Sunday’s sermon post: Faith in Falling, Faith in Following

trust fall

Texts used – Psalm 62:5-12 and Mark 1:14-20

  • When I was a kid – probably 8 or 9 years old – my pastor, Pastor Jamie, took us on a camping trip up to Clearwater Forest.
    • Probably 8 or 10 kids
    • Trip full of fun and excitement
      • Stuff on our own
      • Stuff with the campers at the time (games, etc.)
    • One of the things we did on our own – just those of us from our church – that has always stuck with me was a trust fall.
      • Describe trust fall – picnic table, grasping arms, falling backwards staying stiff
      • Now, believe you me, falling wasn’t easy! If I remember right, it took me a couple tries to get it “right” – to fall backwards staying flat instead of trying to protect myself by sitting as I fell backward. It took serious trust, especially for an incredibly shy 9-yr-old! I had to have faith that the people who I couldn’t see were actually going to be there to catch me.
  • Our passage from the gospel today is probably one of the most well-known stories – one of the most quoted. Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”[1] We read about Jesus issuing The Call (capital “T”, capital “C”), and we envy those fishermen and the ease with which they simply drop their nets and stroll off down the road after Jesus. But even for these apostles, following Jesus wasn’t as easy as it may have seemed.
    • Mark: Immediately [Simon and Andrew] left their nets and followed [Jesus.] … Immediately, [Jesus] called [James and John]; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.[2]
      • Gr is very telling → “left” is the key = suggests giving something up, utter release
        • Used in NT to speak of the way in which God forgives sins: God doesn’t return these sins to us at a later date. God removes them entirely … and this is how completely Simon, Andrew, James, and John released their nets, their obligations, and their lives … entirely.
        • Scholar: The fact that these men drop both occupation and family obligations to follow the one who summons them demonstrates that their call comes from God. … In a traditional society, such a break with family and occupation … was an extraordinary disruption in a person’s life. It might even have seemed offensive.[3]
          • Fishermen were not young men with no obligations
          • Fishermen were not poor men with nothing to do
          • They were probably middle-aged men with a job and families and responsibilities. And yet, they went.
    • Now, the text says they followed “immediately,” but I don’t want this word to fool you. Throughout his gospel, Mark tries to convey to the readers just how crucial it is that they hear and believe the gospel message because there is no time to waste. It shows up no less than 40 times in the gospels that is by far the shortest – only 16 chapters! So while immediacy in the gospel of Mark is a sign of the immediacy of the Kingdom of God, it probably isn’t the most accurate measure of “real” time. So the disciples’ decision to leave may not have been as “immediate” as we originally thought. Maybe they stood and talked about it together. Maybe they sat in the rocks on the shore wrestling with themselves and their newly-uttered Call. Or maybe, just as Mark says, they did simply hear Jesus’ words, get up, and walk away. Maybe it was that easy for them – without question, without hesitation, without fear. But being readers who know the whole story, we know that, even if these fishermen did make their decision quickly, the path ahead of them isn’t going to be an easy one.
      • Hassled by religious authorities of the time at nearly every turn
      • Following Jesus meant hanging out with people that had been rejected by society
        • Tax collectors
        • Sinners
        • Lepers
      • And then there’s what surely seemed to the disciples to be the most unthinkable end of the story – Jesus’ arrest, torture and death. Do you think, as those fishermen were walking away from their nets and their boats and their families, they had any inkling of the horrors that were to come? Would it have changed their decision if they did?
  • And the apostles aren’t the only ones who struggle, are they?
    • Both in personal lives and the life of the church
      • Conflicts with people we love
      • Times of emotional stress or financial hardship
      • Sometimes way seems unclear
      • Sometimes we disagree
      • We grow tired and frustrated, and at times, we feel like we just don’t have the strength to follow.
    • Fortunately, our psalm this morning gives us an enduring foundation: For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.[4] → Following Jesus isn’t always easy … but the words of the psalm assure us that God will be there to catch us when we fall.
      • See this assurance in the last verse: And steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.[5] → I know that probably doesn’t sound like much of an assurance, but Hebrew for “repay” = very special root
        • Meaning: restore, fulfill … or, most commonly, peace → root = shalom
        • Scholar: Perhaps [this verse] should be rendered, “For [God] will give peace to all according to their work” … This conclusion obviously does not mean that God rewards the faithful with an easy and materially prosperous life. … Psalm 62 commends the rewarding experience of finding refuge in God alone.[6] → Ps: “My God is a refuge” – My God is a stronghold, a haven, a sanctuary. My God is my strength, my rest, my peace.
      • This psalm encourages faith. It encourages trust. What it doesn’t do is promise that that faith and trust will come easily or that they won’t be tested. But time and time again, we are reminded that our strongest, most secure refuge can be found in God. It’s like the trust fall we did with Jamie. It was difficult. It was scary. And we weren’t even falling that far! But even if everyone else hadn’t caught me, the worst I would’ve suffered was a few bumps and bruises. The stakes for the fishermen were much higher, yet still they exemplified for us the way of faith and trust and hope.
  • Painful recent example of faith and hope and trust in the face of difficulty came up just yesterday – How many of you remember that day back in 1989 when the news headlines started breaking about a boy kidnapped in small-town Minnesota? How many of you hugged your children, your grandchildren, your nieces or nephews tighter as you watched Patty Wetterling plead for the return of her son, Jacob? How many of you left porchlights on as a sign of solidarity and hope for his safe return?

