Monthly Archives: October 2015

Weekend Word 10/30/15: “Beginnings & Benedictions”

Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, 
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 
The LORD look upon you with favor, and give you peace. ~Deuteronomy 6:23b-27

This passage is known as the “Aaronic Blessing.”  It’s a popular benediction given at the end of worship services, or as people go out to serve and live in various ways.

A new wrestling season is here!  You’ve been training for the past two months and now it’s your first weekend of competition.  You probably have excitement and nervousness at the same time, regardless if this is your first college competition or your final go ’round of your college career.

As you go into this weekend, and as you begin the journey of another season, I want to offer you a blessing:

As the LORD is gracious with you, be gracious with yourself in defeat and humble in victory,
May the LORD keep you safe from all harm and injury, and
may you find peace and strength in the LORD in all that’s ahead.

I write these devotions for the Old Dominion University Wrestling Team, a top-20 program that competes in NCAA Division I.


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Sermon for 18 October 2015 on Ruth and Irrational Love

Text: Ruth 1:1-18

Shalom Hills Farm in Southwest Minnesota is a camp and retreat center that teaches folks about rural/small-town and farming life.  But more than that, they also teach what ministry looks like in such settings.  Shalom Hills Farm hosts church youth groups, adult groups, clergy, and seminarians and for over 20 years, they’ve been showing people how God moves and works among farms and small-towns and the people who live and work there in a time when people are becoming distanced from that way of life. This past week, a good friend of mine posted on Facebook that Shalom Hills Farm had a major fire on their property, and lost one of their biggest barns.  Thankfully, there was no loss of life, but  it’ll probably cost quite a bit to replace it.  And having seen a number of barn fires in my farming community growing up, the concern is where that money will come from, or if they have it at all.  That’s life in small farming towns.  Folks are trying to be optimistic, but they may have to face the facts.

In the book of Ruth this morning, these three women are facing the facts as well.  For Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth, all of their husbands are dead, which is not good news in their time.  Men were the ones who owned land and property, and so women were dependent on them for their livelihood.  So for these three women, the tragedy that’s struck them means their lives are at risk: if they can’t find a husband, then a life of poverty and exploitation is a definite reality.  For Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth….they have to face the facts…and make some hard decisions in the process.

How do you react when it’s time to “face the facts” in your lives?  When tragedy strikes, when hard things come your way, how do you react? Naomi states she’s just simply “too old” – too old to remarry, too old to bear either one of her daughters-in-law a new husband.  So she sends them on their way…..probably rationalizing that it’s better for one to suffer rather than three…there’s hope for them yet.  She’s just too old.  And Orpah, despite not wanting to leave her mother-in-law, she realizes the logical choice is to go – she’s a Moabite, and returning to Moab where she likely has family to care for her makes sense.  So she goes. And maybe we do the same thing too – in the face of tragedy and hard times, we face the facts and we do what’s logical.  We make the rational decision, minimizing damages and doing what’s best.  But here’s the thing: logic very rarely offers any hope.  Listen to Naomi and Orpah’s words, you hear a whole lot of logic….but not a lot of hope.

And here we have Ruth, clinging to her mother-in-law and saying, “Where you go, I will go, your people will be my people, where you lodge I will lodge, your God will be my God and I will die where you die.”  It just sounds like this beautiful expression of love and commitment between two people.  Because of that, this passage gets used a lot at weddings….in fact, I presided over a wedding last night, and the couple chose this very passage.  Beautiful words, beautiful couple….and I think also an expression of God’s love for us – like Ruth, God embraces us, never lets us go, and goes where we go.  God makes God’s home where we live, and God will be with us in death…and beyond.  But I think such a notion of Ruth’s act and words today falls short.  This past week, I had a friend of mine call me….after 5 years of marriage, his wife simply told him she didn’t love him anymore.  She’s not happy, and she needs a month to sort things out – with zero contact.  My friend’s afraid….he wonders that after 30 days she’ll just logically come to the conclusion that it no longer work for her to be married to him and when the time’s up that will be that: marriage over.  I think for my friend, the romantic, beautiful wedding version of Ruth’s love falls way short.

So then, what to make of Ruth’s act and words?  I don’t think a romantic, beautiful notion of love is what the story of Ruth is getting at.  This vision of commitment to another human being, and this vision of God’s love, is one proclaimed in the face of tragedy.  It is irrational for Ruth to stay – her commitment puts her at risk right alongside Naomi, it defies all logic.  Yet Ruth stays….and in that decision, Naomi and Ruth have each other….and in that, perhaps they have hope.  And maybe God’s love is just as irrational…..a God that would come down and take on human form, suffer, and die for us simply because God loves us simply defies logic, don’t you think?  But just maybe, those irrational words, that irrational act holds a lot of hope in them.

