“When Following God is Hard;” Genesis 22:1-18; June 29, 2014, FPC Jesup

“When Following God is Hard”
Genesis 22:1-18
June 29, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01There’s a lot you can find out about the faith we practice, by what we teach our children. There’s a particular canon of stories that make it into children’s story Bibles. I bet you could help me name them. What are some familiar ones? Creation, Adam & Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses in a basket, Jesus Turning Water to Wine, Feeding 5000, Last Supper, Jesus’ Baptism, Nativity Story. Though I won’t go so far as to say that these stories are necessarily easy to understand, we can tell kids about how God show’s God’s love, promises, works miracles, and in general, shows up for God’s people.

SLIDE 2 - Abraham and SarahOur story today is of a different variety. Abraham is someone we lift up to our children as a great and faithful man, but if we want to be authentic, we cannot distill his story so easily into a child’s storybook. We may tell the story of an angel telling Sarah she’s going to have a child and her laughter at the thought given her age. That is a sweet story with a happy ending, at least how we usually hear it. And sure you may have sung “Father Abraham Has Many Sons, Many Sons Has Father Abraham!” but that song comes after this story. In this particular story we are situated between two happy anecdotal understandings of Abraham’s larger story. We are in the strange in between of God’s incomprehensibly painful request, and Abraham’s incomprehensibly obedient faith.

Slide03We read that God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.” And then in the very next sentence, without so much as a gasp, moan, or shout, any of which would be more than understandable given the circumstances, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning…” and then he goes about readying himself to take Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him.

Would the God you believe in ask a parent to sacrifice their only, long awaited child? Would the God I believe in do this? There’s no point in really asking, since here God is, asking Abraham to take Isaac up to be sacrificed. But it is worthy of reflection, how does this strange and painful request change how we view our God? Is our God so cruel? What is God getting at? Abraham is one hundred years old! Hasn’t Abraham been through enough? How would you react? How would I?

Slide04What was the conversation like between Abraham and Isaac as they’re going up to the mountain? We’re told that they traveled for three days. Three days that Abraham knew resolutely of the dark and terrible thing to which he had been called and to which he was driven to complete. What on earth did they talk about those three days? Did they talk about Isaac’s school lessons? Did they talk about their fieldwork? Or maybe Isaac spoke of his affection for another girl in their village. How could Abraham keep the conversation casual? How could he not weep at Isaac’s dreams for his future? How could be not weep at his own dreams for Isaac’s future?

Slide05And where was Sarah in all of this? Sarah who had walked beside Abraham in seasons of both scheming and faith, surely she would have something to say. Maybe she didn’t know. Maybe Abraham didn’t say anything to her. Maybe that’s why he rose early in the morning, to avoid her eyes that could see right through his intentions. While she has been a partner to Abraham throughout both the good and the bad of their relationship, she is nowhere to be seen in this story, left at home while Abraham takes the burden of this request on by himself.

Slide06In this story there’s a strange covenantal conversation happening between God and Abraham. God had promised to Abraham over and over again that he would be the father of many nations[1], and then, requested Abraham sacrifice his only son from his beloved wife, Sarah. Isaac was more than just the son whom Abraham loved, he was also the answer to a promise, the conduit through which the many nations would come to being. God was asking Abraham to sacrifice that which God had promised.

It’s seems like God is playing a strange game with Abraham, which given the history between the two of them, doesn’t seem like a great idea on God’s part. Of course, God is God and will do whatever God wants, but still, it’s strange. Sure we know Abraham for his great faith now, but we needn’t go too far back in Abraham’s story to see his weakness. He did not trust that he would have a son with his wife, and so he had a son by his wife’s servant, Hagar. The family line started by his first-born son, Ishmael would continue on to be the beginning of Islam, solidifying the theological break began by two very differently regarded half-brothers; a rift in God’s people that began with Abraham and Sarah’s mistrust in God’s plan.

