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An Ash Wednesday Valentine

This homily is based on the lectionary passages for Ash Wednesday.

Lent is a time of reconciliation. In the tradition, it’s when lapsed Christians return to the church, or new Christians prepare to enter the church at Easter. Lent is when people are reconciled to God.

For Paul, reconciliation is salvation. Salvation occurs every time we turn to God, whenever we seek reconciliation. “Salvation is now,” Paul exclaims. It’s something like vacation. Vacation doesn’t begin when we arrive at our destination. Vacation begins when we depart. We’re already on vacation when we’re on our way.

The beginning of this Lenten season of reconciliation is Ash Wednesday, and this year it falls on St. Valentine’s Day. St. Valentine died a martyr in 269. He was found guilty of marrying Christian couples, and helping Christians escape persecution. He ended up being the patron saint of engaged couples, beekeepers, happy marriages, lovers, travelers, young people, and greetings.

The heart is a symbol of Valentine’s Day because it is a symbol of our affection. Affection is motivation with direction. We find something attractive and then we move towards it. Amidst other symbols of our affection, you see a lot of hearts on Valentine’s Day.

The prophet Joel urges us to “return with our whole heart,” with all our affection, to God. This is hard, because by the time we consider God’s invitation our hearts are divided. We have many affections, mixed motivations, and a multitude of directions. We don’t have a whole heart. It isn’t “clean,” which is a synonym of “whole.” Instead our hearts are “broken,” to use words from Psalm 51.

Lent presents us with the question: “Despite our divided, broken heart, do we want to return to the LORD?” Hearing God’s invitation, what is our response? Is there any affection for God left in our lives?

Joel assures us that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That’s good news for us, because we are not abounding in steadfast love. Ours is not a steadfast love. Lent asks us if we have any love left for God? Do we have any affection? Do we have any motivation with direction?

Psalm 51 says God does not despise a broken heart so long as it is also contrite. The ancient sign of contrition is rending one’s clothes. Tearing one’s clothing served as an outer symbol of inner reality. But you can fool others, you can put on a show by rending your clothes with nothing really going on inside. But you can’t fool Jesus. “Jesus knows the inmost heart, nothing can be hidden.”

This is why Jesus says when giving alms, do so secretly. When praying, do so privately. When fasting, don’t look dismal. Only then do you have some assurance you’re not just rending your clothes. This is what Joel means when he says, “Rend your hearts and not just your clothes.”

If you desire a closer relationship with God, Lent is for you. It is a time of return, a time of reconciliation. It begins by finding more affection for God, more motivation and more direction. G. K. Chesterton said, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Lent is the time to rekindle your love affair with God.

Invest the time of Lent in your relationship with God. These forty days send the treasure of your affection to heaven, and your heart will follow.

Through Christ, let us return to God with our broken and contrite hearts. Through Christ, let us return to God with our divided and torn hearts. Through Christ, let us return to God with our whole hearts. Amen.

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02.11.18 Legacies Lived and Left Genesis 23, 25 Sermon Outline

In the past six weeks, we’ve made a number of discoveries about God through our Walk of Faith with Abraham and Sarah. Rituals (like altar building) are important reminders to us of God’s calling and faithfulness, and to God of his promises. Laughter is evidence of God’s presence. Even when we say we “can’t believe it!” it means we’re thinking about it. Joy is an eternal, divine quality. Laughter is the temporal intersection.

Gratitude looks like generosity. When Abraham defeated the kings in battle, he tithed to Melchizedek. When Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham, he accompanied her with a generous offering. Forgiveness paves the walk of faith. When we let the past be the past, and humans be human, we are free to look ahead to God’s calling.

God makes promises and reveals himself in stages. God draws us in through ritual like covenant making and renewal. And he deepens our relationship of faith through trials like waiting.

For these reasons and many others, Abraham and Sarah are recognized as the patriarch and matriarch of faith for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The Christian testimony of this honor stretches all the way back to the Bible. Jesus commends the faith of Abraham. Paul bases his theology on it. And in the catalog of the greatest faithful, chapter eleven of the book of Hebrews, Abraham and Sarah occupy 1.5 paragraphs; Moses comes in second place with 1 paragraph.

Here’s how the tribute begins: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.”

In the narrative of Abraham and Sarah, their burials serve to summarize the main point of Hebrews. Again, from chapter eleven: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Hebrews helps us recognize that the journey aspect of faith includes continuous walking, exploring, and unfolding. Faith is not a doctrinal assent (“I believe Jesus died for my sins”) but a way of life. Abraham and Sarah exemplify this.

