Sunday, August 28, 2016

Like family . . .

Hebrews 13:1-8     Common English Bible (CEB)  

13 Keep loving each other like family. 2 Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. 3 Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place. 4 Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery. 5 Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you.  6 This is why we can confidently say,

The Lord is my helper,
    and I won’t be afraid.
What can people do to me?

7 Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith as you consider the way their lives turned out. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!

There is a picture (aka a meme) going around on Facebook at the moment that says, “I told you to Love God, your neighbor, yourself, those who love you, your enemies.  Doesn’t leave you a great deal of wiggle room, does it?  That’s the point.”  and at the bottom it says, “Jesus, only slightly paraphrased.”  You’re intended to laugh, and then to seriously think about it.  Apparently Christians have always had trouble with the love commandment.  Because here is Paul . . . well, not really Paul.  But someone who was probably a student of Paul’s, and writing in his name, which was a perfectly acceptable practice at the time . . .

Sidebar:  for those who haven’t already heard this a thousand times.  In those days, and even up through the Renaissance period and beyond, it was common for a student to imitate his teacher’s work and even put the teacher’s name on his own writings or works of art.   This was because until that student had mastered his craft everything he produced reflected on the master/teacher, and therefore had to be attributed to him.  Kind of like when a child tries to leave the house wearing clothing that her parents totally disapprove of, and her mother says, “Oh, no you don’t.  No child of mine is going out in public looking like that!”   As a result, a number of the letters we commonly attribute to Paul really weren’t written by Paul, but by one of his students who wrote them in his name. Sometimes those writings say things that are the total opposite of things the authentic Pauline letters said, in which case the letters may have been written in Paul’s name to give these new ideas authority.  

Anyway . . . in this part of this particular letter, which wasn’t even really a letter but rather a sermon, the writer is trying to help his audience understand the love commandment a little better.   He says, “Here are some things that constitute “love.”  Do these things.”  He doesn’t say, “And lots of other things.  These are just a few of the things you should do.”  But, let’s just look at these things he named.

The first one is “Love each other like family.”  That’s seems easy enough.  Unless you have a really dysfunctional family, an abusive family, an absent family.  What if you were raised in the foster system?  Not to give away much from next week’s message, but Jesus did at one point say, “if you do not hate your mother and your father, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, you cannot be my follower.”  I think, therefore, that “love each other like family” means “love these new people in your lives, these church people, these Jesus following people.  Love them warts and all.  Be honest with one another, care for each other’s welfare.”  Do you know how in 12 Step meetings (that you’ve probably seen on TV) the speaker will say, “Hi.  My name is Harriet and I’m a whatever,” and everyone else says “Hi Harriet.”  Sometimes Harriet will respond by saying, “Hi Family.”  Because in 12 Step groups we tend to think of ourselves as a family.  We don’t all like each other, but we all care about each other in a very special way.  If I get a call from someone having a rough night, even if I really dislike them, I’m going to listen and help the best I can.  That’s loving each other like family.  That’s how church is supposed to be, too.  Love each other like family.

Don’t neglect to open your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.”  This is a pretty clear reference to Abraham, who provided hospitality to two strangers who turned out to be actual messengers from God.  Anyone could be a messenger from God.  From the beginning of time, hospitality - opening one’s home to guests has been the most consistent and important rule for all peoples.  I know that we all say things like, Italians will feed you till you burst, or you can’t get out of a Mexican household without being fed, or an African American house, or a Filipino house.  My grandmother from Ireland used to say, “You can always drop another potato in the pot.”  In fact, I don’t know of any nationality that doesn’t brag on how hospitable they are when guests come by.  Not everyone who comes by will be an angel.  Maybe none of the people we welcome will be angels.  Nevertheless,  we need to open our doors - our church doors and the doors of our hearts - to all comers, no matter who they are. Love each other like family.  

