The Surprise of Joy

by Rev. Doug Gray

     This morning’s New Testament reading is from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. One of the ways Jesus loved to explain the abundant life with God was through stories, called parables, of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’ parables were taken from the very stuff of everyday life, and so is the parable we are reading today. This morning’s parable is one of the last three Jesus tells before He is killed.
     The parable of the Ten Virgins is one of joy—its backdrop is a wedding, one of the most joyous of occasions. Joy is a transcendent energy that fills you up until are torn between laughing with wonder and crying in disbelief. A common response to joy is that you can’t decide whether to dance a jig or get down on your knees to thank God. Joy is not happiness. Happiness is a feeling and feelings come and go. Joy is a state of being, a basic quality inherent in some lives. Where does joy come from? How can we find it for ourselves?
Weddings are one of the most joy-filled things we do, and we often express joy by adding an element of fun. Can you think of things people do to add fun to weddings and the party after?

     [Take responses from the congregation. In our day, the couple often feeds cake to each other and it all too often gets mashed around all over their faces, people often tap on glasses at the reception to make the newly weds kiss, birdseed or rice that gets into everything the couple owns and people have a great time eating, dancing and welcoming the change of life for the bride and groom.]

In Jesus’ time, weddings had the same kinds of fun, but they were week-long affairs! And we thought our wedding was crazy! The culmination of the whole week was the bridegroom coming to the bride’s house to bring her back to what would be their new home. By tradition, the bride appointed 10 of her friends to light the bridegroom’s way. Over the years, an element of fun had crept into this part: the bridegroom would wait and make his appearance when he was least expected to see if he could catch the bridesmaids unprepared to light the way to the bride’s house. The only warning the bridesmaids would get was a courier going ahead to announce the coming of the bridegroom. So the bridesmaids knew that the bridegroom was going to try to catch them unawares. This unfolds at least two great truths about God that lead to joy.
      The first great truth about God where Jesus Christ is concerned, there is no substitute for knowing and experiencing Him. If the bridesmaids had known the Bridegroom and his sense of humor better, they might have predicted when the groom would come, when least expected. We experience some of this reality with our human relationships, don’t we? Tell me we can’t predict what our mothers would say or do if we tracked mud into the house! Tell me we can’t predict what our best friend would say or do if we got engaged or found out we were expecting! After a while, we know what they would say or do. It’s the same with God. After we have been with God for a while, we know what God wants us to do in a given situation. How? Because we know God and we know what God would ask us to do. Knowing God through Jesus opens a way of joy because we can live with utter abandon. We will always be prepared for the joy of the Bridegroom because we know how and when He comes to us.
      This understanding of the Holy Spirit and of faith uncovers the second great truth in this story: When a crisis strikes, we cannot borrow faith from someone else, nor can we borrow someone’s connection with the Holy Spirit. Those are things that come only with time and relationship with Jesus Christ, working and living with Him in mind. When a crisis comes, we cannot cram. Like the foolish bridesmaids, we suddenly discover that we are without. The deeply faithful people around us can give us their advice, but they cannot give us their faith or their powerful joy in the Spirit.
      But all too often we are unprepared for joy! When it comes, we look at God like deer caught in the headlights, and then shake our heads and go back to what is safe. We miss the opportunity to say a word of kindness, to start a conversation with someone we would never normally meet, to extend the grace of God unexpectedly to someone who has not earned it, the moment is gone and we have missed our chance. We are like the foolish bridesmaids, pounding on the door of joy, unable to get in.
      The surprising twist is this: Imagine for a moment, what would happen if one of these foolish bridesmaids had awakened before the bridegroom arrived? What if she looked around and said, “My lamp is nearly out. I’d better run and get oil in a hurry before the bridegroom gets here?” Running counter to the tragic outcome of the parable is the sense that it is never too late. Are you running low on oil? Do you feel out of touch with the bridegroom? Do you sense that your candle may be flickering, that you are completely unprepared for the opportunities for joy around you? This parable reminds us that quality of life is far more important than quantity. Come to God, the giver of abundant life and find the love and all you need to be ready. Indeed, we never know from one moment to the next which will be our last. Will your life be filled with preparing for the worst? Or are you prepared for the glorious surprise of transcendent, envigorating, exuberant joy?

 

Hidden Christmas: Light Shines in the Darkness

by Rev. Doug Gray

     One of my favorite parts of getting ready for Christmas is putting the lights on the tree. But it never goes the way I planned it. Every year after Christmas, I carefully put the lights away so that they will easily unravel as we put them on the tree, but every year we get at least one tangle. And have you noticed, every year there’s always at least one light that won’t work anymore? I very carefully save the extra bulbs, and always put them in the same box with the lights, but then I find out the extras must have been from years past, because whoever makes the lights has decided they want their plugs to have their own unique shaped. Are you kidding me? All so we can have lights that shine in the darkness, draped round a tree or bushes or our house. Yet the symbolism of lights shining in the darkness touches us at so deep a level, that we go to great lengths to light candles, and turn on lights. Something in us hungers for light, so it’s good news to us when we hear the prophet, Isaiah, say, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because our world really is a dark place. In the Bible, darkness has to do with evil and injustice, or ignorance and hopelessness. One of the things I love about the Bible is that it doesn’t pull any punches or sugarcoat the truth—the world is a dark place, sometimes a very dark place. Are there countries where the innocent are thrown out of their homes? Are there places where people sell themselves into slavery for the merest chance of a better life? Are there people who are suffering today—from illness, loneliness, violence, addiction, grief and despair? Oh yes! In fact, we might be surprised how many people among us tonight are experiencing times of darkness. All these things were true in Jesus’ day just as much as today. Christmas understands that the world is dark. It’s for those who walk in darkness, that a light has come.
     It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because on our own we cannot save ourselves. In fact, even if you give human beings really great systems, wonderful opportunities, our inner brokenness, neediness and darkness seem to be able to muck it up. Focusing on what’s good for ourselves, even our rational self-interest, seems to fail us time and again. Capitalism without ethics is simply greed. Democracy without seeking the common good is simply another kind of tyranny. Science without morality leads to eugenics and ethnic cleansing. Martin Luther King, Jr famously said, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided people.” Lots of people will try to convince us that if we work hard enough, love deeply enough, want peace powerfully enough, that we can create a good and just world. So we pile more and more pressure on ourselves, to be better on our own strength. Christmas recognizes that we can’t do it on our own, “for unto us is born a Savior.” It’s for those who long for a better and brighter world, that a light has come.
     It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because that light will never leave us. Christmas is about an entirely new reality breaking through. What makes the world go around? Some will say money. Others will say love. Still others will say it’s you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. But in Christmas God says, “I make the world go ‘round, but now I’m going to be on that world with you.” That’s the meaning of Immanuel—God with us—and because God came in a baby, and grew up, and had friends, and lost loved ones, experienced temptation, played, and laughed, and cried and suffered and died—whatever is happening with us!—Jesus will listen…and Jesus will understand. Christmas means God cared enough to come and be with us. It’s for a person to be with us always, that a light has come.
     No matter how tangled my Christmas lights become, or how many bulbs are missing, or even if I couldn’t manage Christmas lights at all—still the light of Christmas would shine in my life. Timothy Keller in his book, Hidden Christmas, writes, “The message of Christianity is…’Things really are this dark—nevertheless there is hope.” While we may not have the strength or wisdom or goodness to save ourselves, still we have “a savior who is Christ the Lord. And this is a sign for you, that you will find the baby…lying in a manger.” True Christmas is about grace—love that comes even though we are not ready and can never deserve it, so that we may love more truly. True Christmas is about humility—love that wants the best for you and me, though it may mean suffering and humiliation, so that we can love more completely. True Christmas is about grace and humility coming in power upon us, so that peace and wonder are possible, and through us possible for the world. When the light of true Christmas dawns on us, hope and compassion are born. True Christmas is Good News. Merry Christmas!

 

Seeking Hidden Christmas: Shepherd’s Faith

by Rev. Doug Gray

     A woman was walking along the beach when she stumbled upon a Genie’s lamp. She picked it up and rubbed it, and lo-and-behold a Genie appeared. The amazed woman asked if she was going to receive the usual three wishes. The Genie said, “Nope. Due to inflation, constant downsizing, low wages in third-world countries, and fierce global competition, I can only grant you one wish. So ... what’ll it be?” The woman didn’t hesitate. She said, “I want peace in the Middle East. See this map? I want these countries to stop fighting with each other.” The Genie looked at the map and exclaimed, “Gadzooks, lady! These countries have been at war for thousands of years. I’m good, but not THAT good! I don’t think it can be done. Make another wish.” The woman thought for a minute and said, “Well, I’ve never been able to find the right man. You know, one that’s considerate and fun, likes to cook and helps with the housecleaning, is good in bed and gets along with my family, doesn’t watch sports all the time, and is faithful. That’s what I wish for ... the perfect mate.” The Genie let out a long sigh and said, “Let me see that map again!” Sometimes it seems true peace will never come, as if it would take an act of magic to make it happen, but as we find the hidden Christmas we begin to see peace is more than possible. Our encounter with the shepherds will show us the way.
     First, peace is not about control, but trust. In our day, many of us try to end our fight with God in two different ways. Timothy Keller writes, in his book, Hidden Christmas, “The irreligious person explicitly asserts his or her independence from God:  ‘I want to live any way I want to live!’ But the religious person much more covertly asserts his or her independence from God. The religious person says: ‘I am going to obey the Bible and do all these things, and now God has to bless me and give me a good life.’ This is an effort to control God, not trust him.” [1] No wonder we can’t find peace! We discover over time, that we can neither completely control ourselves or God. In fact, if we are going to measure our peace and happiness, by whether we are in control, they will always elude us. The angels came to the shepherds and said, “Fear not! for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…” The way of peace is open, but like the shepherds, will we trust God?
     Second, peace is not about fear, but about love. John Porcino tells the story about a samurai warrior who traveled to the distant home of an old monk. On arriving, he burst through the door and bellowed, “Monk, tell me! What is the difference between heaven and hell?” The monk sat still for a moment on the tatami-matted floor. Then he turned and looked up at the warrior. “You call yourself a samurai warrior,” he smirked. “Why, look at you. You’re nothing but a mere sliver of a man!” “Whaaat!!” cried the samurai, as he reached for his sword. “Oho!” said the monk. “I see you reach for your sword. I doubt you could cut off the head of a fly with that.” The samurai was so infuriated that he could not hold himself back. He pulled his sword from its sheath and lifted it above his head to strike off the head of the old monk. At this the monk looked up into his seething eyes and said, “That, my son, is the gate to hell.” Realizing that the monk had risked his life to teach this lesson, the samurai slowly lowered his sword and put it back into the sheath. He bowed low to the monk in thanks for this teaching. “My friend,” said the monk, “That is the gate to heaven.”[2] The monk risked his life to teach peace, and demonstrated his love in that vulnerability. But God set aside immortality and risked far more being born as a baby to human parents, and one day, Jesus would face death on a cross to show us the path to peace runs through love. Only when we lean into our fears, and let love calm them, will we find the peace…but will we love?
     At the core of most of our world’s problems are fear and greed. We could have peace in the Middle East, if both sides weren’t afraid for their own security and futures. The people and government of Myanmar would not be persecuting the Rohingya people if it were not for hatred born of fear. Our own nation would not be so partisan if not for fear on both sides that the one side won’t honor the needs and work with the other. Wherever we look, some people unreasonably want it all, and others are fearful they won’t have enough. This is not new, but sometimes it seems worse than others. True Christmas shows a way out. The angels say to shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” Tim Keller writes, “We fear rejection and failure, but if you were completely filled with God’s love, you would not care what people thought. We fear the future and circumstances, but if you knew God perfectly, and that [God] is good and in control, you would trust [God]. And you wouldn’t be afraid of death because you would know you would be with [God] forever.” To the fearful, God speaks the Good News that we are not alone, that God Himself has been born in a humble way. To the poor of the world, God speaks the Good News the Good News that they are worth dying for. As the angels say, “for to you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord,” for this baby will grow to be a man who trusts God’s love and power so perfectly that He would die to help everyone—regardless of their finances, gender, race, or background—be forgiven. So the true Christmas so often hidden is this peace that blows our minds—that we can be forgiven, that we can start fresh, that our fears find their rest in a baby who is Christ the Lord. The shepherds show us the way to peace is trusting—“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see….” The shepherds show us the way to peace is sharing the love God shows, “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child…” The shepherds show us the way to peace by going into our every day lives, praising God and giving glory to God in all we do. And so the true Christmas is hidden no longer.

