Sunday’s Sermon Today – More Than Stories: What Does Forgiveness Look Like? (Gen. 37)

It all starts with a dream, ends up in a nightmare, and somehow ends happily ever after. It’s the ridiculous story of the life of Joseph that never seems to be typical but somehow shows us the miraculous love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform people. Last week, we saw these truths in the lives of Jacob but he was the main culprit in his own tragedies; in Genesis 37, we realize that for the personality he shows, it’s really about how he responds to the things that are done to him.

Remember how Isaac and Rebekah played favorites, where Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob? Remember how that caused all of the problems with Jacob and Esau last week, and how it almost lead to bloodshed? It’s all part of the wonderful family dynamic we see in Joseph’s story here: Jacob hasn’t really leaned anything, and he makes it clear to Joseph’s other ten brothers that Joseph is the favorite.

How many of you know you were the favorite child growing up? How many of you know you weren’t? There’s pressure being the favorite, being the one who is always supposed to do the right thing- but for ones who have not been the favorite, it’s hard to convince yourself that anything could be better.

In Joseph’s case, Jacob has painted a target on his back: he gives him a beautiful coat of many colors. He makes him stand out in the middle of his own family- and naive, seventeen-year-old Joseph, he just makes it worse.

Now, think for yourself about the choices you made at seventeen. Were they wise? Were they focused on others? Or did you tend to think about yourself more often than not?

Joseph aggravates the situation first by tattling, telling Jacob about how the other brothers were hanging out rather than working hard, and second, he tells the family about two dreams he had where he was the hero (Genesis 37:1-10). First, he tells them about a dream from an agricultural perspective, where Joseph was a giant bundle of grain — and his brothers were smaller bundles, who bowed down to him. They hate him for it and then he tells them about a dream where they were all stars that bowed down to his brighter star.

You just want to shake him, right? You want to tell him how the way you treat people can come back to haunt you, but as a teenager, would you have listened? And no matter what was said or done, does Joseph deserve what comes next?

Joseph goes out to visit his brothers, most likely on the orders of his father (Genesis 37:18-25). The brothers figure that this is the chance to even the playing field, to remove Joseph from equation, to do what they’ve always wanted to do: kill Joseph. But one of his brothers, Reuben, pleads with the others to sell him into slavery rather than kill him. So, Joseph’s sordid next few years go like this:

-Joseph is sold to traveling slave traders, not exactly known for their kindness and compassion. Joseph is treated like an animal and carried miles away from home, where he is then sold into the possession of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, in Egypt.

This is where we think, like a good African story, that one of the low points hasn’t worked out too badly, because working as a servant in Potiphar’s house is better than forced labor building pyramids. Of course, things do go well enough for Joseph in Potiphar’s house until…

-Potiphar’s wife comes on to Joseph amorously, and when he rejects it honorably, not wanting to betray his master, she accuses him of rape. Potiphar sides with his wife (how could he not?) and Joseph is sentenced to prison indefinitely.

Again, our narrative takes us back to a ‘high’ point of the story, because Joseph proceeds to interpret the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker correctly, and soon finds himself interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. From the penthouse to the cellar and back again…

Now, years removed from being nearly killed by his brothers, sentenced to life in prison by his master, and a life of slavery, Joseph is the number two in Egypt. He’s in charge of caring for all of the supplies in a time of plenty- like a leader who knows the recession is coming and starts stockpiling everything for a day when it will be needed. And suddenly, Egypt is a place where everyone else wants to come because they have enough to go around.

The famine that Egypt is ready for because God used Joseph’s dreaming and interpreting to prepare the country is hammering Jacob and his remaining sons. So Jacob sends them to Egypt, and they find themselves interviewed by the Pharaoh’s number two, who they don’t recognize as their own brother. They do a figurative dance, trying to impress on them why they need the food, and he tests them, ultimately getting them to reflect on what they did to Joseph all of those years ago.

And then Joseph reveals himself to them and he says, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:4b-7).

Years later, when Jacob dies, the brothers become concerned that Joseph has just been biding his time, that this is Revenge or The Count of Monte Cristo and he is now going to make them pay. But Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children” (Genesis 50:19-21).

I wonder if that’s what it felt like to be Chesley Sullenberger in the eighteen months after he safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. This one man went to work one day, flying as he had flown for forty years before, and pulled off a maneuver very few people could safely pull off — and then they put him on trial behind the scenes for eighteen months. Eighteen months of watching the computer diagnostics, and eighteen months of cross-examinations.

Even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Even though his decisions saved 155 people from dying.

Even though he did the best he could in the situation.

And yet, Sully never let his temper get the better of him; he never pointed fingers. Sully never thought he was bigger than the system, but he recognized he’d been put there for a reason.

Can you imagine? No, I don’t mean all of the negative stuff. Sure, some of us have been betrayed by our families, torn from places and relationships we love and struggling with finding a new place to stand, forced to suffer the trouble of other people’s lies, and locked in a prison that life seems to have formed around us and thrown away the key.

No, I mean, can you imagine… forgiving those who’ve hurt you that badly?

Can you imagine finding the reason for why all of the trouble and suffering had come your way as God had sent you through it to bless other people? Can you imagine looking the people who have caused it in the eye and saying, “You tried to kill me but God used this to save, well, everyone.”

Joseph stands in front of his brothers and basically does the sort of things and says the kinds of things that Jesus will say on the cross. Joseph says the kinds of things that Paul proposes in Ephesians 4- again, a man writing from his chains, imprisoned for something that’s not even a crime- telling us to “put on the new self” (something unnatural and better than human ‘normal’). [Paul will later write in Colossians 3:13 that we should “bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you”.

There’s Joseph, essentially saying that he refuses to let the sun go down on his anger, that he will rid himself of bitterness, rage, and anger, and instead be full of kindness and compassion, “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”. But wait…

Joseph doesn’t have any idea who Jesus is! Jesus hasn’t said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Joseph doesn’t have the example or teachings of Jesus to fall back on. He can’t point to the cross and say, “Now I get it, that’s why I should hold on a little longer, smile a little bigger, take a little bit of joy when there is none…” Joseph doesn’t have Jesus to look at; Joseph doesn’t know about the cross.

Now, I don’t think life is a game, but if I were to use life as a game as some kind of cosmic parable, it might play out this way:

There’s a smoky room, although its more dry ice than nicotine, and the beverages look more like unfermented grape juice than adult beverages. But there’s a circular table and poker is being played. Not by dogs but by figures you’ve heard of before: Moses, Noah, Jesus, and … the devil.

Moses says, “I’ve got this,” and throws down a hand of cards that look suddenly like several of those famous Ten Commandments that

Trouble aka the Trickster aka the Devil sits there, smoking, all cool and collected: “I see your hand and I raise you suffering, sickness, death, frustration, misery, and war.”

Noah starts to protest, “But I’ve built this ark…” and the Devil just smiles, smugly expecting his hand is downright unbeatable.

Still, there’s one hand left to be played. Softly, tenderly even, the final player, Jesus, all laid back except for the nail holes in his hands looks down at his final cards, and lays them down:

“I raise you- a cross.”

That’s the final word on forgiveness, isn’t it? Joseph, he forgave, but he probably had the sense to realize that fair or not, his seventeen-year-old self didn’t do him any favors. He probably realized that things could’ve been much worse.

But Jesus? Jesus didn’t do anything wrong to anyone. He lived, he loved, he encouraged people to cling to God. And he was strung up on a cross for his troubles. But he forgave anyway- and he continues to forgive us.

So what are we going to do about it? Who have we been holding in contempt- who we really have no right to? No matter what they’ve done to us- we’re all separated from God because of our sins, no one’s better and no one’s worse.

No matter what, we’re supposed to forgive.

The spouse who betrayed our trust. Forgive them.

The parent who mistreated us growing up. Forgive them.

The boss or coworker who made us feel small. Forgive them.

The friends who failed to be fully present when we needed them most. Forgive them.

The church that lost sight of keeping the main thing the main thing and thought Jesus cared more about judgment than grace. Forgive them.

