Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wednesday June 20, 2011 - Great is Thy Faithfulness

The context for this sermon is an ecumenical Christian service of the word in the chapel of a large, high-acuity teaching hospital.

The Scripture is: Genesis 12:1-9


Risk-taking faith

Today’s reading from Genesis is the story of the call of Abram and Sarai But, in pulling the story out of the bible as we do when we use passages for worship, we’re missing something important in this story. And that important thing is the context.

And I want to begin today’s reflection by reminding you of the context. Because this story of Abram’s and Sarai’s calling starts very abruptly with the words “God said to Abram, Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your parents’ house to a land that I will show you.” In the narrative as it’s presented in Genesis, there isn’t any preliminary build-up to this story.

Directly before God calls Abram and Sarai, we have the story of the Tower of Babel, Then a list of the descendents of Shem, of whom Abram is one of those descendents.

We have no other background information about Abram other than this genealogy. And, of course, we have no information about Sarai other than that she is Abram’s wife. And we have no previous information about Abram’s relationship with God, either. All we know is that, suddenly, God appears and tells Abram to get up and go from his parents’ house to an unknown land.

And I think that, because we are so used to hearing the story of Abram and his relationship with God and we know the end of the story…and because this verse is written poetically, it all sounds great and good and positive.

“Wow! God is going to make Abram and Sarai the Patriarch and Matriarch of God’s chosen people! Fantastic! Lucky Abram! Lucky Sarai”

But what would happen if we heard the story of today’s reading something like this: (Please excuse a bit of literary license)

"Suddenly, Abram heard a voice that he had never heard before claiming to be the God of all creation. He was afraid and thought he might be going crazy.

And the voice said to him, “You and your wife have got a pretty nice life here among your people, don’t you? You know everyone, your parents are here and life is pretty good, except that you have no children.

But if you and Sarai want to have children, if you want to leave behind your state of barrenness, you both are going to have to leave this land and this comfortable life and go to an unknown place that I’m going to direct you to.

I will give you descendents who will eventually become a great people. But you will also eventually despair of having an heir and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.

I will make your name great and your descendents will be a blessing to the world, but you personally won’t see any of the greatest blessings that I’m going to give them and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.

I will curse those who curse you, but the vindication you desire isn’t going to come in your lifetime and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.”

If we read the text in this way, it takes on a whole different slant. We see Abram and Sarai not as some lucky lottery winners who were unexpectedly and inexplicably given a jackpot. Rather, we see them as risk-takers who trusted in God. And we also see that some might call them fools. Maybe we would call someone a fool who behaves as Abram and Sarai did.

Call and Response

There is an ironic twist to this story because if Abram and Sarai stay in the safety of all that is familiar they will remain barren. In order to bear children and become the parents of God’s Chosen People, they have to step outside their comfort zone and take a risk in their old age.

If you wanted to translate this story into 21st century America, I could see one rendition of it where there is a con-artist somewhere in the background hoping to take advantage of a couple of senior citizens who she hopes might be befuddled.

After all, who ever heard of a couple starting a great dynasty when the woman is 65 and the man 75? And those who are familiar with Scripture know that Sarah (as she will then be known) won’t get pregnant until her 90th year.

Abram and Sarai are being called to abandon their families of origin, to renounce their former way of life and to set out on a journey that will be physically dangerous and to aim for a future that is logically impossible. But unless they take a risk and step out in faith, they will not bear fruit. God initiates the promise that God makes to them, but the choice as to whether or not to act on God’s promise is up to them.

And for me as a Methodist, that’s a great metaphor for what a life of faith is all about: God initiates and human beings respond to God’s plan. The life of faith, although initiated by God, is always a two-way street that requires the participation of both parties. True faith is not a matter of “cheap grace” where we accuse anyone who responds to God’s plan and calling as trying to earn God’s favor by human works.

Rather, faith acknowledges that everything in life is a gift from God, and that these gifts are given to us out of love in order that we might respond to them.

At the end of the day, faith is call-and-response. God calls and we respond.

God is Faithful

So - the story tells us - Abram and Sarai set out for the land of Canaan.

They set out in order that their descendents should become God’s chosen people……so that all nations and races and peoples would be blessed by them, and would be blessed as they were blessed.

