Torn down to build up 11.15.15

Today I delve into one of those texts of scripture that often cause stress and anguish not only for the reader, but also for the preacher who decides to wade in the apocalyptic waters of texts that deal with things yet to come.  Chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark has often been referred to as the “little apocalypse,” because of all the dire language.  Oft-quoted texts like “wars and rumors of wars,” of earthquakes and famines, have been used by alarmists throughout the history of the church.   Which is ironic, because in the midst of this bleak picture of wars and earthquakes, you will hear Jesus give words of comfort to not only his disciples, but also to us as we live in a world where nightly the news broadcasts bring the horrors of wars and natural disasters into our living rooms.

Even though I completely believe Jesus’ predictions in chapter 13 dealt with the destruction of the temple that happened in 70AD, any good prophecy speaks beyond the moment it was intended for and has a word for us today.  Jesus consoles his disciples then and now with the words, “Do not be alarmed.”  These texts aren’t meant to strike fear into our hearts, but to teach what is needed to sustain us as we life out our day-to-day discipleship in a world of transition and turmoil.  Let us hear the words of our Lord from the opening verses of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 13: 1-8

Many of you are well traveled and have seen some pretty spectacular structures during those times abroad.  Which of all the buildings you saw was the most impressive or most beautiful? What was your initial reaction when you first saw it?  How many pictures did you take?  Now imagine as you are taking your last picture, the guy standing next to you says, “It won’t be long before all that will all be gone.”

The feeling you have only begins to scratch the surface of what must have gone through the disciples’ heads and hearts as Jesus told them that the temple would be destroyed.  This was the temple, the very dwelling place of God.  It was huge.  The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold.  There were immense courtyards, grand porches and monumental stairs.  Herod, the great builder of this temple, not only built it to impress his Roman allies, but to show off his power to the common Jewish people of Israel.  And he succeeded.

For these Galilean fishermen, the daunting power of the temple and the Roman forces may have seemed irresistible and immovable.  But Jesus lets them know that the powers of the present age are transient, they will not last.  The world they are living in of imperial rule from both outside and inside the temple is not the way that God intends the world to be.  They would have been in complete agreement that the sooner the Romans went the better.  But the temple?  It stood for so much.  Sadly, the temple became a metaphor for how God would save the people of Israel from the world, but it had originally been built so the people of Israel would be a light unto the world, pointing the world back to loving presence of God.

In sharing this story of the foretelling of the destruction of the temple, Mark is not denying that crises exist or that there are times when present suffering calls for urgent action.  But what it does is present the cataclysms Jesus describes as the “birth pangs” of God’s transformation of the world, where God’s new heaven and new earth intersect with the old.   Because of this, whenever you hear people ascribe disaster experiences as part of God’s judgment, they are to be held at arms length.  In almost a way that is un-apocalyptic, Jesus says that earthly disasters are not necessarily an indication that God’s judgment is near.  They will happen, but don’t try and interpret them for what they may not be.  God is at work in the world, but labeling God’s actions and motivations as judgment is not the job of his followers.

Jesus is aware of our human tendencies, to lock in on more powerful forces and to be overcome with fear due to threats, violence, war, the tenuous standing of the church, the finitude of our existence, or to be lured by all those enticing voices promising the false security of other idols, quick fixes and scapegoats.

In response to our inevitable reaction to such powerful forces, Jesus provides us with three important spiritual disciplines for navigating transitional times.  Things were changing and about to change very fast for the disciples in the next several days and years, with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and then the destruction of their beloved temple.  How are we to respond in this world of constant change and flux?

First, believers must engage in discernment in the face of threats from both without and within to determine God’s goal for the life of the world.  For the disciples between that time of the resurrection and destruction of the temple, history tells us that resistance fighters were going through the Palestinian countryside calling on all Jews to join the battle.  Many in Mark’s community would have been tempted to join the cause and saying “no” would have marked them as traitors.

For us, the threats in this age are more subtle such as allowing the false security of a cultural, consumer driven theology to creep into our community.   In today’s culture in the church, this often takes shape in the assumption that a church that is growing, vibrant, and happy is “filled with the Spirit,” as though these are visible indications of being spiritually dressed for success, or that a church in decline has necessarily lost the steadfast faithfulness of bygone years.  God in Christ calls us to be faithful to him and not successful as defined by the world’s standards.

Second, believers must be patient.  Birthing a new heaven and new earth takes time.  There are many evils to eradicate and many more hopes to realize.  These are the birth pangs of God’s new age.  God’s transformation and the witness of believers must compete with many forces, biases, demons, and appetites.  Working out God’s promises occurs during the life of the world as well as in and for the world.  Being patient requires the recognition of the truth that, while the powers of the world are imposing and strong, they are not unmovable and invincible.  The love of God that is transforming the world is the one thing we can rely on that won’t change.

Trusting that God is transforming the world and that believers are called to participate in God’s saving work is fundamental to Mark’s conception of the Christian life.  In that task, believers are sustained by the third reminder:  for the Christian, there is always hope.  There will be times when we feel beleaguered, beaten up, bruised, and vulnerable.  Growth, change, and the coming of new life are a painful process, but in this suffering there is always hope and the promise of a new day.  Hope sustains us through the birth pangs of change and the necessary struggle that leads to growth.  It is Mark’s prescription to the disciples as they move into a time of great change and transition, and it his prescription to us, Christ’s church, in a world of change and transition:  Discernment, patience, and hope.  They are given as a provisional sign to stand in the midst of tension in a passing world.  Amen.


Wise and Thankful Living: Sermon by Keith, 8.16.15, Proper 15B/Ordinary 20B/Pentecost 12

(This sermon was delivered at Worship in the Woods, at Westminster Woods Camp, during our annual joint worship with Pendleton First Presbyterian Church).

