Monday, January 1, 2018

A Past and a Future

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13                                                                                   

For God has put a sense of past and a future into their minds…..

I have a riddle for you…WWJDONYE?  Did you ever wonder or think about what Jesus did to celebrate his New Years Eve?  Although Jewish, and would have celebrated the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah, somehow back then they had to have marked the end of one Julian calendar year from the next. I think that he probably spent the evening with friends, maybe some family, I don’t imagine that it was too wild and crazy, although who knows, he was in his late 20’s early 30’s and we know those are the years for sowing wild oats.  

Maybe at midnight he went outside with some earthenware pots and stick utensils and made lots of racket, waking up the dogs in that sleepy town of Nazareth.  Or maybe him and his buddy, Peter lit off some homemade bottle rockets back behind the temple when the high priest had just fallen asleep.  Or just maybe he took that fishing boat out for a midnight cruise on the Sea of Galilee sipping a glass of fine vintage wine – you know, only the best for Jesus.  And then after a glass or two retelling some of his more intriguing and thought provoking parables to the delight of his passengers, their voices echoing loudly across the water and into the quiet valley around the sea. 

Who knows?  What we know is that years did pass one from the other.  There is a moment in everyone’s life when one year is defined from the next.  For Jesus there was one New Year’s Eve in which he knew that he would not see the next year through.  In fact he knew that it would be his last new year’s eve.  Knowing Hebrew scripture as he did so well, maybe he consoled himself with the words of Qohelet, the teacher, that “for everything there really is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”.  His time had come.  The natural order of things in his life will soon come to a halt.  Not my will, but thy will be done he prays.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

So often this passage is read at funerals when someone has died to ease the pain and grief of death but it actually contains a much broader message, one of the vicissitudes of life and of assurance.  Assurance that there is order not chaos, that there is a rhyme and reason and above all hope.

Jesus, I don’t think, would have passively entered the new year, I believe that he would have taken an inventory of his life, did he honor Mary and Joseph, did he handle his power and authority with humility and not abusively?  Could he live out the rest of his life as a faithful Jew and lover of the law?  Were there relationships that he had to reconcile?  He certainly had the capacity for deep and honest reflection and prayer.  I imagine that his final new year’s eve was spent in quiet contemplation of the meaning of his life and God’s greater purpose.   He had a heightened sense of the past and the future while being in the present.
Today is the last day of 2017.  It’s time to wrap things up for another year before crossing the threshold into a new one.  How was it for you?  Close your eyes and let’s take a moment to think back on 2017.  Does it bring you joy or pain?  If we take the metaphor of a book.  Are you ready to close the book entitled 2017?  Are you slamming it shut?  Are you finishing the last chapter and reaching gently to put it down with the story lingering in your thoughts, warming your heart?  Have you even finished the book or are you stuck in one chapter?  What keeps you from reading the end of the book?  Just think for a moment….

Some years, without a doubt, are more difficult and challenging than others.  Some years bring life and some death.  Some years bring abundance and some scarcity.  Some years do result in irreconcilable relationships and some years produce much love.  Some years are wonderful and some just plain rotten and, there are years that contain it all, a roller coaster ride of emotion.

Ecclesiastes speaks of the great passages of life, some in which we have no control over, some in which we do.  It says that life is not random or erratic but really pretty orderly.  That there is a time, maybe not a reason, but a time for everything that happens and that God has put a sense of the past and future into our minds to give us hope and to let us be co-authors of our lives.  Our past informs our today but it does not have to define our tomorrow.  We do have options in what the coming year will mean.

If you need forgiveness, ask for it.  If you need to forgive, then work on it.  If you need healing, pray for it, pray for God to open your eyes to all the ways in which your healing will emerge.  If you are lost, choose a path and go down it because if it’s the wrong path you’ll quickly discover it and you can amend it, and if it is the right path you’ll find yourself skipping merrily along.  If your dreams go up in smoke, build new dreams.  And if you are just grateful to be alive then cling to it and cherish it and give thanks to God.

In the fourth quartet, ‘Little Gidding’, of T.S. Eliot’s beautiful poem ‘Four Quartets’, he writes, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.  What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning.”

