Sunday, August 25, 2019

Take Delight in the Lord's Day

August 25, 2019
St. John’s UCC, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

It’s such a delightful day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, friends are gathering, we’ve heard beautiful music. A good day for rest, for sabbath. We don’t use the term “sabbath” much in our conversations. “What are you doing on the sabbath, brother?” “Oh, I’m going down to the temple to pray, then resting in the park.” We might ask someone, “What are you doing on Sunday?” And they might reply, “Going to church, then watching the ball game, you?” But just because we don’t use the term “sabbath” doesn’t mean we don’t know what it means.

In the church, we long ago took the Jewish practice of sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and replaced it with “The Lord’s Day” or Sunday, and it’s more of a midnight to midnight thing. Going to the temple was replaced with going to church, but prayer and the worship of God are still the focus. And we’ve kept the idea of keeping Sunday as a special day. Thanks to the labor movement, now we have two special days and we call them the weekend, which is nice. But Sunday is still special for most of us.

Sunday is the day we relax with family and friends. Some people run marathons (which seems like a lot of work to me), play golf or other sports, watch other people play sports, eat out, eat together around the dinner table, or other things we don’t usually do during the rest of the week. Most of us don’t work on Sundays, though some of us do. But I’ll guess that all of us with jobs outside the home get a day or two off each week.

That was part of the point of keeping sabbath, even for our ancient ancestors. The idea of taking a break from work, a day to rest and recuperate, is important to our well-being. Even God took a break after creating the world in six days. The keeping of sabbath as a law or religious ordinance, however, wasn’t established until Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God. The word “sabbath” doesn’t appear in the Bible until after Moses has led the people out of Egypt. And what were they doing in Egypt? They were slaves.

Slaves don’t get a day off. Slaves don’t get paid either, let alone health benefits and a retirement fund, but they did usually receive food, water, and perhaps shelter. But there was no break from work, no day off to rest, recuperate, and cheer on the chariot racers. Slave work wasn’t sitting at a desk occasionally Facebooking either. Day after day after day of endless hard labor with never an end in sight. Imagine that. Imagine working hard, day after day, getting ever more tired and worn down, and never getting a break. Sounds like parenting, actually. But seriously, I worked some long stretches when I worked at the bank, at month end, and after twelve days straight I was about ready to die. I can’t imagine never getting a break.

The sabbath is a gift from God. For the newly forming Israelite community, it must have seemed incredibly wonderful. Over time, it became a signature characteristic of Jewish people, that they didn’t work on the sabbath. Taking a break from the routine, taking time to worship God and be with their families was, and still is for most, part of their identity. Exodus 20, the first list of the commandments (yes, there’s more than one list), reads:
Remember the sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11).[1]

This idea of getting a day off from work, and taking time to worship God, is precious. Certainly, this was important to a people who had just been enslaved. This precious gift from God must be protected. And so, later in Exodus, the Lord gives Moses instructions for keeping the sabbath, and says:
Keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who violates the sabbath will be put to death. Whoever does any work on the sabbath, that person will be cut off from the people (Exodus 31:14).

This is serious business. God really wants you to take a break. This is reiterated in the Isaiah passage we just read:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth (Isaiah 58:13-14a).

Keeping sabbath, and keeping it holy, is a really big deal. Bad things happen when you work on the sabbath, and good things happen when you don’t. This is why the leader of the synagogue is so upset by what Jesus does. Jesus heals the bent-over woman; he does work on the sabbath. No, no, no! That’s not what we do. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). The sabbath day is precious. If Jesus starts working on the sabbath, then his followers will start doing work on the sabbath, and pretty soon no one will get a day off ever again!

This poor guy who is leading the synagogue that Jesus visited that day. He’s trying to be faithful. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things; if you want to please God, we’ve got laws that tell you how to do that. Religious observance is the way to win God’s favor, so make sure you have interesting worship services, lovely buildings, beautiful prayers, and a lot of focus on the law, in this case the law about doing no work on the sabbath.

Okay, maybe they pushed things a little too far, as Jesus points out when he responds: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” (Luke 13:15). A little work is okay, because sometimes things need to be done now, and they can’t wait. And this woman, this daughter of Abraham, needs to be set free now, she can’t wait any longer, her life is too precious. Yes, the sabbath is good, and important, but if you really want to please God, worry less about following the letter of the law, and worry more about how you treat one another.

