Sunday, September 9, 2018

God's Promises Bring Hope: Our Promise-Keeper

Hasn’t this past week felt a little unsettling? With everything in the news, with concern about what’s happening in Washington, or with the hurricane in the Gulf coast area, doesn’t it sometimes seem like the world is a really scary and bad place?

Well, that’s how the story of Noah begins--when the world was a scary and bad place, just as for us today. And, yet, the story ends when God places a rainbow in the clouds as a symbol of promise and as a sign of the covenant between God and all living creatures.

This story can feel difficult for hear when we are living in a world like today--where extreme events seem to be a regular occurance. We might find ourselves asking in these times--in natural disasters or disasters that are human made--we might ask, “Where is God in this event?”

Who of you remembers Mister Rogers? Mister Rogers used to share that, in times of crisis, his grandmother and his parents would tell him to “look for the helpers.” That, if you looked on the edges of the event, you could often see helpers there, quietly at work, caring for others and for God’s creation. You see, the “helpers” are the ones who take part in God’s covenant promise to care for creation. Let’s watch Mister Rogers!

Think about those people who are the "helpers" in difficult situations. Make a list of how you can be a helper for someone who is scared, how you might be able to help care for God's creation.

Prayer: God, sometimes the world can be a scary place. But we know that you are always with us. In the Bible we read over and over about your promise to save us. We remember your promise every time we see a rainbow. Thank you for being stronger than the scary things of this world. We pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The story of Noah and the ark is a well-known story. Some of us have likely heard it many times in our lives. As we hear it today, I want you to think about these questions: What bothers you about this text? What does this text tell you about God? What does this story have to do with the way you live your life?

The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken. So the Lord said, “I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created: from human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them.” But as for Noah, the Lord approved of him.

These are Noah’s descendants. In his generation, Noah was a moral and exemplary man; he walked with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence. God saw that the earth was corrupt, because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.

God said to Noah, “The end has come for all creatures, since they have filled the earth with violence. I am now about to destroy them along with the earth, so make a wooden ark. Make the ark with nesting places and cover it inside and out with tar. This is how you should make it: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. Make a roof for the ark and complete it one foot from the top. Put a door in its side. In the hold below, make the second and third decks.

“I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath. But I will set up my covenant with you. You will go into the ark together with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. From all living things—from all creatures—you are to bring a pair, male and female, into the ark with you to keep them alive.  From each kind of bird, from each kind of livestock, and from each kind of everything that crawls on the ground—a pair from each will go in with you to stay alive.  Take some from every kind of food and stow it as food for you and for the animals.”

Noah did everything exactly as God commanded him.

After forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made.  He sent out a raven, and it flew back and forth until the waters over the entire earth had dried up.  Then he sent out a dove to see if the waters on all of the fertile land had subsided, but the dove found no place to set its foot. It returned to him in the ark since waters still covered the entire earth. Noah stretched out his hand, took it, and brought it back into the ark.  He waited seven more days and sent the dove out from the ark again. The dove came back to him in the evening, grasping a torn olive leaf in its beak. Then Noah knew that the waters were subsiding from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent out the dove, but it didn’t come back to him again.

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, and with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.”  Genesis 6:5-22, 8:6-12, 9:8-17 (CEB)

It’s important for us to understand that, in the ancient world, people told stories about floods. The Sumerians, the Africans, the Babylonians--all of these people told stories about floods. In particular, they told stories about water and its power to destroy towns and cities, and even whole civilizations. There were also stories--in these times--of people who built boats to survive these floods.

Floods were often believed to be divine judgment by angry gods. Gods who were angry with people for messing everything up. So, through floods, the angry gods “cleared the deck” to start all over again.

So, it’s not really unusual that, when we come to Genesis 6, we hear a flood story. This story--with Noah, and his ark, and his family and the animals--is like all the other flood stories because, of course, this god is like the other gods. Angry. Fed up with an evil humanity. Evil in every way--in thoughts and in actions. 

So, this god--like all those others--decides once again to unleash divine wrath on the world through a flood.

But, then, something strange happens with this story. It ends with a promise from this god that this will never happen again. What? God literally says to Noah, “I will place my ‘bow’ in the clouds as a sign of this promise.” A bow--like an archer’s bow. God puts up God’s weapon and says, “No more!” This God will be different from the other gods. This God will commit to living with people in a new way--a way in which life is not destroyed, but is preserved and respected. 

