When Do You Wrestle with God?

August 13, 2017                     10th Sunday in Pentecost

Genesis 37:1–4, 12–28           Romans 10:5–15                     Matthew 14:22–33

A few weeks ago we talked about Jacob’s Ladder, and I mentioned that Jacob is not someone who we would call a typical or classical hero.

Now we all know that Jacob had a falling out with his older twin brother Esau, and tricked him out of his birthright, which meant that Esau couldn’t becoming the heir of his father, Isaac. Because Esau was so mad at Jacob he had to flee for his life back to his uncle’s house in Haran, which was located just over the southern boarder of present day Turkey. Jacob married two of his cousins, took two of their handmaids as concubines, and fathered at least 11 of the 13 children that we know of at this point in the story.

After many years Jacob decided that he would head back to his birthplace. So he went to his father-in-law, Laban, and asked for his wages. Of course Laban didn’t want Jacob to go – and you can kind of understand that because then he would have been separated from his two daughters and his grandchildren. Besides Laban admits that because of Jacob’s hard work his flocks have increased and made him a wealthy man, so he doesn’t want to lose such a good worker. So Jacob strikes a bargain and says that he will only claim the spotted and stripped goats and sheep. I think that Laban figured it would take time for Jacob to accumulate enough livestock to equal his wages so he agrees. But then Jacob sets up a sneaky breeding program, which ensures that more stripped and spotted animals are born. So after six years he gains the amount of assets that he needs to leave.  As we can see, even though Jacob did mature and become a family man – and there can be no doubt that he loved his wives and children – he was still resorting to trickery to get what he wanted.

So then, after twenty years of living with his uncle’s family, God comes to Jacob and tells him to go back home, and that He will protect Jacob on the way and once he gets there. So Jacob packs up his wives and puts them on camels, and all the goats, sheep, donkeys and oxen that belonged to him, and all the furniture, and all the servants and he heads on back to Canaan to his brother’s house.

As he gets closer to his birthplace Jacob starts to get nervous. He sends messengers on ahead to his brother who return saying that Esau is coming to meet Jacob and his family with 400 men. Okay, now Jacob starts to get really nervous, because he thinks that Esau is coming to get his revenge for his birthright. So Jacob sends to Esau an appeasement present: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. That’s 600 animals in all. Then he packs his wives and kids up along with the rest of his servants and has them cross the river, in the hopes that they will be safe, and he stays on the other side until daybreak.

And then it says that: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Now there are a number of thoughts as to who this “man” is. There have been scholarly, Christian treatise that say that since we start out with the word man and we then move to the word God later in the scripture that the person who Jacob was wrestling with was the son of God, or Jesus.

Wait a minute, you might say. This is the OLD Testament, Jesus doesn’t appear until the New Testament. But remember that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. So why couldn’t this have been Jesus?

Some theories say that the man was actually an angel and that somewhere during the wrestling match God took over. Either way, the point is that Jacob wrestled with God.

Okay, fine, Jacob wrestles with God. But why here and why now? Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when he tricked his brother out of his birthright. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when he saw the ladder. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God while he was getting married, working and having kids. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when pulled the to-his-advantage breeding program on Laban. Jacob was coasting along in life, taking advantage where he could, but now the bill comes due.

I think that Jacob has been hit with the full realization that his actions are going to have consequences, and he doesn’t know what those consequences are. So he is over on that side of the river; dealing with a sleepless night; probably wondering if his brother Esau isn’t going to catch up to his flocks and servants; kill his servants and take his flocks; then catch up to his wives and kids and kill them; and then finally finish it with Jacob.

He is pacing on that side of the river, trying to get up the nerve to go forward. He can’t go back, he burned his bridges with his father-in-law. And besides, God told him to go home. But what if this is the wrong thing to do? What if this isn’t what is right? What if he’s put his servants and his wives and his children in mortal danger? What if this is his punishment for being a no-so-good person? Jacob, like the rest of us in a decision crisis, is drowning in the “What ifs.”

And when you are in that time of struggling and pacing, and wrestling with your decision and yourself, and you question: Is this what I am supposed to do, is this my destiny? Isn’t that wrestling with God?

I was teaching a unit about religion once and we were comparing different methods of prayer between different faiths and cultures, and I said that when you pray there are always three people present: You, God, and the person who you don’t want to be that you drag to God to help you fix. Sometimes we wrestle with all that we don’t like within ourselves; sometimes we wrestle with the consequences of our past actions; sometimes we wrestle with the decision that we have to make now; sometimes we wrestle with the uncertainty and the directions of the future; sometimes we wrestle with the place and the meaning of our faith, and the ethics of that faith in our lives; sometimes we wrestle with what God means to us.

But we need to remember that in all those wrestlings, God is with us.

