Come and See: Sermon by Keith, 1.22.17

Scripture: John 1:35-42   

Let’s just say that the “philigopper” on your car breaks.  You go out one morning, put the key in, and nothing happens.  You open the hood and notice the philigopper is leaking gop, so you know this is serious.  Your car has always run like a dream, and besides regular maintenance, you have never had to go to a mechanic before.  But this isn’t a job for any regular mechanic; you need one that specializes in philigoppers, a philigoptimist.  You open the Yellow Pages or Google “philigoptimists” in La Grande, OR.”  Wow, there are six different philigoptimists in the area!  You know this will be an expensive job that is very detailed and time consuming and you want it done right.  What do you do next?

Well, I know what I would do; I’d start calling my friends.  I’d call some of you and ask you if ever had your philigopper go out on your car, and if so, who did the repairs.  (pretend to call one of the members of the church.)

There is an issue of trust in the midst of all of this.  If your friend tells you which shop took good care of him when their philigopper went out, you are more than likely to go to there, too.  If your friend says that the new movie showing at the theater is awesome, you have a better change of changing your schedule and go see it.  It even counts with restaurants.  We are making our plans to travel to Arizona for Spring Break and trying to decide if we are going to go through Nevada on the back roads or stick to the interstate through Utah.  We may have been swayed to go through Nevada because Linda Fratzke said there is this little restaurant in Wells that has awesome homemade food.  Our trust and friendship in Linda may have swayed how we travel in March.

But what about when comes to church?  Or even talking about God for that matter?  I’ll be the first to say that we live in era and part of the world that you are probably more likely to be asked about where you get your philigopper fixed than you are to have someone call you up and ask you about what church you go to.  In some ways, this seems almost counterintuitive.  Spirituality is at an all time high, people are looking for God, people are looking for answers to life’s questions, but for some reason people want to find that path on their own, as an individual without a community.  It’s like fixing your philigopper without a manual or help from someone else who’s worked on one before.  But on the flipside, it can be hard to talk about God, our faith, Jesus, and church.  If the phone did ring and a friend was asking you about who this Jesus fellow was, you might be apt to say, “Let me have you call my pastor.”  You know, call the expert, even though you have everything you need to talk about what Jesus is doing in your life.

I believe our scripture from the Gospel of John offers up to us what any of us can say, a simple invite to those times when we haven’t been asked about our faith, because I believe it goes beyond waiting for someone to ask us.  The invitation is to “Come and see.”   And I think the entire gospel is a “come and see” gospel.  Do you remember the very beginning of John, where the Word was God and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?  God didn’t wait for our invite.  Jesus is God stepping across the cosmos right into our lives, right in front of us, inviting us to “come and see.”  Why would God want to do this?  Because God wants to be known by us and has become known by us in Jesus Christ.

It begins when John the Baptist sees Jesus walking by, points to him and says to his disciples, “Look, there he is—the Lamb of God!”  They follow Jesus and he says, “What are you looking for?”  A simple question with profound implications.  Everyone is looking for something: salvation, identity, love, to get out of church soon enough to get to their favorite lunch spot.  Some are looking for fulfillment, purpose, answers to life’s question.  Their reply may seem odd, “Where are you staying?”  But I think their question points us to a deeper meaning, they want to know if this guy is legit, if he really is the Lamb of God.  “Come and see,” is Jesus’ response.  Come and get to know me. Come and find out for yourself.  Ask questions.  See me at work.  Come to the conclusions on your own.  Live with me.  Be in relationship with me.  Simply, come and see.

Even the interaction between Philip and Nathanael shows how uncomplicated it is.  We don’t know their relationship, but they must have been friends for Philip to go share this good news.  Philip comes and tells Nathanael that the one scripture has promised is here!  And he is from Nazareth.  Now, Nathanael’s response can seem a little snooty, but it is a legitimate question.  “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael knew his scriptures and the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  It seems like an unlikely place for the Christ to call home.  But do you see what Philip does?  He doesn’t try and convince or cajole.  He doesn’t even answer Nathanael’s question.  No, he invites Nathanael to join him on this faith journey and answer the question himself.  Here is a friend inviting his friend to come have an encounter with Jesus himself.  Come and see and have your own experience of and testimony to God who has come to him in Jesus Christ.

What does this mean for us?  Well friends, first and foremost, it means we invite our friends to come and see.  It isn’t our job to answer every question.  Like Philip, we must recognize that questions are an opportunity to help the people who are curious venture into the ranks of those who are willing to come and see.  Our job is not to think for people; it is only to invite them.  This means that those you are inviting to “come and see” are those who know you and trust you, whether family member, friend, or neighbor.  In this day and age when people are looking for authenticity in every aspect of their lives, an invitation from someone who they already know and trust will go further than anything anyone can offer.

But I also believe these “come and see” invitations are to be given to those who haven’t called you up to ask you about God.  God came across the room, so to speak, in Jesus Christ so he could live with us and we could live with him, to be in a new, whole relationship with him.  And in that relationship, God is inviting us to walk across the room to invite people to “come and see.”  I think Philip was excited to invite Nathanael into a relationship with Jesus.  And it is something we need to be excited about, too.  Now, I’m not saying stand on a street corner and scream Bible passages at people.  I’m not saying clobber your friends and family with Jesus.  What I’m saying is pray and be guided by the Holy Spirit.  Those times for invitations will come.

A couple years into our time as your pastors, I was asked, “If I invited someone to church, what would I be inviting them too?”  It’s a good question.  If you hadn’t noticed, we are a little older, we don’t have a praise band like a cool church should, we don’t have a bunch of programs.  But notice what God’s invitation, Jesus invitation, and Philip’s invitation is all about.  Or what that invitation isn’t all about.  It isn’t an invitation to accept a certain dogma or doctrine, a certain music style, or even an invite to a church.  It is an invite to a relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  To dwell in God and have God dwell in us.

So, what would you be inviting people too?  Let me answer that question with a story.  Do you all remember Autumn and her two daughters? A couple of months ago, she was trying to sell her house and she called us to see if we were able to help her with a couple of things now that she is hundreds of miles away.  When I thought we were almost done talking, she asked, “Keith, why isn’t your church full of people?  It should be packed.”  I went on to ask her what she was talking about.  She shared that when she had moved to La Grande to go back to school at EOU, she checked out a couple of the “big” churches and felt ignored by the people.  Yeah, they had all the programming for the every age and whatever style of music worship service that a person could want.  But they didn’t seem to want to get to know her and her daughters.  So she took a chance on First Pres, mostly because she liked the architecture.  But she was shocked when she got here.  Never had she felt so welcomed at a church.  She said, “The church loved on me and my daughters like we were family.”  She didn’t find a program, she didn’t find a praise band, she didn’t even find a small group for divorced moms like they had at one of the other churches she checked out.  She got a glimpse of God.  She found the love of Christ in and through you.