So, why was this story told? Why did it matter? And why did it endure throughout the ages?

Well, imagine what it was like to live in this time--no weather reports, no Google earth images, no airplanes or weather satellites. You’d likely never have travelled more than a few miles from where you were born. Then, imagine what a massive flood must have felt like--coming at you out of nowhere. Wiping out your house and your crops and your animals and your family members. Gone. 

What would that do to your psyche? How would you respond to such an event?

You would do exactly what we do when we suffer. We look for reasons. For causes. To understand why this is happening to me. To us. So, in the ancient world, it was generally believed that the causes of these floods were gods who were angry. That’s how people made sense in stories of the world and of floods.

But, this tale, in Genesis was different. Even though it began with the same old story--of divine judgment and a flood--there’s a huge twist at the end. Everybody doesn’t die, as in the other stories. A family is spared. And, then, a promise is made to them--a promise with a sign. The sign of the rainbow.

Because this flood story is the story of a God who wants to relate to us. Who grieves deeply when we push God away from us. Because God is a God who wants to save. A God who wants to be in covenant with us. 

This flood story is a story about a new view of God. Not a God who wants to destroy humanity, but a God who wants to be in relationship with us. And who promises to stay with us, even in the midst of our messy and chaotic world.

God sent a rainbow as a sign that God would never again destroy the earth. And, then, God set out to write a new story--a story about love and salvation. About God keeping God’s promises. Our God is a promise-keeper. And, because we know this, we can trust God’s word.

Sometimes, though, isn’t it hard to trust that promise? We need to be honest about that with ourselves and with others, too. 

When is it hard for you to trust the promises of God? Perhaps it's in times of challenge or loneliness? Or maybe in times of fear and frustration.

Think about that. Then, remember that, regardless of our fears, God sets the rainbow in the sky as a promise that God will never forsake us. That God will always be with us. This is God’s promise. And God is our promise-keeper. Amen.

Preached Sunday, September 9, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 16
Reading: Genesis 6:5-22, 8:6-12, 9:8-17

*The concept of the flood story utilized is done so with much gratitude to that given by Rob Bell in his book, What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Treasure Hunting: Our Hearts and Grief

As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.” Mark 10:17-31 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about the experience we had here last Sunday morning. In case you missed it, would any of you like to share what happened? That’s right. We had a Spanish-speaking family visit us last Sunday—a husband and his wife and their two children, a boy and a little girl. They were a lovely family. As we communicated with them, difficult as that was, we learned that they were traveling from the East Coast to Texas. That they had gone to the East Coast for work, that this hadn’t worked out, and that they were returning to Texas, which is where they had originally travelled from. They were seeking help from us—help to ensure they had money for gas and, perhaps, a place to stop to rest. This was their story.

What if, though...what if the story they told was untrue? What if they were telling us a lie?

I returned late last night from Seattle. I was there for a conference of congregational developers and re-developers. These are pastors who are called to a place to either start new churches or to help lead with the revitalization of existing congregations. While I was there, I heard a lot of stories about some of these existing congregations around the ELCA—congregations stuck in the past or isolated within their church’s walls. Congregations who refused to look outward, to go out into the neighborhood. Unwilling to look for where the Holy Spirit might already be at work in their community. Congregations unwilling to be open-hearted.

As I sat there and listened to these difficult stories, all I could do was to reflect upon our experience here last Sunday. I felt this incredible sense of joy. More like pride, really, at how warmly you, the members of this congregation, welcomed this family. In fact, at times I felt overwhelmed by your response—at how you gave of yourselves and your own wealth so abundantly—with even a couple of you going to get cash to give. Or how you helped them pack up food from our pantry so generously and graciously. But, mostly, how you opened your hearts so openly. Without worry, which was the very thing we talked about last week. 

This was the first thing that remained with me from last week and, to be quite honest with you, this is what matters most--that you responded with such generosity and open-heartedness, trusting that God was calling you at that very moment to a deep place of generosity.

There was a second thing that stuck with me...something that left me wondering a little bit. As we packed them into their van, knowing that they had so little and that it was very likely that everything they owned was in this van, I began to wonder about whether I could survive with so little. Whether I could survive without all of my possessions. Without my stuff.

