Sunday’s sermon: Faith Outside the Box

faith outside the box

Texts used – Daniel 3:13-27; Matthew 14:22-33

  • When I was a kid – even all the way through high school and into college – I was really shy.
    • Uncomfortable introducing myself
    • Uncomfortable initiating conversations and talking to new people
    • Then, for whatever reason, I decided to go to a college that none of my friends – or even anyone from my graduating class or the 3 graduating classes above me! – were going to. When the end of August rolled around, and all my stuff had been moved into my dorm room and my family was back on the road headed home (without me), I was suddenly very alone.
      • Randomly-assigned roommate was nice – let me hang out with her friends → not really my kind of group
      • Comfort zone became my 11’x16’ dorm room – desk, chair, bed → Front desk pizzas were my dinner of choice because I didn’t have to worry about who I was going to sit with. I was sitting with … me.
    • Meeting Renee → stop at her asking me to go to dinner
      • I can’t even begin to describe to you how far out of my comfort zone an offer like this was. What if we didn’t have anything to talk about? What if we realized after sitting down that we didn’t get along and were still stuck eating together? What if I liked her, but she didn’t like me? What if, after we got there, she saw someone else that she knew and ditched me to sit with them? I was teetering precariously on the very edge of my comfort zone, torn between settling back into the very familiar boundaries of my butterfly chair and taking a giant and scary step into the unknown.
    • Funny thing about comfort zones → ultimately, pretty small things
      • Room for us
      • Room for habits – the good ones and the not-so-good ones
      • Room for the familiar
      • But do you know there isn’t room for?
        • Not a lot of room for God to work
        • No room for trust
        • No room for the spectacular
      • Stepping outside our comfort zones can be incredibly uncomfortable. It can be scary and uncertain and intimidating and anxiety-inducing, but as our Scripture readings for today illustrate, stepping outside our comfort zones can also lead to some pretty amazing things.
  • In both the Old Testament and New Testament stories, we find people who are teetering on the edge of their comfort zones.
    • Most choose to stay within those familiar confines
      • In Daniel → those who chose to obey Nebuchadnezzar
        • Background – catch up on where we are in the story
        • Nebuchadnezzar proclaims: “Anyone who will not bow down and worship will be immediately thrown into a furnace of flaming fire.” So … all the peoples, nations, and languages bowed down and worshipped the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.[1]
        • Now, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego certainly weren’t the only Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. This story takes place during the Babylonian exile – a time when a large portion of the Israelites had been captured and taken to live in Babylon. And yet our text tells us that plenty of those people chose to bow down and worship this crazy golden idol that Nebuchadnezzar set up. Plenty of people chose comfort and security over faith and trust.
      • Disciples in gospel not so different – text: When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed. Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”[2]  → All of the disciples were afraid. All cried out in fear. Jesus spoke words of comfort and reassurance to all of the disciples. And yet, how many of them were actually willing to take that step?
  • I have to be honest with you. When that girl knocked on my dorm room door, every part of me wanted to be like those other people of Babylon or all those other disciples and just stay entrenched in the familiar. My instinct – my familiarity – was telling me to turn down her invitation. “Thanks, but no thanks … Maybe next time … I’m not hungry (not true) … I just ate (also not true).” But instead, I got up, grabbed my student ID, shut my door, followed this girl over to the á la cart dining facility, and took one small step (that felt like one gigantic leap) outside my comfort zone. → main characters in Scripture – much more dramatic steps outside comfort zones
    • Daniel: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “ … If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”[3]  → These men have been threatened by the king – “Bow down or burn!” And what is their response? “No. If God wants to save us, God will save us. But even if it means we have to die, we won’t worship your false idol.”
      • Scholar: [This verse] contains one of the most powerful statements in the entire book of Daniel, with consequences reaching far beyond this little story: (3 little words) “But if not …”… This is a statement of faith against the appearance of defeat … and steadfast adherence to an alternate reality: God reigns.[4] → Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego made it abundantly and uncomfortably clear that they chose faith. They chose the uncertain and the unknown over what was comfortable and secure. They chose to step outside their comfort zones into a place of absolute trust.
    • NT Passage: Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus.[5]  → Walking. On. The. Water. Nothing about that says “Comfort Zone.” But Peter’s actions – like those of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – are born of absolute trust, trust in an all-powerful God who protects and lifts up, who comforts and reassures, who forgives and saves.
  • So when we reach moments like this – moments of decision (or maybe moments of indecision), moments when we could either hang back or leap forward – what is it that keeps us clinging to the edges of our comfort zones? What makes us so reticent to trust?
