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.





Reconnect: Connect With Community – Life in an Elephant Monastery

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 18, 2016
Taken from Acts 2:42-47


A fable about the days when Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, preaching and healing.  Two men, who once were blind but now healed by the Lord, encounter each other.  They begin sharing their experiences of Jesus, and as they talked they soon discovered this common bond between them of the Lord restoring their sight.

The one said to the other, “It was so strange…I heard our Lord stoop down in front of me and then spit and a moment later he was anointing my eyes with the mud he’d made of the dust and spittle and when I washed away the mud I received back my sight!  It was amazing!  What did you think when Jesus started putting that mud on your eyes?”
The other man said, “What do you mean?  The Lord never even touched me.  He just said, ‘Your faith has made you well!’, and suddenly I could see.”

The first man protested, “No…the best way to be healed of blindness is with mud!”  The second man said, “No!  The best way to be healed of blindness does not require mud; it is by faith alone!”

The two men quickly got into a shouting match with each other and there was shoving and then there was an all-out fist fight.  And that’s how the Mudites and the Non-Mudites got started.1

Sadly, that is pretty close to the truth about church-life at times, isn’t it?.   How could this once-stellar movement among the followers of Jesus, as Acts describes it, end up splitting off into this group and that group and another group and on and on?  Certainly, that is not what this thing we call ‘going to church’ is supposed to be about?

It is a stellar moment in the life of the gathered followers of Jesus.  Jesus restored his Apostles.  They’d selected one new apostle to replace Judas Iscariot who by this time is dead.  They select Matthias, who like themselves, had been a follower of Jesus from the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, right up through the horrible crucifixion and then the glorious resurrection and those forty days of teaching by the Resurrected Lord before the Lord Jesus returned into that Divine dimension hidden from human sight.

About 120 men and women, Luke tells us in Acts chapter 1, verse 15, gathered in prayer, expecting some kind of intervention from God, praying for that intervention from God.  And, what an intervening moment it was!  Starting with the second chapter, Luke describes the outpouring of God’s own Spirit upon men, women, young, and old, all empowered to witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Seemingly overnight, their numbers break the bounds of all expectation, as Jews gathered from across the Roman Empire for Passover there in Jerusalem, heard and believed this new thing God was now doing among them.  As verse 41, just before our Scripture this morning, describes, about three thousand souls were baptized into the Way of Jesus.

These verses printed in the worship bulletin sum up for us, the incredible bonding together of these Palestinian Jews and Jews of many other nationalities and languages in these early days of the Jesus movement.   The locals welcomed the pilgrims to stay in their homes and share in their meals; daily, they all would meet up in the large public square there on the temple grounds to hear more and more about Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.  What is this Kingdom of God?

When I last visited my 85-year old father, he took me for a drive out to large tract of land to show me a site he’d put a deposit on.  It was a new development that promises to offer him the kind of home he can better manage at his age and health.  Of course the developer has a printed prospectus showing the various floor plans, the street layout, the clubhouse, the amenities.

The only thing my Dad objects to in the developer’s plans is this:  there are group mailboxes.  Dad insists, he’s gotta have his own mailbox at the end of his own driveway.  It’s not exactly a deal-breaker; he went ahead and put down his deposit.  But, he told me his plan to negotiate his personal exception to the rules the developer laid out in the prospectus.

That’s often what we today think Jesus was doing when Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God.  It was not!  Jesus was not handing out brochures about some future divine real estate development.  I know, when Jesus used his King James English, he promised, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.”  (John 14:2)

I once had a lady royally dress me up and down when I quoted Jesus using his Revised Standard English wherein Jesus says instead, “In my Father’s house are many rooms….”, not “mansions”.  For her, John 14, verse 2, in the King James Version, was a kind of prospectus:  Jesus promised her a mansion would be waiting and a mansion it has to be when she gets to heaven.

When Jesus preached this Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus meant as in now, on this earth, and here is what you are to expect and how you are to live with each other.  That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” etcetera, etcetera, Amen.   That “Amen” means, “Make it so, God!  Make it so!”

These Apostles preached it that way; these people heard it that way; they received that news for what it was…it’s Good News!  The Kingdom of God is here!  And, so, they made it so!  They began reformatting their lives around the ethics of the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught, instead of the ethics of the assorted kingdoms from which they’d come to Jerusalem.

NPR ran an interesting set of reports this past week on a church up in New Jersey that’s resettling a Syrian family.   The family had been in a refugee camp, totally uprooted from their home in Syria.  The father is blind and bears profound facial injuries because of a mortar round that killed his extended family.

Members of the New Jersey congregation are teaching them English, teaching them to drive, teaching the father how to navigate using a white cane and other skills he’ll need to be independent, teaching them skills any typical American household already knows how to do.  They are learning the new ethos, the new ethics, of how to live American.2

These first century believers, they needed to learn the new ethos, the new ethics, of how to live together in the Kingdom of God.  And, they were doing it!  As verse 42 describes, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship….” because they were all refugees of a sort.

They’ve been resettled by the Holy Spirit of God, transformed and transferred by the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ, into a new land, among a new people, in a whole new realm of being and doing, a sacred place called the Kingdom of God.

Everything looked the same:  Jerusalem looked to be the same city, the Temple grounds were laid out as they’d always been, the same High Priest still ruled over the Temple, the same Roman Governor ruled over Palestine.  The market places and the thoroughfares, all of it was the same.

But these people?  They were not the same ever again.  Something more than the happenstance of time and place and citizenship had seized their devotion, something far more glorious than the eye could behold had seized their imaginations, a different agenda now demanded their loyalty.  The Kingdom of God had come among them.

The Kingdom of God had taken hold of them, and they took hold of it, and they did that by taking hold of one another.

Has the Kingdom of God taken hold of you?  Do you now live other than what circumstances of time and place and citizenship would dictate?  Has a sight far more glorious than your eyes can see, a sight far beyond your vocabulary to describe, entered into your soul?  In other words, has the Kingdom of God laid hold of you?  If so, why haven’t you laid hold of it?  How can you hold back?

How can you not take hold of one another?  Don’t you know the truth that we all are refugees now?  How do we speak the language of the Kingdom of God?  How do we navigate its streets and walkways?  Do you know its ethos and its ethics?  Where do we go to find our sisters and brothers that we might gather with them in celebration of our new heritage?

It is in this community gathered in the name of the Risen Lord, drawn in by the Spirit of God, inspired and eager to devote ourselves to Apostles’ teaching and to the care and encouragement for one another.

As it was for these of whom Acts chapter 2, verses 42-47, tells us.  So it continued for them, until they began living a different story.  When the fable of the Mudites and the Non-Mudites began crowding out the truth of Jesus among them.

Too many times, in my experience of church, and perhaps in your own, it seems to boil down to folks who once seemed to love each other in Christian love ending up fighting over differences that really just miss the whole point of church.  Kinda like our fabled fore-bearers, the Mudites and the Non-Mudites.

As I shared with you in my letter a few weeks ago, by Spring of 2003, I just had to get out of church-life altogether, for a lot of reasons, including the Mudite vs Non-Mudite sorts of stuff.  I moved to the northern California coastal town of Fort Bragg.  There, I entered what I’m calling today, “Life in the Elephant Monastery”.