O God, you are the deep well of peace,
the immeasurable sea of love,
the fountain of blessings
and the giver of affection.
You send peace to those that receive it.
Open to us this day the sea of your love,
and water us with abundant streams
from the riches of your grace.
Make us children of quietness and heirs of peace. [3]


1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (NY:  Viking, 2016), p. 109.
2. http://healingstory.org/the-monk-and-the-samurai/. From Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope: Stories of Peace, Justice & the Environment, edited by Ed Brody, Jay Goldspinner, Katie Green, Rona Leventhal, and John Porcino, New Society Publishers, 1992. New edition 2002
3. Adapted from the Syrian Clementine liturgy

 

Seeking Hidden Christmas: The Fathers of Jesus

by Rev. Doug Gray

When we moved to Wisconsin from Illinois twenty years ago, we had a couple of problems. First, our oldest child, Morgan, was very worried that Santa wouldn’t be able to find us in time for Christmas. Fortunately, Santa keeps track of these things we told her. No problem. Second, when we got to our new house, Morgan realized that we had no fireplace, and therefore, no chimney. How was Santa going to bring the presents in? Fortunately, Santa is magical and has a plan for that. No problem. Magic makes it easy to explain all sorts of things about Christmas. It’s tempting to take that magical thinking to the Christmas Story—angels seem magical, shepherds are cool, and kings are always impressive. But for those are seeking the true, often hidden, meaning of Christmas, magic fall short of the real wonder of Christmas. Part of that wonder is found in the fathers of Jesus. Yes, fathers, plural, because Jesus has more than one father—God and Joseph—and the hidden meaning of Christmas is found in both.
True Christmas is about courage. Courage? For sure, Joseph needed courage. When Joseph and Mary got engaged, did they start thinking about the future—where they would live and what their life together would be like? And then Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant. Timothy Keller, in his book Hidden Christmas, writes, “Can you imagine Joseph trying to [the people of Nazareth] the truth? ‘Oh, I can explain. She is pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” Imagine the stares. The truth isn’t something his friends will understand and, therefore, they will always think he’s either crazy or gullible.” Joseph has got to have courage.
But we sometimes forget that God had to show courage too. The courage to leave heaven for a stable, to lay aside glory for a diaper, and to find a cross instead of throne. Keller writes, “No other religion has a God who needed courage…Jesus could save us only by facing an agonizing death that had him wrestling in sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane. He became mortal and vulnerable so that he could suffer, be betrayed and killed. He faced all these things for you, and he thought it worth it.” In the last verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” we sing “mild he lays His glory by” and we don’t often stop to recognize how mind-blowing that is. Paul writes that,

“…though [Jesus] was in the form of God,
        [He] did not regard equality with God
        as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
        taking the form of a slave,
        being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,
        he humbled himself
        and became obedient to the point of death—
        even death on a cross.

True Christmas is about the courage of both of Jesus’ fathers.
So how do we live a life of courage in the face of a secular world that would really rather have Santa than baby Jesus? First, let us have the courage to embrace the world’s scorn. Like Joseph living with people who think he’s crazy or gullible, let us live of a life of kindness and sacrifice, of believing God can do something great even when all we see is darkness, even if the world is going to laugh about it. Own that for you and me, Jesus matters and God is the foundation of our lives. God is with us!
Second, let us have the courage to surrender our wills to God’s. Did you notice who gets to decide Jesus’ name? In Jewish society, that was the dad’s job. Keller writes, “By refusing to let [Joseph] name Jesus, the angel is saying, ‘If Jesus is in your life, you are not his manager. This child who is about to be born is your manager.’…To become a Christian you are going to have to have the courage to something our culture thinks is absolutely crazy. You are going to have to commit to denying yourself.” Jesus’ name—in Hebrew it’s Yeshua—means “God saves” not you save or I save—God saves. When we surrender what we want to do what God wants, then our lives open up.
Santa is fun. In some ways, Santa reflects the spirit of Christmas, but the real St. Nicholas was a full-on follower of Jesus living around 300AD, who secretly gave a poor family enough money so that their daughters could get married, saving the daughters from a likely life of prostitution. St. Nicholas secretly gave gifts in the middle of the night, so the poor family would not be shamed by the gift. We who seek Jesus give gifts and have courage not because there’s magic, but because God gave Himself to us in Jesus. Where does the power come from to have real courage? It comes from love. You see, God made us to love and to be loved, and before we were born, Jesus was. And when we really get the incredible love God showed in courage by going to the cross, it will rearrange our lives. Christmas is not magic—magic is how humans try to control the world, and magic doesn’t really work. Christmas not a legend—legends are stories we make up. Christmas is a baby “born that we no more may die., born to give us second birth.” God is with us! Merry Christmas!

 

Hidden Meanings of Christmas: The Mothers of Jesus

By Rev. Doug Gray

As you might guess, I have been thinking about Christmas a lot lately. As I have been reading, I was particularly struck by something Timothy Keller said in his book, Hidden Christmas. He writes, “Christmas is the only Christian holy day that is also a major secular holiday—arguably our culture’s biggest. The result is two different celebrations, each observed by millions of people at the very same time.” [1] So I was curious, is there a “hidden” Christmas, and what does he think it is? The more I read, the more I think he’s onto something, something that gets at the core of what it means to know and follow Jesus. Unfortunately, we can only have a taste of it Sunday morning, but if you would like the rest of the meal, you may want to come to Bible Study on Monday nights.

Today we begin with the “Mothers of Jesus,” and what I used to think was a really boring chapter in the Bible. Some things have changed my mind, one of them being that in ancient times people used their genealogies like a resumé. As we are reading along, let’s pay attention to who is in Jesus’ resumé.

Do you remember putting your first resumé together? What kinds of things did you include? If you were to give someone advice on their resumé, what would you say?

[take responses from the congregation]

Sure, I was told to do those things too. The goal is to make yourself look good, right? Have you ever known someone who “tinkered” with their resumé a little? Maybe they left off a job they didn’t like or that didn’t like them? Maybe they dressed up something that was not so glamorous. So in ancient genealogies, it turns out people would tinker with their family tree like some people tinker with their resumés—skip over that ne’er do well, accentuate the connections with movers and shakers and so on. As we are reading Matthew’s version of Jesus’ family tree, we should not be surprised that Matthew includes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and David and Solomon. Right? They are famous parents of faith. But what’s really interesting to me are the mothers of Jesus, five women who changed the world. Who are the mothers of Jesus, and how does Matthew including them uncover some of the hidden Christmas?
The five mothers of Jesus are right there in the text. They are

     •    Tamar, the mother of the twins, Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38)
     •    Rahab, the mother of Boaz who marries (Joshua 2)
     •    Ruth, the mother of Obed and great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 1–4)
     •    Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon (2 Samuel 11–12)
     •    Mary, who is Jesus’ mom (Luke 1 and 2)

So these days, we always look at fathers and mothers in a genealogy. But in Jesus’ day, it just wasn’t done. Women didn’t have a vote, couldn’t represent themselves in court and couldn’t defend themselves even if their husband was a jerk. If men always had the inside track, then women were what Keller calls, “gender outsiders.” Looking at the list again, Tamar, Rahab and Ruth are not even Jews—the first two are Canaanite women and Ruth is from Moab. Even though they became Jews by marriage, these women would not have been allowed into the Jewish part of the tabernacle or Temple. So these mothers are what Keller calls “racial outsiders” as well. Oh, but it gets better—or crazier! Tamar’s husband died. When her father-in-law decided his son was too young to get married, she veiled herself as a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law, something everywhere else in the Bible is called as an abomination. But Tamar made sure her husband was not childless. Of course, in our Old Testament passage for the day, Rahab actually is a prostitute, but she has the spiritual insight that God is moving powerfully in the people of Israel, and she hides Hebrew spies in her ceiling. Tamar and Rahab are what Keller calls “moral outsiders.” And let’s not forget King David! Most of us think, “Oooooo—King David! Cool!” But then Matthew points out, that Solomon’s mother was the “wife of Uriah.” When King David had hundreds of wives, he decided he had to have Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, so David had him killed. Abuse of power and position? Staining the kingship? Betrayal of a close friend? Adultery? Murder? Cover-up conspiracy? Yes, all of these. David and Bathsheba are not shining examples of moral, ethical, and spiritual behavior. And please let us not forget Mary, who is probably a teen-ager when the angel tells her she’s going to have a baby, and she is supposed to be marrying Joseph the carpenter. She, like some of the others, is a “social outsider,” because her reputation in the community will never be the same. People know when she is getting married, and they know when Jesus is born, and they know Joseph is not the father. All these mothers for Jesus, the Son of God, are outsiders in at least one way, but by God’s grace, they believed God’s promises, lived in trust with God and were blessed. Tim Keller writes, “God is not ashamed of us. We are all in his family.”

So when we add all this up, so what? How does it change our lives? First, anyone who feels shut out or left out by society by gender, by race, by bad things they’ve done, by just being different—all of these are welcomed into Jesus’ family. To the folks who hear, “You’re not the right kind of people,” Jesus says, “You’re my kind of people.” No matter how deep or dark the stains, if we want to be different, to be more, to be whole—and in Jesus we find we belong and we are family.

Second, grace rules. Like a lot of people, when we look closely at most of the heroes of the Bible, they are often flawed. In Jesus’ genealogy, there are cheats and liars, adulterers and murderers. They are not in Jesus’ lineage because they are great, they are in because they are loved. So before we get too overawed by these heroes and heroines, we have to remember they make it in because of grace. Which reminds us that before we were able to do even one good thing in our lives, God loved us. Before we could impress God with how hard we work, or how good we are, or how well we have it together, God was already there, loving us, calling us, longing for us to run into our heavenly Father’s embrace! It’s why Jesus came! So whatever we have done, and wherever we have been, grace rules!

Finally, a person has value, not because of what they do or how they contribute because of God’s love. Keller writes, “Maybe you look down on those snobs with so much education, or maybe it’s those ignorant ones with no education. Maybe you despise the people whose political views you think are ruining the country. In all of these examples, you have been taught to see some people as unclean, beyond the pale, unholy—while you are okay. Jesus Christ’s values are radically different. The world values pedigree, money, race, and class. He turns all that upside down…He says, in a sense, “In my family, those things that are so important out there in the world must not be so important.” [2]

This is where we find the Hidden Christmas—God made us and loves us and wanted to make a way for us to come into a deep and abundant, trust relationship. But we couldn’t make it for ourselves—couldn’t get a resumé together that didn’t have problems—so God came down in Jesus so that we could all be family. Whether or not we are with blood-relatives this Christmas, God has invited all of us to be family in Him. Amen.


[1]Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (NY:  Viking, 2016), p. 1.

[2] Keller, Hidden Christmas, pp. 33–34.

Learning to Play into Love: Jam or Garnish?

by Rev. Doug Gray


When I was growing up, most mornings my Mom made me a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. If someone were to make you the perfect peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, how would you describe it? What kind of bread, what kind of peanut-butter and what kind of jelly or jam?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Of course, some of you may hate peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, and to you I apologize for bringing up a painful subject. I liked them a lot actually, except I always felt that there was way too much peanut-butter and not enough jelly. I also felt like jelly was kind of thin and sweet, but not very fruity. I felt like the balance was all wrong. Sometimes I have a sense of that in my life too—like I have all the pieces for a great day, but the balance of “flavors” escapes me. One of the things that amazes me about today’s passages, is that they are both about balancing our lives so they are abundant.

First, life is not all peaches and cream. Actually, sometimes life can really stink. Paul writes, “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:7–9) I love that Paul doesn’t sugar-coat it—we can be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. But I also love that Paul talks about God’s power being with us in the midst of all that—and so we are not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, and not destroyed. The forces of death and frustration at work in our lives, only serve to make the life of Jesus in us more visible. For a couple of summers, I worked at a wilderness camp with fourth and fifth graders. We had some good times and did some crazy things, but through the whole summer, I felt spiritually dry as a bone. I felt like I was physically running on fumes most of the time. Imagine my surprise when we got to the end of camp and the kids were telling me how kind and funny and generous I was, that I was a good leader and more than one parent said that I made a huge impact on their son. Really, I felt flat all that summer, and all I could do was thank God, because whatever anyone else thought, I knew that it was God’s power at work in me, not just me. And I tried to give God the credit. If we think about our lives like a perfect peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, like the challenging times in our lives, the bread of a great sandwich is not all that appealing by itself, but it’s part of what holds our lives together, providing the platform for everything else. The challenges of our lives make it clear, this is more than us—God is working!

