Stop and Smell the Roses

Inspired by Genesis 2:1-3

I hate roses! If I get stuck one more time by a thorn in that rose jungle of a backyard that I just bought, I might buy myself a flame thrower and be done with it! Let me back up a bit. Most of you know that I recently bought a house. With said house, came a, well, I don’t know if you can even call it a back yard. It has no yard, although it is in the back! What it does have are rose bushes, lots of them! Forty-four to be exact! You heard that right, forty-four evil rose bushes. To be clear, it’s not so much the rose that I hate it’s those nasty bushes. It astonishes me how something as beautiful as a rose can come from such an ugly plant!

My wife Sara doesn’t like them either, although she does love to get roses, which she reminds me every chance she gets. I don’t see what makes them so special and I certainly could do without the price tag. Now, you’re probably thinking, Pastor, you could save so much money on roses now! Let me refer back to my opening point: if I get stuck by one more thorn! Worse than that, our poor dog Pearl came in limping the other day with, you guessed it, a thorn stuck in her paw! That happens one more time and it’s flame-thrower time!

Ok, why am I whining about roses? Today, we continue our three week series on Sabbath. Last week we talked about how Sabbath is more than just taking a day off, that it enables us to reidentify us from our past, as well as from our work. This week our reading comes from Genesis, the end of the first creation story, the one that we are most familiar with. God created something different on each day for six days, ending with humans, and then on the seventh day, our translation that we read says that God rested, but who remembers from last week what a better translation is for the Hebrew word shabbat? That’s right! Ceased! You get an extra gold star on your permanent record! It actually reads, on the seventh day God ceased. Ceased from what? Ceased from working.

But that begs us to ask, ceased to do what? I mean, if God is God, why would God need to stop working? Does God need to take a breather? Does God need to collect God’s thoughts? Does God use this time to plan the next move? No, that would be work. So, why then? Why would God cease from working? To stop and smell the roses of course! Here’s what I’m proposing. What if, God ceased from working, to simply enjoy the creation that God had just created? Could it be that simple? And what if, God was modeling this behavior for us to follow? By commanding us to honor the Sabbath, God was commanding us to stop and smell the roses. Now, what does stopping and smelling the roses look like? I bet if I asked ten different people in here I’d get ten different images of what that looks like!

For me, it’s any kind of activity that commands my complete attention. Any activity that hinders my mind from wandering, especially to things like work! How easy is it for many of us to be thinking about work? And for fields, like being a pastor, wherein much of the work is done up here, in your head, those are the worst, because that means your mind can slip into work at any moment without notice! I catch myself doing that all the time! It’s a good thing you don’t pay me hourly because it’d cost you a fortune!

So finding activities that make it hard for my mind to slip into work is of utmost importance. Such as bike riding. I love bike riding! Not for sport but just for the pure enjoyment. And I think one of the reasons I like it so much is that it commands my full attention. You don’t want to ride a bike and get distracted otherwise you’re gonna find yourself with a flat tire, or in a ditch, or worse! However, riding a bike allows my mind to focus on other things: the road, the sounds, the people, the dogs, the trees, the roses, anything but work is the point!

Another one of my favorite activities for this is playing video games. Trust me, it’s really hard to think about work while you are protecting a farmer from a horde of trolls or trying to catch the Joker after he’s escaped Arkham Asylum yet again! Knowing many of you I imagine you might be thinking of things like woodworking, quilting, gardening, reading, restoring your car, anything that helps to bring you out of the everyday routine of life and into appreciating life’s simple pleasures. And maybe, for some of you, this comes quite naturally.

It doesn’t for me. But maybe you don’t need an activity to help you with this, maybe you just have that skill to be able to turn off work, turn off stress, like a switch, and focus on something enjoyable. For some it just comes naturally, but I’m guessing for many of us it does not. Either way, the point here is to stop working and enjoy the life you’ve been given, stop working and appreciate the world around you, stop working and spend time with loved ones, stop working. Stop and smell the roses.

