Hawks, Owls and Crows

Last week I wrote of Toads, Stones and Ant Empires the Lesser Creatures in the Garden commenting on Psalm 104:24.

In his sermon on Sunday Vicar Nick Shults suggested we read Psalm 104 several times during the next week. I’ve been trying to follow his suggestion.

After lunch Sunday, while walking near our home, I heard crows cawing in the tops of the oak trees.  It’s a familiar sound when they have gathered to “hound” an owl or hawk.  I had not walked more than a few steps when a hawk went soaring directly overhead veering around St. Lucas UCC church.  I don’t know if this oft repeated scene in our neighborhood is part of the wonder of God’s creation or a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience when everything came apart at the seams in the universe.  I don’t know if it’s a cruel game crows play on birds of prey or if the birds of prey are a danger to crows.  But it is a fascinating drama to observe as it is played out in the air.  Incidentally, I was later in the day and the crow were still chasing through the sky.

Psalm 104: 17 refers to the trees of Lebanon, “In them the birds build their nests.”  However, in Isaiah 34, hawks, owls and ravens are part of the scene of God’s judgments against the nations.  When a city is defeated, destroyed and abandoned, the ruins soon are inhabited by creatures of the wild.  Isaiah 34:11, “But the hawk and the porcupine shall possess it the owl and the raven shall dwell in it.”  Other translations differ from the ESV, but all of them add to the visual effect of chaos and a jumble of stones.

The chaos of battle between humans is replaced with the air battles between with hawks and owls and ravens.  They all will flourish even as they try to wipe out each other’s existence. Isaiah 34:15, There the owl nests and lays and hatches and gathers her young in her shadow; indeed, there the hawks are gathered, each one with her mate.”  Though many of the former human inhabitants will be left alone and forlorn, when it comes to the new inhabitants, “Not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without her mate.” (Is. 34:16)

And yet, in the very next chapter of Isaiah we have the return of the exiled citizens.  “”They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.”  The city will be a place of singing, gladness and joy, “and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Mega Harvest Moon Eclipse

Psalm 104: 19, He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows it’s time for setting.

Our universe, or more properly God’s universe which He has shared with us, is a truly amazing place.  And then last night God throws in a lunar eclipse for our further enjoyment.  The one last night was a special treat, a mega harvest moon eclipse.

It was too cloudy in St. Louis to get a view of the event.  However, through the ingenuity of God -created humans I was able to view it on the internet.  The site I used had views from New Hampshire, United Kingdom, Canary Islands and South Africa.  What struck me was that the view of the moon was the same from all those disparate places.  Though the far flung locations on our planet can seem so different from our own location; yet there is a unity in the whole.  If I watch a golf tournament from Europe, the same type of clouds float in the same blue sky as pass over our heads where I live.

I also wondered if the descriptions of the last days as a time featuring blood and the moon turning to blood (Joel 2:30-31; Rev. 6:12) might not have been drawn from the eclipse of a harvest moon.  Last night the moon certainly did appear to be on fire or covered with blood and smoke.

The author of psalm 104 announces the nature of God right up front, before detailing much of what He has done in creating and governing the universe.  “O Lord my God, you are very great!  You are clothed with splendor and majesty.”

To that we can add our “Yes and amen.”

Helping one another in Christ

James 5:1-20 shares some examples of the challenges in living out our identity in Christ.  Verses 1-6 is addressed to those who take advantage of other people.  In the last days before the coming of Christ, these rich are bent on laying up treasures on earth.  They hire people to work all day and then don’t pay them.  Or find flaws in their work or place fraudulent charges against so they can withhold wages.  These verses call for patience on the part of the righteous who find themselves taking advantage of.  For now they suffer for not taking action on their own, but cry out to God for help.  There will come a day, the day of Christ, when the rich who take advantage of others will receive the “interest” on the wealth they have built up in this life on the backs of other, but remain poverty stricken in the rich they have built up in heaven.

Verses 7-12 continue to advocate patience in the face of suffering.  These verses seem to be addressed to the followers of Christ to not grumble against one another.  Don’t sear on a stack of bibles that you are in the right.  Simply answer “yes” or “no.”  The Lord is compassionate and merciful as we have seen in the coming of Jesus Christ.  Look beyond the immediate situation.  Rather “Establish your hearts (in Christ) for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

Verses 13-20, in the time of suffering prayer and sing praise to the Lord.  Prayer for one another.  Call the elders of the church to come and pray.  Confess your sins to one another that they may be forgiven. If anyone wanders from the faith, bring them back.  And the one who does the hard work of retrieving souls who have become lost is covering a multitude of his own sins and those of the wanderer who is returned to the flock.  But by all means pray for prayer has great power as it works.

God and the Rabble in the Desert

I’m using this “readers theater” as an opening for Bible Class this morning.

