February 21, 2021 Sermon
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Whenever I go someplace new, I’m always fascinated with how people’s lives intersect, and more so, how small the chances are of meeting any particular individual really are. For example, when we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, and I was able to travel to one of my continuing education opportunities in Florida, the people I met and interacted with were folks born in all sorts of places at all sorts of times. So what was the chances of me, a woman born in the late 1970s, meeting any of them at that particular moment in time? To put it another way, how many things had to happen to each one of us to lead us to be in this time and space this morning together instead of with other folks in a completely different place?
Right before I graduated from UW - La Crosse with a degree in geography, I had an interview with a company near Minneapolis. I didn’t get the job at the time. But a couple months after I had graduated, while I was still looking for a job, I received a call back from that company. They wanted to know if I would be interested in moving up there for a 6 month, temporary position. And I seriously thought about taking it. But 200 miles away for what might not be anything more than a 6 month position, and then not being sure if I would have work after that seemed pretty crazy. So I declined.
But I still wonder. How fundamentally different would my life have been had I made the decision to do that? How many different people would I have met instead? What sort of experiences would I have had if I did that? I would suspect many people here have made decisions like this. Maybe they were large decisions about where to move…or maybe they were smaller decisions about taking a specific job in the same community. It just absolutely fascinates me that all of the decisions we all made today…many independent of others here in this church…have led us all to this space and time.
Journeys are funny things like that. We set out on various things in life: school, relationships, jobs, new adventures, and have some sort of idea in our minds where we are going. And sometimes we get to where we thought we were aiming, and other times we end up in a completely different spot. But even when we do end up on the journey we thought we were going, even the details can be surprising.
I ponder all of this because we started a new journey this past Wednesday. Not one filled with hearts, flowers, cards, and stuffed animals. But one filled with ashes, dust, and repentance. And of course love. Not the love between your significant other, children, parents, or friends. But the love of God for each one of us.
We find ourselves on the journey of Lent, which mirrors that journey Jesus took in the wilderness. It was forty days in a wilderness. Maybe not a literal wilderness, but one that was full of uncertainty, confusion, and maybe being a little lost. It was a time of being tempted by Satan. Mark’s gospel doesn’t mention what the temptations were specifically as the other gospels do. But as we go through 40 days of penitence, prayer, and repentance, we know we, too, face certain temptations. And it doesn’t matter how they rate against what others are tempted by, but we during this time, we are all tempted to go back to our old way of living. We are tempted to take the easy way out. We are tempted not to follow Jesus.
It could be that we are like Billy.
One day a concerned father told his son, Billy that under no circumstances was he to swim in the canal near the house.
"OK, Dad," Billy answered. But, as we know children can be, that evening Billy came home carrying a wet bathing suit.
"Where have you been?" demanded the father.
"Swimming in the canal," answered Billy. "Didn't I tell you not to swim there?" asked the father.
"Yes, Sir," he answered.
"Why did you?" Dad asked.
"Well, Dad," Billy explained, "I had my bathing suit with me and I couldn't resist the temptation."
"Why did you take your bathing suit with you?" he questioned.
"So I'd be prepared to swim, in case I was tempted.”
Sometimes it’s just easier to dive back into temptation than to try to stay away…no matter how much we try to honor our Lenten journeys.
But the beautiful part about all this talk and contemplation on sin and repentance. No matter where we end up on our journeys. No matter if we try our best and end up in a different place or if we take our swimming suits so we can be prepared to jump into the canal. The journey we are on is one full of God’s love for us.
And this love isn’t something that is a warm, fuzzy afterthought with God. It’s part of a covenant that God made with all of humankind.
Before that covenant, was the great flood we have heard so much about. But I love the way Marc Gellmans tells about the flood in his book, “Does God have a Big Toe.”
Gellman writes, Like most people, Noah ignored bad news. For example, when God told Noah that only his family would be saved from the big flood, Noah figured, “God is very busy. Maybe the rest of the passenger list is in the mail. After all, this ark God wants me to build is huge. I’m sure there will be more than enough room for all my friends.”
Later on, when God told Noah to take pairs of all the animals onto the ark, Noah understood right then that there would be no room for his friends.
Noah didn’t have the heart to come right out and tell his friends. But he did try to tell them in a roundabout way. He said to his pal Jabal, “You know Jabal, this might be a very good time for you to take those swimming lessons you have been talking about for so long.”
And to his friend Jehaz, “Jehaz, ol’ buddy, take my advice and move your house to the top of that very high mountain. The view is great over there, and it’s much cooler in the summertime.” But Noah just could not bear to come right out and tell his friends about the flood.
Noah’s friends didn’t pay much attention to his advice. But they became very curious about the huge pile of wood in Noah’s front yard. Noah told them it was just a statue. And even after the thing really looked like a boat, he said it was just a statue of a boat.
Noah’s friends thought he was nuts. But then they thought that Noah was nuts even before he started building the ark.
Then the animals started to arrive. Noah still could not tell his friends the truth. So he said the animals were just there to pull the boat to the sea. But his friends did not believe him.
“Chipmunks?” asked one.
“Rabbits?” asked another. And they shook their heads.
On the day the rains began, the animals all ran into the ark. The water began to cover the ground. And Noah’s friends ran to the ark, banged on the door, and called up to Noah, who was peeping over the side of the ark: “Hey Noah, you rat, let us in! We’re your friends! You can’t float off and leave us here to drown. Save us, Noah! Save us!”
Noah looked down with tears in his eyes and said, “I didn’t pick me. God picked me. What can I do?”
Noah’s friends Jehaz and Jabal came to the ark dressed in a zebra suit. They demanded to be let in. Noah knew it was them. They were too lumpy to be a zebra. “Let us-I mean, let me in,” they said. “You forgot me when you gathered in all the animals. I am a Jehaz-I mean-a zebra.” Noah looked down on his friends and spoke through his tears.
“My dear friends, I don’t know how I can live without you. The world was not this bad when God gave it to us. I don’t know why God is saving me. Maybe God needs somebody to tell the story of how we all messed up the world. Maybe God wants some of the old life to grow up in a new clean place. Honestly, I don’t know. All I know is that I didn’t pick me. God picked me. I will remember you always. And I will tell the story of how to live in the right way. The story we were all told by God and by our parents but that we forgot. Maybe my children’s children will learn the story. And then maybe the world will not turn bad again. And then nobody will ever have to say good-bye to his friends again. I love you. I am sorry for you, sorry for the animals, sorry for me, and sorry for God.”
Then the great rains came and flooded all the earth.
Some say it was just rain, but others say that it was God’s tears.
We heard about that covenant this morning from our reading in Genesis. During that flood, God realized what had happened…how badly the earth had been destroyed from the flood, and afterwards God covenanted with Noah and all the living creatures not to flood the earth again….not to destroy us for our sins…but instead to rule another way. And in turn, we have the chance to turn and go another way.
Because of the covenants God has made for us. Because of the love God has for each one of us. We have been given a chance to take a journey this Lent. It is forty days of ashes, penitence and choosing to go another way. But most of all it is a covenant of love.
© 2021 Rev. Cathy Jurgens for Zion UCC Waukon, IA
December 20, 2020 Sermon
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Time to say “yes?”
The time leading up to Christmas always crazy. And this year seems twice as nuts. There are presents to buy. Plans to make. Nope, not those plans, the pandemic changed that. Nope, gotta change those as well. Okay, there are multiple plans that are made, scratched off, plan B, C and D made as we try to figure out what Christmas is going to look like this year. There are cookies to make, Christmas movies to watch, decorations to put up, Christmas cards to mail out, presents to ship out. School assignments for the kids that you’ve discovered are now overdue even though your darling angel promised you that everything was in on time.
But you’ve about got it all done. You’ve got everything lined up and in order and you’re gonna make it through to Christmas as long as that one last package from Amazon comes in while you still have time to wrap it. And everything else you have to do is carefully planned out and you’ve just got it all to fit into your schedule…
And then the pastor calls or emails you wanting to know if you could read and record scripture or record your kid for the Christmas pageant for whatever upcoming service she’s thinking of. And of course you want to do it, and you want to say yes. But the logistics of getting it done? As well as trying to send large files online? All of a sudden, that seemingly easy request turns into a whole production that you never really realized you were saying yes to.
And I’m super impressed! Everyone who has volunteered or been asked to help out has been super gracious about saying yes. I haven’t heard any grumbling about how this wasn’t exactly what you had in mind when you agreed to do it. And I remain incredibly grateful for folks who are willing to do things in new and unusual ways.
And this gives me a new appreciation for both Mary and Gabriel in this morning’s gospel reading:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rein over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Well, out of all of the things I or anyone else has asked you to do lately, I’m going to guess that no one has exactly come along and asked you to give birth to our Lord and Savior. But that’s exactly what Gabriel did here.
Now, it’s taken me a lot to get to the point that I’m semi-comfortable asking people to help out with a project or whatnot. But to have the guts that Gabriel did to approach Mary as he did? Now that’s pretty nervy.
And yet Mary did to Gabriel what you all did to me. Mary wondered about how exactly it would be done, and then said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In other words, “sure, why not?”
And of course we like to make the idea of Mary being pregnant all pretty and calming…that she would sit around all day and marvel at the wonder inside of her…being waited on hand and foot by the other folks in her household…feeling the baby kick and laughing and dreaming in wonderment.
But in fact, any woman who has ever been pregnant will tell you that’s not how it goes. There’s morning sickness. Followed by afternoon sickness. Followed by evening sickness. You’re uncomfortable. You’re hot. The baby is laying on your bladder. Your ankles have swelled up to the size of small tree limbs, but that really doesn’t matter because you haven’t been able to see your feet in months. You can’t sleep well. You may have possibly heard your significant other use the term “beached whale,” but you can’t be sure because you are now sitting on his head.
Even this doesn’t go far enough to paint the picture of what life would have looked like for a pregnant Mary in the ancient world: Imagine Mary’s pregnant body, with some of the things I just mentioned, also continuing with the rhythms of a fishing community—cleaning, slicing, preparing. Imagine the strain on her back as she carried water from the well. Imagine the swelling of her feet as she planted and gathered the harvest during the late stages of pregnancy. Imagine the sweat dripping from her brow as she gathered grain and kneaded it for the evening meal.
Social distancing and ridicule for an unwed pregnancy aside, life for Mary would not have been easy. The communal lessons of piety, submission, hospitality, and homemaking, with the expectation of marriage would have framed her cultural narrative. Shame and self-doubt may have encroached upon her mental well-being.
And the brutal fact of the matter is, that giving birth to a baby was a dangerous proposition 2,000 some years ago when the chances of Mary dying during childbirth could have been as high as 1 in 4.
This is what Mary said “yes” to the day Gabriel showed up and told her she would bear the Son of the Most High.
It is in the interruptions of our lives where Christ can break through in new and exciting ways. It is in these crazy turn of events that could possibly affect the rest of our lives where God just might ask us to do something. Am I willing to say yes? Mmm. Maybe. I mean, as long as it doesn’t take up too much of my day or have any long term implications. As long as it doesn’t require me to get too far out of my comfort zone. As long as it doesn’t require me to mingle with “those” people. As long as it’s safe. As long as my family is on board with the idea.
You know…pretty much as long as it doesn’t really require much of me. Sure, then I’ll consider saying yes. Maybe.
But that’s not what the gospels show us. We don’t get examples of people doing small things. Instead we are left with folks like Mary, whose entire world was flipped upside down, who likely endured months of suffering, who risked her life, who frankly was willing to do way more than I would ever even consider. That’s the example we are left with today.
Could I even begin to contemplate saying yes to God if I’m going to have to change my day, much less possibly my entire life?
Bob Goff tells of his love for playing practical jokes on his buddies. His friend Doug made the mistake of telling him where he was celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary and the penthouse suite he had prepaid for. A few days later, he and his wife checked into the hotel as Doug and his wife. They were handed the key and then took the elevator straight up to the penthouse. They called room service and ordered lobster, and salmon and for desert they ordered Bananas foster which they had never had before. It was so good, they ordered seconds. After finishing dinner and taking in the panoramic views, they gave a huge tip to the waiter and the bill totaled more than $400. They tidied up the room and then left and Bob woke up the next day just thinking about Doug’s reaction when he was the room service bill as he checked out.
Doug has been trying to get back at Bob for years. A few years later, Bob received a phone from a man with a heavy Ugandan accent who said, “Bob I’m aware of what you’ve been doing with children in Ugandan prisons and our judiciary process and I want to thank you on behalf of the President. In fact, I am so please I want you to consider becoming the counsel of the Ugandan Government.”
Bob’s mind immediately went to Doug, knowing this had to be his final payback. So he decided to play along and everything that asked of him, he just said yes. Yes after yes left his lips during the conversation until the man on the other end of the line said he had to head back to Uganda but would call in a couple of months when he returned. The next two months were very busy and Bob had forgotten about the call.
But then one day, the phone rang and it was the same gentleman on the phone asking Bob to fly to New York to meet him. Of course, Bob said “Yes!” So he flew to New York and headed to his hotel fully expecting a note to be handed to him from Doug and letting him on the prank, with the words, “Go ahead and get a lobster, it’s on me!”
But then a car with Ugandan flag pulled up to the hotel and a man stepped out of the vehicle and introduced himself, “I’m Ambassador Kumminanwire.” And Bob said, “Of course you are.” And then he proceeded to introduce him to several Ugandan dignitaries. He said, “I’ve got all of the paperwork done for you to become special consul to the US for Uganda. All you need to do is give me a couple of passport pictures and I’ll get the Parliament to approve it.
Four months passed and then word came that he had gotten approved. He got a call not long after that from the FBI who informed him they were doing a background check. A few weeks later, he got his Diplomatic credentials and they had a big ceremony. And that is how Bob Goff became consul of Uganda to the U.S.
And then he writes, “I think God sometimes uses the completely inexplicable events of our lives to point us toward him. We get to decide each time whether we will lean in toward what is unfolding and say yes or back away.
We are called to say yes. This is the only way amazing things can happen. Of course our lives just might change because of it. Will you join me in saying yes?
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC, Waukon, IA
December 13, 2020 Sermon
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
The Raging Storm
The irony in this past year has been almost comical in some ways. The words, phrases, and ideas that have grounded so much of our very existence seem to have taken on new meanings and are being uttered in ways none of us had ever really imagined.
For instance, being a pastor and a preacher, means people react to me and my colleagues in ways that have nothing to do with us as individuals. Sometimes it would almost be comical, if it weren’t so frustrating. Many times when we’re off traveling, in unfamiliar places, or just want a day off, we’re left trying to figure out how answer the innocent question, “so what do you do?” when talking with an unsuspecting stranger. The honest truth is, many pastors have been a part of discussions on what do you tell people? Some folks say they are therapists, some name a previous occupation or the occupation of their spouse, some say they are the director of a non-profit. And yet some are “brave” enough to say they are, indeed, a pastor.
And the responses that a pastor gets when we do admit to what we do tends to be fit in one of a few categories. And one of those categories is the person who never goes to church. Oh, they’re a Christian, of course. They just don’t see the need to come be with all of us “hypocrites.” They can find God on the golf course and in the fishing stream just as easily as we can find God in a church on Sunday morning. And on and on it goes. After a while, one starts to wonder where they got the script, because all of the arguments, as hollow as they are, begin to sound alike after awhile.
And many pastors, especially if we’re on vacation, have no desire to have this conversation. We’d really prefer to get back to the book we’re reading, the drink we are enjoying, or whatever else we were doing before someone decided to come along and tell us that our very way of being in the world is completely wrong and unnecessary.
So pastors spend a lot of airtime reminding folks how important community is, and how important being together on Sunday mornings is. Paul never imagined the idea of being a Christian without a community. There’s never been any possible way to envision being a Christian without being challenged and encouraged and doing the same for others. Sure you can meet God golfing, fishing, hiking, or reading the Sunday morning paper. But it isn’t a relationship that can continue to grow and stretch us as much as being in community with others. So we continue to encourage and remind folks of the real need of gathering together on a regular basis.
And then came along 2020. And all of a sudden it became the pastors telling folks to stay home and out of the church and reminding people that we don’t need the actual church building to be the church and we can still be Christians whether we are gathered or scattered. Phew. None of us saw that coming a year ago!
You know, just when I think I’ve got it all figured out. Just when I am convinced I know exactly how we’re supposed to have encounters with God and how we’re supposed to connect with each other, that’s when everything gets flipped upside down.
This is probably why I’m particularly drawn to our passage in Isaiah this morning. To make an incredibly long history lesson incredibly short, Isaiah was talking to a crowd who were newly back in Israel they were exiled out of Israel. And things weren’t the exciting, glorious times that they had been promised. In fact, things were pretty harsh. People were struggling economically and were turning to pagan rituals to cope.
So here we are, longing to be able to to come together again as the church. And there the Israelites were struggling through reestablishing themselves in a home that no longer felt like home.
But Isaiah gave the people of Israel hope, and gives us hope as well.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
No longer could the Israelites think that God was speaking restoration into being or waving a magic wand to do so. No longer can we think that God is doing all the work, or that we have it all figured out. Instead Isaiah had been anointed to do the work, along with the people of Israel. Instead we are called to do the work.
In the midst of a disappointing return from exile, the Spirit of the Living God gave Isaiah a vision, of not only what he would proclaim to those who mourned, but of what their restoration would look like—“the year of the Lord’s favor” manifested before their eyes. And the vision alone was worth rejoicing. The promise was enough to give God praise. The anticipation and expectation was a gift.
It’s the same anticipation and expectation we can have, as well. Not just the anticipation and expectation of eventually coming back together for worship. But instead a time to continue to try to do new things. The good news is, anything we try after this whacky year of COVID is going to seem tame to what we’ve already been doing. This gives us the freedom and anticipation of stepping out and following God in all sorts of ways. Both old and new, big and small, safe and adventurous.
