Psalms: Our First Hymns

During this Ordinary season that stretches before us, I want to do something not so ordinary: I want to preach from the Hymnal, rather than from the Revised Common Lectionary.  I’m not forsaking the Bible; our hymns are scripturally based.  There are some hymns that are not, but in our hymnal, most reflect or expound on a specific verse or group of verses.

I’ve made a list of all the ways I could preach about hymns.

  • COMPOSER
  • SUBJECT MATTER
  • HISTORICAL ERA
  • FAVORITE HYMNS
  • ETHNIC
  • OLD TESTAMENT/NEW TESTAMENT
  • TRINITY–PERSONAS OF GOD
  • KINDS OF HYMN BASED ON LYRICAL/MUSICAL STRUCTURE

I’ve always loved hymns. I cannot think of a kind of music that I enjoy more.  I love attending the Quad-City Symphony.  I enjoy my Zydeco/Cajun CDs. I love hearing Fred and Velda sing blue grass.  I love live jazz. And, as a teenager in the 60’s, I certainly sang a lot of folk songs. But hymns are the music that is woven into my psyche.  If I break into song while I’m working, it’s almost always a hymn. 

When I was cooking full-time for the priests at the Chancery, I would wash dishes while the priests ate.  Because the dishwasher was so loud, it drowned out any other sounds.   I recall one evening in February,2013. As the priests brought out their plates for me to wash, one of them remarked, “We decided that you’re so happy because you’re preparing for Lenten services.” Evidently, my singing had carried into the dining room.  Of course, they knew that I had been called to the same vocation as they had, and they intuited my anticipation of that holy season.  I still cook for them occasionally, most recently Friday evening, and again, I found myself breaking into a hymn, protected (maybe) by the noise of the dishwasher.

I come from a family of hymn singers. My grandmother and her girlfriend, Tina, were the go-to group for funerals, back in the early part of the 20th Century.  That was when funerals were held in the home of the deceased.  One time,  Tina started on too high a pitch, my grandmother related, but they pulled it off.  The first tunes I learned to play on the piano were hymns, because that was one of two books of music we had.  I taught myself to play by looking at the instructions in the back of a school music book and then moved on to hymns.  The only music lessons I ever took were from our church’s organist, Mr. Grebing, so I was further immersed in hymns.

So, it’s no surprise, I guess, that I would see hymns as a fitting subject matter for sermons.

Today, I want to look at a few hymns that were inspired by the book of Psalms.  That is certainly appropriate, as the psalms are among the earliest hymns sung in our tradition, starting with our Israelite ancestors.  Not all of the psalms are meant to be sung, but we know, just by reading through the book, that many were.  Many of them have a short introduction that indicates such:

Psalm 4 : For the director of music. With stringed instruments.

Psalm 18: For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord.  He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.

Psalm 22: For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.”

Some psalms are songs of thanksgiving, some are purely for praising God. The Psalms were not only the hymns of the Israelites, they were also the hymns of the early Christian church.

In Ephesians 5: 18 b-19, Paul advises, “but be filled with the Spirit,  addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” Again, in Colossians 3:16  (RSV), he repeats: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

James likewise encourages  this practice: James 5:13 (KJV)  Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

Not only did the first Christians use the the book of psalms as a hymnal; they also drew much of their theology from the psalms.  I maintain that we do the same thing today.  I once read that the hymnal is the second most important book, the first being the Bible.  I would guess that in some ways, the hymnal is more important than the Bible when it comes to informing our theology and personal beliefs about God, about salvation, about eternal life, even about behavior.

My friend, J. Clinton McCann, has written several books on the Psalms.  In the New Interpreter’s  Bible, he mentions that Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary-General of the United Nations, always carried three things with him: a copy of the New Testament, a copy of the Psalms and a copy of the United Nations Charter.  They were found in his briefcase that was recovered from the plane crash that took his life in 1961.

McCann says, in response to Hammarskjold’s preference for the Psalms and the New Testament,  “I write as a Christian biblical scholar and theologian, and, like Hammarskjold, I consciously and constantly hold side by side the psalms and the New Testament.  A careful reading of each reveals that the psalms anticipate Jesus’ bold presentation of God’s claim upon the whole world and that Jesus embodied the psalter’s articulation of God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and all nations.”

Martin Luther urged that Psalms be sung by congregations so that “the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music.”

This was especially good advice in the Sixteenth Century, as the average worshipper could not read scripture, for two reasons.  One, the books were so rare and precious that only the most privileged had access to them. Second, because of not having access to books, no one needed to know how to read. But everyone could sing, everyone could learn the words to songs. In fact Luther’s most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, is based on Psalm 46…and on Luther’s political views.  Tradition has it that the words were set to a well-known tavern song, but that is disputed.  Regardless, it’s easier to memorize words that have rhyme and rhythm than to memorize a bunch of sentences.

I know I can sing more hymns from memory than quote Bible verses.  How about you?  Any volunteers?

I ran across an article by pastor and writer, Uri Brito.

There are ten reasons I believe congregations should begin to sing psalms once again:

First, Psalm-singing is an explicit biblical command (Ps. 27:6). The Scriptures encourage us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). To have the word of Christ dwell in you richly means to invest in the rich beauty of the Psalter. How can we sing what we do not know? Is there a better way to internalize the word is to sing it?

Second, Psalm-singing was the ancient practice of the Church and it continued for 1,800 years. We honor our forefathers and our history when we sing their songs.

Third, Calvin observed that the psalms are “An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that it is not represented here as a mirror.” The psalms are satisfying to the human being. We are homos adorans; worship beings. God is not against emotions, he is against emotionalism. The Psalter is an emotional book. It provides comfort for the people of God at different stages of life. As a minister I have never once walked into a hospital room and been asked to read a text from Leviticus or Romans, but rather every time I have been asked to read a psalm (most often Psalm 23). The psalms reach deep inside our humanity in time of pain.

As a pastor, I can tell you that Psalm 23 is #1 on the lips of the barely conscious, the mute, the disabled, the mourners.

Fourth, singing the psalms builds our Christian piety. It is nurturing to our souls. It is God’s devotional book; God’s hymnal. Singing the psalms restores the joy of our salvation. Ask me what book of the Bible I would take to a desert island, and I will not hesitate to say “The Psalms.”

