Tag: promises

A Different Spirit

In honor of the baptism of Caleb.283

Numbers 13:26-33-14:11; 14:22-24
Matthew 28:18-20

The Israelites have traveled and traveled and traveled from Egypt and at long last, have reached the Promised Land… but they find it is already occupied. So they send in 10 spies to check out who is living in this area.

In our reading, the spies come back with the report that the people already living there are the children of Nephillim — angels or giants. They’re so big and strong that the Israelites feel like grasshoppers around them. Tiny little bugs! When they hear the report, everyone in the camp begins to fret and worry.

But Caleb stands up and says: hey! We should trust God’s promises. God says this is where we’re supposed to go, let’s go!

But no one wants to listen to Caleb.

Moses and God have a talk about what to do. God is upset – why do the Israelites keep not trusting me? Didn’t I do miracles in Egypt to get the people free from Pharaoh? Didn’t I do miracles at the Red Sea, and miracles in the desert with manna, and water, and birds to eat? This situation looks hopeless, but I AM GOD! I DO MIRACLES! WHY CAN’T THE PEOPLE GET THIS?!

God decides to order the Israelites to wander around in the desert for 40 years. And in those 40 years, everyone who is complaining and regretting leaving Egypt will pass away from old age. A new generation will return to the Promised Land and maybe they will believe God this time. But Caleb will live a long life and enter the land because he has a different spirit, a spirit that trusts God wholeheartedly.

Jesus, too, tells us to live with a different spirit in us. The Holy Spirit. A Spirit that comes upon us with our baptisms and keeps faith in hopeless situations, keeps trust in God through hardships and trials, and strives to live a life of love for God, and for others.

We’re called to live our lives in ways that make believers of all nations. Caleb lived this way. And our Caleb is called to live this way. No one is able to do it alone. It takes the whole body of Christ.

So you, who have the different spirit, the Holy Spirit, be the guide to disciple Christ’s newest follower – our little Caleb. Be his parents’ support, his sister’s assurance, his own encouragement. Live your life in a way that leads him towards the promised land. And remind him of this day – the day we affirmed he is baptized in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and he is a part of Saint Michael’s UCC, and a part of the Body of Christ universal.

Amen.

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Dead to Sin, Alive to God

Genesis 21:8-21diseased-or-dead-tree-1
Romans 6:1b-11

In our first reading, Sarah sins and is cruel to Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham weeps, but complies with his wife and sends Hagar and her baby into the wilderness desert with a bit of water. When their water runs out in the desert, Hagar places her baby under a bush and goes away – she can’t bear to watch her son die of thirst. A bow shot away, she cries out to God.

And God hears.

Ishmael, the name of the child, literally means: God Hears. God hears Ishmael’s weeping, and Hagar’s weeping, and gives them a whole well of water. The boy grows up to be a great bowman of the wilderness.

The sins inflicted on Hagar and Ishmael hurt, but God won’t abandon them. God gives them new life. Where the world gave them just a single skin, a thermos, of water – God gives them an entire well. The world hoped they would die, forsaken, in the desert. God made them the start of a great nation.

God brings us to waters in deserts. God brings us to peace where the world thought we’d know only woe. God grants us new life when death surrounds us.

Paul writes about this death and life in our second reading. I hear it sort of like… I have two apple trees at my house. I can cut a branch off of either. Now if I cut a branch off of the East one, the tree keeps a wound where the branch was, but it heals over. A year or two, and you’d never know. It will fill in the hole and produce lots of good fruit. The tree keeps flourishing and growing. It is full of life.

However, if I cut a branch off the West one, the tree not only keeps the wound… it never recovers. It cannot grow a new branch in the place of the old. A year or two, and that absent branch will still be apparent. And there will still be no fruit. This second tree is dead.

This is how I understand what Paul is writing about when he tells us that through baptism we die with Christ and are risen with Christ; we remain dead to sin and alive to God. You see, he is arguing about the worth of baptism. If baptism saves us from sin, or reunites us with God, and we can only be baptized once… what good is baptism? Should we save it until the very end of our lives hoping to reduce the amount of time we have to potentially sin? Or should we be baptized, and then keep on living a life of sin because we’re confident our sins don’t count? Neither, says Paul. Rather – live for Christ.

Whether or not we’re baptized, we’re going to sin. Both of my apple trees are going to lose a branch. Sin – things that separate us, do damage, to ourselves, those around us, or God – just happens whether we intend it or not.

The difference, argues Paul, is whether we are dead or alive.

