Saturday, April 29, 2017

Year A, Easter 3, Acts 2.14a, 36-41

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
It was November 2, 1989, just a little over a year after I had begun my ministry in Thompson Falls.
I was out in my backyard splitting firewood when the sirens blared out across our town.  I remember wondering to myself if one of my parishioners was involved in whatever event was the cause of the sirens.
Then the phone rang.
There had been an accident.  JoJo, the granddaughter of one of my members, had taken her friend Alison on a joy ride in her grandmother’s 1966 Mustang.  An inexperienced driver going too fast on a back road, she lost control of the car and flipped it.
Alison was thrown out, her head smashing into a tree twelve feet off the ground.  She was in critical condition.
I rushed off to the hospital to be with Jean, the grandmother.  Jean immediately told me that her granddaughter would be alright, but that the other girl’s parents were the ones that really needed me.
Bob was standing in the hospital hallway, leaning against the wall, in the hospital in Plains.  His wife, Laurie was not there, having gone to Spokane that day.
As Alison was life flighted to Missoula, we returned to Bob’s home to wait for Laurie to return from Spokane and share the bad news with her. 
You’ve never heard a scream, until you’ve heard one like that, coming from a mother whose just been told her daughter is dying. 
“You may want to talk about organ donation,” were the last words the doctor had said in Plains.
We took off and rushed to Missoula, about a hundred miles away.
During the drive, Bob and Laurie informed me that they had been remiss, and had never gotten around to having Alison baptized. 
When we arrived at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula, the chaplain was waiting at the door for us.  A few words about baptism were exchanged and I was taken into the room where Alison was.
A little water in a Dixie cup. 
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
A prayer.
That was it.
And then the waiting began.
Alison never regained consciousness.  She died a few hours later. 
When we gathered for the funeral the next week, a fresh layer of snow had just fallen.  But amazingly, next to the cross in front of the church, an Easter Lilly, planted there last Easter, was in full bloom.
“There are lilies blooming at the foot of the cross,” were the words I shared that day.  We live with an Easter hope in a Good Friday world.
I spoke a lot about the promise of baptism and the promise of eternal life.  I called upon everything I believed to offer a word of grace and hope to Bob and Laurie.  At the end of the day, it was simply the “Promise”.  That’s all we have.  God’s promise, offered freely to us, in baptism.

As I left the sanctuary, I noticed Linnea standing in my office, crying.  I went in to console her.
Turns out she was deeply troubled by my sermon.
What I found out was that twenty years before, her second child Randall had died unexpectantly due to complications that developed after he was born.  Randall had never come home from the hospital where he was born. 
The Stevenson’s had every intention of having him baptized.  They were simply surprised when they got the call that Randall had died.
What troubled Linnea deeply, and angered me when I heard about it, was that their pastor at the time had said, “What a shame!”
Lacking baptism, he was convinced that the child was not saved, and was not in heaven.
I was deeply angered by his response. 
He had taken the promise of baptism that is meant to give us hope, and turned it into a law that condemned that innocent young child.
The next week, I spoke with my confirmation class about Alison.  They had all sorts of questions.
Alison was a classmate of theirs.
And they knew her far better than I did.
She had not gone to church, or like them, been part of confirmation instruction.
“Did she even know you baptized her?” was one of their questions.
The only thing I knew about Alison’s faith was that she loved Amy Grant songs, and had even sung one for a vocal competition. 
What the kids were trying to figure out, was why, if Alison could be saved by just being baptized in the emergency room, were they going to all these confirmation classes and church.
Grace is hard to understand at times. 

We are much more comfortable with the Law.
“Brothers, what should we do?”
That was the question that the crowds gathered together on Pentecost had asked the disciples. 
What must we do?
 “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Is this a promise?
Or a law?
Grace is the unconditional love of God that is totally undeserved and unmerited. 
But we want to make it a law.
We take the promise that was given to us that we might have hope, and turn it on its head, so that it becomes a law that condemns us.
Have we repented, well enough?
Is repentance a turning away from our sin, or a turning toward God in faith?
Who among us have truly repented of all our sins?
But perhaps that is not what repentance is all about.  Perhaps the real repentance is about having faith, trusting in the promise, turning from our doubts and simply believing.

