Sunday, December 13, 2009


Zephaniah 3:14-20 (Contemporary English Version)

14Everyone in Jerusalem and Judah,
celebrate and shout
with all your heart!
15Zion, your punishment is over.
The LORD has forced your enemies
to turn and retreat.
Your LORD is King of Israel
and stands at your side;
you don't have to worry
about any more troubles.

16Jerusalem, the time is coming,
when it will be said to you:
"Don't be discouraged
or grow weak from fear!

17The LORD your God
wins victory after victory
and is always with you.
He celebrates and sings
because of you,
and he will refresh your life
with his love."

18The LORD has promised:
Your sorrow has ended,
and you can celebrate.
19I will punish those
who mistreat you.

I will bring together the lame
and the outcasts,
then they will be praised,
instead of despised,
in every country on earth.

20I will lead you home,
and with your own eyes
you will see me bless you
with all you once owned.
Then you will be famous
everywhere on this earth.

I, the LORD, have spoken!

Zephaniah was a prophet in Jerusalem some 30-50 years before Judah’s defeat and exile to Babylon. Unlike some of the prophets, not much is known about him. He may have been a student of Isaiah of Jerusalem because he uses similar language. There is very good reason to believe that he was of Ethiopian descent. His name means “the Lord protects.”

In this very short book he prophesies destruction for all the people of the land. And not just the people. In the opening verses he says everything will be swept away – people and animals and birds and fish! For Zephaniah sees evil in the land. He sees corruption among the priesthood. He sees the wealthy oppressing the poor. He sees people turning away from God and sacrificing to foreign gods, setting up idols on the high places. He sees, in fact, all of the same things the other prophets have warned of. He warns all the people, but especially the leaders, that God will not tolerate this behavior. He says – God says “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord.” And in fact King Josiah does hear him and does make changes – but it will be too little, too late. Josiah’s reign will not be long enough to bring about a change of heart for the leaders. The road to destruction for Judah is a steep downward slope and Josiah’s reforms will be disregarded by his successors. Judah will be defeated, Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed. Those people who survive the coming battle will be enslaved and sent into exile and will suffer bitterly the loss of their home.

But at the end of his prophecies he tells of a time when God will change the people of all the nations so that their words and worship will be pure. When all sins will be forgiven, and when all will leave behind their fears and pride. Zephaniah isn’t talking about some wonderful afterlife – he is talking about God’s kingdom on earth. The Jews of that time didn’t have an understanding of life after death, of heaven and hell, the way we do today.

I heard something disturbing recently – the idea that this world and what happens in it is not as important as our life with Jesus in heaven after we die. I know that this theology has been used to “help” the oppressed deal with the reality of their oppression. “You are suffering here, but your real life will begin in heaven with Jesus.” Indeed, this kind of preaching has been used to justify all kinds of evil in the world. We don’t have to change the world – we don’t have to help the suffering or lift oppression from our brothers and sisters, because everything will be made alright when they die and they are with Jesus.

That’s not what the Bible tells us. The prophets –all of them – tell the people ‘repent! For if you don’t you will suffer consequences and you will not like it.” John the Baptist said the same thing. And Jesus gave us directions on how to change, how to put away greed and fear and hatred, and how to love one another as God would have us do so that we can indeed enjoy life on earth as it is in heaven.

Zephaniah calls Judah to religious renewal in the here and now. Renewal that brings about God’s vision of a world without violence, injustice and oppression, where even God will sing in response to human singing, “He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival”. At the end of his rather horrific prophecies, he calls on Judah to rejoice because there will a come a day when the world will be as God intended for it to be. Rejoice and sing, for one day all that is wrong will be made right. He calls upon Judah to rejoice in the midst of their grief – in the depths of their suffering – for God will forgive all their sins. He will not abandon them or leave them to suffer for too long. So he calls upon them to rejoice now for what will come about in the future. He calls upon them to rejoice in the midst of their fear and grief.

Rejoicing in the midst of grief. It is what we do, isn’t it? Yesterday we celebrated the life of one dear to all of us here. We lifted up all the blessings that we have received because June lived among us and we were joyful, even as we grieve her loss. We shared a meal and fellowship and laughter even as we wiped away the tears that those lovely old hymns brought to our eyes.

During Advent we live with grief. We live in the days just before the birth of the Christ child. Days of oppression and darkness. Days of sin and grief. We look at the world around us and wonder how everything got so dark, and so frightening. There are wars all over the world. My new next door neighbor just got back from Cosivo, which we don’t even hear about anymore because Iraq and Afghanistan are making the headlines. I worry that my nephew’s National Guard unit will be called up. Civil wars, genocide and famine are killing thousands daily around the world. In this country, the numbers of homeless are rising, thousands of children go to bed hungry, people are dying unnecessarily because they can’t afford to see a doctor or to get a prescription. My sister-in-law is beginning to realize what people without health insurance deal with. She questioned the pharmacist about the cost of one of my brother’s cancer medications. Most of their prescriptions are $10 or $20 so she thought $40 was a bit much. She learned that without insurance that little bottle would cost $600. Every day we hear that more teachers are being laid off, schools are being closed, funds are being cut and tuitions raised for education – for our future. Everywhere we turn we see evidence of God’s children who some might consider “unimportant”, the least of Jesus’ brothers ad sisters being ignored, cast out, and oppressed. We see greed, the desire for power and manipulation rewarded. And we wonder why we should be rejoicing.

And yet we are. We are looking ahead to the birth of the child. We are impatient for him to come. We want to sing the joyful songs. We want to see his power and his glory reflected and magnified around us. We want to lift up our voices and our hearts and hear God respond, exulting over us with loud singing as on the day of a festival! We know that the message of peace and love and joy and hope that comes in this season has to be repeated over and over, so that we can remember why we feel such joy at his coming. People are really good at forgetting these things, you know. Israel and Judah kept forgetting to do what God commanded – to care for the poor, the elderly, the widows, the orphans and the strangers – the helpless and hopeless. The prophets would remind them, and sometimes a good king like Josiah or Hezekiah would institute reforms. But once that king was gone everything went back the way it had been. The powerful and wealthy, the nobles and the priesthood turned their backs on God, looking only to themselves for guidance. And look what happened to them. Defeat and exile, poverty and oppression.

And so the prophets reminded them even in the middle of horrific oracles, that God would never abandon them. That no matter what they could and should rejoice that their pain would be healed, their fears relieved, their shame turned to praise. Not in some cosmic paradise, but in this world. For God would change their hearts so their sins would no longer be attractive to them, and they would do with gladness all the things that they were commanded to do.

That change of heart for us comes in the form of a child. A tiny, fragile vessel who holds all the hope of the world. Who brings with him the message of God’s eternal love for us, no matter how far we may wander. Who brings the Good News of God’s forgiveness, and warm welcome when we are ready to turn our lives over to him. Who brings to each one of us that change that will allow us to change the world. Who will be our Lord, our King, ruler of our hearts and our lives and make God’s kingdom into reality.. Christians All, Your Lord is Coming! Rejoice!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sacrifice 1 Samuel 1:4-20

1 Samuel 1:4-20
4On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” 12As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
19They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

I love Hannah’s story. It’s another of those Biblical stories in which the least likely person, a person held in low esteem by others, becomes the instrument through which God brings huge blessings on God’s people, and I think we all love stories where the underdog wins.

But as much as I love this story, it’s kind of a challenge to decide how to preach it. I don’t really want to preach on Faith Rewarded because that can lead to bad theology. You know, the idea that if I am faithful I will get all the good things I want in life and that nothing bad will happen to me. But that doesn’t work. We just read Job and we know it doesn’t work.

And then there’s the whole making a deal with God thing. Hannah says, “If you give me a son, I will dedicate his life to you.” Are we supposed to think that works? I mean, it does seem to work in this case, but is that what we’re supposed to come away from this story believing – that God will make deals with us? I don’t think so. At least, I’ve always been told that I shouldn’t try to make deals like this with God.

As the week progressed and I continued to consider Hannah’s story I found myself focusing more on the outcome of the story than the piece we have here to consider. I found an opening hymn that sounds like Hannah’s song, which doesn’t appear until later in the story. I considered the great things her son would do for Israel by anointing both Saul and David as king over the nation. But I kept coming back to Hannah’s prayer.

We don’t know – the story doesn’t tell us – if Hannah had ever gone into the sanctuary to pray before, to “present herself before the Lord.” There are a few things we do know, however.

