A Dependable Foundation

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, October 30, 2012. The liturgy featured the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles, transferred from October 28.

Readings

Deuteronomy 32:1–4
Psalm 119:89–96
Ephesians 2:13–22
John 15:17–27

Homily

Saints Simon and Jude appear in the gospels in the lists of Jesus’s disciples. Sometimes Simon is called Simon the Less or Simon the Canaanæan or Simon the Zealot. This helps us to remember he is not Simon Peter. Jude appears sometimes as Judas not Iscariot or Judas of James or Thaddæus so that Christians will know he is not Judas who betrayed Jesus.

That’s really all we know about these two apostles, their names and that they labored to lay the foundations of the Church. The foundations of a house, when it is ready for habitation, are hidden behind the interior finish and the earth graded back into place around the house. A solid foundation gets no attention; no one who visits our home ever remarks, “What solid footers; what sturdy basement walls.”

This is a good reminder for us as we celebrate the work of Saints Simon and Jude, because their unheralded labors to spread the Good News rest dependably and invisibly beneath us as the footings upon which our lives of faith stand solid.

In the reading from Ephesians, we heard, “… you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19b–20, NRSV). That is a powerful and encouraging word of promise.

It might seem some days—or maybe even most of them—as if our lives are shaky and precarious. Perhaps violent storms threaten to blow off or wash away all we own, while we watch impotently. A devastating diagnosis comes and casts into grave doubt the health we just assumed was ours. The phone does not ring, the letter does not come, and the days turn to weeks and to years since we heard last from a loved one, making the gift of family feel hollow. Controversies arise in the community of the church and division splits the family of God, leading us to wonder what has become of the unity we thought we shared.

These challenges test both us and our faith, but beneath us—always—sits “… the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

“My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” a beloved hymn, written by Edward Mote in the 1800s, offers us a reminder of Christ’s utter dependability:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’s blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’s name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Come, let us prepare for the feast of Christ’s body and blood, the solid Rock, the foundation of our faith, passed on to us by the apostles. Amen.

What One Sentence?

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, October 25, 2011. This is Tuesday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time. The Feast of Saints Simon and Jude was transferred from October 28 for this mid-week Eucharist.

Readings

Deuteronomy 32:1–4
Psalm 119:89–96
John 14:21–27

Homily

This Friday is the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude. Jesus chose them to be his apostles. And that’s really all we know about them. Beyond that, Tradition tells us that they preached the Gospel in Mesopotamia and Persia—present-day Iraq. Their shared ministry eventually led to their martyrdom in that land on the same day.

It’s helpful to be reminded by these apostles what most lives of service look like. Few of us can expect to be remembered for the details of our discipleship. We’re not Peters or Pauls. Instead, we are much more like Simons and Judes.
Jesus Christ has called us, like Simon and Jude, to be his disciples. He gives us faith in him, leads us to praise his Father, and empowers us by their Holy Spirit to witness and to serve.

One time my wife, Anne, and I were visiting with one of her cousins who had become the family genealogist. As she was flipping through these large binders of family history, she would stop on a page, point at a picture, and say one sentence about that person’s life. I don’t remember what she said, but each sentence was something like this: Harry lived in a white-frame house and collected old phonograph records.
What has stuck with me ever since that day is a haunting question: What one sentence will some future family genealogist use to describe my life? What sentence would you write to describe your life? Simon and Jude were called by Jesus to be his disciples and apostles. It’s only one sentence, but it really does say all that we need to know about them.

The First Reading appointed for today from Deuteronomy contains a verse that captures the voice of the faithful—the people of Israel, Simon and Jude and the other apostles, along with the great crowd of unnamed disciples who have labored for the Lord over the centuries. It’s a thought we can hold in our hearts and speak with our lips. It’s only one sentence, but it says all that we to say about our lives of faith:

For I will proclaim the name of the LORD;
ascribe greatness to our God
(Deuteronomy 32:3, New Revised Standard Version). Amen.

The First of the Fruit

Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., celebrated our nation’s Day of Thanksgiving on Wednesday evening, November 24, 2010.

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Readings

Deuteronomy 26:1–11
Psalm 100
Philippians 4:4–9
John 6:25–35

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Prayer

We come to you, Holy God, and give to you what you have first given us: our lives, our talents, and the abundance of your creation. Help us by your Spirit’s guidance, to live with gratitude for your generosity and commitment to sharing your blessings with others; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Message

Thanksgiving is an odd national holiday.
It doesn’t have the same civic and patriotic flavor
of our other days of celebration:
Independence Day and Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.

