Sunday, October 29, 2017

Chasing Temples

Now King Hiram of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon, when he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his father; for Hiram had always been a friend to David. Solomon sent word to Hiram, saying, “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to my father David, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’

Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion. All the people of Israel assembled to King Solomon at the festival in the month Ethanim, which is the seventh month. And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests carried the ark. So they brought up the ark of the Lord, the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent; the priests and the Levites brought them up. King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles. The poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place in front of the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from outside; they are there to this day. There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses had placed there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites, when they came out of the land of Egypt. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation from the God of Jacob, the Lord of hosts, our refuge and our strength. Amen.

What an amazing day this is, isn’t it? It is not often that we able to participate in and celebrate such milestone anniversaries in the church. And it’s not often that we, in particular as Lutherans, experience one as significant as this one--the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenburg.

So, it may seem that our text today--the story of the building and dedication of the temple by King Solomon--might be an unusual one for today. After all, should we be immersing ourselves in Romans--Paul’s letter in the New Testament that was so crucial to Luther’s breakthrough understanding. Or perhaps, it should be Psalm 46, the words that were the inspiration for Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress, which we sang earlier and which is like a national anthem for us Lutherans.

Instead, today, we are considering Solomon. Solomon--king of Israel. Solomon--son of King David. 

In last week’s lesson David, Solomon’s father, had just been anointed by Samuel as king. By the time of today’s story, David is no longer alive. Yet, it was David, considered Israel’s greatest king, who reigned for 40 years over Israel, and who, during his reign, finally brought Israel into a time of peace and prosperity. David--this great king of Israel, who had, yes, stumbled badly along the way--yet, who with Bathsheba produced a son who would continue his dynasty. King Solomon.

There are four primary markers that characterize Solomon’s kingship over Israel--his extraordinary wisdom, his remarkable prosperity and wealth, his accomplishment of building the temple, and his penchant for marrying foreign women.

Today, our focus is on the building of the temple. 

Solomon had been chasing this idea of building a temple for some time. Although the idea began with his father, as Israel grew and prospered under Solomon’s reign and his kingdom experienced peace on every border, Solomon decided that it was time. That it was time that a temple must be built as God’s dwelling-place.  

It began on a positive note. It began with a desire that God would be at the center of the community, that worship of God would be central to the community, and that, in this important place, God would dwell. 

And, yet, there was a downside to this building. We learn in the chapters in between our reading today that it was built with forced labor from among the Israelites. And that it was funded through heavy taxation on the people. That, in order to create this grand structure, there was an oppressive price to pay on the part of many of the people.

In Luther’s day, Pope Leo X also chased the idea of building a temple. He sought to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome--a glorious, imposing and important tribute to the power and presence of God. A place where God might dwell. 

Yet, as with the construction in Solomon’s time, there was an oppressive price to be paid as funds were raised for this. In fact, the fund-raising was unscrupulous, particularly by Johann Tetzel, a German Dominican monk. It was Tetzel’s act of selling forgiveness that led to Luther’s challenge to the papacy. It was a challenge to Pope Leo to reclaim the focus of worship--that worship should be focused on the God who claims us and who calls us. It was Luther’s call to reclaim this focus in the face of practices that had become so oppressive to the people that led to the Reformation.

Chasing temples and the building of temples dedicated to God--well, it always starts out with the best of intentions. We want to do something great for God. “The glory of the Lord fills the house of the lord--I have built you a place to dwell in forever,” Solomon proclaims as the temple is dedicated.

And, yet, it inevitably all falls apart. We, human beings, inevitably end up creating a structure that fails. As much as Solomon and Pope Leo were trying to do something good in their own times, the structures they built eventually become corrupt and oppressive to the people. 

Our own church structures today are in need of reform. We are in a time when it is no longer the cultural expectation that one go to church. Our congregations continue to shrink. Yet, we in this post-Christendom time continue to operate under an old model--one that may have worked in the 1950’s, but which will not work now. We are in need of our own reforming to find new, more efficient and faithful means of participating in God’s mission.

As long as we, like Solomon and Pope Leo and all those before us--as long as we continue to chase temples. To chase places in which we seek to contain God. Places that eventually become oppressive and ineffective and that lose God as their center. As long as we continue to do this, well, the need for reform will continue to exist. 

