Monthly Archives: July 2017

07-30-17 DISCOVERING OUR STRENGTH IN GOD

DISCOVERING OUR STRENGTH IN GOD

1 Samuel 16: 1-12; Luke 2: 41-52

 

What a week we had! What a week we had discovering our strength in God! From the very smallest to the very tallest; from the very youngest to the very oldest; from the very timid to the very bold, we learned that God can use all of us! God can use you, in the place you are today too! And we learned that sometimes the people we would select as a leader is not the one that God would select! Here are some of the qualities of God heroes.

 

Heroes, as we discovered, are ordinary people who do the right thing at the right times. And they are ones, when God asks, “Whom shall I Send?” who say:  “Here I am, Lord!” For example, on Monday we looked in on an anointing ceremony in First Samuel 16! Often when people run for office, or people choose teams for dodge ball, or people try to choose special friend, their first choice might be the pretty one, or the handsome one, or the strong one, or the talented one. But if they want to choose the way God chooses, they have to see what those persons are like on the inside instead. Are they honest, or do they always blame other people or circumstances when they do something wrong? Are they helpful, thinking about others and not just about themselves? And are they open to being led by God?  In the story of Cinderella, the prince was looking for the woman who won his heart at a ball. He sent footmen to bring the glass slipper that she accidentally left behind to try on the foot of every maiden in the kingdom. When they came to the house where Cinderella lived, her stepmother only introduced them to her own daughters, never imagining that the prince’s love could be for a woman in rags. But she was the one he loved. Likewise in First Samuel this Samuel first thought, as he looked at tall, rugged, Eliab: “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel “Do not look on his appearance or his height, because I have rejected him, … the Lord looks on the heart.”  Jesse presented all his sons to Samuel, except one. Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?”  Jesse said, “Just the youngest is left, but he is out tending the sheep.” “Send for him” Samuel said. And when the young shepherd boy, named David, came in, the Lord said to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him, for he is the one.”  God had big plans for David, who was but a boy at the time.  Boys and girls: God may be planning something amazing for your life if you listen to the messages you may get from dreams, from reading your Bibles, from teachers, parents, or grandparents! And adults: you still have the chance to live your life for the Lord! God used men like the Apostles and wonderful followers like Joanna, Mary Magdalene, and Abigail! And God even had fantastic plans for Abraham and Sarah in their old age! We also actually learned a good deal about Abigail this week! I had hardly heard of her until VBS; what a wonderful treasure trove we find in the Old Testament! In 1 Samuel 25, Abigail had a husband named Nabal. Do you know what his name means? Fool! The Bible even says his name meant “fool!” So the Bible highlights his wife Abigail instead. She was strong, according to verse 18; she was humble, and she accepted responsibility instead of blaming others according to verse 24. And she was courageous! Even David said to her, in verse 32 “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! Blessed for your good sense, and blessed be you who have kept me from avenging myself by my own hand!” Abigail, buried in the pages of Scripture, was one of God’s chosen ones!

 

How wonderful it was to learn the backstory about Bethlehem before Jesus made it famous! We learned how important Bethlehem was even before Jesus’ birth, because Jesse was from Bethlehem, and his son was David! As Jesus grows up, he and his parents, Mary And Joseph, went to Jerusalem for a festival called Passover. We learned that the Bible says almost nothing about Jesus as a boy, except when he was twelve. At that age, according to Luke 2, Jesus was with his parents and at some point he got separated from them. We learned that some boys and girls are smart at an early age; and some boys and girls love God from an early age. But Jesus was exceptional! While he was there, he began talking to the elders and scribes in the Temple, learning from them and teaching them! Imagine, a young person teaching grown ups! But it happens all the time! The adults, children, and youth all taught one another this week! We need one another!

 

Once Jesus grew up, he taught lots of people, especially around the Sea of Galilee. We learned of one time when he had such a crowd around him that he went up on a hillside to be able to see and talk to the crowd that had gathered. In our storytelling room, we had to tape a line on the carpet and tell the children not to cross it, otherwise they would have crowded onto my feet or into my lap! A little personal space is good when teaching. Jesus, we found out, had one of his most important teaching assignments, called the Beatitudes, and he wanted to share it without the distraction of a pushing crowd. He told them how they could be happy, or blessed. Most people like happiness, and most wonder what the secret is to feeling blessed. Jesus told them, and us, about it in Matthew 5! If you are poor in spirit, you will be part of God’s kingdom, not to worry! And if you are very sad about a death of someone special, God will comfort you. If you seek to do the right things instead of the wrong things, Jesus will guide you! If you are merciful, showing amazing grace instead of unwavering judgment, you too will be treated mercifully!  And one teaching most important to the Bible School- those who are pure in heart get to see God! Wow! If you make peace instead of starting fights, God says, “You are my beloved child.” Goodness! Such wonderful words of life give Jesus followers hope!

