The Winds of Change: Sermon by Keith, Pentecost C, 5.19.13

Texts: Romans 8:9, 14-17; Acts 2:1-21

Where Laura and I lived in Southeast Alaska, There is an unwritten rule for preachers.  In an area where it wasn’t uncommon to have day in and day out of rain, you didn’t preach on Noah’s flood.  Forty days and nights of rain were a real possibility in towns that received upwards of 200 inches of rain a year.  Now having lived here for over three years, I realize there ought to be an unwritten rule for preachers in the Grande Ronde Valley.  We shouldn’t preach on the wind.  Really, the wind seems to just be a part of our lives here.  Carol, the church secretary, said that when property is sold in Union County, it ought to come with a ‘wind disclaimer.’  The interstate is commonly closed when a semi-truck is blown over blocking all the lanes of traffic.  In the fall, I never rake the leaves from our trees in our yard since they have all blown into the neighbor’s yard.  But, that doesn’t mean I don’t do any raking.  The other neighbor’s tree leaves have all blown into our yard.  I remember one of our first weeks in La Grande sitting in the Wal-Mart parking lot, feeling the wind rock the car back and forth.  We were afraid to open the car doors, thinking the wind would rip the doors off their hinges.  The wind is a real, consistent companion to our lives here.

So if there were residents of Union County on pilgrimage in Jerusalem on Pentecost that day the Holy Spirit came rushing in from heaven with the sound of a violent wind, they might have just kept on walking, having grown so accustomed to the sound.  So it made me wonder, how would the Holy Spirit get our attention today?  As I sat in my office pondering that question, I could hear the wind blowing outside, but in just a few minutes time, I also heard two helicopters and a plane fly overhead, a large truck rumble by on the street, my cell phone beeped that I had a new text message, my computer did it’s little noise that lets me know that I’ve received another email, the office phone rang, and Mary Helen started practicing on the organ the songs she would be sharing with us today.  We are constantly surrounded by sounds and noise, so much so that when they aren’t there, we reach for a switch to turn something on to fill that void.

That made me realize the Holy Spirit just might use the power of silence to get our attention these days.  So, we are going to do a Holy Spirit listening prayer.  Mary Helen, please don’t reach for the keyboard, and if anyone’s cell phone goes off, you might get a microphone thrown at you.  So, close your eyes.  Take a deep breath.  Relax and be prepared for some silence.  Now, as we do this, I want you to remember the Holy Spirit came upon that group of disciples long ago and really stirred things up.  She changed them into what has become known as the church, and their community was never the same.  We are part of that same church, the same church that is continually open to the movement of the Spirit in our midst, open to what she is telling us, open to where she is directing us to go, open to be continually formed as the people of God.

Keep your eyes closed and let us pray…Come, Holy Spirit. Come…move through us like the winds of the valley…Speak, Holy Spirit.  Speak…Pour yourself out upon all of us here, so that our sons and daughters shall come to know you, our young men and women have visions of your glory, and those who have lived long lives dream dreams of your grace and love and power.  We are your church.  We ask that you give us a vision of who you would have us be and a vision for your church in this time and place.  We ask that you fill our hearts and our minds with your presence as you point us in the direction you would have us go…Come, Holy Spirit.  Come.  (two minute pause)  Come, Holy Spirit.  Come.  Amen.

Now, the Holy Spirit blows wherever she wills and wants, and she may have said something to you.  If it is something you would like to share with us, feel free to write it down on the back of the bulletin insert that has the Apostles’ Creed on it and put it in the collection basket.  Or call us or stop in the office or send an email.  Friends, God moves and acts and speaks through God’s people, through you, and it is through you the Holy Spirit will make known the will of God in our midst.  Amen.

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Can’t Keep a Good Man Down: Sermon by Keith, Ascension C, 5.12.13

Texts: John 17:20-26, Acts 1:1-11

As many of you know, we meet with a group of pastors on Wednesday mornings called the Rector Set.  When the high holy days come around, you can hear from the comments who struggles with which holiday.  If it is Easter, one pastor might have this far away look on her face as she ponders just how she will bring fresh light to the resurrection?  For another, it might be Christmas, with the worries that the consumer culture will drown out the good news of the birth of Jesus, our Emmanuel.  I discovered this week that I have some apprehension about the Ascension, the day sandwiched between Easter and Pentecost when Jesus rose again, so to speak, into heaven.  Now, technically, the Ascension holiday took place last Thursday, which was 40 days after Easter.  But most churches celebrate it today, the following Sunday.  I’ll be the first to say that I’ve never been to a special Thursday night Ascension service.  It is a holiday on the church calendar that we really don’t celebrate like the others.  Who put up their Ascension tree?  Or released balloons with pictures of Jesus on them?  Many of you will go have a big lunch or dinner today, not to celebrate the Ascension but to celebrate the mothers in your life.  If we had an Ascension Day dinner, I’m not sure what would be on the menu anyway, maybe Florence’s divinity.  We ignore Ascension, really.

But one of the real reasons that I feel uneasy about the Ascension is that I know I would have been standing there with those disciples, confused about all of Jesus’ Kingdom of God talk and wondering when that kingdom was going to overthrow the kingdom of Rome and reestablish Israel.  But especially when he started ascending, I would have grabbed hold of his ankle and yelled, “No, you can’t go!  We need you!”  This looks like bad news, that we are loosing Jesus.