Jesus dealt with this in his time. In our Gospel today from John 2, Jesus was dealing with the questions of a deeply flawed institution--a second temple built to glory God that had become corrupted and lost God as its center. Jesus is the one--the only one--who does the reforming. Jesus is the one who enters into the temple. Jesus is the one who cleanses it, an action that will raise questions about his authority. Jesus is the one who responds with these words, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

You see, the true place of God’s presence is a person, rather than any building. Any structures we might create are transient. God’s presence is embodied in one person--Jesus Christ. Christ is at the center of our worship. Christ is the mark of our identity. Christ is the person who binds us together in community. In proclaiming these words--”In three days I will build it up!”--Christ begins a profound word of reformation. A reformation that is reshaping the lives of people around the center--around God’s presence in the crucified and risen Christ.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve been talking about our own ministry here. We’ve been asking each of you to prayerfully consider how you might give more to our ministry, both financially and of your time. In just a few moments, we will be asking you to present your pledges for 2018.

These requests haven’t been intended to oppress. They aren’t intended to guilt you into giving more of your money and resources. Or more of your time and talent.

Instead they are an opportunity. A moment in time for each of us to prayerfully look at our lives and the life of this congregation and to re-form ourselves. To re-focus. To re-center on the crucified and risen Christ--in each of our lives and, particularly, in this place. And to stop chasing building temples and seeking to contain God. But, instead, to re-commit ourselves and our ministry to a God for whom there are no limitations. And to be prepared to be changed and reshaped in a way we could never have imagined. Just as with the Reformation some 500 years ago.  

May God grant it. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Keeping Up Appearances

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and get going. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have found my next king among his sons.”

“How can I do that?” Samuel asked. “When Saul hears of it he’ll kill me!”

“Take a heifer with you,” the Lord replied, “and say, ‘I have come to make a sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will make clear to you what you should do. You will anoint for me the person I point out to you.”

Samuel did what the Lord instructed. When he came to Bethlehem, the city elders came to meet him. They were shaking with fear. “Do you come in peace?” they asked.

“Yes,” Samuel answered. “I’ve come to make a sacrifice to the Lord. Now make yourselves holy, then come with me to the sacrifice.” Samuel made Jesse and his sons holy and invited them to the sacrifice as well.

When they arrived, Samuel looked at Eliab and thought, That must be the Lord’s anointed right in front.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.”

Next Jesse called for Abinadab, who presented himself to Samuel, but he said, “The Lord hasn’t chosen this one either.” So Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “No, the Lord hasn’t chosen this one.” Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord hasn’t picked any of these.” Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”

“There is still the youngest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.”

“Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.”

So Jesse sent and brought him in. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. The Lord said, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The Lord’s spirit came over David from that point forward.

Then Samuel left and went to Ramah. 1 Samuel 16:1-13 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our text today from first Samuel opens with this words from from first Samuel opens with these words from the Lord to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul?”

These words give us a hint that not all has gone well with the first king of Israel--the king we learned last week that Samuel would anoint. The king demanded by the people so that they could be “like all the other nations.”

In the time between last week’s calling of Samuel and today’s lesson, time has, once again, passed. Samuel’s sons--who would have been expected to move into his role as prophet-judge over Israel--have perverted the system, just like Samuel’s predecessor, Eli.

The people have used this systemic corruption to make a demand of God for a king. The political threat of the neighboring Philistines continues to over them. And, instead of having faith in God’s ability to prosper or even sustain them as a nation, they demand through Samuel that God give them a human king. 

God decides to give them what it is they think they want. In 1 Samuel 8, God says to Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request--everything they ask of you--because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”

So, Samuel does. But he warns them what a monarchy will look like: a military draft, forced labor, taxation, and eventual tyranny (all of which will eventually come true). The human king they so desperately want so they can be just “like all of the other nations” will eventually become their oppressor.

Saul is anointed by Samuel as king over Israel. There are indications at the beginning of Saul’s story that his masculinity was an important factor in his choice. That his “height” and his “physical prowess” were important in the choice, even though he was from the smallest clan of the smallest tribe of Israel. And, although, he began his reign as king with a humble heart, it was not long, before arrogance and his ego began to take over and he began to make choices that were not consistent with God’s instruction.

Soon, everything began to fall apart.

It is here where our story today picks up. Samuel is grieving Saul’s disobedience. But, God has already moved on, deciding that Saul’s monarchy will not continue. So, God directs Samuel to go to Bethlehem. That there, in Bethlehem, Samuel will find the new king and anoint him.

