Sunday’s sermon: Untouchable, Unlovable … and Unleaveable

unloveable

Texts used – Jonah 3-4; Colossians 3:12-17

  • When we were living in Minneapolis – when Peter was working at the charter school and I was searching for a call (this call!) – I was also doing some filling in at my parents’ church in Le Sueur. So one day, as I was sitting there writing my Earth Day sermon, our doorbell rang.
    • Not an abnormal occurrence in our apartment – unlabeled doorbells
    • At the door: Elder Edwards and Elder Holmes → something in me just couldn’t say “Go away”
    • Started a couple of weeks of really interesting and sometimes uncomfortable conversations
      • Prayer at the end of our first conversation
    • Uncomfortable relationship but important
      • Learn about Mormonism “from the horse’s mouth” → not perpetuate untruths or misrepresentations
      • Elder Edwards – Prov.: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”[1] → explaining faith can lead to you strengthening/renewing your own faith
    • Whether we like it or not, God calls us to some uncomfortable relationships in our journey of faith, and as Christians, we are called to act in love, respect, and compassion – no matter the circumstances.
  • Our Scripture passages today have a thing or two to teach us about uncomfortable relationship.
    • OT: Jonah → explores the depths of some uncomfortable relationships
    • NT: Colossians → reminds us why it’s important to give these uncomfortable relationships a chance
  • So let’s journey with Jonah first.
    • Backstory
      • Jonah = prophet → And he’s a lucky prophet because he’s actually living and prophesying during a time in Israel’s history in which God’s prophets were highly respected and favored by all the people.
        • Not the case for any of the other prophets with books in the OT – scorned, disregarded, persecuted → books filled with doom-and-gloom predictions and dire warning about retribution
        • But not Jonah. Jonah was appreciated by the people. Jonah was cherished by the people. Truth be told, Jonah was a bit of a celebrity. He lived a pretty cushy lifestyle. But then one day, something awful happened! – beginning of book of Jonah: The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”[2]
        • Sounds like a blast, right? Yeah … no. Nineveh was a really scary, sketchy place, and not surprisingly, Jonah has no desire to go there. This whole Nineveh business is the sort of situation that definitely clashed with Jonah’s current lifestyle – taking a serious word of admonishment to a city full of evil.
      • So Jonah chose to run in the complete opposite direction
        • Gets on a ship bound for Tarshish → God causes a giant storm to come up and almost sink the ship → Sailors draw straws to figure out who’s bringing the bad luck to the ship → Guess who drew the short straw! → Toss Jonah over the side of the ship → swallowed by a giant fish → Jonah repents and prays while in the belly of the fish → fish eventually spits Jonah out on the shore → This brings us to where we joined the text this morning.
    • Portion of the text that we read today highlights 2 different uncomfortable relationships
      • Relationship between Jonah and Nineveh
      • Relationship between Jonah and God
    • Now, we can probably guess that the relationship between Jonah and Nineveh didn’t exactly get off on the right foot.
      • Text: Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[3]
        • Message = uncomfortable → We don’t like admitting when we’re wrong. We don’t like admitting when we’ve hurt someone or offended someone. We don’t like looking like we’re not perfect – though God knows it’s true. It’s uncomfortable to say, “I’m sorry.” And it’s even more uncomfortable when someone else recognizes all of these things in us and points them out to us. And yet that’s exactly what Jonah was doing to the Ninevites.
      • Fortunately, the Ninevites are able to learn from their uncomfortable relationship with Jonah.
        • Passage: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. … God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.[4]
          • Heb. “believed” = confirmed, nourished, relied upon → The Ninevites didn’t just decide to believe that God might exist. They put their ultimate trust in God … also sometimes an uncomfortable thing, but we’ll talk about that next week.
    • Jonah’s relationship with God is another story. It’s obviously an uncomfortable one, and while it doesn’t appear to teach Jonah anything in the end, we are able to learn through it.
      • Lots of things uncomfortable about this relationship
        • Uncomfortable because Jonah doesn’t want to do what God wants him to do
        • Uncomfortable because of where Jonah is being sent
        • Uncomfortable because of the message that God asks Jonah to deliver to the people of Nineveh
        • Uncomfortable because of Jonah’s reaction → ultimately, Jonah doesn’t like God’s decision to spare the city of Nineveh, so he gets angry & gives God a big fat “I told you so”
        • Text: He prayed to the LORD, “Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. (Only Jonah can make those wonderful traits of God sound so negative!) At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”[5] → Jonah doesn’t like these people – these Ninevites. They’re not worthy. They’ve screwed up too often. They are out of reach of God’s forgiveness and grace – completely and wholly untouchable and unlovable. So when God decides to hear their repentance and save them, Jonah throws a little bit of a hissy fit. “I didn’t want to come here, God, because I knew you’d be wasting my time. I knew you’d cave, knew you wouldn’t punish these people like you said you were going to, so why should I even be here. It would be better if I were dead than to be in this stupid place!”
  • And let’s be honest: there are people in our lives or in the world that makes us feel the way the Ninevites made Jonah feel. We don’t like them. We don’t think they deserve a second chance (or third or fourth or fiftieth … or whatever the case may be). We take it upon ourselves to deem them untouchable, unlovable.
    • Extreme cultural e.g.
      • Caste in India known as the dalit, “the Untouchables,” a people considered sub-human by many of the others in India à face discrimination, oppression, abject poverty, violence
        • Important point: the caste system was technically outlawed in India in 1950 but according to the BBC, “caste identities remain strong, and last names are almost always indications of what caste a person belongs to.”[6]
      • It is among the dalit – the lowest class, the Untouchables – that Mother Teresa began her life’s work: among the poorest of the poor, among the outcasts and the lepers, among those whom society had completely abandoned, written off as untouchable and unlovable. Yet Mother Teresa’s response turns society’s judgment upside down.
        • Follows the example of Christian relationship set out by our text from Colossians
    • Text doesn’t promise that these Christian relationships will be easy – quite the contrary, in fact:
      • Text mentions teaching and admonishing one another → can bring out a defensive, self-justifying “Jonah attitude” in us
        • Uncomfortable to be the admonisher
        • Uncomfortable to be the admonished
      • And in these times of unease, when things get tense as they inevitably do – text: Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other.[7] → So our Scripture for today actually guarantees we’re going to encounter uncomfortable relationships. But it doesn’t leave us at “uncomfortable.” It moves us past that – above that – to forgiveness.
        • Scholar: In being called into the one unified body … the readers have been called to live out its transcending of divisions; they have been called to appropriate Christ’s peace … [which] involves not a removal from all conflict but a centeredness that comes from knowing that in the new humanity, Christ is in control and all in all.[8]
    • Col. also gives us the “how” of dealing with these uncomfortable relationships → the entire passage reads like a guide
      • The peace of Christ must control your hearts – a peace into which you were called in one body.[9]
      • Speaks of call to “forgive” → Gr. = connotations of giving freely
        • Not coerced
        • Not forced
        • Not fake
      • Speaks of agape love → Selfless love. Giving love. Tolerant love. This is the kind of love that God showed to Nineveh. This is the kind of love that Christ made available to us through his death on the cross, and this is the kind of love that we should perpetuate as those who claim to be his followers.
      • Also says “Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” – Gr. “whatever you do” can be “in all that you might do” → This is where it can get a little uncomfortable again. Sometimes, we just don’t feel like being thankful. We don’t feel like forgiving each other or being compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. But ultimately, it’s not about us.
        • Scholar: The word of Christ, the message of the gospel that centers in Christ, is to provide the focus. … This will entail listening to, meditating on, and responding in praise and thanksgiving to that word as it is preached and taught. Then it will be an abundant resource as it permeates [our] lives.[10]
        • Sounds like the first verse of our song, “The Summons[11] → Nineveh, will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Jonah, will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? My children in Colossus, will you let my love be shown and my name be known even in the midst of your quarrels and uncomfortable relationships? My children in Oronoco, will you let my life – my compassion and forgiveness, my agape love – be grown in you and you in me?
  • I’m going to leave you with questions again today – questions that may challenge you, may make you feel uncomfortable, but hopefully questions that will also inspire you: Who makes you uncomfortable? Which of God’s unleaveable children have you labeled as untouchable and unlovable? Where do you not want to take and share God’s message of redemption and forgiveness, love and peace? Amen.