Slide07As is the case among many of God’s people, including and perhaps especially us, it can take a long, long time for us to understand what God is doing in our lives, and desiring to do through our lives. God’s the only one that sees all the gears turning, all the many lives unfolding, all the pieces coming together, and when we approach our all knowing God from our own particular circumstances, it can be frustrating to not have God’s perspective. We have so many questions, many with answers that are only incrementally revealed throughout our lifetimes, understanding our lives through living them.

Some look at the lives of Christians and see faith, while others see willing ignorance, two sides to the same coin. From the edge of these two perspectives we approach Abraham on the mountain bound journey, asking how he could be so uncritical in his obedience even while we applaud his faith.

Slide08I’m not sure what it was that allowed Abraham to go all in on this request of God. Sure the Biblical author chalks it up to faithfulness, but the history between Abraham and God is such that it makes me think that there was more at play. Faith, yes, but perhaps also acceptance of how utterly outmatched Abraham is by God. Maybe there’s even a sad sort of curiosity? I could see him shouting out in the night “come on God, you’re the one who promised I would be the father of many nations…what’s your plan now?” And yet, day after day, for three days they travel to that mountain with wood for the burnt offering, but no burnt offering.

Slide09The way Abraham’s actions are described in this story are rather frightening in their detachment:

“Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”

There is no, “lovingly he regarded his son for the last time,” or “with a tear in his eye he took the knife.” The description is dry and perfunctory, inevitable, unflinching.

I don’t know about you, but that bothers me. To me, Abraham has always come across a bit callous and resigned. Is that what faith is? Is this is the sort of faith to which were called?

Slide10In the next verses we hear, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” This is the third “Here I am” of the passage: the first, Abraham answering God’s call in the night; the second, Abraham answering Isaac’s question at the absence of a sacrifice; and the third, Abraham answering the angel. “Here I am” is Abraham’s constant reply. Over and over again he doesn’t know what is to happen next, but his response is being present, listening, and obeying.

The angel continues saying to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Slide11While God does ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, God ultimately stops him. After three days of sorrow, it turns out God was only testing Abraham. Surely this relieved Abraham, but I don’t think that’s the type of sorrow you can really forget. I’m sure that it changed his relationship with God, both in how he understood God’s requests and understood his own ability to respond. Abraham learned through his experience that sacrifice was not God’s ultimate goal with Abraham, rather God wanted Abraham’s obedience.

SLIDE 12 - Hosea 6 6In Hosea 6:6, Hosea brings these words from God: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Slide13Sacrifice is not something God asks of us, but it is something that God has offered for us. Abraham did not have to give up his son’s life on that mountaintop that day, but God willingly gives up his son, Jesus through death on the cross. God offers that unfathomable sacrifice, pays that unimaginable price, for the sake of all of God’s children. God does not ask us to make the same sacrifice. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Gen. 12:2-3, 15:5, 17:2-9

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition; Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1; February 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition
Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1
February 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today we are continuing our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices with a practice that we engage in together every Sunday. “Prayers of Petition.”

What comes to mind for you when you hear the phrase “Prayers of Petition”?

In our worship service “prayers of petition” are part of our “Prayers of the People.” Simply put, prayers of petition are when we ask God to do something for us or for someone we care about. These prayers are also called “prayers of intercession,” as we are asking for God to intercess, or intervene, to change the outcome of our situation.

SLIDE 3 - Test PrayerThese are also the sorts of prayers that are quite common surrounding big tests at school or pleading for that green light to hold when you’re running late to a meeting. We pray to win the lottery. We pray that our chores would do themselves. We might intercess on behalf of our GPS and pray for help with directions.

In worship on Sundays we ask for God’s intercession in our community and world. We pray for the comfort of those who are lonely, for the healing of those who are sick. We pray for wisdom of leaders, for guidance of the Holy Spirit in important life decisions. Sometimes we’re not sure what to pray. We have the anxiety, stress, and grief, but not the words to make any sense of them.

Slide05There are times when we are sitting in hospital waiting rooms or waiting for a phone call from a loved one in times of war or natural disaster and we feel utterly helpless. Prayers of petition are the prayers of someone waiting, waiting for a change, waiting for resolution, waiting for comfort. Waiting on God to reveal whatever is going to happen so that we can wrap our minds and hearts around whatever may be. Sometimes these prayers are not quite as polite as our communal prayers on a Sunday morning. These prayers might be loud shouting at God. They might be an angry litany of muttered frustrations.

