Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 7

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 51:10-14

Last week we saw Samuel as a young boy, first hearing God’s call upon his life as he served in the house of God at Shiloh under a man named Eli. This week, we see Samuel towards the end of his life, going to Bethlehem and anointing a boy named David to be Israel’s king. So, what’s happened in between? We need some background information if we are to understand today’s story better.

After Samuel began to hear the word of the Lord at Shiloh, and gave a message of doom to Eli, a group of people called the Philistines began to fight against the Israelites. The Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle, captured the Ark of the Covenant (this was the box that held the tablets of stone with the law that Moses had brought down from Mt. Sinai), and among the other Israelites that the Philistines killed were Eli’s two sons—those corrupt priests that God had warned Eli about. When Eli heard the news, he fell over and died. Through a series of events, the Philistines eventually returned the ark to Israel, and then Samuel comes to power and judges Israel in place of Eli. Samuel does a pretty good job, but when he gets old, he has the same problem as Eli did—his sons are corrupt and take bribes for their own personal gain.

So the people of Israel see this, and they look around at the countries around them and see that other countries have a king, and they demand a king for themselves. God is not happy with this request, and Samuel also is not happy with this request, and through Samuel, God warns the people of Israel what will happen if they have a king: the king will just take and take from the people and give little, if anything, back. But eventually, God gives in, and Samuel anoints a man named Saul to be Israel’s first king. Saul leads the people into battle against their enemies, and with God’s help, they win the battle. Samuel then decides it is time for him to take a step back and retire from leading the people of Israel. King Saul continues to lead the Israelites in battle against the Philistines and comes out victorious. Then, Saul leads a battle against the Amalekites, and he makes a bad mistake. God had commanded Saul to completely destroy all of the Amalekites, but Saul decides to spare the king of the Amalekites and to save the best of their animals rather than destroy them. God is furious because Saul has disobeyed God’s command, and God calls Samuel out of retirement to tell Saul that God is angry and to give him the message that God has rejected Saul as king over Israel. Samuel leaves Saul and doesn’t see him ever again. And then we arrive at today’s story, which begins with God questioning how long Samuel will grieve over Saul and sending Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king.

Make no mistake: what Samuel is doing in today’s story is dangerous. No one has ever heard of anointing a new king while there is already a sitting king leading a country, and to do so would be considered treason. That’s why God gives Samuel a cover: Samuel is to take an animal with him and to tell the elders of Bethlehem that he has come there for a sacrifice. And the elders of Bethlehem are afraid at Samuel’s coming because Samuel, although retired, is still a political force to be dealt with. The elders may not know what is going on, but they fear that Samuel has come to do something that will get them in trouble with King Saul.

Now we come to the story of how David is called. At this point, it should not surprise us that God calls the youngest of the siblings. God has a habit of doing that: favoring Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; even the great Moses was younger than his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. God delights in choosing the “least of these” to take precedence over the ones that the world thinks should be first. But this story of the call of David to be king injects a new element into the call stories that we have heard thus far. When God appeared to Jacob at Bethel, God came to him in a dream and promised him that he would be blessed and that God would be with him. When God appeared to Moses, we saw Moses refusing God’s call and God not letting Moses off the hook, but again promising Moses that God would be with him. Last week, we saw Samuel not understanding God’s call to him until Eli realized it was God who was speaking to Samuel, and then Samuel eagerly accepting the call. This week, we really don’t see David responding verbally to God’s call; at the end of the story we hear that the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. But here is the new element: it is a warning to us that God does not look at appearances when God calls someone, but instead, God looks at what is in the person’s heart.

It seems like such a simple lesson to us, doesn’t it? It’s that old adage that we like to trot out when we’re teaching our children: don’t judge a book by its cover. But you know what? We live in a world where appearances are still everything. We don’t see the bad parts of other people’s lives, and we don’t realize that they have their own problems that they’re dealing with. We look on the outward appearance, and we don’t think to ask a person what’s going on in her heart.

Part of looking only on the outward appearance of others is recognizing that we all still have prejudices and stereotypes within us, so that, when we look at someone walking down the street, for example, we instantly judge that person based on the way she looks. The latest scandal that hit the news cycle this week was about a man named Harvey Weinstein, a very rich movie producer in Hollywood who was fired from his position at his company because of decades of accusations of sexual harassment and assault. In response, on social media, there has been a #MeToo campaign, where women have stated that they have been victims of sexual harassment and assault, just to let people know how widespread this problem is. And yes, I am part of that “Me, too,” campaign. I have been catcalled. I have been harassed by men who I was not interested in. In one congregation that I was in, long before I was a pastor, there was a man who, at the sharing of the peace, would kiss all of the women on the cheek. I was uncomfortable with that and expressed my discomfort to the male pastor of that church. The response I got was, “Oh, that’s just who he is. I don’t want to cause a big stink by telling him to stop.” And so I learned to avoid this man at the sharing of the peace because he was violating my personal boundaries and making me uncomfortable. All of this goes back to the idea of men looking at the appearance of women and thinking because they look a certain way, they have the right to go after that woman and get what they want from her. They do not regard her as a person who has a heart and is valued by God for much more than her appearance.