This strange Advent season reminds us of the dance between hope, despair, and reality that we find ourselves moving to every single day. As we see the production and distribution of a vaccine ramping up around the world, we have hope. At the same time, the hope gets dampened by the continuing spread of cases. We know a reprieve is near, but it is not nearly as close as we would like. In the midst of it all is a profound grief at the loss of life, the strain on the healthcare and essential workers. And among all of this is the awkward adapting into a new way of being.
But it is that new way of being that God is calling us to step into. It is that new way of being that will give us hope for a future far different that we could ever have envisioned on our own. But for now it means we continue to adapt to the small things, and know they will give us hope for a new future with God.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Lindsay lives in an area where they tend to get quite a few snowstorms that causes the area to lose power. And that’s already happened once this winter for her. When the power first went out, she was in the middle of a Zoom conference. While she was able to finish that one on a tablet, Lindsay knew she needed to reserve the batteries on her devices because the storm was still going and she had no idea how long she would be without power. So Lindsay lit every candle in reach and stood in the center of the darkening room wondering what on earth she was going to do that didn’t require accessing a screen. Part of her thought she should go to sleep and hope the lights would be on when she woke up.
But then another part of Lindsay thought that she should find a way to adapt to this new condition. So she gathered all those candles closer and began to write, pen on paper, in her prayer journal. Her circumstances hadn’t changed, yet her condition had been altered. God had given her a new experience in the storm, and she could rejoice and be glad in it.
Our circumstances of life’s raging storms haven’t changed in the midst of my preaching. But our conditions can. And the hope we find from changing our conditions today will be the hope we find in a new way of God moving us forward tomorrow.
Thanks be to God.
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC, Waukon, IA
Sermon for Advent 2 December 6, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgerns
Prepare Ye The Way
Imagine yourself a Kindergarten teacher who gathers a group of wide-eyed five-and six-year-olds onto the square of carpeting in the classroom that is reserved for “Story Time.” You smile into their innocent faces and begin your story.
“Once upon a time a little girl named Goldilocks was fast asleep in a lovely little bed—a bed that she thought was just right for her. But one morning as she opened her eyes and prepared to stretch out her arms to help herself wake up, she was scared half to death to see three bears staring at her! So even though she was still in her pajamas, Goldilocks jumped out of bed, ran out of the house, and then went on to start having a real adventure as she tried to find her way back home through a thick and dreadful forest.”
Were you to do this, the faces of those innocent little Kindergarteners would no doubt quickly darken as scowls would come upon their lips and even young brows would furrow. Any number of them would quickly jump all over you to say, “That’s now where that story begins! That doesn’t make any sense to tell it that way. You have to start at the beginning, with porridge that’s too hot and all that stuff! Start over, teacher! Start at the real beginning!”
Parents, I know you’ve been there as well. You know you should read to your kids. You do read to your kids. But there are some days that are just long, hard, and exhausting, and all you want to do is put your little angel to bed. So you crawl into bed to tell a story with them, and you skip a few lines. They can’t read, they’ll never know the difference, right? Except that they’ve got the whole book memorized, and the time you were trying to save by skipping ahead is now lost as you have go back over and read it right.
If we’ve learned anything from the young ones in our lives, we can’t skip over the story to get to a different part. Oh sure, we can try, but we always come up short when we do.
This is why I am not surprised that people are ready for Christmas to be here. This year more than ever, we are tired of all of the gloom, doom, restrictions and uncertainty. And I don’t blame people one bit. The more joy and glad tidings the world can get right now, the better. We’re ready for some Christmas cheer: some lights, some time with family, some presents, and a Christmas special or two.
But the problem with diving straight into the Christmas season is that it makes about as much sense as starting the story of Goldilocks in the middle of the book.
It’s during this time of the year, in Advent, that we are reminded by Isaiah, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
We can’t just skip to the end. We can’t eat the cookies before we make them. We can’t take the test before we do the homework. We can’t have Christ come before we prepare the way.
Oh, sure, we can. We can eat raw cookie dough. Lots of students take tests without doing the homework first. But despite our proclivities’ toward it, raw cookie dough can give us food poisoning and many students have failed tests for not doing the homework and studying. And we’ll never be able to fully welcome Christ into our midst if we don’t first prepare the way.
Even Jesus himself didn’t come without the way being prepared for him. As we look toward the beginning of the story, we come across John the baptizer, who was proclaiming a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. And John wasn’t out in the wilderness wearing a goofy get up of camel’s hair doing this on his own accord. “He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John the baptizer is the beginning of the story. John is the one who prepared the way for Jesus so those who encountered him would be able to accept Jesus into this world.
Fun fact. Any guesses on why the traditional color, and the color we use for the candles and paraments in church for Advent is purple? It’s actually not a coincidence that we use the same color for Lent. Both are seasons of repentance, self examination, a time to open our hearts and minds to the coming of Christ. If we don’t do this…if we skip directly from Christ the King Sunday two weeks ago to Christmas, and we have done no preparation in our hearts, then we may not find any motivation to meet and greet the Savior at all.
And Mark knows that Jesus came for but one reason: to liberate the all of us from our bondage to sin and decay. If we have no interest in seeing our own complicity in all that. If we skip straight over Advent because there’s nothing here for us in a world that has decided we need Christmas more than ever, then we’ll have no more use for Jesus showing up in our lives than we would for Kurth Plumbing to show up on our porch on a day when we didn’t have a plumbing problem in the world. In such a situation there’s really nothing to do other than to send the plumber off to his next job. In such a situation, there’s nothing for us to invite Jesus home into.
A quiet anniversary passed us this past week. On December 1st, 65 years ago in 1955, after working all day, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus, in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks in the "colored" section. Near the middle of the bus, her row was directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers boarded. Bus driver James Blake noted that two or three white passengers were standing, as the front of the bus had filled to capacity. He moved the "colored" section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit.
By Parks' account, Blake said, "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Three of them complied. Parks said, "The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We didn't move at the beginning, but he says, 'Let me have these seats.' And the other three people moved, but I didn't." The black man sitting next to her gave up his seat.
Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the redesignated colored section. Blake said, "Why don't you stand up?" Parks responded, "I don't think I should have to stand up." Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Eyes on the Prize, Parks said, "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.’"
This story isn’t new to most of us. But what we don’t often realize is that this is merely the middle of the story, and not the beginning.
On August 1, 2020, the Sarah K. Evans Plaza opened in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.
In 1952 Private Evans was on her way home from her first military assignment, when she refused to move to the back of the bus. Upon refusing, she was taken to jail and detained for 13 hours. Evans sued the Interstate Commerce Commission for discrimination. Despite a judicial victory in November of 1955, the ruling was not enforced until 1961.
Meanwhile, in March of 1955, a young black teenager, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her bus seat to a white person. Having been exposed to the actions of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Colvin was emboldened to resist the injustice she experienced on the city bus. As a result, she was handcuffed and arrested. And like Evans, her story was hidden until recent years.
Before there was a Rosa Parks, the Civil Rights icon attributed with prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, there was Sarah Evans and Claudette Colvin. These trailblazing young women set in motion that which would be later attributed to Parks. Their names are scarcely, if at all, associated with the Civil Rights Movement, yet their actions precipitated one of the most pivotal events of the time. Evans preceded Colvin who preceded Parks. Just as John preceded Jesus.
Bold, important things come when the time is ready and the preparation is complete. And Jesus is one of those things. But we have to be willing to prepare the way in the same way these women did. If we don’t, we will send Jesus off like a wayward plumber. And the world needs Christmas, and the second coming, too badly to allow that to happen.
Prepare ye the way.
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC Waukon, IA
Sermon from November 29, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Hope for a World
Emojis are interesting little communication symbols. For those of you who may be fortunate enough to not be swept up in the wave of digital communication, emojis are those little smilies and pictograms one can put in the middle of a text message, email, or anything else one does on a computer or phone now. It’s a real step up from when we used to just have a colon and a closed parenthesis to indicate a happy face, and had to tell people to turn their heads sideways to see the actual smiley face. First, it was 176 faces and other cute little pictures that had little use for most conversations…like the unicorn or the space ship.
Then we ended up with animals, occupations, feelings of all sorts, and some things that I can’t even believe are emojis. There are whole websites dedicated to them, people working on adding new ones all the time, the Emoji movie, an Emoji game show on Game Show Network that didn’t last long…the list is endless. And as I looked through the thousands of emojis available at my fingertips on my phone, I realized there are only a couple of options available to express anger.
And really, that doesn’t surprise me. Anger isn’t exactly one of those emotions we rush to feel or even validate in other people. It can feel scary, out of control, or just plain uncomfortable. Not only for the person feeling it, but for those around the angry person. The fact we are uncomfortable with the concept of anger is the reason we prefer to avoid readings like the one from Isaiah this morning.
Did you catch the last part of the reading from Isaiah that Jeremy read? Isaiah implored God, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” Because the only thing worse than our own anger, or another person’s anger, is God’s anger.
Now I have to back up here and plant this reading in a bit of historical context. Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians and been plunged into exile. The temple in Jerusalem had not yet been rebuilt. The religious community had been shaken to its absolute core. So the people of Israel were feeling very much alone and forgotten by God. And what do we do when we feel abandoned and forgotten by God? We pull away. We push God away even further and begin to do things that don’t show any sort of love to God or our neighbor. And then we wonder if God is angry, and why, and what we did to deserve any of this, and it becomes this horrible circle between God’s anger and our actions that becomes nearly impossible to get out of.
Now. Let me say something here. Please do not hear me say that God punishes us when we sin. I don’t believe that at all. I don’t believe we are punished for our sins so much as we are punished by our sins.
Let me say that again. We are not punished for our sins, we are punished by our sins. That is a small, but notable, difference.
For example, we just came off of the Thanksgiving holiday. I’m fairly certain that most of you, like myself, ate way too much at some point. But let’s face it, the turkey, green bean casserole, stuffing, creamed corn, cranberry sauce, random side salads, rolls, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, coconut pie…you couldn’t pass any of that up, could you? And after having all of that to eat, and then probably seconds to make sure that it really did taste as good as you thought…it hit you about a half hour later. You weren’t feeling so great. You had overeaten, once again. But God didn’t make you feel bad for having so much to eat…you felt bad because that’s what happens when you have entirely too much food in an area the size of your fist.
And because we are leery of this difference, and don’t want to get being punished for our sins confused with being punished by our sins, the last thing we mainline Protestants really want to acknowledge is that God gets angry. On top of this, there are some sects of Christianity that seem to thrive on God’s anger and wrath. That if we don’t all straighten up and fly right God will reign down terror and judgment on all of us for all the horrible rotten things we have done. So I tend to go the opposite way and continually remind us that we worship a God of love, care, and grace who is not out to get us and make us pay eternal punishments for daring not to be perfect.
But here’s the thing. Every single person here who has ever loved another person…as a friend, lover, parent, child, grandparent or grandchild. No matter who you have ever loved. I’m thinking the chances are pretty good that if it’s a strong love of any kind, there has been anger somewhere in that relationship. You’ve gotten angry with them, or they’ve gotten angry with you. It happens. But healthy, strong relationships built on a foundation of love can and do survive that. We all know this to be true. Otherwise we would all be hermits doing our best to avoid every other person in the world.
And in the same way our relationships work through whatever anger appears when one of us does something wrong, the same thing happens with our relationship with God. Because if I’m willing to be open and honest here, I’m pretty certain God has gotten angry with me before. When I’ve said or done mean things to someone else. When I’ve bought and thrown away food out of my pantry when it didn’t get eaten, when I could have donated food to the food bank. When I decided it was my place to decide how someone else should live their life instead of trying to understand what they are going through. When I’ve turned my back on someone who was hurting, because I was too worried about my own feelings. The list goes on longer than I care to admit.
But here’s the thing. I don’t get to wallow in any guilt for anything I’ve messed up. Nor does anyone else here. Because of God’s love and grace for each one of us, we get a chance to repent and make amends. We get that chance to realize we screwed up, and work to do better next time. Because that’s the God we follow. Not one who is counting all of our missteps and misdeeds and looking for ways to punish us. But a God who loves us, and loves our neighbors, and wants us to do the same. And will continue to welcome us back when we screw it up and when we realize we need to try again next time.
I know, I know, this is all fine and dandy, but by now you’re wondering where I’m going and why I’m going here on our first Sunday of Advent. But this is all completely related to everything Advent is about. First, take everything I’ve said about our individual mistakes and repentance, and apply it to the larger church. It isn’t just about you or me as individuals. It’s about us as a community. It’s about wondering and struggling with if we are doing everything we can to follow and please God. Or if we are only going our own way for our own comfort and convenience.
Because nothing about Christianity is what I get out of it as an individual. It’s all about what we as a collective people are doing to love God and love our neighbors.
And for a world who needs God….who needs to be shown the love and justice of God…who is groaning out for something better each and every day…that’s where we as the church come in. That’s where we say there is hope. That’s where we say there is a God, and a God who loves everyone no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey.
When we work to change conditions and alleviate suffering, we can work to change the world simply by being the very church Christ called us to be. And we can exist as a powerful and caring alternative to everything else offered by Hollywood, Wall Street, Main Street and Washington DC. For a world who is looking for an alternative way…..it’s one that we haven can offer. Not because it will anger God if we don’t, but because others will miss out on the love of God that we know to be true. And that love is what people are waiting and hoping for this Advent. And it’s up to us to give it to them.
The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child's name and room number and talked briefly with the child's regular class teacher. "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now," the regular teacher said, "and I'd be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn't fall too far behind."
The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much. But the next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. "You don't know what I mean. We've been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live."
Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"
God also wouldn’t send the church to work with a dying world. In a world that seems to have given up hope, we can show them God’s love and presence in ways never imagined. Not because we don’t want to anger God, but because we could do nothing more to please God.
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC, Waukon, IA
Sermon from November 22, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
The Art of Doing Nothing
The sign on the stage proclaimed: “The Motionless Man: Make Him Laugh. Win $100.” The temptation was irresistible. For three hours boys and girls, men and women, performed every antic and told every joke they knew. But Bill Fuqua, the Motionless Man, stood perfectly still. Fuqua is the Guinness Book of World Records champion at doing nothing. In fact, he appears so motionless during his routines at shopping malls and amusement parks that he is sometimes mistaken for a mannequin.
I’ve seen other people do things like this: freeze in position at festivals and such while people come up to them and try to figure out if the person is real or not. Usually there is a lot of close examination, no personal space to be seen, and everything else not quite up to touching.
And I’m always amazed, because that is something I could never do. I am not exactly one who has to be moving around constantly, but I could never stand so still the way these folks do. And somewhere in contemplating all of this, it occurred to me that doing nothing is really an art form. And ironically enough, it takes a lot of skill, dedication, and practice to do absolutely nothing.
And that’s when I realized too many of us and too many of our churches are in the same boat. We’ve perfected the art of doing nothing.
Oh sure, we don’t like it to look that way, so we keep our churches looking busy while we do it. But if you look too far beneath the surface, you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Usually what we’ll see is a church that is focused solely on worship. Sunday mornings are important, of course, but in these churches, it tends to be about the only thing they’re focused on. Liturgy, music, a sermon, and then the all important coffee hour. Everything the church does ends up focused around that. People only come for that. The other committees and ministries, if they meet, do very little or folks have very little interest in them.
All other church activities that happen generally tend to center around making the members happy and comfortable. Cleaning and fixing things around the church, reaching out to other members to make sure they have what they need, council meetings that focus on what needs to happen to keep worship going (outside of a pandemic, of course), things like that. It’s all focused on the church and what needs to happen to keep the church running.
And don’t get me wrong. None of this is bad. It all needs to happen to keep the church up and going. The problem is, if that’s the only thing a church is doing. If that’s the only thing the people are interested in, then there’s a problem.
Jesus never spoke about the best way to keep a religious institution going. Jesus didn’t particularly care about what people did to make themselves and their small groups of people happy. In fact, he never spoke about that at all. Instead, we are left with readings like today’s gospel reading.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and in prison and you visited me.”
This is what Jesus was interested in. This is what we are called to do.
Of course I can hear the pushback from many churches: “oh, we already do all of these things!” Absolutely. I know churches do this. Zion does it, every other church out there does this to some extent or another. The problem is, of course, when we only take care of others in our own circles. Sure, some of us are “the least of these who are members of [Jesus’] family, but if that’s where it ends, there’s a problem.
Back when I was in search and call before landing here in Waukon, I did a lot of reading of various church profiles. Now these church profiles are what churches tell candidates about themselves. How they organize themselves, what’s important to them, all sorts of things. And one of the questions asks about what sort of outreach the church does.
And one particular church, the only thing they put in that section, was that they have organized a group to pick up older members of the church and bring them to Sunday morning services.
That was it.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, it’s a really great way to make sure members, and especially members who have challenges getting out and about, stay connected with the church. But if that’s as far as our “outreach” goes. If we aren’t actually looking to reach out to anyone outside of our proverbial walls. If the only way we can follow Jesus by doing all of this to the least of Jesus’ family is by only reaching out to those within our own church family, then we are completely missing the point.
The good news in all of this is that I truly believe this church wants to do more. I have heard time and time again, from going through the documents Zion put together before I got here, and in the conversations I’ve had with folks, that this church wants to do more outreach. We really want to give food to the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick and visit the prisoner. I hear a deep desire to go back to doing all of this.
The challenge, of course, is for the mission committee, and for all of us, to figure out what we want to do, and the best way to do it. I’ve spent the past two sermons talking about serving God. And I doubt anyone really disagreed with the idea that that’s exactly what we want to be doing. So if that’s true…and I really believe it is…then we should be chomping at the bit to do all of these things.
A few weeks ago, Lynn and I were having a conversation with the confirmands about what are some of the things this church does to help others. As I’m still pretty new here, and am still learning the rhythms of this church, I’ll admit I couldn’t be of much help to lead them in this conversation. And I was really eager to hear what they came up with…what they see this church doing to reach out to others and follow what Jesus has told us to do.
