Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Amazing Covenant

This week I will get the pleasure of hearing Heritage's Associate Pastor, Skye Hallman preach in our ongoing sermon series on The Stories Jesus Knew.  She will be preaching on the call of Abram and beginning our journey with the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of the Israelite people.

I have always been struck by the account of the covenant that is found in Genesis 15.  God has promised Abram that he will have heirs.  Abram asks God how he can know that this will actually happen.  God has Abram bring a heifer, a goat, and a ram (all three years old), a turtledove, and a young pigeon.  Abram cuts the animals in two, "laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two."  Then Abram spends the next hours driving the vultures and other birds of prey away from the carcasses.

When the sun starts to set, "a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him" and God restates the promise made earlier.  Then "when the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces."  Now this, to me, is the amazing part.  See, the one who passes between the two halves of the animal(s) in this rite is essentially saying, "may I die like this animal if I fail to keep my end of the covenant."  God is putting God's self on the line in the promise being made to Abram when God's symbols (the torch and the smoking pot) pass between the animal halves.

God is doing something incredibly radical for Abram's time....and for ours.  God is committing God's self to the relationship with Abram and his descendants in a dramatically profound way.  We will see this smoking pot and flaming torch again as the pillar of fire and the cloud lead Moses and the Hebrews across the wilderness.  But even more, we will see this Covenant played out in the person of Jesus, God Incarnate, who would rather come and die that relinquish the relationship with humankind.

This is surely one of the stories Jesus knew.  As Jesus taught and lived, He could point back to this fact about the nature of God.  And as He grew in His understanding of Himself as the Son of Man, He could see this unfolding as the culmination of this ages long Covenant. 

When we're talking about the nature of God and how God does not change, perhaps we should focus more on the truths about God expressed in this Covenant that begins with Abram.  That truth is that God will not give up on us; will not abandon us; has committed God's self to us.....even to death on a cross.  And "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."  Because God has made a Covenant; and God always keeps God's word.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Stories Jesus Knew

Today I'm writing after this week's sermon instead of before it.  Partially because this week was so hard figuring out where the sermon was going.

To begin with, Rev. Skye Hallman, Heritage's wonderful Associate Pastor and I are beginning a sermon series today.  Somehow I got the task of getting us jump-started by talking about the first 12 chapters of Genesis before we move into more focused attention on various stories in the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Scriptures).

The idea is that by understanding the stories that were part of Jesus' life growing up we will better understand what Jesus was saying as He taught.  Jesus' teaching did not happen in a vacuum.  He was a Jewish man, raised in the period known as "2nd Temple" (after the destruction of the 1st temple and the building of the 2nd).  He lived in an occupied, oppressed country where the people struggled with what this meant in terms of God's attitude toward them and their relationship with God.

At about the age of 5, Jesus would have begun his education in the synagogue school.  The rabbi would very like have smeared honey on the slate where the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were carved and have him lick it off as a reminder that "the word of the Lord is sweet."  By the time he was 10, Jesus would have memorized much, if not all of the Torah.  I wonder which were his favorite stories.  Which of the accounts of Israel's history and the writings of the prophets moved him the most?

This morning as we took a brief, skimming journey through creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel (and I do mean brief) seems two me that there were two major things that are clear in these stories that were hallmarks of Jesus' teaching....and are a continuation of the way that God has revealed God's character and the nature of God's relating to us:

The first is that God wants a deeply intimate relationship with humankind.  Our God, Israel's God, the God of the Torah and of the Genesis accounts is not some distant deity.  God comes as close to humanity as possible.  God wants to know us, to walk with us, to relate to us. 

The second thing is that even when we screw things up royally, God keeps the conversation going.  In fact, God will not let the conversation go.....God refuses to give up on us.

But God also will not let the conversation happen without being a part of it.  I think this is one of the lessons of the Tower of Babel.  This will be a two way dialogue between us and God.....not a "one way, I can do this myself" project.

Humanity, by the time we get through Genesis 12, has really messed things up.  The conversation, with the confusion of language at Babel, has gone quiet.  But God will not let it rest.  God is going to fix this broken creation, and God wants humankind as a partner in that effort.  Next week Skye will be preaching on the call of Abram (later Abraham).  God will call a partner.  Interestingly, God will always make it clear that God is doing most of the work.  God will make the barren Sara fertile.  God will make a people where there was no people.  What they, and we, will be called to do in response is to live in covenant fidelity.  And truth be told, we don't do that very well either.

And yet, God keeps the conversation going.  The Word of God is Sweet.  And it does for me what I cannot do for myself.  This week I saw, once again, a story about Dick and Rick Hoyt.  They are the father and son team that together have run more than 1000 races including 252 triathlons. Rick is disabled and his father, Dick, pushes his wheelchair, peddles the bicycle, and pulls the boat when they enter these events.

Paul reminds us that 'what I want to do, I cannot do.'  Like Rick Hoyt, I want to run life's race, to leap the chasm that separates me and God.  But I am 'handicapped by sin; disabled by my inability to do right.'  God pushes my wheelchair.....peddles my bike....tows my boat.  One day we will cross the finish line into the Kingdom.....I won't do it under my own steam, but I will do it because I have a God who loves me.  One who wants a deep, intimate relationship with me and who will not let the conversation go.

