Covenant in the Moment

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How I Got in God’s Way

In trying to figure God’s intent and desire for my life, I looked into several avenues that I felt leaned toward my gifts. I talked to a friend in Columbia, South Carolina who told me about a new program in religious studies at the University of South Carolina. After going through several interviews, I found myself with a fellowship, stipend and on the fast track toward having a Ph.D in religious anthropology, teaching at a major university. However, the stipulation to make it work was that we had to sell a house in Griffin. God let us know his will and we found ourselves still in Griffin.

During this struggle I also began feeling a sense of calling toward ministry. I was serving in a part-time capacity as the minister of media for Crestview Baptist Church. Over time, I noticed myself being more involved in other aspects of ministry, which eventually led to being a part of a praise band (eventually leading music), teaching Sunday School as a fill in and eventually filling in for the pastor on Wednesday nights. Through this God led me to understand my gifts better and that He had a greater purpose for those works than I knew, and the testing to prepared me for those works.

Heather and I began praying about what we should do: continue in lay ministry or go into full time ministry. I felt like I was called to full time ministry but we were skeptical about dealing with the up and down, unpredictable finances of being in ministry. Finally, I accepted my call to full time service. At the time we needed to find a way to replace the income we had before we went into ministry. Bills have to paid and we needed to keep a roof over our heads. Three months later I lost my job, my wife found one and we both began the journey into full time ministry with the lesson of living on faith.

With the call came more questions, most of them about what I believed. In our earliest conversations, Heather and I lamented the differences in our beliefs and those in our church and more of this led to more searching and an imaginary yellow legal pad in my mind with two columns: our beliefs on one side and a question mark on the other.

God all but held my hand on the way to the Methodist church. As I was wrestling with these issues on my own understanding of belief, trying to minister in our church, my wife and I began taking our daughter to the pre-K program at the First United Methodist Church near our house in Griffin, Georgia. On what seemed like a random day to me, I went into the gothic style sanctuary to pray about where I was, what God had me doing and whether or not it was what He actually had in mind. I prayed, felt no closer to an answer and started out the door when I ran into a man I would eventually come to know as my first mentor in Methodism. Kevin Lobello introduced himself as senior pastor of the church and in the course of conversation I began to wonder if maybe he might have some answers.

After a short conversation, he handed me a marked copy of the Discipline and a copy of Mack Stokes United Methodist Beliefs. A few weeks later I dropped my daughter off at school, walked into his office, handed the books back and said that made more sense to me than anything about faith I had ever read. He had an answer to my problem: I was a Methodist in a Baptist church. After that I asked him how one becomes a minister in the United Methodist Church. Kevin would become brother, advocate and mentor to me, giving me the first opportunity to minister in a Methodist church and helping usher me into ministry in the North Georgia Conference. That was eight years, five churches in four cities over four states, two conferences, and ninety-nine hours of seminary ago. If I learned anything from the experience it was this: don’t plan, follow. God does the planning, we are called to be faithful, we are called to live in the moment, we are called to listen and follow.

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Following in the Moment

The story of Joseph is probably one of the most familiar stories of the Old Testament. For me, it seems to resonate because it speaks to the idea that God takes care of us no matter what we face, no matter how difficult the situation. It speaks to that part of us that wants to know we are cared for and loved and will be watched over in the darkest of nights and most terrible of storms.

And yet there is something that I have missed in past readings of the story. A little recap here of the story. Joseph is born to Joseph, a child of Joseph’s ‘old age’ as the story says and for this reason is the favorite of twelve sons. As Joseph grows up, this position is cemented in the family and for the second time a patriarchical story in Genesis puts the younger ahead of the elder, as in Joseph’s father Jacob. Joseph of course, gets on the wrong side of his older siblings by recounting his dreams to them, which seem to the brothers to be arrogant expressions of Joseph’s superiority. Having had enough, they decide to kill him, are talked out of it by the eldest brother Reuben, and Joseph is throw into a well. The oldest brother is left out later discussions when the others decide to sell Joseph and make it look like an animal killed him.

