Tag: trust

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.

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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

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13

Do you know the old country music song “Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson or Martina McBride? The woman singer tells her husband, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden…” She says she promised many other things… but a marriage made of only roses and good times wasn’t it. There’s going to be hard times, rain, too.

We are the bride of Christ, and our bridegroom Christ has never promised us perfect sunny weather and roses. God never promised us, “You shall not be tempted; you shall not be troubled; you shall not be distressed.” God promised us many other things, but an easy life has never been one of those promises.

To be human is to be tempted, troubled, and distressed.

Jesus was fully human, and so felt and knew these things.

Our scripture today happens right after Jesus has been baptized. He has just given his life over publicly to God. He has confessed his faith in God’s coming age. The Holy Spirit has anointed him. It’s like we spoke of last week – Jesus is having a mountaintop experience, an everything-going-great experience. And then he is driven to the desert by the Spirit. Deserts are the Bible’s way of saying a person has entered the time for fasting, for prayer, for study, and for identity. Jesus may be wondering: what does it mean to be God’s child?

During Lent, we follow Jesus’ model. We fast, pray, study, and wonder: what does it mean to be God’s child?

And just as we are tempted to leave our following of God, so too was Jesus tempted. In those forty days, the thorns on the roses, the rain of the garden, the dust and ashes of the desert set in.

And, διάβολος diabolos, tempts Jesus. Diabolos is the Greek word we translate as devil. In Greek, it means the Slanderer, the Accuser, the Defamer, the Backbiter, the Harsh Critic, the Condemner, the One-Who-Destroys-Others-Realtionships.

In other words, the devil, just like the snake in the Garden of Eden, is the one who works to accuse us of sins. Sins destroy our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with God. Sins make us isolated and alone. We get lost in our own lonely sin-deserts and can’t find our way back to the green valleys and still waters of the Lord’s.

Out here in the desert of 40 days, the devil begins to look for weak points in Jesus’ commitment to God and God’s promises.

Hunger is the first weakness the devil sees. People have bodies. We have needs. We need food and water, and shelter. Jesus is low on all of these basic needs. So the devil points out a single stone to Jesus and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of manna, a loaf of bread.”

As Jesus and we all know, manna came from heaven from God. It was gifted to the Israelites in the desert. The heavenly, miraculous bread came every morning. What, tempts the devil, would be the harm in making a SINGLE loaf of heavenly bread to sustain yourself? You’re famished, Jesus! Use the power of God. Sustain yourself.

I think Jesus must have been sorely tempted. His body is weak. He has ate ‘nothing at all’ for forty days. No one is looking. No one would be harmed. It’s just a single loaf of bread. And God used to rain loaves upon loaves.

I think you’ve been in similar situations. I know I have. You find yourself there, looking at just a little sin, and you know no one will ever know, and no one will get hurt, and it’s just a little sin to meet a real need… Who is going to miss a few dollars here and there? Who is going to miss these office supplies, this cookie, these seeds, this gas, when so much is available? What will this little lie, or omission, hurt? No one will ever know.

Little sins, little theft, little misuses of power and trust is a really, really big temptation. It’s one I think we face more often than others. I think it’s one we succumb, we give in to, more often than other temptations too.

Jesus, ever our role model, our guide, our shepherd – gives us the response to say when these temptations hit: “One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

We need basic things like food, shelter, water… but these things alone don’t keep us living. They may sustain the body, but the soul needs more. The soul needs God. The soul needs love. The soul needs relationships. Sins server these relationships. They make us isolated, alone, lonely, and our souls don’t get fed by others and by God. So although we may be well fed with bread, and in a nice house, with clean water to drink… we may still be dead inside. We cannot thrive without relationships. We cannot thrive mired, burdened, with sins. Like dirt on a window, speck by speck, little sins build up until no light shines in and we cannot see out.

Jesus tells us to refuse the little sins and remember the big damage they do over time.

So the devil, that tempter, tries another tactic Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. The Celts ruling in Europe, the Han of China, the great Roman Empire stretching over most of the known world. The Pharaohs, the queens, the kings, the Mayans and chieftains and village elders. Everyone who has power. Jesus could have it all. All he has to do is worship the backbiter, and it is Jesus’.

You see, we reflect who we worship. If Jesus would begin to worship the devil, and use the devil’s tactics — backbiting, accusing, slander — Jesus could control all these kingdoms. And then, well – he could do with the world as he pleased.

