Holy Plot Twist, Cathie

moses in nile

This painting is Moses in the Reedbed by Addie Hirchten.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

This story of Moses has plot twists worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.

There’s nothing like a good plot twist, especially when it revolves around life and death. The 1999 movie The Sixth Sense is remembered for two things. The line uttered by nine year old Cole Sear, “I see dead people,” will forever be part of the pop culture lexicon. And the movie’s concluding plot twist left movie goers slack jawed. In this surprise ending, child psychologist Malcom Crowe, who we see visiting with Cole throughout the movie, helping him accept and understand his ghostly visitations, is shown at movies end to have been dead all along, himself a ghost. The Sixth Sense is a redemption story, at the same time the ghost of Malcom Crowe is helping Cole, so he is also working out some unfinished business of his own, healing the relationship with the wife he left behind.

It is always risky using movies or books as sermon illustrations. The point may be lost on those who never saw the movie. Whether or not you saw The Sixth Sense, remember this, redemptive plot twist.

The Sixth Sense had a redemptive plot twist, an unexpected element that healed, restored and affirmed the meaning of the lives of the characters. Of course the foundational story of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus, has the greatest redemptive plot twists of all time. Three days after his gruesome death on a cross, Jesus emerges from the tomb affirming God’s love for humanity forever.

Well, this short passage chronicling Moses’ first months has more plot twists than a Latino telenovela.

To summarize, Joseph (a Jew of Technicolor dream coat fame) had emigrated to Egypt with his family, found favor with the king, and prospered. Joseph died and a new king arose in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph or his family. This king saw the increasing population of Israelites as a threat, so he oppressed them and enslaved them.

But the more the Egyptians persecuted the Israelites, the more they multiplied and spread throughout Egypt.

Seeking to stem the tide of Israelites in Egypt, the king instructed Hebrew midwives to kill any male Hebrew children at their birth. The midwives refused to execute this awful command and instead made up a story to tell the king to save their own lives. It worked. Next the king told the Egyptian people to throw every male, Hebrew infant in the Nile River to drown.

Now we learn of Moses’ birth to a here unnamed Hebrew couple. His mother, fearing for his life, kept his birth a secret for three months. Imagine how afraid of being found out she must have been every time he cried. When she felt she could no longer hide him from the prying eyes of Egyptian neighbors, in desperation, she waterproofed a basket, put him in it, and hid the basket at river’s edge among the reeds. Imagine the hopelessness and despair that would cause a mother to abandon the child she loved, knowing that if found by the Egyptians he would likely be drowned. Moses’ sister, we are told, watched from a distance.

But plot twist. Of all people, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who finds Moses when she goes down to the Nile to bathe. She recognizes him as one of the Hebrew children but, instead of having him put to death, she takes pity on him.

Then, plot twist, Moses’ sister steps from the shadows and offers to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for her, and Pharaoh’s daughter agrees.

And, plot twist, Moses’ sister calls her own mother, Moses’ own mother to come, and Pharaoh’s daughter agrees to pay her to nurse and raise Moses!

And still another plot twist, after Moses is grown, his mother brings him back to Pharaoh’s daughter who takes him as her own son! She names him Moses which means to pull out, to draw out, of the water.

The final plot twist is yet to come, that Moses will be called by God to confront Pharaoh, his adopted grandfather, and free the Israelites from slavery.

Now this is a redemption story, revealing the ways God moves to redeem suffering and death.

Notice, I say that God moves in this story, by God does not have a speaking part. Rather, the redemption of suffering and death is enabled by the actors, Moses’ sister and mother, Pharaoh’s daughter. God moves through them, and God moves through us, empowering us to perform the plot twists that redeem our experiences of suffering and death.

Moses’ sister is our example. She watched for God to create an opportunity, then she responded, spoke and acted with God to give life.

I have witnessed a powerful example of just such redemptive plot twists in the life of our beloved church member Cathie Behrens these past couple weeks. I asked her if it was OK to share these stories and she agreed.

Many of you know Cathie. She has been a member of First Church forever, she worked here in a number of essential roles for 25 years until retiring last fall, and she leads both a women’s small group Bible study and our Card Making ministry. To say that Cathie is beloved is an understatement.

Rev. Kev and I were on the mission trip just one month ago when Cathie called from the ER saying that she was experiencing some unusual bleeding, and everything moved very rapidly from there. She was first diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer, then with lung cancer that has metastasized, and just early this week with a golf ball sized tumor in her liver. Her doctors tell her that this is an extremely aggressive, fast-moving cancer. Sadly, accompanying people through such tragedy and trauma is part of being a pastor, so I thought I knew what to expect, a series of very somber visits with Cathie.

Well, plot twist.

Every time I would call Cathie over the past couple weeks, she would say seriously, I’ve got more bad news, and update me on her latest doctor visit. But she would immediately follow this by saying, “But I have to tell you about the God-moments I experienced today.

God moments are Cathie’s way of describing the ways she experiences God in the world. These usually involved people she met in the course of medical appointments. There was the doctor who, like Cathie, was a Duke University alumni. They compared notes about the basketball team’s prospect this year. There was a nurse who, like Cathie, had once ridden horses competitively and knew many of the same people Cathie did. These were God moments, experiences that assured Cathie of God’s continued presence. They didn’t erase the fear, anger or sadness she felt, but they helped redeem these experiences, place them in the larger context of God’s love.

Like Moses’ sister, Cathie watched for God to be revealed in this difficult chapter in her life.

Then, just a few days ago, Cathie was put in hospice care. Here again, I thought I knew what to expect.

But again, plot twist. I had a long conversation with Cathie on Thursday afternoon during which we talked about her life and faith. Her life changed for the better three years ago, she said, when she decided that instead of giving something up for Lent, she would make ten people smile every day. And she has never stopped. This has become a daily spiritual practice for her. She does this simply by asking people about themselves, wishing them a good day, and sharing a smile, and she has maintained this practice throughout her illness. When they smile, she says, my life is better too. Just in the course of our visit I witnessed her work her magic on three people, a doctor, a nurse and me.

And like Moses’ daughter, Cathie didn’t just stand back and wait for God to appear, when God created openings, she responded with a kind word and a smile.

I visited Cathie last night and she was having a rough time. Likely the effect of an ever increasing dose of pain meds, she was finding it impossible to complete a thought. She would start to talk, say a few words, and be unable to get the rest of the words out. She would doze off, and wake with a start, and after forty five minutes we had been unable to have a meaningful conversation. I thought maybe it might help if I just said a simple prayer together.