I had been accepted into the fine furniture program at the College of the Redwoods.   But what the program really was, was a shop that the College had built in 1981 out on the edge of town to entice James Krenov to leave Sweden and come to America to teach his unique aesthetic and technique of woodworking.

By this time in his life, Krenov was 61 years old and had been practicing his craft for many, many years there in Stockholm.  Gradually, word had spread among woodworkers far beyond Sweden about this diminutive furniture maker, his elegant though seemingly simple designs, and his unique aesthetic.

In 1976, Krenov wrote a book about his manner of work, which was quickly followed by two other books in 1977 and 1979.  I, like so many others, stumbled across those works in our local libraries and bookstores.  We became devotees, inspired by the man and his manner of craftsmanship, which really seemed to be more a manner of seeing life itself.

One writer in a 2007 article described the Krenov shop in Fort Bragg this way:  “This isn’t so much a school where you learn a certain set of skills, it is more like spending a year in a monastery where you learn to think and act like the master.”  Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

Twenty-three students and a few instructors, sharing close quarters from 8 AM to 5 PM, six days a week, every week, from August of one year to May of the next.  We did get a short week for Thanksgiving and a week for Christmas.

The master, Mr. Krenov, had retired the year before I arrived, but he would still wander through the shop, eyeing our work, usually without comment and then leave.  All of us students at some point made pilgrimage out to visit Mr. Krenov in his home studio, to get a few words of encouragement from him.

The school’s emblem is an elephant-head with two chisels crossed just below the head.  Why an elephant is a story for another time.  But, every Friday night, without fail, we held what was called “the Elephant Stomp”.

Late Friday afternoon, while we cleaned up the shop at end of the workday on, two students would go around collecting money from each of us and go into town to buy dinner supplies for that night’s Elephant Stomp.  Someone would go build a fire in the fire-pit out next to shop.

Slowly, over the next couple of hours, former students and other craftspeople would gather along with us around the fire.  People would bring casseroles and dishes of all sorts and drinks to share in a common meal.

We’d go long into the night, eating and gabbing and talking shop.  People would wander over to rotate in and out of a nonstop volleyball game that was always in progress.  Groups of four or five would form circles for a quick game of hackey-sack.  Students would occasionally bring out a mockup of a furniture piece they’d labored over and toss it on the fire and everyone would cheer as it went up in flames.

So would go the Elephant Stomp, late into the night, every Friday night.  The last person to leave would make sure the fire was safely out and then go home.  Then, all of us would come straggling back in the next morning at 8:00 AM and put another day.

This was not in any way a Christian community; it was a Krenovian community.  But, in the years following my experience there in the Elephant Monastery, I realized, though Christian community it was not, it was a community of God’s healing grace for me.

I discovered, again, what it was like to be welcomed and valued by a group of strangers for no other reason than a shared experience of discovering a teacher from whom we wished to learn a different way.

Meeting daily, we encouraged one another as we attended to the teaching of those few whom the master himself had trained.  Weekly, we shared a common meal and cared for one another and played together.

As you might imagine, we sometimes aggravated each other, but surprisingly, we never argued.  What aggravations arose, quickly dissipated.  We never undermined or sabotaged each other’s work.  We celebrated our successes together, and we sympathized over the set-backs we all experienced.

Regardless of what the week had held, we gathered ourselves around that fire pit every Friday night for the weekly Elephant Stomp.  We wouldn’t miss that.

What bound us together through the year came down to this:  we knew a privilege had been given us, to share in the work of learning and aspiring to the qualities of a master we’d each discovered.  You don’t easily let go or get dissuaded from keeping your place in so great a gathering into which we’d been welcomed.

Why in the world, would any of those same dynamics of community be other or less for us who’ve come to know our Teacher and Master, Jesus, the Risen Christ?

If you need to re-connect with the Community of the Risen Savior, find your way to do that.   Keep at it.  I hope you’ll do that here, with this particular Christian community called University Baptist Church.  And, we, University Baptist Church, in whatever ways we need to re-connect as a congregation to the way of these first followers in Acts, chapter 2, let’s keep at it.  It is our sacred calling.


1 quoted in Martin Marty, Context, July 1, 1991, p. 5.

2 http://www.npr.org/2016/09/14/493881290/n-j-church-group-to-resettle-syrian-refugee-family-with-special-needs

Reconnect: Connect With Christ

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 11, 2016
Taken from John 21:15-25


Do most of you have Facebook accounts?  Show of hands?  Karen and I got Facebook accounts when our kids, Thomas and Emily, went off to college, our thought being, “What a great way to keep up with them!”  So, Thomas and Emily faced that horrifying moment when they realized Mom and Dad had just sent them a friend request.

A few weeks went by in our new venture with “the Facebook” when I myself started getting friend requests.  What amazed me was that these were my high school classmates, most of whom I had not seen since that day we had graduated together way back in June of 1973.  Somehow, through the magic of Facebook wizards, they had tracked me down and wanted to get back in touch.

I looked at their profile pictures and I thought, “My goodness…what happened to you people?!  You look…old…I mean, like really, really old…like, grandparent old, some of them!  Then, what came next was really disturbing:  they hadn’t seen me in several decades either.  What if I look as old to them as they look to me?

Now, that will mess with your head.  That will send you running to look in the bathroom mirror…could it be true?

Of course, there really is only one good way to avoid that shock to the psyche, other than just staying in hiding:  which would have been for me to have stayed in touch with these friends across the decades.  As we went through our own early years, as we stumbled around through our 20s trying to figure out what we really were going to be when we grew up and romances and failures and marriages and children getting born and all the rest.

Then they wouldn’t be these “old people” who suddenly appeared out the blue onto my computer screen.  They would simply be friends whom I had just seen the other day or the other week.  They would all be current friends, and we would have real-time relationships.

Which is true for us with God.  In matters of the soul, it’s all about sustaining a real-time, present relationship with the Divine, as in any other personal relationship.  We know that.

We all have ways of experiencing God:  the ocean or the mountains, for example.  We could go through an endless cataloguing of all in this vast universe that may speak to us of God.  But, surprisingly, somehow, at some time, we came upon God’s own Self, because God desired that meeting with us.  God desires to have that which is most personal and most intimate with us.  For us as Christians, this is the Gospel taught and lived in Jesus of Nazareth, over 2,000 years ago, and that continues in this present moment of our lives.

Jesus’ first followers discovered the truth of that Divine encounter when Jesus first met them by the Sea of Galilee.  Among them were Peter and John.  It is these same two, Peter and John, to whom Jesus goes on this day which our Gospel reading this morning describes.  Much as Jesus first called Peter and John those few years ago by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus once again, by that very same Sea, calls out to them to come follow him.

But, with this difference:  a lot of water has gone under the bridge and over the dam.  The call continued to be the same, yes, but neither Peter nor John were the same men whom Jesus first encountered by that Sea.  They have aged far more than the passing of a few years might suggest for them.

Consider what has happened as Jesus comes to them now.  Jesus is coming to restore them as his followers, but restoration implies that something has happened, doesn’t it?  Restoration implies that something broken that requires mending.  Peter and John require mending because they have suffered a great violence, and they have sustained deep wounds because of following Jesus.

