“Pilaf, do you want to go for a walk?” I posed the question to our dog recently right after I had pushed the button on my iphone to check the time. To my surprise I got two responses to my question. Pilaf got up and came toward me wagging her tail and at the same time Siri’s voice issued forth from the iphone with the answer: “I try to be satisfied with what I have.”
It was a rare, reflective moment for Siri. I’m not used to her commenting on such weighty matters as her philosophy of life. She is not a big one for working with existential questions. But here she was letting me know about a key part of her way of being. “I try to be satisfied with what I have.” In other words, “It’s up to you, Dave. You can take me on that walk or leave me here on the nightstand. If you take me, I can measure the number of steps you take on the walk, count the calories that you have burned, tell you how much travel time is involved in the various routes you might take to get back to your house and let you know that someone is trying to reach you by phone or text or email. But whatever you decide is fine, because I try to be satisfied with what I have.”
One could hear Siri’s response in a couple of ways. There is a bit of pathos and resignation in her answer and yet also a hint of contentment. In fact, when I heard her say it, my inner Bible concordance kicked in and several verses came to mind:
“I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” – St. Paul
“So do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” – Jesus
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmedand quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother.” – David, (Ps 131)
“I try to be satisfied with what I have.” Is it slavery or light-heartedness? Of course in Siri’s case it is neither. It’s merely the result of some programmer’s decision. I imagine that she is programmed to respond to the question “Do you want…?” with an answer about being content. She doesn’t really have the capacity to want anything.
But we do; and trying to be satisfied with what we have, trying to live in the moment, trying to let the day’s own trouble be enough for the day, is no easy feat for us. Each day presents us with a huge list of wants. Some of them are simply about survival and the dailyness of our existence. Yet many of those wants spring from things that are too heavy for us to carry or too far away from us to grasp. Wanting to alleviate the suffering of a loved one being treated for cancer, or end the rancor in Washington DC, or solve the national crisis of opioid addiction, or mend the broken relationship that you helped to destroy, usually just delivers us into a state of heavy-heartedness and despair. The last thing we are in this state is satisfied, and trying to work harder at being satisfied just heightens our angst. The burdens of past regrets and future anxieties are just too heavy to bear.
In the midst of this kind of heavy-hearted dissatisfaction and emptiness, I know of only one source of comfort. When things are too heavy for me to hold, I need to know that I am being held. I need to know that I belong to a story that is bigger than the one I am currently writing. I need to know that I belong to God. It’s then that I can move into the present and learn about satisfaction and letting the day’s own trouble be enough for the day. Another word for this is hope, and the season of Advent is primarily about training us to live into hope.
This Advent we will be exploring the words of an Old Testament prophet who was about the work of inviting his people to live into hope. The words of Isaiah 40 are addressed to folks who were bouncing back and forth between past regrets and future anxieties and they, like us, needed to know that they were being held. Isaiah’s message of comfort in this chapter is one that never grows old because we never stop needing to hear it. We never stop needing to be reminded that we are being held by the One who made us for no other purpose than relationship with himself.
Dave Rohrer, 12/3/2017
Stewardship Letter, November 22, 2017
Dear Emmanuel Family,
I’ve heard it said that 90% of success in life is based on showing up. Simple presence is worth a lot. As I ponder the history of Emmanuel, I think a good bit of our current health can be attributed to the decision this congregation made in 2008 to continue to be present in this neighborhood. When 35 families chose to tear down two structures and build a new building around our existing sanctuary, they made the choice to show up, and continue to be Christ’s church in this place.
Granted, this particular act of showing up was not that simple. In fact, it was an outlandish endeavor. You who were a part of this building project had to decide that your desire to rebuild and remain present was stronger than your reticence about the capacity to raise the money to make it happen. But you made this decision and since the dedication of the new building in 2009, the average number of people who worship at Emmanuel on Sunday has doubled.
So as you take a moment here at the end of 2017 to ponder your commitment to the life of this congregation in 2018, I want to primarily encourage you to keep on showing up. Continue your dedication to coming together in this place and being sent from this place to be a community of Hope, Refuge and Service.
As a community of Hope we gather each Sunday to be refreshed and reminded of our inheritance in Christ. As a place of Refuge we provide a space to gather to worship God and encourage one another. We also open our doors to a variety of groups who make use of this space on the other six days of the week. Our grounds are a refuge for the community as well. Our front yard is often a place where kids roll down the hill and dogs catch Frisbees. Our outdoor chapel is a place of worship for many who never come inside our sanctuary. As a people dedicated to Service we are individually sent from this place to serve others in our neighborhoods and places of work. And as a congregation we reflect Christ’s light in Neah Bay, in Wapato at Campbell Farm and in area prisons through our work with Underground Ministries.
All of this only happens because you show up and choose to share some of your time and money with this community. In 2018 we anticipate that we will need about $270,000 to continue our mission in this place. Increases in staff, the growing cost of maintaining our building, paying down our mortgage and extending ourselves in mission through our partnerships with Campbell Farm and Underground Ministries are some of the things that contribute to a greater bottom line in our budget.
Thank you for all that you have done and will continue to do to make these things happen. I am grateful for you. I love the work of being your pastor and I look forward in this coming year to listening for and responding to God’s invitations to join with him in what he is up to in our neighborhood.
