Southminster Presbyterian Church

We are a community of people encouraging each other, seeking to be like Jesus; serving God by loving generously, proclaiming boldly, and giving with grace and humility.

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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. 

Coming Home to a New Place

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:1-6

  Near the end of my daughter’s first quarter at Seattle Pacific University, we received a letter from student services warning us that our children might be different when they came home for Christmas break.  The letter explained that our children had been away from home and on their own for three months.  They had made new friends, experienced new things, and discovered a whole new world of ideas.  Because of this, the letter said, we should not expect our relationship to them to be the same as it was before.

After that, when my daughter got home for Christmas break, I kept looking at her, watching to see if there was some dramatic change.  But she seemed pretty much the same.  After two days her room was just as messy as it was in high school.

            And then I remembered coming home after my first semester of college at Whitworth.  I had been away from home on my own for four months, making new friends, managing my own schedule and finances, even doing my own laundry.  I thought I was so grown up.  But the minute I walked in the door I reverted to old patterns of behavior.  My parents started arguing about something, and I retreated to my room, closed the door, and started reading a book.  It was just like I was back in high school.

Sometimes what makes us nervous about going home is not the fear that things will have changed, but the fear that nothing will have changed.  It is the fear that we will go back and fall into the same behaviors and the same pattern of relationships that we had before.

            Believe it or not, this is relevant to Isaiah 35.  As I have mentioned before, in the time of Isaiah the land of Israel and Judah was devastated by foreign armies.  In 587 BC the Babylonian army marched in Judah, broke down the walls of Jerusalem, set fire to the city and its surrounding fields, and took most of the healthy and educated people as slaves to Babylon.  The land that they left behind became a wilderness of devastation and drought, and the people they left behind were generally the sick, the blind, the lame, and the helpless.

            With that in mind turn back to Isaiah 35, verse 10: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion (Jerusalem) with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

This verse dreams of a time when the people of Israel who have been taken into exile in Babylon can return to their homes and their land.  But when they do, what will they find?  Will their land still be a drought-stricken waste?  Will the people in the land be the same sick, lame, blind, helpless people that were left behind?  Will they be easy prey for every marauding tribe of bandits that comes along to steal what they produce?  If they go home again, will anything be different?

            Isaiah 35 answers that question. Verse 1: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.”  Their land will become fertile again.  But not only will the land be transformed, so will the people.  Verses 5-6: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

These last two verses have a spiritual meaning as well as a physical meaning.  Earlier in the book Isaiah describes the people of Israel as blind and deaf, meaning they are blind to God’s presence and deaf to God’s word.  But here is the good news: it is not just the land that will be healed but the people.  The people who have been blind to God will see, the people who have been deaf to God’s word will hear, and that will make their home a different place than it was before.

            It did not happen right away. When the Jewish people were finally allowed to return to their homes in 538 B. C., their homes were still in ruins and their fields were still desolate.  Nothing had changed.  The situation remained that way for about six centuries.  Times were better or worse, but for much of the next six hundred years the people of Israel continued to live under foreign rulers in a land periodically ravaged by drought and suffering.  For six hundred years they waited for the promises of Isaiah to be fulfilled.

Then someone came along who finally began doing the things Isaiah envisioned.  We heard about it in our first scripture from Matthew 11. John the Baptist is in prison.  In a way he is like the people of Israel in exile.  He is wondering if he will ever get to go home again, and if he does he wonders if anything will be different.  So he sends a couple of his disciples asking Jesus a question.  Verse 3: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Are you, Jesus, the one who will finally fulfill the promises of Isaiah, or should we wait for someone else?  In verses 4-5 Jesus replies, “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus is quoting here from Isaiah 35: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  During his earthly ministry Jesus literally gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, legs to the lame, and food to people in the desert.  But these great works were not important only in themselves, they were signs of something greater.  When Jesus opened the eyes of the blind, he opened all of our eyes, helping us see how God is at work in the world.  When Jesus opened the ears of the deaf, he made it possible for all of us to hear God’s word in a way we had not heard it before.  And when he made the lame to walk, he empowered all of us to serve God in ways that we did not realize we could do.  Jesus accomplished the miracles Isaiah 35 both literally and metaphorically.  He brought us home to a new place, a place where not just sight is restored but so are relationships, a place where not just the wilderness rejoices and blossoms, but so do people.

I once read a story about a man at the Union Gospel Mission named Joe.  When he came to the mission he was heavily addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine.  His addiction had cost him his marriage, his children, his job, and his apartment, and at that point he found himself out on the street.  In a sense he was like the people of Israel in exile.

