“Bridging Divisions”

A Pentecost Sunday sermon from Acts 2:1-21

Back in the middle ages, the church became expert at celebrating Pentecost Sunday.

It helped that, first, they built breath-takingly huge cathedrals with dramatically high, vaulted ceilings symbolizing the distance between earth and heaven.

Second, our church fathers and mothers painted sacred scenes on the ceilings of many of those cathedrals.

The most famous is the artwork Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It features scores if not hundreds of biblical scenes, such as God reaching out from heaven to create Adam.

If you go to one those old cathedrals today and glance up at the ceiling, you are likely to see biblical history unfolding overhead in living color.

But what in those cathedrals most causally related to Pentecost was a third innovation very few people are aware of.

Sometime around the end of the first millennium, congregants began cutting holes in the ceilings of these cathedrals. They actually drilled small openings in the ceilings all the way through the roof.

During the Pentecost worship service, some of the church members would ascend to the roof. At the appropriate time during the Pentecost service, they released live doves through those holes.

The doves dove and swooped out the holes and into the cathedrals, symbolizing the Holy Spirit descending on the people below.

And when the doves appeared, cathedral choirs joined in with the whooshing and drumming sound of a holy storm— wind blowing, cymbals clashing, drums pounding. Thunder, lightning and wind filled the sanctuary.

Finally, as the doves flew and the winds blew, those on the roof poured bushels upon bushels of rose petals through the holes to drift down upon the congregation. Those red petals floating upon on the worshippers symbolized the tongues of flame which came upon the disciples that first Pentecost morning.

You must admit that it sounds like quite a production!

But for my money, at least, it was nothing to compare with the very first Pentecost.

You might remember that before that day came, Jesus had told the disciples several times that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, would be given to them. He also told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit.

I doubt it was any surprise to the disciples when the Holy Spirit did show up, but the specifics must have shocked and awed them.

Certainly, the Spirit made an immediate impact.

The disciples were all together in one place, probably in the same upper room where so much had already happened.

The book of Acts tells us that suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the house.

Then, each of the disciples saw what seemed to be tongues of fire coming to rest on them.

Acts tells us that all were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability.

Now, you might want to pay attention here.

When people hear this part of the story about disciples speaking in other languages, they often confuse it with what is known as “speaking in tongues.”

That is not what happened.

The Apostle Paul tells us that “speaking in tongues” is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also that “speaking in tongues” is unintelligible to almost everybody other than the speaker.

Having heard people speak tongues and had a few pray over me, I can verify that. They were all very sincere, but I had no idea what they said.

That is not what happened Pentecost morning.

In fact, it was quite the opposite. What did happen is, I think, the miracle of Pentecost and a miracle we need repeated in our lives today.

What happened is a miracle of communication, understanding and connection.

First, these illiterate disciples of Jesus started talking in foreign languages, languages from a number of countries and regions around the Mediterranean Sea.

Let me tell you why that was important.

While the Holy Spirit was transforming Jesus’ disciples inside the upper room, outside of the upper room, Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem that week for a big festival.

Many of those foreigners heard the commotion going on inside the upper room, and heard these disciples speaking in their own language. More importantly, they understood them. And they came to be drawn into the Christian community by the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we think about it, that is a wow moment.

Things that divided them were bridged by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

It is like human community and harmony and peace are God’s will.

Unfortunately, we have become so used to our divisions in the United States—and their bitter results— that it is even hard for us to hope and pray for unity.

How hard it is to bridge our differences and communicate well with, and understand, each other! And it is even harder to connect despite those differences.

But that morning, even better, as this communication, understanding and connection was happening, Peter stepped it up a notch.

He stood up, cleared his throat and preached a sermon so powerful that three thousand people came to Jesus that day.

All in all, it was quite unforgettable.

The Holy Spirit blew in with power, with gale force winds and something like tongues of fire and filled the disciples with divine power and purpose.

The Holy Spirit then empowered them to speak in languages unknown to them;

empowered others to hear and understand what was being said;

empowered Peter to stand and offer words of hope, mercy, forgiveness, life, love; and,

empowered thousands there to see, hear, understand and respond to the message.

The story of the early church after Jesus ascended is the story of the Holy Spirit working in and through those first disciples to help build God’s kingdom.

Surely, in those early days, the first disciples needed a pick-me-up, a bit oomph, and a lot of purpose and direction.

They had experienced quite a couple of months since the night Jesus was arrested.

First, they scattered like a covey of quail when he was arrested.

Then they went into hiding when he was crucified, died, and buried. After all, any hope they had for the future had melted and evaporated like an ice cube put on a sidewalk during a Texas summer day.

But then God intervened, and brought life out of death, light out of dark, hope out of despair— and raised Jesus from the dead.

Now he was gone again.

But he had promised the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And sure enough, the Spirit roared into their lives, giving them the real meal deal of God’s power and purpose moving and directing them in life.

Wow.

We would like some of that, wouldn’t we?

As a matter of fact, we need that Holy Spirit power.

Our nation needs that Holy Spirit power.

The world needs that Holy Spirit power.

Remember, God can move through believer and atheist and anyone in between those poles, including those of other religions.

We do need to need something or someone to get us through.

There is no lack of major problems that need fixing and transforming.

Those ill with coronavirus across the world approaches 6 million.

In the United States, we are approaching 2 million cases.

About 105,000 of our fellow citizens have died.

That is about one-third of the world-wide total.

Caseloads and deaths are increasing and not decreasing in a number of states and nations.

Meanwhile, about 40 million of our fellow citizens are out of work.

There are long lines at food banks across the nation.

And of course, continuing racial injustice in America seen in the sudden, horrific murder of a black man has led to peaceful demonstrations, which have grown into relatively widespread conflict, violence and even death.

And this all comes at a time when we are deeply divided politically, many are seriously alienated from their fellow citizens and have no desire to bridge the gap, and the political leaders of our nation seem to be at a standstill about what to do.

We need some Pentecostal power, particularly some Pentecostal power of communication and understanding and connection.

We need bridge-building.

We need our common humanity to come to the fore.

That is what happened that day in Jerusalem.

People of different nations, languages, cultures, subcultures, as well as different family, economic and educational backgrounds were drawn together by the power of God.

Understand well that they were drawn together by God who appreciated and honored this diversity of nations, languages, cultures, subcultures, family, economic and educational backgrounds.

God had made them different and loved all the differences.

And I note that God used some hicks from the sticks, some people from the notoriously backward area of Galilee, mainly illiterate fishermen, to be His vehicles of reconciliation and growth.

It is an astonishing story that only God could produce and direct.

I know we in the Hill Country often feel far away and almost insulated from what is happening in other parts of the nation and world.

But we are not. We are part of this nation and world. God calls us to do his work in them.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we need to call upon God to help us be his agents of reconciliation and connection. In II Corinthians, Paul tells us to be those kinds of agents.

We can build bridges right where we are today.

It starts in our hearts and minds, our thoughts and prayers, our words and action.

I am a boy of the Old South. Born in Austin and raised in Houston.