It is interesting that God doesn’t automatically win in this story. I mean you would think that God, being all powerful, would pull a back flip on Jacob and end the encounter easy-peasy. But He doesn’t. He actually is held down by Jacob, and God injures Jacob trying to get away. That seems so counter-intuitive but then I realized that I hold onto certain ideas about who God should be in my life, or what God should do for me. I hold God down and don’t let myself expand on the idea of God or think about Him differently – I put God in a corner and I don’t let Him come out.

It sometimes takes God giving me a shock to get me to see what He can do for my life. And also what I can do with my life when I let go of all those expectations of how it should work, and just let the work get done that God wants me to do. But that unexpected push from God, which is sometimes painful, changes me. Jacob ended up with a new name and a limp. Usually I end up doing things completely differently than I did before, or seeing things differently than I did before. I don’t come out of these revelations the same way I came in.

One last thing about this encounter. Jacob asks God for a blessing. When I wrestle with our indecisions or uncertainty, I don’t think in that moment that I am in a position to ask for a blessing from God. I just feel too uncertain in those moments, and I don’t feel it’s right to ask God to bless in my life when it seems to be in turmoil. But you know, I think when we are wrestling with something and we are uncertain, that is when we need to ask God for a blessing to get us through the uncertainty and give us a sign or a feeling of assurance that everything will be alright. Maybe if we asked for more blessings in times of uncertainty we would receive more guidance on how to get out of our problems.

We all wrestle at times with our problems and with God. Even if you don’t feel it, God is there with you. Sometimes He’s wrestling against you, for your own good. Sometimes he’s wrestling with you for your good. Just hang in there, get through to the morning, and you’ll be blessed and be ready to cross that river and head on home.

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Fellowship Friday

August 6, 2017

This Sunday the Sharon and Lakeville United Methodist Churches worshiped to gather at the Lakeville church.  Matthew Vreeland was the guest preacher.  When the video of his sermon goes up on YouTube we will post the link here.

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Hidden Treasure

July 30, 2017             8th Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 29:15–28          Romans 8:26–39          Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

While looking at all these examples of the kingdom of heaven I wondered: What do they have in common other than the fact that they are examples of the kingdom of heaven?

My first thought was: they relate to things that people would normally find in their environment, work that people would normally do, and places that they would normally be.

For instance, the mustard plant is the dandelion weed of the Middle East. Like the dandelion it grows everywhere. It has teeny-tiny seeds that get into cracks and between rocks, and then grows into a scrawny bush that everyone would have around their house or in their garden.

Yeast is something that a woman would deal with every day to make bread, a staple food that people would eat every day.

People might not have had gold and silver treasures in their fields, but the land of Israel was lived in for centuries before Jesus and, just as kids sometimes dig up arrowheads here, people would dig up old pots, weapons, or other things on occasions. I can’t tell you how much old pottery and toys Michael and I have dug up in our garden, not to mention the garbage we have found!

Pearls weren’t common, but people knew that they were found by divers who were mining oysters – and to the Romans they were the diamonds of the 1st century.  Pearls were definitely a commodity that a merchant would deal in if you lived near the Mediterranean Sea, so probably a lot of Jewish merchants had access to them. And a lot of people were fishermen so they would know about fish and nets, the diversities of a catch, and that you had to sort out the edible from the un-edible fish.

So the first thing that comes to mind is that Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven is surrounding us right now in the common things and events of our lives. It seems that we can find the Kingdom easily if we just shift our perspective and start to appreciate and be grateful for the little things that God gives us and give us joy, like nature, bread, unexpected finds, beautiful objects, and the foods we eat.

Another facet of these parables is that the Kingdom of God seems to be for everyone. These parables are inclusive because everyone would have had mustard seed plants in their garden or around their house. Women are included, which is interesting because a common conservative view was that God valued a man’s connection over a women’s, and that women were connected to God through their male associations. Then Jesus mentions farmers, merchants and fishermen, which pretty much covers about 95% of the Jewish male population, but the ones who would not have a lot of political power. There is even a hint of foreigners being included because Jewish people couldn’t come into contact with shellfish, since it was one of the forbidden foods. Only gentiles could harvest the oysters and eat them, which is how they would find the pearls. So God’s kingdom is suggested to be far more inclusive, and existing for the common people, rather than just the Hebrew people or the nobility and people in power.

But then I began to realize that above all those meanings, that all these examples are hidden items.

Wild mustard seeds are so tiny that they are practically invisible. You can’t distinguish them from a piece of dust when they get picked up and blown on the breeze. And yet you can see the result of their planting. They turn places that are desert or rocky, where nothing else will grow, into areas of green, with flowers for bees, and food for goats, and leaves and spices for people’s food. Even if you were poor you could eat wild mustard greens.

You can’t see yeast. Today we buy yeast from the story in packets, but yeast is actually present in the air around us. A woman would grow yeast by mixing water and flour in a jar and in about a week the yeast would start to bubble and grow in the mixture. She then would take a measure out of the jar and mix it into more flour and water to make bread. You can’t see the yeast but you can see what it does and it can be used with a whole bunch of different grains to produce something really yummy and nutritious.

