Dance Before the Lord!

“Dance Before the Lord!”

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 14-19 (6:14) – July 11, 2021

            Have you ever been to a worship service where people praised the Lord in all kinds of ways? More than singing hymns and worship songs. I mean, playing all kinds of instruments, dancing before God, and other kinds of artistic expressions. I know some churches regularly have multiple expressions of praise to God, in lots of different ways!

            This full reading from 2 Samuel chapter 6 is a long, extended one. I left out some of the material in the middle, not because it isn’t important. Following God’s explicit instructions and God’s subsequent punishment certainly is important! However, I wanted us to focus on the second part of today’s reading: King David and his joyous dancing before the Lord.

            Have you ever attended a church that had a dance ministry? Where members of that church performed sacred dance before the Lord? I have been a guest in such churches and worship services. This can be a beautiful and expressive way of praising God, and offering up the best of what creative people can give to God. Just as much as singing a worship song as solo or duet can be, or playing an instrument for special music in church.

            Let’s take a closer look at this narrative from 2 Samuel 6. The Ark of the Covenant – or, as our reading says, God’s Covenant Box – had been taken hostage by the Philistine army. That did not go well for them. If you happen to remember the movie made some years ago where the fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones found the Ark of the Covenant hidden away in Egypt, things did not go well for the Nazis who appropriated the Ark from Indy and his friends.  

Meanwhile, the Philistines decided God’s special Covenant Box was too much for them to hold hostage any longer. God convinced them to return the Ark by sending plagues on the Philistines. So, they shipped it back into the land of Israel on an ox-drawn cart with no driver.

King David was so excited to have the Ark of the Covenant back in Israel’s hands. He organized a big procession to bring it back into Jerusalem, his capitol city.

Sadly, I will not have time to take a close look at the sudden death of one of the men entrusted to walk beside the special Covenant Box. Following God’s specific instructions could be a sermon topic all on its own! We are going to continue on to look at the next episode of this narrative: where King David and a whole bunch of priests and Levites – the leaders in charge of all Israel! – dance and praise before the Lord as they march on the way to the Tabernacle.    

I remember several leaders of some churches where I belonged, years ago. I cannot imagine any of these leaders dancing and leaping before the Lord. Either because of embarrassment or pride, anxiety or impatience, or some other emotions altogether, these church leaders probably would never, ever dance in joy before the Lord. Never, ever.

But, our writer tells us that not only David and some priests and Levites dance, but says that eventually almost everyone in Israel joins in! They all join in worship and praise to the Lord. Celebrating God’s special Presence in the Ark of the Covenant, God’s special Box.

  Many people could see the Ark as it was brought into the city. They could sing and march and dance because it had returned from the Philistines. And, the people of Israel could be greatly blessed because now the Ark of the Covenant was back where it belonged, among God’s special people. And, God’s special Covenant Box signaled God’s Presence to all of Israel.

            Today, no one knows where the Ark of the Covenant is, if it even still exists. Nevertheless, God’s Presence is still very much in evidence among God’s people, right now. As one of my commentators mentions, “What symbols, objects or stories help us ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear’ God’s Presence among us? Stories from scripture, such as the exodus from Egypt, can make God present now.” [1]

            What special objects or stories mean a great deal to you? What special objects or stories are all-important to you, so important that you cannot imagine a worship service without them? Some imagine a large cross in the front of the church. Others think of the big Bible on the altar or lectern. Christian worship services often hold special things as quite valuable.

            “The danger, of course, is that the special objects or rituals will become idols in themselves, rather than signs pointing to God-with-us. So we must cultivate dynamic awareness that allows our rituals and objects to act as a sort of hyperlink, moving us beyond them to the larger Presence there.” [2] Just so, today we can connect to God’s Presence in ways that are significant and touch the heart and soul, that are meaningful to each of us – and celebrate others for connecting in ways that are meaningful and soulful to each of them! Whether dancing and leaping, praising in loud voices, praying quietly, singing hymns and songs, drawing and painting, making banners or wall hangings. We humans have a multitude of ways to praise our God!

            What ways are especially meaningful for you to connect to God’s presence?

            Just as David and the other leaders of Israel danced and praised God, we can dance and sing and march. Make some noise, too! Immanuel, God-with-us, the Lord’s Holy Presence is always with us – not just in church. Not just when we open the Bible. We can praise through spiritual practices, through the Lord’s Supper, through God’s beautiful creation, too.

We can all be attentive to God at any time, and at all times. And, the Lord is so pleased when God’s people bring a sacrifice of praise! Praise the Lord!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

(Thanks to Illustrated Ministries for their lesson for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost from 2 Samuel 6, from their 2020 Summer Children’s series.)


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-61-5-12b-19

[2] Ibid.

A Topsy-Turvy Palm Sunday

“A Topsy-Turvy Palm Sunday”

Mark 11:1-11 (11:9) – March 28, 2021

            When my children were little – preschoolers and kindergarteners – I attended a larger church. I can remember seeing my children, with many others, marching around the sanctuary, waving their palms. Something many people fondly remember, and greatly miss. We cannot celebrate a Palm Sunday procession right now, due to pandemic concerns. Some churches are starting to return to in-person worship, but with lots of changes and adaptations! But – was there a formal, planned Palm Sunday procession, all those centuries ago?