There’s all kinds of violence that we may experience.  There’s physical violence, of course.  When we suffer physical violence, we know it, don’t we?  We usually have a pretty good idea about how the violence came upon us.  Whether it was intentional or accidental:  it usually comes by way of another person.

There’s what we might call unanswerable violence.  It’s usually physical but there’s no apparent culprit who we can pin it on.  There’s no conceivable rationale for it.  A lot of the time we just end up saying of unanswerable violence, well, it was an “act of God”, or, well, “God had His reasons.”

Then, there’s a third kind of violence, which we might call “psychic violence”, but which I do not mean palm reading or clairvoyance.  I mean violence inflicted upon the human psyche…our minds, our emotions, our souls.  As with all violence, psychic violence may be sudden or it may be gradual and chronic.  Sometimes we know its source, but often psychic violence confounds us.  We can’t say how or why this came, but we know, we have suffered wounds and we bear scars.

Peter and John have suffered violence in these few years they have followed Jesus.  Sometimes we say, “No good deed goes unpunished!”?  So true for Peter and John.  All they’ve done is follow a man who taught a message of love and compassion and hope and healed people…what could possibly go wrong with that?  Who could possible punish people for doing that?

Peter and John never saw it coming.  In these recent weeks, they and the others have just barely escaped an early and cruel death, but Jesus was not as fortunate.  They got Jesus, and they crucified him.

The “they” in this case, were Peter and John’s own religious authorities, of all people!  The folks who were supposed to be leaders of all things godly and good; it was they who had conspired with the local Roman ruler.  The High Priest and the Roman Governor had gone back and forth but finally decided it would really be best for all concerned if they went ahead and killed Jesus and then got on with life.

So, they arrested Jesus, ran him through a series of show trials, and then they executed him.  That’s some brutal physical violence, and at this point at least, it was unanswerable violence.  It most definitely was profound psychic violence, for which Peter and John and the other followers of Jesus were totally unprepared.

What they were most unprepared for though, was this:  Jesus did nothing to stop it.  He didn’t try to escape even though he knew by supper time earlier that night that somebody had betrayed him.  He didn’t put up a fight when the temple soldiers came to arrest him.  He just let it happen.

How could Jesus do that to Peter and John?  How could Jesus be so reckless, putting himself and his closest followers in danger that way?  If he didn’t care enough to put up a fight, if he didn’t at least have the good sense to run away and come back to fight another day, then why should they care anymore?

So deeply wounded were Peter and John and the others, that even after God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus had appeared to them on that third day, and all the Happy Easter hoopla, they still labored under this burden:  the close-call with physical violence; the unanswerable nature of it; the deep psychic shock in them.  They would be cautious to take up with Jesus, even with a Risen Jesus this time around.

You know, no rope I’ve ever seen was made up of a single strand of fiber.  Ropes are woven of many strands, all inter-twined.  You start pulling out one strand, you’re going to have deal with the others, too.

I’ve talked about three kinds of violence and the injuries they cause us as though they’re three separate strands in our lives, hanging off in isolation from each other.  We know that’s not true.  It’s real plain to us that physical and unanswerable violence inflict violence on our psyches.

What’s not so plain is how psychic injury affects us physically.  But, we are of a whole piece of human cloth all woven in intricate ways in body, mind, heart, and soul.  If I were really mischievous, I would illustrate my point by telling you about how I stepped into a nest of chiggers while hiking in the woods back in June.

If I were mischievous, I would describe how I got home and later that night started feeling distinct spots of intense itching.  I would tell you about how I examined my legs and waist and suddenly spotted those little buggers digging under my skin.  And I would guess that about then, many of us would literally discover ourselves itching and so much wanting to scratch.  But, I wouldn’t do such a thing to you folks, but consider how what is in the mind finds its way out into the body.

Patiently, Jesus comes again and again and again to Peter, John, and the others.  As he’d first met them by the Sea of Galilee, he meets them once again.  He’s prepares a meal to share with them, as he’d shared so many meals with them, right up to that last supper just before he was arrested.  Jesus speaks to Peter first.

Three times, Jesus allows Peter to profess his love for Jesus.  Persistently, Jesus asks, do you love me?  With equal persistence, Peter says, yes, Lord, I love you.  It’s as if Jesus is allowing Peter to erase one by one by one those three curses which Peter had shamefully denounced against Jesus only days before.  Jesus, of course, is restoring Peter.

That’s what we need to understand:  violence is about us and life on this earth, restoration is about God and the life God desires for us on this earth.  We commit violence against one another, whether intentional or accidental.  Unanswerable violence comes:  that is its own particular horror.  That psychic violence…it’s all of us, we who inflict it and we who suffer from it.  We receive violence, and we mete it out; we bear wounds, and we wound others right back.  We do it in our homes.  We do it at work.  We do it in church.

But, restoration…that’s what God is all about, and restoration is what God want us as God’s people to be about with God in this world.  The root meaning of the word “salvation” is healing.  God is all about healing us and healing this earth.  God begins within and keeps on working healing outwards.  No, it will not be complete in this present realm of space and time, but it sure can started and even get pretty far along in even the worst places and worst moments of this life.

This is Jesus, the sacred healer who walked among his fellow Jews in ancient Palestine.  Jesus, himself healed three days after receiving wounds which killed him.  Jesus, who lives within us and among us, this Jesus who comes again and again and again, to restore us to himself and to God.

By verse 20, Peter finally perks up, all good to go it seems, ready to take up with following Jesus, when Peter notices John following off a ways behind them.  Jesus has had nothing to say to John.  No three-fold interrogation…do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?  No instructions issued to John as with Peter.  Not even the command, “Follow me”, does Jesus give to John.

What’s up with that?  Peter wonders.  In verse 20, Peter looks back at John, and then Peter looks at Jesus, and says, “Uh, Lord, what’s up with John?  You got something you need to say to him?  Hmm?”

Jesus replies in verse 22.  Verse 23 repeats it just to make sure we hear it right along with Peter.  Jesus answers Peter, “What’s it to you, Peter?  That’s between him and me.  You know what I want of you, though, don’t you?  Come follow me!”

That’s a mistake we Christians so often make.  We might assume that our experience of Jesus is what somebody else’s experience of Jesus must be, too.  That may be what Peter is saying, and Jesus is vetoing.

Or, conversely—and what’s more likely—we may think that because someone else’s experience of Jesus is different than ours, then their experience must be better and more correct than ours, so we discount our own way of knowing the Lord.

That has always been the constant bugaboo in my own spiritual experience.  There have always been some other Christians whom I’ve admired and looked up to and to whom I’ve deferred because I was experiencing God somewhat differently at the time.

When I was 26 years old and getting ready to go to seminary, I came across a book with such a silly title that I almost didn’t bother getting it off the shelf.  The title was, On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear:  Spirituality American Style.  The cover illustration was a cartoon bear, with gossamer wings coming out of its back, flying over a field of flowers and playing a toy drum.  Very odd.

But, I went for it and began reading it, and it truly began to speak to me, about prayer and contemplation and the long tradition of Christian mysticism.  Nothing I’d grown up knowing about, so somewhat odd but interesting.

Well, in my church was a married couple about my age.  They were good friends whom I really looked up to as spiritual mentors.  They had invited me over to their house for dinner about that time.  And, at some point after dinner I began telling the woman about this book.

