Walk Humbly: Sermon by Laura, 1.29.17

Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-31

Even if you rarely crack open a Bible, the final verse I just read from Micah is likely familiar to you: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” One of the most-quoted verses of the Hebrew Scripture, it’s like a bumper-sticker summary of what faith is about. But, even if this is one of your favorite verses, I’m guessing that, like me, you may know little else about Micah or the context of his prophecy.

And context, my friends, is important. It may be an awkward metaphor when our local soil is still blanketed with thick snow… But context is the ground on which all our arguments stand, the earth from which ideas sprout and spread seed in the winds of a particular era of history. To examine the meaning and implications of any thought or ideology, we must get as close as we can to the contextual soil in which it is rooted.

So who was Micah? When and where did he live, and how do his powerful words grow out of the fertile mulch of his context?

Micah was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, a Judean man who lived in the days after the descendants of Kings Solomon had divided the promised land into two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom of Samaria and the Southern kingdom of Judah.  These were also the days before the Assyrian empire invaded, conquered, and carried a large portion of Israel’s population off to captivity. This was a time of wealth and prosperity in Samaria and Judah. The Temple in Jerusalem flourished, and people demonstrated their religious loyalties with extravagant gifts.

Yet Micah perceived that all was not well. His view was shaped by his upbringing in a small rural community named Moresheth, which was about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem.[i] He surely witnessed firsthand how local farm workers struggled in an economic system that exploited their labor to the benefit of rich, urban-dwelling landowners. “They covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away,” says Micah in chapter 2, where he also notes how people who don’t like what he’s saying try to shut down his prophetic warnings: “Do not preach” they tell him, “one should not say such things!”

And it’s a little ironic to share this, seeing as our congregation is having our Pizza, Beer, and Gospel gathering tonight, but Micah even says, “If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ such a one would be the preacher this people could accept.”

Later, Micah denounces the rulers of both nations as corrupt, saying they “abhor justice, pervert all equity;” they “give judgment for a bribe;its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us!’”

“Surely the Lord is with us”—how often throughout history have those in power assumed that their attainment of power somehow signifies God’s approval of all their decisions? The divine right of kings or the popular mandate of elected officials—Micah denounces these assurances as falsehoods which have separated rulers from real grounding in the ultimate truth of God.

The question of ultimate truth was just as live a question in Micah’s time as it is in ours. He prophesied God’s word to God’s people, people who desired to walk the way of covenant-faithfulness in a pluralistic world, in which Yahweh was far from the only option for religious devotion. Neighboring cultures worshiped all sorts of other gods and goddesses. As one commentator notes, “Sometimes [Israel] responded by destroying their neighbors, and sometimes they bought some of their idols just to be safe.”[ii]

In Micah’s time, there were conflicting claims about what it meant to be a worshipper of Yahweh or a loyal Judean, just as in our time there are conflicting ideologies about what a true Christian or a true American says, does, and stands for. Struggling to be faithful as God’s people

in our time and place, we also flip-flop between two strategies. On one hand, we try to wall from our presence those things, ideas or people we perceive as a danger to what “true” and “right, ” exercising fearful suspicion against anyone whose belief or practice doesn’t fit our tribal criteria.

On the other hand, we uncritically embrace every religious or spiritual idea as equally valid, without really taking the time to listen and learn either our own tradition or the others’. Neither strategy honors the wideness of God’s mercy or the particularity of God’s love.

Yes, God’s love is for everyone, everywhere, at work bringing justice and mercy in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. The idea that God’s grace is only for the relatively few people in the world who think, act, and worship like we do is an insult to God.

At the same time, the idea that all religions are equal, the tolerance of “all truth is relative,” can be a lazy excuse to avoid the necessary hard work of deep listening for God’s scandalously particular truth.  One author notes, “Tolerance by itself is apathy. To say that all religions are equal is to say that no religion makes any difference.” [iii]

So, where does this leave us? How do we discern God’s will and align with it for faithful action in such a confusing world?

Of course we crave clarity. Of course we crave simplicity. Who doesn’t love three-step-formulas which promise unequivocal rightness? Who doesn’t want plain-spoken practical guidance we can rely on to get us from where we are, with whatever we feel is lacking in our lives, to where God’s people desire to dwell: where God abides with us in beauty, goodness, and Truth with a capital T.

But any rush to “simple truth” may stampede over deeper falsehoods. Premature clarity may be merely a knee-jerk fear-triggered reaction to something we’ve not taken time to understand. And shrugging relativism misses the incarnational wonder of God’s sharp and specific Word. One reality of human sin is that we are biased people who would rather put our trust in the devil we know than in the Christ who confounds us with the foolishness of the cross.

In Micah’s time, the Temple was crowded with people who showed off their “rightness” with God; yet Micah saw how the systems they’d created demonstrated an arrogant, uncaring attitude toward the poor and marginalized. Where, he asked, was true worship of the God who loves and protects the widow, the orphan and the stranger, the most vulnerable in the land? We face similar questions in our time, as we struggle to discern and navigate a clear path of faithful action amidst a deluge of biased information on all sides.

But by the grace of God, my friends, we have been given prophets, courageous truth-tellers like Micah. Micah’s words to God’s people then cut right through to God’s Truth for us now, reminding us of what we already know, offering us a clear measure by which to discern our own and others’ faithful words and actions: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Here we are reminded that God has already spoken, God has already shown Israel and us in numerous mighty acts of deliverance and grace who God is and what God desires. God’s people are created to speak and act in God’s image, the God who is consistently named as compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, and overflowing with gracious love.

Our God is a God of justice: alert to the voices of oppressed and vulnerable people—any person at risk of being treated as less than God’s child by whoever holds majority power.

Our God is a God of loving-kindness: a mercy that surpasses our imagination, a forgiveness that seems foolish to the powers of this world.

And what our God most deeply desires, my friends, is for us to walk humbly with God.

What does this mean? It means returning to our heart-knowing, getting close to the foundational ground of our existence, remembering the humus from which we humans were created and remembering the One who created us from it. From that vantage point, near to the muddy earth on which every human being stands at the foot of the cross, I understand that I am infinitely precious to God… and so is every one else. I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of the life I have been given to share with others; I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of life shared by all the others who inhabit this Earth beside me.

My friends, I believe that to “walk humbly with God” is the most important spiritual practice for Christians to focus on in our confusing and frightening times. Let’s make humility the virtue of this year! Practicing humility does not mean abdicating your convictions. By all means, stand up for what you believe is right! But do so, always ready to turn around, to fall to your knees, to return to the Ground of All Being and say, “Forgive me, I was wrong.”