The people we see everyday when we look in the mirror, realizing how stupid some decisions have been and how badly we’ve mistreated others. Forgive them.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, what’s been done to you, who you should’ve been. If you accept the death of Jesus on the cross for you, I have good news for you:

“In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

Not “might” be forgiven. Not will be if certain conditions are met. No, to all the stuff you’ve done weighing heavily down on one side of the scale, Jesus drops two pieces of timber in the shape of the cross on the other side, and suddenly, the other side fades away.

Forgiveness. It’s crazy, unnatural and contagious. Pass it on.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: Wrestling With God (Gen. 32:24-32)

The sun is just starting to come up over the hills in the distance, and he can see the figure of the angel walking away into the mist of the early morning dew. Lying battered and bloody, Jacob lays beside the river, exhausted. He’s wrestled an angel of God all night, and survived, but what’s the cost? What does it mean for his future? How did he get here?

To understand the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, we must look at Jacob’s story before.

We know that while they were still in the womb, that Jacob and his brother, Esau, struggled against each other, causing unpleasantness for their mother Rebekah (Gen. 25:22) to the point that she prayed to God and asked, “Why would God make this so hard for me?” And God’s response is that the younger would be stronger than his brother, and the elder would serve the younger.

We know that in the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, something must’ve happened to upset the apple cart, the natural order of how birthright and favor look: why else would a second son be the one included? [Abraham was his father’s first son; Isaac was Abraham’s first… legitimate… son.] Apparently, God knew from before they were born– working against the natural order, the expectations of what was valuable, both in what God would choose and in knowing it in advance!

We know that Jacob was… a mama’s boy. While Esau was out doing the necessary things that a tribe needed, hunting, fishing, gathering, etc., Jacob stayed at home where he gained his mother’s favor. Now, we’ll get to real favoritism next week with Joseph, but note this: Isaac picks Esau and Rebekah chooses Jacob as her favorite– this is bound to cause problems, is it not?

So we arrive at our first crucial point for Jacob and Esau, when they’re teenagers. We know that Esau came in hunting, that he has the animals he’s killed but that they’re not ready to eat (Gen. 25:27-34). In a flash, he trades over a bowl of Jacob’s bean soup for his birthright, for whatever it would be that Esau would receive from Isaac as the firstborn. Esau wants the immediate, what feels good, the payoff– Jacob is already looking at the big picture.

Fastforward to Isaac’s old age, when Isaac calls Esau in, tells him to prepare a well-hunted meal, and that he will give him his blessing (Gen. 27:1-29). A blessing to Isaac’s family that was part-will and testament, part-prophetic. To them, the words of Isaac would be more than well-wishing or a toast at a banquet; these were the words that the people of Isaac’s family would believe were life-giving, determining the success of his children.

But Rebekah, remember, she who chooses Jacob first, whether it’s because of the time she has spent with him or because of the word she received from God or both- she interferes and steers Jacob into a plot that involves disguises and deceit. Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, deceives his father, and moves from deal broker/swindler into liar/cheat territory. Sure, it’s a slippery slope, but it’s one that Jacob slides down pushed by his own mother! Norman Bates he’s not, but this is the same type of critical family dysfunction that’s been going on since Adam blamed Eve and Cain killed Abel over some butter beans.

Of course, the fall out is almost immediate. Jacob is blessed; Esau gets the scraps. Rebekah has won; Isaac is dying anyway. But Jacob must run because Esau promises to kill him once they are done mourning his father. Again, Rebekah intervenes, sending Jacob away to her brother’s home “until Esau’s anger cools and he forgets what you have done to him” (Gen 27:41-45). Seriously? Not only does Rebekah naively (?) think that this will somehow be swept under the carpet but she practices that wonderful super power of manipulators everywhere: she pretends like she isn’t the one to cause all of this!

Off goes Jacob to ‘visit’ with his uncle. He heads back toward where Abraham would’ve come from, back where everyone from Abraham’s family stayed except for Abraham and Sarah who had been called out by God. It says that he arrived at a holy place and lay down to sleep, resting his head on a stone (Gen. 28:10-18). It’s the dream of the stairway to heaven made so famous by Led Zeppelin (I joke, I joke). But too often, I’ve skipped to the dream or vision and missed the setting.

Jacob puts his head on a stone. It doesn’t even say that he takes a stone as a pillow. Either way, it can’t have been comfortable- and it certainly wasn’t the kind of trip that you could find on Travelocity. No, it seems that Jacob was sent away in such haste that he didn’t pack, that he didn’t have the normal tent and bedroll that his people would’ve taken to travel, and when he arrives at this holy place, he collapses against the altar there.

The journey has been exhausting, the euphoria of the blessing has worn off. Jacob is alone, frightened, probably ashamed, and frankly, wondering why a game of dress up has ended with his running from the scene of the crime. And yet, while he sleeps, God speaks.

The LORD of Abraham and Isaac speaks and says, “I will give to you and your descendants this land on which you are lying. They will be as numerous as the specks of dust on the earth. They will extend their territory in all directions, and through you and your descendants I will bless ALL nations” (emphasis mine).

This isn’t too tricky, right? Other than skipping the firstborn, God is saying the same thing he told Abraham.

But the LORD continues, “Remember, I will be with you and protect you wherever you go, and i will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything I promised you” (Gen. 28:15).

Now, that’s terrifying to Jacob. Not that he’d have a vision. Not that the LORD would speak. But that the LORD would speak here when he and his people believed that so much of what they knew about the gods of their day was locational. And the LORD shows up … here. Wherever here is. After all that Jacob has done. Like the LORD was really with him.

So, when Jacob wakes up, he makes a vow: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

Still, the deal broker, isn’t he? Still working the system to wind up in his favor. He makes his obedience and his worship conditional, like so many of us do, ‘if God, you will do this, then I will do that.’ He’s still trying to give a dollar and get back ten, still trying to figure out how to make the best of the situation like he’s the one calling the shots. But apparently, he’s been paying enough attention to the family story, to the way he’s been raised, to know he should give God a tenth of what he has. It’s ingrained, learned behavior, but that doesn’t mean he actually gets it yet.

Short version of the next fourteen years: Jacob gets to his uncle’s house, works for seven years to marry the pretty daughter and gets the ugly one instead, works another seven years to marry the one he actually loves, outsmarts his uncle to take a bigger portion of the cattle herd than he would’ve gotten, and slips away in the middle of the night, knowing that his uncle wouldn’t have let him leave.

But for the first time in his life, we see Jacob initiate prayer with the LORD (Genesis 32:1-21). Now, he does devise a plan for how to make things more palatable for Esau, to try to grease the wheels of forgiveness, but he also puts it all before the LORD: “God of my grandfather Abraham and God of my father Isaac, hear me! You told me, LORD, to go back to my land… and you would make everything go well for me. I am not worth all the kindness and faithfulness that you have shown me, your servant… Save me, I pray, from my brother Esau. I am afraid–afraid that he is coming to attack and destroy us all… Remember that you promised to make everything go well for me and to give me more descendants than anyone could count, as many as the grains of sand along the seashore” (Gen. 32:9-12).

In response, the LORD appears… or at least sends an angel in the form of a man to Jacob. And they wrestle (Gen. 32:24-32). Now, of course, every time I’ve thought about this story, I’ve thought of something principled, something… somewhat gentle. Like my boys wrestling, or even something like Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling. Something with rules.

But the longer I look at this story, and the longer I consider what it looks like in my own life, the more I think this is more like MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). The more I think it is devoid of nice, or mercy, or … rules. I think that Jacob and this man did everything they could from the setting of the sun to the rising of the sun the next morning to defeat, beat down, control, manipulate their adversary. I think this was the microcosm of what Jacob’s whole life had been about- trying to figure out who he was in the world by whatever means necessary, whether it was fair or not.

In the end, it says that the man could not beat Jacob, so he cheated. Or at least, it seems like he cheated. But if there are no rules…? The man did what he needed to do to give himself an advantage, and caused Jacob’s hip to be thrown out of joint (Gen. 32:25).

And Jacob still will not let him go. Jacob, exhausted, beaten, bloodied, sore, alone, and terrified will still not give up.

