There was an error in this gadget

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Game-Changer (Genesis 32:22-31)

The next day, Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Today, we continue a series on “Foundations of our Faith” as we look at life-changing stories from the book of Genesis. Genesis means “Beginning,” and it tells us about the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God. Among others, Genesis tells us about the patriarchs and the matriarchs—chiefly Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a sort of a “first family” in Hebrew religion.

Two weeks ago, Jacob was on the run for his life, after hustling his own brother and deceiving his own father. Out in the middle of nowhere, Jacob had a dream about the presence of God, and like Jacob, we are called to discern the presence of God in all the places and circumstances of our lives.

Last week, Jacob the trickster was himself tricked and deceived. He ended up married to two sisters, Leah and Rachel – one to whom he was attracted, and one to whom he was not. We realized that all of us are both Leah and Rachel, and God loves us even when we’re not easy to love, and has likewise called us to love others, even when they are not easy to love.

In today’s text, 3 chapters and 20 years have passed since we saw him last. He leaves his deceptive father-in-law and heads back toward the home of his youth, only to discover that the brother he wronged is on his way to meet him with an army of 400 men. God first appeared to Jacob in a dream one night 20 years earlier; God is going to visit Jacob yet again this night, but by morning, Jacob’s life will be changed. May we pray.

I have to admit that I wrestled and struggled with this sermon all week. No, the irony is not lost on me – that I wrestled all week with a sermon based on a text about God wrestling with Jacob.

I wonder if some of the difficulty is that I just don’t know that much about wrestling. A restaurant worker asked me this week if I had played sports in high school. Well, yes, I had. She said, “Looking at you, I’ll bet you were a wrestler.” I said, “No, actually, I was on the golf team.” Growing up, I had several friends who were into WWF – now WWE – professional wrestling. They had all the dolls—I mean, action figures—of all the professional wrestlers, and sometimes when I was at their homes, they’d pull out those dolls—I mean, action figures—and asked if I wanted to play wrestling. No, I did not. In my overly diplomatic eight-year-old way, I’d say, “Ummmm, professional wrestling is stupid. Everyone knows it’s fake.”

Fake wrestling – what’s the point of that? If you’re going to wrestle with someone or something in your life, wouldn’t you rather wrestle with the real deal?

Like Jacob. He had wrestled with a lot of things in his life – parents who bickered over which of their sons was better, he wrestled a birthright away from his older brother, he wrestled away a blessing from his father, he wrestled with his boss and then father-in-law over wages and wives, and the wrestling match continued as they duked it out over which livestock belonged to whom.

Finally, Jacob has had enough, and he goes to his sister wives and says, “Your father has it in for me, and I can’t take it anymore. Round up all eleven kids, pack up the Suburban, and let’s get out of here. Let’s go back to the home I came from.”

However, no sooner has Jacob left his father-in-law, Laban than he learns that his older brother, Esau – the brother whose birthright and blessing he stole – is on his way to meet him. Last Jacob knew, Esau intended to kill him. Jacob, scrambling to find favor in his brother’s sight, sends a portion of his livestock, his wealth, and his servants as a gift to his estranged brother. Perhaps money can’t buy happiness, but maybe it can at least make a downpayment on a little domestic peace.

He waits a few days, and hasn’t heard anything. Who knows, maybe his brother was angry and has killed the messenger – it wouldn’t be the first or last time for that. So Jacob takes his family and the rest of his property across the Jabbok River, and says, “You all go on ahead – go meet your brother-in-law! Go meet your uncle! Sure, he has it in for me and just might kill you on sight, but I’m gonna stay here for a few days.”

Late in the afternoon, he watches them all disappear into the setting sun, and suddenly he’s alone. He paces the muddy riverbank pondering his predicament, safe for now, but uncertain about what the future holds. The sun slowly dips below the horizon, and as the darkness settles in, Jacob realizes he is not alone.

He is set upon by a man, an angel, a demon – in the struggle and darkness, Jacob certainly can’t tell which. They struggle, grapple, and wrestle with each other all night until the darkness begins to lift just slightly with the promise of the coming dawn, and the creature reaches out with its strength and dislocates Jacob’s hip. And at this point Jacob knows that he is in the presence of something supernatural – something who’s blessing matters, and Jacob demands a blessing.

“Not so fast,” says this creature, which, by now, we know is God. “First, tell me your name.” Names in the ancient world are never just names; rather, they are descriptors, tell-tales, indicators of one’s very character. Jacob’s name – which means “heel,” “supplanter,” “striver,” “hustler” – that name is no exception. Jacob has been grasping and striving and hustling since the day he was born. He has been living on his own wits and cunning, trusting no one and proving himself untrustworthy at every turn.

During the wrestling match, when God asks Jacob’s name, he is inviting Jacob to confess the less-than-sterling truth about himself – his ill-gotten gain, his checkered past, his fears and failures and shortcomings, his shifty arrangements and dubious social interactions – God is demanding that Jacob tell the truth about who he has always been.