It is my understanding that Pastor Roger has been preaching on Ephesians for a while now, putting me somewhat at a disadvantage.  The joy of preaching or studying a book of the Bible, especially one from Paul, is seeing and experiencing how the passages build upon each other.  I looked forward to hearing Roger wax eloquently as he delved into the passage and how these words speak to the greater message found in Ephesians and affects our lives today.  But it was not to be so.  When Roger called last week and let me know about his grandson’s surgery, I couldn’t say no to his request that I preach today.  But I decided that since he got to miss out on preaching on this section, I’d like the good folk from Pendleton to make a request of Roger when he returns home.  Now give him a few days to get settled back into things, but ask him to preach on the next section of Ephesians.  If you know your Bibles, you might know that the next section is the “Wives, submit to your husbands,” and just as important, “Husbands, love your wives.”

Our reading from Ephesians 5:15-20

I recently heard a definition about wisdom that I think helps us grasp what the writer of Ephesians, who, for the sake of argument, we will assume is the Apostle Paul, is talking about when he wants us to live as wise people, especially this time of year: “Intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put one in a fruit salad.”

That is the kind of wisdom living he is talking about.  And with that wisdom, Paul is calling us to be careful.  Now, what is usually translated “live” could more accurately be translated “our living walk.”  Paul is saying “Look how you walk:”  Keep your eyes peeled as you walk, because these days are evil.  The word “careful” here modifies the word “walk,” not “look.”  Basically, watch where you step.  Paul is commanding his audience to keep their eyes wide open, so they can walk carefully in this evil age.  The first reaction to these words might be a paranoid approach to life, peeking around corners and through drawn curtains, but that is not at all the picture Paul paints later in this verse.  A careful walk through life, in fact, results in an intoxicating joyful life full of song, thanksgiving, and healthy relationships.  But we will look at that a little closer later.

For now, Paul fleshes out what careful walking looks like.  Because the eyes are wide open as one walks carefully through a treacherous world, the believer can take advantage of opportunities he or she may encounter along the way.  Paul doesn’t talk about avoiding pitfalls, or give a long list of those pitfalls that might be encountered while living in the evil days.  Paul deals with some of those pitfalls earlier in Ephesians as he delves into what it means to live into the new life of Christ.  But, instead Paul puts a more positive spin on wise living.  Wise living involves recognizing, seeing, and making the most of the opportunities that are encountered daily.

Again, Paul doesn’t give a list of the kind of opportunities he is talking about, but from the overall letter, we can deduce he isn’t talking about business opportunities or waiting for the best buy at Walmart, even though the word “making the most” is a word from the Greek found in commercial transactions.  What I think Paul is talking about is that when the culture may be trying to lull us into living the same way that everyone else does, we need to be alert to those moments when we can exhibit unique Christian living.  He doesn’t mean keep a sharp lookout for cheap real estate during a recession, what he means is keeping a watchful eye open to avoid the evil of the day and to be ever on the lookout for where God is being active in the world because that is where God’s kingdom will be found and experienced.  Direct your walking towards those God moments in which we can join God in his love and grace.

That means living wisely is understanding what the Lord’s will is.  Throughout Ephesians, Paul has written a lot describing God’s great cosmic purposes for everyday living, Thus, Christians should know both what God is doing in the world and how we should respond in our everyday living.  Paul’s call to paying attention to walking wisely is tied directly to understanding the will of the Lord.  The temptation is to just drift along with the current of the culture, where the will of the culture overtakes the will of the Lord.  Paul is calling us to pay attention so that doesn’t happen so that we can live and experience the Kingdom of God.

So, how can we live wisely in a foolish and evil world that wants to grab hold of our attention and pull us along its currents?  Paul give a profound answer—“be filled with the Spirit.”  What does that mean?  Paul uses what I think is an interesting analogy.  It’s like being drunk on wine.  I don’t think he includes this prohibition on getting drunk because it is such a great sin, because intoxication can and does cause great harm, but I think he includes this example because it is such a good comparison.  When you are drunk, you are under the influence of the alcohol and the more you drink, the more under that alcohol’s spirit you become.  Your speech slurs, your eyes roll, you stagger, your response time slows.  I think that is why it is called a DUI, driving under the influence.  You no longer are the one in charge, but the alcohol is the calling the shots.  And being under that control doesn’t last forever.  Once you sober up, you’ll have to drink again to come under the influence again.

It is somewhat similar to be filled with the Spirit.  Now, I believe that in our baptism, we all receive the Spirit once and forever.  But to be filled, to come under the influence of the Spirit, is an ongoing process.  Ironically, Paul doesn’t talk about what it takes to have a Spirit filled life in this particular passage.  I’m guessing he thinks you figured it out in the previous passages with what not to do: Don’t steal and slander.  And what to do:  worshiping together, having patience with one another, speaking the truth in love.  But what Paul does is describe a Spirit-filled life:  Speaking, singing and making music, and giving thanks.

Those who are filled with the Spirit speak to one another in a distinctive way—with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.   Now, don’t ask me what that exactly means because I’m not going to walk up and belt out Amazing Grace when I see you on the street.  But it maybe how we talk with each other as we talk to God in worship.  What a wonderful way to think about our walk and worship with God—not grim duty, not reluctant reverence, not fearful distance, but heartfelt singing together.  Paul would seem to indicate that those who are filled with the Spirit are so overflowing with joy that if flows out into song, even if you are someone like me who has a tough time carrying a tune.  Music is made first in our hearts and then outflows with voice and instrument.

