Psalm 49 and the Death Shepherd

We are used to hearing of Jesus the Good Shepherd of John 10 and its companion psalm 23, in which we confess “Yahweh, our shepherd leads his flock away from the rushing torrent to quiet waters, where pastures green provides plenty of safe grazing.  His rod protects and his staff draws back the wandering sheep.”

However, our entrance Psalm for Pentecost 8, Aug. 4, presents quite another image.  “Listen to this…open your ears, all who live in the world- common people or important ones, rich and poor.”  The psalmist has discovered that he has no reason to “be afraid in times of trouble when slanderers surround me with evil.”  Nor those who “trust their riches and brag about their abundant wealth.”  No one, no matter how powerful can buy themselves out of death.  “They must always give up their riches.  It will not save them from living forever and ever in the pit.  Even if they have named lands after themselves, whether wise or foolish or stupid everyone meets the same end.” If one follows that path, of foolish self- confidence, “Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death will be their shepherd.”

The psalmist is avoiding that path.  He lives in trust that God will ransom him back from the grave.  God, like a shepherd will lead him to a banquet surrounded by God’s goodness and mercy.  Yahweh will not lead him to the house of forever death, but he will live in the Lord’s house for days without end.

All that we said on Sunday as our worship leader prepared to walk to the altar where we would join in giving thanks and praise for the Lord Jesus Christ who is Lord Most High with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father.

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When Aimless Violence

This morning we sang a hymn by Wausau, Wi. resident Joy F. Patterson, “When aimless violence takes those we love.”  We sang the hymn as a replacement of the one in the bulletin “Praise the Almighty, my soul adore Him.”   We sang of the darkness of the aimless mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton numbers 249 and 250 in this year of our Lord 2019.   I write today also in the darkness of 9 children who have been shot and killed in St. louis since June.  As we sang the hymn about aimless violence tears welled in my eyes.

I have been wanting to write of the continuing verbal assaults of leaders denigrating people and those who carry out actions decimating people’s lives.  I’m not sure I know what to write.  I could write of thoughts and prayers.  I know what prayers are but I’m not sure about thoughts.  In my understanding, prayers are directed to God but following the prayers we humans need to  act in behalf of the welfare of our neighbor which is all other people on this planet.  It’s God’s will that we prayer, but also God’s will that we serve as his hands in this world.

Let me take you back to some words of Martin Luther that many of us learned as children.  “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body but help and support him every bodily need.”  Luther also wrote, “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”

The first stanza of LSB hymn 764 concludes, “When random death strikes childhood’s promise down, when wrenching loss becomes our daily bread, we know, O God, you leave us not alone.”  For that knowing I sing in trust, “Their faithful God He will remain.  He helps His children in distress, the widows and the fatherless.”  Lord, now move us to act in our neighbor’s behalf.

The Girl and Army Commander

My reading this week included a fascinating, humorous and insightful story in 2 Kings 5:1-14. This is one of many stories in which God uses a Jewish person of no standing to affect a grand international outcome.  Joseph, for instance.  Or Jesus.

            A little captured Israelite became a servant to the wife of Naaman the Syrian army commander.  He was a man of valor but had leprosy.  The girl said to her mistress, “If your husband knew the prophet in Samaria, he would cure him.”  Naaman’s wife passed the word along.  The Syrian king said, “go.” He sent a letter to the king of Israel, saying that when Naaman arrives go ahead the cure him.  He also sent 75 lbs. of silver, about 120 lbs. of gold and large wardrobe of clothes.  The king of Israel had a knipchen fit. “Am I God to heal the man?  He’s trying to pick a fight with me.”

Elisha the prophet heard of this matter and said, “Send him to me.”  So Naaman arrived at Elisha’s door with his entourage of horses and chariots.  But Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet Naaman.  He sent a seminarian to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan river seven times.  Well Naaman was furious his rude reception and then wash in the Jordan?  “I thought he’d come out and at least wave his and call on his God.  We’ve got better rivers in Syria, than this piddling Jordan creek.”

But a servant said, “Why not give it try?”  “Ok, I’ll give it try.”  Naaman washed in the Jordan and his skin came out as soft as a baby’s bottom.   When he returned to give Elisha a gift of thanks, Elisha refused.  So, Naaman asked to load two mules with sacks of dirt from Israel, so that when he worshipped in the temple of Rimmon, he could kneel on Israeli soil and worship Yahweh.

Thus God worked his promise to Abraham that through his offspring ,“all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Jesus Disciples Live in a Different World

Last night candidates for president vied for notice to gain the power to be president.  A few days ago, the President declared indirectly that he was even greater than Abe Lincoln.  So, it is in the world, where according to Jesus, those who are rulers use their authority to dominate others and “their great men are tyrants over them.” (Mark 10: 42, God’s Word Translation).  Jesus said this, in response to James and John asking him to appoint them to the highest positions in his kingdom.  Their self-promotion came immediately after Jesus told his disciples, for the third time, that he would suffer and die and rise again in Jerusalem.

