Thursday, August 29, 2013

Changes in attitudes . . .

     Wouldn’t you know it?  The first week I have been gone in fifteen months, we get a reading in Hebrews that leaves me wondering which sermon I should be preaching.  This is one of those days, were I there, where I would preach a sermon at 8am and pay close attention to the conversations and questions afterward.  I joke with 8am attendees sometimes that they are preaching guinea pigs.  If a sermon really falls flat or misses questions they want answered, I can adjust and do a better job of feeding those who come at 10:15am.  The evangelist in me wanted to preach about the word spoken in blood.  We are reminded that Christ’s blood speaks a better word than Abel’s blood in this passage.  I also thought I had a good idea for a sermon focusing on the message of the one who speaks and the consequence of our answers.  But, as we have been focusing more on our own relationship with God through Christ, what some of us consider discipleship, I thought I would focus on the attitude called for by God in this passage.
     When you begin to consider settling into the presence of God, what is your attitude?  By that, I mean, when you begin to pray, when you begin to gather in worship, when you begin to participate in a ministry to which you are certain He has called you, how do you feel?  Are you anxious?  Do you dread it?  Would your attitude be better described as “oh, joy, here we go again, ho hum,” in a way that sounds like Eeyore?  Are you excited?  Are you expectant?  Do you feel it is a waste of your time?  Does your heart sing because this is that for which you were made?  And in this question, be honest as you reflect.  Ask God to let you see how you feel when you approach Him.  If you find that you are usually in one state of mind but can think of other isolated incidences where you were not yourself, that is ok, too.  We fool ourselves if we do not think that our circumstances affect our attitude in everything, including our intimate experiences with God.  I know that I have whined to God on more than one or two occasions when I entered into prayer.  I have had that feeling of dread when the preacher got started and I realized the Liturgy of the Word was about to get tedious.  I have felt frustration as I began anointing for healing, again, or entering into a pastoral counseling opportunity knowing that the individual or individuals present are not going to listen.  But I have also felt that peace of beginning a worship service in the midst of suffering and the expectation of God acting in the midst of a healing prayer.  I ask about our attitudes because they teach us a lot about how we view, how we perceive our relationship with God.
     Certainly, that was part of what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he or she brought up the Sinai Theophany and compared it to the present age.  The people of Israel rightly feared God in their encounters with Him.  Never mind that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” echoes throughout the Bible.  Think about the nature, if you will, of God.  Keep in mind, I will be speaking in words; we will, however, be grappling with the One who is beyond our understanding, absent His revelation and Incarnation.  God is holy.  We are not.  When he comes into the presence of evil, because He is all powerful, evil is destroyed.  It’s not that God is consciously zapping that which He perceives to be evil.  He is the very antithesis of evil.  He puts no more effort or thought into ridding evil from His presence than you and I do breathing or blinking.  He really is that light shining in a dark place.  Can we ever search darkness when we are holding a light?  No, wherever we go with the light, the darkness fades.  Similarly, wherever God goes, evil is destroyed.
     The people of Israel realized that truth first hand.  They experienced the presence of God unmediated.  His voice sounded like the loudest trumpet and terrified them.  His visage, echoing off Moses face, scared them into requiring that Moses wore a veil.  Even Moses, the lawgiver, was frightened to approach God and then more frightened to be His chosen vessel of grace to Israel.  They knew His presence in a way that you and I do not.  They covered their ears because of His voice.  They experienced His cloud of fire leading them at night and shading them at day.  When they thirsted and complained, He provided water.  When they hungered and complained, He provided meat.  And when the superpower of the day had them penned in facing utter destruction, He parted the waters and destroyed the army of Egypt.  Experiencing all of that, how many of them refused Him?  How many accepted His offer and made their way to the Promised Land?  We know that Joshua did.  Israel wandered the desert for so long to allow all those who refused to trust Him to die.
     For all their experience of God, however, the author reminds us that we live in a time after the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ.  That holiness which terrifies us as sinners has been removed.  Because of the person and work of Christ, we have been imputed with His righteousness.  We might say we wear the same garments as a result of His gift of grace.  As such, we can hear His voice and not be afraid.  His very presence will not destroy us.  We can approach His throne, in the presence of the joyful angels, as confident first-born heirs, inheritors of all that is His.  And we know this is all true, every word of it, because of the Resurrection of Christ.  Were He a liar or blasphemer, God never would have given Him that kind of honor.  Instead, because the Son trusted the Father’s will and faced the cross and tomb, He has been honored in ways you and I cannot yet imagine!  We will, because He has promised.  But His promises so far exceed our expectations as His grace exceeds our propensity to do evil in His site.  And what we inherit, as first-born children, is permanent.  Our inheritance can never be taken away.  Ever.
     So, knowing all that, how is your attitude when you enter into the presence of God?  As I said earlier, our circumstances do affect us as we begin worship or prayer or works in His name, but do they after we have begun our worship, prayer, or work?  Part of why we gather in worship or pray or do works of mercy in His name is to remind ourselves and others that He is with us, no matter the circumstances we face.  Whether we are a priest losing his first child to college even as he is charged with the care of 154 souls, a grandmother struggling hard to draw a loved one into relationship with God, a man struggling to put food on a table, a person struggling with the effects of disease or drug combinations, an individual seeking to meet this “Jesus” whom so many claim as Lord, a parent genuinely worried about our children in schools, we are called into prayer, works of mercy, and especially worship to remind ourselves of His promises and of His power to keep His promises.
     The same Lord who shook the mountain of Sinai, who destroyed Egypt’s army, who provided food and drink in the desert, who gave the Promised Land to the descendants of Abraham, who establish David as king, and who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead has promised you and me a glorious, unshakable inheritance.  He has claimed you and me as firstborn son or firstborn daughter.  He cheers our successes.  He roots for us to choose to follow His ways and His decrees.  When we stumble, He scoops us up and nurtures us.  When we sin and repent, He forgives.  And then He pats us on the behind and reminds us that we each have work to do in His plan.  Most importantly, nothing need ever come between Him and us.  His Son has already paid the price for our sins; all we have to do is repent.  And even if death reaches out its hand to claim us, still we cannot be separated from Him.  As firstborn inheritors we are promised a new body and an unshakable place in His eternal kingdom.  
     Now, given all that, how should your attitude be?  Should not your prayer life be that intimate moment when you speak and listen to your Father?  Should not works of mercy be all about drawing others into His saving embrace and, thereby, increasing the number of firstborn brothers and firstborn sisters in your family.  Should not worship become that expectant time where you remind yourself of the saving works He has done and of His promises to you?  Better still, should not worship and prayer and works of mercy be filled will reverence and awe, as our author reminds us?  And, this is the hard part this week, if, in discernment, you discover that you do not like worship, pray, or works, what is it or who is it you are placing above God?  Of course, there can be no hard part without the Good News.  Even if you find yourself a bit misled, even if you find yourself in full out rebellion against God, all He requires is that you repent and start afresh today.  It really is that simple.  He really loves you and me that much!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Divine appointments about THE divine appointment

