Sunday’s sermon: Who Is This God Character?

who is God

Texts used – Genesis 3:1-15; 1 John 2:24-3:3

  • When I went to college at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, I settled pretty quickly into a Religious Studies major.
    • Found the classes fascinating
      • In-depth study of various world religions
      • Philosophy of religion courses – Modern Religious Thought and Religion and Morality
      • Topical exploration courses – Women in World Religions, The Problem of Evil
    • Among all of these requirements and electives, there was one class that I found particularly challenging: “Critiques of God”
      • Basic break-down of the class: 400 level course, small attendance (~12 students), exceptionally intelligent professor, met for one 3-hr. class per week to hash through things
      • Description from the course catalogue: “Criticisms and objections to the concept of a Supreme Being, leading either to atheism or to non-theistic religions. Movements, systems of thought, and major thinkers who for various reasons have rejected the idea of a God.”[1]  → Basically, this class presented us with every major argument posed throughout history for why God could not/should not exist.
      • I have to be honest with you, this class was really difficult for me. I’d never had my faith questioned like that before – directly denounced on an intellectual level. This class didn’t just challenge aspects of my faith – a doctrine here or a Scriptural interpretation there. It challenged the very foundation of my faith – the existence of God.
    • Now, for the last month, we’ve been talking about various uncomfortable aspects of faith – relationships and stepping outside our comfort zones, wrestling with God and hope. But today, I want to talk about how uncomfortable it can be to cling to faith even when it is challenged and questioned. In our empirically-minded, proof-centered society, we have to admit that it can sometimes be uncomfortable for us to ground ourselves in One who is intangible and unexplainable, inconceivable and ultimately unproveable.
  • OT passage w/Moses illustrates just how unexplainable and undefineable the nature of God truly is → catch Moses in a particularly uncomfortable moment
    • On the one hand, Moses is trying to come to terms with God’s actions.
      • 1st: appears in a burning bush and speaks to Moses out of nowhere
      • Next: declares this scrubby little patch of desert “holy ground”
      • Then: fills Moses in on God’s grand intention to free Israelites from centuries-old Egyptian enslavement
      • Final wrap-up: “Oh, by the way, Moses, you’re going to do this for me.” – God in text: So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.[2]  → Imagine how dumbfounded Moses must have been by all of this.
        • Scholar: In one brief utterance, the grand intention of God has become a specific human responsibility, human obligation, and human vocation. It is Moses who will do what Yahweh said, and Moses who will run the risk that Yahweh seemed ready to take.[3]
    • And as if dealing with all this isn’t enough, Moses also finds himself struggling to grasp the nature of God, to understand who God really – text: Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”[4]
      • God’s reply = cryptic at best
        • Heb. word = difficult to pin down – repetition of word “life,” verb “to be” → being of being … becoming of becoming … “I am who I am”[5] … “I will be who I will be”
        • We have to feel for Moses here. I mean, he asks God for a name, some sort of identifier that he can take back to the people of Israel – proof in the face of anticipated skepticism, a name that will speak persuasively and rationally and convincingly to their minds. But instead, God gives Moses something even more vague and confounding than anything Moses could’ve come up with on his own: a name-formula meant to speak abstractly and transcendently to their hearts.
      • Brueggemann: [This] formula bespeaks power, fidelity, and presence. This God is named as the power to create, the one who causes to be. This God is the one who will be present in faithful ways, to make possible what is not otherwise possible.[6]  → This is a truly beautiful description. It’s poetic. It’s inspiring. It carries an indelible implication of holiness – sacred mystery and divine otherness … which is great … when you already believe. But today, the skepticism and incredulity of a post-modern world demands something measurable, something concrete and definitive, and for us, this causes an uncomfortable tension.
  • But I want you to stop and think for a minute about the life of Jesus – teaching when and where he shouldn’t, spending time with people that the Jewish leaders had already written off, loving his neighbors and his enemies alike, preaching a message of forgiveness for all. Jesus lived the gospel message directly into those times and places of uncomfortable tension, and we know that when Jesus faced the ultimate test of skepticism and spiritual hesitancy on the cross, he prevailed! So why should we be so afraid to even try?
    • NT passage speaks to this tension btwn. the faith in our heart-descriptions of God and the stipulations of our “prove it” culture → text: And now, little children, remain in relationship to Jesus, so that when he appears we can have confidence and not be ashamed in front of him when he comes. … Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.[7]
      • This passage is full of incomplete language. It acknowledges that what God is doing “hasn’t yet appeared.” The work of the gospel isn’t done yet. God is still working on us, in us, and through us. And it’s always harder – more uncomfortable – to describe a work-in-progress.
        • Scene from movie “The Vow” → artist is creating art/sculpture → boyfriend asks: “What is it?” → her response: “I don’t know yet.”