Jesus summoned his disciples to him.  The other ten got ticked off because James and John had beat them to the punch.  Jesus said, “That not the way it is among you.”  The pattern for the Christian life is not self-promotion and trumpeting your own greatness.  The model for the Church and the Christian life is to be a servant, that is the measure of greatness. If you want to be first, be a servant of everyone else.

Following Jesus means following him up the tortuous 20 – mile uphill climb to the “City of God’s Peace” where God found no peace, but mocking, spitting, and driven to the execution hill, where the death penalty was carried out.

Don’t be surprised if you can’t find such a servant in halls of power.  That’s not how the world works.  But that’s the way it is under God’s rule.  

See Jeremiah 9:23-24 for further reading.

Three Loaves for a Friend

Thlomp thomp thlomp.  What is that?  Somebody pounding on the door, at this hour?  “What could it be?” Johanna whispered.  “If it wakes the kids, we’ll be up most of the night trying to them back to sleep.”

“Who is it mom?” asked oldest daughter Anna.

“You’ve got the wrong house,” I called out into the dark midnight.

 “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread.” The whispering voice of my neighbor Josh seeped into the room.   “A friend of mine has just arrived.  He’s been traveling since sunset.  He’s famished and tired and I have nothing to give him.  We got busy today and forgot to stop at the bakers.  You’ve got to help me.”

“Don’t bother me.  The door is shut and locked. We are all in bed.  I just can’t climb over the kids in the dark for what, three loaves of bread at midnight?  Good gravy go away.  Anyway, if I give you the bread, then the only who will have a full stomach tomorrow is your friend.  Neither of us will have anything until after baker opens his shop.”

“Please, I know I’m asking a lot in the middle of the night.  But tomorrow I’ll go to the baker’s as soon as he opens and buy you four loaves of bread when I get mine.”

“Okay, okay, I can see I’m not going to get any rest this way.  If I give you the bread, will you leave us alone and in peace?  And if you and your friend need to visit, do so quietly.  Here’s your loaves.”

“Thank you.  You are a real friend.  I won’t forget this.”

“Yeah, well what are friends for if not to be woke up in the middle of the night because someone forgot to stop at the bakers.”

Jesus said, “When you pray, pray like this,

Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread…

Ask- seek – knock. 

God is itching to be merciful

We’ve heard of itchy ears, for instance, when someone is anxious to hear some tidbit of gossip or of someone’s setback giving reason to celebrate with schadenfreude.

The Prayer of the Day for this weekend asks the Lord to put his merciful ears into action.  This is far from having itchy ears.  We pray that the Lord’s merciful ears would “be attentive to the prayers of Your servants.”  This request is in response to the words of Psalm 50:15 in the Introit where God encourages us to “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”   The Lord has promised to be attentive to our prayers before we even pray.  Nevertheless, knowing that our prayers are ever inadequate, we ask that “by Your Word and Spirit teach us how to pray.”  Our goal is that, “our petitions may be pleasing before You.”  Now realize that our petitions, inadequate though they may be, will always be heard with merciful ears. Of course, when we pray to God, “through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord,” we surely want to do our best for we are praying to the One, “who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever.”  That’s right, one God now and one God forever, ever attentive.

Maybe God does have itchy ears after all, hoping that in the day of trouble we turn to Him. Then having received his merciful deliverance we glorify and praise him in thanksgiving.  Yes,  God is itching to hear from us.

God Laughs and We Laugh

Yesterday I wrote about Abraham and Sarah laughing at God Almighty’s promise they would have a child within a year.  There is more than a bit of irony in laughing at God Almighty not being able to do the impossible.  Today I’m writing about a pair of paradoxes.  Punsters, this is not about four ducks nor four doctors.

Paradox One: When people trust that they can accomplish their plans all on their own, God laughs.  Now, I recognize that I like to plan, trips, projects, programs.  For me planning is as much fun as doing the plan. In Psalm 2, dignitaries from neighboring nations have gathered for the coronation of the Israel’s king.  God asserts, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”   But in the backrooms the visiting kings plot against the new king.  The Psalmist writes, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”  In Acts 4, Luke applies those words to the feeble efforts of Jewish leaders to stop Peter and John from preaching about Jesus.  There is an old saying that if you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.

Paradox Two: When God plans, working through human weakness, people laugh.  Abraham and Sarah are prime examples.  Yet, in Gen. 21:6-7 Sarah says, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.  Who would have said…that Sarah would nurse a child?”   A year before it was considered literally ridiculous which stems from the Latin word ridere, to laugh.  Consider old Zechariah and Elizabeth promised a son who is John the Baptist, Elijah returned.   Gabriel informs Mary she will give birth to a child who will be the Messiah, God’s Son.  How could that happen since she had never had sex with a man, but the Holy One overshadowed her and impregnated her.