Think about the temptation! With a few lies, a few well placed rumors, some gossip, some blackmail.. Jesus could end war and bring about world peace. Jesus could end world hunger. Jesus could make the nations work together to solve all our problems. Jesus could rule over the world here and now.

What would you do if you controlled the world? I think very few people would say ‘let it continue as it currently is.’ Most of us have great wishes for a better world. The end of poverty. The end of slavery. The end of environmental destruction. The end of terrorist rulers and violent occupiers.

… The power to make those who do wrong hurt.

… The power to do justice.

Once again, I think Jesus had to have been sorely tempted. He wasn’t going to abuse God’s power for selfish means like he was tempted with the bread. No, he’d do a literal world of good. All it meant was replacing God with the devil. Replacing the giver of forgiveness, the giver of second chances, the giver of grace… for the giver of zero tolerance, final strikes, and preemptive attacks. It meant ruling as the world rules rather than as God rules.

Do the means matter if the end is good?

Does it matter what we do, if in the end, all things turn out okay?

Does it matter how we live our life if those who sin and those who don’t sin; those who worship God and those who don’t; seem to have the same luck and misfortune in life?

Jesus’ answer is yes.

Although it rains on the just and unjust alike, how we go about our lives matters. How we achieve our goals, whether noble or shameful, matters. Stealing a thousand dollars to give half of it to charity is still stealing a thousand dollars.

Jesus’ answer is that the purpose of our lives is to worship and serve God. Glory and power belong to God alone. When ever we have other idols before God — even if those idols are established with good intentions — we’re still making something else more important than God. So we’re sinning.

Once again, this temptation references the Exodus story. The Israelites were not able to keep from making idols.

The third temptation comes. Now the tempter ups the ante. Now Jesus stands on the temple in Jerusalem and way, way, way down below is the city. Anyone who looks up can see them, standing there, poised on the edge. And the devil cites scripture back at Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from here. For scripture says ‘He will command his angels to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

It sounds like a silly test. We know people fall off buildings when they step off their roofs. But then again, we know Jesus walked on water. So gravity doesn’t really seem to be that big of an issue for him. No — the temptation here isn’t whether or not gravity has a hold on Jesus… but whether or not Jesus believes in God without miracles; whether Jesus believes in God after going through a desert, and hunger, and isolation, and temptations. This is about if Jesus’ faith is dependent on signs and evidence of God.

It sounds like the silliest test when we first read it; but this test is the biggest test, the climax, the finale.

Do you believe in God when things are bad?

Do you believe in God in trials and temptations?

Do you believe in God when prayers go unanswered?

Does your faith depend on seeing results, seeing benefits of being a moral person, of prayer, and following God. Do you threaten God with leaving your faith if God doesn’t do as you demand? Can your faith be broken by scripture that contradicts itself, devils that plague us, or the too-often silent response to our prayers?

David Blumenthal, a Jewish theologian, argues that protest is a form of worshiping God. God can handle our anger, our protest, our frustration. Protest is still talking with God. It’s shattering the relationship, leaving God, demanding a test and then giving up when God won’t play by our rules… that is the sin. For then, the relationship among us and God is severed, destroyed

And the devil here is trying to destroy that relationship.

Jesus’ answer is more scripture from Deuteronomy: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Which is just what the Israelites had been doing in the Exodus again and again and again. And each and every time God was looking out for them. They didn’t always see it, but God was there with them.

Jesus’ answer is don’t give up, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 1:11) Our hope, our faith, our trust in God’s presence and promises must be deeper and stronger temptation, trial, or evil of the earth.

Once Jesus has passed these temptations, and given you and I the hope and promise that with Jesus, we – too – will overcome our temptations — angels come and administer to Jesus… just as in the wild, God cared for Elijah, and the Israelites.

We’ve never been promised a rose garden. We’ve been promised that our great gardener, however, will never abandon us. We’ve been promised that in our temptations, God has empathy, sympathy, and mercy. Although we sin, God loves us and offers us forgiveness. Although we break every single law, and are rowdy disobedient sheep, the good shepherd seeks us out and gives us a second chance. All authority in heaven and on earth has not been given to the Record-Keeper, the Harsh Critic, the unforgiving… all authority has been given to Jesus – the merciful, the Good Shepherd, the doctor for the sin-sick, the one who wipes away our tears and washes us clean of sins.