Whenever I preach on Jacob, I’m teased about how my name is synonymous with a cheater and a deceiver and a coward. But somehow, Israel, he who has wrestled with God and men and not been overcome, that sounds pretty good! Because Jacob was relentless in his pursuit of the blessing, single-minded in his desire to be made right with the LORD. He took everything that his family, his personality, his enemies, his situation, and the LORD threw at him, and shouted into the abyss:

“YOU CAN’T STOP ME!”

So, Jacob, born second and meant for a life of leftovers, rose to the top spot, became a friend of God, became the third notary in the trinity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and … walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

How many of you have ever broken a bone? Have arthritis or tendonitis?

There are not many, if any, moments where you can forget that. You might have times where you feel better, but the ache doesn’t ever really go away. Kind of like a hip joint that has been put out of place, may be put back into place… but it will still ache.

I know that when it rains, the leg that I broke playing soccer aches. I know that when I am stressed, my jaw grinds at night, and locks in the morning. And I remember.

But what does Jacob remember? Jacob remembers that he was in a dogfight for his life, physically and spiritually, and that he was rewarded because he did not give up. He was ultimately blessed by the LORD because he held on.

Jacob didn’t build an ark. He didn’t name all of the animals in the garden. He didn’t move his family from his ancestral homeland out of honor for God.

Jacob didn’t give up. He held on. He believed in the promise.

Jacob was broken in spirit by life’s tricks and turns, but he held on.

Jacob was broken physically by wrestling with God, but he held on.

Jacob could have given up, tapped out, cursed God, abandoned his faith, fled in the opposite direction, but he held on.

Jacob was broken but he let God put him back together. Jacob let God form him as he’d promised first to Rachel, and later to Jacob. But the breaking had to happen first, the melting down of the pride of the deal maker and the cheater and the deceiver. Jacob’s personality wasn’t lost but the place he put his trust had to change.

When I think of that reshaping, that refining fire of God on and in us, I think of the parable of the potter’s house that God tells Jeremiah (Jer. 18:1-4). The LORD tells Jeremiah to go to a potter’s house, where clay is made and formed. Jeremiah sees the potter working at the wheel, but the pot becomes misshapen, and he has to reheat it and reshape it. And the result is good.

This image of clay gets revisited by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”

We are fragile, made up of flesh and soul, and we break. Sometimes we are misshapen by our sins, and our choice; sometimes we are misshapen by the sins of Adam and Eve played out through our bodies and the world, of original sin; sometimes, we receive the bloodied lips and bruises from the free will misused by others. We have the scars from our wrestling matches with others, with ourselves, with God.

But if we will just hold on, if we will not give up, if we will remember that the LORD who promised to be forever with Abraham and Jacob, who promised us much through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we will overcome. We will receive the inheritance of God’s promise, whether in this life or the next.

We are the reminder to those who are broken, to those who have not yet been broken, that the world is not the way it will forever be. That we believe in a world with no suffering and no pain and no war and no sickness and no evil. We believe in a world where the power of the risen Christ is the only light we will need.

Sometimes, some days, when I struggle to see that in my petty problems, I remember:

-the people who sit through hours of chemotherapy and believe that God sits with them.

-the people who have been divorced or lost a spouse who believes that God hasn’t written the end of their story yet.

-the people who have taken the abuse they’ve received, the pain they’ve endured at the hands of others, the tears they’ve shed, and turned them into ministries and caring for those who would suffer the same fate.

-the times when God showed up in the midst of my darkness and said, “just hold on, I’ve got this, you are not alone.”

This is not trite or simple or easy. This hurts sometimes. But it is the truth of our reality, the here and the not yet colliding, that we believe, and we hope, and we pray for that day when God will make all things new.

We may walk with a limp, we may need the help of others to help us get up, but we will celebrate with the body of the risen Christ, once broken and left bloodied itself, that we have been adopted by the great God of the universe, and we can shout into the abyss of our doubts, our fears, our frustrations, our enemies, our anxieties, our inner demons, with the assurance of God:

“YOU CAN’T STOP ME!”

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: More Than Stories – Who God Calls (Gen. 15:1-17, Heb. 11:8-16)

Is there a call you dread getting? A call you try to avoid on a regular basis?

As a United Methodist pastor, I am always checking my caller ID from February through April. That’s the time of year when the District Superintendent calls to ‘project’ a move, a relocation of jobs (and families). It’s nerve-wracking to get a call from the District office during that time, unless you have been told you’re going to stay.

Likewise, September through October is the window in the life of the church when nominations are being made for the following year. Some of you know this because you’ve been part of a conversation (or two) about how you might serve the church next year. Some lifelong Methodists are keen enough on this that when they see the preacher coming, they try to hide! And you think I’m kidding…

But there are two components to every call, whether it’s a phone call or God call: there’s the caller’s message and the receiver’s response.

Today, we’re looking at the story of Abram – the man who became Abraham – who received a call from God out of the blue in Genesis. God shows up several times in the narrative, telling Abraham different things he needs to know. But God is always stressing this “covenant” that God wants to make.

The first time, God shows up in Genesis 12 and says:

“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

 

God shows up and tells Abram, rather bluntly, to leave where he is, to turn his back on his family, and his ancestral land. It comes with the “carrot,” that God will make him into a great nation, will make Abram powerful and famous, and that he will BE a blessing. God basically tells Abram that he’s going to use Abram to have a powerful impact on the world IF Abram will be obedient to leave and go. God’s first big test for Abram is to leave what he knows, to put aside the comfort and security of the life he has lived, and to go on faith that God will take care of the rest.

Don’t you wish God would show up and communicate so clearly? I wonder if that provided Abram with any comfort or if he wished God would use a different form, less signs or more cowbell? I wonder what it would take in our lives for God to get our complete and absolute attention?

A new pastor moved into a town, and he went out one day to visit  his parishioners. All went well until  he came upon this one house.  It was obvious that someone was home, but no one came to the door even after he had knocked several times. Finally he took out his card, wrote on the back “Revelation 3:20” and stuck it on the back of the door.

Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice,  and open the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.”

Later in the week, as he was counting the offering, he found his card in the collection plate

Below his message was the notation “Genesis 3:10.”

Genesis 3:10: “And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked: so I hid myself.”

So, at the ripe young age of seventy-five, Abram goes. And takes his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, and their entourage, and they begin their journey. It doesn’t take long (Chapter 13) before Lot and Abram split because Lot says there’s not enough space for all of their people. It’s like a RISK or Monopoly power play: he who controls the land, controls the power. And Lot doesn’t just want to follow Abram around: he wants a piece of it for himself. What God had intended for unity, for that ONE TRIBE, Lot couldn’t accept because he wanted more than his share.

Of course, Lot gets himself in trouble, several times really, and Abram rescues him. Sarai worries that her barrenness means that God’s plan needs some “help,” so she has Abram sleep with Hagar; Abram keeps asking God what he really means about a blessing. And then we get to chapter 17, and God lays it all out there. “I’m going to make you the father of many nations, to be fruitful” (echoing those words he spoke to Noah after the flood.) “I will be your God and your descendants’ God. You will no longer move from idol to idol when you move about, but will recognize that I am your God.”

God is presenting something countercultural and fantastic: that one God would be enough, would fulfill everything that a person or a tribe could ever need. “But this covenant is one we’re going to keep. I’m the higher power, and you’re the lesser. And the sign that you get this is circumcision.” Sounds painful, right? But the thing about the covenant was that God gave Abram and Sarai new names, Abraham and Sarah.

And God promises Abraham a son, because without a son, he can’t really be the father of a nation, or the beginning of a tribe. It spoke against his character within the tribe; it meant that he wasn’t on the same level with his people. But God is not done with Abraham, or Sarah, or even Lot. God’s desire for Abraham and Sarah brings them through some crazy situations, through Sodom and Gomorrah, through Abram faking that Sarai is his sister not his wife, through old age and childbirth. And the same Abraham who so compassionately pleads for his nephew and for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he gets tested by God at the very threat to the thing he loves the most: his one and only son.