The Psalm that we have today paired with our reading of David becoming king cries out to God to create in us a new heart. As Christians, this is what we should be continually crying out to God for: a new heart. A heart that looks at people as people; a heart that treats others the way we would want to be treated; a heart that values people because, no matter who they are: black, white, rich, poor, female or male: each one of us is created in God’s image. That means that God values us for who God has created us to be and not for how we look. One of my favorite movies as a teenager was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. Morgan Freeman played a Muslim who came home with Robin Hood from the Crusades. One of the lesser-known scenes in that movie is when a little girl comes up to Morgan Freeman’s character and asks him, “Did God paint you?” And he laughs and says, “For certain.” And when the little girl asks him why, he says, “Because Allah loves wondrous variety.”

This is how we should endeavor to approach other people: with the eye of God who loves wondrous variety. We are human and we will notice how others appear: there’s really nothing we can do about that. But instead of looking at the other person as a person that is there for our benefit, we should be looking at the other person as part of the wondrous variety that God has created. And we should be wondering with awe what God has called that person to do in this life, and appreciating the gifts that the other person brings that we don’t have. That is the new heart that we should be continually asking God to create in us. And when we do something that offends the other person, we should immediately stop what we are doing, ask forgiveness, and strive to do better in the future.

Because when we say that Jesus died for all people, all means all. Jesus died for each one of you. Jesus died for me. Jesus does not look at people’s appearances, but Jesus looks at what is in our hearts. Jesus sees the beauty and Jesus also sees the pain in our hearts. Jesus sees when a woman is harassed or touched when she doesn’t want to be touched, and Jesus grieves with her. And yes, men are assaulted too—and Jesus grieves with those men when they are hurting. Think on this for a moment: Jesus said, “As you have done it to them, you have done it to #MeToo.” That is a rephrasing of something that Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, but it gets the point across. We should remember that, when we are doing things, when we are having conversations with others, Jesus is present in the face of the other. And this remembrance is what needs to be guiding our behavior.

And so, we cry out with the Psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” For only with that new heart can we teach others the ways of God, and see that they will return to God. And the good news is this: With God, there is graciousness, steadfast love, and forgiveness of sin. With the knowledge that we are loved and we are forgiven, we can go forward with that good news and share it with everyone around us, especially those who are hurting and saying “Me, too.” Amen.


Sermon for Harrisburg Conference

Note: In the ELCA, we have different regions known as synods. Within synods, there are local conferences of pastors. The Harrisburg area conference meets once a month for worship together, then a meal and a meeting. Today I got to preach at the conference worship. This is the sermon I preached. With thanks to Professor Richard Swanson of Augustana University for his unique interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew.


Matthew 22:1-14

In the first year of my first call, in Powell, WY, I was looking for something to do for continuing education. The Festival of Homiletics looked interesting, but May was always a busy time for my congregation there, and I couldn’t justify being away for a week when there was so much going on. So I began looking for something that would catch my interest and that would take place in the summer, when my congregation tended to disappear completely, and through a series of events, I landed on the Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. This is a group of people whose mission is to encourage everyone to learn and tell Biblical stories. And this first year that I attended the gathering, I was hooked by one event at the conference in particular, and that was the epic telling. A series of people told Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians—by heart. Now, I had read that letter several times, but suddenly it became alive to me—I could see Paul writing the letter, at points struggling to find the right words to express what he wanted to say, and I realized that a lot of what he was writing about in that letter had to do with sex. Since that first gathering, I have used the techniques taught to me to learn Biblical stories, and have told several Gospel stories to my congregation in Wyoming as well as my two here in Pennsylvania.

In the last several years since I have gone to the Festival Gathering, I have met a professor of religion at Augustana University by the name of Richard Swanson. He has written a series of four books called “Provoking the Gospel” for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He has a unique way of looking at the Biblical texts, and one of the things he does is to have his students act out the stories found in the Bible. This acting out of the stories leads him to interpretations that we don’t often hear from other scholars. And Swanson’s approach to Matthew is what I want to use today as we wrestle with this parable of the wedding banquet once more.

