Thoughts and Prayers

Sermon for Sunday, August 11, 2019 || Proper 14C || Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

It is so good to be standing here behind this lectern again. I haven’t preached a sermon since Easter Sunday, so I hope I remember how to do it. I have so many things I want to share with you from my time on sabbatical. Many I will share during the adult forum hour throughout the upcoming school year. Some things will surely influence my sermons. But today is not the day to begin that sharing. A week ago two more mass shootings, both perhaps spurred by the scourge of white nationalist terrorism, devastated the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The events were still breaking at the time of last week’s Sunday services, so there was no time to formulate more than just an anguished response – a prayer of lamentation: “How many more, O Lord?”

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Wings Like Eagles (May 17, 2013)

…Opening To…

Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much…power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. (Frederick Buechner)

…Listening In…

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31; context)

…Filling Up…

Verse four on the guitar case comes from the end of the 40th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah and it is in the running for most beautiful verse of scripture in the entire Bible. I can’t remember what made me put on the guitar case, but it’s influence since I have has been profound. Ever since I began walking with families through their grief at the death of a loved one, I have suggested the reading that includes this verse for one of the readings at the funeral.

This verse is full of hope, but at the same time, it acknowledges just how severely life can run you down. It does not gloss over the reality that the daily grind coupled with the occasional catastrophe can erode away a person to nothingness. It speaks about renewing strength, implying that strength has been lost; about flying like an eagle, implying that there has been a low point; about becoming weary; about fainting.

But rather than speaking directly about losing strength and fainting, Isaiah speaks as if those things have already or will soon pass. He doesn’t say that those who wait for the Lord might renew their strength. He says that they will renew their strength. He speaks as if they are foregone conclusions. And you know what, when we are speaking of God’s promises, they are.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you will always bear me up when I fall. Help me to believe the promises you make to your people through the words of your prophets, so that I may continue to fly upon the wings of your faith. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with your words on my lips and your joy in my heart, ready to share both with all I meet.

“D” is for Desert (February 27, 2012)

…Opening To…

Now let us all with one accord, in company with ages past, keep vigil with our heavenly Lord in his temptation and his fast. (Gregory the Great, from The Hymnal 1982)

…Listening In…

The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35:1-2; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “D” is for desert. The desert plays a big role in the Bible. Quite a bit of it is set there, though sometimes our translations use the word “wilderness” interchangeably with desert. The people of Israel wander in the desert for forty years between fleeing Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. Jesus spends forty days in the desert after his baptism. There he fasts and resists the temptations of the devil.

Perhaps you live near a real desert – out in Arizona or California perhaps. I don’t, so when the Bible talks about the desert or wilderness, I place myself not in a literal desert but a figurative one. You see, the desert is all around us. We live in the desert. Sometimes through our actions and inactions, we contribute to expanding the desert. The desert exists anywhere that we feel isolated or afraid or tempted or lost. And let’s be honest – we are feeling at least one of those most of the time.

But just because we find ourselves in the desert much of the time does not make it simply a place of trial or a proving ground. God does not drop us in the desert just to test our endurance. We simply wander into the wilderness, and we get caught there because the wilderness is vast and tangled. Sometimes, the desert extends its pathless expanse as far as the eye can see.

But when the people of Israel got stuck there for all those years, they made a remarkable discovery. God was in the desert, too. God was everywhere they were, including the wilderness. God doesn’t stop at the desert’s edge. In fact, God can make the desert blossom.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you love all you create and never forsake me to lonely wandering. Help me to let you guide my feet in the pathless desert so that I can follow your lead as we make our way out together. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, nourished by your Spirit and willing to open up a larger space within for you to dwell.

