Sunday’s sermon: Prayer is Complicated

Text used – 1 Samuel 1:9-20; 2:1-10

  • Well, y’all, I have to be honest with you: it’s starting to feel like this year of Narrative Lectionary readings are all about difficult texts.
    • Began with story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden → never an easy story to tackle because it forces us to look at the active and complicit role we play in disobeying God
    • Continued a few weeks later with the story of the first Passover → tough story because we catch a glimpse of God’s vengeance in the final plague: the death of every first born in Egypt
    • Last week’s story about the Israelites and the golden calf and Moses talking God out of punishing the people harshly for their rebellion → not exactly a warm and fuzzy bedtime story!
    • Thread that binds all these challenging stories together = the steadfast nature of God’s promise
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of our human fickleness and failings
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of injustice and oppression from those in power
      • God’s promise remains even in the face of God’s own frustration and indignation over human stubbornness and doubt
        • Promise of God’s presence
        • Promise of God’s love
        • Promise of God’s hope, even in situations where hope seems most minimal
  • And then we come to today’s text: the story of Hannah, her prayer, and her son, Samuel. → painful story in and of itself
    • First, let’s fill in some of the gaps around today’s portion of the story.
      • Elkanah has 2 wives: Hannah and Peninnah → Peninnah has children, Hannah does not
      • Earlier in 1 Sam 1: Every year [Elkanah] would leave his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD of heavenly forces in Shiloh … Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the LORD had kept her from conceiving.[1]
      • Also revealed in the earlier part of 1 Sam 1: Peninnah would tease Hannah mercilessly because she had no children
    • Today’s story opens on just one such time: Hannah is particularly distraught and so she goes to the temple to present herself to God → And in Hannah’s words, we hear a prayer that is especially, painfully poignant as we recognize October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month – text: Then [Hannah] made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”[2] → I think it’s hard for us to understand the true power behind Hannah’s prayer and her vow. She is pleading with God with every fiber of her being for a child, and her longing is so deep and desperate that she is promising to give that child back to God if only she can bring him into this world.
      • Not a prayer simply relegated to the pages of Scripture and history → This is a prayer prayed by women around the world every day. “If only, God, then I’ll give you this … I’ll do that … I’ll be this … I’ll change that … Anything you want, God, if only …” If only, God … if only.
      • Hannah’s prayer exemplifies everything that is both culturally wrong and wholly right when it comes to our attitudes about prayer → Hannah’s prayer is raw and real. It is revealing in the most intimate of ways, bearing her heart and soul openly to God. It’s the kind of prayer that we aspire to … but also the kind of prayer that makes us uncomfortable to witness. It’s not the “Minnesota nice” form of prayer: “Please and thank you, God, if you have time.”
        • Rev. Joanna Harader: Hannah’s prayer is simply not proper. She is far too bold before God. Far too emotional. We are much more comfortable with the way Jesus taught us to pray. Head bowed, eyes closed. (O.K., that’s not actually in the Bible, but we know that’s how it works.) “Your will be done; give us our daily bread.” It’s a modest, humble, controlled prayer. There is much good in the prayer that Jesus taught us. It is our model. That is why we pray it—or a version of it—almost every Sunday. [But] I want to lift up the virtues of the improper prayer; of Hannah’s gut-wrenching, emotionally charged tirade and bargaining session.[3]
    • And so Hannah is there in the temple, distraught to the point where she is sobbing uncontrollably. And then we have this strange and uncomfortable interaction between Eli, the priest, and Hannah.
      • Hannah is standing there praying and crying – text: Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent.[4] → We can just feel the passion and the fervor in Hannah’s prayers, can’t we, because we’ve all prayed prayers like this at some time, haven’t we? Prayers into which we pour every ounce of ourselves – our hopes, our dread, our desperation, our longing, and our whole hearts.
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for ourselves
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our loved ones
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our neighbors
        • Prayers we’ve lifted for our country and our world
        • These are the soul-bearing, soul-altering prayers of our deepest selves – the prayers that we pray in anxiety and distress, the prayers the give voice and hope to the most fervent hopes and fears of our souls, the prayers that cannot help but have a lasting effect on the course of our whole lives.
      • Eli finds Hannah pouring her heart and soul, her words and tears into this whole-body prayer. – response is awkward (to say the least): Eli thought she was drunk. “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her. “No, sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!”[5] → Did you just cringe? ‘Cuz I did! In the midst of this greater lesson prayer, Eli gives us this delicate and uncomfortable lesson on snap judgments, right? Eli assumes he knows exactly what’s going on, so he reprimands this lone woman who’s acting a little odd, expecting her to apologize and repent. But instead, Hannah pours out her heart to him, begging him to believe that she is not drunk but instead is distraught. Yikes. A reminder that you never know what struggles someone is bearing in silence.
    • After Hannah’s explanation, Eli sends her off with a blessing à Hannah heads home with Elkanah → text: The Lord remembered her.[6] → Hannah becomes pregnant with Samuel
  • And, friends, there’s so much that’s challenging wrapped up in that turn of events!
    • So many difficult questions:
      • Were Hannah’s prayers so much better … so much louder … so much more effective than the prayers of thousands of others who have prayed exactly the same thing with no result?
      • Was there something special about Hannah that God chose to remember her while refusing or neglecting to remember so many others who have felt the same pain and prayed the same prayer?
      • Was there something about Eli’s blessing that tipped the scales in Hannah’s direction, that turned a spotlight onto her plight and drew God’s attention in an undeniable way?
      • I don’t think the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” and yet we cannot help but ask them, can we? Because whether we realize it or not, we all know someone who has struggled with fertility, with pregnancy loss, with the loss of a child. Statistics say one in four women will suffer some sort of miscarriage or pregnancy loss in their lives. One in four will pray the same kind of prayer that Hannah prayed. Some will conceive … or conceive again. And some will not. And that leaves us wrestling with just how complicated prayer can be.
        • Complicated in the asking – the how, the why, the words
        • Complicated in the waiting
        • Complicated in the response – whatever the response
    • Prayer is the rawest, realest, most fragile and precarious act of faith that we can engage in because it involves nothing but our greatest vulnerability.
      • Involves naming our weaknesses and our deepest longings to God
      • Involves holding them out in hope that God will act – trusting that God will act – but without any kind of assurance that God will act in the way that we want God to act
      • Involves uncertainty … And human beings are not very good at uncertainty. I think our golden calf story from last week proved that pretty well.
        • Paul speaks of prayers like this in Romans: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.[7]
        • Kate Bowler, author and assistant professor at Duke Divinity School (in Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved): I plead with a God of Maybe, who may or may not let me collect more years. It is a God I love, and a God that breaks my heart.[8]
      • Sometimes we get to pray the prayer that Hannah prays at the end of our Scripture reading this morning – a prayer of joy and thanksgiving that is literally overflowing from her soul just like her tears overflowed as she prayed in the temple at the beginning of our text. And sometimes we are left aching and wondering. And I wish with all I am that I could tell you why this morning – that I could wrap this all up for you in a neat, easy theological package and say, “Here’s the solution. Pray exactly this way, and God will always do what you ask.” But I can’t.
        • What I can tell you: Getting an undesired response to prayer is not a reflection on the way you prayed – the form, the frequency, the fervor, or the faith behind your prayers → There’s a lot of really bad, really twisted, really harmful theology swirling around in Christian circles today that will try to tell you that if you’re suffering, it’s because you haven’t prayed hard enough or faithfully enough. This theology will try to tell you that cures and miracle fixes and the answer to all your problems lies right around the corner if you’d only get your prayers “right.” But that’s wrong. Do you know what lesson we can take from this difficult text on prayer and pain this morning? God’s presence. God does indeed hear our prayers. God holds sacred space for them all – the happy ones and the sad ones, the desperate ones and the delighted ones, even the most boring and basic ones and the ones that we cannot even put words to. God is there with us in the midst of prayer, arms open, heart open, grace open and beckoning. Because in the end, friends, that is why we pray: to remind ourselves that God is, indeed, there as promised, and to remind God that we are here and we are willing to engage in our faith … even when it is gut-wrenchingly, soul-achingly hard. Amen.

[1] 1 Sam 1:3, 4-5.

[2] 1 Sam 1:11.

[3] Joanna Harader. “1 Samuel 1:4-18” from Spacious Faith: Spiritual Practices, Worship Pieces, and General Ponderings blog. https://spaciousfaith.com/1-samuel-14-18/?fbclid=IwAR3KlF7lQc9datN_eKwvUKk6FIeF9KqKcyYPaBiRoXoH0vImREoBJsHpCgo. Posted July 20, 2008, accessed Oct. 18, 2020.

[4] 1 Sam 1:13 (emphasis added).

[5] 1 Sam 1:13b-16.

[6] 1 Sam 1:19.

[7] Rom 8:26 (NRSV).

[8] Kate Bowler. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. (New York, NY: Random House, 2018), xv.