Fifth, the psalms are ultimately made for the body. You may sing the psalms on your own, but they reach their culmination when sung together. They are meant to be roared (Ps. 47:1), because they were written by the Lion of Judah. When we sing together we are both being edified and edifying one another. “We sing because in singing we join together in common breath and melody in a manner that no other medium can duplicate…We become an assembly unified in purpose and thought. And by our singing, we hear God’s Word for us, and the world hears it loud and clear.”

Sixth, we should sing the Psalms because they re-shape us; they re-orient our attention. We are a people constantly being sanctified by the Spirit of God, and the Spirit has specifically inspired 150 psalms for our sanctification. How should we pray? How should we ask? How should we lament? The Psalms helps us to answer these questions, and thus shapes us more and more after the image of Christ.

Seventh, by singing the Psalms we are worshiping the Spirit. The Spirit hovers, shapes, re-makes in the Bible. He is the music of God in the world. In an age when the Third Person of the Trinity has become the source of theological confusion, the Psalms keeps us focused on His role and purposes in history.

Eighth, we should sing the psalms because our current songs are often cheap and shallow. The Psalms are rich and full of substance. If we wonder why the evangelical community is so powerless, the answer is because of its trivialized worship. Modern worship is often a pietistic exercise, which is manifested in poorly constructed and pessimistic theology. But the Psalms teaches us that God is full of mercy and powerful over all His enemies (Ps. 2). The Psalms are political statements. They are direct attacks on those who challenge the supremacy of King Jesus.

I may have mentioned once or twice my disdain for some contemporary music–what I like to call 7-11 songs: 7 words repeated 11 times.  I fear that learning theology from some songs doesn’t really nurture or teach us much. How many times has your faith been strengthened through the singing of a hymn.  How many times have you felt the comfort of God overcome you during the singing of a hymn?

Ninth, the psalms should be sung because our children need them. Our little ones need to know the God they worship in profound ways from their earliest days. We become what we worship, and so our children will become what we sing.

Tenth, you should sing the psalms because the world needs them. The world does not need a weak Gospel. She sees plenty of it already. She needs to hear a Gospel of a God who delights in praise, who will not allow evil to go unpunished, and who prepares a table for us.

I think music plays a huge role in more than the faith life of us pew-sitters. It also speaks to those who have never entered through the doors of a sanctuary.  When people whine about not being able to force their faith on everyone else, I think they must be living in a cardboard box under the bridge. Christian music is everywhere.

What kind of music do you hear on every street corner, in every store, starting the day after Thanksgiving?  Not all of it is about Santa Claus and Rudolph.  What kind of music do you often hear at choral and orchestra concerts?  I worked at the Large Group Music Contest at the DeWitt high school a few weeks ago.  The really good, challenging music is often religious, often Christian.

I wonder how many people have become serious Christians because they were first introduced to Jesus by someone singing joyfully, happily.  Maybe it was that time that they were invited to go to church camp with a friend and they learned about the “joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.” Maybe someone heard Carrie Underwood sing “Jesus Take the Wheel” or Alabama singing “Angels Among Us” or maybe they were at a funeral and heard Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

I’d like to review with you just a few of our hymns that reference the Psalms.

#215–When Morning Gilds the Skies

Psalm 5:3 (RSV) O Lord, in the morning thou dost hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for thee, and watch.

Psalm 59:16-17 (KJV) 16 But I will sing of thy power; yea, I will sing aloud of thy mercy in the morning: for thou hast been my defense and refuge in the day of my trouble. 17 Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing: for God is my defense, and the God of my mercy.

#169 Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart

Psalm 20:5  (RSV) May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners! May the Lord fulfill all your petitions!

Psalm 32:11  (RSV) Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

#694  The Lord’s My Shepherd

23  (RSV)The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

#758 LIft Up Your Heads

Psalm 24:7-10  (RSV) 7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle! 9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!

#405 I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord

Psalm 26:8  (RSV) O Lord, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwells.

#33 Immortal, Invisible,God Only Wise

Psalm 36:6  (RSV) Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God, thy judgments are like the great deep; man and beast thou savest, O Lord.

#11  Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Psalm 36:7-10  (RSV)7 How precious is thy steadfast love, O God!The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. 8  They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. 9 For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light. 10 O continue thy steadfast love to those who know thee,and thy salvation to the upright of heart!

# 712 Be Still My Soul

Psalm 37:7  (RSV) 7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!

46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations,

I am exalted in the earth!”

# 151 A Mighty Fortress is Our God

46 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

2  Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

#779  I’ll Fly Away

Psalm 55:6  (RSV) And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!I would fly away and be at rest;

#788 Now Thank We All Our God and # 790  We Gather Together

67 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us,

2 that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations.

3 Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee!

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for thou dost judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.

5 Let the peoples praise thee, O God;let all the peoples praise thee!

6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.

7 God has blessed us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!

#794 Let All Things Now Living

Psalm 150:6  (RSV) Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

#90 Joyful, Joyful  We Adore Thee

Psalm 71:23  (RSV) My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to thee; my soul also, which thou hast rescued.

Psalm 145:10  (RSV) All thy works shall give thanks to thee, O Lord, and all thy saints shall bless thee!

#101 All People That  on Earth do Dwell

100 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! 2 Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! 3  Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! 5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

#104  O Worship the King

104 Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, thou art very great! Thou art clothed with honor and majesty, 2  who coverest thyself with light as with a garment, who hast stretched out the heavens like a tent, 3  who hast laid the beams of thy chambers on the waters, who makest the clouds thy chariot, who ridest on the wings of the wind, 4 who makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.

#508  Love Lifted Me

Psalm 18:16  (RSV) He reached from on high, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.

We have a rich tradition—thousands of years of tradition–of great music–and it all started with the Psalms.

Psalm 100 says it best:

Shout praises to the Lord, everyone on this earth.

Be joyful and sing as you come in to worship the Lord!

You know the Lord is God!
He created us, and we belong to him; we are his people, the sheep in his pasture.

Be thankful and praise the Lord as you enter his temple.

