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Archive for the ‘freedom’ Category

“You are free to make whatever choice you want, but you are not free from the consequences of the choice,” writes an Anonymous author.

“ There will come a time when we will have to sit down to a banquet of our consequences,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson.

“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh.

All three of these quotes affirm the same truth; we all make choices or decisions and the consequences of those choices or decisions are ours. We own them whether we like it or not. I imagine Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Bowe Bergdahl are discovering that very truth along with many other folks.

Now, sometimes we see those consequences clearly, but more often than not we fail to see all the consequences of our choices, those we intend and those we discover later as unintended consequences.

Certainly, the Hebrews in the wilderness failed to see all the consequences of their choice to abandon God in favor of worshiping a golden calf made out of their ornaments and jewelry. Yet, Moses knows that without God’s presence this “stiff-necked people” will have a hard time being the distinctive people God intends them to be. They will not be able to live into God’s way of living as the community of God’s people because they have not, yet, learned how their trust in God is connected to how they are to live in the world as the message of God’s grace and as a community where everyone belongs and is valued with dignity and respect.

This message of God’s grace invites everyone to come and join the community of God’s people, so they may see how life nurturing and life sustaining is this way of living in relationship with God and with each other. This is the reason God choose Abraham and Sarah in the first place and continued to choose this family as the instrument God will use to bless the world with wholeness and peace because God intends for everyone in the world to live together in this way of wholeness and peace.

Yet, the consequences of the Hebrews’ choices puts this relationship and way of living at risk because they failed to comprehend that faith in God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life, from the most mundane issues to questions of life and death, particularly, as they live surrounded by cultures whose political, social and religious values are opposed to God’s way of being fully human.

Indeed, the Hebrews do not realize, at this point in their journey, that their identity as God’s people is part of an interwoven conversation about who God is and who they are because of their relationship with the God who creates life, saves life, and sustains life.

They do not realize that knowledge of God leads them to knowledge about themselves, individually and communally. Nor, do they realize that our ultimate obligation to God sets the boundaries and limits to all other obligations of our life, even recognizing we are defined by our relationship and connectedness to God, not by anything else.

The Hebrews’ problem was that they were like the group of alumni of a university who were all highly established in their careers and who got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups — porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite — telling them to help themselves to the coffee.

When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice-looking, expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress.

Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups. And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.

Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of the life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee God has provided us.” God brews the coffee, not the cups. So, enjoy your coffee!

Enjoying the coffee-enjoying life as “God’s people” and recognizing how the choice to trust God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life is the difference between where the Israelites in wilderness were and where the Thessalonians were.

The Thessalonians had done something quite remarkable in the middle of living in the vibrant seaport trading and cultural center of a major Roman city; they made the choice to turn to God away from the idols everyone else worshipped and served. They turned to serve the true and living God. Paul’s letter celebrates this choice, which was so complete that they became the examples for other Christian congregations in Macedonia and Achaia to emulate. Their spirit- derived joy empowered them to maintain their faith, their love and their hope and become the living messages of the gospel-the embodiment of God’s good news in Christ, even as they struggled against persecution from their families and their neighbors.

The church at Thessalonica, of course, was not merely a model where faith, hope and love were held onto like a display in a museum just waiting for people to walk past and admire, rather the church was the place from which the message of faith, the testimony of hope and the power of love went forth into in the world every day. Yet, at the same time, it was also a safe place-a sanctuary- where people lacking faith, feeling hopeless, feeling unlovable could find the great blessings of grace and belonging.

In many ways, every church, including ours, should be such a sanctuary where people in need of the good news of Jesus Christ and the great blessings of the grace and belonging can find them. The first-century Christians got that point, by the way. They saw the church as a safe place to go to survive life’s storms and calamities. One of the first symbols that the early Christians used to represent the church was Noah’s ark, the vessel on which representatives of all living creatures found refuge during the catastrophe of the great flood. The ark was the place from which those surviving people and animals went forth to participate in God’s re-creation of life as a community of mutuality and interdependence.

In similar fashion, the early Christians considered the church as the place from which God’s living messages of grace went forth into the world bringing the story of God’s saving grace to a world in need of faith, love, and most importantly, hope. That’s the reason churches have stained-glass windows of Noah’s ark or the dove with an olive branch in its beak as well as why many sanctuaries were constructed in the shape of a boat and why the pulpit was set up high above like a crow’s nest from which the leaders could see the horizon, see the coming storms, the rocky shoals, or the land where the ship might anchor and be resupplied before continuing its journey.

And, while you’re pondering all of that, think about the importance of faith, love, and hope as blessings of God’s grace and the way we, who are the church bring those blessings to others.

        First, the church is the place where faith is offered without embarrassment. There is an old saying that Christianity is always only one generation away from extinction. Without the passing of the knowledge about Christ and the testimony of faith from parents to children, from elders to youth, from those convinced of the faith to those who have not yet heard it, Christianity might eventually either die out altogether or be reduced to a curious historical phenomenon. Now we could make that one-generation-away-from-extinction statement about many things in life — about technology, skills, scientific discoveries and so on — but with Christianity, what is passed on is not only knowledge, but also the assertion that the meaning of daily life and the path of life is found in Jesus Christ.