Hebrews goes on to say of the faithful: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland . . . they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

Abraham had to purchase land for burial when Sarah died. The story would have us believe that 100 years have transpired since God first called Abraham and Sarah when Abraham finally dies. At the time of Sarah’s death, he still had no land. It’s a symbolic reminder that all of life is borrowed, and all of life gets returned.

Hebrews continues: “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better . . .”

Some are tempted to conclude from this exaltation of the faithful that this earthly life doesn’t count for much. But Abraham cared deeply about this life. That’s why he mourned Sarah’s death and why he purchased the land and why he was buried there also. He didn’t have the attitude that “the afterlife is better than this life,” or that “the soul is more important than the body.”

Still, Abraham maintained another perspective. He kept in view the legacy he would leave, and how the promises of God would yet be fulfilled after him. All those stars, those descendants of Abraham whose names we wrote and posted on the sky, represent the ongoing fulfilment of God’s promises and Abraham’s faith.

This is why Hebrews continues: “God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” Since the promises are still being fulfilled, the walk of faith begun by Abraham and Sarah goes on. We are the legacy. We carry the faith. We live in this world bearing witness. This is why there is always hope for parents and grandparents who lament that their children and grandchildren are not walking in the faith. The walk isn’t over. Until God fulfills the promises completely, and won’t “apart from us,” the walk isn’t perfected. It isn’t complete. There is hope.

For now, God is calling us. And when we answer, God is glorified. So Hebrews transitions from the catalog of the faithful to one of the most famous images from all of scripture: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Each calling is unique—from Abraham and Sarah to Jesus to Peter to you. Each calling is unique but there are contours of God’s calling that are similar. Hebrews chapters twelve and thirteen provide some of those contours, including: Welcoming trials, pursuing peace, listening for God’s calling, showing hospitality, worshiping together, and listening to church leaders.

As we conclude our walk of faith with Abraham and Sarah, may faith guide your life as it did theirs. May your years be good and full as was theirs. May you hold loosely but faithfully to this life. And when we are gathered to God’s people, may the world mourn, and the heavens rejoice. Amen.

02.04.18 Don’t Hedge your Bets Genesis 20:1-18 Sermon Summary

Note: this sermon was delivered in first person as Abraham. The first eight verses were read in advance. The last verses are embedded in the message.

Summary Points

  • How the Bible is about faith, not history
  • Biblical Faith: God saves us from threats to his promises
  • External threats to God’s promises: Things outside our control
  • Internal threats: Our presumption that God belongs only to us
  • How forgiveness sets us free

My walk of faith took me to Gerar, the land of the Philistines. The king there was named Abimelech and we got into a little trouble.

But before I share this story, a reminder about these ancient texts. According to your calendar I lived about 2000 years before Jesus. According to the last 200 years of biblical scholarship, my stories were written about 500 years before Jesus. They went through a lot of “tellings” and were compiled by others—many others. They had various interests and agendas.

Some were interested in keeping as much of the material as they had received, even if some of the details didn’t match up. Others were interested in harmonizing all the accounts. Some were interested in using my story from the past to comment on their story in the present, so they mixed some of their details into my story.

So to say any of this is historical by the standards of your present day is hopeful at best. But I’m here today as a character in a larger story—a story of God’s relationship with humanity and with creation. That story encompasses all the others whether they actually happened or not.

And the main story of this God, from my stories to Jesus’ story to your own, is that God rescues us from existential threats. God saves us from things that threaten our existence. Some of these threats come from outside and some come from inside. Let me give you an example of each—an external threat and an internal threat.

The external threat in this story is when Sarah became a concubine of Abimelech. Think about it: The woman who was to mother our child of blessing, this child who was going to bless the whole world, now is part of Abimelech’s harem. That could have been the beginning of the end.

But God the Savior stepped in. God visited Abimelech in a dream and warned him. “Don’t get involved with Sarah. She’s married to Abraham.” Even before that, God had intervened. He distracted Abimelech so he wouldn’t approach Sarah.

Well Abimelech called me in. He said to me, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that ought not to be done. What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?”

See when we migrated to Gerar I presented Sarah as my sister, not my wife. So Abimelech just took her. So I said to him, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” And then I told him, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.”

This little story about Sarah being my sister and not my wife—we had agreed to it. I said to Abimelech, “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to Sarah, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’“

We did this back in Egypt when the famine forced us out of Canaan also. This is an example of an external threat from which God saved us. There were lots of external threats, from Sarah being a part of Pharaoh’s harem, to being a part of Abimelech’s harem, all jeopardizing the promise of God.

And that’s what the Bible means by faith: A promise from God, a belief on our part, and then threats to the promise—the testing of our faith. These are things outside our control that make us question, “How can God pull this off now?”

