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Sunday, August 21, 2011

How to Overcome Evil (Romans 12:9-21)

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In conversations with a number of Christians these days, I have discovered something perplexing among many of my brothers and sisters in Christ – fear, discouragement, anxiety, suspicion, pessimism, and pettiness have combined into a toxic cocktail that is lethal to all, and especially troubling for people of Christian faith, considering Jesus’ claim that he came in order that we might have life, and have it to the full.

Yes, there is a lot of evil out there in the world, I get that. Of even more concern, there rests within each of us the potential for great evil, as well. Dwelling too much on that will make you fearful and pessimistic, but that’s not what God wants. The simple truth is that such a sour, isolated, negative existence is not part of God’s desire for us, and in today’s Scripture reading, we are given a recipe for the life God desires and intends for each of us. May we pray.

In today’s text, Paul has just finished challenging the Christians at Rome to see themselves as the body of Christ, and to live like it. He wants them to see themselves not as individuals who are looking out for their own self-interests, but as valuable members of the whole body of Christ. Whatever else or whoever else we are – our most important and fundamental identity is as members of the body of Christ.

Think about that for a moment – you are one valuable member of the body of Christ. Jesus really values you! And as members of his body, we are Christ’s continuing physical presence in the world, meaning that when people look at us, interact with us, or listen to us, it should be as if they are looking at, interacting with, or listening to Christ himself. Easier said than done!

Last week, after making a hospital visit, I went to Home Depot to pick up a new air filter for my HVAC unit at home. Unable to find them, I asked an employee where they were, and he said, “Right this way, Pastor.” I walked through the store thinking, “How does he know I’m a pastor?” When I got in the car and fastened my seatbelt, I got my answer – my clergy badge from the hospital was still clipped to my shirt! I had forgotten to take it off when I left the hospital, and wandered around Home Depot with it dangling from my shirt pocket.

The whole episode did get me wondering, however – how would anyone know that we are Christians?

In today’s text, the apostle Paul gives us a compelling answer. After he tells the Christians at Rome that they are members of the very body of Christ, he gives basic instruction. For Christians, for those who follow Jesus, for those who are part of the body of Christ, Paul simply says, “Let love be genuine.” “Love without any hypocrisy.” Love authentically. Love without false motive or pretense. Love in a way that isn’t looking out for your own interest; love sacrificially, abundantly, generously, freely. Love without thinking, “What’s in this for me?” Let love be genuine.

The fact that Paul tells us to let love be genuine indicates that it must be possible for love to be ingenuine. In fact, the phrase “Bless their heart” was invented for this very purpose. Somewhere we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that it’s ok to say all sorts of mean, nasty, negative things about someone as long as we follow it up with “Bless their heart.” That is but one example of ingenuine love. Certainly, you can think of more.

We quickly realize that the command to let love be genuine isn’t going to be as easy as it sounds.

No doubt you’ve heard this mantra of professional musicians: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! In the same way, the way to grow in genuine love is to practice, practice, practice! Once he has told the Christians at Rome to let love be genuine, he offers some specific practices for them, and us, to adopt, in order to grow in that love. The best way to become more loving, the best way to let love be genuine, is to engage in the practices of genuine love.

He says, “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

Paul says, “This is what love looks like! Practice these things, and you’ll find your life enlarged in the love which is befitting members of the body of the Christ. These are the essential ingredients in a life of genuine love.” I’ve got the message loud and clear, I’m just not entirely sure how to actually do that.

Of course, it should seem obvious: our example and the source of genuine love is Jesus. Paul’s words to bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse in verse 14 sound a lot like what Jesus says in Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” or what he says in Luke 6:28: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who revile you” or even what he prayed for his executioners as he hung upon the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).

If you read on from today’s text in Romans 12, you’ll find allusions to other sayings of Jesus peppered throughout chapter 13, and Jesus’ love for others at the cross is stressed in Romans 15:1-3. Throughout this great theological treatise we know today as the book of Romans, Paul is hinting that to love genuinely is to love as Jesus loved.

Really? But I don’t want to. Mark Twain said it wasn’t the parts of the Bible he didn’t understand that concerned him, it was the parts he did understand that gave him the most trouble. We understand plenty of the Bible, which means we also understand that the Bible frequently asks us to do things we’d rather not do and tells us things we’d rather not know.

