Sunday, August 13th, 2017 – Sermon on Charlottesville and Fear and Matthew 14:22-33

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 14:22-33
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” 

First Reading
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
1 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 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. 3 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. 4 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.12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 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.” 14 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, 15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 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. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 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.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 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. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 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. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 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. 28 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.

Last week, Pastor Pam reminded us of Karl Barth’s call to Christians to hold the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – to help us see our story through the lens of God’s story. And this week, as I have done that, there is one word, one feeling that jumps out: fear. [1]

I will talk a lot about fear this morning, we know fear can be a healthy and necessary thing for survival. But I think we all can agree that there is another kind of fear that can be toxic and can convince us to believe lies. About ourselves. About others. About God. And it begins to distort who we are and who we are called to be.

Fear is all over our Old Testament text this morning – the fear Joseph must have felt being thrown into a pit by his brothers and eventually sold into slavery. The fear of his brothers that masks itself as violence and anger and resentment. Because surely at the heart of each one of them was this fear that they were not loved or valued enough by their father, Jacob. That Joseph had something they didn’t, which somehow made them less than. And so they act out of their fear.

We heard the brothers say, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him …and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” That’s fear talking.

This was news to me this week, that same line is stamped into a plaque at the Lorraine motel where Martin Luther King Jr was killed. Listen to these words, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him …and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Which sounds a lot different this morning than it did on Friday morning. It isn’t hard to see how fear leads to violence.

The fingerprints of fear are all around our gospel reading this morning. The disciples are in a boat on the sea of galilee and the wind and the waves are beating against them. When the disciples see Jesus walking towards them on the sea, they are immediately frightened thinking it is a ghost and they cry out in fear. Peter gets out of the boat to walk towards Jesus, but it when he notices the wind he becomes frightened and begins to sink.

After grabbing a hold of Peter to save him, Jesus speaks those hard to understand words, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Which generates a bit of fear in the doubter in me.

So that’s just the biblical stories this morning. And then there’s the newspaper stories – which, you know, where do we begin?

Threats made by North Korea. Presidential threats made in response. And there is the headline on the Guam newspaper which simply said, “14 Minutes,” meaning the amount of warning time the people would have to prepare for whatever atrocities head their way. On top of that there is the fear of not knowing how fearful to be. Don’t take it too seriously, some say, this is unlikely to happen. Take it very seriously, others says.

And then of course there is Charlottesville. And the haunting picture of White Supremacists and torches and racism and hate. And the violence. All of which is surely against God. And all of it surely born out of fear.  Toxic fear.

That’s global and the national fear that we most of know about. But then there are the fears we carry secretly in our hearts from our day-to-day life that swallow us whole each day too.

Fears of failure, fear of not meeting people’s expectations, fear of not being welcome because your different than those around you.

I think we live in a town that is saturated in fear of not being good enough, successful enough, smart enough, or as one person said to me recently, unique enough.

Fear. Fear. Fear. It is all around us today.

I want us to see what we can learn about fear this morning in the light of this story of Jesus walking on water. Specifically, I want to zero in on one particular moment of fear this morning – the moment when Peter steps out onto the water.

Now, it’s important for us to understand that in that time, the sea was a symbol of chaos and danger and evil. So, think about that for a moment – Jesus sends the disciples in a boat out on to the sea. Which teaches us that following Jesus doesn’t mean that our life will get easier. In fact, it will likely get harder, because Jesus will call us to a life of faith we’re not sure we want to enter into. Loving your neighbor and loving your enemy is not easy, it’s risky.

So, the sea is a symbol of chaos and danger and in this story Jesus is able to walk on top of the sea. He comes to the disciples who are being overwhelmed by the sea, and Jesus comes walking on top of it. Suddenly, the story for me is about much more than the defying of the laws of physics. It is no longer scientific, it is theological. It is a theological promise that God has power over that which has power over us.

So, Jesus comes to the disciples in their moment of fear, walking on top of that which creates fear. They think he’s a ghost; Jesus says immediately…immediately, Jesus is desperate for them to know this, he says it right away…. “Take heart, It is I, do not be afraid.”

Notice he doesn’t say, “Calm down, these storms aren’t that bad.” He doesn’t say, “Stop being so silly. These are good storms, you just think they are bad storms.” He doesn’t dismiss the truth about the storms and how frightening they are, he simply says I am with you in the storm. You do not need to be afraid any more.

And then Peter speaks up. Listen carefully, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come out on to the water.” IF it is you. Peter must have gotten a little of that evil sea water in his lungs, because remember that’s the devil’s question when Jesus is in the wilderness. If you are the Son of God…turn these stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off this temple.”

Peter says, “Lord, if it is you…” which doesn’t sound like the most confident and faithful and brave Peter we’ve been taught to see here. And why does Peter isolate himself from the group? Why not have Jesus command all of them to walk out on the water, why just Peter?

So, Jesus obliges. Sure, come on, Peter.

 And Peter steps out of the boat. And for a brief moment, Peter can walk on the sea of chaos too. But then Peter notices the strong wind and he gets frightened. He becomes fearful and the text says he begins to sink.

And this is the part that has caught my attention all week. Why does he begin to sink? Why doesn’t he sink like a stone, like the rest of us? Instead, I have this image of Peter on this painful slow escalator going downward. What could it mean?

Could it be that when we become fearful, our lives slowly sink into chaos. And it’s a gradual process. Sometimes, it’s so slow that you wake up one morning and you can’t figure out how you got into the mess you’re in, because it was so slow you didn’t even notice.

That’s what evil and chaos do – they grab a hold of us slowly, so that we don’t know they are there.

Remember, scripture says love casts out fear. But the opposite is true too. Fear casts out love.

Think for a moment about the things fear causes us to do. When I become fearful, I’m more likely to look out for myself than to look out for others. And if I’m protecting myself, I’m more likely to lie than to be honest. Fear causes me to stay with those who are like me rather than those who are different than me.

I mean that’s the really truth, right? That there is a form of racism that is alive in all of us, but we cannot see it. Because it has creeped in very, very slowly, and it has been normalized. And none of us want it there, none of us would choose it, but we are being asked to look for it. To search for the hidden racism within us so that we can expose it and perhaps in exposing it begin to heal it.

Ultimately, fear causes me to isolate and hide.

And none of that happens quickly. It happens slowly. I begin to sink into that which is chaotic and dangerous and evil. At a pace where I barely even notice it.

Which is what happens to Peter. He becomes afraid and he begins to sink into the chaos. And Peter shouts, “Lord, save me!” Which very well could have been Peter’s moment of doubt, not sure that Jesus would save him. But Jesus does. He grabs him by the hand and puts him back in the boat. With the others.

Please notice that Jesus saves the sinking doubter. I think that’s important for all of us to hear.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike and Julie and I went to a conference called Rethinking Church. At it, we got to hear from a pastor Kara Root, who stepped into a church when there were only 30 people left. And along the way, she realized that we live with competing scripts in our life – the way of fear vs the way of God. And those two scripts compete for our attention.

So her congregation started to ask those questions. What is the way of fear saying to us right now and what is the way of God trying to say to us instead.

The Way of Fear: Our glory days are over. We will never be the church we were.
The Way of God: God is doing something here and now among us.

The Way of Fear: We are too small and we don’t have any money.
The Way of God: We are exactly the right size and have all the resources we need for what God wants to do in and through us.

The Way of Fear: If you volunteer for something, you will be stuck there forever.
The Way of God: We all participate from our particularities and our passions.

The Way of Fear: The Same Few People Do All the Work
The Way of God: We all do the ministry of the church

And then they took those core values of the way of God and hung them on their church wall – so as to be surrounded by the way of God and not the way of fear.

And then came Marty. Marty was a member of the church, who was diagnosed with cancer. And when it became clear that the treatments weren’t working, Marty stepped into Pastor Kara’s office and said he felt scared and alone.

Pastor Kara told him that he isn’t alone. That this church would walk alongside him as he goes through what we all will go through. You see, the way of fear says you are all alone. That you have to figure on your own. The way of God says you are never alone – but rather that we belong to God and we belong to each other.

