Idols and Refusing God’s Invitation

Here is the message I shared on Sunday, October 15, 2017. The scriptures were: Exodus 32:1-14, Isaiah 25:1-10a and Matthew 22:1-14. I had another one listed, but saved its reading until the end of the message so it is printed there. The title in the bulletin was, “Called/Chosen.”

Today we are taken back to another parable that puts a bad light on the Israelites. The passage in Matthew 22 that we read for today on the surface is about a King throwing a wedding feast for his son and no one wants to come. This story seems to go against the idea of weddings in the time of Jesus. A wedding feast by a wealthy family would involve lots of food and festivities and would likely go on for days. It was a big deal and people would make sure to be there if not to only to celebrate the wedding, but to have an opportunity to take part in the feast and hopefully build or strengthen some important ties with the one throwing the celebration. Come to think of it, some of that might still hold true today.

The allegory, the deeper meaning behind the parable, is the idea that God has chosen the Israelites to be his people. He is basically inviting them to the wedding feast of eternity in heaven, the opportunity to be his heirs forever, and they reject the invitation, they reject the idea of being with God. And worst of all they do more than turn their backs and ignore the invitations, they do some evil things to the servants sent with the invitations, and the scripture tells us that God did retaliate on those originally on the invitation list. Thus God sends his servants, his prophets, his own son eventually to call anyone and everyone else to come to the feast, to join at the table (an idea we celebrate as the table of Holy Communion—which we participated in last Sunday). God also invites us, all of us to come and participate in this wedding celebration.

The other major part of our discussion today is that business in Exodus where the Israelites get tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain and they insist that Aaron make them a God to worship and Aaron obliges by taking all their gold and melting it down and making a golden calf which they call Baal to worship.

First off in this story, I want to know what is wrong with Aaron. Is he that much of a wimp that he can’t convince the people to just chill a little? The readings that I did this week were far more sympathetic of the people of Israel than I had ever heard messages spoken in the past. I have pictures in my head of this story that involve dancing and music and people doing all sorts of immoral things in relation to celebrating this god, this idol, Baal. The more I think about it, I might be thinking of the old Hollywood version of The Ten Commandments. In light of some of the stories coming from that area lately, I won’t add any comments here.

If we look closely at the wording of the passage in Exodus 32, we see just two things that would give a Hollywood producer this idea. One is the verse where it says after the calf was made, they gathered up items for a thank-offering then sat down to eat, and after they ate, they got up to revel. Later there is a verse where God tells Moses to hurry down the mountain because the people have gotten involve in perverse actions.

The commentary from the Sermon Seeds on the UCC website suggests that the people should not be judged so harshly, at least not by us. The author mentions several theologians who see the Israelites in the desert without Moses as being scared, terrified even. They have been wandering about for years, almost going in circles, and they don’t know what is coming next then their leader who has been their go-between always interpreting the words of God for them, is just gone. He goes up the mountain and there is no word, no message, no communication of any kind, and they are worried that he is not coming back.

They are a lost people, and they just want some sort of proof that God exists and that God will be there for them. They want a structure a solid piece of something to let them know that even without Moses, they will be cared for and protected. I suppose that is not anymore than any of us want in our lives: Proof that we are loved and cared for and protected. Let’s see how does that hierarchy of needs chart go that we learn in education? First is the basic needs of food and shelter, second is safety needs, third there is the need for belonging and love.

The Israelites were so worried about what they would do without Moses, without their leader that they reacted badly. They were so caught up in their own issues, that they turned their backs on the one God who was with them in all things. And in their turning away from God, they got involved in idol worship. They turned to something else to be their God. I have to ask myself, how different am I from those Israelites? How different are we from those Israelites?

This historical accounting of the actions of the Hebrew people when they are in the desert between escaping slavery at the hands of the Egyptians and finally finding their homeland, and the parable that tells about all of the people who reject the invitation of the king who is throwing a wedding feast for his son are not that far off from each other and from the actions of ourselves and those around us. We all have our own idols that prevent us from worshiping the one true God. We all have excuses and reasons not to accept the invitation of the King and join in the wedding celebration of his Son and the church, we the church. Even those of us who are faithful church goers have our days, even those of us who are here faithfully each week, we have times when we are not quite sure, when life doesn’t seem just in line, and we get worried about what will we do without our Moses to guide us and interpret for us, and how can we possibly do it ourselves? We need something real, something to give us security and safety. We need our idols, to feel like God is here. Right?

Actually we shouldn’t need idols, but I am afraid we probably all have had some along the way in our lives. Now as we hear and use the word idol, we often, I at least, would think that doesn’t pertain to us. We don’t have statues in our churches, on our public places, in our homes that we bow to like some ancient people did or maybe some still do. We don’t have that, so why do we even consider that sort of thing in a church message today?

It seems our idols are a little different in nature. Our idols are not really those statues that you bow to, but more the sort of thing that takes up our time and our thoughts and blocks our ability to have a real and personal relationship with God. We become too busy for God or the actions we are asked to do for God: love our neighbors as ourselves sort of thing because we have these “idols” taking up our time. Of course the one thing that most people believe is the ultimate idol in our time is money. We spend so much time chasing around after wealth for the sake of financial security that we don’t even realize that we are doing it. Perhaps what we need to consider is what we do with our wealth, our form of riches. Do we use it to care for those who are truly in need? Do we share what we have, even if it is a cup of cold water? There are lots of other things that can be our idols in this day and time. Maybe it is the job or the business that we pursue to get this wealth?

Maybe it is the leisure activities—whatever their natures that prevent us from any sort of time to spend in worship or in devotion or in prayer talking to and listening to God. The question for us today is probably not obsessed, but perhaps with what are we so consumed that we don’t have time to work at our own relationship with God? What do we have in our way that makes it impossible or even just a little difficult for us to know the peace of Christ that peace that surpasses everything else? What did we hear in the verses from Isaiah today? We heard about the great power of God to destroy evil, to shelter those in need and to wipe away every tear from our eyes. Why or what could we possibly find in our lives to prevent us from having a relationship with someone who promises to do that for us?