And not surprising, a Spirit filled life is a life full of gratitude.  It is the level and extent of the gratitude that is surprising.  Paul indicates that if the Spirit is in control of our thoughts and desires, we will give thanks always for everything.  Now, I will be the first to say that sometimes things can be so awful that I can’t give thanks.  Maybe Paul means we can give thanks in those times, but not for those times.  Yesterday, I did a funeral.  Many times we gave thanks for the life of the one who had died, we gave thanks to the Savior who now held her close in his arms, and we gave thanks that the pain was gone.  But she died.  Death is the great destroyer of relationships.  I can’t give thanks for death.  So I think a Spirit filled life that is full of thanks is wise enough to understand what is evil and what is the good work of God in our lives, even in the midst of tragedy.  And that Spirit filled life overflows not with complaint and dissatisfaction, but with thanksgiving.

This text, and a large portion of Ephesians, calls of to kind of living that will move people to ask us to give the reason for the hope that is in us—carefully wise, always looking for opportunities to live for Christ, deeply in touch with the purposes of God in the world, but not in a way that alienates others but draws them into a relationship with Christ.  And in doing so, the Spirit will fill us with joy and gratitude, and creating relationships that demonstrate our closeness to God with hearts that overflow with song.  Amen.

Only You Know, Lord: Sermon by Keith, 5.24.15 Pentecost B

Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21, Ezekiel 37:1-14

It’s interesting sometimes how the church calendar and the secular calendar lineup sometimes.  Like this well known passage from Ezekiel about dry bones falling on Memorial Day:  A day of memories and cemeteries.  And this definitely had to be a day where Ezekiel’s memories were being stirred up by God.  He had been a young priest in Jerusalem when the Babylonians came, torturing the inhabitants of that holy city with siege warfare.  The two year siege led disease and despair.  They took the city, razed the temple to the ground, killed many who lived there, and forced the brightest and best into exile in Babylon, including Ezekiel.

Now Ezekiel, either by vision or physically being taken up and brought back to his homeland, was being led by the Lord around this wasteland of dry bones.  These are not just any dry bones–they are his people.  Ezekiel remembers their names, their faces.  They were once a dynamic, loving people, the friends and family that he had grown up with.  Even the bones of his young wife lay somewhere among the bone heaps.  He had to have been in despair and probably even angry at God for feeling abandoned or betrayed and forced to face this scene.  His heart was broken.  This was not the kind of homecoming he had in mind.  Why had God left them and allowed this to happen?  The memories of his life, his people, and his temple were brought before him as he is being led through not only his past, but the glorious past of his nation reduced to weathered bones.

You might say that this past week the Holy Spirit led American Christendom through a valley of dry bones as the Pew Research Center released their survey results about faith in America.   Their report was not what most would call good news, but it is a scene we must face. What they reported is that there are now less people affiliated with the Christian Church than ever before as a percentage of the population. The biggest increase was in the “nones, ”and that doesn’t mean Catholic women joining the cloistered life, it means people with no affiliation to a religious group.  And people who said they were affiliated with one of the mainline churches, like the Presbyterian Church, saw some of the biggest declines.

These statistics on paper just solidify what churches have been seeing in reality and feeling in their hearts.  Previously full and dynamic churches now sit mostly empty.  Churches have been responding in anxiety and fear over the loss of membership, the loss of influence in society, a loss of any guiding mission or purpose beyond survival, and a sense that God may have given up on them.  The glory days are long gone.  How is the church to respond in an environment that sees the church as irrelevant and God unnecessary?  Denial, fear, anxiety?

All three of these reactions would be normal.  Looking out over all the bones of loved ones and knowing the history of what created this valley of bleached bones, Ezekiel answered God the only way he could when he was asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel knew only bones that only weather and dry out more as time goes by, so he gives God’s question back to God:  “Oh, Lord God, you know.”  And resurrection happens.

One of the most powerful words in all of scripture shows up 10 times in 14 verses.  The Hebrew word ‘ruach’ can be translated breath, but it also means Spirit or wind.  The same word is used at creation when the ruach blew over the formless void and the ruach filled the lifeless lumps of clay that became living humanity.  Ruach happened to these dry bones, breath and Spirit were given, life was given.  Where there was death, now there is life.  Where there was anger, now there is joy.  Where there despair, now there is hope.

And that is what we celebrate this Pentecost: hope.  Ezekiel’s home coming was not about ending back in the land he was from, but the promise of coming home to God.  The Babylonians may have destroyed Jerusalem, the temple, and the land; but they couldn’t destroy God or God’s love of his people.  God wasn’t tied to Jerusalem or the temple, and what Ezekiel learned is that God met up with the people in Babylon.  God was in exile with the Hebrew people in a foreign, strange land.  Things had changed, but what hadn’t changed was God’s love, God’s faithfulness, and God’s power.  God still had plans for his people to experience him and the life giving Holy Spirit in ways they could never dream or understand.

Friends, God is in exile with us, speaking a promise of new life to us.  Things aren’t they same as they were 50, 25, or even 10 years ago.  And that is okay, in fact it may be a good thing.  What may look like destruction and the loss of power and prestige is also an awesome opportunity for God to do something new.  Our hope lies not in ourselves, or in our churches, or our structures, but in the God who can put flesh on dry bones, who can stir imaginations that have forgotten the possibility of new life, who can give us the gift of waiting when we are restless and apathetic, who can, yes, set us free from thinking that we are the only ones responsible for the solutions to our problems.  We want to fix things, but when faced with dry bones, there is nothing that we can fix.  Ezekiel, when faced with a much more hopeless situation than the church faces today, put his hope of restoration and resurrection in the only one who could do it, God’s power in the Holy Spirit.  And only the Spirit of creation has the power to resurrect.