My daddy was born in 1916.

He grew up as a tenant former in an area just east of Waco.

Those cotton fields around the little towns of Marlin, Chilton and Lott looked a lot like the cotton fields in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

He was a good man in many ways but also burdened with the racial biases of the Old South.

Early on in life, he began passing them to me.

I remember, though, something that happened when I was about 10.

Our next-door neighbors had a fishing cabin on a river northeast of Houston.

They asked me to their cabin for a weekend of fishing.

To there, we had to pass through a number of African American neighborhoods in Houston.

As we drove through one, I said what I had once heard my daddy say, “Well, doesn’t it stink around here.”

It was one of the more shameful moments of my life.

Mrs. Bowers turned around from the front passenger seat and barked at me to never say that again.

She said blacks were no different than anybody else, that she had black friends, and that they apparently had more love in their hearts than I did.

If I had known than then what I know now, I would have thanked her for the lesson.

But she shut me up, open my eyes, change my heart and put me on a different path—not a perfect path but a different one, that was at least less racist than before and more open to black lives mattering.

Friends, we are all affected by these divisions, which include not only racial and ethnic divisions, but also conservative-liberal and Republican-Democrat divides, as well as rich-poor, urban-rural and other divisions as well.

It has been said by many that a nation divided against itself cannot stand. If we continue on the present path, we will end tearing ourselves apart.

Even worse, if we harbor ill will for other people or groups, we are sinning and failing God, who creates us all, calls us all to be his children, and seeks us to join together in doing his work in world.

God’s main work on earth may be just to keep creation going, but among human beings, God’s main work is love. That includes reconciling differences and bridging divisions.

As we get ready to leave and do our work in our Lord’s world, let us all remember:

God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

            God calls us to pray for enemies.

            God calls us to do good even to those who persecute us.

God calls us quite simply to love.

And in this marvelous story of the coming of Holy Spirit,

            God calls us to reach out and understand

that whomever we are

            and whomever they are,

            we are all His children,

called to follow His will and his ways.

Bless God’s holy name. Amen.

Let us join in prayer.

Good and gracious God, pour your Holy Spirit upon us today because we need a Pentecostal miracle. Our country and world are divided; strife, violence and injustice abound; lives are lost, property is destroyed, and fear has spread. You call us to be your agents of reconciliation in the midst of this division, to be builders of your kingdom and spreaders of your divine love. Send your Spirit to lead and direct us on these paths and teach us to cherish our differences as precious gifts from you. Amen.

Judged by the King

Matthew 23:1-12

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

My foray this week into Matthew’s account of Jesus’ final days has had an unintended side effect— I see the same shortcomings in myself which Jesus saw in the Jewish leaders.  Not good!

Like the leaders who had fallen prey to corruption, whom we read about on Monday, I can see myself falling prey to the same temptations, if given a chance. Help me, Lord, help me!

Like the leaders who were not bearing fruit, whom we read about yesterday, I have lived too many of my days bearing no fruit. Lord, forgive me! Have mercy on me!

And, like the leaders we read about today, I fall far short of consistently living either humbly or with a servant’s heart. Change me, Lord, change me!

In these verses today, Jesus is not directly addressing any of the leaders. Instead, he is talking to the “crowds” and his disciples about the leaders. He has a good reason to do so—he is telling them what their relationship with the leaders should be.

Surprisingly, he begins with a compliment.

He says, “[D]o whatever they teach you and follow it.”

In other words, “Do as they say.”

Here was something which Jesus had in common with most of the Jewish leaders—they were dedicated to fully, thoroughly and accurately teaching Jewish law.

However, he quickly added, “[B]ut do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Instead of following their own teachings, Jesus said, these leaders mostly loved to posture, preen and be seen in public.

More bluntly, he said that they were “hypocrites.”

Even worse, Jesus said that the leaders were neither true servants nor humble people, which all of God’s people are called to be.

He said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

And I wonder, “Do I say one thing and do another? Am I a hypocrite?”

Sometimes. May God forgive me.

And, what about having a servant’s heart, giving to others, putting their needs over mine, living humbly?

Well, I surely fall short here. May God forgive me.

What about you? How are you living your life? Is today the day you need to rededicate yourself to following Christ and his ways?

Prayer: Holy and Almighty God, forgive us for those times we fall short. The times we fail to love our neighbor, turn away from you or exalt ourselves over others. Put in us new and clean hearts, hearts of servants, hearts always seeking to be true to you. Amen.

Swamped at Night

Mark 4:35-5:1

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?  1They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 

Last night, my eyes popped open sometime around 2 or 3 a.m., and I found myself wide awake, anxious and worried about the virus and its effects. Questions and uncertainty echoed and re-echoed in my mind: How long will it last? Whom will it affect? How many will die? Will I be one? Maurie? Our children or grandchildren? It didn’t take long before I was quite worked up.

Then, these verses came to mind.

In Jesus’ day, bodies of water were considered to be places of danger. People were afraid of them because demons and evil spirits were believed to dwell in the depths. Even worse, on that night, Jesus and his disciples were on the Sea of Galilee, which was famous for sudden, intense storms that swamped boats and drowned their occupants. Jesus’ disciples, most of whom were fishermen, were keenly aware of the threat.

Sure enough, a sudden storm whipped up while they were still at sea, and winds and waves began swamping the boat as Jesus slept peacefully in its stern. The disciples, gripped by fear, cried out, “Don’t you care that we’re dying?”

We are living in a time like that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. Christians are not exempt from the winds and waves of the times. And, it is quite human for us to be afraid and anxious about it. After all, the coronavirus has changed most of our daily and weekly routines, the news is rife with tales of life-and-death, and an invisible threat is on the loose. We are well outside of our comfort zones. In these uncertain times, it is almost natural to worry about ourselves, our family and friends, our country and our future.

But, as I soon remembered early this morning, now is also the exact time to claim our faith.  Indeed, if we find ourselves frightened enough, it is even a good time to cry out in our fear, “Jesus, don’t you care?!”

So, I did, and I began to pray. Soon, peace came to me and I drifted back to sleep.

Mind you, I don’t claim here that Jesus takes away all fear. That night on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples’ fear did end as Jesus calmed the storm. However, our storm still rages. The winds and waves of the time still threaten us. But my point is that claiming our faith does take the edge off and allows us to face the night and the day. As I found out last night, that is more than good enough. Amen.

Eric and Franklin in Never Never Land

It is hard to know whether to be shocked, amazed or mournful about the relationship of many white, conservative evangelical leaders with Donald Trump.

The latest example can be seen and heard in a recent interview of Eric Metaxes with Franklin Graham, Jr.

While Metaxes is a gifted author and Graham has begun and continued important service ministries, both seem to share a blind spot toward Trump that has led them into a strange world populated entirely by those few who not only admire Trump but also worship him.

The Metaxes-Graham conversation began somewhat normally until Metaxes gave the first indication of his citizenship in an alternate world by observing the “bizarre” phenomenon of people “who exist” to “undermine” the president.

