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Caretakers Created by God in God’s Image

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Caretakers Created by God in God’s Image” (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 104)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 1, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A Grand Sanctuary
Today is our first Sunday of exploring twelve Scripture passages that are especially important and formational for the life of our congregation here at Grace Hill – twelve Scriptures that are especially shaping us as God’s people at Grace Hill.

We begin at the beginning, with the stories of creation. These stories are particularly important to us as a rural congregation. Many of our members farm the land and have a special understanding of the goodness of God’s creation. But whether we work in fields or in office buildings, we all have chosen to worship in this community, and at this place. When we gather for worship here at Grace Hill, we don’t travel through miles of structures made by human hands, but rather through the plains and hills shaped by the hand of God.

While our sanctuary is indeed beautiful, we know that an even grander sanctuary exists just beyond these walls, and God has invited us to be the caretakers of that sanctuary. That’s part of what makes this congregation special, and it’s part of why the stories of creation are so important to us.

As many of you know, our theme for the summer was God’s good creation, and we talked about how God’s creation reminds us to praise God for God’s care and protection, and how it reminds us of our need for God and of our calling to be faithful to God and to one another. But we saved these foundational stories from Genesis until now.

There’s so much that could be said about these stories, and so much that has been said about them. Much of what we’ll talk about this morning will sound familiar to what’s already been said this summer. For each of these twelve texts that we’ll hear this fall, we want to think about how each text is shaping us as God’s people already, and how the Holy Spirit could further speak through each passage to shape us more and more into the people God is calling us to be.

Out of all that could be said about Genesis 1-2, I’d like to focus on three things from these stories that are foundational for our life at Grace Hill. First, we live in a world created by God. Second, we live in a world created by God as people created in God’s image. And third, we live in a world created by God as people created in God’s image who are called to be caretakers of God’s creation.

We live in a world created by God
First, we live in a world created by God.

A week ago I was in Colorado doing some hiking with some of my friends. One evening, we hiked up a cliff to watch the sun set. And as the sun was setting in the mountains to the west, we could also watch a thunderstorm over the plains to the east. The setting sun painted these cloudbanks in brilliant yellows and reds. And once again, as I so often am as I drive out to the church building, I was just amazed at the beauty and greatness of God’s creation.

That’s what Genesis 1 is about. Many scholars believe that Genesis 1, with its cadence and elegance and symmetry, is a hymn, a song of creation describing God’s greatness and the goodness of God’s work. We’re put here to praise God, along with the song of all creation.

God called the universe into being as an expression of God’s love and sovereign freedom. This is a fundamental encouragement for believers, because it means that no matter how ugly and broken and hopeless the world may seem on the surface, it still turns on the axis of God’s goodness and love, and it is still, fundamentally, in God’s own judgment, “good.” We live in a good world created by a good God.

And because we live in a good world created by a good God, when we live in ways that are aligned with God’s good character and intention for life, we praise God, and those efforts will ultimately be redeemed, and multiplied.

Of course, the Bible says many important things about God’s character. But perhaps the most basic thing it says about God is found in 1 John: “God is love.” The most basic way to live in God’s good creation is to live in God’s love. Or as 1 John puts it, “If we love one another, God lives in us.”

If you come to the Dig In Bible Study during Sunday School this morning, we’ll talk about John 1, which begins exactly the same was as Genesis 1: “In the beginning.” The word was with God in the beginning and through the Word, all things came into being. The Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ. John says that Jesus is the fullest and best revelation we have of God, and his life and self-giving death are the fullest and best revelation we have of God’s love.

Jesus showed us how to live in ways that are aligned with God’s good intention for life. When we know Jesus and follow him in life, then our lives become more and more aligned with the world created by God, with the grain of the universe.

Sometimes, the world on its surface has become so disfigured and defaced and dominated by death-dealing powers, so very different from the way God created it to be that God’s good intention for life revealed in Jesus sounds surprising. Giving up possessions. Losing our life to save it. The servants are the greatest. Loving even our enemies just as creation reminds us that God does, and makes the sun to rise and sends the rains on the just and on the wicked alike. It may sound surprising, but it makes total sense if we live in an abundant world created and deeply valued by God as described in Genesis 1.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of a coming time of new, or renewed, creation. New heavens and new earth. A time when the work of God’s hands would once again fully reflect God’s goodness and love. As the New Testament understands it, the resurrection of Jesus is the down-payment on that new creation. In fact, Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is the new creation.”

When we’re united with Jesus in life, we get a foretaste of what it’s like to live in God’s abundant new creation, and we become a taste for the world of what creation is meant to be like. We get to invite others to live in that world created by God.

Created in God’s image
Second, we live in a world created by God as people created in God’s image.

In Genesis 1, humankind is the capstone of God’s created work, and we are created, male and female, in God’s image. With the creation of humankind, creation is “exceedingly good.” God actually thinks quite a bit of us. Why don’t we often think much of ourselves and others? While it’s true that we all make choices that smudge up the image of God that we bear, we are actually created exceedingly good. God delights in us. God delights in you. Our lives are created to reflect God’s goodness, joy, and love.

The fact that each human life bears the image of God is profoundly formative for us as God’s people. It reminds us of the profound value and dignity of each human life, from the womb to the tomb, as they saying goes, and beyond. This is why so many of Jesus’ teachings that seem so strange on the damaged surface of the world actually make so much sense with the axis upon which the world finally turns, with the grain of the universe.

We love one another because God delights in each person and has given each person the imprint of the divine image. We love even our enemies and people who make us mad or drive us nuts because even they bear the divine image and are deeply valued by God. We love those rejected by society because they too bear the divine image and are deeply loved by God.

It’s why our congregation participates in the ministry of the homeless shelter, and with school kits, and with summer lunches, and with food pantries, and with meat canning, and with relief work, and with missions of all kinds. It’s why, in a polarizing and polarized world, we seek to maintain a witness of reconciliation, of peacemaking. We have a fundamental conviction that each person is deeply loved by God and bears the divine image.

And that conviction shapes us profoundly. The homeless and outcast and outsider are all highly esteemed in our eyes because they are highly esteemed in God’s eyes. And don’t forget that you are, too. Every one of you. It’s a conviction that shaped the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, commemorated this week, which ended with the hope of speeding the day when all God’s children could say, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.”

When we realize what that means, that we bear God’s imprint in our lives, we want to live in ways that reflect God’s holiness, and goodness, and love. We are a temple for God’s Spirit; therefore, we want to glorify and praise God in everything we say and do. This Scripture passage calls us to be people whose lives glorify God. Jesus, who took on our likeness, teaches how to do that. What a fantastic invitation to follow Jesus and glorify God!

When I run into people in Newton and Whitewater, they often remark how hospitable and generous Grace Hill is. Praise God for that! I wonder if that could be partly because the Holy Spirit has spoken through this passage in Genesis 1 to shape us so that we look upon one another and see God’s imprint in one another. We want to share God’s goodness and generosity and hospitality with one another, and with our neighbors, and with those we don’t even know. That’s what Genesis 1 shapes us to do as people created in God’s image who live in a world created by God.

Caretakers of God’s creation
Third, we live in a world created by God as people created in God’s image called to be caretakers of God’s creation.

If Genesis 1 is like a hymn or song of God’s greatness and the goodness of God’s work, Genesis 2 is like a delightful, playful story of God’s closeness and care and love. The language itself is delightful and playful, making frequent word-plays and puns. That’s how we’re to relate to God’s creation and to God. It’s to be a delight.

Many readers of John’s gospel have pondered how when Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb, she mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Could it be that just as John 1 echoes Genesis 1, so John 20 echoes Genesis 2? Could it be, many have wondered, that Mary was less mistaken than she realized, being sent by the gardener of God’s new creation?

Genesis 2 describes God sort of like a gardener at work in Eden, this little microcosm of God’s creation. God shapes a human being and breathes the breath of life into that human being assigns the human being to be the caretaker of the garden – to till it and to keep it. Actually, the word for tilling – abad – most often in the Old Testament means “to serve” and is the root for the word for servant or slave.

We are to be the servants of God’s creation. Just as Jesus, who has been given dominion over all things, came not to lord it over us, not to be served, but to serve, so also we, who have been given dominion over creation, are to exercise that dominion not by lording over it, but by serving it.

The word also means to work. Our vocation is one of hard work. It’s what we were created to do – to be creative, to work hard, to give ourselves fully to the task that God has given us, and to delight in that task.

The word for keeping the garden – shamar – means to watch over, as a shepherd watches over a flock, or a night watchman keeps vigilance over a city. It’s how God is described in Psalm 121: The Lord is your keeper. The Lord is the one who watches over you. We have God’s breath of life in us, and that’s how we’re to relate to the Gardener’s handiwork – to watch over it, to protect it.

Here at Grace Hill, we’re surrounded by God’s garden. We have a special calling to serve and protect God’s garden. Many of our members have dedicated their lives to this calling as they work in the fields day by day. It’s an important witness we have, to work hard to tend our little corner of God’s creation. So often our world forgets how beautiful and wonderful God’s creation is. So many people have forgotten their calling to have dominion by serving, and they exploit God’s creation for their own gain: land, water, creatures, people. It’s led to so much hurting around the world: cancers, dispossession, droughts and floods, scorched earth, dependency, poverty, spread of disease and malnutrition.

Here at Grace Hill, God’s Spirit has spoken through this text to give us a different vision for our life in God’s garden: If we work hard and delight in our work, if we serve and protect God’s beautiful garden – the land, the waters, the creatures, the people in it, then it will flourish with an abundance for the whole world.

 

Through this cherished Scripture from Genesis 1-2, God calls us at Grace Hill to live in a world created by God, as people created in God’s image, called to be caretakers of God’s creation. How will this story continue to shape us to live in ways that align with God’s good intention for creation, to value the divine image in ourselves and those around us, and to serve and protect God’s creation? This is our story at Grace Hill. Praise the Lord! Amen.

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Let all creation praise the Lord

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Let all creation praise the Lord!” (Psalm 148)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
August 18, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

All of creation is called to praise the name of the Lord, the One by whom we live and move and have our being, the One by whom all things came into being. All of creation is given a voice and each voice is important, all blending together in unique harmonies and intertwining melodies. All things that breathe, indeed all things that are, are called to praise the Lord who created us. Humans and animals, young and old, males and females, sea monsters and creatures of the deep, trees and mountains, sun and moon, angels and hosts of heaven, even the weather patterns. This is a universal call to praise and all whom God has created are called to join in the song, to blend our voices in a great chorus of unceasing praise to the one who created us and loves us.

Now anyone who has spent time within creation can begin to catch a glimpse of the ways that creation itself is praising God. You can see this in the power of the lightning storm, and hear it in the might of the thunder and in the sound of the falling rain. You can see it in the beauty of the flowers as they open in the spring time, filling the earth with color and fragrantly sweet smells, and you can hear it in the voice of the birds as they sing to greet the dawn. You can see it in the vast wheat fields in the summer, or in the beauty of the moon upon the freshly fallen snow in the winter, and you can hear it in the lowing of the cattle, or the bleating of the sheep, or in the voice of the coyotes who sing under the stars. You can experience this as you sit by the lake, as I had the privilege of doing last Sunday in my time with the youth group, with the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore, the fish leaping out of the water, the majesty of the trees, the intricacies of the tiny ants, the glory of the sun setting over the water, the joy in human voices and the fellowship of friends.