The treasure hidden in the field is a little more complicated. First a person finds the treasure, maybe while he was working the field or he could have found it outside of the field. But he hides it in the field again. And then he goes and sells everything he has to raise the money to buy to field that he hid the treasure in. I had to think about this one for a while, and then I realized that when we do find out what God’s Kingdom is we need to claim it for ourselves. Not in a selfish way, but recognizing that that it is valuable to us, that we want to be a part of it, and that we are going to be responsible for it. Because when you buy that field you are accepting responsibility for its management and development. We claim our part in God’s Kingdom by accepting a responsibility for developing God’s kingdom. And we should joyously put everything we have into that development because we know that God’s Kingdom is the ultimate good thing in the universe.

Pearls are also hidden, and random, and take time to be made. Not every oyster has a pearl; not every oyster has a well-formed pearl; not every oyster has a big pearl; and not every oyster has a beautiful colored pearl. But every once in a while you get an oyster with a pearl that is well-formed, big, and very beautiful. But those pearls take time to grow. This is why wisdom is equated with pearls. Pearls of wisdom are thoughts that are well-formed, well-thought out, encompass what needs to be said, and convey a beauty of knowledge. Wisdom takes work and time to develop. Like the oyster, you need to work, sometimes for years, on cultivating your mind and your spirit. The person who is looking for the Kingdom of Heaven is actually looking for a hidden wisdom that will lead them to God. And when that person finally finds how to have God in their life, they gladly give what they have to continue to have God in their life. And they will treat that connection like the precious commodity that it is, because they know that nothing is more valuable than being and living in God’s love.

Fish in the sea are also hidden.   Fishermen can sometimes see fish, if they are close enough to the surface, but for the most part a fisherman just casts his net into the water and brings up what he can. It’s always a surprise. Christ says that the net is the Kingdom. The net attracts and pulls up all different kinds of people. Not just Hebrews but people from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia: All those different people are included in the kingdom. But then the fisherman sits in the boat and sorts the good fish from the bad fish. Now I’m sure a lot of people thought that at first Jesus was talking about the obvious distinction: Jews vs. Gentiles. But then Jesus says that the angels will separate out the evil people from the righteous people. It is not what is on our surface, what we look like, that God cares about – it is what is hidden in our heart that God looks at.

Jesus finishes this string of parables with an interesting sentence: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Suddenly we have a scribe – Why a scribe? Well, although scribes were people who knew how to read and write, and therefore functioned as secretaries in an age when many people couldn’t read and write well: scribe could also be a word meaning a general teacher. So Jesus is saying that every scribe, who has been first a student, and has worked diligently to understand God and his relationship to us and the world, is going to bring the treasured wisdom of God to us. Not only the traditional wisdom, but they are also going to be conveying what they have learned that is new.

Like mustard seeds and yeast, knowledge and wisdom of God is always growing for us. Like the treasure and the pearl it is hidden, so we need to look for it. And it’s also valuable, so we need to take responsibility for it and claim it as our own. And like the net it’s universal for all people and all ideas, but we must discern which are good people and ideas to associate with, and which are bad.

God’s Kingdom is there for all of us, but it’s going to take time, practice, study, learning, and dedication to find it. It is the revealing work of a life-time, the treasure of eternity, and it’s out there for us to find. And Jesus is the map to get to it, so follow him and let him lead you to the Kingdom.

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Where Earth Meets Heaven

July 23, 2017             7th Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 28:10–19a                 Romans 8:12–25        Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

I loved the story of Jacob’s Ladder when I was a kid. I thought it was really neat that Jacob saw this ladder that stretched up to heaven with angels going up and down it. And we learned the song Jacob’s Ladder in Sunday school so I imagined the angels going up and down the ladder singing the song. And I thought: Wow, I bet that Jacob was a really good person because he got to see the ladder and the angels. And God told him that he was going to inherit all that land that was around him. And he was going to have a million descendants who were going to be all over the earth. Jacob must have been one of the bestest people in the whole world!

Well, when you’re a kid you don’t read the whole Bible. You read the kid’s Bible with all the difficult, questioning stuff taken out of it. When you get older though, you start to read the adult scripture, and that’s when you get shocked by the actuality of who those neat interesting characters of your youth are.

Jacob is not a typical hero. In fact I’m not so sure that we could classify him as the classical hero at all. Apparently Jacob was constantly fighting with his older twin brother Esau to the point of tricking him out of his birthright and becoming the heir to his father Isaac’s inheritance. Things got so bad between the brothers that when their father died, Jacob had to flee for his life back to his uncle’s house in Haran. (It was during that trip that he saw the Ladder.) Jacob then settled in Haran, married two of his cousins, took two of their handmaids as concubines, and fathered at least 13 children – 12 boys and one girl (that we know of).   Eventually he tricked his father-in-law out of a substantial number of his goats and sheep and returned to his homeland, and wrestled with an angel along the way. When he arrived he made peace with Esau and was able to continue the rest of his long life.