Some youth workers, Christian educators and pastors today are wondering, “Will our children have faith?” They observe that young people today are actually quite interested in God, Christ and Christianity, but they aren’t particularly turned on by institutional expressions of it. There is a phenomenon afoot among some in the younger generations who individually express their love for Jesus but not for the church of Jesus. Individual spirituality is a good thing, but it seldom is enough single-handedly to pass the faith to the next generation. It takes communities of Christ’s followers to do that in an intentional way realizing that faith is caught in an environment where people are living their trust in God, expressing their trust in God in worship, and maturing their trust in God through the intentional discipleship of life-long learning; especially the discipline of consistent Bible study and theological reflection all done within a community of faith.

Second, the church is a place where love is exercised without limits. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and as we in the church understand that, he wasn’t talking about emotions but about behavior. He was talking about acting in ways that support the well being of others as opposed to exploiting other people. And when we really grasp that Jesus is calling us to love others as God loves us, calling us to compare the way we are treating our families, our neighbors, the guy who is annoying at work or the woman who is hard to get along with at the gym to the way God treats us and all other people, then we realize we come up short, but that doesn’t let us off the hook because it ought to cause us to dig deeper by realizing that love has no stopping point where we can say, “There, I’ve done my duty, and now I can forget about that person.”

        Third, the church is the place where hope is nourished without delusion. Certainly there are ample reasons to lose hope in life. In fact, it’s fairly easy to experience despair, because in the day-to-day flow of life it often seems so much more credible than hope. There’s generally plenty of evidence around us to encourage and engender despair, especially listening or reading to the news, tweets, or what happens to our neighbors and friends. But we in the church understand that hope is not rooted in what happens in the present moment. The hope the church shelters believes the kingdom of God is here, now and will come in fullness, without denying life’s sometimes tragic character or attempting to explain away tragedy as “God’s will.”

Hope is not some sort of wishful thinking that those of us with strong enough gumption can somehow muster up from some mythological place, like fantasyland. Rather, hope is the steadfast trust that when all else fails, when every other support gives way, our lives remain in God’s hands. The writer of Deuteronomy spoke of this hope when she said, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, RSV). The image Deuteronomy suggests is of God’s arms creating a “floor” under us so that no matter how far down the weight and even the tragedy of life pushes us, we have a solid foundation on which to find our footing. Our task as the community of faith is to nourish this hope by being the strong advocate for hope in a community and a world too easily and too quickly grasping for the comfort of hopelessness.

Finally, faith, love and hope are the foundations and the fruit of a community of faith’s life as Paul certainly made clear in writing to the Corinthians, when he wrote at the end of the wonderful chapter about love, “And now faith, hope, and love abide.” They dwell together in a community of God’s people. That is, why he once again points to those three at the very beginning of his letter to the Thessalonians, “We continually remember before God, our Father, your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  When we look for the blessings rising from the community of faith’s life together, these three rise to the surface: faith, love, and hope. They are God’s blessings for life given to us, so we might be living messages of grace blessing the lives of other folks.

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I have been thinking about Roy Moore, the onetime Alabama Supreme Court Justice forced to leave that office after refusing to uphold the law, because he is now campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama. As a judge Roy Moore tried to have a huge block monument of the Ten Commandments placed in front of a courthouse where he presided, but few people remember the story of his monument and how big it was.

It weighs 5,280 pounds or about 500 pounds per commandment, so when he brings this monument to public appearances it needs to be loaded on the back of a flatbed truck. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, “a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one — a five-ton crane/ — buckles visibly under the weight.”

“I know,” as Professor Tom Long writes, “that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion.”

But, I think it makes the perfect point about the way the Ten Commandments have become a heavy burden in our contemporary culture. Every conversation I hear about them has some commentator wagging a finger at another person saying, “thou shalt not!” as if the commandments were created by God to be a check upon the destructive personal behavior of that particular person, rather than being the structure forming and shaping a community of health and well-being. Of course for other folks, the commandments are a legalistic framework to place heavy yokes publicly on the necks of a rebellious children or a society seemingly out of control. I mean listen to the Luther’s Small Catechism, “God threatens to punish everyone who breaks these commandments. We should be afraid of His anger because of this and not violate such commandments.”

I guess all of these understandings of the Decalogue makes a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck a perfect symbol for what the Ten Commandments might be. Especially, since we seem to have forgotten that the Babylonians’ gods were heavy idols that had to be trucked around, “These things you carry,” Isaiah chided the Israelites, “are loaded as burdens on weary animals” (Isa. 46:1).

The problem is that all of the ways we use the Ten Commandments or the ten words as they are referred to in Hebrew scripture fails to recognize they are about liberation and are God’s rule of love. They are given as an expression of God’s liberating the people from slavery out of the love God has for people. Indeed, the reading begins with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” God liberates the Hebrew from slavery, then freely provides them all they need for life, including how to be free as a community of health, well-being, mutuality, loving kindness and wholeness.

God does not intend to re-enslave people with these commands, but to set them free as if to say, “you are free not to need any other gods or even to make 5,280 pound images of God to truck around. You are free to rest on the seventh day because you, your animals, your servants, your land all need rest from productivity, so you can all be healthy and enjoy a long life. You are no longer at the mercy of an oppressor working you to death and you are not something to be used up or consumed until there is nothing left of you. You are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols made of stones or wood; free from solving every problem with violence and you can instead look for ways to solve problems with other people and tribes, so everyone wins and gets what they need for life because there is abundance for all. You are free to find ways to sustain life for yourselves, for neighbors and for all creation. You are free from having to covet what your neighbor has because you both have everything you need for life and, by the way, you are free from having to compare yourself with your neighbor or find your self-worth based upon what your neighbor owns or is able to do because you are loved just as you are and you are free to celebrate other people’s gifts because you have valuable gifts as well.

