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12.10.17 Feeling Lost at Christmas 1 Samuel 3.1-18 Sermon Summary

Before we can see the light of dawn, we have to accept the darkness of night—sometimes that’s pretty easy.

Summary Points

  • The dark wood metaphor in Samuel’s day and ours
  • The hope of light
  • How God’s call is ordinary but steadfast, and why
  • What happens when we hear God’s call

In his book Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes says that before we can find ourselves we have to experience being lost. Or in the metaphor of the dark wood, to experience the hope of light we have to accept the darkness.

The dark wood is a metaphor of our spiritual lives. It’s the moment when trusted spiritual landmarks are no longer available, when our surroundings are no longer familiar. It can lead to confusion or doubt. It’s a basic feeling of being lost.

There’s a lot of darkness in today’s Bible passage. Eli the priest’s eyesight has begun to grow dim so that he cannot see. It is nighttime, so it’s dark for his apprentice Samuel also. Eli’s sons, also priests, have been unfaithful, treating God, ritual, and the people with contempt. They have brought darkness over the whole nation.

Many of us feel such darkness this Christmas. Deep inside we know that the holiday lights, parties, and gifts may distract us, but they can’t chase this darkness away. Our world is led by people like Eli and his sons. They say they pray, and certainly others pray for them, and they bless their nations in God’s name. But they do not listen for God’s Word. Like Eli’s sons they blaspheme God, and like Eli no one restrains them.

We have lost our way. And if we hope to be found again we need the light of God’s Word. In the story of Samuel’s calling we are told the light of the Lord had not yet gone out. It is night, but dawn is coming. It is dark, but light is about to arrive. In the lines of the narrative, “the Word of the Lord is about to be revealed.”

Samuel had a front row seat to the corruption of Eli’s priesthood. But he also had a front row seat to the presence of God. He sleeps in the Temple with the ark of God. When God comes and calls to him, Samuel doesn’t recognize it right away.

God’s call comes ambiguously, which means we can miss it. We can confuse it with something else. Samuel thought it was Eli calling. That’s how close God’s voice is to other things.

God’s call comes to us through the ordinary—like through the pages of a book, or water in a bowl, or bread and cup on a table, or imperfect ministers like Eli and I. We may have heavenly hopes, but God comes to us in earthly ways. The reason God’s calling isn’t obvious is so that we have to listen, so that we have to question, so that we have to choose.

God requires this of us because God respects our freedom to doubt and to question. God wants our partnership, so instead of intervening with miracles, God influences through people, through building relationships. This is how the world is transformed.

This was the point of Jesus’ temptations. Jesus trusted God’s presence, not God’s miracles. And by his trust he saved the world.

God was about to change the world through a relationship with Samuel. He is young and just an apprentice, but God calls him anyway. He does not yet know the Lord, the narrative tells us, but God calls him anyway. Samuel is confused and full of questions, but God does not stop calling him—once, twice, as many times as it takes.

Nothing gets in the way of God’s call—unless we are not listening. But even then God continues to call. If we want to hear it, we have just to start listening. We have to acknowledge the darkness but realize the light of the Lord has not gone out. We have to sit with the silence and listen for God’s call.

When we begin to sense God’s call, it’s helpful to verify with others, as Samuel did, even if they are imperfect like Eli. And then we have to speak the truth, as Samuel did, and live according to it, even if it leads to hard times.

Samuel faced hard times. Eli and his sons die. The Philistines capture the ark of the LORD. Samuel then leads the people for a season. His own sons become corrupt, just like Eli’s. He anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, whose reign then fails. Finally Samuel anoints David, the great king, and the ancestor of Jesus, God’s Savior of the world.

All the while, through the darkness, confusion, and doubt of being lost, Samuel listened for God’s Word and followed.

This week our Jewish siblings begin to light the Hanukkah candles. At the same time we are anticipating the Christ candle on Christmas Eve. Things may appear dark now—in our lives, in our nation, and in our world. But the light of God is coming. And if we embrace these feelings of being lost, listen for and follow God’s calling, we will be found in the light of Hanukkah and Christmas. Amen.