Swanson talks about how much he struggles with the Gospel of Matthew, with this Jesus who casts people into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; this Jesus who seems to rigidly divide people into categories like sheep and goats, weeds and wheat, the virgins who were ready and those who were not, and so on and so forth. And then he looked at the story that Matthew told of Jesus’ birth: Jesus being born in Bethlehem. In Matthew, there is no trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem as there is in Luke; Jesus is already there with his family. And then, after the visit of the wise men, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt. Leaving Jesus’ uncles, aunts, and cousins in Bethlehem at the mercy of Herod’s soldiers. In the story that Matthew tells, Jesus most likely lost much of his extended family at the hands of those soldiers on that day. And when the family finally returned from Egypt, they ended up in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. In Matthew’s story, Jesus is a refugee, growing up in a town not his own.

Then Dr. Swanson asked his colleagues in the psychology and education departments this question: When a child grows up as a refugee, what does the child act like? And the response that he got was this: a child growing up as a refugee looks at the world as very black and white, with absolutely no shades of gray. There are good people and there are bad people, period. If a good person is perceived by this child as betraying him or her, the good person is now a bad person. And bad people very rarely move from that category to being good people, if at all. Suddenly, all the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and stark divisions in Matthew’s Gospel began to make sense: what if Matthew was telling a story of Jesus as a refugee Messiah? Isn’t this what a refugee Messiah might look like? Demanding purity from his followers? Dividing the good and the bad? Casting the bad into the outer darkness for eternal punishment?

While this interpretation probably does not answer all of the questions that we have of Matthew’s Jesus, it cast this gospel into a new light for me. And it is with this background in mind that I would like to approach this very strange—even for a refugee Messiah!—parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. And to get into this story, we have to imagine ourselves in this imaginary world: a world where a king goes into a rage when guests he has invited refuse to come to the wedding banquet. In such a world, for subjects to refuse to come to a royal banquet when summoned is tantamount to rebellion. And when they laugh him off a second time and mistreat and kill the king’s slaves, the king feels that his throne is not secure. So in order to reassert his power over his kingdom, he has to make an example of them. But to think that a king is not loved enough that the people originally invited to the wedding banquet don’t come—this is a portrayal of an ineffective and cruel king. And how do the son and his bride feel when the original people invited would apparently rather be destroyed than come to their banquet? And what does it say when the slaves pull in a bunch of random common people and force them to make the hall full? And what about that guy who got in without a wedding robe? And how on earth is any of this supposed to portray the kingdom of heaven?

Well, the next interpretive move we can make, I suppose, is to say that not only is Matthew’s Jesus a refugee Messiah, but Matthew himself was writing to a group of Christians who came from a Jewish background; who were feeling those sharp divisions as they argued with their families and friends who did not believe in Jesus; who were generally feeling persecuted and longing for vindication that they were right and those others who hated them would eventually be cast into outer darkness. Yes, we can do that and we can make ourselves feel better about this parable. We’re not in the same context, after all, we say to ourselves. This is a parable that we can just relegate into the outer darkness, and not deal with the fact that Jesus actually said it—never mind that there’s a similar version of this parable in Luke’s gospel, arguing for the fact that Jesus probably did tell some version of this story. So we continue to struggle with this, not knowing how to handle it.

But what if? What if we are in a similar context? Many of us often do feel harassed and harried by other versions of Christianity out there that seem much more toxic. The version of Christianity, for example, that seems to get entwined with the government in civic religion and that shames Christians who kneel at the national anthem as a form of protest. Or perhaps we identify with living under a capricious leader who throws temper tantrums when we don’t rejoice when he tells us to rejoice, and perhaps we live in fear that one day, that leader might just decide to send troops against us when we rebel against him once too often. Maybe we are just too afraid to identify with this parable because the world that we live in looks like the world that Jesus paints in this parable. And we don’t like to think of the kingdom of heaven looking like the world that we live in.

And so, perhaps, that’s how we can look at this parable today: as a warning to us. When people refuse our invitation to come and learn about a God who loves us; when people refuse to come to the table at which we say all are welcome, it is tempting for us to wish hellfire and destruction to come upon them. It is tempting for us to wish for God to vindicate us as the ones who are right and to throw all of those “evildoers” into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But perhaps, just perhaps, that’s not what the kingdom of heaven is supposed to look like. As I was learning this parable over the last several weeks, I kept coming back to the part where the slaves go out and invite everyone on the streets to come to the banquet: they “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests”. The people who came into the wedding hall were a mixture of people—both the good ones and the bad ones. Perhaps, just perhaps, when the kingdom of heaven comes to fulfillment, we will be surprised at who we see there. Not just the good, faithful, churchgoing people, but the ones who we have been annoyed with in life, the ones who have been thorns in our side, and the ones whose public behavior we have cringed at. And perhaps all of that bad stuff will be forgotten as we rejoice with one another at the banquet.

