A Long Walk Home
SLIDE 3: SACRIFICE OF ISAAC
Three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam identify the story of the “Sacrifice of Abraham’s Son” as a pivotal passage of scripture. Judaism celebrates the “Sacrifice of Isaac” as the end of human sacrifice in Hebrew religion.
SLIDE 4: SACRIFICE OF ISHMAEL
In Islam the story is the “Sacrifice of Ishmael,” Abraham’s other son, and it is celebrated as the basis for the end of human sacrifice on the Arabian Peninsula.”
SLIDE 5: SACRIFICE OF THE LAMB OF GOD
Christianity has focused on the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” as the archetype for the crucifixion of Jesus, the sacrifice of the innocent lamb who then provides atonement for the sins of others. This example of Jesus as the Passover lamb became the basis for the cult of substitutionary atonement in Christian faith.
SLIDE 6: CARAVAGGIO 1598
Rabbi Jeffery Ballon was fascinated by the “Sacrifice of Isaac.” There are almost as many paintings of this theme as pictures of the crucifixion. Each image has a slightly different interpretation of the event. I particularly remember Jeffery’s discourse on two famous paintings of the event by Caravaggio. In the first painting in 1598 Isaac seems almost unafraid as the angel offers Abraham the ram to sacrifice instead of his son.
SLIDE 7: CARAVAGGIO 1603
But in Caravaggio’s rendition of the scene in 1603 Isaac is afraid and in pain, and the angel literally must restrain Abraham’s hand in order to save the life of the lad. We can only wonder what changed in the life of the painter to produce such a different interpretation of the event.
SLIDE 8: PROPHETIC ADMONITIONS AGAINST SACRIFICE
The 22nd Chapter of Genesis is a pivotal story for three faiths. Many Jews and Christians have believed that Genesis chapter 22 marked the end of human sacrifice in the Hebrew tradition. The ritual killing of humans, however, persisted among the Hebrews until about 600 BCE when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were taken as captives to Babylon. Periodically under the influence of the prophets, especially during the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah serious efforts were made to end human sacrifice. In our call to worship this morning the Prophet Micah provided an eloquent admonition about all forms of sacrifice: Micah 6: 6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 God has showed you, O people, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
SLIDE 9: ALL SACRIFICES ENDED WITH DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE
Judaism finally completely escaped from the cult of sacrifice in 70 A.D., when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem. With the priestly families sent into exile, the Rabbis became the effective leaders of the Jewish faith, and they focused upon the keeping of the law, rather than animal sacrifice as the primary practice of Judaism.
SLIDE 10: SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT
The development of the Christian faith was also impacted by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Letter to the Hebrews initially thought to be from Paul created a new mythology of sacrifice. The Risen Christ became the great High Priest making sacrifice in the Heavenly Temple as atonement for the sins of all those who were counted as followers of Jesus. Later the Catholic Church developed a theology of liturgy in which the Mass became the re-enactment of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross that provided substitutionary atonement for all those receiving the bread and the wine the body and blood of Christ in the mass. Fundamentalist Southern Christianity has especially bought into substitutionary atonement emphasizing the importance of being washed in the blood.
SLIDE 11: MOHAMMED ENDS HUMAN SACRIFICE IN ARABIA
Human sacrifice was practiced among the Arabian tribes up until the time they were converted to Islam by Mohammed about 620 A.D. The Quran is ambiguous about which son Abraham was commanded to offer to God, but in most of Islam Ishmael is believed to be the son of sacrifice. In Islam, rather than emphasizing the faithfulness of Abraham in offering his son, Islamic Midrash emphasizes the willingness and obedience of Ishmael in offering himself as the sacrifice. Islam emphasizes obedience to God’s will rather than finding grace through faith.
SLIDE 12: A GOD WHO REQUIRES SACRIFICE PASSES AROUND THE KOOL AID.
No matter whether we are Jewish, Christian or Muslim we are confronted with the question did God really ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? What kind of God would ask for a human sacrifice? Even if it was just a test, what kind of God would test people by asking them to kill a child? And what kind of human being would seriously contemplate the killing of a child, especially their own child? A God that requires human sacrifice will eventually pass out the Kool Aid.