Remember prisoners as if you had been in prison with them.  In Pomona there is a UCC/DOC new church start called Urban Mission.  This church really was founded as a missional congregation.  They started doing their mission work in a rough part of Pomona - distributing food and clothing, providing hot meals, and working with prisoners -  months before their first worship service.  One part of their mission involves working with prisoners.  Not in what we think of as “traditional” prison ministry but in helping prisoners get integrated back into the community when they are released.  They hold job fairs, they work with probation officers and courts, they offer a variety of seminars on how to live outside, how to re-establish family ties.  They do amazing work - and they care as if they had been in prison together with these men and women.  Love each other like family.

remember …people who are mistreated as if you were in their place.”  The victims of rape, domestic violence, verbal and emotional abuse.  The mentally ill and developmentally challenged.  Victims of hate crimes - no matter what the reason, whether it be on account of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or whatever. Victims of oppression of any kind.  It is very hard for us to imagine what it’s like to be someone we are not, to imagine being in the place of someone so very different from us.  But I suspect everyone here knows someone who is “different,” or has been victimized, or bullied. Care for them as if you share their same story, their same pain, their same fears.  Love each other like family.  

Marriage must be honored in every respect . . . because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery.”  As I am sure you all know, Marrying for love is a relatively new thing.   In the time this sermon was written, marriage was a matter of one man purchasing a woman from another man.  Adultery, at the time, was less about sexual impropriety and more about property rights.  Sleeping with another man’s wife or unmarried daughter was stealing his property just exactly as if you had helped yourself to his cow’s milk instead of buying it.  (That saying didn’t just come out of nowhere, you know.)  Stealing is not a loving thing to do.   Mistreating someone else’s property is not a loving thing to do.  A member of the military who gets a terrible sunburn can be punished for mistreating Government property, because he doesn’t belong to himself while he wears that uniform, and it is his responsibility to make sure the Government’s property is taken care of properly.  It was likewise for a woman who gave a man not her husband the use of her body.  Her body didn’t belong to her.  She had no right to give it away.  It really makes little sense to us today, but it was the reality then.  In Christian marriage today, vows to be faithful are made before God.  God is a part of the loving relationship to which the two persons being married are committing themselves.  To commit adultery, then, is to dishonor the vow one made to God, to take God’s name in vain.  So even though we no longer consider a woman to be property, adultery still involves breaking two different commandments - and all of the commandments are about how to love God and our neighbor.  (For more on that topic, see last week’s message on YouTube.)  Love one another like family

Your way of life should be free from the love of money and you should be content with what you have.”   This is a tough one for us.  We live in a culture where having the right stuff is important, or at least, seems important.  If our children don’t have the right kind of shoes the first day at a new school, terrible things could happen.  (I’m really not kidding here.  Terrible things can happen if our children don’t conform to whatever the rules are that have been set by the kids in charge of status.  Bullying is the cause of as many as half of all suicides among young people.)  It is difficult to separate ourselves from that culture.  It is easy to decide we need to have a bigger (or smaller) car, a new outfit for that special occasion, the newest techie gadget, tools . . . (Who else thinks that Best Buy, Office Max and Home Depot are adult toy stores?)  In my house is a sign that says Simplify and I really have to look at it whenever I am tempted to get more unnecessary stuff for the house.  I LOVE to spend money on stuff. It makes me feel good. It helps fill that hole inside when I am sad or lonely or depressed.  I think things can make it better.   We know that’s not true.  Paul said, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10)   

When I am content with what I have, I can share more easily with others.  I don’t try to keep everything I have for myself, but can open my home, my heart, my life to friend and stranger alike - and maybe even angels.  When I am content with what I have, God is filling that empty space inside.  When I am content with what I have, I am much better able to Love one another like family.

Our family may not look like we do.  They may not be of our same blood, or tribe, or even species.  We may look as out of place together as this cat who seems to have adopted or been adopted by, this little flock of fuzzy chicks.   But she has clearly made them feel welcome and safe to come into her space.   She has allowed these chicks to treat her like family, when they could just as easily have become dinner.  