The ensuing conversation left me a bit unsettled. They really had a hard time naming things that this church does. We were able to prompt them with the ditch clean up, visiting the nursing homes, mission trips, and a few other activities, but they really struggled.
Now, I know this isn’t because Zion isn’t doing anything. And I know it isn’t because the confirmands are disengaged. But somewhere in the middle of this is a huge disconnect. And I suspect it’s a number of smaller reasons that are fixable.
It may mean that we need to intentionally shift our focus and what we talk about. It may mean we need some new goals that reach out to others more. It may mean that we need to connect ourselves into what we are doing. It could mean a bunch of things.
But what it does mean to me is that we aren’t where we want to be when it comes to mission and outreach. And most churches aren’t. So we aren’t alone. But if we can name this. If we can take some deliberate steps to do to the least of these and to do to Jesus what we are called to do. If we can shift our focus here…beyond all the wonderful internal projects we do…this church has a real chance of becoming something even greater in this world.
The Spanish philosopher, Unamuno, tells about the Roman aqueduct at Segovia, in his native Spain. It was built in 109 A.D. For eighteen hundred years, it carried cool water from the mountains to the hot and thirsty city. Nearly sixty generations of people drank from its flow. Then came another generation, a recent one, who said, "This aqueduct is so great a marvel that it ought to be preserved for our children, as a museum piece. We shall relieve it of its centuries-long labor."
They did exactly that. They laid modern iron pipes. They gave the ancient bricks and mortar a reverent rest. And the aqueduct began to fall apart. The sun beating on the dry mortar caused it to crumble. The bricks and stone sagged and threatened to fall. What ages of service could not destroy idleness disintegrated.
If we don’t move forward. If we don’t continue to help others. If we don’t share what we are doing with everyone in and around this church. We will fall apart. Nobody wants that. And thanks to Jesus, we know exactly what we must do.
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC, Waukon, IA
Sermon from November 15, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Children of the Light
It was a warm spring day. My friend Emily and I were getting antsy to get outside and be in the sunshine, so we finished up our work early, and headed out to be of some use out in the world.
The work itself was easy enough. We each stood by the side of the road, holding up different signs. The sign I held up read, “The End is Near!” While on the other side of the road, Emily held up a sign that read, “Turn before it’s too late!” Now, our plan was to hold up the signs to each passing car. But it didn’t go so well.
“Get a job!” The first driver yelled. The second, immediately behind the first yelled, “Leave us alone, you religious freaks!” Shortly, from around the curve, we soon heard screeching tires and a splash followed by more screeching tires and another splash. Emily looked at me, rather confused, and asked, “Do you think we should try a different sign?” I just merely shrugged my shoulders and said, “well, perhaps ‘Bridge Out’ might be better.”
Yeah. That didn’t really happen.
It didn’t happen because Emily and I aren’t those type of pastors. You won’t find us out holding signs telling folks to repent, because the end is near. Because the truth of the matter is, we don’t know when Jesus will come again. Yes, I realize folks have been predicting the end of the world or the second coming of Christ since the moment Christ ascended into heaven after the resurrection. People have used all sorts of mathematical gymnastics and random scripture reading to try and figure out the end of the world over and over again.
And I’m going to let you in on a little secret: we’re still here.
The truth of the matter is, it is written in the scriptures over and over again that none of us know the hour nor the day when Christ will come back again. In our reading this morning from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds them, and us, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!”
In other words, just like a thief comes without our expecting it…just like a pregnant woman doesn’t know the exact moment she will go into labor…we know it could happen at some point. We know it will happen at some point. But we don’t know when.
Oh, but that doesn’t keep folks from guessing. I’ve heard more people this year surmise to me that we must be in the “end times” more than any other time period. Everyone is all of a sudden an expert on the second coming.
Shortly before I moved here, I managed to finagle in an appointment with my eye doctor for a concern I was having with one of my eyes. The doctor was friendly enough, and at some point in the conversation asked me what I do for a living. I explained I was a pastor at the local UCC in town, which usually changes the tenor of the conversation. And sure enough, that time was no different:
“Oh, we sure are living in the end times, aren’t we? People really need to wake up and get with the program or they’re going to be sorry!” And on and on it went.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if this guy had ever actually read his Bible. Because if he had, he would know that none of us….none of us…know the hour or the day when Jesus will come again.
The good news for us, however, is that it really doesn’t matter. Sure, it might be scary to think we are living in the darkness. Many of us have managed to convince ourselves that this is a particularly scary time. And frankly, you aren’t alone. The election has come and gone, but the pain of it lingers on. COVID is raring its ugly head even more right now, making loved ones sick, and filling up our hospitals. This nation is feeding on division and hatred in ways that break many of our hearts.
But we are not children of this darkness. We are not defined by or beholden to any of the pain, fear, anger, and suffering the world is trying to define our lives by.
Instead we are children of the light and children of the day. So as Paul reminds us, “let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” And no, this isn’t just some weird biblical imagery that makes no sense and seems kind of ridiculous if we take it too literally. It actually means something.
“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other.”
Can you imagine if we actually did that instead of what we spend most of our days doing? Oh, sure, I know we spend plenty of time building each other up when we happen to be in the company of those we like. It’s easy to do here at church or at home or maybe in the local grocery store when we’re face to face with someone.
But then I look at things like Facebook, and I continue to be horrified by what we are doing to each other. We fight with our friends and our friends’ friends in the comment section. We make rude comments about the people who didn’t vote the same way we did. We accuse others in really general terms of things they may or may not have done, with no actual proof beyond a meme that fits our current narrative. We stop listening to each other and spend all of our time one upping each other and challenging anyone who dares to think even a different thought.
I don’t know what kind of light we think we are giving out when we do this sort of thing…but it’s definitely not the sort of light that encourages or builds anyone up…especially those who we may not agree with.
I remain friends on Facebook with Rev. Tyler Connoley, whom I met when we were both in Missouri. He has since moved on to be the conference minister of the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC out in the Pacific Northwest. And he spends much of his Facebook energy posting positive uplifting stories and thoughts. And last week he did something even more amazing when he posted the following:
“Because the world needs radically interconnected kindness right now, please say something nice about a mutual friend of ours in the comments.
Not about me. Not about you. About someone we both know.
I love when the people I know love on one another.”
And what followed was 128 comments of people going through Tyler’s friends to see who was a mutual friend so they could randomly say something encouraging and uplifting about another person for no other reason than the mere fact that they could.
It was such a beacon of love in what sometimes feels like such a dark place. And with the huge response it got, it was clearly needed! But sadly, he’s the only one I’ve seen do anything like this.
We’re so quick to share the negative. We’re so quick to tear everyone else down. We’re so quick to be sure if anyone does anything stupid that we broadcast that as far and as wide as possible. But when it comes to lifting each other up? When it comes to doing something a little personal and making people’s day a little brighter?
Nah. That’s no fun. That’s not who we are. Is it?
The words from last week haunt me: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua was right then and he’s still right now. We have a choice to make. If we’re really going to choose to serve the Lord, we’ve got to encourage and build up each other. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually really started doing that instead of tearing one another down all the time?
We have control over so little right now. But encouraging one another? Building one another up? We can always do that. We can always control how we treat one another…even when everything else is out of control, this is something we can choose to do. But we don’t. And it’s time to do something about that.
Because as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
One night a motorist was run down by a train at a grade crossing. The old signal man in charge of the crossing had to appear in court. After a severe cross-examination, he was still unshaken. He said he had waved his lantern frantically, but all to no avail. The following day the superintendent of the line called him into his office. "You did wonderfully well yesterday, Tom," he said. "I was afraid at first that you might waver." "No, sir," replied Tom, "but I was afraid that old lawyer was going to ask me whether or not my lantern was lit!”
We’re always giving off something, no matter what we do. But I have to ask. Are you a child of the light or of the darkness? Is your lamp lit and helping people or are you doing no good at all with your energy? Who will you serve?
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC, Waukon, IA
Sermon from November 8, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
"Who will you serve?"
James Michener writing in his book, The Source, tells the story of a man named Urbaal, who was a farmer living about 2200 B.C. He worshipped two gods, the first, the god of death, the other a goddess of fertility. One day, the temple priests tell Urbaal that if he wants good crops, he needs to bring his young son to the temple for sacrifice. Incredibly, Urbaal obeys dragging his wife and son to the temple for the ceremonial execution along with other children.
After the sacrifice the priests of the goddess of fertility announce that one of the fathers will be chosen to spend a week with a new cult prostitute. Urbaal’s wife is stunned to notice the desire written more intensely across his face than ever before. He eagerly lunges forward when his name is called. The ceremony is over and she walks out of the temple baffled and crushed by the episode. She lost her son and her husband! She concluded, “if he had different gods, he would have been a different man.”
If he had different gods, he would have been a different man.
We all come to worship this morning proclaiming we are here to worship God. The triune God. The father of Jesus. The God of love, mercy, and grace. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how much we proclaim to worship this God on Sunday morning. And no matter how much we do worship God this morning and attempt to honor and follow Christ the rest of the week, it isn’t so simple.
Joshua knew that. Now, as a reminder, Joshua was the one who took over for Moses after he passed away. It was under his guidance that the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River to take control of the land of Canaan. This morning the reading from Joshua comes at the end of Joshua’s reign. Joshua is beginning to say goodbye to the people he has been leading, and he summons the tribes of Israel together to renew their covenant.
Now, we need to understand that Joshua took this pretty seriously. This wasn’t like we did last week when we stood up and recited the Apostle’s Creed together. That, of course, was lovely, and reminded us of what we believe and who we follow. But it didn’t necessarily really require us to make any changes. It didn’t require us to think too deeply about what we were saying. It was over in a couple of minutes, and likely completely forgotten by the time everyone went to bed on Sunday night.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. But I am saying this isn’t the type of renewal of covenant Joshua was going for that day. Instead, he really wanted the people to make a covenant that was going to last…that would truly change the way they lived their lives from that day forward.
Because the truth of the matter is, the people of Israel hadn’t given up following their other Gods.
So Joshua called them to “Put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household,” Joshua said, “we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua knew this wasn’t an easy ask. He was asking people to stop hedging their bets. “Oh, sure, Joshua…we’ll follow the Lord…we’ll just keep these other gods in our back pockets…you know…just in case this Lord thing doesn’t work out so well for us.”
So when the people answered him saying, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
And Joshua has been around the block before. He knows his people. He’s raised teenagers. He’s figured out the two aren’t completely different. Just like when a parent knows when their child is just telling them what they think they want to hear, Joshua knows these folks are giving him lip service.
“Uhh, sure, Joshua…we’re giving up those gods right now. Not a problem.”
I suspect at this point Joshua felt a lot like my mother did the time that she told me my pupils in my eyes always dilated when I was lying, so I went to the bathroom to look at them myself so I could tell her she was wrong.
So Joshua told them again. “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
In other words, “yeah, I know better. You aren’t fooling anyone.”
“No, we will serve the Lord!”
I can imagine Joshua having this very conversation with us today. Can you imagine if he wandered in here right now and told us to only serve God? I would imagine that we would all stand up and be ready to say that’s exactly what we would do.
And like the people of Israel, Joshua would see right through us.
He’d know we were lying.
We don’t put God first. On many days, we don’t even pretend to anymore, if we’re really honest with ourselves.
If someone drives by your house this afternoon, what will they see? Will they see a leftover campaign sign? Will they see an American flag? Will they see a perfectly manicured lawn with various ornaments and decorations? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. None whatsoever.
But folks, where’s the cross? Where’s the statement that says we follow Christ? Why is the first thing we want the neighbors to know that we follow a political candidate, we pledge allegiance to the flag, but there’s nothing about us following Christ? Maybe it’s not the most important thing for us. And that’s fine, of course…we’re all free to have different priorities. But then we can’t serve God, too.
We have to choose. What comes first? Is it loving God? Is it loving our neighbor as ourselves? Or it is a politician, a sports team, a lifestyle, our paycheck, or even our country?
God is telling us to choose. God is telling us, through Joshua, that it’s either God, or it’s everything else. But it can’t be both. This isn’t a teeter totter where we can somehow try to balance the two. We need to decide. Joshua knew that anyone could give lip service to the idea of following the Lord. But that’s all it is. It doesn’t mean anything unless we’re really willing to leave the other idols behind.
As I said in the beginning of my sermon, Urbaal chose what gods he was going to follow. They led to his son being killed and losing his marriage. That’s no exaggeration to say that’s exactly what happens to us, today.
When we choose to follow a god of violence, people die. When we choose to follow a god of lust and impetuousness, we lose our relationships. When we choose to follow the god of money, we are never satisfied and never have enough and learn to live in fear of losing it all. When we follow the god of politics, we learn how to stop loving our neighbors in favor of our own comfort. When we follow the god of nationalism, we learn to close ourselves off to the world and put ourselves first.
But when we choose to follow the Lord our God, the God of Jesus Christ. Then we learn what it really means to be loved. Then we learn how to really serve others. Then we learn what it means to live in a world where the last shall be first. Then we learn that the love and acceptance we so badly want for ourselves is in reach for every single person. Then we learn what true faith is, and where ultimately to place that very faith.
There’s a story going around online about former president Ronald Reagan who once had an aunt who took him to a cobbler for a pair of new shoes. The cobbler asked young Reagan, "Do you want square toes or round toes?" Unable to decide, Reagan didn't answer, so the cobbler gave him a few days. Several days later the cobbler saw Reagan on the street and asked him again what kind of toes he wanted on his shoes. Reagan still couldn't decide, so the shoemaker replied, "Well, come by in a couple of days. Your shoes will be ready.”
When the future president did so, he found one square-toed and one round-toed shoe! "This will teach you to never let people make decisions for you," the cobbler said to his indecisive customer. "I learned right then and there," Reagan said later, "if you don't make your own decisions, someone else will.”
If we don’t really decide to follow God, we’ll follow everything else, as well. And God will lose out. And we’ll lose out. But those other gods constantly calling for our attention? They’ll win. And they’ll continue to suck us all along for the ride. And those are not the type of people we really want to be.
© Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC Waukon, IA
Sermon from November 1, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
"Is this Heaven? No, it's Iowa"
The great composer Ludwig van Beethoven lived much of his life in fear of deafness. He was concerned because he felt the sense of hearing was essential to creating music of lasting value.
When Beethoven discovered that the thing he feared most was coming rapidly upon him, he was almost frantic with anxiety. He consulted doctors and tried every possible remedy. But the deafness increased until at last all hearing was gone.
Beethoven finally found the strength he needed to go on despite his great loss. To everyone's amazement, he wrote some of his grandest music after he became totally deaf. With all distractions shut out, melodies flooded in on him as fast as his pen could write them down. His deafness became a great asset.
There has been so much we have lost this year. In fact, I suspect we’ve lost more than many of us could have even begun to fear at last year’s All Saints Day service. Many of us have lost loved ones: friends, family, acquaintances. Some of it may have been expected, age, illness, and time tend to do that. Other deaths may have taken us by surprise as much of the past year has.
A year ago, none of us expected that we would have lost much of our Lenten observances and the entire season of Easter to a global pandemic. We’ve lost friends and family due to political beliefs that have ripped this nation apart in ways we have never seen before. We’ve lost sleep, some mental health, an ability to plan for the future, and the confidence in some of our leaders. Like Beethoven, it’s made our entire society frantic with anxiety as we try to stop the changes, the perceived changes, and the seeming instability that seems to permeate various parts of our lives with too much frequency lately.
Loss after loss. Change after change. It all has come to define our lives right now in ways that aren’t healthy for any of us. As Iowans. As Americans. And certainly not as Christians. Instead of just expecting the worst and hope it doesn’t come true, we begin to invite the worst with our own beliefs and actions. And it has become nearly a self-fulfilling prophecy that none of us want to see, but seem to live into far too often.
Combine that anxiety of the future with the grief of our past, and it becomes nearly an overwhelming wave of despair that has settled over every single on of us in some way, shape, or form. It has defined our actions toward one another, defined the lens through which we view all things and all people. It becomes the very definition of how we walk in this world today.
It provides no love. It provides no understanding of what is really going on. And worst of all, it provides no hope for the future. And yet we continue collectively wallow in it day after day.
The good news is, there is another way. The good news is, as Christians, as followers of Christ, the grief, despair, heart ache and hopelessness we feel too often is not our story. Is not our life. Is not our future. And we need not look any further than our scripture readings this morning to find the very hope we are given.
I want to paint the scene here for what comes before us in the seventh chapter of the book of Revelation. Revelation six is pretty gruesome. Six of the infamous seals are opened by the Lamb in that chapter. It’s a pretty horrendous chapter filled with a lot of gloom and doom, about where the world has been. While not getting into a long theological discussion about what it could all possibly mean, it reads like a pretty bad horror movie. As each seal is unwrapped, more death and destruction is meted out in some pretty scary ways.
By the time the sixth seal is unwrapped, most people are feeling completely undone. The fear. The grief. The lingering anxiety is real. And anyone of us who got past kindergarten knows that after the sixth seal must come the dreaded seventh seal.
But instead of that seventh seal, there is a pause. A break. A reminder. There is this morning’s reading that tells us that all is not lost. That the frantic anxiety Beethoven felt and that we feel today is not the last word. It is not a continual build up of bad things happening until we can’t take any more.
This morning we are reminded of the hope we have in Christ. We are reminded we are grounded in something quite larger than anything happening in our world…that, as Christians, our grief, our despair, and our uncertainty do not get the last word.
The first half of this reading is a beautiful vision. “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
And they all cried out and cheered, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And the angels who stood around the throne fell on their faces and worshiped God and sang.
And it’s a beautiful vision. One that partially gives us hope, and partially makes us say, “so what? What does that have to do with anything I’m carrying around today, preacher?”
And then we see the interpretation in the second half of this reading, and realize it has everything to do with us.
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Let me try that again.
“We will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike us, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd, and he will guide us to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
This isn’t the hope of some people we can’t identify with in a book of the Bible we really don’t understand.