     Are you a pastor?
     I had been on the road for nearly ten hours.  It was getting late.  I was in rural Kentucky, far away from my church in Iowa.  Traffic in the Queen City had been brutal.  How in the heck could she know that I was?
     “Yes ma’am.  But how did you know?”  I asked.
     Your big cross hanging there.  What do you think about this?
     “Oh.  About what?”
     What he’s sayin’?
     “I was not listening, so I don’t have anything to think about it?”
     The man turned around, offered his hand in introduction, and told me he’d figured it out.  “The world is going to end this October.  I figured out the date and time.”
     He did share the date and time.  By the time I returned to the car, I could not even remember it to tell my wife or the girls.  But I tried valiantly to beg off from the conversation.  I was tired.  I had a couple more hours of driving ahead of me.  And they were not going to like my answer.  “You know what.  I really don’t want to have this conversation.  My wife and I have been driving here since Iowa.  Traffic has been bad.  I’m taking one daughter to college and another to interview for college.  I’m not in my best ‘pastoral’ shape right now.”
     The cashier was having none of it, however.  That’s ok, pastor.  You are in Kentucky now.  We value plain speaking in these parts.  You can tell us what you think.  If it sounds strange to our ears, we will remember you said you were tired.
     He echoed with “Absolutely.  We know pastors get tired every now and again.  Sometimes, though, blunt is good.  It helps drive out confusion.”
     So I answered, looking at both of them in the eye and the lady behind me until she nodded, “I warned you.”  Looking back at the truck driver, I asked, “So, you figured out the date of Jesus’ return?”
     “Yeah, I did.”  And he proceeded to explain how one verse pointed him to another verse and another.  He’d figured out the signs and numbers of days from the signs from his detective work.  The math all added up.  We have less than two months, pastor.  What have you to say to that?”
     “Not much good, I’m afraid.”
     “And why not?” he asked crossing his arms.
     Yeah, why not? asked the lady behind the counter.
     “Because the date is not in there.”
     “Pastor, the Good Book contains everything in there.  If we need to know it, He (pointing upwards) made sure it was in there for us to read.  The most important thing in there is Judgment Day.”  He argued.
     “No, it’s not.” I replied.
     “What could be more important than Judgment Day?  That’s when our Lord is coming back to destroy the idolators, the perverse, those who mocked His people, everybody who is not His disciple.”  He was quite excited about the prospect.
     “Strange.  I thought the most important thing in the Good Book, as you called it a second ago, was the Good News, that Jesus loved us, came down from heaven, died for our sins, and was raised from the dead that all who believe in Him might have eternal life.  You know, John 3:16.”
     Continuing the argument, he continued, “Well, yeah, that’s real important, but His return and judgment are more important to us now, those of us who believe.”
     “Really?  I thought one of His last commands before He ascended was for us to go into the world and make disciples.  He told us to be ready and stay alert for His return, but nowhere do I recall Him ever saying we should look for a secret code that give the date of His return.  In fact, when He talks about His return, He says only the Father knows the day.  Jesus Himself did not know the day.”
     Rallying, he answered, “How can that be.  Jesus is God.  If God knows, Jesus knows.  He has to because He is God.”
     “Do you believe in the Trinity?”
     All three nodded.
     “What do we say about the Trinity?” I asked.
     We use it in baptisms.
     “I did not mean how it is used.  I meant ‘How do we describe the relationship we call the Trinity?”
     “Not following you, pastor.”  He replied as the ladies agreed.
     “If I said ‘Three Persons in One Unity,’ would that sound familiar to you?”
     “Oh, sure.  There’s the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  But they are all God.  That’s why you’re wrong that Jesus doesn’t know the date of His return.  He’s God, so He has to know.”
     “But what about the three persons, part?  Aren’t they in some mysterious way, separate?”  I asked.
     “Well, I guess, but they are also the same.”  he offered.
     “Yes, one Unity.  But what about that three persons part?  How do we understand that?”  I pressed.
     Isn’t that the difference which caused Jesus to pray to His Father.  I mean, I don’t know how to explain it, but Jesus prayed to the Father a lot.  If He was the Father, to Whom was He praying?  Himself?
     “Exactly.” I answered.  “Now we call this a holy mystery in the Church.  Somehow, we know that they are distinct persons but they share being God.  But if we try and rationalize it, we are going to fail.  It is a mystery we accept as part of His revelation that we will not fully understand until we pass through those pearly gates.  That make sense?”
     I got nods for the most part, but there were, rightfully, lots of questions.
     “Now, back to your claim about figuring out the date,” I said addressing the trucker, “What does Jesus say about that date in, let’s say, Mark 13?”
     Blank stares.
     “Come on.  You claimed to have figured out a date.  What does Jesus say about your date in Mark 13, as one example?”
     “I, uh, I don’t know the Book well enough to have it all committed to memory.”
     “You can figure out a code, but you can’t remember what was said about the subject of your code?”  I pressed.  “How about this ‘But about that day no one knows, not the angels in heaven, not even the Son, but only the Father.’”  Worried I had misquoted a word or two and knowing that would be important to my audience.  “Does that sound familiar?”
     “Are you sure that is in the Bible?”  he asked.
     “Absolutely.  In your Bible it will even be in red letters, right below the discussion about charlatans and false prophets who will claim special knowledge about His return.  Now, was Jesus telling the truth when He said He did not know the hour?” I asked.
     Whoa!  If you are right, then Jesus did not know.  But how can that be because He is God?
     “That mystery thing?” said the woman’s voice behind me.
     I nodded.  “Somehow, someway, the knowledge of His return is known only by the Father.  Either that or Jesus was a liar.  Since He was raised from the dead, I am betting He told the truth.”
     The ladies agreed, but unlearning came hard.
     “Are you sure that’s in the King James Bible and not some other translation?” he asked.
     “Absolutely,” I answered, “the words are even in red.”
     “I’m going to check and see if you are right.” he announced.
     “Please do,” I said, “and do me one more favor, if I am right.”
     “What’s that?” he asked dubiously.
     “If I remembered the verses right, and you see them with your eyes, ask yourself where your efforts fall in that chapter.  What would Jesus think about your efforts to figure out stuff He does not know and then share it with the people you meet?  And, if you do that, if you honestly do that, reread the Gospel again, asking God to tell you what you should be doing, instead.  Fair enough?”
     “I’m betting you read a wrong Bible and got confused,” he replied.
     “I know.  But if I am right, if those words are right and if they are in red, will you do that?  Will you reread that Gospel, asking God to show or tell you what you should be doing with your life instead of trying to guess at a day?  Will you do that?”
     “I guess.  But I think I’m going to be right back in here showing you what the Good Book really says.”
     “Fair enough.  I still have to pay, so hurry along.”
     He headed out the door to his truck.
     Well, I don’t know how you could do any better, Pastor, when you aren’t tired and frustrated.  If that wasn’t you at your best, I kinda wish I lived near you to see you more.
     You said you were tired and worn out from your trip.  I’d kinda like to hear you preach all rested and rarin’ to go.  That man is in here damn near every day, pestering me and everyone else who’s in here if I am and they are ready to meet Jesus in October.  I’ve reminded him about that guy in Florida and that guy in Oklahoma that picked dates, but he never listens to me.
     “Yeah,” said the lady behind me, “he is just wound up on that date.  It’s kinda scary, if you ask me.”
     “I am sorry that you two have had to listen to it.  It drives me nuts.”
     Why’s that?
     “How many strangers have heard that from him?”
     I wouldn’t know how many to guess.  He’s been at it for five or six months maybe, every day.
     “How many of those did not know God?” I asked.
     Well, all of us locals just argue a bit and then tune him out.  If you keep arguing, he starts trying to save you.
     “I hear you.  But what about those who aren’t saved?  If this guy is spouting a date and it ends up being wrong, what will they think about God and the Bible?”
     “Well, they’ll think the Bible is wrong about the date, that’s fer sure,” offered the lady behind me.
     “And if it’s wrong about one thing, what else can it be wrong about?” I asked.
     Understanding dawned.
     Well, I don’t know how she felt about waiting that long to check out, but I am really glad I asked if you were a pastor.  Now I know how to handle guys like him.
     “At first, I have to admit, I was pissed. . . err, sorry, Pastor.  But now I’m kinda happy about it.  It always rubbed me a bit wrong, to tell the truth.  Now, I guess, I know why.  Heck, I want to hear what he says after reading it.  You sounded pretty sure it’s in there.  I want to know how he’s gonna respond.  And I really hope you are right.  He really highlights those red words when he talks at you.”
     “Well, ladies, you are going to have to continue this discussion with him without me.  I hoped I have helped you a bit.”  I answered.
     Whaddaya mean?  You’re not givin’ up now, are ya?
     I laughed.  “No.  I’m betting that’s his truck pulling out.  Am I right?”
     Laughter all around.
     “Do me a favor, please, ladies?”  I asked as she rang me up.
     “You name it, pastor.”
     Whatever you want, pastor.
     “Next time he comes in, don’t tease him.  Ask him if he kept his promise to re-read the Gospel.  If he says he didn’t or did not need to, remind him that he promised a pastor to re-read it, if the pastor was right.  Will you do that?”
     They agreed, a bit disappointed that I asked them not to tease him.
     He’s so . . . I dunno, hard headed.  It would be so much fun to rub his nose in it a bit.
     “Yeah, I gathered that.  But you know, there was this stubborn man named Paul.  When the scales fell away from his eyes, he did some amazing work for God.  Maybe you two have heard of him?
     Fair enough.  I get you.  I don’t like it, but I get you.
     “Well, ladies, we all have our crosses to bear, “ I winked as she gave me my change.
     I left to a bit of laughter and thanks.

