Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sermon: Generational Covenant

There are not a lot of places where as many generations of people interact as happens at church. Here we have children, youth, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and sometimes even great-great grandparents. It is a wonderful gift! Church is a place where each kid has lots of grandparents, and each older adult, lots of grandchildren. It is a place where the knowledge and love of God are taught by those with lots of life experience to those who are still wide-eyed and excited by ants crawling on the sidewalk and the shape of snowflakes. It is a place where the joy of life is taught to us by children who remind us of all the goodness that God has created and how often we take the wonders of the world for granted.

And all of this is quite intentional.

The passage in Genesis is a powerful moment in God’s relationship with humanity. Here we have the creation of a covenant, “Walk with me. I will bless you and you will be the ancestors of many nations.” Right away, the blessing is not just for them as individuals, but it is meant to be a multigenerational blessing. It is a blessing for Abrahm and Sarai, but also for their kids, their grandkids, their great-grandkids, down through the generations to us.

It is a reminder that our work has never just been about me or even my generation. It has always included the future and those who will come after us. That God has in mind our spiritual heirs, even as God had us in mind in the days of Abrahm.

This type of generational blessing and covenant will be repeated at other times in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 29:29

 Moses tells the people, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God. The revealed things belong to us and to our children forever: to keep all the words of this covenant.” David will hear God tell him that one of his descendants will reign in Israel forever. These types of promises from God remind us that God remains faithful throughout time, not just yesterday, and not just today, but that God will also remain faithful in the future.

In today’s passage, as signs of that blessing God changes Abrahm’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah. Remember, these are not young people receiving a new name, but older adults. Imagine at 99 taking a new name, realizing that God is doing something so new in your life even in your old age, that you feel like a new person, a different person. I must admit, that it hard for me to imagine. I can’t think of what it would take for me in my life to change my name. I wouldn’t be Rob anymore but Robraham or something like that. As though part of me, the essential me is still the same, and yet there is also something in my identity that is wholly new and changed because of the promises yet to come. Again, God seems to be saying this isn’t about who you have been or even who you are right now, but more it is about what is yet to be. That the days ahead are going to be different than the days that are behind.

So how do we deal with that sense of the future practically? How do we react to God’s promises about future generations while we are living in the here and now? Are we all supposed to change our names?

I think we do it by being that intergenerational church. One of the favorite phrases in the bible is the command to take care of the widows and the orphans. In many ways that command reminds us to look for the suffering across the generations and be a blessing. We could say, that we are responsible in passing down the faith to the next generation, and we must also responsible for honoring the generations before us. The vulnerable in each generation should be the objects of our blessing.

But often in our world, that doesn’t happen, because as George Orwell says: “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” True? We think that way.

There is a video by AARP which challenges us to rethink that.

The advantage of the church is that we are a place with multiple generations and if we do our work right young adults will learn from older adults; older adults will learn from younger adults. Rather than being a conflict between generations or a generation gap, church can be the place where God is working on blessing us across all generations.

So for example, Christine Ross points out the following ways that intergenerational life in the church is beneficial.

“Children need interaction with adults who can be trusted role models as well as with adults who will both teach children about the faith and live out their faith among children. As teenagers disengage from parents in preparation for adulthood, they need non-familial role models to show them the variety of ways that Christian adults live out their faith. Young adults need older mentors, older Christian friends who will walk with them as they move into adulthood and whose enthusiasm for life can be shared as they begin mentoring younger persons. Middle adults need to teach, and older adults need to share life experiences with younger generations.”[1]

“Intergenerational Ministry helps bridge the “generation gap.” Bronfenbrenner asserted that a society in which the generations do not relate to one another will experience social discord and eventually its demise. He also wrote that parents need to be supported in raising children, and that children and youth need opportunities to serve the community.”[2]

I think Christine Ross is pretty wise.

So here is the challenge for each of us as individuals today. What are you doing to fulfill the intergenerational promises of God?