Let’s look at today’s reading from Mark 11. “They brought the colt to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the animal, and Jesus got on. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches in the field and spread them on the road. The people who were in front and those who followed behind began to shout, “Praise God! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 God bless the coming kingdom of King David, our father! Praise be to God!”

            That description does sound like a procession, doesn’t it? But, a spontaneous one. An impromptu one. No one expected Jesus to march into Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday. It took everyone off guard.

Except – remember Holy Week, last year? Remember the sudden shock and heightened anxiety that surrounded the encroaching pandemic? No one was really ready for that, either. It took everyone off guard, too.

Jesus prepared to ride into Jerusalem on that unbroken colt, on a donkey that no one had ever ridden before. Sure, His disciples made preparations and fetched the colt, but Jesus rode this humble beast into the city. “There was a tradition from the book of Maccabees of a triumphal and victorious entry of a king (1 Maccabees 4:19-25; 5:45-54; 13:43-51) into Jerusalem; instead, Jesus comes in peace and relatively quietly. Jesus would have known the verse from Zechariah about the Messiah coming into Jerusalem riding on an unbroken colt (Zechariah 9:9). The colt had never been ridden before, which seems a significant fact.” [1]

We can see Jesus entered Jerusalem as a King! What a King – not parading in a fancy chariot or riding on a white stallion. None of the fine trappings or fancy costumes of a King. No royal robes for the humble Rabbi Jesus. Sure, Jesus displayed power as He took part in this procession. “Something unusual occurs: Jesus has power, power over nature, again not the kind of power that is normally associated with kingship or political leadership. He is demonstrating a different kind of power, that in time people will recognise as evidence of His divinity.” [2]

Have you experienced something unusual in this Holy Week? What about last year’s Holy Week, and all the weeks in between? Sure, the world has been turned topsy-turvy. Everything has shifted, and nothing – it seems – is the same. But, hasn’t Jesus displayed His power in this modern Palm Sunday procession in the middle of the pandemic? Just as He displayed unusual power and authority in that Palm Sunday procession so long ago?

No, there were no kingly trumpets blaring as Jesus made the procession. But, people raised their voices when they saw the impromptu parade. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna! Praise God!” We might not be able to raise our actual, physical voices, but we can lift our hearts. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

As we reflect further on power – the kind of power Jesus displayed, which was definitely not worldly, raw, overbearing power! As we think about the gentle, spiritual, yet foundational power that Jesus embodies, what other memories come to mind from this past year of pandemic? Many in our country have a sharpened awareness of power – and the absence of it. Who has power, and who is using it.

As we think about essential workers, so many of them are low-wage workers. Workers who must go into a facility to do their jobs, or who punch a time-clock. Plus, workers put their health and even their lives on the line every time they go into work. “Those often paid least in our society are crucial to maintaining and caring; delivery, stocking and serving in shops. The majority of people who have lost jobs are people earning less than £10 an hour, while the rich have got richer.” [3] What would Jesus say about the increasing inequities of this past year?

Jesus and His Palm Sunday procession is a continuation of the topsy-turvy way He presented Himself to Israel as their King, as their Messiah. If we follow Jesus, we are certainly not called to be of this world. Jesus commands us not to get too comfortable or self-satisfied. That self-satisfied, self-righteous lifestyle was what many of the leaders and teachers of Jesus’ time tried to maintain. Is that what we try to maintain, too? Are we too comfortable to follow Jesus, to take up our Cross and follow Him down that difficult road of discipleship?

This week, I invite you to walk with Jesus, in that topsy-turvy way of discipleship. Not the self-satisfied, self-righteous strut, but the humble, kind walk with our Lord. Jesus walked through this Holy Week with eyes wide open. He knew what lay at the end of it – crucifixion and the Cross. As we travel with Jesus through this particular Holy Week, “are you more aware of what comes at the end of it? Because we know what comes next in a way we maybe never did before. But even more than that, perhaps because we also know our need of God in ways we maybe never did before.” [4]

Yes, we can say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” I invite all of us to travel with Jesus through these topsy-turvy times, because He is the one who will keep our steps safe and help us even when we stumble. Even on the way of the Cross. Amen, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/74513/28-March-6-Sunday-in-Lent.pdf

The Faith Nurture Forum would like to thank Rev Jenny Williams, Minister of Drylaw Parish Church, for her thoughts on Palm/Passion Sunday, sixth in Lent.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://dancingwiththeword.com/whispering-hosanna/

Give Thanks to the Lord!

“Give Thanks to the Lord!”

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 (107:7) – March 17, 2021 (Midweek Lenten Service, Week 4)

            One thing that I’ve heard many people miss in this time of the pandemic is congregational singing. Sure, there is piano and organ music in worship services, sometimes guitar, violin or cello, even wind instruments on taped services, when no church members are present in the congregation. But, many people really miss singing hymns together in worship services, and can’t wait until it’s safe to sing in a group once more.  

            That’s exactly what we have here today. A congregational hymn, in Psalm 107, one many people would sing together in worship as they marched up the hill to the great Temple in Jerusalem. Or, they also could possibly sing this psalm in praise to God as the worship in the Temple started to get under way.