As Samuel approaches Bethlehem, the village elders approach him. They are nervous. It is never a good thing, in their mind, that God’s prophet is coming to their village. Yet, Samuel assures them that he is there in peace--that he has come to make sacrifice to God. He invites them to prepare themselves for the sacrifice--to make themselves ritually clean--and to join him. Samuel also invites Jesse to make sacrifice. Jesse, grandson of Boaz and Ruth, and a descendant of Perez, son of Judah. Jesse’s line can be traced all the way back to Judah. Jesse, who’s name means “man of God.”

It is from Jesse’s lineage--from his sons--that Israel’s new king will come.

Samuel sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, and thinks, “This must be him, right in front.” Perhaps it was his appearance, perhaps he looked as Samuel thought a king should look, perhaps tall and handsome--the way we like our leaders to look.

Yet, he isn’t God’s choice. God says to Samuel,” Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature. Because I don’t look at things like humans do. I look beyond appearances. I look at the heart.”

So Samuel continues. Son after son, he moves through Jesse’s family. When he reaches the seventh one, the last one there, he says to Jesse, “Are there any more? Is that all of them?

Jesse says that there is. One more. The youngest. The one that is out in the pastures keeping the sheep.

Samuel asks Jesse to send for him. When he arrives, Samuel sees that he is ruddy-looking (remember Esau?) and that he had beautiful eyes. That he was good-looking. God, though, saw his heart and said to Samuel, “He’s the one! Anoint him!”

Samuel took the oil he’d brought with him--the ram’s horn full of oil--and poured it over the youngest son’s head, anointing him as the new king of Israel. Our text says that “the Lord’s spirit came over David from that point forward.”

David would go on to become the greatest king that Israel would have. And, it would be through David’s line, through his lineage, that another, even greater, King would come. A Messiah.

How do we make sense for ourselves of this story? How do we make our own meaning from it? How does it inform us today in the 21st century? After all, the days of kings and monarchies, of warring neighbors, of oppression and oppressive structures, are gone or nearly gone! Aren’t they? We are so much more enlightened than the Israel of the past. Aren’t we? We don’t choose our leaders--or anyone else, for that matter--based on outward appearances! We don’t look to our leaders to be our very own, self-selected saviors! Do we? We certainly don’t reject God, failing to trust that God will prosper and sustain us! Do we? 

Do we?

I think we do. I think we are not all that different than Israel. I think we look at outward appearances because we want to be just like everyone else. And, I think we fail, regularly, to look inside and see the heart of others.

God does. God sees the hearts of others. God sees our hearts. Even in the midst of doubt and fear and failure, God sees our hearts.  And God loves us anyway. And God promises to prosper and sustain us. If we only believe it.

A few years into his monarchy, David--this great king of Israel--tripped up. He made some huge mistakes. When Samuel confronted him, he realized how deeply he had abandoned God and wrote this prayer:

Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
    scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
    set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
    give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
    shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
    or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
    put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
    so the lost can find their way home.
Commute my death sentence, God, my salvation God,
    and I’ll sing anthems to your life-giving ways.

Today, after worship, we will hold a congregational meeting. At this meeting, we will elect our leadership for the next year. We will approve our budget for next year. And we will begin to envision where God is leading our congregation. Next week we will commit to funding that vision. And in two weeks, we will celebrate our 20th anniversary and invite our entire community to participate in that vision.

Where do you see yourself in that vision? Are you perhaps, like David, suffering from once-broken bones, blemished and gray, trying to survive the chaos of your life, feeling as though you have been tossed out with the trash? Or are you, perhaps, like Israel, believing that God can’t be relied upon, that we can only rely upon ourselves.

May we learn from Israel and trust that God has in mind to prosper and sustain us. May we pray like David that God might breathe holiness in us and put fresh wind in our sails! May we do the work of God--teaching rebels God’s ways so that all people might find their way home. Back to a God who loves them. And who loves us. Deeply.

May David’s prayer be our prayer. May God continue to make fresh starts in us so that we might continue to sing songs to God's life-giving way. Amen.

Preached October 22, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 51:10-14; John 7:24.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Being Called

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.”

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. 1 Samuel 3:1-21 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God--our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Renewer. Amen.

As we begin today’s story--the calling of Samuel--we have fast forwarded in history from our lesson last week. There’s been some serious time travel across the books of Exodus, Joshua and Judges.

