Train Wreck Before the Wedding

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 27, 2016
Taken from Matthew 24:36-44

Three Kings following the Star

 We’re now anticipating Christmas, aren’t we?  On this first Sunday of Advent, we start with the Christmas carols, we start with Advent Wreath.  Our minds turn to crèches and stars and shepherds, Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem, and the triumphant and resurrected Lord Jesus reverts to Baby Jesus in the manger.

Yet, the lectionary readings for this season we call Advent so often turn to the apocalyptic.  The Apocalyptic writings of Scripture—at least odd, and if you read them in any detail, they may even seem to us as grotesque.

We think of the Book of Daniel and all its beasts rising up out of the seas.  We may think of the Book of Revelation, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, something called “The End Times”, the Great Dragon and the Beast and the mark of the Beast, and great battles of evil against good, all of which either preachers of a certain ilk or Hollywood have portrayed to us in lurid and frightening dimensions.

So much has Hollywood captured our culture’s apocalyptic imagination that I’m willing to wager a fair amount that if you asked anyone thirty years of age or younger whether the Book of Revelation features zombies, they would likely say, “Yes!”  Maybe you would answer “yes”, too, to the zombie question.

What other part of the Bible features zombies?  The Book of Daniel!  Not really, no. No part of the Bible, apocalyptic or otherwise, mentions the first thing about zombies.

To complicate matters for us, not only do we have to contend with the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation in all their bizarreness.  We also must contend with the fact that our Lord himself on occasion would go off on an apocalyptic tear of his own.  Usually, it’s Advent, it’s the Christmas Season; that Jesus’ End Times teachings are recommended for our consideration.

A couple of definitions are in order.  The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’, ‘arrival’.  So, at Christmas we celebrate the coming of God among us in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s certainly cause for Joy and Peace and Hope and Love, the usual themes of the four Advent Sundays.

The word, ‘apocalypse’, means ‘to reveal, to make plain, to uncover what is hidden’.  So, in that sense, I suppose we also might speak of God coming among us in the birth of Jesus as a sort of baby-sized apocalypse, all swaddled up and placed in the manger.

Honestly, though, that would be a stretch, to spin the word ‘apocalypse’ to fit with Christmas.  How can we possibly join that word of bloody warfare and ghastly beasts with such life-giving words as ‘Hope’ and ‘Joy’ and ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’?  Well, we really can’t, unless we realize that we focus on the wrong things in our usual fascination with the fantastical and the gore of much apocalyptic preaching and movies.

That was not what Jesus was calling us to see when Jesus spoke of such things.  What Jesus always, always, called people to see was this:  the kingdom of God has come among you!  Look, Jesus taught, this is what God’s kingdom is about, it’s a community of love, a love that reclaims and redeems and creates.

The image Jesus so often turned to help us understand his words and his life was that of a wedding.  A grand and glorious wedding which God is hosting, to which we all, sinners and fools and cynics, the religious and the anti-religious, invited to find our place at this coming wedding.  Now, “wedding”, that’s a word that does seem to fit with our Advent words of ‘Hope’ and ‘Joy’ and ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’.

Pastors are well-acquainted with weddings.  I’m pretty much a “go along, get along” kind of guy – until it comes to wedding rehearsals.  Then, I become like a little Napoleon at wedding rehearsals.  You know why?  I’ll tell you why.  A wedding rehearsal is nothing but a train wreck waiting to happen.

Of course, I never actually say that to a couple while I’m doing pre-marriage counseling with them.  Part of the process of premarital counseling is to do wedding planning.

“What do you want to happen in your wedding?” I ask the couple.  “Well, our mothers think it should go like this…”, they may answer me.

“That’s nice,” I reply, “but what do you want to happen in your wedding?”  “Well, my best friend from college has this great idea…” perhaps the bride will say.

“That’s nice,” I say, “but what do you want to happen?”  “Well, did you ever see that movie ’Love, Actually’,” they’ll eagerly ask, “where the couple is getting married and they turn to leave and then this brass band stands up from all over the church and starts playing and a choir stands us starts singing that Beatles song, ‘All You Need Is Love’?”

My favorite reply came from the bride who wanted all Elvis music during her wedding.

In my brain, a voice is going, “train wreck…train wreck…train wreck.”  But, I don’t say that.  Instead, we sort through all the options for the wedding party and the music and the various elements of a wedding as a worship service—most couples forget, the church wedding is a worship service.  We write down who does what when and why, which can include why Elvis or the brass band would be better left for the reception.

I drive home, be sure to let the wedding coordinator know…it’s a worship service which means the pastor is in charge.

And, I always assure them, no matter what happens, no matter how many moving parts there are in this wedding that may run off-the-rails, stay calm.  They, the couple, will be there; I, the pastor, will be there; and I will get them married.

On this first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of “Hope”, I am talking about weddings and the train-wrecks that can come before a wedding because that’s what Jesus talked about.  In chapter 25, verse 1, Jesus goes straight into a wedding parable to talk about how we’re to live.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus describes for us what human life will be like when that moment comes, that final revealing of God’s kingdom.  Jesus reaches all the way back to Genesis chapter 6 to illustrate his apocalyptic preaching.

Jesus says in verse 37, “as were the days of Noah, so will be the [day of] the coming of the Son of man.”  Then, Jesus goes on to describe how it was in the days of Noah by describing your basic domestic setting:  people eating and drinking, falling in love, getting married, their families blessing their marriages.  All of this domestic life going on as though it would always go on uninterrupted.  Until, of course, it does get interrupted.

We speak so often of living in “The End Times”.  As the Bible describes it, it’s really more of an “End Moment”.  No one knows when that’s going to happen.  Jesus says in verse 36, “no one knows…the angels don’t know; I myself don’t know when the End Moment will happen, but God the Father alone knows.”

“But, I’ll tell you what I do know,” Jesus continues.  “It’s gonna look a lot like things have always looked while human beings are in charge of things.”

In other words, what we so often call “the End Times” is just plain old ordinary human times, the time in which we terribly flawed humans keep on trying to rule ourselves with our many kingdoms, and powers, and schemes that we come up with.

Things will get worse from time to time.  Jesus describes one such really bad time that will befall Jerusalem in about another 40 years.  But, overall, life will continue, fluctuating, swinging back and forth, between normal domesticity and occasional human-contrived horrors.

Then, in an instant, it will all be over.  You see, there is no final apocalyptic battle with the outcome uncertain.  What those apocalyptic movies and so much apocalyptic preaching describe more appropriately should be call the pre-apocalypse.

Think of the so-called “End Times” this way:  we don’t live through “The End Times”; we live in “The Meantime”; in “the meantime” before the Advent of the triumphant and resurrected Lord.  And, on occasion “the meantimes” will become just that, a very mean time in which to live.

That’s when you and I and all God’s people will especially need to remember and to ask ourselves, what did Jesus teach and live?  Jesus taught and lived that the kingdom of God was among us.  This is what it means, Jesus taught and showed, to know yourself to be part of the kingdom of God and how you are to live from this moment on as a member of God’s community of love.

Because, Jesus so much wanted us to understand, that’s the reality of life.  The kingdom of God, this community of God’s love that God is inspiring and expanding, is very real.  It exists.  For the present, it is experienced only through faith.  It is seen in the lives of the people who profess that faith.

From time to time, the powers of this world’s rulers attempt to assert themselves as though they are god.  Then, those rulers and those kinds of communities become demonic.  It’s as though they’ve become possessed, caught in an evil nightmare.  Then, living this life of faith and being this community of love becomes very, very hard.  So, especially in those times, we must be wise and vigilant.  Especially, we must guard against our love growing cold and dying.

In describing such especially hard chapters in human history, Jesus warns us in chapter 24, verses 11-13, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because wickedness is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold.  But those who endure to the end will be saved.”

Because wickedness is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold.

The New Testament scholar, Eduard Schweizer, comments here, “This can mean love for God or for one’s neighbor; for Matthew the emphasis is on the latter [love for one’s neighbor].  False doctrine is accordingly not erroneous theology, but an attitude that in practice does not display love.”1

In the typical “end times” kind of preaching, there’s so much said about nations warring, and cosmic upheaval, and signs of every sort, but there’s not often mentioned this sign:  people’s compassion for their neighbor will grow cold.  And who is my neighbor, we may ask?  Well, you know how Jesus answered that question.

Jesus warns us, because of wickedness, people’s love will grow cold, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.  Endures how?  We endure by not allowing our compassion to grow cynical and hard.  We endure by continuing to love as Jesus has shown us to love.

When the apocalyptic moment happens, it’s all over.  The curtain of this universe’s veil will be suddenly drawn open, and the parallel reality of God’s rule, of God’s community of love, will be made plain.  The true order of the cosmos will be seen by all, and all that remained at odds with God’s rule will be destroyed in an instant.

The old is out, the new is in, and every knee bows and every tongue confesses, in heaven and on earth and under the earth—to use the Bible cosmology—what?  To whom is every knee bowed and what is every tongue confessing?  That Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:10-11)

And that day, says the Bible, will be like going to a grand wedding.

The Book of The Revelation, from which we did not read today, speaks of that future advent of Christ as a wedding.  It will be like a glorious wedding.

Revelation, chapter 19, verse 7, Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and his Bride has made herself ready.

Chapter 19, verse 9, And the angel said to me, “Write this:  Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”.

Revelation, chapter 21, verse 2, And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Chapter 21, verse 9, the angel says, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb’ and then the angel flies John off to see the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

So, in the Book of The Revelation, God’s consummation of history, the Advent of Christ, will be like a grand wedding.

You and I are people of faith looking forward to the great wedding; in fact, we are part of the wedding party.  We are in this present age living a kind of rehearsal preparing ourselves for the great wedding of the Lamb and his Bride.  It will no doubt be a grand and glorious happening, this wedding.  But, from time to time the rehearsal will be an absolute train wreck.  We live, at times, through truly mean times.

But, the big wedding day is still coming.  And, we are the wedding party.  We must rehearse for that day.  We must be the ones’ who love does not grow cold.  You know, in this world that takes a lot of practice to keep such love as our Lord showed us, alive and vibrant.

One of the challenges of premarital counseling is to help the couple to imagine their married life:  what will life be like after the wedding?  One of the realities each partner has to recognize is that what they know of marriage is pretty much what was modeled for them in their parents’ marriage.

What did you see your parents do in this situation and that situation?  Which parent do you most identify with?  What roles from your own parents’ marriage do you expect your spouse to take on?  Oh, that’s when premarital counseling gets really interesting!

So, you process those competing, conflicting, priorities with the couple and you help them to re-imagine their married life.  You hope to see the couple reshape those learned behaviors, to turn their received experience of marriage into something productive and fruitful for their own marriage.

That becomes the vision to which we as couple and pastor look ahead to and celebrate on their wedding day, come what may in the planning and rehearsing and the train-wrecking and all else that may go wrong.

We in the church do something like that together.  We realize what experiences we’ve learned growing up in the world must be abandoned, what must be unpacked and rearranged, so we can form the family of faith together.

We show up and keep on showing up, rehearsing this love which Jesus shows us, and Jesus has promised, with that love and with this vision guiding us, the wedding day will come, the marriage will happen.  For the one who endures to the end will be saved.

1Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (Atlanta:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) p. 451.

The Partisan

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 20, 2016
Taken from 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 20-24

When I was a boy, my mother made the best rice pudding.  It was second only to her candied yams with toasted marshmallows on top, all floating in butter and brown sugar.  I could eat my weight in Mom’s rice pudding.

One evening, Mom set a whopping big bowl of rice pudding there on the dinner table.  It was like she was laying down a challenge in front of me, to see if I really would try to eat my weight in rice pudding.  I don’t know how many servings I ate, but I ate and I ate and I ate rice pudding until I couldn’t squish in another bite.

I got up from the table, and all was fine for the first fifteen or twenty minutes after dinner.  But, then, I started not feeling so well.  My intestinal distress I suspect may have had something to do with rice swelling; I know it had a lot to do with trying to fit pretty much that whole big bowl of rice pudding inside of me.  Leave it sufficient to say, I had a very long and miserable and messy night ahead of me.

It was many years before I could stomach even the thought of eating rice pudding, never mind putting a spoonful in my mouth.  My body would go into instant revolt, as if to say, “You do that to me again, and I will seriously hurt you!”

By Monday two weeks ago, on November 7, we all had had more than our fill of presidential campaigning.  Much more than any of us really could stomach.  So, on Tuesday, November 8, we cast our votes and went away satisfied.  We thought we had finally pushed away from that table and from all that–whatever it was–we as a nation were feeding ourselves on.  But, we didn’t get away from it all so easily, did we?

No, from what you yourselves my church family tell me, from what my own circle of personal friends and acquaintances tell me, and from what I read and watch across all forms of media, none of us of any political persuasion, have walked away satisfied.

Instead, we have made ourselves miserable as a nation.  We have sickened ourselves as a people in ways we have yet come to realize, so soon after rising and walking away from the table of this campaign season.  Just as I had only started to realize as a boy those many years ago shortly after my rice pudding feast was finished and I had left the dinner table, so now for us there is a national distress among us and there is a personal distress within us which I expect will get worse if it is to get better.