This religious leader, and others like him, were folks who got up in the morning thinking about God and how they might serve God better. They didn't always get it right, but they were sincerely trying. Sounds a lot like you and me. We don’t always do things the way that God might want us to. What would Jesus do? I don’t know for sure, so I’m going to guess. But I’m trying. And when I let Jesus point out the shortcomings in the way that I’ve been thinking, I might just be a little more forgiving of myself, and more kind to others.

Taking a break, resting and worshiping on the sabbath, on the Lord’s Day, is valuable. It’s important. But maybe the point is not about whether we keep the Sabbath or not, but the way in which we keep it, and keep it holy. So, I come to church and worship God. I’ll rest and take some time to be with my family. But if something needs to get done, and it just can’t wait, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I’m not, however, going to let whatever it is take over my day, and take away my opportunity for sabbath.

I’m not going to spend all day focused on my computer screen, or my cell phone screen, or my TV screen. But if I need to know the weather forecast, I’ll look it up. I will just try to resist the temptation to check Facebook and my email. If I want to relax in front of the game with friends, that’s fine, but I’ll try to make my friends, and not the game, the main focus of my time. I may check my cell phone once in a while, but I’m going to take it out of my pocket and set it down somewhere so that it doesn’t command my attention constantly.

We might do a little work on the sabbath, and we might not follow the letter of the law, but we’re celebrating the spirit and the point of the law which is to be loving, caring people, resting in the presence of one another, stepping out of our routine to celebrate the gift of sabbath, a gift given by God for our well-being. Let us take delight in the Lord’s Day, share the sabbath meal together, and remember the one who came to show us the way to be holy, the one who healed on the sabbath day.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Touched by the Song

August 18, 2019
St. John's UCC, Union, Illinois

Psalm 96; Ephesians 5:8-20

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing… Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once… Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. …
Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. If you had seen and heard it… you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.[1]
That story may be in a children’s book, but there is such power and beauty to it that it moves me like a song. Maybe if I heard the Genesis story sung in Hebrew by a trained cantor, it would have that feel to it. Music has a potency that words alone cannot convey.

KEXP radio in Seattle did a series a few years ago called “Why Music Matters.” Kind of like the series “This I Believe” on NPR, a variety of ordinary and extraordinary people shared their stories of the impact of music in their lives.

Pela Ivey is a young girl from Seattle, with wispy blond hair and a beguiling smile. Her parents, Jessica and Luke Ivey, are music lovers. But they’re not your usual indie rock fans. On the radio show they shared a story about how the band Pela helped save their marriage.

Jessica: We went through a hard time in our relationship. And we were with a divorce counselor. You know, we didn’t know which way our relationship was going to go.
Luke: If you’re in an argument with somebody … you basically can’t stand the person you’re with. And then you go to a concert and you hear an amazing show, and you start dancing, and you just sort of forget about it. You forget about everything that’s bad in your life; or you take a step back and you’re like, oh wow, there’s more important things than whatever it is we’re arguing about. You think about love and about passion, and it’s a very healing and cleansing and emotional experience.
Jessica: The music that brought us together, quite frankly was one of the only things we had that was pulling us together, so live music became crucial. And that hasn’t changed.[2]
The band, Pela, an independent rock band, ended their journey together in 2009, but Luke and Jessica are still together.

Music matters. Music is one of the most powerful forces in our lives. It has the power to shape our emotions, fuse memories into our minds, and express what cannot be completely put into words. Songs can touch our hearts, as poetry, images, and symbols take us beyond the boundaries of plain or even lofty speech.

Music is a key component of the life of faith as well. Music, worship, and the transcendent are interwoven in a pattern that makes meaning and sense out of the chaos of our lives. The spiritual life is a song that brings light into our hearts. Music even has the power to bring life into our hearts.

Barbara Dunn, a music therapist interviewed by that same radio station, admits she’s a “cheerleader for the power of music.” Every day she sees how music can elevate and heal patients suffering from severe pain and grim diagnoses, during her work as the head of music therapy at Whidbey General Hospital in Seattle. This is her story about music and a miraculous recovery.