To his credit, Jacob comes clean. What is your name? What is your identity? How are you known? “My name is Jacob, and I truly am all that name implies – I am a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat. I have wronged others for my own selfish personal gain. I have foolishly tried to hoard God’s blessing for myself and robbed others in the process. I have only looked out for myself and my own personal interests, and as a result, my life couldn’t be any more miserable. Have mercy on me and bless me, a sinner.”

Indeed, that is exactly who Jacob has been up until this point. They say confession is good for the soul, and it must be, because God is not content to just leave it there. As they wrestle, as Jacob has confessed the truth about who he is and who he has been, God refuses to accept Jacob’s confession as the end of the story, refuses to allow that that is all there is to him. “Yes, Jacob – that is exactly who you have been, but from now on, I am giving you a new name, a new identity.” God renames Jacob “Israel,” literally “one who wrestles with God,” and says, “from now on, this is who I have called you to be.”

God wrestles with Jacob at the intersection of “who he has always been” and “who God is calling him to be.” If you’re going to wrestle with someone or something in your life, wouldn’t you prefer to wrestle with the real deal? Wouldn’t you prefer to wrestle with the one whose blessing matters? God wrestles with Jacob, and us, and invites us to tell the truth, twice. First, God invites us to tell the truth about who we have been. Then, God invites us to tell the truth about who we can yet become.

We name the reality of our brokenness, our fears, our shortcomings, and our sin. And then we hear the good and gracious news that whatever is broken is not beyond repair, that God loves us with a perfect love that casts out all fear, that where our lives come up short, God’s grace covers the difference, and that our sin is not the end of the story.

Jacob’s story is our story because he finds his truest identity and purest calling in a process of death and resurrection, where his old self is put to death in order for God to bring his new self to life. Friends, that’s a process, that’s a struggle, that’s a wrestling match that sometimes feels like it’s hurting and crippling us, because it turns out the old self can be an awfully stubborn and is only interested in its own self-preservation, hanging on for dear life and fighting the transformation in our hearts and priorities.

Yet the simple reality is that we cannot serve both ourselves and God. The prophet Elijah said, “How long will you go limping between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21). When Jesus faced temptation he said, “It is written, worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Luke 4:8). Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Over and over again, the Scriptures are clear that we are to follow God only and devote ourselves wholly to God. There is a wrestling match going on within each of us, and the question of who we will serve and live for hangs in the balance. Who’s calling the shots and running things around here? Is it me, or is it Christ who lives in me?

As David Crowder titled his book, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, But Nobody Wants to Die. We all want to claim the promise of new life in Christ, yet doing so requires us to re-orient our lives from self-centered living to God-centered living, and such a drastic change in our priorities never comes without some difficulty, some struggling, and some wrestling.

Yet in that wrestling, the story of the Christian Gospel is one of transformation, moving from the cross to resurrection, moving from death into new life, wrestling at the intersection point between who we’ve always been and who God is calling us to be. That transformation is made real in our baptism – the very language of the liturgy reminds us that in those sacred waters we die to self and are raised to new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jacob wrestled with God by the river, received a mark, and was transformed in receiving a new name, so too do the waters of baptism seal God’s mark upon our lives, and transform us into the people God calls us to be and empowers us to become in the Holy Spirit’s power. In some ways, baptism is the opening bell of the wrestling match between us and God, calling us to a new and transformed life, and the wrestling will continue in our lives until the image of God’s love is fully restored within us, shedding abroad in our hearts the full glory of God’s love.

Those who encounter God in this wrestling match find themselves at the intersection between “who I’ve always been” and “who I am called to be.” It’s a transformation place, a game-changing place, a place where God touches us and blesses us. God is the real deal; who wants to wrestle with something fake?

That reminds us that there are a whole lot of things with which we can wrestle that aren’t God. We can’t expect to receive the touch of God and the blessings of God unless we’re actually wrestling with God. I think we sometimes wrestle with all sorts of other things and fool ourselves into thinking those things are God – wrestling with career, family, wealth, property, power, or prestige. We wrestle and we struggle and then wonder why we’re not receiving God’s blessings. It’s simple – those things can’t give us God’s blessings because they are not God.

And so, I’ve just got a very basic and simple question for you this morning: Have you been wrestling lately? And if so, have you been wrestling with God?

Have you wrestled with the truth about who and what you are? Have you honestly confronted and been confronted by the truth about you who are and who you have been? If you have, that’s great, and if you haven’t, today’s a great day to start.

But I’ve got to remind you that the story doesn’t end there, for no matter who you are or have been, God is still calling you to something greater. That is the second truth, and it’s the greater and more determinative of the two. Telling the truth about who God is calling us to be creates for us an open and hopeful future and girds us with the courage to embrace it.

When God alters our understanding of who we are, something changes in our relationship with God and others. A new kind of love flows through us. Love begets love. The more you give of yourself to God the more things change in the way you perceive other people and the more things change in the way they relate to you.

That change is a blessing – the very blessing God provides when we have wrestled with God and found our lives re-named in God’s redemptive story.