And Autumn hadn’t been invited by anyone.  Just think what would happen if we all invited a friend to come and see and experience Christ here?  Because Christ is here!  Ultimately, he is the one doing the inviting, because he wants to be found by you, by your friends, by your family.  “Come and see” calls the Christ.  And his invitation becomes ours. “Come and see” is our invitation to the world.  Join the journey and invite others on the journey as well, for in the quest itself, there is life to be found in the one who journeys with us.   Because along the way, he promises that we will get glimpses in and through him of what every person is looking for:  the very heart of God.  Amen.


One Thing: Sermon by Laura, 10.11.15 Pentecost 20B

Scriptures: Mark 10:17-31, Hebrews 4:12-16

In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Mitch, played by comedian Billy Crystal, is a 40-ish radio ad salesman in midlife crisis, whose friends have brought him on a Western cattle drive “vacation,” hoping to reignite some inspiration in their lives. The movie’s pivotal scene comes when Mitch is helping Curly, a grizzled old cowboy played by Jack Palance, round up some missing cows. Curly turns to Mitch and says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger. “This.”
“Your finger?” says Mitch, perplexed.
“One thing. Just one thing,” Curly says….
Mystified, Mitch asks, “But, what is the ‘one thing?’”
With an enigmatic smile, Curly responds, “That’s what you have to find out.”

One thing. Just one thing. A man interrupts Jesus’ journey, kneeling before him to ask a burning question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The text says Jesus looks at him, loves him, and—I’m imagining this part, but can’t you just see him holding up a Curly-esque finger?—says to the man, “You lack one thing.”

One thing. You lack one thing. How ironic, since, by any of the world’s standards for measuring abundance or blessing, this man seems to lack nothing. Wealth then, as now, was understood as a sign of God’s blessing upon individuals or nations. To have many possessions is to lack nothing necessary for the comfort of oneself and one’s family, but also for achieving status as a societal patron with the power to influence culture and politics; and how much more likely is one whose needs are not only met but exceeded to be able to rigorously keep the commandments!

But Jesus looks at this man and sees differently. Mark’s words are simple but moving: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

Yet Jesus’ loving focus on the man also brings to mind today’s Hebrews text, about the living, active, piercing word of God:  sharper than any sword, judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart, so that “no creature is hidden but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Jesus’ sharp gaze sees not only the man’s status, but also his sincere longing to be faithful, his deep yearning to participate ever more fully in the goodness of God. It is from such love that Jesus issues the man an invitation: “Go, sell, what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

These words were shocking and grieving to that man, as they are no less shocking and grieving to those who today have many possessions. And while Jesus issues this particular invitation to a specific individual, so that we are hopeful it doesn’t apply to us, just after the rich man sadly walks away, Jesus turns his keen eyes on all his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Christians over the centuries, desiring to be both faithful and prosperous, have wrestled long and hard with this text. There are two classic ways interpreters have tried to wriggle out from under Christ’s loving but pointed gaze by making its message too simple. On one hand, we reduce what Jesus is saying to “Poor people good, rich people bad.” This gives us permission to do what we do so often, compare our wealth to those who have more than us. Clearly, Jesus isn’t talking to us, because we have so little compared to the 1%. And if we believe we are on the poorer end of the scale, we get to feel a little virtuous, feeling entitled to tell people who hoard their riches, “Good luck getting through the eye of a needle!” whilst we secretly envy them.

On the other hand, we try to tame Jesus’ hyperbole. There was a time when church scholars regularly taught that there had been a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which it was difficult, but not entirely impossible for camels—and therefore wealthy people—to pass through. Often the preacher would then suggest that if said wealthy people put a bit more in the church’s coffers, they’d be assured safe passage through the tight gate to eternal life.

Of course, there never was such a gate, and both reductions of Jesus’ message reveal that we are just as misunderstanding about the God’s kingdom as that poor little rich man.

“Good teacher,” the man says of Jesus, and we, like him, think we know what is “good.” Surely it is “good” to purchase every comfort or influence events with our monetary power. But Jesus says only God is good. The things we have and the power we exercise are only “good” to the extent that they partake of the God who alone is good.

We also, like the rich man, tend to think we are capable of assuring for ourselves ultimate security and abundance, both in this age and the age to come. “What must I do,” he asks, unable to see that eternal life might not be something he can procure for himself, even in his prosperity and lawful obedience.

Finally, we, like the man, misunderstand the kind of inheritance God gives us in Jesus Christ.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. The word “inherit” suggests the experience of waiting and receiving from someone with whom there is a history of relationship, a kinship. To the extent that we honor the one from whom we inherit, we assume a responsibility for stewardship. In an inheritance, the relationship is key.

With “abstract wealth,” however, those ties are severed; we claim ownership of our possessions detached from relationships and unaccountable to anyone but ourselves. As one scholar notes, “The rich man thinks he wants inheritance, but what he wants is an eternal form of abstract wealth. He soon discovers that God does not give gifts that are detached from God’s own self…”

Jesus invites us, like the rich man, to consider how our abundant “goods” have become an obstacle to inheriting and receiving what we really yearn for, not abstract “goods” but the Good which God alone can give. How does our wealth distort our relationships with God and to others? How have we sought to provide for ourselves, by means of monetary power and accumulation of things, the abundant life that God alone can provide?

What is the one thing, just one thing, which makes our lives here and now and forever abundant with joy? I know how many of us here are all too aware how our possessions can begin to possess us! Our home is no exception to the clutter conundrum, a pandemic unleashed on the earth by consumer capitalism.  So recently I tried out a de-cluttering method from an international bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Kondo helps people in her native Japan shape the life they long for by teaching them how to discard and store their stuff.

Her method is pretty simple: go through your stuff, category by category, hauling out everything into a big pile, and then taking each piece in your hands, asking yourself, “Does it spark joy?” If you feel a thrill of joy holding the item, keep it. Otherwise, thank it for its service to you and let it go.

I began, as Kondo recommends, with my clothes. Now, I am by no means a clothes horse, but just as Kondo predicted, I was stunned to see the heap of clothing I actually had. I managed to cull four large garbage bags of clothing from my collection, though I was a bit worried seeing how much I was letting go: “What will I wear? If I rely only on joy, will there really be enough?”

That right there is more than a purely practical question, isn’t it? Somehow de-cluttering my clothing became a practice that got right at my fears of scarcity, revealing my lack of trust in the true source of joy. Waking up to my fear, I chose to trust and let go, giving thanks for the abundance I had received; and sure enough, a new and joyful freedom in dressing emerged.

It’s a pretty simple example, but I think Kondo’s method is effective because, beyond the desire to have a tidy home, it taps into our greater longing for joy and gratitude,  without which the most luxurious things become nothing more than clutter collecting dust.

Gratitude and joy go together. As Benedictine Brother David-Steindl-Rast writes, “We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from gratefulness. If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it…”

My friends, what is the one thing you lack, the deepest yearning of your hearts? And what in your life has become clutter, standing between you and the truly abundant life? Maybe it’s a pile of things collecting dust, but maybe it’s also your fears and insecurities, your distrust of anything but what you can count in your pocketbook, your home, or your heart. Maybe it’s a long-burning anger or grudge, or maybe there’s grief that’s never been experienced and released.