I wonder, for all the logic and rationing that people do to make sense of who Jesus is and what he did for us – died to wipe sin off the face of the earth, died to pay off our debt of sin, to make us righteous before God – maybe the good news of God’s love is simply this: one, we are not alone and two, our lives are a gift.  In the face of tragedy, when so much uncertainty of how the future might turn out and how we’ll ever logically get things done….perhaps the most irrational thing we hear is the most powerful….and it is the most hopeful:  We are not alone and our lives are a gift.

Back to my friend and Shalom Hill Farm, in the face of their tragedy and the uncertainty of rebuilding, people are shedding logic for now and simply praying.  They’re praying and like us this morning they’re worshipping God together. Ruth’s embrace and words to her mother-in-law are irrational. But they proclaim to Naomi that she is not alone and that she is worth sticking with through thick and thin.  And I can’t help but think, for both Ruth and Naomi and the community of Shalom Hills Farm, that offers a sense of hope in the days to come.

Maybe the church, in all it’s facing these days, they could use a bit of irrational behavior too.  Congregations are facing the facts as they look around, and often turn to logic – new ministries, evangelism strategies, stewardship campaigns….they hire a pastor who’s gonna attract all these people to grow the church.  But in the end, it’s the ways a Christian community believe and live out this irrational love of God – bearing life with one another in such a way that changes us beyond all logic and anything we could do on our own. Dear friends…..God often doesn’t make sense sometimes, even to me…especially to me.  But to know we are embraced by God…we are not alone, our lives matter, and to know there are folks out there who believe this, and even commit to living it out with us…..that might be the most hopeful thing we hear all week.  And perhaps, that makes all the difference.  Amen.

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Sermon on 11 October 2015 about a whole lot of Law….and just a little bit of Gospel. (Because you have to put it in there)

Text: Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9

So, a quick question for you this morning: how many of you knew that the 10 Commandments were also in the book of Deuteronomy?  (How many of you knew it first appears the book of Exodus?  Chapter 20, in case you’re wondering) The 10 Commandments are sort of like Israel’s “U.S. Constitution”…’s their founding laws, and laws that even we Christians acknowledge as important to follow, part of our faith.  In fact, I remember being taught the 10 Commandments as a kid, and studying them in Confirmation….maybe that was true for you too.

I thought we’d take a little quiz this morning: Who can tell me all the commandments?  I’m not looking for exact wording, just how you remember them – or maybe how you were taught them.

Here’s a list; the 10 Commandments.  Does it look familiar?

  1. God First
  2. Only God
  3. No cursing/swearing
  4. Rest on Sunday/Go to church
  5. Honor “Obey” your mom and dad
  6. No killing/murder
  7. Don’t cheat on your spouse (Sex in general is “Bad”…that’s at least what my grandma taught me)
  8. Don’t steal (or else)
  9. Don’t lie(or else)
  10. Be content with what you have

So here’s another quiz for you today: as you look at the list, how well are you following each of the 10 Commandments, and are you following all 10 of them?  On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, how successful are you at being a good person?

I want to talk about law today… we think about the Law.  For most of us, the Law is just that, a way to better living, to be a better you, to be a good person and perhaps improve our standing before our neighbors and before God. And if you listen to all the law-talk in our nation, you’ll hear the same line of thinking: We’re in the midst of presidential primaries and each candidate has “the answer” the right policies and laws that will fix what’s broken in our country and make it a better place – morally and socially.  3 more shootings at colleges this week has opened up the debate on gun control laws….where everyone has the solution to the problem.  Stricter laws, disarm everyone….or laws that make it easier for the responsible to carry.

My point isn’t to spark a political debate this morning, and it’s certainly not to impose my beliefs on you.  The point is, our law-talk, the ways we think about how the Law works, it’s prescriptive.  It’s like a cure-all medicine that’ll cure the illness that plagues our society.  But here’s the thing: like all prescription drugs, this Law comes with side effects: we see life as black and white; right and wrong.  And such law-talk, such a life leads to one place – division.  Walls get put up, name-calling starts, and we separate into our respective camps. And prescriptive law-talk takes things like the 10 commandments from what God intended them to be for God’s people, and turns them into a 10-step self-improvement plan for becoming a better you, a good person. And often it also leads us to judge those who aren’t on the same plan.