We know that a sacrifice had just been presented. It was probably part of the annual tithe Elkanah gave to the priests according to the law – the best 10% of everything he owned. This annual tithe and sacrifice was for gratitude for all the bounty God provided throughout the year. An animal without blemish had been brought to the sanctuary and sacrificed by the priest Eli. A portion of the cooked animal would have been dinner for Eli and his family, a portion would have been given to the poor of the neighborhood, and the remaining portion would provide a feast for Elkanah and his family. We know that the women of the family would not have been present, would have had no part in presentation of the sacrifice. Women didn’t, because they didn’t own anything to sacrifice.

So Hannah doesn’t bring the sacrifice for the family, her husband does. She owns nothing. She has nothing of her own that she can give to God to show her gratitude for all the blessings she has received so far. We are accustomed to thinking that Hannah’s sacrifice is her son – the dedication of his life to serve God. I think perhaps that’s not it. That is her bargain with God – that she will sacrifice the pleasure of seeing her son grow to manhood in her home by giving him to God as a child. But I think that right now, in this story, her prayer is her sacrifice. She comes into the house of the Lord and prays. Like the New Testament widow putting her mite into the offering box at the Temple, Hannah gives to God the only thing she has.

I am always concerned about whether I pray “well enough”. I have heard some of you say the same thing about yourselves. In seminary I always let someone else pray to open and close groups and bless our meals. Some of my classmates just seemed to have this wonderful gift for public prayer. I have all these books to help me learn about prayer. Some of them teach what prayer is, some teach how to pray personally, some are journals so I can write down what I’m supposed to pray for, some are textbooks on how to write prayers for public worship services, some are filled with prayers others have written that we can use, some are about how a congregation can improve it’s corporate prayer life.
Even after finishing seminary and spending the last 6+ years praying here with you, at the prayer day with our Regional Minister this week we took turns praying for each other and I found myself comparing myself to the other ministers present, thinking my prayer didn’t stack up very well. But then I thought of Hannah, and how she prayed simply and from the heart. How she opened herself to God, weeping and telling God exactly how she felt. She wasn’t concerned about being judged by anyone else, she wasn’t hurt when Eli accused her of being drunk. She “had been pouring her soul out before the Lord.” She had been making of her prayer and her heart a sacrifice to God.

I have all these books on prayer, yet I don’t remember reading about prayer as sacrifice in any of these. The idea of prayer as sacrifice is kind of a new idea for me but it makes sense. Prayer is personal, it is something that is ours and ours alone. Even if we think we aren’t very good at it, we are giving God the best we can. Certainly Hannah was not a professional pray-er, but the intensity and sincerity of her prayer was such that Eli thought she was drunk – he was just not accustomed to seeing anyone get so involved in their conversation with God. He was used to formulaic prayer – prayer that followed a certain pattern or that was written down to be repeated the same way every time. He was used to hearing the kind of prayer many of us were taught growing up. Those prayers rarely touch our souls – although they do sometimes, like when we sing the Lord’s Prayer here each Sunday. So he surely wasn’t prepared for Hannah’s emotional outpouring.

Prayer is a conversation. In any conversation both parties have to participate, otherwise it’s a monologue. There’s a video about a guy sitting in a coffee shop with Jesus, asking Jesus to intercede in his life and in other people’s lives and situations. He rattles off this long list of names and situations with about as much emotion as if he was reading the phone book. He talks and talks and talks and finally says amen. Jesus leans forward to respond and just as he is about to speak, the guy gets up, says “See ya,” and leaves. I’m afraid that is the way many of us pray.

I have found that the more I am willing to make my prayer a conversation, the more likely I am to get a response. Hannah’s response came from Eli, who assured her the Lord would grant her prayer. Our response might come from anywhere. God’s response could come to us through a remark made by another person, a billboard or book that we read, a series of events leading us in a particular direction or - whatever. Our UCC brothers and sisters remind us that “God is still speaking” and so we have to keep listening, as part of our prayer, for whatever God says however God chooses to say it.

As a congregation we have chosen to make prayer a priority during this year. We have instituted some prayer practices that we hope will bring the community into prayer with us. We have dedicated space in Charles Hall for prayer requests and give community prayer a prominent place in our worship service. I would like to suggest that we once again start a prayer group. A group who can gather to pray regularly every week, and even study together on how to pray more effectively as a congregation. I suggest this because I know how hard it is, in our very busy lives, to remember to take time to talk to God. And because we have said that prayer is a priority in our lives as a congregation it seems that we should take time as a congregation to gather for prayer.

I would further suggest that those who cannot come here to participate set aside the same time at home to pray in solidarity with those who are gathered here.

This may be a hardship. It will certainly interfere with TV watching and Facebook game playing. But I believe it is something that I, at least, must do. Because prayer is a sacrifice. It is how we tell God what is in our hearts, and it is how we listen for God’s response. It is how we give God the most private and valuable part of our selves to make room in our hearts for God’s loving care. It is how we bring the holy into our daily lives. Let us go out from here, my brothers and sisters, ready to sacrifice our hearts to God, prepared and willing to take time to be holy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where is God? Part 2

Job 38:1-7, 34-41
1From out of a storm,
the LORD said to Job:
2Why do you talk so much
when you know so little?
3Now get ready to face me!
Can you answer
the questions I ask?
4How did I lay the foundation
for the earth?
Were you there?
5Doubtless you know who decided
its length and width.
6What supports the foundation?
Who placed the cornerstone,
7while morning stars sang,
and angels rejoiced?

34Can you order the clouds
to send a downpour,
35or will lightning flash
at your command?
36Did you teach birds to know
that rain or floods
are on their way?
37Can you count the clouds
or pour out their water
38on the dry, lumpy soil?
39When lions are hungry,
do you help them hunt?
40Do you send an animal
into their den?
41And when starving young ravens
cry out to me for food,
do you satisfy their hunger?

I always find this part of the story disturbing. I mean, Job is suffering, through no fault of his own, and he just wants to ask God face to face, why? I’m faithful. I’ve done everything you’ve asked. I have not lost my faith, indeed, I am even more certain that you will judge me fairly when you see the truth of the situation. I’m being punished unjustly and you are a just God. Job stands there secure in his knowledge of God’s power and grace and mercy and waits for God.

And God turned on him! God says “Where were you when I created all this? And where are you even now when the creatures of the world need food, or when rain has to be sent over a drought area? Are you helping me do my work? Or are you just caring for yourself?”

What have you done to help?

We look around and see so few people here. What are we doing wrong?
I mean, we’re doing this whole Job thing lately
so we just have to ask
What have we done to deserve this?
Are we totally innocent and faithful like Job and just being tested by the devil?

what have we done to help God?

I can go on here talking about the things we have done in the past
It is what I usually do at this time of the year, after all
the time of year when we talk about our heritage as Disciples
the things we are proud of as Delhaven.

I can point to the back wall and talk about awards we have won
about all the things we have participated in
I can talk about the past glories and honors
about the community center
and all the ways we have reached out to help our neighborhood
all the social action that we have done

And I can talk about the programs that we support today
Girl scouting and the preschool and the new preschool
ways that we are helping the future of children
ways we are helping lift our neighbors out of poverty
out of illiteracy and out of hopelessness
how we feed the hungry with our food ministry and with the Treasure Box program

I can say all those things that make us feel better about ourselves
even as we look around at these empty seats
I can point out how Uy and I were part of yesterday’s Regional worship service
How Hank serves our Region with the golf committee,
Doug with Global ministries and me with communications
and how Linda serves with general church boards and committees
and Kate teaches classes to ministers seeking to be licensed.
I can talk about all the work that we do for the Church

But I don’t think those things really help us feel better about ourselves,
especially when we look at all the empty pews. And still,
maybe even more so, we want to ask God – why? Why are we not growing?
June asked me that yesterday. She said she was so worried about the church,
about how we keep getting smaller and so many of those who are here are older
and not as able to do things as we once were. And these are legitimate concerns.

If the point of church was to be an organization that raised money to help the poor,
if it was supposed to be just like any other charity organization,
then we would be in pretty sad shape.
But the point of the church is to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ into the world.
The point of coming together for worship is to share God’s love with each other,
to learn from and be challenged by the Word of God,
to be changed by that Word, and then
to go out into the world and change it.
The business of Church is to be the center from which change comes about.

Delhaven is at the center of a lot of change. We may not be seeing growth,
but I am seeing so many wonderful things happening around us these days, with us as the center. Things that are happening because we are here.

Maurice can tell you that he has to fill the baptistery fairly often because one of the Spanish speaking congregations we share the building with have someone to baptize.

My friend Pastor Mary Hollifield of the West Covina UMC will be baptizing an adult member of her congregation, who wants to be immersed, here on November 1st.