Should we be surprised by twerking and outrageous behavior?

What do you make of the Miley Cyrus VMA act?
     My answer to that question initially this week had to be a “not much.”  Truthfully, we did not watch it in my house.  My wife and I are some of those old enough to remember when the VMAs used to be an award show for music videos, but then again, we are of an age to remember when MTV and VH1 played music videos on their channels.  We both remember shocking acts by Madonna, Cher, and probably a couple others we have forgotten over the years.  When our kids or their classmates ask us about the newest antics of Lady Gaga or some other entertainer, we usually /eyeroll and tell them that “so and so” did it first or did it better.  So, when the first questions came, I simply responded “not much.  I did not watch it.”  Of course, one would have to have been living on Pluto not to have realized just how shocking the performance must have been.  Anyone who saw the pictures of the crowd on all the different news feed teasers, as did I, had to wonder.  So I admit, I clicked on one of the articles and pushed the play button.  I do regret that, as it simply encourages websites to continue to highlight such “controversial” acts for increased traffic, but a good pastor is supposed to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
     If you have not heard or seen the routine, Miley Cyrus faux-masturbated on television and twerked Robin Thicke as he performed a bit from blurred lines.  I had never heard the word “twerk” until Monday, but I soon learned that it meant “grinding ones hips and butt in a sexual manner.”  Essentially, Miley was grinding the much older Thicke in a bent over pose.  For generations at church who witnessed, or just heard about, the hip gyrations of Elvis, who watched Madonna, Ozzie Osborn, KISS, Samantha Fox, Tone Loc, Lady Gaga and however many other entertainers try and shock us with their antics and lyrics, I was tempted not to comment.  Those of us who are parents should have know to expect wild, headline grabbing behavior on the show; and so we should have kept our younger kids from watching the show.
     Miley’s behavior, though, crosses into the same attitudes which allows slavers to prey upon the young girls we encounter in the sex trade, in particular.  Miley made a small fortune and developed a following thanks to Disney marketing.  It is a shame, given her wealth, fame, and talent (I assume she has some, but I could not name a song), that she has chosen this route to gain attention.  She is twenty.  I get it.  She wants to prove to the world she can do what she wants when she wants to.  She no longer has to be the nice girl, the Disney princess.  I would say it is safe most will no longer think of her in that role.  The problem is that her behavior reinforces the notion that girls are to be valued only for the pleasure they can offer men around them.  Want to attract the attention of a guy?  You better be twerking him so he knows you have a freaky side!  Want to keep the attention of your favorite guy?  You better be dressing like Madonna or Britney or now Miley, if you don’t want his eyes to wonder!  And this message is being reinforced in those who followed Hannah Montana, if their parents are not parenting.  Perhaps, we as a society ought to take a step back and consider some of the messages we reinforce.  One should easily see that a young girl can begin to form a self image which makes her more vulnerable to the wiles of slavers.  Add the normal teenage angst of “not fitting in” and the promise of “easy money,” and we have the potential for many horrible outcomes.
    What can be done?  I mentioned earlier that parents must parent.  If we allow our children to watch such behavior, we are endorsing it.  If we do not comment on the behavior, we are endorsing it.  So many parents try so hard to be “cool” or to be their kids’ “friend” that they forget their primary responsibility is to be a parent.  Those of us with girls need to remind girls that they were created in their Father’s image.  Our daughters are more than scantily clad eye candy and twerking teases in their Father’s eyes.  They are beloved of their Father, a true princess and queen, and they need always to be reminded of that truth.  Better still, they need to be reminded that they deserve better men, men who will treat them as more than eye candy and more than objects of their pleasure.  They deserve boys and men who will treat them as others who were created in His image and deserving of the respect and honor such truth demands.
     Those of us with boys need to remind our boys that the girls at which they are gawking were made for more than their pleasure.  Whether the girl in question is an entertainer like Miley Cyrus, a random girl on some internet porn site, of a particular body type or socio-economic class does not matter.  Like them, the girls they oogle or disparage were created in their Father’s image and must needs be treated well.  
     In all this mess, Mr. Thicke has gotten a free pass, as men and boys and buyers often do--Big Shock.  We may give Miley a pass because she is only twenty, but Mr. Thicke, as a 36-year-old man, knew much better.  He has made his claim to fame channeling the Simply Irresistible girls this summer.  What if he would have simply stepped back from her twerking or even quit singing, what message would have been sent?  I am betting Will Smith and his family might have been shocked and pleased in that photo.  It is that same attitude I encounter in colleges when young ladies confess that their boyfriends spend hours watching porn or begging for sexting.  They are boys, Father.  That’s how they are supposed to behave.  If I don’t condone it, they’ll find someone else.  Can you imagine?  Girls are at a point where they universally shrug their shoulders at the fact that their boyfriends, perhaps their future husbands, are watching porn, heading to strip clubs, or engaging in behavior that objectifies other women?  I doubt any woman who burned a bra in the 70’s or otherwise blazed a trail in male-dominated careers ever thought they were fighting for this kind of acceptable attitude when they waged the sexual revolution.  
     The subversion of human dignity has been a long process, and Miley Cyrus’ act is just the most recent incarnation of that subversion.  It was a battle long being lost.  It will be a battle long faced.  But armed with our Lord’s word and informed by His Spirit, we have no reason to despair.  In the end, He wins, as do all who choose Him and to walk His path.  What do I think of Miley Cyrus’ act?  Pity and frustration.  I pity her for whatever need or lack she feels that causes her to engage in such dehumanizing, attention-getting behavior.  Like me, she was wonderfully made and more gloriously redeemed, if she would simply take His outstretched hand of grace.  But I am frustrated because this young girl may never have to face the consequences of the attitude which she engenders in girls and boys who follow her.  The growth of the sex trade and the existence of the “rape culture” that is allowed to continue on college campuses is not the fault of young Miley; she is just its new herald.  But, like many who have come before her, she is sheltered and protected for the consequences of the attitude which she espouses.  We, the parents, better be paying attention and be engaged.  We have lots of work to do and to undo.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Endurance running . . .