SLIDE 13: THE VOICES THAT DROVE ABRAHAM WERE HIS OWN
To bring sanity back to religion we have to be willing to acknowledge that the voices that drove Abraham to even contemplate the killing of his son, were his own internal voices of doubt and his desire for certainty and power. God is never as plain as the noses on our faces. We are always left with the prayer of the father of the epileptic boy: “I believe, but help my unbelief.” Jesus never demanded perfect faith. And rather than trying to prove how faithful we are, we need to share faith by nurturing other people’s doubts. Our God is not a monster that demands sacrifices, rather we walk the path of the God of Micah: “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
SLIDE 14: DAD WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
For me the best way to put the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in perspective is to try to imagine the long walk home after the event. “Dad, what were you thinking? You were holding a knife to my throat.”
“Ah, gee son, I thought God said he wanted me to kill you as an offering of my faith, love and devotion.”
“Do you believe every voice you hear in your head?”
SLIDE 15: SARAH AND ABRAHAM SPLIT OVER THE SACRIFICE
According to Jewish Midrash the excrement really hit the fan, when Abraham got home. What was he supposed to tell Sarah? Some of the Rabbis have pointed out that according to the end of Genesis Chapter 22 Abraham is reported to be living in Beersheba with a couple of concubines, while Sarah is reported at the beginning of Chapter 23 to be living in Hebron. So the Rabbis have concluded the attempted sacrifice of Isaac drove a wedge between Abraham and Sarah.
SLIDE 16: WE ARE ALL SCARRED BY CHILDHOOD
We can also note that Isaac never quite recovered from the experience. Of the three great Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Isaac was clearly the lesser of the three. No great accomplishments are reported for him. His wife Rebecca has more insight into the Covenant of the Promise than he. Blind both physically and spiritually Isaac would have given the blessing to his beloved dumb bell Esau, if Rebecca had not intervened to steal the blessing for Jacob.
SLIDE 17: AS DYSFUNCTIONAL AS OUR FAMILIES
One reason we love the Book of Genesis is because all of the families are just as dysfunctional as our own. Abraham fathered a son, Ishmael, with his wife’s slave girl, and then sent them both away. Then listening to the voices in his own head Abraham nearly killed the child of promise. Isaac had twin boys, but he was so spiritually blind he favored the son who was so stupid and impulsive he traded his birthright for a pot of lentil stew. Jacob fathered twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of Israel, but his favoritism toward Joseph was nearly the undoing of the whole family. If God had not intervened, sending Joseph to Egypt they all would have perished in the great famine.
SLIDE 18: MANY OF US ARE WALKING WITH ABRAHAM AND ISAAC
And so as we think about Abraham and Isaac on that long walk home, I sort of imagine many of us are walking with them. As parents we often sacrifice our children to our own ego needs and our own aspirations. We don’t intend to hurt our children. It just happens, when we aren’t looking. As children many of us are still among the emotionally walking wounded. We managed to grow up, but somewhere deep inside we still bear the wounds that won’t heal and the scars of familial conflict.
SLIDE 19: GOD FORGIVES AND WELCOMES US HOME
Most of the time like Abraham our parents meant well. Those of us who are parents know how easy it is to hear the voices inside our own heads and mistake them for instructions from the gods. When we play children’s games we often claim the right of “do over.” As children and then again as parents we learn that there are very few “do overs” in life. And so we limp toward home, having felt the knife edge at our throats, scared beyond belief, or we thank God the angel restrained our hand, and maybe sometimes we regret the angel was too slow or the knife slipped and we find ourselves walking alone. God does not want sacrifice. God wants principled behavior. And God forgives. As much as we mess up. As dysfunctional as our family lives maybe. God forgives and welcomes us home.
SLIDE 20: DO JUSTICE, LOVE KINDNESS, WALK HUMBLY
So as I walk toward home I remember the words of Micah. Micah 6: 6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 God has showed you, O people, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God!
For I am Poor and Needy
SLIDE 3: DAVID LED ONE HECK OF A LIFE
David led one heck of a life. At least that is what the scriptures would lead us to believe. In truth David is more of a figure of legend than history. One thousand years before the birth of Christ the Hebrews were not yet quite literate – not quite civilized. So there are no written records only oral traditions dating from the time of David. Now we should not simply dismiss the contents of oral tradition, but we need to note sometimes there are contradictions and inaccuracies. For instance, in I Samuel 17:51 David slew the giant Goliath of Gath in single combat. But then in II Samuel 21: 19 we read: “And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, the Bethlehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”
SLIDE 4: SHEPHERD, WARRIOR, CHIEFTAIN, DAVID’S CITY
So who slew Goliath? Probably Elhanan, and then later oral tradition credited David with the accomplishment after he became King. Now the term King is also a relative term. David was a shepherd. He then became a warrior in Saul’s army – a tribal chieftain who had established his hegemony over many of the Hebrew clans. Then after a falling out with Saul David became the leader of a band of outlaws, who hid out in the hills and extorted money and provisions from local land owners. Later he hired himself and his followers out to the Philistines as mercenaries. Finally, when Saul and Jonathan were killed in combat, the tribal elders of Judah asked David to be their leader. Archaeological evidence suggests that Judah may have had a population of only about 4,000 inhabitants. When David later conquered Jerusalem it was a small walled village encompassing no more than 6 or 7 acres and a few hundred people.
