Matthew 6:5-13

October 26, 2016

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” Matthew 6:5-13

I’ve told this story many times but it came to mind again as I was reading these verses. So I’ll tell the story again. It was an incredibly important moment in my life so I can’t tell it often enough.

I was a young pastor, in my first year, when I attended the Wednesday noon fellowship group at my church. It was a fun group of retired people and they always served a great lunch so it wasn’t the sort of thing I missed on purpose.

One day, as the group was breaking up and I was heading toward the door, a woman caught me just before I left. She told me about a health problem that she was having and then she asked me to pray for her. I asked her if I could pray for her right there. So I said a prayer.

When it was done, she said, “Oh thank you pastor, that was a beautiful prayer.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “I didn’t think I was going to be graded.” Immediately I felt stupid for saying what I was thinking instead of just saying “Thank you and God bless you.” (I still haven’t outgrown that problem.)

As the very kind and now suddenly confused woman began to apologize I jumped in to explain myself. I said, “I’m really sorry that I said that like that. But I realized, as I was praying, that I was paying more attention to what YOU were thinking about my prayer than I was to God. In some ways, I think I was praying more to you than I was to God. It wasn’t that you were evaluating my prayer, it was that I was the one doing the grading.”

In other words, I think I cleaned it up as best I could. From that moment on, every single time that I pray in the company of other people, I take just a moment to visualize the face of Jesus. To be completely honest, what I do is remember that “dot thing” that came along via email many years ago. You are supposed to stare at the center dot for a minute, then close your eyes and look toward a light. You’ll “see” the face of Jesus. I’ve done that often enough that I can just close my eyes now and I’ll see that face.

I see the face of Jesus and I just say what comes to my mind. I talk to God. And as I talk to God, I carry whatever needs the person I am praying for or with has. That’s my prayer. Or I just sit quietly, my eyes closed, and see the image. That’s my prayer.

Somewhere in that story, the meaning of Jesus’ teaching on prayer seems to find its place for me. I hope it offers some small help to you as well.

Let us pray: Lord, you gift us with language and through words we come to know the world. Through words we come to know ourselves and others. Please help us use words, not to compare or to compensate or to confuse, but simply to communicate. To come together. To be with one another. To remember together. To be in one another’s presence. Let that be enough. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

2 Timothy 4:6-8

October 25, 2016

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. 2 Timothy 4:6-8

The Houston Texans played a pretty pathetic football game last night. I got home late so I watched the game on tape. Usually that is the best way to watch a football game because you can fast forward through the commercials. Last night it was a blessing to fast forward through the game.

But hope springs eternal in football and life. The first half came to a merciful close. The promise of the second half teased me until it actually started and things only got worse. One last fumble. One last field goal. The game was over and it was awful. But there’s always next week.

In this passage from 2 Timothy, Paul shares his thoughts as he sees the end zone drawing near. He is writing, not to ring his own bell but to encourage Timothy. And us. He encourages us to finish well. To finish what God has started in us. To keep keeping on until the end.

Bob Buford is a Texas business leader whose life journey eventually took him to founding The Halftime Institute, what he calls the “university for the second life.” He has written a series of books about moving from what he calls Life 1 (the search for success) to Life 2 (the search for significance.) I stumbled into his stuff in my own life journey as I realized, at age 55, that I am actually now in my 50’s. I am living the thought process that led Paul to write these words to Timothy.

My daughter ran a 10k race this past weekend. When it was done she texted me to let me know how she finished. More importantly, she let me know how good she felt about how she finished. She gave it her best and she finished her best. In our text exchanges, she shared how she still uses some of the ideas that I gave her a long time ago. Ideas (did I mention I am in my 50’s) that I have no memory of sharing. That has something to do with the heart of significance, passing on our experience in ways that benefit others.