But then Joe came to the Union Gospel mission and entered their Life Regeneration Program which includes Bible study, prayer, job training, and group support.  God worked through that program to turn his life around, giving him sobriety and a new purpose for living.  After 18 months he thought about going home, at least going back to see his oldest daughter and her children whom he had not seen for six years.  Nervously he called her up.  Here is how he tells the story:

I said hello, and she said, “Dad?”  Then we talked for 45 minutes.  I was nervous about asking her if I could come visit this Christmas, but she said yes. … [He continues] This Christmas I’ll be getting to know my grandkids again.  They’ll have a lot of questions for me, like, “Where have you been?”  That will be hard to answer, but I want to be part of their lives as they grow up.  I’m nervous but happy when I think about seeing my family again. … [He concludes] What I learned at the Mission gave me a chance to dream again.  I learned that you can’t change the past.  I also learned to turn my problems over to God through prayer.  He answered one for me I thought would never happen: restoring my relationship to my daughter.

            The good news of Isaiah 35 is that you can go home again, and with God’s help it can be a different place.  But the key to that is not expecting other people to be different but for yourself to be different.  To go home to a new place means we have to be different people, responding to situations in a different way than we have in the past.  In some cases it may mean confronting things that have not been confronted before.  In other cases it may mean forgiving things that have not been forgiven before or accepting people that you have not previously been willing to accept.  It may not be easy, but Isaiah 35 says that you can go home again to a different place: a place where people who are blind to God can see, where people deaf to God can hear, where feeble hands are made firm and fearful hearts given courage, a place where the wasteland of old destructive relationships can blossom with new life.

Anticipatory Praise

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 12:1-6; Psalm 118:5-14

             Isaiah 12 is a remarkable scripture passage.  In many ways it reads like one of the psalms.  In fact some of its phrases are taken from the psalms.  Isaiah 12:2 says, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  Compare that verse to a verse Kurt read for us from Psalm 118.  Verse 14: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  Isaiah 12 echoes Psalm 118.

             A similar thing happens in Isaiah 12:4.  It says,, “And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.”  Compare that to Psalm 105, verse 1: “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.”  Isaiah 12 is built on psalms of praise from the Bible.  But it occurs in a context where you would not expect a psalm of praise.

             I have shown this map before. It illustrates how in the time of Isaiah the people of Israel and Judah were like a punching bag for the more powerful empires around them.  Israel and Judah are down here, around the city of Jerusalem where Isaiah lived.  During Isaiah’s lifetime they were invaded by three successive armies, each bigger than the previous one: first the Syrians then the Assyrians and finally the Babylonians who in 587 BC captured Jerusalem, destroyed the city, and took most of its people into exile as slaves.

             Those are the times in which Isaiah was written.  But Isaiah still believes in God’s power and love, so much so that he is able to sing about it even before he sees it.  Isaiah 12, verses 3-4: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.”

             Our first scripture reading, Psalm 118 is a psalm of praise written after being rescued by God.  Verse 5: “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.”  Psalm 118 celebrates how God has rescued the person from some horrible problem.  And that leads to a chorus of praise in verse 14: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

             In contrast, Isaiah 12 is not a song of praise after the people have been saved by God.  It is a song they are taught to sing before they are saved.  Verse 4: “And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.”  Isaiah 12 is what I call “anticipatory praise.”

            It’s one thing to come to church and sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” when everything is going okay, when you’ve still got your job or your retirement income, when you still have a home to go back to and food to eat, when you still feel well enough to come to church.  In those circumstances it is easy to be thankful and sing songs of praise to God.

            But it is something else to come here and sing God’s praise when you are facing a cancer, or when your child is seriously ill or in trouble, or when you are depressed and worried about things happening at your school or in your home or in our country.  Let’s be honest.  There are plenty of things happening out there, that if you stop and think about it very long, will leave you feeling depressed.  And yet, we expect you to come here on Sunday morning and sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  We expect you to sing, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does it successive journeys run.”  We sing these songs, not because they are statements of fact but because they are statements of faith.  They are anticipatory praise.  They are our determined declaration to the world that love is going to win.

            One time I had an experience of watching an old movie with someone who had already seen it.  The movie was called Hoosiers, the story of a high school basketball team from the little town of Hickory, Indiana.  Anyone who thinks a movie is not as exciting the second time you watch it should have been with my friend that night.  He could hardly keep himself in the chair.  Even before it started, he said to me, “This is a great movie; you are really going to like it.”  So I settled into my chair to watch.  But all through the movie he kept telling what was coming next.  At the first practice with the new coach two of the seven players quit the team, leaving only five players to take the court.  My friend turned to me and said, “That’s okay, wait until you see what happens next.”  Well what happens next is that during the first game one of the players fouls out, leaving the team with only four players.  My friend then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry; watch how it turns out.”  He was like that all through the movie.  At one point the team’s coach gets thrown out of a game.  My friend turned to me and said, “This is a great scene coming up.”  I was feeling depressed, but he could barely contain his excitement.

