When The Spirit Comes

Prayer: Holy Spirit you are welcome here, come flood this place and fill the atmosphere. Help us hear what we need to hear, Holy Spirit you are welcome here. Amen.

            Today we reach Paul’s “so what?” in his letter to Christians living in Rome. In Paul’s very wordy, very theological letter, he has up until this point laid out his argument. He has stressed that freedom from the law is necessary. Today’s text gets to the meat, begins to be where the rubber begins to hit the road, and challenges readers to see themselves as true children of God. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on. But since we are celebrating Pentecost today, we will mostly focus on what Paul is telling us about the Holy Spirit in today’s text. Hear these words.

2 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

14 All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. 15 You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. 17 But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.

18 I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. 20 Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. 23 And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. 24 We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? 25 But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.

26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. 27 The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will. 28 We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. 30 Those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son, he also called. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified.

31 So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him?

33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. 34 Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.

35 Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

We are being put to death all day long for your sake.
    We are treated like sheep for slaughter.[a]

37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels nor rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

So what exactly do we celebrate at Pentecost? Pentecost, is essentially the birthday of the church and a day of joy. As pastor, Danielle Shroyer observes, “Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story.”. From Day One of the church, which we celebrate at Pentecost, the call was to press in, linger, listen, and listen some more.

And friends, I think we don’t talk enough about the Holy Spirit within the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps it is because the Holy Spirit by her essence is mysterious and Presbyterians like everything to be neat and orderly. The Holy Spirit rarely is neat and orderly. However, we should make space to talk more about the Holy Spirit. Each of us need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is at work in us- guiding and challenging us, helping us as we try to make sense of our faith, interceding for us when we don’t have words to pray and helping us in our weakness.

            In today’s text we learn several things about the Holy Spirit. Paul writes that the Spirit helps make us heirs and adopted children of God. One of my friends tells a story about how from the time her son learned to talk, he very persistently called his father by his first name, Gary. While my friend calls for her husband Gary, she had to explain to her son that he is the only one who has the privilege to call him Daddy. Parents or anyone who spends time around a child knows there are special intimate titles reserved for children to call their parents. If a child gets hurt, they cry out Daddy! If a child needs help with a seemingly impossible task, they cry out Mommy! If a child wants a snack, they cry out Daddy—you get the idea.

            The titles Daddy or Mommy have historically been more intimate titles for Mom or Dad.  The word, Paul uses here “Abba” is the Aramaic term for father but Abba was used more so in home. Abba, was used as a less formal title than another Aramaic word for father Ab, which is much like our word Dad. Much like today, Abba was the term used intimately in the home because it was much easier for children to use a two syllable word ending with a vowel than to use a single syllable word ending with a consonant. Much like Daddy is easier for a young child first learning to speak than Dad and Mommy is easier than Mom. Through Christ and the Spirit and as God’s adopted children we are able to call God, the tender word of Daddy.

This Spirit helps us in our weakness. The spirit helps hold our tongue when needed. The spirit protects us. I love this image below because it is exactly how our lives can feel sometimes. Out of control and chaotic. The Holy Spirit holds our hands through the ups and downs and twist and turns of our lives.

The whole idea of the complexity of all the spirit can do is baffling when we think about God’s creation and plan. As one pastors observes, “The same God whose Creation causes flowers to bloom, that helped craft the evolution of pre-atomic particles into molecules and into ever-increasing stages of complexity, is also the same God whose ‘Spirit helps us in our weakness.'”

Or as Paul explains in today’s passage, helps us when we don’t know how to pray. Can you remember a time when you encountered something so big and so overwhelming that you did not have words to pray? When you looked desperately into the world with hands up and tears in your eyes and shouted, dear God, how do I even begin to pray?

Much of my childhood felt like that. You see, when I was five years old, I was so excited because after years of being the little sister, I was finally going to be a big sister and have a little brother.  But when it finally came time for my brother to be born, it was quite hard for my five-year-old mind to understand all of what was happening.  You see, my brother was born with a serious heart condition called hypo-plastic left heart syndrome, which meant his left ventricle never developed correctly and was useless. During his first few years, he had three open heart surgeries to help his heart work properly. When other new big sisters were able to bring their new siblings home after a week or so, I had to drive with my grandparents to the hospital after about a month after Barrett was born. It was heartbreaking.

Though perhaps one of the blessings in disguise of having a baby brother who was frequently hospitalized was having extra time with my grandparents—and I had the best. They each would go out of their way to cheer up my sister and I when our parents had to stay in the hospital with our brother, even though I imagine my grandparents were just as terrified as we were about our brother’s health. From playing Billy goat gruff with my Nanny and Pap to my Pappap’s infamous Donald Duck voice, they knew how to make us smile. I learn so much about God from my grandparents. They always made sure my sister and I prayed every night for our little brother, even if the only words we had were tears.  

Before one of Barrett’s most intense surgeries, I vividly remember walking in the woods near our house having a conversation with my Pappap. We talked a lot about God and how God made everything but on that day, I remember we stopped to sit on a log in the woods and pray for my brother. I was so sad and mad that I told him I didn’t want to pray, that I couldn’t remember how. With a twinkle in his eye he said something similar to God knows when you are sad and even our tears and our mad screams can be made into prayers. He talked about this passage in Romans and how the spirit can take our tears and make them prayers. That the spirit knows how to pray for us. It is almost as though we can cry out all the letters of the alphabet and the Spirit turns them into prayers.

Since then, there have been other times in my life when I have struggled to find words to pray, but this passage has always been a source of comfort. It has always been a sacred reminder that even when all we have to offer as prayers are our tears, the Holy Spirit is able to take our tears, questions, and cries and intercede for us.

The same Holy Spirit who meets us in our tears, meets us in the sacraments and in the streets of our neighborhoods. The Holy Spirit is at work in and speaks through the youngest among us and the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in and speaks through the oldest among us. Though, perhaps the Holy Spirit is better thought of as a verb rather than a noun. Or better yet, perhaps we can continuously remind ourselves, the Holy Spirit is like breath, as close as our lips, chest, and lungs, and as near as our nose. 

The Holy Spirit is like indescribable joy. A captivating Spirit, as everywhere as the air, a Spirit which we inhale and exhale, a Spirit which animates, revives, sustains, speaks, and nourishes. A Spirit that is in each and every one of us and is always with us so we are never truly alone.

A Spirit which meets us even in our weakness, in our fragility, in our humanity. The Holy Spirit takes our tears, meets us when we are hurting, and tongue tied, when we are overwhelmed and confused and turns our groans and cries into prayers.  A Spirit which intercedes for us when we do not have words to pray and gives us a voice.

So thank God for the Holy Spirit and know that the gift of sending the spirit happens over and over again, day after day and thanks be to God for that. Amen.


Who Sinned?

“Insight” artwork by Lisle Gywnn Garrity Sanctified Art

Today’s text is quite the mouthful, so bear with me. As I read through the text, I encourage you to think about some grounding and guiding questions: 1) what assumptions or blind spots do we carry and how do these assumptions impact others? 2) Do we often ask- whose fault is this? Rather than how can we heal, help, and understand? Hear these words from John 9:1-41.

            Have you ever heard the expression there are no bad questions? I’ve said it myself numerous times in sermons, small group studies, and in everyday conversation. But today, a bad question is asked. A question with bad theology hidden behind the words- who sinned? As the disciples walk past a blind man, they immediately ask this bad question to Jesus as if to imply– –surely because this man is blind, he or his parents must have done something offensive to God.

            Even before Jesus heals the blind man, the disciples assume that his blindness is his own fault.  But Jesus rejects the entire premise of their question all together. Jesus instead makes some mud. He unabashedly gets his hands dirty to heal. As a side note, I like imagine Jesus telling the man he healed what he was doing before he put mud on his eyes. At least I hope he would have.

            There is no relationship between the man’s condition and his sinfulness, Jesus says.  Because friends, God does not make people sick in order to punish them for wrongdoing.  And to step away from our brother or sister’s suffering because we assume it’s divinely ordained, is not righteous.  It’s reprehensible. This is a bad question and a bad assumption. The ones in our text who can physically see, still don’t really see the blind man in front of them.  