I want to give you one last thing today. At the end of that parable it mentions that when the servants went back to the streets and invited all of the commoners to the feast, to the wedding—which in essence meant the Gentiles, the non Israelites, what includes us too, after they came and the banquet hall was filling up, the King came and noticed that one of those who had been called came to the banquet, but did not ready themselves as expected, and that person was not allowed to stay. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Harsh words! It was sort of like a formal event, and the person came in jeans. What the king, what God was looking for what God is looking for is someone who when they accept God’s invitation they make the effort to develop that relationship with God through worship and study and prayer.

My best comparison is to a sports team, many are called to participate, but only a few are chosen to get on the field. To be part of the team line up, the ones who actually play, you have to work at it. Having a relationship with God is something we should always be working at. Putting aside our idol worship, putting aside the things that prevent us from having that intense personal relationship with God takes an effort. What I am trying to explain  is that there isn’t anything about our lives that we shouldn’t be able to stop and take a time to share it with God in prayer. There isn’t anything too trivial, too silly, too personal that God doesn’t hear us and care about us. But we have to put aside whatever it is that is preventing us from going there. And I believe that God answers us, we just have to be looking and listening to hear those words. Now let us close with the words that Paul left for the Philippians in chapter 4:4-9. Read it.

God wants us to put aside the idols that are preventing us from accepting the invitation sent for us. I hope we are able to do that so we too can enjoy that great feast that has been prepared with us in mind. Amen.

Message August 27, 2017

Today was a different sort of day in church. No Paulina and no sisters, but we had several visitors so that was really interesting. Two ladies who grew up in our church stopped to be with us. One lives in town but has married into another church, but the other has moved to Montana and she so wanted to come back to our building to worship in the church of her youth. We greeted them warmly and made sure they had a history book before they left. Here is the script of the message they heard, though it really was a bit different. When I have a receptive audience, I tend to elaborate and I really did on the part about the twins and the business about Shakespeare. James was almost afraid he was in the middle of literature class and there would be a quiz in the morning. Ha! Goof off.

The scriptures were: Isaiah 51:1-8, Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20. The title was, “Transitions,” which pretty much describes our life currently. Also we were treated to a duet by our musician and her husband. They are the photo above. The lady who plays for the Methodists and subs for us was their accompanist. They did the duet in the Methodist church earlier in the morning.

Here we are in this calendar/time zone sort of thing that is hovering around the end of summer. I know, I know this technically is not the end of summer, that doesn’t officially happen until later in September when the sun crosses the equator and the earth tilts so that we get colder, but seriously somewhere between last weekend and this weekend and next weekend perhaps when we celebrate Labor Day, summer is for all points and purposes over. Done, finee, finished, kaput. School has started, and even though we don’t have a Sunday School or school age church goers, this is it. And, my garden is believing it too.

On Thursday, Paulina and got into her packed up car and I got into my loaded down van, and we took her off to college for the last time—my last daughter to her last year of college. My sister Melissa is just starting this journey. She took Elisabeth off for her first year, and so the cycle begins anew in the family. As I drove home, west on I-94 into the sunset (appropriately) I wondered how we went from watching the eclipse of the sun on Monday to starting a new year of grade school and high school (if you read the newsletter, you noticed that it isn’t just James going to school this fall) on Tuesday to moving Paulina out of the house on Thursday, well actually she moved in on Friday, but we went up to babysit the twins on Thursday overnight, and that is another story for another day, but believe me those two fussbudgets won’t be torturing me again anytime soon. They cried most of the night for Paulina and me then slept all day Friday for their mother.

As long as this week seemed, I am beginning to understand this business about creating the world in six days. Some days are longer than others and some have more in them than others, and transitions make days and weeks seem longer because of the great amount of difference and change between going into them in the beginning and coming out of them on the other end.

Our gospel lesson this week seems to signal a transition in the life or maybe the word should be in the learning of the disciples. In this passage, Matthew tells us that Jesus asks the disciples who they believe him to be. Interestingly Matthew doesn’t just tell us about the question, but he is careful to give us details about where they were when the question was asked. Now we might not realize that the where has any bearing on the question, but in fact it is fairly important to the question. They are in a place called Caesarea of Philippi. If you know anything about the Roman Empire, or even if you just remember that Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire the word Caesarea should make you think of Caesar and perhaps, Julius Caesar, who though he was famous on his own, might be best remembered by being forced to read the play about him that was written by Shakespeare. At least that is where I learned most of my information about him and why I learned about him.

Anyway this place is in an area of Greek influence and was a spot associated with the worship of Baal which we would associate as a place of a more pagan worship. Also Caesarea was not added to this name until Caesar Augustus was the ruler. During the time of Julius Caesar it was just Philippi and I remember it from Shakespeare’s play as where Brutus and Cassius, the leaders of the group who killed Caesar, met up with and fought the armies of Mark Antony and Caesar Augustus. Philippi as it is simply called in the play is a flat plan between these rocky hills. (I shared how Brutus and Cassius were foolish enough to fight on the plane instead of making the other two come and get them in the hills amid the rocks. I also pointed out how the bad guys of a good western movie are never quite that generous. It was a fun discussion.)

Apparently sometime later there was a shrine built there to the glory of Caesar so people could worship him. I am only telling you this to get a background of the area to see that it is a place of worship that does not include a temple to either the religion of the Israelites or a place we would consider as a place significant or holy to the people surrounding Jesus or to the beginnings of Christianity.

So it was here in this completely pagan worshiping un-Christian seeming area that Jesus goes with his disciples and he asks them who people say he is, and then he asks who they believe him to be. Now there are lots of answers of what they have heard others to say Jesus is, but he really seems to be more interested in what they, the disciples, his closest followers believe. And imagine who steps to the front and speaks for the group? Of course it is Peter; he is always stepping up and speaking out. Simon tells Jesus that he believes him to be the Messiah the Son of the living God. He isn’t a king, he isn’t a prophet from long ago, he isn’t just another human leader, and he certainly isn’t a fake God as Baal was. He is the Son of the Living God. This is pretty much telling us that as the Son of the Living God, Jesus is the Son of the only God, the one true God who is above all else.