When we last gathered together, we were following the exodus of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into wandering in the desert. After freeing Israel, God reconstructed them in the Sinai wilderness. It was here that God entered into covenant with Israel--that they would be God’s own special people. Under this agreement, God promised to be their God if they would follow the Instruction given to Moses--the law that Moses had received from God on Mount Sinai. Israel was a people governed directly by God through Moses, who acted as mediator. They were a people blessed by God. Blessed so that they could be a blessing to others.

After a generation of moving through the wilderness, they reached the land promised to them by God. The land of Canaan. It is here, at the point of entry into this Promised Land, that Moses dies. It is here that Joshua steps in as Moses’ successor, as the new leader of and mediator for Israel. Throughout the book of Joshua, we learn of Israel’s entry and settlement in Canaan. The story ends with yet another renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. It also ends with Joshua’s death.

The book of Judges, in picking up the story of Israel--of God’s people--deals with two questions. How will Israel now conduct its affairs as the people of God who are settled in their God-given home? And, how will Israel be governed now that there is no Moses or Joshua to exercise leadership?

It is not long in Canaan, before it all begins to fall apart. Before people go astray. That they are conquered by a nearby nation. Then, they cry out, as we have so often heard them do before. And, God, faithful always, responds. 

In response, God sends in a prophet-judge, who assists in bringing God’s people back to faith. Back into covenant with God. This pattern repeats itself over and over and over again through the book of Judges. Judge after judge. Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Barak, Jael. Then, finally, Samuel. 

Which is where we begin today.

As our lesson opens in 1st Samuel, chapter 3, Samuel is a young child, serving the priest, Eli, in the tabernacle at Shiloh, the tabernacle that had been established at Shiloh by Joshua. During the period of the judges, Shiloh has become the center of religious life for Israel. 

The tabernacle housed the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was essentially a chest that contained various things. The tablets of the Law and the staff of Aaron, brother of Moses, among other things. It was kind of like a portable power center for Israel. It signified God’s presence, even an intensification of God’s presence for Israel. It was the most treasured object that Israel had--a sign of the presence of God.

It was here, at the tabernacle, that Eli was the priest. His two sons were also ordained, as well. In the earlier chapters of 1st Samuel, we have learned that Eli’s sons have not been faithful. They’re kind of stereotypical PK’s--pastor’s kids. In fact, Eli’s two sons have become corrupt. They are stealing from the offering plate. As called and ordained priests, they are sinning directly against God, by stealing from the treasury. The opening verse of our lesson today reads that the Lord’s word was rare at that time and visions weren’t widely known. One can only wonder whether it was the conduct of the clergy that was obscuring the ability of God’s own people to hear or to experience the living Word of God. That the institution was getting in the way of hearing God.

And, so, God plans to do a new thing.

This new thing is Samuel. It is into the midst of this corrupt institution that Samuel enters in. Samuel, a young child, given up in service to God by Hannah, his mother. This child, Hannah’s first fruit offering back to the Lord, serves Eli, the temple priest.

In the early verses of our story, Samel is obediently resting beside the Ark. As he sleeps, he hears his name called. “Samuel! Samuel!” 

“Here I am!” Samuel replies. Heneni, in Hebrew. We’re heard this response before haven’t we? Abraham. Jacob. All of them responding to God’s call with the words, “Here I am.” Heneni.

But, Samuel is young. He has never before experienced the word of the Lord. He thinks that it is Eli who is calling him. And, at this point, Eli, himself, doesn’t even recognize that it is God who is calling Samuel--Eli, so disconnected from God, fails to realize at first that it is God who is calling Samuel. 

This happens two more times. Finally, the third time, it dawns on Eli who is calling Samuel. And, so, Eli instructs Samuel how to respond. 

So, the fourth time, when God calls Samuel, he knows how to respond and he does. God, then, speaks to Samuel and calls him to become truth-teller to Eli. To confront Eli with the truth of the patterns that are abusive within his own family and all those whom they touch.

You see, God is not content to let things be. God is unwilling to allow patterns of corruption and abuse to remain concealed and to be perpetuated from generation to generation. This is one of God’s primary purposes for enlisting Samuel as judge and prophet. To be truth-teller. 

It is also God’s purpose for Samuel to lead God’s people through the coming crisis, the coming threat of the neighboring Philistines--a military crisis through which the priestly house of Eli will be punished and the Ark of the Covenant eventually lost. 