God, we thank you for wrestling with us, for claiming us, for re-naming us within your story. Place within us the ability to tell the truth – first, the truth about who we are, and second, the truth about who you have called us to be. Call our constant attention to the distance between the two. Work in us and through us, through the power of your Holy Spirit, to complete your work of redemption and reconciliation with the whole world whom you love, the world you love so much that you were willing to send your Son to die for it. It is in his name we pray. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Hustled Hustler (Genesis 29:15-28)

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to her than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

Today, we continue a series on “Foundations of our Faith” as we look at life-changing stories from the book of Genesis. Genesis means “Beginning,” and it tells us about the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God. Among others, Genesis tells us about the patriarchs and the matriarchs—chiefly Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—who were really considered sort of a “first family” in Jewish religious understanding.

Last week, Jacob was on the run for his life, after hustling his own brother and deceiving his own father. Out in the middle of nowhere, Jacob had a dream about the presence of God, and we realized that, like Jacob, we are called to discern the presence of God in all the places and circumstances of our lives.

Today, his story continues, and what a story it is! The events of today’s text are, to say the least, “slightly irregular,” yet even through such bizarre circumstances, their story is also our story. May we pray.

Have you looked at the scripture passage for today? Did you listen and pay attention when it was being read a few moments ago and think, “Hmmmm, this is a weird one.” Every commentary and article I went to this week said basically the same thing – “This text presents certain challenges for the preacher.” Really?!? No kidding!! This text is a story of kissing cousins, lies, deceit, hustling, and polygamy; it’s the stuff that would make for several great seasons of afternoon soap operas – I love the Bible; you can’t make this stuff up!

Often, we read the Biblical text and translate it into our own time and context without any filters. Making arrangements to marry your first cousin probably only makes sense if you’re from certain counties in Arkansas. Dear sweet Uncle Laban is a master at deceit, lying, and swindling, but his is probably not the example I will hold up to emulate in a sermon. And how Jacob spent his wedding night with the wrong girl and didn’t realize it until morning is beyond me. That’s the worst hangover I’ve ever heard of!

This family has enough drama and conflict to last through decades of family reunions. Here’s some good news – no matter how dysfunctional you think your family is, you still don’t have anything on these people! They are liars, deceivers, swindlers, polygamists, drunkards, and hustlers – and if that’s not bad enough, these are the people God chooses to hang out with. These are the people God chooses to bless. These are the people through whom God chooses to work.

Jacob has run away from home because his older brother, Esau, was trying to kill him for deceiving their father and stealing the blessing of Esau’s inheritance. Jacob traveled to Haran, where his uncle Laban lived, with the explicit instructions from his parents to find a wife among his uncle’s daughters. He met Laban’s daughter, Rachel, and it was pretty much love at first sight. Jacob started working on Uncle Laban’s sheep farm and they struck an interesting deal – Jacob would work for 7 years in exchange for Rachel in marriage. Jacob didn’t have the financial means to pay the customary bride price of those days, so this was a good arrangement.

Rachel was one of two daughters. She was the younger, and she had an older sister named Leah. Rachel is described as lovely and graceful. We don’t hear much about Leah, other than something about her eyes – depending on your translation, they might be described as beautiful or weak. The word in Hebrew here is a little uncertain and vague, so it’s a little bit of a mystery about how she’s being described.

I take it to mean something like back in the days when I was being set up on blind dates, and when you’d ask what the person was like, the person trying to set you up would say, “Oh, she has a nice personality” or “He has a great personality” or “He’s very – interesting” or “She’s very – unique.”

We know that Jacob found Rachel far more desirable than Leah; and he gladly worked those seven years for her hand. After seven years, the big day came. They clearly partied hard all night. Jacob went back to his tent, and that slick uncle Laban sent oldest daughter Leah into the tent. In that time, the moment a woman entered a man’s tent, she was considered his wife. I can only guess that it was pitch dark that night and there was absolutely no talking involved, because Jacob doesn’t realize what has happened until the next morning.

The text says, “When morning came, behold! It was Leah!” (Genesis 29:25). Substitute your favorite expletive for the word “behold” if you want to get the full effect of the Hebrew text. He goes to the bride’s father and says, “Why have you deceived me?” Deception, as we’ve discovered, is something of a family problem.

Dear sweet Uncle Laban played innocent. “Oh, didn’t I tell you? In these parts, we never marry off the younger until the older is taken care of. Tell you what, finish your week-long sentence—err, honeymoon with Leah, work for me another 7 years, and then you can have Rachel.” So he did, but the text goes on to say that Jacob always loved younger sister Rachel more than older sister Leah. I’ve always wondered how that made Leah feel, but unfortunately, the text just doesn’t go there. I’ve always wondered if Leah was made to feel less-than-real in her attractive sister’s shadow.

When I do a wedding, I have noticed that every bride and every groom always do the same thing, whether they realize it or not. After the bride walks down the aisle and stands next to the groom, they always sneak a look into each other’s eyes. Guests at the wedding who catch this quick moment are thinking, “Oh, how sweet,” but that’s not what’s going on. They are really just checking to make sure it’s the right person.