Jacob Wetterling

  • Jacob Wetterling’s abduction forever changed life for children not only in Minnesota but across the country
    • Parents were far less willing to let their children go off on their own
    • Parents, grandparents, teachers had to have conversations that no one wants to have to have with children full of light and innocence and joy – conversations about strangers, about saying “no” even when you’re scared, about running … conversations about evil
    • Patty Wetterling began crusade
      • Speaking in schools – speeches that literally saved lives
        • Friend’s story: “I was walking to the outdoor pool with a friend in the summer of 1990, I had just finished kindergarten. A man in a light blue beat up car pulled up to us and offered us 5$ to get in his car. I said no and he offered 10$. I said no and that my parents would give me 10$ not to get in his car. He drove away. I knew I was not to get in his car. I knew because of Jacob Wettlering. I knew because after Jacob was abducted my parents talked to us about him. I knew not to go with this stranger because Patti Wetterling came and talked to all the kids at our elementary school about ways to stay safe. Thanks Jacob and Patti. That story could have ended very differently for me if it weren’t for you.
      • Family’s work in child safety and public policy
        • Founded Jacob Wetterling Foundation and Jacob Wetterling Resource Center – educate and assist families and communities to address and prevent the exploitation of children, by putting online and in-person safety information in the hands of every man, woman and child
        • Helped pass national law in 1994 named after Jacob that required states to establish sex offender registries
  • Through all of this – throughout the past 27 years of not knowing where their own beloved child might be – the Wetterlings have worked passionately and tirelessly out of a hope and a trust that someday, Jacob would be found. That someday he would come home. And as of yesterday, he did … but not in the way that anyone was hoping for.
    • Statement put out by Jacob Wetterling Resource Center: “We are in deep grief. We didn’t want Jacob’s story to end this way. In this moment of pain and shock, we go back to the beginning. The Wetterlings had a choice to walk into bitterness and anger or to walk into a light of what could be, a light of hope. Their choice changed the world. This light has been burning for close to 27 years. The spark began in the moments after the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, when his family decided that light is stronger than darkness. They lit the flame that became Jacob’s Hope. All of Central Minnesota flocked to and fanned the flame, hoping for answers. The light spread state-wide, nationally and globally as hearts connected to the 11 year old boy who liked to play goalie for his hockey team, wanted to be a football player, played the trombone, and loved the times he spent with his sisters, brother, and parents. Today, we gather around the same flame. The flame that has become more than the hope for one as it led the way home for thousands of others. It’s the light that illuminates a world that Jacob believed in, where things are fair and just. Our hearts are heavy, but we are being held up by all of the people who have been a part of making Jacob’s Hope a light that will never be extinguished. It shines on in a different way. We are, and we will continue to be, Jacob’s Hope. Jacob, you are loved.
  • Friends, life is not always what we want it to be. We are human. We fear. We doubt. We struggle. We get tired and frustrated and over-burdened and stretched too thin. Sometimes, the world around us can be scary and dangerous – full of pitfalls and darkness and things that go bump in the night. And sometimes we fall. But we can trust that God – our stronghold, our haven and our sanctuary, our strength, our rest and our peace – will always be there to catch us all when we fall. Amen.