            In the story John tells, Jesus sees the blind man — a man whom no one else really sees. In the eyes of his peers, the man is contaminated, burdensome, and expendable.  In his community’s calculus of human worth, the blind man barely registers — he’s not a human being; he’s Blindness.  The condition itself, with all of its accumulated meanings.  Which is why, when the man’s sight is restored by Jesus, his own townspeople — the people he has lived and worshipped with for years — don’t recognize him.  They don’t know how to see him without his disability.  To do so would be to recognize a common humanity, a bond, a kinship.  And that would be intolerable.

              Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow writes in Sanctified Art’s commentary:

            “We do the same thing today when suffering, pain, and affliction are revealed right before us. Empathetic inquiry is set aside and we rush to diagnosis and treatment before we even know the nature and depth of the problem we are trying to address….or if it is a problem at all. We too easily view one another through one-dimensional lens so much so that all we can do is start down a path toward misplaced questions and actions based on mistaken assumptions: they must be poor because x, so let’s solve x by doing y…..she must be incarcerated because….he must be experiencing mental health issues because….he must be blind or sick because…..”   Fill in the blank. We let our assumptions dehumanize people when we assume we know all of someone’s story.

            So, of course, when the man shows up at the Temple healed the community rallies to discredit him.  How can this man in front of them be the one who was blind? In the eyes of the Pharisees they longed only to restore order, re-establish the social hierarchy, and reinforce the status quo. So this man is met with doubt left and right every time he tells his whole story.

            Another piece that is frustrating about this healing story is the number of times the townspeople and Pharisees asked the man the same questions over and over again. You can almost feel the man’s frustration as he repeatedly is not heard. I already told you, and you didn’t listen, he says repeatedly. The Pharisees and townspeople seem more concerned that Jesus healed on the Sabbath then about the man in front of them.

            Not only does the community’s legalistic approach to faith prevent them from seeing the healed man; it also prevents them from seeing God’s love and power at work in their midst.  One heartbreaking fact in the text is no one in the story rejoices when the man is healed.  No one – not even the man’s parents — expresses joy, or wonder, or gratitude, or awe.   No one says, “I am so happy for you!” or asks, “What is it like to see for the first time?  Have you seen the view from Mt. Olives yet?  What are you excited to look at first?”

            As part of the Sanctified Art’s “Seeking” series, Rev. Sarah Are Speed writes a poem that helps to bring this text to life. She speaks to her poem, “Jesus in the Pysch Ward,” writing: “I placed Jesus in a hospital setting to reflect the text’s (John 9:1-41) focus around healing. In particular, I chose a psychiatric setting to continue dismantling unfair stigmas around mental health. Once again, in this modern-day context, Jesus offers words of comfort and belonging. For me, the image of Jesus in therapy with me offers immense comfort and validation. I hope you find the same to be true for you.” I invite you to listen to her words now:

“He’s in group therapy, plastic chairs in a circle.

Paper cups with weak coffee. Everyone in the room has seeking eyes.

The Pharisees admitted him. They said things like, He’s more than we can handle. They let the rumors fly.

The other patients like him. They say, He listens to me. He calls them by name.

And when one of them asks,

Is this our fault? Are we here because we sinned?

Jesus does not wait for the facilitator to speak.

He crosses the circle. He kneels down. He grabs their hands in his and says,

Child of the covenant, God loves you too much to ever wish you pain.

Bodies and minds crumble sometimes, but God’s love for you does not.

And after that

there were happy tears and the group was dismissed to lunch, where they broke bread and no one talked of sin.”

            So friends, this Lenten season, may we praise the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us. May we soften and prepare the ground we stand on, may we notice our assumptions about others and discard them so that when new life appears in whatever surprising appearance God chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too.


Prayer: God who transforms us, open our eyes, ears, and hearts to hear and receive what you would have us hear and receive this day, amen.

            As mentioned earlier we are at the end of the season of epiphany, a season in the church which focuses on revelations and unveilings.  Epiphany takes the puzzle pieces of what Jesus has set out to do in his ministry and puts them all together to reveal more about who Jesus is and what he is about. We started Epiphany on the muddy banks of the Jordan River as Jesus was baptized and God’s voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” And conclude the season high on a mountaintop where God once again echoes these words. But in Matthew’s account, we first hear Jesus warning that change is coming. Hear these words of Matthew 16:24-17:8.

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? 27 For the Human One[a] is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. 28 I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One[b] coming in his kingdom.”

17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

            Today is Transfiguration Sunday. “Transfiguration” is not exactly a word we use often in casual conversation. We are more likely to say that someone has been transformed than transfigured. The technical definition for one word isn’t very different from the other, and yet we don’t use them interchangeably. We tend to use the word “transformation” when a change in substance is involved, when something evolves into different being. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly, a seed becomes a flower, or heated sand becomes glass.

            The word “transfiguration” carries a different connotation. Maybe influenced by our religious use of the word, transfiguration usually describes a change in appearance that unveils that which is most true. In the case of today’s scripture, another epiphany is revealed that Jesus is God’s son, the true Messiah, and all need to listen. Through transfiguration, the nature of the object in question doesn’t change; that nature is just suddenly made clear to us.

            Until the Transfiguration happens, Peter and his fellow disciples experience Jesus as a teacher, a storyteller, a healer, and a traveling companion.  His face, his mannerisms, his voice, his mission — all are familiar to them.  Familiar, endearing, and safe.

            Then one day, high up on a mountain, the unimaginable happens.  Before their very eyes, Jesus changes, becoming at once both fully himself and fully unrecognizable.  The man they think they know is suddenly something more.  And the path that lies ahead of him —Jerusalem and ultimately the cross— upends everything the disciples think they understand about Jesus. Nothing can be certain for them during and after this change.

            I don’t know many people who like change. Change, though inevitable is scary. Certainty is preferred over the unknown. We like to know what to expect for the most part. To play it safe. All life changes whether change of job, location, school, life phases, etc., can make us want to hit the pause button and stay in the familiar. I think that is why it can be easy to identify with Peter’s wonderment and confusion. He wants to build homes and stay there on the mountain. To avoid change all together.

            But today, perhaps a question to ponder might be: If our own Lord undergoes change, and commands us not to be afraid in the midst of change, then why do we, as individuals, and as the church, the collective body of Christ, also resist change so much? Change scares us. We like to hold onto our certainties.

            Writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes this about the disciples’ mountaintop encounter with the divine.  “Certainties can become casualties in these encounters, or at least those certainties that involve clinging to static notions of who’s who and what’s what, where you are going in your life and why. Those things can shift pretty dramatically in the cloud of unknowing, where faith has more to do with staying fully present to what is happening right in front of you than with being certain of what it all means. No one can make you go, after all…if you’ve been looking for some way to trade in your old certainties for new movement in your life, look no further. This is your chance to enter the cloud of unknowing and listen for whatever it is that God has to say to you.”

            In Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration event, the disciples are overcome with fear when God speaks to them out of the cloud.  They cower in silence, and fall to the ground. And for good reason. Think about Moses’ mountaintop encounter with God in the Old Testament. Moses had to shield his face because had he fully witnessed God’s divine glory, it would have killed him. Yet this story shows the beauty of God coming to live among us through the incarnation. Because what happens next is the part of the story I love. We are told:  “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” 

            Jesus comes, meets his terrified friends where they are in their awestruck fear and touches them, as if to say, it’s okay, it’s me. And in that simple, ordinary human encounter of skin on skin, the disciples seem to catch their breath, shed their fear, and return to themselves.  Finally, they see the divine in an appearance they can bear.  As it turns out, Peter, for all his eagerness and bluster, isn’t made for unending Transfigurations.  He can’t handle too much of the spectacular.  All he can actually take of God’s glory is a tender human hand on his shoulder, and a reassuringly human voice in his ear. 

