Worship ~ 4 December

Audio Recording

3:8   Haman (the bad guy) said to (the Persian) King Aha-súerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman and said to him, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.”

4:1 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry;  he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.  In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. 

When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them.  Then Esther called for one of the king’s servants, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why.  

[The servant] went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate,  and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews.  Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people. 

[The servant] went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. She gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 

When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, he told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 

Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 

Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

For such a time as this. Esther’s gift was called out.

How about you? First step is to ask about your gift or gifts. The next question is what are you doing about it? These are kind of intimidating questions, but maybe not. Maybe they are the questions we should be asking ourselves and one another.

How are you equipped to expand, explain, extend, explore the kingdom of God in this place, in this time? What might be your particular skills for developing or growing God’s gift for the sake of others, for the world in need? Gifts are not to be kept under a bushel (we are told), or in the closet. They aren’t to be denied or denigrated or dismissed (even though we often do that). And gifts aren’t for your benefit. They are for God to use within you. You have been issued a gift, a wonderful, bewildering bit of the image of God, so that God can use it, so God may use you in the salvation story that began with creation and has no end, resting, as it does, in eternity.

Discerning gifts is your soul work – quieting yourself from the busy-ness of duties, responsibilities, expectations, distractions –  and asking what it is that gives you joy. What do you have passion to do? What gives you energy and a sense of power?

I believe our gifts come from a creating God and are essentially creative by nature, if that helps you locate one within you. Courage, justice, teaching, building, cleaning, writing, helping, leadership – these are as creative as music or design.

Church work too often calls out the first list –  the duties, responsibilities and expectations – right? Baking cookies, attending meetings, sharing your resources and finances, signing up to serve in one way or another, baking more cookies. The Cookie Sale is Saturday. The list can sound kind of joyless, unless you like to bake artful, delicately, delicious cookies for the Cookie Sale.

If you’re still feeling a bit dismissive of the notion that you have a unique and precious gift, others might be able to offer suggestions – things they’ve observed about you, things they feel. And that can be helpful to get you started. But in the end it is yours to discover, yours to own up to. It has to feel sound and true to your inner self. 

Some people know right away what they are good at, what they’re called to do from deep within.  They may have been practicing it for years, and are learning to trust it. But maybe your gift is shy, reticent, and you need to allow yourself to be vulnerable. To let that deep inner spark make contact with the world. To let God expect something of you. You might feel that it’s nothing really, not as good as some other person’s, not worthy of being God-given, better kept quiet and private until you’re sure.

Esther is the story of a young woman, a Jewish woman, chosen for the king’s harem because of her beauty. So, was her gift her beauty? or her Jewishness? Her beauty was what placed her in proximity to the king and likely what kept her alive when she entered his presence unbidden. Her Jewishness is what gave her passion to speak against the unjust genocide of a minority population. So both were gifts and both called her to take the risk of her lifetime. 

Esther was orphaned in Susa sometime at the end of the Babylonian exile. Most Jews went back to Judah when King Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and allowed prisoners to return to their various homelands. But many stayed. They had settled into life in their foreign communities, perhaps married a local lad, or been taken as apprentice in a trade. We don’t know much of Esther’s back story, except that she was an orphan, rescued and raised by her old cousin, Mordecai, until taken from his home and thrust into the political and sexual intrigue of the Persian royal court.

In her various roles, as orphan, foster child, and consort to the king, Esther plays a dangerous game in deciding if and when to reveal her Jewish identity.  As the plot twists and turns, we realize that her willingness to disclose or deny it, effects not only her own life and safety, but that of the noble and brave Mordecai, and eventually, the lives of Jews throughout the kingdom. No pressure! And so the gift that emerges, that Mordecai helps draw out finally, is courage to act and speak on behalf of others who have no voice.

If this story seems like it should be on PBS or the big screen rather than in the Bible, you’re thinking along the same lines as about half the early Jewish and Christian scholars whose task it was to put together the biblical canon. There was a great deal of controversy – and movement of this book in and out of the box of keepers.

For one thing, God is never mentioned – not once in the whole book. That’s unique for a biblical story. No one prays overtly. No one quotes scripture. No one goes to the temple – because, of course, there isn’t one. No one goes to synagogues because the story takes place in Persia.  The only sort of religious ties the story has are references to sackcloth, ashes and a fast –  traditional signs of mourning – and Mordecai’s assurance that even if Esther failed, help would come to the Jews from some other quarter – implying that God has a plan for this people. 

The unspoken, hiddenness of God is what I love about this story and for which I am very grateful to the canon keepers for its inclusion. Because this feels realistic, closer to what our lives and stories are like. God is unknown, unseen, yet to be revealed, but hoped for, trusted in… much like Habakkuk’s story. Mordecai’s actions express the belief that God isn’t through with the Jewish people – even those outside Israel. And God continues to rely on outsiders to the covenant to get things moving, indicating to me, the inclusive nature of the kingdom.

This is one thing I really like about the narrative lectionary that I hope you have come to appreciate, too. We get to read novellas that don’t mention God and that have a woman as the story’s heroine. That’s a remarkable thing in the long tradition of the church, and is why not many people know Esther’s story. But it’s right here, edifying or not, between Nehemiah and Job… and we are given this day to think a few collective thoughts about what it means and why it’s there.

How many of you could see your life written up as drama? I bet everyone of you has done something, lived through something, experienced something that would make a good story – or a children’s book. Or a cartoon! I’ve heard some of them. If you let your imagination run for a few moments I bet you can picture a time, fill in a little of the scenery, capture a bit of the action or dialog or emotion of the event. 

And I bet there’s a time when each one of you has made a difference in someone’s life. And I bet there’s a time when you’ve been inspired or dumbfounded by someone’s generosity or helpfulness or kindness toward you. I bet each of you has suffered, has doubted, has dreaded. And I hope that each of you can at least picture what it would take for resolution of the conflict, for turning things to rights, for a happy ending.

Now, how many of you can imagine your life written up as gospel – good news of God’s activity living through, shining through, breaking through your life to others, for the sake of others?

Doubtful? Nah.

Look again at Esther. And if you’re still not getting it, go home and watch It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, because that movie takes its premise from this biblical book. 

Ordinary lives, little things that happen, unseen connections and consequences, contingencies – some bit of drama, or fear, or danger; some major doubts about identity and worth and personal value; God-given gifts drawn out of hiding; and a decision to stand for something, defend someone, to set out on a course of action whose ending you cannot see from your doorway…this is the plot of many a good story… and of most of our lives. 