[1] Prov 27:17 (NRSV).

[2] Jonah 1:1-2.

[3] Jonah 3:4.

[4] Jonah 3:5-6, 10.

[5] Jonah 4:2-3.

[6] “What is India’s caste system?” from the BBC News website, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616. Posted July 20, 2017, accessed Sept. 14, 2017.

[7] Col 3:13.

[8] Andrew T. Lincoln. “The Letter to the Colossians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 648, 650.

[9] Col 3:15a.

[10] Lincoln, 648-649.

[11] “The Summons.” Traditional Scottish melody, words by John Bell. The Iona Community, Scotland, 1987.

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Sunday’s sermon: The Uncomfortableness of Faith

uncomfortable faith

Texts used – Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Hebrews 4:12-16

  • When he was teaching in Minneapolis, Peter had a big sign hanging at the front of his classroom that said, “Do what’s best, not what’s easy.” This was really important for the students that he had. At that school, 94% of the kids lived below the poverty line, and more than 60% of them were English language learners. They came from tough homes, tough neighborhoods, and tough life situations. For these kids, the choice between what’s best and what’s easy wasn’t always a simple decision.
    • On the one hand, they spent 9 hours at school each day learning about what’s best – education, respect, perseverance, attitude
    • On the other hand, the “real world” they went home to presented a whole host of problems → decisions that may have seemed “easier” at the time
      • Failing in school
      • Choosing between family obligations/expectations and themselves
      • Making unhealthy or even dangerous life decisions
    • You can see why such a simple phrase can be so important, so powerful, so radical … and also so uncomfortable for these kids. And I think that our faith can be like this, too. We know that faith can be empowering and fulfilling and strengthening. It can be something that soothes and teaches and enhances our lives. But that doesn’t mean faith is always easy. That doesn’t mean that faith is all warm fuzzies and heavenly pats on the back. It’s not always something that’s going to be comfortable for us. If anything, the Bible is full of stories and other types of passages that detail ways in which encountering God mean encountering a thoroughly uncomfortable challenge.
      • Sermon series over the next month and a half – explore some of these stories
        • Uncomfortable relationships with Jonah
        • Uncomfortable wrestling with Jacob
        • Eventually wrap up talking about how beautiful being uncomfortable can be
        • Also using the various verses of hymn “The Summons” to dig into these topics
    • Faith is important, and we have to remember that things that are important aren’t always comfortable. Things that are important come with risks. But with these risks come extraordinary rewards. → illustrated by our Scripture readings for today
  • First and foremost, both passages highlight the importance of faith
    • NT passage from book of Hebrews: God’s word is living, active[1] → “active” = powerful and effective
      • Renowned preaching professor and scholar Fred Craddock: The God who spoke still speaks, and that word is inescapably valid. In the writer’s theology, words of Scripture are words of God for us today.[2] → The Word of God is alive and well, powerful and effective, still active, still moving, still relevant, and still important. God continues to work in the world
    • OT passage from Deut speaks to importance not in any one particular work but in the whole Heb. phrase itself
      • Beginning phrase of the passage: Shema yisrael adonai elohainu adonai ehad → This is what’s known as the Shema, one of the most central and significant prayers in the Jewish faith: Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.
        • Centerpiece for Jewish morning/evening prayer services
        • Often first prayer that parents teach their children to pray at night
        • Tradition: last words spoken by Jews before death
        • This is one of the most powerful, elemental prayers for Jewish people. It gives voice to the basic tenets of the Jewish faith, reaffirming the beliefs that people have passed down throughout countless generations. The weight of history upholds and strengthens this prayer – a history full of challenge and struggle, pain and exile … an uncomfortable history. And yet it is in this history – with all its frustrations and foibles – that the Jewish people continue to find strength, reassurance and relief.
  • In this uncomfortable history, we are reminded just how truly uncomfortable faith can be. It highlights that sometimes faith involves risk.
    • Explore this idea more in the coming weeks as we go through some of that troubling history, but today, that risk is made clear by both Old and New Testament texts.
      • Deut: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.[3] → Now, I know this doesn’t sound like a risk, but this verse speaks of involving your whole self in your faith.
        • Heb. “strength”= abundance, force → So this passage isn’t just speaking to investing your bodily strength in your faith. This passage encourages us to throw our whole selves into this endeavor we call “faith.” This means we don’t hold back, we don’t reserve anything “just in case,” we don’t save any part of our commitment for a “rainy day.” We don’t get to hedge our bets or draw up some elaborate contingency plan. There’s no sphere of our lives, no place in our hearts, no piece of who we are that isn’t open to being changed by God. When it comes to faith, we go all in … period.
      • The rest of Deut supports this, fleshes it out: Recite [these words] to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.[4] → emboldens us for public witness
        • That covers anything and everything, anytime and every time, any activity and every corner of our lives. There are no outs here, folks. No wiggle room and no allowance for comfort zones. God is asking us to step outside those beloved comfort zones, difficult and challenging though that step may be.
      • NT passage emphasizes this risk, too – describes the Word of God as: sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.[5] → Sounds pretty uncomfortable to me!
        • Scholar: The readers are helped to see how muscular and active faith is. Faith is tough and tenacious; it holds fast. It stands firm. … Faith is not mentioned at quiet times, accompanied by sonnets, but in the story of a people struggling through the desert, accompanied by grumbling and rebellion. … In other words, faith is more than an orientation of the heart toward God, although it is that. Faith has something to say about God, and it does so with boldness and confidence.[6]
    • So when it comes to these challenges, this time in the desert, the grumbling and the rebellion and the discomfort, what are we willing to do for God? [PAUSE] Maybe the question – the real question – should be when it comes to our comfort zones and our faith, what are we not willing to do?
  • Before you answer that, let’s talk for a minute about the rewards. Now, when I say “rewards,” I’m not talking about pray right or worship right or read the right Scripture passages or believe the right things and God will make you smarter, stronger, richer, more attractive and more perfect. The Bible says over and over again that, in life, these are not the rewards that truly matter. However, our texts for today are able to shed light on the true rewards.
    • Passage from Deut. actually begins with the reward: Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD![7] → “Our God is the Lord!” This same powerful and creative being that brought light and dark, water and rocks and trees, birds and fish and even creepy crawly bugs into existence – this almighty God is our This is the same being that cares for us, hopes for us, longs for us, and loves us without question. That in and of itself is quite a remarkable thing.
    • Passage from Heb. follows risk directly with reward: Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.[8]
      • Approaching the throne of grace with confidence = uncomfortable
        • Manner of approach is uncomfortable – know we’re unworthy
        • Reason for approaching is uncomfortable – hesitant to ask for something because we’re afraid of what the answer might be
        • E.g. – asking to have people over when I was a kid – always the chance for “not” but if I didn’t ask, it definitely wouldn’t happen → And our relationship with God is no different. Asking God for things can be uncomfortable because what if God’s answer is “no”?
      • But “mercy and grace when we need help” … what better reward can there be?
      • Reminds me of one of my favorite passages from book of James: My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.[9] → The trials and the testing? Not so pleasant. That’s why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” or in another version, “Save us from the time of trial.” But this passage points out that sometimes, it is only through these uncomfortable times that we can truly grow: “let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.”
        • Times of faith growing and stretching are uncomfortable – think of it as spiritual growing pains
    • Our texts for today remind us that faith in God is an empowering and a fulfilling thing, but at the same time, faith isn’t supposed to be easy. It isn’t supposed to be comfortable all the time because it’s a constant act, a journey. It’s something we pursue, a road we walk whether the path leads up or down, whether the way becomes rocky or uneven or even a bit of a tight squeeze.
      • Tradition as Presbyterians speaks to this = “the church reformed, always reforming”
  • Today, I’m going to leave you with some questions – something to ponder from today and for the future as we continue to explore this uncomfortableness of faith: Where do you feel most comfortable in your faith? And where is God encouraging you to challenge that comfort? Are you willing to do what’s best or just fall back on what’s easy? How is God calling you out of your comfort zone? Amen.

