Monday, August 29, 2016

Angels in Disguise

Hebrews 13: 1-8
If you remember, last week we left off with the image “Our God is a consuming fire.” In fact those are the final words of chapter 12.  And then it’s like a 360.  There is an abrupt tonal change as the 13th and final chapter of Hebrews begins.  So let’s hear this morning’s scripture and unpack it in a minute.

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
This passage contains a familiar verse and when I hear it, it reminds me of a beautiful icon painted by the 14th century Russian Iconographer, Andrei Rublev.  The verse is “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  The icon shows three gold-winged figures seated around a white table on which a golden bowl contains a roasted lamb.  The figures are visitors who have stopped by Abraham and Sarah’s camp by the Oaks of Mamre as recorded in Genesis 18.  He serves them a meal and as the conversion takes place Abraham seems to be talking to God.  This icon has also been used as a way to understand the Trinity in Christological terms. 

It is mutual love and hospitality at its very best, one serving the other without prejudice or judgment.  

Whatever the interpretation of the icon there is something compelling about visualizing three strangers who visit your tent seeking food and refuge and by your generous hospitality they are satiated and safe from the elements.  In return it is revealed that they are indeed angels in disguise, messengers from God or rather, God’s presence.  We will get back to hospitality and mutual love in a minute after we look at the passage in its entirety. So hold that image in the back of your head.

This chapter is the summation of the Book of Hebrews and as I mentioned in previous weeks, the book addresses the issues of a new Christian community that is in danger of falling away from their faith.  It was a tough environment for them, Christianity had not taken deep roots yet and it was a counter-cultural movement.  So the author leaves a set of instructions to help them in their faith journey and life as Christ-followers.

These instructions are pretty heady.  They include a call to love your brothers and your sisters in Christ, treat one another with mutuality, sort of like family members, to foster supportive relationships.  And they are to go out and love the stranger; not stay behind closed doors and become an insular little group. 

They have some responsibilities like remembering those who are in prison and those who are mistreated; marriage should be honored and undefiled meaning that there should be no deceit, cheating or betrayal between marital partners. 

The author goes on to say that a place should exist in their lives for contentment acknowledging that what they have really is sufficient for their living.  More and more and more does not make for a more happy person.  It just means that person has a lot of stuff.  And they are to remember their leaders, especially Jesus Christ because he is perfector of faith. 

Then comes the glorious promise of God, that God will never leave them, God will never forsake them but will always be the one who protects and guards them through life. 

And finally what seems like a departure, because the lectionary skips a few verses, there is praise for God and one last gentle reminder to do good and share what you have.  All in all the Book of Hebrews has some very beautiful and often quoted passages.  So we will look at today the notion of angels in disguise from the passage: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

We currently live in a political environment that is not particularly hospitable to strangers or aliens, or at the very least the threat of the ‘other’.  It is couched in political mumbo jumbo and fostered with fear. “Stranger danger”, that concept we teach our young, is alive and well in many adults creating suspicion, mistrust and apprehension of some very good people looking for a chance to better their lives.   This is not what Hebrews has in mind.  We are not to fear the other, the stranger, the alien we are to open our ‘tent flaps’, our doors wide open and welcome the stranger into our sacred space without fear or trepidation.

This passage offers us a different view or at the very least a reminder that there will always be strangers among us, there will be people coming to our doors and it is up to us to entertain them.  But it goes much deeper than simply handing a cup of coffee to them.  It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a stranger in a new place.  We come here each week. 

In fact some of you have grown up in this church.  You know that there are three ways to trot off to coffee hour, you know that we have five bathrooms, two male, two female and one gender-neutral and you know where they are, you know where the Turkey Pen is, the PF room, and the Katherine Knight Room, you know the little door to get into the organ pipe chamber.  But someone here for the first couple of visits has no clue where anything is here much less how to understand our particular culture.  And so as Hebrews notes we must entertain them.  We must offer hospitality to them; but there is a big difference between entertaining and offering hospitality.

Entertaining is to bring out the china and crystal, put on the lace tablecloths, make a gourmet three course meal and be sure that the dog isn’t under foot and the kids have been fed and are upstairs watching TV.  Right?  It is to put on our best dress so that all looks picture perfect.