In the 35 years I have been a pastor one of the things I have gotten used to is the line that is often spoken after I tell someone what I do for a living. The script hasn’t varied much over the years. I meet someone for the first time in the neighborhood, on an airplane, or in some social setting and I get the question:
Stranger: So what do you do?
Me: I’m a Presbyterian minister.
Stranger: Must be interesting work.
Me: Yes, it can be.
Stranger: How’s it feel to work just one day a week? What do you do the other six days?
Me: (forced laugh) Yeah well…, great weather we’ve been having, huh?
Over the years I have become more adept at avoiding the temptation to respond with a snide comment, or a nervous defense of my work ethic. In fact, I have become quite comfortable with admitting that the work I do on Sundays is central to what I do as a pastor. While I do have things to do and people to see on those other days, Sunday is the day on which I get the most traction. Because on Sunday I have the privilege and responsibility of giving witness to the truth that fuels the other six days of our week.
Hebrews 10:19-25 has been one of my guides in coming to this conclusion. There the writer explains to the members of the church why it is essential to gather regularly for worship and fellowship:
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
In short, we gather in order to remind ourselves about who we are as disciples of Christ, to thank God for this new identity and to encourage one another as we all work with the question about what it looks like to live out this identity in our world. We gather to draw near to the God who has chosen to draw near to us, and we gather to draw near to one another. And once we have gathered, we scatter into our respective worlds where we reflect the light of God’s love that he has poured out upon us.
What we do at church is not an end in itself. Our discipleship is not primarily about building the church; it is about learning to be the Church in our world. What we do on Sundays is done in service to the other six days of the week.
Between September 10th and November 27th our sermons will be drawn from the Gospel of John and focus on the theme of discipleship. Over these weeks as we explore what Christian discipleship looks like, I also want to encourage us to work with a related question. Namely: How does what we do together on Sundays help us to frame our other six days? I’d welcome the chance to hear your answer to this question and will be periodically asking folks to share these reflections with us in worship. The other six days gain meaning and energy as we set them in the context of the Sabbath day. Let’s spend some time celebrating that truth and so “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
Dave Rohrer, 9/10/17
Spring, as its name implies, is that season where life is popping out all over. Daily we are treated to an overwhelming contradiction of winter, an almost reckless assertion of life and renewal, an unbridled exertion of energy. Everything is waking up and making up for lost time. Streams swell and run faster. The starved brown twigs of deciduous trees and shrubs get plump and ultimately burst with color. Birds sing, flit about and appear to be working off the pent up energy stored during winter. Everywhere there are invitations to ponder nature’s ritual of renewal.
This spring, a couple of robins nesting in the trees near our house have become one of those invitations to me. As I sit at my desk I am daily entertained, and at times infuriated, by these robins which seem to be looking for a way to fly through our front windows. The ritual has been painfully repeated every day for the last four or five weeks. A robin perches for a moment on the balcony rail opposite the window, takes off toward the window, hits the glass, bounces off, hovers, readdresses the glass tapping it several times, and failing to get through ultimately flies away, only to return a few minutes later to try again.
After these many weeks of trying, I can report that the robins have still not gotten inside our house. From my perspective the only thing they have accomplished is the soiling of our front windows. To me their behavior is senseless, and their capacity to learn nonexistent. And my most common response to their tapping on our windows is: “Stupid birds!” I would imagine that an ornithologist could enlighten me about bird behavior and specifically why it is only the robins which have a fascination with our front windows, but for the time being the robins are for me a metaphor of what it means to be “thoughtless.”
The robins may not be learning anything, but they are teaching me. The robin’s repeated, futile attempts have become for me an image of what happens when we human beings live an unconsidered life. To succumb to thoughtlessness is to live without memory or anticipation. It is to repeatedly choose to allow impulse to be the primary arbiter of our behavior. It is the failure to take the time to sit before and consider a question before we choose to respond to it. To be thoughtless is to be reactive without first being reflective. And when this is our choice, we usually succumb to the tragedy of repeating our past mistakes and sometimes doing damage to others that thoughtfulness could have helped us to avoid.
Nature is full of invitations to step back and think about our lives, to sit before a question before we respond to it. Jesus’ invitation to “consider the lilies” (Matthew 6:28) comes to mind. With this phrase he invites us to reflect on why we toil so hard to attain things that will not last, or fix our imaginations on things that are ultimately too small energize us. He invites us to think about our past and dream about our future and so set our lives in a context that is bigger than the one we create for ourselves.
Consider the lilies. Choose thoughtfulness. It may slow us down a bit; but it also might also plant a small seed that grows into a big tree. God is in the business of accomplishing things that are greater than we can imagine. What might happen if we took a moment to consider something bigger than our initial reaction or ponder what would normally never enter our minds? Instead of perpetuating what has always been, we might actually find ourselves participating in a miracle of new life. [
Dave Rohrer, April 23, 2017
Since my sophomore year of high school one of the things I have known about myself is that I prefer aquatic over terrestrial sports. Quitting football that year and replacing it with water polo was the first indication that this was the case. I took well to the water. It graciously received me. No more swollen knees. No worries about land based battles with a body that had limited agility. The water was not as harsh of an environment for my large but uncoordinated adolescent frame. My nickname on the water polo team was Shamu, and I still embrace that identity with pride.