So, to deal with my uneasiness about Ascension and to find a way to help me let loose of Christ’s leg, I looked for some help.  Some 500 year old help.  Recently, the denomination has been looking at a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism for our Book of Confessions.  First off, who knows what a catechism is?  Right; a series of questions and answers about our faith.  And a brief history lesson, Heidelberg, Germany is where the two fronts of the Protestant Reformation met, the Lutheran and the Reformed schools of thought.  Tension followed, and the ruler of German called for a catechism to be written that could be accepted by both sides, thus the Heidelberg Catechism.

So, here was this new translation, sitting on my desk.  And question 49 was what I was looking for to address my struggles.  “How does Christ’s Ascension to heaven benefit us?”  Well, let’s look at what it says:

First, speaking of Christ, “he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.”  This is good news.  Every time we say the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm that he sits at the right hand of the Father where he will come to judge the living and the dead.  One of the jokes that came up in seminary was that, yes, he is sitting at the right hand of the Father, but he does get up occasionally to stretch his legs.  But do you know what he is doing when he is stretching his legs?  He is gathering up all the prayers that we are presenting to God.  When you pray at home and when we do the prayers of the community, Christ is taking up all those prayers and presenting them before the Father’s throne.  He is praying for us, interceding for our salvation, and crying out for us in the presence of his Father, because he alone is worthy to go before the throne of God on our behalf.  As Ronald Cole-Turner puts it, “Our prayers ascend even now with the exulted Christ to the very heart of God.”

Second, and this is one of the understandings of the ascension that I just found wonderful and really had never thought of before, “we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.”  Part of who we are is already in heaven in Christ.  If you remember the opening of the gospel of John, it says that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, our Emmanuel, God with us.  The divine living with humanity.  And in the Ascension, Jesus Christ going into the presence of the Father, humanity is now found living with divinity.  Jesus isn’t just Emmanuel, God with us, he is also “us with God.”  A part of who we are is in the presence of God!  Jesus Christ’s ascension becomes our ascension.  We have already entered the Kingdom of God!  It isn’t a place that we have to wait to go when we die; we go there now, because we are part of it now.  In our search for God, in our reaching up for him, we have found God already reaching down to us, pulling us up into his presence.  We are in God’s presence in and through Christ.

And the third part of question 49 is the bridge that ties Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension to the giving of the Holy Spirit that we will celebrate next week on Pentecost.  “He sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge.  By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.”  This is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation and power that we learn from and discern from as we come to know Christ.  It is through the Spirit that we haven’t lost Christ, but we have gained the Kingdom of God where Christ sits in glory over the Church and the world.  It is through the Spirit that Christ’s presence never leaves us; it is through that same Spirit that we come into a deeper relationship with Christ.

So, what does this mean for us?  Friends, we stop looking up and stop waiting for something we think we have to wait for.  The two messengers that confronted the disciples do not give words of comfort, but urge them ahead to active engagement in the new era where they experience the Kingdom of God on earth.  We are urged to start experiencing the Kingdom that God in Christ has pulled us into now.  We realize that this, our humanity, matters, because it mattered enough to God to send the Son.  Christ has redeemed our flesh and humanity and glorified it forever in the presence of the Father when we ascended.   We see the beauty and splendor of God all around us and in the eyes of those we meet, because all humanity is lifted up.  And this is where we come in.  If we sit staring into heaven looking for Jesus, then we cannot be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.  By his Spirit and presence, Christ is calling us to share the good news of the redemption he has brought to humanity in the name of God’s love, that God’s kingdom of love and forgiveness and restoration can be experienced now and forever.

I end with a legend.  There is a very old legend concerning the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to heaven after his Ascension.  It is said that the angel Gabriel met him at the gates of the heavenly city.

“Lord, this is a great salvation that thou has wrought,” said the angel.  But the Lord Jesus only said, ‘Yes.’

“What plans hast thou made for carrying on the work?  How are all to know what thou hast done?’ asked Gabriel.

“I left Peter and James and John and Martha and Mary to tell their friends, their friends to tell their friends, till all the world shall know.”

“But Lord Jesus,” said Gabriel, “suppose Peter is too busy with the nets, or Martha with the housework, or the friends they tell are too occupied, and forget to tell their friends—what then?”

The Lord Jesus did not answer at once; then he said in his quiet wonderful voice: “I have not made any other plans.  I am counting on them.”

Friends, the Lord is counting on us, and that makes the Ascension worth celebrating.  Amen.

Can I Have a Witness? Sermon by Keith, Easter 4, 4.28.13

 Text: Luke 24:36-49

Can I have a witness?  No, I’m not going to break into the Marvin Gaye song, but I want to ask you a couple questions before we read this morning’s resurrection story.  Since we have several legal types in our congregation, I think this will be a fun conversation.  What is a witness?  What is a witness supposed to know?  Have you ever been a witness to an event that you just had to share?  What’s the problem with witnesses?

One of the definitions I like for witness is “A witness is someone who has, who claims to have, or is thought, by someone with authority to compel testimony, to have knowledge relevant to an event or other matter of interest.”  That sums things up pretty good, I think.  Now, keep that definition in the back of your mind as we read this morning’s text.  This text comes right on the heels of the road to Emmaus story, when Cleopas and his companion have rushed back to Jerusalem to share their encounter with the risen Lord, an encounter that took place over the breaking of the bread.  Hear these words of our Lord…

(Read text.)