[1] Mk 1:17.

[2] Mk 1:18,20.

[3] Pheme Perkins. “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 8. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 539.

[4] Ps 62:5-8.

[5] Ps 62:12.

[6] McCann, 923-924.

Aug. 28 sermon: Epilogue

end of Esther
Scene from the movie “Esther and the King,” 1960

Text used – Esther 8:1-11; 9:1, 12-17

  • Before I read our Scripture this morning, I want to recap a little bit.
    • Spent basically the entire summer together in the book of Esther
      • Met all the central characters: King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti, the palace eunuchs, Queen Esther, her cousin Mordecai, and the king’s wicked advisor Haman
      • Watched the rise and fall of the storyline
        • Queen Vashti’s banishment
        • Esther’s elevation to the throne
        • Clash between Haman and Mordecai à wounded Haman’s pride and spurred his plot to annihilate all the Jews
        • Mordecai rouse Esther to action on behalf of her people despite her own personal danger (king’s fickle temper)
        • Last week: Esther reveal that Haman’s horrible plan would affect her, too à king’s terrible rage à Haman’s death on the very pike intended for Mordecai
      • And believe it or not, I wish that was where the story ended. Despite Haman’s less-than-pleasant demise, that’s a fairly lovely end to the story. Esther’s happy. The king is happy. We’re happy. … But, friends, that’s not the end of Esther’s story. Buckle your seatbelts. Let’s finish the story of Esther together this morning.
  • Do you see what I mean? Do you understand now why I said I wish that we could have ended Esther last week? Hmmm. Yeah.
    • Today’s Scripture seems to start out not too bad – rewards for Esther and Mordecai: That same day King Ahasuerus gave Queen Esther what Haman the enemy of the Jews owned. Mordecai himself came before the king because Esther had told the king that he was family to her. The king took off his royal ring, the one he had removed from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. Esther put Mordecai in charge of what Haman had owned.[1] → Esther and Mordecai had been through a terrible ordeal. They had been subjected to severe mental and emotional strain thanks to Haman’s wickedness. Call this their “pain and suffering settlement.”
      • BUT … one thing that doesn’t sit right with me even in this – Where did that settlement come from? Did you catch it?: King Ahasuerus gave Queen Esther what Haman the enemy of the Jews owned. … Esther put Mordecai in charge of what Haman had owned. → Esther and Mordecai were rewarded with Haman’s own property and wealth. … But Haman had a family. He had a wife, Zeresh. We read about her last week. And Haman had sons – 10 sons, to be exact. Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about provisions being made for any of them. So our text this morning starts out with Esther and Mordecai profiting from the suffering of others.
        • Sit uncomfortably with anyone else?
        • Make you frown? Make you squirm a little bit?
    • And it only gets worse from there: [The scribes] wrote exactly what Mordecai ordered to the Jews, rulers, governors, and officials of the provinces from India to Cush – one hundred twenty-seven in all. … The order allowed Jews in each town to join together and defend their lives. The Jews were free to wipe out, kill, and destroy every army of any people and province that attacked them, along with their women and children. They could also take and keep anything their attackers owned. … They put to rest their troubles with their enemies and killed those who hated them. The total was seventy-five thousand dead, but the Jews didn’t lay a hand on anything their enemies owned.[2]
      • [PAUSE]
      • If you weren’t uncomfortable before, are you uncomfortable now? We’ve talked about how God isn’t explicitly mentioned in the book of Esther – about how we have to creatively seek out God in various aspects of the text. I’ll admit that that’s been a fun and interesting challenge this summer. I’ve enjoyed it! But this … I don’t want God to be in this. I don’t want to find God in this sort of retaliation – in this revenge and bloodshed and pain.
        • Totally flies in the face of what we talked about last week – how it wasn’t Esther or Mordecai or any of the Jews who called for Haman’s death, how the idea came from one of the palace eunuchs instead → We took solace in that last week – that in the face of such ugliness and evil, Esther rose above it.
        • But this week, we hear the rest of the story – the epilogue. And we shake our heads. And we question: “Why, God? Where are you in this? Why is this part of your Grand Story of faith? What could you possibly say to us in this?”
          • Truth: I struggled mightily not only with how to preach this text but whether to even preach this text
            • Would have been really easy to just leave the end of the story off → lectionary certainly doesn’t include this part of Scripture in the 3-yr. cycle
            • But I have this sometimes-pesky, strong conviction that we shouldn’t shy away from the challenging parts of Scripture … that we can’t ignore the uncomfortable texts because it’s when we wrestle with those – when we question and explore that uneasiness and hunker right down in the midst of the ugly with open eyes and open hearts – when we wrestle with these parts of Scripture, we grow in our relationships together and our relationship with God.