Yet this preference for aquatic sports also means that when I see those lithe, lululemon and Under Armour togged people running effortlessly along the side of the road, I look at them with no small amount of curiosity. I see those runners and I usually ask myself “I wonder what that feels like?” They are clearly having an experience with which I cannot identify. When I try to run it feels like I am having an anxiety nightmare where I am struggling to get away from something threatening me, but hopelessly bogged down in some viscous goop that keeps my limbs from functioning normally.
We all know what we know and struggle to understand what we don’t know. Furthermore, the questions of who we are and what we know are not things we give much thought until we come into contact with folks who are different from us. For example, I never gave much thought to being white until I was the only white person in an African American history class in my junior year at UCLA. The experience of being spoken to by the professor in ways that were different from how he spoke to other members of the class, the regular experience of feeling like I was not being let in on a secret, and the fact that the lowest grade I received in four years of college was in this class, all conspired to help me understand for the first time that I was white.
As a part of the majority, and frankly, privileged, culture I have not given the question of my race much thought. In fact, I don’t think I even thought of myself as a part of a race at all. So I am still grateful for the ways that class at UCLA did far more than teach me about African American history. It exposed the profound limits of my imagination and understanding. It began to make me aware of the truth that black folks in this country have not had the luxury of not being aware of their blackness. I grew up never really thinking about the color of my skin. But African Americans have had a torturous history of being defined primarily, and sometimes solely, in terms of the color of their skin.
In light of this, I read St Paul’s words in Colossians 3 with great interest. In describing the renewal that takes place in us by the transforming power of Jesus Christ he invites us to embrace the irrelevance of race as a key aspect of our human identity:
In that renewal there is no longer Jew and Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.
There is great freedom in what Paul asserts here. But there is equally an enormous question that raises its head and demands to be addressed. If in Christ race has been relegated to a place of irrelevance in determining who we are as human beings, then why is Sunday morning at 10:00 still the most segregated hour in America? I think it is important to work with this question, and that is part of what we will be doing during the season of Lent. As we explore Biblical texts that give witness to the struggle of the early church to live into their one new ethnicity in Christ, we have the opportunity to join them in that exploration and ask ourselves what it means to be “one in Christ.”
Dave Rohrer, 3/1/2017
In worship a few weeks ago we sang a hymn by G. K. Chesterton titled “O God of Earth and Altar.” The second stanza of that hymn is a prayer for deliverance. It is an admission of the lies we tell ourselves and a plea for rescue from the effects of those untruths:
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!
In essence it is a prayer that concerns our public faith. Help us to recognize the foul balls that are hit our way because we live in this world. Show us the way through the swamp of attempted manipulations and the mire of untruths that we are daily told. Wake us up to Truth and empower us to patiently trust that the light of Truth will illumine our darkness and empower us to persevere.
As followers of Jesus, Truth for us is not an abstraction. It is not an idea. It is not a list of precepts or even a set of facts. Truth is a person. And as we stare into the face of this Truth we discern the Way to Life. What we see when we stare into the face of Jesus is one who gave up his power and in so doing became more powerful that any earthly leader could ever imagine becoming. We see one who chose not to throw around the authority of his “Godness” and in so doing showed us the true heart of what it means to be God.
In his interview with Pontius Pilate just before he is condemned to death, Jesus gets into a discussion with Pilate about the nature of truth (John 18:33-38).
Are you King of the Jews?
Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?
I am not a Jew am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?
My Kingdom is not from this world. If my Kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is my Kingdom is not from here.
So you are a King?
You say that I am a King. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
What is truth?
In response to Pilate’s question, Jesus remains silent, and in that silence he gives the answer to Pilate’s question: “I am the Truth.” As Frederick Buechner writes in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale: “Before it is a word, the Gospel that is truth is silence, a pregnant silence in its ninth month, and in answer to Pilate’s question, Jesus keeps silent, even with his hands tied behind him manages to hold silence out like a terrible gift.” (p. 16)
As he interacts with the political power of his day, Jesus essentially puts Pilate on notice that the power of Rome cannot last. Pilate’s authority to kill can never be a power to heal. His power to condemn and seemingly eradicate this political nuisance standing in front of him will only present him with a new list of problems that he will not solve and a heavier set of burdens that he will never be able to lift.
Jesus is the Truth who sets us free. His power is not the fragile power of the state that never knows peace because it must engage the unending and ultimately unsustainable task of uncovering and stamping out all threats of opposition. Yet Jesus’ power is the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love that will always be greater than anything we can ask for or imagine.
In these days in our nation when we are arguing so vehemently and vociferously about what the power of the state can and should accomplish and how and by whom this power should be wielded, it is important that we followers of Jesus set this argument in a Kingdom context. Regardless of who is in power, our public faith is always lived out in the context of a system that believes it can do more than it really can. Earthly power will never have the last word. It will always be overcome by the Truth of God’s love.
Once God has spoken, twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
Dave Rohrer 2/3/17
At the beginning of his first epistle, St. Peter celebrates the truth that God has mercifully acted to give us “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pt. 1:3).” I read this and I hear both an assurance and a challenge. The assurance is that God has made all things new and set before us an open future full of the opportunity for new life. The challenge is to claim and live into this hope, to somehow embody it right now.