From Jerusalem David established control over most of the other Israelite tribes in the Highlands, and with an army of mercenary soldiers he began to demand and receive tribute from many of the Canaanite Cities in the valleys of Central Palestine. But in many ways he was more of a gang leader establishing control over turf, than a King who was ruling and administering a nation.
SLIDE 5: DAIVD — MOODY — MERCURIAL
History or legend David was a colorful character. He was charismatic in an age when men followed leaders who inspired their loyalty. According to tradition he was strong, handsome, daring, a poet, a singer and a lady’s man. Many of the stories surrounding the figure of David and the Psalms suggest that he was a moody mercurial personality.
One commentator illustrated David’s mood swings this way. On Monday he wrote: Psalm 6: 6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. 7 My eye wastes away because of grief, it grows weak because of all my foes.
On Tuesday he was feeling better and he wrote: Psalm 8:1 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You whose glory above the heavens is chanted 2 by the mouth of babes and infants. . .
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, the children of God that you care for them?
By Wednesday David thought the week would never end and he wrote: Psalm 13:1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
By Friday David was looking forward to the weekend and he wrote: Psalm 9:1 I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. 2 I will be glad and rejoice in you, I will sing praise to your name, O God Most High.
SLIDE 6: SOMETHING OF WORTH BEYOND OUR FLAWS
David was not perfect. In addition to his mood swings he was impulsive, temperamental, disloyal, unfaithful, a liar, an adulterer and a murderer. And yet the scriptures describe David as a man after God’s own heart. Perhaps God can look past the weaknesses of a person to see something of worth beyond the flaws of our personalities.
SLIDE 7: DAVID DEVOTED TO YAWEH
Our Psalm this morning suggests four attributes that made David a person after God’s own heart. First, while David tolerated the worship of other gods, especially by other people he appears to have been devoted primarily to the Israelite God Yaweh. Other Canaanite gods were more concerned with sexual attraction, fertility, the accumulation of wealth and power, but Yaweh was a God of prophecy and justice. Oh it is true that David abused his power taking Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and arranging for the death of Uriah. But when the court prophet Nathan called David to account, David repented. Any other oriental monarch in ancient times would have killed Nathan for calling him to accountability. So many other ancient religions confused the power of the monarch with the power of the gods. But Yaweh was a different God and even a King could be held accountable before Yaweh. David was devoted to this strange more egalitarian God of justice.
SLIDE 8: EMOTIONAL HONESTY IN PRAYER
David’s second attribute that made him a man after God’s own heart was his emotional honesty in prayer. The public prayers of preachers offered in stained glass voices lack the emotional honesty of David. “How long O God? Will you forget me forever?”
The most honest prayer I have ever heard was offered by five year old at Vacation Bible School. The teacher was closing the morning by gathering the children in a circle and asked each one to say something for which they were thankful. The first little girl prayed, “I thank God for my Mommy.”
The second little girl said, “I thank God for the flowers.”
Then a little boy with eyes closed prayed fervently, “I thank God I didn’t pee in my pants today.”
SLIDE 9: HONESTY IN PRAYER COUNTS FOR A LOT
Honesty in prayer counts for a lot. Only when our prayers are straight forward and sincere can God engage us in genuine relationship. To the extent that some of the Psalms represent the prayers of David many of them express an honest relationship with the divine: Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. Why are you so far away, when I need you?”
Psalm 18: “I love you O God. You are my strength, my rock, you save me from my enemies.”
Psalm 32: “Blessed is the person whose sin is forgiven. When I tried to hide my wrong doing, my blood pressure went up, my digestive tract was in distress, I was ill with the guilt of my sin. When I confessed what I had done, God forgave me and my strength returned.”