This is our hope. This is our consolation. This is the heaven we look forward to, This is the heaven on Earth we call out for every single single time we say the Lord’s prayer. And more than just a look into the future, this is the effect of Jesus’ reign every single day for us now, here on Earth.
This isn’t just some hope for the future. This isn’t something we think will sound really great one day in a galaxy far, far away. This is what’s happening every single day for us now.
We are being reminded constantly, through our following Jesus Christ, that there is a different life to be had, and that we can live into it. We are reminded that death, as much as it hurts, as much as we hate to say goodbye, does not get the last word. We are reminded that the pain, confusion, and anxiety we are feeling all around us is not the hope we have been given in Christ.
We are given the comfort that no matter what we have done to life, or what life has done to us, that we have hope, we have Christ, and we have a brighter future than this world could ever even imagine. It doesn’t matter what the world throws at us. It doesn’t matter how the election turns out on Tuesday. We have a hope in something even greater.
When I was a kid, I loved the movie, Field of Dreams. Eventually I’ll get down to Dyersville one of these days to see it, though I fully expect it can never live up to what my 9 year old mind has built it up to be. And I was so sad when the pandemic this year took away the baseball game that was supposed to be played between the St. Louis Cardinals and my beloved Chicago Cubs. But alas, my imagination lives on.
And I wasn’t going to play this clip for you this morning, but there’s no other way to bring it alive for all of us.
Ray Kinsella says it all for us this morning. Maybe this is heaven. Maybe the grief and despair of the pain of the last year don’t define us. Maybe we will decide that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa. But maybe it, too, is heaven indeed.
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC Waukon, IA
Sermon from October 25, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Back to the Basics
In case you haven’t heard of her, Erma Bombeck was an American humorist who achieved great popularity for her syndicated newspaper humor column describing suburban home life from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. At some point she penned this story about her favorite child:
“Every mother has a favorite child. She cannot help it. She is only human. I have mine--the child for whom I feel a special closeness, with whom I share a love that no one else could possibly understand. My favorite child is the one who was too sick to eat ice cream at his birthday party -- who had measles at Christmas -- who wore leg braces to bed because he toed in -- who had a fever in the middle of the night, the asthma attack, the child in my arms at the emergency ward.
My favorite child spent Christmas alone away from the family, was stranded after the game with a gas tank on E, lost the money for his class ring.
My favorite child is the one who messed up the piano recital, misspelled committee in a spelling bee, ran the wrong way with the football, and had his bike stolen because he was careless.
My favorite child is the one I punished for lying, grounded for insensitivity to other people’s feelings, and informed he was a royal pain to the entire family.
My favorite child slammed doors in frustration, cried when she didn’t think I saw her, withdrew and said she could not talk to me.
My favorite child always needed a haircut, had hair that wouldn’t curl, had no date for Saturday night, and a car that cost $600 to fix. My favorite child was selfish, immature, bad-tempered and self-centered. He was vulnerable, lonely, unsure of what he was doing in this world--and quite wonderful.
All mothers have their favorite child. It is always the same one: the one who needs you at the moment. Who needs you for whatever reason--to cling to, to shout at, to hurt, to hug, to flatter, to reverse charges to, to unload on--but mostly just to be there.”
That is, of course, the closest you will ever get a healthy family to admit who the favorite child is. Most parents don’t have a favorite child, of course. And for those who do, for whatever reason, they would never admit it. Because if they were to admit it, it would cause major chaos in the family. It’s with this example in mind that we come to this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew.
The Pharisees decided to test Jesus and they asked him a question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” This, of course, was a trap. This would have been like asking a parent who their favorite child is. Any answer is going to cause chaos. If they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite commandment, he’ll be guilty of downplaying other commandments. On top of that, since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical.
Jesus, of course, didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday and knows exactly what is going on. An easy way to get off this hook would have been for Jesus to say, “Every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord is great. Each commandment is great.” That would have been an effective way out of this, a theological version of the “I love you all the same” answer a wise parent might give to the question of which child is the parent’s favorite. But instead Jesus begins to quote a Bible verse. And at first the Pharisees maybe thought they had him. They didn’t. Because Jesus says that love of God is the greatest of all commandments.
After all, if you don’t love God, you won’t be much inclined to keep any commandment. If, however, you do love God, then the rest follows naturally. And just to make the point, Jesus throws in the second commandment about neighbor- love. Between these two loves, Jesus manages to catch every single commandment you could ever name. Every commandment in the book has something to do with either God or neighbor.
But Jesus’ reply was actually even more clever than even that. Because in Jewish circles the single most famous verse is the so-called Shema from Deuteronomy 6. “Shema” is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen” and it comes from that verse, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema was traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start of each day and at the conclusion of each day.
In other words, there was no single verse from the entire Torah that the average Jew knew better than this one.
So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ tricky question by quoting a portion of the Shema, he was throwing back in their faces something they took to be exceedingly basic, something that was second-nature to even the youngest Jewish child.
It’s like of time German theologian Karl Barth is said to have been asked what he thought was the most profound of all theological truths. Now, Barth could have answered like we were taught in seminary, with some jargon-laden, academic answer that used words like perichoresis, kenosis, or the insuperable transcendence of God’s prevenient grace as it comes through the vicarious supererogation of the Son. But instead he simply said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That answer was charming and disarming. Barth said, “The greatest truth is the one you already know, the one all Christians know, the one a three-year old can sing about.” In Jesus’ case, he was slyly insulting the Pharisees, demonstrating to everyone there that the Pharisees were not really interested in seeing if Jesus could answer their question since even the youngest person there knew that answer already. This was not a difficult question. It was like asking Albert Einstein, “Do you know what 2+2 is?” This was basic, elementary, even.
And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it. We can spend months, years, and even decades arguing about what it means to be a Christian, how to best follow Jesus, and what that even looks like. But at the absolute core of it, it’s all foolishness. The simple answer is love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The end. Period. Nothing else matters until you’ve figured that out. And nothing matters after you’ve figured that out.
It is, of course, not that easy. If it were that easy, if we would have gotten that all figured out, I would be out of a job. I wouldn’t be up here each week coming up with new and creative ways to try and drive home the same few messages. Because it isn’t easy. We get it wrong. And sometimes we entirely miss the point.
I hadn’t been in my new church in Sedalia for long…maybe a couple of months. But it was clear from my candidating weekend with them that I made one particular gentleman mighty uncomfortable. I was an outsider. I was, and am, an upper midwesterner, so a good yankee. I went to school at Chicago Theological Seminary, and he was convinced I had been spoiled with too many liberal ideas to be of much use to God, that church, or anyone else.
One day my council president at the time told me she had heard from this gentleman again, about many of my perceived offenses…and I was rather confused. This time he was upset because I kept preaching and talking about loving our neighbors.
Now. I had deliberately not defined who our neighbors were. I didn’t talk about the people in the neighborhood surrounding the church. I didn’t talk about those we encounter in Sedalia. I didn’t talk about those we like and dislike throughout Missouri and the United States. I didn’t even talk about those who live halfway across the world. I had simply been leaving it as undefined as Jesus does here. “Love your neighbor.”
And God bless him, but this gentleman was in an absolute panic that I was talking so much about loving our neighbors, that he was afraid I was going to have the gall to suggest we reach out to the neighborhood around our church and actually try to get to know them, interact with them, and maybe eventually even love them. Because the last thing we wanted was “those” people in “our” church.
Many of us were confused. Mystified. And not really sure what to make of this. If we couldn’t love God without loving our neighbor, and we were in church to continue our journey towards loving God, then why wouldn’t we talk about loving our neighbors? And surely as someone who had been a part of the church for over 70 years, this couldn’t really be the first time he was hearing a pastor make this sort of crazy pronouncement, could it?
I don’t know.
The fact of the matter is, it’s hard. We live in a world which tells us every single day to look out for ourselves. That we and our families and our wants and needs should always come first. That if we don’t look out for number one, others will take advantage of us, hurt us, and there won’t be anything left for us.
Frankly, the Pharisees lived in that same world. They knew the words. They said them every single day. They heard them in worship every single week. But the world was too hard of a pull for them to really hear the words.
The gentleman at my old church was the same way. I’m the same way. And I’m willing to bet many of us are the same way. We spend our days being told that loving God, loving our neighbor is foolishness. It won’t get us anywhere. We’ll be more disadvantaged if we get too close to others.
But at the very core of our message is this truth. That when we’re done arguing about everything else, that we know we are called to love God and love our neighbor.
And with a little bit of luck, we’ll begin to be able to breathe that message as easily as we can sing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”
© 2020 Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC, Waukon, IA
Sermon from October 18, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
The Face of God
<Star Trek V clip>
I can’t help but think of this scene from the movie Star Trek V when we hear about Moses on the mountain speaking with God. And this morning’s reading in Exodus really seems to bring that scene home for me.
We need to remember where we are in our reading this morning. Moses had been up the mountain to get the 10 commandments from God. Moses went back down the mountain to give them to the Israelites, only to discover that while he was gone, the people of Israel had gotten restless and worried and took all of their gold and made a golden calf to worship. So back up the mountain Moses went again to talk to God, and that’s where we find Moses this morning. And both Moses and God were pretty ticked about what had just happened down the mountain with Aaron and the golden calf.
In fact, Moses has quite frankly had enough. “God, you told me to bring these people out of Egypt. Only you never gave me a great answer about exactly who you are, and frankly, I’m starting to doubt you and your crazy ideas here. So, frankly, I’m gonna need you to show me your ways, and don’t forget that this nation is your people as well.”
Seems like a fairly reasonable request, right?
And God comes back with, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
And this sounds exactly like what Moses was hoping for. Only the English translation here leads us a bit astray. Because God isn’t saying God’s presence will go with Moses and the Israelites and that God will give them rest. This is actually a singular “you” that God is using. In other words, God’s presence will go with Moses and God will give Moses rest. The rest of the Israelites? Meh.
Now Moses is really irritated. “Look, if you aren’t coming with us, then just leave us here…unless you are going to come with us, there is absolutely no point. So if you want us to be your people, if you want us to be set apart, you’re gonna have to stick around.”
And we are told that the Lord relents. God says, “sure, I’ll do exactly what you ask of me.”
And by this point Moses decides to call him butter because he’s on a roll, and says, “Great! Show me your glory!”
And this is where we hear the needle scratching on the record player, because, nope, that isn’t going to happen. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
Well, you can’t blame a guy for trying. And he does fair better than Jim did after his line of questioning in Star Trek.
God does something absolutely beautiful here, that most of us probably miss. God set some actual boundaries up about what was and wasn’t going to be happening between God and Moses. Sure, I’ll be present with you all. Sure I will be gracious and merciful. I can do all of that. But no, you aren’t going to get to see my face.
And they figure it out, and they move on, and it’s absolutely beautiful. And this is what good boundaries do. They tell us where you begin and end, and where I begin and end. And when we both know that, we can have a relationship together. It’s kind of like the saying, “good fences make good neighbors”. But in this case, good boundaries make for good relationships.
Sure, it can feel awkward. And no one likes to hear the word no, like Moses did. But it sure makes things much clearer.
For example, I’ve been reaching out to some folks who haven’t been back to church because of the pandemic. I’m trying to figure out how to keep people still engaged, meet their new pastor, and honor and respect any boundaries they have to keep themselves safe.
So the first couple I went to visit, we ended up having a very lovely visit, and I’m glad I had the chance to meet them. But it was really awkward at first, because I came in with a mask on, because I wanted to be respectful of their space. Only they couldn’t hear me with the mask on. So I was trying to figure out if they wanted me to have the mask on, and they were trying to figure out if I wanted to keep the mask on. We finally figured it out, but it made the first 5 or 10 minutes of the visit way more awkward than it needed to be.
The next set of folks I went to visit, it was much easier. “Pastor Cathy, we are happy to have you come and visit. But even my kids haven’t come inside the house since March. You are welcome to come, and we can sit in the garage masked and socially distant and visit that way.”
And I smiled, and said, “that sounds perfect. What day works for you?”
Sure, that may have been a bit of an awkward conversation to have. I realize some folks don’t feel like they can tell the pastor “no.” And I don’t necessarily always feel like I can say “no” as the new pastor. But when we have those weird conversations together at the beginning, we know each other’s limits, we can respect them, and we can be in relationship a whole heck of a lot easier than trying to read each other’s minds.
But the absolute beautiful part of this text is that God doesn’t just tell Moses to bug off and leave him standing there regretting asking for too much. Instead they enter into a short conversation of finding where they can still meet each other. Instead of letting Moses see God’s face, God offers up another suggestion:
“See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
What an amazing example of working together to find what we’re comfortable with. Contrast that with a commercial I’ve been seeing on television this past week.
This commercial is in cartoon format. A donkey and an elephant are sitting on two sides of the same bench. And a combination donkey /slash/ elephant walks up to them.
“Oh, look!” One of them proclaims. “It’s an elephan-key!”
“Hi, guys! Is there any room for me in the middle?”
And the two on the bench both shift their bodies and possessions, and tell him, “nope.”
It would almost be funny if it weren’t so true and sad.
We live in a society where there is no longer any room in the middle. It’s my way or the high way. We can’t give a single inch, or agree on one single thing, or it we will be seen as betraying our “side.”
And we are shown today that this view is absolutely ridiculous. It’s fracturing our society. It’s killing us. And it means we can’t even figure out good boundaries together without fearing giving up too much ground to the other person.
But when we can name what our lines are to others, we can find work together to find that middle ground. And it’s in that middle ground. It’s in that compromise, that we can live our lives together. In harmony. In the safety of our own boundaries. In the community of others. Together.
Back in 1931, Irving Thalberg of MGM decided he wanted to buy the film rights to Tarzan, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. So Thalberg sent Sam Marx to negotiate with Burroughs, telling Marx not to spend more than $100,000, an extraordinarily large sum in those days. Marx contacted Burroughs and asked how much he wanted for the film rights. "$100,000," said Burroughs. When Marx offered him $25,000, Burroughs walked out of the meeting. However, Marx and Burroughs continued to negotiate throughout the summer. Burroughs eventually settled for $40,000. After signing the contract, Burroughs admitted that he had wanted MGM and Thalberg to make the picture so badly, they could have had it for nothing if they had insisted. "Mr. Burroughs," replied Marx, "If you had held out, you would have gotten $100,000!”
What do you need? Where are you willing and able to live? And how do those meet up with others? We need to know our absolute boundaries. We need to be willing to communicate that. But somewhere in the messy middle is where life is lived. We can’t live on the edges forever. It’s destroying our culture, our community, our faith, and ourselves.
It’s time to change.
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC Waukon, IA
Sermon from October 11, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Occasionally, in order to get through this wild and crazy year we call 2020, I like to dream ahead about 40 years. I think of myself sitting at a retirement home, sitting outside on the porch in a rocking chair, talking to anyone who will listen to me about the year 2020.
That crazy year, 2020. Within the first week, we were afraid we might go to war with Iran. The next week, Prince Harry & Megan Markle announced they were stepping away from the royal family in Britain. Then there was the Senate impeachment trial of our president, where he was found not-guilty.
In February we started hearing more and more rumblings about the Coronavirus, but were able to mostly ignore it as that “thing happening over in China.” In March we watched in horror as the Coronavirus spread through Italy and other European countries and realized it was also here in the United States. Various organizations, events, churches, businesses began closing in order to slow the spread.
Tom Brady left the Patriots for Tampa Bay. The Olympics were postponed until 2021. And Tax Day was pushed back until July. March was also when Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her home in Kentucky.
In May the unemployment rate hit nearly 15%. Then George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and parts of major cities were set on fire in response.
And oh, yeah, don’t forget this is the year we found out about the murder hornets!
My only hope is that whoever is in charge of the retirement home will have learned all of this in history class. Otherwise I’ll probably be sectioned off for some tests to check on my grasp of reality. Because it’s all going to sound too absurd to be true.
I keep this in mind as we read through the parable in this morning’s reading from the gospel of Matthew. Because it, too, is absurd. But after this year, we’re used to that, so we have a small advantage there.
This is one of those parables that Jesus is speaking in to try to get hearers to understand what the kingdom of heaven is like.
So the king’s son was getting married, and there was to be a big wedding banquet. Being the king’s son, this was nothing to sneeze at. This would have been like getting invited to Prince Harry’s wedding. And the guests all said, “nah, we have better things to do.”
So the king, undeterred, prepared the dinner and got ready for the big hoopla. And the people laughed. Some went back to their lives, and others hung around and tortured and killed his slaves.
Then the king got angry. He sent in his troops and destroyed the city…looting it, burning it and killing the citizens who were against him. Then he sent out his slaves again and told them to invite everyone they could find. The people on the streets, the people on the edges of town, the people trying to figure out what to do now that they had no home, the good people and the bad. He wanted them all there for the wedding.
And the wedding hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came to see the guests, out of this massive crowd, he managed to find the only one who was not wearing a wedding robe. And so the king had the guest bound hand and foot and tossed out into the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The only thing that’s really missing here in all of its absurdity is the murder hornets.
This story doesn’t make a lot of sense. No wedding would ever happen that way. And I’m not going to stand up here and pretend this feels like it’s based in any sort of realism.
I’m also not going to stand up here and tell you I’m very comfortable with this parable. Because I’m not. On the surface, it’s easy to fall prey to an easy interpretation. One can easily come to the conclusion that the king is really God, and that we are all invited, and if we reject God, God will punish us.
But I can’t get away with that interpretation for long. To me, that ignores one of the lenses that I always use to read the Bible, and that’s God’s grace. If I read this passage through the lens of God’s grace, then I can’t read that God is the king who is waiting for us to reject God so we can be tossed out to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. God isn’t waiting for us to screw up so we can be tossed away. That isn’t love. God is better than that.
God is waiting for us to accept that grace and come to the banquet. God is waiting for us to come to the party and won’t be happy until we are all there. God wants us to bring the kingdom of heaven here to Earth and begin to love God and love our neighbor even more than we did yesterday.