    • Fear? → clearly a part of both Scripture stories
      • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were being threatened with a very painful and seemingly-certain death: being burned to death in a fiery furnace. Even with faith as strong as theirs, a threat like that is sure to invoke fear.
      • Gospel: When the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the lake, they were terrified → That’s pretty clear, and at this point, Peter’s still in the boat with the others. He’s just as afraid as the rest of them. The Greek word used here – “terrified” – can also mean disturbed or troubled or thrown into confusion … all emotions that can make us want to high-tail it back to the safety of our comfort zones.
    • Uncertainty? → before the storm, before Jesus walks on water, before Peter decides to step out, too, disciples in Mt have already been pushed outside the stability of their routine into unfamiliar territory – uncertainty
      • Text: Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds.[6] – Scholar point out here: For the first time in Matthew, the disciples are sent forth without Jesus.[7]  → The disciples were used to following Jesus – doing what he did, listening to his message from the safety of his side, always being near this teacher, this companion, this miracle-worker. But not this time. This time Jesus sent them off, sent them out, sent them ahead … without him. Before they knew it, they were alone in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. This is a situation they had never faced before. What were they supposed to do now?
  • Despite all of this uncomfortableness, it is only when they’ve left the confines of their comfort zones that Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Peter are free to encounter amazing things. Only after they’ve placed their full trust in God and God alone are they able to experience God in dramatic, life-changing ways.
    • Admittedly, things had to get a little scary first.
      • OT: So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were bound, still dressed in all their clothes, and thrown into the furnace of flaming fire.[8]  → Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s step outside their comfort zones was a quite literally step straight into the fire.
    • But then comes the amazing part:
      • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego brave the furnace of burning fire and meet God in the midst of the flames: So these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell, bound, into the furnace of flaming fire. Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in shock and said to his associates, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?” They answered the king, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” He replied, “Look! I see four men, unbound, walking around inside the fire, and they aren’t hurt! And the fourth one looks like one of the gods.”[9]
      • Gospel: But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!” Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?”[10]
        • Important point in Gr: “doubt” = waiver, hesitate – So Jesus is not chastising Peter for unbelief. He’s admonishing Peter for vacillation, not skepticism, for letting his fear cloud his belief, letting his uncertainty overpower his faith. → the Messiah – God incarnate – stretches out his very own hand to catch Peter and lifted him out of his uncertainty
    • There’s a radical freedom in these encounters – an unadulterated openness to the work and will of God. When I was a kid, I had something called the Anti-Coloring Book. Instead of just giving you a set picture to color, each page was part picture and part blank space. (There’s a sample of this in your bulletin.) The point was to encourage you to fill that space with your own creativity and spontaneity and unexpected beauty. And as I was thinking about comfort zones and trust and radical freedom, it struck me that like the picture on the page, the immediate futures of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Peter were incomplete. But each of them trusted God to fill that uncertainty with creativity and spontaneity and unexpected beauty. Each of them chose radical freedom over their comfort zones.
  • Also see this message of comfort zones and trust and radical freedom in our sermon series theme song, “The Summons”[11] – Last week, we focused on the first verse. This week, I want you to look at verse 2:
    • 1 addresses teetering on the edge of our comfort zones: Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? → Can you bring yourself to take that first step?
    • 2-3 coaxes us outside our comfort zones: Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare? → God: It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable. But I’ll be there to protect you and pull you up when you falter.
    • 4 hints at amazing things to come: Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?
  • You know, if I hadn’t been willing to step outside my comfort zone during that first week of college, I never would’ve met Renee. She quickly became one of my closest friends. She was my roommate for the rest of my college career. In 2011, I had the honor of performing all but the legal part of her wedding. (I wasn’t ordained yet, so a Justice of the Peace took care of the legal part before the actual ceremony.) She helped me break through my shyness, venture further and further outside my comfort zone. Honestly, without Renee’s friendship, who knows what kind of pastor I would’ve become?
    • So let me ask you this: What’s holding you back within the confines of your comfort zone today? Where do you need to shift your trust from safety and security to God and God alone? Maybe I should be asking it this way: What sort of amazing things – what sort of radical freedom – are you missing out on? Amen.

[1] Dan 3:6-7.

[2] Mt 14:26-27.

[3] Dan 3:16-18.

[4] Daniel L. Smith-Christopher. “Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 7. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 64.

[5] Mt 14:28-29.

[6] Mt 14:22.

[7] M. Eugene Boring. “Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 8. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 327.

[8] Dan 3:21.

[9] Dan 3:23-25.

[10] Mt 14:30-31.

[11] “The Summons.” Traditional Scottish melody, words by John Bell. The Iona Community, Scotland, 1987.

Sunday’s sermon: Untouchable, Unlovable … and Unleaveable

unloveable

Texts used – Jonah 3-4; Colossians 3:12-17

  • When we were living in Minneapolis – when Peter was working at the charter school and I was searching for a call (this call!) – I was also doing some filling in at my parents’ church in Le Sueur. So one day, as I was sitting there writing my Earth Day sermon, our doorbell rang.
    • Not an abnormal occurrence in our apartment – unlabeled doorbells
    • At the door: Elder Edwards and Elder Holmes → something in me just couldn’t say “Go away”
    • Started a couple of weeks of really interesting and sometimes uncomfortable conversations
      • Prayer at the end of our first conversation
    • Uncomfortable relationship but important
      • Learn about Mormonism “from the horse’s mouth” → not perpetuate untruths or misrepresentations
      • Elder Edwards – Prov.: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”[1] → explaining faith can lead to you strengthening/renewing your own faith
    • Whether we like it or not, God calls us to some uncomfortable relationships in our journey of faith, and as Christians, we are called to act in love, respect, and compassion – no matter the circumstances.
  • Our Scripture passages today have a thing or two to teach us about uncomfortable relationship.
    • OT: Jonah → explores the depths of some uncomfortable relationships
    • NT: Colossians → reminds us why it’s important to give these uncomfortable relationships a chance
  • So let’s journey with Jonah first.
    • Backstory
      • Jonah = prophet → And he’s a lucky prophet because he’s actually living and prophesying during a time in Israel’s history in which God’s prophets were highly respected and favored by all the people.
        • Not the case for any of the other prophets with books in the OT – scorned, disregarded, persecuted → books filled with doom-and-gloom predictions and dire warning about retribution
        • But not Jonah. Jonah was appreciated by the people. Jonah was cherished by the people. Truth be told, Jonah was a bit of a celebrity. He lived a pretty cushy lifestyle. But then one day, something awful happened! – beginning of book of Jonah: The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”[2]
        • Sounds like a blast, right? Yeah … no. Nineveh was a really scary, sketchy place, and not surprisingly, Jonah has no desire to go there. This whole Nineveh business is the sort of situation that definitely clashed with Jonah’s current lifestyle – taking a serious word of admonishment to a city full of evil.
      • So Jonah chose to run in the complete opposite direction
        • Gets on a ship bound for Tarshish → God causes a giant storm to come up and almost sink the ship → Sailors draw straws to figure out who’s bringing the bad luck to the ship → Guess who drew the short straw! → Toss Jonah over the side of the ship → swallowed by a giant fish → Jonah repents and prays while in the belly of the fish → fish eventually spits Jonah out on the shore → This brings us to where we joined the text this morning.
    • Portion of the text that we read today highlights 2 different uncomfortable relationships
      • Relationship between Jonah and Nineveh
      • Relationship between Jonah and God
    • Now, we can probably guess that the relationship between Jonah and Nineveh didn’t exactly get off on the right foot.
      • Text: Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[3]
        • Message = uncomfortable → We don’t like admitting when we’re wrong. We don’t like admitting when we’ve hurt someone or offended someone. We don’t like looking like we’re not perfect – though God knows it’s true. It’s uncomfortable to say, “I’m sorry.” And it’s even more uncomfortable when someone else recognizes all of these things in us and points them out to us. And yet that’s exactly what Jonah was doing to the Ninevites.
      • Fortunately, the Ninevites are able to learn from their uncomfortable relationship with Jonah.
        • Passage: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. … God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.[4]
          • Heb. “believed” = confirmed, nourished, relied upon → The Ninevites didn’t just decide to believe that God might exist. They put their ultimate trust in God … also sometimes an uncomfortable thing, but we’ll talk about that next week.
    • Jonah’s relationship with God is another story. It’s obviously an uncomfortable one, and while it doesn’t appear to teach Jonah anything in the end, we are able to learn through it.
      • Lots of things uncomfortable about this relationship
        • Uncomfortable because Jonah doesn’t want to do what God wants him to do
        • Uncomfortable because of where Jonah is being sent
        • Uncomfortable because of the message that God asks Jonah to deliver to the people of Nineveh
        • Uncomfortable because of Jonah’s reaction → ultimately, Jonah doesn’t like God’s decision to spare the city of Nineveh, so he gets angry & gives God a big fat “I told you so”
        • Text: He prayed to the LORD, “Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. (Only Jonah can make those wonderful traits of God sound so negative!) At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”[5] → Jonah doesn’t like these people – these Ninevites. They’re not worthy. They’ve screwed up too often. They are out of reach of God’s forgiveness and grace – completely and wholly untouchable and unlovable. So when God decides to hear their repentance and save them, Jonah throws a little bit of a hissy fit. “I didn’t want to come here, God, because I knew you’d be wasting my time. I knew you’d cave, knew you wouldn’t punish these people like you said you were going to, so why should I even be here. It would be better if I were dead than to be in this stupid place!”
  • And let’s be honest: there are people in our lives or in the world that makes us feel the way the Ninevites made Jonah feel. We don’t like them. We don’t think they deserve a second chance (or third or fourth or fiftieth … or whatever the case may be). We take it upon ourselves to deem them untouchable, unlovable.
    • Extreme cultural e.g.
      • Caste in India known as the dalit, “the Untouchables,” a people considered sub-human by many of the others in India à face discrimination, oppression, abject poverty, violence
        • Important point: the caste system was technically outlawed in India in 1950 but according to the BBC, “caste identities remain strong, and last names are almost always indications of what caste a person belongs to.”[6]
      • It is among the dalit – the lowest class, the Untouchables – that Mother Teresa began her life’s work: among the poorest of the poor, among the outcasts and the lepers, among those whom society had completely abandoned, written off as untouchable and unlovable. Yet Mother Teresa’s response turns society’s judgment upside down.
        • Follows the example of Christian relationship set out by our text from Colossians
    • Text doesn’t promise that these Christian relationships will be easy – quite the contrary, in fact:
      • Text mentions teaching and admonishing one another → can bring out a defensive, self-justifying “Jonah attitude” in us
        • Uncomfortable to be the admonisher
        • Uncomfortable to be the admonished
      • And in these times of unease, when things get tense as they inevitably do – text: Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other.[7] → So our Scripture for today actually guarantees we’re going to encounter uncomfortable relationships. But it doesn’t leave us at “uncomfortable.” It moves us past that – above that – to forgiveness.
        • Scholar: In being called into the one unified body … the readers have been called to live out its transcending of divisions; they have been called to appropriate Christ’s peace … [which] involves not a removal from all conflict but a centeredness that comes from knowing that in the new humanity, Christ is in control and all in all.[8]
    • Col. also gives us the “how” of dealing with these uncomfortable relationships → the entire passage reads like a guide
      • The peace of Christ must control your hearts – a peace into which you were called in one body.[9]
      • Speaks of call to “forgive” → Gr. = connotations of giving freely
        • Not coerced
        • Not forced
        • Not fake
      • Speaks of agape love → Selfless love. Giving love. Tolerant love. This is the kind of love that God showed to Nineveh. This is the kind of love that Christ made available to us through his death on the cross, and this is the kind of love that we should perpetuate as those who claim to be his followers.
      • Also says “Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” – Gr. “whatever you do” can be “in all that you might do” → This is where it can get a little uncomfortable again. Sometimes, we just don’t feel like being thankful. We don’t feel like forgiving each other or being compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. But ultimately, it’s not about us.
        • Scholar: The word of Christ, the message of the gospel that centers in Christ, is to provide the focus. … This will entail listening to, meditating on, and responding in praise and thanksgiving to that word as it is preached and taught. Then it will be an abundant resource as it permeates [our] lives.[10]
        • Sounds like the first verse of our song, “The Summons[11] → Nineveh, will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Jonah, will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? My children in Colossus, will you let my love be shown and my name be known even in the midst of your quarrels and uncomfortable relationships? My children in Oronoco, will you let my life – my compassion and forgiveness, my agape love – be grown in you and you in me?
  • I’m going to leave you with questions again today – questions that may challenge you, may make you feel uncomfortable, but hopefully questions that will also inspire you: Who makes you uncomfortable? Which of God’s unleaveable children have you labeled as untouchable and unlovable? Where do you not want to take and share God’s message of redemption and forgiveness, love and peace? Amen.

[1] Prov 27:17 (NRSV).

[2] Jonah 1:1-2.

[3] Jonah 3:4.

[4] Jonah 3:5-6, 10.

[5] Jonah 4:2-3.

[6] “What is India’s caste system?” from the BBC News website, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616. Posted July 20, 2017, accessed Sept. 14, 2017.

[7] Col 3:13.

[8] Andrew T. Lincoln. “The Letter to the Colossians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 648, 650.

[9] Col 3:15a.

[10] Lincoln, 648-649.

[11] “The Summons.” Traditional Scottish melody, words by John Bell. The Iona Community, Scotland, 1987.

Sunday’s sermon: The Uncomfortableness of Faith

uncomfortable faith

Texts used – Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Hebrews 4:12-16

  • When he was teaching in Minneapolis, Peter had a big sign hanging at the front of his classroom that said, “Do what’s best, not what’s easy.” This was really important for the students that he had. At that school, 94% of the kids lived below the poverty line, and more than 60% of them were English language learners. They came from tough homes, tough neighborhoods, and tough life situations. For these kids, the choice between what’s best and what’s easy wasn’t always a simple decision.
    • On the one hand, they spent 9 hours at school each day learning about what’s best – education, respect, perseverance, attitude
    • On the other hand, the “real world” they went home to presented a whole host of problems → decisions that may have seemed “easier” at the time
      • Failing in school
      • Choosing between family obligations/expectations and themselves
      • Making unhealthy or even dangerous life decisions
    • You can see why such a simple phrase can be so important, so powerful, so radical … and also so uncomfortable for these kids. And I think that our faith can be like this, too. We know that faith can be empowering and fulfilling and strengthening. It can be something that soothes and teaches and enhances our lives. But that doesn’t mean faith is always easy. That doesn’t mean that faith is all warm fuzzies and heavenly pats on the back. It’s not always something that’s going to be comfortable for us. If anything, the Bible is full of stories and other types of passages that detail ways in which encountering God mean encountering a thoroughly uncomfortable challenge.
      • Sermon series over the next month and a half – explore some of these stories
        • Uncomfortable relationships with Jonah
        • Uncomfortable wrestling with Jacob
        • Eventually wrap up talking about how beautiful being uncomfortable can be
        • Also using the various verses of hymn “The Summons” to dig into these topics
    • Faith is important, and we have to remember that things that are important aren’t always comfortable. Things that are important come with risks. But with these risks come extraordinary rewards. → illustrated by our Scripture readings for today
  • First and foremost, both passages highlight the importance of faith
    • NT passage from book of Hebrews: God’s word is living, active[1] → “active” = powerful and effective
      • Renowned preaching professor and scholar Fred Craddock: The God who spoke still speaks, and that word is inescapably valid. In the writer’s theology, words of Scripture are words of God for us today.[2] → The Word of God is alive and well, powerful and effective, still active, still moving, still relevant, and still important. God continues to work in the world
    • OT passage from Deut speaks to importance not in any one particular work but in the whole Heb. phrase itself
      • Beginning phrase of the passage: Shema yisrael adonai elohainu adonai ehad → This is what’s known as the Shema, one of the most central and significant prayers in the Jewish faith: Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.
        • Centerpiece for Jewish morning/evening prayer services
        • Often first prayer that parents teach their children to pray at night
        • Tradition: last words spoken by Jews before death
        • This is one of the most powerful, elemental prayers for Jewish people. It gives voice to the basic tenets of the Jewish faith, reaffirming the beliefs that people have passed down throughout countless generations. The weight of history upholds and strengthens this prayer – a history full of challenge and struggle, pain and exile … an uncomfortable history. And yet it is in this history – with all its frustrations and foibles – that the Jewish people continue to find strength, reassurance and relief.
  • In this uncomfortable history, we are reminded just how truly uncomfortable faith can be. It highlights that sometimes faith involves risk.
    • Explore this idea more in the coming weeks as we go through some of that troubling history, but today, that risk is made clear by both Old and New Testament texts.
      • Deut: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.[3] → Now, I know this doesn’t sound like a risk, but this verse speaks of involving your whole self in your faith.
        • Heb. “strength”= abundance, force → So this passage isn’t just speaking to investing your bodily strength in your faith. This passage encourages us to throw our whole selves into this endeavor we call “faith.” This means we don’t hold back, we don’t reserve anything “just in case,” we don’t save any part of our commitment for a “rainy day.” We don’t get to hedge our bets or draw up some elaborate contingency plan. There’s no sphere of our lives, no place in our hearts, no piece of who we are that isn’t open to being changed by God. When it comes to faith, we go all in … period.
      • The rest of Deut supports this, fleshes it out: Recite [these words] to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.[4] → emboldens us for public witness
        • That covers anything and everything, anytime and every time, any activity and every corner of our lives. There are no outs here, folks. No wiggle room and no allowance for comfort zones. God is asking us to step outside those beloved comfort zones, difficult and challenging though that step may be.
      • NT passage emphasizes this risk, too – describes the Word of God as: sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.[5] → Sounds pretty uncomfortable to me!
        • Scholar: The readers are helped to see how muscular and active faith is. Faith is tough and tenacious; it holds fast. It stands firm. … Faith is not mentioned at quiet times, accompanied by sonnets, but in the story of a people struggling through the desert, accompanied by grumbling and rebellion. … In other words, faith is more than an orientation of the heart toward God, although it is that. Faith has something to say about God, and it does so with boldness and confidence.[6]
    • So when it comes to these challenges, this time in the desert, the grumbling and the rebellion and the discomfort, what are we willing to do for God? [PAUSE] Maybe the question – the real question – should be when it comes to our comfort zones and our faith, what are we not willing to do?
  • Before you answer that, let’s talk for a minute about the rewards. Now, when I say “rewards,” I’m not talking about pray right or worship right or read the right Scripture passages or believe the right things and God will make you smarter, stronger, richer, more attractive and more perfect. The Bible says over and over again that, in life, these are not the rewards that truly matter. However, our texts for today are able to shed light on the true rewards.
    • Passage from Deut. actually begins with the reward: Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD![7] → “Our God is the Lord!” This same powerful and creative being that brought light and dark, water and rocks and trees, birds and fish and even creepy crawly bugs into existence – this almighty God is our This is the same being that cares for us, hopes for us, longs for us, and loves us without question. That in and of itself is quite a remarkable thing.
    • Passage from Heb. follows risk directly with reward: Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.[8]
      • Approaching the throne of grace with confidence = uncomfortable
        • Manner of approach is uncomfortable – know we’re unworthy
        • Reason for approaching is uncomfortable – hesitant to ask for something because we’re afraid of what the answer might be
        • E.g. – asking to have people over when I was a kid – always the chance for “not” but if I didn’t ask, it definitely wouldn’t happen → And our relationship with God is no different. Asking God for things can be uncomfortable because what if God’s answer is “no”?
      • But “mercy and grace when we need help” … what better reward can there be?
      • Reminds me of one of my favorite passages from book of James: My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.[9] → The trials and the testing? Not so pleasant. That’s why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” or in another version, “Save us from the time of trial.” But this passage points out that sometimes, it is only through these uncomfortable times that we can truly grow: “let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.”
        • Times of faith growing and stretching are uncomfortable – think of it as spiritual growing pains
    • Our texts for today remind us that faith in God is an empowering and a fulfilling thing, but at the same time, faith isn’t supposed to be easy. It isn’t supposed to be comfortable all the time because it’s a constant act, a journey. It’s something we pursue, a road we walk whether the path leads up or down, whether the way becomes rocky or uneven or even a bit of a tight squeeze.
      • Tradition as Presbyterians speaks to this = “the church reformed, always reforming”
  • Today, I’m going to leave you with some questions – something to ponder from today and for the future as we continue to explore this uncomfortableness of faith: Where do you feel most comfortable in your faith? And where is God encouraging you to challenge that comfort? Are you willing to do what’s best or just fall back on what’s easy? How is God calling you out of your comfort zone? Amen.

[1] Heb 4:12.

[2] Fred B. Craddock. “The Letter to the Hebrews: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 54.

[3] Deut 6:5.

[4] Deut 6:7-9.

[5] Heb 4:12-13.

[6] Craddock, 54-55.

[7] Deut 6:4.

[8] Heb 4:16.

[9] Jas 1:2-4.

Sunday’s sermon: Preparing the Soil, Working the Ground

preparing soil

Texts used: Psalm 119:25-48; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15

  • I’d be willing to bet that there are a number of you here this morning who look at soil and simply see dirt. You may describe it as black, muddy, or worm-filled, but one way or the other, dirt is dirt. But I also know that there are a number of you that have quite literally built your lives and your livelihoods on this “dirt.” You can tell me about the degree of compaction, about moisture content, and about nutrient levels because you’ve been farming or gardening or somehow working this “dirt” – working the ground – your whole lives. You know that different kinds of soil bring different blessings as well as different challenges.
    • Blessings and challenges of sandy soil
    • Blessings and challenges of loamy soil
    • Blessings and challenges of clay-heavy soil
    • One way or another – whether you plant in sandy soil, loam, or plain old dirt, whether you’re planting a small garden in your backyard or a 200-acre field – the seeds you plant need continued care, right? You’ve got to put in the effort to prepare the soil and work the ground if you want those seeds to grow.
  • Our gospel text for today is all about preparing the soil and working the ground. It’s about nurturing what’s planted so it can grow.
    • The beautifully simple thing about this parable is that we are the soil and the Word of God is the seed.
    • Keeping that in mind, Jesus describes 4 different planting scenarios
      • SCENARIO #1 = seed that fell on the path and was trampled and eaten by birds
        • Jesus’ explanation: these seeds “are those who hear, but then the devil comes and steals the word from their hearts so that they won’t believe and be saved.”[1]
        • This is what happens when we lose our dedication – when we become apathetic and indifferent toward God – God’s Word, God’s purpose, God’s call in this world and in our lives. And unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon in our society today.
          • Epidemic of people being talked out of their faith
            • By loved ones
            • By “experts” in various fields
            • By ourselves
          • Sometimes it has to do with …
            • Situations – particular circumstances and disagreements that arise in church families as they do in any families
            • Phases of life – sometimes there are certain people or activities or commitments that pull us away for a time
          • For whatever reason, we find ourselves talked out of our faith – let God’s Word be taken away from our hearts.
      • SCENARIO #2 = seed that fell on rock and withered from lack of water
        • Jesus’ explanation: these seeds “are those who receive the word joyfully when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while but fall away when they are tempted.”[2]
        • This is what happens when we stop taking care of that seed – when we become negligent of the Word of God, negligent of our faith. There are a lot of things that can trigger this blasé attitude.
          • Fear
          • Distraction
          • Doubt
          • Weariness
          • It doesn’t matter where the neglect comes from. This seed wasn’t watered. It wasn’t cared for. It was neglected to the point of death.
            • Important distinction: Gr. those who “fall away” = withdraw, desert, abstain – There’s choice implied in this. This is not simply forgetting, inadvertently slipping away from God bit by bit. This is consciously choosing to let faith wither in the face of tough times.
      • SCENARIO #3 = seed that was choked by thorns
        • Jesus’ explanation: these seeds “are the ones who, as they go about their lives, are choked by the concerns, riches, and pleasures of life, and their fruit never matures.”[3]
        • This is what happens when we fail to pay attention. Getting distracted is a dangerous thing, no matter what the distractions are. They can be tangible, like the “riches and pleasures of life,” or intangible, like the “cares” or worries that Jesus mentions. Either way, distractions clutter up our growing space. They clutter up our lives until they completely choke out any hint of the Word that may be maturing into faith.
      • SCENARIO #4 = seed that fell in good soil
        • Jesus’ explanation: these seeds “are those who hear the word and commit themselves to it with a good and upright heart. Through their resolve, they bear fruit.”[4]
        • “their resolve” = sense of perseverance in the face of trials – kind of like farmers dealing with the different blessings and challenges of different soil types → We all face different trials, but with care, attention, and dedication, the word of God can continue to grow and flourish in our lives and our hearts.
  • So how do we foster a life worthy of being deemed “good soil”? And what can we do to ensure that our good soil produces spiritual fruit?
    • Need to prepare the soil
      • Scholar: Hearing involves listening, but it also means understanding and being willing to obey.[5] → We’re not just hearing the word of God on Sunday morning and letting it go in one ear and out the other. We’re hearing the word of God so we can soak it in and live into that Word.
        • Paul in Colossians: “Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.”[6]
        • This is what our passage from Ps 119 is all about → indwelling the word of God and letting it permeate every part of your life
          • It’s in almost every verse
            • Help me understand what your precepts are about so I can contemplate your wondrous works![7]
            • Help me understand so I can guard your Instruction and keep it with all my heart.[8]
            • I will rejoice in your commandments because I love them.[9]
          • We are seeking God’s instruction not just for the heck of it or because it’s what we’re “supposed to do.” We are seeking God’s instruction so we can let it mold and transform our lives – change us from the inside out.
          • Key illustration of this in Ps: v. 32 – I run the same path as your commandments because you give my heart insight.[10]
            • Heb. “insight” = very special word → It’s a word with a multitude of different meanings. It can refer to your heart, mind, character, or inner being. The psalmist is talking about planting God’s word in the very depths of our souls and letting it take root and grow … Jack-and-the-Bean-Stalk style!
    • BUT we need to work the ground → need to be active in our faith
      • Lots of things that we are doing
        • Various organizations that we support through People of the Church
        • Supporting Revs. Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather in their peacemaking and reconciliation work in Uganda and South Sudan
        • Food Shelf
        • Dorothy Day dinners (coming up Sept. 27)
        • Bingo calling at Pine Haven (coming up in Oct. – can’t remember exact date)
      • Lots of other new things that we’re talking about
        • Coffee and Conversation starting next week → part Bible study, part adult Sunday school, all discussion based – a variety of topics having to do with faith, life, and everything in between
        • Ideas that have come up during our Visioning Sundays – things we’ll be talking about and doing some more concrete planning for next week during our Moving Forward discussion
        • (Stick around after church!)
      • And this is just a sample of what’s going on around here. And I know that there are things that you do at home, too – personal devotions, prayer times, discussions you have among yourselves and with me. All of these different things – the things we’re doing as a church and the things you’re doing on your own – are helping us to prepare the soil and work the ground to the glory and honor of God’s Word. Amen.

 

[1] Lk 8:12.

[2] Luke 8:13.

[3] Luke 8:14.

[4] Luke 8:15.

[5] R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 179.

[6] Col 3:17.

[7] Ps 119:27.

[8] Ps 119:34.

[9] Ps 119:47.

[10] Ps 119:32b.

Sunday’s sermon: Strong, Defiant Women

well behaved women

Texts used – Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 27

  • One of my favorite bumper stickers says this: Well-behaved women seldom make history.
    • Quote that’s been erroneously attributed to a number of people
      • Anne Boleyn
      • Eleanor Roosevelt
      • Marilyn Monroe
    • Actual source: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard professor and American historian
      • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991
    • I think one of the greatest things about this quote is its broad application across generations, cultures, religions, and every other barrier. It is a quote that has certainly inspired many women since its inception in 1976, but it’s also a quote that can be appropriately applied to strong, defiant women throughout history, women like …
      • Marie Curie – Polish physicist and chemist famous for her pioneering work in radioactivity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries → co-winner with her husband (and first female winner) of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (a time when women didn’t work outside the home let alone in the field of science)
      • Kathrine Switzer – first woman to run the Boston marathon in 1967 → ran and finished even amidst physical and verbal assaults hurled at her starting at mile 4 and going all the way through mile 26.2 – assaults from race officials, journalists, bystanders, and even her own boyfriend who was running the race with her[1]
      • 588th Night Bomber Regiment – all-female regiment of Russian fighter pilots known as the “Night Witches” in WWII: “It was their enemies, the Nazis, who gave these women their nickname. … To the German pilots they fought, however, they were tormentors, harpies with seemingly supernatural powers of night vision and stealth. Shooting down one of their planes would automatically earn any German soldier the Iron Cross. … The 80-odd Night Witches had arguably the toughest task of all. Flying entirely in the dark, and in plywood planes better suited to dusting crops than withstanding enemy fire, the pilots developed a technique of switching off their engine and gliding toward the target to enable them to drop their bombs in near-silence; they also flew in threes to take turns drawing enemy fire while one pilot released her charges. It was, quite frankly, awesome — as even their enemies had to admit. ‘We simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women,’ one top German commander wrote in 1942. ‘These women feared nothing.’”[2]
      • And so, so, so many more examples. And there are so many great Biblical examples as well. Queen Esther, who saved her people from Haman’s genocide; Deborah, who led the people of Israel through battles and conflicts as one of the judges pre-kingship; Ruth, the stubborn daughter-in-law who refused to leave Naomi and ended up being part of the lineage of Christ; Mary Magdalene, who stayed at the foot of the cross even to Jesus’ last breath and even when all of her male counterparts had run away.
  • But if I had asked you, “Who are your favorite strong, defiant women of the Bible,” would you have included Shiphrah and Puah? Were you even familiar with Shiphrah and Puah’s names before today? And yet these women are indeed They are indeed courageous. And they are indeed defiant – defiant in the face of a powerful king, defiant in the face of a death sentence, defiant in the face of blatant injustice. Surely, we’ve heard the story of Moses’ birth and fated journey on the river many times. But how many times have we really paid attention to the roles of the strong, defiant women in this story?
    • First portion of OT text drives home the plight of the Israelites at the time
      • Slavery
      • Oppression
      • Disenfranchisement
      • Text: The Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. … But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look on the Israelites with disgust and dread. So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.[3]
    • That was the world they were living in. Hard, back-breaking, spirit-crushing work day in and day out with no salvation in sight. And yet, we encounter the bright, indomitable, undeniable spirits of Shiphrah and Puah – strong, defiant women who took their own lives in their hands even as they protected the vulnerable lives of so many.
      • Evil instructions: The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives name Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.”[4]
      • Defiance: Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.[5]
      • Strength of will and spirit in the face of danger: So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?” The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.”
      • Think for a minute about just how much courage that must have taken on the part of those women, especially because they were women. They had zero standing in society on their own. They had no possession that were truly their own. Without their husbands or a male relative to care for them, they were considered nothing. And yet, they stood up to a king. They stood up to power. They stood up to intimidation. They stood up to injustice.
    • I love imagining the relationship between these two women.
      • Probably couldn’t have done what they did independently – safety/ support in numbers
        • Drawing strength from each other
        • Drawing inspiration from each other
        • Drawing support from each other
        • I can imagine them having whispered conversations long into the night – conversations that ranged from fearful to tearful, from conspiratorial to emboldened, from a half-serious “what if?” to a whole-hearted “how can we not?”. Since our Scripture story tells us that Shiphrah and Puah were women who “respected God”[6] (other translations: “feared God”), we know that these were devout women. They were strong, defiant women of faith. So I imagine that the psalm that we read this morning could have been one of the things that kept them going – feeding their strength and their defiance.
          • Ps: The Lord is my light and my salvation. Should I fear anyone? The Lord is a fortress protecting my life. Should I be afraid of anything? … Lord, teach me your way; because of my opponents, lead me on a good path. Don’t give me over to the desires of my enemies, because false witnesses and violent accusers have taken their stand against me. But I have sure faith that I will experience the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living! Hope in the Lord! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the Lord![7] → That sounds like the battle cry of the strong, defiant women! “Hope in the Lord! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the Lord!” I can just hear Shiphrah and Puah whispering those words to one another, holding them in their hearts as they delivered one safe Hebrew boy baby after another, clinging to them as they were accused by the Pharaoh and as they told the lie that would save not only their own lives but the lives of so many innocent baby boys.
  • But Shiphrah and Puah are not the only strong, defiant women in this story.
    • MIRIAM – Text: The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him. … Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.[8] → We also have Miriam – strong, defiant woman-in-training.
      • Watches the strong defiance of her mother as she hides her “healthy and beautiful”[9] baby boy for 3 whole months
      • Watches fretfully as her mother prepares a basket and sends this boy down the river
      • Continues to watch from the riverbank as the basket floats further and further down the river until it is picked up by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter – the daughter of the one who had given her baby brother his undeserved death sentence
      • Part where Miriam herself becomes strong and defiant = when she steps out of hiding and boldly addresses Pharaoh’s daughter → Remember, Miriam was just a Hebrew slave girl. Not worth much in the eyes of the Egyptians. Certainly not worthy of addressing the daughter of the almighty Pharaoh. And yet she doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t beg for the life of the child in the basket. And she doesn’t reveal that precious secret – that this child is, in fact, her own baby brother. She courageously steps up, asks Pharaoh’s daughter if she needs a wet nurse for the baby, and then runs to find her own mother – the baby’s own beloved mother – to fill the role.
      • Also cannot deny that Pharaoh’s daughter = strong, defiant woman, too → She surely must have heard about her father’s unspeakable edict. Why else would she expect to find “one of the Hebrews’ children”[10] in the river? And yet she takes this Hebrew boy – this one whom her father had destined for a grossly premature death – and brought him into her own household (Pharaoh’s own household!) to love and cherish and raise as her own son. That kind of quiet, subversive resistance is its own form of strong defiance as well.
  • Friends, sometimes sermons are about breaking down the meaning of a text – parsing it out and digging into the how and the why and the “what does it mean for me?” of the text. Very often, that’s the kind of sermon I preach. But today’s sermon is different. Today’s sermon is about reading a familiar story in a whole new light. It’s about reading a story you’ve read or heard a hundred times before and looking for the people you haven’t seen before – the names you glossed over, the roles that on first glance look like supporting roles but when turned around can really be the whole point of the story. It’s about encouraging you to encounter God’s Word in a different way – finding those characters you may have missed, those elements of the story that didn’t seem important the first or 101st time around.
    • Important to do when we read Scripture
      • Keeps us seeing and learning new things
      • Keeps Scripture fresh
    • Important to do in our own lives, too → As you think about the strong, defiant women that you met this morning – Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter … as these strong, defiant women float through your mind this week, be on the lookout for other characters in your own life that you may have overlooked. Because you never know … they just may turn the whole tide of the Story. Amen.

[1] http://kathrineswitzer.com/about-kathrine/1967-boston-marathon-the-real-story/.

[2] Jessica Phelan. “7 of the most badass women who ever lived (who you’ve probably never heard of)” from PRI: GlobalPost, https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-16/7-most-badass-women-who-ever-lived-who-youve-probably-never-heard. Posted January 16, 2014, accessed August 24, 2017.

[3] Ex 1:11, 13-14.

[4] Ex 1:15.

[5] Ex 1:16.

[6] Ex 1:17.

[7] Ps 27:1, 11-14.

[8] Ex 2:4, 7-8.

[9] Ex 2:2.

[10] Ex 2:6.