I was asked to play for this woman at the hospital who had just had a massive stroke. Our staff was thinking that she was not going to pull through. Her husband had just left for a little while, and when he came back they were going to talk with him about withdrawing life support. So, I was asked to play for this woman; and their thinking was, can you please just provide some comfort for this person who is probably at the end of her life. Can you please just go and be with her?
She was just lying there, had some life support. She was young, I think in her forties or fifties. I felt like I saw fear in her eyes, and so I’m trying to just communicate comfort. I felt like she could hear me. I was there for her, for this hour. I was playing whatever I thought would bring memories, what might be a lifeline for her. And then I left, and her husband came back. And he was, at that point, able to get her to effectively respond. They were able to communicate with her. They didn’t withdraw life support. And they actually sent her to a rehab facility.[3]
Have you ever been deeply touched by a song? Of course you have. You’re probably thinking of one right now. There are songs that make us cry, or want to dance, or just sing along at the top of our lungs. But in that hospital room, Barbara gave that woman something more. She gave her a lifeline.

There was a time in my life when I needed a lifeline. The day-to-day was fine, but I was slowly dying inside. And the main reason was that I had never really chosen a direction. You know that Robert Frost poem where two roads diverged in a wood? Well, I just stood there at that crossroads for a long time. I could feel a pull down one path, but I kept looking at the other options hoping something would appear that would lead me that way.

Eventually it was a song that gave me the lifeline I needed. “Hold It Up To the Light” by David Wilcox has this stanza:

It's too late - to be stopped at the crossroads
Each life here - each a possible way
But wait - and they all will be lost roads
Each road's getting shorter the longer I stay
So, I made my choice. I held it up to the light, asked God to bless my decision, and I began to move. I began to see the signs leading forward, and I knew that the choice was good. The traveling music changed, but that was good too.

As we worship, we express our struggles and joys, our faith and our doubt through the hymns and songs. We train one another to give voice to the life and faith of the church. The songs that we sing may touch our hearts or the hearts of those around us, they may be planted in the souls of children, or usher us into the great unknown. The music of God’s creation fills the universe with song. “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.”[5] As you go about your lives, “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[6] Amen.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Collier, 1955), 98-99.
[4] David Wilcox: Big Horizon: “Hold It Up To The Light”
[5] Psalm 96:1. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[6] Ephesians 5:19-20.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Live by Faith and Hope

August 11, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16; Luke 12:32–40

Are you waiting for something? Are you expecting something to happen, but you don’t know when? We spend a lot of our time waiting. We wait in line to check out at the grocery store. We wait for the light to change from red to green. We wait for the inspiration to come. We wait for the computer to boot up. With all this waiting, you’d think we would be good at it. We should be able to wait, as Jesus said, “like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet.” Our lamps are ready to be lit, we’re awake and alert, ready to go!

The thing is, we know that when the waiting is over, the time for change has come - and change is scary. The moment comes and… we let it pass us by. The big day arrives and we’re afraid to move, to act, to change, to stop waiting. There is a song by Sarah McLachlan that captures the sense of despair that can accompany waiting:
Spend all your time waiting
For that second chance
For a break that would make it okay.
There's always some reason
To feel not good enough
And it's hard, at the end of the day.[1]
Waiting is comfortable. We have our routine, the same day to day, week to week, a comfortable rhythm. Waiting doesn’t require much of us. The thing is, if we just wait, often what we hope for never happens. Maybe what needs to happen is waiting on us.

Abraham had been promised a land, a people, descendants numbered like the stars. But ages went by, and he and his wife, Sarah, grew old. And yet, he had faith. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” Even as he waited for the promises of God to be fulfilled, Abraham continued to do as God asked, until finally God came through. “Therefore, from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’” Abraham lived by faith and hope, and became the father of many nations.

After college I took a job at the bank. Just something to pay the bills while I waited to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. It was nine years before my waiting was over, and by then I had grown pretty comfortable with my routine. But I had faith and hope for what was next, so I got moving. Change for me meant leaving my hometown of Denver, moving to a tiny apartment in Chicago, and starting school again. It was very hard to leave that old life behind. I left my family, my friends, and many things I loved. I fell to a low point of loneliness and sadness in that time. But with the help of my new community, the strength and wisdom I had gained as I waited, and with some faith in the calling I had received, I began to rise from that low point and in my new life I began to shine.