And God is infinitely worthy of all of our praise. And if you even begin to ponder the world around us, you can begin to see why. Consider the wonder that is a seed, how this tiny thing sprouts and grows and becomes a flower, or a plant, or a source of food, or a mighty tree all through God’s hands. Consider the wonder that is your body, its ability to move, and to see, and to taste, and to smell, and to hear, and to create. There were so many circumstances and factors that had to be just right in order for us to enter this earth as we are; each of us is a miracle who has come into being through God’s hands.

And we are to spend the whole of our lives praising the One who gave us life, to blend our voices with the voices of creation, to listen for the unique harmonies that each one of us as humans, and animals, and plants, and weather patterns, and heavenly bodies create together, to marvel in the cacophony of creation as we praise the One who created us.

And we, the people who are dear to God and close to God’s heart, we who have been called by God and set apart by God are called to lead this mighty chorus of praise, to articulate the unspoken praise of the rest of creation so that all may come to know and see and praise the glory of the Lord so that every knee shall bow and every tongue join in singing the praises of our Creator.

But perhaps there are times that you have found, as I have, that for whatever reason, it is difficult to do so, when our heart isn’t in it, or the words don’t come, or when it’s difficult to see the glory of the Lord within creation given the pain, and destruction, and death, and despair of life in a world created for praise and yet is fallen. Though all of creation is called to praise,creation itself is also groaning and longing to be set free from the powers that hold it captive. And voices within creation which long to praise the Lord are stifled due to cruelty, and destruction, and illness, and death. And we forget to praise, or we don’t have the heart to due to the pain that we see and that we experience. And perhaps we even wonder, “Where is God in all of this? Where is the One who promised never to leave us nor forsake us? And when will God come and set things right?”

I have wondered this many times myself, seeing the pain of the world and hearing the groaning of creation, and I have sometimes found it hard to believe that God is working to set things right in the midst of such destruction, and cruelty, and illness, and death. But I was struck this week by the things which the psalmist chose to include in the psalm, reminding us of all that has been created by God and which God ultimately is ruler over. The psalmist includes sea monsters, which perhaps to our ears sounds strange, but during the time that this psalm was written, the monsters of the deep and the oceans themselves were closely associated with chaos and destruction; they were chaos personified. And it was a good reminder for me to reflect that even the things which frighten us, even the chaotic powers, are subject to God and will not have the final say.

And the psalmist also includes the rulers of the earth, the ones who have either taken power or been given power, those who seem to control the fate of the earth and who wield great power over others, who oppress the poor and marginalized, who wage wars and destroy the earth to sate their own greed, even they do not have the ultimate say over the fate of creation, even they are subject to God and are called to praise.

Yes, there are times in our lives when the words do not come, but even then the song of praise is continuing. Yes, there are times when the pain is great and we groan loudly along with creation, but even then the song of praise is continuing. Even when we are silent, the very stones, and trees, and rivers, and fields are crying out and proclaiming the glory of the Lord. And sometimes we are able to catch glimpses of this and to hear the song continuing despite the chaos and the pain.

In my own life, I have found that my daughter has been a wonderful reminder to praise the God who created her. First of all, this is simply because of who she is, of the miracle that she is, of the gift that she is, and I praise God for her every day. And I sincerely hope that each of you has someone in your life whom you love so deeply that they enable you to see the wonders of God’s hands and who inspire you to praise God simply because they are a part of your life.

She also reminds me to praise, because, coming so recently from God’s presence, she has a wisdom that I have forgotten amidst the hectic moments of life, and her eyes still see things that the busyness of life have blinded me to until she points them out to me. She is completely enamored with creation, and she points out the many ways that creation is praising God and that God is in fact present within creation. She stoops to look at every lady bug and spider, she picks up every stick and leaf and stone that she finds, she speaks often of the moon, she points out every bird and flower and squirrel and dog and cat and horse and cow and rhinoceros and every animal that she sees. And she sees the mystery and the wonder and that which is of God in each of these. And she reminds me to simply slow down, that it’s okay that there are still things that need to be done, because what’s important is to simply take time to notice the majesty and wonder of God’s hands in each thing, each life that has been created and to respond with praise.

For we are created to praise the One who made us and by whom we live and move and have our being. And this is what eternity holds for us, when we join the myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands who surround the throne singing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, who is, and who was, and who is to come” now and forever more.

And so this week, the challenge is for us to look for the places where we see creation praising God, to look for the places where God is at work, to catch glimpses of God’s glory, to hear the harmonies of the universal song of praise, and to praise the One who made us and loves us.

As we enter this week, may we be given eyes to see and ears to hear and voices to join in the song.

Let all creation praise the Lord!

Alleluia!

Amen.

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Choose This Day

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Choose This Day” (Joshua 24:1-28)
by Pastor Peter Goezen< August 11, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Commitaphobia
I haven’t ever been just a real big fan of amusement parts. Many of you are, and that’s great, but I’m not. I’m just not. I just don’t like the idea or the sensation of my brains being forced into my toes, or my stomach getting pushed into my mouth. I like my internal organs where they are, thank you very much.

But I do like water parks. You know, the floaty rides, the log rides, and of course, the best part: the water slides. Except for the one slide that’s at almost every water park. I really enjoy the slide, but as I’m at the top of the slide, at the part where you grab a hold of the bar on top to give yourself that extra little boost at the start, I always have to think. Because this is the slide where your body actually loses contact with the slide for a few moments as you’re going down. For a few moments, it is completely out of your control. You are free-falling through wide open space.

And as I stand at the top of the slide, I wonder, well, what if I get going down wrong and shoot off at the wrong angle, or there’s sudden gust of wind that blows me off to one side and I go splat on the concrete below?! I mean, it seems like there’s actually a lot that could go wrong here! And it takes quite a bit of courage for me to decide and commit to go through with it.

Commitments are scary. Decisions are scary. Choices are scary. I suppose there are a couple of reasons why commitments and decisions and choices are scary. One is that we wonder if it’s the wrong choice. Out of all the homes for sale in the area, is this the best one for us? Out of all the colleges in the country, is this the best one for me? Out of all the potential mates in the world, is this the best spouse for me?

The list could go on and on. It’s like walking into a coffee shop and trying to select the perfect coffee from all the different choices of lattes and frapes au laits and seventeen different flavors for each. Where do you even begin? How do you know which is the best option?

Well, in a world of 7 billion people, you can’t interview every potential spouse. In a country with hundreds and hundreds of colleges, you can’t go on a campus visit to each one. It’s more comfortable to stay on the fence, and it feels so much safer. It’s not even practical to visit every house for sale in a town the size of Newton. But by the time you have, the one you want won’t be for sale anymore!

We make decisions with limited knowledge. Our decisions limit our future options. If you marry this person, you can’t marry that person. If you buy one house, you can’t buy another. Jesus told his disciples to count the cost of following him. We’re not always sure if making peace with enemies will work. We don’t know what will happen to us if we actually sell our possessions and give it to the poor. We don’t know if directing our desires into ways that glorify God is worth the effort. We don’t always know whether the benefit will outweigh the cost of money, or energy, or more often in our age, time.

So often we have to invest so much before we begin to reap the benefits. And we don’t always know if we’re right or wrong. We’re afraid of risk and failure. We’re a culture of commit-a-phobes.

Trustaphobia
Which leads to another reason why commitments and decisions and choices are scary. It requires trust. We have to trust ourselves to follow through, and we have to trust others to be faithful as well. We have to let go for the ride, to be willing to free fall, even for a moment, and trust that we’ll land secure. In a wedding, there are two people making promises, and in order for the marriage to work, each has to trust the other to remain true to those promises. It takes two people to choose to begin a marriage, but if only one walks away, there’s nothing the other can do. It makes us so vulnerable.

And most of us know what it’s like to have our trust betrayed by a friend or a family member or a mentor or a leader. And it’s so hard to trust again after that. But if there’s no trust, then we can’t give ourselves fully to the commitment, and if we can’t give ourselves fully to the commitment, then our fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and things go badly. Choices are scary, and really tough part is that fear of choosing often turns fear into fact.

The Israelites, after generations of slavery; after years of wandering in the wilderness, have finally entered the land promised to their ancestors. It has been divided among them, and they are about to go to their inheritance to live on the land, when Joshua calls them together to make a choice to renew their covenant with God.

Joshua seems to know that when they enter a land of their own; that when they begin to prosper, they may forget God. Now the people had already made a covenant with God. But just as we only marry our spouse once, we still have to choose that marriage every day, or it falls apart. And just as we may choose to be baptized as a declaration of our allegiance to Jesus Christ, we still have to choose Jesus every day, or our life will drift away from him.

It’s so easy to get distracted, to get caught up in just living life, that we forget to trust God with our life. The most important theme in these last chapters of Joshua is choosing to serve God. Again and again, Joshua urges the people to serve God. It’s the same word that can be translated as worship. To serve is worship, and to worship is to serve.

Consuming Passions
For Joshua, the most serious threat that the people face to serving God is idolatry. Joshua is concerned, and rightly so, that the people will look to their powerful neighbors, and covet the source of that power, which they often identify with their neighbors’ gods.

But idolatry in the Bible doesn’t just mean worshiping statues. Paul equates idolatry with greed (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Isaiah likens idolatry to gold and silver as sources of pride and power that prevent Israel from trusting God (2:7; 33:1; 36:9). Jesus says that you can’t serve (or worship) God and wealth, and that one’s heart is where one’s treasure is (Mt. 6:21-24; cf. Luke 12:34; 16:13; 18:24).

Idolatry doesn’t mean necessarily the worship of a specific deity, but a “consuming passion.” Isn’t it easy for something other than God to become our consuming passion? That’s Joshua’s basic concern, and that’s why we periodically need to recommit ourselves and re-align our passion with God and put away all other gods, all other consuming passions.

Joshua wants to remind the people of who they are and whose they are. He wants them to begin their new life by putting God at the center of it. He knows how difficult commitments and choices can be. Three times he prods them to choose. “Choose this day,” he says, whether to serve God, or to serve some other god. And three times they respond that they choose the Lord and will be obedient. So Joshua sets up a large stone in the sanctuary to remind them of their covenant.

From time to time, we need to renew our promises and covenants, to remind ourselves of what we have said we will do, and to choose each day to do it again. To remind ourselves of why we made those promises to begin with. Moses told the people to do this every several years.

And that’s what Joshua did. He told the people their story, so they would remember. So they would have solid ground on which to stake their trust, so they could make a commitment. It’s why we’re going to spend a year telling our faith story and studying it and reading it and memorizing and delighting in it and dwelling in it and letting it dwell in us. That’s where we stake our trust.

Water Ride
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be inviting you to make a commitment to our faith story. Perhaps to read it. Perhaps to study it more deeply. Perhaps to memorize portions of it. Or many other ways. Perhaps to join a group that will pray over it and tell it and hold each other accountable and in prayer. That’s where we stake our commitment – in our faith story.

Maybe that’s a scary idea. I won’t say it’s not. Maybe it’s scary to think about making a commitment because you’re not sure if you can follow through. Or maybe it’s hard to imagine it being worth it. Or maybe it sounds like one more thing to fit into a busy schedule. Or maybe the thought of being accountable is a little unnerving. There are lots of reasons why commitments sound scary to us. Because it always means letting go for the ride, free-falling, and trusting in a safe landing.

