Friday, December 25, 2009


Luke 2: 1-20, page 724
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Advent is the name many Christians give to the time leading up to Christmas. This time of Advent is known as a time of waiting – waiting for the arrival of our savior.
Children also know the days leading up to Christmas morning as a time of waiting – and they are the perfect illustration for true Advent waiting as they wait impatiently for the day that marks the most important birthday of the year.
Adults, however, are not always great illustrations for true Advent waiting as our attitude is not, “I can’t wait until it gets here!” but “Is it really here already?”
Children are filled with the possibility that tomorrow is vitally important – they are all itching to get out of here, will have trouble falling asleep, and are sure to wake up before the crack of dawn.
Whereas many adults will be wishing for another hour of sleep, and maybe just one more day to prepare.
It’s as though we have lost the ability to recognize what is so special about this season, having mostly lost the capability to imagine a tomorrow filled with joy beyond your imagination, a new day when all your dreams will come true.
For those adults then, Luke begins his Christmas story with the words, “In those days,” as though the author of our gospel were a wizened grandfather disappointed at how soft his grandchildren had become – “Well back in my day we didn’t have nice school buses with heat, in fact we didn’t even have shoes, and we had to walk 15 miles to go to school… in the snow… uphill… both ways.
“Back in my day” those stories begin – and like our scripture lesson for this evening – those words serve not to glamorize the past, but to instill a grim reality.
“In those days,” Luke begins this Christmas story, and tells us that “in those days” Caesar Augustus ruled the world – so powerful in fact was he that simply by issuing a decree – just leaving his mark on a piece of parchment, his citizens, as though they were but pieces on a chess board, moved at his command and returned to his or her hometown to register for the census.
Luke makes it clear that “In those days,” all was not well.
In fact, the insinuation is that one day was just the same as the next, the sun rose, the sun set, no day was too different from the day before or the day after as everyday Caesar ruled, and those who thought anything would ever change were considered foolish.
Even the faithful either resigned themselves to compromising with Roman rule or went out to the hills building monastic communities while waiting for the end of the world.
Like today, the idea that the world would end made more sense to many people than that anything would ever change or get better.
“In those days,” taxes were high, war was commonplace, the poor suffered, power was abused, and there were even some who were pregnant and homeless on Christmas Eve as there was no room at the Inn, but that baby was coming.
To describe the birth, Luke’s gospel doesn’t give a whole lot, but what Luke seems to spend more time telling us about is that there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. There an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
This angel told them, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.”
Now as residents of a non-shepherding society, we may need even more detail than our story offers to get the full picture.
I’ve only met one shepherd in my whole life, but Biblically speaking shepherds are fairly commonplace. We know that King David was once a shepherd, and being the youngest was the one often left to mind the sheep himself out in the fields.
We may assume, therefore, that these shepherds the angel addresses in the middle of the night are not the patriarchs and the matriarchs of the shepherding clan, but the lowest on the totem pole – too young to command any seniority and weasel out of the midnight watch. Out in the fields on Christmas Eve so many years ago were not the parents, but their children, still full of the belief that their time had not come and gone, but that each new day could bring something completely new – that these dark days of Caesar might still come to an end, and low and behold the angle comes to them telling them that this day has come.
“Today – Today – in the town of David a savior has been born to you.”
Today the angel said – today.
And while the world didn’t change all at once, it all started right then, when a band of children still full of possibility and hope were convinced that today was very different than yesterday, and that tomorrow would be better than those the past – for in the middle of a night, a night like any other, but also so unlike any other – the world changed as those shepherds went to Bethlehem armed only with the audacious belief that God’s will still governed the world.
This is the Good News.
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Luke 3: 7-18 page 726
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “The one with two tunics should share with the one who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
Now I’ve learned a few things about being a minister over the past few years – but John the Baptist has obviously not learned those same things.
I learned that it’s important to greet people warmly when they come to church – after all, they’ve woken up early, they’ve gotten dressed and here it is their day off – so I like to begin each service by saying, “Good morning, and welcome to Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church.”
John, however, takes a different approach: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”
I’ve learned that it’s important to respect tradition and heritage – and that, should you feel so led as to try and change something – then a wise minister will do so without insulting the folks who hold that tradition dear, knowing that those who built up your church deserve respect for their hard work. John however spits in the face of tradition and heritage saying: “You think it means something that you were born into the blood-line of Abraham? I tell you it doesn’t matter at all who you are, what your father does, or what your grandfather did, for I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham.”
I’ve also learned to speak about sin in broad, sweeping, generalizations, to avoid making anyone feel too uncomfortable – but John tells the crowd exactly what they need to do to repent – if you have two tunics than give one away, if you have more food than you need then share with someone who’s hungry.
John is a uniquely radical person – just the kind of person needed to prepare the way for a uniquely radical savior poised to turn the world on its head.
But he also stands in the familiar - as this concept that he was preaching about – the idea that someone is on the way and that we need to be prepared for his coming judgment is nothing new.
The Jews had been waiting; indeed they are still waiting, for this messiah who is to come to restore the nation of Israel to greatness. This Messiah is to judge the unjust, punish the powerful, and restore the weak to their rightful place in glory.
What’s so strange about John though is that he’s not talking about someone who will be attacking the Romans but the pious, the religious authorities who expected to be rewarded when this messiah finally showed up.
The Roman soldiers were also poised to hear John’s message – the idea that a divine being would come to surprise and judge his people, rewarding the kind and punishing the wicked was a common theme of their mythology, so to prepare for God’s arrival must have made sense, to always be ready, to always extend the hand of hospitality, not knowing when they might entertain the divine in disguise.
But what must have made John sound strange to their Roman ears was the means of preparation– they’re not supposed to set the table for wayfaring gods in disguise, but treat those in their charge with respect, “don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”
Even to our ears the idea that someone is coming due to surprise us with his delivery on Christmas Eve is nothing new. That this coming one would come to judge the naughty and reward the nice – that he’s got a list and he’s checking it twice – is a common idea.
But that to prepare for his coming, we shouldn’t make a list of all that we want, but should instead make a list of all that we have, then give away what we don’t need, is a profoundly countercultural message – especially now at Christmas.
Our Christmas celebrations will be marked with more presents, more food, and more lights – as though more than enough ensured that this Christmas would be better than the one before.
Interestingly though, I’m not sure that’s the way it works.
I was old enough to remember the Christmas that my parents felt like they could splurge on a camcorder, as they bought it, not when I was 7 and had red curly hair like my sister, always ready to improvise a tap-dance; not when I was 3 and full of smiles and cute mispronunciations of common words like my brother; but when I was 12, gangly and without self-confidence, worried about my voice that hadn’t changed, unwilling to smile no matter what the occasion.
So on Christmas day, Santa had made his delivery, the room is full of smiles and laughter until the camera pans to me, morose, and looking over my loot accounting for what I had received in relation to what I had hoped to receive but didn’t get.
The camera, for good reason, doesn’t stay long on me before it goes to my sister, then my brother, sitting there in a pile of wrapping paper, completely disregarding his actual gifts, happy and amazed at his luck to have so much colorful paper all around.
I look at my seven month old daughter Lily now, her eyes wide open in amazement at the world around her, and I wonder what it is that happens, not only to surly 12 year old boys, but all of us. Why it is that we all stop being satisfied with a pile of wrapping paper and start taking notice of what we didn’t get.
What I want this Christmas isn’t more of anything. What I want is to regain the lost skill of being satisfied with enough.
Now I’m no John the Baptist, but I tell you this – God is coming – and while you’ve heard this story enough times for it to be familiar, hear it again trusting that this year there’s something new.
That there is something new in the claim that who you are, where and when you were born, doesn’t really matter, as the birth of Christ makes us all Children of Abraham, heirs to the promise of salvation.
That how nice or naughty you’ve been doesn’t make a difference, as the God of all grace and mercy is coming, and in God all sins are forgiven, all lives made ready for new life.
That the size of your house, the food on your table, the clothes in your closet don’t matter all that much when you consider that this child to be born was born in a stable to two wayfaring travelers with nowhere to sleep.
This Christmas, may you take a look at all that you have, and be thankful, knowing and believing that in Christ Jesus we have all been given enough – enough to give thanks, enough to share, enough.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

