At the Edge of the Wilderness

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 23, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 28:10-19a

Bilbo Baggins was a happy hobbit, living peacefully in his beloved home in the Shire, when suddenly his contentment was interrupted by an unexpected visit from a wise old wizard, Gandalf. Before he knew it, Bilbo Baggins was leaving town with this wizard and an odd group of dwarfs, embarking on an adventure. Leaving behind the comforts of home, Bilbo and friends would overcome multiple obstacles and enemies, barely surviving assorted threats and challenges, until their mission was accomplished. And then Bilbo returned to his home. It was the same place he had started, but during his quest he has changed and matured; he’s a new man (or, hobbit). That’s the basic plot of The Hobbit: There and Back Again, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

My guess is that many of you are familiar with this story, having either read the book or seen the movies. I first experienced this story as an audio book, back when they were “books on tape”, on an actual cassette tape.

But even if you don’t know The Hobbit, perhaps its general plotline, captured so succinctly in the subtitle There and Back Again, sounds familiar to you because you’ve seen the original Star Wars movie. Luke Skywalker lives a quiet life in his home, until suddenly his life is turned upside down as he embarks on an adventure with the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi and an odd assortment of companions. They overcome various dangers and obstacles as they complete their mission, growing and maturing in the process.

But even if you haven’t seen Star Wars, perhaps this plotline sounds familiar to you because you’ve seen The Lion King, where young Simba must leave the comforts of home, going out into the unknown wilderness, where he finds an odd group of friends, grows up and figures out who he is, before ultimately returning back home as a new man (or, lion).

Or perhaps this plotline sounds familiar to you because you’ve seen the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy discovers she’s not in Kansas anymore. Or you’ve seen The Matrix, where the hero Neo must leave behind the comfortable normal life to enter a bizarre alternative reality. Or Harry Potter, where a young boy leaves the only life he’s ever known to enter a new world or wizards and magic.

And on and on it goes. The scholar Joseph Campbell famously described this archetypal story as the Hero’s Journey, which has appeared in literature, myth, and storytelling throughout human history. Something rings true about that.

Because even if you’ve never heard of Joseph Campbell, and even if you’ve never seen any of the movies I mentioned, perhaps this story sounds familiar because you’ve experienced it in your life. Beginning in the comfort of home, before venturing out into the unknown, overcoming obstacles and growing in maturity, so that when you finally return from that journey, you have tested yourself and discovered more fully who you are. Like Bilbo Baggins, you ventured “there and back again.”

There are endless variations on this story, but there seems to be something universal about it. Something about the human experience involves leaving the familiar and finding your way through the unknown.

It should be no surprise, then, that this human story appears to us over and over in the Bible. Think of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness, Saul going to Arabia after his conversion, Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt, young Moses fleeing Egypt before returning to lead the people out, or the Israelites themselves, wandering through the desert for 40 years. There are many examples of this type of story, but the one we’re focusing on today is the story of Jacob. The Jacob narrative pretty remarkably follows the pattern of the hero’s journey, this “there and back again” cycle.

The passage Diane read for us comes partway through, as he first stepping out into the unknown.

The whole Jacob story is too long to go into all the details today, but the outline is pretty straightforward. As you may remember,

Quick recap: twin brothers Jacob and Esau have been fighting since birth, culminating with Jacob tricking his dying father Isaac to get the blessing that should have been Esau’s. A furious Esau then sets out to kill his good-for-nothing little brother, so Jacob takes off. Afraid for his life, he has to leave home, and he heads toward a city where he is told some relatives live.

That’s where today’s reading begins. Verse 10 tells us, “Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.” We tend to skim past those verses, since they aren’t places that mean much to us. But this verse is actually crucial to the story. He left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.

Imagine hearing it this way: Jacob was a farmer who was born in Nelson County and had lived there his whole life, never even going as far as Waynesboro. But now his brother is coming after him, intent on killing him, and it’s not safe for him here anymore. He knows his mom has a brother in New Jersey, and his mom suggests he go there to start over and have a family. So he starts walking north. He gets about a day’s journey away, maybe Charlottesville, but who knows what these unfamiliar towns are called, and he finds a place to sleep for the night.

That’s where our story begins. He left Nelson County and went toward New Jersey; or, in Jacob’s case, Haran, which is in modern-day Turkey. The point is, he is leaving the only home he’s ever known, and heading to a new city, a new country, somewhere entirely foreign and unfamiliar.

With Esau out to get him, Jacob rushes out of town, following unfamiliar roads, watching an unknown landscape pass by. He continues through the heat of the day, putting as much distance as possible between himself and his murderous brother, until it’s too dark to take another step.

There, in that random spot, he lies down on the ground, completely alone, with only a rock for a pillow.

Can you hear his mind racing? “What am I doing here? Where am I going to go? What if this uncle doesn’t take me in, or doesn’t even live there anymore? What if I die out here? Why did even go through with that crazy plan anyway? I miss my bed!”

Alone, disoriented, longing for the comfort of home, unsure what the future holds: that’s how it feels at the edge of the wilderness.

This inner turmoil: that’s what the hero’s journey does to you, isn’t it?

As with Bilbo Baggins, or Simba, or Luke Skywalker, beginning this journey means leaving a life that is comfortable, and going into the wild unknown. That’s how it works—not just because it makes an exciting movie or a memorable story, but because that’s how it has to happen. You can’t skip to the end without going through the middle. You can’t become a grown up without going through middle school. (And middle school… talk about a strange and terrifying wilderness!)

One way or another, we all find ourselves on this hero’s journey at various points in our lives. Think of how many people talk about moving off to college, living away from home for the first time, navigating the new experiences and returning as less of a kid and more of an adult. Was that your experience? Have your heard people tell that story about their life?

Or think of those who describe joining the military, or moving to New York City to follow their dream. A friend of mine moved to Ohio when he was in his twenties, for no particular reason, except that he needed to get out of the town where he grew up.

Or consider a couple who have fallen in love and are preparing to get married, leaving behind a familiar single life and starting a new joint one. Or someone who is taking a strange new step into retirement, leaving the familiarity of the 9-5 and getting ready to find themselves awash in free time (or not—perhaps they can join a few church committees and fill up their days!).

Or, consider a person who is entering the disorientation of a new diagnosis, or the wilderness of unanticipated grief, or the loss of a cherished relationship.

Wilderness can take a host of forms, but the journey always begins by leaving the comfort of the familiar.

Down the road, when we’re looking back on the journey, we can see the way that we traveled and how we made our way through. We may even see the ways that we grew and distilled our identity in the process. It was tough, but we made it.

But at the time, when we’re taking those first tentative steps unsure if the ground will hold, it’s scary. It feels like Jacob, exhausted from a long day of running away, now stretched out on a rock, under the stars.

I love this story. It’s such a vivid image, a traveler too exhausted to keep going but too anguished to sleep. All this stuff rolling around in his mind, his body hurting from walking all day. Add to that the rock pillow, and it’s no wonder than when exhaustion finally wins out and he does drift off to sleep, he has some strange dreams.

Yet this dream, Jacob’s famous vision of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, turns out to be exactly what Jacob needed to see. It may seem fanciful, but really this dream is the key to the whole story.

At this pivotal moment, as Jacob leaves his home and steps into the unknown, he hears God’s voice speaking to him in this dream. The message I see in this has two parts, and as we think about what this story means for us, I want us to hear each of these two parts.

The first message in the dream comes when God repeats to Jacob the promise that God had originally made with Abraham, who was Jacob’s grandfather. Does this promise sound familiar? I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac; I will give you this land; your offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth; all the families of the earth will be blessed by you. This is God’s covenant with Abraham.

Can you imagine how many times Jacob must have heard this as a kid? This was their whole family purpose; this was their identity. Surely Jacob had been told this a thousand times by his father Isaac, if not by Abraham himself. He’d probably heard it so many times he didn’t even really hear it anymore; it was just words. Until this restless night, when suddenly this promise, this faith, becomes personal. God speaks directly to Jacob, not his family, and God tells Jacob that this very ground where you’re lying down, this land that you’re running away from in such a hurry, this is the promised land where your descendants will be a great nation.

It’s the same message, nothing new. And yet, somehow, now it’s his message. Jacob already knew this, in his head, but now he knows it in his gut. Now it’s real. Now it’s his.

Has that happened to you? Has your faith made that shift? It’s one thing to be taught the right words, the tradition, the faith of your parents and grandparents. It’s a gift to be given that from your family. But at some point, you have to figure out what it means to claim that for yourself.

I began that process as a student at UVA, in religious studies classes and with friends at the Baptist Student Union. I had to test the borders of my faith, venture out a ways, leave behind the comforts of the faith I’d inherited to see what was out there in the unknown. And there’s a lot of stuff out there. Some of it came back with me, some of it I visited and then passed by. My faith changed. But when I began to feel like I was out of the wilderness, it was strange to realize that I had come back to where I started. I wasn’t the same, but somehow it was still the faith of my ancestors that spoke to me and now was mine.

Perhaps you’ve taken a similar journey, finding a way to make the faith you’d been taught into a faith that was yours. Some embark on that journey out of curiosity, to see what else there is. Some start because they feel like they don’t fit here in these neat boxes anymore. Some start because something happens to them in life, and the old answers just won’t work anymore. But whatever the reason, the journey leaves the comfort of home and goes into the unknown. Wandering in that wilderness of uncertain faith can last years; maybe you still find yourself there.

But sometimes, when the wilderness time has passed, we find ourselves like Jacob, able to claim what we’d learned about abstractly, now made concrete and personal in our particular way. Now it’s not just our church’s faith or our family’s faith, but our own.

Jacob hears the promise God made to Abraham, a story he’d heard countless times before, but now it’s his story.

This brings us to the second message of Jacob’s dream: God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.” As Jacob is just beginning his journey, resting here, alone at the edge of the wilderness, God tells that Jacob that, wherever he goes from here, he will not be alone. The ladder image in the dream shows how heaven and earth are connected in this ordinary, holy place. And that connection is promised to continue: God will go with him wherever he goes, and God will bring him back home.

A year and half ago, University Baptist Church entered an interim chapter in our life together, without a senior minister and with no idea who might come next. Those early months coincided with the season of Lent, and our theme in worship, if you recall, was “Through the Wilderness.” This morning, we are gathered for worship at the other end of this wilderness—on the other side of the bridge, as Gary described it for us so well. One of the hymns we sang during that Lenten season was “In the Midst of New Dimensions,” which we sang again this morning. Its lyrics ask who will lead us through changing times: through the wilderness, if you will. And the answer is the same message that Jacob heard in his dream, so long ago: God will guide us through it. Wherever the wilderness journey takes us, God goes with us. We do not go alone.

Jacob awoke from his dream, looked around, and knew that God was there. This desolate, frightening place was the very house of God. Soon enough, he would continue his journey to Haran, where he would work for his uncle Laban, get married, establish himself, and eventually return home to face his Esau and get on with his life. That would all come, though Jacob didn’t know the details yet. For now, Jacob still faces an unknown future, still doesn’t know where he’s going or how he’ll get there.

But his encounter with God has given him the assurance he needs to take those first steps. The road may be winding, but it leads back home. And God will be with him all along the way.

May it be so for us as well. Amen.

Let us pray:

God, strengthen us for the journeys we face. Give us courage when we step into the unknown, and fill us with gratitude when we find our way back. And wherever we go, remind us that you are there with us, always. Amen.

Come Away With Me

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 9, 2017
Scripture: Song of Solomon 2:8-13

There seems to be some mistake.  Somebody’s gone and printed some verses from the Song of Solomon in our worship bulletin…that can’t be right!   We Baptists don’t actually read the Song of Solomon, much less lay it out there in plain sight where just anyone can see it.

Most of you have been around Baptist churches for most of your Christian experience.  Show of hands:  how many of you–over however many years you’ve been attending a Baptist church—how many of you have heard three or more sermons based on Song of Solomon?

How many of you have heard at least two sermons based on Song of Solomon?

Has anyone here heard at least one sermon from Song of Solomon?  I can’t recall hearing a one when I was growing up.  It seems like something I would preach from, but honestly I can’t really recall doing so.

But, here it is in our bulletin, so I suppose we should go ahead and read it, Song of Solomon, chapter two, verses 8-13.

The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle,
or a young stag.
Behold, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.

Now, honestly, when I read that last snippet, “Arise, come, my darling; beautiful one, come with me.”, and then I said, “This is the Word of the Lord”, didn’t it feel just a wee bit odd to respond, “Thanks be to God!”?

“Arise, come, my darling….O beautiful one, come [away] with me.”  Oh, yes! Thanks be to God!  I suppose it depends on who’s doing the asking, doesn’t it?