            Just as modern worship services often begin with praise music, this psalm opens with instructions to the congregation to give thanks to God. We can think of many hymns and praise songs that do this exact thing. In this particular psalm, God, in goodness and steadfast love – or chesed – has redeemed the people from the hand of the oppressor. What is more, God’s people have been gathered “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (verse 3), or from all points of the compass. [1]

            This is a longer psalm, speaking to travelers lost in the desert, prisoners, the sick, and sailors on the sea. God reaches out to all of these groups, to all of these travelers through life. I don’t know about you, but I sure feel lost and alone sometimes – especially after the year of the pandemic. We are now at the one-year point, thinking about all kinds of loss so many have gone through this past 12-month period of time. How have you navigated through these difficult times? What has been your anchor in this time of storm and distress?

            This psalm was written after the exile to Babylon, so I am certain that many of the people who had returned to the land of Palestine had difficult memories of the 50-year period of time just passed. However, this psalm urges us to remember the wonderful things God has done and continues to do for each of us, every day. The Lord is good, and displays steadfast love, or chesed, to all. God’s wonderful words to all the children of humanity completely overwhelm me – looking at the world, the beauty of each day, and the marvels of creation that God freely gives.

Commentator Nancy deClaissé-Walford does remind us, “What about those who in the wilderness and are sick to the point of death through no fault of their own? What about those who are battered by the storms of life? Yes, we can cry out to God; yes, we can hope in God’s good provisions.”

I know this is a difficult thing for some, especially when going through serious illness, extended challenges, or the loss of a close loved one. Yet, God’s mercies are faithful. They are sure every morning. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is not just a pretty hymn we sing in church sometimes. No, we can remember those mercies, that steadfast love God displays to all, and take comfort and encouragement from those very gifts. Free gifts, given to all, the just and the unjust.

  “We must never forget that those of us who have ample resources and strength are called to be the arms and legs, the hands and feet, the voice of God in this world. God will redeem from the east and the west, from the north and from the south; but the redemption of God often takes human form. And isn’t that what Lent is all about?” [2]


[1]  Nancy deClaisse-Walford, Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages

McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, GAhttps://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-1071-3-17-22-4

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God Answers When We Cry

“God Answers When We Cry”

Psalm 22:23-31 (22:24) – March 3, 2021 (Midweek Lenten Service, Week 2)

            How often do you cry out to God in prayer? Whether it’s sadness, grief, despair, or anger for yourself, or in pleading prayer for a loved one, this is an agonizing feeling that so many people have in common.

            This psalm, Psalm 22, may be familiar to many people from Jesus’ last words on the Cross. The first line of this psalm are those words of lament, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” These are words many suffering people have echoed throughout the centuries. And, some will more closely examine these words from the beginning of Psalm 22 in just a few weeks, when we enter into the Passion of our Lord, in Holy Week.

            However, there is so much more to this psalm! The reading for today is from the end of the psalm, verses 23 through 31. Yes, it comes from a psalm of lament. And, who has not complained to God at some time or other? Sometimes, more often than any of us wish to?

            These cries of lament and complaint have a specific pattern to them.

  1. the invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to hear and listen
  2. the complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong
  3. the petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do
  4. the expression of trust, in which the psalmist tells God why she or he knows that God can do what the psalmist asks
  5. the expression of praise and adoration, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God [1]

This psalm reading, from verse 23 on, is wholly in the last part of this pattern: the expression of praise and adoration. We are in the praise territory of this hymn, and this last portion of the psalm is tied closely to the beginning, which seems so dark and hopeless. The psalmist makes a journey from darkness and despair to light and hope.

Is that our journey, sometimes? Can we be in the depths of misery or sadness or grief or despair? And then, gradually, the light of God’s presence comes into our experience. God extends hope and encouragement into our hopeless or sorrowful situation.

As I learned from Dr. Ken Bailey in one of his excellent Bible seminars, centuries ago there were no titles or numbers for the psalms. Bible students and scholars would refer to psalms by the first line. So, when our Lord Jesus referred to “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Yes – I am sure He was speaking forth this great lament from Psalm 22. However, I believe Jesus may also have been thinking of this portion of the psalm, especially verse 24: “God does not neglect the poor or ignore their suffering; God does not turn away from them, but answers when they call for help.”

            We do not have a distant, uncaring God! Yes, there is pain and suffering and sadness in the world. Yes, we will have sorrow and grief and even despair in our lives. Yet, God is present even amidst all that negative stuff. God will sit with us, or walk by our sides, as we go through all of that. And if we have a loved one who is going through the valley of the shadow, we can come alongside of that family member, or friend, and let them know that we are there, too.

            As Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 1, the Lord helps us in all our troubles – vertically – so that each of us may be able to help others – horizontally – when they go through their troubles and difficulties. Praise God for God’s faithfulness to all generations.

Remember, this psalm assures us that all peoples will worship the Lord; from every part of the world they will turn to God. This is a promise from God, and it is faithful and true. Amen.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-2223-31-4  

Nancy deClaisse-Walford, Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages, McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, GA


Through God’s Strength!

“Through God’s Strength!” – September 19, 2020

Philippians 4:12-20 (4:12-14)

When people have food, shelter, employment, and money, it’s easy to be content and happy. Isn’t it? Or, is it easy to be poor, hungry, unemployed and homeless? What would the apostle Paul’s answer to that question be?

This is our last sermon from Philippians. We are looking again at the apostle Paul, in prison, in a really awful situation. Shackled to a Roman soldier, 24 hours a day, with no privacy, in a cold, dank, drafty stone cell.

