Sunday, August 31, 2014

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?

Exodus 3: 1-15, OT page 50 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people, who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Sermon Curiosity can be dangerous. You can tell that much from any number of books where the main character peeked around a corner, pulled a sword from a stone, or climbed into a mysterious wardrobe and so began a life altering adventure, but the same thing happens in real life too. My mother and father-in-law brought a new puppy home and she was curious, poking her nose around rocks and into holes on the ground. Before long a snake bit her right on the nose. I’m not any different. I remember a drive through our old neighborhood, several cars were stopped and a group of people was standing around looking at something in the middle of the street. Naturally I got out of my car to see what all the excitement was about and next thing I knew, I was elected to try and remove an alligator snapping turtle from the middle of the road. The same kind of thing can happen at a church. A curious person sticks her nose in the door of a church and who know what might happen next. Rev. Sarah Hayden, a seminary classmate who now works for our denomination’s New Church Development Commission, once told the story of how her family came to join their first Presbyterian Church. A new church building had been under construction near their neighborhood and when the construction was finished and the opening worship service was scheduled, her father suggested that they go and check it out. The family walked in and considering how often one church is just like all the other ones, they approached a man holding a stack of bulletins by the door into the sanctuary, but instead of handing each member of the family one this man handed Sarah’s father the whole stack saying, “You must be the one who supposed to hand out the bulletins.” “Actually, no I’m not,” her father said, “We’ve never been here before and we just wanted to check it out.” “Well,” the man said, “you hand out the bulletins.” That was years ago – Sarah’s now a Presbyterian minister and I think her family is still a member of that very church – and that’s how curiosity is – you see something interesting and decide to see what it’s all about and next thing you know your life goes in a direction you never could have expected. That’s how it was for Moses too. He was as far away from Pharaoh as he could get – not just in the wilderness but our 2nd Scripture lesson says that he was tending the flocks of his father-in-law beyond the wilderness. I think “beyond the wilderness” is out on the other side of Culleoka – and while he’s there not thinking about Egypt any more, not thinking about the Israelite family of his birth nor was he thinking about the family who adopted him, Pharaoh’s daughter who drew him out of the water in a basket and raised him in the palace until that day he lost his temper and killed the Egyptian who was beating an Israelite. He left all that behind just as he left behind the body of that Egyptian taskmaster, hiding his body in the sand. So there he was, he’d distanced himself as far as he could from his past and started a new life with a wife, children, and flocks to tend – life was just fine, the past was in the past and the future was secure – until he got curious about a bush that blazed without being consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up,” but this curiosity like all curiosity has the potential to be, led Moses into the presence of God – and once we find ourselves in the presence of God it’s best to be prepared for life to move in directions we never could have expected. That how it was with me. We just went to church when I was kid, and my parents would teach Sunday School and in the service we’d stand up and sing when we were supposed to, I’d bow my head and close my eyes when I was supposed to, and I knew the service was almost over…finally… when Dr. Jim Speed stood in front of us with his arms up saying the words of our 1st Scripture Lesson as his benediction. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” he’d say – and he’d say it as though we were actually supposed to do it. Go pocking your nose in a hole and you might get bit by a snake. Walk over to a group of people looking at something in the street and end up responsible for a snapping turtle. Get out of bed, get dressed, show up at the church – and it’s possible to leave here no different from how you walked in - but if you’re open to hearing God’s voice you better be careful or you’ll wind up going places and saying things that will dredge up the past and re-chart your future. Moses just wanted a closer look, and next thing he knew the God of his ancestors was telling him, “The cry of the Israelites has come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” The Lord had heard their cry, and I am confident that the Lord hears the cry of the oppressed even now. The quite weeping of the sweat shop worker, the mourning wails of the mother whose children are torn away, the father who can’t make ends meet, and the child who sits hungry in the classroom in every school in Maury County. We want to know when someone is going to do something about it – when it’s going to get better – where are the jobs, the justice, the healthcare, and the wisdom? Where is the one who is going to get us out of this – who can make it better – who can bind up our wounds, get the job done, and finally fix up all that has gone so badly wrong? It’s easy to wonder where God is – or if God knows. Where has God been? And I think I know. God’s been calling, waiting on you to answer.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Moses was spared

Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, OT page 49 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” Sermon The Israelite people came to live in Egypt; from the time Joseph saved his brothers and their families from the famine in the land Promised to Abraham and his descendants, they lived in Egypt and they died Egypt, many of their children were born there with no memory of any other land besides the fields and river banks nourished by the Nile River. It’s in a time and place like that when you can hear grandparents interrupt their grandchildren’s conversations concerning the fastest chariots or the best places to swim in the Nile with old stories about a homeland flowing with milk and honey. The grandparents wanted them to remember and prepare themselves to go back one day, but the grandchildren just wanted to fit in because that’s what grandchildren want to do. However, if a cat crawls into an oven to deliver her litter – they’re still kittens, not muffins. And in the same way just being born in Egypt doesn’t make one Egyptian any more than being born at Maury Regional makes you a local. In fact, just as the Israelites lived in Egypt you can live somewhere for years and years never quite belonging, though we all want to belong, whether in the place we were born or in the place we’ve adopted, so while my father-in-law who moved from Columbia, South America to Knoxville, Tennessee always planning on moving back home eventually, he did try to fit in at the University of Tennessee. He landed in Knoxville to study architecture while still just getting a grasp of the basics of the English language. Not yet grasping all the nuances, a couple nice church ladies asked him on the sidewalk if he’d been saved and he assumed they were asking him about his bank account. Then one of his first times through the cafeteria line at breakfast he asked for a biscuit with groovy instead of a biscuit with gravy. This was the 60’s so you can imagine how he’d make the mistake. Fortunately the cafeteria lady on the other side of the serving line laughed and so did he because he’s the kind of guy who can laugh at himself, but even still, fitting in is a serious business. Nobody wants to feel like the new guy forever. Sooner or later we all want to be one of the group laughing and talking in the cafeteria instead of the one on the outside sitting alone, just watching the others laughing and talking. From the outside looking in it seems like they’ve known each other forever, and to be one of them, if you’re lonely enough, you’ll do just about anything. That’s why these midwives are worth remembering. That’s why not even Pharaoh is named in our second Scripture lesson – he’s just called Pharaoh - but here in Exodus they are referred to not as two midwives but as Shiphrah and Puah. Remember their names because they had this chance to please the king of Egypt but they chose instead to honor their God. And they knew what pleasing him would have meant. They knew what disappointing him would have meant too. Already he had ordered the execution of babies, and just as he was capable of great evil so also in his words they may have heard an invitation to something good. A part of them must have been ready to do what he asked, as there is a part of all of us ready to walk down the easy path and away from who we are and who we should be. There’s a man at the County Fair who knows that well enough – so he tells you that a good father will pay three dollars to throw a shoe and knock over some cans to win his daughter a prize. Now you want to be a good father don’t you? The grocery store knows it too – so they don’t just sell food, it’s not just cereal in that box, the commercials say that it’s fuel for a school day, a ticket to academic excellence, or even worse – they’ll tell you that having this or providing that will make you a good mother. You want to be a good mother don’t you? It’s not just in High School where the one whose self-worth constantly hangs in the balance of what other people say walks a precarious line – every man and woman who seeks acceptance from the world faces the worst kind of danger day in and day out – it doesn’t matter how many hours you work, you could still work more, how many people you please, there will still be expectations unmet. Despite whatever Pharaoh threatened or promised, they chose to remain Shiphrah and Puah – remember their names and be like them, let the God who created you define who you are. They made the choice to save those Hebrew babies – they chose to listen to their heart rather than the voice of a sin sick world – and that same choice is yours today. The standards of our world will tell you how to act and speak – but the ways of this world must not be your ways. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Do not be conformed to this world for you don’t belong to this world any more than Moses belonged to the Pharaoh’s palace. Do not be conformed to this world, but honor the God who created you, the one who will spare you as Moses was spared. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

It was not you who sent me here