It is a challenge to us, reading this part of our Bible.  We’re really not sure what to make of it, and that’s been true for generations and generations of people who claim this Bible book as their Scripture, for both Jews and Christians.1

Even the editors of the lectionary couldn’t bring themselves to recommend Song of Solomon as our primary Old Testament reading for today; instead, they listed it as an alternate reading.  But, really, do you want to hear yet another sermon from Genesis, when you’ve Song of Solomon waiting in the wings?

Part of our befuddlement over this book is that it doesn’t mention God anywhere.  It does, however, get quite explicit in mentioning other things that most of us would blush to have read aloud in church.  The verses from chapter 2 are pretty mild stuff.  Chapter 4 is where Song of Solomon gets quite interesting as this young man begins describing his beloved, starting with her hair and working his way on down:

“Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold you are beautiful!

Your eyes are doves behind your veil.

Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.

Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing,

   all of which bear twins, and not one among them are bereaved.”

                                                (verses 1-3)

 Which was a very tactful way of admiring the fact that his girlfriend’s got all her teeth; “none is bereaved”, not a tooth is missing in her smile, which probably was more the exception than the rule back then

He continues, “Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely….your neck is like….” (verse 3-4) and so forth and so on he goes, waxing poetic about the virtues of his beloved’s beautiful…what?  Her beautiful body.  Well, that can’t be right, can it?  Here, in the Bible, in the Old Testament of all places?

Part of the problem with this book is just what words can you get away with in church when we’re talking about the human body?  The human body not as “the temple of the Holy Spirit”, as Paul describes it over in 1 Corinthians chapter 6, verse 19.  That’s pretty safe. The human body not as a source of affliction and temptation and all sorts of bad things, as recounted in more Bible verses than we have time to list.

But, how dare we speak of the human body as these two persons here in our present Scripture speak of one another’s bodies and of the feelings they engender in one another?  What circumlocutions or euphemisms can the preacher get away with?  We know the risks that come with what I shall be calling for the rest of this sermon, “Song of Solomon behavior”.  That will be my circumlocution of choice.

To get right to it:  “Song of Solomon behavior” is known to be the leading cause of babies.  As we all know, babies result in a lifelong condition called parenthood, which is a chronic condition often accompanied by headaches, heartburn, and insomnia; over the course of a lifetime, parenthood can be a very expensive condition to treat.

We in the church are very concerned that we not say anything which might pave the way for unintended parenthood, especially among our youth.  So, anything we say about “Song of Solomon behavior” boils down to…it’s a beautiful and marvelous gift from God, but let us not speak of it again—remember:  Jesus is in the room and watching you, so, just DON’T GO THERE!

These two young lovebirds here seem to have no concern whatsoever about their “Song of Solomon behavior”.  They are simply, and totally, and rapturously, in love with one another, and getting away somewhere off by themselves seems pretty much to be the plot-line driving this story.

The ancient rabbis and our ancient Christian teachers found a convenient work-around for all this.  These very graphic love songs, they said, are a collection of extended metaphors.   The rabbis said they were metaphors for God’s love for Israel.  The early Christian preachers said Song of Solomon’s words tell us of Christ’s love for the Church.

In other words, this Book has nothing to do with you and me personally except in our capacity as church members.  Somehow, I don’t see that explanation as being particularly helpful.  Are we really ready to hear these words as God’s words of love for us?  There are two aspects of the Bible that to me lend credence to this idea that Song of Solomon somehow conveys God’s love for us.

The first aspect is this:  it’s how the prophets would, in effect, flip Song of Solomon on its head.  Using language as graphic as these here, the prophets often described God as a betrayed spouse and God’s people as the ones doing the betraying.2  In the hands of the prophets it’s as if these two lovers in Song of Solomon got married and then one did the other a really bad turn, and all these words of rapturous love got turned inside out and then spat back in the face of the betrayer.

So, yes, I suppose if the prophets could draw on all the ugliness of human love betrayed using sexually graphic terms, then it’s also conceivable this Wisdom writer could draw upon all the beauty and rapture of human love when that love is fulfilled, also using equally sexually suggestive language to convey in human terms, God’s love for us.

The problem for us, though, is that we as people of faith are often ill-equipped to incorporate the fullness of “Song of Solomon” emotion within our own personal lives.  When it comes to “Song of Solomon behavior”, we know shame; we know guilt; we know regret; we know lives complicated and constrained and even derailed, all because of “Song of Solomon” train wrecks we have experienced first-hand or we have witnessed in the lives of our families or friends.

How then can we even begin to conceive of this reservoir of human sexual experience as having anything to teach us about God’s love, about Christ’s love, in any meaningful way?  Yet, here it is in the heart of our Bible.

Then, there is this second aspect of the Bible:  what of the Incarnation?

What of the Incarnation, our central Christian teaching that God came in the fulness of human flesh, in the life experience of Jesus of Nazareth.

Did Jesus ever experience the depths of these “Song of Solomon” passions in his own life?  Without sin, without shame, without regret?  Could the source of Jesus’ vitality for life, his sheer joy of life, his celebratory experience of life that drew in the notorious sinners even as he repelled the rigorously righteous…could the source of such radiant human vigor have resided in what Jesus knew from his own “Song of Solomon” sensuality?  It’s difficult for us to even form such thoughts of Jesus, much less to explore its meaning.

We as an institution, we the Church as Christ’s bodily expression on this earth, we’ve got some serious explaining to do of how we’ve become the chief censures of human, “Song of Solomon”, love.  We’ve got such serious catching up to do in our understanding of this miracle we call “the Incarnation”.

It’s hard to be a sexual being, friends, in this fallen world of ours and of God’s.   We all have shame and guilt and regret.  We have been victims, and we have made victims, through our sexual passions.   None of us get healed and set free in an instant from such wounds.  For many, sexual injury is a re-occurring wound very slow to mend.

Our difficulties lie not in God, who has no reluctance to forgive us where we need forgiving, nor do our difficulties reside in God’s unwillingness to mend us from our injured minds, souls, or bodies where we need such mending.   Our difficulty lies in our denial of what this Song of Solomon and so much else of Scripture teaches us:  God created us to be sexual beings.

 Our sexuality are tempestuous waters to navigate, for sure.  They are deep waters in which many have drowned, or which many have avoided by beaching themselves safely on dry land.  Neither of these choices are God’s best for us.

Sins of the flesh are never simply “flesh wounds”.  They strike at the very core of our being.  Don’t let your own failures or the failures of others shut you off from what is central to your human identity.  If you need counsel, find good, healthy counsel.  If you need confession, find a trustworthy confessor.  Sexual healing is the proverbial journey of a thousand miles that begins with a first step, and then another, and then another.

As a congregation, discover how you can help one another into this part of God’s truth for us.  Our failure to teach one another rightly about the “Song of Solomon experience” is a continuing failure of faith and witness.  We are partners with the Creator and Redeemer God in such love as this.  We are followers of the Incarnate Christ, and we must do better.

Song of Solomon…it makes for some interesting reading.

 

1 Exegetical notes from Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 192-195.

2 see, e.g., Jeremiah 2:1-3, 20-25, 32-36; 3:1-5; Ezekiel 16:1-63; Hosea 2:1-16; 3:1-3.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alzo Sprach Zarathustra

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 2, 2017
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

“Alzo Sprach Zarathustra”…now, you have to admit:  that is an impressive sermon title!  The problem with a title like that is coming up with a sermon to back it up.

That was not a problem for Ricard Strauss, who chose this powerful title for his equally powerful orchestral work.  This was Strauss’s musical interpretation of Frederick Nietzsche’s novel, by the same name.  Most of us probably know Strauss’s work as the opening score for the movie, “2001, A Space Odyssey”.

Strauss’s work starts off with this low, sustained ominous note played by the double basses and bassoon and organ.  Then, in come the trumpets, quickly building up to all the brass bursting out in this tremendous fanfare, followed up by the timpani beating out two alternating notes that sound like something really big is about to come up from over the horizon.

There is not a preacher who cares about his or her preaching who wouldn’t dearly love to preach a sermon that is the rhetorical equivalent of Strauss’ “Alzo Sprach Zarathustra”.  Especially, if they could throw in a little German here and there.

I have heard at least one preacher who could with regularity preach a Zarathustra-sort of sermon.  That was Dr. Gardner Taylor.

Dr. Taylor was born in 1918 in Lousianna, the grandson of former slaves.  He grew up in the south and received his theological training at Oberlin College.  He went on to become pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York.  He was there for 42 years.

I first got to hear Dr. Taylor preach over at Union Seminary in Richmond.  I once traveled to Florida to attend a pastor’s conference just because Dr. Taylor was one of the scheduled worship leaders.  Pity the poor preachers who had to share the platform with Dr. Taylor that week.

Dr. Taylor had this rich, deep, melodious voice that traveled over a wonderful vocal range.   His imagery was full and vibrant.  His theology and knowledge of the Bible was substantive yet he expressed it in ways anyone could grasp.  He engaged heart and mind and soul, and by the time Dr. Taylor ended his sermons, you were ready for the heavens to open and for the Lord to return.

If Dr. Taylor had pastored a congregation anywhere in our region, I would have gotten up early every Sunday and traveled past many a church no matter who the preacher was in that church, in order to go hear Dr. Taylor preach.

Things were starting to go that way in Corinth.   Corinth was a significant city in the Roman Empire.  The Apostle Paul had started the church of Corinth during one of his missionary journeys.  Then, Paul moved on in his itinerant ministry.  But, he stayed in touch with folks coming and going from the church at Corinth.

Verse 11 of our Scripture reading this morning tells how Paul has heard through the grapevine some news that worried him.  It seems that the Corinthian church was experiencing a surplus of preachers among them.  The problem was not so much over what these preachers were preaching.   There’s no hint of incorrect theology getting preached in Corinth.  Dissention was growing over how groups in the congregation were starting to form loyalities around these preachers.

One group was latching on to a preacher named Apollos.  Acts chapter 18 gives us a  thumbnail sketch about him.  Apollos was a Jew.  He was reared in the great learning center of Alexandria, Egypt.  Verses 24 and 25 of Acts 18 tell us that Apollos was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures….and fervent in the Spirit.   Apollos was a Also Sprach Zarathustra kind of preacher with a full range of rhetorical skills for any kind of group.  Plus, he has that neat name working for him… Apollos!

Then, there were church members who were really taken with Cephas, when he came and filled the pulpit for a while.   Named Cephas in the Aramaic, Peter was his given Greek name, Petros, the name given to him by none other than Jesus himself.  He was one of the original Twelve Apostles who actually walked with the Lord on earth.  What greater endorsement could you want in your preachers?

Then, of course, there were the folks who came to Christ through Paul in his evangelistic work.  They’d gotten their start with Paul, so it made since, as long as people were out picking and choosing their preacher, they would go with Paul or someone whom they thought Paul would like in his place.

We all gravitate to pastors and teachers and leaders who connect with us in some personal way.   For you, it may be whoever most reminds you of the person who led you to faith in Christ.  Maybe you came to faith through a Billy Graham crusade, so you gravitate to the revivalist sort of preacher who reminds you of Billy Graham.

When I was at Southern Seminary in Louisville, I attended Highland Baptist Church because of the pastor, Paul Duke.  Paul Duke’s vision of the Gospel and his preaching voice so intensely connected with me, that for years, whenever I worked through my sermons, it was Paul Duke’s voice I was hearing in my head.

All of which is to say, these Christians in the church at Corinth were doing what we all do:  each group had a preference of their ideal preacher and they were choosing—and rejecting among their available preachers—much to the harm of their fellowship in Corinth.

Let’s recognize this reality among us today, here at University Baptist Church.  We are people who come regularly to hear someone stand to proclaim Sacred Scripture of God to us from this pulpit.  Who has influenced you and shaped your sensibilities of hearing when it comes to preaching?

Who among all these personalities and voices have you most connected with, because of how they related to you and how they voiced the Scriptures?   Who is your Apollos?  Who is your Cephas?  Who is your Paul?

I grew up always hearing preachers who pronounced the name “Jesus” as having two syllables, with the accent on the first syllable and a descending inflection on the second:  “JE-sus.”  That’s how I always say the name, “Jesus”, when I preach: two syllables, accent on the first, descending inflection on the second, “JE-sus”.

But, there are regions of the country where the Baptist preachers always say the name, “Jesus”, with three syllables, with a heavy accent on the first syllable, and ending with an ascending inflection on the third syllable:  “JEE-eee-Sus”.  And, sometimes, they’ll even throw in a fourth syllable:  “JEE-eee-Sus-huh!”  It sounds like a little cough.  It’s a kind of verbal exclamation mark.