2017 is an end.  2018 is a beginning.  How grateful I am that God has brought me to this point.  I hope you are too because this new year can and will bring healing and hope and new opportunity.  How can it not?  There IS another voice awaiting us in that future as Eliot pens, calling us into next year.

That voice is God’s voice.  It is heard in the angel voices, there will be joy.  It is heard through the gifts of the Magi, life is a precious treasure.  It is heard through the shepherd’s actions, I will guide you and take care of you, I will seek you out when you are lost and feed you when you are hungry.  And God’s voice is most poignantly heard in the birth of Jesus the Christ; I will redeem you and call you home.  You see God is never silent but continually speaks to us, year after year after year.

I wish for you and pray for you only the best in 2018.  May your challenges be met with God’s grace guiding you.  May your joys be shared so that others may know joy too.  May your riches enable you to do great things and may your poverty bring about a clearer vision and strength of character.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be and abide with you now, and all your future nows.


Mary's Hope

Luke 1:39-56  Advent IV

The sun was brilliant at Ein Kerem, a small and quiet suburb west of Jerusalem the day that I visited in 2007, now ten years ago.  It’s an artsy little community with lots of ceramic and jewelry crafters but it also has a lot of historical significance for Christians.  It is here that the current Church of the Visitation was built in 1937 completed in 1955 by architect Antonio Barluzzi.  But, of course, like everything else in the Holy Land what we see today is contemporary compared to what lies below it.  Layer upon layer of history is built into this holy place.

The Church of the Visitation is where it is told that Mary sang her beautiful song, the Magnificat.  So said Helena of Constantinople, Constantine’s mother when she declared this site the home of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father.  Zechariah, as you remember from my sermon two weeks ago was married to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin.  Well the crusaders took the spot and built a church over it.  By 1480 it was abandoned and it had fallen into disrepair until the Franciscans bought it from an Arab family in 1679.  They spent many years excavating and finally built the current church by Barluzzi.

So it was into the sunny courtyard of the church that I walked and found a statue of two women facing one another in robes.  Both pregnant and showing their bellies. On the wall behind them are 42 tilled versions of the Magnificat in 42 different languages.   It was quiet that day and only the sound of birds nestled in the trees can be heard.  I walked into the sanctuary and a priest sat vigilant so I was quiet, trying not to disturb him.  I sat for a good long while, only something you can do when you are not with a tour group rushing you from site to site.  I began to think of this story of Mary and Elizabeth. Both women were vessels in God’s new ordering of Judea and the world.  It is here where hope began.

It is said that after the angel appeared to Mary to tell her of the impending birth of her child, she travelled from Nazareth to this place to visit Elizabeth.  Elizabeth too was with child.  After their embrace of greeting and joy possibly they sat under an olive or almond tree and sipped tea.  Maybe they strolled along a stone path and picked up the dried pomegranates that had fallen to the ground.  Perhaps Mary glanced out of Elizabeth’s kitchen window into the terraced Judean hillside and just pondered her future and what it all would mean.  We do know that when she saw Elizabeth she expressed her joy in the beautiful song, now known as the Magnificat.

Let us now hear the Gospel of Luke telling us the story:

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Mary’s faith must have been great for such a young, young woman.  While other girls her age were occupied with adolescent activities, Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit.  In the blink of an eye, her youthful womb had become a temple for the Christ who would be born some months later.  She understands her new role as best as she could and in faith, her soul, her body, her character, and her entire self magnifies the Lord. 

And so she sings. But by all strokes of the imagination she should not be singing this beautiful canticle; she should be crying buckets of tears because of her scandalous situation.  Poor, pregnant, single and living in the time of the Holy Roman Empire that was just awful for lowly people.  The odds were not in her favor, they were against her. 

In spite of her difficult, almost dire and extenuating situation she sings of being God’s favored one.  She sings of God’s strength in lifting up the lowly and scattering the proud, of how God has filled hungry bellies and has brought down the powers of oppression.