Sunday’s sermon: Trying to Fill the Void

Text used – Exodus 32:1-14

  • You may have heard that the Nobel Committee is starting to release the names of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in various categories. One of the most interesting awards this year comes in the category of physics.
    • This year’s physics award[1]
      • Honors decades of research about black holes
      • Shared by 3 people:
        • Half to Roger Penrose (University of Oxford) → showed mathematically that black holes could exist
        • Half shared by Reinhard Genzel (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and UC Berkeley) and Andrea Ghez (UCLA) → provided the most convincing evidence that the black hole at the center of our very own Milky Way galaxy does, in fact, exist
    • So what’s the deal with black holes, anyway? What are they?
      • From an article in The Atlantic this week: Black holes are among the most mysterious phenomena in the universe. Forged from the cores of dead stars, they are so dense that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light, which renders them invisible. Entire stars, once luminous, can be extinguished if they cross a black hole’s boundary, and pass the point of no return.[2]
      • Same Atlantic article included a paragraph that really intrigued me
        • Mentions recent research (published in Jan. 2020) that revealed scientists had found the closest known black hole to Earth – only 1,000 lightyears away and located in the Telescopium constellation: That nearby black hole is no threat to Earth. No known black hole is. If anything, we benefit from their existence. The stellar explosions that produce black holes also spew elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen into space. The collisions of black holes and neutron stars help spread heavier elements, such as gold and platinum. These elements make up our Earth, and our own selves.[3] → And the idea that stuff of our every day – our planet, our atmosphere, our homes, even our very bodies – were quite possibly spun from the vast void of a black hole resonated in a powerful way with me this week as I thought about this morning’s Scripture – a story about a golden calf and the void that the Israelites were trying to fill … and the voids that we try to fill in our hearts and souls and lives today.
  • So let’s talk about the Israelites and that golden calf.
    • Uncomfortable story on a number of levels
    • Grand Story of Scripture up to this point
      • Israelites have been led out of Egypt by Moses (accompanied by his brother Aaron, his right-hand man)
      • Despite Pharaoh’s sudden and violent change of heart, Israelites managed to evade the pursuing Egyptian army when God parted the waters and Moses led the Israelites across
      • Israelites have begun to wander in the wilderness … and have begun to get sick of wandering → already doing some grumbling and doubting
      • Most recently: Israelites have arrived at Mount Sinai → Moses has gone up on the mountain to speak to God
        • While on the mountain, Moses is receiving instructions from God → 10 commandments[4], instructions on all sorts of other instructions (about proper worship, proper sacrifice, proper treatment of others, proper festivals, proper construction of the tabernacle, about observing the sabbath, and so on)
  • Problem: this discussion between God and Moses was taking a long time! → That’s where today’s reading comes in: The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”[5]
    • First reason that this Scripture is uncomfortable: the anxiety level of the Israelites → Here they are in the middle of the wilderness having followed this Moses fellow out of Egypt … and how he’s gone and disappeared. He’s disappeared up the mountain claiming to be talking to God, but all that the people at the base of the mountain can see are clouds and lightning. All they can hear is thunder. And all they can feel is the absence – the absence of Moses and, by association, the absence of God. And that absence has made them anxious. It’s made them fearful. It’s filled them with so much doubt that they start casting about frantically for something else – anything else! – to worship. They feel that deep, dark void within themselves, and they are desperate to fill it in whatever way they can.
      • Even more uncomfortable because maybe this hits a little close to home, especially in these crazy, mixed-up, contentious, separated times in which we’re living right now → we are …
        • Anxious about COVID
        • Anxious about social and economic ramifications of the pandemic
        • Anxious about blatant and violent racism rampant in our society today
        • Anxious about the political contention and unrest
        • Anxious about all of the other things that we would normally be anxious about if the world weren’t totally upside-down
          • Relationships
          • Finances
          • Raising children
          • Loved ones’ wellbeing
          • Future plans
      • And all that anxiety sort of hollows us out. It exhausts us and wears us down until we feel that void within us, too, doesn’t it? And when it does, very often, we aren’t so different from the Israelites in our story.
  • So even as we feel that anxiety along with the Israelites, we witness them try to fill that void: appeal to Moses’ brother, Aaron, for “gods who can lead us” → Aaron relents (seemingly without any qualms??) and instructs the Israelites to give him all the gold they have → Aaron melts down all their gold and cast the golden calf → Aaron builds an altar to the calf → Israelites get up early the next morning to have a worshipful festival for the calf[6]
    • Major, inexcusable mistake that Aaron makes – text: When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!”[7] → Heb. that Aaron uses for “Lord” is, in fact, the most holy name for God … the name that the Israelites use only for God and God alone … the name that is so special, so sacred that when they encounter it when reading Scripture, they don’t even say the name → This is the name Yahweh. This is the most holy and precious name for God. And Aaron has used it not speaking of the God who made sacred covenants with their ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob … not speaking of the God who has led them out of slavery and through danger … not speaking of the God who has called them God’s own beloved and treasured, chosen people … but of the golden calf. The false god. The inexcusable, completely incomparable, wholly inadequate substitute.
    • Ways we try to fill that void = not so different from the Israelites
      • Purchases: cars and “big toys,” clothes and shoes and jewelry, knick knacks and home décor and things that fill up our spaces
      • Relationships – some healthy, some not
      • Addictions – alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc.
      • We try to fill that void within us with whatever we think might bring us happiness and peace … and maybe they do for a moment as we feel that dopamine hit. But that euphoria doesn’t last, and before long, we’re back where we started: anxious and wanting for more. → feel like there’s a black hole inside us and try to elevate all sorts of things to “false god” level … but false gods, they remain.
  • Not surprisingly, God’s reaction to this major transgression on the part of the Israelites is not good. → this is the other uncomfortable portion of this text
    • God’s reaction is swift and fierce – text: The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen who stubborn they are. Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”[8]
      • Definitely an uncomfortable impression of God
        • A God who is offended
        • A God who is hurt
        • A God who is frustrated
        • A God who is feeling slighted
    • But it’s crucial for us to look at the story as a whole, not just these verses isolated in and of themselves.
      • What comes next? → Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites[9]
        • Intercedes for the lives of the people
        • Intercedes for the covenant that hangs by a thread
        • Intercedes by recalling the words that we read only a few weeks ago – God’s covenant with Abram that God would make his descendants “as many as the stars in the sky”[10]
      • Result of Moses’ intercessions – text: Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.[11]
    • As a whole, even in the face of the discomfort that this whole story stirs within us, we’re reminded of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
      • Heb. “changed his mind” is much more nuanced than we can grasp in the English translation = connotations of compassion, comfort, and allowing oneself to be sorry → This is the picture of God that we are left with in this story. So often, we talk about how we as humans are created in God’s own image, and when we do that, we tend to talk about the happy, heart-warming, exciting parts of being human: creativity, love, joy, and so on. But today’s story shows us that being created in God’s image also includes a compassion born out of altercation and struggle. It shows us that being created in God’s image includes comfort in the face of some really difficult, contentious, painful circumstances. And it shows us that being created in God’s image includes the capacity for forgiveness – both seeking it and giving it, frequently at the same time.
        • Brings it around to Jesus’ role in the Grand Story of faith and declares the good news of the gospel for us
          • That Jesus makes that intercession for us first, foremost, and forever
          • That the grace extended to us through the life and death and resurrection of Christ bridges even the most contentious moments in our lives
          • That we are only made truly whole – that the only thing that can truly fill that void within us gnawed out by anxiety and doubt and fear and frustration – is the love of God
            • A God who has been there
            • A God who knows all about our mishaps and loves us still
            • A God whose forgiveness is greater than we can even begin to imagine
            • Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Marina Koren. “What Earth Owes to Black Holes” in The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/10/what-black-holes-bring-to-the-galaxy/616631/. Posted Oct. 7, 2020, accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

[2] Koren.

[3] Koren.

[4] Ex 20:1-21.

[5] Ex 32:1.

[6] Ex 32:2-7.

[7] Ex 32:5.

[8] Ex 32:7-10.

[9] Ex 32:11-13.

[10] Ex 32:13.

[11] Ex 32:14.

Sunday’s sermon: Table of Refuge, Table of Grace

Text used – Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8

  • There’s a show on the Food Network called “Cutthroat Kitchen.”[1] Some of you may be familiar with it.
    • Hosted by Alton Brown
    • One of those reality competition shows for chefs
    • Basic format
      • 4 chefs compete in 3 rounds
      • Each round is themed (“pub food,” “fish and chips,” “red velvet cake,” etc.)
      • Chefs have 1 minute to gather all the ingredients that they need for their dish
      • Chefs get 30 mins. to prepare their dish
      • Chef with the least pleasing dish is eliminated after each round
    • Twist
      • At the beginning of the episode, each chef is given $25,000. Throughout that episode, the chefs are given the opportunity to use that $25,000 to buy items and restrictions to sabotage their competitors – things like …
        • Cooking with one hand taped into an oven mitt
        • Cooking with only children’s-sized pots and pans
        • Having to run through a maze of velvet ropes to get from their prep area to their cooking area
      • Sabotages are also auctioned off during the rounds, so not only are the chefs frantically trying to make the best dish they can as fast as they can, they’re also trying to calculate how much money they have left, who might have a better dish than they do and therefore need to be hindered, and worrying about whether their fellow competitors are going to stick them with a culinary disadvantage.
    • Winner keeps whatever they have left from the $25,000 they were given at the beginning of the episode
    • Now, many of you know that I love to watch cooking shows. I’ve watched Cutthroat Kitchen a few times, and to be honest, I have trouble with it because of the whole premise of the show: the sabotages. I know that’s why most people watch it. I mean, let’s face it: it’s funny to watch a professional chef trying to turn out a gourmet dish using nothing but plastic cutlery or canned versions of the beautiful, fresh ingredients that they originally selected. But the reason I love watching these cooking shows is because I like seeing what these incredible chefs come up with. I like to watch their creative process and see the beautiful, delicious-looking dishes that they produce. It’s inspiring! And when they’re so drastically hindered by such ridiculous restrictions, that takes some of the fun out for me. It ceases to be about the food and instead becomes about the strategy and the scheming. And Lord knows we witness enough strategy and scheming in our world today without scripting any more.
      • Reason why “Cutthroat Kitchen” struck me as the perfect contrast with today’s Scripture reading
        • Reality show: all about the intrigue and the sabotage à meal end up coming second
        • Scripture: all about the meal despite the intrigue and sabotage that was happening in the lives of the Israelites
  • Today’s Scripture reading = story of the 1st Passover meal
    • Backstory (because we’ve skipped quite a bit between Joseph’s story last week and today’s passage):
      • Moses = son of a Hebrew slave in Egypt → in order to save his life, his mother placed him in a basket and set the basket in the river → basket and baby were picked up downstream by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a son in Pharaoh’s house → ran away from Egypt as an adult after killing an Egyptian taskmaster for abusing a Hebrew slave → married into Midianite tribe and lived as a shepherd, watching his father-in-law’s flock → encountered God in the burning bush → God revealed Moses he is called to free the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt → Moses returned to Egypt and demanded that Pharaoh set God’s people free over and over again and got turned down by Pharaoh over and over again → God brought the plagues on the land of Egypt to try to convince Pharaoh to set the Hebrew people → Pharaoh continued to deny the people their freedom, even doubling down by making their working conditions harsher and demanding even more work from them[2]
    • Brings us to today – preparation for the final plague: the death of the firstborn – God in text: I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.[3] → Now, I will admit that this part of the Grand Story of our faith is a difficult one to wrestle with – a God who would sweep through the land and take the lives of all the firstborn. As people of faith, part of our jobs is to struggle with some of the stories that make up our collective history – to struggle with what they mean for us today, to struggle with how they speak to our faith, to struggle with what they tell us about God. And your spoiler alert for today, friends, is that I don’t have the answers to this one. There are definitely some darker, harsher, more uncomfortable threads in our Grand Story of faith, and this is certainly one of them. So if you feel uneasy about this particular facet of this story, that’s okay. I do, too.
      • God forewarns Moses and his brother (and right-hand man), Aaron that they need to make preparations
        • Much of the text for today is details about preparations for the meal itself – what the Israelites should eat, how they should prepare it, how they should eat it, even how they should be dressed when they eat it. – text (sample): Don’t eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over fire with its head, legs, and internal organs. Don’t let any of it remain until morning, and burn any of it left over in the morning. This is how you should eat it. You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry.[4]
        • Preparations to protect the Israelite households from what is to come – text: They should take some of the blood [of the lamb] and smear it on the two doorposts and on the beam over the door of the houses in which they are eating. … The blood will be your sign on the house where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.[5]
        • Preparation for leaving because surely Pharaoh will free the Israelites after this final act and God will fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham – text: Moses said to the people, “Remember this day which is the day you came out of Egypt, out of the place you were slaves, because the Lord acted with power to bring you out of there. … Today, in the month of Abib, you are going to leave. The Lord will bring you to the land … that the Lord promised your ancestors to give to you, a land full of milk and honey.[6]
      • In all these preparations, God was directing the people to set a table – a table of resistance and freedom, a table of promise and hope, a table of refuge and safety in the face of real and impending danger. → God (through Moses) ensured that this critical element would be an established and essential part of the Grand Story of the Israelites faith – text: You should perform this ritual in this month. You must eat unleavened bread for seven days. The seventh day is a festival to the Lord. Only unleavened bread should be eaten for seven days. No leavened bread and no yeast should be seen among you in your whole country. You should explain to your child on that day, “It’s because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.”[7]
  • And of course, this is the same table that was set by Jesus and the disciples thousands of years later in that Upper Room just hours before Jesus’ arrest.
    • Matthew: On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?”[8] → As faithful and observant Jews, Jesus and the disciples made the preparations and carried out the same holy meal that their ancestors had so many millennia before. They honored the sacrifice. They honored God’s promise to the people and the people’s faith in God. They honored that glimmer of hope in the darkest, most desperate of times.
    • But of course, Jesus knew dark and desperate times were just around the corner as well, so he added an element to nourish and sustain the disciples own faith: While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven.”[9] → Jesus set for the disciples a table of sacrifice and redemption, a table of grace and steadfast love, a table of promise and hope.
  • And so today, we come to that same table. And on this special Sunday – the World Communion Sunday – we come with siblings in faith all around the world celebrating this same meal … this same grace … this same hope.
    • World Communion Sunday[10]
      • Established by Rev. Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933
      • Grew out of the congregation’s Division of Stewardship as an attempt to bring churches together for a service of Christian unity
      • Adopted as a denominational practice in 1936
      • Promoted by the Department of Evangelism of Federal Council of Church (precursor to the National Council of Churches) to extend the celebration of World Communion Sunday among other denominations and other countries in 1940
      • From the Presbyterian Mission Agency article about World Communion Sunday: “Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world, demonstrating that the church founded on Jesus Christ peacefully shares God-given goods in a world increasingly destabilized by globalization and global market economies based on greed.”
    • And so today, we come. We come to this table of refuge, this table of grace. We come with siblings all around the world seeking community and a place to belong … a place to be loved. We come with siblings who are weary and heart-sick, siblings who are desperate for a light in the darkness in which we live. We come hungry for hope. We come hungry for freedom. We come hungry for forgiveness. We come hungry for love that will never run out. Because that was God’s promise in bread and wine. That was God’s promise millennia ago with Moses and the Israelites. That was God’s promise millennia ago with Jesus and the disciples. That is God’s promise today and tomorrow and forever. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cutthroat_Kitchen.