If I were to wander into a church and the preacher stood up and turned out to be one of those three-syllable or four-syllable preachers, why, I’d start looking for the exit.  I’d be afraid they’d start pulling out the snakes or the preacher might come down out the pulpit and start smacking people on the forehead trying to “slay them in the spirit”!

On the other hand, if you grew up hearing the Gospel proclaimed by one of the three-syllable or four-syllable “JEE-eee-Sus-Huh!” preachers and you went into a two-syllable, “JE-sus”, church, you’d leave feeling like the preacher left something out.  Maybe you couldn’t put your finger on it exactly, but you’d feel like that preacher hadn’t given you the whole Gospel.

They could preach exactly the same sermon, but how we’re used to hearing the preacher pronounce just this one word spoken, we’d feel like we were hearing two different sermons.

On the Sunday that Matt Tennant came and preached for you in view of a call, I listened to the worship service on the radio.  I listened to Matt’s sermon, and I liked what I heard.  I’ve listened to some of Matt’s other preaching available on-line, and I liked what I heard there, too.

You voted unanimously that Sunday, 100%, to call Matthew Tennant to come as your next Senior Minister.  That means Matt will be in this pulpit as your preacher.  He will be behind the lectern in the Fellowship Hall as your teacher.  Who will Matt be for you as your preacher and teacher?

Will Matt be an Apollos kind of preacher, or a Cephas kind of preacher or an Apostle Paul kind of preacher?  No, he won’t.

Will Matt be a Dick Myers kind of preacher or a Keith Smith or a Tom Leland or a Michael Cheuk or a Will Brown kind of preacher?  No, he won’t.

Will Matt be a Dan Bagby or a Mark Biddle kind of preacher?  No, Matt will not be one of those kinds of preachers.

Well, maybe Matt will be like any one of us old preachers who sit out here in the sanctuary with you, whom you graciously allow us to stand and preach for you from time to time.  Will Matt be one of us kind of preachers?  I certainly hope not.

Well, then, if Matt’s not going to be any of those kinds of preachers from your past experience who have shaped and guided you by their preaching, just what kind of preacher will he be?  I hope and pray that by the grace of God at work in his life, that he will be a Matthew Tennant kind of preacher.  And so should you hope and pray for him.

The only way Matt or any preacher can faithfully give witness of God’s Word, is to preach from his or her own faith experience of God, a faith that is not only from his or her formative years as a follower of Christ, but most importantly to proclaim the Gospel from a faith that is contemporary with his or her present walk with our Lord.  You have called Matthew Tennant, as God has called Matthew Tennant, to be a Matthew Tennant kind of preacher.

Consider what it is a pastor comes to do with a congregation.  That’s what Paul turns to in these next three chapters.  The point of this conversation, says Paul, is not who the particular minister is among you.  The point is, what kind of congregation is God calling you to be?  What work is God seeking to do through you as a church?

In chapter 3, verses 5 and 6, Paul writes What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

Paul compares the church to a plant and then to a building and then to a human body.  Paul says, finally, it’s not the workers through whom God works, it’s what God is seeking to grow or build or do in and through that congregation.  So, that is our focus as members of any church, be it a two-syllable or three-syllable Jesus church.

What is God growing or building or doing through University Baptist Church?  That’s the question. What is God asking of you, because you are a vital part of that God-inspired, God-directed work?  Why is God calling a Matthew Tennant kind of preacher/teacher/pastor/leader to come among you now?

God is calling a Matthew Tennant kind of servant among you, University Baptist Church, because of the work at hand now which God is seeking to accomplish in you and through you as a church.

God does not build a church on the language nor on the eloquence of its preacher.  The power of proclaiming the Gospel does not reside in a single voice.  The Gospel rings forth from all the voices of this congregation; your lives, your witnesses, your service, combined in a beautiful proclamation of praise offered to God.

With that understanding of University Baptist Church—using Paul’s metaphors of a plant growing, a building rising, a body thriving, embrace Matt and his family, embrace Matt’s ministry among you, and unite yourselves, for we all belong to Christ, and for Christ we must give our all in faithful witness, servants together of our Lord, in this our mission, this greater Charlottesville community.

My Love, My Torment

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 25, 2017
Scripture: Jeremiah 20:7-13

 

“My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!
 Oh, the walls of my heart [are bursting]!
  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent….”
                                          (Jeremiah 4:19)

“And you, O desolate one:
 What do you mean that you dress in scarlet,
      that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
      that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
 In vain you beautify yourselves….”
                                          (Jeremiah 4:30)

“Run…run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
      look and take note! 

Search her squares to see if you can find [but a] single man,
      [a single] one who does justice and seeks truth;
that I may pardon her.
Though they say, ‘As the Lord lives’, yet they swear falsely.
                                          (Jeremiah 5:1-2)

“Like a basket full of birds, their houses are full of treachery;
      [and this is how] they have become great and rich,
      [this is how] they have grown fat and sleek.

 They know no bound in deeds of wickedness;
     they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless,
                  to make it prosper,
      and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord,
      and shall I not [surely] avenge myself on a nation such
      as this?”

“An appalling and horrible thing has happened
      in the land [among my people]:
      the prophets prophesy falsely,
      and the priests rule at their direction;
      [and] my people love to have it so,
but
      what will you do when the end comes?”
                              (Jeremiah 5:27-31)

 

These few verses from Jeremiah, chapters 4 and 5, represent well this book that goes on like this for 52 chapters.  These few verses represent well not only the substance of God’s condemnation for the nation of Judah and its neighbors; these verses represent equally well Jeremiah’s own, personal dilemma.*

What I mean is this:  if you read through Jeremiah, you will find it difficult to know where Jeremiah’s speaking and God’s speaking starts or ends.   With Jeremiah, he seems so often so totally immersed in God’s own passion and indignation and profound hurt that he seems as a man possessed and taken over by God entirely.

When Jeremiah was a much younger man, God came to Jeremiah, and Jeremiah says, “Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.’”  (Jeremiah 1:9)

Jeremiah recalls this experience in chapter 16:  “Thy words were found, and I ate them, and thy words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by thy name, O Lord, God of hosts.” (verse 16)

But, as Jeremiah discovered over and over and over again, to take in the word of God as though it were food and drink for one’s soul and body…that was to open yourself to see things that few of us have the heart to see:  to see your nation as God sees your nation, to feel as God feels at what is happening, to know in his gut, as he said, this “appalling and horrible thing [that] has happened.”  (Jeremiah 5:30)

Several times Jeremiah will complain to God of the hardships which being the bearer of God’s word has caused him.

The first time Jeremiah does that, he in effect tells God, “I’ve served you.  I’ve faithfully proclaimed your word to these your people.  But, nothing changes!  If anything, the wicked grow stronger; their plans succeed; they thrive, as though you yourself, God, were on their side!  Do something, why won’t you!  (Jeremiah 12:1-2)

Well, God just gets right back up in Jeremiah’s face, and says, are you kidding me, Jeremiah?  We’re just getting started here!

“If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?
      And, if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the jungle of Jordan?”  (Jeremiah 12:5) 

God’s response to Jeremiah reminds me of a story my friend and pastoral colleague, Drexel Rayford, once told me.  I don’t think he’ll mind me sharing it with you this morning.

Drexel was doing one of his clinical hospital rotations which was part of his PhD work.  His PhD supervisor, as well as his floor supervisor that day at the hospital, was Dr. Wayne Oates.  Dr. Oates, who is now deceased, was one of the preeminent practitioners and writers and teachers in pastoral care in this country.

Drexel said he was conferring with Dr. Oates there at the nurses’ station about a patient’s spiritual care, and Dr. Oates asked Drexel how things were going for him in his work.  So, Drexel began telling him about how he was really feeling jammed up and overwhelmed and wasn’t sure how he was gonna get it done and so on and so on.

When Drexel finished his exhausting list of how things were going for him, Dr. Oates said, “You know, I’ve learned something very important from my own experience in just those situations…you want to know what I’ve learned?”

Of course, Drexel was eager to get this little pearl of wisdom from the great Dr. Wayne Oates…”yes, Dr. Oates, please tell me,” he said.

Dr. Oates said, “O.k., first, just turn around and be still and close your eyes.”

Drexel did that:  he turned around and closed his eyes, and got all still and centered, ready to receive this great truth from Dr. Oates.  Well, he got it all right when Dr. Oates then gave him a swift kick in the seat of his pants.  And, it worked…Drexel said it was the right advice at the time that he needed, and he somehow got it all done.

First time around, that Jeremiah complains and accuses God of being a big do-nothing, well, God gives Jeremiah a kick in the pants:  this has been the easy part, Jeremiah; you’ve gotten the early morning chores done, now it’s time to go work in the fields in the full heat of the day.

True to God’s prediction, things did indeed get harder and harder and harder.  Preach though he would, act out the prophecies as well as he might dramatize them, all his efforts seemed like blowing smoke upwind…all he got was blowback.

Our Scripture this morning which [SHIRLEY ?] read for us is Jeremiah’s sixth and final complaint recorded for us, and it is really something else entirely:  “O Lord, thou has deceived me, and I was deceived.”  This is the language of innocent love betrayed and abused.

When I was a sweet innocent adolescent of 19…yes, my adolescence went well beyond high school…I moved up to northern New Jersey early one summer to work.  And, no sooner had I gotten settled in there, that I met and was smitten by an equally sweet and innocent Irish lass by the name of Bridgett.

It turned out to be quite the summer romance for this young one so new to the ways of love, and by that, I mean me, not Bridgett.

Well, as summer began to wind down, so did Bridgett.  We seemed to be arguing and growing distant and suddenly she just cut me off entirely with no explanation.  I was utterly confused and hurt and lacking of any explanation.  Until, Barbara, who knew Bridgett much better than I did, took pity on me and invited me to go have pizza with her one evening at one of the nearby taverns.

Where Barbara sort of eased into the topic of how things were going between Bridgett and me.  She was smart about this..she let me tell her the symptoms of this relationship mysteriously turned belly up.  All the while she already knew the cause of this sudden romantic demise.  Barbara said to me, “Gary, didn’t you know, Bridgett’s engaged.”

“Duh…what’s that you say?”  “Bridgett’s engaged and her fiancee’s been away all summer but he’s getting back pretty soon.  That’s why she’s dropped you.   You didn’t know that going in?”  No, didn’t know that; never occurred to me, cause from my side of things I was all set to keep up a long-distance relationship with my sweet Irish love.   Well, we ate more pizza, and we slow-danced to the jukebox, and I felt somewhat comforted there in her embrace.

My  poor, pitiful story of innocent, dumb love betrayed, is but a drop in the bucket, I know, compared to the deep waters of hurt you yourselves may have gone through.  But in the broadest of outlines, my experience of young loved betrayed and perhaps you own experience reflect what Jeremiah says here:  this word for deception Jeremiah throws in the face of God is not from the realms of business or law.  It is from the realm of the most intimate of human, romantic and sexual experience that has been abused.

At its worst, this word Jeremiah uses speaks of a man who lures a young woman to take sexual advantage of her whether by enticement or by force (e.g., Exodus 22:16)  That is the sense in which Jeremiah accuses God here in chapter 20, verse 7:

“O Lord, you seduced me to take advantage of me, and I was thoroughly duped by you; by your strength you overwhelmed me, and I had no choice but to give in.  And, now, everyone laughs at me at every chance they get to throw it in my face.”

That is some harsh rhetoric that Jeremiah uses to accuse God of betraying him.  But, it’s language typical of this book, because God draws on this same kind of language to compare how God views the way the citizens of Judah have treated God.   Drawing on vocabulary of human love and intimacy and sexuality God bluntly accuses these people of terrible wrongs.

God speaks this way to the leaders, both political and religious, there in Judah; God calls to account, sometimes in course terms, the wealthy and the middle class who profit at the cost of the poor and powerless.  God also turns this righteous indignation to the surrounding nations as well.

Chapters 46 through 51, God begins naming the other nations, one by one by one, cataloguing their abuses and spelling out their punishments if they continue as they are doing.

No people gets a free pass from God, whether the nation here now before Jeremiah claiming for themselves the glorious title—“ God’s people”–or the nations scattered about them who make no pretence whatsoever of serving the God of Abraham.

Not then nor now does God who is Divine Judge over all nations ever countenance greed, nor does God turn away from the unjust treatment of others, nor  will God excuse those who lightly take up the name of God on their lips and or the symbols of God on their letterhead.

What God says through Jeremiah, God says right on through to the pages of Revelation:  it is all one and the same in the sight of God.  Whatever pretense it uses, such behavior draws from the same, horrendous, and unacceptable, cesspool of idolatry.