And she looked at me with this stunned look on her face that I can still see, and she said, “oh, Gary, you don’t really believe that about God, do you?”  I answer, “Oh, no, of course not!”  So, I went home that night and put the Musical, Mystical Bear book on my shelf, never opened again and eventually lost it.

Over the years, there were other books that reach out to me in similar ways.  When I was in my mid-forties, one such book was by a Catholic theologian named Matthew Fox, called Original Blessing.  It’s a book I came back to as I moved through my fifties, and is probably a significant part of why I continue as a follower of Christ today.

A little over a month ago, I read that Mathew Fox had published his autobiography, so I ordered it and it’s what I’m reading right now.  I reached the part where Fox talks about writing his doctoral dissertation and then how he eventually found a publisher for it.  So, young Matthew Fox published his very first book.  Care to guess what its title was?  On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear:  Spirituality American Style.  Ouch.

What God perhaps was trying to start in me when I was 26, I deferred from another two decades.  All because I deferred to someone else who in effect said to me what Peter was saying to Jesus about John:  Lord, what you’re doing now with me…certainly, that’s what you want for John, too, isn’t it?  Jesus tells Peter, you let me and John work out what’s right for John following me.  As for you, you follow me!

None of us escapes unscathed in this life, neither in body, mind, or soul.  But, we know this hope, don’t we?  God welcomes us into God’s own Divine Presence within us.  God’s healing Spirit always works at restoring us, and it is always a work in progress.  It’s a work that requires us to participate with God, as real-time, real-life disciples of the Lord Jesus.

How that gets literally fleshed out in you or in me does not have to look the same.  We are not meant to defer to one another in ways that delay our spiritual progress.  Most certainly, we are not meant to suppress one another as Peter seemed to be angling to do with John.

We encourage one another.  We share of our testimonies of our own experiences with one another.  Most importantly, we help one another learn how to listen to the Lord’s leading in each of our lives.  We help one another, and we help this world, find that sacred restoration which is of God.

The Family We Choose

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 4, 2016
Taken from Mark 3: 19b-21, 31-35


The Smothers Brothers provide some of my best memories of TV from the late 1960s and early 70s.  Tom and Dick Smothers were a comedy folk-music duo, and they were actual brothers.  Tommy played guitar; Dickie played the upright bass.  Dickie was confident and articulate.  Tommy was uncertain of himself, easily flustered, but most of all, Tommy was a prankster.

They’d begin their routine by playing traditional folk ballads.  Without fail, a couple of songs in, Tommy would start slipping in some new words to throw off Dickie.  Dickie would stop, and with great disdain, ask Tommy, “What do you think you’re doing?”  Tommy would try to be sly and funny, but Dickie wouldn’t let Tommy get away with anything.

Dickie would just keep badgering Tommy. Why had he thrown in those new words?  What did he mean to say?  How did he think that made Dickie feel? And on and on he’d hammer away until he had Tommy backed into a corner.

Finally, Tommy would angrily strike out, “Oh, yeah?  Well, Mom always liked you best!”  And Dickie would strike right back, “That’s right, Tommy!  And you know why?  You know why Mom liked me best?  It’s because of stuff just like this!”  That would be the end of that little spat.

They would start singing another song until Tommy couldn’t help himself, and he’d sing or say something that would set Dickie off again.

I suppose in every sibling rivalry there always comes that awful suspicion that your parents like your brother or your sister better than they like you.  Well, imagine that sibling rivalry when your older brother is Jesus, the Christ!  You couldn’t even use the most basic retort: “Oh, yeah, like you’re so perfect!”  Because, he was.

Jesus had siblings, brothers and sisters.  Mark here in chapter 3 mentions Jesus’ brothers.  Later on in chapter 6, Mark adds that Jesus had sisters. (Mark 6:3).  There was sibling rivalry.  John chapter 7, verses 1-9, describe an incident when Jesus’ brothers actually start taunting their older brother about his ministry.

Later generations in the church will argue over whether these other children were born to Mary or if they were Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage.  But that was not the Gospel writers’ concern.

Their point was simply to let us know that Jesus came from a large family; that he had brothers and sisters.  And, at some point, Jesus took the surprising step of leaving his family.  It was surprising, and it was contrary to what was expected of him in that time and place as the elder brother.

By this time, Joseph is probably dead.  Jesus is the eldest son.  He is responsible for the care of his widowed mother and his family.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  He left behind his family to become an itinerant preacher.

These verses in Mark chapter 3 illustrate just how baffled Jesus’ family has become over his behavior.  These are the early days of Jesus’ public ministry.  He is stirring up the crowds with his preaching and with his inexplicable power of healing.  The religious authorities have begun to denounce him as being possessed of the devil. (Mark 3:22).

Jesus’ brothers decide they must intervene; clearly, something has gone terribly wrong with their older brother.  They must take the difficult step of pulling Jesus back into their care, for his own good, for the sake of the family, for the sake of their mother, Mary.

But Jesus will have no part of it.  More than that, he publicly renounces them as his family.  Jesus is in this house, jammed full with the Twelve Disciples and with as many other people as could squeeze in around them.  The crowd standing outside the house yell to the crowd packed inside the house, “Tell Jesus, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.’

That’s when Jesus makes the break with Mary and his brothers and sisters.  He replies, basically saying, “I don’t know who those people out there may be because,” and he pauses to look around him, “here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  What a truly bizarre thing for Jesus to say.

Mark recounts this painful incident where Jesus breaks with his own family, why?  Well, he’s sure not doing it to offer us ‘Four Steps to Improving Family Communication’ or some such family-enrichment sermon.  This is not a “fix your family” text.

Instead, Mark in this text and the one just before it conveys to us how Jesus radically redefined and expanded the boundaries of what it means to be the people of God.

Now, I’m just gonna do a quick download of Bible information.  We don’t want to rush the Lord’s Supper this morning.  But there’s something I want to point out that you have done, and it’s going to take a little more background, so I’m just going to lay it out there in summary fashion.

Before this incident between Jesus and his family, Jesus goes up on a mountain and appoints the Twelve Apostles.  The Twelve are to be with Jesus, to learn and witness of all that Jesus will say and do, and then Jesus is going to send them out with his authority to preach and to heal.

Why go up on a mountain to appoint the Twelve?  Why not appoint them down by the Sea of Galilee?  Does it matter that Jesus went up on a mountain?  Does it matter that Jesus chose twelve?  Why not ten or thirteen or nine Apostles?

Jesus goes up on a mountain for this reason: long ago, when God made covenant with the Israelites, God called Moses to go up on a mountain to get the terms of that covenant.  We know them as the Ten Commandments, basically.

God, now in Jesus, was redefining that covenant; that’s the religious significance Jesus going up on top a mountain to appoint the Twelve.  He’s mirroring Moses on Mt. Sinai.  So, that’s quick Bible download #1.

Quick Bible download #2 is why Jesus chooses Twelve apostles and not ten or thirteen or any other number.  Jesus does that to mirror the twelve tribal patriarchs, the twelve sons of Jacob.  Participating in God’s revised Covenant is no longer based on the Patriarchs; it’s based on Jesus.  It’s based on hearing and believing the teaching that will be conveyed through the Twelve Apostles.  That’s what we understand to be our twenty-seven books we call the New Testament.