12.03.17 Where Will We be this Christmas Luke 14.7-14 Sermon Summary

Being in a place of honor is something special. Jesus’ parable invites us to appreciate it even more.

Summary Points

  • Sitting in honored places and a spiritual truth
  • The guests at our table who matters most

I’ve enjoyed a number of “honored places,” some I’ve worked hard to earn and others I was surprised to receive. There’s satisfaction in both. Sitting around the table at the North American Academy of Liturgy with scholars whose books I read in graduate school is an honored place I have earned. Getting bumped up into first class with the comfort and amenities is an honored place that comes as a surprise.

Sitting in a place of honor can go to your head, which is why Jesus tells the parable of the banquet. Probably few of us have this exact situation where we receive formal invitations and have formal seating arrangements. But Jesus’ parable is practical advice for the spiritual life nonetheless. It’s a matter of attitude, and the enduring rule is that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

According to another passage of scripture, we humble ourselves by “associating with the lowly” (Romans 12:16). This is something we experience now. But the exaltation may be delayed, according to Jesus, even as long as the “resurrection of the righteous.” This is helpful to remember when we don’t see the humble exalted in this life, and especially when we don’t see the self-aggrandizers humbled!

Jesus’ parable has practical application in a metaphorical sense also. Each of us sits at the tables of our lives surrounded by many guests. We are the host.

Some of those guests include:

  • peers from work, school, or our interest groups
  • superiors like our boss or teacher
  • parents or siblings
  • voices from the past, whether deceased or just present as influential memories
  • celebrities or other people we admire
  • leaders whether political or just charismatic
  • advertisers, especially this time of year, who are always clamoring for our attention

These guests sit around us according to our pleasure. They are the honored guests. We listen to them.

But also always at our table is the Holy Spirit. We may experience the Spirit as conscience, or maybe wisdom, perhaps some kind of personal impression.

It is in this context that we conduct our lives, with all these voices gathered around us. Here we talk about our life. Eric Elnes points out that normally the Holy Spirit has the softest voice and assumes the lowest place at this table, and the Spirit waits to be invited by us to the honored place.

To do that, like the host in the parable, we have to say to one of the honored guests, “I’m giving the Holy Spirit your place.” One of those louder voices has to be demoted to make room for the Holy Spirit. I can tell you that this is the essence of prayer—quieting other voices and promoting the Spirit’s presence in your life.

A family in our congregation has visited a “Sensory Sensitive Santa” event. Because their children have special needs, they require fewer lights, less noise, and a calmer environment if they are to be able to talk and relate to Santa.

When I was preparing recitals as an undergraduate, my piano professor told me to “listening to the house” while on stage. I had to quiet the obvious voice of the piano right in front of me and my intentions and instead hear the music from the audience’s space. Then I could adjust to what I was hearing and improve my performance.

These are examples of what Elnes is talking about, of re-arranging our lives in order to call upon the Holy Spirit to take the honored seat.

Recently someone told me of their decision to retire. It follows a long season of prayer. It was an easier decision, he said, once he recognized the role his profession has had—it is not one’s identity, but a calling. And now the calling is to retirement.

This is helpful to remember in the dark wood, that place of spiritual ambiguity where we don’t know who we are and the voices around our table aren’t helpful. Psalm 23 says God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. If there, then certainly in the dark wood also. Sometimes the dark wood actually feels hostile. But at that table is the Holy Spirit—quiet and unassuming, waiting to be called upon, waiting for a conversation to help us reorient and redirect our lives.

There are so many voices this time of year in the run up to Christmas and as the New Year approaches. It’s easy to get disoriented. This sermon series has ended up being about reorientation. I didn’t intend it to take this direction, but it has. You might revisit the messages from November 12 and November 26 for other ways to do what I’m talking about here also: To quiet other voices, call upon the Spirit, and listen.