Samuel will be the last of the judges. He will guide Israel through crisis, will bring them back to repentance, and will bring about, through God’s power, their deliverance and the return of the Ark of the Covenant.

God calls Samuel. And God equips Samuel to do God’s work. 

In the same way God calls each of us. And God equips each of us to do God’s work. Each of us has a calling. In fact, each of us has multiple callings, multiple vocations. Vocations that are both paid and unpaid. Worker. Neighbor. Sibling. Child. Parent. Grandparent. 

Luther wrote extensively on the topic of vocation. It is at the heart of our Lutheran tradition. About how each of us has been freed from the guilt and shame of our own brokenness through the saving power of Christ on the cross. And about how, then, each of us is freed to live into our baptisms and to live out our baptismal callings, in our personal lives and in the life of our community, here and out there.

How are we living into our callings? How are we living more fully into who God intends us to be so that, as we are blessed, we might be a blessing to others?

On this day when we are, in particular, lifting up the calling--the vocation--of farmers, I’m reminded of my own father, who was a farmer. A rancher-farmer. On our ranch in north central South Dakota, we raised sheep and cattle. We averaged 1,000 head of sheep and 400 head of cattle. We raised 1,200 acres of alfalfa as feed. 

Now, my father could have been content to live comfortably on the income provided from our ranch. Yet, he understood that it wasn’t simply about his comfort. He understood that through his vocation as farmer he was to serve God and to bless others with the blessings God had bestowed on him. 

It was not unusual for my father to be daily helping out our neighbors. To give the elderly couple living north of us several orphaned lambs that they could raise and sell to supplement their fixed income. Or to help out a neighboring farmer in a harvest. Or, even, to give rides in the middle of the night to the Native Americans who were walking the 60 miles between reservations and, who often stopped at our farm along the way, to ask if they might sleep overnight in our barn.

My father was not a perfect person. He sometimes had a temper that could get out of control. On occasion, he could get himself into trouble, particularly with my mother. But, I think he understood that, in his vocation as farmer, he was called upon to share the blessings God had given him. To live out the forgiveness and grace he had received as a gift from God through Christ in his own life by serving others.

Do you hear God calling you? Do you hear God calling you to be the blessing God has called you to be? In whatever vocations you have? To live more fully into your baptismal covenant as a child of God? Are you listening?

And, then, are you responding? And, how are you responding? As farmer? As son? As daughter? As grandparent? As parent? Perhaps it is as simple as sitting down with your child or your grandchild and simply listening to them for fifteen minutes. Listening, without telling them what they have done wrong or what they should or shouldn’t do. Just being present with them, hearing them. And being the blessing for them that God intends us to be. 

How will you live out your call today? And tomorrow? And into the future? God has called and equipped each of us. May we be as faithful with our call as young Samuel. May we be a blessing to others as richly as God has blessed us. Amen.

Preached October 14, 2017 at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-21, John 20:21-23.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Un Unknown Monk

Recently, I was invited to write a column on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation for the Oldham Era, a weekly newspaper published and distributed in Oldham County, Kentucky, where Grace & Glory Lutheran--the congregation I pastor--is situated. Following are my thoughts:

Five hundred years ago this month, on October 31, 1517, an unknown monk posted a series of 95 statements on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, unknowingly beginning a movement that would forever change the world.  That monk’s name was Martin Luther. The movement became known as the Reformation.

Luther never intended to start a movement. He had grown ever disturbed and frustrated with the church--a huge, monolithic institution headquartered far away in Rome with vast amounts of money and land, and, at a macro level, substantial power, influence and control over the politics and economy of Europe. Luther had also grown frustrated with the control the church exercised at a much more micro level among its parishioners.

In Luther’s day, Europe operated under a feudal system, where nearly all of the money and property was held by just a few--the nobility, the 1% of that time, plus the church. The nobility and the church worked closely together to control the masses, keeping people locked into an economic system where one could never achieve even moderate wealth and a religious system where one could never escape the guilt and shame of not measuring up to the legalistic teachings of the church.

Luther, himself, had experienced much of this guilt and shame as young monk. As a junior faculty member at a university in small-town Germany, he was tormented by the demand for righteousness before God. “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God,” he wrote.