Can any of us trace our physical lineage back to one of the Twelve Apostles?  No, we cannot.  And, it doesn’t matter.  The Christian faith is not a patriarchal faith.  The Christian faith is a testimonial faith.

Let me say that again:  the Christian faith is a testimonial faith.  It is the testimony of this present generation of believers, based on the testimony of an earlier generation of believers, all the way back to the testimonies of these twelve whom Jesus chose that day up on that mountain.

To make sure you and I get that message, Mark then immediately turns to describe this incident with Jesus’ natural family.  Jesus explicitly rejects the notion of any relationship to him based on the physical descent of patriarchy.  For Jesus, who are the members of his family?  It’s not his brothers and sisters by way of Joseph; it’s not by his mother, Mary.  It’s the new, faith family gathered around Jesus.

Now, notice something here with me in verse 35.  Jesus looks around and says, whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.  Well, that’s fine, but someone’s missing?  The father’s missing.  Jesus mentions a mother, but there’s no father in the group of men and women.

In that day and time, who’s in charge if the father’s absent?  The elder brother.  So, where’s the elder brother in this new family that Jesus describes in verse 35?  Somebody’s got to be the elder brother.

There are no elder brothers, plural, in the family of Christ, because Jesus does not delegate that title to anyone.  Jesus alone gets to be elder brother in this faith family.  Who is the father in the family of Christ?  There are no fathers, plural, in the family of Christ because we are taught God alone is our Father.

These two texts describe the foundational moments when Jesus lays out the basis for his community.  It is a covenantal community no longer based on patriarchal lineage but based instead on testimonial lineage.  We belong to this family of God, based on our testimony of our personal experience with Jesus Christ and on nothing else.

In other words, the community of Jesus is a family where no one gets “to wear the pants in the family”…all family members are on equal standing; gender does not signify authority; it only signifies gender.  There are no ruling fathers or elder brothers in the community of Christ.

Now, finally, I can get around to talking with you about what you are doing, first by observing what you have done in the past: you have welcomed women into the ordained ministry of this church as deacons.  You have ordained women to the vocational Gospel ministry and sent them out to serve in various places.

This seems like no particularly exceptional thing for you to do, which is as it should be.  The fact these are ordained women means only that: they are deacons or ordained clergy who are women.  We can discuss their gifts, their skills, their experience, but gender is no longer part of the conversation at University Baptist.

You now have an active Senior Minister Search Committee.  You have told them, go find the right person for this congregation.  The right person whom God calls and whose call you, in turn, recognize…that call you will know by their gifts, their education and skills, their testimony, and their experience as an ordained clergy person.  But what about their gender?

What are your expectations of the next Senior Minister’s gender?  I am not in the position to tell you the “should” or the “should not”, of that person’s gender.  But I do want to lay before you the implications of Jesus’ teaching as it applies to gender-specific roles within the community of Christ.  Which is, as I read it, there are no gender-specific roles.

What I say next, I say only out of my own guessing, and nothing else.  At this juncture in the interim, I feel like I should point something out.  If I had to guess, I would say the unspoken assumption among most of us is that the next Senior Minister will be a man.  That’s only my guess.

If that’s true for you personally, that the next Senior Minister must be a man, at least articulate that expectation to yourself and examine it.

Examine your own gender assumption in the light of this church’s practice of ordaining women.  Examine your assumption in the light of how Jesus chose his family of faith.

This congregation’s next Senior Minister may indeed be a man and perhaps should be a man.  But, it is equally true, the next Senior Minister may be a woman and should be a woman, perhaps.

Wow.  That’s something to think about, and to pray on, to prepare yourselves to examine whomever, based on their calling, and gifting, and experience, and all the rest that has nothing at all to do with gender.

Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, August 21, 2016
Taken from Genesis 16:1-5; 21:1-14

I so very much wish I could claim today’s sermon title as my own, but I can’t.  I’m taking it from Lewis Grizzard’s 1989 book, which he entitled Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.1  And, in fact, Lewis Grizzard wasn’t feeling so well himself when he wrote this book.  He was having some serious heart valve problems that would lead to his death just a few years after this book came out.

In this collection of essays, Lewis Grizzard tells of the day in August, 1977, he and some buddies were relaxing at the beach when the report comes over the radio:  Elvis Presley is dead.  They can’t believe it.  Elvis Presley can’t be dead; how can Elvis be dead?  The King is only 42 years old.  But, there it was:  Elvis was dead.

For Lewis Grizzard, Elvis stood for everything good in his own coming of age and early manhood.  Elvis was greased-back duck-tailed hairdos; Elvis was the wild gyrating exuberant dance of life; Elvis was the exploding expanse of America that was the first wave of the Babyboomers.

The Babyboomer Generation started with the children born in 1946, which was the year Grizzard was born.  So, for Grizzard, growing up through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, those were his prime years of discovering the world and himself in the world.  Those were the prime Elvis years, when he was the King of rock n’ roll, and nothing could stop him or anybody else of that age.

Those also happened to be the great, seemingly unstoppable years in white American Protestantism, from 1946 on through the 1950s and into the early 1960s.  We Baptists had our own version of Elvis, didn’t we?  We had Billy Graham!

Oh my goodness, I remember as a child, when Billy Graham did a quick swing through Martinsville, where we lived at the time.  It wasn’t a revival crusade.  Billy Graham was just passing through the area.  It was more of a preacher news conference.  Some local pastors had organized it out on the parking lot of one of the car dealerships heading out of town over towards Collinsville.  It was like Elvis had shown up among us Baptists!  What a glorious day, when Billy Graham came through town.

It was a glorious couple of decades.  Eisenhower was President, the interstate highway system was getting built.  Levitt and Sons were putting up that tract housing that would turn into the modern suburb.  Willie Nelson didn’t have a pony-tail or an earring yet.  Elvis was king of rock n’ roll.

Then, November, 1963, it all started going sideways, didn’t it?  Oswald assassinated President Kennedy; four months later, in February, 1964, Ed Sullivan introduced the country to the Beatles; new President Johnson decided to up the ante in Vietnam; Elvis Presley began making really tacky movies and gaining weight.  And, finally, one fine August day in 1977, Lewis Grizzard and his buddies were at the beach and heard the news:  Elvis Presley is dead.  From Grizzard’s perspective, his life began a downward slide, until his own death in 1994, at the age of 47.

We’re going to come back to this chronology of events in the 1950s and early 1960s.  But, for the moment, I’d like us just to think about this notion, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.”  For you grammarians, I know, Grizzard should have written, “I don’t feel so WELL myself”, but after all he was a Georgia Bulldog, so, we’ll let it slide for now.

‘Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.’  You ever resonate with that sentiment?  I’m pretty sure that old Abraham and Sarah resonated with that sentiment, frequently.  Genesis chapters 12 through chapters 25 are all about Abraham and Sarah struggling mightily with certain physical limitations, and I not talking about Abraham’s hearing or Sarah’s eyesight.

So, at this point in the sermon, let me suggest to our teenagers, you just may want to tune out for the next few minutes.  If you’ve got your earbuds with you, this might be a good time to stick them in your ears.

