Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Praying God's Agenda

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 6:7-10, 31-33

            In Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22 there is a scene where Colonel Cathcart, the commander of a bomber squadron, is talking to the chaplain.  He shows the chaplain a story in the Saturday Evening Post about a bomber group in England whose chaplain says prayers in the briefing room before each mission.  He says to the chaplain, “I want to know if you think they’ll work here.”

“Yes, sir,” answered the chaplain.  “I should think they would.”

“Then I’d like to give it a try,” says the colonel.  “Now I want you to give a lot of thought to the kinds of prayers we’re going to say.  I don’t want anything heavy or sad.  I’d like you to keep it light and snappy; something that will send the boys out feeling pretty good.  Do you know what I mean?  I don’t want any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s all too negative.  What are you making such a sour face for?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the chaplain stammered.  “I happened to be thinking of the 23rd Psalm just as you said that.

“How does that one go?”

“That the one you were just referring to, sir. ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I…”

“That’s the one I was just referring to.  It’s out.  What else have you got?”

“Save me, O God; for the water are come in unto…”

“No water,” the colonel decided, blowing heavily into his cigarette holder … “Why don’t we try something musical?  How about the harps on the willows?”

“That has the rivers of Babylon in it, sir,” the chaplain replied.  “…there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

“Zion?  Let’s forget about that one right now.  I’d like to know how that one even got in there.  Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God?  I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.”

The chaplain was apologetic.  “I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather somber in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.”

“Then let’s get some new ones.  The men are already doing enough [complaining] about the missions I send them on without rubbing it in with any sermons about God or death or paradise.  Why can’t we take a more positive approach?  Why can’t we all pray for something good, like a tighter bomb pattern, for example?  Couldn’t we pray for a tighter bomb pattern?”

“Well, yes, sir, I suppose so,” the chaplain answered hesitatingly.  “You wouldn’t even need me if that’s all you wanted to do.  You could do that yourself.”

“I know I could,” the colonel responded tartly.  “But what do you think you’re here for? … Your job is to lead us in prayer, and from now on you’re going to lead us in prayer for a tighter bomb pattern before every mission.  Is that clear?  I think a tighter bomb pattern is something really worth praying for” (pp. 190-192).

*          *          *

            It is an exaggerated satire, to be sure, but it illustrates a problem.  Most of us come to prayer with our own agenda.  I still remember one night listening to the bedtime prayers of my three year-old daughter.  With complete seriousness she folded her hands and prayed, “Dear Lord, please help make cookies.  Amen.”  I don’t know what God’s agenda was for the next day, but hers was quite clear.

            Which is one of the reasons that Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer.  Most of us when we pray bring to God our own agenda.  We want healing; we want jobs; we want our children to grow up healthy and well adjusted.  We want cookies.  These are not bad things, and it is not wrong to prayer for them.  But they might be just a little too narrow, a little too limited in focus.  In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray for something much bigger.

            Notice the connection between the Lord’s Prayer and the second scripture I read, also from Matthew, chapter 6.  Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”  These are the things we often tend to pray for, things like jobs, health, safety, and cookies.  But Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

            Notice the connection to the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God, and so in the Lord’s Prayer he teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.”  He tells us to seek first the righteousness of God, so he teaches us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, he is teaching us to pray for God’s agenda, not ours.

            When I think about God’s agenda, I remember a letter written for the Presbyterian Mission Yearbook of Prayer by Benjamin Weir, a missionary to Lebanon back in the 1980s.  At the time Lebanon was in the midst of a devastating civil war.  In the letter Ben writes,

The land of Lebanon has been marred, scarred, and charred with all the weapons of war imaginable to humankind.  We are witnesses, here in Beirut, to homes destroyed and people brutalized in untold numbers.

Today that description could fit any number of places in the world.

Then he describes his work as a missionary.  He says, “Our own efforts at rebuilding and renewing seem small and necessarily partial.”  That could be said of most things we do here at Southminster: handing out food at the foodbank, serving meals to homeless women at Hospitality House, supporting the recovery of men and women at Praiseallujah, providing good reading material to the inmates at the SCORE jail.  These efforts seem small and necessarily partial.

Nevertheless Ben says,

We are thankful that God has given us the opportunity to have a part in healing and rebuilding.  We are part of the church’s efforts to reestablish worship services, to assist persons moving back to villages, to encourage youth leadership, to give support to those whose hope lies in the future.

Then he concludes with this magnificent testimony of faith:

The kingdom of God is a kingdom without weapons, without oppressive powers, without torture, without hunger—without exploitation of individuals and peoples, without prejudice, without an irresponsible use of what God has given us.  It is a kingdom full of life, of faith, justice, peace, love—mutual understanding and reconciliation, of real possibilities for every human being.  That is what we look toward, and we have no right as Christians to settle for anything less.

            Every week when we say the Lord’s Prayer we pray for God’s kingdom to come: a kingdom where hunger, suffering and death will be no more; a kingdom where love wins out over hate, and compassion wins out over self-centeredness; a kingdom where people of all races, languages, and nations live together in peace sharing together the goodness of God’s creation.  And we pray for it to happen on earth, and not just in heaven.  That’s God’s agenda, and as followers of Jesus it must also be ours.

God in Nature and God in Jesus

Sermon for Worship at the Park

Scriptures: Psalm 19:1-10; Colossians 1:15-20

             I cannot count how many times I have heard people say to me, “I believe in God; I just don’t like going to church.  I feel closer to God out in nature.”  Well here we are out in nature and we’re going to church.  What could be better?

             There is a reason people feel close to God in nature.  God intended it that way.  Listen again to Psalm 19, this time from Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message:

 God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. … Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded, but their silence fills the earth—unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.

             I love to hike, and one of my favorite hikes is the trail to Panorama Point on Mt. Rainier.  This time of year the trail from the Paradise Inn to Panorama Point is draped in wildflowers: purple lupine, magenta paintbrush, yellow arnica, white beargrass and avalanche lilies.  From Panorama Point, you are up close and personal with this enormous mountain; you can even hear it creak.  And looking the other way on a clear day you can all the way to Oregon.  God’s glory is on tour at Mt. Rainier; God’s handiwork on exhibit across the horizon.

             The problem is that people don’t always see God in nature.  Sometimes they see only their self-interest. As a teenager I remember going to Mt. Rainier with my parents.  One time my father stood in front of the Paradise Inn and said, “You know, this would make a great golf course.”  Even as a teenager I was appalled.  I could not believe my father looked at Mt. Rainier and saw a golf course.  But later that day at the Paradise Visitor Center I saw an old picture on the wall taken in the 1930s.  It showed people in front of the Paradise Inn playing golf.  People have a tendency to see in nature what they want to see.

  And that’s the problem.  Nature cannot really talk to us.  Nature cannot challenge our greed, our prejudice, our arrogance, our self-centered idolatry.  Nature hints at God’s power and majesty, but it leaves out a lot of vital information, like why we are here, where we are going, and how we are supposed to treat each other along the way.

  So Psalm 19 does not end with nature.  At verse 7 it abruptly changes the subject.  Reading from again from The Message:

 The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together.  The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road. … God’s Word is better than a diamond, better than a diamond set between emeralds. … God’s Word warns us of danger and directs us to hidden treasure.  Otherwise how will we find our way?  Or know when we play the fool?

             According to Psalm 19 we need something more than nature to guide us in the life God wants for us.  We need God’s word, passed on to us in the scriptures.  We need not just God’s handiwork but God’s word to prevent us, or at least restrains us, from confusing nature with our own self-interest.

            If you get lost on Mt Rainier, the mountain will not tell you the way down.  If you do something stupid on Mt. Rainier, the mountain will not come to your rescue.  Nature can be quite unforgiving.

             So in our second scripture reading the apostle Paul does not talk about finding God in nature.  He talks about finding God in Jesus.  Colossians, chapter 1:

 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation ….  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

             You can look at nature on a beautiful day and sense God’s majesty.  But there is nothing in nature to tell us that God loves us, that God put us here for a reason, and that God wants to save us from all the stupid things we have ever done.  Nature rewards the powerful, not the righteous, let alone the weak.  But in Jesus, God shows us a power made perfect in weakness.  In Jesus God shows us a love that wins out over hate, arrogance, exploitation, greed, and despair.

             In Spokane I knew a Presbyterian pastor named Mike Bullard who did volunteer work with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  In 2013 Presbyterian Disaster Assistance sent him to the town of Yarnell, AZ, where a wildfire had destroyed half the town.  Nineteen firefighters lost their lives trying to save it.

             Here again is a case where nature does not give us a cozy feeling about God.  Nature can be beautiful, but it can also be powerfully destructive and relentlessly unforgiving.

             So Mike went to Yarnell as part of a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance team helping organize, house, and feed volunteers from all over the country who came to help with cleaning up and rebuilding.  After the church service one Sunday at the Community Presbyterian Church of Yarnell, a woman saw the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance logo on Mike’s shirt.  She came over, gave him a hug, and said to him six words.  She only spoke six words, but they were etched in Mike’s memory.  She said, “I was bitter; now I’m not.”

             Sometimes Jesus can help us find our way to God in a way that nature cannot, and the church, even with all of its flaws, can help us experience that.

 

The Payoff for Righteousness

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs; Psalm 73:1-3, 13-14, 21-26

             I once read a newspaper article entitled, “Immune system benefits from going to church.”  The article said, “In a study of more than 1,700 North Carolina adults, 65 and over, Duke University researchers found those who attend religious services at least once a week have healthier immune systems than those who don’t” (Spokesman-Review, November 1, 1997).  There is good news for you folks who come from Wesley.  Going to church can strengthen your immune system.  I am waiting for the day when I hear that sermons can lower your cholesterol.

But the benefits of going to church don’t only apply to older adults.  In 2004 there was a study commissioned by Dartmouth Medical School about the medical benefits of religion on young people.  The article, which reviewed years of research, including brain imagining studies, concluded that religious young people are better off in significant ways than their secular peers.  They are less likely to smoke and drink and more likely to eat well; less likely to commit crimes and more likely to wear seat belts; less likely to be depressed and more likely to be satisfied with their families and school (Laura Stepp, “Religious Benefits,” reprinted in the Spokesman-Review, April 3, 2004).

A more recent study from 2018, reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that “people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately 18% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults (ages 23–30) than those who never attended services. They were also 29% more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33% less likely to use illicit drugs” (published online September 13, 2018).

  These studies resonate with my experience at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium.  For six days on the campus of Purdue University I was in fairly close proximity to 4000 teenagers.  We lived together in dorms, ate together in crowded dining halls, walked in groups through high heat and humidity for nearly a mile to get across campus to the Triennium events.  During those six days I never once heard anyone swear, or even more I never heard anyone say anything cruelly demeaning to another person.  I am sure it happened, but I didn’t hear it.  What I saw was an amazing attitude of respect for each other, especially respect for people of different races or abilities.  The atmosphere at Triennium would have brought a brought a high school principal to tears.  It brought me to tears.  There is something powerfully healthy about growing up attending a Presbyterian church.

Which, in a way, fits the perspective of Proverbs:

3:33—“The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous.”

12:21—“No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.”

19:23—“The fear of the Lord is life indeed; filled with it one rests secure and suffers no harm.”

These verses may overstate the matter, but Proverbs insists that religion pays off, that loving and serving God will make your life better.

            Notice that Proverbs is not talking about a reward in heaven after we die.  You have to look very hard in the book of Proverbs for any reference to life after death.  Proverbs is not concerned about heaven; it is concerned about life here on earth.  Proverbs 11:31—“If the righteous are repaid on earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner!”  According to Proverbs the pay-off for righteousness is in this life, and not just in heaven.  Look at Proverbs 13:22—“The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.”  Proverbs does not say that the good people will receive their inheritance when they die; it says they will leave it to their grandchildren.  It is talking about blessings in this life.  Proverbs 22:4—“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.”

            Unfortunately, it does not always work that way in each individual case.

At the church I served in Potlatch, Idaho, there was a 50 year-old farmer named Mike, who had ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Mike was an elder in the church and had served on the Pastor Nominating Committee that called me as their pastor.  I was also told he was a concert quality pianist, though I never got to hear him play, because by the time I knew him his disease had begun to paralyze his arms and hands.  He served as an usher at our church until he could no longer hold the offering plates.  He sang in the choir until he could no longer stand through the anthem.  On his farm, when he could no longer drive the farm equipment, he directed operations by radio from his house until his voice began to give out.

            Then one night his house burned down in an electrical fire.  His family barely got him out alive.  The night of the fire I went to see him, and he said to me, “Have I been doing something wrong?”  I didn’t know what to say.  I certainly wasn’t going to quote to him Proverbs 12:21—“No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.”

            So here is another case where we must look at the Bible as a whole, and not just at a few verses.  It is significant that in the Bible the book of Proverbs is surrounded by other books like Job, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms.  For when you read Job, Ecclesiastes, or Psalms, you realize that Proverbs does not tell the whole story.

            As an example, look at our first scripture reading from Psalm 73. Psalm 73 starts out sounding a lot like the book of Proverbs—verse 1: “God is indeed good to Israel, to those who have pure hearts.”  But look at what follows in verses 13-14:

All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.  For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.”

I could picture the farmer from Potlatch saying those words.  “All day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.”  Being religious does not always help our immune systems.  Sometimes our immune systems attack us anyway.  Sometimes even the righteous experience depression.  Sometimes even the righteous lose their homes in a fire or a storm.

            For this reason the book of Proverbs contains what I call “better than” Proverbs.  I have mentioned these before, but I have again included two of them on the insert in the bulletin:

15:16-17—“Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.  Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.”

16:8—“Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.”

