Archive for October, 2016

Isaiah 55:6-11

October 31, 2016

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:6-11

When I was a child, without question, I accepted a lie as gospel truth – “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” Oh, there were many, many more but this is the one that immediately comes to mind in relation to today’s text from Isaiah.

I broke a bone in my foot in the fall of 8th grade. It hurt. It made me miss the first weeks of basketball. It healed. I forgot about it. It took me decades (if I ever have) to get over the cutting comment about my legs delivered by my 9th grade football coach as we walked back to the locker room after practice.

I broke my hand during a game in my sophomore year in college. It hurt. I missed some games and played out the season with my hand wrapped. It healed. I forgot about it. But I will never forget the counsel of my campus pastor that same year. I went to him in a crisis. He listened to my words. He shared some of his own – helpful, empowering, empathetic – that made a powerful difference in my life. I am who I am today because of that single conversation.

Don’t tell me that words don’t matter and don’t tell me that words don’t hurt. And don’t think that the right words, at the right time, can’t also be tremendously healing.

We are now nearing the end of the most puzzling presidential election in my lifetime. Words have been said that would have instantly eliminated any previous candidate for elected office. Words have been scrutinized and bandied about and twisted and spewed forth like spray paint graffiti on a new concrete wall. November 9th has never looked so good. Early voting numbers have never been so high, no doubt because millions of people are just over it and want this election behind them.

God doesn’t give us a November 8th deadline. God isn’t running for office or up for election.

God also doesn’t give us the kind of insider information that allows us to peer behind the veil of God’s mystery. What God does give us in an invitation to “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” God uses God’s word to invite us to use our words to seek God’s guidance and support. Wicked and unrighteous though we be, God invites us to repent, to return, to seek forgiveness, with the promise that God’s forgiveness is right there waiting for us.

And God gives us his promise. God’s word on it. That God’s words are a powerful force that will accomplish the salvation that God seeks for us. Regardless of how this election turns out, God’s words remind us that we live in God’s hands.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, heal us from the devastating damage that words have wrought in our lives. Keep us mindful of our use of words. May we always speak the truth in love and may we have the insight to see through the fog of careless, hurtful, and divisive rhetoric to the truth that we are all in this life together. And that we are never alone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Isaiah 57:13-19

October 28, 2016

When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away. But whoever takes refuge in me shall possess the land and inherit my holy mountain. It shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”

For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry; for then the spirits would grow faint before me, even the souls that I have made.

Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry; I struck them, I hid and was angry; but they kept turning back to their own ways. I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will lead them and repay them with comfort, creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them. Isaiah 57:13-19

Anyone taking the time to read through the library shelf we call the Old Testament would come to realize that the number one sin of God’s people is idolatry. It is exchanging faith in the God they cannot see with something more tangible, more controllable, more understandable, more physically gratifying. It is like reading a love story where the heroine is tricked by the aggressive scoundrel while the long suffering guy who has loved her since childhood waits both patiently and painfully for his love to come to her senses.

The tension is always wrapped up in whether or not she ever will.

Even the key moment in the narrative, the Great Escape from Egypt, is highlighted in idolatry. No sooner after crossing the Red Sea the people are clamoring for the flesh pots of Egypt. “Life was so good back there in slavery” the scoundrel seduces them.

No sooner had Moses left for the mountain top than the scoundrel shouts with excitement, “Come on, baby, let’s dance!” and they melt their nest eggs into a golden calf.

We read all of these stories, noticing with a bit of shock every time that the people of Israel seem to be airing their dirty laundry in public view, and we feel the urge to shout at the page just as we shout at the screen in a movie theater, “NO, DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!” or “NO, DON’T BELIEVE HIM!”, but she always opens the door. The scoundrel leads her on, ever closer to leaving behind the destined love of her life forever.

But God didn’t see fit to preserve these stories as optional history lessons for those willing to take the time to sort through the genealogies and battle scenes, they were preserved for every reader to see more clearly the drama in which they live their lives. In every age, in every day, you and I are caught between the siren song of seductive self-destruction and the narrow, hard, road that leads to life. Idolatry will always be the bedazzled wonder of the Vegas Strip, or the sweet taste of breakfast cereal, or the dashing good looks of the scoundrel.

And the God who loves us? This God, this jilted suitor who sits painfully and patiently by, is far more likely to whisper our name than to shout from the rooftops. He is far more likely to show up in the special needs child hoping for a classroom and a competent teacher, the dusty little girl sitting in the detention center hoping for a bus ticket to her aunt’s apartment in Philly, or the customer hoping only to be treated with decency, respect, and honesty.

Who wins our affections? Earns our trust? Deserves our devotion? The scoundrel with his promises of money for nothing, a chicken in every pot, honor, glory, and fame? Or the lover who wants only to love us, that we might in turn have enough love for our neighbor?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we are a fickle people. Our heads and hearts turn so quickly. We leave you in our rear view mirror and then wonder why we keep running into walls. Open our eyes and tune our ears so that we can more clearly see and hear your whispered calls of love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

James 4:1-10

October 27, 2016

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God.

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:1-10

It was many years ago. Long enough ago that I only had an AM/FM radio in the car – not even a cassette deck. I was driving in Houston, listening to the late John Osteen preaching a sermon on a Christian radio station, when he said something along the lines of “Of course the Holy Spirit will help you pick stocks! God wants only what is best for you, including your finances. When you pray before you invest your money you are coming alongside God who will guide your decisions and bless your investments.”

My thought at the time was some version of “I can’t believe what I’m hearing! I would NEVER say that!” And now the church that John started in a feed store is one of the largest congregations in the United States. His son is a multi-millionaire. And I still have never said in a sermon to my people that the Holy Spirit will guide their investment decisions if only they will ask for help. Have I missed something here?

Yesterday a reader responded with a story about praying fervently for the physical recovery of her sister from an infection. She began to improve, was released from the hospital, and she died a week later. Now the reader reports her difficulty with prayer. How many times have we heard that? How many times have we experienced it?

It comes so naturally to us to take James’ words out of context and apply them literally and personally. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly… We do that and it is crushing to us. It keeps us in a place of comparing our lives to others, our prayers to others, our experiences to others, and we always follow that up with simple math: God answered their prayers = They are spiritually better than us. That kills.

What James is saying here is less about what God does and more about our own mindsets. He points out how quickly we are to take things into our own hands and live by greed rather than grace. We want what we want when we want it and how we want it and then we go to war to make it happen. We pull out all the artillery we have to get our way. And no matter what it is we want, there is always another want just around the corner.

James offers another stance for life: Letting go and letting God. Resistance by surrender. Humility over hubris. Thy will be done. Prayer, not to get our way, but prayer to experience the presence of God in all things, to know we are never alone.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, come to us as we come to you. We can’t figure everything out. We can’t seem to get past our endless lists of what we want in life. We want and we want and we want. You invite us to let go, to give up, to trust. This morning, by your grace, fill us with a new sense of trust. In all things, for all things, your will be done. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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.