Seeking out a face to face encounter with our own shortcomings, mistakes and choices is not the easiest thing to do. Even though there are some of us who seem better disposed to do this hard work, I don’t know anyone who actually looks forward to the experience. And yet, if we are to become the people that God has created us to be, it is absolutely necessary. Faithful discipleship requires us to look at motives, biases, blind spots and outright prejudices that get in the way of grace. These things, some of which we don’t even realize that we have, often are tremendous obstacles to experiencing God more fully in our life. They close us off from one another, creating distance ourselves and the world around us. At their worst, they can lead us to acts that cause actual damage to others.
Some of these things will not go easily. This is where our concluding text from the life of the Patriarch Jacob becomes helpful. I can imagine Jacob’s wrestling match with God as both real and spiritually metaphorical. Jacob’s habits and ways of seeing the world aren’t going to be removed quietly. It will take no small amount of effort. Let the wrestling match begin. These wrestling matches are hard (I know this from experience), however the healing, clarity and liberation that comes at the end make the hard work worthwhile. The subsequent step from these moments is the next step into a new and fuller experience of grace.
In every good hero story, there is a moment of conflict and crisis where it seems like the hero’s mission sits on a knife’s edge. It is usually portrayed as a moment when there doesn’t seem to be a good or easy way out. To navigate that moment of crisis will exact a price on the hero. This moment is typically when the hero is born. A hero whose previous life was marked by less than honorable choices typically reaches a critical tipping point where he/she doubles down on the past or steps out to choose a new way.
As we continue our review of the life of the patriarch Jacob, we have reached such a point. After years of his Uncle/Father-in-law Laban’s abuse and manipulation we have reached a point in which the conflict is about to break out. On the verge of all-out clan warfare, Jacob is caught in an impossible situation: Capitulate to Laban and continue the abuse, or head home, into the hands of a brother whom you believe to be seeking your life. Not much of a choice. Into this maelstrom God will step in and help Jacob find his path.
This is an important story for us today. With all the ways that we feel boxed in now and the fraught choices that lie before us, God is present to help us find our way into a new way.
In times like this, we draw strength from the consistent Scriptural promise of God’s providential presence in our life. It is like a warm blanket on a cold night. It is a source of comfort and strength. This message is the core of most every witness to faith, within in the body of Scripture right up to the present day. If we stop at that top-line truth, we fail to see the deeper import of it. The Jacob story we’ve been sharing during this series gives us insight into the deeper message. God says to Jacob, in his dream at Bethel, that God will be with him until God accomplishes God’s purpose. The promise of God’s presence isn’t just a singular gift for us in a particular moment, it is the next step in God accomplishing the creation, healing and renewal of God’s beloved community, the Kindom of God. This gift of grace is a critical component of God’s eternal presence.
With this gift, there is yet another deeper revelation, an “ah-ha” moment that becomes solid ground for such a time as this. God has been preparing us to live and serve faithfully in this time. We may have not yet discerned what the new ministries of this time will look like, but rest assured that with all that we have received by God’s providential presence, we will find our way forward.
Where do we fit into God’s ongoing work of bringing justice and restoration to creation and the human community? The need is obvious these days. We know that there are many who have been called to specific aspects of this work. They are carved into statues and busts across the church. Pages of history have been written about their life and faith. Their names are remembered in hushed tones. They are the heroes of the faith.
They become elevated in our awareness and conception of the church. And yet, Scripture cautions us again and again against disqualifying ourselves relative to other people. God continues to call, equip and transform failed and flawed folks to be partners in God’s work. We are reminded time and again to avoid characterizing ourselves as too much sin, or not enough righteousness. In fact, the story of Jacob the supplanter, Jacob the schemer, Jacob the cheat reminds us that God doesn’t wait around for us to get our act together. Even in our own uncertainty God breaks in to call us and equip us.
We respond to God’s in breaking by turning toward God, engaging God in Scripture and prayer, and then, taking the next step forward to work toward God’s purpose in the world.
As the pace of change accelerates it would be understandable to feel swept away by them. To many, these fast moving currents might feel like social or political rip currents. Into the maelstrom of these currents God infuses the grace that redeems us and welcomes us to the safety of the shore, the realization of the beloved community.