When I was a preteen and found out the true character of Jacob I was really disappointed. I decided that I didn’t like Jacob. He was a trickster who was always looking for a way get the better of people to benefit himself. I’m sure that he was a very lovable trickster – I think we’ve all known people like that. They’re charming, and they can play on your feelings, and they talk their way in and out of anything. You kind of admire them, maybe even like them a little, but you can never really trust them.

So why would God reveal part of his power to Jacob? Why would Jacob be privileged to see a place where God broke through the barrier between heaven and earth, and then have God stand beside him and tell him that not only was He the God of his father and grandfather but that Jacob, the person who had tricked his own brother out of his birthright, was going to inherit all the land surrounding him? Not only that, but Jacob’s family was going be so numerous that they were going to cover the earth and be eternally blessed. Not only that, but God was going to protect him wherever he went, and bring him back to this land, and make sure that all those promises were fulfilled.

In my opinion Jacob didn’t deserve that. I was very mad at the Bible when I reasoned this out. Mind you, I wasn’t mad at God – it’s hard for me to get mad at God unless it’s really personal.   But I was mad at that Bible story.

It wasn’t until I was older, and I read a few other sticky stories in the Bible, that I learned that Jacob wasn’t the worst character out there. And in fact if you look at the entire history of Jacob there’s a maturity that happens to him. He evolves from a know-it-all punk into a mature family man, who really tried to go home and clean up the mess he made in his youth. And he also finds out that children are your parent’s revenge when his own kids commit a series of spectacular mess-ups. At the end of his life we see a man who has learned his lessons, sacrificed a lot, only wants the best for his family, and is willing to take huge risks to ensure that they will survive.

So knowing that I realized that when Jacob sees the ladder and the connection between heaven and earth, and encounters God, that it is a turning point for him.

First of all, he experiences physically a connection to heaven. In the Bible we read about these connections; maybe we also read about them in other books; we think about them; we talk with other people about them; but all those are intellectual exercises of the possibilities of what they are.   But Jacob’s dream was a physical reality to him. He wakes up from that dream and says: “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.”

That’s not someone who wakes up and says, “Wow, that was a weird dream.” Jacob woke up convinced that the dream was real. And from that moment forward he started to live out his life as if he was connected to God. It takes a while, but he starts to be more responsible, more considerate of people. It starts to be no longer about him alone. And he starts to take a long-range, not a short-range view.

You see redemption is for everyone. Do I like the Jacob before that dream? No – he’s a spoiled little mama’s boy. Do I like the Jacob after the dream? Not right away. But as his story progresses I see the influence of his encounter with God and his struggles with his family issues and his own personality.   They are not my issues, but I can still relate to them because I have family issues too and I have personality struggles.

It raises an issue for me. I don’t think I have ever behaved with the amount of selfishness that Jacob did, but would I be any more worthy than he was to have that dream?

Would I be a “good” candidate to witness a connection between heaven and earth? I have experienced some mind-blowing things, and the only explanation that I have for them is that God was there and the barrier between this earth and His heaven was very thin. And a few laws of physics might have gotten bent. When I told one of my stories to a psychologist he asked me, “So what’s your explanation for that?” I said, “I don’t have one. There is no logical explanation for what happened.” And as Sherlock Holmes said: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And the only truth I have left is that God was in those places making the impossible happen.

But really, how am I, with all of my own imperfections, any worthier than Jacob? None of us are perfect. And this one of the lessons of Jacob: God works with imperfection. God works with really imperfectly people to make things happen. God punches holes in the universe to show us that this world is not the be all and end all – there is another realm out there that we are connected to, and it is glorious and wonderful and the dwelling of God, and we have access to it and knowledge of it even if we are not heavenly beings.

But it’s not accessible to us unless we are willing to believe and accept that it is there. Remember that when Jacob woke up from his dream he didn’t brush it off by saying: well that was weird. Instead he accepted that God was real, and from that point on he allowed God to come into his life and to change him.

God is punching holes in the universe for us all the time, but are we accepting them as God in our life, and are we willing to believe that earth is meeting heaven? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when a friend calls with the exact information that you need? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when we are given an unexpected gift? Do we accept that God is working in our lives when difficulties happen, but they turn out to be just what we need to move on to something better?

Do we allow ourselves to change like Jacob did? Do we allow our experiences that God gives us to mold us into something better? Do we follow the prayer: Lord, I am not what I was, and I am not yet what I will be, and I thank you for that.

Where in your life has earth met heaven? How have you encountered God? Did you let Him change you? How is He redeeming you right now? If he hasn’t or isn’t, ask Him to show up as soon as possible and show you His glory. If you accept it, like Jacob, you will be changed for the better, and be changed for the good.

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Getting the Ground Ready

July 16, 2017       6th Sunday of Pentecost       Fellowship Sunday

Genesis 25:19–34                   Romans 8:1–11           Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

The parables of Jesus are like archeological digs, with multiple layers of meanings to what he says and the fun is trying to figure out what those layers mean.

