May 24, 2020
God’s Presence in the Ordinary
Series: (All)
May 24, 2020. Is anyone else feeling a little bit humdrum these days? During this time of physical isolation and sheltering in place, it's easy to lose track of the days and to lose track of our purpose. We might even find ourselves saying, "What is the point?" Rachel Helton preaches today on how our reading from Ecclesiastes (as well as lessons from the movie "Groundhog Day") can help us find our purpose for these monotonous days during the pandemic.
 
Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, Ecclesiastes 2:12-14, Ecclesiastes 2:18-25
 
*** Transcript ***
 
Has anyone else been waking up lately with the sound of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" playing in their head? I'm looking for Mark Ruff, because I know he put this idea in my mind a few weeks ago, and now it's happening to me. So, for those of you that know and those of you that don't know, in the movie "Groundhog Day" from the early 1990s, a self-proclaimed, under-appreciated weatherman is assigned with covering the events of February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania when a groundhog named Phil will predict the end of winter, based on whether or not he sees his shadow. The weatherman, also named Phil, has contempt for this assignment and for the people in this small town. He's eager to get this story over with and move on to bigger and better things. But thanks to a blizzard, Phil is stuck spending an extra night in Punxsutawney. And he wakes up the next morning to find that it's February 2nd. Again.
 
Day after day, he wakes up in the same bed, hearing the same song playing on the clock radio: "I Got You Babe," by Sonny & Cher. He sees the same people doing the same things. It's always February 2nd. He's trapped in this sort of time loop. He goes from confusion to frustration to downright anger. He eventually starts to manipulate this reality for his own benefit — initially because it seems there are no real consequences for any of his behaviors, and then eventually because he's trying to win over his love interest. But despite his efforts, nothing ever really changes. Everything is fleeting. All is vanity.
 
Does this feel at all familiar? Is anyone else feeling a little bit humdrum these days? During this time of physical isolation and sheltering in place, it's easy to lose track of the days and to lose track of our purpose. We might even find ourselves saying, "What is the point?" A few Saturdays ago, I decided that our house should be cleaned from top to bottom — and everyone was going to help. About an hour in, my son Isaac said, "Mom, what are we doing? No one has been in our house for weeks. No one will be coming to our house for weeks. By the time someone can come over again, everything will be dirty. What is the point?" What is the point?
 
And there have been plenty of disappointments in the last few weeks too, haven't there? Field trips that didn't happen. Last days of school that meant, at least for us, picking up a garbage bag of your child's desk contents while standing six feet apart, wearing a mask, on the sidewalk in front of the school. High school graduations that are meant to celebrate achievements and years of friendship that were moved to Zoom. Family vacations canceled. Special visits from friends and family afar postponed. And then there are the casual meals around the dinner table with the friends from down the block, that are suddenly just absent from our lives.
 
And all this not to mention the real suffering that is happening from COVID. You're surrounded by words and images of illness and death. There's a real danger in our humdrum of becoming used to these images and numbers, of becoming numb to the injustices of our world that mean that people living in North St. Louis, people living in poverty, people of color are being affected more harshly by this virus. We can become numb to the pain that people are feeling and the sheer magnitude of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of deaths from this pandemic.
 
As we spend day after day doing the same things, inside the same walls, with the same people, without the usual moments of novelty and excitement to break things up a bit, the humdrum can feel unavoidable. In the words of Kohelet, the teacher in Ecclesiastes, what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see all is vanity, a chasing after the wind. The Hebrew word "hevel" is repeated 37 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It's the word that's often translated as "vanity" or "meaningless." But it's perhaps better understood as "fleeting," "impermanent" — something like a vapor or a mist.
 
People have been searching for the meaning of life throughout all of recorded history. Kohelet searches for the meaning too. Is it our work? His answer is no. In the end, all that we work for may be handed over to someone else. Our achievements are impermanent. So, is it knowledge? I hate to tell you this, graduates, but his answer is no to this too. In the end, the person with knowledge will come to the same fate as the person without knowledge. Is it pleasure? Should we just live it up, seize the day? Is this the meaning of life? Another no. This too is fleeting. So the Book of Ecclesiastes opens with the teacher looking around and declaring that everything about life is meaningless, vaporous, fleeting, out of his control. Kohelet tries to justify his life with reason, and he just can't do it. He is honest and raw and frustrated. If nothing else, this book might teach us that God sees us in our frustrated search for meaning. We are allowed to be there. We are in fact invited to be there.
 