            I discovered why at the end of the movie.  In the end this small town basketball team from Hickory High School, enrollment 64, ends up winning the Indiana State Championship, beating a team from South Bend Central High School with an enrollment of 2800 students.

And then I realized what was going on: while I was sometimes anxious and depressed watching the movie, my friend was excited because he knew the ending.  He knew how it was going to turn out, so he is praising the movie even while I’m thinking I want to turn it off.

            That’s what Isaiah is doing.  Isaiah is encouraging us to praise God, not because of what is happening in our lives right now, but because of how it will turn out in the end.  Isaiah is teaching us anticipatory praise.  Isaiah wants us to practice gratitude, even if at the moment you don’t feel particularly grateful.  Isaiah wants us to practice praising God, not only for what God has done for us in the past, but for what God will yet do in the future.

             Like many of you I was touched to hear Paul Edwards tell his story in our church two weeks ago.  It was humbling to hear him tell about meeting his grandmother in Alabama who still bore the marks of slavery on her back, and then to hear him tell of marching in a civil rights demonstration in Memphis, TN, with Dr. King, and afterwards going into a hotel, getting permission to use their restroom, and coming to see a row of armed police officers pointing rifles at him and asking what he was doing in that hotel.  Paul said he knew in that moment if he flinched he could be dead.  Our own Paul Edwards told those stories and reflected on how experiences like that still happen to African Americans today.  Then all of us in the church stood up with him, and together we began to sing:

             We shall overcome; we shall overcome. We shall overcome some day.

            Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.

             That is anticipatory praise.  It is not unlike my friend during the movie telling me, “Don’t worry; watch what happens next.”  Every Sunday we stand in this church and proclaim to the world, “Don’t worry; watch what happens next.  We shall overcome and love is going to win.”


Created For Salvation

Isaiah 41:17-20, Mark 4:30-32

Rev. Aaron Willett

Our human relationship to nature is complex. We revel in nature’s beauty, and we depend on nature for our very being, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the land on which we dwell. Yet it can also seem as though we are locked in a perpetual power struggle with nature.

In the 20th Century, in our country we undertook grand projects, altering the landscape to suit our needs. We raised dams, greened deserts, and even learned to build skyscrapers on giant shock absorbers so they can survive earthquakes. As a kid I loved few things more than building dam in a ditch on a rainy day. Maybe this is instinctual. Far beyond my mud-dams, the brilliance of engineers is reflected in the ever-diminishing size of the transistors that power our electronics and the ever-increasing fuel efficiency of the planes that fill our skies (especially here!).

And yet nature has its own power. As the climate around us continues to change, we experience the growing threat of heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and storms; not to mention migrations and conflicts fueled by waning resources, desertification of marginal farmland and water shortages. Each of these demands a cost in lives, time, and treasure.

Add to this the sometimes destructive power of humanity. The 20th Century was also the deadliest in our history. Too often we resort to war and violence. Some of the nuclear weapons in the world today are more than 3000 times more powerful than Little Boy dropped on Nagasaki! And the fear of mutually assured destruction seems to be declining in our world’s corridors of power.

The exiles to whom this latter part of Isaiah was written experienced a world similarly out of control. Gone were any illusions of their own worldly power--they had been dominated by their neighbors and wrapped up in their wars, first the Assyrians, then the Egyptians, then finally driven into exile by the Babylonians, with the rising power of the Persians next door still!

They did not sit in the seat of power. God’s covenant people were being tossed by the storms of history.

Yet, even in the midst of that storm, did God abandon the Israelites to the whims of the international power players that surrounded them?

You might be wondering... and so did the Israelites.

Lamentations was written during the same time period as this part of the book of Isaiah, and it speaks to that sense of abandonment in 5:20-22:

20 Why have you forgotten us completely?

  Why have you forsaken us these many days?

21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;

  renew our days as of old—

22 unless you have utterly rejected us,

  and are angry with us beyond measure.

If we’re being honest, there are aspects of God’s sovereignty that might make us wonder along with those Israelites. Just how high above all this is God?

To the doubters from other nations who are inclined to associate the power of gods with the power of their attendant nations, Isaiah responds with a universal claim in 40:28:” Do you not know, have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.”