Unlike the novella form or the movie, though, we don’t get to see the ending of our particular story, or know whose lives we have touched and turned. We don’t get to see the web our interconnected stories have woven, but chances are – just like Esther and George Bailey, we have been set here, positioned in such a way, for just such a moment, just such a time as this. 

I think it’s too bad on the one hand, but probably a very good thing on the other, that God remains invisible in our lives and in our workings. I don’t think any of us really want angels showing up unannounced or words placed upon us in prophetic impulse. Most of us prefer our unenlightened, yet inspired lives. It’s easier to live that way. 

But that hiddenness of God does not mean God is absent or uninterested. It just means God somehow trusts our nature enough to know that we’re going to screw up, and also that we are the very best medium for reaching those other screw-ups who need to be loved. 

Esther loved Mordecai and her people enough to take a huge risk. As we move closer to Christmas and the incarnation of God in earthly life – that story, that risk, that love becomes God’s story. If our lives reflect a portion of that plot line, if we, too, are able to risk loving and caring and confiding and challenging, then the drama of our lives becomes good news for a waiting world.

Worship ~ 20 November

Audio Recording

Reflection – Nikki Strandskov

Does anyone else remember the Doubleday Dollar Book Club? In the days before Internet booksellers, it was a way for people who lived far from bookstores to get a constant supply of reading material – in my mother’s case, mainly historical novels. But when you joined, you got four books for your dollar, and two of the ones my parents chose were Bennett Cerf’s Encyclopedia of Modern American Humor and a volume of The Best-Loved Poems of the American People. I dipped into both of these frequently as a child, and parts of the poems stuck with me to this day, so when I looked at today’s Scripture reading, I immediately thought: “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold” – the first lines of Byron’s poem, The Destruction of Sennacherib, which is based on the passages from Isaiah 36 and 37 that we have just heard, and the rest of the chapter, telling of the threat to Jerusalem by Assyria and its miraculous deliverance.

Well, I’ve got a bone to pick with the Narrative Lectionary people. In the first place, I don’t like readings that pull out verses and put bits and pieces together, and this one is worse than most, since it ends by going back 35 chapters. And secondly – although this part is left out of the lectionary, you can read it for yourselves – the miraculous deliverance didn’t come close to happening. As both Assyrian artifacts and history and the book of II Kings attest, the readon Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, didn’t destroy Jerusalem and scatter its people was that King Hezekiah capitulated and agreed to pay tribute to Assyria. (Sennacherib did, in fact, die by the sword a few years later, and it was wielded by his own son.) So for my money, the reading from Chapter 2 would have sufficed, and been a lot easier to pronounce!

And really, it’s plenty to reflect on, all on its own. It’s about 2700 years since those hopeful words were written, and it seems that every time we take two steps forward toward Isaiah’s goal, we take at least one step back. Like many of you, I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. I spent a few years in Germany as a child and teenager because my father was stationed there against the threat of Soviet invasion, and I myself served in what was then West Berlin. Yet during that time, a couple of years after Khrushchev’s famous “We will bury you” speech, the Soviet Union gave to the United Nations the sculpture on your bulletin covers, illustrating the prophecy of Isaiah. What rejoicing there was at the fall of the Berlin Wall and later, the dissolution of the Soviet Union – and look where we are now. I fear we are closer to war with Russia than we were during the Cold War.

I don’t know why this is, in terms of underlying causes, but it has made me think more about peace, what it really means, and how we might achieve it. One of the things I like about living in Luck is its sense of peacefulness. Yet outside my little bubble of church and family, there are hungry people, angry people, drug and alcohol problems, and domestic violence. Not so long ago a man was murdered a few blocks away – and the killer was also a victim of the inadequacy of our social and medical services. I think all this breaking of the peace stems from one or another kind of injustice – inequality between rich and poor, inadequate treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, deeply imbedded racism and misogyny in our systems and our culture. Until these are rectified there can be no real peace even in our little community, still less in our cities and the other countries of the world.

Pope Paul VI, fifty years ago, said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. One way we can all show that love in our lives is to work for justice in whatever form we can. Then perhaps Christ’s reign will come on earth, and swords will be beaten into plowshares, munitions factories will make tractors, old military bases can house the homeless, and we shall study war no more.

Worship ~ 13 November

Audio Recording


The prophet Micah lived during the last quarter of the eighth century before Christ, during the reigns of kings Ahaz and Hezekiah of the southern kingdom of Judah.    Micah was called to offer social, political and religious critique of the southern kingdom in particular, but of all the people of God. Assyria has come calling, battering down the gates, and, as he did with Nathan, God charged Micah with the task of holding up the mirror. There is still time. But not much. Judgment is seen as the first step of repentance and renewal and return.


   3For lo, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. 4Then the mountains will melt under him and the valleys will burst open, like wax near the fire, like waters poured down a steep place. 5All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel.

Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek. 2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5and he shall be the one of peace. 


Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember now … that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”    

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The prophet Micah begins his oracle with a memorable, visual metaphor of God rushing over the earth like gushing hot wax, melting mountains, splitting open valleys, and pressing down the idolatrous “high places.” Micah is a poet, using images to communicate God’s words of judgment. He lives in a village outside of Jerusalem, a location that gives him insight into how the policies and behaviors of their own leaders oppress the peasants and poor rather than defending or helping them. In Micah’s eyes the fatal sin of the nation is moral corruption. 

He rails against the political and religious leaders of his day because they have abandoned their divinely ordained responsibility to exercise justice throughout the land. The common good was being usurped by personal self-interest in the law courts, by large landowners and merchants. The rich are full of violence, the rulers speak lies; the leaders pervert justice and cause much suffering. They are a people who walk haughtily. God will not let this stand in the nation chosen to show forth God’s way. The armies of Assyria will address their arrogance and complacency if the people do not choose change themselves.

In spite of the gloom of his predictions, Micah insists that his message is for the good of his people. He preaches a vision of redemption beyond judgment and destruction. God will forgive the remnant of his inheritance and cast their sins into the depths of the sea. The day will arise when each shall sit under his own vine, under her own fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. Even in divine anger, there is compassion.

Indeed, we hear God’s longing for a return to faithfulness. “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” 

This is the Solemn rebuke of our Good Friday liturgy. “What more could I have done for you? Answer me!”