Leader: bless the Lord, O my soul!  O Lord my God, you are very great!

From Numbers 11

  1. Meat, meat we want meat to eat!
  2. We remember the fish, free fish!
  3. And melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic.
  4. We’re dying out here.
  5. Enough with the manna, manna for breakfast, manna for lunch, manna for supper.

Leader: God blazed with white hot anger.  Moses turned on God.

Moses: What have you got against me?  Why have you laid this bunch of people on me?  Am I their mother?  Am I their wet nurse?  Do I have a breast to offer them?  Where am I to get meat?  You’re expecting too much.  Just kill me if you don’t want me to lead this bunch anymore.

God: Okay, Moses, pick seventy men.  Bring them to the tent of meeting.

Leader: Then the Lord came down in a cloud and took some of the Sp.irit from Moses and put it on the seventy.  But Elad and Medad received the Spirit, though they did not go to the meeting.

A Tattle Tale: Hey, you know what?  Eldad and Medad are prophesying.

Joshua: Moses, you got to stop them.

Moses:  Joshua, are you jealous?  I would rather have all the people prophesying and the Spirit on them all.

Leader: In the Gospel John tells Jesus that someone who is not a part of their group is casting out demons in His name.  Jesus says not to stop him.  Anyone who does something good because you are in Christ is alright.  Don’t cause these “little ones” to sin.  You may have to learn to swim with a millstone around your neck.  Whatever causes you to sin, get rid of it.

Prayer: from hymn 505, the hymn of the Day:

Triune God, be Thou our stay; O let us perish never; Cleanse us from our sins, we pray, and grant us life forever.  Keep. Us from the evil one; uphold our faith most holy, and let us trust Thee solely with humble hearts and lowly.  Let us put God’s armor on, with all true Christian running our heavenly race and shunning the devil’s whiles and cunning, Amen, amen! This be done: So sing we “Alleluia!”

ALL: Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

They ask: Is God, Too, Lonely

By Carl Sandburg

When God scooped up a handful of dust,

And spit on it, and molded the shape of man,

And blew a breath into it and told it to walk-

That was a great day.

And did God do this because He was lonely?

Did God say to Himself he must have company

And therefore He would make man to walk the earth

And set apart churches for speech and song with God?

These are questions.

They are scrawled in old caves.

They are painted in tall cathedrals.

There are men and women so lonely they believe

God, too, is lonely.

Complete Poems, Carl Sandburg, 1950, Harcourt, Brace & World

Toads, Stones and Ant Empires

Lesser Creatures of the Garden

Four toads’ prowl and prey in the gardens in my front and back yard.  I never see them hiding under a leaf or in the shadow of a stone until I am engaged in the curse of Adam, keeping the weeds at bay from my flowers and tomatoes.  The toads are a welcome sight as they scurry out of my way and sight, for they have been lying in wait for an insect to wander within in tongue length.

The creation Psalm, 104:24, extols the Lord, “O Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”

Stones form a border around my gardens.  Most were gathered rock piles on the farm of my youth in northwestern Wisconsin and some dug out of a wall of gravel.  These granite stones   lay in place since being tumbled and bulldozed by the last glacier some 10,000 year ago.  It took thousands years for the mile thick ice giant to shove them south, from perhaps the future site of Lake Superior 100 miles to the north.  I hauled them 600 miles south in less than 24 hours.

Stones too are a part of God’s good creation, though when we were out picking them off the fields every spring that was not foremost in our minds.  Even the stones are under God’s authority.  John the Baptist told his audience, “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.”  And Jesus admonished his critics on >Palm Sunday, “If these (disciples) were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Under many of the stones around my garden patches live ant empires who are busily going about their business; thrown into a frenzy of activity when a giant moves their planet as I do from time to time.  Proverbs uses the ant to spur the lazy to get off the couch, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, be wise.”

There is much to learn of God and his ways as we prepare to leave the garden for another year.

End of Summer

Today, September 22, marks the end of summer.  In the southern hemisphere its the end of winter.

The end of summer or winter below the equator reminds us that the year is getting old.  Soon, however, we may be working in our yard or wrapping up our garden activities when we hear an approaching trumpeting.  If it is not the last trumpet of the angel announcing Christ’s return, it may well be a flock of geese headed south.  Looking up we may catch a view of a large number of crosses streaking high across the sky.  The sight and sound never last long enough for me.  Still I am left to contemplate that amazing scene.  These creatures of God lift high the cross as they fly V shaped for a fleeting minute through my life.  They are evangelists of the Gospel, fulfilling their purpose described in the last verse of the Psalms, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!  Alleluia”

The whole scene of the flying crosses in a V formation, offers a reference to St. Paul’s words, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the VICTORY through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I Corinthians 15:57.