When we hear the word hope, our tendency is to think about what is going to happen in some distant future. Maybe it’s the hope of heaven when we die, or the coming of a new heaven and new earth “in the last day.” However we configure it in our imagination, what we hope for is often something that we don’t expect to experience in this present life. It is something we long for, something we expect to receive. Yet it is something that may have little bearing on what orders our lives in the here and now.
Yet the “living hope” that Peter celebrates is not primarily about the fulfillment of some distant promise. It is rather the confidence we have that is based on something that has already happened. Namely, “the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” In other words, because we believe in the resurrection Jesus, we believe in a new life that is live-able RIGHT NOW. The resurrection of Jesus assures us that death does not have the last word and that emboldens us to claim a new life in Christ, RIGHT NOW! It empowers us to stand against the various ways our world invites us to live in fear of death and to choose life instead.
All of this abstract theology begs a very concrete, practical question: What does this new life look like and how do we go about living it? If this new life is live-able right now, how do we go about claiming God’s gift of transformation? The answer is embodied in the word love. We allow God to love us and then reflect that same love to our world. We trust God enough to allow his love to gradually transform us and flow through us. We keep our eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfector” of the Way of Love; or as Peter writes, “we set all our hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring us (1 Pt. 1:13),” and empowered by his Spirit we learn to walk in the way of love.
It’s as simple and as hard as that. It’s as simple as letting Jesus lead us and as hard as letting Jesus lead us. And that’s why we go to church. That’s why we come together to worship God each week. That’s why we need each other. It is best not to walk this Way alone. There are many distractions along this journey of faith and all sorts of invitations to revert to living a life that is motivated by a fear of death instead of one focused on God’s promise of a resurrection to new life. So by coming together to encourage one another and “stir up one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24),” we make ourselves available to this empowering, transforming work of God’s Spirit and learn how to love.
Distractions are a normal hazard we encounter in any journey. In fact, we can’t set out on any quest without expecting to have our head turned by things that delay us or put roadblocks in the way of reaching our destination. So we cannot expect that the journey of faith is any different in this respect. We’re going to engage things that slow us down or stand in our way of growing in love of God and love of neighbor. And as we recognize and name these distractions we can learn how to set them aside in order to get on with the business of following Jesus.
When Jesus issues the invitation “Follow me,” it doesn’t come with the threat that he’ll leave us behind if we trip and fall along the Way. Rather his invitation is accompanied by the gentle and persistent reminder to pay attention. In the wake of encountering a distraction that has diverted our attention away from our leader, or when we have fallen because of that pot hole that we failed to notice, Jesus’ invitation remains steadfast: “Follow me. Watch, stay awake and look for the signs of my presence among you. Let me guide you in the direction of love and empower you to avoid the snares and pit-falls that would turn your attention away from me.”
Dave Rohrer, 1/5/17
Before our daughter was in Kindergarten she attended a Christian preschool near our home. Each year at Christmas-time the children would put on a program for the parents, grandparents, and younger siblings. It was one of those annual “photo-op” experiences where we would enjoy our children as they sang for us and showed us their Christmas crafts.
One year during the presentation the children sang a song that had the lyric: Advent is a time for waiting, not a time for celebrating.
I cannot remember the tune of the song, and I am probably the only one in my family who remembers hearing it sung. I suppose I remember it because at the time it struck me funny to hear this admonition about ecclesiastical protocol melodiously announced through the voices of three and four year olds who probably had little or no idea about the meaning of what they were singing. It was sort of humorous to hear these children dutifully advising their parents not to fall prey to the secular culture’s profane practice of celebrating Christmas before its time.
There are many Christian traditions where it is all but anathema to sing a Christmas carol in worship prior to Christmas Eve. Like the rigid Sabbath practices of some denominations, this admonition about Advent being a time for waiting rather than celebrating felt a bit like religious finger wagging warning us not to offend God. In my mind it was yet another example of how we Christians can, in an effort to get it “right”, make a mess of things and end up getting it wrong. In the attempt to call us all to think about something bigger than shopping, sleigh bells, Santa Claus and snow, we were told what not to do rather than called to contemplate and anticipate the advent of a reality that is “abundantly far more than we can ask for or imagine.”
The Advent invitation to wait for the Lord and watch for God’s appearing is not to consign ourselves to a place of joyless darkness where we stop all activity, shiver in the cold of a “bleak mid-winter,” and contemplate how bad things are. Advent is indeed about waiting, but it is also about celebrating, because it is about an active and expectant waiting. In Advent we do not wait for an unknown; we wait for something about which we are certain. We rise to our tip toes in anticipation and strain to see that speck of light on the horizon, that dimly burning wick, which provides the spark that ignites the light that cannot be extinguished by darkness. The waiting we do at Advent is like waiting for the dawn. We know it is going to come, but it always seems to take a little longer to get here than what we might desire.