You see, everyone thinks they’re marrying Rachel. They don’t realize they’re getting Leah as well. The reality is that every person you love is both Rachel and Leah. You may love one more than the other, but they are wrapped into the same person. We would rather put people into neat categories – good or bad, attractive or ugly, naughty or nice, friend or foe, someone worthy of my love or someone deserving of my hatred – but to put it plain and simple: each of us, and everyone else, has a little of each all mixed up inside.

Rumor has it I was not the easiest kid to raise. Mom said it was a good thing God made me so cute, because otherwise she would have killed me. When I started kindergarten, she was dreading going to the first parent-teacher conference. She came home from that conference and sat me down to tell me what Ms. Sarazin had said. She said, “Your teacher told me what you’re like in class. She said you’re the best student in the class, you’re well-behaved, you’re pleasant, you’re polite, and you’re very helpful. So what I want to know is how come you act so differently at school than you do at home?” I said, “Because, if I acted like that at school, no one would like me!”

Most of us have gotten really good at projecting a preferred image of ourselves. There’s the side we want people to see, the side we want people to like. It’s the side you show when you go on a job interview, when you’re dating someone, when you’re meeting people for the first time, when you go to a cocktail party. There’s that side of us we want people to see and know and like.

Craig Barnes says this preferred side is the side people fall in love with, and the one everyone thinks they are marrying. Oh, they notice those little flaws in the other person, but at first they are blind to the power of those flaws. In fact, they’re not even flaws, they’re just precious, cute, adorable little quirks that make the person more colorful. “Well, he’s a little sloppy, but I need to learn how to relax.” “Well, she seems awfully dependent on her father, but I’m sure that will all change after the wedding.”

At every wedding, I do wonder about the moment that will come sometime later. When habits that are now adorable have become annoying. After some weeks, or months, or years have passed and they realize that the person to whom they are now married is not the person they thought they married.

Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, but he had to also take Leah if he wanted Rachel. He loved one more than the other. He was interested in one but not the other. Rachel was the one he loved, the one he was sure would be a blessing in his life. But he couldn’t have Rachel without also taking Leah. They’re a package deal.

Our text is a story about weddings, but if you focus on just the weddings, you’ll miss the point. The text uses the vehicle of weddings to clue us in on a larger discussion about love. It’s about the love God has for us and the love we are called to have for each other.

When someone is attractive, when we only see their good side, it’s easy to love them. It just comes natural. When people are lovely and loveable, it’s easy to love. But when people act ugly and unloveable, that’s a lot harder. Once you realize you’re not involved with some preferred image but with a real human being with flaws and hurts and scars and baggage and bad days, you realize how difficult it can be to love some people.

Yet for Christians, that’s exactly what we’re called to do. We are called to love others, even those who are unlovable, because God loves us, even when we are unlovable. God loves us with the full knowledge that we have both a good side and a bad side, and your flaws, your warts, your dark side are never so bad to keep God from loving you. As God loves us, we should love others.

In every wedding I do, I tell couples to love each other as God loves us. I remind them that God’s love for us is unchanged even when our behavior is displeasing to God. Likewise, as Christians, we are called to love people even if we find them difficult to love, disagreeable, or just plain annoying. It’s hard to love like that. It’s hard to love someone who has hurt you or wronged you; it’s hard to love someone when you find out they’re not who you thought they were.

Jacob was prepared to love Rachel – that part came easily enough. But, surprise! God also wanted him to love Leah, and that wasn’t so easy. And then, surprise again! We are called to love even when it’s not so easy. Loving when it’s not easy is the best witness for and reflection of God’s love we can make, because God loves us even when it’s not easy for God to love us. Sending your Son is the easy thing to do. That alone is proof that God loves us even when we’re not that easy to love. “God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him” (Romans 5:8, The Message). As God has loved us well, we are called to love others well.

When I think about loving others well, I think about my grandparents. Shortly after their 50th wedding anniversary, Grandma began to develop signs of Alzheimer’s. Many of you know what a cruel disease this is – causing someone to become a person they have never been before, turning a loved one into a stranger. Papa had spent most of his life married to one person, and over the course of just a few years, she became a different person. Yet, Papa continued to love her well. She was hardly the person he had married, yet he continued to love her – nurturing her, caring for her, sitting next to her on the couch for hours, lightly touching the back of her hands, looking into her sometimes vacant eyes and simply saying, “I love you.” The harder it became to love her, the more deeply he loved her, knowing it was then when she needed his love the most.

Friends, God’s love for you is even deeper than that. God doesn’t love just the part of you that is good, desirable, attractive, or lovable. God loves all of you. God’s love is radical and unconditional. God doesn’t say, “I will love you in spite of your flaws.” No, God says, “I love ALL of you, including your flaws.”

Likewise, we are called to love with the love of God, even when it’s not easy.

God, we thank you for loving us no matter what. We thank you for loving us even when we are difficult to love, and even when we don’t give you any good reason to love us. As you have loved us, help us to love others, including those who are difficult to love, in the name of your Son, Jesus, who came to show your love to all. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dreaming and Blessings (Genesis 28:10-19a)

Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel.

