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Boat Talk

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This sermon mixes historical data with narrative.  Sources for that data:

http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/jesus/jesusaccount.html

http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat55/sub352/item1425.html

Mark 1:14-20  The waves slapped against the boat, as they always do.  The perfect percussion and the warm sun could lull the unexperienced fisherman to sleep as they patiently waited for their nets to sink.  But who could sleep now?  Emotions had been churned till they were raw.  No one in Galilee was interested in a nap today.

John the Baptist had been arrested.  The news spread quickly, but no one objected…at least not openly. Everyone in Galilee went about their work, portraying a normal day. Galileans were very skilled at business as usual. It was a façade covering the burning desire for freedom that was always skin deep. 

Galilee had become the center for the Zealot movement.  Their mode of operation was violent guerilla warfare tactics.  Secret conversations were around every corner.  At any time violence could erupt.

Because of the political upheaval Zebedee had introduced “boat talk” to his boys.  Our equivalent here in the Appalachian Mountains would be “barn talk”.  The language isn’t always clean and the subject matter revolves around things we can’t control, like politics and taxes.  Sides are taken, debates ensue and arguments are projected.  Zebedee wanted to keep that talk in his boat, far from the eavesdropping of any political operatives and far from the dinner table.  Boat talk allowed a father to talk openly with his sons about the lessons he has learned living in this tumultuous time.

Zebedee’s boat talk was a platform for old man to impart his wisdom to James and John by illustrating this history of the Roman rule through his own stories.  All of these stories supported his philosophy, which he quoted regularly, “Just keep your heads down and fish.  Romans and Jews will always need fish.”

Zebedee told the story about the slaughter of 2000 Jews that came to the aid of students that studied the law at the temple.  The young men had gone to class to discover a Roman eagle on the entrance.  Feeling that the eagle violated God’s law to have no graven images, they removed it.  The Romans reacted violently by slaughtering these young students.  When the Jews rushed in to help them, the Romans killed indiscriminately.

With a government like this, what choice did young men have?  Hit and run missions, suicide attacks, terrorist-like invasions in palaces were the work of the zealots. Some days it seemed the only way to counteract such cruelty.

This action in addition to the census (the backdrop of the Christian Christmas story) had further fueled hatred for the Romans.  For the Jews land ownership was a religious matter as much as it was a political matter.  Families owned land because it had been given to them by God.  This land gave them the ability to participate in the economy.  God’s plan promoted financial stability for the family and the expectation that this stability would be shared with the less fortunate. Romans government did not honor Jewish culture. The census gave the Romans the data they needed to levy just enough taxes to push the Jew to the breaking point, but not break them.  When the Jews turned to violence, 2000 men were crucified and 20,000 were sold into slavery.  Zebedee, a young man then, resisted the urge.  He survived and insisted his boys do the same.  “Put your head down and fish.” He would say.  “Romans and Jews always need fish.”

But almost thirty years into policies and taxation based on those census numbers had left Galilee and all of Israel in poverty. Political leaders, religious leaders and their minions lived in luxury.  Everyone else barely got by.  The glory days of the Davidic kingdom seemed even more golden when recalled from the shadow of Roman rule.  This was not God’s plan.

What choice did young men have?  Join the Zealots?  Zealots kept small daggers in their cloaks in case violence should give them the opportunity to slit a Roman throat.  Zebedee checked his sons’ cloaks when he could.

These were the stories that James, John, Simeon and Andrew cut their teeth on.

But for the first time, “boat talk” did not seem so draining.  Another option now stood beside Zebedee’s fishing philosophy and zealot violence.

Before his arrest, John the Baptist’s had appeared along the Jordan River side for 6 months.  His pronouncement was clear, “Repent and believe.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Kingdom talk implied a king.  This message was just the sand paper needed to irritate the Romans.  But the John’s kingdom message was not focused on politics.  It focused on the heart.  And no other symbol portrayed that change of heart message more than the rubric of baptism.  Jews were familiar with baptism through the rite of purification.

The priests of the temple had been bought. Rome placed whoever would work with them and for them.  Jewish festivals were honored, but only to keep riots at bay.  Farce described worship.  Ceremonial bathing for women and men, in preparation for many occasions, were always available through the rite of purification.  However, what did the rite offer now?  Was it up to the participant to make the most of it?  When John offered his followers baptism, his crowds were more than happy to partake because he offered an authentic response to what God was doing and was about to do.

Even Zebedee, the old man who encouraged a quiet life of survival, had gone to hear John the Baptist.  Cautiously optimistic, he agreed that John offered an alternative to violence.