 

Finally, we learned what power we can have when we ask for it. God’s Holy Spirit, one time on a day called Pentecost, gave the disciples power to hear and to understand one another! Then the Holy Spirit sent them out to lands where most had never gone before, to preach the gospel, and to baptize those ready to accept Jesus as Savior! They were thinking they might be baptizing twenty, or twenty-five. But wonder of wonders: they ended up baptizing three-thousand people!! Three thousand! Can you imagine! It was the start of the church as we know it! And we learned, God’s heroes have Heart! Courage! Wisdom! Hope! And Power! Let’s save the world, heroes, by introducing others to the words of Jesus by inviting them to our churches, and by being a good example!  We have a world that needs change, the kind that God can give!  Together, we can be his disciples! And Jesus is counting on us! As the words of Psalm 34 taught us all week:

“Do good! Seek peace! And go after it!”

 

Praise the Lord!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          July 30, 2017

07-23-17 SINISTER SEEDLINGS

SINISTER SEEDLINGS

Matthew 13: 24-30; 36-43

 

In her short blog called “The Blame Game,” Sarak Zadok wrote this:

 

Taking responsibility for things isn’t always my forte. There are

definitely times when I can be very “adult-like” and pull off an impressive measure of self-introspection and responsibility. But there are plenty of times when I throw my hands up, with the deportment of an outraged child, ready to shift the blame to someone else.

Yesterday morning was a prime example and my husband was on the receiving end… Poor guy. I had to be at a doctor’s appointment at 8:30, but we pressed “snooze” on the alarm clock one too many times and all got up late. We rushed around trying to get kids fed, adults caffeinated, lunches made, hair done, teeth brushed, sandals found and backpacks packed… the usual morning madness, just way short on time. By the time we got everyone strapped in their car seats and delivered to their classrooms, we were pushing 8:20 and I still had to drop off my husband and get to my appointment. By the time the last kid was dropped off, the stress of the morning reached its crescendo, and I proceeded to lay down my royal flush of emotional cards in my epic battle to win the “blame game” with my husband.

“Why didn’t you set the alarm to go off earlier?…You know I hate being late…Why is it always my job to pack the lunches?…You should be way more supportive!” By the time I screeched up to his office building, my poor husband had been exposed to enough verbal toxins to destroy a whole layer of ozone. But I sped away in a tizzy, feeling completely justified in my attack.

It wasn’t until after my appointment (which I made with time to spare) that I started to feel like perhaps I had overdone it in the “my-husband-is-to-blame-for-everything” department. I started to feel really badly for behaving so childish and awful. So, I called his office and left an urgent message with his secretary. I told her to tell him The matter rests entirely with me, the responsibility is all mine.”

 

From the beginning of time there has been blame assigned. When Adam is asked by God: “Who told you that you were naked?” The man gave this evasive answer: “The woman, who you gave me as a companion, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate it.” Not really a straight answer to the Almighty! So God turned to the woman and asked, “What is this that you’ve done? And she said, perhaps hanging her head or pointing her finger, “The serpent tricked me into eating it.” Some of you will remember the “Flip Wilson Show” from the 1970s where Flip dressed up as a smart-mouthed black southern woman who he called Geraldine Jones. She had a boyfriend she called “Killer,” but she is most remembered for blaming the devil for every tempting thing she did. “The devil made me by this dress!” Flip said it in his best Geraldine voice!

 

It might seem strange to follow this trail to illustrate our Matthew passage today, but it fits.  I even played with the blame issue with the sermon title “Sinister Seedlings!” How can a seedling be sinister? Yet we blame inanimate objects all the time.  A little boy trips and falls. He cries and his mommy asks, “What happened?” And the boy says, “The floor tripped me!” “Oh, said mommy.” “Not nice, floor!” And so it goes.