            If you notice, there is an assumption in these verses that being religious may not always pay off with prosperity.  “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord…. Better is a little with righteousness.”  Those who serve God may not end up blessed with wealth or health or success.  Nevertheless, Proverbs says, it is still worth it to be righteous.  Why? Because the ultimate pay off for righteousness is not in having health, wealth, or success, but in having right relationships.  “Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.” “Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.” Better than wealth or health or even a sunny disposition is a right relationship to God, who will still be there in our lives when everything else is gone.

            Psalm 73 concludes, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

            The most memorable conversation I had with Mike, the farmer from Potlatch, was my last visit with him before he died.  At that point he was in a wheel chair.  His arms hung uselessly by his side.  His voice was weak, but he could still talk.  He said to me, “You know, I’m not afraid of death.  I just want to find out how it is all going to turn out.”

            I thought of those words when I read Proverbs 23: 17-18—“Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always continue in the fear of the Lord.  Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.”  One day we will see how it all turns out, and that’s when we will realize the ultimate payoff for righteousness.

How Money Buys Happiness

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs; I Timothy 6:6-10

             Proverbs has a complicated view of money.  On the one hand there are verses like these:

 10:15—“The wealth of the rich is their fortress; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”

19:4—“Wealth brings many friends, but the poor are left friendless.”

22:7—“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”

             Proverbs is not saying his is how it should be.  It is not endorsing these principles.  It is simply saying, “This is how it is.  Money makes life easier.  Wealth give you power.  Poverty makes you vulnerable.”

  We see this every time there is a natural disaster.  I remember when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it flooded rich neighborhoods as well as poor neighborhoods.  But the rich had so many more resources with which to recover.  Those pictures we saw of desperate people crowding into the Louisiana Superdome for shelter—they weren’t rich people; they were poor people.  The rich had loaded up their cars with food and clothes and driven out of town to stay with relatives or friends, or in a motel.  The poor had none of those options.  And when the flood receded, the rich and middle class had insurance to help them recover, or at least they owned the land on which they could try to rebuild.  The poor rented the places where they lived, so even if they wanted to return to their homes, they were at the mercy of landlords who may or may not decide to rebuild.

  The whole situation illustrated Proverbs’ point: “The wealth of the rich is their fortress; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”  Proverbs is realistic about the world.  Having money helps.  Having money provides a certain amount of security.

             But it is a false security.  Look at Proverbs 18, verse 11: “The wealth of the rich is their strong city; in their imagination it is like a high wall.”  Notice how this verse paraphrases the beginning of chapter 10, verse 15: “The wealth of the rich is their fortress.”  But then it adds, “In their imagination it is like a high wall.”  That feeling of security you get from having money—it is an illusion.  It is a false security.

28:22—“The miser is in a hurry to get rich and does not know that loss is sure to come.”

23:4-5—“Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist.  When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”

Wealth is an imaginary wall, which can disappear quicker than you think.

            Which leads to what I call the “better than” proverbs, most of which concern money:

15:16-17—“Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure and trouble with it.  Better is a dinner with vegetables where love is, than a fatted ox and hatred with it.”

16:8—“Better is a little with righteousness, than a large income with injustice.”

22:1—“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”

28:6—“Better to be poor and walk in integrity, than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich.”

If you notice, all of these Proverbs compare money to relationships, either our relationship to God or our relationships with others.  As important as it is to have money, it is even more important to have good relationships, relations built on integrity and justice.

            Because of this, Proverbs talks less about having money and more about how we use money.  Look at Proverbs 14:20-21: “The poor are disliked even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.”  That verse echoes the observation made in Proverbs 19:4: “Wealth brings many friends, but the poor are left friendless.”  Proverbs is not saying this is how it should be; this is how it is.

  Right now in Seattle there is an outcry from folks in the Magnolia neighborhood about turning some of the buildings at Ft. Lawton into low income housing.  People object that low income housing should not be located next to or even in Discovery Park.  Meanwhile these buildings that housed military families for years sit empty.  Most people favor more low income housing and shelter spaces off the streets for the homeless, but not in my neighborhood; not in my backyard.  “The poor are disliked even by their neighbors.”

  But then Proverbs issues a theological judgment—verse 21: “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.”  Proverbs suggests, as does Jesus, that how we treat the poor affects our relationship to God.  Jesus said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me,” and Proverbs echoes that idea:

 14:31—“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”

19:17—“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.”

22:9—“Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”

 How we treat the poor affects our relationship to God.

             So what is Proverbs attitude toward money?  It is summarized in the last two proverbs on the insert.  Proverbs 30:8-9 says, “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”

             This reminds me of our first scripture lesson where the apostle Paul says to Timothy,

 For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.  But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

Proverbs knows that we need money to live.  It also recognizes the relationship between poverty and powerlessness.  But far more important than the amount of money we have is our relationship to God.  Hence Proverbs 11:4 says, “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.”  At the end of our lives it won’t matter how much money we have made.  What will matter is our relationship to God, a relationship given to us by grace through Jesus Christ and experienced in our love shown to others.

             In the musical Hello, Dolly, near the end of the show Dolly makes this observation.  She says, “Money, if you’ll pardon the expression, is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”

That, according to Proverbs, is how money buys happiness.

 

Waging Peace

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs; Romans 12:14-21

I once read a list of popular sayings that, if you think about them, are contradictory.  For example:

            Look before you leap, … but … He who hesitates is lost.

            Nothing ventured, nothing gained, … but … Better safe than sorry.

            Out of sight, out of mind… but … Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

            Many hands make light work, … but … Too many cooks spoil the broth.

(Robert Fulghum, Maybe (Maybe Not) pp. 21-22.)

             So which is it?  Do many hands make light work?  Or do they mess up the soup?  Does absence make the heart grow fonder?  Or cause it to forget?

            If you notice, some of the Proverbs on the insert this morning seem contradictory.  Look at Proverbs 10:10: “Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.”  To wink the eye probably means to overlook an injustice, to turn a blind eye to some wrong-doing.  But now look at the verse below it—Proverbs 10:12: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”  Which is it?  Should we cover offenses or confront them?  Further down on the insert Proverbs 25:26 says, “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain are the righteous who give way before the wicked.”  But now look at the verse above it—Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.”

            In Proverbs making peace is complicated.  You need to use your head; you need to discern the nuances of the situation and the people involved. It is not simply a matter of getting tough or of giving in.  It is a matter of the telling the truth while also showing compassion, of standing up for justice while demonstrating the kind of forbearance that opens a door to healing.

            Proverbs does not give us simple rules for managing conflict.  If you are looking for simple answers where everything is black and white, Proverbs is not the book for you.  Neither is the Bible.  But Proverbs does suggest a mindset for approaching conflict, which I will try to summarize in two points:

#1: Think before you act, or speak.

            We have heard this from Proverbs before, but it is particularly important when it comes to conflict.

15:1—“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

15:18—“Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention.”

19:11—“Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense.”

29:22—“One given to anger stirs up strife, and the hothead causes much transgression.”

            Here is my catch phrase for this week: “Evaluate before you escalate.”  Two weeks ago my catch phrase was “Deliberate before you communicate.”  This week it is “Evaluate before you escalate.”  The danger is not in getting angry.  I will talk more about that in a moment.  The danger, according to Proverbs, is being impulsive, being hotheaded or hot-tempered.  Evaluate before you escalate, which means slow down before you respond.  As Proverbs says in 19:11: “Those with good sense are slow to anger.”

             This does not mean we should never confront someone.  Remember Proverbs 10:10—“Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.”  When Proverbs says, “A soft answer turns away wrath,” it is not telling us to be silent.  A soft answer is still an answer.  A soft answer stands up and challenges those who do hurtful things.  But it does so without giving in to anger or vengeance.

             Which brings me to point #2: Act not out of anger but out of love.

             10:12—“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”

29:11—“A fool give full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.”

30:33—“For as pressing the milk produces curds, and pressing the nose produces blood, so

pressing anger produces strife.”

Here is my catch phrase for this point: “Seek reconciliation not retaliation.”

Please understand, Proverbs is not saying we should avoid ever being angry.  Anger may be sign of an injustice that needs to be addressed, a signal that you or someone you care about is being unfairly exploited or demeaned.  We should pay attention to anger for the same reason we should pay attention to chest pains.  It may be a sign that something is wrong.

But here is the key: Do not address it while you are angry.  Use your anger as a warning that there is a problem needing to be addressed, but do not address it while you are angry.  Write it down, if you have to, but wait to talk about it until you are calm enough to give a soft answer rather than a harsh one, to listen before judging, to choose words aimed at healing.  Seek reconciliation rather than retaliation.

            Let me close with two examples: one global and one personal.  When apartheid came to an end in South Africa in 1995, the new South African constitution set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Victims of gross human rights violations under the former apartheid government could come to the commission, tell their story, and seek reparation.  There were cases, of course, where reparation could never make up for or repair the wrong.  But still the commission discovered that just telling the story, just letting the truth be known, was healing to people.  Meanwhile, the perpetrators of these human rights violations—and remember, we are talking about arrests, torture, killings, imprisonment without trial, and unjust seizures of land—the perpetrators of these things could also come to the commission, make a full truthful disclosure of their actions, offer to make restitution where possible, and in return receive full amnesty and be restored to full citizenship in the new South Africa.

            This, it seems to me, is the kind of confrontation and reconciliation, the kind of accountability and forgiveness, that Proverbs is talking about.  Interestingly, South Africa, despite its long history of oppression, is one of the few countries in the world to experience a major social revolution without waves of violence and reprisal, followed by new forms of repression.  The seemingly contradictory approach of Proverbs can actually work.

Now let me share the experience of a family.  While I was a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, I helped a family organize an intervention for an alcoholic husband.  All the important people in this alcoholic’s life: his wife, his parents, his co-workers, his neighbors and friends—everyone who had a significant relationship to this person was gathered together at a family member’s home, where they coached in how to share their feelings with the alcoholic, how tell the person how his drinking had affected them.  Then at a prearranged time the alcoholic was brought to the house by a friend under some pretense.  It was somewhat like a surprise party.  And believe me for the alcoholic it was a surprise.  Then in the safety of the group each person there, one by one, shared directly with the alcoholic how he or she had been affected by his drinking.  They did not talk about what an awful, irresponsible person he was.  They did not lash out with angry, vindictive comments.  They spoke truthfully about how the person’s drinking had made them feel and had affected their lives.  Then, and this is the crucial part, each of them talked about the kind of relationship they would like to have with the alcoholic but can’t because of his drinking.

            It was intense.  The alcoholic went through stages of shock, anger, and then denial.  But faced with a roomful of people all of whom cared about him, all of whom felt hurt and frightened by his drinking, he finally agreed to go in for treatment.

            According to the Bible peace, like war, must be waged.  It requires a careful, thoughtful campaign.  Hence Proverbs 25:21-22 says, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.”  I don’t think this is meant as a subtle form of retaliation.  This is not meant to make your enemies burn with humiliation and guilt.  It is meant as a form of cleansing, a way of burning away anger and opening a door to healing.  That is certainly how Paul understands it when he quotes this verse for the Romans.  He concludes by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

            Peace, like war, must be waged.  And its weapons are the weapons of Jesus: truth, love, and sacrifice.

Work and Rest

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs; Exodus 20:8-11

             In our church services this summer we are studying the book of Proverbs.  Proverbs is difficult to study because its major themes are found in individual verses and short passages randomly scattered throughout the book.  So each week I am collecting verses from Proverbs on some of its most prominent themes and printing them on an insert in the bulletin.  This week’s topic, which gets a surprising amount of attention in Proverbs, is the danger of laziness.  The insert includes only a fraction of the verses in Proverbs on this subject, but it will give us a place to start.  Let’s pray.  [Prayer]

             My problem with preaching on laziness is thinking of anyone in our church to whom it applies.  We do have a group in the church called Slackers, but they are hardly slackers.  They get their name from taking up the slack, providing an incredible amount of volunteer labor for our church: like painting, plumbing, and wiring in the coffee fellowship room; like putting in additional exterior lights for added safety and security; like watering, pruning, weeding, edging, and raking to make our church grounds such a beautiful place.  And this does not count things the Slackers do each month for people in their homes: fixing fences, windows, doors and roofs; moving furniture, even setting up hospital beds.

             A few years ago our deacons did a survey of our congregation to find out all the ways that people in this church serve through various kinds of volunteer ministries.  The list was amazing.  We have people distributing food at foodbanks, taking meals to Hospitality House, driving people to appointments, serving on the boards of homeless shelters, providing books for people in jail or people with limited eyesight; people volunteering in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, meal sites, and animal rescue shelters; people walking, rocking, or bicycle riding for charities dealing with everything from poverty and disease to homelessness and injustice.  We have people singing, tutoring, bookkeeping, quilting, cooking, baking, and visiting those who are alone.  Proverbs 10:26 says, “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, are the lazy to their employers.”  I don’t know anyone in our church who fits that description.  Nor anyone like Proverbs 19:24: “The lazy person buries a hand in the dish, and is too tired to bring it back to the mouth.”  I don’t see anyone like that here in the church.

             So what does the book of Proverbs have to say to us, people who are more likely to be overachievers than lazy bums?

             I think there are two lessons that the Bible wants to teach us about work. Proverbs teaches the first one. Lesson #1: God uses work to make us participants in God’s blessing to the world. If you remember, in Genesis chapter 2, God plants a garden, called the Garden of Eden.  God fills it with everything human beings need to thrive.  Genesis 2:15 then says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”  God created humans to be the caretakers of creation.  God dignified our labor by making it an instrument of God’s blessing.

            When Proverbs talks about work, it elaborates on this idea.  Proverbs 24:30-31 says,

I passed by the field of one who was lazy, by the vineyard of a stupid person; and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.

You may have heard the story about a gardener who was complimented by her neighbor about her beautiful garden.  The neighbor said, “You and God have sure created a beautiful place here.”  The gardener said, “Yeah, but you should have seen it when God had it alone.”