This story from Genesis 22 still gives me chills. I remember the first time I ever preached on it. It was the spring of 2008, and our first son had just been born in March. I don’t know what caused me to preach on it, or why I thought it was a good idea at the time. But I set out to unpack the story of Abraham’s preparations to sacrifice Isaac. And I got so choked up I couldn’t talk.

Here’s Abraham, minding his own business, having been fully obedient to the words of God, and finally, after years of wandering, and fighting, and struggle, he’s reaping the rewards. Maybe he’s just sitting in the opening of his tent, just soaking in the wonder of his boy playing outside. And God calls. God says, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Again, I’m all about questions. I don’t ask for directions, that’s where I cross the line. But I mean, c’mon, “did I hear you correctly? You want me to take Isaac, the kid we sweated over, that you promised, that we waited a century for … and what? I must’ve missed something.”

But it says that the next day, early in the morning, Abraham loads Isaac up and heads for the sacrifice site. And he takes his son on the road to certain death, to sacrifice on an altar to the God who says that he loves him, and who loves his son. Isaac is old enough he knows what’s going on. “Um, Dad, we’ve got fire, wood, a really big knife… but where’s the lamb?” Abraham provides one of those answers we say, but we’re not really sure that what we want and hope for and need is actually what God has in mind: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

So Abraham builds an altar, ties up his son, and lays him on the altar. And draws back the knife and God calls out “Abraham! STOP!”

AND THERE’S A RAM CAUGHT IN THE THICKET.

And God says, “I swear by my own name, that because you have been obedient and not held onto your son, your only son, I will bless you. Your family will be as plentiful as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. And all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” This is the moment when the children of Abraham begin to become ONE TRIBE. When God established that the remnant saved on the ark wasn’t just one family but was an incorporation of people into ONE TRIBE, originated by the faith of one man. That people who never knew Abraham would receive God’s blessing.

Of course, this is the ONE TRIBE later fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. ONE TRIBE of people lifted out of sin, out of pain, out of rejection, out of despair to a life of hope, joy, and eternal relationship with God. This is the ONE TRIBE that should be unified in the Church (big “C”) but which too often is full of disunity and struggle, because ultimately, we’re still human. But the good news is that one man was willing to sacrifice his one and only son, the thing he held the most dear, to be obedient to God… and that God, who saw a heart that was willing to go all the way, would one day sacrifice his one and only son, the thing he held the most dear, to save ONE TRIBE from their broken situation.

Funny how things have a way of working out, how Abraham was just a precursor of the sacrifice God would go all the way with. Funny how obedience by a father reflects obedience by THE Son. But there’s nothing funny about being obedient to the call, no matter how hard, and recognizing in that sacrifice that God sees men (and women) after his own heart.

What is so dear to you that you could never lay it down? Even if God asked you to? Maybe he’s not calling you to lay it down. Maybe he will some day. But does your obedience to the call of the almighty, creator God resonate with you in a way that you’d go to your cross and lay it all down?

In Hebrews 11:8-10, it says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Abraham knew he was building something new. He knew that God’s promise of ONE TRIBE was so crazy, so ridiculous, that it had to be true. He went looking for something to hold onto, but he knew that he had to let go of what he did have if he wanted to gain more. If all of us were as giving as Abraham… wow.

Are you there? I have some work to do.

We could beat ourselves up pretty good about how we’re NOT like Abraham. Or we could recognize that God still speaks, in strange and mysterious ways, calling us from our comfort zone, asking us to lay down the stuff that’s filling our hands, so we can take up a new mission, and become better than we ever thought we could be. Merely asking us to be obedient to the call. Later in Hebrews 11, it says that by his faith, Abraham showed that he knew God’s promises would come true even if they weren’t through Isaac.

Abraham believed that dream wouldn’t die—that God could resurrect it one way or another. What we give up for the sake of God’s “tribe” comes back to us in full. What Abraham gave up was returned to him by a miraculous ram. What God gave up in Jesus was returned to him by the saving power of the resurrection.

What is God calling you to give up? Are you ready? Is it to sacrifice your expectations about your life or your church, to be Jesus even when it costs something? Is it to embrace someone not like you, who doesn’t believe what you do, and love them with the assurance that God’s grace is enough? Is it surrendering your dream to God, and recognizing that God’s will for your life is better than you can imagine? Is it laying you down so that others might truly live?

In every story that’s been told about a hero, the “good of the many has outweighed the good of the few” or the one. It’s true in the story of Jackie Robinson a real life hero who endured verbal jabs and worse to break the color barrier in baseball. It’s true in the story of Superman, as told by various authors over time.

Self-sacrifice is what unites the one tribe of Abraham: That of a group dedicated to the belief that life will be better for all, once we lay aside our personal needs and pursue God’s hope for us all. I call that group “church.”

In all things church, I am constantly reminded that each time God called someone, that God equipped them.

They didn’t have what it took initially. They weren’t prepared. But they were obedient.

Abram wasn’t ready when God called him, but he went.

Abram wasn’t a warrior but he rescued Lot.

Abraham desired a son but he was ready to give him up.

Abraham wasn’t perfect, but when God called, he answered.

And in each moment where Abraham gave up something, God gave something back even greater. God used Abraham’s obedience to make the nation of Israel, to serve as the foundation for the people of God now united in Jesus.

God blessed Abraham so that Abraham could be a blessing. God blessed the world through Abraham.

So ask yourself today: What is God calling me to do? What has God already worked in my life that I can use to be a blessing for others? What gifts do I have that I should be sharing? Is it quiet service in the back? Is it playing an instrument up front? Is it teaching our young people? Is it inviting others to church and welcoming them in?

God equips those he calls and God calls us all.

Are you listening? Or are you hiding, hoping God won’t notice?

We know the caller ID. He’ll just call back.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: More Than Stories – It’s an Ark, Not a Lifeboat (Gen. 6:9-22)

Do you ever feel like you’re a fish swimming in the opposite direction of all of the other fish?

Do you ever feel like you’re a square peg in a world full of circular holes?

I bet Noah can relate to how you feel.

In the world after the Fall, after Adam and Eve have been removed from the Garden for eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, things are not what they should be.

It says in the beginning of Genesis 6: The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. It will later be added that the people on Earth at time the time were full of violence. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

Folks, this is not a happy moment in the life of the world. God regretted that he had made human beings. God was willing to wipe out all of humanity – not all of creation – but all humankind.

And then, there’s Noah.

We don’t know exactly what Noah does prior to the whole ark business. But we know what Noah was like. It says that he found favor in God’s eyes – and that he was a righteous man. Not a bad start, right? Noah is a man after God’s own heart, a man who is for all intents and purposes, good. Noah walks faithfully with God.

And it says that Noah was blameless among the people of his time – those wicked people who God is willing to wipe out.

Noah is that fish swimming opposite of everyone else. Noah is the one who stands out.

You all know I love movies – even movies I don’t agree with. But I have a bone to pick here with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah movie. Noah is a man who walked with God, who was righteous – that means that when God showed up and announced the ark building project – this wasn’t the first time God and Noah had ‘talked.’

But something in Noah’s experience – and God’s understanding of him – meant that God knew he was ready.

 

That said, I don’t imagine that Noah walked up on Ark Day #1 and thought, “Gosh, I sure can’t wait until God tells me to build a big boat in the middle of nowhere.”

So God does show up – and I imagine Noah had a few questions – but all we get is God talking here. Maybe all we need to know about Noah is summed up in Genesis 6:22: “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.”

Maybe that’s all we need to know. Maybe Noah’s obedience was sufficient.

Me? I would have had questions. Why me? How soon? Can I tell other people? Can other people come onto the ark? I read somewhere there might be a stowaway…

But none of those things matter to this story about God’s response to human wickedness. Yes, there’s judgment. Yes, there’s a divine anger we sometimes lose sight of when we recognize God’s grace. Yes, there’s a recognition that those who ignore God and God’s ways are dangerously living.

And yet, I don’t see judgment as the point of this story.

No, God shows up and tells Noah that God wants to build a covenant to promote human life on the earth, and that God is setting Noah up with everything Noah needs for success.

God wants Noah to be the First Man 2.0. And God wants to be in partnership, in collaboration, in covenant with him.