SLIDE 10: SPIRITUAL NEEDINESS
David’s prayer life was honest and intimate. And that leads to the third attribute of David that made him a person after God’s own heart, he was in touch with his own neediness. Our culture lauds self-sufficiency, the myth of the self-made individual who doesn’t owe anything to anyone. Someone who can take care of all of his or her needs. Much more so than in the past many of us are able to provide for all of our basic physical needs. We have enough food. We have houses that are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. We have appropriate clothing to wear. Most of us are difficult to shop for at Christmas time. And that reminds me of part of a meditation about Christmas by the great preacher Peter Marshall: “You can’t think of anything they need (which is rather strange when you take time to think of it). Maybe there is nothing in a store that they need. But what about some token of love — what about love itself, and friendship, and understanding, and consideration, and a helping hand, and a smile, and a prayer? You can’t buy these things in any store, and they are the very things people need.”
SLIDE 11: WHAT DO WE NEED?
We may have all of the material things that we need, but what about love, friendship, understanding, encouragement, a helping hand, a smile, a prayer? How many of us allow ourselves to be aware of our neediness – our emotional neediness? Do our prayer lives reflect an honest appreciation of our neediness? How many of us need to pray like David: “Listen to me God, for I am poor and needy.” We can ask ourselves what needs we do not want to acknowledge – a clear conscience, encouragement from friends or co-workers, acceptance from family and friends, some good spiritual friends who can accept us for who we are and pray with us and for us.
SLIDE 12: SHARE SOME NEED WITH GOOD SPIRITUAL FRIENDS
One of our rituals at the Sharing Table is for each person to share some need they would like others to pray for them. It doesn’t have to be a deep dark secret, or anything embarrassing, but some real need we are willing to share so others might prayer with us and for us. Many of those prayers have been answered, for as Jesus taught us, whenever two or three of you pray together, the power of those prayers is multiplied exponentially.
SLIDE 13: TRUST GOD’S FORGIVENESS
The fourth attribute that made David a person after God’s own heart was that he trusted absolutely the forgiveness of God. I doubt that any of us have out sinned David – killing, stealing, extortion, black mail, adultery, conspiracy, murder. David was passionate about life, and so when he transgressed his sins were no ordinary peccadillos. But David was also honest and passionate about seeking forgiveness, and once he had sought God’s forgiveness he did not allow the past to paralyze him.
SLIDE 14: GOD WHO SAVES MY SOUL
I do not recommend David as a role model, but I do admire his passion for life and the honesty of his relationship with God. “Listen to me O God, for I am poor and needy. Accept my thanks God for your steadfast love that saves my soul.”
Go Mentor Disciples
SLIDE 3: APPEARED FOR THE LAST TIME
Two weeks ago we read the story of the ascension according to Luke. Jesus asked the disciples to assemble on the Mt. of Olives near Jerusalem, gave them last minute instructions and then vanished from out of their sight. Today our scripture is the story of the ascension according to Matthew. In both Matthew and Mark the angel at the empty tomb told the women that the resurrected Christ was going before them and would meet then in Galilee. So in the last post-resurrection appearance in the Gospel of Matthew the disciples gathered on Mt. Tabor which incidentally was the Mount of Transfiguration, and there the Risen Christ appeared to them for the last time.
SLIDE 4: IT WASN’T AS PLAIN AS THE NOSE ON YOUR FACE
Three points stand out in this end to the Gospel of Matthew. First, after hiking all the way to Galilee and climbing a Monte Sano sized mountain, when the gathered followers of Jesus saw the Risen Christ, the narrative says, “They worshipped him; but some doubted.” If seeing is believing, then why were some doubting? Maybe what they “saw” wasn’t as plain as the nose on your face. Is God ever as plain as the noses on our faces? I think not. No matter what proofs or experiences we are offered, when we encounter spiritual realities there is always room for doubt. When doubt takes over our lives, however, we can even doubt our own existence. You ever have the feeling maybe you are living in someone else’s dream?
SLIDE 5: DOUBT IS HEALTHY
Doubt, healthy skepticism, questioning, can protect us from fraud. If we are too gullible, other people will take advantage of us. Buying the Brooklyn Bridge is not a good investment.
SLIDE 6: DOUBT IS NOT THE OPPOSITE OF FAITH
Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is faith that must confront the reality that we cannot know everything and the universe is a mystery. The best most of us can do is like the Father of the epileptic boy in Mark chapter 9 we can confess our mixture of doubt and faith: “I believe, but help my unbelief.” When William Sloane Coffin was the chaplain at Yale University he taught a course entitled: “A Seminar for Friendly Disbelievers.” Doubt he claimed is the handmaiden of faith. Doubts move you forward, not backward, as long as you doubt out of love for the truth. Just as we abhor blind faith, we should also avoid blind unbelief. Followers of Jesus who live with doubt are reflective Christians. Never satisfied with pat answers we live our questions.