Dr. Swanson carries through with his interpretation of the refugee Messiah all the way to the end of the Gospel of Matthew. He looks at Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion and notes that Jesus did not die the perfect martyr’s death; he, in fact, cried out to God and blamed God for abandoning him on the cross. And those are the only words that Matthew has Jesus saying from the cross. Swanson theorizes that, when Jesus finds himself resurrected on Easter morning and realizes that God has vindicated him in spite of the fact that he did not die a good death, that he is overwhelmed. And so, at the Great Commission, we find Jesus no longer making divisions between the faithful and not-so-faithful, but sending out all the disciples, believing and doubting, to make more disciples and teach them what Jesus has taught them. Perhaps we get a hint of that ending in the parable with the good and the bad at the wedding banquet. And perhaps that mixed bag of people is the vision of the kingdom of heaven that we should keep in front of us as we go through this life. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 6

1 Samuel 3:1-21

Again this week, we are making a huge jump in the Biblical story, leaving many great stories of Israel for you to read on your own, in your own devotion time. The summary of the story is this: last week, we saw God providing manna in the desert for the Israelites, who were newly freed from Egypt. The Israelites then wander in the desert for 40 years. Towards the end of that time, Moses dies, and Joshua takes over the leadership of the people. They take the city of Jericho, and they begin to settle in the Promised Land. The book of Joshua describes a military conquest of the land, and the book of Judges describes a more gradual settlement, with a series of different leaders known as judges ruling over the people of Israel. After the book of Judges, we get the short story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who returns to Bethlehem from Moab with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and ends up becoming part of the family tree of King David—who we’ll get to next week. As the book of 1 Samuel opens, we read about a woman named Hannah who was trying to become pregnant, but could not. She prays that if God will give her a boy, she will dedicate that boy to God. The boy is born and named Samuel, and when Samuel is old enough, his mother Hannah brings him back to the house of the Lord at Shiloh to serve God under a man named Eli. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were priests of the Lord, but they were corrupt: they cheated the people who brought sacrifices to God. Eli had spoken to his sons about their evil behavior, but the boys did not listen to their father. Right before today’s story of God calling Samuel, a man of God had come to Eli and warned him that God was not happy with the behavior of Eli’s sons. And then we come to today’s story.

The story of God’s call to Samuel is one of both humor and deadly seriousness. I’m sure all of you parents can identify, after all, with the child who comes to your bed in the middle of the night saying, “Mom, I had a bad dream and I’m scared.” “Dad, I’m thirsty.” “Mom, I can’t sleep.” And you sleepily tell the child that everything is okay and to go back to bed and go to sleep. Well, parents, now you know exactly how far back this kind of thing goes! “Here I am, for you called me!” the young Samuel says to Eli, and Eli says, “I did not call; lie down again.” All Eli wants, after all, is a good night’s sleep, and here comes this young boy once, twice, three times claiming that Eli has called him. By the third time, Eli realizes that maybe Samuel is really hearing something and is not just coming and bothering him in the middle of the night because he can’t sleep. And Eli tells Samuel that if he hears the voice again, he should say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

When God calls a person, it’s always an interesting experience. Two Sundays ago, we heard the story of how God called Moses through the flames of the burning bush, and how Moses did not want that call and gave many excuses to God as to why he could not, in fact, go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And we heard how God didn’t believe any of those excuses and was persistent in calling Moses, but how God also promised Moses to be with him through the whole experience. Now, here we have God calling Samuel, and Samuel not even recognizing that it was God calling out to him at first. God is persistent in calling Samuel just as God was persistent in calling Moses, and God does not let Samuel go until Samuel responds to God’s call.

But the story of the call of Samuel raises a good question for us: how do we know when it is God calling us, and when it is just our own sinful desires telling us to do something? And the answer is that a call from God comes in the form of a combination of an individual call and a confirmation of that call from the community. So, for example, Samuel wasn’t sure who was calling him until Eli figured it out. And, after God spoke a message to Samuel, Eli demanded that Samuel relay that message to him honestly, without leaving anything out. And what Eli heard confirmed that it was, in fact, God who had spoken the message, because God had given him that message before. Thus Samuel is confirmed in his role as a prophet of God, and the story sets us up to see that Samuel will eventually be taking over that role from Eli.

