Gazing up toward Heaven

Monday, 18 November 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

17 November 2019

I. Introduction

  • When our children were young, they attended a magnet elementary school in Indianapolis – it was called the Key School, and the teachers developed the curriculum using Howard Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences – one of the many advantages of the curriculum was that every day there were physical education, music, and art classes in addition to the language and math classes – Gardener’s theory says, among other things, that people learn in many different ways – the additional, some would say nontraditional, classes provided opportunities for learning for people who learn through movement or music or arranging space – it was quite an impressive curriculum
  • One other fascinating aspect of the curriculum used the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who developed the concept of flow – in essence, he said that when we are focused on something, we can enter into a state of optimal experience, which he called “flow” – when we are in that flow state, time passes differently for us – we become so focused on what is directly in front of us that we do not perceive what is going on around us – we most often and most easily enter the flow state when we are doing something that we truly enjoy – and when it happens, we might come out of it saying, “I was so wrapped up in that project that I just lost track of time” – it is a powerful feeling
  • So, for the Key School, there was a period of time every day when the students had an opportunity to do whatever they wanted – they might play games, or read a book, or listen to music, or play an instrument, or paint, or draw, or very nearly anything that they were interested in doing that day – looking in on a pod, which is what that flow time was called, was fascinating – perhaps two dozen students, from kindergarten through the sixth grade, absolutely, fully involved in doing something that caught their attention that day
  • In our story today, Jesus is trying to get his friends to focus on what matters in just that same way – and Jesus’ friends find, just as we find, that there are many distractions that keep us from seeing what it is that matters

II. Distractions

  • This has been a difficult time for the disciples, Jesus’ friends – they had lost Jesus at the crucifixion, then he came back to them following the resurrection – since then, he has been with them for forty days, the story says, teaching them about the Vision of God, and talking about what is coming next
  • Now they have come to the point where those next steps are imminent, and Jesus’ friends are losing their focus – Jesus has promised them that they would receive the Holy Spirit, but he also says they have to be patient – they have to wait for the Spirit to come – and waiting is as difficult for them as it can be for any of us – waiting is difficult to endure, and maintaining our focus grows more difficult the longer we wait
  • As the time draws very near, Jesus’ friends begin to associate the coming of the Spirit with the restoration of the Davidic kingdom – it is a natural thing for them to do – the restoration had long been a Jewish hope, and under the Roman oppression, the hope continued to grow – the hope was that God’s anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ, would come, get the Romans out of the land, and reestablish David’s rule – it was a hope kept the Jews going when it seemed that the Romans were there for good – we should not be surprised that Jesus’ friends would make this connection, or that they would ask Jesus if this would be the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel
  • But that is not what Jesus has been saying to them – that is not what he has been talking about at all – he tells them that such things are not for them to know, nor, the text implies, even for him to know – they will receive power when the Spirit comes, but it will not be power such as the world has known – they will have power to continue to do and to teach what he has only begun to do and teach – his work is not done, but it will continue through them, by the power of the Spirit
  • Having said this, Jesus is suddenly gone, as if he has been taken up into a cloud, like Elijah being carried away in a chariot of fire while Elisha looks on – Jesus’ friends stand there, gazing up toward heaven, probably with their mouths hanging open – once again, or still, they are distracted
  • Suddenly, there are two men in white robes standing beside them – it was just like the two men who met the women at the tomb and asked them why they were looking for the living among the dead – here, the two men ask why these Galileans are gazing up toward heaven – the implication is that Jesus is not “up there” but right here – the hope has changed from being about the restoration of the kingdom to the return of Jesus, but the work continues just the same

III. Gazing up toward Heaven

  • The future is beyond the grasp of the Galileans, and it is beyond our grasp – the best thing we can do about the future is to build it by working with God to make the Vision of God for the world a reality in the present – when we do that, the future takes care of itself
  • And yet, those distractions are still there – keeping sight of what matters is still difficult – we will not build the future by gazing up toward heaven – we find the future in living the good news of Jesus at this moment – and yet the pressures and stresses of living in a world that is so broken and divided keep us from seeing what we God calls us to do
  • In the pew Bibles, the first verse of our reading says that Luke, whoever that is, wrote the Gospel telling about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until his ascension – another way to translate that is the way that I read it: Luke tells us all that Jesus began to do and to teach, right up to his ascension
  • At that time, the things that Jesus began to do and to teach fell to his friends to carry on – and they have fallen through the centuries and the millennia to us – our work is to continue to do and to teach as Jesus did – to do works of compassion and healing – to stand against the powers of the world whose aim is to divide us from one another and to keep us that way – to face the overwhelming struggles of this life and this world with hope, with joy, with faith – to teach everyone to love one another – to live the good news in such a way that the people we meet every day will know the forgiveness, the grace, the mercy, and the love that we have known from and through Jesus

IV. Conclusion

  • Gazing up toward heaven is so much easier – it makes us feel good to go to church, to pray our familiar prayers, to recite our beloved creed, to sing those inspiring old hymns – if that were all we need to do, we could be so much more comfortable
  • But Jesus sends us out into the world to do so much more – that is our story – it is a story that changes the world – when we enter the flow state of service to Jesus, then we will see what Jesus wanted his friends to see – we will see what we can do and be – gazing up toward heaven can be one of our distractions, but Jesus tells us to look at the world around us – that is where we are needed – and that is where he sends us

At God’s Mountain

Thursday, 7 November 2019

At God’s Mountain

Salem United Church of Christ, Higginsville, Missouri

I. Introduction

  • For those of us who are not as young as the rest of us, reading these words without thinking the biblical epic movie from the 1950s, “The Ten Commandments” – and at nearly four hours of run time, it is epic in many ways – it is an impressive piece of filmmaking, and it is easy for us to forget that it is just that – it is a film and nothing but a film, no matter how impressive it is – Moses did not look like Charlton Heston – the Pharaoh did not look like Yul Brenner – the parting waters probably did not look like wobbly, frothing mounds of Jell-O – and none of the people involved in the story spoke English – the movie may give us a starting point for imagining the events that it depicts, but if we do not use our imagination to extend the story, to place ourselves inside the story, then we have missed a great opportunity
  • This story, and all that leads up to it and follows it, tells about an important moment in the history of God’s people – that is not to say that any of it actually happened, only that it is a story that was told to teach anyone who hears it or reads it, something about God and God’s relationship with God’s people
  • It is a story that still speaks to us, just as God still speaks to us, if we will open our ears, our minds, and perhaps most importantly our hearts to hear its message today – let us listen, not for the voice of Charlton Heston or, much less, for my voice, but for the voice of God from across the millennia

