Amos: Justice Rolls Down

sermon on Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24
Can I suggest this image of justice and flowing waters must apply to the economic policies of President Reagan, even though it may first ring in your ears associated with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement?

Such observations occur for these six weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, that the words of prophets, the word of the Lord continues to speak, to have varied voice. That’s true, though we isolate some of these passages as applying only to one instance—whether the Civil Rights era for today or amid Handel’s Messiah and Christmas Eve services with next week’s reading from Isaiah. We take the impression that the words have a solitary application.

But that misses several layers of their importance. First, we must remain aware that the prophets weren’t just offering future forecasts, making predictions about a Messiah, as if their message had to wait for hundreds of years to make any sense at all, and now we only look back to verify that their prognostications about Jesus were correct.

The prophets were speaking a message from God, of God’s will and purpose, of God’s command and God’s blessing, primarily to the people of their own time, even if the significance became more timeless. Just as it wouldn’t make sense for me to give a sermon that wasn’t for you but was a time capsule communication for 500 years from now, the words of the prophets were meant and had meaning for their own time and place and people.

So Amos was speaking to his culture’s prosperity, but also injustice. His nation was expanding and profiting, but the benefits weren’t equally shared. People were taking bribes and spurning the courts, selling shoddy merchandise at rip-off prices. They built fancy houses with good landscaping. They lounged on beds of ivory, got dolled up in finery, and went all out enjoying feasts to gulp down bowls of wine with entertainment, but weren’t in the least grieved over distress around them. Amos observed these “fat cows” (as he called them) had too much ease, too much luxury, while others went hungry and poor.

And Amos declared God was against that.

That may seem second-nature to us, but Amos is an entirely new voice within biblical history. It hadn’t addressed God’s concern about economic injustice. Amos speaking of God’s displeasure and opposition for having too much at the neighbor’s expense, and that detrimentally affecting relationships with God—that was a new insistence.

Although Amos was addressing inequality in his own time, these words aren’t isolated to that period. We apply them in other ways, as well. So a central aspect and second layer of importance is in how we understand Jesus as the embodiment of God’s presence partly because he embodies the words of the prophets. From the emphasis of Amos, we recognize Jesus as living out God’s justice, striving for a religion that connects to the wellbeing of the poor, not simply paying lip service to relationships with God and with society. Jesus portrays that living rightly for the marginalized is inherent and vital in relating to God. In our Gospel window today, Jesus says he himself is the living, flowing water to quench the thirst of those who long for justice. Amos had no way of knowing about Jesus, but if he had lived three quarters of a millennium later, Amos would’ve seen Jesus personifying his message.

So the words of Amos were first spoken to his own time. But they are not left as ancient and dead words from 2700 years ago. We also find their fulfillment in Jesus. And the third layer of importance is in other situations and settings where these words keep resonating, as a living message, empowered by the Spirit of God.

So Martin Luther King could take this message, could tweak the wording, and could speak the voice of a long gone biblical sheep owner and dresser of sycamore trees, then to confront racism. This “mighty stream” Martin Luther King proclaimed became one of his favorite images, including in his “I Have a Dream” speech, where in part he said:

We can never be satisfied as long as African Americans are the victims of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We cannot be satisfied as long as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity. We cannot be satisfied as long as some cannot vote and others believe they have nothing for which to vote. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

There it is, Amos again talking through the most famous speech of the 20th Century, not with the old historical moment of ignorant luxury, but a new moment of voting rights and segregation and white supremacy, yet maintaining Amos’s impatience and dissatisfaction at how domineering injustices linger.

Moving to our time, and because Amos was part of shaping this awareness of and resistance to injustice, I want to share a few sentences of a modern instance about elites, echoing the old injustice, in a new book by Naomi Klein. She writes:

What matters is that not one of them appears to be worried about climate change. The early catastrophic events are playing out mostly in poor parts of the world, where the people are not white. And when disasters do strike…, there are growing numbers of ways for the wealthy to buy their relative safety…They will lose some beachfront property, sure, but nothing that can’t be replaced with a new mansion in the mountains…Almost every one of them is catastrophically unconcerned…In an age of ever-widening income inequality, a significant cohort of our elites are walling themselves off not just physically but also psychologically, mentally detaching themselves from the collective fate of the rest of humanity.*

That condemnation strikes me as a fairly exact parallel of Amos’s critique of those who lie on beds of ivory and neglect the poor at the edge of town. And that’s not only a rebuke from Naomi Klein and Amos, but from God. God is against this elitism that would wall ourselves off from the problems others are having at our expense. That is evil, says the Lord.

Now, all of that might make us question effect. Was God’s message received in Amos’s time? Was it effective in changing the attitudes or behavior of the rich people in oblivious leisure? We don’t know. Martin Luther King’s message still needs to be repeated for our white ears. Naomi Klein may not be speaking directly to the situation of us in this room as climate denying elites, but it’s a message that resonates in our lives anyway and at the very least needs to be spoken.

Finally, however, I’m also aware that in a few minutes we will be offering our pledges of how we use our time and our skills and our financial resources. Almost certainly, Amos’s message of economic justice is relevant and should affect our consideration for those decisions and dedications.

That realization that this matters for what we do brings me back around to President Reagan. For weeks now, I’ve been thinking about Amos’s vision of justice as ever-flowing waters, and Martin Luther King’s take on it as a mighty stream, which seems to contrast starkly with the term “trickle-down economics.” President Reagan claimed the top having more would drip down to everyone else. While things have gotten significantly better for those few, by some measures it has actually worsened for many and by all measures income equality is more disparate. The pool for the rich is growing, while the trickle to other 90% of us is drying up.**

Now, obviously that has much broader policy implications. It goes with the conversations about reforming the tax code. And the voice of Amos—indeed, the voice of God—should be part of that discussion, and it may be for us to offer that prophetic voice.

