"Holy of Holies," Exodus 25:8-11, 21-22 and Hebrews 9:1-14; January 29, 2012, First Presbyterian Maumee

View Sermon: Holy of Holies

Next Sunday is a pretty big day. Don’t worry, it’s not yet Valentine’s day, and no, it’s not yet Lent. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. Now anyone who knows me knows I’m not one to make many sports analogies when it comes to preaching, but today I think it’s pertinent. Super Bowl Sunday. This is a high holy day in the world of sports. The crowd will stand with hands over their hearts and sing the national anthem along with Kelly Clarkson. There’s the coin toss. People dress up in goofy outfits, cheer at their team’s touchdowns, and boo at the other team. Having not had much involvement in sports while growing up, to me, games like next week’s Giants/Patriot’s game can at times seem like a snapshot of a whole other world. A world with it’s own rules and order. And what is it that they’re doing? Ritual.

This feeling is not unlike the feeling that I get when I read of the rituals surrounding the temple that are presented to us when we hear the passage we read today from Hebrews 9.

If you think that passage was a bit long, or confusing, you should spend some time in the book of Exodus. When God and Moses had their famous mountain top conversation at Mount Sinai he provided Moses with the Ten Commandments, and then spends the next 10 or so chapters providing more guidance of right conduct and worship. Exodus chapters 25 through 27 are simply directions on how the temple should be arranged. When the God’s people were wandering in the wilderness after escaping from slavery in Egypt, they were looking for a right way to worship God, and God provided that for them in the instructions God established for how to arrange the temple.

Thanks to Lynn Bova and the Children of God Bible time, we have here a model of what the temple looked like. [Video of sermon]

As we read in our text, there would be a room called the Holy Place that would hold a lampstand and a table with the bread of the Presence. The golden lampstand had seven candles, as a reminder of when one day’s oil lasted for seven days. It might look a bit familiar to you, as it is present in Jewish synagogues and households today. This miracle of God’s provision over seven days is remembered in the Jewish holiday, Hannukah.

The bread of the presence was a collection of 12 loaves of bread, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. This bread symbolizes God’s presence with the people of Israel and serves as a symbol of fellowship and communion. We see also the altar of incense, which welcomed people into the divine presence.

At the back of this room there is a curtain and behind is the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. It held the ark of the covenant. This ark was formed to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments, passed to Moses from God’s own self. To enter into the presence of God’s own will manifest, was to be present to the power of God. This was not something to be taken lightly, but something that only high priest could do. And the priest had to wash himself not only physically, but also had to be ritually clean in order to step foot behind that curtain. The construction of the temple itself also had to be carried about in such a way to honor God. The cloths of the fabric surrounding the temple reflected gradations of holiness, with purple, the color of royalty, as the closest to the temple.

And while we can sit here today and wonder why anyone would ascribe such significance to the colors of the temple cloth, let us think about next weekend and the significance of the combinations of red and blue we will see. How we adorn our environment and ourselves has significance. It can show allegiances, reveal wealth, point to function or profession. I guarantee people would have a hard time taking me seriously as a preacher right now if I were wearing a football uniform. Or if one of the football players were wearing this outfit in the game next week, that would garner the same confusion. This room is clearly not a stadium.

Sure there are places to sit, a place where the seats are directed, but that’s about where the comparison ends. And though we are far from the design of the temple, there is still intentionality in the arrangement of our worship spaces. In the chapel and sanctuary we have communion tables, baptismal fonts, organs, and pianos. When you walk into that space you have expectations of what is going to happen there.

In fellowship hall we have projectors that serve to invite us into song, prayer, and listening to the word of God. There are still very apparent rituals that surround how we breathe into this space.

While we are undergoing our renovations, we are not perpetually referring to the Book of Exodus to make sure we have the cubits right, or a color scheme that appropriately reflects a particular verse of scripture, we are still designing and decorating in expectation of something amazing taking place there. We are still making room for God’s presence to show up. That is after all, what the synagogue and the church are all about, making space for God to show up. Making space for us to show up before God. We want to be close to God.

The “Holy of Holies,” which held the ark of the covenant was something only accessed by the chief priest. It was technically something you could get to, but it would cost you. You could train to become a priest, hope to become the chief priest, and be able to access God’s presence. Or, if you dared, you could simply pull away the curtain, but it was said that only the High Priest could survive being so immediately in the presence of God. The Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, interprets this by showing people’s faces melting off in the presence of the ark. A gory thought, indeed.

Proximity to the action is still expensive in modern day rituals. You can attend the Super Bowl, but it will cost you. At the beginning of this past week I was checking ticket prices. The cheapest seats available cost $2785. The best seats available cost $15343. And now, in our worship space? Sitting in this front row here won’t cost your your life. You don’t need to be a high priest. You don’t even need to pay $15,343.

If you look around in any of our worship spaces you will notice some very striking differences between our spaces and the tabernacle of Jesus’s time. While we may burn candles from time to time, there is no fragrant incense. With the exception of communion once a month, there is no bread of presence.

Most importantly, there is no curtain that divides us from God’s presence. Front row interaction with God is always free to us, though it was indeed bought at a great price.

