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.

Sunday’s sermon: We Will Come Back Home

prodigal son

Texts used – Hosea 14:1-9; Luke 15:11-32

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • It’s a story as old as time, isn’t it?
    • Two people share a connection … a relationship … a love
      • Could be romantic love between two people
      • Could be love of friendship/companionship
      • Could be love between a parent and child
      • In the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the existence of the connection itself that matters, not the particulars.
    • Two people share a connection → for whatever reason, one person becomes distracted
      • Something promising
      • Something grander
      • Something more … just more. Again, it doesn’t really matter what the distraction is. It’s taken a thousand different forms throughout the various iterations of this story: power, prestige, wealth, flattery, fame … and on and on and on.
    • Two people share a connection → for whatever reason, one person becomes distracted → that person wanders away from that original, cherished connection in pursuit of The Other
      • Physical wandering
      • Emotional wandering
      • Even spiritual wandering
    • Two people share a connection → for whatever reason, one person becomes distracted → that person wanders away from that original, cherished connection in pursuit of The Other → sometime (either after obtaining The Other or even sometimes during the pursuit itself) the person who has wandered away realizes that the connection they initially had was better than whatever they’ve been chasing → RETURN
    • It’s a story as old as time, isn’t it? We’ve seen it played out in literature. We’ve seen it played out in popular culture. We’ve seen it played out in Scripture. I’d be willing to bet we’ve even seen it played out in our own lives or in the lives of the people we know and love. Maybe you’ve been the Wanderer. Maybe you’ve been the one waiting for the Wanderer to return. It’s a story as old as time and as universal as humanity itself. It’s a story that spans all the barriers. Some variation of it is told in every culture, in every language, in every part of the world. → 3 variations of this story just today
      • Wandering and returning of the religious devotion of the people of Israel = OT passage from Hosea
      • Wandering and returning of the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable = NT passage
      • Wandering and returning of P.T. Barnum in the last song of our Greatest Showman series
  • Since it’s been a few weeks, before we listen to our song this morning, let me set this up for you a bit.
    • Reminder: P.T. Barnum grew up dirt poor → always wanted to have that wealth and privilege he glimpsed when he went with his father to help tailor rich men’s suits
    • Reminder: when his circus started growing in popularity and notoriety, Barnum decided to add on to his repertoire by bringing Swedish opera star Jenny Lind to America to tour → Barnum went with her to do promotional work, leaving his family (both his nuclear family – wife and daughters – and his circus family) behind
    • Quick succession toward the end of the movie:
      • Scandal on tour with Lind
      • Barnum returns
      • Wife is angry → has moved out of their house with his daughters
      • Circus family is angry → feels as though they’ve been abandoned by him
      • Building in which the circus is housed is burned to the ground → shaky/shady investments that Barnum used to secure the building and initial funding for the circus in the first place means there’s no way he’ll ever have the money to rebuild
    • And in the face of all that loss, as he sits in a bar lamenting what was and trying to come to terms with what his life has become, Barnum finds himself surrounded by his circus family once again. And this is his apology. This is his plea. This is his song. → [PLAY “From Now On[1]”]