It is Written (February 3, 2012)

…Opening To…

The Bible is a harp with a thousand strings. Play on one to the exclusion of its relationship to the others, and you will develop discord. Play on all of them, keeping them in their places in the divine scale, and you will hear heavenly music all the time. (William P. White)

…Listening In…

It was certainly our sickness that he carried, and our sufferings that he bore, but we thought him afflicted, struck down by God and tormented. He was pierced because of our rebellions and crushed because of our crimes. He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5; context)

…Filling Up…

As I mentioned earlier in the week, the Hebrew Scriptures made up the Bible for the people who wrote the New Testament. Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews – they all quote from the texts that they grew up with, the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes, they do it verbatim: either they really know their stuff or they are looking at a scroll or something. Other times, they quote off the top of their heads and they get it right, sort of. These off the top of the head quotations capture at least the spirit of the verses they are referencing. In the New Testament, the times when characters in the Gospel or letter writers reach back to the Hebrew Scriptures are often prefaced with “It is written” or “In the words of the prophet so-and-so.”

This references to the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament is very important for us followers of Jesus Christ. Too often, we dismiss the Hebrew Scriptures because “Jesus isn’t in them” or “God doesn’t seem like the same loving God I know.” True, the character of Jesus is not in them, though Christians interpret much of the prophetic literature with Jesus as its focus. And true, God commands the people of Israel to do some pretty terrible stuff during their territorial wars as they laid claim to the Promised Land. These sections are difficult to read, and I wish I could give you some pointers on how to read them, but I can’t.

That being said, the Hebrew Scriptures are the rich, deep earth from which springs our Christian experience of God. There was an early Christian named Marcion, who decided that the Hebrew Scriptures should not be part of the Bible. So he chucked them away, preferring instead parts of the Gospel according to Luke and selections from Paul’s letters. Marcion thought that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was not the same God as the God of Jesus. He thought the former evil and the latter good, hence his dumping of the Hebrew Scriptures. Well, the heads of the church excommunicating him for that, firmly cementing the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the New Testament, as the guiding texts of the Christian life. We ignore them to our own detriment. They are rich and they are varied. And they are ours.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you made known your glory to my spiritual ancestors, who wrote of your movement in the Scriptures. Help me to see your glory and reflect it in my words and deeds. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, grateful for your presence throughout time and space, as recorded in the Bible and lived in my life.


(Sermon for Sunday, December 19, 2010 || Advent 4 Year A || Matthew 1:18-25)

When my mother discovered that she was going to have a second child, she began thinking up names for the tiny person growing within her. Since she didn’t know until I was born if I were going to be a boy or a girl, she tried all manner of names on for size. She spoke them loudly and softly, lovingly and reprovingly. She paired them with my sister Melinda’s name. She let them roll off her tongue, and she wrote them down to see how they looked on paper. Finally, she settled on a boy’s name – a real winner. Lying in bed one morning, she struck up a conversation with my father: “I think we should name him ‘Tristram.’”

My father sat bolt upright in bed. “Absolutely not,” he said. And so with a mixture of brainstorming, cajoling, and bargaining, my parents settled on “Adam,” thinking the name to be a good, strong one. (Just a side note: if I had been a girl, and I’m not making this up, my mother would have named me “Meriwether.”)

Sometimes, I wonder what my life would be like if my dad had agreed with my mother’s initial offering. “Tristram” is certainly less common than “Adam,” not that “Adam” is on a top ten baby name list. “Tristram” comes from the word “sad” in Latin or “tumult” in Gaelic. The variant “Tristan” was one of King Arthur’s knights, the subject of stories and songs, and Wagner’s great opera. You know where “Adam” comes from. When God sculpted the dust into a form and breathed life into the body, what God made was my name. Originally, my name wasn’t a name at all; rather, “Adam” – ha adam – was the word for “human being.” “Man of earth” might be the most expressive translation, though my friends who studied Hebrew in seminary took to calling me “dirt boy.”

Would my life be any different if I had been named “Tristram” rather than “Adam?” Could I have traced a different path with a different name? Does a name really matter in the grand scheme of things? Judging by today’s passage from the Gospel according to Matthew, the answer is “yes.” The right name is significant enough for an angel to tell Joseph just what to call the child growing in his fiancé’s womb. But just one name won’t do: Matthew recalls a second name for this child from the words of the great prophet Isaiah. And these names – Jesus, Emmanuel – these names are more than just names. They are mission statements. They are explanations of the life that God sent God’s only Son to live.

