Sunday, September 19, 2021

God Provides Blessings: Heart of a Parent

The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac.

After these events, God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”

Abraham answered, “I’m here.”

God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.

On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.

They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”

Abraham said, “I’m here.”

The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.” --Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from God’s beloved Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Parenting is so hard, isn’t it? Whether you love children of your own making, or children of your siblings, or grandchildren, parenting - in every form - is hard. My son is well beyond his “difficult” years, but I still remember the challenges of that time. Not so much that he was “difficult,” but that the choices I had to make as a parent were difficult. Whether to work those extra hours, so I could make more money and better support him. Or to choose to spend time with him instead and risk running out of food at the end of the month. Or then, there are the choices we make about our children’s behaviors - whether to respond and, if so, how strongly to respond, always worried about the risk of how an exaggerated response might escalate their response. And, even, possibly drive them away.

And, then, there are the sacrifices, aren’t there? When they're younger, it’s such a sacrifice of time. The constant feeling of exhaustion and a sense that you weren’t really prepared for this. Even as they grow older and older, the sacrifices change, but they are still there. Yet, none of those sacrifices even begin to compare to that being asked of Abraham in our story today.

This is a hard story. Let’s just be honest about this. In the Jewish tradition, this story is called the “Binding of Isaac.” I wonder if it's not better called “The Destruction of Abraham.” Abraham is called by God - this God we heard of last week as a creating God, a God of life. Abraham is called by God to take his one remaining son. (Remember how he sent his other son, Ishmael, born of Hagar, away and into the wilderness?) Abraham is called by God to take Isaac, his one remaining son. His most beloved child. To go to Mount Moriah - the future site of the temple - and to sacrifice him on an altar they will build together. 

One can only wonder what kind of God would do this? Would ask this of a man to whom a nation had been promised from this son? A father who loved his son more than everything? This story seems to completely contradict everything we know and believe about God.

But, there’s one more thing about this story. Something that nags at me each time I’ve read it.  As a parent, I have to ask the questions - maybe you’re asking them, too - Why does Abraham make the choices he does? And, why doesn’t Abraham say anything to challenge God in any way? 

We all have to make choices in our lives. Choices as parents. How to raise our kids. What to teach them. Whether to allow them to do certain things. And I don’t know about you, but there have been many times that I’ve made the wrong choices. Even with good intent. There were times when my choices were just complete failures. But, I think with most of us, our choices come out of our experience. Experiences that are so different from parent to parent. Experiences that drive us to make the decisions we make for our kids. And their lives. And our lives together.

Perhaps that’s why Abraham made the choice he made. Why he didn’t challenge God when God told him to take his son, his only son, his beloved son, and sacrifice him on the mountain that day. Perhaps Abraham made this choice based on his own experience with God. Up to this point, God had asked him to do a lot of things. Ten tests, in fact, according to Jewish tradition. Moving away with Sarah from their homeland to become strangers in this new land of Canaan. Then, on arriving, facing a famine. And then, promised to become a great nation, he and Sarah continued to be childless. The tests had been many for Abraham, from his first meeting with God. Yet, so far, his experience was that this God, to whom he had been covenanted, was a God who kept promises. A God who remained faithful.

So, perhaps, Abraham made the choice he made because he believed that God would be faithful. That God would not let his future and that of Isaac be destroyed.

This text has traditionally been read on Good Friday. If we were to read this story today as if it were that day, perhaps it might - as one theologian puts it - become at least clear why Abraham can afford to trust God with his own beloved son. Because, in every circumstance and beyond all reason, God can be trusted with a child because God’s heart is wholly the heart of a parent. And it’s on Good Friday that we see, with eyes of faith, our own God standing just as Abraham did. An anguished parent yearning over his adorable, true and only Son. Bound on the wood. Behold the Lamb of God.

In our Christian tradition, we know this God as the one whose heart has been torn wide open by the conflict between God’s love for God’s Son. And God’s love for the world. 

We know the choice made by God. Yet, stranger than strange, in making this choice, we also see that God’s heart, once it is ripped wide open, now has the capacity to love even more.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached September 19, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14; John 1:29

God Provides Blessings: God's Good Creation

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.” God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. God named the dome Sky.

There was evening and there was morning: the second day.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened. God named the dry land Earth, and he named the gathered waters Seas. God saw how good it was. God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened. The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.