That John the Baptist

Luke 3: 1-6, page 726
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.
And all human kind will see God’s salvation.’
When I think of dangerous professions I think of fishing for king crab in Alaska, washing the windows on skyscrapers, or taming lions, not necessarily preaching – but off the top of my head I can think of several preachers who’s lives were threatened because they choose to speak an uncomfortable truth.
In the 16th Century Martin Luther spoke out against the Church who, in an effort to standardize liturgy world-wide was leading worship in Latin whether the congregation could understand it or not. By simply translating the Bible into German – making the implicit suggestion that God might speak in the language of the people - he threatened the authority that the Church possessed, and was forced to flee from those in power who sought to silence him.
400 years later, a man by the same name, Martin Luther King Jr., spoke inconvenient words of equality to a segregated society. Those invested or convenienced by this segregation were threatened, unable to imagine or dream of a world where people got along regardless of skin color; and on April 4th, 1968 his voice was silenced with his death.
The prophet from today’s scripture lesson met the same fate, his head served on a platter.
But why?
What was it about John, what was it about his preaching, that so threatened those in power?
From our passage today all we have to draw from are the words: “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Repentance seems a common enough theme for a sermon – and baptism – I assume my brother-in-law didn’t risk his life to baptize our daughter Lily last week. But put repentance, baptism, and the forgiveness of sins together and what we have is a threat to a religious system made possible by Herod’s temple, presided over by the high priests Annas and Caiaphas – a system that we may assume made money for the church and the state through financial transactions that ensured the forgiveness of sins.
For years women and men had traveled to the temple, traded their currency for temple coinage which they then exchanged for the clean animals to be sacrificed by the temple priests.
John the Baptist on the other hand was out in the desert by the river – offering the same product – forgiveness - but telling folks all you have to do to be forgiven is step in the water – wash that old life off your body – and come out clean.
“There’s got to be more to it than that,” some people said.
“How can it be so simple?” they asked.
“Don’t I have to do something?”
After all, doing something, paying something seems natural.
“You can’t afford no ring, you can’t afford no ring, I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring,” the country song goes.
“Show me the money,” says the catch phrase.
And if you’re having trouble picturing the crowds at the temple, the money changers changing money, the products in short supply, and the crowds of people trying to buy something – forgiveness, love, happiness – then you haven’t been to Wal-Mart this Holiday season.
Clark Howard or Dave Ramsey can tell you how to avoid the debt that so many will willingly throw themselves into – but to understand what it is that people are trying to buy this Christmas we need only watch advertising in the same way John the Baptist watched the temple from the desert.
Yahoo dot com told me the other day that they could find me exactly what I want.
The side of the Macy’s building during the Thanksgiving parade stands the word “Believe.”
And then we have the “Open Happiness” with a Coke campaign.
What is it that people are looking for is clear to me – people are looking for what people have always been looking for – exactly what I want – to believe in something – to find happiness – and where it is that we all seem to think that we’ll find these things is equally clear, as our credit card statements speak volumes.
But I am here to tell you today, that while might give you what you want – it can never give you what you need.
That belief defined by Macy’s is not worth believing in.
And no matter how many Coke’s you open you will not find happiness at the bottom of a single bottle.
You see – there are some things that money can’t buy.
The Israelites couldn’t buy forgiveness then, just as we can’t buy it now.
Of course it costs something – it costs your old life – it costs turning from sin – it costs admitting that you’ve done wrong – it costs repentance.
But if you know what it’s like to touch the waters of forgiveness, you know that there is nothing so great as knowing that the love and acceptance of God is not contingent on your capacity to buy it, earn it, or deserve it.
Repent and believe – for the only thing that comes in between us and the Lord are those mountains we, ourselves have built up, of debt, worry, and more than we need - those valleys dug deep with sorrow, disappointment, and depression that no product any where can fill – but the day is coming, says the Lord, when crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways smooth, and all of humankind will know the free gift of God’s salvation!
Haven’t you worked enough hours to know that you can’t earn it?
Haven’t you looked in enough stores to know that you can’t buy it?
And haven’t you been going down that road long enough to know that it’s leading you in the wrong direction?
Repent and believe the good news – All of human kind will see God’s salvation – repent and believe – and know that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A New Song to Sing

1 Samuel 2: 1-10, page 191
Then Hannah prayed and said:
My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.
There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the Lord is a God who knows, and by the Lord deeds are weighed.
The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more. She who was barren has born seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.
The Lord brings death and makes alive; the Lord brings down to the grave and raises up.
The Lord sends poverty and wealth; the Lord humbles and exalts.
The Lord raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; the Lord seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; upon them the Lord has set the world.
The Lord will guard the feet of the saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness.
It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be shattered.
The Lord will thunder against them from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
The Lord will give strength to the king and exalt the horn of the anointed.”
Last Sunday was a big day – 20 women from this church were on their way back home from a fantastic retreat at Camp Calvin, in between services we paid respect as an old flag was retired and a new one hoisted up the flag pole. In Fellowship Hall was another great talent show where Chris Manning won first place for his rendition of “Long and Winding Road” – and down Hwy 78 in Snellville our choir joined with other area choirs for an incredible concert of sacred music.
And at that concert, during the final hymn, the most incredible thing happened. For the final hymn, this choir made up of over one hundred members, representing five churches, the director from Snellville United Methodist Church chose a song made famous by a choir in Brooklyn New York – a choir with significantly different from the one I saw before me.
So I began to wonder how this song was going to go over – the choir had just sung songs many would say were appropriate for a bunch of main-line, middle class, folks – a mighty fortress is our God, written by Martin Luther himself from the Lutherans, some Beethoven and Handle from the Presbyterians – and now they were going to attempt something a little different, and honestly, I wondered how this choir made up mostly of white people were going to pull it off.
But the choir got going, and from the back of the sanctuary – the place where the trouble always gets started – you could hear the effect their singing was having on the congregation - as the Spirit of Rhythm was descending and we all were actually clapping in time.
At the end of the hymn the congregation was so transformed by the song we all stood to applaud and the choir was so led as to lead the congregation in an encore.
I don’t know if you would say we were possessed – enjoying an out of body experience or what – but the music last Sunday transformed a choir and a congregation in one fell swoop.
That choir might have gone back to their suburban homes, but they, if only for a moment, were a choir from Brooklyn New York with as much soul as any I have ever heard.
And that congregation might have looked like prim and proper Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Methodists, but we, if only for a moment, were so moved by the spirit someone wandering in from off the street might just have mistaken us for Baptists.
This ability to transform is a power that mothers have always known about – how a baby so worked up, face contorted in discomfort and frustration, back arched – can be transformed back into that angle you know and love with the right song from the right voice.
It’s this power that today’s scripture lesson posses, as I can tell you it’s not just a prayer. How would a prayer prayed for the first time have made it in the Bible – as no one was there to write it down, Samuel too young to do such a thing.
No, this is the song Hannah, Samuel’s mother, sang to her stomach when it finally began to bulge – years of waiting, years of frustration, years of disappointment finally over. “My heart rejoices in the Lord” she sang to the long-awaited baby inside.
Samuel had heard it so many times it was familiar to him before he was even being born; it was the only thing that calmed him down when he woke up in the middle of the night, tired but too frustrated to sleep. Every parent knows you’ll do or sing anything to get that child back to sleep in middle of the night, but Hannah already knew what to sing – it was the only song that would do as she rocked the baby who would become Israel’s prophet in her arms.
It’s a song he knew so well before he could even know his own name that even the first note brought a smile to his face.
So when Hannah brought Samuel to the temple, so grateful for him that she felt she needed to dedicate him to God, it was the song she sang to give her the strength to follow through with this promise I bet she wished she would had never made.
Singing this song one last time, a song Samuel knew better than any other, she wiped the tears from his eyes and walked away, no one to wipe the tears away from her own.
Leaving her son at the temple with one last gift, a song. But it was a powerful gift that she gave him – a gift that transforms reality.
This is the gift she gave him one last time the day she walked away from the temple leaving her son to be brought up in the House of the Lord.
When he woke up cold and alone on the temple floor, it was this song that kept him warm.
Homesick and hungry, nothing else could give him comfort, remind him of his mother’s love the way this song could – transforming his solitude, if for only a moment, to feel his mother’s arms around him once again singing the words: “Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more.”
Too small to defend himself against the abuse of the others at the temple, this song promised him a new day when the, “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.”
And as he grew up, old enough to notice the pain of his people, the struggle of the widow, the plight of the poor, so frustrated he just wanted to escape a world so dark and cold, he would sing this song and know justice, for “The Lord raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; the Lord seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.”
You see, music transforms; and a song, the right song can tide you over until justice comes.
This was the song that carried Samuel through his struggle. It kept the light of hope burning brightly, when it was hopeless all around.
Like the slaves who sang, “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home”, we can sing of freedom – until bondage gives way.
The slave owners knew that song’s power, and so they took away the drums, policed the night for fear of such songs of freedom – but the slaves sang and they sang songs of thanksgiving and joy – praising God for a freedom that wasn’t yet here but surely on the way there.
They kept on singing as Samuel did, even though the world tried to silence them, tried to teach them a different song to sing.
Replacing songs of change with songs about how nothing will ever change.
Putting away songs of joy for songs of lamentation.
Songs that tell us that there’s no use praising God for what’s on the way, for the good old days are long gone – that tomorrow should be feared for don’t you know it just won’t be as good as yesterday. So we’ve been wishing we were something else, we’ve been regretting who’s won and who’s lost, and we’re already disappointed in what tomorrow will bring.
So Hannah comes with a new song to sing.
A new song, so rich and so true that when Mary found that she was pregnant with the Son of God, though she was afraid, though she was worried, though she was certain that she would be ridiculed and shunned as an unwed mother there was really only one song for her to sing.
Let us join her in singing Hannah’s song.
Because with our heads bowed low and our worries fixed in our minds there’s nothing but that tired, sad, lonesome, boring song that’s sticks in your head and is never going to get you where you need to go!
It’s time for you to sing a new song – a song about a new day that isn’t here yet – but you better know it’s on the way.
A song about a new world of justice and peace – that isn’t here yet – but you can sing it as we walk this road until we get there.
A song about hope, and change, and the God who is even now making a way, building up a new Kingdom, setting the captives free – and when that new day comes you better know the words to sing.
My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Prayer for Flag Dedication and Retirement