Of course, if we read through Genesis 7, we can see that it gets wet – and quickly – for the whole earth. In Noah’s six hundredth year, he spent one hundred and fifty days on a big ole boat with a lot of animals, his wife, his three sons, and his three daughter-in-laws.

I can survive a week in a beach house with my wife, two boys, in-laws, and a few more, but ONE-HUNDRED AND FIFTY DAYS?

I guess the alternatives are no day at the beach. (Snicker.)

But in Genesis 8, God again speaks to Noah and tells him, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

Noah made it! The first zoologist ever just survived in very unPETA-like conditions.

Noah’s first act, upon leaving the ark, is to offer a sacrifice to God when standing on dry ground, kind of like me kissing the ground after a particularly bumpy plane ride.

And there – in his obedience and in his sacrifice – we can see why Noah was a man after God’s own heart. Noah understood that he didn’t have to be the one who made it, that he didn’t deserve God’s grace but he had received it. So God then says – in response to the sacrifice, not to the flood – “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

God brought Noah out of the fishy crowd he was with, where he was swimming upstream backward against the tide, and made him an example we could follow.

God kept Noah from being corrupted by the sin and evil that surrounded him because Noah wanted to be more like God.

God lifted Noah up out of trouble – and kept him safe – even in the midst of the flood.

And some people have used this to encourage Christians that the world is going to go to hell in a handbasket, that those who are “in” are justified and safe, and that they don’t have to worry about what happens to those who are “out.”

I think they’re missing the point of the story.

While I read the story of Noah as an allegory – I’ve never worried about whether they could find the remains of the ark on Mount Ararat or not – I think that the Biblical truths contained there are certainly what God is calling us to throughout the Old and New Testaments.

First: God cannot stand evil and will do whatever it takes to put an end to it.

Second: God will find the good – even the needle in the haystack of one man in the midst of millions – and use it to bring life and hope to everyone.

Third: God is not about destruction but salvation, life not death, grace not judgment.

See, I believe that the Noah’s boat was an Ark – not a Lifeboat. It’s not that God was merely calling Noah up out of the Titanic as it sank, with no hope of rescue, and no plan for the future. No, God was calling Noah out of the evil mess swirling around him to the new covenant with God that would ultimately lead to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob… down the line to Jesus.

Friends, in this church – an ark not a lifeboat – there are plenty of seats. In the kingdom of God, there is infinite room for all who would call on the name of Jesus and accept his grace, and forgiveness, for their sins. Unlike Noah, we recognize that this ark has already been built on the cross of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, and we are called by God to go out and shine a light to others that they might find grace as well.

But that begs the question (or questions):

Are we walking faithfully with God in the way we live our lives, in the way we speak to others, in the way we serve?

Are we blameless in the eyes of those around us, in the way we do business, speak our minds, and interact with others?

Are we quick to open the doors of the ark, or are we counting the remaining seats on a lifeboat?

Paul says in Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time… But we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Friends, there are people all around us who know that things just ain’t right, who are dying on the inside, searching for a place where they will be welcomed. There are people who are hungry, and homeless, and under attack. This world has a way of turning to violence physically, emotionally, and mentally that still breaks God’s heart.

But God has created His Ark – the Church – and the door stands wide open, waiting for this generation of Noahs to welcome them in, two by two.

See, the difference between a lifeboat and an ark are this: When a person boards a lifeboat, they are escaping FROM something – a terrible situation usually involving the ship, literally or metaphorically, going down. They are not aimed at anything but escape, at anything but leaving what is behind them.

In an ark, there’s direction TO something. In the story of the ark, God had a plan and a purpose for Noah and his family, for the animals aboard the ark. The purpose of the Noah story was to share with us that God has a plan even in the darkest of times, that God is moving us TO something even when it appears that all hope is lost. God doesn’t give up on the situation.

And that is the truth of the cross – the purpose for the church – isn’t it?

God is calling us out of our sin, out of our self-righteousness and our ‘stuckness’ to something greater. God isn’t just about what we shouldn’t do but who we can be. God isn’t about the rules but the result.

Friends, we are the ark. We are the church. Let us move forward in faith to call others to the salvation of the ark, to the glory of God. We offer more than escape – but purpose and a relationship with God. It’s our time to share the good news of God’s love with others.

There’s plenty of room on the ark.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: More Than Stories – In the Beginning (Gen. 2:4-9, 16-19)

In the Sound of Music, Maria teaches the Von Trapp children how to sing with a song called “Do-Re-Mi” that includes the line, “Let’s start at the very beginning, A very good place to start.” While Maria wants to teach the children to sing – and experience joy – this also proves to be a reminder to all of us that the beginning is in fact a good place to start.

Launching into a new sermon series always feels daunting – and exciting- at the same time. This fall, we will be exploring highlights from the Old Testament, looking to the ways that God speaks to his people through the stories and experiences of people before Jesus.

And the beginning seems like the right place to start.

While Genesis 1 starts “in the beginning,” and lays out a broad spectrum of God’s creative powers, sun, stars, oceans, plants, people, etc., Genesis 2 digs into the special creation of humankind in the image of God.

The first thing we can see in Genesis 2:4 is that the overview from Genesis 1 is still valid: the heavens and the earth once did not exist but God did.

We can disagree about so many things in the Bible, but our understanding of the world is absolutely influenced by whether we can accept that there is a Creator God who intentionally formed everything… from scratch.

Think about that for a minute. God created from scratch.

There was no blueprint outside of God. There was no world to mimic. There was no outside influence on what the world would look like. But God created because God had an idea and authority to make this happen.

I once operated with a blueprint. In college, I served as an assistant to the builder of a house. More accurately, I was the assistant to the second assistant. I think that roughly translates to “gofer.” I carried wood, hammered nails, and, reluctantly, helped wire the electric sockets. While each of the sockets we did that day needed to be rewired after the inspector came through, that wasn’t the most egregious error our boss made that summer.

When the house’s internal beams were completed, it was discovered that the foundation was off by 1/100 of an inch. While that seems like a small amount, unless you’re competing by distance for an Olympic medal, the degree of error was augmented by the levels of floorboards, joists, house levels, etc. until the ceilings on the second floor were off by … a foot.

The builder had not followed the blueprint, and had haphazardly set us to work.

In the story of Creation, there is nothing haphazard – but God’s creative powers are above reproach, each item, each hair, each blade of grass, is set out perfectly, intentionally, and powerfully.

So what then do we do if we have read and understand Genesis 1 and then read the opening verses of Genesis 2? We find ourselves in Genesis 2:5-7 with a decision to make: Genesis 2 says that there were no plants on the earth – and no rain had yet fallen – but God created humankind. For the skeptic in us, that may create a problem: the first two books in the Bible don’t have the same chronological order for things.

But that doesn’t mean that they disagree.

We must remind ourselves that the first few books of the Bible would have been passed down orally for centuries, and that people passed these stories down orally. Have you ever heard the same story told by two different people, say the story of how a couple first met or how the proposal went down? While the two people may recount the story differently to their children – especially if they’re Bob Saget on How I Met Your Mother -the end result is that they are ultimately married.

So, if the story of chronology in Genesis 1 doesn’t agree with Genesis 2:5-7, what is the point of Genesis and the different stories?

Consider what is the same in both stories: God created humankind from the dust of the ground – and breathed life into that first man.

Whether you take the story literally – or figuratively – the point is that humanity came existence because God a) intentionally created and b) used God’s own divine breath to make people out of the substance God had just created (the dirt of the ground).

In both settings, God created humankind imago dei — in God’s image. Out of God’s substance.  Regardless of what you’ve been told before – regardless of the value that you or someone else has placed on your life – you are created in the image of God.

You have the ‘divine spark,’ God’s creative breath, in you.

And God wasn’t content to just create humanity and send it off spinning like a top, or, like someone proposed once, like a Watchmaker who wound up the clock and then walked away from it.

No, God created humanity to be in the midst of this lush, perfect garden that God had created – he filled it with trees that were good to look at and eat. And then God made the center of Garden: he put the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of the whole set up.