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
      be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
      they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
      and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
                  broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
                                                      (Jeremiah 2:12-13)

Whether a people claim the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, or they claim some other god or no god at all, if the ethics that come of it are the same—the abuse of the poor and the powerless–then it is the same in God’s sight:  God judges all nations, God calls for the repentance of all nations, and God will prosecute all who persist in the short-lived fruits which their idolatry produces for them.

Jeremiah did not live to see God’s people repent.  Instead, Jeremiah lived to experience right along with his fellow Jews, the bitter harvest of what they had sown.  In 587 B.C., the Babylonians swept down through Judah, slaughtering and pillaging, until they reached the gates of Jerusalem.

After they cannibalized everything of value in the houses of the rulers and the powerful, after they stripped everything of value from the house of God, the temple built by King Solomon, the Babylonians leveled the city walls along with every significant structure within it, including the Temple.

A few leaders and soldiers managed to escape Jerusalem before it fell.  They fled south as refugees to Egypt, seeking the Pharaoh’s protection.   By this time, they realized that Jeremiah was indeed a true prophet of God.  So, they took Jeremiah captive and forced him into Egypt with them.  He was their insurance policy, as they assumed God would not let Jeremiah to be killed.  (Jeremiah 42-43).  That’s all we know of Jeremiah’s final days on this earth.

None of us are cut out to bear witness alone of God.  Few are the women and men who can tolerate for long the lonely mantle of God’s prophet, such as Nehemiah struggled to do.

We must live this faith as part of a like-minded and like-faithed community of believers, whether a small house church, or a larger congregation such as we enjoy here at UBC, or in a much larger church of thousands; it is together in community that we must bear witness of God.

The Spirit of God infused Jeremiah so fully that, even in the worst of his disappointment, he could not quit God.   As our Scripture recites for us in verse 9, Jeremiah admits,

“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Today is the third Sunday in the Season of Pentecost.  I think perhaps that is what those first Christians might have said on that Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God descended on every single one of them, young and old, women and men.  “There appeared to them tongues of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak…as the Spirit gave them utterance.”  (Acts 2:3-4)

It is a holy, burning fire of God’s Holy Spirit too long shut up within our bones, wearying us as a church with holding back, may that Divine Fire now burn brightly through University Baptist Church to speak as God gives you to speak.   Together, we bear this sacred burden and this sacred joy of calling all to repent and to turn to God and to live a life true to God.

Through the grace and glory now make plain through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus, Amen.

 

*Exegetical notes are from Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah: A Commentary, OTL (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986), pp. 395-401; and Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets, D.M.G. Stalker, tr. (NY:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1965), pp. 161-188.

Why Are You Laughing?

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, June 18, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-18, 21:1-7

How would you respond if God knocked at your door?

I don’t mean metaphorically, or a still small voice. I mean this literally, what if God actually marched down the sidewalk, climbed the stairs to your front porch (or walked around to the side door everyone uses), pulled back the storm door, and knocked? What would you do?

Last week, Gary described how the first two chapters of Genesis portray the Creation story twice, in two different ways. The first is a poetic account that follows an orderly formula (on the first day, God created…, And God saw that it was good…; and it was evening and it was morning, the first day). The second telling is intimate and personal: God reaches down, plants a garden, forms a human being out of the dust and breathes life into its nostrils. This God can be heard walking in the garden, talking with Adam and Eve, up close and personal.

As the book of Genesis progresses, so do these different strands. Sometimes we have orderly genealogies, lists, and ritual instructions. And other times, as in today’s reading, we have a God who walks around, talks to people, and knocks on doors–or tent flaps, as the case may be.

When today’s story begins, God, in the form of three men, walks right up to Abraham’s tent, and stands there looking at him. Abraham  takes one look, and, despite being nearly 100 years old, he and Sarah spring into action! Sarah takes their finest flour and begins baking bread. Abraham runs out to the field to choose one of their best calves to prepare for dinner. And then the two of them wait on their guests hand and foot, bowing before them, eager to help out in any way they can.

If God knocked on your door, perhaps you would do the same! Sparing no expense, offering your very best, no matter the cost…

But what if you didn’t know it was God. What if it was just three guys you’d never seen before, looking tired and dirty?

That’s what’s remarkable to me about this story we’ve read. When Abraham and Sarah see three men at the door, their identity is still unclear. They don’t begin by asking who these guys are and what they’re doing here. Perhaps they do understand that this is God, in a sense, though the fact that there are three people seems a little strange…

Did that strike you as odd? Are they three angels? Or God and a couple of angels? Or is this something to do with the Trinity? … I don’t know, but I would have some questions!

But they don’t. They don’t wait around analyzing the situation to get all the facts straight, and they don’t do a cost-benefit analysis. They simply set to work as hosts.

And they are extravagant hosts. They are the epitome of hospitality.

Do you know people like that? People who are so incredibly generous, who give of themselves to serve others, with no agenda of their own?

I’ve certainly seen incredible hospitality in this church: extravagant receptions after a funeral for someone most of us didn’t know, but people were here and needed to be fed. Whoever they are, they deserve the best. Hospitality.

Or, consider yesterday’s Touch-a-Truck event. There were hundreds of people here yesterday, most of them completely unknown to us. But when they got here, they were greeted by smiling volunteers from UBC and from the children’s hospital; they were given a free T-shirt, snow-cones, crafts, snacks, coffee for the parents; they climbed in a racecar and a fire truck. And all of this with no agenda, no dotted line to sign. Simply, hospitality. Welcome.

And I’ve seen similar hospitality when  we’ve welcomed support groups from the hospital to meet here in a Sunday School room, or the men of PACEM to stay overnight in the Fellowship Hall, or dozens of kids from the community to come be a part of Vacation Bible School, no strings attached. Opening our doors, opening our arms in welcome.

And perhaps God calls us to extend that hospitality even further. I don’t know where, exactly, but I hope you will help us to figure out how. Opportunities abound, limited only by our imagination and our generosity, our willingness to give without counting the cost to ourselves. In other words, to give like Abraham and Sarah, those elderly role models of hospitality, who prepare an extravagant feast for strangers at their tent.

Abraham and Sarah, who welcome three strange men and find themselves face-to-face with God.

Because really, that’s what this is about, is it not?

Hospitality is not just about being nice. Hospitality isn’t just a matter of being polite, whether out of kindness or obligation.

No, we extend kindness to strangers because when we do, God is present there. God is there.

Won’t Jesus teach this very thing, centuries after Abraham? Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me. (Matthew 25:40). When we have welcomed anyone else, we have welcomed Jesus himself.

Or as the author of Hebrews puts it: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Whether it’s Touch-A-Truck or PACEM or a funeral reception, or ways we individually welcome and show kindness to others, when we practice hospitality, God is there.

God shows up, as surely as God appeared at Abraham and Sarah’s tent, the recipient of their gracious hospitality.

It’s a beautiful story. God knocks at their door, and they spring into action marvelously.

 

And if only the story ended there, Abraham and Sarah would look pretty great, wouldn’t they?

But no. No, next God talks, and the lovely story gets messed up.

God has come to their tent with something to say, and we quickly learn that Abraham and Sarah are much better at receiving God’s messengers than receiving God’s message.

When visitors arrive at their door, they open their arms, and their tent, and their table; but not their hearts and their minds.

They extend hospitality to the messengers, but the message, which they cannot receive…

And this seems odd, at first. After all, the message is an extraordinarily good one, is it not? Sarah and Abraham, who have longed their entire lives to have a child, are being told that by this time next year, you’ll be cradling a baby in your arms. What could have been better?

But we know how they respond. What does Sarah do?

She laughs. And before we let Abraham off the hook, let’s not forget that his response is exactly the same. A chapter earlier, when he first hears the promise that he’ll have a son, his reaction is, and I quote: “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Genesis 17:17).

Abraham and Sarah agree on this one.  And they have a point, don’t they? This plan of God’s doesn’t make a lot of sense. The text makes clear that Sarah is past the age when childbearing is a possibility; physically this is not an option anymore. Yes, having a child would be a dream come true, but that’s no longer realistic.

The casual pronouncement from a strange visitor that next year she’ll have a baby? Absurd. Laughable. And so they laugh–Abraham in the previous chapter, and Sarah here.

It’s not their best moment. For all their grand hospitality with strangers visiting, when it comes to actually hearing God’s message for them, their mind, their worldview, has no room for what they hear.

They are so unable to accept this message, in fact, that they take things into their own hands. In other chapters, we read how they “helpfully” suggest using a younger woman, Hagar, to provide a son, whom they name Ishmael, their attempt at a more reasonable way to provide offspring.

(We’d never do that, though, would we? Try to help God out by suggesting our own alternatives to God’s ideas? Because obviously God could use some help, and we know best…)

But let’s face it, in Abraham and Sarah’s case, the message that they’re going to have a child is not reasonable; it’s laughable. And they laugh.

If Act 1 of this story showed Abraham and Sarah’s generous hospitality, Act 2 shows their inability to hear–to welcome–God’s message. Promised a miracle of extraordinary good news, they respond with cynical, dismissive laughter. In Act 2, they are not looking so great…

But, of course, we know that the story doesn’t end here. Eventually, Abraham and Sarah will have a son named Isaac, even though they are old, and we will see Sarah looking so radiantly happy in the end.

 

Actually, to better understand Sarah, I’d like to tell a story about my one-year-old, Seth. I wasn’t really sure whether I should tell this story or not, thinking you probably get tired of toddler stories from me whenever I come up here. But then I remembered today is Father’s Day! So I’m guessing, and hoping, that most of you will indulge me standing here and talking about one of my kids,  yet again.

Seth is a year and a half old, and he is, shall we say, strong-willed. When he sees something that he wants, he will not be deterred. This is especially true at the dinner table, and even more true on those special occasions when he gets dessert. A few weeks ago was his granddad’s birthday, and after dinner there was birthday cake, a delicious carrot cake with cream cheese icing. We break up a slice of cake into little pieces and put them on his plate, and set it on the tray of his high chair, eager to see his amazed reaction when he takes a bite. Instead, his eyes lock onto the piece of cake on his mother’s plate, and he needs that piece so desperately, it becomes the only thing in the world he can see. I took a picture of this scene, actually, of an inconsolably crying child reaching his arm over his own pieces of cake, unable to reach the cake he wants on his mom’s plate. We try explaining that he has his own cake, but he can’t hear it (figuratively, and literally, over his own shrieking). All he can see is his mom’s cake, which SHE is eating instead of HIM! How unfair!  Well, eventually he figures out that the cake on his plate might be worth trying, too, so he puts a piece in his mouth. And then another, and another, and another. …You have never seen a happier child. He was in heaven.

And somehow that reminds me of Sarah, at the end of today’s story.

Sarah, who had been promised something so wonderful, but she couldn’t see it. Nowhere in her mind could she find room for this odd and amazing news. And yet, a year later, there she is with this child in her arms, a baby boy she names Isaac.

In English we miss the play on words, but Isaac’s name in Hebrew, Yitzhak, is the word for laughing. It’s the verb that describes her cynical, dismissive laughter from the tent when it was said she would have a son, and yitzhak is also the word she uses at the end, when she says, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

Her laughter has been transformed.

And to me, the most beautiful part of the story is the way she and Abraham are included in the process.

Abraham and Sarah, who succeed so beautifully in welcoming their guests, but fail so miserably in receiving God’s message, now discover that it really isn’t up to them after all.

Because this isn’t, ultimately, a story about two older folks having a baby. That’s the story, but it’s not really about that.

No, this is a story about God.  It’s about a God who heard Sarah laughing at something absurd, something too good to be true, and said, Why are you laughing? Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It’s about a God whose radical hospitality kept inviting Sarah and Abraham to be part of the future being promised, including them even when they don’t understand, don’t believe, and try to do things their own way.

It’s about a God who is patient and persistent enough that Sarah finally gets to laugh with a soul-deep joy, and invite everyone to come and celebrate with her. “Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

 

That’s the same God we worship. A God who knocks at the door, and sometimes we answer well. Other times we are too tired or scared or busy to notice, or we try to do things our own way… but either way, God welcomes us in. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about our hospitality, done well or poorly, but about God’s. And God continues to knock.

 

May we pray,

God, help us to be hospitable, to welcome others without considering the cost. But even when we don’t or we can’t, we thank you for being there with open arms, still, waiting for us to see the miracle of life that is before us, inviting us into the work of making it possible, and including us in the celebration. Thank you. Amen.

 

It All Started This Way

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 11, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Reflect with me for a moment on our Gospel accounts. In the early years of the Christian movement, many accounts about Jesus circulated across the Mediterranean world:  down the length of Palestine, crossing over into northern Africa; up and across the northern arc of the Mediterranean Sea, over into Greece and Italy, and some think even over into Spain.  Throughout the Roman Empire, church leaders wrote down their versions of what they knew and understood of Jesus and his Gospel.