That is what Simon realizes and that is what he says in answer to this question. And as he gives his answer, Jesus looks at him and acknowledges that it isn’t Simon who has realized this, but God has revealed it to him. Because of his faith, Simon has been transformed and understood who Jesus really was, who he is, and because of it, Jesus rewards him by saying his new name is to be Peter, the Rock and he will be the leader on which the church is built. Because Peter was able to believe in Jesus, to know there was something worth knowing and following, God gave him the ability to see the truth about who Jesus was, and as a result he was rewarded. Peter with the keys to the kingdom was given the task of leadership and we all know that is not always an easy job. As Peter admitted his faith and his understanding he was also given great responsibility.

We also need to realize that understanding of- and faith in- Christ is more than just something we do on Sunday mornings or when it is convenient for us. True belief, true faith leads us to a transformation, a change in how we think and act that probably not an overnight sort of change, but when we believe and really accept Christ as the Son of the Living God as part of our lives we will want to be better in our actions towards others. We will want to care about those around us, those in need perhaps of tangible help and maybe even those with needs that are not so recognizable like someone to care about them, or to stand up for them or even to speak up for them. Who do we say that Jesus is?

Paul in his 12th chapter of the letter to the Romans says: “Do not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” As Simon was transformed by his faith into understanding that Jesus was the Messiah the Son of the Living God, he was given a greater understanding of his own place in following Jesus, in working to share that knowledge with others. It may seem to us like he was given a great promotion, but for some it may have seemed like a great burden. But when you think of what he realized, you begin to understand the absolute joy he must have felt in the knowledge that he was indeed working with and for the Messiah, he Simon son of Jonah was with the Son of the living God and nothing was ever going to be the same again. His joy must have been unbelievable.

As Paul continues on in this chapter it is to let the people of the church know that they do not all have to have the same talents, the same gifts, but all of them have something to contribute to the life of the church. This is something we need to remember also. Each of us has a purpose, a reason for being. We all have something to contribute to the life of the congregation. A good example of how we work together will happen again this Wednesday. Some are knotters, some line up the pieces and pin the batting to it, others make sure it is straight, some are good at threading needles, some sew the pieces together and some of us are really good at walking from point A to point B pretending we are doing something. And those are not the only things we do as a church, but I think you get the point. Everyone has their specialty and that is what makes a church work together well, and Paul makes that point over and over again throughout this epistle and the many of his other writings. He compares it here to a body. We need all the parts to make the whole work correctly and that is the same with a church.

As we go this week let us remember that each of us has a special gift or for some special gifts that are important to this community of believers and to God’s service, and let us also remember that it is through our faith that we are accepted into God’s kingdom and transformed for God’s service. Amen!

Message: August 20, 2017

This message is long and I thought a bit more than I normally bite off. Many in the congregation liked it, and one that I was worried about his comment said it was just what we needed. Hurrah!!. The scriptures were: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 and Matthew 15: 10-28. The title was “Persistence.”

Before we begin today and because I wasn’t really sure where to begin this week, let me step out, away from the safety of the pulpit and give you a little disclaimer. Every week I start with the question of “where do I start this week.” Today it is going to be where we left off last week after the message and just before the last song when I asked for prayers for our country, and in light of the newest terror attacks, I should have said, our world.

My disclaimer is this: what I have decided to share with you today is not intentionally aimed at a particular political party or any particular political leader. It truly is not. I know that we probably don’t exactly agree when we go to the ballot box, but that should not interfere with our ability to be Christians together and to serve God in the best way that we can. The message today is based on some things from my time at General Synod and from some items that crossed my desk in the office this week. Add all of it to the gospel message of today, and it seemed like too much of a push for me to ignore this any longer, and so we have what we have. (Go back to the pulpit)

My English thesis paper for the graduate degree that I never finished was on the reader’s response theory. This is the idea that when you read a book, your background as in your experiences and your education and all the things about you as a person affect your interpretation of a book, and matter just as much as the intention of the author who wrote the book. In other words this theory is what good teachers have known all along, books once published take on their own meanings and are unique for each person. In our church denomination many years ago we adopted the theme of God is Still Speaking. This wasn’t just a clever saying, but it means that as we read scripture it strikes us each where we are in terms of our faith maturity. And I can attest to that in how I now often see things in scripture lessons that I didn’t notice before. So let us begin.

The first reading I want to share is a proclamation: [Read Statement of Witness from the Conference Staff of the UCC Conferences which includes ours. It is a statement regarding White Privilege] White Privilege might seem like something silly for us to be talking about in our community. We might think this is for a more integrated area, or at least an area that has more African American people, really around here we must be 99% causation. Some of us might be more inclined to notice gender issues, but perhaps it is not as silly as we consider the whole of our state and how it is that we as descendants of immigrants, and especially those of us who are land owners came to be living here in this place.

[Read Gordon’s letter] I am not posting the letter just giving you this bit. It is about historic racism and refers to the way the Native Americans were treated during the days of the settlement of South Dakota which involved taking children away from their families and putting them in boarding schools. The old Congregational Church was part of this through the American Missionary Association, which I believe came from Yale at one time. I did suggest that an interesting somewhat similar read on their work is the book Hawaii by James Michner.

As we consider the story about Jesus’ treatment of a non Jewish woman as told to us by Matthew, it is good for us to know that she was a descendant of the original people who populated Canaan when the Israelites first took control of the area. She would be considered an outcast, a no body by the people surrounding Jesus during his time on earth. For him to give her time or credibility would be just another reason for the Jewish leaders to be against him and what he was teaching. She was not worthy of their time and her child was certainly not worthy of being healed.

Perhaps this would be a good time to mention that one of the resolutions passed at General Synod was a resolution to ask for better treatment of the Palestinian children by the soldiers and officials of Israel. I don’t want to get so far off track, but as things stand currently, soldiers are able to imprison Palestinian children without any regard to even the Geneva Convention rules, and unlike our country where children cannot be questioned without parents consent, they can even be taken from their homes without the parents being able to do anything. And by the way, the people of Palestine are the descendants of the people of Canaan.