How will it get better, though?  What will be your role, and what will be my role in navigating our way through whatever distress may yet come for our people?  How will you and I help our nation’s predicament end up better than where we find ourselves now?  That is not a partisan question, though our own political partisanship may help us.

My question for us this morning is, what are we going to do together  for the next four years, folks?  And, by “folks”, I don’t mean “my fellow Americans”.  I mean to ask, what are we, University Baptist Church, this Community of God’s Beloved on this corner in Charlottesville, we brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus, we citizens of the Kingdom of God here on this sweet earth:  what are we going to do in this time of national and personal distress?

Whether we voted for President-elect Trump or we voted for Secretary Clinton or for one of the Third Party candidates or if we simply opted out of voting, we are in for a long, tough slog together.

You who voted for President-elect Trump:  you are so fed up with those protesters and those muck-raking journalists and all those malcontents hogging up the media. They lost the election, but they won’t accept defeat with grace and civility.  They refuse to practice the ideals of citizenship that you who voted for President-elect Trump say you would practice if your candidate had lost and Secretary Clinton had won.

You, my sisters and brothers of the Lord Jesus, what are you going to do in these months ahead and these years ahead?  Those who so deeply agitate you in these first days after the election are not going away.

You who voted for Secretary Clinton:  you are so emotionally distraught, I mean, truly distraught.  You are angry, frightened, your teeth set on edge and your minds stupefied afresh every time you hear that phrase uttered, “President-elect Trump”; it shuts you down or sets you off.

What are you going to do, my sisters and brothers of the Lord Jesus, as you watch Mr. Trump’s administration unfold in the next two months, and what are you going to do for the next four years because every day you will hear reference to “President Trump this” and “President Trump that”?

These are not questions of partisan politics I’m asking us.  I am speaking to you as your Interim Pastor, and I mean to say this is a matter of our souls’ well-being.

A “partisan” is, by the dictionary’s reading and I quote:

“1: a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially: one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance
2a: a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy; b: a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines”1

Do any of those statements describe people you know or describe you yourselves here this morning?  Are you one of those “firm adherents” to the person or the party for whom you voted on November 8, even to the point of “exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance”?

Do you, today, feel as though you are “a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines”?

Partisanship doesn’t have to be to this extreme.  Partisanship can mean the way we choose among various options for how to govern and how we choose from among a list of values what to implement.  Those are our priorities and preferences.  In other words, we support and advocate for one part of the whole while still advancing the well-being of the whole as our central ambition.

In this sense of being a partisan, we appreciate that other people choose other options and priorities.  We respect that, even as we hope our candidate and our preferred party can persuade enough of our fellow citizens to choose the part we think will best serve the interests of all.

This is the understanding of partisanship that motivated me as a college student to be active in partisan politics.  I took a significant amount of time off from college to be involved in the legislative process here in Virginia.  I was employed as a campaign worker in a state-wide primary race here in Virginia.

When I finally returned to college and graduated, I was one of five graduates that year from among Virginia’s public and private universities chosen for a one-year government internship under the auspices of Governor John Dalton’s office.  So, in essence, I was a one-year political appointee.

I tell you all of that to communicate as well as I can that I appreciate the role of a healthy partisan political process.  I value those men and women who commit themselves to a set of priorities and commit themselves to candidates who embody those priorities so they can make a real difference for our common good.

But, partisanship has a shadow side of which we must beware.  The shadow side of partisanship promotes divisiveness and it deteriorates and it destroys the health of civic body.  It was this ominous unfolding of partisanship that prompted Paul to write to the Christians in Corinth.

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth is among the earliest of our New Testament books.  It predates the first of our four Gospel accounts by at least a decade.  Already, an attitude of partisanship was insinuating its way into the church there.

Partisanship had become so disruptive and so threatening to their fellowship, that it’s the very first issue which Paul addresses, here in chapter 1:  “There is quarreling among you, sisters and brothers.  What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ’.”

“Each one”, Paul writes, had begun choosing up for himself or herself, which teacher had the true teaching of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.  There were the partisans for Paul.  There were partisans for the Apostle Peter, or Cephas, as Paul writes, using the Greek version of Peter’s name.  There were partisans for a Christian named Apollos.  Apollos was an eloquent and powerful evangelist there in Corinth.  You can read more about Apollos in Acts chapter 18, verses 24-28.

There were even some who claimed, ‘we are partisans for Christ’.  Well, what’s wrong with that?  What was wrong was the attitude with which they made that claim.  Let me illustrate it this way.  How many of us want to be a “humble Christian”?  How many of us want UBC to be a “humble church”.  Yes, we’d all answer, because we know humility is a significant spiritual virtue.

The problem is, there’s no good way we can stand up among our peers and proclaim, “Well, look at me, I am the humblest of Christians!”  “We are the humblest of congregations!”  To do so would more than suggest that we don’t really understand humility.  That’s what was wrong with how this particular faction was standing up among their peers in Corinth, saying, “We are the partisans for Christ”.  It belied their understanding of what that means.

Paul called on his contemporaries to give account for their behavior against the greater truth of the Gospel.  Not according to their identity as Jews, not according to their identity as Gentiles, not according to their identity culturally or politically or economically or racially or by any other qualifier of who they were when they came to faith in Jesus:  they must now give account for themselves in the light of who they were as followers of the Crucified and Risen One of God.  So must we, post-November 8th.

Paul sums it up for them and for us when he writes in verses 23 and 24:  “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block [for everyone] but to those who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  What about the resurrection?  Why does Paul call them to focus on Christ crucified, when the Good News is Christ resurrected?

Here’s the essential element of our faith that Paul was calling them and us to affirm.  When they, and when we, said Yes to Christ Jesus, that was our sacred vow before God: “by faith, Lord, I choose to be crucified with you, so that I may die to the powers of this world opposed to God and be resurrected into the new life of your way, Lord Jesus.”  In that commitment of faith we chose the way and the values of our Lord Jesus first and always.  We chose that our life-agendas first and always will be the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth.

Where the claims of any party or candidate or other secular group may happen to correspond to the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth as best as we can understand the Gospel, we can in good conscience add our voices, our resources, and our votes.  But, always we do so with caution.

Always we must be vigilant, examining and reexamining, dicing and slicing and sorting among those partisan claims upon us.  Always we must be on the lookout for what of that partisanship conflicts with the part we have chosen with the Lord Jesus Christ and the Christ-body politic.

We must be astute students of the life and way of the Lord.  Paul writes in these verses that this must be the wisdom for which we strive, “the wisdom of God…[revealed now in]…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (verses 21, 24).  As we grow in God’s wisdom revealed for us in Jesus, we inevitably will come up against conflicts between God’s wisdom and this world’s wisdom.  Then, we crucify and put to death within ourselves those other allegiances and claims upon us.

When we discover an essential conflict, then we come up against this hard choice:  will we be true to our sacred vow before God?  Will we again affirm the wisdom of God, and our place by the side of our Lord, “Christ crucified”?

By our taking up the cross of Christ in practice, that is how we “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block…and folly” to the world, “but to those who are called”,  that is, to we who are called to bear witness of Jesus, to we “who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” in my life, in your life.

This is how we demonstrate that we are partisans of Christ who is Lord over all of us.  This is how we demonstrate that we believe that the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s agenda for all humanity.  This is our call as God’s people on this earth:  we are salt, and we are light; we are the sacred leaven of Jesus, worked in among the nations, among the peoples, among the partisans of this world.

A sickness has taken hold of our nation.  A fearful illness the symptoms of which are truly visceral and violent and which each hour of the so-called news cycle manifests itself.  Never more than now has this nation and our community needed a people among them who are being healed in mind, body, soul, strength, through the love and the life of the Risen Lord Jesus.

In whatever is to come, never more than now, this nation’s turmoil will require that we be a people who practice this power of God and this wisdom of God.

To do that, we will need to discover that power and that wisdom of God operating within ourselves, as individual believers, and as a congregation.  We will need to do the necessary soul-work, assess where we find ourselves with the Lord Jesus, deepen the wells of our own spiritual resources, put up upon faith’s cross what must be relinquished, so we may know more of the resurrection life of Christ being formed within us.

We have spiritual work to do in these days, each of us, and we need one another to see that work through.  This is what it means to be the body of Christ for one another so that we can be the body of Christ for our community and for our Commonwealth and for our nation.  This is our part for the healing of the whole.


The Madness of Saint Paul

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 13, 2016
Taken from Ephesians 3:14-21 

 Rooted in Love


If I called out to you sitting down here on the front pew, “Hey, you, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you sitting throughout the middle section of the sanctuary, “Hey, you, too, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you who are nicely tucked away up under the balcony, “Hey, welcome, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you sitting way up there in the balcony, “Hey, there, you beloved of God.”

And, even if I called out to you who are sitting with your radios sharing with us in worship, “Welcome, you beloved of God.”

You might think of it a little bit of an odd way to start, perhaps, a little bit over the top, but you’d wouldn’t worry about my sanity any more than you normally do.

But, what if I didn’t stop there?  What if I, standing here behind this pulpit, after calling out to you whom we might reasonably expect to hear my voice, what if I began calling out to the pedestrians walking out there on the sidewalks in front of our church building right now, whom we cannot see nor whom we might expect to hear what the preacher inside is saying?  Yet, I call out, “Hello, you much beloved of God!”

What if I began calling out to the folks sitting in their cars stopped at the red lights in the intersection, whom we cannot see nor expect to hear?  “Hi, there, you beloved of God!”

What if I shouted out to the patients in their hospital rooms two blocks over and to their families there by their sides, and I shouted out to the multitude of medical professionals and support staff there in the hospital with them right now.  “All of you!  Greetings, you beloved of the Lord!”

What if even then I didn’t stop.  But I kept on shouting out to students just now waking up in the dorms all the way over on the other side of the University grounds, and on and on and on.  “Wake up, you much beloved children of God!”

Calling out as though I really thought that all these strangers far away could hear me from where I am now standing on this spot behind this pulpit, well, then, you might think it a bit more than just odd.  You might think I had gone way around the bend, and that I’d gone a bit mad, wouldn’t you?  That I would think that people, strangers to us, strangers to our worship, strangers to the Lord Jesus Christ, could possibly hear what the preacher behind this pulpit might preach.

My excitement in calling out to all these others whom we cannot see and whom we are convinced could not possibly hear me, such excitement you would interpret as a frightening emotional agitation that had taken over me.

My apparently heartfelt belief that those others far outside of this fellowship of faith would somehow turn and wonder at the source of the voice they heard, you would call me delusional.

My actions would be so disruptive of what you would expect for your Sunday morning worship experience, so alien to the behavior by which you expect the preachers of this church to conduct themselves, it would offend you and perhaps you would turn angry, determined to banish me from ever standing here again to preach.

You would reach for your phones to dial 911; you might even rush the pulpit to constrain me for my own safety and to preclude any violence you’d fear might happen if my apparent derangement were allowed to go on unchecked.

And under any scenario of expected normal human behavior, you’d be right to do so.  Unless …

Unless this scenario which falls far outside the norm of what we might expect or believe possible had now become possible.  That the preacher is possessed not of madness, but that God had possessed the preacher with an insight and an understanding of a scenario that once was impossible but God has now made possible.

That what God has now made possible God intends not only the preacher to proclaim but God fully intends that all the people of God to believe, each and every woman, man, and child, so that they too will absorb that same insight into this most unexpected scenario God is now playing out among us.  A scenario which God fully intends to play out through us all, no longer passive observers but active participants.

That together, all God’s people will know for a certainty, that what once was unimaginable, they do dare to imagine, because God has done it, God is doing it, and God will have it done in total before God is finished.

What if, as we sat now in this sanctuary, on this morning, if after all that calling out to those folks far beyond these walls, even now, what if those people were making their way up the steps and we began hearing a knock, knock, knocking at our sanctuary doors because they in fact heard a voice speaking to them, speaking to their souls, “Come to my house, come to my table, come, my beloved, for you, too, are part of the family of God.”

What apparent madness I am describing would suddenly disappear, and in its place, a clarified focus would take hold of us, so that together we would affirm this sacred scenario of God, a sacred scenario so sane, and so sensible that no one of us would hesitate to offer our dedication and to offer our support to see that scenario be played out among us.

Beyond our reasonable expectations of what might happen, beyond any sensible plans we might devise that we see achievable in the service of God, beyond all we might dare ask or hope from God, God awaits on you and me.

God waits for us to see what God sees, to believe in what God knows as possible.  God seeks out our partnership to accomplish for God’s glory the salvation of these people I described:  people unclaimed and lost, yet people very much beloved, children of God.

Those people, who walk past us on the sidewalks just outside our doors and who drive by us on this corner:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved of God.

People, who travel from across the country and from across the world, to study at this great institution across the street or to find healing in this hospital two blocks from us:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved children of God.

People, whose travels take them no further than the bus lines run in this city and county, whose life experiences extend no further than the families into which they were born and raised:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved children of God.

“For this reason,” Paul writes, “I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles…For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that according to the riches of God’s glory God may grant you all…to have [the] power to get it!”