Second, we have to say something about why our lives are going. A few years ago, you might remember a show called “The Biggest Loser.” It was one of those reality shows where each week, someone has to leave the show. I was not a huge fan of the show. I thought sometimes the coaches were really mean and the “judges” were unkind. But one of the contestants in Season 14 was a friend of mine, named Lisa Rambo. Here she is with her husband, Tony, and their four kids ahead of production. In May of 2013, Lisa sent in a casting video, pitching why the producers should pick her to be on “Biggest Loser.” Among all the reasons for why her diet and exercise and lifestyle choices, Lisa said, “I believe doing simple things with great love…can change the world…I believe that our lives are meant to be anything but a half a glass of water. Our lives are meant to be full of deep relationships and rewarding experiences. Our lives are meant to overflow.” [1] In her blog, Lisa prayed, “Lord, I start by asking you to forgive me for my jealousies and insecurities. Keep my eyes focused on you and not on others. Help me not to worry about what others look like, have, or do. Help me to not compare myself to them but to place my trust in you. Thank you for valuing me. Please give me the strength I need to become all you have dreamed up, all you desire me to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” [2] So Lisa went on the show and she worked really hard and she made it to Week 5 of 12. [3] Although she didn’t make it to the Finale of Biggest Loser, wherever she goes, God goes with her. Here’s Lisa with her family the day after the “Biggest Loser” finale for Season 14. (Oh and by the way, in case you were thinking that didn’t make a difference in her life, here’s the before-and-after photos.) We have to say something about how God works in our lives, or people just won’t know. How will our kids or friends know that God is underneath our decisions if we don’t talk about it? I’m not saying be someone you’re not—I’m saying be who you are with God…when you are with other people. As we are making the perfect peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, this has got to be the peanut-butter, full of substance and staying power, and so we share how God is working in us.

Finally, thanks and grace lead to overflowing. That’s how our lives are meant to be! Paul writes, “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God…” We can easily think that when we say thanks, it doesn’t really matter, when we show kindness, or live out grace, it doesn’t really make a difference. But Paul makes it clear that the grace Paul lives, touches the lives of more and more people, leading to more and more people thanking God! Like a stone thrown into a pool, so being thankful, or showing kindness, or living grace ripples out from us. And we just never know how it makes a difference. But it does! And the more we give thanks and show grace, the more we are blessed. It’s not why we do those things. We give thanks because we are blessed. We show kindness because God shows us mercy every day, and every day we experience grace, so of course we share it—there’s always more! More and more…abundance…overflowing! It’s the sweet, fruity jam that really makes the peanut-butter and jelly sandwich of our lives.
As a dad, I had the chance to make a lot of peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for my kids. In fact, for many years, Cynthia was off to work before anyone was up, and I was making the kids’ lunches. And so I made what I like to call, “Daddy Deluxes” with enough jam to stand up to the bread and peanut butter. Which gets me thinking about our giving thanks, showing kindness, and living out grace. I wonder if perhaps giving thanks is an after-thought, kind of a garnish added to the plate of our life for color, but not really able to sustain or balance the rest of our lives. Giving thanks is a nice thing to do. Showing kindness is a nice thing to do, something that we can do occasionally to feel good. A garnish on our lives. But living out our grace—filling our lives with gratitude and kindness—that’s where the real life is. God doesn’t want to be a garnish, to add color to our plate, on the outside of the main course, looking in. God longs to be the desire of our hearts, the reason we get up in the morning, the focus of all our gratitude and the source of all our grace. What we really want is not just to have a life, but to have an abundant life, a life that overflows. What we really want is a life with enough sweetness to give our challenges meaning. What we really want is a life where giving thanks and showing kindness and living out our grace lead to more, more of God, more Jesus Christ, who promises not just abundant life today, but abundant life always.

 


1 Lisa Rambo, audition. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrHRS5NBoqY
2 http://losingitwithlisa.com/category/lifestyle/page/2/
3 Lisa Rambo, presentation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfyjLZxSk_4

 

Learning to Play into Love: Finding Our Fruitiness

by Rev. Doug Gray

     When I was in seminary, I was Assistant Minister at Jamesburg Presbyterian Church in Jamesburg, New Jersey. The church wasn’t famous or anything, but man, could they cook! My favorite part of the potluck dinners was when everyone had already been through the line, and it was time to get seconds! So I would eat pretty fast, keep an eye on the line, and bam! I was totally there for the best of seconds, because of course for some of the best dishes there weren’t seconds. Sad day! Our life is full of choices, and when there is something good, then it seems it disappears. Everyone had the freedom to choose, and lots of people chose Mrs. Hyack’s jello salad—oh man was it good!—so there wasn’t enough for seconds. We live in what is largely a free society—freedom of religion, free market economy, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly—and free is all good as far as it goes. But the promise and the challenge of our freedoms is that we can get anxious that we won’t have enough, and harder yet, our freedoms don’t help us know how to actually live. What is real freedom? What is our purpose? And how do we find those compelling, delightful yet elusive fruits of the Spirit Paul talks about?
     First, real freedom is a choice. Billy Graham tells the story about a little child the was playing with a very valuable vase. He put his hand into it and could not withdraw it. His father too, tried his best to get it out, to no avail. They were thinking of breaking the vase when the father said, “Now my son, make one more try. Open your hand and hold your fingers out straight as you see me doing, and then pull.” To their astonishment the little fellow said, “O no, dad, I couldn’t put my fingers out like that because if I did I would drop my dime.” Real freedom is the chance to choose what it is valuable, to choose the boy over the vase, and to help the boy choose freedom over the dime. Paul writes, “You, my brothers [and sisters], were called to be free.” Real freedom is the power to choose to let go.
     Second, real freedom lies in choosing the purpose of our freedom. One of the tough parts of living in the United States is that we have such amazing array of choices that we do not always know what to choose. Will we choose sitting in front of the computer, or gardening? Will we choose to buy all the cool stuff we can, or invest in changing people’s lives? Will we just meet the nebulous and momentary needs of our bodies and our emotional selves, or will we actually do something with our lives that touches others? Once a woman saw a father shopping with a fussy two-year-old in his grocery cart. “Be patient, Billy,” he whispered. “You can handle this, Billy. It’s okay, Billy.” The woman said to him, “I don’t mean to interrupt your shopping, but I just had to tell you how wonderfully loving and patient you are with little Billy.” The man replied, “Actually, my son’s name is Patrick. My name is Billy.” The Spirit is available to whisper to us thoughts of love and joy and peace and patience every moment of our life. Right now. All we have to do is stop, ask, and listen [1]. Paul writes, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” Why are we free? Are we free to do what Jesus would do, to be what God would have us be? If loving God is our purpose, then loving people is what we do. In our freedom, we ask Christ to be our purpose and the real freedom begins.
     Third, spiritual fruits come to those who stay in the Son. So would you help me think about fruit for a minute? What’s your favorite fruit?

[Take response from the congregation.]

Ok so think with me for a moment about that favorite fruit of yours. If you want bigger or better fruit, how would you go about it?

[Take responses form the congregation.]

Sure, staying in the sunlight is important. Sure, adding water really helps. Ok, cultivating the soil is a good thing. The odd thing about fruit is that we can’t make fruit happen. We make bigger, better fruit by leaving it on the tree. Nourished by the tree, the fruit grows until it’s ripe, then we pick it, enjoy it, share it with others. If we talk about grapes, Jesus even said, “I am the vine and you are the branches…. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit…This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” [2] God wants us to bear fruit! But remaining in Christ means letting go of our selfish and self-focused ways, choosing to let go of our need to control and win at everything, and instead choosing to make Christ the center and purpose of our lives, then God’s power starts to work in us, changing us. When I think of Billy and Patrick in the grocery store, I realize that Billy is allowing himself to be changed, coaching himself into becoming a patient father. In the same way, God doesn’t just want us to do loving things, or peaceful things, or kind things…God wants us to become loving, compassionate, peaceful, gentle, disciplined people.
     Some people might have thought I was nuts, but I started inviting some of the other hungry seminary students to the potlucks at Jamesburg Pres. My buddies? They could pack it away just like me, which of course meant that there was going to be less of Mrs. Hyack’s jello salad to go around. But really the best part was that these beautiful people in the church loved on us. There was plenty of that to go around, and we never went away hungry. We got to go back for seconds and thirds and even fourths. In fact, when we were done for the evening, this church always gave us a bag of leftovers to give to the other hungry students, because they knew the seminary didn’t serve dinner on Sundays. We were very popular people on the hall! Later, I came to learn that Mrs. Hyack loved seeing us enjoy her jello salad, and she was always one of the people filling up the bag for us to take home. Capitalism, materialism, hedonism and consumerism left to themselves tend to make us more self-centered, and self-indulgent. Real freedom means we can escape all the boxes of the –isms, to choose to place ourselves in the hands of Christ, and to seek each other’s good ahead of our own. Of course, the best part of freedom in Christ is that we realize that life is like serving the best potluck meal:  There’s no need for pushing or shoving, or insisting on having our own way. There’s always more of the best things—love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When we have real freedom and choose Christ, we will not get less but more. Indeed, the promise is that when we seek more for others in Christ, there will be more than enough for everyone. We will have to let go of the selfish ways and the stuff that ties us up, but we can help ourselves to the best God has to offer! But perhaps even better, we will have a chance to help others step up to the feast Christ has set before us, and can see that there is always second and third and fourth helpings of the good stuff.


[1] Ortberg, J. (2010). The me i want to be. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[1]John 15:5, 8.