Now John the Baptist was gone, sitting in jail, awaiting a trial that may never happen.  Young Jewish men now gravitated again toward the Zealot movement and method.

Zebedee, again, worried for his boys.  Even Simeon and Andrew had been considering what to do.  Young men want to do something besides mend nets and watch fish prices and taxes inflate.  God given disgust as the poor are taken advantage of must have an outlet.  Somebody has to do something.

Read Mark 1:14-20

John the Baptist has a different take on the situation.  This is why the crowds came to him.  John does not lay his criticism solely on the hierarchy with an expectation that change will result.  John included those who had no power.  He challenged them to change their thinking, attitude and behavior.  And he started by speaking of matters of the kingdom.  To the powerless and downtrodden his message is clear:  Live as if the kingdom is here and it begins in your life, heart and mind….right now.

John the Baptist believed that it was God’s job to bring about the vengeance and the Jew’s job to get ready for reckoning.  Fishermen, carpenters and housewives could no longer play the victim.  They were to be held accountable.  The poor have a part in bringing the kingdom and it begins within…repent for the kingdom is near.

When Jesus shows up with a similar message, the hearts and minds of those who would be his closest followers were ripe. “Immediately, they followed him”.

“Boat talk” had prepared the boys for a kingdom on earth – power and might through military strategies, strength and power.  John the Baptist challenges this idea by including those with no power.  But Jesus builds on John’s message by revealing a kingdom of God’s true intent.

Infringed widows and orphans are valued

Children sit on his knee

Sick are healed

Death itself is challenged

For those called to be the original disciples these are unintended consequences.  And they were so challenging, these glimpses of heaven, that the original expectations of national pride and militarism fade into the background.

Our original motives and expectations are challenged when we sign up to do God’s work.  Things never work out like they are supposed to.  But instead of imposing our kingdom (with all your power and influence), I’d like to invite you to look for God’s kingdom…and not only in what you are doing but also who you are becoming.

Nontraditional thoughts on Matthew 25:31-46

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Never underestimate the power of one word. This ancient proverb rings true in our lectionary text this week. A closer look at the word “nations” calls into question the traditional understanding of this text.
Traditionally speaking, the sermon would encourage the congregation to be sheep; caring for the “least of these”. However, a closer look at the meaning behind the word “nations” challenges that assumption. The periscope opens with Jesus and his angels gathering the “nations” before them. Jesus sets about the shepherdly duty of separating the flock. The sheep are set to the right and the goats to the left. The dividing factor is the record of action (or inaction) toward the “least of these”. Visually the text reads like this:

Goats/them>>>>>Sheep/us>>>>>>Disenfranchised/them

Now let us dive into an nontraditional view. We begin our focus on the word “nations” with the author’s use of the word. The writer of Matthew uses ethnos 3 additional times in this gospel (Matthew 24:9, 24:14 and 28:19).

  • 24:9 Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.
  • 24:14 And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.
  • 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In each instance the Greek word ethnos or nations means outsiders or those not like us. In chapter 24, Matthew writes that the non-Christians will hate those Christians who are tortured and killed and the testimony is to go to the non-Christians. In chapter 28 disciples are to be made of all non-Christians. The meaning of these three examples is obvious. According to Matthew’s meaning of the word ethnos, visually the text looks like this:

Goats/them>>>>>>Sheep/them>>>>>>>Disenfranchised/us

Matthew wrote the gospel to a poor community who may have suffered hunger, thirst, nakedness, imprisonment and sickness. Did they receive help from compassionate non-Christians? If so, Matthew’s message is clear. God welcomes those into his kingdom when they do the work of Christian compassion.  The sticking point that challenges the traditional views lies in asked the question “which kingdom“?  The kingdom now (as experienced when charity is shared) or the kingdom to come (after life judgement time)?
Also, could this story be a message of evangelism to those non-Christians who helped those Christians in need? Perhaps the helpers hearing from those they serve that they were already doing the work of Christ may have endeared them toward the movement. Secondly, does this offer still apply today?

Two, Trust and Time

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  A few thoughts on the Old Testament text this week; Genesis 45.  I suppose a name change was in order. After all, Joseph’s dad had a name change. Jacob had wrestled with God and prevailed. As a result, Jacob name (meaning “cheater”) had been changed to Israel (meaning “one that struggles with God and men). The name change did Jacob a great deal of good. It prepared him for his reunion with his brother, Esau. (Jacob had cheated Esau out of his inheritance!)