II. Coming to God’s Mountain

  • When God’s people come to the mountain in the desert, they have already been on the road for a while – no one knows where that mountain is – tradition tells us that it is a mountain in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula – in some places, the Bible calls it Mount Sinai – in other places, it is Mount Horeb – in any case, it is the place in the stories of the ancient people of God where God and the people meet – but there is much that has to happen before the people are ready for the meeting
  • First, the people need a leader, someone who can take them out of their slavery in Egypt – as we all know, that leader is Moses – he is born to a Hebrew slave woman after Pharaoh has commanded that all male Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile and drowned – Moses’ mother does put him in the river, but in a basket, which is how Pharaoh’s daughter is able to find him – she adopts him raises him in Pharaoh’s household, and Moses’ own mother is his nurse
  • Moses thus stands between two worlds – he is a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – he is also an Egyptian royal by adoption – he stands between the two worlds, never quite fitting into either one – he does, however, learn about being a leader of people
  • You know the story – Moses kills an Egyptian soldier who is beating a Hebrew slave and flees from Egypt to the land of Midian – there he meets Jethro, who teaches him about being a priest – in Midian, Moses marries Zipporah and has a son – most importantly, in Midian, Moses encounters God in a burning bush that never actually burns – God commissions Moses, against Moses’ better judgment, to return to Egypt to face the new Pharaoh
  • Reluctantly, Moses goes back to the land of his birth and confronts the most powerful person in that land – Moses may even know this Pharaoh, or perhaps knew his father, but that old relationship does nothing to soften Pharaoh to let God’s people leave – this leads to the ten plagues that finally convince the Egyptian king to let the Israelites go – of course, Pharaoh immediately regrets that decisions and sets off to bring the people back into slavery – by the power of God, Moses parts the waters, which allows the Israelites to escape, but is not so good for the Egyptian army
  • You might think that this would be enough to keep God’s people happy, but before long, they are complaining about God, about Moses, about everything in general, but mostly about not having enough to eat – so God provides manna, a word that actually means “what is this?” – God provides water when the people need it – God gives the people victory in battle – and still the people are not happy
  • Only after these things happen do the people arrive at God’s mountain – Moses goes up the mountain and receives instructions from God – the mountain is wrapped in smoke, in clouds with lightning and thunder, and it shakes – the people are in awe and they know they are in the presence of God
  • Finally, when the scene is set, when the right leader is in the right place at the right time, when the people are ready to hear the word, then God speaks ten words, words that we reverently call the ten commandments
  • Understand that this is not law, as such – as I understand it, a more accurate translation of the word torah, which we usually read as “law,” is “instruction” – on that mountain, God is not giving the people the law – on the mountain, God is teaching the people how to live in relationship with God and with one another
  • Look at those ten words sometime – examine them, read them, closely – they tell us about God and about our relationship with God – God is one, and no idol or god of our own making is an adequate depiction of God – we cannot take our relationship with God lightly – God tells us to take the time to consider our relationship with God, to cease from working from time to time and to concentrate on the work and wonder of God
  • Then the ten words tell us about our relationships with one another, with our parents, with our neighbors, with our spouses, with our goods and possessions

III. At God’s Mountain

  • What I have come to believe about these ten words is that they were never meant to be an end in themselves – following the ten words has nothing to do with simply being loyal to the words – when we establish following God’s Instruction as our goal, then we lapse into legalism – we begin to think that the Instruction is all that there is, then we forget what the words are about
  • I have come to this because of what Jesus says, quoting another of God’s commandments, Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6.5), and Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18/Matthew 22.39/Mark 12.31) – Jesus says that this sums up everything that is in God’s Instruction – in the passage we read last week from Galatians, the apostle Paul says the same thing (Galatians 5.14)
  • At God’s mountain we do not get a book of law, against which we measure our lives to find those places where we succeed and fail – at God’s mountain we get instruction on how to be God’s people, living in relationship with God and with one another
  • But how difficult it is to follow this instruction – keeping score with wins and losses is so much easier and so much more satisfying – it deludes us into thinking that we can reduce an entire universe of relationships into a list of dos and don’ts, without regard to anyone else – it fools us into thinking that following God’s Instruction is primarily about us, as if we could ever live in a universe consisting of one person
  • Loving God and loving our neighbors is hard work – it requires a constant reliance on the one who instructs us through the work of the Holy Spirit – it requires that we put the care of our lives into the hands of the creator of the universe, trusting that the creator cares for and love us without ceasing – it requires that we risk everything we have and everything we are in the work of loving others who may or may not love us in return – it requires seeing ourselves always in relationship, defining ourselves by relationship – it is hard work indeed
  • And yet it is the way of life for us – it is the way of Jesus and it is the way to heal the brokenness of the world – thus, it is the way of hope for all of us

IV. Conclusion

  • Let us go out into the world with our hearts and our minds and all of our might set on loving everyone we meet – let us be the people who love without faltering – let us be God’s people, both at God’s mountain and beyond, striving to follow God’s Instruction, so that we might join Jesus in the work of healing the world

Freedom to Live, Freedom to Love

Monday, 28 October 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

27 October 2019

I. Freedom to Live

  • Let us begin with a look at Paul’s encouragement to the Galatians – keep in mind that the apostle is dealing with a particularly difficult issue in the Jesus community in the region called Galatia – Paul had founded several churches there, in the full confidence that all the churches would accept the decision of a meeting in Jerusalem (Acts 15) – the decision was that Gentiles could become part of the Jesus Movement without first becoming Jews – this was a decision that would have astounding repercussions in the movement
  • We have to remember that, like Jesus, all of the early apostles and leaders of the movement were Jews – many of them thought of the movement as a sect within Judaism, such as the Sadducees or the Pharisees or the Essenes – the followers of Jesus were still Jews, but they also tried to live the way that Jesus, their rabbi, had taught them – since they were all Jews, everything was fairly calm
  • Then Peter had his experience with Cornelius and Paul got himself kicked out of some Jewish communities – it was quickly becoming clear that Jesus’ message was more universal than the Jewish followers of Jesus had first thought – Gentiles all over the Roman Empire were becoming, willy-nilly, followers of Jesus – but since the movement had been exclusively Jewish, what were the non-Jewish Jesus People to do?
  • The first thought was that the Gentiles would first have to become Jews and observe all of the traditional Jewish rites and laws – Paul viewed this as an unnecessary imposition on the Gentile Jesus followers – he taught them that their relationship with Jesus, that their trust in God through him, was enough for God’s grace to fill their lives and to heal them – they did not need Jewish law or ritual – Jesus was enough
  • But someone has come into Galatia telling the Gentile converts that they need to become Jews in order to be true disciples of Jesus – and, much to Paul’s chagrin, they have believed that message – this leads the apostle to ask, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” – then he launches into a lengthy explanation of freedom in Christ
  • All of that explanation leads to the statements we read from the letter today – the two segments that we read both begin with declarations of freedom in Christ – For freedom Christ has set us free – For you were called to freedom – the freedom that the apostle tells the Galatians about is both freedom from something and freedom for something
  • The freedom that Jesus Messiah has given to the Galatians, and to us, is freedom from unnecessary requirements of religion – to be fair, those requirements have their uses, and the requirements for Jews in Paul’s day and in our day are appropriate for the Jewish people – the ritual life of many religions connects us with our history and with our future – in the United Church of Christ and in Salem Church, we observe the rites of baptism and communion because Jesus mandated that his followers do them – throughout history, the problem is that the rites, rituals, and laws too often and too easily become the only expressions of many traditions – they reduce the complexity and richness of covenant relationships to a matter of being baptized and taking communion, as if, were we to do those two things then we have met all the requirements of religion – and if fulfilling the requirements of religion is our goal, then perhaps we have done all we need do
  • The apostle tells the Galatians, however, that the so-called requirements do not do what we think they do – they do not heal anyone – they do not save anyone – they point people to healing and salvation – they point people to grace, mercy, and forgiveness, which come to us only from God
  • We human beings can use the rites and laws of any religious tradition for our own ends – foolishly, our keeping of any number of laws and instructions can be a way of attempting to manipulate God, of proving our goodness and righteousness – rather than actually proving anything, such thinking and such actions take us further and further away from true relationship with God – the laws and ritual requirements can also be a way of controlling others, or at least of attempting to control aspects of their behavior
  • Paul tells the Galatians that they are free from such ways of living – they are free from the need to justify themselves – they are free from having to heal themselves – all they have to do is to trust God, to trust the freedom that God gives them through Jesus
  • They are free to live fully in relationship with God – not accidently, living fully in relationship with God means living fully in relationship with other human beings – not only do we have freedom to live, we also have freedom to love one another