Today is the day to look at your life with the sharp and loving gaze of Christ, to see the things, habits, attachments and attitudes, holding you back from full reliance on God, to let go with gratitude, trusting you will inherit the one thing necessary a life of joy that comes only from the Giver of all Good things, not only in the eternal future but starting here and now, as we lean deeply into Christ’s love,  and we receive with gratitude the grace and mercy of our God of impossible possibilities.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says, pointing the man and us toward liberating generosity which restores relationship with God and others, rooted in gratitude and fruiting in joy. My friends, let us practice gratitude that we own nothing, not even ourselves. We belong to the God who created us, who invites us to receive a joy we can scarcely imagine, as we follow Jesus the Christ and we partner with the Spirit in sharing ourselves generously with a world profoundly in need of God’s love.  Amen.

Sources:, with obscenity removed for church consumption.

Karoline Lewis,

Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective,” in, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 310.

David Steindl-Rast, quoted from Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast by Brene Brown at

The View: Sermon by Keith, 9.27.15, Season of Creation B: Mountain Sunday

Scriptures: Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 48

What and where is your favorite mountain?  What is it that makes it so special or important to you?  For most of us, mountains create a sense of awe and wonder and I think that is why they take such an important role in the Bible.  Mountains dotted the landscape of where the biblical stories took place, they were a physical reality.  As a result, mountains and hills are mentioned over 500 times in the Bible.  They become characters in some of the most spectacular happenings in the biblical narrative.  Who can name me a mountain in the Bible and what happened there?

I like top 10 lists, so I’ve compiled my top 10 mountains in the Bible and what makes them significant:

10)  Mount Ararat-after the global flood, the Noah’s ark came to rest here until the waters receded and the animals and people then went and filled the earth.

9)  Mount Moriah-this is the place that Abraham offered up Isaac as a sacrifice and then God provides an alternate sacrifice when he sees Abraham’s deep faith.

8) Mount Sinai-this is where Moses encountered the burning bush and where God gave the 10 commandments to Moses.  It is also the mountain that the prophet Elijah fled to when Queen Jezebel threatened his life after he had just been on the next mountain.

7) Mount Carmel-this is the mountain that Elijah had his show down with the prophets of Baal.

6) Mount Zion-this is the mountain that Jerusalem is built upon.  Everywhere in scripture where you read, “I lift my eyes to Zion,” or “they went up to Jerusalem,” it was because Jerusalem was built on a mountain.  In the psalm we just read, the psalmist wants to direct everyone’s attendtion to this beautiful mountain of God.  This was also where the temple was built.

The rest of my list is tied to the life of Jesus:

5) The mount of the Beatitudes.  We are not exactly sure where this mountain is, probably near the Sea of Galilee close to Capernaum.  Also, the significance of its location is that Jesus giving this sermon on a mountain puts him on par with Moses.  Jesus is the new Moses, new lawgiver.

4) Another un-named mountain, the mountain the Jesus is tempted on by the devil when he goes into the wilderness after his baptism and lives into his identity as God’s Beloved Son.

3) Yet another un-named mountain, but the mountain that Jesus was transfigured on.  Many scholars think it is Mount Tabor near Jerusalem, but the Bible doesn’t say specifically.  This is the mountain that Jesus went to the top with Peter, James, and John and Jesus becomes radiantly white when he encounters Moses and Elijah and a booming voice comes from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.”

2) Calvary, also called Golgotha or the place of the skull.  It is where Jesus was crucified.

1) The Mount of Olives.  Mentioned several times in the Old Testament, the Mount of Olives was very significant during Jesus’ earthly ministry.  He went there several times with his disciples to pray.  It is where he was arrested.  But I listed it as my number one mountain in scripture because it was where Jesus had his last meeting with his disciples before he ascended into heaven.

So, why mountains?  Why does God use mountains that they become such a part of the biblical narrative?  Why is it on a mountain top that God chooses to give the law to Moses?  Why is it that mountains play such a significant role in Jesus’ ministry?  I think it is because of who we are more than who God is.  In primal cultures, the idea of a holy mountain, a cosmic mountain was often understood not only as the home of the gods, but also as a kind of cosmic umbilical cord that joined the heavens and the earth.   Since they are “closer to God,” people through history believed this is where the gods dwelt and were drawn there to be closer to the gods.  Think about Mount Olympus in Greek mythology.   Now, much of this mythic aura of a cosmic-mountain theme hasn’t disappeared in our modern era.  It is still with us.  We look up to heaven to see God.  What do you look up?  The mountain.

So, in the Biblical narrative, God uses mountains because we have this natural inclination to be drawn to God and the holy in the mountain.  It is just who we are.  And God takes advantage of that.  For every single person that goes up a mountain in the Bible, a change takes place.  That change not only happens to the person doing the climbing, the change flows out into the world because of their encounter with the Holy on the mountain.  Even though we know geologically change is taking place, when you look at a mountain, you usually think “unchanging, unmovable, solid rock.”  But it is there that God has brought about some of the greatest changes to humanity.

When Abraham went up on the mountain with Isaac, his faith was changed.  He learned that God was a provider and was given the promise that his offspring should be more numerous than the stars in heaven or the sand that is on the seashore.

Every time Moses was on the mountain, he changed and so did his people.  The first time he climbed the mountain was to look upon a burning bush.  And from that burning bush he became the liberator of his people.  When he came off the mountain after receiving the Ten Commandments, the people couldn’t even look at him.  They were afraid of him because his face shown so brightly.  He didn’t even know the change had taken place but he had been purified.  And in his hands was the covenant of what it meant to be the people of God, how to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself.  And the last mountain he was on was Mount Nebo.  From its heights he looked out over the Promised Land before the people of Israel entered it.  And he died on that mountain.

Now it is hard to begin talking about the numerous changes that took place when Jesus stepped on a mountain.  Many times he was changed as he called the nation of Israel to change.  His Sermon on the Mount reinterpreted for the people the law, with a refocusing on what it meant to be in relationship with God and each other.  When he was on that mountain where he was transfigured, it wasn’t Jesus’ physical appearance that was the most important thing that happened that day.  God was calling for a change in the hearts and minds of his disciples.  God was making that clear when he called them to listen to his son.  Don’t fight about who is greatest, don’t seek seats of power, but listen to Jesus’ teaching about being a servant to one another.

Later, Jesus climbed a mountain called Golgotha while carrying a cross.  The events that happened there changed the world, so much so we celebrate them during Holy Week and Easter.  They defiantly changed us.  We wouldn’t be sitting here this morning if that climb hadn’t have happened.  His death and resurrection changed the world and our lives.  God’s love poured from the top of that mountain upon the entire world.  Christ opened up the promise of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah foretold.  And he invites us to the climb the same hill that he did.  It means we will die, but it also means we live.  Paul reminds us in Romans that “we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

So, what should you do next time you are in view of an awe inspiring mountain?  Take a hike.  It doesn’t have to be a long one, and the nice thing about modern conveniences, no matter your physical condition, you can get to some pretty awe-inspiring views.  And as the psalmist invites us to walk around Mount Zion, I’d invite you to walk around the mountain that is before you if you can.  Consider its grandeur, consider the cliffs and slopes the reach to the peak.  Think about the rock solid mountain and meditate on how that points to God’s unfailing, unchanging love for you.  And contemplate that it was on a mountain that God changed the world in and through Moses, through Elijah, through Jesus.  And pray about how God, in his infinite love, can change you and use you to change the world.