Hospitality is much different. Hospitality is just not an admirable social skill that Martha Stewart would be proud of; it is an essential sign of our faith.  In offering hospitality we share our place, our tent, making use of what is available to us knowing that there will be plenty for all.  It is inviting people into your life to have a meal of leftovers on paper plates, sharing whatever you have and being thankful.   And liking it not simply doing it because their here.

Or, we can create new places to accommodate these folks coming to our door.  That’s what hospitality is, it’s accommodating, acceptance and mutual love, the kind that God is calling us to, and it’s humbling.  When we open ourselves to others it gets a bit messy because we show others who we are as a faithful group of everyday folks struggling to get by in a crazy world.  But that’s OK.  This is where we find our common roots. 

And when we do that we have invited God’s presence into our lives.  That’s what this verse is all about.  Being open, loving and hospitable to each person we encounter invites God right in.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

These messengers of God are among the greatest of these and especially among the least of these, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the poor and the poor in spirit.  And they are around us.  There is a movie entitled, Entertaining Angels, about Dorothy Day, the woman who began the Catholic Workers Movement in the 1930.  It details her life and how she became the force along with Peter Maurin for that movement.   She championed justice and charity for the poor, hungry people of New York City.  Her belief was that all men (sic) are brothers.  And she saw the Christ within them.
Yes, we can entertain angels and invite the presence of God when we open, with wholehearted, sincere hospitality, open our ‘tent flaps’.  You just never know.


Scene I, Scene 2 then Scene 3

Hebrews 12: 18-29
If ever there was a passage that I really wanted to skip over or not preach from it would be this one, the one that is prescribed in the lectionary for today.  It’s confusing, it’s scary, you know it’s not one likely you’d have a cutsy little plaque made to lovingly hang in your living room or kitchen or bedroom.  I almost scraped it a couple of times. 

I did have a good sermon in the hopper all prepared that I preached a few years ago on one of the other lectionary texts but since I had committed to preaching a mini-series on Hebrews I wanted to keep my end of the bargain.   So let’s share this adventure together because the Bible is not an instruction manual but an invitation to dialogue!

The Book of Hebrews is an extended sermon or treatise probably written before the end of the first century.  Like I mentioned last week we’re not exactly sure who wrote Hebrews but you can be sure that the author regards the addressee’s as Christians in danger of falling away from their faith.  He wants to reenergize them and get them excited again about their salvation in Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin, Hebrews, the 12th chapter….

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”)

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

When we pull this passage apart we essentially would have two scenes, one from Mount Sinai and the other from Mount Zion.  Then you have a third scene, which is a strong warning against losing faith and keeping pure faith.

Scene I
It’s terrifying.  Even Moses, bold leader of the Israelites, says ‘I tremble with fear’.  This is an encounter with God on Mount Sinai after they had wandered for a very long time.  It was an encounter with the God of righteousness, of holiness, and judgment – thunder and lightning, thick clouds, blasting trumpets.  Ei yi yi!   Some ancient prophet must have witnessed a volcano erupting or an earthquake shaking their world and attributed this frightening activity to God.  After all there was no such thing as a seismograph back then or understanding of natural science.   Their cosmological view of the world was small compared to ours.  You don’t get too close to Mount Sinai where God resided for fear of perishing.  It is a theophany or God-sighting that inspires dread.

Frederick Borsch says “One has to love Annie Dillard’s admonition to the average churchgoer: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke?....It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pews.” [i][ii]  It is this divine might and majesty that the author of Hebrews alludes to. 

I told you this passage was an adventure waiting for dialogue!  End of scene I.

Scene II
So now we have a different scene. This scene also inspires a sense of wonder but in a different way.  Here our majestic God is gracious, offering hospitality.  And rather than Mount Sinai we are at the foot of Mount Zion in Jerusalem.  It’s the age of the new covenant in a festal gathering.  And present in all of his divine glory is Jesus and the righteous who lived in hope of this heavenly Jerusalem.  They are jubilant with angels fluttering all around, it just seems light an airy to me compared to Scene I.

There is so much rejoicing, God is awesome and mighty and it engenders a vibrant promise of hope, of restoration and of trust.  All should enthusiastically worship and give thanks.  But we cannot ignore the third scene of this passage for in the third scene we understand the connection between the two previous scenes.  Just as we are about to go the party on Zion the tone changes and we are given a warning.