We don’t much talk about it anymore,
but there’s something deep in the bones
of Thanksgiving that aspires to reach out,
to reach up, to turn our gaze to God.

If even we get to the point of saying that,
we don’t really, as a people,
find much agreement on what we mean by “God.”
Our money says, “In God We Trust,”
but which God we mean by that is an open and unsettled question.

And yet, if we dig down into the rich soil of our history,
we can uncover the roots of Thanksgiving.
And here is what we find.

Throughout our nation’s history,
people celebrated days of Thanksgiving.
We all remember learning about the Pilgrims
and their feasting with the Abnaki Indians
in 1621 to celebrate surviving cruel winter weather
and living to gather a bountiful harvest.

Communities and colonies and then states
held similar observances over the years.
But it wasn’t until the dark days in the midst of the Civil War
that our nation—at least the Union part—
observed a national Day of Thanksgiving.

In his proclamation of October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln noted,

The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed
that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added,
which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

He then went on at some length to describe the ravages of war
and the richness of the country’s wealth, despite that war.
Then the proclamation concluded:

They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

President Lincoln defines the holiday
as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise
to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

It’s a blessing to be reminded that Thanksgiving
is a day for giving thanks
and for giving that thanks to God our Father,
the One who has given us all good things in the first place.

So, underneath the trappings of football and parades,
tables laden with traditional foods,
newspapers thick with Black Friday advertisements,
there hides this simple idea
that for one day each year,
we set apart a time as a nation, a people, to give God thanks.

It’s not a new idea.
In Deuteronomy, we hear the instruction,
“you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground”
and bring it to the house of worship
and give it to the LORD our God. (Deuteronomy 26:2, NRSV)

And when we give that “first of all the fruit,”
we tell God the story of how he has blessed our lives.

LORD God,
you have watched over us and guided us
this last year and a half in our search for a pastor.
You have led Pastor Linda Walz to us.
You have blessed us with the possibilities
that come with new beginnings.

In the meantime, you have raised up
so many individuals in this congregation
who have used the talents you have given them
to serve your mission and to show your love to others.

You have comforted us in times of loss.
So many have died,
and we have commended them to your care
and we have asked you to receive them into your blessed rest
and to console us while we mourn their absence from our lives.

Some of us have seen dark days this past year.
We have lost jobs, known pain in our families,
felt betrayed by the institutions we had grown to trust,
wandered about in confusion about our callings as disciples.
In the midst of this turmoil,
you have been our rock and our fortress.

With prayer of thanksgiving like these,
we offer our gratitude to God Almighty.

And then, with the people of Israel,
we follow the instructions in Deuteronomy:
“You shall set [your gifts] down before the LORD your God
and bow down before the LORD your God.
Then you, together with the Levites
and the aliens who reside among you,
shall celebrate with all the bounty
that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”
(Deuteronomy 26:11, NRSV)

This whole passage lays out worship
that contains old and familiar parts:
Offerings, Prayers, and a Meal.
It’s what we do each Sunday
and what we will do together in a few minutes.

So, while our nation celebrates its Day of Thanksgiving,
we, as Christians, observe our Thanksgiving
each and every time we come together
to hear the Word of God,
to offer him praises and prayers,
to place our gifts before him upon his altar,
and to join him at his Table in the Meal.

And if we think about it that way,
if we look at all that we have as a blessing from God,
and if we look at all that we give to him
as our act of returning the first of the fruit,
and if we look at the Eucharist
as the meal of celebration and thanksgiving,
then things look and sound a little different.

Let’s listen, one more time,
to St. Paul’s little declaration from his letter
to the Christians at Philippi.

He writes,
“Rejoice in the Lord always;
again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The LORD is near.
Do not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your request be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 4:4–7, NRSV) Amen.

Message

Love and Obedience

Introduction

This is a wedding homily I preached for a couple in, Beatrice, Neb., on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010.

Readings

Deuteronomy 28:1–2
1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13

Message

In “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon sang,
“Life is just what happens to you
while you’re busy making other plans.”
When we stop to think about all the twists and turns
that have brought us together here today
to celebrate your marriage, Beatrice and John,
we could fill a book.
It would tell the story of the lives that have happened to us,
the plans that we made in hope
and then have set aside
when reality came knocking on our doors.

