the two and think of saints as someone who is really good and dead, such as the great saints who died in the faith, who gave their lives for the sake of the gospel. We think of St. Peter who was also crucified, but who insisted on being crucified upside down because he didn’t think of himself in the same category as his Lord.

In our imaginary game of Who’s the Saint? it seems that Elijah is the obvious choice. Elijah is called by God to bring a word of judgment against the corrupt king of Israel, Ahab. He faithfully delivers God’s word and then follows instructions to go to the Wadi Cherith where he is fed day and night by ravens. When the wadi dries up, Elijah again dutifully obeys God and goes to Zarephath to meet a widow that will provide for his needs. Not only does he promise unlimited meal and oil, he convinces God to restore the son’s life. However, there is one glitch in our theory that Elijah is the saint. You see, Elijah never dies; he is taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire.

Elijah was good, but not dead, so what about the next most likely saint, the widow’s son? We don’t know much about him, other than he seems to have escaped death only to die anyway. We’re pretty sure he meant a lot to his mother, not only personally but also economically. Widows had a tough time of it in the ancient Middle East. In fact, he not only seems to be an innocent bystander but, if his mother is right, unfairly targeted. Now, like Lazarus in John 11, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raised to life we know that the widow’s son must have died again. Yet, doesn’t he deserve sainthood for his troubles?

What about the widow herself? Is she just a red herring of sorts in our make-believe game? Even worse, she may be one of those evil flip-floppers who change opinions with the wind. She goes from talking about the Lord your God to embracing Elijah as one who speaks God’s truth. Yet, I think the widow of Zarephath something of a model of a different type of sainthood. Here is someone who struggles with her life of faith, yet is open to what God is doing. Ultimately, she recognizes her utter dependence upon God, listens to God’s promise for her through Elijah, and then acts on that promise. I think that’s about as close to being a saint as you can get.

My guess is that the widow didn’t feel particularly saintly; probably just the opposite. Living the life of faith is no game and there are many days we don’t feel very saintly, either. When I think back to those who have gone before me, the ones who have deeply influenced me, I realize that they were complex human beings and sometimes deeply flawed, but who nonetheless realized the grace of God in their lives. Who are those people that have influenced your journey of faith? How is it that they acted in faith on God’s promised presence in their lives? Where is God calling you to do the same? Who’s the saint? Through our baptisms into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all are. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Avoiding the Edifice Complex": Sermon for Reformation Sunday

“Avoiding the Edifice Complex”
Reformation Sunday
October 28, 2012
1 Kings 5.1-5; 8.27-30, 41-43

 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” These words from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens foreshadow the paradoxical nature of the French Revolution. The “best of times” is the joy of freedom from tyranny imposed by the nobility over the peasant class. The “worst of times” is the reign of terror experienced by the violence that was unleashed following, mostly through the agency of the guillotine. Life often works that way, rarely is it all good or all bad. The election season that pollutes our airwaves is an economic boon for the media and a field day for political junkies and commentators. Our most exalted heroes seem to come with equally deep flaws, witness Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, winner of seven “Tours de France,” and consummate cheater. Even our cherished institutions aren’t immune, witness the Boy Scouts of America, molder of boys and young men that also failed to protect them.

One of the blessings of the Bible is that it doesn’t sugarcoat life. It is often brutally honest about the human condition in all its splendor and in all its brokenness. David, a man after God’s own heart, the greatest king of Israel, and writer of psalms commits adultery with another man’s wife and has him killed when he finds out she is pregnant. Even Solomon, David’s second son by that same woman, Bathsheba, asking for and receiving wisdom that becomes legendary, bringing peace to Israel and the builder of the temple, falters by going after other gods. It is not only people that exhibit both greatness and corruption, its beloved institutions that do so, too.

Today’s reading gives some snippets about what was promised last week, the building of the temple. Solomon accomplishes what God both denied to his father David yet promised as well. The temple took seven years to build and was magnificent. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments were housed and God’s holy seat. Solomon, in a wonderful prayer of dedication, of which we only get a glimpse, acknowledges that God is way beyond residing in the temple yet also promises that any and all that come to the temple will be heard, including non-Jews.

However, the biblical narrative also describes in lurid detail decadent and corrupt priests, heavy temple taxes on those who could least afford it, and a sacrificial system that had Jesus going on a rampage. Yet, even today, with only the Western Wall remaining of a temple that has been destroyed three times and rebuilt twice, the Temple Mount and Wall draw thousands of pilgrims daily. It is the best of places and the worst of places.