The disciples were gathered in fear and confusion the evening we find them.  That is understandable, their leader was dead and his body was missing.  But reports were swirling that people had seen him.  The women at the tomb claimed they spoke with an angel that said Jesus had been raised from the dead!  He had been in the home of two of their own in Emmaus.  What did all this mean?  In the midst of this chaos and confusion, out of nowhere, Jesus himself appeared!  “Peace be with you!”  Followed by, “Now, don’t freak! Let’s eat!”  It was the same Jesus that they knew and had followed, but he was different.  He seemed normal, natural, the way they had come to know him from before. 

But his appearance was anything but normal or expected.  Jesus had been laid in the tomb, dead.  Earthly powers seemed to have triumphed over him and his message.  The religious leaders had charged him with blasphemy and won.  The Roman governor ordered him to the cross and the soldiers had treated him as a common criminal.  Even God seemed silent that day.  Where were the angels or the surprise witness coming in at the last moment to change the verdict?  Per the powers that be, Jesus got what he deserved, end of story.

But it wasn’t the end of the story.  God did have something to say to the religious leaders, the Roman Empire, and even sin and death.  None of them will have the final word in this story.  Truth be told, the story wasn’t even about them.  It was and is about God and will always be about God and God’s love for humanity and creation.  As Barbara Essex says it, “The ugliness of crucifixion gave way to the power of resurrection.”

When he was back with his disciples, Jesus didn’t go into the facts of the resurrection nor did he provide the play-by-play of his whereabouts those three days.  But what he did go into brought his entire ministry full circle.  Since the beginning of Luke, we learn that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan for all of creation.  And from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus taught about God’s plan for creation and commissioned his followers to live into that plan.  Jesus’ whole life, death, and resurrection were about what God is doing in the world.    And Jesus points this out in scripture.  From the beginning, through the prophets and the Psalms, God’s history has always been about God and God’s purposes, aim, and agenda for creation.  God is reconciling people and creation to himself and each other so forgiveness and wholeness can be experienced.  And in Christ, God’s reconciling act has been fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled with those who witness him.

Jesus opens the scriptures for the disciples, to teach them to put their fears and doubts in the context of what God is doing.  And then he commissions them as witnesses of all that God is doing in the world.  They are now ready to be credible, reliable witnesses in Jerusalem and the world because of what they know and what they have seen.  They have a pretty good authority who sends them and compels them to testify on behalf of God’s love for the world:  The Risen Lord! They can point to God’s love by pointing to the one God raised from the dead.  They can be witnesses to God’s reconciliation in the world by witnessing to the one who triumphed over the tomb.  God’s work begins and continues in the resurrection.

Friends, when we witness the Risen Lord, when we have an encounter with him, he calls us to be a witness with and for him to the world.  But to be a witness, you have to know what you are witnessing, you have to see what is going on around you!  There was an experiment done where people was asked to be involved in an experiment.  But the actual research was happening before anyone realized they were involved.  People who said yes to being part of this experiment entered a room, went to a desk, and were given a release form to sign by a man standing behind the desk.  This man explained what to do, took the signed release form and bent over to file it, out of sight for just a second.  But the man who stood back up was a totally different person, an obviously different man.  He had a different hair cut, different colored shirt, different height.  When asked about what they did and saw when they entered the room, over 75% of the people involved never realized the man at the desk changed.  They were too caught up in their own stuff to even notice the person in front of them.

When we are caught up in our own stuff, we won’t notice the Risen Lord in front of us.  Jesus wants us to take our own fears and doubts and put them in the context of what God is doing.  He doesn’t say to forget about them, but he wants you to realize that something bigger is going on, that God is at work, that God is redeeming, healing and reconciling.  That’s when we will recognize the Risen Lord in our midst.  When we open scripture, we will witness him and his reconciling love.  When we gather as a community of faith, we will see him and experience his saving grace.  When a hand is stretched out to stranger in need, we will see Christ in their eyes.  Because wherever inhumanity and hopelessness exists, Jesus shows up to offer comfort, assurance, and reconciliation.  And it is there that the Risen Lord invites us to be his witnesses in our actions as well as our words to all that is about God and God’s intention for peace, love, compassion, justice and mercy to a world that is broken and sinful. 

Friends, where is it in our community that needs the presence of the risen Christ?  What is our response as a church to Christ’s presence with us?  What is our response to God’s reconciling work in the world?    No matter how we answer those questions, Christ commissions us.  By his authority, he sends us out as his witnesses to declare the presence and power of God in the midst of tragedy and death.  And tragedy and death have not triumphed over God.  God aims to redeem creation and us in light of the resurrection, and it is in Christ that we become part of God’s plan of redemption.

“Can I have a witness?”  Christ says yes; and here we are.

Breakfast at Galilee’s: Sermon by Keith, April 14, 2013; John 21:1-19

Text: John 21:1-19

“If I could have a beer with Jesus

Heaven knows I’d sip it nice and slow

I’d try to pick a place that ain’t too crowded

Or gladly go wherever he wants to go.

You can bet I’d order up a couple tall ones

Tell the waitress put’em on my tab

I’d be sure to let him do the talkin’

Careful when I got the chance to ask.”

These are the opening lines to a song called “Beer With Jesus” by Thomas Rhett and it was one of the first things that came to my mind when I started working on this morning’s resurrection story.  It was a song that I remember hearing on the radio last year and filed away in my memory.  I think the image of the intimate, personal encounter that the Risen Lord had with his disciples on the shores of Galilee pulled this song from my psyche to think about it again.  Can you picture it?  Sitting in a bar with Jesus?  Now, please don’t hear me downplaying the issues of alcohol, but what I want to lift up is the image it creates.  Two close friends, sharing each others company, talking about the issues of life over a tall cold one.  The song goes on about the questions that Rhett would ask Jesus, about asking why he turned the other check, does he really hear our prayers, and inquiring about when he is going to come back.  The singer says he would put his whole paycheck into the jukebox to get to spend as much time with Jesus to ask the questions that he had always wanted to ask about heaven and saving souls.