Jesus preached to his audience using metaphors that they knew; allowing them to relate their environment into their own spiritual understanding. And he liked to use a lot of agricultural images – which makes sense because about 90% of the people he talked to were connected with farming. People understood different types of soils, geological formations, weather conditions, and how they created or influenced a good or a bad harvest.

If Jesus came back today he might preach in terms of computers, or car racetracks, or airline or space travel. But actually, I kind of like the fact that we have to stop and think a little about his metaphors. It makes us think a little more deeply about their meaning, and think a little deeper about our lives. Which is of course the point of the metaphor.

So in this parable Jesus says that the word of God is like seeds. When it is tossed onto a path, it’s very exposed so the birds come along and eat it quickly. Besides being exposed, a path has very hard packed soil, so the seed doesn’t have any way of gaining a purchase and rooting into the ground. That’s why Jesus says that people don’t understand what the word of the kingdom means. We don’t hold onto what we don’t understand. If our minds have no way of associating what we are hearing we just write off what we hear and go on with our lives.

Then you have the seed that falls on rocky ground, which Jesus says is someone who is unstable or not very focused. That person is happy to hear about God’s promised kingdom since they might hope that religion will bring stability into their lives. But since they can’t figure out how to find stability in their lives to begin with, they have a tough time hanging onto the ideals and practices of a spiritual life, so when difficulty arises they don’t stick with their new life with God.

Then you have people who are probably able to comprehend Jesus’ message, and also are stable in themselves, but they are either too stressed out by the thorns of poverty and uncertainty or they are too caught up in the thorns of materialism and expectations of the world, so they decide that the Kingdom of God is just not worth pursuing. Who has time for religion anyway with everything else you need to do?

But then you have people who are able to comprehend what Jesus is saying about a spiritual life and how it relates to God’s kingdom; are stable enough in their own personalities to be able to face the difficulties of a spiritual life; and aren’t caught up in the anxieties of poverty or wealth. And those people are able to not only hear the word and understand it, but also work outward and make God’s message of love real in the world, to the point where they spread the message up to a hundredfold. Now not every one of us can get to that hundredfold marker – like Mother Teresa, she was not even a100, she was a thousand-fold person. But I know that everyone here is spreading God’s Love and every little bit is still doing God’s work. So good for us, and keep at it!

When I examined this parable I got three layers out of it. Maybe you’ll find more layers – but these are my three.

First of all, Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they couldn’t reach everyone. Anyone who is dedicated to their job wants to do it well. I remember, when I first started teaching I took to heart the idea that I was responsible for every student in my classroom. It was my job to make sure that everyone learned the material. What I didn’t get was that I couldn’t always be the right teacher for every student. Now those two statements might seem to contradicted each other. It took me a while to realize that no matter how hard I tried for some of my students I was NOT the best teacher. Maybe it was the way I presented the material, or maybe that student just wasn’t at the level that I was teaching the subject. In that case, my responsibility to that student was to try to find a teacher or a class level that was good for them. My inability to teach them wasn’t personal – it was situational.

I’m sure the disciples had the same issue. Peter might have talked to some people and what he said about Jesus just didn’t connect. But maybe those same people could talk to Thomas and get this whole Jesus stuff.   And some people because of their situations just aren’t ready to hear about Jesus and God’s Kingdom. In that case, Jesus was saying: Don’t worry. You gave your message, if the idea can take, it will take. Concentrate on helping the people who are receptive, and move on from the rest. Just keep throwing the message out there and it will land on the people who can receive it.

The second layer or message focuses on the negative conditions of the path, the rocky ground, and the thorns. And it gets down to another level of discipleship that we experience as Christians who are committed to Kingdom building. I believe that the path, the rocky ground, and the thorns, symbolize conditions that we are supposed to confront and change from negative to positive, from bad planting conditions to good ones, so that the kingdom of God will spread even further.

The hard earth of the path represents people who can’t even comprehend the importance of God, and we all do encounter people like that. And when we do we need to take a breath and ask why that is.

Does God seem inaccessible to them because they believe that they are incapable of God’s love, maybe because of a sinful or an abused life? In that case we need to assure them that God’s love and grace is available to everyone.

Does this whole religious nonsense seem an illogical and unnecessary belief that gets in the way of life to them? Then maybe we need to be able to suspend judgment and explain what our faith does for us personally. How does Christ make us happy; how does Christ give us strength; how does Christ comfort our sorrows and give assurance when we need it? We can be looking glass for them to a different outlook on life.

Or maybe they just came from a non-religious family and they have no idea how to relate to this Jesus stuff. In which case we can tell them our story and maybe get them started on the road to understanding. You know a path can grow green – it takes time – but it can change.