Luckily though, this isn't the end of our story. This isn't the whole picture. So what then is the meaning? Where then can be our hope? Despite the fact that nothing about our existence is guaranteed, that there are limitations to our earthly life, God is limitless. Even in the mundane, simple activities of our daily existence, it is God's presence that makes life meaningful. It is God's presence that moves our activities from ordinary to holy, and creates purpose out of our willingness to use our lives to serve others. The ability to find not just purpose, but joy in our purpose and in our very existence, is a gift from God — a gift to be received but not possessed. When we surrender our time, our efforts, our simple moments to God — not expecting a reward, not expecting productivity or end results, but simply having faith that God will be active in our lives — this makes hope and life and meaning eternal.
 
Kohelet writes in chapter 2, verse 24, "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also I saw is from the hand of God, for apart from him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Eating, drinking, working, enjoying — these can be acts of faith, faith in the eternal. This is where we, like Jesus, may become glorified by God, and bring glory to God, in this very moment, however boring and humdrum it may feel.
 
So is the work the meaning of life? No, but we should do work that's meaningful and that serves others. Is knowledge the meaning of life. No, but we should pursue wisdom that helps us to understand God's purposes for creation. Is pleasure the meaning of life? No, but we should enjoy the pleasures of life knowing that they are gifts from God.
 
In a moment, we'll pray together the Lord's Prayer, and we will ask God to provide our daily bread. We are asking God for the ordinary things that sustain our lives. We are surrendering to the fact that in the absence of God, the cosmos is repetitive, weary, fleeting. But God's presence in the ordinary, God's presence in our eating and drinking, in our work and in our enjoyment, makes it meaningful. This is the wisdom of God that has the power to sustain us. This is our daily bread.
 
As the movie "Groundhog Day" moves on, Bill Murray's character starts to be transformed. He starts to do things not for himself, but for other people. And he starts to surrender to the fact that he does not have the power to change his situation. With this acknowledgement of his own limitations, and his shift from serving himself to serving others, he finally wakes up to February 3rd. In the final scene of the movie, Phil steps out onto the street — the same street that he's been stepping out onto, day after day after day — always the same gray, detestable street. But today it's new. He sees the world suddenly in a new way, and he looks around and he says, "It's beautiful. Let's live here."
 
As we step into week 11 of COVID isolation, instead of focusing on the day when all will be back to normal — whatever that may mean — what if instead, we took a deep breath, quieted our anxious minds, allowed ourselves to ask what purpose does God have for this day? What meaning can God bring to this monotonous, humdrum, fleeting day, and all the simple moments in it? We just might find ourselves looking around our weary world, seeing God's promises of justice, hope, love, and saying to ourselves, "It's beautiful. Let's live here."
 
Amen.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Rachel Helton, Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, Ecclesiastes 2:12-14, Ecclesiastes 2:18-25, Sonny & Cher, I Got You Babe, Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, coronavirus
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  • May 24, 2020God’s Presence in the Ordinary
    May 24, 2020
    God’s Presence in the Ordinary
    Series: (All)
    May 24, 2020. Is anyone else feeling a little bit humdrum these days? During this time of physical isolation and sheltering in place, it's easy to lose track of the days and to lose track of our purpose. We might even find ourselves saying, "What is the point?" Rachel Helton preaches today on how our reading from Ecclesiastes (as well as lessons from the movie "Groundhog Day") can help us find our purpose for these monotonous days during the pandemic.
     
    Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, Ecclesiastes 2:12-14, Ecclesiastes 2:18-25
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Has anyone else been waking up lately with the sound of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" playing in their head? I'm looking for Mark Ruff, because I know he put this idea in my mind a few weeks ago, and now it's happening to me. So, for those of you that know and those of you that don't know, in the movie "Groundhog Day" from the early 1990s, a self-proclaimed, under-appreciated weatherman is assigned with covering the events of February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania when a groundhog named Phil will predict the end of winter, based on whether or not he sees his shadow. The weatherman, also named Phil, has contempt for this assignment and for the people in this small town. He's eager to get this story over with and move on to bigger and better things. But thanks to a blizzard, Phil is stuck spending an extra night in Punxsutawney. And he wakes up the next morning to find that it's February 2nd. Again.
     