But the disciples have a different reaction when they meet Jesus again after those two previous encounters in the upper room back in Jerusalem.  Their tongues get tied and they can’t ask him anything!  Here we find them back at their old profession of fishing in the Sea of Galilee.  Now, I don’t read this as a sign they had given up hope.  They had seen the Risen Lord!  But I do see this a time that they went back to what was most familiar to them as they sorted out what to do next.  It’s hard to say what they may have talked about, if they talked much at all.  Would they see Jesus again; and if so, when?  Jesus had shared his peace and his Spirit with them in that upper room.  What did that mean for them?  Their future seemed as uncertain as a trying to figure out when the fish would bite.  On their way back to shore, a man yells who is hidden by the early morning shadows. “Lads, have you got any fish?”  “No, nothing this night.  It has been a bad night to be out.”  “How about you cast your net on the right side of your boat,” he yells to them.  “That’s where the fish are.”  The disciples look at each other, shrug their shoulders, and then cast the net.  Immediately the net was so full that there was no way they would be able to pull it back into the boat.   The beloved disciple John knows who it is who told them to cast their nets, it is the Lord!  Right away Peter puts on his cloths, jumps into the water and swims to shore.  There he finds his master waiting for them with grilled fish and fresh bread cooking over a warm fire for their breakfast.

When all the disciples finally make it to shore with their catch, they take their seats around the fire and are served by their teacher, friend, and Lord.  The questions that swirled through their minds in the quiet of the night are gone.  Some are afraid to ask their questions.  Others are just too excited to be back in Jesus’ presence to even think about asking him questions.  Jesus passes out the bread and the fish and they eat in silence.  When the meal is done, it is Jesus who is the first to speak with his own questions directed toward Simon Peter.   Three times he asks Peter if he loves him, recalling Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest.  And three times Peter responds, “You know that I love you.”  Jesus offers forgiveness of Peter’s denial by giving Peter the chance to give a threefold proclamation of his love.

Now notice Jesus’ response after each time Peter declares his love of the Lord.  He doesn’t give Peter a long list of rules to follow or a formula to live as a perfect disciple to show his love.  But what he does give him is very relational.  “Feed my lambs.”  “Tend my sheep.”  “Feed my sheep.”  Peter’s love for Christ will be lived out by loving others, a theme that we see over and over in the book of John.  It gives Peter a task, a calling, an identity.  Basically, Jesus is telling Peter he will be giving his life to the shepherding of the sheep and lambs of Christ’s flock, a role marked not primarily by in terms of rule and power but in terms of service and giving.  And in loving Jesus’ lambs and sheep, he will love Christ.

Jesus’ words not only gave Peter a task and an identity, it also gives him a cross.  Love always involves responsibility, and it also involves sacrifice.  They go hand in hand.  In feeding and tending the lambs of Christ with the food of the word of God, tradition tells us his shepherding led him to Rome, where he was nailed to a cross upside down because he felt unworthy to be crucified as Jesus had been.

Friends, we are all called by Christ to feed and tend his flock, inside and outside the walls of the church.  Jesus calls Peter and us to love and care for his followers.  And I also believe in his words we find he calls us to love and care for those who do not know the Lord.  And the tending and feeding of the Lord’s flock may lead to what the world calls an unhappy ending.  At least it appeared that way for Peter.  Love, it seems, offers no security, except the security in knowing that we are Christ’s and can rest in the arms of his love no matter what happens.  The good news of this passage is found in the last two words.  “Follow me.”  When we feed and we tend, when we minister and we reach out, when we swing a hammer and we deliver meals, and when we pray and we give, we do all these things with Christ.  He doesn’t just point a finger and say “Go!”  But he also takes us by the hand and invites us to follow.  He went all the way with Peter to Peter’s cross.

The sacrifice will also look different for us all.  One of our pastor friends shared a recent story of what happened in her church.  She is from a different tradition, one that allows the previous pastor to stay on at the church if they wish and one that also has a time when anyone who feels called by the Spirit can stand up and say what they want.  This particular Sunday, the previous pastor got up and spoke about the Iranian-American pastor who has been imprisoned in Iran for sharing the Gospel there and the torturous conditions he has endured.  Then the previous pastor of this congregation swept his finger at everyone  and said, “No one here really loves Jesus.  If you did, you would be over there, imprisoned with this man.”  Our friend realized things had gone a little too far with that statement, and in a gentle manner said, “Thank you for sharing all that.  Would you mind leading us in prayer for this man in Iran?”  “No!” he said.  “I’m not worthy to pray for this man.”  And with that, walked out of the service.

I think he missed something about loving Jesus.  He was comparing his own calling and sacrifice to the calling and sacrifice of this pastor in Iran.  And just like we have different relationships with people, each one of us will have a different relationship with Jesus.  Not all of us are called to go to Iran.  I know I’m not.  But when Jesus asks you, “Do you love me?”  I hope each and every one of you can say yes, but in saying yes, know that sacrifice will be involved.  For some of you, it may be giving up your vacation this summer to help lead Vacation Bible School or even the rest of your quiet Sunday morning to help teach a class of the youngest members of the church, because Jesus is sitting in that 3rd grade class room ready to embrace them and you as they are formed in the faith.  It might mean giving a little more to help two of our youth go to a life changing event that I know will deepen their walk with Christ.  It may mean opening your home to a Bible study, because Christ is sitting on your couch ready to share what it means to follow him as his Word is studied.  It will mean giving of your time, it will mean giving of your resources, but most importantly, it will mean giving of yourself.