        • That’s the way we are, too. That’s the way our faith is. It’s not a definition. It’s not measurable or concrete. It’s not a moment of perfection frozen in time but a journey designed to bring us closer to God each and every day.
    • NT text also guarantees bumps in the road: I write these things to you about those who are attempting to deceive you.[8]  → Gr. “deceive” = “lead you astray,” “cause you to wander” – The deception the author is talking about goes beyond harmless, little white lies. This deception refers to those people and things and ideas that try to distract us. It refers to anything that tries to pull us away from our faith.
      • Relate to this → Toward the end of my senior year in college, I was struggling with reconciling the 4 years I’d spent intellectually studying religion with the faith that had fed my heart and soul my whole life. Somehow, in the midst of one critical-thinking class after another, my faith had migrated from my heart to my head … and it was stuck there.
        • Worship – hymns, prayers, Scriptures, sermons, all of it – became something to analyze, a source of study instead of a source of joy and renewal
        • Fortunately, I had a professor who, though she couldn’t talk about her personal faith in the classroom, was willing to speak to students outside of class. → helped me delineate between the intellectual side of things and the faith side – eventually freed me to lose myself in the awe and adoration of worship again
      • Scholar’s advice: When we center our selves, not in secular society’s immediate interests or anxious fears, but in God’s claims and intentions for us, we remember the One to whom we are finally accountable and from whom we draw our strength.[9]
      • Reassurance from text: See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are![10]  → “God’s children … that is what we are!” Even in the face of the most scrutinizing questions and uncomfortable challenges, this love – this title “God’s child” – cannot be taken from us.
  • So how do we respond to those scrutinizing questions and uncomfortable challenges – doubts, skepticism, incredulity? → Sorry, all … I don’t have any concrete answers for you today. But let’s think about some important concepts.
    • First, we need to be okay with not knowing the answers to all the questions. Moses surely didn’t know all the answers after his encounter with God in the desert … but he went anyway. Faith, at its very core, is unexplainable. Unproveable. Intangible. Inconceivable. We need to learn to be comfortable with that discomfort, to rely on the sovereignty of God – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all – even in the face of all the world’s skepticism and doubt.
      • Book of Heb: Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.[11] → As Christians, we are not called to have the answers all the time. We are called to ground our identity and hope in the God that we know in our hearts.
    • Flip side – means we don’t give up
      • Don’t give up on continuing to learn about our faith → God at work in us
        • Remember text: [God’s] anointing teaches you about all things … and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be.[12]  → God is continually teaching us. Yes, there will always be some questions that we can’t answer, but how can we keep moving forward in our journey toward God if we stop trying to learn about God?
      • Also important to not give up on sharing God with the world – continue to share the gospel, when it’s comfortable … and when it’s not → Remember, God is still at work in us and through us. As Christians, we are called to carry God’s message of love and forgiveness to the world and to portray that love and forgiveness however we can. We are called to embody the gospel in the face of whatever the world may throw at us … because you never know who your words and actions are going to effect. You never know who God is touching through you.
      • v. 5 – “The Summons” calls us to this embodiment of the message → I find it powerful and telling that this verse comes at the end of the song. All the prior verses are full of questions – questions about who and where and how God is, questions about how and when and why we encounter God, questions about trust and commitment, hope and faith. And yet, when all the questions have been exhausted, there is this final verse – this statement of belief and devotion and faithfulness.
        • Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show. Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.[13]
    • It kind of reminds me of my “Critiques of God” class. That class was full of questions: questions posed by the professor, questions posed by our readings, questions posed by my classmates – questions that haunted me long after I’d headed home at night. Fortunately, there were other Christians in the class with me – people who could talk their way through their faith intelligently and calmly without getting defensive or flustered or resorting to the “Because I said so” line of reasoning.
      • Without even knowing it, embodied God’s presence for me – taught strength, love and gracious in the face of uncomfortable questions and challenges
      • At the end of the class, their words and actions helped me remain grounded in God. When all those penetrating philosophical questions had been exhausted, the words and actions of these other Christians reassured and even strengthened my belief, my devotion, and my faithfulness.
    • In a world full of questions and doubt, how can you embody God’s love? In a society focused more on fact and figures than devotion and discipleship, how can you proclaim God’s forgiveness? What will win out in your heart, the skepticism … or the summons? Amen.