Righteous God, you rule the nations.
Guard brave men and women,
Who risk themselves in battle for their country.
Give them compassion for all.
Give them hope for the nations in which they serve.
Keep our sons and daughters from hate that hardens, but fill them with the fruits of the Spirit: faith, hope, and love.
Though they must be at war, let them live for peace,
As eager for peace as for victory.
Encourage them as they encourage one another, and never let hard duty separate them from loyalty to your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
When all of us, here, safe at home, see this flag that we raise today, remind us of those who have fought and died for what it represents; remind us of those who serve in far away places for our sake. Help us to keep them in our hearts, that though they are separated from us, often by oceans of worry and fear, we might always be unified by a common faith in your son.
Holy Lord, look after our sons and daughter.
Keep them ever in your sight, watching over them that they might come home to us safe and sound.
[1] This prayer draws on a prayer from the Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993) 818.

What Does the Lord Require?

Mark 12: 38-44, page 718

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.
They devour widow’s houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such people will be punished most severely.”
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth. This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”
“Such people will be punished most severely,” Jesus says.
My goodness – they sound like a bunch of jerks too – always wearing those flowing robes like they’re something special – always sitting up front in the sanctuary for everyone to see them.
Sounds like you’re in big trouble choir.
But the truth is this passage isn’t an indictment of the synagogue choir, the teachers of the law were the ones who stood up in front of everybody, read scripture and interpreted those ancient words that the crowds might apply the Word of God to their lives.
They were uniquely powerful then, as no one could question what they were saying or how they interpreted the Bible, as no one else could read.
However – it’s almost the same power that all ministers have now, not because people can’t read the Bible, but because most of the time they just don’t choose to!
So you have ministers all over the place emphasizing the parts of the Bible that they want to emphasize, claiming to be pointing their flock in the direction of the most important parts – but really, who knows?
However, there’s no explaining away or avoiding our passage for today. It’s quite clear.
Should I abuse my authority – taking advantage of those who trust me to know the scripture – I can expect to be punished most severely.
As those poor widows having no knowledge of how to deal with their homes or property, were signing everything away to teachers of the law who they trusted – and they really have no recourse, because without a husband there is no one to help them understand what they are signing – and more than that, as illiterate, they can’t even read what they are signing for themselves. What we have in this passage is a strong case for literacy, because the ability to read a contract is pure power, that unchecked turns into corruption.
Such has always been the case, new immigrants taken advantage of, signing contracts they can’t understand, and forced to trust the untrustworthy to explain it all to them.
It’s a wonder then, that Christ, the man who stormed the temple, knew its abuses first hand, didn’t stop this poor woman from giving away her last two coins to an establishment he knew wouldn’t use her money responsibly.
What I want to know is why doesn’t he stop this poor woman before she spends her last two coins on the pastor’s flowing robe fund?
Why doesn’t he direct her towards some better use of her money – saying something like, “No don’t give your money to them, don’t you see it will just go to pay the CEO’s salary – give your money to the homeless shelter down the street – your money will go directly to the people who need it.”
Or better yet, “Keep your money. You need those two coins much more than the synagogue does. God knows your heart, and God doesn’t want you to go hungry.”
But that’s not what Jesus does.
Jesus doesn’t stop her from giving those last two coins away.
Jesus seems to know how important it is to accept a gift; how sometimes it is most important to let someone say, “Thank you.”
You remember the time a woman came in and anointed his feet with oil, oil precious and valuable poured out on his feet. Everyone was whispering, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages, and the money given to the poor.”
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said, “She has done a beautiful thing.”
I think it must have made Jesus feel guilty to watch this widow give her last two coins away – it may have even made him angry as he knew what those coins would go to pay for - but he lets her do it as he must have known why she would give, even her last two coins.
That she wasn’t concerned with helping pay for the teacher’s new robes.
That she certainly wasn’t about making a show of her generosity. It’s not clear that anyone even noticed besides Jesus.
And though then, like now, there were probably religious leaders telling her that if she gave her money to the church she could expect a great reward, I don’t think it’s likely that this woman thought she would be getting something in return for her show of faith.
In fact, while Jesus is clear about how the teachers of the law will be punished, there’s no mention of how this faithful widow is going to be rewarded.
It doesn’t say that she gets a new husband because of her faith.
It doesn’t say that on her way home she uncovers a treasure chest full of gold.
It doesn’t say even that in the next life she will be treated like a queen – there’s no mention of any reward at all.
What we readers are left to assume is that she’s already received her reward and that now she gives to show her thanks to God.
Sometimes it takes losing everything to appreciate what we have – and I assume that while he was alive this poor widow complained about toilet seats left up, mayonnaise jars left out on the counter, too much money spent on loose living – but now that he’s gone all she can do is think about what a blessing from God it was to have met someone who she could love and who loved her in return. She can’t give her husband that one last gift to show him how much he meant, but she could thank God for him and so she puts in her two last coins.
And what a blessing it was to have her friends gather around her as she wept, casseroles brought over, visits made – how could she ever thank all those who prayed and prayed that he would get better? They would never accept her gift, but she could thank God for them, and so she puts in her two last coins.
Then to hear words of assurance, that this good-bye isn’t really a good-bye, as the preacher said they’d meet again on some far off shore. How could she ever thank the writers of scripture for giving those assuring words, how could she ever thank the choir for singing those promises of God, how could she ever thank God for making those promises true? Who would accept her gift? No one would allow her to give her last two coins away, but she so wanted to thank God for what she’d received and so she puts in her two last coins.
What I learn today from this widow is not what it means to sacrifice, not what it means to give until it hurts, but what it means to say “Thanks.”
Like her, today we sit in this place where God is present, but I’m worried we’ve all been sitting here so long we forgot what a special place this is.
In the years I was in seminary, Sara and I floated from church to church, every Sunday checking the square, “I’d like to speak to a pastor,” but no pastor ever called.
The Sunday we visited this church, we first received a gift bag, the next day there was a fresh loaf of bread on our front door, and two days later Roy Brown was on the phone ready to visit us and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
How many places are there in this world where you show up and actually feel like you matter?
Three years ago, when I had just started serving this church as your associate pastor, I remember walking into this sanctuary on the first Sunday of Advent, fighting off tears because as soon as I heard the choir and all of you singing, I knew that I was blessed to have been called to a church where the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ was an occasion worth celebrating with joy.
Where else is the good news read and sung, where else are the promises of God heard that you might be encouraged, empowered, and strengthened to live life.
I don’t know what your experience of this place has been, but I hope and pray that it won’t take a great loss to fully appreciate what all God has blessed you with in this place.
So don’t wait for that day. Today is the day to give like the widow, not because it’s easy, but because when you really think about it, there’s nothing else to do – there’s no other way to respond than to respond in thanks for this gift that you have received.
Give thanks to God for this place today – not because you should, not because you’ll be rewarded – but because this church is a gift from God to you, and it’s time to for you to say “Thanks.”