 “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.”  – that’s us, by the way, we’re the Gentiles on whose behalf Paul now finds himself a prisoner.  Paul is a prisoner because he himself has been judged mad;  Paul, derided as a disrupter of the faith, a voice calling out to those whom his fellow Jews dismissed as impossible to be included, those whom Paul’s contemporaries believed to be beyond hearing and responding to the grace of God.

Paul was a prisoner of the Roman governor, for no other reason than that he finally saw and gave over his life in service to the very thing which he formerly persecuted and sought to wipe out as heresy, as an utter defilement of his faith.

Saul, on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of the Way of Jesus of Nazareth was struck down in the blinding light of the Risen Christ.  Christ then raised him up as Paul, the Apostle of Christ.

Paul becomes the Apostle proclaiming the sacred scenario God had now set in motion in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  Paul is sold on the sacred scenario that God had now made possible through the outpouring of God’s own Holy Spirit among all the followers of the Risen Christ beginning on the Day of Pentecost.

On that Pentecost Sunday, people laughed at those 120 followers of Christ anointed of the Holy Spirit.  They didn’t call them mad, they simply dismissed them as a bunch of drunks.  The Apostle Peter protests, “what you call drunken stupor, is in reality the sacred scenario of which the ancient prophet foresaw,

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh ….And it shall be that whoever—whoever—shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  (Acts 2:17-21)

It was that last little bit there, that “whoever”, that one day got the Apostle Paul nearly beat to death out on a street in Jerusalem.  Roman soldiers rushed in to rescue Paul.  Then they put Paul under arrest until they could sort out the mess.

Paul, now a prisoner, all because the Lord Jesus showed Paul that “whoever” meant exactly that: Gentile as well as Jew, homegrown Hebrew as well as far-off pagan, educated or illiterate, women as well as men, those who were enslaved as well as those who enslaved them.

Paul saw clearly what the other original Twelve Apostles were so reluctant to recognize.  As Paul writes in Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 15:  “[Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity….”

Now, let that sink in for a moment.  You go stand up in front of a group of committed religionists and their leaders and tell them that.  Tell them that the God whom they worship, the God whom they know through these same sacred Scriptures, yes, God is now done with all of that.

Now, through the one man whom they themselves had conspired with the governing authorities to have killed, that man God had resurrected, to become the template and the leader, of a new humanity.  A new humanity whom God is now creating out of all the old and broken and warring families of this existing world.  As Paul writes in verse 14 of our reading this morning:  “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”, that Father was now gathering in all God’s children in this household of faith.

It was what I am calling “The Madness of Saint Paul”.  That’s what the Roman Governor, said to Paul.  In Acts, chapter 26, Paul stand before the Jewish King, Agrippa, and the Roman Governor, Festus.  Paul attempts to explain God’s new thing, this sacred scenario Paul says God is now accomplishing through the Risen Christ.

Verses 24 and 25 of Acts chapter 26 record that as Paul tries to explain, the Roman Governor “interrupted Paul’s defense.  ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted.  ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’

‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied.  ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable’.” (NIV)

If only we here at University Baptist Church might be accused of such madness!  If only we were in the position of having to defend ourselves, to protest that we are not driven by insanity, but we are driven by the infinitely sane, the entirely true, the Divine outworking of God’s sacred scenario through us here in Charlottesville.

But, that’s unlikely to happen if the greatest vision we can conjure up for ourselves is just trying to get new church members.  Not a lot of new church members, mind you.  Just enough to hang on, to survive, to keep the building open and the lights on and employees paid.  What a frivolous and, quite frankly, what a boring thing in which to invest ourselves.

But, if we’re here trying to do what the Apostle Paul himself was trying to do, well then, that’s a whole different ball game.  We might just stir up a little trouble.  If we’re here trying to do what Paul was praying these early believers might do, then we too might get told that we’re out of our minds.

We’re here to serve God who is not out to make new church members.  God is out to make a brand-new humanity.  We’re here to hold before our community the glorious template of the Risen Christ.

We’re here today at University Baptist Church praying and hoping right along with the Apostle Paul that God will grant us “the power to get our heads and hearts around the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love, to know that love that surpasses human wisdom.”

Why?  So that we, too, “may be filled with all the fullness of God”, so that God will “work within us [what God alone] is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

Isn’t that work of making a new humanity with God worth your commitment and my commitment?  Not making new church members, but making a new humanity.  Isn’t that worth you and I clearing a space in our week, saving a space in our bank accounts, investing some of our best thinking and imagining, to comprehend and to accomplish with God this great and sacred scenario of remaking humanity in the template of Jesus of Nazareth?

You and I don’t want this church to just survive on this corner.  You and I want this church to be known as God’s place on this corner where any may come and see what God has got going on now in Christ.

This church is about calling out, “Welcome, you beloved of God. Whoever you are today, whatever your life is today, whatever vaulted ambitions may drive you, whatever devastated dreams may defeat you, whatever has hold on your hearts, turn it loose, die and be resurrected a new woman, a new man, a new eternal child of God.”  Wouldn’t you agree, that is so much better than simply trying to get people to become a church member.

I’ll ask us again:

Isn’t the work of making a new humanity with God worth your commitment and my commitment?  Not making new church members, but making a new humanity.  Isn’t that worth you and I clearing a space in our week, saving a space in our bank accounts, investing some of our best thinking and imagining, to comprehend and to accomplish with God this great and sacred scenario of human reclamation and salvation?

If the world doesn’t end on Tuesday…

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, November 6, 2016
Taken from 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Stained glass window of the Lord's SupperLord’s Supper’  Ramsey Reformed Church, Titonka, Iowa

We are almost there. After months and months of anticipation, Tuesday is just around the corner, the day after tomorrow. We’ve nearly made it! Tuesday is, as I’m sure you know… Martha’s birthday! Did you know that it’s Martha’s birthday this week? If you see Martha this week, make sure to tell her, “Happy Birthday!”

There’s also some kind of election, I think… But really, what better birthday present could there be, than an end to the 2016 presidential campaign season! Is anyone else ready to have this behind us? This has been such a rough campaign, so full of hatred, distrust, and deception. It has gotten really ugly.

My guess was that when I started to talk about the election, I would see some people squirming in their seats, and I was right! Let me reassure you that I will be endorsing no one today, and this sermon will not morph into a political speech. But this election is happening, and I believe we’ll find that our Scriptural text may have something to say to this climate in which we find ourselves.

This election really is everywhere. Even Facebook is no longer safe. Usually Facebook is a pleasant distraction from the concerns of our lives: pictures of cats and babies, funny little cartoons, and the overly detailed life updates from that one guy you went to school with. But now Facebook has turned into an unending avalanche of self-righteous political rants and polarizing news headline (ugh). Occasionally there’s a glimmer of hope, though, a bright spot in the midst of so much negativity. I particularly liked a church sign that has been going around—maybe you’ve seen it—which says, “Jesus is coming – hopefully before the election.” In other words, maybe the world will just go ahead and end, so we don’t have to deal with this anymore!

Well, today we’re taking a look at 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, part of a short letter written 2000 years ago to a church community very different from ours. And yet… maybe not so different. The thrust of the argument is basically this: don’t worry, this is not the end of the world. Listen to verse 1 and 2 again:

1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.

That was the controversy dominating the life of their community. Evidently, someone had been going around preaching that the Day of the Lord had already come, and they missed it! Understandably, they were alarmed, shaken to the core by the possibility that the world was ending, or that maybe the end had already come! Today we are not going to analyze all of the specifics of these claims and try to explain the symbolism, but instead look at the overall message of this text, which says, essentially: hold on, take a deep breath, this is not the end. But apparently it felt like it.

And they weren’t the only ones. Throughout the history of Christianity, over and over again, there have been predictions of the end of the world. Remember Y2K, the year 2000? The year 1000 was a hot spot as well, and the year 1033, the year 1284, quite a few dates in the 1500s (and 1600s… and 1700s), famously the Millerites in 1843 (and again in 1844), and on and on they go. Basically, there are always people claiming the world is ending.

Now is no exception. There’s always someone with a sign on the street corner, and—to turn back to politics—the tone of this presidential campaign has been nothing short of apocalyptic: speeches saying that the other candidate will destroy our country, that this is our last chance; nuclear war, or a constitutional crisis, or the end of democracy. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex that tells us the stakes have never been higher, and to feel the sense that everything is coming to a head right now, as it never has before. Well, except in 1843 and 1533 and 1284… and when Thessalonians was written.

Why is it that apocalyptic thinking takes such hold of us? What is it about the end of the world that has captivated us for centuries?

There’s certainly an air of excitement to it, I guess, and a sense of importance, getting to be here when it all happens. But I think there’s something else, too. There’s a sense in which this is the easy way out. End of the world; nothing we can do! Right? We’re off the hook!

It seems that at certain times, we get so caught up in what’s happening in our world—whether its political turmoil, or war in the middle east, or something closer to home—that we are unable to see beyond those immediate circumstances. We lose our perspective, and can’t figure out what to do next. The easiest solution is just to throw our hands up and say, this must be it.

But what if this isn’t the end of the world…

In the Broadway musical Hamilton there is a line that has been running through my mind. In one scene, General George Washington is talking to a young Alexander Hamilton, who is eager to get into battle in the Revolutionary War, even to be a martyr for the cause, and Washington says to him: “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”

Living is harder.

Preaching the end of the world is easy. But if we’re still here, then what? How are we to go about the harder work, of living?

This morning I’d like to highlight what I see in these Scriptural texts as three steps for what to do when the world seems like it’s ending.

The first comes in verse 15 of our reading from 2nd Thessalonians. Remember, this was written to a community of people who were shaken and afraid because they thought the Day of the Lord had already come, and they’d missed it. The stakes didn’t get any higher. This letter, calmly and gently, encourages them to stand firm and hold fast.

Stand firm and hold fast: don’t let this knock you over. We’ve already talked about how the current election is presenting itself as if the stakes have never been higher, and it’s easy to get swept up in that. But it’s also true in other parts of our lives: conflict in a relationship, or at work, or even at church can take hold of us and knock us off balance. For students, maybe it’s having to change majors, or withdraw from a class, or not get into the right grad school, or sleeping through an exam (by the way, I definitely did that once: stayed up all night studying, until 6 in the morning, and then fell asleep and slept straight through the final exam). In large ways and small, our lives take us from crisis to crisis, and we can easily get swept up in it. But the way we stand firm, is to “hold fast.” Hold fast to the teachings you’ve received, hold fast to what you know to be true, hold fast to God. Doing that, staying grounded in what really matters, allows us to keep our perspective when we’re gripped by the crisis of the moment—even when the world seems to be ending.

So that’s step one: regain perspective by standing firm and holding fast to the God who is still there.

The second step, then, is to rediscover imagination.

Now I know, when we talk about imagination, we usually think about kids. And, granted, kids can be very imaginative: like the time when Luke, our 3-year-old, was running around the house yelling, brrrrrm. When we asked, “What are you doing?”, he responded matter-of-factly, “I’m a naked cement mixer!”

But imagination is not just for children, and it’s not just make-believe. It’s about seeing. Theological imagination is a way of seeing the world, beyond what’s on the surface—seeing through God’s eyes. Imagination lets us see more than what is; we imagine what could be.

Those doomsday prophets of our world, who see what’s happening and say this must be the end—they can’t imagine any kind of positive future.

But with imagination, we can look beyond the messed-up world as it is now, catching a glimpse of the world as God would have it to be.

It’s kind of funny that when we finally get to the end of this year’s toxic presidential campaign season, we plunge into possibly the only season of the church year that could be worse: stewardship season! For those of you who haven’t been here for this before, our stewardship campaign is the time each year when we think about the financial resources we’ll need for the coming year and commit as individuals to contribute our share to make that possible. It’s when we talk about money. Yikes!

But really it’s more than that. Our stewardship campaign is also about imagination. It’s about beginning to catch the vision that God has for our congregation, about what our future may be.

We are at a transitional time as a congregation. We are between pastors; we have just come through an intense time of conversation and discernment these past few weeks. Compared to the high points some years ago, our Sunday morning attendance is down, our financials are not what they used to be, some of our programs are not working the way they used to, and—like all churches—we are trying to figure out how to minister meaningfully in a culture that is changing rapidly.

We are in many ways at a crossroads, with the looming question: what is the future for this church? Do we have a future?

And then we read Ephesians, the verses that form the theme of our stewardship emphasis this year, and we read about the God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”

That’s what it’s about. If you aren’t sure about the future of this church, or about the future of the U.S., or about the future of your career or life or whatever else; if you can’t even imagine that future: then we trust in the one who is able to do more than we can imagine. And in this we find hope: hope that there is a future, even when our imagination fails us. Even when the world seems to be ending, there is a future.

And that’s our step 2 for today: imagining together the future that God has in store.

The final step is to begin living into that reality.

A few minutes ago Larry talked about the ways he and Debby give to this church, both financially and through the many, many hours that they serve this congregation and our community through the ministries of this church. Our stewardship emphasis is about how each of us must discern that for ourselves: what future can we imagine that God has in mind for us? And how can we help make that a reality?