[1] From The University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire’s online course catalogue: http://www.uwec.edu/OAKDEV/RAR099/CATALOGUES/2009-2010/SPRING/RELS.HTM#450

[2] Ex 3:10.

[3] Walter Brueggemann. “Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 713.

[4] Ex 3:13.

[5] Ex 3:14.

[6] Brueggemann, 714.

[7] 1 Jn 2:28; 3:2.

[8] 1 Jn 2:26.

[9] C. Clifton Black. “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 410-411.

[10] 1 Jn 3:1.

[11] Heb 11:1.

[12] 1 Jn 2:27b; 3:2b.

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

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Sunday’s sermon: Knock-Down, Drag-Out Faith

wrestling with god

Texts used – Genesis 32:22-32; Acts 10:9-23

  • Okay, for the past few weeks we’ve been talking about how our faith needs to be uncomfortable sometimes, and we’ve been walking through a number of different Scriptural passages:
    • Stories
      • Jonah pouting over Nineveh
      • Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego in the fiery furnace
      • Peter walking on the water
    • Other types of passages → dealing with uncomfortable topics like difficult relationships and hope
      • Psalms
      • NT letters
    • So we’ve talked about the ways that faith can be uncomfortable, but we haven’t talked about why faith needs to be uncomfortable … yet. J
    • Essentially all traces back to something we will pray together soon: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” → dangerous prayer
      • In this short and seemingly-simple phrase, we are fully offering ourselves up to God – no strings attached, no escape clauses, no questions asked, no holds barred. “Your will, God, not mine. Your plan God, not mine. Your way, your path, your message … your everything, God, not mine.”
      • But what if we don’t like where God is leading us? What if we don’t like what God is doing or saying? What if we’d rather resist God’s call than follow it?
        • It’s questions like these that make us uncomfortable, and it’s because of questions like these that sometimes, God has to wrestle us out of our comfort zones instead of just asking politely.
  • Both Scriptures for today deal with wrestling
    • OT passage = obvious, physical wrestling – text: But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.[1]
    • But we find Peter wrestling in our New Testament passage, too. → not physical wrestling but mental, spiritual, emotional wrestling in his crazy dream of sheets full of animals descending from on high
      • Acts: Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”[2]  → Now, I think it’s probably tough for us to appreciate what a serious struggle this is for Peter. He’s a devout Jew who’s spent his entire life abiding by all 613 Jewish laws … including all the laws concerning dietary restrictions laid out in Leviticus 11.
        • E.g.s – forbidden to eat every animal with divided hooves but doesn’t chew cud (cows = okay, pigs = not okay)[3], all that walk on paws[4], and all creatures that swarm or move on their bellies[5]
      • And yet here in this vision, Peter sees all those unclean animals and more lowered down in a sheet before him and hears God saying, “Eat.” Peter vehemently replies, “Of course I’m not going to eat that, God! I’ve never broken the rules before, and I’m not about to start now.” But God again instructs Peter to eat, and this time, the command comes with a chastisement: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
        • Response leaves Peter struggling against his history, his faith, everything he’s learned about how to live his life – leaves Peter wrestling with God in his head and in his heart → Peter: I know you’re saying this to me now, God, but what about everything I’ve been taught that you said before?
          • Sounds like some of the arguments going on throughout the denomination and larger church today, doesn’t it?
  • This struggle takes us back to questions we asked at the beginning: What if we don’t like where God is leading us? What if we don’t like what God is doing or saying? What if we’d rather resist than follow?  We find some aspect of God’s call uncomfortable, and so we resist. We resist the discomfort. We resist the change we feel is coming. We resist the path that God has laid out before our feet because it might be hard. It might be uncertain. And so when God asks us to go and do, instead, we wrestle.
    • Not alone in this discomfort, desire to resist → in fact, in pretty good company
      • Even Jesus wrestled with God in the face of discomfort. → Garden of Gethsemane in Matt: Then [Jesus] went a short distance farther and fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.” … A second time he went away and prayed, “My Father, if it’s not possible that this cup be taken away unless I drink it, then let it be what you want.”[6]
        • Did you catch those words? Did you hear that dangerous prayer? “Not what I want but what you want. … Father, your will be done.” There was a part of Jesus – a very human part – that didn’t want to suffer the excruciating pain he knew was coming, that didn’t want to die such an agonizing death. And yet even in the midst of wrestling with God, what was Jesus’ prayer? “Thy will be done.”
    • We see 2 things in this example
      • First, it’s okay to wrestle with God → Somewhere along the way, we got the idea that we’re never supposed to express frustration or confusion or doubt or anger – especially not anger! – over what God is doing. Questioning – wrestling with God – is wrong, unfaithful somehow. But Jesus shows us that it’s actually okay! Why? Because God is big enough to be able to take it, all of it – all our questions, our fears, our doubts and anxieties … all of it.
      • 2nd – God is always in control → in control in the Garden of Gethsemane, and clear in NT and OT texts, too