Keep in mind that in past years in this world, many people would actively oppose a president and work against his (never her) policy initiatives. Those people were called “opponents.” Apparently, in the eyes of Metaxes and Graham such people have become sinister and, as we shall see, evil.

For his part, Graham agreed with Metaxes on the “bizarre” behavior and even raised the ante by saying that such people are “almost demonic.”

It got worse.

Metaxes topped Graham by saying, “Almost [demonic]? I would say it is demonic.”

He added that they both know that this is a “spiritual battle.”

Wow! Who knew but them! Trump is fighting with the heavenly forces in the eternal, cosmic battle with. . . gulp. . . “demons” like me.

It continued to worsen.

Graham argued that it is easy for anyone, Republican or Democrat, to see how good Trump is as president.

Yes. He said this. Worried about those child separations? How about his acting against United States policy interests for personal favors? Appalled by the lies and bullying? Franklin says you shouldn’t be.

He went on to add that the economy is “screaming forward.”

Metaxes pulled them both deep into Never Never Land by adding that “everyone knows” that the economy was “dead in the water three years ago.”

Well, no. That is wrong.

Instead, even if Eric cannot face the fact, we can all celebrate that the economy continues to perform well under Trump, just as it did under Obama.

After taking office in January 2009 with the economy in a nosedive, Obama went on to enjoy the final 75 months of his administration with an economy that grew and added jobs each month. In the end, over 11 million jobs were added in that time period.

Meanwhile, Trump’s administration has added 6 million jobs and the economy continues to grow.

Both are good news for Republican and Democrats, even if not for Graham or Metaxes.

We can hope they both return to Earth soon and come to understand that political differences in the United States are not necessarily “demonic” but part of the democratic process and that presidents are men (and, soon, women) but are not gods much less God.

Evangelicals Struggle with Self-Identity

The National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement yesterday aimed at clarifying widespread misunderstanding of evangelical beliefs and practices.

Their longing for clarity arose out of the fact that a growing number of people consider “evangelicals” to be a political grouping rather than a religious one.

The NEA  statement is clear about how they see themselves, “We identify ourselves by our spiritual convictions in the authority of the Bible, salvation through Jesus Christ alone and living out our faith in everyday life, especially sharing the good news of Jesus with others.”

Unfortunately, the NEA is deluding itself if it thinks such statements are meaningful.

No matter whether it is fair or unfair, the vast majority of Americans do not know evangelicals by their spiritual convictions or actions. They do not see evangelicals doing the work of Jesus. They do not see evangelicals worshipping at church, leading foreign missions, feeding the hungry, etc.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. welcomes President Trump to Liberty University.

Instead, they know evangelicals primarily through their well-publicized association with President Trump and the Republican party.

They hear that white evangelicals are the most stable part of the Republican base. They read headlines about 80% white evangelical support of Trump. They see photographs of evangelical leaders clustered around Trump in the Oval Office. They hear about leading evangelical figures giving full-throated support to Trump.

Not surprisingly, they believe what they see and hear—that Trump trumps Jesus and politics trumps faith in the hearts and minds of most white evangelicals.

Evangelical claims of faith are not enough to overcome the overwhelming media coverage—much of it coming from evangelical sources—to the contrary.

God knows, even if evangelicals don’t, that this confusion about evangelical identity was foreseeable and predictable.

Jesus certainly lived his life differently. He did not seek standing with the prevailing powers of the day, he confronted them. He did not seek his own base of power, he gave his life for others. He did not subordinate the gospel to other purposes, he lived it. His priorities were clear and his identity remains clear thousands of years later.

However, white evangelicals chose not to follow Jesus’ path. Instead, they intentionally embarked on a path to gain political power and use it. They have followed that path for decades and show no changes of changing.

They formed the Moral Majority in the 1970’s with the avowed purpose of profoundly impacting public policy. They have given their time, work and money to this effort.

At first, their work resulted in most white evangelicals supporting Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Over the years, however, their movement slowly became more identified with Republican policies and the Republican party. By the 2016 presidential election, white evangelicalism was seen by most, even themselves, as being fused with rock-ribbed Republicanism.

And, they got what they wanted. They got political power. They got their Supreme Court nominee. They have the president’s ear and consider him to be their savior, at least in a political sense.

In the process, they have become who many people consider them to be—Republicans seeking and using political power and wanting even more.

White evangelicals should recognize that they have reaped what they have sowed. Any group or organization that lashes itself so completely to the policies, positions and practices of another group or organization loses its original identity. It literally becomes something else.

The NEA and their members may want to insist on their high-minded faith and devotion to Jesus, but no one will pay attention.

Instead of touting things that will be ignored, they might undergo a long needed self-assessment. Perhaps then, they return to the starting point of many Christian journeys  and become like the tax collector Jesus describes in a parable. In Luke 18, Jesus explains that the tax collector went to the Temple, beat his breast and prayed, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

After telling the parable, Jesus said that this man “went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One thing we Christians always can use is a bit more humility before God and humankind and a bit less lust for power, however alluring it may be.

 

Donald Trump– Man of Prayer?

Today’s media attention is again riveted on the bright, shiny object of the past few days—the James Comey interview and the tornadic reaction to it from Trump and friends.

However, it was another interview this weekend which caught my attention, the few minutes that Fox and Friends spent with the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and evangelical extraordinaire.

Of course, the Fox hosts did not seem interested in anything particularly religious, except for Graham’s views on the president.

Graham rose to the occasion in an almost Hannity-like fashion with the observation, “this president understands the power of prayer.”

He also stated, “I appreciate that we have a president who understands prayer and solicits prayer.”  

His words had barely left his mouth when Twitter reactions began popping up.

Hollywood Director Judd Apatow tweeted, “I don’t care what your politics are — @FranklinGraham is either a fool or works for the devil. There is no way he believes Trump believes in God and the power of prayer. Nobody on Earth truly believes that.”

Christian voices also weighed in.

Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie, Jr., a United Church of Christ pastor wrote, “Seems to me that @FranklinGraham sold his soul to @realDonaldTrump.

Thomas S. Kidd, who teaches history at Baylor University, added, “Because on Fox ‘evangelical’ Christianity means nominal Christianity employed for political ends.”**

Meanwhile, about the time Graham was opining on Trump’s religiosity, the Big Man Himself was undercutting that argument by throwing a Tweetstorm about Comey with the usual type of character assassination which we hope would stop.

However, at least two other comments Graham made gives never-Trump Christians food for thought.

First, he observed that we need to pray for Trump.

Second, he said, “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, the fact is that Donald Trump is the president of the United States. And if he does well, makes good decisions, it benefits all of us as a nation, regardless of our background … We need him to succeed at home, and we need him to succeed abroad. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about succeeding for all Americans.”

I served at a conservative United Methodist church in rural Texas during Obama’s presidency.

While my prayers for Obama did not stir great controversy in the church, at least two people expressed their displeasure.

Likely, at some progressive Christians would say the same about prayers for Trump.

Christians who place party and politics over God to be at work in a person’s private or professional life need to reassess that position.