The rocky ground is people who are interested in religion and curious about Jesus, but don’t have the stability in themselves or in their lives. Our focus should be to help them gain some stability so that they can grow roots into their spirituality. While teaching them about Christ we should also help them to clear some rocks from their lives so that they can have space to be better prepared for when difficult times come. Hopefully they will have grown in God and Christ to the point where they will be able to draw on the sustaining power and strength of the Holy Spirit during their difficulties.

The thorns of life are the cares of poverty, wealth, social expectation, or the desire for success, all the things that pull our hearts away from God.   We should show those people how the focus on God will enhance their lives beyond the temptations of the material world or the difficulties of real or perceived want. I don’t have a big piece of property, but I don’t need it, because I am surrounded by God’s country, and I give thanks for living here every time I walk out my door. We need to give thanks for our lives, and show our thanks, as the example and as an antidote to a world that wants more, more, more.

And then there is a third layer to the metaphor. Every disciple should bravely ask: What is it that I don’t understand about my own faith? What is unstable in my own life that is holding me back from a deeper belief and trust in my God, a better connection with my brother Christ, and keeps me from seeing how the Holy Spirit is working in me and around me? What are the cares and concerns that distract me from my faith, and how can I get God into those cares and concerns and make Him a greater part of my life?

Live your life on the three levels of this parable. Scatter your seeds of God’s love and don’t worry about where they fall. Help others to clear the ground of misunderstanding about God, the instabilities that get in the way of God, and the things that keep our focus off of God. And ask yourself: How you can make your ground better, so that your roots can grow deeper, and your love higher, so that your fruit becomes so abundant that you can share it with everyone. Live in that abundance and who knows how large your harvest of love will be?

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What on Earth Should I Do?

July 9, 2017               5th Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 24:34–38, 42–49,58–67        Romans 7:15–25a            Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30

The passage that we read today from Romans is not one of my favorite Bible passages.  But it is one of my favorite passages of Paul’s writings because here, Paul, the scholar and philosopher; the disciple to the Gentiles; the former Pharisee – trained in all the intellectual and spiritual disciplines of the day to become a perfect disciple of God – admits with complete frustration that he finds himself doing what he shouldn’t be doing, with the complete knowledge of knowing that he should not be doing it!

How many times has that happened to any of us? Gosh, that chocolate cake looks so good, just one piece won’t hurt my sugar levels. I really shouldn’t be reading this Agatha Christie novel – I should be working on my taxes – just one more chapter. I really should call my aunt about this family problem, but I’ll put it off until tomorrow. One more fill-in-the-blank isn’t really going to hurt me or anyone else.

We all have a list of things that we regret doing; not honest mistakes but things we know we shouldn’t have done. And, like Paul, we do not understand our own actions. We don’t want the chocolate cake because we know that soon after it’s going to make our blood sugar spike and cause us to have a sugar crash later, when we don’t need a sugar crash. We know we are going to hate the fact that we ate the chocolate cake. We don’t want to eat the chocolate cake and be unhealthy, we want to say, “No,” to the chocolate cake and be healthy, but for some reason the chocolate cake beckons and we answer with a plate and a fork and a large glass of milk, so that we can pretend that it is going to be healthy. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

It’s nice to know that Paul gets it.

He gets the fact that we set up our boundaries and our rules, and that those boundaries and rules aren’t arbitrary. They come from years of society trying to figure out how we can best live together, and our own experience, which teaches us how to live with ourselves. Most of us want to be good people. Paul gets that we have a war in ourselves with inner and outer triggers, and that at times we seem to be losing to the temptations that are in us as well as the temptations that surround us. He gets that we sometimes try to will ourselves to do the right thing and that we end up doing the wrong thing.

Paul, like us, struggles everyday to actualize an identity within ourselves that we want to be. It is an identity challenge that was given to us by Christ in Matthew 5:48: That we should be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Every major theologian of our faith has struggled with the fact that we cannot be as perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Paul found himself frustrated because he couldn’t become the perfect Christian and gave us the scripture that we read today. (In fact I think that before he became a Christian he probably tried to be the perfect Pharisee.) James, Jesus’ brother tried to be the perfect Christian and he gave us the book of James. Augustine took up the challenge and in his frustration he wrote the bestseller of his day, Confessions, detailing his struggles. Martin Luther struggled with his imperfection causing him to question buying indulgences for his sins, and gave us the reformation. John Wesley struggled with being a Christian and came up with the Path to Perfection – with the emphasis that we will never reach perfection but our journey as a Christian is to at least give it our best try.  And anyone who becomes confirmed in the Christian faith also accepts that they are going to try to meet the challenge.

What is this identity that we’ve wanted so badly to have for the last 2,000 years? What does it mean that we want to be as perfect as our Heavenly Father?

If you look at our three Commandments the operating word for Christians that lead us to perfection is love. First of all we dedicate ourselves to loving God.  When you love God you love the infinite possibilities of creation, and the infinite possibilities of the universe. You acknowledge that you are a part of it – not separate from it but that you are a working part of this creation.