The Heavens are Telling: 9.20.15 Season of Creation 3B: Sky

Scriptures: Mark 15:33-39, Psalm 19

A quirky book by Wallace Trip includes a cartoon strip which riffs on the children’s song, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” In the first frame, there are two foxes, a young one and a grown-up one, viewing the night sky together. “Father, tell me about the stars,” says the young fox.  The father replies, “My child, the stars are the toys of the cherubim and the beacons of the departed. They are the music of our eyes, the chimes of exultation and the sparks of our inspiration. They have lit our long journey from the swamp to this day when we stare back, reflecting their images like tears of love in a silver mirror.” In the final frame, the two wander on, and the little fox observes, “Father, I fear yours is not a scientific mind,” while a rabbit passing nearby is singing,“Twinkle, Twinkle, little star, I don’t wonder what you are:you’re the cooling down of gasses forming into solid masses.”[1]

What a collision of worldviews this little cartoon depicts! I’m using the word “worldview” to describe a foundational picture of reality which guides our basic orientation in the world. Or, more appropriate to “Sky Sunday” is the word “cosmology.” Cosmos comes from the Greek word for “order,” and from it we get our English word, which signifies a “harmoniously patterned universe.”[2] Worldviews and cosmologies affect not only individuals but the way whole societies perceive reality, unconsciously patterning our assumptions about the nature of things, telling us, “where is heaven, where is earth, what is visible and invisible, what is real and unreal.” [3]

In our time, we are experiencing a major collision of worldviews, with widespread uncertainty and confusion. The foxes and the rabbit represent the basic clash between a rational, modern, materialist orientation—what some would call “scientific”—the idea that reality is only what we can experience and test with our senses, and a more mytho-poetic worldview, in which events in the natural world are also seen to have spiritual significance. As Christians of this generation, who read and interpret ancient scriptures in our desire to follow God’s Word in our own time, we often find ourselves struggling to understand our reality as ancient, modern, and post-modern worldviews collide in the very earthy questions of our daily attitudes, habits, and practices.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” states Psalm 19, exemplifying an ancient-world view of reality. In ancient thought, everything and every event on heaven is understood to have a counterpart on earth, and vice versa; “every material reality has a spiritual dimension, and every spiritual reality has physical consequence.” [4] Psalm 19 celebrates the stability and order God creates, paralleling the life of the skies with the lives of God’s faithful people. First, the Psalmist calls attention to the “firmament,” which was understood to be a “dome-shaped covering” separating earthly and heavenly waters.[5] Remember that water signified chaos to the ancient Hebrews; so they saw the firmament as a gracious gift, carving out space and structure for life to flourish on earth.

The Psalmist also commends the sun and the moon, running their courses in stately rhythm, day to day and night to night, voicing, without human language, a proclamation of God’s reliable, trustworthy and life-renewing presence.

Then, the second section of Psalm 19 praises God’s gift of stability and order to human beings who have received the Torah, God’s perfect instructions, which the Psalmist tells us are sure, clear, pure, and true, teaching simple people a righteous way of living which brings great reward. The imagery of gold and honey draw connections between the golden sun and the Law. The Law, centered on the Temple, is understood to reveal God’s glory on earth, just as the sun reveals God’s glory in the temple of the skies; so “the orderliness of the skies is reflected in the righteousness of human beings.”[6] In Psalm 19, heaven and earth, the sky and God’s people, are united in the harmonious celebration of God’s glory.

But the skies in Mark’s gospel speak in quite a different tone. “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,” begins Mark’s bleak account of Jesus’ death on the cross.

Now, plenty of folks, from a modern, scientific worldview, have tried to find reasons for the three hours of darkness—perhaps an eclipse or a sandstorm! But we need to remember that the author of Mark is making meaning from his orientation in the ancient worldview, not recording “historical facts” as we might conceive of them. For the skies to be darkened at noon, the brightest hour of the sun’s zenith, means that the elegant order of creation has been dreadfully disrupted. It is a strange moment, and Mark doesn’t really explain it, so scholars seek clues to understand it in other biblical texts.

Some have suggested that Mark is alluding to Amos 8:9-10, in which God pronounces to unfaithful Israel that the Day of Judgment is coming, in which there will be darkness at noon, which will make it a time like “mourning for an only son.” In the horror of the moment when Jesus experiences abandonment and rejection from every human being, the moment when God on the cross cries out to God in the heavens, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”; in that moment, we notice that the sky is still there, bearing witness to and, even—if we can stretch our worldview to perceive it—empathizing with Jesus’ suffering.

One author notes, “The skies are not a mere background to human events but an integral part of the web of the human and natural world…the skies mourn the death of Jesus.”[7] The sky’s darkness is related to the tearing of the temple veil; tearing garments was an action of protest and mourning. As the temple veil was designed with four colors representing the four elements of the universe, perhaps its tearing at Jesus’ death represents creation’s mourning of the disrupted order which made his death inevitable.[8]A rent in the fabric of creation reveals that the world of Temple-centered religion, broken and corrupted by evil, has, in Jesus’ death, been brought back to chaos.

But here there is also hope, for there was chaos at the beginning of creation. Jesus’ death is a turning point, and after the sky’s darkness, the light of a new age begins to dawn. The first person it dawns on is the least likely one imaginable: a “battle-hardened thug in Roman uniform, who has helped to perpetrate Jesus’ death. Having witnessed the whole panorama of Jesus’ death, the Roman centurion speaks words which witness to the new age being born: “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” The Roman centurion is the “first sane human being in Mark’s gospel to call Jesus God’s son, and mean it.”[9] And if he can see this truth, others will too. The dawning of the new age of God’s kingdom has come, and the news will spread around the world.

The good news of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ continues to tear through the veils of all our false cosmologies and worldviews, all the foundational ideologies upon which we have mistakenly staked our lives, and the sky continues to bear witness.

In our time, we are seeing anew how heaven and earth are connected, how our small mundane habits, repeated over time and space, have an effect on the sky. The sky bears prophetic witness against our capacity for injustice to God’s creation and especially the poorest people who inhabit it, who suffer most when ecosystems fail, when the sky turns dark with vehicle exhaust, with dust bowl storms, or with nuclear mushroom clouds.[10]

My friends, the truth is that the meaning of the sky’s darkness in this passage, like the fullest meaning of the stars and storms, climate and cloud patterns in our lives, remains a mystery, no matter how hard we try to apply scientific method or theology! The sky, like God’s glory, is full of paradox, ever-changing, revealing and obscuring, protecting but permeable, sustaining us with the air we breathe even as it generates destructive storms, connecting everything on earth as water evaporates into cloud systems that form and shower the earth and dissipate and move on. We humans keep attempting to grasp it, trying to conquer its vastness of space and stars, but we can never fully grasp its evanescence.