It is providential that we celebrate the Reformation today, remembering how Martin Luther began the great conversation by nailing 95 theses, or points of discussion, on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He did it to protest the sale of indulgences that would finance the renovations of a temple of sorts, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgence promised special grace, for a price, and Luther objected that we should not have to pay for something that Christ gives us freely. However, before we get too carried away by Protestant pride, we need to remember that the Reformation, too, was “the best of times and the worst of times.” We need to remember that our forebears in the faith and our institutions are also both heroes and flawed. In Luther’s parlance, we are simul iustus et peccator, both saint and sinner.

The rallying cry of the Reformation has become, in another Latin phrase, "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda," the church of the Reformation is always reforming. This slogan challenges us to ask several questions. What is God doing in this place? What is God calling us to do in response? Is this a place where all are truly welcome or have we constructed barriers that prevent access to God’s presence? The good news is that God has not given up on us and continues to work in, with, and through the most deeply flawed people and institutions. In other words, God is working in, with, and through you, me, and this place. Through Christ’s grace, we will reform the broken places and strengthen grace-filled places. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"God's House" Sermon Pentecost 21 (Narrative Lectionary 3 - David)

“God’s House”
Pentecost 21 (NL3 David)
October 21, 2012
2 Samuel 7.1-17

Growing up I had a cat named Frick which, against our better judgment, we’d let outside periodically. Invariably, she would come back with an unwanted and unwelcome gift, most often a bird or a worm. In Frick’s mind, she was paying us the ultimate compliment, giving us what she thought we wanted. In our mind, her offerings were inappropriate, especially when she tried to bring them inside. I wonder if God felt the same way when David wanted to build God a temple. Though God’s reaction may not be as shrill as my mother’s screams, it bears unpacking further.

On the surface, David wants to do something nice for God, to give God some place nice to lodge.
After all, what kind of God would want to live in an ark inside a tent when s/he could have a temple? That’s what kings did for their gods, especially after they have come to power. However, what appears to be a gracious act of religious piety on David’s part is also a political power grab born of fear. By bringing the ark and the tabernacle to Jerusalem, his new capital, David moves to consolidate his power base. Furthermore, by building a house, a temple, for God, David lessens the danger that God will leave him high and dry.

Yet, this God is having none of it. This God is a living God who is totally free and cannot be contained by anyone or anything. This God refuses to be pinned down or constrained by anyone, even his chosen king. We can understand David’s fear and not just for his political future; we want our God to be with us. Even so, this desire to have God present with us in a real and tangible way can be perverted. Frankly, the idea of a free, dynamic, and ever-moving God scares us immensely, so we try to pin him down somewhere. We try to contain God with our own pre-conceived notions and prejudices that serve our own particular ideas about what our God should be like, who God should love or not love.

This past Wednesday evening, I asked those at worship to talk about ways we try to contain God. I received some wonderful answers, and I think we only scratched the surface. One sharp young man said we could try to contain God through our prayers. We do that when we only come to God when we want something or when we try to manipulate God to doing what we want. Another person said that denominationalism is another way to limit God. This happens when we believe in our own corner of the church that we are the only ones who have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. To combat this idea, one of my former pastors and colleagues, Wollom Jensen, used to say, “I believe we have the truth in the Lutheran Church, but I don’t believe we have all of it.” She went on to add this is especially destructive when we believe we know who God is going to save and who God is going to damn to hell, even suggesting that Christianity limits God by declaring that no other religions have access to God.

Even so, God understands our fear and, in spite of our attempts to limit him, God assures us with his presence. David wanted to do something for God, but as God often does, turns it around and does something for us. In a wonderful play on words, David lives in a house and wants to build God a house, a temple. But it is God who is going to build a house, that is, a dynasty for David and his heirs. The insecurity of God’s freedom is eased by God’s promise of his presence with David’s line. What’s more, God promises never to remove his steadfast love no matter what, no matter whom.