The thought of “Donald Trump—Man of Prayer” strikes me as ludicrous given his apparently unrepentant lifestyle.

However, we all can pray for him to become one.

** My favorite comment was from former “New York Times” opinion columnist Clyde Haberman who tweeted, “Donald Trump is to piety what Stormy Daniels is to chastity.”

 

 

 

What Would Jesus Tweet?

One of the more disappointing aspects of the fealty white evangelical leaders pay to Donald Trump is not so much that it reveals their potent lust for political power (He talks to us! He does our bidding!). Power’s siren song has lured many irrespective of religious beliefs.

Nor is it their unfortunate over-identification with conservative political policies. They unabashedly remain true to this Caesar not only on matters like abortion and judicial appointments, but also military funding; making and threatening war; harassing immigrants, Muslims and DREAMERS; repealing Obamacare; opening the treasure trove of deep tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy; and on and on.

Like the lust for political power, however, belief in the ultimate truth of personal policy preferences is a common human failing.

No, instead of such things as these, the most regrettable moral failure of these church men is their steadfast refusal to condemn or even mildly criticize Trump’s notable and numerous personal excesses or, as we mainliners might say, and evangelicals used to say, sin.

We can even dismiss the whole sex thing from this analysis, including the infamous ‘grab their pussy’ video; the twenty or so women who have accused him of varying degrees of sexual assault; and, the supposed ‘hush money’ settlement with Stormy Daniels. After all, the video is only thing known to be true. As a result, many conservatives, including these leaders, refuse to consider their veracity.

But what in Jesus’ name would our Lord make of Trump’s ever-lasting pursuit of money; continual attacks on other people; new-found pastime of toying with people’s lives (immigrants, legal or illegal, Muslims, refugees, DREAMERS, etc.); naked bullying of those having less power than him; and, continual dog whistles to racism and white supremacy?

There is no need to beat a drum about the golden rule, drone on about the most important commandment, tell of Jesus’ example of love and sacrifice or cite chapter and verse of the Bible to condemn such conduct.

It simply is clear that a Jesus ethic condemns lusting for money, disparaging others, beating them down, or encouraging racial, ethnic and other types of divisions.

After all, it is doubtful that Jesus would do things like mock a person’s disability (he healed them!); tweet about a woman’s weight or urge watching her sex tape; or, accuse an judge of racial basis because he is a “Mexican.”

Yes, I know. It is hard to see in another person’s heart. However, this president gives the world an up close, 20/20 view into his heart—and it is ugly.

Similarly, some would say that he can confess any sin and all sins. That also is true, but at some point confession needs to include at least a feigned attempt to alter one’s conduct. Trump rarely even apologizes.

It is unfortunate that the failure of leaders like (Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr.) has ramifications beyond being a mere personal failure.

Indeed, they have not only reaped a whirlwind but a hurricane, tornado and tsunami as well.

They have abandoned the proclamation of Jesus Christ and the Christian ethic.

They have ignored a ripe opportunity to proclaim any type of moral standard for the nation. Trump has everyone’s attention. Calling him out would be a highly publicized event.

Their failure combines with myriad other forces to make it more likely that the United States will continue its slow slide toward abandoning any widely accepted ethic of appropriate personal conduct.

This, in turn, will ensure that the types of excesses Trump so amply displays will be adopted by others and metastasize across American society.

 

 

The Grand Sweep, Version 4

My two small churches and I continue a one-year reading plan through the Bible as  described in “The Grand Sweep” by Ellsworth Kalas.

If you are planning a sermon series, I can report that the early reaction to this project is  encouraging. About 2/3 of the people in these churches have chosen to participate, and they seem to be more involved and emotionally connected to worship and faith than in the past. It is wonderful to see.

Admittedly, we’re in the part of the Bible that contains the foundational people and events of our faith and thatalso abounds with rich and meaningful preaching material, so I don’t know what will happen when we hit Leviticus (in two weeks!) or get challenged by the prophets, but people seem to want to be told the story of the Bible. They do not seem to know it. At least in United Methodism, this is because we haven’t been teaching it, at least on a widespread basis.

I’ve also changed my preaching style in these first few weeks from narrative to teaching. My efforts have not equaled the possibilities of  the material, but it is a blessing to me both to read through the Bible and see our members’ reaction to it.

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“God Making a People,” Genesis 32:26-30; 38:24-36a; 45:7-8a; Matthew 1:1-3a; Romans 8:28

If you have a Bible, please join me in opening it to Genesis 45:3-8.

These verses strike me as best summarizing not only the chapters we read this week but also the Biblical story line of God’s continuing work among humankind.

I didn’t do a good job of describing God’s work last week, though, and want to step back and make another run at it before getting into this week’s readings.

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Starting with Genesis 12 and the call of Abram, God was doing something new and exciting!

God was beginning to create and shape a people, God’s people.

It is that work that is described throughout the Bible and it is that work that continues today with people like you and me.

We tend to read Genesis, Exodus and much of the Bible through a filter of knowing how the Jewish and Christian religions evolved, including the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

That filter clouds our understanding and makes these older events and people seem relatively unimportant.

We know the rest of the story, so the earlier parts don’t matter so much.

Except that they do.

We need to understand what God was doing then in order to understand what God is doing now and, along with that, what God is trying to do in us, you and me.

Thousands of years ago, when God called Abram, humankind was in bad shape.

We couldn’t seem to get it right.

Sin and evil abounded, along with their component parts of things like pride, greed, selfishness and violence.

They abounded so much that God flooded the earth and left only one surviving family and, later, they again abounded so much that God scattered humankind across the earth.

It was then, after the Tower of Babel fell, that God decided to reverse the spiral of death and destruction caused by the sin and evil that gripped humankind.

It was then that God decided to create and shape a people who would be a different people from those which had come before them.

God decided to create and shape a people, God’s people, who would bless the world.

However, God had to work through people to do that.

The first person he tried to work through, or at least the first person to say ‘yes,’ was Abram.

Back when God called Abram, there was not an ethnic group called Hebrews or a country called Israel or a Jewish or Christian religion or an Old or New Testament, or any testament at all.

God would get around to those things, but they would come later.

In the stories we’ve read the past two weeks in Genesis 12-45, God was in the earliest stages of God’s great project with humankind.

He began with a man who was part of an Aramean family.

The Aramean people, and Abram and his family, were native to an area in the Middle East located is in present day Iraq.

At some point in time, though, Abram’s father pulled up stakes and moved northeast to an area around the present-day border of Syria and Turkey. That area is referred in Genesis as Haran.

It was when Abram was living with his family in Haran that God called him to go to a land which God would give to him. At the same time, God promised that Abram would become a great nation and that his name would be great and that he would be blessed to be a blessing.

Abram went.

He took with him his wife, Sarah. They had one son, Isaac.

Laster, Isaac returned to the family homeland of Haran to marry Rebekah. Rebekah and Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob.

In those days, God was growing a family– and increasing God’s people.

More was to come.