For the past eight weeks, we have considered Paul and his words to his friends from Philippi. He wrote this thank-you letter to the Philippians congregation, and it was one of the most joy-filled letters we have, included in the New Testament.

Do you know how much it means for a friend to send a message, an email, a card or letter, especially when you are downhearted and close to giving up hope? That is what Paul’s former congregation in Philippi did. They showed “a love and concern that led them to help Paul. The most significant gifts often cost us very little—sometimes nothing, except a few moments to say a friendly word or the make a telephone call or send an email, the stamp to post a letter or a card. What matters is that someone has been remembered with affection and concern.” [1]

Paul says he knows what it’s like to be poor, and he knows what it’s like to have abundance, in verse 12. I know there are many in the United States who may consider themselves to be poor, but I wonder whether you realize quite what Paul was talking about here.

We could drill down to find out more about economic, educational and societal poverty worldwide. For example, according to the United Nations latest report on poverty in 2019, 23 percent of the world population – that’s 1.3 billion people – lived in abject poverty worldwide. Just to give you an idea of how little money we are talking about, that is living on approximately $1 a day, or less.

Paul did not mean just economic poverty. He also was talking about poverty of spirit, poverty of emotional wherewithal, poverty of humility and ability to persevere.

We all know something about that. Who has not felt the pinch of poverty of spirit in the past six months? In the past six months, who has not had their emotions shredded raw, like raw vegetables on a kitchen grater? Never mind about humility, who has felt their ability to persevere stretched very, very thin? I know I have. And, I suspect I am not the only one, by far.

 Paul could have been in despair, being in prison, charged with a capital crime. He was facing possible death. Yet, he wrote one of the most joy-filled letters in the New Testament. What was his secret? How did Paul keep his chin up?

He tells us, right here. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul says, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Yeah, right, Paul! Easy for you to say!

As one of my favorite commentators J. Vernon McGee says, “Many of us think that if things are going right and if we are in the right place, then we will be contented. That means that we depend on the circumstances of life for our contentment….But Paul had learned to be content regardless of his state. There were times when he had nothing, and he was content. There were times when God had given him an abundance, and he had learned how to abound.” [2]

Paul “is able to meet the circumstances of life head-on in the strength of Christ. Paul does not depend on his own strength or ability, rather he relies on the sustaining help of Jesus.” [3] Our Lord Jesus will sustain us with his strength. Alleluia!

Paul does not share his dire circumstances in order to twist the arms of his friends to send him more money. No! He thanks his Philippian friends for both their financial gift as well as their messenger, Epaphroditus, and this letter is so, so much more than just a simple thank-you card. Paul also communicates the fact that – over his years of serving the Lord – he has learned to be content, no matter what. Either contentment with hunger, as Jesus did in the wilderness, or “contentment with abundance, without being caught up with the desire for more. He has learned to rejoice in the lean times and does not feel compelled to change his circumstances. He leaves that to God.” [4]

This sounds like it flies in the face of everything we might hear from those television evangelists who preach the health, wealth and prosperity Gospel. But, isn’t it consistent with what many people in the Bible – both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – experience on a daily basis? Paul tells us right here that it is not the outer trappings of wealth and plenty, or the circumstances of life that count to God. No, it is the internal attitude, the Godly mindset, the inside job that truly counts.

Praise God that our internal attitude is what God finds truly valuable. May we all, like Paul, be filled to overflowing, well-supplied with the strength of Christ Jesus our Lord.   


[1] Hooker, Morna D., “The Letter to the Philippians,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 2000), 548.

[2] McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible, Vol. V (Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, 1983), 326.

[3]  “The Power that Christ Gives,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources   http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday28aee.html

[4] From the series: To Live Is Christ: A Study of the Book of Philippians

https://bible.org/seriespage/13-give-and-take-phil-410-20

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Rest for the Weary

(I am on vacation this weekend. Thanks to the Rev. John Lewis of The Presbyterian Church of Hamilton, Ohio for preaching for me at St. Luke’s Church!

This is a sermon from 2008 on the Lectionary passage from Matthew 11:28-30.)

“Rest for the Weary” – July 6, 2008

Matt 11-28 rest, bench

Matthew 11:28-30

I was born here in the city. My parents were born here, too, in Chicago. I have only a vague idea of what goes on in the country, on a farm. My information about farming activity comes chiefly from material I have read, and a bit from stories I have been told. By my father-in-law, for example, who grew up on a small farm in southeastern Iowa during the 1930’s.

So, when I read a scripture passage like the one we have before us today, I have to take a really close look at it, and work hard at fully understanding it, because I am not that familiar with oxen, or yokes. But burdens—I am familiar with burdens. And our Lord Jesus talks about burdens here in this reading from the Gospel of Matthew.

Burdens come in all assorted shapes and sizes. Burdens can be solitary things, with each of us, on our own, struggling with our separate burdens. It is difficult indeed for me to carry a burden on my own. And I am heavily laden. Let’s face it. We are all burdened with something. Perhaps several things. A few of us carry a lot of heavy difficulties, whether psychological, emotional, or physical. These all can be heavy burdens, to be sure.

If I thought I was having problems before, I did not even consider this next complication: I am naturally separated from other people here in this world. Just as much, if not more, I am also separated from God above. I not only have a wall of isolation separating me from other people, I also have that same isolating wall separating me from God.