Those who were with Jesus of Nazareth saw in him fulfillment of this promise. Jesus, Immanuel, God With Us, promises to never leave us or forsake us. But, he also refuses to be constrained by our narrow ideas of what kind of God he will be, insisting to love all of us without restrictions. The Spirit blows wherever and whenever it wills, and Jesus can be anywhere he chooses to be, but he has promised to meet us in particular places. He meets us in the spoken and sung word. He is found in the waters of baptism, just as they washed over Ellie this morning. In a few moments, he will meet us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In so doing, he has freed us from fear to live for others. The Giver is also the Gift, and the living God is on the loose, inviting us to be on the loose, too. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"Hannah's Song" Sermon Pentecost 20

“Hannah’s Song”
Pentecost 20 (NL3 Judges)
October 14, 2012
1 Samuel 1.9-11, 19-20; 2.1-10

Hannah’s story, of a barren woman who longs to have a child, is a compelling one that draws us in. Most of us know those for whom this is a tender and painful story. Hannah’s grief is compounded by her husband’s second wife, Penninah, who cannot only have babies at will, but who mocks her and throws it in Hannah’s face. Her husband, Elkanah, is sympathetic and even overly generous but, while trying to mitigate her pain, is clueless. “Am I not worth more than ten sons? he says.” Her story is also compelling because it is told in the context of a much larger but similar story of hopelessness and despair. The 12 tribes of Israel are besieged by other powers from without and by their own corruption and faithlessness from within. Both Hannah and Israel don’t seem to have any future.

However, the birth of a child changes everything. Even so, the key to understanding what this means comes within Hannah’s Song, the psalm of thanksgiving Hannah sings in praise of God’s gracious gift of a son. This is important because we might be tempted to ask more of Hannah’s story than we should. It is natural, but misguided, to pore over her story looking for a procedure for getting what we want from God. Hannah’s Song reminds us that it is not about us; rather, it is about what God does in, with, and through us. It is about us only to the extent that God has a special place in his heart for the hurting and helpless.

What does Hannah’s Song tell us what we need to hear today as we make our way through the story? First, the story shows again how God meets each of us in midst of our pain, despair, and hopelessness. Wherever we struggle, whoever persecutes us, whatever we lament, God is there with us. Hannah trusted in that promise, which is why she poured out her soul to God in the shrine at Shiloh. The tribes of Israel, as they suffered at the hands of other nations, some of it their own doing, cried out to God for a deliverer. God raised up judges for them and will eventually raise up a king as well.

That God meets us where we are leads us to the second important takeaway today: God is working even though we can’t see it. The miraculous birth of Samuel is the back-story to another back-story, which ultimately tells the story of how David became the greatest king of Israel, uniting the tribes into one formidable people. Getting there is not a smooth ride and it takes all of 1 Samuel and much of 2 Samuel to tell it. Hannah’s Song reminds us that God is acting in, with, and through the world on our behalf. By the way, I think that it is precisely those times when we think God is absent from us that God is working the hardest.

The third and last point our text makes today is that God turns life upside down from what we expect. God does not only reverse the fortunes of the lowly, the downtrodden, and the marginalized. God also works in, with, and through the most unlikely of people and circumstances. Who would think that Hannah would have a child, let alone a kingmaker and king-breaker? Who would have thought that it would be the eighth son of Jesse who would become king? For that matter, who would have imagined that the Savior of the world would be born in a humble stable to a carpenter and his ordinary wife, a woman who sings a similar song of her own after his birth? A side note: it seems to me that God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalized ought to inform our political choices.

When I was doing coursework for my doctorate, I had the opportunity to do an intentional analysis of the events that led up to this point in my life as a pastor. It was amazing to see how the people I met and the experiences I had shaped me in ways I couldn’t dream of at the time. The opening of Hannah’s womb reminds us that our lives and our futures are continually being reopened. The birth of Samuel reminds us that God does new things in amazing ways. Hannah’s Song is our song and we join our voices to hers, for God meets us at the places of our deepest need, works in ways that we can’t always see, in ways that we can never expect. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Bold Humility" Sermon Pentecost 19

“Bold Humility”
Pentecost 19 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Law & Wilderness)
Exodus 32.1-14
October 7, 2012

It’s been a wild ride for the Israelites. In response to the people’s cry of oppression, Moses showing up as God’s mouthpiece to lead them out of Egypt and back to the land they have only heard rumors about. He does so through a series of dramatic plagues ending with the Passover, the angel of death killing the unprotected firstborn male people and animals. On their way out, they plunder the Egyptians and have a narrow escape at the Red Sea where Moses parts the waters. God gets them organized in the wilderness, providing quail and manna for them to eat. Flush from this exhilarating adventure and the anticipation of the Promised Land, they pledge themselves to each other. Furthermore, the Israelites agree to follow God’s rules for living.