[1] Heb 4:12.

[2] Fred B. Craddock. “The Letter to the Hebrews: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 54.

[3] Deut 6:5.

[4] Deut 6:7-9.

[5] Heb 4:12-13.

[6] Craddock, 54-55.

[7] Deut 6:4.

[8] Heb 4:16.

[9] Jas 1:2-4.

Sunday’s sermon: Preparing the Soil, Working the Ground

preparing soil

Texts used: Psalm 119:25-48; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15

  • I’d be willing to bet that there are a number of you here this morning who look at soil and simply see dirt. You may describe it as black, muddy, or worm-filled, but one way or the other, dirt is dirt. But I also know that there are a number of you that have quite literally built your lives and your livelihoods on this “dirt.” You can tell me about the degree of compaction, about moisture content, and about nutrient levels because you’ve been farming or gardening or somehow working this “dirt” – working the ground – your whole lives. You know that different kinds of soil bring different blessings as well as different challenges.
    • Blessings and challenges of sandy soil
    • Blessings and challenges of loamy soil
    • Blessings and challenges of clay-heavy soil
    • One way or another – whether you plant in sandy soil, loam, or plain old dirt, whether you’re planting a small garden in your backyard or a 200-acre field – the seeds you plant need continued care, right? You’ve got to put in the effort to prepare the soil and work the ground if you want those seeds to grow.
  • Our gospel text for today is all about preparing the soil and working the ground. It’s about nurturing what’s planted so it can grow.
    • The beautifully simple thing about this parable is that we are the soil and the Word of God is the seed.
    • Keeping that in mind, Jesus describes 4 different planting scenarios
      • SCENARIO #1 = seed that fell on the path and was trampled and eaten by birds
        • Jesus’ explanation: these seeds “are those who hear, but then the devil comes and steals the word from their hearts so that they won’t believe and be saved.”[1]
        • This is what happens when we lose our dedication – when we become apathetic and indifferent toward God – God’s Word, God’s purpose, God’s call in this world and in our lives. And unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon in our society today.
          • Epidemic of people being talked out of their faith
            • By loved ones
            • By “experts” in various fields
            • By ourselves
          • Sometimes it has to do with …
            • Situations – particular circumstances and disagreements that arise in church families as they do in any families
            • Phases of life – sometimes there are certain people or activities or commitments that pull us away for a time
          • For whatever reason, we find ourselves talked out of our faith – let God’s Word be taken away from our hearts.
      • SCENARIO #2 = seed that fell on rock and withered from lack of water
        • Jesus’ explanation: these seeds “are those who receive the word joyfully when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while but fall away when they are tempted.”[2]
        • This is what happens when we stop taking care of that seed – when we become negligent of the Word of God, negligent of our faith. There are a lot of things that can trigger this blasé attitude.
          • Fear
          • Distraction
          • Doubt
          • Weariness
          • It doesn’t matter where the neglect comes from. This seed wasn’t watered. It wasn’t cared for. It was neglected to the point of death.
            • Important distinction: Gr. those who “fall away” = withdraw, desert, abstain – There’s choice implied in this. This is not simply forgetting, inadvertently slipping away from God bit by bit. This is consciously choosing to let faith wither in the face of tough times.
      • SCENARIO #3 = seed that was choked by thorns
        • Jesus’ explanation: these seeds “are the ones who, as they go about their lives, are choked by the concerns, riches, and pleasures of life, and their fruit never matures.”[3]
        • This is what happens when we fail to pay attention. Getting distracted is a dangerous thing, no matter what the distractions are. They can be tangible, like the “riches and pleasures of life,” or intangible, like the “cares” or worries that Jesus mentions. Either way, distractions clutter up our growing space. They clutter up our lives until they completely choke out any hint of the Word that may be maturing into faith.
      • SCENARIO #4 = seed that fell in good soil
        • Jesus’ explanation: these seeds “are those who hear the word and commit themselves to it with a good and upright heart. Through their resolve, they bear fruit.”[4]
        • “their resolve” = sense of perseverance in the face of trials – kind of like farmers dealing with the different blessings and challenges of different soil types → We all face different trials, but with care, attention, and dedication, the word of God can continue to grow and flourish in our lives and our hearts.
  • So how do we foster a life worthy of being deemed “good soil”? And what can we do to ensure that our good soil produces spiritual fruit?
    • Need to prepare the soil
      • Scholar: Hearing involves listening, but it also means understanding and being willing to obey.[5] → We’re not just hearing the word of God on Sunday morning and letting it go in one ear and out the other. We’re hearing the word of God so we can soak it in and live into that Word.
        • Paul in Colossians: “Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.”[6]
        • This is what our passage from Ps 119 is all about → indwelling the word of God and letting it permeate every part of your life
          • It’s in almost every verse
            • Help me understand what your precepts are about so I can contemplate your wondrous works![7]
            • Help me understand so I can guard your Instruction and keep it with all my heart.[8]
            • I will rejoice in your commandments because I love them.[9]
          • We are seeking God’s instruction not just for the heck of it or because it’s what we’re “supposed to do.” We are seeking God’s instruction so we can let it mold and transform our lives – change us from the inside out.
          • Key illustration of this in Ps: v. 32 – I run the same path as your commandments because you give my heart insight.[10]
            • Heb. “insight” = very special word → It’s a word with a multitude of different meanings. It can refer to your heart, mind, character, or inner being. The psalmist is talking about planting God’s word in the very depths of our souls and letting it take root and grow … Jack-and-the-Bean-Stalk style!
    • BUT we need to work the ground → need to be active in our faith
      • Lots of things that we are doing
        • Various organizations that we support through People of the Church
        • Supporting Revs. Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather in their peacemaking and reconciliation work in Uganda and South Sudan
        • Food Shelf
        • Dorothy Day dinners (coming up Sept. 27)
        • Bingo calling at Pine Haven (coming up in Oct. – can’t remember exact date)
      • Lots of other new things that we’re talking about
        • Coffee and Conversation starting next week → part Bible study, part adult Sunday school, all discussion based – a variety of topics having to do with faith, life, and everything in between
        • Ideas that have come up during our Visioning Sundays – things we’ll be talking about and doing some more concrete planning for next week during our Moving Forward discussion
        • (Stick around after church!)
      • And this is just a sample of what’s going on around here. And I know that there are things that you do at home, too – personal devotions, prayer times, discussions you have among yourselves and with me. All of these different things – the things we’re doing as a church and the things you’re doing on your own – are helping us to prepare the soil and work the ground to the glory and honor of God’s Word. Amen.

 

[1] Lk 8:12.

[2] Luke 8:13.

[3] Luke 8:14.

[4] Luke 8:15.

[5] R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 179.

[6] Col 3:17.

[7] Ps 119:27.

[8] Ps 119:34.

[9] Ps 119:47.

[10] Ps 119:32b.