But here is something else also. Instead of just quieting other voices and calling upon the Spirit to move to the place of honor, what about moving our chair? We’re the host, after all, and we determine where the honored places are by the place we sit.

Maybe the Spirit has it right. Maybe in the lives of God’s children the Spirit is actually the host and the honored place is among the lowly. Maybe if we moved lower, joining the Spirit among “the poor, crippled, lame, and blind,” we’d discover that we’re the honored guest at God’s table, and from there our lives would look much different. There and then, maybe the dark wood wouldn’t seem so dark.

May God find us there this Christmas. Amen.

11.26.17 Being Led by the Spirit Job 37:1-5 Sermon Summary

Embedded in an easily overlooked passage of the Bible is one of the most profound theological insights I’ve found in a while.

Summary Points

  • The message of Job and his three friends
  • The surprising insight of Elihu
  • Reasons we miss God’s speaking to us
  • An application to the giving of gifts at Christmas

Many people know the basic outline of the book of Job. We are introduced to a man who has everything, but then has it all taken away—his wealth, his family, finally his health. Then he’s visited by three friends whose attempts to cajole him into confessing his sin fail. Then God shows up at the end and passes judgment on everyone.

Job’s three friends talk about God in terms of rewards and punishments. Their God supervises a mechanistic universe where sin is punished and obedience is blessed. For some, this perspective on God brings comfort. The justice of it is certain. People get what they deserve. If they suffer, it is the result of their choices.

The problem with this perspective is that God may as well not exist. But God does exist, and he shows up in Job 38-41 when God finally answers from a whirlwind. God opens his defense by booming out, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And for the next four chapters God says to Job, “You’re complaining without the full picture.” And he says to Job’s friends, “You’re explaining without the full picture.”

What most people haven’t notice, and I was one of them, is that a fourth speaker enters the stage just before God speaks at the end. His name is Elihu, which means “He is my God.” We learn he’s a younger person who has been listening with deference to Job and his three friends. He criticizes them all (but also affirms the perspective of the three friends).

The presence of Elihu is a literary set-up to God’s speech (other narratives from the time follow the same formula: Three speeches, a fourth by a newcomer, and a final). The major point of his speech is to urge everyone to listen for God’s voice. But embedded in his speech is a jewel I’ve never noticed before.

Part of Elihu’s argument is that neither our righteousness nor our sin is all that important to God. He says to Job, “Your righteousness doesn’t impress God,” and to his friends, “Our sin doesn’t hurt God.” Consider these words from Job 35:1-9: “Look at the heavens and see; observe the clouds, which are higher than you. If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against God? If you are righteous, what do you give to him? Your wickedness affects others like you, and your righteousness, other human beings.”

Elihu goes on to say that what actually concerns God is the consequences of our sins upon others. This is what God cares about. This is why when victims cry out to God, God hears it. What about the cries of Job and his friends? Elihu says, “Job opens his mouth in empty talk, he multiplies words without knowledge.” Sound familiar?

The profound theological insight is that God cares more about the impact of our sins, than that we commit them. This is why apologies without repentance and restitution ring hollow—(just ask any of the #metoo victims).

Elihu’s insight corrects the perspective of Job and his three friends. He proves that God isn’t mechanistic. God cares about victims of sin and tries to communicate to us. Because this is true, Elihu urges us to listen.

Why do we miss it? Why don’t we recognize it when God speaks to us? One reason is that like Job and his friends, we’re too preoccupied with rewards and punishments, with our own righteousness (or not) or with the sins of others.

Another reason is that we simply don’t recognize God’s voice. When the Bible refers to God’s speech, it’s often in the contexts of lightning and thunder, burning bushes, earthquakes, clouds that roll back, trumpet blasts, solar eclipses, torrential rains, and the like. This sets up the expectation that this is how God will speak to us. That’s what we expect, and when it doesn’t happen, we conclude God isn’t talking to us.