As the young Jesus learned the stories of Torah; memorizing them and letting them seep into his heart; I believe that he gradually became clearer and clearer as to Who he was, and what He was called to....until that day at the Jordan when it all became clear at His baptism.

I hope you'll take the time to read some of these OT stories for yourself, maybe join us in worship at Heritage, and think about how these stories will get played out in the way that Jesus teaches throughout His ministry.  Something to think about.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Who Would Jesus Touch

If the parables we've been looking at in Luke 15 are the answer to the question "who would Jesus eat with?" then the story in Matthew 8:1-4 that is the scripture for this week at Heritage Baptist asks (and answers) the question, "who would Jesus touch?"

Some version of this story is found in all three synoptic gospels.  There are even questions that go back and forth among theologians about 'how many lepers did Jesus heal?' because of the way that some of the stories have different numbers of lepers approaching Jesus at different times.  I think the numbers question is a bit ridiculous myself; I'm more concerned with what the fact that Jesus healed lepers teaches us about the nature of God and about our calling as followers of Christ.

In the Matthew account Jesus is coming down from the mountain where He has delivered a major teaching about God's desires for humankind that we commonly refer to as "The Sermon on the Mount."  He is surrounded by a crowd of people.  Suddenly, this crowdfest is disturbed by the sound of the shouting of the words, "Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!" as the leper made his way toward Jesus.  Lepers were required to shout this ahead of themselves so that others would not have to come in contact with them and risk contagion.  They were also required to wear torn clothing and to have their hair hanging in their face.  So this man must have made a sight as the crowd parted before him. Depending on the translation you're reading from, this man either 'knelt' or 'prostrated' himself before Jesus.  Both of these words are difficult for us.  They aren't words we use a lot; and so we miss the desperation that drives this man to his knees, drops him like a stone, in front of Jesus.

"If you want to, you can make me well."  What an anguished cry!  It is the cry of powerlessness to power.  It is a cry that, all too often in our world today, is ignored or treated with disgust.  It evokes discussions of the "deserving poor" or the "welfare cheat" or 1000 versions of rationalizations and justifications for ignoring need.

Jesus, on the other hand, does two amazing things: first He says, "I do want to," and then he reaches out and touches this leper.  In doing so, Jesus becomes unclean by Law and actually breaks the law by the action itself.  Then, Jesus sends the man to show himself to the priests; which was the prescribed way of proving that one had been healed.  The priests would examine him and then, all testing being okay, would allow for his return to the community.  Jesus not only physically heals this man, but He lays the groundwork for his restoration to the family and community that his illness has torn him away from.

How radically different this is from the kind of attitude described above.  And how clear it becomes that Jesus is concerned with not only physical healing, but the restoration and reconciliation of people to community.  Who would Jesus touch?  If we look seriously at scripture, the question literally becomes, "who wouldn't Jesus touch?"  Lepers, blind people, women (culturally inappropriate), women with bleeding disorders (really, really unclean and culturally inappropriate), dead people (culturally inappropriate, makes one unclean, something you really don't do if you're not family).  Jesus will touch Anybody, He'll eat with Anybody. He'll extend an intimacy that many people around him considered pornographic.....and what's more, He'll say This Is What God Is Like.

This is terribly good news for you and me.  It gives a palpable sense to the song that went, "while I was praying, somebody touched me....must have been the hand of the Lord."  You and I have been touched.  And touched in those places we did not believe that anyone, especially Jesus, could stand to touch us: the dead, diseased, broken places of our lives.

But this is also a challenge.  If we are to truly follow Jesus, if we are to be the Body of Christ in the world around us, what does this say about who we are to be willing to touch?  Not talk to from across the room; or send stuff to; but touch.  Who are we called to become intimately involved with?

Who are the lepers that surround you?  The ones shunned and avoided?  The ones who call out, "if you want to, you can make me well."??? What would touching them look like?  What would it cost us?  How would we work, not just for their immediate healing, but for their restoration and reconciliation to community?

In a political season many in the churches I have served have been grateful that I don't preach 'political sermons' in which I challenge them to take a stand for, or against, abortion, homosexuality, fair housing, poverty, human trafficing, Tea Party candidates, liberal candidates, etc.  I refuse to do that for a reason.  First of all because there is no way to make a case from the pulpit for any of these stances that does justice to the intricacy of the issue.  Second, I believe-because I believe in the Priesthood of All Believers-that each of us is called to search scripture, pray, and be guided by the Holy Spirit; while I am more that willing to personally share my beliefs about issues and join an individual's struggle with them in prayer and conversation, I do not believe edicts from the pulpit show the proper respect toward the truly painful and difficult struggles many people have with these issues.

This does NOT mean that these passages are not heavy and ripe with deep and powerful questions.  And it does not mean that our answers to these questions will not have powerful implications.....not just political ones, but implications about how we live our personal lives; how we spend our money; how we raise our children; and how we treat our neighbor.

We listen to Jesus.  We experience Him intimately.  We walk down from the mountain top.  And our world's lepers throw themselves in front of us....driven to their knees by their pain and suffering.  Looking at us they cry out, "You who call yourselves Jesus People, you who claim to imitate Him, you can heal me if you want to."  And we............