Sunday’s sermon: Strong, Defiant Women

well behaved women

Texts used – Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 27

  • One of my favorite bumper stickers says this: Well-behaved women seldom make history.
    • Quote that’s been erroneously attributed to a number of people
      • Anne Boleyn
      • Eleanor Roosevelt
      • Marilyn Monroe
    • Actual source: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard professor and American historian
      • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991
    • I think one of the greatest things about this quote is its broad application across generations, cultures, religions, and every other barrier. It is a quote that has certainly inspired many women since its inception in 1976, but it’s also a quote that can be appropriately applied to strong, defiant women throughout history, women like …
      • Marie Curie – Polish physicist and chemist famous for her pioneering work in radioactivity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries → co-winner with her husband (and first female winner) of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (a time when women didn’t work outside the home let alone in the field of science)
      • Kathrine Switzer – first woman to run the Boston marathon in 1967 → ran and finished even amidst physical and verbal assaults hurled at her starting at mile 4 and going all the way through mile 26.2 – assaults from race officials, journalists, bystanders, and even her own boyfriend who was running the race with her[1]
      • 588th Night Bomber Regiment – all-female regiment of Russian fighter pilots known as the “Night Witches” in WWII: “It was their enemies, the Nazis, who gave these women their nickname. … To the German pilots they fought, however, they were tormentors, harpies with seemingly supernatural powers of night vision and stealth. Shooting down one of their planes would automatically earn any German soldier the Iron Cross. … The 80-odd Night Witches had arguably the toughest task of all. Flying entirely in the dark, and in plywood planes better suited to dusting crops than withstanding enemy fire, the pilots developed a technique of switching off their engine and gliding toward the target to enable them to drop their bombs in near-silence; they also flew in threes to take turns drawing enemy fire while one pilot released her charges. It was, quite frankly, awesome — as even their enemies had to admit. ‘We simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women,’ one top German commander wrote in 1942. ‘These women feared nothing.’”[2]
      • And so, so, so many more examples. And there are so many great Biblical examples as well. Queen Esther, who saved her people from Haman’s genocide; Deborah, who led the people of Israel through battles and conflicts as one of the judges pre-kingship; Ruth, the stubborn daughter-in-law who refused to leave Naomi and ended up being part of the lineage of Christ; Mary Magdalene, who stayed at the foot of the cross even to Jesus’ last breath and even when all of her male counterparts had run away.
  • But if I had asked you, “Who are your favorite strong, defiant women of the Bible,” would you have included Shiphrah and Puah? Were you even familiar with Shiphrah and Puah’s names before today? And yet these women are indeed They are indeed courageous. And they are indeed defiant – defiant in the face of a powerful king, defiant in the face of a death sentence, defiant in the face of blatant injustice. Surely, we’ve heard the story of Moses’ birth and fated journey on the river many times. But how many times have we really paid attention to the roles of the strong, defiant women in this story?
    • First portion of OT text drives home the plight of the Israelites at the time
      • Slavery
      • Oppression
      • Disenfranchisement
      • Text: The Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. … But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look on the Israelites with disgust and dread. So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.[3]
    • That was the world they were living in. Hard, back-breaking, spirit-crushing work day in and day out with no salvation in sight. And yet, we encounter the bright, indomitable, undeniable spirits of Shiphrah and Puah – strong, defiant women who took their own lives in their hands even as they protected the vulnerable lives of so many.
      • Evil instructions: The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives name Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.”[4]
      • Defiance: Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.[5]
      • Strength of will and spirit in the face of danger: So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?” The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.”
      • Think for a minute about just how much courage that must have taken on the part of those women, especially because they were women. They had zero standing in society on their own. They had no possession that were truly their own. Without their husbands or a male relative to care for them, they were considered nothing. And yet, they stood up to a king. They stood up to power. They stood up to intimidation. They stood up to injustice.
    • I love imagining the relationship between these two women.
      • Probably couldn’t have done what they did independently – safety/ support in numbers
        • Drawing strength from each other
        • Drawing inspiration from each other
        • Drawing support from each other
        • I can imagine them having whispered conversations long into the night – conversations that ranged from fearful to tearful, from conspiratorial to emboldened, from a half-serious “what if?” to a whole-hearted “how can we not?”. Since our Scripture story tells us that Shiphrah and Puah were women who “respected God”[6] (other translations: “feared God”), we know that these were devout women. They were strong, defiant women of faith. So I imagine that the psalm that we read this morning could have been one of the things that kept them going – feeding their strength and their defiance.
          • Ps: The Lord is my light and my salvation. Should I fear anyone? The Lord is a fortress protecting my life. Should I be afraid of anything? … Lord, teach me your way; because of my opponents, lead me on a good path. Don’t give me over to the desires of my enemies, because false witnesses and violent accusers have taken their stand against me. But I have sure faith that I will experience the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living! Hope in the Lord! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the Lord![7] → That sounds like the battle cry of the strong, defiant women! “Hope in the Lord! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the Lord!” I can just hear Shiphrah and Puah whispering those words to one another, holding them in their hearts as they delivered one safe Hebrew boy baby after another, clinging to them as they were accused by the Pharaoh and as they told the lie that would save not only their own lives but the lives of so many innocent baby boys.
  • But Shiphrah and Puah are not the only strong, defiant women in this story.
    • MIRIAM – Text: The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him. … Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.[8] → We also have Miriam – strong, defiant woman-in-training.
      • Watches the strong defiance of her mother as she hides her “healthy and beautiful”[9] baby boy for 3 whole months
      • Watches fretfully as her mother prepares a basket and sends this boy down the river
      • Continues to watch from the riverbank as the basket floats further and further down the river until it is picked up by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter – the daughter of the one who had given her baby brother his undeserved death sentence
      • Part where Miriam herself becomes strong and defiant = when she steps out of hiding and boldly addresses Pharaoh’s daughter → Remember, Miriam was just a Hebrew slave girl. Not worth much in the eyes of the Egyptians. Certainly not worthy of addressing the daughter of the almighty Pharaoh. And yet she doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t beg for the life of the child in the basket. And she doesn’t reveal that precious secret – that this child is, in fact, her own baby brother. She courageously steps up, asks Pharaoh’s daughter if she needs a wet nurse for the baby, and then runs to find her own mother – the baby’s own beloved mother – to fill the role.
      • Also cannot deny that Pharaoh’s daughter = strong, defiant woman, too → She surely must have heard about her father’s unspeakable edict. Why else would she expect to find “one of the Hebrews’ children”[10] in the river? And yet she takes this Hebrew boy – this one whom her father had destined for a grossly premature death – and brought him into her own household (Pharaoh’s own household!) to love and cherish and raise as her own son. That kind of quiet, subversive resistance is its own form of strong defiance as well.
  • Friends, sometimes sermons are about breaking down the meaning of a text – parsing it out and digging into the how and the why and the “what does it mean for me?” of the text. Very often, that’s the kind of sermon I preach. But today’s sermon is different. Today’s sermon is about reading a familiar story in a whole new light. It’s about reading a story you’ve read or heard a hundred times before and looking for the people you haven’t seen before – the names you glossed over, the roles that on first glance look like supporting roles but when turned around can really be the whole point of the story. It’s about encouraging you to encounter God’s Word in a different way – finding those characters you may have missed, those elements of the story that didn’t seem important the first or 101st time around.
    • Important to do when we read Scripture
      • Keeps us seeing and learning new things
      • Keeps Scripture fresh
    • Important to do in our own lives, too → As you think about the strong, defiant women that you met this morning – Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter … as these strong, defiant women float through your mind this week, be on the lookout for other characters in your own life that you may have overlooked. Because you never know … they just may turn the whole tide of the Story. Amen.