In this story about planted seeds we have more than an agricultural story. Jesus had an audience that likely included landowners and managers; field workers and field owners, and others who knew little about field work. But each likely had their conversations in their heads to save themselves from responsibility.  Like the guide I once had on a tour whose name was John. “If you loved your tour, thank you. My name is John. If you didn’t like your tour, this is Bill signing off!”  I am so glad we are gaining more security cameras on buildings, on squad cars, and around city blocks. I have a growning lack of faith in ordinary people—white color or blue collar—to be counted on to take responsibility for things they caused.  As we have learned, a man or a woman might swear—literally—that they are not responsible for a car crash. Then a camera shows them what happened and they have to own up to it. They may swear they did not have alcohol, but blood tests show differently. They may swear they were not texting but a record from their phone shows differently. With so many people lying every time they open their mouth, blame is a problem as old as the Bible. The babysitter may say she was not rough with your child that she is watching, but the nanny-cam may give a different story. This is one of the biggest ethical issues of our day- taking responsibility instead of assigning blame.  Here’s how Jesus deals with it.

 

“The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, then went away.” That statement is loaded with innuendo. Told from the landowner’s point of view, the seed he provided was good. It is not his fault if weeds grow in the wheat. Who is this enemy? Is it the birds that fly overhead and drop seeds? Were weeds already in the earth when the wheat was planted? Was it the devil that did it? Was it a neighbor who was jealous of this neighbor’s good crops? From each perspective, suspicion might be raised about “varmints,” or about a dishonest or unwitting man who sold the seeds as clean. Those who have gardens know that keeping animals and insects from eating the crops makes a gardener on guard against animals, thieves, or adversaries. Just before your vegetables are ready to be picked, it can be maddening to have them stolen by means of a human thief. It can be just as frustrating to have them destroyed by insects or animals.

 

In the part of the story in which blame is less of an issue and solutions start to be offered, the workers ask the master if he gave them good seeds; and if he did give them good seeds, then where did the weeds come from? The master declared, “An enemy has done this.” So the workers, perhaps timidly or frightfully, offer to do something about it. “Do you want us to go out and pull the weeds?” “No,” replied the master, “for in gathering weeds you will likely pull up wheat too.”  I remember when I was young that my grandparents had to teach me what was a weed and what was a flower; I thought they were all pretty! But in this case, more information will help us, because if you’re like me, you believe you’d know the difference between the crops you want and the weeds you don’t. But Benedictine Sister Barbara Reid explains how hard it was to tell weeds from wheat:  “Commentators identify the weed [in Jesus’ story] as darnel, a poisonous weed that is common in Palestine. It closely resembles wheat in the early stages, though an experienced farmer can distinguish the two by the width of the leaves.” [Parables for Preachers, Year A, The Liturgical Press, 2001, pp. 95-96.]

He wasn’t any more sure that his workers could truly tell one from the other, than any of us easily tell good people from evil people on first glance. The landowner says to let them grow together and at the harvest we’ll separate them.  At the harvest, we’ll separate them. The Bible lists a time of separating: sheep from goats; wheat from weeds; good from evil. It generally is at the end of our life, sometimes depicted as judgment day or “the harvest.”  This story, among others, says to people who have the ears to hear: “There is good and evil in the world; there are also good people and evil people in the world. Sometimes, and we see this all too often, in trying to root out a criminal, or as a police officer chases a criminal at a high speed, or as a military commander tries to kill “enemies,” innocent people may also die. They call such regretful occurrences “collateral damage.” That is the choice a landowner makes, a Commander makes, a police officer makes, or a storeowner in the pursuit of crimnals. Last week I saw a report that the Iraqis, with the help of U.S. forces, Have taken back Mosel from the hands of ISIS. The reporter said the town looked carpet bombed, but the military leaders insisted it was done through precision strikes.  The defeat of such terrorists comes at the cost of leaving innocent people shell-shocked, maimed, or dead. And the infrastructure of a major city the size of Philadelphia was reduced to rubble. Rooting out the weeds from the wheat can be a difficult and costly venture. Before Jesus, the rule of life was an eye for an eye. What Jesus taught was if a person hits one cheek, turn the other one too. This farmer decided to let the weeds, which grew for some reason, remain in the growing cycle along with the wheat. We, in turn, know that evil is not easy to snuff out in our fields or in our world. Evil might be transformed through Christian workers in the fields like you or me; or the evil ones will be left to the sickle of the harvester. Planning for intruders or mischief can give more peace than a vigilantly watching one’s belongings day and night. Many become angry, hateful, and obsessive in such situations, and choose may take actions with judicial consequences that they could later regret.  There are better ways to deal with evil than blame, or reactive destruction, and simmering hated. Jesus was talking to landowners and workers, homemakers and disabled, well-to-do persons and those who were poor, and today he’s doing the same to those in sanctuaries and homes across the globe reading his gospel words again. For those who have ears, let them hear. Jesus calls on everyone one to help him change the world, starting with their own actions and choices.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 23, 2017