Instead of the slow trickle of justice, God calls us to open the floodgates, to un-dam the river, to gush with goodness. And though the implications can be much broader, still as we gather for worship, we have the chance to practice. We can practice speaking and hearing the truth. We practice envisioning new realities. We live into the justice God calls us to. And our pledges and offerings are a vital part of that. It is the practice of not holding back the floodgates, not keeping dammed up what we either consider our own or have failed to notice we retain at the expense of others who need more. Our worship is an opening for the outpouring of justice.

I confess I don’t suggest this devotional practice lightly, knowing that the largest chunk of what you give here goes to fund me. So I will say, thank you. And with that realization, know that I am swimming eagerly in these waters with you, responding to the invitation to let it flow abundantly and give freely, again increasing by an additional 6% what flows from my hands—or, better, through my hands—for God’s work. Thank you for hearing this prophetic message anew and letting it work on you today, because that is how God comes to quench your thirst also.

 

 

 

* No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, p180

** http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/jan/13/elizabeth-warren/warren-average-family-bottom-90-percent-made-more-/

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All Saints Sunday / God Speaks to Elijah

sermon on 1st Kings 19:1-18
It’s hard to feel alone and have to carry on.

That is my first feeling on this All Saints Sunday, not to give thanks, not of celebration or praise, not of hope or blessing. I first feel the hardness, the lament at being left alone, the clear preference for it not to be this way.

Those people who have left me behind, those from our congregation who died, especially Eileen, John, and Lynne, those other funerals, the deaths we’re remembering today, parents and grandparents, siblings and sons, aunts and nephews, old friends, and at least one classmate, and dogs and cats, the broken community, and all the other losses we continue to bear with us—even when it wasn’t totally tragic and we might admit that the end was a relief, that suffering was over, that the wait had been too long, still I’m not ready to call that my preference. Even when the routines were difficult and existence itself uncertain, still mostly I could keep going in those relationships. In no case am I ready to be done being with the person, sharing life with them. I would rather it not be over. Even when it was a good goodbye, I don’t like goodbyes.

While we talk about a hello on the other side of this, about reunion, about being together again, while we confess our hope in life to come, in resurrection, and I cling to that hope, sometimes desperately, sometimes tenuously, mostly enthusiastically…I believe, and I believe it will be so unbelievably good…but still for this moment that later promise doesn’t sweep me into eternal joy, but feels like a shabby consolation prize. Even expecting God’s ultimate love and goodness, when confronting loss and grief and sorrow and death, it can be hard to see. It’s hard to believe when we’re feeling lonely, and hard to carry on. What we’ve known and trusted and loved about life is missing, and our lives are so dependent on relationships that when those are gone, it’s tough to know how to proceed, what to do next, even how to get up and get going in the morning.

In a way, this is what we hear of the prophet Elijah. Not exactly because of the death of loved ones, but still he is feeling alone, abandoned, diminished, with that accompanying uncertainty of how to proceed.

In Elijah’s case, he tries not carrying on. He’s reasonably running away. This is a veteran prophet, seen even by Jesus as the greatest in the Bible, and yet he’s ready to give up. He’s afraid and frustrated and is just trying to get away from it all. But, of course, a change in scenery doesn’t help, since it’s the nagging self-doubt and internal questions that hound after him. He’s so done he even asks to die. “I’m no better than my ancestors,” he says.

That points to earlier weeks in the Narrative Lectionary, of Elijah’s ancestors wandering in that wilderness. They were freed from slavery in Egypt, but didn’t find the readiness to live into their purpose. They still doubted God’s goodness for them. They kept looking back, as if there were no forward.

Like for those ancestors, then, God’s most basic work is in ongoing sustenance. God provided manna to the hungry complaining travelers in the wilderness. God provides a cake or maybe Palestinian taboon flatbread to Elijah to give him strength for the journey. God sustains you, even as you confront your doubts and feeling lost and not knowing where you need to go next or even if you can take the first step. As you gather at this table this morning, you are assured in the smallest bite of bread of God’s presence with you, God’s blessing for you, God’s life within you. And as you go out from this table to all the other morsels and meals, the bites of food and the breaths of fresh air, the places you sleep and the encounters when you awake, in all of that, you have a never-failing reminder of God sustaining you.

And yet that still may not be enough. The wilderness wanderers groused about manna. Elijah didn’t want to go on, so why would he want strength for the journey? It may not offer you any certainty, either.

So Elijah goes to Mount Horeb, where God had commissioned Moses, speaking from a burning bush to reveal God’s identity and purpose for liberation. In parts of the story the lectionary bypassed, it also says this was the mountain where God spoke amid smoke and lightning with thundering sounds, to give Moses the 10 Commandments so the people could live together well. Also on that mountain, Moses asked to see God directly, and God tucked Moses’ face into a cave and passed by, so Moses could turn to see the back side of God.

Well, that’s the cave where Elijah goes. He’s sustained for the journey by the food, but still isn’t sure why or what. He keeps feeling desperate loneliness and lack of direction. Maybe he has circled back to Mount Horeb to seek some assurance of purpose, to rediscover who God is and what that means. Maybe he needs a burning bush. Maybe he would like a clear command. Maybe he wants to see God. Maybe he longs for a Moses moment. And maybe you, too. For clear revelation. For something that makes a difference. To know that God is on the scene and doing something about it.

That is apparently about to happen in the story. At Mount Horeb, Elijah’s in the right spot for a big vision, for God to show up miraculously. Then come what the insurance industry still tries to convince us are “acts of God”—the earthquakes and hurricanes and lightning and raging fire. Certainly God didn’t avoid such phenomena in other places in the Bible. But just as those have at best an ambiguous message for us—more of destructive power than divine power—here, the cataclysmic events don’t reveal God. They don’t help Elijah.

Instead, finally, after the bombast and spectacle, comes nothing. A sound of sheer silence. Or a still small voice, a gentle whisper, calm and subdued, thin and quiet, a soft murmuring sound. These are all translations of this little phrase. This is God’s presence in a non-obvious way, and with it the question: “What’re you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah, still stuck in his fearful uncertainty repeats his feeling of loneliness. “I alone am left.”