Micah’s response pivots away from sacrificial worship and ritual toward a new orientation for daily life, reminding them – and us – what God requires. 

Just three things: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

That job description hasn’t changed in the 2800 years since Micah spoke it.

Do justice: we are not simply to appreciate the concept of justice, or to expect justice done for us, or agree that justice should be an inalienable right, but, actually, we are required to do justice, to make it happen. We are to actively pursue making ours a just society. Actively be just in our interpersonal relationships, in our advocacy, in our dealings with one another. Fair, honest, open-minded, persistent, proactive.

Love kindness: the Hebrew word is hesed; it’s a deep word of covenant fidelity—the kind of unflagging loyalty that God shows Israel, or the deep, sacrificial love spouses bear for one another. Being kind is an important value, and kindness seems in short supply these days. But Micah pushes our understanding of being kind beyond ‘nice’ and into the realm of lasting, meaningful relationships. In the same way that the Hebrew word shalom encompasses wholeness and healing, not just absence of conflict, so hesed calls up a deep relational goodness that doesn’t stop with being kind.  

Walk humbly with your God: 

I attended a synod Bible study on Thursday preparing us to preach on Matthew. This isn’t the same word, but I think it carries the same meaning as when Matthew has Jesus say, “Come to me all you are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” In the ancient world that meaning of humble is used of kings or persons of power, who lower themselves to serve instead of claiming the rights of their status. It isn’t said of one who is already at a lowered status, but of one who comes to walk alongside. Though humans were given dominion in creation, it is a role of service and protection, a humble status of rule for the sake of, not lording over or exploiting others.

It’s interesting to hear this description both of humility and of what God expects of us after all the political ads we’ve been bullied by in the past month. This is what we want from our leaders, isn’t it?  Honesty, justice, humility, service, an awareness that we are in the room, that it is governance of, by, and for the people. Not election for the sake and status of the elected. Not election based on fear of the others.

Micah is calling out the leaders. His prophecies aren’t aimed at the peasants and working poor, but at those who have options, those who are positioned to effect change.  His counterpart, the prophet Amos, describes the kind of corruption that seems to be another perennial: 

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may again sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.…” (Amos 8:4-6).

Amos criticizes the CEO’s of his day who diligently keep the sabbath but cannot wait to cheat the poor on the other six days of the week. Both prophets emphasize that living in right relationship with God is not simply a matter of worship. Right relationship with God is an ongoing, seven-day-a-week orientation to life, one that prioritizes the well-being of the other, doing justice, loving with generosity and fidelity, and an attitude of humility.

The proof is in the pudding, not the rhetoric.

I’m mostly annoyed by politics and the election drama. The bigger issue, to my mind, is the climate summit and ecological justice that political parties aren’t willing to prioritize because they won’t win votes if they’re honest with the cost of change. And because their vision is short-sighted. We need Micah or Amos or Nathan – although as Jesus pointed out, they stoned the prophets back then, too. We are microscopically small players individually. But collectively, we need to change in major ways, we have to start behaving differently in our daily lives and expectations. It’s easy to agree with this, but how will we practice it, how will we, collectively, implement it?

We have experienced notable opportunities for change in the last three years. Racial disparity and arrogance in the valuation of human life in our country and genocide in others; a novel virus that has shown a spotlight on medical, social, and economic systemic injustice worldwide; and the invasion of Ukraine that – among other things – turned off the energy pipeline to Europe and grain market to hungry people on several continents. What have we learned from these disasters that are also opportunities for real change?

We’ve learned how quickly things go back to the status quo. How badly we don’t want to see progressive change if it means we have to change. How startlingly quickly the earth can heal itself if we give it a chance. How unlikely it is that commerce and stock markets and the national security of constant, unsustainable growth will give it a chance.

When Israel failed, they believed it was their behavior that caused God’s judgment.

When we fail, we look for someone else to blame.

 I would say that most of us don’t believe that God uses acts of nature and enemy armies and viruses to smite and force change. But reading the Old Testament prophets causes me seriously to wonder. If God has power in all things, and change is truly necessary for the survival of the earth as we know it, then… is it so backwards to see judgment and redemption mixed together? I don’t know. We have learned that we are all vulnerable and all connected. Maybe that’s a starting place.

What will it take for us to change? For us to sit up and take notice? For those of us with privilege to walk humbly, live humbly, with justice and liberty and kindness for all?

Worship ~ 6 November

The united  kingdom of Israel lasted only through kings David and Solomon.  After Solomon’s death the kingdom split North and South. The southern kingdom was called Judah and the northern was Israel. Today’s reading takes place about 75 years after Solomon’s death – around the year 850 BC – in the northern kingdom. As we read the interchanges, we can hear familiar political undertones of anxiety and see a readiness to mis-interpret innocent intentions. What begins as a letter of introduction and a courteous request (with gifts), escalates in the mind of the king of Israel to an incitement for war, and you might think, as I did, that there’s nothing new under the sun. It comes across as a sadly pertinent accompaniment to our lives, our world, and our current election cycle.

It’s also a tale of hubris played against humility. It’s an interesting choice of readings for All Saints Sunday.

A reading from 2 Kings, chapter 5                               5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given him victory. Naaman, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.  

Now, his armies, on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”  

So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.  And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” Naaman went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  

When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”  

But when Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”  

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”  

But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” 

He turned and went away in a rage.  But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more then, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean’?” 

So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

The word of life, the word of God….     thanks be to God.

November is a great time for the festival of All Saints – it is the emotional balance to Easter. Even a cold March Easter is a sign that we’ve made it through the winter – buds swell and sap runs, dandelions bloom next the foundation of the house, lambs are born.  At Easter, we know that soon all will be bursting into full bloom. The promise of new life and new creation through Christ’s resurrection seems incarnate in Spring itself. Butterflies flit around, symbolizing the spirit of God breaking out of the hard chrysalis of our hearts and stubborn wills. Growth and grace abound!

Across the circle of the year, however, we come to November and dormancy – shortened days, resting earth, hardened soil, lakes and ponds rimming with ice – all becomes plain and bare and quiet. 

And beautiful. November is good time to look inwardly with the clarity of open woods, with the scrutiny of prophets, though the lens of memory and its inevitable mix of comfort and regret.     

    November is a good time to remember and celebrate the saints of faith – those from long ago and those living with us now who teach us something about God’s love and forbearance and mystery and light coming through the darkness.