If the world doesn’t end, that’s the question that we face.

Surely, after Election Day, our whole society has work to do, if we are to live together peacefully. And it seems to me that as Christians, we should be leading the way in how to show grace and kindness to one another, to live with humility, generosity, and understanding. Regardless of this election, we follow the Christ who has taught us a different way to live. So as we seek to live in and work for the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, we have a difficult task before us. But that is the work to which God calls, just as God has called the church in every generation, all the way back to those early Christians we encounter in Thessalonians. So let us receive the same encouragement that this letter provided for them:

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

In closing, I do need to offer one final caveat: I do not actually have any unique access to God’s plans about the end of the world, and it is entirely possible that the world will end on Tuesday. If it does… my apologies. Feel free to disregard this entire sermon.

But if it doesn’t, if the world doesn’t end on Tuesday… then we have work to do. So let us stand firm and hold fast to what really matters. Let us imagine together the future that God has in store, and then let us be strengthened and encouraged as God leads us into that future. Amen.

I Am Spartacus

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, October 30, 2016
Taken from Hebrews 2:10-18
 God Loves All People Even The Sinner

We clergy folks so often find our ministry taking place within the setting of hospitals and medical clinics.  The great majority of our daily prayers are for members facing medical tests and procedures and treatments of every kind.  At times, I envy the doctors with all their diagnostic equipment.

You know, if clergy were like medical clinicians, people would come our office and say things, like, “Pastor, I’ve been having these weird symptoms lately. I’m going along like normal and suddenly I’ll start feeling all loving towards people, even the mean ones.”

“Pastor, sometimes I get the urge to bow my head and be real still, and other times I get this urge to raise my head up to the sky and shout, ‘Thank you!’ to no one in particular.  It’s all very distressing, Pastor!  What do you think it might be?”

And, then, I could do what the doctors do.  I’d get out this tube of spiritual goop and squirt it all over you and then take out a special God-scanner gizmo and scan you all up and down.  I’d watch a little screen, and say, “ Uh huh… uh huh…uh huh.  Let’s see…yeah…yeah…bingo!  See it there on the screen, right around the heart?  That little something there?  Looks like you might have a touch of Holy Spirit in you!”

“Well, it’s nothing to worry over for now.  It’s just a small spot of Holy Spirit.  We’ll just keep an eye on it for now.  Generally, the symptoms pass and most people can get on with their lives as usual.  But, sometimes, it can end up with some real life-altering consequences.  In its most extreme state, folks with this condition are often confused for Jesus, if you can imagine that!”

Then, you know, we could get together once a week on Sundays and sometimes twice a week if you count Wednesday nights, and I could check to see whether your Holy Spirit condition is going dormant or if it seems to be progressing.

I could help you find a H S C S support group…that stands for Holy Spirit Chronic Symptom support group.  The spiritual lay person often refers to them as Sunday School classes or small group Bible studies, but we religious professionals prefer the more clinical phrase, Holy Spirit Chronic Sufferer support group.

You remember that public service announcement that use to come out about drug abuse?  The shot would open with some guy standing in his kitchen next to the stove holding an egg.  The guy would hold up the egg and say, “This is your brain.”  Then, he’d crack the egg open and plop into this sizzling hot frying pan and as the egg sizzled in the hot grease, he’d say, “This is your brain on drugs.”

What if we could just do a Christian version of that PSA.  You hold up your egg and say, “This is your soul.”  Then, you could say, “And this is your soul on God.”  And then you’d crack open the egg and out would fly a white dove, or if you’re of the Monty Python Holy Grail persuasion, out would fly a swallow.

But, we clergy people don’t get to do any of that.  There’s no God-scanner gizmo that lets us look inside to see if anybody’s got a touch of the Holy Spirit.  There’s no identifiable God-part inside the human body to dissect and expose.  There’s nothing about us to crack open and out swoops God.  For that matter, no one has ever seen God.

Except!  Except, we have this ancient book of testimony that says a people long ago met a man, a Jewish rabbi from Galilee, by the name of Jesus.  As they got involved with Jesus and started listening to what Jesus was telling them about God and then started imitating Jesus, something happened inside them.  They began experiencing what they could only describe as God coming alive within them and among them.

Our Epistle reading this morning from the Book of Hebrews is as fine a distillation of their witness as we’ll find in Scripture.  As the writer describes in chapter 2, verse 14, speaking of Jesus, Since therefore the children (that is, us) share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same (mortal) nature….

Christian theologians roughly fall out in their theologies between what’s called a “low Christology” and a “high Christology”.  The low Christology folks focus on Jesus the mortal man in whom other people perceived the eternal God in such a way that they could only conclude Jesus was God in the flesh.

High Christology folks focus on the Eternal Son of God who became a fully mortal, flesh and blood man for a while before returning to assume his place in the Divine Perfection known as the Trinity.

Mark’s Gospel account is written from a low Christology perspective.  Over and over, starting immediately in chapter 1, Mark quickly lays out all these amazing signs that Jesus performed along with his teaching.  What conclusion could one draw from all that about this man from Nazareth, Mark is asking, but that God was uniquely present in him.

John’s Gospel account, on the other hand, is written from a high Christology point of view.  Right from the get-go in chapter 1, verse 1, John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

And so John continues on about this Pre-Existent Word of God until he reaches verse 14, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”  That’s a very high Christology kind of introduction.

The Apostle Peter’s speeches and sermons recorded in the Book of Acts usually start off from a low Christology point.  Peter would start off, “Here was this man, Jesus; he performed all kinds of acts that could only originate with God.  But, then, you crucified him.  But, God resurrected the man Jesus and exalted him and restored him to his rightful Lordship over all things.”

The great hymn which Paul recites in Philippians, chapter 2, verses 5-11 is high Christology, “Have this mind among yourselves that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with a God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taken the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of mortals….”

The writer of our Book of Hebrews was definitely of the “high Christology” camp.  Plus, Hebrews wants us to get a handle on all this high Christology in terms taken from the ancient Jewish high priesthood that served in the Temple of Jerusalem.  Over and over, the Book of Hebrews takes some central aspect of the ancient Jewish priesthood, holds it up, and then says, here’s a way to understand Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but the ancient Jewish high priesthood and the old Temple that once stood in Jerusalem just don’t do it for me.  Instead, I do better thinking about all this in terms of Spartacus.  Do you remember the old movie, ‘Spartacus’?  1960, Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis…all those very Mediterranean-looking actors.

Kirk Douglas, of course, is Spartacus.  He’s successfully led a group of slaves in revolt against the forces of Imperial Rome.  Finally, though, the Roman army overwhelms the slaves, and they’re eventually captured.  The Roman General, played by Lawrence Olivier, promises the slaves, “I will not crucify you.  I will allow you to return to your masters.  Only you must turn over to me your leader Spartacus!”

Kirk Douglas, in order to spare his followers that brutal death, is about to step out and acknowledge, “I am Spartacus.”  But, before he can speak, another slave stands and shouts, “I am Spartacus!”  And then another slave and another slave and another until all the slaves are claiming they are Spartacus.

Imagine, though, a slight twist of the plot.  Suppose the Roman General had called out the name of one of the other slaves, and before that slave could step forward, Spartacus himself had stood and said, “I am he!”

Hebrews chapter 2, verse 14, essentially says, that Jesus was like that:  Jesus, willingly stands with you and me saying, “I am she!”  “I am he!”  Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature.  “I am now as they are,” declared Jesus.  It’s the mystery we call incarnation.  Jesus whom we call the Christ, Jesus stood up then and there among his first followers, and Jesus continues to stand up here and now beside us and say, “I am—insert your name here.”

Now, let’s be clear.  God is not like Lawrence Olivier’s Roman general, out tracking us down in order to re-enslave us or to crucify us.  God is not in the business of dehumanizing humanity.  God is not in the business of capturing and crucifying.  We do all that very well on our own, to ourselves and to others.

What is God doing?  Hebrews chapter 2, verse 15, says God is in the business of delivering all those who through fear of death were to subject to lifelong bondage….delivering us mortals who through fear of death are subject to lifelong bondage.

Fear of death, inevitably, leads us into bondage of all kinds.  We seldom recognize the complexities of this fear of death for what it is.  But, we constantly act out our bondage to that fear, to our own hurt and to the hurt others.

You’ve all seen opossums.  They’re funny little animals, aren’t they, the way they waddle along dragging their long rat-tails and the way they hang upside down in trees.  But, let me tell you, you do not want to corner a possum.  That’s a serious set of teeth on a possum.

When I was a boy, I would sometimes go with my Papa Dalton to check his rabbit traps laid out in the woods.  These were lives traps, meaning they captured the rabbit unharmed.  They were simple boxes with a trap door that would drop down trapping the rabbit inside the box.  So, if my Papa Dalton saw a trap with the door tripped, he’d up-end the box, slide open the trap door, reach in, grab the rabbit and pull it out.

I was very curious to see the rabbit in the bottom of the box.  So, on this one occasion, Papa saw a trap with the door sprung shut.  He up-ended the box, and I got right over it so I could look in to see the little bunny.  He slipped the door open and, man, all I could see was fangs and claws of one angry possum in the bottom of the trap.  Papa smacked the trap door back shut in a hurry.  He put the box down pointing the other way, pulled the door open and then we left.

We’ve each got our own opossums trapped down deep in our brains.  Sometimes, when our personal possums are threatened, they just play dead.  But, sometimes, they come out all fang and claw ready to chew somebody up until the danger’s gone.

Carl Sandburg has a poem along those lines called “Wilderness”.  Here’s an abbreviated version:

“There is a wolf in me…fangs pointed for tearing gashes…a red
tongue for raw meat….I keep this wolf because the wilderness
gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
There is a fox in me…a silver-grey fox…I sniff and guess….I circle
and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me…a snout and a belly…a machinery for eating
and grunting….I got this too from the wilderness and the
wilderness will not let it go….

Sandburg goes on to describe the fish and the baboon within him, the eagle and the mockingbird, too, and then he concludes:

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony
head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else:
it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart:  it is father and
mother and lover:  it came from God-Knows-Where:  it is
going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo:
I say yes and no:  I sing and kill and work:  I am a pal of the
world:  I came from the wilderness.”1


Truth is, we are very poor keepers of the zoo, these brains and bodies forged in the ancient wilderness of time; fact is, our deeply hidden menageries do what they will, dragging us along, hostages rather than keepers of the zoo.

Jesus’ brain, his body, were forged in the same ancient wilderness of time.  He had the very same menagerie prowling around deep in him, too.  As verse 17 says, “Therefore he had to be made like his sisters and brothers in every respect.”  In every respect, Jesus was mortal.  Jesus could die; Jesus could be killed.

Yet, Jesus discerned his Creator and his God in a way we fail to do.  Jesus let God teach him when to say yes and when to say no.  Jesus let God teach him how to be the keeper of the zoo.

Folks watched Jesus and followed him, they imitated him and sometimes they were crucified for remaining true to him.  They were mocked as being “Christians”, roughly translated, meaning “little Christs”.  Those early followers accepted the name.  They would not dare stand and say, “I am Christ”, of course, but they were willing to stand and say, “Yes, I am a little Christ.”

They experienced what it was for the Christ to live within them and bear witness, “I have become you, so you may become me.”  That is the power of the Gospel to transform us, us “little Christs”, us younger brothers and sisters of Jesus, us children of the Living God.


1 Carl Sandburg, Harvest Poems, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1960, p. 47

I Love You. You’re Perfect. Now Change.

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, October 23, 2016
Taken from Exodus 3:1-15

Moses and the Burning Bush - Stained glass window

Questions of identity— Who are you?  Who am I?—seem to be a big theme running through this story of God calling Moses to go deliver the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery.

Starting with that bush.  How do you identify a bush that appears to burn, and yet, it doesn’t?  That’s pretty unusual.  Moses wonders, “What’s going on over there?”  So, verse 3 tells us, Moses says to himself, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.”  That’s something for Moses to identify.

God’s identity comes into play.  Moses gets over to the strangely burning bush and suddenly a voice speaks to him:  “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  That seems like it should clear up any questions of identity right there.  Four clear statements:  I am the God of your father, I am the God of Abraham, I am the God of Isaac, I am the God of Jacob.

The problem is, though, what does that mean to Moses?  Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household.  I really doubt they spent any time learning about the foreign gods of slaves.  The Egyptians had their own gods, their own religion; Moses would have been grown up, learning about and worshiping the Pharaoh’s gods.

But this much Moses does know:  he knows he is having an encounter right here, right now, and Moses is frightened, says verse 6.  When God encounters us, the encounter may overwhelm us, and it may threaten us.  As we all might do, Moses hides his face from the burning bush.

The question of God’s identity soon comes up again, in verse 13.  God tells Moses that he is to go to the Israelites back in Egypt.  Moses has a good idea of how that might go down with the Hebrews:  If I come to the people of Israel, and they ask me, “This God of our fathers you claim has sent you, what is this God’s name? Moses, what God are you talking about?”