Humility refuses to make “being right” an idol which substitutes itself for a real encounter with the surprising God in Jesus Christ, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, whose weakness is stronger than human strength. Humility stands with trust and love upon the humus from which human creatures are created,  and, I would add, humility regards everything—especially oneself—with a sense of humor.[iv]

Lastly, as another preacher notes, “…To walk humbly is not to be above someone or below someone, but rather with someone.” [v] My friends, we do not walk alone through the muddy paths of faith. Whatever burdens we carry in this world, we carry them together, all of us upheld by the unending grace and mercy of the God who walks with us and gives his life for us, the God whose power enlivens and empowers us, this day and always.

Amen.

 

[i] http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1251-micah-prophetic-critique-and-pastoral-comfort

[ii] Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 293.

[iii] Younger, 293.

[iv] Though it should be noted that “humor” does not actually have the same root as humus, human, and humility—it comes from a root more related to “humid”—having a quality of wetness rather than earthiness.

https://therandomcatholic.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/human-humble-humus-hum/

[v] http://day1.org/722-god_requires_what

 

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Son of Abraham: Sermon by Laura, 11.6.16 Pentecost 25C

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

What a convergence of significant dates we have in these early weeks of November! In our congregation, as we’ve already mentioned, today is “Stewardship Commitment Sunday.” But I’m guessing other significant dates have captured more of your attention, anticipation, and anxiety. Cubs fans continue to celebrate Nov. 2nd’s historic win. Veterans Day is coming up on Nov. 11. And…what’s that you say? There’s an election in two days? How could we forget!

We’ll come back to that. But the date that was most significant for me this past week was Nov. 1, the Feast of All Saints. I now count my Dad, Ron Elly, among the members of the church triumphant. In honor of All Saints, I’d like to read you the words which, to me, are the heart of Dad’s testimony as a Christ-follower. Dad had scrawled these words, in all caps for emphasis, with blue ballpoint pen on a swatch of wide-ruled paper; stuck with tape to his bathroom mirror. He saw them every time he saw his own reflection: “I am a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.”

Those words reflect the good news of the gospel, as we consider the familiar story of Zacchaeus, Jericho’s chief tax collector, short on stature if not on wealth. Zacchaeus is so eager to see Jesus that he scurries ahead of the crowds to climb a tree to for a better view. Stopping below that tree, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down, inviting himself to lodge at Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus is joyful to host Jesus, but onlookers grumble. Why would great rabbi like Jesus want to associate with a man like Zacchaeus—a tax collector who must be a “sinner?”

After all, tax collectors weren’t known for integrity. Business men who had bid on and won the privilege of collecting taxes for the Roman Empire, they regularly took an extra cut for themselves. A chief tax collector, like Zacchaeus, with other tax collectors working under him, had even more opportunity for “cooking the books, commodities speculation, side deals, graft, and extortion to defraud”[i] others. Fellow Jews viewed him as profiting from their distress, and collaboration with the Gentile occupiers made him a sinner, an outsider to the “official family of faith.”[ii]

But what does Jesus see in the man up in the tree? Does he see a sinner in need of repentance?

That’s the traditional interpretation of this story.

But there are a couple of ways the original Greek text can be understood. Most English versions translate Zacchaeus’ speech in future tense, so that he says,  “I will give half my money to the poor…I will pay back four times as much.” It sounds like Zacchaeus is so moved by Jesus’ personal attention that he repents the spot. But these verbs can also be read in what’s called the “customary present tense:” “I give to the poor…I pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus is revealing that he is already, customarily, practicing righteous stewardship, despite what others assume about him.

I like this second reading. It turns the tables on my assumptions, as Jesus so often does. As one author notes, “maybe the story is not about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn’t like with all sorts of false assumptions.”[iii]

Such a reading is consistent with Luke’s other stories.  There are unlikely heroes all over the place: a faithful Roman soldier, a “good” Samaritan, a healed Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus, and a tax collector praised in contrast to a Pharisee. Each of these stories overturns the expectations of religious insiders.

There’s also the “rich young ruler,” righteous in all the expected ways,  who walks away from Jesus, unable to bring himself to do as Jesus directs, to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow in Jesus’ way. At the end of that story, the disciples ask, “Who, then, can be saved?”

“This guy!” Zacchaeus’ story seems to respond. Here’s another rich man, about whom Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.” But what does Jesus mean with that word “salvation”?

In one sense, it points to the very person of Jesus Christ, literally coming to dwell at Zacchaeus’ house. Childlike in his eager-tree-climbing—and remember, Jesus says we receive the kingdom like a little child—Zacchaeus receives Jesus with great joy. Named and accepted as a true son of Abraham, Zacchaeus is brought from outsider status back into the true family of faith. Jesus has sought, found, and saved Zacchaeus.

But the word “salvation” applies in a second way. Affirming Zacchaeus’ generosity, Jesus is recognizing that salvation had already arrived at Zacchaeus’ house,   because Zacchaeus had already committed himself to economic practices which tangibly bless other people.

“Salvation” is a big word.  It is more than a penitent sinner’s return to morality, more than a warm feeling of acceptance, more, even, than an “inward and spiritual grace leading to heavenly rest,” as one scholar puts it. Salvation also includes the outward actions we take to make a “practical and observable” difference in others’ lives.[iv]

All of this points us toward the challenge of discernment. Are we able to see and recognize the true sons and daughters of Abraham, bearing fruits of generosity, compassion, and graciousness wherever and whenever they may be found—or do we assume some people, “those people,” cannot possibly have any blessing to offer? Which of our prejudices obscures our vision from seeing God’s powerful Spirit at work, blessing the earth, through neighbors all around us?

What an important question in election season! And what a brutal season it has been! I’ve read that therapists are reporting record numbers of patients with over-the-top anxiety in the recent weeks of Election 2016. I get it—this election has drawn out an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and dehumanizing rhetoric. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “If America were a marriage we’d need therapy…There has been so much bad communication over the past year: people talking in warring monologues past each other, ignoring the facts and using lazy stereotypes…to reduce complex individuals into simplistic categories…”

So I truly appreciated a meme on my Facebook feed this week. It was a picture of the two major presidential candidates, along with these words: “These people were both made in the image of God. Yes, both.” I appreciated that reminder, not because it helps me which one to vote for, but because it reconnects me with our basic Christian conviction, that every human being has value, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done or left undone, simply because God chose to create them. And God longs for God’s image, concealed beneath layers of damage and dust, to be revealed in each of us. God longs for God’s beloved children to recognize themselves—and each other.