And then Isaiah twice declares (in 41:4 and 44:6) that God is beyond even time, “I the LORD am first, and will be the last.”

So we have this image of God, who is first and last, the creator of everything, this whole good earth... but does this God care about any of it? “Why have you forgotten us completely?” the author of Lamentations asks.

Does this God care about the migrants fleeing economic insecurity and food scarcity in northern Africa? Does this God care about the families whose homes were destroyed in last summer’s wildfires? Does this God care?

As if in response, God declares through Isaiah, in 41:10:

“Do not fear, I am with you.”

Do not fear, I am with you, says the LORD.

Yes, this God cares.

All life finds its purpose in the one who undergirds all creation. All of human history is built upon a foundation of this God who existed before all and will exist after all. God reigns in glory above all, beyond our imaginations, and yet is still connected with and concerned about the plight of humanity. God persists as an agent of justice and peace in our world, working to restore wholeness to the fractured human family.

And so we see in today’s passage, God greening up a way through the desert. The road was promised in the previous chapter, but now we read of God coming to the aid of the poor, needy, and parched, making the desert mountains fertile, of water gushing down from the mountains, springs rising up in the valleys. And God promises trees great and small to point the way home for the exiled people of God.

This is a sign of God’s continuing provision and promise, a mark of God’s loving-kindness extended through nature, God’s creation.


Jesus’ parable similarly speaks of God’s provision. The mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, grows to provide shelter for the birds of the air.

Now, Jesus is playing on imagery his audience would have recognized from Ezekiel. Ezekiel chapter 17, verses 22 and 23, speak of God promising to raise up Israel as a great tree, a stately cedar, for birds of all kids to nest in. The birds here, as in Jesus’ parable, are a metaphor for the people of the nations. But instead of that grand cedar providing them shelter, the kingdom Jesus describes is like a mustard plant.

Now the mustard plant was a known quantity in antiquity. Pliny the elder in his Natural History from 78 AD described both the culinary quality of the plant as well as its challenges.

“[The mustard] is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

The pharisees in Jesus’ audience would have recalled not only the play on Ezekiel, but the Talmud’s prohibition of mustard being planted in Jewish gardens because of its propensity to take over the place and thereby mix with the other plants. They would have heard this troublemaking rabbi’s clear implication about the bottom-up nature of the coming kingdom.

There’s another interesting insight to be had in comparing Mark’s telling of the parable of the Mustard Seed to that in Matthew and Luke. In Luke, the seed becomes a tree. In Matthew, he declares that as the greatest of shrubs it becomes a tree. But Mark, well, Mark seems to understand that maybe Jesus meant something different, that he chose the Mustard seed on purpose, because it is in fact not a mighty tree like a cedar, but a shrub that spreads by it’s relative lowliness. Jesus’ kingdom is not marked by the promise of grand temples and tall steeples, but by humility. Paul would later have to remind the churches of this, that in the Kingdom of God, the greatest honor is reserved for the lowest.

We Christians, in all places and at all times, would do well to remember this, that we are a part of God’s creation, like the trees lining the path home to Jerusalem. As such, we are invited to participate in marking the path to God, but we do so not as the most impressive trees, but really, just as shrubs. Shrubs sprung up from a tiny seed, spreading every-which-way, and playing host to all the birds of the air. Shrubs who can tell of the way our experience of the divine has given meaning to our lives and sustained us in our troubles. The seeds of our faith have been passed along for two thousand years, and we still rest our faith on the same simple truth: Jesus saves. Jesus saves with the gentleness of an expansive shrub giving shade to a nesting bird. In our humility, we are invited into what God is doing in our midst: saving, creating and recreating.

This is the promise Isaiah held for those lamenting Israelites in exile, and this is the good news for us us as well, we who live in a world that teeters and totters, every day flush with new anxieties to burden our hearts:

Do not fear, I am with you.

God cares for you, for me, for our community, AND for the whole, fractured, divided, torn-up human family. Isaiah envisions the healing of all creation, an action graciously infused with God’s love of ALL creatures, and Jesus gives us a vision of an untamed kingdom graciously providing shelter.

We, citizens the mustard seed kingdom, get to join with God’s good creation, pointing the way and participating in God’s never ending, never giving up, never abandoning us, always for us, faithful love. That sounds like good news to me.