But what is believing?
How much must we believe?
Was I wrong to baptize Alison in that hospital room without a confession of faith from her?
The most common questions people today would ask center around a profession of faith.
“Did she accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior?” 
And what does that mean?
Surely, there is something that is required.
Do you believe in God the Father, who created the heavens and the earth?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who died and rose again, that you might be forgiven?
And have you received the gift of the Holy Spirit?
And how would you know if you had?

All of these questions arise because of our tendency to make every promise of God a law that must be obeyed.
We attach conditions, requirements, on the promise.
Beware the Word “if”.
That simple word negates the promise, and makes it a law that ultimately will condemn everyone.
If you believe all the right things-
If you repent of all your sins-
If you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior-
If you live your life according to the Gospel-
If you are baptized-
If you commune-
If, if, if.
That one little word makes everything a law and negates the promise of God that is freely given.
And where there is a “if” involved, there is no love.

The word that we should cling to for hope, is not “if” but “because”.
“Because God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son-
                You need not worry.
Faith, you see, is not something we do, it is to be dependent on, and trusting of, what God has already done.
As Linnea cried in my office that day, one thing that was perfectly obvious was the love that she had for Randall, her child, though he only lived but a few weeks.
Randall had done nothing to deserve that love.
Love, if it is love at all, is ALWAYS, is ALWAYS, freely given and received.
We know that.  We know that to attach an “if” to love, is to destroy the possibility of love.
You cannot say “I will love you if and only if you do what I demand.”
That doesn’t work in our marriages.
That doesn’t work for our children.
That simply doesn’t work.
Why then, do we think that God loves us, only if we do one thing and not another? 
Why do we think God’s love is any different than our own?
Actually, God’s love is different.  It is perfect.  It is totally unconditional, absolutely freely given, and undeserved.
God loved us before we so much as breathed our first breath.
And nothing will ever separate us from that love.
It’s a gift, that keeps on giving.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Year A, Easter 2, John 20:19-31, Faithful Courage

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Earlier that day Jesus had appeared to Mary.
Her heart was so heavy with grief, and troubled because of the empty tomb, that she was unable to recognize him.
“Mary!”  Jesus had said.  “Mary!”
And at once her eyes were opened to see the Risen Christ, standing before her, and with that, to begin to perceive the magnitude of what had just happened.
Jesus calling us by name changes everything.
I shared with you during Holy Week that though it isn’t written here, I rather imagine that Jesus appearance to his disciples began in much the same way.
One by one, going around the room, he looked at them, his eyes filled with love and grace, and spoke to each of them, calling them by name.
Around the room, looking intently at each of them, calling them by name.
And in that simple act, there was forgiveness.
But most of all, it was the love that was evident between Jesus and these, his closest and dearest friends.
Then, “Peace be with you!”
Of all the things Jesus could have said, this was what was most needed for “peace” was so far removed from what the disciples were experiencing.
Peace be with you.
They were gathered together behind locked doors.
Fear is what they were experiencing.
At this point, they were terrified that they would share in the same fate as Jesus.  They anticipated that there would be crosses outside of Jerusalem with their names on them.  That they would suffer the same agonizing death that Jesus had.
And so the doors were locked.
“Peace be with you!”
And then, Jesus said, “As the Father sent  me, so I send you.”
What did he mean by that?
What was in store for them?
Were Jesus words to be words of comfort, or words that confirmed their deepest fears that they would all die as well?
Then, breathing on them, as though he were giving them back the breath that had been taken away from them, he said,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
How could he say this?
Who can forgive, but God alone?
And more to the point, how could they even conceive of forgiveness at a time like this?
They had seen Jesus die.  They had seen what the authorities had done to him.  They had witnessed the betrayal of Jesus by one of their own, their brother Judas.
How then could they forgive?
Thomas was not there.
And when he was told about what happened that evening, he simply couldn’t believe.
I doubt that you or I would have believed either.  It’s unfair to single Thomas out because of his doubts.  He merely states what all of us would have felt at that time. 
"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
And then, a week later, they had again gathered in the house behind locked doors, still fearing for their lives.
On this night, Jesus again came to them.
Looking into Thomas’ eyes, I imagine that he called him by name.
“Thomas! Peace be with you!”
It is me.  Feel the wounds on my hands.  Put your hand on my side.  See with your own eyes that it is indeed, me.
And seeing, Thomas believed.
And he said what the other disciples had not, namely “My Lord and My God!”
"Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