All of us here have been sought, found, and saved by Christ. We are recipients of a salvation that way beyond a ticket to heaven after death. Christ transforms us from recipients to participants and agents of salvation, and sent into the world on God’s mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit of mercy and forgiveness, courageous compassion, and daring love. As my Dad reminded himself every day, we are children of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use us to change the world.

But if this is true of each of us, it is also true for every other child of God, it is also true for every other human person created in God’s image, for whom Jesus gave himself so generously so that image might be restored in fullness.

In the days ahead, our invitation, is to ask the Holy Spirit to give us clear vision, that we might see past our assumptions and prejudices. We trust in a God who immeasurably greater than our culture’s politics. Holding fast to that faith, it is our special task to create spacious sanctuaries of listening acceptance, where neighbors and strangers are welcomed without fear.

Therefore, prepare yourself, church. Use your eyes and ears first, to see and to hear, and only then, use your mouths to proclaim all the ways that God is active.  Practice careful discernment.

Look at each person you encounter, in person or on the news, with the gaze of the Holy Spirit, and recognize saints, hidden and in plain sight, doing gracious acts in small and every day ways. There are always people bearing the fruits of salvation in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Practice curiosity, not prejudice.

And on Stewardship Sunday, this Sunday after All Saints, let us commit ourselves to practicing generosity. Not just generosity in our economic practices, not just generosity in sharing our resources with others. But with a generosity of spirit, the kind of generosity God shows us, let us open our hearts to God’s children everywhere.

Let us be courageous in our relationships willing to be changed as we listen to people who are different from us. Let us be available to experience God’s love from unexpected sources. Let us be willing to “pay forward” all the little acts of kindness that actually keep this world alive, the daily acts of sharing made by those who are now among the “great cloud of witnesses,” who made, in one way or another, our life together in this place possible. Thanks be to God for their generous lives, and, in death, for the completion of  their joyous reunion in the family of God.

Alleluia! Amen.

[i] Christopher R. Hutson, “Exegetical Perspective” on Luke 19:1-10, in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 165.

[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Theological Commentary” on Luke 19:1-10 in in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 166.

[iii] http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20131028JJ.shtml

[iv] Murchison, as above, 168

What Do You Want Me To Do? Sermon by Laura 10.25.15 Pentecost 22B

The story of Bartimaeus is Jesus’ last healing miracle in Mark’s gospel. Coming just before Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, it’s a transition story wrapping up one section of the narrative while it points toward the next. In the story of Bartimaeus, we have a rich gathering of imagery and ideas about who Jesus is and what he’s about, as well as what it means for us to have faith and follow him. This story seems simple, but it has many layers of meaning, so it lends itself well to a prayer practice from Ignatius of Loyola, who valued the power of human imagination in deepening our relationship with God. The idea is that you use your imagination to enter into the story and find yourself as a participant in it, experiencing for yourself an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Now, I’m aware that this kind of prayer is a challenge for some of us, so let’s be clear: there is no way to do this exercise right or wrong, and I invite you to release any expectations you might have about how it will go.  If you have a new powerful insight, great; if nothing comes, that’s okay, too. Allow yourself to be present; invite Jesus to sit with you in any discomfort; breathe, rest and trust that God is present no matter what. Even if you fall asleep, well, God’s with you there, too.

So, let’s go. First, get as comfortable as you can in your seat and close your eyes.  Let’s take three deep breaths, Trinitarian-style,letting our bellies fill with air and soften and then releasing with our breath anything outside of this moment. Two more…one more…

Now, letting your breathing settle into a relaxed and regular pattern, begin to imagine a busy ancient street in Jericho…a regular thoroughfare for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals…It’s a spring day, and you feel the bright sun on your face. You hear animals, and smell the dust rising from the road. Hawkers shout out what they have to sell, and beggars plead for alms. You hear the sounds of a large crowd, many feet stepping, and feel the buzz that someone special is coming, anticipation and the curiosity building on the street. Find yourself in this story as I read the text…

Mark 10:46-52

So…Where did you experience yourself in this story? Were you an observer, watching the whole thing? Were you on the street in the crowd? Were you on the roadside with Bartimaeus? Maybe you saw yourself as Bartimaeus, or maybe, if you were daring,you experienced the scene from Jesus’ point of view. Is there anything that surprised you about this experience?…

Here are a few thoughts I had, pondering this story from multiple perspectives. First, the disciples: how would you, one of Jesus’ “inner circle,” be feeling at this moment? You’ve been journeying with Jesus for many days, and you know it’s significant to be closing in on Jerusalem. Not so many days ago, Peter named Jesus “the Messiah,” and since then Jesus has been predicting strange things you can’t quite take in, using scary words like “suffer” and “be crucified.” You don’t really want to hear them, and they make no sense,
so you continue imagining that the moment you’ve been dreaming of is finally approaching, when Jerusalem is reclaimed and restored to the rightful King of Israel,and you, one of the 12, are at the center of power.

Then there’s the crowd. These are folks who have heard of Jesus, who are curious about him and want to be near him, who are carried along with the wave of energy his presence creates.  As a crowd member, it may be unclear to you why you are here. The buzz around him, the stories about things he’s done and said connect with you, but otherwise you are not particularly committed to Jesus. When you hear Bartimaeus calling out, the beggar’s voice at first feels like a dissonant interruption. And then, when you hear what he’s saying, it makes you a bit nervous. To call Jesus “The Son of David” is a pretty bold assertion that he really is the true king the Jews have been waiting for. It’s a politically dangerous claim, and you want him to quiet down before Herod’s spies or local Roman centurions hear anything and get everyone in trouble.

And of course, there’s Bartimaeus, a beggar with a curious name. It oddly combines Aramaic and Greek to mean the “son of Timaeus.” In naming him thus, Mark might be making a connection to Plato, who wrote a philosophical piece called “The Timaeus;” so I like to imagine that Bartimaeus before he was blinded, was a confused student of both Jewish and Greek ideas,  wondering about what’s truly true.

But what, if you are Bartimaeus in this moment, are you thinking? What is you’ve heard about Jesus convicts you now that he is the one, your true king? What is about Jesus that inspires your trust, that he can and will help you in your deepest, most desperate longings? What is it about him that compels you to shout against the crowd so that he will hear and see you?