II. Freedom to Love

  • The apostle tells the Galatians that they are free, but their freedom is not a matter of self-indulgence – freedom from unnecessary requirements does not meant that they can just do whatever they want – their guiding principle must be the commandment to love their neighbor as they love themselves (Leviticus 19.18), words that Jesus also declares to be the greatest commandment (Matthew 22.39)
  • The freedom Jesus Messiah gives to his followers is the freedom to serve one another, to serve the wider world, the freedom to love neighbors and enemies alike – And we find an example of that freedom in the story we read in John 8
  • A group of scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman whom they caught in adultery – I have always wondered where was the man in the situation, but the story does not go there – bringing the woman to Jesus is the scribes’ and Pharisees’ way of testing Jesus – according to Jewish Torah (Leviticus 20.10), the community can put to death any adulterers – while they continue to pester him with questions, Jesus bends down and doodles in the dust – when he has had enough, he stands up and tells them that any of them without sin can throw the first stone to kill the woman – then he bends down again and resumes making marks in the dust
  • Realizing that Jesus has challenged them, and, not coincidentally, challenged their understanding of God’s Instruction, and realizing that they are in no position to judge anyone, they slowly drift away – when Jesus stands again, the woman is the only one still there – he asks her if there is no one to condemn her – when she says that there is no one, he tells her that neither does he condemn her – he sends her away, a free woman, but with a command not to repeat the action that got her into the situation
  • With this encounter, Jesus both frees the woman and demonstrates that love supersedes any particular law – love is what defines the followers of Jesus – loving a neighbor is not always easy to do, much less loving an enemy, but that is what our freedom is for
  • We can almost always know if a word or action is loving by asking ourselves if we would want anyone to say or do that to us, whatever “that” is
  • Like the scribes and the Pharisees, we are all of us broken in so many ways and in so many places – we live in a world that seems to revel in its brokenness – we see it in the endless wars of human nations – we see it in the resurgent racism in our own country – we see it in the oppression of women – we see it in the hatred of people whose sexual orientation or gender identity is different from the majority – we see it in the fear of the strangers, of people of different religious traditions, of immigrants, and of so many other – we see it all around us
  • But Jesus comes to heal us of our brokenness, to set us from it and from ourselves, to set us free to love others as God loves us – and if that does not give us hope, I am not sure what will

III. Conclusion

  • In our early service this morning, we heard a word from Mike Warneke, the executive director of Fields of Dreams Uganda – he reminded us the many ways we are broken – he told us about the brokenness he sees in our nation and in Uganda – it was a challenging word, and I hope we will all educate ourselves about the things that he said – speak with Judi or Dennis Knipmeyer, or with Aaron Knipmeyer – look at the Fields of Dreams Uganda website – you will be astounded at what you will discover
  • We could easily let all of the brokenness weigh us down – we could let it consume us – but in Jesus Messiah, God has set us free from both our brokenness and from the anxiety it brings – in Jesus, God has set us free to live and God has set us free to love one another

All in the Family

Monday, 21 October 2019

Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

20 October 2019

I. Introduction

  • There is a saying that we can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our family – obviously there is a lot of truth in that saying – it does not mean, however, that there are never any times when we would rather choose our family – siblings do not always get along very well – there are times when children and parents have trouble with each other – being able to choose our family might be nice – but that is not how life works
  • Some families are just unhealthy, for many reasons – some families simply cannot find positive ways of living together – we talk about such families as being dysfunctional
  • Oddly enough, the Bible includes many stories of dysfunctional families, of sibling rivalries, and of conflicts that can get out of hand – some of those families are real horror stories…and they are in our Bible