After Abram and Isaac, Jacob was the one God chose over Esau to be our ancestor in the faith, the one who would inherit the promises God had given to his father and grandfather.

Just like his father, Jacob returned to the family homeland of Haran to marry. He married Leah and Rachel and had 12 sons and one daughter born to him.

It is this line of Arameans, beginning with AbraSpeciallm, whom God chose to be what we might call the “First Family of Faith,” or at least, our first family in the faith, our spiritual heirs.

They were the first in a long family line, that includes (I think, although many would disagree) all Christians and all Jews.

Now, imagine that Abraham’s family had one of those big family reunions back then—his and Sarah’s child, grandchildren and great grandchildren. That reunion would have around 70 people attending.

A big reunion, to be sure, but God’s work was not done.

God was not just creating and making a family but creating and making a people as numerous as the stars.

What we will see next week is that God was busily at work in the two or three centuries that passed between the time of the events described in these final chapters of Genesis and those described in Exodus.

Specifically, God was busy multiplying and shaping God’s people.

By the time of Moses, Abraham’s family of seventy had grown to number hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people.

It was those hundreds of thousands, or even millions, who were slaves in Egypt who came to be called Hebrews, sojourn to the Promised Land and begin the religion we know as Judaism.

And, the Good News is that God is still calling, creating and shaping his people right through today, right through us, even us, in our little church.

God was doing something new then and is doing something new today!

God’s great work of creating and shaping a people is the story of the Bible and continues today!

Hallelujah!

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Let’s return to Genesis 45 and get an idea about the scene that was unfolding that day.

I imagine that it takes place in a huge room, a room bigger than this church. The room is decorated with Egyptian works of art, shoulder-high vases, busts of past pharaohs and gilded ornamentation around the ceiling. It is an impressive and imposing area.

I picture Joseph, son of Jacob, seated in the rear of the room, high and mighty on a throne.

Joseph had risen to be second in command of Egypt, accountable only to the Pharaoh.

He was wearing his best second-in-command, Big Shot attire: crown on his head, staff in his right hand, gold band around his forehead, wearing a pure white robe with his finest leather sandals.

His attendants were arrayed around him and dressed like him—but a little less so. No crown, but white robes, leather sandals, and spears not staffs in their right hands.

They were standing at attention in front of the boss.

It was an important moment.

A bunch of men from Canaan were groveling on the floor before Joseph.

They did not know it, but they were the brothers of that powerful man on the throne.

They were the ones who thought about killing him years earlier but, instead, sold him into slavery.

Their clothes were dirty and torn. They were bowing their heads in submission. They were afraid for their lives. They had just been arrested and hauled before this man for stealing a silver goblet.

And, they were foreigners. They were dispensable. The man on the throne could punish them and even kill them for what they did.

Let’s listen to what happened in Genesis 45:3-8:

“Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”

Let’s emphasize these words, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God . . .”

The main theme of the Bible and of Genesis was playing out in that courtroom drama—God was working in the world to bless and make a people—His people.

Mind you, it had not been easy, because God had been trying to work through human beings.

Human beings in all their glory and goodness, to be sure, but also with all their sins, mistakes, misunderstandings, pettiness, rivalries, hard-heartedness, and family dysfunction, etc.

But, hallelujah! God was at work! God was at work!

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Let’s take a step back and remember what led up to Joseph proclaiming God’s work.

We began at chapter 28, with the father of Joseph and his brothers, a man named Jacob.

In that chapter, we read that Jacob’s father, Isaac, had blessed him, and that Jacob had then hightailed it out of there. It was “feet don’t feel me now” moment.

He was running area from his home, his land, out of fear of his brother, Esau. He had cheated Esau out of his rightful birthright and blessing.

That was a big deal, because an older brother is those days was destined to get the lion’s share of his father’s estate. And, their daddy Isaac was a rich man.

But, those became Jacob’s . . . and Jacob was not letting the sun set that night with him anywhere near Esau. Instead, he hightailed it north to the family’s ancestral lands in Haran.

Of course, we know that Jacob was a greedy and grabby man, one we would charitably call a cheat. He had snookered his father and hurt his brother, all for his own gain.

The greedy sonuvagun stopped for the night, and you know what happened?

He had a dream and God came.

And, that night, God promised the sun, moon and stars to Jacob. We read about it in Genesis 28:13-15:

“And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’”

If you remember having heard something like those words before, it is because you have.

God gave Jacob the promises that God first gave to Abraham and then to Isaac. Jacob, greedy, grabby cheat that he was, was now in the line of succession.

You have heard of God the Potter?

In Jacob, God had chosen a misshapen blob of clay. To further show you what a greedy, selfish, self-centered man Jacob was, he basically told God at the end of Chapter 28, after having received this lavish blessing, “Okay. If you give me all this, and keep up your end of the bargain, I will let you be my God.”

What a guy.

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However, God does God’s work over time, and God shapes people over time. So, as the years passed, Jacob changed. He became a better man, in some ways a new man, because God worked in him.

As the sun rose the morning after Jacob received God’s blessing, he resumed his journey. Remember that he was going back to the family lands, looking for his Uncle Laban.

He found Laban and the funniest thing happened. We call it “just desserts.”

Laban cheated Jacob. We won’t go into all the ways but let me tell you the first way.

Jacob got to Laban’s house, saw his daughter Rachel and fell head over heels in love with her.

This was at a time when there was not romantic marriage. People married out of convenience or arrangement. But, Jacob was in love.

Laban said, “Okay. You can marry her . . . but only if you work for me 7 years.”

Jacob said, “I’ll do it.”

I think this is evidence that Jacob’s consciousness was beginning to extend past himself. It now reached to Rachel and included her. After all, 7 years out of a life is no small thing.

Seven years passed. On the day of the wedding, there was a big blowout party. Everybody was invited. I can’t explain what happened to Jacob that, but maybe he got blottoed drunk.

Anyway, the happy newlyweds disappeared into a tent and consummated the marriage.

Let’s read Genesis 29:25 to see what happened the next morning, “When morning came, it was Leah!”

Laban had substituted his daughter Leah for Rachel!

Jacob, of course, was not happy.

He demanded of Laban, “What have you done to me? Why have you cheated me?”

Laban sweetly replied that Leah was the older daughter and had to marry before Rachel.

He then said, “Work for me another 7 years and you can have Rachel.”

Jacob agreed. Again, he gave some of his years for love, and he worked another 7 years for Rachel.

Then, over a course of years, the sons of Jacob were born, 12 of them. With a couple of substitutions that came later, these 12 were going to become the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Four different women gave birth to those 12—Leah, Leah’s maid (Zilpah), Rachel and Rachel’s maid (Bilhah).

Meanwhile, Jacob became wealthy in what ended up being decades working for Laban—after he had started with nothing. He was shrewd in business and came to be shrewd in dealing with Laban.

Over time, Jacob matured and grew.

That is shown more fully when God called Jacob to return to his homeland, the promised land.

Jacob got buy-off from Rachel and Leah to go back home. That was not the old Jacob.