There was evening and there was morning: the third day.

God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.

There was evening and there was morning: the fourth day.

God said, “Let the waters swarm with living things, and let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky.” God created the great sea animals and all the tiny living things that swarm in the waters, each according to its kind, and all the winged birds, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was. Then God blessed them: “Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.”

There was evening and there was morning: the fifth day.

God said, “Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened. God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground. God saw how good it was. Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.

There was evening and there was morning: the sixth day.

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. --Genesis 1:1-2:4a (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Creator, Jesus, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, brooding over the waters. Amen.

The human story could have started anywhere. Our first peek at humanity could have been paradise. It could have been the fall from grace. But, the human story - our story - starts at the beginning, with the creation of everything. And it starts with the Creator of all things.

We just watched a video of one person’s interpretation of this Genesis story. Yet, if we go back to the holy scripture and read it carefully, we see just how intentional God was about creation. God was thoughtful. Careful. And creative. God included everything - light, universe, stars, sun, atmosphere, seas, land, plants, animals. And then, it was time for people. 

People could simply have been made a higher form of animals. But God did something quite unique with humanity. God created people in God’s own image. Putting God’s fingerprint on humanity in a way not done with anything else in God’s creation.

So, we were created in the image of the Creator, which means we were created to create. This is no small distinction. We were not created to break down or to destroy. We were not created to hate, which is at the root of our desire to destroy.

In our lives, we have decisions to make all day long. At their core, each of our decisions comes with an underlying question. Will our choice create or destroy? Will it build up or break down? Will it contribute or remove?

We are living through very difficult times in our world. There is so much division. So much instability. So much destruction of God’s creation. So much that is bad in our world. 

Yet, the flip side is true, as well. I’ve been listening to many stories over the past few days - stories that reminded me of what that time was like after 9/11. That world-changing event that happened these 20 years ago. Do you remember that time? I remember how, in the midst of the destruction and the devastation, people pulled together - first responders in particular. We pulled together to do what was necessary to save as many lives as possible. 

Now, I recognize that life is complex. My own attitude after 9/11 was that we, as a nation, had taken the right steps, began to change. As I saw mistakes made by leaders, as I heard stories from my own son deployed to Afghanistan, that attitude began to change. And I began to question whether we had, in fact, done the right thing. Isn’t this often true. That we go into a situation thinking we are doing something right. Then, when we’re in the midst of it, recognize that, perhaps, our choice wasn’t so right after all. I wonder if we’d asked these questions - will our choice create or destroy? Will it build up or break down? Will it contribute or remove? If we’d asked these questions, maybe our choice would have been different. And the outcome better.

We are living right now in a world divided by partisan rhetoric. Where too many issues with complex questions and answers have been simplified into sound bites simply for political gain. Can things change? Can we come together to face the complex issues that affect our world?

I say we can. If we listen and watch for the breath of God brooding across the dark waters and ask these difficult questions about creating and building up and contributing I say we can. Isn’t that, after all, what our three congregations are doing right now? Isn’t that what the Holy Spirit is doing right now in our very midst - leading us to change and to form new and different types of partnerships, so that we might together live out our mission as God’s called people in new and creative ways. It’s not always easy and often very hard. But, this is what creating looks like! This is what building looks like! This is what contributing looks like!

If we were to approach all of our life’s decisions from this perspective that we, as God’s human creation, have been placed on this earth to create, and to build, and to contribute. If this were so, the world would be moving in a much better direction. And we would be brought together as we would also experience deeper joy, celebrating together what we have created and continue to contribute to this world.

So, as we leave here today and over this next week, I invite you to ask these questions of yourselves throughout each and every day. Am I creating or destroying? Am I building up or tearing down? Am I contributing to or taking away from all the goodness that God has created in our world?

As you consider these questions this week, may you also remember that you have been created in the image of God - that God has marked you as God’s own with the very fingerprint of God.


Preached September 12, 2021, at New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect, with Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, John 1:1-5

Presence and Promise: The End of the World

 Six weeks ago, as we began this series in the book of Revelation, the first image of God we were introduced to was that of Creator. Remember that scene in the throne room with the four creatures as they, along with the twenty-four elders, bowed down to worship, saying “You are worthy, our Lord and God...for you created all things.”