Or has another theologian has written “You want to make an idol of this God, an image of bird or snake or tree or pole or money or fame or pleasure? This God will have none of that, because this is the God who brought you out of slavery. You want to trivialize the name of this God by slapping the name on to any fool thing you already want to do, thereby baptizing your idiocy with a divine seal of approval, thereby enslaving oneself in the bondage of self-satisfied power. God will have none of that, for that is also a kind of slavery from which you need to be free.”

“God says, I want you free, because I am in the freedom business. All the ways you can imagine to fall back into slavery and death, God is there to call you out to freedom and life, because that is who God is. God is life and freedom. Only the certainty that it is God who has brought us out of the house of slavery and can surely do so again, if we get our relationship to God strong and continuous, can bring us the lasting freedom that we crave.

Not only that, but God’s good news of life should be like music with the Ten Commandments the dance steps that set us moving together, as Tom Long has suggested. They are supposed to be our wings, so we might soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit. This is one of reasons Luther, also, suggested to change the language of the commandments from “thou shalt not” to more positive language that evokes the freedom God and love intends for us to enjoy, so instead of “thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” perhaps ‘find joy in telling the truth, being honest and upholding the goodness and good name of your neighbor as if pronouncing a blessing upon your neighbor.”

Also, if we want to pass this good news of freedom and life to our children, then I think we are going to have to be creative; more creative than hanging the Ten Commandments on a wall, memorizing them in order or hauling them around on a flatbed truck. I suggest we create stories because as Robert Wuthnow writes, “”Stories do more than keep memories alive. Sometimes these stories become so implanted in our minds that they act back upon us, directly and powerfully.”

Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.

This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver, The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said so many years before, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. “You were an idiot “he said to Jack.”You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up1” In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.

This how the commandments are supposed to work, as Tom Long says it, “We have the experience of being cared for, the experience of being set free, preserved in a story. Then, comes the life shaped ethically around that story. A nurse saying “I’ll be right here beside you” becomes the action of a man risking his life for a stranger because he knows in his bones that he just can’t leave him.”

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the house of slavery” prompts us to live lives shaped by the freedom created by that God,” asserts Tom Long.

I gotta believe living in God’s joyous freedom and love of the Ten Commandments is much better than carrying around tons of dreary duty and wondering when the wheels are going to come off the flatbed truck of our lives.

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“Welcome to the wilderness,” said the soon to be departing Dean of students at Colgate Rochester Divinity School to all the new seminary students gathered for worship in the Chapel during our first day of seminary.

Little did we know how appropriate that welcome would be, since the wilderness is the place a person enters leaving behind all that came before on the way to a journey to a new place with new relationships and new understandings of who a person or community is and how they are to live.

The wilderness is where the journey through transition takes place, but it can be a scary place and a place where survival is the first priority. That was true for the Hebrews and the other peoples who left Egypt with Moses. Egypt had been the Hebrews settled homeland for centuries where they had lived and thrived as a people, until Pharaoh got scared because they were more numerous than the Egyptians and he thought they might try a regime change by overthrowing him. So, Pharaoh did what every leader who is afraid does, he seeks to destroy his enemies. First, he enslaves the Hebrews, forcing them to work 24/7/365 building pyramids and other public works. Second, he orders Egyptian midwives to kill Hebrew male children, so the Hebrews are forced to intermarry  and have children with Egyptians.

This, of course, prompts the Hebrews to cry out to God, who hears them and answers their prayers by sending them Moses, who battles with pharaoh until pharaoh relents following the death of the first born child of every human and animal, except the Hebrews and those whose doorways were painted with the lamb’s blood, and allows the Hebrews to leave.

Of course, it all seemed wonderful to be leaving behind the life of slavery, oppression and death for a sojourn to the land of promise and abundance and the Hebrews celebrated because being a sojourner, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph meant you were on your way somewhere, on your way to the fulfillment of a promised place and a new life. Sort of like the way every seminary student and every college and high school students feels on the first day of their new adventure. Sort of the way I felt as a child every time my family moved to a new town, new city, new neighborhood, new home, and new school, well not so much the new school.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews joyfulness and positive attitude didn’t last long because they realized this wilderness trek made them less sojourner,  less a resident alien, and more wanderers as they began coping with the stress of not having resources at their disposal like food and water, being out in the heat or the cold, subject to drought or famine and warring peoples, who were suspicious of large tribes of wandering peoples, not to mention not really having the sense of being on a journey toward a destination, but mostly just being out there. Even the word wanderer, according to Walter Brueggemann, suggests precariousness where survival is the key question of each and every day. “Will we survive today? Will we have water and will we have food? Where will it come from?  Israel, Brueggemann writes, experiences the bitterness of being landless, being exposed and helpless, victimized by anything that happened to be threatening them at any given moment. The people may have been on the way somewhere, but it was a dim comprehension of where they were going.