So in this story that Matthew gives us today, we want to ask what is going on. Why is Jesus treating this woman this way? This seems more like something the Pharisees would do, but not Jesus. In looking at the passage I noticed a couple of things. First off we have not seen Jesus treat a woman as inferior as others do, and second he has never refused to help someone who is outside of his culture. In fact so many times we notice how he heals or helps the Gentiles and the Samaritans and even Roman soldiers, so why is he acting like this towards this woman? You almost get the impression that he is telling her she is not good enough. She is not worthy. Well actually, we are all not worthy, but that isn’t what we hear in other Bible stories about Jesus’ actions. But here, he seems to be saying that only a select few, only the “chosen” of Israel are good enough to receive his grace, his salvation.

Wow, does that mean we are out too? If we read this passage alone and not all the way to the end, I guess that is what we see. No one outside of the people of Israel are worthy of the goodness of God. Is God really that exclusionary? Thankfully, when we read all the way to the end, we find a different story. Jesus accepted this woman.

Some interpretations that I read started to say maybe this was Jesus’ version of a bad joke, but in the end they denied that idea, too. The Interpreter’s Bible puts it this way: Matthew’s intended audience was likely the early church. He included this story about Jesus to let them know that everyone should be included in the Christian Church. Specifically their words were, “[the] obvious answer is that the mission is to be extended to wherever it encounters faith.” What we should understand then is that Jesus accepted all people who accepted him. He came for everyone no matter their culture or language or race or gender, and he expected his disciples to do the same, and he expects us to do the same, also.

So how do we resolve the issues of our day? How do we look on the exclusionary practices of things like White Privilege or more radically White Supremacy and accept it as simply who they are and what they do? Is our lack of push back a sign of acceptance? When we aren’t against them are we for them? Is there room for us to sit idly by and do nothing? Or does our silence make us complicit to their actions? What was that thought during World War II that when we stayed out of the war against the Nazis, stayed out of the fight because it belonged to Europe and not to us, then we were also responsible for the deaths of those in the concentration camps.

It may not seem so, but I have seriously been struggling with this in terms of, “How should we look at the white supremacists?” Should we think of them as strictly evil, as people directed by Satan? Or do we see them as created by God, but people who have not realized the full love of God? I DON”T HAVE THE ANSWER! I certainly don’t have the answer on the confederate thing, though I do agree that war is long over and for some of us it was fought well before any of our ancestors were in this country, though if we listened to Gordon’s letter that doesn’t give us a pass.

On the other hand I do have a very exact thought on the Nazi issue. I don’t know how we go to our local cemeteries and walk past the graves of our soldiers who fought in WWII, those who died in it, those who gave up body parts for it, and those who came home to live out their lives after it. I don’t know how we walk past their graves and say we are not willing to stand up against this new generation who walks through the streets of our country carrying the flag of the Nazi party in support of its ideals. Maybe I lied in my disclaimer; this is one party I will speak against. We the descendents of the Germans from Russia may each have our own stories of what it was like for our families during WWII. My mother said that during the war years, they were very careful not to use the German language in public because it could be viewed as a sign of disrespect to our country.

One thing I don’t understand is how anyone can come up with an ideology of segregation and hate from studying the Bible. Even if we are confused at the beginning of this passage, when we get to its end, we realize Jesus did not exclude this Canaanite woman from the generosity of his love because of her race. We also know that when he opened his arms and died on the cross, it was for all of us.

We might want to argue that we don’t agree with these actions, we don’t support them. We are not exclusionary in this town. We don’t discriminate. We are open minded. Our complicity, though—and I dare to bet I am the worst one in this room—it comes when we are in a situation listening to others talk, telling jokes or stories or expressing opinions about the inferiority of others because of their language or skin color or anything that makes them different. Our complicity comes when we sit and say nothing. And I think of all those quilts in the basement that could have warmed someone last winter, but because of my judgmental bias, I quietly left them there. Please, someone make sure that doesn’t happen again. Someone speak up and tell me I am wrong.

Now as we go today, I hope we all have a little bit of something to think about, and perhaps a little something to pray about. I hope we all take some time to consider what sort of actions we can practice to promote the love that Jesus died to bring to earth for all people. Amen.

Message Aug. 13, 2017

The picture I am sharing with our message doesn’t really go with the message, it is just a picture of our church as we are having the doors repainted. The one to the left is with the openings boarded shut while the doors are being painted. The one to the right is the men after church working together to put the finished doors back in place. The ones boarded up sort of make the statement of locking people out of the building.

The scriptures used today were: Romans 10:5-15 and Matthew 14:22-33. The title was, “Depending on Christ.”

I have always enjoyed reading, and somehow, I never ever liked to read just a single book, I always wanted it to be a series that keeps going. When I was a young girl some of my favorite books were the Nancy Drew Mystery books. Lately I have been too lazy to read, but instead I enjoy watching the television mystery movies, you know the ones on the Hallmark Movie and Mystery Channel. Well at least I used to like them. The past month or so, I can’t seem to watch them start to finish because they scare me. I just don’t like the anticipation of when the killer is going to grab the one trying to solve the case. I know that in these shows the main character is not going to die, because that would end the series, but it scares me anyway.

And after watching them long enough, I hear things and get spooked. Some of you know me well enough to realize that I am sort of a spook anyway so I don’t really need any help with that. But I just do not need any more nights like the one last week when I was sure I heard something walking around on the porch outside my bedroom. If there was something out there, and I am pretty sure I found the proof of cat spray on the upper deck Thursday. Seriously nothing bigger than a cat is going to get up there without the one sitting in the chair downstairs noticing anyway.

So, the point is that we all have things that scare us. Anyone of us in this building can likely come up with a list of time in their lives when they were frightened, and probably a list of things that scared them. I tried to think of a chronological list of things that have scared me over the year, and this is what I have today. As a young girl on the farm, I was scared to go to the basement to get the ice cream. When I had to go there, I would make sure that my back was always to the wall so that no one could be looking in the windows without me seeing them or so that no one could come out of the cellar and grab me. I either had a great imagination or read too much. Of course some of that might have come from older relatives who were really good at driving fear into all of us.