Before we move on though one thing we need to be very clear here is that God is not bi-polar.  There is not one God of the Old Testament and another God for the New Testament so please do not go down that road of thinking.   It is dishonorable to think that the New Testament’s God of grace has replaced a ‘God of wrath’ in the Old Testament.  God is God.  One God.  In the Old Testament you’ll see that God loves and redeems and you’ll see in the New Testament that God loves and redeems.  It’s just in different ways.  And, the fact is in both Testaments we find a God of consuming fire.   So, one God.  Moving on.

Scene III
Here in the final scene we find that indeed God’s justice and judgment must be included in God’s love.  The wrongs of our lives are still to be judged by our God of love and mercy and we see the consuming fire return.  So the God of the New Testament has some rough edges too and this is what connects the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.  Love.  Mercy.  Judgment.  Forgiveness.   

But about that consuming fire, for us today we think of it as a means of punishment, we think of it as being scorched by the condemnation of God.  If you think of it in those terms then yeah, there is something to be terribly afraid of because who likes to think of God in this way?  Sometimes just aren’t exemplary Christians and I’m afraid that is human nature.  A consuming fire would burn us to a crisp.  And then what good are we?  I would have been a burnt piece of toast years ago with no chance of scraping off the burnt part.  Inedible for consumption.

But if you understand it in terms of the Biblical worldview a consuming fire is not torture, mayhem and burning but fire is purification.  Fire is used to refine metals.  Each Christmas when we listen to Handel’s Messiah we sing about refining, “But who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire and he shall purify the sons of Levi.”  The refiners fire while initially is a scorching and desolate place to be in ultimately gives way to purification and wholeness.  It readies our path, as Christians, for Christ himself.

A refiners fire does not destroy you, it does not consume you rather it purifies you, it melts down a silver or gold bar and separates out the impurities that are of no value and leaves all that is good.  So I say bring on the fire!  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every action we took, every thought we have, every word spoken was pure?

How would God’s fire make you different?  If the refiner’s fire came today for you what impurities are there that would be separated out and consumed?  I think that deep down within each of us we know our impurities, the ways in which we really aren’t the greatest of human beings and do not allow God’s love to guide us in all that we do and who we are.  You know we come to church with this fa├žade, that all is ok, that we’ve had a great week and lived up to every expectation that God asks of us. But I know that’s not the case.  We know deep within that sometimes we are not at our best.  We lie, little white ones, we cheat, just a little, or maybe we deceive with all the ‘best’ of intentions for their own good.

We all fall short.  We are all in the same boat.  We all come with impurities, with aches and pains, sorrow, sins, and sadness.  But the moment when God’s consuming presence breaks into our lives, when that fire separates and consumes all of the impurities of no value then in our new way of being we will know fullness, acceptance and are embraced.  WE are loved.  This is the real self that God created – not our constructs.  In that moment of purification our false self becomes like ashes and we are like a phoenix rising.   Leave it to God to purify us for our own sake. 

The consuming fire of God is God’s unavoidable mercy so let’s embrace it.  Let’s worship our God for refining us, for cleansing us, for forgiving us, for accepting us, for saying you, beloved child of God, are forgiven. 


[i] Borsch, Frederick H. in ‘Feasting on the Word’, Year C, Volume 3, p. 377.
[ii] Annie Dillard, ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters’ (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 40.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

By Faith II

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
I think the last time that I ran a race was in 1966 when we had to run a mile for the Presidential Fitness Program.  I thought it was cruel and inhuman punishment so I walked/ran my way through that mile around the schoolyard track.  I still don’t like to run but when I think of races I think of this, and of running and swimming.  But, if you have watched any of the Olympics, you’ll know that there are many other kinds of races, and there are people who have devoted their lives thus far to running the race.  They excel in what they do and have worked hard at their sport.

I particularly like the relay races where each member of the team, whether it’s the 100 meter track relay or the 200 meter free style swim relay, you have to be in sync with your team mates.  Michael Phelps may have won his 23 Olympic medal making him the most decorated Olympian of all time, and he is a great athlete, but some of those gold medals were won with the help of others. It’s not about you solely but it is just as much about the one that is in front of you and the one that you pass the baton off too or tag that is important too.  It’s about teamwork for the good of the goal and in the Olympics that would be the gold!