             Proverbs 24 describes a vineyard when God is taking care of it alone.  From this Proverbs draws a conclusion, verses 32-34:

Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction.  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.

God provides for us but intends to use us in the process.

            But we also have a bigger mission.  Look at the next two verses on the insert—Proverbs 21:25-26:

The craving of the lazy person is fatal, for lazy hands refuse to labor.  All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back.

            God uses work not only to provide for us but also to provide for others.  Part of the point of work is to have something to share with others.  In Ephesians 4:28 the apostle Paul says, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.”  The goal of work is not to get rich but to have enough so as to be able to share with others who don’t have enough.  God uses work to make us participants in God’s blessing to the world.

But the Bible also has a second lesson about work which we heard in our first scripture reading.  Exodus 20:8-11 is the fourth of the Ten Commandments.  It says,

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

            And that bring me to the second lesson that Bible wants to teach us about work: Lesson #2: Sometimes we need to stop from our work long enough to remember who put us here and why.

            Yes, work is important, but our lives are not defined only by our work.  They are defined by our relationship to the God who created us.  We were created in the image of God for a relationship with God, and sometimes we need to pause our hardworking, over-achieving lifestyle long enough to remember that relationship.

            I doubt that any of you would expect to God to put food on your table without you doing some of the work for it.  Even those of you who eat in the dining hall at Wesley still have to get yourselves down there, and unlike the character in Proverbs you still have to put the fork in the food and bring it to your mouth.  None of us expects God to feed us without doing some work.  But I wonder if we remember that the same is true for our spiritual health.

            Awhile back I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat wondering if I had remembered to turn the sprinkler off in the back yard.  A couple days earlier I had forgotten to turn off the sprinkler before I went to work, so it ran all day in the same spot, which was a terrible waste of water.  So a couple nights later I suddenly woke up wondering if I had remembered to turn the sprinkler off that evening.  I got up to check, and to my relief it was off.

            Now I have a confession to make.  I have never woken up in the middle of the night in a sweat because I forgot to pray about someone that day.  It is not because I consider praying less important than turning off the sprinkler.  It’s because I figure that God will take care of my prayers, even if I forget to pray them, but the sprinkler is up to me.  I cannot expect God to take care of the sprinkler without my doing something about it.

            Sometimes we forget, that a relationship to God takes work.  And that’s why, according to the Ten Commandments, we need to set aside time to rest from our work so as to remember who put us here and why.  This is especially true for hardworking overachievers like people at Southminster.  Sometimes we need to push the pause button on our to-do lists to make time for our relationship with God.  Because in the end that is the most important work we have.

            Wednesday we had a memorial service at our church for Bea Simmons, a long time member and former secretary for our church.  Bea kept a prayer list like most people keep a to-do list.  Only unlike a to do list, she never took anyone off of it, which meant it kept growing until during the last years of her life it would take her two hours to pray for all the people on her list.

            After she was put on Hospice care, I went to see Bea, and she seemed a little depressed.  She wondered why God had not already taken her to heaven.  She said that she felt like she no longer had a purpose for being here, that her life was no longer useful.  I asked her if she still had her prayer list.  She said yes.  I asked if I was still on it.  She said, “Of course.”  Then I said to her, “Bea, I am counting on you to keep praying for me as long as you can.  I need your prayers for as long as you can give them.  And so do the other people on your list, even if they don’t know it.”  She smiled and said, “Okay,” and that was the last time she told me she had no purpose.

            Sometimes we achievement oriented people need to stop achieving and start praying.  Sometimes those who work the hardest most need to stop and remember why we are here and whom we are serving.  For when everything else we have worked so hard to achieve is forgotten, our relationship to God and our relationship to others is what will still count.

Words that Hurt; Words that Heal

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs, Ephesians 4:29-32

             Most of the book of Proverbs after chapter 9 is a collection of short, pithy, self-contained sayings on different topics scattered throughout the book.  So as we study Proverbs this summer, each week I am going to pull together verses from Proverbs on different themes and print them on an insert in the bulletin.  This week I have collected verses from Proverbs about how we use words, how we communicate with each other.  Instead of reading them before I start the sermon, I will read them as we go along.  Let’s pray: “Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, for you are our strength and our redeemer through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

             The insert in your bulletin this morning has only a fraction of the verses in Proverbs dealing with words.  I think there are more verses in Proverbs about how we use words than any other subject.  The reason is simple: words have power.   There is an old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  That’s bogus.  Words have enormous power to hurt or to heal.  Look at the insert:

 10:11—“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.”

12:18—“Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

15:4—“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”

18:21—“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”

 That last verse means people take words into themselves.  They experience the consequences of words in a deep way.  Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

             In June 2017 a young woman named Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for text messages she sent to an 18 year-old named Conrad Roy.  They had met in 2012 and began exchanging text messages, though they met in person only once or twice over the next two years.  Conrad had struggled for years with social anxiety and depression, and he told Michelle that he was thinking about committing suicide.  At first Michelle discouraged him, urging him instead to get help.  But in 2014 she began encouraging him to go ahead and do it.  When he expressed concern about how his suicide might affect his parents, Michelle sent him a text saying, “I think your parents know you’re in a really bad place.  I’m not saying they want you to do it, but I honestly feel they can accept it.”  In a later text message she says to him, “You can’t think about it.  You just have to do it.  You said you were going to do it.  Like I don’t get why you aren’t.”

             This goes on for weeks.  Michelle keeps encouraging him to go ahead and end his life.  She even advises him on how to do it, using carbon monoxide from his car tailpipe.  Finally, on July 17, 2014, Conrad decides to do it by using a small gas water pump that he puts in his car and starts up with all the windows closed.  At one point, though, he gets panicky and calls Michelle.  Michelle later sent a text to another friend saying, “I could have stopped him.  I was on the phone with him, and he got out because it was working and he got scared.  I told him to get back in.”  His body was found in the car later that evening.

             Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and the text.

             One place you can clearly see the power of words is in a courtroom:

 12:17—“Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence; but a false witness speaks deceitfully. 

14:25—“A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer.”

             But Proverbs is not concerned only about telling the truth.  Proverbs is concerned about the affect our words will have on other people, even if they are true.  Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”  A wise word is not only true but fitting.  It brings healing and life to the person who hears it.  Verse 12 continues, “Like a gold rings or an ornament of gold is a wise rebuke to a listening ear.”  A wise word is not only true but helpful, encouraging, healing.  Proverbs 10:32 says, “The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked what is perverse.”  A wise person considers the impact of his or her words on the person receiving them.

             While I was in seminary, I did an internship working with youth at a small Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  There I learned how to speak Philadelphian, which is not always the same as how we speak in the Pacific Northwest.  One time we were having a barbecue with the youth group, and as I was taking the hamburgers off the grill I told the high schoolers to bring their buns.  They broke into hysterical laughter.  I said, “What?”  Then the other adult advisors explained to me that the bread you put around a hamburger is called a “roll.”  The word buns refers to something else.

            You have to know how your words will be heard by the people receiving them.  For that reason Proverbs says it is important to listen before you talk.  Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame.”  I can think of numerous times when someone has been talking to me and I have been thinking about how to answer instead of listening to what they said.  Proverbs is right.  If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame.

            For this reason it is also important to think before you communicate.

15:28—“The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil.”

29:20—“Do you see someone who is hasty in speech? There is more hope for a fool than for anyone like that.”

            The motto of Proverbs is deliberate before you communicate.  I always write out my sermons word for word before I give them on Sunday morning.  I do this for several reasons, but the most important is so I can go back and delete things before they get out of my mouth.  You folks have no idea how many stupid things I might have said from this pulpit had I not deleted them before I got up here.  We need to deliberate before we communicate.  Before you push send, consider whether you need to push delete.

            I included the next verse, Proverbs 11:12, because I think it is particularly relevant for us today: “Whoever belittles another lacks sense.”  I think that part of the verse should be on a banner over every presidential debate between now and election-day.  Maybe the second half, too: “…but an intelligent person remains silent.”

            However, the second half of that verse does not mean we should always be silent.  There are times when we need to confront.  There are times when we need to tell people things they might not want to hear.  Proverbs 28:23: “Whoever rebukes a person will afterward find more favor than one who flatters with the tongue.”  Yes, we should stop and listen and think and pray before we speak, but that does not mean we should never confront someone with our concerns.

One of the more striking sayings in Proverbs is chapter 26, verses 4-5: “Do not answer fools according to their folly or you will be will a fool yourself.  Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.”

             This is not the only time Proverbs gives contradictory advice.  We will see it again when we come subjects like money and conflict resolution.  Proverbs does not give us simple rules for living.  Sometimes Proverbs gives contradictory advice, depending on the situation.  In those cases it calls us to use our heads, to understand nuances, to discern when to confront and when to keep silent.  There are no simple rules for that.  You have to pay attention, listen, think, and pray.

             One of the hardest things I have done in ministry is telling a young couple coming to me to do their wedding that they should not get married.  When I was a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, a 17 year-old girl who had grown up in the church came to me with her boyfriend wanting to get married.  This was not an unheard of thing to do in Potlatch—getting married at age 17 even when the girl was not pregnant.  In fact her parents had given their permission for the wedding.  But at that point during my ministry in Potlatch, I had done two weddings of young women still in high school.  One ended in divorce, and the other ended in a shooting.  So I was gun shy, so to speak, about doing any more weddings for young people in high school, and I told them I thought they should wait to get married.  They were angry and left, and I felt bad.  This young woman had grown up in the church; her father, though not a member, had been a regular church attender.

  Afterwards, I thought about this situation and prayed about it, and finally I went over to the parents’ house to talk to them.  The father told me how angry he was.  I tried to lower my defenses and listen while he explained his feelings.  He said he understood that his daughter was probably too young to make this decision.  But he wanted me to work with them, because he was hoping I might give them a better grounding, a better chance to succeed, than they would have if they went off and got married by a Justice of the Peace.  I told him understood that.  But then I shared with him the grim the statistics on young people who got married while still in high school, and I said to him, “I think the best grounding I can give them is encouraging them to wait.”  “It is also,” I said, “the best witness we can give to our community, encouraging young people in Potlatch not to get married while they are still in high school.”

             Well, after that, I didn’t hear from the family for a few months, and they quit coming to church, so I figured I had driven them away.  But a few months later the father called.  He told me his daughter was postponing the wedding.  I said, “Until she graduates?”  He said, “Indefinitely.”  Then he told me, “I guess you were right.  It looks like they are breaking up.”

  The apostle Paul summarizes the view of Proverbs in his letter to the Ephesians.  He says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”  Deliberate before you communicate.  That, according to Proverbs, is the wise and faithful way to use our words.

 

Learning from Experience

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Proverbs 4:1-9; I Corinthians 15:1-11

             In 2006 Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was coming off a Superbowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks when he went riding on his motorcycle without a helmet.  His coach Bill Cowher had told him over a year earlier not to risk injury by riding a motorcycle, especially without a helmet.  He pointed to the experience of Kellen Winslow, a tight end for the Cleveland Browns, who hit a curb, was thrown off his motorcycle, and tore his ACL, potentially ending his career.  Even former Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw told Roethlisberger, “Wait until you retire to ride a motorcycle.”  But Roethlisberger said he was going to keep riding his motorcycle without a helmet.  He said that Pennsylvania law did not require one and that he felt more free without it.  He told his coach, “I’ll just continue to be careful” (New York Times, June 12, 2006).  So that summer, after winning the Superbowl, he ended up in the hospital with a concussion, a broken nose, a broken upper and lower jaw, fractured facial bones, head lacerations, and two lost teeth from crashing on his motorcycle.

            There are two ways to learn from mistakes.  One is to make them yourself.  The other is to let someone else make them.  The latter is what we call education, the preferred method of learning advocated by the book of Proverbs.

            Two weeks ago we began our study of Proverbs by reading from chapter 8.  In that chapter wisdom called to us saying, “And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.”  Proverbs 8, as I said two weeks ago, is an appeal to us from Wisdom personified, an appeal for us to study, to use our heads, to learn how the world works so that we can serve God more effectively.

Today’s reading from Proverbs, chapter 4, continues this theme but with a new twist. Verses 1-2:

Listen, children to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching.

This time wisdom itself is not talking to us; instead it is talking to us through a parent.

            Actually, if you look closely, Proverbs 4 is not just the words of a father to his children, it is a father quoting to his children the words of his father.  Look again at verses 3-4:

When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favorite, he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words: keep my commandments and live.

The remainder this scripture through verse 9 is a quotation not from a father but from a grandfather, which is why I kind of like this chapter.  In Proverbs 4 we have the words of a grandparent, passing on wisdom to a parent who is passing it on to a grandchild.

            Recently I saw revival of the old television show All in the Family.  This famous television shows from the 1970s consisted of Archie Bunker, his wife Edith, their daughter Gloria, and her husband Michael.  In one show Gloria had just given birth to her first child and was suffering a severe case of new mother anxiety.  When her mother Edith tried to make a small helpful suggestion Gloria snapped, “Mother, what do you know about raising children?”

            Sometimes it is hard to believe parents know anything, even about raising children.  But whatever their faults and limitations, parents have an advantage in at least one commodity: experience.  If nothing else, gray hair means you are a survivor.  Gray hair means we have lived long enough to acquire a significant number of experiences, and even if they weren’t all good experiences, you can learn from someone’s bad experience without having to go through it yourself.  We call that education.

            Proverbs wants to take advantage of that.  Proverbs invites us to learn from the experience of others, not just parents or grandparents but any faithful servants of God from a previous generation.  That’s what we have in the Bible—the collective experience of God’s people, the experience of people who actually knew Jesus or knew people who knew Jesus.  And even in our church today there are people who have gone through the experiences you are now facing, and may have a helpful insight or two.