Today, we begin a four-part series on “Foundations of our Faith” as we look at life-changing stories from the book of Genesis. Genesis is the first of 66 books in the Bible, and Genesis is a word that simply means “Beginning.” It is the beginning, not so much because it comes first in the Bible, but because it tells us about the beginning of humankind’s relationship with God.

The stories throughout Genesis are meant to tell us about ourselves – where we’ve come from, what we’ve come through, what we’ve learned, as we have made the faith journey with God. Every step of the way, God has revealed something about God’s self to us. The stories from Genesis anchor our understanding and experience of God, and as such, they are foundations of our faith.

As we will hear life-changing stories from the book of Genesis, I invite you to open yourself up to what God says through these stories, so that, as the lives of the people in these stories were changed, God may change our lives as well. May we pray.

There were two mischievous boys who had a way of finding trouble and getting themselves into it – I have absolutely no idea what that must be like. Their parents knew that if there was any sort of mischief or mayhem taking place in their small town, their boys were likely involved somehow.

There was a corrections officer-turned preacher with a reputation for straightening out wayward children, and the parents sent their boys to him. He called in the younger of the two, sat him down in a hard chair opposite the imposing desk, leaned across the desk, looked the youngster right in the eye and said, “Where is God?”

The boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open, wide-eyed. So the clergyman repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy made no attempt to answer. So the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"

The boy was scared to death, and jumped out of the chair, ran through the door, and found his brother waiting on the bench in the hall. Barely able to catch his breath, he said, “Dude, we’re in trouble this time! Apparently, God is missing and they think WE have something to do with it!”

Perhaps you remember the scene from the movie Forrest Gump, in which Forrest goes to visit Lieutenant Dan in New York City for the holidays. Disillusioned with life, de-motivated by a lifestyle of drug and alcohol-abuse, Lieutenant Dan sarcastically repeats a question that well-intentioned people have asked him. He says, “Gump, have you found Jesus yet?” Forrest naively says, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

It would be funny, except that many times, we can be just as na├»ve as Forrest, unaware that we’re supposed to be looking for Jesus, unaware that we’re supposed to be looking for God. We can be rather like Jacob, whose story we read today.

In today’s reading, we catch up with Jacob, the son of Isaac, and the grandson of Abraham, and you’ll recall the covenant that God has made with Abraham – that God would make Abraham’s name great, make him the father of a great nation, that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the shore, and that through him, all people on earth would be blessed.

Jacob was the grandson of the man to whom this covenant had been made, which would have put him in line to receive all this, except—Jacob wasn’t the only son. He had a brother, a twin brother named Esau, but Jacob was the younger of the two, having come out of the womb literally clinging to his brother’s heel.

In Britain’s royal family, Princes William and Harry are often referred to as “the heir and the spare;” William, as the oldest, is the heir to the throne and all that entails, whereas Harry, the younger brother, is a “spare.” Likewise, for twin brothers Jacob and Esau; Esau, the oldest, was the heir, and Jacob the spare.

However, the name “Jacob” means “striver, hustler, supplanter.” Indeed, Jacob has spent his whole life in the shadow of his seconds-older brother, striving to be like him, striving to be him, striving to be more than him. But friends, Jacob is not that unlike us. Like Jacob, we all have a twin. From the day we are born, we are measuring ourselves against some Esau, some standard of what or who we think we should be. We all have some picture in our mind of the person we have to become before we can receive any blessings, that vision of a person who is like us, just better somehow – richer, more glamorous, more popular, more powerful, more influential, more religious, more spiritual. Like Jacob, we can spend a lifetime trying to climb ladders to success, scheming and hustling and striving to do whatever it takes to put ourselves on top.

He schemed his hungry older brother out of his birthright over some stew. He has spent his whole life striving to be Esau, trying to supplant Esau from his position of first-born privilege, and low and behold, he did it. And then, their aging father, legally blind, wants to bless oldest son Esau, and Jacob decides it’s time for one more hustle. He dresses up in his hairy brother’s clothes, tapes some goat’s wool to the back of his neck and hands so their father will think it’s Esau, and Jacob steals the blessing that wasn’t for him to begin with.

Finally, Jacob has all the things he ever wanted in life – he has schemed and tricked his way to his brother’s birthright and their father’s blessing. He has everything he ever wanted in life, and all that hard work has paid off in a run for his life and ending up someplace he never wanted to be.

Has that ever happened to you? You set goals in life, you worked hard on them, you kept your eye on the prize, you didn’t lose your focus, and when you crossed everything off your list and had everything you thought you ever wanted, you took a look around and said, “How in the world did I end up here? I got everything I ever wanted, and now I’m stuck someplace I never wanted to be.”

Jacob got everything he had ever wanted. He got all the things he had devoted his whole life to getting, landed somewhere he never wanted to be. Jacob is portrayed as a fugitive fleeing for his life; he is no place in particular, somewhere between a conflict-ridden past and an uncertain future.