    Day after day, he wakes up in the same bed, hearing the same song playing on the clock radio: "I Got You Babe," by Sonny & Cher. He sees the same people doing the same things. It's always February 2nd. He's trapped in this sort of time loop. He goes from confusion to frustration to downright anger. He eventually starts to manipulate this reality for his own benefit — initially because it seems there are no real consequences for any of his behaviors, and then eventually because he's trying to win over his love interest. But despite his efforts, nothing ever really changes. Everything is fleeting. All is vanity.
     
    Does this feel at all familiar? Is anyone else feeling a little bit humdrum these days? During this time of physical isolation and sheltering in place, it's easy to lose track of the days and to lose track of our purpose. We might even find ourselves saying, "What is the point?" A few Saturdays ago, I decided that our house should be cleaned from top to bottom — and everyone was going to help. About an hour in, my son Isaac said, "Mom, what are we doing? No one has been in our house for weeks. No one will be coming to our house for weeks. By the time someone can come over again, everything will be dirty. What is the point?" What is the point?
     
    And there have been plenty of disappointments in the last few weeks too, haven't there? Field trips that didn't happen. Last days of school that meant, at least for us, picking up a garbage bag of your child's desk contents while standing six feet apart, wearing a mask, on the sidewalk in front of the school. High school graduations that are meant to celebrate achievements and years of friendship that were moved to Zoom. Family vacations canceled. Special visits from friends and family afar postponed. And then there are the casual meals around the dinner table with the friends from down the block, that are suddenly just absent from our lives.
     
    And all this not to mention the real suffering that is happening from COVID. You're surrounded by words and images of illness and death. There's a real danger in our humdrum of becoming used to these images and numbers, of becoming numb to the injustices of our world that mean that people living in North St. Louis, people living in poverty, people of color are being affected more harshly by this virus. We can become numb to the pain that people are feeling and the sheer magnitude of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of deaths from this pandemic.
     
    As we spend day after day doing the same things, inside the same walls, with the same people, without the usual moments of novelty and excitement to break things up a bit, the humdrum can feel unavoidable. In the words of Kohelet, the teacher in Ecclesiastes, what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see all is vanity, a chasing after the wind. The Hebrew word "hevel" is repeated 37 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It's the word that's often translated as "vanity" or "meaningless." But it's perhaps better understood as "fleeting," "impermanent" — something like a vapor or a mist.
     
    People have been searching for the meaning of life throughout all of recorded history. Kohelet searches for the meaning too. Is it our work? His answer is no. In the end, all that we work for may be handed over to someone else. Our achievements are impermanent. So, is it knowledge? I hate to tell you this, graduates, but his answer is no to this too. In the end, the person with knowledge will come to the same fate as the person without knowledge. Is it pleasure? Should we just live it up, seize the day? Is this the meaning of life? Another no. This too is fleeting. So the Book of Ecclesiastes opens with the teacher looking around and declaring that everything about life is meaningless, vaporous, fleeting, out of his control. Kohelet tries to justify his life with reason, and he just can't do it. He is honest and raw and frustrated. If nothing else, this book might teach us that God sees us in our frustrated search for meaning. We are allowed to be there. We are in fact invited to be there.
     
    Luckily though, this isn't the end of our story. This isn't the whole picture. So what then is the meaning? Where then can be our hope? Despite the fact that nothing about our existence is guaranteed, that there are limitations to our earthly life, God is limitless. Even in the mundane, simple activities of our daily existence, it is God's presence that makes life meaningful. It is God's presence that moves our activities from ordinary to holy, and creates purpose out of our willingness to use our lives to serve others. The ability to find not just purpose, but joy in our purpose and in our very existence, is a gift from God — a gift to be received but not possessed. When we surrender our time, our efforts, our simple moments to God — not expecting a reward, not expecting productivity or end results, but simply having faith that God will be active in our lives — this makes hope and life and meaning eternal.
     
    Kohelet writes in chapter 2, verse 24, "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also I saw is from the hand of God, for apart from him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Eating, drinking, working, enjoying — these can be acts of faith, faith in the eternal. This is where we, like Jesus, may become glorified by God, and bring glory to God, in this very moment, however boring and humdrum it may feel.
     
    So is the work the meaning of life? No, but we should do work that's meaningful and that serves others. Is knowledge the meaning of life. No, but we should pursue wisdom that helps us to understand God's purposes for creation. Is pleasure the meaning of life? No, but we should enjoy the pleasures of life knowing that they are gifts from God.
     