Elihu uses one of the most popular of these images, that of lightning and thunder. Remember Saturday morning cartoons, when a character got an idea? A lightbulb appeared over his head. Today we still refer to good ideas as “bright ideas.” It’s the same thing with lightening in the Bible.

We don’t recognize God’s voice because we make the same mistake fundamentalists and atheists do: We take the Bible too literally. We shouldn’t expect lightning and thunder, but we can expect God to speak to us. The correct interpretation of these passages is not literal, but figurative. Lightning and thunder are metaphors referring to flashes of insight followed by rumblings of affirmations.

The Bible uses extraordinary but natural occurrences to depict God’s speaking to us. It’s a clue to pay attention to the natural events in our lives, for God may be speaking to us through them. It may come as an impression, or a comment someone makes, or an observation we make that others miss, or in conversation with trusted friends. And it can happen in nature. If we’re open to it, we’ll discover God speaks to us all the time.

This is important to remember when we’ve found ourselves in the dark wood, another metaphor from nature, that spiritual place where we feel lost or alone, perhaps confused and afraid. Some of us intentionally enter the dark wood, hoping to hear God’s voice away from everyday distractions. In either case, a lightening flash of insight truly inspired by God will be followed by rumbling affirmations of thunder—but only if we interpret the Bible metaphorically.

Besides fundamentalists and atheists, there’s another group that takes the Bible literally, and it’s especially important to know this at Christmas. It’s advertisers. They have taken the lightning and thunder images and transferred them to the bright lights and loud noises of ads, all designed to make you think it’s God’s will for you to have their products. “You need this! Your kids need this! Your spouse needs this!”

As a more faithful way to give gifts this Christmas, consider listening for God to guide you to someone’s needs, not with lightning and thunder, but with discernment. Pray you will be sensitive to what God wants in someone else’s life. And don’t underestimate that you may have a unique insight based on your relationship with someone. Such a gift is most truly a gift because it is a gift of your self and arises from your relationship.

And after all, this is how God gives to us at Christmas. God does not offer a general salvation to the world, but one that is characterized by individual redemption. The whole world may be saved, but each of us experiences it fully in our own unique way as God leads us throughout our lives. But this is true for us only if we will listen for God’s voice in the dark wood and follow.

11.19.17 Born Again with Christ Luke 1 Selections Sermon Summary

Waiting for Christmas can make us feel a little like Zechariah and Elizabeth. We can feel old, or like our lives don’t really matter, or that there isn’t any future. Thanks be to God there is a light to shine in these dark woods.

Summary Points

  • How God’s promise originated, evolved, and was fulfilled
  • How the fulfillment of God’s promise gives us new birth
  • How we continue to grow in the spiritual life

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth parallels the Older Testament story of Abraham and Sarah. Both are a couple past child-bearing years who yet miraculously conceive. Isaac was the child of Abraham and Sarah. He was the fulfillment of a promise—that they would be blessed. But he is also the first installment of a wider promise—that the whole world would be blessed through him.

Generations later David was born. He was a blessing to the nation of Israel, but not yet a blessing for the whole world. Generations later again, Jesus is born. He was a blessing not just to Israel, but to the nations. Finally, the promise of such a blessing was being fulfilled.

In the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the gospel writer Luke reminds us of this widening promise and fulfilment. The perfect fulfillment of God’s promise arrives with Christ.

But in the meantime, God’s promised blessing had evolved. It took on variety of forms, and Zechariah summarizes some of these forms in his prophecy. He speaks of grace: “God has looked favorably upon us.” And he speaks of deliverance: “God has redeemed us.” And he speaks of salvation: “God has raised up a mighty savior.” And he also speaks of the dark wood: “Dawn from on high has broken upon us; light has shone on those living in darkness.”