[1] http://kathrineswitzer.com/about-kathrine/1967-boston-marathon-the-real-story/.

[2] Jessica Phelan. “7 of the most badass women who ever lived (who you’ve probably never heard of)” from PRI: GlobalPost, https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-16/7-most-badass-women-who-ever-lived-who-youve-probably-never-heard. Posted January 16, 2014, accessed August 24, 2017.

[3] Ex 1:11, 13-14.

[4] Ex 1:15.

[5] Ex 1:16.

[6] Ex 1:17.

[7] Ps 27:1, 11-14.

[8] Ex 2:4, 7-8.

[9] Ex 2:2.

[10] Ex 2:6.

Sunday’s sermon: The Hospitality Challenge

all are welcome

While this sermon was already written before the horrible, racist events that took place in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend, I did make some changes to both our worship and the sermon late on Saturday night. To open our worship yesterday, we used the prayer written by Jill Duffield, Presbyterian Outlook editor and resident of Charlottesville. We also sang “We Shall Overcome,” both calling out the racism that continues to run horribly rampant and standing with our brothers and sisters in pain.

Texts used – Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22; Matthew 15:21-28

  • I have to tell you all that I planned these Scripture readings a year ago. I wrote this sermon on Thursday, just 3 short days ago. But so much can happen in a year, let alone 3 short days. Hatred can boil over and march in the streets bearing torches and machine guns and ugly, ugly words. A man can careen his car into a peaceful crowd of protestors, becoming a harbinger of death and destruction. A group of clergy praying for justice and peace can be trapped inside a church by a vicious mob screaming venom and intolerance. Evil and darkness can walk the earth wearing the guises of malice and enmity, prejudice and supremacy – dark words, dark actions, and dark intentions. And yet in the face of all that surrounds us – from Charlottesville to here and back again, we are still called to be people of God, followers of the Prince of Peace, proclaimers of hope and good news – good news that speaks of radical hospitality in times when we feel anything but Really, when you think about it, both of the stories in our Scripture readings this morning can be boiled down to one common and hauntingly-poignant theme: hospitality.
  • Now, I know that our Old Testament reading this morning was a psalm, but as with many of the psalms, this portion that we read this morning harkens back to a story.
    • Purpose/role of the psalms = expressions of the heart made in the spirit of worship → That’s why the scope of topics, emotions, and prayers in the psalms are so diverse.
      • Written by variety of different people
      • Written for variety of different times of worship
        • Joy
        • Lament
        • Thanksgiving
        • Supplication
      • And a big part of that worship is remembering back to the ways that God has already been present in the past. → not so different from what we do today, right?
        • Remember God’s past actions in the life of faith (through Scripture)
        • Remember God’s past action in our own lives
        • Remember God’s past actions in the life of this congregation
    • And telling stories and remembering are somewhat of a cycle. We tell stories … and we remember … and as we remember, we are led to another story … which leads to more remembering. And so on and so on. So it is with the psalm that we read this morning. It is a psalm of thanksgiving and praise for God’s presence and protection in difficult times, and as part of that thanksgiving and praise, the writer of the psalm recalled the story of Joseph.
      • Envied by his brothers to the point of them selling him into slavery
      • Winds up in Egypt indentured in the house of Potiphar → imprisoned after a run-in with Potiphar’s wife
      • Released from prison at the request of the pharaoh → ends up in position of great power under pharaoh
      • Brother’s show up on his doorstep in time of great famine and need → don’t initially recognize Joseph
      • And instead of sending his brother’s away – instead repaying them in kind for the way they treated him – Joseph forgave his brothers and convinced them to move their entire lives and families to Egypt so that he could continue to care and provide for them out of his own great abundance.
    • Our psalm this morning = recalls both the hardship and the blessing that Joseph experienced – text: When God called for famine in the land, destroying every source of food, he sent a man ahead of them, who was sold as a slave: it was Joseph. Joseph’s feet hurt in his shackles; his neck was in an iron collar, until what he predicted actually happened, until what the Lord had said proved him true. The king sent for Joseph and set him free; the ruler of many people released him. The king made Joseph master of his house and ruler over everything he owned, to make sure his princes acted according to his will, and to teach wisdom to his advisors. … Praise the Lord![1] → In recalling Joseph’s story, we are reminded of the protection that God gave to Joseph in his time of great need, and, as we remember the rest of Joseph’s story (beyond what is mentioned in our Scripture reading this morning) we are reminded of Joseph’s radical, merciful hospitality when it came to his brothers.
      • Joseph could have revealed himself for who he was and scorned them
      • Joseph could have turned them away
      • Joseph could have forced them to work as he had worked in order to earn the food they so desperately needed with their blood, sweat, and tears
      • Joseph could have done a lot of things to repay his brothers for the horrible way that they treated him. But instead, he showed them radical hospitality. He welcomed them in. He fed them. He embraced them as his brothers. And he forgave them.
        • Story that we’ve heard in church many times BUT … I want you to let that sink in for a minute – just how truly radical that hospitality was. Joseph’s brothers shoved him down a dried up well. They intended to kill him. They sold him into slavery. These are horrible, atrocious acts! If someone did that to you – anyone, let alone your own kin (brother, sister, spouse, parents … anyone dear to you) … if someone did that to you today, would you be able to welcome, feed, embrace, and forgive as Joseph did? Truly? It would be a hard, hard thing to do. And yet this is the radical hospitality with which God welcomes us time and time again. We make mistakes. We turn away. We try to force God into our own minimal boxes of understanding and expectation without giving God room to move in the unexpected and powerful ways in which God tends to move. We deny. We blame. We mistrust. We disengage. But instead of turning us away … instead of repaying us in kind … God welcomes us back again, continues to care and provide for us in our times of need (both great and small).
  • So in our Old Testament reading, we are reminded of this incredible, inspiring example of radical hospitality: mercy, welcome, provision, forgiveness. And all of these things are certainly things that we expect of Jesus – things that we have seen Jesus embody on one occasion after another.
    • E.g.s of Jesus’ radical hospitality
      • “Let the children come to me”[2]
      • Parable of the Good Samaritan[3] in which Jesus emphasizes that our “neighbor” may be the person that we least expect/desire
      • Feeding the 5000[4]
      • Woman with the alabaster jar (from a few weeks ago) – woman ignored/despised by everyone else at the banquet but welcomed and even honored by Jesus[5]