As with escaping a rip current in the ocean, the way out of the currents we find ourselves in isn’t binary. We don’t simply give in and be swept away, nor do we fight fire with fire as we try to resist. Escaping a rip current means that we take another course. We swim parallel to the shore until the current subsides and we can make our way safely to shore. The way of grace, the way of self-giving love is that third way. It is the act of swimming parallel to the shore.
No matter how strong the currents are, God’s work is always to lead us home, into the safety of the beloved community.
The small acts of attentiveness have always made a difference. In these difficult days, these small acts of generosity shared with our neighbors can change one person’s day. This small act can change the world. This is the core of the Gospel witness.
Hospitality is a radical act. It is a subversive act. It actuates a Gospel view of the world. It is an act that reflects the radical equality we share in God’s vision of all that God has created. Hospitality is an act of welcome. It is the act of opening a door for another to invite them into homes, churches and lives.
This foundation is born out time and again in the Gospel stories of how Jesus welcomed people of all walks of life. He welcomed them to table. He welcomed them to join him on his mission. He welcomed tax collectors, sinners, common folks, the broken and the needy. Without regard to how the “good folk” thought, he practiced radical hospitality. Two thousand years later, this is still the path that the followers of Jesus are called to follow. When we walk this path, we become a blessing to a world in need.
In times of great crisis and upheaval we lean on the witness to the many ways that God’s grace sustains us through the fire and flood. When we find ourselves with our backs against the wall, from where will our relief come. When our days are the darkest, how do we know that we are not alone. Within in our community of faith, so many of us have known the redeeming grace. So many people with whom I have shared ministry have shared their stories with me. The cumulative effects of these stories bolster my hope, to be sure.
The times in which we find ourselves, facing the COVID 19 pandemic and the reckoning that is coming around the scourge of systemic racism, require us to be considerably more reflective around how God’s grace is at work. The fact that grace covers a multitude of sins doesn’t absolve us of recognizing and accounting for the ways that we contribute to the chaos that swirls around us.
In the Genesis story we reflect upon in this sermon, Abraham and Sarah seem to be given a pass on the ways that they make it necessary for God to step in and care for Hagar and Ishmael. To simply celebrate the providential grace of God without reckoning with our own actions and attitudes, cheapens that grace. If we are to weather this pandemic and create a new world of justice and reconciliation for all we must engage in this challenging work together.
You very likely have said it at some point in your life: I want patience…and I want it now. This statement usually brings smiles, the stray giggle and/or the knowing wink. It is almost as if this is the worst kept secret in all of human history. We struggle with patience. The more unpalatable a situation may be, the shorter is our supply of patience. This truth is in tension with an equally intractable reality: There are somethings that are beyond our control. Somethings we just have to wait on.
As we endure the twin pandemics of COVID 19 and systemic racism, the hard work of dealing with the challenges before us are taxing our patience. We may be discovering that we just don’t have the emotional or spiritual resources to do what is before us. Where COVID is concerned this waning patience could be expressed in a clamor to ‘get back to normal’. This is one of those times when we have to realize there is no going back. The world has changed. Like the response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, something has shifted and there is no going back.
Our faith witness reminds us that it is in these times that God continues to journey with us. The best way we can respond to the change is to continue the work of living faithfully, sharing love, mercy, hospitality and generosity with those we encounter. When we do, we encounter the God who is present. Our patience may be finite, but the grace we receive from God is infinite.
In the last few weeks we have been immersed in images of the toxic and corrupting influence of power exercised for its own sake. We know the proverb, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The exercise of unrestrained power and the unchecked pursuit of power, by people who seek it only to dominate others, has been on the rise around the world in the last couple of decades.
At this point in our common experience it is important for us look deeply into what the Gospels have to say that would critique that rise. In Jesus’ own time the great power was Rome and the Empire sought to project an image of peace within their region, what was referred to as the Pax Romana, or, the Peace of Rome. Peace was an illusion because it was brought with violence and terror against anyone who dared to buck the status quo. There was no peace and there was no justice (unless you were a Roman citizen). The Gospel reminds us that if we want to know peace, wholeness, shalom, we must first work for Justice. It is important to remember that the definition of Justice was not, everyone gets what they ‘deserve’…in the Scriptural understanding Justice was a reality where, in alignment with God’s vision for creation, there would be self-giving love, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation and inclusion extended to all. If we want to Know Peace, we must first Know Justice. In short, this is the revealing of the Kindom of God, the beloved community.