We are continuing our study of the Book of Hebrews picking up where we left off last week.  We talked about living our lives by and in faith in the context of this ‘letter’ written so long ago.  When read in its entirety this letter sounds like a pastor working very hard to encourage his little church.  So we live in the knowledge that God was good and beneficent to our spiritual ancestors and we believe and have faith that God will show kindness to us too.  God’s got a good track record on this.

This week is a roll call of the sinners and saints of light.  On down through the ages we are reminded of the ways in which God pulled them up and out of their calamities.
It’s somewhat of a longer passage so I’ll go slowly so you can absorb its nuggets.

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

This is quite the roster of folks throughout Biblical history.  The author of Hebrews is lifting up the ‘cream of the crop’, the athletes who ‘made it to the Olympics’, the superheroes of our faith. From martyrs to military leaders, from prophets to kings, they didn’t possess sterling reputations but they all trusted God and persevered through some very rough times where their faith, was mightily tested.  It was through their faith that they accomplished marvelous things that we remember today, not only their prowess.

This passage shows us a past of miracles and disappointments, the ‘thrill of victory and the agony of defeat’ as they used to say on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. And through it all it was their faith in the unknown and trust that what they were doing would ultimately be the path that God was paving for them.  And, that God was with them.

So it is because of this cloud of witnesses and many others after them that we are here today.  And now they are watching us. Imagine if you can a race ‘staggered over time’ [i]  They’ve done their part and have now tagged us.

I wonder if we could talk with Erastus Scranton what would he say about and to the good people OCC, many of them direct ancestors of some of you.  Erastus was an eager Yale Div Student when he came to us as our very first pastor. What might he have said to them to encourage and to lift their faith and lives so that they would all feel just a little bit of the kingdom of God right here in Orange or North Milford as it was called?

They didn’t have it easy then and made tough decisions.  But because of their faith and determination they said ‘no more’ to traveling down to Milford for church, we want our own church right here and so our story begins.

They rolled up their sleeves, and by faith our ancestors in faith planted and built this sanctuary on this sacred land.  And they lived through a lot.  By faith they sent their men and women off to the Civil War and all of the following wars and battles and faithfully followed Christ endeavoring to answer God’s call as best as they knew how given who they were as a people at that time. And it was by faith that the pastors through time lead, encouraged, comforted and pushed this congregation to be the best witness of the Gospel that you could possibly be.   

By faith Rev. King passed the baton off to me and I, in faith, willingly grabbed it with a firm hold.  So now it is our watch, our turn in the relay.  We are now running with perseverance the race set before us with Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  And that is the ultimate key, having Jesus as the pioneer.  If we don’t have our eyes on prize then we will lose our way.  He is the reason for our efforts as we name ourselves as Christian.  Through his example of ministry and the way he lead his life we are give a roadmap to follow.  It’s up to us to read it and follow it, all the while discerning the Spirit among us.

So what are we going to do?  How fast and far will we run?  How many hurdles are we willing to go over to achieve our part in this relay?  How hard will we lean into our faith so that when the time comes, and we are no longer in these pews, we will be able to confidently and faithfully pass the baton?

I hope to, in the fall, gather us together to talk about the redevelopment process.  This won’t talk or make decisions about the specifics of the three initiatives underway, church governance, open and affirming, and the calling of a Director of Faith Formation.  It will be more to take the pulse on redevelopment.  At the start we said it wouldn’t be an overnight thing that it would take some time to discern where the spirit of God is leading.  So to take the time to access and measure our success so far is prudent.  It’s also wise to ascertain if we are still on the right track.  Staying focused on redevelopment calls for discipline and courage to sit with the unknown knowing that God is along side of us. 

It matters that the generations after us will have our faithful examples to fortify themselves as they run their course.  They too will hear about the Biblical examples of faith and they will hear about us too.  Although we have choice in the matter as to whether or not we want to be here individually, it is not coincidence that God has called a faithful community together in Orange.  What will our legacy be to the runners after us?

God will give us the strength to preserve through redevelopment because I’m convinced that Orange needs our faithful witness.  Let us not ever forget the cloud of witnesses behind and surrounding us, they’ve brought us thus far.

