Sunday, July 16, 2017

“A Parable of a Third” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

I think that anyone who has had any experience in the agricultural field would agree with Jesus’ logic in the parable about the sower.  You have to know your soil when it comes to planting!  Obviously some of the sower’s choices were not of the quality that would bring about a bountiful crop.  Only in the last place where the seed was sown was there a successful crop.  Though Jesus is talking agriculture here, we all know that his meaning really has nothing to do with crops at all.  No, what Jesus is talking about is how faith is embodied in order to grow and prosper within individuals . . . and, though it is not alluded to, also how it is embodied within the body of Christ--the church--in order to grow and prosper.

In our scripture reading this morning, you might think that he is telling a parable about a sower; but, the reality is that he is telling a parable about thirds.  Let me explain.

Years ago I volunteered to be a part of a non-profit organization to do some civic-minded things around the community I was living in.  It boasted a huge volunteer membership . . . and, sure enough, on its membership rolls it had lots of names of people who belonged to the organization.  At least that was what was on paper . . . the reality was far from that.  The reality was that very few of those people actually ever showed up to support and do the work of the organization . . . in fact, it turned out to be only about a third of the people who did all the work and supported the organization financially.  

This confused me.  The executive director of the organization explained that it was that way with most non-profit groups and other organizations that rely upon voluntary participation.  She explained that typically one-third of the group carries approximately 90 percent of the work and financial load; one-third participates whenever it feels like it . . . maybe once or twice a year; and, one-third never participates at all, but consider themselves to be members nonetheless.  Because of that, she said, you are never going to see a huge group coming out to do the work.

Though Jesus uses different examples in his parable, I think he was talking about this one-third theory.  Yeah, I know what you are thinking . . . Jesus mentioned four areas that the sower sowed seed.  But, remember, the first seed never took to the ground as birds came by and ate it.  In the other three examples, the seed takes root, grows, and either meets its demise or flourishes.  In those three soil examples, I think Jesus does a good job of explaining the one-third theory.  Wouldn’t you agree that Jesus’ example demonstrates the theory?

One-third does nothing . . . one-third puts out a puny effort . . . and, one-third does the yeoman's share.

The underlying and unspoken question of the parable is this: Which soil are we growing our faith?  Or, even better, which third are we in?

As I said earlier, Jesus’ original intention was to address this parable to the individual listener.  Now that the body of believers . . . the church . . . has been in existence for a couple of thousand years . . . I think that the unintended intention is to address this parable to that group . . . to the church.

On the individual level we have all seen this parable in action.  We have seen people come into the church . . . some have stayed and participated in everything . . . some come every so often, usually Christmas and Easter . . . and, others we never see again.  Those individuals in the less participatory two-thirds are probably in those first two soils that Jesus talked about.  They are not very active, nor are they very reliable when it comes to their faith or the work of the church.  They probably have their reasons, and those reasons are probably legitimate and real; but, the bottom line is that they are not carrying their weight.

Now you are probably sitting there, thinking to yourself, that the pastor is full of mullarky . . . that this is not for real.  But, I assure you . . . it is for real.  I know from experience.

One of my jobs at the university is to provide professional development workshops for teachers.  We offer these workshops for free.  Because teachers need professional development to keep their licences and to move up the pay scale these workshops are necessary . . . because they are free, they are popular.  Rarely do we have a workshop that does not fill up and have a waiting list.  Before any workshop takes place it gets filled to capacity.

That is before the workshop takes place.  What happens is that when the workshop actually does take place only a number of teachers between one-third and two-third will show up.  If the workshop is for 30 people, we will have between 10 and 15 people show up.  Out of the 30 we have come to understand that 10 will be there because they want to be there; another possible five will show up because they had nothing better to do; and, the rest will not show up or even let us know that they are not showing up.  It pretty well equates to one-third, one-third, one-third.  And, we have been keeping up with this statistic for almost five years now and the results rarely change.

Now, that is my secular experience.  Let me share with you my church experience with this one-third theory.  This is a theory I have been keeping track of as a pastor for over twenty years now.

Everyone knows how much fun a scheduled mid-week meeting is in the church.  They are about as popular as getting a root canal; but, they are necessary part of the work of the church.  Now if there are a hundred people at worship on Sunday morning when one of these meetings is announced, I can predict fairly accurately how many people will attend that meeting.  There will be 30 people, give or take one or two.  In over twenty years, I have rarely been wrong.