And so trusting in the way of God that Marty is not alone in his dying, the church decided to show him that. One Sunday morning, the church – adults and children – gathered around Marty and commissioned him into a ministry of dying. The church asked him to teach them about dying – and his only job was to be honest about his experience. And for about 18 months, through his raw honesty and openness about what life with terminal cancer was like, not only did he teach this church how to die but, as some said, he taught them how to live. And when he died this past June, the people around him said, “He wasn’t afraid and he wasn’t alone.”

When Marty first arrived in Pastor Kara’s office, he was sinking. When he left her office, and ultimately when he died, he was back in the boat. With the people of God. That is the way of God alive and at work among the people of God. The way of fear leads to sinking…every time.

I wonder what the way of fear whispers to us. As individuals, as a congregation. I wonder what the way of God would whisper back.

The way of fear says You’re not enough.
The way of God says you’re always enough.

The way of fear says You should be doing what that church is doing.
The way of God says God is already doing something here.

The way of fear says at least your country has a bigger military, so you’re okay. Don’t worry about it.
The way of God says all life is sacred.

The way of fear says that what is happening in Charlottesville will blow over. Just give it time. You don’t need to say anything about it.
The way of God says what you do for the least of these you’ve done for me.

Can you see how these two scripts are competing for our attention?

And it is Jesus who says to us, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Because we belong to God and we belong to each other. And we are called to that way of God.

So stay in the boat. I don’t think Peter was meant to walk on water. I don’t know that any of us are. If they were, Jesus would’ve told them to grab onto their faith and walk across the sea. Instead, he put them in a boat together.

The way of fear will cause us to sink. The way of God will keep us together. So, let’s stay in the boat. And together let’s listen for the way of God to lead us to shore. Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Matthew Skinner for this theme and for some discussions on fear with this text.

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Sunday, July 23rd, 2017 – Sermon on Jacob and Dreams and Jesus and Weeds

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
 24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, “An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ “ 36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen! 

First Reading
Genesis 28:10-19a
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place -— and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz.

——-

In Martin Luther’s small catechism, which is in your hymnals –so if you open your hymnal to page 1167 –  there is an evening prayer, a prayer before bed that goes likes this – I give you thanks, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Is there anything so vulnerable as falling asleep? There is something about that moment when you enter the space of one who is sleeping. There is an innocence and softness to one who is sleeping. After the most frustrating day with a child, when you find them curled up and sleeping, something of the day starts to soften. And sleep can even make the most powerful and maybe even intimidating people look like small children. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me.

 And to go to sleep – to finally lay down your head and close your eyes, to let go of everything we try to control and give ourselves over to God in whom we strive to trust.

It has been said that Angelo Roncalli, also known as Pope John the 23rd who lived and led during the chaos and turmoil of Vatican II, would each night say his prayers and then he would say to himself, “Who runs the church? You…or God? Go to sleep, Angelo. Go to sleep.”

To go to sleep is to let go of everything we try to micromanage and control in this world, and vulnerably give ourselves over into the hands of God.

That’s what Jacob does in our Old Testament story this morning. He lays down his head and goes to sleep. Last week we heard the story about how Jacob, the cheat, the heel, took what is not his and cheated his brother Esau out of Esau’s birthright. Since then, Jacob, along with his mother Rebekah, has deceived his father, Isaac, into giving Jacob the blessing that Esau was to receive.

And now – he’s on the run. And for anyone whose running from anything, to have to stop and lay your head down is risky and vulnerable. Because whatever you’re running from – you’re enemy, you’re conscience, you’re God – it just might catch up to you.

And so Jacob sleeps. And when he sleeps – he dreams.

And in this dream, Jacob sees a ladder set upon the earth and reaching all the way into the heavens. And this scurry of angels ascending and descending.

Now, what could this mean? The text doesn’t say. Dreams are like that – we don’t always know what they mean. But one possibility is that back in the Ancient Near East, there were these staircases attached to the temple towers. And they represent the belief or the understanding that the very top of the tower represented heaven. The dwelling place of the gods. And so these staircases represented this pathway for the human realm to touch the divine realm. Priests or divine beings would go back and forth up and down the stairway, creating communication between the two realms.

So, in his dream, Jacob is watching this event happen, which maybe was an idea he was familiar with. And all of a sudden – did you notice what happens next? It says, “And the Lord stood beside him.”

Jacob is watching, over there, all of this flurry and scurry between the earthy realm and the heavenly realm – and God is standing right next to him.

That’s like if you show up at a multi-million dollar business, and you see all of these rich professionals running around with their brief cases and their suits, up and down the gilded elevators, and then you find the CEO out on a park bench playing chess with a person from the street.

It’s like if you’re at US Bank Stadium this September for the U2 concert, and you’re sitting there in your nosebleed seats, waiting for the band to step on stage, and suddenly you realize the man next to you crowding the arm rest is Bono, with his cool sunglasses.

Jacob is watching this ladder covered in angels, spanning the earth into the heavens. But God is right next to him and suddenly there are no two realms. God is now here.

And God says to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 

Jacob’s on the run and he finds out God’s on the run with him. Nearly everything up until now in his life, Jacob’s stolen and cheated for. But in this moment, he receives something that can never be stolen, never be taken, it can only be received as gift – the promises and presence of God.

And Jacob wakes from the dream and proclaims, “The Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” Which is enough good news for one day – that God can be here even when we don’t see it.

Do you dream much these days? I’ve started dreaming again now that we are sleeping through the night more. This past weekend I had a dream where a whole section of my teeth shattered and fell out of my mouth.

One of my Old Testament professors has said we don’t pay enough attention to our dreams as a way for God to communicate to us.

In 1984, Herb Chilstrom (former presiding bishop of the ELCA) and his wife Corrine lost their son Andrew to suicide. In her powerful and yet devastating book, Andrew, You Died Too Soon, Corrine shares what she calls preparatory dreams that three of the family members had right before Andrew took his own life.

Four nights before it happened, Herb dreamt that he was talking with his kids about being financially responsible adults. But in the dream, Andrew was to the side – apart from the cluster of the family. Yet Andrew needed more help than the others. Why had he not been in the circle? He wondered when he awoke.

The night Andrew died but before anyone knew, their daughter Mary had been awake for along but when she finally fell asleep, she awoke to a stabbing pain in her heart accompanied by a very bright light. And with a sense of sadness, she fell back asleep only to be awaken by her parent’s phone call.

Corrine had a dream that night too. She was walking to her car downtown at dusk, when she walk by five men in a huddle. She sensed that something terrible was about to happen and rushed into a building. Soon, the young men were in the building and a frenzy was building among the group. Corrine woke up and immediately woke up her husband saying, “I feel afraid, as though something frightening is happening somewhere.” The next morning she knew the meaning of her dream.

God does speak to us in our dreams, Corrine writes.

Scholar Walter Brueggemann calls them Holy Intrusions.[1]

Brueggemann says that the biblical world knows about dreams and understood that they can open us up to a world that is different than the one we try to micromanage during the day. And they were willing to risk wondering if dreams, as confusing and odd as they might be, could be a way through which God tries to speak to us, and that this communication is worth our wonder and thought and questioning.

Can we be open to the mystery and the wonder of our dreams? Which, I guess, is how I’ve found myself thinking about parables this week too. And I guess for me, parables have become like dreams. Parables, like dreams, serve as keys that can help us “unlock the mysteries we face by helping us ask the right questions.”[2] Parables are not answers – they are trying to communicate something true about this life, and about God to us and they are invitations to question our own conclusions about this life and about God.

And so as much as I want to disregard this awful parable because it seems to reinforce an unhelpful (and I think unChristian) theology that some people are bad people and other people are good people and the bad people will get cooked and the good people will celebrate – as much as I want to ditch this parable for that easy misreading, I think there is too much truth and wonder and mystery here to get rid of it. Because you see, we are such a product of our own age – we think this parable is all about us. When in fact it’s about God and the kingdom of Heaven and the truth about this life.