     Winning.  How many witticisms surround the idea of winning.  Long before Charlie Sheen tried to trademark the word, it had well invaded our social consciousness.  Winning isn’t the most important thing; it is the only thing.  As a society, we place great stock in winning.  Think of the scandals playing out in baseball right now.  How many of the players who took the punishment from MLB are really ashamed by their actions?  How many are going to pay any significant penalty for their willingness to cheat?  How many Brewer fans will feel dirty if Braun leads them to a World Series in the years to come?  I realize the Yankees are the Devil’s team (yes, I married into a Red Sox family), but is any Yankee fan wanting to distance themselves from the World Series Win A-Rod helped secure, a World Series in which he was the MVP?  What if he comes back and leads them deep into the playoffs this year?  I understand, they will rue that $136 million they still owe him in the years to come, but few Yankees fans will be clamoring for the team to vacate any of its victories.
     Wanna talk football?  This being Big Ten country, we have no respect for the bending of the rules that occur Southeast of here, do we?  I mean, our athletes all go to class, they never sell gear for money or tattoos, and we are absolutely shocked to learn that they have lived a life of privilege.  I mean, they are never supposed to get arrested when they do things they shouldn’t, right?
     Well, at least Track and Field is clean, right?  Unless you are paying close attention, you may not be aware of the number of Americans who were caught cheating on the Blue Track in Des Moines at the National Championships a few weeks ago.  They all apologized.  I have not heard that Nike or Adidas dropped any of them as sponsors.  Maybe those decisions are to come . . . or not.
     Thank God we still have cycling!  At least we have one clean sport, right?
     And if we are going to talk winning and winners, we also have to think in terms of losers.  For every victor, there is a loser.  For every “mentally tough” player or team, there is someone or a team that “choked” or came up short.  For every Steeler or Cowboy dynasty there is a Vikings or Bills team regretting failure.  For every Cardinal World Series win, there is a Cubs season.  For every Michael Johnson, there is a Mary Decker.
     People are laughing, but it is a rueful laugh, is it not?  We recognize that society cares more about winning than anything else.  The athletes and their teams have figured this out as well.  They apologize for “lapses in judgements” or “not following the rules to the letter” or “not paying close attention to what was entering their bodies.”  The press pays attention for a few days and moves on, and we forget and forgive, and cheer when they get back on the stage.  And we wonder why more than two million high school athletes admitted to using PEDs.  We wonder why there are cheating scandals in academics.  The youth watch us adults and see us cheering every effort to succeed.  It is no small wonder if they engage in cheating.  Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.
     Not surprisingly, our message in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not so much concerned about winning.  It is, instead, more concerned with enduring or persevering.  We talked last week about the fact that Sarah and Abraham did not inherit the fullness of God’s promises in this life.  In fact, they died before their family really swelled in terms of numbers and before they came to possess the Land.  Had Abraham been able to look a couple generations into the future, one wonders what he would have thought about his family, numbering about seventy, heading to Egypt and slavery.  Uhm, Lord, the Land that you promised is behind them--they are going out of the Land You promised.  I know, his faith would likely have caused him still to trust God, but it reminds us of the twists and turns his family faced waiting on God to honor His promise.
     The author continues to remind us of the pitfalls of life in the midst of faith.  The generation that saw the Sea parted and the Egyptian army consumed never inherited the Land.  Samson did not live to see the havoc he wrested upon the Philistines when God granted him that last breath of strength.  Barak, a man whom we should credit as being an inspiring military fighter in Israel’s history, perhaps second only to David, and who secured about forty years of peace for Israel by killing Sisera, lost his opportunity for glory because he trusted Deborah rather than God.  Lucy for him, she was appointed judge by God.  Gideon could have fit in here well.  To say that he felt unworthy to be called a mighty warrior is a gross understatement.  And, he fathered a son on a concubine who would later kill all seventy of his half-brothers in a short, successful attempt to rule.
     I could go on and on, but you should begin to get the idea now.  Life is often hard. Life often testifies that God is not in control.  Unnamed saints in our letter today were tortured and ridiculed.  As we reminded ourselves last week, part of the reason that we gather and celebrate what we Anglicans/Episcopalians call the liturgy of the Word is to remind ourselves of those who have come before.  Each of those named by this author experienced some blessings from God.  Sarah and Abraham experienced wealth and a son.  Noah was saved during the flood.  Rahab recognized that Yahweh truly was God, but prior to her deliverance at the hands of Israel, she never turned aside from her work as a prostitute.  On this side of the grave, as the author reminds us, we get only a partial experience of God’s blessings.
     You and I know this.  How many of us in desperate need of provision have received a miraculous provision?  Perhaps the provision itself was not noteworthy, but the timing was!  How many of us have experienced healing after a serious battle with disease?  We have a number of cancer survivors among us.  Is there any disease that terrifies us more than cancer?  Yet some among us are sought out as drivers by doctors and the staffs for those patients without drivers or means simply because we can testify that one can be healed of that dreaded disease.  Anybody here know any addicts that have been given the strength and grace to avoid the alcohol or drugs or whatever that caused them to risk everything?  How many of us have been in relationships where repentance, true amendment of life, led to restoration of broken relationships?  How many of us were the ones who needed to repent to allow the healing of those relationships to begin?  Like the lives of those about whom we read when we gather around this table, our stories help others see God at work in the world around them.