Joseph’s new name would not come from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but his name change would come from Pharaoh, the Egyptian god-king. Egypt existed only because of the Nile River. Without that water source, Egypt would be a mere desert atop the Northern African terrain. Egyptians lived according to the cycles of the river. It would swell early summer until October, then a decline until June. Food production, festivals and business cycles all revolved around the workings of the Nile.

Now when Joseph heard the Pharaoh recount his dream of seven fat cows consumed by seven lean cows and seven fat heads of wheat devoured by seven thin heads, it was obvious that the dream was about the Nile. The precious life-giving cycle was about to be interrupted.

When Pharaoh heard this, he began to prepare for the predicted seven years of famine. In doing so, he put Joseph in charge. Joseph needed one thing – to erase his Hebrew past. A name change was in order. Joseph was called Zaphenath-Paneah. Some scholars thinks he means “one who reveals secrets”.

No one wanted to erase his Hebrew past more than Joseph. It was full of painful memories mixed with bitter recollections of the lost connections to those he loved. Joseph was only a boy when his father sent him to check in on his older brothers. They sold him into slavery. Tired of hearing his dreams that predicted they would bow in front of him, tired of watching his father dote lavishly upon him, they were just plain tired of being second, third and fourth place. So they told his father he had met his maker when a wild animal made lunch of the boy.

Joseph landed in Egypt, far from home. He did not know if his father was still alive, he did not know if his brothers ever gave a second thought to what they did or was life better for them without him. No one wanted to forget more than Joseph.

Any readers of the Old Testament would have assumed he did forget when his first son was born shortly after his promotion. He names the boy Manasseh, meaning “It is because God made me forget all my troubles and all in my father’s household.” For short, one could call Manasseh “forget”. But when the second son is born, Joseph names him “It is because God made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Ah, see Joseph does still remember his suffering. He names his boys (shorthand names, of course) “forget” and “remember”.

We do remember don’t we? Powerful hurts are never far from the minds of those who were victims. You may be able to compartmentalize a separate saddle bag for these memories, but we still carry them. Joseph carried these memories. It was all he had.

The Nile River only feeds the upper portions of African continent. It is the rain of the Goshen Valley that feeds the contributory streams of Canaan. And Canaan is where Joseph’s family resides. How odd that a drought would strike Canaan and a famine strike Egypt at the same time?

Now Joseph’s brothers, sent by his father, come to Egypt to buy food. Joseph recognizes them immediately but they only see Zaphenath-Paneah. As Joseph’s dream predicted, the older brothers bow before the him.  Joseph remembers his dream.

This is the part of the story where we are sorely disappointed. The happy reunion is postponed.  We want it right away, after all Joseph is the good guy right?  Our disillusionment stems from knowing the rest of the story. From the New Testament Jesus tells this story:

There once was a father that had two sons…..retell Luke 15:11-32

Joseph is not ready to take on the role of the forgiving father of Jesus’ story. If anything he manipulates his brothers into bringing his full brother, Benjamin to Egypt. Then Joseph manufactures situations for the brothers to negotiate. While his methods leave much to be desired, Joseph is looking for something as he observes his brothers reactions to the obstacles he places before them.

Joseph is looking for building blocks of reconciliation.

  1. Introduce the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation
    1. Forgiveness: embrace the pain, gain an understanding of what happened and let go of the grudge (the longing to do harm)
      1. This is a solo/inside job
      2. You can forgive someone without their participation, you can forgive a person who has passed, you can forgive yourself

        Reconciliation will never feel right if one or more parties push to forget what happened.

To forgive is to set the prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you. –Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget

  1. Reconciliation: mutual story exchange, express hurt, express remorse and begin the process of establishing trust
    1. It takes two who value the relationship
    2. The language is restorative verses retaliatory (slow process)

It takes one person to forgive; it takes two people to be reunited. –Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget

Joseph is looking for a changed brotherhood. And every time he finds it, he weeps.

Genesis 42:18-24 – The brothers do remember what they did and they do believe it was wrong.

Genesis 43:29-30 – Benjamin is well/his brothers kept their word

Even the Father of Jesus’ Prodigal Son parable jumps to return the son to his original status in the relationship after he hears the son’s remorse and attempt at restitution.