Sure, there are exceptions.  Most of the time, within our congregation, we skew this theory’s premise and actually have more participate than should.  At the same time, there are times when we live up to the theory.  

Now, if you still don’t believe me, try it.  Do your own homework.  Think of a group or organization you belong to and keep track of the participation.  Then let me know if this idea of one-third isn’t true.  I think Jesus was onto something.

Which brings us to the dilemma of the whole parable . . . how does the one-third get the other two-thirds more involved?  To that I have no answers.  Nor does Jesus give us any answers.  Yet, at the same time, we do have some clues.  Jesus tells us that the seed that flourishes does so because it embraces and understands . . . it believes in the message, believes in the messenger . . . and, because it believes and understands it embraces its purpose.  Embracing its purpose it goes about the business of living and doing it.

The question is how do the one-third instill that into the other two-thirds?

Well, it cannot be done by haranguing on them.  No, that will just make them dig in their feet and move further away.  No one enjoys being constantly told that they should be more involved . . . after all, they have chosen which third they want to be in.  What needs to be done is going back to the foundational block of it all . . . relationship.  For that seed that thrives it comes down to having a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus.  This is what needs to be shared with the two-third that does not participate with regularity.

It comes down to relationship . . . the one-third showing the other two-thirds their relationship with Jesus.  Not beating them down with the relationship, but is living it in the presence of the other.  In order for this to happen relationships between the one-third and two-thirds must be established.  The one-third meets the two-thirds where they are.  They begin to show that they care . . . that they are there for them . . . in those times when life is difficult and pulls them away.  In such relationships the one-third becomes the soil necessary to grow and thrive.  It is not fast work, but work that slowly pulls them back into the circle, back into the family of God.

In which soil is your faith?  Jesus poses the question this morning . . . and, he poses the challenge.  May we all find the soil that strives to make us one as the family of God.  Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

“I Can’t Dance” (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven
And I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem
I had my birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he

Written in 1963 by Sydney Carter, The Lord of the Dance, became a surprisingly popular hymn within churches.  Inspired by Jesus and wanting to give tribute to Shaker music, Carter penned this hymn.  He never imagined that it would ever be embraced by Christians, much less sung within the church.  He stated, “I did not think the churches would like it at all.  I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian.  But in fact people did sing it and, it touched a chord . . . Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”  

He went on to say: “I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us.  He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality . . . I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.  Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know.  We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible.  The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.  The Shakers didn’t.  Dancing for them was a spiritual activity.”
Carter saw Jesus as the Lord of the Dance who invites others to come and join in the dance . . . the dance which Jesus deems as being life itself . . . the dance he will lead and teach.  The Lord of the Dance is one of my favorite hymns, especially on Easter Sunday.  I love its message . . . its message of life . . . when it comes to the final chorus and verse:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That'll never, never die;
I'll live in you
If you'll live in me -
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

Like Carter, I like that image of a dancing Jesus calling us to come and join in the dance.  I like it . . . but, to be honest, if you think I sing terribly, well, you won’t want to see me dance.  I can’t dance.

Dancing has always struck fear in me.  One of the most anxious moments in my life came in knowing that I would have to step out onto a dance floor . . . in front of a crowd . . . take my daughter’s hand . . . just the two of us . . . and dance the father/daughter dance at her wedding.  I encouraged her to schedule that well after the reception had begun and the wine was flowing heavily . . . for the crowd’s sake and my sake.  Most of my family would confirm that I cannot dance, except the grandchildren . . . they think Grandpa is Fred Astaire.

Jesus uses a powerful image in our reading this morning . . . one in which he mentions dancing.  Jesus says: “To what can I compare this generation?  They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’”

Here Jesus is addressing a crowd shortly after he and the disciples had been visited by the disciples of John the Baptist . . . John the Baptist who is sitting in King Herod’s prison.  John had sent them to ask Jesus if the was the “one” or should they expect someone else.  Of course Jesus does not answer them directly by saying “yes” or “no”, but instead tells them to go back and tell John what they had seen.  And, now, he is addressing the crowd . . . and, what he is addressing is the continued disbelief he is encountering, especially among those who are the leaders of the people.  Jesus wants to know why they won’t believe . . . why they won’t dance.