There is a new Disciples Church in town, Iglesia Ven a Jesus. The congregation is almost all people who have never been part of any church, and have never been baptized. They meet in Alvara Regalado’s living room. He is also a new Disciple and learning to be a Disciples minister. They are being guided toward baptism by Martin Garcia, a Disciples pastor. And when they are ready, they will come here to be baptized.

And we have Abigail Conway, coming forward today to be baptized. A young girl who loves Jesus and wants to give her life to God. She has spent quite a bit of thought lately on how she can serve the church, what she can do for Delhaven. Right now it’s mostly about lighting candles.

When we think about it, isn’t bringing light exactly what Christians are supposed to do? Isn’t that the way we are able to help God, today, here and now? Isn’t our job to bring light into the darkness, to bring knowledge of God’s love, manifest in Jesus Christ, to all the world? Abigail’s lighting the candles symbolizes perfectly what it is we are to do as Church. A few years ago we said we wanted to be the light on the corner that shines into the neighborhood. A couple of years later we drew circles of community with Delhaven at the center. My sisters and brothers, I suggest to you that this is exactly what we are today. We are the light at the center of many intersecting circles of community. All come together here, and though we may not see the difference, I know that we are making a difference. We are, in fact, helping in God’s work, reaching out in love in so many different ways, showing the light of Christ to many who may not have seen it without us.

Let’s prepare for the baptism of this little light among us by singing the Disciples Affirmation of Faith, ‘We Your People, God, Confessing.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Where is God? Part 2

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Then Job answered: 
‘Today also my complaint is bitter;
   his hand is heavy despite my groaning. 
O that I knew where I might find him,
   that I might come even to his dwelling! 
I would lay my case before him,
   and fill my mouth with arguments. 
I would learn what he would answer me,
   and understand what he would say to me. 
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
 No; but he would give heed to me. 
There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

‘If I go forward, he is not there;
 or backward, I cannot perceive him; 
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
  I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. 
God has made my heart faint;
   the Almighty has terrified me; 
If only I could vanish in darkness,
   and thick darkness would cover my face!

Job is not a happy man. He has been afflicted with the loss of everything – wealth, property, health and even the loss of all of his children. His friends have been somewhat less than helpful in their advice and suggestions to him.

In case you haven’t read the entire story from where we left off last Sunday, the Reader’s Digest version is this. Job’s three best friends, hearing of his suffering, have come to comfort him and give him counsel. They tell him that all of these bad things prove that he has sinned against God. They don’t know what he has done, but it must have been terrible for such dreadful evils to fall upon him. They tell him he must confess his sin, repent of it and then, he must endure his punishment without complaint.

Job continues to proclaim his innocence. He points out that very often the wicked seem to prosper, so why can’t it be possible that the innocent sometimes suffer? His friends don’t buy that. He proclaims God’s power and goodness. He cries out to heaven that he would happily accept any punishment God felt he deserved for wrongdoing, but he just does not understand what he has done to deserve this.

His friends tell him – if you refuse to accept God’s punishment, if you refuse to confess that it is entirely your fault that all this bad stuff is happening to you, then you are speaking against the teachings of your religion. Everyone knows that good is rewarded and evil is punished. For you to say innocents can be punished for no reason you are speaking against God! Clearly, you are guilty and must be punished!

We’ve heard all that before, haven’t we? We’ve heard it from TV preachers and from live pulpits. We’ve heard it in folk wisdom. We hear people say “everything happens for a reason” and “this is what was meant to be,” and “whatever happens is God’s will and we just have to accept it.” We hear people say “If you do what we tell you to do, your life will get better.” We hear TV preachers telling us if we are faithful we are sure to prosper, our illnesses will be cured, and all our financial affairs will be successful but that if we are unfaithful, well . . we’ll lose it all. They would be right there with Job’s friends, refusing to believe that these bad things could possibly happen to anyone who hadn’t done something really terrible.

And Job is saying “Hey, what is going on? I AM faithful, even now. And everything is going wrong. Why, God, Why? Why was I even born if you are going to do this to me?” Job hasn’t lost his faith. He still believes God to be all powerful, fair and just. He goes on for verse after verse, proclaiming God’s greatness. He tells his friends “I know that my redeemer lives!” He knows that in the end times he will see his God and be judged with compassion and mercy. He just wants to see him now! He says, “I know if I could just present my case to you that you would relent and end this torment. Where are you??”

You all can surely tell by now why this passage doesn’t get preached often. We do not preach about a God we can’t find. Pastors do not tell their flocks about a God who seems to disappear in the hardest times. We tell you, “open your hearts. God is there, you just aren’t connecting.” We might even imply that if you would just try harder you would be able to hear God. That God’s apparent lack of response is somehow your fault for not listening hard enough. We’ll say things like “We can hear the voice of God in other people.” Well, Job was hearing a lot from other people and none of them were speaking with the voice of God. All of them were just repeating conventional wisdom – if he was faithful and blameless these things wouldn’t be happening to him. And that just plain wasn’t true!

And really, who would tune in to a TV preacher who preached on this, on the despair that Job is going through in this passage? There is no light at the end of the tunnel here. There is no good reason for what is happening to him. There isn’t even the example we usually get to use of other people being touched and changed by Job’s suffering, like the upsurge in volunteerism that follows a disaster. There’s nothing but pain and despair and a request for God to come and judge his righteousness.

We might be asking the same question when we look around here and see that only 10% of the seats are taken. Or when we see needed repairs that we’ve had to put off year after year because there simply aren’t enough funds coming in to pay for a new roof or whatever. And we wonder why. We are faithful. Even when we can barely make the bills we still give to mission and we work hard to care for our neighbors. We reach out to feed the hungry, teach the children, help the hopeless and give hope to the helpless. We’ve even started new programs to help our neighbors, stepping out boldly in faith that God will provide what’s needed for us to go forward. We take stands on issues that may make us unpopular but that we believe are faithful to Jesus’ commandment to love one another. We are faithful and we are generous and we are loving and welcoming and we just don’t understand. Where is God? Why is God letting us fade away like this? If we could just talk to God, face to face, and justify our presence here, explain what we are doing, we know that God would see we deserve better than this.

Pop wisdom tells us that if we want to be revived we have to change the way we worship. We have to use new music and technology. Going door to door doesn’t work. We have to enter people’s homes through their computers. We have to market ourselves, like Starbucks. We have to create a brand name presence, so that when we say “Delhaven Christian Church” people know exactly what church we are talking about. The experts and pundits tell us that we have to change and conform to society’s desires for an entertainment factor in everything, that we have to cater to the short attention span that MTV and UTube have created. Conventional wisdom tells us we are doing something wrong and until we confess what we are doing wrong and go forward atoning for our past sins we are doomed to failure.

Maybe. I had lunch with a group of ministers this week. Most of us come from small churches. Most of us were engaged in the Church Extension transformation process. One was pleased to report his church is growing. We talked about what the church might look like in 10 years and what evangelism tools work best. We talked about how studying certain books as a congregation is guaranteed to bring new life and energy into the church. Some lifted up computerized social networking and coffee shop worship as the wave of the present and possibly the future, others maintained that when those fads have ended the traditional church will be waiting for those folks to return. During the week I read probably a dozen articles on the future of the church, some proclaiming we have been worshipping in roughly the same way for close to 2,000 years and that tradition of worship will continue on until the end of time and others saying the days of the church meeting in an actual building are numbered.

And underlying all the conversations and the articles is this sense that we are all crying out with Job, “God, where are you? Come talk with us, face to face, so we can justify our existence and our actions to you.” Through it all is this undercurrent of “God, where are you? Please come and tell us what to do. Let us know what we are doing wrong and we’ll change it. But please, come, and talk to us.”

So, what’s the Good News in this passage? I want you to know that in every preaching class I took, and probably every preaching class ever given, the instructor is sure to say that there always has to be good news, there always has to be hope, there always has to be a word that the people can take and hold on to in the coming week.

We could jump ahead to the end of the book and see that Job gets everything back and more. But I think that would be unfaithful to the lesson in this passage. I think doing that would be unfaithful to the whole point of Job’s tribulations – that sometimes bad stuff happens even to the faithful, through no fault of their own. It’s Good News, but it may not be the right Good News for this day.

I believe the Good News here is that it’s ok to sometimes feel like God isn’t listening. That it’s ok to lift up our heartfelt pain and complain about the way the world is treating us. It’s ok to say “God, why are you forsaking me? Where are you?” It doesn’t make you a bad person or an unfaithful person. After all, the psalmist and Job and even Jesus asked those questions.

And it doesn’t mean that God isn’t there. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t listening. It may just be that it’s not time for an answer yet. It may be that God is waiting for us to get past the anger and the fear and the rushing around trying to make things work and just settle down so that we can listen.