            Pastor and author Debie Thomas writes, “Here’s the thing: we may still yearn for mountaintop experiences, and that’s okay.  They’ll come and go according to God’s will and timing.  In that sense, sublime spiritual experiences are easy; they require little from us.  We can’t control them.  What’s hard is consenting to follow Jesus back down the mountain.  What’s challenging is learning to cultivate awe and wonder in the face of the mundane.  What’s essential is finding Jesus in the rhythms and routines of the everyday.  In the loving touch of a friend.  In the human voices that say, “Don’t be afraid.”  In the unspectacular business of discipleship, prayer, service, and solitude.  In the unending challenge to love my neighbor as myself. “

            It’s scary to go back down the mountain. It’s scary to make changes in our lives and to encounter changes of life but friends, we can trust in this. Whether through changeless ordinary moments or moments where change takes our breath away, Jesus is there. He is not some far away god who dazzles in the sky and is unreachable. He puts a comforting hand on our shoulder, assuring us and leading us. This reassuring touch tells us no one has to go up the mountain alone. It reminds us that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy.

            So friends, whether on the brightest mountain, orin the darkest valley, Jesus abides.  Even as he blazes with holy light, his hand remains warm, solid, and steady on our shoulders.  Even when we’re on our knees in the wilderness, he whispers, “Do not be afraid.”  As we enter into Lent may we remember this promise with God’s help. Amen.

Pray Like This

Prayer: Our Lord, who teaches us how to pray, we ask for our eyes, ears, and hearts to be open to hear this text anew. Inspire us to put action behind our words as we pray, amen.

Matthew 6: 7-18

“When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. Pray like this:

Our Father who is in heaven,

uphold the holiness of your name.

10 Bring in your kingdom

so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.

11 Give us the bread we need for today.

12 Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,

just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.

13 And don’t lead us into temptation,

but rescue us from the evil one.

14 “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.

16 “And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. 17 When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. 18 Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

            Today’s scripture is arguably the most quoted passage in the whole Bible. It contains very familiar words. Words recited every Sunday, not only at FPC, but in churches all around the globe. Many of you pray it at home on your own. It’s the go-to prayer when you don’t know what else to say. And it seems that is exactly how Jesus intended it — He gives some instructions on prayer: just before what we read today, Jesus tells his listeners – prayer is not about putting on a show. It is not about parading around with your righteousness and pretending to be religious just for other people to see. It’s not about making you look good. So don’t stand up and pray excessively loud in front of others or out on street corners. Instead, do it more privately. God can hear you anywhere. Prayers don’t need to be long and winded, Jesus continues, full of hot air and empty nothing, because God knows what we need.

            So why do we pray and how should we pray? Pastor and author Debie Thomas writes, “We pray because Jesus wants us to.  We pray because it’s what God’s children do. We pray because we yearn and our yearning is precious to God.  And we pray because what we need most — whether we recognize it or not — is God’s own Spirit pouring God’s self into us.  [We pray] With words, without words, through laughter, through tears, in hope, and in despair. Our prayers usher in God’s Spirit, and remind us that we are not alone in this broken, aching world.” Prayer does not have to be long and complicated or done only in worship space. Jesus shows us this. He goes to mountain to pray, out in nature. Some of my best praying happens when I walk my dog. We don’t have to make pray so complicated.

            In today’s scripture, Jesus gives simple, straightforward instructions. Here’s how you can pray. It is no wonder this prayer has become the go-to prayer for Christians of all sorts of traditions. It gets to the point, is brief enough to remember, and helps us focus our thoughts on what’s important – not next week or next year, not even tomorrow – just help us through today, God. What we need now, here. In this moment…. May your kingdom come.

            The prayer starts with the words “Our Father.” And right off the bat, Jesus is flipping the script. You see the word used here is “Abba” which isn’t Hebrew, the language of temple, but Aramaic, the language of the people. Already Jesus wants to teach a prayer that is accessible. In his book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey writes: “The Aramaic speaking Jew in the first century was accustomed to reciting prayers in Hebrew…the use of Aramaic in worship was a major upheaval in the assumptions of Jesus’ day.  It meant that for Jesus no sacred language was the language of God. When Jesus took a giant step in endorsing Aramaic as an acceptable language for prayer and worship, he opened the door for the New Testament to be written in Greek and then translated into other languages. It follows that there is no sacred language, or sacred culture. All of this is a natural growth from the incarnation. If the Word is translated from the divine to becoming human and flesh, then the door is opened for that Word to again be translated into other cultures and languages.”

            Also, right out of the gate we see this is not a prayer for the individual person. It doesn’t begin my father. Instead it’s a prayer for the community. OUR Father. OUR Lord. We pray this prayer together as a collective body every Sunday.  We pray it before sharing the Lord’s supper- before breaking the bread and pouring the cup. And when we all pray to OUR Father, we admit that we’re all siblings, we’re all in the family together – even the people we don’t like, the people we don’t want to think about, the people we disagree with or wish weren’t there – we are admitting in just those first two words, that we’re related together, like it or not.

            The community aspect of this prayer does not end there.  We pray Our Father. Our daily bread. Our debts. I pray not only for my own bread, but for ours. I ask forgiveness not only for my own sins, but for our sins. I ask not merely for my own protection and guidance, but for the protection and guidance of the whole Church. Theologian Rachel Held Evans writes, “You can’t be a Christian alone. And this most basic and universal prayer of the faith, the one Jesus taught us to pray, reminds me every day that I’m never in this alone, even when I want to be.” When we pray like this and say these words, we proclaim God’s love and forgiveness not just of us, but for those around us.  

            Since the prayer is so familiar, it can be easy to go through the motions and just say the words without thinking. That is one reason why it is helpful to look at various versions and translations of the Lord’s Prayer.

            I like this blended version, which mostly uses the Message’s translation along pieces of ESV. It says: Our Creator in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best- as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving to others. Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. Keep us safe from ourselves and sin. You’re in charge- You can do anything you want- you’re ablaze in beauty- Yes, may it be so.

            I love the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer in the Message translation of the text. It says: “With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply….pray like this.

            Pray like this.

            We can pray like this, with these words, when we don’t know what else to pray.  But we also don’t need to be so hung up on praying the “right” way – Jesus is also saying prayers don’t need to be haughty or wordy, just heart-felt. (God knows what we need). And in Romans, Paul reminds us that, “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 groanings too deep for words.”

            Jesus teaches us to pray like this and we can pray this simple prayer every day.  Every day we can be surprised by its simplicity. Every day we can be surprised by its depth. Every day we can be surprised by its holiness

            We can pray like this.

            We don’t have to have it all together when we pray. Pray like this when you are depressed, sad, scared, and cannot find words.

            We don’t have to know all the answers to big future questions. Pray like this for what is needed for this day, for this daily bread, because tomorrow has enough worries on its own.

            Pray like this before big life changes or events; when you might be too stressed to form a complete sentence.

            Pray like this. Not just for your daily bread and what you need for today, but for your neighbors daily bread and what they need for the day as well.

            Pray like this when you are doubt riddled and made frantic by life.

            Pray like this when you are happy and your heart sings.

            Pray like this whether you are alone or within community.

            Dear friends, Jesus models for us how to pray. Pray like this. May it be so, with God’s help.

Advent: For Such a Time as This

Prayer: God, who meets us in the ordinary, keep our eyes open to see your presence among us. Keep our ears attune to hear your words for us. Stir in our hearts ways we can proclaim your good news each day in the ordinary moments through our actions, amen.

            Our scripture today comes from the book of Esther, one of the only two books named after women. The book of Esther is also one of Biblical books that does not mention God—some add Song of Solomon to this short list of two. While God is not explicitly mentioned, Esther’s story is a story about God’s people. Her story is a story which reminds us that God shows up in our ordinary days. Her story reminds us God can be subtle to a fault. And yet, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we may be able to discern where God is acting in our lives. We can ask ourselves, is it possible God is moving in the world in ways that are less explicit, but no less divine? Hear these words from Esther 4: *Important to note at this point in the story, a decree had just been sent to all Persian providences to kill all the Jews.*

When Mordecai (Esther’s kin) learned what had been done, he tore his clothes, dressed in mourning clothes, and put ashes on his head. Then he went out into the heart of the city and cried out loudly and bitterly. He went only as far as the King’s Gate because it was against the law for anyone to pass through it wearing mourning clothes. At the same time, in every province and place where the king’s order and his new law arrived, a very great sadness came over the Jews. They gave up eating and spent whole days weeping and crying out loudly in pain. Many Jews lay on the ground in mourning clothes and ashes. When Esther’s female servants and eunuchs came and told her about Mordecai, the queen’s whole body showed how upset she was. She sent everyday clothes for Mordecai to wear instead of mourning clothes, but he rejected them.