Now, I need confess something necessary to understand the rest of this story. When I visited Cathie on Monday, just after she found out about the tumor in her liver, I screwed up the words to the 23rd Psalm. Some of the most well-known, beautiful and comforting words every written, to be delivered at this most difficult time, to this woman I adore, and I blew it. Now, Cathie was a good sport, but I left feeling like I had missed an opportunity to minister to her.

So last night, I suggested to Cathie that we say the Lord’s Prayer, and…

Plot twist. After what had so far been a frustrating visit for both of us, Cathie got a familiar twinkle in her eye and said, without missing a beat, “If you remember the words.” We both laughed, then prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. Perfectly.

Cathie is still making people smile, making me smile. And, this was a God moment, an experience that reminded us that God was still present, even in the face of suffering and death. This was a redemptive plot twist. Cathie and I were the actors in this scene, but we were equipped and enabled by God to perform our roles.

Every moment is pregnant with these God moments. Remember, Moses would have died, never gone on to save his people, if his sister hadn’t been paying attention, then hadn’t risked a conversation with Pharaoh’s daughter, a conversation that revealed an unimagined, life-saving, life-giving way forward.

To experience life’s redemptive plot twists we need to do more than watch and listen, we need to participate. Like Cathie, we need to face our fears and suffering and talk to one another, make each other smile through simple acts of kindness. When we do, God will lead us from death to new life, today and always. Amen.

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Faith Enough to Let Go

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 18, 2017.

Romans 5:1-5

There is an old story of a man who fell off a cliff, but before falling to his certain death, he was able to grab hold of a limb protruding from the side of the cliff. As he grips the limb with all his might, he cries out, “Help! Is anyone up there?” He is heartened when a voice responds, “Yes, I am here. I can help you.” Frantic, the man screams, “Please help me. I am loosing my grip. Please help me now!” A calm voice comes from the top of the cliff, “Do not worry my child. It is God. All you have to do is let go.” There is a long pause. The man looks down at the 200 feet drop and the raging river below…takes a deep breath…and yells back, “Is there anyone else up there?”

I begin with this old joke, first, because much of the rest of this sermon is unapologetically theological so I thought you could use a good laugh, and second, because I am inviting you to think about faith as an act of letting go.

The word theology comes from two Greek words – theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word, discourse, or reasoning. Theology, then is thinking about God, or making sense of God. I hope to craft a theological framework to help us think about faith, and God’s invitation to let go.

These verses from Romans, in fact, the first five chapters of Paul’s letter, figured prominently in the theology of Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The Catholic Church at the time was promoting a belief that the faithful needed to earn their way into heaven by freeing themselves from sin and doing good. This theology had been corrupted to include practices like selling indulgences, paying the church money for the forgiveness of sins

In 1517 Luther, a monk, famously nailed 95 theses, questions and propositions for debate, to the church door in Wittenberg Germany. He didn’t intend to leave the Catholic Church, but wanted to reform it. But the Catholic Church excommunicated him, and so, Protestantism was born.

Luther took his faith and his salvation very seriously, he tried and tried and tried to perfect himself, filled volumes of journals documenting the minutest of sins in the hopes of ridding himself of them. He came to recognize that if human salvation depended on perfection, no one would ever meet this standard. This is when he turned to Romans to articulate what would become the foundation for Protestantism, that we are justified by grace through faith.

I expect that many have heard this, but although this theology is central to our Protestant faith, I also expect that some would find it difficult to explain.

Let’s look at some of these words: justified, sin, grace, and faith.

Justified means to be made righteous, to be seen by God as righteous, to be accepted by God, to be in right relationship with God, or to be reconciled with God. So, a contemporary paraphrase of Luther’s theology could be that we are reconciled with God by grace through faith.

Now, let’s turn to sin and grace. The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich talks about the relationship between sin and grace.

For Tillich the core human predicament is the problem of separation, or of estrangement. We are separated from each other, we are separated from God (who Tillich calls the “Ground of Being”), and we are separated from ourselves. This separation, Tillich says, is what Paul calls sin.

Tillich does not speak of sin as particular acts of moral failing about which we should feel guilty. Tillich argues, instead, that sin is a state of being; a state of separation or estrangement – of alienation.

The only thing that can really overcome this state of sin, of estrangement, is grace. Grace is the work of God, the divine gift which unifies that which has been split apart, alienated, separated. This unification is not something we can achieve or even work toward. That’s what makes it grace.

As Tillich puts it, in a sermon,

“In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin, grace abounds more.”

Writing in the 50’s, Tillich notes that the divisions between nations, peoples, competing interests, and the tragic suffering of so many across the world, call for the divine grace of forgiveness to heal the estrangement and alienation. And that healing begins with an acceptance of ourselves.

There are those moments, says Tillich, when grace comes over us and creates in us the capacity to accept ourselves, to truly love ourselves, to accept God’s acceptance of us.

 

So, bringing Paul and Tillich together, we are justified, accepted and reconciled with God and each other, by grace… through faith.

Christians sometimes assume that faith is primarily a matter of believing things on the basis of little or no evidence. But faith does not need to be understood as believing a particular something – for example, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, or even that Jesus died for our sins – rather faith can be understood as the act of letting go, letting go of our own way, letting go of our belief that we are right or in control.

Theologian Garrett Green writes, “The person insistent on achieving righteousness through his or her own efforts is in effect refusing God’s grace, like an obstreperous toddler, the self-righteous moralist is saying, “I can do it myself.””

Faith is something more than and quite different from mere belief.

The Twelve Steps of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous articulate the need to let go beautifully. Step 1 acknowledges that we are ultimately powerless; Step 2, recognizes that our lives are unmanageable on our own; and Step 3, turns our lives over to a higher power, let’s go into the reconciling grace of something greater than ourselves, our Ground of Being.

Like the man hanging off the cliff, do we have faith enough to let go?

By its nature, theology is pretty abstract. Thinking about God is a step removed from practicing our faith or experiencing grace.

So here’s a story, one that on its surface has nothing to do with God or grace or faith, but demonstrates what happens when we let go of our own way.