Advent teaches us how to endure the wait. It teaches us how to joyously anticipate the fulfillment of God’s promise. The stories that frame our Advent sermon series this year are about folks who are waiting actively. They show us how to make ourselves ready for God’s revelation of himself in our world. As we sit with Zechariah, Mary, the Shepherds, the Magi, and Simeon this Advent and Christmas Season, they can become our teachers. From them we can learn how to watch and listen for the persistent invitations to life that God is sending our way. Advent is indeed a time for waiting, but it is also a season of celebrating. So get to your tip toes and look through the darkness for that speck of light. Or as the Psalmist sings, “Be strong, let your hearts take courage and wait for the Lord.”
Dave Rohrer, 11/27/2016
As I write this we are six days away from our national election day. It has been a hard season running up to this day. It has been a season of animosity and rancor, accusation and counter-accusation, cynicism and disdain; mistrust and fear. Some believe that it promises to be the most important election of their lifetime. Others call it a nightmarish aberration and a joke. Yet whether we breathe a sigh of relief next Wednesday or wail at an outcome that we think cannot abide, Jesus will still be Lord.
When I say this I do not mean that I believe God is somehow orchestrating the specifics of our national election by ordaining the outcome and the one elected will be God’s choice. What I mean is that the outcome of this election will not change the truth that in Christ we are a part of reality that is far greater than the game of national and global politics. I mean that if Jesus Christ holds all things together then we will still be in his embrace.
It’s not that the outcome of the election doesn’t matter for us. By this confession of faith I am not somehow suggesting that it is better for Christians to withdraw from the secular world and think only about the promise of heaven and a life beyond this life. I am saying that this, or for that matter, any, election does not have the last word and that we can always set the events of our lives in this world in a context that is bigger than these events.
And this is why, irrespective of the outcome of this election, we can still live as a people of hope. We can live in the confidence that the God who began his good work among us is still going about the business of completing it (Phil. 1:6). We can live reflecting the gentleness that is fostered by the steadfast love of God and the assurance of God’s presence (Phil. 4:5). What’s more, when we live in this way, we will plant seeds that are far more enduring than the political victories of the party in power.
Psalm 33 has been my companion in these last days before our election. At the beginning of the psalm we are called to worship the God who loves righteousness and justice and has filled the world he created with steadfast love. At the end of the psalm we are admonished to wait for the Lord and invited to pray: “Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” And sandwiched between these two admonitions is a reminder to set our lives in this world in that bigger context of God’s kingdom: “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing, he frustrates the plans of the peoples” and “A King is not saved by his great army … a war horse is a vain hope for victory.”
At times it feels like we live among forces that seem more powerful and enduring than the reign of God. We don’t. The “game of thrones” being played out in our world will affect history as we write it, but it cannot alter the intentions of God. Nor should it alter our resolve to live in light of those intentions. For if nothing can separate us from the love of God, then nothing can thwart our resolve to reflect this truth and our choice to confidently sow the seeds of hope in our world.
Dave Rohrer, 11/2/16
One of the things that I find most odious about the state of American politics these days is the way in which a politician’s favorability ratings are his/her primary stock in trade. High favorability ratings are like currency that a politician can spend in order to get things done, while low favorability ratings seem to be an invitation to say anything or do anything that might have the effect of elevating one’s standing in the eyes of his/her constituents. Living according to this political economy determined by how much people like you, produces a strange kind of leader. Leaders operating in this economy tend to look over their shoulders before they act rather than make decisions based on their own convictions and conscience.
Yet it’s not just in politics that people play this game. Religious life is also a sphere where the idea of our favorability ratings can deeply influence the way we live our lives. It is pretty easy to fall into the thought that our primary work with God is to make sure that he thinks we’re OK. History reveals the stories of all sorts of religious products and practices that promise good favorability ratings with God. Offer this sacrifice, perform this ritual, say this incantation, keep these rules, cut your hair (or DON’T cut your hair), eat this food (and NOT that food), wear these clothes (and NOT those clothes). You name it, over the centuries religion has been primed and ready to sell us a variety of products that purport to secure our good graces in the eyes of the Creator.
When this is the case religion degrades into the work of merely striving to do things for God. Religion of this kind promises us an insurance policy which guarantees us a good life if we do the things that supposedly keep God happy with us. And of course, that means religion also advises us about how to avoid the mis-steps that might cause our favorability with God rating to slip. A whole ecclesiastical industry springs up around these quests and people like myself (pastors, priests, rabbis, mullahs, monks, medicine men, shamans etc.) can become merely the purveyors of goods and services sold to assure people that God likes them.
Yet when I read the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, especially the Old Testament prophets, I hear a message that calls us away from this religion where we are preoccupied with doing things for God in order to impress God. In fact, in more than one place the prophets deliver a message from God that in essence says: “Stop trying to impress me, stop doing things that you think are for my benefit. They don’t impress me; actually they just make me tired.”
Over and over the prophets delivered the message: “Your God is too small. Why do you think that he can fit in the little box of your religion?” Isaiah starts right off with this message when he delivers the word in which God asks: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? (Is. 1:11-12)” Psalm 50 offers a similar perspective when God reminds his people: “every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.”
Psalm 50 then goes on to offer an alternative to these ostentatious religious displays. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving…. Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify me (Ps. 50:14-15).” In other words, “Stop thinking that you can impress me and try just relating to me.” God doesn’t need to be impressed; we can’t really do anything that will get God to pay more attention to us. What we can do however, is to say “Thanks.” And we do this every time we act out of the rich resource of God’s grace that has been lavished upon us and engage in acts that reflect God’s love for the world.