            Of course, you have to be careful about the kind of people whose experience you try to learn from.  There are good sources of experience and bad ones.  Later in chapter 4 Proverbs says,

Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers.  Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on.  For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.

            Note that last statement: “they have made someone stumble.”  There are people quite willing to use their experience to exploit others, to indoctrinate you into values and strategies for getting ahead that are destructive, that have nothing to do with the wisdom of God, the wisdom shown to us in Jesus Christ.

            But I think a church family can help even in those situations.  The church is a place where you can come and ask if something your friends or your boss or your coworkers want you to do is good or not.  The church is a place where you can come and ask if something your parents want you to do is good or not.  Some of you have come to talk with me about your parents, whether it is wise—there’s that favorite word from Proverbs—whether it is wise for them to continue driving or living alone, and whether it is wise for you to do something about it.  Pastors are generally not trained social workers, nor are most church members.  But there is a collective experience to be found in a church family that sometimes can help.  If nothing else, a pastor can point you to a professionally trained counselor or social worker, someone who has even more experience about these things than we do.

The point is that you don’t have to try to figure out the Christian life on your own.  You can draw on the collective experience of the church, your mothers and fathers in faith.

Paul describes this in our first scripture reading. He tells the Corinthians, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: …”  He then tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and finally concludes, “Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.”  Even the apostle Paul did not appeal to his own wisdom.  He appealed to the collective experience of the church, the parents and grandparents of faith who have passed on to us who Jesus is and what he means to us.

            Fred Craddock, a minister who for many years taught at Emory University, tells about a young woman coming to him during her freshman year of college.  This is from a collection of his writings called Craddock Stories.  She told him, “I was a failure in my classes; I wasn’t having any dates; and I didn’t have as much money as the other students.  I was just so lonely and depressed and homesick and not succeeding.  One Sunday afternoon I went to the river near the campus.  I had climbed up on the rail and was looking into the dark water below.  For some reason or another I thought of the line, ‘Cast all your cares upon him for he cares for you.’  I stepped back, and here I am.”

She was remembering a verse from the Bible: I Peter 5:7.  “Cast all your cares on Jesus, for he cares for you.”  This college freshman was standing on the railing of a bridge, thinking about taking her life, and suddenly she remembers a Bible verse that causes her to step back off the bridge and go see her campus pastor.

            Craddock listened to this and said, “Where did you learn that line?”  She said, “I don’t know.”  Craddock said, “Do you go to church?”  The girl said, “No.”  Then she said, “Well, when I visited my grandmother in the summers we went to Sunday School and church.”  And Craddock said, “Ah…” (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 33).

            Listen, children to a parent’s instruction, and sometimes even a grandparent.

The Holy Spirit and Music

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Acts 2:1-13; I Corinthians 12:4-11

             This morning I have asked Edie to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  I called her this week to ask if she knew how to play it, and she reminded me that she was an organ major.  She learned it in her freshman year.  So I asked her to play it this morning, but only the first 30 seconds.  I want you to listen carefully to the first 30 seconds of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, because it tells us a lot about how the Holy Spirit works.

 [Play first 30 seconds of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor]

             Some time I hope Edie will play the whole thing.  But for this morning let me point out three things about this brief musical introduction.  First, it starts out playing a single melody on different octaves.  It sounds impressive because an organ has such powerful resonance in each octave, but if you listen carefully it is all a single melody line played on different octaves.

  But then it changes.  It goes into this run of different notes up the scale which creates a jarring dissonance, a sort of a jumble of sound.  But just when the jumble of sound is starting to drive you crazy, it resolves into this magnificent harmonic chord.  Listen as Edie plays it again.

 [Play again]

 There is a single melody, then this cacophony of notes, finally resolving into a magnificent chord.  That’s like the work of the Holy Spirit.

  Think about the first followers of Jesus.  All of the first disciples, as our scripture points out, were Galileans, Jews from the area of Galilee.  They had different occupations and different personalities, but they all shared the same ethnicity and spoke the same language.  Like the beginning of Bach’s toccata, they sang in different registers but they all sang the same notes.

             Then came Pentecost.  Sometimes Pentecost is thought of as the creation of unity out of diversity.  All these people from different countries hear the same message about Jesus.  But Pentecost was not only the creation of unity out of diversity; it was the creation of diversity out of unity.  Suddenly the gospel of Jesus was spoken not in a single language but in different languages to people of different ethnicities and nationalities and cultures.

             This created dissonance in the early church, like the dissonance in Bach’s toccata.  We see signs of this in Acts, chapter 6.  Acts 6 starts out, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [the Greek speaking disciples] complained against the Hebrews [the Hebrew speaking disciples] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”  Early on the church created its first food bank to help widows who had no access to farm land and no means of growing their own food.  But at the food bank the Greek speaking disciples felt discriminated against by the Hebrew speaking disciples.  I find it striking that the first division in the church was between language groups.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit brought a diversity of languages into the church, and now there is disharmony among the followers of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit brings diversity to the church which leads to discord.

            But the discord is the necessary prelude to that magnificent harmonic chord.  We don’t get harmony from everyone playing the same note.  Nor do we get harmony from everyone playing their own note without regard to the notes of others.  That’s not harmony; that is cacophony.  We get harmony when each person plays his or her note but does so with respect for and attention to how their note fits into the notes played by everyone else to make a richer more beautiful sound. That’s how our choir and bell choir works, and that is how the Holy Spirit works.

            In I Corinthians 12 Paul says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

The Holy Spirit intentionally draws people into the church who are different from each other.  If you have ever had issues with other people in the church, blame the Holy Spirit.  In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit drew all these people from different places—Pontus, Asia, Egypt, Libya, Crete—people who didn’t speak the same language, people who didn’t look at things the same way, who had different ways of worship and undoubtedly different politics, different attitudes toward the Roman Empire.  The Holy Spirit drew all these people into the first church and is still doing it today.  So we have to work at it, all of us, to create harmony out of the dissonance.

             The key to this is love, which is why I Corinthians 12 if followed by I Corinthians 13.  In I Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  You usually hear that scripture at weddings, but it was originally written for relationships in the church.  When you hear that scripture, you should not think of a husband and wife, you should think of church members getting along with each other.  Being a church requires appreciating our differences rather than disdaining them, working through the disharmonies to produce a harmonic chord, a magnificent witness to Jesus that none of us could produce on our own.

             We got a taste of that last week at all church work party.  As most of you know, we share our church with City of Glory, a Swahili-speaking congregation led by Pastor Lauden Kangele, a minister member of our Presbytery.  Not surprisingly, there are challenges with two congregations sharing a building, particularly when the two groups speak different languages and come from different cultures.  But last week we saw what could happen because we work together.  Eight people from City of Glory joined a couple dozen people from Southminster to work on cleaning up and fixing up the church inside and out. I was part of a crew of both Southminster and City of Glory folks who removed all the pew cushions in the church, vacuumed them on both sides, wiped down the wood work on the pews and other places with Murphy’s Oil Soap, dried it, and then put the pew cushions back on.  We did the whole thing in about three hours because we had people from both churches working on it together.

            We got another taste of that last Christmas Eve when our two churches worshiped together.  It was a glimpse of Pentecost, where people of different languages, filled with the Holy Spirit were reading the scriptures, praying, and even singing Christmas carols in English and Swahili at the same time.

            We will get another chance to do this on Saturday, August 24.  On Saturday, August 24, at noon I will be officiating here in this sanctuary at the wedding of Pastor Lauden’s son Benson, who was at our church work day last week.  Benson and his fiancée Belle will be married in our sanctuary, at a service that will be in both Swahili and English, and all of you are invited.  The families have made a specific point of this.  The whole Southminster church family is invited to this wedding, and if I were you, I would not miss it.  It may be the most colorful wedding you have ever attended.  And it will be like Pentecost, or like a Bach toccata, a rich tapestry of sound and color resolving into the kind of harmonious chord only God could produce.

Why Christians Should Use Their Heads

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Proverbs 1:1-7; 8:22-36

             One Sunday while I was living in Spokane, I had the Sunday off so my wife Nadine and I decided to attend Life Center, the biggest mega-church in Spokane.  Life Center had about 5000 people attending each week, and I wanted to see what they had that we don’t.  The first thing I noticed was an espresso bar in the lobby.  People got their lattes before church and took them into the sanctuary.  It reminded me of a story I heard about a visitor to a Presbyterian church.  He said that the pews were comfortable, but the cup holders were too small.

Of course the worship service at Life Center was led by a praise band quite a bit bigger than ours, with fancy lighting and visuals.  But I also noticed that when they tried to sing a traditional hymn it did not seem as powerful as it did with a pipe organ.

The biggest difference, however, was in the sermon.  Instead of a sermon series like I usually do on Isaiah or Matthew or one of the other books of the Bible, the pastor at Life Center was doing a sermon series called “Communication for Dummies.”  The front of the sanctuary was decorated like the yellow cover of one of those books “For Dummies.”  There was no scripture reading before the sermon.  Instead the pastor talked about barriers to communication within families and based much of the sermon on the writings of John Gottman, a Jewish psychologist.  The pastor also quoted from the Bible here and there, but the sermon wasn’t really about a Bible passage, it was about how to communicate, and the Bible was used only to illustrate certain points, the way I sometimes use movies or novels.

My first reaction to this was indignation.  This is a church?  It seems more like a self-help seminar.  They claimed to be a Bible-believing church, but they didn’t even preach from the Bible!  I was feeling indignant and more than a little self-righteous.

But then I got to thinking.  There are 5000 people here at this church, and most of them believe in Jesus.  I could tell by the way they sang songs about Jesus at the beginning of the service.  These folks believed in Jesus as much as I did.  So why were they going to church to hear a sermon about communication based on the writings of a Jewish pyschologist?

Then it hit me.  These Christians were attending Life Center, not because they had a problem believing in Jesus, but because they had problems communicating with their spouse and their children.  Or they had problems managing finances, which was another sermon series at Life Center.  I have always assumed that if I help people understand about God and Jesus, they will figure out other details of their lives on their own from other sources, like books and seminars.  But these people were packed into Life Center because they needed help with these things from their pastor and their church.

Then I realized why the book of Proverbs is in the Bible.  The book of Proverbs is different than other books of the Bible.  In other books of the Bible God’s will for our lives is revealed by special messengers or dramatic displays of God’s power.  God spoke to Abraham and Sarah through angels, then gave them a child when they were too old to have one.  God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, then parted the Red Sea so he could lead people out of slavery.  God showed compassion for people through Jesus, then proved Jesus’ authority by raising him from the dead.  Those are the parts of the Bible I like to preach about.  What is a sermon on communication theory compared to that?  But then there is the book of Proverbs.  Proverbs has no dramatic revelations, no miracles, no visions of angels, no thunderous proclamation by prophets.  Instead the book of Proverbs is a collection of teachings—you could almost call it advice—on how to live wisely in daily life.  The book of Proverbs could be subtitled “Communication for Dummies” or “Money Management for Dummies” or “Human Relationships for Dummies.”  And it is included in the Bible because sometimes mixed in with our theology we need a dose of practical instruction.

And that’s what we will get this summer from the studying the book of Proverbs.  Which is not to say that we can ignore other parts of the Bible.  In our second scripture, Proverbs describes the creation of the world, borrowing heavily from Genesis, chapter 1.  But in the process it emphasizes how God’s wisdom is built into the fabric of creation.  Listen again to Proverbs 8:27-30 where wisdom speaks as if it were God’s agent in creation:

When God established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.

Proverbs affirms that the world was created by God, but it reminds us that God built into the creation certain patterns that we can learn about and try to understand.  God made the world to operate on certain principles, and if you understand and function according to those principles, you have a better chance of experiencing God’s blessing.

Let me give two examples.  Proverbs 6:27-29 has this powerful warning against adultery:

Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes?  Or can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet?  So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.

            What I find interesting about this scripture is that Proverbs does not condemn adultery simply because it violates God’s law.  It does of course violate God’s law in the Ten Commandments, but according to Proverbs, that is not the only reason to avoid it.  Proverbs reminds us that adultery is not only immoral, it is stupid.  It is dangerous and destructive, and anyone involved in it will get burned.

            One other example.  Proverbs 23 has this vivid description of drunkenness, verses 31-35:

Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly.  At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder.  Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind utter perverse things.  You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of the mast.  “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it.  When shall I wake up?  I will seek another drink.

After a description like that you don’t need a sermon about on how sinful it is to get drunk; it is enough to say that it is stupid.

            This does not mean we can dispense with learning about God and spend our time on Sunday morning reading self-help books.  In our first scripture lesson, Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” a point that is repeated throughout the book.  We cannot dispense with the rest of the Bible and all that it tells us about God and Jesus, sin and forgiveness, suffering and hope, death and resurrection.  We cannot substitute theology with psychology.  But for the next two months we are going to take a step back from the heavy duty theology found in other books of the Bible and immerse ourselves in the practical wisdom of Proverbs, because sometimes even Christians need a little Communication for Dummies, a little Money Management for Dummies, a little Human Relationships for Dummies, and those are exactly the themes we will find in the book of Proverbs.

            I once heard a story about a college professor who was approached by a female student about a failing grade in his class.  The seductively clad student came into the professor’s office, leaned over his desk, and said, “I’ll do anything to pass this class.  Anything!”  The professor raised his eyebrows and said, “Anything?”  “Anything,” she nodded.  The professor stood up, leaned over his desk, and whispered to her, “Then study!”

            Proverbs reminds us to study, not because learning is an alternative to faith, but because learning is a component of faith.  Learning about the dynamics of communication and relationships and work and money are tools to help us better serve God.  For we serve God best when we use our heads as well as our hearts.