Love one another like family.  The love commandment is the one commandment that overrides all the other rules, all the regulations, all of society’s strictures and expectations.  Although it is very difficult, following the love commandment is what identifies us as Christians, not as members of this church or that denomination, but as followers of the Jesus way.    Today, love everyone like family - friend, enemy, those who love you, and those who don’t.    Today, be a Christian.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Freed from bondage

Luke 13:10-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


My friend Yisrael is an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem.  From the time Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday until it ends at sundown on Saturday he does no work.  This has occasionally cut our conversations off rather abruptly, because Included in the concept “work” are things like using any electronic devices, turning on an electric light, driving a car, traveling any significant distance, and many many other things.  For the Orthodox Jew, the Law of Moses is not a stagnant thing - it grows and changes along with the world, and it has always been that way.  As the years and technology march forward, the rabbis have been kept busy debating all the various laws as they apply in the world today.  In the case of Sabbath Laws, they focus on what is and isn’t work, so they know what is allowable on the Sabbath and what is not.  I mean, even things like putting on a wig and putting in your dentures have been examined carefully for their relative work-relatedness.  It is a very serious thing, the Sabbath.  Sometimes I envy my friend because he knows exactly what to do to “keep the Sabbath holy.”   Also because for at least 24 hours every single week he is disconnected from the frenetic, anxiety producing electronic world.  Even so, we spoke just this morning and he asked me to tell you that “Sabbath is a gift, and when done right, not very restful.”  I understand what he means a little, because every now and then I try to follow his example and take an electronic Sabbath, but so far I have only managed to abstain during daylight hours and even that is really hard.   The closest I come to actual Sabbath keeping is trying not to answer phone calls or emails that are related to work.  I can’t even imagine a day when I don’t cook or clean or do laundry or turn lights on or off or run errands or do any of the things I usually do on my one day off each week.  

And then there is this passage, in which Jesus heals on the Sabbath, and points out the hypocrisy involved in making sure your domestic livestock are cared for every day of the week but being unwilling to see someone who has suffered for 18 years healed of her affliction on the Sabbath.   Well, alrighty then.  We don’t have to worry about Sabbath rules.  But just to confuse things, there is that pesky Matthew 5:17 where Jesus says,  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”     What’s that supposed to mean?   

There’s this to know about the Law.  Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”   (Matthew 22:37-41)

Here is the complicated part.  All the 630-whatever laws that make up the Law of Moses go back to the Ten Commandments. They are expansions on those commandments as well as regulations that help keep a large and growing community in line.   And the Ten Commandments are divided into two parts.  The first four are about how to love God:  You will have no other gods before me, you shall make no idols, you shall not use God’s name falsely, you shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.  The other six are about how to love your neighbor:  Honor your father and mother, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness about your neighbor, do not covet any thing or person belonging to your neighbor.   We sometimes interpret these commandments differently than they were intended back 3,500 years ago, but that’s because the world and our culture have changed so much that it never occurs to us that a word we use to mean one thing had quite a different meaning for the ancient Hebrew people.  

So, all of those 630-whatever laws, every one of them, stems from these two - love God with every part of you, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus, in telling the rabbi and the others who objected to his healing that unnamed woman on the Sabbath that they were hypocrites, was reminding them that the basis for ALL the laws was the requirement to love God and the neighbor, and that surely this woman was more important than an ox or a donkey.  One cannot honor God, after all, if one is unloving to the neighbor, when God’s commandment is to love.  Allowing someone to continue in pain when the means for healing is right there - how loving is that?   What Jesus was telling the crowd is that, where following a regulation conflicts with the greater Law that requires us to love our neighbor, it is always necessary to obey the greater Law, not the regulation.  When he said, “I have come to fulfill the Law,” he was saying that his mission was to remind the world of God’s intent in providing the Ten Commandments to begin with - to give us a framework around which we could hang our understanding of the two greatest commandments.   When he went off on the Pharisees and other lawyer-types about their rigid adherence to nit picking regulations, it wasn’t because they were bad people or because there was anything wrong with those regulations. It wasn’t even that there was anything wrong with following them.  However, they were letting the individual trees get in the way of seeing the beauty of the forest.  They were so focused on the right way to do things and on perfect adherence to ever changing rules and regulations, they forgot the reason for doing those things was so that the people of Israel could live together in harmony, knowing what was expected of them at any time in any circumstance.  They forgot that the overarching concept that was the basis of ALL of those laws and regulations was love - love of God, love of all of God’s children.  Not just the ones who obeyed the laws.  All of them.  