Genesis 45: 1-15, OT page 42 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; God has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there – since there are five more years of famine to come – so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. Sermon There was a young woman, a friend of a friend, just moved to New York City, living in her very first apartment just large enough to sleep in, working her very first job that just paid her enough to survive, so when a co-worker asked her to stay in her apartment and care for her cat while she went on vacation this young woman was excited to oblige. The apartment was wonderful – air conditioned, full kitchen, cable TV, and all she had to do was keep the cat – the only problem was that on the third day the cat died. She felt horrible, as you can imagine, and rehearsed the phone call a few dozen times before finally calling the cat owner and delivering the bad news. Fortunately for the young woman, the cat owner understood completely as the cat was 14 years old, her only request was that she go ahead and deliver the cat’s body to the vet’s office where they would handle the remains. But unfortunately, the young woman was so relieved that she hung up the phone before realizing that she didn’t have a car to drive the cat across town to the vet. How would she transport the cat then? She couldn’t walk – it was too far. She didn’t have enough money for a taxi, and even if she did, she couldn’t just hold a dead cat in her arms – so she looked around the apartment and finally found an old brief case. She put the cat in it and went down to the subway, got on the train and sat down, the brief case on the floor between her feet, and she tried hard not to act like anything at all was the matter. A nice looking young man sat down next to her. After a little while he nudged her and looking down at the brief case asked her if she was on her way to work. “Yes I am as a matter of fact,” she replied with a little too much confidence, “just going in to the office with my trusty laptop,” she said looking down at the brief case. Then she asked what he was on the way to – he was headed to the Met to enjoy some artwork since it was his day off, or something like that – well she loved the Met too and it turned out that’s not the only thing that they had in common, so at some point in the conversation this young woman began to wonder if she was about to be asked out on her first date in New York City with a dead cat between her feet. But before that could happen, train came to a stop, the young man grabbed that brief case and ran out of the train never to be seen again. Now I tell you this because it’s not every story that ends so well. The story of the young woman who moves to a new place and is robbed blind has been told and told again – which goes right along with news reports of the Ebola Virus – a disease that shows no mercy nor partiality, or the war in Palestine that has flared up again and has little hope of ever ending, the murder of children in Iraq – a place where hatred is not in short supply, protests in Missouri where mothers and fathers call for revenge, and the suicide of Robyn Williams that shines a bright light on the kind of suffering that will hide behind a smile. You’ve heard such stories and know them well enough; hear then another kind of story – where suffering was not meaningless, where brothers came face to face and found reconciliation, where everything did turn out happily ever after, where revenge would have been so easy but forgiveness was given instead. The story begins with a little brother who didn’t know when to stop talking about himself, so his brothers helped him find his way to a pit with no water in it – and he looked up waiting for the joke to be over and saw his brothers looking down on him in it, glad to have put him in his place. It turns out they weren’t just joking, they meant to get rid of him, so there were chains next as they sold him for silver coins, then a long journey to a world he’d never seen surrounded by words he couldn’t understand, and he was helpless to do anything about it. He went from the chains of a slave to the cell of a prisoner wrongly accused, though the rats and the guards, neither cared that he was innocent – and each day passed slowly, alone with his memories of the brothers who got him there in the first place. You can imagine that he was ready for the moment when he would finally see them again. Probably he had rehearsed his words and actions through a million times before. Only from his seat of power, having risen through the ranks of the Egyptian hierarchy, he not only sees the faces of his brother looking down on him from the edge of that pit in his minds eye, he sees also the hand of God leading him, sustaining and preserving him, lifting him up for just such a time as this. He said to them after so many years of rehearsing, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life… God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Such perspective, such maturity, such faith – all in short supply – so hear this uncommon story and know that it is true. Hold this story close when the devil convinces you that all hope is lost – that you’ve made the wrong step, that you’re too far from the path – hold this story close and remember the God who led Joseph from hardship by an invisible hand. Hold this story close when famine and disease strike fear in the world – and remember that our God still provides a way out of no way. Hold this story close when it is clear that you are the victim – and see your hardship through the lens of faith trusting that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” and nothing will separate you from the love of God. Hold this story close – when death knocks on the door whispering cold words of uncertainty and despair – hold this story close and remember the God who speaks life everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

They wanted to kill his dream