The second part is that we love ourselves and our neighbors. We treat them with respect, we care for them when they are hurt, and we try to heal them and provide an environment for us to function as healthy, whole individuals. We try to understand where people are coming from and what they need. And we try to treat everyone with equality and fairness. And that equality and fairness extends to the balance of taking care of ourselves as well as others.

And finally we act in love as Christ acted with us. We will withhold judgment until we understand. We will seek to see the human in someone, no matter what their race, or class, or belief. We will work to bring justice and balance and equal opportunity to our world, looking beyond what has been done before, to what is possible to do now and into the future.

And finally we will use our love to struggle against systemic and spontaneous acts of negativity that get inflicted on people. That means that when we see systemic or spontaneous inflictions of negativity that we will attempt to stop that action as best we can. Whether those acts are being inflicted on ourselves by ourselves, on ourselves by others, on others by us, or on others by others, we try to bring those actions to a stop.

That is the struggle that Paul outlines: the fact that we cannot seem to stop inflicting negativity on ourselves and others. And our discouragement is that even when we try our hardest we often imperfectly apply our actions of love to others. Our very own nature seems to leads us to what we shouldn’t do, and prevents us from doing what we should do. We are all wretched and when we struggle we do think — Who will rescue me from this body of death? Who will rescue me from myself? And the answer is: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Because the assurance of Christ is that we are living in God’s Grace.

But what is God’s Grace? Well the most prominent definition is that God’s Grace is God’s deliverance from our sins. But I looked up the word and found that in it’s ancient Hebrew it can also be used to mean enablement, daily guidance, forgiveness, and preservation.

Grace enables us by giving us our mental and physical capacities to think and work our way out of our difficulties. Have you ever been wrestling with a problem and suddenly the solution comes to you and you realize that you have the physical capacities and resources to solve your problem? That is God’s Grace operating in your life.

Grace gives us daily guidance. The expression When the student is ready the teacher will appear can be expanded to: When you need help someone or something will be sent to guide you through your problem. That is God’s Grace operating in your life

Grace forgives us and enables us to forgive. When we do mess up we can access the process of forgiveness: 1. Acknowledging that we did something wrong; 2. Finding the solution to fix or heal the problem; 3. Experiencing the absolution that comes to us through to process of trying to make things right again. A great deal of forgiveness is someone saying – I accept your apology and now I will accept your efforts and help you if I can to make things right again. And when we do that we operate in Grace.

And finally, Grace preserves us. Grace shows us through the utilization of love how we can keep ourselves from being the worst of ourselves, and Grace also lets us know that maybe we aren’t being perfect but that our efforts to be the best that we can be is something that we can build on to make a better life for ourselves, as well as a better world.

So what on Earth should I do when I find myself, like Paul, despairing that I will never get a handle on my human nature? I need to remember that Christ wants to take over my burden of guilt of never being perfect, and that he is willing to do it – If only I let Him into my life and ask him for help to get over myself.

Sometimes we struggle so hard against our own natures that we forget that we have a relief in the Grace of Christ and God. We forget that Jesus said: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. It is light because although we struggle with our natures and try so hard to be perfect but never are, Christ still loves us and will help us through our struggles by enabling us, guiding us, forgiving us, and preserving us.

So open your hearts to God’s Grace. Let Christ be there during your struggles. He knows what you’re going through. Give him your love and your doubts. Give him your hopes for perfection and your mistakes and difficulties while you try. Let his Grace move in your life and you will find a rest for your soul.

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What Will Your Wages Be?

July 2, 2017        4th Sunday of Pentecost           4th of July Sunday

Genesis 21:8-21                      Romans 6:1b-11                 Matthew 10:24-39

When I first started teaching I read a book written for beginner teachers. The chapter titles were warnings like: A Teacher is Not a Peer, because young teachers have a hard time teaching kids who are often the same ages as younger siblings or cousins, whom you are friends with. Or the chapters were encouraging sayings like: You Will Get Out of Teaching What You Put Into It, because teachers are sometimes so focused on curriculum that we forget that it’s okay to make our subjects fun to teach and learn.

Basically the book was about how to set your boundaries so you can work, which gives you the reasons to say yes or no to situations; and how to be creative so that you can enjoy your work, which gives you the reason to keep going even when the job gets tough. Sometimes I wish that I still had that book – but when I went to Japan I gave it to a teacher, who was just starting out, and who needed it more than I did. And hopefully she eventually passed it on to a younger teacher who needed it.

What all the lessons in the book actually boiled down to was: Our actions produce reactions, or consequences. In other words, whatever we do, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, is going to affect someone, and change things, even if it’s only ourselves. And very often it’s more than ourselves, usually –about 99.9% of the time someone else is involved. This is why we need Grace in our lives – because no matter what we do, we are going to affect someone, and often we can’t see what the outcome is going to be.