The Scripture lesson for today often goes where I wish it would not and asks me to do things I don’t really want to do. It speaks of not repaying evil for evil, of living in harmony with one another and even doing good to one’s enemies. Does God realize how impractical his teachings are sometimes? I mean, I’m a Christian and all, but come on. I sometimes wish the Bible said something other than what it does – being a Christian would be a lot easier if it only involved that solitary relationship with God and did not involve an engagement with the world and its needs and its evils or involvement with others in all their imperfections.

Paul doesn’t just say, “Love others more;” he says, “Let love be genuine.” In other words, love people as fully and richly and completely as Christ loves us.

And how does Christ love us? Jesus said, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). You are a friend, I am a friend of God through Christ Jesus! Isn’t that cool? These days, we don’t use the language of friendship with Christ nearly as much as we should. We certainly don’t use the word “friendship” to describe salvation that is made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but it is theologically significant that Jesus chooses to call us friends, particularly in light of our conversation on genuine love.

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).

Friendship was such a key relationship in the ancient world – the very glue binding persons to one another and to a community – that true friends would sacrifice their lives for one another and for the common good. What is so remarkable is that Jesus is actually living out this ideal. New Testament scholar Gail O’Day notes, “What Jesus teaches, he is already living. Jesus’ entire life, death, and resurrection is an act of friendship.”

Growing up, our parents told us to choose our friends carefully. They knew full well that some so-called “friends” are actually petty manipulators. They are not honest with us, they flatter us in order to further their own ends, their interest is in using us, or using our stuff. A so-called friend who is more interested in taking than giving is no friend at all.

This is how we know Jesus is our true friend. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Mennonite pastor and theologian Myron Augsburger tells the story of a man who asked him, “Tell me, what difference does it make in my life that Jesus Christ died on a cross two thousand years ago?” Augsburger said, “Do you have friends? Suppose one of your friends gets in trouble – what do you do?”

“You hang in with him.”

“Suppose it gets really rough, really severe. When can you cop out?”

He looked at the pastor in amazement and said, “If he’s your friend, you can’t cop out.”

“And God came to us in Jesus as our friend, and we’re in trouble and He hung in. Our trouble got really difficult and severe, and yet Jesus hung in. Because he is our friend, he couldn’t cop out, and he hung in even unto death.”

Jesus chooses to call us his friends. He came to overcome evil not by exercising superior power, but as a friend who expresses his superior quality of love and grace and mercy to the death, revealing the very nature of authentic friendship and genuine love. God the Father expresses his reigning attribute in love and grace, God the Son in Jesus calls us friend and demonstrates the extent of genuine love and authentic friendship. Does it not follow that God the Holy Spirit working in the lives of God’s friends – we, who are the very members of the body of Christ – would do the same in us and through us? That He would use us to express the qualities of God’s love and mercy and grace, that our approach in life is to be a people of love and people of mercy, a people of forgiveness and a people who give ourselves in service and friendship to others?

Friends, God in Christ redeems us by making us his friends, and we accept our own redemption and salvation by accepting God’s gift of friendship. Then, we participate in our own ongoing redemption by offering authentic friendship and genuine love to the world in Christ’s name. In so doing, the world around us is transformed and redeemed.

In this text, Paul lets us know that there is no room for an empty commitment, hollow pleasantries, fake friendship, or something which is pleasant to your face and then puts a knife in your back while saying, “Bless your heart.” Genuine love jumps in with both feet, it holds nothing back. Love is evil’s true opposite and its only cure. The path for overcoming evil lies along the road of love. He reminds the church that there are ethical implications to the Christian faith and they result in practical application in how we live daily.

As Christians, as members of the body of Christ, as followers of Jesus, as friends of God, there is a call upon our lives. We are not called to a life of dominance over others. We are not called to seek power or prestige or preference over other people. We are not called to intimidate or manipulate or use others for our own ends. Such behavior is antithetical to what it means to be a Christian.

No, being a member of the body of Christ, being a friend of God, means that we behave like it. Paul reminds us that we are called to lives of genuine love, where our lives are open to others and we share with them, where our lives are a gift to others as we extend to them the grace-filled gift of authentic friendship.