Law, as God intended it, is descriptive….it describes the relationship that God desires to have with God’s people.    Life – a relationship – with the God of promise looks like this.  And the same is true for us today. God’s Law doesn’t provide answers and it doesn’t solve our problems.  It just offers a way of living……God’s law is an invitation to a relationship that shapes our lives, and perhaps in life-giving ways that we ourselves can’t make happen on our own.

If we think about the 10 Commandments this way – God’s Law of Love – it might look something like this:

  1. What does it mean to place God at the Center?
  2. Who/What do I serve?
  3. What you say about God and do in the name of God matters, because it says something about who God is.
  4. Rest of our body and spirit is important.
  5. Honor those who care for you.
  6. Life is a gift – both yours and your neighbor’s.
  7. People existing for your “Personal gratification” is not a relationship.
  8. Possession/consumption is NOT the goal of life.
  9. Mistrust kills community/relationships.
  10. Obsession leads to idolatry…..and an isolated life.

I think of these 10 Commandments as “God’s Law of Love.”  These Laws invite us into a way of living in relationship with God and each other…a way based in love.  Here’s some food for thought: God gives us the 10 Commandments as a gift – “so that you might live, that it might go well with you.” (Deut. 5:33)  It’s this Law of Love that describes just how much God values our lives and the lives of those around us.

And perhaps it’s that gift that compels us to “love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might” and to “love our neighbor” as we know God loves us.  And as you think about this gift, you might even want to make your own personal list this week of how you see this 10 Commandments describing your relationship with God, and with those around you.  Go ‘head, try it!

Also this: I don’t know about you, but maybe you’re like me and are becoming more and more frustrated with all the prescriptive law-talk that’s been going around, and you like I wonder: what kind of world we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren……maybe God’s Law of Love is not only for us a way of life worth living, but also a gift worth passing on to our children.  Amen.

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For the Narrative Lectionary Preacher: Deuteronomy & Talking about Law

This is going to be a tough week Narrative Lectionary preachers.

We get a whole bunch of law this week, or should I say, THE LAW.  If we needed any more proof, Deuteronomy literally means “Second Law.” What’s a preacher to do, knowing that people are showing up, expecting to hear gospel?

I suppose we could go the historical route and talk about how Exodus and Deuteronomy aren’t sequential.  Or we could certainly talk about what it means to pass faith onto our children.  Or perhaps talk about the “Letter versus the Spirit” of the Law.  These are all great topics….and will make great sermons.

But there’s another sermon to preach, one that’s harder, but perhaps one that addresses all the law-talk our listeners are hearing these days.  There’s a lot of talk lately about laws; presidential candidate debates are in full swing and there’s all kinds of talk about things like the budget, abortion, and economic policy. Another shooting at a school has people talking about gun laws again.  Yes, those are tricky subjects, and I wouldn’t blame you if you avoided them altogether.  Yet there is something in the text this week that might be helpful here for your listeners, if you would allow me to share.  Maybe this is a good week to talk about Law with people.

Most of the law-talk in our society is prescriptive; it’s offered as a solution to a problem, a remedy to an illness, or THE answer to THE question.  The thing is, when our law-talk takes a prescriptive tone, differing opinions and convictions emerge, and as so many of us are seeing and struggling with, divisions emerge.  Our law-talk leads to a whole lot of walls being put up, name-calling, and separation.

Our text suggests something different in these 10 Commandments.  God’s Law is different; it’s descriptive of a relationship – the relationship between Israel and God, and the relationships within the community.  God’s Law doesn’t provide answers and it doesn’t solve our problems. It just offers a way of living, interpreting, and wrestling with what we know as the “Greatest Commandment” named at the end of our text: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.”  And you probably found yourself reciting the following in your head, “And the second is like this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:39)  To get at this further, you might even want to include verses 5:29-33.  It describes the vision of the life God intends for us (and for our neighbor too, I would add).  God loves us, and loves us enough to give us a description of what life should look like….the Law.

It’s this “Law of Love” that describes just how important God values our lives, as well as the lives of those around us.  God gives us this law as a gift, because our lives are a gift….and maybe that’s the good news among all the law-talk this week.

I wonder if it might not be worth raising the question to our people: “What would it mean to be ruled by God’s Law of Love?”  Would we see the Law as something that shapes how we live in relationship with God and others, or rather as solution of how to live despite the presence of those same relationships (or our denial of them)?

There’s something else to be asked among all the law-talk today, and it addresses this reality: most of our listeners – and us as well, perhaps – wonder what sort of world we’re leaving to our children.  I wonder, as we consider if God’s Law of Love is worth following ourselves, maybe the answer lies in the question: “Is it worth passing onto our children?”