     This is not easy work.  This is hard work.  Paul calls it in His letters a struggle, a straining.  The author of the Epistle likens it to a long race.  If this author was a companion of Paul, he or she would have been reminded that our lives in faith are like marathons.  I don’t know about you, but the thought of running a marathon is unappealing, to say the least.  I get a taste of the struggle, the pain, the hurt associated with such an expenditure of energy in my longer rides, but I am constantly impressed by friends and even our bishop, who tackle long runs with excitement.  If Paul were on earth today, I have no doubt he’d give me a Gibb’s-slap to the back of my head reminding me that such is the way we are called to live our lives of faith--with excitement, with an expectation of a runner’s high, and with determination.  Certainly our author would agree with that last bit.
     Faith requires determination; our author terms it persevering.  It requires picking up the foot and putting it down again.  That’s all we do--pick up our foot and take another step. If you have been out walking or running or bicycling the last few weeks, you may have noticed that someone or someones have been marking distances and directions on the roads around the Quad Cities.  Somebody has been marking the trail to be followed.  My guess is that it is for those who take their training seriously and want to practice running the race that they will run next month, someone is teaching them the path.  Runners are trusting that the ones marking know the route and the distance.  As we reminded ourselves in the Collect for this week, we, too, are trusting that we are following the right path.  How do we know that we are?  Because Jesus has marked the path for us!  He has, to extend the metaphor, run ahead of us and now waits at the finish line encouraging us on, blazing a trail that we can follow!
     And it is a difficult race in which we are competing.  This race which we run is both an individual effort but also a kind of relay.  Right now, you and I carry the baton of faith.  We face life and all its vicissitudes carrying that baton that has been passed to us by the generations that came before us.  And we carrying it knowing that others will come after us.  At some point, assuming our Lord does not return before then, we will pass that baton to the next generation of faith.  Our witness, our faithfulness will cause others to participate with us.  They will share with those coming after them how our perseverance, our determination to follow the Lord, inspired them and led them to join this race.
     Better still, as we are running, there is a crowd cheering for us!  If you have ever played a sport, you know the lift that comes from cheers of the crowd.  Commentators call it a home-field advantage.  As you and I are running this race, those who run with us and those who came before cheer us on.  Those who have reached the finish line want us all to join them!  There is no hope that we pull a hammie or sprain an ankle.  There is no secret hope that we will fail.  As much as we are inspired by their witness, this cloud of witnesses is encouraging us.  Their stories of perseverance, just like a crowd’s cheer for the home team, inspires us to endeavors seemingly beyond us.  We hear their stories and realize that they are really not much different from us.  What truly separated them from the world around them was their unwillingness to quit.  Like us, they were called to a persevering faith, a faith unwilling to give up on the Lord because He never gave up on us!  And so, determinedly, they lived the lives to which their Lord called them.
     And waiting at this finish line, in the midst of the cheering crowd, is the Lord.  Jesus has completed this race already.  As we cross that finish line we call death and pass from glory into glory, He stands there ready to congratulate us, to hug us, and to give us His winning time!  Perhaps an easy way for us to understand imputation of His righteousness is to think in terms of sports.  He posted the winning time, and He assigns that time to us.  His gold medal becomes our gold medal; His world record time is assigned to us!  It is a gold medal or world record which is shared by all who entered the race.  Thanks to His effort, we are all winners precisely because He won this race that was set before Him.  He perfected our faith.  Where we stumbled, He strode confidently; where we gasped for air, He experienced the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and where we are tempted to give up because of the pain, He refused to surrender and struggled even to the point of sweating blood.  And like a proud parent or great coach, He stands at the finish line ready to congratulate us, ready to embrace us and celebrate our determination.  He does not praise us for winning; He praises us only for enduring!  Well done, good and faithful servant.  
     Knowing the struggle that is still before you, aware of the and agony through which you must still pass through as a marathon runner does the “wall,” how do you train and prepare yourself for the road ahead?  Is gathering with other men, women, and youth of faith something you try to work into your schedule?  Is the study of that cloud of witnesses who have come before you one of those things you “will get around to, one of these days?”  Seeing how the author describes the life of faith, why are we complacent not to “train” properly for the obstacles and experiences we know we will face?  Is it hubris, pride?  Is it the Midwestern work ethic in us gone a bit bad, subverting us into thinking that we can somehow affect our salvation?  Or have we, like the world around us, come to place too much emphasis on winning?  Have we forgotten that our Lord asks us only to endure faithfully, trusting that He will see us through life’s snares, the traps of the Enemy, and even the shadow of death?  Brothers and sisters, as we ponder that question and consider whether to take yet another step toward that finish line and toward our Lord, pause for a moment and listen for the cheering.  Our Lord, and all those whom He has saved, are excited that you have joined the race.  He and they long for us all to swell the throng and cheer those that follow on to that line as well.  And here’s, perhaps, the most radical understanding of our author’s point today: nobody has to lose!  When we compete in this world, there are winners and there are losers.  In our race to the Lord, though, there are no losers, only victors and saints.  How will you finish this race?  Uplifted by Him and that crowd, soon to swell its throng?  Or will you risk failing to finish on your own?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The confidence of things not seen . . .

     Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the confidence of things not seen -- Anyone here who has been through a confirmation class probably knows this definition of faith, maybe not quite as well as the definition of a sacrament -- an outward sign of an inward and spiritual gift, but it is well known, nonetheless.  You may not, however, have known where the definition was found in Scripture.  It is found in a section of the Letter to the Hebrews that speaks to the questions of faith.  What is faith and How can I strengthen mine are but two questions we might ask of one we deem more mature in their walk with Christ.  Like us, the Hebrews who had decided to follow the “Way” of Christ were often challenged in their faith.  We may believe that the letter was written before 70AD (Timothy is alive and the author speaks of the Temple in the present tense, for example), but the truth is that we are doing detective work.  Along those lines, if you were raised to believe or have a Bible that says “The Letter of Paul” to the Hebrews, they are likely incorrect.  Certainly, the author seems to know Timothy, and what the author writes mostly conforms to Paul’s other letters and what we know of his teaching.  But we do not believe the letter was actually dictated by Paul.  In any event, this letter written within a few decades of our Lord’s Ascension, speaks to some of those questions that disciples might have when their expectations of coming to faith in Christ were, and are, not met.  And so, it is good for us to explore as we continue our focus on discipleship.
     Why did you decide to become a Christian?  If you can take a moment and think back, what were your expectations of your conversion?  And, before we speak any more about this, even those of us who have no “conversion experience” might be able to think back on that time when we claimed for ourselves the faith of our parents, of our grandparents, of the whoever our spiritual matriarchs and patriarchs were in our lives.  Did your expectation match your experience as you began the walk in faith?  As a pastor, I get to hear lots of disappointments with respect to these kinds of questions.  It is also my job, I think, to temper the expectations of those considering the decision to follow Christ.  Many times I have been asked if the declaration “I will follow Jesus” or the sacrament of baptism will make an individual sober.  I have been asked dozens of times by those whom we fed through AFM or feed through SmartChoice if membership in our church guarantees no financial hardships.  I have been asked by more than one girl and only one man whether the hurt and pain and shame immediately lifts if one converts to Christ.  Listening to prosperity gospellers or televangelists, one can well understand why people might be tricked into believing that a conversion to Christ is little more than a magic wand.  Membership does, indeed, have its privileges, but the best privileges are in the world to come.  On this side of the grave there are many responsibilities before we inherit the Kingdom.  There are crosses to be born, people to be served, and dross to be refined before that day.  As this author will remind us, it is a long race in which we are running.  And it is a race whose map is somewhat ambiguous and who traps are not well identified.
     Hopefully, your answer to the why question I asked a few minutes ago did not cause a major crisis of faith later in your life.  Hopefully, if your reasons were, perhaps, sincere but misplaced, other Christians came alongside you and shared what this faith journey would really be like.  Hopefully, someone came alongside you and reminded you why we gather as we do, studying God’s Word and partaking of the Eucharist.  If nobody did, or if you have forgotten, I hope we will explore this over the next four weeks--that’s my intention, anyway!  We’ll see if I discerned God’s will correctly.
     Our author today defines faith and then moves quickly to several examples.  If you do not know the full stories of the heroes mentioned, you should really take the time and go back and read the full stories.  Those that the author names are human beings.  They are human beings with great strengths, glaring weaknesses, a propensity to do amazing works in faith, and a propensity to sin boldly against God.  Through it all, the faithfulness of God is highlighted to us, the Body gathered together in worship and praise.  Why?
     When you and I gather to celebrate what the Lord has done for us, we do so cognizant that this, the world around us, is not the fulfillment of His promises.  As good as life might seem to be going or as hard as it might seem to be, this is not the fulfillment of His promises.  Yet, because He is the One who made the promises, you and I can trust that His promises will be fulfilled for each one of us.  And, if you are sitting here doubting or considering, it is not just an ambiguous “trust.”  Part of the reason He calls us to read, study, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures is so that we can see how God keeps each and every single one of His promises, beginning with Abel and Enoch, continuing through Noah, and ending (this week) with Sarah and Abraham.
     As with us, God focuses on the faith of HIs servants, even in the Old Testament.  This does not surprise those of us gathered here today, but it often forgotten by the world.  Did God need anything from Cain or Abel?  Of course not.  But because of his faith, the Lord judged Abel’s offering better.  Did Cain think he was responsible for his offering?  Perhaps.  We are not told.  What we are told is that Abel’s offering was judged by God, who knows and sees our hearts, as faithful.  And notice the toss away sentence in verse 4, and by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.  Even though Abel is dead, he still speaks to and with God!  You remember the story of Cain and Abel, right?  Sons of Adam and Eve.  Yes.  Abel was the one who was killed by his brother, yet still he speaks to God by faith.
     The same praise is used of Enoch, who could not be found, and Noah, who, despite all evidence to the contrary began to build an ark to carry his family and the animals in preparation of a flood.  If you have seen Evan Almighty, you have gotten a flavor of the ridicule which Noah and his family faced in light of his calling.  Yet throughout the mocking, throughout the dry months prior, throughout the entire process of building the ark, Noah believed.  As a consequence of that faith that God would keep His promise and flood the earth while saving Noah’s family, Noah was saved.
     Then the author moves to Abraham and Sarah.  You probably feel like you know a lot about Sarah and Abraham.  Who doesn’t know they had a baby when they were a 100 years old?  Who doesn’t know that Abraham and Sarah left the family home and journeyed to Canaan, where the Lord confirmed His covenant with them by promising to die for them if they and their heirs could not keep the covenant with Him?  How many of us know that Sarah was a hottie?  That she caught the eye of Pharaoh?  That Abraham, the man of faith who would sacrifice his son Isaac believing that somehow God would keep His promises to him, instructed Sarah not to admit she was his wife?  Complex human beings, are they not?  They make amazing courageous decisions and act on them at times; at other times, they sin and do so boldly.  Perhaps that describes someone you know?
     Which brings us all back to faith and the purpose of this gathering.  Why do we gather weekly, twice a week, three times a week around the Table?  What is the purpose of this event that we celebrate?  And why, why should we care when numbers of us fall for a summer or a couple weeks?  We gather, in part, to look back and to look forward.  We remind ourselves of the promises He has made, but we do so in light of those promises and deliverances which He has engineered in the past.  The stories that we study each time we read the Bible are our stories.  Each of us claims Abraham and Sarah as spiritual patriarch and matriarch.  And we claim others in the Bible as well.  Some of us might be inspired by Boaz and Ruth; others may prefer the dysfunction of Jacob and His family; maybe you relate best to Thomas; perhaps it is Martha; maybe it is Peter.  There is, quite literally, a large number of saints to whom you and I can look for inspiration, for reminder, and for hope.  Abraham and Sarah are but one example.
     Often when we convert to the Christian faith, we are led to believe that life will always work out for the better.  We come to believe that God is glorified or dishonored by what happens to us, or so goes the rationale behind this line of reasoning.  If we suffer, He is dishonored.  But if we are blessed, He proves He is worthy of honor and worship.  We are right, so long as an eternal perspective is in place.  The problem is when we try and take the eternal perspective and apply it to the here and now.  Just as we can delude ourselves as to our own importance, we can also delude ourselves into thinking we are lower than we really are.  We can focus on our successes and elevate us in our own eyes, or we can focus on our sins and failures and convince ourselves of our unworthiness.  These stories exist so that we can remember that God really is at work in the world around us, redeeming His people and executing His plan of salvation.  And for reasons known only to Him, He has chosen us to be His heralds of grace.
     Part of why so many of the stories sing to us and inspire us in our faith is the simple confidence with which these men and women face the world, certain of the Lord’s ability to redeem their lives.  Sarah and Amanda, you might remember, never experienced the fulness of God’s grace in their lives.  They never inherited the Land promised to them.  They never saw their family number the stars in the sky.  Yet both had faith in God, that He would accomplish all that He proposed.  And even when Abraham stood over his dead wife, looking to buy her a tomb, he believed that God would somehow keep His promises to them.  For that reason Abraham negotiated with those in the Land for a tomb.  Abraham believed that even were he to die, still the Lord would cause his descendants to inherit the land.  All of this happened when they were new in the Land, sojourners of little or no account.  Like Noah before them, and Enoch and Abel before Noah, each person of faith had a multitude of reasons not to believe.  Some faced death, some faced privation, they all faced reasons not to believe.  And yet, in spite of it all, in spite of the world’s testimony and in spite of their circumstances, they held fast to the only One who promised to redeem even death itself.  And, in the end, it is that One who is our confidence and that One in whom we place our hope.
     Brothers and sisters, where is your hope?  Where is your confidence?  How do you know, absolutely know, that whatever is currently weighing is going to be, in the end, redeemed for God’s glory?  Be it your suffering, be it your death?  Part of why we gather as a body as to remind ourselves of those savings works He has done in the past and to remind us what He has promised for our future.  And fortified by those remembrances and by His flesh and blood, we head back out into the world as ambassadors and heralds, testifying that His Kingdom is coming near, and that all, all, can have a firstborn share in His inheritance.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Foolish idols . . .