The dead don’t recover from their sins. They spurn God’s assistance and sit in bitterness, not producing any good fruit. Each sin separates, destroys, more of themselves.

The living recover from their sins. God is there, encouraging new life, new growth, and good fruit. Each sin hurts, but they recover, regrow, and flourish with God.

The baptism we all share is our death to sins’ permanent effect and our birth into the eternal, rejuvenating, life God offers through Christ.

It is our sign and seal, our promise from God, that the strength of sin is broken.

We are always alive in God!

Amen.

Things Unseen

Protesters Demonstrate In Philadelphia During The Democratic National Convention

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Our election this season is one of fear. Fear, feelings of persecution, feelings of unheard, feeling misunderstood, feeling marginalized, feeling belittled, feeling silenced. Fear leads it all. Followed by anger, and hate, and more fear.

Our African American citizens fear the cops. The cops fear the African Americans. On edge, the two confront one another – and far too often someone is misunderstood, marginalized, and forever silenced. Fear of authority; fear of the other; these fears fuel terrors into our election.

Sexual fear drives us. Fear of loved ones being abused; fear of being killed for whom one loves; fear of sex and bodies and passions themselves. A rhetoric of hate comes out of these fears and spews from the mouths of politicians and Christians alike. There is no attempt to overcome the fear – just destroy anyone or anything that reminds us of the fear.

And so: education on sexual health is banned from schools, access to sexual health services are denied, protection for gays and lesbians is denied, and transgendered adults and even children are murdered. All of this coming from fear of our own bodies.

And this fear drives our votes, too.

Insecurity is a major fear among us right now. There is the insecurity of being a white, high school educated, man. At one time – that’s all you needed to be to be very successful in America. But now – women and non-whites compete for the same jobs. This means college is often needed to stand out. It means when once being born a straight white man was ticket to wealth is no longer the truth. And that insecurity, that feeling of being less-than, drives our election.

When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Just as Jesus said: the low will be raised and the high lowered, so all are equal. But this feels like oppression to those who once were high. And that makes them feel fear, insecurity, and hate.

The fear inside insecurity is what makes us speak of a wall between ourselves and Mexico. Speak of bombing other countries. Speak of banning whole religions, whole regions, from ever visiting family or friends here. Fear drives us to isolate ourselves, and inside our little bubble… we forget that we fear a very small minority… and the majority of the world’s people are just like you and I. But because of a few, we fear them all.

The very early church knew much fear, too. They had once been privileged: Hebrews, Jews, people of not great but not bad standing. Middle class, per se. And now… as soon as they began this Christ business… they were banned from places of worship. The cops always thought they were up to no good. Some people said they were planning a rebellion and so abused, terrorized, murdered Christians. Some people hid their belief in Christ for their, or their family’s safety. Some people were more open. But all together… they knew fear.

What would they do with it? Isolate themselves and stop living out their faith? Would they pretend to be secular, or follow Zeus or Caesar, in public?

Would fear drive them to make strict rules about who could, or couldn’t, enter their congregations? We now have a rule that only those with a Christian parent may enter the sanctuary. We now have a rule that only those who haven’t sinned in the last week. Now only straight people. Now only Americans. Now only white straight Americans whose parents were born here and none of them have ever ran into the law or defaulted on bank loans or crossed the street without looking both ways.

How ridiculous do we want the rules to get to make us feel safer? Will they help?

No.

There’s always more to fear… because each of us have a little portion in us that fears even the very things we do. What if someone else finds out? Will they still accept me? How long until I’m kicked out?

A cycle of fear is a cycle that works like setting a pot of water on a hot stove. A little bubble, a little fear, leads the water of people to a rolling boil, roiling fear; leads to fear flowing over the edges of the pot and eventually – no water, no people, are left in the pot at all. Everyone is gone. Fled. Hiding. And there is no more church.

Paul, when he writes the Hebrews, addresses their fears. Jesus, when he talks to his disciples, addresses their fears. The Bible tells us not to fear more than any other phrase! Do not fear, I am with you. Do not fear, I am your God. Do not be afraid, you are loved. Do not be afraid, I bring you good news. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

To the early Hebrew church, Paul reminds them that we aren’t walking by this world’s standards, and this world’s answers to fear are not God’s answers. He reminds them, and us, that we walk by faith, we are convinced of things not seen, and we do not have to be ashamed of this faith and assurance in things that we cannot see at all.

For instance, I turn on the news, and I don’t see love. But I have faith in it. I trust is exists even through I don’t see it. My hope and my promise is in God, who is love, and who says love conquers all things.