And the good news is, we’ve already begun to accept it. We are all sitting here today in church. Of course we’re all here for different reasons. Maybe you’re here because you felt God calling you to be here. Maybe you’re here because you’re still waiting for the new pastor to really screw up. Maybe you’re here because your spouse insists you be here and it isn’t worth the argument. Maybe you’re here hoping to get some more vegetables on the sharing table. Maybe you’ve been promised brunch after this. I don’t know.
But you’re here. And that’s a great first step.
The problem is, as we’ve seen in the parable, showing up isn’t good enough. The wedding banquet was special. The kingdom of heaven is special. That means we’re gonna have to do something once we’re here. See, if everyone had just shown up that night like a bunch of slobs just in from milking the cows, it wouldn’t have been very special. Instead everyone was to be wearing a wedding robe. It added to the beauty and wonder of the occasion. It meant that this banquet meant something beyond stuffing their faces. It signified the importance of the occasion.
So what’s expected of us? I can easily boil it down to loving God and loving others, but that isn’t exactly overly specific. And besides, it would make this sermon incredibly short. And I’m not ready to stop speaking yet.
I would submit that we know what’s being asked of us. We just don’t like to talk about it. Every month in the newsletter we get an article about stewardship. Every year at this time we start talking about the importance of what this church does and how much we need the support of each other.
And that’s what is expected of us. It is expected we will give of our time. It may mean showing up here on Sunday morning. It may mean showing up for Bible study or making a phone call to someone who isn’t getting out right now. It might mean signing up to help us with the ditch cleaning at the end of the month. (Hint, hint). It may mean reaching out into the community to find out what we at Zion can do to make a bigger impact on Allamakee County and beyond.
It is expected that we will give of our talent. Let’s be honest. I’m not the most talented person around. I don’t mind getting up and preaching, and I love worship and putting that together. But that’s only a small portion of what goes on to keep this church going. You don’t want me doing any building projects. If I can’t google it or learn from watching the guys build the new garage outside of my office window, then I’m lost. You don’t want me up here singing in a band. I love to sing, I desperately miss congregational singing. But that isn’t my forte’. I’m not an artist. I can’t begin to make the banners that you all so love here in the church. I’m not even much of a baker, so cookies for the cookie walk are probably out for me as well.
And all of these things, and so many more, are things you all do almost as second nature. I’ve seen you do it. I’ve heard you talk about others doing it. And I’m in awe of the talent God has given all of the people. And I’m also incredibly sad when those talents are held back. We miss out on so much when folks are unable or unwilling to share with us. We’re so much stronger together because of these abilities folks bring to the table. So it’s expected we will give of our talents.
And the uncomfortable one. It’s also expected we will give of our treasure. Yep. I said it. The church needs your money. Nothing is free in this world. Alliant Energy wants to be paid for the electricity we’re using right now. The city expects to be paid for the water we use. The Bibles we gave out to the kids last week didn’t appear out of thin air. And the elephant in the room, that I’m going to just come out and say, is that I like to eat. And all of that requires money.
And folks, this church has some incredibly generous people. It has generous people who give of their treasure. This isn’t unusual to have a few top givers and the rest trickle in somewhere near the middle or bottom. And if the trends are the same from what I saw looking through some older documents, there is a sizable contingent that gives nothing at all. Now. Maybe they don’t really come to church here anymore. Maybe Zion UCC is barely a thought on their radar, and they’re members in name only.
But it haunts me to think that there are others who don’t give anything money wise and are otherwise involved in this church. And I don’t know what to do with that. The hard fact of the matter is that we as a group cannot survive without everyone’s time, talent, and treasure. And when someone holds back on one of those, we are poorer for it. And the kingdom of heaven is poorer for it.
I can understand if this place doesn’t mean anything. I can understand if a person doesn’t believe in the mission. I can understand when God has no priority in a person’s life….of course you wouldn’t give. I can even understand when you aren’t sure how you are going to pay your bills each month and you’re choosing between your medication and your next meal.
But if Zion UCC means anything to us whatsoever. If we want the church to not only survive, but thrive, into the future, it’s going to take all of us putting some money into the proverbial pot. Because we can’t do it without each other. When someone holds back, we’re all affected. We’re all hurt. Not only here at Zion, but throughout the kingdom of heaven as well.
And that’s the main crux, I think. These expectations aren’t here so we can put on appearances. These expectations aren’t here because a wedding robe is a silly request. These expectations matter and exist because this church, and the kingdom of heaven, matters and exists. If none of this mattered, then there wouldn’t be such great expectations.
There is a story about a new couple in love. They were in a long distance relationship and the girl at the last minute demanded that the man jump on the next plane to get to her in time for Valentines day. The man was terrified of flying and had never been on a plane before, so this was something of a test of his love. Well, he did it he booked the plane and with trembling hands got on the plane.
He was on a charter flight in a 3 engine Lockheed TriStar. They were about half-way into his flight when their pilot’s voice came over the intercom, "This is your captain speaking. Ladies and gentlemen I feel I ought to let you know that one of our three engines has failed. There is, of course, no need for alarm. This plane is entirely airworthy flying on two engines but I regret to say we will be one hour late in arriving in New York."
One half hour later, inevitably, with that desperate calm that is reserved by air pilots and astronauts for conditions of extreme emergency, the pilot of the TriStar spoke again: "This is your captain speaking. I regret that we have lost the second of our engines. But I would like to reassure you that we have every expectation of making a normal and safe landing at JFK Airport. We shall, however, be three hours late in arriving. If any of you would like to take this time to make some calls the cell phone restriction has been lifted for the remainder of the flight."
At this, the man called his girlfriend and said "My dear, I’m so sorry, I can’t keep my promise... we have lost two engines and we will be getting in three hours late, but that’s not the worst part... I’m afraid that if we loose this third engine I may be up here all night.”
God’s expectations. Zion’s expectations. Are just as great for you as the expectations that this plane would get this man safely to New York. And I would say the consequences are just as heavy, as well.
© Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC, Waukon
Sermon from October 4, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Is it time to die?
It turns out there are a lot of rather, well, stupid laws in this world. And I’m not just talking about the mundane laws that local, state and federal politicians make that we happen not to agree with. I’m talking about some really silly laws.
For instance, In Milan, Italy, it is illegal for citizens to frown in public—unless they’re at a funeral or visiting someone in the hospital.
It’s illegal to chew gum in Singapore. In fact, no gum is bought or sold there.
In Mexico, it is illegal for bicyclists to lift their feet off the pedals while riding as this might cause them to lose control of the bike.
In Switzerland, it’s against the law to flush a toilet after 10 p.m. in an apartment building.
In the state of Georgia, it’s illegal for a chicken to cross the road.
There is a law in New Zealand that states you cannot fly with a rooster in a hot air balloon.
In Baltimore, Maryland, it’s illegal to bring a lion to the movies.
It’s illegal to drive a dirty car in Russia.
According to a law in Scotland, you must allow someone into your house if they knock on your door and needs to use the bathroom.
In Oshawa, Ontario, it is against the law to climb a tree.
So many laws. But that’s what happens when you get a group of people together. Expectations, guidelines, rules, laws, have to be spelled out in order for people to even have some hope of getting along. And I suspect that Moses already had a few rules in place:
No backseat wandering. Moses was in charge of making sure they were following God. He didn’t need the others questioning him by saying, “Are you sure we’re headed in the right direction?”
But for Pete’s sake, don’t follow the leader behind a tree. Sometimes we all need to take care of business in private.
Yes, we are going to wander with all of these people. No, we are not going to always get along. Figure out your squabbles before turning to Moses.
And clean up after yourselves. If we’re gonna wander, we’re gonna at least be neat about it!
So by the time Moses and the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, I suspect Moses was probably happy to receive a bit more guidance from God on how everyone should behave. And out of that meeting on Mount Sinai, Moses came down the mountain with the 10 commandments we know today.
And I can imagine that those who heard these commandments were of two mindsets. First was probably relief. After following God with each other through the wilderness, they finally knew the expectations. They knew what God wanted. These, of course, weren’t 10 rules for easy living or 10 rules to save enough for retirement. But they were what they needed to know in order to love God and love one another.
But on the other hand, I suspect they were at least a little uneasy. We all like rules to some extent because they create order. But many of us really don’t want to be told what to do…even if we were going to already do exactly what we were just told.
Michael McCartney had an interesting week teaching a model building class. He had a bunch of students ranging in age from 9-13. He became a little frustrated with some of them over the week when they refused to follow directions and as a result they where always confused and lost in building their models. Sometimes they would do it wrong and say “I am missing parts!” Michael would bring them back to the directions and ask did you follow directions? “No, I skipped that part.” Michael would then gently point them back to the right step and they would say “Now I get it!” and proceed.
Others would say, “My models messed up, it’s defective.” “No,” Michael would say, “it’s because you skipped steps 1-3! GO back and do it right.”
And amazingly enough, when they followed directions the model looked great! When they did not they got lost, frustrated, upset, discouraged, and some wanted to just quit. All because they refused to follow the directions and work the process through as designed by the blue print.
And frankly, we’re no better as adults. Many of us hate being told what to do. We dislike the idea that we might not be in charge. And to have someone else dare to come along and tell us how things are going to be run? Nope, we don’t have a lot of interest in that.
And I suspect that the Israelites gave some pushback with those 10 commandments. They even told Moses towards the end of this reading. “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us or we will die.”
“Do not let God speak to us or we will die.”
I suspect they didn’t realize how right they were. “Moses, we’ll listen to you. You won’t ask too much of us. You won’t require us to change our lives, our beliefs, or our actions too much. But God? If God speaks to us, everything will have to change. And we can’t have that!”
So true. So many of us have no intention of changing. The last thing we want is our for our old life to die away and find a new, different life in Christ.
I had a friend and colleague in a different church, and unfortunately he and the church members were not getting along well. It was a bad match, and they parted ways after about a year and a half. But one of the chief complaints he said he heard was that people didn’t like the fact that the sermons weren’t always upbeat. They didn’t always get a warm, sunny, happy glow inside after he finished preaching. At times he even dared challenge them to follow Christ a little more.
They wanted nothing more than to go to church on Sunday, be told they were good Christians, sing some familiar songs, and go home to spend the rest of the week thinking how wonderful it is to be a Christian.
But the truth is, for many of us, we don’t want God to speak to us. We don’t want to die. We generally have what we need in our lives. Sure, we’d probably all like a little more money, a little more peace on Earth, and a little less election coverage. But mostly? Things are going okay for many of us. So why rock that boat? Why allow God to speak to us when it means something might have to change?
Unfortunately, for too many in this world, in this country, in this state, in this community, things aren’t going okay. Some don’t know where their next meal will come from. Some are dealing with discrimination beyond what we can even begin to imagine. Many of us are at a figurative war with our neighbor because they won’t be voting the same way we will be voting. The amount of dis-ease and struggling all around us is great.
And we are called to do something about it. We are called to work towards the kingdom of heaven here on Earth. But don’t speak to us God or we will die. We might have to change something, we might have to be a little uncomfortable. Our old way of living may have to go away if we start listening too closely to you, God. And while we really want a better life for everyone, we really don’t want to give up our old ways of living to do it.
But maybe it’s time for us to die. Maybe it’s time for our lives to be different. The more time that passes, I realize, the more things stay the same, the less they actually change. I know that seems really silly and obvious…but the truth of the matter is, if I want things to change for the better for everyone, that means something is going to have to change in my life.
Maybe it means I give away more of what I have so others might have more. Maybe it means I spend less time arguing with someone and more time listening. Maybe it means I risk ridicule and scorn for speaking up against racism, sexism, homophobia and every other way people are treated poorly in this world. Maybe it means I’m up out of bed earlier on a Saturday morning so I can help out with a project in the community or at church.
But regardless, I can’t have my old life and expect things to change. Eventually it has to die for new life to come in.
A man once bought a new radio, brought it home, placed it on the refrigerator, plugged it in, turned it to WSM in Nashville (home of the Grand Ole Opry), and then pulled all the knobs off! He had already tuned in all he ever wanted or expected to hear. He had no need to change. His old ways would never die. And for a radio station? That’s probably fine.
But when it’s the rest of our world? Let’s turn those knobs and let ourselves die so something even greater can come along. Amen.
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC, Waukon, IA
Sermon from September 27, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Believing is Seeing
Around the turn of the 19th century, when European explorers first went to Australia they found a mammal which laid eggs; spent some time in water, some on land; had a broad, flat tail, webbed feet, and a bill similar to a duck. Captain Jack Hunter, the second Governor of New South Wales, sent back a pelt and a sketch to Great Britain for their information. When George Shaw received this very odd description, he said it was impossible not to entertain doubts as to its genuine nature. In other words, maybe it was really just “fake news”.
Sure, they had the pelt in front of them, but surely it couldn’t be real. They were convinced some Asian taxidermist was playing a trick on them: that someone had sewn a duck’s beak onto the body of a beaver-like animal. And Shaw even took a pair of scissors to the dried skin to check for stitches. Because clearly it was all nothing but a hoax.
Today we know, of course, that the duck-billed platypus is a very real, if not completely bizarre, mammal found on the eastern coast of Australia. And not only that, but it’s probably one of the more bizarre subjects to start out a sermon with. But the good news is, we are headed somewhere with this! Because the hard truth is, is that we don’t always trust what’s in front of us. Sure, the explorers saw the platypus pelt, they held it in their hands, they examined it, they looked at the sketches of people they normally trusted. And they didn’t believe it. The facts that they saw didn’t matter, and their beliefs ruled their mind. And that seems incredibly foolish to us now.
Only it isn’t so foolish. Because the truth of the matter is, we all do the same thing.
The Israelites were no different, of course. By the time we get to our reading from Exodus this morning, the people following Moses were done. They had escaped from Egypt, were no longer slaves, but had encountered crisis after crisis. In our reading from last week, the Israelites were complaining about a lack of food. And in response God provided daily manna for them to eat. Surely that’ll quiet them down for a while, right?
This week poor Moses had the same problem. Only this time, instead of food, they were quarreling with Moses over the lack of water. And frankly, they weren’t very nice about it. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” And of course that’s not at all what Moses was trying to do, but the people didn’t see that. And they surely didn’t believe it.
And Moses cried out to God for help. “What shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me!” (Frankly I suspect that’s the edited version of what he was really saying and feeling).
And the Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”
And the end of our reading says something really interesting. “Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrels and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us our not?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
It feels like such a ridiculous question.
God sent Moses to Egypt to free the Israelites. The plagues God sent did not harm the Israelites as they did the captors. Because of God, Moses was able to part the Red Sea to escape the Egyptians. When they were hungry, God provided food. Now when they were thirsty God provided water to drink.
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
It seems like such a simple question. It seems like such an obvious answer to us. Of course the Lord was among you! But the reality is, we only see God was with the Israelites because we believe it. The Israelites didn’t see God was with them because they didn’t believe it.
In other words, the seeing didn’t come first: the believing did. Sure, the world loves to tell us that seeing is believing. But the reality is, believing is seeing. When we believe God is among us, we can’t help but see it. When we believe that our family loves us, we can’t help but find ways this is true. When we believe we have an abundance and everything we need to survive, we will see that we do.
But when we don’t believe the Lord is among us. When we believe we’ve been forsaken, forgotten, and there is no other way out, we will never see the way that the Lord provides. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, spending much of that time complaining and quarreling, convinced that their world was going to end, and that following Moses was the dumbest idea since the advent of New Coke.
For you see, they couldn’t see what they didn’t already believe. Until we believe, we will never see. Until we believe God is with us, we will never see it. Until we believe there is a better way of living, a better way of being in harmony, a better way of getting through 2020 together, we will never see it.
One night I was doing laundry at my old parsonage in Missouri. Unlike here, the washer and dryer were in the basement. And the basement is separated into a finished part and an unfinished part where the washer and dryer are. I always kept the door between the two halves closed, mostly to keep the cats out and because it feels like the right thing to do. Frankly, there was always something just a bit creepy to me about that part of the basement.
Well that particular night, I had done about my millionth pile of laundry. And each time I went into the unfinished part of my basement, my two cats would be in there right behind me, exploring, meowing, crawling around on the shelves, crawling up in the ceiling rafters, and generally being small, annoying pains. And each time I got ready to leave the room, I would chase them out and shut the door behind me and we would go back upstairs.
Well, the last time I was downstairs, I decided I was done chasing them around for the night. So I left them in the room, shut off the light, left the door open part ways and went back upstairs. I figured they would come back upstairs eventually, and they did. But I confess to feeling uneasy about leaving that door open…like something was somehow going to come out of that room that wouldn’t have with the door shut.
Of course I had never seen anything bad happen. But I surely believed it was possible.
I ignored that feeling in favor of watching television, when all of a sudden I realized there was some rustling going on in the corner of the living room. My much younger cat was over there doing something, with the older cat watching over him, when all of a sudden I saw something go skittering over my wood floor into the dining room with my younger cat in hot pursuit.
I panicked. All I knew was with the nice weather, the windows were open, I still had that basement door open, and surely all sorts of critters had been on the move, so somehow a mouse had gotten into my house. I jumped up on my couch, and tried to shine the flashlight on my phone into off into the darkened the dining room to see if I could see what was going on, without having to actually get too close to the offensive creature. I also figured with my younger cat being outdoors quite a bit earlier in his life, that he would save me from this terrifying situation.
He ran back and forth in the dining room and kitchen for a bit. And after the world’s longest minute, came back into the living room with the scary creature in his mouth and dropped it with pride at the feet of my older cat.
That mouse I was so sure was in my house turned out to be a small stuffed toy that flies across a wood floor with just a simple tap of a paw.
Seeing wasn’t believing. Believing was seeing.
When we believe God is here. When we believe Jesus is worth following. When we believe that we will have enough. We will see it’s true.
When we believe that we don’t have enough time, money, or people who care about us. When we believe the world is out to get us. When we believe the other political party is a bunch of morons. When we believe 2020 is the worst year ever. When we believe Jesus has abandoned us because we’ve done too much wrong. We will see that is true as well.