Friends, the next time that you are having breakfast, or an adult beverage of your choice, or a cup of tea, or sitting in your backyard enjoying the signs of spring, look up and picture Jesus sitting with you.  He is there.  Let him speak, or at least let him ask you the question, “Do you love me?”  He isn’t asking you that question to make you feel guilty or heap a whole pile of “shoulds” on you.  He is asking because he loves you.  He wants you to love him, too.  And when you are ready to say “Yes”, be prepared for the journey of your life because he will reach his hand out to you and say, “Then come, follow me.”

In the name of the one who shepherds us as we tend his flock with him, Amen.

The Devil’s Hunger Games: Sermon by Keith, 3.17.13, Lent 5, 40-Day Journeys

Texts: Mark 1:9-15, Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-15

Some of you may remember my sermon a few months ago were I told a story about a friend from Alaska who was ‘over the top’ in following Jesus.  If you recall, Keith read the scripture about giving all that you have away and following Jesus.   So, he left all his possessions in his car and walked away from it all naked in January in Alaska.  Keith lived, of course, because I have another Keith story to tell you.

We were back up in Alaska to complete some of the requirements to become pastors when we had dinner with Keith’s family. Now, he believes that the reason for scripture is so we can model our life after Jesus.  I can agree with that, up to a point.  He takes it to an extreme, if you couldn’t guess.  Keith had just finished a wilderness experience of prayer and fasting.  He had decided to do a fast in the wilderness because Jesus did a fast in the wilderness.  So, here he was at his dinner table, talking about his experience, the hunger, the visions he had, and how he had faced up to the temptations that had been put before him.  And as Keith finished his story, he says, “And on the 38th day, I came off of the mountain.”  “What do you mean, 38 days?  Jesus was in the wilderness for 40.”  “Oh, I didn’t want to upstage Jesus, so I only planned on being out for 38 days.”  I sat there, shaking my head thinking, “Man, I think you missed the point.”

So, what is the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness?  Now, I’ve heard people say that Jesus couldn’t really be tempted–he was God, after all.  But we cannot forget that besides being fully divine, he was also fully human.  I have to believe that because of his humanity, he could be tempted, he was capable of giving into these temptations and that he faced true trials, both in the wilderness and during his ministry.  For me, this is one of the reasons he is my Savior, and not just some 33 year experiment that God decided to try.   But it is from Jesus that we learn what it means to be fully  human and live into God’s divine will for us and his creation.

First, Luke assures us that that Jesus is not alone and separated from God’s love as the Holy Spirit fills him and is with him at both the beginning and the ending of this time.  I had to include Mark’s short reading of this experience because of how the Spirit drove or thrust Jesus into the wilderness.  I recently heard a quote about the Holy Spirit that went something like this, “Don’t expect the Holy Spirit to show up and sit quietly in back row.”  Where the Spirit it, there is movement and action.  I can picture the Spirit getting behind Jesus and shoving him into the wilderness.

So, I see this time for Jesus as a time of sorting after his experience of his baptism.  It’s not like a vision quest in some cultures where one goes out to find one’s identity and name.  His identity was found in his baptism.  What did that experience that happened in his baptism mean for his future?  It’s apt that this time of reflection, fasting and prayer happens in the wilderness, a place where both Moses and Elijah began their ministries as people of God.  And it is here that he begins that process of discernment of what it means for him to be the Beloved, the Son of God.  How will he live into God’s will?

And it’s also apt that this is where the temptations come in.  Again, I’ve heard people discount this story because they don’t believe there is a devil.  Whether you do or not, take the temptations that Jesus faced seriously.  If we are able to trivialize what happened to Jesus, we might be tempted to trivialize the temptations we face.  Temptations and trials were part of Jesus’ every day life, and they are a part of our real daily lives.  They are not theoretical, hypothetical, nor are they imaginary.  So whether you see them coming from some outside force or a character with horns or from somewhere deep in the psyche, they are to be taken seriously for the damage they can cause, even if they appear good.

And that is what the devil tempts Jesus with.  From the outside, the temptation don’t appear all that bad.  The devil doesn’t tempt Jesus to do obviously bad things.  And these temptations are not the kind of temptations for something desirable but not good for him.  The devil didn’t tell Jesus to make the rock into an angel food cake with sprinkles and cherry on top, but just bread to satisfy his hunger.  These temptations are placed before Jesus to see whether even good things can pull him away from following God’s will.

First, turn a stone into a loaf of bread.  Jesus is famished.  But by implication, if he can do that, he can feed everyone.  Why not alleviate the hunger of Israel?  And changing the rocks to bread also has a political implication.  The Roman Caesars would have wagons full of bread go through the streets of the larger cities handing out bread to the poor.  I remember reading in my history books of one Caesar saying that to keep the poor from uprising was to keep them fed and entertained.  The one who kept them fed had the keys to empire.

Second, you can rule all the kingdoms of the world if you just worship me.   Remember that most of the known world in Luke’s day was under the heavy-handed control of the Roman Empire.   The Roman peace came and was enforced with violence and oppression.  Wouldn’t a regime change with Jesus on the throne be for the world’s good?