So, maybe as we get older, we are no longer afraid of the dark or the proverbial “Boogie Man,” but our fears do not necessarily go away. They change. Starting school for some children brings on separation fear from being away from their home and family. Of course school itself can be a scary place, especially when you have a test and are not sure if what you studied was the right information, I think I had more of those issues the older I got. Or what about when you join an athletic team or worse yet, when you coach one? Will the game plan you practiced be the right one for this particular opponent? That fear might explain why I prefer track over team sports. And there are the other things like fear of fitting in with your classmates or others in the school and on and on.

As we grow into adulthood, take jobs and leave home to start families of our own, fears change to include thoughts of job performance, co-worker acceptance, how you are treated by the boss. And then there are children and how we spend our time fearful of all the things that can happen to them: illness, accidents, peer pressure, and the list goes on. My oldest daughters love to tell the story of how I always scared them into staying in the yard when we lived a few miles out of Jamestown. We lived on a gravel road just off Highway 281, that goes from Jamestown to Aberdeen. They always wanted to drive their bikes to the stop sign. I forbid them from doing that alone; first off some of the drivers on our road were pretty speedy and might have hit them. The other issue was that it was a major highway, and it was fairly close to the time when the Wettering boy was abducted in Minnesota.

The older I get, the better I understand the why of some of my fears, and many of them are not so scary anymore. But, I don’t think I will ever get over the depression era mind-set and the fear that goes with it that I learned growing up as the oldest grandchild, sitting around the evening coffee table with my grandmother and her sisters and though the talk might have been about other things, the underlying theme of finances, and getting by, and how to make do with what you have, was always there. We have gardens today because we like the taste of fresh produce and the knowledge of how it has been raised. They had gardens to make sure there would be something to eat. That was a completely different mindset and the knowledge of that puts a different sort of fear into the back of one’s mind, and it hangs with you.

With all of that in mind, I want to tell you that I found out this week that because of my fears, my chances of living to a fairly old age are pretty strong. I was on one of those internet news feeds and read a headline that said, “A telltale trait of a long life” I had to tap in and find out and what it was…ironically it is worrying. People who worry who have anxiety about things are likely to live longer than those who don’t really care. To me it sounds odd; wouldn’t worriers be more likely to develop medical issues? Apparently that wasn’t an issue. I read on to see if people who worry are less likely to take stupid chances so then have fewer accidents. Actually the article didn’t really confirm or deny that thought, and it really didn’t have a good reason why it is true, but for some reason of all the people they surveyed in that study, the worriers lived longer.

Maybe the disciples would have liked to hear about that survey, and then they could have come back to Jesus with a good reason for their concerns. They could have at least said their fear, their worry, was keeping them alive longer. Because, as you can see from today’s gospel lesson, they sure knew how to worry and fret.

Our story today picks up right after the feeding of the 5,000 and the disciples have gone out in the boat while Jesus went up the hill to be alone and pray. While they are on the boat, the wind picks up and there is a rough storm. As we read this, some of you might have thought of the other time when the disciples were out on the water during a storm. In that other story, Jesus was sleeping at one end of the boat while the storm is going on. If you remember that story, the disciples were getting pretty frantic and when they couldn’t handle the boat alone, they finally went to Jesus and woke him, and he stood up and told the wind to stop and the waves to quit and it they obeyed him and it was all still. If we read this right, that story, that other story with Jesus in the boat with them that happened first. It already happened. The disciples have already experience what Jesus can do when he is in the boat with them. They know his power, but they also know that this time they are alone. He isn’t here with them on this trip, and it is bad, and they don’t know what to do.

Oh but look up and who is coming towards them, walking across the water?  It is Jesus. Here while they are again frantic about the wind and the waves and they are alone, and by the way, it is dark. They look out across the sea, and good grief here comes a figure walking towards them. OK I am not sure about you, but I am not really that far away from the little girl who turned her back to the wall while she carried the ice cream up the steps. I am not sure how I would react to seeing someone or something walking across the water towards that boat. Yet as fearful as they might be, they recognize Jesus and Peter asks to walk with him, and for a bit he does, and pretty soon they are both in the boat, and the storm stops.

Do you get what happens? We read it here as a historical event, as a thing that happened. Jesus walked towards them, across the stormy sea and when he gets into the boat, the storm quits. Now let’s look at this in the metaphor it is for us today, and for the disciples in their day, but mostly for us now.

When Jesus gets into the boat, the storm stops.

This is what our message today is all about. Our title today might say “Depending on Christ” and that is all well and good, but the bottom line, the thing we need to take away with us is this: When Jesus gets into the boat with us, the storm stops.

I know it is not always that simple, but you know what? It really is that simple. It really is. Maybe the person we care about is still sick, or the problems of our life are still there, but when we invite Jesus into our boat, and we let him be the number one in the boat, in our lives, then the storms do stop. The problems of life are still there, but somehow the way we accept them and tolerate them is different, and that is what we need to understand from this story. If we get nothing else today, let’s go from here with the understanding that we won’t go sailing until we invite Christ into the boat. Amen!!

Message on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017

Here is the message the people heard today, well at least this is the script of what was out there for today. I may just have gone off script a few times today, but that is how it goes and I am not going to try to replicate the real words here. This is what was intended and this is what you get in print. The scriptures used were: Isaiah 55:1-5, Romans 9:1-5 and Matthew 14:13-21. The title was, “God’s food.”

This weekend was the big city-wide rummage sale in Herreid. As we were getting items ready, which involved dragging boxes of mostly clothing out of nooks and crannies and sorting them then washing, hanging on the line and folding up everything that was deemed sellable, I finally looked at James and asked, “Why do people have children?” You might think this question has nothing to do with a rummage sale, but for me it is a central issue. At that point of the week, I came to realize that I have saved almost every item of clothing that my children ever owned. Seriously, if it didn’t wear out it is probably some place in my house, and let’s not even talk about their toys. I am not quite that far yet. It is no wonder there isn’t any room to live in our house!

Probably one of the most revealing things about me is something I remembered as I was going through the boxes and sorting and trying to figure out how I got to this hoarding life-style. I remembered back to a day when we still lived on the farm and I was some place in that older childhood, pre-teenage existence. It was a day when my mother was “cleaning house.” I remember having to take a box out to the burn barrel and seeing several of my dolls on the ground beside it about to be burned up. Now I did not see that dolls for the broken, hair cut, unclothed used up toys that they were. I only saw the beautiful gift they had once been.