I see people using our faith as a weapon, and committing religious violence, acts of terrorism, against others in the name of God. I see this – I see the hate and fear – but I trust what I don’t see.

I trust the unreported, unremarked upon woman who drops pennies and quarters into the charity jars and donates her time to volunteer work.

I have faith and believe in the man never interviewed by the news and never praised by politicians; this man who stops to help change a flat tire and who lets people ahead of him in line.

I don’t see it, but I believe in the children who stand up for one another against bullies. I trust in the children who make ‘get well soon’ cards for teachers and bus drivers.

My eyes don’t tell me, but my heart tells me, to believe in the teenager girl who struggles with so many issues, so much daily fear and misunderstanding – and yet, not to participate in hate speech at work.

I have faith in the unseen. I trust in the hope of God. I trust in what the world ignores. I know we are sojourners, travelers, in a strange land. This land would have us believe that everyone is selfish, evil, and out to harm us. I know there’s a lot to fear, I have been scared… but I also trust in the promises of God.

As Paul writes, Abraham and Sarah never saw their descendants be more than the stars… they died without seeing the full promise come to fruition. Yet they had faith, and what God promised came to pass.

Isaac and Jacob too. They died without the full promise occurring… but their faith led to the next generation, and generation by generation, God worked and fulfilled the promise.

Do not fear, little flock, do not fear.

We walk by faith – not fear, not hate. We walk together – not isolated, not cut off from the world. We walk with God – and because we walk with God, we do not have to fear any evil.

You and I will likely die without seeing God’s full reign on Earth as it is in Heaven. We’ll likely die without Christ having yet returning in full glory. And yet, we can pass on this faith and trust for we know… as Jesus told us, it is God’s delight to gift us the kin-dom. It is God’s good pleasure to work with us to make the promises of peace on earth a reality.

Amen.

Covenant People

Genesis 15:1-18
Luke 13:31-35

Is God trustworthy?

Abram doesn’t know.

God has made him some promises: God promised Abram would have descendants, heirs, and be the father of many. He would be as numerous as dust and own all the land about him… But so far… God hasn’t delivered. In fact, Abram’s one relative, his nephew Lot, has been kidnapped – maybe killed. Maybe Abram and Sarai are the last two people left in Abram’s family.

Abram isn’t 100% certain he can trust God.

Right before today’s reading, Abram hears Lot and Lot’s family has been captured by enemies kings. So Abram gathers up his neighbors and allies and went out and rescued everyone! Abram also got back all the possessions stolen by the kings.

Abram returns to Sodom, where Lot and all the people stolen live. There, Sodom’s king comes out and praises Abram: “Let the people go back to their homes, but you can keep all the possessions as a thank you!”

But Abram says no. He says he promised God that he wouldn’t take anything from those he saved. If Abram gets rich, it won’t be because of the king of Sodom.

I hear Abram saying these words to the king of Sodom… but I think he is thinking about God. God – you said you would give me children. They are the only riches I want. Can I trust you, God?

In today’s reading, Abram has a dream where God tells him that God is his sovereign, his ruler, and his protection and shield. Abram’s great reward for selflessly rescuing his neighbors and his nephew, and leaving them their livelihoods, is God.

But can God’s promises be trusted?

Abram doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know. He’s seen no proof that God delivers.

And he doubts God. He questions God. All alone, away from the rejoicing crowds and rescued people, back home, under his tree under the desert sky, Abram is in prayer with God and he’s not happy.

Great. My reward is God.

And land.

God, all I want is children. You haven’t even delivered in children! Why will you give me land when there’s no one to live on the land?! Why is there no one, because you still haven’t delivered me a single promised kid!

And God promises this single man, who is quickly getting up in years, he will have more offspring than the stars in the sky.

We’re told Abram chooses to believe God, and God credits to Abram as righteousness, as grace, as a gift to God.

Abram has doubts, has questions, about God — even as he believes in and trusts God. It reminds me of the man who cried out to Jesus in the book of Mark, “I believe; help me with my unbelief!” Abram believes, and wants help with his unbelief.

… in our journey with God, when promises get delayed, and when bad things happen, and even when life is great and average and ordinary – we have questions about God. We wonder, we question, we ponder, and have moments when the promises of God don’t seem real.

If God is always with us, where is God in the Middle East?

Where is God in all the violence we see in our own country?

How can there be a resurrection? Where will those billions of people live?

Does God really forgive sins – forgive them and forget the wrong – when we pray and ask God to do so? How can we be sure?

How can we trust there really is an afterlife; and what we do really matters; how do we know there even is a god?