[2] Ex 2-11.

[3] Ex 12:12.

[4] Ex 12:9-11b.

[5] Ex 12:7, 13.

[6] Ex 13:3-5 (minor parts omitted).

[7] Ex 13:5b-8.

[8] Mt 26:17.

[9] Mt 26:26-28.

[10] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/special-days-and-emphases/world-communion-sunday/?fbclid=IwAR0VyNS7TaKvDDf-SBgI–ssLxPpOhV_sCSw1vx9_MauZL3jiKrMm2Za_84.

Sunday’s sermon: Twinkle Twinkle, Precious Star

Text used – Genesis 15:1-6

  • Every single night, I sing to my children before they go to sleep. The boys take turns choosing the night’s lullaby – “Beautiful Boy,” “St. Judy’s Comet,” “House at Pooh Corner,” “Candle on the Water,” or “Goodnight My Angel.” And then I sing them a short hymn: “Love the Lord Your God.” After that, Julia insists that I sing her one more song: “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” [sing song] Familiar, right? Maybe something you’ve sung with your own children or grandchildren, brothers or sisters?
    • History of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”[1]
      • Started as a poem called “The Star” written in 1806 by English poet Jane Taylor
      • Paired with melody from a French folk song (“Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”) sometime in the 1830s
    • In truth, stars have fascinated humans as long as we’ve been able to look up at the sky and wonder.
      • Songs and poems
      • Stories and rhymes
      • Ancient philosophy to modern particle physics
      • Astrology and astronomy
      • Different folk lore from different cultures around the world tell the story of how the stars came into being
        • E.g. from Mindanao in the Philippines: One day in the times when the sky was close to the ground a spinster went out to pound rice. Before she began her work, she took off the beads from around her neck and the comb from her hair, and hung them on the sky, which at that time looked like coral rock. Then she began working, and each time that she raised her pestle into the air it struck the sky. For some time she pounded the rice, and then she raised the pestle so high that it struck the sky very hard. Immediately the sky began to rise, and it went up so far that she lost her ornaments. Never did they come down, for the comb became the moon and the beads are the stars that are scattered about.[2]
      • Even the writers of Scripture were fascinated by the stars.
        • Mentioned in the 1st creation account in Gen: God said, “Let there be light in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night.[3]
        • Mentioned time and again throughout the psalms and the writings of some of the prophets as evidence of God’s handiwork in the world[4]
        • Inextricably linked to the life of Jesus
          • Birth heralded by a star[5]
          • Stars go dark on the moment of Jesus’ death[6]
        • Stars falling from the heavens = portent of the end of days in a number of different passages[7]
  • And then we come to today’s passage – a short, little interaction between Abram and God full of stars … and full of promise.
    • Background → This story comes about halfway through Abram’s journeys with God.
      • Has already been called by God to leave his homeland to travel to the land of Canaan[8] (huge territory that covers present day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel)
      • Has traveled in Egypt with his wife, Sarai, and had dodgy interactions with Pharaoh[9]
      • Rescued his brother, Lot, from rival kings[10]
      • Blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem)[11]
    • Abram’s been a busy guy! He’s been traveling. He’s been tangled up in dangerous political intrigue thanks to his brother. He’s built altars to God as he went along. And then we come to today’s passage.
      • First – God’s word to Abram as reassurance and comfort – text: After these events, the Lord’s word came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.”[12]
        • Heb. “reward” is more than just a divine payout – “reward” = wages, fare, expenses, maintenance → So God is promising Abram that he will be taken care of. God is promising Abram that God will be there for him, that God will provide for him – will keep him, will preserve him, will support and sustain him. There’s a longevity implied here. God’s not talking about a one-time, jackpot-type of reward. God’s talking about a long-term care plan. That’s God’s first promise.
      • Abram = not super convinced – text: But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.” He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”[13] → Clearly, Abram is having a rough time. He’s feeling discouraged. He’s feeling resentful. He’s feeling frustrated. Inheritance in ancient times was everything – being able to pass on your possessions, your land, and your name to your eldest son, or, if you didn’t have any sons, to the men that married your daughter/s. And yet Abram has found himself with no heirs.
        • Hear his frustration in his tone (I think we can even call it a bit accusatory): “Since you haven’t given me any children” → Abram is saying to God, “Look, I’ve done everything you’ve asked. I left my homeland. I’ve traveled hundreds of miles. I’ve built you altars. I’ve followed you all over the place. And still, you haven’t given me any children.” Yes, Abram’s probably bitter and a bit surly in this moment. But there is pain and desperate longing beneath the surface of this accusation. There is the ache of one who has longed for a child and yet has been left longing. I have to confess that my heart breaks a bit for Abram in this moment.
      • Come to God’s great promise – text: The Lord’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” Then [God] brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” [God] continued, “This is how many children you will have.”[14] → Just imagine what Abram would have seen in that moment. He’s in the middle of the desert. It’s the middle of the night. There are no electric lights to pollute the night sky, and it is truly full of stars – more stars than Abram’s eyes can even take in, more stars than Abram can even fathom, certainly more stars than Abram can count. That is God’s promise: not only will you have an heir – a child of your very own – but your descendants will outnumber the stars.
        • Abram’s response – text: Abram trust the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character.[15]
  • And while that may be the end of our passage this morning, that’s just the beginning.
    • Remember, we’re working through the Narrative Lectionary again this year – telling the Grand Story of faith from the beginning.
      • Started last week with the first part that makes up the foundation of this Grand Story: creation
      • Today’s story introduces the second part of that foundation: promise → The whole rest of this Grand Story that we’re telling and retelling – this story that we’re living and reliving day in and day out as people of faith – is a story that hinges on this promise: that God will bless Abram and his wife, Sarai, with descendants more numerous even than the stars. Because that’s everyone else in this story that we’re telling. That’s everyone else in this story that we’re living. Even us.
    • More numerous than even we can imagine → Thousands and thousands of years after Abram, with all of our advanced technology and scientific innovations, our society that has progressed to not only staring up at space but has actually sent people into space … even we cannot number the stars. We don’t have any idea how many stars there are. And we never will.
      • Introduce Indescribable: 100 Devotions About God and Science by Louie Giglio[16]: book of 100 short devotions for kids that weave science and faith together → In all honesty, there are a few things about this book that I don’t love, but the majority of the devotions in here are great. We use this book every other night with our boys before bedtime.
        • Read portions of #55: “A Star is Born”: The Whirlpool Galaxy is called a grand-design galaxy, and it is made up of hundreds of billions of stars, maybe as many as 500 billion! It’s an incredibly beautiful spot in the universe, and it’s also a very special one. That’s because the Whirlpool Galaxy is a place where stars are born – a sort of baby hospital for stars. You see, in the beginning, God created the first stars in an instant when [God] said, “Let there be light!” Since then stars have formed when giant clouds of space dust and gases pull tighter and tighter and tighter together until … a star is born.[17]
    • You see, we can’t know exactly how many stars are in the universe because there are more stars being born, spinning faster and faster into creation even as we speak. That’s why God’s promise to Abram in this passage is so incredible! It’s a promise that renews. It’s a promise that continues to bear fruit. It’s a promise without end. Just as the universe continues to spin more and more stars into creation, so God’s promise is made new in and through us each and every day.
      • Promise that God will care for us and provide for us
      • Promise that God will be with us
      • Promise that God will love us unconditionally
      • Promise that God’s love will shine brightly in us and through us → As Carl Sagan famously said, “We are made of star stuff.” We are made of promise and hope. We are made of potential and possibility. We are made of God’s intention and truest love. It is the heart of ourselves. It is the heart of our story. So twinkle twinkle, precious star. God knows exactly what and who you are. And that is, indeed, good news. Amen.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/story/did-mozart-write-twinkle-twinkle-little-star#:~:text=As%20for%20%E2%80%9CTwinkle%2C%20Twinkle%2C,music%20together%20dates%20to%201838.).

[2] http://getwokebooklist.com/sacredtexts/asia/pft/pft34.htm.

[3] Gen 1:14-16.

[4] Ps 147:4; Ps 136:9; Ps 8:3; Ps 19:1; Dan 12:3; Is 40:26; Amos 5:8; Is 13:10

[5] Mt 2:

[6] Mt 27:45.