But when God does pull it off, like when God stayed Abimelech’s hand upon Sarah and warned him in a dream to leave her alone, the story of God’s faithfulness continues. And these stories get passed down all the way to you so you can trust in God’s promises even when outside circumstances threaten you.

Now that you know this you can read these stories from the Bible this way. “How is God keeping the promise alive?” That’s a much better question than, “Did this really happen?”

So let me tell you about the internal threat—and I’m not proud of this. Because not only are there things outside of our control that threaten the promises of God. But there are things within us also.

One of the reasons we did what we did, telling local kings Sarah was my sister, is like I said because I thought, “There is no fear of God in this place.”

God had chosen ME. God had spoken to ME. I was the one following GOD. God had been leading ME. There was no way God was in these other places. And NO WAY they knew God, much less feared God. I mean—and we haven’t talked about this—but just look what God did to Sodom and Gomorrah! God and I were tight. I was God’s, and God was mine.

So when I encountered these foreigners—these strange places, and strange customs, and people who looked different than I—I just knew they didn’t fear God. So I hedged my bets. I said to God, “Hey, you know the stars in the sky and all that, but I know people. So let me handle this, because these people are savages. They don’t know you. You get us to the end of the journey. (What you folks have come to call heaven—some kind of life after death?) You get us to the end, but I’ll take care of things here in Garar.”

And that’s the threat to God’s promises that resides within us—within each and every one of us. “God, you take care of the big things and the things at the end. But we’ll take care of the other things, especially dealing with other people, people different than we are, because they don’t know you. They don’t know you like WE know you.”

Except here’s the thing: God KNEW Abimelech. And Abimelech did fear God. Abimelech listened to and trusted God more than I did! And so I learned something about God from Abimelech, and about myself. It is that God is much bigger than my experience, and much bigger than my thoughts about God.

There are external threats out there, but there are internal threats also, especially for folks like you who have all this history from my story through to yours. It’d be easy to think you’ve got it all figured out about God and about everyone else. But I learned something from the foreigner, and maybe you can too.

Because here’s what happened. Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to me, and restored Sarah to me. And he said, “My land is before you; “settle where it pleases you.” Then to Sarah he said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

Abimelech forgave me and Sarah. We had judged him prematurely, and even though we didn’t ask for forgiveness, Abimelech forgave us. And what is more he offered us restitution. He set us up to live according to God’s calling upon us.

I learned from Abimelech about forgiveness and generosity. He gave us all these things out of his forgiveness and out of his generosity. And I thought, “Abimelech is like God: forgiving and generous even though I messed up.”

Well, out of the forgiveness and generosity I learned from Abimelech’s example I prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.

God IS faithful to his promises—even despite threats that come from the outside like circumstances we find ourselves in, and treats that come from the inside like lack of faith in God.

But what I found is that forgiveness is the carriage that moves us along. And forgiveness looks like many things: Like God stopping Abimelech from pursuing Sarah, or warning Abimelech in a dream. When God calls us to confess our sins and repent of our actions, forgiveness is already there.

Forgiveness looks like Abimelech speaking the truth and asking questions. Even though forgiveness exists there is also accountability. And we must try to make things right when an injustice has occurred.

Forgiveness looks like Abimelech restoring Sarah’s image and helping us so we wouldn’t have to be deceptive again. This is what prisons are supposed to do.

Forgiveness looks like my praying for God’s healing for Abimelech and Sarah’s being patient with me through all this.

All these different forms of forgiveness! You know what they have in common? Forgiveness makes us free—free to become the people God desires us to be. Forgiveness sets us free from the fear we have of others. Forgiveness sets us free from holding grudges which only prolongs our suffering. Forgiveness gives us freedom to be generous. Forgiveness sets us free to love—to love God, to love ourselves, and to love others like Abimelech.

As my descendants in the faith I pray you’ll have more faith than I, that you won’t hedge your bets, that you’ll be a forgiving people and a generous people. And like a Rabbi to come will say, that you will be a people known by your love.

A Postscript on Forgiveness from the Morning Prayer

We pray for those who hear your call to forgiveness with pain, disbelief, anger, or confusion. We know the church has often overlooked the rights of victims in the rush to forgiveness. Help us to view forgiveness first as a letting go of a past we cannot change. And allow us not to mistake forgiveness as a letting off of those who commit injustice. Help us to trust you through both—the process of healing, and the pursuit of righteousness.

01.28.18 The One Who Laughs Best Genesis 17:15-17, 18:1-15 Sermon Summary

Note: This sermon was delivered in 1st person as Abraham.