Luther poured over the Scriptures, trying to find answers to free himself from this torment and from his “disturbed conscience.” It was in his study of Romans, specifically of Romans 1:17, that Luther experienced a theological and spiritual breakthrough. “The righteous will live by faith,” he read. For the first time, he began to understand that keeping the law--the commandments and other natural law--had nothing to do with his salvation. He began to see that there was nothing he could do, no good work that he could perform, that would be enough to save him, to make him right with God. Rather, that what saved him was faith--faith in the life-giving work of Christ dying on the cross for all people. And this faith was freely offered to him and to all by a generous, loving and life-giving God.

This was incredibly freeing for Luther. He began, then, to fully understand the nature of God through the lens of that cross--that God was a god of love and not a god of vengeance or punishment. He began to see that God wanted him and all people to be freed from shame and guilt and, then, in response to this freedom, to turn back to the world and serve it—to be God’s hands at work in the world.

This was a radical understanding in Luther’s day--a new understanding of personal freedom that would result in the overthrow of the feudal system and usher in the ideas that would eventually lead to the Enlightenment and to the democratic ideas of individual freedom and liberty that would result in the French and American revolutions. It was a time of profound upheaval and change that would lead to new ways of thinking and new ways of living.

It was radical in Luther’s day. It is just as radical in our day.

We live in a similar time as Luther. Just as the invention of the printing press revolutionized communication in his time, so, in just a few short decades, the invention of the internet has revolutionized our ways of communicating. The world is a much larger place. We are more exposed to other cultures, religions and ways of being that are very different from what many of us grew up with.

Is it perhaps possible that God is at work in our world today? That God is continuing to work through the Luthers of our time to reform the world once again? To lead us to new ways of thinking and new ways of living, just as God did in the 16th century? That God might be continuing to reveal to us even more of God’s true nature of infinite love and justice--a nature we often seek to contain within our own limited imaginations? 

I believe that this is so. And I believe this because I know and believe that God is always creating--bringing life out of death, light out of dark places, order out of chaos, and new ways of being out of times of change and upheaval.

God is at work today. Just as God was at work in 1517 through some unknown monk.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Misseo Deo

After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of 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.

But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”  Exodus 2:23-25; 3:10-15; 4:10-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God--our Creator, Redeemer, and Restorer.  Amen.

This past summer, when our worship committee made the decision to shift to a new lectionary--to the Narrative Lectionary--it was after we’d spent much of the summer immersed in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

I don’t know about your own experiences, but these are the stories I grew up with. The stories that were told to us in Sunday school and in Vacation Bible School. The stories of creation and of the fall, the stories of Noah and the ark, the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the stories of Moses and Israel. First, in Egypt and, then, freed from the bondage of slavery. And on and on and on. There were the stories of our faith, I was told. The stories of who we are as a people.

But, somehow, I could never really connect the dots. What was God’s meta-narrative anyway? How did these stories connect to it? And, more importantly, what was my connection to these stories and to this meta-narrative?

It was only until seminary, in a missiology class, that the light bulb went on.

Missiology is just a fancy word for the study of mission. More particularly, it is the study of God’s mission. The misseo Deo. Of God’s plan. And how, as God implements that plan, God continues to reveal more and more of God’s nature to us.

What that plan is--that meta-plan or meta-narrative--what it is has long been debated among theologians. Generally, though, it can be reduced down into four basic elements: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Creation. Fall. Redemption. Restoration.

At the beginning of September, we started at the beginning with the creation story. About how God--a god already in relationship (Creator-Father, Redeemer-Son, Restorer-Spirit)--desired to be in even greater relationship. And so, this relational God creates. God enters into the world and begins to create. To first bring a place of chaos into an ordered world. Then, to populate that newly-created, newly-ordered place. With animals and birds and other creatures. And then with human beings--called to be caretakers of that world. God entered in and created a place of beauty and flourishing. God created a place that was good.


And, then, it all fell apart. Literally.

Beginning with the fall of those first beings and then a continued descent into anger and hatred, murder and devastation. God saw how sin and brokenness was tearing the world--God’s good and beautiful world--apart. Full of wickedness. And falling apart. The result of sin and brokenness.

The Fall.

At first, God regretted God’s creation. Genesis 6:7 tell us that God was sorry he had made creation. God regretted it--but, just a moment. God refused to walk away. Instead, God devised a plan. God’s mission. The misseo Deo, if you like. And that plan started with a remnant of people. Noah and his family. People who continued to follow God, who sought to live out who God desired them to be. Human beings who found “favor in the sight of the Lord.” 