Finally, there’s Jesus. If you are Jesus, you are pacing yourself, step by step, toward Jerusalem, aware of the big picture. You know that what you’ve been doing and saying will inevitably be recognized as dangerous by the powers-that-be. You know the time remaining for your mission of proclaiming and enacting God’s kingdom is limited, and you know that even your closest companions are not really “getting” it.

God’s ways are so different from human ways, turning everything upside down. Yet you have trust and courage; you are centered and focused; the affirmation God pronounced at your baptism rings in your mind with each step: “You are my Beloved Son.” Amidst the flurry around you, you are somehow able to rest and trust in those words, in their truth and promise.

When Bartimaeus causes his commotion, the crowd—presumably including the disciples—tries to shut him down. But I love how the text says that Jesus “stood still.” I imagine him as the still point in the whirlwind of emotions and expectations the disciples, the crowd, and Bartimaeus represent. It reminds me of another chaotic commotion, on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was the still-point, calming the Sea’s chaos and the disciple’s terror with authority.

Here Jesus uses that authority, commanding the crowd to call Bartimaeus, and a different kind of transformation takes place. I love how the crowd, obeying Jesus, goes from being a disinterested collection of people to a community of care and encouragement. I love how Bartimaeus goes from a disempowered beggar to a man of vision, doing what the rich man earlier in Mark 10 could not, flinging away his one possession, his cloak, as he springs with raw hope toward Jesus.

And I love the powerful question Jesus asks Bartimaeus, by which, perhaps, just perhaps, the disciples  are brought a teeny-tiny bit closer to understanding. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. This is the same question he asked James and John, when they approached him a few verses earlier, wanting to be Jesus’ #1 and #2 courtiers when he kicks out the Romans once and for all. Jesus tells them their request is not his to grant, telling them, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What do you want me to do for you? It’s a beautiful question, says author John Dear, revealing not only that God truly desires to help us, but the very nature of our God: “In Jesus, we have a God who is humble, loving, and generous, a God who longs to serve humanity, especially in its brokenness, poverty and blindness.” Bartimaeus’ response shows his clear insight, his transparent humility, so different than the presumptions of the power-hungry disciples. Bartimaeus is graced with awareness that he is indeed broken and in need of mercy, and that Jesus is the One who can heal and restore him.

This question also shows that Jesus makes no assumptions. It may seem obvious to us that Bartimaeus will want his eyesight back, but I believe Jesus looks on him as Jesus looks on all of us, a human being in need but with inviolable dignity. Jesus’ compassionate vision can hold both our brokenness and the wholeness God intends for us, and he doesn’t presume to decide for us what we need most. It is up to Bartimaeus, as it is up to each one of us, to see and name our deepest desires for healing and wholeness, entrusting them fully to God in Christ.

My friends, Bartimaeus asks for what he wants and receives what he asks for. The disciples and the crowd are not yet as clear—not just about who Jesus is, but about who they are and what they truly want.

Where are you in this story? The good news of the gospel is that we have a King who has come to serve. Wherever we find ourselves today, we are invited to know ourselves as those who need his mercy, and we are invited to become aware of the mercy we need. Flinging away everything that stands between us and Jesus, we are invited to tell him, with profound trust, exactly what we long for, what we hope for, our deepest most desperate desire for new life.

I am convinced we will find it as we follow, like Bartimaeus, in Jesus’ way, a way that leads us from our blindness through suffering and loss into the wide-eyed wonder of resurrection faith by which we ourselves are blessed to serve and heal the world. Amen.

The View: Sermon by Keith, 9.27.15, Season of Creation B: Mountain Sunday

Scriptures: Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 48

What and where is your favorite mountain?  What is it that makes it so special or important to you?  For most of us, mountains create a sense of awe and wonder and I think that is why they take such an important role in the Bible.  Mountains dotted the landscape of where the biblical stories took place, they were a physical reality.  As a result, mountains and hills are mentioned over 500 times in the Bible.  They become characters in some of the most spectacular happenings in the biblical narrative.  Who can name me a mountain in the Bible and what happened there?

I like top 10 lists, so I’ve compiled my top 10 mountains in the Bible and what makes them significant:

10)  Mount Ararat-after the global flood, the Noah’s ark came to rest here until the waters receded and the animals and people then went and filled the earth.

9)  Mount Moriah-this is the place that Abraham offered up Isaac as a sacrifice and then God provides an alternate sacrifice when he sees Abraham’s deep faith.

8) Mount Sinai-this is where Moses encountered the burning bush and where God gave the 10 commandments to Moses.  It is also the mountain that the prophet Elijah fled to when Queen Jezebel threatened his life after he had just been on the next mountain.

7) Mount Carmel-this is the mountain that Elijah had his show down with the prophets of Baal.

6) Mount Zion-this is the mountain that Jerusalem is built upon.  Everywhere in scripture where you read, “I lift my eyes to Zion,” or “they went up to Jerusalem,” it was because Jerusalem was built on a mountain.  In the psalm we just read, the psalmist wants to direct everyone’s attendtion to this beautiful mountain of God.  This was also where the temple was built.

The rest of my list is tied to the life of Jesus:

5) The mount of the Beatitudes.  We are not exactly sure where this mountain is, probably near the Sea of Galilee close to Capernaum.  Also, the significance of its location is that Jesus giving this sermon on a mountain puts him on par with Moses.  Jesus is the new Moses, new lawgiver.

4) Another un-named mountain, the mountain the Jesus is tempted on by the devil when he goes into the wilderness after his baptism and lives into his identity as God’s Beloved Son.

3) Yet another un-named mountain, but the mountain that Jesus was transfigured on.  Many scholars think it is Mount Tabor near Jerusalem, but the Bible doesn’t say specifically.  This is the mountain that Jesus went to the top with Peter, James, and John and Jesus becomes radiantly white when he encounters Moses and Elijah and a booming voice comes from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.”

2) Calvary, also called Golgotha or the place of the skull.  It is where Jesus was crucified.

1) The Mount of Olives.  Mentioned several times in the Old Testament, the Mount of Olives was very significant during Jesus’ earthly ministry.  He went there several times with his disciples to pray.  It is where he was arrested.  But I listed it as my number one mountain in scripture because it was where Jesus had his last meeting with his disciples before he ascended into heaven.