In the time the temple was built, the curtain between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was a safeguard. The rules and regulations surrounding temple life provided a safe way for people to interact with God. Equipped with God’s rules, handed down from Moses, people knew when they had upset God, and knew when they were in God’s favor. And when they needed to get back in God’s favor they would offer up a sacrifice. They will kill an innocent animal to atone for their own guilt. The predictability of this set of pluses and minuses made a relationship with God safe and manageable. But, in the time the temple was built, this was the way that people followed God, this was the way people sought access to God, because this is the way God told them God would be present. As the directions became more and more complex, the people dutifully followed, believing that these rules were what brought them in proximity to God.

To interact with God’s actual presence was so overwhelming, that to truly encounter God was to forfeit life. However, the good news is that the exact opposite has happened. God came to earth to encounter us in the form of Jesus, and in doing so, forfeited His own life.

Hebrews 9 explains this for us saying: “But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”

All those sacrifices of all those animals only served as a bandage. Their death was only a temporary fix, which lasted only until the next sin was committed. And though God’s people tried to follow God, by following every rule and regulation they came across, what we needed was relationship. We needed a living-breathing example of how to welcome God into this world. Our God, who cannot be contained in rules boarded up in a box, however shiny and gold it may be, wants us to help to generate a Kingdom that is larger than any building we can build. We belong to a God brighter than the shiniest gold and deeper than the deepest purple. And so God sent Jesus Christ came to bring us that example and grant us that proximity to the Divine. Jesus Christ came to earth as the ultimate sacrifice. . Jesus came to hand us our very own ticket to a first row relationship with Him.

Jesus eliminates the separation between God and us. When Jesus died on the cross he said, “‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”

The curtain was torn. The barrier was removed. God is not contained any longer to the “Holy of Holies,” or even the “Holy Place.” God’s holiness is let loose in this world, restricted only by humankind’s hard heartedness to keep God at bay.

“It is finished,” Christ said on the cross. His sacrifice was finished, his life was finished, but more importantly, any separation between God and humankind was finished. And with all of that finished, our work as followers of Christ had just begun. We are the one’s tasked with being Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are to breathe the love of Christ into our space, and make what is ritual real to those who have yet to encounter God. The living “Holy of Holies,” breathed and moved among us and seeks to breathe and move through us. Let us create space in our spaces, lives, and relationships to make that happen. Amen.

“Bread for the Journey,” Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; and John 6, September 18, 2011, First Presbyterian Maumee

One of my favorite books read to me while I was growing up was “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” In this story a man tells his grandson about a land called Chewandshallow where three times a day food would rain from the sky. There were pancakes and orange juice caught in the mornings, baseball games cancelled because of pie, and fried chicken caught on the way home from work. The people of this place do not see this food as anything special or miraculous, but rather it is just how they’re used getting their food. It is simply provided for them without any effort on their part.

This is the book that came to mind while I was reading another story where food rains from the sky, a story that Clint read to us today from Exodus. In this passage, God provides both bread and quails to feed Moses and Israelites.

Of course in this Old Testament narrative the menu is simpler than the pie and fried chicken of the children’s book, but it serves a much more profound hunger. These people are not just looking for a meal, but for a reason to keep going.

It’s important to know that the Israelites in this passage are the very same Israelites who were initially slaves in Egypt. And it’s also important to know that these Israelites originally came to Egypt because of hunger. There was a famine in Canaan and they went to Egypt because they had heard there was food there. Through a strange sequence of events their brother Joseph had become an advisor to the Pharaoh of Egypt and Israel’s sons are permitted to serve the Pharaoh in order to have food and survive.

These Israelites lived under the ruling of the Pharaohs for the next 400 years, and over the course of that time with changes in leadership, the Egyptians forgot the nature of the relationship between themselves and the Israelites. The Egyptians did not like how the Israelites had multiplied over the generations and sought to assert power over them first with hard labor and then a plan to have midwives kill every Israelite male that was born. This is where we enter into the story of Moses.

By God’s help and through some rather frightening plagues, Moses brought these people out of the oppression of harsh enslavement under Pharaoh, in the promise that God would bring them to their own land.

They’ve known much pain and have hungered for freedom for their people for years. But now, here they are, free from slavery, and so very hungry that they think it would be better to return to slavery than live with the hunger they are feeling now.

This short sightedness seems alarming to me, sitting here in a 21st century context. How could anyone who has suffered so much be willing to return to that suffering just for the sake of the stability of a meal? Why would anyone give up that freedom?

But then, I realize how many times that happens in our world today. How many people stay in a dead-end job because taking time away to get additional education or training for another position may put their current lifestyle in jeopardy? How many people go back into situations of domestic violence, because they believe that their partner is the only one who will ever love or provide for them?

We allow ourselves to be bound to situations that are not the best of what God has in store for us, because we believe that they fill our short-term needs. How many times do we do this in our relationship with God? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if people at school make fun of me for going to youth group, I’m not sure I want to go, because I want to have friends now, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if my boss at work wants me to work Sunday mornings and scoffs when I mention attending church, I have to back down, I need a job, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if the person I’m dating gets mad when my growth group interferes with date night, I’ve got to skip growth group and spend time with them, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but following this call I’m sensing to go and do mission work would mess up my work life and uproot my family and I can’t do that, right?