The dark wood is the spiritual wilderness where we feel lost, abandoned, and forgotten. It is the awareness of the promises God has left UNfulfilled. It can lead us to disorientation and doubt. But there, according to Zechariah, the light has shone. God’s promises are renewed in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Zechariah speaks of this promise in yet another phrase: We will “worship God without fear in holiness and righteousness before him.” Zechariah would have known. He was a professional priest from a family of priests. Even his wife came from a family of priests.

Zechariah knew a lot about worship. He had done it his whole life—except he served God WITH fear because he was WITHOUT holiness and righteousness. But with the fulfillment of God’s promise, he discovered that we can serve God WITHOUT fear, and rather WITH holiness and righteousness.

Zechariah’s fear, shame, and insecurity were overcome, light was dawning in the dark wood. His prayers were being answered—not just in the birth of John his son, but especially in the birth of Jesus.

In these births Zechariah’s faith was being restored. In these births Zechariah was being born again. But before Zechariah could talk about this, before he could see the light fully, before he could experience the new life of rebirth, he had to “disappear” as Eric Elnes describes it. Zechariah was struck mute. He was reduced to merely an observer.

The angel told Zechariah his baby’s name would be Jonathan, which means “God has given.” So for over nine months, the observing mute Zechariah could only receive. And that’s the point of Christmas. Salvation comes as a gift. We can only receive it. Unfortunately, we can get so caught up in giving that we forget to receive.

As John the Baptist grew up he learned from his father. He knew where to find light in the dark wood. He learned how to recognize God’s grace, deliverance, and salvation. So when John saw Jesus as an adult on the banks of the Jordan River, he proclaimed, “Christ must increase, and I must decrease.”

And this is what baptism means. It is to be born again in Christ. It is to live more for Christ and less for ourselves. When a child is baptized, when an adult reaffirms those promises, when we serve the church and the world with the gifts of the Spirit we receive in baptism, we progress in this spiritual transformation.

These moments all arise from the message of John the Baptist, that for Christ to increase we must decrease. For the light of life to shine, our egos have to enter the shadow of death. To receive the promise of Christmas, we have to silence ourselves in Advent.

This season, may we all reflect upon the promise of God fulfilled in Christ and testified to by Zechariah, by John, and by the waters of baptism. May we all be born again with Christ this Christmas.

11.12.17 From Good to True Luke 4:1-13 Sermon Summary

From Adam to Jesus, one of the quickest ways to enter the spiritual dark wood is through temptation.

Summary Points

  • The dark wood of temptation from the first and second Adam to us
  • Jesus’ temptation to do good
  • How God calls us not just to the good, but to the true
  • Four practices for discerning our true calling
  • The role of trust
  • A true Christmas

The dark wood is a place of spiritual disorientation and doubt. It’s been part of the human experience from the beginning. Way back in the Garden of Eden, the First Adam (as Paul refers to him) found himself in the dark wood through temptation. He wasn’t allowed to eat from the tree right in the middle of the garden. Temptation was also the way the Second Adam Jesus entered the dark wood. Just so we don’t miss the point, Luke refers to both of them as the “son of God.” So now the question falls to us—the rest of God’s children: How will we navigate the dark wood?

Last week we considered how sin can land us in the dark wood, not just the sin of wayward decisions but even more, sin as the power of estrangement. Today we consider how temptation can land us in the dark wood, not the temptation to do bad, but rather the temptation to do good.

Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee to the North came south on the Jordan to be baptized. He was about thirty years old. Following his baptism Jesus was tempted to turn bread to stone, gain power over the political realm, and demonstrate God’s power through miracles.

There’s nothing bad about these activities. He did all of them eventually. The temptation was to do them at the wrong time and in the wrong context. While they are good things, they were not true things. We’re called to do good things, but we’re also called to be true. The key is in the decision making process.

We have many criteria for making good decisions. For example: expediency, what’s the fastest solution; finances, how can I save or make money; stability, how can I limit uncertainty; the obvious or easy, what’s right in front of me; comfort, how do I avoid unpleasantness; service, how can I help others? All of these criteria can help us make good decisions.