The Unexpected Servants of God

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 45:1-13; Acts 22:3-16

             In the movie Gran Torino Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crusty embittered old Korean War veteran who harbors a deep revulsion toward Asians, maybe because of his Korean War experience.  As a result, Walt is not happy when a Cambodian family moves in next door.  It gets worse when their teenage son of Thao joins a gang and tries to steal Walt’s prize 1972 Gran Torino sports car.  Walt catches Thao in the act, calls him a string of racist names, and threatens to blow off his head with a rifle.  When the Cambodian family hears about what their son has done, they are so embarrassed they order Thao to make amends by doing chores for Walt, which Walt is not excited about.  Walt does not relish the idea of Thao coming over to his house to do chores, and he repeatedly mocks Thao’s ignorance about anything mechanical.  But as the movie unfolds, Thao proves to be a bright willing student, and Walt discovers he enjoys mentoring this young Cambodian teenager, teaching him about mechanics and even giving him a little advice about dating.

             While all this is going on, a priest is trying to help Walt reconcile his relationship to God, a separate story line that eventually gets entangled in Walt’s relationship to Thao.  It is quite a film.  In the end—and here is a spoiler alert—Walt gives his life to save Thao from the very gang that had tried to recruit him, and in his will leaves Thao the 1972 Gran Torino.

             Believe it or not, this is actually relevant to our scripture reading for today. Isaiah 45 begins with one of the most stunning statements in the Old Testament, verse 1: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus.”  Up to this point the term “anointed” had always referred to an Israelite—first to Israel’s high priests and later to Israel’s anointed king.  In Hebrew it is the word Messiah, which later came to be used for the future king that God would send to save the people of Israel.  But here God uses the term for Cyrus, a Persian emperor: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes.”  God takes this foreign dictator, who doesn’t even believe in the Lord, and offers to help him conquer other nations so as to extend his empire.

             Why does God do that?  The first hint is given in verse 4. God says to Cyrus, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.”

             One nation whom Cyrus defeated is the Babylonians.  As I have mentioned before, the Babylonians were the ones who conquered Israel, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and took many of its people into exile in Babylon.  God intended to use Cyrus the Persian to conquer the Babylonians and set free the Israelites.  Verse 13: “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free.”

             At this point I want to make three observations.  There are, I think, three crucial lessons in this story.  Lesson #1:

1.      God not only works in creation; God works in human history.

I have talked to numerous people over the years who believe in a God who created the world, but who see no particular relevance of this God for their lives today.  They figure there is a God is out there somewhere who got things started, but they don’t pray, they don’t worship, and they don’t seem particularly concerned about what God might be doing in the world now.

  But the Bible is.  Notice what God says in the last two verses of our scripture reading. Verse 12: “I made the earth, and created humankind upon it.”  That is creation.  But then verse 13: “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight.”  That is history.  God not only created the world but intends to straighten it out.  God not only created people but intends to redeem them—to set the captives free, to put an end to all the evil in the world, all the exploitation, all the lying, cheating, and destruction that people wreck on each other.  God not only created the world but intends to save it, bringing to this world the peace and healing and right relationships that God intended for us when we were created.

  Don’t think God created the world and then left the rest up to us.  God is not finished with the world or with us, and we ignore that to our detriment.  God not only works in creation; God works in human history.

2.      God not only works through believers; sometimes God works through unbelievers without them knowing it.

Verse 4 is particularly striking.  God says to Cyrus, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.”  In Cyrus, God chooses to work through a person who does not even know God.

  Apparently the people of Israel were shocked by this. Verse 11: “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?”  Or as Isaiah says in verse 9: “Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ‘What are you making’?”

Those words are directed not to Cyrus but to the Israelites.  The Israelites are thinking, “God, what are you doing?  Promising victory to a pagan emperor?  Offering to help a ruthless dictator conquer the world?  This is crazy.”

  But God wants the people of Israel to understand something.  God does not work only through religious people.  God does not work only through pastors and church committees.  Sometimes God works through crusty old bigots like Walt Kowalski.

  Which brings me to my final observation:

3.      God not only works through unexpected people but changes them in the process.

Notice verse 3. God says to Cyrus, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”

  Did that ever happen?  Did Cyrus the Persian ever come to know the Lord?

  We know from archeological records that in 538 BC Cyrus did indeed conquer the Babylonians, and in that same year issued an edict allowing the Israelite captives to go home and rebuild their city.  Why did he do that?  What did he hope to gain?  It’s not like the Israelites were a powerful nation with whom he might build an alliance.

  Archeology does not answer that question, but the Bible does. Ezra 1:2-3:

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.  Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel.”

            Can God use unexpected people to do God’s work?  Yes, and like a Walt Kowalski, God can change them in the process.

            The poster child for this in the New Testament is the apostle Paul.  Talk about an unexpected servant of God.  Not only did Paul reject any faith in Jesus, he hunted down and arrested those who believed in Jesus.  Paul was as anti-Jesus as they come, but he became one of God’s most remarkable servants for sharing Jesus with others.

Can God work in the hearts of unbelievers?  You bet.  And in the process even the Walt Kowalskis of this world can discover a new life.

Selective Hearing

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 30:8-15; Luke 7:31-35

             One of our newer members at Southminster, Betsy Haslett, is a retired pediatric audiologist, someone who works with children on hearing issues.  One time the parent of school age child came to Betsy and said, “I think my child has a hearing problem.”  So Betsy tested the child.  Afterwards she said to the parent, “It does not seem likely that your child has a hearing problem.  Maybe it’s a listening problem.”

             That, apparently, was the problem with the people of Israel.  In Isaiah 30 God says of them, “For they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord.”  It wasn’t a hearing problem; it was a listening problem.  They weren’t listening to what the Lord said to them through God’s messengers.

            Why?  It wasn’t because they couldn’t hear; it was because they heard only what they wanted to hear.  Verse 10: “Who say to the seers (their preachers), ‘Do not see’; and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions.’”  One Bible commentary translated the end of that verse: “Prophecy not to us what is right; speak to us what suits us” (Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39).

             I remember watching an interview with an oil company executive talking about climate change.  He told the interviewer, “I have talked to numerous scientists who don’t believe in climate change.”  I thought that was an interesting expression.  The scientists I have known don’t usually talk about believing in something or not believing in it.  They talk about experiments, observations, and data, and the probability of certain conclusions that could be drawn from that data.  So I don’t know who these scientists were that this oil company executive had consulted, and I am not a scientist, so I am not in a position to adjudicate between various scientific studies.  But here is what I found interesting: out of all the scientists who have done studies on climate change and its relationship to carbon emissions, and there are many, this oil company executive paid attention to the scientists who debunked the idea.  In other words, he listened to the people who told him what he wanted to hear.

  People do the same thing with churches.  They gravitate to churches and preachers who affirm what they already believe, who tell them the things they want to hear.  I think a better measure of a church is when the preacher reads things from the Bible that you don’t want to hear, like in Isaiah.

  Jesus, of course, said a lot of things that some people did not want to hear, things like “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” or “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”  Some did not appreciate Jesus saying stuff like that, so they looked for ways to discredit him.  We saw that in our first scripture reading.  They called Jesus a glutton and a drunkard for sitting down to eat with tax collectors and sinners.  Of course there is no evidence that Jesus actually got drunk at one of these dinners or even ate too much.  But his opponents used name-calling to discredit him.  I wonder if that ever happens today?  Well, it happened to Jesus, because he was saying things people did not want to hear.

  There is a warning about this in verse 12:

Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel: Because you reject this word and put your trust in oppression and deceit, and rely on them…

            Let me stop here a second.  “You reject this word and put your trust in oppression and deceit.”  When people no longer search for truth, they rely on power.  When people listen only to those who share their point of view, they no longer discuss things, they jockey for control.  They no longer engage in a search for what is true and good; they look for ways to impose their idea of what is true and good by legislation, manipulation, coercion or some other exercise of power.

That’s what the people of Israel were doing: “… you reject this word and put your trust in oppression and deceit, and rely on them.”

             There are consequences of that.  Continuing with verses 12-13:

Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel: Because you reject this word and put your trust in oppression and deceit, and rely on them; therefore this iniquity shall become for you like a break in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse, whose crash comes suddenly in an instant.

            I once heard a lecture by a philosophy professor named Dallas Willard.  He was talking about the philosophical definition of reality.  Philosophers talk about stuff like that.  How do you know what is real and what is not real?  Here was his definition of reality.  He said, “Reality is what you run into when you’re wrong.”

            That’s what the people of Israel were about to find out.  They told their prophets, “Do not prophesy to us about what is right; speak to us smooth things. Tell us what we want to hear.”  But reality was about to crash in on them.

Friends, we cannot ignore God and go our own way without at some point discovering we are wrong—without at some point discovering we can’t manage everything on our own, we don’t have all the wisdom we need in our own head, we can’t live life only for ourselves without ending up lonely, lost, and empty.  Reality is the wall crashing in on us when we discover that life without God is empty.

             But there is hope in the last verse—Verse 15:

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.

When we build up walls around ourselves admitting only the people who agree with us, shutting out the people whom God might send to challenge us, or expand our vision, or enlarge our hearts, or help us grow as the people as the people God wants us to be—when we shut such people out of our lives, we set ourselves up for the crash that happens when reality hits and we realize we have been wrong.

  But when we trust God’s love for us, we don’t need to be afraid.  “In quietness and trust shall be your strength.”  When we trust God, we don’t need to hide behind walls.  When we trust God, we don’t need to surround ourselves only with like-minded people.  When we trust God, we don’t have to fear the prophet or preacher who reads things from the Bible we may not like.  We don’t have to be afraid, because if we relax and take a breath, and let down our defenses long enough to hear God, we will discover how much God loves us and how much better our lives and world can be if we listen.

 

How God is Our Mother

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 66:6-13; Isaiah 63:15-19

            I once saw a bumper sticker which said, “God is coming to judge the world, and She is not pleased.”  I thought about that when I read our second scripture lesson this morning.  It starts out, “Listen, an uproar from the city!  A voice from the temple!  The voice of the Lord, dealing retribution to his enemies.”  It sounds like God is coming to judge the world.  But in this case Isaiah uses a masculine pronoun for God: “dealing retribution to his enemies.”

  But let me explain something about Hebrew pronouns.  In Hebrew, as in Spanish and many other languages, all nouns have gender.  All nouns are either masculine or feminine.  For example, the word “bird” in Hebrew (tsippor) is a feminine word and takes a feminine pronoun whether it is talking about a female bird or a male bird.  A bird in Hebrew is a she, even if it is a male bird.  In Hebrew the word “God”—Elohim—is a masculine noun, which means it takes a masculine pronoun, but that does not necessarily mean that it refers to a male.  In fact in I Kings 11:33 the same word “Elohim” is used in reference to Astarte, a fertility goddess of the Sidonians.  The word is masculine, but it does not necessarily refer to a male.

             The Bible actually makes the point that God is not exclusively male.  Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  The verse uses masculine pronouns—“his” and “he”—because God is a masculine noun.  But the point of the verse is that God is not exclusively male or female.  Both males and females are created in the image of God.

            Which brings me back to Isaiah 66.  Right after announcing God’s judgment, Isaiah shifts and begins talking about childbirth.  Verse 7: “Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son.”  Who is giving birth here?  The first answer is Jerusalem.  Verse 8: “Yet as soon as Zion [Jerusalem] was in labor she delivered her children.”  The point is that the people of Israel will be reborn after their time of captivity in Babylon.  A new people of God will come forth from Jerusalem.  And yet, in this process, it is the Lord who is giving birth to this new people.  Verse 9: “Shall I open the womb and not deliver? says the Lord; shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb? says your God.”  I found it intriguing how this verse blurs the line between the midwife and the woman who is giving birth.  God is pictured as the midwife but also as the one giving birth.  This is confirmed in verse 13: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” There are certainly places in the Bible when God is pictured as a father, but here is a case where God is pictured as a mother.

  Another good example is in Luke 13:34.  Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing, and you were not willing.”  Like the prodigal son running away from the father, we are prodigal chicks running away from the mother hen.

            And that brings me to the real issue in all of these scripture readings.  The real issue is not whether God is male or female.  The real issue is not whether God is our father or mother.  The real issues is whether we have a parent at all, or whether we are orphans, children left to fend for ourselves in an empty universe.

            A few months ago I read a best-selling novel by Delia Owens called Where the Crawdads Sing.  The main character is a girl named Kya living in a shack on the marshes of North Carolina.  Kya is the youngest of five children born to an alcoholic father and a severely abused mother.  All of the children, as well as the mother, are battered by their alcoholic father, until one by one the children get old enough to run away.  Then when Kya is ten years old, her mother also runs away, leaving Kya to fend for herself.  When her father is around, she must avoid him to keep from being hit, and when he is gone for weeks at a time on his drunken binges, Kya must figure out how to survive as an orphan, living off the edible plants and wildlife of the marsh.

            Kya’s case is extreme, but over the years I have met numerous people who as children were abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents.  Once I talked to a nine year old boy, not in this church but somewhere else.  He was living with his aunt.  I asked him what it was like for him living with his aunt, and he said, “It’s okay.”  Then he said, “My mom doesn’t want to be my mom.  She’d rather use drugs.”  I was afraid to ask where his father might be.

            Sometimes people don’t have happy memories of their father or mother.  I know that many of you do have happy memories of your parents, but some don’t.  So for you calling God father or mother may not be a happy association.

            But what the Bible wants you to know is that you are not an orphan.  You are not alone in this world.  Maybe your mother did not want to be your mother, but God does.  Maybe your father was absent from your life, or abusive.  But God wants to be there for you like a hen gathering her brood or like a mother comforting her child.

            As I have mentioned before, my father was a career Air Force sergeant.  He was sent overseas four different times while I was growing up, each time for about a year to a year and a half.  I once figured out that my father was gone for six of my first eighteen years of life, almost one third of my childhood.

            I didn’t blame my father for that.  My father grew up during the Depression.  He knew viscerally the fear of not having a job, the fear of not having enough income to provide for your family.  So he did whatever it took to make sure he had a job and kept it, and if that meant being away from his family for months or years at a time, that was the price.