I imagine that there is myriad of reasons why there is disbelief . . . why there is a fear of joining in the dance . . . why people are hesitant to follow Jesus.  One reason might be that they are fearful that they might upset the powers that be . . . the religious leaders, the king; after all, Jesus was branded as a heretic and rebel inciting a new kingdom.  They might be fearful of the Romans who were quick to strike down any sign of insurrection . . . and, they hadn’t quite made up their mind whether or not Jesus was an insurgent stirring up rebellion.  They might have been fearful of what others might think if they joined the ranks of Jesus followers . . . what their family and friends might think and say . . . what their neighbors would think . . . the community.  And, maybe . . . like me, they couldn’t dance.  Whatever the case, I think that Jesus was getting a little frustrated in the slow response of the people to come and join in the dance . . . slow to believe.

Dancing and faith are not usually something that we see paired together . . . at least not in the church, especially in some of the more conservative churches.  We don’t see a whole lot of dancing in the church.  I am not sure if the reason is that people are too scared to dance, or . . . if they are like me, they can’t dance.  Either way, I don’t think Jesus would find too much dancing going on in or out of the church . . . at least not the way that he dances.

Now my statement about being scared to dance or not being able to dance is probably a falsehood.  The truth is we all can dance.  This is something I have learned from my grandchildren . . . everyone and anyone can dance . . . and, it can be done without the aid of wine!  My grandchildren did not care how well I danced . . . they did not care how silly I looked . . . all that they cared about is that I picked them up, and we swirled, twirled, hopped, bopped, and danced liked there was no tomorrow.  What they care about was that I was willing to be with them . . . to hold them . . . to let down my hair and relate to them where they were.  And, you know what?

It was fun.

It was fun, but honestly, I am not ready to go public with my dancing.

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance . . .’” said Jesus.  Jesus does not care whether or not you are a great dancer like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers . . . he just wants you to dance.  Jesus does not care if you look silly when you are dancing . . . he just wants you to dance.  Jesus doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about your dancing . . . he just wants you to dance.  And, if you are a little timid about dancing for whatever reason, Jesus will show you . . . Jesus will show you with the words that he speaks . . . he will show you with the actions that he takes . . . and, he will show you in the way that he lived his life and death.  Jesus is the dance of life . . . no matter what happened to him, he danced.

Learning to dance may not be easy in the beginning, but in learning to dance one finds life.  Jesus wants everyone to have life, thus he invites all to dance:  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

In the song, Lord of the Dance, Carter put it this way at the end:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That'll never, never die;
I'll live in you
If you'll live in me -
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

Jesus calls us to dance.  The best spiritual advice I can give you as you consider the invitation from Jesus to dance is this . . . it is a quote from William W. Purkey: “You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching.  Love like you’ll never be hurt, sing like there’s nobody listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.”  It’s true.  Jesus should know.  To dance is to embrace life in Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, July 3, 2017

“How Long?” (Psalm 13)

Who voices what we will not say out loud?

I think that one of the greatest difficulties of faith are those moments in our lives when we are stuck in the silence and isolation of feeling as if God has abandoned us.  Those moments in which we look around in our times of need and cannot find God anywhere . . . that God has turned away . . . ignored us.  Those moments when we feel alone.

The reason that I think that this is among the greatest difficulties of faith is because we are taught from a young age that ours is a God that never abandons us . . . that ours is a God who is always with us in the good times and in the bad times . . . that listens to us constantly and hears our every ache, pain, hope, joy, and concern.  We are taught that we should never . . . ever . . . believe otherwise.  God is always with us.  Thus, we are also taught that we should not complain or moan and groan . . . lament in a way, in those moments and times in our lives when we feel lost and abandoned by God.  Such complaining, pleading, and whining is seen as a weakness of faith . . . a sign of faithlessness.

Therein lies the problem.  On the one hand we are taught that God is always with us and caring for us.  On the other hand, all of us experience those moments when we feel isolated and forgotten by God because God is not present to us . . . or at least not in the way that we expect.  To express such feelings of isolation . . . of abandonment . . . is to commit a sin of faithlessness . . . to expose a weakness in our beliefs and faith.  Such expressions are not well received among the faithful.  Thus we keep it to ourselves . . . we become silent in our isolation.  The silence echoes in our hearts and minds, and we hurt.  Is this feeling not something that we express in our prayers each week when we ask God to hear those prayers that we can only share with God?