But they haven’t had a lot of experience with Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, so they get nervous when they haven’t heard from him in a while. Moses has been in conference with God 40 days and the Israelites get restless. Has Moses met with some disaster? Did God leave them again? Will it be another 400 years before God shows up again? What should they do? They need a god they can rely on, one that can lead them, and so they make their own god in the form of a golden calf. As Rolf Jacobson notes, this is not an image of a false god, but a false image of the True God. A charitable view says that they simply wanted a god with whom they could connect. Uncharitably, they made up a god they were trying to control.

Yet, in a remarkable twist to the story, the True God cannot be controlled, but he can be persuaded. Moses, the one that God called to lead his people, who didn’t even want the job in the first place, intercedes on their behalf. Daring to talk to God in the midst of God’s righteous anger and denying any self-interest no matter how tempting, Moses advocates for others who don’t deserve it and may not appreciate it. But Moses did something even bolder: Moses reminded God of his promises and who he claimed to be. Then, in one of the most incredible lines in Scripture, we hear that “God changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring upon his people.”

The idea that God can change his mind may make some of us a bit nervous, just like the Israelites were nervous when Yahweh seemed absent. Indeed, we have to admit that many of us have tried to make God into our own golden calves in one way or another. We wonder if God is being unpredictable, not to mention somewhat fickle and subject to being shamed. However, I believe that this story shows a God who is dynamic, not static, who makes himself vulnerable to us and open to conversation with us so that we might be vulnerable and open to him. We also see in this story a God who justly hates sin and brokenness, but tempers justice with mercy. God is both just and merciful. Thank goodness God is more merciful than just.

I have said before how grateful I am that Grace embraces and practices prayer so faithfully. This story of Moses and God shows us that prayer is important, but it goes way beyond that. God invites us into a relationship where we can pour out not only our hurts to him but also our hearts.
As we come to God in bold humility, addressing him as the God of our ancestors, we not only remind ourselves of who God is and what God is promised; we remind God of that as well. One thing I mention to the Saved By Grace (Confirmation) students as well as to parents of babies being baptized is that baptism is not as much for God as it is for us. I tell them that when we doubt God’s promises (or think God has forgotten us), we can wave our baptism in God’s face and say, “You promised!”

The story doesn’t end here and when Moses gets down the mountain, it turns pretty ugly. They are not destroyed, but they do suffer the consequences of their sin. We have more stories after this one about how God continually puts up with people who turn away from him, about how God takes them back because he loves us so very much. Then when we get to final story about Jesus, we can’t help but think of the one who in bold humility gave himself for us, interceding on our behalf. Jesus is the final reason we have the bold humility to enter into conversations with God, asking for God’s blessing on others, denying our own self-interests, trusting in God’s grace and mercy. God not only invites us into just such a relationship, but also makes it possible. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Responsibly Free" Sermon Pentecost 18B (Narrative Lectionary 3 - Exodus/Passover)


“Responsibly Free”
Pentecost 18B (NL3 Exodus/Passover)
September 30, 2012
Exodus 12.1-14; 13.1-10

We usually encounter the Passover story in the context of Maundy Thursday, the commemoration of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. Three out of the four gospels make this last meal that Jesus has a Passover meal. John’s gospel, interestingly, has Jesus dying on the night of the Passover. Looking back through the story of Jesus to the Passover event makes obvious connections between the two stories. Unfortunately, doing so robs the Passover story of its power and its rightful place in God’s story. So far in God’s story we have heard how God creates humanity in God’s image as male and female, and how these human beings disobeyed God’s good intentions for them. We have heard how Abraham and Sarah were promised numerous descendants like the stars in the sky as well as a land for them to occupy. Last week heard the Joseph story and how the beginnings of the 12 tribes found themselves in Egypt.

In narrative time, it has been 400 years since Joseph saved both Egypt and his people and the Israelites have become numerous. They are indeed many, but they are still in Egypt without a land of their own and it gets worse. They are a threat to the Egyptians, Joseph has been forgotten, and in an attempt to hold them back, the Egyptians are forcing the Israelites into hard manual labor. It doesn’t work, so Pharaoh has the Egyptian midwives are told to kill male Jewish babies as they are born. The Israelites cry out to God for deliverance, God raises up Moses to act has an agent of freedom, loosing a series of plagues to convince Pharaoh to let them go. The tenth and final plague is the harshest, the killing of the firstborn male in unprotected households where lamb’s blood has not been smeared on the thresholds.