In the wilderness, faith is not easy. Anger and unrest are plentiful and reading Exodus and Numbers give ample voice to the whole menagerie of emotions the Hebrews were experiencing. Their wilderness experience is not really unlike that of our European ancestors, who came to this continent feeling they were on an Exodus journey to a new land God seemed to be promising to them, except upon arrival their fears of the wilderness became real, as they too experienced being in a precarious, frightening situation without resources, being victimized by everything, helpless, vulnerable, exposed and struggling for survival. Our ancestors had no actual experience of wilderness because they came from settled lands and in many cases from large urban centers, so they projected their anxieties about wilderness onto the new land they journeyed to get to. Thus, for our ancestors the wilderness was a place where the devil came to get you, it was unsafe and needed to be tamed and civilized so it might resemble the European culture and society they had left behind, a real re-creation of the good old days. Even the indigenous peoples who lived on the land needed to be conquered, enslaved, tamed or annihilated. Reading colonial era poetry, diaries of early colonial settlers or even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” bears this out.

Curiously enough, congregations in transition feel the same way the Hebrews and our European ancestors felt as they, like the Hebrews, experience wilderness and romanticize the “good old days” while anger, resentments, fear, focusing on survival;  perhaps thinking they are short on resources, and feeling vulnerable, uncertain about where they are going and if they are really going anywhere at all. They feel more like wanderers than sojourners and faith is not easy.

Except, the Israelites were not alone and were not without resources for life because God was with them, leading them, feeding them, giving them water and protecting them, and teaching them how to be a people of compassion, wholeness and well-being. What God was trying to do of course was to mold and shape them into being a particular kind of people. That is, also, what the wilderness experience is about as the desert mothers and fathers called the wilderness the furnace of transformation. The place where all the business and confusion of our lives is burned away, so we might see more clearly how truly important are the choices set before us, choices of life and choices of death. So, we might meet God and gain clarity about what it means to be in a relationship with the divine based on trusting the promises of life God makes with humanity and creation and be transformed by the experience.

This is, also, the lesson Jesus teaches us by his journey into the wilderness furnace of transformation, the first place Jesus goes after his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted by the devil with what Henri Nouwen calls, “the three compulsions of this world: to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be spectacular (throw yourself down), and to be powerful (I will give these kingdoms). It was in this furnace of transformation that Jesus was tempted to turn away from God the way the first generation Hebrew wanderers did, the way our European ancestors did, the way congregations in transition do, but that isn’t what Jesus did. He affirmed God is the only source of life and identity (you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone by serving those whom God loves, which is everyone, especially the least and the lost.) and if one trusts God, then there is no need seeking guarantees that the promises of an abundant life are real, nor is there a need to test God to see if God is really listening and paying attention to us. All a person, a community or a congregation need do is to learn the lessons God is teaching through the stories of the Hebrew wanderers, the story of God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and the Israelites before, during and after exile as well as the stories of Jesus’ life and the life of the early church, being aware as George Herbert wrote in his poem about the Israelites’ struggles to enter the land God promised them, “their story pens and sets us down” which is to say their story claims those who remember it and retell it, marking and shaping all who do so by the same faithfulness of God, which elicits the same response of trust in God as the person, the community or the congregation live authentically their why, their identity as the reason God created them to serve God’s agenda.

I pray it may be so for us claiming to be a compassionate Christian community, fostering a personal connection with God for people of ages and expressing God’s love through worship, education, mission, music and fellowship living in a time of confusion and chaos where the old techniques and ways of doing church no longer work and we feel more like wanderers than sojourning pilgrims.

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Where, O God, can I flee from you?

Where, O God, can I go hide from you?

These are the psalmist’s questions in Psalm 139 reflecting a radical monotheism that is relational. This is a song of a relationship between psalmist and God that covers the entire breadth of human existence in terms of God’s presence, knowledge and power, the giving and nurturing of an awareness of the Lord as the total environment of life as well as the teaching and confessing that “my times, O God, are in your hands,” according to James Mays’ commentary. This intensely personal devotional song portrays the human self in the light of the work of God as well as God’s work and person as the foundation for the human person’s life. This is not an abstract or systematic writing about who God is and what God does, rather it is the intimate relationship where the psalmist is completely known by God. The Hebrew word translated as “know” indicates this knowledge of God is intimate and deep from the moment of being formed in the womb through birth and into the long daily routines of awakening and sleeping, going out from home and coming back home, working and resting and eating. Nothing is hidden from God and there is nowhere to go to get away from God. The psalmist is never free of God; however neither is he a prisoner of God. Rather he is free to live for and with God, as Mays describes this relationship.

Reading this personal psalm of God being the totality of a person’s life and the encompassing environment for all life contrasts and highlights the foolishness of Jonah, who goes to great lengths to hide from God because he refuses to be the prophet to Nineveh that God has called him to be. Instead, he runs in the opposite direction, tries to hide from God aboard a boat, then in the middle of storm convinces the crew that they can calm the storm by throwing him overboard into the sea, which they do. Then, in the sea he is swallowed by a great fish, as described in Hebrew. It is while he is in the great fish that Jonah prayers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for saving his life, which is humorous because he has been trying to hide from God, trying to hide from the Creator of the Universe. Of course, Jonah’s prayer is answered and the great fish vomits him up onto shore where he begins walking to Nineveh to be the prophet God has called him to be, although he complains to God throughout his time of ministry in Nineveh.