How God Deals with Enemies

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 19:18-25, Revelation 7:9-12

             Recently I listened to a podcast by a woman named Ozlem Cekic.  It was a Ted talk given last year in New York called, “Why I Have Coffee with People who Send Me Hate Mail” (Sept. 2018).  Ozlem was one of the first Muslim women to be elected to the Danish parliament.  She was born in Turkey to Kurdish parents, but grew up in Denmark where she became a citizen and was elected to parliament.  But as soon as she was elected, she began receiving hate mail—email messages calling her vile names and telling her to go back where she came from.  She deleted them without responding, until one of her colleagues in parliament told her to save them.  He said, “When something happens to you, it will give the police a lead,” which somehow wasn’t very comforting.

             After a few months of this, she was at a friend’s house, complaining about all the hateful messages she had received, when the friend said, “You should call them up and visit them.”  Ozlem said, “They’ll kill me.”  The friend said, “Oh, they would never attack a member of parliament.”

Ozlem wasn’t sure about that, but the suggestion seemed so outrageous, she decided to try it.  She opened the folder in her computer where she stored all the hate messages and decided to contact the person who had sent the most.  His name was Ingolf.  She found Ingolf’s phone number and called.  When he answered the phone, she blurted out, “Hello, my name is Ozlem.  You have sent me so many hate mails.  You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.  I was wondering if I could come around and we can drink coffee together and talk about it.”  There was silence on the line, and then he said, “I have to ask my wife.”  Ozlem said she stared at the phone and said, “He has a wife?”  She could not believe that such a hateful person had a wife.

  Apparently the wife gave permission, because a couple days later they met at his house.  In the podcast Ozlem says,

 I will never forget when he opened his front door and reached out to shake my hand. I felt so disappointed, because he looked nothing like I'd imagined. I had expected a horrible person -- dirty, messy house. It was not. His house smelled of coffee which was served from a coffee set identical to the one my parents used. I ended up staying for two and a half hours. And we had so many things in common.

             I will come back to Ozlem’s story in a minute.  I share it, however, because it is the perfect introduction for today’s scripture reading.

You cannot appreciate today’s scripture without first understanding the history of Israel’s relationship to its neighbors. The territory of Israel was positioned directly between two of the most powerful warring empires of the ancient Near East: Egypt and Assyria.  These two ancient superpowers fought back and forth for a century or more, and right in the middle between them was Israel.  Israel became the battle ground where these two powers fought each other, sort of like Vietnam during the cold war, which served as a kind of proxy battle ground between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.

             But Isaiah 19 pictures a stunning turnaround in this situation.  Verse 19: “On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border.”

  The Egyptians were one of Israel’s traditional enemies, going back to the time when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  At that time Moses went to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and said, “Let my people go that we may worship the Lord in the desert.”  Pharaoh replied, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know the Lord.”  That was the attitude of the Egyptians toward the God of Israel.  But now, Isaiah says, the Egyptians will build an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt.

             Why?  Verse 20: “It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them.”  When the Israelites were slaves of the Egyptians, the Israelites cried to the Lord because of their oppression and the Lord delivered them.  But now in the time of Isaiah, the Egyptians find themselves oppressed.  The Egyptians are under attack by the more powerful Assyrians.  So this time God intervenes to deliver the Egyptians.

Notice how God is not motivated by retaliation.  God does not say to the Egyptians, “Well, you oppressed the Israelites in the time of Moses; now you are getting a taste of your own medicine.  Take that, you Egyptian scum!”  God does not say that.  Instead God hears the cries of Israel’s enemies when they are oppressed, just as God had heard the cries of the Israelites in the time of Moses.  God reaches out to save the Egyptians in the same way God had earlier saved the Israelites.

             But God still isn’t finished.  Verse 23: “On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.”  As I mentioned earlier, there was an ongoing back and forth battle between Egypt and Assyria, much of which took place on the road between them running through Israel.  But now this road will be a highway for cultural and economic commerce.  These old enemies will become trading partners. 

             Isaiah concludes in verses 24-25: “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’”  All those phrases have been used in the Bible previously for the people of Israel.  But now those same phrases are used of Israel’s enemies—the Egyptians and Assyrians.

            When I read this passage, I thought of my son and daughter-in-law’s honeymoon.  For their honeymoon my youngest son and his wife chose to visit Vietnam.  When they told me I was flabbergasted.  For anyone in my generation and older, Vietnam was not the kind of place you went for your honeymoon.  The very word Vietnam conjured up grim images.  I had both a father and a brother who fought in Vietnam.  But forty years later, here were my son and daughter-in-law going to Vietnam as tourists.  And they came back marveling at what a beautiful country it was and how graciously they were treated by the Vietnamese people.  And now, as we heard, the sister of an American killed in Vietnam is helping to clear land mines, plant trees, and establish schools in Vietnam.  Amazing!  The most powerful manifestation of God is not when we defeat our enemies but when we are reconciled with them.