It’s like another water adventure story that you’ve probably heard before. After Jesus had fed the multitudes, the disciples went ahead of him by boat to the other side of the sea of Galilee. As the disciples were at sea, a great wind kicked up, and the winds were beating against the boat, and the lake was swirling and heaving around them. Jesus starts walking on the water across the lake, and when the disciples see him, they think he’s a ghost, but he says to them, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter responds, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come.” And so Peter gets out of the boat and steps onto the water, as the waves are beating against him and the waters are swirling around his feet. And he takes a step. And another step. And he is walking on the water in the middle of the storm, when he hears the wind, and he notices the sea roaring and foaming around him, and he gets scared.

And Peter gets a sudden sinking feeling as the waters are closing in around him, and he does the only thing he can do: he calls out, “Lord, save me!”

And just then, a hand comes out to him, reaching through the storm, reaching through the wind and the waves and the waters, and grabs ahold of him and pulls him up. And together, the two of them stand, in the middle of storm, the the wind blowing, and the waves crashing and the waters foaming and swirling around them. And they together begin to walk back to the boat, and the second they step into the boat, the wind ceases. And the storm stops. And the sea is still.

Now did Peter fail? Well, yes, perhaps he did, in a way. He let fear overwhelm faith.

But if you want to walk on the water, you have to step out of the boat.

And there were eleven who didn’t. Was it safer in the sea-tossed boat, or with Jesus on the sea?

Only Peter knew the thrill of walking on water. Only Peter knew what it meant to attempt what he could not do, and be caught up in God’s power and actually do it. Only Peter knew what it meant to stand on the sea in the middle of the storm – not by himself, but with one who knew the way through it to safe harbor. Who do you suppose was the greater failure?

Peter was ready to commit. He made a decision. He chose Jesus over what appeared to be safety. He let go of control.

And he walked on water.

So choose this day whom to serve and give yourself completely to that commitment. Step out of the boat. Let go and fly for the ride of your life. You don’t want to miss out on it.

As a response, I’d like to invite us to renew today some of the most important promises we’ve made.

Those who have declared your allegiance to Jesus Christ by being baptized upon confession of your faith, I invite you to choose those vows this day. For those who have not yet made this public declaration, I invite you, by your conscience to consider each of these questions and to choose this day as you can as well. We eagerly await the day when you give full and public expression to these vows by baptism upon the confession of your faith.

The vow of faith is a pledge for eternity. Congregation, please rise if you are comfortable doing so as you make your pledge and covenant with God and one another.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world and turn to Jesus Christ as your savior? Do you put your trust in his grace and love and promise to obey him as your Lord? If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesush Christ, God’s Son, our Lord; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life? If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you accept the Word of God as guide and authority for you life?

Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?

Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church?

 

People of God, how will you live out these vows by serving God this day? What commitment are you ready to make in order to pursue these vows more fully and deeply? What new efforts or changes do you need to make in order to make God your consuming passion?

We’re going to sing “I bind my heart this tide,” and as we do, I’m going to invite the ushers to come forward and pass baskets of rocks down the aisles. Set this rock up as a reminder of your commitment to God and your readiness to grow ever more deeply in faith. As you pass the basket down the your row, say to the person who is receiving, “Choose this day.”

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

Sheep, Deer, and Trees

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Sheep, Deer, and Trees” (Psalm 23; 42:1-5; 1; John 10:1-18)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
August 4, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This summer, we have been looking to God’s good creation to be reminded of God’s care and protection, God’s generosity and abundance, and what God is like. Today, we look to other creatures of God’s handiwork to be reminded of what we are like.

One of our seminary professors spends much of his time with horses and would often remark that every church member should spend time with horses. Well, I can’t say that I’ve taken him up on his advice, so those of you who do spend time with horses will have to tell me if this is true or not. He would often tell us how if you’re nervous or anxious or uncertain or scared, the horse will pick up on that anxiety, and it will quickly spread to other horses, and they’ll soon become very difficult to work with!

That’s how we are in our family or church herds as well, he would tell us. When we’re anxious or negative or scared or distrustful, that can quickly spread to others and make life very difficult. But on the other hand, if you approach even a nervous horse with a calm and gentle spirit, the horse will also soon be calmed, and somehow that calm can even spread to other horses, and it becomes a joy to work together.

And that’s also how how we are in our family or church herds as well, he would tell us. When we can rise above our fear and anxiety and bring a calm and gentle and hopeful and trusting spirit – even to a very tense situation – that can spread like wildfire and make it such a fruitful joy to work together.

Well, this professor’s insights, wise though they are, really aren’t much of anything new. People of faith have always looked to God’s creation to be reminded of who we are and what we’re like as God’s creatures, the work of God’s hands.

Sheep
For this morning, we’re going to talk about three of the many ways the Bible does this: sheep, deer, and trees. Abraham and Sarah and many of the earliest families mentioned in the Bible were nomadic-type shepherd families. They spent many hours tending their flocks, and they learned much from these creatures in their care.

Now, the pastures of this ancient land were not so much like the pastures today. They weren’t fenced off to protect and keep the flock. The flocks grazed relatively freely across the land. An important part of the shepherd’s job was to be sure that none of the sheep, who were notoriously wayward, went wandering off from the flock. A lost sheep was at risk of falling into a ravine and being trapped. Apart from the herd, it would be easy pray for thieves, wolves, or lions.

Isaiah knew how very much we are like sheep. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray,” he said. Even those who have been a part of the flock for many years go astray. In fact, in Psalm 119, the longest Psalm of the Bible, the Psalmist goes on for 175 verses about how much he or she simply delights in the instruction of the Lord and loves to follow the Lord’s ways and treasures the Lord’s teaching even above the finest gold and seeks after God with the whole heart.

But in verse 176, the last verse, the Psalmist who delights so very much in the Lord, confesses, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep. Help!” We’re like sheep, wandering away without noticing it, straying without understanding the consequences of our actions. We do so many silly, foolish things. We say things that hurt others. We neglect to care for the least among us. We’re wooed by flashy displays of power and might. We think so much just of ourselves that we soon discover we’re by ourselves. We get distracted and wander away from God and get into trouble.

Lions and wolves and thieves alike know that the best way to prey on a flock is to startle it, frighten it, and scatter it, and then carry off individual sheep who get separated from the flock. There are so many things that try to drive us away from one another: fear of those who are different, worry and anxiety, relationships that get taken for granted and not nurtured. Poor listening and hasty speaking. Busyness and preoccupation. Hurtful words. Impatience. Assumptions. Seeds of distrust. Our flocks are so vulnerable, and we need a shepherd to protect us, to keep us safe together, and to bring us in when we’re lost.

Jesus warned about false shepherds. “Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a rebel.” Now that is sort of an odd pairing: thief and rebel. One is stealthy – a subtle embezzler, a cat burglar. The other is a violent insurrectionist – what the Roman Empire might have called the terrorists of its day.1

These false shepherds are always trying to sneak into the sheepfold, it seems. Defrauding and exploitation of the poor on the one hand, and violence and insurrection on the other are always trying to find a home among God’s people, always trying to speak in soft tones to urge a few sheep to follow them off into the night.

Just think of how their advertisements for stuff – possessions, consumables – that surround us keep seeping into the sheepfold with such friendly-sounding voices, saying, “It’s OK, come here. Follow me. You should have this. You deserve this. You need this, and you need it now. Boost your ego. It’ll make your life so much easier, happier.” I once ran into an economics professor who told me that the best thing I could do for our nation’s poor is to go shopping. Thieves speak ever so smoothly.

Or have you ever heard a pretend shepherd like the insurrectionist? Have you ever heard Barabbas telling you to respond to insult in kind? To shove back? To hit back because that’s the only think that’ll teach them a lesson? Maybe you’ve heard him telling you that justice means an eye for an eye or a life for a life, perhaps whispering so convincingly in your ear that loving your enemies like God loves them has its limits, such as when your life, or your friends’ lives, is threatened, and that you only have one option that will actually work, that you’ve gotta put down your cross and take up your sword if you wanna get anything done in this world.

Pretend shepherds are always sneaking in as thieves and wolves and lions to steal and kill and destroy.

I Am the good shepherd, Jesus says. No doubt he was thinking of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.”

Now, the interesting thing about sheep, is that they know their shepherd’s voice. Every year, my parents used to load up us boys in the van, and we’d drive to South Dakota to visit my aunt and uncle. If we got up early enough, we could go out with my uncle to chore the sheep. As we were walking out to the barn, the sheep would completely ignore our chatter until my uncle would start calling, “Come, sheep! Come, sheep!” And the timid-yet-gentle creatures would start making their way from the “pasture” to the barn, a little nervous to see us strangers. They came because they knew their shepherd’s voice and call. There was a familiarity to them in his step, in his face, and in his voice, and they trusted him.

The Good Shepherd’s sheep don’t know the voice of impostor shepherds, and they flee them. The sheep may have a wayward inclination, but they do know, deep down, whom to follow. They can sense truth even amid all the voices and follow after it. It’s the Good Shepherd who can call us by name, and we follow after him. Once we hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, it’s like we become rewired to instinctively follow after him.

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his listeners, “Which shepherd will you follow? Whose voice will you hear, and whose will you flee? Those impostor shepherds, those short-cut thieves and exploiters, those violent rebels and murderers? Or will you follow the Good Shepherd, who will lead you beside the still water, restore your soul, take you through the valley of the shadow of death, and raise you to walk in newness of life by the power of the resurrection?

So when Jesus goes about proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, we follow him as a part of that proclamation, because we’re his flock. We follow Jesus as he sets about healing God’s children, freeing them from the grip of pain, despair, and the possessive spirits of the world. We follow him on his path of tremendous and costly love for the least lovable.

We follow him as he forgives those who come to him, and we even follow him through the valley of the shadow of death, because he is the Good Shepherd, and we are his flock. We freely yield to his call to follow him even as we bear our crosses to the hill of Golgotha, being conformed to a death like his, that we might also share in a resurrection like his. For he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And as the lamb who was slain and rose again, he has gone ahead, left us a trail through the thorns and brambles to the hope of his kingdom and the safety of his fold. We need a shepherd in this life, and we can trust his voice.

Deer
In Psalm 42, the Psalmist feels like a deer that longs for flowing streams. So it is that the soul longs for God, thirsts for God. We are created with a thirst that only God can quench, and we search for the flowing streams of God. Now in the land of the Psalmist, the rains come seasonally, and when it rains the streams flow, but during the dry season, the streams often dry up.

Likewise, we often experience droughts in our life with God. The streams dry up, and we find ourselves thirsty. We suffer loss and difficulty, and it hurts. We get harmed by others and our soul feels empty and parched. We get busy with life and forget about God and soon discover that we’re parched. And so, the Psalmist seeks streams of water, but instead finds only a stream of tears.

The psalmist pours out his or her soul, and in so doing, finds an overwhelming flood of God’s steadfast love. As the Psalmist pours out the soul, memories start to come. Memories of worship, of processions and glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving and who multitudes at worship. And the Psalmist is comforted and encouraged.