Are you teaching the children (maybe not in Sunday School) but are you being a role model for them and talking with the after worship? Are you caring for the frail and shut in? Maybe not by being nurses or caregivers, but are you calling them, encouraging them, asking if they are okay? Are you praying for the children of today, not that they would be more like your generation was, but that they would be more like citizens of the Kingdom of heaven? Are you praying for the great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers that they would not be left behind by uncaring families?

In other words: Our God is the God of our ancestors, and of those of whom we will be the ancestors (whether literally or spiritually), so what is our role in honoring those who have come before us (like Abraham and Sarah), and also in preparing a world which blesses those who come after us? What are you doing to be a part of it?

[1] Being An Intergenerational Congregation, Christine Ross,
[2] Being An Intergenerational Congregation, Christine Ross,

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sermon: Rising Waters and a Rainbow

Genesis 9:8-17

I read recently that the Arctic ice is melting at the highest rate in at least 1500 years. ͞Not wanting to accept one group’s assessment of the issue, I looked at the Nation Snow and Ice Data Center, who state that arctic sea ice in 2017 has been declining 3.7% per decade since 1978 when satellite imaging began. NASA’s estimate is considerably higher, suggesting that arctic sea ice is decreasing at 13.2% per decade. The Pentagon has argued that we need to update our defense strategy to deal with the diminishing ice levels.

As our global climate changes, rising seas, superstorms, and devastating floods are a very real and ever-present threat.͟ I am not trying to be political here; rather, what I want to observe is that we live, like Noah, on the edge of a world with dangerous waters. Noah received a warning that a flood was coming, and he was the one who listened, while others mocked him. While we may not be worried over a worldwide flood, we do know that the changes in our world have resulted in more frequent flooding, with water and storm damage devastating people’s lives.

I personally have never experienced the true horror of a flood. I have been caught in storm runoff that stalled our car when the water became over a foot deep, and we have experienced the flooding of our church basement here.

But I have never experienced what Mike and Michaelann Hammods experienced.

“As darkness descended one May evening in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, rain fell in sheets on the ranch-style house where the Hammonds family lived. Around 10 p.m., Mike and Michaelann Hammonds went downstairs to check the basement and found water seeping under a window along the basement’s south wall. The couple began to push boxes of clothes, toys, and household items toward the center of the room.’

“Minutes later, without warning, the basement’s west wall gave way, and a flood of cold, muddy water rushed in, engulfing the room and the couple and covering the stairs. By the time the surge ended a few seconds later, Mike and Michaelann were caught in eight feet of water, pinned in place by debris on opposite sides of the room. They had to hold their faces just above water. The smell of natural gas permeated the room.’

“Go get Don!” Mike yelled to their kids, Emma, 14, and Matthew, 13, who were standing at the top of the basement stairs. Don Molesky, 49, a long-haul trucker, and his mother, Helen, 75, lived across the street.

“Don was mopping up water in his own basement when he heard the kids yelling for help at his back door. He waded with the kids across the street, where they led him to the basement stairs. When Don saw what was happening, he called to Matthew to dial 911, then ran back across the street to get a saw.’

“John Underwood, 29, vice president of a development and property-management firm, had stopped his truck behind a disabled car at the flooded intersection just outside the Hammondses’ home. When he got out to check on the driver, he heard a girl scream, “My parents are trapped!”

“John, a retired Marine, ran toward the house. Once inside, he realized that he’d have to cut a hole in the floor to reach the couple. He sent Matthew to grab an ax from the garage.’

“Where are you?” John yelled through the floor.

“Here!” Michaelann responded from an area under the front door.

“John pulled up carpet and yelled out a warning to Michaelann, then swung the ax and hacked a line across the living room floor. Don returned with his circular saw, and the two men cut out a rectangular panel. John pulled back the wood and heating ducts and thrust his hand into the water. Michaelann grasped it, and John and Don pulled her out. Then Don wrapped Michaelann in a coat, and a neighbor ushered her out of the house.’

“The men were dizzy from breathing the gas, but they went back for Mike, who’d been in the freezing water for about 45 minutes.’