So, too, with us. For example, when I heard the call from God to be a pastor, that was all well and good. But without confirmation from the community of Christians around me: the urging of my friends who thought I would, in fact, make a good pastor; the tough (but fair!) questions that my candidacy committee asked me in my interviews throughout the time I was in seminary; and, finally, without that first call I received from the congregation in Wyoming; I would never have become a pastor. And while the process of confirming and living out a call to be a pastor is a lot more formal than other calls we may receive from God upon our lives, each one of us goes through some sort of combination of an individual call from God and a confirmation of that call from the community around us.

As Lutherans, one of the great teachings that we have received from Martin Luther is the teaching of the call, or vocation. When we use that word “vocation,” today, we generally use it synonymously with the word “job”. But there is a much deeper meaning to the word, “vocation”. In Luther’s day, the only people who were truly said to have a vocation were those who were formally serving God: priests, monks, and nuns. But Luther said that the person who serves God as a mother or father was doing just as important work in serving God, if not more important, than any priest, monk, or nun. Have you ever thought of that in your daily lives? Your work as mother, father, brother, sister, nuclear plant worker, union leader, and whatever else you have done or ever will do is just as much a service to God as anything that I may do as your pastor. That’s pretty awe-inspiring, isn’t it?

And just as we as individuals have received calls from God to be and to do certain things in our lives, God has placed a call upon us as congregations. Now, there are certain things that God has called us to do as a congregation that are common to every expression of God’s church here on earth, and we can find those directives scattered in different places throughout the Bible. We are all called to love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul, and we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus calls us, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. In our short reading from John today, we hear Jesus giving us the Holy Spirit and talking about forgiving and retaining sins. And in the first chapter of Acts, we hear Jesus telling us that we will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. These things are a common call to all Christians, both as individuals and as congregations. What is different is how each congregation lives out those directives from Jesus in their context.

At Salem, these are some of the things we have been doing to live out this call that God has placed upon us: we continue to have regular Sunday worship; we have had a Mother-Daughter Banquet; we have continued our ministry of visiting our shut-ins on a regular basis; we have collected food to give to the needy; we have taken up a collection for those hurt by the hurricanes; we have hosted the Thursday morning Bible study; we will be hosting the local Veteran’s Day breakfast, reaching out to veterans in our community; and we are currently investigating opening up our building to host the expansion of the daycare center across the alley from us. These are all good ways of living out the call that God has placed upon us as a congregation. But we should also continue to listen for God’s call and ask God what more we can be doing to reach out to people with the good news that Jesus has died for our sins, and that now all people can have new life in him.

At St. John’s, I am going to dare to say that we may have discerned what God is calling us to do as a congregation, and that is to get involved with the community of Steelton. This started before I got here with the development of the once-monthly community breakfast and clothes bank, which has helped us to reach out and get to know our neighbors better. If you weren’t here for the Fall Festival yesterday, you missed a boatload of children—some with connections to the church and others who didn’t have those connections—who came and painted Halloween masks, ate snacks, and saw a wonderful puppet show about Noah’s Ark. This call has continued with our venture to host Family Promise, helping to care for homeless families in the greater area of Harrisburg with the resources that God has given us and the other churches in our local area. I am continuing to see new ideas from you all for reaching out to Steelton with God’s love, and I hope to continue to see this direction bear fruit. And on November 4, we will have the opportunity to sit down with the Synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission and our neighbors of Trinity in Steelton to discern in more detail how God has called us to serve God, our neighborhood, and the world by loving our neighbors. We still need some more people to commit to coming on November 4th; please come and talk to me if you are interested or if you have questions.

The call that God gave Samuel was not an easy one. He had to tell Eli, the man who had taken care of him from a young age and his mentor in the house of God at Shiloh, that God was going to punish the house of Eli because of the bad behavior of Eli’s sons, and because Eli hadn’t done enough to stop it. That must have been terrifying for Samuel to tell his mentor that God was not happy with him. But God was with Samuel, and this first message was only the beginning of a long vocation where God spoke to the people of Israel through Samuel. So, too, the call that we hear from God will not always be an easy one for us to hear or to follow. But we have the promise that God will be with us through it all, and that is good news indeed. Amen.