        • Gr. in Acts: “never consider unclean” = literally “you not unclean/unholy/profane” – could be translated as text does (“never consider unclean”), could also be “cannot make unclean” … SO Gr. “make,” not just “call” → God is making it clear that Peter doesn’t have the power or the authority to declare what is clean and what is unclean, what is holy and what is profane. That charge belongs to God and God alone.
        • In Gen., God tells Jacob “you struggled with God and with men and won.”[7] – Heb. “won” = more like “you are capable” → implies Jacob is less the victor than he is the endurerThere isn’t actually a winner here. God is commending Jacob for being capable of wrestling with God, for having the strength to persevere.
          • Important to note: God doesn’t abandon us once the match is over. → Scholar: The author does not report that Jacob let go of God or even that God left him. … In some sense, this means that God and Jacob remain bound to each other, facing this future. … An individual may hang on to God, claiming the promises, persisting in relationship.[8]
  • So not only is God not offended when we need to wrestle, but God may even encourage it. Sometimes we need to wrestle with God – really, uncomfortably wrestle! – because only through this wrestling is God finally able to persuade us – perhaps kicking and screaming – out of our comfort zones. If it looks like we’re not willing or able to take that first step outside, God will “help” us … like it or not. Remember, our comfort zones are small – no space, really, for change or growth. Only when we are outside these comfort zones can we be truly open to the great and beautiful things God has in store for us.
    • See this in Jacob’s life and legacy
      • Directly following blessing – returns to Esau, not in fear and trembling or in danger but in love → restores relationship with his brother
      • Sons become 12 tribes of Israel
      • Joseph → Jesus!
    • Also see this in Peter’s ministry
      • Vision of the animals in the sheet challenged Peter’s view of clean vs. unclean, expanded and enlightened Peter’s view on who was “worthy” of hearing the good news of the gospel
        • Ministry up to this point was strictly for the Jews
        • After this = Cornelius – Roman Centurion, Gentile → becomes a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ along with his whole family and his whole household (servants, etc.)
        • Internet Monk and college chaplain Michael Spencer’s description of Peter’s vision: It was an inexplicable encounter with the Holy Spirit totally outside the bounds of safe church teaching. It was an experience with God that got through to Peter and helped him form his Jesus-shaped life.[9]
    • See something like this at just about every General Assembly
      • Lots of serious struggling and wrestling → week basically dedicated to hashing out hot-button church issues, no matter what those might be
        • Clashing opinions
        • Arguments
        • Hurt feelings
      • But even in the midst of this contentious, uncomfortable wrestling, there is prayer. There is worship. There is fellowship among God’s children on both sides of the issues.
        • Scholar: When it comes to struggles in daily life, we can count on God’s mixing it up with us, challenging us, convicting us, evaluating us, judging us. … God honors the relationship both by engaging in the struggle in the first place and by persisting in that struggle through thick and thin. The most meticulous of preparations cannot guarantee a certain shape for the future. God may break into life and force a new direction for thought and action.[10]
    • Also see this wrestling – this tension between where we’re comfortable and where we’re called – in v. 4 of “The Summons”
      • Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name? → Think of it this way: How much of our wrestling deals with who we think we are vs. who we think we should be for the world? God is trying to show us that we and all those we encounter in life are blessed and forgiven – precious children – but that’s not always how we feel … and so we wrestle.
      • Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? → This is Jacob’s question – Jacob’s struggle. He feared where God was sending him – back to the land of Esau, back to the brother he’d wronged. And though in reality God is bigger than all our fears, we are often afraid of where God is sending us … and so we wrestle.
      • Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me? → This is Peter’s question – Peter’s struggle. Peter wasn’t sure God’s message was meant for Gentile ears, and so he was reluctant. But like Peter, God wants us to share our faith – share God’s very self, sight and touch and sound – with the world around us. But reshaping is hard. Before we can participate in that reshaping, we must be reshaped ourselves … and so we wrestle.
  • We don’t like wrestling with God because it means we know God wants us to change something. God wants us to take a chance – to go somewhere we’re afraid to go, to say something we’re afraid to say, to spend time with someone we’re afraid to get close to. But we don’t want to cause trouble. We don’t want to make waves – not in our own lives, not in the lives of those around us. At the same time, we are followers of Jesus, the Risen Christ – the ultimate boat-rocker, the one who brought revolutionary messages like “Love your enemy” and “Take up your cross” and “Father, forgive them.” Ultimately, the gospel wasn’t meant to be comfortable.
    • Bishop Gene Robinson’s question to the 220th GA (in Minneapolis in 2010): If you’re not in trouble for the gospel you’re preaching, is it really the gospel?
    • If growing in our faith doesn’t occasionally lead us to those uncomfortable times of wrestling with God, what does that say about our faith? Amen.