So, why mountains?  Why does God use mountains that they become such a part of the biblical narrative?  Why is it on a mountain top that God chooses to give the law to Moses?  Why is it that mountains play such a significant role in Jesus’ ministry?  I think it is because of who we are more than who God is.  In primal cultures, the idea of a holy mountain, a cosmic mountain was often understood not only as the home of the gods, but also as a kind of cosmic umbilical cord that joined the heavens and the earth.   Since they are “closer to God,” people through history believed this is where the gods dwelt and were drawn there to be closer to the gods.  Think about Mount Olympus in Greek mythology.   Now, much of this mythic aura of a cosmic-mountain theme hasn’t disappeared in our modern era.  It is still with us.  We look up to heaven to see God.  What do you look up?  The mountain.

So, in the Biblical narrative, God uses mountains because we have this natural inclination to be drawn to God and the holy in the mountain.  It is just who we are.  And God takes advantage of that.  For every single person that goes up a mountain in the Bible, a change takes place.  That change not only happens to the person doing the climbing, the change flows out into the world because of their encounter with the Holy on the mountain.  Even though we know geologically change is taking place, when you look at a mountain, you usually think “unchanging, unmovable, solid rock.”  But it is there that God has brought about some of the greatest changes to humanity.

When Abraham went up on the mountain with Isaac, his faith was changed.  He learned that God was a provider and was given the promise that his offspring should be more numerous than the stars in heaven or the sand that is on the seashore.

Every time Moses was on the mountain, he changed and so did his people.  The first time he climbed the mountain was to look upon a burning bush.  And from that burning bush he became the liberator of his people.  When he came off the mountain after receiving the Ten Commandments, the people couldn’t even look at him.  They were afraid of him because his face shown so brightly.  He didn’t even know the change had taken place but he had been purified.  And in his hands was the covenant of what it meant to be the people of God, how to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself.  And the last mountain he was on was Mount Nebo.  From its heights he looked out over the Promised Land before the people of Israel entered it.  And he died on that mountain.

Now it is hard to begin talking about the numerous changes that took place when Jesus stepped on a mountain.  Many times he was changed as he called the nation of Israel to change.  His Sermon on the Mount reinterpreted for the people the law, with a refocusing on what it meant to be in relationship with God and each other.  When he was on that mountain where he was transfigured, it wasn’t Jesus’ physical appearance that was the most important thing that happened that day.  God was calling for a change in the hearts and minds of his disciples.  God was making that clear when he called them to listen to his son.  Don’t fight about who is greatest, don’t seek seats of power, but listen to Jesus’ teaching about being a servant to one another.

Later, Jesus climbed a mountain called Golgotha while carrying a cross.  The events that happened there changed the world, so much so we celebrate them during Holy Week and Easter.  They defiantly changed us.  We wouldn’t be sitting here this morning if that climb hadn’t have happened.  His death and resurrection changed the world and our lives.  God’s love poured from the top of that mountain upon the entire world.  Christ opened up the promise of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah foretold.  And he invites us to the climb the same hill that he did.  It means we will die, but it also means we live.  Paul reminds us in Romans that “we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

So, what should you do next time you are in view of an awe inspiring mountain?  Take a hike.  It doesn’t have to be a long one, and the nice thing about modern conveniences, no matter your physical condition, you can get to some pretty awe-inspiring views.  And as the psalmist invites us to walk around Mount Zion, I’d invite you to walk around the mountain that is before you if you can.  Consider its grandeur, consider the cliffs and slopes the reach to the peak.  Think about the rock solid mountain and meditate on how that points to God’s unfailing, unchanging love for you.  And contemplate that it was on a mountain that God changed the world in and through Moses, through Elijah, through Jesus.  And pray about how God, in his infinite love, can change you and use you to change the world.

Stakeholders: Sermon by Laura, 5.17.15, Easter 7B

Scriptures: Acts 1:12-26; 1 John 5:9-13

A lot is at stake in this story from Acts. I mean that quite literally, since the word translated “lot” appears twice in it. First, Peter talks about the “allotted share” in Jesus’ ministry, Judas Iscariot cast aside to “go to his own place;” then the story describes how the 120 believers chose Judas’ successor: by “casting lots.” Those instances of the word “lot” also point to a lot—as in a “considerable quantity”—of tensions facing this group as they wait, in the days between Ascension and Pentecost, for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus as he commissioned them to be his witnesses to the “ends of the earth.”

They waited ten days. And you know how hard it is for some personalities to just sit and wait! Peter, definitely one of those “do-something guys,” decides to make sure they are attending to organizational business. Now, they have no Book of Order to guide them, so, as they try to figure out their way forward, they draw from what they do have, their Jewish practices, the Psalms, and their prayer. From these sources, Peter names the mandate to replace Judas and restore the complete number of apostles Jesus seems to have intended, having promised in Luke 22 that the Twelve, would sit upon thrones in Christ’s kingdom, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

So there is a question of filling a gap in leadership. But the gap itself feels like a raw wound. Anger, distrust, and grief linger in relation to the absence of Judas, whose name is forever marked in the Church’s memory as the one who betrayed Jesus.

We get a deeper understanding of that wound as Peter names the replacement apostles’ necessary credentials: he must be have had a committed presence in the discipleship community from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, through and “beyond betrayal and death…into the time of resurrection.” The twelfth apostle must have the capacity to embody the full message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to others, and witness to the entire scope of redemptive grace.

Preacher Randy Hyde wonders if, even more than Judas’ act of betrayal, it’s Judas’ tragic absence which grieves the disciples.  “As far as I can tell, all the disciples of Jesus were betrayers. None of them believed or endorsed Jesus’ mission,” Hyde notes.“The only difference between Judas and the rest of the disciples – especially Peter – was that Judas didn’t stick around for final redemption.  Judas wasn’t a witness to the resurrection….…all of them were betrayers, but betrayal does not need – in fact it cannot be – the final word. Redemption is and always shall be the very last thing.”

Tradition is inconclusive on whether Judas died by his own hand or by a cursed accident. However it happened, he died isolated and alone, never knowing that his betrayal was not the end of the story. What a tragedy, that Judas didn’t fully experience the eternal kind of life Jesus offers, the quality of present and future life grounded in the good news of God’s unstoppable love.

All of us betray God and one another at some point; but rooted in the Risen Christ,
we find a new life in God’s forgiving love, which bears fruit as that love flows through us to release others from bondage to isolation and shame.

The believers in the upper room with Peter are grounded in that unstoppable grace
as they pray their way forward together. They have not yet received the Holy Spirit,
but their devotion to prayer throughout empowers them to go ahead and nominate candidates to replace Judas, and then they cast their lots together in the future of Christ’s people.