Sermon for Narrative Lectionary, Week 5

Exodus 16:1-18

This week, we don’t have too much of a gap in between stories to fill in. Last week, we heard about how God called Moses from the midst of a bush that was on fire, but did not burn up. We heard about how Moses tried to wiggle out of this call to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go, offering up many excuses as to why he could not do it, and we heard about how God did not let Moses off the hook, but promised to be with him, to help him and guide him. Then comes the part of the story that we remember from Sunday school classes and countless movies, from Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments, and from more recent movies like the animated The Prince of Egypt: Moses goes to Pharaoh and tells him to let God’s people go. Pharaoh refuses, and God sends plagues: the Nile River turns to blood; frogs swarm up over the land of Egypt; swarms of gnats appear; then flies appear; then all of the livestock get sick and die; then people break out in boils; then God sends thunder and hail; then locusts swarm over everything; then God sends darkness that covers the whole land; and finally, God sends the angel of death to kill the firstborn children of Egypt. It is this last plague that finally makes Pharaoh relent and set the Israelites free, and it is this last plague that results in the observance of Passover: the Israelites are commanded to slaughter lambs and to smear their doorposts with the blood in order for the angel of death to pass over them. Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go free, and God leads the way out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Suddenly, though, Pharaoh changes his mind, and he leads an army to come after the troop of Israelites, just as they are camped by the sea, with no place to run. And God works another miracle through Moses: the sea is parted, and the Israelites pass through on dry ground. As they reach the other side, the waters come back down and drown the Egyptians who had gone in after the Israelites.

Now, after all of this, the Israelites begin their travels through the wilderness. Remember, though, that these are people who have never been in the wilderness before. They have been born slaves, grown up as slaves, and until recently, had expected to die as slaves. Freedom is a new experience for them, and living in the wilderness is also a new experience for them. Trust in this God who miraculously brought them out of Egypt is also a new experience, and that trust is very fragile at this point. And one day they discover that they have no food, and they don’t know where to get food in the wilderness. So they complain. It’s easy to condemn the Israelites for not trusting in God, but which one of us, given the same circumstances, would not complain? When we human beings find ourselves in a tough situation, our natural response is to think about when times were supposedly better and wish ourselves back there.

But the thing is, the times that we remember as being better are not always as rosy as we think they are. The freed Israelites remember that, when they were slaves in Egypt, they could eat their fill of bread. They remember with longing how easy it was to fill their stomachs, but they seem to forget the long days of work with no pay; the command from Pharaoh to first find the straw they needed to make bricks but to make the same amount of bricks in one day as they had when the straw was given to them; and of course, the command to kill all of their baby boys. No, they only remember the thing that they immediately don’t have in the here and now: food.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. I’ve only been a pastor for about five years, but I was brought up in the church and have been around the church for all of my adult life. And the churches today are full of nostalgia. They say, and perhaps you have said this, too: “Oh, if only we were still living in the 1950s and the 1960s, when everybody went to church and our Sunday school rooms were full. But God, you have brought us into this wilderness where our churches have declined, we are getting older, we have no idea where our young people went, and we don’t know what to do!” Does this sound familiar? Like the Israelites, newly freed from Egypt, we as a church have been wandering in a wilderness that we feel we are not equipped for. The church has been trying to be church in the only way we know how, and we are befuddled when those tried and true methods are no longer working. And the only thing we can figure to do is complain to God about it.

But our God is a gracious God. In spite of their complaining, God provides manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The word that is rendered “manna” in our English translations comes from the Hebrew phrase “man hu” which means, “What is it?” This bread from heaven that God rains down on the Israelites is not something that they have ever seen before, so they name it a “whatchamacallit”. And Moses tells them that it is bread for them to eat, and they are only to gather enough of what they need for their families. They discover that, if they take too much and hoard it, the bread goes bad. In this way, God is teaching the people that they are to depend on God and trust in God for their daily food, and to trust that what God gives them is enough.

Today, God continues to give us what we need to survive in this seeming wilderness that we find ourselves in. And the first and foremost thing that God gives us is Jesus. In our very short one line from the Gospel of John today, we hear Jesus reinterpreting this story of manna in Exodus by saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Every time we receive communion, we are reminded that Jesus is present in the bread and the wine, and God gives us enough of Jesus to sustain us as we go about the work that God has called us to do. The body and blood of Jesus, in, with, and under the bread and the wine, brings us into relationship with Jesus and into relationship with one another. It reminds us that in everything we do in this world, Jesus is with us. And it reminds us that no matter how much the world changes, Jesus is still with us.

Having received Jesus in Holy Communion, and knowing that he is with us, we have been freed from fear, and we are free to go into the world as it has become, using the gifts which God has given us. Those gifts may not always be apparent to us, and, when we look around and ask ourselves what gifts God has given us to reach out to the world, we may lift something up and say, “What is it?” As an example, the intern over at Trinity-Steelton has the gift of martial arts. He lifted it up to the light and said, “What is it?” And another person said, “How about this—wrestling church!” And he now has a group of kids who are coming and learning about a principle demonstrated in a Bible story, and being put into practice as they learn to wrestle. We see various gifts among our different congregations being lifted up and used as we come together as the four churches of Steelton-Oberlin-Highspire to minister in our communities: the gift of music as we prepare for a couple of musical events; the gift of hospitality as we open our buildings to children’s programs and to homeless families; and so many more gifts that God has not yet revealed to us. God has given us what we need as we journey through this wilderness.