Learning to Play into Love: Playing into Our Differences

by. Rev Doug Gray

Once a little girl went to a special dinner at her friend’s house. The vegetable that night was buttered broccoli, and the mother asked if she liked it. The child replied very politely, “Oh, yes, I love it.” But when the bowl of broccoli was passed, she declined to take any. The hostess said, “I thought you said you loved broccoli.” The girl replied sweetly, “Oh, yes, ma’am, I do, but not enough to eat it!” Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It’s one of those things Jesus says that makes Christians nod and say to themselves, “Oh yes, I love it, but none for me right now.” We would much rather play at life, and loving our enemies seems more like work. But I believe the ability to forgive enemies and show them compassion is one of the key ways God releases power into our lives and into the world. How can this be? How does this work? And how can we begin?
How can this be? On the face of it, forgiving our enemies is supremely unnatural. Jesus notes this when he says, “You have heard that it was said, “Love your friend and hate your enemy.” It’s the way the world tells us it should be: what goes around comes around. Revenge is a dish best served cold. And when we are hurt, striking out is often our first reaction. During the dark days of autumn, 1936, the empire of Japan invaded China through Korea and into Manchuria. Thousands upon thousands of Japanese troops poured in, bringing their tanks, bombers and a ruthless brand of extermination and torture. The Japanese feared the Chinese Christians and went out of their way to destroy their churches and kill believers whenever they had the chance. Among the believers were the president of China, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Madame Chiang. At the height of the conflict when the Japanese troops were at the walls of the capital city of Beijing, Madame Chiang rushed through the chaos to her mother’s room in the palace. Finding her Mother’s door closed she gently pushed it open. Finally, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she saw her mother in the corner of the room, kneeling in prayer. As the bomb flashes lit up the room she could see that her mother’s face was peaceful, even content. Madame Chiang rushed over to her and knelt beside her. “Mother,” she whispered. “You are so powerful in prayer. Are you praying for the defeat of our enemy? Will you ask God to crush them before our entire country is wasted? Could you pray for an earthquake to annihilate them?” The old lady smiled gravely and then gently caressed her daughter’s face. “No, my daughter. This is not my prayer. When I pray, don’t expect me to insult God’s intelligence by asking Him to do something which would be unworthy of you, a mortal.” It was a lesson Madame Chiang never forgot over the many years she and her husband spent in exile on the island of Taiwan. (Adapted from Macartney’s Illustrations) Praying for our enemies even loving them is not normal. It’s not natural. It is supernatural, and it can only happen when our hearts have been transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. It’s this kind of love that Jesus showed as He hung dying on the cross, in an agony of pain—he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It’s this kind of love that transforms lives.
How does this work? In a sense, loving our enemies works because love dodges past the walls of hatred and violence to penetrate and challenge the heart of our enemy. I know I’ve told this story a few years ago, but it’s worth telling again. Robert Baake tells a story that happened a little more than 30 years ago: a young man was studying to be a doctor in Cairo. The craziness of his residency in a downtown hospital was made harder when his father was murdered. Though everyone knew who had done it, the police could not find enough evidence to arrest the man. One day, this young resident was working in the ER when he received word that the ambulance was bringing in a gunshot victim. When the gunshot victim came in on the gurney, the young doctor couldn’t believe his luck: there on the gurney was the man who had killed his father! Shaken, the young doctor ordered the necessary, preliminary work, and then he found a phone and called his mother. “Mom,” he said, “the guy who killed dad is in the other room. He’s been shot. All I have to do is take my time and he will die. What should I do?” She paused for a moment. Then she said clearly, “Jesus Christ was a healer. You are a healer. You must heal this man for Jesus.” The young doctor did just that. You can imagine the wounded man’s surprise when he came out of anesthesia to discover one of the people who most wanted him dead had saved his life. When the young doctor explained that this is what Jesus would have done, the murderer burst into tears, confessed his crime and begged for forgiveness. The young doctor surprised himself by giving it. Eventually the two men became friends. After a time, they concluded that God wanted them to do something for the poorest people in Cairo. They could think of no one poorer than those who work in the landfills of the city. Because the Jews and Muslims have taboos about dealing with the unclean, the vast majority of the 80,000 people who work amid the utter squalor of the dumps of Cairo are Christian. These two former enemies found a small building that was not being used and started a Bible study. Their first meeting had 11 people, including themselves. Fast forward twenty years. That Sunday school class now meets in a hollowed-out hall in one of the hillsides, enough to seat 5000 at a time. The point of this story is not how great the numbers are, nor is it about the importance of going out and starting bible studies (though that is always a great thing). No, the point of this story is that forgiveness and healing between two people was the seed God grew into a mighty fruit tree that not only transformed those two souls, but fed the bodies and souls of many people since. When we love our enemies, the power and might of God is released into us and the other. It works this way, because when we love our enemies, we are loving like God. Jesus says in our passage, “When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.”
One of the challenges of our time that Christian Schwarz points out in his book, The 3 Colors of Love, is that we are encouraged to start with feeling good or loving, and to let the feelings shape our thoughts. Then when we act out those thoughts, we have our good and loving deeds. Loving feelings lead to loving thoughts lead to loving actions. It can work that way, but for most of us, the real growth comes when we start with loving thoughts—forgiving thoughts—then act on those loving thoughts, only to discover that the feelings of love follow. Think of our young doctor friend. If he acts on his feelings, the man who killed his father will never be his best friend. If we listen to our feelings, we will often not be our best selves. What we really need is to listen to Jesus Christ, to allow the still, small voice of God to change what we choose. Perhaps by letting God change our thoughts and our actions, perhaps we will find our feelings and moods gradually change too. Our goal after all is to become more like Jesus.
What makes it hard to forgive our enemies, to listen to widely divergent opinions, and to welcome people’s differences—is fear. We fear that we will hear something that will upset us or make us uncomfortable. We fear that someone will not like us or be upset with us. All of those things could happen. But since our God loves us—we can live our lives as if we had an audience of one. If we are doing what God would want, we are ok. Even better, we are loved. Why should we fear people? We can let the love of God rule our lives—that means we can forgive and we can listen and we can accept that God is at work in lives very different than our own, with opinions very different from our own. Perhaps the real blessings—the real and best play in life—are only available to all of us, if we can begin to forgive our enemies and welcome, even play into our differences.
Which brings us back to a little girl and broccoli, and to us who are sitting here. “Loving our enemies? Oh yes,” we say, “I love it. But none for me right now.” To this God has two things to say: First, a word of compassion to those who are hurt: God sees your pain. Jesus knows your pain, for he suffered unfairly too. Lay your pain at God’s feet and let his arms enfold you. Second, a word of challenge to the rest of us: Grow up! Grown-ups think before they act, and try to do the right thing regardless of their feelings. Did we think following Jesus was going to be all ice cream and cake? Let us start stretching ourselves to depend more on God’s strength. Let us relax into the security of God’s arms. We can think less about our rights and more about the people around us, yes, including our enemies. Will it hurt us to be compassionate? Jesus didn’t just die for you, but for your enemy too. Through you, Jesus wants to touch them with the same grace you received. Yeah, I know it’s hard, hard for everyone. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. Jesus loved his enemies and prayed for those who gave Him a hard time. Let us grow up in the faith today, and let God’s grace shine through…today and every day.

Learning to Play into Love: The Green of Justice

by Rev. Doug Gray

During a practice session for the Green Bay Packers, things were not going well for Vince Lombardi’s team. Lombardi singled out one big guard for his failure to “put out.” It was a hot, muggy day when the coach called his guard aside and leveled his awesome vocal guns on him, as only Lombardi could. “Son, you are a lousy football player. You’re not blocking, you’re not tackling, you’re not putting out. As a matter of fact, it’s all over for you today, go take a shower.” The big guard dropped his head and walked into the dressing room. We might think, “Man, that is harsh!” And maybe it is. When we read something like the messages God gives Amos and James, our first inclination is to think, “Man, that is harsh.” They make us feel uncomfortable, and in our time, we often just ignore the things that make us uncomfortable. Yet, if we stay in the tension, that uncomfortable place, God can teach us. Today, I want to suggest three ways God can take our discomfort with these passages and rearrange our lives.
First, God’s house—God’s rules. Have you ever heard the fateful words, “As long as you live in this house…” or “As long as long as you live under this roof…”? Have you ever said them? I have a friend who heard those words, and so she left. But that’s kind of hard to do with God—because God’s “house”…is the whole universe! God made it, and God set the “house rules.” How do we know what God wants? One way is by exploring the universe and history as we they come to us and trying to understand how God works through them. Another way is by reading God’s Word, which throughout the generations, throughout the centuries, has spoken truth to those who read it. We don’t have to like how the universe runs, but it’s still going to run that way…God’s house—God’s rules.
Second, justice matters to God. Justice is a cool word, but not onemost of us clearly understand. What is justice to God? So as many of you know, Cynthia and I have three children, and Morgan is 10 years older than Caleb. When Morgan was in high school, she had the chance to travel to Europe for a couple of weeks, and Hannah desperately wanted to go. “It’s not fair!” Hannah said. “I haven’t even been out of the country!” To which Cynthia replied, “Fare is what you pay to ride a bus.” By which Cynthia meant among other things, “Yep, it’s not fair. But ‘fair’ is not as important as ‘right.’” The idea of “making things right” seems to be hugely important to God. In fact, God seems to stick up for the bullied, to defend the defenseless, and to help the helpless. God seems to delight in accomplishing amazing things with people no one expects. Ancient Egypt was a superpower with awesome military and governmental might, but when the Egyptians enslave and oppress the Hebrew slaves, and they call out to God—God comes to free them! The story of the Exodus is God stepping in on the side of slaves. Whenever God’s people are oppressed and desperate for rescue, and they turn away from what they want, turning towards what God wants—God does amazing things! Starting in Exodus and Deuteronomy, God talks about taking care of the widow and the orphan, talks about caring for the stranger in your midst, because you once were strangers in Egypt. Jesus told a story about the importance giving food to the hungry, drinks to the thirsty, invitations to the stranger, clothes to the naked, caring for the sick and visiting people in prison. Mysteriously, when we do those things, Jesus said we were doing them to Him. God cares—and God loves it when we care. In a world that is often not fair, God wants things to be right, for everyone to know they are loved. God cares about justice.
Third, God gives us opportunities to change. Sometimes that happens through circumstances. The former head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Mike Holmgren looks back at a heartbreaking moment, when he was cut from the New York Jets as backup quarterback to Joe Namath, that directed him to a bigger plan. “I had committed my life to Jesus Christ when I was 11, but in my pursuit to make a name for myself in football, I left God next to my dust-covered Bible. But after getting cut from the Jets, I pulled out my Bible and found comfort in a verse I had memorized in Sunday school: ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). I asked Jesus Christ to take control again. My priorities in life are faith, family, and football—in that order.” Holmgren had the wisdom to take the opportunity to change. In addition to changing circumstances, throughout history, God has sent people to speak the uncomfortable truth to self-focused power. That’s what God asks Amos to do in a time when the wealthy are getting wealthier, and the poor and being ground down into the dirt. The message sounds harsh! It’s a wake-up call! The few are so comfortable that they can’t hear the alarm bells going off! The God who cares for the poor, who listens to the prayers of the lost and the lonely, who welcomes strangers and frees slaves—God is going to take care of them. This means that God wants to be part of our politics, but not as a Republican or Democrat. Jim Wallis, in his book, God’s Politics:  Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, writes, “God’s politics are therefore never partisan or ideological. But they challenge everything about our politics. God’s politics remind us of the people our politics always neglect—the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God’s politics challenge narrow, national, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world and the creative human diversity of all those made in the image of the creator. God’s politics remind us of the creation itself, a rich environment in which we are to be good stewards, not mere users, consumers, and exploiters. And God’s politics plead with us to resolve the inevitable conflicts among us, as much as is possible, without the terrible cost and consequences of war. God’s politics always remind us of the ancient prophetic prescription to ‘choose life, so that you and your children may live,’ and challenge all the selective moralities that would choose one set of lives and issues over another.” [1] Again, this is not Democrat or Republican, not the standard evangelical or liberal Christian. This is about being passionate for God and letting God’s Word and God’s Spirit work in us. When we are on the wrong side of God’s idea of justice, the hammer can fall anytime. We had better turn around quick! Fortunately, God gives us opportunities to change.
Forty-five minutes after dressing down that big guard, when Lombardi walked into the dressing room, he saw the guard sitting in front of his locker still wearing his uniform. His head was bowed and he was sobbing quietly. Vince Lombardi, ever the changeable but always the compassionate warrior, did something of an about-face that was also typical of him. He walked over to his football player and put his arm around his shoulders. “Son,” he said, “I told you the truth. You are a lousy football player. You’re not blocking, you’re not tackling, you’re not putting out. However, in all fairness to you, I should have finished the story. Inside of you, son, there is a great football player, and I’m going to stick by your side until the great football player inside of you has a chance to come out and assert himself.” With these words, Jerry Kramer straightened up and felt a great deal better. As a matter of fact, he felt so much better he went on to become one of the all-time greats in football and was voted the all-time guard for the first 50 years of professional football. What God wants most is for each of us to see that there is a great person—a great follower of Jesus Christ—inside us. If we are failing, if we are not on the right side of justice—God will tell us the truth, and we may not want to hear it. But the question we should be asking ourselves as we listen to the prophets is the same question Lombardi hoped the guard would be asking, “But is he right?” And in that uncomfortable place God can teach us justice. In that uncomfortable place, perhaps we will see the face of Christ on a sister or brother. In that uncomfortable place, perhaps we will find God is sticking by our sides until the greatness of Christ in us has the chance to come out and assert itself. Please God, may it be so.


1 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics:  Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005), p. xv. The scripture to which Wallis refers is Deuteronomy 30:19, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

 

Learning to Play into Love: The Red of Truth

by Rev. Doug Gray

This fall we are considering the idea that maybe working at our faith is often not as helpful as playing at our faith. We can still be passionate about God, still long for God, still love God with our whole hearts, minds and strength, but maybe playing has more of grace and opens us to our dynamically creative God in some new ways. Last week we talked about how God’s love and God’s light go together, and that like light, they can be broken into different colors—blue for grace, red for truth and green for justice—all of them ways to express love and light. Today we are thinking about the red of truth, and we will ask the question, how does truth help us play the game of life better?

