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A Narrow Escape into Faith

KnockersPictureRed balloons on the microphone seemed like a good idea at the time! Last Sunday was Reformation and Confirmation--two youth were affirming their Baptism and becoming adult members of the congregation. But no one could see their faces above the balloons when they were ready to share their statement of faith, so I untied them after the first prayer. Thankfully, there were no microphone balloons for the rest of the Confirmation service! But I am glad they were there long enough to take this picture, because I have laughed more in the last week looking at this picture than I have in a long time. It has been truly healing and spiritually transforming. I try not think too much about breast cancer or worry about it coming back, but this is harder during October when breast cancer awareness is everywhere, and as I approach the anniversary of my diagnosis. Battling fear of not surviving COVID-19 as a high-risk person compounds this anxiety. British playwright Christopher Fry said, "Comedy is an escape, not from truth, but from despair, a narrow escape into faith." Laughing at this picture gave me an escape route out of fear back into faith. I hope it makes you laugh as much as it did me.

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Doing our Kingdom Work in God’s Story of Salvation

Reformation Confirmation ImageReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Deuteronomy 34:1-12 on October 25, 2020 for Reformation and Confirmation Sunday at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

It is all so disappointing. Moses standing there looking over at the Promised Land, but not being able to enter it. He had done so much to bring the people of Israel there—challenging Pharaoh, calling down the plagues, fleeing Egypt on the night of the Passover, crossing the Red Sea, and then 40 years in the wilderness, no less—and all the while the Israelites whining and complaining!

He received the Ten Commandments, guided the people, helped repair their relationship with God when they strayed – Moses did it all. Certainly, he made his mistakes, but he proved faithful to God and to Israel when it mattered most. Now here he is, ready to cross the finish the line—and God says, “you’re going to sit this one out, you can look, but you can’t touch.” Such a disappointing ending for Moses, whose grave no one can even find.

We are living through our own time of disappointment during this global pandemic, when memorial services are put off or done outside. When familiar worship and family gatherings cannot be experienced, and we are bereft and disappointed. We have to re-imagine how to plan Thanksgiving and Christmas. Who can gather together, should we try to eat outside? Do we quarantine the college kid for two weeks so grandpa can come to dinner? Do we put the computer at the head of table so we can eat with family on Zoom?

When Natalie and Sam Sherrod started Confirmation two years ago, we never imagined their Confirmation service would be anywhere but, in the Sanctuary, kneeling at the Communion railing with a full church celebrating their Affirmation of Baptism as adult members of this congregation. Instead, they will be kneeling on pillows on the curb. Natalie and Sam and all of us join Moses looking out at a Promised land, imagining how things could have been and should have been.

Was Moses himself disappointed as he stood on the brow of Mt. Pisgah and beheld a future that was not open to him? Our story does not tell us, but rather, it focuses on the work that Moses had done, rather than the reward we feel he should have received. Our passage highlights Moses’ role in God’s larger story of salvation. There are four patterns of Moses’ life and ministry that are instructive for us today as we celebrate the Reformation and Confirmation for Sam and Natalie.

First, Moses did his job. God had a specific role for Moses, and he fulfilled his calling in a way that only he could do. Moses argued, challenged and negotiated with God along the way, he made mistakes, and he bore the brunt of Israel’s sin—but he remained faithful to God and stayed in relationship with God, doing all that God asked of him as best he could. All of us have a unique way to serve God whether in or out of pandemic. How we serve may have changed, but that we are called to love and serve our neighbor as ourselves has not. Some do it through prayer, through card ministry, through phone calls, through giving, through caring for neighbors. Some serve on ministry teams or in leadership roles, others through the care they offer at work. Martin Luther taught in the Reformation that we are the priesthood of all believers and each one of us is called to serve Christ where we are with the what we have; and St. Luke’s, we are a church that models this for our new confirmands, Sam and Natalie.

