Monday, July 20, 2015

Good out of Evil

1 Samuel 8, 11, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost B, June 7, 2015
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Personally, I cannot believe that our Lord deliberately causes tragedies. After attending Tori Vogel’s visitation and funeral, I cannot believe that the Lord intentionally brought about her death. The scriptures tell us that the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Tori was an innocent fourteen year old. The Lord had no reason to take her life. I do not believe that the Lord directly causes tragedies.
Instead, I believe that we humans bring some tragedies on ourselves through our faults and wrongdoing. Our consistent lack of care for our earth throughout the generations has brought about a lot of negative changes. Some forms of cancer may stem from that. In many ways both directly and indirectly, we cause our own tragedies.
Yet despite all of humanity’s faults, the Lord is able to bring some good out of tragedy. After natural disasters, communities work together in beautiful ways that they couldn’t have without that common cause. Sometimes a person’s death can inspire change in others. I pray that something good comes out of Tori’s passing.
Today’s first lesson is an example of good coming out of evil. The people of Israel make a terrible mistake, yet the Lord is able to bring good out of it. We are familiar with the story of Samuel’s call to ministry. Samuel hears the Lord in the middle of the night and thinks it is his mentor, Eli. When Samuel finally answers the Lord’s call, the Lord tells him to renounce Eli’s sons for their evil deeds. 
Five chapters and almost a lifetime later, now Samuel is the old sage and now his sons are misusing their privilege. Almost as soon as Samuel sets his sons as judges over Israel, they begin to swindle money, accept bribes, and twist the law. The Israelites were sick of these judges’ perversions, and they were sick of generations of bad judges. They want a new central form of government. They want a king!
Up until this time, the Lord was considered their king. The judges handled the human squabbling, yet the Lord was the ultimate ruler over Israel. Now, this is not enough. The twelve tribes want one ruler to guide them in war against their enemy neighbors, including the Philistines.
In many ways, the Israelites’ shout for a king is a rejection of the Lord. Their faith is not strong enough to trust the Lord to care for them, even against their enemies. They don’t want to be the unique nation compared to those around them. Now they want to look just like their neighbors.
So, the Lord tells Samuel to give the people every reason why they most certainly should not want a king. Samuel explains that a king will want a standing army. Each family will have to send their sons to war and risk them not coming home. Many families - and even communities - will now have to make weapons of war instead of plowshares. 
The people want a military, though, so the threat of their children dying in war is a sacrifice they are willing to make. The Israelites did not feel safe with so many larger countries surrounding them, so they thought that an army would protect them. They were willing to do whatever a king would ask as long as the king was the first into battle.
Next, Samuel describes what he thinks is even worse than war: taxes. Samuel cries out that they will have to give the best ten percent of their crops to the king. The ten percent of their crops that they already give to the Temple is distributed to the poor, but this extra ten percent taken by the king will be given to his courtiers who are already rich. In a sense, Samuel is saying that their taxes will help the one percent get richer while they, the 99 percent, get poorer. 
But the king is entitled to more than just crops! The king also can take a family’s work animals and servants. The king has a right to claim whatever he wants, and the people won’t be able to do anything about it. Sound familiar?
Yet even the threat of taxes is not enough to deter the people. They want a king, no matter what. So, the Lord gives in and decides that Saul will be their king. As the Bible describes him, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2b) 
Not only was Saul tall and handsome, he also was a competent leader. Before he is crowned king, he leads an army of Israelites against the Ammonites and wins. He proves his worth as leader of the people early and often.
The Israelites' demand for a king was a rejection of the Lord, yet the Lord was able to turn that tragedy into a triumph. Certainly, after David and Solomon, Israel and Judah would be plagued by kings who “were evil in the sight of the Lord.” 
The people would eventually face their greatest fear and be overtaken by a foreign nation. They will be sent from their holy land into a foreign place, forced to worship their Lord away from Jerusalem. Even when they eventually return to their land, they will still be under foreign rule. After the exile, the Israelites will never again have a king.
In the end, though, all of these bad kings and foreign rulers lead to the one true king, Jesus Christ. Jesus will go into battle, but his foe will not be a human enemy. Instead, Jesus will conquer death itself. We have life eternal because Jesus went before us and sacrificed himself. Jesus is the ultimate king. 
Once again, our earthly government is corrupt, but Jesus never will be. We know that we can turn to the Lord for the eternal leadership that will never fail us.
Every generation has found ways to reject the Lord. Even so, the Lord has made the ultimate sacrifice in Jesus. Despite all of the ways that we turn our backs on the Lord, Jesus never turns his back on us. 

We humans can be cruel and petty, yet the Lord never is. The Lord takes what we screw up and makes something good out of it. The Lord takes the tragedy of death and gives us life instead. Thanks be to God! Amen.