God contradicts Elijah. It’s an odd consolation, perhaps. It isn’t dismissive that everything is going to be okay. Neither does it overturn the problem, for miracles to reverse Elijah’s fortunes. It’s a deeper, quieter, more lasting assurance that Elijah isn’t alone, that he can take the next steps, and, beyond that, God’s work will continue.

Admittedly, Elijah is sent to anoint not only his own successor to carry on the work, but with planned nastiness of regime change and brutal international politics against a tyrant ruler. But even amid those large scale words of war, the more important word—the quieter, again less obviously visible, but more lasting assurance—is that Elijah is far from alone; there are 7000 around him also going ahead with God’s goodness.

This communion of saints is why we gather here today, a brief pause, expecting God to whisper the reminder that you are not alone. As isolating and tragic as grief is, as desolating and difficult as confronting death can be, as much as only you know your loss and how that cannot be restored, and the solitary feeling of abandonment inflicted on you, still you are not alone. You are with this gathering of others, these also who are blessed and sustained by God to keep going.

And not just your own losses, but in larger tragedies and ugliness of violence and politics, you can continue striving, knowing that others—far more than the 7000—also carry on with this quiet, deep, sometimes fearful and often unspectacular blessedness.

Then there’s the still bigger picture of generations. As important as your work is, others were before and will come after us. The church of Jesus, this community of God, the work of God’s blessing and against tyrants in the world, this will persist. It does not stand or fall in our lives, in our dedication or lack of passion. God’s work will continue. That is good news, too.

And, finally, though without the obvious ways you’re told God could appear, nevertheless in your moments of sheer silence and deep, lonely, longing, God quietly is present for you in life now and forever. This isn’t a fantasy of miracles, not a dismissive faith that everything is okay because heaven is waiting. This today, amid grief and confronting the hardness, is the whispered presence to sustain you and give you strength for the journey.

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Marty, Sol, and you

sermon on Solomon’s Temple for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

on 1st Kings 5:1-5, 8:1-13
We didn’t learn anything from the Reformation if we haven’t realized that we get to challenge authority.

That starts with Solomon, whose authority is in the aura of being the wealthiest king in the Bible, allegedly the wisest, and the greatest lover. Whether or not any of that is true, that glamorous aura might obscure or overwhelm some serious difficulties.

Certainly this temple of his was amazing, attracting distant admirers like the Queen of Sheba to the small, fledgling kingdom. The descriptions are fancy and expansive, with lavish detail and huge scale.

But, for the first challenge point, there’s barely concealed harshness that this project took coercion. It wasn’t just the countless animals sacrificed at the dedication that had to give up their lives for this project. Listen to this description of the work force (with “work” and “force” being appropriate terms): “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel…He sent them to the Lebanon, 10,000 a month in shifts…Solomon also had 70,000 laborers and 80,000 stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s 3,300 supervisors…having charge of the people who did the work.  At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones.” (5:13-18)

Although it here labels their labor as conscripted—meaning not voluntary—in Hebrew it’s even stronger, as the only other time using the same word as the workforce under Pharaoh in Egypt, whose brutal demands became the whole reason God was striving to set the people free in the first place! Here in the Promised Land, it may be their own king and a building for their own God, but still this was harsh and demanding work, called a heavy yoke and discipline with whips (1Kgs12:11). It may be no surprise the kingdom fractured after Solomon died, since people hated such leadership.

Besides taking their lives, we should presume steep taxes took the people’s property. And not just for religion directly. Subsequent verses say the temple was under construction for seven years, but Solomon’s palace for 13 years. Maybe he put priority on finishing the temple first, but it’s likely the extra time shows more dedication to his own dwelling than God’s dwelling.

That title of “dwelling of God” may be my biggest gripe with Solomon. His final words of dedication said, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. [But] I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” The nerve of this guy! He admits God has chosen to be in mystery, obscured in transient clouds. But mighty King Solomon is higher than almighty God to declare God instead will be placed under house arrest. It almost literally is putting God in a box, in this case saying that God would be in the temple that kept confined the Ark of the Covenant, that box of God since Solomon says so. With the fact that it’s called “Solomon’s Temple,” it mis-locates and misattributes faith, distracting from God by pointing to a self-absorbed human.

If we don’t like that, we could challenge authority and argue with Solomon by confessing with St. Stephen (Acts 7:48) and the words of one of our communion hymns that God does not live in a house made by human hands. But other than reasserting our faith in that way, we don’t have the chance actually to correct Solomon, so long in the past.

So let’s zoom ahead 2466 years from the completion of the temple in 949 BC to the start of the Reformation in 1517. We hold a parallel today of Luther confronting the Solomon of his time, his challenge to church hierarchy, with high and mighty claiming or even usurping the authority of God, misattributing and mischaracterizing God while abusing the people. Their greatest priority was their own prestige and wealth and satisfaction, even when that came at the expense of common folk and of God’s will in the world.

Almost exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther started an argument with the most powerful authority of his time. He pointed out errors, fallibilities, the ways this institution was not only going astray but misleading others. Though we give Luther almost mythic superhero status and identify him as changing the world, we do well to remember that Luther wasn’t in it for himself. If Solomon was trying to get credit for building a temple, we cannot say Luther was trying to build a church. His faithful desire was to correct what was wrong, to speak rightly of God, to help hurting lives.

As I’ve been reading through the 95 Theses in these weeks, marking the 500th anniversary of when Luther started this discussion, I’ve been especially struck by number 46. Against the practice of buying slips of paper that essentially paid for a reduced penalty, as if God could be bought off, and with that idea hanging as a terrifying eternal threat over people’s heads, Luther argued in thesis 46 this: “Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.”

The general perception is that the Reformation was about theological arguments, indulgences and purgatory and how God offered forgiveness and what preachers were supposed to say, that kind of thing. That sense makes the Reformation mostly about people’s relationship to God, in a scholastic and theoretical way. But with this thesis 46, Luther rightly understands that our relationship with God is never separate from our relationships to each other. It’s always about real lives. He says you can’t take people’s money and pretend it’s for a higher purpose than feeding their household. Our care for each other is what is right. This is what God wants.