There are so many ways that we settle for less than what God intends for our lives because we are so eager to be comfortable. There’s the saying “hindsight is 20/20,” and with this clarity of vision we take pleasure in retracing our steps. If we’re working backwards we know what we will come across, and there’s comfort in that. If we keep returning to what we’re used to, no matter how bad it is, at least it is something we can depend on.

Proverbs 26:11 says, “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” Though this is also known as one of the grossest passages in scripture, there’s a truth to it. Dog’s return to their vomit not because they think it’s good, but because they know it’s there. How often do we also return to things that aren’t good for us, just because even if bad, they are reliable? Seeking this comfort is our way of gaining control over our situation. We like to be in charge, have a plan, and when we’re going backwards we choose our own destination.

The much scarier option, to let God have control, seems crazy. Why go out in the wilderness? Why walk out into a life without guarantees? If you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from, can you really put your family through that?

At this moment in my life I am working my way through the ordination process for the Presbyterian Church. When I was in eighth grade and taking Confirmation classes here at church, I felt a call to ministry. Though I’ve been grateful to have all kinds of support from this church family, from my family, and from my seminary community, there have surely been times of wilderness. When I started seminary off with two semesters of Hebrew crammed into seven weeks of summer classes, returning to my college Freshman level French class seemed like a much better idea. When I had to write five quite difficult ordination exams, I would have much rather gone back and retaken the SATs. And now, while I’m just about to begin searching for a call to fulltime ministry, it seems like it’d be more comfortable to go back to the babysitting I did in high school.

French, too, was difficult while I was taking it, the SATs were stressful, and not every kid I babysat for listened to me or went to bed when they were supposed to, but the stressful aspects of each of those things seem more comfortable because I’ve been through them before. If I were to go back to any of those I would know what I was getting into.

I am excited about serving God as a minister, but at this moment, I don’t know what that service will look like. I don’t know where I’ll be or what the congregation will be like, all I know is that it won’t be a life I’ve lived before. And honestly, that scares me.

Over Judeo-Christian history the word “manna” has come to stand-alone as it’s own word describing the flakey food that was given to the Israelites. It also is used in common speech in our time as a term for something that is an unexpected relief or in describing the deliciousness of a meal. The word “manna” however, actually comes from the Hebrew, which means quite literally “what is it?” Though we now look back on this story as a way that God took care of God’s people, giving them abundant and consistent food to eat, at the time the Israelites just looked at this powdery, flaky substance and said, “what is it?”

I’m sure anyone who has prepared a meal for children has had a similar experience at some point. You find a great new recipe, go out to the store to find just the right ingredients, figure out how to cook this meal, and serve it, excited to see how they will enjoy it and you are greeted with a “what is it?”

The Israelites were hungry, so very hungry, but even when God provided food for them, it didn’t look quite like what they were used to and they were wary of it.

God sent another type of bread from heaven, living bread, in the form of Jesus. Jesus was sent to provide salvation, to satisfy both our immediate and eternal needs. By His life and teachings, Jesus provided an example of how we should live in the world right now. By his death on the cross, Jesus provided a way for us to have eternal life.

But this way is a wilderness way, with “what is it?”s echoing still across thousands of years.

Jesus’ birth is confusing. An angel comes to Mary telling her that she will have a child, she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Jesus’ call for us to be born again is confusing. In John 3:9, Nicodemus comes to Jesus trying to understand what Jesus was saying about rebirth, he says, “How can this be?” To be born from Heaven as an old man? To him, it sounded ridiculous.

Jesus’ miracles were confusing. John 7 us a of a story of a man who Jesus healed from blindness and all the Jews of the synagogue can ask is, “How did he open your eyes?”

As surely as Jesus’ birth, life, and resurrection bring us hope, they also bring confusion.

“What is it?” How often do we find ourselves asking this when faced with Jesus’ promise and teachings? “What is it?” we ask about where God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do. Even when we know God’s plan for us will be life giving, we’re not sure about it. Following God means walking away from what’s not good for us, but it also involves walking away from what we know into the wilderness.

What is it that God is calling to walk away from? Is there a wilderness God is calling you to walk towards?

The good news about follow God’s plan is that you are not walking out into that wilderness alone, God will be with you in that wilderness. God will sustain you. And no, that sustenance is not likely to be the elaborate meals of “Cloudy with a Chance of a Meatballs,” but it might just be manna. And if you take just what you need, there will be more tomorrow. Glory be to God. Amen.

“You Knit Me Together,” Psalm 139:1-24 and Romans 8:12, July 17, 2011, First Presbyterian Maumee

As a knitter, I can’t help but love the imagery of Psalm 139, verse 13, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Nine years ago when my family was together for Thanksgiving, my sister sat down with me and taught me how to hold the needles just right, how to wrap the yarn around the needle in a way that would make a knot that would connect to another knot, and then another. I may have had quite a bit of practice with it at this point, but I still get excited to see how these small little actions can be transformed into something much more than the yarn that composes it.

Those of you who knit and those of you who have knitters in your life will know knitting a sweater, afghan, scarf, or even a hat can take a long time. I’ve had friends of mine try to argue the logic of knitting. Why knit something when you can go out and buy it in the store? Buying something in the store can often cost less than knitting it, and will surely involve less time, but these days anyone knitting simply for an efficient way to have clothes probably won’t be knitting for very long. Rather, knitting is about intentionality of a design; customization through color, pattern, and texture; the joy of breathing life into a bundle of string, or skein of yarn for you knitters out there.