Her song expresses the needs of the poor and lowly, the marginalized and oppressed. Her song is an act of resistance; she did not retreat from what she was asked to do, her song is a proclamation.  Mary sings her song within this dichotomy of despair and anticipation.

Yet she chooses only hope because not only has God found favor with her, but in this act of divine commitment God has found favor with the world.  She praises God for this critical and much needed intervention into the human condition.  This is the God incarnate and she is filled with God’s saving grace.

For us the glory and joy of Christmas comes by way of this young and ordinary one who accepted God’s call into her life.  God sought her out and met her where she was and after that she did not look back.  She only looked forward with optimism and trust. 

Like with Mary, God meets you too where you are – wherever that might be and with whatever you have come into the sanctuary with today, God meets you and greets you, “favored one”.  We are all favored in God’s sight, now that’s something to sing about. 

How will you belt out the good news? How will you dare, like Mary to sing even though you have considered all of the facts?  What would your thanksgiving be to God?  What would your message be to the people? You see singing, it’s not about the degree of proficiency of music or the clarity of voice or even if you know the correct lyrics.  It’s about making a sound that praises God amidst the adversities of your life until your whole body trembles, with conviction and joy and in hope.

What we learn from Mary is that God does not seek out the perfect human being but rather takes us on in our uniqueness and fallen selves, all imperfect and gnarly to be favored and holy.  And there is so much grace in that. 

We know this is the season of joy, of good tidings, and of giving, but we can’t forget that all of this is preceded by God’s grace and that’s what gives us the conviction to be joyful.  God has found favor with you.  You are full of grace, full of the goodness of God, full of the Christ, the one who sets us free from earthly tribulation, full of hope that tomorrow will be better than today.  That within the errors of the human condition you are forgiven and asked to start anew.  So make room for Christ in your heart, like Mary made room for Christ in her womb and soon they only thing you will be able to do is to sing out, my soul glorifies the Lord!
God has broken into humanity through Mary.  Heaven knew that the world needed changing at that time.  And the world was changed.  Mary sings because of her youthful hope.  Hope that this child would be everything a mother dreams of, hope that this child would laugh and sing and skip happily in the fields, hope that this child might take care of her in old age.  Hope that what God was doing with her would be for the good of humanity.

It’s a big task to give birth and to give birth to Jesus, well, that’s a whole other story in and of itself.  And it is.  It is the Christian story of redemption and hope.  Transformation comes through this tiny babe and his young mother.  From this birth onward we have been charted for a new life and a new hope.   


Christmas Eve Meditation

December 24, 2017

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.

Finally some quiet.  The stores are closed, the packages wrapped, most people are home wherever home might be except for us churchgoers, and hopefully almost all travel has ended.  It’s Christmas Eve.  And Christ is born.  ‘A thrill of hope, [and] the weary world rejoices!’

You are familiar with that phrase because it is a line from the Christmas Carol, O Holy Night translated by John Dwight from a French poem in 1855.    I found it so compelling for this night because truly this is a weary world in which we live and most certainly we need a thrill of some hope if even just a tiny pin dot of light.  We need hope.

O Holy Night is a beloved carol but few people know of the origins of its story.  One night in 1847 in a small French town Placide Cappeau, a commissar of wine, was asked by his local clergy to write a poem for Christmas.  He was quite surprised because he was not really a church-goer.  But on his way to Paris by train he imagined what it would have been like to be in Bethlehem the night that Jesus was born and to witness his birth.  By the time he had reached Paris he had penned the poem ‘Cantique de Noel’.

Once finished though he knew it was more than just a poem so he asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams to compose some music.  Adolphe was a popular classical musician, often asked to compose music for orchestras and ballets.  But this was different because Adolphe was a Jew and he was being asked to write music for a day he didn’t celebrate or a theology that he did not embrace.   Nevertheless he did and the carol was sung at Christmas Mass only three weeks later after Cappeau received the request.

But there is more to the story, which makes this carol, ‘Cantique de Noel’, so poignant for us tonight.  The carol was well received all over France but when Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement and it was found out that Adolphe was a Jew, the Church uniformly denounced the carol from being sung.  The heads of the Church deemed it in poor musical taste and that there was a ‘total absence of the spirit of religion’ in it. 