Romans 8:26 says:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I have always liked that phrase in Romans 8:26, “sighs too deep for words.” I have uttered those sighs and I imagine you have too. It gives me comfort knowing that the Spirit comes beside us even when we can’t form our concerns in words. Prayers of petition are prayers in which we offer up the concerns of our hearts and minds in one big sigh. We admit that we don’t have control, and we give it up to God. That’s the important part of a prayer of petition that is often missed in frustrations or anxieties of our lives: surrendering our concerns, admitting our powerlessness, and trusting that God will work things our however they are to be.

 Romans 8:27-28 continues saying:

“God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Sometimes I love that verse. It gives me peace in God’s greater plan, comfort that God will work through my circumstance, and hope for a happy ending.

Sometimes, I hate that verse. I want to tell God, “if this circumstance is things working together for good,” I don’t want any part of it. Sometimes I blame myself for the outcome, thinking, “Well if God works good for those who love God, I guess my love for God is just not strong enough.”

SLIDE 8 - Soul FeastAnnoyingly and fortunately, God’s plan is beyond human comprehension. I do not believe that God causes pain, suffering, or death, but I do believe in the midst of all of the minor disappointments and larger horrors of this life, God comes alongside us and holds us in our distress. God’s goodness ultimately wins over any evil the world may offer.

If things seem so out of our control, why do we bother to pray? What is the point of all this praying? The Bible gives us many possible explanations. In the book “Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life,” Author Marjorie Thompson offers seven scriptural perspectives:

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Writer and spiritual director, Teresa Blythe writes: “It’s popular in Christian circles to say that prayer works. Yet no one knows how prayer works or what exactly constitutes and answer to the many requests we make of God on behalf of our families, friends, and loved ones. It’s a matter of faith. We pray because we trust that God precedes us in caring about all aspects of human life. We pray because we know prayer changes how we think, feel, and act. And sometimes we pray because we don’t know what else to do – we’ve exhausted all human action on behalf of the one we are praying for. We have no choice but to leave the concern in God’s hands.” [2]

Prayers of petition require a certain amount of helplessness: admitting that what can be done by our own will, by our own hands, in our own human capacity will not be enough. Placing our helplessness in God’s hands, seeking God’s response and action and trusting that regardless of what we would like the outcome to be, God’s will will be done.

Our New Testament passage today calls us to take confidence in the promises of Christ, calling us out of our present distress through an eternal perspective:

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 3:20-4:1)

When I am stuck in a wordless state with my personal prayers of petition, I enjoy looking to the Psalms. Our Psalm today offers up a prayer that is simultaneously hopeful and helpless, spanning from “the Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) to “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (Psalm 27:10c) And in the last few lines of the Psalm we hear echoed throughout the millennia the prayer of exhaustion and confidence of one waiting for God’s long sought answer, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14)

That is my prayer for you today as well, in whatever circumstances are filling you with sighs too deep for words: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Amen


[1] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: an Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 38.

[2] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 121.

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

“Your People are My People;” Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34; November 4, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

 “Your People are My People”
Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today’s scripture lesson from the Hebrew Bible comes from one of the shorter, books in the canon. The Book of Ruth is unique in a few ways. It is one of only two books in our Biblical canon that is named for a woman. The other one is the Book of Esther. Also throughout the text, God’s action is hidden. God’s name appears only in conversations and blessings shared between the human characters. The story stresses human activity, especially acts of love shown towards one another.[1] Though the passage today is often quoted in weddings, the love in this book is that between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Naomi and her family had come from Bethlehem to Moab.  They were Jewish, worshiping the Hebrew God. They were foreigners in Moab, and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women.  Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, were local but also outcast because they had attached themselves to this family of strangers.

And then, Naomi’s husband died. Her son died and then her other son died. Her life was surrounded by tragedy and disaster. She was childless, a widow, and a foreigner. Any one of those things would’ve set her on the outside of acceptability in her time and community, but all three left her utterly hopeless. Naomi’s two daughters-in-law were also childless widows, but they could go home, they could move back to the homes of their parents, they could start over again. There was no promise that Naomi would have a future.