Knitter, author, and spiritualist Deborah Bergman writes about this. She says, “Fact: it is going to take you longer to knit a sweater than it would take you to open a tasteful mail-order catalogue and order one right now.

It is probably going to take you longer to knit a sweater than to go to the store and by one, even if you have to try five different stores on three different weekends. It takes a wild kind of patience to be a knitter. Not that it’s so difficult or challenging to be this wildly patient. When we knit, we become patient almost by accident. Almost despite ourselves, because we also want to finish and wear whatever we are making in the next five minutes, and this is part of what keeps us going, we notice that even as we hasten towards the next stitch, the next row, the next decrease, the end of the collar, we are also entering the deep warm sea called slowing down. We are surrendering to this obvious but odd sort of alternate universe where waiting is not only acceptable, but pleasurable.”

Thinking then of God as a knitter knitting us together in our mother’s womb, I can sense that energy: the frenetic joy to have creation come to its fullness paired with a deep patience. The first chapter of Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days through a series of commands and affirmations; the work of a creator excited to see what has been created. Genesis chapter two slows things down a bit. God enters into relationship with Adam, taking care not just for his physical needs, but also his relational needs. God forms Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, crafting them into being.

From what we’ve learned of creation scientifically and through the Genesis narratives, God’s act of creation is very similar to how we know God as a knitter, eager for fullness, but filled with patience.

Even the big bang theory speaks of this frenetic energy bursting into being and then slowly putting piece after piece together until the circumstances were precisely right for life to exist. Creation was and continues to be an unfolding of God’s hope and purpose.

Moyra Caldecott writes of this saying, “Our being is the expression of God’s thought. We contain the love of God and God contains us and as we unfold on the earth through shell-creature, fish-form, reptile, bird, and mammal – through ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, dinosaurs, and ape – we are learning step by step what containment means. The circles are still widening – still evolving the mighty concept – the magnificent Idea. Six days, Seven, a million years, a thousand million. The count is nothing, the Being – All.” We are a part of a magnificent idea, creation.

Genesis chapter one verse 27 also tells us that we are created in God’s image. God is a creator God, therefore we are created as creative people. As such, we also possess this energy and desire to create. The act of creating itself can be a way of connecting to God, a spiritual practice.

In the ninth century there was a monk named Anskar who became Archbishop of Hamburg and then later was sainted. He was an ascetic, who placed great importance on prayer and fasting, but not at the expense of useful activity, and so he was often seen knitting while be prayed. The phrase “ora et labora,” “pray and work” refers to the monastic practice of striking a balance between prayer and work and is often associated with the Benedictine order.

By working while he prayed, Anskar served as an example of how these things needn’t be separate, that prayer and work can happen simultaneously. In his knitting, Anskar was offering a creative response to our creator God.

Of course, not all of our acts of creation are done with string and needle. The way that we live and work in the world can be acts of creation. Perhaps your acts of creativity involve the creation of a legal brief, with the care towards each detail and energy towards the argument. It may be in doing plumbing for a house: which types of pipes should be used where, how each element connects, care to leaks or breaks. A teacher may creatively respond through considering their students, state curriculum, and their own passions for teaching in creating a school lesson plan. Architectural design can be a response, through relation to the site, attention to details of the design, and an eye for aesthetic appeal. When we are able to use the talents God has given us, it is a worshipful response to our Creator. Creativity is the language with which we can speak to God who created us.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about our creative expressions of work in the world. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 it is written: “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands…so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might.” Colossians 3:17 says, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In the Message translation of the Bible, Galatians Chapter 6 verses 1, 4, and 5 reads: “Live creatively, friends… Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others.  Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.”

Your creative best can and should look different from others, and that is part of God’s call for you and for your life. By working with a mind set on Christ, we are able to live into our call wherever we may be.

God has indeed gifted us with a purpose, knitted us together. God knows each stitch of how we are put together and calls it good. John Calvin wrote, “When we examine the human body, even to the nails of our fingers, there is nothing which could be altered without felt inconveniency… Where is the embroiderer who, with all industry and ingenuity, could execute the hundredth part of this complicated and diversified structure? We need not then wonder if God, who formed humankind so perfectly in the womb, should have an exact knowledge of us after we are ushered into the world. “

The act of knitting establishes connection, not just between the stitches in the garment, but also between everything that brought that item into creation, from grass eaten by the sheep that is sheared to the spinning wheel or factory that formed the wool into yarn. From where the yarn was bought to where and when the item was knit.

Each part of the journey impacts how the item turns out, reflecting the quality of the grass, the life of the sheep, the expertise of the spinner, and the temperament of the knitter. There are items that I have knit in Bible studies, on planes, with friends, by myself. When I see the knitted garment I know where the yarn came from, the pattern that was selected or designed, where I was at each part of the items creation, and how much work went into all of it. Because of this, I am connected to that item. This connectivity means that I care about what happens to it.

There have been a few times with this connectivity has been hard: a hat made with specialty yarn, knit from a new pattern with a complicated technique was lost in the mail as I tried to send it to a friend; a backpack that I designed the pattern for, and learned how to crochet so that I could make drawstring straps turned out not to be sturdy enough to hold much of anything; and a hat made from five different beautiful yarns all cabled together turned out to be much to small. In each of these instances, it was hard to know that this item that I had spent so much energy on, were not able to be utilized in the way I had intended.