And let us too run the race before us, unburdened with sin and all that weighs us down, as we embrace Christ, in faith, and look towards our future.  May God of the ages continue to love us and imbue us with love.


[i] Gary E. Peluso-Verdend

Sunday, August 7, 2016

By Faith

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

One summer before coming to Orange I spent time with ‘pastor’ friends on Monhegan Island off of the coast of Maine.  On the backside of the island, which faces the ocean,…it gets pretty rough.  The coast is practically all rock and the waves are very dangerous.  You can hike on that side but there are certain parts that you just don’t go near. 

Well, we were close to one of those spots.  My seasoned friends, who had vacationed there for years, took me to this place where you had to do a little climbing to get to a spot where the view they told me was spectacular.  But the climbing was not straight up however.  It was between two boulders that had settled themselves one on top of the other. 

The space was tight and you had to sit and curl and turn all the while pulling yourself upward.  They put me in the middle so that I could follow one of them up and the other one was behind me so I couldn’t back out.  At one point I looked down, I’m sure with a registered look of horror on my face at my friend who smiled and said to me, “There’s a sermon in here”. 

He was right.  There was a sermon in there and that sermon was about faith.  I had to have faith that the boulders wouldn’t, after thousands of years, dislodge.  I had to have faith that my friends knew the path we were on and how in the world we’d get back out of there.  I had to have faith that they knew we weren’t near the area where we could get washed away to sea.  I had to trust and have faith that they would take care of me.  That, ultimately God would pull me up and through to the other side.  That God would be there each step of the way calling me forward and promising to be faithful.  And, by the way, the view was breathing.

We’ll be spending the next few weeks studying and illuminating scripture from the Book of Hebrews.  The words of the book are attributed to Paul but honestly, scholars just aren’t sure that it truly is Pauleene.  The location is also not known but Rome is a possible contender.  The social context for our scripture is that the Jewish Christians are discouraged and demoralized because they are excluded from mainstream culture and they are really feeling the political pressure from the Jewish religious leaders.  Paul argues that through Christ we have access to God, just have faith.  Let us hear some familiar words as we read from the 11th Chapter of Hebrews….

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Whether you know it or not, whether you believe it or not, you live your life in faith. Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist….we all live with the hope and desire that the next moment of our life will come out ok. We don’t know what the next minute or hour will bring so we live in faith that life will be good to us in the next moment, that we will accomplish the goal that is set before us, and that we will be with people we know and love.  All people live in faith, when you look at it this way.  It’s kind of like going to bed with a heavy dose of faith as your sleeping aid that you will wake up in the morning.

We live by faith, we live by experience, and we live with knowledge.  At the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, an exhibit on cells includes this sentence:  “Any living cell carries with it the experience of a billion years of experimentation by its ancestors.”  What a remarkable statement.  A little scary too.  To know that I am so connected to billions of years of science and evolution and ancestors and creation is for me – organic and grounding.  We are connected to those who have gone before us, and as people of faith in the living God we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, our forbearers who, by faith, followed the call of God upon their life.

Abraham and Sarah our brother and sister in faith – lived by their faith.  They never gave it up; when they died they died in faith not yet having reached the Promised Land.  They lived by faith in a God who, at that time, few others believed in or even knew about.  They were drawn and pulled, called into the future by a promise and faith – the amount of faith didn’t matter.  Certainly we know that Abraham and Sarah, although they believed, sometimes doubted and laughed at God’s promise!  And it is because of their undying faith that they are remembered and memorialized in the New Testament Book of Hebrews.

I feel pretty lucky then because we are fortunate to have this faith gene in our spiritual cells, our spiritual genetic map.  To have three thousand years of worth of experience and knowledge in God’s promises all apart of us is grounding.  We are not flashes of lightening searching to ground ourselves in something.  We are grounded in the faith of Abraham, of Sarah, of Isaac, of Rebekah, on down the line.

Now I know that faith can waver.  It can wax and wane like the phases of the moon because it is not theology.  As author Frederick Buechner puts it, "Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises." And it is.  There are twists and turns, ups and downs that are thrown at us every day that ‘tests’ our faith.

I hear it all of the time.  I’ve just gotten a bad diagnosis, where is God in all of this?  A friend lost his life quite unexpectedly, where is God in all of this? My child was held back in school again, what’s wrong?  Where is God in all of this?  I thought God was supposed to be there for me.    