And that is the opposite of Solomon taking people away from their families, taking away their property, taking their purpose and pointing toward the temple as where they would find God. Luther said the construction of a basilica in Rome would not serve best or more to the glory of God, that God’s glory and purpose and presence is within lives like yours.

From that, we might consider how we continue living into this Reformation heritage today, what it means that we live as people with Luther’s name applied to us. A phrase from Luther that the ELCA has picked up on is that we have a “living, daring confidence in God’s grace.” That word confidence is important. It means we live with faith, trusting. We are people who rely on the promised assurance that God is on the side of life, that God is not best found residing in the halls of power or in the loftiest and fanciest places, and that when we struggle against what steals life then God fights by our side.

Some of the obscurity of God that Solomon thought needed to be changed by putting God in a fancy temple was in this astonishing and mystifying word that God chooses to be with you, to care about your life, that you don’t need to do something different to ascend to God or earn your way into God’s presence, because God is passionate about a life like yours.

And like your neighbor’s. The vital first core of the Reformation is that God loves you. And the second is that God loves your neighbor. This gets to the “daring” part of living with confidence. For the sake of God’s love for his neighbors, Luther had to stand up to power and confront authority, had to declare that it was wrong to starve a family under pious pretenses.

As Lutherans, we’re called to confront the Solomons who are stealing life from us and our neighbors. Pastor Heather Hayward from St. Luke’s called it “putting the Protest back in Protestant.” There’s something to that. It may be resisting wars or demanding better health care or helping families to have the food they need or, as Luther said in Thesis 46, how we stop the lures of squandering precious resources on worthless commodities, against this mega-modern indulging lie that we can buy our way to happiness. In that system, we might need to protest against notions that people don’t matter, are expendable, or that any of God’s creation can be treated as if it doesn’t have value, as if God’s presence and blessing are more intensively found elsewhere. We need to fight against false demands set on people’s lives and to denounce empty hopes that turn lives away from the truth of God’s constant and abundant blessing.

Those are huge challenges against the fiercest powers and most entrenched beliefs existing today. But Luther again is a good example. He didn’t set out to topple an institution. He raised a question about one small practice, the concern of indulgences. From that focus everything else arose and God’s goodness was set loose. I believe we can expect the same.

With that confidence in God’s gracious, liberating mission, I want to conclude by admitting I’ve set Solomon up as a bit of foil in this sermon, pointing out plenty that was negative and flawed. But there is an aspect of his grand celebration that I don’t simply want to discard.

Some Reformers after Luther tore apart their churches, thinking any display, any fine artwork, any shiny object, any ostentatious display was problematic, idolatrous, against God. Luther didn’t agree. Another of the 95 Theses, number 55, highlights how valuable—of what rich value—our religious celebrations can be. He says that if insignificant things in life are celebrated by a bell, then whenever we hear the gospel, the word promising God with us in grace and love, it is worth celebrating with 100 bells, 100 processions, 100 ceremonies.

Solomon rightly threw a big party, because we have a God who cares for us, abides with us, wants always the best for you and your neighbor. Today, in continuity with that right understanding of Solomon, with the faithfulness of Luther, with the generations before and behind us, with the song of all creation, we join brass and guitars and pianos, and other Protestants and protesting voices, and the UCC and Catholics and all who celebrate God’s goodness, knowing and trusting that more than any structure or building or wealth or earthly power, we proclaim and confidently keep living together with the word that this with-us God ensures the kingdom’s ours forever.

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God Calls Samuel

sermon on 1Samuel3:1-21
Amid God’s strange way of speaking to us now, this reading makes clear that sermons aren’t just for adults, and may speak especially to our children and youth.

It said, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” We’ll say more about how to integrate that with our lives. For now, it’s a fairly shocking change in the story. While we may wonder why God doesn’t appear to us like God did in the Bible and our lives are so ordinary and not supernatural, in the story this may come as an unusual twist.

To see that, let’s catch up on what we missed in the Narrative Lectionary. Last week we were hearing about manna, which came after God was dialoguing with Moses, and was—if not a vision—a pretty direct daily miracle from God. Plus, the people were following God’s guidance in a pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness.

After God spoke amid smoky thunder to give Moses the 10 Commandments, at the very end of the book of Exodus, those written laws were placed into a box called the Ark of the Covenant, and God’s presence sat on that box. The pillar of cloud and fire moved in to the tent which served as the temporary holy of holies, the mobile worship center, to remain both visibly and audibly with the people, throughout the wilderness for those 40 years. Besides that direct presence of God, it extended to Moses, too, who had a glowing face from contact with God, so bright that he needed to wear a veil, like his time with God rubbed off on him.

From such obvious and miraculous depictions, it may seem disappointing it went away. As the people entered the Promised Land, God sort of disappeared. I mean, that’s not exactly it. God wasn’t really marginalized. God didn’t just give guidelines to start the community running and then abandon them to their own devices. Certainly the Bible still has words from God all through that section. But as the people are settling into the Promised Land, they sort of go about their business. Although we heard last week that even miraculous manna didn’t resolve God’s relationship with the people, throughout the time of Judges the connection deteriorated further, with them alternately straying from God and then being brought back.

Of course, they brought the box of God with them into the Promised Land. Though that Ark of the Covenant apparently no longer directly revealed God’s presence, we may say it re-presented (represented?) God. That box is even there in the reading today. In odd language, it says that Samuel is sleeping by it “in the temple.” Actually the temple won’t be built for over a hundred years by King Solomon, as we’ll hear in two weeks.

That temple will become the center of worship in Jerusalem, the place where God’s presence was still believed to dwell with the box. Again, it no longer had mysterious stuff happening, or a vocal presence of God or a phenomenal appearance. As our reading indicated, that stuff was rare, even as the pomp and glorious architecture and political turmoil around the temple grew. The box became so special that only the high priest could go by it and only once per year. Even 29 centuries after it was constructed and 19 centuries after a second temple was destroyed, still that former location of the box is seen as the spot to get closest to God.