Genesis 44:18-33– Judah’s speech showing concern about Jacob

While Joseph’s methods are questionable, he searches for what we all seek when wanting to rejoin a broken relationship – trust. The brothers demonstrate a changed heart and mind toward the past (how they treated Joseph) and toward the present (how they treated Benjamin and Jacob).  Gone are the bullies from Joseph’s youth.  Before him are men, seasoned and thoughtful. This change is fertile ground for rebuilding what was lost – trust.  Because of their willingness to change, Joseph now remembers the event every differently.  No longer did his brothers do him harm.  But God used their harm to save the family.  Joseph no longer struggles for forget, but reframes his memory.

Reconciliation takes two, it takes trust and it takes time.

But what about those who refuse to reconcile?  (see postscript)

postscript:  Reconciliation is a rare thing.  Even Joseph does not fully achieve it.  His brothers remind him of his promise to Jacob to be good to them after Jacob dies.  Still they do not trust him.  This should come to no surprise to the Old Testament reader.  Jacob who supposedly reconciles with his brother Esau, departs from the meeting lying about his departure direction.  Obviously, full trust is never granted.  But that is not to say that it does not happen.  Reconciliation takes two who value the relationship, working to recover what was lost.

And even God, who forgives, still allows the consequences of bad behavior to take place.  Without a willingness to rebuild trust, attempts at reconciliation are futile.

About that ladder

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The great thing about preaching to different audiences within the same congregation is that I can reuse material.  I recycled the historical information about Isaac’s family experience and applied it to Jacob’s dream for this Sunday’s lectionary text.  Then I applied a very good point that Parker J. Palmer makes about a Chuang Tzu/Taoism story called “The Woodcarver” to Jacob’s situation.  Simply put, Jacob has a rocky start and must have a boat load of mixed feelings.  God redirects him in a dream.  Can we rise our head out of a naval to see God’s movement?  And if we did and heard God calling, would we have a change of heart?  Despite all the crud, God uses Jacob.  I stand amazed that the same could be said for me.

Now on to Jacob’s dream ladder

My the stories Jacob must have heard……

Abraham, fathered at least 8 sons by three women. Of course, we know of Isaac and his mother Sarah and Ishmael and his mother Hagar. But scripture reveals that after Sarah’s death, Abraham marries Keturah and produces 6 sons. Of these sons, the book of Genesis only speaks of two, and at that the boys were barely mentioned.

Genesis 25:5 reveals a family secret of sorts. Abraham gave a few trinkets to the “sons of concubines”. The only significant, unifying factor in the birth of these sons is that Abraham sent them all away. He excluded Isaac from any extended family. Then, in a second strike at disfranchisement, Abraham leaves 100% of his great wealth to only Isaac. If Sarah and Hagar bickered when their boys were small, could you imagine this upset when the will was read?

Akedah – from Isaac’s point of view

And the dirtiest family secret casts such a shadow on the whole family, our Jewish brothers and sisters gave the happening a name – Akedah; the binding of Isaac. Ancient Rabbis believe that this event it so traumatic it forever changes family life for the trio and it’s ripple effects rattle through sequential generations. Akedah is the sacrifice of Isaac God calls Abraham to make. At the last minute, God’s angel stops the blade from piercing Isaac’s chest and a lamb is provided. Following the incident, the scriptures tell us in Genesis 22:19 that Abraham then resided in Beersheba. Chapter 23 opens with Sarah’s death in Hebron. The two locations are miles apart. The most faithful man of the Bible separated from his wife because of something God had called him to do. Even modern Rabbis believe the stress of Isaac’s near death experience at the hands of his own father was experienced by Sarah as betrayal. This great heartbreak causes her death for there are zero verses between Genesis 22:19 and Genesis 23:1.

What kind of God is this? So far this God has separated Abraham from his family of origin then given his an assignment so gruesome it separates him from his wife, who dies because of the heinous act (leaving Isaac motherless). Isaac’s happy home is destroyed and his trust in his own father has melted away. These are the stories Jacob heard. Just as confusing as the family God was on his father’s side, the maternal side offered no redemption.

Scriptural background

Now Jacob is pulled aside by his mother and schooled in the dysfunctional family system of deceit and betrayal. (Later we will see that it is a ‘family thing’ when we meet the scheming Uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother.) The paternal blessing, which was believed to denote power and prestige, that Isaac was reserving for his favored first born, Esau is stolen when Rebekah dresses her favored son, Jacob, as Esau. Jacob receives the blessing intended for this brother. Not only can be blessing not be reneged it cannot be reduplicated. Esau considers murdering his brother. Rebekah sends him to her brother Laban for his own safety.