Today, we conclude our readings in Revelation with that same image of God as Creator, whose final great act consists of a new creation. The first part of our reading is from Revelation, chapter 21.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. --Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the One who is and was and is coming and from Jesus Christ, faithful witness, firstborn from among the dead, ruler of the kings of earth. Amen.

Just a few short weeks ago, I asked this question, “Is this the end of the world?” 

I was talking to Pastor Elisa of New Goshen Presbyterian. In addition to her work there as interim pastor, she also works for Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light. If you’re not familiar with it, you might think it’s a power company. Well, it is a power company of sorts, I guess. It’s a community of congregations, faith-based organizations and other people of faith who have chosen to respond to climate change as an ethical and moral issue. And that, through education, advocacy and action, mobilizes a religious response to climate change and the social injustice it creates. 

As part of her work, she is privy to studies and other information that you and I probably don’t come across in our normal days’ activities. So, our conversation that day was about a study that she had just seen. That, as she put it, “if you knew what I knew, you would be overwhelmed.” She was referring to a recent report published by a large group of scientists that said that climate change is not some far away thing. That we don’t have 10-20 years, even 5-10 years. That it’s now. 

Given all that we’ve been witness to this past summer - the wildfires, the hurricanes, the record rain and flooding, the drought and so many other weather events - the idea that climate change has come is probably no surprise.

But, when you add this to all of the other crises that we have been witness to in the past year or so, including the collapse of the Afghan government, the political turmoil in Haiti, Myanmar, Hong Kong and so many other places in our world, and all those that have past and that I’ve already forgotten because they just seem to happen week after week after week. And, did I mention COVID? It was all of this that, in my conversation with Pr. Elisa, led me to blurt out, “Is this the end of the world?”

Maybe you’ve been wondering this a little, too.

So, perhaps, it has been a good thing for us to sit in Revelation for a few weeks. Because, like us, the early churches to whom this letter was addressed knew chaos and crisis. They knew massive upheaval and change. They knew and experienced hard and horrible things. It’s why the author shared his vision. To help them understand. And to help them prepare. To help us understand. And to prepare.

Their preparation - and ours - isn’t like preparing a “go bag” - one of those bags you keep handy in the event of a major disaster. Something filled with important papers and things you might need in an emergency. It’s not like preparing an “earthquake box” or a “hurricane tub” that you might pack to sustain you and your loved ones for a few weeks until help can arrive.

No, their preparation - and ours - happens by doing those things that keep us connected to God. Spiritual practices - like worship and prayer, and reading our Bible, and loving our neighbor - those things that form and shape us to be God’s people. It is these practices that guide our experiences and decisions and that give us that faithful endurance for those harder things. Because, through them, we learn that we have a God upon whom we can rely. Whether it’s through the small stuff, or the major crises and times of chaos. We have a God who loves us, who has offered up his Son for us and who promises us a new creation. 

The defeat of the forces of evil doesn’t result in the destruction or annihilation of the earth. Rather, it leads to God saying “I will make all things new.” It includes the resurrection of all the dead, but doesn’t stop there. When death is conquered, creation itself is made new. It’s a future - God’s future - that is pictured as a city with a garden at its center. Where both the human and the natural world are reconciled. With gates that stand open all the time to invite us and all people into the presence of God. With rivers and streams that offer life. And a tree that offers abundant fruit. Sweet, juicy, abundant fruit.

This is the future that God calls and invites us into. And all people everywhere. This is the end of the world that we are promised. May we live in anticipation of this world - this new Jerusalem - by claiming its way of life and by bearing witness to God, whose work of creation and new creation brings only life.


Preached Sunday, September 5, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5; John 16:20-21.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Presence and Promise: Conquering by Sacrifice

For sixteen chapters in Revelation, we read what is commonly known as the vision cycles. We heard one of these visions last week - that of the four horsemen. Throughout these visions, gruesome and frightening as they may be, the salvation community continues to praise God. We heard this last week in chapter 7 - that those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” continue to “worship God day and night.” There is also the promise that cosmic calamities, or the forces of evil at work in the world, or the final destruction at the end of time will overwhelm those who identity and security are found within  nor the final destruction at the end of time will overwhelm those whose identity and security are found in God and the Lamb.

Today, we hear of another vision. This time of the two beasts. Our reading today is from Revelation, chapter 13. I’m picking up at the very end of chapter 12.