For all of that, today little Samuel is curledTissot - The Voice of the Lord up near the box, just trying to get some sleep. But something keeps interrupting his snooze, snaps him out of his nap, has him tossing and turning.

Now, I want to try out a thought. It’s not explaining away or dumbing down the story, but it’s a possibility I want you to consider. The image on the cover of your bulletin has a bright light streaming down from above a bed. First of all, Samuel probably wasn’t in a bed like that, because he was sleeping near the box in the temple. Second, there probably wasn’t a bright light. The reading sure didn’t mention one. Another artwork I looked at amid bulletin possibilities showed an angel delivering the message, but no angel is mentioned, either.

…Unless we consider the angel to be old Eli.

One detail we did hear is that three times as Samuel is pondering this voice, three times he thinks it is Eli calling. I suppose you could explain that Eli was the only person around, so Samuel assumed it must be him. Or you could say that Eli’s voice sounded like the voice of God—whether that means to you that it was deep and booming or soft and gentle or kind of nasal-y and goofy sounding.

But here’s my suggestion: maybe it was that Samuel was used to learning about God from Eli. He was used to hearing Eli’s sermons, Sunday School lessons, bedtime prayers, and so the voice of the Lord was spoken from Eli’s mouth to Samuel, the word of the Lord was articulated by an ordinary human tongue, and the angelic messenger on most days was Eli himself.

One reason I suggest that is, as we’re two weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the start of the Lutheran Reformation, I find myself believing with Luther and the Reformers that this Eli perspective is the most likely experience. Our so-called Evangelical or good news-focused understanding is that faith comes from hearing. This resists and rejects the idea that you find God within you, that God offers messages nobody else has, that there is some sort of peculiar unique personal revelation.

Though you may typically imagine it elsewise, the early Lutherans said—and I’d continue to assert—that faith comes not from our internal reflections when a shaft of light breaks on us in the night, not unmediated, but from a preacher, who can be somebody who sounds a lot like me and stand someplace like this. It could also be a mentor or Sunday School teacher, and should quite definitely be a parent, a baptismal sponsor. This is saying that God’s process for working in us, is as faith is taught and learned. It is why we end Bible readings with the thankful reminder that you’ve just heard “the word of the Lord” (and maybe we should be saying before the readings “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”). This reminds us it’s not a sudden conversion in a rare vision but is mostly God’s word spoken by human mouths

That included Eli’s mouth. He was a Confirmation instructor and pastor and Bible professor and even an adoptive parent for Samuel. As Samuel grew up, Eli was telling and teaching him this faith, and the Holy Spirit was working through those words to create faith in Samuel, to use those very ordinary means for divine purposes. That is why I suggest that, when this child Samuel heard a call from God, he heard it as the voice of Eli.

And the call that Samuel was responding to was really just continuing what he knew of faith. He should’ve been taught about the will of God, about the care for relationships, about trying to live for what is right, to respect God, to be forgiving and not prejudiced, and so on. Or, as we summarize how we practice it here, as “living faithfully and lovingly with God, neighbor, and creation.”

The previous chapter said the sons of Eli did the opposite. Depending on the Bible translation, they were wicked, scoundrels, worthless men. The Hebrew phrase literally says “the sons of Eli were sons of Belial,” calling them the offspring of a personification of lacking in values, maybe like we’d say somebody was a no-good sonofa…gun. These guys were stealing out of the offering plate and abusing people on their way to worship, and such misbehavior betrayed God’s reputation.

Even as a child, Samuel knew his faith well enough to know that wasn’t how it should be. He knew they were ungodly, doing wrong. It contradicted the story he’d been taught. So Samuel spoke the voice of God back to Eli.

The story we have been taught and that continues to be spoken into your ears to reinforce faith calls us also to resist evil, calls us to be on the side of life. It doesn’t require cinematic magic for us to be compelled to act against injustice. We already trust that is what the voice of God asks of us. All of us.

So we know sermons are for children, that our young people learn and grow in these beliefs, in God’s striving for goodness, for love, for justice, and against death. And our youth are not only passive learners, but also call the older of us back to faithfully living.

In some of these ways, I remember in 2nd grade trying to convince teachers we should recycle, and in 4th grade telling my uncle to quit smoking, and in 6th grade being against the war, and in 10th grade trying to improve how poor people in my community were treated.

But to admit continually I’m no hero and need faithful reminders as much as anybody, this week one of our youth saw me pedaling by on my bicycle with my phone in my hand and shouted out, “Didn’t they tell you about texting and driving?!”

Yes they did. And to be on the side of life, I need godly reminders and the grace to keep living into it. I’ve heard similar coercions in both sides of families here, of parents who urge kids to come to church, and also children who want to be here and drag their parents.

However it comes to pass, you gather here, in a place you may think of as holy or set apart, though it’s so very ordinary. You come not for any miraculous phenomenon, not expecting bright lights, knowing you’re going to wind up hearing me, but still listening for God. This is how and often where God’s voice is spoken to us, coming into our hearts, sometimes continuing to needle us in the night, knowing that we need to do something, to change situations around us. For Samuel, it was a call to offer that challenging word. For Eli, it was a word of being challenged, called to account. For you, this sermon is a reminder of God’s voice speaking right now into your life. For all of us, the oldest to the youngest, it is a call to live in this relationship together.

 

 

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a wedding sermon

for the wedding of Aaron Hoffmeister and Mandy Dahlmeier

READING – Pablo Neruda, Sonnet 8

If your eyes were not the color of the moon,

of a day full of clay, and work, and fire,

if even held-in you did not move in agile

grace like the air,

if you were not an amber week,

not the yellow moment

when autumn climbs up through the vines;

if you were not that bread the fragrant

moon

kneads, sprinkling its flour across the sky,

oh, my dearest, I could not love you so! But when I hold you I hold everything that is –

sand, time, the tree of the rain,

everything is alive so that I can be alive:

without moving I can see it all:

in your life I see everything that lives.