The emotions at the core of this story of tragedy and disaster are not foreign to us. We needn’t look beyond our nightly news to know that there are things that can happen in this world that will plummet our lives into darkness. There are things that can and do happen that radically alter our chance at the futures we have planned for ourselves. Hurricanes can wreak havoc on communities. Winds and waves can destroy long-standing homes.

In our own lives we have our own experiences of pain and uncertainty. Famous New Yorker, humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God. When we experience a sudden end to relationships, destruction of possessions, or loss of occupation, we may feel like the ground has been pulled out from under us. What will become of us if we lose the people and things that we rely on? How can we go forward?

In the face of great loss, Naomi thought her only way forward would be to go it alone. Sure, she was doomed, but she did not want this sorrow and despair to be the burden of anyone else. Naomi told her daughters-in-law to leave, to set out for a new future, to find stability in the home of their parents. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, pleaded with Naomi, saying she would stay with her. But she could not ignore Naomi’s advice. She must leave. She must find a new beginning for herself.

Ruth could not be persuaded. Knowing the hopelessness of Naomi’s situation, she was simply not willing to leave her. Ruth stood beside her and said “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In any future these two women could imagine there would be consequences for Ruth for following Naomi so loyally. By following Naomi to Naomi’s home, Ruth would become the outsider. By following Naomi, Ruth tied her fate to that of her mother-in-law. Certainly this was not an easy decision. But it seems for Ruth, there was no other decision that could be made.

This story of Ruth and Naomi is not an isolated example of a mother and law and daughter-in-law sticking things out together.  This story is an example of how God calls us to stand beside those in need, even when, and especially when, this relationship carries no apparent reward for us.

A few years ago I was working with “Group Workcamps,” a company that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.

It made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed. All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving youth the opportunity to grow in their relationship with Christ and with one another. The point was serving God, through serving people.

Ruth promises her mother in law, “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This loyalty and faithfulness is exactly what Jesus asks of his followers. “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the disciples to fish for people. [2]  “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the rich young ruler to give up his possessions.[3] “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking a man to disregard worldly obligations.[4]

Jesus requires that we follow with the heart and faithfulness of Ruth. We are God’s people and God wants God’s people to be our people. We are to care for those in need even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s “weird.”

This faithfulness is exactly what our New Testament Lesson commands us to do. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. We show our love of God, by taking seriously our second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. [5]

Naomi released Ruth. She said that Ruth needn’t worry about her. She would find her own way. Ruth needed to make a new future for herself. Naomi knew she would only hold Ruth back, she would be a burden. You can hear in Naomi’s questioning a tone of “why would you even want to be with me?” “what’s in it for you?” “What will become of you?There was nothing in it for Ruth. There was no benefit to Ruth linking her fate to that of her mother-in-law. But Ruth simply could not leave Naomi to a surely doomed fate.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is a weird thing to be doing. It’s inconvenient. It is counter cultural, it is counter capitalist, it is counter common sense. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means we take a step back from our plans for our own future, to make sure that there will also be a future for someone else. If we love something else in this world with all our heart and mind and strength, our relationship with God will suffer. Our neighbor will suffer.

What would it look like in our lives for these stories we hear on the news to be more than statistics and body counts? What does it look like to love these people as ourselves?

If we are able, we can donate money towards relief efforts, maybe giving support to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or the Red Cross. Or we can remember those closer to home by providing continued relief for those who suffered from the flooding several years ago. In our prayers we can lift all who are affected by Hurricane Sandy, remembering the names of those who we hear about on the news, and giving voice to their stories.

What does treating all people as God’s people mean to you when it comes time for Tuesday’s election? What does it mean for you to vote as someone who loves neighbor as self?

We can come to the polls informed about each candidate, and the impact their policies, practices, and attitudes will have on this country, state, and community. We can pray for those who are elected, praying for God’s will to be accomplished through the leaders who are chosen.