Because, to talk honestly about today’s Scripture lesson, I’ve got to talk about procreation among folks the age of your grandparents and maybe even your great grandparents, if you have those.  And, I’m just not sure your tender, young psyches are ready to consider this possibility.  I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out again.

Genesis chapters 12 through 25—the heart of the Book of Genesis—these chapters in a nutshell are all about Abram and Sarai and the journey they take up and down and back and forth across the land of Canaan, because God called them out to do that.  God’s call to Abram and Sarai, as we saw last Sunday, was based on this single promise from God found in Genesis 12, verses 1 and 2:  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…[Canaan].  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…[to]…all the families of the earth.”

So, this whole journey is based on this one premise, that this couple, Abram and Sarai, who are presently childless, will procreate!  Their baby, in turn, will be the first of countless descendants, descendants numbering as many as the stars in the night sky, God tells Abram at one point.  That, basically, is Genesis chapters 12 through 25: two old people traipsing through the wilderness, often trying but without success, to make a baby.

Genesis 12 tells us that Abram was already 75 years old when he hears God make this promise.  Now, he must have been a very vigorous old man to hear that and think to himself, “Yeah, I can see how that would work…come on, Sarai, let’s go!”  Sarai, we will learn later, is 10 years younger than Abram, so she’s 65 years old, and she says, “Sure, why not? I’m only 65…let’s get ‘er done!”  And, off they go.

If AARP had been around back then, then Abram and Sarai surely would have made the front cover of AARP Magazine:  “Two Seniors with Get-Up-and-Go!”

Abram’s wife is 10 years younger than he is.  As I read that, I couldn’t help but think about those pharmaceutical ads on t.v.  You know the ones, where the couple inevitably end up sitting in his and hers bathtubs, out in the back yard, watching the sun set?

Is it just me, or does it always seem like the woman is about 10 years younger than the man?  Well, whatever, the pharmaceutical folks promise us older guys that there can be a bathtub awaiting us.

So, Abram and Sarai’s journey of faith, in practical terms, meant having lots of bathtub moments, trusting that at least one of these times, God would honor the promise of blessing them with an heir.  But, no doing.

Years go by.  Till finally, one night, Abram says to God, in Genesis chapter 17, verse 17, “You know, God, Sarai is half-way dead and I’m not feeling so good myself.”  And, Sarai, at one point says to herself, though I’m sure she was looking over her shoulder at God when she says it, “Good grief!  Abram’s got one foot in the grave and I don’t feel so good myself!”  That’s in Genesis chapter 18, verses 11 and 12.

When people, even people of profound faith, get to the point where it seems like everything around them is dying, and all hope is starting to circle the drain, they panic.  And, when people, even people of great faith, get panicky, well, then they start casting about for any and every remedy they can imagine.  That’s what Sarai and Abram do, isn’t it?  We read the first five verses of chapter 16.

But, already, in the chapter before, in chapter 15, verses 1 – 6, Abram had come to God and said, “God, what’s up?  No child yet, God.  How about this:  we take my man-slave, Eliezer—good boy, strong stock—how about I adopt Eliezer as my own son?”  God says, no, “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.”

That’s when God takes Abram out under the stars and says, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them….So shall your descendants be.”  Then, says chapter 15, verse 6, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

But, then, comes chapter 16, and now it’s Sarai’s turn.  Sarai is so, so frustrated and so disheartened.  Finally, she decides:  “If it is to be, it’s up to me!”  She will convince Abram to employ what was an accepted practice for couples in their situation.  Sarai has an Egyptian maid named Hagar.  So, Sarai decides Abram must sire a son through her maid, Hagar, and then Sarah and Abram will claim the child as their own.

Now, remember, Abram had just had this great encounter with God;  in fact, that encounter will become pivotal in defining the early Christian faith, And Abram believed the Lord; and Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.  But, Abram doesn’t protest.  Sarai wants this; it seems reasonable given everything else, so why not.  Abram takes Hagar as a second wife, and lo and behold, he impregnates Hagar.

Hagar, for her part, sees this as her chance to turn the table on Sarai.  According to verse 4, now that she, Hagar, is about to provide Abram a descendent, she thinks Abram might make her Wife #1, and move Sarai off to the side.  Verses 4 and 5 give us just a hint of the heartbreak and the hostility that now descends upon this Bedouin family.

Hagar bears Abram their son, Ishmael, and then thirteen more years go by with Sarai continuing unable to bear children.  Every day for thirteen years, Sarah’s got wife number 2, Hagar, and Hagar’s little boy, Ishmael, there tempting Abram to turn his affections away from Sarai.

It is said, that if you play a country song backwards, your wife will forgive you, your dog will come home, and you’ll get your old job back at the mill.  By chapter 21, how Sarai and Abram must have wished they could play their own country song backwards.  Because, finally, after thirteen years, chapter 21 describes how Sarai herself becomes pregnant.  Yes, 90-year old Sarai gives birth to Isaac, the child of the promise, to 100-year old Abram.

All the while, over in the shadows, sits the worst decision Sarai ever made:  Hagar, her maid, and Ishmael, whom Abram loves because Ishmael is his son.  Until, this day, when Isaac is born and then circumcised, and, then another three years go by, and Sarai weens Isaac.  “Enough!” says Sarai.  “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”

It had seemed like such a good move, hadn’t it?  It had seemed in keeping with God’s promise even though God appeared to be letting everything slide to where, if somebody didn’t do something, all hope would be lost.  Abram and Sarai would be dead, and God’s promise would die out with them.

By the way, teenagers, it’s safe to re-engage with us now.  No more talk about old folks and their procreating antics.

Fast forward many thousands of years later to 1977.  All that Lewis Grizzard meant when he bemoaned the passing of the King of rock n’ roll.  The 1950s and all of American life that got made in the 1950s that cruised so easily over into the early ‘60s and then these United States started hitting some rough going through the later ‘60s and into the ‘70s and ‘80s and in 1989 Lewis Grizzard realizes, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.”

Elvis is dead and the kind of white American Protestantism that came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s is not feeling so good either, here in the second decade of the 2000s.

When I came out of seminary in 1985, evangelical churches were just starting to catch on that something was changing in protestant church life.  By the time I became a senior pastor in 1990, the panic was starting to stir.  By the time I became a pastor across town, here in Charlottesville in 1995, desperation had taken hold.

Pressure started coming down hard on local pastors from every denominational and nondenominational source you can imagine, from the right and the left and right down the center, the experts warned us—“Your churches are dying, and you better find some way to birth new life or game over.”

They pretty much implied and some said it outright:  “Even if you have to abandon your old folks,” they said, “those dear old saints who traveled this journey of faith lo this many years—yes, we know they’re sweet, and they can bake a good casserole…but you better dump them and find yourselves a new spouse quick and make it work!”

Find for yourselves, in effect, a Hagar, a younger crowd with whom to make a new kind of church family.

What a bunch of panicky nonsense!  If God’s people can’t figure out how to live the Gospel together without jettisoning their old folks by the wayside, then we need to re-read the Gospel and the Book of Acts and all the rest of it, and figure it out.  But, that is the ecclesiastical wasteland of ideas that has dogged pastors for at least the past three decades.

