Monthly Archives: June, 2011

  1. Sermons : Surrendering the Promise

    Psalm 13
    Genesis 22:1-14

    “Here I am,” he said.  It couldn’t have seemed like anything at the time.  We do it ten times a day.  We come down in the morning, we head out for the day, we look for a colleague.  When your spouse calls your name into the backyard.  “Hey, honey, where are you?”  “Here I am!” you say.  Right here.  Here I am.

    But don’t you think Abraham would have run, fast and far away, if he knew what God was going to ask him to do?  Yet Abraham responds, “Here I am.”  And he is given his task.  “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him on the mountain.”  Ask anyone who has had their child get sick, rushed them to the emergency room, sat by the bed night after night.  We would do anything, wouldn’t we, climb any mountain, to the ends of the earth, to make her okay again.  We pray anguished prayers.  God do whatever you want to me, anything, make any deal, strike any wicked bargain.  Just make her okay.  Heal him.  He has to live. Yet Abraham goes.  We don’t know why.  We just know he rose, early in the morning, and began packing for a journey.  The donkey is saddled, he gathers the help, the wood, trying it in a bundle on the back.  And they begin walking.  Our author builds the literary tension in absolutely painful ways, as he walks, for two days, staring at that mountain, knowing what he would have to do there.  On the third day, the text says, Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

    This text is about as difficult as it gets.  Some in our Christian tradition have viewed this text like others around it in this section, as stories to point to the nobility of the central character.  Abraham, the patriarch that started it all, is the noble model of faith who perseveres in the face of the most horrible test we can imagine.  He passes with flying colors, and earns his reward.  This line of interpretation results in the story being about our faith, about our trust.  It is about putting God first in your life, above all else.  Above everything.

    But this is also a text that has done damage and that elicits in me, and I would guess in you, some frustration.  Abraham makes me so mad I want to kick him.  How could he be so passive, so…pitiful?  Come on, man!  IT’S YOUR SON!!  How could he simply nod in approval, get up early the next morning, and set out on a journey that he believes will end in the death of his son?  Visiting with a woman at my supervised ministry internship in seminary, she showed me the children’s bible she had been given many years before.  She also showed me the pages of this story that she, as a young child, had scribbled over and over and through, tearing the pages with the point of her pencil, because she couldn’t bear it, could understand it, couldn’t speak about it.  This second image of Abraham results in a story that has kept people from faith, from trusting a God who would require such a deed.

    But this story’s power is in its unwillingness to compromise.  First, we are forced to give away OUR Abraham.  Reading again, we cannot get away with naming Abraham’s act an act of ‘blind faith’.  Abraham has not shown himself thus far as one to go silently into the night.  He was creative enough to make deals in Egypt, and he bargained with God for the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah.  This is God’s seventh and final direct encounter with Abraham in this narrative, and with each one God has been leading, shaping, and coaxing him into a closer relationship with the giver of that promise that started it all.  Just when we think the Abraham narrative has found its way to a nice conclusion, this “test” comes in, rearranging our ideas about this patriarch is.

    They walked those long days, with Abraham’s stomach in knots.  He tells the young men to stay behind.  We will worship, he says, then we’ll be back.  He takes a moment to note that he has no idea what he will say to them when only he returns.  In a horrific bit of irony, he hands Isaac the wood on which he would soon lay, holds himself the fire, knife tucked in his belt.  And the two of them, the text says walked on together.  Isaac picks up on something – ummm…Dad?.  “Here I am!” my son, he says in quite a different way, heavy with emotion.  Dad, where is the lamb we are to sacrifice?  I don’t see one.  And Abraham grits his teeth as he answers, speaking more to God than to Isaac.  God himself will provide, my son.  As they come to the place, there in verse nine, I wonder Abraham’s heart is bursting, as he stacks the wood.  I bet he wants to scream words like those of the Psalmist, as Gene read a moment ago.  “How long O, Lord?  Will you forget me forever?”  I bet he felt that way as he slowly laid the pyre, as he saw the confused look on Isaac’s face when he began to bind his son’s hands, when he backs him down onto the wood.  As he takes a deep breath, as his hand grasps the handle, wondering where in the world God is as he raises the knife in the air…