The Rest God Gives Us

Mark 6:30-56, Lectionary 16 B, July 19, 2015
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Consider these stories:
CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education, is an intense time for seminary students. Over one summer, students spend long hours in a hospital visiting patients, examining family history, and analyzing experiences with classmates. CPE students are always “on.”
One of my friends completed his unit of CPE away from home and school, so he even stayed in the hospital. He once commented that his only time alone was when he was in the bathroom. It wasn’t until then that I realized that the bathroom and the car were the only places where I was alone during CPE.

This week, I learned of a children’s book called “Five Minutes’ Peace.” In it, a mother elephant named Mrs. Large wants just five minutes away from her three children. She walks into the kitchen in the morning to find it a huge mess. Then she tries to take a bath. One at a time, each of her kids pops in wanting to share something with her. For Mrs. Large, even the bathroom isn’t a silent place.
Why is it that sometimes in our lives we are so busy with work and family that we have no time to ourselves? The world never stops working. Emails and text messages come in at all times of day and night. Families have every minute of every day scheduled. From sports to dance to band, they are busy.
Some even get booked solid on vacation. Take yesterday, for example. Brett and I left my mother’s house at 8 a.m. We drove to the Bristol Renaissance Faire. We spent the entire time walking around the faire, until 5 p.m. Then we drove straight down to I-80 where we stopped at my Aunt Laurie’s house for a half hour. We visited with my Dad’s whole extended side of the family, including Skylar. Then we drove home. I wasn’t in bed until 11. We were so busy yesterday that it certainly did not feel like a vacation!
For many of us, resting can be hard work. Some of us need to schedule time alone. Sitting still for even ten minutes without a phone, TV, or other screen can be a challenge. If we are always on the go, how can we find time for God?
Jesus certainly struggled with this. His disciples have just come back from their first mission away from Jesus. They are grieving for John the Baptist. These twelve and Jesus just want to spend some time together before meeting up with the crowds. They want to share the stories of their journeys with each other, yet the crowds always seem to find them.
Jesus can never turn away from a crowd. Today’s gospel skips over the feeding of the 5,000. Then when the twelve finally escape the crowds and spend the night in a boat, the wind and waves won’t die down. That is when Jesus walks on water. When they return to dry land, crowds immediately pile up. Jesus starts this lesson by asking his disciples to come away and rest, yet they only get a few moments here and there. They sound like they need a retreat, yet they don’t get one yet.
Even for Jesus and his disciples, resting is hard work. Getting away from the crowds takes planning and ingenuity. Jesus knows that they need time to process what happened to them on their journeys. They need time to consider how God helped them along their way. They need time to pray.
And don’t we as well! It takes time to process how God is active in our lives. It takes time to see how God is working through us. The rest that we need is not necessarily time to sleep - although I certainly am going to nap this afternoon! Instead, we are challenged to find what we need to recharge and reconnect.
For some of us, that means spending time in front of the tv or video game. For others of us, it means turning all the screens off.
For some, it means cleaning and reorganizing the house. For others, it means living with the mess.
For some, staring at a lit candle. For others, having a deep conversation with a loved one. For some, getting away. For others, staying put.
Walking outside or sitting still.
Laughing or crying.
We all have different personalities that require different activities to recharge and reconnect.
By escaping the busy-ness of our lives, we might just find time to write, to color, to reflect, to pray. God is always there with us, yet we might not notice until we take the time to listen.
God once told us to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Keep it set apart. Keep it different from other days. On this Sabbath, I pray that you don't let your work consume you. What will you do this afternoon to just “be” with God?
Marilyn McEntyre recently wrote, “I do not believe it is God’s will for us to be weary. Rest is always a teacher: God is in charge, and we are not indispensable. Play is a blessing. In laughter we become like little children; in sleep we are watched over; in lingering over a meal we learn something about love we can’t learn anywhere else.”
I pray that today you do find time to rest and recharge. I pray that you find time to play and laugh. I pray that you spend valuable time with your family. I pray that you find time to realize how God loves you. Jesus says to us, “Come away…and rest a while.” Let us do so today.