II. Two Brothers Meet

  • Going all the way back to Abel and Cain there are struggles between siblings, and we all know how that turned out – the one who felt unloved and disrespected killed the favored one – it is a story that is repeated throughout history
  • Closer to the setting of our story for today, with the grandparents of the main actors in the story, we read of the tension and considerable rivalry between Hagar and Sarah, and between their sons Ishmael and Isaac – Sarah resents Hagar for being able to have a child – Hagar thinks she is better than Sarah for the same reason – when Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac, still in her jealousy, she demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away – Abraham does it, with God’s approval, it seems – but God still blesses Hagar and Ishmael richly, making from them another great nation
  • When Isaac grows to adulthood, he marries Rebekah, and they become the parents of twins, Esau, the elder, and Jacob, the younger
  • Let us admit right at the start that Jacob is not a nice guy – in fact, in many ways he is incredibly unlikable – the Bible stories about Jacob make frequent mention about how he uses his cleverness to trick, deceive, and cheat people around him, even his relatives – and yet he is in the family of Abraham, one of Abraham’s grandsons – he is the one from whom Israel, both the ancient nation and its people, get their name – the story for today tells us about how he gets his new name, but it also tells us much more
  • It begins much earlier, of course – it goes all the way back to the time before the twins are born – Rebekah has a difficult pregnancy, with the twins seeming to fight with one another so much that Rebekah wishes she could die – she asks God about it, and God explains that the twins will struggle with one another throughout their lives – one of them will be stronger than the other, although God does not say which, and the elder will “serve” the younger
  • When the boys are born, Jacob is holding onto Esau’s heel, and the name Jacob comes from the Hebrew word for “heel” – Esau, Isaac’s favorite, grows up as a farmer and a hunter – Jacob, Rebekah’s favorite, grows up “quiet,” living in tents
  • One time Esau comes in from the fields – he is hungry after a day of hard work, and Jacob is cooking a stew – Esau wants some of the stew, but Jacob will not give it to his brother until Esau gives up his birthright, that is, until he declines to receive what should come to him as the eldest son – Esau is so hungry that he agrees to the deal
  • Another time, when Isaac has grown old and nearly blind, Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing that should go to Esau – to be fair, Jacob is simply acting according to Rebekah’s plan, but that does not cool Esau’s anger when he finds out what Jacob has done – Esau plans to kill Jacob, so Rebekah sends Jacob away to save his life
  • There is more to the story, but I think it is clear what sort of person Jacob is, and we can move ahead to our portion for today – but, just to be clear, Jacob is not a nice guy
  • After maybe twenty years away from home, Jacob is returning – on the way, it becomes clear that he is going to encounter his brother, and he is sincerely worried what will happen – will Esau try to get his revenge on Jacob? – will Esau attack and finally kill his clever, devious twin? – what will happen? – Jacob clearly expects the worst and makes plans accordingly – he sends servants along with gifts to his brother – these are extravagant gifts that Jacob hopes will soothe Esau’s anger – he sends his family and everything he owns across a river, so that he is left alone, completely alone
  • This brings us to the story of Jacob wrestling with the man until dawn, and it is a strange one – does Jacob wrestle with a man, or with an angel, or with God? – the story is not clear about it – the whole experience could be a dream – after all, that has happened to Jacob before, in Genesis 28 – it could be that Jacob wrestles with himself, in a sense – he might be wrestling with a guilty conscience, with the possible consequences of a life of deception and trickery – it may be that God is the instigator of all the wrestling, and is using Jacob’s guilty dream to instruct and prepare Jacob for the encounter with Esau
  • Whatever actually happens, Jacob comes away from the night struggle with the blessing of a new name – he is now Israel, which means either “the one who strives with God” or “God strives” – Jacob also comes away from the struggle with a limp, a permanent marker of dark night of the soul
  • Finally, we come to the meeting with Esau – Jacob arrays his family and household as if it were an army, with Jacob at the head – as he approaches his long-estranged brother, Jacob bows to the ground seven times – he sees Esau rushing toward him, not with a weapon and not in anger, but in joy – Esau runs up to Jacob with his arms spread wide for an embrace – the two brothers hug and kiss one another – and they weep together
  • Jacob introduces his family and gives Esau even more gifts, which Esau tries to decline – God has blessed him with more than enough, Jacob should keep what is his – but Jacob cannot do that – in one of the most beautiful lines in all of the Bible, Jacob tells Esau, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” – and the two are reconciled
  • Jacob approaches his brother with fear – he worries what might happen to him and to his household – he expects the worst – what he receives, however, is joy beyond joy, grace beyond grace, favor beyond favor – he never dared hope for this, maybe because he could not conceive of it – given his devious and clever mind, maybe he assumes that Esau will deal with him as he has always dealt with Esau
  • But Esau has matured, even if Jacob has not – Esau has laid aside his anger – he has let go of his bitterness and of his desire for revenge – he has put down the burden that Jacob has continued to carry for twenty years – Esau has freed himself from the past to which Jacob has still been a prisoner

III. All in the Family

  • That is so often the way of our lives – we fall so easily into the fears and anxieties that we see in Jacob – we make ourselves captives to our anger, to our need to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, to our petty resentments and hurts – the lessons that Esau and Jacob teach us today have to do with letting go of the past so that we can embrace the present, with deciding not to hold onto our jealousies and hurts – they remind us that forgiving others not only releases the others from a burden, but it releases us from the burden, too
  • It really is all in the family, whether we are talking about our physical family relationships or our spiritual family relationships – we find ourselves facing the very ones who have hurt us, or whom we have hurt, and we have a choice – do we see in them only a reflection of ourselves, with all our faults, worries, fears, and hurts, or do we see in them the face of God, full of grace, favor, mercy, and love?

IV. Conclusion

  • Indeed, we can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our family
  • So, let us look around ourselves today, both here in our time together and outside these walls – let us see everywhere the faces of our sisters and brothers – let us see in everyone the faces of people whom we have loved, and the faces of people who have hurt us, and the faces of people whom we have hurt – and let us remember the lessons of Esau and Jacob
  • Let us look around today and see the face of God in everyone we meet, because we are all in the same family – we are the family of humankind – and we are all of us siblings whom God loves

God Has Told Us

Monday, 14 October 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

13 October 2019

I. A Sufficient Sacrifice

  • As we begin to look at Micah’s words, let us go back to a familiar, although perhaps not entirely understood, story – we find it in Genesis 22 – the story begins with God deciding to test Abraham – this in itself is a problem, although we modern Jesus people tend to overlook it – the clear implication of the story is that God does not know what Abraham is going to do in this situation
  • Our ancient spiritual kin had no problem with this idea that there is something that God does not know – centuries of Christian teaching and dogma have told us that God knows everything, including the future, but the ancient people of God did not have that hurdle to overcome – God is great, of course – God is strong and mighty – God is the creator – and yet, there are some things that God does not know – we should ponder that for a while
  • In the Genesis story, God tests Abraham by telling him to go to the land of Moriah and sacrifice his son Isaac – after waiting for decades to have a child with Sarah, God tells Abraham that God now requires the fruit of that waiting on a fiery altar
  • This, too, is a problem that we tend to ignore – any sort of blood sacrifice is abhorrent to us, but the idea of human child sacrifice is beyond the pale of any decency – but it was not so in those days of old – human sacrifice was not an uncommon practice – even hundreds of years after this story might have been set, even child sacrifice was a practice in many place in that world – given that fact, Abraham does not blanch or bat an eye at God’s demand – perhaps he even told himself, “Well, God gave us one son as a gift …if God needs this one, then God can give us another” – we wish that Abraham might have pushed back against such a horrid demand, but that is not the way that the story goes
  • No, Abraham packs up his sacrifice tools and sets off with Isaac for Moriah – once they arrive, adding cruelty upon cruelty, Abraham puts the wood for the fire on Isaac’s shoulders and head up the hill – Isaac begins to question where is the lamb for the sacrifice, and Abraham insists that God will provide the lamb – but who knows but that Abraham is thinking to himself, “You are the lamb, son of my heart”?
  • They build an altar, lay the wood on top of it, and Abraham ties up his son and lays him on the wood – it is not until Abraham raises the knife and is about to cut open his beloved son that God turns Abraham’s eyes to a ram caught in a bush – and what does God say to Abraham? – “now I know that you fear God” – Now – I – Know – it is an extreme point to have reached just to test a person – but there it is
  • Scholars tell us that this is the end of the requirement of human sacrifice for God’s people – but it is not the end of sacrifice – which is where Micah comes in
  • In our text for today, there is a court trial in which God stands as the prosecutor of God’s people – “the Lord has a controversy with the Lord’s people – God points to God’s mighty acts and deeds of deliverance – remember Egypt?, God asks – remember Balak of Moab and Balaam son of Beor?, God asks – think on those things and remember what God has done for you
  • To this point in the trial, the prophet has been speaking for God – then the voice changes – then the people respond by asking what they are to do – what would please God? – burnt offerings? – yearling calves? – thousands of rams? – tens of thousands of rivers of oil – our firstborn? – would any of these things be enough? – would any of these things be a sufficient sacrifice?
  • The prophet next speaks for God again – “God has told you, O human ones, 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 says that God says that not only does God not require human child sacrifice, or any sort of human sacrifice, but God does not need a sacrifice at all – what could any human give to God that God did not first give to humankind? – God does not desire or require any sort of sacrifice – God has told us what God requires of us: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God – that is it