In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving writes of her experience as a second grade teacher with a Haitian student, Rosie, who would repeatedly jump up during math class to talk to a classmate across the room. Like many of us, Irving had been raised in a culture that taught the value of thinking and working independently, of being self-sufficient. This cultural norm of self-control had been made explicit in Irving’s education as a teacher, and she in turn communicated this expectation to her class. But despite Irving’s constant intervention, Rosie continued to get up and interact with other students.

One day, in a workshop that she attended on multi-culturalism, Irving learned that both Hispanic and African-America cultures revolve around a collective orientation rather than an individual one. The idea of working independently goes against everything that many Hispanic and black children are taught at home.

The next day, with this understanding fresh in her mind, Irving resisted her inclination to chase Rosie down, and instead watched as she again made her way across the room to a classmate’s desk. Arriving at her destination, Rosie put her hand on her classmate’s back and leaned in to help her with a math problem.

At lunch that day Irving approached Rosie and asked her about the morning’s exchange with her classmate. Assuming she was again in trouble, Rosie shot Irving an, “I know, I’m sorry” look. But Irving continued, and asked, “Do you think some of those times that you get up it’s because you wanted to help a classmate.” Irving writes, “Rosie beamed at me, put down her fork, and hugged me.” Irving and Rosie were then able to negotiate a compromise that identified work-alone times and work-with-friend times.

Like most of us, Irving had assumed that her interpretation of a situation was correct and judged others by how they conformed or didn’t conform to her understanding. She saw Rosie’s “inability” to work independently as a flaw, a deficit, not her exquisite ability to tune into the needs of others as a strength and an asset.

Tillich writes:

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is great then you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”

It was only when Irving was able to let go, that she and Rosie were able to overcome their separation and alienation and experience reconciliation and acceptance.

God accepts us. Will you accept that God accepts you? Do you have faith enough to let go?

A Varmint Will Never Quit – Ever

Caddyshack

Here is my column from the Summer 2017 issue of the First Church newsletter, the Cornerstone.

“Can lawn care serve as a model for faithful living?” said no one ever. Except, of course, this pastor.

For the first time ever, I have become invested in having a beautiful, green lawn. In our New Britain home our lawn was beyond repair, so we just lived with what was there, weeds, crabgrass, bare patches and all. In fact, I once preached a sermon, “If It’s Green, It’s Grass,” referring to my decision to embrace the weeds. But here in Simsbury we have the opportunity to have a beautiful lawn. Lourdes and I enjoy our morning cup of coffee or evening glass of wine in our sun room that looks out onto our back yard. So as spring sprang this year, I decided to make the effort.

A friend told me about the “Scott Four Step Lawn Care Program,” a series of four chemicals that I am to apply to my lawn between the beginning of spring and Labor Day. Step 1 went down without incident, and my lawn has responded with thick, green grass! I couldn’t have been happier. I was keeping up with the Simsbury Joneses!

(Cue the ominous music suggesting impending doom.)

Then, a few weeks ago I noticed brown patches in my front lawn, then what appear to be trails of brown grass that intersect in little muddy patches. Friends in the know about such things tell me I have some sort of burrowing rodent, likely moles! Oh the horror! Visions of the Bill Murray character Carl Spackler in the 1980 comedy classic Caddyshack came immediately to mind, “My enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit – ever.”

I asked friends on Facebook how to get rid of moles and got a wide variety of earnest responses. Here is a sampling of suggestions I received:

Trap the moles. There are a variety of mole traps available; they appear to not only kill but mutilate the moles in the process. Even if I had the stomach for mole maiming, the traps appear to be too hard to use for this Carl Spackler wannabe.

Let the dogs out. Our dog is named Sweetie for a reason. She has zero interest in hunting moles.

Shoot the varmints with a .22. Um, no.

Kill the grubs the moles feed on and the moles will go away. There was widespread support for this option, though the suggested methods for grub extermination varied widely.

  • Poison the grubs with a readily available Scott product called Grub-Ex.
  • Spray Palmolive dish soap on the lawn. Sorry, I’m skeptical.
  • Get chickens! Seriously! Thanks to Simsbury Selectman Elaine Lang, she of lawn chicken fame, for this suggestion.
  • Let the skunks eat them. Moles or skunks? Hmm.

The very best suggestion came from my friend Michael in Hawaii who recommends a really good bottle of Cabernet (not for the moles or the grubs, but for me. Thanks, Michael!)

Some of these respondents were zealously anti-poison, pointing out the environmental and health hazards of using any poison, but especially this grub killing poison, on my lawn. One friend, Joe, summed up the feelings of these folks when he replied, “HOW ABOUT NOT SPRAYING LIQUID CANCER IN YOUR YARD!” Oh boy.

This is where the moral dilemma comes in. Poisoning the grubs seems to be the most accessible and efficient approach to getting rid of the moles and restoring my yard to its near-pristine, green state. I feel judged by the anti-poison lobby, but have to admit they are probably right. Poison could be harmful to pets, to my family, and to the environment. In spite of this knowledge I will probably end up poisoning the grubs (I bought the poison, just haven’t applied it yet).

The lesson for a life of faith? We are confronted daily with moral dilemmas, asked to choose among options when there is no perfect right answer. Even when one choice does appear to be ethically preferred (no poison), we reject that choice in favor of another option, often for selfish reasons (ease and efficiency). Here are two takeaways. Take each decision seriously; gather all the information needed and make the best decision possible. And, when we still come up short (as we surely will), be gentle with ourselves and embrace God’s grace and forgiveness.

 

Still Rising

 This is the sermon I preached on, April 23, 2017, the Sunday after Easter, at First Church Simsbury. I revisit the story of “Doubting” Thomas. Someone said that this sermon deepened their understanding of the Easter sermon Rev. Kev and I preached together last week. You might read them together.

John 20:19-31

I confess I groaned when I first saw that this Sunday’s reading was the one from the gospel of John about the disciple popularly known as Doubting Thomas. I groaned, in part, because I have preached so many times on this passage that I doubted, no pun intended, whether I had anything new to say. But also, because I have come to feel that Thomas has gotten a bum rap as a doubter, and I grow weary of having to come to his defense every year.

But the more Thomas and I spent time together this week, the more I felt compelled to again enter into his story together. So, here we go.