But, the real identity problem comes with figuring out, who is Moses?  Really, at this point in his life, who is Moses?  This God of the burning bush knows Moses’ name, of course.  But, then, once God reveals to Moses the purpose for which God is calling out to him, Moses balks.  He protests back to God in verse 11, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

Well, that really is the question of the day:  who is Moses?  “Who am I?” he asks of God.  At this point in his life, Moses has put on and taken off several identities.  It’s how Moses has managed to survive all these years:  hiding behind false identities, then fleeing when his true identity is about to get him killed.

That’s what Moses is trying to do with God here and now:  “God, you’ve got the wrong man!  I don’t know who you think I am, but I can assure you, I am not that guy!”

Moses does not in any way, shape, or form, want to risk getting caught in the middle of what is sure to be a fight, perhaps even a slaughter, should anyone attempt to deprive Pharaoh of his slaves.  “God, I don’t want to get caught up in whatever scheme you’re hatching here.”

One of the perks of having a spouse who works at UVA is that I get to use the gyms there for a pretty reasonable rate.  Most of the time, I use the UVa Aquatics and Fitness Center.  Great big complex with a tiny little parking lot, so parking spaces are a premium commodity.  People circle in and out of the lot, like jackals circling a carcass to see who gets the next bite; lots of snarling and violent looks are exchanged.

So, one evening I pull into the parking lot, and amazingly there is an empty parking place not too far up the entrance.  I speed on over to claim it before the next driver foraging for a spot could get it.  I pull in and notice that whoever was there before me in the spot had written a note and stuck it in the doorframe of the van parked in the next space.  Right in the little seam between the door and the post, was a piece of notebook paper all folded up and tucked in with these few words showing:  “Your car door…” and then the fold of the paper hid the rest.

Well, you can easily guess what was in that note.  Apparently the driver of the van had pulled in, opened the van door, and hit the other driver’s car door, and left a dint.  And I thought, “Oh, great, I can’t leave my care here!  If I park here, when driver of the van comes back from working out, they’ll see that note and think I wrote it.  Then, they’re going ticked off at me and maybe do something to my car on purpose.”

Well, just then, the driver of van walks up on the opposite side of the van, slides open the passenger side door to put his stuff in the van.  So, I get out of my car, go around, put my hands up and said, “Hey, somebody’s left a note in your driver’s door over here.  It wasn’t me!”

The van drivers says, “What?!”, and comes around, grabs the note, unfolds its several folds, reads it, and then says something appropriate to the moment.  And, I repeat, “Yeah, kinda figured that’s what it was…just wanted to let you, it wasn’t me.  I just pulled in.”

In other words, I did not want to leave my car, only to come back later to find I had been dragged into somebody else’s fight because of a case of mistaken identity.  This is what Moses is doing with God.

“Hey, God,” Moses says, “whoever you claim yourself to be, whoever you think I may be, well, I am not that guy!”  Moses does not want to get dragged into this fight between this God and Pharaoh and the slaves.  That’s why Moses is way out here keeping sheep in the desert.  Moses has a lot of bad history going on back there in Egypt.

Moses is well-versed in hiding and letting other people think whatever they may want to think about who he is, as long as it works to keep him alive.

What was the story of Moses’ birth all about?  You know the story of the sweet baby Moses.  His mother puts him afloat in a basket in the bulrushes in the crocodile-infested Nile River.  It was a desperate attempt at survival.

Pharaoh and his people were getting really nervous about all the slaves there among them.  If the slave population kept on growing, well, the slaves just might reach a tipping-point where they decide to revolt.  So, Pharaoh commands that every male baby born to the Hebrew slaves be murdered; the female babies are allowed to live to grow up as more slaves.

Moses’ mother somehow keeps his birth hidden for several months until it just becomes impossible to do.  So, she makes a basket, waterproofs it with tar, sets it in the Nile among the bulrushes (sort of like cattails).  She posts Moses’ older sister nearby to keep watch.

Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe and finds the baby in the basket.  Moses’ sister conveniently comes up and offers to go find a wet nurse to care for the baby; she goes and get Moses’ actual mother who becomes wet nurse to her own baby.  In essence, they’re hiding Moses in plain sight, keeping Moses alive.

The royal daughter, in turn, adopts Moses and presents him to Pharaoh as her own son.  I’m not sure how she pulled that off; maybe the Pharaoh had lots of wives with lots of daughters, more than he could possibly keep up with.  So here’s one of his many daughters whom he hasn’t seen in a long time, who shows up with her new baby boy.

So, Moses’ identity was hidden from the moment of his birth.  He’s then hidden in the bulrushes.  Then, he’s hidden right under Pharaoh’s nose under the false identity as one among the many royal Egyptian children there in the palace.  Clearly, as Moses grew up, whatever he may have guessed or learned about his true identity, he knew well-enough to keep it hidden.

Apparently, though, Moses does learn something about his true identity.  One day, Moses sees an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew slave.  Moses steps in, murders the Egyptian, and then he hides the body.

When the Pharaoh finds out that Moses has murdered a fellow Egyptian over a slave, Pharaoh sets out to have Moses executed.  That’s when Moses runs for his life, fleeing Egypt.  He heads eastward, crossing the Sinai peninsula, crossing over into southern Palestine, entering the land of the Midianites.

Now, as a side-note, Moses is basically tracing out the path by which he will later lead the Israelites, but that’s way off down the road.  For now, he is running, shedding his present identity, in order to save his own life by adopting a new identity.

Moses finally stops at a well in Midian where he steps in to rescue some women he sees shepherds abusing.  The women, all sisters, will tell their father, in chapter two, verse 19, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds…” So, at least initially, these sisters and their father, Jethro, believe Moses to be an Egyptian.

Do you wonder whether Moses ever corrected them on that point, or did he simply continue under the guise of being an Egyptian?  That certainly sounds better than saying, “Well, no, actually I’m a runaway Hebrew, the son of slaves, being hunted by the Egyptians.”  Which identity would you choose to stick with?

Moses marries one of the daughters, and they have a son.  So, now, Moses becomes part of Jethro the Midianite’s clan.  That’s where he stays put until this day, when he comes upon this burning bush.

God says, “Moses, this is who you are…you are the deliverer of your own people out of slavery.  You are the one through whom I will accomplish the ancient covenant with Abraham.”  Moses says, “Nope, I’m sorry, God in the burning bush, but you’re wrong about that…that is not who I am.”

There’s a Broadway musical that opened in 1996, entitled ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’*.  It’s a series of vignettes about courtship and marriage and all the ups and down and challenges that come with making a family.

The opening song is about a couple getting ready for a first date.  They each ruminate on how much trouble they’re going to, in order to present the perfect version of themselves to this other person.  They only want to show their date the best of themselves in hopes of finding love and romance and a mate.

Neither one of them can keep up the pretense, of course.  If the relationship works, at some point they’ll each see the other person’s faults, and then, what?  Change will have to happen, of course, if the relationship is to make it.

But, you can’t really say that up front.  You can’t meet someone and tell them, “I love you.  You’re perfect.  Now, change.”  But, that’s reality…we’ve got to change, to grow, to mature, if we are to realize the fullness of the dream that unites us to one another.

In many ways, God is saying to Moses, “Moses, I love you.  You’re perfect.  I choose you.”  And if you think about it, Moses is perfect for the mission.  He is an Israelite, which makes him part of the covenant with Abraham.  He is a child of the slaves to whom God wants to send him.  At the same time, though, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s court.  He’s educated; he knows the ins and outs of court protocol.  He knows who the players are.

Moses has a disposition that leads him to step in to stop an injustice from being done.  He stops the Egyptian from abusing a fellow Hebrew.  He stops the shepherds from abusing the daughters of Jethro.  He is a man in hiding since birth, and yet he’s willing to risk being found out in order to do these acts of mercy.

Moses has actually walked through the landscape the Israelites will have to walk, to get from Egypt to Canaan.  Moses has now lived most of his adult life out in the wilderness as a shepherd.  He knows what it takes to live in this rugged terrain. This guy is perfect for the job of deliverer!  Except, of course, Moses is not perfect.

Moses has no aspirations to do anything more than what he is doing when God calls out to him.  He’s a shepherd tending his father-in-law’s sheep; he’s a husband and a father; he’s an Egyptian who is glad to be long gone from Egypt.  That’s all.

Moses keeps on arguing with God.  Finally, Moses just flat out tells God, in chapter four, verse 13, “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person.”  At this, the Scripture records, God says that’s enough.  God agrees to recruit Moses’ brother, Aaron, to help Moses, but Moses still has to be the leader.  God tells Moses, “I’ll tell you what to say, you tell Aaron and Aaron will speak for the both of us.  Discussion time is over!”

So, yes, God loves Moses; yes, Moses is perfect for the mission; but Moses has a lot of changing that’s got to happen on the way to Moses fulfilling God’s call on his life.  Moses is a man who, literally, has been hiding his entire life, hiding his true identity, from birth until the day he encounters this strange burning bush.  But, God has found Moses and now calls Moses into his true self, into his true identity.

And the crazy thing is, God is calling Moses to live into the truth of who he already is:  he’s an Israelite—a descendant of Abraham; a child of Hebrew slaves, yet he’s also a child raised in the court of Pharaoh; he’s a person willing to step in to stop an injustice being committed; he’s a person with hard-earned practical knowledge of surviving in the desert.  But Moses can’t pull all that glorious truth about himself together, because Moses has been so busy hiding and pretending and avoiding and settling.

Before Moses can lead his people out of their slavery, Moses first will have to lead himself out of his own slavery.  Before the people of God can be liberated to travel across the sands of the Sinai, Moses will have to make his own liberating trek back across the Sinai, back into Egypt, back into the very court of the Pharaoh.  Moses can do that, because God will be with him; God will enable him, and in that journey, Moses can finally become Moses.

Moses’ story is our own.  Few there are of God’s people whom God calls to lead others into any sort of Promise Land.  But God calls on us all at least to lead ourselves to follow God into the Promised Land of God’s blessings.  God calls us out, each and every one of us, to make a long trek, to travel with God, on a journey to salvation.  We don’t make that journey alone.  We travel that journey together.

We follow One who has also made the journey ahead of us.  We follow the One whom God chose to lead us, who is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

God says to you and to me, and God says to University Baptist Church, “I love you, you’re perfect, now change,” and thank God for that.  God makes the change possible, God makes the journey possible, God makes salvation possible.

The journey from false identity to true is not finished for any of us, and the trek out of bondage and into promised blessing is not yet fully known, but success is sure as we follow our Lord.


* ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’, by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts, 1996.

Is God Alone God Enough?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, October 16, 2016
Taken from Genesis 22:1-14

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by He Qi. With permission of the artist, © 2014 All rights Reserved


Country singer Sammy Kershaw has a song called ‘Fit to be Tied Down’, as in getting married.

“Tie me down, wrap me up in forever.
I’ve found something sweet in surrendering now.
Take me off the merry go round.

Going round in circles has got me nowhere
But a love like yours is really so rare
And I’m amazed at the treasure I’ve finally found
I’m on bended knee, ‘cause I’m fit to be tied down.” 1

“Tie me down, wrap me up in forever”:  this idea of finding that perfect other in whom we find such promise, such delight, that we want to be bound to that person for all time, come what may.

The Bible often turns to the covenant of marriage as an example of God’s relationship with us.  We have bound ourselves to God, and God has bound God’s own Self to us.  We delight in God.

We fully expect, though, to reap rewards of some kind out of this bond between God and us.  The ancient Jews understood it this way, that what rewards God had for them would be realized in this lifetime.  We enter into this way of life, of faith, of religious practice and devotion with some of that same expectation.

I heard it put this way once, that God looks after His regular customers first.  That makes sense.  We are God’s regular customers, aren’t we?  That’s why we patronize this establishment we call church and we throw our business God’s way.  We might reasonably expect something from God that God would not give to nonbelievers.  So, too, with Abraham.

As Sammy Kershaw sings, Abraham has tied himself to God in a covenant of promise.  Abraham has wrapped himself up in forever with God.  Because, God has promise Abraham, in exchange for his faith, God will provide Abraham a vast inheritance of family and land and renown.

Many, many years pass.  God keeps on promising and promising; Abraham and Sarah keep on believing in God; they kept on investing themselves in God’s promise.  Even when all reasonable hope is long gone from Abraham and Sarah, they hope beyond reason.  A ninety-year old woman and a 100-year old man do not bear children.

At that point, then, God blesses Sarah and Abraham in the birth of their son, Isaac.  Truly, a child of God’s own doing, a child who is pure gift. After so, so many decades, Abraham and Sarah finally reap the fruit of their faithfulness.  Through this, their son, their only son, their son so loved by them, through Isaac will God fulfill the promise, of land and descendants and renown.

So, it is with great poignancy that one day God says to Abraham, as verse 2 records:  Abraham, take your son…your only son…your son whom you love…go to a land I will show you, and there slit his throat and burn his body whole:  I want him back.

With the smoke that would rise up off that sacrificial pyre, literally, up in smoke would go the promise God had made to Abraham decades before.  As the sacrificial fire immolated the body of Isaac, lifting and scattering his ashes across the plains of Palestine, the story of Abraham simply would turn to dust taken back by the desert.  That would be that.