But the determined French people continued to sing it each year in their homes, no one could stop them, and so an American composer, John Sullivan Dwight, heard it and brought it to America and translated it to English.  Now Dwight, what you must know, was an ardent abolitionist and saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ.

Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: "Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease." The text supported Dwight's view of slavery in the South.   The carol was published and  Dwight's English translation of "O Holy Night" quickly found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.[i]

Now there is even more to the story, part of which is legend, but we’ll save that for another night.  You see the important point of this carol was that it was birthed into a weary world much like ours today as the French then were preparing for another wave of revolution in 1848.   And when this carol came to American soil, it came to a divided America between the North and the South.

Even that night in which Jesus was born the prevailing mood in Israel was anything but hope.  It was weary too.  Under the Rome occupation, life was not easy.  Common people lived with the burden of religious requirements from the establishment without free expression of their own religious traditions.

So I’m not quite sure that the world has known anything other than weariness.  With each passing day there is shocking and demoralizing news that we hear; of fires and shootings, of hurricanes and nuclear threat, of war and terrorism, of censorship, of apathy, of broken relationships.  There is disillusionment everywhere and we yearn for wholeness and peace, hope and contentment.

But what is this thrill of hope that we yearn for?

Is it hoping the weather will be good for the family vacation or hoping that the St. Louis Cardinals will win the World Series, or hoping that mom will be making her delicious figgy pudding for Christmas?  While these are valid concerns of one’s heart, this sort of hope is reduced to merely something that we want to happen but have no real way of knowing whether at the end of the day it will.   It’s a finger crossed hope that everything will turn out exactly the way we want it to.  Yet the reality is that often life just doesn’t turn out the way we would like at times and the Cardinals will lose or it rains all week on vacation.  This kind of hope lacks conviction and fundamentally isn’t all that transformative to our lives.

But true hope does have the power to transform us because it gives us something solid to hang on to.   It is the hope of Bethlehem.  It is the hope that Mary birthed so many years ago.  It is Jesus who is our hope who will strengthen us for the challenges we face.  It is through him that we can ultimately hang onto hope amid the turmoil of life. He is the one who fulfilled the promise of the prophets so long ago that the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad and the desert shall blossom with the crocus. 

It is a hope that is based in profound love that what God has created is good, and that we are good, and that there is redemption close at hand.   We don’t have to be perfect, nor does the weary world have to be perfect for Christ to come and offer us true hope.  That’s what this night is about and what Christ’s birth offers us.

Oh yes, the weary world rejoices because yonder breaks a new a glorious morn!
The thrill of hope is within our reach, grab it, and never let it go.

Amen. Let it be so.

[i]  from "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" with permission of Zondervan.

Monday, October 16, 2017

For Such a Time as This

Esther 4: 9-14
Jews have a holiday that occurs once a year usually in March but sometimes it can occur in late February, it depends on the lunar cycle.  It’s Purim.  The Bible instructs that it should occur on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar.  This is one of the happiest holidays of the Jewish year, Jews all over the world engage in festive merry-making, dress in costumes and use noise-makers called graggers and these yummy triangular cookies with jam inside of them called Hamantaschen appear.  It is also a time in which Jews are instructed to give tzedakah or charity as the Bible says,

And Mordecai inscribed these things and sent letters to all the Jews… to enjoin them to make the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and the fifteenth day thereof, every year… a festive day: to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."1

You see Purim is the remembrance of a time long ago when in the city of Shushan, Persia a wicked man named Haman, an Amalekite, tried to kill the Jews but the Jewish queen Esther saved them with help from her cousin Mordecai. It’s not an historical account but a story written within an historical framework.  It's a celebration for Jews when the Megillah or scroll of Esther is read.  And although God is not named once in the entire Megillah, it’s a story of God’s providence and redemption and a story in which one woman, Esther, rises to the call to save the Jews from certain death.