      • We could go on and on with examples of Jesus welcoming the stranger, eating with people he wasn’t “supposed” to eat with, healing people he wasn’t “supposed” to touch, and so on and so on and so on.
    • But instead, we read today’s story. – text: A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” But [Jesus] didn’t respond to her at all. His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.” Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.” He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their master’s table.”[6] → [PAUSE] “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their master’s table.” This. Is. Tough.
      • Not the Jesus that we envision
      • Not the welcome that we desire
      • No hint of the forgiveness or generosity that we expect
      • This is a picture of Jesus that makes us uncomfortable. It’s one of those stories in the Bible that we wish we could look away from – that we wish we didn’t have to see – but also that is so captivating in its unexpectedness and strangeness that we cannot look away.
        • Scholar: At first glance, this story of the Canaanite woman opens with a disconcerting picture of Jesus. It raises a serious pastoral question: if he does not have time for her, does he have time for us?[7] → We are, in fact, not so different from that Canaanite woman. We cannot claim to be those “lost sheep,” those “people of Israel” that Jesus speaks of at first. Like this woman, when we cry out, “Mercy!”, are we to expect “just the crumbs” as well?
      • And Jesus’ selectiveness is not the only challenging part of this text. His language is also troubling. – text: He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
        • Gr. “dogs” = not a nice word → Jesus is not conjuring pictures of cuddly puppies and beloved, obedient companions with his language here. Frankly, Jesus’ choice of words is insulting. It’s demeaning. It is meant to put this woman in her place.
          • All sorts of history wrapped up in this: Canaanites were ancient enemies of the Israelites → history of idol worship, land disputes, and war (and all the atrocities that go with it) – scholar: The Canaanites were the inhabitants of the land that Israel came into at the time of the conquest under Joshua, so one could assume distance between Judeans and Canaanites. Differences of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender separate [this woman] from Judean social norms. Further, demon possession marginalizes her daughter.[8]
    • But isn’t Jesus supposed to be above all of these things? Isn’t Jesus supposed to look past all of those things that separate us to see the heart of who we are? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be the embodiment of God’s gracious love extended to all people? Yes. That is who Jesus is … eventually. And therein lies the power of our New Testament reading this morning.
      • Nearly every other story that we have of Jesus is a story of his righteousness, his benevolence, his openhandedness → As Presbyterians, as people of the Reformed tradition, we believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully God, and very often, we see only those “fully God” actions and reactions of Jesus among those to whom he ministered.
      • Today’s story = stark picture of the “fully human” side of Jesus
        • Side that is still growing/learning to understand who he is called to be to God’s people – all God’s people
        • Side that still feels and experiences the full gamut of emotions – compassion and love, yes, but also frustration, anger, resentment → Very often, we see this side directed toward the Pharisees, and when that happens, we say, “Of course Jesus reacted that way. The Pharisees were in the wrong. They were holding back his ministry. They were trying to trap him, to kill him even! The Pharisees are the ‘bad guys’ in this story. It’s okay if Jesus treats them with disregard and contempt.” But in today’s story, that disregard and contempt are directed at a woman seeking Jesus’ compassion and miraculous healing. She is asking for his help, and she won’t take no for an answer.
    • And in her persistence – in her desperation as a mother and the tenacious nature of her faith – we see Jesus changed. – text: She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall of their master’s table.” Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.[9] → This is a powerful moment. We witness Jesus’ own repentance – repentance for his initial reaction, repentance for his prejudicial dismissal, repentance for the hardness of his own heart. We see that even for the Son of God, transformation is possible. Mercy in the face of mistakes is possible. Forgiveness in the face of a fractured moment is possible. This truly may be the most raw and genuine example of grace within all of Scripture.
      • Grace from Jesus, to be sure – woman’s daughter is healed after all
      • More importantly = grace from the woman → She has been ignored. She has been turned away. She has been insulted and belittled. But still, she had faith – faith in the Son of God, faith in his goodness and his ability to heal, faith in a compassion which she had not been shown but which she had surely heard so much about. She could have easily turned away. She could have given up. She could have returned Jesus’ insults and stormed off. But instead, she presented another chance, and in that presentation we find immeasurable grace shown not by the Savior but to the Savior.
        • Scholar: This encounter with Jesus reminds us that there is no one outside the circle of God’s love and compassion. … The height, breadth, and depth of God’s compassion still trouble some people within the church today. … Yet no one can limit the grace of God. … The doors of the church are wide open to the world. It should always be that way. How else would we have ever come in?[10]
  • Now, I will say that this congregation is pretty darn good at hospitality.
    • Open, warm, and welcoming
    • Time and time again I’ve seen various people approach someone new and strike up a conversation. “Who are you? How are you doing? What brings you here?” All in ways that are non-threatening and non-pressuring. And always from different people (not the same person approaching new people every time).
    • And we all know we’re good at food!
    • But friends, the world we live in seems to be turning itself upside down. Instead of drawing closer together, we are drawing more and more lines that separate us from other people, lines that are too often drawn in hatred and bigotry and enforced by guns and violence.
      • Born here or not?
      • Speak this language or not?
      • Think/look/worship/believe/vote like me or not?
      • Line, line, line, line, line – one drawn after another
      • We’re pretty good at hospitality within these walls (and we’ll even extend that out to the parking lot and the lawn) … but how are we out in the “real world”? How are we with the person who cuts us off in traffic? The person who screws up our order in the drive through line? The person at work who drives us crazy? The family member that grates on our nerves? The neighbor with the lawn sign or bumper sticker that’s opposite our own views? How are we when the hospitality is hard? Because those moments – those moments when we are faced with the Canaanite women, the undesirables, the difficult-to-loves, the “please God, anyone but this one”s … those moments are opportunities for powerful, transformative grace – for those whom we welcome, and for ourselves. Amen.