Abraham would die a very old, broken, godforsaken man.  A man who had placed all his hope in the God, who in the end, decided to take it all back.2  After all they’d been through, no land, no son, no descendants, no renown.

We modern readers read this Scripture, in horror at the thought that God—the very same God whom we worship–would demand a child-sacrifice.  That is a horrible thought.  But, we miss the other horror in this account, the horror that in the end, God would cast Abraham’s life aside.  God’s illusive and ultimately broken promise to Abraham would prove this man to be the fool who bound himself to this arbitrary, desert God who in the end could not be trusted.

That is the temptation God lays before Abraham:  for this awful realization to seize Abraham, the glaring madness of throwing his life away on an illusion such as this.  Should not Abraham go now, this very moment, grab hold of his dear son, Isaac’s hand, and run while he’s still got some breath in him and some wealth at his disposal.  Should not Abraham salvage what he can, so that at least Isaac might yet live and marry and bear children.  That’s what’s on the line here.

That’s what’s on the line for us all, each one of us, for we have bound ourselves to the promises of this very same desert God.  It is Abraham’s God whom we meet through the later witness of this Palestinian Jew of Nazareth named Jesus.

We even hear the same call as God made to Abraham about Isaac here in Genesis 22, in what Jesus later says to his first followers and to us.  As Matthew’s Gospel account records for us, there came a moment when Jesus says, what you love most in this life, you must sacrifice to find God’s promise fulfilled for you:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;” says Jesus, “and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  (Matt 10:37-39)

Perhaps we all, like Abraham, should grab the hand of our nearest loved one and run from this place and get as far away as we can from this God and this Jesus to whom we have bound ourselves.  For, it turns out that God’s covenant of life seems to have a very strong element of sacrifice and death to it.

Well, before any of us take fire and knife in hand to slay our loved ones, let’s talk a moment about Scripture itself.  Does Abraham literally take fire and knife and wood and child off to the mountains, fully intending to return the child back to God by way of burnt offering?  Yes, he does.

Do we have reason to, say, second-guess Abraham in that scenario?  Yes, we do.  But, such second-guessing of Scripture brings its own dangers with it.  We will return to that topic, the dangers of second-guessing the Scriptures that offend us.

But, first, let’s observe that there are two ways to read the Bible as revelation from God.  The first way is what I would call a “flat reading” of the Scriptures.  That is, it’s all the same:  every word and every verse is equal.

You may have heard it stated this way:  if you don’t believe that Adam and Eve were real, well then how can you believe that Jesus really died for your sins and rose from the grave?  Oh, that drives me nuts!

To me, that has the same false logic that says, “My flower garden has all roses in it.  My neighbor has a flower garden.  Therefore, all the flowers in my neighbor’s garden must be roses.”

As I suggested Sunday before last when we looked at the account of Deborah and Jael, another view of Scripture is to understand it as revelation that progresses over time, generation by generation.

Long before the internet and personal computers were in the home, there were printed encyclopedias in the home.  I loved our World Book Encyclopedia collection:  twenty volumes in white faux leather binding, plus an annual supplement.  My Number One favorite volume included the S’s, because that had the article on “Space” with its illustrations of the planets.

My second favorite volume contained the H’s, because it included this amazing display of the human body.  The publisher put in this series of clear acetate overlays.  For you younger folks, acetate overlays were these clear, plastic pages that had graphics printed on them.

So, the human body had these several acetate overlays.  The page itself showed a human skeleton standing there on the page.  Then, you laid the first piece of clear acetate on top of the page showing the skeleton, and now, you had all the major organs, blood vessels and nervous system there superimposed your human skeleton.

Then, came the next page of clear acetate, and that page overlaid all the muscles and tendons and other gross stuff.  So, what you were doing was building yourself a human body from the inside-out.  The last overlay was the skin and hair.  You laid that one down, and there before you was a stark naked human being of indeterminate gender, sort of like a Ken-doll.

Now, the flat view of the Bible is like looking at the final, outside view of the human body and saying that that’s all there is to be seen and known of Scripture: skin is skin and that’s all there is.  A truer view of the Bible, though, is like what the actual human body is like.  You’ve got your basic skeleton, your basic structure.

That might be like, say the Books of Genesis and Exodus and Joshua and Judges and Kings.  God’s laying out some basic structure on which God will progressively build up revelation.

Then, on top of that, you’ve got your major blood vessels and nervous system.  That would be your prophets and your psalms and proverbs and so forth that include perhaps the highlight that comes in the prophet Micah, where this topic of sacrificing children to God comes up again.  Micah gives voice to an angry, devout worshipper who facetiously demands of God,

With what shall I come before the Lord…shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

(I know!) Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

And, what is God’s response through the prophet?

God has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?  (6:6-8)

That’s quite a step forward from child-sacrifice.

Finally, what comes in this progressive compilation of revelation?  The flesh, the skin, the face.  For us Christians, that would be the Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, God among us, incarnate, along with the rest of the New Testament.

So, when we read such as this, in Genesis 22, when Abraham hears God and understands God:  “go slit your son’s throat and burn him whole as an offering to me, because that’s the God I am,” we’re looking at some of the bare bones revelation.

We’re looking at God setting forth one choice for how Abraham might understand God because that’s the way Abraham’s contemporaries understood what gods did to people.  God is testing Abraham by really, really asking whether Abraham can accept God as current religions theologized about gods.  It’s not who God really is, but it is how people of Abraham’s day understood their gods.

But!  Note this: given our proclivity to avoid the hard things in life, there is a strong likelihood in second-guessing Abraham, we might go too far the other way and gut this story of its truth.  Just as we are very likely to do that, too, to avoid the cross to which Jesus would point his first followers and us.

When it comes to sacrifice for God, we rarely seek a balance.  We seek total avoidance of sacrifice.  In doing so, we avoid the promise of life which only God can give us, just as only God could give to Abraham and Sarah, this child Isaac; just as only God through Jesus can give us the life of which Jesus speaks.

And, this is Abraham’s dilemma: is the God of promise and life also the God of devastation and death?  Does God truly throw the faithful back and forth, the way a predator plays with its prey?

Abraham sharpens his knife and gathers ups a bundle of good, dry wood.  He takes hot coals from the home fire, enough to last to start that night’s camp fire.  He calls Isaac and some servants, and they head out into the wilderness to a destination not yet revealed to Abraham.  He knows only his purpose.

For two nights and two mornings, he examines the knife, he gathers the embers of the night’s fire, he calls his son Isaac and the servants to journey further into the wilderness, knowing only the journey must soon be over.

On the third morning, they again set out.  The moment comes during the day when Abraham realizes they have arrived to the place of sacrifice.  He tells the servants to remain where they are.  He and Isaac will go on from here to worship God through offering a burnt offering, and, Abraham says in verse 5, we will come again to you.

Abraham knows of no way that he and Isaac will come back from that place together.  He knows nothing of resurrection.  What can be resurrected from ash and a few charred bones?

Abraham walks up that mountain with Isaac by his side, with these two irreconcilable convictions warring within his soul that morning:  the conviction that God has promised land and descendents to him and the conviction that God has called him to sacrifice all hope of that promise coming true.

Abraham holds these two, mutually excluding convictions.  Yet, he proclaims, we will return.  It is, absolutely, trust in God based on nothing other than his long-practiced habit of trusting in God that keeps this man walking.  So, he can answer Isaac’s question, “Father, where is the lamb to be sacrificed?  With nothing other than faith based on faith, Abraham answers,  “God will provide.

Now, the fact that God finally stops Abraham in one way softens our protest against this story.  There is no child-sacrifice, after all, thank God.  There is, though, the unanswerable question of whether God truly would test Abraham in this way.  We wish not, but then what if?  What if God really was in this from the start as verse one tells us?

I cannot answer that question for you.  The only thing I can tell you is that Abraham’s supreme witness of faith was this:  Abraham was ready to walk off that mountain with only God by his side.  He had bound himself to the only eternity he knew for certain was his:  God, alone.

We have a vastly fuller and more nuanced understanding of God than Abraham could have known.  But what Abraham had of true worth is what Jesus calls on us to have as well:  this conviction, that we will bind ourselves to Jesus the Living Christ, alone, even though we lose all else precious to us in this world.  This is the hard part of faith that calls for long Abraham-like practice.  A life-long practice of faith that finally accepts, life with God is enough for me, in this life.  In this realization, says Jesus, we begin to find life.



1 Sammy Kershaw, “Fit to be Tied Down”, Politics, Religion and Me (Mercury Nashville, 1996)

2 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, The Old Testament Library, rev ed, Westminster Press, 1972, p. 244


Hope That Stings

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, October 9, 2016
Taken from Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

How could this have happened? I thought we were God’s people. God was supposed to protect us! I thought Jerusalem was the city of God. It’s the city of David, with the Temple Solomon built, where I go to pray and worship and bring sacrifices,… How can this be? I don’t understand it.

The things I’ve seen…

I watched their soldiers march arrogantly down the streets, right past my house. They looted the shop where I work, they humiliated our soldiers and I watched them kill innocent children, just because they could.

And then when they had us completely defeated, they humiliated us, led away all of the priests and leaders that hadn’t been killed, and they marched us here, hundreds of miles in the scorching sun, blisters on our feet, all the way to this filthy city of Babylon.

The people here mock us, laughing at us and our God, telling us to “sing a happy song”. But how could we? After everything we’ve been through!?

What are we going to do? When will God come and rescue us? When can we go back home?

[Choir sings “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept for Zion. We remember Zion.”]

It is to these mournful exiles in Babylon that Jeremiah writes his letter.

It would be hard for us to overstate the confusion, grief, and despair they felt, their entire world having been ripped away from them. All they could do was cling to the hope that God would finally show up, to rescue them and restore the life they knew and loved in Jerusalem.

Jeremiah, God’s prophet, finally speaks… and says no.

We read his letter to the exiles a few minutes ago, but hear these words again now from the perspective of the few survivors desperate to return home:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what the produce.” Get married. Have children. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”

In other words: settle in, you’re not going anywhere.

Exile was here to stay.

Have you ever been there? Not to Babylon, of course, but exile was far more than a physical place. Exile was living in situation that felt strange and foreign. For them, it meant political defeat, cultural devastation, religious humiliation. But exile also meant not being able to envision any hopeful future. Exile was longing for home, while doubting you could ever go back.

For us, exile takes many forms: circumstances we didn’t choose and would do anything to escape. Perhaps you know exactly what I’m talking about. For some, exile has taken the shape of a crushing grief, when someone so dear to us has died that our lives no longer feel like home to us. For some, exile has been a new diagnosis, a new reality that slowly settles in but still doesn’t feel real.

For the people of Haiti and others affected by the hurricane this week, even home become a place of exile.

Or perhaps for you, exile was less dramatic, not a sudden catastrophe but more a vague, persistent feeling that this just isn’t right. We look around us and wonder, what in the world are we doing here? Everything seems foreign and strange, not the life we once knew or once imagined for ourselves.

Whether traumatic or gradual, exile leaves us feeling like the exiles on the Babylonian riverbank, wondering if we will ever get home.

Has everyone here seen the Disney movie Aladdin? It premiered when I was 7 years old, prime Disney-watching age, so I watched it over and over. The scenes of that movie are with me forever. In one of those scenes, Aladdin makes his first official wish. After much deliberation and counsel from the Genie (voiced so amazingly by Robin Williams), Aladdin decides to become a prince. The genie excitedly says to him, “Say the magic words.” “Genie, I wish for you to make me a prince.” “ALL RIGHT!!” Through the magic of Disney, we see Aladdin transformed into “Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa”, perched atop an elephant, parading into town with his entourage, singers and dancers all around…

Wouldn’t it be easier if God were a genie in a bottle. Rub the lamp, make a wish, your dreams come true. What those exiles in Babylon would have given for God to swoop in like the Genie and grant them a glorious return to Jerusalem! And what we would give sometimes for just one wish, to set things right…

God doesn’t work that way. Sometimes things do turn out the way we want, and we give thanks, but sometimes they don’t. Wish-granting is not how God operates.

Not for us, and not for the exiles.

After all, when Jeremiah turns up with a message from God, the message was: no, you’re not getting your wish. You’re not going anywhere.

If this was good news, it’s not the good news they wanted. If this is a word of hope, it’s hope that stings.

So, is it good news? Is this hope?

Well, if hope means returning to a time when things were better, then, no. Sometimes there is no going back.

But in the passage we read today, God brings a different kind of hope.

God’s message to the exiles, to the mournful remnant weeping on the riverbanks, was this: there is life here. Yes, this is Babylon, but there is a life here for you. God invites them to live again. God gives them permission to make lives for themselves, even in exile. To a people who had hung up their harps, God suggests there is a new song to be sung.

And you know what? That’s what happened. Slowly, the days passed, and turned into weeks and months and years. Houses were built, and seeds planted. Children were born and raised, and life began to move forward again. Slowly, they began to rediscover vitality and joy, to laugh and to sing, and to rebuild their community. Slowly, hope returned to their lives.