We all know family life can get complicated. Being a religious person, following God and all that, it doesn’t insulate you from family struggles. Marriage partners can get impatient. Children can still be recalcitrant.

Some things don’t change just because you have God in your life. You and the people around you still have your egos. Feelings get hurt. People get sick and die. The kings above you act badly. The weather changes. The economy falters.

Sometimes things DO change, though, when you’re walking with God. Like my name. God changed it from Abram to Abraham. Abram means “the Father is exalted.” I learned to do that at an early age back in Ur of the Chaldeans, to exalt the divine ancestor, the divine name, the divine father.

Then THIS God comes into my life and moves me to Haran, then to Canaan, promising me this land and descendants as numerous as the stars. That’s what Abraham means: “Father of a multitude.”

Sarah was in on it, too. This God claimed her like he claimed me. The meaning of her name didn’t change. She was a princess before and a princess still. But the pronunciation changed. She would be my partner. God knew I couldn’t have a child without her. Well, except for Ishmael. But this God promised to take care of Ishmael also. He just wanted to fulfill the original promise through Sarah.

So almost twenty-five years after first making the promise God shows up in these three visitors. I wasn’t expecting them. It was the middle of the day. No one should have been passing through. But they appeared there and I did what anyone would do in the desert. I offered them hospitality.

It’s dangerous to be out in the desert too long. Your body gets dried out. You start seeing things all distorted like. You don’t think right. You become tired and hopeless. It’s like that in the desert for your body, but also for your spirit. If someone don’t show you hospitality your faith dries up and dies.

Anyway, Bedouin hospitality rules say you offer your best to your guests—like you did with homeless families last week. Sarai—I mean Sarah—made some bread cakes with our finest wheat and I selected a choice calf from the heard, and we put out a spread for our surprise visitors. To be honest, it was a meal fit for a king, and good thing, too, because these were messengers of the LORD.

It’s like a Rabbi would say to his disciples later, “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.” We were, as it is written, “entertaining angels unawares.”

Sarah and I became pretty good at hospitality even though we were in a foreign land. Sometimes when you’re waiting and waiting FOR God it’s easier to pass the time waiting ON God, responding to the needs of others while you wait for God to respond to your needs.

Anyway, in the course of the conversation the visitors say they’ll come back and “in due season” Sarah will bear a son. I did the math. In due season I would be 100 years old and Sarah would be 90. “Here we go again,” I said to myself.

Not much earlier God had reminded me of his promise. When he renamed me Abraham: Father of Multitudes. He reminded me of the promise that started it all almost twenty-five years earlier and I fell down laughing. Turns out Sarah was listening at the tent door and when she heard what these visitors said she also laughed.

We’ve thought about this a lot—about this laughing when God makes a promise. Part of the reason I was laughing was because I was nervous. When God changed my name he also gave me the “sign of the covenant.” Remember that long ritual I had to do when I cut the animals in two and waited all day for God to reveal something? Well, the sign of the covenant required something else to be cut—cut around in a circle. “Circumcise”—to put it in Latin for you. Yeah, after that, anything else the LORD said made me a little nervous.

You know how it is. You take a little step in your walk of faith and God reveals a little more about himself and about you and it’s a little unsettling. So you wonder just how far God is going to take you down this unsettling path on the walk of faith.

After the whole “sign of the covenant” the next time God spoke I felt like crying. But I also thought “Well, you BETTER give me a child and it’s about time, after what I just did for you!” Anyway, God spoke and I just laughed.

Sarah laughed for mixed reasons of her own. She thought about our aging bodies. The whole thing is laughable when you envision it: Making the child, having the child, raising the child. Both of our bodies had withered if you get my drift.

Plus, it had been nearly 25 years since the promise first came. About half way through that time we lost patience and brought Hagar and Ishmael into it. God is faithful to his promises, even when we take shortcuts. Or try to, anyway. As I said, Hagar and Ishmael were going to turn out OK.

So Sarah laughed in PART because of our old age and in part because of our old spirits. Like these three visitors we had found ourselves in the middle of nowhere in the heat of the day. Spiritually speaking we were exhausted.

And she probably wouldn’t tell you this herself, but I think she also laughed because a part of her still hoped, After all the years of trying and failing, after watching Hagar with Ishmael, after praying and listening to God’s promises, after following God on this circuitous walk of faith, part of her still wanted to believe.

And that’s what she SHOULD have said, because the visitors heard her laugh and wanted to know why. “I didn’t laugh,” she said. “Oh, yes,” one of them answered. “You did laugh.”

Now you might think the messenger of the LORD would be angry at people laughing at God’s promises. But there was something in the way he said it: “Oh yes, you did laugh.” There was a spark in his eye and a curl to his lips. It was almost like he admired Sarah, or appreciated her mixed up feelings, or knew something she didn’t know.