[7] Mk 13:25; Mt 24:29; Rev 6:13.

[8] Gen 12:1-9.

[9] Gen 12:10-20.

[10] Gen 14:1-16.

[11] Gen 14:17-24.

[12] Gen 15:1.

[13] Gen 15:2-3.

[14] Gen 15:4-5.

[15] Gen 15:6.

[16] Louie Giglio. Indescribable: 100 Devotions About God and Science. (Nashville, TN: Passion Publishing), 2017.

[17] Giglio, 117.

Sunday’s sermon: Once Upon a Purpose

Adam and Eve” by Omenihu Amachi

Text used – Genesis 2:4-7, 15-17; 3:1-8 (read in the midst of the sermon)

  • Last year, we took a journey through Scripture together. We started in September, and from then until the end of May, we read through the arc of the Grand Story of faith. We started in Genesis, reading through bits and pieces of the Old Testament until Christmas – enter the Baby Jesus, enter the New Testament. Then we read through bits and pieces of the gospel of Mark until Pentecost.
    • Did this because we were following a new lectionary – Narrative Lectionary
      • Devised in 2010 by Profs. Rolf Jacobson and Craig Koester at Luther Seminary in St. Paul
      • Purpose: to “follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church. The texts show the breadth and variety of voices within Scripture. They invite people to hear the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the prophets, Jesus, and Paul. Listening to the many different voices within Scripture enriches preaching and the life of faith.”[1]
      • Best part: Narrative Lectionary = 4-yr. cycle → different readings every year that take us through that “sweep of the Biblical story”
        • Helps us to become more and more familiar with that grand arc of God’s Story of Faith: creation → covenants → prophets → Messiah → early church → And everything in between. It’s important for us as Christians to be familiar with this age-old story because it’s our story. → story that we continue to tell and live into each and every time we pray, each and every time we share our faith, each and every time we turn and return to God
  • So here we are in September again, ready to start the next cycle. And where do we start? The beginning. The very beginning. Creation.
    • First, begin with some basic background → In “scholar speak,” this is called Biblical historical criticism.
      • Important to remember that all of these stories were being told for centuries before anyone wrote them down → And just like any story that gets passed down and down and down and down and down, the stories changed somewhat. Some details were forgotten. Others were embellished. Sometimes the order or the names of the characters got shifted around a little. Sometimes the same story was told from a different perspective. That’s the nature of telling a story, hearing the story, and telling the story again.
        • E.g. – family story told by two people at once → Both people were there. Both people have some of the elements of the story in common. But they also both have their own, personal experiences. One person heard this. The other person saw that. They both felt and thought different things about the same situation, and all of those differences color their telling of the story. And parts of the Biblical narrative are no different.
          • See this in the gospels
            • A few stories/passages that are incredibly similar
            • Some stories that are shared but told differently
            • Some stories that show up only in one or two of the gospels
            • Each individual gospel is someone’s individual account of Jesus’ life and teachings.
          • OT “Documentary Hypothesis”: idea that 4 different authors contributed to the Torah – first 5 books of the Bible (Gen, Ex, Lev, Num, Deut) → We’re not going to dig deeply into this hypothesis today because it can get fairly technical and extensive, but one of the ways that scholars delineate which source contributed which part of the text has to do with the name that the author uses for God. In some sections of the Torah, the name “Yahweh” is used for God. In other sections, the name “Elohim” is used.
    • 2 different creation stories in Genesis = perfect illustration of this
      • Story from Gen 1 = narrative of God’s creation on each individual day peppered with God’s declaration that that new creation is “very good” → ends with God resting on the seventh day
        • Account of God creating humanity is both short and broad in its scope: God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”[2]
      • 2nd creation account in Gen = sort of the exact opposite
        • Small amount of detail given to the creation of the world and the creatures within in BUT much greater focus on God’s creation of and relationship with humans – Friends, listen for God’s story in today’s Scripture reading: [READ SCRIPTURE]
          • Shares a few elements with the Gen 1 story of creation but also includes a lot of different details
  • Now, before we tackle the main message of today’s Scripture reading, we need to address the elephant in the room … or rather, the snake in the room: Eve … the fruit … the snake … and sin. For centuries, the blame for that Original Sin has been placed on Eve’s shoulders. This passage has been used as a weapon against women to subjugate them and deny them opportunities.
    • Began with Latin Fathers back in the 2nd and 3rd centuries → shifted the blame of sin from both Adam and Eve to rest it squarely on Eve’s shoulders → attitude passed down from generation to generation throughout the church
      • Used to keep women out of leadership
      • Used to keep women uneducated
      • Used to keep women subservient
      • Used to keep women entirely dependent on men for centuries
      • Used to justify prejudice and violence against women for centuries → twisted and distorted in some of the most unjust, malicious, evil ways
    • And while I wish I could say we have grown past this image and twisted, harmful theology, friends, there are still plenty of people around the world today that still use this passage as justification for hate and discrimination against women. I cannot tell you the number of colleagues I have who have felt the painful reverberations of the way this passage as been warped and manipulated. Strong, intelligent women called by God to serve churches here in America today have been told they’re too pretty to be the pastor … have been told people are amazed a woman can preach so well … have been told that they can “have” the children’s message but the “real” sermon is for the man on staff (even if she is the senior pastor and the man is the associate) … have been told they can’t be the real pastor because they’re women. I cannot tell you the number of women I know who have experienced inappropriate interactions – both physical and verbal – with men in their church because those men refuse to see them as authoritative leaders called by God … simply because they are women. And as heinous and inexcusable as all of that is, we know that it’s so much worse for so many women around the world. And friends, that is not what this passage is about.
  • So what does this passage say, then? What’s the point of this 2nd creation narrative from Genesis? Why start the story here?
    • 2 parts of today’s story → creation part and the fall from grace
      • 1st part = creation
        • God creates this beautiful world and then creates humanity – text: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.[3]
          • Heb. “take care of it” = watch/guard it, save it, protect it, revere it – connotations of being careful and attentive
        • Comes with the implication of moderation and preservation – text: And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”[4] God gives creation to Adam so that Adam may care for the world – so that Adam may find sustenance and shelter in it, so that Adam may find joy and recreation in it, so that Adam may find reverence and sacredness in it. So that Adam may find purpose in it. Not so that Adam may do as he pleased with every blade of grass and flower, bending the natural world to Adam’s own will and whim, wasting the lives of all creatures – walking, crawling, swimming, flying – for sport. Adam is given stewardship of this creation … not supreme rule.
          • Scholar: The Creator who gives life also gives meaning and purpose to life. We are called to serve as caretakers in God’s good creation – stewards of a world we did not make and can receive only as a gift held in trust. … The freedom God ordains is expansive but not boundless. There are limits to the exercise of our creaturely freedom.[5]
      • 2nd part of the story = the fall → humanity’s first failure in that care of creation
        • Adam and Eve encounter the serpent
        • Serpent convinces them to eat the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden
        • Adam and Eve disobey God’s command and eat the fruit
        • Interesting discrepancy in Eve’s story vs. what God said to Adam
          • Important to note: When God gave the directive not to eat the fruit from the tree, God gave that directive to Adam before creating Eve → So Eve never heard those words from God. Clearly, Adam must have conveyed them to her because she conveys them to the serpent as part of her argument against eating the fruit … but her words do not exactly echo God’s own.
            • God (text): “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you it from it you will certainly die.”[6]
            • Eve to the serpent (text): “God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”[7]
            • Scholar highlights the crucial difference: This interaction holds the first distortion of God’s words. God never said, “Don’t touch the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”; rather, God warned not to eat of it. The woman did a curious thing in that she restricted her own freedom and said God had done it. Here we see the first cracks form in the relationship between humanity and God.[8] → Cracks in the relationship between humanity and God. The point at which our own self-indulgent, misguided, internally-driven purpose overrides God’s purpose for us, and we turn away. Sin.
        • Another scholar puts this a different way (encompassing all creation): God sends us into the garden because the garden needs service and preservation, and we are God’s instrument for caring for creation. Even though this mission is compelling and should be all-consuming, we share a human propensity for distraction. In the midst of caring for the garden, we will inevitably find fruit, and we will think that the fruit looks good to eat. … We will use our God-given intellect to rationalize doing things that are not part of our mission, or we will just settle for doing as others tell us, when we need to concentrate on God’s mission in the world.[9]
    • And when we hold those two things in tension – God’s call to purpose in this world and our “human propensity for distraction” – we find the reason for beginning this year’s journey through God’s Grand Story here in this creation account from Genesis. We find the ultimate purpose to which we are called – following God, being in relationship with God, and caring for all God’s creation (flora and fauna; animal, vegetable, and mineral; humans and neighbors of all colors, creeds, and persuasions). And we find a reminder of just how easy … how absent-minded … how inviting it can be to stray from that purpose. Once upon a purpose, there was God … and creation … and humanity. And the story continues. Amen.

[1] From “What is the narrative lectionary?” section, https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_faqs.aspx?fbclid=IwAR3BDmu06cmxC8YduElc_f6htjLr72lgIPf9euMTfpC47fOF0CZTpygB7u4.

[2] Gen 1:27-28.

[3] Gen 2:15.

[4] Gen 2:16.

[5] Allen C. McSween, Jr. “First Sunday in Lent – Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2.  (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 26.

[6] Gen 2:116-17.

[7] Gen 3:3 (emphasis added).

[8] Lisa Sharon Harper. The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. (New York, NY: Waterbrook, 2016), 46.

[9] Jon L. Berquist. “First Sunday in Lent – Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville,  KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 31.