 

 

It’s intimidating to offer my own words after reading Neruda. And that’s saying something, since most of my public speaking comes after readings from the best-selling book in the history of the world, a set of writings judged by billions of people to be the most important and inspired words there are.

Partly my discomfort in trying to say something more is that Senor Neruda says it so well in 14 short lines. Somehow the universe is crammed in there, but also in a way that’s expressly right for this moment, for gathering here in the “yellow moment when autumn climbs up through the vines,” here at the farm on this day that is about love, and not just a moment of love, not just for the day,

but, indeed, as Pablo reminds us, a celebration of “everything that is,” because this wedding is a glimpse, a microcosm, the Cosmos in a nutshell of your whole relationship, what it’s been in the past and what we expect and pray it will be into years and years to come.

And then, of course, this isn’t only about the two of you, but is about your connection to the world and how your love not only interacts with each other but with all of us, with food systems, with nature, with “sand, time, the tree of the rain…everything that lives.”

So I love getting to read the poem and imagine it all seeping in and holding those words especially for the two of you. It could be worth reading them a couple more times and not trying to say anything myself, not trying to expand on the infinite, to capture the inexpressible.

But, then again, as somebody used to blathering on, or (to say it with a better sense of communication) used to discovering meaning and conveying grace, I’ll resist the temptation to give soneto ocho the only voice.

In fact, as one accustomed to talking about the Bible, I want to add in another immense set of words along with Neruda, not because I’m up to the task of deciphering and discerning and illuminating much about such enormous sentiments, but because this moment invites the biggest, truest, superlative-est perceptions.

So the phrase of scripture I’m hoping it’s okay to throw into the mix comes from what I consider the best chapter, the best bit out of the whole Bible. These few words for you and for today are: “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus.” (Romans 8:39)

This verse occurred to me simply because of the term “separate.” It’s a hard but important term to hold onto at a wedding and in a marriage. It contrasts in some way with Neruda, who noticed that when you hold onto each other, you hold onto everything. He recognizes the magnetic connection. But the Bible verse goes the opposite way, admitting distance.

We talked about this in our marriage prep conversations, how as complete as your relationship feels right now, there’s a risky edge of unreality in that bliss, since you don’t know everything about each other but wonderfully will continue learning and exploring and growing and negotiating and being shaped by each other. Rather than some supreme moment of love, this wedding is actually a little prelude to the symphony. There is distance now, but you’ll be growing closer.

I also was intrigued by the Bible’s word of separation because of your peculiar rhythms. I specifically mean that people typically think of weddings as the beginning of life together. But no sooner are you getting started than Mandy is going to float away for three months down the Mississippi River! That seems important for a notion of separation, along with significance that Aaron is eventually going to chase after you, closing the gap, narrowing the distance, rejoining from the separation.

These pair of enormous life events, the wedding and the river trip, have had me thinking generally about where relationships are apart and what it means to be together. Clearly it’s not just spatial distance. Nor is it fully how time is spent or the kinds of schedules you keep. I’d say there’s a vital aspect in passions and commitments and senses of calling, those core parts of personality and identity. In that way, the canoe trip isn’t really about separation, but is about supporting each other in your cherished values, enabling who each of you really are, to be. You’re going to proclaim these sentiments much more truly and heartfelt and precisely for each other in the great vows you’ve written. So with that, I’ll just say that even though these coming months are a time of being disconnected physically from each other, giving each other room and space, and then chasing after reunion,

in another way let’s notice how these separated river months circle back around to Neruda, with the connection to everything—to the river and seasons and to the health and fitness of girls you’ve never met and toward justice and making this planet a bit more what it should be, meaning in holding onto all of that, you’re conversely holding onto each other.

Having expanded back to the scale of the universe and the scope of poetry, I probably should quit now, but I want to add an addendum about Jesus. I like to figure that by asking for me, you get him as a package deal. After reflecting on separation and togetherness, I have to admit that that Bible verse wasn’t really about separation, since it said, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus.”

The final point I want to offer is also embodied in your love for each other, Aaron and Mandy. Just like all of these family and friends gathered around you today, you know that this isn’t only for the good times, for the party, for the sunny moments that feel rich with floral beauty and delicious meals, or for some distant impossible perfection. You know that it’s the imperfect perfection, the simpler quiet times, the two of you sharing a table, the flooded garden hopes. We know it’s for the daily grind of working, for the times of sorrow and struggle, and really needing each other. Love that looked only on the bright side wouldn’t be love at all.

And that’s the point of Jesus, how we know God’s love, not only for the times that we want to call blessed or happy, but in Jesus the embodiment of a God who with us and for us will face hunger and poverty, sickness and estrangement, suffering and death, and yet a life and love that won’t even be stopped then. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus. And because this isn’t only dreary stuff, also this day’s reminder that the only time we have a story about Jesus and a wedding is when he’s the bartender, making sure the wine doesn’t run out.

That’s a sense of abundance, a celebration of the gifts growing from the earth and nurturing us, the endless love God has for you, and, therefore, that you have for each other, through it all.

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God Provides Manna

sermon on Exodus16:1-18
At this point in the Narrative Lectionary, from the Burning Bush at Mount Horeb last week, jumping ahead to the far side of the Red Sea as Moses was returning to Mount Horeb where God would bind the community together as congregation through the giving the 10 Commandments, at this point I’ve been thinking of a Hebrew word that each spring is part of remembrances of these events. That word is dayenu.

Dayenu is a refrain when Jewish people are gathering to remember this sequence of events as they observe Passover. It goes partly like this:

1) If God had brought us out of Egypt, but not done justice on the Egyptians: dayenu

2/3) If God had done justice on the Egyptians, but not…slain their first-born: dayenu

4) If God had slain their first-born but not given us their mammon: dayenu

5) If God had given us their mammon but hadn’t parted the Red Sea for us: dayenu

6/7) If God had parted the Red Sea for us but hadn’t…drowned our oppressors: dayenu

8) If God had drowned our oppressors but hadn’t helped in the wilderness for 40 years: dayenu

9) If God had helped in the wilderness for 40 years, but not given us manna: dayenu…

I’ll stop there, since that’s plenty to give you a sense of the progression that will continue on to Mount Horeb and sabbath and receiving the law and entering the Promised Land.