The Truth is always more than we think.
In a trial, a Southern small-town prosecuting attorney called his first witness, an elderly grandmother to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy, and frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” The lawyer was stunned! Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?” She again replied, “Why, yes, I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. One of them was your wife. Yes, I know him.” The defense attorney nearly collapsed. The judge instructed both counselors to approach the bench and, in a very quiet voice, said, “if either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I’ll send you to the electric chair.” I think we would all agree that Mrs. Jones told the truth. The Truth can make us uncomfortable sometimes, like these lawyers. But Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) How can living our lives in the light of truth help our lives become more playful and more fulfilling?
Let the Truth be always more than we think.
Once there was a husband who had too much to drink…again. When he got home, he snuck up the stairs quietly. He looked in the bathroom mirror and bandaged the bumps and bruises he’d received in a fight earlier that night. He then proceeded to climb into bed, smiling at the thought that he had totally pulled one over on his wife. When morning came, he opened his eyes and there stood his wife. “You were drunk last night, weren’t you!” “No, honey.” “Well, if you weren’t, then who put all the band-aids on the bathroom mirror?” I think sometimes we are like this husband:  we over-indulge ourselves and arrive home beat up and bruised. Rather than share with God what’s really going on, we sneak in and put band-aids on our image. We think we’ve gotten away with it, but God is not fooled. Why do we do this? Are we afraid to stand before God as we are? Are we afraid of what God will say? To our fears, Jesus speaks the words, ““I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” The love of Jesus, shown on a cross. The forgiveness of Jesus, great enough to clean the stain of any sin. Even when we think something is unforgiveable, Jesus’ steadfast love and powerful forgiveness are great enough to let us come home. That’s what Jesus means when he says in another place, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The Truth is what frees us from the chains that bind us. Like light shining in dark places, Jesus’ truth scatters the cockroaches of worries that control our night. Like alcohol poured on a wound, so Jesus’ truth cleanses our hurts so they can heal. We sometimes wonder how God could forgive us, but the Truth is always more than we think.
The Truth is always more than we think. Once, when someone was stubbornly arguing with him, Abraham Lincoln said, “Well, let’s see how many legs does a cow have?” “Four, of course,” came the reply disgustedly. “That’s right,” agreed Lincoln. “Now suppose you call the cow’s tail a leg; how many legs would the cow have?” “Why, five, of course,” was the confident reply. “Now, that’s where you’re wrong,” said Lincoln. “Calling a cow’s tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” Have you heard the expression, “The truth is what you make of it”? Or maybe “All truth is relative”? People can say lots of things, but no matter how we try to fool ourselves and others, ultimately there is a reality bigger than us, a Truth with a capital “T”. You can call it what you want and ignore it at your peril, but that Truth still exists. Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer, is famous for saying, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” So whether or not we believe in God isn’t going to make God go away. In our day, how much of our day is spent wondering what news story to believe, what person to believe? When we are in tight with Jesus, Paul says our goal in the church is that “the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” The truth is always more than we think.
The Truth is always more than we think. We are inclined to think of truth as science does—what we can see, touch and hear, what we can measure, and reproduce. But the Bible talks about Truth as a relationship. The Hebrew word for truth is ‘emuna, but we often read it as trustworthiness or faithfulness. Since God made the universe, then it will run on God’s principles! More precisely, we know God is trustworthy because of Jesus, because of how Jesus and God are not in it for themselves. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” For Jesus, it was not about His life—it was about the life of those who want to come in through Him. Jesus didn’t come so we could live boring lives or lives in little tiny boxes. Jesus came so we could have a great big, abundant life, life to the full and overflowing! So if our lives are founded on God’s Truth and trustworthiness, the Truth is always more than we think.
The Truth is always more than we think. The day Jesus was crucified, Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Israel. Jesus said to him, “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” And Pilate asked the question all of us would ask, “What is truth?” Jesus doesn’t answer. I have often wondered why? I wonder if it’s because even though there is a capital “T” Truth, the question is really whether we will seek our own personal truth that always winds up empty, or be on the side of God’s truth which frees and fills us. At times, the truth may make us feel uncomfortable, but only because we don’t like what we learn—that we blow it, that we fall down, that we are often afraid, and that we can be selfish and harsh. We know that’s not what Jesus wants for us, but it’s true nonetheless. But even in the dark and difficult places, God is with us—God is trustworthy! Even when we struggle to do what we know is right, God strengthens us. Even when we are not sure where the courage is going to come from to follow the Lord who loves us, Jesus carries us. And through it all, “…speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Let us, then, be on the side of the Truth, and let us look for Who is trustworthy, for the truth is always more than we think.

 

Learning to Play into Love: The Blue of Grace

by Rev. Doug Gray

Leah Pelligrini tells the story of a guy who comes down with the flu. He’s the kind of guy who swims laps at the gym before work, who remembers to back up his computer on a weekly basis, who displays his kids’ crayon masterpieces in frames on his desk. He is used to being in control. But thanks to the flu, he is reduced to…” a dripping, miserable mess. “He is even forced to surrender the second half of a day when he had intended to Get Important Stuff Done.” Finally, the lunch hour drags in. He collapses into his car, crawls into his house and closes himself into his bedroom. We “can imagine him contorted under the covers with the curtains drawn, sniffling and writhing in the dark, and sputtering to himself through the garbles of congestion, “Everything is [garbage].” [1] At times, I have been that guy, maybe you have too—miserable, in the dark, feeling like nothing is going to get better, and if someone were to turn on the light, we feel like it would probably just hurt anyway. But light is just what we need.
Of course, the Bible is full of images of light. The first thing God says in the Bible is, “Let there be light!” And it was good. John would say of Jesus, “…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4–5) One of the curious things about light is that it can be broken up into separate colors, and one way we use that electronically is to project red, green and blue to make color images on a screen. Christian Schwarz in his book, The 3 Colors of Love, uses this idea to help us talk about God’s love and our life with God. According to Schwarz, if we read the Old Testament closely, three words are used about God’s love all the time—hesed (grace), emunah (truth), and tsedaqah (justice). Over the next couple Sundays, we are going to explore all three of these, but it all starts with God’s love that blends all three of these perfectly together. In fact, as we will come to understand, in order to play into love we will need all of them. Today, we will focus on the blue of grace.
Grace is one of the few really good words Hallmark has not made too nice. It has a rich, complicated meaning for us. When you think of grace, what comes to mind? What is grace to you?

[take responses from the congregation]

Yes, wow! Excellent! Grace is indescribably beautiful and perhaps the best one word answer to who is God, because God’s love is grace. In the Old Testament, when the writers want to talk about God’s love—real love—the first word they start with in Hebrew is hesed. It’s not easily translated into English because at its core, hesed is a relationship that hangs in there, loves when it’s hard, forgives when it’s hurt, sacrifices when it’s not expected—love that gives itself away to make things better. And grace feels miraculous. In the movie, Bruce Almighty, God (played by Morgan Freeman) says that “a single mom who is working two jobs and still finds time to take her kid to soccer practice—that’s a miracle. A teen-ager says no to drugs and yes to an education—that’s a miracle.” For my money, the best English translation for hesed is steadfast love. But when we read the Bible for ourselves, we can find that rich, wonderful hesed translated as all kinds of things—mercy, love, covenantal love, compassion.
In our passages for today—yes, three of them!—we see God coaching us into the steadfast love of grace. Each of these passages helps us with a different piece of the hesed puzzle. The first piece of the hesed puzzle is to love with all we are. Before each of our children was in school, my day off during the week was often spent doing something with one of them. We’d go around and look at fish tanks, run errands for the family, play games in the yard—whatever would be fun for my 1–4-year-old at the time. One day I was getting phone calls from the office that were making it hard for me to focus on Hannah, and I saw a long-suffering look on her face and realized this was not the Dad I wanted to be. I thanked God for the insight, and after the second call, I silenced my phone, and put it away. Instantly, her face brightened and we went on to enjoy our time together, but I had to decide whether I was going to give her my whole attention or only part of it. Do we love like that? Do we love a little, but not give our whole heart? When we love, God longs for us to love like God—completely, utterly, ultimately. Go all in and love with all we are.
The second piece of the hesed puzzle is that love hangs in there. Do you ever do or say something, and afterward you think, “What was I thinking?!” I do it all the time! I try to have it together, keep it together—and sometimes it just comes out wrong or I do something I know better than to do. One of the things that astounds me in the world is that through all of those “What was a I thinking?!” moments, Cynthia has continued to love me. My parents have continued to love me. Steadfast love continues to hold on. Michael W. Smith sings, “And friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the Lord of them. And a friend will not say never, ‘cause the welcome will not end.” That’s hesed, and it’s breath-takingly beautiful when someone’s love hangs in there.
The final piece of the hesed puzzle is that love is scandalously open-hearted. In the Old Testament, God chooses a couple, Abraham and Sarah, for a special, covenantal relationship. Why Abraham and Sarah? I don’t know! We can make guesses, but at the end of the day, we don’t know! That God chooses a single family—Abraham’s family—to become God’s special, chosen people—to love and defend and sacrifice and teach—it’s a scandal! Abraham and Sarah and their family are not right all the time, and sometimes they get it really wrong, but still God chooses them, loves them. According to Genesis, God’s vision was that the whole world would be blessed through these people, that they would be a light to the nations. Through these people God wants to show special care to the widow, the orphan and the alien in our midst, to change people’s hearts. Hosea speaks for God, “I desire hesed and not sacrifice.” In the fullness of time, Jesus came to broaden this mission, so that the whole world might receive this same scandalous invitation from God: “I love you! And I want to be with you forever!” It’s the love we see as a father throws a party for a son who has squandered his wealth. It’s the love Jesus explains as he describes the Kingdom of Heaven as a heavenly banquet where God is going to make sure everyone comes in. That may offend us. Perhaps we want only the nice people, the good people to make it in, and Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Perhaps we want only the hard-workers or the people who look like us, and Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” God loves each person—even the ones we may not like—as if they were the only one. God’s love seems to be scandalously open-hearted.
And we can get grumpy sometimes. The world doesn’t go the way we want it to. We can be sick of body and diseased of soul, thinking to ourselves, maybe even thinking about ourselves, like the guy with the flu, “Everything is garbage.” The story teller continues, “After a few hours as he tossed and turned and ached, he heard tiny footsteps on the stairs, footsteps that paused briefly before gently opening his bedroom door. As he was about to rasp, ‘Please, please go away and leave me alone,’ he heard the voice of his 3-year-old son who said, ‘Daddy, I just came to hurt with you. I just came to hurt with you.’ The little boy crawled into bed beside him, put his arms around his neck and taught him as he would later reflect, the true meaning of what it means when we say Emmanuel, God with us.” That God is with us, [2] that we are loved—it’s a gift. Grace. Like all true grace, it reminds us that we are anything but garbage, that we are beautiful and wanted, that everybody is. God is with us and we are loved, and grace will play anywhere.


[1] Based on Leah Pelligrini’s (https://thecorestories.com/story-light/) retelling of the true story originally told by The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Washington National Cathedral, December 23, 2016. https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-rev-randolph-marshall-hollerith-4/

[2] Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Washington National Cathedral, December 23, 2016. https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-rev-randolph-marshall-hollerith-4/

Kick-Off Sunday: Learning to Play into Love

by Rev. Doug Gray

So as the title of my message today suggests, I have been thinking a lot about playing, and I wondered if you would think out loud with me for a moment? What are your favorite games to play? What do you like about them?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

That’s very good! Did you notice what they all have in common? They are fun! Do we have to work at them sometimes? Sure, but we play them because they are fun. Are we always happy with how they go? No, but we play them because they are fun. The problem with lots of people’s approach to God is that either they take it too seriously, or their church takes it too seriously. What if loving were more fun and more rewarding?

First, grace frees us to play. One day a young, new preacher was walking with an older, more seasoned preacher in the garden. Feeling a bit insecure about what God had for her to do, the younger minister was asking the older preacher for some advice. The older preacher walked up to a rose bush and handed the young preacher a rosebud and told her to open it without tearing any of the petals. The young preacher looked in disbelief at the older preacher and was trying to figure out what a rosebud could possibly have to do with her wanting to know the will of God for her life and ministry. But, because of her great respect for the older preacher, she proceeded to try and unfold the rosebud while keeping every petal intact. It wasn't long before she realized how impossible this was to do. Noticing the young preacher's inability to unfold the rosebud without tearing it, the older preacher began to recite the following poem:

     It is only a tiny rosebud
     A flower of God's design;
     But I cannot unfold the petals
     With these clumsy hands of mine.
     The secret of unfolding flowers
     Is not known to such as I.
     GOD opens this flower so sweetly,
     Then, in my hands, they die.
     If I cannot unfold a rosebud,
     The flower of God's design,
     Then how can I have the wisdom
     To unfold this life of mine?
     So, I'll trust in Him for leading
     Each moment of my day.
     I will look to Him for His guidance
     Each step of the Pilgrim's way.
     The pathway that lies before me
     Only my Heavenly Father knows.
     I'll trust him to unfold the moments,
     Just as He unfolds the rose.

The curious thing about our lives is that we have the power, the responsibility to make decisions, and yet, part of loving—and loving God—is simply a gift, the unfolding of grace in our lives. We cannot make ourselves more mature in God, any more than a rose can unfold itself or a fruit can make itself any riper. We become mature by loving. We love because God loves us first. Paul writes, “…hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Relax into God’s arms, relax because we know God will be with us no matter what. Let the work and play run together. Let love be the gift we are given and the gift we give. Let God fill us. Let the grace free us to play.
Second, be aromatherapy for the world. So I need a volunteer for a moment, someone who can recognize fresh herbs. [Get a volunteer from the congregation, and invite them forward.] I have here three different kinds of fresh herbs, and I want to see if you can recognize them by the smell. [Hold out the three bags of herbs—mint, basil and rosemary—one at a time.] Very good! Would you pick one of these to take back to your seat? You can take it home with you if you want. The thing about people of God, is that if we are full of grace, then the grace of Jesus Christ wafts through the world with us, like the scent of these herbs as [the person who has the herbs] goes back to their seat. If the love of God is who we are, and the love of Christ is what we try to do all the time, then the Holy Spirit is the fan that wafts the scent of Jesus wherever we go. It’s unmistakably beautiful! The people who love kindness will smile. The people who don’t believe in a free lunch will grimace. The people who are having bad days will feel better. The people who feel bullied or beset by their problems will take a deep, refreshing breath. The people who take life oh so seriously, may feel a little more like playing. The best part about herbs is that if by chance you crush a leaf—[crush a leaf of basil or mint between your fingers]—it releases even more scent! And that’s true of those who follow Christ too. The people who crucified Jesus thought they were ridding the world of Him, but by placing Him high on the cross, they just made it easier for the world to see. Wherever those who follow Jesus are crushed for the sake of love, their kindness and joy and love have penetrated and changed the world even more. We are called to be aromatherapy for the world.
Maybe what the world needs most of all is people like you and me, who are willing to let fear get swallowed up by love. Maybe what the world needs is people who get that taking God seriously means playing and having a good time as we live and learn to play into love. God has paid the price already, before we were ready. Surprise! And so we laugh with God and ask God to show us how to play into love, and change the world.