  • That being said, it’s still really hard to come at this Scripture to preach it. Not gonna lie. Someone came up to me after church last Sunday and asked me how I was going to preach the end of this, and my honest-to-God answer was, “I don’t know yet.” But Dick Eick overheard this exchange and passed on some wisdom that had once been passed on to him: “Sometimes, instead of preaching the text, you have to preach against the text.” And in that perception, I began to see the Light of God dawn on this text. Not in it, but through it.
    • Often talk about how we are broken people who live in a broken world
      • Comes up in worship in the form of confession (always part of our opening prayer) – just like in the relationships we have with people, in our relationship with God, when we make mistakes – when we hurt, when we offend, when we slip up, whether it’s intentional or not – we ask for forgiveness
        • Part of our worship because worship is meant to be an act of deep and genuine connection between us and God → cannot have that truth in that connection unless we come with total honesty … And so we confess. We lay our hearts and souls and very lives bare before God and ask for forgiveness. Because we’re people, and sometimes we screw up.
    • Talked about this in sermons, too → And often, these sermons are paired with Scripture passages that are shining examples of the love and joy and freedom that come from that forgiveness. These Scriptures extoll the virtues of the other side of forgiveness – the fulfilled side, the pretty side, the comfortable side … the forgiven side.
      • Today’s text = the other side – the unsatisfied side, the ugly side, the distressing side … the “not yet” side → today’s text = reason to need forgiveness
      • We hear the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, ‘Don’t commit murder,’ and ‘All who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.”[3]
      • We hear these words juxtaposed with the staggering violence and vengeance at the end of Esther, and maybe we come to a new understanding of the need for repentance and forgiveness.
        • Cultural context: plight of the Jews → Remember, at this time – Esther and Mordecai’s time – and for a long, long time – centuries! – afterward, the Jews were a people who had been conquered and subjugated by one powerful empire after another. They had already been fighting for their right to live and worship as they wanted for generations! The whole reason they were in Persia in the first place was because Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon, and the people had been taken into exile – forcibly removed from their homes and their center of culture and faith (the Temple). And then, when Babylon was conquered by the Persian empire, the Jews found themselves conquered and subjugated yet again.
          • Wasn’t the first attempt to wipe them out entire, and as we know, it certainly wasn’t the last
          • Centuries worth of oppression, defeat and injustice à frustration, anger, indignation finally boiled over
          • A context we cannot truly understand as people living in country of such extravagant freedoms
          • A context that cannot be ignored
        • That being said, the scale and intensity of the uprising and carnage at the end of Esther still feels extreme. Defend your lives and your family’s lives, yes, but then go after not only your attacker but also his own family and even his whole village – “women and children”? Doesn’t that feel like it’s going too far?
    • Times when we go too far – either intentionally or unintentionally
      • Words spoken (or, sometimes even worse yet, typed) in the heat of the moment: in frustration, in anger, in fear – words that cannot be taken back
      • Relationships severed in haste because of a misunderstanding, a miscommunication, or just plain laziness – bridges that take years to mend (if they ever can be mended)
      • Actions that forever tarnish a moment in time – unkind to others, unkind to ourselves
      • Maybe in those times, we feel like we’re just defending ourselves or our families. Maybe we feel like if we don’t strike first, the other person is surely going to strike at us. Whatever the reason, what we say and what we do causes other people pain. Is it as devastating as the retaliation of the Jews against the Persians? Not numbers-wise. But we all know that that old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a load of you-know-what. Words can be devastating. They can bring your whole world crashing down, and in this age of instant communication and the ability to post things anonymously, it has become far too easy to drop those kind of bombs in the lives of other people.
        • Words from book of James: Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.[4] → That word that lives inside of us is God’s word – peace, love, grace (mercy and compassion that is wholly undeserved), forgiveness. Believe me, I know how hard it is to come up with these words when you’re angry, when you’re hurt, when you’re upset or frustrated or feel backed into a corner. But our Scripture reading this morning shows us just how devastating “getting back” and “getting even” can be.
  • End sermon with a time of silence
    • Think about times when you may have gone too far in a reaction
    • Think about times when someone else’s “going too far” has affected you
    • Use time for reflection and repentance
    • [LONG PAUSE]
    • Amen.