Rather than scare us into judgment of others or fear of judgment, but rather like all of our readings this morning, is steeped in words of promise to pass on to each generation.

Lord, there are weeds in this field. There is evil in the world. Lord, did you sow these bad seeds?[3] Did you cause the evil in the world?  Right away, the parable gives a clear and defined answer.

No.

To the cancer takes a young woman’s life, to the systemic racism that panics and divides, to the cultures of perfection that breed shame and isolation and a sense of worthless. To all of these evils, and more, the text proclaims a thousand no’s. No – these do not come from the Lord. In fact they are the enemy of God and us all.

Lord, can we fix it?

No.

 The parable names a hard truth about the reality of the world – the seeds of justice and injustice, the good and the bad – lie side-by-side. And there is good news in this hard truth. Not everything in the worlds is wheat. You don’t have to act like you have it all together. And not everything is a weed. But truth be told, sometimes it can be hard to figure out which is which. Just like wheat and the darnel weed, what looks like good can turn out to be evil and what looks like evil could turn out to be good. You pull one out and the entangled roots of the other are not far behind. If we seek to be the ones to rid the world of evil, can anyone be left standing? Because the truth is that our life is the field, and that each one of us is mixed up in goodness and evil. It’s not up to us to determine and rid the world of evil. Yes, we do what we can do to resist evil in ourselves and in others, but it is not on you do it all. Which frees you.

Will it always be this way, Lord?

No.

I don’t know if you noticed, but the evil one may have sowed the bad seeds, but the evil one also left. That’s what evil does. It abandons. It isolates. It neglects. But sower of the good seeds stays beside the field – wheat, weeds in all. In the end, the Lord has stuck around to sort it all – it won’t always be this way.

I don’t think it’s a simple as the good go to heaven and the bad go to hell. I think we live in complicated and mixed up world –where sometimes it can all look the same. But the Lord – the one who sows good seed, has stuck around. And will lead the sorting out. The kingdom of Heaven demands change and transformation.  Which, I trust, will be good too. I don’t know about you, but it’s good when the evil in my life is burned away with the truth spoken in love. It hurts – but it hurts like a surgeon’s scalpel and not a mugger’s knife.

And so, in the end the promise I’m left with, both from Jacob’s dream and Jesus’ parable comes right form the Psalm. Where can we free from your spirit, O Lord? Where can we free from your presence? Nowhere. The world groans but you are here, O Lord. We make love and we make war but you are the ground of our being who holds us fast in the midst of our own self-destruction.

God is with us – on the run. Pouring promises of grace over us like oil over a stone. So that those who encounter us might one day say – look, God is in this place and I did not know it.

Amen.

[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-06/holy-intrusion

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, pg. 275.

[3] What follows is drawn from Tom Long’s book, What Shall We say?

Sunday, July 9th, 2017 – A Sermon on Rebekah and Genesis 24

This sermon went something like this. Audio and text are likely different.

You can listen to the sermon here.

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
34 So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. 36 And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37 My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; 38 but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ 42 “I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! 43 I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” 44 and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” —- let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’ 45 Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46 She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. 47 Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. 48 Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49 Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.” 58 And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” 59 So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 61 Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way. 62 Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63 Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. 64 And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65 and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. 66 And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67 Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

This morning, we heard the story of Abraham arranging to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Or put more simply – the beginning of the story of Rebekah.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been traveling along through the book of Genesis and the story of Abraham and Sarah.

At the beginning we heard about God’s call to Abraham to leave his home and to enter a new land, and through this calling God promised to Abraham and Sarah not only land and not only descendants as numerous the stars, but also that they would be a blessing to the entire world.

But each step of the way, those promises came under threat.

At first, Abraham and Sarah were barren for many years, and they wondered if it would ever come true.

Then the promise was under threat again when Sarah didn’t think this promise was for her and so she sent Abraham to have a child with another woman, their servant, Hagar.

But God’s promise of offspring was to Abraham and Sarah. So, late into their years, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. Finally, their hope and their promised future had arrived.

But then last week, that promise was under threat again in the horrifying story of Abraham hearing God’s call to sacrifice Isaac. To sacrifice Isaac would be to sacrifice the future and the very promises God had made. But Abraham was faithful to God, and God was faithful to Abraham. And another way was found. And Isaac lived.

Now, today, in Genesis 24, many years later – the promises of God are under threat again. Most notably because Sarah, Isaac’s mom has died. And not only that, the chapter begins by saying, “Now, Abraham was old, well advanced in years…”

The first generation is beginning to pass away. The promises of God had made it this far. But Isaac, the next generation is not married. Will there be offspring? Will it all end here? That’s question that echoes throughout this story.

We know what it’s like to live with that question. To live in those times of uncertainty and change and to not know how things will go. When a beloved one dies suddenly, and the impact and effect on you and the family is unknown and unsteady. Is this it? Is this the moment our family falls apart? Or that moment a few weeks from now, when many parents will send their last child out into the world and by doing so join a club known as the “Empty-Nesters.”

And some of these parents will wonder if their child will make it outside the home. Others will wonder if their marriage will make it inside the home, now that it is just the two of them again. Is this it? Is this the end of what has been?

Or as we wait and watch our government sink into deeper and more cloaked forms of dysfunction and paralysis, we wonder if any good could possibly come out of all of this. What does the future hold? Will things ever go back to the way they were? Should they ever go back? Is this the end of the way we’ve known?

We know what it’s like to live in uncertainty and to wonder – will it end here? Or will the promises of God hold true in the midst of unlikely circumstances?

Those are the questions being asked in this story. Which in a lot of ways means that this story is our story. Not only that it is part of our scriptures, but this is the human story. We know these moments as the baton is passed from one generation to the next and to not know. To not know how things will be.

So, as we walk through the story this morning, I invite you to wonder – who are you in this story? Because sometimes all the gospel we need is to just know that we have a place in the woven fabric of God’s story.

Now, for as serious as the concerns of this story are, there is humor to be found in Genesis 24.

Yes, Sarah has died. Yes, Abraham’s getting old. Yes, Isaac isn’t married. But as far as I can tell, this is the first biblical example of a parent trying to micromanage their child’s life.

No, Isaac, you’re not going to take a year off to go find yourself. You’re going to listen to me. I’m your parent. I know what’s best for you. You’re going to go to St. Olaf, you’re going to sing in the Choir (we didn’t pay for all those lessons for you to just quit now), you’re going to major in business or science (not Philosophy) and you’re going to meet a very nice Scandinavian Lutheran girl.

Well, for Abraham, he wanted Isaac to marry a nice Mesopotamian girl, and most certainly not a Canaanite (we can see how prejudice starts early in this story).

So old Abraham, likely from his deathbed (one scholar thinks), takes the initiative to carry on the promises of God and to find Isaac a wife. He sends his servant back to his homeland to find a suitable wife for Isaac.

Now, Isaac is about 40 years old at this time. If God made a promise of descendants as numerous as the stars, and that promise depends on Isaac being married – why is this happening so late in the game? Was Abraham waiting on God? Was God waiting on Abraham?

Have you been waiting on God for something? Could God be waiting on you? Either way, one thing we learn from this story is that God is willing to go with us when we take the first step into something. God goes along with Abraham’s idea. They co-create this moment together. And what happens yes depends on God but also on the people and how they respond. Abraham recognizes…the woman could say no – she won’t marry Isaac. Who knows what will happen. All we know is that God is willing to go along with Abraham’s idea as possible way for the flourishing of God’s promises.

This servant takes 10 camels, and a bunch of gifts and goes back to Abraham’s homeland. And just outside the city, the servant stops by a well of water.

Okay, now if you hear about a well showing up in Biblical story, take notice. Because a well in those days is like match.com in these days. It’s where people go to find someone, you know…compatible. It is this classic type-scene of where Biblical characters meet their spouses. It is like when you’re watching a romantic comedy and in the first 10 minutes a the main character walks into a bar and bumps into a guy spilling his drink all over himself – most of us in the theater think, “Yeah, those two are going to get together in the end.”