Tuesday I went to the cemetery to look around, to commemorate All Saint’s Day properly. It was a beautiful day. Looking at the generations of those gone too soon, or gone gently into the splendor of time, the names that are best known to me each evoke a face, a memory. The cemetery is a sad and comforting place. It’s thick with souls. 

The leaves that were gathered in small drifts against headstones, stood as forerunners for the snow drifts that will soon cover the ground in holy, glittering white – like the vanguard of heavenly hosts, rank upon rank. But Tuesday, nothing glittered and only the geese were flying, announcing their comings and goings. They evoke a very different mood than Easter’s butterflies. 

November is the proper time for All Saint’s Day. In the cemetery in November, it’s easy to imagine the cloud of witnesses, the encircling presence of holy ghosts – a place both of emptiness and the perceived presence of loved ones snuggling in closer to God, into the downy warmth under those protective wings.

I wasn’t this poetic on Wednesday when I was stumbling around trying to define a saint to my confirmation class girls, Johanna and Mercy. As in most things Lutheran, it’s layered, there isn’t a clear definition. 

I remember from church history class in seminary that the veneration of saints and the business of attaining ‘bones and bits’ – the ancient relics of saints – and then charging pilgrims to see them had developed into a major fundraising scheme for the medieval Catholic church. They literally banked on the ignorance of peasants and the threat of the Black Death to boost their sales. This was one of the abuses Martin Luther hoped to correct when he posted the 95 discussion points on All Hallows Eve in 1517.

Saint as a word, isn’t used in the Old Testament. But the whole nation of Israel was chosen and set aside to show forth God’s love and glory and mercy. As a people, they were consecrated as the particular, beloved possession of God, “You shall be Qadash (the holy ones); for I the Lord your God am Qadash (the holy one).” 

In New Testament Greek, the holy ones are hagios –  which is translated as saints and refers to any believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells, whether in heaven or in earth. As used by the gospel authors and Paul, the word saint referred to living people who had dedicated themselves to God.  So, Paul begins his letters, “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ,” or in Romans he writes, “I implore you to contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers,” etc.

According to the Augsburg Confession – the Lutheran  handbook written in 1530 – the term “saint” is used to denote a person, living or dead, who received exceptional grace, was sustained by faith, and whose good works are to be an example to any Christian. Modern Lutheran usage is looser.   I had mentor who said, “You’re a saint if it matters to you.” I kind of like that definition. If it’s something you wonder about and want to be counted among the number of saints, you are probably are by the very nature of your hope and intention.

So, on to the story of Elisha and Naaman. Elisha is a heroic figure – the prophet, the one called by God, empowered by God to get up and do the great things that need to be done. He’s the talking head and the beating heart for God. He reaches out to a foreigner in this story, and changes Naaman’s life, restoring him through the healing power of God, altering the course of his life.  And because Naaman is a prominent person, Elisha influences countless people’s lives – Naaman’s household, his soldiers, his king – perhaps even the course of history. Because in curing this leprosy, Elisha prevented Naaman from being outcast and sent to a leper’s colony. Therefore, in a very real way, he enacted salvation.

As one faithfully working God’s power, spreading God’s grace in exponential circles, Elisha is a  saint.

And then there’s Naaman. He, too, is a powerful man. His glory is won by the strength of his arm, by loyalty to his king. He is accustomed to positions of trust and obedience. But, the most powerful people  – even people who have everything – still have need. Their power doesn’t extend over their own lives, it doesn’t prevent death or disease. There is an equalizing factor in our need, in wounds we can’t heal or fix… as Naaman discovers.

He is given a letter of introduction, and a wagonload of gifts from king to king in payment for this favor. Thus ensconced in his royal entourage with horses and chariots, Naaman arrives expecting something big and grand, some wonderful gesture done on his behalf. What he finds instead, is a messenger trotting out from behind the corner of the house telling him to go to the Jordan river and wash. Seven times. 

Naaman is incensed. 

“I’m an important man, I’m sent here from my king to your king, at the very least I expect an audience with this prophet. Where is the power of your God? What are you playing at? We have better rivers at home!” And he stomps off.    

And it’s true.    The Jordan isn’t impressive as rivers go. It’s slow moving, average, kind of muddy. But his servants say to him, “What do you have to lose? It’s an easy thing to do.”

Naaman  – the mighty warrior – has to learn humility. Like every saint, he has to learn that the grace of God comes in extraordinarily ordinary ways; unexpected ways: take a walk down to the river and bathe, and then do it again and again and again. Seven times. A perfect number, the number of creation and completion and holiness.

God isn’t operating within the realm of Naaman’s power and expectations and knowledge. Instead, God is operating at the level of Naaman’s need, his weakness; and Naaman doesn’t like it. There’s nothing marvelous or holy about the water, it’s not from a special well or a clear mountain spring.  But then again, the power isn’t in the water, it’s in God’s word. 

Probably muttering, Naaman washes in the dingy little river – and he is cleansed. Amazed, he goes back to Elisha to thank him and to offer him the gifts from the king of Aram. But Elisha refuses. Naaman is perplexed by this, and ends up asking for two cartloads of earth to take back home with him. He will no longer offer burnt offerings to the gods of his king, but will instead offer the Lord God thank offerings of earth. 

Naaman has been changed, transformed, converted and healed, and he leaves in peace – just like a saint.

Our third character is the slave girl. There’s not much to say about her – she is unnamed, captured in a military maneuver – probably one of many slaves taken in the raid, and she is a girl of all things, and young – it’s amazing that she even got mentioned in the story. She’s not anyone you’d expect to be used by God to bring about a miracle. She’s only given one line to speak.

And yet she is: She is used by God. She’s the one who has agency in the story. She’s faithful, she knows that God is, she knows that there’s a prophet in Israel, and knows what God is able to do through him. And without her, (and Naaman’s wife) there would be no story. 

She brings word that the God of Israel is the God of transformation and is not a local god. The Lord God has power among nations, among outsiders, on behalf of outsiders and outcasts and nations. 

She is the keystone in the bridge bringing Naaman to Elisha, power to power; they are held together by a young, powerless, nameless girl.

How many of the saints in our lives are just such ordinary people, not known outside of family circles, leading small lives, but trusting in the God of all time and eternity?