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Last Word

John 11: 32-44, page 761

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
There is a new book out by Dan Brown, an author whose book The da Vinci Code was greeted with widespread popularity as well as widespread controversy. His new book, The Lost Symbol, takes place mostly in Washington DC, and deals with ideas about the human capacity for greatness.
His main character, Robert Langdon reflects on principles of the world’s great religions; how the Buddha said, ‘You are God yourself.’ Or how Jesus taught that ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ and even promised us, ‘the works I do, you can do… and greater.’[1]
Always on the look-out for conspiracies as he was in the da Vinci Code, Brown’s latest book sees these ideas about the human capacity for greater authority and power, all around Washington DC, present symbolically in our Nation’s Capitol’s greatest monuments.
And it’s possible to read these same ideas into the story that we are faced with today – that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus, deeply moved by the people around him, is able to raise a man from the dead, saying to Martha, the sister of the dead man, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
As though faith could elevate Martha to a higher realm of consciousness, where what seems impossible becomes possible – and we should be encouraged to go and do likewise - the works I do, you can do… and greater.
Our culture may just be pushing us in this direction – as all around us are people challenging their humanness, fighting to become larger than life, to find a way out of poverty and into great wealth, to escape being normal by getting noticed and admired by peers, to ascend above the crowd to stand boldly under the limelight of celebrity.
We don’t like being normal, so we try our best to rise above.
We don’t want to be another Joe six-pack so we try for American Idol.
We don’t want to be hurt, so we put on a face of strong resolve.
We don’t want to be rejected so we pretend not to care.
And sometimes we follow this Jesus, thinking that he’ll help us get where we need to go – that he’ll set us apart and high up on a hill to be a shining light to the world, no longer imprisoned by the world, but set free.
It’d be good to avoid the not so nice parts of being human.
Avoid sadness, self-loathing, illness, age, and death – just rise above it all.
We are chained to these mortal bodies, flawed and limited, doomed to experience human emotion and grief – our savior should come to show us how to ascend above it all.
Maybe that’s what Mary was thinking when fell at his feet mourning the loss of her brother, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She assumed that he would have prevented it from happening – if only he’d been there sooner.
But this way of thinking misses a point made prominent by two simple words here in our scripture lesson for today. Verse 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible, but it says all that we ever wanted to know: “Jesus wept.”
To this show of emotion, some said, “See how he loved him;” But others said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?”
I think this is the question that we all ask.
If this Jesus were so great, then why is there still death? Why do we lose people who we love?
Jesus doesn’t stop Lazarus from dying, but stays away while death’s shadow closes in, and the stone covers the mouth of his burial cave.
4 days pass and we wonder why – why he had to go – why he had to leave us – why he wasn’t spared.
Limited then we might say – or insufficient. And many did - others saw weakness, vulnerability. So many others never even wondered if this man was who he said he was as God must certainly have power over death if God can give the blind their sight.
But this God who weeps doesn’t avoid death himself – and in this death we know that God didn’t come to earth to avoid the pain of human life, to avoid that most prominent feeling of loss, forgo that thing that we all fear the most – dying – but to face death himself, and to face it with human tears.
And just as Lazarus’ body was placed in the tomb, we placed him in the tomb.
And then the tomb was sealed – and the shadow fell.
But just when we thought death would have the last word, we hear the words: “Lazarus, come out!”
These words that break the silence, that shine a light that even the shadow of death cannot extinguish, come from one who did not spare himself, could have risen above, could have avoided it all, but choose to share our grief, share our limitations, share our fear, and even die himself that death while not avoided, might forever be concurred and forever prevented from having the last word, as the last word on death is not silence, but “Lazarus, come out!”
Today we remember men and women whom we have lost in the last year – and as we remember what we have lost, also remember this truth – that Christ, though divine, shares in your grief; and that Christ, though immortal, took on our human limitations that you might never face the shadow of death alone, trusting that the last word will not come from death, but from Christ, the one who has taken from death her sting.

[1] Ibid. 492.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

O Bless Your Heart

Mark 10: 13-31, page 716

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him.
“Good Teacher,” he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do no murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him.
“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sister or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Now what Jesus means here is up for your own interpretation – as the quality of children that Jesus sees as vital for entering the kingdom is not clearly stated.
Some would say that children, unlike adults don’t see race or nationality, and so aren’t susceptible to the prejudices that afflict their older counterparts – so it could be that in seeing all people as equal children are to be emulated. Others would say that to enter the kingdom of God you must become innocent like a child, while still others would look to some instance of children sharing toys and come to the conclusion that you must become selfless like a child, sharing what you have.
Before deciding which quality it is that Jesus is talking about, let me remind you that there’s a word to describe people who use words like “without prejudice” “innocent,” or “selfless,” to describe children: “Delusional.”
As far as prejudice goes, if our daughter Lily could deport all men with beards I know that she wouldn’t hesitate – she has come to the early conclusion that they are not to be trusted, even her bearded grandfather is not to be trusted at all.
And though our little Lily can’t talk yet, she communicates in high pitched squeals and urrrr, but I hear her quite clearly when she demands, “I want my bottle and I want my bottle now! Not in 5 minutes – not when you’re done writing your sermon – NOW!”
So I get it for her – as children are many wonderful things, but above all else, children are dependent, completely and utterly dependent on those bigger and more powerful for their well-being.
Interesting then, that Jesus would urge his followers to emulate children.
But regardless of the peculiar nature of his teachings, people came to Jesus that he might lead them on the path to eternal life. “Good teacher,” a rich man asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” the rich man declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Before scripture tells us Jesus’ response to this statement, the author of the Gospel of Mark wants you to know that, “Jesus looked - at this rich man who has apparently never sinned in his entire life - and loved him.”
Now the writer of Mark wrote in Greek about a Palestinian Jew named Jesus who spoke Aramaic, a language that never developed its own literary tradition, but remained an oral derivation of Hebrew only. So these words, first retained as a spoken story told in Aramaic, then translated and written down in Greek, were then translated into English to form the words, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” So it’s possible then, that what we have is a mistranslation of how Jesus actually looked, how Jesus actually felt. In fact, I’m confident that what the author of Mark meant to use to describe Jesus here is an expression Grandmothers in the South say often when their grandchildren do something stupid but they’re too naive to know any better – if this event here with the rich man were taking place here in Lilburn, and Jesus were not a Palestinian Jew but a Gwinnett County Grandmother then the words would not be, “Jesus looked at him and loved him;” but, “Jesus looked at him and said, well bless your heart.”
What the author of Mark didn’t take the time to write down, I assume he just ran out of parchment, was that, “after looking at the young man and loving him, Jesus said to Peter under his breath, this guy thinks he’s never sinned! Can you believe that?”
This rich man goes to Jesus asking, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”
What must I do?
As though this rich man could pull himself up by his bootstraps right up into the kingdom of God. As though he didn’t need anyone to help, as though he could do it all himself, as though he were all grown-up, self-sufficient, and self-secure.
But here is an independence based on an illusion – an illusion provided by the perceived security of affluence – for wealth convinces us all to believe the lie that we are not children dependent on God – we are not dependent on anyone or anything.
Wealth closes our eyes to the insecurity of human existence.
The rich man can’t seem to face this fact – that those fields that provide him so much income would be bear, dry ground, if it were not for the God who provides the rain.
That his property would not be nearly so beautiful and valuable if it were not for the God who prevented the river from rising above her banks – at least most of the time.
And that his life would not be so pleasurable if it were not for God – who keeps that heart inside this man's chest beating – if it were not for God who provides him air to breath and eyes to take in the majesty of creation.
So Jesus asks him to give up his wealth willingly that he might figure it out.
But we’re not always so lucky. We feel safe in our nice houses – but then the water rises and we face the fact that we are victims to the whims of powers bigger and stronger than ourselves.
We feel secure with money in the bank – but should the job market dry up, stock prices drop – should powers out of our control choose to shift the winds of favor - how self-sufficient do you feel now?
We feel as though we may just live-forever – but who knows when the heart that beats in our chest might just stop beating?
So Jesus addresses the disciples as children, not because they are innocent, kind, or unblemished by the prejudices of the day, but because we are not in control of our lives – though we are often blinded to it – we are more like children then we like to admit.
And the rich man isn’t ready to admit it.
He isn’t sick – so he doesn’t need Jesus to heal him – and so he walks away.
He isn’t poor – so he doesn’t need Jesus to feed him – and so he walks away.
He came to Jesus looking for some wisdom – calling him “good teacher” – but when Jesus couldn’t offer him anything, besides urging him to face his own limitation – he just walked away.
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
How hard it is – but it’s not just hard. It’s impossible.
It’s impossible for you to do it on your own. But the rich man thought otherwise – Good teacher, what must “I” do to inherit eternal life. So you see - the rich man wasn’t looking for a savior either – so he walks away.
Some would say he walked away doomed – but he’s no more doomed than any of us.
For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It’s impossible in fact. “But not with God; all things are possible with God.”
So give thanks for the one who intercedes on your behalf.
Who grants you the salvation that you cannot earn on your own.
Praise God for the high priest – the one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart and exalted above the heavens.
For he is no good teacher – he is your savior.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Out of the Storm