[1] Ps 105:16-22, 45b.

[2] Mt 19:14.

[3] Lk 10:25-37.

[4] Jn 6:1-15.

[5] Lk 7:36-50.

[6] Mt 15:22-27.

[7] Lewis F. Galloway. “Matthew 15:21-28 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 32.

[8] Jae Won Lee. “Proper 15 (Sunday between August 14 and August 20 inclusive) – Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – year A, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 359.

[9] Mt 15:27-28.

[10] Galloway, 34, 36 (emphasis added).

Sunday’s sermon: Treasure Stolen, Treasure Shared

heart treasure

Texts used – Genesis 25:19-34 and Luke 12:22-34

  • There’s nothing like a good treasure hunt, is there? → treasure hunts = the stuff that epic tales are made of
    • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island[1] → tale of young Jim Hawkins, Captain Long John Silver, and their ill-fated adventure on Treasure Island, hunting for the gold and the jewels Silver had buried there long ago
    • R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit[2] → classic tale of Bilbo Baggins and the band of dwarves led by King Thorin Oakenshield and accompanied by the wizard, Gandalf – seeking the long-forgotten gold of the dwarves in the Misty Mountain guarded by the horrible dragon, Smaug
    • And I’m sure that in about a month’s time, as the population of Oronoco explodes over Gold Rush weekend, there are plenty of people who have come back year after year with their own treasure hunt stories – stories of pieces they’ve been searching for; stories of that one time when they found the perfect piece for the perfect price; stories of just how much fun they’ve had in the midst of the hunt itself.
    • Plenty of things that make a treasure hunt entertaining
      • Uncertainty of it – Will treasure be found? Where? How? What will you have to do along the way?
      • Thrill of the hunt – moment when the treasure is finally found (because it cannot truly be a good treasure hunt story unless the treasure is indeed found at the end … A treasure hunt story without an actual treasure is like a bad fish story. “It was this big!” Yeah. Sure it was.)
      • All the adventures you have along the way
        • People you meet
        • Near misses
        • Twists and turns of the journey
        • And maybe, if you’re lucky, a lesson or two that you learn about yourself along the way.
    • Treasure hunts are for more than the pages of fiction and the cluttered tables of flea markets
      • Treasure hunt in your own attic/basement/storage space: hunting for that one, special item that you just know you didn’t throw away … but you also can’t quite put your finger on
      • Treasure hunt in your favorite store: perfect piece (article of clothing, electronic gadget, book, etc.) → I know a few people who have had very productive and meaningful treasure hunts in the aisles of Menard’s. 🙂
      • Virtual treasure hunt within the files of your computer or tablet: hunting for that file that you so desperately need (document, picture, video, song, etc.)
      • Wherever there is treasure to be had, there is the promise of a hunt for that treasure, a legendary undertaking to find that which is precious … that which is revered … that which holds deep value and meaning for us. Ahh … treasure.
  • But what happens when there is no treasure? What happens when the treasure is gone? What happens when, for some reason, we find that cherished and beloved abundance out of our reach? Or worse yet, when that treasure has been taken from us?
    • Feel outraged
    • Feel entitled
    • Feel cheated
    • Probably feel a lot like Esau in today’s OT story → I’ve always found this a really interesting story. You see, throughout the Bible, Jacob is revered. Jacob is the one who wrestles with God and is renamed “Israel.” The whole people of faith in the Old Testament – God’s chosen people – come from this one man, Jacob … Israel. A people are named for this man. A nation – way back then and now – is named after this man. God specifically chose this man to do carry on that special covenant relationship for generation and generations to come, down through the millennia. So he must be a great man, right? A man among men? Jacob must be wonderful and just and humble and wise and kind and all of those things that we expect a “man of God” in Scripture to be, right? Well … not so much. At least, he certainly didn’t start out that way.
      • Today’s story = birth of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau
        • Abraham’s son, Isaac, married Rebecca BUT no children → prayed to God for a child → BAM! – text: Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, since she was unable to have children. The Lord was moved by his prayer, and his wife Rebecca became pregnant. But the boys pushed against each other inside of her, and she said, “If this is what it’s life, why did it happen to me?” (( [PAUSE] Hmm … gee. I wonder what that’s like.)) So she went to ask the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; two different peoples will emerge from your body. One people will be stronger than the other; the older will serve the younger.” When she finally reached the end of her pregnancy, she discovered she had twins.[3]
        • So these twins are born: first Esau, then Jacob.
          • Different as night and day
            • Esau = hair, Jacob = smooth skin
            • Esau = big and strong, Jacob = small and weak
            • Esau = hunter, Jacob = “quiet man who stayed at home”[4]
            • Most interesting/challenging difference – text: Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.[5] → I don’t care what story you’re reading or who you’re talking about … that, my friends, is a recipe for trouble.
        • And trouble, indeed, is what they find. One day, Esau comes in from the field and is starving. He’s been working hard out in the fields all day long, and he hasn’t had anything to eat all day long. So when he sees that his twin brother, Jacob, is cooking stew, he cannot focus on anything else. He begs Jacob for food.
          • Does Jacob act like the wonderful, just, humble, wise, kind, Godly man that we expect? Nope! Jacob begins scheming – text: Esau came in from the field hungry and said to Jacob, “I’m starving! Let me devour some of this red stuff.” … Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright today.” Esau said, “Since I’m going to die anything, what good is my birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Give me your word today.” And he did. He sold his birthright to Jacob.[6] → Jacob takes advantage of the situation in all the wrong ways, demanding an inexorably high price for a few mouthfuls of food.
            • What’s the deal with the whole “birthright” thing? – scholar: The birthright – namely, the conferral of rights and privileges on the eldest son (normally) – entails a leadership position in the family and establishes claims regarding inheritance, indeed a double share of it.[7] → So it’s not just some sheep and a hut that Jacob extorted out of Esau. It was a double share of inheritance and it was a position of prestige and power within the family. Basically, it was an entire way of life. For a bowl of stew.
        • Not the only time Jacob steals such a treasure from Esau (seriously … at least in the beginning of his own story, Jacob is not such a fine, upstanding citizen!)
          • As Isaac is lying on his deathbed, Jacob disguises himself as Esau and also steals a blessing meant for Esau → doesn’t really sound like a big deal BUT – scholar: The blessing centers on fertility and dominion … over other nations/peoples, including his “brothers/mother’s son.” … Then, Isaac links his blessing with God’s promise: Whether people are cursed or blessed depends on their treatment of Jacob/Israel.[8]
          • This last theft is too much for Esau to bear. Jacob has stolen everything from him – his physical inheritance, his position of leadership within the family, and now a powerful blessing that cannot be replicated. Within that culture and within that family, what Jacob has stolen is priceless. And Esau feels it → flies into a rage at Jacob → Jacob fears for his life and flees
  • Certainly plenty of parallels between the treasure in this OT story and many of the things that people treasure today
    • Wealth – money, possessions, property
    • Power over others
    • Prestige/notoriety
    • And yet as Christians, we have the words of Jesus weighing heavily on the other side of the scale. – today’s text: Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. … Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well. Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to those in need. … Where your treasure is, there your heart will be, too.[9] → These two texts together pose such a real and present struggle in today’s world.
      • Age-old struggle of “haves” vs. “have nots”
      • Struggle of wanting bigger, better, nicer, fancier, shinier … more
      • Shines light on the difficult and sometimes daunting threads connecting what we own with our own identities à begs the question: What if all of that were stripped away? Who would you be? How would you define yourself? What would you still have?
        • Gospel text: Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses the grass in the fields so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you?[10]
  • I have to tell you that this is not the kind of sermon in which I give you all sorts of information and flowery impressions and walk with you down a specific path. It’s not, as they taught us in seminary, a neat and tidy 3-point sermon with an introduction, three meticulously-crafted points, and a conclusion all wrapped up in a nice, shiny package. Today, I have no answers. I have no solutions. I have only questions. This is a sermon to leave you pondering today – to leave you assessing and evaluating: evaluating your own life, the desires of your heart, and even our goals and wants and future as a church.
    • From today’s centering prayer at the top of your bulletin:
      • What is your dearest treasure?
      • How do you know what you treasure?
      • Is your treasure a blessing, or is it something that holds you back?
      • How do you share your treasure? How do we, as a congregation, share our treasure?

[1] Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island. (London, England: Cassell and Company), 1883.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (London, England: George Allen & Unwin), 1937.

[3] Gen 25:21-24.

[4] Gen 25:27.

[5] Gen 25:28.

[6] Gen 25:29-33.

[7] Terence E. Fretheim. “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 522.

[8] Fretheim, 536.

[9] Lk 12:22-23, 29-33a, 34.

[10] Lk 12:24-28.