Soon, they headed back to the Promised Land, Jacob and his wives, concubines and sons; camels and sheep; tents and candlesticks; and, everything else.

That was not an easy thing to do for Jacob, because he was heading to a reunion big brother Esau.

The last we heard, and the last Jacob heard, Esau was raging mad at Jacob to the point of murder.

But, you see, Jacob was following God’s will. It was God’s call to return to his homeland. Jacob no longer considered God as an object beholden to him. Instead, he finally recognized God as God and put his destiny in God’s hands.

However, as he neared his homeland and Esau, Jacob more and more quiet and more and more afraid.

The night before they were to meet, Jacob made sure everyone and everything went across the Jabbok River, while he stayed on other side.

Jacob may have thought that he was going to spend the night alone.

He was wrong. You can read what happens in Genesis 32:23-33. In brief, though, Jacob wrestled with a mysterious being until dawn. All night.

Jacob even got wounded in the battle. His opponent dislocated his hip socket, something that caused him to limp the rest of his life.

Here is the central verse, Genesis 32:28-30:

“Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So, Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”

Jacob had changed. He had struggled with God and people and found himself in the process.

At least, I think that his what it means for him to “have prevailed.”

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But, to go just a bit deeper, we prevail when we surrender ourselves to the Lord.

That is when a Christian finds out who they are.

That is when they become one of God’s people . . . when they are surrendered to God, when they are in obedient relationship to the One who makes, calls and shapes them, when they have matured as Jacob did.

In his struggle that night, and likely before, I also think Jacob struggled with the same things we struggle with, the things we have to come to terms with, as we age and mature in our lives.

Things like faith, doubt, sin, fear, passion, prejudice and regret, but also dreams and hopes and desires.

As with Jacob, the good news is that we are not only struggling with God, but that God is with us and helping us in the struggle.

Just as God worked on Jacob over time, so God is with us, working away, shaping us into one of God’s people or, we might say, part of the body of Christ.

That is what most struck me as I finished reading these chapters and thought about what they taught me about God and those people and myself.

God was at work, maybe hidden, but God was at work.

God is still at work, creating and shaping a people and creating and shaping us.

I want to close with some verses that came to mind as I pondered God’s great work across time, beginning with this Aramean family and continuing across the centuries to us, you and me and our brothers and sisters in faith across the world. They are from Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy . . .
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Amen.

Bless the Lord.

 

God Making a People

My sermon this past Sunday was the second in a year-long series of our congregational reading plan taking us through the Bible. It’s based on “The Grand Sweep,” a book authored by J. Ellsworth Kalas that provides a reading plan and daily commentary that goes from Genesis to Revelation.

The first sermon I gave was actually “Sermon Light,” in that the bulk of it gave some background and housekeeping rules for the year (commit to reading, take notes, ask questions, etc.), while only about one-third focused on the first week’s readings.

My sermon goal in this second week was to introduce people to the Bible’s main story line of God creating and redeeming a people.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work, at least in part—while it may have fed a few, it confused about the same number.

Nonetheless, it does reveal at least my understanding of the basic Bible story line and also helped me grapple with the biblical story and think how that relates to what God is doing in the world and how we are called to respond.

Making a People (Genesis 12-27)

Last week, I talked about some preliminary matters for our year of reading through the Bible and added a few points about the verses we read, Genesis 1-13 and Psalms 1-11.

This week we read Genesis 14-27 and Psalms 12-19.

It was a hard week for me, at least in my role as preacher because I ended it befuddled in deciding what to preach on. The stories in these chapters combine into a cornucopia of preaching points. Just like fruits or vegetables spill out of most cornucopias we see, so this preaching cornucopia overflows with ripe and juicy topics.

Let me try to give justice to them, though, and start with a bird’s eye view of the story flow.

The readings in some sense reach back to the first week and include the call of Abraham and the promises God made to him about land, descendants and blessings.

They told of Abraham accepting God’s call and leaving his home and moving with his wife and all his slaves and property to a new land, presumably trusting that God’s promises would come true.

But, soon a famine came, and Abram and Sarai left that land to travel to Egypt to live for a short time. You might have been especially struck with the part of that story that told of Abram passing Sarai off as his sister.
The happy couple was reunited, though, and soon return to the promised land, where they prospered.

God came and renewed the covenant promise he had made with Abram, to make of him a great nation and give him land and descendants.

But, he and Sarai both suffered because they were childless and growing old. How could they have descendants when they had grown so old that Sarai would not be able to bear children?

Sarai decided to solve the problem. She decided that if she was not going to bear a child, she would give to Abram a woman who could bear a child.

So, she offered Abram her slave girl, named Hagar, as a possible baby-maker.

Yes, Hagar was considered property to be passed off like that. Here Abram. . . do as you will with her.

Abram said, “Okay.”

Hagar, of course, had no choice in the matter and she soon gave birth to Abram’s first son, Ishmael.

Maybe he would be the descendant.

But God say, “No, not the one. Sarai will bear the child for your descendants who will be heirs to the covenant promise, the blessings, I give to you.”

Meanwhile, Sarah got jealous of Hagar and Ishmael.

I guess they were a flag of failure waving in her face every day.

She told Abram to throw them out—and he did.

That is WOW kind of stuff. . . and just the first few chapters!

The stories keeping going on: Abram and Sarai laughing at God for promising that they would have a son; the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah being incinerated for their evil; and then, Sarah having a baby boy and the boy, Isaac, becoming heir to all the promises God had made to his father, Abraham; then, Abraham threw Hagar and Ishmael out for good; then God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac but relented in the last-minute.

That is not all! The readings went on!

Isaac married Rebekah. Rebekah become pregnant and suffered through her two baby-boys-to-be fighting in her womb. Then the boys were born and their battle kept going on.
As we ended our reading, Jacob has stolen his older brother’s birthright and blessing and Rebekah tells him to flee the area because of her concern about what an enraged Esau would do to him.

Whew!

Brothers and sisters, there was no home sweet home in these chapters.

It was more like “Peyton Place in Palestine” or maybe an early version of “All My Children.”

If you had the blessing of reading these stories, you likely can agree that they were about ordinary people, warts and all, many warts and all, living out their lives in times of great happiness and sadness; laughter and tears; hope and despair; victories and defeats; and faith and doubt.

Just like us.

Through it all, God was working in them to bring about His will.

You and I are now the latest participants in the story of “What Is God Doing on Earth?”

After reading all these stories, I couldn’t settle on what to preach. Couldn’t decide.

Then, I pulled out some books on the Old Testament, and looked at a couple from one of my favorite scholars and writers.

Elizabeth Achtemeier more or less said at different places in those books that preachers need preach about God and what God is doing.

Duh. Right?

So, taking that advice, let me tell you what I think God is doing in all these chapters through all these people and the events of their lives, all of which happened almost 4000 years ago.

God is making and shaping a people, His people.

People like you and me.

That was what he began doing and continues to do.

But, as Professor Achtemeier also noted, we need to step back a bit to understand not only what God was doing but gain a bit of insight on why God was doing it.