That’s what it’s like in the Bible and wells.

So the servant is at the well and he starts to pray. O Lord, if only you will make this successful.43 I am standing here by the spring of water; when I say to a woman, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” 44 and she says, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” —- let her be the woman for Isaac.’

Have you ever prayed a prayer like that? A prayer that holds God to some really specific expectations. Lord, if you will just make it so I get at least 82.3% on this test. Lord, if I can just get one of the first three parking spots close to Target, I promise I will go to church 2 out of the next 4 Sundays.

And then it happens. And you think, “God did it! God answered my prayer!” Is that how God works, is that how God provides? I don’t know.

But, lo and behold, before the servant is done praying, a woman named Rebekah appears at the well.

So the servant does his part, “Ahem…please let me have a drink.”

The woman says, “Drink and I will also water your camels.”

Those are the words! – that’s what he said she would say! She must be the one!

Now, picture this. Rebekah has a jar. One jar. She has just offered to water this servant’s 10 camels. A camel can drink 20-30 gallons of water at time. That’s 200-300 gallons of water, folks! And one jug. So, the first thing we learn about Rebekah is that she is amazingly strong.

While she is accomplishing this huge endeavor, the servant is still discerning if she is the right one. What if he discerns wrong? Is this where it all ends? Could the promises of God rest on this single moment? This one decision? Would his failure make God and God’s promise to Abraham a failure?

But once the servant learns that Rebekah is part of Abraham’s people, that seals the deal. He gives her all of these gifts of jewelry and Rebekah offers him to stay with her and her family that night. An offer of hospitality not unlike that of Abraham when the angels came to visit him. And then Rebekah rushes home to tell her family what has happened.

Once at their home, the servant has to retell the whole story to Rebekah’s brother, Laban, and father, Bethuel, to try to convince them that she is the one to marry Isaac and to give permission for her to go. What if they aren’t convinced? What if they say no? Could everything fall apart here?

Well, Rebekah’s family decides that this message comes from God and give permission for Rebekah to go. And then they ask Rebekah, “Will you go with this man?” What if she says no?

But then we hear the words from Rebekah – “I will.” And so the second thing we learn about Rebekah is that she is courageous. Because she, following in the footsteps of Abraham, is being asked to leave her homeland, solely on the promises of God, and to be part of the promise of God – to be a blessing for the world.

And so they go. With all the camels. And along the way, Rebekah sees a man, Isaac, far off. The text says she quickly slipped off the camel. But actually the Hebrew says that she falls off the camel. So I guess the third thing we learn about Rebekah is that she’s a little clumsy in love.

And it says that Isaac loved her too.

And so they get married in Sarah’s tent. And the light that had dimmed through Sarah’s death, has been rekindled in Rebekah’s arrival. And hope for the next generation and hope for the future of God’s promises is reborn.

So that’s the beginning of the story of Rebekah.

What I marvel at in this story is the number of people it takes create the fabric of this story. The way their ordinary lives make a difference in the story of God. I marvel at the number of people of all the generations in and through whom God works to keep hope for the future alive. Sure, many of us know the giants of faith – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and David. Mary and Jesus and Peter and Paul. But in this story, God is at work, behind the scenes through all the people.

So, who are you in this old story?

Are you Abraham? As we watch God at work in a man at the end of his life and the way he worries about the future of his son.

Are you Isaac? As we watch God at work in the one on the edge of the story, fearfully and desperately waiting for a place to jump in and grab a hold of a future that just hasn’t arrived yet.

Are you the servant? As we watch God at work through the often anonymous person, seeking to serve others in ordinary ways, prayerfully hoping to make a difference

Are you Rebekah? As we watch God at work in the strong and courageous one who faithfully steps out into the unknown, trusting that God will be with her.

Are you Rebekah’s family? As we watch God at work in those who have watched their beloved child step out into a world that is uncertain and far away and all they can do is send them with your blessing and love.

Who are you in this old story?
Who are you in God’s present day story?

Kimberly Bracken Long was the pastor of a small Presbyterian church in New Jersey. To kick off the annual stewardship campaign, the stewardship committee planned a church dinner in the fellowship hall. The choir agreed to provide entertainment – a mix of old romantic songs and Broadway tunes. After dinner, the choir launched into their program, and people were having fun, singing along and laughing. As the final number, the choir sang a kind of exaggerated version of “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” A version about how that old time religion was good enough for the giants of faith, so it was good enough for them. And the choir sang all the verses they knew, rolling their eyes as they sang – “It was good enough for the Hebrew children…it was good enough for Abraham and Sarah…it was good enough for Paul and Silas…and it’s good enough for me.” People were enjoying it so much, they didn’t want the choir to stop, but they had run out of verses. They had run out of names. So after a short hesitation, a tenor in the choir made up a new verse: “It was good enough for Edith Pursley, it was good enough for Edith Pursley, it was good enough for Edith Pursley, and it’s good enough for me.” The mood changed. Edith Pursley was a saint in the congregation who had just died a few weeks before. When that verse had ended, someone in the crowd started another new verse, “It was good enough for Paul Lapin…” Paul Lapin another saint in the church gone to glory. And they sang verse after verse, naming the ordinary saints of that church. By the end, the satirical old timey gospel song had been transformed into a powerful hymn of faith about all the characters in the story of God.

God works through the ordinary saints and their everyday ordinary lives to keep the hope for the future and the promises of God alive.

As we gently step into an unknown future, when we are not sure if things will ever be the same, I wonder if you can hear your own name as part of the song and story of the life of God. Can you see your own life as woven into the very story of God that is and has been and always will be? A life through which God has promised to bring blessing to this world?

May you have eyes to see. And may it be so. Amen.

Sunday, June 25th, 2017 – A sermon on Hagar and El Roi and Genesis 21:8-21

You can listen to this sermon here.

Genesis 21:8-21
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 

9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 

14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Throughout the history of the church we, the church, and we, individuals,  have emphasized and deemphasized certain parts of Scripture as we strive make sense out of the life we live. We have put certain texts in the center of our faith and others at the margins of our faith.

And for good reason. There are parts of Scripture that seem to carry more weight and meaning for our lives. For example, Psalm 23 means a lot more to many of us than say….Paul telling Timothy to take a little wine for his upset stomach.

Or if you just take a moment and think about the Bible stories or Bible verses you more or less know by heart, by doing so you’ll start to see what parts of Scripture the church has lifted up over the years and what we have found valuable.

But, I’ll be honest, I think we are moving into an age where we are called to start shining a light on some of the dustier parts of our bible. Some of the passages and stories that we’ve dismissed or overlooked in the past few centuries.

For example, we have spent so much time teaching people the story of the so-called Original Sin through Adam and Eve and thusly shaming people as sinful and fallen creatures (which we are), but we have emphasized it to such a degree that we can barely accept and hold onto (or have ever heard, for that matter) the story of the Original Blessing – when you and I and all people are made in the image of God. What would happen to a generation of people if that were their foundational bible story?

Or the Church for a long time now has been in the after-life business, of splitting hairs about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. But what would happen if we started holding on to the passage from the Gospel of Luke that says, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”? How would that change the work and mission of the church?

Or over the past few weeks, as we have tried to debate what is justified and unjustified killing of a black person, perhaps we ought to gather around the text from Ezekiel that says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord.” What if we started there?

So, I think that’s what we are being called to do – to venture with a flashlight into the hidden and unseen parts of scripture and to look around a bit and shine a light on other words of God.

With this in mind, this morning, you and I have an opportunity to learn (or re-learn) and reflect upon a story for scripture that has too often been neglected in the life of the church – the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. A story that for some reason doesn’t exist in our children’s bible. A story that, as you can read in Nathan’s beautiful reflection on the first page of your bulletins, is given almost no attention in our church hymnody.

Now, in order to hear and know Hagar’s story, we have to go back a bit.

Last week, we heard about Abraham and Sarah – an aged and barren couple through whom God promised to make a great nation. That their descendants would be a numerous as the stars. And through them, the entire world would be blessed.