Among all those accounts, the writings of four teachers emerged to shape the entirety of early church’s understanding of Jesus and his Gospel.  We know them today, of course, as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

So, why am I reviewing that with you?  Because I want you to keep that more familiar process in mind as we turn to the opening chapters of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Genesis.

The stories of our Christian beginnings were told within a few short decades.   For the ancient Hebrews, their beginning stories endured across many centuries for nearly 1,500 years before this final sifting and sorting began happening.   Of those countless stories, two accounts—just two—emerged to shape the entirety of Hebraic understanding of how it all got started.*

These two accounts have come across four millennia to become your understanding and my understanding of how it all got started.  Long before Jesus, long before Abraham–before there was even a “before” that had begun:  “In the beginning of it all, God created the heavens and the earth.”  That’s how it all started according to the first of these two accounts in Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1.   Our second account begins in a similar way in chapter 2, verse 4: “In [that] day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.”

On the surface, these two opening sentences look to be pretty much the same.  Yes, in English, they’re similar, yet they are significantly different in the Hebrew tongue.  Within these brief, opening sentences, the two accounts already are letting us know they’re writing from two differing perspectives.  Our first account uses only one word to describe God.  It’s the Hebrew word that means, “God above all gods”, “Elohim”.  When you read the word, “God”, in Genesis 1, verse 1, through chapter 2, verse 3, it is always this single word, “Elohim”…”God above all gods”:  In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth.

Our second account names God differently.  Our second account uses the unique Divine Name which God revealed to Moses, when God first encountered Moses in the wilderness:  “YaWaH”:  “YaWaH Elohim”.  Never just “Elohim” by itself, but always, “YaWaH Elohim”:  “In that day, YaWaH Elohim made the earth and the heavens.”

We don’t really notice that difference in our English translations, because our English translations write out “YaWaH Elohim” as “the Lord God”, and we English readers see “God” and “the Lord God” as saying exactly the same thing.  So, what if the first account speaks of God only as “Elohim”, the God above all gods, and the second account only uses “YaWaH Elohim”, the Divine Name entrusted to Moses…what does it matter?  We all know who we’re talking about, right?

But, there is a real difference—it’s a difference of purpose–in using one name in one account and a different name in the other account.  To go back to our more familiar Gospel accounts, for example.  There’s a real difference of purpose for why Mark begins with Jesus already as an adult, while Matthew and Luke start off with a lot of information about Jesus’ birth.  And John’s over there doing something totally different in his chapter one.

If we just had Mark’s Gospel account to go by, we’d have to assume there was nothing particularly noteworthy about Jesus’ birth.  But, we know that’s not so because of the other three accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John. So it is with our two accounts of how it all got started; there’s a real difference of purpose in why they chose two different ways of naming God.

The name a person allows us to use when speaking with them, or the name we allow ourselves to use about that person, says something about our relationship to that person.  When my sister got married in 1970, my Dad’s mom and my Mom’s dad had already died.  So, at the wedding, my two surviving grandparents were seated together as a couple.  There was my father’s father, O. P. Dalton, and my mother’s mother, Bessie Motley.

Friends of my Papa Dalton could address him by his initials, O.P.  He allowed a very few intimate friends to call him by his nickname, “Pet”, which was short for his middle name, “Petra”, as in “rock”.  My Granny Motley, though, wouldn’t even address Papa Dalton by his initials, O.P.  My Granny Motley would only speak to and about my grandfather as “Mr. Dalton”.

It was a formality that reflected the difference she felt in social status between the Dalton family and her own family, the Motleys.  Her daughter may have married up into the Dalton family, but my Granny Motley could never allow herself to cross that social barrier; even these many decades later, at my sister’s wedding, he was “Mr. Dalton” to her.

There is a distance implied in that first name, “Elohim”.  This is the God above all gods, the God down before whom lies all these forces unformed, chaotic, roiling in absolute darkness, forces which have no meaning, no integration, no purposeful movement, forces which have no standing whatsoever before the God above all gods.

Even today, we ourselves sometimes glimpse into the abyss of this terrifying reality which then lay before Elohim.  For us, it is an awfulness that defies naming.  It is a morass of darkness that would suck us back down into its vortex of absolute destruction.  It is the subterranean dread that haunts the human psyche with the possibility that there is no meaning, there is no purpose, there is no beauty, there is, ultimately, no reason for anything.

This vast unformed, purposeless mass is what lay there under the gaze of the God who is above all.  Verse two says “God hovered over” or that “God moved upon” or that “God swept across” this primordial mess.  The verb there in verse 2 the Bible writers used elsewhere to describe a mother eagle stirring up her eaglets in the nest, preparing to launch them out of the nest in order to fly.  (e.g., Deut. 32:11)

Here, in verse 2, God is preparing to launch this “stuff” into a creative flight infused with God’s purpose and God’s meaning and God’s glory.  At the word of Elohim, this vast nothing is about to become a vast something.

How differently our second account describes how it all got started.  We don’t have it printed out in our bulletin today, but you can read it for yourselves in Genesis chapter two.  “In the day that YaWaH Elohim made the earth and the heavens”, all the earth lay barren as one big, dry and dusty patch of ground.  YaWaH Elohim looks over it all and decides to plant a garden.

The Lord God causes a mist to envelop the earth so to water the ground.  Then, the Lord God out of this wet ground, the “ah-dam-mah”,  YaWaH Elohim forms an “ah-dam”, a two legged, two armed, form.  Then, the Lord God puts Divine lips up to mortal nostrils, says chapter two, verse 7, and blows a puff of life into those nostrils and that dirt creation comes alive.

Do you see where this is headed?  This account introduces us to God, using the intimate personal Divine name which God entrusted to Moses.   That would be like my Papa Dalton turning to my Granny Motley at my sister’s wedding and saying to her, “what’s this ‘Mr. Dalton’ business?  Why don’t you start calling me ‘Pet’ from now on.”

This YaWaH Elohim touches dirt and works dirt and then imparts something of God’s own animating life to animate this creature of dirt, this man.  Why, that’d be like my Papa Dalton saying to my Granny Motley, “you know, now that we’re on first-name basis, how about we hold hands and maybe, we might even enjoy ourselves a kiss.”

YaWaH Elohim plants a garden and puts the man, ah-dam, in the garden to take care of it, along with all the creatures the Lord God has made.   But, the Lord God sees the man is lonely and the Lord God feels for the man, that there’s no other creature suitable to be with the man.  So, the Lord God reaches right into the side of the man’s chest cavity and pulls out what’s needed to make a woman, and the man sees the woman and shouts, “Yowzer!”

In contrast to our first account, this second accont is some kinda different telling of the story of how it all got started, isn’t it?

The Garden itself becomes the source of life for all the earth, as four great rivers flow out of the Garden, each river flowing to one of the four corners of earth, one flowing eastward, one flowing westward, another flowing to the north, and the fourth flowing to the south.   In the middle of the Garden, YaWaH Elohim plants two special trees:  the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

All physical life, and all wisdom for life, this second story tells us, originates in the Garden which the Lord God planted in the midst of an otherwise barren planet.  It’s here, in the Garden in the midst of the earth, that the Lord God walks with the man and woman, teaching them of life and of wisdom, to know the good and to turn from the evil.  It’s the Garden meant to nurture all of human life, including your life and my life.  It is the Garden into which we, too, are invited to walk with God.

The first account, the “Elohim” creation story, has its own invitation.   The first story in Genesis chapter 1 invites us to find in God’s work the template for our own work.  That’s why the story is structured around the work-week.   In this telling, God works each day as we work.  Each day has twenty-four hours as measured in the Hebraic way: there is the evening for sleep, then wake-up to do the work of the day until the sun goes down…Day One.   Sleep, wake-up, do the work of the next day until the day’s done…Day Two.

And so on, and so on, until the work of Day Six is done, then sleep, wake-up into Day Seven, and spend the day knowing the satisfaction that the work you have done throughout the previous six days, you can bless and call, ‘very good’, ‘well done’, just the way Elohim did.

But, there’s something curious about this Seventh day.  Did you notice?  It’s missing the words that closed out each of the preceding six days.  There is no, “And there was evening and there was morning, a seventh day.”

The seventh day of God’s pleasure that all the work of creation has been done and that it has all been done very well…that day never ends.  What could that be about, as we consider the purpose of our lives?

In all this talk about creation, you’ll notice I haven’t said a word about science.  That’s because these two accounts have absolutely nothing to do with science.  Neither Genesis 1 nor 2 are scientific theories nor are they scientific observations and proofs; they are testaments of faith that proclaim the pure and Divine love that got us all started here on this good earth put in this glory-filled Universe.

These two accounts invite us to know God in this life, on this earth.   They assure us, even as they demand of us, that we can find our purposeful daily living as we mesh our days with God’s own creative purpose.  These stories welcome us to know God who entrusts us with the Divine Name, whose touch forms us, whose breath enlivens us, who welcomed us into this earthly Garden to walk all our days as intimate friends with God.

____________________

 

* Exegetical notes are from J.J. Owens, Genesis:  Analytical Key to the Old Testament (San Francisco:  Harper & Row Pub, 1978) pp. 1-15; and Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, OTL (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1973) pp. 11-85

 

Passing the Baton

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, May 28, 2017
Scripture: John 17:1-11, Acts 1:1-14

The exchange zone. Also called the handoff zone, changeover box, passing zone, or takeover zone.

Whichever name you use, the exchange zone is one of the most exciting and treacherous 20 meters in sports. This short box is where, in a relay race, the baton must be passed from one runner to the next.

It’s a simple concept: in a relay, the first runner starts around the track carrying a baton. When she reaches the next runner, she passes the baton to her, and this second runner runs her leg of the race, before handing the baton to the next person, and so on. It’s a simple concept, and it would be easy enough to do, if only they weren’t racing at the same time. But since they are racing, this is all done at top speed, and the handoff must take place while the first person is still sprinting, and the second person is already beginning their sprint. For those few moments, both athletes are running one step apart, trying not to crash, trying not to lose any speed, and trying not to drop the baton. And to top it all off, this awkward handoff must take place entirely within the 20-meter exchange zone, or you will automatically be disqualified.

If you followed the 2016 Olympics in Rio, you may remember what I’m talking about. The U.S. women’s team won the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay, but the men’s team was a different story. The final of the men’s race was exciting, with an evenly matched race most of the way around the track. The U.S., Japan, and Jamaica were tight the whole way around the track, until Usain Bolt pulled ahead on the final leg and secured the gold medal for Jamaica. The U.S. would have to settle for bronze, and they took their American flags and began the celebratory lap around the track. And then suddenly they look ahead to the scoreboard and see the dreaded two letters, DQ: disqualified. Their first baton handoff, from Mike Rodgers to Justin Gatlin, looked fine at first, but it actually took place just outside the exchange zone, so their Olympic hopes were over.[i]

The exchange zone is one of the most frustrating places in sports, and one of the most thrilling to watch.

This Sunday, today, is Ascension Sunday, so we are reading from the first chapter of Acts, when Jesus ascends into heaven. This is a story that we don’t talk about a lot, but it’s an important one. What it describes for us is an exchange zone. It’s where a handoff takes place, from Jesus to his disciples.

It’s several weeks after Easter at this point in the narrative, and Jesus has been appearing to people and teaching the disciples. He spoke to Mary in the garden outside the tomb, he appeared in the upper room with the disciples, he invited Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and side. He’s back with them, but he is not going to stay like this forever. The ascension records the moment when he leaves their physical presence, and instead he promises them that the Holy Spirit will come to lead them in his place. We recognize that event next week, with Pentecost, the Sunday when we mark the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, next week, is an exciting Sunday, with red stoles and liturgical colors; it’s the festive birthday of the church, an amazing new beginning that we celebrate. We switch to the story of the early church.

Even looking at the books of the Bible, this transition is clear to see. The New Testament starts with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, four Gospels that give a biography of Jesus. The Gospels, then, are followed by the book of Acts, which gives a “biography” of the church. These two biographies—of Christ and of the church—tell two similar stories. The first is of Jesus, from his birth at Christmas, then seeing him grow and telling what he teaches and does. The second is of the church, from its birth at Pentecost, then seeing it grow and spread, and telling what the Christ-followers now do and teach.

You might even say that these two biographies, these two stories, describe two laps around the track. Jesus completes his leg of the race, and he invites his disciples to take over from there. He gives them the baton. Christ has finished his time on earth, and now it is the church’s turn to get started.