Let’s rewind to Easter morning. Peter and another disciple, the one who Jesus loved, see the empty tomb but have not yet laid eyes on Jesus. Mary then sees, touches, and speaks to Jesus outside the tomb and, we are told, tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

That’s where this morning’s story picks up. It is now evening of that same day, and we find the disciples locked in a room, afraid of those who crucified Jesus. If these are the same disciples Mary reported to, they haven’t believed that Jesus has risen from the dead. They have not had a personal encounter with Jesus following the resurrection. Until now.

Jesus appears to these disciples and shows them the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the soldier’s spear in his side. This confirms for them that this is in fact Jesus.

He then breathes on them, further confirming that Jesus is alive. This breath of the Holy Spirit empowers and equips these disciples to go forth into the world to forgive sins, to share the life changing grace of God.

We now encounter Thomas. He was not with the other disciples in the locked room who saw Jesus with their own eyes. As Mary first told them, they now tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas says, in effect, I need to have the same experience that you have had; I need to see the marks in his hands and the wound in his side just as you did. Then I will believe too.

Indeed, a week later, Jesus again appears to the disciples. This time Thomas is with them and Jesus invites him, not just to see, but to touch his wounds, saying “Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas touches, experiences for himself, and affirms Jesus’ divine authority, saying “My Lord and my God!” Note that there is no record that the other disciples make such a proclamation of faith following their encounter with Jesus. Even Mary does not make such a bold affirmation.

Jesus then says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” History has understood this as a rebuke of Thomas as a doubter, but I think this is where he gets a bum rap. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubt. He goes out of his way to provide Thomas with an experience of the power of God, so that Thomas might carry that message to others. Rather than criticizing Thomas, Jesus’ words are a blessing upon those who follow Thomas, who come to believe without having personally experienced the power of God to bring forth new life from death.

So, that’s the rescue mission I feel obligated to launch on behalf of Thomas every year at this time.

And here are some of my new observations upon this text so framed.

In two separate sermons in the past month I have shared the view of Bible scholar Karoline Lewis that resurrection is not so much something to be believed, but something to be experienced. Mary, the disciples in the locked room, and Thomas all had first-hand experiences of resurrection. Their belief followed from their experience.

But there is more than that to these stories. Mary has an experience of the resurrected Jesus, believes and tells the disciples. The disciples have their own experience, believe and tell Thomas. Thomas has his own experience and believes.

An experience of resurrection can be communicated in such a way that others may then experience it for themselves. Resurrection is reproducible.

This ability to communicate and reproduce an experience are cornerstones of the scientific method.

We live in a time where that which is directly observable and reproducible, in fact science itself, is under attack by some. New words have been introduced to the lexicon, fake news and alternative facts. We watch a video that shows a politician saying something, then the politician says “I never said that.” A picture captures an event as it unfolds, and someone insists that the event never happened. The conclusion of years of scientific research are dismissed based on something someone read on the internet. Yesterday, Earth Day, thousands of people in Washington, D.C. and around the world participated in a March for Science. Frankly, it seems incredible to me that anyone should need to stand up for science.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that resurrection can be proved by science. But I am saying that individual experiences of resurrection can be shared and are reproducible. Jesus tells Mary, go tell the disciples what you experienced. Jesus tells the disciples, I empower and equip you to go forth in my name and share the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Those of you who were here last Sunday know that Rev. Kev and I preached that an experience of resurrection is any experience in which we first encounter a dead end in our life, undergo a crushing loss, make a mistake that seems irredeemable, or fall into despair or depression, only to encounter God’s grace, a second chance, new life. This is what I mean when I talk about an experience of resurrection.

I can’t imagine I am alone in saying that I have made mistakes in my life, betrayed and hurt those I love. In those times, I was convinced that this was the end, the end of a relationship, the end of a good life. I saw no way out. But beyond all hope and reason, the stone was rolled away from the tomb, a way was made where there had been no way. This is a resurrection experience, and it is reproducible. It is reproducible, not just by telling others about it, but by becoming, and being, and living resurrection as God’s new creation.

I am Thomas, believing in Jesus after seeing and experiencing resurrection for myself. Jesus says, blessed are those who have not seen but come to believe. Jesus no longer walks the earth to inspire such faith. But we do. We are, therefore, required to do more than tell of our experience, but like Jesus we are called to show our wounds and share our stories of redemption. We become as Christ, wounded and risen, that others might share in an experience of resurrection.

If you are a widow or widower who has been restored to a full and happy life after losing your spouse, then foster redemptive relationships with those who still mourn. Let them see resurrection in you. If you are gay or lesbian and have found joy and wholeness following a childhood of condemnation, then model that freedom for those who still doubt that they are loved by God. If you have betrayed ones you loved but confessed, made amends, and found forgiveness, share this hope with others, not just with your words, but by committing yourself to walk side-by-side with those who are trapped in despair. If you have overcome an abusive childhood to raise happy children who know they are loved, reach out to extend that love beyond your family to other hurting children.

Belief in resurrection follows an experience of resurrection. Mary to the disciples. The disciples to Thomas. Thomas forward into history to us. If you have experienced resurrection, tell it, live it, be it. If you are still waiting to experience resurrection in your life. Believe. New life awaits.

 

Same But Different: What It Means to Believe in Jesus

lenten altar

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017.

John 3:1-17

There’s a ton squeezed into these seventeen verses from the Gospel of John. It’s hard to know what to make of it all, and I won’t attempt to unpack the entire text in our brief time together. But I expect a couple phrases caught your attention.

First, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus that one must be “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God. These words, popularized by American Evangelicalism, have come to be associated with the importance of personally accepting Jesus into one’s heart. And unfortunately, these words have too often been applied as a litmus test in an attempt to separate so-called “Born Again” Christians from other faithful.

The other verse that no doubt jumped out was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” and it has served as that for many, signaling God’s profound love for us and indicating the depths to which God will go to convey that love. It too, however, has sometimes served as a wedge between those who “believe” and are “saved” and those who, some say, are not.

It is ironic and unfortunate that two verses that are so central to the faith of many, just as surely divide good people from one another.

I admit that these verses were stumbling blocks for me when I was first finding my way back to the church in my mid-twenties. Thomas Jefferson famously used a pen knife to cut out passages in the Bible that he found troublesome. I have never been willing to entirely reject difficult passages, but rather have sought to interpret them in ways that have meaning and integrity for me.

In this spirit, I will share some reflections on John 3:16, not to say that this is what the author meant when he wrote this verse, but as an example of a kind of interpretation that is available to any of you who wrestle with particular passages in the Bible.