And with the third temptation, Jesus is whisked away to the top the temple by the devil where he quotes scripture that God will protect the righteous.  Isn’t the temple is the place where the most righteous–the priests–carry out their work?  But, again, weren’t they just working hand-in-hand with the political leaders at the detriment of the people, especially the poorest?  “Throw yourself down and show the world your righteousness!  This will prove you are the Son of God and they will all see it!  They will truly know you are the Son of God!”

Do you see what each of these ‘good’ temptations are attempting to do?  They are attempting to put Jesus at the center of things, play into his ego, and elevate the self.   And Jesus says no to each and every one.  No, bread is not enough to define my mission and who I follow.  No, I cannot worship you, for worship belongs only to God.  And No, I will not test God.  Where the temptations attempted to put the focus on Jesus, Jesus puts the focus on God and God’s will.  And we see how this plays out in his life and ministry.  Though he refused to turn stones into bread, he feeds the hungry in the feeding of the 5000.  He does this not so people believe in him, but in the one who sent him.  He refused political power, but preached about God’s kingdom of love and grace that can be experienced now and cannot be crushed by the world’s powers.  Though he refused to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, he goes to the cross to show the world that God’s will for life is greater than any power that may attempt to control or destroy it.

So, what’s the point of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness for us?  We take temptation seriously.  We do not downplay them; we do not try to justify them.  I don’t know how many times I have read in a Dear Abby column the long list of reasons someone is having an affair.  Justifying temptations won’t take away the pain and damage that happen when we succumb to our pride, our greed, our lust, our power, and even our self-deprecation.

But mostly we take seriously the temptations in our lives because we take even more serious the new identity we find in our baptism:  Beloved Child of God.  God now claims us as we claim God.   The Holy Spirit guides us everyday as we learn to walk in God’s will.  We are transformed from people with individual wants and desires to disciples eagerly praying and discerning God’s will.  Our questions change from “God, what is your will for me?” and “What will the church do for me?” From one way, those look like good questions, but do you see who they are about?  (point at self) The questions change to “God, what is your will?”  and “God, what is your Spirit up to?”  Those questions are about God and keeping God in the center of everything.  When we step out of the way, when we stop learning to depend upon ourselves, we learn to depend on God, and we will find that is when God will truly use us.

Now, we will still mess up and get in God’s way, and I share that from experience, even when I thought I was doing good.  But I also believe that the strength of God must be taken seriously in our lives, that God’s strength to resist temptation is not imaginary and the resources of God are not hypothetical theological dreams.  God does empower us with the Holy Spirit, the divine Word living inside and with us so that we can resist and overcome the real temptations in our lives and truly live into and follow the Divine will.  I’ve learned to ask a simple question, “How is God glorified in this?”  If I can’t see how, usually my will, my wants, and my desires have gotten in the way of God’s will.

Friends, the Lenten journey is a time to be intentional and receptive to the grace and love of God, but also to a time to receptive to discerning God’s will.  It takes time, it takes prayer, and it may even take a little fasting to learn to get ourselves out of God’s way.   But along the way, we will encounter a faithful God who leads us not only into the wilderness but also through the wilderness.  Amen.

“What Are You Doing Here?” Sermon by Keith, 3.3.13, Lent 3, 40-Day Journeys Elijah

Texts: 1 Kings 18:20-39; 1 Kings 19:1-18

I’ll have to admit, it is easy to put words in the mouth and heads of Biblical characters, especially when they react in a way that we don’t think they should.  Now, this isn’t a bad thing, to use your imagination.  We all do, and I’m guessing you had a picture in your mind of this encounter with Elijah and God on the holy mountain.  We use our imagination to fill in the gaps and answer the questions that come to mind as we read.   I had to do that this week, to help me answer the question God asked Elijah, because I wondered why he would be afraid and flee Israel after such an incredible display of God’s power.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

(Brief pause with shoulder shrug, looking up.)  “God, you know why I’m here.  You just had this awesome display of might that showed you truly are the one and only true God.  The fire from heaven should have convinced all that were watching.  But they did nothing to her.   Jezebel still sits on the throne, and the people fear her more than they fear you.  In the moment they could have done something about her, they failed to act.  I knew what her so-called prophets were capable of, and that was nothing, they all saw that.  But I know what she is capable of; I’ve seen what she has done to the others, the murderous plots she hatched.  I stood alone at that moment, afraid I would have to contend with her by myself, so I fled, traveling hundreds of miles to get here.   Even with your awesome display of power, when they could have fully turned to you and run her out of Israel, they let their fear get in the way.  I’m the only one left who truly believes in you, and those that don’t, they seek my life.”

“Stand on the mountain,” says God, “for I am about to pass by.”  Then comes the powerful wind, strong enough to crack rock.  But God was not in the wind.  After that an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake.  And then an all consuming fire spread over the mountain, but God would not be found in the fire.  And then silence.  I had the choir members read different versions of that phrase this morning because it is a hard passage to translate, to get to the deep meaning of Hebrew.  The best we can do with the Hebrew is to combine a whisper, a silence, and a stillness with a dash of thinness and smallness.  Alan Jackson in his song, “Song for the Life” reflects on how he has learned to listen for a sound like the sun going down.  That image helps me grasp what this sound might have been like.