One of the things we miss in this story because of our focus on Thomas’ doubts is the struggle to believe that all the other disciples were experiencing.
Jesus had sent them out to forgive sins.
Yet a week later, they were still huddled together behind closed doors, too afraid to even walk out onto the street below.
Perhaps Thomas had to overcome his doubts.
But they had yet to overcome their fears.
Nor, apparently, were they ready yet to forgive.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
With these words, we enter this story.
Jesus is talking about us.
We are not mere spectators, hearing about what once happened so many years ago.
We are part of the narrative.
Blessed are those who have come to believe.
“Yes, Lord, I believe!!”
Perhaps we feel proud that we have one up on Thomas.
We have believed in Jesus, even though we’ve only heard the story.  See what great faith we have.
And  yet.
And yet.
Are we not like the rest of the disciples, who though they believed, were still overcome by their fears and locked behind closed doors?
“As the Father sent me, so I send you.”
Only one problem.
The disciples didn’t go anywhere.
They were still behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.
This is the thing.
They may have come to believe, but they did not as yet have faith.
They were still captive to their fears.
They could not go anywhere, because they were afraid.
And they could not forgive, because of their fear.
This is where we find the other disciples, a week later.  Believing but still without the faith to go out into the world as witnesses to the forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed.
And is this not where we find ourselves, today?
Think about it.
Gathered together in this room.
Oh, the doors are not locked, but they could just as well be.
But here we are huddled together.  Set apart from the world.  And quite frankly afraid to go out from here and bear witness.
I’ll speak for myself.
One of my greatest fears is rejection.
Another one of my fears is failure.
Coupled with that is the fact that I am an introvert.  As an introvert I am most comfortable relating to a close group of intimate friends.  Talking to strangers produces a lot of anxiety and fear within me.
Put it all together and what do you have?
I’m uncomfortable talking with strangers, afraid that I’ll be rejected, and doubly afraid that I’ll fail.
Ah, but at least I’m comfortable standing up here amid this community of faith, behind closed doors, and talking about my beliefs in the Risen Christ.  Just don’t send me out into the world.
I’m not alone.
If it weren’t for our fears, there would be a whole lot more of us gathering together on this day.
Wouldn’t there?
Imagine if Jesus were standing here today, as he stood before his disciples.
As the Father sent me, so I send you.
“Now,” he says, “next week I want you to return, but not alone.  I want each of you to have faith, and trust in the Holy Spirit, and to go out this week and invite your friends and neighbors to be your guest next Sunday.”
Well, what do you say?
Can we all agree to bring with us, next week, one guest.
And the week after that, another?
Be honest, now.
Does such a thought still fear in your heart?
Fear of rejection, or failure.
Or perhaps you’re saying to yourselves, “Well, Pastor, that’s what we pay you to do.”
This is my point:
The biggest challenge for the Church today is not that we share Thomas’ doubts, it’s that we share the rest of the disciple’s fears.  We’d rather gather behind locked doors, hoping to find Jesus here, than to be sent out into the world as his witnesses.
What we need, is the type of faith that gives us courage.
Courage is not the lack of fear, but is rather the willingness to act in the face of our fears. 
Later this month some of us are going to a “transformational ministry” workshop.  We will be learning about ways to reach out into our community.  I just ask the question.   Might you have the courage to attend with us?  It’s a step.  A first step, for many of us. 
But it may be the most important step any of us will ever take. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Year A, Easter, John 20.1-18, The Living Dead.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Following the death of one of her patients, my sister, who is a nurse, called the on-call physician.
“Dr., we need a pronouncement.”
“I’m the one who makes that determination, not you!”
“Your quite correct, Dr., but I will say that in over 20 years of nursing I have not been wrong yet.”
The doctor came, did his examination and determined that the patient was indeed dead.  As he left he turned to my sister and said:  “Right again.”