Now those who have recently participated in a rigorous leadership selection process
might be surprised by the means of deciding between Matthias and Justus. To “cast lots” is essentially like flipping a coin: heads, Matthias, tails, Justus.  The believers saw it as a tried-and-true way to determine God’s will. And there is no evidence that the means or outcome were not okay with God.  In the absence of a clear choice, sometimes we simply find a way to move forward.

But neither Matthias—nor Justus, for that matter—are ever mentioned again in scripture,
which makes some commentators wonder if the believers were too hasty in this decision. Would waiting until after Pentecost have allowed them to choose in concert with the greater perspective of the Holy Spirit? Paul, whom no one would have imagined would be called as an apostle, makes an indelible impact on the Church, so some interpreters suggest that Paul, not Matthias, was the Holy Spirit’s choice of the twelfth apostle.

Frankly, I doubt we’ll come to a firm conclusion on any of the questions this story raises for us. But I see good news here which meets us in the tensions faced by this generation of believers, as we seek to be the faithful church together.

We the Church are living through a profound time of transition. Author Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence,” when all previous assumptions about the Church have been thrown into question. Older expressions of being church are declining, making room for new, as-yet-unimagined expressions to emerge. Reading the book of Acts, we recognize this pattern of new emergence is characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s action. In a messy transition time, full of uncertainty, how do we, Christ’s community, faithfully discern our way forward?

We take our cue from our ancestors in the Acts’ story, committing ourselves to each other, devoting ourselves to prayer together, stepping out in faith and experimentation, “making our road by walking.” Sometimes it feels like we just muddle through, awkwardly grieving and moving through past wounds, doing the best we can with what we’ve been given. But the good  news is that we have indeed been given something to work with! We have much, much more than basic necessity or chance to go on: we have God’s testimony in Jesus Christ.

1 John tells us that “whoever has the Son has life;” whoever trusts God’s unstoppable love,
revealed in the whole scope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is already immersed in the eternal kind of life, because you can  know and trust, “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” that life in Christ wins through. Redemption—not betrayal—has the final word.

Learning and accepting that testimony in scripture and our faith community, we, too, become witnesses. We are empowered to bold engagement in Christ’s ministry here and now, trusting that God can work with whatever comes. Thus, we see and experience for ourselves Christ’s incarnation and resurrection right here, among this particular group of people, in this particular place and time.

Now, I’ve been thinking about this text in relation to welcoming Nick and Christy
to membership in our congregation today. The believers in that upper room committed themselves to waiting, praying, and making decisions with all the others, particular people of that time whom Jesus Christ had gathered to his side. Each of them “cast their lot” in with each other: in this case, that phrase means we accept the portion provided for us in whatever particular situation we find ourselves.

Baptism means that Christ has gathered us to his side, and we will follow him wherever he takes us. It is a welcome to the universality of Christ’s Church.  But membership is all about particularity: we affirm that it is this particular place and people where he is presently calling us to share our particular gifts up-building of Christ’s community and witnessing God’s love to the world.

There are risks in planting our stake in this soil, this all-too-human community with its layers of history, where conflict and betrayal and loss are a part of the messy fabric of ministry together. So many people simply choose to just “check out” of community rather than
take the risks of messy relationships.

But we who have witnessed the resurrection know and trust that God shows up as we muddle through, covering us with grace as we step out again and again in faithfulness together. Betrayal and loss are never the end of the story: In Christ, the final say is always redemption and love.
Alleluia! Amen.

Sources:  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lot; Acts 1:4-7,  Luke 22:28-30;

Frank L. Crouch, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2456;

Randy L. Hyde, http://www.lectionary.org/Sermons/NT/05-Acts/Acts-01.15-26-Witnesses-Hyde.htm;

Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008: 528.;

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1295

Lifted Up: Sermon by Laura, 3.15.15 Lent 4B

Before I read today’s gospel text, I invite you to find a pew Bible and  read along.  I’m reading from the Common English Bible, which is slightly different from the NRSV. I invite you to notice the differences between what you see with your eyes and what your ears hear.

Scripture readings: Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21(CEB); John 3:14-21 (NRSV)

So, what did you notice? (I especially wanted people to notice the difference between the word “judged” vs. “condemned.”) Good work. Our seminary professors constantly reminded us, every translation of Scripture is also an interpretation. One way to get a fresh view is by comparing translations. John 3:16 may be the most famous Christian verse in our era. This verse is so familiar and our reaction to it so ingrained, that we must be very intentional in listening to it, or we simply fall back on our “default” interpretations.

What do I mean by “default interpretation?” “Default settings” on computers, when you first get them, are preselected functions programmed to occur automatically until you specify you want the computer to do something different. All of us have default patterns of thought and behavior learned very early on in our lives. Some of our defaults continue to be helpful. Some of them were appropriate at certain points in our development, but need to be set aside as we grew. And some defaults, if we learned them in abusive environments, impair our capacity for healthy relationships as they continue to function in our lives.

John 3:16 is a touchstone of “default” Christianity for many people, triggering deeply ingrained impulses of faith. Maybe these words reconnect you with a wonderful awareness of God’s powerful love and the assurance of eternal life; maybe they put you right back into early family or Sunday school experiences where you felt welcomed and loved. If that is your experience, praise God. What a gift!

But others have less than positive associations of this text, because at some point, it was interpreted to you as a threat rather than a promise: “Believe in Jesus, or perish in hell forever.” For too many people, this text has become a stumbling block, when the “default” message speaks exclusion and condemnation, exactly the opposite of what it’s actually saying.

So what do these verses actually say about God, who God is, and what God is doing? Let’s look closely at the verbs directly tied to God. What are they? (loved, gave, did not send).

God loved the world—the cosmos, in the Greek—and God gave the Son, whom he did not send to condemn or judge but to save. Did you hear that? The Son was not sent to condemn or judge.

While there is certainly judgment in these verses, look again: is the noun God actually tied to the verbs “condemn” or “judge” in these verses? No. The text never actually states that God is the one condemning or judging. Judgment in John’s gospel is not the specific act of an agent, either God or us, pronouncing judgment or punishment upon someone else. Rather, it represents the crisis of decision which Jesus provokes in our lives, whether or not we will choose to receive and enter the relationship Jesus offers us.[i]

In this text, God does nothing more or less than love us and provide for us salvation and eternal life. But now we’ve come upon some more words with lots of default associations. “Salvation” and “eternal life” are often understood in terms of an afterlife, what happens after we die. Being “saved” means we go to heaven and live with Jesus forever.