The Lord is good! His love and faithfulness will last forever.

Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire Romans 8:22-27

Romans 8:22-27Contemporary English Version (CEV)

22 We know that all creation is still groaning and is in pain, like a woman about to give birth.

23 The Spirit makes us sure about what we will be in the future. But now we groan silently, while we wait for God to show that we are his children. This means that our bodies will also be set free. 24 And this hope is what saves us. But if we already have what we hope for, there is no need to keep on hoping. 25 However, we hope for something we have not yet seen, and we patiently wait for it.

26 In certain ways we are weak, but the Spirit is here to help us. For example, when we don’t know what to pray for, the Spirit prays for us in ways that cannot be put into words.27 All of our thoughts are known to God. He can understand what is in the mind of the Spirit, as the Spirit prays for God’s people.

Romans 8:22-28The Message (MSG)

22-25 All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

26-28 Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

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At first reading, this passage makes me think about suffering, hardship, about illness and injustice.  But verses 22-25 are simply leading us to the main topic in vs. 26-27: prayer.

What does prayer–just the word—bring to mind?  We have some lovely reminders and symbols on the walls of our sanctuary.  Every Sunday, we repeat prayers that I’ve printed in the bulletin.  The Lord’s Prayer is a no-brainer. But what if I told you that this summer, during Ordinary Time, each of you was going to lead us in the Prayer of the People?  Each Sunday, I would assign one of you to pray for whatever you wanted to in the space between the dedication of the offering and the last hymn.  I think it’s a marvelous idea! Of course, I wouldn’t have to tell you ahead of time.  After the offering, I’d just ask you to come up and pray.  Keith/Grace,  would you lead us in prayer today? Would you keep showing up every Sunday if you knew I might put you on the spot?

Yet, everyone of you prays, knows how to pray.  That’s what Christians do.  We pray.  Do you ever  feel that you don’t pray enough?.  Or that your prayers are lacking in quality? Am I the only one that worries about my prayer life?

Prayer is an amazing phenomena.  Who ever uttered the first prayer? At what point in our human evolution did a man or woman or child articulate a plea to a deity that had never been seen or heard?  And why is prayer a major part of our faith practices?  Here is another part of our faith tradition that we can safely take for granted. On the other hand, it defies comprehension.

Today’s passage from Romans helps me to understand why we pray.  Paul paints a picture of the whole creation—not just humans—but all of creation— being in distress. He chooses the metaphor of birth.  Some of us can tell you that birthing a child is extremely painful. If you’ve ever been in the emergency room or the hospital, you’ve seen a little chart posted on the wall with ten faces. The face on the left is smiling; the face on the right is all scrunched up with tears rolling down its cheeks. When the doctor or nurse asks me to choose a face, I never choose anything higher than #7—because I remember May 6, 1983…that was a #10 day!  (as were May 13, 1978 and March 31, 1980.)

Paul says our whole creation is in that much pain. It’s like he was a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club or the Nature Conservancy. We know that our earth is in pain.  I am one of those people who worries a lot about the beauty of the earth, about how easily we humans seem to be able to destroy or ignore that beauty.  There is a whole other sermon there, but here is where I’m going:

We all experience pain, pain that tortures us, that will not let us rest. Sometimes it is physical pain, sometimes it is emotional. It wears us down. We do what we can to relieve that pain, to escape to a place where we can rest and rejuvenate, to return to the life we cherish.  There are ways to escape pain.  Drugs.  Physical activity. Doctors.  Friends. But before there was aspirin, before there were chiropractors, there was prayer. There is no logic, but there is plenty of evidence that prayer is real, is effective, and is available to every single person.  The connection I want to make between suffering and prayer, the connection between the birth pangs of each element of creation and prayer is that the first leads to the second. Prayer is the natural response to suffering. It is the antidote that God has built into us.

I listen to novels when I drive. This last week I’ve been listening to Anne LaMott’s Imperfect Birds.  The main characters are a family of three, mother, father, daughter.  The daughter has become addicted to drugs. The family can ignore the addiction because she is a straight-A student, she helps with vacation Bible school at church and she has nice friends. The mother, Elizabeth, is an atheist.  Yet, as she learns more and more about her daughter’s secret life,  she finds herself praying to something or someone. She tells herself–or God, “I don’t believe in you, but please, please help us.” That little scenario plays over and over throughout the novel.

That is the perfect illustration of how wired we are to turn to God in prayer.   I used to  be one of these people who  worried about which words to chose, as if I were writing an essay that would be turned in to the teacher to be graded.

God doesn’t grade our prayers. God listens.  He doesn’t scribble “sentence fragment” in the margin. God doesn’t hand us back our prayer with a grade marked at the top. God keeps our prayers and hands us love and comfort and promises and faithfulness.

Of course, prayers of desperation are not the only prayers God expects, but those are the ones that come naturally.  God also likes prayers of praise and prayers of thanksgiving. We can talk about that another time.

Today’s passage in Romans is about the prayer that life in this cruel world squeezes from our hearts.

26 In certain ways we are weak, but the Spirit is here to help us. For example, when we don’t know what to pray for, the Spirit prays for us in ways that cannot be put into words.27 All of our thoughts are known to God. He can understand what is in the mind of the Spirit, as the Spirit prays for God’s people.

We don’t even have to know what to pray for. We don’t even need words!  We are by nature, verbal, but God has created us to be much more complex than a Chatty Cathy doll.

A friend of mine has recognized as his vocation the ability to pray for people. He puts pictures of all the people he prays for on his laptop, goes to a Panera restaurant every morning at 6;30, gets a cup of coffee, opens up his laptop and  prays for each of the people pictured on the screen. And he emails us everyday about what it is like to pray for us.  Here is what he posted today:

Waiting, waiting, waiting—God is not constrained nor forced to work in or on our timetables. Nevertheless, the Spirit is active—the cloven tongues are igniting fires like never before. As on the day of Pentecost, people are pointing their fingers, scoffing, and even making fun. Nevertheless, our hearts are changed, God’s message is being proclaimed through our prayers, and revival fires are burning. We are celebrating the Pentecostal fires of yesterday, the movement of the Spirit today, and the holy unction that we sense as we pray today. We are expecting Spiritual manifestations, and an in-breaking of the Kingdom in your life as we pray. Even as the Upper Room could not contain the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Prayer Closet will not contain our prayers today. Amen.