And so there, at the intersection of “Where I don’t want to be” and “Noplace Special,” Jacob collapses in exhaustion, his head resting on a rock for a pillow, and he has a dream. In his dream, a ladder, a ramp, a staircase stretches from God in heaven right down to the rocks where Jacob is sleeping. In this no-man’s land, this noplace special, this “where I don’t want to be place,” God is there.

You know what it’s like when you’re driving through the mountains, and what it’s like trying to get cell phone service. You go around this curve, and four bars drop to “no signal.” Or, my GPS when I pull into a parking garage, goes, “*BEEP!* Lost satellite reception.”

But in Jacob’s dream, we realize that, when it comes to God, we always have a signal. We never lose reception. Even when our lives take twists and turns into places we don’t want to be or when we simply find ourselves nowhere in particular, God is still there.

Indeed, the psalmist would say, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8). No matter where we go, God is there. In our highs and lows, God is there. No matter where we go, there always exists a ladder, a link between us and God, upon which “angels descending bring from above, echoes of mercy, and whispers of love.”

You see, Jacob had been confused. While he was scheming, climbing the ladders of success, and trying to get ahead, God was saying to Jacob, to you, to me, to all of us – “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Why all this scheming? Why all this climbing? Why all this trying to get ahead? Do you not know that I am with you now, have been always, and will be forever?”

We’re like Jacob. We can spend a lot of time climbing the ladders in our lives and doing anything we can to get a rung up on the competition. But for all his climbing, Jacob got everything he ever wanted, and ended up someplace he never wanted to be. You see, we can spend a lot of time climbing the wrong ladders. Or, sometimes the ladders we’re climbing are propped up against the wrong wall, and when we get to the top, we look around and say, “This isn’t where I wanted to be at all.”

And while we are busy scheming, striving, and climbing ladders, God is already right there. Always has been, always will be – standing by with a pocket full of dreams and blessings, just waiting to give us both. Once Jacob has his dream and sees what God wants him to know – namely, that God is there and always has been, God repeats the promise that was first made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. And you know what? The promise is still the same. Just the same old promise. Nothing new. Nothing added. Nothing taken away. God just repeats the promise and reminds Jacob of the covenant that is already in place.

For the first time, Jacob listens. He has been so busy climbing his own ladder of success and striving to be some better version of himself that he had, up until now, failed to recognize the ladder God was extending to him from heaven. Jacob wakes up from his dream, the light bulb goes off, and he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Well, duh!

But, let’s not be too hard on Jacob – it wouldn’t kill any of us to pay a little more attention and discern the presence of God in all the places we go. It would actually be a good thing if we would stop our striving, our climbing, and our running, slow down, and have some dreams about practicing the presence of God in every aspect of our lives – that no matter where we go, what we do, and with whom we interact, we would say, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in THIS place – not just at church, not just in my Sunday School class, not just in my Bible study, not just in my prayers, not just when I talk to other Christians – surely the presence of the Lord is in THIS place – especially ordinary places, plain places, nowhere in particular places, places we don’t even want to be – surely the presence of the Lord is in every place.”

The story of Jacob invites us to stop running and start dreaming. To stop running from our fears, to stop running on empty, to stop running our own lives, to stop running other people’s lives, to stop running for the sake of running. The story of Jacob invites us to stop running and start dreaming. To start dreaming about the presence of God, to start dreaming about the blessings of God, to start dreaming about God’s call to bless others as we ourselves have been blessed.

In the dream, God reminds Jacob that when we are blessed, we are to bless others. God says, “All the families of the earth will be blessed in you and in your offspring” (Gen 28:14). God’s blessings are not just for us; they are meant to be shared freely and abundantly, liberally and generously, just as God has given them to us.

Jacob’s response to the dream is threefold, and this is a good pattern for our lives as well. The first thing he does is recognize and name the presence of God. It sounds simple, but when we have discerned the presence of God, the first thing to do is recognize and name the presence of God. Wherever we find ourselves, even if and particularly if we are in an ordinary place or a place of no special significance – everywhere we go is a place to recognize and name the presence of God. And if it’s been awhile since we have recognized and named God’s presence, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to slow down, take a breath, and dream about God’s presence. If we’ve gotten so caught up in striving and climbing ladders of our own making that we haven’t given a thought to God, then we’re too busy.

The second way Jacob responds to the dream is worship. After recognizing and naming the presence of God, he celebrates the presence of God in worship. Worship turns the “no particular” places in our lives into the house of God. And if we truly recognize and celebrate the presence of God everywhere, then every moment and place in our lives in an opportunity for worship, and our lives themselves become the very instruments tuned to tell God’s glory as we find ourselves lost in wonder, love, and praise.

And the third way Jacob celebrates God’s presence is through service. After recognizing and naming the presence of God, he celebrates the presence of God in worship, and as a result, his life becomes the blessing God named it to be in that dream. Because of the reality of God’s presence in his life, he pledges 10% of whatever God gives him he will give back to God. He realizes that the most appropriate and faithful response to God’s blessing is to use what God has given him to bless others. The same is true for us.