So, when Jesus couples Jonah’s story with Jesus’ death and resurrection it is a sign that God’s transformative love is a call to remember how near we are to God’s love and remember the power of God to transform life as well as remembering the unconditional nature of God’s love to forgive and embrace those who change the direction of their life even if it means God seeking us in the depth of our sorrows and our desire to hide ourselves away from everything and everyone, including God, to lift us up out of our miry bog to place us on a dry, level plain to continue to live for and with God in a greater awareness of God’s encompassing presence and trusting God to sustain life now and for eternity.

What the psalmist is also calling us to realize with the focus on geography, the focus on God being the total environment of life and the focus on God’s participation in our own personal creation is that all life is sacred and connected to each other in relationships of interdependence where what happens to one member of creation impacts and influences other members of creation.

This is profoundly true in our relationship with the land that we are tasked by God to till, tend, and protect and to care for, so it remains able to nurture life and sustain life and which various passages of scripture point out is often a mirror of our relationships within families and within whole communities.

Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel is, but one example of this mirroring effect. Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is the oldest and is a farmer while his younger brother Abel is a keeper of sheep. They both bring to God offerings from their respective vocations. Abel’s is accepted by God while Cain’s is rejected by God. Cain is angry, dejected and is warned by God that “sin is prowling like a wild animal waiting to overcome you, but you must master it.” Thus, Cain has a choice either master sin or be mastered by sin. Still feeling the rage of his anger, Cain invites his brother into a field and kills him, then walks away. However, the voice of the dirt that absorbed Abel’s blood cries out to God with its own sorrow and grief for the blood spilled in violence because anger, resentment, and rejection had all grown to such overwhelming proportions that Cain could not master sin, but instead sin mastered him. It mastered even his response to God’s question, “where is your brother?” and his retort, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Keeper, the word has more meanings than one who keeps. It means “to exercise loving care for, to watch over, to guard, to preserve, to protect, to tend to the needs of another, to save a life, to sustain life.”

This was the same word “shamar,” in the Hebrew, used in Genesis earlier to describe God’s expectations for the man and woman and their descendants to keep the garden, keeping it able to be fruitful by their serving the land and all creation as they tend to the land’s needs and protecting the land from those elements that might destroy it, making the land unable to be productive and unable to sustain life.

Now, as the land that absorbed the Abel’s blood cries out in sorrow and grief, the fractured and broken relationship of the brothers was, also, given voice as the land’s pollution from violence mirrored the pollution of sin Cain experienced. In the same way that the mark on Cain signified his identity as one who ended life, the infertility of the sacred land, scarred by the blood seeping into it, identifies it as land unable to nurture life or sustain life.

Similarly, Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and theologian, makes this same point about land mirroring the broken and fractured relationships within families and within the community in his work “The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith” using the themes of contamination of the land, of excluding people from the land and possessing land to fulfill selfish economic actions without regard to the community, and of the defilement of the land. He begins, of course, with Moses’ farewell speech about faithfully living God’s teachings and God’s way of life as the foundation for staying long in the land promised and given to the Hebrews while being unfaithful to God’s way is the basis for the Israelites being exiled from the land and losing the land. Thus, the way the community lives its daily life in all their various relationships impacts what happens with the land.

I doubt that we are strangers to this conversation if we consider how brown field industrial sites have physically divided communities and economically divided communities into those who have more than they need for life and those who do not even have the basic necessities needed to sustain life, not to mention making the contaminated land unable to be used for the nurturing of life and sustaining of life and then reflect about how this violates the command to love your neighbor as yourself and violates God’s call to keep the land. Or, perhaps we might consider the way “mountaintop removal and the accompanying filling up of valleys with the debris from mountain top  is the most destructive way to mine coal, creating unhealthy living conditions for people in nearby communities, eliminating not only  forests and streams but altering a whole ecosystem that can never be restored and forever changing the communities where people live,” according to Kentuckians for Commonwealth. How does this action comport with loving our neighbors or keeping, tending, or lovingly caring for creation as God has called humankind to do?

How do any of the environmental disasters we have witnessed whether from the BP oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, the Chernobyl or the Three Mile Island disasters, or the pollution of rivers by coal mining companies, to name just a few, square with an understanding of our responsibility for the keeping and caring and protecting of the land given to us by God, not to mention the psalmist’s declaration that God is the total environment for life?

As the Seasons of the Spirit commentary reminds us, our choices have consequences for the land. Sacred ground can become scarred ground, whether by shedding blood or by poisoning the soil. So the question for Christians today in light of climate change, Arctic permafrost melting and rising ocean levels is, will we hear the voice of the land crying out to us or will we keep pouring the blood of human violence, contamination, defilement and greed into its mouth, so that we do not have to hear the land’s voice crying out to us or hear God teaching us the way for life to be nurtured and sustained?

How we answer that question will have consequences for how much longer the land will nurture and sustain life for us, our children and all future generations.

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Moses stands high on the rocks above the assembled Hebrews, who are eagerly waiting for the signal to cross the Jordan River and possess the land God promised to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, a promise passed down from father to son and mother to daughter.

After 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness, they are ready to go home and ready to leave the wilderness behind them, letting go of the nomadic way of living. These were a wilderness people because most of them were born and lived all their lives in the wilderness. They are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those Hebrews Moses had led away from slavery and death in Egypt to the freedom of a life-giving relationship with God, who gave them a way of living together filled with rich, intimate relationships of authenticity and integrity; a way of life where every person would be living from the center of their being.