So, it is with our salvation.  God works through the death of Jesus who died as a convicted criminal on the cross.  Paul admits that its utter foolishness, laughable.  Yet, like Sarah and Elizabeth, we laugh.

Abraham and Sarah Laugh at God

Yahweh (The Lord) can be such a comedian. The tip off that Yahweh was taking the stage comes when we learn that Abraham was ninety-nine years old.  In Genesis 17, Yahweh appears to Abraham, not for the first time, and introduces himself.  “I am El Shaddai, (God Almighty).”  Fittingly, Abraham fell on his face in worship and honor.  Yahweh, El Shaddai, talks to Abraham about being a great nation and having numerous offspring.  But when Yahweh tells Abraham that He will bless his wife Sarah and through her “I have given you a son.”  What Yahweh is promising is a good as fulfilled.  At this, Abraham again falls on his face and laughs into the dust.  What a comedian that El Shaddai is.  He may be God Almighty but a child when he is going on 100 and his wife will be 90?  But God isn’t joking, well maybe ol’ El Shaddai is, because he already has a name for the kid, Isaac, “Laughter.”

Then in chapter 18, three guys show up out of the shimmering desert heat while Abraham is taking a siesta. What follows could have been a scene from a Marx brothers movie.  Abraham jumps up and hopes they will stay and have a bit to eat.  He begins issuing orders. “Sarah, get 21 quarts of flour and bake some cakes.”  That’s enough bread to feed an army.  Then he races out to the herd, picks a year- old calf and orders a young man to butcher it a make some veal cutlets.  “Oh, and don’t’ forget the cheese curds.”  (You didn’t know that Abraham was from Wisconsin?)

While the men feast.  One of the men, who turns out to be Yahweh, asks about Sarah.  “Oh, she’s in the tent.”  But she’s eves dropping.  Yahweh, in the guise of a desert traveler says, “When I come back next year, Sarah will have a son.”  This time it’s Sarah who laughs, “Yeah, you bet, I’m worn out and Abraham isn’t the man he once was.  We’re going to have the pleasure of sex again and I will get pregnant and finally have a child of my own? Who is this not so funny comedian anyway?”  Yahweh, who is not only almighty but knows a whole lot, well knows everything about everything, says, “Ah but you did laugh.  You’ll see.  When I come back a year from now you will be holding a son.  So, the joke will be on you.  After all, I’m not God Almighty for nothing.”

Sunday at the Crossroads

This week in the Gospel lesson (Luke 10:38-42) we come to the crossroad of the horizontal and the vertical.  Jesus visits Martha and Mary.  Martha busies herself being a hospitable host, which was of utmost importance.  Mary sits at Jesus feet and listens as he teaches.  Jesus redefines what it is to show hospitality.  It is not to be distracted, anxious, troubled and overwhelmed about the worries and expectations of our life which belongs to the age passing away.   Just as Jesus tenderly invited Martha to put away her anger toward our Lord and her sister, so Jesus invites us to choose the one thing we need, listen to and follow him. Hospitality in the new age which Jesus brings is to be fed Jesus’ word who is “the good news of great joy for all the people.”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus teaches us who is our neighbor and to be neighbor to “all people.”  He was teaching us how to live in his new age with one another on the horizontal level, within this age.  In the episode following his day with Martha and Mary, his disciples ask him to teach them and us how to pray, how to communicate with God.  This is the on the vertical.  Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer.  That is our gospel lesson for next week.

Where the horizontal and the vertical meet, they form…yes, the cross.  This Sunday we are at the crossroads as we gather with Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary.   Will we be distracted  with the obligations, anxieties and a search for happiness of this age or sit at Jesus feet and hear the news he brings of “great joy for all the people?”  Jesus tenderly invites us to come to him and listen.

Walking on the moon and Other Matters

July 20, this is a day not to, as Gail Barnett sang in 1966, “Sing in the sunshine.”  It’s more a day for the “naughty lady of Shady Lane,” as sung by the Ames Brothers in 1954, who it turns out is only “nine days old.”

On this day in 1969 Becky and I and 14-month-old Nathan took a 15-mile drive from Winona, MN. across the Mississippi to Galesville, Wi. in the scenic “Driftless Area” of south western Wisconsin.  We were in a park where Nathan was reluctant to test his newly discovered walking legs on a swinging bridge across a creek.  There is where we heard the news that men had landed on the moon.

One of the stories about Galesville is, that it is situated near three rivers and some early settlers surmised that maybe this was the location of the Garden of Eden.  It wouldn’t be a bad location for that bit of God’s creation.

In 1974, we were camping in the Chequamegon National Forest in northern Wisconsin while listening to a battery-operated radio we learned that President Nixon had resigned.

For that matter, Becky and I took out our wedding trip in June 1967 into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  (Becky has given up on an actual honeymoon trip).  When we came out to Ely a week later, we heard talk of a six-day war in the middle east that had been fought and settled while we were gone.