  • As I said, when Barnum begins singing this song in the movie, he’s sitting in a bar with the core of his circus family. But in that bar, he finds a picture of himself and his family – his beloved wife and daughters. And that picture lights a fire inside Barnum’s heart and soul. So as he’s singing – as he’s boldly and unashamedly declaring, “From now on, these eyes will not be blinded by the lights!” – he’s running down the street. He’s catching a train. He’s journeying back to his in-laws’ house to find his wife and daughters because he has realized that they are his truest, most important treasure. He is turning and returning, doing everything he can to “come back home.”
    • Probably pretty obvious why I picked Prodigal Son passage out of Lk for today, right? → Barnum is quite literally the Prodigal
      • Lured away from family by wealth and prestige and all the trappings that come with it
      • Dazzled and distracted for a time by Swedish Nightingale’s exceptional talent and the renown that it brings to Barnum himself by association just as the Prodigal Son was dazzled and distracted by all the attention and status his fleeting wealth brought him
      • Unfortunately, in the general tale of the Wanderer as well as our more specific tales of the Prodigal Son and The Greatest Showman this morning, there always comes a moment that jars the Wanderer out of that overawed, starry-eyed state – something that brings the Wanderer back to reality, that brings about the realization that what was had before was better than where he finds himself now. And this moment is almost never a pleasant moment.
        • Barnum – perfect storm: manufactured scandal splashed across the front pages + his family leaving him + the fire at his circus building
        • Prodigal Son: running out of money + famine = taking the dirtiest, lowliest job there was (feeding the pigs) and being so hungry that the pig food started looking appealing → text puts words to that moment for us: When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!”[2]
          • Startling realization
          • Harsh realization
          • One of those moments that you really feel like you’ve suddenly woken up → You know, those moments when you feel like everything leading up to where you are was a dream, and suddenly you’re awake for the first time in who-knows-how-long. You can’t believe you are where you are. You can’t believe you’re doing what you’re doing or seeing what you’re seeing or experiencing what you’re experiencing.
    • This is where our Hosea passage comes in this morning, too. Sometimes, it’s not just an individual that has wandered away and hit rock bottom but an entire people.
      • Don’t often preach from Hosea → one of those small, minor prophets buried at the back of the OT that you can easily miss if you’re flipping through
      • Hosea is an especially challenging prophet with a particularly accusatory tone – e.g.: Hear the Lord’s word, people of Israel; for the Lord has a dispute with the inhabitants of the land. There’s no faithful love or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, murdering, together with stealing and adultery are common; bloody crime followed by bloody crime. … Listen, priest, I am angry with your people. You will stumble by day; and at nighttime so will your prophet, and I will destroy your mother.[3]
      • Context:
        • People of Israel were in the midst of serious economic hardship – huge gap between the few who were wealthy and everyone else – along with the cost of a long and bloody war with Assyria (which they lost) and the tribute they were required to pay to the victors → rich exploiting the poor to try to pay debts
        • Also in the midst of serious cultural and religious turmoil – people of Israel had abandoned their worship of God for the cultic religions of those around them
          • Pantheon of other gods
          • Pagan practices both in the home and in places of worship
        • Basically, things had gotten about as bad as they could get for the people of Israel. So God sent Hosea to speak harsh words of truth and rebuke. But as always, God did not stop there. – today’s passage: Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” … I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.[4]
          • Speaks of the incredible grace and forgiveness of God → a God who not only welcomes home lost and wandering loves but waits for them with anxious, baited breath, who runs to embrace returning wanderers with open arms and an open heart, who longs to heal our waywardness and love us freely … and that, friends, is good news if I’ve ever heard it.
        • Good news that Hosea continues to proclaim → goes on to speak of Israel blooming and flourishing under God’s encouragement and protection … But first, they have to make that choice. They have to choose to
  • BUT not just simple returning
    • “return” in Scripture = interesting word
      • Heb. “return” = same word as “repent” → multiple meanings: turning, going back
      • Gr. = “turning around” as well but also contains connotations of remorse and change
      • Either way, there is intentionality and purpose in this turning and returning, in this repentance. There is a self-awareness that a wrong was done – either intentionally or unintentionally – and there is a concerted effort to right that wrong, both internally and in the world.
    • Convocation speaker at Synod School a few weeks ago – Dr. Dede Johnston
      • Professor of Communication and Interim Associate Dean for Global Education at Hope College in Holland, MI
      • Theme of the week: Cultivating Civil Community
      • Spend most of the week talking about civil discourse and non-violent community and how to lean into conflict without becoming overwhelmed by it
      • During her last convocation presentation, Dr. Johnston pointed out an interesting distinction. She was talking about reconciliation, and she pointed out that there’s a subtle difference between repentance and reconciliation.
        • Repentance = see, turn (as we’ve already said)
        • Reconciliation (takes it a step further) = see, turn, ENGAGE → Seeing the mistakes made. Turning and returning to the people and places in which those mistakes were made. And then engaging in actions to mend the fences broken by those mistakes.
    • Powerful illustration → story of Corrymeela in Northern Ireland
      • Live-in community that hosts 11,000 visitors per year (similar to Iona in Scotland or Taize in France)
      • Community dedicated to the hard and painful work of reconciliation → particularly powerful and difficult work in Northern Ireland following the Protestant/Catholic violence throughout the late 20th
      • From their website: Corrymeela believes in the power of people telling their stories, of shared hospitality, of telling the truth about the present, of turning towards each other and finding strength, life and hope in each other. Ultimately, the work of Corrymeela helps groups learn how to be well together.[5]
      • Chapel = circle → service of lighting candles for loved ones who had died as a result of the Protestant/Catholic violence → mother of a son who had carried out a bombing helped to light a candle by the father of a man whose daughter had been killed in that same bombing → Seeing … turning … engaging. In those simple and yet profoundly difficult steps, we find the same steps necessary for repentance, but we also find action. We find resolve. We find a willingness and a humility. And friends, in taking those steps, we will indeed come back home … home again. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] “From Now On” written by Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Sony/ATV Music.