Just so, the heavens are telling…they tell the stories of both our ingenuity and our failures to live out our human vocation as partners with God in the care of creation, even as they tell the ongoing story of God the Creator’s reliable love and sustaining care. They tell the story of our greatest dreams and our false idolatries, but they also tell of God’s redeeming love which by incredible grace transforms our failure into the new creation. The sky is telling, like a beautiful work of art, and desecrating the sky is like smashing an icon or a stained glass window, destroying the original chapel God gave us.[11]

My friends, we are called to live on Earth as people of “sky,” in whom heaven and earth are united by the cross of Jesus Christ. In communion with the Maker of the Stars, trusting in the ephemeral Spirit of Life within us, let us wonder anew at the stars, even as we trust in the reliable grace by which night turns to day and day returns to night, in the redeeming power which transforms human suffering and death into new life.


[1] Tripp, Wallace. Marguerite, Go Wash Your Feet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985, 25.

[2] Lathrop, Gordon W.  Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 6.

[3] Wink, Walter. The Powers that Be. New York: Galilee Doublday, 1998, 14-20.

[4] Wink, 15.

[5] Miller, Susan, “Sky Sunday,” in The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, Norman C. Habel, David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire, Eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 157.

[6] Miller, 158.

[7] Miller, 160-161.

[8] Miller, 160-161.

[9] Wright, N.T., Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 216.

[10] Rob Saler,

[11] Saler, as above.

Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble! Sermon by Keith: 6.28.15 June with James

Scriptures: James 3:13-4:17

Did you hear the questions in this morning’s reading?
“Who is wise and understanding among you?”
“From what do conflicts and disputes arise?”
“What is your life?”

James just hammers these questions at the listener, followed by a reflection on living the Christian life.  It may seem like a hodge-podge of subjects, but James wants his hearers to know that what they think matters, what they say matters, how they act matters, and how they live matters.

One of my youth group kids in Wyoming came to one of our gatherings after having a discussion with two of her friends.  They had just been baptized at their church.  They were now saved and now they could do whatever they wanted.  They were good to get to heaven.  It was all about them and their “get out of jail free card.”  James would have had a fit with that, because he makes it clear: every day and every action speaks to the faith that one receives on that day of baptism.  And the questions James asks today point to a particular way of life, a life of humility with God and each other.

Now, I’m not sure how you define Christian humility, but one of the best definitions I’ve heard that humility “is living into the reality that God is everything.”  It is no longer about us, but about God. And for James, living the God-centered life of Christian humility starts with wisdom.

“Who is wise and understanding among you?”  You would think that James might answer this question by saying it is those in charge of the church.  He was one of the early church leaders after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but James isn’t looking for credentials or letters after someone’s name.  He was the brother of Jesus!  If anyone could drop a name to get attention, it would be him.  And we hope the leaders of the church, then and now, would have wisdom and maturity of faith to make decisions, but this is not what James is looking for.  James lifts up markers of evidence of God-given wisdom in the life of individuals.  These include:  Gentleness and a humble heart, purity, living in peace, willing to yield, full of mercy, no trace of partiality.

These are the markers of wisdom, and these traits are hard to live into.  They speak of a life that is not ego-driven, not grasping or envious.  Our culture says “watch out for number 1!”  These traits of wisdom that James calls for move us away from self-gratification to a life where the concerns of the community take precedence.  Look around.  Are there people here that you see who embody the Godly wisdom James extols?  What habits or practices do you see them doing and are there ways that what they are doing can be applied to the life you share in the community?

James then turns his attention to conflicts, and I think you could say James believes conflict happens when wisdom and humility are suppressed or ignored, and one’s ego and self interest take center stage.  Within any relationship, family, or community, there will be times of disagreement.  James looks at these conflicts and sees envy as the core of the problem.  He calls it different things, selfish ambition, cravings, and coveting, but it really comes down to desiring what another person has.  James sees this as a sin that feeds itself, wanting leads to wanting more, craving ever more, asking for the wrong things, and finally escalating in violence and death.

Sadly, this is the culture we live in.  Advertisers would have us buy the newest brand-name cloths, cars, and electronics.  One study showed that the average American is barraged with approximately 5000 advertisements per day.  That is just one day.  We are told we will be happy if we use the right toothpaste or drink the correct beer.  We become envious that we aren’t on the bandwagon of goods we see on TV or even down the block at the neighbor’s house.  We envy others who appear to embody or have what we want, making over ourselves and our homes in their images, instead of living into the image God has given us.  Again it takes wisdom to discern what enough is and to listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice when the voice of the world says, “More!”

James then moves to the question of “What does God want?” by using contrasting the desires of the world with the desires of God.  God wants our hearts.  God is yearning and searching for the human spirit that mirrors God’s own image.  Therefore, in choosing to draw near to God, we are throwing off the power that earthly wisdom has over us.  This idea of friendship with the world versus friendship with God is not a call to renounce the world’s created goodness, but instead seeks primary loyalty with God, whose righteousness is made accessible in God’s wisdom.  James sees wisdom and righteousness connected in this way, and one must choose to serve God or the world, no middle ground is possible.  And when we say yes to God and God’s righteousness in our lives, we receive God’s gracious granting of divine wisdom.  Saying yes to the world’s priorities, the “getting more and be envious of what others have”, leads to death and destruction.

James then brings his wisdom talk back to our relationship with each other when he asks, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?”  This section could easily be tied back to James’ talking about the tongue from last week.  What you talk evil or slander someone, James says you have made yourself into a judge of that person, lifted yourself above the law, thus making yourself above the lawgiver.  We have a tendency to judge people quickly for all types of reasons, like how they are dressed or speak, before we know them.  We may see one little side of them and automatically assume something about them which may not be true at all.

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho said, “We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation.  It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.”  We really know only our own paths, and often we think ours is the only way to go or live and thus it is why we tend to judge others.  But I also believe this command of James not to speak evil or judge one another is an invitation to walk with one another.  It is one thing to stand and point a finger of accusation against someone you may not agree with, it is another to walk, live, and ultimately love them, knowing their hurts and struggles.  This allows us to be with them and for them and not over them.

The last question that James asks is the most humbling.  It is the one that puts all our plans and goal into perspective and makes us realize we are not in control.  “What is your life?”  James’ answer:  Life is a vapor!  Like a morning mist that soon vanishes, so life is short and uncertain.  There are no guarantees about tomorrow, let alone next year or ten years from now.

You might be thinking, “That’s morbid! I don’t want to think about those things!”  Now, I’m not saying we should obsess about it, but we do need to think about death for what it is, a thief that often comes unexpectedly.  I’ve done one funeral for someone who is younger than me.  He fell from a ladder.  That wasn’t the plan for his family.