            Which bring me back to Ozlem Cekic. Near the end of her talk, Ozlem gave this challenge.  She said,

I want to give you a challenge. Before the end of this year, I challenge you to invite someone whom you demonize -- someone whom you disagree with politically and/or culturally and don't think you have anything in common with. I challenge you to invite someone like this to coffee. … Basically, I'm asking you to find an Ingolf in your life, contact him or her and suggest that you meet for coffee.

When you start, you have to remember this: first, don't give up if the person refuses at first. Sometimes it's taken me nearly one year to arrange a coffee meeting. Two: acknowledge the other person's courage. It isn't just you who's brave. … Three: don't judge during the conversation. Make sure that most of the conversation focuses on what you have in common.  And bring food.  And finally, remember to finish the conversation in a positive way because you are going to meet again. A bridge can't be built in one day.

            I don’t know who your Ingolf might be—a person with opposing political views, a person of another race or nationality, or a homeless person you see on the street.  Maybe it’s a neighbor, a coworker, or a family member.  Whoever it is, find your Ingolf, and invite them to coffee.  Try somehow to connect with them, not so you can change them but so you can better understand them, and they can better understand you.  And maybe in the process both of you will witness a miracle.

Poor Draft Choices and a Hopeful Future

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:2-6 [The Message]

             I will read our second scripture near the end of the sermon today.  Before that, I need to talk about the scripture we just heard.

             For Seahawk fans there may be less interest in today’s Superbowl than in the upcoming NFL Draft.  For those of you who don’t follow this stuff, the NFL draft is where teams take turns picking from among the top college football players across the country who are graduating or turning professional.  It’s called a draft because the players don’t get to choose their teams, the teams get to choose their players.  In the NFL draft the team with the worst record gets the first pick, which is a way of trying to even out the talent between teams.

             The problem is that the Seahawks have a mixed record in the draft.  In 1987 the Seahawks had the number one pick in the pro football supplemental draft.  They got the first choice of all eligible college football players in the country.  They chose Brian Bosworth. The Boz, as he was called, seemed like a good choice.  He had played three years for the University of Oklahoma and was twice named the best college linebacker in the country.  The Seahawks signed him to the biggest contract in team history: $11 million dollars over 10 years.  He played only three years.  ESPN named him one of the 10 biggest flops in the last three decades.

            In 1993 the Seahawks tried again.  They had the 2nd pick in the NFL draft, the 2nd choice of any eligible college player in the country.  They chose Rick Mirer from Notre Dame. Rick signed a 5 year, $15 million contract.  He played four years for the Seahawks, and in three of those four years he threw more interceptions than touchdowns.  Pro Football Reference rated him the worst quarterback in NFL history.

            Believe it or not, this is actually relevant to our scripture reading from Isaiah.  Isaiah 5 describes a vineyard planted by the Lord.  Verse 2 says, “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.”  The Lord did everything to make this a healthy, safe, and productive vineyard.  The Lord had high hopes for this vineyard, expecting it to yield high quality grapes.  But instead it produced wild grapes—grapes that tasted bitter and were worthless.

            In verse 7 we are told the meaning of this parable: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.”

To use football imagery, Israel was God’s first draft choice.  The Bible says this quite clearly.  In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tells the people of Israel, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”  Israel was God’s first round draft choice.  And if you think about it, the Lord paid a significant price for them: bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, leading them and feeding them for forty years in the wilderness, defeating all their enemies and giving them a fertile land in which they could plant vineyards and raise crops.  In one sense Isaiah 5 should be taken literally.  The Lord literally created a vineyard for the people of Israel, giving them a good land with the potential to produce delicious grapes.

            But they turned out to be one a “bitter” disappointment.  In Isaiah 5:5-6—the Lord says,

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.  I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.

            This is not just a parable.  It describes quite literally what happened to the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah.  Their vineyards were trampled and destroyed by foreign armies.  Their towers and fortifications were torn down.  The people who survived were taken into exile, which meant the fields were left untended, overgrown with briers and thorns.

            Why did that happen?  Because the people did not fulfill their purpose.  They did not live up to their reason for being drafted.  Verse 7: “God expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mishpah); God expected righteousness (sedeqa), but heard a cry (she’aqa).”  In Hebrew words almost rhyme.  I tried to emulate that in the prayer of confession this morning.  God expected light, but instead got blight.  God expected care, but instead got despair.  God expected hope, but instead got self-centered dopes.  It’s not great poetry, but you get the idea.  God expected Israel to bring blessing into the world, but instead their history was filled with greed, conflict, and destruction.