[1] Gen 32:24.

[2] Acts 10:12-15.

[3] Lev 11:26.

[4] Lev 11:27.

[5] Lev 11:41-42.

[6] Matt 26:39, 42.

[7] Gen 32:28.

[8] Fretheim, 568, 570.

[9] Michael Spencer. Mere Churchianity. (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2010), 127.

[10] Fretheim, 569-570.

Sunday’s sermon: That Scary, Four-Letter Word

scary hope

Texts used – Psalm 42; Hebrews 6:9-20

  • Halloween morning 2003 dawned bright and beautiful like most days in Hawaii do. The sun was warm, the sky was clear, and the waves were beautiful – big and perfect for surfing.
    • Bethany Hamilton → 13 yrs. old
      • One of the most promising young surfers on the circuit
        • In the process of securing sponsorship by major corp.
        • Favorite in upcoming regional tournament
        • To put it mildly, Bethany’s hopes were flying high. Everything was going right in her life, and one of her biggest dreams – that of becoming a pro surfer – was tantalizingly close to being realized.
      • Oct. 31 – surfing with best friend, friend’s father and brother
    • Then, the unthinkable happened. As Bethany was laying on her board out in the water, a 14-foot tiger shark swam up, grabbed hold of her left arm with its powerful jaws, and pulled her into the water. Thankfully, Bethany was able to escape the shark. Her companions were able to get her to safety, call an ambulance, and slow her bleeding, but when Bethany woke up in the hospital the next day, her left arm was gone.
      • To give her hope, her dad reminded her of a Bible verse → I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.[1]But in the face of such a tragedy, what could she have to hope for now?
    • Hope can be a funny thing
      • Know in our heads – supposed to be positive, encouraging
      • But in reality, it’s not that easy. Hope, at its very core, is a longing for and a belief in something that is yet to be, something that is unseen and unforeseeable. It is uncertain. It is uncomfortable. It is scary. In the face of difficult situations, “hope” can feel more like a four-letter word than a lifeline. But it also cannot be denied that both the challenging and uplifting sides of hope are integral and blessed facets of our faith.
  • Ps gives us a pretty clear picture of the challenging side
    • Uncertainty
      • Ps: My tears have been my food both day and night, as people constantly questioned me, “Where’s your God now?”… I will say to God, my solid rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I have to walk around, sad, oppressed by enemies?” With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me, constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”[2]
      • Also see uncertainty in Heb [ lang., not NT book Hebs.]:
        • Ps begs the question “Why are you so upset inside?” – Heb. “disquieted” = nuances of growling and mumbling → So our own souls are groaning within us – debating, restless, vacillating back and forth between our need for hope and our tendency to doubt and fear.
    • Uncomfortable
      • Heb. for the Ps = full of uncomfortable language
        • “My whole being is depressed”[3] = sunken, cast down
        • “Why do I have to walk around, sad, oppressed by enemies?”[4] = connotations of walking around in darkness
        • “Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole being craves you, God. My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.” [5]
          • Heb. “craves” implies palpable/tangible longing – a strong physical discomfort that can be relieved only by God.
  • These feelings of uncertainty and discomfort can entwine themselves around our hope and cause us to falter under that extra weight.
    • Bethany’s story, part B
      • Understandably, Bethany had trouble adjusting to life with only one arm. Doing things as easy as buttoning her jeans, opening a bag of bread, and putting her hair in a ponytail became extremely challenging. But Bethany is an incredibly strong person. She was determined to surf again because surfing was her life. It was who she was.
        • Within month of returning home – ended up back on a board and surfing again
        • Despite setback after setback, she entered regional surfing tournament anyway
        • But, unable to keep up with the competition – didn’t make it out of 1st heat → discouraged, quit surfing
        • For Bethany, that initial glimmer of hope was ripped away as quickly and viciously as if the shark had attacked her all over again. She obviously couldn’t surf anymore – couldn’t even make it out to the big waves that had brought her so much joy – and without surfing, who was she? She had dared to dream, dared to hope, and all it had done was bring her more pain.
          • This = reason hope is so uncomfortable for us
            • The unknown: such a necessary element of hope – can’t hope for something that’s already a certainty, there has to be risk involved
            • The possibility of failing
    • Story from Peter’s former classroom – “Max”
      • Started off the year very negatively – work and behavior
      • Part-way through the year → complete 180
      • After 2 mos., slowly started to slip back
      • Peter’s conversation with him → scared to hope
      • It was easier and safer for Max to approach school without any hope. Success wasn’t part of his history, his life, or his comfort zone. Remember, hope, by its very nature, involves believing, trusting, and longing for something that cannot be guaranteed. And that’s scary! So it’s better not to hope than to hope and be disappointed, right?
