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.

 

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.

On Agape, MLK and a Neighbor Wearing a Confederate Flag

It is MLK Day but, shockingly, I’ve just seen a neighbor who lives one street over from us strutting around the neighborhood wearing a Confederate flag sweatshirt.

No fig leaf of “honor our Confederate history” can cover such a naked, defiant and intentional display of racism.

Sadly, she is not alone in our small town. Others fly Confederate flags 365/24/7 in their front yards or paste decals to their cars or homes. In addition, several businesses display Rebel flags on their storefronts, again 365/24/7.

Of course, my neighbor would not be alone in any area or region of the United States. However, perhaps no region is more infected with racist toxin than the South. If you live within the boundaries of Old Dixie, latent or blatant racism is all around you. If it is not in your home, then it is just over the fence, infecting all irrespective of whether they acknowledge it.

I speak these things as a 65-year-old white male who was raised by a hardcore racist and who has lived all his years in the south. My father was one who regularly spewed racial venom. For example, he openly cheered King’s assassination. When I moved out of the house to cast out on my own, it soon became clear that his kind was well-represented in southern culture.

One thing, though, sets our neighbor apart from others—she and her husband display Christian decals, bumper stickers and symbols on their home and cars.

I know, I know. We all sin and fall short. True enough. And, embarrassingly, I still periodically see latent racism in me—and wonder how much I don’t see.

But I still cannot understand how someone claiming to follow Jesus of Nazareth can wrap their body in a flag that has steeped like tea for hundreds of years in a toxic brew of human domination, discrimination, segregation, intimidation, beating, torture, and murder.

The Bible clearly points to a path that calls us to overcome our racial, ethnic and gender prejudices—and does so in part using the homely example of the clothes we wear.

For example, in Galatians 3:26-27, St. Paul writes of the essential equality of all people who have clothed themselves, not in a symbol of hatred, but in Christ, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek. . . slave or free. . . male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” [emphasis added]

In Colossians 3:10-14, he pairs this concept of being clothed in Christ with the inner attitudes that should accompany it:

“[you] have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another. . .  forgive each other. Above all, clothe yourselves with love. . .”

A final irony of this woman’s public display of divisiveness (and, I must admit of my anger and desire to strike back) is that were Martin Luther King, Jr. to see her wrapped in that flag, he would strive to love her.

Perhaps nothing is more underappreciated about King than his ethic not only of non-violence but of agape love, the kind of love which Jesus calls for his disciples to have.

In the heat of his Civil Rights campaign, he once wrote:

“Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend. . . [that] the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. . . [S]omeone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love. . .”

King not only spoke those words but also lived them in the face not only of flags, but also of bombs, dogs, nightsticks, and jail.

As my neighbor and too many other show, his fight goes on.

 

 

 

 

In the Beginning and Moving Slow

Beginnings

We begin at the beginning.

In fact, we begin at least three beginnings: the beginning of a new year; the beginning of the Bible; and, the beginning of a year of congregational reading and discussion.

Commitments

As we do, I urge each of you who have thought about stepping onto this path of regular Bible reading to make two commitments.

First, commit to yourselves and to this church and to God that you will follow through on it.

Second, to commit to yourselves and to this church and to God that this will not be a resolution you will abandon easily.

I know its not easy to read through the Bible in one year.

There are some days that it is hard to keep up.

Illnesses can halt our progress, as can work demands, family matters or other life challenges, but you will be rewarded richly if you persevere.

I say that out of personal experience.

Many times over the years, I’ve heard or read interviewers ask the person being interviewed what their favorite book might be or, possibly, to name the book that most influenced their life.

As those questions were asked, I pondered my answer them, but have never had a satisfactory answer. . . until this week.

Of course, the answer was in front of me all along, but I didn’t realize it until I was reading the chapters prescribed for this week.

It occurred to me about Wednesday that the Bible is easily the most influential book in my life and that nothing else is even close.

I say that while admitting that there are parts of the Bible which I don’t like, there are parts of it I don’t understand, and there is a lot about it I do not know.