Esther then sent for Hathach, one of the royal eunuchs whose job it was to wait on her. She ordered him to go to Mordecai and find out what was going on and why he was acting this way. Hathach went out to Mordecai, to the city square in front of the King’s Gate. Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him. He spelled out the exact amount of silver that Haman promised to pay into the royal treasury. It was in exchange for the destruction of the Jews. He also gave Hathach a copy of the law made public in Susa concerning the Jews’ destruction so that Hathach could show it to Esther and report it to her. Through him Mordecai ordered her to go to the king to seek his kindness and his help for her people. Hathach came back and told Esther what Mordecai had said.

10 In reply Esther ordered Hathach to tell Mordecai: 11 “All the king’s officials and the people in his provinces know that there’s a single law in a case like this. Any man or woman who comes to the king in the inner courtyard without being called is to be put to death. Only the person to whom the king holds out the gold scepter may live. In my case, I haven’t been called to come to the king for the past thirty days.”

12 When they told Mordecai Esther’s words, 13 he had them respond to Esther: “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace. 14 In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.”

15 Esther sent back this word to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa and tell them to give up eating to help me be brave. They aren’t to eat or drink anything for three whole days, and I myself will do the same, along with my female servants. Then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will.” 17 So Mordecai left where he was and did exactly what Esther had ordered him.

            If someone were to ask you if you had any power or influence, how would you answer? My guess is some among us would recognize the spaces and places where we have power. Teachers in the classroom, lawyers and judges in courthouses, student leaders such as team captains or class presidents. My guess is others among us might not as readily identify all the places where they have power; even though each of us here have access to power in one way or another. And a majority of us here have varying degrees of privilege. However, as one comic book character mentor once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Are you willing to step out and use your privilege and power on the behalf of others? Could doing something, change everything? These are questions Esther had to consider.

            Esther is an unlikely heroine. She’s a mirror image of the Hebrew people in exile.  Esther is an orphan, without the security, identity, and rootedness of family. She appears to be rescued when she is taken in by her cousin, Mordecai, who becomes her foster parent. But even this respite is short-lived when she is taken for the king’s harem, and thrust into the Persian royal court. She is a resident alien, a foreigner, and a Jew; a group the Persians barely tolerated. Throughout it all, as orphan, foster child, and queen, Esther must decide whether and how to reveal her Jewishness within the dominant Persian culture.

            As queen, we might expect Esther to be aware of her own power and to exercise it. Yet, at least up to this point, Esther has not identified herself as a player in the king’s political circles. She has not weighed in on policy, or leveraged her position to maneuver others into power. When Mordecai calls her to act on behalf of her people, we can easily imagine her saying “Who? Me? I don’t have any power or authority. I’m just an orphan Jew who doesn’t even belong at court, faking my way through each day. Can’t some passionate prophet step up and do it? Its clear Esther has never thought of herself as having the agency to effect change or make a difference.

            Mordecai, who previously advised Esther to hide her Jewishness, makes a case to Esther imploring her to step into this particular historical moment. Esther’s history and the Jew’s corporate history intersects at this particular time, in this particular place. Mordecai reminds her maybe her history has led her precisely to this moment, “for such a time as this,” because, as a Jewish woman who is also Queen Esther, she is in a unique position to save her people.

            When the king decrees the destruction of all Jews, Esther’s own Jewishness, so carefully hidden at court, now comes into play. Is she most deeply a Jew?  A cousin? A Persian queen? Or simply another woman whose life is determined by others in power? Who will she decide to be?

            Ultimately, Esther does indeed step forward, knowing she risks her own life if she approaches the king on her own initiative. Importantly, she calls upon the support of her Jewish community, asking them to fast and pray for her as she steps out to claim her God and her faith. She does something and changes everything. She uses her place of privilege to speak her truth and save her people.

            We must also speak truth to power. We need Esthers who will step into hard places of fear, to speak a word of life. To do something to attempt to change everything. Like this unsuspecting queen, or a babe in a manger, we, too, are part of God’s story, right here, right now.

            We know Christ, whose coming we wait for this season, speaks out in truth. He proclaims through his words and actions that good news will be brought to the poor, he heals the blinds, eats with the outcasts, releases the captives, gives sight to the blind, and frees the oppressed. Christ changed everything. Pastor Tracy Daub writes, “Christ, prince of Peace, calls us to live out God’s authentic peace rooted in compassion and love. Jesus’ kind of peace making involves more than simply good intentions; it summons us to action, involvement.”

            So friends, the question of Esther….the question of Advent….the question of following Christ, the Prince of Peace for us today is:

            What could we do if we understood that the danger of doing nothing,

            Was the same as the possible danger of doing something…..

            BUT….that doing something, could change everything?

            In the book Where the Crawdads Sing, a couple who is risking their comfort to help the main character have a moment of realization. The husband says to his wife, “We ought to be careful, messing in folk’s business.” To which the wife wisely replies, “It don’t say that nowhere in the Bible- be careful. It DOES say whatever you did to the least of these you did to me.” Doing something, changed everything.
            When one of J.R.R Tolkien’s beloved characters laments why him and why a dangerous ring came to him in his lifetime, the wise wizard Gandalf saves:  “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” What will we do with the time given to us? We ask ourselves again:  BUT….what if that doing something, could change everything?

            For such a time as this, as scary as a time it might be for us, we are challenged to use our places of privilege to give voice to the voiceless.

            For such a time as this, we, like Esther, summon bravery and seek to stand up for the needs of the greater community….to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and to follow Christ.

            For such a time as this, we support Bright Futures efforts this Christmas season to provide gifts for children who are in need in our community.

            For such a time as this, we welcome refugees, we stand alongside the bullied, the lonely, and the discouraged.

            Because Advent and following Christ is not about hiding in our power to stay safe. It is about extending the light, hope and grace of Christ to all. It is about doing something which might change everything.

            As we await the coming of the Prince of Peace, may we do our part in using the time we are given to make the world just a little bit brighter. May it be so, with God’s help. Amen.

Plowshares and Peace

Prayer: Loving God, open our ears to hear what you would have us hear. Open our eyes to see what you would have us see and open our hearts to receive your words for us this day- amen.

            Last week we heard from the prophet Micah, who lived in the countryside in the late 8th century BCE. Today we will hear from the prophet Isaiah, who lived at the same time, but in the city of Jerusalem.

            The year is 701 BCE. For the past 20 years, the Assyrian empire has been growing by force, as they have taken over the many small nations around the areas that are now Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan. The northern kingdom of Israel, the ten tribes that settled north of Jerusalem, had already been swallowed up, and the people, like those of other kingdoms, had been scattered around the empire, re-located so they couldn’t gather themselves to rebel.

            Everyone in Jerusalem knew what had happened to their neighbors. At the start of today’s story, the Assyrian army has the city surrounded and under siege. King Hezekiah was a faithful king, one of the few success stories to be found in the accounts of the Kings of Israel and Judah. He sent his administrator, his secretary, and his recorder out to meet the general who commanded the Assyrian army. They asked the General to speak to them in Aramaic, which was the language of official documents and diplomatic business at the time, but was not usually understood by the average person in Jerusalem, who spoke only Hebrew.

            We pick up the story of their meeting, just outside the city walls, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 36, beginning at verse 13, then continuing into chapter 37, and then ending with the prophetic poem that is now placed at chapter 2 in our bibles.

            “Assyria’s King Sennacherib marched against all of Judah’s fortified cities and captured them in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah. Assyria’s king sent his field commander from Lachish, together with a large army, to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. He stood at the water channel of the Upper Pool, which is on the road to the field where clothes are washed. Hilkiah’s son Eliakim, who was the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Asaph’s son Joah the recorder went out to them.