  • Wrong. As Christians, our ultimate hope comes from God, and so for us, that word – “hope” – should be about the joy and blessing and strength that we get from being loved and forgiven people.
    • Scripture illustrates this
      • Basically the whole point of our NT text speaks to God’s hope and God’s promises
        • E.g.s
          • “make your hope sure until the end” [6]
          • “God wanted to further demonstrate to the heirs of the promise that his purpose doesn’t change” [7]
          • “This hope, which is a safe and secure anchor for our whole being,”[8]
        • Fred Craddock, renowned preaching professor: Here the encouragement of the church is firmly grounded theologically in the justice or fairness or faithfulness of God. … Not only is God aware, but also God is just and dependable, … the solid and unshakable foundation for all hope is the character of God.[9]  → Now it’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean God is going to give us everything we hope for simply because we’re Christians. We live in a world of both joy and pain, success and struggles, light and darkness, and there will be times that shake us and cause us to feel like we’re crumbling. But even in those times, God is still God is still dependable. God is still our ever-present and unshakable hope.
      • Diff. Scriptural illustration of this unshakable hope → hemorrhagic woman in the gospel of Mark[10]
        • This woman is uncomfortable.
          • Bleeding disease has plagued her for 12 years
        • This woman is uncertain.
          • Religiously unclean → knows she shouldn’t be mingling with the crowd
        • But it’s clear that although she’d lost everything else – family, temple access, wealth, social status – she still clung desperately to hope. It was hope that encouraged her to weave her way through the multitude surrounding Jesus that day. It was hope that caused her to stretch out her fingers and touch the fringe of his cloak – a hope grounded firmly and solely in the person of God in Jesus Christ, the only place she could turn for hope when everything else in her body, in her life, and in her culture had let her down.
    • See this message of strength and joy in hope in Bethany’s story, too
      • After her failure at the regional competition, Bethany joined a mission team from her church – a group that was headed to Thailand after the tsunami that devastated most of southeast Asia on Christmas Eve day 2004. In the midst of all that devastation and loss and pain, Bethany made a connection with a young boy … through surfing. Imagine the impact of this: You have a country full of people who were suddenly and understandably terrified of the ocean – the place where they had once found food and livelihood and beauty – because it had just ripped away everything that they knew and loved: livelihoods, homes, people. Yet in the face of this uncertainty, discomfort, and fear, Bethany was able to begin to restore hope through her God-given gift: surfing.
        • Left Hawaii → viewed surfing with uncertainty, discomfort, and fear
        • BUT → returned to Hawaii with a greater, stronger hope
        • What caused this change? → Bethany’s hope wasn’t grounded in herself anymore. It wasn’t grounded in her own identity or abilities as a surfer. Instead, like the hemorrhagic woman, Bethany’s hope had become grounded in the God who gives us eternal and everlasting hope through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
    • And this is the approach encouraged by our Scriptures for today – grasping at an audacious hope even in the midst of uncertainty, discomfort, & fear.
      • Ps says twice: Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed? Why are you so upset inside? Hope in God! Because I will again give him thanks, my saving presence and my God.[11]  → phrase starts out with challenge but instead of being defeated, psalmist clings to hope
        • Scholar: To hope in God means … that we know and articulate hope and despair simultaneously. … Even Jesus, who fully embodied dependence upon God, could not escape the disquietude of the soul [in the Garden of Gethsemane]. Neither shall we. The good news, however, is that neither shall we be able to escape the steadfast love and faithfulness of God … This is the source of our hope and, indeed, the hope of the world.[12]
  • Bethany’s story – conclusion
    • With a new hope grounded in her identity as a loved and forgiven child of God, Bethany returned from her mission trip with a renewed dedication to figuring out how to surf again.
      • Father adapted a board – easier to hang on
      • Trained harder than ever
      • And just over a year after the attack, Bethany took 1st place in the Explorer Women’s division of the 2005 National Championships.
    • Considering her injury, Bethany’s comeback was miraculous. But even her incredible professional surfing comeback pales in comparison to her personal Instead of shying away from the uncertainty and uncomfortableness of hope, Bethany grabbed hold with everything she had and hung on for what turned out to be an amazing ride.
  • And isn’t this what the next verse of “The Summons” expresses?
    • v. 3 – Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen, and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?[13]
    • We’ve been ending each sermon of this series with questions, and the questions I want to leave you with today are inspired by this powerful verse: Will you hope for amazing things? Will you hope even when it looks like hope is lost? And will you ground that hope solely in our all-powerful and all-loving God – Creator of the universe and Redeemer of all? Amen.

[1] Phil 4:13 (NRSV).

[2] Ps 42:3, 9-10.

[3] Ps 42:6.