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Sermon for 4 October 2015 on our memory loss and being midwives

Text: Exodus 1:8-21

So, if someone asked you what the Exodus story is about, what would you say?  The Exodus story is about Moses….you probably have images from movies in your head: the Ten Commandments’ with Charlton Heston, or the animated Disney movie, Prince of Egypt, or more recently, maybe you saw the box office flop “Exodus: God’s and Kings” where Moses sounds just like Batman that Dark Knight (Can you hear Christian Bale saying, “Let my people go”?)  If you jog your memory enough, you can probably tell the story and get the basic details like the children’s bible version I read to the kids this morning.

But today, we hear a different story…..

There was this country song my dad used to sing.  The chorus went something like, “Oh the good ‘ol days, just the good ‘ol days.”  That’s the theme of about 70% of all country songs, by the way. The other 30% are songs about how your dog died, your house burnt down, your wife left you, and all you have is your pickup truck and a can of beer.  I’m full of tangets today…..but you know the song: the singer remembering “the good ‘ol days” where gas was 50 cents a gallon, people waved when you drove by, and everyone knows your name.  The singer laments, if he or she could just get back to the good ‘ol days, everything would be better.

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”  Pharaoh’s suffering from a bit of memory loss today: he’s forgotten about how Joseph, the Hebrew slave who interpreted his predecessor’s dreams and saved the whole Egyptian people from famine.  This Pharaoh’s forgotten all that, and in the present, all he sees is a threat – the Israelites have gotten too numerous – and so he enslaves all the Israelites into a life of hard labor and suffering..…and hopelessness sets in among the Hebrew people.

I want to talk to you about memory loss today – the memory loss that’s going on in congregations across the country.  Congregations have been enslaved by the hopelessness of the present – membership is declining; there aren’t a lot of youth or young families; things aren’t getting done around the church; worship attendance is down; and it’s getting harder and harder to balance the budget each year.  Congregations are enslaved by the present, and perhaps they wonder if the reason why isn’t because of a case of memory loss…..and so people look back into the past and recall “the good ‘ol days” when the pews were full, the money was flowing, there was all sorts of activity around.  People long for those days, and perhaps they think, “if we can only get back to that place, if we could just recreate that, then everything would be good again.”

But I wonder if that memory loss isn’t a result of being enslaved by the present, but rather congregations have been held captive by their longing for the golden era of the past.

You see, remembering Joseph isn’t about returning to the good ‘ol days when the Egyptians and Israelites got along and everyone was prospering and comfortable while living in Egypt.  It is Joseph’s story that’s worth remembering: Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, ended up in an Egyptian governor’s house only to be thrown into prison because of a lie, and was left there, forgotten.  Yet God remembered Joseph.  He heard his cries in prison.  And God delivered Joseph, and through Joseph, God delivered not only his family, but the whole nation of Egypt from that famine as well.

And maybe churches need to have their memories jogged this morning.  They need to remember…not the good ‘ol days of Sunday School, potlucks, church bazaars…a church busting at the seams with people.  They need to remember WHY those things ever mattered in the first place – because the church – THIS CHURCH – was a place where people experienced this God who remembers, hears, and delivers lost and broken sinners in need of God’s grace…..sinners like me.  And sinner like you, perhaps.

Recovering the memory of this God who remembers, hears, and delivers from the past is important so that we might know that this same God is with us and active in the present.

And this brings me to this story about Shiphrah and Puah – two Hebrew midwives who decided to ignore Pharaoh’s mandate to kill every Israelite baby boy and to then lie about it when questioned.  They risked a lot, and I don’t think they did so because they had some divine revelation or prophetic vision that the would be saving a baby who would become Moses, who would lead all of Israel out of Egypt.  I think they simply remembered….they remembered the God of Joseph, the God who remembered, heard, and delivered their ancestors.  They remembered…and they feared…and in faith they believed that God would remember, hear, and deliver them in the present. In faith, they acted, and in the process they became God’s midwives, assisting in God birthing a new thing for the people of Israel – hope.

Believe it or not, I have been serving you all for two years now; it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, doesn’t it?   In this year to come, I’m thinking it might be time to jog those memories…..not to remember and recover the good ‘ol days, but remembering what God has done for the lost and broken through the life and ministry of this church over the last 50-plus years. I wonder, in the midst of what we face in this year ahead, what might it mean to recover that part of our past? Maybe we act…and in the process become God’s midwives in the present.

What that looks like, I leave that up to you to discern – but do so knowing that the God we place our faith in is the God who today and always remembers us, hears us, and through us and through this church, is always doing a new thing.  Amen.

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