SLIDE 7: THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS OF WHICH THE MIND KNOWS NOTHING
St. Augustine addressed the skeptic’s argument, that we must doubt everything, when he pointed out that we cannot doubt that we are doubting. If we do that then we have no basis trusting our own thinking. At some point we have to be willing to have faith in our own existence and believe in our own experience. Pascal taught: “the heart has its reasons, of which the mind knows nothing.” At the heart of life is love. I love therefore I am.
SLIDE 8: ONLY BY LOVING DO WE FIND THE TRUTH
No one can offer us proof that love is the heart of the universe, we have to make a leap of faith. But if love is not at the center of our lives, then what makes life worth living? Why not just throw it all away? We can only live our way into our faith in love. Only by choosing to love can we find the truth. If we hold back and demand proof of the efficacy of love before we commit to love, then our lives will become cynical and bitter. So yes, many will doubt, and doubting is O.K. and Jesus invites us to take the leap of faith confessing our belief and our unbelief trusting the way of love.
SLIDE 9: MENTOR DISCIPLES
The second point that stands out in the Risen Christ’s final appearance in Matthew is his admonition to go mentor disciples. People don’t wake up one morning and out of the clear blue say, “I think I will become a follower of the way of Jesus.” Being kind and loving other people is so easy and so obviously the best way to live, I think I will seek out a group of likeminded people and begin sharing with other people who are poor and hungry. And once we have formed this group of kind and loving people God will advertise our group to attract other people and make regular deposits into a checking account so we can help other people. If you will believe that, remember what I said about buying the Brooklyn Bridge?
SLIDE 10: ONLY ONE PLAN – EACH ONE MENTOR ONE
There is a Christian Midrash that claims that when Jesus ascended to heaven that several of the angels gathered together and questioned his judgment. “Do we understand correctly,” began one of the angels, “that you have entrust the mission entirely to your disciples?”
“Yes,” replied Jesus. “I told them to go spread the word and make new disciples.”
“But,” protested another angels, “your followers are so unreliable.”
“I know they have been slow to understand,” replied Jesus, “but I really poured my life into Peter, James, John and the rest, and I left the Holy Spirit with them. I think they will get the job done.”
“That’s all well and good for now,” broke in another angel, “but what if years from now the followers of the followers of the followers of the disciples get tired, or lazy or discouraged and they stop sharing the story, and they stop inviting people to the Sharing Table. What then? Have you make other plans?”
SLIDE 11: LIVING THE QUESTIONS OF FAITH
“No,” replied Jesus, “that’s my only plan.” And friends it’s still the only plan. It’s up to us. The church is always only one generation away from extinction. What we decide to do matters whether or not the way of Jesus is handed on to a new generation. And the world is very much in need of the way of Jesus. So we are called to go mentor disciples – mentoring their doubts as well as their faith. We don’t need more fundamentalist Christians who have all the answers, we need reflective followers of Jesus who live the questions of faith.
SLIDE 12: UCC
Mentor their doubts as well as their faith. We are a community of faith where it is O.K. to ask questions to challenge traditional formulations of doctrine and, where we embrace and hold dear the right of each individual to define the terms of their own faith. To some people from the outside we may appear to be chaotic. Everyone doesn’t speak with one voice. One of Beth’s Lutheran friends, who also was a classmate of mine at Yale Divinity School claimed that U.C.C. stood for United Confused Christians. I’ve also heard others claim the U.C.C. stands for Unitarians Considering Christ. I have on several occasions mistyped U.C.C. as Untied Church of Christ. We need to allow those who need greater certainty to huddle together and reassure one another they possess the absolute truth.
SLIDE 13: CIRCUS PARADE
As for United Church we will continue to embrace a spirit of tolerance and liberality that allows us to walk together in faith each to the sound of his or her own drummer without having all the answers. Rather than functioning like a military formation marching together in lock step, I think at United Church we are more like a Circus Parade. At the head of the procession is a clown with a drum. Then come the acrobats and the lions and tigers. The circus band near the front of the procession plays a different tune from the calliope bringing up the rear. The clowns and the elephants move at their own pace, while the pretty girls on the circus horses wave to the crowds. Yes, we are more like the circus parade than a military formation but we are still moving on down the path of faith. We have plenty of opportunities for people to join in. And no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome in this parade. No one will tell you that you cannot walk with us.
SLIDE 14: WHATEVER HAPPENS I WILL BE WITH YOU
The third point that stands out in the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples on Mt. Tabor was: “Don’t worry. Whatever happens, I am with you.” United Church has certainly had its ups and downs over the years. There is the story of the time the treasurer had $300 worth of bills to pay and only $14.56 in the checking account. There was the time the Conference Minister came to town and told the Church Council they might as well close the doors. We had times when people were angry with each other, and the congregation was so discouraged they almost couldn’t call a pastor.