Friends, the promise God gave to Ezekiel is the promise he gives to us, too.  “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”  God has promised to bring us home, and in that promise, God’s call on our lives as individuals and as a church is to be faithful, not successful.  And that takes discernment and prayer, waiting for God to give a word of guidance and sometimes a word of prophecy.  It means stepping out in faith to see where the Holy Spirit is moving.  It means offering up the dry bones to God for the breath of restoration and resurrection.  God hasn’t abandoned his church, but is still as faithful and active and loving as he ever has been.   This assurance can underlie all of our living, even when we are in exile.  God can and will find us even in exile, and bring us home to him.  Amen.

Hoping Against Hope: Sermon by Laura, 3.1.15 Lent 2B

Scripture Readings: Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

At first you might call him a “drifter.” For the past three years, Stephen Swift has certainly followed a counterintuitive path as he has biked across the country and back. Hearing more of his story, just the fact of his journeying seems incredible. At age 53, this former construction landscaper has experienced a number of tragedies. Cancer claimed the lives of his father and sister. He himself had survived bone cancer only to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 18 months to live, shortly after his wife of 28 years died in a car accident.

In the midst of his grief, God spoke to him somehow in an offhand comment from his daughter, who suggested that he go for a ‘bike ride.’ So Stephen went, with a sign on his bike that said, “It’s Personal,” letting people know he was not crusading for a cause but just moving through his own life story. Yet he became aware that he carried a message of hope as he encountered all kinds of people on his way. As one newspaper quoted him saying, “I want people to live and be encouraged by my story. Never give up, never give in, always go forward. People need to learn life is precious…Encourage them, and inspire them to live.”[1]

I got to see stacks of photos and notebooks with messages from people he’d met on bike ride when Stephen stopped into our church one afternoon last fall.He told me how this journey had not cured his cancer, but it had freed him from isolation, healed his sorrow, and strengthened his faith in God. More than 30 months after his cancer diagnosis, he saw it a miracle that he was still on the road.

“Hoping against hope”: this week, that phrase from the NRSV version of Romans caught my eye, and I remembered Stephen’s story. His incredible journey for me exemplifies this theme, which The Message puts this way: “When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do but on what God said he would do.” Stephen claimed the promise that his life is precious, and he trusted God to make a way for him. As he actively entered his hope for healing, he experienced God’s faithfulness in ways he never could have imagined.

The Apostle Paul might say that Stephen showed himself to be a child of Abraham. He’s most often thought of as Israel’s preeminent patriarch, but before all that, Abraham was a man who likewise followed counterintuitive leadings from God. How would you respond if, at the age of 75 and settling nicely into retirement, God invited you to leave your home and journey to an as-yet unspecified land, promising that you would become the “father of many nations”? Despite his wife Sarah’s and his advanced ages and infertility, despite all the unknowns of the journey itself, Abraham got up and went, deciding to trust the God of the promise. He kept trusting God in spite of long years of waiting Abraham and Sarah endured before their son was born.

In his letter to the Roman Christian community, Paul calls upon the example of Abraham, as one who “hoped against hope” in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises. Abraham decided to hope and trust that God could and would bring new life from his and Sarah’s barren, aging bodies.

Likewise, Christians are those who decide to trust and hope that the God who raised the crucified Christ from the dead will also raise us to eternal life. We are not Abraham’s ethnic ancestors, but Christians of all nations are Abraham’s spiritual children in our “hoping against hope.”

Paul is making this claim in a community context in which Jewish and Gentile disciples were struggling to figure out how to be faithful Christians together across great cultural differences and historical enmity. Did Gentile believers need to become law-abiding Jews before they could become Jesus’ disciples? That had been the way for the earliest Christians. As many Gentiles were responding to the gospel, must they do likewise to claim the promise of Christ? As one preacher noted, “For males in particular, this wasn’t something you’d want to go through unless it was absolutely necessary.”[2]

Beyond the very practical matter of establishing communal initiation practices for converts to Christ, Paul objects to imposing circumcision upon Gentile believers on theological grounds. “What makes us right with God?” and “What we must do to claim salvation?” seem to be the questions at hand. But beneath those questions are deeper questions about the very nature of God: “In what sort of a God do we place our hope and trust through the good news of Jesus Christ?” How they answered that question would determine how the community lived out their life together. How we answer that question determines how we live our life together as well!

Of course, no one who argued against Paul would deny the righteousness of Abraham. So Paul argues that even before the commandments were given as signs of God’s covenant, Abraham was made righteous—brought into right relationship—with God by his basic willingness to trust in God’s promises. This is what the Reformers called “justification by grace through faith.” It puts every person on equal footing before God. Our righteousness is not in our ability to follow the rules. Truly, it’s not really about anything we do. It’s about the promises God has chosen to make and how God faithfully fulfills them.

Even before we are aware of religion, God is choosing to love us, reaching out to us, graciously inviting us to receive God’s own faithfulness. God is not a transactional broker offering us a contract. God is a generous giver, giving God’s own life to transform us with powerful grace, creating us anew for lives of freedom and love. God loves us and accepts us just as we are. All that is necessary to receive God’s gifts, our part of the relationship, is to allow ourselves to be turned towards God with openness and availability to the grace God offers.

Sounds simple, right? Then we hear Jesus saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Not so simple. Yet I would argue that Jesus’ words are another way of naming this basic willingness to trust in a God who calls us to “hope against hope.” To hope and trust in this God is to risk vulnerability, which can certainly feel like “losing our lives.” It is to learn to depend, not on our own powers or the things we can control, but on an unpredictable grace that’s hard to perceive.