But, for me, the most amazing and difficult part of this faith-journey was that neither Abram nor Sarai were going to live to see the fulfilling of the promise that God made to them. They were not going to see their descendents become a great nation. They were not going to see Isaac give birth to Jacob who was to become Israel and the father of God’s Chosen People through whom all peoples of the earth would be blessed.

At the end of the journey, at the end of their lives, Abraham and Sarah were still walking by faith rather than by sight. By rights, each of them could have gone to their grave saying something like: “God gave us something but God didn’t give us what we had been promised.”

But those of us who know the entire story know that God did, in fact, fulfill the promise made to Abram and Sarai. God remained faithful to Abraham and Sarah (as they would become), and through them to the people of Israel and through them, God remained faithful to all of humanity.

Even though Abraham and Sarah didn’t live to perceive the fulfillment of the blessing, it doesn’t diminish the fact that God came through as promised.

By responding to God’s call, Abram and Sarai stepped out of their barrenness and into a new future. And I find that both an inspiration and a challenge. Because it’s not always easy to have that kind of faith. It’s not always easy to trust in God’s faithfulness when events do not unfold as we expect and maybe when it even looks like God didn’t fulfill the promises that were made. It’s easy enough to say the words “God has the situation mapped out” but it’s not always easy to walk into the future when you feel that God has not given you a glimpse of that map.

And so, to encourage one another, we tell stories like this one of God’s faithfulness in the past and we remind each other that God continues to be faithful to us today. As people of faith, we remember that – as the author of Hebrews said – “we desire a better country”. Not just in “heaven” but also in the here and now.


For me, it is Good News that God is faithful and keeps God’s promises, even if I can’t perceive right now that those promises are being kept.

For me, it is Good News that other people of faith struggle with difficulties along their journey with God.

And for me, it is Good News that, as we step out in faith, that we are in a very real sense co-creators with God in the divine unfolding of history.

As we go from this place, I pray that the God of Abram and Sarai will bless each one of us as we take those initial steps out of our barren places into the unfolding of God’s creative endeavor.

I pray that we will be able to encourage other people of faith and to be encouraged by them.

And I pray that, whether or not we see the final result of God’s blessing on our lives that we will nevertheless be able to embrace God’s mysterious peace which surpasses all of our own human understanding. May the peace of God be with us always. Amen

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Sunday May 8 2011 - God With Us in the Journey

The context for this sermon is an ecumenical Christian service of the word in the chapel of a large, high-acuity teaching hospital.

The text is Luke 24:13-31.

I have used some ideas from the following websites in this sermon:
* Working Preacher
* Beatitudes Society



Cleopas and his companion are in shock.

They didn’t go to Jerusalem just because they were curious onlookers who heard about Jesus and the controversy that surrounded him. And they didn’t go there to see the equivalent of a first century soap opera: to see whether Jesus would make a play for power this Passover or to see how the Roman Empire would respond to him.

Cleopas and his companion were disciples of Jesus. Obviously, they were not part of the closest twelve disciples, but they were disciples nonetheless. Jesus was their Rabbi, their teacher and their Messiah. They believed in him.

They went to Jerusalem because they believed him when he said that the Messiah had to die but would rise again in three days. And so they stayed in Jerusalem and they waited for the resurrection. They waited for the resurrection that the women witnessed in the verses just prior to this story, but somehow they missed it.

The passage tells us that on the very same day that the women witnessed the empty tomb, that Cleopas and his companion started their journey back to Emmaus convinced that their hope had been in vain.

And, as they made their way back to Emmaus from Jerusalem, they were in shock and in mourning. They had had so many hopes and dreams and now all of these were shattered. Jesus had not risen from the tomb. Jesus was dead, and all the hopes and dreams that they had invested in him were dead too.

Everything that they had hoped that he would do for them was dead. They had lost Jesus and any living relationship that they had hoped to have with him in the future had also disappeared.

Like everyone who loses a loved one, Cleopas and his companion were in shock. Their world had been turned upside down and they didn’t know what to do.

How ironic, then, that when Jesus appears in their midst, their souls are so clouded with shock and pain and mourning that they don’t recognize him. In fact, they tell him: “You must be the only person in the entire city of Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s going on!” They think that it’s Jesus who is clueless about reality when, in fact, it is they who are temporarily blind. They believe that God is dead when, in fact, God is walking with them right at that very moment.