And he told the first man – let’s call him Adam – not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge because he would certainly die. While we are not solely focused on the way that the good garden God created became corrupted, it is important to recognize that in creating humankind, that God intentionally allowed for the choice making, both good and bad, of all humanity. God could have set up a series of dominoes and called it humanity; God could’ve made us like marionettes like Pinocchio longing to be a real boy.

And yet, God created us in God’s image and gave us the power to choose good or evil.  God created us with the power to choose God – or not – because God creates with the desire that we will want to be with God. But God will not force us to be.

God wants what is best for this man he had made: God makes him a partner – the woman – and forms all of the animals for the man to name them. 

The story goes something like this: Adam was walking around the Garden of Eden feeling very lonely, so God asked Adam, “What is wrong with you?”

Adam said he didn’t have anyone to talk to.

God said, “I was going to give you a companion and it would be a woman. This person will cook for you and wash your clothes. She will always agree with every decision you make. She will bear your children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will not nag you, and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you’ve had a disagreement. She will never have a headache, and will freely give you love and compassion whenever needed.

Adam asked God, “What would a woman like this cost me??”

God said, “An arm and a leg.”

Adam asked, “What can I get for just a rib???”

God as we understand him is Trinity, or three-in-one, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God IS community, and God offers us community by bringing us into communion with God – and with each other. But none of that is possible if the first man has no one to be with. So God creates the human partnership through the story of the first man and the first woman.

But, how should we put this, God is not interested in freeloading! God presents the first man with a job, with a way of participating, and creating with God. God could easily have created the animals and named all of them, but those who carried the story of Creation from the beginning of our faith understood that God wants humanity to be creative partners with God … from the beginning and moving forward.

Which leads us to this: we live in the in-between, between the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which ultimately allowed for the sin of the first man, and the Tree of Life. If we fast forward thousands of years, or better yet, to the last book of the Bible, Revelations, we see that the Tree of Life again exists in our reference.

First, the author of Revelation tells us that he has received a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth,” a place where the people of God will be intimately, immediately, absolutely present with God himself. Here, pain and suffering, death and crying, pain and trouble, will be no more just like the existence of everything “good” when God initially created it. Here, the spring of the water of life – promised to that Samaritan woman at the well – overlaps with the Tree of Life:

“On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

What God created in the beginning, God will fulfill.

What God intended for all of us, God will make an abundant reality.

That is the future; that is the hope.

But God created us – and God continues to allow us to live, and work, and move, and play with that future ahead of us.

So what of the now? What are we to glean for the very moment?

We are neither in the beginning nor at the end but somewhere between the two trees.

We are created in the image of God.

We exist by the breath of God’s divine life.

We bear the creative powers of God in the world.

We are created for community and blessing to each other.

We are individually sculpted to participate in God’s good plan for the world.

So, where does that leave us?

It should leave us empowered, hopeful, and focused: God is moving in our world with a plan for our good and we get to participate.

What will you create this week? What will you nurture in someone else? What will you recognize is your long dormant gift? What will you do for the kingdom of God?

Even in the middle, something new can come. Even now, there may be a moment where someone will someday remember: “In the beginning….”

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Sunday’s Sermon Today – Be the Attitude: The Cost of Discipleship (Acts 16:16-40)

Do you know anyone who has a persecution complex? Anyone who thinks that everyone is out to get them? Anyone who thinks they are always right and others are always wrong?

Jesus closes his Beatitudes with this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

Sometimes, the church can have a persecution complex. I’ve seen this in interviews I’ve done with Christian movie makers and musicians.  “Well, no one will play our CD because it’s too Christian to be on the radio,” or “no one will go to the movie because it says Jesus Christ is the only way.” Are there other options? Like what if no one went to the movie because it wasn’t any good or if no one bought the music because it wasn’t their style?

The Apostle Paul says there is real persecution we face when we follow Christ. He wrote in II Corinthians 4:8-12: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

Paul writes this as a man in chains, a disciple of Jesus who had a personal experience of meeting Jesus – and who was ultimately put on trial because he continued to hold to his faith. Paul experienced the beauty of the gospel and the way that it would be received by others. But it still seems somewhat abstract, doesn’t it?

“Persecution” isn’t quite concrete enough.

Paul and theologians like the 20th century pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that our faith couldn’t be truly understood or explored unless it was lived out. There was a direct correlation between what we believed and what we did. If we claimed Christ but didn’t live like it, or didn’t share it, then it wasn’t really faith, they said. These men said that our faith must be passionately pursued – and lived out – in spite of the cost.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, and the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”

I remember a t-shirt I bought once at our swimming championship. It said “Nothing good comes easy; nothing easy is good.” It was about hard work and effort that lead to results in the pool. But it’s also a parallel to our lives in faith. While we can freely accept Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf – Jesus died on the cross and did the heavy lifting for us – there is hard work in pursuing Jesus through the way we live our lives.

But that can be a bit abstract, can’t it?

So consider this story from Paul’s life, found in Acts 16:16-40. Here, Paul and his mentee, Silas, are planting churches and sharing their faith when they are followed by a woman possessed by a spirit. Because of the possession, the woman has the ability to tell the future – and a slaveholder uses her powers to make money. She’s sick – and she’s a slave. After being followed by this woman for days, Paul rebukes the spirit in the name of Jesus and she is made whole again.

When the slave owners saw that she was no longer profitable – she could no longer tell the future because she’d been made whole and freed from the possession – they had Paul arrested. They accused Paul and Silas of stirring up a revolt against the Roman laws which wasn’t what they had done at all. Paul and Silas were arrested, beaten, flogged, and thrown into prison.

Now, here’s where things get really interesting. Paul and Silas respond to this persecution – this inappropriate punishment – by … singing. While they sang hymns, the doors of the prison burst open, an earthquake ripped through the foundations of the prison, and every prisoner’s chains broke open.

The jailer rushed in to recapture the prisoners but found they were all escaped except for Paul and Silas who knew they hadn’t done anything wrong.  The jailer was going to kill himself, having failed his duty and knowing he’d be punished, but Paul interceded on his behalf. He not only begged the jailor not to harm himself but also proceeded to share his faith in Jesus Christ. Their example in the midst of persecution led to the salvation of the jailor’s family, and to the redemption of their ministry by their example.

Paul was hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.

Is that enough to convince you? Or does that still seem like a fable from another time?

The history of the church is full of stories of people whose faith drew them into confrontation with powers outside of their control, but how with great courage, they persevered. The church’s list of martyrs is numerous, but it seems alien to us in the U.S. where our faith is “safe” and often easygoing. Today, let us consider martyrs past and present to consider the cost of discipleship we would be willing to pay in our own lives.

In 155 AD, Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, who had a vision that he would be burned alive as Roman forces cracked down on Christians. In hiding, Polycarp was discovered when two slaves gave up his location under duress. But when soldiers arrived to arrest them, the eighty-six-year-old theologian refused to run and instead provided hospitality to his captors, asking only for an hour to pray before being taken into custody. Over the next few hours, he was pressed to renounce Christ and refused, again and again, until he was finally lead out into the middle of the crowded amphitheater and burned at the stake.

In 1536, William Tyndale was hung for daring to translate the Bible from Latin into English. You may recognize the name because Tyndale Books is one of the most prolific publishers of the Bible in the world today.

Polycarp and Tyndale were persecuted, but not abandoned.

In the 1940s, amidst Nazi persecution of Jews, Corrie ten Boom’s family began a ministry to rescue their Jewish friends and neighbors, ultimately starting an underground railroad of sorts for those fleeing the Nazi regime. This is the same statement made by others, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Confessional Church pastor, whose Cost of Discipleship I referenced above. See, Bonhoeffer wasn’t merely a poet or theologian, but he actively struggled with how Christians should respond to persecution – and evil – right up until the day when he was hanged for his efforts against Hitler’s Nazi party.

In film The Insanity of God, out now, Nik and Ruth Ripken shared their story of missionary living, and triumph in the face of tragedy. Called to missions out of rural Kentucky, the Ripkens first served in Somalia, where anti-Christian persecution killed one-hundred percent of the people that the Ripkens discipled in their faith. During the same period, their son died from a lack of appropriate medical care. In the face of dangerous persecution – and personal loss- the Ripkens withdrew from Africa, doubting the presence and power of God in situations like that. But in their exploration of faith by others in Communist countries like Russia, the call of God’s heart began to embolden the Ripkens in the midst of their grief.