Let’s hear our focus passage from the Megillah of Esther:

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

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

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

I want you to remember the phrase, ‘for such a time as this’ but first, let’s put this passage in context because it is a plot that is laced with twists and turn, and lots of complications. After the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah the people are taken into Babylonian captivity in what is known as the diaspora (Jews spread throughout the region). Persia conquers Babylon, some people return to Jerusalem and some stayed where they were which is the case for Esther and the Jews in Persia.

The plot simply is King Ahasuerus deposes Queen Vashti and then he holds a beauty pageant to find a new queen.  Esther is chosen.  Her cousin Mordecai discovers Haman’s plot to kill the Jews.  Haman was a vizier in the King’s court.  Mordecai tells Esther she needs to intercede. “For such a time as this”. Haman finds out and plots again to have Mordecai hanged but Esther tells the King about the plan to kill the Jews.  He finds out who was behind this all and of course it was Haman who then was hanged.  Mordecai is recognized as a good guy and the King sends out a decree that the 14th day of Adar a feast shall happen which is Purim.

The story all hinges on Esther who, by providence, happened to be the right person at the right time to do the job that needed to be done.  You might say she was called for a specific purpose in the pervading providence of God.

It is that way in life you know.  Sometimes you just happen to be the person who is available and willing to do a job and you are there at just the right time.  You often see people being interviewed on the news for being a hero because they helped or saved someone in distress.  They are unassuming bystanders who without hesitation intervened and helped to save someone. That’s what Mordecai was indicating to Esther when he said, you Esther were called to do this particular job, you were called for such a time as this. 

Sometimes we can plan and plan and plan and nothing pans out but then things just happen and you are in the right place, at the right time and bingo! You were able to effectuate good.  So you never know when you will be called into God’s service.  It’s about being open and willing to take a chance that what you are sensing is the right thing to do.  And it is about trusting that God can and will use you for greater purposes. 

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner notes:  “The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak … He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys … ‘Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”[i]

God is with you in your life journey make no mistake about that.  So the question is what  are you doing on and with your journey?  Are you letting God work through you in order that someone else can experience life giving justice and peace?
Next Sunday evening I hope that you will join me in ‘Conversations’. We are living in unusual times right now.  All you have to do is to look at the news or the paper and see that people are hurting in so many ways.  People have lost their homes and their livelihoods to natural disasters, people are dying when going to concerts and night clubs, people are the victims of hate, prejudice and bullying and it doesn’t look like any of this will stop in the near future.

For such a time as this we can gather together and talk.  We can talk about how this is all making us feel.  What does it do to your psyche every time you hear of such destruction?  How might we keep the faith when it seems as if evil has been unleashed around us?

For such a time as this we can pray about where God most needs us.  We live a pretty cushy and privileged life here, you have to admit.  But that doesn’t preclude us from rising up, rolling up our sleeves and doing some grunt work.  In fact, we have a responsibility to do so.  That’s what Jesus does and we are his followers so we must too.

For such a time as this we have been called into action.  Let us, like Esther rise to the occasion and be God’s messengers of hope, of peace, of justice.  There is no other time but now, for such is the time.


You Talkin’ To Me?

I Samuel 3: 1-14                                                                                             
This is the second week in October and the theme for preaching in October is vocation.  We explored it last week with the story of Moses being called by God through the burning bush.  We are now moving on to another story from the Hebrew Bible from the 1 Book of Samuel.  But first a little background.

The Period of the Judges is likened to the Wild West where shoot outs and ‘soil dove’ women took center stage.  The Hebrews – all 12 tribes - had banded together as the tribal confederacy in a defense effort against the Canaanites and Philistines becoming loosely known as Israel.  So it was a time of warfare for the tribal confederacy, but this effort eventually deteriorated to intratribal warfare. 

If you read the book of Judges, it was not pretty. Tens of thousands of warriors are stricken one day.  Blood, guts, gore, and yes, S E X.  I always said that if kids really knew what was in the Bible they would be staying up in to the wee hours of the night with their flashlights reading the Bible. What kept these 12 tribes loosely bound together in the end was that Yahweh-God had made with them a covenant. 