One thing I know for sure. In the end things will work out. They may not always work out the way I want them to. They may not work out the way I expected them to. They will almost certainly not work out when I want them to work out – which for me is usually right now. But they will work out if we are willing to slow down and listen, and wait for the answer. God will not leave us out in the cold and dark of pain and despair forever. Eventually God will answer and the darkness will lift. Eventually the barriers will be gone, the path ahead will be clear. Eventually, and in God’s own time, God will make a way, somehow.

Monday, October 05, 2009

World Communion Blessings

World Communion Sunday! We were all set, our plans were made and everyone was ready to do their part. The five elders were each bringing a different kind of bread and the choir had been practicing a medley of communion songs. We were doing the Words of Institution responsively, using a format I was given by Pastor Tom Smith at Garden City Christian Church in Indianapolis and all those words would be part of the PowerPoint presentation. Everything was coming together.

I suppose I should have realized that a plan never survives the beginning of worship. My first clue that there might be a glitch or two was when one elder forgot to bring his bread. Then the choir director was caught in bad freeway traffic. I forgot to bring out the projector so the person doing the PowerPoint had to rush putting the equipment together and then we realized I had changed a hymn and forgotten to tell her. Another elder was late and brought her bread to the table during our first hymn.

We spent Children's time looking at the communion table and talking about what this meal means. We looked at the different kinds of bread on the table and I talked about a friend's church where they were sharing 9 kinds of bread from around the world. Our almost 8-year-old candidate for baptism asked if she could help give out the bread today so I asked the congregation what they thought. They all said yes. So when it came time for communion I brought Abigail forward to help.

Standing at the table during the Elder's prayer over the elements I suddenly realized no one had remembered to put out the bread plates. The bread was in a basket, but there were no plates for distribution. Time for a quick announcement: "Today Abigail will come to each one of you carrying the basket full of different breads and our deacons will follow her with the cups."

I don't remember the last time everyone paid such close attention to the service of the elements. The entire congregation watched as Abigail walked from person to person. She stood erect, face glowing as she proudly offered the basket so each one could select the kind of bread they wanted.

Every time there is Sunday like that, when things going "wrong" seem to multiply out of control, at the end of the service there is always blessing. This is one World Communion Sunday we will remember for years to come because of blessing we received from Abigail as she served the feast of love.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Taking the bad with the Good

Job 1:1, 2:1-10
1:1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2:1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. 2 The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it."

3 The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason." 4 Then Satan answered the LORD, "Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.
5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face." 6 The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life."

7 So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.

8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9 Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die." 10 But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Some years back when I was going through a difficult time my Pastor, Betsy Steier-Goehrig, suggested that I read Job. She said that when I looked at everything that happened to Job I couldn’t help but feel better. I did, and realized that my life was blessed compared to what he went through, and he stayed faithful to God throughout all of it. No matter what happens to me, it’s never as bad as what Job endured in the pages of this book. It is the classic story of bad things happening to a good person. These days I recommend it to anyone I meet going through stuff. It really helps.

When I planned to preach on Job today I had no idea that I would have so many tragic examples of bad things happening to blameless people to choose from this week. Early in the week I got an email from Cisa Payuyo at Chapman University asking for prayers and assistance for the people affected by the typhoon in the Philippines. The next day a huge earthquake and tsunami hit the Samoan Islands. The day after that an earthquake hit Indonesia. Thousands of people have lost their homes, many hundreds injured, hundreds more are lost or confirmed dead. I heard horrendous stories – children playing on the beach one moment, washed out to sea the next, as their mother watches helplessly. A mother desperately searching for her son under the remains of his shop. A father sifting through the rubble of his home looking for anything to keep his family comfortable without a roof to shelter them. The images coming from the devastated areas are truly terrible.

I am sure there are people out there saying as Job’s neighbors did, “They must have done something terrible to deserve this punishment” while others sound like Job’s wife saying, “Curses on God! What kind of terrible God would make this happen to innocent people?” We certainly heard both those responses after the tsunami a few years ago and after Katrina. Some few surely also said, “This is a test of my faithfulness.”

The story of Job is the story of bad things happening to a good person. Job didn’t do anything wrong. He was faithful in everything, a good father and husband, a man whose every enterprise was blessed and who gave thanks to God for everything he received. And then Satan set out to test Job’s faith. Everything God had given him was taken away. Half of the first chapter, which we didn’t read this morning, tells us how all his property and crops and cattle were overrun and destroyed or stolen by enemies and how his children were all killed. But Job said only, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” God was pretty proud of Job’s faithfulness, but Satan said “yeah, but let me take away his health and see what he says then.” We know what Job said then. He said “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?”

It seems that Job stood out from the crowd, fidelity-wise. God bragged about his faithfulness! Job was the most faithful person in the world. Even after his property was destroyed by fire, even after enemies took away his servants and cattle, even after a house fell upon his children and killed them all, the Bible tells us “he did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.” Even after he was afflicted with a horrible skin disease, he did not sin with his lips.

I can understand Satan wanting to test Job, really. I must confess that there are times when I see someone whose life seems to perfect and I think to myself that if anything really bad ever happened they’d probably just fall apart. Not that I wish for anything bad to happen, understand. But that’s where I am less faithful than Job, because Job was blameless and upright and turned away from evil and I’m busy judging that other person. We get the sense that Job would never do such a thing, that he was compassionate and caring. He even prayed and made sacrifices on behalf of his children every morning just in case any of them strayed somehow! Satan couldn’t believe that he would remain faithful if things started to go wrong for him. And so, Job was tested.

A side note about Satan: Notice that Satan is doing the testing here. God is watching what’s going on, but Satan is the one doing the testing. That’s Satan’s job throughout both Old and New Testaments; to test people’s faith. He tested Job, and Job won. He tested Jesus, and Jesus won. He doesn’t try to take people away from God, he simply tests their faithfulness. He isn’t God’s enemy – we are told Satan presented himself to God along with all the other heavenly beings. In the way of royal courts of the time presenting oneself is what subjects and allies did to proclaim themselves loyal to the king. In fact, no where in the Bible does he appear as God’s enemy or even humanity’s enemy. His job is simply to test people, not to cause anyone to do evil. It is wrong to say “the devil made me do it” and blame Satan or any other outside influence for our own choices.

And may I just point out that God had faith in Job? “Go ahead, test away.” He did have a fairly strong talk with Job later on – we’ll hear more about that in future weeks. But God was confident that Job would remain faithful. We all know people like that, who no matter what happens to them, they continue to praise God. Through pain and all kinds of suffering, they keep on praising God. “Shall we receive the good at the hands of God and not receive the bad?”

In Job’s story, at the end, he received everything back that he had lost and more. In real life that may not happen. We know that folks in Louisiana and other areas affected by Katrina are still living in FEMA trailers. We know that it will take years for the villages in American Samoa, the Philippines and Indonesia to be restored. We know that the pain of losing family members in these tragic events will always be with those families. I won’t say these terrible events happened in order that good things could come into other lives, that would be to trivialize the very real suffering of the people involved. But it is true that there can be good rising out of these events – transformation of people lives, as we have seen in the wake of Katrina and other disasters around the world.. Look at all the people who went and helped to rebuild in Texas and Louisiana and Missouri, people who had never done anything like that before. Look at all the people who stretched their budgets to send a little bit for food and health kits where they were needed, people who had never been motivated to give before. Many of those same people were so transformed by the act of helping that they have continued to find ways to help others and they have convinced even more people to do the same.

When I made my plans to preach on Job I did know that today would be World Communion Sunday. In celebrating communion we are remembering the crucifixion and celebrating the resurrection. It’s Easter every Sunday. We speak the words of institution, recalling the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. We speak of the broken body and spilled blood of Good Friday and the crucifixion.

I have to tell you that every year as Holy Week approaches someone says to me “What’s so good about Good Friday? Jesus was killed.” And truly, there was nothing good about the way Jesus died. It was a horrible, torturous, cruel death. The only good thing about the way he died is that the soldiers helped him die more quickly than most victims of crucifixion by thrusting that spear into his side. We really don’t like to think about it much. We are resurrection people! We celebrate the Risen Christ! We try really hard to slide over the whole whipping, cross carrying, crucifixion part of that final week. But without the death there can be no resurrection. “Shall we accept the good at the hands of God and not receive the bad?”

We want to take the good – the ministry, the teachings, and resurrection of Jesus – and not accept the bad. We want to ignore the difficult parts, the suffering he went through, and the suffering of those who were left – the disciples and the women. Imagine what they felt at this tragic event. Their faith was rocked! How could he die? How could this happen to one so faithful, so true, to the very son of God? And we know that many ran away. The thousands that greeted him on Palm Sunday were reduced to just a few, a bit over a hundred of the faithful.