Because on Monday, you are sent out again. God sends you into your work or your community to be God’s hands and feet. Recharge today so that you can get back to God’s work tomorrow! Amen.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Ark of the Covenant Comes Home

2 Samuel 6:1-19, Lectionary 15 B, July 12, 2015
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Our gospel shows us the dangers of corrupt power. Herod is fool hardy as he offers anything to his daughter. When she takes her mother’s advice and asks for John the Baptist to be killed, Herod grants the request without a second thought. John the Baptist was murdered simply because he denounced Herod’s marriage. He was never legally sentenced to death. This whole story is one of human power gone corrupt. This is human power gone wrong.
Yet our first lesson is part of a long history of God’s power in the ark of the covenant. God is near to the people in this ark, for better and for worse. God’s power is just as dangerous as Herod’s power, yet the Lord is never corrupt.
The story of the ark of the covenant goes back to the time of Moses. Moses is up on Mount Sinai receiving the ten commandments and detailed instructions for building the ark of the covenant. This will be a place for the Lord to dwell among the people without being a graven image. Yet when Moses descends the mountain, he is angry to find the people worshipping the golden calf. Moses destroys the golden idol and then has the ark of the Lord built with new gold.
Essentially, the ark is a box. It is made of the finest gold and the most precious wood. On top, two cherubim - winged angels - sit with their wings stretched toward each other. Between these angels is the mercy seat. It is not a literal cushioned place to sit, yet it is the place where the Lord dwells. Inside this box is the ten commandments. Two poles extend from both sides. The people carry the ark from these poles, but they are not allowed to touch it or to look inside. 
The people do carry this ark with them wherever they go, and they benefit from the Lord’s presence. When not on the move, the ark is kept in the tabernacle, which essentially is a tent. Once in the promised land, the people bring the ark of the Lord with them into battle, and the Lord often helps them to defeat their enemies.
Until they fight against the Philistines. That time, they lose the battle and the ark. The Philistines take the ark back with them, yet they do not expect how terribly they will be cursed. The Philistines suffer so greatly in possession of the ark that they cannot take it anymore. They return the ark to the Israelites, delivering it to the people of Beth-Shemesh.
These Israelites are so excited to have the ark returned to them that they do not remember the rules. These men peer inside the ark of the covenant, and the Lord killed them for it. Maybe it was as gory as what was shown in Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe not.

Some time later, Saul takes the ark of the Lord into battle, and the Lord helps him conquer his enemies. Saul returns the ark about ten miles west of Beth-Shemesh to a town called Baale-Judah. This is where our lesson begins. 
David wants to bring the ark to Jerusalem, so he gathers 30,000 men (and women?) to bring it home. They lead the procession with singing and dancing. Two men, Uzzah and his brother, are set in charge of actually transporting the ark of the Lord. They have it on a cart driven by oxen. Huzzah is walking next to the cart when it begins to sway and threatens to tip over. He throws out his hand to stabilize the ark. The instant Uzzah touches the ark of the covenant, the Lord strikes him dead. 
David is terribly afraid of this ark now. He doesn’t understand why the Lord would kill a man who seemed to be doing the right thing. David is stricken by the fear of the Lord. He will not let an item so powerful into his city. So, David sends the ark out of Israel to Obed-Edom. 
After three months, David receives word that Obed-Edom and his family have been greatly blessed. Because they have the ark of the covenant, the Lord has helped them to flourish. Now having received a good sign, David will finally bring the ark of the Lord home.
Just like before, David gathers his people to join him in this procession. They sing and dance and make music because of this joyous occasion. David is so overwhelmed with relief and excitement that he takes his clothes off. He dances about Jerusalem only wearing his underwear. He looks a bit foolish, yet everyone can sense his enthusiastic joy. 

Once the ark is in place, David makes sacrifices, and the people feast. The people of Israel is blessed by the presence of the Lord found in this ark of the covenant. The ark will later be placed in the Temple Solomon builds. It will remain there in the Holy of Holies until the Temple is destroyed hundreds of years later. 
These stories surrounding the ark of the covenant show us how dangerous our Lord can be. We often domesticate our understanding of the Lord. We focus on how loving, kind, and forgiving our Lord is. Yet the Lord also can take life without warning. We are to fear the Lord, falling to our knees and shielding our eyes in His presence. 
The Lord is not safe, but the Lord is good. Unlike Herod, our Lord is not corrupt. Our Lord loves us enough not just to send us an item in which to dwell. The Lord sent us Jesus Christ. The Son of God lived and breathed among us, only to die and rise again for us. Jesus showed us that the Lord is loving, kind, and forgiving. Yet even Jesus had his angry moments.

So let us love and fear the Lord. Let us feel the Lord’s presence near to us while also honoring the fact that the the Lord is larger than we can ever comprehend. Let us respect the Lord, and maybe the Lord will bless us in return. Amen.