John was a great musician,
but he was not much of a man of faith.
And so he really missed out on something we all share.
Life has happened to us—
both the joyful and the painful—
but underneath all of our lives
we find the strong and compassionate arms of God.

He watches over us and cares for us.
He knows when we are filled with joy
and when we are weighed down by grief.
He is patient with us when we stray from him,
and he is relentless in finding ways
to draw us back, closer to him.

And so we could change what John wrote,
and we could sing instead,
“God is who watches over us
while we’re busy making other plans.”

That’s true and it’s a comfort,
but there’s more to our faith than that.
God not only watches over us and cares for us,
he desires for us to love and to follow him
and to love and to care for one another.

He blesses us with the gifts to do just that.
In today’s world, in our common culture,
we don’t much like the word “obedience.”
We don’t want anyone telling us what to do.
But obedience to God is not a burden;
it’s a privilege and a joy.

That’s what lies behind
that passage from Deuteronomy we just heard.
Obedience and blessing go hand-in-hand.
God gives us the faith to trust him.
And when we trust, we naturally love and obey him.
And when we obey him, he pours out his blessings upon us.

That’s one half of what Jesus tells us
lies at the center of living by faith.
He says we ought to love God with all that is in us
and love our neighbors as ourselves.

The other half is what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians.
This is the love we share with others,
most especially with our spouses.
In marriage God blesses us with a partner
and he calls us to give ourselves in love.

And together, John and Beatrice,
you share a love given to you by God,
one that “bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7, NRSV)

And that is enough,
enough to celebrate this day,
enough to sustain you each and every day,
so that you may abide confidently, obediently,
in the “faith, hope, and love” of God our heavenly Father. Amen.

The Two Ways

This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 5, 2010.

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Readings

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1–21
Luke 14:25–33

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Prayer

Each day, gracious Father, we face the choice between life and death. Stir up in us the gift of your Holy Spirit, so that we may choose the way Your Son bids us to follow. Amen.

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Message

A great American philosopher
and retired catcher for the New York Yankees
receives credit for advising us,
“When you come to the fork in the road, take it.”

Yogi Berra may know baseball—
he owns ten World Series rings as a player
and three as a coach—
but his pithy and humorous comment
underestimates the profound consequences
that flow from the choices we face and must make
as we wind our way through life.

Another famous American, poet laureate Robert Frost,
wrote a well-known and beloved poem
called The Road Not Taken.
He gets much closer to the truth
beneath the consequences of our choosing
between two paths for our lives.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (from Mountain Interval, 1920)

Frost’s choice is real.
He chooses the road less traveled
and his decision makes all the difference,
not just a little difference or some noticeable difference.

The choices we face in our lives as people of God confront us
with decisions that do make all the difference.
Left on our own, we could be paralyzed by this reality.

But we are not on our own.
We live as members of a community of faith,
both this congregation and the whole Church.
We are heirs of a great Tradition
stretching back to the apostles
and even further, to the prophet and the patriarchs,
to the very beginnings of God’s people.

And so, it helps us to listen to the wisdom of our ancestors,
to ponder their history,
and to reflect on their choices as guides for making our own.

Our first reading lets us listen in
as Moses exhorts the people of Israel
to consider the fork in their road,
the choice they face as they stand
upon the borders of the promised land.

Will they throw in their lot
with the God of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
the LORD who brought them out of exile in Egypt?
Or, will they turn away from him?
The hard truth is that it really doesn’t matter what they might choose
if they choose anything other than obedience to God.

That’s why Moses speaks of a stark choice—
two ways, two paths, two destinies:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity,
death and adversity.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God
that I am commanding you today,
by loving the LORD your God,
[and] walking in his ways…
then … the LORD your God will bless you….
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear,
but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,
I declare to you today that you shall perish…. (Deuteronomy 30:15–18a, NRSV)

Nothing is more clear than the distinction between life and death.
And it is just as clear that serving the LORD our God is the way of life,
and choosing to serve any other god, any other master, leads to death.

Our Psalm echoes the same truth:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the LORD…,
for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:1–2,6, NRSV)

So, this is the wisdom of our ancestors,
this is the testimony of God’s people,
this is what our LORD has spoken through the prophets.
How do we embrace this message in our lives each day?