Job 38: 1-7 and 34-41 page 380
Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. The Lord said, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
“Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who endowed the heart with wisdom and gave understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?
Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?
Who provides food for the raven when it’s young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?"
Words have a way at getting to the heart of matters, especially when they are formed into questions.
I still remember my childhood Sunday school teacher’s face the day we read about baby Jesus getting circumcised. “Um, Mrs. Smith, what exactly is circumcision?”
“That’s one you’ll have to ask your father when you get home.”
I didn’t really understand why she wouldn’t answer my question, but now I know this technique as an important tactic for deflecting questions it would be better not to answer.
It’s a technique employed by politicians all the time – so if you, like me, are wondering why Senators Saxby Chambliss and Harry Reid, along with Representative Charlie Rangel spent a total of over two hundred thousand dollars on golf, an inauguration party, and a self-portrait when their constituents are struggling to make ends meet…well, just don’t expect an answer anytime soon.[1]
But who would expect the same behavior from God?
God’s response to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Who marked off its dimensions?” doesn’t answer Job’s question. Job finally meets God face to face after all his suffering, all his affliction, to question God and the fairness of the punishment he has undergone, and God deflects Job’s question, his question that gets at the timeless issue of, “Why do bad things happen to good people.”
Job hasn’t lost his faith. Job has been faithful, and all he wants is an answer.
In some ways silence would have been easier to understand – it would have shown Job that all his faith was in vain - but at least it would have been an answer he could have understood – that the world just isn’t fair, there’s no order to it, and there’s no point in trying to do what is right because there isn’t anyone watching – that there’s no one up there punishing the sinful and rewarding the faithful – as there isn’t really anyone up there at all.
Such is the conclusion many reach in the wake of tragedy – as asking why is the kind of question that rarely leads to resolution – so many people give up asking and give up believing at the same time.
When we consider the great tragedies of human history – the many examples of undeserved suffering – the slaughter of the southern Sudanese by the north, the murder of the Tutsi’s in Rwanda, how the dictator Pol-Pot imprisoned and tortured thousands of his own people in Cambodia; many Jews today who consider the Holocaust know either a God too weak to act or a God who was never really there at all.
The book I’m reading now, a work of fiction called The Book Thief takes place during this time period in a little town in Germany. The hero is a little girl named Liesel, an orphan taken in by an older couple after her father is murdered for being a communist and her mother just disappears all together. She is haunted by the memory of her brother’s death – every night taking her back to the dark day when he died in her arms.
Every night she sees into his empty eyes; it’s the sight of those eyes that scares her awake to find her foster father Hans Hubermann, who Liesel calls Papa, standing over her, stroking her hair or just sitting at her bedside.
On the day Liesel is old enough to connect the dots between the murder of her father, the disappearance of her mother, and the death of her brother, she shouts out to her foster father Hans, “I hate Hitler!”
Her Papa looks down at the ground, then meets his daughter’s gaze again without expression, and --- slaps this girl who he loves more than anything across the face.
In some ways, just about as cruel as a response as there could possibly be.
But how could Hans ever explain to a child the evil complexities of living in Nazi Germany?
A world where mothers disappear into the night, where brothers die in sisters’ arms, and hatred-fueled propaganda applauded while books burn.
Helping her understand was not the point. Keeping her safe was the point.
But this cold refusal, more than anything else is an apology, an apology from a man who would have changed the world for this little girl whom he loved, but only had the power to keep her lips sealed in a world where silence was safety.
You know it’s an apology and not the embodiment of anger, as his hand, once used to strike a silent fear, is back that night, and the next, and the night after that to comfort this young girl when her nightmares finally wake her up from a restless sleep. And we know that if the hands of her Papa could change the world, build up a safe place free from Hitler and his evil, they would.
But Job doesn’t want to be silent – and there’s nothing that God has done to keep him safe – what Job wants is an answer to the question he poses. God, however, knows that there comes a time when the answer to “why” can’t provide the healing that the afflicted really needs.
We want to know why – why is there suffering – why is there bloodshed – why do marriages end – why do children die before their parents – why is there war – why is there disease – why do hearts stop beating – why – why – why?
A God who hears these questions, then responds with more questions, is either a God too busy to mess with the trivial matter of a disgruntled human being – or a God dedicated to getting the faithful back to the business of living.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? No – and the reason the world is ordered this way is not for you to know.
Where were you when the sun was shining, and a little girl was pulling at your sleeve to go outside? This is your question to answer. Not where was God – where were you?
Were you still in bed while the world passed you by?
Were you still mourning what you lost, wishing it would have been different?
Were you so full of regret that you forgot to live?
Your place is not to ask why – your place is to live. Leave the rest to one who may not answer your question – but who will always be there, stroking your hair, sitting by your bedside, with you as the dawn breaks into a new day.

[1] Bob Keefe, “Leadership PACs keep cash flowing,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Tuesday, October 13, 2009) A1.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Choose Life