A Boomerang Named Sin

Several years ago I was walking along one of the trail at Southern Illinois Univ. at Edwardsville.  People were warming up for an international boomerang competition.  I didn’t get to stay for the competition, but was impressed that such an international event be held on an athletic field in Edwardsville, Il.

On Sunday pastor Bronner used the joke about an aborigine who got a new boomerang and spent the rest of his life trying to get rid of the old one.  To paraphrase an old pop song, “Like a boomerang sin comes flying back to me.”  You would think we would learn better.  At the beginning of the day we emerge from the waters of baptism a new person, and by the end we have ample proof that once more we have to drown our old person in the waters of that baptism.  Like a boomerang sin keeps coming back to us.

There was a little phrase in the epistle lesson from James that caught my attention yesterday.  James 3:6, “But he gives more grace.  Therefore it say, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  There we stand every day before God, our boomerangs in hand.  God might well say to us, “You mean you still haven’t gotten rid of those things?  What’s the matter with you?”  And we cannot help but say, “I’m sorry to say that I’m in need of your grace again today, as I have been every day of my life.”  And once more, God cleanses our hands, and purifies our hearts, that we humbled by our wayward ways and by his way of constantly forgiving us in Christ find reason to “Delight ourselves in the Lord, commit ours ways to the Lord and trust in him.” (Ps. 37:4&5)

Learn to Stoop

Pentecost 17, 2015 Mark 9:30-37 Bunker Hill

            When our granddaughter Amelia was in first grade, our son volunteered an afternoon in her classroom.  He spent the afternoon cutting out numbers and putting them in bags.  “I wanted to tell the teacher that I have a doctor’s degree,” he said.  “Maybe she could have put me to better use.”  I replied, “You have just given me an illustration for my sermon.”  Aaron said, “Oh, you mean about being last.  Well, I certainly was least and last this afternoon.”

Jesus came to turn an upside down world right side up.  Today, Jesus teaches us that to stand tall in his world means that we learn how to stoop low.  Jesus stooped all the way down to death before he stood tall before his heavenly Father.

Today, we encounter Jesus and his disciples on the way through Galilee to their home base in Capernaum.  However, in the long term Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem where he will suffer the final rejection in arrest, condemnation to death as a criminal and his death. He adds, “After three days he will rise.”  Jesus had already done plenty of stooping.  He made himself nothing, took the form of a servant and was born in the likeness of men.

Jesus is the heavenly Son of Man whom God handed over into the hands of men who would do with him whatever they pleased.  As it turned out it pleased them, or should I say us, to unleash their wishes upon him until he was stooped under the weight of His cross which he carried to the skull shaped execution hill.

Through the cross, Jesus brought the good news of our salvation into the world.  Through the cross, Jesus proved to be the beloved Son, who accomplished the mission of the Father for us and for our salvation.  Last Monday was Holy Cross Day.  In the epistle lesson for that day, Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

But the disciples didn’t get it.  God had instructed them to listen to His beloved Son, but they didn’t want to hear about the beloved Son being killed.  It didn’t make any sense.  It didn’t fit into what they had long been taught about the Messiah.  Jesus was their friend and teacher, why would he want to do such a thing as go to Jerusalem, if people were waiting to kill him? Jesus had spoken of those events to take place in Jerusalem as his glorification.  What sort of glory is that?  The disciples had a good thing going with Jesus.  Wouldn’t you think in similar terms if your closest friend decided to themselves in harm’s way?  Well what about us?  What are we going to do, without you?  The disciples were afraid to ask him because they didn’t want to hear the answer.  He had already included them as members of that “faithless generation” who had not learned to commit their way to the Lord, trust him and wait for him to act.  They had failed to cast out a spirit that made a boy unable to speak.  Now they were left deaf to hear and speechless to confess their faith in what Jesus was about to do.

We read in the Introit: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”  But the disciples stillness was not one in which they were patiently waiting for the Lord to act through his death and resurrection.  Rather it was the stillness of embarrassment and fear.  They didn’t get it and were afraid to ask.

Since they won’t question Jesus, Jesus questions them.  “What were you arguing about on the way?  Silence. They had been arguing among themselves as to who was the greatest among themselves.  How to get ahead in an upside down world.  Jesus is talking about stooping down to the point of death and they are shining up their resumes.  Who belonged at the top, who gets the disciple of the month award; which is the best church.  How often we would be silent if Jesus were to confront us and ask us what we were discussing, after the meeting, in the coffee gathering, what we had just posted on facebook or twitter.