The first helpful insight is to spend time with the LORD our God.
He has promised to meet us in worship,
to come to us in Word and Sacrament.
He promises to inspire and to guide us
when we read and reflect upon the Scriptures,
when we come into his presence in prayer.

He reminds us of his grace and mercy
through the acts of charity that others in the Church
carry out in his name.

So, when we want him to know we call him our LORD and God,
we want to be sure we meet him where he promises to meet us
and we want to immerse ourselves in the community
he creates and calls together.

Through all of these influences and sources and people,
our Father works through his Holy Spirit
to mold us and to shape us—more and more—
to live obediently to his will,
to serve faithfully in his name,
to glorify his Son, Jesus Christ, in all we do.

And so, when face the forks in the road,
the choices between the two ways,
we can ask, “Does this path lead me to the God of Israel and the Church?
Does this choice bring him glory?
Does it free me from serving other gods?
Does it set me along the path blazed by our Lord Jesus Christ?”

This means that our lives fill up with questions,
and so we can ask ourselves:

Do the entries in my checkbook testify that God is my LORD?
Are the activities filling my calendar a witness to Jesus Christ?
Do my words let others know of the love of our LORD?
Do my decisions contribute to the coming of his kingdom?
Does my life show others that I serve the LORD God alone?
Is it clear to people who spend time with me
that I worship and serve God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

These are the questions we ask ourselves.
They remind us of the choices we face between the ways set out before us.
And when we choose to follow the God who has come to us
and given us life, blessed us with hope, and loved us beyond death,
then we can rest in the assurance of his promises.
We can trust that what the psalmist sang of those who delight in the law of the LORD
will be true of us as well:

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. Amen (Psalm 1:3, NRSV)

Law and Love

This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 11, 2010.

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Readings

Deuteronomy 30:9–14
Psalm 25:1–10 (antiphon v. 4)
Colossians 1:1–14
Luke 10:25–37

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Prayer

Gracious Father, pour out upon us the Holy Spirit, that we may keep your Law in our hearts and minds and actions, showing your Love to you and to all people, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Message

Listen to a few little pictures in words,
and pick one that speaks to you.

You have some sandpaper in your hand
and you rub it back and forth
over the curves of a piece of pine
you have shaped into a toy for your grandchild.
To give the wood a smooth finish and feel,
you need to use sandpaper with a fine grit
and only take away a little wood at a time.

It’s a hot and humid morning,
but even so your family would enjoy
some homemade pancakes from your scratch recipe.
You don’t have the quantities written down,
but as you mix the flour and milk,
the eggs and butter and baking powder,
you make little adjustments in proportions
so that the batter flows just right,
not too thick or too thin.

Your favorite knife is a little dull,
so you pick up the sharpening stone
and the oil and get to work.
The best edge comes with patient honing,
using even, rhythmic motions,
gradually working away the tiny flaws in the blade.

You love your dog and you enjoy the walks
in the cool of the morning
almost as much as your best friend enjoys the smells
only it can find in the tall and dewy grass.
When you get home, you turn on the outdoor faucet
and run the hose gently over those gritty paws.
Today, your dog seems to know what’s coming,
and for the first time lifts a paw for you to wash.

I hope one of these pictures speaks to you.
But whichever one you might pick,
look for the little common thread
winding through that illustration
and entwining itself with the threads
coming from the other pictures.

They all have something in common.
It’s a simple thing, almost invisible.
But it’s there and we know it,
even though we may not be aware of what we know.

The changes that matter,
that make our days better,
are often the ones that build up slowly, over time.
They can begin like a whisper in the dark,
like small drops of rain kicking up dust on dry ground.

But then, as time passes,
the small changes accumulate,
they grow like whispers rising into conversations,
like raindrops falling and forming into puddles.

This is the kind of change that God often works
—imperceptibly, invisibly, incrementally—
through almost ignorable little actions in our lives.

But just as we gently rub on wood to make it smooth,
and subtly tweak a recipe to make fluffy pancakes,
and carefully hone a blade to make it sharp,
and gradually train a dog to make it obedient,
God trains and hones and tweaks and rubs us
with his Law, his Word.
That’s how he makes our will match his will.

This is not to say that God can never work drastic changes in our lives.
Sometimes he does,
and we encounter changes both sudden and sharp,
like flipping a switch to bring light into a dark room.