            But that is not the end of the story.  Now we are ready for the second scripture reading.  By the time of Isaiah 27 Israel and its vineyards had long since been destroyed by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  By the time of Isaiah 27, Israel was no longer a first draft choice.  It was an undrafted free agent, meaning no team wanted it.  But God did, and that is where our second scripture reading begins.  This scripture reading is confusing in the New Revised Standard Bibles, so I am going to read it from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.

At that same time, a fine vineyard will appear.
There’s something to sing about!
I, God, tend it. I keep it well-watered.
I keep careful watch over it so that no one can damage it.
I’m not angry. I care.
Even if it gives me thistles and thornbushes,

I’ll just pull them out and burn them up.
Let that vine cling to me for safety,
let it find a good and whole life with me,
let it hold on for a good and whole life.”

The days are coming when Jacob shall put down roots,
Israel blossom and grow fresh branches, and fill the world with its fruit.

Did you notice how this scripture reverses the damage described in Isaiah 5?  Both talk about God tending a vineyard.  But there is a difference.

-          Isaiah 5: Hedges and walls are torn down, leaving it unprotected.

-          Isaiah 27: God will keep careful watch over it.

-          Isaiah 5: No rain will fall on the land.

-          Isaiah 27: God will keep it well watered.

-          Isaiah 5: It will be overgrown with briers and thorns.

-          Isaiah 27: God will pull out the thistles and thorns.

-          Isaiah 5: The vineyard is a waste.

-          Isaiah 27: The vineyard blossoms and grows.

Isaiah 27 is the vineyard in Isaiah 5 restored.  In fact it is made better.  This new vineyard fills the world with its fruit.  Israel finally becomes the blessing to the world it was meant to be.

It seems that when the Seahawks had a top draft pick, they did not do very well.  The Seahawks often seem to do better when they pick from the bottom of the barrel.  In 2012 they took Russell Wilson as the 75th overall pick.  In 2011 the Seahawks had the 154th pick.  153 college players had already been chosen by that point.  On the 154th pick, the Seahawks took a not very highly rated player from Stanford.  His name was Richard Sherman.

In the time of Isaiah, God could have selected many more promising nations as God’s chosen people, like the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Persians.  But God chose instead to stick with the lowly, defeated people of Israel, determined to make them a fruitful vineyard and a blessing to the world.  Which has happened, we believe, in no small part through an unheralded descendant of Israel named Jesus.

In 2011 the Seahawks signed an undrafted free agent.  That means no professional team wanted him.  No NFL team chose him in the draft that year, so the Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent.  His name was Doug Baldwin, who now has the second most career touchdown receptions in Seahawk history.

If the Seahawks can do that with an undrafted football player, if God can do that with a disappointing vineyard, what might the Creator of the universe be able to do with you, if you only give God the chance?

Before the Downfall

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 2:5-17, II Chronicles 26:1, 6-16

             This week I saw an interesting poster. It shows a bicyclist doing a wheelie on the edge of a cliff.  You can probably see the main title under the poster.  It says, “Confidence.”  What you may not be able to read is the subtitle: “The feeling you have before you understand the situation.”


            That could be the title over today’s scripture from Isaiah.  Early in Isaiah’s time the people of Judah and Jerusalem were riding high.  In our first scripture, Nanci read about the reign of King Uzziah in Jerusalem, who was king at the time Isaiah began his ministry.  Here are some of the things it said about Uzziah’s reign:

-          Verse 8: “The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong.”

-           Verse 10: “He built towers in the wilderness and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands.”

  This picture of power and prosperity is echoed in the scripture I just read from Isaiah.  Chapter 2, verse 7: “Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.”

  At this point the people of Judah and Jerusalem are comparatively powerful and prosperous.  But a crash is coming—verses 11: “The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.”

  Of all the problems Isaiah identifies in the people of Judah and Jerusalem, the most dangerous is pride—not drugs, not stealing, not lying, not sex, but pride.

  Isaiah brings this up even when he is not talking to the Israelites.  In Isaiah 47:10-11 God says to the Babylonians,

You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, “No one sees me.”  Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.”  But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing.

            Here God is talking to the enemies of Israel—the Babylonians.  God is an equal opportunity humilater.  According to the Bible, God works at humbling people, cutting down arrogance wherever it is found—whether it’s the pride of Israelites or Babylonians, Americans or Russians, Republicans or Democrats, criminals or church goers.  Why?  Because pride, if left unchecked, is a deadly cancer.  Arrogance is inevitably destructive.  It not only damages our relationships to each other, it makes virtually impossible a relationship to God.