If we look around the church, we find all sorts of things, both serious and frivolous, that are out of sync with Jesus way.  Alyce Mckenzie remembers sitting in church one time during the Christmas season while the preacher preached on “The Reason for the Season.”  Suddenly the novelty tie worn by a man in the pew behind her, started playing loudly, “Here comes Santa Claus.”  And for some reason the switch resisted his best efforts to turn it off.  She also recalled a somber Good Friday service when she was surrounded by multitaskers.  A woman with her compact was touching up her lipstick.  Another woman was checking her Iphone.  A man was sending a text.  A couple of teenagers were flirting.  Several people were snoozing.  Then she adds, “Self-righteous little me was busy watching them and feeling superior.”

Nevertheless, Jesus continues to be both our Savior and our Teacher.  He called the disciples to gather around him.  Like any good teacher he employed a variety of means to teach how to live right side up in an upside down world.  “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”  The way to get to  the top is to make your way to the bottom.  The way to be first in line is to take your place at the end of the line.  In other words be the one who serves everyone else.  If you want to be first in God’s kingdom, be last in status.  Lowliness and service are the hallmarks of life for those who are baptized into Christ.

Jesus then uses an object lesson.  From somewhere he finds a child.  Maybe the kid was eavesdropping on Jesus’ adult Bible class. Or maybe the kid had gotten away from his mother and was just running by when Jesus caught hold of him. Children were not be seen, much less heard.  He put the child in their midst saying, “whoever, receives one such child in my name receives (welcomes) me, and whoever receives me, welcomes not me but him who sent me.  Who is it that you would regard as having no importance, the one to whom you would be reluctant to stoop and help?

Jeremiah in our Old Testament lesson was regarded as such a one.  He was such an irritating misfit that people plotted to kill him before he could marry and have children who would perpetuate his name.  Yet, the Lord had chosen him to proclaim his word. He exclaims, “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.  I did not know it was against me they devised schemes.”   Guess what?  We remember Jeremiah, know his name and read his words.  Nothing remains of those who planned his murder.

As I think of congregations past and present, I reflect on all the people who did the little things that keep things going. Without them the pews would be undusted, light bulbs unchanged, water faucets would leak and Sunday offerings go uncounted.  In the early years as a pastor I would often call on elderly women, now homebound, who had given up much of their lives in order to care for their parents.  Their brothers and sisters had married, raised families and pursued careers.  Now this daughter, who had spent her years caring for her parents, was in need of care herself.

I think of the member of a congregation who personally planned and brought to fruition a Thanksgiving meal that the congregation served for anyone in the community who wished to come.

Recently in the State by State section of the USA Today Robert Vincoli shared a personal recollection of Jimmy Carter.  He sat with the former president and his mother at a football game years ago: “Ms. Lillian gave me a bag of peanuts when I came in.  Very nice family.”

James writes of such people in the epistle lesson, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”  The lesson concludes, “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.”

These are the selfless ones, the servants, the lowly ones Jesus places before us as teachers that you and I might learn how to stoop.  Do you want to be in first place?  Learn to stoop.

Jeremiah between a Rock and a Hard Place

Ever wonder what people are saying about you when you aren’t present?  Hopefully they aren’t saying things like Jeremiah’s family and neighbors in his home town were saying and planning about and for him.

The Old Testament lesson for Sunday (Jer. 11: 18-20) is the first of several complaints that are woven throughout chapters 11 – 20.  Jeremiah is caught between an insistent God and a resistant people.  God insists that he preach words of condemnation calling the people O Judah from mixing Baal worship with worship of the God of their rescue from Egypt who gave them the land in which they now dwell.  But the people refuse to listen.  Jeremiah calls them to turn from their ways lest God bring him judgment down on them through the looming Babylonian empire.

Chapter 11, brings a crisis for God, Judah and Jeremiah. Jeremiah is directed  is to preach in the streets of Jerusalem, that because they refuse to listen in spite of all that God has done for them; instead, they have revolted against their God and Savior.  Though the people might cry to him for help, God will not listen.  Furthermore, Jeremiah is not to pray for or on behalf of the people. The Lord will destroy the “green olive tree” which God had gently planted and cared for since it was but a seedling.

So what does Jeremiah get for his faithfulness to God?  His family and neighbors in Anathoth secretly plan to kill him and wipe out his name before he can get married and have children.  He doesn’t know anything about it until God reveals their plans to him.  Then he reacts.  “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.  I did not know it was against me they devised schemes.”  They had already warned him, “Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord, or you will die by our hand.”  However, Jeremiah did not seem to take the threat seriously.  How could he? He was compelled to speak out as God directed him.

The Old Testament lesson 11:18-20 with the addition of vv. 19-23, fits in well with the gospel lesson (Mark; 30-37) where Jesus tells of his suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem.  In the Gospel of Mark by 6:3 there are already plans being made how to “destroy him.”  Yet, like Jeremiah, Jesus too is serving His insistent heavenly Father in a ministry to often resistant people. But in the end, it is Jeremiah whose word we still have and Jesus who remains our savior.