Jesus could have done what Devil tempted him to do. A lot of good would have resulted. People would have been fed. Politics could be purged of corruption. More people would trust God. There’s no doubt these are good ends, but God calls us not just to good ends, but to reach them by true means. Jesus had to be true to his calling. It was to trust God, not to follow the Devil, especially not through temptations to do good.

True callings are personal, conditional, and provisional. They share concern for the good, but are still unique to each person. True callings can’t be calculated or taught or told. They have to be discerned. We have to work them out for ourselves—not necessarily BY ourselves, but FOR ourselves.

Finding our true calling is assisted by four practices: Time, Reflection, Prayer, and Patience. Consider the example of Jesus. He took time—forty days in the wilderness (which is another name for the dark wood). As the story is told, the “Three Temptations” came at the end of those forty days, but it is implied that the Devil was tempting him the entire time.

We also need time. We have to make time, then take time. I don’t know anyone who can take forty days, or retreat into the desert. But I suspect many of us could benefit from making time for a forty minute walk.

During the time he had taken, Jesus surely practiced Reflection. Luke tells us he was thirty years old. Jesus had lived some life, practiced some religion, made some friends, and figured some things out about himself. God’s leading in our lives becomes clear in reflection because it is so often reflected. More often than not, God leads us not directly but indirectly.

Reflection includes asking such questions as, What brings me joy? What are my heart’s desires? In my past, when was I most happy and felt I had a purpose? What do others say about me? Through times of reflection, God’s vision for us becomes clearer to us.

The third practice arises naturally out of the first two. Time spent in reflection leads to Prayer. Certainly Jesus spoke to God in the dark wood. But he also certainly listened. It’s much easier to listen in prayer during time away. I imagine Jesus out there praying in the desert, which must have included observing nature—sand storms, the movements of stars, the scuffling of desert life. He must have walked around. He probably drew in the sand or journaled some thoughts there. Clearly he prayed through the Bible as that was how he answered the Devil’s temptations.

The more time we spend in reflection, the easier these non-conventional ways of praying will be for us. And the more beneficial they will be towards discerning our true calling.

The fourth practice brings us full circle back to time. After we make time and take time, we have to give it time—we have to have Patience. The “Three Temptations” don’t end the story. The Devil departs from Jesus “until an opportune time.” Jesus was subject to temptation his whole life. He didn’t overcome the Devil’s temptations once for all. Like the rest of us, Jesus had to wait to see the realization of his true calling.

In many ways, Jesus is still waiting. He is still waiting to see all people fed. He’s waiting for politics to be purged of corruption. He is still waiting for all people to trust God.

For me, this is the biggest challenge: Trust. I have to remember that if I resist a temptation to do good, the good will still get done. I may not be a part of it, but God will get the good done. I have to trust that if I discern my good and true service, God will lead others to theirs. I’ll be out of the way, not trying to do all the good myself. God has given each of us gifts and opportunities to do good and to fulfill our true calling. I have to trust that the practices of Time, Reflection, Prayer, and Patience will work their way through all of our lives and lead to the good God envisions for everyone.

To conclude, a thought about Christmas. I heard recently of someone who is already anxious about the debt he will incur purchasing gifts for others this Christmas. He knows from experience that he won’t pay off this debt till this time next year when it starts all over again.

This is a common temptation. How often is the truth of Christmas sacrificed for the goods of Christmas? The truth of Christmas is that upon those who live in the land of darkness, God’s light has come in Christ. For this person and many of us, we have been tempted away from the truth of Christmas by the goods of Christmas. We don’t see the light of Christ shining in our dark wood. This Christmas, and throughout our lives, may we welcome and walk in the light. May we follow Jesus from the good to the true this Christmas.


11.05.17 Growing Up 1 Corinthians 13 Sermon Summary

What if the “Love Chapter” wasn’t about God’s love for us, but our love for God?