That was, of course, exactly what their mothers and fathers had failed to do. A fact Moses points out in the beginning of this last teachable moment. You see, Moses won’t be crossing the Jordon with them. His ministry, the vocation God called him to live, was nearly finished. All he had to do was teach this last lesson then his ministry would be complete. So, he begins this moment by calling the people to remember how they came to be here by reciting the history of their long trek through the wilderness, the good times and the bad times, but especially those times when their parents had failed to choose life by hearing, obeying God and trusting God completely and had, instead, chosen death.

Now, Moses isn’t doing this because he wants to beat up on their parents for abandoning God and God’s way, rather he does it because he is teaching them about the two choices they will have to make, either choosing life or choosing death. There is no middle ground.

And, I will tell you Moses will exhort them to choose life because that is what God wants them to choose, since to choose life is to live within God, within the very heart of God, who is not only the creator of existence, the creator of living substance, but is life itself, which is the meaning of the name Yahweh, the name he told Moses at the burning bush.

Moses will exhort the people to choose life by telling them, “This commandment that I’m giving you today is not too much for you. It is not out of your reach. It is not on a high mountain,-you do not need to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level. It is not across the ocean,-you do not have to send sailors out to get it and bring back then explain it to you before you can live it. This word is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. It is an easy choice, so just do it, choose life!”

Moses passionately challenges them to make this choice because by choosing life they will choose to live fully their new identity as God’s people from the inside out. You see, the commandments and the instructions Moses gives this people, the same ones he has been giving them for more than forty years, are not simply a set of rules or laws to be obeyed under penalty of punishment or eternal damnation, rather they are teachings to be lived every moment as if breathing air or eating food until each person has fully taken all of them into the very center of their being as part of their being just as surely are their hearts beat within them, sending the image and likeness of God hidden deep within them rising up to the surface and out from them like living water bursting out of rocks and soaking the world around them with God’s love in the concreteness of daily living, making God visible to every person and every nation surrounding them.

They are to be the visible expression of God’s presence in the midst of humanity”on earth, in time, in all the concreteness of the visible, perceptible, tangible world” as theologian Alexander Schmemann has written, so every person and every nation will be blessed with the comprehension of a new, radically different way of being fully human that actually works for the well being and wholeness of every person and nation, united together in the tranquility of God’s peace.

So every person and every nation will come to them and say we want to join your community, but not because the Israelites are so wonderful and perfect, rather because all nations and people will recognize that it is God, who has created this way of life and who has claimed these people as Isaiah says, “This is what the Lord says, he who created you, O Jacob; he who formed you Israel, fear not for I am have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine.”

What Moses was teaching them is that they will make God visible to the whole world by the way they live and people will be drawn to God because of their lives. It is what Jesus told his disciples during his farewell discourse in the Gospel of John, “You have seen the Father because you have seen me.  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  So that God may be glorified.

This is what is affirmed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism in the very first question, “What is the chief end of humankind?” Followed by the answer, “Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

What the people who wrote the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were trying to say is that all human beings are, at every moment of our lives, in a relationship to the living God because God has formed us and shaped us in God’s image and likeness, so we might live the way God intends for us to live in wholeness and peace within the boundaries God has set in place for us.

“The image of God in humanity”, theologian Jack Rogers writes, “is not some particular quality or attribute such as reason or free will or the ability to dominate nature. Jesus Christ is the image of God and what set him apart from his contemporaries is that Jesus was totally obedient to God, who had sent him. The image of God, and the meaning of our humanity, is that we are created in relationship to God, so that when we obey God, as Jesus did, we “image” God by our lives. The thrust of Reformed theology is that we glorify God by living lives of obedient activity.”

You see, Reformed theology is clear that we are not created or summoned by God to a life of self-centeredness interested only in our salvation, agenda, power, or celebrity. It is not my agenda, your agenda, Donald Trump’s agenda or anyone else’s agenda.  We are saved by grace and summoned to serve God’s agenda for sustaining life, ours and creation. We are supposed to seek the glory of God and be pointing people to God by working toward the goals of God’s kingdom. This is what means to live that part of our identity statement, “we will foster a personal connection with God for people of all ages.”

God provides all we need for life and is with us, even when we wade through the deep water, walk through fire or need a lift up out of a miry bog and be set down a dry, level plain. All we need to do to show our gratitude for all God does for us is act on God’s agenda for this world by choosing life, choosing God’s way of peace, so all will see how wonderful it is to live God’s way of life. May it be so for you and for me.

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In many fragments and in many fashions in former times, God’s Word goes out, arguing, pleading, wooing, commanding, telling stories, conversing, spinning words across the lines between heaven and earth. God’s Word is an active interruption of silence creating life as a disturbance of the stillness of swirling waters in a deep dark void incapable of creating life. God’s Word intrudes into life, moving trees and shaking the powers that be, causing the sun to rise, shaking foundations whether of volcanoes, temple or churches, and breaking chains of oppression and molecular structure.[i] Everything in creation reveals the character of God, one theologian writes, and is gathered up in God’s life giving Word.