    Because the implications for God are even worse than for Abraham.  The God I know is a God of love, and this God seems to be nothing but demanding and manipulative, swooping in at the last minute to save the day and grab all the glory.  My God loves us all no matter what, taking care of us through storms in our lives, working for good in a terrifying world.  My God doesn’t stand back and demand things from me that God knows will cause nearly unbearable pain.  My God is there with open arms to forgive me when I fail, fall short, or compromise.  I can’t blame that woman for tearing through this story in her bible; I want to do it, too.  It doesn’t make sense.  We struggle with a tension that Walter Brueggemann helps us articulate: “the contradiction between the testing of God and the providing of God; between the sovereign freedom which requires complete obedience and the gracious faithfulness which gives good gifts; between the command and the promise; and between the word of death which takes away and the word of life which gives.”  He continues: “The call to Abraham is a call to live in the presence of this God who moves both toward us and apart from us.  Faithful people will be tempted to want only half of it.”1

    I think that we are far more comfortable when we can control the promise.  We (and I include myself) tend to want a predictable God, one who will keep us comfortable, who would never call us into uncertainty and ambiguity, and who would certainly never ask us to give up anything that we cherish.  Maybe we want only a safe God and a safe world that we can manage.  We keep this God at arm’s length, content to sing the songs and pray the prayers, wanting to feel good, wanting comfort.  But I wonder, when it really gets down to it, are we really interested in being transformed, in encountering this God who is wild and complex and infinitely free.  Yet we are called back into this painful story, time and time again, there, I believe, to ask us if we are willing to trust this God.  Not in a blithe, naïve way that shrugs its shoulders when something happens and says, “well, it must be God’s will,” when we don’t have any way of knowing that.  But this text calls us to a faith that comes through fire, who reaches out to us when we are  exhausted, when the bank account is empty, when your teenage gets in trouble, when you realize you aren’t sure you know the person to whom you have been married for so many years.  This faith, this God comes to us in those moments in our lives as everything comes crumbling down.  And we work and plan and do our best to control, control, control.  Until we can’t.  Until we can’t handle it on our own anymore.  And we are challenged again, by this story and this story’s God, into a faith that is uneasy and complex, that puts us in uneasy and painful and complicated places, places where we might be tempted to yell and scream or to give up, or both.  And those questions might not get resolved and those problems might not be satisfactorily addressed.  Not in this life.  And we have to decide, in the midst of all the mess, what is left.  I think this story bring to us that most difficult challenge.  Is this something we want to make our own?  Might we, even in those most desperate places, still continue to trust?

    I imagine that final night, before that last ascent up the mountain; Abraham against a tree.  Isaac is asleep, his head on his father’s chest.  Abraham is alone.  He is so tired of being angry and frustrated, so tired of just doing what God says so he will remain that cherished one.  He had visions of being the leader of a great nation, the greatest nation – the people of God.  It had sounded so good at the time.  And Isaac… Isaac.  The son I have yearned for all my life, and the key to God’s promise. And now my God says he must die.  But then, a slow rain begins to fall, and the drops of rain mix with the tears running down his cheeks.  And in this moment of utter despair and helplessness he surrenders the promise.  God, take this back.  I have been trying to make the promise my own all along, and it belongs to you.  I have been my trying to control my own future when it is yours.

    And the next day, as he is about to do his horrible deed, the angel cries out to him, “Abraham!  Abraham!”  And with all the relief in the world, as the tears, come again, he gladly answers that final call…“Here I am, Lord….here I am.”

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1986), 192.

  2. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : June 26, 2011

     June 26, 2011 Bulletin

  3. Sermons : God on the Move

    Trinity Sunday

    Psalm 8
    Matthew 28:16-20

    Right out of college my sister signed up for the Presbyterian Church’s Young Adult Volunteer program.  This program – one of the best things our denomination does – sends young adults to sites across the world to work with partner churches, to learn, to meet needs in Christ’s name.  Sarah was sent to the Philippines. Initially eight of them worked together with a site director, learning about the history of that country, about dynamics in play in their communities, the way the church functioned in a heavily Catholic context.  Then she was sent out to a neighborhood north of Manila.  Kalookan is a sprawling poor neighborhood, concrete block and corrugated metal as far as the eye can see.