That’s what Jesus did when he called fishermen
who dropped their nets, left their boats, and followed him.
That’s what the risen Christ did
when he struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus
and blessed him with the calling
to serve as Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.

And maybe God has worked a sudden change in your life.
Perhaps you treasure a moment in your memory
when God touched you with his power,
and your life divides neatly into “before” and “after.”
That is a great gift,
one for which to give God thanks and praise.

But for many of us,
and for most us much of the time,
God works almost secretly in those small ways,
where we are like wood and batter,
blade and dog,
and he makes us attentive and sharp,
fluid and smooth
through the quiet and irresistible power of his Law.

This is the only way we can grow into our calling
to live as God’s people,
to serve him with joy,
to touch others with his love,
to give ourselves up for his glory.

And so, when we overhear the lawyer and Jesus
in conversation about love and the Law,
we shouldn’t feel confused by what they say.
It’s really true that for us to live as God intends
and for us to love others selflessly,
we must keep the Law.
That’s why Jesus agreed when the lawyer said,
“You shall love the Lord your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength,
and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, NRSV)

Our Lord doesn’t mean for us to be confused or overwhelmed
by his desire for us to live and love by the Law.
But we can easily feel that way.
How can we find the strength, the resolve,
to go all in and to love God without limits and conditions,
with our whole mind and strength and soul and heart?

Jesus knows that we wonder about this,
that we fear what will happen if we live totally for God.
He knows we have those feelings,
just as the lawyer did when he tried to put limits on the Law,
on God’s calling for all people to love him and neighbor alike.

That is why the lawyer asked,
“And who is my neighbor?”
Because it we can define neighbor a litle more narrowly,
leaving out some people out there on the fringes,
then we can contain the calling of God’s Law,
we can build in some safeguards, put some limits,
manage our expectations and responsibilities.

God wants us to love him and to love others just the same,
but if there are reasonable limits on who those others might be,
then the demands of loving and living by the Law
only go so far and then they stop,
leaving a little energy and life just for us.

And so Jesus tells that familiar story
of the Samaritan and the man beaten by thieves,
who watched through his pain
as religious people passed him by twice.
They were the ones who knew
what were the reasonable limits when asking, “Who is my neighbor?”

But the story paints a vivid picture of neighborhood as God sees it.
Even two strangers—
one a man, presumably and Israelite,
and one a Samaritan despised by the people of Israel—
are neighbors in the eyes of God.

And to be a neighbor,
to show love without reserve,
to live by the Law,
to give God our whole lives without holding anything back,
does not require us to make great and grand gestures,
to take dramatic and earthshattering actions.

It’s the small things:
to be moved by pity;
to bandage another’s wounds;
to give someone a ride;
to take care of a stranger;
to give some money;
to make good arrangements;
and to meet the needs that arise.

It’s the simple acts of service:
to comfort someone who grieves;
to share your food with someone who is hungry;
to make peace with your adversary;
to pull up your pride by the roots and plant humility;
to squash your prejudice and disdain for others;
to seek out times for acts of kindness;
to respect each person as brother, as sister.

These are the simple, small acts
that work together to fulfill the Law,
to fill our lives with love for others and God,
to help us submit to his will.

Through these everyday tasks,
God trains and hones and tweaks and rubs us,
conforming us to his will,
so that in his good time,
we will rise refreshed at the dawn of his bright and glorious day,
greeting one another as neighbors who live by the Law.
On that day, we will love God our Father
with everything that is in us,
with heart and soul and strength and mind.
And we will love one another as brothers and sisters
of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pastor’s Pen: Like a Downpour…

Introduction

One of the opportunities I have as the interim pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., is to prepare a short column for a feature called “The Pastor’s Pen.” This installment appeared in the Beatrice Daily Sun on Thursday, July 8, 2010.

Scripture

“May my instruction soak in like the rain,
and my discourse permeate like the dew,
Like a downpour upon the grass,
like a shower upon the crops ….” (Deuteronomy 32:2, NAB)

Meditation

Maybe you can date yourself by remembering whose voice you hear in your mind’s ear when you recall the lyrics to “Rhythm of the Rain.” When you sing to yourself, “Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain / Telling me just what a fool I’ve been,” do you hear the Cascades from 1962 or Jacky Ward from 1978 or Dan Fogelberg from 1990? But no matter whose voice you hear, which era’s singer you recall, it’s easy to imagine listening to that rhythm as the rain falls, especially with the weather we’ve had the past several months.