The good part of Good Friday is the resurrection. But it is also the faith of those disciples who didn’t run off for parts unknown no matter how afraid they were. Who stayed together, praying and grieving. Who walked through this most horrific kind of testing and were still there when Jesus returned. Who after the resurrection shared meals with the Christ, and learned from him everything that they would need to teach the world of God’s steadfast love and unconditional forgiveness.

As Disciples we come together every Sunday to share the bread and cup. To remember the most horrible day and the most wonderful day in the history of the world, taking the bad with the good. To share our love with one another that we might go out and share it with everyone we encounter. On this day, World Communion Sunday, we share this meal in the knowledge that Christians everywhere celebrate with us. My sisters and brothers, come, share the Lord.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

An encounter along the way

The Regional Gathering of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Pacific Southwest is happening in a couple of weeks. I've been invited to write a litany for the opening worship. I was also asked to select two readers who will read their parts in their native languages and email their names and the litany to the planners by October 3rd so it could be translated and put into a PowerPoint presentation. Finally, I was told that someone is going to use my words in an original song that will be theme music for the Gathering. You know that news was fairly intimidating. "Someone's going to WHAT!?" As of right now, the Litany is not only not written, the writing has not begun.

Earlier today I was speaking with Mildred Butler, a member of the planning committee, about whether the Litany is to be responsive or just read by the three at the podium, and about the selection of readers. She reminded me that the theme is of covenant and journey, about our 200th anniversary and our future.

Immediately after we hung up a knock came on my office door. The young man standing there introduced himself as Alvaro Regalado, minister of a congregation of seekers in La Puente. He said he has recently become a Disciple and is studying with Pastor Alfredo Lopez in East Whittier so he can be a Disciples minister. He also said Pastor Alfredo told him there was another Disciples congregation in La Puente and that he should come meet me.

As he spoke to me about his literal journeys to San Bernardino and San Diego to understand who the Disciples are, and the meetings he has had about becoming a minister with Pastor Alfredo and our regional co-ministers I could feel the tears running down my face. I raised my hands in the air and said "God sent you here. I have been trying to decide who
should help me offer the call to worship at our Regional Gathering and who better than someone who is at the beginning of this journey, who is just entering into this covenant with us?" And so we prayed in the Spanish style, all of us speaking the gratitude and amazement in our hearts at the same time.

The writing will be easier now. The joy and amazement we shared at God bringing us together will glue all those other words together. God willing, they will be strung together in exactly the way we need them to be so that we can open our Gathering knowing that God is leading us. We may not know where we are going, but we know with certainty that God is with us as we set out/continue our journey in covenant with each other and with God.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Where is God Part 1

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

7 1So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." 3Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me--that is my petition--and the lives of my people--that is my request. 4For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." 5Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" 6Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

9Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." 10So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

9:20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor

This is the first week in which we take up the Reconciliation offering, which goes to support Reconciliation/Anti-racism efforts in our region and in the General Church. All over the country these funds help our church become less racist, less separated from itself along racial lines. One day we hope that the Reconciliation/Anti-racism effort will no longer be necessary in or out of church, that genocide based on racial differences will end, and that we won’t hear the kinds of accusations that we’ve been hearing tossed around in our nation’s politics recently.

On this Reconciliation Sunday I’ve chosen the passage from Esther which describes the hanging of a man who was about to perpetrate genocide and the resulting celebration by a people delivered from death. This reading is more appropriate than it might look at first. Not in a “What a perfect scripture passage” way but in a “This is exactly NOT the way we are supposed to be!” kind of way.

First – the most disturbing part of the story is skipped over. So Haman is hanged because he was an evil man and a festival is proclaimed. Yay! Evil is punished. But the committee that chooses the lectionary readings skipped about one and a half chapters in between those two events. Here’s the gist of the skipped bits.

9:1 Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day, when the king's command and edict were about to be executed, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain power over them, but which had been changed to a day when the Jews would gain power over their foes, 2the Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who had sought their ruin; and no one could withstand them, because the fear of them had fallen upon all peoples. 3All the officials of the provinces, the satraps and the governors, and the royal officials were supporting the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. 4For Mordecai was powerful in the king's house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces as the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful. 5So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. 6In the citadel of Susa the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred people.
9: 16 Now the other Jews who were in the king's provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and gained relief from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder. 17This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness.

The Jews, saved from death, turned on everyone who was prejudiced against them and killed them all – 75,500 of them. And no punishment from the king – he approved, or at least, didn’t disapprove. He wasn’t a very compassionate or merciful sort of guy.

The very short version of this story which a lot of us would have learned in Sunday School is that the king had his first Queen executed because one time she didn’t come when he called so he could show her off to all the guests at one of his banquets after they’d all become drunk. Esther became queen after a competition of sorts between all the beautiful young women of the nation by following the advice of her uncle Mordecai. His advice included not telling anyone she was a Jew or that Mordecai was her uncle. She gained the king’s trust when she passed on to him news that two of his advisors were plotting to have him assassinated, which she’d learned from Mordecai. One day the king’s highest advisor noticed that Mordecai refused to bow to him as though he was king, and he was so angry about this lack of respect that he decided to have Mordecai killed. And not just Mordecai, but all those pesky Jewish captives in Babylon. And the king agreed. But Esther made a feast for the king which pleased him so much that he offered her anything she wanted, and that’s when she revealed that she, too, was one of the captive people and begged for their deliverance. And we know how the story ends. Haman is hanged, her people slaughtered everyone who was prejudiced against them and a festival was declared which continues down to this day.

A word about racism. In Esther’s day there was no such thing as racism as we understand it. Prejudice and bigotry over nationalism, cultural differences, and religion existed, but race wasn’t an issue until many centuries later when it was used to help justify European colonization of the rest of the world.

No, the problem here wasn’t racially motivated, or even religiously motivated. It was an issue of nationalism. Esther’s people didn’t assimilate into the Babylonian empire as they had been expected to. They always kept themselves separate and continued to pray that one day they would be able to return to Judah. This alone would have upset any king’s advisor. And then for Mordecai to refuse to lay flat on his face when Haman went past – well, that was that as far as Haman was concerned.

Second – where is God in this story?? If you read the book of Esther, you will find that God isn’t mentioned even once in the entire book! Not one time! So they can’t claim “God told us to kill 75,500 people.” This was something the Jews did all on their own with no heavenly direction and no one to blame. They were simply getting revenge on their enemies with the king’s approval. And although it doesn’t say I suspect they were taking out four generations of frustration at their exile on their captives as well. No reconciliation there. No forgiveness. No restraint.

God does not direct us to revenge. Not as individuals or as nations. “Vengeance s mine, says the Lord.” Rather than revenge, God directs us to reconcile with our enemies, with those who disagree with us, with those who are different from us in any way.

Reconciliation means “to cause to exist in harmony” and “to bring into balance”. We use the word reconciliation in our denomination almost as a synonym for anti-racism, but it is so much more than just not acting out on racial prejudice. It means living in harmony with each other. Just as a song has different parts, different tunes that all go together to make a beautiful sounding whole, so harmony among people must have differences as well. To be reconciled to one another doesn’t mean that we need to be all alike. It doesn’t even mean existing in total agreement with each other. To be reconciled to one another means living according to God’s direction. To forgive each other as we are forgiven by God. To love one another as we are loved by God.

It is in order that we all be reconciled to one another and to God that Jesus was sent to teach us, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

Before we knew Christ, before we understood his teachings, the Word of God, we could seek revenge. We could hate. But now that we are in Christ, we can’t do that any more. We can’t even hate those who hate us, but must find a way to reconcile, to live in harmony with even our enemies.

On this Reconciliation Sunday let us give not just our money, but also our hearts to the effort of reconciling ourselves to each other and especially to God. Let us make an example to all the world by living in harmony with our brothers and sisters, regardless of the differences or disagreements between us. Let us live in such a way that a slaughter like the one that took place in Babylon in Esther’s day can’t ever happen again. Let us live in the way Jesus taught us, that all the hatred and prejudice and feelings of superiority of one over another may be erased, that all the nations of the world may be reconciled and healed, in God’s name.

For the Healing of the nations 668

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Performance Anxiety

I know that the title I've used is typically used in a completely different setting, but lately that's how I've been feeling about blogging and even tweeting. I mean, when you happen to mention Thich Nhat Hanh in a retweet from @Disciplesworld and then get a follower with 25,000 followers who says "look forward to reading your tweets" - Y'know??