Prayer is the perfect topic for this Memorial Day weekend. Every death that we mourn today was preceded by prayer, prayers and prayers and prayers.  Today, we especially remember Keylon. If you know the story of Keylon’s life, you know that he was surrounded by prayers all his life, that he uttered prayers all his life.  His life was sometimes a struggle for him, for his family and his friends. But more importantly, his life was a blessing. I still look in “his” door when I walk past it at Wheatland Manor.  I still see that back pew as his pew. I still see his face, hear his gentle voice, see his sweet smile.  Prayer meant a lot to Keylon.  It was a thread of sanity in a world of heartbreak. When we prayed together, I would say, “Amen,” and he would say, “Thank you, thank you,” in a way that would make angels sing.

God knows we are living in pain. God sees our heartbreak.  God cries with us.  We know that, because we talk to God and God talks to us. God does not hand us an aspirin or make an apportionment for three months from now with a specialist. God is right beside us, sharing our pain, giving us comfort and hope and release.  We know that we do not live on this earth forever. That knowledge does not make it any easier to watch a spouse or child or parent die. We shed tears, not just for a few moments, but for the rest of our earthly life. But our Christian faith reassures us that our ties with that person have not been severed by death. We still hold much of that person in our hearts and minds and….we look forward to that great reunion that we call eternal life. We are just getting started on our life’s journey…this is the hard part. Someday we’ll step into the easy part, the paradise that God has promised us. For now, we have just a glimpse of the joy that awaits. For now we can endure the distractions of suffering and pain and loneliness because we have God, because we have each other, because we have prayer that is answered.

Prayer is the subject of many hymns. Two that come to mind are “Sweet Hour of Prayer”–there’s another sermon–who in this busy, hectic world can devote a whole hour to prayer….more like “Sweet Moments of Prayer Grabbed on the Run” for me.

The other is “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire.” It is the best definition, the best description of prayer I have ever read.

1. Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

2. Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.

3. Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer, the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.

4. Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
His watchword at the gates of death;
He enters heav’n with prayer.

Amen.

Eternal Life 1 John 5:9-13 Sunday, May 17, 2015

1 John 5:9-13Contemporary English Version (CEV)

We believe what people tell us. But we can trust what God says even more, and God is the one who has spoken about his Son. 10 If we have faith in God’s Son, we have believed what God has said. But if we don’t believe what God has said about his Son, it is the same as calling God a liar. 11 God has also said that he gave us eternal life and that this life comes to us from his Son. 12 And so, if we have God’s Son, we have this life. But if we don’t have the Son, we don’t have this life.

13 All of you have faith in the Son of God, and I have written to let you know that you have eternal life.

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The main argument in this passage is that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human. That’s the reason that I had us recite the second article of the Nicene Creed today.  That Creed, along with the Athanasian and Apostles’ Creeds, are a gift from our fathers in the faith, who argued through all the controversies surrounding the nature of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, beginning in the first century and continuing into our time. John had no such luxury.  He had to explain, to some pretty skeptical people, evidently, that even though it is hard to grasp, Jesus is not only like God: he is God. But what these early Christians couldn’t grasp was that Jesus was, at the very same time, exactly like them, inside and out, blood and guts and muscle.  If Jesus were alive today, we’ be able to determine his DNA, where he falls on the Meyers-Briggs scale, and take his fingerprints.  But in John’s day, believers had the word of John, as taught by Jesus. If you didn’t believe John, if you didn’t believe Jesus, you had nothing.

I think these early Christians were pretty intelligent, because asking those kinds of questions does not fall in the purview of many of us.  Again, we have the luxury of having these arguments settled for us, but perhaps there are still questions in your heart that bother you about the God you worship, about the Jesus you claim as Savior, or about that mysterious Holy Spirit, who seems to be part psychic, part whimsy.

That being said, I still have questions.  There are two lines within today’s scripture which have nothing to do with the main argument, but which reference a topic that has troubled me my entire life.

11 God has also said that he gave us eternal life and that this life comes to us from his Son.

13 All of you have faith in the Son of God, and I have written to let you know that you have eternal life.

The common term in those two verses is eternal life.

That is one of the few religious concepts that has made me uncomfortable since I was a child.  I’ve never had any problem with the Virgin birth or with Jesus or the disciples miraculously healing so many ill people in a time when no other cure was available.  Even the feeding of the 5,000 sits easily with me.  I’ve done the same thing on a smaller scale; just add water to the soup and you can stretch out 60 servings to 70.  That’s all fine. But eternal life…… 

Since my infantile mind started filing that information away, my reactions have ranged from terror to “so what?” 

As a child, eternal life loomed as a threat and as torture. During my early spiritual experience, nurtured by my Sunday School lessons, I knew my ticket to eternal life was in jeopardy every time I fought with my siblings, every time I slacked off puling weeds or cleaning eggs or washing dishes. I knew that God was watching every time I sassed my mother. (I was the child they called “contrary.”)  So, eternal life was not a sure thing. For some reason, eternal hell did not scare me. (The contrary child?)  But eternal life, day after day of being good…..because the angels wouldn’t allow you to be bad, would they?—–day after day, with nothing to do (except to praise God, which sounded like sitting on a hard pew between your parents for eternity) sounded boring and tedious. On the other hand, I had been taught since infancy that eternal life was the ultimate Christian experience. And I knew that Jesus had died for my sins so I could live eternally with him, that God, my Creator, had prepared eternal life for me.

Still, the prospect of going on this mystery trip gave me no joy. Perhaps it was because heaven was “above.” My concept of “above” was the sky, which holds nothing to attract me. I can’t fly, for one thing.  Sitting on a cloud all day sounded like being forced to stay in your seat while everyone else ran out to recess.  (I believe I had some experience in that department.)

So, I grew up, and instead of being terrorized by the idea of heaven, I chose to ignore the concept.  There was plenty of Jesus-stuff to keep my mind occupied.  Church can keep one very busy; it’s actually a pretty safe place to hide from the hard questions. I played the organ or I taught Sunday School or I served on committees.  Eternal life just became part of the vocabulary, like code for a secret message that I didn’t need.