You’ve heard the proverb, “He who laughs last, laughs best.” It refers to the one who wins a game but only at the end. This messenger looked like he had an ace up his sleeve. It was almost like this messenger wanted to laugh with us, to really whoop it up.

That’s when I realized these weren’t just visitors. It was God was with us. And later I figured something out. Maybe our laughter is the tickling of God’s Spirit, a movement of God’s Spirit in our lives confirming God’s presence. Because when God is around we humans are bound to laugh. Something happens to us when God shows up. We become nervous or afraid or confused. We realize we’re disbelieving or despairing or nearly out of faith. Or we think what a ridiculous waste of time this has all been.

And then at just the right time God heaps the blessing upon us so there’s nothing else to DO but laugh. To laugh at ourselves. To laugh in thanksgiving. And to laugh with the one who laughs last, and who laughs best. Think about that the next time you find yourself laughing.

Eucharistic Prayer

Creator God, we thank you for bringing us together today, for calling us by name as you called Abraham and Sarah, and for leading us in our walk of faith. As you led our ancestors in this faith through trials and hardships, delivering them to a praise and thanksgiving, we remember them, we remember their testimony, and we remember your faithfulness.

To Abraham and Sarah you promised a blessing to the nations, and in Jesus Christ we have received the fulfilment of this promise. He opened the channels of your grace beyond his religious tradition. He welcomed all people to your bountiful table. He paid for his wide hospitality with his life, but you raised him from the dead in order that his ministry of welcome may continue until all whom you created and call are redeemed.

Send your Spirit we pray, that we may receive the tickling presence of your promises once again. Receive our laughter, whether scoffing or rejoicing, whether nervous or confident, as part of our response to and acknowledgment of your presence. And receive and feed us at this table, again as we respond to and acknowledge your presence here by the Spirit. In the name of Christ our host we pray. Amen.

01.14.18 Promise and Performance Genesis 15:1-2, 5-15 Sermon Summary

Note: This message was delivered in first person, as Abram, and is based on Genesis 15:1-2, 5-15.

It’s been a while since we last talked, since we walked from Haran to Canaan, leaving behind everything that was familiar to me. We went to Egypt and back again because of the famine. What an inconvenience that was! We built altars along the way, remembering together God’s calling and faithfulness. It’s been not quite 10 years. I’ve not seen my 85 birthday.

Lot finally went out on his own. You remember my brother’s son. But he got in some trouble. There was this battle between four kings on one side and five on the other. Lot got himself captured. Typical.

So I and 318 of my men joined the five kings. We rescued Lot. I might have been proud of this except for this mysterious guy Melchizedek. He was king and priest of Salem. He appeared out of nowhere, then disappeared again just as fast. He brought me bread and wine. He blessed me, giving thanks to “God Most High” for our victory.

I gave him a tithe, you know, a tenth of everything we had acquired. It seemed the right thing to do, having been blessed and all. I gave it out of our thanksgiving. I recommend the practice to you.

Anyway, it kept me humble. The victory wasn’t mine. The spoils of our labors weren’t mine. They came from God. Melchizedek helped me remember that.

So with these battles in mind, I suppose, God came to me in a vision again. “I am your shield,” he said. “Shield?!” I thought. I need offspring!

Remember, God promised me a child, and I’m not getting any younger! And neither is Sarai my wife. I’m nearly 85 and she’s 10 years behind me.

I don’t know if you’ve ever hoped in a promise of God but let me tell you something. God’s timing is not our timing. We want promises to come true quickly. You expect pizza to be delivered in 20 minutes, right? There are no microwaves in the walk of faith.

Anyway, who needs a shield when you don’t have children? Well God took me outside. it was night. He told me to count the stars.  “That’s how many descendants you’ll have.”

I thought about those altars. And about what I had left behind. And about defeating those kings. And about and Melchizedek. And then about this promise about the stars and my descendants. And I believed him.

Even though I was already rich and powerful—I could have gone on. I could have gone anywhere. But there was something missing in my life despite all my success. Something I couldn’t do for myself. Something only God could do for me. So God made this promise, and I believed him. Then, you know, God reckoned it to me as righteousness.”

That’s an interesting thing. Later this Pharisee Paul will make a big deal about this. Later still a monk named Martin Luther will too. “Abram believed God, and God reckoned it as righteousness.”

Righteousness. What is that? In my day there were no 10 commandments: “You shall have no other God but me.” Moses was over 400 years away! And there were no beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus wasn’t born for another 2000 years!