Whether it be a successful business person who comes to the realization that there is more to life than the next deal, or a parent who realizes that their impact on the world, for good or ill, passes on through the life of their children, or a married person who finally comes to know that their impact on the world is nothing if they are not making a positive difference in the life of their spouse, or a religious leader like Paul sharing his thoughts with a younger leader – we all come to time in our lives when we realize we have reached yet another new corner. Will we step up or will we sit down? Will we finish well or just quit while we are ahead?

Hopefully in moments like this we remember that God is actually the author of our story. We aren’t alone, and not only it isn’t just about us, it isn’t completely up to us. God is there with us as God has always been. The Holy Spirit is the guide that Jesus promised to give to his disciples. Including us. We won’t win every battle but God has already won the war. We won’t win every game but every win and every loss shapes us and opens the door to new learning, to new discovering, to new equipping.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, help us finish well. Encourage us today to see in our daily activities your hands guiding, comforting, teaching, and challenging us to be the best person that we can be for the other people whom we serve and seek to help. We’re in the race; help us finish strong. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 84:1-7

October 24, 2016

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!

My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.

Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.

They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. Psalm 84:1-7

At some point along the way I began using the calendar on my computer rather than one made of paper. Then I discovered that my computer calendar gave me preferences. Who would ever have imagined that? I could prefer for my weeks to begin on Sunday or Monday. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

What day begins your week?

If you tend toward “my week begins on Monday”, then Sunday morning comes at the end of the week. It is a final day of rest. Worship means giving thanks for the week now past. You might be more likely to look backwards to see God in action in your rearview mirror. Gratitude might be a hallmark of your faith.

If you tend toward “my week begins on Sunday”, then Sunday morning worship launches you into a new week. Worship renews a sense of expectancy. You look for God in the future. Your faith is about anticipation at what surprises God might bring you in the week to come.

A seminary professor was the first person to pose the “what day does your week begin?” question to me. It was clear that he was greatly in favor of seeing Sunday morning as the beginning of our week rather than the end. He would have loved this psalm – singing with joy at all things “temple”. As I sat at my customary place in the last row in class, I sadly realized that I couldn’t match his passion.

My world had always revolved around school. My body clock matched the school year. My hopes for the future all depended on school. School – and thus my weeks – always had begun on Mondays. Once again I thought there must be something wrong with me. I was young. I still looked forward with more anticipation to Saturday night than I did to Sunday morning…even though I was a seminary student. My weeks still began on Monday.

Over time that has changed. I like being home on Saturday night. While I still find myself thinking about the “when does your week begin?” question, I’ve come to realize that my preferences can evolve over time but my choices are still one day at a time. Sometimes, I feel like I am dragging myself to the next Sunday morning at the end of a long long week. More often, Sunday morning opens the door to a brand new life.

How about you? When does your week begin?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, thank you for gathering your people together, week after week, in all the places that bring sanctuary into peoples’ lives. Thank you for the reminder of your on-going presence in our lives. May that give us both peace and purpose as we begin a new week. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

James 5:13-18

October 21, 2016

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. James 5:13-18

I know a man who, went it comes to matters of faith, is a hard nut to crack. He was blessed with Archie Bunker’s personality and hasn’t had much difficulty over the years coming to terms with it. Throughout his life he attended church. Well, pretty much. Unless something better came along. Then he got sick. Really sick. Scary sick.

He had a lot of acquaintances and many friends. Many people told him they were praying for him. They sent him cards. Phone calls. Visits. He began appreciating prayer in a way that he never had before in his life. Maybe because he had never been to such a scary place in his life. The place where Jesus once said, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”
He got better. He is still in church every Sunday. Unless a better deal rolls around. And he can’t talk about the idea of hundreds of people praying for him without choking up. It is real for him.

We used to do a worship service here at Faith called 6TEN. It was a unique service in that it took the spirituality of the 12 Step movement very seriously. We heard readings every week from the Bible and either the AA Big Book or the Al-Anon book. I learned a ton in preparing for each weekend. But the service never really took off.