SLIDE 15: MARVELOUS MOMENTS
We have also enjoyed marvelous moments, like when United Church hosted the first ever Southeast Conference Meeting and it was an integrated meeting before the passage the Civil Rights Act. There was the work of Gene Keene to pay off the church’s mortgage and get the congregation started on planning for a new Sanctuary. And then there was everyone coming together to build this sanctuary that I believe is the prettiest contemporary sanctuary I’ve ever seen. And now we have put a new roof and we are putting new siding on our building. We have embraced our Open and Affirming Statement. Next week we will share Vacation Bible School with St. Stephen’s church next door and this fall we will build a Labyrinth with our sister congregation.
SLIDE 16: JESUS IS AT THE HEAD OF OUR CIRCUS PARADE
We have had our ups and downs. I believe United Church is still thriving because in addition to the dogged perseverance and love of our older members, Christ has kept the promise to be with us. Trust that promise Jesus is present and among us leading that circus parade that is the United Church of Huntsville.
And the Holy Spirit Showed Up
SLIDE 3: STUMBLING OVER ONE ANOTHER’S BAGGAGE
Life in the church can be disappointing. We almost never measure up to Jesus’ behavioral standards for disciples. Jesus says, “Come follow me,” and we bring along all of our personal baggage, our wants, our needs, our egos, our mixed motives. When we get together in groups and start whispering and talking about each other and choosing up sides the results can be positively toxic. We spend a good part of our energy in the life of the church stumbling over one another’s baggage. And so rather than following the way of Jesus and serving as the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, we are often working out our own personal agendas in the life of the community of faith.
SLIDE 4: CONFRONTATION OF THE SAINTS
Now lest we assume this is some perverse modern phenomenon, allow me to share with you a confrontation between Peter and Paul as recorded by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians 2: 11 But when Cephas, Peter, came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And with him the rest of the Jewish Christians acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
SLIDE 5: WHEN THE HOLY SPIRIT SHOWS UP
Disagreements, hypocrisy, insincerity, confrontations, people acting out of their own agendas, is nothing new in the life of the church. People we call saints were doing it 2,000 years ago. So yes sometimes we are disappointed by the all too human frailties we encounter in the life of the church. But then there are those precious moments when the Holy Spirit shows up.
SLIDE 6: TRANSFORMED INTO FOLLOWERS OF THE WAY
Every once in a while a spirit of cooperation, love, understanding and enthusiasm breaks out in the collective life of the people of God, and we are transformed from petty church people into followers of the way of Jesus, and then suddenly miracles begin to happen. Pentecost is the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church after the Resurrection of the Christ. At first, the disciples couldn’t believe it. Jesus their leader who had been tortured to death was alive and active among them. As post-resurrection appearances continued some of his followers began to assume that the resurrected Christ was going to be around indefinitely. Some of them even fantasized that the resurrected Christ, now immortal, might re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Once he had survived death, who could stop him? Everything was going to be alright and Jesus was going to do it all for them. Even after the “ascension” or the end of the post-resurrection appearances, a strong current of opinion in the early church continued to believe that a second coming of the Messiah was imminent. The Christ would return, Rome would be overthrown and the Kingdom of God would establish a new order of justice and love – bad guys would be punished and good guys would be rewarded.
SLIDE 7: DISCIPLES BECOME APOSTLES
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the life of the early church was a spiritual empowerment of the followers of Jesus to share the Good News of the Gospel and bring people regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status to the Sharing Table of Jesus – the breaking of the bread. This spirit of empowerment transformed disciples those who followed into apostles, emissaries, those who were sent. The Apostles found the Holy Spirit had empowered them with the gifts of preaching, healing, wisdom and communication – tongues. The followers of Jesus grew spiritually like in the Parable of the Seed in the Gospel of Mark chapter 4: “The kingdom of God is as if a person should scatter seed upon the ground, and she should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, she knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, at once she puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.”
SLIDE 8: WE GROW IN STAGES
We don’t walk into the sanctuary one Sunday and then leave fully equipped to perform the ministry of Jesus in the world. We grow in stages. First, we have to be “discipled,” we have to learn the way of Jesus. We have to hear the stories and parables of Jesus share the bread and the wine – eat at the Sharing Table – join in the fellowship and learn from other followers of Jesus. We need to rub shoulders with gentle prayerful saints who pray with and for us and teach us by example. As we begin to appreciate our spiritual gifts we are empowered to use our talents to minister to others as Jesus in the world. And if we are bold enough to ask for God’s blessing, pretty soon miracles begin to happen around us. People around us become encouraged and find healing. The hungry are fed and the poor find new dignity in the fellowship of the Sharing Table. First the blade, then the ear, then the full grain shall appear as we bear fruit thirty, sixty, a hundred fold.