Authentic friendship is about giving, not getting. Authentic friendship goes hand-in-hand with the genuine love to which we are called in today’s text. All love is built on friendship. God’s love for us, our love for each other, even the best and truest expressions of romantic love are rooted in friendship. I can’t tell you how excited Ashley and I for October 8 to get here, because on that day, you’re all going to get to watch two best friends give their lives to each other in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. In the same Spirit of this generous God, we give ourselves to each other.

Marriage is but a reflection of God’s love; it is a window into the nature of genuine love and authentic friendship – the fullness of which should be the goal in all of our relationships. God calls us to give ourselves freely and completely precisely because God is a giver, and when we give as God gives, we discover something of the spiritual.

As the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, said in his homily at the royal wedding back in April: “A spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this: the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.”

To that I add: in authentic friendship, we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life. As members of the body of Christ, we join with Jesus who came that all may have life, have it eternally, have it abundantly, have it fully.

Friends, we overcome evil when we celebrate the reality of God’s friendship with us, and then live like it – allowing God’s grace and genuine love to flow through us, making our lives a gift to others, bringing the whole creation into full and abundant life. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

God, we thank you that you have called us friends. Help us as we offer your gift of authentic friendship and genuine love to others in your name. Fill our lives with your true and intended purpose as we find our center beyond ourselves. Thank you for your gift of abundant life which is already ours. Now, help us to claim that life, and to live like we mean it. Pour your Holy Spirit upon us, and make our lives a gift to others. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Little Brother, Big Gift (John 1:29-42)

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending on him from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was stranding with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi,” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

I need to let you know this morning that this particular sermon is not going where you think it is. Sermons on this passage have tended to focus on either the beginning or the end of the story – either they focus on Jesus as the Lamb of God, or they focus on Simon Peter, who gets the nickname “rock.” While either one of these would make for a good sermon, that’s not where I want to focus today.

Today, I’d like for us to think about little brothers. Who in the room has a little brother? Take a look around, I want everyone to note this. Now, who in the room is a little brother? Those of you who raised your hand the first time, I want you to take special note of these little brothers around you! Little brothers have it tough, growing up in the shadow of their older siblings. Little brothers find themselves often wanting to be like their big brothers, but wanting to do it on their own and without any extra help. Little brothers tire of being compared to their older siblings, and often develop fiercely independent personalities.

In our text today, we also meet two brothers. We meet Simon Peter, and his little brother, Andrew. Andrew is an average Joe, an ordinary guy. We know Andrew, but we’ve overlooked him so many times. The Andrews of the world easily disappear within the shadow of the more dynamic Peters. But, as both a little brother and an Andrew myself, I know that little brothers and Andrews play an important role in the story of Faith. Before we’re done today, hopefully you’ll see why the world could use a few more Andrews. May we pray.

Who was Andrew?

I am both a younger brother and an older brother. I did have the advantage of being the first boy, however, so as I grew up and went through school, many teachers did not expect me to be very much like my older sisters, which was a good thing, because our personalities are very different.

However, six years after I came along, my younger brother, Dave, went through the same teachers, and those who made the connection about who he was and who he was related to expected him to be like a little mini-version of me, which—thanks be to God—he’s not. Still, it’s not easy being someone’s kid brother.

Andrew was Simon Peter’s kid brother, growing up in his big brother’s shadow. When they played a game, who decided what they would play? Simon Peter. When a joke was being told, who was telling it? Simon Peter. When someone asked them a question about fishing, who jumped in with an immediate response? Simon Peter. In the background, playing second fiddle, was Andrew.

Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. Remember that a disciple is simply someone who follows someone else. In our text today, John the Baptist is standing there as Jesus walks by. He whispers. “Pssst. Hey Andrew. That’s him. That’s the guy. You know, the one I’ve been telling you about from the beginning. You know, the Lamb of God. The one who will take away the sin of the world, who will change the world, the one who will bring about reconciliation between all the world and God. That’s him!”

Andrew doesn’t need to hear anything else. Before John has even stopped speaking, Andrew is off. He knew John’s message was one of preparation, and his teacher has just told him that the person for whom he was preparing has arrived. Andrew doesn’t need further convincing. Andrew has been a disciple of John the Baptist, and now, he will be a disciple of Jesus. He knew that his time with John the Baptist was to prepare for an encounter with the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One. I doubt he really knew what to expect as he followed Jesus. He simply knew that he was to follow him, and when he did, his life was forever changed.