But here’s the thorn in all of this. There’s always a thorn isn’t there? Why does there always have to be a thorn! Well, the thorn here is this, how hard is it for many of us, to allow ourselves time for Sabbath, time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, time to just be? It’s pretty tough for many of us isn’t it? For lots of reasons. One, many of us just feel downright guilty! We see how hard others have it, the homeless woman you’ve passed enough times to now recognize, the neighbor who works two, maybe three jobs just to feed her family, and we might think to ourselves, how can I enjoy life’s simple pleasures when so many others cannot. Or maybe it’s not guilt, maybe it’s a fear of laziness. Many of us grew up in generations that taught things like, “If you got time to lean, you got time to clean.” Here’s another one for you, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.”

Or, maybe it’s not guilt, and maybe it’s not a fear of laziness. Maybe it’s something even worse. I think a lot of us shy away from enjoying life’s simple pleasures because we just don’t feel right doing it. And I’m talking about something different than just simple guilt. Many of us have a “I’ll take one for the team” kind of mentality to our work, whether it be our paid work or our volunteer work. Many of us have a hero complex or a martyr complex when it comes to our work.

We run ourselves ragged or we sacrifice for the sake of others leaving little for ourselves. I see this in the church all the time. Why do you think we have so many people suffering from burn out in our churches? Many of us don’t know how to say no when asked to do something because they don’t feel right doing that. I see this in parents as well, like in my own wife. She will spend every last penny she has on her kids but when it comes to her needing something she hesitates and usually goes without.

Look, clearly we have lots of reasons why we have trouble stopping and smelling the roses, more than I can mention in a single sermon. I didn’t even get to things like ego and pride. But stopping to smell the roses, taking a Sabbath, following God’s lead on that seventh day of creation to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, is essential to who we were created to be. When we don’t, we are not being fully human, we are not being fully God’s creation. It’s like buying an action figure and then not opening it because it might be worth more money someday? What?

When I bought Star Wars action figures, “for my kids”, we played with them! That’s what they were made for! I’d probably have a small fortune if I left all my childhood action figures in their packaging but I wouldn’t have the wonderful memories of playing with them, that sparked my young imagination each time, and I probably wouldn’t be a fan today. It’s what they were made for.

We were created to enjoy life. We were created to stop and smell the roses. It’s ok! There’s no need to feel guilty, or lazy, or unworthy, and there’s certainly no need to be a hero or a martyr. And if that sounds a bit self-indulgent, remember, this is part two of a three-part series on Sabbath. Next week, it’s gonna be a whole different story when it comes to Sabbath. But for now, enjoy life’s simple pleasures, stop and smell the roses, take your toys out of their packaging and play with them, that’s what they were created for. It’s what you were created for. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Cease and Desist

Inspired by Deuteronomy 5:12-15

According to Wikipedia, “a cease and desist letter is a document sent to an individual or business to stop purportedly illegal activity and not to restart it. The letter may warn that if the recipient does not discontinue specified conduct, or take certain actions, by deadlines set in the letter, that party may be sued. When issued by a public authority, a cease and desist letter, being ‘a warning of impending judicial enforcement’, is most appropriately called a ‘cease and desist order’.”

My friends, the commandment that I just read to you from Deuteronomy, is God’s cease and desist order to you. So, I guess the appropriate thing for me to say right now is, you have been served. Today we begin a three week series on the topic of Sabbath, before we begin year two of the Narrative Lectionary on September 8th. Over the course of these three weeks, we are going to read selections from Deuteronomy, and Genesis, and we may even hear what Jesus had to say about the topic.

I find the topic of Sabbath to be of increasing importance in today’s society, for reasons we will get into later. But I thought the timing of this series was odd, at the end of summer and not at the beginning. You’d think they would have selected this series as everyone was gearing up for some rest and relaxation, as we were planning our vacations, our weekend getaways, our road trips. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized the wisdom in talking about this now, at this time of year. I don’t know if it was intentionally designed that way but I should probably start by telling you just a bit about the word Sabbath. Simply put it’s the proper name for a day of the week, what we know as Saturday. But like all Jewish names, it has a meaning beyond that.