Second, Moses trusted God’s promises and spent time with God regularly. Moses modeled spiritual practices for us, spending time apart with God alone, and engaging in conversation with God. As God shows Moses the promised land, God says, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, "I will give it to your descendants.’ Because Moses spent so much time with God—the only one who saw God face to face, or in the burning bush, he never doubted God would keep this promise, so Moses could die in peace. We too, can trust God to fulfill God’s promises.

Martin Luther taught that prayer was crucial to human life and that we respond to God by praying regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. We can engage in our deepening relationship with God, spending time apart, and with Sam and Natalie today, re-affirming our commitment to engaging in this relationship with God, so that no matter what goes on around us, our faith remains a stable source of peace.

Third, Moses empowered the next generation of leaders in Joshua and Caleb. Moses anointed them with the spirit and power to become the new leaders of Israel, taking over for him as they enter the Promised Land. Sometimes we forget that everything is not up to us. God always calls us to be raising up the next generation of leaders with new skills, new faith, new perspectives, and new energy to lead the upcoming step into the future. The folks who started this congregation in 1957 did not know who would serve on Council in 2020, but they trusted every generation of leaders to raise up the next generation. That is what Confirmation is today—raising the next generation in the faith, learning from them, listening to them, allowing our ministry to be shaped by them so we can grow into the future. Do you remember eight months ago none of us considered worshiping with screens, and now we cannot imagine being without them? How will Sam and Natalie’s generation help us expand sharing the Gospel with digital ministry?

Martin Luther wrote the Catechism to equip every household to teach the basics of the faith to the next generation. Natalie and Sam are our Joshua and Caleb today, helping lead us and see our way into a new future.

Finally, Moses held onto a vision of the future. As he stood on the mountaintop, Moses could see that future stretched out before him. To be sure, Christians need to be informed and know what is going on in the world. But there comes a time when we turn off the news and social media and instead, envision what God’s kingdom of love and justice really looks like, so we always have a clear picture of what we move toward. In our worship, at the Lord’s Table, through our study of scripture, God endows us with a divine imagination that empowers us to glimpse God’s future for us and the world– a future that is more peaceful, more just, more connected, more hopeful for more people.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was named for our reformer, Martin Luther) had a gift for turning present day conflicts into a clear vision for the future. The night before he was assassinated, he spoke on this very Bible passage with these words:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the promised land.1

We trust this vision, we hope for this vision, we work for this vision, and we confirm Sam and Natalie into this vision today. And so with Moses, we do the kingdom work that God calls us to do. We train and raise up a new generation of leaders. We commit ourselves body and soul to God, praying regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. And We hold onto God’s vision that we as a people will get to the promised land. 

1A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 286.
Reflection Questions:

• Have there been times when you have done the right thing, what God desires, but no reward is forthcoming? As you look back on those situations, can you see yourself in God’s larger purpose and story of salvation?
• How does God call you to love and serve others today, right now? Has this changed given our pandemic circumstances? Are there new ways God has called you to serve?
• Have you thought of yourself as “priest” by nature of your Baptism, as part of the “priesthood of all believers” as Luther taught? Does thinking this way increase the urgency of your service and gifts offered in the world?
• How is your prayer life? Does having more time at home give you an opportunity to pray “regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently?”
• What do you think St. Luke’s can do to connect more with teens, and with Millennials in their 20’s and 30’s? What relationships do you have with people in these age groups?
• What is your vision of the promised land and the kingdom of God here on earth?

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Betrayal, Negotiation & Steadfast Love

MosesSeesGodsBacksideReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 33:12-23 on October 18, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Who are we when we get past the pain of betrayal? When we are deeply wounded and hurt, how do we navigate re-engaging in the relationship?

When God and Moses begin their fateful conversation in our passage today, they are feeling deeply wounded and betrayed. No sooner had the Israelites received the Ten Commandments with the instruction to have no other gods before the Holy God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt—than they betrayed their relationship with God by building and worshiping a golden calf. Even worse, their worship led to “revelry,” which is a polite way of saying wild parties ensued, orgies and all.