Does this make sense? Can you see what Jesus is doing? Listen to how he describes it to them:

“I’m no longer in the world, but they [the disciples] are in the world…” (John 17:11)

Another verse: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

For the disciples, who have faithfully watched Jesus day and night for these past few years, the time has come for them to take the baton and continue the race.

Can you imagine how daunting that must have seemed?

I remember in high school, when I first started learning to drive, that suddenly I had to pay a lot more attention to how to get places. All these places that I had been to many times, once I was behind the wheel, I needed to know where to turn and how far to go. Have you experienced that? As a passenger, you can just coast along without thinking about it, but when you realize that you’re going to be the one behind the wheel, you better pay attention! It can be intimidating to take on that responsibility.

So imagine how much more intimidated the disciples must have felt? How do you continue in Jesus’s shoes??

But that’s what happens. Jesus passes the baton along to his followers, and they continue the race, doing their best to live as Jesus lived and follow the way that he had showed them.

If you continue reading the book of Acts, you’ll see the church grow and develop. Sometimes the disciples are well received; sometimes they are arrested. But the Gospel spreads, and in time those first disciples teach new Christ-followers to take their place. They pass the baton again. Those next church leaders train the next generation, and the next, and on and on it goes, from the early church and through the Middle Ages and the Reformation and all the way until now, until us.

Here at University Baptist Church, we have another handoff of sorts coming up very soon, don’t we? As Jim mentioned a few minutes ago, next week we will be meeting, hearing from, and voting on the candidate to be our next senior minister. Next Sunday! (Wow!)

Are you excited? Hopeful? Curious? Cautiously optimistic?

There is certainly an excitement in the air today, a hum in the building. The work crew has been painting the senior minister’s office, the search committee has been planning our gatherings next weekend, everyone is getting ready. There’s an energy about us.

You know why, right? Because we’re in the exchange zone!

Think back to the relay race we’ve been talking about. Picture that race again, with the first runner barreling down the track, baton in hand. Now look just ahead, to where the next runner is standing, waiting to receive the baton. There, in the exchange zone, they are waiting there with one hand out, stationary but not still, almost buzzing in anticipation, energy bottled up and ready to go.

Do you feel that kind of energy here too? An eager excitement, ready to go…

We are in the exchange zone. And we’re in good company here, aren’t we, finding ourselves in the same place that those earliest disciples experienced so many years ago. Like us, the disciples in today’s story were in an exchange zone, and my hope is that by seeing how they handled their time of transition, we might find some guidance for ours.

So what can we learn from how the disciples received the baton from Christ?

Well, the first thing Jesus tells them at this critical juncture, when so much needs to be done, is… to wait. Wait.

I know you’re excited!!! But wait.

Look back at Acts 1, verse 4: Just before Jesus ascends into heaven, he tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit is coming soon (Pentecost), and then he orders them “not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised.” Wait, he says.

That’s what they do. Acts gives a dramatic portrayal of the ascension, with Jesus floating into the air, into a cloud, and men in white robes appearing to give instruction. It’s a vivid scene, heavy on special effects, but what I find just as striking is what happens next.

What do the disciples do? They walk back to Jerusalem, back to the house where they were staying, go upstairs and pray. Jesus has told them to wait for the Holy Spirit to come, and that’s what they do. They get to work right away: waiting. It’s an urgent kind of waiting, filled with prayer and anticipation. It’s not frantic, but expectant.[ii]

It’s waiting the way a runner waits for the baton, an active waiting, poised and ready to go.

Why is that so important? Why wait? Why not just get on with it? Why does Jesus tell his disciples—and by extension, us—to wait?

In part I think it’s to remind us that there’s still important work to be done now.

Even in our excitement about meeting a new senior minister and anticipating a new beginning, where we are now is also important. Just as relay runners can’t get so eager that they edge forward out of the exchange zone, we too need to be mindful that we don’t get ahead of ourselves, with our minds way out in the future.

In the coming weeks, before a new minister would start full time, we have our Church Picnic, and Touch-a-Truck, and Vacation Bible School—some big events that need our attention. But we also have all of the day-to-day life together that is even more important: the conversations, and phone calls, and checking in with sick or the homebound—the everyday acts of care and compassion that are as significant now as ever.

Perhaps Jesus calls us (and the disciples) to wait and pray so that we don’t lose track of where we are right now. Before we begin an exciting new chapter, we need to finish this one well.

And then, there’s something else that happens while we wait, which may be even more important. When we don’t just jump ahead, but wait  and pray here for awhile, it makes space for us to see the bigger picture.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new minister receiving the baton, but what about the race as a whole?

Ministers—senior ministers, associate ministers, lay ministers, all of us!—come and go, but the race goes on. The same baton continues to be passed, and we continue to follow the Way that Christ demonstrated for us on that first lap he ran. We are part of something much bigger than any one of us… including our next pastor. This isn’t just about UBC and our staffing and programs, or our ability to thrive as a congregation. These handoffs, these transitions we experience, are about our continuing to take the baton and follow in the footsteps that Christ has shown us.

 

So, here we are, in the exchange zone, preparing for a handoff and a new leg of the race. We have to wait here for a little while, not getting ahead of ourselves, but being fully in this time and place. And while we’re here, we get to look around and see that we are part of a much bigger movement, that it’s really Christ’s race that we are continuing.

So in closing, let’s listen to the way that Jesus encouraged his first disciples to take up that journey after him. The John passage that Jennifer read is a prayer that Jesus spoke aloud, prayed to God but also for his disciples to overhear. Listen again to his words in verses 9 through 11:

“I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. 10 Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. 11 I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

We are running that same race. And just as Jesus was cheering on his disciples, he’s offering that same encouragement to us.

Might Jesus be speaking this prayer for us to hear as well?

11 I’m no longer in the world, but they [UBC!] are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

May it be so. Amen.

 


[i] http://www.sbnation.com/2016/8/19/12564266/rio-2016-team-usa-mens-4×100-disqualified-again-justin-gatlin

[ii] See commentary by Matt Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=884

Babe, You Rock!

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 14, 2017
Scripture: 1 Peter 2:1-10

The sermon title today, I will admit, is a really bad pun on our Scripture.  But, Peter practically forces me into it.  In verse 2, Peter appeals to us all, “as newborn babes” in the Lord.  Then, in verses 4 through 8, he goes into some word-play of his own with the work, “rock”, as in, how the Lord is like a rock, a stone, a cornerstone, a foundation stone.  So, all in all, I think “Babe, You Rock!” is a pretty good summary of Peter’s train of thought here.

But, he starts off with these rather severe-sounding words in verse 1: “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and slander,” In other words, Peter’s telling them, quit faking it with each other , you all!  You’re only making things harder on yourselves!”  It’s as if Peter were saying to them, “O, what a wicked web we weave when first we practice to deceive!”

Deception?  Insincerity.  Envy.  Slander.  Malice.  What in the world was going on with these folks, do you think?  Well, something’s eating away at them.  These Christians are under a lot of stress; they’re afraid; they’re uncertain.  They are in circumstances which require them to be caring and honest and humble and gentle with one another; in other words, the exact opposites of how they were presently treating each other, and Peter calls them out on their misbehavior.

These Christians didn’t know it, but they were living through a pivotal moment in the Christian movement, and it was putting them in a rather serious identity crisis.  They were nearing the end of what we commonly call “the New Testament Era”.  What did that mean for someone living in the Roman Empire in the closing years of the so-called New Testament era when nobody really understood it or had any idea of what the next era might be?

Which leads me to ask us:  what does it mean to be a follower of Christ and to be a community of Christ at the end of the modern church-era in these United States?  You do realize or you do at least suspect, the door has now closed on some sort of Christian era that once dominated the U.S.   The great building boom of the 1950’s included the great building boom of American Protestant churches, but that era’s gone now, and nobody is really sure what comes next.

What do groups of people do when they lose their sense of identity?  When they lose their sense of security?  They grow suspicious; they start questioning other’s motivations; they grasp at straws; they tend to just get mean with each other.  That’s what Peter’s addressing here in chapter 2, verse 1.  He says, getting testy and nasty and suspicious is not going to help you folks out in the churches across the Empire to figure who you are in this era now ending that’s leading into whatever is coming up next.

Pockets of persecution against Christians are starting to happen.  It’s not happening wide-scale, but it is happening enough for the folks in these churches to get really, really concerned for their safety and well-being.

A few Sundays ago we read in 1 Peter, chapter 1, especially verses 6 and 7 where Peter acknowledges that they are suffering “various trials,”, that their faith is being tested as though it were “gold…tested [refined] by fire”.

What’s the persecution these Christians are experiencing?  Well, here’s a handy way to get into the shoes of Christians near the close of the first century in the Roman Empire:     when you see someone you identify is a Muslim American, what do you think?  What do you wonder?  Do you wonder about their loyalty to our government, to the “American-way of life”?  Do you wonder whether they may be somehow compromising our nation’s welfare?

If that’s the sort of suspicion that creeps up on you when seeing someone you identify as a Muslim American, then welcome to the world of Christians near the end of the first century in the Roman Empire.  Christians were being singled out as potential threats in their communities.

It’s not that these Christians were actually guilty of anything at all.  It just that the Christians, for religious reasons, could not take the public oath of allegiance by saying “Caesar is my Lord.”  They could not take part in public ceremonies pledging their absolute fidelity to Caesar.

Loyalty to Caesar was the glue that held together this vast collage of ethnic and racial groups that was the Roman Empire.  That loyalty was expressed not only by paying taxes and obeying the law.  That loyalty was expressed by participating in the civic religion of the Empire, which was, worship Caesar as god.

If you read through the rest of this letter, you will read Peter devoting a lot of space advising these Christians on how to behave in their communities to work against this kind of civic slander.   Read on further in chapter 2, verses 11 to 17; read on in chapter three, verses 13 to 17.  He tells them, for example, in chapter 2, verse 17, “Honor all people.  Love the Christian fellowship.  Fear God.  Honor Caesar.”

But, they could not worship Caesar.  Because of that, Christians were likely to find themselves put out of a job.  Their non-Christian neighbors who now knew their faith-commitment would shun them.  Merchants were closing their doors to Christians.  There were isolated cases of execution of Christians.1

That will make any Christian believer and any Christian church sit up and ask themselves some hard questions about their identity:  who am I, who are we, in this faith of ours?  How are we to give witness of our faith in the larger community outside of our church fellowship?

Is this what challenges University Baptist Church in our community?   In our culture, our place, our time:  do you feel singled out as a threat?  Are we being accused of not supporting the community’s welfare?

As a Christian believer and as a Christian clergyperson, no, I don’t see us being persecuted for our faith here in Charlottesville.  We’re mostly just being ignored.  We’re not being persecuted; people have simply pushed us to the back of their shelves where they’ve left us until our expiration date comes and goes and our usefulness to them finally expires.  That hurts, and that insults us.

What do we do?  Where do we turn?   Peter writes, you got to get your nourishment, your strength, your identity focused in Jesus and in his Gospel.  Plain and simple and, at times, also very hard.  Anything other than or less than Jesus and his Gospel among you will not serve.  Anything else, anyone else, simply is not the genius of who you are or what you are to be about.

Verse 3, Peter makes an observation, which, implicitly, is also a question;   “you have tasted the kindness of the Lord”, right?   “You have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”  That’s what this is all about.   This is what has gotten you personally involved and committed to this whole movement of believers going…men and women, free and slave, Jew and Gentile…one by one by one:   “you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”

So, Peter writes them and us, let that taste guide you; crave that food for yourselves over and over.  “Like newborn babes…like newborn infants nursing at the breasts of their mothers,” Peter writes, “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation.”  Anything else won’t grow you up into health and strength, Peter’s saying.

By “growing up to salvation”, Peter means more than just getting saved.  Peter is saying much the same as the Apostle Paul wrote earlier in Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 13, that they were to attain “maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  That’s what Peter means here in verse 2, “Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”

With what are you, personally, nourishing your soul that’s enabling you to grow up in your experience of salvation in Jesus Christ?  I think Peter’s metaphor here in verse 2 gives us permission to ask one another, “what have you been drinking?”  Are we drinking the pure spiritual milk that’s enabling us to embody the fullness of Jesus and of his Gospel?

What do we understand we mean, when we speak of the Gospel of Jesus?  What does the Gospel of Jesus mean to you, and are you feeding yourself so that you are growing upwards into that Gospel?  Not everything that comes packaged as Gospel is all its cracked up to be.

 You may recall the boycott against the Nestle’s Company back in the 1980’s over the way they were marketing their baby formula.  Nestle was aggressively marketing baby formula in developing, third-world countries, especially among poor women.  They were telling mothers that baby formula was superior replacement to breast milk.  After all, if moms in the U.S. and Europe were turning to baby formula then they can be sure it’s the best thing going for their newborn children, too.