Sunday’s sermon: Sleeping: Holiness in Rest

Text used – Psalm 23

  • Throughout the summer, friends, we’ve been working our way through Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life[1], and today, we find ourselves on the final chapter … the final sermon in this series.
    • Arc of the book (and arc of the sermon series) has followed a typical day in the life of the author and attempted to find moment of sacredness and connection with God even in the most mundane and routine tasks → Throughout the summer, we’ve talked about …
      • The blessing of waking up – of starting each morning awash in the grace and overwhelming love of God
      • Brushing teeth and eating leftovers – of the blessed embodiedness and physicality of our faith and the way God loves and blesses our bodies
      • Losing keys and fighting with spouses – of the undeniable importance of confession and forgiveness in our lives and in our faith
      • Checking email and calling a friend – of the connectionality and sacred community that we find with God and with one another
      • Making the bed, sitting in traffic, and drinking tea – finding sacredness, sanctuary, and flashes of the holy in some of the most automatic and least expected moments of our days
      • And so it’s only fitting that as we wrap up our series, we do so by wrapping up the day: with rest, with sacred Sabbath rest, with returning to sleep so we can wake up and do it all again tomorrow.
        • Especially appropriate during this time of year → fall is a time when we shift from the busyness and activity and extended hours of light in the summer to the more measured and deliberate slowing-down of autumn
          • Starting to think about closing cabins for the summer
          • Starting to think about putting gardens to bed for the winter months ahead
          • Starting to think about farmers harvesting the crop that they’ve spent all summer tending
          • Starting to watch the light diminish slowly, bit by bit every day as our particular patch of the world tilts further away from the sun and we prepare for the extended darkness and cold of winter
          • It feels like our part of the world is preparing for sleep as well.
  • Here’s the thing, though: we’re going to come at this idea of rest from a slightly different angle than you’ve maybe heard this morning. Very often, when we talk about rest and faith, we’re talking about times to seek relaxation and renewal in God. It’s a conversation about being refreshed. It’s a conversation that feels much like taking a deep breath – cleansing and calming and reassuring. But Warren comes at the idea of going to sleep and rest and faith in a different way. – Warren: Our need for sleep reveals that we have limits. We are unable to defend ourselves, to keep ourselves safe, to master the world around us. Sleep exposes reality. We are frail and weak. We need a guide and a guard. No matter how much I love or fear something, ultimately my human need for rest kicks in. Even when my kids are sick and really need me, I can’t stay awake with them day and night for long. Our powerful need for sleep is a reminder that we are finite. God is the only one who never slumbers nor sleeps.[2] → For Warren, the rest that we find in God is a reminder that God is God and we are not. It’s a reminder that the world does not revolve around us – that the world does not, in fact, require our attentiveness, our activity, our overextendedness, or even our worry to continue its course through the heavens. The world will keep on spinning whether we will it to or not. God will continue working in this world even when we do not. God delights in working in and through us, but God’s work is not dependent solely upon us. Because, indeed, God is God, and we are not.
    • This is a blessing! → meant to relieve some of the weight that we have placed upon our own shoulders
      • As parents/grandparents
      • As partners/spouses
      • As children of aging parents
      • As workers in whatever industry you find yourself in (especially teachers/school administrators and staff and health care workers right now ♥)
      • When we go to sleep at night, we cannot function in these roles that make up the fabric of our lives. When we wake up again in the morning, we can once again don whatever hats we need or choose to wear, but when we sleep, we must lay those hats down. We must pause. We must breathe. We must let go and let God.
    • Now believe me, I know that’s often easier said than done, especially in times of great stress and worry. I have spent plenty of nights awake at 3:00 a.m. going over and over this decision or that upcoming event, this parenting dilemma or that task that remains unfinished. And there are plenty of nights when, even if I sleep all the way through, I don’t get as much sleep as I should because I stay up too late or get up way too early in order to get more work done. And, y’all, I know I’m not alone in that.
      • Warren quotes data from a National Health Interview Survey: Nearly 30 percent of adults average less than six hours of sleep per night, significantly under the recommended seven to eight hours. Only about 30 percent of high school students reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night, though they need around ten. In one national study, over 7 percent of people between twenty-five and thirty-five admitted to actually nodding off while driving in the past month.[3] → Clearly, we need more rest. Clearly, we have taken on the burden of too much – too many tasks, too much worry, too much to think about and turn over and over in our minds. Clearly, we have elevated the notion of productivity over basically everything else in our lives and our days.
  • In this vein, Warren introduces a particular phrase in this chapter → It’s a revolutionary phrase. It’s a phrase that just might turn your life upside-down. Are you read for this? The phrase is: “the blessedness of unproductivity.” “The blessedness of unproductivity.” This basic idea behind this phrase: those moments of pause, of rest, of putting everything down remind us that God’s got this. This idea of the blessedness of unproductivity is why our Scripture reading for this morning is so perfect. Psalm 23 – a psalm of rest; a psalm of letting go; a psalm to remind us that God was and is and always will be there for us, providing and guiding and guarding and blessing.
    • Very 1st verse sets the tone: The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.[4]
      • Role of a shepherd = something many of us have lost touch with, I think → It’s not the tender, picturesque life of laying about in the fields that Hollywood has conjured up over the decades. Shepherding is rough. Shepherding is constant. Shepherding is taking the well-being of an entire group squarely on your own shoulders – the guiding, the protecting, bringing the new lives into the world and helping the oldest and sickest ones to leave this world as peacefully and comfortably and humanely as possible. Right off the bat, Psalm 23 recognizes not that we play this shepherding role for anyone else but that God plays this shepherding role for us.
        • 2nd part of that first verse underlines the total provision of this shepherding role: I lack nothing → Heb. = literally “not” + complex word that means doing without, being deprived, being deficient → So because God plays that shepherding role for us – that guarding and guiding role – we are not deficient. We are not deficient in what we need. We are not deficient in what we have. And most importantly, we are not deficient in who we are. So often, our busyness and overextended productivity stems from our own insecurities – insecurities about who others think we are and insecurities about who we think we are. We overwork ourselves day in and day out because we do not feel like we are enough. And yet right off the bat, Psalm 23 tells us that because God is our constant source and companion, we are truly and unquestionably enough.
    • Goes on to detail all the ways in which God provides for us: He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff – they protect me. You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over![5] → Everything that we need – food and water, safety and guidance, blessing and breath itself – come from God. Note that not a single one of those verses says, “Because I did this, God provides,” or “Because I earned this, God rewarded me,” or “Because I believed exactly the right thing … because I followed exactly the right doctrine … because I was a member of the right and only church … God was with me.” None of the provisions – none of those “enoughs” – are tied in any way to any action on our behalf. This psalm is all about how and what God does for us simple because God is God and we are not.
      • Along these lines, Warren poses a powerful and thought-provoking question → First, she makes a great point about our utter and undeniable reliance on God: Each night when we yield to sleep, we practice letting go of our reliance on self-effort and abiding in the good grace of our Creator. Thus embracing sleep is not only a confession of limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God. [She then poses her question:] What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested – people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.[6]
        • Echoed in the final verse of the psalm: Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.[7] → Notice that God’s goodness and faithful love will not sit idly and disinterestedly on the sidelines of life waiting for us to make time. “Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.” While we are working, while we are worrying, while we are weeping, while we are wandering, God’s goodness and faithful love pursues us. While we are praising, while we are playing, while we are preoccupied, while we are procrastinating, God’s goodness and faithful love pursues us.
          • Heb. “pursues” = verb that carried considerable insistence and doggedness → It is a thoroughly active verb. It is a tenacious verb. It is a verb with grit and endurance – one of those verbs that takes on a life of it’s own. That is how God pursues us. That is how God cares for us. That is how God provides for us. That is how God loves us. And that, friends, is why God is God and we are not. So rest easy. Rest true. Rest unburdened. Because God’s got you. Truly, thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Tish Harrison Warren. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2016.

[2] Warren, 144.

[3] Warren, 145.

[4] Ps 23:1.

[5] Ps 23:2-5.

[6] Warren, 152.

[7] Ps 23:6.

 

Sunday sermon: Drinking Tea: Soaking in God’s Goodness

Text used – Isaiah 55:1-12

  • “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens // Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens // Brown paper packages tied up with strings // These are a few of my favorite things.” A few of my favorite things: the smell of coffee (okay … let’s be honest: the taste of coffee, too – a good, strong brewed, dark roast); the smell of the world after it’s rained; the feel of a new book at my fingertips; a particularly thrilling and well-told story; the soft, simple, honest sound of a melody played on an acoustic guitar. To be sure, friends, these are a few of my own favorite things. And I’m sure you have a list of your own that you’re running over in your mind right now. Throughout the summer, we’ve been working our way chapter-by-chapter through Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life[1], and today’s chapter (the 2nd to last chapter) is all about favorite things – those things that we encounter as we move throughout our days and our lives that bring us a moment of pleasure … a moment of enjoyment … a moment of sabbath goodness. Because in these encounters, we experience the holy and sacred goodness of God.
    • Warren frames the delight and pleasure of this chapter through one of her own favorite things – drinking a cup of tea at the end of the day (title for this ch. = “Drinking Tea: Sanctuary and Savoring”) → Warren: My body, this tea, and the quiet twilight are teaching me God’s goodness through my senses. I’m tasting, hearing, feeling, seeing, and smelling that God is good. Pleasure is our deep human response to an encounter with beauty and goodness. In these moments of pleasure – of delight, enjoyment, awe, and revelry – we respond to God impulsively with our very bodies: “Yes, we agree! Your creation is very good.”[2]
    • So let’s talk about pleasure this morning – pleasure and faith and the goodness of our creator God.
  • First part of this discussion has to be recognizing what Warren calls our culture’s complex relationship with the concept of pleasure AND the church’s complex relationship with the concept of pleasure
    • Church has a long and sordid history of declaring anything pleasing and enjoyable as sinful
      • Wrapped up in ancient Greek philosophical notion of the spirit versus the flesh
        • Plato: idea of abstract realm (spirit, emotion, thought) vs. concrete realm (flesh, what we can touch and hear, see and smell and taste) → the abstract was supposedly preferable to the concrete[3]
        • Paul’s words to the church in Galatia: Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.[4] → Again, we see a preference for the spiritual over the flesh. And this is an idea that has filtered down through the Church for centuries. “Spiritual is good. Physical is bad.”
      • Flip side: our culture’s undeniable and unhealthy obsession with pleasure = driven our consumerism to staggering heights
        • Warren addresses this imbalance: The demand for more and more and ever more can turn a healthy pleasure into an addiction. We become insatiable. Our ability to enjoy something is diminished to the extent that it becomes a false god. God alone can be both worshiped and enjoyed. All lesser things are meant to be enjoyed in their proper place, as they flow from the God who deserves all worship.[5]
        • The more we have, the more we want. The more we want, the more we buy. It is like any and every other addiction: the more we indulge, the greater tolerance we build up to the pleasure that that indulgence brings, so we are forced to indulge even more to find pleasure.
          • To the detriment of our financial health
          • To the detriment of our physical health
          • To the detriment of our emotional and mental health
          • To the detriment of our ecological health – the health of the very creation that God first called “lovely … pleasing … good
  • And yet it is precisely because God called this creation “good” that we are able to experience God’s own goodness in the world around us – in our favorite things. → hear this in our Scripture reading from Isaiah this morning
    • Words of Isaiah = particularly poignant in the midst of the world and moment in history in which we find ourselves right now → Remember, Isaiah spoke these words from God to the people of Israel in exile.
      • Best and brightest (teachers, religious leaders, artists, scholars) stolen from Israel and taken to live in Babylon → a people besieged by doubt and unfamiliarity, by strangeness and division, by helplessness and hopelessness
      • They were a people who found themselves in a painful, power hungry, fractured time in history. They were a people who found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. They were a people who were feeling lost and low in need of a word from their God.
    • And so spoke Isaiah, bringing them the word of their God (the word of our God): All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live.[6]
      • Heb. “live” = also “revive” → So in experiencing true enjoyment, true pleasure in these things – in eating and drinking – and in satisfying the body, God (through Isaiah) is saying that the people of Israel can find their way back to God and in doing so, God will revive them. God will refresh their bodies and their spirits. God will bring new life to their worn and weary souls through goodness, through joy, through pleasure, through their favorite things. “Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live.
  • Throughout the whole book, Warren discusses specifically elements of Christian worship into each of her discussions of finding the sacred in the midst of the ordinary. → especially important in this chapter for 2 reasons
    • First, it gets to the heart of why we worship
      • Warren: These tiny moments of beauty in our days train us in the habits of adoration and discernment. And the pleasure and sensuousness of our gathered worship teach us to look for and receive these small moments in our days. Together, they train us in the art of noticing and of reveling in God’s goodness and artistry. … Christian worship trains us to recognize and respond to beauty. We learn to embrace the pleasure of being human and of human culture. Our God-given, innate thirst for enjoyment and sensuousness is directed toward the one who alone can quench it, the God who we were made to enjoy forever.[7] → We were made by God to enjoy the beauty and wonder and deliciousness and delight of the world around us. What a truly incredible gift! And so we gather together to both recognize and name those delights and to thank God for them and for our ability to enjoy them. AND when we worship, we remind each other of those beauties, those moments of pleasure and joy and sensuousness. We remind each other of the goodness of God and God’s creation. We remind each other to be open to those moments. And we take those reminders out to the world, too. We take our witness of that beauty and goodness to the world.
        • Hear echoes of this in our Is text this morning: Look, I made [David] a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples. Look, you will call a nation you don’t know, a nation you don’t know will run to you because of the Lord your God, the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you. Seek the Lord when he can still be found; call him when he is yet near. … Yes, you will go out with celebration, and you will be brought back in peace. Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you; all the trees of the fields will clap their hands.[8] → In this, we hear a call to the people to witness to God’s goodness. We hear a call to seek God’s goodness. And we hear a promise of joy – joy and celebration so abundant that it will be echoed by the world around us: “Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you.”
    • Second reason it’s important to talk about delight in worship context = it can be easy for us to forget that the things we do in worship are for the sake of enjoyment, not just for the sake of ritual and tradition → If we’re honest, there are parts of worship that we do simply because we’re going through the motions. We say the words because they’re the words we’ve been taught to say. We have been dulled to the beauty and pleasure that first inspired those actions and words of worship.
      • Perfect e.g. = the Great Thanksgiving portion of our communion liturgy