This interpretation has been comforting for many. I’m not suggesting we discard it, but there are additional possibilities to hold alongside it. Even more than “life insurance,” these words offer “life assurance,” pointing us to a quality of life in the present moment. To be “saved” is also to be healed of our anxiety and fear of death and failure, and to be freed from compulsions and addictions that we may live authentically human lives and truly love God and all the others God has created. To have “eternal life” is to live your own, present, daily life securely aware that you are inextricably connected to a purpose, presence, and power far greater than your basic existence. Your life, right here and now, participates in the divine life of God.

And to “believe” in Jesus means far more than nodding agreement to theological or scriptural propositions.[ii] It means that embracing a worldview shaped by intimate communion with God in Christ, a new lens through which we see ourselves and others, by which we are reoriented, in all our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from life-diminishing to life-giving activity, through which we learn to live honestly and vulnerably, with nothing to hide.[iii]

The good news of John’s gospel is that in sheer love for us—and for the whole cosmos–God makes it possible for us to experience, right here and now, a new, life-giving reality, sourced in God’s purpose, presence, and power, an identity with meaning, a community of belonging, and great hope for the future.

So, what are we to do in the moment of decision? How do we come to “believe” in Jesus, to receive and be reoriented in the life he has to offer? By looking at Jesus, who has been “lifted up.”

Speaking of defaults, and given strong snake phobias, maybe it’s not surprising that you never see anyone holding up a banner with “John 3:14” between the goalposts at football games.

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” I can’t help but wonder what the author of John is doing in pointing us to this weird story from the Book of Numbers.

The snake Moses lifted up was a bronze sculpture hung on a pole. The Israelites, freed from slavery but exhausted in desert wanderings, had entered a worldview of distrust in God. Though God had provided daily manna and quail, they complained that God was really out to get them. But when the poisonous snakes show up and people start dying, the people recognize their disbelief and turn back, asking Moses to intercede so that God will take the snakes away.

So Moses prays, and God responds. But interestingly, God doesn’t do what they want. The poisonous snakes remain in their midst. Instead God tells Moses to make a snake icon and put it where everyone can see it. Those who get bitten survive and find healing simply by turning their gaze upon the bronze serpent. The comparison point between this strange healing symbol and Jesus is that both are “lifted up” so that people can look upon them. In both cases, God provides a means by which the mere act of looking allows the possibility of healing and a new life.

But what do we see when we look at Jesus “lifted up?” In John’s gospel, Jesus is understood to be “lifted up” in a process of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. So, first, we gaze upon him “lifted up” on the cross, and that is not easy at all. The cross is not just any “pole,” but an instrument of torture and death. One thing we see is brutal inhumanity, cruelty, and injustice playing out in the death of an innocent man.

To look at the cross is to gaze upon the terrible outcome of our distrust and betrayal of God and others. To look at the cross is to see our collective shame and fear destroying a human being in the image of God. We see the judgment, that people love darkness rather than light.

But that is not the only thing we see on the cross. We also see the truly Human One, the man who represents humanity at our best, who demonstrates what it means to truly love, willingly giving himself to the consequences of humanity’s faithlessness. We see the fully divine Son in whom God’s life and love is poured out freely and completely in grace not only for us but also with us. We see the God who goes with us into the darkest shadows, the most shameful and vulnerable places of our lives, so that even when we are utterly bereft and betrayed, we will never be alone.

My friends, we are halfway through the journey of Lent, a season in which we are invited to look closely at all our default worldviews and notice—without self-condemnation—any binders or barriers which keep us from following Christ in love of God, others, and ourselves. Jesus is “lifted up” to offer us a window, through which we may receive a new and healing awareness, seeing not only that which separates us from God, but more importantly, how God has come to offer us elevation.

“Elevation” is a term social scientists use to describe the warm and expansive emotion human beings experience in witnessing acts of goodness. Elevation motivates those who experience it to open up, connect with, and assist other people.[iv] Elevation is what it means for us to be lifted up to participate in God’s eternal life as we gaze deeply upon our crucified and risen Savior.

I want to leave you with these words from Julian of Norwich, a mystic of the 14th century, who calls us to receive the elevation of Christ, lifted up:

“The love of God most High for our soul

is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge.

No created being can fully know

the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness,

of the love that our Maker has for us.

By his Grace and help therefore let us in spirit

stand in awe and gaze, eternally marveling

at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded, incalculable love

that God, Who is all goodness, has for us.[v]

Amen and Amen.

[i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3550

[ii] http://scarletletterbible.com/banner

[iii] http://scarletletterbible.com/banner

[iv] Definition from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elevation_%28emotion%29

[v] quoted from Revelations of Divine Love at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20150309JJ.shtml

Hoping Against Hope: Sermon by Laura, 3.1.15 Lent 2B

Scripture Readings: Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

At first you might call him a “drifter.” For the past three years, Stephen Swift has certainly followed a counterintuitive path as he has biked across the country and back. Hearing more of his story, just the fact of his journeying seems incredible. At age 53, this former construction landscaper has experienced a number of tragedies. Cancer claimed the lives of his father and sister. He himself had survived bone cancer only to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 18 months to live, shortly after his wife of 28 years died in a car accident.

In the midst of his grief, God spoke to him somehow in an offhand comment from his daughter, who suggested that he go for a ‘bike ride.’ So Stephen went, with a sign on his bike that said, “It’s Personal,” letting people know he was not crusading for a cause but just moving through his own life story. Yet he became aware that he carried a message of hope as he encountered all kinds of people on his way. As one newspaper quoted him saying, “I want people to live and be encouraged by my story. Never give up, never give in, always go forward. People need to learn life is precious…Encourage them, and inspire them to live.”[1]

I got to see stacks of photos and notebooks with messages from people he’d met on bike ride when Stephen stopped into our church one afternoon last fall.He told me how this journey had not cured his cancer, but it had freed him from isolation, healed his sorrow, and strengthened his faith in God. More than 30 months after his cancer diagnosis, he saw it a miracle that he was still on the road.

“Hoping against hope”: this week, that phrase from the NRSV version of Romans caught my eye, and I remembered Stephen’s story. His incredible journey for me exemplifies this theme, which The Message puts this way: “When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do but on what God said he would do.” Stephen claimed the promise that his life is precious, and he trusted God to make a way for him. As he actively entered his hope for healing, he experienced God’s faithfulness in ways he never could have imagined.