Elijah had already had an encounter with God in the fire from heaven that shook the foundation of the earth on Mount Carmel when Elijah had overthrown the false prophets.  He had also seen God at work when God opened the heavens and the wind and rain came thick on the land that had been stricken by drought.  Now God had to get Elijah’s attention with silence.  Elijah covers his face and steps out of the cave to encounter God.  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“What are you doing here?”  Why is it you are here, in this sanctuary, this morning?  Are you here because this is what you feel is expected of you?  Are you are here because this is what your family always did Sunday morning, an unwritten obligation you feel you have toward God? Are you here because you ‘should’ be here, because you fear that there may be guilt involved if you don’t?  Or maybe the fear comes from feeling that if you weren’t here, you might not please God.  Maybe for you coming to church is part of a to-do list of getting on God’s good side, thinking that if you do the right things for God, maybe God will do the right things for you.  “What are you doing here?” Or, are you here to have a personal encounter with the living God of scripture?

That’s who Elijah meets that day on the mountain.  The personal, living, real God revealed in scripture comes to Elijah.  Here, we find God revealing himself not by the manipulation of natural forces, even though those forces are set into turmoil by God’s appearance, but by the word, the spoken word.

That word is calm, comprehensible, personal, and purposeful.  The first two times God speaks to Elijah, God asks him why he is there.  The third time, God reaffirms Elijah’s call as a prophet, sending him to Damascus, where he will anoint a new king.  God tells Elijah to get back to work.  Is Elijah still frustrated?  Probably.  But God will not let him give into his frustration and fear and will not let him hide from his call.  God has called him to be a prophet, to speak God’s word.

And God reminds Elijah that he is not alone in living out that calling.  First and foremost, God is with him.  God is a personal God who does not abandon Elijah, no matter what forces he must face.  But also God reveals there are still 7000 who have not bowed to the false gods that Jezebel brought to Israel.  God’s call on Elijah is both personal and communal.  From this remote encounter with God will come major changing events for Elijah and the people of Israel.   If we were to read on, we come to the calling of Elisha, Elijah’s successor, and the eventual demise of Jezebel.

“What are you doing here?” First and foremost, we are here to have an encounter with the living God who enters into history and lays claim to each of us so we can discern God’s purpose for our lives.  The sound of sheer silence is not just another way of talking about seeking peace and getting centered in the midst of life’s pressure.  It is about hearing the word of God who speaks to us plainly and clearly through his Word in scripture by the Holy Spirit.  It is about reaching out to a personal God who is reaching for us to save us and walk with us and calling us as his own.  And that same God is molding us and shaping us as individuals so we can live into the purpose God created us to be and do.  And there is no saying, “I’ve done my time” or “I am afraid to try.”  You cannot hide from your calling, and you cannot run from it, because God will remind you of it, even if he uses the intensity of silence to get your attention.

We not only encounter God here as individuals; we encounter him in the community of faith.   God works within and through this community to fulfill his purposes.  God does work in history through singular, jaw dropping events like what happen on top of Mt.Carmel when fire rained down on the sacrifice.  But, God also works in time and in the course of history through the interworking of many called individuals who are part of the community.  God’s call doesn’t rest on just a spectacular few.  Everyone is significant in God’s redeeming work in history.  As one commentator paraphrases George Eliot, “the greatest good may come from those who lead hidden lives,” like the 7000 people quietly going about their lives in resistance to the false gods of Jezebel.  There is no ignoring the least of these, as God may have the biggest plans for them.

And we are here to be sent.  Elijah didn’t stay on the mountain; he went and did what he was called to do.  And he didn’t leave God’s presence; God went with him and before him.  Sometimes I think we feel that this is God’s house and this is the only place we will experience him.  Individually and as a community, we are called to go out into the world and share the grace and love that God has shared with us.  The kingdom that God wants us to experience and share exists out there.  That is where we live into our calling.  God puts the words into our mouths to share with a broken world that needs to hear about his love and grace they can experience in Christ.  It is God who puts the fire in our hearts that leads to our call.  The way Fredrick Buechner puts it, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Friends, what are you doing here?  I cannot answer that question for you.  But I do know God has a purpose for you and a purpose for us.  You may need to spend some time listening in the silence for that still small voice of God.  Lent is a time to take a quiet journey to hear God’s call upon and purpose for your life.  If you have been waiting for that earthquake, that fire from heaven, or that voice to come booming across the valley in the wind to tell you who you should be and what you should do, stop and consider the silence. Pray and listen.   The living God is calling you.  Amen.

The Beginning of the Rainbow: Sermon by Keith, First Sunday in Lent, 3.17.13

Friends, our Lenten sermon series was called “Forty-Day Journeys,” and we preached on various stories in the Bible where people experienced something over 40 Days (just as Lent is a 40-Day Journey).

Texts: Genesis 7:1-18, 24Genesis 9:1-3,8-17

 “Right…What’s a cubit?”  Now, who knows where that comes from?  Right.  I discovered this Bill Cosby comedy routine when I was in Middle School and would go to my cousins’ house in South Dakota.  We would listen to that tape for days on end, over and over again, laughing our heads off at this picture of Noah and his reaction to God’s command to build an ark at a time when the earth supposedly knew no rain.  Noah’s story is the first of the forty day journeys that Laura and I will be looking at over our 40 day journey to Easter during Lent.  It rained 40 days and nights.  But this is also a story that most people outside the church also know.  Because of people like Bill Cosby, Far Side cartoons, and modern movies like “Evan Almighty” and the upcoming movie called “Noah” staring Russell Crowe as Noah that help keep this story alive in the modern psyche, whether it is the churched or un-churched.  The new “Noah” movie is slated to come out on the big screen in 2014, but has already run into snags due to, you guessed it, flooding.  Hurricane Sandy’s “rains of biblical proportions” brought the production to a temporary halt last year.