This is just about the time when you’ll think ‘I’m having a crisis of faith’.  But it is not.  Faith and trust are steadfast in the midst of difficulties, disappointment and challenges.  Faith is that lump in the throat, faith is waiting out the silences and times of unknowing, faith is throwing your hands up in air when you have no words that can convey your feelings. 

Faith is what allows us to take a step forward into the future with the assurance that God was, is, and will be there.  It is our trusting that God’s promise to love, cherish, care for us, provide for us is still as vibrant and steady as it was for Abraham and Sarah. 

We have faith because God has been faithful to our ancestors and will be faithful to us too.  Faith is being in relationship with God and placing extraordinary amounts of trust into what lies ahead.  The future is open and our lives greet this reality each day.  Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step even though you can’t see the whole staircase.”   I say faith is like crawling up between two gigantic boulders so that you can see the light.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Enough Already

Luke 12: 13-21 
I once heard a woman talk about trying the Atkins diet and she proceeded to gain 5 pounds.  She admitted that just because she could eat bacon and eggs and all that non-carb food, she thought she could eat as much as she wanted just as long as she stayed away from any type of carbohydrate.  She then went on to relay a story about a couple that went to an all you can eat buffet.  They too were on Atkins.  And, after the 13 trips up to the buffet table for more roast beef, the manager yelled out ENOUGH!  I guess they have never heard the phrase “in all things, moderation”, or enough is enough.

Today’s Parable of the Rich Fool is another case of enough is enough.  Jesus tells the parable to a very large crowd that has gathered about him.  In fact Luke indicates that this crowd is rather unruly and trampling on one another.  Imagine standing in the hot sun of ancient Palestine with hundreds around you all trying to get a glimpse of Jesus….dust getting in your mouth…..people yelling out to him to get his attention…..and the disciples perhaps trying to protect him…….trying to understand what is happening.  Then finally one of the members of the crowd does get his attention. 

Let us now hear this parable from the 12th chapter of Luke:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

WOW!  I cannot help but think of my drive to Lake Geneva, WI from St. Louis, MO while I was on vacation.  Such BIG barns there are in the Midwest, I had forgotten.  And all of the multiple silos connected to the central grain elevator left me in awe – what a system.  It’s not like our beautiful New England red barns and their matching silos, oh no.  These are mammoth but then again they have more space than we do.  Barns were certainly on my mind and in plain sight.
So let’s look at this passage about barns, a rabbi, and one solitary, wealthy man.  First Jesus is compared to a judge. But we know a rabbi was not a judge.  A rabbi was and still is today a teacher.  So when Jesus was asked to judge, he does no such thing but warns against what he saw was really happening from this mans outburst.  Back then it was lawful for the elder brother to receive a double portion of the inheritance.  Obviously this man was not that brother and he wanted a cut of his dad’s estate.  Somehow he felt cheated or denied, but Jesus viewed him as just plain greedy.

Being the good rabbi Jesus seizes the moment and teaches this man and the others by telling a story.  A very rich man “McMansions” his barn to accommodate all of the abundance that his land produces.  Then he sits back, kicks off his dusty sandals, puts his feet up and says to himself, “I’m gonna relax, gonna eat, gonna drink, gonna be merry, I’ve plenty to last me”.   Pretty narcissistic character if you ask me.  What he didn’t count on was that night, he would die.  And all that was stored in his barn would rot and go to waste, which is so unfortunate because I am sure that there were plenty of poor farmers, and fishermen who could have benefitted from his wealth.  This is a classic parable.

This guy made two mistakes – big ones.  One, he didn’t thank or even acknowledge God for the bounty of life and two, he didn’t share, he was greedy.  He had plenty, he had more than enough.  But for this man, who was terribly alone in this world, what he had wasn’t enough to suit his pleasure.  This man was not lead by faith, God was not even on this man’s mind.  He did not believe in the assurance of God that he would be taken care of even if he gave away all of his wealth, and he did not understand that all he had came from God and was to be shared with others, not hoarded in some gigantic, supersized silo.