God chooses, and loves, and consecrates holy ones giving them eyes to see and ears to hear and minds to ponder and hearts to care, and God feels free to use those who don’t even pay attention to the issues. God doesn’t need our cooperation and attentiveness, nor wait for us to vote on it. The roll call of saints when the trumpets sound and the stars are called home will probably shock us, and leave us wondering what all the fuss was about. I have the feeling it has more to do with the quality of God’s mercy than the candidate’s strength or values; more to do with God’s encompassing love, than the test of our faith, or creedal statements of orthodox belief, or our attempts to control the pearly gate’s polling places with voter ID’s and denominational affiliations; more to do with God … and probably nothing at all to do with the rules of election. 

I have the feeling, really, that sainthood is out of our hands, that it results from some other equation, some other set of important factors – something that starts with – God loves the world and those who dwell therein, and desiring to redeem the world, sent his son, came in person, lives among us in spirit, uses whoever might be willing, and counts among the holy ones, the hagios, the qadash, all who love and serve and hope and pray – all who imitate God’s steadfast lovingkindness. 

William Shakespeare, among countless poets and thinkers who have given it some thought, thought this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It drops as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. 
It is twice blest;
It blesses him that gives and him that takes:

Maybe that’s the definition of a saint – not what one accomplishes – but one blessed by God’s mercy.

Worship ~ 30 October

Audio Recording

1 Kings 3:4-28

4 King Solomon went to Gibeon, the principal high place –  he used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.  At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”  And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.  And now, O Lord my God, you have made me, your servant, king in place of my father David, although I am like a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.  And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.  Give me therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” 

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.  God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the death of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,  I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind;… I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.” 

15 Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. He offered up burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants. 

16 Later, two women came to the king and stood before him.  The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house.  Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house.  Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him.  She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while I slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast.  When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” 

22 But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king. 

23 Then the king said, “The one says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’ ”  Solomon said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king.  The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.”  

But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—”Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” 

The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.”  

Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” 

28 All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.

“What would you wish for if you could ask for anything?” 

The Powerball is up to $825 million dollars. I might start there.  

It’s a game many of us played as children (wishing, not Powerball). I can picture swirling around with my first-grade girlfriends on the merry-go-round. Jodie sat on the center hub because she got motion sickness and she popped the Question. I suppose we were very wise wishing for fairy godmothers, warm chocolate chip cookies, and longer recesses.

Now that I know better, I would ask for wise rulers. Sadly, that, too, seems like a childish, fairy tale wish.

Usually, in the Narrative lectionary, the pairing of readings for Reformation Sunday has been that of Solomon building the carved, gilded, embellished, magnificent temple – probably because of his prayer acknowledging that God does not dwell in temples made of human hands, no matter how splendid, that even highest heaven cannot contain him, but asking almost sheepishly for God to stay with them.

This year, however, the passage paired with Reformation Sunday is this, about Solomon’s dream in which God says, “Oyvey, enough with sacrifices already! – ask me for what I can give you!” – and Solomon asks for wisdom – for a fair and discerning mind so that he can rule God’s people.

It seems particularly appropriate this year. The candidate ads flooding our TVs and my recycling box show how far from wisdom we’ve fallen. And it’s not just the campaigns. The barrage of ads must make some kind of difference – they must bear some kind of fruit among the populace or they wouldn’t be profitable. But if so, it’s a bitter, sour, foul fruit their negativity produces.

Why is wisdom, or common sense, open minds, humility about our short-sighted self-interest … why is that gift set so far from our current cultural mindset and practice? And is there some way to appeal to it, to wisdom, to come and stay, to dwell among us?

Since I can’t possibly answer that, I will say that we shouldn’t long for Solomon to be our ruler, either. He started well, but by the end fell into the same trap of self-indulgence as his father David before him. Power corrupts.

The Deuteronomic tradition which brings us these history books and the wisdom genre is dualistic, black and white, and judgmental – so perhaps it isn’t what we would ask for. The Deuteronomic authors or compilers who put final form on these biblical books were trying to make sense of the Assyrian and Babylonian disasters that took their people out of Israel forcibly and into captivity.  How does one account for that, if you are indeed the chosen people of the Most High? How can you navigate that theologically? Their answer? It had to be somebody’s fault – some human’s fault. 

Biblical scholars don’t know who the authors were by name, but they can recognize the motivations, logic and arguments as threads woven through scripture. They were leaders and thinkers – influencers – looking for answers to life’s most challenging questions, and typically, the Dueteronomists blamed the kings for straying from God’s law. If only the leadership would stay true to the word of God, the precepts, the mandates, then God would reward them with peace and prosperity. It was a reward and punishment theology. The scribes and pharisees in Jesus’ time held to the same beliefs. God’s grace and mercy are contingent upon our good behavior. If we don’t hold to the letter of the law, well, it’s a slippery slope out into the utter darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth. God’s judgment is righteous.

Actually, this belief has been true for most of Christianity in various strains and is seen in the prosperity gospel of modern America. If we but return to a Christian nation, then God will bless us richly. That is to assume that we are not already richly blessed, that this was ever a truly Christian nation, and that Christians are a monoculture of like-minded, well-behaved souls.  We have the benefit of history and actual, living proof to know those are gaping assumptions. But still, they hang on to the idea.

Martin Luther had an awakening to the great flaw of that thinking and came to see grace, mercy, and forgiveness as the true realm of God’s action, not punishment and judgment and wrath. This insight completely reversed the responsibility and duty of humans to God. We are unable to be holy, we are unable to lift ourselves to deserve God’s love – because we are the creatures. But God knows this and always has. The bible is a record of human activity and God’s constant, creative adaptation to our cunning, God’s forbearance and mercy and continual forgiveness. We always sin, fail, fall away – and God always comes looking for us, gathers us back.

That was the great reformation. The insight that it is God’s nature to love. The best that we can do is to be aware of our shortcomings and failures, own up to them like David did; pray for wisdom and the ability to discern truth, like Solomon did; enact justice and walk humbly with God, not overplaying our hand or trumping up our preeminence among the world’s creatures. To live desiring to know God.

Martin Luther said the Church constantly stood in need of reformation. Every system, every institution, every tradition shares that need. We need to pray for wisdom, clear-eyed, open-minded, humble-of-heart honesty for ourselves in our daily lives, and pray mightily for our leaders. Examples of hubris and the corrupting nature of power are ever before us. But there is another way, another path to follow. It begins with the willingness to listen first, and then to say, “I might have this wrong, but I pray for God and people of good will to guide me as we go forward.” 