There was only a bunch of gods, and sacrifices to be made, and prayers to offer, and crops to harvest, and children to be raised, and enemies with different gods to defend against. This god comes to me out of nowhere making extravagant promises year after year, stage after stage, on my walk of faith. So he says my descendants will outnumber the stars, I believe him, and now I’m righteous. OK.

But God and I went back and forth. God made promises. I believed. But I also questioned. God didn’t seem to mind. In fact, God used my questions to reveal more and more to me. This took time, and it wasn’t easy. It was a conversation—praying, listening, questioning . . .

One time God made me do an elaborate ritual. I had to round up a heifer, a goat, a ram, and 2 birds. I had to cut them in half (not the birds), and set the halves opposite one another. This was a huge effort! Then I waited, and waited, and waited. There were lots of distractions. eventually vultures began to gather and I had to chase them away.

Prayer is like this also. You light your candle, you read your holy word, you kneel or fold your hands. You say your memorized prayer or go through your prayer list. And wait. And there are lots of distractions so you chase them away. And you wait.

Anyway, in this elaborate ritual it eventually became dark. Terribly dark. Terrifyingly dark—like in a dark wood. I despaired of being lost. And then finally the revelation came. Only after all this—after the ritual, after the darkness, after I fell asleep. Like Adam had to fall asleep for God to make Eve, I had to fall asleep to get the revelation.

And it was kind of a mixed revelation. I’d have descendants, that’s good. But they’d live as aliens a while in a land not their own. Legal aliens—don’t worry about that—because they would be slaves. For 400 years! But after that, they would return with great possessions.

This would take seven generations. The next three generations being relatively blessed—Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, you know. But then the next four generations would be treated as slaves. So I was thinking ahead now seven generations: My actions effecting seven generations. Wow. There’s wisdom in thinking this way. What we do has lasting consequences.

God promised us a child. Our descendants would be a blessing to us and to the whole world. That was the promise. But all that suffering! I began to question. Was it worth it? Was suffering necessary, somehow? Can there be blessing without suffering? Or maybe the point is that this God is able to bring blessing out of suffering? Who knows?

I thought about this child of blessing. I knew childbirth was painful. I knew Sarai would have to suffer through it. I knew children also brought joy and hope. Was this truth—suffering leading to blessing—just going to play out on a grand scale?

I had to decide. God said look at the stars. That would be the fruit of my faith. I thought about all those stars. Each star is a person. Each star has a name. I thought about people who inspired me from the past, like Melchizedek, for example. He was a star in that sky of blessings. I thought of others who need to be encouraged, who need to know of God’s blessing. They are a star in that sky. And I thought of myself, the one whose faith started all this blessing. We’re all among the stars God had promised would be blessed through my decision.

This walk of faith has taught me a lot so far. Like it’s never too late to follow God, and that God never stops calling.

Like how God’s rewards often follow sacrifice and suffering.

Like how God’s promises are to a group of people and not just you or me.

Like how God’s promises come through time, and that God is very patient.

Like how arduous ritual pays off. And how darkness can be a friend.

And how blessing prevails in the end, but there are lot of “meantime” experiences.

Well, till next time, keep walking in faith. Amen.

01.07.18 Setting the Stage Genesis 12:1-10, 13:1-4 Sermon Summary

NOTE: This sermon was delivered in the first person, as Abram, and interspersed scripture and comment. The scripture is paraphrased in the first person, and is indicated by italics below.

This is how my story begins. The LORD said to me, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I was to leave everything familiar: Country = national identity, my land; Kindred = my familial identity, my heritage; Father’s house = my inheritance. “To the land I will show you”: I thought, “Maybe you could be more specific?”

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. I liked this—the blessing thing—especially if this new god was powerful! But “families of the earth shall be blessed”? Sounds like a lot of responsibility, and I wasn’t sure I wanted this.

So I went, as the LORD had told me. I was seventy-five years old when I departed from Haran.

None of my friends were moving. They had children, and grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. They were settled.

I took my wife Sarai and my brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that we had gathered, and the persons whom we had acquired in Haran; and we set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

Let me tell you about my brother’s son, Lot. You know, families can be complicated: Someone runs off here, someone dies there, someone can’t handle something. So I ended up with responsibilities for “extended family.”

And let me tell you about our possessions and persons. I wasn’t prepared for this. I wish I had known. I would have been prepared to “travel lightly.” But we took everything.

When we had come to the land of Canaan, I passed through the land to the place at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Canaanites! Then the LORD appeared to me, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

I thought, “Wait. What land? This Canaanite land?!” Then, I thought, “Wait. This is my sacrifice, and my faith. And my offspring are going to benefit?!”