God doesn’t send us out with the commission: “Go prove your love for me; clean up that mess over there and maybe then I’ll notice you.” His commission begins with a very different invitation: “Follow me. Come be a part of what I am up to in this world. I don’t need you to do things for me as much as I invite you to participate with me in a ministry of reconciliation that is putting things right and remaking the world.”
Dave Rohrer, 10/10/16
My Grandmother was born in the late 19th century and died at the age of 90 in 1985. Near the end of her life I remember hearing her reflect on the technological advances she had seen in her lifetime. She marveled at the move from a horse and buggy world to a world where we successfully went to the moon and back. I had just finished the sixth grade when the Apollo 11 lunar landing module Eagle set down on the moon and Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap for mankind.” So as a child of the space age, when I think about what advances in technology I will be reflecting on with my grandchildren (if I have grandchildren…. that’s not really up to me), I don’t think as much about our accomplishments of moving farther out into space as I think about our move deeper into the interior of the molecular universe.
As a kid my favorite movie was a science fiction thriller called the “Fantastic Voyage.” It told the story of a medical crew and their high tech submarine being shrunk to the size where they were injected into the blood stream of a patient and sent on a medical mission to take care of a malady that was inoperable. They had to risk things like being crushed by a heart valve and fending off anti-bodies that sought to destroy them. When we made our annual trip to Disneyland I would ride the “Adventure through Inner Space” sponsored by the Monsanto corporation. It was supposed to simulate the experience of being reduced to a size smaller than an atom so that we could travel inside of molecular spaces. As a college student at UCLA in the late 70’s I daily walked past the Molecular Biology Institute. Now as an adult, I have seen the mapping of the human genome, the development of designer T-cells that can fight cancer and I can probably look forward to discoveries in this “inner space” that I cannot even begin to imagine.
My point in mentioning all of this is to note that in the smallest of places there is a space as expansive as the cosmos. The smallest of places is actually enormous and filled with a creative potential that seems beyond comprehension. And this reminds me of what Jesus says about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed.
We know today why a seed is packed with so much potential. In the genetic code that it carries it holds a treasure that sustains life. Its apparent insignificance masks its power to reproduce itself and thus many more seeds like it. In Jesus’ day, it was the smallest unit he could use to make his point, which in essence was to say: “Don’t be fooled by the apparent insignificance of this little kernel. It is much more than food for one bird, it is actually the source of life. There is more significance in this insignificant seed than you can ever imagine and if you don’t believe me just stick it in the ground and see what happens.”
A great deal of what the faith journey is about is the risk of trusting seemingly insignificant acts of kindness and love to produce big results. Making these small contributions is like planting seeds. It sows life into places that seem dormant or dead. It plants hope in places where there has been nothing but despair. It’s what makes the wilderness bloom and create an explosion of life and color.
In my sermons this fall I’d like to explore some of what the Bible says about seeds. As we unpack this metaphor, what we see is a consistent Divine invitation to take those small and seemingly insignificant steps to sow life and hope in places that are lost in despair and darkness. When we put those kernels of hope in the ground we can never be assured that they will change anything. In fact, it almost feels like we are throwing them away. But there is more going on than meets the eye and it’s only by taking the risk of sowing those seeds that we will experience the joy of being participants in the big, big work of God.
Dave Rohrer, 9/1/2016
The other day I heard a report on NPR about the unforeseen problems that were growing out of a new kind of nuisance ordinance that many city councils had recently adopted. In essence these ordinances allowed for fining a landlord if the number of times the police were called to his rental properties exceeded a certain limit. The intent of the law was to enhance the landlord’s awareness and engage the landlord’s participation in the happenings of the neighborhoods. It was supposed to be a way to discourage slum lords who simply collected their rents and neglected their properties.
However, despite the best intention of the city councils which adopted these ordinances, these laws were inadvertently making life harder for many of the tenants who occupied the apartments of the landlords who were being fined. Landlords fearful of being fined would evict tenants who were close to exceeding their amount of police calls and that made the tenants reluctant to report crime. In one situation a single mother was afraid to call police to remove an abusive ex-boyfriend from her apartment because she feared being evicted. Caught between the rock and hard place of having to choose between making space for her abusive former partner and homelessness, she chose the former.
It is yet another example of how, despite our best intentions, our attempts to legislate good behavior sometimes end up creating an opportunity for more bad behavior. The law is rarely an effective tool to transform bad behavior, it is primarily a tool to identify and punish it. It seeks to build a fence around bad behavior to try to contain it, but it cannot change the hearts of people who engage in it.
Jesus made the same point again and again in his conversations with the Pharisees and scribes. Laws that were supposed to ensure that people would respect the holiness of God (observing the Sabbath, following rules about ritual purity, etc.) often had the effect of isolating and diminishing the people who through no fault of their own were deemed unclean. In short, obeying the law sometimes led to committing a more egregious wrong against another human being.