II. God Has Told Us

  • Then, along comes Jesus – in his day, animal sacrifice is still a practice, even among God’s people – when Jesus goes to the cross, it is not to appease God’s righteous anger with humankind – it is a sad thing, in so many ways, that we still hold on to the idea that God was ever so angry with us that only the blood of Jesus could cool that anger, that only Jesus’ death on a cross could “pay the price” for our “sins”
  • God has told us, children of God, what is good and what God requires – it is not any sort of sacrifice – it is, instead, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God – not coincidentally, walking humbly with God also means that we walk humbly with one another
  • We cannot forget that, unlike every sacrifice that came before his, God raised Jesus from death – Jesus’ sacrifice demonstrates to us the uselessness, the needlessness of any sort of sacrifice – the only so-called sacrifice that God wants is our hearts and lives – and those are not on an altar – we give our hearts and our lives to justice, kindness, and humility
  • Those are not popular ideas in our world, especially not today – to many of us they appear “soft” or “weak” – today, what matters is power and control over others – and in our time, if keeping power and control over others requires the sacrifice of some of our own people or of the others, then so be it – we say like the Pharisees said of Jesus, better that one person, or a few people, should die for the people than that a whole nation be destroyed (John 11.50)
  • And to this God says NO! – God says through the prophets, through Jesus, through the apostles, through the centuries, “There is a more excellent way – it is the way of justice, kindness, humility – it is the way of love – it is the way of Jesus”

III. Conclusion

  • Our friend, and my colleague in ministry, Andy Mockridge, is fond of saying that God’s judgment is always mercy – some of us do not like that – it does not match with what we sometimes consider to be justice – but I think Andy is right, and I think it reflects precisely what Micah says to us
  • God has told us, my beloved friends, what is good and what God requires of us – let us go and do justice for all of God’s creatures and for all of the creation – let us go loving kindness, kindness that extends even to those we are wont to call enemies – let us go walking humbly with God and with all people, regarding them as better than ourselves
  • God has told us, so now let us go and live in the way of God

Chosen for Blessing

Monday, 14 October 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

6 October 2019

I. Choosing Abram

  • The stories of Abraham and Sarah are well known to us – we know about the various covenants – we know about the sojourn in Egypt – we know about God promising that the elderly couple would have a child and that Sarah laughed – we know much, and no doubt this story at the beginning of the Abraham cycle is familiar, as well – but the parts between the Cain and Abel stories and this one in chapter 12 do not paint a very pleasant picture of humankind – we might also say that God does not come off well in these stories
  • In those chapters we read of Noah and his family – the story tells us that humankind has devolved, has moved further and further away from the paradisiacal existence, and that God has grown to regret ever having made people – God’s solution to the problem of wayward humankind is what we might think of as a reboot – God decides to eradicate God’s rebellious children, except for one faithful man and his family – God tells this one man, Noah, to build an ark that will be God’s way of saving the best of humankind and animals from the destruction that is to come – we know all of that story – God brings the flood, Noah and his children become the new start for humans on earth
  • Here is what we sometimes forget – we forget that after the flood waters dried up, Noah planted a vineyard and with the wine that he made he got blackout drunk, which led to problems between his three sons
  • If that were not bad enough, as the human race began to grow in numbers, they also grew in pride and hubris – and in that pride and hubris, the human families decided to build a tower to reach up to heaven – to bring an end to the effort, God confused their language so that they could not understand each other – this led to the development of tribes and nations, which are not a blessing, but a curse
  • In the biblical stories, the time after the expulsion from the garden was not a time of the development of the best of what humans could be, but of developing the worst of our tendencies
  • Into this mess, God steps with yet another new plan – God decides to choose one person, one family, to bear God’s blessing to the world – that one family is the family of Abram – there is no explanation of why God chooses Abram – the text does not say that Abram is a paragon of virtue as Noah had been – it does not say that Abram has any particularly noteworthy attributes – the text only says that “the Lord said to Abram” – that is all that the Bible gives us
  • So God says to Abram that Abram should pack up and leave his home, his country, kith and kin, and go to a place that God will show him – there are no hints, no clues, no roadmap, no GPS indicators – Abram is just supposed to go
  • The amazing thing is, of course, that that is exactly what Abram does – he packs up his wife, Sarai, his nephew, and all that they own, including slaves, and head out – they eventually come to a place called Canaan, which God declares will become the home of Abram’s offspring – it will not, however, be Abram’s home – Abram will continue to live a nomadic life – it will only be his descendants who will find a homeland there – the kicker, of course, is that Abram is seventy-five when he leaves his home – and, as far as we know, he has no children
  • All of that makes sense to us, at least in terms of a story that we can understand – we may find it amazing, incredible even, but we have heard it and told it so often that we do not question it – what I would like us to remember today as we read this text, is that God has a greater plan for Abram than simply taking him away from everything and almost everyone he knows – God is not simply testing Abram’s willingness to obey – God has something for Abram and his family to do
  • They will receive a homeland, but that gift comes with responsibilities – they will become a great nation, a great people SO THAT they will be a blessing – they will become a great family SO THAT in them all the families of the earth will be blessed – in other words, God chooses them to receive a blessing and to become a conduit for blessing the world