There are a lot of things about this life that we do not understand and which remain mysterious to us.
And then there are those things that we know all too well.
Death is one of those things that fits both categories.
Over the course of my ministry I have been called upon many times to be with people as they died, and then to conduct their funerals.
I’ve buried children who died in the womb, as well as newborns that lived but a few days.
Within just a few years of beginning my ministry back in Thompson Falls, I had buried someone in every decade of life, from birth to people who had lived a century.
One of the mysteries surrounding death is “Why?”
“Why does death come far too soon for some?”
“And why, pray tell, does death come not soon enough for others?”
And is there ever a time when a death occurs at just the right moment for us?
These are the mysteries surrounding death.
We will never understand these things.

But one thing we feel quite sure about is death itself.
We fear it.
We do everything we can to avoid it.
We grieve when a loved one dies.
But we know it when we see it.  That is certain.
“Right again.” The doctor replied.
“Right again.”

Another Story:
I went to visit one of my oldest members in Thompson Falls. 
Gladys turned to me that day and said, “Pastor, I have just one more question.  “When we die, do we go directly to heaven, or rest until the last day and then be raised from the dead?”” 
I shared with her that there were Bible verses to support either belief, and that the only thing we really know is that following our death, the next thing we will be aware of is being with Jesus.  We won’t be aware of the passing of time between death and resurrection.
“Gladys,” I asked, “what do you hope for?”
“Pastor, I’ve lived 94 years and I’m tired.  I hope that I get to rest for a long while before I have to live again.”

Behind my home in Sandpoint is a graveyard.
Lakeview Cemetery.
As I walk out the back of my yard into the cemetery, one of the first graves is for George Chatfield.  George was a retired Colonel from the Air Force.  He prided himself on being “a little to the right of Attila the Hun” as far as his politics went.  He was the chair person of our altar guild and set up communion and often served as the assisting minister in worship.  He was a faithful member in our choir.  And I might add, he drank an incredible amount of wine. 
Well there he lies, just outside my back door.
Next to him lies Nancy McFarland.  Nancy was one of the members of our church choir as well and often accompanied us on the piano.  She also played the harp.  She was single, and didn’t want to be buried next to strangers, and so she bought the plot next to George’s so that she wouldn’t be alone.  Dear lady.
As I cross the graveyard, next to the shore of Lake Pend Oreille, there is a columbarium, where ashes are inurned. 
Jim Nelson is there.  Jim was another choir member, come to think of it.  When we moved to Sandpoint Jim decided to help us unpack.  His task was to set up all our beds so that we’d have some place to sleep that night.  His widow is one of our family’s adopted grandparents.
In the same columbarium, Mary Neuder is buried.
Mary was our next door neighbor.  Her son was my associate pastor in Sandpoint.  She and her husband raised Christmas trees and when we moved into the parsonage in Sandpoint, they had set one up for us.  What a gift.
Dear friends that lie in their graves behind my home.
Some people wouldn’t want to live next to a cemetery.  It has never bothered me.  Especially because these are the people I loved and served as a pastor.
Many times I’ve stood in that cemetery, and others.  Surrounded by the graves of those who have died, I am aware of the inevitability of death.  And that one day I too will join them.  My hope is to be buried in that cemetery behind our house.  But not too soon. 
But of this I am certain.
I am still very much alive, and they are dead.

Mary entered the garden, convinced that she too was alive, and the one she loved, was dead.
We know the story all so  well.
The tomb was open.
The rock was rolled away.
Jesus was not there.
 “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
There was one thing that she felt she could count on that morning.  And that was that Jesus who had died, would be there.
But this was Easter.
The Day of Resurrection.
And everything changed.
Jesus called her by name.
And everything changed. 
Not just for Jesus.
Or Mary.
But for you and me.
Just when we think we have figured it all out, everything changes.
We walk through the graveyards of our lives, convinced that one day we will die, but today we are very much alive.
And yet, the reality is much different.
It is we who are dead, and they who are alive.
Or as Paul puts it:
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
“Your life is hidden
                With Christ
                In God”
Paul writes in Romans 6:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Mary didn’t realize yet that she had been buried with him.  That was yet to come.