SLIDE 9: THE CONGREGATION MOVES INTO THE ZONE
When the Holy Spirit shows up it is like a church moves into the zone. People begin to experience a flow in the development of the congregation. Rather than working at cross purposes people begin to develop synergy, where one gift leads into and contributes to the next. Rather than gate keepers trying protect turf, there are permission givers opening up new possibilities. Rather than approaching the future with fear people excitedly anticipate the next development.
SLIDE 10: THE HOLY SPIRIT HAS SHOWED UP AT UCH
I believe that in the past year the Holy Spirit has showed up at the United Church of Huntsville. At this year’s Yard Sale, rather than having unsold Bibles on the discount table, Matt Youngkin was giving Bibles away. Last June not long after Pentecost Sunday our Congregation approved the Labyrinth to reach out to people in our community especially wounded veterans in body and spirit. We also finally came up with the courage to embrace our Open and Affirming Statement in April and our Diaconate sponsored a powerful Church Retreat. Our Re-visioning process has been focusing on how we can reach out into our community to serve. These are all signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us.
SLIDE 11: MOVED BEYOND OUR COMFORT ZONES
The Spirit will challenge us to have courage, exercise faith, and become open to possibilities. Like those first disciples the Holy Spirit may turn our lives upside down. We may discover mystical gifts and talents we never knew we possessed. Our spiritual horizons will expand. We may reach beyond our safe comfortable friendship circles to touch the lives of people we cannot yet imagine. Remember Peter, fisherman of Galilee, he never would have guessed when he heard Jesus call him, “come follow me,” that he, a Galilean Jewish peasant from the boondocks, would one day travel to Rome. St. Thomas sometimes called the “the Twin,” was moved by the Holy Spirit to share the gospel half a world away in India. If we are going to be open to the movements of the Holy Spirit, we may find ourselves way beyond our comfort zones.
SLIDE 12: A PROGRESSIVE CHURCH IN THE TENNESSEE VALLEY
I am optimistic. Bill Green has said when he became a charter member of the United Church of Huntsville, he believed that a progressive church like the United Church of Christ could thrive in the Tennessee Valley. United Church has had its ups and its downs over the years, sometimes we have shot ourselves in the foot and sometimes it was just bad fortune like the big Boeing lay off when the Apollo program wound down.
SLIDE 13: TIME FOR UNITED CHURCH TO SHINE
But the time for United Church to shine has come. The Holy Spirit is moving among us, we are reaching out more than we have ever done before. We are no longer the best kept secret in Huntsville. New people are visiting. We have begun giving permission for new ventures of faith. We have a new spirit of mission. Start looking for synergy to show up in our life together. The Labyrinth will begin construction in October or November. Our Re-visioning Committee will have a plan by fall. Be prepared to go places and do new things. The Holy Spirit has showed up.
Why Are You Standing Around Looking Up Into Heaven?
SLIDE 3: ASCENSION OF JESUS
Our scripture this morning is the story of the ascension of Jesus according to the Gospel of Luke. We might wonder about the accuracy of the details of the narrative since both Matthew and John have radically different accounts of this last post-resurrection appearance, and Mark has no post-resurrection appearances at all.
SLIDE 4: NO JESUS CANNOT DO IT FOR US
In our story the disciples were asked to gather on the Mount of Olives to receive final instructions from the Risen Christ before he disappeared. In verse 6 we discover why Jesus needed to exit the stage, for one of the disciples asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Lord will you do it for us? Some of Jesus’ followers still didn’t get it. No! Jesus was not going to restore the Kingdom of Israel, and no Jesus cannot do it for us.
SLIDE 5: LOVING OUR NEIGHBOR CAN BE DIFFICULT
Those of us who claim to love God and love Jesus actually have to get ourselves together and do more than just believe in Jesus, whatever that means, we have to actually follow the way of Jesus. We have to help heal the sick, share with the poor, and bring the hungry spiritually and physically to the Sharing Table, so they can be fed. We have to love one another for the common wealth of God to come alive among us. And remember loving one another doesn’t mean loving an idealized Jesus up in the sky it means having to love our neighbors next door and here in church – the ones who give us such a hard time and gossip about us and sometimes are just plain mean and difficult. It’s hard. Ask Jesus. He didn’t die of natural causes.