The Bible has a name for this horrible wall of isolation, and this name is sin. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The verse is not that a few have sinned. It does not say that some have sinned. The letter to the Romans says that all have sinned. So that wall of isolation has been erected between me and God, and me and other individuals. And that wall is there for you, too.

Think of different kinds of loads: burdens of pain and suffering, burdens of loneliness and isolation, burdens of other kinds of losses. If we think about it, on top of the other burdens that each of us is carrying is the burden of sin.

So, not only is each one of us separated from God and from our fellow human beings, but each of us is heavily burdened by countless other things. And I could imagine lots of people getting virtual hernias, because they are carrying their burdens all by themselves.

The truly good news is that we do not have to bear these burdens all alone, any more. Our Lord Jesus has reconciled us to God. Each of us is no longer separated, isolated. But Jesus brings us back into a proper, friendly relationship with God. Each of us has the opportunity to be called a child of God.

And Jesus not only reconciles each of us back to God, this is where He mentions the yoke. His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.

What is a yoke, anyway? How does it work? What does it do?

You all remember that I am a city girl. From my reading, I have found out that a yoke is used by a farmer to harness two animals—often oxen—to a piece of farm equipment, usually a plow. Yokes were made of wood. When the yoke was made, it was adjusted, so that it would not chafe. And the significant thing about this is that a yoke was custom-fitted to the particular ox that pulled with it.

Jesus mentions a yoke here. Remember, all of these people Jesus was talking to understood about farm life, and oxen, and especially about a good fit on a yoke. So when or Lord Jesus mentions “My yoke is easy,” He means that His yoke for each one of us fits us very well—it’s tailor-made, in other words. And even more important, one ox alone does not pull in a yoke. The load would be unbalanced if there were only one ox. Instead, each of us is in a team . . . in a yoked team with Jesus. If our Lord is right with us, pulling at our burden—whatever it is—at our side, then each of us is on a winning team.

Just imagine. I no longer need to pull at my burdens all by myself, isolated and alone. Jesus is right there next to me, helping me, pulling by my side. Praise God! Jesus comes alongside each one of us. Jesus is there to encourage us. And He will bring rest for our souls. Is there any better news than this best of all Good News?

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Live a New Life

“Live a New Life”

Rom 6-4 nwness of life

Romans 6:1-5 (6:4) – June 21, 2020

I have a friend who should have been on the debate team in high school. On occasion, he loves to discuss and debate points of history, or whether this or that point of politics has merit. He is quite good at expressing himself, and often enjoys a good, rousing discussion.

My friend reminds me of the apostle Paul. Paul talks at great length in his letters about such wonderful doctrines like sin, death, grace, baptism and salvation. He discussed several of them in chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans.

Paul argued and debated a lot with his fellow Christians. We are familiar with that, today, too. Theologians, church leaders and ministers debating back and forth, this way and that.

Different denominations have different “rules and regulations” about living the Christian life. One group tells believers that all true Christian people have to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Another group tells all believing women that they have to wear skirts and are never permitted to wear pants. A third group says that musical instruments in worship services are evil, and only the human voice is fit to be used to praise the Lord.

Some of these rules and regulations might seem petty, or over the top, but they make sense to the people who follow them. The apostle Paul had to deal with some of these well-meaning but legalistic followers of Christ, too.

Paul used to be one of these super-legalistic followers of the Lord. He says it himself: he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee. A strict follower of God, blameless and righteous according to his observance of the Mosaic Law Code. (according to Philippians 3)

I am sure many believers are familiar with Romans 3:23, and can quote it word for word: “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” Yes, that is in the middle of Paul’s discussion about sin. Then, Paul brings the theological concept of grace into the continuing argument, and adds additional layers to the ideas of sin, grace and forgiveness.

But, what does he say here in Romans, in the follow-up to his discussion of sin and grace in Chapter 5? I love the translation of Eugene Peterson, from the Message. This is his version of what Paul said: “So what do we do now? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving us? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good?”

Oh, Pastor Peterson, you make these complex ideas of sin and grace from the apostle Paul so clear and plain.

Our old house on Transgression Avenue, in the Country of Sin, was a rattletrap of a building. Sin lurked in every part of that house—under the stairs, in the closets, and especially in the bedroom, basement and attic. That was before we met Jesus, and before He became the general contractor on that old sinful house. Jesus didn’t do just a cosmetic paint job. No, He started major work, inside and out. The work on some houses—some people—went more slowly, some more quickly, but sooner or later we moved out of the old neighborhood. That old, sin-filled neighborhood on Transgression Avenue.

Can you see how this analogy of an old house fits in to our new life in Jesus Christ? Sure, our old life—when we were still filled with sin—is like that old sin-filled house. But, after we met Jesus, He became the general contractor. Jesus started to tear down sagging walls, replace the plumbing and electrical systems. Jesus came alongside each of us. Jesus wants us to see that He can help us out with all kinds of components in our spiritual houses—in our lives.

How does Jesus go to work on our sinful selves? With His righteousness, that He freely gives us when we believe in Him. Jesus’ “righteousness, his faithfulness is ours as a gift of divine grace through faith, and this apart from obedience to the law. There is nothing that we can add to what Christ has done for us.[1]

Did you hear? Nothing. We add nothing. It’s all a gift, that Jesus freely gives to us. Some people still think they need to earn brownie-points with God for being good, before they can reach God’s heaven. Some people argued with Paul, saying they opposed his teaching about grace—God’s free gift of grace, because they still wanted to earn brownie-points.