Jacob Now in our text

Jacob, on the run, is about 50 miles away from home. Who knows what Jacob thought about during those 50 miles? Did he regret taking what was not his? Did he worry about his mother? If she was found out, what fate awaited her? Would he ever see his parents again? And what did he run away with anyway? The blessing forever joined him with this God who demands so much….and what evidence of the blessing had materialized so far? True to this form, this God had done nothing but stir up trouble.

Maybe he thought of walking away from this family God, which felt more like a family curse. Maybe he thought of returning, hoping his brother’s anger would subside. Even if this blessing from Isaac and promise from God was to work out – what a rotten way to start! Maybe Jacob wished for a do-over.

In our scripture text today, God speaks about the grand plan for the first time to someone other than Abraham:

Scripture Reading: Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob awakes feeling shocked. And we, the common readers of his story, are shocked too. In the most unlikely place and through the most unlikely person, God informs Jacob that the promise shall be continued through him.

The sermon’s big idea

Whatever Jacob’s motives were before the dream, they are less than admirable. He reminds me of me. There was a short time in my career when I had lost my God-spark and I was a minister for the sole purpose of a paycheck. And I’m sure, even this morning; there are those of you who are hear under false pretenses. Maybe you came to please a parent, maybe you came to bargain with God, maybe you came because you thought the sermon may be good. False pretenses and undesirable motives are everywhere, within us and outside of us. But they are not the end all and be all.

Jacob’s dream gives us hope that our less than Christian motives can be a starting place. Parker J. Palmer writes in The Active Life: “But a launching pad is only temporary; once launched, the rocket is free of the pad’s constraints. We must launch our actions from motives and circumstances that are less than ideal.”

The direction of your path may come at the wrong time, for the wrong reason at the wrong place. That does not mean it is the wrong direction. God still gives us dreams at the most unlikely times and places.

For Jacob the dream allows him to put aside all the broken relationships and the thievery that broke them. Something new and amazing has come along – the direction is now clear.

The question for us today is this: Can lift our heads out of our guilt to hear God’s call and experience the dream that set us on a new direction?

 

Thoughts on Despising the Birthright and Living Among the Tents

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I’ll never forget my first Christmas being married. Being a pastor, you know you will not make much money so you learn to live in the meager ends. To do so, I shopped all year round for great deals on Christmas presents. By the time December rolled around, I had most of the gifts bought. When I married my husband, I gladly added my in-laws to the list. And, as to be expected, by the time the December page appeared on my wall calendar all the in-laws had gifts.

It was the first of December when I received the flurry of emails. My husband’s siblings had submitted Christmas lists for themselves and distributed to the family. These lists were not just a collection of thoughtful items. They included websites with order numbers and wish lists! I was taken back. My family did not do that. We would never dare mention anything we ever wanted. No, we gratefully received our gifts….secretly returned them or lived in solemn disappointment, hoping for better next year. The only words uttered were, “Thank you”.  I call it Southern Fried Gratitude!  And for almost 30 year, it worked for me.  I had never considered another way.

This “Christmas list” was a family tradition that I had married into and it caught me by surprise. In addition to this marital pop quiz, I was expected to submit my list as well. What a learning experience! I had never been invited to think about what I really wanted, gift-wise. It took me so long to prepare my list, my in-laws threatened to get me gift cards. Gone were the Christmas morning rehearsals of gratitude that would have rivaled a new born kitten’s wide eyes. By mail, my in-laws gave me physical gifts that I actually wanted- down to the correct color and size!

I don’t know who first coined the term, but it’s true: You don’t marry the man/woman, you marry the family.

That saying makes me think of our mother-to-be in our scripture passage this morning.  I wonder if Rebekah knew. She really wasn’t courted by Isaac himself yet how they found each other was truly amazing. Abraham sends out his servant to find a non-Canaanite woman for his son to marry. The servant, overwhelmed by the task, asks God to intervene with some very specific patterns. The servant shows up to the destination of Abraham’s orders and the list of specifics is checked off one by one in record breaking time. The Bible tells us that Rebecca is taken to Isaac and he not only marries her but he loves her.

I wonder how long it took Rebekah to put all the pieces together. She was a lucky girl because she married the right son. Isaac was the only son Abraham had anything to do with. Rebekah’s father-in-law, Abraham, fathered at least 8 sons by three women. Of course, we know of Isaac and his mother Sarah and Ishmael and his mother Hagar. But scripture reveals that after Sarah’s death, Abraham marries Keturah and produces 6 sons. Of these sons, the book of Genesis only speaks of two, and at that the two boys were barely mentioned.