Job 1: 1 page 359
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
Job 2: 1-10 page 360
On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before God. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”
“Skin for skin!” Satan replied, “A man will give all he has for his own life.” But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.
His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”
He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”
In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.
I saw a flock of geese the other morning, and to be honest, considering everything that this church faces today, there was a real part of me that was wishing I could sprout wings and fly away with them.
Today we are celebrating our 35th anniversary, and we should be celebrating all the triumphs, all the joys, all the good things God has done in us and through us.
Today’s sermon should be like that of Moses – Moses came with Joshua son of Nun and spoke all the words of this song – he recollected the great deeds of the past.
Remembering the group who met in the Crissman’s living room, then stepped out in faith, began worshiping in a room above a butcher shop, and then finally bought this land, built that building and then this one, and all along the way sang praises to the one who provided a place to worship, a place to worship the God who has worked for our good since the beginning.
From a mountain top Moses addressed the Israelites as they looked over into the Promised Land, but today we find ourselves, not on the mountain top with Moses but in the ash heap with Job.
Today who feels like patting themselves on the back for great deeds done, as our shoulders bear the heavy weight of worry for what will happen next.
In the past two weeks four of our staff have been let go, and four more have seen their salary cut by 15%. We are just no longer an 800 member church and now is the time when we are forced to stop acting like it. Those days are now confined to our rear-view mirror, as we have changed, Gwinnett County has changed, and I dare to say that I am not the only one who has been tempted by the geese, that I am not the only one who’s wished to sprout wings and fly away – to quit or give up.
As Job was afflicted with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, scraping those sores with a piece of pottery, his wife said to him “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”
This question doesn’t bring anything new to Job, but simply verbalizes that part of Job that watched the geese, wanting to sprout wings and fly away from all of this; the part of Job that has envied the geese flying overhead as he sits in the ash-heap, doomed to suffer through a situation he isn’t responsible for and which he isn’t in control over. “Curse God and die!” his wife cries, just give up, just quit, just close to doors, it’s not worth it.
But those doors can’t just close.
When the Yellow River flooded two men fell asleep just outside those doors – their car quit on them, refusing to start in three feet of water. So they started walking at 5 AM, only to be stopped by a police officer on that bridge. With nowhere else to go they lay down just outside those doors.
I asked them if I could call them a cab.
But they still had to wait in soaking wet clothes. It just so happened that Joe Bader gave me several suits months before, two of which wouldn’t quite button; and as they changed into dry clothes Pam McClure, the Pre School Director brought up snacks for them to eat while they waited.
I walked out with them when the cab finally came, and one of them said to me, “We’ve been knocking on doors for a long while, but yours was the only one that opened.”
So can we really just close these doors?
Just close the doors on the community we serve?
Just close the doors on the finest sacred music program in the county?
Just close the doors on youth ministry?
Just close the doors, curse God and die?
Job’s wife is here asking us the question, but I pray that Job is here with us too, providing us with the faithful answer, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”
I look back on our history, and during the good times we are eager to see God’s hand at work, pushing nice families through our doors as they moved out into a land of low crime, new houses, and great schools – but today, seeing God’s hand at work doesn’t take the eye tuned for progress, it takes an eye lit by faith.
We have been waiting for God to act – but I dare say God is acting!
After all – who ever said making it to the Promised Land would be easy!
So Moses addresses the people as they look out into the Promised Land – The law, faith, these are no idle words – “they are your life.”
And in the time where death closes in, tempts us to give up and quit, it is in this time of trial that you, the faithful, must once again choose life.
Choose to believe that in all of this…God is at work.
Choose to believe that it is in the times of trial that God calls forth the faithful to carry the flame of faith into the unknown, uncertain future.
You must choose to believe that it is even now that God is working in you, leading us all into the Promised Land, though all around us words of doubt spring up as though Satan himself were hoping we would give up before our work is done!
So will we simply curse God and die, here on our 35th Anniversary? Hardly! Today is the day when we once again choose life!
We choose faith, we choose hope, and we choose life.
Rise up O Church of God. From the ash heap, rise up, as your new day dawns.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Esther 7: 1-10, page 357
So the king and Haman went to dine with Queen Esther, and as they were drinking wine on that second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”
The Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life – this is my petition. And spare my people – this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.
King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
Esther said, “The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman.”
Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen. The king got up in a rage, left his wine and went out into the palace garden. But Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life.
Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining.
The king exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?”
As soon as the word left the kings mouth, they covered Haman’s face. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A gallows seventy-five feet high stands by Haman’s house. He had it made for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.”
The king said, “Hang him on it!” so they hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.
Esther 9: 20-22
Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
Correctly, my daughter Lily thinks that I am absolutely the coolest, most interesting and talented person alive. She is amazed, completely amazed by my dexterity, and will stare in awe as I open and close my hand like this.
I think she must think that I am a genius, and I imagine that she would enjoy nothing better than to sit in my lap as I teach her everything she needs to know.
But I know, because a lot of people have let me know, that I should enjoy these days while they last because one day, before I know it, my little girl will not be so little anymore, and her interest in the wisdom that I have to offer her will reach its end.
My little girl’s face – what today is a sweet, fat little face with kissable little cheeks often colored with sweet potatoes – will some unfortunate day be a face with cheeks that I’m not allowed to kiss because they’re colored by blush or something.
And to become the person she wants to become, to impress the people who she wants to impress, she’ll need a different kind of wisdom than what I posses.
That day came for Mordecai, the closest thing to a father Esther ever had. When she first left his house for the palace he never strayed far from the king’s gates even though he had already said everything she wanted to hear. The eunuchs took over, gave her lessons and beauty treatments to prepare her to meet the king, 6 months with oil and myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.
She had to learn new lessons – rules on how to look, how to walk, how to approach the king because she wasn’t one of a million poor little girls living life in the vast Persian Empire stretching from India to Egypt and she caught the break of a lifetime and became Queen in the most powerful man in the world’s court.
The wisdom she needed there was a wisdom that Mordecai could not have taught her, because Mordecai didn’t understand. He didn’t understand a world of feasts and excess as his was a world of famine and poverty. He didn’t understand a world of makeup and perfume as his was a world of dust and stench. He didn’t understand the world of a god-king whose will decided the fate of millions because Mordecai’s world was governed by the God of the Exodus, a God who would deliver the people from oppression in a foreign land, if not now than soon.
So when Mordecai ran into Haman, he didn’t know he was supposed to bow down, but his ignorance did not forgive his indiscretion – in fact, it sealed his fate and that of his people.
Based on his faith in his God, though, Mordecai believed that Esther must have been placed as Queen in this Persian Empire to deliver her people from the evil Haman’s plot.
But Esther is not so sure. She knows that there are rules to be followed and that it’s no simple thing to ask for a favor. At best his response will be a simple “no” –as just the act of asking will surely cost her life.
Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s love, but whatever it is Esther agrees to go to ask Xerxes to spare her people saying, “When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
She goes to him and she asks, even though, according to the rules of the empire, she knows the answer already.
She approaches Xerxes, knowing full well that this man cannot set the precedent of granting requests to anyone who asks, knowing full well that what she is doing breaks the law and ensures that she will forever lose her favored place in the court, she goes and asks knowing that the answer will be no and that she will surely die because of it, and she says to the King even though he won’t listen, “If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life – this is my petition. And spare my people – this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.”
I wonder what thoughts passed through her head during the silence that followed. Did she watch his face, or look at the ground; maybe she stared out a window knowing that her father would be hanged but she would not have to live to see it happen.
I wonder if she remembered days of sitting on his lap, his fingers wiping away sweet potatoes, and hearing stories of a God whose will shaped the history of the world, whose will had liberated the people from slavery and Egypt, and the promise that this God would save the people again.
The lessons Mordecai taught her about this God must have seemed like fairy tales - if only the world really worked that way. If only Mordecai’s stories were true, if only the powers of life and death didn’t rest in the hands of a fickle king.
I’ll just imagine it’s true, until my fate is sealed with the word “no.” But that word never came.
King Xerxes demanded, “Who is he? Where is the vile Haman who has dared to exterminate your father and the Jews?”
Imagine the joy Mordecai felt then as he recorded these events, as he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate…to celebrate the time when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration, because his daughter knew the answer to the question, but she asked it anyway.
If only we could be so bold – but what we have learned about the world and how it works almost always prevents us from asking such questions.
We’ve learned that we live in a world disinterested with religion.
We’ve learned that people would rather sleep in on Sunday morning.
We’ve learned that it’s better to get ahead ourselves, that when we catch a lucky break we should take it, and that we can’t worry about everybody else because we need to be worried about ourselves.
So we put away those Bible stories to make our way in the world as Esther made her way in the Persian court. We don’t talk about what we believe, we don’t invite people to church, and we don’t dare hope for a world where there is enough for everyone. If we did we’d stick out, people would stare – think of all we’d stand to lose.
This afternoon in the Town Hall meeting following the 11:00 service you will be presented with some numbers that may incite worry, anger, maybe even panic. I think that the lessons we’ve been taught by the world, like the lessons Esther learned at court lead us to react one way, but our faith, like the faith Mordecai taught Esther will lead us to another.
Our church faces a great trial, but we’ve got to remember that there is a power beyond what meets the eye at work in our world – a power that the world never takes into account.
So let us remember Esther – whose common sense told her one thing, but who nonetheless asked for the impossible, only to find that the God who liberated the people from Egypt was still at work – putting heroes in place, shaping the mind of a king, to save the people again.
Her common sense told her that she should think rationally.
Her common sense told her that all was lost.
And her common sense told her that coincidence, luck, and the will of the king governed the world.
But Mordecai told her that she had been placed here for a reason – for just such a time as this. And today I am bold enough to believe the same thing – that we are all here today for a reason, that we are here today because this is a day when the future of this church needs you the most.
May we be bold – trusting that the God who turns sorrow to joy and mourning into a day of celebration is still at work in the world calling the ways of the world into question – proving once again that the final word does not come from the king, from the bank, from the economy, but from the God who liberated the people from Egypt, set the people free from the vile Haman, and who will work through you to make what seems impossible possible.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Sermon for Jim