Then the Psalmist remembers Mount Hermon, which is snowcapped most of the year, and the majestic waterfalls it displays as the melted snow comes down the mountain. The floodgates open. Deep calls to deep, as if creation itself is at worship. The Psalmist, seeking seasonal streams, pours out the soul and becomes overwhelmed by the awe of the floods of worship.

That’s what worship is – gathering together as we pour out our hearts, only to be overwhelmed and awed by the flood of God’s steadfast love. Often we need to pour out our soul and everything that has come to fill it so that it can be overflowed by God’s steadfast love. Where can you pour out your soul? With whom can you share your deepest longings and hurts and disappointments and hopes and joys?

It’s what happens when we open ourselves to Jesus. Like Jesus told the woman at the well with her water jar, “Every one who drinks of my water will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” When the woman left, her water jar stayed behind (John 4:28). She was overwhelmed by the flood of living water.

Trees
Psalm 1 likens the life of faith to a tree. Those who delight in the law and meditate on it are like trees planted by streams of water, yielding their fruit in season, not whithering even in season of drought, but prospering. Now the word for “law” here is torah. Law sounds kinda, well, legalistic. Cold and distant. But that’s not really what torah is about. Torah is a way of life. God’s way of life. Torah is instruction for faithful and fruitful living. Torah is about God’s story of redemption and teaching us to live in redemptive ways. Torah is about God’s Word for us.

Psalm 1 is about delighting in God’s ways and God’s stories and God’s instructions and meditating on them, studying them, internalizing them day and night. I mentioned earlier that Psalm 119 has 176 verses. And those 176 verses are about God’s Word, God’s Torah, God’s instruction, God’s ways and God’s story. To read all 176 verses all at once is really quite overwhelming, as well it should be, because the importance of God’s Word is overwhelming. Apart from it, there is nothing worthy to be called life. (Jesus said, “my words are spirit, and they are life.”)

When we are delighting and dwelling in God’s Word, we have a place to be rooted and grounded. We have a place to be planted and to flourish, and be blessed and be a blessing. Now the Psalmist isn’t naïve. The Psalmists know all about how often times it seems the other way around like the way of the wicked causes them to prosper and might makes right and crime often does pay, and quite often very handsomely. But being blessed is about a peace that not like the world gives, that passes all understanding. In Psalm 1, it’s about having a place to be grounded, rooted. Rooted and grounded in God’s Word. When we are rooted and grounded in God’s word, we have a place to thrive, to prosper, and to bear fruit. Our roots are sent out into the streams of life, and we can weather the storms and droughts that come our way, bearing much fruit for God’s kingdom along the way.

In two weeks, we’ll be kicking off our year of the Bible with our Grace Hill Bible Bowl. This will be a year of many opportunities to dwell in the word, to digest it into our bones and blood. To be rooted in it every more deeply. To meditate on it and delight in it. So in the coming weeks, be thinking about how you are going to be rooted ever more deeply in God’s word this year. Maybe you want to read the Bible through. Maybe you want to work on memorizing scripture. Maybe you want to join a Bible study or participate in fun evenings of telling the stories in creative ways. Maybe you want to start reading the Bible as a family.

In John 15, Jesus uses a similar image: I am the vine, and you are the branches. And twelve times in 8 verses, Jesus talks about abiding. Abiding in the vine. Abiding in Jesus and he in us. Abiding in his love, and his joy abiding in us. We’re to be rooted in, to dwell in, to abide in God’s word made flesh in Jesus.

 

As his sheep, we need a shepherd, and we have an instinctive urge to listen to our Good Shepherd’s voice. Let’s heed that voice and rest in his protection. As deer thirsting after water, we have a longing for God. When we pour ourselves out, we encounter the overwhelming floods of God’s steadfast love in gathering together for worship and in creation itself at worship. Let’s worship God and pour out our souls to one another and experience the flood of God’s steadfast love in creation and in our lives. When we come to Jesus we find the overflowing waters of life. As trees, when we delight in God’s Word and dwell in it and chew on it and live in it, we’re like trees with strong rooting, drawing on those waters of life, abiding in Jesus our vine. Let’s dwell in God’s word, rooted as a tree by the riverside.

Notes:
1. There is only one thief mentioned by name in John’s gospel: Judas Iscariot, who kept the common purse, but stole the money from it instead of giving it to the poor (John 12:4-6). And there is only one rebel mentioned by name in John’s gospel: At the time of Passover, the Jewish authorities would later ask for the release, not of Jesus, but of the insurrectionist and murderer named Barabbas. They had chosen their shepherd, and his path would ultimately lead to destruction. The Judeans mounted an insurrection against Rome in AD 66-70. It was brutally crushed. In several important manuscripts, Matthew draws out the contrast by calling Barabbas “Jesus Barabbas.” The choice is then between Jesus Messiah and Jesus Barabbas (Matthew 27:17). The crowd chooses the insurrectionist Jesus. May we guide our minds and actions against following this false “Jesus” of violence and insurrection.

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Remembering God

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Remembering God” (Deuteronomy 32:4, 10-12, 18)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 28, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Our race, the human race, is plagued among other many other things, by forgetfulness. Our memories are so very short. We forget names and dates and anniversaries and directions.

Our memories are so short. We grow up and forget what it was like to be a child, filled with wonder and a thirst for exploration and attention but intimidated by a world of bustling giants. We get a group of friends together and so quickly forget all about what it was like to sit down in the cafeteria and no one would come and join us, completely oblivious to the fact that we’re alone.

Katherine will tell you that I forget all kinds of things. I forget where I parked the car. I often forget to eat lunch (believe it or not). Several times a week, I forget where I put my keys, or the checkbook, or my phone, or my sandwich, which has led to a few unpleasant science experiments.

Our memories are so very short, and we make such a mess of things. With all the fur flying about immigration, we’ve so quickly forgotten that we too were immigrants, welcomed for our labor but feared because we lived differently and spoke a different language from a part of the world that this part of the world was taught to fear and even hate, all the while our families were growing quickly and expanding and leaving an imprint on the existing communities that made them uncomfortable to say the least. We forget that we live on the land of a people who neither gave nor sold it to us.

So quickly we forget. So quickly we forget where we came from and where we are. So quickly we forget who we are (we’ll talk about that more text week). So quickly we forget whose we are. We forget, as Moses put it, “God who gave us birth.” Moses knew how human we are, how quickly we forget.

You see, just after God Almighty had delivered the people out of their centuries of slavery in Egypt, just after the people had been freed by the hand of God with many signs and wonders, just after they had crossed the sea on dry land and gathered at the mountain of God. Just after Moses had trained the people in the ways of the Lord. Just after the people had said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient,” Moses went up the mountain with God for forty days. And in just forty days, just forty days, the people forgot God their savior and exchanged the glory of God for a mere statue, and worshiped a golden calf. All the while the devouring fire of God was burning in the mountain above them.

So very human we are. So very short our memories are. So very quickly we forget. We forget the one who has given us breath and life, the one who keeps our life. We forget the one who knitted us together in our mother’s womb and knows our every word before it is even formed on our tongue.

We are so quick to forget. The fact is, we simply cannot escape the presence of God. We cannot flee from God’s spirit. But we can and do forget about it. We forget that God is with us. Most of us don’t live with a constant awareness of the presence of God around, before, and behind us.

Most of us forget about God’s hand on our shoulder every moment of the day. We’ve got other stuff to do – emails to send, and meetings to attend and fences and machinery to mend and lessons to prepare and patients to see and laundry to do and kids to get all over creation.

We just get so caught up in living life that we forget the rock who has given us life, the God who gave us birth, the God who gave us breath. It’s like how we may go weeks, even months on end, without even noticing our own breath. It comes and goes, waking or sleeping, some 30,000 times every single day, and we hardly notice it until we’re out of it.

Jesus said that God is Spirit. Remember how that’s the same word for breath. God is like Breath. It’s just so easy to take God for granted because God is so perfectly reliable, so easy to forget about God just like we forget about our breath of life. We just get so sidetracked with our pursuits and jealousies and anxieties and fears and our hurts. And most times, we don’t even know it until we’re out of breath, gasping for help, for life. It’s just what happens.

Moses knew it. He knew that the second the children of Israel sat down in a land of their own and caught their breath, they’d forget God. It’s not just a modern problem with all our busy lives and schedules. It’s not about time and busy-ness. It’s about memory and paying attention and practicing to remember. Over and over and over again in Deuteronomy, Moses urges the people to remember.

“Remember and do not forget.”

“Be careful not to forget but remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought you out.”

“Remember that the Lord brought you out.”

“Remember.”

And Moses tried all sorts of things to get the people to remember. He had them tie God’s commandments on their hands and on their foreheads and on their doorposts. He told them to teach their children about their story so that it wouldn’t be forgotten.

He had them build altars and monuments in the land. He had them make piles of stones to remember. If you read through the stories of Moses and Joshua, you’ll find that the people are constantly lugging rocks around everywhere.

And he taught them this song in Deuteronomy 32 so that when they forgot and when they got in trouble and when they lost their breath, they would be able to remember and return.

Songs are so powerful. Often times, nursing home caregivers remark that their residents may not remember names or faces or dates, but they remember songs. Moses taught the people this song to help them remember, when all other memory fades.

And what is so remarkable about this song – this teaching song – is that what Moses chooses to remind the people of God – what Moses’ object lesson is – is God’s good creation: rocks, fathers, apples, deserts, eagles, nurses, birthing.

You see, part of the reason we forget our breath – part of the reason we forget God – is that God is like breath. God is Spirit, not matter. There are many mysteries to God that we simply do not understand. There are many ways that God is present with us that we do not perceive. There are many hallmarks of God’s spirit, of God’s breath, that we miss because like the wind, we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes (cf. John 3).

Or in the words of Isaiah that we heard, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Part of the reason we forget God is that our minds are so small and our understandings of God are so limited that we just don’t get how God is present with us in every situation and experience, in every joy and hurt, success and failure, celebration and frustration; in every conversation; in every task major or minute at home and at work. When we’re filled with love and when we’re angry; when life is filled with blessed happiness; when life hurts with an emptiness that we can’t possibly imagine being filled. In great hope and in deep despair. Our image of God is so small that we just fail to understand the many ways God is with us in every moment of every day, just as surely as the breath we breathe, and we forget.

The truth is, we can’t understand. We’re made in God’s image, but God isn’t in our image, and God’s thoughts go right over our heads. God’s ways are above and beyond our ways.

We often think that if God would show up in signs and wonders like God did in the Old Testament, maybe then we wouldn’t forget. Maybe if we had some more devouring fire and pillars of cloud and smoke and amazing healings. Maybe then we’d take notice and not forget.

But the fact is, God still shows up in signs and wonders today, but we’re just no better at understanding it now than God’s people were when Moses went up the mountain and the very people who beheld those signs and wonders of thunder and fire and smoke still didn’t get it and forgot God. It’s just who God is. Praise God, but we don’t get it. We can’t.

We try to pack God into something that we can understand and control and say, “There. That. That’s who God is.” God calls those things idols, things fashioned by the limitation of human hands, dreamed up by the limitation of human minds.