This is also a message of hope for us.

I suggested earlier a few ways that we might experience exile: grief, illness, and we could go on and on: moving to a new place, loneliness, broken relationships, loss of a job—there are countless ways we can find ourselves feeling lost, hopeless. There are countless ways that we hang up our harps and don’t know how to sing the old songs any more.

Often what we pray for is for God to take away whatever bad situation we’re in. But sometimes God gives us a different kind of hope, one that stings at first, because everything doesn’t magically get fixed, but in time,  we begin to find new life again, and to glimpse the future that God has in store. If that is where you are, I pray that the God of resurrection will help you to find what it means to live life abundantly once more.

But perhaps you are not there right now; perhaps things are pretty much going okay. There’s another component to this message that applies to our everyday life, and to understand that, we turn, as you might expect, to… salad dressing.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book and popular TED talk called “The Paradox of Choice” describes going to his supermarket and finding 175 different salad dressings to choose from, along with 285 kinds of cookies, 230 soups, 40 toothpastes… you get the idea. He argues that we have so many choices that we actually end up being less happy: we wonder if one of those other 174 salad dressings would have been a little bit better; and if the one we choose isn’t amazing, then we blame ourselves for choosing wrong.

Our anxiety and regret over salad dressing is incredibly trivial, of course, but this phenomenon extends to the more significant choices in our lives as well. Which college to attend, which major to declare, which career path to follow? Where do we decide to live? Where do we go to church? What kind of family should we have?

Those decisions deserve to be made thoughtfully, but sometimes once we’ve made a choice, we get stuck wondering “what-if.” What if I’d taken a different path? Is there something else out there that would have been better?

In small and large ways, we can get stuck looking backward, living halfway in a world of regret, or longing after imaginary alternatives.

The exiles certainly found themselves there, right? Living in Babylon, but not really. Their hearts were in Jerusalem, still yearning for a life that was no longer there.

God, speaking through Jeremiah, invites them to live fully where they are. And us too. Be free of regret, of wondering what other worlds might have been. Here you are. And here is okay.

Which brings us to one final way of seeing this message from Jeremiah: not just as individuals, but as a community. After all, Jeremiah’s words were addressed to the people, collectively. So is there a message here for us as University Baptist Church?

We are currently in a time of transition, beginning a search for our next senior pastor, hoping that we can find the perfect person for our church. But you know as well as I do that when we do call someone, she or he will not be perfect. And–I hope this isn’t a shock to you–we’re not perfect either.

Transitional times are difficult. Perhaps if you’ve been around here for many years, you’ve had the experience lately of looking around our congregation and saying, where am I? Is this UBC? This doesn’t seem like the church the way I remember it…

Or perhaps you are new to UBC, testing the waters or visiting for the first time, considering whether this is the right community to be a part of. It doesn’t take long to find things you like and things you’re unsure about…

We’re not perfect.

I wonder if Jeremiah’s message for us might be that it’s okay to invest ourselves in place that isn’t perfect; an invitation just to do it, or not; but not to stand halfway in and halfway out, a foot in the door and a foot on the outside, wondering if there’s something better out there. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But Jeremiah seems to suggest that there is life to be found wherever you are. You don’t have to hold out for something better. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” writes Jeremiah, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

A few years ago, a young couple moved to Charlottesville and visited UBC. They went back and forth for a little while about whether it was the right church for them, and they quickly noticed there weren’t very many young adults their age. But they decided to stay, saying that, if every young adult who visited didn’t come back because there weren’t enough young people, then there never would be. If they stayed, though, when the next young adults visited, there would be someone else their age here to greet them. They decided to build their home here, to plant, and to trust what God would do. (Sure enough, a few years later, when Erin and I came back to Charlottesville, they were here to greet us.) I know that, generation by generation, this church is what it is because of the people who have decided to make this their home and then work toward what it might yet be.

Now listen, I’m not trying to lay down a guilt trip to say you must come here and commit to this church. I’m happy if you do, but it’s not for me to say what God wants for you. But I do want to lift up the invitation that I hear in this text, which says that sometimes God does invite us to be fully where we are, even if it’s not the place we’d imagined for ourselves. Be liberated from the never-ending cycle of “what-ifs.” In church, in relationships, in careers, in school: build houses, plant gardens, make a life for yourself here, and it may be that you discover God here as well.

That was certainly the case for the homesick Jewish exiles. From their place of weeping by the rivers of Babylon, they heard God’s voice calling back them to life, calling them to sing new songs, even in a strange land. This was not what they wanted, and it stung at first, but in time they found that this was indeed God’s hope for them, and God was still with them there. In the words of the hymn we will sing in a few moments, “the seeds [they] watered once with tears sprang up into a song.”

May it be so for us, as individuals and as a congregation. Amen.



Xena, Warrior Princess

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, October 2, 2016
Taken from Judges 4: 4-10, 12-16

These stories of the Judges are ancient history for us.  This account of the Judge, Deborah, is well over a thousand years back before the birth of Jesus.  What helps me begin to get a hold on who these people were, are different figures from mythology.  And by that, I mean pop culture mythology.

So in my mind, for example, Samuel is Gandalf the Grey from Lord of the Rings.  Samson has got to be Conan the Barbarian.  And, Deborah?  Deborah is unique among any women we find in Scripture.  For me, Deborah is Xena, Warrior Princess, without a doubt.

Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, she’s Gabrielle.  Who knows who Gabrielle is?  Gabrielle is the farm girl whom Xena inspires to take up Xena’s warrior’s way of life.

Xena moves among the male warriors of her day, and she is fearless and even ruthless.  No man will conquer her, neither in battle nor in wits nor in love.  Xena intervenes to spare the weak, rescue the defenseless; she rights wrongs inflicted on the innocent.  No doubt, Xena is aided in all this by her distractingly well-cut leather mini-skirt, along with the accoutrements of warfare.

So, with Xena firmly fixed in our minds, let’s take a look at Deborah.  I don’t know whether Deborah rode a horse; probably not.  I’m very sure Deborah did not traipse around Canaan in a leather mini-skirt.  What Deborah did share with Xena was a kind of dominating charisma that overcame all others in that male-dominated place and time.

As judge over Israel, Deborah, like Xena Warrior Princess, intervened on behalf of the weak, she rescued the defenseless, she righted wrongs inflicted on the innocent.  And Deborah did all this not with sword, but through the power of her personality, her wits, her wisdom, which everyone acknowledged God annointed.

It was indeed a harsh time to be God’s point-person for justice there in Canaan.  The people of God are not yet one people.  They are twelve distinct tribes who have settled down, each tribe with its own domain, each tribe looking to its own survival.

The stories of the Judges are knit together by these condemning words:  The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord….every man did what was right in his own eyes.  (Judg. 6:1; 21:25)

But every few generations, a personality so strong, so charismatic, so commanding, would arise from among the people.  These were the judges; these were the men, and the woman, Deborah, who would re-forge that bond of consciousness founded upon the Lord’s covenant with the Israelites.

The times called for such a leader as was Deborah, and Deborah stepped forward to shape the times that were handed to her. For twenty long years now, as verse 3 tells us, Jabin, King of Canaan, and his powerful general, Sisera, have cruelly oppressed the people of Israel.

Sisera’s troops have superior weapons made from iron.  They have the mobility of iron-wheeled chariots.  Deborah grew up seeing Sisera’s troops treat her people with brutal disregard.  Deborah saw the tribes weakened by their own divisiveness, each clan, each family simply looking out for itself trying to survive.

Deborah also grew up, hearing the elders tell the stories of God’s deliverance of Abraham’s descendants from Egypt; she learned of the aspirations of God for her people, as Moses and then Joshua had taught her forebears.

Deborah emerged from that crucible of suffering a woman invigorated, daring, dreaming, demanding that life as it was among her people should yield to what life might become, if her people would only embrace what God desired for them.

All the while, Deborah also studied their enemy, Sisera.  She studied how Sisera commanded his troops and how those troops moved and ruled over them.  She realized Sisera’s own iron-clad chariots could be his downfall.

Deborah calls Barak to gather 10,000 Israelites up in the hill country, to prepare to do battle with Sisera and his army, down in the river plains below.  Sisera learns of the impending revolt among these few northern tribes of Israel.  He and his charioteers are stationed out on the north-western end of the Kishon River.

The seasonal flooding of the Kishon River, now behind them, has scoured a flat and clean plain over which Sisera’s chariots could swiftly travel inland.  So, Sisera and his chariots and his footmen head out, traveling south-eastward down the Kishon River valley, heading to the Plain of Meggido where he would draw the revolting tribes down out of the mountains to do battle on the plain.

What Sisera overlooks in his hurry down the Kishon River valley is what Deborah sees from her mountain vantage point.  As chapter 5 narrates, Deborah sees storm clouds in the distance.  Storms clouds that will soon drop torrents of rain that will quickly overflow every creek and stream flowing down those mountains, racing down to form a tremendous flash-flood of water that will soon turn the Kishon River in a raging muddy torrent, flooding over that nice flat river plain.  Just right for bogging down and trapping iron-wheeled chariots.

And that’s what happens.  Sisera and his chariots are sitting ducks, to be speared and hacked to death by 10,000 Israelites swarming over them.  Sisera slashes his way through the mayhem of blood and bodies and muck.  He flees northward.

Sisera makes it far enough to where he believes he is among allies of the king.  In fact, we are told in a little side note in verse 11, that a Kenite chieftain name Heber had abandoned the Israelites and allied himself with King Jabin.  So, when Sisera realizes he’s stumbled into Heber’s encampment, he knows he is among allies.

It is Heber’s wife, Jael, who gets first sight of the exhausted general Sisera.  Jael is to Deborah what sweet Gabrielle is to Xena.  Jael quickly welcomes Sisera into her tent, so he can rest and eat and await help for his journey to Hazor.  Sisera, totally spent from battle and from running, quickly falls into a hard sleep.

By every expectation of her clan, Jael should have gone to find her husband and her brothers and her uncles.  But she does not, because Jael does not share her husband’s decision to abandon the Israelites.  Jael’s loyalty still lies with God and with God’s people.  Here, now lying sound asleep in her tent, is the general who has made the Israelites’ lives so harsh these many years.

So, Jael instead picks up a tent stake.  Now, this is not your wimpy little aluminum-wire tent stake like what comes with modern tents today.  This is a big solid, wood stake.  This is a kill-a-vampire kind of wood stake.

Jael picks up that stake in one hand; she picks up a massive club in her other hand.  She ever so quietly and carefully squats down next to Sisera.  She places that pointed shaft just above sleeping Sisera’s temple and raises the hammer with her other hand.

Now, keep in mind, Jael is member of a Bedouin tribe.  Every time their clan moved and set up camp, it was the women’s job to stake out the tents.  Jael is an old-hand at driving tent stakes into the ground.

Jael squats down; she brings that pointed stake just shy of sleeping Sisera’s temple; she raises that wooden club up high, and with all her might…WHAM!  Drives that stake in one side of Sisera’s head and out the other side, pinning him to the ground! Without Sisera and his army, King Jabin’s grip over the northern tribes of Israel is broken.

When Will read this Scripture for us, we concluded the reading with our usual response, didn’t we?  “This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God,” we said.  Well, I ask us, how is this “the Word of the Lord”?  What in the world could God possibly be saying to us through this brutal, violent story of Deborah and Jael?

According to those who first told the story of Deborah and Jael, God’s hand is all over this from start to finish.  They thoroughly accepted that God enabled the destruction of Sisera’s army, that God engineered Sisera’s own violent death at the hand of Jael.

Yet, how is this revelation of God for us?  We are followers of Jesus Christ.  We follow the One who did not drive a spike into the head of his enemy; we follow the One who willingly received spikes driven into his own body, pinning him to a cross, for the sake of his enemies’ salvation.

God’s revelation moved and manifested itself in real time among real people.  Through the poor lens of human suffering inflicted by mortals and through the inspired lens of human aspiration lifted up by the Spirit of God, God spoke.  God could have held back that revelation, away off in Heaven, patiently standing aside waiting for humanity to catch up to some pristine, enlightened stage in its evolution.  But, God did not wait for some perfect, future day.

Instead, God offered revelation through an ancient, primitive people who credited God with good and bad, with triumph and failure, who credited God with enlightened benevolence and who equally credited God with harsh brutality.

They did so knowing God was present and working among them.  Of that conviction they gave true testimony.  God was not afraid of their flaws; instead, God embraced their faithfulness.  God did not insist they first be what they could not be…they could not be perfect human vessels of God’s revelation.  God only called them to be faithful vessels of that revelation.

By the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and empowerment, these ancient people progressed; they grew further into God’s vision for humanity, a vision founded not on suppression and warfare.  Instead, they caught sight of a humanity founded in transformation and mercy.  They grew into the people who produced Jesus of Nazareth.

If we insist the Bible be either/or…either all its words from cover to cover are the infallible Word of God, or none of its words can the Word of God, we will end up with a very thin Bible indeed.