Whomever you call as your next pastor, I want you to know:  she or he will come to you already knowing this tremendous pressure to do something! Do something, do something! Or there will not be a next generation of believers; there will be no heir to keep it alive.  It’ll all end up going down into the grave with us!

You will not need to tell your next Senior Minister that the mission of the Church has gotten harder.  You will not need to tell your Senior Minister that UBC is finding it harder like everyone else.  It certainly is no harder for us Christians in 2016 than it was when the first Christians held their first potluck supper in the year 30 or so.

You tell your next Senior Minister, “We’re an inter-generational church of old people and young people and somewhere-in-the-middle people, and we’re ready to do our part together, and we know that God will do God’s part, so come on!  Let’s see what God’s up to!”

There is not one thing you or I or anyone can do, to do what only God can do.  No more than that 100 year old man and that 90 year old woman could sire a child.  All they could do and all any of us can do, is to be convinced that God has called us to walk the journey with God, to keep on walking, walking, walking.

We have to learn the hard lessons of Scripture, along with the joyful lessons those ancient mothers and fathers of our faith seek to teach us.  Abram and Sarai themselves would tell us, “Avoid the foolishness such as what which our panic gave birth to; instead, keep to the journey of keeping faith with God, trusting in the promise to which God alone can give life.”

Now, despite the wishes of more than a few fans, Elvis really, really, has left the building, and he ain’t coming back no more.  But that’s o.k.  We can still listen to Elvis and reminisce.  I mean, when Elvis starts singing, “Kentucky Rain”, you’ve gotta get at least a little choked up.  But, I got to tell you, there’s a lot a great young musicians out there putting out some good tunes.

There’s a lot of hope and life and what we might called “pre-faithed” folks all around us.  We just need to figure out how to talk to them of the God who created them and who loves them and who welcomes them to delight in God as God delights in them.

We’ve got the perfect example in Jesus of Nazareth.  Go find your next Senior Minister who will help you figure that out…how to talk to people about Jesus, who will lead them to God.  Such a simple thing to do, with faith in God, who calls us out on that simple path of obedience.


1Lewis Grizzard, ­Elvis Is Dead, and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself, Atlanta:  Peachtree Publishing, Ltd., 1984.

Abram’s Reunion Tour

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, August 14, 2016
Taken from Genesis 11:1-9; 12:1-4

tower of babel andreas zielenkiewicz

Somewhere, in some agent’s office, or in some old rock star’s mansion, somebody starts dreaming of their former glory, decades now long past them, and they say to themselves, “Wouldn’t it be great to get the band back together for just one more tour?”  So, they do.

They line up a string of venues, announce the dates, sell the tickets.  Fans who’ve long ago gone on to make lives of their own, raise their kids, work their jobs, maybe even by now, have retired from those jobs.  Those fans eat it up:  have you heard the news?  They got the band back together for one more tour.  Yay!  Rock and Roll!

Nobody, but nobody, fits into what they once wore when they first went to their first concerts with the band:  not the band members and most certainly not the fans.  But, in everybody’s minds and hearts, they are all suddenly young, fit, hip, vivacious, beautiful, handsome and ever so groovy.

The band comes to town, the fans flock from all over the region and even from further away.  They gather as one into that big arena and they are all transported to that far distant time and place that once was but has long ceased to be.  The band plays the old songs and the audience goes wild and sings along every well-rehearsed word.  That’s the magic of a reunion tour.

Karen and I got to see The Police in their reunion tour.  November 6, 2007.  It was like being back in your car with your collection of cassette tapes:  ‘Message in a Bottle’, ‘Synchronicity’, ‘Walking on the Moon’, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’, ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, and, of course, ‘Roxanne’.  And lots of others, sung by Sting, backed up by Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers.

Sting and Stewart Copeland were in pretty good form for old guys; Andy could have used a little time with a personal trainer.  But they sounded great, and we the fans sounded great, and it was all great.  And that is what a reunion tour is all about.

Abram, bless his old seventy-five-year-old soul, is about to go on a grand reunion tour, picking up where his own father, Terah, had left off.  The tour had started quite a few years earlier, when old Pop Terah suddenly decided to do a very odd thing most folks back then would never do.

Terah decided to pack up the family and leave their homeland of Ur of the Chaldeans.  He set out to make a very, very long journey northwestward over into Mesopotamia and then straight southward to dwell in the land of Canaan. But, they never made it to Canaan.

Terah made that long northwestward journey over as far as the land of Haran, in Mesopotamia, and then he stopped.  Maybe he liked the terrain, maybe he just plain ran out of steam after walking 600 miles, but there in Haran, Terah and his family re-potted themselves and stayed put.  Then Terah died, leaving his son, Abram, as chief of his Bedouin tribe.

That’s where Genesis chapter 11 ends.  It’s where a new chapter begins, literally, in the Book of Genesis, and, literally, also it’s where a new chapter opens in the wanderings and meanderings of humanity.  Abram, in chapter 12, verse 1, thinks he is starting off to find a new homeland in Canaan, where his own father had once intended to settle down.

Abram will tour on down through Canaan, briefly crossing over into Egypt, only to return into Canaan and retrace his steps, up and across and down again, traveling throughout that ancient land seeking the homeland God has promised to him and to his descendants.

Probably, Abram doesn’t really grasp the full extent of what his touring through Canaan, looking for a homeland, is really about.  God does try to explain it to him, though.

God tells Abram in chapter 12, verses 1 and 2, “I’ve got a great blessing in store for you:  Go … to the [new] land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”  Then skip to the end of verse 3, “… and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves or shall be blessed.”

God invites Abram to understand the really big scope of what God is doing with this dear earth.  Abram is heading up what will turn out to be a Grand, Universal, Reunion Tour.  God is assembling the band, the managers, the roadies, booking the venues and all the other bits and pieces I can pull out of that metaphor.

God’s long-view ambition is to reunite the many nations into a restored community.  God’s ambition and love for humanity is that they finally receive the blessing of life which God intended all along for all the children of Adam and Eve.

Notice what I just did there?  It’s important to notice what I just did there:  I said, “all the children of Adam and Eve.”  I just slipped us back over into the early stories of Genesis, chapters one through eleven.  Those are mythic stories, by which I certainly do not mean untrue stories.

Mythic stories, whatever connections they once had with facts rooted in one time and people, take on a far larger life of their own and on a far grander scope.  They become stories that capture universal truths common to human experience of reality.

That’s what the stories in Genesis one through eleven are about.  They are accounts rooted in Hebraic memory that now reach mythic status about universal human experience.

The final, mythic-sized story come in Genesis 11, verse 1, the story of the Tower of Babel, “Now the whole earth had one language and few words.”  That could also be translated as, “The whole earth had one language and one vocabulary,” which would make sense.  What did that one language and one vocabulary sound like?

How many of you have seen the Disney movie, ‘Finding Dory’? How many of you saw the Disney movie before it, ‘Finding Nemo’?  You recall in ‘Finding Nemo’ when the seagulls show up: a flock of seagulls show up, hoping to swallow up Marlin and Dory who are stranded up on the dock.  What do the seagulls all say:  “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!”