           The effect, however, was that my father missed a significant part of my childhood.  But my mother was always there.  She may not have always been a perfect mother, but she was there.  When I was riding my bike too fast around a curve and my tires slid out from under me, and I scraped one side of my body across the asphalt, my mother was there to bandage me up.  And when I got an appendicitis and was throwing up all night, my mother stayed up with me, and when it didn’t get better she took me to the hospital, and after surgery she was the first person I saw when I woke up.  My dad was overseas during these times.

             I have no trouble calling God father.  I have no trouble praying the Lord’s Prayer.  But for me God will always be more like a mother, the one cheering for me when I do something right, the one bandaging me up when I do something stupid; the one who will be there when my job is over and my home is sold and my body has quit working.  For me God will always be like a mother.  She will be there when I wake up from that greatest of all surgeries called death and will celebrate with me the birth of a new life.

 

Running on Empty

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 40:27-31; I Kings 19:1-8

             When I started here at Southminster five years ago, I worked two weeks and then I had to take a vacation.  It wasn’t because the job was so stressful, but because long before accepting the position here I had signed up with my daughter and son to ride STP—the two day Seattle to Portland bike ride, which took place two weeks after I started here.

             At the time I was excited to be doing a two day bike ride with my children.  Nothing for them to do for two days except talk to their father.  It was going to be great.  The problem, I soon realized, is that I could not keep up with them.  Within the first mile they had to stop and wait for me.  I somewhat managed to keep up on Rainier Avenue because they had to stop about every three blocks for a traffic signal.  But by the time we got to the Puyallup hill, I was struggling.  After that they rode behind me.  I should have been riding behind them, so I could draft off of them, but they had to ride behind me so they could keep their eye on me, make sure I didn’t fall over and die.

             By the time we got to Chehalis, a little over 100 miles from Seattle, I was running on empty.  Fortunately, we had rented a room with a family that had opened their home for STP, so after that first day I at least had a bed to fall in.  But I had absolutely nothing left, and yet I knew that the next day I had to get up and do it again—another 100 miles.

             That was the situation for the people of Israel in Isaiah 40.  As I have mentioned several times in our study of Isaiah this year, the people of Israel were conquered by the Babylonians in the time of Isaiah.  Their homes and temple were destroyed, many people were killed, and many of the rest were taken away as slaves to Babylon.  By the time we come to Isaiah 40, which begins a section of the book that may have been written decades later by one of Isaiah’s students, the people of Israel had been in captivity for about 50 years.  Their faith was running on empty.

             You can see this in some of the psalms, some of which are psalms of lament—outpourings of grief—from the time of exile.  Let me read an example.  This is psalm 44:23-26:

Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?  Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?  Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help.  Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

Fifty years is a long time to wait for God’s help.  At the beginning of our second scripture reading from Isaiah 40, the people of Israel are quoted as saying, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”  You can see why they felt that way.  Their faith was running on empty.

            But it is not just the people of Israel who have ever felt that way.  I hope you have had the chance to read our latest issue of The Southminster Servant, our quarterly church magazine that came out on Easter.  In it is a particularly powerful piece by Erin McArdel called “My Lament.” It is written in the style of the psalms, the kind of language that would have resonated with the people of Israel in exile.  Only it expresses eloquently the experience of God’s people today.  Erin’s lament begins, “Hey, God…it’s me again.  Do you remember me or have you forgotten?”  Remember what the people of Israel say to God in Isaiah 40: “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by me God.”  God’s people still feel that way sometimes.  Erin’s lament continues,

How do I keep believing your goodness when so much is so hard, when the suffering in my own life and in the lives of my fellow humans, and in the life of our planet feels way to much—It’s overwhelming.

How do I keep believing that your goodness and love prevail when the toxins of hatred, violence, oppression, and evil seep deeper and deeper into the fabric of the human experience—It’s heart wrenching.

How do I keep believing that you are Redeemer when things have not been made right… when I cry out day and night asking for deliverance, and it seems our cries fall on deaf ears?  How long must we wait?  All of creation is groaning for renewal, restoration, re-creation.  When will you answer?---It’s exhausting. (Issue 3, Spring 2019)

She is echoing the words of the psalms, the words of Isaiah.  God’s people in all times and places have sometimes found themselves running on empty.

  But to these people Isaiah has good news—verse 28: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary.”  Though we get tired, God does not.  Though we feel like giving up, God does not.  And that allows God to empower the exhausted.  Verses 30-31:

 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

            To me the interesting thing about this verse is the idea of waiting.  “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.”  I don’t like waiting.  If there are three people ahead of me in the checkout line at the grocery store, I get antsy, especially if one of them has to buy something from the liquor cabinet.

            But maybe waiting can be a gift.  If you are running on empty, waiting is a chance to rest, a chance to catch your breath and try to remember where you are going and why you are in such a hurry.  It also gives God a chance to catch up with us.

            Which is what happened to Elijah in our first scripture reading.  Elijah is running from Queen Jezebel, the wicked queen who was determined to kill him for challenging her authority to establish a new religion.  To get away from Jezebel, Elijah ran all the way from Jezreel to Beersheba, about 100 miles.  I was exhausted from riding a bike 100 miles, but Elijah ran all the way.  But by the time he got to Beersheba he was exhausted.  So he laid down under a broom tree and told God he wanted to die.  But God didn’t let him die; instead God let him sleep.  Then when Elijah woke up, he found a cake next to him with a jar of water.  He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep.  When he woke up the second day, there was more food and water for him.  And suddenly life didn’t look so bad.  After he accepted food from God, and rest, he was able to keep going.

            After my first day riding a bike from Seattle to Chehalis, I was exhausted.  I could not have pedaled one more block.  But after a night’s sleep and breakfast the next morning provided by our hosts, I was shocked by how much better I felt.  I got back on the bike, and I didn’t hurt.  And I started riding and I felt okay.  I was hurting later in the day, and by the time I got to Portland, I was exhausted again.  But I made it, and I wasn’t sure I would make it when I stopped the night before in Chehalis.

            Waiting, resting, eating—these things can have a marvelous effect, and God can use them to restore us, along with the encouragement of hearing God’s word and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

            Toward the end of her lament Erin says to God, “Take my overwhelmed, heart-wrenched, exhausted, and broken down self into your hands and revive my life that I may sing again in boldness, faith, and trust.”

            That’s the cry of God’s people throughout the centuries, and the Bible promises it will not go unheeded.

Launching the New Creation

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-4

             When my children were young we occasionally played a game called Taboo, a game where you use clue words or phrases to help a player guess the target word.  The trick is that certain clue words are taboo—off limits.  In one round we were trying to help my son, who at the time was probably around ten years old, guess the word “Bible.”  The taboo words, the words we could not use in any clue, were book, scripture, church, and pulpit.  So we gave him this clue: “The thing we always read on Sunday morning.”  He said, “Comics.”

             Well, this morning we are actually going to read a comic strip in church.  I showed this strip two weeks ago in my class on the Theology of Calvin and Hobbes.  In the first frame Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “I wonder where we go when we die.”  Hobbes answers, “Pittsburgh?”  To which Calvin says, “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”

             When you think of heaven, I doubt many of you think of Pittsburgh or even Seattle.  And yet when the Bible pictures heaven, it thinks of a city.  Revelation 21, verse 1-2:

 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

             This vision of heaven is almost a direct quote from the prophet Isaiah.  In Isaiah 65:17-18, God says,

 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

             In both scriptures heaven is not described as a place where we leave behind our earthly bodies, and our earthly cities, and this whole earthly world.  It’s a place where these things are transformed, where our earthly bodies no longer suffer, and where earthly cities like Jerusalem, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and even Washington, D. C. become the healthy, just, nurturing, life-giving communities they were supposed to be.

             Isaiah elaborates on this theme in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 25.  Notice the down-to-earth imagery.  Verse 6:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

The mountain mentioned here is probably Mount Zion, the temple mount in Jerusalem.  But it’s a picture of Jerusalem transformed and expanded, a place of welcome for people all over the world.  In the new Jerusalem there won’t be rich nations and poor nations, some people living in penthouses while others live in refugee camps.  In the new Jerusalem everyone will be invited to the same table to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation.

            Isaiah extends this image in verse 7-8:

 And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.

             Compare this to the vision of Revelation 21, verse 4:

God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

Illness will be gone, as will violence and abuse.  And this won’t be just for us.  God will wipe away tears from all faces; God will take away the shroud that is cast over all people.  The whole world will be transformed.

            So what does this have to do with Easter?  How is this connected to Jesus’ resurrection?  Jesus’ resurrection is the launch pad for this new creation.  Jesus’ resurrection is, in a sense, God’s down payment on a new heaven and new earth.

            There is an important detail in the Easter story found in all four gospels.  All of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection agreed on this.  The tomb was empty!  The body was gone.  Jesus was risen bodily from the dead.  Easter is not a case of Jesus leaving earthly bodily life behind; it is a case of God transforming earthly bodily life, beginning with Jesus.

            There is a scene in John’s gospel where the risen Jesus comes to his disciples in a room where the door has been shut and locked.  To reassure them that he is real, he shows them the nail prints in his hands and feet.  Think about that image.  Jesus’ risen body still bears the marks of his crucifixion, but it can go into a room through locked doors.  Jesus is risen bodily from the dead, but it is a transformed body.  He has a body that can never again be shut out; it can never again be excluded.  It can never again suffer under Pontius Pilate or be crucified on a Roman cross.  It is bodily life redeemed.

            That’s what Isaiah and Revelation are talking about: bodily life redeemed, earthly bodily life transformed into the kind of life together God meant for us.

            Admittedly, the new creation is not yet finished.  Easter is the launching of the new creation, but not its completion.  We still live in a world where bodies are crushed by violence and riddled by disease.  We still live in a world where death is very much with us and tears saturate the ground.  But Jesus resurrection marks the beginning of a new creation, and every time we work to heal human bodies, every time we care for them and do things to make them whole, we strike a blow for this new creation.  We declare that death will not have the final word; Jesus will.

Likewise, every time we provide shelter for the homeless or better yet an affordable home, and every time we serve a hungry person at the food bank, or better yet help them find appropriate, life-sustaining work, we strike a blow for the new creation.  And every time we clear a landmine from a farm in Vietnam, every time we support a school for disenfranchised children in the Dominican Republic, every time we intervene to stop abuse or violence, and work for reconciliation and peace between races and nations, we strike a blow for the new creation.  We declare that poverty, injustice and suffering shall not have the last word in this world; Jesus will.

            In his book Miracles C. S. Lewis says that miracles write for us in small letters what God will one day write in large letters across the whole canvas of creation (p. 219).  That’s the key to Easter.  Easter writes for us in small letters what God will one day write in large letters across the whole canvas of creation, and through Jesus we are invited to be part of it.

 

One Prisoner's Story

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 53:1-6; Mark 15:1-15

             My name means “son of the father,” which is strange because I’m not at all like my father.  My father was a prestigious Jewish official.  I am what some might call a terrorist.  But before you judge me, consider this.  We were an oppressed people living under a brutal dictatorship.  I know you’ve heard the story of what King Herod did in Bethlehem, how he killed all the children two years old and younger because he was afraid one of them might grow up and take over his throne.  Shouldn’t we fight against a tyrant like that?  And then there was Pontius Pilate.  Pilate seized some of the money from our temple fund and used it for one of his own public works projects.  When we protested he sent soldiers disguised as civilians to infiltrate the demonstration.  At his signal they pulled out clubs and began beating people to death.  Hundreds died.  Is it wrong to take up arms against such a corrupt and brutal dictator?  I wasn’t a terrorist.  I was a freedom fighter.  I led a band of Jews who ambushed small squads of Roman soldiers, killing as many as possible, so that the Romans would be worn down by the mounting toll of casualties and finally decide to leave.

I expected to die in this struggle.  I was fully prepared to give my life in glorious battle for the sake my people.  What I did not expect was to be captured alive and spend my last days in a Roman jail, chained to a wall, waiting to have my wrists and ankles nailed to a cross.

            On the day of my execution I heard voices in the courtyard outside.  A crowd had gathered in front of Pilate’s Praetorium.  Maybe they are here to demand my release.  For weeks I had dreamed of a nationwide strike—masses of Jewish people marching through the streets carrying signs and shouting, “Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!”  But I knew it wouldn’t happen.  For decades the Romans humiliated and exploited us: seizing our land, making slaves of our sons and daughters, forcing us to pay taxes to support the very soldiers who oppressed us.  For generations we lived under this tyranny but none of my people would join me in the fight.  They just sat in their homes and synagogues praying for a Messiah, some imagined Savior who would come to set them free.

            Just then my cell door rattled open and the jailer stepped in.  “I have some news for you,” he said, taking a bite of a large fig.  “We’ve arrested that Galilean fellow from Nazareth, the one you call Jesus.  He was condemned to death this morning by Pontius Pilate.”

            “Why should I care?” I snapped.

            “I just thought you’d like to know,” the jailer said, popping the rest of the fig into his mouth.  “Isn’t he supposed to be your Messiah?”

            I had heard about Jesus, of course.  Early on I even thought about joining him. He spoke of God’s kingdom with an authority that made even the Jewish leaders tremble.  Then he backed up his words with demonstrations of power: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, raising people from the dead.  He had all the qualifications of the promised Messiah; only he didn’t act like the Messiah.  He had no weapons, no armies, no political base.  He just wandered through the country preaching, as if words could change people’s lives.

            “Why should I care about Jesus?” I said to the jailer.  “He was a coward and a fake.  He went around preaching love when all you Romans understand is power.  Love?  Love never opened any prison doors.  If you want freedom you have to fight for it.”

            “Well, maybe so,” the jailer shrugged.  “But he sure did all right by you.”