Sunday’s sermon: Broken Jars

cracked pot

Texts used – 2 Corinthians 4:6-18 and Luke 7:36-50

  • THE TALE OF THE CRACKED POT[1]: Once upon a time, there lived a man in India. His job was to be the water carrier for the master of a large estate. He spent his days walking miles from the master’s estate to the stream for water and back again. This water carrier had two large jars, each hung on opposite ends of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of those jars had a crack in it while the other was perfect and smooth and whole. The perfect jar always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk. The jar with the crack in it leaked water with ever step the water carrier took, and by the time the man returned to the master’s estate, the jar with the crack was only half full. For two whole years, this went on daily, with the water carrier delivering only one and a half jars full of water to the master’s estate. Of course, the perfect jar was proud of its accomplishments, flawlessly fulfilling to the purpose for which it was made. But the poor cracked jar was ashamed of its own imperfect and miserable that it was only able to accomplish half of what it had been created to do. After two full years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water carrier one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” → Flawed. Imperfect. Ineffective. Inadequate. Useless. Worthless. Hopeless. All labels and descriptions that, when heaped upon our shoulders, pull us down and down and down – make our backs and our heads and our hearts stoop lower than the shoulders of that water carrier as he carried two heavy, clay jars full of water.
    • Not labels that we love
    • Not labels that we embrace
    • Not labels that we want to take on for ourselves
    • Let’s be honest. No one walks around declaring with joy and pride, “Hey, I’m inadequate! I’m worthless … isn’t that great?! I’ve been told I’m flawed, and I couldn’t be happier!” // And yet // how often do we give those labels to ourselves? How often do we sit there and look in the mirror or look at our houses, our cars, our checkbooks, our lives in comparison to other people’s and say, “I am ashamed of myself.”? Or we can turn it around. How often do we cast judgmental, disparaging glances at the people around us – in the grocery store, at work, on the highway, wherever – and think these things about them?
      • Like the Pharisee in one of Jesus’ parables[2] who boasts loudly and proudly, “Thank God I’m not like that other guy … that tax collector guy … that sinner! Ugh! I may not be perfect but at least I am better than him. Phew!”
  • Or like the Pharisees in our gospel story for today → I think that today’s gospel story may be one of the most touching and most heartbreaking stories in scripture.
    • Begins simply enough – Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to his home for dinner → would have been a pretty big deal
      • A “who’s who” sort of dinner party
      • A chance for Simon to show off his home/affluence
      • Even more important: a chance for Simon to show off his connectedness, a sort of “Aren’t you impressed by who I know?” kind of gathering → rubbing elbows, making powerful associations, etc.
      • Definitely a “by invitation only” sort of gathering
    • But then in comes the Uninvited Guest, “a woman in the city, a sinner,” as Luke calls her in his gospel account. → what do/can we know about this woman who doesn’t even get an actual name?
      • Long been speculated that, by being called “a woman in the city,” it is implied that this woman has been a prostitute → assumption that has been seriously called into question in recent years
        • Scholar: Like Jesus, she finds that her reputation has preceded her. Simon’s knowledge of her sin implies that, whatever her wrongdoing, it carries with it a public shame. Her low, inward body gesture suggests that she has long been cast out from community gatherings. The shame that she carries has pushed her to the fringes of society and leaves her looking up at the world from a lowly place.[3]
      • And if her presence and her reputation alone weren’t enough, her actions certainly would have scandalized the entire gathering.[4]
        • First, as we said, woman was a sinner = she was unclean → So when this unclean woman touched Jesus, according to Jewish law, she made him unclean, requiring that he go through the specific cleansing ritual before he was considered clean again. An unclean person having physical contact with a clean person – especially an unclean woman having contact with a clean man – was a grievous social indiscretion.
        • Second scene-creating action = where she touched Jesus → In that culture at that time, touching or caressing the feet could have sexual overtones.
          • Gesture that all the guests in that room would have recognized immediately
          • Could be where interpretation that this woman was a prostitute came from
        • Third strike = the woman let down her hair → another sexual impropriety in the culture, women never let down their hair in public
          • Intimate … sensual … familiar
          • And not only does she let her hair down, she touches Jesus’ feet with her long, loose hair!
        • She would have known this – all of this. She would have known how her actions would be perceived. And yet none of that mattered to her. While we do not know her name … while we do not know her story … while we in fact know nothing about this woman except that she was a sinner … what we know for sure is that her love for Jesus was stronger than anything else inside of her. → love so strong, it poured out of her
          • Poured out of her in weeping – in so many tears, she was able to wash Jesus’ feet with them
          • Poured out of her in compassion/desire to serve – drying Jesus’ feet with not with her hands or the hem of her dress but with her own hair
          • Poured out of her in devotion/reverence – anointed Jesus’ feet with precious, expensive oil → And not only did she pour oil out of that alabaster jar, but because of the way those jars were constructed, the top actually had to be broken off in order to pour oil out in the way that this woman was doing to anoint Jesus’ feet.
    • Simon’s response to this appalling act = full of judgment and disdain – text: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”[5] → Now, Scripture tells us that Simon said this to himself. He probably muttered it under his breath. But Jesus’ hearing was apparently better than Simon had anticipated because Jesus not only hears this comment but turns Simon’s judgment and disdain back on himself by first pointing out the power of great forgiveness and then pointing out Simon’s serious lack of hospitality.
      • Cultural gap we need to bridge: Middle Eastern culture at the time required a number of hospitality actions including a place to wash your dirty feet, a kiss of greeting/peace, and an anointing of special guests → Simon did none of these things for Jesus, and yet this unnamed woman … this uninvited one … this creature of the city … this sinner … did them all to the ennth degree. Like the water carrier’s broken jar, she surely would have felt her shame – felt it like a burning pit deep within her – but instead of letting that shame define her, this woman is define by forgiveness and the exquisite love and devotion that that forgiveness inspired.
  • So let’s return to that story of the water carrier and his jars: After two full years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the broken jar spoke to the water carrier one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” The carrier asked, “Why? What are you ashamed of?” The broken jar replied, “For these past two years, I have been able to deliver only half of my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to the master’s estate. Because of my flaws, you don’t get full value for your efforts.” The water carrier felt sorry for the cracked jar, and in his compassion, he said, “As we return to the master’s estate today, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” As they went up a hill, the cracked jar took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it somewhat. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because once again, half of its contents had leaked out along the way. Again, the cracked jar apologized to the water carrier for its failure. But the carrier said to the jar, “Did you notice that there were flowers on your side of the path but not on the perfect jar’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years, I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his home.”
    • 2 Cor passage: God said that light should shine out of darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us.[6] → Clay jars. Plain. Simple. Ordinary. Clay jars. Chip-able. Crack-able. Break-able. Clay jars. The perfect vessel for the light of Christ in this world. The perfect vessel to display the incredible love and grace of God, not in spite of their commonness and their breakability but because of it.
      • Commonness draws attention not to ourselves, but to God → We are not our own creation but God’s creation. We are not our own saviors; God has saved us. We do not find perfect love or grace within ourselves, but God gives them freely to us. God can and does do anything and everything with simple clay jars, making us beautiful and special and unique and suited perfectly to the purpose to which God has called each and every one of us.
        • Makes me think of Pinterest = social networking site that allows people to share ideas, images, vidoes, and website in a very visual manner → find anything from fitness tips to recipes to book suggestions to craft ideas to organizational hints and everything in between
        • One of the most commonly used items on Pinterest (especially in the summer) = terra cotta pots
          • Used in indoor and outdoor gardening (of course)
          • Used in recipes = unique food delivery vessel (especially desserts)
          • Used in a staggering number of crafts → People have turned these basic pots into just about anything you can imagine with paint, chalk, twine, glitter, glue, candles, googly eyes … you name it, someone has used it to “fancy up” their terra cotta pots.
            • Our own experience with this = Amy → If you look at the peace lily in my office, it’s potted in a terra cotta pot that has 2 butterflies on the side … butterflies make out of the boys’ footprints! They made it for me for Mother’s Day a few years ago.
        • That is what God does to us, simple clay jars though we may be. – Paul in Eph: You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.[7]
      • But did you notice that Paul said “good things,” not “easy things”? That’s where our cracks, our chips, our dings and our dents – that’s where our own imperfections come into play.
        • Paul names them again in our 2 Cor passage: We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. … Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen.[8] → Basically, it’s not about our cracks, our flaws, our imperfections but about what God can make of them. It’s about how God can use us in all our cracked and broken glory to shine the light of Christ in this world.
          • Like the woman with the alabaster jar who had to break the jar in order to anoint Jesus’ feet
          • Like the water carrier’s cracked pot watering the flowers along the path
          • Or think about it this way. Imagine you have a solid jar with no cracks and no imperfections in it, and you put a flashlight in the bottom of that jar, what are you going to see? Not a whole lot. But what if your jar is cracked? What if it’s been entirely broken and pieced back together, but some of the smaller shards got lost? So there are not only cracks but holes … gaps … missing spaces? Now imagine putting a flashlight in the bottom of that How much light are you going to see shining out? Friends, the good news of the gospel is that God uses cracked pots! God doesn’t simply tolerate our broken and imperfect selves but God embraces us – flaws, cracks, sins, and all. God embraces us with a love and forgiveness that we cannot even imagine and says to us, “You see this purpose? You see this need in my creation? You see this other broken place in the world – this place that needs water, needs color, needs light, needs forgiveness, needs love, needs hope? Your broken edges fit perfectly with those broken edges. See, I have a place and a purpose for you. Not in spite of your brokenness, but because of it.” Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Indian folk tale, found at http://www.moralstories.org/the-cracked-pot/. Accessed July 5, 2017.

[2] Lk 18:9-14.

[3] M. Jan Holton. “Proper 6 (Sunday between June 12-June 18): Luke 7:36-8:3 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 142 (emphasis added).

[4] R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 170.

[5] Lk 7:39.

[6] 2 Cor 4:6-7.

[7] Eph 2:8-10.

[8] 2 Cor 4:8-9, 17-18a.