[1] Est 8:1-2.

[2] Est 8:9, 11; 9:16.

[3] Mt 5:21-24.

[4] Jas 1:19-21.

Aug. 21 sermon: The Finale

Esther Rembrandt
“Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther” by Rembrandt, 1660

Text used – Esther 6:13-7:10

  • It’s been quite a while since we journeyed through the story of Esther together.
    • Recap the basics (just in case you forgot or you missed a week here or there!)
      • Persian King Ahasuerus banished his queen, Vashti, on the suggestion of one of his advisors
      • Chose Esther as new queen
      • Esther’s cousin and guardian, Mordecai, ended up crossing one of the king’s most powerful advisors, Haman → Haman’s revenge = get the king to endorse a decree to eliminate all the Jews in the Persian kingdom
        • All at once: specific time on a certain day
      • Mordecai got wind of plot and enlisted Esther to help him save their people
      • Esther invited King Ahasuerus and Haman to special feast
    • And that’s where we left Esther’s story about a month ago! We’ve also explored a lot about our faith through the story of Esther along the way.
      • Talked about strength of God’s all-encompassing compassion
      • Talked about the importance of living a life of love
      • Reminded ourselves that ultimate power lies not with us as humans but with that compassionate God
      • Reminded ourselves that in the midst of struggles and pain, God is there with us, sharing our pain and grief
      • Encouraged to seek out creative ways to oppose injustice in the world
      • Heard a warning to not let pride take control of our hearts, our lives, or our faith
  • And today, we come to the climax of Esther’s story … the final showdown between the persecutor and the persecuted … the dramatic finale of what has been a long, crazy, gripping narrative. And as with the rest of Esther’s story, today’s portion of the tale is just as theatrical.
    • Foreshadowing again in the very beginning of today’s text: Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him. Both his friends and his wife said to him, “You’ve already begun to lose out to Mordecai. If he is of Jewish birth, you’ll not be able to win against him. You are surely going to lose out to him.”[1]
      • “Everything that had happened to him” refers to Haman having to so lavishly and publicly honor Mordecai in last portion of Esther’s story that we read back in July
        • King learned that Mordecai saved his life
        • King asked Haman how to honor someone whom he greatly values
        • Haman mistakenly assumed the king was talking about himself, so he concocts elaborate display involving one of the king’s own robes, one of the king’s own horses, and the honored one being paraded through the streets while his praises were shouted for all to hear
        • King loved this idea … but Haman ends up having to do all of that for Mordecai (enemy) → goes home utterly humiliated and begins grumbling and complaining to his friends and his wife
      • So in the midst of Haman trying to build himself back up after such a terrific blow to his pride, his wife and his friends basically said to him, “Give up. This isn’t going to end well for you. You can’t beat Mordecai.” And even while they were all in the midst of discussing this, the palace eunuchs arrived once again to collect Haman and bring him to a feast at Queen Esther’s palace. And as readers, we are left with Haman’s wife’s words of warning hanging in the air. [PAUSE] Remember that.
    • When they got to feast, King Ahasuerus once again asked Esther what he could possibly give to her: “This is the second day we’ve met for wine. What is your wish, Queen Esther? I’ll give it to you. And what do you want? I’ll do anything—even give you half the kingdom.”[2] → Here, friends, is the opening that Esther needed. Here is the exact opportunity that we can only imagine Esther had been praying for. The king – the most powerful man, perhaps in all the world but certainly in her world – has pledged to give her whatever she wants. She needs only to ask.
      • Imagine how her heart must have been racing
      • Imagine how her pulse must have been thundering in her ears
      • Imagine how her nerves must have set loose a thousand butterflies fluttering about in her stomach
      • Think about it for a minute. Do you remember how truly powerful King Ahasuerus was? He banished Vashti with a single decree. He condemned an entire people with yet another decree. He had the power to put a person to death simply for appearing in his presence without first being properly summoned and invited. And Esther was about to ask him for a massive
    • Esther: “If I please the king, and if the king wishes, give me my life—that’s my wish—and the lives of my people too. That’s my desire. We have been sold—I and my people—to be wiped out, killed, and destroyed. If we simply had been sold as male and female slaves, I would have said nothing. But no enemy can compensate the king for this kind of damage.”[3] → Short … sweet … and powerfully to-the-point. Esther doesn’t mince words. She simply and compellingly asks King Ahasuerus for her life and the lives of her people.