    In a moment, we'll pray together the Lord's Prayer, and we will ask God to provide our daily bread. We are asking God for the ordinary things that sustain our lives. We are surrendering to the fact that in the absence of God, the cosmos is repetitive, weary, fleeting. But God's presence in the ordinary, God's presence in our eating and drinking, in our work and in our enjoyment, makes it meaningful. This is the wisdom of God that has the power to sustain us. This is our daily bread.
     
    As the movie "Groundhog Day" moves on, Bill Murray's character starts to be transformed. He starts to do things not for himself, but for other people. And he starts to surrender to the fact that he does not have the power to change his situation. With this acknowledgement of his own limitations, and his shift from serving himself to serving others, he finally wakes up to February 3rd. In the final scene of the movie, Phil steps out onto the street — the same street that he's been stepping out onto, day after day after day — always the same gray, detestable street. But today it's new. He sees the world suddenly in a new way, and he looks around and he says, "It's beautiful. Let's live here."
     
    As we step into week 11 of COVID isolation, instead of focusing on the day when all will be back to normal — whatever that may mean — what if instead, we took a deep breath, quieted our anxious minds, allowed ourselves to ask what purpose does God have for this day? What meaning can God bring to this monotonous, humdrum, fleeting day, and all the simple moments in it? We just might find ourselves looking around our weary world, seeing God's promises of justice, hope, love, and saying to ourselves, "It's beautiful. Let's live here."
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Rachel Helton, Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, Ecclesiastes 2:12-14, Ecclesiastes 2:18-25, Sonny & Cher, I Got You Babe, Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, coronavirus
  • Feb 23, 2020May We Keep Listening
    Feb 23, 2020
    May We Keep Listening
    Series: (All)
    February 23, 2020. We're ending the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, which are often mountaintop experience times of the church year. Rachel Helton preaches today on the richness of the Transfiguration of Jesus, about the new covenant that will be made through his sacrifice and death, and about listening to what God is asking of us today.
     
    Readings: Genesis 1, Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 16:21, Matthew 17:1-9
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Won't you pray with me? Eternal God, open our minds to hear your word, our hearts to love your word, our lives to be obedient to your word, through the power of your Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
     
    As many of you already know, in my life before St. Louis, I was a pediatrician. And in life before pediatrics, I was, obviously, a medical student. The first two years of medical school are the pre-clinical years, the years that you spend in lectures and labs and classrooms learning first all about how the body works, and second, learning about how illness disrupts that normal functioning and what we as practitioners of medicine can do to restore health. It's a little bit overgeneralized maybe, but that's the basic idea. And the point is, when you make it to the third year, to the clinical year, you finally get to see actual patients. And that is a pretty exciting thing. As a medical student you spend time rotating through different specialties trying to figure out which one feels like the best fit for you and hopefully gleaning some knowledge from each one along the way.
     
    I was several weeks into my OB rotation when one afternoon my pager beeped notifying me that there was a woman nearing delivery. I met up with the obstetrician I was working with and as we walked to the woman's room he said very casually, "You wanna catch this one?" This is kind of a big deal for a medical student. "Catching" the baby means that you get to be the hands that guide that new life into the world. Now truth be told, and I'm sure he knew this, the woman whose room we were going to already had several children and probably could have delivered this baby without any help from anyone. But still, I was very excited to agree to this, and I'm sure my hands were shaking through the entire delivery. Once the baby was born and the nurse had clamped and cut the cord, I stood there, gazing at this screaming, squirming baby girl through tear-filled eyes, experiencing something about life that I had not experienced before. There was something so beautiful in that moment, something I still can't quite put into words, and I just wanted to stay there in that moment. And I probably would have stayed there even longer had the OB not interrupted my moment and said, "We usually hand the baby to the mom." Oh right, the mom! And my world suddenly spun back to reality and the tasks at hand and the busyness of the day.
     