For some of us, rain, at worst, inconveniences us. A passing shower means getting wet going from car to office. Sometimes the rains might mean the cookout gets moved to the garage. For others, though, the rain and the hail and the wind have poured out heartbreaking damage upon crops and brought challenging loss of livelihood. So it’s natural to want the rain to come conveniently, in just the right quantities in the right places at the right times. But listen! The falling rain tells us we are foolish to think we can control its coming and going.

Rain also speaks other messages and gives us other reminders. The Scriptures are full to the brim with references to rain and to water. That’s not surprising, given the arid climate of the lands where God’s people lived in the times recorded in the Bible. Look at one verse from Deuteronomy, which comes from a passage known as the Song of Moses. In this section, the leader who brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the promised land, sings a song that is really a poetic sermon. He begins by asking God to make his words flow into the people’s lives like rain and dew, downpour and shower. He sings a kind of prayer asking God to drench his people, to soak them to the skin with the divine Word.

This is an image of blessing and abundant grace. God sends the showers of his instruction upon his people. He pours out his will upon them as inescapably as he sends the rains. As Christians, when we hear Moses’ words, we cannot help but be reminded of the waters of Holy Baptism. With this holy and life-giving water, God cleanses and renews us so that his instruction soaks into us like the rain.

So when the next storm blows in from the west and the next downpour falls upon us from the sky, the rains can remind us to give God thanks for his blessings and to wash our ears of faith so we may hear his instruction. In these ways, God refreshes us to live for his purposes. He permeates our lives like dew upon the ground, so that we may recall his blessings and give him thanks in all things.

Pastor’s Pen: Like a Downpour…

Introduction

One of the opportunities I have as the interim pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., is to prepare a short column for a feature called “The Pastor’s Pen.” This installment comes from the Beatrice Daily Sun on Thursday, July 8, 2010.

Scripture

“May my instruction soak in like the rain,
and my discourse permeate like the dew,
Like a downpour upon the grass,
like a shower upon the crops ….” (Deuteronomy 32:2, NAB)

Meditation

Maybe you can date yourself by remembering whose voice you hear in your mind’s ear when you recall the lyrics to “Rhythm of the Rain.” When you sing to yourself, “Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain / Telling me just what a fool I’ve been,” do you hear the Cascades from 1962 or Jacky Ward from 1978 or Dan Fogelberg from 1990? But no matter whose voice you hear, which era’s singer you recall, it’s easy to imagine listening to that rhythm as the rain falls, especially with the weather we’ve had the past several months.

For some of us, rain, at worst, inconveniences us. A passing shower means getting wet going from car to office. Sometimes the rains might mean the cookout gets moved to the garage. For others, though, the rain and the hail and the wind have poured out heartbreaking damage upon crops and brought challenging loss of livelihood. So it’s natural to want the rain to come conveniently, in just the right quantities in the right places at the right times. But listen! The falling rain tells us we are foolish to think we can control its coming and going.

Rain also speaks other messages and gives us other reminders. The Scriptures are full to the brim with references to rain and to water. That’s not surprising, given the arid climate of the lands where God’s people lived in the times recorded in the Bible. Look at one verse from Deuteronomy, which comes from a passage known as the Song of Moses. In this section, the leader who brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the promised land, sings a song that is really a poetic sermon. He begins by asking God to make his words flow into the people’s lives like rain and dew, downpour and shower. He sings a kind of prayer asking God to drench his people, to soak them to the skin with the divine Word.

This is an image of blessing and abundant grace. God sends the showers of his instruction upon his people. He pours out his will upon them as inescapably as he sends the rains. As Christians, when we hear Moses’ words, we cannot help but be reminded of the waters of Holy Baptism. With this holy and life-giving water, God cleanses and renews us so that his instruction soaks into us like the rain.

So when the next storm blows in from the west and the next downpour falls upon us from the sky, the rains can remind us to give God thanks for his blessings and to wash our ears of faith so we may hear his instruction. In these ways, God refreshes us to live for his purposes. He permeates our lives like dew upon the ground, so that we may recall his blessings and give him thanks in all things.

Sustenance in the Wilderness

This is the sermon I preached at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 20–21, 2010, for the First Sunday in Lent.