Where is God in All of This?

Reading this story in this way made me chuckle a bit to myself because I do this too:

God can be right there with me in my journey and I don’t recognize the divine presence. God can be right there relating to me, trying to communicate, trying to teach me and show me the truth, and I don’t recognize it.

I say that I believe that God is present in every situation, but like a lot of people, I only partly believe it. Now there are times when I recognize God in the middle of my messes. But, like Cleopas and his companion, there are also times when it is only after the event that I realize that God was there all along.

And one of the things that I find comforting about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t get fed up. He’s walking and walking with these two men for a few hours and they are telling them about their lost hopes and dreams. They are telling him about how God was not present in the events of Holy Week and Easter after all.

But Jesus doesn’t walk away. He doesn’t get fed up. He doesn’t throw up his hands and declare: “Well, if they can’t see me standing in front of them, why am I even bothering?” Jesus just keeps walking with them.

Jesus also doesn’t get annoyed with them because they are grieving and in shock and in pain. Jesus doesn’t run away from their pain and their grief. He just stays with them. He accepts them as they are and doesn’t abandon them because it would be a lot easier emotionally to make the journey on his own.

Jesus just sticks with them and keeps on walking.

If this story is anything to go by, God continues to walk with us during our times of challenge and isn’t all that easily put off.

It can happen that during difficult times we ask ourselves the question “Where is God in all of this?”. This story suggests to me that the answer is that God is right here. Just like the story of the footprints in the sand: we think that God has abandoned us when, in fact, God is the only thing that is keeping us going.

We Had Hoped

The other aspect of the story that touched my soul was when Cleopas and his companion outlined to this presumed stranger their failed hope “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Because all of us also have failed hopes:
•“We had hoped that that this would be the doctor who could help our loved one recover.”
•“He had hoped that she would call.”
•“They had hoped that their son would come back from Iraq.”
•“We had hoped that this was going to be the company that would hire him.”
•“We had hoped that our child would be born healthy.”

But the stranger interrupts the travelers’ litany of grief and despair and he demonstrates to them that there is a bigger picture. He shows them that this story of Jesus is part of an ancient story of God’s saving action in the world.

God’s story is woven into the story of humanity. Jesus helps them to see that there is another way to look at this story.

The disciples had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel but they had hoped for the kind of victory that the world understands. And they were still hoping for that kind of victory, for that kind of resurrection.

On this first day of Easter, it was still way too early for these disciples to understand that God was offering them a completely different sort of redemption than the one that they expected.

God is With Us

I love this story because it is a story of God’s presence with us in all the aspects of a life of faith.

It’s a story of God’s presence with us in the breaking of the bread: God is with us in the ordinary things of life and God is with us when we gather as a Church community at the Lord’s Supper.

But it’s also a story of God with us in our faith journey: God with us when we don’t recognize God’s presence. God’s sticking with us when we are in shock, in grief, when we are confused and even when we presume to lecture God incorrectly about what God is all about!

This story is certainly a story of the assurance of God’s persistence in being present with us.

But there is also a lesson in the story: if we look around and we don’t see God, maybe we need to look again and shift our own preconceptions of where God might be.

My prayer for all of us this morning is that, as we go through this week, we will know the assurance of God’s presence and, carrying that faith with us, that we will look for God even in the most unlikely of places.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday April 22 2011 - My Lord My God is Crucified

The context of this service is an ecumenical Good Friday service in the Chapel of a large teaching hospital.

The texts are John 18 - 19



It was the people in this story that struck me as I read the text. All the different kinds of people – a whole cast of characters – with a wide range of motivations.

First we have the groups of people:
The disciples, Jesus’ closest twelve.
The Roman soldiers.
The courts of the High Priest and Pilate.
The common people lurking in the High Priest’s courtyard.
The spectators on Good Friday come for a good execution and a bit of entertainment just as people have done from time immemorial.

And then we have the individuals, too many to list now:
Jesus, of course.
Judas, the disciple and the betrayer.
Peter, who is disciple, defender AND betrayer.
And Annas (the High Priest) and Pilate. So-called “leaders” who don’t seem to be doing a lot of leading.