However, this is the book that has most shaped my life, directly and indirectly.

This is the book God used to turn my life around, to put me on a new career path that is not really about a career but about a calling . . . and to call me out of the hell of a life lived for self and onto the path of a life lived, at least partially, for God and others.

That is not to brag, sinner that I remain, but rather to acknowledge the truth.

Of course, it is easy for me to say that, because this is the book that has most affected almost all people living in the western world today even if they rarely open it, have never read a verse or can’t even remember the last time they saw one, because this book likely has shaped Western culture and the people in it more than any other single factor.

Unfortunately, the truth is that most Americans don’t know much about this book and rarely read it.

There is no need to chastise people about this, because it is even true of pastors, or at least pastors-to-be.

I remember taking my first Bible class in seminary.

I and my classmates filed in and found a place to sit.

Our Old Testament professor soon walked in and announced that we would start out slowly and go slow the entire semester because most of us were biblically illiterate and had little idea what was in the Bible and no idea about its story line.

I thought that must be so, because I didn’t know the Bible had a story line.

Did you know it had one?

Indeed, it does.

You and I are a part of it.

The story line begins at the beginning, Genesis 1:1.

That verse reads, as you remember, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . .”

The story line ends in the very final verse of Revelation, 22:21, with a benediction from John, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”

You see, the story line is about God, God’s creation and God’s grace.

You and I—our living, breathing, eternal selves—are all caught upon within that story of God, God’s creation and God’s grace.

As St. Paul wrote in Acts 17:28, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’…

As he wrote in Romans 14:8, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

In some sense, God is the creator, star and producer of all that is, and we live on the stage he created.

We owe it to ourselves to read, discuss and learn from this book that devotes itself to God’s creation and the way people like you and me and Moses, Isaac, Abraham, Paul, Peter, and Matthew have encountered and struggled with and been blessed by God.

So, let’s devote ourselves this year to engaging God in the same way that hundreds of millions of Christians have done and been blessed by during that time—Holy Scripture.

A bit of housekeeping

Before we move to our first week’s readings, there are a few housekeeping measures to note.

First, bring your Bibles. Bring them each week. We are going to be students of the Bible, and we need to bring the main tool from which we will learn.

Second, bring your questions and comments.

I know, I know, most of us do not want to talk in church.

We are Methodists and may well be horrified at the thought of speaking during the middle of a worship service.

We can’t imagine ourselves doing that.

Most Methodists think that is something best left to Pentecostals and charismatics.

Besides that, most of us have long hated to ask questions in front of others or to say something which we are afraid might offend others or reflect poorly on ourselves.

But, let’s make this year different.

We always want to learn and grow in faith, hope and love.

We always want to be become better disciples.

We will fail in those if we don’t talk about what we love or hate or question about scripture.

Shoot, some things might even absolutely freak us out.

The Bible is filled with things to love or hate or question or not understand.

In that regard, I urge you to keep a notebook and jot down your reactions to each day’s readings—your thoughts, feelings, questions, or even objections.

I also want to invite you to contact me during the week.

My phone number and email and even home address are in the bulletin each week.

You can call, email or text and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

You can even talk to me at church or come by my house.

(Beware of the dog, though.)

If you have questions, however, I must warn you that I’ve played and lost many times that game known as “Stump the Pastor.”

In other words, I may be stumped and need to research the answer and get back to you.

Last in our housekeeping is an important matter on biblical interpretation.

I don’t mean to shock or offend anybody, but it is only in the last century and a half or so that there has been a widespread insistence on a literal reading of the Bible.

In fact, for the first few centuries after Jesus died, many Christians, including bishops and elders and church higher ups, interpreted the Bible primarily in an allegorical way.

By that I mean, they believed that the Bible talked in myths and metaphors that told the great and eternal truths of God and human beings and all creation.

Don’t misunderstand me on this, our mothers and fathers in the faith did not believe that the Bible was a work of fiction, fantasy or superstition.