That day, I wanted so badly to pick them up and take them back into the house and hold them and fix them, but there was nothing I could do, there was no undoing the damage that was done, and they were gone. Mostly I try not to think about those sort of days, but sometimes, like on Thursday when I was cranky from being over tired from doing something you I don’t really enjoy and probably would not have to do in the first place if I had just gotten rid of things when I should have, then maybe those memories would not rise to the top of the play list and I would not feel all those old emotions.

Yet for me as I considered those emotions and pondered the message that we were about to consider for this week, I tried to imagine what Jesus must have felt like in the story that we are dealing with today. The opening line of that story seems to me to be the key for today’s message those words of verse 13: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place.” Hold that thought—that emotion for a bit.

The gospel lesson for today has to be one of the top 10 most recognized Bible stories. It is in all four gospels, and I can remember back to teaching Sunday School that even at the youngest levels there were lessons about the little boy who offered his loaves and the fishes to the disciples who then gave them to Jesus who multiplied them in such quantity that all were fed and there was plenty left over.

I don’t know exactly how many times I have done a message on this text in the past, but I know we have talked about it here, and I remember speaking on it in both Jamestown and Mobridge. If we look at it alone, just in terms of the story of the miracle of feeding so many people, 5,000 not counting women and children according to Matthew, with only two loaves and five fish it is an amazing story of the divinity of Christ. And that is a wonderful story. It is a great message, but after hearing that often enough and speaking that often enough, we have to ask if there is more to the meaning of this lesson. We have to ask if there could possibly be something else in this scripture besides this historical account of what Jesus did in that remote area on that day when all those people came hungry for the words of Jesus and then were satisfied with the food that God provided in that remote area? Are you starting to get ahead of me a little? I hope so.

Well, of course there is more to the story. All we have to do to find out the more is look back a few verses to see what was going on before this story. The opening verse of today, Vs. 13 when it says “when Jesus heard this…” the word this refers to the death of John the Baptist. It was after Jesus learned of his death: the prophet who pointed the way of his coming, the man who baptized him, the one that was chosen in the womb to proclaim “repent for the time of God is at hand” when Jesus learned of John’s death, he took some time to go away to a deserted place presumably in hopes of being on his own.

In our lectionary cycle for this year, we don’t read that story of John’s death, yet if we listen to those words from Matthew 13, it is a big part of what was going on with Jesus. It is such a big deal that he leaves the city for a remote area to be alone with his closest disciples. But he can’t get away because the crowds follow him. They just can’t get enough of him. These crowds of ordinary, everyday people, people like you and me were hungering and thirsting for more lessons from the young itinerant religious leader who seemed to have something new, something amazing, something that would fill them to the brim with knowledge about God and God’s kingdom that no one else had ever shared with them, and they just couldn’t get enough.

And I wonder how much different are we than the people of Jesus’ time? Think about this, we, too, look for leadership in the times of our state and national elections. We long for someone to rise up locally and help our communities grow in amazing ways. We want someone to come to where we are and tell us which direction to go, to lead us into something new and fulfilling and yes maybe profiting, but mostly exciting and satisfying. Yes, we too are hungering and thirsting for something good, something new, something wonderful to follow, and for some of us the new is right in front of us, right in our pews in our hands when we open the words that God—that Christ left for us. We just need to listen to it, maybe in new ways.

Jesus didn’t send the people away when they followed him to the deserted place. He understood their need for his word and he took the time to talk to them, and to heal their sick. When it was late and time to eat, he didn’t tell the disciples to send them off to find their own food, he saw the need and he filled it. He had compassion on the crowd, he realized their need, and he fulfilled it. That might be all we need to know about the love of Christ.

If we look at the words from Isaiah and the opening line says: come to the waters…come buy and eat. It feels to me like those words are being spoken by Christ directly to us. Come buy wine and milk without money and without price…Listen carefully to me and eat what is good food. I know that I am only picking certain lines from the passage, but essentially these are the words from Christ to us… He is calling us to come and be fed, come and be satisfied with his teachings and his love.

Everyone who thirsts, we are all thirsty for the love and the teaching, for the healing and the compassion of Christ. Imagine where we would be if Christ just took his sad emotions and went to the deserted place and stayed alone. Christ didn’t come to earth for that. Christ came to have compassion on the crowds, on all of the crowds, those of his day and those of us right here today. Christ didn’t look at the situation in front of him with no idea where to turn like that sad 10 year old who was standing beside the burn barrel wondering how to reconcile the idea of knowing her dolls were being burned.

Fortunately for us all, Christ looked at this world created by God and corrupted by sin and he said, “Yes I will, pick me, and I will do what is needed to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be reconciled to God.” With that as our example, I don’t know how we can do anything less than have compassion on the crowds of humanity who are hungering and thirsting to hear God’s word and feel Christ’s love. Let’s be sure we take the time to share what we know about that with those around us this week and in all weeks to come. Amen

Message July 30

The scriptures were: Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. It was another week of parables about planting, so my title was, “Another Sowing Parable.”

Before we get started, I need to apologize for failing to tell you last Sunday that I was planning to be out of town all week. I went with James, this year, to the coaches’ clinic in Bismarck. There was a session on a new piece of technology and he wanted me there to get the information on it. It was good, and there were lots of interesting sessions, but I hope that I will not have to go away overnight again this summer. I am good with staying home and getting things done around here and around home.

Our sessions included information about coaching ethics and philosophy and not just specific techniques, which was interesting for a change. One of our final presenters, a coach from Billings, MT, who did three of the four last hours, gave us his dilemma of walking into a team with absolutely no discipline. It seemed that for many years prior to his coming to West Billings High School, no one cared about the track team, as in no one—not administration, not parents and especially not students or even the track athletes.

After he took the job, he found out that they really were at the bottom of the proverbial sports’ totem pole in their school. The first thing he learned was that they didn’t have a budget, so no equipment purchases and don’t think about purchasing any other sort of things like meals for the meets. He fixed that with a fund raiser. On one of the first bus rides to a meet one of the athletes asked who would be next year’s coach. It was then he learned that before him no one coached there for more than one year, and because of it the athletes did whatever they wanted. In fact, everyone kept telling him not to get worked up because it was “just track.” I don’t think the schools of Eureka or Herreid would understand that idea. We have never been like that.