Seeing isn’t believing. What we see is easily manipulated by our minds. But believing? Now that’s really seeing. Even if it is a duck-billed platypus.
© 2020 Cathy Jurgens for Zion UCC Waukon, IA
Sermon from September 20, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
"All I want is my fair share”
(Peanuts Clip shown)
It seems like there is nothing more American, nothing more than we can all identify with, than Peanuts. And yes, I realize we’re still three months out from Christmas…though that’s a statement that already has me in a mild panic. But despite being the wrong season, I thought this clip was absolutely perfect for this morning.
Sally says it best. In fact, Sally voices what we are all thinking, even if we don’t have the guts to admit it: “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
Sally would have fit in perfectly with the workers in the vineyard in our gospel reading from Matthew. Now, despite the fact this is the beginning of a new chapter, this reading is actually in the middle of a story. Jesus was speaking with his disciples, and Peter asked a question that I suspect was on all of their minds at one point or another, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
In other words, “Listen, Jesus, following you around has been great and all. But we gave up our lives to do this. You’re going to be putting in a good word with God for us, right? Maybe let God know that we’re extra special since we’ve done so much?”
And about this point, Jesus likely rolled his eyes, and tried to explain to Peter and the rest of the group that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” And not being content to just let this go, Jesus drove home the point a little harder with a parable.
It was harvest time. And the landowner needed to get the grapes off the vine NOW. Perhaps the weather was threatening to turn bad the next day, or maybe the grapes were so bursting with juice that if they weren’t picked that day, they would be rotten soon. Whatever was going on, the owner needed those grapes harvested.
So the owner got up early that morning and went to the local hardware store where people were lined up, waiting to work. And he hired all of them, promising them a denarius, which was a fair day’s wage for their work. And they all agreed to work for 12 hours for that price, through the hottest part of the day, all to get those grapes picked.
And despite all the help he had, the landowner realized it wasn’t enough. So at 9am, noon, and 3pm the desperate landowner went back to the hardware store to find more people, and each time offered those folks a denarius if they would come help pick grapes that day.
And about 5pm, the landowner realized they still weren’t getting it done on time. So he went back to the hardware store one more time to find who was left. Now, by 5pm, these people were not the cream of the crop, so to speak. These are the people who had been hanging around, they watched everyone else volunteer to go to work, and they hung back, munching on Casey’s pizza and drinking cheap beer and headed home to watch Monday Night Football. So long about the time the landowner came around for the 5th time, he was not going to get any quality work, and was lucky to just get some more warm bodies.
But he promised even *these* ne’er-do-wells a denarius to come work for an hour.
But then things get strange. If the landowner had just paid the people who came first their money first and sent them on their way, there wouldn’t have been an issue. Of course, there wouldn’t have been much of a parable, either.
So as the story goes, the landowner started with those who just came an hour before, and gave them each a denarius and sent them on their way. And the other harvesters got excited. If those guys who just showed up at 5pm, and frankly didn’t do much, got a denarius, they could only imagine how much they would get, too! But as the landowner went and paid each worker, they discovered they were all getting exactly their one denarius.
And boy were they ticked! Why should they do all that work for the same amount of money?! And the landowner overheard all of their grumbling, and pointed out he had cheated no one. He paid everyone exactly what he promised, and if he wanted to be generous, well, that was his money to make that decision…not theirs.
And Jesus says that’s grace. And we tend not to like it much. We’re pretty certain that we’ve done all of this work…we’ve been nice to people, we show up for church, we try not to give the pastor too much grief (even though she really deserves it), and gosh darn it…how is it fair that someone else could show up and do even less and get the same thing we do!
And good preachers from all over will stop trying to explain away the unfairness. And they will ask their folks hearing this to sit with the fact that it makes them uncomfortable. Because, let’s be honest, we preachers are pretty uncomfortable with this, as well. Because all we want is our fair share! All we want is to get what we have coming to us! And how is it fair if the person next to me gets the same amount that I’m owed! What’s up with that!?
But here’s the uncomfortable question I rarely hear asked. Here’s the twist that I don’t hear us being asked to sit with. Here’s what brought me up short when I heard Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor talk about this parable:
Who told you or me that we’ve been working for 12 hours? How are we so certain that the work, the belief, the faith, we are giving now totals more than the one hour? When did we decide we were the ones getting ripped off, here?
It’s really easy to think about how unfair this parable is. It’s easy to decide that we’ve worked hard for everything we have, and if others would work just as hard as we did, they would have the same things. It’s easy to want to take things away from others because we’ve decided they haven’t worked for them. Cut food stamps, if people want to eat, they should just work harder. Don’t you dare think about allowing student loan forgiveness…people need to pay back those loans with those impossible interest rates and just work harder to do it. Let us into Heaven first, because gosh darn it, we’re here every Sunday and always available with the pastor calls.
We’ve done everything we’re supposed to! All we want is what we have coming to me! All we want is our fair share!
But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if others work just as hard as we do? What if they have done even more? How do any of us know for sure? Oh, sure…I know we like to judge who works hardest. We like to pretend we’re all knowing and know exactly how much work and effort people put in. But is a billionaire who makes hundreds of dollars an hour really working hundreds of times harder than their minimum wage employees? Are they really working that much harder than the farmers out in the field or the teachers in the schools?
How did we decide we’re working so much harder?
It’s so easy to look around this sanctuary and think of the ones we don’t see here any more. Sure, some of them aren’t here because of the pandemic. But others aren’t here because they’ve simply found a different way to spend their Sunday mornings. We all know who those folks are. And of course we’re above them in God’s chain, right? Surely listening to the preacher once a week has got to count for something! But what we don’t see is the other things they do…the ways they pray…the ways they help others…the ways they show the world who Jesus is.
What we don’t see is that if God were inclined to add it all up…most of us probably haven’t worked 12 hours. And thus we shouldn’t be scoffing at those who we feel haven’t. Because we don’t know where they land any more than we know where we land.
But the beautiful part about all of this, that despite the fact that we might not be first…that someone else might have this all figured out just a bit more than us…that as much as we want to be the most hard-working, pious folks in Allamakee County, that none of it matters. God isn’t counting.
The grace for us…no matter if it turns out we’ve only been at this for an hour…is the same for us as it is anyone else. All we want is what we have coming to us. And the dirty secret is, most of us don’t have that much coming to us. When we realize what we really deserve, where we really fall on that scale…we’re grateful that we’ve received so much more than we ever could expect or hope for.
This story isn’t for us to grumble over because we’ve worked 12 hours and it isn’t fair. It’s for us to rejoice over because we’ve only worked 1 hour. And it isn’t fair. And it’s grace. Grace for you. Grace for me. Grace for all of us. Because we all fall short.
A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers 'the Little Flower' because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.
Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor." the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson." LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail.”
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant." So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
Who worked harder? Who needed the grace that night? Let God decide that. And let’s be thankful none of us only gets our fair share. Amen.
Copyright 2020 Pastor Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC Waukon, IA
Sermon from September 13, 2020
By: Rev. Cathy Jurgens
What do you have time for?
Dodie Gadient, a schoolteacher for thirteen years, decided to travel across America and see the sights she had taught about. Traveling alone in a truck with camper in tow, she launched out. One afternoon rounding a curve on I-5 near Sacramento in rush-hour traffic, a water pump blew on her truck. She was tired, exasperated, scared, and alone. In spite of the traffic jam she caused, no one seemed interested in helping.
Leaning up against the trailer, she prayed, “Please God, send me an angel . . . preferably one with mechanical experience.” Within four minutes, a huge Harley drove up, ridden by an enormous man sporting long, black hair, a beard and tattooed arms. With an incredible air of confidence, he jumped off and, without even glancing at Dodie, went to work on the truck. Within another few minutes, he flagged down a larger truck, attached a tow chain to the frame of the disabled Chevy, and whisked the whole 56-foot rig off the freeway onto a side street, where he calmly continued to work on the water pump.
The intimidated schoolteacher was too dumbfounded to talk. Especially when she read the paralyzing words on the back of his leather jacket: 'Hell's Angels -- California'. As he finished the task, she finally got up the courage to say, "Thanks so much," and carry on a brief conversation. Noticing her surprise at the whole ordeal, he looked her straight in the eye and mumbled, "Don't judge a book by its cover. You may not know who you're talking to." With that, he smiled, closed the hood of the truck, and straddled his Harley. With a wave, he was gone as fast as he had appeared.
Oh, we just love to judge each other, don’t we. If we’re honest, we all do it. In fact, it almost feels like a national pastime anymore. Those people are fools for believing this. These people are crazy for believing that. This person’s a liar, that person’s trying to ruin our country. Their followers are sheep. We’ve heard it all lately. And I would almost go so far to say that most of us are absolutely sick of it.
Yet no matter how much we claim we want to find our commonalities again. No matter how much we say we want to just get along with our neighbors again. No matter how much we tell ourselves we are not going to argue with our friends’ friends on Facebook. No matter how determined we are not to post that one sided story on Facebook that’s only really meant to rile up those who disagree with us. We find ourselves doing it again. And again. And again. It’s like we just can’t help ourselves.
There’s an English proverb that says, “faults are thick where love is thin.” Again, “faults are thick where love is thin.”
In other words, if I don’t love others…if I don’t give a hoot about them or their lives, their families, their hopes and their dreams. If other people are just pawns to be moved around to best suit my life and my goals…my love for others will be almost non-existent. But you had better believe I’ll be able to find all sorts of faults with them.
And that’s where Paul was going in our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans.
“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
So let me paint a really broad picture here. Meat got to the dining room table a bit differently back in Paul’s day than it does now. Virtually all food animals were slaughtered in one temple or another and were dedicated to the particular god of that temple. The priest of that temple would be entitled to a portion of that meat as payment, and the rest of the meat would go home with it’s original owner. In other words all meat that you could buy at the market had been sacrificed to one god or another.
So the argument becomes, could Christians eat meat that was sacrificed to another god? If you couldn’t eat the meat, should you be judging those who did? And if you could eat the meat, should you be judging those who don’t?
And Paul heard all of this and had enough. In the words of that English proverb, “faults are thick where love is thin.” But Paul also really wanted to drive home the point that the reverse is also true. “Faults are thin where love is thick.”
If they had time to be judging each other, they didn’t have time to love each other. And if they loved each other, they wouldn’t have time to be judging each other.
So what do you have time for?
A couple of weeks ago a friend posted a silly meme on Facebook. I chose not to post it here because there are some political undertones that could be construed that I’m not interested in getting into here. But let me describe it for you.
In it a man and woman appeared to be walking side-by-side on a sidewalk, walking away from the camera, so all you could see was their backs. On the side of the man was a wall…either of the building or a construction fence…I’m not really sure. And on the side of the woman was the curb and the street. And the caption said, “a true gentleman would know what’s wrong with this picture.”
The implication here was that everyone was supposed to jump in and point out that the gentleman should always walk on the “outside” on the side closest to the curb. So the fact that the woman was on the outside meant he was doing it wrong and wasn’t a real gentleman. And that’s all fine and dandy if you want to make that judgement and slam a couple walking down the street for no particular reason. In fact, that’s exactly where my mind first went.
But then I went to the comments of the original picture, and read what others saw. Others simply saw two people walking. There was no indication in this picture these two people were even together. What if the woman was passing the man? Does that make him less of a gentleman? What if one of them is hearing impaired on one ear? Being able to walk and have a conversation is way more important than caring about who is closer to the street. There is so much the viewer doesn’t know about this picture. But instead of giving us any facts, we’re asked to make a snap judgment about people we don’t even know.
Oh sure, you tell me. That’s a nice sermon illustration and all. But come on, it’s just a silly picture. Let it go. No one really cares. And I suppose that’s fair enough. But first off, it’s a great example of how quick we are to judge every one and every thing without having all the details. And worse yet, it’s an encouragement to keep doing so. We’re creatures of habit. If we are encouraged to do something enough times, it becomes routine, and we continue to do that. If we are encouraged to judge people more and more, and use up our time doing that, we will run out of time to love people instead.
Because ultimately we have to choose: judgement, or love? What do you have time for?
Nearly two weeks ago, I came out of the church after doing the funeral for Lyle Dee. Almost everyone had departed by then, and I was eager to get home and grab a sandwich before my next meeting. I went out the annex doors and saw Jodi P*** standing next to the parking lot in the grass with the kids. I thought it was a bit odd, so I went over to say hello and see what they were up to.
With permission from the P***s, this is generally what happened next.
Jodi hadn’t said much, so I finally asked her, “so, why are you standing here? And where’s Jeremy?”
“Oh, Jeremy’s off chasing our stolen van.”
Umm. What? It took a minute for this to completely register with me. I keep hearing things like this don’t happen in Waukon!
So my first reaction was that we needed to call the police. And if Jodi didn’t have her cell phone on her, she could use mine and we would get started on this.
No, no, Jodi said. Let’s see what Jeremy comes back with, first.
Now, this is clearly where Jodi and I differ. She was cool as a cucumber, like this wasn’t a huge deal, and it would get figured out. Nope. Not me. Had that been me, I’d have called the police, the national guard, Governor Reynolds, Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Gadget and even Scooby Doo for good measure.
But I respected her wishes and hung out with her and the kids to wait and see what would need to happen next.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 10 or 15 minutes, we finally see Jeremy driving back to the church in their van, which was no worse for the joyride.
This was getting stranger and stranger, so we asked Jeremy what exactly happened.
Now, I’m going to get some of the more minor details of the chase wrong, and I’m sure Jeremy can fill you in later. But when they came out after the funeral and found the van missing, Jeremy took off running to see if he could figure out which way the van had gone…hoping it hadn’t been gone for too long at this point. After getting towards the business part of town, and not seeing it at all, Jeremy happened to see the van drive by, so off he went after it.
He finally caught up to the van when the driver decided to pull into the ATM at the bank. Now, the driver was only a kid. Maybe about 15. And he was wearing a hospital gown. And not much else. Somehow the teen got out of the vehicle, and Jeremy suggested they go back to the hospital. He informed Jeremy he was NOT going back to the hospital and took off running.
Now. Had this been me, I would have probably screamed a few choice, not so nice, words at him, gotten in my car and drove off, and that would have been the end of it. Because judging is easier, and almost more natural.
But Jeremy, already clearly out for a run, took off after him. So through some backyards they went. Over a fence, with Jeremy also probably shouting a few choice words. But he kept after the teen. Eventually the scared teen ran out of energy and stopped in a yard, grabbed a flimsy lawn ornament and screamed at Jeremy that he wasn’t going back to the hospital.
Again, that would have been enough for me. Ok, have it your way! I’m taking my car and going home! And again, probably would have walked off grumbling.
But again, not Jeremy. Instead he sat down and talked with the kid. I don’t remember what was said. Probably not anything earth shatteringly important. But it was enough to sit down with the kid and remind him that he wasn’t alone. That as much as he was hurting…as much as life felt overwhelming. That he could go back to the hospital and get the help he needed.
Eventually some people that Jeremy knew drove by, and he asked them to take them all over to the hospital. And they went over to the hospital and returned him to some very worried parents.
And when Jeremy got back to us, he told us all of this, and he asked that we keep praying for this boy. And he even asked me if I could go over to the hospital to check on the family…which, unfortunately, due to COVID and HIPAA really wasn’t going to be something I could do, as much as I wished I could.
There were two paths to take that day. Judgment or love. Jeremy couldn’t have time to do both, so he went with love. I don’t know that I could have made that same decision.
But it goes back to the picture of the two people walking along side of each other. Which one will I practice? What will I encourage others to do? Which one will become such a part of me that I won’t think about what following Christ really means and instead will just do what I’ve been doing? What do I have time for? What do you have time for?
Copyright 2020 Cathy Jurgens
For Zion UCC Waukon, IA
Sermon from September 6, 2020
By: Rev. Cathy Jurgens
The Weirdest Herd I’ve ever Seen
(Video Clip from Ice Age)
“The weirdest herd I’ve ever seen,” indeed. That’s what you get in the movie Ice Age when you get three random animals together to return baby Roshan to his tribe. We humans tend to organize ourselves a bit better. The retired folks like to gather for coffee in the morning at the local cafe. The parents of kids tend to organize around their kids’ schools and their sports and other activities. We have friends with the same interests and hobbies. We stick together with those who have the same past, or the same view points. And of course there’s conflict whenever people get together, usually there’s enough commonality that it isn’t a huge problem.
But when we humans start to gather around something a bit more nebulous, like following Christ, then we start to attract a wider group of people. And that’s absolutely how it should be. We attract people we don’t know, we attract Democrats and Republicans, we attract people who know how things have always been done and we attract people who are wanting to do new things. And we all do this with Paul’s reminder to us in his letter to the Romans, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Bam. Simple enough, right? Just go on and love God and love each other and everyone else, you weird herd, and then everything will be fine as long as you remember to do that. Except it doesn’t really work that way. Anyone who has ever been with friends or family they love know it can be difficult to get along. Now ask a bunch of people who have to learn to love each other to get along? It’s no wonder so many churches are steeped in conflict.
Now maybe I shouldn’t tip my hand too much at this point, but I’m going to be incredibly honest about something here. When pastors come to new churches, when we are praying and asking God for guidance, we also reach out to our contacts. To see what they know. UCC clergy Facebook groups are full of clergy who have had a rough time with their churches: treasurers who withhold paychecks, secret meetings to discuss everything wrong with what the pastor said on Sunday, and power plays that would never be even thought about in the corporate world are rife in our congregations.
And smart pastors moving to new churches know to ask questions, and see histories and take everything we hear with a grain of salt while keeping our eyes open. So when I mentioned who I was candidating with to someone in the denomination who has worked with quite a few churches and has seen churches in this conference, I’ll admit, I sort of held my breath a bit when she said, “Oh, I’ve heard of that church!”
Because we all know what is said after that sentence can go either way!
“I’ve heard good things about them! That’s a really healthy church!”