Our creator, who knows us so intimately, desires that we live into God’s intentions for our lives.  With a knitter’s energy, God has joyfully set out plans for all of creation, and specifically for our lives, but God also waits with a deep patience for us to respond, for us to be formed into who God has created us to be. May you be open to discovering God’s call on your life. Amen.

“Hungry," Luke 12:13-21 and Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, August 1, 2010, North Presbyterian Church

I’ve never really liked Ecclesiastes. It’s always seemed quite disheartening really. The author of Ecclesiastes goes chapter by chapter talking about the different things humankind strives for, but how each is “vanity” and like “chasing after the wind” or in some translations “feeding on the wind.” This isn’t exactly something you’d see on a motivational poster in someone’s office or hear in a commencement address. Fortunately for us, this is not the only book in the Bible, nor is it the last book. God does not leave us in frustration or hopelessness. This book gives us a diagnosis of the human condition, but it does not give us the prescription. What Ecclesiastes tells us, is that we as human beings are hungry. We are hungry for something beyond what we can we can work to make or go to the store to buy. We are hungry for something real, something tangible, something lasting. We are hungry for fulfillment. We are hungry to stop being hungry. We are hungry for God.

Imagining the hunger of Ecclesiastes I can’t help but picture a scene in the movie Hook. The movie Hook is about Peter Pan after he leaves Neverland, grows up, gets married, and has kids. He is a ruthless and successful businessman who never seems to be able to find time to make his wife, children, and company happy. On a visit back to his wife’s grandmother’s home, Wendy Darling, who is the Wendy that we know from the story of Peter Pan, his life is jolted by a visit from the nefarious Captain Hook, who kidnaps his children and forces him to go back to Neverland to save them. Peter, with the help of Tinkerbell makes it back to Neverland, meets up with the Lost Boys, and gets trained in how to become who he was before, Peter Pan. After a long day of training, the boys sit down at a table full of plates, cups, and silverware and the boys begin to eat. The trouble is Peter doesn’t see any food in front of them. He gets into an argument with the leader of the Lost Boys and finally decides to go along with things and “pretend” to throw his food at the boy. Peter is shocked to see the food materialize, hit the boy in the face, and a food fight ensues. Peter then feasts with the boys and everything changes. This meal feeds him in a way he forgot he was hungry. It helps him to reconnect with his imagination, his hope, his creativity, and eventually his family. For so long he had been striving towards things that weren’t feeding him, weren’t helping him connect with who he was and who he was called to be.

Today we will be celebrating communion. Communion is not the food of the movie Hook. It is not imaginary. We have before us real bread and real grape juice. And, barring any mishaps, we will not be having a food fight here this morning. But the feast before us also requires a bit of imagination on our part. In the Upper Room, Jesus broke bread and poured wine and told His disciples, “This is my body broken for you” and “this is my blood” shed for you. In this Eucharistic feast, Jesus asks us to imagine His body as the bread and the juice as His blood. In doing so, we are able to connect to our very real God. A God that came to earth, lived walked, moved, breathed, and yes, hungered and thirsted.

When we join with one another in communion we eat not for the nourishment of our bodies, for communion will likely not fill up any physical hunger you may have, but we eat for the nourishment of our souls. We eat to taste community. We eat to taste forgiveness. We eat to taste fulfillment.

A lectionary commentary that I like to use in writing sermons is called “Feasting on the Word.” As the series website explains it, this book is made up of many “writers from a wide variety of disciplines and religious traditions. These authors teach in colleges and seminaries. They lead congregations. They write scholarly books as well as columns for the local newspaper. They oversee denominations… they serve God’s Word, joining the preacher in the ongoing challenge of bringing that Word to life.”[1]

I like to imagine its authors sitting at a banquet table, silverware in hand, napkin on laps, and Biblical texts spread out in front of them. In “tasting” various texts they speak to one another, trying to explain how the flavor, texture, and scent of the Word all come together on their spiritual taste buds, to feed their own theological hunger. I imagine that they approach Scripture treating it not as a simple snack of some words strung together but as a feast rich with the flavors of grace, redemption, love, and compassion. They come to scripture expecting to see God revealed, and in their own delicious discoveries of the texts they help others to recognize the taste of God.

As we share in communion we are reminded that Jesus is the “Word that became flesh,” who yearns for us to “consume” Him, to have “communion” with Him in the Eucharist and in the word so that we “may have life to the full.”[2]

There is a book I’ve read about spiritual disciplines, talking about how to recognize God’s presence within and among our experiences, called “Sleeping with Bread.” The introduction explains the title saying, “During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”[3]

Ecclesiastes tells us of the great hunger that we feel for life, a hunger only satiated by God’s presence in our lives. When these children were hungry, only food could calm their fears and help them to know that they were safe. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “there are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” To these children, God was in the bread. That was what they ached for and what was provided.