                13 Then the field commander stood up and shouted in Hebrew at the top of his voice: “Listen to the message of the great king, Assyria’s king. 14 The king says this: Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you. He won’t be able to rescue you. 15 Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will certainly rescue us. This city won’t be handed over to Assyria’s king.’

                16 “Don’t listen to Hezekiah, because this is what Assyria’s king says: Surrender to me and come out. Then each of you will eat from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own well 17 until I come to take you to a land just like your land. It will be a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. 18 Don’t let Hezekiah fool you by saying, ‘The Lord will rescue us.’ Did any of the other gods of the nations save their lands from the power of Assyria’s king? 19Did they rescue Samaria from my power? 20 Which one of the gods from those countries has rescued their land from my power? Will the Lord save Jerusalem from my power?”

            When King Hezekiah heard this, he ripped his clothes, covered himself with mourning clothes, and went to the Lord’s temple. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests to the prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son. They were all wearing mourning clothes. They said to him, “Hezekiah says this: Today is a day of distress, punishment, and humiliation. It’s as if children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength to see it through. Perhaps the Lord your God heard all the words of the field commander who was sent by his master, Assyria’s king. He insulted the living God! Perhaps he will punish him for the words that the Lord your God has heard. Offer up a prayer for those few people who still survive.”

                5 When King Hezekiah’s servants got to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say this to your master: The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid at the words you heard, which the officers of Assyria’s king have used to insult me. I’m about to mislead him, so when he hears a rumor, he’ll go back to his own country. Then I’ll have him cut down by the sword in his own land.”

In the days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war.”

            God is not with you. You are on your own. This is a startling and fear invoking claim. It is a claim and message coming from a powerful and prideful conquering king of Assyria. The growing empire had used brute force and scare tactics to drive a relentless campaign in surrounding areas and now had eyes on the holy city of Jerusalem. Your God is not with you, just like the previous gods were not with the recently conquered surrounding territories…..why citizens of Jerusalem, should you believe anything different. Citizens of Jerusalem were witnessing the violent conquests and Assyria taking the lands of their neighbors, so they were more than likely shaking in their boots. Check mate. The conquering Assyrian king wants the people to remember, you have every reason to fear. Your God will abandoned you just as all the other gods abandoned their neighbors.

            What is so frustrating about our world today is that these scare tactics have not changed. We don’t have to look far to see world powers using scare tactics to conquer and get what they want at the expense of peace and other people. We don’t have to look too far for violence. Powers at be use manipulating words and thrive on the fear of others. Friends, we know this on global and personal scale. Voices still exist today that try to crawl under our skin and harm us. Voices that try to silence us and our faith. Voices that try to tell us: you are not loved. You are not worthy. How can God care about you? You are not enough.

            At first Hezekiah hears these lying voices and is fearful, but then he wisely seeks counsel from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah then speaks the truth into the voices saying God says do not be afraid, I am with you. We need prophets and peoples in our lives to call us back to ourselves, to help us remind us that the lying voices of others and our own self depreciating voices are wrong and that God is with each of us. We each need people who help us remember we are beloved children of God, no matter what. Voices who remind us who we are called to be in Christ. And because we are in Christ, we are called to strive for a better way.

            Today we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday. On Reign of Christ Sunday, we celebrate that Christ is past, present, and future King over all the earth. Reign of Christ Sunday is not an ancient holy day. It started being observed in mid-1920’s by Pope Pius XI who was concerned about growing fascist moments in Europe. He observed, “When once we recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” And today, we recommit ourselves, once again, to watching and waiting, to living as disciples, to helping God’s love grow in the world. I imagine this looks something similar to what our text today describes in Isaiah 2.

            We expect kings and even the best intended world leaders to be like the ruler of Assyria who wields military power and rules by force and scare tactics, but Jesus demonstrates and calls us to another way. Jesus chooses vulnerability and love of neighbor over self-interests. Through his life and ministry he takes instruments of death (the cross, tools designed for violence such as swords and guns) and turns it into symbols of new life, means of salvation and plowshares, tools to cultivate soil for food.

            RAW TOOLS, an organization that strives to disarm hearts, forge peace, and cultivate justice. They collect guns and knives and turn them into garden tools. Noonday, a company that specializes in fair trade items such as jewelry that takes upcycled artillery from past conflicts in Ethiopia and turns them into beautiful pieces of jewelry to help heal.

            Maybe on an individual level, this looks like us sharing light in a world that desperately needs it. Maybe it looks like being a person who helps someone tune out lying voices and be reminded they are a beloved child of God.

            God’s kingdom is nothing like we would expect, and Jesus acts nothing like the king everyone was waiting for. Because of that, we are able to live our lives in a way that the world least expects- forgiving, serving, and loving those around us. We can continue to find even the smallest ways to turn swords into plowshares and take small strides towards peace.

So now as

ends. God
reigns whether
we notice or
. Promises made
long ago remain true –
all are loved, all are valued,
no one excluded. Advent draws
near, calling us to pause and listen,
watch, prepare, and begin again. The days
are surely coming when all feet everywhere
will travel in the way of peace. Fear-filled living
belongs to the days of old. Hope, love, mercy, grace,
and forgiveness belong to God’s people, now
and through all time. While speaking words of faith
we forget God always remembers
the ancient covenant of love
without end. When words become
deeds, wars will cease. God is
our refuge and strength.
May our lives show
God’s glory
and our

Friends, as we look forward, may it be so. Amen.

Being Called Out

Prayer of Illumination: Loving God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen. 

This morning we skip forward several generations in the story of God’s people. Each person simply did what they thought was right, but the society was crumbling and as a result many people were marginalized or trampled. God sent judges to help set things back on track, but ultimately the people asked for a king, just as the nations around them had kings. Samuel warned them what kings are like, that they would start out okay and then begin to oppress people, take more than they were meant to have, and put themselves at the top of the heap while everyone else suffered…but the people insisted. Samuel anointed Saul as the first king, but he was not faithful to God in a moment of difficulty, and so Samuel was sent to anoint David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons. David became king and united the northern and southern kingdoms.

 Today’s story comes when he has settled into a palace with several wives and children.  It is a hard story that evokes so much emotion and angry. Power and people are abused.  I invite you to hear selected verses from 2 Samuel 11 and 12 as well as Psalm 51:1-10. 

            Today we have a lot of scripture that might have you wondering- what in the world did Amanda pick this for? Well, I have to be honest, I was thinking the same thing for most of the week as I wrestled with this text. We have today a part of the story of David and Bathsheba. This is not the best story in the bible and certainly not one we want to raise up or remember.

            Calling out someone and seeing sin in others is pretty easy and I have a huge problem with David in this story. I want to call him out. I want him to get what he deserves for causing so much hurt and so much pain.

            We skip a lot of this story, but if you remember, David tries to cover up the evidence of his violations against Bathsheba, by calling Uriah home from war, hoping he’ll just think the child is his. But Uriah doesn’t even sleep in the same room as Bathsheba, he wouldn’t dream of it while a war is going on, so as David gets more and more desperate, he finally has Uriah killed in battle, by sending him to the front line and abandoning him. It’s atrocious, really what David does. The way he abuses his power, forever changing Bathsheba’s life – a woman just minding her own business, being called on by a person who holds so much power over her and her family that she has no options but to go along with whatever he wants. And then the lengths he goes to cover up what he’s done the whole time refusing to take any responsibility to for his actions. I find it indefensible.

            I want to call David out for his horrendous actions. I don’t want to hear his words of repentance, and if I’m being honest they sound really hollow to me when he writes his psalm to God and says, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” God alone? Really David? What about Bathsheba? What about Uriah? What about your people who you have let down because you abused your power as king? Would you even be confessing if you hadn’t been caught and called out by Nathan?

            But thankfully, I am not God and God is not a grudge holder. God does not forget David and the covenant he made with him. Though he also does not let him get away with it.

            Now, if I can set aside my grudges and try to view David through the eyes of God with compassion and love, I see even more pain in this story. It doesn’t get any better. Because I remember how beloved David was, and see how much he is getting himself deeper and deeper into a mess caused by his own sin. And I can easily imagine the pain that God must feel, watching someone you love, so deeply, blinded by self-deception, descend into a spiral of self-destruction, taking others down with them.