Thankfully, responding to God’s grace with trust is not something we do once and for all. The truth is, each of us will turn away from this trust numerous times in our lives. But the good news is that our righteousness with God does not even depend on the strength of our faith! “Faith” is not another ‘work’ we must do to be saved; rather, it is an awareness of and openness to God’s saving grace. “Returning” is what it means to repent, and every time we return to this disposition of trust, we are transformed so that our old ways of living die and a new freedom to love God and others is born. We are freed from the fear which is at the root of our attempts to manipulate and control God and others and build ourselves up; we are freed from the fear which is at the root of our attempts to escape and hide ourselves from God and others in self-hating despair.[3]

This is not to say that we should throw out the rules of Christian tradition. They are meant to be tools for transformation, which God can use to open us to yet greater love and freedom. The instruction of Scripture and the spiritual practices of worship and prayer are resources which train us to perceive and be sourced in God’s ever-flowing grace. Whenever we show up to read the Bible, whenever we show up to worship with others, whenever we show up to the ongoing conversation God desires with us, we are returning to that basic decision to trust, and there God has an opportunity to speak resurrection grace into our lives.

The season of Lent is an opportune time to consider how we are “showing up” to our relationships with God and others. Are we seeing God’s transforming work in us, empowering us to the daring vulnerability of self-giving love, or, as my friend Stephen put it, to “never give up, never give in, always go forwards” in relation to God and others? What kinds of barriers are we experiencing to allowing God’s love to move freely through us?

To be sure, it is a challenge to “show up” in our world, where innumerable pressures keep us distracted, distrusting, overwhelmed and hopeless. In Lent, in the companionship of other followers on Christ’s way, we can take a step back to just notice, to just become aware where we experience closeness or distance with God in our daily lives. Such noticing is a time-tested prayer practice called “The Examen,” a gift from St. Ignatius of Loyola. One of the things the Examen can help us learn to see is that God is always faithful to us, gently waiting for us to return when we have been distracted from trust and hope. It helps us to see that every day we will turn away—sometimes many times a day! Yet every day also gives us multiple opportunities to receive God’s renewing love in trust and hope.

Abraham’s story has a final word for us. From Paul’s exhortation, you might think Abraham’s trust and hope never wavered, but the story in Genesis paints a messier picture! Abraham and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands more than once, and they had plenty of moments of doubt and distrust. When they were told they would finally have a child, their first reaction was laughter at this “hope against hope.” But ultimately, these departures from God’s way make them even better examples of faith in God’s faithfulness. When their son was born, they named him Isaac, which means “laughter,” and they celebrated that their lack of faith did not stop God from fulfilling God’s promises to them.

God calls us to hope against hope, a counterintuitive trust in impossible possibilities. Let us receive God’s invitation to the unpredictable journey of faith with laughter and joy, trusting that our righteousness depends on God alone, and God is always ready and willing to cover us with grace. Amen.

[1] Elleda Wilson


[3] paraphrasing Shirley Guthrie in Christian Doctrine, 321.

Shepherding: Sermon by Keith, 7.27.14, Summer with the Psalms

This psalm was chosen by Robin Ostermann. Keith read Nan C. Merill’s version of this psalm in Psalms for Praying

Scriptures: John 10:1-11, Psalm 23

Now that was a little different version than most of us grew up with, but it has all the elements of knowing this is psalm 23, like shepherd, green pastures, still waters, and overflowing cups.  It leaves no question that it is psalm 23.  So, how many of you have Psalm 23 memorized or at one point in your life had to have it memorized?  If we were playing a “name that psalm” game, how many of you think you could say it was psalm 23 from just a snippet?  Looks like most, if not all of you, have some familiarity with this psalm.   I would argue that psalm 23 is probably the most popular and well known of the all the psalms.  Actually, Robin and I were surprised that no one else put in a request for it. 

So, what is it that makes this psalm so popular?  And I would argue, probably the most popular and well known of all the psalms.  Any ideas or theories? 

My own personal feeling of why this psalm touches our hearts is it speaks to a deep feeling of trust and reassurance in a powerful and comforting God.   When the psalms are categorized, Psalm 23 actually gets its own class.  It isn’t a lament or praise psalm, it doesn’t fit the wisdom or royal psalm type of psalm.  The biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel called it a Song of Confidence because of its overarching motif of trust.  And it is that trust in our shepherd and Lord Jesus Christ, especially during times of crisis or loss, that really speaks to us. 

Whenever we are planning a memorial service, we always ask if there are particular passages of scripture the family would like to have read during the service.  Now, sometimes the family grew up in the church and someone might know the Bible inside out.  What passage usually comes up?  Psalm 23.  And even if the family doesn’t know the Bible and none of them have stepped foot in a church since Grandma died 20 years ago, someone will usually bring up Psalm 23, probably because it was read at Grandma’s memorial.  And even if they don’t bring it up, usually if I just say, “Well, Psalm 23 is a good scripture for a time like this.”  Someone will say, “I know that one.  Let’s have that one read.”  In our times of loss it speaks to us about our situation in life but more specifically, it speaks to who our God is.

The Lord, our my Beloved, in Merrill’s translation we read, is my shepherd and I shall not want.  The nice thing about reading this Psalm is that being here in the Grande Ronde Valley and Eastern Oregon, we at least have a basic idea of shepherding and how difficult of a task it is and was.   Even in ancient Israel, sheep couldn’t find grass or water on their own.  Predators were a constant threat.  The shepherd had huge responsibilities to take care of his flock.  And that image of the shepherd is given to God.  In our culture, which clings to the myth of “rugged individualism” and “self-made” people, the psalmist instead proclaims the truth—none of us is self-made.  We are God-made, utterly dependent upon God, as sheep are dependent upon the shepherd.   Yes, we should work, save, study, and plan, but God is ultimately the one who meets our needs.