Sharing God with the world means feeding both the physical and the spiritual hunger. The trouble is sometimes differentiating between the two. In scripture, Amos said: “There is a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord.”[4] In our world today there are famines. There are famines created by improper distribution of food in countries with political instability. There are famines for thirst in countries without technology or resources for digging wells for healthy drinking water. Though food, water, and money, will help to alleviate some of the effects of these problems, what we are dealing with is more than a famine for resources, it is a famine for compassion, for love, and for justice. This deep societal hunger can only be filled by actions fueled by the bread that keeps us from never going hungry, God.

There was controversy this past week over a t-shirt for sale at Urban Outfitters that had “Eat Less” printed across the front of it. Various celebrities and bloggers responded on how they felt about the message of this shirt. Some said it was offensive and promotes a culture that encourages and glamorizes eating disorders. Others said that it was a witty response to too much consumerism in American culture.

I wonder why this shirt was created at all. Our culture does have issues with consumerism, but this is not any kind of message of healing, compassion or kindness. Wearing this shirt will not promote any positive change or relationship in how we interact with food or how we provide for one another. The reality of this is not that we need to be promoting eating less or eating more, but eating differently. Eating in a way that truly nourishes who God created us to be. Partaking in both physical and spiritual nourishment. Fueling our bodies in ways that create opportunity for others to be fueled.

Society is not structured so that humankind may be fed in the way that it needs. Even when we eat, we are not being truly nourished. Milk costs $3 a gallon, soda is less than a dollar, so many parents are faced with hard decisions about what they are able to provide. The cheaper choice may quench a family’s thirst, but their hunger remains. They consume plenty of calories, but do not get the nutrients they need for healthy growth, development, and well being. They are not nourished.

There are “all you can eat buffets” where even the title states that the goal is not to eat until you are nourished, but to eat until you can eat no more. You may be full, even sickeningly so, but you will not be nourished.

Food is used as a means of power in far too many ways across our society. It is denied from the poor to keep corrupt governments in power. People with eating disorders may deny their own bodies of food to seek power over self-esteem or body image. Food is used as a distraction, a comfort, a crutch, a band aid, a replacement for what we are really hungering for. Far too often it is used as anything but nourishment.

God knows that we are hungry. God knows that what we need is life-giving food. We need this bread and this juice. We need reminders that among all the hungers of this world, when we partake in the forgiveness Jesus gives us, we will never be spiritually hungry again. God is real and present and available. Anything less than God will keep us hungry. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[5] May you seek this week to be fed and to help others be fed with the nourishment that only God can provide. Amen.


[2] John 10:10

[3] Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, by Denis Linn, Shelia Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, p. 1

[4] Amos 8:11

[5] John 6:35

“Welcoming the Stranger,” Genesis 18:1-10a and Matthew 25:31-46, July 18, 2010, North Presbyterian Church

Imagine this, it is hot, uncomfortably hot, a day where you could probably fry an egg on the sidewalk if you try. It’s noon, the hottest part of the day. Your house doesn’t have air conditioning, so you are sitting out on the porch in front of your house, trying to at least catch a breeze or two. You are frustrated, because you and your wife are having trouble conceiving and you’re worried that you may never have children with whom to share your life, love, and legacy. You sit, unsure of the future. You see three men walking by your house. They look tired and you know that they could probably use some food and shade. What do you do? Do you invite them to sit on your porch? Do you offer them something to drink or to eat? Getting up and going in your house would take you from your somewhat comfortable porch and if you shared some food you may have to go out to the grocery store later. Is it really worth it to go out of your way to help them? Someone else will offer them something, right?

Imagine this, it’s Sunday morning. You’ve had a tough week. You got in an argument with a friend, you weren’t able to be at your kid’s swim team meet because you had to work, you forgot an appointment and had to reschedule for next month. Your parents don’t understand you. Your kids don’t understand you. You come to church, sit down at your regular table and talk to your close friends. You are relaxed, comfortable. Then, you see three people walk into the Hall. You’ve never seen them before; realize they’re probably visitors, and they look a little unsure of what to do or where to sit. What do you do? Do you invite them to sit at your table? Do you point them to the donuts and coffee? Getting up and greeting them would take you away from your comfortable conversation and inviting them to join you would change the conversation. You might not be so comfortable anymore, and really, you’ve had a tough week and just want to be comfortable. Someone else will welcome them, right?

In our scripture today, we hear of Abraham’s reaction to such a situation. It was the heat of the day. Abraham had plenty going on in his own life for which he needed comfort. He and his wife, Sarah, were worried that they would never have children. In the chapter before this we read of the Lord appearing before Abraham and making a covenant with him that he will make him the “ancestor of a multitude of nations,” but Abraham is 99 years old. As much as he would like to have confidence in God’s promises, he’s still not entirely sure how God will make this covenant happen. In our cultural context, we could completely understand Abraham letting these three men pass by, but that is not what he did.

Abraham bows before them, offers himself as a servant to their needs, and humbly offers “a little water,” and “a little bread.” Then Abraham runs into the house and does not just grab yesterday’s bread and a little bit of water. No, instead, with the help of Sarah and their servants he prepares a quick feast of cakes, calf meat, curds and milk.

Now it does turn out that among these men is the Lord, but Abraham doesn’t know that. Abraham can’t see the halos and the wings that so many artists have given them in their depictions of this event. Abraham is not being hospitable to them because he knows that they’re about to tell him his wife will have a child. He is simply being hospitable, because that is what he knows.