II. Chosen for Blessing

  • The Christian scriptures tell us that we are spiritual descendants of Abram – through faith, we can follow in the footsteps of Abram, who became Abraham – Father Abraham, we sing, had many children / I am one of them and so are you / so let’s all praise the Lord – if we think about it at all, we probably like that – who would not like to be in the lineage of receiving a blessing from God? – and that is fine, as long as we remember that “SO THAT” bit
  • Too often, however, we do not remember it – we remember the blessing – we remember the promise – but we forget the responsibility to be a blessing – this is not unique to us today – throughout history Christians have been quick to accept the blessings of God, but slow to share them with others
  • On our vacation this past week, we went to Santa Fe, New Mexico – that place, and the peoples who have lived there for hundreds of years, bear ample witness to the devastation that comes with refusing to share God’s blessing – the treatment that mostly Christian people have meted out to so many shows us the problem of not sharing the blessings of God with others – in two millennia, we have seen nations and people destroyed and subjugated by people who believe that they received God’s blessing as a matter of course, but refused those same blessings to others because of race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender identity or any number of other reasons
  • But the blessing of Abram is clear – any blessing from God comes SO THAT the ones who receive the blessing will be a blessing to others, SO THAT all the families of the earth will be blessed
  • It seems so simple, and yet it is so difficult for us – God’s blessing is never for us to keep for ourselves – it comes SO THAT we can share it with others

III. Conclusion

  • In a few minutes, we will share communion with one another – this is World Communion Sunday, and many of our fellow Jesus followers are sharing the same sacrament today, whether they call it communion or the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper – it is one of the primary symbols of our identity as friends of Jesus
  • Some of our fellow Jesus followers believe that the blessing of communion is exclusive, that it is only for a select group – I am not going to gainsay their belief in this matter – I am only going to say that that is not our way
  • Here at Salem Church, and in the United Church of Christ more broadly, the emphasis of communion is on the grace of God, on the gift that God has given us in Jesus
  • In Jesus, God blesses us, just as God blessed Abram – and just as it was incumbent on Abram to share God’s blessing, so it is incumbent on us to do the same
  • We are blessed to be a blessing – insofar as God has chosen us, we are chosen for blessing
  • Let us take the blessing of this table, the blessing of Jesus, the blessing of God, with us out into our lives beyond these walls – let us go, not to curse, not to judge, not to control or dominate – let us go and bless, because that is what God calls us to do

Two Trees and a Choice

Monday, 9 September 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

8 September 2019

I. Introduction

  • I know that I use movies a great deal as illustrations of where my sermons are going, but what can I say? – I love movies – and for most of us, they are the modern equivalent of sitting around the fire while we tell stories – and stories still matter, sometimes more than we realize
  • One of my favorite movies is a bit of silliness from the early 1980s – some of the creators of Monty Python were involves, so you know it has to be silly
  • The movie, “Time Bandits,” has to do with a group of behind-the-scenes workers on creation – they are employees of the Supreme Being who think they are underpaid – they decide to steal a map of time and creation and use it to collect treasure – they also end up accidentally collecting a young boy – all of their skipping around through time does not go unnoticed, eventually drawing the attention of the personification of evil – at one point in the movie, the time bandits are in the presence of the Supreme Being, and the boy decides to ask the Supreme Being why there has to be evil – the time bandits try to shush the boy, but he will not allow it – he repeats the question – the Supreme Being is distracted by some other business, but he off-handedly says to the boy, “It has something to do with free will” – it is a brilliant answer, and, for my part, it is the right answer
  • We see that question behind the second creation story in Genesis – and the answer, just like in the movie, boils down to “It has something to do with free will”

II. In the Garden

  • There are two creation stories in Genesis – biblical scholars attribute these stories to different groups of writers with differing agendas – the two stories use different names for God, so the distinct authorship of them is pretty clear – not that it matters, but it explains why the two stories are so very unlike one another – nevertheless, the ancients who composed Genesis thought that they were both worthy of inclusion in the canon
  • The first chapter of Genesis, which we treated of last week, talks about creation as a sort of imposition of order on chaos – it is not creation from nothing (ex nihilo, as the scholars say) – a wind from God sweeps over the water and then God speaks – as God speaks, Creation comes into being – and at nearly every step of the way, God pronounces the Creation good, and at the end of it all, God looks over all that God has made and finds it very good
  • In that first story, the creation of humankind comes on the sixth day, the day before God rests, and includes both female and male in the image of God – God gives humankind the task of taking care of creation
  • The second creation story begins quite differently – did you notice it? – as the story begins, God looks out on a desert – there is a well to water the whole earth, but no human being to till the ground – God forms ’adam, which means “man,” from the dust of the ground (Hebrew: ’adamah) and breathes life into him, which is how the first human being came to be
  • Then God creates a garden, filled with trees and plants and things good for food – there are two special trees there as well – one is the Tree of Life and the other is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad, or as we usually read it, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – God places man in the garden and tells him to eat of any tree he likes, but not from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad
  • Next comes something unexpected – God decides that something in the garden is not right – “It is not good for man to be alone” – God creates animals, including wild beasts and birds, and has them parade in from of man – man names them all, but there is not a fitting partner for man among those creatures
  • God decides to create one more creature, using man as a model and source – and God creates woman – this new creature is one that man recognizes as the same as he is – he calls her ’ishshah, which means woman, because she came from ’ish, another word for man
  • For the writer of this second creation story, there are several questions that the story answers – not only does it tell readers why we are here, it also tells us how animals got their names and why men and women get married and, perhaps oddly enough, why people wear clothing
  • Just as importantly, however, for anyone who has read these stories, the second story sets the stage for some very important action that is just ahead – in some ways, it is unfortunate that we know where the story is going – but trying not to know it is just as silly as a Monty Python movie
  • We know that one of the creatures in the garden is very clever, and this clever serpent will convince the woman to try the fruit of one of the forbidden trees – it is significant that the serpent does not direct the woman and the man to the Tree of Life, the fruit of which, after all, God did not prohibit them to eat, but to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – to that point in the story, the humans have existed without shame and without guilt – but they are not without ambition – the serpent convinces them to eat the fruit by telling them that they will be like God, and that is a possibility that they cannot allow to pass them without at least trying it on for size
  • But what does the knowledge that the woman and the man gain bring them? – the story tells us that before they eat the fruit they are naked yet feel no shame – after they eat the fruit, they are ashamed of their nakedness and they hide from God when God comes to stroll in the garden – what does the knowledge give them? – it gives them shame and guilt
  • and we know what happens next – to this day, human beings usually know what is good and what is evil, and we still choose the wrong thing more often than we would like to admit

III. Two Trees and a Choice

  • As I understand the world in which we live, those choices are always before us – we can choose how we want to live, and God will not stop us – I suppose that God could stop us from choosing the wrong way, the way of evil, the way of nations, the way of destruction and death, but to do that, God would have to remove our ability to choose – and I think that our ability to choose is a significant part of what it means for us to be in the image of God
  • As we walk through this world, we live in the presence of two trees – on the one hand is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – it is essentially a metaphor for using the knowledge we have to choose well – because we are not God, however, our ability to use that knowledge well is limited – our knowledge is partial at best and yet we convince ourselves it is complete – so, we use the partial knowledge we have to judge others and sometimes ourselves – and we nearly always find the objects of our judgment lacking in some significant way – in other words, we misjudge, and we end up deciding that something, or someone, is evil, when it is actually good, and that something, or someone, evil, is good when it is not good at all – we judge according to our own understanding of things – we judge wrongly, just as the woman and the man in the story judged wrongly
  • And, still, the second tree is also before us, the Tree of Life – if we were to choose to life for ourselves and for everyone and everything around us, we could be a part of healing the world and its brokenness – by our choices, we could make the world a better place for all people – but we have to choose to do it
  • The choice is ours – life or partial knowledge – creation or destruction – and God gives us the free will to choose