The church, when it is being a servant of Christ in people’s lives, offers a different model of deliberation, and a different model for living out our values than other institutions in our society. 

Here you will hear that to love is to serve. Here you will hear that the last shall be first and the lowest are valued as the greatest. Here you will be called to walk humbly and contribute to the flourishing of all people – even at the expense of personal goals and ambitions.  Here is an ordering, an orientation of relationships, a re-ordering of our desires, a reformation that truly offers life, and joy, and hope that does not disappoint.

Somethings got to change. May it begin here and find a voice, and a body, and a willing heart.

Worship ~ 23 October

Audio Recording

There are a few passages that I dread seeing in the rotation of the lectionary. This is one of them. It’s an awful story. 

The flagrant abuse of power is nothing new – there are no lessons to be learned in that or in the attempted cover-up. We’ve gotten used to the politics of power and self-protection. It’s amazing that the various editors who put together what we have as sacred texts left this one in. David was their golden boy, the King after God’s own heart. His rule was considered the highpoint of Israel’s self rule. And they have documented his manipulations and the consequences of his lust without blinking.

Bathsheba – the woman – is given no dialog. We aren’t able to determine her wishes, her feelings, her options. Mostly, she is called the wife of Uriah, indicating that it is Uriah who has been wronged. And he certainly was. Bathsheba is little more than an object on the storyboard, moved from place to place to illustrate David’s folly. 

In his confessional psalm, the golden king declares, “Against you, Lord, you alone, have I sinned.” Well, really? If David is guilty only to God, then it is Bathsheba who bears the guilt of her husband’s and her newborn’s deaths. For centuries, it has been Bathsheba’s fault for being seen. Her fault because she is beautiful. Modern sensibilities are beginning to change that vision, but just barely.

“You are the man!”, Nathan booms (or whispers) – also without blinking. This phrase has a different connotation in our day, but it’s a clever, chilling sting from the mouth of the prophet. Those of us wishing for better justice than God seems interested in, (or at least better than this author, this era, this embedded patrimony, is interested in) applaud the power of his line. “You are the man.  You are the one deserving punnishment, because you had no pity!” Here, finally is a hint of vindication for Bathsheba and for her husband, Uriah, for his stalwart, innocent loyalty to king and country.  Nathan confronts David, standing up to one who clearly is willing to kill to silence the truth.  But Nathan survives – again, focusing the narrative on David, the king after God’s own heart.

David manages to break all of the ten commandments, I think, most of them in this one story – except he keeps coming back to one… the big one, the first one. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and have no other gods before me.’ He rides the rails with that. David’s ego, his position, his power clearly vie for his affection as gods he idolizes. But, faced with the truth, he’s able to see it. And repent.  That is the reason we hear his story with such detail and lazer focus. We are to see it all, know how low he has fallen, how angry, disappointed, disgusted God feels about him, and hear David confess.

How hard is it for you to look someone in the eyes whom you have wronged and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. It was my fault.”

Truthfully, honestly, apologizing, one to one, face to face is excruciating. Confession puts so much at stake, makes one so vulnerable… anything can happen. The fear, of course, is that you will be rejected; that the emotional effort of opening your heart will be of no avail. They will turn and walk away, or lash out, or tell everyone, or….  Emotional, verbal honesty is really difficult.

David apologized to God, begged for forgiveness, lay on his face without eating for the seven days his baby lived in case God would relent and let the child live. Don’t focus on that part, it’s not the baby’s story either. It is all about David, not even God. This is not the way God behaves; it is the way David behaved that lead him to reconcile his behavior with his faith, his trust in God’s steadfast goodness. 

This scripture is about the courage needed to look at ourselves and assess the damage, to be accountable and honest. I want David to be this open to Bathsheba, but we can only ask so much of a 3000 year old story. 

What can you ask of yourself? Are your values, is your self-image, your behavior reconcilable to the standards you hold for other’s behavior?   Do you carry an umbrella around hoping to keep God from seeing you, recognizing you in some part of your life?  Would you hold up to storytime with Nathan?

Being honest with ourselves, cutting through the layers of self-preservation and pretense we build up over time is a big, grown-up job. But we can’t find freedom from the inner world that torments us, or spills out onto others, if we refuse the challenge. We all need to do it. The cross formed with fragrant christening oil at baptism, traced with water in remembrance, smudged with sticky ashes across our foreheads once a year reminds us that life is to be lived within the circle of that ritual. Affirming, confirming, assessing, confessing – and receiving, believing the forgiveness and new life offered us… that is the shape, the formation of faith in Christ. Faith grows, changes, deepens, doubts, takes wild leaps based on our honesty and integrity and the attention or intention we give it.

I don’t know about David. He’s kind of a lousy example of one being right with God, but so are Jesus’ disciples, and maybe that’s the point. God’s love, charity, benevolence is real and accessible and life changing for all of us who would be lousy examples. Take courage from that and look within and know that God is already there, waiting for an interesting conversation. 

And be of good cheer. You already know the worst and can be confident of the ending.

Worship ~ 16 October

Audio Recording

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a tumblin’ down. 

If it had only been that easy, that child-friendly. The biblical book of Joshua is a deeply disturbing read. It’s the story of holy war. It is savage and brutal, a story of violent conquest and destruction of the people who already occupied the land. They are listed there: “The citizens of Jericho who fought against you, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you,’ said the Lord.”  This is not an image of God, or of God’s will and working, that we want to claim – although, it is the American narrative, too. It is the story of all colonizing, conquering nations. They act with the conviction that God is for them, with them. Lord, have mercy.

The book of Joshua ends with this chapter. At the end of his life, Joshua summons the people of Israel to obedience to the God who has brought them thus far along the way. The stakes are high: Joshua has been their leader since Moses died. He has led them into the promised land and into the battles that won them the land. Now he is about to die. It’s a time of transition. He prays that transition will not bring forgetfulness. The people are getting comfortable, enjoying the milk and honey, the fruits of orchards and vineyards and olive groves. But in the background of their domestic scene stands the covenant between this small people and the mighty God who demonstrates power both in saving and in destroying. Israel must remember, and commit to their promise. “Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest, our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee; shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our … well, their squatter’s land.” They must remember and say, ‘I do’.  And mean it.