Andrew: an ordinary guy

Andrew is much more ordinary than his gregarious older brother, Simon Peter. Simon Peter – he’s someone you meet only once in a great while. He’s the guy up front, the guy who can do all things and do them well – and he gets all the attention. He’s the one we read about in the newspapers and watch on the evening news. He’s a rare species, he’s larger than life, and you remember meeting someone like him.

But Andrew is just a normal, ordinary guy. Andrew is someone you meet everyday. He drives your bus, he sits next to you in class, he’s the vice president at your bank, he’s your next-door neighbor, your daughters play softball together. Andrew is just an ordinary, normal guy – someone just like you and me. And that’s what I want us to remember about Andrew – he is a regular, ordinary, normal guy – someone just like you and me.

And it is his ordinary-ness that makes him so remarkable. For every Simon Peter, there are 10,000 Andrews. For every gregarious, charismatic person, there are 10,000 regular, ordinary, normal people. God works through Andrew precisely because he is so ordinary.

Reclaiming “evangelical”

Andrew follows Jesus and ends up spending the better part of 24 hours with him. We don’t really know what they talked about, or what happened, or what was said. But something happened within him that was truly transformative, and Andrew became a follower of Jesus.

And what did he do? First thing the next morning, Andrew ran to find his larger-than-life big brother and shared the wonderful news, “We have found the Messiah. The one for whom we have hoped for so long is here, he is among us. I have met him, and I want you to meet him too.”

Andrew is an evangelical. In recent years, this word, “evangelical” has gotten dirty because it’s been dragged into the realm of mud-slinging partisan politics. One side uses it as a rallying cry to its voting base and a banner to drape across its entire platform; the other uses it as a term of derision against its opponents. Even when the word “evangelical” is used among Christian people who disagree about certain matters of faith, it is freighted more political than spiritual.

Friends, the word “evangelical” belonged to the Church before it belonged to the politicians. It’s time to take our word back. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion – which means “good news” or “gospel.” Andrew is an evangelical in that he shares the good news of the Messiah, the Christ, the one who has come in the person of Jesus, with others, including his big brother. Andrew knew that Jesus was good news, plain and simple, and he just had to tell someone about it.

An evangelical is one who believes and experiences that Jesus is good news, and just has to tell someone about it. Jesus is good news whether you are a liberal or conservative. Jesus is good news whether you are a Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or whatever else you are. Jesus is good news for all, bigger than any of those labels! An evangelical is simply one who says, “I have met Jesus, and I would like you to meet him too.”

Andrew – an ordinary evangelical

Andrew was an ordinary person who met Jesus, found Jesus to be good news, and wanted others to meet him, too. And so, he went and found his brother and brought him to Jesus. Andrew did not try to convert his brother. Andrew did not try to change his brother or convince his brother. Andrew just said, “Come and see. I would like you to meet Jesus.” Andrew’s life had been transformed because he met Jesus, and he just wanted others to meet him too, because he knew that Jesus was in the business of transforming lives. That’s good news! Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, and Simon Peter gave his life to Christ.

In fact, everywhere we meet Andrew throughout the rest of the story, he brings people to Jesus. When a great crowd had gathered and was starting to get hungry, Andrew had been talking to a little boy who had a sack lunch with five loaves of bread and two fish in it. Andrew said, “I would like you to meet Jesus.” Jesus transformed that little boy, transformed his meager meal, and transformed the crowd. Then later, Andrew meets a few Greeks – a few outsiders, that is – and he says, “I would like you to meet Jesus,” and they become disciples. Everywhere you turn, he is bringing people and introducing them to Jesus, and lives are changed because of it. The world needs regular people, just like Andrew, who bring people to Jesus.

Vince Antonucci tells the story of speaking at a conference for teenagers. He gave his message, and then offered an invitation for the students to come forward who wanted to give their lives to Jesus. The stream of kids slowed to a trickle, and then stopped altogether. Vince closed his eyes and prayed, “God, maybe there’s one more kid who needs to give their heart to you. No one’s coming forward now, but maybe there’s one more kid . . . “ He opened his eyes, and a boy with no arms or legs was getting pushed to the front of the room in his wheelchair by two of his friends, both with smiles beaming. He thought, “Thank you, God, that he had friends who were willing to invite him to come along, and to hang out with him.” Those two teenage boys were an Andrew in his life; they loved him enough to introduce him to Jesus.