The root word, shabbat, is often thought of to simply mean rest, as in relaxation. But that’s not as accurate as we’d like to think. A more accurate translation is to cease or desist, to stop, and specifically, to stop working. It doesn’t necessarily mean to rest and relax, meaning to do nothing. It can, don’t get me wrong. But there are other things that God had in mind to fill our time when ordering us to stop working. But before we can even get into all of that we need some context. So, our reading from Deuteronomy comes from the Ten Commandments. That’s right, keeping the Sabbath made the same top ten list as “Do not murder!” If that’s not enough to make us take it seriously than I don’t know what will. And in this commandment, God makes this seemingly strange connection between Sabbath and their slavery in Egypt.

The Ten Commandments were given after the Israelites were rescued from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. They were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. Many, many generations had endured life as a slave of the grand empire of Egypt. Now, just ponder the ramification of that for a moment. Generations had grown up knowing nothing but a life of slavery. That was their whole identity. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, a homeland, all but a distant memory at best, a mere footnote in their oral history. And now, they had to redefine who they were, how they related to each other and the rest of the world, and it wasn’t going to happen overnight. So, God helps them out a bit, and gives them these ten commandments, guidelines, redirections, to help them do just that.

This is what makes our reading for today, which is the third commandment, so powerful. This was more than just God’s way of saying, “Take a day off.” This was God helping them to reinvent themselves. This was God’s way of saying, “You have been slaves for a long time, but I have rescued you from that life, so stop living it. Stop being slaves. You have been created for more than that. You have been made into something new.” They knew no other way to live, it was all they had been for so long! But now, they could do other things than just work. In other words, what they did for a living, slave or free, shouldn’t define who they were. “There is more to life than work!” God was trying to tell them! But even more important than that, God was saying, “Don’t allow one thing, especially something painful, like their years in slavery, to be the thing that makes you who you are.

So let’s widen our lens a bit now, because I’m sure you’re already connecting the dots in your own life. This certainly has a lesson for us too, even though we aren’t Jewish, nor have we been slaves, not the literal type anyway. There’s a lot of applications for us. The first thing that comes to mind is a council meeting at my last congregation. I’m not sure how we got on the topic of work hours but one of the council members, the vice president, said that he had never been successful in a job working less than sixty hours a week, many times it was eighty he said.

The president then chimed in and said, I can’t remember the last time I used a vacation day! And they both laughed and patted each other on the back. They were proud of these things. I sat there speechless, knowing that both these guys had a wife and children. And I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be had they been there to hear that.

Look, I love being a pastor, I love being your pastor. But when I die, I don’t want my wife and children and grandchildren, standing at a pulpit at my funeral saying how good of a pastor I was or how dedicated I was to my job. I hope, first and foremost, that I will be remembered as a good husband and a good dad, and a good grandfather, before I’m remembered as a good pastor. Because there is so much more to life than work, so much more than the uniform that you wear.

If I’m remembered for how much I worked, how many hours I put in, how little vacation I used, then I will have failed at this thing called life, especially because God called me to be a spouse and a parent long before calling me to this pulpit. Have you ever noticed how one of the first questions that two people who just met ask each other is, “What do you do for a living?” That comes from this same thing. We are so quick to identify ourselves by our work. God says, there’s more to you than that. Cease and desist.

This also applies to life experiences too. Though I’m going to tread very cautiously here because some life experiences take a long time to get through and I would never rush that process for anyone. So, I will only speak from my own experience. The pain and heartache that I have experienced in my life, the incidents that I have had to endure, could have easily been the identity that I took on. But with patience, and family support, not to mention some great therapists and pastors in my life, those painful experiences were not allowed to lay claim on my identity.