People would come a few times and then we wouldn’t see them again. People in recovery would come and sometimes leave feedback that we were crossing a line that we ought not cross. People from church would show up sometimes but, far more often, what we heard was that people wanted to try it but were afraid that others would find out and wonder if maybe “they had a problem.” Yes, we do have a problem. We don’t take this passage from James as seriously as we ought to.

Imagine a community of people confessing their sins…not to thin air…not somewhere back in their minds and imaginations…not to a priest in a little booth or across a desk…but face to face, person to person, openly, honestly, directly. Scary, isn’t it? Part of the problem with the 6TEN service is that we could not capture the immediacy, the honesty, or the vulnerability that characterizes the life of a healthy 12 Step group. A public worship service is a good place to talk about confession but it takes safety, confidentiality, even anonymity, to actually do it.

But when it happens, confession is more than just good for the soul. It works relational and personal healing in a way that nothing else can touch. Like dying and rising to new life.

Why should we confess our sins to one another? Why should we pray for the sick, or for rain, or for world peace, or for recovery from natural disasters, or for anything else that we wish to pray for? Because “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you have promised to hear our prayers. Where two or three of us are gathered, you are in our midst. As we draw near to you in our prayers, you draw near to us with healing. As we confess our sins to one another, your grace enables us to forgive those who have sinned against us. And even, in time, to forgive ourselves. Such simple invitations. Such powerful promises. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 15:21-28

October 19, 2016

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all.

And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-28

This story begins by telling us that Jesus traveled to the district of Tyre and Sidon. These coastal cities were on the Mediterranean, across the far northwestern border of Israel. They weren’t “on the way” to anywhere else. We can only assume that he went there on purpose.

As he arrives he is met by a Canaanite woman. No surprise there. If you are traveling south from Oklahoma and cross the Red River you are very likely to run into a Texan. That is what borders are intended to do – they define “us” and “them” as they divide “us” from “them.” Jesus crossed over into “their” territory.

This same story also appears in Mark 7. In that story the woman is described as “Syrophoenician.” This designation is more about ethnicity than it is nationality. Ethnicity can also function like a built in border. The point is easy to see – Jesus has infiltrated “foreign” soil and there has run into a “foreign” person. Or is it the other way around? Is Jesus in fact the foreigner, the one now out of place, where he doesn’t belong?

Since we will never be able to ask Matthew why, as he rewrote the story that he found in Mark, he preferred Syrophoenician over Canaanite, we can only assume that both writers want to make the point that Jesus has crossed borders, and that their story will tell us something about what that means.

The woman has a seriously troubled daughter. We understand that “tormented by a demon” can be a wide ranging diagnosis that covers a lot of bad stuff. The girl is hurting and her mother is desperate for help. Desperate enough to beg for help from a foreign man. Perhaps one she would have previously looked down upon as an Israeli dog – or as an Israeli who might have looked at her the same way. But desperate times seek desperate measures and she was desperate.

She begs Jesus and Jesus ignores her. The disciples chime in and help us clearly see that they had no interest in helping her. My sense today about this story is that it is less about the woman and her daughter and more about the disciples. Jesus never forgot that he was on a mission, sometimes it seems like the disciples just thought they were on a long walk. Here, like at the feeding of the 5000, the disciples just wanted needy hurting people to go away.

Maybe, when Jesus says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” he is giving voice more to the expectation of the disciples than to his own understanding.

But this woman will not be denied. And Jesus will not deny helping her. They seem so different, so separate, this Israeli and this Canaanite. Yet both are dogs. Which is not such a bad thing as both are fed by the same Master.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we spend so much time and energy on borders and divisions and “who is in?” and “who is out?” You see that in us. You see how this hurts more than helps. We’re driven by fears, by the need for social acceptance, by the desire to hoard more than share, by pecking orders which constantly peck at us. May the power of your love, which made borders disappear in the eyes of Jesus, continue to feed us as we live in a world of needy hurting people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 22:39-46

October 18, 2016

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”

Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.