But that didn’t happen right away. Month after month, old Sarah remained childless. And so Sarah starts to wonder if she’s the problem – that God’s promise of offspring is a promise for Abraham and not a promise for her. So, they take matters into their own hands and try to help God along a bit and Sarah gives her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abraham as a wife. So that’s how Hagar comes on to the scene. She is their Egyptian slave-girl, through whom they think they can have children.

Now, one of the painful truths about this story is that it includes both economic and sexual exploitation. For Hagar’s sake, let’s give voice to that truth –that Hagar was owned by another human being (economic exploitation) and that no one asked her consent (sexual exploitation). Some scholars will say that there is no reason to judge this behavior – it was commonly understood and well within Sarah’s right to do so. Yeah, well… in this day and age? We know that people can be well within their rights to do something and for it to still be wrong. In this day and age, when we have to create $1 million anti-sex trafficking campaigns simply because the Super Bowl is coming to our state…we darn well better name and condemn the sexual exploitation happing within our own Holy Scriptures and within our own culture.

So, Hagar gets pregnant with Abraham’s child – and then the conflict begins. Hagar looks at Sarah with contempt. Sarah looks at Hagar with contempt. Eventually, Abraham gives Sarah permission to do what she wants with Hagar. So Sarah does what most of us do, we take our internal pain and grief out on others around us. Sarah begins to mistreat Hagar and Hagar runs away.

And then the story follows….Hagar. Into the wilderness. In fact, it says, God found her there. God has chosen Abraham and Sarah for descendants and blessing, but God follows the outsider, the exploited one, into the wilderness.

And then notice…God is the first one in the story to use Hagar’s name. Before she was just referred to as “the slave-girl”. But God calls her by name. I have called you by name and you are mine. We know that Scripture.

God says, “Hagar, where are you running from and where are you going?” All Hagar can tell God is where she is running from – Sarah. She can’t tell God where she is going because what kind of future could a girl like her possibly have.

Well, God has a future for her. And yes, God tells her to return to Sarah and Abraham. But she doesn’t return empty handed. She doesn’t return the same as she was – because God, in the wilderness gives Hagar her very own promises – “I will greatly multiply your offspring, that they cannot be counted for multitude.” What we learn is that God is now committed to the life of Hagar and her soon-to-be son, Ishmael.

At this moment, something happens that never occurs in the rest of Scripture. Hagar, the unchosen and victimized, but also strong and courageous slave-girl, is the only person in Scripture who gets to rename God. “You are El-Roi” she says. The God who sees me.

Hagar – a foreign woman, outside the “chosen” people, gets to give God a new name. El-Roi.

So, Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah. And the years pass, and as many of us heard last week, Abraham and Sarah give birth to a child, Isaac. Our reading this morning picks up with Isaac being weaned (likely 3 years old) and suddenly the conflict starts up again.

Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael gone, not wanting Ishmael to receive any of Isaac’s inheritance. Both would have legally had a right to the inheritance, but you see when it’s my child whose future is at stake, too often – like Sarah- our vision, our own seeing, is narrowed to exclude the children of others.

Now, God tells Abraham to let it happen, but God does so while also reiterating the promise that God will make a great nation out of Ishmael as well. And so Sarah and Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael.

And then, again, the story follows…Hagar. Not the chosen people. But the outsider, the unchosen ones…Hagar and Ishmael. Out into the wilderness. And then we hear these heart-shattering words, “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes and sat down a good way off because she could not look upon the death of her child.”

And then it says Hagar cried.

And then it say God heard…God heard the voice of the boy. Sarah and Abraham may have cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their lives, but Hagar and Ishmael cannot be cast out of the life of God. God hears the voice, the cries of the boy. God has ears for the wailings of the little ones. Surely God heard the cries of Diamond Reynolds’ daughter as she says to her mother in the back of that police car, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you. Momma, please stop crying, I don’t want you to get shooted.”

God hears the voice of the child. Surely, God heard the voice of that child.

And then God promises, again, to Hagar that God will make a great nation of Ishmael, and then God opens her eyes. God sees her –El Roi – but then God helps her to see, and shows her a water well, to give the boy a drink. And then verse 20 says, “And God was with the boy.”

So that is the powerful, but often unknown story of Hagar and Ishmael. Why do you think we have, like Sarah does to Hagar, cast this story out into the wilderness of our story-telling and memory?

Listen to this quote from my former Old Testament professor, Terry Fretheim: “I cannot recall having heard a sermon on these texts. One wonders why this story has been so neglected or considered a story only with a negative purpose. Is it because Abraham, that exemplar of faith, does not come off so well? Is it because the main characters are women? Is it because Hagar and Ishmael stand outside the community of faith? Indeed, Hagar has several strikes against her: she is a foreigner, a slave, a woman, and probably black (at least African)…Is it because Muslims track their roots back into these stories, and understand themselves to be heirs of Abraham as much as do Jews and Christians? Is it possible that the story of Hagar and Ishmael is neglected because God makes promises to them..?”[1]

Did you know that our Muslim brothers and sisters trace their lineage back through Hagar and Ishmael and back to Abraham?

We don’t know why the story has been cast out, but today is a good day to shine some light on it. Because our Muslim brothers and sisters have just finished their Holy month of Ramadan, and I’m sure they would be overjoyed to know that their Christian brothers and sisters were thinking of them.

Today is a good day for us to shine a light upon this story because just this past week, religious leaders from around the world released videos asking people to befriend people of other faiths.

We are so used to saying the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What if we started adding Hagar’s name to that list. We believe in the God of Hagar.

We believe in the God of Hagar because in Hagar we have a story where not everything that we do to others and not everything that is down to us is God’s will. God did not intend for Abraham to have offspring with Hagar. Our own plans, our own misunderstandings of what God wants can disrupt what God would have happen in the world. But…the God of Hagar will use and can even bring blessing out of our moments of distrust or unfaith.

We believe in the God of Hagar because in Hagar a story where Hagar’s life matters to God. Ishmael’s life matters to God. God will not be deterred by the ways we try to cast aside and hide others from our life. The lives of the marginalized and the oppressed and the vulnerable matter to God.

We belive in the God of Hagar because in Hagar we have a story about a God who has other stories. And other promises. And other people. God is not exclusively committed to us. Which reminds us (and frees us) that we never have and we never can know all there is to know about God. Yes, God loves you. Yes God is with you. But not only you.

So may the God of Hagar see you. May the God of Hagar hear you. And may the God of Hagar stretch you into a love that is gentler, a mercy that is wider, and a thirst for justice that is greater.

Amen.

[1] Terence Fretheim, Abraham, pg. 93.

Sunday, June 11th, 2017 – A Sermon on the Holy Trinity and Genesis 1 and 2

You can listen to the sermon here.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. 24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2: 1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Last week Pastor Pam began with a Happy Pentecost. Today, we can begin with a happy Holy Trinity Sunday.

I’ll admit, I’m delighted you’re here. At second service last week, in talking about the Holy Spirit, Pam gave a hint that today would be Holy Trinity Sunday and that we’d be talking about all this “God is three but also one. God is one but also three” stuff. And I thought, “Noooo. You’re not supposed to tell the people Holy Trinity Sunday is coming up. You’re supposed to blindside them with it – let them arrive on that Sunday, get cozy in the pew, lock the sanctuary doors, …and then tell them it’s Holy Trinity Sunday.

(True story: A former church I was at had it in their church history that the ushers used to lock the doors when the sermon started.)

Because, let’s be honest, today is the one day in the church calendar when we celebrate everyone’s favorite church word – doctrine. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I’m not sure of anyone who isn’t slightly threatened by that word. Or if not threatened by it, uses it as a threat to others. It’s about as comforting as a cinder block pillow. Even phonetically, it is such a hard word. Doc-trine.

Last week, in Pam’s sermon (and for those of you counting, yes that is the third time I’ve referenced it. It was a great sermon. You should listen to it). She talked about Pentecost as the third child of the Church Feast days – the one whose baby book never gets finished, in comparison to Christmas and Easter. With that in mind, I can’t help but think about today, Holy Trinity, as that family closet that no one wants to open. Because it is just a disaster in there. Or, for some of us, it isn’t a closet – it’s a whole room. In our house, it’s the guest room that rarely is prepared for guests.