Like the Israelites who were no longer slaves and had to learn a new way of being, we too have to learn a new way of being after painful experiences. We are not called to stay back there and live as if we were still there, but to cease and desist. But again, we all travel that road of past hurts at a different pace, what I am talking about is the end goal, the end goal of giving yourself a Sabbath from it, the end goal of allowing yourself to be given a Sabbath from it.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” Jesus knows! Jesus knows what you carry because Jesus carries it too. Jesus knows the burdens you bear because Jesus bears them too. Jesus knows your struggles because Jesus struggles with them too.

And Jesus wants to lighten that load for you, ease your burdens, assist with your struggles. Jesus wants to give you rest if you will but take it. Jesus wants you to take a Sabbath from them—cease and desist—even if it’s just for a day, even if it’s just for a moment. So that you can remember that you are more than what you do, you are more than what you feel, you are more than what you’ve experienced in this life. You are God’s beloved children—and nothing or no one can take that identity away from you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Faith Doesn't Have To Be That Hard

Inspired by Hebrews 11:1-16, 12:1-2

We made it, to the end of our five weeks in the letter we know as Hebrews. It has been fun for me to get this opportunity to preach on a part of our Bible that doesn’t get the attention that it probably should, at least not in worship. I hope it has been meaningful for you too. As I mentioned five Sundays ago, our author is just in love with Jesus, simply in awe, and uses this letter to count all the ways that make Jesus so amazing! In order they were: Jesus’ eternal nature, humanity, accessibility, and Jesus as the key to the treasure that is God’s love and acceptance. Today we come to number five, and if you thought the other four were pretty awesome, this last one is really the crème de la crème. But before we get into that, I’d like you to think of people that you have known that you have always thought of as having a great faith.

In fact, close your eyes, and picture in your mind’s eye, these people of such great faith. Maybe they’re long gone, maybe they are still a big part of your life. These are people whose faith you have really looked up to. Ok, open your eyes, thank you for humoring me. Most likely, those people that you pictured are those people that we often say things like, “She had an unwavering faith” or “he was a person of great faith” or “she is a pillar of the church” or “I wish I had as much faith as her.”

Sometimes we say those things at their funeral but we often say them when they are still alive too. Either way, to me, it always sounds a bit odd, but I think I have a bit of a different view of faith than most. I don’t see faith as something that’s quantifiable, as something you can measure, because as soon as you do that, faith then becomes a competition.

And we humans love to compete against one another, don’t we! I don’t know about you all but my family is extremely competitive! There’s no such thing as a casual card game or board game in my house. We go for blood no matter what. But it’s all in good clean fun. We’ll call them healthy tantrums! However, when it comes to faith, competing against each other is more often than not, detrimental to our faith rather than good clean fun. Here’s what I mean by that.

Think again about those people that you pictured while your eyes were closed earlier. I’m guessing, and correct me if I’m wrong, but most if not all of you probably figure to yourself that you will never get to that “level” of faith, that it somehow takes a really special person, like the ones that you thought of earlier, to reach that “level.” Can you relate to what I’m saying?

So, if that’s the way that we go into this faith business, for those of us who don’t think we’ll ever reach that “level”, we go into it already defeated, already done before we even get started. And what I, and more importantly, the author of this beautiful letter, is saying, is that this defeated attitude towards faith is completely unnecessary, not to mention that it does more harm than good, and can actually hold you back from doing the things that God calls you to do because you think you’re just not able because you lack the “proper amount” of faith. Raise your hand if at least one of the people in your life that you consider to have a great faith is in this room. And I’m guessing we’re not all thinking of the same person!

And I bet you those people would be shocked that you’re thinking of them right now, right? They’d probably say, “Me, no, I struggle too much with my faith” or “I’m not good enough” or “well behaved enough” or, you fill in the blank. And yet, they are people whose faith we look up to. That’s really the message behind our reading for today. Our author’s topic is faith, and what she does is give a laundry list of names from throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and just so you know, the list doesn’t end with our selection but continues on. We didn’t even read half of it!