     Our lectionary editors chose to skip over the challenges to Jesus’ claim of authority.  For the past three weeks, Luke has been teaching us about discipleship.  He has been answering the question “What does the life of a disciple look like?”  How is a right relationship with the Lord reflected in the life of the disciple?  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we learn that discipleship has an outward, neighborly focus.  In the teaching of Mary and Martha, we learn that there are lots of calls on one’s life, but that the better choice is always to sit at His feet and learn.  And, then, perhaps most importantly, we learn that we are to have an intimate relationship with our Father in heaven.  Had we continued on in the readings, we would have read about the Pharisees and other societal elites questioning the authority of this backwoods man.  In effect, they ask Jesus who He is and what makes Him think He can teach what He teaches.  He has not gone to the right schools; He has not grown up in the right towns; and He does not have the right connections.  Jesus, to be sure, provokes the growing confrontation.  Jesus names the hypocrisy of each of the groups.  In effect, He refuses to play nice or play by their rules.  He is here for a purpose, and His time is limited.
     It is with that background that we find ourselves in this week’s passage.  A man in the crowd calls out to the teacher and asks Him to instruct his brother to divide the family inheritance.  While it was not uncommon for people to appeal to rabbis to mediate disputes, the man in question is simply asking Jesus to side with him.  Perhaps it is for that reason that Jesus asks “Man, who appointed me as judge or arbiter between you?”  Never to waste a moment to teach, though, Jesus goes on to warn those within the sound of His voice against greed.  “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
     Talk about a counter-cultural proclamation!  Even in the first century Ancient Near East, people were struggling to accumulate stuff.  We have to wonder if they had on their camels or oxen those bumper stickers with the phrase “He/She who dies with the most toys wins!”  Like us, members of Jesus audience were concerned with signs of wealth.  Everybody wanted more and more possessions.  The more possessions one has, the more secure one feels.  Of course, greed is a difficult master.  It is never satisfied.  The more one has, in service of greed, the more one needs.  We see this play out not just with respect to possessions and money, but other areas as well.  Ever known a politician who willingly shuns the spotlight or power?  How many people do we know struggle to get a house, a car, and other accoutrements of success only to feel the need to restart the process of acquisition yet again and again?  Sometimes, as my family can attest, people find their worth and security in just “stuff.”  I must confess we watch the show Hoarders with the same way we might watch an oncoming accident.  It is so hard to watch people destroy their lives and their relationships as they accumulate and accumulate, and yet it is incredibly hard to look away.
     But notice that the problem in this teaching by Jesus is not wealth.  One can be wealthy and still be faithful to God.  Jesus does not criticize the man for ripping off laborers or for stealing land.  The harvest was clearly abundant, and it would not fit in his existing barns.  The problem in this teaching is the attitude toward wealth.  For the man in question, wealth has become his god.  He trusts in his ability to provide for himself rather than trusting in God.  Notice all the references to “I’ and “my” in the story.  Even the judgement in the story, “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry,’” demonstrates to us he thinks he is the judge. The the hammer hits!
     “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”  Last week, as we were looking at the Lord’s Prayer, we were reminded that we are to have an eternal perspective.  This man has lost that eternal perspective and focused on the here and now.  God rightly judges him a fool, a person in the OT in particular who rejects God and His instruction and chooses, instead, to act in self-destructive ways.  When we place anything in our lives before God, we are acting as a fool.  When we place anything in our lives before God, we are choosing to follow an idol that cannot speak, cannot hear, and cannot act in lieu of following the One who would have us call Him Father.  Forgetting God has horrible consequences, eternal consequences.  The man in question trusted wealth and stands condemned.  Weekly, we see 100-140 individuals who have chosen or are choosing to dull their pain through alcohol.  Many of those whom we encounter in human trafficking are seeking wealth, power through blackmail, or to dull their pain through sex.  Many of us know people in our lives, perhaps some of us present, who have to have the latest gadget or the fanciest car or the newest whatever, and the financial hardships they create for themselves in trusting in those items rather than God.  Heck, how many people in our country bought houses too big for their budgets in the leadup to the Great Recession?  Part of the economic malaise that we are experiencing is the fact that so many people are underwater or have been been foreclosed upon.  The attitude that Jesus condemns is rampant in our society.  So, what’s the solution?  Christ.  
     For those of us sitting here today who have felt the tug of the Holy Spirit, repent and ask God for the grace to re-prioritize your life.  Ask God for the grace to help you keep your focus on Him, in whatever area of your life about which you are troubled.  Parents, our kids are gifts of God.  Are you raising your children to know and to love God?  Or have you fallen into the Enemy’s subtle trap to raise your children apart from the Church so that, when they grow up, they can make their own choice?  I have news for you.  When they grow up, they will make a choice.  How can you expect them not to choose foolishly if they do not know the saving grace of our Lord?  How can you expect them to choose wisely, if you have modeled a behavior that follows idols instead of our Lord?  Americans, we have lots of areas in which we are called to be stewards.  Even the poorest among us in among the world’s wealthiest.  It is hard to believe that someone Amanda and Robbie met last week would trade you straight up for your life, is it not?  And yet they met many who would beg for your life.  Yesterday, we had the privilege and opportunity of hosting our Ward meeting.  How many showed up to advocate for those in our community who are on the margins.  You know, the people working 2-3 jobs, 80 hours a week, to make ends meet--how many of us showed up to give their concerns a voice?  How many showed up to lend God’s voice and guidance to our political discussions?  Those with greater resources, how are you glorifying God and thanking Him for your abundant blessings?  Those of you blessed with great health, how are you using your physical condition to glorify God and to thank Him for your strength and vitality?  Those of you with a platform, teachers and politicians and social workers and other jobs, how are you performing your job to His honor and glory.  I could go on and on because this list really needs to be exhaustive.  There is nowhere in our life over which God does not claim sovereignty.  He even knows, knows whether our labors are done with right intention.  We might be able to fool a neighbor or friend, but we can never fool God, who knows all our hearts.  That’s why Jesus warns His audience and us to be on our guard.  Every day we are ambushed with alternative gods; only the attentive will remain wise.  Only the watchful will avoid the attitude of the man in our parable.
     What if, sitting here this morning, you find yourself convicted that you are a fool?  What if, sitting here this morning, you have taken spiritual stock of your relationship with God and find you have been chasing idols, what hope is there?  The great news, the Gospel news, is that our Lord is merciful.  All He demands from us is repentance.  All He wants you and me to do is to acknowledge our sins and to return our focus to Him.  Better still, there is no limit to the number of times we can repent.  Until our lives are demanded of us, we can always repent and focus our lives on Him.  So long as we draw breath, it is never too late to experience His mercy and His grace.  It is, put simply, never too late to be numbered among the wise, so long as we live.  And, because He lives, we will, too, for all eternity, so long as we really put our trust in and keep our focus on Him.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Thankful that Bob and MaryLea were in our cloud of witnesses . . .