            “What are you talking about?” I asked.

            “I’m talking about your freedom,” the jailer said.  “That’s what I came to tell you.  Pilate has a custom of releasing one Jewish prisoner during the Passover.  He was going to release Jesus, but since the people wanted Jesus crucified, he decided to release you instead.”

            What?  I was convicted terrorist.  Jesus was an unarmed, penniless carpenter.  Jesus never lifted a sword or attacked a Roman soldier in his life.  Yet Jesus was to be executed as a threat to the government, while I was set free?  It made no sense.

            “It’s a trick,” I said to jailer.

            “Sure.  Everything to you is a trick,” the jailer said.  “The only thing you understand is hate.  But what have you gotten for your hate, Barabbas?  Each attack on Roman soldiers leads to a new round of violent retaliation by the Romans, which in turn leads to new attacks.  Where does it end?”

            “It will end when we drive you Romans into the sea,” I snarled.

            Jailer shrugged.  “Yes, and then what?  Suppose you drive us out, Barabbas.  Suppose you get rid of us the way we got rid of the Greeks.  What then?  By the time you defeat us you will have shed so much blood and built up so much hate, you won’t know how to live any more as a human being.  You will rule over an angry nation full of violent people, and you will rule them with the same tyranny we did.”

            I glared at him.  “You, a Roman soldier, have the audacity to lecture me about hate.  You kill my people, occupy our land, use us as pawns in your wars of conquest, and you dare to talk to me about hate.”

            “I understand your hate,” the jailer said.  “But I’m telling you that hate won’t set you free.  Only love can do that.”  Then he came over, knelt down in front of me, and unfastened the shackles on my ankles.  Then he stood up and took off the chains from my wrists.  “There,” he said, “now you are free.”

            I rubbed my wrists and slowly stretched my arms and legs.  What was that I had said?  “Love never opened any prison doors.”  But here was a prison door opened for me.  And it wasn’t opened with swords, it wasn’t opened with armies, it wasn’t opened with violence.  It was opened by someone willing to take my place on a cross.

Then I remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah that I had learned as a child: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

            The jailer motioned for me to go, but in the doorway of the cell I stopped to ask him one more question.  I said, “If you really believe that armies and swords will never conquer hate, why do you use them?”

            The jailer thought about this for a moment, then said, “Because we are afraid.  We are afraid of losing our lives, our homes, our freedom, our privileges.  We are afraid of what hate may do to us, so we fight, hoping that if we cannot destroy hate, at least we can restrain it.”

            I looked at the jailer and for the first time I saw the person inside the uniform.  “So you are a prisoner as much as I am,” I said.

            He laughed.  “Of course.  We must always keep up our guard.  We can never relax.  A jail imprisons people on both sides of the bars.  But what else can we do?”

            “It’s strange,” I said.  “Yesterday you were planning to kill me, and given the chance I would have killed you.  But today, an innocent man who did not try to kill anyone is hanging on a cross, and you and I are talking as if we were friends.  What do you make of that?”

            “I don’t know, the jailer said, “But if he is the Messiah, he has a strange way of liberating people.”

            “Yes,” I admitted.  “But it works.”

 

An Inclusive Welcome

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 56:1-8, John 10:11-16

             As I said in the eNews this week, our church has received three cemetery plots at Washington Memorial Park near SeaTac, donated by the family of Bill and Darlene Adams.  Bill and Darlene were members of this church from 1964 to the 1980s.  After Bill’s death in 2014 and Darlene’s death last year, they were buried at a cemetery in Sequim closer to where their daughter lives, and the daughter then decided to donate to our church the plots they had owned in SeaTac.

             Two weeks ago Bill Gwyn and I met Bill and Darlene’s daughter to look at the plots and see about transferring the deed.  They are in a lovely section of the cemetery, and it was very kind of the family to donate them.  My shock came when I read the original 1952 deed.  The second paragraph says, “The Company agrees to sell, and the Purchaser to buy, according to the terms hereof, a Memorial Plot in Washington Memorial Park, … containing 3 adult internment spaces to be used exclusively for the internment of members of the Caucasian Race.”  I was stunned.  I had no idea there were segregated cemeteries in Seattle in the 1950s.

  I should not have been surprised since I knew there were intentionally segregated neighborhoods across Washington.  I once saw a covenant document from the 1950s prohibiting non-whites from buying houses in certain Spokane neighborhoods, which had profound economic implications, since white veterans, for example, were able to come back from World War II and get loans to buy houses in a growing real estate market from which African American veterans were excluded.  And that equity advantage got passed on for generations.  I knew that, so I should not have been surprise that cemeteries were segregated.

             But it got me thinking.  Why segregate a cemetery?  What is the fear?  That crime will go up?  That people of color will rise up out of their graves and assault the white folks?  That black folks and white folks mixing six feet underground will kill the grass?  What were they afraid of?

             Then I got to thinking theologically.  What happens on the other side of these graves?  What happens when all these white people buried in this cemetery get to the pearly gates and discover they are standing next to people of color, people of every race, language, and nation together before the throne of God singing God’s praise?  Do they turn around and leave?  Do they decide to go to the other place where people might go when they die, where there probably is segregation?

             All these thoughts were going through my head looking at those cemetery plots.  Then I began studying today’s scripture passage from Isaiah 56.  Verse 3:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”

Apparently when the people of Israel were taken into exile in Babylon, some of the Babylonians heard from them about the Lord and became attracted to their faith.  They wanted to serve a God like the Lord, a God who created people for love, not sport, who believed that every person from the king on down had equal dignity in the sight of God.  They were attracted to a God like that, and when the people of Israel were allowed to return to their land and rebuild the temple, they wanted to come.  But would they be welcome?

             The same issue applied to eunuchs.  Eunuchs were people who were castrated—rendered sexually incapacitated—in order to serve in the king’s palace.  The fear was that these palace officials might try to have an affair with one of the king’s wives, and they were castrated to prevent that from happening.  This happened even to some of the people of Israel.

  These eunuchs felt like a dried tree because they could produce no fruit, no children, which meant they would have no future descendants to remember them after they were gone.  But look at what God says to the eunuchs.  Verses 4-5:

For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

            And to the foreigners God says—verses 6-7:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

            Jesus makes an interesting reference to this verse when he throws the money changers out of the temple, who were exploiting foreigners by charging them to exchange their foreign coins for temple coins in order to make an offering.  Jesus quotes this verse when he says to the moneychangers in the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

Jesus also has in mind Isaiah 56 when he says in our first scripture reading: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”—in other words, people who are not already part of the in-group.  “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  Jesus is probably talking here about Gentiles—non-Jews, people of other races, nations, and languages who will be included in his family.

            In God’s new kingdom, those who have been excluded are welcomed in.  Those we may not have felt comfortable associating with will be there.  Those we may have deemed unworthy to be buried next to us, will be standing with us on the other side of that grave.  That’s how it will be in God’s kingdom.  So we better get used to it here and now.

            Which brings me back to the deed for the cemetery plots.  When I saw the wording of the original deed, I said to the funeral director, “You don’t still have this wording, right?”  He smiled at me, because as it turned out our funeral director was African American.  He assured me that those provisions were gone.  But when we get our own deed to those cemetery plots, I’m going to look to make sure, because eventually we intend to sell these plots at a discount or donate them to a needy family, but we will have nothing to do with them if that provision still applies.

            And here’s why: It is not just an issue of justice, though it is that.  It is also a matter of getting ready for God’s kingdom.  We all of us need to start practicing now for the kingdom of God.  That’s why we had a delightful dinner last Sunday night at our church with the folks from City of Glory, the Swahili speaking Christian fellowship that meets at our church.  I know that one small event does not solve all the problems of racism in our world, or even in the church.  But still I think it is an important sign.  In our church all people are welcome.  In our cemetery plots all races are welcome.  Because the kingdom of God is not going to be segregated, friends.  When it comes to an eternal relationship with God, we are all in this together.  We are all in need of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and that grace—not our race, not our sexuality, not our economic status—that grace will bring us home.

Bare Root Jesus

Isaiah 43:1-7, Colossians 2:8-19

I love fruit trees. Nothing makes me feel that the world is right the same way that fruit trees and perennial vegetables do. With the right care they just make food, year in and year out. Sorrel, berries, and my ever self-seeding winter red kale are the cornerstones of my garden. I also have, packed onto our tiny 4000 sq foot lot five fruit trees. Now they’re all on dwarf stock and I keep them well pruned. It wasn’t until after I had planted them all that I learned I did it wrong. Reading the easily recommendable book, “Growing Small Fruit Trees,” I learned to forget about dwarf stock which keeps trees small by being well, an inferior root system. If we were drawing theological analogies here, dwarf stock would be like the prosperity gospel. Instead, the thing to do is get the strongest, most fruitful tree variety you can find and either plant it in a clump for pollination or for self-pollinating varieties, get a bare root plant and lop off it’s trunk about eight inches off the ground. Both techniques take a robust tree and give it freedom to grow in a new way.

One of my early learnings in gardening was the importance of breaking up a root ball when transferring a plant from pot to ground. As a gardening pacifist, it seemed to me counter-intuitive that I should disrupt anything the plant has done, that spreading out its roots, tearing and breaking some, would ultimately produce a healthier plant.

Those of you who read my sermon teaser this week know where I’m going with this. This practice of unpotting plants is exactly what that Sri Lankan Christian, DT Niles, was talking about when he said that Christianity has been brought all over the world as a potted plant, rather than being allowed to grow in the native soil of each culture it encounters.

I was set on this path as I read this passage in Isaiah. Initially I had selected it because of it’s uplifting character. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” declares the LORD. This is a powerful image of God’s faithfulness, through all the trials of life: through waters, rivers, fire and flame God’s faithfulness will persist.

But then I noticed something disquieting. This line about Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba struck me. God giving “people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life,” is a particular promise to the people of Israel. The idea of God ransoming one people with another, particularly with African nations, left a bad taste in my mouth. Now references to God’s particular love for the Chosen People are not uncommon in the Old Testament. Even in the Gospels, Jesus had to be prevailed upon by the Syrophoenician woman that she was deserving of Jesus’ attention like a dog finding scraps at the table.

This is a little uncomfortable. It’s been called the “scandal of particularity,” God’s willingness to choose a particular people in time.

Now the chosen people, the nation of Israel, was never rigidly defined by modern constructs of race or even kinship. Faithfulness has always been the threshold by which people entered the covenant. We see this in the stories of Rahab and Ruth, both outsiders who not only join the covenant people of God, but who are named in Jesus’ own ancestry.

How is it that we understand this promise from God to also be for us?

Through the early history of the Christian faith, the church adapted as it encountered new cultural enclaves. From the small community of Palestinian Jews who were Jesus’ first followers, to the Greco/Roman and Ethiopian communities to which it first spread, through centuries of growth in North Africa and Europe, through the reformation and on to today’s North American pop culture, Christianity adapts to new cultural norms.

We can see some of this evolution in the names we use for Jesus, from the Hebrew “Yesua” to the Greek “Iesus” from which we get our English name, “Jesus.” Yes, barring his divinity, the human person we call Jesus wouldn’t recognize his name if we said it to him. It doesn’t even carry the same number of syllables!

The cultural markers we often associate with Christianity--stained glass, organ music, pews -- these are all just European cultural norms with nothing distinctly Christian about them.

Last month marked the 500th anniversary of Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrival in Mexico which led not just to the downfall of the Aztec empire, but also to the forcible conversion and effective enslavement the native population there.

Throughout the Colonial era, Europeans delivered Christianity all over the world with much worse cultural baggage than pews and stained glass. The individualism of our post-enlightenment Western culture doesn’t fit within many community-oriented native cultures.

Aboriginal children in Australia, like Native American children here, were taken from their homes and placed in “Christian” boarding schools where they were forced to adopt European cultural practices. In some places these schools were in operation into the 1980s. The first U.S. school of this kind was founded with the slogan, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Native children were shorn of their hair, stripped of their language, given new names, and forbidden to practice any part of their native culture. These schools, while well-intentioned, were a practice of cultural genocide. In just 2016, at the 222 General Assembly, our own denomination issued an apology to the stolen generations of Native Americans for our complicity in the Indian-assimilation movement. This is from that statement:

In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ, our hearts and minds were closed to the value of your wisdom and lifeways. We did not understand the full extent of the Gospel of Christ! We should have affirmed the commonality between your spirituality and our understanding that God’s sovereignty extends with length from East to West, with breadth from North to South, with depth throughout the Earth, and with height throughout the Sky and Heavens.

Even worse, we arrogantly thought that Western European culture and cultural expressions were necessary parts of the Gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition for your accepting the Gospel. We tried to make you be like us and, in so doing, we helped to diminish the Sacred Vision that made you who you are. Thus, we demonstrated that we did not fully understand the Gospel we were trying to preach. (link)

This may be hard to hear. But, here in the season of Lent especially, it’s ok for us to feel a sense of lament. It’s ok for us to lament first because only then can God do the deep work of healing and restoration. It is discomforting to be sure, but God can work in our discomfort too.

Now, my broad impression of the church through the sweep of history is that it has been very concerned with its doctrine. Wars have been fought over beliefs about the divine/human nature of Jesus (and to this day we aren’t quite on the  same page there with our Orthodox kin).

This is why I find the Colossians reading so intriguing. Here we turn a corner. Not only does it answer Isaiah’s exclusiveness, but doctrine is not its primary concern. The writer of Colossians, whether Paul or one of his successors, is chiefly concerned with preserving Christian liberty.

“16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

And so we consider that substance.

Imagine. Imagine Christianity like a teabag, infusing into the water it sits in. For 2000 years Christianity has been infusing the cultures around the Mediterranean. For 500 years it’s been steeping in Mexico. Or imagine that Christianity is a grape, like say Chardonnay, that takes on the characteristics of its environment--or as the French (and your wine snob friends) would call it “terrwa.” When allowed to grow in local soil instead of in a pot, unique flavors particular to the region infuse the fruit of the plant.