            A while back I read a novel by Michael Malone called Handling Sin.  I picked it up because I thought it was about theology, which in a way it is.  But it also turned out to be one of the funniest novels I have ever read.   The main character, “our hero” as the narrator calls him, is Raleigh W. Hayes, an insurance salesman, who sets off out to fulfill certain conditions set by his father for inheriting a large sum of money.

Raleigh, I should say, had always been the good child in his family: doing his homework, obeying his parents, never skipping school or getting in trouble, becoming a responsible citizen and family man in the hometown where he grew up.  His father, on the other hand, had run off with a young pregnant woman while Raleigh was still a boy, leaving Raleigh and his brother to care for their shattered mother.  And now years later this same father, well into his 80s and hospitalized with heart blockages, had discharged himself from the hospital, withdrawn all his money from a bank, and driven away in a convertible yellow Cadillac with a young female mental patient, leaving word for Raleigh to meet them in New Orleans.  Along the way Raleigh was to pick up certain items and people that he was to bring with him to meet his father.  If he did so, he would receive a large inheritance.

So Raleigh sets out on this journey to collect certain items and people and bring them to his father in New Orleans.  And that’s when this story becomes a quest, a sort of pilgrimage about handling sin and pride.

            Raleigh, of course, does not think of himself as a sinner, nor as particularly prideful.  He sometimes attends church with his family, because that is what good people do, but the church service does not really speak to him, especially the prayer of confession.  The narrator says,

Now, in its common usage, the word confession did not at all appeal to our hero. … Try as he might during church services, he honestly could not think of any manifold sins and wickednesses that he needed to repent.  He honestly did not see why, in all fairness, he should have provoked God’s wrath and indignation when there were so many really provoking people (like his father…) out there getting off scot-free; nor did he see why he should feel guilty and responsible and worried and all the things he had to confess he did feel, when the truly guilty appeared not to have a care in the world (pp. 230-231).

            I have talked to people in our church and in other churches who felt the same way as Raleigh.  They wonder why we have a prayer of confession every Sunday.  Isn’t that rather negative?  Shouldn’t church make people feel better about themselves rather than making them feel guilty and unworthy?  Even today’s scripture reading from Isaiah seems excessively negative.  Doesn’t it?

            Yes, it does.  But it is also like an immunization.  The scripture reading from Isaiah, like the prayer of confession we say every Sunday in our church service, is an inoculation against pride.  It is a reminder that we are not as righteous and self-sufficient as we might like to think.  We are all of us people who need grace—people who need the tender mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

Raleigh discovers this on his way to New Orleans.  On the journey Raleigh, our upstanding citizen who could think of nothing he needed to confess, becomes a fugitive from the law, ends up in a nunnery, goes on a boat ride with his brother, who it turns out is running drugs, impersonates an FBI agent to escape the Ku Klux Klan, and chases two mafia hit men through a state park in a stolen van.  When he finally gets to New Orleans, he meets his father, and before his father dies Raleigh learns much that he had never understood about his father’s life and in the process receives an inheritance far more important than money.

The story ends with Raleigh back in his hometown attending church on Easter.  Around him are many of the people whom he previously despised.  In the choir was his huge child-like neighbor Mingo Sheffield, who went on the trip with Raleigh, frustrating Raleigh with his bumbling incompetence, but saving him more than once.  The narrator says, “[Mingo] sang out beaming as if he’d just heard the news, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today!  Alleluia!’”  Beside Mingo was Pierce Jimson, another person Raleigh had despised at the beginning of the story.  He was singing, “Sinners to redeem and save.  Alleluia!”  Down from him was Raleigh’s teenage daughter Caroline, with whom Raleigh had fought countless battles over clothes, school, boyfriends, and cars.  She had a green streak painted across her blond hair but she was singing in a beautiful soprano voice, “Where the angels ever sing.  Alleluia!”

The narrator says, “And next to the organist, at his own request, by special arrangement with the choir, to the delight of his family (some of whom cried as they sang), to the astonishment of his neighbors (some of whom lost their places in their hymnals), stiffly stood Raleigh W. Hayes … accompanying the organ and choir on [his father’s] trumpet so highly polished that it glistened like gold.  “The strife is o’er, the battle done.  The victory of life is won.  The song of triumph has begun.  Alleluia!” (p. 592).

I guess we could send all of you on a quest to discover humility, but instead we do it with a prayer of confession and a reading from Isaiah.

"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