Be an Andrew

Who is the Andrew in your life? Who is the person or the people who cared enough about you to introduce you to Jesus? Was it a parent? A pastor? A neighbor? A co-worker? An ordinary, average, regular little brother?

But another question for you: in whose life can you be an Andrew? Who is waiting for you to introduce them to Jesus? To whom can you say, “Come and see?” Maybe you’re thinking, “But I’m just a regular, ordinary person.” Yes, you are! You are wonderfully ordinary! And the good news of this story is that God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary, which means God can and will use you – the more ordinary you think you are, the more extraordinary things God can do through you.

Andrew simply says, “I would like you to meet Jesus.” Simple words of invitation are more crucial to the life of redemption than our grand and well thought-out proclamations and carefully worded doctrinal statements. The church begins with an invitation, and it spreads, person to person, house to house, people to people, with the simple words of a heartfelt invitation.

Jesus invites Andrew to “Come and See,” and Andrew’s life was changed by good news. But news this good just had to be shared, so he went to his brother and said, “I would like you to meet Jesus.” From this point on and to this day Jesus is experienced through personal invitations. Andrew invites Simon Peter to come and see; Andrew welcomes because he was welcomed himself. Likewise, we invite others to come and see; we welcome because we were welcomed ourselves. We invite because we were invited.

Something so ordinary as an invitation, yet God is in the habit of using the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary. Through ordinary people, people like Andrew, people like you and me, God’s love and redemption is offered to a hurting and broken world. People are invited to come and see, people are brought into the presence of Christ, people have an encounter with the living Lord, and their lives are transformed.

We are people and all around us are people who constantly need the transforming touch of Christ. We are a searching people, looking for that connection to something beyond ourselves. Religious, non-religious alike, everyone is searching and looking. Jesus says, “What are you looking for?” So what are you looking for? What am I looking for? What are those around us looking for?

Richard Blanchard, in his hymn “Fill My Cup, Lord,” put it this way: “Like the woman at the well I was seeking / for things that could not satisfy; and then I heard my Savior speaking: “Draw from my well that never shall run dry.” Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up Lord! Come and quench this thirsting of my soul; bread of heaven, feed me ‘til I want no more – fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.”

“What are you looking for?” Jesus still asks us today. He asked the question of Andrew, who brought the empty cup of his life to Jesus, and Jesus filled it to overflowing. In Jesus, Andrew had found what he was looking for. Looking around, he saw a world full of searching people whose cups were also empty, and he invited them to the one who could fill them and make them whole – “I would like you to meet Jesus.”

The world could use a few more Andrews. The world could use a few more people who bring people to Jesus.

God, we thank you for the Andrews in our lives. We thank you for ordinary people through whom you have done extraordinary things. We thank you for the people who loved us enough to introduce us to Jesus. Lord, we know that you have also called us to be Andrews – to introduce people to Jesus. Help us to love others well enough to introduce them to Jesus. Work in all our lives and in all our hearts to strengthen us in following you, and in our willingness to invite others to do the same. We are ordinary people, which is exactly the kind of people through whom you like to do extraordinary things. So use us for your purposes, and we’ll give you all the glory, honor, and praise. Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Living the Dream (Genesis 37:1-28)

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, and Joseph brought a bad report about them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly, my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.

He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers, he said; tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to hill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what has become of his dreams.” But when Rueben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Rueben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” – that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to their father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with many colors that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Then they sat down to eat, and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

People do things in church that have nothing to do with worshiping God. Have you ever noticed that? Crossword puzzles, knitting, passing notes, texting, surfing the internet on their mobile phone, making to-do lists, sharing photos, timing the sermon, even sleeping. The next time the person next to you falls asleep in church, you’ll be tempted to wake them up, but think twice before you do. People believed God spoke through dreams, so they would go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep. So, when I look around and see people nodding off, I simply assume they are participating in a great Biblical tradition.