But, if we read this Bible as the Bible itself testifies for itself such as in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 1, verses 1-2, where it says:  “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, who….reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of God’s nature”

If that’s our Bible, then we have a full, rich inheritance of God’s truth, clothed though it be in flawed human flesh, until that moment 2,000 years ago when God’s truth finally took up that same flesh, perfect in faith, perfect in obedience, perfect in revelation, God’s own Self incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is in the truth of that perfect revelation of God, to which God calls us to live.  It is in that truth, now, we gather ourselves as the people of God, around this table of bread and cup signifying God’s perfect covenant with us, through Jesus.

* exegetical notes from Arthur Cundell & Leon Morris, Judges & Ruth, Tyndale OT Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, ed. (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), pp. 81-101.


Reconnect: Connect With Confidence

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 25, 2016
Taken from Romans 8: 15-23


So far in our time together, I don’t think I’ve imposed many woodworking stories on you.  Mainly, that’s because your eyes would glaze over within a few seconds of me starting.  But, at that risk, here’s a little something from the wood shop.

If you’re going to work with wood, you’ve got to get your head around how a tree grows.  Because, how the tree grows will determine how you’re going to work with the lumber that comes out of a particular tree.

Most of us have examined a tree stump, where the tree’s been cut cross-wise to reveal the tree rings.  We see the alternating bands of what’s call spring growth and summer growth.  We count those bands, and we add them up to get the age of the tree.

Imagine, though, if you cut that same tree not across it’s width but if you cut it up its length, so that you could open up that tree like a book.  Like reading a book, you could read the life of that tree in much more detail.

You would see the pith of the tree right at the very center.  You’re looking pretty much at the remnants of the sapling out of which this tree grew.  All along the pith you’d see where early branches grew out that sapling and then broke off.  Subsequent years of growth encased that old branch.  That’s how you end up with knots in the wood.  Along the way, you might find nails encased in the tree trunk or maybe even small bits of fence wire.

A few Wednesday nights ago, I showed folks photographs of a four-foot length of log I split down along its length.  But the two halves didn’t want to separate.  I assumed there might be a hidden knot that was refusing to break apart.  Turned out not to be a knot at all; it was this lag bolt.

I had to get a hacksaw and saw the shaft of the bolt in two before I could get the halves of the log apart.  The tree had grown and literally encased this lag-bolt.

One thing you’ll see in your log now split along its length is that the tree is made up of long fibers.  It’s like opening a box of spaghetti, right?  You open the box, take out the spaghetti, and you’re holding a fistful of spaghetti.  That’s what tree fibers are like; they’re like this bundle of long, thin fibers bound tightly together.  Except with this difference.  Those fibers are what we call the grain of the wood.

Your fistful of spaghetti you’re holding starts off rigid and stiff out of the box.  Then, you throw it into a pot full of boiling water and all the spaghetti gets very loose and flexible.  You can bend it and tie into knots if you want to; it’s not going to break.

That’s how those spaghetti-like tree fibers start out.  The tree fibers start off very wet and very flexible.  Haven’t you seen trees that have twisted themselves into unbelievable curves and bends trying to reach the sunlight?  I’ve seen trees that have twisted like a barber shop pole, doing what it had to do to stay alive.  Trees can do that because the new tree fibers are like wet strands of spaghetti as they’re being made and added to the tree.  They can do that, at least, while the tree is still relatively young.

Each year’s new set of fibers, though, eventually quits channeling water up through the tree.  They begin to fill up with resin and minerals and finally, they become rigid and become what we call “heartwood”, which is basically dead wood.

At a certain point, that mass of heartwood fixes the shape and direction of the tree so that it’s just not going to do anymore twisting and turning toward the sunlight.  Each new year’s new growth has to follow that shape and direction into which that mature tree is now forever fixed.

There is nothing you, as a woodworker, can do to change those wood fibers.  The shape and direction of the grain is fixed; the best you can do is learn the possibilities and the limitations of grain.  If the tree as a sapling twisted around as it grew, the wood fibers added in the following years are going to follow that twist come what may.

You can take a plank of wood out of that tree, and you can joint it and plane just as straight and flat as possible that morning.  Set it aside.  Before you get back from your lunch break, your nice plank will have started already twisting itself back to conform to its original, twisted growth.  That’s what that particular tree had to do if it was going to survive and to thrive in the setting in which it grew.

The setting of a tree’s growth—the circumstances of weather and soil, other vegetation surrounding that tree as it grew from seedling, to sapling, to mature tree—all those influences are literally ingrained into every fiber of that tree.

You and I are like those trees.  From seedling, to sapling, to mature tree, from birth, through childhood and adolescence, into mature adulthood, we embody not only the nutrients and liquids from which our bodies grew.  We embody the influences of all our circumstances, the fair weather and bad, the good actions of others and our own, the bad decisions of others and our own…all of it is ingrained within us.

We have grown, we have adapted, we have twisted and turned, we have each of us done what we must to survive and to thrive.  We have learned how to work with the grain of our lives to fashion the most useful, most functioning versions of ourselves that is humanly possible.

But, the somber assessment of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is, the grain of our lives will not work, as is, for God’s purposes.  We are, as with that twisted lumber hewn from that twisted tree, determined to go our own way regardless of the Master Artisan’s design for us.

The Apostle Paul spends a fair part of the opening chapters of his letter to the Romans laying out that very sobering, very offensive, assessment of what we moderns would call “the human condition”.  Paul writes, of course, in terms of his own Jewish and Greco-Roman world.  He writes of Jew and Greek, or “gentile” as we would say.  He explores the values of each way of life—he lauds the Jews as heirs of the Covenant between God and Abraham; he acknowledges us Gentiles with our own inherent sensibilities of good and evil.

We strive to be the best versions of ourselves we know to be.  But, if we’re honest, we live within the limitations of our failings.  More than our failings, we live within the bounds of our own disregard for what we know to be right.  We seldom truly come to terms with the depths of the twists we have turned.  We forget the injuries encased deep within the rings of our years just as the maturing tree must encase the stubs of broken branches and injuries inflicted upon it if that tree is to continue to live.

Yet, all of it is there, if we could but cut our lives apart and read it like a book.  All of it lies within:  each subsequent year of our living, layer upon layer, ring added to ring, the living overlaid upon what once lived but now lies dead within, deep within, the heart, mind, soul and body of our lives.

Knowing this desperate predicament for all people, himself included, Paul cries out at end of chapter 7, verses 24 and 25, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  The answer to that question is what Paul knows in his own life:  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Why “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”?  Why?  That’s what Paul wants us as followers of Jesus to understand and get clear on:  what has God done now, through the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

Let’s be clear here.  It is not God who crucified Jesus.  God did not crucify Jesus.  God called Jesus to follow as the Holy Spirit led Jesus and enabled Jesus to teach and to live a life that uniquely manifested the Kingdom of God on earth.  Jesus mission was to show what a life wholly dedicated to the way of God and the rule of God on this earth meant within this realm of God’s creation called “humanity”.

That’s what Jesus did.  Even into that Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed, “God, must this path lead here?  Isn’t there some other way to follow you and be spared what is to come if I persist on this path?”  Until he breathed his last tortured breath, Jesus never fell away.

Jesus simply followed God as the Spirit of God led him, to live and to love as God lives and loves.  Even as he hung, humiliated and crucified on a Roman cross, Jesus lived and loved until he literally had no life left with which to offer God’s love.  And in that moment of death, Jesus showed the full extent of God’s love for God’s creation.

It was the local agent of the Roman Empire who crucified Jesus.  It was religious leaders too closely entangled with that Empire who crucified Jesus.  It was, in other words, the way of this world that refused the way of life and love that is God’s life and love, that crucified Jesus.  To the extent that any of us chooses other than to live and to love as God lives and loves, we add our voice to the cries of the rabble:  crucify him!  crucify him!  crucify him and be done with him!

God did not crucify Jesus.  What God did, through God’s own Creative Holy Spirit, was raise Jesus from the dead.  Resurrection.  The world has the power to crucify; only God has the power to resurrect.  And, that is what God did, when God released from the tomb not a resuscitated corpse of the Jesus who once worked wood in Joseph’s workshop, but a resurrected embodied person fit to bear the fullness of God, incorruptible and eternal:  the unimaginable, the unforeseen, the Risen Christ Jesus.

To get back to our bent, curved and twisted tree:  imagine if were possible for that same tree to be pulled up by the roots and replanted out in an open field.  There in that open field, nothing overshadows it, choking out the sunlight, depriving it of water or nutrient.  Then, imagine if it were possible, over the days and months and years ahead, all those rigid, twisted, fibrous spaghetti-like strands of wood locked in place once again coming alive, water once again infusing every fiber of that tree, from the pith at its core, working its way outwards, layer by layer, ring by ring.

Imagine that tree once again able to flex and straighten up as any sapling ever could, an old tree set free once again to live in God’s full sunlight.  You would see a tree made over, to become what that species of tree could truly achieve as God intended it.

That is God’s salvation at work in you and in me and in all who choose no longer to follow the way of a world that crucified Jesus.  We instead, have chosen the way of Jesus.  We have chosen to way of the Crucified and Resurrected One.

Romans chapter 8, verse 12 reads, So, then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors—we are obligated, we have an I.O.U with God—no longer to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—that is, no longer to the way of the world that crucified Jesus—for if you live according to the flesh you will diePaul’s grammar there is emphatic, as if he’d underlined it twice in red:  live according to the way of the world that crucified Jesus, you will die!

When we had our family vacation out to Yosemite Park many years ago now, the first hike we made was up Vernal Falls.  It’s one of the many beautiful waterfalls you can hike alongside of.  At the top of Vernal Falls there is a railing to keep hikers from wading into the stream just above the Falls.  All along the railing there, the Park Service has posted signs that read, “If you cross this rail, you will die!”  That’s it!  Non-negotiable, “You.  Will.  Die!”

That’s how emphatic Paul is writing here in verse 12.  To live according to the flesh—again, Paul does not mean the human body; he means embodying the way of life that crucified Jesus, the way that kills us to the life and love of God—well, that is to choose death.

But, that’s not who we are, is it?  We have chosen the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  We have chosen the way of the life and love of the Eternal God as Jesus revealed that way.  In choosing to follow Jesus’ way, we responded to God’s Holy Spirit.  We received the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus to that unimaginable, unforeseen Christ-life.  We have that resurrection life working within us, to uproot us and transplant us, to change us and to transform us.

Again, to use the analogy of the tree, we have the Holy Spirit within us, rehydrating the fibers of our beings, so that what was dead and inflexible to God, may live once again; so that what’s locked into place like so much dead heartwood may be released to respond and realign with living heart-love of God.

I, as have many of you, have experienced the ministrations of a physical therapist – or, as a friend who is married to a physical therapist once described his wife, the physical terrorist.  The Holy Spirit is our Soul-Therapist.

It is a fearsome thing we do when we submit ourselves to the soul-therapy of God’s Holy Spirit.  It can be a painful thing we do as our Soul-Therapist lays hold on us, to stretch loose what has become bound, to break free what has become locked, to push us into an increasing range of soul movement, but it must happen!  How else can we keep up and keep pace with the Living Lord who commands us, “Come follow me!”?

It is God’s work in progress, in us.  It is what Paul refers to in verse 23 as the first fruits of the Spirit…as we wait for [our full] adoption as God’s children [that is] the redemption of our bodies.  Verse 24:  for in this hope we were saved.  It is in and toward that hope we are to live out our lives, in the here and now.

What’s really confounding is that apparently God has this same hope of redemption for all of the created universe.  That’s what verses 18 -23 describes.  Now, I am not going to pretend to know what Paul is talking about here.  The words he uses describe the material, created universe of trees and bees and birds and stars and black holes.

The best I can say is this:  it takes more than two teams to make a baseball game.  It also takes a baseball diamond with an infield and an outfield on which to have a baseball game.  This created order is the really big baseball park in which God is hosting this glorious game.  In fact, it seems to be moving at about the same speed as the typical baseball game.

Whatever Paul means in those verses, he is striking a parallel between the spiritual work God is doing within our own material, bodily life, and what God is doing in the material life of creation.

At the very least, verses 19-22 should lead us as followers of Christ to seriously question those who so encumber this creation that it cannot realize the purpose and potential God intended for this physical earth.

As a congregation gathered in the name of Jesus, our first work of salvation is to worship God.  Our other big work is to join God in our efforts and our prayers and our encouragement, to learn how to live and to love as Jesus lived and loved.

Well, that didn’t work out so well for Jesus, did it now?  Doing that got him crucified.  Yes, and doing that also got Jesus resurrected.  That is our community; we are a community daily being crucified to this world’s way so that daily we may be resurrected into the way of Christ’s own eternal life.  This is at its heart our common purpose and life together as a church.

We help each shake off all the ways the world would yet command us and shape us and twist us in its efforts to keep Jesus crucified and dead.  We help each other to shake loose that enslavement, to unlearn, to untwist and to unshape ourselves from that bondage to death.  We help each other to be reformed into the life of the Resurrected One.

This is our confidence that the Lord whose call we have answered will one day fully answer us, saying,“Well done!  Well done, my sister! Well done, my brother!”  All we hope for in Christ now, all will be realized in Christ then.





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