So, when we talk about celebrating Passover, the event God uses to liberate the Jewish people, we would do well to mute our celebration, knowing that many innocent children died, on both sides. The commemoration is also subdued because, as awful a place Egypt was, the Israelites were going into the unknown, what will be long, wilderness wandering before they get to the Promised Land. Furthermore, as wonderful a place as that will be, it will bring its own challenges and difficulties. Yet, this is such a singular part of Jewish history and so basic to their identity that God demands they not only remember each year what God has done for them, but also essentially reenact it as well.

This reenactment goes further: children are not only to be told over and over about this singular act of deliverance from slavery and oppression by God, they and the family are an important part of it. The mother lights the candles and a child asks a series of questions beginning with, “Why is this night different from all other nights? Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?” Then the father or mother tells the story of oppression and freedom and then there are more questions and more stories. All the while, they eat as their ancestors ate, lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread, hastily with their feet pointed toward the door. Each year they are reminded who they are, whose they are, and what they have been freed for.

It is significant that the Passover event resets the Jewish calendar to the beginning of the year. The Israelites are leaving Egypt behind and all that means, making a new start to a new land. This new stage in their journey with God, along with the importance of teaching their children, can inform an important, yearly rite that we are celebrating here today, the Affirmation of Baptism. No, there won’t be any lambs sacrificed or bitter herbs eaten, but there will be unleavened bread in the form of Communion wafers. Yet, as exciting as it was for Izabel and Linsey to affirm what their parents did for them, this celebration should be a bit muted too, because you two have been freed for something today.

Izzy and Linsey, by your words and actions today you have been set free from your parents’ authority, but you have also been set free for taking responsibility for your own faith journey. You have promised to continue on that journey your parents set you on, a journey of regular worship, Bible study, prayer, service, and giving, and you did it in front of many witnesses. Yet, remember this, that the setting free has been accomplished not by you, but rather by the God who set free the Israelites and who journey with them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. That’s a powerful story; it’s the Israelite’s story, it’s our story, and it’s your story; don’t ever forget it. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Good God!" Sermon for Pentecost 17B


“Good God!”
Pentecost 17B
September 23, 2012
Genesis 37.4-8, 26-34; 50.15-21

NCIS is a fictional TV show about a team of federal agents working for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, doing exactly what the name implies, investigating crime in or against the Navy and Marine Corps. In a past episode, two of the team, Tony and McGee, believe they have located another member of their team, Ziva, who has been missing and believed to be in the hands of a foreign terrorist in an unfriendly foreign country. Because the government is unwilling to extract her without proof, Tony and McGee allow themselves to be captured by the terrorists on the slim hope that the government would rescue them.

Indeed, Ziva is there, beaten to a pulp and almost dead, but Tony and McGee are also subjected to torture. During his interrogation, Tony repeatedly asks the terrorist leader when he is going to surrender, warning the man that he is about to die if he doesn’t do so. Understandably, the terrorist laughs. At a critical time, the small window behind Tony shatters and a bullet kills the terrorist. The bullet has been fired by their team leader, Gibbs, a former sniper, from several hundred yards away. Against all odds, a squad of rescuers overruns the terrorist compound and all three are rescued.

Today we enter the Joseph narrative and Jana did a nice job summarizing what has happened since last week’s reading about Abraham and the highlights of what is happening in our story today. On a literary level, the Joseph story bridges the gap between promises God makes to the ancestors that they would be a numerous people and story in Exodus of oppression and liberation. On a theological level, the Joseph story asserts that—evidence to the contrary—God is at work in, with, and under the circumstances of life and the action of people working to make things good.

What Joseph and his brothers now realize at the end that they were unable to see in the middle was that God was working both through them and in spite of them to bring about God’s purposes. One significant lesson from this story is the assurance that God is present in the most horrific and ugly parts of our lives and the world even though it is not always possible to see it. God is with us. There are two important dimensions lesson must be held together on our journeys of faith if we are to make sense of this lesson.

First, we must have a healthy sense of realism about our dangerous world and our human brokenness. Without a realistic view of the world, we dissolve into a romantic piety about our life circumstances. Too many of us have been on the receiving end of well-meaning but obnoxious platitudes such as, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handled,” or “You can always have more children.” Second, we also need a healthy sense of certainty that God is faithful and will somehow bring some kind of good out of the direst of circumstances. Without certainly, realism leads to despair.