But we do have God’s breath, God’s Spirit within us. We are formed and fashioned in God’s image and likeness. We have hearts and minds that are filled for an unquenchable thirst for God. We can’t ever totally know God. Most of us never even really learn to know ourselves. But we can learn to chase after God’s own heart. We can come to know enough of God’s character and deeds that the memory becomes written on our hearts. We can continually expand our understanding of our God who is so much bigger than any of our language.

It’s why the Bible talks about God in so very many different ways, well over 600 different images and names and metaphors: roots and shoots, rivers and rocks, lights and stars, shepherd and prince, king and nurse, mother and father, beginning and end, Creator and Redeemer, teacher and friend, Warrior and Prince of Peace, Lord and Savior.

All these and hundreds and hundreds more are the many ways the Bible talks about God. The only way to speak about God is in concrete terms that our minds can understand, but the Bible urges us to realize that it’s not the whole picture. If we think we have the whole picture, we may have a nice, convenient idea, but we’ve forgotten God.

Moses points God’s people to God’s creation. When a painter creates a mural, something of that painter’s skill and character is embedded in the mural. When a musician performs a piece of music, something of that musician’s heart is expressed in the music. When a carpenter creates a piece of furniture, something of the carpenter’s mind is to be found in the finished product.

If you want to be reminded of God and who God is and what God is like, look no further than the work of God’s hands. God’s fingerprints are all over God’s good creation.

Moses calls God our rock – perfect, just, faithful, upright. Unshakable. Solid. Absolutely dependable. Moses calls God our father. The one who created us and established us and taught us and cared for us and protected us. Moses likens God to an eagle, who protects us as its young under its wings and gives us flight on its wings – both our security and freedom simultaneously and without contradiction. Moses talks about God nursing Jacob with honey and oil – our caretaker and nurturer. Moses talks about God as the rock that bore us and the God who gave us birth. We have nothing to do with our birth. We receive without giving. We are helpless. It is a mother’s determination, labor, and pain that brings us into this life.

So quickly we forget that’s how it is with God as well. We receive without giving. We are helpless without God. Apart from God’s labors, we would not be here. And so very quickly, we forget. But there are reminders of God’s presence and character all around us in God’s handiwork. In birth. In an eagle’s flight. In parenting. In rocks.

The vastness and majesty and mystery of God’s creation is here to remind us of the vastness and majesty and mystery of God. God isn’t like anything and everything. Part of our experience is the malice and wickedness that runs amok in our lives and hurts us and others so badly. God’s not like that. God is love, though even our understanding of love is incomplete. Jesus is the fullest revelation we have of God. He came to us in human form but we rarely even know our own flesh and blood, and so often we can’t understand Jesus, and we forget. So he taught us to practice remembering him with God’s own handiwork – grain and grapes in the form of bread and cup. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Yet another verse in the same song. We’re so prone to forgetfulness, but there are reminders all around us if we just train ourselves to look at them. Look around at God’s good creation and be reminded of God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s vastness, God’s majesty and mystery, so much bigger than we can ever think or imagine. Be reminded more and more of God’s constant presence, as a constant breath. Remember and embrace the God who is bigger than any of our language, but not too big for us.

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God Cares for Us

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“God Cares for Us” (Psalm 139:-118)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
July 21, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The verses that were read from this psalm strike me as 3 stanzas of one song, or a poem in three parts, with each part speaking of a different aspect of God’s deep and intimate love for us as beloved daughters and sons.

The first speaks of God’s intimate knowledge of us; our Creator knows us deeply, when we sit and when we rise, our coming out and our going in. The second speaks of God’s constant presence with us; so that even when we are lying in the depths or at the far limits of the sea, God’s Spirit is with us. The third speaks of how our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made by the hands of our Creator, that we are knit together by God’s loving hands in our mother’s womb.

Our God knows us. Our God knows us deeply. Our God knows intimately; so intimately in fact that God knows our every action and has searched out our path and has perceived our every thought from far away.

Now there is a part of me that cringes a bit at this knowledge. There are some things that I have done that I have a hard enough time admitting even to myself, let alone to God. And there are some words that I have said and thoughts that I have had that I would be embarrassed to talk about with God; hateful thoughts, thoughts that do not reflect the goodness of God’s image within others, thoughts that do not reflect the nature of the person who God created me to be. Yet God already knows of these shortcomings and failings anyway. I imagine that God is disappointed when I think these things or say these things or do these things. And I would hope that in being aware that God knows all about me, my every action, my every thought, that this knowledge would prompt me to act and think in ways that are more in keeping with who God calls me to be.

But. . . I do know that even though God knows the very worst things about me, God still loves me unconditionally, as God loves all of us, for with God there is always grace upon grace.

And it is also wonderful to realize that God knows us so well for it means that God is not simply absent from our lives; God is not simply uninterested in what we do. God did not create the world and then leave it to its own devices. God knowing every minute detail about our lives means that God is intimately involved within our lives and within creation, both the bad and the good. God knowing every intimate detail about our lives means that God cares deeply about what happens to us.

Lord, you have searched me, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down, you are familiar with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, you, O Lord, know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

There is no where where we can escape God’s presence. If we ascend to great heights, God is there. If we descend into the depths, God is still there.

Now speaking for myself, I do not remember there ever being a time when I have tried to flee from God’s presence. But I can remember times when God’s presence has felt very absent from my life. One of my closest friends in high school was someone I had grown up with. She and I had attended the same congregation since our birth and the same school since kindergarten. We were both leaders in our youth group. She and I had written all of the skits for our Youth Sunday. She and I were both a part of our congregation’s praise team and worship band. She and I had both performed in the musical “Godspell” at the MCUSA convention in Nashville. She had gone with me to Winnipeg to visit the CMU campus when I was in the process of making the decision where to attend college. We talked about a lot of things, things that were funny, or serious, inconsequential, or momentous. And when we were both seniors in high school, she told me that she no longer believed in God. And that was very painful for me. As someone who had begun to feel a call to ministry, I was at a complete loss for how to respond to her. I couldn’t understand it, especially given all that we had done together in our youth group and in worship. And I was angry and hurt. And even though I still very much believed in God myself, from the time that she told me this until nearly my third year in college, I had ceased to feel God’s presence with me in the ways that I had been used to before. The once familiar and comforting presence seemed to have vanished from my life. And I can still remember screaming and crying in my prayers because of what had happened to my friend and because I was angry that at this time when I was hurting, I no longer recognized God’s presence with me.

I also remember feeling that God’s presence had abandoned me when Peter and I experienced a miscarriage. Even knowing the 1 in 3 chances of a miscarriage with a first pregnancy, I couldn’t understand how this could happen if God was knitting the child together in my womb. We found out that our baby had no heartbeat during the Easter season, on the week that I was scheduled to preach. And I didn’t know how to proclaim the promises of the resurrection when my own body had become a tomb. And I was angry at God. And I felt abandoned by God. And many of my prayers were simply tears. And it felt like pain and darkness were consuming me.

But even at these times in my life when it has felt as though I have descended into the depths, even there God’s hand has led me. And in looking back, I have been able to recognize that even then God was with me, even though it was not through the familiar presence that I have been used to feeling and knowing. When my close friend lost her faith, even then God’s hand was guiding me, leading me to CMU, calling me into ministry. When we lost our first child, I experienced God’s presence through the prayers, meals, embraces, and tears of friends and the family of faith.

I know that many have experienced more pain in their lives than I have, that I am not the only one who has felt as though God’s presence is very distant if not gone all together. Yet I truly believe that God is present in even the darkest moments of history, and if nothing else, simply crying with us in our pain. For there is nowhere that we can go from God’s Spirit. There is no where where we can flee from God’s presence.

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for the darkness is as light to you.

It is by God’s own hands that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are created very good in the very image of our Divine Creator. I hope that we have all been told this from a very young age, that God has indeed created us good, that we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made by God’s own hands. And yet I lament that I too often have believed the lies of the culture when it tells me that my body is not good enough. We are told that we’re not slender enough, not curvy enough, not muscular enough, not tall enough, not short enough, not fast enough, not strong enough, not toned enough, not tan enough, not fair enough, not smart enough, not athletic enough, not feminine enough, not manly enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough, not good enough.

And I have spent hours agonizing over my reflection in the mirror or the numbers I see when I step on the scale. If only I could change a few things about my body, then I would be beautiful. Or so I’ve been taught to feel by the lies that this culture has told me. And even though I have read Genesis 1 and Psalm 139 so many times, I still fall prey to this belief that my body isn’t good enough.

But the profound and ancient truth is that each of us are indeed very good in the eyes of our Creator. Each of us are fearfully and wonderfully made by God’s own hand. And our bodies are so good in fact that God’s own self chose to take on our flesh and become one of us. God came to us in a body like our own, knit together in a mother’s womb, a body that could run, and dance, and play, and laugh, and suffer, and cry, and feel pain, and embrace others, and worship, just like our own bodies are capable of, for good indeed is the flesh that the Word of God has become.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately wove in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before even one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.

And that is the very promise of the One who took on our flesh, who is God-with-us, God’s very presence among us, and who knows us intimately. For God has promised never to leave us nor forsake us. And indeed, God is with us always, even to the very end of the age.

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Breath-Giving God

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Breath-Giving” (Psalm 104:10-30)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 14, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Breath-Taking Creation
On our journey back from Phoenix last week, our last leg was a flight from Dallas to Wichita, and as we made our final descent, I looked out my window and saw that we were flying right over a massive cloud bank just as the sun was setting, and it looked like we were flying over a million blazing cotton balls. As we descended through the clouds, there was a whole world to be seen up in the sky – mountains and valleys and plains and islands in the vast expanse of the clouds. It was absolutely breath-taking.

I remember that same sense of awe and wonder at seeing the sun set across the Sea of Galilee, a sight Jesus must have known so well; or a waterfall in the Dead Sea desert; or as a boy, seeing the June sun set on the golden seas of wheat that surrounded our house on all four sides. Or watching Sophia take her first breaths and her first steps. Absolutely breath-taking.

You know what I’m talking about. The amazing beauty of the sunflowers that line the Kansas ditches at the end of summer. The turning of the leaves in fall. The pure, crisp beauty of winter snow. The amazing greening and the delightful smells of springtime.

Or a foal that rises to its feet moments after birth. The mountains in their might and majesty, the plains in their splendor. The awesome power held of the depths of the seas. The countless stars spanning a crisp night sky. Absolutely breath-taking.

That’s what Psalm 104 is all about: the breath-taking beauty of God’s joyful work in creation – mountains and waters; light and wind and night; birds and trees and goats and lions and people upon the face of the earth. The delights of the fruit of the earth.

The Psalmist looks upon all these reminders of God’s goodness and delight and love and simply overflows with praise. The Psalmist wants us to look at a truly amazing world that God simply delights in, rejoices in, even plays in. A world where a look into the vastness of the universe is a window into God’s delight, where a lily blooming in springtime is a picture of God rejoicing, where God plays sports with the great creatures of the sea.

Look around, and see the fingerprints of God’s joyful spirit all over creation. Think of a time when you saw or heard or tasted or smelled or touched some corner of God’s creation, and for a moment your breath caught in your lungs as the awesome joy and beauty and power and glory of the Creator just washed over you.

If you haven’t ever had that experience, become a student of creation as the psalmists were. Observe the skies in their expanse and color. Listen to the songs of the birds in the morning. Marvel at a spider’s web. Behold the pure joy of an infant’s giggle. Learn about the cells that make up our bodies, the particles that are the universe’s building blocks, the awesome electric power of a thunderstorm. Peer into the vast expanse and enormity of the universe.