His point was that discipline and expectations are very important to building a program that will be successful, and then that success carries itself. He decided early on in his time there that he wasn’t going to be there for only one year, and that he wanted to build something that the student athletes were going to buy into and something they would work as hard at as he would.

He was asked to speak at the clinic because he has had a team win the Montana State AA title for 7 of the 12 years that he has been there. And on the other years, they were pretty much second or third. I forgot to write down how many times they have been 2nd or 3rd.

I think his belief that children need discipline and need to buy into a program has done wonders for their teams. Lately, the more news I watch and the more I pay attention to certain local politics, the more I realize how important discipline and following some sort of rules would be good for all of us. Enough said on that.

The reading that we had in Romans today, at least the ending part, might seem familiar to us. I am sort of hoping that it becomes less and less familiar to us, but … Those words are found in our bulletins when we have a funeral. The last verses of Romans 8 are the final part of that affirmation of faith that we read together following our funeral messages, before the final song and benediction. As a public affirmation, we read these words and if we believe, really believe what we are reading, we are telling everyone around us that we have bought into the message that Jesus brought to earth from God, which is that we are loved and accepted and wanted. We have importance. We are children of God and nothing will keep us away from his love, his acceptance, his family.

But what about the words we keep reading in the 13th chapter of Matthew? What about those parables about sowing and plants growing and good seed and bad seed? What about that idea that on the last day, the weeds will be torn from the good grain and sent to the fire to be burned. One of the commentaries that I read last week said that was a much easier concept for the people of our frontier to grasp than it is for us. If any of you have read the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you might remember the book called, The Long Winter. In it we read how they were out of fuel in the middle of that winter during a horrible blizzard, and they went to the barn and kept twisting hay and putting it into the wood burning stove to keep themselves from freezing. Having some extra weeds around to burn would have been a great luxury in those days.

So who are these weeds and who are these seeds that grow up to be the good crop? How does this difference happen? In today’s gospel lesson the parable is about a useless seed, a little tiny mustard seed that in the days of Jesus had no purpose, yet it grows up to be something of great importance that houses many of the birds of the air. It seems to be telling us that even what we think is nothing can become something. It seems to be saying that the least of these are important. Could it be telling us that we too are important? Could it be saying that even if we feel mostly inadequate, we are somebody in the eyes of God? Maybe we are supposed to connect them to other Bible stories of how the last will become first and the first will become last? Perhaps that is something for us to study in our age of importance and entitlement.

But what about the rest of the parables, those little incidental phrases near the end of this passage? The themes of those seem to be that the kingdom of heaven is a treasure that is worth more than anything else we could ever have or ever want. Jesus is telling us that no matter what we have or want to have on this earth, nothing can ever compare to what we can have in the kingdom of heaven, in God’s kingdom. And the underlying message of that is sort of the opposite, the converse. It is the idea that we should strive for what we gain in the kingdom of heaven, not what we gain in this kingdom. In other words, what we do here—on this earth—should be in an effort to build up mansions in the great beyond, not mansions on this earth where things don’t last. We need to be buying into the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom on earth. Sort of gives you a different perspective on saving for retirement. Perhaps this is a different kind of 401K.

And what about the things we talked about a few weeks ago when I said, and I saw some of you agreeing, that we need to be about more than just sitting around waiting for the day when we join the kingdom of heaven?  Yes, we do need to be about more as a congregation and as individual Christians; we need to be active in spreading the gospel and loving our neighbors and caring for the world around us, “A Just World for All” and all of that stuff, but just doing that doesn’t make or break it in terms of getting us to the kingdom of God. We can’t ‘good works’ our way in, we can’t buy our way in, we can’t sing or teach or preach our way in, we all know that.

Paul in Romans 8:38-39 says there is nothing, nothing at all that can keep us apart from the love of God. Then how is it that there still are weeds that get pulled away from the good crops and thrown into the final fire? The fact is, there is nothing outside of ourselves that can keep us from God. It is what is on the inside that determines where we go on the day of dividing. It is what we believe, where our faith lies that makes the difference for us when our time here is over. All God asks is that we believe, that we believe in him, in his Son and accept the Holy Spirit into our lives to guide us and help us through all that we face. Will we be perfect at all times, of course not, we are human. But by following the words of Jesus, who says, “we are to love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.” If we do that then when our day comes, nothing will be able to keep us from that love that God offers us, which means on that day, that wonderful day; we will see Christ in Paradise.  And, as long as we can buy into that faith—that wonderful faith in Christ, I don’t think there is anything we can’t accomplish. Amen!

Message 4-2-17: New Life

Before I share the message that I used in our service on Sunday, I need to explain that while I was posting and thinking about other things on Saturday, April Fool’s Day, in Arizona other members of my extended family were having a very different sort of day. Later that evening, we received word that my 67-year-old uncle passed away of an apparent heart attack. I guess there will be a medical examination to determine cause of death before this is all over. I had completed the message before we got the call, and so I did make a few minor adjustments as I was speaking. For the most part what is posted below is what they heard.

One thing I wish to add, the opening song was “Jesus I Come.” As we began singing, I saw the lyrics with fresh eyes. All I could think of was someone saying those words as they were passing from this life to the next. I had not looked at that song quite like that before, and perhaps won’t ever see it any other way.

Here is what I mean:

  1. “Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come…In to thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus I come to thee. Out of my sickness into thy health, out of my need and into thy wealth. Out of my sin and into thyself, Jesus I come to thee.

The other lines that start with out of include: shameful failure and loss, earth’s sorrows, life’s storms, distress, unrest and arrogant pride, despair, the fear and dread of the tomb, the depths of ruin untold. The other into’s include: joy and light of thy home, peaceful sheltering fold and jubilant psalm among others. It was hard to sing and for a time I could not, but it gave me the courage to give the message with greater conviction. Hope it makes sense to you.

The title of the message was: “New Life.” the scriptures used were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45.