The problem was, no one was bothering to teach these moms about sterilizing the bottles.  The other really big problem was that these third-world country moms had no access to clean water.  They were using polluted water in unsterilized bottles to mix the formula to feed to their infants and their babies were getting sick and dying.

Nestle’s marketing campaign to the poor was so successful, doctors and health officials in those countries had a very hard time convincing these moms that their own, natural milk was exactly what their newborn infants craved and very much needed to thrive and to grow up healthy.2

We need pure spiritual milk, Peter tells us.  We’ve at least got to do a taste-test with whatever we’re trying to feed our spiritual lives.  Does it taste like what we first experienced when we first “tasted the kindness of the Lord”.  You remember what that tastes like, don’t you?  Peter says in verse 3…let that taste guide you in what you’re feeding yourselves.

What Peter does next is a prime example of a very important way we must feed ourselves.  We must know the wealth of spiritual understanding in this Book that is our Bible.

“This is who you are now,” says Peter, in verses 4 through 10, “because this is who Jesus is for you.”   Peter uses some special, almost technical, terms to describe Jesus to them.  All of these terms find their origin and meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures, the books of the Bible we call our Old Testament.  At the time Peter’s writing, it is their only Bible.  What we call our New Testament was still floating around as separate writings, yet to be agreed upon as Scripture.

Apparently, somebody’s been teaching these Gentiles what’s in the Hebrew Scriptures.  At least, Peter is assuming that’s happened, otherwise what he’s writing to them is going to be gibberish.  If they’ve got at least some familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, then what Peter is writing to them is a thing which should have caused them to marvel and to be astounded at this faith of theirs.

What Peter cites in these verses enable them to answer, this is who we now are in the sight of God.  They would have been filled with a newborn passion for their purpose, their calling, in this place and in this new era for them in the Roman Empire.

“Spirituality” is a word very much in vogue now.  Our spirituality…our sense of God and what that means for us…again, is what Peter calls our first taste of “the kindness of the Lord”.  That spiritual experience has got to find focus and content; we got to have some substance of understanding.  If we aren’t focused in our faith, if it has no real definition or substance, well, we’re like those folks we too easily deride, who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

You remember that old, standard definition of poetry that we learned in junior high school?  The 18th-century English poet, William Wordsworth:  “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility”….the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility.

Spirituality is this spontaneous and often overflowing powerful feelings of the Divine mediated to us in our souls.  But, it becomes poetry, and prose, with reflection and focus and articulation.   Scripture for us…the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures…these are our definitive, authoritative, and inspired recollections in poetry and prose.  Our Scripture enables us to give rational meaning to our faith experience.   We human beings have got to have that kind of spiritual focus if we are to have religious meaning operating in our lives.

I was reminded of this truth while listening recently to an interview on the radio about feats of human endurance.  In February, 2014, Ben Saunders and his partner, Tarka L’Herpiniere, achieved what Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott failed to do:  they became the first persons to successfully travel by foot from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back.  The pair did it on skis, each one of them pulling loaded sleds that weighed 440 pounds.

These two men skied 1,800 miles in the most hostile conditions imagineable.  They were outdoors for nearly four months.   They lived that way in 24-hour sunlight, covering ½ a mile per hour pulling those sleds behind them.  Ben Saunders said it was like living inside a ping-pong ball.  Everything was a blinding white:  they couldn’t see the horizon; they couldn’t see the ground; it was all one, big, brilliant white blaze.

They skied in single-file, and every 1-1/2 hours, they would trade position, each man taking his turn leading.  Saunders said it was such an incredible relief to be in the second position following his partner.  For this reason:  he finally had something to focus on.

He could focus on his partner’s blue jacket.  He could focus on the sled’s red cover.  The sleds themselves were yellow.  Saunders told interviewer, how hard it was to explain to anyone the sense of relief they found in being able simply to focus on something that wasn’t all white.3

Peter wrote to give these early Christians something truly remarkable to focus upon…their identity in Christ; their mission, as he writes in verse 9, “to declare the wonderful deeds of God who called you out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.”

But, how do we do that?  How do we declare the wonderful deeds of God if we ourselves don’t know what those deeds were and what those deeds continue to be about?

Spiritual nourishment cannot be force fed.  We’ve got to long for spiritual nourishment and find it, and we’ve got to find it in Jesus and in his Gospel.   These early believers, by and large, did that, and that’s why we’re here some two thousand years later talking about them.  They found their focus.  They found their identity refreshed and restored.

Know Jesus; know his Gospel; let this be who you are as a congregation going forward; find the best ways to do that not for what went before which is now gone.  Find the best ways to live this kindness of Jesus for what era now lies before you yet to be.  Let that be your focus, nurtured in Christ, continuing to grow in salvation.

 

1 Among the many scholarly treatments of consequences of civic suspicion of Christians and the public rituals of Emperor worship are:  Leonhard Goppelt, Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times, tr. Robert A. Guelich, (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1970) pp. 108-117; Leander Keck, The New Testament Experience of Faith (St. Louis:  The Bethany Press, 1976) pp. 125-127, 150-151; James Blevins includes descriptions throughout his more popular work, Revelation As Drama (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1984) e.g., pp. 86, 89.

http://www.businessinsider.com/nestles-infant-formula-scandal-2012-6/#the-baby-killer-blew-the-lid-off-the-formula-industry-in-1974-1

3 Interview by Guy Raz of Ben Saunders, “What Does It Take To Endure The Harshest Climate On Earth?”, The TED Radio Hour, NPR NOW, Feb. 11, 2016.

 

 

 

 

Help Me! I’m a Sheep!

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 7, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 23

Two verses in the 23rd Psalm especially caught my attention this past week, verse 1 and verse 5:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”, and “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, and fill my cup to overflowing.”

Both verses of this ancient song brought to mind some contemporary songs.  I will not sing either one, but only recite the lyrics.  Here’s the first song:

“You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

There are six more stanzas, but I’ll stop there.  Anybody know whose song that is?  Anyone?

It’s Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody”.  It’s from the first of his three Gospel albums that we talked about two Sundays ago.1

You’re gonna have to serve somebody…which came to mind for me, because it’s all just another way of saying, you’re gonna be somebody’s sheep, and somebody’s gonna be your shepherd.  I don’t care who you are or who I may think I am, I am and you are, somebody’s sheep and they are our shepherd.

We don’t like that!  I am nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!

“Sheeple” was a word in the news this past week.  The folks at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary have just added the word, “sheeple”, to their newest edition:

“sheeple:  informal–people who are docile, compliant, or easily influenced.”2

Are you among the “sheeple”?  Even if we have totally opposite political and economic or religious or anything-else views, we are all likely be somebody’s “sheeple”.

We don’t like that!   We are nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!

Why do we react so vehemently to being called anybody’s sheep?  Well, let’s look again at the good ‘ol Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.  People who act like sheep are called, “sheepish”, which the dictionary defines as: 1)…meek, timid, stupid; 2) affected by or showing embarrassment caused by consciousness of a fault…”3

No one likes to be thought of as timid and stupid; nobody likes to have another person around making them feel embarrassed or ashamed.  We will not be made to feel “sheepish” because we’re nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!

Cards on the table…pastors, preachers, and priests are among some of the worst offenders at trying to turn people into sheeple.  We excel at shaming people into line, which is a gross abuse of our shepherding call.  On behalf of my cohorts of the cloth, I apologize for our bad behavior of trying to make sheepish sheeple out of the Lord’s good people.

That said, though, the wisdom of Scripture reminds us the issue is not whether we are sheep; it’s which way we as sheep have chosen to go and whom we have chosen to follow.  Whether by intent or by default, says the prophet, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” (Isa. 53:6)  Which I could further paraphrase, “everyone has chosen some other shepherd to follow in a way other than God’s way.”

This morning, hear verse one of Psalm 23 with the emphasis on the word, “Lord”, rather than where I think we usually emphasize verse one, which is on the word, “shepherd”.  “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Our psalmist already accepts this basic reality of the human psyche and of human practice, that we all are sheep, and, therefore, we all have looked for and found or we have been claimed by, a shepherd of some description. His focus in this verse one–indeed, his celebration in this verse one–is on Who has found him and Who has led him:  the Lord Yahweh, that’s who is my shepherd.”

Our writer’s not boasting; he’s simply astounded at this truth of his experience.  He reflects on his life’s journey thus far, and what he sees there affirms for him, over and over, who it is that has ultimately guided and provided for him throughout his life:  “The Lord Yahweh is my Shepherd, who has caused me to find good green fields and abundant, re-stor-ative places along the way in my life’s journey.”

What is your earliest recollection of God in your life?  Have you taken the time, as this psalmist did, to look back and to seize on that moment when you first discovered that the Lord God is your shepherd?

May have been in church, but not necessarily.  The very next psalm, Psalm 24, verse 1, reminds us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,”.  Anywhere on this good earth can be where your divine moment of realization occurred.

My earliest conscience experience of God shepherding me came when I was somewhere around ten years old.  It happened in some woods in the middle of the night as I was running for dear life.  Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

When I was a boy, we lived right on the western edge of Martinsville, Virginia.  There was my street, South Askin Street, and down a wooded hillside below us, there was one other street, Burchland Drive; that’s where my friend, Ricky, lived.  And, then, beyond Ricky’s house, there were woods…woods going all the way on over to extreme southwestern Virginia.  I think maybe the suburbs of Galax are what you’d come to next.

There was a dirt road that went a mile or so beyond Ricky’s house out into those woods and ended up in a clearing.  So, Ricky and another boy and I hatched a plan to go camp on a Friday night out in that clearing out in the woods.  The plan was we’d sleep over in Ricky’s basement, and after his parents had gone to sleep, we’d sneak out to our camp.  Then, we’d get up real early the next morning and sneak back in before his parents got up.

Right after school that Friday afternoon, we hauled our pup tent and our sleeping bags and all kinds of paraphernalia out through the woods to the clearing where we pitched camp.

Somewhere late into the night, long after dark, long after we’d stuffed our faces with roasted marshmallows and we’d settled down into our sleeping bags, the wind came up with a fury and this most gosh-awful lightning storm and rain storm hit those woods and lit it up like the middle of the day.

Ricky and the other boy shot out of the tent, running for all they were worth back down that dirt road through the woods to the safety of his house, leaving me to wonder if I should do the same.  I watched them running away, through the strobe-light flashing of the lightning, and then I grabbed up my sleeping bag and took after them, running for dear life, dragging my sleeping bag behind me!

Lightning was striking all through the woods; the wind was whipping through the tree tops; the rain was pelting me; my friends were long-gone on down through the woods.

I ran and I ran and…suddenly…I quit running.  It was as if someone else had suddenly come up beside me, and stopped me and turned me around, and said to me, “wow! just look at that would you?!”  So, I did.  Total peace, complete calm, incredible delight, filled me as I stood there and took it all in…the lightning, the thunder, the trees dancing to all of it.  With me, a presence which allowed for no fear, only joy.

However long I stood there totally rapt with this display, I don’t know.  But, there came a moment when I felt as though I were being dismissed to go on back to Ricky’s house.  So, I walked, ever so slowly, with no fear and no hurry, not wanting to leave that place or that moment.

Now, there’s nothing special about me.  I can get struck by lightning just as easily as the next guy.  Nowadays, if I’m hiking in the woods and a lightning storm starts brewing, I get myself somewhere lower and closer to the ground, in a hurry.

But, that particular moment, now nearly fifty-two years ago, continues as my marker for when I became conscious of God.  Do you have such a moment?  Whatever the moment was for this writer, the psalmist recalls his own experience and knows, God is my Shepherd and to God I look and trust myself.

We are somebody’s sheep; we are following somebody?  Is God our shepherd?  More specific to us, is God now revealed in Jesus, your Shepherd?  He’s not going to lead us in some path other than the one he himself walked on this earth; does your life’s path bear some resemblance to his?

Then, there’s verse 5:  “You prepare a table before in the presence of my enemies.”  Even as we follow the Lord, we must still find ourselves walking among enemies who threaten us.  Those are the persons and the powers who would intimidate us or shame us, making us feel “sheepish”.  We just feel sheepish around them.  These are the folks in whatever guise who would make us into their “sheeple”.

But, that’s not God.  God takes sheeple and transforms them into people, with dignity and honor.  Jesus himself never strikes me as a sheeple-sort of man.  I doubt Jesus ever blushed and said, O pshaw, go on now.  God prepares a banquet and welcomes you as though the guest of honor, to take the place of honor with God.  Do you dare live into that fullness of the honor God extends to you?