Then I realized: This God was long in vision. He demanded my service and my contribution for benefit of the future. Also, whatever I could contribute, no matter how small, this God would use for his purpose. That caused me to do some thinking.

So I built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to me. I built this altar to remind me that God had called me, and of God’s faithfulness. You don’t need an altar to remember these things. Maybe you have a special Bible verse, or maybe a special place. Maybe you have a special song, or a special friend. Maybe you could write a letter or give a gift.

These are the same thing. They’re all ways to build an altar today. Anything to help us remember that God calls to us and that God is faithful to us is an altar in today’s world.

But there’s another reason I build this altar: Not just to remind me, but to remind God. See, there were lots of gods in Canaan. I wanted some guarantees. Later realized this was ridiculous (I’ll tell you about that later.)

From there I moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched my tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there I built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD. It seems I had begun to wander—from Shechem to east of Bethel. I also began to wonder: What do I really know about this god? What if I’ve made a mistake?

I remembered the altar I made in Shechem, so I made another one here. Couldn’t hurt.

And I journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb. Now there was a famine in the land. So I went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. I learned something else following this god. I had to walk by faith. There were no prescribed steps. Instead there were stages.

Stages can last a long time. Or not. They can take you some distance. Or not. They are unpredictable. Once I embraced stages instead of steps, my expectations changed. I experienced less disappointment. I was more open—like when the famine hit and we went to Egypt.

I still had some trouble in Egypt. God tried to teach me a lesson there—I didn’t learn the lesson. You’ll hear about that in a few weeks.

Then I went up from Egypt, I and my wife, and all that I had, and Lot with me, into the Negeb. Now I was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. Some things in Egypt did go well. I journeyed on by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where my tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where I had made an altar at the first; and there I called on the name of the LORD.

You know, I keep coming around to this: Making an altar, remembering God’s calling and God’s faithfulness. I’m still walking with this God. Maybe you’ll join me and Sarai on this walk of faith. We had to leave the familiar. We don’t know where it is going to lead. We measure our progress by stages, not by distance. We build altars to remind ourselves and to remind God. And we always found it easier to travel lightly. We’re on a walk of faith. Maybe you’ll join us.

12.24.17 Christmas Eve Prayers and Message, Beware of Resolutions

Lord, as we gather on this dark and frigid night, we remember that it was also at night that you assembled the first small community of witnesses. The promise to generations of people, and your gift to the rest of the world, was about to be born. Amidst an industry too busy to offer adequate hospitality, you came to weary travelers and rugged shepherds. And even as we huddle together in the shadow of the earth, we come to receive and bear witness to the Christ in whom we see your life and light. Bless us this night, we pray, through the presence of your Spirit, that our remembrance of him in this time and place will call and transform us as his disciples, and that we may carry your life and light into the deserted places and lonely lives of all who need you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Walking in darkness can lead to some pretty dark resolutions. Joseph was someone who found himself in darkness. Engaged to be married to Mary, he probably had a light in his eyes as he thought about it. Then suddenly he discovers that Mary is pregnant, and not by him.

Joseph begins to deliberate. He cares about Mary. He doesn’t want to expose her to public disgrace. But he has to keep his righteous reputation intact. He can’t go through with it. So out of this dark turn of events, after prayerful consideration, he resolves to “dismiss Mary quietly.”

Walking in darkness can lead to some pretty dark resolutions. Maybe you’ve been walking in darkness lately. Darkness descends upon our lives in lots of ways. I hear about them as a pastor:

  • The workplace that suddenly doesn’t need you anymore
  • The job you once loved but now is just a routine chore
  • The relationship that ends, leaving a gaping wound in your chest
  • The death of a loved one, leaving a vacancy in your future
  • The betrayal of a friend that makes you question your judgment
  • The loss of faith that disorients your life
  • A change in your health that makes mortality all too real

Yes, darkness can descend in a life in many ways. And it can last a long time.

The passages of scripture and carols we sing on Christmas Eve are realistic about this darkness. (See below for a list.) The words may be culturally or historically specific, but the metaphor of the darkness is the same. We don’t “carry yokes” anymore, for example, but we do sense a heaviness about us. We still need relief from our responsibilities. We sing with unwelcome familiarity about our longing for the “Dayspring to disperse the gloomy clouds of night.”

We’d love to see a fresh, new sprout appear in the dead stump of our national politics. We long for the broken to be healed, for the dry desert to blossom, for the long dark night to be broken by dawn.

To put it in less metaphorical terms, but every bit as biblical, we all yearn for the “offness” of the world to be set right. Or for what the Bible calls, with a great deal of gravity, the “deliverance from sin.”