But if you know anything about any of these Bible characters then you know that these people were anything but perfect, but rather were people who made mistakes, who sometimes made horrible decisions, who would laugh at the idea of being included in a list of faithful people in Holy Scripture. Well, you know Sarah would laugh! Did you see what I did there? Sorry, Bible nerd joke.

Anyway, this list is not meant to cast judgment on your faith, it’s not meant to show you how your faith is lacking, instead it’s more like the author is saying, “Look at these jokers! If God can honor their faith, faults and all, then your faith is just fine the way it is, and you can do wonders with it too!” The whole point of this section of the letter about faith is to relieve your stress about faith not add to it, to relieve your tension about faith. Faith is not about how well-behaved you are, or how much you pray or read your Bible, it’s not about how much you do for others or how much you sacrifice. In fact, it’s not about you at all! And that’s where our author lands in this section on faith—that it’s not about us when it comes to faith, it’s all about Jesus.

True to form, reason number five of what makes Jesus so amazing for our author, is Jesus’ faithfulness. Not our faith in Jesus, but rather, Jesus’ faithfulness—Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s will, to God’s creation, to us. Because here’s the cold hard truth, if faith could really be measured, and God was somehow keeping track of it and running the numbers on a regular basis, whew!, we’d be in a world of hurt at the end of the day. But faith doesn’t have to be that hard.

Our author and Jesus have been trying to tell us that there’s no need for any of that. There’s no need to compete against each other. There’s no need to worry about our faith. There’s no need to feel like we have to achieve something with our faith in order to do what God is calling us to do. Jesus has got this faith business all taken care of which is why our author compels us to, “fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer, and perfecter.”

So, we’re done, that’s it. Now, to come full circle; five Sundays ago I mentioned that one of the reasons why our author wrote this letter was to help a group of Christians fight the apathy that had crept into their community. And the best way to fight that apathy was to help them remember why they fell in love with Jesus in the first place. And so, she gives them reason after reason, hoping that one or more of them will stick and jar them out of that apathy.

Personally, for me, this letter basically sums up why I’m still a Christian, why I haven’t given up on this faith business. God knows my patience has been tried over the years. But at the end of the day, if we can remind ourselves, or allow ourselves to be reminded, of why we fell in love with Jesus in the first place, we too can fight apathy whenever it raises its ugly head. Thanks be to Jesus. Amen.


Jesus is Key

Inspired by Hebrews 9:1-14

One of my family’s favorite movie genres is adventure movies, and one of our favorite subgenres of adventure movies is any movie involving a treasure hunt of some kind. Movies like National Treasure and Indiana Jones are two that come to mind. We love the history behind the stories, the crazy adventures, treasure maps, and the joy in trying to figure out the mystery before the characters do. And the fact that my family likes these movies also tells me that I’ve done something right as a parent.

I remember getting a text years ago from one of my daughters as I was leaving work that said, “Hey dad, when you get home do you want to start the Indiana Jones movies with us?” I almost cried! I don’t know who I was more proud of, them, or me! Anyway, if you read today’s passage from Hebrews with the Indiana Jones theme song in your head, it sounds an awful lot like a treasure room, what with lampstands and chests and gold altars and a wooded staff that miraculously budded! Not to mention this secret hidden room at the center of the temple called the “holy of holies!” So mysterious!

It has all the makings of a treasure hunt movie! And in fact, one of these items did just that, the chest, also known as the Ark of the Covenant, was the basis for the first Indiana Jones movie. So, I couldn’t help but read this passage and think of it as a treasure hunt! Only this treasure hunt was for possibly the greatest treasure the world has ever sought after, God’s love and acceptance.

Since the earliest days of civilization, even before we began our infatuation with material wealth, back when we first dreamed of the existence of a god, we immediately dreamed of how we could earn that god’s favor. In general, we humans have always thought of ourselves as the greatest of all of God’s creations but in spite of our overinflated egos, we have always imagined that we had to earn or somehow acquire God’s love and acceptance, that God wouldn’t just give that away, that somehow a transaction had to occur to get it.