I’ve noticed that in wedding ceremonies, puppy love drains out of the couple’s faces when we get to the public, spoken intent to take and keep and cherish for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others as long as they both shall live. Their lips quiver, their eyes take quick flight over family members and friends – noting the various conditions of ‘better and worse’ evident among those smiling encouragement … eyes suddenly cognizant, calculating – in their last moment – the risks involved in covenantal union. 

  So far, they’ve all gulped, and, trembling, have said, “I do.”

Buying a house causes this kind of trembling, as I recall.  I’m guessing retirement does, too. Bringing home your first newborn. Deciding on risky medical treatment or hospice care. There are events in our lives that take on momentous, sobering, life-will-never-be-the-same consequences.  There is a strong impulse to turn and run. But something calls us to stay. To say, ‘yes’; to pledge our troth and see it through, to be faithful and trusting, even though there is no guarantee that things will go smoothly or that we will be happy or safe. 

I’m betting Joshua felt this. He was trying to convey the danger as well as the promise of a covenant with the Almighty One.

Reading these Old Testament texts are good for us. That’s why I keep dragging you through them. For one thing, Joshua asks a good question. We’ll come back to that.

Another benefit is that they cause us to deal with the dissonance created between the God portrayed in these readings and the cozier, friendlier, more majestic images of God we prefer – those that feature divine love and forbearance and welcome – eagles wings and star-lit mangers. This is the same One God who established the world, and took to the evening breezes to wander in Eden with his earthlings; who invited Abraham out into the desert night to count stars; who provided for Hagar and Ishmael in the desert and created another nation through them; who huffed and puffed on Mt Sinai, but forgave the stiff-necked people and agreed to try again; who, thousands of years later, came to be known in Jesus. All of the various stories and images of God in scripture are facets, human understandings of the one God whose love we still claim. 

The God we attempt to worship and serve isn’t known to us, not really, and we must accept the way God is – mysterious, unfathomable, grand and wrathful, judging and just, merciful, steadfast… forever God of all, not only God of us. It’s important, I think, to have a constantly changing image of God set before us so that we don’t worship an idol of our own design and our own limitations. It’s good to be reminded that the God we believe in – that image or concept – is probably true, but not in any way complete. It doesn’t rule out our neighbor’s truth. Walking humbly with God surely must include that realization.

Related to this, the Old Testament readings might lead us to consider the many and various ways we misrepresent God. I obviously don’t know if the ancient Israelite authors are correct in their historical claims or their interpretations of God’s involvement in battles – but we do know from our own nation’s history that we remember ‘facts’ from our vantage point and assign meaning to events based on our narrator’s privilege. We, too, have claimed God’s favor in the conquest of native people who occupied this land before us. We, too, have taken slaves as rightful and righteous property. Manifest Destiny was our version of occupying a land of milk and honey by divinely established right. If the stones were to witness against us, what would they say?

Our on-going racial entanglements, religious intolerances, class struggles, Christian Right extremists – these and so many other examples claim God’s favor of one group over against another. Sometimes we need the distance of scripture in order to see clearly into our own lives.

And so, we come back to Joshua and his implied question.

“Choose this day whom you shall serve.” This is an invocation we would do well to consider.

To serve God is to worship, discern, obey, trust. Serving the gods of the Canaanites meant sacrificing babies, virgins, I don’t know what else. There may or may not be records – cave drawings, cuniform tablets –  of how the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites served their gods, but there are always rules, rituals that must be obeyed to ensure successful harvests, plentiful rain, numerous children, and victory over your enemies. 

How do we, how do you serve God? 

Are there rules and rituals that must be followed? 

Who is in charge of that list?

What end result you are expecting for your faithfulness? Success?  Well-being? Assurance? Eternity?

What are the risks in serving God or in walking away?  

I imagine that things are going through your minds. A checklist might be comforting – but misleading. 

I don’t believe there are simple answers to difficult questions. The Bible argues both sides of most issues. God changes his and her mind. The gospel writers depict Jesus in different ways and record him saying opposite things, at times. The apostle Paul wrote that he tried to be all things to all people because the context changed and the context matters. 

The life of faith is nuanced. Subtle.

The life of faith is nuanced and subtle. Modern American Christianity tends to be neither of these things.

Above all, I think, the life of faith needs to be fluid. Our beliefs change with maturity, they change as we encounter obstacles or overcome difficulty, when we experience or live with tragedy. Faith changes when we are transformed by joy or love. God becomes different, come to us differently. That’s spiritual growth. It’s also true that our spiritual life may shrivel up for a period of time. 

But if you stay engaged, if you keep considering the God you serve in all of these various times and situations, I believe, I hope, you will come to be grateful that God is not a flat character with simple answers and clear rules or proofs – or a Santa Claus character who checks his list twice to see if you’ve been naughty or nice. I hope that seeking, listening, remembering, wondering is a richer, more life-giving experience than being told.

Joshua took a large stone, and set it up under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. I love that detail – that the sanctuary of the Lord is under an oak tree.

“This stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoken to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.”

That stone in the sanctuary of the Lord has had a lot to say as the years have rolled on. The people of God… well, it’s a long story and we can see patterns repeat themselves. It would be a satisfying legend if this were to be the stone rolled away from Jesus tomb. The stone of witness against us, rolled out of the way.  And maybe it was.

“Whom will you serve?” Joshua asks.  That’s your homework. We serve lots of idols in our daily lives. Do they fulfill you? Do they challenge you? Can they transform you? Time spent honestly considering Joshua’s question for yourself, reviewing your life in God’s litany of mercy, will be time well spent. I promise.

“Choose this day whom you shall serve.” 

Worship ~ 9 October

Audio Recording

Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17

19:3 Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites:  You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine,  but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”  So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.

20:11God spoke all these words:

2“I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, up from the house of slavery.

3“You shall have no other gods before me.

4“You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below. 5You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, 6and showing steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless anyone who misuses his name.

8“Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. 9For six days you may labor and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates. 11For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.

12“Honor your father and your mother, that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving to you.

13“You shall not murder.

14“You shall not commit adultery.

15“You shall not steal.

16“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

After taking a break last year from the Narrative Lectionary, we are back to it, and today find ourselves in Exodus, with Moses and the tribes of Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have trudged this dusty terrain of wilderness, complaints, endless lists of laws, and flagrant transgressions before. Confirmation class for the 8th graders begins this week and will begin with this God – the God depicted in Genesis and Exodus – creating, forming, loving, molding humans into social beings who promise to be good and yet who always, always behave badly. It seems to be twisted into the strands of our DNA, this dissonance of wanting and believing in a God of justice who will make all things right, and, at the same time, wanting to do what we want to do: the thing that feels right to us, that prospers us. 