This longing is actually what Christmas is all about. But we’ve been walking in darkness so long, things have become so confusing and so confounding that maybe we’ve made resolutions. Or perhaps we find ourselves in a state of resignation.

We don’t know Mary’s state of soul when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. But as a 14 year old arranged to marry Joseph—an arrangement resolved at a level of negotiation much higher than she—she might have felt some resignation.

We do know that as a Jew in 1st century Palestine she would have felt the darkness of being in an occupied state. (Not much has change for those living in 21st century Palestine.)

Perhaps she made a resolution: To live as normal a life as possible, just be good wife in the ancient world—supportive of her husband, bearing children, and managing the home.

Then Christmas came and challenged all that. Luke tells us she was “perplexed” by the angel’s greeting. Mary exhibits fear. She is forced to ask questions. Beware of Resolutions.

The Shepherds might have had resolutions. They were a marginalized segment of society—nobodies, really. Like Mary, they may have resolved just to live their lives.

Then Christmas came and challenged all that. They were terrified when the angels appear. But they explore the good news they had heard, and in faith, they found it to be true! Sure, they returned to shepherding, but the story says they shared their amazement with everyone, glorifying and praising God. I bet shepherding wasn’t quite the same after that. Beware of resolutions.

And then there’s Joseph, a righteous and compassionate man. A man of deliberation and discernment. “Just when he had resolved” to dismiss Mary, Christmas came and challenged all that.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel says. Fear is the first and common response of everyone when Christmas challenges our resolutions. One of the reasons we make resolutions is to try to control situations outside our control. When Christmas challenges our resolutions, fear resurfaces. But the good and challenging news of Christmas is exactly about those fears.

“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The unexpected challenge, the child conceived in her, is of the Holy Spirit. Give him the name Jesus which means ‘savior,’ for he will save the people from their sin—from the worlds ‘offness,’ from the darkness, from the fear.”

And then Matthew tells us that this has been God’s plan all along! He interprets the prophet Isaiah’s promise of hope, “The virgin will conceive and bear a son and they will call him Emmanuel which means ‘God is with us.’”

And there it is—the challenge of Christmas: Jesus is the Savior, and he is God with us. Salvation is not evacuation from the darkness—it is companionship through the darkness. This is how we know God loves us, not that he removes us from darkness but that he enters it. God comes to us in unexpected places like Bethlehem, to unexpected people like Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds, in unexpected times, like when we’ve made our resolutions. That’s how we know it is God. That’s how we know God loves us. That’s how we know salvation, because a loving God is with us.

Sin and sorrow and thorns grow no more. Heaven and earth can sing. Fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains join in. The curse of darkness has been answered with the blessing of light.

Beware of resolutions. Christmas has come and challenged all that.

God of Creation, who ordained the dawn of the sun to break earlier and earlier this week, that your people in the earth’s northern hemisphere would not despair of darkness but remember the light, we thank you for the wisdom of the church in placing the celebration of Christ’s birth at this time also. We praise you that we also may pause and reflect upon his advent, especially at a time in our world where darkness seems so prevalent. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We witness natural destruction through fire and water. We watch as your name is taken in vain to bless consumerism, oppression, and nationalism. We come to you in prayer, confident that such darkness cannot overcome your light. We come to you in the name of Jesus Christ.

We need the hope of your light, just as you promised the people of Ancient Israel. As did they, so we also need your deliverance. From enslavement to our work and the perfectionism of our culture, deliver us. From the hurts and injuries in our past, deliver us. From the fear of death and the anxiety over our future, deliver us. Through the grief accompanying loss, deliver us. In the tears of our afflictions, deliver us. From the hands of our oppressors, whether physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional, deliver us.

For those who suffer this night, from ill health or poverty or war, we pray the blessing of your presence. For those who are alone or lonely, we pray the blessing of your presence. For those who labor this night for the good of others, we pray the blessing of your presence. For those who are serving in harm’s way, we pray the blessing of your presence. For those whose faith is waning, we pray the blessing of your presence. For all who, in the limits and weakness of their humanity, do not know to reach out to you, and for those who do, we pray the blessing of your presence.

Scripture passages and carols from the Glory to God hymnal: O Come, All Ye Faithful GTG 133; Isaiah 9:2-7; O Come, O Come, Emmanuel GTG 88, vs. 1, 6, 7; Isaiah 11:1-5; Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus GTG 82; Isaiah 35:1-6; Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn GTG 107, vs. 1, 3, 4; Haggai 2:6-9; Matthew 1:18-25; On Christmas Night All Christians Sing GTG 112; Luke 1:26-35, 38; Luke 2:1-15; Love Has Come GTG 110; Silent Night; Joy to the World GTG 134.