I talked to the kids in the children’s message today about what we want versus what we need. And I want to put this thought out there: we want hordes of kids in the Sunday school rooms again and we want to see our church buildings full on Sunday mornings. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not what we need. Because when we had those things that we wanted, we became complacent. We didn’t have to put forth a lot of effort to tell others about Jesus or even to care for others in our congregation, because we figured that things would always be the same and people would come regardless of what we did and said, because people always came to church. And maybe God looked and saw that all of these crowds of people were not good for deepening our faith. And perhaps God has sent us out into this wilderness because being in the wilderness is truly what we need to become creative, to start truly caring for those on the outside and those on the margins, to think about our faith, and to bring in those who are truly lost. Now I’m phrasing these ideas with “perhaps,” and “maybe,” because I don’t claim to know the mind of God. But it certainly seems like these ideas are fitting what’s going on in the world today.

One of the many musical artists that I grew up listening to in my family was Billy Joel. In the song, “Keeping the Faith,” he sings, “You can get just so much/From a good thing/You can linger too long/In your dreams/Say goodbye to the/Oldies but goodies/Cause the good ole days weren’t/Always good/And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” The Israelites learned this lesson as they spent forty years wandering through the wilderness. They learned that what God had in store for them was much better than anything they might have had in Egypt. And they learned that God would provide for them on their journey. We, too, as a church in 21st century North America, are learning that lesson. The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow is not as bad as it seems. What God has in store for us is, while very different from what we’ve been used to, better than anything we might remember from when we grew up. And we can trust in God to give us what we need—not what we want, but what we need—for the journey through the wilderness. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary, Week 4

Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17

This week, we’ve made quite the jump in the story of the Bible. We’ve gone from Jacob having a dream on his journey back to the old country all the way to God revealing God’s name to Moses. There’s quite a lot that’s happened in between Jacob and Moses, so I’m going to try and summarize the highlights of the story. After Jacob left the place of his dream, he arrived back in the old country and found his mother’s brother, a man by the name of Laban, and Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel. Jacob stayed with them for many years, married both Leah and Rachel, and took his wives’ maidservants as concubines. He ends up having twelve sons and a daughter, and decides that it’s time to head back home to confront his brother Esau. On the way home, Jacob has another encounter with God on the banks of the Jabbok River, and he wrestles with God and gets a new name, Israel, which means “the one who strives with God”. The next day, Jacob is reconciled with his brother Esau, and he and his family settle down in his home country. The next major part of the story comes with the story of Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, who you may remember from Sunday school as the guy with the coat of many colors, or, if you’ve seen the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,”—yes, that’s the same story. Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, then, through a series of misadventures, Joseph interprets the dreams that Pharaoh is having correctly, and Pharaoh raises Joseph to be his right-hand man. Joseph works on storing surplus grain in the years of Egypt’s plenty so that there is food when the famine comes. And when the famine comes, it hits not only Egypt but also Palestine, where Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his brothers live. Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to get grain, and since his brothers don’t recognize him, Joseph tests them to see if they’ve changed. Joseph eventually reveals himself to his family, who thought that all these years he had been dead, and Joseph’s family comes and settles in Egypt. That’s where the book of Genesis ends.

The book of Exodus opens after many generations have gone by. Jacob and Joseph and all the family are long since dead, but their descendants have done well in Egypt and multiplied. And then a new king comes to power, one who does not know the stories of Joseph and his descendants. He looks at the Israelites, is afraid of their numbers and is afraid that they might join Egypt’s enemies and fight against them, and he decides to enslave the Israelites. He then commands the Hebrew midwives that, when a boy is born to an Israelite woman, they are to kill him, but to let the girls live. But the midwives disobey him, and Pharaoh then commands all his people to throw the Israelite boys into the river. There is one Israelite woman who is very clever, however, and she puts her boy in a basket in the river. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby in the basket, draws it out, and names the child Moses. Moses is then raised in the royal household, but still retains a connection to his people, who are enslaved. After he grows up, Moses kills an Egyptian task master who was beating an Israelite, and when this is discovered, Moses flees. He ends up with a group of Midianites and marries one of them named Zipporah. This is where Moses is when our story starts today.