Genesis 25:5 reveals a family secret of sorts. Abraham gave a few trinkets to the “sons of concubines”. The only significant, unifying factor in the birth of all sons besides Isaac is that Abraham sent them all away. He excluded Isaac from any extended family. Then, in a second strike at disfranchisement, Abraham leaves 100% of his great wealth to only Isaac. If Sarah and Hagar bickered when their boys were small, could you imagine this upset when the will was read?

Rebekah had married into quite the family! And the dirtiest family secret casts such a shadow on the whole family, our Jewish brothers and sisters gave the happening a name – Akedah, meaning the binding of Isaac. Ancient Rabbis believe  this event to be so traumatic it forever changes family life for the chosen trio and it’s ripple effects rattles through sequential generations. Akedah is the sacrifice of Isaac God calls Abraham to make. At the last minute, God’s angel stops the blade from piercing Isaac’s chest and a lamb is provided as a replacement for the boy. Following the incident, the scriptures tell us in Genesis 22:19 that Abraham then resided in Beersheba. Chapter 23 opens with Sarah’s death in Hebron. The two locations are miles apart. The most faithful man of the Bible separated from his wife because of something God had called him to do. Even modern Rabbis believe the stress of Isaac’s near death experience at the hands of his own father was experienced by Sarah as betrayal. And not only betrayal by her husband, but also by God.  This great heartbreak causes her death for there are zero verses between Genesis 22:19 and Genesis 23:1.

That is the family Rebekah joins. Well there was an upside – God’s promise to bring a nation through Abraham and now Isaac. Rebekah became an integral part. My, my, the pressure on her shoulders when she could not conceive.

READ SCRIPTURE

25:19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 25:20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 25:21 Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 25:22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 25:23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” 25:24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25:25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 25:26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 25:27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 25:28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. 25:29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 25:30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 25:31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 25:32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 25:33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 25:34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

I am so curious as to how Isaac prepared his favored son for the role of head of God’s family? According to Jewish tradition, storytelling had to be part of it. Esau, like his mother before him, put together the pieces about Grandpa Abraham and his other disowned sons. Esau heard Isaac’s version of being binded and almost sacrificed. Yes, there was a brilliant angel, but his father, Abraham, had betrayed him and spilt up the marriage and Isaac’s happy family home. My, my, how the pressure must have mounted upon Esau! Such a collection of step-uncles that probably despised him and now he was expected to serve this mysterious God who requires so much. No wonder he despised his birthright!

I do understand where he is coming from. Maybe that stress is why he stayed out hunting so much! There are days when I wish I could stay away from camp and enjoy the thrill of the hunt – out in the wild, where I am free. There are days when I wish I could turn a blind eye to my neighbor and a deaf ear to the poor. But I am called to emulate the best of those who have gone before me. I am fueled by the belief that although we live in a broken world and God must make use of heartache, God is good and longs for the best for humankind. I am and you are called to live among the tents, among the people who are broken and blessed and constantly struggle with hard questions.

Oh, you can despise your birthright and easily pass on your place at the communion table, your seat in the pew and your hand in helping others in the name of God. It’s as easy as eating stew. Living among the tents with the people is much more difficult. But in those moments of pain and comfort with God’s people is where God’s promise and marvelous works are experienced.

 

Spiritual Intimacy on Trinity Sunday

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This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Now that the Holy Spirit of God resides in the hearts and minds of humans (Pentecost), the revelation of all three sides of God is complete. Those three sides are Father the creator, the Son our redeemer and God’s Holy Spirit our sustainer. And this Sunday I will address the topic by highlighting the intimacy between the three sides of God. Once again I will use John S. Dunne’s The Reasons of the Heart quote:

Our minds’ desire is to know, to understand, but our hearts desire is intimacy, to be known, to be understood.  To see God with our mind would be to know God, to understand God; but to see God with our heart would be to have a sense of being known by God, of being understood by God.  

John Dunne’s quote sums up the ebb and flow of a healthy, fulfilling relationship. One side of the coin is knowing the other person in the relationship. I call this “closeness”; John Dunne calls it seeing God with our mind. To be close to God means that I learn all that I can about God through all the means of grace available. But that is only part of the journey. The flip side of the coin is intimacy. John Dunne calls this seeing God with our heart. Intimacy with God means that we feel known and understood by God. (A great example is Psalm 139.)

This ebb and flow of relationship is not unique to God’s prescribed manner of knowing God. Rather, the roots of both sides of the relationship coin outdate human existence.