Paul’s comeback? Yes, we have died to sin. Yes, we are buried with Jesus Christ in baptism. And, yes, we have been resurrected with Jesus to new life! Eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Plus, it’s all from Jesus, and nothing from us!

I repeat the wonderful translation of Eugene Peterson, of our Scripture today: If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!”

Praise God, we have a new life. We—each one of us—is a new creation in Christ Jesus. We no longer live in that tumbledown, sin-filled house on Transgression Avenue, in Sin Country. Even though we get pulled back sometimes, and turned around by temptation, we have moved into a new house for good. Jesus laid the sure foundation! A new life in a new, forgiven, redeemed country: Grace Country!

Remember who you are. Remember who you belong to; we have died to sin and now we live a new life in Jesus Christ. Remember! Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday13ae.html   “Buried and Raised with Christ,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Godly Weeping

“Godly Weeping”

John 11-35 Jesus wept, rain

John 11:1-45 (11:35-36) – March 29, 2020

Who has ever grieved for a loved one when that loved one has died? All of us can remember times when we grieved a close relative or a close friend. Such a common response. Whether outwardly or inwardly expressed, it is difficult to deal with mourning and grief.

When Lent started this February, not many people expected the corona virus to become so serious, so quickly. So many people becoming sick, hospitalized, and even dying. Imagine the helplessness of relatives, friends and other loved ones when someone so abruptly falls ill. Added to that, what do friends and loved ones do when they are not allowed to see patients in the hospital, in intensive care, even on a deathbed? It’s a difficult complication to grief.

For our Scripture reading today, we have the raising of Lazarus from John 11. The apostle takes us through a series of scenes. Jesus and His disciples arrive in Bethany after several days, and Lazarus has already died. Lazarus was a dear friend of Jesus, along with Lazarus’s sisters Martha and Mary. Several days before, the sisters urgently sent to Jesus, begging Him to come and heal their brother, Jesus’ friend. Then, Lazarus was dead, in the tomb. Mary and Martha were devastated, and their community gathered around them, to grieve with them.

What about dying, mourning and grief today? “When someone dies it is generally publicly acknowledged. Friends and family gather, life is celebrated, love is celebrated, the bereaved feel supported while their community gathers. Healing begins in time, and the lives of the ones that are living go forward still carrying the grief. Grief out of loss is validating, our society tells us that it is right and acceptable to experience anger, sadness, depression when a loved one dies.” [1]

We note specific mourning and grieving practices in the first century. The Gospels mention funerals and grieving several times when Jesus performs miracles. Like, for example, right here. Mary and Martha’s friends, acquaintances and community gather around, even four days after the burial of Lazarus. They come together to mourn with the sisters, and weep.

As I have been meditating on John 11 this week, I see that Jesus wept. He wept in company with Mary and Martha, He wept because He mourned Lazarus’ passing, and He was surrounded by people who were grieving. Added to that deep emotion was the anger from some who thought (or openly said), “This Jesus could have come back a couple of days ago, before Lazarus died! Jesus healed others…why couldn’t He heal His good friend?”

Anger, yes. Sadness, depression, hopelessness, even paralysis. All of these are expressions of grief. But, grief can come from many different things, many different losses.

Today, vast numbers of people are grieving. “Disenfranchised grief comes when we experience loss that is not associated with a death. Many in our community are grieving the distance between family and friends and sometimes that distance is as much as a house or a few blocks away. Disenfranchised loss comes when our loss we are experiencing is not validated by our community, when it is not publicly acknowledged. Grief many are experiencing in light of COVID 19 can easily be dismissed because we have all had to give up the running of our daily lives, in whatever capacity that involves.” [2]

Jesus truly, deeply grieved with Martha and Mary. Reading along, we see that He wept. Those around Him said, “See, how much the Rabbi Jesus loved Lazarus!”

When I was a hospital chaplain for almost ten years, I worked nights and weekends. I would be called to emergencies in intensive care, cardiac care, end-of-life care, and thrust into heartrending situations where I scrambled to be present with grieving people. I needed to come alongside of traumatized loved ones at the absolute worst times of their lives. It is a humbling, devastating experience. But, I never had to be a hospital chaplain in the face of a pandemic.

Do we remember that Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” before He wept with Martha?

He goes on to say, “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Martha makes that great statement of belief, “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Even at the grave of her newly dead brother, Martha makes that ringing statement of trust. Even in the face of desperate losses from loss of a job, or loss of a spouse, loss from a disaster, or loss of a sense of home and of place—can we echo her words today?

But, this is not the end of the story. After Jesus weeps with the sisters, sharing their grief, He performs another mighty miracle. Jesus tells Lazarus to come forth, out of the tomb, and Lazarus does exactly that. Alive!

Jesus conquered grief, mourning and loss. Both here in John 11, with the raising of Lazarus, and in the Resurrection, when Jesus triumphed over death once and for all. Praise God, we can believe Jesus. Praise God, we can trust in Jesus, and although we may weep and grieve for the present time, our weeping will ultimately turn to joy. Amen.

[1] Jess Swance, meditation on “Disenfranchised Grief in Our Communities” (personal article)

[2] Ibid.