But seriously, this closet is where we just shove things that are just sort of in the way, right? We think we need to keep but we don’t really want to look at anymore. And Holy Trinity Sunday and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity sort of feel like that. We know we should keep around what’s in there, but we’re terrified to open that door, because who knows what’s going to come falling out.

In fact, most preaching resources will tell you – don’t open that closet. Don’t preach about the Holy Trinity. Because one of the worst thing a sermon can be is boring. We’ve been told to keep this away from you so as not to be boring –but I’ve recently been reading about how for too long theology has been taken away from the people and been given to the elite, the professionals, the religiously educated. I cannot tell you the number of times I hear someone say, “Well I’m not theologically trained but…” It’s like you think you have no business talking thinking or proclaiming things about God unless you’ve gone to seminary.

Well, today, I hope to challenge that thinking…that theology needs to be kept away from the people. I mean, this is why we do things like Pub Theology and Manna and Mercy. To invite you into this work of the church, the community.

So, this morning, I want to open that closet to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and share with you my insight, and hopefully that will invite your own thoughts and reflections on this central but confusing church teaching.

And in order to tell you about my insight, I want to tell you about something that happened to me last week. My family had a garage sale. And in order to do a garage sale, we had to go through that family closet. And there is something that happens when you open that closet door and start going through it again.

You find the orange and white striped onesie, covered in stains, that remind you of the days when the kids were young, and you can still feel their little peanut bodies, nuzzled in your arms.

You find the blue plates and bowls you got from your wedding, with chips all over them because the sink in your seminary apartment was too small.

You find old birthday cards and the shirt your mother was so excited to give you but it just didn’t fit right.

It’s all of these things that remind you of your relationships. Your relationship with your family, your loved ones. Maybe even painful relationships

And I guess that’s what I find when I tenderly and carefully open the door to the doctrine of the Trinity. There is a lot to deal with in there. It’s overwhelming. But, I think, in the end, it is all about relationship.

Because in the end, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is all about how God, at God’s core, the foundational nature of God, is a relationship.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity says that God is one. But God is one in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that word persons is important. It isn’t modes or ways of being. It isn’t like how I am a husband, but also a father, but also a trumpet player. It is three distinct persons.

I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but what I’ve come to learn is that to proclaim a triune God is to proclaim that God is in God’s nature a social, communal, relational being. Within God’s very self, God is a community.

We can see this in this morning Genesis reading.

While the word trinity and the doctrine of the trinity doesn’t exist in Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity seeks to describe the God revealed in Scripture, and often times people turn to the first creation story found in Genesis 1.

In this story…notice that God does not just create stuff –God creates community. Almost everything in the creation that is called good is a pairing, a relationship, a community.

The dry land and the waters – and it was good.
The plants yielding seed and the trees yielding seeds – and it was good.
The greater light and the lesser light – and it was good.
The male and the female…the human community – and it was good.
And everything together – very good.

God creates community. And not only does God create community, but get this, God creates community communally.

God creates community communally.

God creates with the earth – let earth bring forth vegetation.
God creates with a divine community – God said, “Let us create humankind in our image”
God invites humankind into the creative process – not only can humankind create and multiply but humankind is given the tender responsibility of caring for the earth.

In the very creation of the earth, God invites the creation to have a crucial role. To participate. That’s what the Triune God is like – God is a sharing relationship of creativity. God creates community communally. Augustine once wrote, “Without God we cannot; without us, God will not.”

Dare I say, God needs you. To help God care for this creation, for this world, for this people.

Now, this creation story was written down during a time when the Israelites were enslaved in Babylon. They were living in exile and they had lost everything. And as slaves they were seen as worthless and discardable. And along comes this revolutionary narrative of the creation of the world, in which God not only calls God’s creation very good but in which God needs God’s people for the flourishing of the world. Do you think the slaves were ever told that they were needed? Do you think they were ever told that they were a good creation?

What a remarkable and revolutionary promise to hear in that context. But we hear it in our context. So let’s take our context…

We live in culture where we may not be enslaved directly but we are enslaved, as a friend of mine says, by isolation. We are told that we should be able to make it on our own. You just need to work harder and achieve more success for yourself. That you are only worth something if you get good grades and go on to college (but let’s be honest, even that isn’t good enough any more…now you need grad school). We are told that we need to be independent and self-sufficient, and the moment you need help, the moment you need others can feel like a moment of failure.

And this is beyond damaging to our humanity, to our divinely proclaimed goodness. Because, as one of the many counselors I’ve seen in my life once said, “The first thing to go when we are tired and disconnected from each other is our generosity.”

When we become disconnected from each other, the first thing we lose is our generosity with one another. We stop being generous, and patient and kind and loving and graceful and understanding.

And it is into that context of ours that Genesis 1 and the doctrine of Holy Trinity get to proclaim…you are made to be in community with each other just as God is made to be in community. It is a creation story that says you are beautiful, you are valuable and you are needed by God for the flourishing for this world. In fact, that is where the image of God can be seen…in you and in your relationships with those around you.

As one theologian would say, we are only fully human when we are encountering one another. Which should mean that every single interaction we have with another human should be seen as a sacred moment. Because it can hold within it the image of God.

Can you see how your life – and in particular your relationships, your community – is part of the very life of God? Can we as a church see how our life together and in this community is part of the very life of God?

A well-seasoned preacher, Richard Lischer, wrote a remarkable book called Open Secrets.  It is about his first year out of seminary and his first parish – a tiny, Lutheran congregation in the cornfields of Illinois. Just out of seminary, Lischer spent that first year showing off his preaching skills.  He used big words.  He referenced great works of literature to show how well read he was.  He spoke with what he called a Kennedy-esque urgency and eloquence.  In those days, he said, the gospel lived or died by my personal performance…and how ridiculous I must have looked to my congregation. But then he asks the question: why couldn’t I see the kingdom of God happening in our little church? Why did I think I had to find it in a book?  People in our congregation, every week, volunteered to exercise the legs of a little girl with cerebral palsy, so that her muscles wouldn’t grow weak.  People helped one another put up hay before the rains came.  When a neighbor lost their farm, we all grieved with him and we refused to bid on his tools at auction.  Weren’t these all signs of the kingdom of God, Lischer asks?  Why couldn’t I see them?[1]

Here is the thing: today maybe about a doctrine, but you are living doctrine. You belong to this communal, relational God. In belonging to God, you belong to the life of God, which is to say that the dance of the Trinity involves you and your life and the life of this congregation. And I can see it. I can see it in the way you welcome strangers into this place. I see it when the called to care ministers put out a call for meals for a family that is struggling and you step up. And you start feeding strangers. I see it when I hear about a member getting cancer and another member who is more or less a stranger saying, “I’ve had cancer before. I know what that’s like. I’m going to drive that person to every one of their treatments.” I see it in the way in which you gather our people in prayer when one of our beloved ones have died.

I need to be reminded to not look for Godin a book, but to look up and to look at the community of God. To see the image of God at work in and among us.

In a moment, we will sing a hymn called “Touch the Earth Lightly. May we touch this earth, this life lightly.…because we carry with us the image of God. And because the grace and love and community of God that is not only with you but is also at work among you. I can see it.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, p. 72-75.

 

Sunday, May 28th, 2017 – Sermon on Acts 1:6-14

Audio will be uploaded shortly.

Acts 1:6-14
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. 

On January 5th, St. John’s member Milo Quinnell died at the age of 88. While it was a peaceful and love-filled death, with his family by his side, it was also quite unexpected after some medical complications.

Some of you knew Milo and some of you didn’t, but he was a loveable human being with a heart-warming grin and quiet humor that was pleasant and comforting to be around.