The nature of God is closeness and intimacy. The intimate nature of God begins in the creation story.   Genesis 1:26 reveals that God the creator was not alone in creation. The use of the plural “us” sets the stage for this monotheistic religion to reveal a deeper understanding of the personhood of this creator. Trinity Sunday gives us a handle on the “us” in 1:26 – Father, Son and Holy Spirit were present during creation. Each knew the other and was known by the other.

Seeking to know God is something I hear preached with great confidence. However, the idea of spiritual intimacy with God is something that I never hear. So today I am zeroing in on intimacy.

Now what I am about to say is true. And you know it is true because you have experienced and felt this truth. Listen up to this: Intimacy only happens when trust is readily available between all parties. Only when you feel that the other person is safe are you willing to open yourself up to be known. The environment of the relationship must be accepting of us, us at our best and us at our worst. Remember to be deeply known means that we offer the best and the worst of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our triumphs and our failures. Only when we offer everything and it is accepted with unconditional love do we experience intimacy.

The Holy Trinity, who existed at creation and beyond, practiced closeness and intimacy. The Holy Trinity, the personhood of God also practices safety and trust. This is who God is. And this is how God wants us to live – in imitation of the Almighty.

A three ringed Trinity insignia can be used as an object lesson. The shared section in the middle can illustrate intimacy.

The creation story also teaches us that we are made in the image of God. We have the desire to be known by others and by God. We long to be deeply understood. Naturally, we desire safety and trust within our relationships so intimacy can happen. This longing that stirs in our souls points to our creation. We are made in the image of God.

Science has discovered the fingerprint of God upon our souls. We have learned that babies that are not nurtured fail to thrive. Essential is the safety of assured care and bonding with a caregiver. Studies prove that the better the care of a child, the more likely a productive and happy the adult will result. The trust factor between child and caretaker is a constant throughout the human life and experience. Even as adults, we need to feel a level of trust in our relationships, an assured acceptance that allows us to drop the façade of perfection and offer all that we are. Giving ourselves in this way means we become vulnerable. We risk rejection and hurt.

Jesus sets the standard for vulnerability. While the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was rolling along, unimpeded, God’s relationship with humans was not so successful. So God poured out a portion of Godself into human flesh and became vulnerable. All of this was in order to communicate God’s love for humankind. To live like Jesus means we seek and cultivate relationship built on trust and adopt vulnerability as our default button.

And that is the challenge for our relationships. Made in the image of God, we desire intimacy. And for intimacy to take place we need to trust. When trust is available, we feel that we can let our guard down and be real or vulnerable. Gone is the façade of perfection and ever present is the freedom to offer our broken selves to God, to our life partner, to our children, to our families and close friends. As we progress in our comfort with vulnerability, we will find that we need less trust. As a result we are more honest with ourselves and others about who we are, our abilities and our limitations.

The desire for intimacy lives deep within us. And so it should, after all it came from God. So work to build trust and respond to that trust with vulnerability. Abandon the masks you so easily don and take up the practice of being real, broken and needy with each other and with God. This is the lesson of the Holy Trinity.

Once upon a time a princess of a great King became of the age of marriage. Now the King loved his daughter and found her to be uncommonly wise for her age. So he, uncommonly, allowed her to choose her husband. The search began and eligible bachelors from all parts of the kingdom descended upon the palace. The princess greeted each one, but never removed the veil that covered her face.

After months had passed and no husband was found, one simple craftsman decided he would seek the hand of the princess. He wanted his place in the line of bachelors before but his forehead carried a significant birthmark. As a child, he received horrific teasing. Memories of those days caused him to doubt that the princess could love him. His decision to enter palace caused him to create a plan to cover his markings. He entered the palace wearing a hat with a feather that covered his forehead. And in order to be doubly assured the princess would not catch is physical fallacy, he borrowed a jeweled walking stick from his fellow craftsman.

Feeling he was ready to preform, he entered the palace with quite a confident gait. Much to his surprise, when he laid eyes upon the princess he felt a tug of affection upon his heart. He wanted to speak quite plainly to her but, out of fear, he proceeded with his plan.

“Dear princess!” He proclaimed, “Your beauty is unmatched. Your eyes, like the rubies of the walking stick, are mesmerizing! You soul sparkles within like these diamonds….”

Before the craftsman could get another word out, the guards carried him away and turned him out on the street.