One: God be with you.
Many: And also with you.
One: Lift up your hearts.
Many: We lift them up to God.
One: Let us give thanks to God Most High.
Many: It is right to give our thanks and praise.

→ I know that much of the time, when we read or recite those words in worship, we mumble them because we’re supposed to … because “that’s what we do before communion.” But listen to the words: “God be with you! (And also with you!) Lift up your hearts! (We lift them up to God!) Let us give thanks to God Most High! (It is right to give our thanks and praise!)” These are words of joy, words of adoration, words of devotion and worship. These are words of blessing to one another. These are words that affirm the goodness of God in the world around us and in one another as we prepare to taste and touch and smell the goodness of God’s incredible love for us and Christ’s overflowing mercy in the bread and the wine and the juice, and we get to say them to each other every single month!

    • Warren addresses this by bringing both children and British writer, philosopher, and theologian G. K. Chesterton into the conversation: K. Chesterton saw in God a childlike wonder. Children never tire of beauty and pleasure. They embrace enjoyment with abandon. They don’t feel guilty about taking time to search for feathers, invent a game, or enjoy a treat. Chesterton imagines that God revels in the pleasure of [God’s] creation like an enthusiastic child.[9]
      • Chesterton: Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every single daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that [God] has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.[10]
      • Warren: We have sinned and grown old, and become dulled to the wonders around us. Though it may seem counterintuitive, enjoyment takes practice. Throughout our life we must relearn the abandon of revelry and merriment. Throughout Christian history, Christian worship has been a profoundly sensuous experience, a training ground for pleasure and delight.[11] → In worship, we are reminded again and again and again that God delights. God delights in the world around us. God delights in the pleasures of sight and sound and taste and touch and smell. God delights in us and our enjoyment of this sensuous, delightful, delicious, exquisite creation that God has made.
  • As challenging as worship during this time of pandemic is, friends, this might actually be one of the blessings in it. I know that many of you are sitting at home curled up somewhere soft and comfortable with a cup of coffee or tea. I know that some of you are sitting outside as you worship surrounded by the warms and brightness of the sunshine, the songs of birds and the buzz of insects, the beautiful and varied colors of the world around you – gardens, forests, lakes, and so on. So take a moment to take it all in. Take a moment to truly revel in the beauty and pleasure and goodness of God. [PAUSE] Friends, God is good all the time. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Tish Harrison Warren. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2016.

[2] Warren, 128-129.

[3] Morgan Guyton. “What is the difference between spirit and flesh?” from Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2013/04/10/what-is-the-difference-between-spirit-and-flesh/. Posted Apr. 10, 2013, accessed Aug. 26, 2020.

[4] Gal 5:16-17 (NRSV).

[5] Warren, 138.

[6] Is 55:1-3a..

[7] Warren, 139, 134.

[8] Is 55:4-6, 12.

[9] Warren, 132.

[10] G. K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy. (New York, NY: John Lane Co., 1909), 109 as quoted in Warren, 132.

[11] Warren, 132.

 

Sunday’s sermon: Calling a Friend: Talking to God Together

God's love in community

Text used – 1 John 4:7-21 (read in the midst of the sermon)

  • Okay, y’all. I have to warn you that today’s sermon might be a difficult one, too. If you were with us last week, we talked about the chapter of Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life[1] that dealt with waiting – especially waiting when we don’t like to/want to/have the patience to wait. It was a particularly poignant chapter for this time of pandemic waiting, but it was also difficult to talk about the good news we find in waiting when this waiting has been so challenging for many of us on so many levels – socially, economically, mentally, emotionally. Today’s chapter is difficult for a whole different reason – different … but sort of related because what makes it difficult is, again, this pandemic life that we’re living right now. The title of today’s chapter is “Calling a Friend: Congregation and Community.” And it’s difficult because it names one of the things that I know that many of us miss most right now: being together.
    • By far one of my favorite things about this congregation – about the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco – is the way everyone here cares for everyone else whether you’ve been a part of this church for 50 yrs. or whether this is the first time you’ve walked through our doors → normal Sunday morning:
      • Hear everyone greeting one another
        • Asking about your week
        • Checking in on some issue or struggle or something you’re dealing with that you shared (prayer request or fellowship)
        • Gentle teasing and good-natured ribbing (Jack!) and the comfortable laughter that follows
        • “Hellos” and “Good mornings,” “Good to see yous” and even “I love yous”
      • See everyone interacting with one another
        • Smiling
        • Hugging
        • Shaking hands
        • Waving at one another across the sanctuary or the fellowship room
      • There is a warmth and a genuineness that this congregation exudes simply because of who you all are – neighbors and friends and family, all going about this crazy, up-and-down thing called “life” together, teaching each other about God and reminding each other about God and showing God to one another in times when you need it most.
        • Reminds me of the description that Warren gives of her relationship with her best friend at the beginning of this chapter: Her delight in me gives me hope that in my murky, mixed-up soul there remains a burning loveliness that only God could have placed there, and that [God] is cultivating. For years now, [we] have grappled with the gospel in the warp and woof of our daily lives. She helps me believe.[2] → That is the beauty of Christian community in one: grappling with the gospel – the beautiful parts, the challenging parts, the confusing parts – in the warp and woof of our daily lives and helping one another believe. Reminding one another who God is and where and why and how God is engrained in our moments and our movements. Embodying for one another that crazy, up-and-down, forgiving and forgiven love of Christ in our relationships.
          • Warren: Christian friendships are call-and-response friendships. We tell each other over and over, back and forth, the truth of who we are and who God is.[3]
  • This is what our Scripture reading this morning is all about: being in relationship with one another through Christ and embodying that love of God in any and every way that we can.
    • Subtitle of section in the Bible = simple and direct: “Love and God”
    • [READ SCRIPTURE]
    • We love because God first loved us. We love because God first loved us.” That’s it. That’s the point. Case closed. Lesson over. God loved us instantly, endlessly, and unconditionally. God loves us truly, wholly, and genuinely. God loves us knowing who we are, where we’ve been, and what we have left to do. God loves us. No qualifiers. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. No strings attached, escape clauses, or exit strategies. God loves us. And because God has given us that incredible love … that all-encompassing love … that sacred and selfless love, we are able to love each other.
  • Greatest expression of that love = Christian community
    • Each of us is created beautifully different by God
      • Different gifts
      • Different talents and interests
      • Different challenges
      • Different areas of growth
    • Need one another to grow more fully and blessedly in our faith → means Christians cannot exist in a vacuum
      • Warren: Christ did not send [the] Holy Spirit only to individuals. He did not merely seek personal relationships with his followers. The good news is not simply that I can believe and thus make it to heaven, or even that I can believe and live out my life among a band of Christian friends. Jesus sent [the] Spirit to a people. The preservation of our faith and the endurance of the saints is not an individual promise; it is a promise that God will redeem and preserve [God’s] church – a people, a community, an organism, an institution – generation after generation, and that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.[4]We cannot experience the fullest expression of God’s love for us alone because God created us to love one another. If faith was all about just our individual, personal relationships with God, God would have stopped after creating Adam alone in that garden. But God created more humans because we get to experience and embody God’s precious and perfect love best together.
        • Part of what we sing every Sunday when we’re together: With God as creator / Neighbors all are we / Let us walk with each other / in perfect harmony.[5]
        • Scripture says it outright: If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.[6]
    • Scripture this morning makes that perfectly clear → it’s all about “us,” about community, about living and loving together
      • Starts with the very first line: Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.[7]
      • All of the pronouns used throughout this passage are plural and inclusive
        • Not “me/my”
        • Not “them”
        • Not exclusive or exclusionary
        • Text: This is how the love of God is revealed to us[8]
        • Text: We have seen and testify …[9]
        • Text: We have known and believed …[10]
        • Text: We love because God first loved us.[11]
  • Doesn’t mean that all of our relationships are perfect because we’re Christians – our relationships with each other or our relationship with God
    • Never able to love one another perfectly as God loves us because we are broken and imperfect people
      • Make mistakes
      • Hurt one another (intentionally and unintentionally)
      • Forget important things and speak without thinking
      • Bristle and get defensive when our rough and jagged growing edges rub up against someone else’s rough and jagged growing edges because those growing edges are tender, forgetting that we’re both just trying to grow together
      • Warren: Here too we see God’s power because, in this body of Christ, we find a place where we can be gloriously and devastatingly human. We find a place where we can fail and repent and grow and receive grace and be made new. Like a family – but even closer than a family – we can learn to live together, weak and human, in the goodness and transformation of God.[12]
    • Text: If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.[13] – Gr. “made perfect” = completed, matured, fulfilled, consecrated → This has nothing to do with being devoid of flaws (as we tend to think of perfection now) and everything to do with being the fullest version of itself. God’s love is a full, uncompromising, holy love – a love that is meant to be shared and embodied with other people, and in that act of sharing, we get to play a part in fulfilling God’s promise to love us.
      • Scholar: Act lovingly, even if imperfectly. The love and the perfection come from God, whose perfect love casts of fear. We can honestly admit that we are not yet perfect in love, for it is God’s love that makes us loving, and it is God’s perfection that is making us ever more holy.[14]
      • Warren: We work out our faith with these other broken men and women around us in the pews. It’s lackluster. It can be boring or taxing. It’s often messy. It’s sometimes painful. But these Christians around me become each other’s call and response. We remind each other of the good news. All saints and sinners in the church share together in this gospel. The meal would be incomplete if even one of these were not at the table. It would not be good news if even one of these members were missing. As [20th British theologian] Lesslie Newbigin put it, “None of us can be made whole till we are made whole together.” If we are saved at all, we are saved together.[15]
  • And that is why this chapter is so difficult, especially right now, friends. I know that we’re finding it hard to feel that embodied love when it’s been so long since we’ve been together. It know that we’re missing this place, these people, this community. I cannot even begin to tell you how odd and lonely it is to be here alone every Sunday morning. And yet, I want you to notice that there was nothing in our Scripture reading this morning about being in physical proximity to others before you can love them.
    • Remember that our Scripture = letter written by an anonymous disciple to a Christian community → wrote the letter specifically because that anonymous disciple couldn’t be there in person to share these words → But that physical absence in no way diminishes the love, the compassion, or the gospel message that we find here!
      • Text: This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. … Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love each other.[16] → So no matter who you are. No matter where you are. No matter what you find yourself in the midst of this morning. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved. Amen.