            This story holds so much pain and there’s so much pain in our world. God never promises a way around the pain, but God enters into it, so there is a way through it.

            God draws near to David through Nathan and calls him out to repentance. God gives Nathan the courage and the words to reach David and pull him from his state of denial. David is still the king and still someone who has great power and influence. But David is also someone who has broken covenant with God and with his neighbor. He has broken more than one commandment and God is displeased. But God doesn’t just show up to talk to David, God does for David what God often does for us- God sends someone into David’s life to help him see the truth about his behavior. 

            Nathan doesn’t just tell David that what he did was awful and wrong, because Nathan knows that David isn’t going to hear him if he just shows up and starts pointing out his wrong doing. Instead Nathan tells a parable about a precious lamb, a caring man, and an awful rich man. 

            Nathan helps David see that HE is the awful rich man in the story. HE has done something terrible. HE has sinned against God and his neighbor. And he has got some work to do to repair things. 

            The employee has messed up, yet again and he says to the boss, “you’re mad aren’t you.” and the boss says “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” and the employee says, “Oh come on, you know that’s worse!”

            God was disappointed in David. This is an obvious case of when God would be disappointed. David has behaved horribly, and has zero regrets about his behavior. You can just imagine God looking around, wondering where God went wrong. But, and here is where we can find something good today, God doesn’t just get rid of David. God sends someone to help David fix it. He sends someone to help David understand his actions and why they were wrong. He sends someone. 

            God does that for us all. We are not all scheming murderous kings, but we might all make mistakes now and then. We might disappoint God. We might need someone, like Nathan, to step into our lives and help us see who we are and what we are doing more clearly. If we’re lucky we recognize those people for who they are and how they are helping us. If we’re not lucky it might take us a while to figure out what they’re trying to tell us. But regardless of our ability to see who they are- God places them in our lives.  

            We’ve all known these people. Who help us see ourselves more clearly, who help us remember who we were created to be, or discover who we were created to be. And that doesn’t have to come with disappointing God or making big or even little mistakes, but it can. Sometimes when you’re figuring things out you make mistakes or wrong turns. But the good news of this story is that God doesn’t abandon us in our journey. God helps us, places people in our lives to help us, and God loves us through all the ups and downs, and twists and turns. 

            God can lead us out of and find a way to bring us to wholeness. God sees the truth. God holds powerful people accountable. God’s mercy is abundant. And while David’s psalm of confession feels trite to me, God’s ability to transform and create in each of us a clean heart and a right spirit does not feel trite to me at all.

            Because friends, God does not hold grudges. And can maybe even free us from the ones we hold. I am thankful God forgives, I am thankful God’s mercy abounds. There is so much pain here in this story, but there is also a touch of hope. Because there is no place you can go that is outside the reach of God’s mercy. And even though we are not always capable of transforming ourselves, God is capable of creating in us clean hearts and renewing a right spirit within us. And that is good news indeed. May we believe it, even when we struggle with it.

A Toe in the Water

Prayer: Creator God, open our ears to hear what you would have us hear, open our eyes to see what you would have us see, and open our hearts to receive your words and move us into action. Amen.

One of the powerful pieces of the narrative lectionary is the texts throughout the course of the year seek to tell the overarching stories found in Bible. We know that stories are powerful. Passing down stories help preserve the threads from generation to generation. Stories help express why we are the way we are. They connect us to one another and tie us into history.

 Last Sunday Dan preached the story of Joseph from Genesis- today we jump to Exodus. Through interpreting dreams, Joseph gains the trust of Egyptian Pharaoh and because of this, the Israelite people who came to Egypt during the famine (Joseph’s brothers and families) were treated well by Egyptians. Things were not too terrible for them even though they were not in their homeland. Until we are told the haunting words of a new king who arose in Egypt, one who did not know Joseph. Things went sideways for Israelites from there. They are forced to become slaves, build cities and labor in fields. The Israelites’ story changed in the blink of an eye. 

Today’s story is familiar but I challenge and invite you to enter into this familiar story as if for the first time. Who do you identify with in the text? What do you feel and see? Here these words from Exodus. 

Scripture: Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-31

5 When Egypt’s king was told that the people had run away, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about the people. They said, “What have we done, letting Israel go free from their slavery to us?” 6 So he sent for his chariot and took his army with him. 7 He took six hundred elite chariots and all of Egypt’s other chariots with captains on all of them.

10 As Pharaoh drew closer, the Israelites looked back and saw the Egyptians marching toward them. The Israelites were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt like this? 12 Didn’t we tell you the same thing in Egypt? ‘Leave us alone! Let us work for the Egyptians!’ It would have been better for us to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”

13 But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you. You just keep still.”

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord pushed the sea back by a strong east wind all night, turning the sea into dry land. The waters were split into two. 22 The Israelites walked into the sea on dry ground. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left. 23 The Egyptians chased them and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and cavalry. 24 As morning approached, the Lord looked down on the Egyptian camp from the column of lightning and cloud and threw the Egyptian camp into a panic. 25 The Lord jammed their chariot wheels so that they wouldn’t turn easily. The Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites, because the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt!”

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the water comes back and covers the Egyptians, their chariots, and their cavalry.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. At daybreak, the sea returned to its normal depth. The Egyptians were driving toward it, and the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the cavalry, Pharaoh’s entire army that had followed them into the sea. Not one of them remained. 29 The Israelites, however, walked on dry ground through the sea. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left.

30 The Lord rescued Israel from the Egyptians that day. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the amazing power of the Lord against the Egyptians. The people were in awe of the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

            Up until the day we left Egypt, I had always been a slave. My people have been misplaced for 430 years- so many including myself know no other life besides the one we’ve had as slaves in Egypt. But we have been told stories about how things use to be. Our ancestors have passed down stories about a place called Israel, the land we are heading back to now, but I am getting too far ahead of myself. My name is Channah, which means grace or favor in my language. I’m one of the Hebrew women travelling with Moses.

            From the time I could walk, I’ve done some type of work. From gathering straw to make bricks, to helping build buildings, to working in field harvesting crops I’d never be able to benefit from or eat; I worked day and night.  My family and I are always so hungry- even though my mother encourages us to trust God. My oldest sister served as a midwife. She told us the Egyptians leaders told all midwives to kill any male Israelite baby. My sister and the other midwives were so brave and hardly ever did as they were commanded.  She never listened though sometimes I thought often death would be more bearable for these babies than a hard life at hands of Egyptians.  

             Our leader is Moses. Moses was born to an Israelite woman; a dangerous birth as newborn Israelite children’s survival rating was low. However, the story is Moses’ mother in her infinite wisdom placed Moses in a basket in river and Pharaoh’s daughter took him as her own son. God chose him to help our people return to the land our ancestors came from so many years ago.

            No one traveling with us has ever seen Israel with their own eyes.  In many ways it feels like the blind are leading the blind. On the journey there have been many times I asked my mother: “how can we be so sure we are even going in the right direction to this land no one among us has seen?”

            Before we left, Moses warned the Egyptians people about plagues which would come unless Pharaoh set us free. The plagues were awful, especially for Egyptians. The river turned to blood, gnats and flies filled the land. Locust ate so much of the crops, I remember one Egyptian yelling and threatening to hurt my Father in the field because there was not enough food from the harvest.  And frogs, thousands of frogs filled land. Moses told us that God sent the plagues on the Egyptians so Pharaoh would let us go.

            When the news came of Pharaoh finally letting us go, I could hardly believe it. I had lived here and worked my whole life now things were about to change. I was excited but also terrified. We had to pack our things, our whole lives up very quickly- only what we could carry with us as Pharaoh finally let us go. We have been on the move and have to move quickly. Moses leads us. We have been following a pillar of cloud by the day and fire by night. Moses says that is God’s way of showing us where to go.