“John called down to Mike, who was found in a space under the hallway between the living room and kitchen. As John and Don began to cut, three firefighters arrived; together, the five men broke through and pulled Mike to safety. “I couldn’t stop saying thank you, ” says Mike.’

“Three days later, city authorities condemned the Hammondses’ house. The couple didn’t have flood insurance, but county officials agreed to buy the house for the amount the family owed on their mortgage. They’ve relocated to a furnished rental house close to their old neighborhood for the time being.’

“John and Don didn’t consider for a moment that their lives were in danger,” Mike attests.

“As for the heroes, they were simply happy to help their neighbors. Says John, “Now we’re all connected.”[1]

And here perhaps is the greatest similarity with this story and the story of Noah. You see, Noah experienced the flood and then the rainbow.

It wasn’t until after the storm, after the flood that he knew that God deeply and truly was committed to creation and saving it. Like Mike and Michaelann, Noah first had to face the horror and devastation of the flood itself. And he must have been worried in the midst of it. It isn’t until after going through the deep waters that he is shown the promise of the rainbow and God’s promises for the future.

And how symbolic is that of our lives regarding how troubles in our life occur? Most of the time we face the deep waters, the problems, the heartaches of school shootings before we ever experience any of God’s promises that it will be okay. The pain and the trauma come first, and then the hope.

And yet, one of the things that we often forget is that we live in a world where the rainbow promise has already been made. We already can trust that God is going to protect us, even in the midst of the storm. We shouldn’t be worried. As one commentary says, we know that ͞”The rainbow reminds us God is the saviour, not the one from whom we must be saved. Always. Because – more than anything else – God is love. Full stop. And that love is mightier than a raging river and deeper than a roiling chasm. It pierces the night like a bolt of lightning illuminating the cloud filled skies. It rumbles over the face of the earth shaking the ground with its message – a message not of fear, but of love; a message not of judgment but of grace; a baptismal message, a covenant promise.”[2] ͞

Noah did not have the luxury of the covenant until after the flood. As the waters rose and the torrents rushed about, as the waves tossed the ark, would he have known that he could trust God? Probably not. God hadn’t made any promises to anyone else at that time. There was no Abraham who God told he would have descendants as numerous as the stars, there was no David whose Son would reign forever over Israel, there was no Christ with his promise of eternal life – no rainbow in the sky – just a warning from God that a flood was coming and he should get ready. Could he trust this God? We know he could, but he didn’t. In the same way Mike and Michaelann had to trust that their kids would find help, that these neighbors that they had never had to rely on in an emergency would be the kind they could trust. And fortunately, they could.

And I could end my sermon there with the basic message that we live in a time when we know we can trust God and we can hold on to that. However, that isn’t really enough.

There is also a challenge to us from that passage. We must be people who also claim responsibility for that promise that God made to creation.

God said the earth would not flood again, and we have a role in being the flood preventers, flood responders, and rainbow rememberers. Alongside God, we are meant to be ones who are protectors of the promise. As followers of God, we have always been co-workers in God’s history of salvation, we are the Noah’s who build arks, his children who collect and preserve animals, and in the process sharers of God’s love. We should be the Johns and the Dons who cut through floors to save our neighbors, we should be the people who respond to cries for help, we should be people who help those who are in the horror of the floods of life, and are searching for rescue. Like I said, we are the flood preventers, the flood responders and the rainbow rememberers.

The rainbow reminds us that God’s intention is not to destroy through flood, it reminds us that God is the savior not the one from whom we must be saved, but it also reminds us that we have a role in that – just as Noah did -- a calling to hard work to bring salvation not just to other people, but to all of creation.

There is a call to action in this story. A call to action based upon the hope that God gives us, that God is a God who saves. God is a God who can be trusted, and often we are the eyes, hearts and hands of God in the world who make God’s salvation real. So when the storms hit, and they will; when the floods come, and they will; be people of the rainbow. Bring healing, bring hope. Be agents of God’s goodness even in the face of rising waters.