(I would like to thank Jess Swance. For this sermon, I have used several quotes and ideas from a personal, unpublished meditation she wrote. I appreciate you, Jess!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God Gives Us Good Things

“God Gives Us Good Things!”

Deut 26-1-11 words

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (26:11) – November 24, 2019

This season we are in right now I call the thankful time of the year. We give thanks for the harvest just brought in to the barns across the country. We give thanks for fruits and vegetables harvested from our back gardens in cities and suburbs. And, we give thanks for God’s wonderful bounty of gifts poured out upon us all, regularly.

Our Scripture reading from the book of Deuteronomy lists a thanksgiving for the harvest for the Jewish people. It’s not only a thank-you to God, but chapter 26 lists a required offering of first fruits all Jews ought to bring to God. The first fruits—or harvest—of the season we bring to God, as an expression of gratitude and thankfulness.

What is more appropriate for our reading today than this Scripture reading, especially at this thankful, grateful time of the year?

Deuteronomy 26 begins with these words: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name.”

Talk about making an actual, physical offering of the first fruits you have gathered from your farm, or orchard, or dairy, or hen house. Whatever we have the opportunity to gather from our harvest, that is what we are to present to the Lord

Yes, showing our gratitude and thankfulness to our God is truly important. But—does this Scripture passage say more than just a duty-bound thank-you operation? Our biblical commentator certainly thinks so. “God gave the unexpected and free gift of a new life to a group of stateless persons, making of them a people with a special relationship to him and giving them a ‘land of milk and honey’ to live in.” [1]

I can understand how this presentation of first fruits was so important for the Jewish people—finally with a land of their own after centuries of having no place to call their own. Wandering and landless. Just as Moses gave one of the biblical patriarchs as an example: this reading even mentions a “wandering Aramean.”

Moreover, the manner in which the Jews are to say “thank you” to God for material and spiritual gifts is important. That is what I hear when I listen to this chapter read: it has not only the instructions for presenting the first fruits of our harvest to God, but also the underlying reason why, in the first place.

“The members of the nation are invited to respond to this divine initiative by showing their gratefulness, and to do so by returning to God part of what God has given them. But how can we give a present to the invisible God? Here is where the institution of organized worship comes in, to enable human beings to make a symbolic offering to God and in this way to express their relationship to him.” [2]

So, we are not only to give God thanks individually, but we are instructed to do so in organized worship services. This is a way to gather together and to jointly—as a worshiping body—lift our voices to the Lord in gratitude and thanksgiving.

This is not just for adults. Families can give thanks. We ought to look for opportunities to get our children and grandchildren involved, too. An excellent bible commentator I often reference, Carolyn Brown, mentions how we might possibly get our children involved in the giving of thanks. “Involving children in community services is a good way to draw a crowd and to introduce children to their community’s religious base.”  She also suggests that we “provide paper and crayons or markers for children (and older worshipers) to write poems or draw pictures of where they see God all around them.” [3] These are imaginative and creative ways to celebrate God and give God our thanks.

There are many ways we can celebrate at a joint Thanksgiving service to God. One way is to sing hymns of thanksgiving and celebration and thank God for the wonderful harvest, as we are in this service today.

Can we think of a better way to have everyone in our community gather together to give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy? Just like on this coming Wednesday, when our wider Morton Grove community will gather here in this place to give thanks.

I know that several people here in this service have attended many of the past community Thanksgiving Eve services. I would like to remind everyone that the giving of thanks is a universal expression of gratitude. We have a tremendous opportunity for everyone to gather together and give thanks, despite our variety of backgrounds and despite our religious differences.

Just as we collect an offering at the close of each service on Sunday mornings, so we will gather an offering on Wednesday night. Not only are we making a symbolic gesture of our worship through the gathering of people from diverse faith traditions and various world cultures, but we all can lift thanksgiving and gratitude together as a community, no matter when each of us separately and regularly praise and worship God.

Is there a better and more praiseworthy way for us today to give thanks to God? What is more, is there a better way for us to show God how much we care for and love God? The Jewish people have gathered for millenia, in regular praise and worship of God, and especially in thanksgiving for all God has done for them in the past.

Deuteronomy 26 tells us that each individual citizen was told to rejoice with the priests (or, in this case, Levites) and foreigners. God wishes everyone to come before the Holy One with thanksgiving, including foreigners. Just saying, but God repeated informs Israel that they are to treat the foreigners who live with them exactly the same as any citizen of Israel. God makes no distinction, and tells the people of Israel those exact words.

How wonderful to have that continuity across the ages. From the Jews, wandering in the wilderness, through the time of the Temple and what formal worship happened there, up through the times of the foundation of the Church and more recent centuries—we have always had occasion to gather together to give praise and thanks to our God.

Everything, even life itself is a gift from God above, enabling us to give thanks to God in all things. Isn’t this what the apostle Paul told us in his letter to the Philippians?  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

[1] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2014-10-01

“Giving back to God what God has given us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taizé, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3][3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/09/year-c-thanksgiving-day-october-14-2013.html

Worshiping with Children, Thanksgiving Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Dad’s Favorite!

“Dad’s Favorite!”

Gen 37 Jacob shown bloodstained coat - Rembrandt

Genesis 37:3-4 – June 30, 2019

“It’s not fair!” Who remembers hearing brothers, sisters, or cousins say that? “He gets more!” “I don’t have any!” “He has fancy gym shoes!” or, “She takes special classes, but what do I do? Nothing!” At its worst, sibling rivalry can tear a family apart. When brothers and sisters fight among themselves, hurt feelings and disgruntled relations often result as bickering and arguments break out. These hurt feelings can fester for years, even for decades.