What it likely doesn’t indicate, however, is that key word, dayenu. This Hebrew word means, “it’s sufficient,” “it would have been good enough.” So this whole account is marveling at God’s progressive provision in the story.

It strikes me as a good and faithful practice for life, but one that is mostly countered in the story and in us. In our reading today, we hear the third major incident of not praising God but grumbling against God, murmuring that it’s not enough, in astonishing short-term memory claiming it would’ve been preferable to be back in slavery in Egypt than with grumbling bellies in the wilderness. This after it’s only been a month and a half since they went through all kinds of miracles  which the Passover service already said eight stages earlier would have been enough—dayenu—even just to have made it to the shore of the Red Sea, long before those hungry bellies were satiated.

Neither does the arrival of manna satisfy the hungering grumblers; the retelling of this account in the book of Numbers has them weeping with rose-colored 20-20 hindsight, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing (as if the manna comes only at great expense) the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now…there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (11:5-6)

(Based on that preferred diet, we might say that if God gave them less bad breath, dayenu.)

But they sure didn’t respond dayenu. For them, it wasn’t enough. It could be miraculous in its own right, could be more than there was any reason to expect, but still feeling like not enough, without dayenu. For us, it is frequently not enough. We refuse to be satisfied, looking for something more, always the next best thing, for what we don’t yet have, for where the grass is greener and the menu is newer and fresher and sometimes all that in the insidious ill-remembered “good old days.”

Now, I don’t want us to confuse hunger and appetites. What most of us have are appetites, a yearning based on new wants and not on basic needs. There are millions of people on the globe who are starving, who do not have enough to eat. God’s answer to them would not be and is not simply insisting dayenu.

Jesus uses the term in the Sermon on the Mount that millions also hunger for justice. In the face of abuse and oppression, for those who cannot have their fill of what life is designed and intended to be, where things are wrong is also a true insufficiency. We shouldn’t label it dayenu. Such hungerings persist throughout our lives, and are cries we should hear and struggles we should join.

Don’t confuse that, though, with appetites seeking more than enough. It is important to notice God providing manna as an economic story: nobody got too little. This is a lot of manna—a half gallon per person per day. And nobody could have too much, more than their share. In the verses that follow it says it couldn’t be hoarded, because it would rot and get wormy.

Yet, in a second economic piece, it can be saved on the 6th day. This odd miracle that only one day a week the manna somehow could keep is also part of the economic order of people’s lives, intended that they would have rest, that not every day of the week would be in needing to work for their food.

The unfortunate present parallels seem clear when people work multiple minimum wage jobs at more than full time and yet need pantries and food stamps and can’t afford paying utilities or rent, those most basic necessities, and don’t get any rest, don’t have the time to enjoy life and delight in goodness that God intends with the sabbath pause. And that’s before questions of education and entertainment and health care and nature deficit and internet and vehicles and trips, whether those are increased appetites or aspects of basic nourishment, whether these ought to be for all. But we’re a long way from that, since somehow we don’t even expect that everybody should get enough food for the day, not to go to bed hungry.

In this month of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ll get one edge of Martin Luther’s reflection on daily bread next week in the ongoing Small Catechism notes in your bulletin. More, for his faithful understanding, this prayer from Jesus is very much about the ordering of society and very much an economic prayer. He said the most important implication of asking for our daily bread was about good government, since a government that failed to ensure peace and security would mean farmers couldn’t hardly begin to grow crops that would feed us.

Luther, with this prayer, also saw the risk in having more than enough. It was this petition that led Luther to argue that usury or collecting interest was idolatrous, since then you weren’t authentically needing to pray “give us today our daily bread.” Your source was no longer God. Instead it seemed something else was providing for you.

Though Luther’s systems were clearly simpler than anything like our models of banks and loans and debts and retirement accounts and stock portfolios, our complexity only reinforces the sharpness of his critique. Putting our trust and reliance in the future on something we don’t directly relate to God, many of us do not need to pray for our daily bread, do not go to bed with a needful, prayerful concern for where our food will come from tomorrow. While that lack of concern feels like a benefit for ourselves, it comes as a dire expense in our relationship with those who do hunger, and therefore also a steep risk in our relationship with God. We have little model of when to say dayenu, of the moments of sufficiency where we can praise God by saying, Even if I had only that, even if I hadn’t had this, still it would have been enough. Dayenu.

Yet even when we don’t recognize it and don’t deserve and continue to strive for more than our share, still your faithful God continues to provide. I’d like to rewrite this section of the Bible as a diary, as if the people wrote, “Got up this morning and went out to collect our manna.” That journal entry that started here on the far shores of the Red Sea, still fresh from slavery in Egypt, that diary note would go on six days a week for forty years, God continuing to provide for their lives.

And it’s not only the persistence but the peculiarity. The word “manna” is about it being unidentifiable. Since you’re learning bits of Hebrew today, the word manna means “what is it?” From the get-go, they had no idea what God was offering, how God was working for them. I appreciate that, and even more so the notion that they continued for 40 years to gather and be sustained by something that was unrecognizable to them. I suspect that’s a fairly accurate portrayal of God’s providence in and through our lives—that we’re surrounded by it daily, gather it by the bucketful, and still don’t recognize it. Also a similarity that it’s really only good in the right quantity and when we think we can claim more than our share of God’s gifts, they go to waste.

From that abundant analogy, I want to end with a smaller focus, with the bread from heaven that you are given when you come to Jesus’ table again today. This small taste could hardly be labeled a feast and would never seem like it could fill your hunger. It comes with the strangeness that leaves you questioning, asking “what is it?” wondering how Jesus could be present for you in this bite of bread. And yet, for all of that, here at this table God provides for you. It is sufficient. In Jesus’ presence, in communion with God and with each other, in these gifts gathered from creation, in a word of promise is all you need. It is sufficient. It is enough. Dayenu.