[1] Tish Harrison Warren. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2016.

[2] Warren, 116.

[3] Warren, 117.

[4] Warren, 120 (emphasis added).

[5] Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller. “Let There Be Peace on Earth, © 1955, 1983 by Jan-Lee Music.

[6] 1 Jn 4:12b.

[7] 1 Jn 4:7.

[8] 1 Jn 4:9 (emphasis added).

[9] 1 Jn 4:14 (emphasis added).

[10] 1 Jn 4:16 (emphasis added).

[11] 1 Jn 4:19.

[12] Warren, 124.

[13] 1 Jn 4:12b.

[14] Ronald Cole-Turner. “Fifth Sunday of Easter: 1 John 4:7-21 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 468.

[15] Warren, 126.

[16] 1 Jn 4:9, 11.

Sunday’s sermon: Sitting in Traffic: Unexpected, Unhurried, Unavoidable God

waiting

Text used – Psalm 130

 

  • Fair warning this morning, all. Today’s chapter of Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life[1] is a tough one. Warren’s title for this chapter is: “Sitting in Traffic: Liturgical Time and an Unhurried God.” At the beginning of it, she describes an instance when she’s stuck in traffic with her kids in the car and all of the frustrations and worries and anxieties that bubble up while sitting there not moving.
    • Warren: My kids are strapped in their car seats kicking the seats in front of them in boredom. We are all a little tired and a little whiny. It’s hot in the car. I crank up the air conditioning and turn on NPR. We need to get home soon or my kids will be cranky – “starving,” they’ll say. They’ll get a late bath and be late for bed, and there goes my hope of a little downtime. As I wait, I grow increasingly irritated.[2]“As I wait, I grow increasingly irritated.” As I wait in the midst of this pandemic, I grow increasingly irritated. As I wait in the midst of this shatteringly divisive political climate, I grow increasingly irritated. As I wait in the midst of flagrant and violent acts of racism and hatred that we witness all around the country, I grow increasingly irritated. I feel it all lodged right here in my chest, stuck like a rock and smoldering like a coal that hasn’t quite gone out but isn’t fully blazing either. Waiting. Waiting to know what God has in store for me and for us – us as a church, us as a community, us as a nation, us as the human race. Waiting to see how God shows up and acts in the face of all this turmoil and loss. Waiting to hear who and where and what and how God is calling me to be as a follower of a risen, hope-filled Christ surrounded by anger and loss and distress and hopelessness and fear. Waiting. Warren’s chapter for today is about waiting. Dang.
      • Of course, Warren’s book was written years ago – published in 2016 – so this chapter and everything in it about waiting for God and the sacredness that can be found in waiting was written long before COVID-19 and sheltering in place and the agonizing decision that we’ve had to make: those of us with aging loved ones in care facilities or caring for aged loved ones outside of care facilities; those of us with children returning to daycare or returning to school; those of us who are considered essential workers and those of us who aren’t; those of us faced with furloughs or unemployment choices or any of the other financial struggles that have arisen during this extended time of pandemic → That’s what makes this chapter so hard today, friends. Undoubtedly, there is a sacredness that can be found in waiting – in stopping, in pausing … even if just for a moment.
        • Warren: In my life, time is most often something I seek to manage, or something I resent – something, it seems, that I never have enough of. In my frenetic life, I forget how to slow down and wait. For the good of my own soul I need to feel what it’s like to wait, to let the moments march past.[3] → And there is absolutely truth to that. I mean, how many times have you gotten to the end of the week … the end of the month … even the end of the year and gone, “Wow … where did that week/month/year go?” We’re so good at packing every moment of our days with activity and busyness and rushing from one thing to the next that on the whole, we are terrible at waiting! Terrible! And yet here we are in this strange and drawn-out time of pandemic waiting. Many of us long for the hustle and bustle that was “normal life” just 4 months ago. And that reality makes this chapter even more difficult.
  • That’s why I chose this psalm to go with our chapter this morning
    • Begins with a cry out to God – a cry from someone who is sick and tired of waiting – text: I cry out to you from the depths, Lord – my Lord, listen to my voice! Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy![4] → clearly a call for God to hear from someone who thinks God isn’t listening
      • Heb. “cry” = connotations of summoning, invoking, appealing to God → The psalmist isn’t just crying out to give voice and volume to his or her frustrations. The psalmist is calling on God – crying out with the expectation and the longing for God to be present in the midst of whatever trouble the psalmist is facing.
      • Psalmist wants more than just a present God – psalmist wants an attentive God – Heb. “listen” = also “understand,” “examine,” and even “obey” → The psalmist is begging God to come near and to be present in all the ways that matter when you’re feeling lost and lonely – in body, mind, and soul. This shows such a powerful relationship with God because the psalmist isn’t just crying out to some remote, unreachable, uninterested God but a God that the psalmist truly believes will come – the kind of God who turns a compassionate and attentive ear to those who worship and cry out to God.
    • Next part of the psalm addresses the reason why the psalmist feels God is remote → addresses some topics we’ve already discussed: confession and forgiveness – text: If you kept track of my sins, Lord – my Lord, who would stand a chance? But forgiveness is with you – that’s why you are honored.[5]
      • After crying out to God – begging for God’s presence in the midst of whatever turmoil he or she is facing – the psalmist drops to his or her knees in confession: “God, I’ve messed up. I’ve messed up a lot. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve messed up … but I bet you can. And still, you’re here. You’re with me in spite of it all. And that blows my mind.”
      • Two really interesting Heb. words in here
        • First is the phrase “who would stand a chance?” – Heb. = simple word for “stand” → But there are so many layers to that “simple” word. It can mean stand. It can mean stop moving. It can mean stay or maintain. It can even mean restore. So it’s a word that sort of encompasses all movement – physically moving forward as well as the mental and emotional ways we move. So the psalmist is talking about being literally paralyzed by the weight of his or her own mistakes.
        • Other interesting Heb. word: “honored” (“But forgiveness is with you – that’s why you are honored”) → This is a Hebrew word laden with meaning. It can also mean revere or even fear. There is a sense of incomprehensible awe and holiness and the sort of respect that you feel when you encounter something so vast that it’s unfathomable. That, the psalmist says, is God’s forgiveness: incomprehensible, unfathomable, holy.
    • The end of the psalm speaks of the one thing we all need in the midst of waiting, whether we’re waiting in line at the grocery store or the car wash, waiting at the bedside of a dying loved one, or waiting in the midst of this pandemic: hope. – text: I hope, Lord. My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise. My whole being waits for my Lord – more than the night watch waits for the morning; yes, more than the night watch waits for the morning! Israel, wait for the Lord! Because faithful love is with the Lord; because great redemption is with our God! He is the one who will redeem Israel from all its sin.[6] → And there it is, friends. There’s the good news. There’s the glimmer in the darkness. There is something to grasp at and cling to in the midst of all the trials and tribulations of waiting: hope.
      • Lord knows it’s not always easy – Warren addresses this: Christians are people who wait. We live in liminal time, in the already and not yet. Christ has come, and he will come again. We dwell in the meantime. We wait. But in my daily life I’ve developed habits of impatience – of speeding ahead, of trying to squeeze more into my cluttered day. How can I live as one who watches and waits for the coming kingdom when I can barely wait for water to boil?[7] → Warren addresses a really important theological point here: that as Christians, we are indeed people who are simultaneously waiting and hoping. We know and believe in the good news of Jesus Christ – of a Savior who rose from the tomb after three long, agonizing, darkness-filled days of waiting and shattered that kind of listless, hopeless waiting for all time. We know that there’s something to wait for: love everlasting, grace everlasting, hope everlasting. Because that is what Jesus brought us, and that is what Jesus promises to bring again one day. But … when? Jesus was pretty vague about that particular detail. And so … we wait. And wait. And wait.
        • Warren: Waiting, therefore, is an act of faith in that it is oriented toward the future. Yet our assurance of hope is rooted in the past, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and in his promises and resurrection. In this way, waiting, like time itself, centers on Christ – the fulcrum of time. Because of Christ’s work, we wait with expectation. We replace the despair that the passing of time inevitably brings – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – with faith – “if we have died with him, we shall also live with him.” … Our imaginations are fixed on what is to come, on the future glory when God will set things right.[8]
  • But Warren also makes another very important point in this chapter: that our waiting as Christians is not a passive, lifeless, disengaged waiting.
    • Warren: Yet our patience does not make us passive about the brokenness of the world. We are not blithely waiting to abandon this world for another. Christian faith is never an otherworldly, pie-in-the-sky sentimentality that ignores the injustice and darkness around us. We know that things are not as they should be. We also know that here – not up in the sky, but in this earthly, waiting world of peach trees and inchworms, of brass bands and didgeridoos – things will be made right. Heaven will be established right here in our midst. … We have a telos as we wait, an ultimate purpose and aim. Because we have a telos – a kingdom where peace will reign and where God is worshiped – we can never wrap our lives in little luxuries and petty comforts and so numb ourselves to God’s prophetic call for justice and wholeness in this world. Our hope for a future of shalom motivates us to press toward that reality, even in our ordinary days. Our work, our times in prayer and service, our small days lived graciously, missionally, and faithfully will bear fruit that we can’t yet see.[9] → It makes me think of the Shel Silverstein poem “Lazy Jane.”