      • Can imagine the uproar that follows
        • King demanding to know who has done such a horrible thing to his treasured new queen
        • Esther naming Haman
        • Terror and disbelief dawning on Haman’s face as he realizes what is happening
        • King storming out to pace the gardens (presumably to let a little of his anger burn off) only to come back to find Haman perched on Esther’s own divan (big “no no” … huge!) begging for mercy → throws king into an even greater rage: The king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room just as Haman was kneeling on the couch where Esther was reclining. “Will you even molest the queen while I am in the house?” the king said. The words had barely left the king’s mouth before covering Haman’s face with dread.[4]
    • And once again, King Ahasuerus falls prey to his own suggestibility: Harbona, one of the eunuchs serving the king, said, “Sir, look! There’s the stake that Haman made for Mordecai, the man who spoke up and did something good for the king. It’s standing at Haman’s house—seventy-five feet high.” “Impale him on it!” the king ordered. So they impaled Haman on the very pole that he had set up for Mordecai, and the king’s anger went away.[5]
      • Foreshadowing from first verse in today’s reading is fulfilled
  • Now, I want you to notice something here, because believe it or not, this is where I see God in this part of Esther’s story. Who has been so grievously wronged throughout this tale? Mordecai and Esther and the rest of the Jews. And yet, who is it that calls for such brutal and exacting retaliation against Haman? One of the eunuchs … not Not Esther. Not one of the Jews. The king has already promised Esther ANY.THING she wants. She can have it. It’s hers. All she has to do is ask. She could have asked for revenge as well – for pain, for suffering, for some sort of payback that will make Haman wish he’d never even met a Jew. But she didn’t.
    • Friends, we know that there are lots of times in our lives when we want to “get back” at someone – when we want to take justice into our own hands.
      • Small scale: cut off in traffic, dealing with a rude customer/service person (depending on which side of the counter you’re on) → all those day-to-day slights that leave us feeling frustrated and rankled, those things that sort of fester and gnaw at us until we’re all worked up
      • Plenty of large scale e.g.s: wars and violence around the world (picture of Syrian boy who survived air strikes this week); men, women and children abducted or purchased from family members and forced into human trafficking every year, children taken from their homes and their families and forced to be child soldiers, corrupt government mismanaging and downright stealing aid relief that is mean for thousands of people reeling from natural disasters → We read about situations like these in the news, and they make our blood boil. We want to see something done. We want someone to pay – to be held accountable for the pain and suffering. We want to see justice … or, at least, what we think of as justice.
        • Particular e.g.: mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. just over a year ago – angry and hate-fueled white man named Dylann Roof attended a Bible study at the church, then shot and killed 9 people during the following prayer service before fleeing
          • Later arrested by police
          • During Roof’s bond hearing back in 2015, the family members of his 9 victims were invited to address the court – to shed some light on the lives that he’d so viciously cut short. Very often, these types of addresses (made either by the victims themselves or by family members) are pleas for the court to “exact justice” – pleas for guilty verdicts and harsh sentences before the trial itself has even begun. But not that day. The family members of the 9 victims spoke to the court about forgiveness and God’s grace.[6]
            • Sister of Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor: I acknowledge that I am very angry. But DePayne … taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.
            • Daughter of Ethel Lance: I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.
  • In today’s passage, Esther = champion for those hurting and desperate and in need without exacting revenge → She was the only one in that room that truly had the “right” to ask for revenge – the only one who’s life was actually being threatened by Haman’s evil and hateful plan – but instead, she asked for life. As Christians – as people who declare ourselves disciples of the Living Word, of Love Incarnate, of the One who conquered death to bring eternal life – we are called to follow Esther’s example: to seek life, not payback … to seek restoration, not retaliation … to spread light, not darkness.