God is incensed; Moses is outraged. Indeed, Moses is so angry; he takes the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written and shatters them on the ground. He burns the golden calf, crushes the remains, and makes the Israelites drink it in their water. If they are so fond of this false god, they can consume it.

God, likewise, is so deeply hurt and angered by this betrayal. He complains to Moses, “‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.’” (Exodus 33:5)

God’s vulnerability is on full display – God’s love has been exposed. God has invested heart and soul and salvation in this people and at the first sign of difficulty, at the first moment of anxiety, they betray God’s passionate love, and give their loyalty and devotion to mere gold. The relationship between God and the Israelites finds itself at a crisis point—they either must make up or break up—there is not a lot of in between here.

Moses knows he must do something. He informs the people that he will go to God and to atone for their sin. In God’s presence, Moses acknowledges to God that the people have committed a great sin. He then asks God to forgive them. Moses ups the ante: if you will not forgive them, “blot me out of the book you have written,” instead.(Exodus 32:32) Moses, either in a moment of self-sacrifice or using rich hyperbole that life just is not worth living if God cannot forgive, offers to take the punishment for the people. Moses was not even with the people when they went off the rails, and had nothing to do with this decision, but he is willing to take responsibility for Aaron’s lack of leadership and the people going astray. Blame me, says Moses.

But God refuses his offer. God sends a plague and then decides that the ingrateful Israelites will have to complete their journey to the Promised Land without God’s presence. God will send an angel as a token to lead them, but that is all they will get.

This is where our conversation between God and Moses gets interesting. Moses sympathizes with the depth of God’s pain and sense of betrayal, but he will not accept God’s answer—to abandon the people and send an angel instead? Moses argues that this is completely unacceptable. In that moment, Moses becomes Israel’s lawyer, advocating for mercy. Moses further presses his case by becoming God’s character witness, pushing God to display Who Moses knows God truly to be.

Here is this servant Moses, who first refused God’s call because he could not speak well, he was not good with words, and now he woos God with words of remembrance and affection. Like King George VI overcoming his stammer in the iconic speech of 1939 as Britain entered WWII, Moses boldly rises up, finds his voice, and bargains with God. He appeals to his own good character, and to God’s true nature. How can they be a distinct nation if God is not with them? How can Moses believe he has earned God’s favor without God’s presence leading them? Now is the moment, Moses implores, to fully and finally, show the height and depth and length and breadth of God’s love and mercy to a sinful, limited people.

Moses rests his case and wins his closing argument. God does not even have to deliberate, because God knows that Moses is right. God has promised to be with them, and God will not break that promise: "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." (Exodus 33:17) Moses, with new-found confidence in his negotiating skills, pushes a little further—he wants a concrete sign, a good-faith gesture, a deposit of trust of God’s presence. God agrees. God is willing to give Moses a glimpse of his backside, since to see God face to face would overpower any mortal.

The following day, God instructs Moses to make two stone tablets and ascend to the mountain so God can etch Ten Commandments anew. With the two new stone tablets in his hands, God says to Moses:

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” Exodus 34:6-8

This God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, makes a new covenant with Israel promising to perform marvels such as have never been seen before. Moses receives the assurance he needs that God will remain with the people of Israel into the future. Moses trusts that even when the people’s sins betray and hurt God, God’s nature and character will always turn to steadfast love, forgiveness, and mercy, even to the thousandth generation.

We, who are traversing our own wilderness in this time, are particularly susceptible to hurt and betrayal. It sometimes feels like God has abandoned us and is indifferent to our plight. Moses did not give up or hide from this God, but sought him out, expressed his own anger, negotiated, and held God accountable to be the God that Moses knew God to be—the God who’s majesty and mystery we can never fully behold or comprehend, but who invites us to advocate and argue with God anyway.