Last Sunday, we talked a little bit about creation and Adam and Eve and went on through the stories of Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah and the flood and then the scattering of all the peoples at the Tower of Babel.

We read and heard about God making everything, putting people in paradise and then seeing them turn away from him to their own self-centered whims and desires.

That basic theme played out in story after story in those first 11 chapters of Genesis— people turning away from God and heeding their desires and passions, even to the point of murder, in order to glorify themselves.

At least until the point when God called Abram. . . and Abram said, “Yes.”

As we think the people and events we read about this week, and talk about what God is doing, we need to first understand that everything happening after Genesis 1-11 are based on those earlier people and events.

Those first 11 chapters are known as the Bible’s primeval history.

They are critical to understanding the rest of the story.

You see, those first 11 chapters, as I said last week, tell us about God, creation, and human beings. . . and equally as important, the relationship between them.

Another way to put it, those first 11 chapters tell us about who God is, who we are and what our relationship is.

So, look again at those first chapters and get firmly in mind what those ancient stories were about.

You remember the Garden of Eden.

Eve ate the forbidden fruit.

Adam did, too (by the way, he blames her, something husbands do that has never grown old).

Their decision to disobey God’s will exemplifies the relationship we all have to God, every one of us.

We want to be in charge!

And, we push God out of the picture!

The rest of the stories in our first week—Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark and humankind and the Tower of Babel, basically show sin spreading and infecting all humankind and God judging that sin.

They are about good and evil and consequences.

For example, Cain grows jealous of Abel, brother is set against brother, and Cain kills Abel.

God’s judgement is to make Cain becomes a fugitive and a wanderer on the face of the earth, cut off from community.

Later in that same chapter, there is a story about Lamech’s terrible sword of vengeance. Again, more violence and murder.

God looks at what is happening in the world. Genesis 6 says that God sees that every idea of human minds is evil and God is sorry that for making us.

Not good!

Then the rains come.

Noah and his family are left.

But, things don’t get any better when the earth dries.

Instead, humans get together to climb to the heights of heaven in order to make a name for themselves and take charge of their glory. . . and, who knows?, maybe challenge the divine order of things.

God looks on and does not like that. God thought it was humans once again being selfish, vain and misguided.

So, the Bible says God confused human languages and scattered the people across the face of the earth, presumably to sin away in our selfishness as magnified by our inability to communicate with and understand one another.

So, as the primeval history of Genesis ends the future looks grim for humankind.
Adam and Eve and Cain and their heirs had corrupted all of God’s good gifts—God’s gifts of paradise; family and love; beauty and work; community among neighbors and peace among nations; and, of fellowship with God.

Humans were alienated from God and each other.

The outlook was bleak.

Someone could disagree and say, “Pastor, there was some grace in all of that.”

True enough. As we talked about last week, God’s grace and power are always at work. God did create all that is. God made us in his image. Adam and Eve weren’t killed by God. In fact, God clothed them and helped Eve bear and child. God even tried to protect Cain after the murder. And, Noah, his family and representatives of every living creature were saved on the ark.

And, after the flood, humans began again.

But, things still looked bleak after the Tower. God separated the people. God confused their languages. And, God exiled them to foreign lands.

We can look back with 20-20 hindsight and say, “No worries now. That wasn’t God’s last word.”

That is kind of the point.

It was not God’s last word.

We were not cut off from God and each other into eternity.

We were not all fated to die, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, back to the earth from which God formed us.

Instead, in about 1750 BC, God called a man named Abram out of his home in Mesopotamia.

That began the Bible drama and the drama of God’s new work on earth that Abram and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob were part of and that you and I are part of now.

God told Abram to leave behind his country, his kinfolk, and his closest relatives, and to journey to an unknown land that God would show to him.

God also gave Abram a three-fold promise.

God said, “I give you and your descendants a land which will be your own, a land of milk and honey.”

“I will make of you and your descendants a great nation and your name be renowned.”

“And through you and your descendants, I will bring blessing to all the families of the earth.”

Now pay attention.

When God called Abram and made those promises, God began a new thing—to reverse what happened in those earlier chapters.
hHe was beginning to make God’s people, in short, a people blessed to be a blessing.

So, from the Bible’s point of view, in those primeval stories, we brought upon ourselves the curse of devastation and drudgery and death.

But, in the verses we read this week, God promises to turn it all into blessing through the people of God. . . which began around 1750 BC with Abram but runs through this morning and includes you and me.

What God is doing in the life of those people we read about this week— Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob is beginning to grow and to shape his people.

His goal, remember, is to bless the world and restore and reunite humankind with Him.

But first, he needed someone to say yes to him. Abram did. His people begin from that one man.

What we read about in Genesis 13-27, even if we do not see it directly, is God working through human doubt, human frailty, human misunderstanding, and human dishonesty to create his people.

In the weeks ahead, we will see more names added to that list. . . a list that grows with each day.

Hallelujah!

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, God has been and is still working in the world.

He is working to bless us; to make us a new people, a new community born in love and the spirit, a new people of God, who through faith know the wonder of life in the kingdom and eternal life in the name of God.

That is might be hard to see as we read about Abraham and Sarah laughing at God’s promises; Abraham plodding up a mountain to execute Isaac; and Esau and Jacob struggling in their mother’s womb; or, maybe in our moments of doubt, meanness, selfishness or jealousy.

But God was there and is there now. God is seeking to bless you so that you will become a blessing and live eternally as one of his people.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?

This is my sermon for last week. I love preaching from Genesis because it shows God involved in the nitty-gritty of life and does not avoid dealing with the flaws and sins of its protagonists. These particular verses also speak to my two small congregations because almost all us are over 60 and well-acquainted with disappointment.

Genesis 18: 1-15; 21:1-7
“Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?”

Our faith can slip away from us at any age, but surely the challenges of aging are among the most daunting of threats.

This is especially so if we are forced to look hard at or to go through the experience of caring for someone ravaged by Alzheimer’s, some other form of dementia or by the many other physical or mental maladies that can arise.

At those times, caregivers, loved ones and, of course, those afflicted by the illness, can almost feel their spirits weaken and, at times, their faith ebb.

Before we look at these verses about the two old codgers Abraham and Sarah, we might first consider the life of one of the most unique seniors I have seen.

hawkinsmain

Julia Hawkins, 101 year old sprinter

This week, the Washington Post told the story of Julia Hawkins, who lives down in Baton Rouge, La.

It begins by explaining that Ms. Hawkins is a specialist in running sprints and is in training for competition in the 50 meter dash.

And then it informs us that Ms. Hawkins is 101 years old, and that she just started running last year.

She runs the 50 meters in just over 19 seconds, which oddly enough is about the time it takes me to get from my recliner to the refrigerator.

But, friends, the story of Ms. Hawkins is one that tells us to never lose hope at any age over anything.

Unfortunately, most of us do.

Let’s pray.

Startle us, O God, with your truth and power and grant us the gift of your life-giving presence. As we hear your word read and proclaimed, we pray that you touch our hearts with your grace; strengthen our spirits with your love; and, deepen our faith with your word. We pray these things in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah nearly that old when the Lord visited them that day.