[2] Lk 15:14-17.

[3] Hos 4:1-2, 4b-5.

[4] Hos 14:1-2, 4.

[5] https://www.corrymeela.org/about.

Sunday’s sermon: The Path Less Traveled

tightrope

Texts used – Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Hebrews 10:32-11:3

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • Throughout this Greatest Showman sermon series, we’ve talked about the dreams that God has for us and for the Kingdom of God.
    • Talked about how incredible God’s dream is
    • Talked about how treasured we are by God, how loved we are by God → how much God wants to be in relationship with us
    • Talked about how we tend to get in our own way sometimes when it comes to saying “yes” and buying into those dreams that God has – both for the Kingdom of God and for our own lives
    • Today’s question: What if we actually do say “yes”? → Before we go any further, let’s listen to the song “Tightrope” – [PLAY “Tightrope”[1]]

  • Context for the song
    • Last week – talked about love stories and how they add a powerful element to a storyline, even if that storyline isn’t strictly a typical “love story” → talked about Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler (characters)
    • This week focuses on love story between P.T. Barnum and his wife, Charity → love story that plays a central role throughout the movie from the very beginning
      • Movie actually starts with Barnum and Charity as children
        • Barnum himself grew up poor – the son of a tailor until his father died and left him with nothing
          • Movie version: looks like he was orphaned
          • Real life: left to provide for his mother and 5 sisters and brothers[2]
        • Charity was the opposite – grew up a wealthy heiress
      • The two fall in love as children → marry as adults → begin their life together far from the lavishness and luxury that Charity grew up with → And in the movie version at least, this grates on Barnum. He wants to be able to provide his beloved wife Charity with the same life that she’s used to (despite her own protestations that all she wants is to be with him), and he wants to be “good enough” in her father’s eyes.
      • Barnum becomes a great success as a circus showman → brings Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind to America and begins touring with her → leaves Charity and their two daughters at home missing him → That’s where this song comes into the movie. It’s a song sung by Charity in Barnum’s absence. All she wants is the husband she fell in love with to return.
        • Song speaks of taking a chance on their love
        • Song speaks of the exhilaration and excitement of love
          • Not easy
          • Not sure
          • Not “safe” compared to the standards she grew up with (financially or in terms of proper society and reputation and all things pompous and stuffy like that)
        • The point: they took on all that risk and adventure together
  • Hmmmm … I wonder what this could possibly have to say about our faith. It’s definitely true that throughout the historical life of the Church (that’s capital “C” Church, as in the Church universal), there have been lots of times when having faith … keeping faith … sharing faith … teaching faith … practicing faith as a Christian was risky. It could get you shunned. It could get you imprisoned. It could even get you killed.
    • Definitely true for the early church → church as it was developing in the 1st following Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension
      • Majority of Christ’s original 12 disciples ended up martyred for their faith in some way
      • Much of the writing of the NT – by Paul, especially, but also by others – speaks to keeping and nurturing and persevering in faith despite adversity and persecution
  • Today’s passage from Hebrews = just such a passage
    • Hebrews = a bit of a nebulous book in the NT
      • One of the many letters/epistles – nebulous in both its authorship and its intended audience → not exactly sure who wrote it or who it was written to[3]
        • Long considered one of Paul’s letters, but scholars today mostly agree that it’s too different from Paul’s other writings in content, in form, and in writing style for it to actually be written by Paul BUT not consensus as to who actually did write it
        • Earliest fragment we have of this manuscript (dating from early 3rd BCE) includes a heading “To Hebrews” without really indicating who or where those general “Hebrews” might be → clear from the content of the letter itself that whatever community of “Hebrews” is receiving this letter is a community in turmoil
          • Speaks reassuringly of who Jesus was as both a human and as the Son of the Most High God
          • Speaks of completeness – the all-encompassing nature of salvation in Christ = Christ’s “once-for-all sacrifice”
          • Speaks of hope and perseverance and encouragement in faith, even in the face of difficult, painful, challenging circumstances