Joseph ends up in the house of Potiphar, purchased as a slave, and becomes the personal aide of Potiphar, essentially running his household and personal affairs. The story says that,

The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household.  His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful… From the time he appointed Joseph head of his household and of everything he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s household because of Joseph. The Lord blessed everything he had, both in the household and in the field. – Genesis 39:2-5

Things are looking up for Joseph until Potiphar’s wife starts to notice him. The wife makes a play for the slave and Joseph makes his way to the door. He is accused of attacking Potiphar’s wife and Potiphar, either believing her or having to save face, has Joseph thrown in jail.

Joseph finds himself in jail but as always,

“While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph. The jail’s commander put all of the prisoners in the jail under Joseph’s supervision, and he was the one who determined everything that happened there. The jail’s commander paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s supervision, because the Lord was with him and made everything he did successful.” – Genesis 39:21-23

So again, God uses the natural talents of Joseph as the Spirit of God moves over Joseph’s life situation. While Joseph is in jail, two men from the house of pharaoh are sent to prison. Both have dreams and Joseph is given the meaning of these dreams and interpreted that the cupbearer would be restored and the baker would be put to death. As the cupbearer returns to his former duties, Joseph asks that he remember him and tell pharaoh of his innocence. The cupbearer, in his excitement of not meeting the baker’s fate, forgets about Joseph.

Another few years go by and the cupbearer is reminded of Joseph when the pharaoh’s magicians and sages fail to interpret a series of disturbing dreams that pharaoh has. The cupbearer remembers Joseph who interprets the dreams as a regional bumper crop followed by a famine and offers a plan to help Egypt survive the famine. pharaoh’s reply,

“Since God has made all this known to you, no one is as intelligent and wise as you are. 40 You will be in charge of my kingdom, and all my people will obey your command. Only as the enthroned king will I be greater than you.” Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Know this: I’ve given you authority over the entire land of Egypt.” – Genesis 41:39-41

Joseph is able to do all that he suggested to stave off the famine by the guidance and leadership of God’s Spirit. In time, Joseph sees his original dreams come to fruition as his brothers come from their homeland to seek food. Joseph is restored to his family, awkward though it may have been, and the house of Jacob is saved.

Throughout this narrative, God walks with Joseph and shows him the way, but one thing struck me as I reread this story: Joseph still has to live up to his side of the relationship or covenant. God is working in the life of Joseph but Joseph is working as well. God gives him the ability and Joseph uses the ability to the glory of God and to the betterment of those around him. God is working behind the scenes to provide as Joseph acts on this provision.

What allows Joseph to do this is that he is living his faith in the moment. It’s not that he has forgotten the past – those lessons probably served him well in his journey. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the future – he seems to be looking to the goal of following God into whatever God has in store for him. But Joseph lives in whatever his circumstances and does not get bogged down in anything else.

There is something of this in the words of Jesus when he says in the Sermon on the Mount,

“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:25-34

It’s pretty simple really. God will provide. Recognize and acknowledge the provision. Use the provision wisely. Focus on now, not before, not later. As I said earlier and I firmly believe this, God does the planning, we are called to be faithful, we are called to live in the moment, we are called to listen and follow.

Practicing covenant in the moment

So imagine if Joseph doesn’t live a life of covenant in the moment. Imagine if he decides to take matters into his own hands as he begins to get a taste of power. Imagine if he became despondent and languished as a menial slave in the house of Potiphar. Even if he had not given up, what would he have done in Potiphar’s house if he had accepted Potiphar’s wife’s advances? Would he have ever met the men in jail and interpreted their dreams? Would he have ever made it to the court of pharaoh to interpret the ruler’s dreams? Would the entire region have collapsed? God would still have kept his word and honored his covenant with Abraham to restore the children of Abraham after their four hundred years in Egypt but what of Joseph? Would it have been the story of Benjamin instead? Or Reuben?

We have no idea how God may have redeemed Israel out of bondage but it would not have been with Joseph. And the bearer of the coat of many colors may have been lost to a single family’s history and erased from the biblical record. What we know is that Joseph lived out his relationship, his covenant with God moment by moment and for that God used him to save his family and his people.