So, seek the Lord, pour out your anger, negotiate with all your might, demand that God reveal God’s self to you, trusting that’s God’s gracious and merciful nature will overcome all things, and embrace you with an abounding steadfast love and faithfulness which endures until the thousandth generation.

Reflection Questions:
• How have you handled betrayal in relationships? Have you forgiven and built a deeper trust, or needed the relationship to end and go your separate ways?
• Have you ever thought of God feeling vulnerable and exposed by God’s love and devotion for us? That behind the judgment we read in the Old Testament is really the pain of rejection, hurt and betrayal? Does this shift how you view God’s anger or God’s needs and desires for a relationship with you?
• Do you think Moses was willing to sacrifice himself for Israelite’s sin? Or was he engaging in dramatic hyperbole—kind of bating God—that if God cannot muster up forgiveness, then life just is not worth living?
• Have you ever argued, or negotiated with God, refusing to accept God’s answer for you or someone you love? How did this engagement with God affect, change, or deepen your faith? Have you considered the idea that you can change God's mind?
• Have you ever asked God for a sign and received one? What are the signs of God’s presence and love that you notice most often?
• If you were to take God to task right now, and hold God accountable to being Who you know God to be, what would you say to God? How would you ask God to show up and be true to God’s nature? Be bold and give Moses’ conversation with God a try!

Image: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/455426581038052436/?nic_v2=1a3CZSdFX


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Idols and Animals

Hortus Deliciarum calf09274 largeReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 32:1-14 on October 11, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

When I was growing up we took some awfully long car trips in the summer from where we lived in California, to Duluth Minnesota, where my parents are from. There were four of us kids piled into the station wagon, so to make this whole operation work, my parents had strict rules. Before we got into the car at every stop, each of us were responsible to use the restroom, get a drink, and make sure we had our books and activities ready nearby. There was no dawdling and begging for snacks because mom had those packed in a bag in the front seat. Most importantly, we were NOT allowed to ask questions like, “when are we going to get there? What time is it? How much longer?” Such whiny questions were not permitted, because we were assured that periodically, we would get an update from the front seat about the time, and how much longer until the next stop.
We behaved for the most part, but we were kids, so once in a while we would get into it because we were getting hot and sweaty, someone touched us or swiped our pillow and we would start bickering. If we did not settle down fast enough, my dad, who always drove, would start to pull-over. I can still hear the sound of the gravel crunching under the tires as the car came to a stop on the shoulder. Dad looked at us from the front seat, and I am sure most of you know what he said, “Do you want to get out and walk?” We would be properly scolded about how he cannot focus on the road with us carrying on, we would all zip our lips, and then Mom, once we got back on the road, would soothe everyone’s frayed nerves by giving us all a lemon drop.

It is too bad Moses and Aaron did not take a page from the Anderson play book before they set out through wilderness. The Israelites have received the Ten Commandments, but they have not internalized that this means that they are responsible for their behavior. They have to take care of themselves at each stop along the way, with no complaining in between. Moses will give them periodic updates from the Lord when has them, and they just have to trust that when there’s new information to be had, they will get it—just like they have had a pillar of cloud and fire to lead them, just like they have had manna and quail to eat, just like they have received stone tablets to define their life together with God and each other. What seems to be the problem?

I suppose the problem is that even with all those physical blessings, it is difficult to serve an invisible God, especially during hardship. Sounds familiar does it not? The challenging of traveling into an unknown future without being able to read a definitive map, without being able to ask how long it will last, when will it end, and where the heck is God anyway feels awfully similar to life in 2020. The year itself mocks us with an image of clarity and perfect vision—2020—when in reality, we have more confusion, conflict, and chaos than many of us ever known in our lifetime.