SLIDE 6: DO JUSTICE LOVE KINDNESS WALK HUMBLY
So Jesus warned the disciples and us, it is not for you to know the times or the seasons. Don’t sit around waiting for Jesus to return. God is not going to do it for us. God will send the Holy Spirit to inspire us and energize us, but we still have to walk the walk, talk the talk, and love others as Christ has loved us. God is a mystery. Stop trying to figure God out, stop trying to game the system, and just do what God wants us to do – to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
SLIDE 7: WHY ARE YOU STANDING AROUND LOOKING UP TO HEAVEN?
So Jesus disappeared, and the disciples were sort of in shock – clueless. They were all standing around looking up in the sky with their heads in the clouds and then two figures in white showed up. In the scriptures, when figures in white show up it is usually angels. And these angels were sent to ask a simple question. “Why are you standing around looking up to heaven?” You have work to do. Jesus has given you a commission. You need to be about the tasks that have been laid upon you.
SLIDE 8: THE QUESTION IS THE ANSWER
The angels gave the disciples an answer by asking them a question: “Why are you standing around looking up to heaven?” Jesus offered people answers by posing questions. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Why do you see the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye and pay no attention to the 2 X 4 in your own eye? What good will it be for a person if she gains the whole world, yet forfeits her soul? Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Jesus was like that. Apparently angels are too.
I like this story because I think it is right on addressing some of the problems of the church. Jesus says, “Come follow me. Love one another as I have loved you. When you care for one of the least of these you have done it for me.” And what does the church do instead? So often we are sitting around with our heads in the clouds staring off into heaven. We want God to save us, and then leave us alone. Thank you very much God don’t call us, we’ll call you.
SLIDE 9: SEEKING COMFORT FROM FAITH
Now I know life is difficult. We suffer through the burdens of making a living. We have demanding jobs. We are often worried and anxious. What if we lose our job? We live in an economy with people who cheat us and try to exploit us. The difficulties of working out relationships with family, children, partners, and friends. And then there are the challenges of growing older the aches, the pains, the prospect of illness and dying. So I know we often come to Jesus and the church seeking comfort and peace. Jesus does say: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
SLIDE 10: COMFORT WITHOUT COMMITMENT IS CHEAP GRACE
God does offer comfort and peace, but comfort without commitment is cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer the 20th century German theologian used the phrase while writing from a Nazi Prison. In a book titled The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer pointed out before World War II that we cannot know the true peace and comfort of God unless we are willing to follow the way of Jesus. And sometimes following the way of Jesus, especially living under political oppression like Nazi Germany can prove to be costly. Indeed following Jesus ultimately cost Bonhoeffer his life. He was hanged on April 9th of 1945 two weeks before the Flossenburg concentration camp was liberated by Allied forces. As Bonhoeffer was taken away to be executed he is reported to have said, “This is the end — for me, the beginning of life.” He paid the price of following Jesus opposing and resisting the Nazi regime, and he died with real grace.
SLIDE 11: WHAT WOULD I DO?
Even in our comfortable circumstances of living in the relative religious tolerance of 21st Century America, following the way of Jesus may still cost us something. In my Dear Friends for June I wondered aloud, what would I do if the State of Alabama passed a Gay Marriage Ban similar to North Carolina, providing for a criminal penalty for any clergy person performing a marriage ritual for a couple who did not have a marriage license. I think my answer is I would probably have to go to jail, rather than allow the State of Alabama to dictate what kinds of rituals our congregation can or cannot perform in our own sanctuary. That would be like the State legislating how we celebrate communion. The state can legislate whether or not they will grant legal status to a marriage, but they cannot prescribe whether or not we can celebrate a wedding.
SLIDE 12: MARTIN NIEMOLLER
I am reminded of a poem by Martin Niemoller a German Protestant church leader under the Nazis:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
SLIDE 13: COMMITMENT ALWAYS CARRIES A COST
Commitment always carries a cost. As David said in II Samuel 24:24 when someone offered to donate an offering on the King’s behalf: “I will not make an offering to the Lord that costs me nothing.” At the very least following the way of Jesus requires commitment. If we want to follow the way of Jesus at minimum we must give of ourselves in service to others.
SLIDE 14: DIERTICH BONHOEFFER – WHO AM I?
On the issue of commitment it is too easy to be hypocritical. When are we ever doing enough? So allow me to close with a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison entitled: “Who am I?”
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other people tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?