[4] Ps 42:9.

[5] Ps 42:1-2a.

[6] Heb 6:11.

[7] Heb. 6:17.

[8] Heb 6:19.

[9] 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), 78.

[10] Mk 5:24b-34.

[11] Ps 42:5.

[12] McCann, 854.

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

Sunday’s sermon: Faith Outside the Box

faith outside the box

Texts used – Daniel 3:13-27; Matthew 14:22-33

  • When I was a kid – even all the way through high school and into college – I was really shy.
    • Uncomfortable introducing myself
    • Uncomfortable initiating conversations and talking to new people
    • Then, for whatever reason, I decided to go to a college that none of my friends – or even anyone from my graduating class or the 3 graduating classes above me! – were going to. When the end of August rolled around, and all my stuff had been moved into my dorm room and my family was back on the road headed home (without me), I was suddenly very alone.
      • Randomly-assigned roommate was nice – let me hang out with her friends → not really my kind of group
      • Comfort zone became my 11’x16’ dorm room – desk, chair, bed → Front desk pizzas were my dinner of choice because I didn’t have to worry about who I was going to sit with. I was sitting with … me.
    • Meeting Renee → stop at her asking me to go to dinner
      • I can’t even begin to describe to you how far out of my comfort zone an offer like this was. What if we didn’t have anything to talk about? What if we realized after sitting down that we didn’t get along and were still stuck eating together? What if I liked her, but she didn’t like me? What if, after we got there, she saw someone else that she knew and ditched me to sit with them? I was teetering precariously on the very edge of my comfort zone, torn between settling back into the very familiar boundaries of my butterfly chair and taking a giant and scary step into the unknown.
    • Funny thing about comfort zones → ultimately, pretty small things
      • Room for us
      • Room for habits – the good ones and the not-so-good ones
      • Room for the familiar
      • But do you know there isn’t room for?
        • Not a lot of room for God to work
        • No room for trust
        • No room for the spectacular
      • Stepping outside our comfort zones can be incredibly uncomfortable. It can be scary and uncertain and intimidating and anxiety-inducing, but as our Scripture readings for today illustrate, stepping outside our comfort zones can also lead to some pretty amazing things.
  • In both the Old Testament and New Testament stories, we find people who are teetering on the edge of their comfort zones.
    • Most choose to stay within those familiar confines
      • In Daniel → those who chose to obey Nebuchadnezzar
        • Background – catch up on where we are in the story
        • Nebuchadnezzar proclaims: “Anyone who will not bow down and worship will be immediately thrown into a furnace of flaming fire.” So … all the peoples, nations, and languages bowed down and worshipped the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.[1]
        • Now, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego certainly weren’t the only Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. This story takes place during the Babylonian exile – a time when a large portion of the Israelites had been captured and taken to live in Babylon. And yet our text tells us that plenty of those people chose to bow down and worship this crazy golden idol that Nebuchadnezzar set up. Plenty of people chose comfort and security over faith and trust.
      • Disciples in gospel not so different – text: When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed. Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”[2]  → All of the disciples were afraid. All cried out in fear. Jesus spoke words of comfort and reassurance to all of the disciples. And yet, how many of them were actually willing to take that step?
  • I have to be honest with you. When that girl knocked on my dorm room door, every part of me wanted to be like those other people of Babylon or all those other disciples and just stay entrenched in the familiar. My instinct – my familiarity – was telling me to turn down her invitation. “Thanks, but no thanks … Maybe next time … I’m not hungry (not true) … I just ate (also not true).” But instead, I got up, grabbed my student ID, shut my door, followed this girl over to the á la cart dining facility, and took one small step (that felt like one gigantic leap) outside my comfort zone. → main characters in Scripture – much more dramatic steps outside comfort zones
    • Daniel: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “ … If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”[3]  → These men have been threatened by the king – “Bow down or burn!” And what is their response? “No. If God wants to save us, God will save us. But even if it means we have to die, we won’t worship your false idol.”
      • Scholar: [This verse] contains one of the most powerful statements in the entire book of Daniel, with consequences reaching far beyond this little story: (3 little words) “But if not …”… This is a statement of faith against the appearance of defeat … and steadfast adherence to an alternate reality: God reigns.[4] → Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego made it abundantly and uncomfortably clear that they chose faith. They chose the uncertain and the unknown over what was comfortable and secure. They chose to step outside their comfort zones into a place of absolute trust.
    • NT Passage: Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus.[5]  → Walking. On. The. Water. Nothing about that says “Comfort Zone.” But Peter’s actions – like those of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – are born of absolute trust, trust in an all-powerful God who protects and lifts up, who comforts and reassures, who forgives and saves.
  • So when we reach moments like this – moments of decision (or maybe moments of indecision), moments when we could either hang back or leap forward – what is it that keeps us clinging to the edges of our comfort zones? What makes us so reticent to trust?
    • Fear? → clearly a part of both Scripture stories
      • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were being threatened with a very painful and seemingly-certain death: being burned to death in a fiery furnace. Even with faith as strong as theirs, a threat like that is sure to invoke fear.
      • Gospel: When the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the lake, they were terrified → That’s pretty clear, and at this point, Peter’s still in the boat with the others. He’s just as afraid as the rest of them. The Greek word used here – “terrified” – can also mean disturbed or troubled or thrown into confusion … all emotions that can make us want to high-tail it back to the safety of our comfort zones.
    • Uncertainty? → before the storm, before Jesus walks on water, before Peter decides to step out, too, disciples in Mt have already been pushed outside the stability of their routine into unfamiliar territory – uncertainty
      • Text: Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds.[6] – Scholar point out here: For the first time in Matthew, the disciples are sent forth without Jesus.[7]  → The disciples were used to following Jesus – doing what he did, listening to his message from the safety of his side, always being near this teacher, this companion, this miracle-worker. But not this time. This time Jesus sent them off, sent them out, sent them ahead … without him. Before they knew it, they were alone in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. This is a situation they had never faced before. What were they supposed to do now?
  • Despite all of this uncomfortableness, it is only when they’ve left the confines of their comfort zones that Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Peter are free to encounter amazing things. Only after they’ve placed their full trust in God and God alone are they able to experience God in dramatic, life-changing ways.
    • Admittedly, things had to get a little scary first.
      • OT: So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were bound, still dressed in all their clothes, and thrown into the furnace of flaming fire.[8]  → Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s step outside their comfort zones was a quite literally step straight into the fire.
    • But then comes the amazing part:
      • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego brave the furnace of burning fire and meet God in the midst of the flames: So these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell, bound, into the furnace of flaming fire. Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in shock and said to his associates, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?” They answered the king, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” He replied, “Look! I see four men, unbound, walking around inside the fire, and they aren’t hurt! And the fourth one looks like one of the gods.”[9]
      • Gospel: But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!” Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?”[10]
        • Important point in Gr: “doubt” = waiver, hesitate – So Jesus is not chastising Peter for unbelief. He’s admonishing Peter for vacillation, not skepticism, for letting his fear cloud his belief, letting his uncertainty overpower his faith. → the Messiah – God incarnate – stretches out his very own hand to catch Peter and lifted him out of his uncertainty
    • There’s a radical freedom in these encounters – an unadulterated openness to the work and will of God. When I was a kid, I had something called the Anti-Coloring Book. Instead of just giving you a set picture to color, each page was part picture and part blank space. (There’s a sample of this in your bulletin.) The point was to encourage you to fill that space with your own creativity and spontaneity and unexpected beauty. And as I was thinking about comfort zones and trust and radical freedom, it struck me that like the picture on the page, the immediate futures of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Peter were incomplete. But each of them trusted God to fill that uncertainty with creativity and spontaneity and unexpected beauty. Each of them chose radical freedom over their comfort zones.
  • Also see this message of comfort zones and trust and radical freedom in our sermon series theme song, “The Summons”[11] – Last week, we focused on the first verse. This week, I want you to look at verse 2:
    • 1 addresses teetering on the edge of our comfort zones: Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? → Can you bring yourself to take that first step?
    • 2-3 coaxes us outside our comfort zones: Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare? → God: It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable. But I’ll be there to protect you and pull you up when you falter.
    • 4 hints at amazing things to come: Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?
  • You know, if I hadn’t been willing to step outside my comfort zone during that first week of college, I never would’ve met Renee. She quickly became one of my closest friends. She was my roommate for the rest of my college career. In 2011, I had the honor of performing all but the legal part of her wedding. (I wasn’t ordained yet, so a Justice of the Peace took care of the legal part before the actual ceremony.) She helped me break through my shyness, venture further and further outside my comfort zone. Honestly, without Renee’s friendship, who knows what kind of pastor I would’ve become?
    • So let me ask you this: What’s holding you back within the confines of your comfort zone today? Where do you need to shift your trust from safety and security to God and God alone? Maybe I should be asking it this way: What sort of amazing things – what sort of radical freedom – are you missing out on? Amen.

[1] Dan 3:6-7.

[2] Mt 14:26-27.

[3] Dan 3:16-18.

[4] Daniel L. Smith-Christopher. “Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 7. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 64.

[5] Mt 14:28-29.

[6] Mt 14:22.

[7] M. Eugene Boring. “Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 8. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 327.

[8] Dan 3:21.

[9] Dan 3:23-25.

[10] Mt 14:30-31.

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

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.

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.