“Dreams and Promises;” Genesis 28:10-19a; July 20, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Dreams and Promises
Genesis 28:10-19a
July 20, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 3 - Christmas-in-JulyToday in worship we are celebrating something very special, no it’s not anything to do with the World Cup. And no it had nothing to do with RAGBRAI, though both of those would be appropriate timing wise. We are celebrating Christmas: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. July seems a strange time to do this as we’re used to the celebration of Christmas being firmly lodged between Thanksgiving and New Years, surrounded by so many days of shopping, giving, getting, and overscheduling. Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in July by comparison seems quite odd and out of place. But we celebrate Christmas in July today not because the worship committee and praise team bumped their heads and became disoriented to which month is was, but because we believe that acknowledging Christ’s coming to earth is something we should do, in the words of our special music today, “more than once a year.”

SLIDE 4 - Jacob DreamOur scripture today takes us back in time, far before even the manger scene of that first Christmas, to another restless night. We hear the story of Jacob. Jacob was on the run from his brother, Esau, from whom he had stolen his father’s inheritance.

SLIDE 5 - Jacob and EsauThough they were twins, Esau was the older and therefore by his birthright would be in line to carry on his father’s legacy, which if we can remember our scripture from a few weeks ago was that same one given to Abraham: that the people would be faithful to God and God would bless them with abundant descendants. SLIDE 6 – Fooling IsaacBut Esau’s mother, Rebekah, had other plans. She did not like Esau’s wife, Judith and so wanted her son Jacob to take his place in the family lineage. Jacob and Rebekah schemed together so that when it came time for his ailing father, Isaac to die Jacob imitated his brother’s appearance and took his blessing for the inheritance.SLIDE 7 – Esau and Jacob fightingAnd then Esau, understandable angry, vowed he would kill him.

It is in the midst of this crazy family drama that Jacob finds himself in “a certain place,” lies down with a rock for a pillow, and has a dream.

I’m not sure what you place under your head before you go to sleep, but I’m doubtful that it’s a stone. Even with this questionable choice in bedding, he is able to sleep deeply and has a dream where he pictures a ladder from heaven to earth. Angels go up and down this ladder, and then God’s own self comes down the ladder and tells Jacob that God will extend the blessing of Abraham on to him, giving him an abundance of descendants. God closes the speech with one of my favorite lines, “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.”[1]SLIDE 10 - Jacobs Ladder

Why is it that this dream comes to Jacob? Jacob was the one who took the inheritance of Esau. Jacob deceived his father and betrayed his brother. By all measures God could just write off Jacob as a schemer and a thief, but God doesn’t do that. God blesses Jacob anyways.

SLIDE 11 - GraceWe too could be seen as inheritance thieves, because we only become inheritors of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. As Paul teaches the Romans, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[2] Unlike Esau, Christ doesn’t vow to kills us, but rather takes on death in our place. Thanks be to God that there is no such thing as “anyways” in God’s value system!

XIVWe read on in verses 16-19, “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.”[3]

I love this moment in this story. Jacob wakes up looks around him, forever changed by this encounter with God, wanting to memorialize the moment, and so grabs that rocky pillow of his, sets it up on his side, pours oil on it and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”

SLIDE 13 – DivineHave you ever had a moment like that? Where you are just so aware that God is present in that space that you want to mark it down, want to remember that location forever in some sort of divine foursquare check-in.

If I asked you where God lives, what address would you provide? Perhaps a church address? Maybe the Vatican or Mecca? Up in heaven in a house with many rooms? Or is it your own “certain place,” some rocky field somewhere between where you’re no longer wanted and the unknown beyond?

SLIDE 14 – God with UsFor thousands and thousands of years people have been trying to get a hold of that address. In Second Samuel, King David tries to build a house for God to contain God’s divinity.[4] But God’s answer to God’s location is right in what God says to Jacob, “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.” Any address we give to God is only temporary. God’s presence is with us always.

SLIDE 15 – ImmanuelEvery year at Christmas we affirm that Jesus is Immanuel. Immanuel means “God with us.” May we always remember it is so. Amen.

 

[1] Genesis 28:15

[2] Romans 6:23

[3] Genesis 28:16-19

[4] 2 Samuel 7

“Sow What?” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; July 13, 2014; FPC Jesup

“Sow What?
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 13, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Gardening, to my mother, is not a chore. It is a passion. While some dread mowing the lawn, she sits on our back porch, iced tea in hand, plotting out some elaborate pattern she will mow in the grass.Slide02 She knows which flowers need sun, which need shade, which she needs to coach to climb along the trellis. Her gardens are fed mulch, water, and sunshine. My mother has shown me the care, nurture, and love that go into maintaining a garden.

Slide03With that in mind the image of the sower is initially a strange one. Here this man known only by his function, “the sower,” and yet he doesn’t seem very intentional about the way that he cares for his seeds. Some fall on the path, some on the rocks, and only some on the good soil. He likely wasn’t a rich man, but rather a tenant farmer working from his scarcity to make life grow. As many of you know firsthand, the role of the farmer is not a passive one, but rather requires a working of the land, intentionality in where things are planted, attention given to make sure that the plants get enough water, but not too much.