Genesis 37: 1-5 and 12-28, OT page 34 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” – that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. Sermon There’s something wonderful about summer but there’s something wonderful about the first week of school too. It even smells a certain way, and it’s a time of year full of transitions. The baby who’s been staying at home goes to pre-school for the first time, no longer a baby, and it seems like the teacher is there to console her when her Mama leaves the room but I’ve been consoled by a few teachers myself. Then the preschooler moves on to Kindergarten with a back-pack so big you could stuff the kid wearing it down into it. They walk around so proud, wide eyed and excited, and their parents are excited too but they cry anyway. Middle School comes next and parents drop off a child at the beginning of the day but the kid who gets in the car in the afternoon is a foot taller than the one you dropped off. The new school khakis seem to last about a week. Then they’re off to High School – you send them into that great big place, maybe they even drive themselves. Before long it’s off to college, and the “goodbye” never goes right because these kinds of goodbyes are too difficult to say. How do you say everything you need to say before leaving him in the dorm room? Don’t drink and drive, study hard, don’t stay up too late, try to meet some nice friends - I’ll miss you more than I can say and the house is going to be so empty without you in it. You can’t say all that – so you just try to get him everything he needs – new sheets and a shower caddy. There are so many changes – phases of growing up and saying goodbye to what was so constant just the day before. But that’s the way that it is and that’s the way that it always has been, and that’s the way that it is supposed to be so give thanks if that’s how it’s progressing at your house. And the kindergartner’s new back pack, the new school clothes, the shower caddy for college – it’s not so different from that cloak with the nice long sleeves that Jacob, now called Israel, gave to Joseph, the son closest to his heart. Israel sent him off to find his brothers, just as parents have always sent off their children, not knowing exactly what they’re sending him off to. So off goes Joseph wearing his new school clothes, off he goes to join his big brothers, however while the dreamer walks towards them they are plotting to kill their little brother’s dreams. Now there’s something for all parents to fear. She goes off to conquer the world, ready to be a doctor and a nurse and a teacher and a babysitter, but the world will scoff at her dreams because that’s what the world does. Go into a 1st grade class and ask those students to raise their hand if they’re a musician – every hand will go up, because James takes piano lessons and Susie can play the maraca – but go into a 10th grade class and see how many hands go up. The world will take your dreams. Joseph’s brothers don’t want to hear any more about how he’s the center of the universe. They’ve heard enough, and now they’re ready to silence the dreamer, willing to kill him even if in killing the dreamer they can kill his dreams too. We all walk off into a world where to try means to fail, maybe even most of the time. We walk down the hall and off to the lunch room to be excluded maybe more often that we’re embraced. To apply for a job means to risk not being chosen. To put up a campaign sign may well mean having to take it down the day after Election Day not having gained anything beyond a broken heart. To try for American Idol may mean walking out onto a stage to applause only to walk off it in tears. And I know this to be the world that we live in so I walked my daughter to her kindergarten class and there was such a part of me ready to take her home where I can keep her and her dreams intact. I just wanted to keep her home. But a parent can kill a child’s dreams too. And the only way Joseph’s dreams were going to come to fulfillment was for him to face his brothers, for them to throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery so that he would rise to power in Egypt and save his entire family from famine, no longer the little brother, but the dream fulfilled in him he became the great man God created him to be. The world is a challenging place, but it is the only place where dreams become reality. So go out into the world, and when disappointment and trial comes, know that temporary disappointment is a precursor to greater accomplishments – that today’s heartache will give way to tomorrow’s joy – for through our God, the dreamer’s dream will be fulfilled. Amen.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Genesis 32: 22-31, OT page 30 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Penuel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Sermon My first job out of college was in lawn maintenance, which is a fancy way of saying that after four years of college I cut grass for a living. It was one of the nice companies in Atlanta, we rode around Buckhead in a nice truck and used expensive equipment, but seven dollars an hour only attracts a certain kind of person so the crew included illegal immigrants, convicted felons, and me, a religion major. The convicted felon's name was Doug, and not only was he the most knowledgeable employee of the company, he was also the kindest. He made every effort to learn Spanish just to make the guys fresh from their border crossing feel more comfortable. He showed up on time and he worked hard, and he was the one who would answer my questions when I didn’t know where to hide the grass clippings or how to start the mower. From time to time it would rain in the course of a day, and when it did there I sat in the truck in-between Doug and Shaun, because the new guy always had to sit in the middle, and Shaun wouldn’t talk too much, but Doug would talk and to pass the time he’d often tell us stories about prison. We usually ate lunch at a picnic table outside a BP station, but when it rained we’d eat sandwiches in the truck and Doug would look at his sandwich which reminded him of when he was locked up and how sometimes he’d get work detail, and when lunch time finally came the guy with the cleanest shovel would heat his shovel up over the fire and the whole crew would use it as a frying pan for their baloney. Then he’d pause, look at his sandwich again – this one that consisted of French bread and Boar’s