Jacob called the place Bethel, which means “house of God.” Up until now, it had been no place in particular, but now, because of God’s grace, Jacob recognized it as a place where the spirit of the Lord was surely present, even if he was previously unaware. When we wake up and find ourselves living in relationship with the living God, things change. We change. The places in our lives that seemed like no place in particular are changed into the house of God.

So, if it seems like your life is nowhere in particular today, get some rest, take a nap, and have a dream, a dream in which you discern the presence of God. Where is God? All around, it would seem. Sometimes, it just takes a dream to remember.

God, we thank you for your constant presence. Give us all the time to rest and the inspiration to dream. May dreams lead to blessing, and may your blessings continue to change the world, even as they change our hearts. Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Shape of Grace (John 3:1-7)

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”

A mechanic who worked out of his home had a hound-dog named Mace. Mace had a bad habit of eating all the grass on the mechanic's lawn, so the mechanic had to keep Mace inside. The grass eventually became overgrown. One day the mechanic was working on a car and dropped his wrench, losing it in the tall grass. He couldn't find it for the life of him, so he decided to call it a day.

That night, Mace escaped from the house and ate all the grass in the backyard. The next morning the mechanic went outside and his wrench shone in the sunlight. Realizing what had happened he proclaimed, "A grazing Mace, how sweet the hound, that saved a wrench for me!

Today, we are not talking about a grazing Mace, but amazing grace. Grace is foundational to our identity as Christians. Grace is absolutely essential to our understanding and experience of God. Grace is God’s freely-given, undeserved, unmerited gift to the whole world, and for those with eyes to see, grace continues to shape our lives. May we pray.

To really understand grace, we have to go back in the story just a bit. To the beginning, in fact. In the beginning, God created the world and God got it right, so God said, “It is good” (Genesis 1). Human beings were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), so human beings were created good.

But, oops, something went wrong in the story just as soon as it started. Where things went wrong is told as the story of Adam and Eve, and their story is our story. Through we are created in the image of God with the purpose of reflecting God’s image, we are unable to do so, creating a condition of separation between us and God, and we call that condition “sin.” But God doesn’t want things to stay the way they are. God wants us back. God wants us to get over the separation of our sin. God wants us to be active participants in God’s kingdom, in order to bring the whole world back to God.

In today’s text, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, when it is dark. Anecdotally, I like to refer to this text as “Nick at Nite.” Darkness represents many things in Scripture, including unbelief, ignorance, temptation, and sin. The text evokes images from Isaiah 9:2 that were made famous in Handel’s Messiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

Light in the darkness – signs of prevenient grace

The people have been walking in darkness – darkness of sin, darkness of separation, darkness of unbelief – but they have seen a great light, and the light has a name: Jesus. Jesus is the light shining in the darkness, the perfect reflection of the image of God. He restores broken relationships, and he points the way to the kingdom of God.

Here’s something cool about how God works: while it was still dark in our lives, the light of Christ was already shining. When we were groping around the darkness, Christ had already paved the way for us to find the full sunshine of God’s delight. Long before we asked for help or ever made the first reach in God’s direction, God was already reaching toward us, and you know what we call that? Grace.

In the Methodist tradition, we have a name for grace of that particular shape – we call it “prevenient grace.” Prevenient simply means “to go before,” so prevenient grace is grace that shapes our lives before we know it, before we claim it, before we name it. It is the grace that is at work within every human being, whether they acknowledge God or not.

Read further. Only a few verses after today’s reading is John 3:16, arguably the most well-known verse of the Bible. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son.” Jesus didn’t come simply to deliver a message, rather, God sent Jesus to reconcile us to God, and to reconcile us to each other, even if it meant his own death, and his death was on our behalf.

And this beloved nugget of Scripture exposes the scandal of grace. “God so loved the world, he gave his Son.” Wait a minute – did God even ask us if we wanted God’s Son? God didn’t even consult us. God just does what God wants to do and sends the Son . . . to die . . . for us – simply because God loves us, whether we realize it or not. God just gives us what is best. It doesn’t matter if we’re ready, it doesn’t matter if we offered our consent – God gives us grace whether we ask for it or not!

We would probably prefer for God to make grace conditional. Unconditional love is a really hard thing to accept! We want to negotiate! We want to stay in control, we’re often like little kids who say, “I do it myself!” If God says, “I’ll love you IF you’re a good person, or IF you read your Bible, or IF you do good things,” we can work with that, we can DO something, but that’s not how God works. God just loves us – completely and unconditionally – whether we want God’s love, whether we ask for God’s love, God just loves each of us no matter what.

Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century, was once asked what was the greatest theological discovery he had made during his life. He thought for some time and finally stated, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” There is no greater truth than that, nothing more foundational for our theology. If you can understand that simple truth – that Jesus loves you, no matter what, whether you acknowledge it or not, then you can understand grace.

New birth and justifying grace

But then, God invites our response. Jesus tells Nicodemus that those who would see the kingdom of God must be born from above, born again. What does Jesus really mean here? Nicodemus’ responds sarcastically: “Born again, you say? Explain the mechanics of that to me, Jesus. You mean old people like us have to be born a second time?”