1 Peter 5: 10 and 11, page 859
And the God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To God be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Jimmy Frank Hodges, by his own description grew up in a very, very rich family… who didn’t have any money.
You might say he was a surprise to his middle age parents – the only child of Edna Mae and Benjamin Franklin Hodges, both who had children in previous marriages.
Jimmy Frank, or Jim, was his mother’s treasure, and Edna Mae Hodges was not the treasuring type necessarily. In fact, according to Jim, she was the shoot a shot-gun from the hip type. Even the shoot a shot-gun from the hip killing a dog if it meant protecting her son type.
And she had to learn to shoot, as Jim’s father, Benjamin Franklin Hodges, only had one hand, having lost his left to a circular saw as a boy shoveling saw-dust in a mill.
Jim told stories about this hand, stories, that according to Carol Hodges, Jim’s beautiful wife and friend since the 3rd grade are not exaggerations or made up stories, but are, as they say in Texas, so-tales.
One tale goes that not long after the accident, Jim’s father got a horrible itch in the place his left hand would have been. We non-Texans call these things phantom pains, but back home a wise woman in the general store told Jim’s father that to get the itching to stop he would have to dig up that hand where he buried it, and put it some where safe.
Benjamin Franklin Hodges dug up that hand where he had buried it, to find it covered in ants. He swatted the ants away, brushed it off, and put it in a mason jar of preservatives for safe keeping.
He then took the hand back to that wise woman of the general store who put it up on a shelf for the whole town to see it.
I love this story. Not only because someone I love told it, apparently over and over again, but it hints at a temptation Jim’s father surely fought, but triumphed over, as not only did this young man lose his hand, but he then had to see it over and over again. He was continually reminded of what he lost not only by the stub at the end of his wrist, but by a perfectly preserved left hand. I think I would have been tempted to spend days looking into that Mason jar, thinking of how it appeared as though it could just be attached right back on, but instead it was left to do nothing but sit there on the shelf of the general store.
At the very least it must have been a constant sign, making Benjamin Franklin Hodges one who looked forward to the time our scripture passage alludes to – a day when Christ himself will restore you, make you whole again once the hardship is over.
But there’s no reason to believe Jim ever suffered because of his father’s missing hand. In fact, it sounds as though what he lost made him all the more thankful for what life had given. So no appendage was ever taken from Jim in an accident – though I think everyone who he loved knew that he willingly gave of some part of himself every single day of his life.
He never lost a hand, but to his friends he dedicated himself, gave his time, his thoughts, and his prayers.
He never lost a hand, but to his God he gave his faith, put his trust, so much so that when I asked on his hospital bed not two weeks ago what worries he still had he only told me that he wasn’t sure whether or not Carol quite understood the car maintenance schedule. Thank goodness he has a mechanic son in-law, he said. He never lost a hand, but to his God he put his trust, and he looked forward to the day he would see Jesus face to face and his body would be whole again.
He never lost a hand, but to his family he gave his whole heart—dedicated himself, invested his time, and coordinated his life around them. He never lost a hand to preserve in a jar and put up on a shelf, but Jim Hodges gave his heart to his wife, never stopped thinking of his daughters or the men they married, and always lived with sunshine in his soul and a smile on his face because of his grandchildren.
He never lost a hand, but don’t we look to the space he used to fill and know that today we not only celebrate the life of an important man, but that today we mourn the passing of a man who gave us so much of himself that we will always be reminded of what we have lost.
And when will we be restored?
When will the missing pieces be put back in place?
We have some heavenly promise in our scripture lesson, ensuring us that Jim’s suffering is now over, but what about the suffering that we face in the wake of his death?
There are parts that will just never be the same again, always different, never quite right.
But to spend our days dwelling on what we’ve lost…that just wouldn’t be how Jim would have wanted it. No, Jim, was raised by a father who didn’t spend his time lamenting what he’d lost, he didn’t spend his days staring into a mason jar, wishing for some day before the accident or hoping to jump forward to heavenly restoration, but for whatever reason, was able to rejoice in what he’d been given.
We have lost something precious. Though some have lost more than others, we have all lost something in Jim Hodges.
What he would have us do, is not spend our time looking into a mason jar of loss, thinking only of how we wish it were, but Jim today would urge us to celebrate what we’ve gained by getting to the business of living according to this example.
Cameron Jones, Jim’s grand-daughter Britt’s husband, in letting friends and family know about Jim’s passing in an email ended his message with the words, “More than letting you know what’s going on in our family I hoped to inspire you the way Pappy (Jim) would like you to be – namely, to live life to its fullest.. and then some.”
I tell you that my personal temptation is simply to cry over the loss of the man who believed in me more than I believed in myself on more than one occasion - but focusing on what we’ve lost is simply not what he would have wanted. His example demands that we live, giving of ourselves, our very hearts, to the ones who we love, living life to its fullest… and then some.
The day of suffering has ended for our Jim, as it will for us all. But until that day, that day when restoration comes by the hand of Christ himself, I urge you to live as the one who we mourn lived – giving of yourself, living life to its fullest, and loving as though you were giving away your own heart.

The Invitation

Song of Songs 2: 8-13, page 480
Listen! My lover!
Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My love is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice.
My lover spoke and said to me, “Arise my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”
Every fall feels like something new is starting, and I think that’s because as a student, in high school, and then in college, the fall meant football games, which then meant Homecoming.
And Homecoming made me nervous because it always meant I had to ask someone on a date.
Now when women think of being asked on dates, they experience something totally different from what men feel. I don’t think that women quite understand what it’s like for us. One afternoon in High School my Mom was cooking in the kitchen and I was looking in the refrigerator and she casually said, “So who are you asking to the Homecoming dance Joe?”
“I don’t know Mom. It’s like two weeks away.”
“Well you better ask soon. Those girls have to buy dresses, corsages, shoes, get their hair done… Do you have anyone in mind?”
“I might Mom.”
“All you have to do is ask Joe.”
“I know Mom.”
“You know Joe, if I had any idea how afraid 14 year old boys were of girls I would have been a much more confident 14 year old girl.”
Even now I look back on asking Sara out on our first date and I know that what I was experiencing was not joy; I was no gazelle leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills. In fact, rather than leaping or bounding , my legs were jelly, my teeth were clenching, and my stomach was tightening with the true pain of being in love with someone knowing the risk involved in letting that person know how you feel.
So at some point we summon all the courage – we walk up or pick up the phone to offer the invitation.
Thank goodness you women don’t remember it this way – no – from your perspective the whole thing happens quite differently. There’s excitement, there’s confidence, and there’s that true joy of knowing that you are wanted and that you are in control.
“My lover spoke and said to me, arise my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.”
But I want you to know that’s not how it really happened. It was much more like, “Uh, Sara, I don’t know if you’re doing anything this Friday, but, I mean, if you don’t have anything going on, I understand if you do, but if you don’t, I would really like to take you to dinner and a movie this Friday night.”
Love looks like that; it’s only poetry in retrospect, because in the moment inviting someone into your heart isn’t pretty.
It’s risky, but you do it any way because you don’t have a choice, so you offer the invitation in the hope that your heart might be something desirable, that your companionship might be better than being alone, you take your feelings and you put them out there, and then you wait to see if those feelings will be returned.
And maybe you wait behind the wall, gazing through the windows and “peering through the lattice.” Too afraid to knock on the door, but you can’t go very far because once you’ve offered someone your heart even if you want to run away you can’t get very far without your heart.
Now waiting this way, trying to steal a peak at this person who you love in the hope that seeing them might reveal something about the way the feel about you is very different from what is described in today’s first scripture lesson. David rose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace, and from the roof he looked down to see a woman bathing.
The difference between the two young men, the one described by the Song of Songs and on the other hand, King David, is this: the young man who hides behind the lattice wants to give this young woman something – something very special, but very fragile. He wants to give this young woman his heart. David on the other hand looked down from his roof top and his eyes met something he wanted, and he used his power to take it.
On the one hand you have the beginnings of love, and on the other hand is something much less.
Love is initiated by an invitation, an offer that in the hands of the invitee is a choice – you say yes or you say no, you feel the same way or you don’t. There is a great risk taken in this situation, as if the answer is no then the young man walks away with a broken heart.
On the other hand, King David’s heart would not have been broken if Bathsheba had not been brought to him. For him there was no risk at all – he didn’t even have to talk to her. There was no invitation, there was no risk, and the power to initiate or end the relationship never left David’s hands.
That is not what love looks like, and so God’s love for us is not represented by King David, but by the young man who has offered this young woman his heart, invited her in the hopes that he has something to offer her, and she has the power to say yes or say no.
Just as Christ is referred to as the Bridegroom to the church in the book of Revelation, so here, God’s love is like that of a young boy in love – fragile and sacred.
The young man has something to offer us. Like a young man with a heart full of love God does not look down on us seeing something that God wants or needs, but seeing us and knowing that God might just be able to make us happy, God offers us God’s heart in the hopes that God’s love for us will be received and returned in kind.
While the invitation is something that can change our lives for the better it would not be love if we were required to accept the invitation.
Those of us who have offered our hearts to someone can feel some kinship with God, and can then look to the cross to see a love poured out for a people, and the savage marks of rejection.
But don’t be so bold as to pity God.
God doesn’t want your pity.
Just know this – that when your heart has been broken, God knows the temptation that you face. To hid your heart away and never love again.
God knows what that feels like. But three days later he came back and offered us his heart again.
The temptation is to hide our hearts away after the love we offer is rejected.
But this isn’t an alter call – it’s a call to action. To boldly offer the same invitation that God offers you.
We offer our children our hearts, and then one day that child lies to your face and breaks your heart. But a parent cannot be a parent by hiding a broken heart away, but only by putting your heart out there to be broken again and again can parents exhibit the love that parenthood requires.
To grow up means to weather relationships, some good, and some that make you stronger. But to think that you can avoid the risk by holding a part of your heart back behind a wall makes any thing real impossible. To love and to be loved demands risk, demands the kind of risk that our God is willing to take.
We are called to love each other as God has loved us, and so you must offer your heart – the risk is huge, but it is the risk you must take to inherit the joy true love offers.
See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Here this invitation, and if you have forgotten what it means to be desired know that you are desired. Here this invitation, and if you have forgotten what it means to be loved then know that you are loved. Here this invitation and know that the one who loves you, whose heart is on the line for you, offers a new life with this invitation and this call to go and do likewise: “Arise come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Are You Waiting For?