Back to the healing.  That woman, that nameless woman, was freed from the bondage of pain and disability.   We know absolutely nothing about this woman except that she is bent over, crippled with pain.  Maybe she has arthritis.  Maybe it’s something else entirely.  We don’t know.  Yet, strangely enough, the less we know about her, the more easily we can relate to what is going on with her.  
Because my back is causing me fits right now, as everyone who spends more than 30 seconds in my company knows, I can relate.  It is frustrating to be in pain every minute.  It is exhausting.  It is crazy making not to be able to do the things I’m accustomed to doing - or to have to ask for help doing really easy every-day kind of stuff.  If someone could just put their hand on me and make it all better, I would definitely feel freed from bondage.  

Leah chose today’s image because I really couldn’t find the right thing.  But when I looked at this I thought it was perfect because . . . look closely . . . don’t those links hanging from his wrists look like paper chains?  The kind we make out of construction paper at Christmas time?  Because, frankly, as much as I love the idea that my bondage to back pain could be broken as easily as I would break those paper chains, in reality I know that it is going to take time and exercise and continued treatments before I feel whole again.  It’s not going to just happen. I’m going to have to work for it. 

Jesus came to save - heal - the world.  He came to teach us how to do that - how to go out and love the world into healing, into reconciliation with God.  However, we can’t love the world very well until we first learn to love ourselves.  Luckily, we don’t have to be perfect before we can love others.  But we do have to be embarked upon a journey of healing.  Unfortunately, it isn’t a matter of just saying, “Heal me, Jesus!” and we are all whole and well.  The world’s bondage to sin is not as easy to break as the paper chains in this image.  Even our own individual chains are hard to break.  In some cases our attachment to our own particular ills more resembles the chains holding a ship’s anchor than a paper chain.   Let me give you some examples.  As a survivor of domestic violence, I know that one of the most important tools for healing is forgiveness.  That takes more than just saying, “I forgive him.”  It even takes more than, “Jesus, please help me forgive him.”  It took time and praying about it and writing about it and talking about it and more praying about it and finally, finally, one day I was able to speak the name of my abuser without becoming angry.  Then I knew I had finally forgiven. I had been healed of that particular sin.  Likewise, trying to forgive the church in which I was raised for the way I was raised and then forgiving myself for the outright hatred I held for that particular church for so many years took a really long time!  Healing came, finally, on Christmas Eve, 2014, after decades of praying and writing and talking, when I walked up to the altar of a church, allowed the priest there to place his hand on my head and bless me.  The feeling of freedom from the bondage of that sin was overwhelming.  I felt the healing happen.  All he did was touch me and say a word or two in Jesus’ name, and the chains holding that sin into place in my heart fell away as if they had been made of paper.   Now, in the place of anger and hatred is acceptance.  Now I can begin to truly love even those who hurt me.  

 Jesus came to free us all, every one, from the bondage of self and sin.  He was sent by God to heal the world, to reconcile all the world with God, our creator, to bring peace to all lands and all persons.  He was sent to remind us of the two greatest commandments, the two that everyone must follow:  “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”   Let us go out from this place today seeking healing and wholeness, for the world, and for ourselves.  Let us begin again a journey toward completeness and reconciliation with our God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Abandon Hope?

Isaiah 5:1-7       New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 Let me sing for my beloved
    my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and people of Judah,
judge between me
    and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
    that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
    it shall not be pruned or hoed,
    and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
    that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
    but heard a cry!


On most Sunday mornings here at First Christian Church in Selma, California we play a game.  It’s called “What on earth does the image on the screen have to do with the sermon?”  I think it started the week that the image was a kitten looking out through the mail slot of a door, or it might even go as far back as the Nativity Scene from Star Wars.  This week, however, the slide depicts exactly what the prophet Isaiah describes: a deserted vineyard, neither planted nor hoed, with weeds growing up in it and no rain falling upon it.  All of us here, anyone who has been in Selma, the Raisin Capitol of the World, for more than a couple of weeks will recognize this picture.  It may not be a specific vineyard we can name, but along the property line are trees we are familiar with.  Those are our mountains in the background.  We recognize this picture as the land of a disappointed, discouraged, farmer - whose grapes when ripe were bitter like wild grapes, who has given up on his vineyard.  He did everything right!  He cleared the land, the fertile land.  He planted the best vines.   He gave them all the water he could.  He watched over his vines day and night, checking to make sure nothing came to damage them.  He did everything he knew how to do to ensure a good harvest.  What more could he have done?  Nothing.  And yet the grapes, when they ripened, were sour - inedible, in fact.  And so, he abandoned it.  He just walked away and let it go.  He gave up on hope, and abandoned it.  