Well, this past week, I was out to the house to visit Milo’s wife, Elouise. We did what we normally do, which is sit at the kitchen table, by the window looking out at the birds and the newly planted fields, catching up on the ins and outs of life. The kids, the grandkids, the graduations and the birthdays.

But as we sat there, I noticed a picture in the kitchen I had never seen before. Either it had been there for years or it was brand new. Either way, it caught me off guard and, for a moment, took my breath away.

FullSizeRenderHere is the picture. And as you can see, it is the picture of a flag pole with the flag at half-staff and three people standing around it, with their necks craning toward the sky.

As it turns out, this photo was taken on January 5th, the day Milo died. The family had just returned home from the hospital. Milo was a veteran and so in honor of him, Elouise wanted the flag on their property to fly at half-staff. But the flag itself was quite tattered. She had a new one to use – so that day three of the grandchildren were taught how to properly raise a new flag. By unfolding it out at the pole, without letting it touch the ground, and then raising it all the way up to the top, before lowering it half-way, in honor of Milo.

And with those three grandchildren looking upward, perhaps just to the flag, perhaps to the heavens too, wondering about Milo and death and the great beyond, someone thought to capture that moment in what I think is a remarkable photo.

Now the reason this photo took my breath away is because I’ve had the Acts reading rattling around in my head all week. And as soon as I saw that photo of those boys, standing there, looking upward toward heaven, I couldn’t help but think about that scene with the disciples, standing there looking upward as Jesus ascends toward heaven.

The story we just heard from Acts is the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day, if you will, which the Christian calendar always recognizes 40 days after Easter, which just so happens to have been this past Thursday. But since most of us weren’t in worship on Thursday, because there wasn’t any worship here on Thursday, we get the story today.

So, it’s the beginning of the book of Acts, which is sort of like the sequel, or the continuation of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has died on the cross, been raised from the dead, and now according to Acts, has been appearing to the disciples for 40 days and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. And now everyone is gathered together and the disciples ask Jesus a question. And if you listen closely, I think you can hear their desperation. “Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

We’ve asked questions like that, haven’t we?

Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when I’ll get a second interview and my life will finally get straightened out?

Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when I’ll finally find lasting love?

Lord, is this the time when my child be whole again?

Is this the time when I won’t have to be terrified to look at the news notifications on my phone?

Is this the time when I won’t be so scared to speak up for myself?

Is this the time when worship will finally speak to me?

Is this the time when I stop feeling so invisible to the world?

Lord, is this the time? They ask?

And Jesus says to them, “It is not for you to know the dates and times…but I promise you will receive power from the Holy Spirit when She comes. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all the earth.”

And then all of a sudden, Jesus starts to be lifted up. Floating in the air on a cloud and out of their sight. And as the disciples are gazing up at heaven, two men in white robes appear and ask “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem and went to the room upstairs, constantly devoting themselves to prayer.

That’s the story of Jesus’ ascension. Okay, now be honest – raise your hand if this past Thursday at some point you thought to yourself, “Hey, today is Ascension day.”

Exactly. Very few of us. Because we don’t really think about it anymore.

You see, Ascension Day used to be a really important day in the church, up there with Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. But now it’s almost as forgettable as the disciple Bartholomew. And at first I thought it is because our modern minds don’t really know what to do with the ascension of Jesus. That it is just sort of weird – like the wizard floating off in a hot air balloon at the end of the The Wizard of Oz.

And then I saw that photo of Milo’s grandchildren looking upward. And with this text in mind, I thought of that question– why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

And in my heart, I heard an answer – Because they miss him. Because they long to have him back. Because life is terrifying without him.

Because this is grief. This is what we do. We find ourselves lost in wonder as we caress the grave stone or touch the name etched in the copper plate on the columbarium, or as we lower a flag in honor of a beloved grandfather. Life can be both awful and terrifying without the ones we love – and so we gaze off into the distance. We stand there looking up at the heavens.

Why do the disciples stand looking up toward heaven? Because their beloved leader whom they just got back from the dead has just left them behind and they miss him and they are terrified of doing this alone.

Which is perhaps the real reason why we struggle with Ascension Day in the Church. Since Ascension day, for two thousand years, the church has been waiting for Jesus’ return. And for just a moment this day, this text touches on our greatest fear – that perhaps Jesus is not with us. And that’s terrifying.

51 Sundays a year, I feel so committed to the promise that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us.[1] But this Sunday seems a little different. In the Christian calendar, this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost seems to be the one Sunday a year when we are called to sit in the presence of absence. Jesus has left but we haven’t received the promised power of the Holy Spirit yet. And we are left here to…wait.

That’s what the disciples are asked to do in this moment of absence. To hurry up and…wait.

When the two men show up and ask why the disciples are standing looking up toward heaven, notice that they don’t demand that the disciples get it together and get to work. No, they simply reaffirm the promise – that Christ will come again. Which means you’ll have to wait. So, the disciples return home to an upper room to pray. And to wait.

And so, as one theologian has said, “The first great act of the apostles occurs when they hike back to Jerusalem . . . and wait.”[2]

God will show up, Jesus says. The power of the Holy Spirit will come. God will ignite you as witnesses and participants in the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus will return, in surprising and unexpected ways, the two messengers said.

But today, the disciples (and we) are asked to wait.

How good are you at waiting?

I wonder what you are waiting for in your life right now?

Based on this story, there seems to be something divine, sacred, transformative about waiting. It is something God can work with.

Because God certainly could have sent the Holy Spirit instantaneously after Jesus departure and left no one waiting.

But instead God asks the disciples to wait.

Have you ever really waited for something – on the edge of your seat? You see, this is the moment when something new is about to happen. And everything is springloaded and ready to move but you can’t move yet because you have to wait to see what happens next. Some of you who have played tennis will get this. There is a moment in tennis when the player hits the ball and the ball hits the top of the net and it goes straight up in the air. And for a moment, everyone waits…because you don’t know if the ball will land on this side of the net or that side.

This is like that moment. Something is about to happen. But we have to wait for it. This is that in-between moment, that Holy Waiting Time, in the creation story when God has made the human out of the dirt but hasn’t breathed the breath of life in yet. This is that time when the water has broken but the child has not yet arrived. This is the time when the people of God are being shaped into the body of Christ on earth. And that shaping, it can take time. And the power and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the holy breath, will come, but not just yet.

For now, the disciples are called to wait.

And it is an active waiting. An expectant waiting. A waiting that makes you watch more closely with your eyes and listening more carefully with your ears. For what God might be up to next.

And this kind of waiting – this available and attentive waiting – it takes courage. Waiting is hard. How do you know when to stop? How do you know when precious time is being wasted? To wait like this takes courage because it is to trust that God is up to something, even in what feels like God’s absence. That God is not passive but active and alive in this world. And to trust that when the time to respond arrives, you’ll know.

And look what happened when a couple handfuls of heartbroken disciples decide to wait in prayer – they become the Church.[3] And from their courageous waiting…comes you, the Church of St. John’s of 2017.

And if I learn anything from Jesus’ ascension and the time before Pentecost, it is that God has made holy those waiting times. That even in what feels like God’s absence, God is doing something. Preparing us for what’s to come in this beautiful but scary uncertain world.

So, in closing this morning, I want to invite you into some intentional waiting. As you wait to receive communion today, or as you wait for others to finish receiving communion, I invite you to open your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you and let it be a holy waiting. Let yourself learn something about this community or this sacrament that you’ve never noticed before. As an act of discipleship in which perhaps God is preparing you for something you cannot see yet.

Holy are the waiting times and blessed are those who enter them.  Amen.

[1] Sam Wells, http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/wp-content/uploads/May-17-SW.pdf

[2] Matthew Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=884

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Day We Were Left Behind”, Christianity Today, found at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/may18/8t6046.html?start=2

Sunday, April 30th, 2017 – A sermon on the road to Emmaus and Luke 24:13-35

You can listen to this sermon here.

Luke 24:13-35
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Earlier this week, my son asked, “Dad, what does tagalong mean?”

At first, I explained the verb version to him. To tag along. Elliot, it’s when you follow or go along with a person or a group somewhere. You tag along with them.