First, the term eternal life is one that has not always been accessible to me. Over time I have come to interpret this for myself to mean “perfect and timeless union with the divine.”

God sent Jesus so that everyone who believes in him may experience perfect and timeless union with the divine.

But the most significant issue for me when I was first exploring my faith was what it means to believe. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Maybe that sounds like an odd question. For some the answer will be self-evident. For some, to believe in Jesus means to believe that the biblical claims about him are factual, that he was born of a virgin, and that he was bodily resurrected after his death on the cross, and most importantly that he that he is the Messiah, our Savior. Those thirty years ago when I was first taking passages like this one seriously this answer was not apparent to me.

But there are other ways to understand what it means to believe, aren’t there?

The Greek word translated as believe is pisteuo (pist-yoo’-o) which means to put faith in, to trust in, place confidence in, and have fidelity to. Think of what we mean when we affirm a child, spouse or friend by saying, “I believe in you.” This means that we have full confidence in that one, even to the point, perhaps, where we would put our life in their hands.

What would it mean to apply this understanding of belief to Jesus? To trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of Jesus?

To answer this, we need to understand who Jesus is, what he represents.

In the gospels, Jesus is referred to as both the Son of Man and the Son of God.

Son of Man emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. In this persona we find something familiar, one that is always like us.

Son of God emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. In this persona we encounter difference, one that is forever other.

In Jesus we encounter both ourselves and the other, friend and stranger.

So, what does it look like to believe in this Jesus, familiar yet foreign, to trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of one that is the same but different?

Listen for these themes of belief in self and other in this story from the Washington Post.

When the Nazis ripped his family from their home in Poland, Ben Stern survived life in the Warsaw Ghetto, nine concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and the death march from Buchenwald by never losing faith in human kindness.

Following the war, Stern and his wife immigrated to America with no education, no trade, and no money, and could not speak English. But he had his life.

“I was reborn,” Stern says (note the language he chooses). “I did not forget what happened to me, but I was determined to rebuild the family that I lost and speak out about the pain and losses that so many people suffered, because they were hated because of their particular religion. In America we found a mixture of religions being accepted and that was opening the door for a free life that was a gift; until today I am thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the freedom to build the beautiful family that I have.”

So now, at the end of his life, the 95-year-old has found an almost perfect antidote to how he was treated by the Nazis: Opening his California home to one of their descendants.

His roommate, Lea Heitfeld, is a 31-year-old German student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, whose grandparents were active and unrepentant members of the Nazi Party. Rather than shy away from her family’s history, it has inspired her to learn about Jewish people and educate others about their religion and what they endured during the Holocaust. She’s even getting her Master’s Degree in Jewish studies.

Welcoming Heitfeld, the kin of the very people who brutally forced him from his childhood home, to live as his roommate while she finishes her degree feels like “an act of justice,” Stern said in an interview. “It was the right thing to do. I’m doing the opposite of what they did.”

There is much about their living situation that defies norms: the sizable generation gap, the gender divide and, of course, the fact that they’re a Holocaust survivor and the granddaughter of Nazis. And yet they’ve both found they have so much to give each other.

In the evenings, the unlikely pair watch TV together, usually the news. They have dinner together almost every night, and snack on herring salad and crackers before their meal — a mutual favorite. They have long conversations about history and current events and he tells her stories of his life in Poland before the war. Last semester, Stern, who never went to high school or college, audited a graduate class with her, and they walked together to campus every Thursday night.

For Heitfeld, Stern’s friendship is the rarest of gifts — an insight into human resiliency and compassion.

“This act of opening his home, I don’t know how to describe it, how forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me,” she said. “That he was able to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain.”

To trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of one another. Is this what it looks like to believe? Could this be what it means to believe in Jesus?

I sometimes think of the sermons I preach as either having a social justice focus or a pastoral focus, the one looking outward into the world, making an appeal to respond to the needs of others, the other focusing within, seeking to minister to your needs. I’m reminded this morning that this way of thinking sets up a false dichotomy. It seems fair to say that Lea and Ben care for one another personally or pastorally through their shared commitment to each other; while their relationship is also, as Stern says, an act of justice, witnessing to necessary reconciliation in a divided world.

The rise of anti-Semitic-fueled acts in the United States — bomb threats at Jewish community centers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries — has been weighing heavily on Stern and Heitfeld. The vitriol directed at minority groups, not just Jews, is all too reminiscent. “I walk with a fresh injection of pain and hurt,” Stern said. Heitfeld feels it, too. “I’ve been in more pain that I’m living with a man who went through this and now has to be confronted with this on the news,” she said.

Entrusting our lives to one another requires sharing pain. This is one meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, an act of divine empathy and commitment, a willingness to share pain with us. We might even say that the cross represents the place that God and humanity entrust their lives to each other, affirm their belief in one another. It is by believing in the other that Lea and Ben have come to be most fully themselves.

Lea and Ben model for me what it means to live out a belief in Jesus who embodies for me both friend and stranger. Note, neither Lea nor Ben are Christian, but their example informs what it means for me to believe.

Ben Stern concludes, “I feel like it’s important for the reason I survived to tell the world, to tell the next generation what to look out for to have a better, secure, free life,” he said. “It’s important for them to learn how to behave with other people, with other nations, and religions. We’re different, but we’re all human and there is room for each and every one of us in this world. It should be in harmony instead of hatred, racism. … We are all born; we’re all going to go. While we’re here, we should try to improve the world.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

I can now say that I believe in Jesus. I trust in, have confidence in, the one who represents for me both friend and stranger, pastor and prophet. And by entrusting my life to this Jesus, I glimpse that promised perfect and timeless union with the divine.

During this Lenten season, I invite you to return to the passages in the Bible that are a stumbling block for you and see if you might find there something to believe in, an opportunity to be born again, an entry, perhaps, into eternal life.

If Failure Didn’t Matter

A sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 7, 2016.

Bible scholar and pastor David Lose writes: One of my favorite questions to ask in counseling sessions is: “What would you love to try if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

This is a provocative question, meant to help us get beyond the ways we sometimes avoid trying new things out of a fear of failing. It prompts us, Lose writes, “to cast our gaze beyond our present circumstances and challenges, elements in our lives that, while perhaps real, often cast a larger than necessary shadow.”

While Lose’ question suggests a useful exercise, the author of The Letter to the Hebrews takes this approach to achieving our hopes and dreams a step further.