IV. Conclusion

  • “It has something to do with free will” – in fact, living in this world has everything to do with free will – without at least the possibility of evil there could be no good
  • So let us choose good – let us choose to share life with all people – let us choose to join God in the creative work of healing and life

God Began to Create

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

1 September 2019

I. Introduction

  • As I said in the August Lamplighter, for the next year I will not use the lectionary that I typically use – instead, I will draw the readings from a book by Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation – I would encourage you to get a copy of the book – it is widely available as hardcover, paperback, and e-book – I believe that the adult Sunday School class will use it in addition to my use of it for worship
  • One of McLaren’s basic assumptions is that we do not live static lives – life is dynamic, it is always changing – we would like to think that we can keep things as they are, but we never can accomplish it – if we thus accept that life is always changing, then our choice is between fighting that change, which is futile and frustrating, and working with the change to attempt to build the best future we can for ourselves and for the world – I believe that McLaren would say that this is true for both individuals and communities
  • We accomplish this future-building by making conscious choices, by living active lives, not sitting idly while things happen to us and around us – we work with God and with other people to build our future together – hence, the title of his book, We Make the Road by Walking – as Andy Dufresne tells his friend Red in “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Get busy living or get busy dying” – this is the choice before us
  • Through Salem’s Sesquicentennial year, we will focus on this idea of making conscious choices and future-building, on getting busy living – for twelve months, for fifty-two weeks, if for no other time, we will make the road by walking
  • I invite you to join me on this journey – through the first quarter of the year, leading up to Advent, the readings will focus on creation – McLaren’s rubric for this quarter is “Alive in the Story of Creation” – the next quarter will look mainly at the gospels, with the title “Alive in the Adventure of Jesus” – through Lent and Easter, we will talk about being “Alive in a Global Uprising,” looking largely at the gospels and the book of Acts – the last quarter has the heading “Alive in the Spirit of God,” and will deal with more contemporary issues and ideas, but still with a basis in the biblical stories
  • I am excited about the challenges of this year, and I hope you will dive into it so that we can be active about building the future of this congregation and of all of us

II. First Things

  • Thus, we begin with creation – we know these stories – they are familiar to us – but we have to remember and never forget that they are stories – these stories in Genesis, the stories of creation, the stories of the eons before the appearance of Abraham, the stories of the patriarchs are stories – as my Norwegian Hebrew Bible professor said, these stories are about the relationship between God and God’s people
  • These stories are not history as we have come to understand history, much less science, which did not exist when the stories first came into being – the creation stories do not purport to tell us how God created – they do not establish a timeline or an order to creation – the most important words in the first chapters of Genesis are these: “When God began to create” – or, if you prefer the more traditional formula: “In the beginning, God created…” – the stories reflect the belief that, no matter how God did it, God began to create
  • Current scientific thinking tells us that the universe is somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 billion years – in the initial moments of the life of the universe, the forces at work on the hydrogen and helium atoms began a process that would lead to stars and galaxies – there were no heavier atoms than hydrogen and helium – the heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen and iron and all the rest, came into existence only as the first stars accomplished their work of fusion, contracted and then exploded, sending the heavier elements out to create new stars, planets, and even plants and animals – as Carl Sagan famously said, “We are made of star stuff”—without those exploding early stars, we would not be here, and even our star is a second- or third-generation star
  • For my part, the universe is no less wondrous and awe-inspiring for having come into being as science teaches us it did than as the stories that the Bible tells us it happened – in fact, the scientific stories and the biblical stories have different questions behind them – the scientific stories answer the question of how we came to be – science tells us about the natural laws, about gravity and nuclear forces, and all that led to existence of the universe and even to our own existence
  • The biblical stories tell us why we are here – The Bible tells us that God speaks and creation happens, that God desires a thing to be and it is – not only does it exist, but it is good
  • Science says that we are here because of the natural forces at work in creation – our relationship with God tells us that we are here because God began to create and guided those natural processes – and, let us say, God still guides the processes – we are not the end or the pinnacle of creation or evolution – there is more to come

III. God Began to Create

  • God began to create, then rested, Genesis tells us – but the processes God established, and the creatures that have come from those processes, are still creating – in the beginning, God created, and God is still creating – and we have the joy, the privilege, and the responsibility to participate in creation
  • This fragile planet is in danger – according to our best understanding, climate change is real – 97% of scientists who study the climate, the environment, our habitat, tell us that we human beings have become climate influencers, and we need to be aware of it and do something about it
  • Some in our world would like to deny this, so let me put it to you this way – if I had a disease of some sort and I saw one hundred doctors about my condition, and ninety-seven of those doctors told me the same thing about the disease and its treatment, while three doctors said something completely different, that there is nothing wrong, that I should just go on as I have done, whom would you recommend I believe? – Should I listen to the ninety-seven or the three? – that is what is happening – 97% of the specialists in this field, 97% of earth doctors, say that our climate is changing due to human activity, that our world is sick and we need to do what we can to heal it – it is a real thing – this is not a debate
  • Since God has enlisted us in the project of creation, a significant part of our work is to preserve and care for the world – we are the caretakers of this world and co-creators of the future generations who we hope and pray will live here after we are gone
  • Conclusion
  • On the next clear night, go out into your yard, and look up into the night sky – those of us who live in town might have to go out of town to see much – the lights in the sky are from stars and galaxies, many of which do not exist at this moment, but their light is still coming to us from millions and billions of light-years away – I do not know about you, but that knowledge fills me with awe at what God has done
  • When God began to create, the nature laws and processes were a part of that creation – and God’s work continues as we share in the work of creation, of bringing, building, and improving life for all of us and for our children and their children and their children
  • Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created (Genesis 2.4, JPS Tanakh, 1985) – and such is our story with God today

Lamplighter Article, September 2019

Monday, 26 August 2019

Dear Friends,

When I graduated from seminary with a Master of Divinity degree, one of the first things that my dad asked me was, “When do you start on the PhD?” He was only half-joking. Daddy had never gotten a college degree. He studied at what was then General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan, and, had he submitted the proper paperwork to Michigan State University, he could have received a bachelor’s degree in engineering, but he did not do it. We never talked about it, but I always wondered if that played into his emphasis on education for both my brother and me. We each went to college and graduated with degrees. Actually, I ended up with four degrees, which is probably a bit much, but it is what it is.