    Crowded streets that flood knee-deep every time it rains; drowned rodents floating by.  Chickens squawk and the air often smells of trash.  Sarah was led down a small alley, pointed to the block structure of two small rooms where she would live, pointed at the spigot that was that alley’s shower.  At the end of the alley a door opened up into a bigger room, around the size of our parlor.  It was the church, a congregation of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.  Her first Sunday the pastor, Pastor Petz, introduced this young woman who had moved across the Pacific, to the thirty or so gathered.  And he did so in a way that it surprised her.  He said, “Sarah is going to be our missionary  – a missionary from us – back to the United States, and she is here with us for a year of training.”  She was there to learn, he said, and then to be sent back to the States to tell of what God was doing in Manila.

    The disciples trudged up the rocky slopes, following Jesus’ directions.  There were only eleven of them; Matthew is quick to remind us. 1 And they were haunted by that absence, by how the chief priests had worked out a deal with Judas for those thirty pieces of silver.  By how Judas slipped away to summon the guards as they prayed in the Garden.  They had seen him coming with the crowd, to arrest Jesus, betrayed with a kiss.  For a moment they glimpsed his shame.

    They hadn’t seen Judas again, though they heard something of his repentance; about his hurling the money back at the chief priests later on, 2 of his death.  But a lot of that got lost in their agony of Jesus’ suffering, the gut-wrenching grief, the stunned surprise when Mary and Mary ran in that Easter morning and said that He was alive, that they had seen Him, that He told them to go to Galilee, that there they would see Him. 3 And they were so hopeful as they trudged up the mountain, like they had before for sermons and for prayer, where thousands were fed, where a few of them saw Him transfigured. [4.Matthew centers many critical events on that mountain.  That mountain is a place of revelation, of the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:27); it is a place of prayer, before he comes down and walks on the water (14:23); it is a place where thousands are fed (15:29ff); it is a place of transfiguration, where they met Jesus with Moses and Elijah (17:1).  This list comes from Tom Long in his WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 325.] They climbed, nervous, praying it was true.

    Best as I can tell, though, it wasn’t all a joyous reunion.  It was cautious, tentative.  Matthew says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  I do not take this to mean that, for example, seven of them believed it was him wholeheartedly, and four still held back.  Most congregations are not filled with only two groups – the stalwart disciples and the people who don’t get it.  Most, it seems to me, are like this first Matthean one – filled with people who both believe and doubt at the same time. 4 It is not to angels or perfect believers but to the worshipping/wavering community of disciples that the world mission is entrusted. 5 And they are just there for an instant.  He claims His own authority, and then sends them on their way.  He was never one to stay still, anyway.  Matthew tells about many an episode when Jesus speaks, teaches, and then immediately moves on to somewhere else.  One can almost see, Will Willimon writes, the disciples tagging along behind Jesus, breathlessly trying to keep up with him.  Jesus is on the move and we can’t follow him without moving, too. 6

    For a long time the church did the going part pretty well.  Paul got us off to a great start, planting churches on the Mediterranean coast.  As the church became more established Christians in all nations sent missionaries throughout the globe, trying, desperately, to follow those words, going to make disciples, to baptize all peoples in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And they remembered Christ’s remarkable promise that He would be with them, to all corners of the globe, even to the end of the age.  But the church also made a tremendous mistake.  We thought Jesus belonged to us, was the possession of the church, or whatever government ran the church at the time.  We felt confident Jesus wasn’t out there in foreign lands, that we had him, that he had come to us, and He was ours.  We neglected to attend to the ways Christianity and political power and militarism often became intertwined, and we sent priests and explorers to enslave native peoples, confident our culture was superior to theirs.  David Bosch, in his important book called Transforming Mission, traces Christian understandings of mission from the beginning.  In the introduction he points us to Lars Dahle.  In the year 1900 Dahle, the General Secretary of the Norwegian Missionary Society, compared statistics of the numbers of Christians in Asia and Africa in 1800 and 1900, and produced a mathematical formula that predicted that by the year 1990 the entire globe would be converted to Christianity.  That was the goal.  A few years later a colleague published a book entitled The Living Christ and Dying Heathenism.  The church was baptizing, and thought they almost had the job done. 7