 

07-16-17 PLANTING GOSPEL SEEDS

PLANTING GOSPEL SEEDS
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

My premise today is that most of us, at one time or another, have had gospel seeds planted in our souls. I know of several people who still come up to me quoting a sermon I offered years ago, and that changed their life. Gospel seeds were planted. In my case, the pastor who baptized me also presided at my Ordination and at our wedding. He planted Gospel seeds with his good counsel. Can you think of a preacher who planted Gospel seeds in you, whether a TV preacher or one in your church pulpit week after week? Others like youth pastors and leaders plant gospels seeds too. If you heard the testimonies of our missionaries who came back from Ashville, North Carolina in June, you heard Gospel testimonies being preached. Our daughter Jenny heard Gospel seeds all her life, but she said youth retreats and summer camps gave her some of the most transformational times that she both received and shared with youth. Can you think back to a summer camp where leaders, or singers with a guitar, or other campers not only changed your life for the better, but changed the trajectory of your life? We have camp scholarships to help young people take advantage of such summer experiences. Starting in a week, we will hold Vacation Bible School again. We put money, sweat, and time, into one week a year because we hope to plant some Gospel seeds in the souls of our children and the children who come from all over. Next week we’ll have children from as far away as Deland, and even Douglasville Georgia who will be hearing the gospel stories, seeing them acted out, and learning faith songs. Who knows where those seeds will spread if participants go home and tell others what they have learned? And you might have noticed I sing in our choir. I joined my church choir when I was in second grade. Gospel seeds from the hearts of hymn and anthem writers largely have shaped my theology. Choir has given me a sense of belonging through all my years, and a sense of contributing my gifts.
If you are not a Christian, you may not have had Gospel seeds planted in you yet; or perhaps they are there and just need to be watered! Today we hope to tend the soil of your soul with the message, music, hospitality, and good examples of disciples. If you are a Christian, I hope you are thinking back to the time, or times, when something, or someone, introduced you to Jesus; or people who encouraged you to take the next steps, like taking Disciple classes of helping in missions. Some have big changes in their lives when they learn about Jesus, like those who’ve attended a Billy Graham Crusade. But others, like Cara, grew up knowing Jesus since both of her parents are pastors. She went to seminary thinking that she would go on to get a PhD for teaching and studying comparative religions. But on her way to her goal, her presbytery required her to have field education experiences in churches. It was in her field ed. experiences, that she thought were just requirement hoops to jump through, that she was led to see pastoral ministry as her calling. Likewise with our daughter Jenny who planned to be a youth leader, she was required by our presbytery to do one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. She chose a hospital setting. And her Gospel seeds grew so that she is now Chaplain and Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at Tampa General Hospital. God is always planting seeds. We are asked to be the sower of seeds. Why don’t they all grow?