Summary Points

  • The common ways to hear 1 Corinthians 13
  • Dante, the dark wood, and sin
  • A larger perspective of sin
  • Ways we experience and try to manage sin
  • God’s answer to our sin, and how 1 Corinthians 13 helps us understand it
  • God’s presence in the sacraments and a prayer to prepare for Communion

When it comes to the “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13, most people assume it refers to God’s perfect love. They’ve had some pastor say that’s what the Greek word “agape” always refers to. Regardless, 1 Corinthians 13 is lifted up in wedding ceremonies as the ideal love between spouses, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with romance. In context, the chapter is a strategy for conflict resolution in congregations, not love between individuals.

It’s so hard to hear the “love chapter” apart from these assumptions or to say anything new about it. So let’s listen to it from another perspective. What happens if we listen to 1 Corinthians 13 not for what it says about God’s love or spousal love or congregational life, but for our love for God?

We start in an unlikely place. Dante’s poem the Divine Comedy was written in the early 1300s. It catalogues the author’s journey from hell through purgatory to paradise. It starts with the words, “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a dark forest.” Dante reports he has found himself here because of sin.

The influence of Dante’s work can’t be calculated. Whatever images you have of “hell” and “the devil” and “demons” are more likely Dante’s than the Bible’s. His opening line has also influenced the way we think about our spiritual experience in the dark wood.

The dark wood is that place where we feel lost, confused, and fearful. We are spiritually disoriented, and wonder if God has forgotten us. Dante’s dark wood experience was caused by sin. Reflexively we think of moral sin. Dante would also have included disobedience to God’s law in general. And there’s some truth to that.

But sin is not just wayward choices. It is also a power. It is the sense that we are estranged from God. The great Lutheran theologian of the last century Paul Tillich understood sin primarily as estrangement. He said sin is our estrangement from God, others, and even from ourselves. He taught that forgiveness and love together overcome estrangement: “Genuine forgiveness is participation, reunion overcoming the powers of estrangement. . . We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our love.”

It is this sense of sin as estrangement that underlies Teresa of Avila’s counsel that the greatest hindrance to prayer is the assumption that God is not present. (I’ve never been able to find this quote, but it is repeated often by folks like Thomas Keating. Regardless of its provenance, the statement is true.)

There are several ways we try to solve the problem of sin, the problem of our estrangement. We deny it. We entertain ourselves out of our awareness. We try to fill the void with achievement. Perhaps we expend the greatest effort managing our estrangement by trying to regain control because the feeling of sin and estrangement puts us off center. We know something is not right. We’re not in control. We experience a lot of uncertainty.

This feeling of uncertainty lands us in the dark wood. There are many examples of how to arrive in the dark wood because of uncertainty. One member of my congregation is in the dark wood because his coach and friend recently died of a heart attack at age 47. Sickness and death can lead us to feelings of uncertainty.

So can terrorism, whether a driver of a truck in New York, or a shooter in a Walmart in Colorado, or a gunman in a church in Texas (which occurred while I was preaching this sermon).

Our closest relationships yield to uncertainty. Marriages end. The lives of our children take turns we would not choose for them. Our parents’ deaths orphan us.

Over the years many people in my congregation have been laid off or discovered the products they offer have become obsolete and are no longer needed. This can make us feel that we are obsolete and unneeded also.

Dementia and trauma can erase the education we’ve worked so hard to acquire.

Even our relationship with God can cause the anxiety of uncertainty. We discover the expectations we had upon God are not fulfilled. We’re not at peace. We don’t experience joy. We’ve lost hope.

So to manage this uncertainty we try to regain control. We domesticate God into tight theological systems. We expend heroic efforts to deny death. We impose more laws and buy more guns. We avoid taking any risks, which means we don’t fully live. When I told a friend last week that my daughter was in the Middle East, he said, “There are safe places to go over there, right?” I responded, “Yes, if you know where to go. Just like there are safe places in New Orleans if you know where to go.”