So……today, I will not lead you through arguments about the divinity vs. the humanity of Jesus. I will lead you through what I’ve learned about eternal life this past week.

I am blessed with many friends who like to talk about God and Jesus. Once in awhile we talk about the church, which is what most church people talk about. (It’s funny how I don’t hear church people talk too much about Jesus.)  I happened to meet with two friends this week, one through Bible study, one through email.  Chuck and Larry are older than I, wiser, and they thoroughly enjoy theological discussions.  I know them well enough that I can ask them questions about faith, about what we believe, without being accused of heresy.

So I posed to them this question: Why do we think eternal life is a good thing?

Not every faith group believes in eternal life. For Reformed Jews, for instance, the belief is that you are here on earth to do good. When you die, that’s it. Other faith groups believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation is a natural curiosity for a kid who grew up hearing about incarnation. They sound a lot alike. There was a novel that was a best-seller back in the 70’s, Audrey Rose.

  A father suspected that the daughter of another couple was his daughter, reincarnated from a former life. It was a fascinating and heartbreaking read.

Reincarnation, for me, has more to do with physical energy and the journey of the soul. Where does the soul go at death? with us to heaven? Where does the energy go when we die–into the atmosphere–or into some cosmic recreation of ourselves–or is that the part of us that goes to heaven? Contrary child that I am, reincarnation intrigues me.  One of my best friends was always stretching her spiritual boundaries.  She heard about a woman, a hairdresser in Cedar Rapids, who would listen to a 30-minute recording of you talking, and then tell you your past lives. Anne was a Japanese war lord in an earlier life.  I’ve always wondered why I love horses so much.  We weren’t allowed to have horses on the farm; they were hay-burners and fence wreckers.  That made sense to me, but that doesn’t explain why they fascinate me.  So I like to think I was an Native American in a former life. Or maybe I rode with the Mongols in the 13th Century. 

At Bible study Tuesday morning, there were only two of us.  I asked Chuck about why we buy into the concept of eternal life. His answer is this:

Eternity is not the future. We are in eternity; this life is a part of eternity.  Why had I never heard this before? I played with the idea: maybe eternity is not linear….not one day, one era after the next.  I really like that idea. It makes eternity seem more “natural.” 

Then I emailed Larry to get his input. I was not disappointed.

An eternity of bliss in worshipful companionship with our creator is pretty hard to wrap my mind around.  There are times when life seems pretty long.  I get tired, discouraged, feel unappreciated, old, and alone.  I feel pain.  I wonder if oblivion wouldn’t be relief, wouldn’t be better than this “veil of tears.”  But Jesus puts a pretty high value on eternal life, doesn’t he?  Has he ever steered us wrong? 

Has Jesus ever steered us wrong?  What a great question!  I cannot think of a single time.  Why would any Christian disagree with “Love your neighbor” or Love God?”

Has Scripture ever steered us wrong? No, but we have steered Scripture wrong, through our human laziness of not taking Scripture seriously (not the same as literally), through our manipulation of the Word to our own sinful benefit.  But who can disagree with “love your neighbor” or “love God?”

If only life seeming long were a good thing…..sometimes it is, but it lengthens the sorrow, the pain, the number of times you ask yourself, “what if,” the number of times you silently scream “if only:”  Then it’s “Come Lord Jesus, what are you waiting for!?!?!?” or let’s just get it over with.  (Miriam has struggled with that mightily most of her life…finally, these latest treatments have allowed her to live her life in joy.)

The more intimate I get with the Word, the more I see the miracle of Jesus’ unconditional, unfailing, ever-constant companionship.  In my Marxist/Nietzschean moods, I wonder how I can preach such insubstantial nonsense, but when I see what faith does for believers, how it gets us through the impossibly painful times, how it frees us from the shackle of guilt, I get myself back in the swing of Christian belief.  It doesn’t matter if atheists or agnostics think we’re wrong, misleading, manipulative, whatever.  It works.  It’s real.

So, in one short week, I am much more comfortable with eternal life. From Chuck I learned, once more, that we are not called to sit on our hands waiting for Jesus to come rescue us from this veil of tears, as Larry puts it.  We are called to be active participants in this already-established eternity.  Perhaps the metaphor of changing addresses fits here; we move from this valley of the shadow of death to the mountain top of eternal companionship with God.

One more thought occurred to me after my conversations with my friends.  On reflecting on last Sunday’s sermon about friendship, perhaps the part of heaven that most closely reflects our earthly experience is the thought of being reunited with those we love. For now, we may not understand what heaven will be like, what we’ll do, how it’s structured, whether or not streets are really paved with precious jewels, but we do understand love.

All of us have said good-bye to those we loved more dearly than ourselves. All of us have felt the horrible tearing away of precious lives from this life as we know it.  But we have been promised that heaven is a place for people, all people.

John 14:2  In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

And why will there be many rooms?  Because God is expecting a lot of people. So, we can deduce that our friends and family will be there, in one way or another.  There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people dying, seeing loved ones in heaven, then being returned to earthly life. Again, the Bible gives us opportunity to argue what heaven will be like, but for now, the idea that I will see my best friends, my grandparents…my Aunt  Edna, my Uncle Clarence again…that makes heaven a wonderful goal. For those of you who have buried spouses and children and siblings and parents, how much greater is your anticipated joy!

By the way, both Chuck and Larry’s answers reflected the teachings in the four Gospels.  Larry’s answer reflects the teachings in the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke.  Chuck’s answer reflects the teachings of John in the fourth gospel.

The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, treat eternal life as a future experience that will be our blessing after the final judgement or in a future age. John, on the other hand sees eternal life as an immediate possession, the result of believing that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Once we believe, we have entered into eternal life, both for this life and for the life to come after death.

John 5:24: “He who hears my word, and believes him that sent me, has eternal life, and comes not into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.

So, what have we learned today?  I have learned that eternal life is a good thing, not in and of itself, but because it is something that God has prepared for us and Jesus has taught us. 