    Bosch reminds us that this text, that the Great Commission is not to be used as a slogan8, as we play our trumpets and head off to convert the world.  Jesus has just told us that all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Him.  As we go ‘in mission’ to Durham, and to the world, we don’t go to convince everyone we meet that He is Lord, we don’t go to try and make everyone believe the exact way we believe.  We must take great care, in Mexico or anywhere else – as I know you have talked about in your meetings – to listen, to honor someone else’s faithfulness, to know that Christ has been at work there before you came, and Christ will be at work after you leave.  We must go with great humility, trusting in the sovereign God, as we seek to bear witness to the ways we see Him as you work side by side or as children sing.

    But it must not come at the expense of our proclamation.  Too often churches like ours who seek to be sensitive, who don’t want to be lumped in with our brothers and sisters who go overseas or downtown simply to try and save souls, are too slow to speak of our faith.  If Jesus Christ has transformed our lives, and informs our living, we must not be ashamed.  We must surely listen before we speak, but we need not remain silent.  Presbyterians traditionally do a really poor job of evangelism, of speaking the Good News we know through Christ.  But the best way that conversation begins is not by quoting bible passages, but in the power of our service.  As we hammer nails, as we lead children at VCS this week, as we stand in airport security lines on the way to Mexico, might there be something about the way we serve, the joy with which it comes, the patience and humility in our voices, that leads people to wonder – what is it that has gotten into those strange people? There is something about them that has weight, and power, that draws people to us, that sends us out, in courage and in faith, to go all sorts of odd places, where people are hungry and hurting and left behind, to meet needs, to serve a hot dog and some chili at Urban Ministries which you can sign up for today, by the way, to gather up the road at Montreat with 1200 other Youth to talk about things that matter, as much as anything can matter, about God’s work even in those darkest places.

    Week before last I went to Montreat for a few days to see some good friends.  A clergy couple like Carrie and I, she was leading recreation for 2 weeks, and he was there to write a sermon and hang out with their four year-old son and play golf with me.  As we sat on the porch one evening he told me about a guy he had met that day, on the planning team for weeks One and Two of Youth Conferences.  This guy gets 2 weeks of vacation for the entire year, not counting federal holidays.  He is giving those entire two weeks to be in Montreat, to be on planning team, to work and never sleep and run around and be exhausted and have people complain to him about silly stuff.9 All of his vacation.  Because he knew that God doesn’t stay still.  Because he knew that church isn’t just a place you come and consume the religious good and services and leave feeling vaguely satisfied.  He knew we are called out into the world, over and over again, as our youth and adults head out this summer, as we are relentless in our movement out into the world, to try and catch up with Jesus, to track Him down on the road, seeking out all those strange and dirty and mysterious places He tends to hang out.  Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t ascend, doesn’t disappear off into heaven.  His last words are a promise of his continuing presence with the church.10 As we head off on trips, as we call a pastor today, as we seek Gods’ great future to be a part of.  He remains with us always, even to the end of the age.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. This insight, as well as a good bit of the angle I take here at the beginning, comes from ‘Living By the Word,’ by Tom McGrath, in the May 6, 2008 edition of The Christian Century, page 21. 
    2. Matthew 27:3-10. 
    3. Matthew 28:1-10. 
    4. Boring and Craddock, 103. 
    5. Boring and Craddock support this exegesis in their “The People’s New Testament Commentary,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 103. 
    6. William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 39, No. 2, year A, April, May, June, 2011, p 54. 
    7. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1991.), p 6. 
    8. Bosch 57.  Bosch’s chapter on Matthew, pp 56-83, informs much of my reading of this text, and is well worth one’s time! 
    9. I am grateful to the Rev. Pen Peery for this story.  I was reminded of it by a similar story of one of Willimon’s coworkers in Pulpit Resource, 55. 
    10. Boring and Craddock, 104. 

  4. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : June 19, 2011

     June 19, 2011 Bulletin

  5. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : June 12, 2011

    June 12, 2011 Bulletin