What of us? What is God calling us to that we cannot hear because for the promise of tomorrow or the distraction of yesterday? How much have we squandered on living in moments that cannot be changed and moments that have not yet happened?

One of my favorite writers is the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In his book Thoughts in Solitude, he composes a beautiful prayer that is one of my favorite writings,

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” – Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

May we learn to live a life that embodies this Christ like desire to know only God and know him moment by moment. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

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Foundations: Stars in the Sky

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Big Sky Country

As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with the night sky. There is a deep, dark mystery to it that I feel like I have been trying to solve since I was a child. Whether I was camping or just standing out in the backyard, I found myself drawn to the great expanse above. My favorite spot back home in Georgia was Berry College. It’s the largest college campus in the world at just over 25,000 acres and my father’s uncle lived there when I was a kid. There are acres of open, unlit fields there that beg to be sat in under the great curtain of night.

Even there in that great open, unlit space, the low altitude and the haze of the atmosphere made it hard to see stars in the same way we can here. Here, removed from larger cities and metropolitan areas and at a higher altitude, you can see so much more. One of my favorite things since moving here is simply to sit on the front porch of the parsonage at night and stare up at the sky. Even with the few street lights that are out, I can see so much more of the night sky than I have ever been able to in the past.

I found out this week that there is an exercise that you can with a toilet tissue tube that is supposed to allow you to count the stars. It goes something like this:

View a portion of the sky through a tube and count all of the stars that you can see. Keep the tube fixed and do not move it in order to increase the number of stars visible. Fainter stars can be better observed by using averted vision. That is, don’t focus your eye directly ahead, but focus slightly to one side of the place you want to observe. Repeat this counting procedure for several areas of the sky selected at random) say eight areas halfway up in the sky at each of the compass points N, NE, E, etc., and one-point overhead. Total up all the stars counted in all nine areas. Once you do this there is a formula you plug the numbers into (it’s math, I’m not going to pretend to understand it) and voila, you have an estimate of the number of stars in the sky.

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Counting Ancient Stars

I’m fairly certain that Abram did not have a toilet tissue tube or the mathematics and physics to come up with this method. But I imagine that after his conversation with God in Genesis 15, he must have gone outside and looked up into the night. “1-2-3-4-5” and so on as much as he had an idea of numbers before giving up. Behind this counting however, I would think Abram held on tightly to a promise, the promise that God made him in a vision beneath the stars.

You see this promise is not a promise made lightly. As God and Abram speak in this vision God makes the promise, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.” But Abram is uncertain. He and Sarai are childless with no prospects in the immediate future. Abram expresses these doubts saying, “Lord God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?” Then, God acts on his promise in an unexpected way.

“Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. 11 When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. 12 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Have no doubt that your descendants will live as immigrants in a land that isn’t their own, where they will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years. 14 But after I punish the nation they serve, they will leave it with great wealth. 15 As for you, you will join your ancestors in peace and be buried after a good long life. 16 The fourth generation will return here since the Amorites’ wrongdoing won’t have reached its peak until then.”

17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates, 19 together with the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” – Genesis 15:9-21

This type of covenant was common in the ancient world. The way it worked is that a lesser ruler would enter into a covenant to serve a greater ruler by walking through the midst of the split animals. What you were saying by ‘cutting a covenant’ is that you will serve the greater ruler under penalty of being torn in half like the animals that you have walked through.

But God turns the covenant on its head. Instead of having the lesser Abram walk through it, God, in the form of a smoking vessel, goes through the animals and cuts the covenant with Abram. It is a guarantee from the Creator of the universe that the covenant will be upheld with Abram lest God be torn in half.

For every star he counted, I think Abram must have been reminded of the powerful promise God made. But even holding onto the promise, sometimes despair and fear that the promise will go unfulfilled can lead to a place of despondence. For Abram, that promise was becoming a burden. We come to Genesis 17 and God says to Abram,

“I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy.  I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants…But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you.  I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you.  I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession. And I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:1-8

Abram experiences God in a new way and the covenant is renewed between God and man, the man who was Abram, now Abraham. But Abraham wasn’t so sure and he says as much to God,

Abraham fell on his face and laughed. He said to himself, ‘Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child?’ To God Abraham said, “If only you would accept Ishmael!” – Genesis 17:17-18

There is a doubt behind this response from Abraham and reasonable doubt at that. He and Sarai/Sarah are well past the age of bearing children. There is no reason to believe that a biological heir will be born to them or anyone else at this stage of life. For Abraham and Sarah, that is a devastating thought. You see, in the ancient world having children was a form of living beyond this life into the next life; as long as one had descendants then one’s story could be told to the next generation. As your name carries on so does your legacy and in a way so do you.