We have doubts and questions at times, even when we have thousands of years of God’s “credit history.” We have the Bible, the stories of those who bought us to our faith, our our lives – as testimonies of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises… and yet we still wonder. Abram hasn’t any of these histories .

Abram is who becomes Abraham. At this time, he hasn’t a single child… and yet, now he is the father to billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In this story, he can’t picture even one child – let alone children all around the world.

And our patriarch, our faith father, doubted and pondered and had unbelief, too. Just like we do sometimes. Yet, he chose to believe, and then pray ‘help me with my unbelief.’

And instead of getting angry with Abram, God answers his prayer! Just as Jesus helps the man who prays ‘I believe! Help me with my unbelief!’

When we doubt God’s promises, our relationship with God isn’t over. God counts our trust without evidence, without proof, as righteousness. God counts our confession of faith, and prayer for strength through our many valid reasons to wonder, as worship. Questions and belief, doubts and faith, can go hand in hand. In our reading today, Abram believes, but not without questions. In a bold move, God decides to make a covenant with Abram to seal God’s promises.

Covenants are weird things. First, this fancy word we seem to use only in church. I’ve never entered a covenant with my electric or water company. But in church, we speak of covential elders, Lori gives us The Covenanter newsletter, we speak of being in covenant with other UCC churches and the association, and every month: we hear Jesus’ words “This is the cup of the new covenant, in my blood.” What is this thing God is making with Abram?

Well, it’s something God initiated. God initiates covenants. So when we’re in covenant with other churches, it’s because God asked us to walk with one another as one body. So does that mean covenant is just a fancy word that means a contract with God?

No, not really. A contract is something like, ‘I will loan you $10,000 for a car, and you will pay me back $200 each month. If you miss a payment, I come and take your car.’ Covenants are more descriptive… such as “we will walk together with God.” What does it mean to walk together? Does walking together mean different things at different times? $200 is always $200. Covenants are more flexible and meant to change with the people in them. A contract is meant to be binding and solid – without wiggle room.

The lack of wiggle room in a contract is what lets the contract be enforced by lawyers and debt collectors, police and judges. But a covenant is “policed” by the people in it. It demands spiritual maturity. Demands the people in it stick together even in disagreement. Demands the people in the covenant relate to one another with humility and patience, justice and compassion; deal with one another with the Fruits of the Spirit – with God-given love. So difficulties in the covenant don’t split it, but rather challenge the covenantal partners to deeper relationships.

That is the incredible gift God offers Abram.

A relationship.

A covenant. A description of how to be in faithful relationship to one another.

God directs Abram to set up a ritual so Abram can see what God is promising. We are physical people, in tangible bodies. We often need signs to remind us of our covenants. Signs like the bread and cup. A rainbow. Signatures in frames. Rings.

Abram takes these animals at God’s direction and splits them in two – half a cow here, half a cow there. Half a goat, half a ram – but a whole dove and pigeon. No one really knows what that meant back then. What we do know is that the word for covenant in Hebrew, berith, comes from the word for cutting, making a space, just as is done with the animals.

And into this new space carved out, God walks.

If this were between humans, perhaps they would have sworn an oath – like ‘May God cut me in two, like these animals, if I break this covenant.’ Or ‘I will be faithful even unto being split into two.’

When you consider this is GOD making this pledge… God is pledging, promising, to be with Abram even if it means suffering and death.

Abram cannot know what we know – that the pledge God made that night, the pledge to make Abram a great nation with land… would bring God into the world as Jesus. Our second reading today is Jesus standing before the land of Abram, the city of Jerusalem, and God is still working to maintain the covenant.

“How often I have longed to bring you under my wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks!”

And yet, how often you test our covenant, murder the prophets I send you, and anger me!

But still – God won’t end the covenant. God fulfills God’s promises. Even unto suffering and death.

In a covenant, people walk together, work together, live together, suffer and rejoice together, die together… and have new life together.

We have no evidence, no proof, that God is going to fulfill all of the promises made to us. Rather, we have stories of God’s faithfulness in the past, stories of God acting in the present, and so just faith – belief mixed with unbelief – that God will continue to fulfill God’s promises in the future.

We just have belief mixed with unbelief that God is actively forgiving sins.

We have belief mixed with unbelief that our covenant with God and each other – to be one body, united in Christ – is eternal.

And that belief mixed with unbelief is counted as righteousness… because we’re willing to continue our walk with God even in uncertainties.

Is God trustworthy? Yes. And our covenant with God strong. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, 2-21-2016