            But now, people are really starting to worry. We can see in the distance that Pharaoh’s army is catching up to us. I know that if they catch us, they will kill us.  Moses says God is with us and will look after us but I’m terrified. I don’t want to die. At least in Egypt, even though things were hard, I felt relatively safe and had shelter. Being a slave was all I knew. I overheard many people telling Moses that we should have stayed in Egypt.  We’d be better off as slaves, rather than dying in the wilderness. I wonder if they are right. I’m tired and scared. My feet feel as though they cannot take one more step. I can hear children crying.

            All the while I feel a breeze and smell the salt in the air…which must mean we are near water. There is nowhere for us to go! Moses called us together and said God will protect us and will fight for us. But we have no weapons—how can we fight? It would have been better for us to die in Egypt then at the shore of the sea. We are trapped. Moses tries to assure us we will be safe and to be still but I hear people screaming as the chariots come closer and closer.

            Then something amazing happens, Moses stretches out his hand and God sends a wind across the sea all night. The wind blew the water and waves back to form a dry path along the sea. Yet even with the waves parted, I am still terrified to take a step. Just one toe in the water, my mother says. But I can’t swim. What if God’s power doesn’t hold? What if the waters close back up and we drown? Walking across a parted sea is not a rational every day occurrence.

            But even in my doubt, I saw several of our people take a few steps and they seemed safe. Trust and keep going, I heard my mother say from in front of me. Even as you have thoughts of what if, know that God rescues you and stays with you. I didn’t want to be left so one toe, became two until I was walking through the parted seas. The waves were like huge water walls that I couldn’t even see the top of waves on either side of us. Each step became easier.  I became to trust God to hold the waters. Maybe God is with us.

            But even as we walked through the sea, someone at the back of the group shouted Pharaoh’s army was coming after us. I can’t believe we’ve made it this far across the sea only to be killed by army. I’m terrified. Moses keeps encouraging us, saying, do not be afraid, God is with us. Even though my feet and legs ache, I keep running faster and faster. Terrified but wanting to trust that God is with us and promises to keep us safe. Just as we make it across the walls of the sea crash down upon the Egyptians and we are safe.  

            I’m still not sure what the future holds and I still wish our time in the wilderness would end, but when I struggle, I can think back to the day God made a way for us to cross the sea. I think back to how awestruck I was when I just stepped out in faith and trusted God would be with us. I’m still learning but it seems that part of following God and having faith is learning to live in narrow space between fearful doubt and faith that leaves us awestruck. It is such a journey.

            So, I ask today, friends, what are moments in your lives when you are left awestruck by God? How will you be awed by God this week? Have you ever had to step out in faith as you follow God? Will you join in following where God leads? Will you step out in faith; just one toe in the water?

Flood and Promises

Prayer: Creator God, open our ears to hear what you would have us hear, open our eyes to see what you would have us see, and open our hearts to receive your words and move us into action. Amen.

          Our text today is a fairly long, familiar yet unfamiliar story jammed packed with detail and found in book of Genesis. It might be important to note that scholars believe the book of Genesis was written by three distinct sources. Today’s text includes writings from two of the three- the Yahwist or J source and the Priestly or P source. It is also important to keep in mind that almost every culture has a story of a great flood- including the Babylonian’s Epic of Gilgamesh.

Scripture: Genesis 6:5-22, 8:6-12, and 9:8-17 (Common English Bible)

5 The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. 6 The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created: from human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them.” 8 But as for Noah, the Lord approved of him.

9 These are Noah’s descendants. In his generation, Noah was a moral and exemplary man; he[a] walked with God. 10 Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11 In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence. 12 God saw that the earth was corrupt, because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.

13 God said to Noah, “The end has come for all creatures, since they have filled the earth with violence. I am now about to destroy them along with the earth, 14 so make a wooden ark.[b] Make the ark with nesting places and cover it inside and out with tar. 15 This is how you should make it: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. 16 Make a roof[c] for the ark and complete it one foot from the top.[d] Put a door in its side. In the hold below, make the second and third decks.

17 “I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath. 18 But I will set up my covenant with you. You will go into the ark together with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. 19 From all living things—from all creatures—you are to bring a pair, male and female, into the ark with you to keep them alive. 20 From each kind of bird, from each kind of livestock, and from each kind of everything that crawls on the ground—a pair from each will go in with you to stay alive. 21 Take some from every kind of food and stow it as food for you and for the animals.”

22 Noah did everything exactly as God commanded him.

6 After forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made. 7 He sent out a raven, and it flew back and forth until the waters over the entire earth had dried up. 8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the waters on all of the fertile land had subsided, 9 but the dove found no place to set its foot. It returned to him in the ark since waters still covered the entire earth. Noah stretched out his hand, took it, and brought it back into the ark. 10 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out from the ark again. 11 The dove came back to him in the evening, grasping a torn olive leaf in its beak. Then Noah knew that the waters were subsiding from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent out the dove, but it didn’t come back to him again.

8 God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, 10 and with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you.[a] 11 I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. 13 I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. 16 The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.”

            Sometimes when we study and approach scripture, we come away with answers but often times, it seems we come away with more questions. And friends, I think it so important to note that questions are okay. Questions are a part of faith- they stretch us.

            I found this week the story of Noah and the flood opened up a whole floodgate of questions and didn’t really provide many clear answers. Questions like- if Noah was so righteous, why didn’t he try to warn neighbors about impending flood- or are we just missing that piece of the story? Why didn’t God give Noah a moment to process the fact that God was going to open with heavens and flood the earth- I’m guessing Noah probably needed a minute to process. How exactly did Noah, his family, and all those animals pass time in ark? I’m also baffled at how popular Noah’s ark nursery are. On the one hand, I’ve both been in children’s musical and directed a children’s musical based on the Noah’s ark story. Even then I can remember thinking to myself, this is a pretty violent premise- but I’m singing about animals dancing two by two? It is almost like when animated movies and TV shows are 100% NOT designed for kids. Actually if we were to give today’s reading a theatrical rating—it would probably be R rated at times for intense scenes of violence and destruction.

            Which perhaps leads to the hardest question: what does it mean to acknowledge and worship God who regretted creating? Who wanted a redo?  There have certainly been times in my life when I’ve wanted to erase things and have a do over.

            We are told that ten generations or so had passed since creation and each generation seemed wicked than the last. The language of this divine regret in 6:5-6 is breathtaking. In verse five, God saw that “every inclination of the thoughts of [human] hearts was only evil continually.” Yet God’s response to this realization is not one of anger or revenge. Rather, God was “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (verse 6). God grieved- God changed God’s mind- an uncomfortable thought.

            God sorrows over the corruption of the beings that God made with such care and so wholeheartedly, and God’s heart, in striking contrast to the evil inclination of the human heart, is deeply grieved by their betrayal. There’s something powerful about recognizing that God grieves. Friends, God is pained by the brokenness of creation the, and I can imagine God is pained by the brokenness of creation now. God sends the flood, then, not as an act of revenge, but out of grief over the rending of right human relationship with God.

            But even as God is grieving and sending a flood, God still makes a plan for life to continue. The ark is built and Noah listens. The time in the ark could not have been easy but then again nothing is- but God stays with us.

            After the flood waters are gone, God declares an unrestrainedly universal covenant. It is for all people. And more: it is for the whole created order. At the end of today’s scripture, God is making an unconditional promise to the whole of creation. God’s covenant is not inclusively for humankind- but for every living being. Every bird. Every insect. Every fish. Every porcupine. Every dog, cat, rabbit. Everything. Every. Single. Being. And even more: it is one-sided. Neither Noah nor his family nor any of the animals or birds or creepy-crawlies needs to promise anything in return- the covenant just is.

            Commentator Elizabeth Webb points out: “The sign of this covenant, God’s bow in the clouds, is precisely the bow of battle. Ancient depictions of a deity armed with bow and arrow are not unusual. To hang up one’s bow is to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table. An implication of this promise is that God will try everything else. God will seek us and seek us, despite or perhaps because of God’s knowledge of every sin, every grief, and every shame that veils our vision of God’s reality and of our own as God’s creatures. Whatever dwells in our hearts that keeps us from hearing the harmony of all life in God’s care, God will not give up on loving us into restoration” The bow, or rainbow, as we call it, reminds us that God is willing to take a chance on creation.