Mark 3:1-6 describes one such situation. A man with a withered hand comes to the synagogue to worship on the Sabbath; Jesus sees him and reaches out to heal him. Out of the corner of his eye, Jesus sees the “religious police” just waiting to accuse him for violating the laws about not performing a healing on the Sabbath. So Jesus poses the obvious question to them: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” It’s a good question; but the legalists, caught between their own rock and hard place, refuse to engage the question and meet Jesus’ query with silence. So Jesus, by Mark’s report, “looked at them with anger. . . , grieved by their hardness of heart.” And with this fury in his eyes he says to the afflicted man, “Stretch out your hand,” and the man’s hand was restored.
Jesus’ point is pretty clear. Law that is not informed by the greater law of love and respect, has no power to restore. It is, as St. Paul points out, a “stern tutor” who identifies the wrong, but has little to offer when it comes to the work of making things right. Religious laws are very good at doing the work of pointing out what is wrong. But transforming hearts to the point that human beings desire to do what is right, is another matter altogether. And Jesus is about this very thing. For the Gospel (good news) that Jesus came preaching was that life is about much more than simply avoiding wrong; it is instead a matter of answering the invitation that God has been issuing since the beginning of time, to take up and rejoice in all that is right.
Dave Rohrer, 7/1/2016
I have a friend who, when he tells the story of how he came to faith, speaks of reading the Gospel of Mark for the first time and being “absolutely captivated by the person of Jesus.” He was a freshman in college and taking a Bible as Literature course. He had come from a family where faith was not a part of the mix and this was his first exposure to the Bible. The assignment was to read the Gospel of Mark in one sitting and as he read he became more and more fascinated by the character of Jesus. The one about whom this story was written became someone he wanted to know more about. More specifically, as he read Mark’s Gospel, Jesus became someone my friend wanted to know.
As someone who grew up hearing the stories about Jesus in Sunday School, my experience of the Bible was very different from my friend’s. By the time I was a freshman in college I had pretty much come to the place of disregarding the Bible. Jesus wasn’t fascinating to me, he didn’t captivate me. Sure, I knew the stories about him. But they had long since ceased to have any power in my life. I held those stories in an archive of my imagination that I felt no need to access. Like old yearbooks or trophies stored in a box in the attic, the Bible was a part of my history I could not bring myself to throw away, but it was also something I had no need to display on the shelves of my present life.
As I compare the very different stories of these two college freshman there is an element that unites them. Quite simply, if we are going to have an adult faith, we are going to have to engage Jesus as an adult. And when we do this, when we sit down and actually read the entirety of Mark’s Gospel in one sitting, when we see how remarkable and strange, how compassionate and driven, how mysterious and present, how loving and brutally honest the Jesus of the Gospels is, we can’t simply relegate him to some distant corner of the attic of our memory and imagination. We either need to deal with him or reject him.
“Deal with me.” I think it is another way of rendering the more familiar invitation that Jesus issues when he says, “Follow me.” “Come and see what I am up to. Come and be a part of what I am doing. Take the risk of looking at the world through a different set of lenses and experience the joy that comes with accepting this challenge. You were meant for something so much more than what you have come to be. So come away from what is less than the best and follow me. Walk with me and walk toward life.”
This summer in my sermons I want to take some time to explore Mark’s Gospel. It’s hard to read Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ story and think about Jesus as someone who could fit in our hearts. It is more of a tale of one who invites us into his heart. It is not a story about finding a safe place as much as it is about stumbling along behind and working to keep up with one who is leading us on an adventure. So I’d like to challenge you take on the same assignment made by my friend’s Bible Lit. teacher. Set aside a few hours and read the book of Mark in one sitting. Let’s read Mark and accept the challenge of dealing with Jesus.
Dave Rohrer, 6/1/2016
I pride myself on the ability to pronounce people’s names, especially Germanic sounding last names. Somehow I think three years of high school German qualifies me for this. However, our congregation has presented me with some challenges to this self-understanding. The first time I publicly pronounced Walchenbach, I dutifully pronounced the “W” using the English sound we ascribe to the letter “v” and the “ach” with the guttural sound one makes when clearing the throat. Jim let me know that a more anglicized version with a lot less throat clearing would be preferred. Then I spent about a month referring to Mark and Marin Kaetzel and their sons as the KATEzels rather than the way they pronounce the name, which rhymes with “pretzel.”
Of course in both cases I still contend that I was perfectly justified in my mispronunciation; if we were in Germany, that is. In the case of the Kaetzel’s, I remember explaining my faux paux to Mark. I let him know that many German families who came to America transliterated the umlaut over the “a” (i.e. Kätzel) as an “ae” for an English spelling, thus trying to preserve the German pronunciation and this is why I pronounced it the way I did. When I said this he graciously replied, “No problem, you were just overthinking it.”
Yes indeed, I was overthinking it. Perfectionists tend to do this. We like being right; so we learn the rules and then show off by letting other people know that we know them. But sometimes the rules we have gone to the trouble to learn don’t apply, or different rules apply, and our “rightness” suddenly becomes wrong. In this case, what might have been true in Germany, was not true here. The fact that I was “right” was totally irrelevant to the situation here and now. The way I was pronouncing those names was being controlled more by etymological abstractions than by my relationship with the people to whom those names belonged.
And there is the moral of this story: relationship often trumps our rules. And thank God it does. Being right has certain benefits, but sometimes insisting on being right bears the fruit of being alone. Insisting on our rightness can actually alienate us from others. Insisting on calling someone by a name they do not call themselves is not a great way to build bridges.