Head chicken from the sub-station of Publix, and he’d say that sometimes the days went by so slow, but then one day you finally get out of there and all of a sudden you realize how much time has passed, how many Christmases had gone by, how you’d all of a sudden see your son and daughter all grown up because you missed what seems like everything. The world keeps spinning, and on the day you go back home you come face to face with your past. Now Jacob was never in prison, but our second Scripture lesson tells the story of the night before he had to rise and face his brother. So many years had gone by since Jacob tricked Esau into trading him his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew – surely Jacob wondered if his brother would even recognize him after so many years, if he would recognize his brother. And then there’d be wives he’d never met who married his brother at weddings where he never gave a toast. There’d be his brother’s children for Jacob to meet for the very first time, only they wouldn’t all be children now, and how does an uncle make up for all those birthday presents he never gave? How much time had passed since the day Esau came in from hunting famished to the point of starving, and rather than simply give his brother something to eat, instead Jacob made him trade the stew for his birthright – would enough time have passed for Esau to forgive him? That’s the thing that Jacob doesn’t know. And for a man who knows how to take control, not knowing is about the worst thing that there is. Even in the birth canal Jacob wasn’t one to lie down and just let things happen, just let his brother be the first, so the twins were born, Esau first but Jacob just after holding tight to his brother’s ankle. Then years later, knowing that Esau as the oldest would be the one to inherit his father’s property and blessing, Jacob fought to make a name for himself and it was Jacob who was blessed by Isaac. The one who makes it in this world will do so fighting tooth and nail – now that’s what Jacob learned, and that’s a fine lesson to learn for the one who leaves never to return, the one who runs away from what’s been done and what’s been left undone. The one who wants only to win has no need for mercy. The one who never slips doesn’t need to be picked up. And the one who always runs away must struggle to understand forgiveness. That’s how I was at 8 or 9. On that day I was ready to run and never go back – anything but face the lifeguard who had to ask my friends and me to leave the neighborhood pool. When I came home early that afternoon and spilt the beans my parents gave me two options: either turn around and apologize to that lifeguard or never go back to the pool again. I assured my parents that I’d be fine staying at home – because I’m like most human beings. When given the choice between facing the person I’ve hurt and running away there’s a part of me that is ready to run every single time. This is the human condition according to Paul, so some are cut off simply because they run from their sin rather than seek forgiveness, run from their demons rather than face them, the story is as old as time for Adam and Eve chose to hide in the Garden rather than face their Creator. So the prisons are said to be filled with the innocent, the churches with the self-righteous, and the sign in Bucky’s says that “To err is human, but to blame someone else show’s management potential.” The powerful set our example by never admitting to much, the closet we’ll hear to an apology is a statement that “mistakes were made,” and so broken fences are never really mended but the walls between neighbors grow ever higher. Guilt is perpetual and sleep ever allusive as humanity wrestles with the reality of sin while refusing to face our brothers who we’ve betrayed. That’s why you can be sitting right next to someone while still being miles away – sin creating such a wall of division, silence slowing down time; your only hope rests in the words that are the hardest to say – “I was wrong.” “I’m sorry.” And the longer those words go unsaid the greater the divide grows. You stand at the edge of it looking down – it sure can be deep and it sure can be wide – so you just make a life there on the edge of it and you can live for years – unreconciled, unforgiven, pretending not to notice those friends of yours having such a good time at the pool on the other side because you’re not man enough to apologize for what you’ve done. That makes the devil’s work easy, for the self-righteous create their own hell. But my father couldn’t take it. Next thing I knew he was driving me to the pool and walking me right up to the life guard stand where I stood in silence for some moments before blurting out, “I’m sorry for not listening to you when you blew your whistle and told us to get out of the pool.” I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, and it seems foolish to have been so afraid, but thanks be to God for conquering my pride. Jacob wrestled through the night, and it is only when his hip is dislocated that he is victorious. Only in defeat is there salvation. As far as I can tell there is only one unforgiveable sin – refusing to bow before the throne of God saying, “Forgive me Lord for I am a sinner.” We all must come face to face with what we have done, and for Jacob that morning came. The sun rose full of grace on Israel, and he limped towards his brother and towards reconciliation because he knew when to admit defeat. Let this day be the day when you do the same. There is no shame is confession – for failure is a part of being alive, and the God who created you is ever more ready to forgive than you are to confess. Give voice to the guilt of your heart this day – for the reality of our Savior Christ is this – there is grace enough to cover all our sin. Thanks be to God. Amen.