Life gets like that sometimes.  We do everything we are supposed to do, but don’t get the expected results.  We worked hard to do well in school, but we can’t find a job in our field. We can’t even find a job at McDonalds!   We take care of ourselves, use sunscreen, eat right, have regular checkups with the doctor, and everything is going well until some weird disease no one ever heard of suddenly changes our life entirely.  We raise our children the best way we know how, bring them to church, give them every possible benefit, and they wander down a dark path - nothing we do to help seems to work.  We do all the things the experts tell us will bring folks into the church, but we don’t seem to experience the growth that we are supposed to see when we follow their direction.  We preach, Sunday after Sunday, to a chorus of nodding heads, and then hear people saying all the same things we were just preaching against while they have their after worship coffee and cake.   We did everything right!  We did everything we knew how!  And yet, the harvest was disappointing.  The grapes were no better than wild grapes, despite the love and care that was lavished upon the vines as they grew.  We become discouraged, like the farmer in the Scripture reading.  We want to just give up, walk away, and stay in our rooms playing solitaire.  

We know, of course, because we are a Bible reading group of folks, that anything written by a prophet has much more meaning than what we read on the surface.  We know, because we are a Bible reading group of folks, that Isaiah wouldn’t just be talking about any random farmer disappointed in the quality of his grapes.  No, Isaiah tells us that “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.”  God has finally given up.  God chose Abraham and his descendants to be God’s people, and yet over and over again they have disappointed him.  They have chased after false gods - like Solomon, who built altars to the gods his 700 wives brought to the marriage.  They have broken the commandments - like David who slept with Bathsheba even though she was married to the commander of his armies.  They have trusted in the words of the princes of larger nations, instead of trusting in God to protect them, only to find themselves defeated, imprisoned, enslaved. They have oppressed the poor, the widows and orphans, they have enslaved the aliens even though God commanded that the poor be cared for, widows and orphans fed be supported, and alien workers be treated the same as anyone else.  For centuries, the people of the house of Israel have fallen away, gotten in trouble, called out to God for rescue and been rescued.  In Judges we see this pattern repeating itself every generation!  One generation is good, they all die and the next generation forgets God, wanders off doing its own thing, and when the inevitable happens cries out saying, “God, help us!  We are your people.  We love you!  We promise if you get us out of this one we will never ever do that again!”  And God sends a deliverer and a generation passes . . .  rinse and repeat.   And now, God has given up.  This vineyard simply is not going to produce good fruit, so God will just leave it to grow wild, with no one to care for it, no one to weed it, no one to irrigate, no one to chase away the birds and pests.  God will let the people of Judah, descendants of the amazingly faithful Abraham, be removed from their homes, taken into exile far away, in a foreign land.  God will remove his hand of protection from over his people, and let whatever happens, happen.

It feels like that sometimes.  Like God has simply abandoned us.  “I’ve done everything right!  Why is this happening?  Why is the fruit of my labor going sour?   Why doesn’t anyone want to hire me?  Why is my problem child the way she is? Why do I have this weird sickness?  Why can’t the doctors figure out how to fix me?  Why isn’t our congregation growing?  Why won’t anyone listen?  I may as well just give up. We may as well abandon hope.”  Certainly the people felt that way in Babylon.  

But the thing is . . . that vineyard, that desolate, deserted vineyard isn’t the end of the story.  It’s just sort of an intermission. Like crop rotation, kind of.  In the book of Leviticus, along with all the other six hundred whatever laws, is a concept known as Jubilee, which is related to Sabbath.  “You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. . . That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the after growth, or harvest the unpruned vines.  For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.”  (Leviticus 25:8, 11-12)  Sometimes you just have to let the fields go for a while.  Sometimes we just have to find acceptance for the place where we are right this minute.  It might be a difficult, terrible place to be, but we just have to go through what we are going through.    