Sermon: Who Am I Following

Mark 9:2-9

Imagine for a moment that you are Peter, James or John. You were fishermen, and you gave up your lives fishing to follow this man, Jesus. You gave up everything: not just your jobs, but your family, your friends, your homes, and everything you knew in life to do it. And day by day as you followed him you saw amazing things.

If you glance at the book of Mark, since joining Jesus, they have seen him heal people with unclean spirits, cure those with paralysis, withered hands, make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and even bring back a to life a dead girl; they have witnessed miracles as he stilled a storm while they were sailing in it, fed huge crowds of people twice, and walked on water; they have heard him teach with many parables, explain spiritual life and predict that he would die and rise again. They have witnessed a lot.

But if you are anything like me, always in the back of your mind there would be little nagging thoughts like, “These are not normal things that he is doing. Is he safe? Who is this man? Because if I can’t answer that question, why am I following him?” You see, I am really good at second guessing my decisions.

Like the decision to ask to move this year. I know that for the church and its finances it is a good idea, and yet, I am terrified by the thought – I haven’t had to adjust to a new place or a new group of people in almost 12 years. I know you, and I love you anyways! So there is a part of me that says, you shouldn’t have requested a move, even though I know deep down that it will be for the best.

I know myself well enough to know that if I were one of the disciples, there would be moments when I would be missing my family, or missing the days going out and fishing, when I would ask, “Did I make the right decision to follow him? Should I go back to my family and the life of safety and security I knew? Or should I continue following? Fishing made sense, but this, this new life often doesn’t.” I know there would be a part of me, if I were Peter, James or John that would wonder if I had made the right decision.

And then comes this day, this day where we are on a mountaintop and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, and the a cloud of the presence of God settled on the mountaintop and proclaimed, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”

Well, now what would I feel?

This moment would certainly help answer my questions about who Jesus is, and whether I had made the right decision in following him. If you are going to follow someone, the Son of God seems like a good choice among all the options out there. I mean, follow a politician or a teacher or a pastor or the Son of God. Hmm, seems pretty easy. So I would be more confident that I had made the right choice in following Jesus. But this experience on the mountain which we call the transfiguration still leaves me with questions – what does it mean for Jesus to be the Son of God? And what is expected of his followers?

These are not easy questions. When a person applies to be ordained in the United Methodist Church, one of the questions we have to answer at great length is, “What does the Lordship of Christ mean?”

In other words, what does it mean for Jesus to be the Son of God, and what is expected of his followers. Sound familiar?

For me, I summarized Christ as the love and wisdom of God in human flesh. Christ is God’s love put on earth, in motion, and at work in the world. He is also God’s wisdom and word, that teaches us and instructs us what we are to do and be as the people of God. For me that is what it means when I say that Christ is the Son of God, but clearly that is only how one person answers that question. Each of us perceives it slightly differently, explains it with different emphasis, and struggles with the question in our own way. If we all understood it the same way, we wouldn’t have to ask the question.

“Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University wrote a remarkable study of the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ titled Jesus Through the Centuries. Dr. Pelikan demonstrates how Jesus has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture. Each age has made Jesus relevant to its own needs. Jesus has furnished each new age with answers to fundamental questions as every generation has had to address new social problems that tested the more fundamental questions of human existence. The world had to take note of Jesus as a rabbi, as the Cosmic Christ, the Ruler of the World, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Son of Man, the True Image of Man, the Great Liberator. In many other ways Jesus furnished the answers and the images that affected society in positive ways.”

“Dr. Pelikan's thesis is that Jesus did not and does not belong to the churches and the theologians alone, but that he belongs to the world. None of this is to say that we can make Jesus what we want Jesus to be. Quite the opposite. It is to say that the Christ is adequate for all our needs and that Jesus transcends culture in such a way that he is able to belong to each age and to address the issues of all time.”[1]

Whew, that’s pretty heavy stuff.

It reminds me that even after reading great theologians, and personally writing a many page paper on the Lordship of Christ, I still must confess that like Peter I am still somewhat ignorant.