 

 

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sermon for World Communion Sunday & the burning bush

(Exodus 2:23-3:15, 4:10-17)

 

There’s so much that could be said about these Narrative Lectionary stories, and today you have the benefit of having two preachers unloading on you, so you should get to hear plenty over the next 45 minutes or so. Just to be clear: that’s a joke. Some of you were already squirming, so I’d better get on with it.

My initial point is that it’s good you have two pastors. Sonja and I wanted to give you a chance to hear different perspectives amid this passage. Moses asked “who is God?” and the answer was “I AM!” revealing God’s identity as “I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE,” something of both personal integrity and also all being. We’re going to explore this weird name for a few minutes, pondering who this I AM is, what it means to have I AM as your God.

 

I AM who responds

The first theme about this God is that it is I AM who responds. We may think of this as a call story, of God calling and commissioning Moses, even as Moses argued knowing he was unqualified, still he repeated that phrase of acceptance we hear a lot in these weeks, “Here I am.” Sonja is going to say more, but with calling we should notice it’s first responding. The reading starts thick with this: God heard their groaning, God remembered, God took notice. Before God is I AM who calls, I AM responds. Our work is always preceded by God’s initiative and compassion.

That is critical because these people who were groaning and crying out apparently weren’t even expecting God to be listening. They likely felt very left out, living in the wrong place at the wrong time, without help, without hope, without God. Their entire existence of slavery in Egypt, of a vile, oppressive leader taking and killing their children, of deadly workloads and frustrations, that must all have seemed like desperate separation from God. And yet God heard. I AM responded.

God listens. God hears. God cares. Suffering and sorrow may feel so isolating, but they cannot cut you off from this I AM God who is striving to respond to you always. Your existence can’t be apart from I AM. Let’s keep listening for what it means to have a responsive God, the I AM who is centered on you and your needs.

 

I AM who accompanies

From Sonja’s focus on calling and equipping, I want to add a word about location. That the God I AM didn’t go to be directly amid the hurting people seems disappointing, but I can’t really give a reason for why that would be. Instead God shows up with a burning bush. Maybe it’s just storytelling flourish to have God show up in the vegetation.

From that place, consider this place. You may say there’s nothing so phenomenal here as shrubbery bursting into flame. To counter that, I’m going to remove my shoes to offer you a sensual cue. See, really the thing in the story wasn’t the bush itself. That was a sensual cue, also, to highlight God speaking, this I AM who responds and calls. That’s why we gather here, why we come to this place together, because we expect a word from God. We expect these messages and listen for words that tell us we are cared for and loved, that suffering is not what God intends for our lives or our world, listen for where we’re invited to contribute, where we’re called and sent to offer God’s care to our relatives and neighbors and people in need. That doesn’t mean God is only here. Rather, we come for the reminder that God is with us always everywhere.

In may seem less miraculous, but I’m amused that instead of a burning bush, God shows up today with a frozen loaf of gluten free bread, another sensual cue, directing us to the vital matter of God speaking to us. With bread at this table, God says “Here I Am, for you.” This is the word of presence, of joining with your life, of hearing your longing, of uniting you into the task, filling you with what (or who) you need to bear that presence for others.

This God is I AM who accompanies. In Exodus, God went with Moses, eventually leading the people as a pillar of cloud and fire. More for this name of God, I AM, is that Jesus claims this terminology in the Gospel of John, where we’re headed later in this Narrative Lectionary year. In his walking-, talking-, caring-, serving-, eating-, dying-, rising-self is the embodiment of the God I AM for you.

“I AM the bread of life,” is one of these ways Jesus identifies himself. He is the God who accompanies, literally breaks bread with you, abides with you for the journey, who knows and nourishes your life and will never leave you, through death and beyond.

We gather here to hear again that word of promise, here on ground made holy by the realization that your God is I AM who accompanies you.

 

 

Responding God I AM, we are standing on holy ground. Gathered together, we pray for all who are having Burning Bush Moments, For those struggling to believe that it’s actually You speaking, For those who, like Moses, think our insecurities or inadequacies disqualify us from your call, For those who receive callings that will require courage and sacrifice
We pray with expectant hearts…

 

Your call comes to us in words spoken here, through slow mouths and with lowly bread, with sounds of music and in quiet of prayer. Your presence is also with us amid bushes and trees that burn with autumn colors. You are with us in the wilderness and on mountains. And your voice finds us especially in the midst of hurt. When we’re fearing loss, you show up to fortify us with yourself, I AM. We pray with expectant hearts…

 

Equip us to do your will of justice and love. We pray for all leaders to hear the groans of the oppressed and respond with compassion and care. With you, we hear cries of those lives too long left in pain. We hear those suffering from natural disasters. We hear those facing war and poverty.  We hear those in our midst and on our hearts, including Ellen Lindgren in the hospital, Jean Oliversen at the death of her twin sister Jan Kelly, Jess Kaehny at the death of her grandfather,  Mary Margaret Nack,  Mara Bakken in her move to Paris, Emily Kuhn in Honduras, Don Falkos’ brother, Dennis, Thomas Wildman, Fred Loichinger, Ellen Roberts and Leigh, Phill Bloedow, recovering from shoulder surgery, Corkey Custer’s brother Mike, Nancy Greenwald and her mother Anita, Robin and Kathy Alexander, and Margaret Helming. We pray with expectant hearts…

We ask your blessing on these quilts, on the hands who made them this year, and blessings on all who will receive them through Lutheran World Relief.

We ask your commissioning care for the service trip for Habitat for Humanity in Jackson, WI, this week and pray for Mary Maxwell; Jean Einerson and Ann Ward; Rita and Rich Olson; Mary and John Rowe; Julie and Tom Walsh; JoAnne and Ken Streit.

We pray for these members of our congregation this week: James Hamre, Margaret Helming and Joe Powell, Jim and Jan Eastman, Kim and John Eighmy, Jean Einerson and Ann War.
God of our ancestors, God who joins us into a mystical communion of saints, God who is with us in every bite of nourishment to accompany us, God of all nations and peoples of this world together:  We pray with expectant hearts…

 

 

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