So, I again ask, who will voice what we will not say out loud?

Luckily, this morning, we have the psalmist speaking for us.  Four times in this short psalm we hear the writer ask the question of God: How long?  The psalmist wants to know how long God will hide . . . how long God will forget . . . how long God will make the writer struggle with all of these thoughts and doubts . . . and, how long will God allow those who see the whole thing as folly to gloat over the writer.  This is definitely a person who is struggling through some difficult times . . . who is feeling isolated from God . . . who wallows in the silence as God does not respond.  The result is that the writer feels a deep sense of sorrow . . . what has been taught is not stacking up with what is being experienced.  Thus it is that the writer wants to know from God: How long!

Don’t we all?

This is quite a quandary of faith.  One that--if we are going to be honest with ourselves--we have all been in.  We have all experienced those moments in our lives and faith when we have felt that we have been separated and isolated from God.  Moments when we felt that the words we uttered in prayer were echoed off empty walls and returned to us in deafening silence.  Moments when we questioned our faith . . . questioned our God.

Those moments have come when we have been hit with crisis in our lives.  It could be our health . . . our finances . . . relationships . . . any number of things where it seems as if life is just merrily moving along and we are suddenly confronted with problems and issues that throw us for a loop.  The immensity of such situations are overwhelming.  In such times what do we do?  We reach out to God . . . we reach out to God, but God does not respond.  God is not there.  A sense of panic fills our very being.

In our panic, the faithful tells us to “hang in there” . . . that God will take care of us . . . that everything will be alright.  No one wants to hear us in our panic, thus it is that our panic is greeted with pat answers meant to sound thoughtful, but are really meant to pacify us.  So we become silent and crawl deep within our isolation.  What we really want to do is to scream out to God: How long!

We want God to know that we are scared.

We want God to come and take away our fear to makes us well once again.  To make things the way that they have always been.  

But, we keep silent . . . after all, we do not want to appear to be unfaithful.

Well, I want to assure you . . . in such times of expressing the honest feelings of being isolated . . . of feeling as if pleas of concern and needs of assurance are falling on deaf ears . . . of being lost and forgotten . . . that you are not faithless or unfaithful.  No, in fact, it is because of your faith and faithfulness that you are even able to utter such expressions.  It is all a part of the faith journey.

And, yes, even though it feels as if God has disappeared . . . God is still with us.  God is beside us in our waiting.  God feels our sorrow . . . feels our pain . . . God never abandons us.  Unfortunately, the dark night of the soul is necessary to help us see and appreciate the light of the dawn.  We have to learn to endure the silence and isolation no matter how difficult it might be.  It is in the struggle that we become stronger . . . stronger in who God created us to be . . . stronger in our commitment and love for God . . . stronger in our faith.

In that we can rejoice.

As the psalmist expresses what we won’t say out loud, we also see a shift in the psalmist’s words.  There is a movement from anguish and sorrow in the author’s words to words of confidence and hope.  The psalmist finds confidence in God . . . in the situation . . . and, in himself.  The psalmist sings out: “. . . but I trust . . . I will rejoice . . . I will sing . . . because . . .”  

The psalmist proclaims: “And I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.”

Through this period of isolation and silence the psalmist finds strength in what is learned . . . hope for a new direction . . . the ability to leave the past behind . . . and, self-assurance in who he is as a creation and child of God.  And, so it is for us.

Who will voice what we will not say out loud . . . what we will not say out loud to others or God?

We will.

We will because that, too, is a part of our faith . . . a part of who we are as a faithful child of God.  God wants all of us . . . even our doubts.  To hide them or bury them is--in my opinion--to be unfaithful.  We are among the faithful, and it is okay to ask God: How long?