It’s God’s wisdom and pure delight. And the Psalmist says, when we reflect on and ponder and study and just enjoy God’s creation and praise God for it, that magnifies God’s joy. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

Breath-Giving God
Breathtaking. Or really, a better expression would be “breath-giving.” You see, when the Psalmist says in verses 29 and 30, “When you take away the breath of your creatures, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your breath, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth,” there the psalmist is putting into poetry what Genesis 2:7 says:

“Then the Lord God formed the adam (“human being,” or “Adam”) from the dust of the adamah (“ground”).” Adam from the adamah. Adam from the adamah. Adam from the adamah. It’s a pun, a play on words – adam from the adamah. Human beings are filled from the beginning with God’s joyful sense of humor. I’ve often thought that in English, it would be like God fashioning a person out of dust, and saying, “Hey, Dusty!” (I think it wise to laugh at God’s puns, lest there be greater punishment.)

But that’s what we are, isn’t it? Think about it. In the whole vastness of the universe that that stretches so much farther than we can imagine, we really are just dust. In Hebrew, there is just one letter’s worth of difference between adam and adamah, one letter’s worth that separates each of us from dust, dust from Dusty (see, it works!).

But that one letter’s worth makes all the difference, and the rest of Genesis 2:7 tells us what it is: God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the adam (the human, Adam, Dusty) became a living being. The breath of God is what transforms us from just a random collection of carbon and water to living creatures.

There are a couple of words in Hebrew that can be translated as “breath,” and they can also be translated “wind” or “Spirit.” Breath, wind, spirit. Breath, wind, spirit. Breath, wind spirit. The same is true in the New Testament. God’s breath, God’s Spirit, is all there is, and everything there is, that distinguishes living beings from random dust.

“When you take away the breath of your creatures, they die, and return to their dust,” the Psalmist says. “When you send forth your breath, your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground, the adamah.”

Breath of Creation
If you want to catch a glimpse of the glory of God’s works, just take a moment and notice your own breath. Take a moment right now. . .

All day long, whether waking or sleeping, sprinting or relaxing, in and out, in and out, whether you notice it or not, you breathe the breath that comes from God, you are powered by the Spirit that comes from God.

Everyone has that breath. Everyone, without exception has within them that precious gift from God that makes us so much more than a random pile of dust on the ground, the adamah. What a breath-taking, breath-giving thought! I think that one of the things that can give God joy and give us joy is when just for a moment in the midst of the busyness of the day, we pause and take notice of a few breaths, and say simply, “Wow, thank you God for your breath, your Spirit that you have given to me.”

Genesis 1:2 tells us that since the very beginning of creation, God’s Spirit-Breath has been sweeping over creation. All of creation is caught up in the breath of God. That same mysterious breath-Spirit that was there when the stars were formed and the vastness of the universe was established, and clouds and sunsets and laughter, that same breath also lives in each one of us.

I wonder if that’s why when our hearts notice the awesome glory of God’s playful, delightful work in creation, that our breath catches in our lungs, because we recognize something that’s inside us as well – God’s creative power and love. It’s the same thing that’s in everyone – friend, neighbor, even enemy. It’s the breath that makes all people and all things God’s. And because it’s God’s, it’s precious and holy.

So often, though, people take breath for granted, or really, just fail to notice it at all. We breathe without thinking about it. We pass the incredible beautify and fail to notice it. So often we see things not as holy, but as flat, one-dimensional, empty. Not caught up in the breath of God.

Out of Breath
There’s a myth as old, old as creation itself, that life is scarce; that food is scarce; that time is scarce; that love is scarce; that God is scarcely to be seen. In short, that there is a shortage of the breath that enlivens creation and fills it with abundance, joy, and love. It’s the reason why the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. Pharaoh saw that they had become numerous, and he got scared that there wouldn’t be enough. So he enslaved them. It’s such an old story. The reason for nearly every major conflict in human history: the notion that we live in a world of scarcity, and life is a competition of accumulation of resources for us and ours while we have breath.

In 1933, a delegation of church leaders met with Adolf Hitler. On returning home, the wife of one of the leaders asked him what he had learned. And he replied, “That Adolf Hitler is a very frightened man.”

And so we humans do terrible things. We make wars, and we enslave each other, and we take advantage of each other, we harm God’s creation, and we give of ourselves endlessly in this thing we call a “rat race,” jockeying for position. Why? Because we’re frightened. We’re scared. We’re worried. We’re worried that there isn’t enough, won’t be enough, and we better get ahead while we can. We always want more, more than our parents, as the American dream goes.

The author of Ecclesiastes describes it well: “It’s all vanity, vanity and chasing after wind.” It’s the same word we’ve been talking about. “Vanity and chasing after breath.” We spend our whole life chasing after breath, and it leaves us and our world and our neighbors out of breath, when the sad, sad irony of it is that God’s breath is all around us, enlivening creation. In fact, it’s so close it’s inside each of us. We don’t have to spend our whole life chasing after it.

It’s one of the reason’s God wants us to have a Sabbath, to catch our breath, to remember who we are and whose breath we breathe, and to use that breath just to rejoice with God.

Psalm 104 is a psalm about the abundance of creation, about God who gives all living things the food they need. The shelter they need. The joy they need. We live in a world of the abundance of God, not scarcity.

Now the Psalmist isn’t naïve. There were people starving when the psalm was written, just like how, in an outrage of injustice, there were 30,000 children who starved yesterday while you and I filled our bellies. No, not every one does have enough. But that’s because of greed, not because of scarcity. That’s because of fear that there’s a shortage of breath and bread, a fear that leads to hoarding instead of helping.

Jesus proclaimed a different reality. The story begins with God’s Spirit – God’s breath – descending into him. And he goes about healing and casting out demons and proclaiming forgiveness of debts and good news for the poor. He provides an over-abundance of wine for a wedding party. And when there’s a hungry crowd, a young boy offers up five loaves and two fish. And what does Jesus do? He give thanks and he shares it, and it turns out that there’s more than enough.

John’s Gospel calls it a sign. It’s a sign of what’s always been true of God. When bread is broken and shared, there’s more than enough. There always has been. And in Jesus, the breath of God was renewing that truth. “I came,” Jesus said, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“Though he was rich,” Paul said, “he became poor so that you might become rich.” That’s the abundant life he invites us to, giving, sharing ourselves, and in doing so, finding the abundant life.

Entangled in the Breath of Christ
It’s absolutely breath-giving. One of the times when I was so amazed by God’s creative work in the world that my breath caught in my lungs was when I was in physics class in college. Now I’ve been informed that not everyone finds quantum physics to be as exciting as I do, and that’s okay. But just humor me here. I learned about something called quantum entanglement, which says that if two particles interact with each other so as to become entangled, even if they are separated by light years, a change in one will be immediately reflected in the other, faster than the speed of light.

I think that’s what it’s like to have the breath of God – to be entangled, caught up in the life of God, so that we also share in God’s love and joy and creativity. That’s why God breathes in us. To be with us. To be connected to us. To delight with us. To be creative through us. Each of us is permanently entangled with God.

After Jesus was crucified, his disciples were scared, as we so often are, scared that life and joy are scarce. But he came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “receive the Holy Breath,” the Holy Spirit.

When we breathe in the resurrection breath of the life of Christ, the Holy Breath, the Holy Spirit, we become entangled, caught up in the life of Christ, sent as he was as a sign of God’s renewal of creation. Amid an out-of-breath world rushing after more and more and inflicting so much pain and violence, our job is to breathe. To breathe the same breath of peace that Jesus breathed. To breathe the same breath of the truth of abundance

Breathe in the resurrection breath of life of Christ. Breath in with me. If you have Jesus, you will always have this breath, this Holy Spirit. And be amazed at the breath-giving work of God. Now, go and breathe out that breath of peace and joy and rest and life throughout this beautiful earth. Be creative with God. Delight with God. Share the breath-giving wonder of God’s joyful work.

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A Chance

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“A Chance” (Ruth 2)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 23, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Death, Desperation, and Determination
The book of Ruth is a timeless old story about the human experience of hardship, death, and adversity; of the dangers and difficulties of sojourn and resettling in a foreign land; of hard work and harvest; of courtship and birth; of everyday heroics of kindness and loyalty; of steadfast love and redemption. Its cast is few; its story is simple; its message is profound. It is a story about the common experiences of human existence, but more than that, it is a story about the steadfast, yet quiet presence of God in the course of the myriad of experiences, trials, sufferings, and joys of life.

The story begins in the midst of crisis. There was a severe famine in the land, and a man named Elimelech from the town of Bethlehem, which literally means “house of bread,” does what many people do when they can no longer find their daily bread in their own land. He decides to move. And together with his wife Naomi and their two sons, Elimelech travels to the land of Moab.

But before long, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi a widow with two sons in a foreign land. These two sons marry two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Yet soon these two sons also die, leaving Naomi a widow in a foreign land with two foreign daughters-in-law. An isolated woman in a man’s world far, far from home.

Having received word that the Lord has once again filled the houses of Bethlehem with bread, Naomi decides to set off for her homeland. Naomi blesses her daughters-in-law, praying that the Lord may show them the same steadfast love that they have shown her, as they return to their mothers’ houses and seek new futures with new husbands.

Orpah and Ruth, Naomi’s daughters-in-law, refuse to leave Naomi, but Naomi tells them that she has no future, and they have no future with her. She will not be able to find a new husband and will not be able to provide for them. Looking back on her life: an alien in a foreign land, burying her husband, then both of her children, she comes to the conclusion that the hand of the Lord has turned against her. Why would her daughters-in-law want to continue in such a life?

Orpah chooses to return to care for her family of origin. Ruth, however, refuses Naomi’s urgings to turn back and binds herself and her fate to Naomi, in the famous words of loyalty and kindness, “Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and you God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

Seeing her determination, Naomi says nothing more.

A Turn of Chance
So the two of them together return to Bethlehem, yet even in the house of bread, all is not well. “No longer call me Naomi (which means pleasant), but Mara (which means bitter). I went away full; the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has brought calamity upon me?”

There’s nothing pleasant about it! Naomi has suffered much. She has lost much. She has returned home unrecognizable as the woman Naomi who left. She is vulnerable as a widow in a man’s world. She is deeply discouraged and profoundly hurting, and finds not comfort and hope, but bitterness and abandonment in God.

Yet even as Naomi remains in the bitterness of grief, loss, and shame, Ruth has set off in hope of changing their fortunes in life.

In an agricultural economy, people without land were especially vulnerable to malnutrition, disease, and starvation. Crop failure, illness, accident, or death could cause a family to lose possession of their land. There were also certain groups of people who almost never possessed land, including widows without male sons or married daughters, orphans, and immigrants.

Ruth is an immigrant, an orphan, a widow, and poor. She is among the most vulnerable. She decides to make use of the provision in Israelite law that required landowners to leave the corners of their fields unharvested, and to leave some of the crop behind for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. She heads out to follow the barley harvest.