But it got pretty dicey and their lament echoed over and over again, “In those days there was not a king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  And what was in their ‘own eyes’ was not right.  The twelve tribes of Israel had fallen apart by the end of the book of Judges.  They were convinced that a king would solve all of their problems.

Enters Hannah.  Barren Hannah.  She goes to the temple and prays fervently for God to grant her a child.  Eli, the priest sees her, chides her for her prayers which liken her more to a drunkard rather than a desperate woman who so very badly wanted a child.  You see Eli and his sons were not quite on the up and up.  Well Eli was a good man but his sons were scoundrels and he did nothing to discipline them.  But Hannah continues and makes promises to bring her child before the Lord if the Lord would only help her to conceive.

And God hears her prayers, she conceives and Samuel was born.  Now Hannah was an honorable women and brings him to the temple to minister alongside of Eli just like she had promised.

Our reading from the first Book of Samuel…….

 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;  the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”  and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.  The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.   On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.

Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Little Samuel.  Called Samuel.  Samuel who says, “Here I am Lord” when God calls his name.  He is such an unlikely one to be a prophetic voice between the period of the Judges and the coming monarchy.  Samuel is called to tell Eli of his families demise and he is also called later on to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel and then the great King David.  All from a little boy who was given over at birth by his mother.  All that from the adolescent who said, “Here I am!” 

This is a classic ‘call narrative’.  Like so many other call narratives in the Hebrew Bible, a very special person is born to a once barren women and is called by God to do or say certain things in order to accomplish what it is that God wants done.  What also these people have in common is that they really are somewhat of a ‘rag-tag’ and ordinary group of individuals. 

Moses was slow of speech, Abram was just a plain old geezer, Jeremiah just a kid, so was Samuel.  All of them had something going against them.  Unlike political candidates of all persuasions who can’t say enough good about themselves, the candidates that God calls are quick to point out all of their faults and argue with God about their qualifications.

But guess who wins?  Not us!  God of course wins.  It was once said that, ‘the task does not depend on the leaders ability, but on the leader depending upon God.’  No matter how inadequate one might feel about him or herself, with trust and faith in God, a lot can be accomplished.

Which is true in all of these narratives, what God wanted was someone who would rely on God for strength, to depend on God with all their heart that what they were being asked to do was within God’s realm of glory and intention, and that they would be able to handle it or at least stick with it.  God wanted someone who trusted that their life was going to be used to the benefit of others.  It didn’t matter their ability.  That was secondary.  What mattered was their faith.

To be called is a term that is used a lot in the field of ministry.  You trot off to seminary and are asked to articulate how you were called by God to this ministry.  And believe me there are some pretty UNbelievable stories, one that told of God appearing in their computer screen and speaking with them and another told of St. Michael appearing to them on their front windshield on a stormy and blustery night.  Who am I to dispute their claims?  But they were people of faith.   The point is that we each have our own call story if we awaken ourselves to God’s still speaking voice. 

God calls us and then prepares us for the task at hand; it is where your gifts meet the needs of this world.  That is where God is calling you.  Just like the rag-tag group of Biblical folks who were called by God, so too each one of you is called.  And just like those of old who bickered with God about their call, who felt inadequate and insignificant and not up to the task, they finally answered God’s call in full faith that God would have their back. That’s what you need to do too. 

It was Howard Thurmann who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” That is attentiveness to God’s call.

And as the beautiful hymn from the Iona community says,  ‘Take O take me as I am, summon out what I shall be’.  That is, take me just exactly as I am today and call forth from me what you need and that is what I will become.  Gifts aren’t always grandiose, but each one is important and fills a need.     

You know being called by God doesn’t necessarily mean a life to ministry.  But it does mean awakening others to God’s love by the life you lead. 

Brother Roger of the Taize community in France asks, “Will you, for your part, be one of those who open up the ways of the Risen Christ?  Or will you hesitate and say, “Why do you ask me to prepare ways of the Gospel for others?  Can’t you see that I am quite helpless, like a child?”  He later says, “You awaken others to Christ above all by the life you lead…..You communicate the life of the Risen Christ through a profound personal unselfishness, by forgetting about yourself.”[i]

I do believe that if we are to call ourselves Christians it means that all of us are called to exemplify God’s love and forgiveness, Christ’s unquenchable thirst for justice, and the Holy Spirit’s energy in our every day world and each day that we live out.  We are called to be.  And we are called to do.