From what I’ve found, there are generally two images that come to mind with the Noah story.  The first is this pretty picture, especially directed at children, of all the animals on the ark, and rainbow hanging in the sky.  It gives you this warm, fuzzy feeling inside. There is even a camp song singing about the arky, arky.  I have to admit we actually have two quilts hanging in the boy’s room with images of Noah, his animals, and the ark.  It has become a pretty picture of church nurseries and toy sets.

And then there is the darker side, the side of God getting angry enough to wipe out all of creation and save a remnant of humanity and birds and the beasts to repopulate the earth.  During the middle ages, this story was not taught to young children.  It usually was taught to people until they were 12 years old or older, because of the mass destruction that is pictured.  We have a friend from seminary who said she cried for days when she found out what God did to the animals.  She wasn’t that worried about the people.  It’s this image that I know I’ve struggled with over the course my time as a Christian.

But to fully get into this story, I think we actually have to step back on several different levels.  First set aside your modern sensibilities.  If your first thought was, “Since there was no flood and people didn’t live that long, I don’t have to listen to this.”  Then you might miss out what the ancient tellers of this story were saying about us and more importantly about God.  All these stories are here for a reason and if we just discount them because they don’t fit our modern mind, we may miss out on some good news.

So where do we begin?  Let’s start with Adam.  Based upon the genealogies in Genesis and how long it says people lived, Adam was still alive when Noah was born.  Can you picture it?  Little Noah sitting on great-great-great-great-great-great grandpa’s lap and Adam telling him, “Let me tell you about the time I used to walk with God in the garden.”  But Noah grew, and he could see the world around him wasn’t a garden anymore as he experienced first hand the brokenness of the creation.  I can picture Noah going up to Adam in his rocking chair and asking, “What happened?”  “You are old enough now, Noah.  Let me tell you about the time I broke God’s heart.”

And that’s what happened to God.  His heart was broken.  You would be hard pressed to find through this portion of scripture that God was angry.  God was saddened by what he saw happening on earth.  The bite of the apple that Adam and Eve took was just the beginning of the violence that was corrupting God’s “very good” creation.  Things spiraled out of control after that.  Proper human relationships were being violated.  Animals went against their created nature and turned upon their human stewards.  Everything was out of balance in struggles for power.  Grieving over his creation, God resolves to destroy the destroyer.  God grieves because he loves what he has created.  What’s at tension in God’s heart is his unstoppable purpose to create a peaceful cosmos and his immovable compassion for destructive, violent humanity.  So God, in heartbroken love, determines to drown it all in the void of watery chaos, a void that is reminiscent of the chaos that existed at the beginning.  Do you remember the first creation story?  God moved over the formless void while his Spirit swept over the face of the waters.  And it is there that God begins to create, giving light and form and life to the chaos.  In the flood, the watery chaos is allowed to come rushing back in and destroy the creation.  And as the waters subside, God recreates his creation, but with a new understanding of what humanity and creation are capable of, and a new promise of how he, as God and Creator, will deal with his fallen creation that he loves dearly.

God commits to new relationship rules with Noah, his family and descendants, all life, and the earth itself in the covenantal promise that God seals with his rainbow.  Nothing is required from creation.  The covenant only sets limits on God.  “As for me…never…never…never will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  God pledges to set in the sky his war bow, unstrung and pointing away from the earth.  Next time you see a rainbow, notice that it points up and remember that every time God sees it, he is remembering his covenant with creation and humanity.

The covenant that God gives shows how creation, the plants, the animals, all that God has created, including humanity, is one and is interconnected.  What affects one affects all.  The deep purpose of nature is diversity in unity under God’s possession and God’s purposes.  Yet humanity continually and consistently fails to accept the limits placed upon it by God.  We were created to live in harmony with all of creation, but we continually attempt to take possession of what is God’s.  All creation suffers the consequences of the resulting violence, (PAUSE)

but this is not the last word to Noah and those who survive the deluge:  “Abound on earth and multiply on it.”  In spite of the evidence to the contrary, humanity and creation are blessed because God remains loyal to the disloyal.  Since humanity does not and maybe cannot end the downward spiral toward violence, God covenants to do so.

Some of us may not like the picture of God that this creates, a God who is adaptable and changing.  But it also paints a picture of God who is touched to the heart by his creation and willing to accept the hurt that we direct toward him, each other and all of creation, in order to keep hope alive.  The God of this covenant is unchanged only in refusing to give up on humanity and creation.  He steps into this covenant not as an objective judge handing down a divine sentence, but a lover grieving their beloved’s violence while all the time seeking reconciliation.

Friends, God’s purpose for a unified, harmonious cosmos remains in conflict with humanity and our corrupting influence.  Lent recognizes this imbalance.  We can repent, accept our finitude, and stop grasping for control, or will we continue the violence that so breaks the heart of God?  As we turn our faces toward the cross, we find God again saying in love, “Enough!” But instead of giving a watery chaos, God gave of himself, stepping into creation in Jesus Christ.  In his love for us and all that he has created, God goes so far as to overcome the greatest result of the violence we have brought upon ourselves, and that is death.  Christ invites us on that journey to the cross and the void of the grave with him, so that we can be recreated with him to live into the love and purposes God intends for our lives.  It is there we see and experience the Easter dawn, whose resurrection light will reveal a rainbow in the dark western sky behind us.