And maybe that field isn't supposed to produce grapes, after all.  Maybe it would make a much better almond orchard.  Last year, right after I arrived in Selma, I saw lots of vineyards being torn up and burned.  I saw lots of nut orchards being planted.  I really didn’t understand, but I enjoy going to restaurants alone, and while I am eating I eavesdrop shamelessly.   I listened to farmers talking, and so I learned that there was a lot of crop change going on.  And maybe that was more a function of what is the best use of the little bit of water available than any problem with the grape harvest. But the thing is, sometimes we have to just let go of whatever.  Sometimes we just have to accept that what we are doing isn’t working right now, and try something else.  Sometimes we just have do the best we can with what we have and accept that we don’t have any control over the outcome, and let God take care of the final result.  

I titled this message “Abandon Hope?”  because this passage is so depressing, so discouraging.  God is abandoning his people.  God, whose steadfast love is celebrated by the psalmists and whose forgiveness is something we count on, and whose constant presence in our lives is a given . . . is abandoning his people?  No.  No.  God is waiting, again.  God is letting the vineyard rest, letting the soil in which it is rooted regain its life-giving strength, allowing the birds and pests to forage freely, leaving room and time for the possibility of a new idea, a new direction, maybe even a whole new crop.  We know for a fact that God’s people were delivered from Babylon.  They did return to Judah.  They did rebuild the Temple.  They were not deserted.   But first, they had to go through what they had to go through.  First, they had to accept that they really had no control over what happens in life.  They had to learn that, even though God might not be in rescuer mode every moment, God is with them, always, in every circumstance.  If it seems otherwise, it’s usually because we aren’t paying attention, not because God isn’t there with us, every moment.  Not because God abandoned us.  

Last year, when the fires were burning in the vineyards and the vines were being torn out, it was kind of ugly and depressing, and confusing for a newcomer. But now I get it.  Maybe this deserted vineyard was one of those whose vines got uprooted and burned.  And maybe today this deserted vineyard is a beautiful almond orchard, filled with baby trees bursting with the potential for new life.  
Never abandon hope.  Because the Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that God never ever deserts us, not really.  No matter what is going on in our lives, in our world, in our church, God never ever abandons us.  Maybe we are getting an opportunity to grow.  Maybe we are getting an opportunity to seek new paths, new ways to thinking and being and doing things.  Maybe we are being prepared to burn off old growth to make room for something new and wonderful.  But we are not being abandoned, because God is eternally faithful.  God’s forgiveness is unquestioning.  God’s presence in our lives is constant.  God’s love is unconditional, steadfast and everlasting.   God is always and forever with us, no matter what.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Unknown Country

 Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-10         (NRSV)

11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.


There are very few characters in the Bible as consistently and faithfully obedient as Abraham.  One day a god he didn’t really know very well said to him, “Gather up your family and belongings.  Leave your home and everything that is familiar to you. I’ll tell you when to stop.”  Abraham said ok, and headed out.   It’s not like Abram - as he was known at the time - was a kid, who could just pick up and leave.  Genesis tells us he was 75 years old when he left Haran.  He had responsibilities - a wife, an extended family, servants, and flocks.  He had to gather all of those up and shepherd them along the way until he was told to stop in the land where the Canaanites lived, about 600 miles.  On foot.  With tents and sheep and children.  He never argued, he never complained.  He just went.  And the Lord promised him this land would be his, for his descendants, and that his name would be a blessing to all nations.  

I am always blown away by this story, by Abraham’s faithfulness.  We all know the other stories about him.  How he believed that God would give him children, even though he was quite old and his wife Sarah was apparently barren.  (Sarah wasn’t so sure.) How whatever God told him to do, he did, without fuss or question.  He even took his son Isaac to the high places and prepared to sacrifice him, because God told him to.  He didn’t ask for details.  He didn’t want to know what plan God had for him.  He just obeyed.

I find that totally amazing.  When I heard God’s voice telling me I was to be a minister, I’m afraid I was not nearly as accepting as Abraham.  I looked up and said, “What are you, crazy?  Seriously God, do you not know who I am and what I’ve done?  I am not minister material!”  I mean, obviously I did what I was told to do, because here I am.  By that time in my life I had learned that arguing with God brings much more pain and aggravation than just doing what God wants me to do in the first place.  But I wasn’t happy about it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I loved the going to school part.  But the idea that I would be responsible for guiding people in their spiritual journeys, as Abraham was responsible for guiding his people to the unknown country they had been promised . . . that just seemed to me like a poor choice on God’s part.  It wasn’t until about two years into my Master’s program that I finally accepted that maybe, just maybe, this was the right path for me.  