“You prepare a table for me, abundant and gracious, in the presence of people who don’t think I really should be there and who would stop me if they could.  But, you, Lord, say no to them, and so, I too can say no to them; I can embrace the fulness of life you offer me.”

Lee Ann Womack performs a song.  It’s called, “I Hope You Dance”.

These few lines I’ll quote:

“Don’t let some hell bent heart/leave you bitter.
When you come close to selling out/reconsider
Give the heavens above
more than just a passing glance.

And when you get a choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.

Time is a wheel in constant motion/always,
Rolling us along.
Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder,
Where have all those years gone?

[So], when you get a chance to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.”

Embrace the banquet and dance…follow our Lord, the Good Shepherd, to the good that God has prepared for you.

___________________________________

1 The three are: “Slow Train Coming” (1979), “Saved” (1980), and “Shot of Love” (1981)

2 http://www.npr.org/2017/05/01/526349470/merriam-webster-adds-sheeple-as-an-official-word

3 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sheepish

HADUK-1

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 30, 2017
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35

Let’s take a moment to look at today’s sermon title printed in the bulletin.  This is going to be kind of like a Rorschach Test.  What do you see in that sermon title?    Does that mean anything to anyone here this morning?   Anything?

It’s the license plate number off a pickup truck I followed one day out of Charlottesville on my way home.  I was driving east on Route 250 and came up behind this truck at the last traffic light heading out of town.

The sermon title is what was on the driver’s license plate.  It’s a vanity plate, of course.  Maybe the driver’s last name?  Hah-duck?  Haddok?  I don’t know, maybe  the guy’s from Norwegians or some such people and it’s the family name?

I don’t know the driver; never had seen him before that day at the stoplight, and I’ve never seen him or his truck since around here.  But, the moment I saw the license plate, I knew the driver.  If the owner of this truck just happens to be listening by radio this morning, you can let me know if I’m right or if I’m wrong.

I’m pretty sure that this vanity plate is pronounced “Hayduke”, as in George Washington Hayduke III.  Hayduke is a character out of a novel by Edward Abbey.  Abbey’s novel is entitled “ The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which Abbey later followed with the sequel, “Hayduke Lives!”

Abbey’s character, George Hayduke, is a ex-Green Beret, Vietnam vet.  His speciality in Vietnam was explosives.   He comes home embittered and scarred by his war experience; he retreats into the wilderness of the American Southwest.   That’s where we meet him.

Hayduke emerges from the wilderness to join up with an odd collection of other individuals to form what they will call, “the Monkey Wrench Gang”.  The members of the  Monkey Wrench Gang are not really environmentalists, so much as they’re just anti-development.  They’re especially aggravated over the damming up of the Colorado River.

So, the Monkey Wrench Gang proceeds to sabotage, vandalize, and generally harass any developer who attempts to start a project in the southwest desert lands.   Hayduke, ever true to his explosives training, is constantly brandishing sticks of dynamite, always wanting to blow up something:  bull dozers, construction shacks and whatever else his fellow gang members will let him blow up.  He really wants to blow up one of the dams on the Colorado River, but they won’t let him do that.

I enjoyed reading both “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and its sequel “Hayduke Lives!”, but not enough to go put vanity plates on my truck about it.  But, this guy in front of me at the stoplight, he’s got a major commitment to the life of George Washington Hayduke III.

As I said, I’ve never met the guy.  I would guess that most people pulling up behind him, would kind of scratch their heads, take a shot at pronouncing what they saw there on his license plate, and just assume it’s an odd, last name on a vanity plate.

But, having read these books by Edward Abbey I think I could do a fair job of describing him and his values he’s identified with so strongly that he puts it out there like a coded message on his truck for other like-minded people.

That is a lot like what our Gospel reading dramatizes for us today.  There’s a context—a large body of writings, the Hebrew Bible—and then comes a coded message that ties it all together for these two friends from Emmaus.

They’re traveling home, when they encounter a stranger on the road.   They know nothing at all about this guy.  As Luke describes in verse 27, the stranger reminds them about writings of Moses and the prophets.   Then, he conveys  a kind of coded message.  He takes bread they’ve offered him, he gives thanks for it, he breaks it and gives it to them.  It speaks volumes to them.

A loaf of bread:  as common and as ordinary an object for them, as a license plate on a truck is for us.  But, for these two travelers from Emmaus, when they see this stranger take up that loaf of bread, it’s suddenly not just a loaf of bread.

The breaking of the bread signifies something in the light of those Scriptures;  it represents, it announces, the most unexpected thing, Jesus of Nazareth…Lives!    And, in fact, it is Jesus of Nazareth himself, the Resurrected Christ, who breaks bread with them.  Something about that summed up for them what their Teacher was all about.

Now, in fact, this whole walk to Emmaus is a brief re-enactment of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus, the stranger, the rabbi, traveled from village to village on his way to Jerusalem.  As he encountered people along the way Jesus would open to them the Word of God.

As Jesus did that traveling and teaching, something would ignite within the hearts of his listeners, a new life would erupt from deep within their souls, and they would see this traveling rabbi as something more.  Dare they believe?  Dare they commit themselves to this Teacher?  Dare they allow themselves the hope that this is the One to redeem Israel?

Cleopas says as much in verse 21, But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.   They had hoped.

On this his Resurrection Day, Jesus once again puts on his teaching mantle.  He starts off with a bit of rebuke that I find a little surprising; the circumstances being what they were, I sure wouldn’t have expected these two or any of the rest to do other than what they are doing:  shaking their heads, coping with shock and horror and grief so profound one wonders how they manage to get up and go on with their lives at all!

But, of course, we’ve got to extend to Jesus a little understanding, too.  Afterall, he’s the one who just got crucified, so he’s had a rough few days! In my personal theology, I think the crucifixion came as something of a shock for Jesus as much as it did for his followers.

I don’t think Jesus himself knew exactly what God was going to do next on that past Thursday night.  Jesus only knew to preach and teach and live the Gospel:  the kingdom of God had come.  It was a Gospel that gathered all who would come to share around God’s table.  Through Jesus himself, through his flesh-and-blood life, he was forming a new body, a new Israel, a new covenant people of God.

That previous Thursday night at dinner, he had told them, “This cup [of wine] which is poured out for you [represents] the new covenant in my blood [in my very life force].”

In his very person, through his obedient testimony, God was now establishing God’s kingdom community of love on this good earth, around Jesus.

The problem was, there already were plenty of kingdoms firmly in place, who were presently running the show.  Their kingdoms simply didn’t allow room for yet another kingdom to come set up shop, not even the kingdom of God.   So, all the powers that be:  ecclesiastical and political and imperial, combined their collective self-interest and killed Jesus.  Plain and simple.

Jesus went through with it all, saying to God, “I don’t get it. But, I see where all this is headed, and if this is what you want, so be it.”   That’s a rough paraphrase of Jesus’ prayer, Garden of Gethsemane, Luke chapter 22, verse 42:  Father, if thou are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.

Not what he wants, says Jesus, but he goes on obedient to God to the bitter end and gasps out his last mortal breath, Luke chapter 23, verse 46:  Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!, and then he dies.

Lo and behold!  On the third morning, God vindicates and validates Jesus’ faith and obedience.   Jesus awakes to discover, he is the Resurrected Christ.    If we’d gone through all that, we’d be a bit impatient, too, to get that group of disciples roused back up out of their despair and get on with the work at hand!

In resurrecting Jesus, God says:  this is how the kingdom of God gets done.  You gather all who will come to  my table and you break bread with them, which means, of course, the folks who’ve got the bread share it with the folks who have no bread, so that everybody gets something to eat.

We focus on the cross, we focus on the empty tomb, but what does Jesus focus on?  The bread.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus uses bread.  Luke chapter 9, verses 10 – 17, Jesus acts out that truth in the feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus receives five loaves and two fish, blesses it and feeds those thousands.  And all ate and were satisfied, Luke writes.  And they [i.e., the twelve apostles] took up what was left over, twelve baskets of broken pieces, Luke tells us.

Which was Jesus’ way of saying to each of those Twelve apostles:  here, each of you get a basket of bread to hold:  hold it!  Feel the weight of it!   Remember this!  This is the kingdom at work.  Food that feeds the hungry; food enough for all with plenty left over, when you first thought there was not anywhere enough to even get started feeding this crowd.

On God’s earth and under God’s kingdom-rule, there is plenty enough for all with more than enough left over.  The bread signified the kingdom of God’s abundance and care.  But on earth ruled by human rulers in their own self-interests, there is scarcity with little left to be distributed.

The feast of the unleavened bread, the eve of his arrest, Luke tells us,  Jesus again breaks the bread and passes it to each of them so they each have a piece of bread; he passes the common cup of wine so each can have a sip.  Jesus says, this is my body which is given for you….this is my blood which is poured out for you.   Jesus is saying to them, and to us:  this is my life…if you receive my life, it now becomes your life, too.

“My way of life is now your way of life.  My witness of God’s community of love now come on this earth is now your witness of God’s community of love now come on this earth.  Live it!  Jesus tells them.  Live it, even if the powers that be don’t like it.  Because I warn you, they will not like it at all. Live it, even at risk of life and limb, if you must!

Jesus gives them the bread, he gives them the cup, and he warns them:  “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘the servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”  (John 15:20)

The stranger who meets these two along the way, assumes the role of Teacher once again.  They welcome him into their home.  They welcome him to their table.  They offer him their bread, and he assumes the role of Host, blesses the bread and returns it to them.  Now, they get it.

The burning which smoldered now bursts into flame.  Now, they become the ones who are impatient.  Even now, in this late evening hour, they must rush back to find the others still hiding away in Jerusalem.   They return to discover heir fellow followers are already well on their way to waking up to the truth.

Verses 34 35:  The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon!  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.  “Oh, my goodness, how could we not see that!”  perhaps they said to one another.

When I went out to California to get my year of training as a furniture maker, I rented a room from a couple named Meg and Kevin.   Over the first few weeks, we had few meals together there in their kitchen to get acquainted with each other.  They told me about a class they were just about to finish up in Japanese calligraphy.

There was a retired Japanese man named Shozo Sato who lived just north of town.  He taught flower arranging and calligraphy and did some pottery and so forth.  I thought, well, that’s all very nice.  As they were winding up their class with Mr. Sato, Meg and Kevin wanted to show their appreciation by hosting a dinner for him and his wife.  They invited me to come to the dinner, too.

It was a nice, quiet meal there in their dining room; just the five of us:  Meg and Kevin, Mr. Sato and his wife, and me.  The food was good, the conversation was pleasant, and then that was that.  The Sato’s went home, I helped Meg and Kevin clean up and then I went to my room.  A nice evening.

It was only a few months later that I learned that this pleasant retired Japanese man was actually Dr. Shozo Sato.  If you were to go on-line and google Shozo Sato, you would read something like this:

“Shozo Sato [is] an internationally renowned Japanese master of Zen arts and [a] visionary theatre director, most known for adapting Western classics to Japanese Kabuki theatre.” *

Yada, yada, yada…then here comes the kicker:  In 2004, the Emperor of Japan awarded Shozo Sato with “The Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure”, which is somewhere along the lines of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and getting knighted by the Queen, all rolled up in one.  That’s who I had that quiet intimate dinner with that night!

When I learned that, all I could do is smack myself in the forehead:  “think!  think! what did I say?!  what did I talk about?!  how many ways did I embarrass myself and bring shame on the family name?!”  Honestly, I have no clue.

I didn’t understand with whom I was breaking bread.  I couldn’t appreciate the significance of who this was before me.   So, I can guess a little at what these two folks from Emmaus felt like when they finally figured out with whom they shared this meal.  Too often, I do the very same thing at the Lord’s table.

Regularly, we share this meal we call, the Lord’s Supper.   Do we see who is at table with us?   To our detriment, I believe—we have isolated this meal, as a look back, to one specific night long ago in Jesus’ life.  We have assigned it one specific meaning, it’s a kind blood sacrifice so God can forgive my sins so when I die I get to go to heaven.

To assign only that narrow meaning to this Lord’s Supper, I think is like me seeing Mr. Sato as just a nice retired Japanese man who happens to teach calligraphy classes in a studio out behind his house.

The bread and the cup:

the meaning of the Kingdom of God among us on earth, is in this meal;

the reasons why the kingdoms of this earth joined up to kill Jesus, are in this meal;

the way of doing church in this world among these kingdoms of the world is in this meal.

In the breaking of the bread, whenever we do it, may God grant the Spirit of the Living Christ, to rouse us up out of our stupor, so we will leave this room, to call others with this good news:  The Lord has risen indeed!  The kingdom of God has now come among us!

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