So while I didn’t quite dance a jig when I heard that, I was pretty thrilled. Because honestly, that can be hard to come by.
And it shouldn’t be. Because we are told by Jesus in today’s gospel reading how to disagree with others in the church.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
I know, I know, that’s crazy talk. That’s hard work. Why should I go tell Mary Jo I’m upset with her when that’s going to be a hard conversation to have? Instead, it feels better to go tell Sue Ellen how I’m feeling and drag her into this. Then Sue Ellen can go tell her friends…and soon the entire church can know I’m upset with Mary Jo. Sure, we won’t solve anything, but at least we’ll have something to talk about at lunch time! It sounds silly. But that’s how many churches, families, and groups operate. We don’t follow Jesus’ instructions here…we just do what feels good in the moment.
And even if we do figure out we should go talk to the person directly…do we actually do that alone? Or do we instead confront them in the comment section on Facebook or in the middle of a meeting? Oh sure. That feels good. It feels really good to let others know that we’ve been wronged, how hurt we are and make sure we can get others on our side. Then the other person will truly see how wrong they really are, and they’ll change their ways! Right? Yeah, it doesn’t work that way. And again, usually ends up making things worse.
So much can be solved if we just commit ourselves to going to the person who wronged us to begin with. Because conflict can be healthy. As Rev. Elizabeth Myer Boulton points out, “It can lead to new ways of thinking, open minds and hearts to new ways of being church, and keep congregations nimble, relevant, and flexible. Conflict is part of life and growth, no less in church communities than in any other.”
But Rev. Boulton also knows the destructive side when it’s done outside of what Jesus taught us.
She was fresh out of seminary when she took on a church plant. And, as with any weird herd tossed together, there was conflict. She said, “there were a few members of the congregation and a few more disgruntled folks who had already left, surreptitiously phone-calling other members whom they suspected shared their concerns about pastoral charisma, who had control, and church bylaws. Then those folks held secret meetings over the course of six months to discuss their concerns, with nary an invitation to anyone who could actually address them.”
Boulton went on to explain. “They were six years into this new church start. She was a young, new mother who was working hard to create beautiful weekly worship, preach the good news of the gospel, create communication systems to hold together our growing community, attract visitors, and shepherd her people through the conflict - but no one in this concerned group communicated with her directly. They met with each other instead, gathering again and again in an echo chamber. And then they wrote a letter - an unsigned, anonymous letter - outlining their grievances, and presented it to her through a representative. They requested a formal meeting, and invited a denominational official to facilitate.”
After skipping step one and going to her directly, they went straight to Jesus’ step two, and twisted it. Instead of the concerned person taking another person or two along as witnesses, the 12 people who had been wringing their hands and deciding things were wrong came to that meeting that day. And Boulton finally got to hear their concerns.
She sat there, listened and heard things like, “We didn't know you were going out of town on vacation,” and “We don’t have enough input into what goes in the newsletter.”
Six months of phone calls, secret meetings, and whipping half of a church into a frenzy for concerns that could have been solved in less than one meeting. This is why churches die. This is why churches are stagnant. Most of us deal with that sort of attitude and behavior outside the church. No one wants to deal with that sort of behavior inside the church…especially when we’ve been taught a better way. And it would almost be funny if it weren’t so common.
So I’ve been absolutely thrilled to hear that this is a healthy church. I’ve been absolutely thrilled to hear conversations that include, “that really isn’t my area, you should talk to this person instead.” I’ve been thrilled to hear the promise, “if we have an issue, I will let you know” come from the lips of several people here.
Because the secret is, that will do more to help this church grow. That will do more to help this church succeed into the future. That will do more to help this church love each other and others outside the church more than any program or mission activity we do. We live in a society that loves to bicker and hurt each other right now. People want something different. And we’ve been told to provide exactly that. Now we just have to do it.
I know, I know. I can already hear some of you objecting. “But, Pastor Cathy. Life isn’t that simple. Sometimes I do all the right things and the problem is still there. Sometimes we take it to a larger group like Jesus suggests and it still doesn’t get any better. And you certainly haven’t mentioned the last step: Jesus said to treat the person as a Gentile or a tax collector.”
And you’re right. That is the last step. And that’s all fine and good…except we have to remember that Jesus friended the Gentiles and the tax collectors. Jesus included those people. Jesus knew they made mistakes, they weren’t perfect, and still needed the same love and grace as everyone else.
We live in what feels like such an ugly time. This past week there was a post on the Waukon Police Department Facebook page with a grainy picture of a car and a person getting into it, with the public being asked to call the police if we could identify anything about that situation in connection with the Biden campaign signs being stolen here in town.
Now, before you completely tune me out, I don’t particularly whose campaign signs are being stolen. Stealing things that aren’t ours is wrong…no matter what we think of the sign. But what really made me sad was seeing the comments underneath the post. All sorts of people accusing others of some pretty horrible things. The conflict was rife, and growing. And no one cared to stand up and say, “hey, we need to step back. It doesn’t need to be this way. We can do something else besides insult each other’s mamas.”
And it’s very possible that none of those folks were familiar with the gospel of Matthew. Then they wouldn’t know a better way…because the rest of the world certainly isn’t going to show it to them. But for those of us who do know a better way…for those of us have the teachings of Jesus…those of us part of this weirdest herd anyone has ever seen…we can do something the world isn’t used to. And work it out in the healthy ways Jesus suggested.
Copyright 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Sermon from August 30, 2020
by Rev. Cathy Jurgens
"I AM has sent me to you.”
I hadn’t been in Sedalia for long. Maybe a month or two at most. And I found myself having a few conversations with our parish nurse. She’s a lovely lady. Well respected in the church, the community, and the association. She wasn’t just the parish nurse, but she was also a licensed pastor for the association as well. She had been the head of the search committee who brought me to Sedalia. And generally when she speaks, people listen…and as I had already figured that much out, I figured I ought to listen when she spoke as well.
And as she was going through her list of “suggestions,” she said something that I made me pause. She stopped, took a breath, sort of winked at me and said, “and I’ll let you know when it’s time to leave.” My face must have given me away, because she reminded me that they had a pastor stay for thirty years…from the mid 60s to the mid 90s…and when he left, the congregation was absolutely lost. I didn’t quite know what to say to her, so I just nodded as I processed her words.
And it was an interesting question I found myself pondering. How would I know when it was time to leave? Would God give me a sign? What would that sign look like? And I continued to ponder that question as I got together my profile, which is the UCC’s version of a pastor’s resume. Was it really the time? Was I doing the right thing?
And finally at lunch one day, when I was sure leaving was the right thing to do, a dear friend and colleague said the words that would guide me for the rest of my search process. “Don’t leave because you’re being called to leave something. Leave because you’re being called *to* something.”
Those are words I’ve had echoing in my heart as I spoke with the search committee here, as I met many of you at the end of June, and as I moved here and started my first week here. I didn’t leave something as much as I was coming to something new. And frankly, that sort of made me chuckle a bit.
“God? Are you serious? Do you really think *I* can be a pastor to these group of people? Are you crazy? Are they crazy? Am *I* crazy?” Well, I’ll let you decide the answer to that last question for yourself.
But I know I’m not alone in these questions. Many pastors, if they are willing to be honest, will wonder this as they begin a new call. And it isn’t just pastors. Anyone embarking on something new…even something we feel called by God to do…will question it even up to the time we get started.
But more than us not being alone in this feeling with others around us, even Moses felt that way.
Poor guy. He was just out shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep. He didn’t want any trouble that day. He was just trying to keep those sheep alive so he wouldn’t have to explain any mishaps to his in-laws later. You know how it goes. And as he’s minding his own business, an angel of the Lord pops up in a flaming bush.
“Listen, Moses, my people down in Egypt are having some problems. They really need to be set free from the Eqyptians and come back to the land of the Caananites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, the Jebusites and the mosquito bites. So, Moses, I’ve looked around for the best person for the job, and you’re it! Good luck with that!”
Well, of course it was recorded a bit more eloquently than that, but you get the picture.
And poor Moses. Here he is with one eye on Jethro’s sheep. Another eye on that bush that is burning and not being consumed, but darn if it starts a wildfire, that’s gonna be on the evening news. And now God wants him to do what?!
“Uhh…listen…God…this sounds like quite the plan you have here. And I suppose that’s all fine and good…but what happens if I get there and tell them I’ve been sent to bring them home, and they ask me who sent me? What exactly am I supposed to say? I don’t suppose you happen to have a business card I could take with me?”
And God so patiently replies, “I AM WHO I AM. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”
So I stand here before you today, as sure as I am about anything else these days…and maybe even a little more sure…that “I AM has sent me to you.”
And we all know who I AM is. I AM is the one who has reminded us that God is the God of all of our ancestors. In the same way God named all of the Israelites’ ancestors to remind Moses of God’s presence, God does the same for us. I AM is the same God of your family. I AM is the God of the faithful folks who started this church and kept it going through the years. I AM is the one who has led us all here today.
I AM is the one who reminds us to love God and love others with all of our heart, our mind, our strength and our soul. I AM reminds us that Jesus came to teach us how to do this when we couldn’t figure out how to do it ourselves. I AM reminds us to follow Jesus even when it’s tough. Even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even when the rest of the world is calling us to do something different.
This church had a wonderful search committee who put a lot of hard work and prayer into the search and call process. And they were backed up by a great council who also was wise with both the counsel they gave and the counsel they received from listening for God in many forms. And then you as the church listened for God as you met me, heard my videos, and spoke with others.
And in all of this prayer, discerning, wrestling, and asking, “is this the one who you are sending?” We’ve landed here today.
And we’re all excited. And we’re all ready. And most importantly, we’re all going to live happily ever after.
Ok. Probably not. Or, to be completely honest, surely not.
Relationships are hard. They’re sticky. They’re a lot work. There will be some Sundays you will probably go home and wonder what in the world I’m doing here in Waukon. And hopefully those days will be few and far between.
But regardless what is happening at any specific time within this church, we need to remember and hold on to the fact that “I AM has sent me to you.” This wasn’t only my idea. This wasn’t only your idea. God helped nudge us together to accomplish some things together. And that’s way more important than how excited or frustrated we are on any given day.
Of course the disciples were called, too. And that crew had some pretty unlikely match ups. In fact, if Jesus had decided to use a recruiter instead of calling people himself, I suspect he would have gotten a summary letter like the following:
Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.
The profiles of all tests are included, and you will want to study each of them carefully.
As part of our service, we make some general comments for your guidance, much as an auditor will include some general statements. This is given as a result of staff consultation, and comes without any additional fee.
It is the staff’s opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.
Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew had been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depressive scale.
One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All of the other profiles are self-explanatory.
We wish you every success in your new venture.
Jordan Management Consultants
That’s what happens when I AM gets involved. That’s what happens when I AM has ideas. Oh, sure. The day to day was up and down. But in the long run, great things happened for those who remembered whose crazy idea it all was to begin with.
No matter where we head together. And I do believe we will do new things and go new places. Some great, some a little less so. But as long as we remember whose idea this all was, we will be able to stay on the right path. Amen.
© 2020 Rev. Cathy Jurgens
Zion UCC Waukon, IA
August 23, 2020
Zion UCC, Waukon
CALLED TO ACTION
I’m very pleased to be able to be with you today and share about how Mission and helping God’s people have been important in my life. I remember as a teenager thinking how great it would be to be able to serve in the Peace Corps- traveling and living someplace across the globe and helping people. Well my life took another turn and I went to college, got married to Merlin b/n my junior and senior years, and settled down happily to be a farm wife, nurse, and then mother. I was finally able to commit to and participate in an adult mission trip to Back Bay in Biloxi with my parents some years ago and that was great- I learned a lot and really enjoyed getting to help people who were less fortunate and really needed the help- the homeless, those still living in bad conditions after Hurricane Katrina.
In 2013 I reconnected with an old friend and mentor-Annette Johnson. Annette had been a Nurse practitioner preceptor for me back in 2005 when I was working on my Master’s degree to become an NP. She is a very loving person and I admired her a lot for the care she gave to her patients and just her beautiful spirit. Annette and her husband Buster had been invited to participate in a medical mission trip to Ecuador with a Lutheran church group from Montana. A physician and his wife (Randy and Mary Butikofer) had lived in Cresco and were friends of Annette’s. The Butikofers had moved to Montana and become involved with a very active Lutheran mission group. This group would do international trips- many times to South of the Border countries- and was planning to go to Ecuador in late March 2014. And-- I managed to get Merlin and I invited along also!!! This would be a primarily medical mission group- 3 physicians, 2 nurse practitioners, 2 dentists, a pharmacist, a few nurses, and the spouses of these plus a few others who would serve in other important capacities. There were about 15-20 of us in all.
Merlin and I had long had a mutual goal ( I like to call it a marriage goal) to go someplace together and donate our time and our skills- myself as a nurse practitioner, and Merlin perhaps teaching about farming and land stewardship. We thought we’d have a lot of years left to do this together-but as it turned out, Merlin had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in September of 2009 and our years were numbered. He had done pretty well (better than I had ever expected) but options for treatment were tightening. We understood that we needed to work at making our dreams come true-sooner rather than later. So, in fall of 2013, we set to work helping the group from Montana prepare for this mission (none of whom we met until we were ready to fly out from our meeting place in the US- I think it was Dallas- to Quito, Ecuador.)
In Montana, there were fund-raisers occurring, donations and purchases of medications and medical supplies to take with us, purchasing of tennis shoes to take for our shoe clinic (more on that in a bit,) other little gifts for the Ecuadorian children being made, etc. Annette and I worked locally also to get donations of medical supplies, make small hygiene kits to give out, and to raise money to help pay for needed supplies. Zion church was very generous to help us, as were other churches and businesses in the area. Each mission participant needed to pay for their own airfare and personal expenses. For Merlin and I that seemed a relatively easy expense when we would gain so much from this experience. For some reason, I had thought that when a person did a mission trip, travel and expenses were paid for- not so. I was pretty naïve! (All money donations went to buy supplies, not to our airfare or personal expenses.) We were allowed very minimal luggage room for our own clothes and personal belongings. (I think Merlin and I were allowed only one carry-on each.) Each person had to each check 1 large suitcase which was stuffed with supplies for our mission work. I am an over-packer, so this was challenging for me to pack for a 12 day mission trip to a third world country in a duffel bag!
As the late March 2014 trip approached, Merlin’s physical health worsened- he was anemic and required blood transfusions frequently. The physicians in our mission group were concerned about him being able to safely travel and work at mountain elevations of 13,000 feet above sea level- he could experience extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, even heart complications. If he became ill, he would have to be med-vac’ed out of the Andes Mountains by plane. As it turned out- his blood count was acceptable for travel the morning that we were prepared to drive to Chicago to fly out and begin our trip! We were so excited-though I do have to admit that Merlin would have somehow been on that trip no matter what his blood counts had been. He was very committed- and I was scared and worried for him. We knew though that being a part of this mission was God’s work for us, and worth everything we had to give- even our lives if necessary….But an acceptable hemoglobin a few hours prior to our departure seemed like God’s blessing on our mission.
We left Chicago, flew to Dallas to meet up with the entire group, then flew on to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. I recall landing in Ecuador in the middle of the night, having our luggage searched (that many heavy large checked bags was suspicious for drugs I guess- especially when we WERE carrying drugs with us- antibiotics,) then being transported to a church in Quito to sleep and then prepare to go up into the Andes where our mission work would be.
Ecuador is a country in the western part of South America, straddling the equator. The topography includes Amazon jungle and Andean Mountain highlands. Its population is 17.08 million people. Ecuadorian culture consists of a whole range of cultures mingled together. It is an extremely poor country, especially in rural areas. Its official language is Spanish, but an Incan language called Quichua is spoken by the Indian population- and that is the population that inhabited the small Andean mountain villages that we spent our time in. The predominant religion is Roman Catholic, and we found the villagers to be quite devout.
When we got up into the mountains- about 4 hours I think from Quito, we checked into a hotel in the village we would base out of. We were assigned rooms by our mission leaders-2 couples to a room or 3-4 singles of the same sex to a room. Merlin and I were to room with Buster and Annette (our friends from Minnesota). The hotel was absolutely like nothing you would ever experience in the US- very small rooms with one double bed and a set of bunk beds with about 3 feet between beds and each bed shoved up against the wall. Barely enough room to walk around the beds, especially when our luggage had to be stored between the beds on the floor. The bathroom was tiny-a sink with running cold water, a shower room with running water-usually also cold. If you wanted to shower- be ready for cold and quick! Since we couldn’t bring many clothes, we needed to do laundry a few times- on a shared cement washboard outside our room and hanging our clothing to dry from the wall of the cement patio. We had a common room downstairs which consisted of a dining area with long tables and a kitchen where our food was prepared. We did not have to cook ourselves- the cook was provided. Food was cultural for the most part as I remember, but healthy and plentiful. The dining room also served as our meeting room and social area. We took bagged lunches up into the mountain villages to eat during a break from our mission work.
I was one of the medical providers along with Annette (my friend and also a nurse practitioner) and 3 physicians. Our “clinic” was a village school room with desks pushed to sides of the room. The indigenous Indians we served did not get regular health care of any type, and fully depended on the occasional mission group to come to provide this need. As they waited hours to see us, a local pastor would gather whoever wanted together in a circle in the courtyard to pray. We also had 2 dentists who set up shop- using a plastic chair, a light, a dental assistant, and necessary tools brought with from the US. Most of the dental care consisted of extractions- cleanings and fillings were not practical for these people. We medical providers set up our little exam areas each morning- 3-4 chairs (one for the patient, one for myself, 1-2 for interpreters.) We used a school student desk to lay our equipment on- which was minimal-otoscope, tongue depressors, light , bandaids/gauze for dressings, antibiotic ointment ,tape, our stethoscope-all brought from the US. I sat across from my patient, interviewing the patient through the interpreters who would listen to the patient and interpret their Quichuan dialect into English for me so I could understand! And then the reverse would need to occur- my questions to the patient and advice in English to the interpreter, who would then translate back into Quichuan for the patient. Sometimes there needed to be 2 interpreters-Quichuan and Spanish, depending on the situation and particular skills of the interpreter. The interpreters were invaluable and traveled with us wherever we went. If you can think for a moment of encounters you yourself have had with a health care provider- the sharing of information about your health problem, the questions and answers to follow, the exam, then the medical advice given. Then think of doing this through 1-2 interpreters every step of the way! Very challenging. We did not see really difficult problems, or if there were more challenging patients- heart, diabetes- they would need to be referred to the local hospital for continued management. The problems we saw tended to be high blood pressure, some diabetes, a lot of sun and wind-burned faces from working outside in high sunny elevation, back and other body pain, infections. Our mission pharmacist dispensed the meds we prescribed (antibiotics, blood pressure and diabetes medicine, lots of ibuprofen and Tylenol)-again all brought with us from the US. A mission individual would also administer wormer to each child, an important need in this very basic agricultural community.