How to Get Out of the Time Crunch

by. Rev Doug Gray

I love Labor Day weekend! I love the delicious irony that we celebrate Labor Day by resting or playing or cooking or whatever…pretty much anything but labor. I also love that it’s the deep breath before the school year starts—for us in the church, the year of ministry. But where did the summer go? Do you ever feel like there’s not enough time? What are some of the things we feel like there’s never enough time for?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Sure. Of course, there are also times when deadlines are on us, and we get into a time crunch. In a sense, our experience of time is very weird—sometimes stretching out before us with endless possibilities and sometimes shrinking until we are funneled down to one moment. From the day we are born, we live our lives moment by moment, but always forward. Our passage for today is one of the most important passages you will ever read because it not only deals with the nature of the universe, but the meaning of life and how to get ourselves out of the time crunch.
First, God’s Name says it all! In verse 14, God says, “I AM who I AM”—or the Hebrew could mean “I WILL BE who I WILL BE.” But if we are thinking about how we experience time, God has left out something. Did you notice? God left out “I WAS who I WAS.” Remember that God created time and space. Like a painter that stands outside her painting, or an inventor who stands outside their invention, God is stands outside of time and space. Unlike a painter or inventor, God has chosen to be involved in life within the universe, but God is not limited by them. So where we are limited to living our life moment by moment only forward, God just is. In fact, in every time and every place, God is. Which means God is—in our past—and God is with us now—and God is with us in the future—even though we are not there yet. God is there already. The idea that God is in all times at the same time, and still God is not bound by time, that is what eternity is. God says, “I AM.”
Second, God’s call us to the adventure. As many of you know, I love weddings, and when I run the wedding rehearsals, someone from the wedding party always asks me, “How do I know where to look?” I always say, “Wherever the action is, that’s where you are supposed to look.” That’s really true in our passage for today. So we are going to go through God’s words and look for the action. What’s the first verb you see that God speaks? Good! God sees—my people and what they are going through. What’s the next verb? Yes! God hears—the cries of His people who are hurting. What’s next? That’s right. God knows/is concerned—what they are going through matters to God. Another one? Come down? Whoa! God is stepping in?! Wow! To do what? Three more verbs here. Yes, to deliver, to rescue. Once a friend of mine had a retriever that found a rabbit’s nest and went to bite one of the little ones. The owner pounced on the dog, and before it could bite the baby rabbit, forced the dog’s jaws open, and snatched the baby rabbit out. The word for rescue here is like that, “snatching” the Hebrews from the jaws of Egypt. Alright! Two more verbs. “To bring up.” They are going to leave one land and go to another, to leave one life and find another, to leave the old and find the new. They are going to rise! God will bring them up. The last verb? Do you see it there? Now, go! Because I have seen and heard and care…because I have come down to rescue and bring up…therefore, God says to Moses, “You go. I am sending you.” Because God sees and hears and cares and has come down to rescue people and bring them up, God says to us, “You go! I am sending you!”
These words, these commands, are a little unnerving. We might start by pointing out that since God has come all this way, we would hate to deprive God of the chance to do this. Or we might try to suggest that really we don’t have time right now. Would tomorrow work? Or we could try what Moses does, and say, “Who am I to do this?” Which brings us to third, God is with us. In a sense, this is the answer to all our reservations, struggles and excuses. There’s always a reason to not be one of God’s team, to make one of God’s plays for the lost, the last and the least. We can always trot out some rationale for why we can’t help this person in this moment. We are after all finite beings—limited in energy and money and time. The call to adventure never begins conveniently, but if God has grasped our attention (with or without the burning bush), then we become aware of God’s Presence. We become aware that in our moment to moment life, we have reached a turning point. This is the moment. This is the time when we make a decision to follow God’s lead—or not—to let the One Who is outside of time guide our steps—or not—to learn to trust that the Presence of God comes with a promise to rescue and bring up, not just the other person, but us! God is with us!
Here we are face-to-face with one of the great mysteries of all existence:  that the God who sees and hears and cares has come down—to meet Moses and to be in Jesus Christ, who said, “I AM the bread of life…I AM the good shepherd…I AM the vine…” But even more incredible than God coming down is this crazy idea of God working in and through us—just like Moses and Jesus—to free those who are enslaved, to bring hope to the hopeless, and to love those who are left out. When in our moment to moment lives we take a moment and give it to God, in that moment we touch eternity. Instead of being on the world’s time, we step outside and live on God’s time in God’s terms. The more we love like God does, live like Jesus showed, the more we will laugh with joy! The time crunch is gone, swallowed up in victory!

 

 

Yeah, God Knows It’s Hard, But That’s Why God Is with Us

by Rev. Doug Gray

The story is told that one Sunday, the Sunday School was giving a presentation in worship. Every child had worked really hard to learn some of Jesus’ words, but one little boy forgot his lines. Fortunately, his mother was in the front row to help him. When he was drawing a blank, she gestured and formed the words silently with her lips, but it didn’t seem to help. Finally, she leaned forward and whispered the cue, “I am the light of the world.” The child beamed and with great feeling and a loud clear voice said, “My mother is the light of the world!” We chuckle, perhaps because we can imagine the relief of the boy, and perhaps the embarrassment of the mother, but throughout the ages, God has worked through women to let His light shine. Today our eyes have turned to two more of those women, what some might think are unlikely heroes, two midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. Why are they heroes?

First, they recognize who is really in charge. In the story, after Pharaoh commands the women to participate in his genocidal plans, our passage reads, “But the midwives feared God…” We need to remember that in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for fear is a complicated one. It can mean simple fear like “I’m afraid of the dark,” but it’s also used to describe the awe we can experience in the presence of something big and wild. That’s the sense we have in sayings like the one from Proverbs:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[1] Or Isaiah as he is talking about God’s anointed one,

      “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
                 the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
                 the Spirit of counsel and of power,
                 the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
     3     and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
            He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
                       or decide by what he hears with his ears;
     4    but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
                     with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. [2]

In C.S. Lewis’ fabulous book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Christ-like figure is a huge lion named Aslan. Through a talking beaver, Lewis says,

     “He’s the King of the wood, and the Son of the great Emperor Beyond the Sea…”
     Susan replied, “A Lion? Is he safe? I shall be rather nervous about meeting a lion…”
     “Safe?” [rejoined the beaver]. ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King
     I tell you.” [3]

I’m with Susan. If I were meeting a lion face-to-face, with nothing between us, I would be rather nervous too. So you see, fear makes sense if we are in the Presence of Someone so much bigger, so much stronger and so untamed. And our midwives, Shiphrah and Puah have that kind of holy fear of God. Paul would add, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Faced with the imperial power of Pharaoh, still the midwives honor God by doing what God wants. They know that God is the one really in charge.

The second reason these midwives are heroes is that they know that life will find a way. The Book of Common Prayer reads, “In the midst of life, we are in death,” but I think the reverse is perhaps even more true:  In the midst of death, we are in life. That idea is everywhere in this passage. The language is all about multiplying, swarming, teeming, spreading…all about life. Have you ever tried to stop life? We have joked with each of our kids when they were growing fast, that we were going to put a brick on their heads to keep them from growing so fast. That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it? One part enjoying the present and wishing it could continue, but also another part recognizing that no matter how hard we try to keep things from changing and growing and becoming, the more it will escape our limitations. How pointless are the Pharaoh’s attempts?! Fear leads him to try to block the growth of a people, even trying to twist the river (a source of life) into an instrument of death. And it fails! Shiphrah and Puah even say the Hebrew women “are lively and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” Who’s in charge of life? It’s not Pharaoh! In the midst of his death-dealing, a couple gets married and by God’s grace brings life into the world, a boy who will change everything. Life is going to find a way.

Underneath all of this is the reality of God’s unstoppable, steadfast promise working its way in the world, for Shiphrah and Puah the Promise of a land, a people, and a Presence. The power of this promise can be threatening to the powers that be, as Pharaoh feels threatened by the multiplying Hebrews. But the harder people try to oppose God’s promise, the more out of hand things will get, as we read, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” The power of this promise brings hope to those who are beat up, beaten down and just beaten, and that grace is among us, and that God sticks with those who stick with God.

“Is He safe?” Beaver says. “’Course He’s not safe. But He’s good.” And in Jesus Christ, we see the same principles as in Shiphrah and Puah today. Are the Pharisees who sentence Jesus to death in charge? They have the authority to sentence Jesus to death, but they are not in charge. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden reminds us, “Daddy, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” Are the Romans in charge as they take Jesus to the cross? Perhaps in name. But as Jesus hangs on the cross, He prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And talk about life and love finding a way! The Resurrection proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that when we put God first, when we trust that God’s life will find a way, we will experience the power and Presence of God. Is God safe? Of course not. But it’s because I see God coming to us in Jesus Christ, because I hear the love in Jesus’ voice as He prays in the Garden and on the Cross, because I have experienced that love in Christian community, I can know that Jesus loves me—not safe, but loved.

For us living in the First World in the 21st century, our passage is a cautionary tale. If we align ourselves with the forces of oppression in our day, we will find ourselves on the losing side, because God cares about the poor and the needy, the widow, the orphan and the alien in our midst. Indeed, to the extent that we align ourselves with the forces of hope and equality, our lives will have less fear and anger, and more peace and grace, because we are bringing our lives in line with God’s promises. It starts simply:  by us choosing to do what God wants first, and by finding ways to add life and liveliness to those around us. It’s true what the little boy said, “My mother is the light of the world.” Wasn’t she trying to help her boy succeed? Of course! Did it happen the way she expected? Of course not! That’s life, working its way out in love. But what the little boy perhaps didn’t realize as he was trying to do his level best, is that he too was a light, sharing truth. Jesus would say to all who would listen and he says to us today, “You are the light of the world…Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Yeah, it can be a big, scary, hard world, but that’s why God is with us and God’s love shines through.
 


[1]Proverbs 9:10

[1]Isaiah 11:2–4

[1]C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Quoted from audio-dramatization “Help from the Beavers,” 5:30. ©1998

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The Well, the Work, and the Waves

by Rev. Doug Gray

Of course, we’ve all heard things like, “She has her father’s eyes” or “He’s got his mother’s laugh,” but can you name any of your physical traits and which family member they “come from”?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

It won’t take us long to think of other things we get from our family—a love of nature, joy in helping others, or a pet peeve—and some of the things we get from our family we are maybe not so happy about. We might even call them character flaws, or dysfunctional approaches to relationships. In our passage for today, we surely see the favoritism and family deceptions of Jacob’s family suddenly explode. How do we deal with dysfunctional family traits? How do we find hope as we wrestle with ourselves, our families and our God?
First, let’s be honest. There are times when we are like Joseph in the well. What are some of the things that land Joseph in the well?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