Look at Christian churches that sit atop Aztec temple sites. Look at an Orthodox sanctuary and watch people there venerate icons. Consider the Mayan priests who offer sacrifices on the grounds of Catholic churches in Guatemala--I’ll confess, this one made me nervous!

Consider Aboriginal Christians in Australia. When the first cave painters in Europe began to decorate their world 30,000 years ago, Aboriginal people had already been in Australia for 20,000 years. Their experience of the world is radically different than ours. The Western notion of linear time is foreign. Distinctions between the sacred and profane, the holy and the dirty don’t exist. What could Christianity look like in that world without its Western pot? Well, they’re doing their own theology. They’re figuring it out. Rainbow Spirit Theology and the Jesus Dreaming are two approaches. One Aboriginal man said,

"I learned from my father one of the most precious things to live my life with. He once said to me, 'Bubbi, just think, you come from a people that used to walk with [the] Holy Spirit across this land because this is His country and we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are His children. That is why our lands own us and give us our spiritual connections. Our Creation Beings walked with Him and with our ancestors for thousands of years.'" (link)

At the NEXT Church Conference that pastors Ken, Erin and I went to a few weeks ago, there was a presenter from the Yakama Nation named Corey Graves. Now Corey has been a Christian since he was seven, and for decades he participated and then worked in a “Western” church that preached a “replacement theology.” While not as extreme as the philosophy of “kill the Indian, save the man,” it is on that end of the spectrum. In the last ten years, Corey had an epiphany, a vision from God of a ministry to native youth that honored their traditions and drew them into relationship with Jesus, or Yeshua, his tribal name. This path of Yeshua involves unlearning the abusive theology and toxic gospel of cultural eradication imposed on so many Native Americans. Corey and the leaders of his “Mending Wings” ministry have created a bridge between the longhouse faith and the path of Yeshua.

Is there room in the body for such as these? Is their room, with Christ as our head, for us to be nourished and held together in all our diversity? With our European organs, Aboriginal djembes, and Native drums? Can we allow others their own festivals, new moons, amd sabbaths? Can we trust that the same Spirit animates our seeking? Will we break away the pot, exposing the bare root of Jesus and allow the plant of faith to grow into new forms? Can we trust with the author of Colossians that in this body we are all alive together, that the substance belongs to Christ?

Can we trust that all mission is merely participation in the redemptive mission of God, who declares in Isaiah 43:1, “I have redeemed you! I have called you by name!” Can we trust that God has gone before us?

Can we have an even bigger, more liberating concept of God?

In this body, held together by the ligaments of baptism and the sinews of communion, there is room for the Rainbow Spirit Theology of the Aborigines, and the Yeshua Path of the Native Americans, there is room for our Orthodox brothers and sisters, for Catholics, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and yes, even Presbyterians. And thank God there’s room for you and me too.

God did not give the Egyptians and Ethiopians as ransom for Israel. Nor for us. God did not sacrifice the lives of Native Americans in favor of our European ancestors. God did not give these as ransom because God chose instead to give Jesus, God’s own son. And God gave Jesus as ransom for not just the covenant people of Israel, but for the Egyptians, Ethiopians and the people of Sheba. God gave Jesus for the Native Americans, the Aztecs and Aborigines. And yes, God gave Jesus for Europeans too.

On Easter we all celebrate the saving death of our risen Lord, whether we call him Yeshua, Joshua, Yeasou, “Hesus,” Iesus, or even just Jesus. In every language, his name ALWAYS means, “The Lord is salvation.”



Finding Satisfaction

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 55:1-7, John 6:25-35

             As I said in the eNews this week, I never thought I would quote Lady Gaga in a sermon.  But here goes.  These are lyrics from Lady Gaga’s academy award winning song “Shallows”:

 Tell me something, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there something else you're searching for?

I'm falling
In all the good times I find myself longing
For change
And in the bad times, I fear myself.

 Tell me something, boy
Aren't you tired tryin' to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain't it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I'm falling
In all the good times I find myself longing
For change
And in the bad times, I fear myself.

             Isn’t it interesting that Lady Gaga raises the same issue as Isaiah?  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

            Earlier this year I had lunch with a friend from high school who had grown up across the street from me in Tacoma.  During an earlier visit, I told him about my book A Faith Worth Believing, so he got one and read it.  When he finished it, he contacted me and said he would like to talk about it, so we met for lunch.  He told me he had thought carefully about what he was going to say, and he decided to begin with a story.  He said, “When I go to the grocery store, as I am checking out the clerks always ask the same question.  They say, ‘Did you find everything you were looking for?’”  He looked at me and said, “When I read your book, I realized I hadn’t found everything I was looking for.”

At first I thought he meant he had not found what he was looking for in the book, that the book had disappointed him.  But then I realized that was not what he meant.  He meant that the book had raised for him a question: “Have I found what I’m looking for in life?”  And his answer was no.

We talked for another hour about his experience growing up with an alcoholic parent and all the things he had gone through since high school: touring with a rock band, getting married, getting divorced, losing his job, getting another job, but still wondering what he was looking for.  He concluded by saying, “I think I need to start going to church.”

  If no one else ever reads my book, that conversation alone makes it worth writing it.

             As both my friend and Lady Gaga recognized, there is a void in our lives which cannot be filled at a grocery story.  There is a search going on that does not end with getting a degree, getting a job, getting married, getting a house or getting anything else.

            Which brings me back to Isaiah 55.  Here is the first irony in Isaiah 55.  You cannot buy what you are looking for, but you can have it for free.  “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

            How do you buy something without money?  Simple, you accept it as a gift.  Notice the verbs that are used in Isaiah 55, verses 2-3:

-          “Listen carefully to me”

-          “Incline your ear”

-          “Come to me”

-          “Listen, so that you may live”

It is not the things we do that will make our lives meaningful.  It is not the things we buy that will give us satisfaction.  It’s the words we listen to and the person speaking them.  Meaning is not found in possessions or accomplishments but in a relationship with Someone whose words we can trust and who will be there with us when everything else is gone.

            Did you notice the similarity between Isaiah 55 and our first scripture reading in John 6?  A crowd of people come to Jesus wanting to make him king because he has just fed 5000 people with five loaves bread.  Who wouldn’t want a king like that?  Someone who could balance the budget, fund social security, increase spending for education, and provide cradle to grave Medicare, and do it without raising taxes.  He is the ideal candidate for president.

But Jesus says to them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  Son of Man is an expression Jesus often uses to refer to himself.  It is your relationship with Jesus that gives you food for eternal life.

The crowd does not understand this.  They are still thinking about accomplishments and acquisitions, so they say to Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Their very question is based on the idea that satisfaction comes from works, from what we do.

But Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he sent.”  It is not your work that will bring ultimate satisfaction to your life; it is your relationship to God, a relationship that Jesus came to make possible.

But there is something else in Isaiah 55 that gives our lives meaning.  Not only are we given a relationship to God, it is a relationship we can share with others.  Verse 5: “See, you will call nations that you do not know, and nations that you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God.”

For several years in Spokane I belonged to a fitness club.  One morning while I was working out, the background music was interrupted by an advertisement.  A voice came on inviting people to join the 24-hour Fitness staff as a trainer.  The voice said, “You can change people’s lives forever, and there aren’t many people who can say that about their job.”

When I heard that announcement I sort of smiled to myself.  I looked around the gym at all the people there, including those strong, muscle-toned trainers, and I thought, “You know, all of you will eventually get arthritis or cancer or heart disease or macular degeneration or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or some other terminal malady.”  If you want to change people’s lives forever, don’t be a trainer; be a minister!  Sooner or later our bodies will let us down, as will everything else to which we might commit our lives: career, possessions, advancement, even spouses, parents, or children.  Sooner or later all these good things will let us down, especially if they become the sole focus of our lives.

“Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  And here is another irony: if you seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, you will discover more satisfaction in the other areas of your life.  If your job, your family, your possessions, and even your precious but deteriorating body are not the ultimate priorities of your life, you will find more joy in them than if they were.  Seek first the Bread of Life, and all the other bread in your life will be more satisfying.

Memory and Hope

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 43:14-21; Isaiah 63:7-15

When I was a student at Whitworth College in the 1970s, some friends and I began visiting an elderly woman named Lillie.  Lillie lived alone in a small ramshackle house on the north side of Spokane.  One of my friends met her at a department store, and she seemed so lonely and disheveled, almost like a bag lady, that my friend decided to start visiting her and persuaded a group of us to begin visiting her.  The first time we went to her house—this was about 1973—she was clearly in mourning.  The drapes were closed, and she was sitting on her sofa in tears clutching a picture of her deceased husband.  As she held the picture she told us about how good her husband had been to her and how anguished she felt when he was stricken with cancer.  I finally worked up the nerve to ask her when he died.  She said, “1957,” which at that point was 16 earlier.  I asked if this was a special day for her, like their anniversary or her husband’s birthday, but no, she was just grieving.  In subsequent visits I discovered that she was always grieving.  Years later the drapes were still closed, and the same picture of her husband was propped up on the sofa next to where she sat.

She reminded me of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, who still wore her wedding dress from the day, decades earlier, when her husband had failed to show up for their wedding.

There are two ways to remember the past.  One is to remember the past and be stuck in it.  You can see this happen in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 63.  It begins by remembering the past. Verse 7: “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us….”  It goes on to tell how God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, how God parted the waters of the Red Sea so they could escape, how God led the people through the wilderness, giving them food  and water until finally bringing them to the promised land.  It is a wonderful memory.  But they are stuck in it, because the present does not look that good.  In the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel had been defeated by their enemies, made homeless and taken into exile by the Babylonians.  Listen to verses 11-13:

Then they remembered the days of old, of Moses his servant.  Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flocks?  Where is the one who put within them his holy spirit, who caused his glorious arm to march at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths?

The Israelites cherished their memory of Moses, but they were stuck in it.  As a result they were blind to what God might do in their lives now.

Which brings me to our second scripture reading from Isaiah 43.  Once again this scripture starts by remembering the past—verses 16-17:

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.

            Again this remembers the time of Moses.  If you remember the story, when the Egyptian horses and chariots tried to chase the people of Israel through the Red Sea the water closed back over them.  They were extinguished, quenched like a wick.

            But now in verses 18-19 God says,

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

            God is not telling the Israelites to forget the past completely.  After all, God had just reminded them of the past in the previous two verses.  God wants us to remember the past, because God has worked in the past.  But the past is not something to inhabit as your permanent home.  The past is meant to show us what God can yet do in the future.  That is the other way to remember the past: to see the past as prelude:  “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord, “I will make a way in the wilderness.”  Just as God made a way through the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape from Egypt, so God will now make a way through the wilderness so that the Israelites can return from their exile in Babylon.  The past is the prelude to hope.

            I wonder what would have happened to Lillie if she had remembered her past in a different way.  What if she had remembered the wonderful husband God gave her, and then wondered what other good relationships God might have in store for her?  She might have even realized that some quirky college students could be part of God’s future blessing in her life.

            According to the Bible the past is prelude.  This is true even if your past is full of memories not all that great.  I know from talking to you that some of you here had an almost idyllic life growing up, and that others of you had some horribly painful experiences growing up.  That was also true of the Israelites who looked back and remembered how God saved them from the Egyptians.  But they also remembered how they ended up as captives to the Babylonians, in part because of their own poor choices.

            Another way to get stuck in the past is to get stuck in guilt, to feel that you have messed up in ways that God can never fix.  But Isaiah also has a message for the guilty: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” says the Lord, “I am about to do a new thing.”

            In my office I have a book by Robert Dykstra called Counseling Troubled Youth.  In the book he talks about how the future God has for us can reshape even our memory of the past.  He writes, “It is never too late to have a happy childhood” (p. 17).

            There are two ways to get stuck in the past.  One is to idolize it—those were the good old days—and the other is to regret it, to feel that the past has trapped you in a hopeless future.  Both are a denial of God’s power to do something new in your life.

            When I was called to be the pastor of my former church, Hamblen Park Presbyterian in Spokane, I followed a pastor, Harlan Gilliland, who had been there for 17 years, not as long as Ben Lindstrom was the pastor here, but a long time.  Many people in the church had deep ties to Harlan.  Their children had grown up with him.  He had done their weddings or the baptisms of their children, or the memorial services of their parents.  They had fond memories of mission trips with Harlan and various kinds of small group outings.  So when I went there I worried that people would yearn for the good old days, the days when Harlan was their pastor, like the way the people of Israel felt about Moses.

            Then I ended up staying their 26 years, and I became the good old days, the days people looked back on with fond memories.  Never mind that we also had our struggles and problem during those years, and sometimes people got mad.  When I announced I was leaving, everyone got nostalgic.

            I suspect that might have also happened to some extent here at Southminster.  Ben was the pastor here for 33 years, the only pastor some of you had ever known.  There are a lot of fond memories of Ben’s time in this church.  It would be easy for Southminster to live in the past just as it would have been for Hamblen Park.

            But the good news is doing a new thing in both churches.  In January I went back to Hamblen Park for a Sunday morning church service, the first time I had been back for a Sunday morning service since I had left almost five years ago.  Within 30 seconds of walking in the door, I saw four people I did not know.  During the children’s message about 15 kids went up to the front, and I did not recognize any of them.  Then I realized that half of them weren’t born yet when I was there.  And I thought about our scripture passage: “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord.  In the five years I have been gone, God has been doing a lot of new good things at Hamblen Park.  I think the same is true here.  I think the same is true in all our lives.

Memory can be a trap, but it can also be a vehicle for hope.  The past can be the prelude to a new future.  If it isn’t, maybe you are not looking at it the right way. 

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7