But more important is the knowledge that she too would walk with Jesus in the newness of life.
For Mary, that “newness of life” began when Jesus called her by name.

Death is, for us, a mystery.
We think we’ve got it all figured out.
But we don’t. 
I envision living out the rest of my life in our home in Sandpoint.  And then when I die, being laid to rest in the cemetery out back.
And yet Easter changes all that.
If my hope comes true,
I will die in my home,
                But will live, as my bones are laid in the cemetery out back.

We think of baptism as the celebration of the new life of our babies, and rarely think about it as a dying and rising with Christ.
And yet it is, just that.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that with each passing year I am more and more aware of my impending death.  Death is closer, now than it was yesterday.
I look at my first grandchild and I wonder how much of his life I will be able to witness and enjoy.
One of the reasons I think more about death now, than I once did, is because following my last night of drinking, now 4 ½ years ago, my doctor told me “You almost died.”
It was a pronouncement I was not ready to hear.
But today, living my life anew in an Easter faith, I believe that Dr. Carlberg was in fact wrong.
In reality, I did die, but was raised.
Not on that fateful night, but in the waters of baptism.
Our lives have always been hidden with Christ in God.

One last story.
Ted Kato was a member of my congregation in Thompson Falls, and died of cancer.
Before he died, he talked about ‘losing the battle’ to cancer.
In an effort to comfort him, I responded that just because our lives come to an end doesn’t mean that we’ve lost the battle.  It only means that the battle is over.
The night Ted died, he had a strange request.  He asked those of us beside him to lift up his arms over his head.  For hours we held his arms high.
It wasn’t till after Ted had died that I realized what he was doing.  Ted was a football and wrestling coach.  We had talked about how just because the game or match is over, doesn’t mean you’ve lost.  It’s actually at the end of the game that the victors and losers are declared.
Ted chose to die with his arms raised high in the sign of victory.
Death was for him, and will be for all of us, the beginning of life.  It will be a victory celebration. 
Strange world we live in isn’t it.
Where the living die,
And the dead live.
But so it is.
Christ is Risen,
Christ is Risen, Indeed.  Alleluia.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

In the Arms of an Angel: Joanne's Story

"Pastor, can I ask you a question?"

Walt was deeply troubled.  His granddaughter had just been in a serious automobile accident.  She had been running an errand for her father and had lost control of the vehicle along Highway 200, west of Thompson Falls.  The little pickup she was driving rolled down a steep embankment toward the Clark Fork River over the rip wrap of large rocks that had been placed there to stabilize the bank.  The truck came to a rest just short of the river, out of sight of the road.

Joanne was thrown out of the vehicle.  She was bleeding profusely from a wound on her head, enough that the blood was getting in her eyes making it difficult to see.  More seriously, she had broken her back and was unable to move her legs.  A passing motorist had seen her lying beside the road, and had stopped to help her and get the emergency medical help she needed.  

After Joanne was safely in the hospital, Walt and Gary, Joanne's father, had returned to the accident site.  Walt related the what they found there.

Down the embankment, near the vehicle, Walt was certain that he knew where Joanne had landed after being thrown from the vehicle.  There was blood on the rock, and based on the shape of the rock, he was pretty certain he knew how she hit, and how the injury to her back was caused.  

As they were standing there, surveying the site, curiosity got the best of Walt and he started to wonder how on earth Joanne, unable to walk, had made her way back up the embankment to the side of the road where she was found.  It was a difficult enough task for Walt and Gary to negotiate their way over all the boulders down to the crash site, let alone for Joanne, paralyzed from the waist down.

Walt was an experienced hunter.  He prided himself on being able to track a wounded elk through the thickest of woods, with or without snow on the ground.  He was trained through a lifetime of experience to be able to pick out the faintest dot of blood on the ground and vegetation.  And so, wanting to know how she got back to the road, his immediate reaction was to simply follow the blood trail.

Bare rocks.  It would be an easy task to pick out the drops of fresh blood.  Except there were none.  Walt and Gary scoured the embankment looking for even a drop of blood as evidence of the route Joanne had taken up the hill.  There was none.  