In the film, Ripken says, “Now, I’m in deeper dangerous, because the Bible is coming alive. Satan had tricked me into believing that the Bible was an old book, with things that God used to do. And here I was experiencing the Bible in the present tense, with the things God did coming alive.”

Corrie ten Boom and the Ripkens were struck down, but not destroyed.

Even in the face of persecution, these people – and thousands like them – have held to the promises outlined in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the merciful, the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God.

Blessed are those who hear the call of God in their lives and answer.

Blessed are those who recognize the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and live each day to honor that sacrifice with their lives.

Regardless of the consequences.

I wonder today what it would look like for us to answer the call of discipleship from Jesus, to respond passionately and powerfully.

What do we stand to lose? Is it our sense of security? Is it our status in society? Is it our financial stability? Is it the respect of some people around us? Is it friendship?

The final Beatitude says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Not blessed are they but a direct remark from Jesus to his disciples – that they are blessed when they are insulted, persecuted, or falsely accused because of Jesus.

And so are we.

So, I must ask: are you insulted, persecuted, or falsely accused because of Jesus? Is your way of living, thinking, loving, and communicating so alien from what the world expects that you are the subject of conversation?

Not because you have a fish on your car but because the Icthus is a sign of your lifestyle.

Not because you go to church but because church goes with you when you walk out the door after worship.

Not because you can recite the Scripture but because the Scripture lives in you.

God asks us to lay down our lives – daily – to answer the call of discipleship. Will we answer? Will we go where we’re called to go?

Jesus says there is blessing to be found in the persecution – blessing to be found in the challenge.

Our faith comes with a price.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: Be the Attitude – Peace Starts with You & Me (Isaiah 9:1-7)

Blessed are the peacemakers,for they will be called children of God.–Matthew 5:9

I’ve always wanted to be a superhero. Whether it was Superman or Luke Skywalker, I wanted to be the person who would defeat evil and make it so that everyone else would be safe. These were some of the figures of my childhood who embodied “peace and justice,” who seemed to be the kinds of heroes that made peace happen. The world was black and white, and everything ultimately looked good, with no hints of grey, as a child.

I’ll never forget where I was on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Just months from graduating from seminary, I ran around the halls of the classroom building with everyone else trying to catch bits and pieces of the information that were coming in about the attack on the World Trade Center. This was unlike anything my generation had ever experienced: this was the destruction of security, and safety, and peace as we knew it. Innocence for me, naiveté of the world around us, that was now a thing of the past. The truth is, for the most part, America had lived in a seemingly safe bubble for years, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Pearl Harbor decades behind us.

The world around us has been dealing with the lack of real peace for years. The world of the Old and New Testaments is ripe with the sense of fear and unrest from the time of Noah through the days of Jesus. But in the midst of all of it, there was hope.

In our scripture today, from the Prophet Isaiah, with words later echoed by Jesus in Matthew:

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

For the people of Israel, Isaiah’s prophecy was one of a future hope; in Jesus’ words, the same scripture becomes a promise of a kingdom that Jesus brought, even though no one knew it yet. A kingdom that we live in but which is not yet fulfilled or complete.

These words of Isaiah are the stuff of Christmas! Whether you’ve grown up in the church and heard the words over and over again during Advent, or you’re a fan of Handel’s the Messiah, the words roll out a litany of who Jesus is and what he represents:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.

I have to admit: that sounds great! I believe that Jesus is all of those things: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But a world where justice and righteousness exist forever? That sounds almost too good to be true when I watch the news today, when I see the headlines:

-Teen fatally shot by cops

-Suspect in Starbucks attack unfit to stand trial

-Woman gets fifteen years for child porn

-More bombing in the Gaza strip

-Family robbed in own driveway

None of these things fill me with hope. But we’re called to this kingdom, to this following Jesus, to being the children of God. We’re straining toward something different, but the violence is all we seem to know.

We think if the other guy has a gun, then we should have one, too. And if the other guy has a bigger gun, then we better get one, too. We take it nationally to the point where we think the only way to end a war is to blow them away first, to act proactively. But is that real peace or merely ending a conflict by being a bigger bully?

What if it’s supposed to look different?

Rick Love tells of a story that took place during the ongoing wars between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades, St. Francis of Assisi chose to seek out an interview with the sultan of Egypt, to share his faith in Jesus Christ with this Muslim. Recognizing that he was going as a sheep among wolves, he was soundly beaten and captured by the sultan’s men and dragged before the sultan himself.

“Why are you here?” the sultan demanded, knowing full well that it was foolishness for a Christian to make his way into Muslim territories alone.

“Muslims we shall never become,” Francis replied, “but we are messengers from God and we have come to share our faith with you.”

The sultan proved to be taken by their courage and straightforwardness, and gathered the Muslim advisors to hear Francis’ message. Francis focused on the good news of Jesus Christ and begged for the fighting to end; the advisors urged the sultan to behead Francis.

“These men want me to kill you,” the sultan said, “because that’s what our law demands. But I will ignore the law because it would hardly be fitting to respond that way given that you have come here to risk your lives in order to save my soul.”

The good monk was fed and hosted, and freed to come and go as he pleased within in Muslim territories. His freely offered kindness defused a situation that would have otherwise ended bloodily.

But one story won’t turn our hearts around, will it?

What about the story from World War I, told beautifully in the narrative film Joyeux Noel about the ceasefire between the Germans and the Allied forces? About the Germans, French, and Scottish soldiers who defied their superiors and declared that no guns would be fired on Christmas Eve, just because it was Christmas?

What about the mosque in Bon Air that extended its love toward the United Methodist church there on the anniversary of 9/11 by gathering at the UM church with flowers and attending that service? What about the UM response to the mosque by extending the same act of peace and love when various Muslim businesses were targeted several years later?

We understand what ‘not peace’ looks like, but too often we settle for avoiding conflict, or separating ourselves from situations where conflict might occur, or faking our happiness and peace, or simply preventing conflict by “conflict management” instead of actually making peace.

Maybe none of us will immediately impact the world for peace; maybe we’ll never lead a rally that actually changes political decision making.

But what if we would actually experience peace for ourselves? Maybe we should pursue it individually first, then corporately second, and maybe, just maybe, it will begin to run upstream to our community, to our nation, to the world.

Jesus urges his followers to pursue peace by taking the plank out of their own eye first and then working to help the person they are in conflict with to remove their speck (Matthew 7:3-5). Cornelius Plantinga says that this peace is not peace made but God-given shalom: “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight; the way things out to be.”

It’s that kind of peace that makes us the children of God, and yet we can rarely wrap our minds around it, even for our individual relationships.

I’m reminded of my dad’s swimming coach mottos when I think about being peaceful. More often than not, when it’s about peace, I want the other person to act peaceful, and then (maybe) I’ll do what Jesus might do. That’s when the words come floating back from the pre-swim meet pep talks: “You can’t do anything about the person in the other lane, you can only control what happens in your lane, so do your best.”

But that requires me, you, us, to look at peace differently. To see peace differently before it ever gets to ‘not peace.’

There’s a parable about a town that relied on the tears of a very old dragon to make the crops grow, to renew the spring from which the the town’s water came. Each year on the day set aside as the town ‘celebration,’ a group of the strongest warriors would be gathered and feasted about town. Armed to the teeth and wearing the best armor they could afford, the group would venture into the forest to the dragon’s cave.

Down, down, down into the dragon’s lair, the men would go each year, and each year they would battle the dragon. Each year, they would harvest the dragon’s tears, and each year the dragon sent them back to their village broken and battered, a few warriors less than they had begun. The crops grew meager food and the well gave just enough to get by, but the means of the dragon’s tears allowed them to survive.

When the year had nearly been up, one young warrior-to-be stole away the night before, full of the town’s stories and jokes. Arriving by himself, he stole his way down to the dragon’s lair and softly began to speak from a cleft in a rock. The dragon rose up as if to strike quickly, but listened to the words of the young man. The humor and wit were evident, and the dragon settled back to listen.