I think these words help us realize what our needs really are.  I read somewhere that 50 years ago Americans had a basic list of about 10 needs such as food, shelter and family. Today Americans have a list of over 100 needs!  This scripture points us to green pastures and still, clean waters. For a sheep to be satisfied enough to lie down in green pastures, Phillip Keller in his book, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” says that the sheep must have four conditions met.  Now, he goes so far to say you can’t get them to lie down unless these conditions are met.  I’ve been around cows a lot more than sheep, so someone will have to tell me if this is right.  First, they must be free of all fear.  Second, they must be free of torment of flies and parasites.  Third, they must have a full belly, and last, they must be in harmony with the rest of the sheep in the flock.  And the green pastures the sheep were taken to didn’t happen by accident.  Generations of shepherds moved stones from areas so that their sheep would find contentment.  The water must be slow flowing as Keller says they won’t drink from fast flowing streams. 

The shepherd leads the sheep to those places where their basic needs are met and souls and bodies are restored.  Our needs are simple, food, drink, family, and community. We need our shepherding God and the security he provides amongst the community of the faithful.  When we thank God for placing these things in our lives, those several dozen other so called needs, like TV and I-Pad’s, don’t seem as important.

The psalmist continues, “He leads me in the paths of goodness or right path’s for his name’s sake.”  Despite simplistic imaginings about our own goodness, God is the one who enable us to be good and to do any good at all.  Any right paths we take in this life are the result not of any particular wisdom on our part but of the wise direction of God. 

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; your rod and your staff—they comfort and guide me.”  The shepherd had to move the sheep from place to place, and I’ve read that the word here for valley is deep ravine, a place where predators watched from above and the sun only shined in briefly.  And the word “death” doesn’t quite get at what the Hebrew is striving to say.  It means more like a deep, overwhelming darkness and shadow.  But the key word here is ‘through.’  When these dark times happen, God is there and will not leave us in the shadow of the valley.  Though God is a vulnerable God, a crucified Lord, the psalmist also reminds us that God is also a powerful protector.  Yes, God suffers with us in our pains, sorrows, and losses, but like a shepherd with a rod and staff, God also guides us and fights off the predators that would harm us. 

In fact, God’s protective power and presence is so great that the psalmist has the audacity to proclaim, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies and my fears, you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  We are invited to imagine entering a room filled with our deepest fears, our enemies, and all those things that haunt us.  And God turns to us and says, “Right this way, I have a table for you.  A banquet has been set in your honor.  Please be seated.”  We take a seat and begin to eat the feast that God has prepared right in front of our enemies.  Remember that the sheep wouldn’t even lie down if there was a threat nearby.  What this says that there are no threats or dangers when we are in the presence of God.  And if that is not enough to say those threats, fears, and dangers are nothing compared to God’s protective power, God anoints our head with oil and fills our cup until it overflows.  Christians facing physical and spiritual enemies can call this image of God’s protection and grace to mind and rejoice.

Then the psalm ends with “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and I like how Merrill finishes it off, “I shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever.”  Another way I’ve read this based upon the Hebrew is that God’s goodness and kindness shall dog me all my life.  Imagine that every moment of your life God is there pursuing you, hounding you, with goodness and kindness.  What kind of God is this?  The psalmist says this God is our shepherd, who grants our needs, causes us to rest and be restored, leads us in the right way of living, protects us from evil, honors and blesses us, and never stops pursuing us with goodness and kindness.  What does that say about us?  That we are in need of a God who freely provides those things because we are dependent upon God’s moving in our lives, protecting us, and receiving his goodness and kindness.  We cannot obtain these things on our own.

Psalm 23 is not merely for moments of death, suffering or loss.  It definitely speaks to those times, but it also speaks to a way of life.  It needs to be read, heard, and understood more importantly as a psalm about living, living a life full of trust in God.  This psalm puts our daily activities and basic needs, like eating, drinking, and security, in a God-centered perspective and puts our lives literally in His hands.  This doesn’t mean we live on the bare essentials, because our table is filled with the goodness of God and our cup overflows.  God provides and He provides abundantly to his entire flock.  To live the message of Psalm 23 with our Lord Jesus as our shepherd means we will not worry about our lives or our deaths.  God will provide, and God’s provision is grounded in the reality of God’s awesome reign.  We dwell in house of the Lord, and we rejoice in the constant presence and vigilance of a God who has cared for us and will always care for us, not just as individuals, but as a community of the faithful.

Amen and Alleluia.




Advent Routines: sermon by Keith, 12.1.13 Advent 1A

Scriptures: Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 26:36-44

Growing up, we had a ‘wake up’ routine in our house in the winter time.  We heated our house with wood, and as the fire died down in the night, everyone would snuggle in tighter in the blankets.  But about 6:00 AM, Dad would get up and get the fire going and then go back to bed for a bit.  Then about 6:15 or a few minutes after, when that chill had just begun to be taken off the living room, he would get back up, and pop his head into my room and say, “Arousto, arousto!”  This was Dad’s way of saying that it was time to get up and face the new day.  Then the door would be closed again.  At this point, it was time to get up, even though it was very tempting to crawl deeper into the covers, waiting for the heat of the fire to creep into the room.  But I knew I couldn’t do that.  Something would happen if I stayed in bed.  If I wasn’t up soon enough for Dad’s expectations, Dad would enter the room quietly and slowly with a cup of cold water in his hand.  I never knew exactly when he would come through that door, but if I wasn’t out of the bed by the time he reached me, a cold shower would greet my day.