Our story opens with God hearing the cries of God’s people who are enslaved in Egypt. I want to spend just a moment on this beginning paragraph. “Out of their slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning . . . God took notice of them.” This is important for us to pay attention to. God heard the pain and the groaning of the Israelites. But, God did not wave a magic wand and spirit the people out of Egypt. No, God already has in mind what is going to happen: God is going to work through a person that God will choose to free the Israelites from slavery. Remember that, because it’s important to the next part of the story.

God chooses Moses. Here is this guy who has fled Pharaoh’s justice because he killed one of the Egyptian slave masters. He has left Egypt behind and he has settled in Midian. Moses has a wife and a son, and he has settled into a new life being a shepherd. And one day he is out with the sheep when suddenly, God appears to him in a bush that is somehow on fire, but that is not being consumed by the flames. This would be strange for us even today. And then to make it even stranger, God speaks to Moses and tells him that he is the one who God will work with to free the Israelites from slavery and to bring them up out of Egypt and back to the land that God has promised them.

And Moses immediately says, “OK, God, you know, I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time. Now you’ve commanded it and I’m ready to go.” Well, not quite. Moses doesn’t want to do this. Perhaps he’s just completely overwhelmed by the idea of standing in front of Pharaoh and saying, “You know what? Slavery’s not cool. Why don’t you go ahead and let the Israelites go?” So, he starts making excuses. “God, what makes me so special that I should be the one to do this?” “Well, God, who are you, anyway?” “God, no one is going to believe me. I mean, really, you just show up in a burning bush and tell me to go free the slaves? Yeah, who’s gonna buy that one?” “God, I really can’t talk all that good. No one’s going to listen to me anyway. You’d better send someone else to do this.”

As I meditate on these excuses Moses offers up to God, I realize that these are the same excuses we give God today when God calls us to do something. If God were to say, “Go on a mission trip to Haiti and minister with the people there,” we might say, “Why us? Why are we so special? That person over there has been to Haiti before, why don’t you ask her?” Or, if God were to tell us to go speak to our neighbors in Oberlin/Steelton about Jesus, we might say, “We don’t know enough about the story, God. What if they ask us a question we can’t answer? You should really send our pastor instead.” If God were to call us to speak God’s words to an elected official who is not doing what he should, we might say, “Yeah, right, God, like he’s really going to believe me when I tell him that you spoke to me.” Or, finally, if God tells you to preach a sermon or to teach a Bible study, you might say, “I really don’t speak that well, God. Please send someone else.” The excuses that Moses made once upon a time are still the excuses that we give when God calls us to do something.

But God does not take no for an answer. Author Madeleine L’Engle, in her book, And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings, writes, “When God asks us to do something, [God] expects us to do it, whether we think we can do it or not.” God did not let go of Moses, and God does not let go of us, either. God answers all of Moses’ objections with continued promises that Moses will not be alone, but that God will go with him. Even when Moses begs God to send someone else and God gets angry with Moses, God gives Moses help in the form of his brother, Aaron. God does not let Moses go, and God will not let us go, either. It doesn’t matter how old we are: God calls the old and the young alike. Exodus tells us in chapter 7 that Moses was eighty years old when he went before Pharaoh to tell him to let God’s people go. If Moses was able to do that at eighty years old, then we cannot use the excuse of age when God calls us to do something!

When God calls us, God does not let us wiggle out of that call. But God promises that whatever it is we have been called to do, we will not be alone. God is with us in the present, and God has already gone ahead of us to be with us in the future. And that, I believe, is part of God’s mysterious name that is revealed to Moses in this story. Our translation of the Bible has God saying, “I am who I am.” This is an approximation of what the Hebrew word YHWH means. It can also mean “I am what I am,” or “I will be what I will be.” The name of God is so sacred in the Jewish tradition that it is not spoken aloud for fear that even speaking the name will be misusing it. But it is also a comfort to us. God will be what God will be; God will live up to that divine name; God will be faithful to what Moses needs as he goes to confront Pharaoh, and God will be faithful to what we need as we fulfill the call that God has placed upon our lives.

So, no excuses. God called Moses to do a seemingly impossible task, and God stayed with Moses and worked through him until God’s purposes were accomplished. God is calling us here to a task that might seem impossible: to renew and to reach out to the communities around us in Oberlin and Steelton with God’s love. Just as God did not let go of Moses, God will not let go of us. When God asks us to do something, God expects us to do it. But God goes with us. God is present with us, and God goes ahead of us to the places God calls us, and waits to encounter us there in new ways. What do we have to be afraid of when we know that God is with us? Let us therefore leave all of our excuses behind and be open to the ways that God calls us and God works through us. Amen.