There is another significant lesson that the Joseph narrative has for us today that takes us beyond it. The assurance that God works in, with, and through even the darkest places in the world gives us the courage we need to enter those places intentionally as God’s partners in healing and redemption. Tony and McGee had no delusions about the danger they were entering in trying to rescue Ziva. And, although they had no guarantee, they believed that Gibbs and others were working on their behalf. They didn’t leave it all up to Gibbs, but neither did they think it all depended upon them.

We read the Joseph story through the lens of another story: Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The Romans, the civil authorities, and some religious leaders intended to do great harm to Jesus. Yet, God was working in, with, and through the most horrific death possible to bring new life. The cross of Jesus gives us the assurance that we can enter any uncertain circumstance with the assurance that God will be with us, often working in ways we cannot see until much later. It is why the apostle Paul is able to say in Romans 8 that, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are the called according to his purpose.”

Because of this assurance of God’s presence, we walk with people who are facing terminal illness and death. We are able to join the world of the poor and hungry even in the most overwhelming of circumstances. We enter the worlds of people different from us, with different cultures and religious beliefs, not to convert them, but simply to get to know them as fellow travelers in this world. Had Tony and McGee not been rescued and died with Ziva, she still would have known that there were people willing to enter her darkness and be with her through it.

This week I invite you to look back over your life and see where God has been working to bring about God’s good although you may not have seen it at the time. I then invite you to look around to where God might be calling you to enter, places of uncertainty and even frightening. God is working in, with, and through us in the world so that all may know and live God’s love. God is with you. Thanks be to our good and gracious God! Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Promises, Promises" Sermon Pentecost 16B

“Promises, Promises”
Pentecost 16B
September 16, 2012
Genesis 15.1-6           

When my dad passed away in 1989 the pastor shared with us Psalm 121, which begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” I have since learned that hills were not a source of comfort for travelers in the psalmist’s time. Rather, they were sources of fear, from which bandits would come to attack them. That’s why people travelled in caravans. Yet, the psalmist turns that source of fear on its head and declares that, because of God’s promises, hills are comforting, not fearful. These are verses that I share with grieving families, inviting them to do the same. I thought about it this week as I had the opportunity to visit my dad’s grave, on a small hill at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery. Both the marker and the hill, which obviously speak of death, are because of God’s promises, also signs of life.

Today we enter the story of Abraham, which is foundational for the Jewish people. Stretching from chapters 11-25, the story says that beginning with one very old couple, God was going to build a nation and through that nation, God was going to bless all nations of the earth. Specifically, God promised Abram and Sarai—soon to be Abraham and Sarah—, past childbearing years at 75 and 66 years old respectively, they would have their own son. This is a promise God would repeat over and over again. It is a promise that won’t be fulfilled for 25 years and through many conversations between Abram, Sarai, and God, conversations that are often pained, strained, and difficult for all of them. That’s how the life of faith is, not always gracious back and forth dialogue between God and us. Interestingly, it’s these painful conversations that keep the relationships alive in difficult times.

Beside God’s willingness to hang in there with us even when we doubt, yell, scream, or cry, God also gives us what we need to keep going, to move forward in faith even when we doubt. I wonder how many times in those 25 years between the promise and the beginning of fulfillment, the birth of Isaac, that Abram stands outside his tent looking up at the stars in the sky. I imagine that as I look to the hills around me in general and at my dad’s gravestone in particular, Abraham also held onto those stars as God’s promise to him that he would have a son. By the way, remember that Abraham will never see the total fulfillment of that promise, only its beginning. Those stars were not proof that God would fulfill his promise, but they were a not so subtle reminder that the One who created those very stars is capable of giving a child to an old couple.

God knows that we need to be reminded of the promises and God knows we need more than promises to hang on to as we wait for the fulfillment of the promises. That’s why God give us his Word in the scriptures, the story of the Word made flesh living with us. That’s why God’s Word is attached to the waters that pour over us, so that every time we get wet we are reminded that we are a child of God and that nothing will separate us from God’s love. It is why God continues to come to us and give himself to us, his body and blood, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, to remind us that we are forgiven and that we have new life in him. Finally, it is why God makes himself present in this and other communities of faith, the Body of Christ.