What James wants us to do is to contemplate our plans in light of our own mortality and God’s sovereignty and our dependence upon God.   This doesn’t mean we don’t make plans, but when we make plans with God at the center of our lives versus trying to fill our own wants and desires, things can look a bit different.  James’ example is as fitting then as it is now.  In following God, income will not be the motivating factor for pursing a career.  We must take the doing of good in God’s service the goal and direction of our lives.  James basically says that ignoring God in our plans is folly, but we are called to be wholly in God’s service.

Friends, there is a promise in these hard passages.  And that is living humbly in God’s will and with each other we will be exalted.  I don’t know if you had a chance to watch President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the martyrs shot in South Carolina.  If you didn’t, I’d recommend watching it, even if you aren’t on the same side of the political fence as he is.  And if you watch it, you might come away thinking it was too political.  And that’s ok; he is a politician by trade.  But he also preached.  He preached about grace, God’s unmerited, amazing grace and how it transforms our lives.  He preached about how this small Bible study group had shared grace and hospitality to the man who would take their lives.  They opened themselves up to a stranger by opening their church, their Bible study, and even their very lives to him.

Friends, grace is a free gift from God, and humility is one of the many gifts of grace we experience in our lives. It is by grace that we learn not to be self-centered, but self-giving, which is the very nature of our God who gave of himself in the Son.  And as God’s grace transforms us, as humility becomes part of our lives, we will find that we are never far away from the heart of God.

“No Escape. Amen.” A sermon by Keith, 7.6.14, Summer with the Psalms

Note: The psalm for this sermon was chosen by Eric Valentine and Sondra Rosholt as their favorite. 

Scriptures: Psalm 139           

How do you respond, how do you feel, when you hear these words of the psalmist?  I think for some, the words seem heavy with that overwhelming, always there whether we like it or not, presence of God.  God’s unyielding presence is seen and felt as claustrophobic and even threatening.  God is everywhere!  I can’t hide!  I can’t escape!  If I lock myself in the bathroom for a moment, you are there!  God, don’t you know I have a right to my privacy!  Don’t you know that my privacy is part of the Bill of Rights forged by the founding fathers of this country?  Leave me alone, even if it is just for one minute!

It is easy to go down that path, especially if we speak only of divine omnipresence or divine omniscience, the doctrine that God knows everything and that God is everywhere.  It is difficult not to go to these concepts of trying to describe and define God.  How do we talk about God’s presence in our lives? 

But that is where the danger lies.  When we take an overwhelming religious experience and make it into an abstract, philosophical and theological statement, we lose something important.  Definitions about God can be accepted and rejected, defined, redefined, and replaced.  When God becomes a concept, God can be rejected.  It makes God into an object of study instead of a living presence experienced in scripture.  God becomes an abstract idea instead of the living God of history and of our lives.  God becomes an electric power field flowing around us instead of a creator who is intimately involved with his creation.

That’s how the psalmist understands God’s overwhelming, always-present presence.  He probably hasn’t even though of it in theological terms, since God is relational and not a concept to be defined.  God isn’t an abstract notion, but encountered and experienced before we take our first breath and long after we take our last.  Only because God is universally present, ultimately powerful, and all-knowing does the psalmist have such a profound sense of an immediate and personal relationship with God.  Because God is at the farthest reaches of the universe and in the most secret depths of the human heart, God is the constant companion, who cannot be escaped, fooled, or ignored.  “You hem me in, behind and before me, and lay your hand upon me.” 

Now, I can see where the opening line might cause some to push back against God’s constant presence.  It speaks of judgment.  The line “O Lord you have searched me and known me” reveals that judgment is part of God’s intimacy with us.  Instead of seeing that intimate judgment as something to be feared, though, the psalmist sees it as something to be praised.  In the psalm we experience trust and not fear, honor and not guilt, grace and not condemnation as God’s personal relationship with the individual is intertwined with his absolute and accurate judgment.  The psalmist reflects on his utter dependence upon God and finds it comforting as well as demanding.  God did all the knitting and weaving that made us who we are before we ever came to an understanding of self.  God’s personal care and knowledge of each and every one of us can even make a parent’s familiarity and nurture of their children seem distant.  God is closer than close.

God’s loving involvement and God’s participation in the psalmist’s life includes the end of his days as well as his beginning.  God has spelled it all out to the smallest detail.  Nothing can befall him that is not included in God’s loving providence.  In a similar fashion, the psalmist writes, “I come to the end”—whether the conclusion of endless reflection of God’s goodness or of his own life—“I am still with you.”  The psalmist trusts that no extremity, whatever it is, can separate him from the loving presence of God.  Wherever he goes, whatever becomes of him, God is there.  Now note that the psalmist never says that God caused the sickness and heartbreak that he experienced in his life, just that God’s loving presence was with him in every moment, good or bad.  This trust that God is always there is echoed in Paul’s words to the church in Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, not anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”God is transcendent enough to overcome any earthly power, immanent enough to be present in the midst of whatever happens, and gracious enough to care about the destiny of each of God’s creatures. 

This psalm is a beautiful meditation on God’s presence in our lives, and in it, the psalmist captures the fundamental message of the gospel.  But, then we hit those few verses about hate and loathing, we may wonder what in the world to do with them.  Sondra even shared that she felt they should be in a different Psalm.  In fact, when this psalm comes up in the lectionary, it skips right over verses 19-22, “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart me—those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil!  Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with a perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”  These lines go against our sensibilities.  In the midst of praying this psalm that deeply connects God to us, we may feel that it is inappropriate to pray this way. 

Nevertheless, the prayer is for God to deal with wickedness and sinfulness—in other people and as well as in the heart of the psalmist, that is part of this psalm, “Search me and know me.”  This prayer is a reminder that God’s divine knowing of human beings does not eliminate human responsibility for obedience to God’s will.  Because God is intimately a part of our lives doesn’t get us a “get out of jail free card.”  For some, they turn and try and flee God’s presence, living life on their own and attempting to be free.  For others, knowing God is closer than our next heartbeat leaves them in awe and wanting to live into God’s will.  God’s closeness leads to both judgment and direction of our paths, if we embrace that close relationship.

Friends, this psalm is loaded with good news.  First and foremost, God is with us no matter what we do or where we go.  There is no escape, and that is a good thing.  In the midst of tragedy or joy, God’s loving, reconciling presence is with us. God isn’t ever present with us to find every flaw in our lives to use against us, but God is for us, a constant companion to guide and lead us into the freedom of his righteousness.  But this psalm also frees us to see each other, to see each and every human being we meet, as loved by God.  These words not only lift us up, but they lift every person up to experience God’s loving presence and salvation.  Because of the gift of this psalm, we can say of everyone we meet, “God is with them.”

I’d like to close with a poem that has been adapted from a portion of this psalm from by George Cuff.  Yes, he avoids the section about the killing the wicked, but he does capture the heart of God’s presence with him and creation. 

O Lord, You know all about me;
With You there is no surprise.
My daily plans and activities 
Are known before I arise.

I am surrounded by your care, 
Hemmed in before and behind.
What a tremendous love affair
You have with all mankind.