I think these two desires are the energy that fuels a spiritual life. That dissonance is required.

If following the Ten Commandments and the expanded scenarios described in the chapters of Exodus was easy, if it was something people could do, there wouldn’t be a striving, struggling, wavering, growing, stumbling, longing, dynamic relationship with God. We would be flat characters living some other kind of life —automatons, capable of following rules, living a prescribed pattern without the passions and emotions that cause us to transgress. But as it is, even bugs are territorial, birds at the feeder have their pecking order. Our cats know which food bowl is theirs and Poppins will grab some kibbles from Pippin’s bowl if he’s not in the room yet. She knows what she’s doing.

This is what interests me about the Ten Commandments. That God knows. God knew who he was dealing with. The Bible’s oldest origin tales are of disobedience. Adam and Eve had one rule.

“You may have everything you desire, young earthlings. But just don’t eat the fruit of that one tree – do see it? The one in the middle of the garden. Leave that one alone.” And we know what happened. The morning after, they tried to hide from God, then lied about it, then blamed each other, then blamed the snake…

They leave the garden and the next two people we hear about are their sons – and Cain kills Abel because God preferred Abel’s offering: and then he tries to hide his brother’s body and then lies about it when God confronts him. And then he whines.

Exodus is just the second book of the Bible, and yet disobedience and deceit are well established as the human response to God with very few exceptions.  So God knows this truth about us. And God gave the laws anyway, knowing we would fail to live up to them. 

  “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.”   If you obey.  

The Bible is very informative about human nature – we can see ourselves and modern situations so clearly in stories of people who lived 5000 years before us. And we see what they learned about God. The Isrealites agreed to the terms of God’s covenant. Moses went up into the cloud-covered mountain to be instructed and stayed a long time. The people grew restless and fearful. By the time Moses came back down carrying the stone tablets of the law, they had already broken the covenent by casting a golden calf to protect themselves, and then tried to blame Moses and God and one another. Some old story. It had only been 40 days. 

Moses was mad. He yelled at them and broke the tablets and went back up the mountain. God was mad, Moses was still mad, they argued a bit, but we’re told that Moses talked God out of smiting the people, and the tablets were re-written, and God agreed to go with them on the journey to the promised land. Even then it didn’t go smoothly.

So, what is the point of all of this? Why does God enter into a covenant with people incapable of keeping even the first commandment? I guess we can’t know the answer to that question. What we know, what we discover along with the characters of scripture, is that God constantly forgives. Not always immediately. But God is committed to this enterprise. God fell in love with the stiff-necked, hard-hearted earthlings of creation and can’t seem to help himself.

What we learn is that the Ten Commandments aren’t a test or a threat.
The Law is not a burden placed on us by an oppressive taskmaster, another Pharaoh, waiting for us to fail so that we can be crushed or turned out of the kingdom of God. They are a guide given to promote life with God and life with one another. They are the possibility of freedom from the things that oppress us.

In the story of creation, if you remember, God gave shape and form to chaos by putting things into relationship – night and day, water and dry land…now through the law God gives form to chaotic human society, in establishing relationships of trust, and honor, and respect.

What would it be like, in your life, to honor a day of Sabbath, to give yourself rest from the pace and clutter of modern life? We fill our days and even our nights to bursting with constant activity and noise -TV, meetings, sporting events, classes, work, leisure commitments, meals on the fly, chauffeuring our kids to everything they can fit into their days, … what would a day of honoring holy rest do for your week? 

How would life be different if we didn’t have to worry about the security of our stuff – our lives, our homes, our marriages, our relationships, our reputations, our lifestyles, our freedoms? How would your workplace be different if you never had to look over your shoulder wondering what’s being said about you, wondering about people’s real motives, or hidden agendas? 

How many of your relationships are really free – gossip free, jealousy free, trustworthy beyond doubt? What would happen to politics if we really did all look out for our neighbor’s well-being, if we actively took a part in protecting and improving our neighbor’s house and field and ox and donkey and everything that is our neighbors? What would change in the economy if CEO’s and corporations and banks stopped coveting? 

It’s an idealized, outlandish plan – God’s will for our lives: laws established with the intention that they would actually help us live together as a community of caring, hospitable, open-hearted people. It could never work. 

In the old movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character gets to see his community as it would have been if he had not been born – he sees the consequences of his life in a negative.  Let’s try that with the Ten Commandments.

I am not the Lord your God, I did not bring you out of the land of Egypt, nor out of the house of slavery; you will have other gods before me. You shall make for yourself an idol in gold or silver, in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall bow down to them and worship them; for I am not the Lord your God….

Do not Honor your father and your mother,

You shall murder. 

You shall commit adultery. 

You will steal. 

You will bear false witness against your neighbor. 

You will covet your neighbor’s house; you will covet your neighbor’s spouse, his male and female slave, her ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor you shall desire.

The Lord is not my shepherd: I shall be in want. You do not restore my soul, you do not guide me along right pathways. Yea, as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I fear evil for you are not with me, your rod and your staff do not comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy will not follow me all the days of my life and I will never dwell in the house of the Lord.

Those passages come frighteningly close to how our society looks, sounds, lives. 

We are complicit in sin, in evil, in oppression, injustice. But God doesn’t punish us because we continually break the commandments. Salvation and divine blessing are not at stake. God’s stated purpose in giving the law is “so that it will go well for you and you will live long in the land.” The punishment is that we are allowed the freedom to live according to our own devices, generation to generation, allowed to follow the selfish whims of our own hearts. The consequences of breaking the law can be seen in every telling of the day’s news. 

The gift of the law – to the extent that we are able to keep it – is the freedom of being a blessing to others, the freedom of extending God’s graciousness and mercy to those we meet, the joy of seeing God revealed in the beauty of the world around us, in the love of friends and family we hold dear. The purpose of the Law is for life here and now. The fulfillment of the Law – to love as we have first been loved – is not a burden. The ‘Why’ of God’s love for us is somewhat of a head scratcher, but, as witnessed by scripture, it is true. No matter who you are or what you have done, there is forgiveness and love for you in the Lord your God.

Thanks be to God.