Now to his credit (sort of), saving for the future is a wise and prudent thing to do.  It’s appropriate stewardship of all of God’s bounty and gives us a sense of stability.  But that’s not what this parable of caution is trying to get across and wanting us to know.  This parable is warning us against the gluttony of material, stored up goods in a silo of isolation like this rich fool.

What a sad way to live.  What an unfaithful way to live.  Imagine the good that this man could have done had he trusted and believed in God’s promise to care for him always.  I guess he just didn’t understand the concept of “enough is enough” and wasn’t willing to take a risk.

Part of my vacation was spent at Norman Barr Camp in LakeGeneva, WI.  It’s been a family gathering place for probably 70 or 80 years and for the last 10 years I’ve gone back every summer to reconnect with family and preach at their Sunday chapel service. Now Lake Geneva is quite the destination for the rich and famous or at least the very wealthy but there are also several small Christian Bible camps.  The mission of Norman Barr is to bring urban children out to the lake for some fun, fresh air and God focused living for the week.

So I’m fully aware that our little beloved campsite sits among wealth. There is Stone Manor that boasts of 14K gold plated doorknobs, and the Wrigley estate (chewing gum – and baseball field) has everything electric including an electric flagpole and draperies.  My early morning shorepath walks yielded some ‘oh wow’ moments.  While this is no comment about the owners of all these estates and mansions, AND they are beautiful to look at, you have to admit, they are over the top. 

Do they enjoy Lake Geneva any more than me and my family do?  Are their souls filled more so than ours with the grace that the lake offers?  The lake is the lake and sitting on the dock and watching the mailboat, or the Lady of the Lake ship go by is the same from any dock I think.

Let’s face it, since the phrase ‘supersize me’ came into existence we’ve wanted more and more, bigger and better.

So how much is enough for you?  Define enough for your living.  What is it that is necessary for you to live abundantly?  It’s a tough question.  I get fooled by it a lot. We each will react to this question differently and our answers will be vastly different depending on our circumstances and needs.  But there is a point in all of our lives where “enough really is enough”.  Unlike the couple who goes up to the buffet 13 times, or the lakeside mansion owner who installs 14K gold plated doorknobs, ENOUGH!  It’s that point where all of your needs are met, you are satisfied and content with your living.  And, what do you know, there is usually enough for all to share.

Ya know, this parable doesn’t warn against having riches and all that riches can do for your life.  It does warn against the outright hoarding of your riches to exclusion of all else – to the exclusion of your family, to the exclusion of people with less, to the exclusion of the needs of the community in which you live, to the exclusion of God as the source of our abundance.  It also calls upon all of us, whether we are rich or poor to think about what we want and why.  That’s the urgent message that Jesus was trying to relay.  This man was not ‘rich’ towards God.  He was rich only towards himself and his commodities. And Christ wants us to be rich towards God. 

Will our life be measured by what the media says we should have or believe in, or who we should like or dislike, or how we have answered the call to be rich towards God?

This has been the summer from – fill in the blank.  Between the conventions and all of the killings and bombings and outright hatred I have been distracted, angered and saddened.  It would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the loss of life, the deep pain and fear and give voice to the lament of unresolved, perceived helplessness.  How much more?  How many more?  When will enough be enough?  Enough!  But we are not helpless.  We are not helpless if we live a life that is rich towards God.   

For me, being rich towards God means to acknowledge where the gifts of my life come from, my family, my friends, and my ability to find meaning in what I do with my life.  Being rich towards God for me is to know that there is a community of people who will support me and love me that I don’t have to go it alone. Being rich towards God is to find grace when the silo is empty and know that that is exactly when God meets me and beckons me forward.  Being rich towards God is to reconcile past differences and move on.  Being rich towards God is to simply just be myself, in my brokenness with my warts hanging out and give thanks that God called me and named me as beloved. 

Being rich towards God is to live through societal, political and racial tensions and stand firm upon the convictions of my faith, that is to LOVE even when I don’t like what is happening and to advocate for justice.

What about you?  How are you rich towards God?

You don’t need bigger barns to be rich towards God.  Just a bigger heart.  Scripture tells us that we have the assurance that God will take care of us, there is no need to hoard.  We don’t need bigger barns, only a bigger capacity to trust and to love.

“Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet God feeds them.’ (Mt. 6:26)  Are you not of more value than they?”

May the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you today.