The change that comes at the end of the waiting usually begins with things getting worse. It is difficult. There is loss. Moving in a new direction takes a lot of energy. There are those who will oppose the change, and will tell you that you’re making a mistake. I remember thinking, “What have I done?” But with the help of those around you, with faith in the strength of God to see you through, and with the knowledge that the light of the world has come into your heart, you can face the end of waiting.

When the waiting is over, a decision must be made. Which way shall I go, which choice shall I choose? Maybe it is facing a decision, choosing one thing and losing another, that causes us to keep waiting. We fear making the wrong choice, or losing out on something because we have chosen something else. The songwriter David Wilcox puts it succinctly:
I was dead with deciding - afraid to choose.
I was mourning the loss of the choices I'd lose.
But there's no choice at all if I don't make my move,
And trust that the timing is right;
Yes, and hold it up to the light.[2]
When the waiting is over, start moving. If you hold your choice up to the light, you’ll be moving in the direction that leads toward God. The change may be hard at first, but don’t give up hope, for after the fall comes a rising. The prophet Simeon said that Jesus was destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel. We are a resurrection people, and though we fall, we rise again to new life, and to the fulfillment of our calling to seek the realm of God.

“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Let’s be ready when the time comes, trusting that the timing is right, already moving forward with faith and hope, forward toward the kin-dom of God.

[1] Sarah McLachlan, “Angel” on Surfacing (Wild Sky Studios, 1997).
[2] David Wilcox, “Hold It Up to the Light” on Big Horizon (A&M Records, 1994).

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Blessing of Abundance

August 4, 2019
St. John's United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Leviticus 25:18-24; Luke 12:16-20

I am from Denver, Colorado. I moved to Chicago in 2003 to begin seminary. A few weeks after I arrived in Chicago, I received a care package from my home church.  Alone in my apartment, I opened the package.  In it were some cards from church members with words of encouragement, a tourist book about the city, and a box of brownies.  Two dozen brownies!  What a blessing!  They were moist and sticky, and they smelled so good.  I immediately ate two of them, savoring the rich chocolate flavor.  Then, I closed up the box and set them in my refrigerator to store them.

As the days passed, when I was feeling lonely, I would eat a brownie and think about my good fortune – having so many good brownies to eat.  I didn’t eat one every day, and so they would sit in the fridge, safely tucked away, slowly getting stale and dried out.  After a couple of weeks the remaining brownies were pretty hard, and they no longer tasted very good.  I had to throw away the last few stale brownies.  I was still lonely, and now I had no more brownies.

I don’t think of myself as a rich man. My wife and I manage to pay our bills each month, keep food on the table, keep our kids active, and get regular check-ups. But our cars are old, the kids are the only ones with new clothes, and we have more debt than savings. The thing is, we have a storage room in the basement, and it is just jammed with stuff. There’s an old TV, the kids old toys, some of my old toys, boxes of books, boxes of old clothes, and paint from when we moved in 12 years ago.

I’m running out of places to put all this stuff. What should I do? Sell it and give the money to the poor, right? Or at least donate it to Goodwill or a rummage sale. But I really like some of that stuff, and it might be useful someday. Maybe if I just build a bigger basement, or get a storage unit.

People hold on to a lot of things, not just objects that fit (or not) in the storage room. We hold on to regrets and mistakes from our past. We hold on to the idea that life can be pain-free, and happiness is only one more purchase away. We hold on to stereotypes, “facts” that have been proven false, and even people who try to control us with negativity. We are prisoners of this stuff, and it keeps us from entering the kingdom of God.

An abundance of possessions can do funny things to us.  We can become infected with greed.  We can become angry – paranoid that someone will take what is ours.  We hoard up our good things and push people away so that they won't take our things away from us.  We push people away, and pull our stuff closer to us.

The man in the parable has been blessed with an abundant harvest.  It was amazing!  The harvest was so good that all of his barns could not contain it.  Where could he store all of his things?  He decided to tear down his barns and build larger ones that could store all of his abundant harvest of grain, and all of his good things.  He was satisfied with himself – at least until God came calling.  God points out his foolishness. He has pushed away the people around him, and pulled his stuff closer.  The man tries to tell himself “Relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  But the words are hollow sounding, and in his heart he does not feel merry; rather, he feels nervous, empty, lonely.