"Pastor, I know where she was lying beside the truck, there was blood there.  And I know where they found her beside the road.  But how could she possibly have made her way up that embankment to the road, paralyzed as she was, without leaving even a trace of blood along the way?"

Its been over twenty five years since that day.  And my mind has returned to Walt's question time and time again.  The rational side of my brain looked for an answer.  Perhaps, though her back was broken from the impact of the accident, the damage to her spinal chord didn't occur until she had made her way up the embankment to the road, a journey fueled with a deep survival instinct and a rush of adrenaline.  That the spinal chord damage occurred as she climbed back to the road seems like a logical explanation, though there remains the question of the blood.  Even if she still had the use of her legs, making her way over those rocks, climbing back to the road without even shedding a drop of blood on the ground seems like a stretch.

And then there is the faith question.  Could it be that God still comes to the aid of his people?  Do we have the will to believe?  The Bible speaks of angels.  An idle tale of a pre-scientific world view?  Or reality?

I spoke with Gary, in the days following the accident.  "Gary, I don't know how, or why, but I am convinced that Joanne didn't make it back to the road under her own power."  "Thank you for saying that," Gary replied, "I've been hesitant to even speak of it lest people think I'm a religious nut, but I believe that too."

Could it be that God is still actively engaged in our world?  That God's saving activity is not restricted to the past tense?  And do we, in our modern scientific mindset, still possess the will to believe?

The most troubling question for me, as I wrestle with the will to believe, is this.  "If Joanne, why not Alison, or Paul, or Jazz, or any number of young people whom I buried over the course of my ministry?"  I don't know the answer to that question.  I probably never will.  

But I am convinced that God has not forgotten our world.  

This coming week is Holy Week.  The message of Christ's resurrection has been proclaimed for nearly two thousand years.  He who once was dead, now lives.  The tomb was empty.  Angels shared the good  news.  He appeared to the disciples.  In their presence he ate and drank.  They felt his wounds.  And on that day, everything they had believed about life and death changed forever.

It is no idle tale of a day gone by when people, for lack of understanding, chose to believe.

Jesus lives.  Today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Year A, Lent 5, Ezekiel 37.1-14, Dry Bones

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
If you knew your story would be included in the scriptures would it affect the way you lived your life?
Our tendency is twofold:
·         Either we read the scriptures as an old story whose ending was written long ago. . .
·         Or we read ourselves and our situation into the scripture, in ways that ignore the context and actual content of the scripture.
When we read the Bible as a story that ended long ago we make Christianity, and modern Judaism, merely a history cult.
We gather together to celebrate our past, to claim our heritage, and understand from whence we came.  There are lessons to be learned, but they are largely history lessons. 
It’s not unlike the way we tell the history of our nation.
  • ·         We tell the story of the pilgrims coming to Plymouth Rock, and there establishing a colony in the new world, as a way of emphasizing the importance of religious freedom in our nation.  (An interest side note to this history, in most of the colonies, there was not religious freedom at all.  The freedom they sought in New England was not that everyone could worship God in their own way, but rather just a freedom from the established Church of England.  Other colonies, especially in the south, reestablished the Church of England as the official religion and there wasn’t freedom of religion at all.)  That said, today we tell the story of the pilgrim’s journey to this land to underscore what became, much later, a principle upon which the nation was founded, religious freedom.
  • ·         In the same way we tell the story of the Boston Tea party, to emphasize our commitment as a people to a representative government.  “No taxation without representation”, right?

Well, one way to read scripture is simply as an old story that ended long ago, but from which we can learn a few lessons, and so we constantly look for the ‘moral of the story’.
The second way that we have tended to read the Bible today is to read our story into the scripture in ways that ignore the context and content about which the Bible was originally written. 
The Book of Revelation, for example, was written to the Church during the time of great persecution under the Roman Empire, and the events so colorfully described there are related to that specific time period, not ours.
And so, for example, when Revelation refers to the whore of Babylon, seated on ‘seven mountains’ it is a direct reference to Rome, the City of Seven Hills, and would have clearly been understood by everyone who originally heard that message. 
Likewise, when in Revelation the time of great tribulation is described, the Churches to whom the Letter was written, who were themselves experiencing day by day that tribulation at the hands of the Roman Empire, knew what the book was referring to. 
For us to ignore that original context and content of the Bible is to be unfaithful in our reading of scripture.