God gives us what we need to move ahead in life, to step out in faith, not to earn the promise but rather to live into the promise, to take the plunge in life trusting God to be there. I don’t think the biggest miracle is that Abraham and Sarah had a son, or that a numerous people sprung from them. I think the most amazing thing is that for 25 years, past the age when they should not have children, they continued to do what people do who want to have a baby. Now, that’s faith! What is it that God has promised you? What has God given you as a sign to hang on to as you wait? How might you step out in faith, knowing that God will fulfill his promises to you? Look to the hills, the stars, a grave marker, or an empty tomb. For, in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we have the assurance of God’s promise always. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

"Into the Garden and Out Again" Sermon Pentecost 15B

“Into the Garden and Out Again”
Pentecost 15B
September 9, 2012
Genesis 2.4b-7, 15-17; 3.1-8, 21-24

We love our stories. We love to listen to them and we love to tell them over and over again. We like the real ones best, but we’ll take the made up ones, especially if they ring true to life. Stories are powerful because they invite us into a world that can touch us and when they touch us they can change us.

Because we tend to read the Bible in pieces, we forget that the Bible is, at heart, a story. We forget that it’s in fact one story made up of hundreds of shorter stories. Like any good story, the Bible has people we call characters, both good and not so good, a plot, and a point. We also forget that the biblical story doesn’t begin with Jesus, though he is central. As Martin Luther said, the Bible is the manger that the Christ child is laid in. Finally, to say that the Bible is a story does not diminish its character or importance for us. This story is important, not just because it’s our “back story,” our history. It is, as Brian McLaren says, The Story We Find Ourselves In. We are not only living out the story; the story is lived out in us.

That’s why we are beginning to use the Narrative Lectionary today. Using this lectionary will reacquaint us with the grand sweep of the biblical story, from creation to consummation and everything in between. This fall we’ll focus on some Old Testament stories and prophets, which will lead into the Jesus story in Advent, Christmas and beyond through his death, crucifixion, and resurrection. Following Easter, we’ll read about in the book of Acts how the early church worked out the resurrection life. To help fill in the gaps, we have some nifty resources that give background for each story as well as daily readings to fill in the story between Sundays.

Today we start with the second creation story in Genesis. Did you know that there are two creation stories? In Genesis 1, we hear how God creates in six days and rests on the seventh, with humankind being made in God’s image as the crown of creation. In the second story in Genesis 2, we uncover an important truth. Humans are not only like God, we have something of God within us. The word breath in the Bible can also mean wind or spirit. God’s very Spirit enlivens us. We are both soil and spirit. We skip the verses about the creation of a partner, woman, from man’s rib, but the point of the story is one that flows throughout the Bible. We belong to God and to each other interdependently. We are meant for community.

However, this good creation of God’s doesn’t last as Adam and Eve rebel against God’s good intentions for them. A few things to note: nowhere in the text does it say that the serpent was Satan or the devil. That is an idea that was imposed centuries later. The serpent is simply a crafty animal. Also, note that it was not Eve who coerced Adam into disobedience, sexually or otherwise. Although Adam remains silent, he was right there along with Eve through the entire thing and ate when she did. By the way, for those who are tempted to quip that a woman was the last created and the first to sin, remember that it was women who where last at Jesus’ cross and first at his empty tomb. The point is not so much to explain the origin of brokenness, but rather the mystery of sin. Sin is a mysterious force that arises from within God’s good creation, which is a risk God takes for making a truly free creation. The story reminds us of the reality of what it means to be human and exposes our mysterious tendencies to rebel against God.

There are consequences to living outside of God’s good intentions for us. This is graphically shown by humanity’s expulsion from the Garden. Thankfully, that is not the end of the story; there is more. With God, there is always more. Adam and Eve do not die and, in a gracious act of care and love, God provides them with clothing and sets them to meaningful work. Neither creation nor sin is the last word, for God continues to be involved in our world and lives. Not only will God continue to pick us up and clean us up when we fall and bloody our noses, God will insist on working in, with, and through we who are deeply flawed for his purposes.

This story that we find ourselves in provides us with several important and provocative questions. What does it mean that we are made in the image of God as dust and breath, soil and spirit? Look around the world and in your life and ask where you see God creating and recreating, bringing new life out of death. Can you see places where God has worked through broken people to bring mercy and love? We will be asking these questions in different ways as we take our journey through the Bible. Through it all, we will see repeatedly how God continues to be faithful to us even when we are not faithful to God. Thanks be to God! Amen.