Greed leads us to the belief that the good things in this world are limited.  No more brownies are coming in the mail; I need to store them so that I can prolong the comfort they give.  I might need those old books stashed away in a box in my basement.  The fields won't produce enough grain next year; I need to store up what I have for myself.

Now God enters into the parable with a warning.  “You fool!  The blessing of the harvest wasn’t for you alone – the blessing of the harvest belongs to the community.”  The abundant harvest is really a special blessing.  In the book of Leviticus we read how the land will produce abundantly during the sixth year in preparation for the seventh year of Sabbath for the land.  “I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that [the land] will yield a crop for three years” says the Lord. (Leviticus 25:21).

A New Testament Professor named Bernard Brandon Scott wrote a book entitled Hear Then the Parable.[1] In his study of this parable, Scott suggests that the rich man perceives the good things he possesses as limited.  Scott tells us, “If one person hoards wealth, there will be none left to go around.  If there is a surplus today, there must be a shortage tomorrow.”  By saving up his harvest to provide for his own comfort, the rich man “offends against the community’s possibilities, wastes God’s gifts, and ensures the impoverishment of others.”   The land has brought forth an abundant harvest, but it is not for the rich man to keep for himself.  The harvest is meant to provide for the needs of the community while the land is fallow during the Sabbath year.  The man in the parable, by hoarding the harvest for himself, turns his back on his neighbors.  He pushes away the people of the community and pulls his stuff closer.

The man in the parable has made a crucial misunderstanding.  He thinks that the blessings of God are limited.  There are only so many blessings to go around; better store them up!  He does not understand the nature of God.

The blessings of God are not limited!  Luke tells us that when Jesus was faced with a large, hungry crowd in a deserted place, with only five loaves and two fish, “he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.  And all ate and were filled” (Luke 9:16-17).  God’s blessing was enough to provide food for more than five thousand people!

The blessings of God are not limited, and they are given to us so that we might share them with others.  When we share our goods with others, what does that feel like?

At a church I served previously we held a semi-annual rummage sale.  Days before the doors open there will be an air of excitement and hurry to make all things ready.  “This is an important part of our work as a church,” I was once told.  “The money we make from the sale goes to support many of the outreach projects of the church.”  In just a few days there will be tables covered with clothes, kitchen gadgets, artwork, and home improvement products of all descriptions.  Everything is priced at dollar or two, and room after room will be filled with items.  The barns are filled to overflowing, but instead of building new ones, the community is invited in to share in the abundant harvest.  There is always an air of celebration and joy as people from near and far come in for the sale.

As we make our pledges each year to the church, as we support the MORE food pantry, Turning Point, PADS, and the Heifer Project, we are sharing the abundance with which God has blessed us all.  When we give out of our abundance to our church, to our neighbors, to our community, there is a feeling of joy, of celebration.  Had I shared those brownies that came in my care package, I might have made some new friends, and been able to celebrate the blessing of the brownies.  If I manage to bring some of my basement storage to the rummage sale this year, I know that there will be people who need what I have to give.  When the crops come with abundance, the harvest celebration begins.

The blessings of God are not limited.  When we share what we have, when we share out of the abundance of our things, we draw people together in celebration.  When we share our stuff, we pull people together.

God gives blessings in abundance, without limits.  God gives us life itself, and not only that.  In Jesus Christ, the stone of human limitations was rolled away so that we might all share in the abundance of eternal life.  Life without limits; enough life to share with everyone, enough for a celebration of the abundant blessing that God has given to us.

My friend Chris Marlin-Warfield, who preached at my installation last week, has written a book entitled Radical Charity. He reminds us that the church is “a little piece of the kingdom of God here in a broken world; a place and a community where people can see what the world could be like.” We have an amazing opportunity, “to be, however imperfectly, the world as God wants it to be. And that world is one that is full of agape, of caritas, of love, of charity.”[2]

We are not called to tear down our barns and build larger ones to store all of our wealth for ourselves. We are called share the abundance of God’s blessing.  We are called to give food to the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to clothe the naked.  We are called to share the good news that God’s blessings are not limited.  We are greatly blessed, so let us be a great blessing.  Amen.

[1] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 137.
[2] Christopher Marlin-Warfield, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 171. Available from: