Sunday’s sermon: A Word for the World

Words I love you in different languages. Vector greeting card

Text used – Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • I want to introduce you to an idea this morning: the concept known as the Mere Exposure Effect.[1]
    • Basic idea: the more you hear something, the more likely you are to like it and believe it → In other words, we tend to like things more when they’re familiar to us.
      • Also called the Familiarity Principle
      • Coined/proposed by the late Robert Zajonc, Polish-born social psychologist who immigrated to America after the end of WWII
    • Examples
      • First time you hear a song on the radio: “Meh” → find yourself enthusiastically singing along after hearing it over and over again for a few weeks
      • Pretty central thought process behind advertising, especially TV advertising → same commercial over and over and over again is supposed to work its way into your brain and make you want to buy whatever it is they’re trying to sell you
        • Extreme e.g.: Home Shopping Network – talk about the same object for an hour → talk at you and talk at you and talk at you until you finally give in (for 4 easy payments of $29.95!)
      • Darker side of mere exposure effect = the more often you hear a lie (no matter the source), the more likely you are to believe that lie … Even when you know it’s a lie. Even when it’s a lie that you’re telling yourself.
    • Fascinating. BUT … what does that have to do with the 10 commandments? What does that have to do with faith? “Lisa, why are you telling us about this?!” I’m so glad you asked. J
  • Today’s Scripture = probably one of the most universally-recognized Scriptures out there: the 10 Commandments → Scriptural narrative with quite the circuitous, sordid story behind it (not quite the simple “up and down the mountain” that the various movie versions of this story like to portray)
    • Today’s passage from Deut is actually the 2nd iteration of the 10 commandments that Moses gives to the people → 10 commandments 2.0
    • Backstory
      • (Last week: read beginning of Moses’ story up to the point where God called Moses from the burning bush)
      • Next: Moses returns to Egypt, tries to convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go → 10 plagues of Egypt → finally convinces Pharaoh to let the Israelites go[2]
      • Moses leads the entire nation of Israel to the banks of the Red Sea → they discover that Pharaoh has once again changed his mind and is coming after them with the full force of the Egyptian army → parting of the Red Sea → people of Israel cross safely to the other side while Pharaoh’s army is obliterated by the waters crashing back together[3]
      • Finally safe from Pharaoh for good, the people begin their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land → But the people start complaining[4]
        • Complaining about lack of water
        • Complaining about lack of food
        • Complaining about lack of leadership
        • Complaining about lack of a plan
        • Complaining about how much they have to walk
        • Every time they complain, God responds with a provision … but every time, the Israelites find something new to complain about. There’s always something that they’re dissatisfied with.
      • 3 mos. after leaving Egypt, they reach Mt. Sinai → Moses goes up on the mountain to commune with God → receives the first set of the 10 commandments[5] → That’s in chapter 20 of Exodus. What follows is a lot more instruction from God about how things should be done – festivals, offerings, justice, worship, owning property, Sabbath, priestly duties and vestments, how to build a proper lampstand, and so on and so on … 11 chapters worth of instructions … which means Moses was up on that mountain with God for a long time, and the people started getting antsy, and nervous, and frustrated. And they started complaining … again.
      • People surrounded Moses’ brother, Aaron (right-hand man) and started demanding that he make a “new god” for them out of gold → collect all the gold throughout the camp → melt it down → fashion it into a gold calf → start worshipping the golden calf while Moses is still up on the mountain[6]
      • God warns Moses about what is happening at the camp → Moses returns to find them worshiping this false god → Moses is so angry with the people that he hurls down the first set of tablets containing the 10 commandments and shatters them[7]
      • And because of the people’s disobedience and lack of faith, God causes the Israelites to wander around in the wilderness for 40 yrs. before they can set foot in the Promised Land. The entire first generations of Israelites that Moses led out of Egypt died during the wandering before God finally led them back to the banks of the Jordan River – the border of the Promised Land.
    • And it’s on that border that we find ourselves with the first part of our reading this morning. The wandering is over. The Promised Land is literally in sight. The people have demonstrated their faithfulness to the God that has wandered with them these 40 years. And it’s time to move forward. So God says, “You’re ready. So let’s try again.” And Moses says, “Let me remind you of what’s most important.” – text: Moses called out to all Israel, saying to them: “Israel! Listen to the regulations and the case laws that I’m recounting in your hearing right now. Learn them and carefully do them.”[8] = God’s version of the Mere Exposure Effect
      • Repeating important words so that Israel could hear them again
      • Repeating important words so Israel could internalize them again
      • Repeating important words so Israel could believe them again
      • Repeating important words so they could become a more integrated, tightly-woven part of the fabric of Israel’s story again
      • Critical nature of this is backed up by the 2nd half of our passage this morning: These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them 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.[9] → This is Moses giving the people the words of God once again, imparting them and entrusting them to the people in hopes that in hearing them again – in hearing them once and exhorting them to repeat them again and again and again – that those words of obedience and reverence and righteousness and compassion would become more and more a part of the people’s identity the more they heard them.
        • Mere Exposure Effect: the more the more you hear something, the more likely you are to like it and believe it → In other words, we tend to like things more when they’re familiar to us. And Moses was doing everything he could to make these words emphatically, unrelentingly, sacredly familiar for the people.
  • Interesting because, while they’re specific, they’re also incredibly universal
    • Words spoken into a specific context at a specific time
      • E.g. – description about keeping the Sabbath[10] is long and speaks of oxen and donkeys and God leading the people out of slavery in Egypt → clearly words for a specific time and specifically for the people of Israel
    • And yet they’re words that have stood the test of time. They’re words that echo throughout generations down to us today. – Kathryn Schifferdecker (prof. and chair of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul): This passage – and what follows it – also speaks to us, the umpteenth generation removed from Sinai. We are addressed by these words! We, “all of us here alive today,” are called upon even now to enter into and recommit to that relationship with the God of Israel. That is the rhetorical force of this passage. That is the rhetorical force of all Scripture, really. Scripture seeks to inform, but even more, to transform, to invite us to enter into the story of God and Israel, and the story of Christ and the church, and therein to find our own story.[11] → This was a word of faith and hope and transformation and relationship for the people of Israel millennia ago, yes. But it is still a word of faith and hope and transformation and relationship for us today.
    • Actual break-down of the 10 commandments = 5 for God, 5 for people
      • First 5[12]:
        • I am the Lord your God
        • No other gods before the Lord
        • No idols
        • Don’t use God’s name “as if it were of no significance”[13]
        • Honor/keep the Sabbath day
        • They’re all about honoring God – about paying reverence and respect to God, about keeping a special place for God in our hearts and minds and days.
      • Next 5[14]:
        • Honor your parents
        • Don’t kill
        • Don’t commit adultery
        • Don’t steal
        • Don’t “testify falsely” about others[15]
        • Don’t desire after and try to take others’ relationships/possessions
        • They’re similar to the first set in that they’re also about respecting and holding as sacred the lives and dignity of others.
      • Common thread between the first 5 and the second 5 = relationship
        • First 5 = invitation to right relationship with God
        • Second 5 = guidance for healthy, gracious relationships with others
    • They both set out parameters for what a considerate, compassionate, sincere, sacred relationship can and should look like – respectful, loving, valued, and honored.
    • Reaffirmed in a similar way by Jesus = the Greatest Commandment (Luke’s version): A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”[16]
      • Echoes the words of the 2nd half of our passage today
      • Echoes the sentiment of the 10 commandments (first 5 = love God, second 5 = love others)
    • And friends, not only are these words that are still relevant in our world today, they are words that are desperately needed in our world today – a world in which we seem to have forgotten the value of those who don’t look-like-me-sound-like-me-live-like-me-pray-like-me … a world in which we have more people in need than ever before … a world in which people are degraded and discriminated against every single day for the color of their skin, the language that the speak, the person that they are, the level of their bank account, the person that they love, and on and on and on … a world in which basic human dignities are denied to people every single day … a world in which we cannot seem to disagree anymore without fighting and finger-pointing and name-calling and threats … a world calling out for genuine, loving, sacred relationships between neighbors with every fiber of its being. Today is World Communion Sunday, y’all. All around this country and more importantly all around this world today, people who don’t look-like-me-sound-like-me-live-like-me-pray-like-me are gathering at the Lord’s Table to be in and celebrate right relationship and sacred community with God and with one another. We’re all sharing the same loaf. We’re all passing the same cup. We’re all lifting up prayers of confession and adoration, praise and petition to a God that hears all, no matter the language or accent or wording. Today we come together around this table with one another and with the whole world. So let us come with the love and reverence and compassion and desire of God written on our hearts and on our minds. And when we leave this table, let us leave as God’s ever-present, ever-powerful, ever-relevant, ever-needed word to the world: LOVE. Amen.

[1] https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/general/what-is-the-mere-exposure-effect/.

[2] Ex 4-12.

[3] Ex 13-15.

[4] Ex 16-18.

[5] Ex 19-20.

[6] Ex 32.

[7] Ex 32:19.

[8] Deut 5:1.

[9] Deut 6:6-9.

[10] Deut 5:12-15.

[11] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9” from Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4211.

[12] Deut 5:6-15.

[13] Deut 5:11.

[14] Deut 5:16-21.

[15] Deut 5:20.

[16] Lk 10:25-28 (also Mt 22:34-40 and Mk 12:28-34).

Sunday’s Sermon: Sacred Identity: Lost & Found

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Text used – Exodus 1:8-22; Exodus 2:1-10; Exodus 3:1-15 (embedded in sermon text)

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • Names
    • Did you know that in certain parts of the world today, there are actually certain names that are illegal?[1]
      • YOU CANNOT name your baby “Devil” in Japan
      • YOU CANNOT name your baby “Smelly Head” or “007” in Malaysia
      • YOU CANNOT name your baby “Bridge” in Norway
      • YOU CANNOT name your baby “@” in China
      • YOU CANNOT name your baby “Tom” in Portugal
      • YOU CANNOT name your baby “Brfxxcxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmncksssqlbb11116” in Sweden
      • YOU CANNOT name your baby “Stallion” or “Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii” in New Zealand
    • Flip side: some of the oddest legal name changes in the world[2]
      • Simon Smith → Bacon Double Cheeseburger
      • David Fearn → James [insert the title of every Bond movie ever made up to Casino Royale] Bond
      • George Garratt → Captain Fantastic Faster Than Superman Spiderman Batman Wolverine Hulk And The Flash Combined
      • Claire Forshaw → Princess-Rainbow.com
      • Tyler Gould → Tyrannosaurus Rex
      • Jeffrey Wilschke → Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop
    • No joke, y’all. I couldn’t make that stuff up if I tried! The point being that names have significance, right?
      • Significant to us
      • Significant to others
      • Even the hint or suggestion of a name has power.
        • Prince changing his name to a symbol (1993)
        • Much more personal example: my initials before I got married = LJP → one of the main garbage collection companies around Le Sueur = LJP … So all of the dumpsters and garbage bins around my parents’ house say … LJP. Yup. Names, right?
      • Elie Wiesel quote: “In Jewish history, a name has its own history and its own memory. It connects beings with their origins. To retrace its path is then to embark on an adventure in which the destiny of a single word becomes one with that of a community; it is to undertake a passionate and enriching quest for all those who may live in your name.” → “A passionate and enriching quest.” And so we come to our Scripture this morning … a selection of readings from the beginning of Exodus in which sacred name is first stolen, then re-given, and finally reclaimed. So let’s take a closer look at these phases.
  • SACRED IDENTITY: STOLEN
    • [READ Ex 1:8-22]
    • Super abridged backstory → reminder of the basics of Joseph’s story[3]
      • Favorite son of Jacob (Isaac’s son, Esau’s twin)
      • Ambushed by his brothers → sold into slavery in Egypt
      • Servant in a wealthy house in Egypt → landed in prison → ends up in front of Pharaoh because of his ability to interpret dreams
      • Ends up in position of incredible power in Egypt → re-encounters his treacherous brothers (who don’t immediately recognize him) when they come begging for food in Egypt in the midst of a massive drought
      • Finally reveals himself to his brothers and moves all of them, their families, and their father, Jacob, to Egypt so he can continue to care for them
    • Beginning of this first portion of today’s story = generations later: Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.[4] → A new king came into power. A new Pharaoh. And he didn’t know Joseph. He didn’t know all that Joseph had done to save the people of Egypt – Pharaoh’s own people! – let alone all the other people of the region who came to buy grain from Egypt during the famine (and all the gold that put into Egypt’s national coffers). He didn’t know the prestige and honor that Joseph enjoyed, despite being “the other” – a stranger in a foreign land. A new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.
      • Result: [Pharaoh] said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against, us, and then escape from the land.” … So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites.[5] → So the Israelites – the descendants of Joseph and Jacob and Isaac and Abraham – who had been enjoying life as simple citizens of Egypt up to this point are suddenly stripped of their identity as normal citizens. They are stripped of their identity as protected. They are stripped of their identity as respected. They are stripped of their identity as free.
        • First part of this story brings other haunting historical events to mind
          • Africans forcible brought to this country as slaves à most often given the names of their slave owners (if any name at all)
          • Jews and others interned in concentration camps and stripped of their names during the Holocaust à given only a number instead
          • Native Americans forcibly stripped of their culture, their language, their indigenous names and even their families when they were marshalled into Indian Boarding Schools in late 19th and early 20th centuries
          • To say nothing of what is happening and has been happening on our own southern border.
      • Pharaoh’s solution = no less appalling: The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named 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.”[6] → But being strong, faithful, determined women (the only people in this entire passage, including Pharaoh, to actually be named, mind you!), Shiphrah and Puah defy Pharaoh’s orders and let the male babies live also … which brings us to our 2nd
  • SACRED IDENTITY: RE-GIVEN
    • [READ Ex 2:1-10]
    • The salvific work of Shiphrah and Puah in action: a baby boy born to Israelite parents, allowed to live and thrive and be loved by those parents, hidden until they could hide him to no longer, then sent down the river in a basket with a hope, a prayer, and a sister to follow him … just in case.
    • Story recap
      • Moses’ basket finds its way into the hands of none other than Pharaoh’s own daughter as she’s bathing in the river
      • Basket and the baby inside = plucked from the river and saved DESPITE obviously being one of “them,” of “the other” – text: When [Pharaoh’s daughter] opened [the basket], she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”[7]
      • Moses’ sister pipes up and offers to find some “random” wet nurse for the boy to raise him until he’s a bit older → Pharaoh’s daughter accepts → Moses’ sister runs to fetch her own mother (Moses’ own mother) to raise the boy until he’s old enough to be taken into Pharaoh’s house and adopted by Pharaoh’s own daughter – text: After the child had grown up, [his mother] brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”[8]
    • More to this name than meets the eye
      • Simple presence/existence of the name itself = meaningful → Moses is the only name mentioned in this entire part of the story. His mother gets no name. His sister gets no name. Even Pharaoh’s daughter gets no name. Only Moses. The Hebrew child. The one who wasn’t supposed to be in the first place. He gets a name.
      • Moses = supposedly Egyptian named used in many other royal names throughout Egypt’s history BUT far more to it than that → Walter Brueggemann draws undeniable parallels between name (Moses) and Hebrew word for “draw out/deliverance” (always an act accomplished only by God): What may be a royal Egyptian name is transposed by the proposed etymology into Israelite praise for deliverance. Thus the rescue of little Moses from the waters anticipates a larger rescue to be wrought through the power of Moses.[9]
        • Meaning of name speaks to God’s power in Moses’ life
        • Meaning of name speaks to Moses’ call in the future
  • SACRED IDENTITY: RECLAIMED
    • [READ Ex 3:1-15]
    • Filling in story gap with super abridged version of Moses’ story
      • As an adult, Moses sees a slave driver abusing a Hebrew slave → attacks the slave driver and kills him
        • Somehow must have grown up with the knowledge that he was one of the Israelites – text (part we didn’t read today): One day after Moses had become an adult, he went out among his people and he saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people.[10]
      • Moses flees the wrath and justice of Pharaoh → ends up in Midian (modern day Saudi Arabia) → gets a job tending flocks of sheep for Jethro, priest of Midian → (also falls in love with and marries Jethro’s daughter) → For all we know, Moses is perfectly content to live this life – the life of a shepherd in the desert – hiding from Pharaoh and his past and his identity. Hiding from it all. But God had other plans.
    • This last passage = incredibly powerful passage because the reclaiming of sacred identity is actually three fold here
      • Moses’ reclaiming his identity as an Israelite → Think about it for a minute. Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house – the house of a man who had outlawed and done his best to eradicate Moses’ very existence. Surely he didn’t grow up learning the Hebrew ways and traditions. Surely he didn’t grow up participating in Hebrew worship and learning Hebrew prayers. And once he had fled to Midian and married the daughter of a priest, he more than likely assimilated to the cultural and spiritual practices of his adopted family and nation. And yet God found him there in the middle of the desert. God came to him in a burning bush. God literally called him by name. – text: When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.[11] → In this encounter, Moses comes full circle – back to a faith and an identity that had long been denied him, both by circumstance and by his own inattention.
      • God reclaiming the identity of the Israelites as God’s own protected people – God says this straight out in the text: Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land … Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them.”[12]
        • God recognizing the plight of the people as God’s own plight
        • God recognizing the pain of the people as God’s own pain
        • God recognizing the need of the people as God’s own need
        • Popular saying: “God, break my heart with what breaks yours” (call to/prayer for a missional heart/mindset) → This is sort of the reverse of that. It’s God saying, “I see what breaks your heart, and it breaks mine, too, because you are my beloved children, and I am your God.”
      • God reclaiming God’s own identity as sovereign and sacred, unfathomable and undeniable → comes in God’s response to Moses’ seemingly-simple question
        • Question (reveals Moses’ fear, inexperience, and self-doubt): But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”[13]
        • God’s response = both achingly simple and staggeringly complex: God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.”[14] – Heb. “Yahweh” (YHWH) = sounds like breath, derived from Heb. word “to be” → This formulation makes God both intimate and incomprehensible – as powerful and vital as breath, as near as our own heartbeat and breath but on a global scale.
          • Brueggemann: This God is named as the power to create, the one who causes to be. This God is the one who will be present in faithful ways to make possible what is not otherwise possible. This God is the very power of newness that will make available new life for Israel outside the deathliness of Egypt.[15]
  • And that is where we enter into this story, all. This is where this grand Story of faith intersects day in and day out with our own stories. Maybe you’ve been given a name you don’t desire, a name you don’t want to own or claim. Maybe you’ve been stripped of some element of who you are, either by your own actions or by the malintent of others. Maybe you’ve been filled with doubts in your own God-given call and identity like Moses. The Good News is that the God who called out to Moses from that bush … the God present in faithful ways to make possible what is not otherwise possible … the God whose name is as essential as the very breath in our lungs … the God who reached down into history to free the Israelites and encouraged them to reclaim their own sacred identity … this God reaches down to us as well. This God calls us as well. This God cares for and loves us as well. Your sacred identity is sure: beloved child of God, summoned and called, named and claimed. Forevermore. Amen.

[1] https://youtu.be/u-qjtKZz9F8.

[2] https://www.mandatory.com/fun/1065881-15-legal-name-changes-that-will-make-you-laugh.

[3] Gen 37-50.

[4] Ex 1:8.

[5] Ex 1:9-10, 13.

[6] Ex 1:15-16.

[7] Ex 2:6 (emphasis added).

[8] Ex 2:10.

[9] Walter Brueggemann. “The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 700.

[10] Ex 2:11 (emphasis added).

[11] Ex 3:4-6.

[12] Ex 3:7-8, 9.

[13] Ex 3:13.

[14] Ex 3:14-15.

[15] Brueggemann, 714.

Sunday’s sermon: Faith Down in the Dirt

jacob wrestling

Text used – Genesis 32:9-13a, 21-30

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

* Note: I forgot to stop the recording at the end of the sermon, so this week, you get the hymn following the sermon as well!

 

  • [READ “Wrestling in the Night” from Spill the Beans[1] → p. 33] → Grimy. Sweaty. Gasping. Spent.
    • Certainly words that describe Jacob’s wrestling match in our passage this morning → But in all honesty, Jacob’s wrestling started before God found him on the banks of the Jordan River that night. Long
  • Reminder of Jacob’s back story[2] (brief as we can be because Jacob’s story in terms of Biblical stories, Jacob’s is a long one)
    • Son of Isaac and Rebecca (Abraham’s grandson)
    • Twin: Esau → Esau = born first which gives Esau an incredible leg up in terms of the culture (lion’s share of blessings – spiritual, cultural, and in terms of wealth and property) were given to the first-born (Esau … not Jacob)
      • Sibling rivalry from the start
        • Esau = Isaac’s “favorite” while Jacob = Rebecca’s “favorite”
        • Esau = strong and burly while Jacob = small and slight
        • Esau’s name = “hairy” (descriptive, manageable if not particularly flattering) while Jacob = “usurper” or “cheat” (beyond unflattering to downright insulting)
    • Jacob does a lot in his early life to live up to (or … down to?) his name
      • Basically blackmail’s Esau out of his birthright (inheritance) by refusing to feed him until he sold Jacob his birthright
      • Tricked Isaac (on his deathbed!) into giving him (Jacob) the exclusive, sacrosanct “first born” blessing → the ultimate “bait and switch” where Jacob disguises himself as Esau to steal the blessing for himself
      • Esau is enraged when he discovers this deception → threatens to kill Jacob once their father has died
      • Jacob flees to Haran (present day Turkey) to the house of his uncle Laban
      • Jacob’s travels
        • Falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel → works for Laban for 7 yrs. so he can marry Rachel
        • Wedding day → Laban gets Jacob a little drunk, walks the heavily-veiled bride down the aisle, and marries the happy couple → Jacob wakes up the next morning to find that he’s married Laban’s older daughter, Leah, instead of Rachel
        • Oh, how the tables have turned! → Jacob = enraged at this deceitful bait and switch → complains to Laban and agrees to work another 7 yrs. so he can really marry Rachel this time
    • Jacob’s travails
      • Through some sneaky breeding and trickery, Jacob ends up with the very best of Laban’s flocks → Laban’s sons become angry and threaten Jacob’s life
      • God tells Jacob, “Go back to the land of your ancestors and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”[3] → decides to flee back to his homeland with his entire family (2 wives, handmaids of both wives, and 12 children between them)
      • Reaches the Jordan River (border of his homeland) late in the day → leads everyone else (his family, his servants, his herds and flocks, including a large and generous gift he’s prepared to try to buy his way back into Esau’s good graces) across the Jabbok River (smaller tributary of the Jordan … probably easier to cross than the Jordan itself)
      • Night falls with Jacob alone – wholly alone – still on the far back of the river
  • So this is where we catch up with our Scripture reading for this morning. And in that reading, we hear Jacob struggling … even before God shows up.
    • Text: Jacob said, “Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you,’ I don’t deserve how loyal and trustworthy you’ve been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I’m becoming two camps. Save me from my brother Esau! I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. You were the one who told me, ‘I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won’t be able to count them.’” Jacob spent the night there.[4] → This part of the text is really, really important, friends, because it shows us that even before God showed up, Jacob was wrestling. He was wrestling with himself. He was wrestling with his past. He was wrestling with his decision to leave in the first place and his decision to return. He was wrestling with his fear. He was wrestling with his faith. You can almost hear the agony and doubt and frustration in his voice, can’t you? “You told me to come back here, God. You told me you’d be with me. But Esau … he’s mad at me. He’s more than mad at me. He hates me! And I’m afraid. I’m afraid he’s going to kill me and my entire family. God, what am I doing here?” Maybe he’s sitting on the banks with his head in his hands. Maybe he’s pacing. Maybe he’s venturing part way out into the river, all psyched up and ready to cross, just to turn back 5 steps in and hang back on the far bank – the safe bank – once again. Maybe he’s ranting. Maybe he’s crying. Maybe he’s pleading. Maybe he’s praying. But he is clearly already wrestling at this point.
      • Important because of how this text is often interpreted/presented → Most of the time, we say God came to Jacob and wrestled with him. (text puts it pretty simply: But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.[5]) This can easily be read with God as the instigator of the wrestling, right? It can easily be read as God confronting Jacob, both physically and spiritually, in this isolated and desolate place. But what if that’s not how this wrestling match started?
        • God surely could see that Jacob was already mentally grappling with himself and his faith → What if this wrestling match in our text today is actually God joining Jacob in his wrestling so that he wouldn’t have to wrestle and struggle and battle his demons (inner or otherwise) alone? What if this wrestling is actually God getting down in the dirt, in the mud, in the impenetrable dark of night in the desert, in the frustration and the fear that Jacob is experiencing and saying, “I can see that you’re struggling. I can see that you’re hurting. And I’m here with you. Let it all out. I’m big enough – more than big enough. I can take it.”
  • Grimy. Sweaty. Gasping. Spent. à not words that we generally use to describe our faith… But why not? Where did we pick up the idea that our faith always has to look effortless, squeaky-clean, and all “sunshine and rainbows” and “glass half full” and “everything’s fine … yes, it’s fine … all the time” from the outside? When did the wrestling, the struggling, the questioning, the straining, the pushing back against God become taboo … become forbidden … become something seen as a weakness instead of part of the inevitable and inescapable life cycle of faith?
    • The greatest parts of faith = “mountaintop experiences,” right? Those are the high and beautiful, celebratory, soul-enlightening, revitalizing moments. Those are the moments that leave us buzzing with Spirit and holiness and renewal and sacred ecstasy. It’s easy for us to see God in those moments high above it all – above the grit and grime and craziness and struggle of the world below. But anyone who knows anything about geography and geology – even the tiniest little bit about them – will tell you that mountaintops themselves cannot exist without valleys in between: low spaces, dark places, steep and dangerous places, rugged places, uncertain places that shift and change in startling and unanticipated ways.
      • Cannot live on the mountaintop → beautiful places to visit for a moment, but inhospitable nature of the summits of some of the world’s most difficult and prestigious mountains
        • Everest (China-Nepal border)
        • K2 (Pakistan-China border)
        • Matterhorn (Switzerland)
        • Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)
        • Denali (Alaska)
        • Summits are:
          • Small
          • Cold/snow-covered
          • Air is thin
          • Nothing grows
        • It’s not on one of those mountaintops that Jacob encounters God. It’s in the midst of a dark and dangerous valley. It’s down, down, down in the depths.
    • Brings us to another crucial point in this story: blessing doesn’t come in the midst of the wrestling but afterward → God doesn’t try to convince Jacob to find blessing in the midst of his suffering. God doesn’t try to find a silver lining. God doesn’t tell Jacob to “buck up and look on the bright side.” God doesn’t try to paint lipstick on that pig that is Jacob’s inner turmoil or make Jacob feel like he should be somehow grateful for the agony and grief and distress that he is feeling. God isn’t filling Jacob’s ears with useless platitudes like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” God simply gets down in the dirt and the sweat and the trial with Jacob, matching him move for move and gasping breath for gasping breath, and when Jacob asks about blessing when it’s all over, God says, “Yes. You have struggled mightily. You have fought your way through the darkest night. And you are still standing.” And God blesses Jacob with a new name to reflect this struggle: Israel, which means “to contend with God.”
      • Contend with God as in fight against God? OR Contend with God as in fight side by side with God?
      • Text: Then [God] said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.” → Heb. “won” = interesting, shifting word
        • Basic meaning: “to be able to”
        • Others:
          • To hold on/endure
          • To dare
          • To be victorious/win
          • To grasp/understand
          • “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with man and You struggled with God and with man and dared. You struggled with God and with man and understood.” And that, friends, is the true blessing. God knows when we are struggling. God knows when we are battling – battling forces outside ourselves and forces within ourselves. And God comes right beside us in those struggles, right down in the dirt and desperation of our hearts and souls, and God says, “I’m here. I’m with you. I’m not going anywhere. So toe to toe, pain for pain, groan for groan, let’s do this. Together.” Amen.

Charge: “Blessings the Questions” by Jan Richardson (from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, © 2016, Wanton Gospeller Press)

Let them come:
the questions
that storm through
the crack in the world.

Let them come:
the questions
that crawl through
the hole in your heart.

Let them come:
the questions
in anguish,
the questions
in tears.

Let them come:
the questions
in rage,
the questions
in fear.

Let them come:
the questions
that whisper themselves
so slow,

the questions
that arrive with
breathtaking speed,

the questions
that never entirely leave,
the questions
that bring
more questions still.

Let them come:
the questions
that haunt you
in shadowy hours,

the questions
that visit
the deepest night,

the questions
that draw you
into rest,
into dream,

the questions
that stir
the wakening
world.

[1] “Wrestling in the Night” from Spill the Beans, issue 16. (Los Angeles, CA: Sleepless Night Productions, 2015), 33.

[2] Gen 25-31.

[3] Gen 31:3.

[4] Gen 32:9-13a.

[5] Gen 32:24.

Sunday’s sermon: Laughing Matters

Laughing out loud

Text used – Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • One night, there was a family sitting down to dinner. As they were eating, they were talking – about their day, about school and work, about the people they had talked to that day and what they had learned, about good things and not-so-good things that had happened. In the midst of this conversation, the little boy said, “Dad, are bugs good to eat?” His father was both taken aback and understandably grossed out by this odd and sudden shift in conversation. “Ugh. Son, that’s disgusting. Don’t talk about things like that over dinner.” The boy started to object, but with a look from his father, he shrugged his shoulders, and continued eating. Later, as the boy was going through his usual bedtime routine, his father (who was feeling a little guilty for curbing his son’s curiosity over dinner) asked him, “So … what was it you wanted to ask me?” The boy looked puzzled for a moment, then shrugged. “Oh, nothing,” he said breezily. “There was a bug in your soup, but now it’s gone!” [[PAUSE]] Laughter. It’s a strange and powerful thing, right?
    • Healing power of laughter[1]
      • Short-term
        • Special trigger for many systems in your body (greater intake of air; release of endorphins; stimulates heart, lungs, and muscles)
        • Through that triggering, it activates and relieves stress response in your body, first increasing and then decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure → leaves you feeling relaxed
        • Soothes tension by stimulating circulation and aiding muscle relaxation
      • Long-term
        • Improve your immune system by releasing neurotransmitters that cane help fight stress and sometimes even more serious illnesses
        • Relieve pain by triggering the body to release its own natural painkilling compounds
        • Increase personal satisfaction → “Laughter can make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people.”
    • Laughter as a social signal
      • Research out of MIT: The social brain hypothesis is that language evolved as a way of establishing and strengthening bonds with larger numbers of individuals in a shorter a period of time. … Laughter is simply an extension of this process. Since the act of talking limits the number of individuals who can take part in a conversation, laughter is a method that individuals use to signal their participation in larger group chats. And the result of all this extra bonding is that the larger group, and hence the individuals within it, flourishes.[2]
      • Psychology Today [3]: laughter as a tool we use against suffering and despair: If we can joke about a disappointing or traumatic event, we’ll often find ourselves feeling that what’s happened to us isn’t so bad and that we’ll be able to get through it. This expectation serves two vitally important functions:
        • It diminishes or even eliminates the moment-by-moment suffering we might otherwise experience as a result of a traumatic loss, which
        • Actually makes it more likely we will make it through a trauma unmarred and flourish once again
    • Find all of these elements of laughter – healing nature of it, self-preservation nature of it, coping nature of it – in our Scripture reading this morning
  • Significant because it’s one of only two times in all of Scripture when God appears in human form (other than Jesus) → times when God is bestowing great promises of covenant and relationship
    • Other time = God wrestles with Jacob (actually going to read that story next week) and changes Jacob’s name to Israel → God bestows special blessing on Jacob/Israel
    • Today’s text = God visiting Abraham and Sarah in the form of three strangers → God’s vow to fulfill previous promise about how numerous Abraham’s descendants will be
      • Gen 12 – God to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.”[4]
      • Gen 15 – again God to Abraham: “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. This is how many children you will have.”[5]
      • So these are the things that God has already said to Abraham … and yet in today’s text, we hear that Abraham and Sarah are both advanced in years – far past child-bearing age – and they still have no children. And yet in comes God in the form of these three strangers with yet another promise – text: Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”[6] → And Sarah’s response is … to laugh.
  • Pause for a moment to address 2 important things
    • FIRST: difficulty that preaching and hearing this text can be → Because the reality of the world that we live in is that not all those who desire to be mothers and fathers get that opportunity. Even in this medically advanced day and age, with all the medications and all the shots and all the procedures in the world, sometimes parenthood remains a maddening impossibility for some people, and that is a painful, painful thing. No amount of praying, no amount of begging or arguing or negotiating with God can change that, and that is truly a painful, painful thing. So when I read this text, having known the pain of that kind of loss myself as I know many in this room have, my heart breaks. And there are no easy words, and there is no simple balm for that kind of ache. It is an ache that Sarah surely felt. It was an ache that many people feel today. And frankly, it’s an ache that we as a society and even as the Church have dealt with poorly (or actively ignored) for far too long. So before we move on with our story this morning, I want to create space for that particular facet of this narrative. [PAUSE]
    • SECOND important thing: Sarah has gotten a bad rap for far too long simply because she laughed → disparaged and even scorned because she had the audacity to question God and laugh at God’s response
      • Need to understand that questioning and debating with God were and still are part of the Hebrew religious tradition → way to mirror the important back-and-forth nature of being in relationship with others – Sarah was simply following suit!
      • Think about the purpose of laughter – healing, restorative, stress-relieving nature that we talked about → After so many years of waiting and hoping, after so many years of disappointment and sorrow, Sarah was being told that she was going to bear a child, and all of that emotion and hope and promise bubbled up inside her and she laughed. I don’t believe that she laughed scornfully or derisively. I don’t believe she laughed at I believe she laughed with God.
        • Linguistic reason for this – text: The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ Is anything too difficult for the Lord?[7] → Heb. “too difficult” = tricky word with a variety of translations:
          • Too hard
          • Too surprising (connotations of “in a strange way”)
          • Too wonderful … too extraordinary … to marvelous. So even God is acknowledging the complete out-there-ness of the promise that God has just reiterated, but God is making that promise – a promise of hope and a promise of life – just the same.
            • Scholar: A text such as this calls for sentences in which God appears as the subject. God makes the promised future possible. God serves as the source of hope in situations where the way into the future seems entirely blocked off. God gives shape to possibilities when all around us seems impossible. The active engagement of God in the midst of the problems of daily life opens up the future rather than closing it down.[8]
  • Hope. Life. Relationship. Things that we celebrate in worship every Sunday, but things that we get to celebrate in a special way today as we prepare to baptize Harlow. Hope. Life. Relationship.
    • From the introduction section to baptism liturgy in our Book of Common Worship: The Reformed tradition understands baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant (God’s promise). The water of baptism is linked with the waters of creation, the flood, and the exodus. Baptism thus connects us with God’s creative purpose, cleansing power, and redemptive promise from generation to generation. … In this new [promise] of grace God washes us clean and makes us holy and whole. … Baptism is at once God’s gift of grace, God’s means of grace, and God’s call to respond to that grace.[9] → A grace that covers. A grace that washes. A grace that promises. A grace that hopes. A grace that surely and wonderfully and divinely laughs. Hope. Life. Relationship. The Good News today, tomorrow, and always. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] “Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456.

[2] “The Evolutionary Origin of Laughter,” https://www.technologyreview.com/s/421480/the-evolutionary-origin-of-laughter/. Posted Oct. 29, 2010, accessed Sept. 15, 2019.

[3] Alex Lickerman. “Why We Laugh: How laughter can help build resilience” from Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201101/why-we-laugh. Posted Jan. 23, 2011, accessed Sept. 15, 2019.

[4] Gen 12:3.

[5] Gen 15:5.

[6] Gen 18:10a.

[7] Gen 18:13-14a.

[8] Terence E. Fretheim. “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 465.

[9] “Theology of Baptism” in Book of Common Worship. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 403-404.

Sunday’s sermon: A Perfect Helper

community circle 2

Text used – Genesis 2:4b-25

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • [READ “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson]
  • Creation … the beginning. The beginning of the world. The beginning of time and space. The beginning of light and life. The beginning of Story. “And in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”[1] So here we are … at the beginning.
    • Beginning of the school year → even when I’m not in school anymore (even before we had kids in school and before Peter was teaching), fall still feels like a beginning to me
    • Beginning of a new voyage through Scripture together → Narrative Lectionary
      • Explain lectionary
        • Catholic lectionary
        • Revised common lectionary
        • Narrative lectionary
      • Developed by professors at Luther Seminary in St. Paul
      • 4-yr. cycle (1 yr. for each Gospel)
      • Purpose: to follow the grand sweep of the Biblical story from Creation to the early Church within a 9-month period (Sept.-May) → focuses on the following the story of God and God’s people so that we can better grasp the overarching story of our faith and better understand where we might fit into that story ourselves
      • General phases
        • Starts with OT stories
        • Shifts into writing of prophets at Advent (the ones who heralded the birth of the Messiah)
        • Moves to Gospels after Christmas à continues throughout Lent and Easter
        • Finally transitions into writings of the Early Church after Easter
      • Cycle through the same phases but with different Scriptures when the lectionary year starts over again in Sept.
  • And so here we are at the beginning of the Bible as well – the Creation Story, Take 2. Wait … Take 2?
    • Basics of the Biblical Historical Documentary Hypothesis
      • Long-passed-down tradition states first 5 books of the Bible were written by Moses → scholars began questioning this belief as early as the late 16th and early 17th
        • Scholar: By the early eighteenth century, evidence for the use of sources was becoming more and more apparent. Repetitions, parallel versions of the same event, and notable differences in language and point of view seemed to render this conclusion inevitable.[2]
      • A few centuries of discussion and debate later = Documentary Hypothesis → proposed and expanded upon by a number of different scholars in the late 19th and early 20th
      • Basic idea = 4 different sources that make up the whole of the first 5 books of the Bible
        • J source
        • E source
        • D source
        • P source
    • REMINDER: OT Scripture started off as oral history – stories and poetry and cultural mythology that was passed down from family to family, from priest to priest, from generation to generation, told and retold in worship, at the family table, around campfires and bonfires → The stories upon stories and verses upon verses that make up the Old Testament as we know and read it today started off as stories that were only told and remembered and embodied for more than a thousand years before anything was written down. So today’s version of the creation story that we find in Genesis 2 is the creation story as remembered and recorded by one particular ancient Hebrew scribe. The creation story that we read in Genesis 1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth … and God said, ‘Let there be light’”[3] and so on and so on – that version of creation is another story.
      • Major difference:
        • Genesis 1 creation story emphasizes divine action and power and intention → human beings are merely a footnote at the end of that saga (part of Day 6 when God creates every kind of living thing: “livestock, crawling things, and wildlife”[4] … and humans in God’s own image)
        • Genesis 2 creation story emphasizes human interaction and relationship with God → humans created first, then God creates every other creature in an attempt to create the “perfect helper” for the human
  • Okay … so let’s talk about this “perfect helper” for a bit.
    • Beauty of this text and challenge of this text all wrapped up in two little words
      • CHALLENGE = history of this text
        • Used to subjugate and suppress and silence women for centuries → used to attempt to make women believe they weren’t as good, as useful, as valuable, as worthy as men because Eve was created from a part of Adam
        • Roger Nam (Assoc. Prof. of Biblical Studies at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Oregon): This phrase has been particularly destructive in constructing gender roles in both the household and church leadership. I recognize that one part of the problem is the of the common English translation of “helper” for the Hebrew carries unwarranted baggage of weakness and inferiority, as in “Daddy’s little helper.”[5]
      • So let’s consider the actual Hebrew here – the words that make up that tricky phrase “perfect helper.” When we do, we see that the intention in the Hebrew is nowhere near this dominant, superior interpretation.
        • 2 Heb. words “helper/support” + “opposite/counterpart” → So when the text talks about God creating Eve to be a helper for Adam, the text speaks of an equal helper, a supportive counterpart, someone to be beside Adam in his work and his life and his relationship with God; someone created to be matched with Adam, not mitigated by Adam.
        • Nam highlights an important point: It is important to remember that the Bible [calls God “helper” using the exact same Hebrew word] (Psalm 54:4).[6]
    • This reveals the beauty of this “perfect helper” phrase in our text this morning because it shows us that we were literally created to be in community with one another. We were created to be in relationship with God together. We were created to seek after and encounter and experience God together. We were created to inhabit this earth and this life together.
  • It’s beautiful in and of itself, but it’s also beautiful in the context of this being the beginning of creation. God created the world. God created a human being from the literal stuff of that world – from the topsoil, from the mud and God’s own breath.
    • From “The Creation”: Then God walked around, / And God looked around / On all that He had made. / He looked at His sun, / And He looked at His moon, / And He looked at His little stars; / He looked on His world / With all its living things, / And God said, “I’m lonely still.” / Then God sat down / On the side of a hill where He could think; / By a deep, wide river He sat down; / With His head in His hands, / God thought and thought, / Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!” / Up from the bed of the river / God scooped the clay; / And by the bank of the river / He kneeled Him down; / And there the great God Almighty / Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, / Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, / Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand; / This Great God, / Like a mammy bending over her baby, / Kneeled down in the dust / Toiling over a lump of clay / Till He shaped it in His own image; / Then into it He blew the breath of life, / And man became a living soul. / Amen. Amen.
    • REMINDER: “breath” in Heb. can also be translated as Spirit à not just stale air that God blew into that molded chunk of mud but God’s own Spirit
      • Holy Spirit
      • Divine Spark
      • Breath of Heaven
      • Especially linked to our creation story this morning in 2 ways
        • 1) one of the names for the Holy Spirit used throughout the Scriptures is the “helper”
        • 2) Heb. word for “Spirit” is a distinctly feminine word
  • Friends, this is where our Grand Story of faith starts – together with God and together with one another.
    • Sacred togetherness = element of our faith that extends far beyond OT → Jesus was in constant togetherness with his disciples, with the crowds, with those seeking teaching and healing, with sinners, with the unclean, with people on the margins, even with the Pharisees – those who would ultimately betray and kill him. Jesus was the physical embodiment of that sacred togetherness. He was Emmanuel, God With Us.
      • Meme from the Synod FB page this week (shared from The Center for Prophetic Imagination) = quote from Clarence Jordan (early 20th New Testament scholar and farmer; author of “Cotton Patch Gospel”; founder of Koinonia Farm, a small of influential religious community in SW Georgia): The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers with him.
    • Crucial question for us today = What are we going to do with that?
      • How are we going to remain together, especially in difficult times?
      • How are we going to look out for one another, especially in difficult times?
      • How are we going to live lives of faith and hope, forgiveness and mercy, truth and steadfast love together, especially in difficult times?
      • None of those are questions I can answer for you. They’re questions you have to ask yourself every moment of every day – questions you have to ask yourself in the throes of every encounter, every disagreement, every struggle, every frustration. They’re questions you have to answer for yourself with every word you say and every thing you do. They’re questions you have to wrestle with in the face of all the hurt … all the need … all the desperation … all the hopelessness … all the darkness … all the injustice … all the fear … all the brokenness of this world. How can you embody that sacred togetherness? How can you bring that Divine Spirit? How can you be an equal member, a supportive counterpart, an perfect helper? Amen.

[1] Jn 1:1.

[2] Joseph Blenkinsopp. “Introduction to the Pentateuch” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol.  1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 309.

[3] Gen 1:1, 3 (NRSV).

[4] Gen 1:24.

[5] Roger Nam. “Commentary on Genesis 2:4b-25” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2553. Posted for Sept. 13, 2015, accessed Sept. 8, 2019.

[6] Roger Nam. “Commentary on Genesis 2:4b-25” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2553. Posted for Sept. 13, 2015, accessed Sept. 8, 2019.

Sunday’s sermon: It Ain’t Easy

forgiveness 2

Texts used – Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • It’s a funny word, isn’t it?
    • One of those words that sort of sounds the way it feels, right?
      • Compacted
      • Unsightly
      • Heavy
      • Dark
    • Etymology[1]
      • Dates all the way back to the 15th → probably came from Old French or possibly Old High German before that
      • Strems from words meaning to grumble and grunt
        • Sounds that we make when we’re talking about grudges with other people
        • Sounds our souls make when we’re thinking about and stewing over grudges, right?
    • A grudge sort of is the grunting, grumbling of our spirits. It’s the sound our hearts and our souls make when they continually heft the burden of a wrong that’s been done to us – when they dredge it up from the depths of our memories and haul it up into our conscious minds again and again, dragging all the pain and hurt and anger and frustration and outrage with it.
      • Terminology of a grudge = “bear a grudge”
        • Something that requires effort
        • Something to be endured and put up with
        • Something with uncomfortable weight
      • Heavy emotions require heavy lifting → So our souls grunt and grumble as we bear our grudges. They grunt and grumble because the weight of grudges are uncomfortable, right? The only reason for a grudge is because we feel we’ve been wronged, and no one likes feeling like that. No one likes reliving the way it felt to be cheated, deceived, hurt, looked down on, mistreated. No one likes remembering the malice or the injustice behind those past actions and feelings. And yet we do it, right? We hang on to those painful, uncomfortable things – cling to them, even.
    • From Psychology Today: Our grudge, and the identity that accompanies it, is an attempt to get the comfort and compassion we didn’t get in the past, the empathy for what happened to us at the hands of this “other,” the experience that our suffering matters. … The problem with grudges … is that they don’t serve the purpose that they are there to serve. They don’t make us feel better or heal our hurt. At the end of the day, we end up as proud owners of our grudges but still without the experience of comfort that we ultimately crave, that we have craved since the original wounding. … Sadly, in its effort to garner us empathy, our grudge ends up depriving us of the very empathy that we need to release it.[2] → Grudges are a bit of a catch-22, aren’t they? We hang onto grudges because they’re familiar. They’re a storyline and a narrative that we’ve visited over and over again, examining for things we could have said or done differently, alternate ways we could have reacted, things that could have led up to whatever action or encounter precipitated the grudge. It’s our attempt to try to understand what happened and to keep it from happening again. But in revisiting those difficult moments, we can become too entrenched in the pain and perceived injustice of them, letting them grow and fester in our hearts and our minds until they end up cutting us off from people, tainting and even ruining relationships.
      • Relationships with the people who have wronged us
      • Relationships with people similar to those who have wronged us
      • Even relationships with those completely unrelated to the incident
    • Grudges = unhealthy
      • Emotionally and mentally: not healthy to continue to revisit and nurse old wounds → can easily send us into a downward spiral that affects every aspect of our day
        • What Should Danny Do? By Adir and Ganit Levy[3] → When Danny makes the negative choices, his day gets worse. When he makes the positive choices, his day gets better. It’s the same with grudges. The more we let their negativity impact our thinking, the worse we feel throughout the day, and the more those negative feelings impact what we do and say.
      • Physically as well – research: Living in a chronic state of tension disables your body’s repair mechanisms, increasing inflammation and the stress hormone cortisol in the body. Forgiveness engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your immune system function more efficiently and makes room for feel-good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin. … When you replay in your mind an experience you had six months ago, your body reacts as if you’re having the same experience over and over again.[4] → Ahhhh … forgiveness – the literal, hormonal antidote to all the negativity and stress and yuck stirred up by the grudges we bear.
  • Forgiveness. It’s a beautiful concept, right? The Bible talks a lot about forgiveness.
    • Other forgiveness texts
      • Paul in Eph: Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.[5]
      • God’s desire in Lev: You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.[6]
      • Wisdom imparted in Prov: Hate stirs up conflict, but love covers all offenses. … Don’t say, “I’ll repay the evildoer!” Wait for the LORD, and he will save you.[7]
      • Jesus’ mandate before prayer in the Gospels: And whenever you stand up to pray, if you have something against anyone, forgive so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your wrongdoings.[8]
    • On the other side of things: certainly plenty of Biblical e.g.s of grudge-holders
      • Cain → grudge against Abel because Abel’s offering was preferred over his own[9]
      • Sarah → grudge against Hagar for being able to bear children[10]
      • Jacob → grudge against his brother, Esau, for being the stronger twin[11]
      • Jonah → grudge against the people of Nineveh for repenting from their evil ways and returning to God[12]
    • Today’s OT story → Of all the people in the Old Testament who are part of stories of being wronged (and, frankly, there are a lot of them!), I don’t think there’s one who has more cause to hold a grudge than Joseph.
      • Joseph … the one who’s brothers were so jealous they prepared to kill him, threw him down into a well, sold him into slavery, and told his father he’d been killed by a wild beast
      • Joseph … who, after serving well and faithfully in the house of his master, ends up being falsely accused by his master’s wife when he rebuffed her advances and gets thrown in prison
      • Joseph … who eventually ends up in a position of incredible power over all Egypt and an even greater position of power over his brothers when they come begging at Pharaoh’s palace in the midst of a great famine
      • Joseph … who forgives – today’s text: He said [to his brothers], “I’m your brother Joseph! The one you sold to Egypt. Now, don’t be upset and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. Actually, God sent me before you to save lives. … God sent me before you to make sure you’d survive and to rescue your lives in this amazing way. You didn’t send me here; it was God who made me a father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler of the whole land of Egypt.” … He kissed his brothers and wept, embracing them. After that, his brothers were finally able to talk to him.[13]
  • “Okay,” you might be saying. “That’s great for Joseph, but those are pretty specific circumstances. My grudge has nothing to do with brothers selling me into slavery that actually ended up turning into a position of power and wealth and political influence. So what about me?” → today’s NT text = just as uncomfortably challenging when it comes to forgiveness (imperative from Jesus): But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. … If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. … Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.[14] → I mean, come on, Jesus. Do you really know what you’re asking us to do? I mean, really?? Love those who have hurt us, mistreated us, taken advantage of us, upset and offended us? I mean …… REALLY?!
    • SUPER-IMPORTANT PASTORAL DISCLAIMER: NOT talking about cases of abuse of any kind! → There is a huge difference between holding a grudge and preserving your safety and your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
      • Jesus in the text: If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either.[15] = Jesus simultaneously engaging in and de-escalating conflict with figures of authority at the time → model for much of the pacifistic, non-violent resistance movements throughout history including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. … NOT model for engaging with an abusive person in your life
    • That being said, Jesus’ words here are hard, right? They’re challenging. They’re convicting. They’re not the words we want to hear. “Love those who hate and persecute you. Love those who have caused you pain, who have messed things up for you.”
      • Gr. “love” = (you guessed it) that agape love → selfless, do-for-others, compassion-centric kind of love … For those who have hated you, cursed you, mistreated you. Dang, Jesus. Couldn’t you have set us an easier task? Something simple? I’d take the water-to-wine challenge over this one any day!
  • But then we remember water … and wine … and we remember that today we celebrate communion … and we remember that when we gather at this table, we gather in a holy and sacred space that is not meant for accusation, not meant for excuses, not meant for castigation or indictment, not meant for grunting or grumbling or grudges. We remember that when we gather at this table, we gather in a holy and sacred space made for one thing: forgiveness.
    • Not forgiveness earned by anything we’ve said
    • Not forgiveness earned by anything we’ve done
    • Not forgiveness earned at all. Period. Full stop.
    • Forgiveness freely given – a.k.a.: grace
    • Book of Order: The Lord’s Supper is at once God’s gift of grace, God’s means of grace, and God’s call to respond to that grace. … The opportunity to eat and drink with Christ is not a right bestowed upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. … Worshipers prepare themselves to celebrate the Lord’s supper by putting their trust in Christ, confessing their sin, and seeking reconciliation with God and one another. Even those who doubt may come to the table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.[16] → And so we come to this table. We come with prayers on our lips and our hearts: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. We come with spirits weary and heaven laden with the weight of grudges we have born for too long. We come looking for release and renewal, redemption and restoration. We come desperate for forgiveness but even more desperate to be taught how to forgive. It ain’t easy, friends. But we have indeed been forgiven, and through the power of that forgiveness, we can do hard things. Even forgive. Amen.

[1] https://www.wordreference.com/definition/grudge.

[2] Nancy Colier. “Why We Hold Grudges, and How to Let Them Go” from Psychology Today online, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inviting-monkey-tea/201503/why-we-hold-grudges-and-how-let-them-go. Posted Mar. 4, 2015, accessed Sept. 1, 2019.

[3] Adir and Ganit Levy. What Should Danny Do? (Elon Books), 2017.

[4] https://www.piedmont.org/living-better/what-does-holding-a-grudge-do-to-your-health.

[5] Eph 4:31-32.

[6] Lev 19:18.

[7] Prov 10:12; 20:22.

[8] Mk 11:25; Mt 6:14-15.

[9] Gen 4:1-16.

[10] Gen 16; 21:1-21.

[11] Gen 25:19-27:45.

[12] Jonah 4.

[13] Gen 45:4b-5, 7-8, 15.

[14] Lk 6:27-28, 32-35a, 36.

[15] Lk 6:29.

[16] “Theology of the Lord’s Supper” from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II: Book of Order 2019-2021. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2019), W-3.0409.

Sunday’s sermon: Excusing Our Excuses

excuses

Texts used – Jeremiah 1:4-10; Hebrews 4:11-16

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • We’re actually going to start off a little interactive this morning. Y’all are going to be each other’s sermon illustrations. Let me ask you a question: What are your favorite excuses?
    • Could be classic excuses
    • Could be excuses you’ve heard from your friends, family, etc.
    • Could be excuses you’ve used in the past or even ones you use on a regular basis
    • [PAUSE FOR ANSWERS]
  • Purpose of excuses = get ourselves out of something, right?
    • Getting ourselves out of sticky situations → excuses that try to get us out of trouble
    • Getting ourselves out of obligations → excuses that try to get us out of this event or that meeting
    • Getting ourselves out of responsibility → excuses that try to get us out of being blamed for something
    • Shift the pronunciation a bit and “excuse” the noun becomes “excuse” the verb
      • Noun definition: a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense
      • Verb definition: attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offense); release (someone) from a duty or requirement
      • Excuses excuse They pass the buck. They shift the focus. They redirect attention away from ourselves and whatever we’re doing wrong … or whatever we’re not doing … or whatever we’re trying to keep from doing.
    • And depending on which corner of the internet you’re hanging out in, excuses can either be a good thing or a bad thing.
      • Self-help/personal betterment corner: “13 Steps to Stop Making Excuses and Get Results in Your Life”[1] and “15 motivational Quotes to Stop Making Excuses”[2]
      • Comedic corner: “The 40 Lamest Excuses Ever Uttered”[3] and “14 Hilarious Homework Excuses”[4]
      • And so on, and so on.
    • Church life and faith are no strangers to excuses either.
      • Excuse away why we weren’t at church or why we couldn’t make it to this church function or that meeting
      • Excuse away why we couldn’t make time to attend to our spiritual health today
        • Couldn’t read
        • Couldn’t pray
        • Couldn’t sit quietly with God
      • Excuse away why we act one way even when we know we should act another way
      • And let me tell you something this morning, all – let me reassure you of something. When it comes to excuses and faith, we are by no means alone. We are in prominent Scriptural company. Some of the best excuse-makers ever are found in the pages of Scripture.
        • Adam and Eve → Adam: “She made me do it.” Eve: “The snake made me do it.”[5]
        • Sarah → “Me? Can’t be, God. I’m too old to have a baby!”[6]
        • Moses → “I can’t go there and say that, God. I don’t speak well.”[7]
        • Pharisees (over and over again) → “But that’s not the letter of the law. It must be wrong.”
        • Jonah → (running in the opposite direction) “NOPE! Just … NOPE!”[8]
        • King David … well, that whole Bathsheba incident (just to start with!)[9]
        • Peter → “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know that guy.”[10]
        • Rich young ruler that approaches Jesus → “Yeah, I’ve already done everything. Wait … sell my stuff? Uhhhhh … buh-bye.”[11]
        • Gideon (one of the great judges of the OT – after the Israelites reached the promised land but before they demanded a king) → “I’m the scrawniest guy in the lowliest family in the weakest of the 12 tribes. No way you can actually mean me, God.”[12]
        • Today’s passage – prophet Jeremiah → “Not me, God. I’m just a kid!”[13]
  • Let’s look at today’s passage a little more closely.
    • Context for Jeremiah
      • Jeremiah sees some of the best and some of the worst of the people[14]
        • BEST = religious reforms of King Josiah
          • Renovates and even fortifies the temple → finds a long-lost scroll of the law during renovation
          • Renews religious devotion → draws people back to prayers and practices laid out by God in the Torah
          • Time of relative harmony and unity in Judea
        • WORST: Babylonian exile → prophet to the people of Israel left behind during Babylonian exile
          • Jerusalem = a city forever changed
            • Temple was destroyed when the Babylonians sacked the city and took the best and brightest into exile
            • Walls of the city were also destroyed along with many other dwellings and prominent buildings
            • Living with Babylonian-appointed and Babylonian-born governor who ruled over Jerusalem → killed by rival for political reasons → rival flees to the Ammonites (modern day Jordan) → remaining city leaders become nervous and eventually flee to Egypt (last we hear from Jeremiah)
    • Book of Jeremiah begins with Jeremiah’s own call – text: The Lord’s word came to me: “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations.”[15] → Pretty weighty, right? That’s certainly no small charge – no insignificant call. I think it’s safe to say anyone would feel overwhelmed by a revelation like that, right?
      • Jeremiah’s response = excuse: “Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child.”[16]
      • So we’ve got God’s call, and we’ve got Jeremiah’s excuse. But hear what comes next. This is the important part! – text: The Lord responded, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’ Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say. Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you,” declares the Lord. Then the Lord stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth. This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and to plant.”[17] → God sidesteps Jeremiah’s excuse and says, “It’s not your words. It’s not your work. It’s not your journey. It’s my work in and through you. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. I’ve got you.” God doesn’t berate Jeremiah for his hesitation, for his fear, for his excuse. God simply takes that excuse, acknowledges it, and releases it.
  • Heb. passage speaks to God’s power to do this, too
    • Heb. context[18]
      • One of those letters that has been attributed to Paul in the past but is probably not actually one of Paul’s
        • Writing style doesn’t match (phrasing, word choice, etc.)
        • Content doesn’t jive with much of Paul’s other writing
      • Time?
        • Definitely written before 95 C.E. (quoted by Clement of Rome in 95/96 C.E.)
        • Potentially written sometime prior to the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E.
        • Probably written somewhere between 60-95 C.E. → roughly 30 yrs. after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after the gospel of Mark, possibly around the same time as Matthew/Luke were written, before the gospel of John
      • Audience (not much known): community of believers, probably 2nd generation (Heb. later mentions the recipients having been baptized) → most likely a group of Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish Christians possibly living in Rome
      • One thing that is clear in the content of the letter itself is Hebrews was written to a community in crisis. Many of the people have grown lax in their faithful living, and it appears that their commitment is waning. They haven’t completely fallen away, but the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that they’ve got some work to do. They’ve been making and living their excuses for too long.
    • Today’s text addresses this by addressing the potent, powerful, penetrating nature of God’s word: God’s word is living, active, and 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.[19] → Friends, the good news and the challenging news is that God sees right through our excuses. God sees right through all those walls and barriers we try to put up. There is not an excuse on this earth that God hasn’t already heard. There is not a hurdle on this earth that God hasn’t already cleared. As we read in this passage from Hebrews, God is not only familiar with all the excuses, God is bigger than them all. But God doesn’t berate us for our excuses. God doesn’t shame us with or forsake us for those excuses that we make in our hearts and our souls. God simply acknowledges them, acknowledges the fear and worry and doubt at the root of them, and says to us, “But I am with you. And it’s okay. And it’ll continue to be okay. Because I’m not leaving you, and you have work to do.”
      • Makes me think of the classic children’s book Runaway Bunny[20]
        • Little bunny think of any and every way he can to run away and hide from his mother (become a fish, a rock on a mountain, a crocus in a garden, a sailboat, etc.) but the mother always comes up with a way to find him
        • The mother bunny doesn’t just say, “That’s silly. You’re not a rock. You’re my bunny, and you’re right here.” She doesn’t dismiss his scenario. She imagines herself in the midst of it – a fishermom who pulls her fish-bunny out of the sea, a rock climber who finds her rock-bunny on the mountain, a strong wind who blows her sailboat-bunny to wherever he needs to be. No matter what we try to do to excuse ourselves from the work and call and presence of God in our lives, God is just like that mother bunny. God smiles. God gently but undeniable inserts Godself into whatever story we have woven as our excuse, and God says, “But I love you, and I need you, so let’s go. Let’s do. Let’s be.” And friends, even when we are hesitant and frightened to hear it, that is, in fact, Good News. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://www.developgoodhabits.com/making-excuses/.

[2] https://www.success.com/15-motivational-quotes-to-stop-making-excuses/.

[3] https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/lamest-excuses-ever-uttered/.

[4] https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/14-hilarious-homework-excuses.

[5] Gen 3:11-13.

[6] Gen 18:12.

[7] Ex 4:10.

[8] Jonah 1:1-3.

[9] 2 Sam 11.

[10] Lk 22:54-62.

[11] Mt 19:22.

[12] Jdg 6:15.

[13] Jer 1:6.

[14] Patrick D. Miller. “The Book of Jeremiah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 556-560.

[15] Jer 1:4-5.

[16] Jer 1:6.

[17] Jer 1:7-10.

[18] 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), 6-10.

[19] Heb 4:12-13.

[20] Margaret Wise Brown. The Runaway Bunny. (New York, NY: HarperCollins), 1942.