And it's not just my newest follower, although I must admit I knew right away that the Thich Nhat Hanh retweet is what drew that particular person to my profile. What if people from my church read my tweets or my Facebook status updates? I'm pretty safe with what I say on my blog which gets very few hits and even fewer comments. But then I re-post that every where...

I feel inadequate. Somehow I feel that those 140 characters now have to be fraught with meaning. Is a tweet saying "I'm sitting on the patio petting the bunny and talking to God" sufficiently existential or mindful or spiritual? Can I even think about tweeting something totally banal when I'm trying to live up to some standard or ideal I've made up for myself?

I think it always comes down to the same question for most people. Am I good enough? We state it differently for different situations. Will I get to keep my job or am I on the lay-off list? Will the cute boy in my class like me? Will I win the contest? Are my prayers sincere enough, strong enough, beautifully worded enough for God to pay attention? Am I working hard enough to bring new people into the church and take care of the ones who are already there? And is this what life is all about anyway? Performance? Size? Frequency of Success? Getting to the finish line?

The one thing I do know, when I stop to really consider it, is that I am good enough for God. I don't always remember to stop and consider. But when I do, I know. God loves me no matter what. God doesn't care whether my tweets and updates and blog entries are well written, meaningful and perfectly spiritual in nature. God just cares that I do the best I can with what I have.

So I guess I'll just write what I am called to write at any given moment. I won't worry so much about my audience, because my real audience has already approved what I say. I'll just write and post what I write, and if it pleases you that's a bonus.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Hero or Sidekick?

Proverbs 31:10-31 NRSV
A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
‘Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.’
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Today and for the next couple of months we will be looking at stories from the Hebrew Bible. These are the stories that Jesus grew up on, that he learned from his parents and from the rabbis. Stories that formed the way he would later teach his disciples, who in turn teach us. Today we look at the passage about the capable woman from Proverbs. It’s no Accident that Proverbs opens and closes with a woman who personifies Wisdom. First Lady Wisdom who calls out from the busiest street corner chastising those who don’t seek her and blessing those who do, reminding everyone that the beginning of wisdom is fear of God. And here, the capable woman.

This is passage we often use in funerals to memorialize a beloved wife and mother, and hardly ever at any other time. Here is the woman who serves everyone else first. She’s the first one up and the last to bed. She cares for her family and her employees. She’s good at everything! She cooks and cleans and weaves and sews and grows crops and sells goods and provides for her household and everyone loves her! Seemingly the perfect woman And she makes us feel inadequate. No way can we ever live up to this ideal.

Perfectionism may be the worst curse we can live with. Trying to live up to the ideals of our society is bad enough – you can never be too rich or too thin or too fit, apparently. But then to have the Bible lift up this woman as “capable.” It’s too much to expect of anyone. It was comforting to me to learn that in Hebrew the word translated here as capable means something like a warrior, strong and worthy. Like a cross between Zena and Gabrielle or maybe Wonder Woman. And that she isn’t really an ideal that we’re expected to live up to. She is the embodiment of all that comes before, the one who has learned all the lessons in Proverbs and puts them to use. Oh, so we just take all these lessons and do our best to live by them. Got it. We can do that. That’s the point of Proverbs, after all. It is the collected wisdom of Israel, what the children were taught as the grew up and sayings they repeated among themselves when the wisdom of the ages was required. We still do that with Proverbs, as we are supposed to.

I’ve been watching a lot of Disney lately. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still watching the news and my favorite crime shows – CSI, Law and Order, Bones. But the world just seems so rude and ugly that I’m also watching Disney to escape from some of the ugliness out there. On Disney programs Good always wins at the end and Bad is always punished. There’s usually someone who seems to have it all, wants more, and is on their way to get fame and fortune, but the one who works selflessly to take care of the less fortunate always gets the great reward at the end. It’s nice, and it’s so not the way the world really is. It’s the opposite of the reality shows that pit people against each other, expecting them to lie, cheat or whatever in order to gain the prize. There’s just something wrong with lifting up manipulation and scheming as the way to win. But it seems to be the model these days. That’s why it is a such a big deal when we see people stepping out and selflessly giving of themselves for someone else.

One Disney movie I’ve enjoyed is Sky High, the story of goings on at a high school for the children of Super-Heroes. It’s mostly about the coming of age of the son of the two greatest super heroes in the world, but it’s also a story about refusing to bow to the status quo. Layla, who has the power to make plants do pretty much whatever she wants, refuses to take part in the very public sorting out of students as Hero or Sidekick. She has super powers but won’t be part of what is essentially public humiliation for the less gifted. During the climactic showdown between good and evil she finally uses her powers in self-defense only to hear the villain whine “I thought you were a sidekick.” She proudly states “I am.” She wouldn’t use her super powers to gain status or preferential treatment, but only to help others. She stood against the system because it denigrated and oppressed one class of people. Layla is a real hero, if you ask me.

But that’s Disney. And Disney isn’t reality. Luckily, we know that real people stand against the status quo and wrong doing all the time.

It was all over the news and the internet all week that at the MTV awards singer Kanye West interrupted a young Country singer’s acceptance speech because he thought Beyonce should have gotten the award. A lot of fuss was made about his bad behavior during the week. And in the normal course of things Beyonce and the young singer Taylor would have the spent the week touring the talk shows complaining about him and all that. But that didn’t happen this time. Instead, in response to Kanye West’s bad behavior, which just echoed the kind of rude and uncaring behavior we have seen way too much of lately – Beyonce reached out with love and care, giving up HER moment of glory to a young woman who had never stood in that place before. Taylor was able to thank those who helped her get the award, and Beyonce got a hug. She acted with grace, with the kind of love Christians are supposed to show for each other. She just quietly did the right thing without saying anything about the reason for her action. She gave up her time in the spotlight even though our society might think that’s slightly nuts, and then refused to capitalize on it. Beyonce is a hero, a Christian woman who acted with wisdom and love.

On the news Thursday night I saw a story about a group of young women from Compton who had all won a particular award that would give them each a scholarship and an opportunity to go to DC to meet the President. At the last moment the organization presenting the awards learned that one of the award recipients was Hispanic, not African American, and they denied her the scholarship. Upon hearing this, her five African American classmates who also received these scholarships turned them down. Most people would have said, “Aw, that’s a bummer. We’ll get you a souvenir in DC. See you when we get back.” But these girls would not accept an award that discriminated against their friend and classmate because of her race. All six girls worked really hard to win the award and they weren’t going to leave out their friend. And this becomes even a bigger deal when you realize that most of the violence where they live is between black gangs and Hispanic gangs. Most of the violence and hatred where they live falls along racial lines. Their solidarity crosses those very same racial lines. These girls are absolutely heroes. These are Christian girls who behaved in the way they have been taught to behave in church – standing up for what is right, what is true, what is loving, regardless of what the consequences may be for them personally.

Mark 9:33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" 9:34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 9:35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

Those disciples did get themselves in trouble pretty regularly, didn’t they? To be fair to them, they only knew the way of the world. They may have learned Proverbs, but very few people actually lived them. The whole point of the Capable Woman passage is to show people what it would look like if they lived in Wisdom. So it was only normal that the disciples would fight over who was going to sit at Jesus’ right hand when he came into his kingdom, or who would be his deputy, his most valued assistant. And frankly, it’s really hard for anyone to get “the first must be last.” That’s really the point of the capable woman. Here is someone who is last in society’s eyes – a woman – being lifted up as ideal. The perfect partner, which makes us understand that her ideal mate will be her match in all things as well. Honest, upright and wise, one who is known in the city gates, a giver of justice and a leader. One who selflessly serves his community as she does. One who is lifted up because of his service to God’s people, as she is. Their various enterprises prosper, not because they are manipulative and scheming, but because they are honest and forthright in all things. Helping the needy is at the top of their list of things to do because it is the right thing to do, neither an afterthought nor a means of gaining fame among their peers. They don’t seek recognition but they receive it. These are those who will become first, because they are servants to all. Not doormats – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Jesus teaches that we are to do the opposite of what the world expects, to put ourselves in a position to help, to lead without asking for notice. The way Disney’s Layla and the music world’s Beyonce and Compton’s five young award recipients did. And the way of the capable woman from Proverbs. As Christians we are expected to stand up against the status quo, to stand with to oppressed and marginalized. As Christians we are not to be part of the system. We are not to be part of the problem. We are to bring the solution, and that solution will always come from a position of love. The solution will always come from a position of service. As Christians we don’t ask what’s in it for me. Rather we want to know what we can do for you.