Will you, through your actions, tell the Gospel that you have been called to tell?  Words are not necessary, just an open ear, like Samuel who heard God calling in the night.


[i] Brother Roger of Taize, “The Sources of Taize”. GIA Publications, Chicago, 2000. P. 30.

Pastoral Prayer

God bids us to pray unceasingly and so we lay before God the names of those individuals that we lift up today for prayer.

God of heaven and earth we come into your presence now in heartfelt prayer.  You are the one who knows the intimate details of our lives and you are the one who can comfort and sustain us.  You lift us up and rejoice in our wellbeing always loving us for our true selves. Help us not to run but to reach out and live confidently into your call for us.  Fill us with your grace and in doing so may you grant to us forbearance, hope and abundant living.  So much resides within us today so we entreat you to hear us now. 

For a healing balm for those who are ill in body, mind or spirit we pray (mental illness, addiction, recovery, hiv/aids, cancer)
Comfort those who mourn the loss of a loved one or friend and console those who grieve this day. 
For our country and the men and women who serve in the armed forces we pray strength, we lift up Kristin, Michael, Eugene, Nicholas, Gabe, Jason, William, Joshua, Zachery, Justin, Ryan, Brandon, and Colin and all who serve our country in military duty may their homecoming be sooner rather than later.

For Orange Congregational Church, the United Church of Christ and the larger we pray for guidance and discernment in these unusual and stress filled times.  Help us to be a beacon of light for all who are in need of tender care.

For new life around us, for the joy and energy of our children we thank you. 

God in community, Holy in One Amen.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Reluctant to Answer God's Call

Exodus 3: 1-15
October 1, 2017

We are now switching gears in our thematic preaching schedule.  In September we explored the theme of hospitality and what it means for our individual lives as well as our communal life together as a church.  Because it was the first time to really explore a subject for four weeks I hope that you were able to sort of ‘sink your teeth’ in to the theme of hospitality as I was able to. 

Today we are moving on to the theme of vocation and we will stick with this for five weeks in October.  So put your vocation thinking caps on.  Vocation is not just what you do for work day in and day out with all of the drudgery of an Archie Bunker scene in ‘All in the Family’. It is a summons or a strong inclination to a particular state or course of action, something that really excites you beyond your wildest imagination.  It is spending your days doing some that particularly speaks to your heart and soul, something for which you have been given special gifts and something that you can never imagine yourself quitting.  It’s something you wanted to do ‘all your life’.

Choosing ones vocation begins often early in life.  It’s probably when well meaning parents ask their children, so what do you want to be when you grow up?   I asked my oldest son – now 36 beautiful years old – when he was around 9 or 10 that very question.  So John, what do you want to be when you grow up?  His reply, “I want to be a doctor or a doctor on TV”.   Realistically, medicine was never a thought in his head, he’s just not wired that way.  But I could have envisioned him as a doctor on TV.  He’s bright, he’s funny, he’s engaging, he would have made a good doctor…..on TV.   But that wasn’t his path.  He works at Sikorsky Aircraft today.

What do you wan to do when you grow up?  Questions are important! They make you think, they bring clarity, they endeavor to help make profound meaning in life, they help you determine where you are and where you are going, they are critical to developing relationships.

In our scripture today Moses asks a lot of questions as his relationship with YHWY deepens. It is the old familiar story of the burning bush.  Remember he grew up in the house of Pharaoh, as an Egyptian, not a Hebrew even though that is his biological lineage.  But he never forgot his roots.

One day he goes out and sees the forced labor of his people the Hebrews and he is not happy.  Finally he’s beginning to live into his born identity.  He sees an Egyptian beat one of his people and he, in turn, murders the Egyptian.  But he was found out by one of his own and he flees for fear of his life, he flees from Egypt, from the forced labor camps of the Hebrews, and from Pharaoh and he finds himself in Midian.