Well, by chance, the storyteller says, the field where Ruth is harvesting turns out to belong to Boaz, a well-to-do landowner who happens to be related to Elimelech, Ruth’s deceased father-in-law, the late husband of Naomi. Well, you know the rest of the story of this chance encounter. Boaz is deeply moved by Ruth’s heroic steadfast love for Naomi. He brings her under his protection and care and reserves an additional portion of the harvest for her. When Naomi sees Ruth’s good fortune, she exclaims, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!”

A Turn of Chance
And so it is that Naomi’s and Ruth’s fortune, after many bitter years, take a favorable turn. And all this happens, the storyteller tells us, by this “chance” meeting in the field of Boaz.

But isn’t it an odd thing that the very turning point in the story, the moment when Naomi’s and Ruth’s years of struggle and sorrow begin to ease and hope shimmers on the horizon of their life again, this the storyteller calls mere chance?

Are the people we meet in our life place before us by happenstance? Are the most significant events in our life mere chance? Do married couples come together by luck of the draw? Do we give our hearts to Jesus for the first time by mere chance? Is it luck that determines whether life is pleasant or bitter?

Well, God has given us as human beings, created in the divine image, freedom – free choice. God cares so deeply about having a true relationship with each of God’s children that God, at great risk, has given us freedom to choose that relationship. We are free to make choices in this world, are we not? We are free to choose whether to walk with God or not. We are free to choose whether to do good or to do evil. We are free to choose selfishly or selflessly. Even if the very voice of God would speak clearly and directly to me and tell me exactly what God wants me to do, I would still have the choice of obeying or disobeying God’s command.

We continue to learn how our choices affect others, how the choices we make affect people around the world, and how the choices of others around the world affect us. It’s a scary thought that we don’t control our own destiny, that in fact, the pleasantness of life is in some significant way determined by the often capricious choices of human beings, that when another person chooses against the will of God, I may suffer, and when I choose against the will of God, others may suffer.

Life is precarious, uncertain. Some bodies survive cancer; others succumb to it. Some survive natural disaster; others perish. Some lives are claimed by violence, disease, and affliction. Some are born with congenital disabilities due to environmental factors, parental choices, or a whole host of causes that escape our understanding. Some good, hardworking people fail and fall into hardship.

It is as Ecclesiastes put it:

Under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them. (Eccl. 9:11-12, NRSV)

Naomi lost her husband and her two children. Chance and the time of disaster. We don’t know why. We don’t know how. Naomi doesn’t understand it. All she understands is that she hurts. Her best guess is that for whatever reason, the hand of God has turned against her. Is even God capricious?

Do we live in a world where the best we can say is what Friedrich Nietzche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Is life just about minimizing our own miserableness in a world of chance and survival? Getting ahead while we can before the other shoe drops and the wheel of fate turns again and gritting our teeth once it does?

God of Life
If that is the case, then Ruth is foolish indeed. In a world of chance, her odds of finding a pleasant life with Naomi are slim indeed. A Moabite, feared and hated by the Israelites, a widow in a man’s world. Truly, chance would find us all fools to invest our lives in prayer, to give ourselves in service to others, to trust in God instead of hedging our bets against a turn of luck. If our happiness in life really did depend on chance, one would expect the happiest people to be those who chance upon wealth and prosperity. But researchers have found that the happiest people aren’t found in the world’s richest nations, but by far in Latin America and Africa, regions plagued by poverty and violence.

No doubt God is mysterious, beyond our understanding. Naomi didn’t understand her suffering. She didn’t ask God why, and the storyteller doesn’t say one way or the other whether God was indeed the cause, as Naomi imagined.

You will remember that Ruth is a book about the quiet presence of God in human life. Likewise, the storyteller of Ruth is quiet in describing the presence and activity of God. In fact, in the entire book, only two times does the storyteller, the author himself or herself, directly describe the presence and activity of God: once at the end of the story, when Ruth and Boaz have a child, the storyteller tells us that it was the Lord who made her conceive. And once at the beginning of the story, when fertility returns to the land of Bethlehem, the storyteller informs us that it was the Lord who had given bread to the people.

Well, this doesn’t say much, but what it says is profound. Whatever else anyone may say about God, what we know is that God gives life, and God preserves life. And in a world where God gives life and preserves life, can it really be said that circumstances leading to the preservation of life are mere chance? Because Ruth meets Boaz, she and Naomi will not starve, and a child will be born

Preparation and Opportunity?
Well, perhaps what the story means in saying that the meeting of Ruth and Boaz was by chance is like what the famous Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi used to say, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Maybe, then, finding happiness in life is about hard work and patience. Maybe it’s like the old saying, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

With harvest beginning all around us, we know the importance of hard work. The harvest doesn’t just happen. Someone has to care for the land, sow the seed, ready machinery, and put in long hours for there to be a successful harvest. Ruth and Naomi don’t survive just by chance. Ruth had been harvesting from early morning until late evening. Ruth doesn’t finally secure her future beyond the harvest by just waiting for fate to smile on her. She massages the system a bit and quite forwardly proposes marriage to Boaz. Boaz, for his part, finesses the inheritance customs for the marriage to happen.

Hard work matters. Human action matters. Preparation matters. Absolutely! But if that were all there is to finding security in life, then Ruth has chosen poorly. Even with a stranger’s kindness, she can only procure enough grain for a few weeks, and what if drought comes again next season? The life of following the harvest was precarious at best, a risky choice for a woman, and a grave danger to a foreign woman, as Boaz was well aware. No, no, had Ruth been concerned to provide for her own security, to “help herself,” the best option she had as a foreign woman, Moabite widow, was most likely prostitution.

The Quiet Providence and Presence of God
Instead, she and Naomi take their chances with God, the giver and preserver of life. They take the risk of putting themselves into the hands of God and seeking refuge under the wings of God. It is a risk, and it does require hard work, but when the storyteller calls it chance, it sounds much more like an ironic understatement, a nod and a wink to draw the listener to reflect on the real, yet quiet, providence and presence of God behind this so-called “chance” meeting of Ruth and Boaz, and behind the ordinary, everyday experiences of our lives, meals and harvest, journeys, the random people we meet throughout the week.

Maybe one of the most important thing we can do as people who risk the mercies of God is to be diligent in identifying the quiet providence and presence of God in our everyday lives, and responding accordingly with gratefulness and generosity and steadfast love.

Isn’t it strange that when Ruth comes to Boaz’s field and falls at his feet, he says, “May you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for protection.” Apparently Ruth doesn’t quite get it, because you’d expect her to say, “May I continue to find grace in the Lord.” Instead, she says, “May I continue to find grace in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me.”

Naomi seems to have been a little confused about it as well, saying “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose steadfast love has not forsaken the living or the dead.” But it’s unclear whether she means the Lord’s steadfast love or Boaz’s steadfast love.

But really, neither Naomi nor Ruth is confused. When human love is pure, kind, and just it is a manifestation of the very love of God, and it should be difficult to distinguish the two. Rather, when Ruth meets Boaz, she meets the steadfast love of God, and finds comfort, kindness, and refuge under the wings of God and meeting God’s steadfast love never comes by chance.

In fact, the meeting of Ruth and Boaz isn’t the turning point in the story of Naomi and Ruth, because God’s steadfast love was there before. God’s real, yet quiet, steadfast love was there when Ruth decided to bravely risk all in steadfast love, loyalty, and kindness for Naomi, a point hidden from Naomi in the grief of her bitter loss.

A Chance for God’s Love
This is, you see, a story about human life, loss, and love. But more importantly, it is a story about the quiet presence of God in and through human life. When God’s love is operating in human life, no meeting is ever by chance. The labors of farmers this week, which will fill the hungry, are not by chance. Nor is the fertility of the field. The kind words you will speak this week are not by chance. In fact, as people in whom God’s spirit dwells, no meeting can ever be by chance. But every meeting is a chance for God’s steadfast love to wash over the story of human life.

Who will you meet this week? Will you meet a Naomi, who has tasted the bitterness of suffering and loss, who is without hope and needs your kindness, a chance for you to share God’s steadfast love? Will you meet a Ruth, whose steadfast love will turn your bitter experiences to the pleasant joys of life? Will you meet Ruth, the Moabite, the foreigner, the immigrant, bravely seeking a future for her family in a strange and potentially threatening land, and it could be a chance for your act of kindness to will introduce God’s steadfast love to her life when she needs it most? Will you meet Boaz, the landowner, kind and gentle, who will rescue you from danger, and will lead you to find comfort in the wings of God’s steadfast love.

God’s steadfast love is throughout the story of Ruth, in simple acts of kindness and loyalty, in laws designed to protect the vulnerable in society, in the fertility of the land, in the birth of a child who would become the grandfather of King David. How fitting that Jesus came into this house and lineage of costly steadfast love.

The story of Ruth ends with Naomi, who lost everything but God’s steadfast love, holding Ruth and Boaz’s son Obed, father of Jesse, father of David. She never knew that in young Ruth’s kindness and loyalty, she would discover God’s love, and neither did Ruth as she acted in kindness, loyalty, and love, a love that would become the house of Christ.

Ours is a story of God’s quiet, faithful, compassionate, gentle, loving presence in human life. May we ponder the many, many quiet ways God’s love brings comfort and joy to our lives, and may we be attentive to those meetings that seem to us to be by chance, random, everyday, or ordinary, that may be a chance, a gateway for God’s surprising and steadfast love to wash anew over human life and embody the life of Christ.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Do not worry?

June 14th, 2013 No comments

“Do not worry?” (Matthew 6:25-34)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
June 9, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

It would seem to me that Jesus’ favorite venue for preaching was outside in creation. Many of his parables and much of his imagery speak of the land, the plants, and the animals he saw around him.

“The Reign of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”1

“A sower went out to sow some seed, and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.”2

“How often I have desired to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.”3

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until it is found?”4

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.”5

“Look at the birds of the air … Consider the lilies of the field … “6

He preached from what he saw in creation all around him. And it seems to me that he took great delight in creation. And of course anyone who has spent time time outside in the fields, or in the garden, or by the lake, or in the woods can understand why. There is a deep and profound beauty in creation. We often experience God’s presence when we are outside in creation. The goodness of our creation reflects the goodness of the One who created it.

And we are told right “from the beginning” that God delights in creation and calls it “very good.” Jesus’ “pastoral” words here from the Sermon on the Mount also proclaim that God is actively caring for and providing for creation, even the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It is lovely imagery that speaks to God’s deep care and delight in creation.

These are beautiful words. But I admit that they have sometimes perplexed me. I love the imagery of the birds and the flowers and God’s providing for creation, but I have always wondered about Jesus’ other words in this passage. Does he really mean that we should not worry? That we should never worry? Isn’t it justifiable that people would worry where their next meal would come from? Especially with a global population that is growing exponentially, with more mouths to feed and less room for farmland? Isn’t it justifiable for our brothers and sisters around the world to worry where their next meal will come from when so many children cry out for bread and die from the lack of it? Isn’t it justifiable for our neighbors to worry about food for their bodies when so many children, even within our communities of Whitewater and Peabody and Newton go to bed hungry?

For myself, I have never yet worried about where my next meal would come from, but anxiety and worry are still absolutely part of my vocabulary and daily experience.