The Apostle Paul might say that Stephen showed himself to be a child of Abraham. He’s most often thought of as Israel’s preeminent patriarch, but before all that, Abraham was a man who likewise followed counterintuitive leadings from God. How would you respond if, at the age of 75 and settling nicely into retirement, God invited you to leave your home and journey to an as-yet unspecified land, promising that you would become the “father of many nations”? Despite his wife Sarah’s and his advanced ages and infertility, despite all the unknowns of the journey itself, Abraham got up and went, deciding to trust the God of the promise. He kept trusting God in spite of long years of waiting Abraham and Sarah endured before their son was born.

In his letter to the Roman Christian community, Paul calls upon the example of Abraham, as one who “hoped against hope” in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises. Abraham decided to hope and trust that God could and would bring new life from his and Sarah’s barren, aging bodies.

Likewise, Christians are those who decide to trust and hope that the God who raised the crucified Christ from the dead will also raise us to eternal life. We are not Abraham’s ethnic ancestors, but Christians of all nations are Abraham’s spiritual children in our “hoping against hope.”

Paul is making this claim in a community context in which Jewish and Gentile disciples were struggling to figure out how to be faithful Christians together across great cultural differences and historical enmity. Did Gentile believers need to become law-abiding Jews before they could become Jesus’ disciples? That had been the way for the earliest Christians. As many Gentiles were responding to the gospel, must they do likewise to claim the promise of Christ? As one preacher noted, “For males in particular, this wasn’t something you’d want to go through unless it was absolutely necessary.”[2]

Beyond the very practical matter of establishing communal initiation practices for converts to Christ, Paul objects to imposing circumcision upon Gentile believers on theological grounds. “What makes us right with God?” and “What we must do to claim salvation?” seem to be the questions at hand. But beneath those questions are deeper questions about the very nature of God: “In what sort of a God do we place our hope and trust through the good news of Jesus Christ?” How they answered that question would determine how the community lived out their life together. How we answer that question determines how we live our life together as well!

Of course, no one who argued against Paul would deny the righteousness of Abraham. So Paul argues that even before the commandments were given as signs of God’s covenant, Abraham was made righteous—brought into right relationship—with God by his basic willingness to trust in God’s promises. This is what the Reformers called “justification by grace through faith.” It puts every person on equal footing before God. Our righteousness is not in our ability to follow the rules. Truly, it’s not really about anything we do. It’s about the promises God has chosen to make and how God faithfully fulfills them.

Even before we are aware of religion, God is choosing to love us, reaching out to us, graciously inviting us to receive God’s own faithfulness. God is not a transactional broker offering us a contract. God is a generous giver, giving God’s own life to transform us with powerful grace, creating us anew for lives of freedom and love. God loves us and accepts us just as we are. All that is necessary to receive God’s gifts, our part of the relationship, is to allow ourselves to be turned towards God with openness and availability to the grace God offers.

Sounds simple, right? Then we hear Jesus saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Not so simple. Yet I would argue that Jesus’ words are another way of naming this basic willingness to trust in a God who calls us to “hope against hope.” To hope and trust in this God is to risk vulnerability, which can certainly feel like “losing our lives.” It is to learn to depend, not on our own powers or the things we can control, but on an unpredictable grace that’s hard to perceive.

Thankfully, responding to God’s grace with trust is not something we do once and for all. The truth is, each of us will turn away from this trust numerous times in our lives. But the good news is that our righteousness with God does not even depend on the strength of our faith! “Faith” is not another ‘work’ we must do to be saved; rather, it is an awareness of and openness to God’s saving grace. “Returning” is what it means to repent, and every time we return to this disposition of trust, we are transformed so that our old ways of living die and a new freedom to love God and others is born. We are freed from the fear which is at the root of our attempts to manipulate and control God and others and build ourselves up; we are freed from the fear which is at the root of our attempts to escape and hide ourselves from God and others in self-hating despair.[3]

This is not to say that we should throw out the rules of Christian tradition. They are meant to be tools for transformation, which God can use to open us to yet greater love and freedom. The instruction of Scripture and the spiritual practices of worship and prayer are resources which train us to perceive and be sourced in God’s ever-flowing grace. Whenever we show up to read the Bible, whenever we show up to worship with others, whenever we show up to the ongoing conversation God desires with us, we are returning to that basic decision to trust, and there God has an opportunity to speak resurrection grace into our lives.

The season of Lent is an opportune time to consider how we are “showing up” to our relationships with God and others. Are we seeing God’s transforming work in us, empowering us to the daring vulnerability of self-giving love, or, as my friend Stephen put it, to “never give up, never give in, always go forwards” in relation to God and others? What kinds of barriers are we experiencing to allowing God’s love to move freely through us?

To be sure, it is a challenge to “show up” in our world, where innumerable pressures keep us distracted, distrusting, overwhelmed and hopeless. In Lent, in the companionship of other followers on Christ’s way, we can take a step back to just notice, to just become aware where we experience closeness or distance with God in our daily lives. Such noticing is a time-tested prayer practice called “The Examen,” a gift from St. Ignatius of Loyola. One of the things the Examen can help us learn to see is that God is always faithful to us, gently waiting for us to return when we have been distracted from trust and hope. It helps us to see that every day we will turn away—sometimes many times a day! Yet every day also gives us multiple opportunities to receive God’s renewing love in trust and hope.

Abraham’s story has a final word for us. From Paul’s exhortation, you might think Abraham’s trust and hope never wavered, but the story in Genesis paints a messier picture! Abraham and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands more than once, and they had plenty of moments of doubt and distrust. When they were told they would finally have a child, their first reaction was laughter at this “hope against hope.” But ultimately, these departures from God’s way make them even better examples of faith in God’s faithfulness. When their son was born, they named him Isaac, which means “laughter,” and they celebrated that their lack of faith did not stop God from fulfilling God’s promises to them.

God calls us to hope against hope, a counterintuitive trust in impossible possibilities. Let us receive God’s invitation to the unpredictable journey of faith with laughter and joy, trusting that our righteousness depends on God alone, and God is always ready and willing to cover us with grace. Amen.

[1] Elleda Wilson http://www.dailyastorian.com/ear/20141128/in-one-ear-never-give-up

[2] http://www.sermonsuite.com/freebk.php?i=788031605&key=l3oaohyamhvXAr4p

[3] paraphrasing Shirley Guthrie in Christian Doctrine, 321.