When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Luke 22:39-46

Our congregation sits right next door to a conservative synagogue, Brith Shalom. We share our parking lots. The last time we resurfaced our lot we set aside two handicapped spaces as close to the front doors of the synagogue as they could go. So, unlike the days before I came to Faith Lutheran Church, I am well aware of the arrival of the high holy days. The parking lot is packed.

Still, even as October rolls around and I know they are coming, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur kind of sneak up on me. And every time they do I am reminded again of how it must feel to live as a minority in a dominant culture. No one forgets that Christmas and Easter are coming!

I thought about the high holy days when I was surprised to see Jesus’ prayer with his disciples at the Mount of Olives. They were of the dominant culture in Israel. The religious calendar was aligned with their body clocks. They knew that Passover was coming. They knew what it meant. They knew it was an honor to celebrate it in Jerusalem. They expected the crowds. They just didn’t expect the crowds to turn on them or Jesus to redefine the Passover meal.

Tourists in Jerusalem today often stop their bus at the top of the Mount of Olives. They stand in a parking lot, looking across the valley to the old city on a hill. There will probably be a man there with a donkey trying to sell them photographs. And then they start walking down the hill. They stop at a garden full of ancient olive trees. They stop where Jesus and his disciples gathered to pray. I’ve been there. I helped lead a prayer service there. Of all the places in Israel, that is the place that I chose to help lead the worship service. More than anywhere else, that is the place that defines my understanding, my challenges, and my struggles as a pastor.

Jesus, human, earthly, fleshy Jesus, is terrified about what might happen next. In that garden he is not seen as a spiritual superstar, floating six inches above terra firma in a gown of white. He is a man and he is afraid. Yet he prays that God’s will be done, as difficult at that might prove to be. He doesn’t whisper the memorized words of a rhyming childhood prayer, he pours his guts out to God. And as he prays, his disciples sleep. Not because they are tired, Luke tells us, but because they too are aware that bad things could soon happen. They sleep because of their grief. Unlike Jesus, who takes his struggles directly to God’s heart, the disciples numb out in slumber.

This is the challenge in following Jesus. We read this story as the disciples. We read this story wanting, in our discipleship, to be more like Jesus and less like Peter. The temptation is to sleep and to deny, the challenge is to embrace the struggle and to pray for God’s help, that God’s will might be done.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, short cuts, easy ways out, the road most often traveled – these are the temptations of our lives. To keep our heads down, to stay out of trouble, to stay quiet in the face of injustice, to get along as we go along – these are the temptations of our lives. To lock you away behind the doors of our own high holy days and then to leave you behind as we skim the surface of life. These trials and temptations come. Lead us through them, that we might have the courage to follow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 121

October 17, 2016

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. Psalm 121

So today we begin a new week. We might have all sorts of ideas about what might happen this week. We could be excited, nervous, anxious. There will be surprises and disappointments. As we come to this new beginning, the psalmist assures us that we aren’t alone.

Every Sunday morning worship service concludes with a benediction. A final statement and assurance of God’s blessings. Each time I share the benediction I notice the words “now” and “forever.” My assumption, of course, is that we will all be back next week for worship so “forever” seems a bit odd. Until I remember that every worship service could be anyone’s last worship service. Therein lies the tension. We just don’t know what it going to happen. We only know that we won’t be alone.

Psalm 121 assures us of God’s constant presence. More than that, the psalm assures us of God’s benevolent presence. God is our guard and our guide. God is our protector and provider. We won’t be alone.

So why are we so prone to fear? Why are we so prone to feeling lonely, exposed, vulnerable? Why are we surprised at the idea of being surprised by our powerlessness? Maybe it is as simple as the age-old desire to do everything by ourselves. If we move into life as the masters of our own universe, fending for ourselves, me against the world, then we only have ourselves, our limited foible-filled selves, to rely on. Ultimately that does not end well.

So the psalmist invites us to “lift our eyes to the hills”, to see off into the distance with eyes of faith, to recognize that God is not only out there, but right there, with and for us. We are not alone.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, as we begin this new week we pray that you might help us keep our eyes open to your presence, your protection, and your guidance. Take us where you would have us go. Use us to do what you would have us do. Be our protector and our provider. Assure us that we do not walk alone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 100:1-5

October 14, 2016

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.

Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.

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.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100:1-5

A friend of mine and I are out of town today. We are taking a couple of days off to ride through Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Anticipating being gone, I actually wrote today’s devotion earlier this week. We will be back on Saturday afternoon so we can be in worship on Sunday morning.

Through the years I have noticed that I never really feel like I am back home, after having been away, until I get a Sunday morning under my belt. Sunday morning worship has been a part of the rhythms of my life since my sophomore year in college and certainly since I became a pastor. It is seeing the people. Listening to music and singing. The movement of the liturgy, whether traditional or contemporary. Praying the Lord’s Prayer in a crowd. Those quiet moments immediately before and after receiving Holy Communion. The feeling of “sent-ness” that comes at the end. I sense God and I find myself in worship.

Back in the long haired playing guitar at Bible camp days, we used to sing a song based on Psalm 100. I can’t read the words of this psalm without thinking about that song. It was boisterous and fun. We sang it full throated with smiles on our faces. This ancient song of the faithful still sings!

I remember the days that people used to call the “worship wars.” Such a strange dynamic and such an unfortunate way of talking about worship. Of course I have always been a fan of making room for guitars and drums and microphones in worship alongside organs and pianos and chimes and bells. Through those years I kept remembering the voices of kids at camp saying “Why can’t regular church be more like this?” Well, it can. And it can’t.

Sunday morning worship can never recreate the excitement of being with a bunch of other kids for a week away from home, filled with fully programmed activities designed to impact kids. But even on Sunday morning, the most important musical instruments will always and forever be human voices singing together, driven by the passion of our hearts and minds.

We’re learning that now.

We’re learning that worship as entertainment doesn’t work nearly as well as people thought it might. Few congregations can duplicate the levels of entertainment that people have come to expect. And those that do are beginning to question the depth to which seeds of faith are being planted. Younger people are starting to smell a rat. They are looking for something deeper. And still we sing Psalm 100.

I’ll bet that there are still Lutheran congregations in the Midwest who sing in four part harmony. There are still people who can sing many hymns without looking at the book or the screens in front of the room. But the times are a changing. And still they sing Psalm 100.

I love this line – I don’t know what the future holds but I know Who holds the future. And I know that God will always welcome us home as we come into his presence with singing.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, put a song in our hearts today. Put a song in our hearts that encourages us and reminds us of your goodness, your power, your compassion, and your grace. Bring us home to worship on Sunday morning with hearts full of gratitude and expectation. Shine through the faces that greet us. Speak to us through lyrics, through scripture, through prayer, and yes, even through preaching. We ARE your people. We trust your promises. We are at home with you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Chronicles 16:1-6

October 13, 2016

They brought in the ark of God, and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and they offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before God. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord; and he distributed to every person in Israel—man and woman alike—to each a loaf of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins.

He appointed certain of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel. Asaph was the chief, and second to him Zechariah, Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-edom, and Jeiel, with harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and the priests Benaiah and Jahaziel were to blow trumpets regularly, before the ark of the covenant of God. 1 Chronicles 16:1-6

Sometimes I worry about the future of local congregations. Not the church as the Body of Christ, I trust that will endure until the last day. I worry about the future of local congregations as we have known them. They have been getting smaller and older for years.

There has never been a time in my life, even those years when I had nothing much to do with the church, that there weren’t many congregations around me. All communities of people with histories and futures. Buildings and programming. Cornerstones of community life.

I happened to stumble upon the Lutheran church when I was in college. A Lutheran college begun by farmers who wanted their children to have a good education. I was warmly received. I was accepted at a seminary built by immigrants who understood the value of well educated pastors. Due to their vision and generosity, I was provided with a good, affordable, education. A congregation in Cheyenne, WY, welcomed me for a year of internship. First one, then two, then three congregations in Houston have called me to serve them. I have always felt the shoulders of the giants before me upon which I stand. I have always wanted to return the favor to those that follow. But I worry.