What would it look like if treated even those with disagree with as God’s people, as our people?

We can listen, even if we don’t like what we hear. Though we must stand on the side of justice, it is more important that we stand on the side of compassion. We can extend love rather than further disagreement. We can be present to them in times of struggle.

If we do all of these things, will it be weird? Will it be inconvenient? Will it be God’s will?

God desires for God’s people to be our people, and for us to love each other as we love ourselves. May we do so each and every day. Amen.

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom,” 2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Ephesians 2:11-22; July 22, 2012

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”
2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Ephesians 2:11-22
July 22, 2012

Children’s Message: “God In Between,” Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”

Humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I faithfully fill out my schedule and try not to miss appointments. Even when planning family vacations I like to research ahead of time to know what events will be going on, making a calendar of all the things we could do. I have definite ideas about how to plan my grocery shopping. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God.

In our Old Testament passage today I sense this same sort of attitude from David. I imagine David in his palace. Comfortably sitting on cushions, perhaps being cooled by a servant fanning him with a palm branch. Things are going pretty well for David at this point in our account. There is relative peace in the Kingdom, as scripture says, “the LORD had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him.” I imagine him glancing out the window and seeing the tent containing the Ark of the Covenant. David wonders while he is living in a house of cedar, why the ark, the revered commandments from the Lord, a reflection of God’s own self, would be carried about in a tent. He thinks, “Surely God should have a house.”

He tells Nathan and immediately Nathan agrees saying, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.” Though our text does not give us any more of this conversation between them, I can imagine David explaining this to Nathan, perhaps getting excited planning architectural ideas and maybe even discussing a site where they could create this great space to house their great God. Surely David fell asleep that night with ideas buzzing about of this great thing he would do, excited to serve God in this way. David had a plan.

But that was not the sort of plan God had in mind. Nathan’s sleep was interrupted that night, with the word of the Lord coming to him. While David had said he wanted to build a house for the Lord, the Lord says no, I want to build you a house.

But wait, we just heard that David had a house. A rather nice house in fact, built of cedar, one of the more expensive building materials of his day. So, why does the Lord want to build him a house?

It’s a rather confusing passage on an initial read through because it seems like the Lord and David have similar ideas. David would like to build a house. The Lord would like to build a house. Okay, so let’s go ahead and build a house. What’s the issue?

To truly understand this conversation we need to go back to the original Hebrew text. The word that both the Lord and David are using for “house” is “bayit.” Though this word can be translated as “house,” it can also mean “palace,” or “temple,” OR “household,” “tribal group,” “nation,” or “royal dynasty.” David was concerned with God’s need for a house in the physical sense, a place for containment and comfort; a place that will honor God and provide a place for people to encounter God’s presence.

The Lord does not seem to care for this though saying, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

God was not seeking to be contained to a house or building. The Lord says, “wherever I have moved about among all the people.” God is very clear to point out that God was the one doing the moving. God was the one to decide where God’s presence would be.

While David is all excited about his plans, God has a different vision for the future of God’s people. Reminding David of God’s providence for David’s life, the Lord speaks of the ways that God has accompanied David from pasture to royal throne. This is the very same David whom the Lord picked over his seven brothers though David was the youngest, a shepherd, and not thought to be of consequence. This is the same David of the story of David and Goliath. Now the Lord will be the one to make a “bayit,” for David. This “bayit” is not the house of comfort and containment that David was proposing, but rather it is a “bayit” in the sense of a nation or a royal dynasty. A nation that will grow beyond what is comfortable and containable. A nation that is to be the very Kingdom of God.

There is an account of the lineage of David at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. I know sometimes when I’m reading the Bible, lineage accounts are the very sort of thing that I might skip over. If I’m reading an older version I tend to get caught up in all the “begats,” and decide to skip to the end of list and see what happens next. Perhaps you may have had a similar experience of these sorts of lists in scripture. However, in ancient Christian tradition, this was the sort of thing that made people sit up in their seats and listen more attentively. These lists were about legacy, about connection, and in reading them an ancient game of connect the dots was played, revealing an amazing picture of how God’s plan is worked out in God’s own cosmic time and order. So, let us try to listen to this list with this sort of attentiveness. Listen for the names that you know, and those that you don’t know. Try to picture the familiar narratives that pop into your head, and take in the great picture that is God’s plan.