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Readings

Deuteronomy 26:1–11
Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16 (antiphon v. 11)
Romans 10:8b–13
Luke 4:1–13

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Prayer

You call us to return to you, Lord God, and to leave behind all that keeps us from giving ourselves fully to serve you. Reach out to us with your Word, so that we may turn to face you and to give you glory; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Message

One of the milestones
in my time as a Boy Scout
was a weekend my Dad and I spent together
at Camp Bashore.

We had both been tapped out
to undergo the Order of the Arrow Ordeal.
It was an honor to be selected
for membership in this organization
that recognized leaders
and promoted the ideals of scouting.

The weather was favorable the weekend
we went to the camp.
No rain fell, although we did feel the brunt
of Pennsylvania’s renowned triple-H weather:
Hazy, hot, and humid.

We slept in a tent
and spent the weekend
working on service projects
to improve the camp.

Part of the ordeal was to be silent.
Another part—basically—was to go without food.
For breakfast on Saturday, we were each given a raw egg
and a paper drinking cup.

If we built a fire,
we could boil the egg
in the water-filled cup.

It actually does work.
The water keeps the cup below its burning point,
so while the rim does char a bit,
the egg will boil in the water inside the cup.

The problem for me
is that, to this day,
I only eat eggs either scrambled or in omelets.
I just can’t stomach hardboiled eggs.

I remember being really hungry that day
and finding some wild strawberries
growing in a meadow.

We worked hard all day Saturday
and had a light meal Saturday night,
so our fasting really only lasted one day.

That’s a long ways away
from Jesus’ forty-day sojourn in the wilderness,
his fasting and his temptation by the devil.

But even so,
if you can recall a time in your life—
even if only for some hours or days—
when you sojourned in a mental, emotional, or physical wilderness,
when you were cut off from others,
when you went without sustenance and support,
when you were left alone, in silence,
with only your thoughts and fears,
with just your prayers to God,
then you can appreciate the ordeal
that Jesus underwent in the wilderness
in those weeks between his Baptism and his ministry.

This is a bond we share with him,
just as he does with us.
This is part of the wonder of the gift
that Jesus, the Son of God,
is fully human, just as he is fully divine.

We can be reassured by knowing
that he knows what we face
when we endure times in the wilderness,
when we are tempted,
when we must undergo the ordeals that come to us.

That’s why the writer of Hebrews reminds us:

“For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who in every respect
has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, NRSV)

That means that when the devil comes to us
and tries to lure us into satisfying our appetites,
we can lean on Jesus and his witness
when he said to Satan:

“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:4, NRSV)

And when we face a temptation
to give our allegiance to forces and powers other than God,
we can trust that Jesus has stood his ground
in the face of the devil’s allure.
So we can live by the same word he lives by:

“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’” (Luke 4:8, NRSV)

And then, when in our secret and diabolical thoughts,
we say to ourselves,
“If God wants me to follow him,
then I need him to prove himself to me.
I need him to show me a sign.
If he passes this test,
then I will be his servant.”

That’s the test that the devil proposed to Jesus.
And in reply, he stood firm with a faith
that we can rely upon when we grow weak,
when we find ourselves tempted.
So with Jesus, we can reply to the devil:

“It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Luke 4:12, NRSV)

These are the temptations we face in the wilderness of our lives,
those times when the devil lures us so reasonably
to seek support from other forces than God,
to honor other authorities than our Lord,
to trust our own judgments rather than his Word.

But maybe the most insidious temptation
is the one that beguiles into wishing
that the paths of our lives
did not take us into the wilderness in the first place.

It’s not that it’s wrong to wish for the demise of the devil,
but when we wish not to face the reality of challenges to our faith,
we display a human weakness in our trust
in the power of God to make good
on the promise of the cross of Christ.

We may not see how Christ will emerge victorious
over sin, death, and the devil,
but we have all the reason
to trust that God in his power and love
can see the path to victory,
that the wilderness of the devil will, in the end,
give way to the kingdom of God.

And in the meantime,
which is often a mean time,
we live only by the grace of the Father’s sustenance,
sent to us in the wilderness in Jesus’ name through his Holy Spirit.

We are washed by the waters of new life,
our minds and hearts are guided by the Word,
our hunger is satisfied by the bread of heaven,
and our thirst is slaked by the cup of salvation. Amen.