It’s here that he meets his future wife Zipporah and they begin to have children.  The Israelites continue their agony in Egypt until the king died and God finally looks upon them, finally God hears their cries.  We pick up the third chapter of Exodus.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing; yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:  This is my name forever and this my title for all generations.

The story continues from here, Moses is to go to the Israelites and let them know that God has heard them and that they will be delivered.  Moses doubts that they will believe him and God sends a sign by changing the rod Moses had in his hand to snake and back again.  That’s how he’ll convince the people. 

But even after that, Moses still doubts his leadership for the task and asks questions.  In fact, in this call story of Moses he asks five questions before he reluctantly takes up God’s call.

Why isn’t this bush burning up from all the flames?
Who am I to go to Pharaoh and do such a thing?
What if they want to know who sent me?
  He can’t just say that he’s working for a talking bush..[i]  he needed some    
What if they don’t believe me?
And his last ditch effort question:
            How can I accomplish this for you God, I’m not a good speaker.

That’s a lot of questions that Moses asks of God in an effort to subvert God’s call. But these questions are important questions between him and the great ‘I am’ because the answers reassure Moses that God will be with him, that God would not send him off on a wild goose chase and leave him flapping in the wind. 

I think we all have questions from time to time about our life.  I have I know. Questions much more profound than ‘Do you know the way to San Jose”.  My questions were, “Am I suited for ministry?  How will I ever afford seminary?  Am I smart enough to go through the rigors of seminary and all of it’s paper writing, after all an art major doesn’t write papers, she paints or sculpts her way through university or memorizes slides of great art works for art history classes.  Is this a crazy idea?” And yet it is these very questions that deepen our relationship and reliance on God for whatever profession it might be.  And, by the way, I had a patient and loving friend who sat by me as I struggled to answer these questions.  She affirmed me and asked questions of me too.

It was the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke who once told a young poet, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them….the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[ii]

Live the questions, someday you’ll know the answer but for right now live into the very questions that press upon your heart.

No doubt about it, Moses was called into the presence of God for a specific moment in time to make a difference in the lives of his fellow Hebrews.  He eventually said yes, but not without inquiry.  If you live and love the questions long enough you will eventually know the answer and understand the call that God has placed on your life whether its vocation or direction.   God calls each and every one of us to greater living through God’s presence.  The ‘I Am’ has said so.

In the words of Barbara Crafton, “…if we remember Gods words to Moses from the burning bush, ‘Say this to the people Israel, “I am has sent me to you”. God doesn’t have a name.  God is the very energy of the universe. Everything that is, exists in God…there is nothing outside of God.  This includes you, your thoughts, and desires and doubts as well, they all exist in God.[iii]   In God the possibilities are endless and no question is too small or too silly or too trite.

Being called by God most often doesn’t mean a life to ministry.  It means awakening to God’s love in the life you lead.  That is, I believe, fulfilling your potential, nurturing your gifts specific that God has given you, this I believe is vocation.  God doesn’t want you to be anyone else but you where you are at the moment, with all of the questions that you can muster. 

It means being highly attuned to the presence of God in your life.  If you’re a poet then write your poems with the awareness of God’s love, if you’re a laborer then labor in God’s presence and it will make all the difference.  If you are meant to be a doctor or a doctor on tv then head off to med school or acting school.  And if you are old, and are in those post working days, don’t worry, God continues to call us to be the best that we can possibly be reinventing ourselves many times over.

As Christ followers it means that we are called to exemplify God’s love and forgiveness, Christ’s unquenchable thirst for justice, and the Holy Spirit’s energy in our every day world and each day that we live out.  We are called to be.  And we are called to do.

Will you, through your love and actions, tell the Gospel that you have been called to tell?  Eloquent words are not necessary, just an open ear and lots of questions like Moses who heard God calling him through a talking bush.


[i] Karla Svomala, Associate Professor of Religion, Luther College, Decorah, IA.
[ii] Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’.
[ii] Crafton, Barbara Cawthorne, ‘Called’. Church Publishing 2017, p. 147.