Faith, says Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. The writer seems to promise success, if only we believe. Like a high-powered motivational speaker, they say, we cannot fail to achieve all our hopes and dreams if only we have faith!

Hebrews then lifts up Abraham as an example of just such a faith. Abraham obeys God’s call and God delivers on His promise, providing Abraham descendants, as many as the stars and as plentiful as grains of sand at the seashore.

This idea that our hopes and dreams can be realized through faith is comforting to many, and we often look to Abraham as an example of such fealty. But to tell you the truth, I worry when I hear this perspective on faith. Saying faith equals success implies that failure results from a lack of faith. It follows that we call successful people “blessed” and blame people who fail. This could have the effect of making God small, reduced to picking life’s winners and losers.

Lose seems to recognize the limitations of this perspective, and revisits and reframes his original question.

“While it’s important to free folks to dream of life without limits,” he writes,” it’s also important to equip us to live with the very real challenges in front of us.” He then asks, “What would we do or dare, not if we knew we couldn’t fail, but rather if we believed that it is OK to fail?

Lose refers back to Abraham who fails, at times spectacularly, but maintains his relationship with God throughout.

Over the years, as he responds to God’s call to move his family to the land of Canaan, Abraham twice, in order to save his own life, passes off his wife Sarah as his sister, in effect prostituting her, first to Pharaoh then to King Abimelech. Giving up on God’s promise of descendants with his wife, Abraham bears a child, Ishmael with his wife’s servant Hagar, then, when Sarah does bear him a son, sends Hagar and Ismael off into the wilderness to die. Yes, Abraham was faithful, yet he failed spectacularly. In this respect he makes an interesting example of “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” Abraham most certainly did not live the “happily ever after” life he hoped for.

I got this far in my thinking about this text and I got stuck. How can we understand faith in a way that doesn’t focus on the realization of all our own hopes and dreams? When I get stuck like this nothing I think seems inspired; I hear my own preaching voice in my head and it sounds like this, “Blah-blah-blah-blah.”

I felt a case of the blah-blahs coming on so, needing to hear voices other than my own, I posed Lose’ question on Facebook. I wrote, “Help! I’m really struggling to get started on my sermon today. Given the Bible texts, I’d like to explore what it means to have and act with faith in a way that doesn’t imply everything will turn out “happily ever after.” I am intrigued by the question one writer asks, What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail? Anyone want to respond to the question, or more generally on faith (beyond, “don’t worry, be happy”)?

Well, many, including some of you, provided great responses. Here were some of the answers to Lose’ question, “What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail?”

I would be braver – be more willing to go all in for creative endeavors. I think I’d probably be willing to love myself more, disregard judgement more. The fear of failure holds me back a lot.

 

I would be more willing to take risks like starting my own business or moving different places. It is easy to get stuck in a comfort zone. But some of my best moments have been from pushing myself outside of it.

 

What could you do if failure didn’t matter? Everything, take the jump from comfort and ease. If failure doesn’t matter then judgements don’t either because failure and judgements go hand in hand. And I don’t mean judgment from God I mean judgements from others and ourselves. If the judgements weren’t there many more people would be ok with being who they are and walking closer to God without fear of others eyes.

 

Wow! Beautiful, deep, heartfelt words. Notice two of these made a connection between failure and judgement. Maybe failure isn’t even a thing, maybe failure is simply a judgement made by others or ourselves.

Others responded to the question, “What does it mean to have and act with faith in a way that doesn’t imply everything will turn out happily ever after?

Several people, including our own Marge Brown, spoke of learning and growing from our mistakes.

Someone offered a variation of this, comparing living a life of faith to learning to ride a bicycle, instead of living “happily ever after,” we “earn our scars.”

But the response that really helped me get unstuck from the seeming “happily ever after” promise of Hebrew’s assurance of things hoped for came from my friend Michael. He writes: “I think of that old Franz Kafka quote, when he was asked, “Is there hope?” He replied, “Oh, there’s lots of hope. Just not for us.” Michael continues, “It often is not about us and the motivational speaker, Tony Robbins cliché that proper belief will result in our personal well-being. It might be a catastrophe for us, but good for that which we’re part of and which sustains us.”

Now, this might not sound especially optimistic, and in fact Michael isn’t always the most optimistic guy, after all he’s quoting Kafka. But there is some really deep wisdom in his words. Namely, it’s not all about us. When Michael writes about “good for that which we’re part of” he is referring to our community, our world, creation. And his reference to “that which sustains us” can be understood as God. As individuals, we will surely fail, but there is lots of hope for the Creator and Creation.

An old high school friend used more religious language to say something similar, “Acting in faith means this life is all about Christ, not me. It’s not about how things turn out for me, but for God’s glory.” And this hope is assured and worthy of our faith.

This makes sense of God’s promise to Abraham. God did not promise success and happiness for Abraham, but hope for his descendants, the continued unfolding of God’s plan for God’s people.

Let’s return to Lose’ question, “What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail?” Maybe this assurance isn’t God’s to provide, but ours. How do we, as a community of Christ, create a place, not just where it is OK to fail, but where failure is valued?

Remember the way my two Facebook friends described being disabled by the judgment that defines failure? So that would be a start. Do we, can we, as a community of Christ provide a safe place to fail, a place that doesn’t judge failed relationships, lost jobs, poor grades, dropped footballs and strikeouts, DUI’s, burnt dinner and bad haircuts, bad grammar, “a past.” That would be a start, and in my experience First Church does pretty well in these regards. But what would it look like to value, even encourage failure?

In response to my Facebook plea, a seminary friend pointed me to an online TED Talk, a lecture by a man named Astro Teller. Astro leads a division at Google called Google X. Google X is a place that is meant to inspire big audacious ideas, moonshots Astro calls them. A self-driving car, Google glasses, giant lighter than air ships that would give small land-bound countries markets for their crops and goods.

Developing big ideas like this requires an environment that encourages risk taking, risk taking that often results in failure. How does one develop such a risk-taking, forgiving culture?

Astro describes standing up on stage with one of the project teams in front of all Google X employees. This was a team that had, in effect failed, despite an investment of millions of dollars the idea they were exploring just wouldn’t work. Astro told the assembled Google X employees, “This team has done more by ending their project than all the rest of you have done in the last quarter.” The auditorium responded with an uncomfortable silence. “And,” Astro continued, “We’re giving them all bonuses for having ended their project.” What? People began to murmur. Astro concluded, addressing the team, “Take a vacation, and when you get back, the world is your oyster, find some new project to jump into.”