In the words of the hymn “The world behind me, the cross before me.” The world is the greed, the manipulation, the scheming, the political posturing, the fears and worries, it’s all the sins that hold us back, that keep us from living up to what God desires for us. The cross is resurrection and new life, walking forward into God’s kingdom on earth, into a way of life different from any other. A life of service and love to and for all of God’s children, all of God’s creation. A life of wisdom, which begins with love of God, like that of the capable woman. A life in which we are heroes, like those we have heard about today. A life modeled on the life of Jesus Christ, who taught us everything we know about God and about living. My brothers and sisters, together let us sing out our decision to follow Jesus.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Is anyone listening?

Proverbs 1:20-33 (The Message)

20-21 Lady Wisdom goes out in the street and shouts.
At the town center she makes her speech.
In the middle of the traffic she takes her stand.
At the busiest corner she calls out:

22-24 "Simpletons! How long will you wallow in ignorance?
Cynics! How long will you feed your cynicism?
Idiots! How long will you refuse to learn?
About face! I can revise your life.
Look, I'm ready to pour out my spirit on you;
I'm ready to tell you all I know.
As it is, I've called, but you've turned a deaf ear;
I've reached out to you, but you've ignored me.

25-28 "Since you laugh at my counsel
and make a joke of my advice,
How can I take you seriously?
I'll turn the tables and joke about your troubles!
What if the roof falls in,
and your whole life goes to pieces?
What if catastrophe strikes and there's nothing
to show for your life but rubble and ashes?
You'll need me then. You'll call for me, but don't expect
an answer.
No matter how hard you look, you won't find me.

29-33 "Because you hated Knowledge
and had nothing to do with the Fear-of-God,
Because you wouldn't take my advice
and brushed aside all my offers to train you,
Well, you've made your bed—now lie in it;
you wanted your own way—now, how do you like it?
Don't you see what happens, you simpletons, you idiots?
Carelessness kills; complacency is murder.
First pay attention to me, and then relax.
Now you can take it easy—you're in good hands."

A few weeks ago I sat down with a colleague to plan our worship services and select the scriptures I would preach on from now through Christmas. As I read the lectionary selections for this part of the year I realized that the Old Testament readings all came from my favorite books – Proverbs, Ruth, Esther, and Job. These are stories that Jesus would have learned, that informed his knowledge of how we are to live, that shaped the way he told the stories that have come down to us. They are stories that we very often do not hear or study. So I have chosen to preach on the passages from these books over the next few months, beginning with proverbs.

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of sayings and poetry. It is the collective wisdom of the people of Israel, put together and written down during or possibly right after the exile in Babylon and attributed to Solomon because of his fabled wisdom. The first few lines describe what will be found within, proverbs for learning about wisdom and instruction, and states clearly that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Proverbs begins with the words of Lady Wisdom and ends with a celebration of the capable woman, who has taken the words of Lady Wisdom and lived them perfectly, an example to all who read this book.

Wisdom is a difficult thing to attain. We know about education and we know about intelligence. We even know how to measure those things with grades and degrees and IQ tests. But Wisdom is none of those things. We have all heard way too many stories about ivory tower professors who don’t know the first thing about life outside the university, geniuses who don’t pay attention to the real world enough to wear matching socks. We’ve probably had experiences with folks, like a fresh out of seminary pastor or a very young doctor, who has a brand new degree and knows everything that they were given to learn from books, but who still have much to learn when it comes to serving the people they have been given to serve. With time and a willingness to learn, wisdom can come.

According to the dictionary Wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. It is the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge and good judgment. Wisdom comes after thinking, considering, using common sense and knowledge of the community instead of leaping to conclusions or making decisions without sufficient evidence. I heard a lot about evidence at jury duty. Wisdom comes after prayer,. Wisdom is what we receive from reading and hearing the word of God here and in the teachings of the Christ.

You may wonder why Wisdom is represented as a woman. You are in good company. Scholars have been asking that question for literally thousands of years. One of the more popular theories is that Lady Wisdom may be modeled after the real roles of teacher, counselor and household planner played by women in their homes and communities. Women were not generally educated as men were but did possess wisdom on dealing with life as it was taught to them by their mothers and learned through experience. Many of us learned how to deal with other people and the kinds of situations that come up daily from wisdom we received from our own mothers. In novels I’m reading about life on the Arapaho reservation, wisdom comes from the grandmothers.

Wisdom is not restricted to women, of course. I was on jury duty this week. At the beginning of the selection process the judge told all the prospective jurors that it was important to have a variety of people on every jury, each one bringing their own brand of wisdom, their own life experience and understanding.

20-21 Lady Wisdom goes out in the street and shouts.
At the town center she makes her speech.
In the middle of the traffic she takes her stand.
At the busiest corner she calls out:

22-24 "Simpletons! How long will you wallow in ignorance?
Cynics! How long will you feed your cynicism?
Idiots! How long will you refuse to learn?

The marketplace is filled with voices. From the telephone, tv, radio, and computer screen we hear voices and see images that grab for our attention. My days are filled with blogs and tweets and Facebook updates, with calls on my cell phone and house phone and office phone. All of those voices vying for my attention, many trying to convince me of one thing or another, trying to sell me a product or an idea. And amid all the voices, all the noise, all the distractions, Wisdom is trying to get my attention . No wonder she has to stand on the corner shouting. It’s the only way she can make herself heard over all things that go on every day keeping us from hearing.

And it seems that people simply are not hearing her. We’ve seen way too much of not-wisdom lately, the results of people just not thinking and listening to the voice of reason. The Health Care Reform argument, all the screaming and rudeness during town hall meetings, and then on Wednesday evening, a Congressman interrupting the President’s speech and calling him a liar in public. That California Assemblyman bragging about his sexual conduct in front of a microphone – and not knowing it was turned on is no excuse. The furor over whether an Olympic caliber runner may have been born with the sexual organs of both genders and whether that disqualifies her from competition as a woman. And on September 11th, CNN reporting, without any verification, that the Coast Guard had a terrorist boat in their sights and had fired on it when all that was happening was a routine training exercise in the Potomac. These are none them wise moves. None of these are decisions made with wisdom and understanding.

And so She calls out, like a street vender, trying to get our attention, to make us understand.
About face! I can revise your life.
Look, I'm ready to pour out my spirit on you;
I'm ready to tell you all I know.
As it is, I've called, but you've turned a deaf ear;
I've reached out to you, but you've ignored me.

Over and over again, God has tried to get our attention, like Lady Wisdom in the marketplace. Over and over God has sent prophets and judges, preachers and teachers. And yet, we don’t listen. Like children who refuse to believe their parents know anything, we run off on our own will, chasing our desires. Seeking power and wealth instead of serving God’s children. For way too many it seems like the driving force is “what’s in it for me?” , “what do I stand to gain or lose from this situation?” instead of “how will this serve God?” This was the attitude of the leaders of Judah, and their attitude and behavior sent the people into exile in Babylon. With belated understanding, they wrote down these words of Wisdom:

25-28 "Since you laugh at my counsel
and make a joke of my advice,
How can I take you seriously?
I'll turn the tables and joke about your troubles!
What if the roof falls in,
and your whole life goes to pieces?
What if catastrophe strikes and there's nothing
to show for your life but rubble and ashes?
You'll need me then. You'll call for me, but don't expect
an answer.
No matter how hard you look, you won't find me.

29-33 "Because you hated Knowledge
and had nothing to do with the Fear-of-God,
Because you wouldn't take my advice
and brushed aside all my offers to train you,
Well, you've made your bed—now lie in it;
you wanted your own way—now, how do you like it?
Don't you see what happens, you simpletons, you idiots?
Carelessness kills; complacency is murder.

The threat here came true for Judah, as it did for Israel before that. Their countries were defeated, the people led away in chains to servitude under the enemy. They had refused to believe God’s word spoken by the prophets. They had stopped following God’s direction to care for the poor and downtrodden. They never did seem to get the point that God didn’t want sacrifices of gold and animals and incense. God didn’t care about regular attendance at the temple. The nation of Israel was torn apart and destroyed twice because the leaders didn’t get the point that Lady Wisdom makes here. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed twice because the leaders didn’t get the point that Lady Wisdom makes here. The sacrifice God wants from us is our love and obedience. God demands our presence not at church every Sunday, but in his kingdom every day. Making decisions of every kind with wisdom, following the directions we find here and in the Gospels. Reaching out without judgment or prejudice to care for those in need of our help.