Does Jesus really mean not to worry? Does he really mean this considering the many things we worry about, that occupy our thoughts and keep us awake at night? What about the many bills we have to pay: car payments, and mortgage payments, and medical bills? What about looming expenses of college tuitions? What if there’s a drought? How will the crops fare? (Indeed, the plight of our neighbors in Oklahoma remind us how damaging severe weather can be.) What about the stresses of homework and papers? What about the stresses of all the things that we have yet to do, meetings to attend, children and grandchildren’s activities to watch, family gatherings to plan and prepare for? What about the stresses of home repair and cleaning and daily upkeep? What about the pressures of fitting in, of appearing as though we have everything all together? What about worries about our health? What about worries about the health of those we love?

I have often thought about these words of Jesus as I lie awake at night worrying, and how I’m not adding a single hour to my life (and in reality, I’m probably more likely to be taking away hours from my life due to frequent anxiety and lack of sleep). But even though these words come to mind as I lie awake worrying, there’s rarely relief from my anxieties.

I have always been a chronic worrier, from the stresses of homework and sermon writing, to housework and upkeep, to finances, to Peter’s safety as he drives home. But my worrying increased one hundredfold when Sophia was born. I was suddenly acutely aware of all the terrible things that could happen to her, of all the many possibilities of how things could go wrong, of the myriad ways that she could get hurt, or worse. And these worries often haunt my sleepless nights. I was barely getting enough sleep as it was as a mother of a newborn, but I remember not being able to fall asleep because of worries about the state of the world that my daughter was born into and all in her generation who will inherit the earth. What about the violence that many have to live with on a daily basis, whether through the devastating effects of wars or abuse? What about the ways that women and girls are still not treated as equals with men and boys throughout the world and the ways that our gender is exploited and mistreated and belittled? What about the effects of climate change? How will this affect creation within her lifetime? What about the increasing size of the global population? Will there always be enough food and clean water?

We know that God cares deeply for creation. And as members of a rural congregation, many of us having spent time in the fields, cultivating our gardens, and caring for livestock, and we too have a deep respect for the land, and the growing things which spring from it, and the animals which depend on it. We know the ways that the land provides for us, and our calling to thus till the earth and keep it as stewards of God’s good creation.

And we also know that many do not share our love of God’s creation, who do not share our respect for the land, or care for animals, or the sacredness of each human life. Instead of tilling the earth and keeping it, many instead choose to exploit the earth, destroying all which gets in the way, using it only for sating greed. Corporations spew waste that pollute our water sources, the rivers, the lakes, the oceans. Chemicals used in manufacturing cause cancers and birth defects. “Our devaluation of animal life has led to the extinction of whole species and to unnecessary cruelty to animals.”7 We are depleting the earth’s resources at an alarming rate. If everyone lived as we do in the United States, we would need 5.3 earths to support us.8

And I know that I am a part of systems that exploit the earth, through purchases that I make that have been manufactured by people who are not paid a living wage, through food that I buy that has been shipped across the country or from overseas, through my dependence on my vehicles for transportation. I drive much more often than I seek alternate forms of transportation, such as biking, walking, or even carpooling, even just to downtown Newton. And when I drive, I often drive too fast, showing more concern for my lateness than for the nonrenewable fuel that my car is depleting and which in turn contributes to climate change. I throw too many things away without considering what these non-biodegradable plastics, styrofoam, diapers, and all of my other trash will do to the land and water after they leave my house.

I worry deeply about all these things for my daughter’s sake, and for the sake of all whose lives are even now affected by humankind’s choices which do not show care and respect for God’s creation. I know that God cares for creation and provides food for the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And that God cares for all the more deeply for human life. But another thing that troubles me about this passage is how do I respond to this promise when there are many whose cries for food go unanswered? What then of the children who go to bed hungry? What then of the people who die for want of bread? What then of the 30,000 children who will die today because of starvation? In the song “Rain Down” which we sang last Sunday, one of the verses proclaims that “God will not leave us to starve.” But every time I sing that, I want to say, but what about those who are hungry, and starving, and dying? I have spent a lot of sleepless hours worrying about my daughter, but I also know that parents who love their children just as much as I do, who have prayed for them just as earnestly as I have, who worry for their lives just as much as I do, have witnessed violence and pain being inflicted upon their children, have heard their hungry cries for bread, or have lost them to the cruel sting of death.

And it’s overwhelming, especially when one begins to worry about all the things that we truly could worry about. Reading and watching the news is enough to send anyone into a state of anxiety and depression. It’s enough to consume a person. It has consumed me at times. And I admit that I have experienced times of hopelessness over the fate of creation, over the fate of our brothers and sisters, over the fate of the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field, and the flowers and trees of the field which God cares so deeply about, whose lives are carelessly thrown away because of the greed of humankind when we seek to lay up our own treasures on earth.

God certainly cares deeply for all of creation. God’s desire is absolutely that everyone, from the lowliest sparrow to each human being, would be provided for and have all of their basic needs met. God’s eye is certainly on the sparrow and not one will fall to the ground unperceived by God.9 But “God’s watchfulness and care doesn’t mean that God stops every sparrow from falling.”10 I wish that I had all of the answers for why this is the way things are. And I wish that the world was ordered in such a way that made sense. But the reality of the world that we live in is that some who have caused much pain live comfortably and to a ripe old age, and many who are innocent and good live with much pain and die much too young. For there are powers at work in the world that are working directly against what God is doing and against God’s good purposes for creation. And because, out of God’s deep love, God has given us freewill, human beings often make choices that fall prey to these powers which are working against God.

But even when this happens, even when many, humans and others within creation alike, suffer and are destroyed, we still trust that God is actively caring and providing even in these seemingly hopeless situations and even if we can’t always fathom what that care and provision might look like if it comes in ways that are different from what we had expected. Even when there is suffering, we trust that God is still present. Even when there is destruction, decay, and death, we trust that God is still actively moving. This is the very promise of the person of Jesus, of God incarnate, God-with-us, of our God who cries with us, who suffers with us, and who even experienced the cruel sting of death upon a cross. Jesus never once assumed that our life would be without suffering and pain, indeed he assured his followers that persecutions would come, but he also promised that he would never leave us nor forsake us, and that he would be with us even to the very end of the age.

And knowing that God is indeed with us, we are called to seek first for God’s Reign and God’s righteousness. And to do so is to align our own cares with the things that God cares about. And we know that God deeply cares for creation, the birds of the air, the flowers of the field. And for as much as God cares for each of these, how much more so God cares for each human created in the Divine image. So just as we should care for and respect the creation, the birds of the air, the beasts of the fields, and the flowers and trees, even more so should we value each human life. And it is important to reflect on how creation, plants, and animals, and humankind are all interconnected with each other, thus care needs to be given holistically. To value life as God values it, calls for us to be good stewards of creation, of which we are an integral part. To value life as God values it means seeking to end violence in our land and done to our land.11 To value life as God values it is to value all life, from the lowly sparrow to each human brother and sister.

I by no means am advocating that we all become vegetarians (I know better than to do so in a congregation with so many hog and cattle farmers and I would be very sad if I ever needed to give up sausage), but we can be concerned about where our food comes from, whether the animals are treated with respect and dignity from when they are born until they die. And I appreciate the ways that you who raise livestock do care for your animals. I have a deep respect for all of you who grow and provide your own food, through fieldwork, through gardening, through raising chickens for eggs, and cattle for milk and meat. I thank you. And I would encourage all of us to know where our food comes from, how it was raised, and the wages and treatment of those who grow it and pick it.

There are already many ways that we are seeking to till the earth and keep it, and to respect the land which provides for us out of God’s abundance. And I have a deep respect for those of you who do till the earth and keep it through your fieldwork and gardening, and the ways you respect the earth through building terraces, through soil and water conservation, and allowing the land to rest and replenish. But I wonder if there are other practices that we can begin to engage in or to continue to engage in that also seek to care for creation. What are ways that we can seek to reuse and recycle instead of simply throwing away? What about how fast we drive or how frequently? Do we try to limit our consumption instead of storing up for ourselves treasures that rust and mold? How are we seeking to live simply so as to respect the earth and its resources so that everyone has enough?

I appreciate and applaud the many ways that our congregation is witnessing to God’s deep care for every human life, through our ministry at the Homeless Shelter, through the ways we seek to meet the needs of those within our communities, through the ways we seek to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world with assembling school kits and helping with meat canning, and other ways that we support Mennonite Central Committee and other organizations that share the good news of Christ. What are other ways that our lives can reflect this? What other ways can we witness to the preciousness of each life from the womb to the grave? Something that has been on my mind a lot lately is the practice of knowing how our clothing and other material goods are made, especially in light of the factory in Bangladesh that recently collapsed, killing nearly 1,500 workers. Are those who make our clothing and other household items being paid a living wage and being treated with respect and dignity? Perhaps one way to respond to this is to purchase clothing from the Et Cetera shop so we do not participate in systems that exploit others for the sake of cheap clothing.

And as those who know the goodness of our Creator and the creation, I would encourage us to continue to seek to live in ways that respect and care for all of God’s creation. May we continue to brainstorm together ways that we can do this.

But even then, my guess is that worry will not go away. In fact, based upon what I find in this text, it seems that even Jesus doesn’t assume that worrying will simply stop. He assumes that there will be worries for today, (after all, there will always be bills to pay, and other pressures and stresses from daily living) but that these worries should be enough. These worries are enough for today, do not worry about tomorrow. Live in the present, for we do not know what tomorrow will bring. After reflecting on this passage, I wonder if Jesus’ words to us are not to stop worrying all together, but to not let our worrying consume us and send us into hopelessness. For myself, I’m still figuring out what it means to let go of my worries, to not let them consume me. I still expect that I will have sleepless nights, that I will still will spend hours of my life worrying. But I would hope that my worries would not simply consume me and send me into a state of hopelessness, but that they would move me to act in ways that are in keeping with who God is. Perhaps my worries over the state of the world will move me to continue to seek and act in ways that respect and care for creation. And perhaps in response to the worries of daily living and the busyness of daily life, I would instead seek to spend more time simply considering the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and the goodness of our Creator.

For the Creator of the cosmos, of the moon, the sun, the stars, cares so deeply for creation, that God notices even when one sparrow falls. And we know that the final word is that God will restore creation when Christ comes again in glory. This is how the story ends. But God is already actively working towards its redemption. And as followers of the One who cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, we will not simply sit idly by assuming that this is only left to God’s hands. For we are Christ’s body in the world, and we too are called to participate in what God is already doing. We will seek first God’s Reign and God’s righteousness.

For we do not know what tomorrow will bring, but we do know that it will bring God with it.

May it be so. Amen.

Notes:
1. Luke 13:19.
2. Luke 8:5.
3. Matthew 23:37.
4. Luke 15:4.
5. Matthew 10:29.
6. Matthew 6:26, 28.
7. God’s Eye is on the Sparrow: a sermon and illustration by Leo Hartshorn on Matthew 10:29-31.
8. Living More with Less: 30th Anniversary Edition.
9. Luke 10:29.
10. God’s Eye is on the Sparrow: a sermon and illustration by Leo Hartshorn on Matthew 10:29-31.
11. God’s Eye is on the Sparrow: a sermon and illustration by Leo Hartshorn on Matthew 10:29-31.

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I lift my eyes to the mountains

June 6th, 2013 No comments

“I lift my eyes to the mountains” (Psalm 121)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 2, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

No transcript is available for this sermon. Audio to come soon.

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