These are challenging days to be the church that was born to bear witness to God’s grace through Jesus, the Christ. The scourge of systemic racism, the stain of economic inequality and the corruption of institutions that are supposed to safeguard the common good have led us to a time of community brokenness. While this generation is new to this depth of brokenness, it is not the first time that the historical church has faced it. The church was born in a time of struggle when empire ran roughshod over the entire Mediterranean region. The church was a religious minority within a religious minority. It was not merely by human will and gritty determination that the church endured. The Holy Spirit empowered these simple people to make a faithful witness and reveal the beloved community that was woven into everything that Jesus did.
Pentecost is the celebration of the Spirit’s power to enable us to overcome fear, pain, anger and frustration in order to stay focused on the call and work of restoring the integrity of the human community and all of creation. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police and the nationwide demonstrations that followed, we celebrated Pentecost once again. We celebrated with anger, resolve and most of all hope, trusting in the presence of Christ in our life to lead us into the Kindom of God.
As many congregations have scrambled to respond to the needs of people in this pandemic there has been an interesting consensus emerging. In the many interactions that I’ve had with colleagues there is a realization that the lessons we have learned about virtual worship will have an impact far beyond the time that Safer at Home orders are lifted. Many of the friends I’ve spoken with share stories of how important virtual worship has been for their congregations. In many cases, the number of people logging on to worship online was larger than their in-person worship prior to the pandemic. The gift of grace during this difficult and unprecedented time is that we are remembering what worship is really about and who we truly are as a church. Our spiritual DNA as the beneficiaries of the Wesleyan Way is being demonstrated in new and vital ways. The reach of online worship is carrying the church to people across our communities and even around the world. We are able to reach and inspire people who, due to any variety of needs, have not been able to attend or be part of a worshipping community. Just as Wesley and his cohorts would take the church outside the walls to serve people who weren’t previously served, the use of available technology is making it possible for us to do the same. A day is coming soon when we will be able to celebrate in-person and online worship simultaneously. In the meantime, we are grateful for the opportunity and means to extend our vital witness throughout the community.
In the era of interactive GPS in our cell phones it has never been easier to get from Point A to Point B. An equally valuable part of this technology is the ability to get un-lost. Neither do we need to panic anymore if we take a wrong turn. Siri is very good at getting us back on track. In our spiritual life we have had such a guide from the very beginning. Jesus spoke to the disciples about the one who would come as teacher and guide. The Holy Spirit would keep them oriented in their life, faith and ministry by keeping them connected to everything that Jesus taught and lived. The good news for us, 2,000 years later, is that this gift wasn’t limited to the first generation of the church. The Spirit works just as powerfully today to keep us oriented to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. In every circumstance, but especially in times like this, when much is changing about how we conceive of our self and work as the Body of Christ, the Spirit still leads us. As we open our life to the Spirit’s movement through prayer, study and service we will continue to grow in our understanding of and connection to how Christ is at work in the world today.
The call to radical hospitality is the basis of Jesus’s work toward the beloved community, the Kindom of God. Jesus demonstrated time and time again that welcoming the stranger, restoring the wounded and including the marginalized is essential if we are to be his disciples. As we consider the effects of the COVID 19 spread the disproportionate effects of the disease on communities of color, the generational damage by systemic marginalization are being laid bare. The call to reverse this legacy through the expression of radical hospitality is essential as we consider ministry in a post COVID world. We do this not because it is easy, we do it because it is necessary. We do this because the early church did this work in spite of the persecution they faced. What was true for them, is true for us, it was more important to be faithful than it was to be safe.
When our sense of self or our identity as a community of faith is premised on recreating some version of the past, we can easily close ourselves off to new possibilities of faith. When we find a pattern of living, believing and serving we have tendency to normalize it. After we normalize it, we calcify it. Stories and ideas that are meant to shine a light to guide us end up becoming shackles that bind us. Luke’s vision of the post-Pentecost church is striking in how dramatically he paints the church as a radically different community. Because the outcome is so far outside of our experience, it becomes easy to dismiss it. It’s not about the outcome. The outcome is a product of the context, we could never reproduce it. However, the process they followed…growing in our understanding of Scripture, growing in grace through worship and fellowship and sharing the grace through service to others will be the gateway to faithfully fulfilling what it means to be the church today. This shift is a vital part of our work moving toward a post-COVID world.