The most important gift I was given during our mission medical clinic time was that I could actually PRAY with my Indian patients! They welcomed prayer and I think it ministered more to them than our medicines did. Our prayers were not always interpreted. I would just sit facing my patient, hold their hands or put my hands on their knees, we’d close our eyes (along with the interpreters) and I would offer up my most heartfelt prayers for their wellbeing and blessings. In US culture it is not generally accepted that the medical provider pray for her patient (though I have done it with my patients at a few select times) but it was so RIGHT as I interacted and cared for my Indian patients. My patients would also pray for me. God’s people clearly are all around the world, in different cultures, speaking in different languages, of different races- but we can all communicate with each other in God’s universal language of love for each other. God was with us, with me, every moment- we felt Him! He was healing!
While we held our medical/dental clinic, the others of our group- including Merlin- were kept very busy sometimes doing Bible School with the village children, handing out the hygiene kits we had brought with us, even giving haircuts (we had a beautician in our group!) Part of our group worked at an orphanage several days to get ready to expand it in size and get it all cleaned up. We were able to visit the “children” of the orphanage and bring them gifts. A wonderful tradition that this Montana mission group has is to do a “shoe clinic” for the children of the villages. The children would line up and then we would have groups enter the room. They would sit on plastic chairs facing each of us as we knelt before them, then we would gently wash their feet in a basin of water, dry, powder and lotion them, followed by fitting them for brand new sneakers! The children were so excited, and we adults were very emotionally moved to be able to minister to them in this way, as Jesus did for His disciples on the night prior to His crucifixion.
Some of the men (Merlin) worked at finishing building a village church in our base village. This project had been started before we got there, and our men finished it! We were able to worship in this little church our last evening- alongside many villagers. We all gave thanks for the blessings we had experienced!
The last day, as we settled ourselves in our minibus to leave the Andes, Merlin spontaneously stood up and called for everyone’s attention. He thanked everyone for their kind loving support of him during the trip. Merlin’s eyes were moist, as were most of ours, as he shared that participating in this mission was our dream come true- and a great gift from God. He knew it would be one of his last important offerings to God’s people. We learned that the mission members had been made aware of Merlin’s illness months prior to the trip, and had been praying for him even from Montana! After we returned home from Ecuador, we continued to receive thoughtful notes from the members, and Merlin was even gifted two prayer shawls made just for him from ladies in our group. What beautiful friends we had made. There is absolutely nothing that can compare to doing God’s work, being His hands and feet on earth, and working with others who love Him.
As we learn in the Bible, there are acts of mercy that we can perform each day that do not depend on wealth, ability, or intelligence, but are simple acts freely given and freely received. We should have no excuse to neglect those with deep needs. We are expected to serve where service is needed. You may see a need in our church, our community, elsewhere in our country, anywhere in the world. All believers are God’s chosen people and all share the responsibility of representing Him to the world. We all have some gifts- we just need to find them within ourselves and use them! We should love every person and serve anyone we can. This love we demonstrate glorifies God by reflecting our love for Him. God is praised when we use our abilities as He directs-to help others. They will see Jesus in us- we are God’s hands and feet. We don’t have to fear reaching out-because He is with us, His strength assures us.
August 16, 2020
Zion UCC, Waukon
So, there I was, this Monday, on vacation in a cabin by the Mississippi river. I was stuffed with cake from my now eight-year-old granddaughter’s birthday. Barb handed me the phone saying, “it’s for you.” After the usual pleasantries, the voice said, “Um, at one point you said you’re willing to take a service at Zion.” Hesitantly, I said, “Yes, I think so.” “Well are you still willing to help out.” “OK…, when are you thinking?” “Um, well, this is short notice but how about this Sunday.” Long pause on my part. “Uh, I guess I could. My public speaking is usually loud and short.” “That would be perfect.”
I hung up and told Barb, “Well, I’m preaching at Zion this Sunday.” “Well at least I’ll know the hymns”, she said. Then upon reflection I figured out in the spring of 2019, I had mentioned to Jeremy that I could take a Sunday! Yikes, that’s a year and a half ago. Boy the worship committee here has a long memory.
So, really, I’m honored to be here and be a part of getting us all to the finish line. You’re on the home stretch. Just one more Sunday after this and you’ll welcome Reverend Cathy to the pulpit full time. There’s been three interims, pastors Kate Rupert, April Larson, and Jill Sanders plus many of your number, Mark, Jeremy, John, Karen, and pastor Keith and forgive me for missing many others who’ve stepped up to lead worship. What a great job the leadership has done to keep things going through this long period, and I didn’t even mention the pandemic!
So, today’s topic isn’t very appropriate, it isn’t about Zion church as a body as you’ve labored for over a year to call a pastor, it isn’t about you as an individual and how to respond to new leadership in your congregation. It’s about something personal.
I just didn’t volunteer right away a year and a half ago. I was walking to the bathroom and passed Bill, Jeremy, and Dave and one of them said, “Well Russ could take a Sunday.” Knowing full well they were trying to figure out how and who could stand in until the new pastor was found and came, I said… “I’m sorry, All I can say is “Jesus Loves Me.” It was meant to be a humorous but polite decline.
I returned to the pew by the organ and during the service; guess what one of the Hymn’s was that morning. Yup, Jesus Loves Me. So, I felt I was getting a gentle nudge/push to volunteer. So, I told Jeremy after the service I could stand in one Sunday. Little did I count on them remembering over a year and a half of my offer.
So, I feel obligated to give the message I was given.
Jesus Loves me is a song. It’s a statement. It comes from a multitude of verses John 3:16, 1 John 4:7&8. John 17.
Karl Barth, the famous Swiss theologian, when asked by seminary students what was the foundation of this theology answered, “Jesus loves me, this I know. Pretty simple, right, also pretty glib. It’s a short pithy answer that can either be a toss off comment to a snarky seminarian or a thoughtful and meaningful probe into the depths of God’s love and plan for humanity.
I’d say that personally I didn’t feel God’s love as a boy growing up. I felt my parent’s love, family, and friends, church families love, and that’s God’s love…. Right? I knew about it from preaching and loads of Sunday school and Catechism. My sister and I cut our teeth on the pews of 1st Presbyterian. I knew to try hard to live up to what my parents and church expected of me. I am first born, and I knew how to please adults. I was sure God graded on the curve and that my score would get me into Heaven when the time came.
When I was drafted into the Army in 1970, I slipped some in the right living department. Still I felt I had enough credit to keep my standing where God is concerned. While on the way to a conference I was introduced a personal relationship with Jesus. It was a revelation. It was an experience. I knew Jesus loved me. I experienced the “This I know part.” And it wasn’t just knowing in my head. It was knowing in my heart.
So why did God have me share this. I don’t know. It’s always good to hear another’s story and things about their walk with God. It’s always good to know that there’s something simple to hold on to. It’s always good to know that in turbulent times there’s someone who cares and has your back. How that translates to the beginning of your way forward with a new pastor in the midst of a global pandemic, I’m not sure.
This I do know this though; your new pastor will want to know where you stand. Oh, I know she’s read your church vita, perused the statistics, scoped out the town and guessed at the culture of the congregation, but is that what you all can build on? I sure that she’ll appreciate a smile, statements like, “Sure pastor, I can do that.” For me, I’ll find a way to say “Jesus Loves me, this I know.”
There’s a conflict sometimes when I try to parse out the difference between feelings and faith, my heart and revelation. Hebrews 11 says by faith all the great acts of God were done. Jesus berated those of little faith. Clearly faith is the gateway to action. But getting faith? How is that done? Ephesians 4: 8-9 speaks to me… “By grace you have been saved through faith, that not of yourselves, it is gift of God, that no one may boast.” Gifts are wonderful things. God’s gifts are so valuable. “Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Lights”
To get a gift there’s two parts, the offer and the reception. I’m a better giver than a receiver. I give praise, advice, opinions, affection, lots of things. I receive those same things from others – but not always…. Praise – most definitely, advice – occasionally, opinions – conditionally, affection - mostly, you get my point. So, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. For me to hear, God has to get my attention, I’m not always turned in and listening, takes more of a force to get my attention sometimes, hearing the word of God isn’t just soaking in scripture, I let that blow over me often. I find The Word was in the beginning and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
So, my hearing picks up “I love you.” That starts it all. It’s my beginning and ending. Along the way, I can tell others. That needs to be done delicately with wisdom and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Because that can sound like boasting and bragging. “Daddy loves Me!”
A skeptic would say, So, what. The church has better things to do. Let’s get on with it. No time for self-hugs. I remember a sermon pastor Sam gave during her last year here. In it she suggested that when trying to choose between faith and works, maybe we could do “Both And”. Faith and works!
Studying the beatitudes, the scholars writing about them seem to think that they are in order. That Jesus gave us building block beatitudes, so the first one is “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Well, being poor in spirit means you’re bringing nothing to the table. You’ve got nothing to barter, show for standing or pay for access. So, we do have something waiting for us at the table and it is a gift, and we get it regardless what we’ve done or accomplished or made. “Jesus loves me.” That is all you need. That is all that’s required for… the kingdom of heaven… And it isn’t a promise for something in the sky in the sweet by and by. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What would the new pastor of Zion do with a congregation that has the kingdom of heaven? Not sure. But it’s gotta be good…? Right? “Jesus loves me, this is know.”
August 9, 2020
Zion UCC, Waukon
(This is the sermon I read on Sunday. I have had requests to print it. My sister, Jeanyne Slettom wrote it. She is a UCC minister in Minnesota.) A little background: Jeanyne is married to john Slettom. John’s parents are Ed and Iris. They have a farm in Minnesota in a small town pop.424 called Glen)
A few weeks ago we celebrated the Fourth of July as we have every summer for years—“up north,” at “the lake,” as we say in Minnesota. The actual name is Clear Lake, and it’s just off Highway 47 in the heart of Glen Township. Glen is a tiny town, consisting of one intersection, but it has a mighty Fourth of July parade. It was canceled this year because of the pandemic, but this is how it usually goes.
Thousands—no lie, thousands—of people line the parade route, which starts at the Slettom tree farm and follows the dirt road around the lake to the Glen Store. Last year there were 85 units, including the sheriff and a fire truck, floats from the 4-H club, a couple of churches, and businesses from around the lakes. There were horses and a number of classic cars, including a beautifully restored 1961 Cadillac convertible, driven by one John Slettom, with yours truly in the passenger seat.
It’s pure Americana. We inch around the lake shouting Happy Fourth and tossing candy. It’s a huge event, and it all started 40-plus years ago with just the family, in the Slettom back yard. John’s father Ed got out the John Deere tractor, cranked up the old ‘43 Ford flatbed truck, and the ’39 Plymouth. He blasted John Phillip Sousa marches from the house, and we all drove around the yard in a big circle.
The Ford was outfitted with a big sign that read “Freedom Truck,” and after we’d made a few turns he would park that thing in the middle of the lawn, and we would have the program—because you have to have a program. The kids would recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Ed would give a little speech, and then I would channel Kate Smith and belt out “God Bless America.”
Edward Slettom understood freedom. He was part of the Greatest Generation, fought in World War 2, and in April 1945 he saw firsthand what he had been fighting for. As part of the 89th Division, he entered the Ohrdruf concentration camp and saw, with Eisenhower and Patton, the piles of charred and emaciated bodies. It was the first concentration camp liberated by the U.S. Army, and its grim scene was the world’s first inkling of what it would come to call the Holocaust.
Nazi Germany—perhaps history’s most horrific example of unchecked racism. The Nazis elevated the ideal of Aryan superiority—white skin, blonde hair, blue eyes—and correspondingly despised all others, because by racist logic, if one race is superior, then all others can only be inferior. It’s an either/or proposition, a binary trap in which only two options are possible. To select one means to reject everything else.
The theme of selection/rejection haunts the story of Jacob and Esau. There’s only one birthright—which is to say, there is only one eldest son, the one who inherits a double portion of his father’s inheritance; the one by whom the patrilineal line is determined.
It’s Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, after all—not Abraham, Isaac and Esau.
Jacob is a liar and a cheat, yet centuries of biblical commentary have managed to lift him up by denigrating Esau. Early Jewish commentaries turn Esau into a real villain, and Christian theologians from Augustine to Calvin turned God’s implied rejection of Esau into the basis for their doctrine of predestination, which states that before birth God determines who will be saved.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul’s binary distinction between the flesh and the spirit led Christians to plant Jacob on the spirit side and Esau on the flesh side. Esau gave up his birthright for a bowl of stew. He sold his birthright to appease his material appetite!
Hmm. Esau is the rejected one, the one who foregoes the blessing. But if we stick to the biblical text, not the commentaries, we learn that, after Jacob flees, Esau—who was a skilled hunter and farmer, overcame his understandable anger. He married and settled down and, years later, when Jacob returned, Esau welcomed his brother with joy. He even tries to refuse Jacob’s gifts, saying, “I have enough; keep what you have.”
On the other hand, there’s Jacob. He’s the chosen one in the story; meaning, Isaac’s blessing is a surrogate for God’s. But what does that blessing give him? He has to leave home and flee from his brother’s wrath. He makes a deal with Laban to work seven long years in exchange for Laban’s daughter Rachel. But Laban tricks him into marrying Leah, then forces him to labor seven more years for Rachel. The only way he can get away from Laban is, again, to flee. When he returns home, his guilt makes him fear his brother.
So, let’s look a little closer at the idea of blessing; specifically at what it means to be blessed by God. Israel is blessed by God. The whole Hebrew Bible explores this special relationship between God and the people, with the covenant blessing laying out the terms of mutual responsibility.
The covenant is the basis for Israel’s claim to exceptionalism. They are named and claimed by God: “you shall be my people and I shall be your God.”
And where did that lead them? Here’s a brief overview: to slavery in Egypt, to the Babylonian captivity, to brutal slaughter by the Romans in the decades after Jesus, to worldwide dispersion, to the vicious persecutions of anti-Semitism that led all the way to the Ohrdruf concentration camp and the Nazi’s Final Solution.
God’s blessing appears to be a complicated thing. To be God’s people appears to be a call to a certain form of witness, a living reminder of the need for justice. It includes some responsibility. It is not something to invoke lightly. And, in fact, Holocaust scholar John Roth urges that very caution to all who are inclined to invoke God’s blessing.
I heard him make this argument in the days after 9/11, when the scholarly community in Claremont gathered for solidarity, support, reflection, whatever would help us understand what had happened to our country.
In those days, from everywhere, it seemed, we were hearing the phrase, “God bless America.” But Professor Roth gently questioned that easy catch phrase, wondering aloud if we really knew what we were asking for. God doesn’t bless the status quo. God’s blessing always aims toward justice. So when a dominant society, one that elevates one group at the expense of all others, asks for God’s blessing, that society is asking to be upended.
It is standard practice for our presidents to end their addresses to the nation with “God bless America.” It has been standard practice for our presidents to assume and promote American exceptionalism, which conflates this nation’s claims with those of ancient Israel and subtly implies that the United States of America is also chosen by God, that perhaps we are the political embodiment of that chosen status.
But the days are gone when I could get away with making a claim like that—not for the content but for the pronoun. My casual use of the pronoun “we” already presupposes a dominant white, European, Christian culture. It’s the “we” I was taught as a child that glosses right over the genocide of indigenous cultures; that blandly incorporates enslaved Africans into a “we” that obliterates the reality of their experience.
It is widely said that racism is the original sin of this country. If that is so, and I think it is, then racial equality is the vision to which this country is called.
And if God’s blessing works itself out in the long arc that aims toward justice, then for this country to ask for God’s blessing is to ask for the upending of our racist institutions, to invite the struggle for racial equality, and to open ourselves to that work.
The danger of a story like that of Jacob and Esau is that we can be lured into binary thinking. If Jacob is God’s chosen, then Esau is clearly God’s rejected. If Christianity triumphed over Judaism, then Christians inherited the mantle of Jacob and became God’s chosen, while Jews could be comfortably villainized.
If the “men” in “all men are created equal” is code for white male property holders, then all nonwhite, nonmale, non-propertied persons can be denied equality. If the “we” is code for Christian, then all Muslims can be regarded with suspicion and fear.
Perhaps we can circle back to Esau for some guidance here. Esau teaches us more perhaps than Jacob does; namely, that there is no either/or. We are all God’s chosen, and we are all called to meet our brothers and sisters with joy, saying, “I have enough.” In short, we are called to reconciliation.
If we are all God’s chosen, then the very least God asks is that we demand an America that respects all people, that dismantles racism and religious bigotry in every aspect of our society; that encourages all of us to search, with humility, our own hearts and minds, behavior and attitudes.
So, what does it really mean when we say “God bless America”? What are we asking for in that blessing? It is not to preserve the status quo. It is to plead for an America that is just and equitable, that respects and values all people, that understands itself not as superior to, but one of many nations, that understands the meaning of “enough.”
And now I will channel Kate Smith and my sister:
I sang God Bless America
God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with the light from above.
From the mountains to the prairies,
to the oceans white with foam.
God bless America, my home sweet home.