    • Beginning of today’s passage: But remember the earlier days, after you saw the light. You stood your ground while you were suffering from an enormous amount of pressure. Sometimes you were exposed to insults and abuse in public. Other times you became partners with those who were treated that way. You even showed sympathy toward people in prison and accepted the confiscation of your possessions with joy, since you knew that you had better and lasting possessions.[4] → Clearly the Hebrews have faced some sort of adversity in the practice and outward display of their faith, enough to cause them public humiliation, abuse, and “the confiscation of [their] possessions.”
    • Letter provides encouragement in the face of those injustices – text: But we aren’t the sort of people who timidly draw back and end up being destroyed. We’re the sort of people who have faith so that our whole beings are preserved. Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.[5]
  • Same encouragement that our Deut passage has provided for people of Israel for centuries
    • First verse = “the Shema”: She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad → “Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!”[6]
      • Prayer that is used as the centerpiece for both morning and evening prayers in the Jewish faith
      • Prayer that is traditionally affixed somewhere on the doorpost of a Jewish home → fulfills the rest of the Deut passage: These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. … Write them on your house’s doorposts and on your city’s gates.[7]
    • Part of what was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai when he was also given the 10 commandments
      • Given on the heels of escaping not only slavery in Egypt but also Pharaoh’s attempt to retrieve the Hebrew people (thwarted by God at the Red Sea)
      • Given in the face of pure and unimaginable uncertainty → God said, “I will take you out of Egypt and lead you to the promised land,” but God didn’t give them a map. God didn’t give them GPS coordinates. God didn’t give them photographic proof that said “promised land” actually existed. They were literally walking on faith and faith alone.
    • Makes these words even more reassuring
      • Reassurance in the power and perseverance of faith
      • Reassurance in the validity and importance of faith → It’s God saying, “These words that I’m giving you – ‘Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being and all your strength’ – these words are so important that you should keep them with you always. Remember them. Recite them. Teach them. Even wear them on your arm and display them on your homes and on your cities. They will remind you of your faith. They will remind you of me.”
    • Song: Hand in my hand and we promised to never let go / We’re walking the tightrope / High in the sky / We can see the whole world down below / We’re walking the tightrope / Never sure, never know how far we could fall / But it’s all an adventure / That comes with a breathtaking view / Walking the tightrope / With you
  • You know, it’s those last two words – of the chorus and even of the whole song itself – that are the most crucial: With you. → reminder that even on this crazy, uncertain, adventurous ride of life and faith, we’re not walking alone
    • Walking it with greater community of faith → brothers and sisters in this room and around the world
    • Walking it with God: Hand in my hand and you promised to never let go → text: Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.
    • Cannot read these words or preach this message this morning without seeing the images that have filled all the news outlets in the last weeks and months, friends → images from the border
      • Families torn apart
      • People, including children of all ages, detained for days and weeks and months in cells that are horrifically overcrowded and woefully lacking in basic amenities like drinkable water and a working toilet
      • Piles and piles of rosaries confiscated from detainees for God-knows-what reason
      • Sometimes the uncomfortable, uncertain, far from “simple and planned” part of faith is speaking up in the face of injustice, and what is currently happening to those who have taken their own terrifying, life-altering leap of faith in seeking legal asylum in this country is indeed an injustice.
        • In the words of our NT reading:
          • Experiencing suffering
          • Experiencing an enormous amount of pressure
          • Experiencing insults and public abuse
          • Experiencing the confiscation of their property
    • Quote from Nelson Mandela: “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”
    • Text put it another way: We aren’t the sort of people who timidly draw back and end up being destroyed. We’re the sort of people who have faith so that our whole beings are preserved. → When God calls us out into uncomfortable space, what kind of people will we be? What risks are we willing to take – for our faith, for the sake of our brothers and sisters, for our God? Will we timidly draw back, or will we have faith? Amen.

 

[1] “Tightrope” written by Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Sony/ATV Music.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/biography/P-T-Barnum.

[3] 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), 6-8.

[4] Heb 10:32-34.

[5] Heb 10:39-11:1.

[6] Deut 6:4.

[7] Deut 6:6, 9.