You’ve probably noticed that the last few weeks I haven’t been preaching on some of the hard stuff in Matthew. Chapter 10 of Matthew is tough to preach on because it’s got a lot of scary things in it. When the disciples are sent out on their solo missions Jesus warns them that not everyone is going to agree or accept their message, their lifestyle, or the changes that they will bring about in people’s lives. If they become active members of his flock, and start to preach what he has been preaching to them, the authorities are going to start to take notice and realize that there is a movement going on here. And they might become targets for a lot of hurt.   He warns them that they are stepping outside of the culture norms and that this is going to cause heartache and dissent among family members and friends.

Jesus warns his disciples that even though has taught them to live and preach love, healing, and the restoration of God’s Kingdom that other people are not going to respond with love, healing, or a desire to participate in the restoration of God’s Kingdom.

So why, with all the risk involved, did all those people follow Jesus knowing they might face the ostracism of family and society?

Paul, helps us to understand this a bit, which is why his philosophy is paired with this scripture.

Paul talks a lot about the concept of us being slaves to our emotions or our desires.   Now we are very uncomfortable with the word slave. In this country we have a very nasty history with slavery, so we tend to disassociate ourselves from the word.   As Americans, we value the independence and rights of individuals and a slave, by definition, has no independence or rights as an individual, so slavery went directly against our values – even the stated values of our Constitution – which brings us a lot of cultural shame.   In our history slavery was something that was forced upon people as a permanent condition – not something that people did willingly to themselves.

But slavery in Paul’s day was different. Yes – there were some slaves who were captured in war – but most slaves had willingly become slaves as a means to get out of debt.   The condition was not permanent, you contracted your WAGES IN ADVANCE for the amount of years that equaled your debt. It is true that you gave up your rights, but it was a temporary condition, you could get your rights back once your tenure was finished. And believe it or not – if you were a hard efficient worker often you could become a very valuable asset to your owner who might even hire you, or give you an exit bonus, once your tenure was done. Don’t get me wrong – being a slave was on the bottom of the social scale but it was an ingrained part of the economic system that didn’t carry the amount of social shame that it does for us.

So when Paul says: Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? He is talking about a person’s willingness to subject themselves to certain life conditions to get a certain payment in the end.

Paul is saying that if you decide that you are going to spend a life following sin you have subjected your body and soul to those conditions and that you are going to come out the other side with a payment for your choice, which is death.

Paul knew that we were all going to die and he probably didn’t believe in our notion of Hell, which was developed much later in Christian philosophy. What Paul probably meant was that when you died that your soul ceased to exist because it hadn’t had the chance to develop enough in this life to be able to continue on into eternal life with God.

But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. You see, slavery to God for Paul was a choice of coming under God’s rule so that you could receive a reward, a gift, at the end. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

       My how-to-teach book stated that there were certain conditions that I had to be willing to subject myself to, and certain actions that I needed to do, in order to become a good teacher. And there were a lot of examples in that book of teachers who did not agree to those conditions or actions and they ended up quitting or being fired. There was payment or consequence of action. My yes and my no affected myself and my students, and what I put into my classroom I would eventually get something out of it, beyond what my paycheck gave me. The book never said that it was going to be smooth sailing all the time, but it gave me a foundation so that I could deal with things when the going got tough. That book was a valuable resource for my job when I was first starting out.

Our Bible, and more importantly our Gospel, is our valuable resource for our life. The Gospel says that there are certain conditions that we have to be willing to subject ourselves to, and certain actions that we need to do, in order to become a good person. There are a lot of examples in the Bible and the Gospel of people who rejected those conditions or actions and their wages or payment is the lost opportunity of living a life of love, healing, and the knowledge that they are participating in God’s Kingdom.

But if I willingly accept the conditions and actions and try to become a good person then my wages or payment for my service to God will be a life of love, healing and the knowledge that not only am I participating in God’s Kingdom now, but that I will be participating in it eternally with Christ.   And Jesus did not sugar coat things and say that it was going to be smooth sailing all the time, but if we follow the Gospel it gives us a foundation so that we can deal with things when the going gets tough. Our Gospel is a valuable resource not only for when we start out but also for our whole lives.

One final lesson that my teaching book gave to me was that some people look down on teachers: You only work from nine to three – and you have the summer off.   You only teach because you can’t do anything else. I was told not to worry about those detractors who don’t know that often teachers work from eight until after five, and are often taking classes, or planning classes in the summer, and that effective lesson planning and execution is an art that takes years to learn.

Some people look down on Christians as being unrealistic and that we are all singing, “Kumbaya around the campfire.” (Someone actually said that to me once.) Being a good person is a tough job. Attempting to love and heal in this world of hate and pain can be a daunting and discouraging job. But we are not doing it alone – God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are doing it with us – and we do not have to do it in huge chunks of greatness. Even the little acts of kindness: and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward – are counted.

We all have the choice of deciding what our job will be and who our boss will be in our lives. And we know what our final payment, or gift, will be. What will your wages be? You get to choose – just remember Jesus wants you to accept His gifts and be with him in his life everlasting.

 

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