So, I think it is pretty important that we hear Paul’s words of “Wake up!” or “Arousto!  It is time to face the day!” on this first Sunday of Advent.  It can be easy to get caught up in the cultural expectations of the “Christmas season.”  Black Friday, or this year, Gray Thursday marked the beginning of the countdown to Christmas.  Hurry up and by presents!  You only have 24 days left!  When we get caught up in all the hoopla, we might miss Paul’s words of “Wake Up!  We are waiting for something different than a shopping spree.

For Paul, the dawning of a new day was at hand, the day of Jesus Christ’s return.  Now, Paul himself thought that day was imminent, that it was going to happen in the life time of those he wrote.  We know it didn’t happen in his life time.   And we know it hasn’t happened yet.  But in a way he was right in urging them to “wake up” because every event, every day as they wait for the Christ to return was rich in divine possibility.  Since the in breaking of eternity by the divine in the birth of Jesus Christ in that manger in Bethlehem, there is now a constant mingling of Christ’s presence in the Holy Spirit in our lives.  How could they now sleep through their lives, unaware that they are living, as Joanna Adams states it, “between the old order of things and the new order, where Jesus reigns and all that is wrong has been set right?”  Christ himself was the turning point in time.  The past might not be completely finished and gone, but the new has truly come.

And it is because the new has truly come into our lives now that we live differently in the waiting.  Typically, the First Sunday in Advent has a focus on Christ’s second coming, when the King of kings and Lord of lords will return in glory someday off in the future.  But both Paul’s words to the Romans and Jesus’ teachings in Matthew look to that day by focusing on today.  Wake up, because today is important.  In light of that day that we cannot know, we must live in hope in the here and now while we wait.  When Jesus says that the people in Noah’s time were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage the day the rain started, he isn’t saying that they are gluttons and drunkards, but just were going about their day-to-day routines.  They were going about their lives.  Christ will return when we are in our fields, or in our offices, or in our homes, or in our schools.  The insight of not knowing the day that is to come refocuses toward the day we now live.

Paul called the Christians in Rome to live as though that unknown day was close at hand, that “the night is far gone, the day is near.”  We are called to live the same way, but with an understanding that Christ’s return may not be for another millennia.  That’s a long time to stay awake.  It might seem easier to just settle in and doze a bit.  But whether that day is tomorrow or 10,000 years from this moment, we now live and act toward one another in an ongoing state of love, even as God has loved us.

Paul’s opening words in this passage to love one another is an imperative, a command.  For Paul, it is a responsibility that no Christian can avoid.  To understand how Paul is calling us to live, we must understand what he means when he says to love one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Our modern culture has so altered what it means to love one another that it has come to mean at least sentimentality or worst the kinds of feelings that come about when an attractive member of the opposite sex enters the room.  Love as used in the New Testament is not defined totally as an emotional state, as though when God loves us, he gets a warm, fuzzy feeling deep inside.  God’s love is expressed by doing something.  I’d say many somethings, but primarily it is shown in sending His Son into the world to free us from our sins so that we can be reconciled to God, each other, and all of creation.  We know God loves us not because of how he feels about us, but because of what he has done for us in Christ, reconciling humanity with God.

So, what’s it look like to live today, in between our savior’s first coming and that day he will come again?  How do we live today?  We start by living today.  The Psalmist reminds us that “this is the day the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”   This doesn’t mean, “Carpe Diem!”  “Seize the day!” in an understanding that we throw all caution to the wind and live life as on big self-centered party.  I think Jesus would say, “Seize the day because each day is a precious gift of God.”  We do celebrate, but the celebration is different when God is the center of the day and not ourselves.  This is when our love of neighbor is expressed, today.  By loving God, our love flows out to those around us in our day to day living.

But besides living today, I think Christ would have us also deal with yesterday. God sent Christ into the world out of love to make things right between us, even though the gap that existed between us was our fault.  Friends, we respond as well.  We all have hurt someone and been hurt by someone one in our past.  God has given us today to make things right, to say we are sorry and offer up forgiveness.  Reconciliation may not totally happen today, but it just might take making a phone call or writing that letter that you never wanted to write so that wounds can begin to heal.

And we let go of our apprehension about the future.  Our hope rests in the promises that God is sovereign over all of human history.  Jesus is telling us that the God who created history at the beginning is also history’s goal.  God is in control, even on the days or seasons that we feel things are out of control.  And it is ok to live into and with that uncertainty.  Uncertainty becomes a condition of even the best faith.  We don’t know when Christ will return, we don’t have the answers to all the problems that plague us, and in many ways, it is a relief to know that Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything.

But even though we are not expected to know everything, we are expected to do something, to Arousto, Wake up, and live into the gift of this day we have been given.  It may mean visiting one of the church’s shut ins.  It may mean volunteering at one of the Neighbor to Neighbor dinners, or even better, volunteering with them on a regular basis.  It may mean offering a ride to someone this Wednesday to the fellowship dinner and then bringing them to the Hanging of Greens for more fellowship and fun.  Or it could look like giving a gift to the Heifer project or Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for Christmas on behalf of someone who already has everything instead of the usual neck tie.

So, I never did have the cup of cold water make it my head, I guess I learned from my brother’s delay in getting up late.  I realized it was better to get up and get ready, to meet Dad in the kitchen while he drank his cup of coffee.  I think Christ is telling us the same thing.  We don’t know what the future holds and when Christ will return.  We wait and hope ever alert for his return and the fulfillment of the promise of the new creation by praying, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”  And the answer to that prayer won’t only be answered some time down the road because Christ also gives us two very important gifts while we wait.  He gives us the gift of his presence and he gives us the gift of today.  Amen.