This passage comes to us from Matthew 1:2-5 Listen for the word of our Lord:

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

When we see David, we can see his lineage trailing back to Abraham. Abraham who had grown old and did not believe that a child would be in God’s plan for him. And to Ruth who had lost her husband and so by society’s standards did not seem to have a future. Yes, God had provided for David by elevating his personal social standing from pasture to palace, but he also comes from a long history of people uncertain of how the story would turn out for them.

Abraham had grown impatient in his wait to have a child and so had one with his wife’s servant. At the age of ninety-nine God came to Abraham to establish a covenant with him, a covenant that would make Abraham a father of many nations, nations borne by his wife, Sarah. God had a plan for Abraham.

Ruth’s father in law and husband had both died, so all societal obligations she could have rightfully returned home to her own family, but instead stayed with her mother in law, Naomi. Ruth sought out Boaz who helped her to reestablish the family line. God had a plan for Ruth.

And God’s story certainly does not end with David. Those who are to follow after have an even greater story to tell. This lineage leads directly to Jesus.

While David wanted to contain God’s presence in a temple, God was the one who would work out a great plan for being present in the world. God worked through the “bayit,” the royal lineage of David to lead to the man who would serve as earthly father to God’s own son, Jesus Christ. God’s plan was indeed greater.

God’s Kingdom would come to life not through the establishment of a temple that people could visit and experience God’s presence, but through the living, breathing legacy of the ministry of God’s son, Jesus Christ. God’s presence is not something we visit, but something that lives among us and is enacted through the ways our lives reflect the will of God.

Our New Testament passage today gives us a blueprint of this plan. From Ephesians 2:19-22 we read:

You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

This beautiful “bayit” household of the Kingdom of God is constructed not with cedar, but by those who seek to follow God. Our New Testament passage speaks also of the different people who Christ has come to reconcile, the Jews and the Gentiles. Both groups were “far off” in their own ways. Though the Jews were God’s chosen people from the very beginning, their desire to follow God through adherence to the law had gradually become more about legalism than relationship with God. When they were unable to fulfill all that the law required they felt far off from God. Those who were not Jewish, the Gentiles, were unaccustomed Jewish religious tradition. Though the disciples, particularly Paul, were working to welcome Gentiles into the Kingdom of God, they were still unsure of their place in this new community, feeling far off from God. Our passage speaks of Christ reconciling Jews and Gentiles into one “bayit,” household of God. Listen now to Ephesians 2:13-18:

13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection pieced together apostles, prophets, Jews, and Gentiles into a spiritual “bayit,” with Christ as the cornerstone. We are God’s dwelling place. God dwells in and among us.

In the book we read earlier, “God in Between,” we hear of a community searching for God after hearing that God could fix their problems. They searched through mountains, over the oceans, in the desert, and in a cave trying to find God, but did not find God in any of those places. Only when they stopped searching and started helping one another they were finally able to discover how God was present in their care and attentiveness for each other.

In Matthew 18:20 we hear a familiar verse. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Notice that unlike God’s plans for the tabernacle in Exodus or David’s ideas for a temple, this plan for encountering God’s presence has nothing to do with physical space, and everything to do with relationship and intentionality. This is the plan for Christ’s Church, a fellowship not determined by physical space but by relationship.

Which brings up an important question: when someone asks you about your church, what do you tell them? Do you tell them about a building or about a people? What sort of “bayit” are you interested in being a part of? What sort of “bayit” are you seeking to build in this world?

It is my prayer that we will all seek to be builders of God’s Kingdom, building a fellowship of believers and a lineage of reconciliation. Unlike the building that David was proposing, this building of the Kingdom of God is not a building that is built just once, it is constantly being remodeled, forever under construction. We build God’s Kingdom through each act of care for one another, each admission of our need for God’s plan. Let us work together to build the Kingdom of God. Amen.