Lazy Jane

    • This is not the kind of waiting that we’re called to do, friends. Our waiting moves. Our waiting trusts. Our waiting believes. Our waiting does. Our waiting hopes.
      • Can’t help but think of all the posts I’ve seen on Facebook about different hobbies people have picked up during the pandemic; different projects that people have completed during the pandemic; different experiences people have finally quit putting off during the pandemic; books they’ve always wanted to read … movies they’ve always wanted to see … old friends they’ve been meaning to connect with that they’ve finally called again … causes or philanthropic organizations they’ve always wondered about and finally taken the time to research and support → Friends, this time of pandemic waiting has been particularly challenging in so many ways we never even could have dreamed of. But we do not sit through this waiting time alone. God is with us, inching us forward even when we can’t feel it.
        • Warren: The future orientation of Christian time reminds us that we are people on the way. It allows us to live in the present as an alternative people, patiently waiting for what is to come, but never giving up on our [ultimate purpose]. We are never quite comfortable. We seek justice, practice mercy, and herald the kingdom to come. … God is redeeming all things, and our lives – even our days – are part of that redemption. We live in the truth that, however slowly or quickly we may be traveling, we are going somewhere. Or, more accurately, somewhere (and Someone) is drawing near to us.[10] → Friends, this is indeed the Good News. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Tish Harrison Warren. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2016.

[2] Warren, 102.

[3] Warren, 103.

[4] Ps 130:1-2

[5] Ps 130:3-4.

[6] Ps 130:5-8.

[7] Warren, 104.

[8] Warren, 108-109.

[9] Warren, 112-113.

[10] Warren, 113-114.

Sunday’s sermon: Checking Email: Blessed to Be a Blessing

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Text used – Isaiah 42:1-9

 

  • Let me tell you a story this morning: Once upon a time, there were two sisters. Though they sometimes bickered when they didn’t see eye-to-eye, the sisters loved each other, and they enjoyed sharing a home together with their brother (who we’ll meet in another story some other day). One day, as the sisters were going about their daily routines, a traveler arrived on their doorstep for a visit. This was a famous traveler whose name was known throughout the region, and when the first sister saw him, she welcomed him into their home gladly. But this famous traveler did not travel alone. Far from it. With him into their home came all those who traveled with him – his friends, his admirers, and those who looked up to this traveler as a mentor. Suddenly, the sisters had a very busy and very full house and a great many things to do! But generous welcome was ingrained in them by their culture and their very nature, so the first sister went to work preparing a simple but abundant feast for their guests. As she bustled about, the first sister turned to say something to the second sister, assuming she was right there helping, but she was shocked to find her sister’s customary place in the kitchen empty. The first sister quickly scanned the kitchen, still not finding her sister, then looked out into the common room where all of her guests had gathered. And there was her sister, doing no work whatsoever. She was sitting at the feet of the famous traveler, gazing up at him, just sitting and listening and, from the look in her eyes, adoring. Infuriated, the first sister began to berate her sister for being so lazy and neglectful of their guests. In her frustration, she even appealed to their guest – to the famous traveler – because he was known to be wise and just. But his reply stopped the first sister in her tracks, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken from her.”[1] → Ahh, the story of Mary and Martha. A story of work and devotion. We’re not reading this Scripture this morning, but since the story is so central to our idea today, I wanted to introduce it in a different way. You see, throughout the summer, we’ve been working our way through Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life[2], and today, we’re basically tackling the crux of the whole idea of this book: finding God in the midst of the busyness of our days.
    • Talking about the extreme side of workaholism (full-on Martha mode)
    • Talking about the other extreme side – what Warren calls “escapism into a contemplative ideal”[3] (full-on Mary mode)
    • Talking about finding a middle way between the two – making space for the sacred even in the tasks that feel as far from holy as they can get
    • Warren’s description of the issue: In our modern-day society, when we are blessed and sent to go do the work God has given us to do, we are sent into a culture where work can become all-consuming and boundless. Our frantic work lives are disconnected from the rhythms of the seasons or day and night. We can work constantly. … With these changes come an increased temptation to make work and productivity an idol to which we’ll sacrifice rest, health, and relationships. What might vocational holiness look like when technology can breed habits that feed an unhealthy and ungodly appetite for endless productivity?[4]
    • Exceedingly complex issue
      • Wrapped up in the way that society undeniably and relentlessly measures our worth by the amount that we get done in any given day
        • Related: wrapped up in the particularly difficult and draining complexities so many are facing in working from home during this pandemic → Where does work stop and home start?
      • Wrapped up in the injustice of income inequality in this country and the way some people need to work 3 jobs just to make ends meet (rent, food, transportation to those jobs, health insurance, etc.)
      • Wrapped up in the idea of call and vocation – favorite quote from Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” → “If this is where God is calling me to be and work, shouldn’t I want to be here as much as possible?” Where does vocation call for work and where does vocation call for rest and renewal?
  • So let’s dig in – start with Warren’s description at the beginning of this chapter (title: “Checking Email: Blessing and Sending”)

I open my inbox to a swirling mass of tasks I need to complete, people I need to respond to, and things that call for my time: a plea for volunteers from my daughter’s teacher, forms to complete for my supervisor, a smattering of people with whom I need to set up meetings, an Evite, a note from my mom, an old friend who’s traveling through and wants to sleep on my couch, an appointment reminder from our doctor’s office, and a few mass emails, mainly charities asking for donations or listservs I’m on for my job.

            My brain cannot take in the sheer volume of email, the number of people needing a response, the sorting, deciding, writing, and deleting that lies before me. My eyes glaze over. I want to escape – to go elsewhere online or to back away from the computer in relieved defeat – bested, once again, by my nemesis.

            I know people who empty their inbox every day. Those people have superpowers and exist on cheerfulness and productivity as food. They’ve given me books on how to be more efficient and organized with email, and I’ve read parts of them. But I still have unopened Groupon deals from four years ago.

            There are days when I try to catch up, when I seem to gain a little ground on the hamster wheel, but I’ve never been able to master this task. Mostly because I don’t like it and therefore I avoid it. I’m fairly certain that one day there will be three numbers engraved on my tombstone as a legacy and a warning: my birth date, my death date, and the number of unopened emails still awaiting a response in my inbox. (Warren, 88-89)

  • Sound familiar to anyone? I think this – the incessant, inescapable nature of emails – speaks loudly and profoundly to the issue of balancing work and rest time, especially during this pandemic. With tablets and smartphones and internet access available nearly anywhere and everywhere we go, we can remain connected to our work 24/7. We can always take just a minute to check in … to catch up … to write just this one email, just this one reply, to check in on just this one issue. To use our story example, we can be Martha all day every day with no breaks and no escape – holidays, birthdays, vacations, even simple “days off” (which, as soon as we open that email, become anything but a day off).
    • Becomes particularly complicated when we start thinking about the idea of vocation – of the sacred work that God calls us to in this world – and how that work integrates with our worship integrates with our workaday jobs
      • Theology of work that Warren introduces: The Christian faith teaches that all work that is not immoral or unethical is part of God’s kingdom mission. The kingdom of God comes both through our gathered worship each week and our “scattered” worship in our work each day. Thus all work, even a simple, small task, matters eternally.[5]
  • Good place to bring in our Scripture reading from Isaiah this morning
    • First portion talks about the work of the person that the prophet Isaiah calls “The Servant” (i.e. – Jesus): But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public. He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land. The coastlands await his teaching.[6] → establishes Jesus as an example for our work
      • Work for the good of the world
      • Work that is life-giving and sustaining
      • Uphold the Micah work ideal: He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.[7]Sounds like pretty good parameters for work, right?
    • Second portion talks about God calling us: I, the LORD, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon. I am the LORD; that is my name; I don’t hand out my glory to others or my praise to idols. The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened, but I’m declaring new things. Before they even appear, I tell you about them.[8]
      • Reassures us that God calls us to good work
      • Reassures us that God is with us in the midst of that good work
      • Reassures us that in the midst of that good work, we find holiness
        • Warren speaks to this: As we seek to do our work well and hone our craft, we are developed and honed in our work. Our task is not to somehow inject God into our work but to join God in the work [God] is already doing in and through our vocational lives.[9] → It doesn’t matter what kind of work you’re doing – if you’re a doctor, if you’re a salesperson, if you’re a teacher, if you’re a nurse, if you’re a manager, if you’re a pastor, if you’re a clerk, if you’re an accountant, if you’re a garbage collector, if you’re a writer, if you’re a librarian, if you’re a receptionist, if you’re a janitor, if you’re a food server, or any other job. God is working out there in the world in a million different ways, and we get to be a part of that work through the work we do. God needs us to be a part of that work through the work we do.
  • That being said, as we already mentioned, it can be far too easy today to let that work consume us – to let it become the be-all-end-all in our lives; to let it, in fact, become the thing that we worship, the thing that we place even above God. We can become so ingrained in our Martha ways of busyness and importance and being needed that we forget the ultimate purpose and source of that work in the first place: God. And yet we know that neither can we simply give up all of that work and sit forever at the feet of Christ listening and adoring. We have bills to pay. We have families to raise. We have commitments to fulfill. We do, indeed, have work to do. So where’s the middle way? Where’s the happy medium?
    • Warren: I need a third way – neither frantic activity nor escape from the workaday world, a way of working that is shaped by being blessed and sent. This third way is marked by freedom from compulsion and anxiety because it is rooted in benediction – God’s blessing and love. But it also actively embraces God’s mission in the world into which we are sent.[10] → In terms of our worship together, this is how we end each service, right?
      • From the Book of Common Worship: We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. The charge calls the church to go forth as agents of God’s mission in the world.[11] → “The charge & benediction,” also known as the work to do and the blessing to do it. The blessing to do the work … to enact the work … to embody the work of God in this world … not to let that work embody you.
      • Warren drives this home with The Point (capital T, capital P): I want to learn how to spend time over my inbox, laundry, and tax forms, yet, mysteriously, always on my knees, offering up my work as a prayer to the God who blesses and sends. Living a third way of work – where we seek vocational holiness in and through our work even as we resist the idolatry of work and accomplishment – allows us to live with work as a form of prayer.[12] Amen.

[1] Lk 10:41-42.

[2] Tish Harrison Warren. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2016.

[3] Warren, 99.

[4] Warren, 98, 99.

[5] Warren, 92.

[6] Is 42:1-4.

[7] Mic 6:8.

[8] Is 42:6-9.

[9] Warren, 94.

[10] Warren, 99.

[11] Office of Theology and Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Sending: Blessing and Charge” from Book of Common Worship. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 12.

[12] Warren, 100-101.