And if that transaction didn’t take place, then God would get even angrier than God already was, and punish us…to death. Now, I don’t know about you, but when you hear that said out loud, it’s easy to see why there are so many alternate theologies concerning how God loves and accepts us. The academic term for this kind of study is soteriology. And believe me when I say that it’s ok if you have one of those alternate views. They’re all biblical. It just depends on how you view God.

But for the ancients of our faith, it only made sense that God would demand payment of some kind and so a sacrificial system was soon put into place. They would sacrifice anything from plants and grains to the ultimate sacrifice of blood, meaning an animal of some kind. Some, like my own ancestors, the Aztecs, went so far as to sacrifice humans. But no matter the area of the globe, blood sacrifice meant they’re life for our life. That was just the way they saw the world, it was the only thing that made sense, and so it stuck.

Blood became the key to the ultimate treasure for humans. In the movies, there’s always a key of some kind, in addition to the map, a key is always needed to get to the treasure. And those keys can come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes in the unlikeliest of forms. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the key turns out to be an ancient Egyptian staff. In the movie National Treasure, it turns out to be an old smoking pipe from colonial America. Here’s a short clip of that moment from the movie because, well, we can, so why not? Roll it, Shelby...

Who doesn’t love a good Nicolas Cage movie, right? Some of them are so bad they’re good! Anywho, just like the keys in a treasure hunt movie, our faith ancestors saw the sacrificial system as the key to God’s love and acceptance.

And then Jesus appears on the scene. And those who saw the divine in Jesus, who once saw animal sacrifice as the key, plugged Jesus right into that system. It just made sense to them, and so then they saw Jesus as the key to end all other keys, the ultimate key to the ultimate treasure in the ultimate treasure hunt adventure the world has ever partaken in. This is number four of five reasons that made Jesus so amazing to the author of this letter we now call Hebrews.

She—for those of you who weren’t here two weeks we talked about how this letter was likely written by a woman, namely Priscilla, if you missed it I refer you to that sermon—she saw Jesus as the answer that the world was looking for but just didn’t know they were. Because we thought the sacrificial system was just fine the way it was and then theologians like our author came along and said, “No, Jesus is the key. Period.” Nothing else, no one else.

And ever since, Jesus has been the key to unlocking God’s love and acceptance for people all over the world. And it gets even better than that! We, you and I, get to share that treasure with everyone, using that same key our author did, Jesus. How amazing is that! We get to be the clues that others find on their treasure map as they search for God’s love and acceptance. And keep in mind, some of them may not even know they are looking for that and that’s where we come in.

Now, for the past two thousand years, the church has done this with varying degrees of success, and that’s putting it lightly because sometimes it’s been with varying degrees of outright failure. There have been times when we have intentionally withheld clues from certain groups of people. There have been times when we have sent certain groups of people on wild goose chases, rather than leading them to the treasure that we have found.

And why have we done that? Oh, a little thing we like to call sin, in the form of our egos, our lust for power, for control, for wealth, for being number one, you know, all those human tendencies that we aren’t exactly proud of. We’ve gotten so good at it we don’t even realize when we are doing that anymore. And now churches all over the world are wondering, “Where did everybody go?” Well, thanks to the information age that we live in, much of the world wised up to that game the church has been playing and have walked away. Can’t say I blame them.

Which is why it is more important than ever, maybe since the early days of the church, to help people who are on the great treasure hunt, to point people in the right direction, towards Jesus who uncovers a loving and accepting God. Which is why I’m glad to be part of a church like Bethlehem and the ELCA, who loves to love people, with the same kind of love that comes from God, without condition, no strings attached. Granted, because of the past behaviors of the church over the last two thousand years, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us convincing people of that. But I like to think of it as yet another adventure, another treasure hunt of its own, guiding people to the greatest treasure of all time, the amazing savior we’ve come to know in Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.