There is still mystery and confusion about the nature of Christ, and that leaves me a little out of sorts so that I don’t quite know what to do.

Thus Peter wonders aloud, should we build things to honor God? A question we still ask. Is it important to have shrines where holy encounters take place? Or is there other work that is more important? See, Peter doesn’t look quite so foolish when you realize we struggle with the same questions.

I like what one commentary says about this, “As we stand with the disciples, we share with them their ignorance for fully comprehending these events. Yet we are not left purely baffled. The voice of God gives us definite insight and directions: Jesus Christ is God’s beloved son, and we are to heed his words. Under the authority of Christ and in obedience to his teaching, we are called to live our lives.”[2]

Or in my own words, when we walk with the disciples we realize that we also are confused by what we have seen.

But we also hear the voice of God telling us that our primary job as a follower is to listen to Christ, to experience his resurrection from the dead and then to be witnesses to what we have seen.

Listening to him is not just hearing his words. When someone commands us to listen to them, they aren’t asking us simply to hear them, but they usually want us to actually heed their words. It is more than using our ears, but also our hearts, minds and hands. We must absorb his words into ourselves so that they are our very way of life. Listening to Christ means living out his teachings.

Experiencing his resurrection is not just arguing about the historical accuracy of the biblical account, but it is seeing how Christ continues to bring life to the world around us today. It is understanding that he is able to overcome hatred and death with the power of God’s eternal love – not just for himself, but that he leads us all to that victorious place. It isn’t just reading about it, but it is seeing it as it happens, in our lives and in the lives of others.

Witnessing to what we have seen is not simply seeing it and recording it in our memories, but it means being willing to tell others about our experiences. A court witness who had seen the crime but could not testify about it would be no use. To be witnesses to Christ means striving to tell the truth about our experiences of him in our lives. It means sharing what we have learned: the good, the bad and the ugly. It means passing on what we have heard and what we have experienced.

That’s really a summary of our job as followers. Listen, experience and witness. Or in words that are closer to our church vision statement: See, love, serve. Use your eyes, your hearts and your hands.

So as we follow Christ, we realize that what is possible with God is miraculous, and mind-stretching. It can leave us feeling ignorant and foolish. Despite that, God’s expectation of those of us who witness such miracles is relatively simple. Sit at the feet of Christ, learn from him, discover the death-challenging power of resurrection, and then show and tell others the good news.

[1] CSS Publishing Company, Which Way to Jesus?, by Harry N. Huxhold
[2] Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary by Soards, Dozeman and McCabe

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sermon: Even Eagle Scouts Grow Weary

Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39

In a combination of the scripture and scout Sunday – my title is in some ways a play on words. But it is also a reminder of the truth. No matter how awesome we are, all of us as human beings grow tired. Even a scout is tired after backpacking 15 miles in one day with a heavy pack through the Smokey Mountains – I know from experience!

Or watch a marathon runner. They get to the finish line and their legs start to give out, they wobble, they fall down, they collapse in physical exhaustion. 2012 Olympic marathon runner Desiree Davilla says that it takes her a full two weeks off from exercise to start to recover. Then she takes two more weeks very lightly. That’s one month.[1] As great a condition as these peak athletes are in, they hit the wall following this event, and their body has to recover.

The same is true even if we aren’t marathon runners or backpackers. In life, there will be times when we stumble, when we are tired, when we feel burnt-out. When we simply can’t go another step and we have to stop and rest. It doesn’t matter how amazing we are, it can happen. Nobody can go 100% all the time. Eventually we will collapse.

And we haven’t even talked about the other thing that Isaiah talks about, getting old. That happens to us all if we live long enough too. It is part of life. And as we age, our bodies eventually wear out. Our knees need to be replaced, our elbows hurt, our energy is less than it used to be, and we take more naps. Isaiah is reminding us, that no matter who we are: youths will grow weary and tired, young men will stumble. Given enough time – it will happen. That is part of being human.

Isaiah then contrasts us with God. You see, God’s strength is not like ours. God’s strength is everlasting.