“Everyone thinks I’ve lost my mind,” he says. “But the 10th time, no one even thinks about it. Now, those teams that fail just get a standing ovation. I don’t even need to say the speech anymore; it’s part of the culture now.”

Now wouldn’t that be something, a church that gives standing ovations and vacations in response to failure? Creating a culture where sharing failure is encouraged and even celebrated.

I think I unwittingly stumbled on to something when posting my question on Facebook. This topic of faith and failure struck a chord with people. And by coming together we modelled a response that includes both shared vulnerability and mutual support, both fear and assurance.

Shortly, I will invite you to this table (gesture to the Communion table) to continue this conversation.

 

 

Published in: on August 8, 2016 at 3:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I Just Can’t Do It All

I have been asked to write a regular column for the New Britain Herald. Here is the column that ran on November 25, 2011:

Stressed. Anxious. Worried. Overwhelmed. As a pastor, these were some of the feelings I heard expressed by New Britain residents in the days following the October Nor’easter. Most of us confronted cold, dark nights lit only by candles and flashlights. Some were trapped in their homes for days because of downed trees and branches. Many were unable to cook meals or wash clothes. Others couldn’t bathe or flush their toilets and had to stay with relatives or in shelters. This rare storm tested our ability to respond to adversity in our lives.

One comment in particular made me pause and ponder the spiritual lessons we might take from this experience. These words came from a big, burly guy, a former Marine and firefighter, who had set out early Sunday morning to plow driveways for his customers. Like all of us he was appalled by the devastation and destruction he encountered. In his younger days, he thought, he would have taken it all on. He imagined his younger-self brandishing a chainsaw and single-handedly clearing every blocked road and rescuing every trapped little old lady. But now, as he picked his way through the debris, he could only shake his head and say, “I just can’t do it all.”

I just can’t do it all. We should all pause and repeat these words; “I just can’t do it all.” On one hand, this is an honest acknowledgment of our limitations. But these words are also the first step in leading a life of faith. When we acknowledge our limitations, we make room in our lives for the divine to move.

We often associate faith with belief in a particular God, doctrine or set of values. But before we ever arrive at what we believe in, we must know how to act from faith. How will we respond when we are stressed, anxious, worried or overwhelmed, when we confront devastation and destruction in our lives? C. S. Lewis once said, “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.” Our first step is to simply let go and say, “I just can’t do it all,” and trust that someone or something else can and will respond. Then, in faith, we take another step.

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 7:15 pm  Comments (3)  
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Happy St. Ambrose Day, Rod!

Today is Saint Ambrose Day.

Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals and its accompanying website regularly integrate reflections on the lives of saints, ancient and contemporary, into daily prayers. Today’s prayer introduces Ambrose of Milan (339-397):

A provincial governor in fourth-century Italy, Ambrose was drafted to serve as bishop before he was even baptized. Reluctant to serve the church at first, he took the task seriously when he finally accepted the call. Ambrose gave away all of his possessions, took up a strict schedule of daily prayer, and committed himself to the study of Scripture. Called from the world of politics to serve the church, Ambrose was a leader who spoke truth to power and did not back down, insisting that “the emperor is in the church, not over it.”

Addressing Roman Emperor Theodosius about a massacre he had authorized at Thessalonica, Ambrose of Milan wrote, “You are human, and temptation has overtaken you. Overcome it. I counsel, I beseech, I implore you to repentance. You, who have so often been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocents to perish. The devil wished to wrest from you the crown of piety which was your chiefest glory. Drive him from you while you can.”

The life of Governor (and Bishop) Ambrose stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the disgraced and ousted Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was today sentenced to fourteen years in prison for corruption. Where is our Ambrose?

Pyro-Theology: Consuming But Not Consumed

Worship is canceled tomorrow because of hurricane Irene. So in lieu of a sermon, I thought I would offer a blog post. The lectionary reading this week is from the third chapter of Exodus (1-15). Moses was keeping the flock for his father-in-law when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush. The bush was blazing but was not consumed. God called to Moses from the bush and Moses answered, “Here I am!”

Those of you who follow the South Congregational-First Baptist Church Facebook page know that I have recently become enamored with Peter Rollins. I’m not quite sure how to classify him, philosopher, theologian, new-monastic, prophetic voice in the emergent church? I know he is a beer drinking Irishman and that is good enough for me! His book Insurrection: To Believe is Human, to Doubt is Divine will soon be released, and reviews, interviews and excerpts have recently appeared on Facebook and Twitter.

In Insurrection Rollins speaks of what he calls pyro-theology. He coined the term based on a quote from a dead Spanish Anarchist named Buenaventura Durruti who said that “The only church that illuminates is a burning one.” Of course Durruti was advocating for the destruction of the church as an institution. On the one hand Rollins accepts Durruti’s critique that the church today too often fails to illuminate anything or anyone. On the other hand he appropriates the image of the burning church to demand a faith that is on fire, that is all consuming. Rollins grounds this pyro-theology in radical confession of doubt and unknowing. Doubt and unknowing should be the starting point for our prayers, our hymns and our services of worship. Only then will we make room for an authentic experience of the divine. Here is Rollins’ fellow Irishman Pádraig Ó Tuama giving beautiful, poetic expression to such a confessional, pyro-theology in his song Maranatha. Note, the song includes “the eff-word” so you may not want to play the video in the presence of young children.

We worry that if we admit our failures and limitations we will be consumed by our doubt and unknowing. In fact the opposite is true. When we, like Pádraig Ó Tuama, confess that we are weak, that we are tired and give up, that we have screwed it up again, and that we have made our home in Babylon, Holy fire will kindle within us, and the church will again blaze a path for a hurting world. Alleluia!

Wrestle With This! God, Taxes and Politics of the Apocalypse

This sermon seemed to strike a chord on Sunday and remains relevant despite the apparent deal on the debt ceiling. For those that know my tongue-in-cheek, wry, irreverent presence in the pulpit, forget that. Forget Pastor George and imagine, if you can, Prophet George. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and George. Hmmm, not sure it will catch on. Nonetheless, wrestle with this and comment.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of what is happening in the world today to be depressing, anxiety producing and infuriating. It is bad enough that we are involved in intractable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, wars that continue to inflict death and destruction, not only on our own troops and families but also in the lives of millions of innocent people in these countries. It is bad enough that we are mired in an intractable recession that is inflicting gross hardship on millions of people. It is bad enough that we are confronted with a debt crisis that threatens entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, leading to financial insecurity and high anxiety all the way around. Wars, recession, debt crisis and to top it all off we have these idiots in Washington D.C. who are holding the country hostage to make political points. It all makes me completely insane and I am just fed up!