The angel in Joseph’s dream tells him to name Mary’s child “Jesus,” because “he will save his people from their sins.” “Jesus” (Iesous) is the Greek way of writing the Hebrew name “Yeshua,” which we render in English as “Joshua.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses grooms Joshua to be his successor because Moses knows that he’s not going to reach the Promised Land. After Moses dies, Joshua leads the people of Israel out of the wilderness, which had encompassed them for forty years. This hero of the old stories, which were told at the Temple and around the dinner table, finishes the work of bringing the people into the Promised Land. Forty years from God’s initial rescue of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, Joshua helps God close that chapter of Israel’s history.

God saves Israel. This is the mission statement found in Joshua’s name, which means “God saves.” The life that Mary’s child will live years after Joseph gives the boy Joshua’s name accomplishes the same mission. Jesus, the angel says, “will save the people from their sins.” Jesus takes the people out of the new wilderness in which they are wandering. This new wilderness takes up no space on a map. There is no Promised Land a month’s hard trudging through the desert. Rather, the wilderness from which Jesus saves the people is the emotional, psychological, and spiritual desolation that they wrought for themselves. They created deserts around and within themselves through misplaced priorities and apathy toward the less fortunate and worship of all manner of idols, including the very law that was supposed to connect them to God.

Sound familiar? The desolation that the people of Jesus’ time brought upon themselves is the same desolation that affects people today. Our idols might be shiny and new, but our deference to them is unchanged. Notice, however, that the mission statement found in Jesus’ Hebrew name is not “God saved,” but “God saves.” With his resurrection, Jesus signals to people of all times that nothing in all creation – not even death – can keep God from bringing people back to God. We are some of those people. Nothing in all creation can keep Jesus from being in relationship with us. When we embrace this joyous truth, we can participate with Jesus in turning our desolate deserts into Promised Lands.

This constant relationship, this promise kept through the power of the resurrection, brings us to the mission statement found in Jesus’ other name: Emmanuel. Matthew helps out his non-Hebrew readers by translating this name right there in the text. Emmanuel means “God is with us.” Just as God was with Moses and Joshua and the rest of Israel during their forty-year journey through the wilderness, God was still with the people of Israel during their own self-imposed desolation. After all, God is the God of the desert and the Promised Land. But their desolation kept them from seeing the truth that God was with them. In Jesus’ life, the reality of Emmanuel – God with us – found flesh and blood. 17th century poet Richard Crashaw describes Jesus’ Incarnation in this way:

“Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span!
Summer in winter! day in night!
Heaven in earth! and God in man!”

After centuries of captivity, after the life-giving words of the prophets had begun to fade from the collective memory, God’s people needed the immediacy, the physicality of the Incarnation to bring them back to God. This flesh and blood reality of God-with-us shocked some folks out of their desolation. They told others and those others told more, and pretty soon, followers of Jesus Christ were spreading to the ends of the earth his good news of abundant life lived for God.

But just as  “God saves” is not simply a past event, “God-with-us” emanates from Jesus’ life on earth through the presence of the Holy Spirit down to us. His “eternity shut in a span” breaks free of the constraints of time, and so we too can encounter Emmanuel in our lives. Jesus promises to fulfill his name’s mission statement even after he ascends to heaven. In the very last line of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus echoes this name when he says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).

Every moment of every day, we have the opportunity of encountering the presence of God-with-us. We have the ability to participate with the God who saves in turning our desolation into a place of springs, where the “wilderness and the dry land shall be glad” and “the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35:1). In the very names of our Savior Jesus Christ, we find the good news of God for all people. When we discover the presence of Emmanuel and embrace the forgiveness and salvation of Yeshua, of Jesus, we can then begin to ask God what our missions shall be. We can pray, “O God, what would you have our names mean?”