Then the dragon stood on the seashore, and I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard. Its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave it his power, throne, and great authority. One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon because it had given the beast its authority. They worshipped the beast and said, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

The beast was given a mouth that spoke boastful and blasphemous things, and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to speak blasphemies against God. It blasphemed God’s name and his dwelling place (that is, those who dwell in heaven).

It was also allowed to make war on the saints and to gain victory over them. It was given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation. All who live on earth worshipped it, all whose names hadn’t been written—from the time the earth was made—in the scroll of life of the Lamb who was slain. Whoever has ears must listen: If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.

Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it was speaking like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence. It also makes the earth and those who live in it worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed. It does great signs so that it even makes fire come down from heaven to earth in the presence of the people. It deceives those who live on earth by the signs that it was allowed to do in the presence of the beast. It told those who live on earth to make an image for the beast who had been wounded by the sword and yet came to life again. It was allowed to give breath to the beast’s image so that the beast’s image would even speak and cause anyone who didn’t worship the beast’s image to be put to death. It forces everyone—the small and great, the rich and poor, the free and slaves—to have a mark put on their right hand or on their forehead. It will not allow anyone to make a purchase or sell anything unless the person has the mark with the beast’s name or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six. --Rev. 13:1-18 (CEB)

Throughout history images of animals have often been used as symbols to send different messages or to represent certain things.

Dogs in art, as one example, have not always been considered man’s best friend. From the earliest times up to the Renaissance, their qualities were mixed - from vigilance and faithfulness and wisdom, to anger, lechery, and greed. Titian used the idea of a dog as treacherous for this scene in the Last Supper, as he paired Judas with a dog to symbolize the disciple’s betrayal of Jesus.

The rabbit, as another example, has a long-standing symbolism for - no surprise - lust. However, because of the rabbit’s ability to reproduce often, there was also a myth that they could procreate without a partner. This led to another interpretation - that the animal signified the virgin birth and chastity as shown in another 16th century painting by Titian, entitled Madonna with Rabbit.

The peacock is one more example. Here in this painting called The Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelica and Fra Filippo Lippi, it represents immortality.

We use animal symbolism today, too. If I were to put up an image of a bear and a bull, what immediately comes to mind? They are symbols of the stock market. And what about these two images - an elephant and a donkey? Both are used in political cartoons, representing each of the political parties.

This is what is happening in today’s reading. We find the beast from the sea and his associate online represent a political authority that has become as destructive as a beast. The monster has been set up as the ultimate authority - a power that is to be worshiped above all else. For the author, this beast represents the Roman empire. But it is symbolic of any human institution that sets itself over and above God, at any point in history. And it describes conditions that we, too, know to be true about our world. 

One characteristic of the image is that one of the beasts gives power and authority to another more powerful and frightening. The nature of this evil - or Satan, personified in our today’s reading as a dragon - is that it goes against the desire of Jesus to free all people from tyranny.

Another characteristic of the beast is that the whole earth follows it. Because the gathering of numbers is essential and people are far too often swayed by the movement of a crowd or community. And, for evil, a movement desires to divide or to set people against each other in order to gain or preserve power and authority is a way that is contrary to the love of God and of God’s will to unite people through love and shared sacrifice. 

One more characteristic of the beast is that it mounts a full-scale assault on the agents of God. The evil here is that it is not enough to mislead followers, but evil must also discredit, incapacitate or even kill those who strive for good. 

Evil works covertly and surreptitiously to undermine the work and the power of God. In chapter 13, the author of Revelation portrays the Roman political system in this way to ask people about their highest loyalties. When we listen to the news, which in this past week seems so challenging and frustrating and disheartening, do we believe that this destructive system has become invincible? That evil has won out? That’s what the people in this chapter of Revelation are thinking.

But that is not what the Revelation sees. It sees that the beast is the opposite of the Lamb, who gives us our true identity. It sees that the beast conquers by tyranny, but that the Lamb conquers by the sacrifice that frees. It sees that the mark of the beast is the opposite of the seal of God and of the Lamb.

All of these images challenge us to ask to whom we truly belong: do we belong to the forces that destroy? Or do we belong to the Lamb who saves and liberates?

May we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be and live as those who have been washed and freed in the blood of the Lamb, to worship God day and night. Amen.  

Preached August 29, 2021, online with Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 13:1-18, John 12:30-32