Soon, the dragon was laughing, his belly shaking, and a lone tear stole its way to the corner of his eye. Shortly after, the ground began to be pelted by the giant tears of laughter rolling down the dragon’s cheeks, and the little vial that the young man had brought couldn’t hold all of the dragon’s tears.

That year, the crops grew bountifully, and the spring welled up with the purest water.

There were still tears, but this time, they were tears of joy.

I wonder if would see peace differently if we saw ourselves differently. If we saw each other differently.

Too often, we make a major mistake about peace: we think that we’re going to be able to accomplish it by ourselves.

Let’s be real: I’m not peaceful. I’m not wired to be peaceful. I want to lash out, strike first, make sure that I’m taken care of.

If I am peaceful AT ALL, it is because I recognize that I can’t do it on my own but have to trust God to help me grow into peace.

Paul writes to the church in Phillipi:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:6-9)

Do not be anxious? … Think about what is true, and noble, and right, and pure. And peace will be with you.

God’s peace, not your peace or my peace. Because we would be covered in prayer and like-minded with Jesus. Because we would focus on the good and the right and the pure.

What would that look like in your life?

What would happen if you banished the need to be justified? If you failed to show anger or irritation when someone slighted you? If you made the decision not to be that customer?

This week I found myself tempted twice to speak, and shockingly, chose silence. The first time, I was standing in line at Panera- the only one standing in line- and a woman walked up out of the blue and took her place… in front of me! There was no explanation that I could find to justify her ‘cutting’ me in line, and my first reaction was to say, “Um, excuse me, but I was here first.”

The second time, we were told to speak to a different worker at Walmart, then passed off to wait for a manager at Walmart, only to be told that she couldn’t help us at all! A key was with another manager, no it wasn’t, maybe it was… and finally, after ten or so minutes of watching my children try not to turn the checkout line of Walmart into a gymnasium, the first manager came back with the key. My growing frustration was only egged on by my children’s agitated state… I wanted to comment.

Neither situation is a big deal, right? Neither moment is earth shattering or terrible, but we have an expectation of how the world works: you don’t cut in line and the customer matters most of all!

There’s another story from war that Love tells, this time about a Turkish officer who led the attack on a village, and personally took over an Armenian home. He saw to it that the parents were killed and that the daughters were abused, even participating himself. Finally, the eldest daughter escaped and trained as a nurse. After a time, she found herself nursing in a recovery unit for Turkish officers, and recognized that officer in the midst of her responsibilities. He was dying, and over time, he was nursed back to health by that same woman. Upon hearing a doctor announce that he would’ve died without her care, the officer asked her, “We have met before, haven’t we?”

“Yes, we’ve met,” she replied.

“Why didn’t you kill me?”

“Because I am a follower of him who said, ‘Love your enemies.'”

The truth is that we take an attitude of vengeance into the way we drive our cars, the way we vote, and the way we interact with people all the time. And most of us have never faced a situation like that young woman.

But we long to be justified in all aspects of our lives, to be vindicated when we think we’re right, at great cost- including to our families, and our friends, and our coworkers.

We’re pretty selfish- we expect that other people recognize how special we are. We fail to see the way that our words and our actions hurt other people; we see the punch but don’t remember the words that ground the other person down for years that lead up to that fist flying. We say we’d never shoot someone else, but we cut the people we love down with our words all of the time. They’re the ones we know the best, and the ones we feel the least amount of fear from, so why not hang them out to dry?

If we take a good look at the Bible, we recognize that the first conflict occurred when Cain killed Abel. Family first, right? But it’s not actually the first ‘non-peace’ or violence in the Bible. No, that occurred when God showed up to inquire of Adam what had happened with the tree of knowledge, and he replied,

“What had happened was… she made me do it.”

Good work, Adam. You just set the bar for what male-female, husband-wife, confrontations will look like until Jesus comes a second time. But most of us skip right over Adam’s verbal blame because at least he didn’t kill someone.

And somehow, we’ve let not-peace, the aggression toward another person into the room because it’s “not that bad.”

Paul, beaten down and held captive for the sake of the gospel, wrote about peace over and over again. This is a guy who went after other people, Christians, to see them punished because he was so sure he was right in being Jewish! Imagine that apology: “I’m, like, um, terribly sorry I beat you up and arrested your brothers and sisters because, I, like, thought I knew everything. Actually, uh, God is like, way, bigger than I ever could’ve expected…”

You can almost hear him trying to get through to other people who are likeminded to what he used to be in Romans 12:16-18: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Paul is writing this two thousand years ago for this guy (pointing at self)!

There’s nothing there that says that just because you’re peaceful, that the other person will respond peacefully, too.

There’s nothing in Paul’s experience that says that if you do the right thing, that other people will treat you correctly. In fact, Paul told slaves to do their best work and be honorable toward their masters even when there was no hope of freedom.

But the ideal here is that we’re living into a peace that will absolutely exist in the future because God has promised it. The words of the Christmas song we’ll sing after the sermon, “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” lay out a framework for the building blocks of how we can live into real peace.

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

We’re supposed to practice it but we have to admit that it exists first- we probably have to experience someone else showing us that kind of love and not-peace before we actually get our ‘aha’ moment, or at least a strong experience of God’s overpowering love for us.

The author of the song, Jill Jackson-Miller told how she came to the words of the song in an interview with NPR on Humankind:

“When I attempted suicide [in 1944] and I didn’t succeed, I knew for the first time unconditional love—which God is. You are totally loved, totally accepted, just the way you are. In that moment I was not allowed to die, and something happened to me, which is very difficult to explain. I had an eternal moment of truth, in which I knew I was loved, and I knew I was here for a purpose.”

Jackson wrote the lyrics in 1955 and her husband Sy Miller wrote the melody as they experienced a group of nearly two hundred teens, gathered to explore friendship and understanding each other. Representing a diversity of nations and races, they sang the song together, living it out in their community as they reflected over the words of the song.

The song urges us to remember that we are not “other” but brothers and sisters, that we are not competitors or opponents but strangers who have not become friends yet. The song echoes the teachings of Jesus and Paul, who lay out the way that God expects us to act toward peace:

Love your enemies.

Turn the other cheek.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Pray for those who hurt you.

Do good for those who mistreat you.

Bless those who curse you.

Peacemaking means that we can’t sit on the sidelines; we can’t hide our eyes and act like the injustices in our families and communities will go away. It doesn’t mean that we feel peaceful or that we necessarily fully understand what loving people who don’t love us back looks like. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a court of law where someone is right or someone is wrong like Judge Judy.

Peacemaking doesn’t even mean that we are necessarily going to create peace. It just means that we are choosing to control what we can control: that as far as it is possible with us, we will live in peace.

That we will be the good guys, by following the best Guy, that we will do what’s right, that in that moment, we will be who we’ve always wanted to be.

Peace is not easy; peace is complicated, and sometimes painful, and always a journey.

So what attitude about life do you need to change this week?

Who do you need to love peacefully even if they don’t offer peace back?

Who do you need to intercede for that they may experience peace from the hurt they receive?

How can you model your life after Jesus, who chose to take the beatings that weren’t his to receive, to suffer the pain that he didn’t deserve for you and me?

I leave you today with one last (real life) example of freedom from not peace and the embrace of real peace, from one of my favorite movies of all time that no one has seen: To End All Wars. The screenplay is by Brian Godawa, but it’s the real-life story of Ernest Gordon, a Scot who became the chaplain at Princeton University after World War II. Abused and beaten down by the Japanese soldiers who controlled the prisoner of war camp, and forced to help build the Burmese Railway, Gordon makes the decision to not seek justice and violence on those who had mistreated him. Instead, he cares for their wounded and puts his life on the line so that even the head of the camp will be spared. Gordon recognizes that if he acts in violence and anger, he is no better than those who hurt him. As he wrote in his memoir:

“What is the final destination of hatred? When you look in the eyes of the enemy and you see yourself… at what price, mercy? Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love ones enemies? What can a man give in exchange for his soul? These are the questions I asked during my time in the camps… the answers changed my life forever.”

Peace will win. What we can control is whether we will be part of it or not.

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