And I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best not to over-think Scripture, to not not argue with God.  We have  been given so many gifts….it’s taken 2,000 years to unwrap them all, and we’re not yet finished.  Jesus suggested that we come to the Kingdom like little children.  Sometimes that is scary; sometimes it is comforting.  Sometimes, it saves us a lot of mental anguish.

Today, I bless and praise God that when God created us, he gave us more dimensions than we can count. We are physical and spiritual and intellectual and emotional.  We are amazing, are we not?  And we don’t have to ever stop being amazing. God doesn’t want our lives to end. God wants to spend the rest of our lives,  in eternity, with us!  Amen.

1 Audrey Rose is a novel written by Frank De Felitta, published in 1975. about a couple confronted with the idea that their young daughter might be the reincarnation of another man’s child. The book was inspired by an incident in which De Felitta’s young son began displaying unusual talents and interests, leading an occultist to suggest to De Felitta that the child might be remembering a previous life.

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_life_%28Christianity%29

Friendship John 15:9-17

John 15:9-17Contemporary English Version (CEV)

I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me.

So remain faithful to my love for you.

10 If you obey me, I will keep loving you, just as my Father keeps loving me, because I have obeyed him.

11 I have told you this to make you as completely happy as I am. 

12 Now I tell you to love each other, as I have loved you.

13 The greatest way to show love for friends is to die for them.

14 And you are my friends, if you obey me.

15 Servants don’t know what their master is doing, and so I don’t speak to you as my servants.

I speak to you as my friends, and I have told you everything that my Father has told me.

16 You did not choose me.

I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last.

Then my Father will give you whatever you ask for in my name.

17 So I command you to love each other.

What makes you happy? A full tummy?  All the bills paid?  Good health? Family all getting along with each other?  Sunny day or a gentle shower at just the right time? Reruns of the Carol Burnett Show?

We read in today’s gospel that Jesus was happy. I’ve never thought about Jesus as happy.  I’ve thought about Jesus as worried, as frustrated, as intense and dedicated, as angry, as sad, as wise, even sarcastic ,but Jesus is, on this particular day in his life,…..HAPPY!

Jesus is happy, even though he knows that he must suffer, even though he knows that he will not bring all the sheep into the flock, even though he knows he will be rejected, mocked, betrayed, abused.

Why is Jesus happy? Jesus is happy because he has someone to love. Think about that.  Think of someone you love. Chances are, loving that person makes you happy.

I spent part of yesterday with my grandson.  That made me happy. I also watched my son walk across the stage to accept his Master’s degree. That made me happy. Miriam practiced her Adlerian therapy skills on Charlie as she played with him. That made me happy. Laura decided to not drive two hours for a 45-minute ceremony after she’d had a terrible day at work. That made me happy. I had an email from a friend who said she would not drink all the wine for our party. That made me happy. I had another email from a friend saying he would hold me in prayer.  A friend posted on Facebook that he liked Bernie Sanders for president. That made me happy.  Another friend posted the funny things her son says. That made me happy.

That all seems pretty normal, doesn’t it?  But all that happiness depended on people, on friends.

What are the benefits of friendships?

The Mayo Clinic website lists friendship as a medical benefit:

  1. Good friends are good for your health. Friends can help you celebrate good times and provide support during bad times.
  2. Friends prevent loneliness and give you a chance to offer needed companionship, too.                                                                                                                                      Friends can also:
  3. Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
  4. Boost your happiness and reduce your stress
  5. Improve your self-confidence and self-worth
  6. Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one
  7. Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise

It might make you feel good about your friendships, even cherish them if you think about all the benefits you’ve reaped from your friendships over the years.

 Increase your sense of belonging and purpose

Being someone’s friend makes you a part of something and keeps you from isolating yourself in selfishness or self-pity or any of those negative states that surround us.  God wired us to be in relationships with other people.  I am blessed to have many groups of friends.  Because you are my friends, I want to be the very best pastor that I can be…I have a reason to get out of bed every day, a reason to use the gifts God has given me. And I know that I am never, ever without someone to call for help or advice or a good laugh.

Boost your happiness and reduce your stress.

How does that work?   Well, that’s an easy one…when you’re happy, you’re focused on the good things in your life and you put the bad things on the shelf.   My best example comes from my teaching years; one reason I was able to keep teaching for so many years is that I knew every Friday, after five days of high-energy  interaction and torturous frustration with students and staff, that I would be able to vent, question, or celebrate. That is impossible to accomplish effectively without friends. Sometimes we met at a local establishment, sometimes in someone’s home.  Friends reduce stress, just by being present.

Improve your self-confidence and self-worth.

Think about the opposite. When you’re depressed or sad, it can be hard to get anything done. If you know anything about clinical depression, you know that it’s like trying to walk through a brick wall to do even the most basic task.  You feel like  no one cares about you or values the work you do.  You know in your heart, even if it’s not true, that you can’t do anything right, that you’re a failure.  But when you have friends who continue to treat you as the person they love, when you are still invited to parties, when you still get compliments about your new hair color, you regain a little sense of worth, even if it only lasts an hour.

Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one.

Maybe it’s because when we’re happy, we ignore the bad stuff. I remember being at my grandmother’s house after my grandfather’s funeral. I was about eight years.  The house was full of people, relatives from out of town, friends and neighbors.  I expected to see everyone sitting around crying. Nope, They were having a good time, enjoying this special opportunity to be together, even if it was a funeral.

Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise.

Another part of a healthy lifestyle is belonging to something.  Showing up at the gym or taking a walk around town is always easier when you know that friends are waiting for  you, ready to share the pain, the latest news, and your company,  I will admit that meeting my friends on the aforementioned Fridays did lead to some over-indulgence, mostly too much chip dip, but the sense of friendship and support lasted longer than the chips on the hips.

So, in conclusion, friends are good for us. What does that have to do with Jesus? This is a sermon, not a talk from your therapist.  Well, I think friendship with Jesus has similar benefits. What are the benefits of Jesus’ friendship?

Let me rephrase the wise words from the Mayo website:

Jesus is good for your health. 

Jesus can help you celebrate good times and provide support during bad times. Jesus is hear today to help us celebrate Rylan’s baptism. And, Jesus has certainly helped each of us through the bad times, whether it be through prayer or just hanging out.