I remember a recurring dream I had in the months before my graduation from Duke. The dream was, more or less, the same. We would be lined up from the divinity school across the quad and into Duke Chapel. Just before I passed through those great oak doors into the Chapel, a member of the administration – sometimes the registrar, sometimes the dean, once the president of the university – would pull me out of line. There had been an oversight when they reviewed my academic file, and I had failed to register for one required class, but that would keep me from receiving my degree that night.

When the actual night of graduation finally rolled around, I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I frantically walked across the quad, my eyes darting left and right, certain that, at any moment, the dean was going to jump out from behind a bush and give me the horrible news that I was not graduating that night.

Speaking of dreams, today’s text introduces us to Joseph, who was no stranger to dreams. Joseph comes from a long line of dreamers; let’s refresh ourselves on this family for just a second.

The most prominent member of the family was Abraham, Joseph’s great-grandfather. The thing to remember about Abraham is that he is the one with whom God made the covenant; the crux of the covenant is that God promised to bless him and his descendants, in order that through them, the whole world would be blessed. Since the beginning, God has always been concerned with the whole world.

Abraham’s son was Isaac; and Isaac’s son was Jacob, Joseph’s father, and we’ve really spent some time with Jacob over the last few weeks. Jacob, now Israel, has a total of four wives – sisters Leah and Rachel, and their maids, Bilhah and Zilpah. These wives give a total of 12 sons for Jacob. Rachel, the wife whom Jacob loved the most, had only had two sons: Joseph, the star of today’s story, and Benjamin, during whose birth Rachel died. Though Benjamin was the youngest, his father always associated his birth with Rachel’s death. And so, Jacob played favorites toward Joseph.

By the time we meet up with Joseph in today’s text, he is seventeen years old. Whatever else you know about Joseph, remember this: he was an obnoxious, spoiled, brat, and I can’t blame the other brothers for their feelings toward him. They were always out working in the fields and tending after the flocks, while Joseph was sleeping in ‘til noon and playing X-Box all day. Joseph always got the last piece of pizza, or an extra baked potato, or a second bowl of ice cream. The other eleven brothers had to share a room, but Joseph had a room entirely to himself with its own private bathroom.

And, Joseph always got the fanciest designer clothes his father could get his hands on, most notably, his Technicolor Dreamcoat. In a world of browns and grays, this wonderful coat was as conspicuous as their father’s preferential love. With that coat on, the other sons could not look at Joseph without being constantly reminded that he was the favored one. “Dad always liked you best.”

Now, Joseph should have known that his brothers hated him. You would think that he would have been a little more cautious about how he acted around them, but not our Joseph. He’s either foolish or brash, or perhaps a little bit of both. “Hey guys,” he says. “Let me tell you about this dream I had.” We were all out binding sheaves of corn in the field. Suddenly, all on its own, mine stood straight up, and all of yours gathered around it and bowed down before it.” Whatever Joseph expected, Joseph’s brothers hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

Not learning his lesson the first time, Joseph shares another dream with his brothers. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” At this, even his doting father, who was no stranger to dreams, rebukes him. “Son, nobody likes a braggart. Just because you think it, you don’t need to say it.”

God had been speaking to Joseph through his dreams, but because he was spiritually immature, Joseph misinterpreted what God was trying to tell him. You may say, “Of course he was – after all, he was only 17!” Yet, we cannot tie spiritual maturity to a specific age; we all know that some 17-year-olds are more mature and spiritually alive than some 60-year-olds.

Immaturity – not in years, but in spirit – causes Joseph to misinterpret his dreams. Initially, he interprets his dreams as promising power, prestige, and privilege for himself. Later, as he matures, he realizes that the dreams actually speak to how God will use him to save others, including his brothers. In this process of maturing, Joseph’s dreams come more in line with God’s dream of salvation for all. Keep reading a few chapters beyond today’s reading to get the rest of the story.

God’s dream is not one of power, prestige, and privilege for one person or a particular group of people. Rather, God’s dream is for the reconciliation and salvation of all the world, and when God grants us any sort of power, it is to be used responsibly in accordance with God’s dream. When we are blessed by God, it is so that we will use what God has given us to bless others.

This week, read the rest of the Joseph story in the successive chapters of Genesis, and you’ll see that’s exactly what happened to Joseph. The dreams we have can be little markers along the road to clue us into what God dreams – and what God hopes to do in us and through us.