Throughout history Jewish and Christian tradition have placed an emphasis on this kind of overwhelming hospitality, likely because God reminds us throughout scripture that God’s people have so often been the stranger. Exodus 23:9 says, “Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:34 we read, “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” In total, there are 36 biblical warnings against the mistreatment of strangers.

We have all, at some point or another, been a stranger. Try to remember the last time you were a stranger. Perhaps it was your first day of school, your first day of work, moving into a new neighborhood, going to a new grocery store, joining a new sports team, or perhaps coming here this morning. How did you feel? Were you welcomed? Were you comfortable? Were you able to get to a point where you no longer felt like a stranger?

Hospitality can look like Abraham’s bending over backwards approach, but it can also look like simply welcoming people into our own experience, helping them transition from being the other to being in community. This type of hospitality looks a little messier, because here not everything is behind the scenes as it is in Abraham’s account and as it in another quite famous story of biblical hospitality, the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Follow along with me on the screens: “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”[1]

In this passage, Martha, like Abraham, goes out of her way to meet the needs of the Lord, and is admonished for it. This passage can be confusing, and I know it would be even more confusing for people in Martha and Mary’s time and culture. The cultural expectation was for people to entertain their guests, going to all lengths to make sure that their guests were comfortable. But Jesus says that He does not want her to be “worried and distracted” by her efforts of making sure all of his needs are met, but rather to simply be present as her sister, Mary is. We are asked to leave our busy kitchens, or attempts to make everything perfect and enter into a kind of vulnerability, letting go the non-essential acts of welcoming a guest, in order to be hospitable in a more real and direct way.

In the book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren F. Winner, a Christian converted from Judaism, speaks of the practice of hospitality throughout Jewish and Christian history, as well as how we may live it out now. She writes, “To be a hostess, I’m going to have to surrender my notions of Good Housekeeping domestic perfection. I will have to set down my pride and invite people over even if I haven’t dusted. This is tough: My mother set a high standard. Her house is always immaculate, most especially if she’s expecting company. But if I wait for immaculate, I will never have a guest.” She continues, writing, “The reality of God’s Trinitarian life suggests that…we are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, is not an imposition, because we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests – we are meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are. It is this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining into hospitality.”[2]

This fall, on October 10th, the God Connection team will challenge you to put your hospitality into action by inviting at least one guest to worship and fellowship with us that day in a celebration of Christian hospitality we will be calling “Be Our Guest Sunday.” As we enter into this day of hospitality, we are to keep in mind the words of Lauren Winner and Jesus’ admonishment of Martha, welcoming our guests not as outsiders and strangers who we are attempting to impress by putting on a show of what we think the perfect church should look like, but rather by welcoming people into our community as it is. Because of this we will have, more or less, a regular Sunday, with two worship services and fellowship in between. Worship is a strength of this community, as is our sense of family in our fellowship, and as a church we will be inviting and welcoming others into the community as it is, without much external change, but hopefully with an intentionality in how we open ourselves to others and how we show grace to one another.

I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off change that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.[3]

This phenomenon of seeking God’s divinity revealed through the other is what Barbara Brown Taylor would call reverence. In her book, An Altar in the World, she writes, “reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding…reverence stands in awe of something–something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits–so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”[4] By showing reverence toward the other, we show reverence to God.

As we read in our scripture today, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The listeners in our passage are confused, asking “when did we do any of those things?” But Jesus, responds ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

There are plenty of opportunities to be hospitable to others in our everyday life. We can let others in front of us in the grocery store line. We can hold the door open as someone enters a building with us. In the life of a church we can show hospitality by inviting people to worship, and particularly the Be Our Guest Sunday in October. We can invite our neighbors’ and coworkers’ children to attend Vacation Bible School and we can welcome others who attend Vacation Bible School throughout this week. When God appears in your life this week as a stranger, will God be welcome?

Amen.


[1] Luke 10:28-42

[2] Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, p. 50-51

[3] The Hermit’s Gift, Adapted from M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 21

“Hearing Voices," 1 Kings 19:1-12, June 20, 2010, North Presbyterian Church

On the popular show, House M.D., the main character says, “If you talk to God, you’re religious. If God talks to you, you’re psychotic.” I would say that this is a pretty accurate reflection of the perception that the secular world, and even often the religious world, has about interaction with God. It seems quite normal and appropriate for someone to pray to God. But we don’t often pray expecting to hear the voice of God responding back to us. Maybe it’s because we aren’t listening, maybe it’s because it seems impossible, or maybe its because we just don’t recognize God’s voice when God’s speaking to us. However, the Bible gives us several examples of how God speaks to people. Mainly I see God as speaking to people in three different ways.

Sometimes God is loud, tangible, and in your face.

Imagine this: You are shepherding your father-in-law’s flock of sheep. You go through the wilderness, over some mountains. Just a typical day helping out the family, right? Well, all of a sudden, you come across a bush, and it’s on fire; big, crackling, flames kind of fire. At first you start to panic, worried that you and your sheep might be harmed by whatever or whoever caused such a fire so far out here, but then you look again. Though the bush is surely aflame, it somehow is not burning up. You come closer, curious to see what exactly is going on here. And then, you hear a voice. God is calling your name. “Moses, Moses!” (Exodus 3:1-4)

The story just gets stranger from here. God then tells Moses to remove his shoes, because the ground he is standing on is holy. God identifies God‘s self and Moses hides his face, intimidated by the awesome God that speaks to him. God tells Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and Moses is incredulous. “You want me to do what?”