But, what if the whispers and even shouts of “It’s not fair!” happen because a parent plays favorites, elevating one sibling over all the rest? Hurt feelings can become downright animosity, which can fester, simmer, and flare up repeatedly in a lifetime. This animosity can be a devastating family-destroyer.

This very sad topic is what we see, taking a closer look at Genesis 37. Jacob plays favorites with his favorite son, Joseph.

In Sunday school, children often learn about young Joseph and his coat of many colors. Or, as lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Weber referred to it in their classic musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Children get all excited by the many-colored coat. This bible story from Genesis is a great opportunity for making something colorful and memorable for a children’s craft. Often, children do learn about Joseph being his father’s favorite, but not as much about how Joseph tattled on his older brothers, and brought the tales back to his father Jacob. Being a rat like that would not help relations between siblings, either.

But, what was this coat that Jacob gave to Joseph? One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, wonders about this, too. “Depending on the translation, it was a fancy coat, a beautifully decorated coat, a coat with long sleeves (for one who does not have to work), or a coat of many colors. The Bible was written in another language centuries ago and no one knows exactly what kind of coat it was.” [1] Whatever kind of coat it was, it certainly caused trouble. 

Jacob did not have a simple marriage like those we are familiar with—like we do, in the United States today. No, Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah. Plus, Rachel and Leah each had a maidservant, Bilhah and Zilpah. According to the customs of several thousand years ago, Rachel—being a legitimate wife of Jacob—could claim any sons her maid bore if Jacob slept with her. The same went for Leah, being a legitimate wife of Jacob. So, Jacob ended up having four wives, essentially. And, lots of sons. That was where Jacob’s twelve sons came from: from Jacob sleeping with Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.

We might also be familiar with a big pack of kids, cousins, brothers and sisters, kids on the block or the playground. This was what Joseph and his brothers were—a really large family. Plus, little brother Joseph was a little big for his britches. He boasted a lot. You know the type.

After Joseph got the fancy coat from his dad, Jacob, he had a dream. “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.”

Even his father Jacob and mother Rachel got sick and tired of Joseph and his arrogant boasting. Here is Joseph’s second dream: “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” That is, Jacob remembered the boasting dreams that Joseph had. What is more, these dreams would work out to be true in an unimaginable way. But, we are jumping years ahead to the end of the story, already.

If we take a closer look at Jacob, the dad of these twelve brothers, Jacob was no ideal father figure. He not only played favorites with one particular son, but he chose one favorite above the others among his wives and concubines. Rachel was his cherished, favorite wife, and Joseph was her older son. Benjamin was Rachel’s younger son—Jacob’s youngest son, and Rachel died of complications from his birth.

Yes, there was tumult, tragedy and trauma in the whole extended family, going all the way back to the time Jacob was working for Leah’s and Rachel’s, the two sisters’ dad—Laban. Father-in-law Laban was no prize winner where his ethics were concerned. He hoodwinked Jacob into marrying the more unattractive older sister Leah in addition to the beautiful younger sister Rachel. This whole family was messed up, from way back. So, are we surprised if sibling rivalry, hurt feelings and even outright animosity affect all twelve brothers?    

In many ways, a lot of us sympathize with the other brothers. Joseph was a boastful, arrogant pain in the backside. Plus, the brothers had a legitimate complaint against their father who was playing favorites. So many have heard this sadly familiar refrain over and over again. “It wasn’t fair that Joseph got the fancy coat and they had their old clothes. It wasn’t fair that the youngest brother was not required to work with the others and was actually sent to check up on them. Where the brothers got into trouble was when they used an unfair strategy (selling their defenseless brother [as a slave]) to get what seemed only fair for themselves.” [2]

When family members plot and plan against other members of their own family, that is definitely a sign that something is really wrong and really dysfunctional. Perhaps we have been so angry at one of our family members—or a good friend—that we might even have wanted to do something mean or hurtful to them. This seems like something a person who is far from God might want to do—complete with rubbing the hands together and an evil laugh.

Our New Testament reading today is from Romans 2. The apostle Paul lets the believers in Rome know that God judges all people the same—Jews and Gentiles alike. God does not play favorites—unlike Jacob in our sermon passage from Genesis 37.

We know how Jesus responded to people who were unkind to Him, even hated Him. He loved them—all of them. How do you think God wants us to respond when people are unkind to us, or when we don’t like other people? Would God want us to be mean and nasty, and turn our backs on them? Or, would God want us to be kind and loving, even if others are mean and bad? Remember that next time you—we—are tempted to get angry, curse, or fly off the handle.

Face it, this can be really difficult to do, say or think things that are pleasing to God while anger is twisting and roiling deep inside of each one of us.

Going all the way to the end of the story of Joseph, we know he did forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery. In retrospect, Joseph realized that God’s purposes were accomplished, and he reconciled with his brothers,

God can help us reconcile all kinds of families, and friends and acquaintances, too. God can help bring peace and repair relations. God can even bring reconciliation and love back to what some might view as hopeless situations.

Praise God, we indeed have a wonder-working God! Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/07/year-proper-14-19th-sunday-in-ordinary.html

Worshiping with Children, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!