Hebrews was written at a time when Christians in the Roman Empire were facing persecution, probably around the year 65 ce.  It was written as a sermon of encouragement, intended to comfort and strengthen frightened people.  It makes sense, under those circumstances, that Abraham’s example should be lifted up for them.  No matter what, Abraham remained faithful.  No matter how reality seemed to point to the impossibility of what God had promised him, Abraham continued to believe what he had been promised.  “… faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”   Faith is what makes people who are faced with major difficulties - a diagnosis of life threatening illness, or the loss of a job, or some other life changing event - say things like, “No matter what happens, I will be ok,” and mean it.  Faith is what gets us through every sort of crisis and problem.   We may not know what’s coming in the future, but we know we will be ok.

I have been a fan of Star Trek for a very long time.   I loved the opening statement, “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  I even loved it more when they made it non-gender specific for The Next Generation.   In a 1991 Star Trek movie titled, “The Undiscovered Country,” Captain James Tiberius Kirk  speaks of the future as the undiscovered country, and of our lives as a journey into that place.  And surely, the episodes of Star Trek showed us over and over again that faith in the captain and crew and even the technology of the day would always bring them through.  In the episode “The Carbomite Maneuver,” when destruction seems imminent, Captain Kirk speaks to the crew saying, “You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown — only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”  

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”   We have faith that God is in our lives, that God loves us and cares for us, that God watches over us always, grieving when we grieve, laughing when we are filled with joy, forgiving us whenever we come confessing our wrongs, embracing us when we are in pain.  We believe that one day we will be with God and with all the others who have gone before.  We don’t know exactly how that works, but we have faith that it does.  We have faith that, no matter what, God will take care of us.  We are blessed.  It wasn’t always that way.

In the 4th Century people had come to believe, for I have no idea what reason because it isn’t at all Biblical, that once they were baptized they must live perfect lives.  That baptism would wash away all sins up until that point, but that any sins, no matter how small, committed after baptism could not be forgiven.  As a result many believers, including Emperor Constantine, put off baptism until they were pretty sure they were going to die and no longer at risk of sinning.  For those who might not know this - Emperor Constantine is said to have seen a cross in the sky before a great battle and swore that if he won he would convert.  He did win, and he did convert, and he made it legal to practice Christianity in the Roman Empire.  But he refused to be baptized until the very end of his life.  This practice was pretty much in direct opposition to what Jesus had preached,  for he said, 
35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  (Luke 12:35-40 NRSV)

“If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.”  If that’s not the motto for every security company ever, I’m sure I don’t know why not.  

But it’s clearly about much more important things than keeping one’s possession safe.  It is about keeping our hearts and souls prepared.  “Blessed are those who are alert when the Master comes.”  And there’s no way to know when that will be.  We can’t decide to dedicate ourselves to a Christian life when we retire, or after the kids are grown, or when we aren’t working quite so hard any more.  We can’t put off being the best people we can be just because we think we have plenty of time.  We can’t decide that we will do things the world’s way until it makes sense to do things the faithful way.  Imagine what might have happened with Abraham if he had thought that way.   We need to always be faithful, always trust that God will walk us through our difficulties, always do what we know God has called us to do.  Because we have no idea what will come next.  Our lives are a journey to an unknown country, and like Abraham, we must leave behind the things we are accustomed to - our fears and worries and concerns - and gather ourselves for a journey that leads we know not where and ends we know not when.  

Faith is not logical.  Belief in God is not logical.  Following Jesus’ teachings, living in a Christian way - loving even those who hate us, helping those the world thinks don’t deserve help, caring for those in need no matter what their circumstance, serving others instead of seeking power - is not logical.  None of that makes sense to the world.  And yet these are the things we are called to do if we truly follow Jesus.  

My sisters and brothers, let us always be as faithful as Abraham.  
Let us always be prepared, as servants waiting for their master to return.
Let us keep our faith in those things that Jesus has assured us of, God’s steadfast and unconditional love, and forgiveness and not in the ways of the world. 

Let us continue our journey into the unknown country that is life, trusting God to guide us along the way.