That’s where Jesus’ story comes into play. It is not just a story about farming. Jesus, as a storyteller, used what was around him. I imagine that before he started giving this visual lesson, he saw a farmer planting seeds, and he used that illustration to teach his lesson. Unless farmers plant seeds one by one, they cast their seeds called sowing. It is too time consuming to get on one’s knees to plant every seed in the perfect soil. So some seeds fall on the path, the place where the farmer or others walk. It is packed-down earth, and seeds can’t take root there. But birds find them and have a feast. Those seeds produce no good fruit. Other seeds actually fall on rocky places. Again, they cannot take root. Can you imagine the sun baking seeds that have fallen on a driveway or a parking lot, in Florida, or on a stone a stone path in Israel? Israel is about on the same latitude as Florida and it gets hot! Seeds would not stand a chance of surviving. And yes, some flowers I’ve planted around my house have had weeds grow around them. Have you experienced that? Weeds just keep coming back! The man who maintains our church lawn says the unwanted things that grow are often called invasive; they just keep growing back and choking the plants we want to grow! They are persistent and he says some are nearly impossible to kill. Kind of like the devil. The devil wants to get around the tender Gospel seeds God plants in your soul and he wants to choke them; or he wants to take over your soul and make those seeds die. Don’t let that happen! Water any Gospel seeds, whether they were planted by sermons, or music, or mission trips or youth groups, or Sunday School teachers or by unexpected tasks you are asked to do. Being here today will strengthen and nurture the Gospel seeds in you. Helping feed hungry people at Halifax Urban Ministries can do it. Planting new seeds in children at VBS can do it. Or going into the world always thinking “What would Jesus Do?” and then trying to model good behavior can do it. The devil can kill Gospel seeds by making you apathetic, or complacent, or by neglectful. Gardens can die from the same lack of care. Tend your Gospel gardens! Marriages die with being tended; bodies deteriorate without proper exercise and diet. Minds turn to mush without stimulation. Be sure you are not turning your soul over to the devil to tend your Gospel garden, or that garden will surely wither and die. Evil, like a cancer, thrives on death. Cancer cries “victory” when life is extinguished! Do not let your soul get into that precarious position! Pray! Live with purpose! And join me in always spreading Gospel seeds.

So we get to the crux of Jesus’ message: “Some seeds fell on good soil, and brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, and some thirty.” That’s why we do what we do! That why we can never stop being those good farmers for Christ who are sowing seeds with actions and words! Who knows who sowed the seed of the gospel that grew in the souls of Mother Theresa, or Martin Luther, or Teresa of Avila, or Francis of Assisi? What we do know is that Jesus has left this work up to his disciples: I am one of them; are you? If we don’t keep spreading the gospel seeds, who will carry the torch into the future? On the walls of our fellowship hall are the faces of 129 young people who, over the years, accepted Jesus as their Savior in one of our Confirmation Classes. With many of them, the seeds of the Gospel are growing wherever their high school, college, single, or married life has taken them. Imagine where the Gospel is going! How important this work is!

One final note: as we traveled through Ireland last month, and as I’ve traveled through Europe, I was dismayed to see many beautiful church buildings turned into tourist attractions rather than housing large, active congregations training new disciples! We let secularism, apathy, or complacency kill the Gospel seeds in our souls to our own peril! Jesus taught it! It is still being taught! And Christian farmers—called disciples—are still needed in the fields of the world. Keep spreading the Gospel. And remember: many people have preached the gospel better with their life than with their lips! Both are effective. Let us go into the fields, plant seeds, and bring in the sheaves.

Jeffrey A. Sumner July 16, 2017

07-09-17 AN EASY YOKE

Let’s talk about yokes. Now, if we know this word, we tend to associate it with the more modern usage of the device or collar that oxen or horses or other beasts of burden use to help pull heavy loads. And I know I have heard several sermons that use it in just this way.

 

But there is a usage that would have been more common for Jesus’ first listers.

 

One of the main jobs of a rabbi was interpretation of the scriptures. They would help people to understand what God was saying to them in a particular scripture. For example, the command “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” How do we remember the Sabbath? By resting like God did. But who defines rest?

 

One rabbi would say you can walk no farther than this many steps or you would violate the Sabbath. Another rabbi might say you could walk farther, but you could not pick up something over a certain weight.  Different rabbis had different sets of rules, different things that they forbade or permitted based on how they interpreted scripture.

 

As Rob Bell puts it: “A rabbi’s set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi’s interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called that rabbi’s yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that rabbi’s set of interpretations were the closest to what God intended through the Scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke.”

 

So when our scriptures say “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” what Jesus is offering is to allow everyone who hears him to follow and study his teachings. Normally, rabbi’s only take the very best of the best scholars to be their students. But here comes Jesus, offering his teachings to everyone. Anyone who is weary or burdened can come and be one of his disciples. And who hasn’t had days of weariness?