We share the Israelites frustration—if there were ever a time for the invisible God to be made visible, this is it. If there were ever a time for decisive, consistent leadership, now is the time. Instead, Moses has disappeared up the mountain, communing with God; without their leader, the Israelites descend into chaos, bickering like children in the backseat. Aaron realizes that he has no lemon drops to soothe their nerves or calm their anxiety.

It is hard to serve an invisible God, especially in crisis. They are so human—first they turn to a human idol, Moses, and when he’s not available, they turn to gold, to religion, to their own control and ideas, they turn inward instead of outward, failing to remind each other of what God has already done.

When they cannot make their leader, Moses, their idol, they make their religion their idol instead—needing somewhere to focus their anxiety, their urge for control, their stubborn inability to sit in the back seat of this journey and trust that they will get what they need, and arrive at their destination, according to God’s plan.

Isn’t it interesting that when the Israelites choose an image or idol to create, they do not make a human representation of God; instead—they choose an animal. A golden calf. What a fascinating juxtaposition on the Sunday when we are blessing the animals that bring meaning and love into our own lives. Why an animal? Why a calf? When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, Exodus says they left with their flocks and herds, so as they traveled across the desert, the animals journeyed with them. Imagine the comfort those animals brought them in their travels and in their hardship. They kept them warm on cold desert nights, they provided constant companionship, they connected them with their past, they provided milk and wool, they never talked back, they were a steady presence that stood by them no matter their mood, their childish petulance, their anger, or their struggles. Morning and night, day in and day out, there they were, cows and sheep, walking alongside them, accompanying them in their journey no matter what.
Wouldn’t that be nice if God were like that?

Of course, God IS like that—which God has been showing them over and over. Moses reminds God of this truth, and then Moses reminds the people as well. And with those signs, with those daily reminders, they could remember, and they could take heart. The constant presence of sheep and cattle through this desert remind them, that God is always with them. With daily provision of manna and quail they received God’s blessings even when Moses is absent.

And for us who own dogs, we see their loyalty and remember how loyal God is to us and to God’s promises. When our cat purrs in our lap, regardless of how crappy we have been, that is God’s grace for us. When we behold God’s beautiful creation, this is the invisible God made visible—creation being our first Bible. St. Francis of Assisi taught us to see God in all things, in all creatures—to see all people, animals, including our pets—as sacramental, as visible signs of God’s presence. We see in them God’s presence, not so that we worship them, but so that they point us to the goodness and greatness of our One Creator God whom we worship and trust, even in hard times.
As we continue today on a journey without a map and with questions that do not have answers, we may be tempted to put our trust in many things above God—money or gold, political parties, our job, our family, our freedom, even the reliability of our pets.

Even while these things may be a necessary part of our life, they are not life itself; they are not God. They are all blessings that point us to God—to the Creator who is our constant companion no matter what, to the One who holds the map—and sometimes, even gives us a lemon drop—to the One in whom we trust to bring us, our pets, and all of creation, safely to our destination, to the kingdom of God.

Reflection Questions:

  • Do you have travel memories from childhood? What did you learn from these experiences that have served you well as an adult? What have you changed or adapted?
  • What is difficult for you in serving an “invisible God?”
  • What have been your most concrete experiences of God? Where and how have these taken place?
  • What are the physical signs of God’s blessings and presence that you have seen in your life? Can you call these to mind as a source of strength that you can rely on during challenging times?
  • Everyday we are tempted to put many idols before God (money, possessions, consumption, power, status, ego, political party, or leaders); what are the most challenging idols for you?
  • When have you experienced God’s love and grace through a pet or other animal? Through creation?
  • Are there spiritual and other practices that help you trust God and navigate this unknown journey we are now on? If there are events/practices/worship services that Pr. Linda can offer to help with this, please share your ideas.

Image: Herrad of Landsberg. The Dance of the Golden Calf from the Hortus Deliciarum, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55985 [retrieved October 12, 2020http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hortus_Deliciarum,_Der_Tanz_um_das_goldene_Kalb.JPG.

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The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.