There is no place that I could go
Where You would not be there too.
A glorious comfort it is to know
That You will carry me through.

When trials of darkness blot out my faith,
They are not dark to You.
For there is nothing that can displace
The comfort You imbue.

I am a miracle of Your creation
Placed in my mother’s womb,
A member of a new generation
Ordained and prepared by You.

My frame was not hidden when I was made;
Your eyes saw all I could be.
All my days You clearly ordained
So I could come to Thee.

I am amazed You think about me,
Millions of times each day.
O that everyone could read
Or hear these words I say.

I cannot comprehend this love
Bestowed on fallen creation.
I praise You for leaving heaven above
To purchase my salvation.







Giving Up Our Lives: Sermon by Keith, 4.6.14, Lent 5A

Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:28-44

I want everyone to close their eyes.   Now, I want you to picture Jesus.  Does everyone have a picture of Jesus?  Ok, now I want to take one step back from Jesus and picture the scene or setting he is in.  Imagine those things around him.  When you have Jesus in his scene, go ahead and open your eyes.  I’m not going to ask you what Jesus looked like, I’m more concerned about the scene you placed him in.  Who would like to share?

Now, did anyone picture him in a cemetery?  I know I wouldn’t have, I usually picture him teaching.  I know when we usually think of graves and tombs with Jesus, we think of the empty tomb on Easter morning.  And typically Jesus isn’t even in that scene.  Of all the Easter bulletins we looked at that had the stone rolled away from the tomb, Jesus isn’t around.  We don’t picture the two together.  But that is exactly where John puts him this morning:  Right in the middle of a cemetery.  But based upon who Jesus says he is, we shouldn’t be surprised that he is found among the tombstones and crypts.  He is the resurrection and the life.  And we can’t have a resurrection with having a death.  We can’t have new life in Christ unless the old one has been buried and put away.

But to understand what kind of new life Jesus just might be calling us to in the resurrection, I found it really hard to start in the graveyard.  I needed to step back from that scene and move to the edge of tombs and dry bones and peer in with those who were also looking into the graveyard.  Those who are dying have a totally different perspective on life than those who are healthy and active.  Bronnie Ware recently published an article titled, “Nurse Reveals Top 5 Regrets People Make on their Deathbeds.”  As one of the people that was close to those who were in their last few weeks of life, Ware had the privilege of hearing what people felt were their biggest regrets they had in life.   I think that looking at these deathbed regrets in light of the one who is the resurrection and the life, we can turn to Christ and experience life as God intended from the beginning.   Because life with the one who is life and gives life is a life without regrets.

The most common regret that Ware heard from her patients was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”  Ware shares that when people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly over it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.  Most people had not honored even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

Now from a Christian perspective, I’d want to use the word ‘calling’ instead of ‘dreams.’  Each and every one of us is created uniquely in the image of God with different gifts and talents to live a full life.  And Frederick Buechner says that the calling you receive from God is first and foremost what you need to do.  You were created for it.  There is a deep hunger to do it and live it out.  And second, the calling is to something the world needs to have done.  He sums it up as “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Anything else that you pursue, including the expectations placed upon you from yourself, family, or the world, bounds you and keeps you from experiencing the life you were created to live.

Men, pay special attention to this second item of regret that Ware shares.  She said she heard it from each and every one of her male patients.  A few of the lady folks said it too, but every man said it.  “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”  They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.  They regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.  Their time was lost to the office or factory at the expense of their families. I think this regret grows out of the fact  that God created us to be in relationship with him and each other.   American society seems to think we were created to be machines, created to be cogs on the wheels of productivity and growth of the economy.  But I’ve never heard someone say, “I wish I’d of spent more time at the office” on their death beds.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs and stay at home, but I am saying we need to weigh the costs of giving up our lives to our jobs.  Our families are a gift from God, and I also believe that our jobs are a gift from God.  But when placed on the scales of importance, the building and maintaining the relationships in the family should far outweigh the building of a job legacy. Our relationship with God should even far outweigh our relationship with our family and it is when these three things get out of whack, dysfunction and regret rule the day.

Third regret, “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”  Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others.  And Ware adds, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming in those relationships. Many of the illness that the people were suffering from on their deathbeds were related to the bitterness and resentment they carried because they didn’t let others know how they felt.

It becomes about reconciliation.  It is about forgiveness.  It is about love.  When we confront our feelings and the hurt by either confronting those who hurt us or ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, it raises the relationship to a whole new healthier level.  Either that or it releases those unhealthy relationships from our lives.  It’s why God sent Jesus in the first place, into the graveyards of our world, and confronted the brokenness of our sin and separation, to show God’s love and rebuild and restore relationships.  Do you remember the Lord’s Prayer sermon skit that Amy and Miller did for us awhile back, and especially when they did, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?”  Amy was angry with her friend and that anger and the thoughts of revenge were eating her up.  When she released that anger by forgiving her friend, Amy was made new, made alive again.  She could now move forward in her relationship with her friend beyond being stuck in anger.  Anger leads to death of relationships, forgiveness frees those relationships.

Number four:  “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”  So many of these people became so caught up in their own lives that they let golden friendships slip by over the years.   There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort they deserved.   People do want to get their financial affairs in order, but in the end, many of the people Ware worked with were even too ill to even do that.  All that mattered in the final weeks were love and relationships.

Do we want to wait until the end to remember a dear friend?  It’s about the relationships in our lives that God has given us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not the best in keeping in touch with my friends, but Jesus teaches that friendship is at the heart of the relationship he wants to have with us.  And I don’t want to forget about that.  Later in John, Jesus gives his new commandment, that his disciples love one another as he has loved them.  Why?  Because no one has experienced love greater than someone who has laid down his life for his friends, and now he calls us his friends.

The last one:  “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”  Ware was surprised at how common this one was.  It helped her realize that happiness can be a choice in life.  When people were stuck in old patterns and habits, the ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions and physical lives.  Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content.  Ware says that “When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”  Now, there is temporary happiness  that comes when the circumstances are just right, when things are pleasant and we are free of troubles.  And we know this kind of happiness never lasts when things change.

Then there is happiness that comes from God, it lasts, and it brings about an inner peace regardless of the circumstances.  It’s not based totally on what happens around us, but because of the one who walks with us.  The happiness through Jesus is a contentment that fills the soul, even if the eyes are filled with tears and is not based on success or failure, wealth or poverty, fame or obscurity.

Friends, we all stand on the edge of the graveyard looking in at Jesus.  We claim from the story of Lazarus the power of Jesus to call us out from the things that bind us and will bury us, all the fears, the pains, the griefs, the worries, and the pressures.  He has the power over death and with that power, the gift of new life free of regrets.  And he offers that gift to each and every one of us.  Be free to live.  Amen.