I don’t know about you, but as a child I was taught to read all of these events as things that happened because Jesus needed to die for my sins. So, as I sat in church on Good Friday hearing these stories, there was a kind of inevitability about it all. In the same way that I knew how the story about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turned out, I knew the story about Jesus praying in Gethsemane, judged by the High Priest and by Pilate and marched off to crucifixion.

It never really occurred to me that, in some very real sense, these events occurred because a number of people – both groups and individuals – made free choices. Free choices which led human beings to execute the Son of God. And as today’s reading reminded us, Jesus didn’t call down legions of angels to fight the legions of Caesar. He left the events of human history to the consequences of human actions.

Jesus died because an angry mob was looking for a scapegoat.
He died because the rulers of the subjugated people were frightened and thought it was better for one man to die than for the nation to suffer.
He died because the official representative of the Empire didn’t have the courage to do what he knew in his heart was right.
Yes, there is a sense in which all of this had to happen. Yes, he died for our sins, but he also died because of our sins.

The choices made by individuals over 2000 years ago killed Jesus. But I don’t think we’re off the hook. Unless any one of us can truly say that we would never be so frightened as to permit our government use individuals as scapegoats. That we would never give up one of our group in order that the group might survive. That we would never sacrifice another person on the altar of expediency. The human choices that were made by those individuals 2000 years ago are choices that we ourselves are very capable of making. And those choices killed Jesus.


The other thing that struck me in reading this text was that it is a story about the death of a human being.

Of course, the Christian tradition affirms that Jesus was the Son of God, true God and true human being. But he was a human being. And I think that, historically, Christians have tended to forget this.

Often we tend to see Jesus as a kind of a Superhero, who shared all the qualities of God but was only masquerading as a human being. But the Passion story is also a story about a very human Jesus: a man who made sure that his mother would be looked after, a man who was thirsty, a man who looked death in the face and gave up his spirit.

And this particular human death reminded me of the deaths of other human beings that sadly happen here in the hospital, despite all the prayers and wishes of the people who love these individuals. Despite all the best efforts, choices and work by the medical staff here. Deaths that sadly sometimes happen despite all our best choices. And just like Jesus had all these different people surrounding him at the time of his death, so too do families often gather at the death of a loved one.

And that reminded me once again that, as a Christian, I believe in an incarnate God: a God who took on human form. Christianity does not tell us that we humans are a lower form of life who have to work very hard to rise up to the level of the divine. Christianity tells us that, by divine grace, God became embodied like us. Christianity tells us that, if we have seen Jesus, we have seen not only the invisible God but we have also seen who we are truly created to be as heirs to the New Creation.

Although the Christian church tends to talk about the Incarnation at Christmas, I think that here in this hospital we need the incarnate God – true God and true human – even more on Good Friday. When we see individuals facing times of pain, illness, trauma and death it’s good remind ourselves that God had a body. As human beings, we all need the Jesus who understood physical human suffering and who did not evade it.

This – embodied, suffering Christ – is The One who we need to be by our side when we are gravely ill and suffering. The embodied Christ is the One we need when we begin to wonder if God is so far off that God has no idea what we’re going through. On Good Friday, we are reminded that God became incarnate not just as a little baby but also as the Suffering Servant.


Today is Good Friday. I regret if you think I’ve spoken too much about death. Because, of course, we know the end of “The Jesus Story” and it’s not ultimately about death. The story of Jesus’ mission is ultimately about resurrection, about New Birth and New Life and a new Reign of God.

And Easter, of course, is the source of the sure and certain hope that we have in Christ.

But I do want to urge all of us not to jump too far ahead. As a devotion, let’s linger a bit at the events of Good Friday.

Let’s remember that human choices – the sort that we are all capable of making – put Jesus on the cross. And let’s remember to that Jesus also freely chose his suffering. A suffering which somehow unites God and humanity in a new and lasting coventental relationship. But a suffering that Jesus chose because of his deep and abiding faith that, ultimately in the final analysis, death does not dwell where God dwells.

This is the ultimate source of the Christian hope. This is the hope of Good Friday that points us toward the hope of Easter Sunday.

As we commemorate the death of Jesus this afternoon, I pray that the hope that we have in the embodied, crucified and resurrected Jesus will be with us all. Amen