If we are honest about our own character and our own situation, when we find ourselves in the well—a deep, dark place in our lives—we have often set ourselves up. Oh yes! At times our own brokenness and weaknesses come out in ways that trip us up. When I was a kid, I learned that making people happy meant that I felt good and I felt safe. That works fine if you’re a kid. As an adult and a leader, I discovered not only that I can’t make everybody happy, but that I will wear myself out trying to do it, and the things that I really want—or that I know God really wants—sometimes mean someone is going to be unhappy with me. But if I’m honest with myself, that people-pleasing thing can get me into trouble really fast, and lead me to being really unhappy. For Joseph, all his flaws are coming home too. Maybe that’s happened to you too, and when it does we can be honest and own the pieces that are ours.
Second, recognize that we are powerless to get ourselves out. In college, I played on the varsity volleyball team, and I was shown how to approach the ball and hit. So I learned it. The next season, a new coach who had led several teams to national championships, came and told me I was doing it all wrong. I had to start over, learning the right way, but I couldn’t get it right without his help. The challenge with healing our deepest character and family flaws, is that most often, we only learned them one way—the wrong way! We didn’t learn to do them the right way. The easy, familiar ways for us to behave are the ones that got us into trouble in the first place. Usually there comes a point when we begin to see clearly that our challenge is more than we can get ourselves out of. When we are trying to change at the deepest levels, we realize we aren’t even conscious of all the places where we need to change. Like Joseph, we are in the well, and then sold into slavery. We may even ask, “Why, God, are you letting this happen to me?”
Third, lean into God. The thing is that Joseph can’t really do much about the well or the slavery. He can’t control those pieces. So what’s left? God and himself. Where is it God is taking him? How will God be with him? How will God make a way for him? How can he live so that God can bless him? When I was relearning my approach for hitting in volleyball, I went through a period where it seemed to get worse—I couldn’t hit anything. My timing was off and there were times I went home wanting to cry because it was so hard and it felt like I was failing so badly. But my coach kept encouraging me—telling me when I did it wrong, helping me understand when I was getting it right even if it felt all wrong to me. When we are trying to change at levels we can’t really reach, we can fight it, or we can lean into Coach Jesus, and receive the encouragement, strength and guidance we need.
The problem with the well is that we can’t see a way out of it. We can’t see how we can possibly be what God says is possible—more wholeness, more peace, more joy. The real work begins as we lean into God and trust that God will guide us to the right place, even if it’s a place we can’t see or understand or even imagine. And we may even have a sense that we are going through even tougher times than when we started. Leaning into God, learning to trust God in the middle of the hardest times is the real work. But we are trading our sorrows for joy. We are trading our pain and flaws for renewed relationships and better tomorrows…but dang! It can be hard. Fortunately, we don’t just worship an abstract God, because in Jesus we find someone who stands in the middle of the storms of our lives, who invites us to leave the safety of the boat and step out onto the waves. Suddenly, we discover we are loving and treating people in new ways—it’s like we are walking on water! How did we do that? If we are honest, we know it’s not us. Because if we are honest, we know we were the cause of most of our problems. Because we recognize how powerless we are to escape the depths of our problems, we know these changes are not ones we have made. While we were trusting God, leaning in for God’s strength and encouragement, God has been making us ready for power. Through the well and the work and the waves, we keep our eyes on Jesus, who knows what it’s like to surrender himself to God’s guidance, and who walks with us through dark places to better days. We can have our heavenly Father’s eyes of compassion. We can grow our heavenly Father’s heart. We can have our heavenly Father’s life through the well and the work and the waves. If we will only lean into God, our deepest flaws and our hardest relationships can be healed. If we will only lean into God…

 

Our Name That Turns Struggles into Transformation

by Rev. Doug Gray

The last few weeks we have been spending time in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, with some of the greatest Bible stories of all time. Sometimes we have been amazed at their faith—as we watch Abraham and Sarah get up and go where God wants or wait for the baby that doesn’t come until he’s 100 and she’s 90, or Isaac and Rebekah dealing with childlessness. Sometimes we shake our heads, because they play favorites with their kids and manipulate their way through the family. We would surely call them a dysfunctional family. And still God loves them! And still God’s keeps the promise that God will be with them, that God will give them a land and descendants, and will bless the world through them. The most manipulative part of the story so far is when Jacob and Rebekah conspire to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the great blessing that should be Esau’s inheritance. It works, but Esau is just waiting for their dad to die before he tries to kill Jacob. So Jacob gets out of town, meets God in a dream one night, and arrives in Northern Syria to stay with his mom’s brother. Twenty years later—and some dysfunctional relationships later—Jacob has four wives (I did say dysfunctional!), twelve children, and tremendous wealth in livestock and servants. God says it’s time to go home. As they get within a few days journey, Jacob sends a messenger to test the waters with his brother, Esau. The messenger returns saying, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Jacob starts to take steps to make sure that his family survives if Esau’s troops attack. That’s where we come to the story:

When I was kid, my dad used take my brother and me into the living room. We would clear all the breakable things away, and then we would have what my dad called, “a tussle.” We would jump on Dad and he would roar and sometimes he would fall over, and then other times he would pick us up and throw us across the room onto the couch. We would laugh and grab his ankle and his arm and try to pin him down, and he would pretend that we were making it hard for him, but he was so strong and so big, my brother and I knew he could take us anytime he wanted. As I watch Jacob and God wrestling in our story today, I wonder if it’s a little like my dad wrestling with my brother and me. I mean, it’s not as if Jacob really has any chance of beating God, right? Can’t you hear the answer? “In this corner, weighing in at infinite power and endurance, the immovable rock who meets the irresistible force, the Lord of Hosts and King of Kings, God Almighty! And in this corner, weighing in at 180 pounds of middle-aged flab, the trickster himself, Jacob!” Who do you think is going to win? And still God wrestles with Jacob! Why?

First, God wants us to know God intimately. Who’s the hardest person to beat in basketball? The person we practice with all the time! We know how they think, and we know that little fake they do with their head before they go the other way. The more we play and work together, the more we know each other. That’s why we often do team-building exercises at work, why we do things together as a church family—so we will know and appreciate and care for each other. That God can end this match at any time says that God wanted Jacob to know and understand him better. When we face times of trouble, wrestling with God and ourselves, it really helps to remember that God wants us to know Him.

Second, stubbornness has its perks. Anyone out there stubborn? How about competitive? What happens when you are stubborn and competitive? I was poking around on Reddit, an online community, and I ran across this post, “My girlfriend and I often laugh about how competitive we are. But I laugh more.” So that’s kind of funny, but then I read the comments:

     •    Haha that’s funny, but I doubt you laughed as hard as I did at this joke.
     •    The real competition is always in the comments.
     •    Found your girlfriend. Stole your girlfriend.
     •    This is a good joke. It was better when I told it, but you did just fine. [1]

You’ve known people like that, right? They just won’t let it go. Is it just stubbornness or competitiveness that keeps Jacob wrestling with God? Maybe that’s all it is, but if Jacob gives up, there’s no blessing. If Jacob gives up, there’s no growth, no change, no hope. When we face stormy times, wrestling with God and ourselves, getting stubborn puts us right where God wants us!

Where God wants us is in relationship with Him, wrestling with God about the things that really matter in our lives. Perhaps Jacob is wrestling with his fears about meeting his brother in the morning, or his worries about his family’s safety. What things are you wrestling with right now? When we face stormy or difficult times, it can be really tempting to just hide until it all goes away, or to give up because it’s just too hard. Wrestling and striving, trying and tussling—Jacob hangs on for the blessing, and is transformed. The name change is just a sign that something has really changed for him—and he will never be the same. Like Jacob, we don’t always recognize that it’s God we are wrestling with while we are facing our challenges, heart-aches and frustrations. We might think it’s just a problem to solve, or a relationship to work on, or sadness to endure, but maybe it’s really God. Maybe it’s God who wants to wrestle with us like a dad with his kids—to be known by us, to bring out our stubbornness, to help us find that new name that God gives to those who are transformed.


[1]https://www.reddit.com/r/Jokes/comments/5nsszj/friendly_competition/

Getting Way More Than We Ask For

by Rev. Doug Gray

The last few Sundays we have been following the great extended, often dysfunctional family of faith in Genesis. Of course, it starts with Sarah and Abraham, the couple who packs up and goes because God says to. That’s definitely faith! And then they believe it when God promises they will have descendants like the stars…even though Sarah is 90 and Abraham is pushing 100. When God says Sarah is going to get pregnant, Sarah laughs—and God says they should name the baby, Isaac, which means laughter! Isaac marries Rebekah. Like Sarah, Rebekah struggles to conceive and when she does…it’s twins! Esau is born first and Jacob second. Isaac likes Esau best and Rebekah favors Jacob. When Isaac is old and can’t see, Rebekah and Jacob scheme to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing meant for Esau. When Esau discovers the trick, he says Jacob is a dead man. With nothing but the pack on his back, Jacob gets out of town in search of his mom’s extended family, a month’s journey away. Last week we read how God came to Jacob in a dream, promising him land, descendants and a chance to bless all families on earth. God says, “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 wakes up and knows he has had a life-changing experience of God. Jacob then continues his journey and makes it to the fields and the well outside the town where his mom’s family lives. He’s just starting to ask a bunch of shepherds how to find his uncle, Laban. That’s where we catch up with our story.

Do you remember what it was like to be left out when you were a kid or a teen? My one saving grace is that I was tall. I remember wanting to be picked for the games, but I was never first. Of course, I wanted the cool people to like me. I suppose what I really wanted to know was that I was special, that I mattered. As you think about what it was like for you when you were a kid or a teen, did you ever have experiences like these? I think most of us do. Do you remember your first crush? Your first job? Your first lousy boss? How do we deal with people who leave us out? How do we learn from the experience? How do we deal with people who are not after our good, but their own? One of the things I love about this passage, is that we get to see all kinds of facets of human behavior and interaction, and we might ask ourselves, how do we find God in all this?
First, play your game. One of my favorite memories of my grandfather, Henry David, was the time he played me in ping-pong. I think I must have been in 7th or 8th grade, and I had spent hours and hours playing ping-pong at youth group and on youth retreats. I had worked really hard at it, and I was pretty good (I thought), so when my grandfather offered to play me, I thought I could take him. I should have paid more attention to the twinkle in his eye. Grandpa totally schooled me. He could make the ball spin away from me, go backwards and even jump at me. The more I lost, the harder I tried, and pretty soon I wasn’t able to even make the plays I was good at. In our passage for today, Laban is totally schooling Jacob. Jacob the Trickster, who tricked his brother out of his inheritance, and tricked his dad into blessing it, has met his match in Laban. But where I got flustered with my grandfather, Jacob stays pretty cool with Laban. He works hard and keeps going. Jacob is playing his game—not Laban’s! Jacob plays the game and trusts God to work everything out.
Second, learn compassion. Once again, this family struggles with playing favorites. Jacob loves Rachel, not Leah. Rachel is graceful and beautiful and Leah has…soft eyes? Do you remember signing people’s yearbooks, or filling out notes at the end of camp? Remember how you could always tell the people who didn’t know what to say about you: “You’re nice.” Or “I like your smile.” I am grateful they liked my smile I suppose, but “nice”? What does that mean? You’re better than a serial killer? Thanks for not being Josef Stalin? I feel for Leah in our passage. The author could say all sorts of good things about Leah, and all we get is “soft eyes?” Rachel is a hot ticket and Jacob loves her, but Leah…not so much. God is paying attention though, and when it comes to making babies, Leah comes up with a touchdown and the extra point! That’s right, seven children! And God has compassion on Rachel too, for she will have two. And yes, we probably need to feel some compassion for Jacob, who is not only working in the fields during the day, but his four wives—Leah and Rachel both give their maidservants to Jacob as concubines—keep him busy at night. They even start trading with each other for Jacob’s attention! Through all this, we can learn compassion from God, who sees people’s needs and looks after the least of these.
When we are kids, it seems like the end of the world when we aren’t picked first for kickball or basketball. We feel lost and left out. As we grow we realize that life isn’t always fair. In fact, mostly life is not fair. There’s always someone who seems to be getting away with something. There’s always a boss or neighbor who is being a jerk, or just in it for themselves. Just as Jacob just keeps living on the promises, so we can just keep playing the game as God gives it to us. Jacob works hard, serving Laban, and God blesses Jacob. Jacob prayed for God to be with him and keep him, to feed and clothe him—and by the time he’s getting ready to head for home, he’s thinking about four wives, twelve children, their servants, their flocks. Jacob got way more than he asked for—some of it was hard, even laughable, but overall it was good. Our lives are often like that too, aren’t they? We ask for blessings, or healing or comfort or strength…and God gives us Himself, a love that never ends, a power greater than our troubles, a hope that never fails. Because we see Jesus willing to go to the cross, we recognize that sometimes our lives will also require sacrifice. And because we see Jesus rising from the grave, we begin to understand that somehow we will not just survive our hard times, but that by a power we can never fully understand, God will lift us up. We always get way more than we ask for…and that is grace!

 

Living into the Moment That Changes Everything

By Rev. Doug Gray

“Where were you when…” These words define our generations and how we understand the world. Can you think of some of the moments when everything has changed for us all? I’ll give you an example:  for some people, they can tell you where they were when they heard that World War II was over. For others, they know exactly where they were when they heard about Sandy Hook Elementary School. What are the events that people might say, “Where were you when…”

[Take responses from the congregation.]

The thing about all of these events is that they stick in our minds with great vividness. We can recall with great detail when our worlds began to shift. While we have some shared experiences about times the world seemed to change, we each have times in our personal lives when everything seems to change. Some call this a “moment of clarity.” An alcoholic—I’ll call her Janet—said, “A moment of clarity is often described as a sudden, and deep acceptance of some truth that has been impossible for us to see.” Can you think of a time when your own world changed? They can be positive or negative experiences.

[Take responses from the congregation.]