A Word making holy summons, calling humanity to an awareness of God’s presence that as theologian Tom Long writes, we would not know on our own and that flowers, stars, clouds, indeed the whole universe as well as the entire history of humans are telling a story of God’s glory beyond our imagining. God’s Word is not speaking of a grand design concealed in the complex patterns of nature awaiting, a science sophisticated enough to find it, rather it is a shout in the street crying news we could not have anticipated news that God is at work in creation, providing, saving, reconciling, teaching, nurturing and healing. This Word God speaks is the one Abraham and Sarah heard, the one Samuel heard in the temple as child sleeping, the one Moses heard in a burning bush, the one the Canaanite woman heard when she was pleading for Jesus to heal her daughter. This Word God speaks is the one heard in a vision as a flash of insight, in pillars of fire, in a waterfall, in a still small voice, and in powerful moments of insight at a church committee meeting, in the voice of hungry and homeless, the voice of the sick crying for for healing “ and in the hope of those bent over by oppression, hatred and bigotry.

This Word God speaks is the one who was in the beginning with God, and is God through whom all creation was given life, a life that is the light of God breaking through and breaking down all the darkness humanity creates whether through ignorance or the violence of racial hatred, bigotry of any kind, or oppression or exclusions seeking to divide people into those who are superior and those who are inferior, those who are truly human and those considered to be only 3/5 human, those who are in and those who are out, those who have more than enough for life and those who don’t.

This Word is one who comes in the flesh and bone of Jesus the Christ to be the last plank in a long rope and wood bridge stretching across the chasm separating humanity from God and God’s life of joy, hope and peace; completing the bridge begun by Abraham and Sarah leaving their ancestral home, then the Egyptian midwives Shiphrah and Puah refusing to kill newborn Hebrew babies by acts of civil disobedience, then Moses is summoned to liberating leadership, then Isaiah called in the midst of worship, then Jeremiah a boy opening his mouth to speak to adults he fears won’t listen, then in many other divine actions forging saving planks in the long bridge of redemption until coming at last to final plank, which is the ultimate plank completing and making the bridge fit for humanity to cross over into the new life God intends and has intended for all humanity.[ii] Christ alone is that last and ultimate plank. Christ is the ultimate Word that was with God, whom is God.

Christ alone is the Word becoming flesh and blood coming to live with humanity in the fullness of everyday life knowing all of our joys, all of our wonder at the mysteries of creation, knowing how we often cannot see what is right in front of us, knowing love in the giving and receiving, knowing rejection and the violence of a hometown crowd wanting to throw him off a cliff preaching a word from God they didn’t like, knowing the suffering of disease, wounds, betrayals, oppression whether political or institutional, and all the suffering human beings are subject to because we are part of the earth, sky and waters of creation-and what happens to the earth, sky and waters also happens to us. Christ alone brought all of this-all humanity’s life with him to the cross, bearing it in his body broken by nails, spears in the side, beatings, and carrying his cross until, finally at his death he brings all humanity’s life into God’s very being where it is healed and made new in the grace laden resurrection witnessed by the men and women he gathered together, then sent out to be his body-hands, feet, mouth, mind, and witnesses to his pioneering teaching, healing and radical love for all peoples.

Christ alone is head of the church because he alone is the one who gathers all people together to create the church not as an institution to be saved, not as a commodity to be consumed, but as a community of followers living their lives following the model for being truly human that Jesus created with his life, his teaching, his story telling and his acts of kindness, empathy, and his self-offering love for neighbor serving not himself, seeking no reward or celebrity, but willingly obeying God’s love. Christ alone is the head of the church and we claiming to be his followers are his hands, feet, mind, mouth and heart called by Christ to live as he lived and by doing so-teaching others that a life of health, joy, hope, and peace is possible. A life where every person has all they need for life and need not fear their neighbor, but can live in mutuality with all their neighbors, knowing all humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and all humanity is God’s children and are to be treated just that way.

Christ alone is the one Word of life encouraging us to persevere and run the journey of faith as a marathon not a sprint.  Christ alone is praying for us, reassuring us we are not alone, but as the great preacher and theologian Howard Thurman writes, “God is present with me this day. God is present with me in the midst of my anxieties. I affirm in my own heart and mind the reality of his presence. He makes immediately available to me the strength of his goodness, the reassurance of his wisdom and the heartiness of his courage. My anxieties are real; they are the result of a wide variety of experiences, some of which I understand, some of which I do not understand. One thing I know concerning my anxieties: they are real to me. Sometimes they seem more real than the presence of God. When this happens, they dominate my mood and possess my thoughts. The presence of God does not always deliver me from anxiety but it always delivers me from anxieties. Little by little, I am beginning to understand that deliverance from anxiety means fundamental growth in spiritual character and awareness. It becomes a quality of being, emerging from deep within, giving to all the dimensions of experience a vast immunity against being anxious. A ground of calm underlies experiences whatever may be the tempestuous character of events. This calm is the manifestation in life of the active, dynamic Presence of God. God is present with me this day.”

Christ alone is present with us this day and all days, which makes the words we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews, “good news.”  For it affirms that the relationship we have with God in Christ is a living reality. It is a renewing and empowering relationship that we depend on in good times and in bad. We know that we can draw from God’s deep waters of mercy and grace[iii] as the psalmist sings “O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”

For Christ alone is the Word of life we must hear and obey in the beginning with God, in the end with God, bringing us into God’s very being today, tomorrow and eternity because Christ is God, who is with us always. Christ is God who loves us all. Amen.