God has been around from the beginning crafting and shaping the universe. Isaiah reminds us that every day the sun rises and sets without fail. That seeds are planted, root and grow because the breath of the Lord blows upon them. God’s strength is unending.

Isaiah then goes on to say that when we are confronted with this dichotomy: our weakness and God’s strength it is tempting to say “My way is hidden from the Lord, my God ignores my predicament.” In other words, we may think we shouldn’t grow tired if God is with us, and so if we do grow tired, God must be ignoring us. That is what the Israelites are saying in their troubled times when this was written. But it isn’t true –even if we feel abandoned and worn out, we are not ignored and unimportant. It is simply part of being human that we need rest. God doesn’t work by taking away our human limitations; rather, God works by restoring us through rest, through healing and through wholeness. God reminds us of our humanness, reminds us that we are not like God, and helps us to be at our best again.

So God’s strength is not one that takes away the struggles and the difficulties of life. God doesn’t make it so we can run a marathon without getting tired; instead God uses that strength to bring us healing and wholeness. God uses that month of rest to do miracles within our body, healing the bones, the cells, and restoring our strength.

The hardest part of this for us as humans is that oftentimes this healing and recovery do not happen until after we have already hit bottom. God’s timing is often not our timing. And yet the message of Isaiah to a people who have given up hope is of God’s ability to renew and restore, to bring about refreshment even after they have collapsed.

Just to help us understand that, let’s look at another passage. This is from the gospel of Mark, and it is about Jesus and his healings.

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

Listen to this quote from Bruce and Katherine Epperly, “Jesus was a pulsing center of divine power and energy. Like an electrical transformer, the energy of love flowed from Jesus toward persons in need of physical, relational, emotional, and spiritual healing. The power that emanated from his touch and presence was akin to the power of the big birth and the first light of creation, the primal energy that penetrates the darkness and brings forth life from God’s womb of creativity. Grounded in his unity with God, Jesus was the connective “vine” through whom God’s life-giving energy flowed abundantly to everyone he touched.” (SOS)

But he still needed to get away. His human body could only take so much. Even Jesus had to rest, he could only heal so many people, only put in so many hours of work, before he would collapse. Then what restored him was that connection with God, his time of prayer.

We also should be seeking that connection with that renewing and restoring power of God, especially when we are exhausted. Because that connection with that energizing touch of Christ is still available to us –

When we grow weary, tired; when we are in need of healing physically, emotionally or spiritually, we can reach out and be connected through the vine to our very creator -- the one who made the grasshoppers, the redwoods, and the stars in the heavens.

I can certainly give personal examples. There have been many times in life when I have been exhausted. There are days when I need to go home early. Days when visitations at the hospital, or when funerals and grieving families start to weigh heavy on my soul. There are days when I personally am struggling with depression. There was one stretch, one summer here when I did 10 funerals in 8 weeks. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed rest. But God didn’t leave me there. Over time with prayer, and with reconnection to the love of Christ, and allowing his love to refill me, and flow through me again, I was restored. It probably took days and weeks, perhaps even months to completely feel restored, but eventually it came. Vacations help! (That’s why I went away last week, I was feeling exhausted). That is part of being human. We run and we do fall down. We do grow tired.

But God does not abandon us. We can find ourselves renewed in strength, so that we can fly like the eagles, run and walk with growing weary (at least for a while).

God gives power to the tired, and revives the exhausted, brings healing to the sick, and hope to the downtrodden. When we hit bottom, when we collapse, that help and power is available to us. And we need to take advantage of it. We can connect to that life-giving energy, that primal power of the divine, and while it will not make us gods, it will revive us and give us renewed strength. Yes, it can take days, weeks, even months.

So when you are tired, it is okay. God hasn’t abandoned you. Rather, it is part of being human. Even Eagle Scouts Grow Weary. But know that God can restore you. And when the day comes when your body ultimately gives in to age and needs its final rest, God will restore you then too. Giving strength to your soul, healing to your spirit, and allowing you to mount up with wings like angels into the heavenly realm.