How many articles have I read through the years about how people are losing faith, not in Jesus, but in the local congregation? The days of “oh, they’ll come back when they have children” seem to be going quickly away. “We’re losing the millennials!” the articles tell us. Why? Usually the blame rests on the local congregations. I don’t buy it.

Seldom does anyone note that it takes work to get up every Sunday morning in time for worship. It takes time to volunteer doing things to make a local congregation function. It takes money to pay the bills of the staff and the building. And even more money as local congregations pitch in for community efforts to help the homeless, the hungry, the victims of disasters, as well as other ministries like colleges, seminaries, missionaries, etc. It takes work, time, and money that are all voluntary. It is far easier to sleep in, let someone else do it, and keep all of our money to ourselves. So I worry.

Then I watch the resurrection happen again on Sunday morning as, once again, the people gather. People who have been around their whole lives, and people who are brand new. And I remember that it is the Holy Spirit who calls and gathers the Christian church. My hope is renewed.

David gathered the people together in the wilderness. He set up a tent for worship. They didn’t have air conditioning but I trust they still appreciated getting out of the sun. He brought the ark, the very presence of God, into the presence of the people. They celebrated with worship and a barbeque. He set aside some people for service in the worship life of the people. They did church. Simple. Gathering, worshiping, eating, celebrating, and moving on with life. And we are still doing it today. My hope is renewed.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we take so much for granted in life. In every age you raise up people who shepherd the worship lives of your people. You raise up people committed to carrying on the work of Jesus. You raise up people who delight in their heritage and devote themselves on your future. Thank you for local gatherings of Christians, for congregations of every flavor and stripe. Thank you for creating so many spaces that invite us to give of ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasures in blessing the world with reminders of your presence. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Samuel 2:1-10

October 12, 2016

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” 1 Samuel 2:1-10

As this 2nd chapter opens, Hannah is praising God for hearing her prayers and blessing her with the birth of her son, Samuel. Now she has shown up to fulfill her promise. She will leave Samuel in the care of the priest, Eli. This is a profound moment and painful for our modern ears to hear.

After years of wanting a child, years of feeling “less than” her husband’s other wife, Hannah had prayed fervently for a child. Eventually her prayers took her to the place that we sometimes take ours – striking a deal with God. “Lord, if you give me a child, then I promise that I will offer him to your service.”

These are dangerous prayers. They turn God into Santa Claus as we bring our wish lists and promises to be good little boys and girls. The danger comes when we either get what was ask and then take back our promise or when we don’t get what we want and we come away resentful. Expectations are seeds for future resentment. Resentments damage relationships.

But Hannah bore no resentment. She is keeping her promise, handing her little boy over to the priest. Who could do that?

The truth is that people do that far more often than we realize. Birth parents hand newborns over to the care and keeping of adoptive parents. It is an act of the deepest self-giving love, as is the act of receiving an adoptive child.

This fall we sent Kelley’s daughter off to college. It is part of the letting go and moving on process of parenting. It isn’t easy. It is scary. And it is right. It is the way of things. It is what children and parents do. We’re sent off in God’s care and keeping, to fulfill the callings that God lays on our lives.

One of the dominant themes that runs throughout the entire Bible is how God turns everything we expect upside down. You can see that in the songs of Moses and Miriam after the children of Israel cross the Red Sea (Exodus 15), repeatedly in the Psalms and wisdom literature, in the song of Mary (Luke 1), the poetry of Revelations, and here today in the song of Hannah. These are all songs full of trust that God is in, with, and under all aspects of our lives. That God will provide, will bring about justice, and that no one will ultimately be left behind.

Even if that means upsetting the apple carts of our expectations of what that might all look like.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we marvel at the faith of Hannah, how you sustained her throughout the painful years of her life, and how you blessed her with the birth of Samuel. She trusted you, opened her heart to you, and relied on you. Gift us with such faith, that we might see you at work, and that we might be about your work where you have planted us in the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.