     As I began seriously reflecting upon a sermon or homily for today’s death, I must confess I had a terrible struggle.  I wanted to stand up and say “duh.”  Bob & MaryLea’s life was, from my perspective, a solid witness to the love and mercy of God.  Your showing up here this day, more than a year after they had left the QCA, is an acknowledgement of their witness.  There simply is not much of any value for me to add.  And I say this, with some of their family present, cognizant of the fact that they were neither perfect people nor people without their edges and their nadirs.  Terri and Kristy could probably share some stories in which wrath more described their behavior, but what family with children who grew into teenagers among us could not?  Some of us gathered have probably experienced the result of misplaying a hand with MaryLea.  Nearly all of us, myself included a lot, have been on the receiving end of her zingers.  Possibly some of us gathered from outside the family experienced Bob’s struggles, anger, and “why me?” with respect to his health issues.  A few of us probably experienced one of their fights.  One of my favorite “my your own business” I ever received from them was a call about a fight.  Some of their friends in the church and out were concerned they were fighting.  When I called to see if everything was ok, she replied it was.  “Don’t you think after this many years together, we know how to push each others buttons?”

     I share these stories to remind each of us that Bob & MaryLea were human.  They were humans who had chosen to follow the Lord, but they were humans in our experience who had not yet been completely recreated as Christ promises.  Like Sarah & Abraham or Jacob & Rachel and the other heroic couples in Scripture, Bob & MaryLea evidenced a wonderful life of faith, even while struggling with the very issues for which they needed a Savior.  We are gathered here today as a community of believers to remind ourselves of our Lord’s calls and promises, even as we remember His gentle way of dealing with our sins.

    And before we go any further, let us remind ourselves and the family that this ending is NOT a happy ending.  The world might look on Bob & MaryLea’s life together and the dates of their respective deaths and think “that is a fairy tale ending.  He could not live without her.”  Terri and Kristy, as you both know all too well, this is a tragic ending.  Our Lord never intended for us to die.  He knew the pain and mourning and separation that we feel at death, and He was moved to tears at the grave of His friend Lazarus.  You and the grandkids have had an opportunity to mourn, but there will be moments in the future when you feel their loss poignantly.  As I am sure you understand, people will say things about the deceased because they are at a loss for words.  We seem to abhor silence today, and so people find it necessary to fill in the void.  Comments made may be true, may even be meant well, and may even be made by brothers and sisters in Christ, but they do not reflect your sense of loss, your hurts, and your pains, all of which our Lord shares with you.  I pray the Holy Spirit will insulate from such hurts and the grace to respond in ways which cause such comforters to think seriously about what they have said.

     That all being said, I have to admit after I had prayed and reflected, I was pretty excited that the family chose Psalm 139 as the Old Testament reading on this day when we celebrate the life and witness of Bob & MaryLea.  Those who attend church regularly around here know that I take seriously Jesus’ claim that everything in Scripture is about Him, the torah, the prophets, the histories, and, yes, the Psalms.  The Psalms are the poetry of the Old Testament; they are very much like modern songs.  And while there is a lot of imagery, that imagery draws upon the stories and teachings found elsewhere in the Old Testament.

     The Psalm chosen for today comes from the fifth book of the Psalms.  This section of the psaltery concentrates on the restoration of Israel through the deliverance by God.  Mimicking the rest of the Old Testament, the Psalms have reminded us of God’s love for us, our rejection of His love, our struggles and exiles, and then His effort to deliver His people.  The fifth book reminds the reader that God only wants faithfulness and obedience in thanksgiving for His deliverance.

     Psalm 139 fits into that narrative by praising our Lord and by reminding us that He is the One to whom we should turn when we are accosted by enemies.  Sitting here, we might wonder who our enemies are; we might even argue that Bob & MaryLea had no enemies.  The truth is, of course, that all of God’s enemies are our enemies.  If Scripture is true that there are powers and principalities working as enemies of God, then you and I already have enemies, whether we are cognizant of them or not.  And while enemies in this psalm refer to soldiers, we can also think of other “enemies” which try to seduce us from our faith.  Bob’s pain is a great example.  Both MaryLean and Bob struggled with his vascular disease.  For the entire time I knew them, he hurt.  I think he had about two dozen stents inserted in him.  It might shock you to learn, but that constant pain he felt at times weighed on them.  It might even surprise a few of us here that they struggled with the fact that God did not answer their prayers the way they wanted.  To be sure they always came to themselves, but there were times when they became convinced that God had turned His attention away from them and their pleas.  Their worry was understandable.  More than sixty times in the time I knew them, I laid hands on and anointed Bob praying for God to heal him.  Others around had prayers answered, but not Bob.  And, although we began asking God for strength to bear that cross or eyes and ears to hear how God was glorified in his suffering, there was always that longing for health.

     One of our great discussions about this very psalm, though, was how God knows where we are and what we really need.  Better still, the “You know where I live” us a great comfort, rather than a horrible threat.  Think of that verse for a second.  For the one who rebels against God, it ought to be frightening.  But to the one who clings to Him in faith, it ought to be a wonderful comfort.  Though the three of us and this community interceded wrongly on their behalf, at least based on the healing results, Bob and MaryLea would find themselves comforted by the fact that they did not need to seek our Lord out.  He would always find them.  Whether they were struggling spiritually because of health concerns, enjoying time around here with friends, or even convinced to “up and move” to Colorado, God would find them.  God would provide them whatever they needed.  And HE would never, ever abandon them.  Even in the face of death, both knew that somehow, someway He would be glorified in their suffering and redemption.

     Perhaps sitting here today you are surprised by a bit of what you have learned about them.  Maybe at the meal afterwards you will hear stories about how this saintly couple were transformed over the years.  Perhaps you worry that you did not know them as well as you thought.  Bob and MaryLea, as long as I knew them, were never “look at us” people.  As our psalmist today reminds us, living a life of faith is a balance between personal relationship with our Lord and living in community of disciples.  Our Lord knows our words before we speak them, saw us unformed, and created our inmost beings.  But He teaches us all this in a community.  Though He loves us wonderfully, He loves all wonderfully, if only they will claim Him as their God.  And He is always about the work of saving all whom come to Him in faith.  Whether we are enslaved in Egypt, exiled because of disobedience, persecuted because His enemies have ascended to worldly power, or struggling with natural disasters, God is always working to redeem His people, both as a group and as individuals.  If asked by others, particularly after worship and at Bible Study, both were honest about their struggles when they had them.  But neither was quick to impose what they felt was an individual lesson on those around them.  Like true elders in the faith, they were honest enough to share their experiences when needed, but modest and humble enough to avoid calling attention to their journey for concern it might distract others, an attitude, I think, captured well by Terri’s daughter a few moments ago.

     One last reason stands out for this psalm to be our focus today.  Elsewhere in the psalms, indeed, throughout the Old Testament, there is a worry that if one dies before the Lord comes, that is the end.  As our psalmist notes today, darkness is not the end.  The fear was that if we died, there was nothing left in us with which God could relate.  How could He save nothing?  How could He redeem something that no longer existed?  Our psalmist today, however, confesses that even the darkness is light.  That same God who comes to us whether we are in Iowa or Colorado will come to us in death as well as life.  Though the psalmist does not yet know the promise of Christ’s Resurrection, the psalmist understands that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  It is a comforting thought to those who put their faith in Him.  And that is why this day, while we acknowledge the hurt and pain of their death, we stand confidently singing our alleluias confidant that we will, one day, see them again.  One day, we who claim Christ as Lord will pass from glory into glory, and join them at the Feast where all our tears will have been wiped away, all our bridge hands will have been played properly, and all our puttering in our workshops will produce wonderful works in praise of Him.

     Brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances of Bob & MaryLea, we gather today one more time in their memory, thankful for their journey with us, but mindful of the fact that they have been redeemed by our Lord.  Those of us who claim Him as God also know that one day we will see them after we have seen our Redeemer face to face, as a friend and not a stranger.  This day, we stand at their grave, as we commit their ashes, reminding ourselves of His promises to them and to us.  And so, in the assurance of that promised eternal life given at Baptism, let us proclaim our faith and say the words of the Apostles’ Creed. . . .