With everything we’ve endured in these last weeks, I suspect that most of us have dealt with feelings of dejection, defeat and maybe even some depression. Being so abruptly separated from our routines and physical connections took a good deal of adjustment. In moments like this, losing sight of the place where grace is being poured out would be understandable. Cleopas and his friend, as they left Jerusalem on Resurrection morning, were unable to recognize the risen Christ as he walked with them. Some would say that there was some supernatural reason, like somehow God was preventing them. That interpretation has always seemed a bit cruel. I think the reason is much closer to our experience. When gripped with grief or some other deep shock to our life, it would be common to have our sight diminished. The Emmaus Road story gives us great insight for our life today. When Cleopas and his friend, though they were tired and worn down, extended hospitality (made themselves vulnerable to a stranger) they put themselves in a position to experience the life altering grace that came when the unrecognized Christ became known in yet another act of self-giving love. As it renewed and energized them, so it can do for us. The Emmaus story today reminds us that there is power and possibility at work when we extend our self in love and self-giving for another.
There is no doubt that we have had great success in using science and ingenuity to shape our world. We have mapped the human genome and put a human on the moon. And yet, with all that has been accomplished there is one fact that we too often forget: At the end of the day, we are still part of creation and not above it. The coronavirus is reminding us that we are not omnipotent in creation. A virus that is smaller than one micron has wreaked havoc across the globe. It is, to be sure, a rude awakening. It seems that we are in the maelstrom with chaos knocking on our door. It is all the more important to remember that the faith of Genesis 1 is still the operative truth. The work of God to bring order in the midst of chaos is still our vital hope. The second piece is to remember that we, too, still have a vocation. From the very beginning, humanity had the role of being a steward of this creation. It means that we are to be partners with God in this extraordinary work. To be faithful in this work it means that we need to reconcile ourselves with the creation of which we are a part. We need to reclaim our proper place. Rather than continue the work of exploiting creation, we turn our best efforts to its restoration.
These weeks of physical distancing remind us of our need for resurrection. The Easter miracle that we celebrate isn’t an event relegated to the dusty annals of history. Thankfully the power of resurrection continues to ripple through creation. We are the beneficiaries of this gift each and every day. It is rooted in the original experience of faith. From that first moment of grace, when we became aware of God’s deep love for us, the ongoing power of resurrection became the engine of our growth in grace. As we move down this path in our life, we also carry the important memory of every step on the journey.
On that first Easter morning, when Jesus instructs the women to tell the others to return to Galilee, it is an invitation to go to where it all began for them. Go back to the beginning and remember what it was in the beginning that drew you to faith. It is against that backdrop that the disciples will be encouraged and instructed how the reality of new life and resurrection will shape their life going forward. It is more than recollection of facts; it is a reclamation of meaning and purpose. When life can easily degrade and diminish us, this simple act, woven into the Easter story can renew and restore us.
The experience of physical distancing has begun to yield a powerful community dynamic. Our hearts are warmed by the sounds of New Yorkers opening their windows and going to rooftops throughout the city to thank hospital workers and emergency medical personnel. In one of the most diverse cities in the world, across the different ranges of experience, people are speaking with one voice to say ‘thank you’. This image is woven into the fabric of the Palm Sunday procession story from the Gospels. Even though they didn’t all agree about what it meant, this vast crowd had been touched by some aspect of Jesus’ story and at the beginning of the Passover week they were going to acclaim Jesus in the image of the prophets who foretold the coming the Messiah. There is power when the community is able to speak in one voice. There is power when they realize that there is more that holds them together than holds them apart.
In the era of physical distancing as the community responds to the COVID 19 infection we are enduring challenges that would have been previously inconceivable. While most of us recognize that the long-term health and well-being of the community will be realized through this dramatic action, we are keenly aware of what it costs us. Spiritually, socially, politically and economically our view of the world has been challenged and shaken. We want to be hopeful. Yet, sometimes, all we can muster is wishful thinking. Where do we find hope, when all we see is what we’ve lost?
Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is a picture of what hope looks like. The hope is constituted in the promise of God. It is God’s gracious work in our community that brings life out of death and hope out of despair.
When we are caught in the middle of an impossible situation, one for which we have no experience and no road map, we can often lose heart. It is especially easy to feel stuck and discouraged. In these moments, the paralysis we feel can limit our view of the world around us. We can get stuck in old ways of viewing the world. We may yearn for the old or familiar, not necessarily because we think it is superior. We find comfort in it simply because it is familiar.
The text from 1 Samuel reminds us that when we align our self with God's vision, we become open to seeing new possibilities. In the era of COVID 19 and physical separation, a time that is unprecedented in our experience, we need to align our self with how God is at work and the vision that God has for what comes next.
In the time of social distancing, the experiences that are immersed in community become difficult to sustain. This time of crisis calls us to expand our understanding of worship. It would be easy to say that it isn’t worship because we don’t feel the presence of our church family. I’m beginning to think that this perspective is more about us and our own expectations than what the grace of God is able to do in us. The fact that we don’t feel the experience in the same way doesn’t mean that in this time God can’t still connect us through the experience of live streaming worship. Are we willing to open our hearts to experience worship in a new way? Are we willing to see how God can come to us, heal us and restore us, even when we feel alone? In some respects, these questions are at the heart of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women at the well.
Do you ever feel like you want to hit the reset button on life? It would be nice when we feel painted into the corner to reboot life like we reboot our devices. Sometimes these reboots overcome personal mistakes. At other times they give us a fresh start from a past that plagues us. In our text this week we see something different. The Pharisee Nicodemus is so cemented into a particular mindset and understanding of how God always works that he is unable to entertain any other possibility. Jesus challenges Nicodemus to his very core. As difficult as it was for Nicodemus, there is a word of hope for us. Jesus doesn’t shake our core as an arbitrary or punitive act. Jesus’ ground-breaking ministry in our world was an act of grace that is meant to give us all a fresh start. It gives us a spiritual reset button.
Periodically we hear the heart-breaking stories of people who struggle with a lie told to them by someone that should have been the source of support rather than pain. Unless we have experienced it our self, or know someone who has, it is sometimes difficult to understand the damage caused to people who are defined by the biases of others. “You’re too…”. “You’re not enough…”. When these lies are told to another person to intentionally cause harm or exercise control, that person often experiences long lasting damage. The damage that inauthentic stories cause has deep impact on our ability to be the beloved community. These Scriptural stories of sin and temptation give us insight into how to blunt the impact on this damaging narrative.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Pastor J.T. Greenleaf
As the modern church seeks to do its part in reflecting and building God’s beloved community there is a spiritual reality with which we must reckon. Too many people today have been inflicted with a toxic theology that leads them to be terrified of God. Rather than fulfilling the purpose of all theology, to liberate us from sin and draw us closer to God and one another, the people who purvey toxic theology seek to exercise control through tribalism, guilt, shame and spiritual bondage. Instead of helping us embrace a deeper relationship with God, these theologies move many to keep God at arm’s length. A deeper dive into the entire scope of the Scriptural witness should lead us to look forward to God showing up in our life. Even when God comes to hold up a mirror to us, that we might see clearly the ways we fall short of living into beloved community, God comes not to break us down but to build us up.
As you listen this sermon we hope you’ll feel empowered in your own response to God.
While different leaders in the world would use partial truth to divide us as a way to maintain their own power and/or wealth, God's promise and presence speaks a different vision of the world. The witness to Jesus' life and teaching stand as a counterpoint to the tribalism and a call to create beloved community together. This sermon reflects on that promise and how it liberates us to choose a life together.
This is the fourth sermon in our series New Year, Same Promise. It is based on Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12. In this sermon we celebrate God's promised experience through Kindom, the beloved community.
January 19, 2020
This is the second installment in our worship series New Year, Same Promise. It celebrates the strength and power of knowing and experiencing God as abiding with us, co-habitating with us.
This sermon explores God's eternal promise through our experience of new life. God's grace poured out in our life opens the door for us to experience transformed lives. More than simply changing belief, changing habits and changing practice, God's grace enables us to experience a change of heart.