 

Jesus’ teaching, his way of discipleship, is not burdensome but life-giving. He teaches us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbors as ourselves. He shows us how to be merciful, loving and kind. He invites the weary to learn from him, for he is not a tyrant who lords it over his disciples, but is “gentle and humble in heart.” His yoke is easy, which can be better translated as “good” or “useful.” To take his yoke upon oneself is to follow the teachings of  the one in whom God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion is breaking into this world, and to find the rest for which the soul longs.

 

He promises that once we follow his teachings, once we begin to live the life he demonstrates, we will find true rest for our souls. That vague, unsettled feeling that so many of us go from day to day trying to ignore will go away. We won’t wonder what we are doing with our lives, or worry what sort of impact we will have in the world. Our souls will find peace, because they will be doing what we have always been called to do.  

 

Now, when rabbis taught their students, they often would question them, trying to find out how well they understood the yoke of their rabbi. If a student didn’t quite understand what a rabbi meant the rabbi would say, “You’ve abolished the Torah.” The rabbi meant that they were nowhere near what God had intended the scripture to mean. On the other hand, if the student got what the rabbi was trying to say, the rabbi’s response would be “You’ve fulfilled the Torah.” You get what God is trying to say with this text.

 

So when Jesus first preached that He was there to “fulfill the law, not to abolish it,” the Jewish listeners heard a whole different thing than we do. He was basically saying: I understand all this better than anyone. Most rabbis were teaching the yoke of some other well-respected rabbi, but Jesus wasn’t. He was teaching a whole new yoke. It was rare that anyone would have the guts to say, “My interpretation is new and it’s better than anybody else who came before me.” And yet, here comes Jesus, giving a new way of reading everything.

 

Jesus was not so much criticizing the law itself, but the scribes who load people down with burdens hard to bear. You see, at that time, many of the yokes involved very closely following many series of rules and laws exactly. It was only by getting every tiny thing right, that one would be right with God. Many times the number or rules were downright impractical for the average person trying to make a living. So “You who labor and are carrying heavy burdens” can refer to those who have lost the spirit of the law in the letter. Jesus was speaking to everyone who believed that adherence to a multitude of precepts and commandments constitutes righteousness.

 

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, words the end of this passage like this: “ Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

 

Examining ourselves in light of the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, points us to our desperate need for grace. Jesus exhorted his listeners to examine their hearts, their attitudes, as well as their actions. He challenged his listeners to bring outward practice and inner reality into alignment. Doing all of the rituals doesn’t mean anything if you don’t mean it in your heart. This again directed his most attentive listeners toward grace, not more careful legalism.

 

The intent of a rabbi having a yoke wasn’t just to interpret the words of scripture correctly; it was to live them out. In the Jewish context, belief and action go hand in hand. Belief without action doesn’t help anyone.

 

When Jesus says, “learn from me,” he is calling us not just to read further in the Gospel or to mull over theological ideas but to incarnate for ourselves the virtues demanded by his speech and exhibited in his actions. One learns of Jesus by doing, by adopting his spirit and living his imperatives. The truth of our Christian faith is in the living.

 

No matter how much time we spend interpreting the yoke of Jesus’, we then have to go out and live it. To be his disciples, to take his yoke, to find our rest, we have to follow those teachings in our lives. Learning about how we should feed the hungry, welcome the outcast, visit the sick and the prisoner and shelter those who need it, is only the beginning. We then have to go and actually do it.

 

It is only through truly loving God and loving our neighbors that we will find that rest that our Lord offers us here. It is only after caring for those who need it that we really lay our burdens down. When we truly following Jesus’ teachings, when we truly care for others as ourselves, we find that our souls find the rest that they so desperately need.

 

So take your Lord’s yoke upon you. Learn his teachings and live the life he demonstrated. And you will find rest for your souls. Amen.

 

 

07-02-17 SACRIFICE

I want to turn our attention to the Old Testament passage this morning. It’s hard to read this text without flinching if you are paying attention. I mean, God is asking Abraham to kill his only son. And Abraham goes right along with it, taking his son up to the high place to offer him as a sacrifice. We can only guess as to what Isaac’s response was to being tied on the bier and his father brandishing a knife over his head.

 

This is one of those passages we would rather forget about. Theologian Phyllis Tribble has referred to biblical passages such as this as “texts of terror.” The texts that we absolutely do not use to try to bring people to God. Indeed, texts such as the “binding of Isaac” as this is known are often used by atheists to prove why this is a God we should not worship. It is a difficult text on every level, and yet, it’s there. And we cannot ignore it.