Moses fears God’s presence and God’s commands. Moses argues with God, pleading not to be sent.

This type of response within the Bible has always frustrated and confused me. It’s odd to me when I read such stories in the Bible, that someone would hear the true voice of God, knowing that it is God, and not automatically respond. I feel like sometimes it is so hard to understand the specifics of where God wants us to go or what God wants us to do, and here Moses, hearing God speaking to him, would rather pass the responsibility off to someone else.

Fortunately, God doesn’t leave him there in his incredulity and insecurity. God legitimizes Moses’ leadership through a series of plagues and miracles. God spoke to Moses and through Moses, was able to save a whole people from slavery, whether Moses really wanted to follow God to this sort of leadership or not.

Yet, even when we are scared of the call God places on our lives, I have to admit, I still feel so much better just in the knowing what God is directing me to do. I’d give anything for that kind of clarity, when God speaks in the second way I noticed God speaking in the Bible, speaking through silence.

This way is very hard to understand, because at the time it seems like God isn’t saying anything. These are the times when our lives become overwhelmed with sadness, devastation, sickness, or grief. In these times our circumstances are so loud that we may not even think ourselves capable of hearing God speaking to us.

And when we are in the midst of experiencing such terrible things it really is hard to understand people who will say it is all in God’s plan or that it is for some divine purpose. Such a story takes up an entire book in the Bible, giving us the story of Job.

Here is Job. A man whom we are told is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turns away from evil.” (Exodus 3:1-4) We are also told of his ten children, his expansive collection of livestock, and his devout practices of burnt offerings on behalf of his children. Job has everything anyone of his time could wish for, but then Satan enters the story, and as you may imagine, things get complicated.

Within a few paragraphs Job has every possession and loved one taken away from him. Yet, despite Job’s grief and suffering, he maintains that it is all within God’s plan. It’s hard to understand the Jobs of the world who process loss and pain, without questioning their faith. We read the book of Job and we, like Job’s friends want Job to snap and curse God. And though Job curses his own life, he will never curse God. And I believe that is the lesson of Job, not as some interpret it that God allowed terrible things to happen, but that God transcends our experience and our ephemeral earthly possessions and relationships, and gives us an eternity of hope and peace beyond what we are capable of knowing on earth.

More often than not though, I believe that God speaks in whispering voice as we see in our lectionary passage today: “The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NIV)

The voice that Elijah hears is not loud. It is not the type that sets aflame our passions and the bush in the Horeb mountains. No, instead God presents God’s self simply in a whisper to Elijah. However, if you look back on the entirety of the passage, God does not just speak through the whisper, but through all of the actions of the angels working on God’s behalf. God is present and vocal through the shelter of the broom tree and cave; the providential bread and water; and the near voice of God, the Lord, who speaks intimately with Elijah, even preparing him to listen for God’s voice.

This same accompanying voice of God speaks into our lives, our relationships, and our sense of vocation. This voice may be hard to recognize since it is rarely one that identifies itself as God’s own. This voice most often comes from those in our communities: siblings, teachers, parents, co-workers, and congregation members. These people call us by name, not out of a burning bush, but out of their desire for the goodness of God’s will to be manifest in our lives. God uses such people to reveal God’s self through community. Community, according to John Calvin, was not only important, but essential to faith. He believed that it was only through communion with others that we were able to know anything about God both through the history of the Christian church and through God’s presence revealed through the words and actions of one another.

When I think of God speaking through others, I can’t help but think of the show Joan of Arcadia. In the course of each episode God speaks to Joan through custodians, school secretaries, legal stenographers, school outcasts, and my favorite, a seven-year-old girl. Each manifestation of God becomes known to Joan as God, when each addresses Joan by name, as God does throughout Biblical narratives. These manifestations of God relate to Joan’s current struggles, sometimes giving her seemingly obscure or random tasks to complete. Throughout the course of each episode the purpose for such a task is revealed, and the character of God within the show explains how God is using the small things Joan does for a greater purpose.

I believe that God truly does speak in this way, providing communities and people in our lives to point us towards God’s call for our lives.  I personally, have heard God whispering to me, calling me towards ministry in the church. This started first as a whisper of my parent’s will for me to be incorporated into the Christian community through my baptism. The whisper came again through church members who taught me in Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and youth group. When I began confirmation class, and he encouraged me to take on various leadership roles within the youth group and church, the whisper got louder. The joy that I found through both participating in worship and leading devotional groups and retreats helped me to make out just a few of the details of this whisper. God was calling me to ministry.

Now, after my second year of seminary, I continue to experience these whispering calls through my interactions with others and the opportunities that come my way, calling me to further service of God’s kingdom. Such a call has led me here today, in worship and fellowship with you. I am grateful for your support in allowing me to take part in this community, and it is my hope that we will whisper what we believe to be God’s will to one another throughout the following months, so that God may be further revealed among us.

It is my prayer that as you go out into the world today, you may listen for the many ways God is speaking to you, and that you may be willing to seem at least a little crazy in hearing and responding to God’s call in your life.