[1] Est 6:13.

[2] Est 7:2.

[3] Est 7:3-4.

[4] Est 7:8.

[5] Est 7:9-10.

[6] Elahe Izadi. “The powerful words of forgiveness delivered to Dylann Roof by victims’ relatives” on The Washington Post website, Posted June 15, 2015, accessed Aug. 21, 2016.

[7] tobyMac. “Speak Life” from Eye On It album, released Aug. 24, 2012, ForeFront Records.

Outdoor Service: Something a Little Bit Different

On Sun., Aug. 14, 2016, the OZ congregations gathered in Oronoco for their annual joint service. For the past 5 years, this service has been held at the Goodhue County Fair in Zumbrota. This year, the decision was made to return to hosting an outdoor service and picnic at one of the churches. 

And because we were outside, I thought, “Let’s do things totally differently.”

Okay … full disclosure: I also realized early in the week that we had no way to project sound. For our members who have trouble hearing, that’s a necessity, so that basically cut out any kind of conventional worship element like a sermon. 

So here’s what we did …


* Welcome: Brothers and sisters, this is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

* Opening prayer thanking God for the relationship between the two churches, the beautiful day, and the chance to worship together as well as asking God to speak to us in new and different ways as we worshiped.

* Scripture readings:
Psalm 100
Hebrews 10:23-25

* Explanation of Worship
Storybook walk/activities
Prayer Stations

* Re-gathering

* Prayer:
Pastoral Prayer
Lord’s Prayer

* Benediction: Go in peace to love and serve God TOGETHER. Amen!

* Passing the Peace of Christ (this led into our picnic together)

So you may be wondering what the heck a “storybook walk and activities” was or what our prayer stations were. Well … let me tell you! 

Storybook Walk/Activities
My mom is a librarian who does some incredibly fun stuff during her summer reading program including a storybook walk. My dad made 35 sign boards for her – basically a bunch of wooden boards (12″ x 18″) nailed to posts. I pounded the posts into the ground to create the path for our story.

And what story did we use? When God Was a Little Girl by David Weiss.
When God Was a Little Girl
This is an amazing story with beautiful illustrations that tells the story of creation from a totally new and different angle. If you aren’t familiar with this book – if it isn’t already on your bookshelf – trust me … GO BUY IT! It’s fun. It’s creative. It’s the kind of story that will pull in children and adults alike and give you plenty to talk about afterwards. Go buy it … right now!

Okay, so here’s how we used the book. I made color photocopies of all the pages of my copy of the book and mounted them onto the wooden boards with double stick carpet tape (indoor/outdoor is super strong, so that’s what I used). The idea was for people to walk the path, read the story, and enjoying the illustrations as they went along. I actually did this with my 3-yr-old twin boys, and it was incredibly fun, especially since we were reading about beauty and creation out in nature on a gorgeous summer morning!

At most of the pages (not all), there was some sort of activity for people to do as well. Here’s how that went:

  • Pg. 3: Guess the mileage from Madison, WI to Decorah, IA (smartphones not allowed!). The winner got a fancy cupcake purchased from a local bakery. YUM!
  • Pg. 5: I purchased a bunch of 8″ x 10″ foam core boards (because they were a lot cheaper than canvases for 25 people!), and asked everyone to take a board for themselves.
  • Pg. 6: On the boards – Draw a giggle!
  • Pg. 9: On the boards – Draw a song.
  • Pg. 10: On the boards – Draw love.
  • Pg. 13: On the boards – Draw light. *With this board, I included glue and glitter. Since we were outside, clean-up was immediate!*
  • Pg. 14: There was a small pile of river rocks (purchased from local craft store) with hearts on them (using a Sharpie Oil Paint marker). I encouraged everyone to take a rock as a remind of the steadfast and foundational nature of God’s love for them. Also, on the boards – Add water.
  • Pg. 17: We had a card table covered with butcher paper. I asked people to draw flowers on the paper – to create a beautiful garden together as a community of faith.
  • Pg. 18: I put out Play Doh (yes … I borrowed my 3-yr-olds’ Play Doh!) and asked people to use it to create a person.
  • Pg. 25: On the boards – Add a rainbow.
  • Pg. 27: Tip toe to the next sign (because the little girl in the story has almost fallen asleep).
  • Pg. 29: I used Microsoft Publisher (one of the label templates) and basic cardstock to create little cards that said, “GOD LOVES YOU. You are God’s beautiful and unique echo.” Everyone was encouraged to take a card.