The word “righteousness” gets thrown around quite a bit in religious communities. Often we associate this word with the state of being right. We think of people as being righteous if they know the rules and are good about following them, and also perhaps good at noticing when someone else isn’t following them. By this definition someone who is righteous isn’t very good at relationship. The irony here is that this way of using the word righteous is the exact opposite of what the Bible means when it uses the word. In the Bible, the word righteous means being in right relationship with others.
The way of Jesus is a way of relationship. He doesn’t hand us a rule book and say, “Here, memorize this, and I’ll be back to test you on what’s here.” Instead he says things like, follow me, abide with me, and come and see. He doesn’t set out to teach us how to be right. He teaches us how to be in relationship. On the way of Jesus, one rule is the lens through which we see all the other rules: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Dave Rohrer, 5/1/2016
In the Easter season the talk in the church is often framed in terms like renewal and new life. We link resurrection with the season with Spring. The images of bulbs blooming and dormant perennials springing to life become a means of representing new life in Christ. Yet the springtime metaphors of butterflies breaking free of their cocoons and animals emerging from their winter hibernation don’t really do justice to what we are celebrating in the wake of the Resurrection of Jesus. For what we are celebrating is not merely a continuation of the cycle of life, but a reordering of life itself; not the perpetual renewal of life as we have always known it, but the advent of an entirely new way of living. A remaking of all things.
St. Paul sums it up well when he writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “Death is swallowed up in victory” and has therefore “lost its sting.” In other words, because of the resurrection of Jesus, instead of an expectation of death, there is an expectation of eternal life, and that new perspective has a dramatic impact on the way we live our lives in the here and now.
The resurrection of Jesus reveals and disarms a lie that undergirds the way we configure our lives in a fallen and unredeemed world. Eugene Peterson sums up this lie in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction when he describes the primary motivators of our lives in this fallen world as “being in control rather than being in relationship [and] exercising power rather than practicing love.”(p.147)
When we live with the assumption that the acquisition of control and power are the keys to success, we live propelled by fear. Fear of our own death and the need to gain power and control over the things that might hasten our death, takes all of our energy. Protecting life becomes more important than living it. The vulnerability and openness required for relationship and love have little room to grow in a world where our primary task is to be vigilant about the things that will merely insure our protection and safety.
When Jesus says “Follow me,” he is inviting us to explore this new life. He is calling us to turn from a fear of death and trust that God has “delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom if his beloved Son.” (Col. 1:13) There is a risk inherent in that invitation. It is the risk of letting go of the lie that keeps us bound to a fear of death and reordering our lives around the truth that can free us to live an abundant life. It’s the risk of embracing a truth that initially makes life feel a bit dangerous and wild. But in the final analysis it’s the risk of giving up the power and control that we could never really keep in order to gain the love and relationship that will never go away.
Dave Rohrer 4/1/2016
As a pastor one of the great comforts in my work, as well as one of the great challenges, is the way this work is framed by the rhythm of the Christian Year. Each year we move through the story of redemption as we walk through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Ordinary time. The calendar of the Christian year is a comfort in that I have a framework from which to operate, a rhythm that moves to the beat of a familiar story of Divine redemption. But it is also a challenge in that this familiar story asks to be told in new ways. It’s never a matter of playing the tape of last year’s episode. But sometimes creativity gives way to the pressures of time and the pastor’s messages end up having more than a faint echo of familiarity with last year.
To be honest I must admit that there are seasons that are more and less enjoyable for me. And since I am being honest, I can tell you without hesitation that Lent is my favorite season. Now this is not simply because I am a notorious “glass half-empty” kind of guy. It isn’t because I love ashes and thorns and the dour gong of the liturgical proclamation: “You are dust and to dust you will return.” I love Lent because it invites us to consider the whole truth. Lent tells the whole story. It is a season that begins with the admission that we will die and ends with a celebration of resurrection. Lent gives us the opportunity to both acknowledge our limits as created beings and live in the confidence of that the love and grace of our God is without limits. We begin the season with the admission: “We are dust and to dust we will return,” and we end the season with the proclamation “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.”
The journey of faith is always being lived out between these two poles. When we answer Jesus’ invitation to follow, we do so aware of both our deep need and his deep love. We walk carrying the burden of an awareness of all that we are not, and we walk in the hopeful confidence that death does not have the last word. The movement from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week and Easter is a practice that shows us how the journey of faith is both a burden and a blessing. It is filled with seasons of hard work and joyous surprises. It is not a trek that is easy and safe, but it is a journey that is exhilarating and good. It is a journey that travels through a wilderness of abandonment and temptation and a trial of betrayal and death. But it also takes us through the mystery of an empty tomb and the promise of steadfast love and eternal presence.
To sustain this journey with Jesus we must carry the seemingly contradictory realities of death and resurrection close to our hearts. The Lenten journey teaches us to do this. It helps us to discover and tap into those renewable spiritual resources that fuel the everyday steps we take as we walk with Jesus through this world. So as we anticipate embarking on another season of Lent, I invite you to be a part of a practice that will encourage and empower you on the Way of faith. Dedicate this season to growing in your awareness of the death that overcomes death itself and so becomes the portal to abundant and everlasting life.
Dave Rohrer 3/1/2016