The most important thing that we know is that God didn’t just turn away from Israel. When they repented, when they turned back to God, when they began praying and offering their lives to God again, God welcomed them back. God forgave all their transgressions, all the many years they had ignored the teachings, rejected God’s love. This is what Jesus grew up knowing, what he learned at his mother’s feet and from Proverbs and the prophets, and this is what he made sure to teach us. That no matter what we do, no matter how serious our sins, no matter how long we turned away from God, we are loved and we are forgiven. For hear the words of Lady Wisdom.

First pay attention to me, and then relax.
Now you can take it easy—you're in good hands."

Let our lives be made new each day through the Wisdom God has given to us in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, bringer of Holy Wisdom.

Monday, August 24, 2009

If necessary, use words

In the morning worship today I preached a sermon titled "Far be it from me" from Joshua 24:14-18. It's the passage in which Joshua said "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." Not, we'll believe in the Lord or we'll worship the Lord or we'll serve the church, but we will serve the Lord. And I talked about how serving the Lord meant serving the least of our brothers and sisters, helping those who are unable to help themselves for whatever reason. I was very happy that my friend Eva G had come to visit our church and was going to stay for the second service.

Normally I preach pretty much the same thing at both services. I may adjust the sermon for the particular congregation attending the afternoon service, mostly folks who for one reason or another felt rejected by Church at some point in their lives. Today I was fairly confident that the sermon could stand as it was and I was all ready to start the afternoon service when Something Happened.

A couple came to the door looking for help - food or bus fare or anything we could do for them. This happens pretty often in our neighborhood, so I invited them to come sit in the air conditioning and rest. I told them to help themselves to the goodies that one of our members had brought in for the Fellowship Hour between the two services. And I asked where they were coming from or going to. The young man said "I just want to find someplace for her to rest. She's pregnant and she needs to rest." So I got out my trusty iPhone and texted all the people who sometimes show up for the afternoon worship service. "Do we know anyone who can help a homeless pregnant woman? Even just for 1 night?"

Within a minute at most I had received 2 phone calls and 3 text messages. I called the numbers these folks recommended and answered several more phone calls and text messages. Within an hour we had found shelter for the young woman and her fiance for the next several days.

I never did preach that sermon in the afternoon service. In fact, we didn't do most of the things we normally do in worship. We did sing a little, and we prayed together. But mostly we served God's children to the best of our ability. We fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless. Instead of hearing a sermon we lived one, following the instructions Francis of Assisi is supposed to have given other monks. "Preach always. If necessary, use words."

(The sermon "Far be it from me" is posted on this blog)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Far Be It From Me

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’
Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’

(For those reading this sermon. Today’s anthem is “Wade in the Water,” The ending is God’s gonna trouble the water)

God’s gonna trouble the water . . . .

It seems to me that God has troubled the waters here lately. It seems to me that God’s been troubling the waters of complacency, the waters of apathy, the waters of fear, the waters of hatred, the waters of justice, the waters of compassion – all the waters are troubled and moving in response to the Spirit. People are coming out of the woodwork to stand up for what they believe. And whether or not we agree with what other people believe, the fact that more and more people are becoming involved in the conversation is a good thing.

Look at what’s been happening just this week.

On Wednesday afternoon I was part of a conference call that included the White House Director of Public Affairs, Melody Barnes, Disciples General Minister and President Sharon Watkins, about 15 other faith leaders, President Barack Obama, and a lot of other persons of faith. On the day of the call they expected about 10,000 to be listening in. By the time the call was over they said there were perhaps as many as 30,000. By the next day they had determined that some 140,000 persons of faith were listening to each other and to the President on the issue of health care reform. There were testimonies, prayers and statements by clergy and lay people, by Jews, Christians, and Moslems. There were questions by sincerely concerned people who were worried that their beliefs on abortion and end of life issues would be trampled on by changes in our health care system. Some of us spent the entire conversation sending out tweets (like very short emails) so that others could sort of keep up with what was going on in the conversation. And the conversation continued on the internet for hours after the call ended. I would say that everyone was happy about how the call went, but we all know that wouldn’t be true. I believe, however, that most were happy that the call happened – that the lines of communication are open in a very real and productive way. This is good.

On Friday this week the ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, voted on some very controversial resolutions during their Assembly. The first was to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize same-gender unions. The vote was 619-402. The second was to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships, by a vote of 559 to 451. People all around the country, perhaps all around the world, sat watching and listening as the debates and speeches continued. And I would say that everyone celebrated, but we all know that wouldn’t be true. I did notice, however, that even those who voted in opposition seem mostly to still be willing to talk, to keep the conversation going, and to accept the decision made by the majority of those voting. This is good.

It had seemed for a while as if some folks thought that the minute our nation had a change in administration that everything would change instantly. That foreclosures would end and unemployment would go down and the economy would be healed and everyone would be equal in all ways in the eyes of the law. As if the President was Moses and only had to extend his staff across the Nile to deliver us safely to the other side without any real effort on our parts. People have begun to realize that we can’t just sit back and expect to be led into the promised land of justice and compassion for all persons without any effort on our parts. You’ll remember that Israel wandered the desert for forty years until Moses and all those he’d led out of Egypt had died, because of their disobedience. It took Joshua’s leadership and commitment on the part of the Israelites to finally cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

These Israelites, the children and grandchildren of the ones who had left Egypt with Moses, had learned something from the mistakes of their parents. They knew what God was capable of doing. They’d heard the stories of the plagues and crossing the Nile. They’d experienced the column of smoke and fire guiding their way and daily manna for food. And because they knew what God had done for them, they were quite willing to be obedient. In fact, the whole book of Joshua is filled with stories of obedience. God tells Joshua what to do, he tells Israel and they are successful in everything they attempt. Well, except for one instance when they lost a battle because one man had kept some loot instead of destroying it. So he and his entire family were put to death to atone for the disobedience, and everything went perfectly well after that.

So why is it, then, that Joshua made that speech about serving other Gods? Why did he have to make the point that he and his house would serve the Lord? Why did Israel have to respond “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord . .” Because Israel had a history of forgetting. From the time of Joseph to the time of Moses the Israelites living in Egypt had almost forgotten about their God. They had worshipped the gods of Egypt. Joshua knew that, left on their own, they were quite likely to wander off and worship the local gods. Each tribe would be living in a different part of the land, so they wouldn’t be all together anymore. There would be distractions and temptations. They’d make a small offering to the fertility god to assure a good harvest, just in case Yahweh wasn’t paying attention that day. Or they’d give in to their mother-in-law’s insistence that they show up at a new moon festival just to keep her quiet. They’d slowly start wondering if they really had to give their best 10% to the Levites. After all, they needed that money to build a bigger house, or expand their business. And why should they take of the aliens who wandered into their cities? They’d had to make their own way, hadn’t they? They’d forget about taking care of those who couldn’t care for themselves, who had no family, who were different in one or another. And they would become like everyone else.

Joshua was right to be concerned. After his death the book of Judges tells us that every forty years the new generation would forget. They’d follow the ways of the world around them and forget what God had done for them. They’d stop tithing and praying and making sacrifices. But most of all they would forget the Shema – they would forget to love their God with all their being, and they would forget to love their neighbor as themselves. They would forget about compassion and justice and mercy. They would forget to serve the Lord.

“Far be it from me to forget what God has done for me.” I hear that from people all the time. They’ll start showing up for church and wanting to study the Bible and be part of events and wanting to share their faith with everyone. And then, we don’t see them again. Sometimes it’s because life happened. They’re working more hours. They need to rest on Sunday. It’s the only day they have for family time. They’ll be back after football season. They forget, and it doesn’t even take forty years. Maybe because they aren’t given a chance to serve.

Here’s the thing. Joshua didn’t say “me and my house, we will believe in the Lord. Or worship the Lord. Or give thanks to the Lord.” He said, “ . . as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” And he didn’t say “as for me and my house we will serve the temple.” There was no temple yet. There was just God, and the way to serve God was to serve God’s people. Today there is a church and many believe that we serve God by serving the church. But even today the way to serve God is to serve God’s people. Church is where we come to worship and to study scripture. Church is a convenient place to organize ways to serve God’s people. But the one we serve is first and always God.

Just as the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua gained their Promised Land, so we must work together under the leadership of our Lord Jesus Christ to gain the kingdom promised by God. And just as Israel’s kingdom was here on earth, so is the one we strive for. To gain that kingdom we must trouble the waters in God’s service. We must stand up for what we believe to be right. When we speak out, individually and as church, promoting compassion, love, acceptance, and care for those who are outcaste for whatever reason, then we are doing right. When we serve in ways that ease the burdens of our brothers and sisters, then we are doing right. Then we are truly serving our Lord. Let us serve God, doing the work of reconciling the whole world to God, as partners in Christ’s service.

Called as Partners in Christ’s Service 453