An emphasis on an educated clergy was one of the aspects of the United Church of Christ that drew me into the denomination. Whether we are talking about the Congregationalists in New England, who started Yale University to train ministers, or the German Evangelicals in Missouri, who founded Eden Seminary for the same purpose, education has been a significant part of the life of the United Church of Christ.

Education has also been an important part of the life and history of Salem Church. Although our “Historical Highlights” from the church records and compiled for the 125th Anniversary, tell us that “school tuition” was raised from 50¢ to $1 per child per month. I have understood this to be the cost of attending the Salem weekday school. Salem Church maintained this school for many years.

In addition, from the earliest days of the congregation, there has been Sunday School. Teaching children and adults about the Bible, instilling in them the stories of the relationships between God and God’s people, and preparing everyone for leadership and service in the Church; these were and still are some of the tasks, goals, and purposes of Sunday School education.

As a part of the tradition of the German Evangelical Church and much of the United Church of Christ, Salem practices infant baptism, in which parents on behalf of their children make promises to God and to the congregation about raising their children in the ways of Jesus Messiah, and confirmation, in which the youths makes those same promises for themselves. Prior to their confirmation, our youths go through a fairly intensive two-year process of study in the Bible and in church history.

Then, of course, we continue the tradition of Vacation Bible School each summer, with its focus on the biblical stories.

Finally, several of our members teach in area schools. Many of our members have experience with post-secondary education, and several have graduate degrees, and others have specialized training in particular vocations and trades. Clearly, education is important in the life and story of Salem United Church of Christ.

Through the month of September, we remember, serve, and celebrate the life of Salem Church in its commitment to and valuing of education. As we move through this month, let us give thanks for this important aspect of our life together.

Let me finish this article by reminding you of a quote I have shared with you before. It is from a letter of the great early scientist Galileo Galilei, writing to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany in 1615, and he gave her, and us, these wise words: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

Let us all thus educate ourselves in the life-giving, challenging, and transformative ways of God.

Grace and Peace,


Bless the Lord

Monday, 26 August 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

25 August 2019

I. Introduction

  • Okay – here is one of my pet peeves – I admit right from the start that this is petty – it is meaningless – it is silly – and yet, every time I see this thing I wonder why no one has ever done anything about it
  • On most cars made in the United States today, the rearview mirrors on the passenger side doors are convex – that is to say, they have a slight bow in them so that the drivers have a wider angle of vision – the purpose of the bow is to cut down on the number of accidents – if drivers can see that there is a care in the next lane, then maybe they will not cut off the driver of that car – it is a very good idea, but not all of us take advantage of it every time
  • The downside of the bowed mirrors is that the bow makes the distances between cars seem greater than they are, which leads to my pet peeve – because the distances are not as large as they seem, manufacturers feel obliged to warn drivers that the cars they are seeing in the mirror as closer than they realize – so, printed/etched on the passenger side rearview mirrors is the warning: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear
  • Do you get my complaint? – the objects are not in the mirror – drivers see them in the mirror – I have always thought that the warning should say, “Objects are closer than they appear in the mirror” or, “Objects seen in the mirror are closer than they appear” – I told you it was silly
  • Words matter – they matter for what they say, but they also matter for what they do not say – words are symbols that point to other things, to other realities – we need to keep in mind that our language has limitations, just as our knowledge has limitations
  • All of this points out, however, a problem for us as we come to talk about and to bless God – no matter what lens we use when we look at God, no matter what language we use when we attempt to describe God, we can never see or talk about anything more than a tiny fraction of who God is – worse, that tiny fraction is only our perception of who God is
  • The psalmist gives us a good start on our understanding of God, but even here we must be careful not to assume that we know all of who God is – and as hard as that may be to accept, even our small understanding can be a good thing for us and for the people and world around us

II. A Glimpse of God

  • The psalm opens with a repeated call to bless God – the psalmist calls readers and singers of the psalm to bless God with everything that they are, with all that is in them – the psalmist then gives us a glimpse of who God is, at least from the psalmist’s perspective – and the way that the psalmist does it is by pointing to what God does in the world – for the composer of Psalm 103, God is what God does – and it is a fairly impressive list of activities
  • God forgives – God heals – God redeems lives from death – God crowns people with steadfast love and mercy – God satisfies people with good, thus renewing our youthfulness – God works vindication and justice for the oppressed – God reveals God’s ways and acts – God is merciful and gracious – God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love – God removes transgressions and deals with human beings with compassion – God remembers our frailty and imperfection
  • What a list – yet even this list does not begin to cover all of who God is or what God does – God creates heaven and earth, whether or not human beings admit it – God rules over heaven and earth, but God does not compel anyone to do as God says – God is and does all of this and more – more than we can say – more than we can comprehend
  • And we must add this – whereas the psalmist holds that this is how God deals with God’s people, with those who revere God, with those who keep God’s covenant and remember to do God’s commandments, Jesus comes along at widens the circle of our understanding of God’s work and activity – for Jesus, and thus for us, all that the psalmist says God does for God’s people, Jesus says that God does for all people, because all people live in God’s love
  • It is a sobering thought and a powerful incentive to bless the Lord

III. Bless the Lord

  • This may come as a surprise to you, but I have come to believe that to some extent we all create God in our own image – what I mean by that is that many of us come to believe that our understanding of God is actually all that God is – we can see this quite clearly in our world today
  • For many people, including followers of Jesus, God is exclusive – they think that God does not love everyone – they believe that there are people whose nationality or race or sexual orientation or gender identity or social status removes them from God’s circle of love – they think that God loves the people they love and that God hates the people they hate
  • For many people, the overpowering aspect of God is God’s judgment – they think that God is angry with the world, which then justifies their anger with the world, or at least with those people who are not them
  • These are hard, unwavering, inflexible, unkind, unwelcoming images of God and we see brothers and sisters in Jesus embodying them in the world – just as the psalmist sees who God is in what God does, so we can see the God in whom we believe in what we do
  • So, in contrast to those hard and harsh sorts of images, we have the images that Psalm 103 gives us – these are images of healing, love, compassion, unity, forgiveness, steadfastness, justice and vindication – and these are the images that form the basis of the psalmist’s call to bless the Lord – Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name – bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all God’s benefits

IV. Conclusion

  • “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” – God is closer than we think – but just as the mirror’s bow allows us to see a wider angle, it does not let us see all that is outside our vehicles – we only know a part of what is behind us and we only know a part, and a very small part, at that, of who God is and what God does
  • Let us go out into the world demonstrating and embodying the attributes of God that we see here in Psalm 103 – let us go out and bless the Lord with our words and actions – let us go out and bless the Lord by blessing the people around us
  • Let us go out into the world and bless the Lord by being healers and lovers and forgivers, by working vindication and justice for the oppressed, by being merciful and gracious and compassionate
  • Let us go out into the world, sisters, brothers, friends, and bless the Lord