Remember those commercials for Calgon bath beads. We see a harried woman overwhelmed by the chaos at home who pleads, Calgon take me away. We then see her blissfully reclining in a luxurious bath. Our temptation in the face of the chaos and anxiety that surrounds us is to call out, not to Calgon, but to God, “Lord, Lord, take us away!” Take us away to some imagined, blissful paradise.

Perhaps this is what Jacob is feeling. Jacob has plenty of chaos to deal with himself. You will remember that Jacob tricked his brother Esau into giving away his birthright. In a rage, Esau vows to kill Jacob. To preserve his life, Jacob’s mother Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban where he marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years pass and as we come to this morning’s scripture lesson Jacob is hoping to reconcile with his brother Esau. Jacob has sent a peace offering of livestock but is still terrified that Esau will destroy him and his family. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and settles down for the night. The scripture doesn’t record his thoughts or his prayers but we can imagine him pleading, “Lord, Lord take me away.”

Instead of whisking Jacob and his family away to a place free of all conflict, fear and hardship, God comes to Jacob in the form of a stranger and wrestles with him. God leaves a mark, striking Jacob on the hip that he will forever walk with a limp, but Jacob refuses to let go of God. God renames Jacob, saying “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”) for you have striven with God and humans.” And God blesses Jacob.

Jacob is confronted with chaos, fear and suffering. But instead of taking him away from it all, instead of taking Jacob up the ladder into heaven, God comes down Jacob’s ladder and wrestles with him. As we face the chaos, fear and suffering of wars, recession, debt crisis and political Armageddon, a wrestling match with God is hardly the answer we seek to our plea, “Lord, Lord take us away!”

Which brings us to this video that narrates and illustrates a contemporary parable written by an Irish writer and storyteller, Peter Rollins. What do you think?

The idea of God abandoning people in heaven as a judgment on their failure to commit themselves to and engage in the hardship and suffering in this world is creative if not strictly biblical. But Rollins’ parable certainly gets at biblical concepts that are at the very heart of our faith. God’s promise is not all about some future escape to a blissful paradise. God promises to be present with us in the chaos, fear and hardship of our lives in this world, today. And God asks us to be present with, not escape from, those who suffer the most from our present tribulations.

God descended to wrestle with Jacob, wrestle with Jacob’s history of selfishness and deception, and wrestle with the fear Jacob felt as he anticipated the possibility of redemption and reconciliation with his brother Esau. If we stop reading at verse 32 as we did this morning we miss the real outcome of God’s wrestling match with God. The very next verse reads, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming.” Jacob advances toward Esau bowing to the ground seven times as he goes, (and) Esau runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep.

God descends among us, wrestles with our fear and dread, our hardship and suffering, and leads us to redemption and reconciliation. Of course we know this because in Jesus Christ God didn’t just come down a ladder to Jacob, God descended to wrestle with human sin and suffering and redeem all of us. But God does more than wrestle with us and redeem us, in Jesus Christ God calls us to wrestle with and redeem all those who suffer the consequences of war, illness, poverty, and injustice.

Nothing communicates this call more effectively than the story of feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Note, though, that it isn’t Jesus who feeds the crowd. The disciples come to Jesus at the end of the day and say, “it’s late Jesus, send all these people away so they can buy food for themselves.” But, knowing the plight of this battered and broken rabble, Jesus responds to the disciples saying, “No, don’t sent them away, you feed them.” He blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. Some scholars explain this miracle by suggesting that once the crowd saw that the disciples were sharing everything that they had, everyone in the crowd responded by sharing what they had.

How might these two stories, Jacob wrestling with God and the disciples feeding the 5,000 with 5 loaves and two fish, respond to the hell, and I mean hell, that is breaking loose in Washington? Here are a few thoughts:

God is here in our midst wrestling with us to bring redemption and reconciliation out of sin and conflict. Bearing the name Israel, we are called to strive with God and humans. We can’t hide, as people of faith we are marked by our encounters with God. Wearing the mark of these encounters for all to see, we are called to confront fear and humble ourselves before our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Jacob and Esau can reconcile, so can Democrats and Republicans. But it requires all sides humbling themselves, maybe even bowing to the ground to each other seven times. Just imagine! And Jesus commands us, you feed my hungry, my hurting, my naked, my sick; give everything you have.

This is one of the ideas behind taxation, taxes are a way of sharing our loaves and fish with seniors who have worked their whole lives trusting that they would not be abandoned when they cannot work any longer, taxes provide for those impacted by the recession, the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry, taxes provide healthcare for the sick.

Now, some say that it is not the government’s role or responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. O.K., truth be told, this libertarian perspective is not inconsistent with the Bible. There is no clear biblical mandate for government to provide for human need. So one can believe that the government is not in the best position to meet these needs, that the government is inefficient, that the government doesn’t spend tax money wisely, and still be a faithful Christian. But if we are to be faithful to the Bible, we absolutely cannot write the most vulnerable out of our lives of faith and this means challenging ourselves to give everything that we have for the least of these.

Jesus commands us to meet these needs somehow. I paid over $16,000 in taxes last year. Unlike the loaves and fish it isn’t all that I have, but it is a lot. You bet I’d like to have that money back. But if I am going to make a case that I don’t want the government to have this money, that I don’t want the government to respond to the needs of the hungry and hurting, then I darn well better be prepared to give that money and more to the hungry and hurting crowd around me.

How many of the people who are raging about the government taking their money are upset because they would rather give all that money away to the most vulnerable people in their community. How many would give the $16,000 or $6,000, or $160,000 that they paid in taxes to the homeless shelter down the street, to Iraqi children who lost limbs in the war, to a neighbor who hasn’t worked in four years. I can tell you how many. Zero.

Some of the voices I hear in the budget debate cry out that the government is taking their hard earned money, money that belongs to them. Rubbish. All that we have is given to us by God, only so that we can share it. Wrestle with that!

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