The truth is, we can’t eliminate uncertainty. We can’t regain control. We can’t overcome sin. We can’t reconcile estrangement. When we try, we only compound it. We can’t overcome sin, but God can. But when he does, it’s then that we realize we’re in the dark wood. God shows up where we don’t expect him, like when Jacob dreamt of the ladder ascending to heaven. Such experiences happened to everyone you know from the Bible: Moses, Abraham, David, Peter, Sarah, and Mary. You know them because they are exemplary. They didn’t avoid the dark wood. Why do we hope we can?

Sin has landed us in the dark wood; Dante was right. Both the sin of our choices and the sin of our estrangement. But the gospel message is that God has forgiven sin and entered the dark wood to be with us so we are not alone.

In the uncertainty of our lives God is with us. The solution to our uncertainty isn’t certainty, it is God’s presence. When God is present, it invites us to trust God through our uncertainty. To trust God is to love God, and this is what we hear in 1 Corinthians 13.

The “love chapter” is Paul’s discourse on mature love. It’s what’s left when we “put away childish ways.” Children are necessarily trusting. They are naturally loving. As they grow up, they learn to discriminate. This can happen quite early as we seen when babies react to an unfamiliar face. They have to discriminate because life is uncertain. Part of becoming an adult is learning how to love, learning whom to trust. We trust and love with our hearts, which is why the Bible talks about guarding our heart. This is important and hard work.

If we mature in a healthy way, adults eventually choose to trust and love with wise discernment. This chosen love is mature love. Paul and the Bible in general call us to this chosen love—of one another, of self, and of God. It is this love that overcomes estrangement. We choose to trust God despite the uncertainty of our lives. This is our comfort in the dark wood.

Author Eric Elnes summarizes it this way: “Paul is saying that a mature faith is one that embraces life as a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved—that accepts uncertainty as a gift, not a curse.”

The bread and cup of communion are symbols of God’s presence. So are the waters of baptism. We call them means of grace because they are the means of God’s presence. As the bread of the Lord’s Table is placed in our hands, let us also place our hearts into the hands of the God who comes to us in our uncertainty. Our worries, our fears, our unresolved challenges, even the mysteries we don’t understand—God enters all these in the person of Christ who, in the dark wood of his uncertainty, trusted God with his life and entered fully and without reserve our estranged existence. Perhaps the prayer below can enhance your next celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the dark wood.

We thank you, Creator God for woven into the uncertainties of this life you have given us the sunrise following the dark night, the rain following the drought, springtime to follow a cold winter. We look forward to these certainties, these reminders that you never forsake us, no matter how things might appear or feel.

We need these reminders, including the waters of baptism and the bread and cup of communion, because our sin and the sin of the world cast doubt within us. We feel abandoned and alone, and act in unkind ways to help us cope. Into our darkened woods you sent Jesus Christ to be our light. We celebrate his coming at Christmas, and prepare even now by confessing our need for him and living as children of faith, as children of light.

Send us your Spirit we pray, that we may receive from Christ his life and light. Grant that our communion at his table may secure our communion with him and with you by your Spirit. Accompany us through the dark wood in which we have found ourselves, until such time we no longer gaze at your presence through the mirror of the sacraments, but rather face to face, knowing you fully, even as you know us fully, in Christ. Amen.

My Heart


My Heart,

you cannot move

beyond the short tether

of my fragmented self.

You would shift to joy and hope

but my past restrains you.

You would to gratitude rest

but my present discontent prods you.

You would dance and sing

but for my aging body.

How restless you are,

and deceitful you have become,

never knowing how I will keep you

from fulfilling  your divine calling

by my worldliness.

My Heart, my Heart,

forgive me!

Judge this world

and condemn me to die.

Liberate yourself from wandering the wilderness.

Reach that Promised Land

and await my resurrection

when all will be reconciled–

hope and reality

future and past

aspiration and ability

you and I.

Or if not, until then,

be patient and sustain me;

In grace remain with me,

until such time I finally fail in fatigue,

and you are free to lead me

and I am free to follow

My Heart, my Heart, my Heart.