It’s that question of possessions that is central to our story this morning. Here we have a man—a rich man—who approaches Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He asks. What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Do you notice Jesus’ response? He recalls for the man several of the Ten Commandments—commandments that, if you recall from earlier this summer, come from what is often called the “second table” of commandments. The “first table” teaches us how we are to live in relationship to God. The second table—those Jesus reminds him of here—are the ones that teach us how we are to live in relationship with each other. Jesus tells him that he must keep these commandments.

“I’ve kept all of them—every one of them!” The man replies. Now, my initial thought is “What arrogance this man has!” Yet, if we read the text carefully, one notices that it seems that he is completely sincere. The opening verse says he came to Jesus and kneeled down before him. It would appear that he truly wanted to know. Jesus recognizes this sincerity. Our text reads that Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. Loved him. 

And, then, Jesus told him to sell everything—all that he had. All of his riches, his great wealth. And to give the money to the poor. 

We must be careful here about what this text says to us. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that being rich is sinful. Or that having wealth will keep us from being in God’s kingdom. After all, doesn’t Jesus go on just a few verses later that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom? But, that’s not the message of this story. When Jesus asks him to dispose of all of his stuff, then man turns and walks away, grieving. Grieving, our story says, because he had many possessions.

You see, Jesus knew that the big roadblock to his man being in relationship with both God and with his neighbor was his stuff. It was the emotional investment he had in his stuff—an emotional attachment so deep that, to even consider giving it all away, left him grieving. 

We live in a consumeristic culture. A culture that teaches us that there is a value in things, in our possessions. That we should strive for these things. Our status is so often connected to how much stuff we have. And we, very easily, can become emotionally attached to our stuff. If you’ve ever had to take a cell phone or a Game Boy or some other electronic device away from a teenager or a child, and then witnessed the accompanying grief, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  

We, adults, aren’t much better. We all wrestle with this—with the emotional attachment we have to our stuff and the investment we have in wealth and getting more and more of it. At the core of this is grief. Just like the rich man, who grieved over the idea of giving up all his wealth and turning his entire life over to God, we also grieve over the thought that we have to give it all up to be in relationship with God.

I wonder, though, if this is really the message here. Think about it. God doesn’t hate stuff. In fact, matter matters to God. Because God is all about creating stuff. About making new things out of the old. About making more stuff.

I wonder if the invitation for us is to think differently. Instead of feeling guilty and ashamed about our stuff, what if we were to rethink our relationship to it and wonder how, through our connection to things, we might better connect to our neighbors. To wonder how we might pick something up and consider how we might use it for our neighbor. To clean out that closet and give our clothes to a neighbor or to Goodwill for someone else to use—someone who, perhaps, doesn’t have the abundance we do. 

Or, perhaps, it’s an invitation to pick something up and reflect upon what the cost was to get it to our houses. About the wages paid to the person who made it. About the cost to the environment to create it or to dispose of it.  And then to consider an alternative that isn’t as costly to our created world.

Or maybe it’s even a way for us to deepen our relationship with others by sharing the richness of the emotional attachment we might have to something—the expensive grand piano that has been passed down in your family and the memories we have of those who played it. Or the Bible that, in my family, for example, was given to me by my grandmother who painstakingly tracked all of the births, marriages, and deaths in our family over the past several generations.

Perhaps, in his challenge to the rich man, Jesus isn’t trying to guilt or shame him, or us, but to inspire generosity and to give us a sense of freedom. To lift the weight off of us from all our stuff and to help us see that true life doesn’t come from that stuff, but from our relationships. Our relationships with others. And, particularly, our relationship with God.

Because God is the agent of our saving. We aren’t. And our stuff certainly isn’t. God is. Giver of the greatest gift to us—the gift of life in Jesus. Not a life of grief over losing our possessions. But a life of joy in gaining God’s kingdom. And a life that is reoriented away from our possessions to one of free and generous stewardship, serving God. Where our money and wealth are agents of that service.

We give thanks for God’s gifts. May God give us such clean hearts and right spirits in which to use them. Amen. 

Preached August 26, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 14
Readings: Mark 10:17-31 (Psalm 51:10-12)