    I can't help but to wonder if that might be a glimpse of what Peter experienced at the Transfiguration of Jesus. First he and two other disciples followed Jesus up the mountain. Many important events had happened on mountains — Moses receiving the Commandments, Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Sermon on the Mount, after all. What might the disciples have been expecting this time? They probably weren't expecting what happened next. We need to remember that just a few days before this Jesus had predicted his own suffering and death to the disciples. If we flip back just one page, to Matthew chapter 16, we can read, "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
     
    So when Jesus takes Peter and James and John up on a high mountain and is transfigured, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white, and then he is joined by Moses and Elijah — these pillars of the faith, is it any surprise that Peter, in his usual earnest fashion, wants to make dwelling places for them? Is it any surprise that he wants to just stay right there for a moment, stay in that moment of experiencing something so holy, of perhaps being transformed by the undeniable truth that Jesus is God? And Peter wants to do something, he wants to build something. And then is interrupted by the voice of God coming from the clouds saying, "This is my Son... listen to him." In the Greek form of the verb translated "listen" is not just listen to him right now. It's keep listening to him. We've heard this proclamation of "This is my Son" before coming from the heavens, haven't we. This is the same thing that was spoken at the baptism of Jesus which we heard about at the beginning of Epiphany back in January when God speaks from the heavens saying this, this human, is my son.
     
    Upon hearing the voice of God at the Transfiguration, we are told that the disciples fall to the ground "in fear" which is about more than just feeling scared, it's about showing reverence and adoration to the God who is speaking to them from the clouds and the God being revealed in the transfigured Jesus. And then Jesus reaches out to them in their fear and touches them. As this happens Jesus is suddenly alone again, meaning Moses and Elijah are gone. This is such an important part of the nature of Jesus as God made man, that he physically reached out and touched people in a way that brought reassurance and healing. It's not the gloriously shining Jesus who reaches out to them either, but the very human Jesus who they have come to trust as a good friend and have been willing to follow as disciples. As they continue to follow him, back down the mountain, back into a violent, broken world, into a place of suffering they've been transformed by his Transfiguration.
     
    There's so much richness in the event of the Transfiguration, isn't there? It's about more than just Jesus shining in glory, although that is certainly true. It's about the new covenant that will be made through his sacrifice and death. It's about the fulfillment of the law and the prophecies of the Old Testament — the law which was delivered through Moses, the prophecies which were spoken by Elijah. The Transfiguration happened on the seventh day after Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem. And this number seven is significant — we see it other times in the Bible. The easiest to recall probably is Genesis 1, when we see the creation of all things in seven days. But we also see it in the reading from Exodus this morning — Moses is on Mount Sinai and on the seventh day the voice of God calls to him. The number seven represents wholeness, completion. So it's fitting that the Transfiguration happens on the seventh day because Jesus is revealed in his wholeness — as fully human, fully God — and he confirms that he will bring to completion the work of our salvation, the work of making us truly whole.
     
    We're ending the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany which are often "mountain-top" experience times of the church year. And at least for me personally, it's not hard to want to follow the Jesus that we focus on December through February. But as we begin the journey toward the cross and Lent, as we descend the mountain so to speak, down into the valley of our world of injustice and oppression, it can be difficult to follow Jesus into the hard places. Sometimes we experience God in bright, shining moments... other times, like the Magi following the star, we are provided only enough light to know where our very next step should be. As we take each step, even in the ordinary moments of life, we are transformed into the people God created us to be, not because we transform ourselves but because transformation happens to us.
     
    And as we are transformed by the Spirit through experiences in our lives and through encounters with the word and the sacraments, we gain a deeper understanding of the love of God and the mission of Jesus. We can be the hands of Jesus — reaching out to a fearful people. We can do this right here in our own city. We can do this right here in our own community and in our church and in our own homes.
     
    The God of Moses is the same God of the Transfiguration is the same God of today. The essence of God revealed in the Old Testament is that of a persistently loving and gracious God who gives mercy to a persistently rebellious and broken world. The essence of Jesus revealed in the New Testament is that of a God who cares deeply about all people and reaches out to those who are sick, afraid, marginalized, and restores them to wholeness. He does that for us too. That's what salvation is about, after all.
     
    As we prepare for the season of Lent and journey to the cross, I hope we have moments of awe as we experience the transfigured Jesus in all his glory. But I hope we also have quiet times of turning inward, of listening for what it is that God might be asking us to do. How might God be asking us to feed God's people? How might God be asking us to literally clothe God's people with coats and blankets on the streets of St. Louis on cold nights where the temperatures are in the teens? How is God asking us to see and stand with people who are living on the margins of our society? How is God asking us to reorient our lives toward love and truth and mercy? How is it that God might be asking us to bear witness to the good news of salvation?
     
    God is still speaking; may we listen. May we keep listening. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Rachel Helton, Genesis 1, Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9, Matthew 16:21, number 7