SLIDE 4 - Christ as Sower2So why then does this sower seem to scatter this seed so broadly? In this parable God is most often cast in the role of the sower as God is the source of life and the origin of the good news, but I’d say for me I see God as more likely being the seeds. God in Christ took root in the world, grew so we might receive the harvest of his grace. Slide05As we read in the first several verses of the Gospel of John: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”[1]

Slide06“The Word was with God and the Word was God,” this means that the Word that was being sown was God. The Word that was being spread was God. And God is famous for being everywhere, even the unexpected places: scorched in the heat, picked apart by the birds, in the rockiest of places. God shows up.

What from the outside looks like the sower’s wastefulness, is God’s uncontainable abundance. If what you’re spreading is an extension of God’s own self it’s bound to go everywhere.

Slide07There’s a lot of talk at this church about scarcity: not enough money, not enough volunteers, not enough time. Even when we look at the less tangible qualities like welcoming and graciousness and politeness it may seem like we need to hold some in reserve, only welcoming those who can offer something to our church in a way that will help it be the church we want it to be, or perhaps we go the other way only being gracious and polite to strangers, but not to the ones we see everyday, treating those familiar faces as only as valuable as what they can do for us. It seems we have a sense that the only way to be stewards of the goodness God has extended to us is to guard it carefully, protect it with our lives and our egos and our checkbooks.

When we are focused on the ways that our church and the people around us and even ourselves are lacking, we’re bound to be anxious and discontent. And when we’re living in that sort of space it’s hard to access the kind of imaginative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live into God’s plan for us individually, as a church, and as God’s larger church in the world.

When we seek to point out the inadequacy in our community and in one another over God’s abundance we miss out on God’s Good News for us:

SLIDE 8 - Romans 8-15-17“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”[2]

It can be both painful and convicting if we stop to consider what sort of environment it is we provide for God to grow in and among us.

Slide09Maybe we’re the path, hard packed into a set pattern of how we’ve always done things, entertaining the presence of new growth from time to time, but more interested in staying together than in being changed by something new in our midst.

As Protestants we affirm the adage “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” but change can be hard, especially when we feel like we have everything all figured out. A path is by definition a comfortable route, worn down over time by person after person deciding that that is the way to go. While it can be a comfort for those who travel have helped to travel that path, new growth in that space would require a rerouting, a disruption of what is known for the sake of the unknown. A new seed has no chance on a hard packed path unless one will make a space for it to take root, and will water the dirt that has become dusty from it’s barrenness. And as we see in the parable, an exposed seed is vulnerable and easily snatched away by the bird that will consume it.

Slide10 Perhaps we’re the rocky soil, binding ourselves to those we are comfortable with and in doing so creating an impenetrable rocky border between ourselves and all that are on the outside. We leave room for others to come near, but like the rocky soil we don’t allow for roots to form among us, and those who are not of us are unable to stay long enough for any stability or lasting growth.

SLIDE 11 – ThornsI would hope that we would not be the thorny patch! Lack of growth on the part of the thorns is not the issue here, they themselves are growing, but their growth serves to keep others out, and chokes the other plants that grow there. Thorns are focused only on their own agenda and growth, but do not seek to serve others, rather they curl in on themselves in a tangled mess.

Slide12Ideally, of course, we would be the good soil, the most hospitable of the parable’s environments. The good soil provides nourishment and support. When the seeds fall on it they help each other to grow abundantly, providing stability to the soil, shade in turn for one another. By growing together these seeds each only bear a little bit of the burden of the outside environment. And as our parable illustrates, these seeds multiply in their growth yielding abundance!

Slide13Why does God waste God’s time being out among the rocks and the path and laid out as food for the birds? Because there is an abundance that springs forth wherever God takes root. This is the promise of our text and the prophesy of Isaiah:

Slide14“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”[3]

Slide15When the seed we are sowing is God’s own self, we can be secure in the knowledge that it will grow beyond our wildest expectations. God seeks to bless us richly, to take root in our church, in our homes, in our lives, and in our very hearts. By commissioning all who follow Christ as God’s disciples, as “joint heirs with Christ,” each of us are entrusted with that which is most precious, God’s own self. But unlike many precious resources, God’s goodness is multiplied when shared, the hope of Christ expands in the hearts of those who receive it. God’s word can only bear fruit when we scatter it broadly in all places, even and perhaps especially those who do not seem deserving.

SLIDE 16 - Christ as SowerWhile we should treat the love and care of Christ as precious, it is not scarce, but limitless. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”[4] Christ died for all to extend grace to all. Might we share this grace so that others may grow in this truth. Amen.

 

[1] John 1:1-4

[2] Romans 8:15-17

[3] Isaiah 55:10-13

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4