They did believe, though, that it was chock full of Truth with a capital “T” irrespective of whether events happened exactly as described.

For example, many then and today read Genesis 1 and 2 and 3 as stating the truths that God created all that is and made humans in God’s image but that humans had this problem with sin and fell away from God.

They were not too concerned with arguing about what we might call scientific fact.

Was one day 24 hours?

Did God create all in exactly the way described?

Are we made from dirt or is that a metaphor to describe our earthiness compared to God’s heavenliness?

Let me note that it is valid to believe in the Bible as literal truth.

It is also valid to believe that some of the Bible is metaphorical or allegorical.

Comments or questions?

Onto this week’s verses

Let’s turn to the verses we read this week.

My goal in the few minutes we have left is to point out some themes we see in Genesis 1-13 that will recur throughout the Bible.

First, as noted a bit earlier, God is the star.

First and foremost, the Bible is about God.

However, this week’s verses also introduce to some important qualities of God, qualities that we will see as we continue our reading and likely will see at work in our lives.

One is God’s power.

Genesis describes a powerful God.

At one time, many churches regularly affirmed the omnipotence, the all-powerful nature of God.

Whether they do or not, however, Genesis 1 is all about God’s power.

We read, for instance, that God created all that is out of a void, out of nothing.

That is power.

We see that when God speaks His word, things happen.

“God said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.”

That is power.

We also see God’s power when we look at His creation.

For example, we see that power in the astonishing photography of stars and galaxies billions of light years away.

These photographs look like a brilliant display of fireworks in the inky blackness of space.

And we can see God’s power not just on that immense, unimaginable scale, but also in the wonder of a sunrise, the beauty of a smile, the touch of a loved one.

I do not question whether God made it all.

It seems clear to me that the universe has great power and intention behind, not just in the beginning, but in the sustaining, nurturing, caring for creation.

Just think of creation on our small scale.

Our planet is tipped just the right amount from the sun and just far enough away from it so that we will remain in this orbit that brings us the days and seasons and is so beautifully adjusted that we will neither freeze not burn up.

And meanwhile, there is a force at work holding us here so that we do not fly off or ascend into space.

And the atmosphere is set just right to allow the right amount of oxygen to maintain life.

That is the big deal about global warming and climate change—are we messing with God’s handiwork in a way that will limit or even extinguish life?

Beyond God’s immense power we see other qualities.

For example, his presence.

His presence in the beginning.

In the garden.

Sadly, with Cain and Abel.

And, in the days of Noah, disappointed at what He had made.

We see Him after the flood, too.

With Noah, certainly.

And then, importantly, with Abram calling him out of Ur to the promised land, to be blessed to be a blessing.

God’s power and presence has always been at work and is always at work in the work in the universe and on this good earth.

And it is combined with the divine surprising quality of seeking relationship.

Again, in the garden with Adam and Eve.

And, Cain and Seth.

Noah.

Abram.

Those qualities of having power and being present and seeking relationship are part of the story line of the Bible.

And we see some other things at work in these early chapters.

God’s love and mercy and grace are on stunning display.

Out of that love and mercy and grace, God made us in his image, placed us in a good creation and, as we will note in our communion prayer shortly, remains true to us even when we turn away from him.

We see these qualities of love, mercy and grace God throughout the Bible.

And you and I see them in our lives as well.

It is God who gives us life.

And breathing lungs.

Beating hearts.

The gifts of sight and hearing and taste and touch and smell.

He shows us further grace in the daily blessings of life—food, shelter, clothing, clean water.

And, the beauty of a cardinal flying in the dead of winter and the enjoyment of a cool cup of water on the hottest summer days.

And we believe that this is a God who came to earth. . . who reaches out to us . . . who calls us to Him. . . who urges us to join Him on the path to eternal life . . . and who even yearns for us to live out of our best selves.

Brothers and sisters in the faith, you good people with whom I share the journey, God gives us much and wants much more for each of us.

May we praise his name, live in awe of His grandeur and help build his kingdom.

And may we commit this year to Him.

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.