My mother always liked to tell me when I was struggling in life “that this, too, shall pass”.  And, she was right.  In the passing I learned lessons and received blessings.  This is the knowledge that shifted the psalmist from anguish and sorrow to hope and joy.  May we have such faith to be open and honest with God in all of our lives . . . God really wants to know.  Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

“Welcoming--A Ministry of Hospitality” (Matthew 10:40-42)

“He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”
(Edwin Markham)

This past week, at my other job at Montana State University Billings, we held a camp for high school students with disabilities who want to consider going to college.  We hosted 17 sophomores, juniors, and seniors from all over the state of Montana.  For four days we had them tour three college campuses, take classes, listen to presenters, and hear from college students who attend college.  We also entertained them with lots of social activities.  It was a wonderful experience . . . but, I discovered that I am getting too old for this stuff.  It is tough keeping up with teenagers at my age.

It was a great experience for the kids . . . and, it was experience of the heart for me.  Let me explain.

For a moment I want you to think back to your days in high school.  High school, no matter what generation, is tough.  Think about how everyone broke themselves up into social groups . . . cliques . . . and achieved some sort of pecking order.  There were the “in” groups, and the “out” groups.  Which group or groups were you a part of?  We you among the popular kids, or were you one of the outsiders or outcasts?  We you included, or were you left out?  And, do you remember how it made you feel?

Well, these kids, for the most part, in their schools and lives, are probably what most of us would consider to be outcasts or outsiders . . . those who are in the shadows of most of society’s circles.  They are not the popular kids . . . they are not the athletic kids . . . they struggle with learning . . . some of the look different . . . some of them act different . . . and, all of them had some sort of disability that those around them saw as making them second-class citizens at the best.  These are the kids who other kids made fun of . . . picked on . . . these are the kids who were excluded from the circle.

There were three students from one of the schools that serve the Crow Reservation.  Where they went to school they learned to exist in the shadows of the school . . . learned to make themselves invisible.  It was tough enough for them to be Indians, but add to that the fact that they had disabilities . . . and, well, they had two strikes in a game of life that only allows three before you are out.

There were two students who were on the Autism Spectrum complete with their little idiosyncrasies and behaviors that made them peculiar and different to their classmates and the rest of the world.  Stuck in their own worlds, but desperately attempting to fit in.  Made fun of by others, picked on by some . . .

There were three hard of hearing students.

Most of the students had learning disabilities.

And, most of them knew well the feeling of being left out . . . of not being included . . . of living life on the outside and always looking in.

It was a motley crew that we encountered that first day.  Apprehensive.  Quiet.  Scared.  It was fairly quiet that first day, but as the camp went on and the students felt more welcomed and accepted . . . well, it got quite loud.  Out of the shadows these students slowly came out . . . they let their defenses down . . . and, they felt included for who they were.  There was lots of laughter . . . lots of teasing . . . there were “aha” moments . . . trust was built . . . friendships were discovered.  Where there had been apprehension and fear at the beginning, there were tears and a reluctance to go home . . . to go home to their non-existent lives.  They just wouldn’t leave no matter how much I wanted them to leave.

In the end, the last student left.  After the high of seeing lives transformed, the reality set in for me . . . a sadness filled my heart.  These kids were going right back into those situations in which they would never be included for being themselves.  The brief respite from exclusion while at the university for four days . . . despite embracing and experiencing inclusion . . . these kids were facing a really tough life ahead of them.  For some of them this reality broke my heart.

Jesus said, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receive me receives the one who sent me.  Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives  a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.  And if anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

These were the closing remarks that Jesus spoke to his twelve disciples before he sent them out on a mission trip.  The key word that is repeated in this statement to the disciples is “welcoming”.  Over and over again, Jesus lets his disciples know that in welcoming the reward is theirs.  To “welcome” another is to greet with hospitality . . . it is to accept another . . . and, it is to do so with gladness.  Hospitality is to receive another into one’s presence . . . to bring them into the group . . . to receive them, to receive them just as they are.  It is here that I believe that Jesus encourages his disciples to embrace a ministry of “welcoming” . . . a ministry of hospitality.  He tells them that if they would practice such a ministry, the rewards would be greater than they ever imagined.  

Though it seemed as if Jesus spent a lot of time speaking to large crowds in public places, he does his miracles and most powerful acts of love in the shadows of the crowds among those who are not allowed into the circle.  Consider his many miracles . . . his many acts of graciousness . . . the many times that he welcomed the outsider or stranger into the circle of grace and love.  After having served as an ordained minister for over 30 years . . . preaching lots of sermons . . . studying lots of scripture and reading lots of commentaries, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus preached and lived a ministry of hospitality.  A ministry of “welcoming”.