There is another way to read scripture, that does not view it merely as an old story that ended long ago, nor understands it out of context by reading into it our current experiences.
This way to read scripture recognizes the historical reality that is unfolding throughout scripture, but also sees our own contemporary experience in the context of that ongoing history of the people of God.
This Lent we have been talking a lot about the Kingdom of God and the Exile.  As Christians we have failed to understand that these two themes ARE the contemporary situation, the story that forms and shapes the content of the Bible as it is being written. 
Part of the problem for us is that within scripture the more historical stories, like the Exodus, are developed more deeply. 
Well that is the Old Testament history, it is not the current situation that dominated the hearts and minds of the Israelites at the time the scriptures were being written.
The Exile was the context for the writing of both the Old Testament and the New.
To review, The Exile began with the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel, in about 720 b.c.  Prior to that, the Kingdom of Israel had been divided, the ten tribes to the north comprising “Israel”, and the two tribes of the south, were called “Judah”.
Following the collapse of the northern Kingdom, in 587 b.c. the southern Kingdom of Judah was conquered and its people taken into captivity in Babylon.  Though that exile lasted but a generation, they returned not as an independent nation, but rather to be ruled by one empire after another, including, at the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire.
It was Rome that completed the destruction of Israel during the Jewish wars from 66 A.D. through 70 AD, and continuing for yet another generation.
The result was that those Jewish people that survived were dispersed throughout the known world, and the nation never again was reestablished until 1948, when the modern state of Israel emerged following the holocaust, where millions of Jewish people died in the German concentration camps.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel could never have imagined how many of Israel’s dry bones would have piled up in that valley.
Nor would Israel have ever imagined that the Exile that they experienced beginning in 720 BC would continue in one shape or another for nearly 2,700 years, but it did.
And there would be many who would question whether or not the Zionist belief in the reestablishment of the modern state of Israel should be seen within the context of the end of the Exile.
But what we have in the Bible, from the prophet Ezekiel, is a question:
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel’s response is “O Lord God, you know.”
“Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
And 2,700 years later, Israel is established once again as a sovereign nation on Zion, God’s holy mountain.
The Biblical narrative is still being written today.
But it also bears noting that the work is hardly done.
When Isaiah envisions the return of Israel to Zion, he writes:
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis is evidence that God is not done yet.

New life in old bones.
“Lazarus, come out!”
As Christians we have almost always thought of resurrection exclusively as dealing with our own life after death.
And I’m certainly not here to minimize that, or deny that reality in any way shape or form.
However, within the context of the Bible, and the ongoing saga of the Exile and Return, and Jesus’ own proclamation of the Kingdom of God, resurrection has an additional meaning.
God can and does breathe new life into his people, even as their dry bones lie bleached in desert sun.
This gives me hope.
On a personal note:
I followed my father into the ministry nearly thirty years ago.  And  when I entered ministry, it was that my ministry might be much the same as the ministry of my father and his generation.
Karla and I had been members of a mission congregation, established about the same time as Peace Lutheran was established.
I hoped that I might experience that in my own ministry.
But that mission orientation, the building of new congregations that was part of the Churches life from the end of WWII through about 1980, ceased.
The Church has been on a decline, ever since.
Some trace the beginning of that decline, interestingly enough, to the introduction of the birth control pill, in 1960.  Since then birth rates have dropped, and the growth we were experiencing largely because we were having lots of kids, stopped.
Today, the birthrate is not sufficient to overcome the losses we incur by attrition. 
And so the Church is in decline.  And we wonder if “these bones can live”.  It is depressing.
Unless we see ourselves within the context of the long and ongoing saga of God’s relationship with his people.
Unless we recognize that God is in the business of resurrection.
Unless we hear the words God spoke to Ezekiel once again: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
That perhaps is our mission today.
To prophesy to the Wind.  The Breath of God.
That it might once again rattle those dried up bones and breathe life into them.
And so I hope that we might say what Ezekiel said:
“I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
I also hope that it won’t take 2,700 years.