God was bringing them a message: they would be blessed with the birth of a child.

I’m 64 and Maurie’s 57.

She might be happy if God gave us that news, but I would tell him, “Lord, no. Please no. Why are you punishing me? What have I done?”

But when Abraham and Sarah were at the age they should be moving into a nursing home and not buying a crib, God told them to get ready for a child.

Surprisingly, at least to me, they wanted a child.

We need to put God’s promise that day in perspective to appreciate what Abraham and Sarah felt at the birth announcement.

You see, God had promised a child to Abraham and Sarah well before that day.

As a matter-of-fact, God had first made the promise 25 years earlier.

Indeed, if you pull out your bible and read Genesis 17, right before our verses begin for today, God appeared to Abraham and made the promise again.

Let’s look at a little background to that day. At that time, and for the first 100 years of his life, the man we know as Abraham was named and called Abram.

But, in Chapter 17, God came to Abram and told him that his life was about to change.

First, he told Abram that he would have a new name, Abraham, which means “father of many nations.”

Second, God told the newly-named Abraham that his wife Sarai would also have a new name.

God said that Sarai would henceforth be known as Sarah, because she would be mother of many nations.

Third, God said, “And, Abraham, you need to get a baby room ready because Sarah will soon bear a son.”

When he heard that news, Abraham could not believe it.

He thought it was a knee-slapper of a joke.

Genesis 17:17 says that he fell facedown and started laughing.

He thought to himself, “Good grief, Lord, I’m 100 and Sarah about as old as I am. That ain’t gonna happen. We are too old.”

God said, “Oh, it is going to happen and you need to name your son Isaac.”

Abraham and the AngelsRembrandt, 1630

“Abraham and the Angels” Rembrandt, c. 1630 (Sarah is visible in the left foreground)

After a bit of time passed, a few days or weeks or months, the Bible is not clear, who should come pay the two old geezers a visit but the Lord and two unnamed men.

Abraham was thrilled to see them.

He was sitting at the entrance to his tent when the three appeared.

When he saw them, he ran over, greeted them, and asked them to rest under the tree while he got them some food and water.

They rested under the big oaks while Abraham ran to his tent and told Sarah to start whipping up some bread.

He told her to do it with 36 lbs. of flour.

Sarah probably went with a bit less.

Then he went outside and ordered a servant to prepare a calf.

He returned to God and the two others with a feast.

The visitors chowed down.

It was then that one of the men told him, “I’ll be back next year and by then Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was old, but not hard of hearing.

She was listening in to the conversation, kind of like a FBI wiretap except in person.

She heard the news of her having a son and she laughed and thought to herself, “After I am worn out and my husband old, will I now have this pleasure.”

I read that word “pleasure” in verse 12 and thought “Pleasure? You’re 99! You already have your share of aches and pains.

But, friends, you might know how she felt because maybe something like what happened to her has happened to you.

Have you ever wanted something your whole life and never gotten it?

Think about that.

Is there something you always wanted to do but never did?

Or was there something you yearned for and, as the years passed, it just seemed it would never be and finally your dream just went into the place where we stuff things we want to ignore.

I have, but it was not to be.

Father’s Day is a bittersweet day for me.

The children who I talk about, they are not mine.

They are Maurie’s.

I love them and claim them as my own, but I never had any children.

So, in the back of my mind, there is something missing in my life, something I wanted to do but never did and someone whom I wanted to be but never was, a father.

Sarah was like that.

She had wanted a child, but had never had one.

It was worse for Sarah, though, because back in those days, a woman was supposed to have children.

A woman’s worth was based on having children.

People believed that a woman without a child was . . . less.

Not quite as good.

Sarah carried that burden of shame with her for months and weeks and years and decades.

Oh, how she had wanted a child and especially a son, a son surely for Abraham, someone to carry on the family name and the family traditions.

Worse, she had been remembering God’s promises for 25 years.

You can imagine her praying, “When, God, when?” until she could pray no more and hope no more and finally tucked her dream and desire into that compartment in her mind.

So that day, when she heard the man talking about her having a child, she laughed.

There are different types of laughs.

There are belly laughs, that happen when something strikes you as hilarious and the laughter erupts and starts down your belly and flows out of you.

There are chuckles at small jokes or things that happen during the day.

There are giggles like small children might have when they have put one over on mom or dad.

I think Sarah’s laugh was more like a snort, a “no way, no how,” sarcastic kind of laugh.

Like, “Hah, no way.”

And, with that snort, Sarah also showed her doubt about God.

God had promised. God had failed. Now, she was too old. So, “Hah, no way.”

When God heard that laugh, he turned to Abraham, apparently kind of surprised.

God said, “Why did she laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Then he said, “I will return to you next year and she will have a son.”

Remember now that first Abraham laughed at God’s promise.

Then, Sarah laughed, too.

Both had given up on God and doubted God and lost any hope that had that the promised would be fulfilled.

Of course, all of us are like Sarah and all of us are Abraham.

We’ve lived with pain, barrenness, bitterness.

Who among us, at our age, has not felt crushing loss or devastating disappointment?

Like them, we wonder if God heard our prayers, or if he will answer them or maybe, it enough time has passed for us, we have given up and locked into that compartment.

So, we forget about it ever happening or ever receiving an answer.

In such cases, maybe a little chink is knocked off our faith.

But, Abraham and Sarah still had faith or at least kept some form of faith alive.

Clearly, they still believed in God and were surely in direct relationship that day.

You note that twice in these verses, Abraham called himself God’s “servant.”

Note, too, that God didn’t punish any doubt that they had.

You see, for Sarah and Abraham, the unbelievable happened.

Sarah had a child. God’s promise had come true.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is a story of two people, parents of us all, moving from hopelessness to hope and from hope to fulfillment.

But, there is something in these events for us.

Friends, however down or doubtful you may get about God, hold on to your faith and to your hope.

Understand, it is a mistake to base our faith in God upon fulfillment of our desires, dreams, wants or prayers.

Instead, we need to keep our faith in God open to the amazing and surprising grace of God, a grace that can come to us in the most unexpected of ways.

And, we need to keep remain aware of the daily graces of God that we that we take for granted.

Even the beating of your heart and the breathing of your lungs are signs of that grace, as are your food, shelter, clothing, health and the rising of the sun and breezes in the air.

Our faith in God’s grace, surprising and daily and constant, needs to wrap itself around our doubt and disappointments and say that it is okay and God is still with us.

And remember that our God is full of power and surprises.

God raises the dead.

God brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.

God broke the back of slavery here and when hate and prejudice persisted, ended the laws of segregation and separation and is calling is people to join him in showing the miracles of love in the midst of the hate that swirls around us.

God won’t do everything we ask and hope for.

But God will be God and God will do God’s will and what a wonderful, grace-filled will it is.

Even in the ups and downs and fears and regrets and disappointments and devastations of life.

Is anything to wonderful for God?

No. Nothing.

May we all hold on to that kind of faith.

Amen.