Jesus says: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”

Water and the Spirit – let’s hold up there just a minute. Water is connected with nature and earth. It knows no obstacle. Going around, under, and through, it always attains the lowest level. Water is the great decomposer, ultimately more powerful than any other form of matter. The wild and free Spirit, on the other hand, is airborne, blowing where it wills. It’s going someplace, although it’s not at all clear where. Spirit is both creative and chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous, inspiring and irrational.

Jesus says that we must be born again, born anew, born from above – we must be born of water and the Spirit. Being born of “water and the Spirit” is about the decomposition of the old and the generation of the new. That’s the difficulty in the new birth to which Jesus calls us. The old things are familiar, and even if they’ll eventually kill us, we want to keep them, even when the old thing, the old ways, the old attitudes and desires are decomposing in our hand.

And if we allow the wild winds of Holy Spirit to blow in, who knows what will happen? If we invite the Holy Spirit in and experience new birth, we might lose control! The wind of the Holy Spirit wafts away items to which we have become attached and blowing in others we would not have chosen.

But friends, experiencing new birth in Christ is about giving up control. Different people experience this new birth differently – some have dramatic stories of conversion in which the light of Christ suddenly pierced the darkness of their sin-sick soul, others have stories in which divine grace slowly wooed them to Christ. Both types of experiences are valid, and they have something in common – God is the initiator, God is the primary actor. Salvation is really a story about what God has done and is doing by grace much more than it is a story about what we have done by ourselves.

Richard Heitzenrater says, “For Wesley, Grace is what God is doing at the depths of your life by the power of the Holy Spirit.” So then, being born from above, experiencing the new birth, is letting the Holy Spirit do what God wants done at the depths of our life.

Growth and sanctifying grace

New birth in Christ is a starting point rather than the end of the line. In John’s Gospel, it’s a daily pilgrimage of opening the door to our soul and letting Jesus in. It’s a daily process of taking down the sign that says, “God, please do not disturb,” and instead saying, “Holy Spirit, please come in, and help me clean up this mess.” It’s a continual shift in our disposition to say, “Lord, my life belongs not to me, but to you. You are the potter, I am the clay. Shape me. Mold me. Fire me up with your Holy Spirit. Use me, use my life, however you want.”

John Wesley taught that coming to faith, the new birth, is not the goal of the religious journey. It is important. It is critical. It is necessary. But it is not the goal. When parents give birth to a child, once the birth is over, do the parents say, “OK, we got this child born; our job here is done!” Of course not – birth is the starting point. Likewise, new birth in Christ is a starting point of the life of being a disciple of Jesus, and grace will continue to shape us. In the line of the hymn, “’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

The point of new birth is to start us on a journey of following Jesus, of growing more like him every day, of letting the Holy Spirit come in and do whatever God wants within us. New birth is about opening ourselves up to God’s grace and allowing it to shape us so that each day, our life is a little better reflection of God’s image than it was the day before.

And you know what makes that possible? Shocker of shockers, it’s grace. For the grace that comes in our lives after we have experienced new birth we call “sanctifying grace,” because it is grace that makes us holy, restoring the image of God in which we were first created, restoring our souls to the condition in which God created them in the first place.

Think of it this way. The Christian faith is like a great big house with lots of different rooms, and every time you go into a different room, some of God’s divine image is restored within you. So using that analogy, repentance is like the porch. You have to get onto the porch before you can get into the house, but it’s not the goal. Once you are on the porch, the door is faith, the door is new birth. You can’t get into the house without going through the door. The goal is to get inside the house, to explore room to room, to have the divine image of God restored within you as you grow in holiness. If all you do is come to faith, then you get stuck in the door!

For Methodists, repentance is important; there are 24 hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal in the section on ‘Invitation and Repentance.’ Pardon from sin and assurance of forgiveness are also important; there are 21 hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal in the section on ‘Pardon and Assurance.’ But what we really care about is holy living; guess how many hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal are in the section on ‘Holy Living?’ 168!

We care so much about holy living because that’s what happens after the new birth. In the Wesleyan tradition, the end of the road is not an altar where one has knelt in deep repentance and accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The end of the road is a life that fully reflects God’s love.

Friends, the best way to identify a life growing in and shaped by God’s grace is that it reflects God’s love. Because if we open ourselves up to grace, to the Holy Spirit coming in and cleaning us out and putting whatever God wants inside of us, then God is going to plant love every time. So it’s simple – when God is in us and we are growing in grace, then we carry out the Great Commandment Jesus gave, the one on which hang all the law and prophets: love of God and neighbor.

And it’s all a gift from God. It’s nothing we can do on our own. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We can’t be good enough for it. It’s unconditional. It’s given to us whether we like it or not. And after we have come to faith, after we have experienced the new birth, grace continues to shape us and transform us, molding us in God’s image, shaping our lives in just the ways God wants. Grace is the ultimate reminder that no matter who we are, what we do, or where we go, ultimately, we belong to God.

No matter where you are today on your spiritual journey, may you see how your life is shaped by grace.