[i] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching pp 4-8

[ii] ibid

[iii] Gloria J. Tate, Presbyterian Church of Teaneck, NJ. In the African American Lectionary, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching pp 4-8

[ii] ibid

[iii] Gloria J. Tate, Presbyterian Church of Teaneck, NJ. In the African American Lectionary, 2008

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“You all have an A for this course,” said Barbara Brown Taylor at the beginning of our doctorate course ‘Practical Mysticism.’ Now, as I think about what she said, it is in a small way like grace.  You see, no one had done any work for the course, no papers or projects or presentations had been done for the course at all. We had done nothing to merit or deserve such a grade. We had just shown up. And, I think that is one small way to think about grace.

We just show up as a living being and God’s love is given to us. No questions asked. No tests to see if we measure up to receive this love. No creeds to recite or perfect behaviors to track. God’s love is simply given to us, reaching out to welcome us home, telling us we belong. Telling us we are valuable, that we are wanted. God’s love is ours from the moment we show up through the entirety of our lives into eternity, calling us to live within God’s being. This is, also, why I think infant baptism is such a joyful experience of grace because in that sacrament we affirm God’s unconditional, unbreakable, unfathomable love is for us, with us and encompassing us always, long before we have done anything to earn, merit, deserve or can respond to such a love.

But, there was more to that moment of grace when Barbara Brown Taylor said we all had “A’s” that was, also, important and truly wonderful, which was when she said, “Now, let’s focus on the work.”  Focus on the substance of why we were in that course. Focus on the readings and the presentations. Focus on learning new ideas, concepts, history and stories, so we might learn something about Christian mystics and comprehend why they are important for us to know about, but more importantly discover the practical and usefulness of the mystics’ teachings for Christian daily living. We were liberated from worry about passing the course, so we might focus on living as followers of Christ.

That is what faith is. It is the liberated, grateful response to a grace that frees us from having to worry about whether we are loved, accepted, valuable, wanted or belong, so we are free to do the work of living the way God teaches us to live through the creation stories, the man and woman in the garden story, the ten commandments, the prophets calling the people Israel to change the direction they are going in their lives, the sermon on the mount, all the healing stories and feeding stories, Lazarus rising from the dead, the walk toward Jerusalem, the prayer in Gethsemane, the cross, the resurrection, the post resurrection stories and the stories of the apostles and early Christian communities.

While the simple definition of faith is trust, faith as defined throughout scripture is also confidence in God, steadfastness, unswerving loyalty to God even in face of what appears insurmountable obstacles, perseverance, patience, holding God’s promises to be true and reliable, holding  fast to a promised hope, endurance, being firmly set on God, fidelity to God and God’s way of life, believing that is deeply connected to doing or living a way of life consistent with the claims of God upon the community based upon the remembrance of what God has done to create life and sustain life and a response of gratitude for all God has done and promises to do. Taking all of these definitions as a whole we discover faith is not mere intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but is much richer and deeper allowing us to change the translation of Hebrews 11:1 to “faith is the substance of these hoped for and the proving of things not seen” because God is the substance of our hope and Christ has revealed God and God’s love for us in visible and tangible acts of healing and teaching, which lead us to thanksgiving.

You see, gratitude is at the heart of faith, especially in the song of psalmist in psalm 145, “I will exalt you, my God and King, I will praise your name forever and ever,” since praise cannot be given without some reason and the psalmist cites those reasons as compassion, patience, forgiveness, love as well as trustworthiness, able to be counted upon to do what God has promised to do and to be near and loving in giving life and sustaining life. These reasons are acts of remembrance by the psalmist, who calls the community to sing the praises of God. Engaging in this gratitude engendered praise, the community as a whole recalls these events and other events in their own lives where God has invited them to be co-creators of life, reached out to change their situation, or let them know they have been heard and are not alone.

In many ways, the psalmist is telling a narrative in much the same way that the gospels, the prophets and the epistle writers are telling stories, which is why the biblical stories are vitally important for Christian communities. “We are a storied people, “writes theologian and professor Stanley Hauerwas, “because the God that sustains us is a ‘storied God.”

Through the biblical stories we learn how God both has saved God’s people by grace across time and geography, but we also learn the consistent way God desires people to live in response to God’s grace, so the people’s life may be full, healthy and life sustaining through relationships of mutuality and loving kindness, then using what we have learned from those stories, we live our lives as a grateful and free response to grace.

What is particularly freeing is that we do not need to be focused on the myths the culture tells us should be our stories, should be our values and ethical norms, or should be our way of living in the world because they are meaningless, telling us nothing about who we are as followers of Christ. The same can be said for those Christians who want to make Christian living about duty or guilt trips because in some way we failed to measure up to some particular theology of works righteousness. This is also why lists of the “five things to do to be a better Christian” or “the ten ways to pray for a more fulfilled life” are a waste of time. It may feel good to have an assignment for the week or a list to check off each day or week, but they are the very things Jesus preached and taught weren’t useful in living God’s way. Neither is the flipside to closet legalism that is a “moral therapeutic deism” that professor Scott Hoezee describes as, “the idea is not that we have to please God by living moral lives, but rather that God  is pleased with us even if we don’t do very well in the moral arena,” because “God isn’t paying that close of attention to us anyway and is mostly interested in seeing if we are a pretty okay people who stay slightly ahead of the moral curve vis-à-vis” those other” immoral people down the street.

Faith liberates followers of Christ to focus our energy, imagination, gratitude and love on living God’s way as we become part of the biblical stories of grace, gratitude, praise and faith and they become part of who we are as followers of Christ. Amen.

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