Prayer Stations
We also had seven prayer stations set up that people could wander through them and spend as much (or as little) time at each station as they liked. For this, I created small prayer books that were simply 1/2 sheets of printer paper folded into a book with a cardstock cover. On the cover was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is a daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Here are the prayer stations:

Labyrinth prayer station
Okay, so this is the one prayer station that I planned but didn’t end up having enough time to put together. I was going to chalk a simple labyrinth in one corner of our parking lot. However, there was just too much to put together before church to get this one done, too. That being said, I still think it’s a really great idea for an outdoor prayer station.

Words prayer station
For this prayer station, I used a website to generate a word search that had 50 different words describing faith in it. I used one of the leftover wooden boards from the storywalk and more of the double stick carpet tape to mount the word search in a place where lots of people could look at it at once. I also enlarged the word find to be kinder to less-than-20/20 eyes. 

Water prayer station
This one was easy. We took a few tables out and put them on the lawn. On one of the tables, I simply placed a large bowl of water.

Tags prayer station
I had a large box of basic luggage tags (the ones that look like they’re made out of tan file folders). I put that box along with some colored flair pens at the base of one of our trees and attached this sign to the tree (again … double stick carpet tape). People wrote their prayers on the tags and used the wire on the tags to hang the prayers in the tree.

Scents prayer station
Okay, this one was really fun! I had seven little bowls (custard bowls, my mom always called them), and each bowl had a different scent item in it: coffee beans, a rose, fresh-cut grass, cinnamon sticks, fresh mint leaves, dirt, and … hmmm … can’t remember the last one. (That’s what happens when you wait a month to post stuff. Sorry.) People had time to smell each of these in turn and reflect on what memories those scents brought up for them.

Nature weaving prayer station
This one took a little prep work beforehand. I took some sticks and created a rectangle-ish frame. (I used electrician’s tape in the corners, but however you can get them to stay together works.) Then I used yarn and colorful ribbon to create a loom within that frame. (This whole process took probably 1-1.5 hrs the night before … just FYI.) Before church, I asked a few different parishioners to walk around the church property and gather all sorts of nature bits – leaves, flowers, feathers, bark … anything. They were all lying on one of the tables with the loom for any and all to use. Here’s a close up of the corner (left) and the finished product (right):

prayer weaving collage

Mirrors prayer station
This one was super easy! I went to one of the local craft stores and bought 5 different mirrors – different sizes, different shapes. Then I laid them on the ground. Done! Two quick things about this, though: 1) I made sure that this station was a little way away from the other stations just to be sure no one stepped on the mirrors, and 2) I laid them out in a place that would reflect some interesting things. They were on the edge of a tree area, so some would reflect the tree, some would reflect sky, and some would even reflect the church building (depending on how you look in them).

Well … that’s it! We had a really wonderful time trying some new things and experiencing God in new ways together.

Catching Up …

time neverending

Okay … so I’m a little bit behind.

At the end of July, I took a week of continuing ed leave followed by a week of vacation. This covered Sun., July 24 – Sun., Aug. 7. The following Sunday (Aug. 14), the OZ churches had their annual joint service. We did an outdoor service that was completely and wonderfully unconventional.

And then I took another few days of vacation to head to the cabin with my family.

And then the rest of Aug. – between family obligations and church obligations – got a little crazy.

So now, I’m catching up. So here come:

  • a breakdown of the outdoor service
  • 3 sermons
  • 2 newsletter articles

Yup … bear with me. Thanks!