O.K., one language, one vocabulary:  that pretty much describes the folks building the Tower of Babel… “Mine!  Mine!  Mine!  Mine! Mine!”  It was the language and vocabulary of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement.  “Come!” said the people of the land of Shinar, “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4)

Then, with a bit of humor, chapter 11, verse 5, tells us that this tower the people of Shinar thought was so immense and impressive was, in God’s sight, so tiny and nondescript that God actually has to come down out of heaven to get a good look at it.  And God said, “Hmmm.  This is not good.”  So, God does what?

God confuses their language, so that they may not understand another’s speech.  Which means, when everybody got up the next morning and went to work on the tower, things got screwy pretty quickly.  I imagine the Three Stooges writ large.  You recall whenever the Three Stooges tried to build something together or hang wallpaper or whatever?  Total chaos ensued.

I picture this next morning at the Tower worksite as a kind of Three Stooges flash mob.  Things got so frustrating that the story ends in Genesis 11 saying “… they left off building the city … [because] the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”  Thus, the origins of all the nations and all the languages, as described in Genesis 11.

There, we cross over into Genesis 12.  Here, we enter into a different kind of story-telling.  We enter now into a time of recorded history of this single family, headed up first by Terah, and then by Abram.  That’s when God speaks up.

Whether God ever spoke to Abram’s father, Terah, to call Terah to go to Canaan, we don’t know.  We just know that’s where they were headed, when Terah decided he’d gone as far as he was going and then stopped, and then, died.  Leaving, Abram.

So, God speaks to Abram, basically saying, “Abram, it’s time to finish the trip to Canaan.  I will make you great.  You will flourish.  You will teach the nations of me, and the nations will once again share a common language and purpose, the language of worship of God and the purpose of knowing and serving the one true God.

Now, we need to realize, Abram was no hero at the time.  For example, Abram gets down into Canaan, and life turns out to be hard there in Canaan.  So, Abram packs up and keeps on going down into Egypt.  It’s just a little further down in verses 10 and following.

Well, they’re about to cross over the border into Egypt when Abram says to Sarai, his wife, “You know, honey, have I ever told you how beautiful you are?”  And Sarai says, “Oh, Abram, you’re so sweet!”  And Abram says, “No, really, you are really quite the looker.  But, we’ve got a problem.”

Abram continues, “When the Pharaoh gets a look at you, he’s likely to have me murdered so he can take you for himself.  So, this is what we’re going to do.  We’ll tell everyone that you’re my sister.”

“That way,” says Abram with wink, “Instead of murdering me, the Pharaoh will shower me with lots of gifts trying to gain my favor so I’ll give you to him to be his wife.  We can ride that wave for a long time.  We just gotta sell it!”

And that’s what they do.  You can read about how that all turns out later, but this suggests that Abram wasn’t at this point particularly the heroic trooper we might think he was.

But, God’s o.k. with that.  God doesn’t need Abram to be a hero; God simply needs Abram to be obedient and to extend God a little bit of trust.  Abram’s obedience and trust in God are going to get stretched quite a bit over the years ahead, but God’s willing to work with what Abram’s got–or doesn’t have, as will often seem to be the case in the years ahead.  His Bedouin life was going to have some very interesting twists and turns ahead.

There’s suppose to be an ancient Chinese curse that goes this way – I’m sure you’ve heard it, the ancient Chinese curse – “May you live in an interesting age”.  Whether it’s an ancient Chinese curse or not, the gist of the saying is true:  if you’ve ever gone through a so-called “interesting” phase in your life, you’re usually pretty happy when things settle back down into just plain old routine.

As with Abram and Sarai, we ourselves are living in an interesting time, with unexpected twists and turns.  As Christians, you and I are living in an interesting time.  As members of University Baptist Church, we are living in an interesting time.  While this time in the church family is an interesting one, it is not a curse or a burden.  It is a blessing, just as Abram and Sarai’s travels in following God’s call was a blessing.

You were quite ready for this church to move forward, but somehow things seem to go more sideways.  That means that you, like Abram and Saria, have found yourselves with a calling you did not anticipate nor necessarily ever want.  But here it is:  you are the members of this longstanding congregation during one of its rare interim transitions.  So, you should feel honored, if not particularly heroic in it all.

Now, some of you should be feeling doubly-honored today.  Because, some of you found your fellow members electing you to the Leadership Transition Team.  And some of you found your fellow members electing you to become the Senior Minister Search Committee.  It is a true opportunity to render a tremendous service for God’s continuing work in this body.

You yourselves, as members of this body, are now calling yourselves into a Church Conference this coming Wednesday evening to receive that Transition Team’s report.  You need to be here to receive and decide on that report.

You need to do that, first, to honor the tremendous work-hours and the quality work-hours they have invested to do what you asked them to do.  The second reason you need to be here on Wednesday night is because what comes out of that meeting will go into the hands of the Senior Minister Search Committee.  You will essentially be telling them, in your search, go find the next Senior Minister who is like this, this, and this, and not that, that, or that.

To put it the way God put it to Abram that day long ago that Genesis 12 tells, what is the new land is God showing you?  Abram really didn’t know the land that lay before him.  Abram had a general direction, you know, ‘we’re heading south down into Canaan.’  Abram knew there’d be a different kind of people to encounter there: the Canaanites.  But Abram had experience; he wasn’t new to Bedouin life; he was a Bedouin, after all; he was just going to go be a Bedouin somewhere else for a change.

The land that now lies ahead of you as a Baptist, Christian congregation is a new land.  You need to affirm these three truths—first, God is leading you.  That’s Affirmation Number One; it’s the biggie.  Do you trust, right now, today, that God is leading you as a congregation?  Yes?  Great, God is leading you.  Which leads to Affirmation Number Two.

Affirmation Number Two is almost as big as Affirmation Number One:  God is leading you …into a new land.  The new land into which God is leading you is not back there in the old homeland from whence came our patriarchs and our matriarchs.

You know all the old light bulb jokes?

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?  Just one, but first the light bulb’s gotta want to change.”
“How many divas does it take the change a light bulb?  Trick question:  the diva just holds the light bulb while the world revolves around her and unscrews the light bulb for her.”
“How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?  What?!  My granddaddy gave that light bulb to this church!”

The times, they do call for a different sort of light bulb.

If you can make those first two affirmations, then you’ll be ready for the third grand affirmation.  One, we trust God is leading us.  Two, God is leading us into a new land.  And, the third affirmation:  we believe God has a spot for us in that Great Reunion Tour which God started all those millennia ago.  You are of the Tour, to gather all the peoples together, to worship and serve the one true, God.

It’s a big, big story and long, long journey.  The story and the journey yet remain incomplete.  The Reunion Tour is not finished.  The destination still appears to yet to be a far country apart from where we stand today.  But, those whom God calls to share the story, to walk the journey, receive God’s blessing.  Through them, through us, God extends the blessing.

By faith, you and I are part of the story now.  God, each day, invites you and me to keep on the journey, just as God invited Abram to resume the journey with God.  There is blessing along this path of faith.

This journey, this Tour, is not just a metaphor.  It involves some actual, real time, often, hard work.  Like, finding yourself a member of a faith community, such as University Baptist Church, going through a transition.

Rich blessings lie within this journey, as well as the greater blessing that will come when God has done all God intends for us and for all the families of this earth.  We’re all in one way or another, are on the Tour.

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