Esperando: Sermon by Laura, 11.17.13, Pentecost 26C

Scriptures: Luke 21:5-19, Isaiah 65:17-25

I am taken with a photograph of a woman named Sadie Mintz in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic. With prolific wrinkles and dark eyes hidden by glasses, she is decked out in a diaphanous red hat, a glittering dress, red lipstick, and heavy jeweled earrings. The caption tells us she’s going to celebrate the Jewish New Year. It also tells us that Sadie is 105 years old. She seems to me to be the very picture of endurance. A quote stands out next to her photo: “You can’t do anything at all in this life without knowing that one word: courage.”

Sadie’s photograph accompanies an article about scientists studying the genetics of healthy centenarians. I think it represents well one of our common hopes, to live long and well, disease-free, without suffering. Technological developments and medical advances, the fruits of scientific study and human ingenuity, are the cornerstones of that hope and others which ground our public dreaming and deciding as to how we might improve the world.

But these days, few of us hold that hope unequivocally. We live in a time when the devastations of the present are regularly traced to the past good intentions. The bright bubble of modern hope in “progress” burst again and again in the twentieth century, as we saw how many so-called “advances” enabled us to kill each other and plunder the earth more efficiently. Inventions which have improved life for some have made life immeasurably worse for others. Every few months, another natural disaster has analysts speculating about the detrimental effects of fossil-fuel accelerated climate change and unbridled population growth.

And we begin to suffer “compassion fatigue.” Though we are across the globe, we watch in acute detail the devastating typhoon in the Philippines. We cry out seeing the suffering of just one other person, let alone entire cities full of them, and we want to help, but we feel overwhelmed by distances and geo-political forces. These days, when corruption lurks side by side with good will, even “helping others” is fraught with questions, and our best intentions go wildly awry.

What hope do we have in days like these?

I believe that is exactly the question the disciples are asking in Luke’s gospel. Jesus has pointed to Jerusalem Temple’s stones and precious ornaments, prophesying, “All will be thrown down.” A disturbing prediction, comparable to those we hear so often, about the approaching end of the fossil fuel era, in which civilization as we know it must change or come to an end.

Our immediate response to such predictions is always, “When? How?” But what kind of hope are we holding on to when we ask those questions? We need information and timetables so that we can get ready. With enough warning of coming disaster, we could chart out our strategies; we could escape to safer places or set up protective barriers and stockpiles. We could increase our chances of survival.

This is our typical hope in human efforts to escape death, and it is a great deception. It simply replaces faith in one human construction for another—the temple for the fortress. All human constructions, buildings or institutions, families or nations, are not only limited in scope but mired deep in the legacy of sin, a net in which every single one of us is caught like a fly in a spider web.

Jesus has no faith in any human schemes to escape suffering or death, and neither should we. We cannot save ourselves, no matter how grand or splendorous we build the temples or fortresses in our lives. Jesus wants us to get really clear about this, my friends. History will be full of upheavals. Ultimately, we will not escape suffering or hardship. Jesus wants us to face up to the harsh realities, to look straight at our own sin and the very real forces of evil in our world.

But we are not to be paralyzed by what we see. We are not to cower in fear. Do not be led astray and do not be terrified.

There is no escape route, but Jesus gives us something better. Jesus gives us our greatest and only hope. “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

No matter how hopeless the situation seems, Jesus tells us he will be with us, opening up a way and a possibility for life no one could have predicted. In Jesus promising to give us words and wisdom, we have the promise of the God who created heaven and earth, who was there at the beginning of time and will be there at its end. I will be with you, he tells us, right here in the middle of all of the mess, right here in all the devastation we can experience. Setting a table before us in the presence of enemies, Jesus pours the overflowing cup of his own life for us.

And in the mystery of grace, we are saved as we could never have saved ourselves. We might even be put to death, yet not a hair on our heads will perish, says the Living God in Jesus Christ. Taking his life for our own, our broken, sinful, hopeless limitations are transformed as we are incorporated into a Body whose hands and feet stretch across all time and space, and we participate in a new creation we can scarcely imagine, the reign of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus the Christ has come, and he will come again. We are always looking toward the “some day,” when Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom becomes the daily reality of our eternal lives, but we live in the thick of now. Jesus is our hope for the future, but he is also our hope “between the times. Holding tight to that great hope, we are called, not to prepare a defense but to stay open and available at all times for Christ’s word and wisdom.

Esperando is the present participle of the verb esperar in Spanish. I like that it means both “hoping” and “waiting.” Esperando is the substance of the endurance Jesus says gains us our souls. It is not passive or resigned, as if this world were a cosmic waiting room where we are simply passing the time. Esperando is dynamic action. Our future hope comes back to the present and reveals the gap between the world as we know it and God’s reign.

And when that happens, Jesus tells us that we have a purpose: We are witnesses and our lives us opportunities to testify. Speaking and acting and sharing ourselves in Christ’s love, we are to testify to Christ’s reign which is on its way; we are to testify to Christ reign which is already here.

I think it’s interesting that our word “hope” has the word “hop” in it, for our hope leaps back and forth from cosmic reality to daily life. In the hopping new possibilities are revealed: forgiveness and reconciliation where there was hatred and war;  healing and restoration where there was only ruin and loss.

Right here and now, in this little sanctuary, Jesus has set before us the cosmic table, the broken bread and out-poured cup. Whether you are 9 or 99, 2 or 102, this feast is for you. Take courage and celebrate our hope in Jesus Christ; hop on up here to be nourished for a lifetime of hoping and waiting, and a lifetime beyond that. Have courage!

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

(Laura’s previous sermon on these texts is here.)