But then I immediately realized that there is an entirely different way of understanding this word and it’s pretty loaded. The noun version. To be a tagalong. How am I going to explain this to him in a way that is both true and compassionate. And as I thought about it, I was quickly transported back to those treacherous moments in middle school and high school, and college, and even still sometimes today, when you yourself feel like a tagalong. We’ve all felt it. That feeling of being on the outside of a group but desperate enough to just sort of linger behind them, hoping for a natural and smooth way to blend in.

The dictionary definition is a little too blunt on this one. Tagalong – “a person who follows or goes somewhere with another person or group often in an annoying way.”

So, I stumbled over my words with Elliot as I did my best to say, “A tagalong is someone who sees someone or a group of people doing something that they want to be a part of, and they join them in it.”

And as soon as I said that, it dawns on me. Oh my goodness – Jesus is a tagalong. On the road to Emmaus – he is such a tagalong.

I rushed over to a bible and open it up to Luke 24, and it’s true. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them. And not only is Jesus a tagalong, but his opening line is the most tagalong question there is, “Uh, hey guys, whatcha talkin’ about?”

And then Cleopas, who is sad and hurting and grieving Jesus’ death, isn’t exactly the kindest person to Jesus, but then again that’s what we do when we’re hurt – we take our hurt out on others. Cleopas says to Jesus, “Are you the only kid in school hasn’t heard about what’s happened?”

And I realize I am quite likely putting a 21st Century spin on a 1st Century text, that may or may not have known of tagalongs, but I gotta say that for the insecure 13-year-old self that lives inside me who knows what it’s like, this was such good news. My heart sings at the fact that if high school is a metaphor for the gospel, Jesus is the tagalong and not the captain of the football team. And my heart aches as I think of the ways I’ve dismissed the tagalongs too.

You’ve seen those shirts that say, “Jesus is my boyfriend”, I want a shirt that says, “Jesus is my tagalong.”

But seriously. This is really good news that Jesus tags along with them on this road. Because the road to Emmaus is the road of deep disappointment and despair and fear, and the truth about life is that we all have or we all will walk it.

The disciples are walking it because the only thing they are sure of is that their hope died on Good Friday. And any Easter hope that is alive is rumor. Jesus, the hope they carried, had been crucified and buried. That’s all they know for sure.

We walk the road to Emmaus for many reasons. Perhaps it is because we watch as family and friends, neighbors, strangers, and students, or we ourselves are threatened and silenced because of the color of our skin. And we’ve grown weary and tired of not knowing what to do about it. Or perhaps it is because we’re at that age where our family members are declining and we don’t know how to help. Or perhaps it is because the person we always thought we would be shifts and fades as the real possibility of divorce, or barrenness, or a devastating diagnosis set in.

We all walk this road to Emmaus. It’s the road where we’re desperate for companionship but everyone’s a stranger. And at the same time, on this road, every stranger is a potential friend.

And of course it is a road. Of course it is a road to walk. Because when you are grieving, the only way out of it is through it – with your body. Too often we’ve turned grief work into something we do in our heads. You need to grieve, the therapist says. Yes, but how? Author and funeral director, Thomas Lynch says, “Grief work…is not so much the brain’s to do, as (it is) the body’s. (Grieving) is better done by large muscles than gray matter; less burden of cerebral synapse and more of shoulders, shared embraces, sore hearts.”[1] This is the gift and the wisdom of a traditional funeral. We carry with our shoulders the body of our beloved and we walk them to their place of rest. It is how we grieve. It is how we get through.

So of course it is the road to Emmaus. Because in times of grief and deep disappointment, we need to move our bodies, putting one foot in front of the other.

And of course it is the road to Emmaus. The gospel says that Emmaus is 7 miles outside of Jerusalem. Seven being the symbol of perfection – I’m not sure what to make of that, but there’s something there. But here’s the thing, no one can find Emmaus. Historically, no one knows where it is. Archeologists cannot find it. Perhaps the road to Emmaus is a synonym for not knowing where you are going. Which sounds a lot like times of fear and grief and disappointment.

British psychologist Colin Murray Parkes has said that most of the time we think we know where we are going and who is with us, “except that when we’ve lost one we love (when we grieve, when we are living in the land of disappointment), we no longer know where we are going or who is going with us.”[2] Perhaps these two disciples have no clue where they are going. They’re just going. One step at a time. And Jesus, whom they’ve known and who knows them, goes with them, but they only see a stranger. A tagalong.

But then when they welcomed in this stranger and eat with him, then they recognized him as Jesus who was with them along.

Notice that it is rarely in the moment that we can see Jesus. In the moment of loss and grief and disappointment, our ears are ringing and our vision is narrowed. Usually it’s when we look back that we can see the places where God was with us.

They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” And they joyfully rush back to Jerusalem and tell the others what had happened to them on the road.

Now, Luke’s first readers would’ve smiled at this line. For they knew about the road. The road was more than a highway; it was a symbol for them of the whole Christian life…In fact, these early Christians were called by friends and enemies a like, “(people) of the Way”. And the word “way” and “road” are the same in Greek. In other words, early Christians were known as “people of the road. [3]

The truth of the Christian life is that Christ becomes present to us as we walk down the road together. Putting one foot in front of the other.

And at its most basic form, the gospel in this story is that Christ is with us on that road. Even when we cannot recognize him. Even when we don’t know that the face of Christ can be seen in the stranger beside us. There are “strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this.” (Jan Richardson)

In his remarkable book, The Road, Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a father and a son walking alone through a burned and devastated America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape (except) the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. This father and son are on a journey to the coast, having no clue what awaits them there.

It is the story of an image of the future in which no hopes remains, except that the father and son are sustained by their love for one another.

Throughout the book, there is this theme of fire. Naturally, as travelers on the road of a dystopic America, fire would be very important. They are constantly looking for wood to start a fire, waking up to a fire that’s almost burned out. The father holds the son close to the fire to warm him at night. But this theme of fire isn’t just about the fire that burns outside – it is about the fire that burns within. The father and son have this phrase they use together on the road – we’re carrying the fire, they say. The fire of hope.

Early in the book, late at night, the small boy says to his dad,

We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes, we are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

Towards the end of the story, the father has grown weak and ill. He’s developed a bloody cough and he knows his end is near. And he tells his son to go on without him.

I want to be with you, the boy says.
You can’t.
Please.
You can’t. You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

 Brothers and sisters, we are the People of the Road. People of the Way. The way of forgiveness and grace and hope, even when we can’t recognize Jesus and all seems lost. We are the people of the way, walking together and trusting that somewhere along the way, we will recognize that Jesus has been with us the whole time.  Together we are a people who put one foot in front of the other, not always knowing where we are going, but trusting in the presence of God with us.  And in that way, we are carrying the fire. Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road? the disciples asked?

When Christ is with us, there is a burning in our hearts. When Christ is with us, there is a fire inside and hope is alive. It may feel like a small ember that is growing cold, but if you can keep the door to your heart open and not lock it up, God will breathe the Spirit of life on that tiny ember to grow a fire of life inside your heart.

And here is the thing – Christ is always with you. Especially on the road to Emmaus. Which means hope is alive and the fire has not gone out.

Carry that fire. Care for it, protect it like a candle in the wind. Because there are all sorts of forces in this life that will try to snuff it out.

And it is only fitting that this morning we have a baptism for Ozzie and the welcoming of new members. Today we lift Ozzie Taggart as one who is on the road with us and we say that he is carrying the fire too. We give him a candle representing that fire. And we recognize new members who have chosen to walk the road with us and we give each household a candle too.

Thank you for welcoming these people on the road with us. And thanks to them for welcoming us on their road. At times, we may be strangers to each other, but I trust that along the way, we will stop and look back, recognizing the face of Christ in one another.

Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? We don’t know where it is.
Yes we do. It’s here. Among us.

We do not walk alone. Christ has come along with us. And the fire is alive. Thanks be to God.

[1] Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long, The Good Funeral, pg. 65.

[2] Ibid., pg. 224.

[3] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 98.