I think this “ministry of welcoming” was what those 17 high school students encountered at their camp on the campus of Montana State University Billing.  I think they experienced raw hospitality as they were welcomed, embraced, and accepted for who they were . . . disabilities and all.  In that hospitality they bloomed . . . they bloomed even if it was only for a few days.  They basked in that acceptance.  Gone were the defenses and masks they hid behind.  Out of the shadows they came into the light and felt alive and accepted . . . they felt love.  The circle that had excluded them had been erased and a bigger one was drawn.  The reward . . . the blessing . . . was mine.  Overwhelming mine.

Whatever Jesus challenged his disciples with, he challenges us for we are his disciples, too.

We are called to a ministry of hospitality . . . a ministry of welcoming.  We are called to go out into the world and to welcome others into the family of God.  We are called upon to receive others for who God created them to be . . . warts and all.  And, as a congregation, that was the ministry we agreed upon several years back when we changed our constitution and by-laws . . . we agreed to be a welcoming body of followers of Jesus.  We agreed to practice a ministry of hospitality . . . one in which all are welcome.  And, for the most part, I truly believe that we have embraced this challenged as the faithful.  

Yet, at the same time, we have yet to even delve into the potential opportunity that we could experience if we only want to.  We could do so much more!  Thus it is that the words of Jesus this morning challenge us to be more than we are.  And, then again, maybe we are already doing as much as we can.  If this is where you are, I ask you to take a moment to consider the table that is before . . . the table from which we celebrate the last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples.  

Each Sunday we gather around this table to break the bread and lift the cup.  Each Sunday we reiterate that this is an “open” table in which anyone and everyone is welcome to take their place at the table.  We proclaim loudly each week “that all are welcome” . . . welcome to come and take their rightful place--not only at the table, but in the family of God.  With that in mind, I challenge you to consider who is not at the table . . . and, why aren’t they at the table?  Consider who is not at the table.

This is where we begin in our ministry of hospitality . . . our ministry of welcoming.  Welcoming those no one else will include . . . welcoming those who are in the shadows.  We begin with Nick, Cole, Jackson, JT, Ian, Summer, Whisper, Maylasia, Erin, and nine other students.  We begin moving into the shadows and welcoming those who are not welcomed in the world we live in.

The quote by Edwin Markham has been paraphrased by the followers of Jesus.  In their paraphrase they state that the circle was drawn by the world in general to exclude, Jesus drew the circle to include all.  Let us go forth and do likewise . . . let us practice hospitality.  Jesus did.  Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“Here I Am” (Genesis 22:1-14)

I think the most difficult part of any relationship is trust.

Our story is a simple story . . . God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son.  God tells Abraham, “Take your son, you only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering . . .” In hearing those words, we are shocked.  How could God demand such action from Abraham . . . to kill and sacrifice his only son--an innocent child . . . to wipe out the hope and promise Abraham had for himself and this child . . . to destroy the promise of God to build a great nation from this child.  What sort of God could demand such action from any person?

Well, apparently . . . our God.

As shocking as the demand is, Abraham answers the Holy with his presence . . . “Here I am.”  Not understanding God’s desire for him to sacrifice his son . . . the son of which he had waited a long, long time to receive into his life . . . the son upon whom God had made great promises . . . deeply in shock, Abraham offers himself to God and God’s desires.  He packs up his son, the necessary items needed for the sacrifice, and he heads off to where God tells him to go.  Dutifully, father and son head off to complete the task God has asked.  The trip would take several days.

Until they reach their destination, the writer tells us nothing of what took place between the father and son; but, on the third day, as they neared their destination . . . the son began to wonder.  The son can see that there is wood for the fire . . . can see the knife needed to kill the sacrifice; but, he cannot see an animal to offer in sacrifice.  In his wonderment, the boy asks of his father where the lamb is for the burnt offering.

I feel for Abraham at this point.  He does not want to tell his son that he--the son--is the sacrifice.  He is caught between a rock and a hard place . . . stuck between a truth and what he hopes is the truth.  He tells his son, “God himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  That is the best that Abraham can do to answer his son’s question, all the while knowing that in a short span of time . . . he would kill his son as God had instructed him to do.