Do you know one of the places God gives us a glimpse of God’s dream? In the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. These sacraments – these pledges, these mysteries, these promises – are a means of grace. Here, Christ has explicitly promised to meet us, to commune with us, to draw us closer to him and to one another, to lavish upon us his gift of grace. It is the grace that reaches toward us before we reach toward Christ, the grace that covers our sin and starts us on the path of following Jesus, and the grace that strengthens us in our growth to become increasingly Christlike people.

John Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to celebrate constant communion, meaning they should take advantage of the opportunity to receive Communion as often as it was available, precisely because it is a means of grace. It is a tiny taste of the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Communion is a place where we act out God’s dream; it’s a place where we practice for life in God’s kingdom. They say that practice makes perfect, and as we practice life in the kingdom of God, we make God’s dream a reality – Communion is a foretaste of the kingdom of God in which all come, where we are united as one great family of faith and feast together on grace. When it comes to God’s grace, all are welcome and there is an abundance to go around, and when our lives and practices reflect this reality, the kingdom of God comes upon the earth as it is in heaven. What a marvelous dream God has!

Wesley called Communion a converting ordinance, meaning that the meal itself was sometimes the very channel God used to bring people to faith, to increase their faith, to deepen their faith. You never know –Holy Communion may be the very place someone encounters God’s dream. For this reason, the Lord’s table is open to all, without stipulation, without reservation, without qualification. We place no barriers between those who need God’s grace and the very place where God has promised to give it away.

Communion gives us a glimpse of God’s dream. But what about our dreams – do they line up with God’s dream?

Right now Ashley and I are both having dreams about the wedding. She is having more of them, probably because she is more involved in more of the nitty-gritty details than I am. You know how sometimes the details of the dream don’t make sense – the wedding is in the wrong church, the wedding party is different, the minister is different – but somehow, you still know it’s your wedding, even though it bears little resemblance to the one you’re planning. But I just have to wonder – what do our dreams mean?

On facebook this week, I asked, 1. What recurring dreams are you having lately? and 2. What do you think dreams mean? One friend reminded me of the man who hoped his doctor could interpret his recurring dreams. He said, “One night I dream I’m a teepee, the next night a wigwam. Teepee, wigwam, teepee, wigwam, on and on it goes!” The doctor said, “Relax, you’re two tents.”

Tension and anxiety seem to be the themes that dominate a lot of our dreaming. Just listen to some of the things people told me they’re dreaming about: Babysitting. Teaching. Softball. Proving yourself. Making the perfect hit on Joe Namath. Fishing. Playing golf. Running through a strange town naked. Food. Getting lost or separated from someone in a crowd. Getting bit by an animal. A few people even said they’d had dreams about me, but, that’s all I have to say about that.

Do you sense how many of these dreams are about fear and anxiety? One theory of dream interpretation is that whatever emotion dominates our subconscious thoughts will also dominate our dreams. So, if the dreams you’re having are based in fear or anxiety, then those are the emotions running your life.

But friends, fear and anxiety are not part of God’s dream for us. God constantly invites us to lay our fears and anxieties down, to stop letting fear and anxiety rule our lives, and offers us a more excellent way – one in which God reigns in our lives, and shapes our dreams to look like God’s dream. And here, at the Communion table, we practice life in God’s kingdom, practice makes perfect, we humbly admit that we cannot live according to just our own ability, and so we come to feast upon grace – the freely-given gift of God’s love. God’s dream becomes our dream, and dreams become reality.

When Joseph had his dreams, what I love about the story is that the nature of the God-given dreams didn’t really change throughout his life. God’s dream is always the same. The thing that changed in how those dreams were interpreted was Joseph. When he was spiritually immature, he thought the dreams were about his own power, prestige, and preference. As he matured, he realized he was being called to participate in God’s dream of saving others.

In the end, a dream that serves only to increase or secure our own power, prestige, or preference is no dream from God. But a dream that calls us to saving and serving others – well, that’s the real deal.

God, we thank for you the dreams that you have placed within us. Sometimes we are blind, or stubborn, or hard-hearted, and it’s not easy to get our attention. So, we thank you for using so many ways to get your message to us. Rekindle within each of us something of yourself, your desire, your dream. Make your dream our dream. Whatever you have placed within us to do, or to be, or to become, make it happen. Give us the freedom to dream, and the courage to follow. Amen.