Giving Up Control: Sermon by Keith, 3.9.14, Lent 1A

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

I came across something this week that really spoke to me about this text.  And I wanted to share it with you.  It is a commercial that really isn’t selling anything.  It comes from an organization in India called the NAIK foundation.  I don’t know much about them, except that they are a charitable group working in community development among India’s poor.  The commercial tells a story of a boy who finds some money.  Now, I can’t really tell you how much he finds, the bill says 50 on it.  50 Rupees, maybe.  If that is the case, it would be worth about .80 cents in the US.  But in a country where about 1/3 of the population makes about a dollar a day, what he finds is a lot.  This kid feels rich…and tempted.  It might be compared to finding somewhere between $25 and $50 on the ground while out on a walk.  Let’s watch and see what happens.

(show video)

I was kind of nervous about showing you that ad at the beginning of sermon.  That little boy is a lot cuter than me and your mind might stick with him.    But I love his story and how it is the perfect entrance into these first passages about Lent.  These are texts that we might at first think temptation is the main topic.  But it’s not.  Yes, the serpent or the devil are in both, and yes, something tempting is offered in both, and one story is what happens when Adam and Eve give into those temptations, and the other one is a story of what happens when Jesus doesn’t give into the temptations he is faced with.  But that’s just part of the story, and to get the whole picture, we have to go to the beginning.

God spoke, and the Spirit moved over the chaos and creation was: the earth, the oceans and waters, the sun, the moon, the stars, the trees, the grass, the birds, and the fish.  And the sixth day, God created Adam, the first human, and declared “it was very good.”  Now, God didn’t say this because Adam was the most perfect thing God had made and it took him 6 days to figure it out, after all God also made the creeping things that day.  We rank right up there with the worms.  But God said it because he looked out over all of creation, all of it, and declared it very good because it was complete.  Now everything could live in relationship with each other as God intended.  That’s very good.

God created so that a relationship could exist between the Creator and creation.  The creation story first and foremost is a story about God.  And that is good.  But it is when we make it a story about us, when we move God to the sideline, that’s when the story becomes not so good.  That’s what happens to Adam and Eve.  They attempt to make the story about them.  God puts Adam in the garden to till and keep it, to be a part of it, to literally be a slave to it.  “Adam, I’ve surrounded you with everything that is good for your needs.  I will even walk with you in garden, I will give you a partner as you name the animals and do the work of the master gardener I created you for.  But, do not eat of tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

What happens next opens up lots of theological questions, like “Who created the serpent?” or “How do animals talk?”  I don’t want to go there, not today anyway.  But what I want to look at is what the serpent tempts Eve and Adam with.  Adam was right there, so the fall isn’t all her fault, guys.  He tempts them with the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Even though they are surrounded by everything God has declared good, the serpent says that they can have the power to declare what is good and evil, too.  Just like God.  And they bite. And suddenly all the good things they are surrounded by don’t look so good anymore.  They look upon their own bodies as something that must be hidden by the plants that were once food.  Even being in the presence of God is something that is no longer good, but something to be feared and hide from.

What happened?  What’s this story about?  What does it tell us that when surrounded by the good gifts of God, Adam and Eve choose to turn from those gifts and the one who provided them?  This story is about trust and control.  The serpent convinces them that God can no longer be trusted, that God just might be holding back on the really good stuff.  And if trust in God is eroded, then the relationship with God is broken.    Adam and Eve’s story shows that when that trust is gone, they attempt to control and define what is good for their lives.   But when Adam and Eve aspire for that control, they damage their relationship with God, they spoil the bond that exists between the two of them, and they even mar how they live in and with the creation.  What they have done is attempt to play the role of creator, because they can’t trust the Creator, the one and only one who has authority to define what is good.  Maybe lack of trust in the Creator is the commonality of all of temptation, because lack of trust seems to be the basic root in desire for control.

So, what could be so wrong with an ice cream cone (or four of them) as we saw in the video we watched?  Maybe that young boy only tasted a cone once before and the sweet taste has lingered on his thoughts since then.  And what could be so wrong with bread?  Jesus was famished.  The thought of his mother’s homemade bread probably crossed his mind a thousand times since he went off into the desert.  What’s so bad about showing the religious leaders and the people of Jerusalem that Jesus was truly the Son of God by throwing himself off the temple?  Angels would surely catch him and set him safely on the ground.  Then all the people would turn their hearts and minds and praise to God, no more divisions, no more religious fights.  All would be united behind Jesus.  And look who was on the throne when the tempter unrolled the maps of the world before Jesus on that mountain:  Caesar.  He ruled with an iron fist and thousands across the empire had been enslaved, imprisoned, crucified or thrown into the arena for entertainment.  Who wouldn’t want Jesus, who Matthew calls the Messiah early in his gospel, on the throne, replacing the Pax Romana with the Kingdom of God on earth?  All these things the tempter offers up to Jesus looks not only good from our perspective, but very good.

So, what is good?  Can we discern the good?  First I have to say it cannot be done outside of a trusting relationship with God and trusting who God is.  Then it gets harder.  Temptations of materialism, security, and prestige are not foreign to us, and I mean us as individuals and as a church and society.  Whatever form temptation we may experience, we can pass through it only when we trust God to provide what we need and what is truly good. It starts with understanding that God is a God who creates in love for the sake of relationship, and since the fall, a God who acts in love as a relationship restorer.  As you go through scripture, everything God does is to restore the broken relationship that exists between the Creator and creation.  He sent the prophets, he gave the law.  And God even gives up control, when he sends his Son, himself, Godself, in Jesus, the Word made flesh living with us.  But that doesn’t mean he was temptation-proof.  He was fully human, and I think fully capable of giving into the temptations before him.  But his humanity lived in perfect relationship with his divinity, and in that relationship, humanity embraced and trusted the divine.

Maybe that is how we start trusting.  We first recognize that we aren’t God and by the grace of the Spirit, we also recognize that the One who is God is worthy of our trust.  We start depending on him for what we need.  And then we give up control, trust God, and become relationship restorers, too.  Jesus knew the path to a restored relationship with God wasn’t through satisfying his own hunger at the snap of his fingers.  But he did feed the thousands on the shores of Galilee so that they could come to a deeper understanding of the love of God.  He didn’t throw himself from the heights of the temple to prove who he was, but he did overturn the tables of the moneychangers and said they had made his Father’s house into a den of robbers when it should be a place where all are welcome.  He didn’t take a throne.  He took up a cross.

And it is there he faced his final temptation that came at him echoed in the words of the tempter in the desert.  “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  And in a way that I wouldn’t have chosen, because in so many ways it makes no sense to me, Jesus died.  What looked like the end was the new beginning to something very good.  My relationship, your relationship, creation’s relationship with its Creator was restored by means of an empty tomb.  The ultimate relationship destroyer, death, was overcome.  Who would have seen it coming?  Not me.

That little boy we watched in the video was a relationship restorer.  He gave up what control he held in that 50 rupees so another could be lifted up and restored.  And my call to you, friends in Christ, is that during Lent, you give up control and trust the one who is in control, too.  During these forty days, look around.  Ask yourself, how can you use the good gifts that God has given you not to build up your own security or your own prestige, but to be a relationship restorer as well?  When you do, you just might hear a whisper from God, “Now that is very good.”