When that happens, what is it God is calling us to? How do we live into these moments that change everything? In our passage for today, Jacob has one of those moments that changes everything for him. What can we learn from him?
The first thing is to recognize that something extraordinary has happened. What is the truth or truths we see clearly? Jacob wakes up after having an amazing dream, and says, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” Janet wrote of her moment of clarity, “I remember it vividly. I awoke from a drunken stupor weekend spent in a blackout, lying flat, face down on my kitchen floor, I could not move. I remember my thoughts running something like this: Is there any wine left? What am I doing on the floor? I need more wine. What day is it? What time is it? OMG! What happened? How much did I drink. This is crazy. I am scared. I cannot move. What happened? I cannot move. This is horrible. OMG! I am going to die. This is crazy. I cannot do this any longer. There is nothing else left to do – I will either die a drunk or I have to get sober!” For this alcoholic, the moment of clarity brought clear understanding of the paths and a choice of which one to take. For Jacob, it was meeting God directly in a whole new way—God is not away out there, but God cares and God has promised him a future. We have to recognize this moment of clarity for the truth we can see from it.
The second thing is to immediately do something about this truth. Janet writes, “With this realization, I felt a sense of surrender, and peace, something that is tough to explain; I felt lite and relieved. I had never felt like this before, it was an absolute stillness internally; I was not angry, I was not sad, and I was no longer afraid. It did not matter. Whatever was on the other side of this life, just had to be better. I picked up the phone, and for the first time in my life, I asked for help.” When Jacob wakes up, he immediately stood up the stone that had been his pillow and poured oil on it. Jacob marked that stone and that moment, locking it into his memory acting immediately.
The final thing is to carry that moment into the next moment, the next choice. For Janet, making that first call to get help was only the beginning. “The moment of clarity was vital to my transformation… Many of us struggle for years to get out of the devastating cycle of addiction, because often recovery starts only when the truth finally breaks through our deep denial. For some it happens in this moment of clarity, for others the defining moment is actually the result of a progression of traumatic experiences caused by our addiction. Nevertheless, the moment of clarity has happened to virtually all of us, and it has singlehandedly propelled us into recovery.” For Jacob, the promises God made to him, the relationship they truly started that night—these make him a different person as he starts back on his journey to find his future far away. If we are wise, we carry these moments of clarity into all of the rest of our lives.
Jacob has out-cheated and out-competed his brother, and now he has to get out—leaving his home and family. And in this critical moment, God speaks with clarity. Christopher Kennedy Lawford, in his book, Moments of Clarity: Voices from the Front Lines of Addiction and Recovery, writes, “[Moments of clarity] are rare. Nevertheless, everybody has them. Those unanticipated seconds in time when the whirlwind of life ceases and a virgin oasis of awareness suddenly opens the mind to a thought or a vision that resonates beyond that moment, even when the moment goes away. For addicts and alcoholics, such experiences are usually the catalysts that turn despair into hope and the helplessness of addiction into the promise of recovery.” The ironic part is that we all share in the challenges of addiction in one way or another. In the end, like Jacob and Janet, we often come face-to-face with our flaws and failures and realize that we are hopeless to escape them. And then something miraculous happens—we receive a promise from God that we have a future, and it is not through what we have been. Janet says, “Whatever was on the other side of this life, just had to be better.” Jacob, not really sure about this God-thing, says, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God…” And Jesus makes it even clearer as He struggles with the cross that is to come, and prays “Yet, not what I want, but what You want.” In that moment of clarity comes clarity of purpose…and amazingly God raises Jesus to this new life. And that’s the promise to us today. Maybe this is a moment of clarity for you, a time when heaven and earth are joined, and all of a sudden you understand things more clearly, know God’s purpose more clearly. Won’t you recognize that something extraordinary has happened? Won’t you do something in this moment to lock in the truth you have been shown? Won’t you take this moment and through it, let God change all the rest of your life for the better? The promise Jacob received is also our promise: “…and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, … for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Let’s pray!

 

The Games Families Play…Or Not!

by Rev. Doug Gray

One of the things I love about the Bible, especially the OT, is that God seems to choose unlikely, sometimes flawed people to bring redemption and hope. In the Book of Genesis, once we leave Creation and Noah behind, almost the entire book is about a single, dysfunctional family system that God chooses to pour out love and blessing on and through. It starts with 2 people—Abraham and Sarah—who answer when God calls. God says, “Go to a land I will show you.” And then God promises, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abraham and Sarah sell the house, pack up the camels and start. Where? They only know to keep going until God says stop. Now that’s what I call faith! But the promise is also about family. Just like Abraham and Sarah who go for many decades without children, their son and daughter-in-law, Isaac and Rebekah, are having a similar problem. Will the power of the promise continue to work? How can God make them a great nation when they do not have any children? That’s where we pick up the story today.

What are some of your favorite board games or card games?

[take responses from the congregation]

Why are they your favorites?

[take responses from the congregation]

Part of the reason they are your favorites may be because you just like to win, or because of the good times you have had around the table. But we generally don’t like playing games with people who are over-competitive, who are mean, or who cheat. Right? So when we look at today’s passage, we have a problem—the main characters do all of these things…and more! How the blazes are we to understand God working through this story?
First, faithful people are always trying to find God. One day, a four-year old went to the doctor for a check-up. As the doctor looked into her ears, he asked, “Do you think I’ll find Elmo in here?” The little girl stayed silent. Next, the doctor took a tongue depressor and looked down her throat. He asked, “Do you think I’ll find Sponge Bob down there?” Again, the little girl was silent. Then the doctor put a stethoscope to her chest. As he listened to her heart beat, he asked, “Do you think I’ll hear Barney in there?” “Oh, no!” the little girl replied. “Jesus is in my heart. Barney’s on my underpants.” God is in Isaac’s and Rebekah’s lives. They pray to God. They lean on God for strength and understanding. Are they flawed human beings? Sure. And still they are trying to find God and believe God cares and has power.
Second, watch out for trading away future hope for present security. Esau trades his birthright for a bowl of stew—and gives up his inheritance to fill his belly. Jacob, on the other hand, gives up his integrity to score a win against his brother. I worry about how easy it is to give up our privacy to have a few laughs and see my high-school friends’ pictures. I worry about how often our society seems to make decisions out of our escalating fears, when probably better decisions are made out of loving concern. Oh, wait I see now, that I too can get sucked into worries. Jesus’ disciple, John, writes, “Mature love casts out fear,” so God makes our present secure, and holds out the amazing hope of a better future. Paul writes in our Romans passage, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We don’t have to choose between future hope and present security because God secures them both.
The scandal in all of this is that God chooses. God chooses Abraham and Sarah, out of all the others in their time, to receive the promise of descendants and a land and a purpose:  to be a blessing to all peoples. God chooses Isaac instead of Ishmael. God chooses Jacob instead of Esau. Why? It’s not fair! No, it is not fair. “They are such flawed human beings,” we think. “God could do better.” And we are probably right…but God chose them. All of a sudden, we are face-to-face with one of the great mysteries of all existence:  that God has chosen you…and me…to love, and die for in Jesus Christ. Wait! Time out! That’s not fair! I didn’t ask for it! It’s true—you didn’t ask for it! Paul writes, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin…”(Romans 8:3) God reminds us that if it were about the rules, about boot-strapping our way to being good, we would all fail and lose the game. We could never be good enough, never keep the rules well enough, and like Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau and all humans, we can always find way to mess things up. And still God chooses them and still God chooses us—out of love.
So the real question becomes, how will we respond? How will our lives be different because God chose us, because God loves us? The real hope is that what was utterly impossible for Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, is possible for us who know Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of a right relationship with God. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.(Romans 8:10–11) And we are empowered by the Spirit to let our fears be overcome by love, to let our selfishness be flooded with trust, and to let our anxieties be replaced by hope. We don’t have to play the manipulating games other people may play. In Christ, we can be a better friend, a better member of the family, because we have strength and wisdom and kindness beyond our own. Life is more than a game and God is at work in us, and with God, in the end we know we will always win.

 

Making Sense of Tough Situations

by Rev. Doug Gray

One of the things I love about the Bible, especially the OT, is that God seems to choose unlikely, sometimes flawed people to bring redemption and hope. In the Book of Genesis, once we leave Creation and Noah behind, almost the entire book is about a single, dysfunctional family system that God chooses to pour out love and blessing on and through. It starts with 2 people—Abram and Sarai—who answer when God calls. God says, “Go to a land I will show you.” And then God promises, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram and Sarai sell the house, pack up the camels and start. Where? They only know to keep going until God says stop. The power of God’s promise is the dominant theme for everything in Genesis after Genesis Chapter 11. Abram and Sarai are so faithful that eventually they will be given new names that are more familiar to us—Abraham and Sarah. They are the parents of the three great monotheistic faiths of the Middle East. Indeed, they are sometimes called the “Abrahamic Faiths.” But before they are Abraham and Sarah, the legendary spiritual parents of our faith, they are Abram and Sarai who know God has made a promise, but they can’t see how it is going to come true. How can God make them a great nation when they do not have any children? That’s where we pick up the story today.

Because our world has some situations for which we do not have answer, the following drugs or herbal remedies are currently under clinical trials:

    •    St. Momma’s Wort — Plant extract that treats mom’s depression by rendering
              pre-schoolersblissfully unconscious for up to two days.
   •    Emptynestrogen — Suppository that eliminates melancholy and loneliness by
              reminding you of how awful they were as teenagers and how you couldn’t wait
              until they moved out.
  •     Flipitor — Increases life expectancy of commuters by controlling road rage and
             the urge to flip off other drivers.
  •    Buyagra — Injectable stimulant taken prior to shopping. Increases potency,
            duration, and credit limit of spending spree.
  •    Jackasspirin — Relieves headache caused by a person who says they love but
            who can’t remember your birthday, anniversary, or phone number.
  •    Anti-Talksident — A spray carried in a purse or wallet to be used on anyone
            too eager to share their life stories with total strangers in elevators.
  •    Nagament — When administered to a partner, provides the same irritation
            level as nagging them all weekend, saving the administering partner the
            time and trouble of doing it themselves.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a quick answer—maybe not a drug—for every tough situation? Particularly where family is concerned, sometimes it’s really hard to know how to deal with people who have important parts in our lives. In our passage for today, we get to watch three people of faith try to figure out what God wants when their family situation is getting really awkward.
First off, try to figure out what God wants by doing something to make things better. Lots of the great things in our world started because someone just decided to do something about it. Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone to help people who are hard of hearing. Mother Teresa starts a mission for feeding and educating children, and later takes care of lepers, because she saw something had to be done. Father Bill’s and Interfaith Social Services here in Quincy began in just that way. Someone’s got to do something, maybe this is what God has in mind. Sarai has a bright idea of how to get around her infertility—get someone else to have the baby! Of course, as Sarai finds out, sometimes our bright ideas don’t work out quite so well. What she thought was going to make things better, seems to only make things worse. Thank God, that’s not the end!
Second, when we get stuck, God is looking for us! When I was five, my parents went out and left me with this really nice teen-ager as a baby-sitter. Part way through the evening, I headed into the bathroom and locked the door—which I knew I wasn’t supposed to do, but anyway. When finished up, I went to the door, I couldn’t get it unlocked. I thought to myself, “I am going to be here for the rest of my life.” So I asked the baby-sitter for a cookie, who went and slid one under the door. Meanwhile, the baby-sitter is trying to figure out how to get the door open, can’t reach my parents, and keep me supplied with cookies. I thought this was a pretty good gig, but eventually the fire department and my parents arrived about the same time. Once I couldn’t get that door open, I couldn’t see a future outside that bathroom, but I did have cookies, and I knew people were looking for me. Hagar can envision no future with Abram and Sarai, so she runs away. When Hagar is stuck and hopeless, God comes looking for her. So she calls God, “the God who sees.” I think we have all had times when it was hard to see our future. In our distress God comes looking for us!
Third, God opens up new paths and new futures. When God comes to Hagar, God grants her a glimpse of a future, when she will have a son, who will be the father of a mighty nation, and together they will be free. Wow! To know that is out there! Just as Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai with a better attitude knowing her life has promise, sometimes when we return to our lives with a better, more hopeful attitude, we are just where God wants us to be! The door to the new future may not be open now, but maybe it will open later. We have a sense that God not only sees our predicament, but that God can see a future we can’t.
Now of course, I am not advocating that God always wants us to return to abusive relationships. Sometimes escape is what keeps people alive and the future God has in mind is a better future without the oppression and violence of that kind of relationship. But I am suggesting that when we experience the same kind of hopelessness or frustration that Hagar experiences, we don’t really need a quick, external answer. The God we worship is a God who sees our trouble and is looking for us. We do our part to try to make things better, but God knows where we are headed and God has a brilliant future ahead for us! In that place, we “can rest in the knowledge that God keeps promises.”[1]

 


[1]Terence Fretheim, Genesis in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Knoxville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 453.