This time the craftsman decided to wear a turban to see the princess. Turbans were not worn in his country but it was the only thing that would cover his birthmark. When he saw the princess, he followed his heart. The craftsman spoke plainly to her. He complimented her beauty, and then he asked questions about her. None of the other suitors had asked about her! They only gave speeches taunting their accomplishments. Now she felt a tug at her heart. After the simple craftsman left her throne room, she asked the guard to follow him home and note where he lived. She was curious about the craftsman in the strange hat but a little dismayed. Her suitor refused to look at her. He kept his head to one side. After some thought, she decided she could not live with a man who refused to look her in the eye and dismissed any thought of calling the craftsman back.

The craftsman left the meeting feeling a sense of accomplishment because he was not thrown out of the palace. He thought about the princess every waking hour. And he became most curious to why she kept a veil over her face.

In the meantime, suitors came and went. And her father became very impatient.

One day the King threatened to choose a spouse for the princess. He begged her to choose the suitor she liked the best. Out of desperation, she sent her guards to fetch the craftsman and bring him to the palace immediately.

The craftsman arrived in his work clothes and had no time to borrow a hat of any nature. Tired and dusty he stood before the princess’s throne. Sweat glistened from his birthmark.

The princess rose from her throne and stood in silence for a long time. Then she asked one question.

“Craftsman, why do you not look upon my face? Do you find me repulsive?”

Shaking in his boots, the humble craftsman replied, “On the contrary, I find you beautiful, inside and out. I dare on look upon you because of this mark.” The craftsman pointed to his forehead. “I have had it from birth and I fear it will dishonor you.”

“Have no fear, craftsman. Gaze upon me now, I command it to be so.”

The obedient craftsman turned toward the princess, who had descended her throne and now stood eye to eye with him. Her veil was now on her shoulders. It no longer covered her face. The princess’s beauty was radiant to him because on her chin was a similar birthmark.

The lesson of Trinity Sunday is as true for us as it is our craftsman. Build trust with God and with others. Drop the hats with feathers and turbans. It is your vulnerability that draws others to you. Jesus, like the princess, came to our eye level by becoming like us. So live like Jesus and be vulnerable.

A Narrative Approach to Pentecost

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Pentecost        June 8, 2014   Gray UMC

Sunday, June the 8th is Pentecost Sunday and I will be preaching at the 9:30am LifeSong worship service at Gray UMC. LifeSong is a gathering of 20somethings through Baby boomers who find liturgical tradition too heavy a burden to suit their communal worship needs. The Order of Worship is simple and set with lay leadership throughout.

The LifeSong worshiping community may or may not have an extensive education of the Bible. And even though some may remember Bible memory verses from the Sunday school era of the 50’s through 80’s, some may have not fully pieced together the Gospel meta-narrative.

My sermon this Sunday will attempt to structure a stout background of the Holy Spirit by narratively weaving a history spanning from Genesis through Pentecost. For the sake of timeliness, I will have to pick and choose scriptures. The main focus will be that the coming of the Holy Spirit was, is and always is active. This activity finds root in God’s deep desire for intimacy with humankind.

The idea of intimacy will be explored. I understand intimacy the how available we make ourselves to be known by others. As levels of safety and trust rise, our ability to share more of ourselves deepens. The narrative story from Genesis to Pentecost is a gentle statement for God’s effort throughout history and a reason for our trust to rise toward God and God’s work through the Holy Spirit. Our best response toward God’s action is vulnerability.

Just as the disciples gathered in the upper room with their emotions of uncertainty, fright and weakness, we are most malleable by God’s Spirit when we own our pain and invite God to give ear to our complaint. Our vulnerably is a gift to God. With that gift the Spirit of God can live in us by way of spiritual intimacy.

John S. Dunne provides a wonderful quote from his book The Reasons of the Heart:

 Our minds’ desire is to know, to understand, but our hearts desire is intimacy, to be known, to be understood.  To see God with our mind would be to know God, to understand God; but to see God with our heart would be to have a sense of being known by God, of being understood by God.  

This is a rough outline:

Genesis 2:1 – The Holy Spirit in creation

The nature of Eden pre-fall “God walked with humans” (intimacy defined)

The Spirit working through Kings  1 Samuel 16:13-14 (God’s Spirit mediated)

The Spirit working through Prophets  Zechariah 7:11-12 (God’s Spirit mediated)

The work of Jesus (Intimacy offered)

Pentecost – God’s Spirit is available to all; one on one Acts 2:1-3

As prescribed in Joel: Acts 2:17-21

The emotional state of the disciples when the Spirit descended

It is one thing to know of God but it is another to be known by God.  This is a God worth letting in.

Intimacy is inviting God to know all of us – during all of our human emotional states

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