For a couple of weeks we have been watching the geese fly and waiting for the waters to open. As much as geese signal spring, the sure sign for me is the sound of the cranes. It seems that when the other birds come there is still a chance of snow here or there, and some people swear by the return of the robins, but I have seen snow many times after their arrival, for me the trick is seeing the cranes come back. And even though they fly really high and sometimes there is noise around, somehow their sound always comes through, that whirly, purring sort of sound that is different from other birds. I just love hearing them. Now if I could just get lucky enough to catch some of them with the camera that would be a highlight of my spring.

As for a not highlight of my spring, that was last week. Last week I was not so sure how long it was going to take for me to feel like I would survive. Friday, I started to feel sick, Saturday I was tired and miserable, but I found some old decongestant tablets and so I had a bit of relief. Sunday was not all that bad mostly because I had to get out of bed and get here to be with you, but the afternoon and evening were all downhill. Monday when I should have been able to sleep in and get some rest, I got up and told James I would start jotting down some plans for my funeral because I wasn’t sure how long I would still be breathing. (In light of the news we had Saturday, this remark seems rather inappropriate.)

I know that I shouldn’t joke about something like that, and of course there was no reasoning with me to go to the clinic. First off I realized that when you blow your nose and the stuff coming out does not have a color there is probably no bacteria and no way to treat it beyond over the counter drugs. I also started thinking about what Jessica was told when she went to the Dr. a few weeks back. They told her to wash her hands more and drink plenty of fluids. Wash your hands more is now the standard family joke. Monday afternoon, I purchased some decongestant and life got better. Hopefully this is the worst of the springtime illnesses at our house.

So, I might have been feeling better, but when I finally opened up the calendar and saw the lectionary scriptures for today, I cringed and nearly went back into sick mode. Three years ago this was the Sunday of my installation. So as the cycle goes, we have the same scripture lessons as that day, and I really don’t want to repeat that message. I initially had a hard time figuring out where to go that would be different. And as you can see the epistle lesson isn’t even in the bulletin, so that isn’t an option.

Of course the obvious answer would be to focus on the passage from Ezekiel instead of the story about how Lazarus was raised from the dead. I like that idea even less. I don’t like the Ezekiel scriptures and it is a silly reason, but it goes back to my college days. The man who was president of the college when I attended there was somewhat fixated on Ezekiel and used it often in his writings or speeches. For some reason his presentation turned me off at the time, and after he was asked to leave the post because of financial improprieties, I liked it even less. Maybe I will grow out of this down the line, but for now I am not there yet.

So here we are again with the story of the death of Lazarus and how his sisters Mary and Martha and their friends were grieving this tragic event. But today I don’t want to talk about the historical facts of that death and I especially don’t want to talk about the grief (yet ironically my family and I are grieving yet again this weekend) or even how amazing it was that Jesus was able to raise his friend who was in the grave for four whole days. Today I would rather look at this a new way. I would like to look at this in terms of what it means for us. If Jesus was able to raise Lazarus whose body should have smelled from decomposition, what can he do for us, who are still here very much alive in a physical sense?

Today I don’t want to think about all that stuff about Jesus talking to the sister and looking at the closed tomb and then actually grieving—crying real tears himself. No, today I want us to think about how Jesus looked at the tomb where he knew his friend was and instead of saying he was sorry not to get there sooner, Jesus raised his voice and he called for Lazarus to come out. That’s what he did, he stood there and called, “Lazarus, come out!” And if you want the substance of the message today, you hear those words with your name in that sentence. Jesus calls us each to come out of the tomb of our existence.

This is where we look at the scriptures differently than we looked at them in the past. Instead of seeing the grief stricken sisters and friends or even considering what Lazarus gave up by coming back, we see the new life that happened. Today we consider that the call of Jesus brought Lazarus to a new life. The simple call of Jesus brought Lazarus not just back to his old life to continue on, but to a new life, to a testimony of truth of the reality of Jesus, to the power of Jesus’ love, to the difference that the call from Christ can make in our lives.

This is the point of these scriptures for us today. It is the call of Jesus, the beckoning of our Christ that gives us new life. In reality this would probably have been a much more appropriate message for me to hear three years ago, but at that time I wasn’t anywhere near being able to imagine it let alone write it or speak it at that time.

New life is more than just the resurrection that we all hope to experience when this life that we now have is over. New life is about our personal survival of so many things. New life is about overcoming an illness, surviving a job change or the loss of a parent or a sibling or a spouse or even a child. I was reading one of the blogs that I follow last week. This blogger was not posting anything for a time, and it seems something has happened to cause the person pain, but they have not revealed details. I have been concerned that maybe something happened to another family member, but slowly the comments about others in the family are returning. I just know that something is different in this person’s life and I tried to leave a gentle encouraging remark on the last post as a way to connect and to let the blogger know I cared. I was relieved when I received a like for my comment.

New life is an adjustment. New things in our lives, whether they are new jobs—or retirement, different homes, new situations, a change in our health and mobility, new family members, or even the loss of someone close to us those are all adjustments we experience in life. Those are even things we grieve for a time, even when we are excited for the new, there are scary points just as much as when we experience loss. What we need to remember is that just like Lazarus heard Jesus call to him to come out of the tomb, Jesus calls to us to come out of our tombs of existence to experience the great love that he has for us. And more than that, Jesus calls us to come out and share that love with all those around us.

We might not know the details of what happened to Lazarus after Jesus called him from the tomb, and he came out alive and restored. But we can be sure that he didn’t hide out away from the world keeping this miracle to himself. Jesus called him to have a new life. Jesus restored Lazarus to life, just a few days before he himself would be betrayed and crucified and then rise from the dead. He didn’t make that call so it would be kept quiet. And Jesus doesn’t call us from our everyday lives in order to come here to worship then quietly slip out the door back to our homes to keep these beliefs and ideas to ourselves. Jesus calls us out of the tombs of our existence to share—to share what we know to be true with everyone around us.

The epistle lesson we didn’t read today comes from Romans 8:6-11 (read it) Paul tells us that when we give ourselves to Christ, we are given new life through the spirit of God. It is the spirit that lives in us that gives us the ability to answer Christ, to come out of our tombs and follow Jesus wherever that may be. Let us go this week with the strength of that conviction, answering that call as joyously as this magnificent spring day demands. Amen!

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