Weakness turned into strength

2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Lectionary 14 B, July 5, 2015
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Heidi was literally crying over spilled milk. But this was no ordinary glass of milk spilled at home. No, this was five gallons of milk spilled on the asphalt of the farmers market. As Heidi cried while mopping up all that milk, she thought about how her day had changed so fast.
On her family farm in Missouri, Heidi was sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a simple breakfast of toast with homemade jam. She also had a tall glass of the raw cow’s milk that made her family famous. Her father walked up to the table and dropped the keys to the pick-up right in front of her.
Heidi looked up, confusion written across her face. “What are these for?” She pondered aloud.
He responded, “Your brother is already at the farmers market, but I have six more gallons of milk ready to go. Why don’t you bring them to the market? Whatever you earn is yours to keep.”
Heidi’s eyes lit up in astonishment. “Really?!” she exclaimed.
“Consider it an investment,” her father said, “on that prom dress you are drooling over. Maybe you can use this money to buy some chickens and sell the eggs.”
Well, Heidi didn’t have to be told twice. She grabbed those keys and darted out the door. She could barely focus on the road as she thought of that gorgeous sapphire blue dress that matched her eyes. It had just enough sequins to sparkle in the bridal shop window as she walked past it every day on her way home from school. Heidi was certain that Todd McManus would notice her if she could wear that dress to prom.
By the time she arrived at the farmers market, it had already started. She couldn’t drive right up to her family booth, so she parked in the lot across the way. Without any wheels on the cooler, she couldn’t bring it along. So, she gathered up all six gallons of raw milk in her arms and walked towards her family booth.
She had chickens, eggs, and dresses floating through her mind as she dodged patrons and their dogs. Then, when Heidi was only about fifty feet away from her brother, the one and only Todd McManus came toward her. “Hi, Heidi,” he said as he walked past. Her heart fluttered. She was so flabbergasted that he even knew her name that she tripped over the spaniel that had just walked in front of her.
All six gallons of milk flew out of her arms and fell to the asphalt. Three exploded on contact, and two others lost their caps and started spouting out. Only one gallon of milk kept its seal. A sea of spectators grew even as they gave her space to clean up her mess. She gave the remains of the gallons to her brother and began to mop up all of that spilled milk. 
She tried to hide her tears as she was overwhelmed by her embarrassment and grief. No longer was she dreaming of dresses, chickens, and eggs. As all of her dreams were mopped up with all that raw milk, Heidi felt completely empty. She had no motivation, no hopes, no desires. 
Then, in that emptiness, she realized how foolish she had been. Not because she had tried to carry six gallons of milk at once - she had done that before. No, Heidi was foolish for wanting such an expensive dress that she could only wear once. Heidi’s cousin in the city had already lent out her prom dress to three of their cousins. Why did Heidi think that she would not be the fifth?
Even so, Heidi was determined to prove to her father that she was responsible. So, she sold that one good gallon of raw milk. By the time that Heidi had returned home, her brother had already told her father what had happened. Her dad saw her expression of grief and immediately gave her a hug.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
“Yeah, Dad.” She said, “I may not look it, but actually I am better than ok. Spilling all of that milk reminded me how foolish I was. I don’t need that dress. But could I still buy a chicken and sell the eggs?”
She pulled out the five from her pocket. That was all that she had earned from that one gallon sold. Even so, it was almost exactly the cost of one hen.
“What will you do with the money?” her father asked.
“I’ll donate it,” she replied, “so that people far away can also raise chickens and sell eggs.”
“I bet if you tell the church what you are doing, they will match your donations.”
So, that is exactly what Heidi did. Over the course of the next year, she and her congregation raised over $1000 for Heifer International. The apostle Paul once wrote, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Certainly it was Christ working through Heidi at her weakest to inspire her. Christ strengthened her so that she could push her emotions aside and use this mistake for good.
Often when we are at our weakest, that is when God is most able to inspire us. For when we are torn down by embarrassment, grief, or anxiety, we of our own  will can’t stand on our own two feet. It is in those weak moments when we know wholeheartedly that we cannot do this on our own. Christ is better able to fill our hearts when our hearts are already empty.
Yet Christ does not enter our lives just to comfort us. No, when we are weak, empty, and unsure of the path forward, that is when Christ guides us to beautiful new ministries. That is when Christ gently - or not so gently - nudges us in a new direction. I personally have experienced this many times, including the instance that I wrote about in this month’s newsletter. 
Sometimes these moments of Christ’s intervention are powerful and obvious, yet other times they are not. So many Sundays, I enter this church worn down from nervousness, anxiety, or simple tiredness. Those days, I do not feel that I have the energy to properly lead worship. Yet those Sundays when I feel incapable are often when I have the most energy. It is not my energy, but it is God working through me. Maybe you have experienced this too. 
Paul writes, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Yet it is not we providing our own strength in our weakness. No, it is God who keeps us standing when our knees buckle. God enables us to do God’s work at our best and at our worst.

Through our weakness, God gives us strength. Thanks be to God! Amen.