 

Because, the point of this story is not to make people want to believe in God, but instead, this harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything they have ever received at God’s hand. The point of this difficult text is not to draw people into faith but rather to help people who are already in to stay in relationship with God, even when their world turns upside down.

 

And the fact that this story appears front and center in Genesis, where no reader of the Bible can miss it, is because the hard truth is that the world turns upside down for the faithful more often than we like to admit. The test results come back positive. There is a round of layoffs. A hurricane hits. There was a fire. The lie is uncovered.

 

This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. Sometimes things seem so bad that it seems like the only logical response. Except.

 

Except you can’t. Because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind.

 

To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith. During the really dark and awful moments, deep faith gets deeper. We grow closer to God as we cling to God, knowing that God will see us through.

 

That is what Abraham does. Without comprehension, nearly blinded by the horror of what he was told to do, Abraham follows God’s lead, for the simple and sufficient reason that it is God who is leading. To what end, Abraham has no idea.

 

Now, it is quite common for theologians and pastors to hold up Abraham as a model of unquestioning obedience to God, but I think this is misleading, and even damaging to Abraham’s character. After all, obedience is a virtue only if it serves a just cause. Obedience in service of an unjust cause is dangerous, cowardly, even criminal. That we learned definitively from Nuremberg and other atrocities that have been done by good people following bad orders. If it is purely out of obedience that Abraham submits to God’s command, then his willingness to submit is monstrous.

 

But there is another option.

 

What if Abraham follows God’s command, not out of obedience, but out of faith — which is to say, what if Abraham trusts God, even now, when what God asks of him seems to run counter to everything God has promised?

After all this is Abraham here! Abraham whose greatest hits include arguing God down on the number of righteous people that had to be found in order to save a city. Abraham who not once, but twice pretended Sarah was his sister so rulers could take her as a concubine and not kill him to get her. Abraham who thought God was taking too long and set about being the father of nations with his wife’s handmaid instead. He argues and begs and sidesteps everything, but the order to sacrifice his son? How on earth could his character have changed so drastically?

 

It didn’t, because it isn’t obedience that moves Abraham forward to that mountain.  Abraham trusts God.  He tells Isaac God will provide when questioned about the lack of everything. Despite everything, despite reason or evidence, Abraham trusts God when God asks him to sacrifice his son.

 

Abraham is confronted with a real dilemma of trust. Like the long-suffering Job, here we see a righteous, faithful person who now is threatened with losing all and is still called to believe that God is the one who provides. It makes little sense. And yet three times in this story, twice in response to God and once in response to Isaac, when called, Abraham immediately responds, “Here I am!”

 

I think for Abraham, the story comes down to the question “Will God keep his promise?” Because God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations through Isaac, which can’t happen if Abraham kills him here. And so Abraham trusts that God will provide.

 

The scriptures are full of people in the exact same struggle with God. Job complained, Abraham negotiated, Jacob wrestled, Jesus pleaded. But in the end each one dared to trust, dared to believe that God could indeed be counted on to provide, especially when all seemed most hopeless.

 

That’s  a  question  with  which  we still  struggle.  We may  not  go through something  exactly like Abraham did, but we know what it’s like to ask the question. We’ve all had those times when we’ve wondered why something happened and how or where God was  present  in  the  circumstances  before  us.  Someone  we  love  dies  terribly  or unexpectedly or too young. We find ourselves facing a difficult situation or decision. We lose a job and can’t find another. Our health fails and our spirit goes with it. A relationship breaks beyond repair. Daily tasks threaten to overwhelm us. The future before us is uncertain  and  not  what  we  planned.  Bombings,  war,  poverty,  acts  of  terror and violence cause us to wonder how evil can be so strong if God is so good.

 

But the promise God offers us has never been a lack of struggle. Ours may be a resurrection hope, but this doesn’t mean that we won’t first face Gethsemane and the cross. The promise instead is that we will not be alone as we go forward into that darkness.

 

“God will provide.” So let us be prepared to sacrifice our cleverness, our ability to get out of things, and most of all our naïve wishful thinking that somehow we are immune to the struggles and pain that faced the countless faithful who came before us. Let us instead dare to trust that God will indeed provide – not necessarily a way out, but always a way through.