Genesis 47: 27-31

Now the Israelites settled in Egypt in the region of Goshen. They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number.
Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven. When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.”
“I will do as you say,” he said.
“Swear to me,” he said. Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

I heard this story once about a class taught by the great poet, Maya Angelou. Apparently all kinds of people signed up for this class, if for nothing else, trusting that sitting before this wise woman would be enlightening in and of itself.
Many grew disappointed however, because the entire first class involved nothing more than learning everyone’s name. These students wanted to be learning something important – something only this wise woman, this poet laurite, could teach them and learning names of classmates seemed like a great waste of time. They stayed on however, knowing that the second class would be better, but the second class was identical to the first – once again spending the entire class learning names. I think at this point a few students quit coming, but most stayed on knowing that by the third class Maya Angelou would get to the business of teaching. The third class however, began as the first two – the only difference was that at the end of this third class Maya Angelou finally addressed them saying, “I know that it seems strange to have spent so much time learning each others names, but what is required for this class is that you listen to and respect each other. The first step then has to be taking the time to learn each others names.”
Names are important. I had a professor myself who said that there is no sweeter sound to any individual than the sound of their own name – it seems the first step in knowing someone as we know we matter to someone when they have learned our name – whether we are loved or hated isn’t nearly as important as knowing that we matter.
But to the reader of this passage, knowing one of the key characters is difficult, because you don’t know exactly what to call him – as Jacob and Israel is the same person.
Jacob – like Paul, Peter, Abraham, and Sarah is given a new name, Israel. But unlike Paul, Peter, Abraham, and Sarah, Jacob continues to be known as Jacob.
Back and forth then between Jacob and Israel, as though scripture wrestles between two names never sure how to really call this guy.
Or, we can know this Jacob-Israel if we know him by the conflict between two names.
Even in the womb this man defined himself by conflict, fighting with his twin brother Esau, pulling him back by the ankle to be the first out of the womb.
Dissatisfied with second place, Jacob took it upon himself to swindle his older brother out of his birthright, and then tricked their father Isaac into giving him the blessing.
Wrestling with his brother for primacy, wrestling with his father for his blessing and approval, and on the bank of the Jabbok Jacob even wrestles God.
“I will not let you go unless you bless me”.
His adversary replied with a question, “What is your name?”
I’m confident that God already knows his name, only that God knows not only his name but his heart and so knew that this man would rather speak for himself - so “Jacob” he responded.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
But this wasn’t Jacob’s last struggle, he doesn’t stop fighting for many years, and we come to our passage for today – Joseph now a powerful man in Egypt, and Jacob puts his trust in Joseph, knowing that his favorite son will provide for his people, and that Joseph will return his father’s bones to rest with those of his ancestors.
In knowing that all his sons are settled in the land of Goshen in Egypt, far away from the famine that afflicted them in Canaan Jacob rests – his household and all his children acquired property and were fruitful and increased greatly in number.
And this is where Jacob’s wrestling with fate, wrestling and scheming to not only survive but to flourish is over, and “Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.”
It’s no tragedy that Israel made it to the point where he could worship – as it’s a point we all strive for – to rest, finally, knowing that our children are taken care of, that our people will be provided for. To finally reach the finish line. To have sized life with both hands and made something of himself, something that would last, something that ensured the safety and wellbeing of the people he loved – yes Jacob’s wrestling is over, and he “worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.”
But the words that describe the people’s prosperity in Egypt, “They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number” are haunting words, because these words are used by the Pharaoh generations down the road, “Look he said to his people, the Israelites have become too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave our country.
So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor.”
And when this oppression doesn’t work to stifle the growth of Jacob’s decedents, Pharaoh gave “this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile.”
The death of a son is something that Jacob knew only too well. When he was lead to believe that his favorite son Joseph was killed by wild animals he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.”
If he knew that this same pain would be felt by so many of his descendents.
If he knew that just when he rested and worshiped, leaned on the top of his staff his family wasn’t safe and poised to prosper, but by leading them into Egypt he had set the stage for the horror of slavery and the slaughter of the innocents.
In wrestling, it was as though fate rested in his hands, and just as he thought all was well, that he had wrestled life into submission, we readers know that Jacob’s people will soon be at the mercy of powers bigger and stronger than they.
For so long he trusted in his own strength, his own wisdom, and he thought he had finally gotten where he needed to be.
But only God would get him out of Egypt again.
I don’t know of a hero of the Bible with a stronger will – more determined to make it by his own means, wrestling with this God whose will works beyond his own. But here he worships God, and it almost seems sad to see the fight end, seemingly too soon.
Maybe he is just too old to do anything else besides trust – to lean on his maker as he leans on his staff – unable to stand any longer on his own two feet.
Or maybe in this moment he reflects on the providence of God – the invisible hand at work taking the evil deed of his older sons – throwing Joseph into a cistern and then selling him into slavery – and through this deed making a way for his people to prosper on the banks of the Nile rather than starve in the famine of Canaan.
But more likely, and more consistent with his character, Jacob had waited until his work was over and his wrestling done, waited until he had ensured the prosperity of his people – but we know from the perspective of the Exodus, that this belief of ensured prosperity is built on false pretenses, and that further down the road their prosperity leads directly towards their oppression.
Like those who trusted their retirement to Bernie Madoff, the security Jacob rested in wouldn’t last.
Is it a tragedy then, that the patriarch Israel isn’t able to ensure the prosperity of his people? That he rests and worships before his work is done?
It would only be a tragedy if we waited to rest in the Lord until we thought everything were in it’s place, all our ducks in a row, because we know from this story of the end of Jacob’s wrestling that all our ducks will never be in a row.
We know, not that Jacob worships in vain, but that he didn’t need to wait to worship the God who not only got the people out of famine and into Egypt, but who will get them out from under Egypt’s slavery and into the promised land.
We are here to worship the one who controls what is beyond our control – who takes what we intended for harm, and intends it for good to accomplish what is now being done – we worship God, today because there has to come a time where wrestling ends and worship begins.
So what are you waiting for?
Are you waiting for conflict to end so that worship can begin?
Are you waiting for security, guaranteed stability before you can look out on the future with hope?
Are you waiting for peace on earth when peace in your heart is possible now?
There must be a time when wrestling gives way to worship, when worry gives way to hope, when faith in ourselves gives way to faith in God.
We don’t need to wait to worship God – because what we know from scripture is that our God will make a way, our God will provide, and our God will prevail.
Here we are, to worship the God whose will prevails when we can wrestle no longer.