Jesus prevents loneliness. One of the best parts of having a friend is having someone who will listen to you, no matter how boring or trivial, no matter how horrible or exciting your words are. Jesus is that friend. You can never shock him, never chase him away.

Jesus can give you a chance to offer needed companionship, too.  What do we do when someone in our congregation is sick or celebrating. We join them, whether at their bedside or their birthday party.

Jesus can increase your sense of belonging and purpose.Have you ever moved into a new community where you didn’t know anyone? It’s lonely when you don’t know anyone. You go to the grocery store and no one says hello. You need help moving furniture, but there’s no one to ask.  You want to go shopping for the fun of it,  but there’s no one to go with you.

At one time I a taught a class called Personal English. It was originally designed for the students who were going straight from high school to a 20-year union job at IH or Case or John Deere.  We covered the basics of business and social writing and I also included general information on how to make a good start in a new town in case any of them was ever transferred.

My first advice was to join a church. Back then, it was a useful connection to have in a community…and it still is. If you go to church, you meet people.  Many congregations are quite welcoming—not all—and it depends on how you’re dressed and how outgoing you are and whether or not you can drink church basement coffee without making a face, but it’s a great way to meet people. You don’t have to join the church, you don’t have to believe a single thing that is preached, but it’s a way to   make yourself known. Churches, more than other organizations, give you opportunities to volunteer, and those opportunities lead to deeper acquaintances and eventually to friendships and opportunities outside the church.

Think of the hundreds of ways that we work as a partner of Jesus, from sending a birthday card to giving food to people who don;t have enough to sending money to people in Nepal through our offerings.

And if you’re lucky, you’ll find faith and love in that congregation.

Jesus boosts your happiness and reduce your stress, When we share our burdens with Jesus, the load gets lighter. When we turn our problems over to Jesus, we can keep living with a lighter heart.

Jesus improves your self-confidence and self-worth--you are, after all, chosen by Jesus. It’s nice to be chosen to play cards or receive an invitation to a graduation, but to be chosen by Jesus is a lifelong devotion, with no expiration date, no dress code, no talent, no money.

Jesus helps you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one.  No kidding. Where do we turn in bad times? To our family and friends, of course, but who hears the most honest conversation? It can be Jesus. You don’t have to worry about your reputation, your lack of resources, whether or not you deserve sympathy or empathy. Jesus knows you better  than anyone and he still loves you, without prejudice, without reservation.

Jesus encourages you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise.

How does this work?  For me, it means staying healthy so I can do the work Jesus puts in front of me.

Vs. 15b I speak to you as my friends,

as friends: not subjects, not  possessions, not employees or members or beneficiaries.  We are friends.

and I have told you everything that my Father has told me.

Another big deal—who else shares everything there is to know about the family business, the local scene? Jesus has told us everything he knows about God…a heavy gift, a genuine gift.

16 You did not choose me. 

I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. 

Then my Father will give you whatever you ask for in my name. 

We don’t have to go looking for friends…we didn’t have to go on Facebook or to the tavern or on Match.com to find Jesus.  He found us.

But there is one thing Jesus asks of us.

17 So I command you to love each other.

Is that asking to much?  Not al all, because that brings us full circle to the happy Jesus: to love someone is to find happiness.

Let us pray.

Dear Jesus, thank your for your flawless, infinite friendship. Help me to be a friend to others, to share the love you give to me.  Amen.

In a New Place Acts 8:26-40 Sunday, May 3, 2015

Acts 8:26-40Contemporary English Version (CEV)

26 The Lord’s angel said to Philip, “Go south along the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So Philip left.

An important Ethiopian official happened to be going along that road in his chariot. He was the chief treasurer for Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. The official had gone to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was now on his way home. He was sitting in his chariot, reading the book of the prophet Isaiah.

29 The Spirit told Philip to catch up with the chariot. 30 Philip ran up close and heard the man reading aloud from the book of Isaiah. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

31 The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone helps me?” He then invited Philip to come up and sit beside him.

32 The man was reading the passage that said,

“He was led like a sheep
on its way to be killed.
He was silent as a lamb
whose wool
is being cut off,
and he did not say
a word.

33 

He was treated like a nobody
and did not receive
a fair trial.
How can he have children,
if his life
is snatched away?”

34 The official said to Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?” 35 So Philip began at this place in the Scriptures and explained the good news about Jesus.

36-37 As they were going along the road, they came to a place where there was some water. The official said, “Look! Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptized?” 38 He ordered the chariot to stop. Then they both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

39 After they had come out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit took Philip away. The official never saw him again, but he was very happy as he went on his way.

40 Philip later appeared in Azotus. He went from town to town, all the way to Caesarea, telling people about Jesus.

+++++++++++++++++++

If someone, say someone who was more important or richer or smarter than you, if someone asked you to explain a passage of scripture, what would you do? Which passages of Scripture could you explain to a stranger? What if a good friend, someone you know very well, asked you to explain a passage? I’d be comfortable with the 23rd Psalm, maybe Romans 5 or 8. Forget Revelation.  I could do the Christmas story from Luke, maybe some parables from the gospels. I could even handle Leviticus, by passing it off as cultural history.

Which passages are you prepared to explain? Phillip was well acquainted with that passage from Isaiah, and furthermore, he understood it through the hermeneutic of the crucified and risen Savior. Phillip was not well-acquainted with Queen Candace’s treasurer. And he probably didn’t get up that morning planning to run after a chariot.

The Holy Spirit put Phillip in a new place, a strange place. What if….what if…..God put you in a new place, a place that gave you opportunities to witness, to engage folks in conversation about Jesus….

As you may know, I direct a program called DeWitt Academy for Theological Education.  It offers five weekends of classes for three years. The classes focus on advanced Bible study and on the practice of following Jesus.  Our participants are taught by nationally and internationally respected professors, authors, and pastors. When I stand back and think about it, it’s pretty amazing that in little DeWitt we welcome some of the most brilliant theological minds of our time to sit down with people who would never have this opportunity, if it weren’t for some incredible work spearheaded by the Holy Spirit.