            Our God chose to put a rainbow in the sky to remind God that even though humans mess up and choose violence, God chooses relationship- because more violence, does not fix violence.

            Our God chose to put a rainbow in the sky because God will not give up on us. God has a myriad of ways of calling us back to the harmony that God intended for us.

            Our God who put a rainbow in the sky, cares not only for humankind but also for every breathing creature and all creation which inhabits the earth, therefore we are challenged to care for and love all creatures.

            Our God who put a rainbow in the sky is with us in our times of waiting, as God was with Noah waiting in the ark.

            Our God who put a rainbow in the sky promises to journey with us, even when we mess up, even when we fail. Our God who put a rainbow in the sky promises to act in covenant with humankind- to be in relationship with us, even when, and especially when it is messy. Thank God for the rainbows….for God’s promises, amen.

Songs of Faith: A Place For All

Prayer: God of song and story, attune our ears to hear what you would have us hear
this day. Inspire our hearts and minds to join in your song and your story. In Christ’s
name, amen.
A wise friend once said that more than any art form, music is able to move and
soothe us in unexplainable and mysterious ways. So when our words fail, music can
speak in remarkable ways. A physicist can, in theory explain what happens when a
particular instrument is played. They can talk about sound waves, string tension, how
vocal chords expand for various notes. But why do certain songs make us want to laugh
and cry and dance? We know scientifically music is sound waves, hitting our ears…and
yet, music is MORE than that. We can’t quite fully explain why some music is so deeply
consoling and how the right song can trigger a flood of memories. Music is a connector.
Perhaps this is why singing our faith can be easier than speaking it. So over the
summer, we have taken a closer look at the meanings and stories behind several
hymns. Today we conclude the series with a hymn that speaks to the all-encompassing
love and radical welcome of Christ. But first, we turn to scripture. Invite you to hear
these words.
Micah 6:8 NRSV: “The Lord has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the
Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your
God.” Romans 15:7 NRSV: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has
welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Today’s texts speak to idea of welcome and how God desires us to live our lives
as Christ followers. Today’s text from Micah shows evidence that yes, God delights
when we are creators of justice, when we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly
with God. While in our text from Romans, Paul implores Christ followers to be people of
welcome. To be open and welcome one another as Christ welcomes us. Our hymn
today also addresses welcome.
One might say Shirley Murray’s hymns transcend time and place. While she was
born in New Zealand in 1931, Murray has collaborated with people across the world.
For Everyone Born was written by Shirley Murray back in 1998 and therefore classifies
as one of the newer hymns of our faith. In the hymn, Murray wanted to stress the idea
of basic human needs—food, clean water and bread, shelter, safety, freedom to speak
and to worship, within the framework of Christian thinking and within the teachings of
Christ. The hymn starts the conversation of what Jesus’ table might look like. So what
does Jesus’ table look like?
It is a table which isn’t about us, it is about God. We aren’t the host. This table is
a table where God is the host. God who is the source of love and of value and of
beauty. We humans get to participate in that love, imperfectly, and mysteriously, always
seeking to do better. We make good choices, sometimes, and sometimes we make
colossal mistakes. Sometimes we can’t help ourselves— sometimes we certainly can,


but we do harmful things anyway. Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in an understanding
of the world that is ultimately harmful, that leads to bad habits, poor choices, and painful
relationships. We are fallible creatures. And one of the lessons of Jesus Christ Is that
God intends to save creatures just like that. That we are not abandoned. That we are
not alone.
And that’s why there is Jesus. The one who does that, who is doing that.
Who stressed in his teaching: The lost sheep. The lost coin. The prodigal son
the Good Samaritan. The feeding of the five thousand. The Lord’s Prayer. The
Beatitudes. The ever welcoming love of God. The message that God intends to heal the
broken, comfort the hurting feed the hungry, right what is wrong, and challenge us to
reject evil and to do the good.
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering, singing, wondering, praying about this hymn.
I’ve loved it, then struggled with it, and then loved it again. It works on me, and I
appreciate that because it reminds me that this work of reconciliation and justice and
peace is bigger than just me. That it is hard and it takes time.
So the first verse, along with the refrain, goes like this:
For everyone born, a place at the table,
For everyone born, clean water and bread,
A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
For everyone born, a star overhead…
and God will delight when we are creators of Justice and Joy, compassion and peace,
yes God will delight when we are creators of Justice, justice and Joy.
So we begin to see that God wants human beings to thrive, and not just the ones
we know and like, God wants every human being to thrive, and we are called to help
create the justice, joy, compassion, and peace, that will help bring it about.
The hymn then explores what a place at the table means for some of the big
areas where we struggle with this: For women and men, for young and old. We might
add others, too, like people of different races, and sexual orientations—so far so
good…I can get behind these words.
But then the hymn begins to explore next in the most challenging section, at least
for me. What a place at the table means for just and unjust, abuser and abused,
as it holds in tension our faith’s teaching about forgiveness and justice. It is a table of
reconciliation that is prevalent in the fourth stanza. However, it is a stanza of
controversy because it is a radical idea. This is the table where the “just and unjust” and
the “abuser [and] abused” come together. A table where those who have hurt and those
who hurt are sitting together is difficult to accept even as we remember Jesus shared
his last meal with Judas who betrayed him. It is a table where the anger and hurt can be
let out in a safe place and where mercy and grace can help begin the healing process


that brings about “a new way to live.” This is such a hard teaching to live out, but it is
the Kingdom of God. It’s not easy to forgive and show mercy, but as advocates for
justice the qualities of love, forgiveness, and mercy need to be integral to the work.
Shirley Murray wrote about her hymn, “”I love this image of everyone having a
place at the table. No one is to be excluded. Forgiveness and mercy need to be shared
to everyone. What is this table? In my mind it began as the table of the world in the
peaceable kingdom, an imaginary place of justice and joy where everyone gathers and
is fed.”
This is harder for me—maybe it is for you, too. Because, ya’ll, I don’t want to sit
at table with those who abuse and hurt me and others. Here Murray was inspired by the
Lord’s Prayer, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…She was inspired by the
story of the Prodigal Son. By the life of the Apostle Paul himself who once was a
persecutor of the church, then someone transformed into maybe its greatest advocate.
God does this sort of work, too. Ultimately, we know, there must be justice for the victim
of injustice- and the work of reconciliation is that work.
The Lord’s Table is a symbol of God’s desire to reconcile that tension. But not by
glossing over wrongs done, or letting those with power continue to abuse it, but by
transforming hearts and minds through rehabilitation and making amends. But friends,
that sure is hard to get our heads around. How this all can be accomplished certainly is
a mystery. But that’s perhaps why it is God’s work, and work that might goes well
beyond our lives all in God’s good and eternal time. But it is something that we are
called to aim for and to see as part of God’s intention for us.
But friends, it doesn’t mean we are forced to sit next to people who hurt us, smile
and make small talk. It DOES mean, I don’t get to un-invite them. It does mean that God
creates space and welcome for them, even if I don’t like them. It does mean that God in
Christ welcomes them and loves them. It does mean reconciliation is possible even if
Christ has to situate himself at the table between me and those who have hurt me.
The final stanza shows us that God’s table is a table of dignity. It is a place where
people can safely “live without fear, and simply to be.” God’s table is a space for all
peoples “to work, to speak out, to witness and worship.” It is a table where people can
freely work, speak their minds, and worship in the ways they have been called to do so.
It is a place where everyone has “the right to be free.”
So what might God’s table look like? God’s table is welcoming and teaches us
that faith isn’t about being in agreement or being right. It is about feeding and being fed.
It is a place which has power to transform enemies to companions…as hard as that is
for me to understand and even accept. I’m reminded of Rachel Held Evans quote, “This
is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not
because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they
said yes. And there’s always room for more.”


For everyone born, a place at the table. That also means that there is a place for
me. And for you. And for all. And friends, that’s a good thing. A hopeful thing. Maybe
healing is possible, in God’s good time. For we know God will delight when we are
creators of justice, joy, compassion, and peace. With God’s help, may it be so, amen.