It all comes down to trust.  We know that God is testing Abraham as cruel as it might seem . . . God is testing him.  God needs to know that Abraham can be trusted . . . and, Abraham is quick to respond, “Here I am.”  Even before the demand is made, he presents himself to God . . . he is willing to do as God asks of him.  But, that is not proof enough . . . it is easy to give one’s self up in talk, it is a whole other thing sacrifice one’s only son.  And, yet, Abraham does as he is told to do.  He desires to be trustworthy in the eyes and heart of God.

At the same time, Abraham displays his trust in God.  He tells his son that God will provide . . . God will provide the animal necessary for a sacrifice.  Throughout the story of Abraham . . . countless times in the messes Abraham gets himself into . . . God always seem to come through.  Deep in his heart he believed that this is what will happen.  God will provide.  Though none of the previous demands or “tests” of God upon Abraham were as shocking or cruel, God always came through in the end.  Deep in his heart, as he utters the assurance to his son that God would provide, there had to be some doubt and fear that God would not come through . . . and, ultimately, Isaac would be sacrificed.  Despite it all, he still offers himself.

And, God does provide.  Following God’s instructions, Abraham does as he is told.  He builds the fire, places Isaac upon the wood, begins to pray as he holds high the sacrificial knife . . . he is just seconds from plunging the knife through the heart of his beloved son.  The suspense had to be nearly overwhelming.  Just inches from striking his son, he is again greeted with the Holy . . . the angels confront him . . . they tell him to stop. And, again, Abraham responds by giving himself . . . “Here I am!”

Abraham’s trust pays off.  He is provided an animal to sacrifice . . . freeing his son, together they perform the sacrifice.  God now knows that Abraham can be trusted.  For both the meaning of “Here I am” becomes clear.  Despite the fact that we know that everything is going to turn out for the best, none of us can help ourselves waiting for the suspense of that moment to happen.

God had to trust that Abraham would do what was asked of him . . . even when the stakes of the demand were to kill his only son . . . a son he deeply loved . . . a son he had waited a long, long to come into his life . . . a son upon which God had promised to build a great people.  And, up to that moment before Abraham was about to kill his son, God had received the affirmation of trust sought from Abraham.  God saw that Abraham was willing to give God whatever God wanted . . . even his only son.  Abraham gave himself completely to God.

In turn, Abraham had to trust the God that he thought he knew . . . the God who always showed up when needed . . . the God who had placed the promise of the future upon this child . . . the God he loved.  Abraham had to trust that God would do the right thing.  Only with such trust was Abraham willing to give up everything . . . to sacrifice it all.  For such trustworthiness, Abraham is rewarded . . . God comes through just as he told Isaac that God would.

Relationships are built on trust.  And trust takes sacrifice.  Sacrifice to give one’s self completely . . . to do whatever it takes to have that relationship.  

Think about it.  There are no deep friendships without the giving of one’s self to another.  There are no thriving children without the labor of enduring dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and endurance of crying screaming babies.  There are no marriages if couples are not willing to set aside themselves for those they love.  There are no communities without countless acts of generosity . . . food banks, shelters for the homeless, programs for kids, libraries, just to name a few.

Life is tough.  When we are thrown up against the hard mystery of risking and sacrifice and suffering . . . all elements of Abraham and God’s story this morning . . . it can feel as if we are being tested.  Then the question becomes: Can we trust?  Can we trust God?  And, if we trust God can we let go and allow God to take care of us . . . to never abandon us . . . to provide for us?

Abraham placed himself before God . . . “Here I am!”  Abraham was willing to lay it all on the line . . . even sacrificing his own son . . . to show his trust in God.

Despite knowing the outcome of the story, there is still a feeling of shock and disbelief in thinking that God would demand from any parent the sacrifice of a child.  And, yet, we are quick to forget . . . God went the distance to show God’s love for us.  In Jesus we see the willingness of God to step before all of humanity . . . die upon a cross . . . to show love to us . . . and, to prove that we can trust God in all things.  In Jesus, his words and actions, God stands before us and offers God’s self . . . proclaiming, “Here I am!”

God gives us everything, asks everything of us, is with us in everything, and will heal everything . . . if only we can trust.  If only we can offer ourselves.

Here we are . . . Amen!