So, God started on a plan of redemption. To begin with a remnant of humanity and to form them into a select people. To enter into a covenant with them. A covenant that sought to redeem them and bring them back into full relationship with God. And, then, to expand that to all of humanity.


The story of God seeking to bring redemption to a fallen humanity began with Abraham. It began with Abraham and a promise. A promise that through Abraham this blessed nation would come and that Abraham and his descendants would be blessed so that they could be a great blessing to others. 

Today, in our reading, we have an important next step in that redemption narrative, in the formation of God’s people. Last week, we left off with Jacob. Jacob, that son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, who lived so fully into his name. Meaning trickster. 

If you haven’t noticed it yet, names are really important in scripture. Jacob’s name would eventually be changed to Israel. Which means “God strives.” It would be through Jacob--through Israel--that God would strive to continue to grow God’s people. To grow them into a nation.

By the time our story begins today, several generations have passed. We have moved out of the book of Genesis (meaning “beginning”) and into the book of Exodus (meaning “departure”). The book begins in Egypt, which is where Jacob would eventually end up. Jacob (or Israel) has grown into a large nation. So, large, in fact, that they are becoming a threat to the Egyptians. Particularly to the political leadership of Egypt, who are watching them grow and become increasingly worried that their own people will become a minority people. 

And, so, they begin to oppress Israel. Ruthlessly. The first two chapters of Exodus tell us that the Egyptians made their lives bitter. And that Israel groaned under their slavery. That they cried out. That out of their slavery “their cry for help rose up to God.” 
God heard them. We read in the first verse of our lesson today that [read Exodus 2:24-25]. 

So God devised a plan. To rescue Israel.

Do you notice here that God doesn’t choose to work alone, to rescue Israel alone? God could, you know. God could make that choice. God takes the initiative, develops a plan, but does not work alone. God calls Moses. “Moshe” in the Hebrew, which means “to draw out.” God calls Moses to draw the Israelites out of Israel, out of bondage and servitude, out of slavery. 

Then, there’s this amazing dialogue after God calls Moses. Moses doesn’t drop everything and run. He doesn’t immediately agree with God. He raises sharp objections to God over God’s call. Eight objections, to be exact. God never tells Moses to be quiet. Or ignores his concerns. Instead, God responds to each objection in turn. One after the other. It is through this conversation, this dialogue, that Moses gains fuller knowledge. In God’s interaction with a questioning human, God more fully reveals who God is. 

It is one of God’s responses to Moses, in particular, that we gain a much deeper understanding of who this God is. When Moses asks God, “When they ask me ‘Who this God’s name is?’ what will I tell them?” God responds with God’s name. For the very first time, in conversation with a questioning Moses, God gives him God’s own personal name. 

The Hebrew here is actually untranslatable. Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh. Untranslatable. The earliest recorded understanding of the divine name--of God’s personal name--was as a verb derived from a three-letter stem. The verb “to be”. An absolute Being. Eternal. Unchanging. Dynamic. We know it in English as the Tetragrammaton, which means the “four consonants.” A name that has been translated to mean “I Am That I Am,” or “I Am Who I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be. A name that would be so revered by Israel that, in later Jewish history, they would not say it out loud. 

In giving God’s own, personal name to Moses, God is saying to him, “I am entering into relationship with you.” God has called Moses into relationship. And promises “to be” for Moses. Absolute. Eternal. Unchanging. Dynamic.

In the same way, God has called us in our baptisms. Giving us God’s name. Children of God. Entering into relationship with us. And promising, in Christ, “to be” for us. Absolute. Eternal. Unchanging. Dynamic. God’s meta-narrative becomes our micro-narrative. One by one. Redeemed and restored into relationship with God.

And, yet, our story, our micro-narrative, is part of God’s overarching story. A story of salvation. Of God seeking redemption for us in Christ Jesus. It is a story of freedom from bondage. And it is a story of God’s formation of God’s own people. So that we, and all of humanity, might be restored into fullness of relationship with God. Into fullness of relationship with our animals here, with all creatures, and with creation.  With God and all of creation.

This is God’s plan. God’s mission. We are part of it. Fully redeemed in Christ, it is our mission, too. Our mission with God to all the world.

May God bless out work together. Amen.

Preached October 1, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 17.
Readings: Exodus 2:23-25, 3:10-15, 4:10-17; John 8:58.