Last night we held a graduation party for six of our participants.  God has put them in a new place. Two of them are already serving churches as pastors, and I can tell you that even though they preach at the same address as they did three years ago, God has put them in a new place. The other participants joined us because they love the church and the Word of God drives them crazy. Their thirst for knowledge and nurture lead them to D.A.T.E., and three years later, they are looking for new ways to serve the church, whether it be as pastor, teacher, or leader.  God has put them in a new place.

I wonder if we recognize the times God has put us in a new place, with  a new person. Do we see a child of God? Or do we see someone who is rich, poor, dark-skinned, light-skinned, male, female? Do we let those initial perceptions stop us from getting to know the heart and soul and mind of that person.  Do we classify people by where they live, work or play? Do we classify them by their family of origin…all the McWhatsit’s are like that…Oh, his mother was an O’Whatever…no wonder she acts like that. Let me tell you, as a teacher for thirty-three years, it was really easy to make that mistake. I had so many Mc’s and O’s, and that only counts the Irish descendants.  Many of them did have family similarities, but there were no two exactly alike.

Sometimes God puts us in a new place by putting a new person in our path. We can describe Phillip’s new friend in several ways.  In some translations, you will discover that he is a eunuch, a man with mutilated genitals.  In other translations, we learn that he was an important member of a foreign cabinet.  If we read carefully, we can assume he was Jewish, since he was returning from the Temple.  But would a sexually disfigured person be allowed to worship in the Temple?  And how did a Jewish person achieve such a high rank in the service of an Egyptian queen?.

Sometimes God puts us in a new UNCOMFORTABLE place.  How do we see those who need Christ? (I usually don’t think so Billy-Grahamish, but what else do we have to offer?) Do we see them as pathetic, as losers, as wrong-headed?  Do we see them as victims? Do we rationalize or apologize for their color, education, environment, beliefs?  Or do we see someone just like us, created in the image of God?

I’m not talking about going down to Davenport and walking along 14th Avenue west of Brady, where the gunshots are ringing out at night. I’m talking about your neighbor. In fact, let’s talk about the people in this town, within the blocks next to us. Do you know any of them personally? Have you invited them to church.  I know that many residents of Toronto/Big Rock do go to church, in Wheatland/Long Grove.  But I have a feeling, there are some who would love to worship with us, but are waiting for an invitation.  Is that my job?  Nope.  It’s yours.

Speaking of 14th Avenue in Davenport, Bim and I have been put in a new place.  We find ourselves caring very much these days for three children who live on that street.  Anthony is 13, Angel is 18, and her baby, Za’khai,is four months old. Anthony was one of Miriam’s students at Annie Wittenmeyer.  Annie Wittenmeyer school has been closed, but Anthony and Angel and all the other kids did not disappear when the school closed.  They were put in a new place. The place where they could be safe has changed. Their neighborhood has changed. They are in a new place, a new dangerous place without doing a thing about it.  It’s no longer safe for Anthony to play outside at night. When Za’khai starts walking and running, he and his Mama won’t be able to take a walk on a hot evening.

So, Bim and I are in a new place, worrying about our three new “grandchildren.” They call us Grandpa and Grandma. After all the time that we have been focusing on the joys of being the Grandparents of Charlie, we now are experiencing the fears of being the Grandparents of Anthony and Angel and Za’khai.   I don’t know where it will lead, but we, like Phillip, are interpreting scripture. Unlike Phillip, we don’t have a piece of scripture and and the knowledge to interpret the scripture. We are interpreting “love your neighbor” by the seat of our pants.We’re in a new place.

God puts the church in new places, too. So often, when I end up in a conversation about The Church, it is laced with the bemoaning of declining church membership. But I see the church as growing in influence. We are doing more with less.  We are providing care to people who are not members of our community, who are different from us.  We are providing care to people whose lifestyles we don understand or emulate. Our influence is growing far beyond the walls of the sanctuary. This exodus from the sanctuary and into the public brings us into conflict with those who want to be comfortable and cozy in the pews, with those who have something to lose when our generosity interferes with their profits.

Every now and then, I like to preach separation of church and state.  I am still and always will be opposed to a theocracy, a government run by the church.  A government run by the church would be more confused than it is now…which church? whose beliefs?  Imagine a government run by Buddhists…so peaceful….but we’d be obliterated in no time at all by nations who would take full advantage of our pacifism.  Imagine a government run by our denomination, where each congregation or group of people is autonomous.  We’re looking at anarchy and gridlock. Imagine a nation that fought over who would receive the sacraments and who would be excluded. Imagine a government run by radical Muslims–sharia law.  Sharia law is much more encompassing than the ten commandments. It would be like us having to follow the 513 laws in the Old Testament. No cotton blends.  No charging interest. We would have to kill adulterers.  Women would not preach or teach. Well, we would teach ironing and dusting.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want our leaders to follow those great commandments: Love God.  Love your neighbor. When I write to my Senators and Congressmen, I am motivated by the love that Jesus has for all people. When I speak my mind, I know that most of the time, it’s the Holy Spirit whispering in my ear. 

Wednesday, I’ll be giving the opening prayer on the floor of the Iowa Senate.  I am being put in a new place.  You who know me well enough to know how political I am.  What will I see from this new place? Will I see lawmakers and lawbreakers? Will I see liberals and conservatives?  Will I see the good guys and the bad guys? 

Deuteronomy 10:18

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

Zechariah 7:10

Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

Jeremiah 7:6 

if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm.

I will not dare remind our Senators of these verses…even though it is Biblical, in this era, it is too political. It points right at the most controversial issues in our nation–immigration and welfare. Somebody can give them that wake-up call; not me.

But it’s right there: the widow, the orphan the foreigner. I’m not making this stuff up. Over and over and over again we are given instructions about how to treat our neighbor, no matter how lonely, how foreign, how weird, how different, how illegal thatneighbor” is.

God puts us in new places, with new people.  Sometimes God just shows us familiar people in a new light.

God give me the grace to see fifty reflections of myself, not Dianne the Democrat, but Dianne, the child of God, created in the image of God, put in a place to share the love of God.  Amen.

1 http://missionalpreaching.com/2015/04/28/proclamation-as-conversation-on-the-road-acts-826-40/