We have the luxury of looking at this as a story of the distant past and knowing the rest of the story but Abraham did not. He has given up everything to follow this new God to a new land: his home, his country, his tribe, his extended family, all left behind in Ur to answer a call that promised to make of Abraham a great nation, to make his name respected, and make him a blessing.

Yet, Abraham still has doubts until Sarah bears the child of promise, Issac. Chapter fifteen is therefore an exercise in trust. As Walter Brueggemann writes,

“The test…asks whether Abraham can, in fact, trust. And it asks if Yahweh can, in fact, be trusted. It is faith which permits Abraham to trust and God to be trusted.”[1]

What does this covenant story mean to us?

Last week we talked about how we live the story by remembering about God. Remembering that we are part of a covenant relationship with the God who created the very fabric of all existence. Remembering that this covenant is one that was made, broken, and then remade in the very beginning. Remembering that we are a living, breathing extension of that covenant as it was remade in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and ties us, or grafts us as Paul says, to the covenant made with Israel.

This week the issue is not just about the covenant being made but can we trust in the covenant and more importantly in the one making the covenant. What does that trust look like?

Luke 3 offers a glimpse of what it doesn’t look like as John the Baptist confronts the Pharisees. In the Message Bible the story is translated in a forceful way:

When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.” – Luke 3:7-9 (MSG)

John is saying to them, your lineage, your association with the religion of Abraham, your history, are not enough make you children of God. These things are meaningless without trust in God. It was not Abraham’s tribe or family or calling or anything else that made him righteous. As the writer of Hebrews notes,

“By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God.” – Hebrews 11:8-10 (MSG)

Abraham was counted righteous and blessed by God for nothing more or less than having faith and trust enough in God to believe the promises made to him. It wasn’t that Abraham did everything right, because as we look at his story, he certainly didn’t. It was that Abraham believed, ever when it didn’t make sense, even when he didn’t feel like, even when he had all but given up on God and the plan for a land of descendants, Abraham still had faith enough to be ‘counted as righteousness.’

For us, we are going to have times in our lives that we are called to things that seem to be greater than what we can handle. We may be called to things that feel like the exact opposite of who we are and what we feel we able to do. So was Abraham. And so were countless others who are a part of the biblical narrative and countless more in the time after the written story was finished.

But where the written story ends, the living story begins and we are a part of that living story. We not only are called to remember the covenant but to live it out by faith. If you go back to the rest of the chapter in Hebrews, every person in the chapter is someone who shared in the story of redemption and restoration and did so by faith, by trusting that what they experienced of God was real and personal and true in their lives. They are all considered to be great men and women in the story because of their faith.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus comes across a Roman officer grief stricken over the illness of his servant. Jesus offers to come and heal him but he says to Jesus quite simply, “I don’t want to put you to all that trouble. Just give the order and my servant will be fine.” In other words, I don’t need anything other than your word and I believe, I have faith, I trust that my servant will be healed. Jesus marvels at the man and who does liken his faith to?

“I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how he works. This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God’s kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then those who grew up ‘in the faith’ but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.” – Matthew 8:10-12

This man has the faith of the patriarchs. This man believes as Abraham did. This man is a man of faith and trust. His faith is based in the relationship he has with Jesus, in the fact that if Jesus said so, it’s good enough for him.

But is it good enough for us? If we hear the call, if we are given the promise, if we find ourselves in the place of decision before God to hear and follow or to doubt and hold back in reservation and fear, what do we do with our faith, our belief, our trust? Let us be a people who say, “Just say the word Jesus, and I know it will be fine. Just say the word.”

In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


 

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p.150) Westminster/John Knox Press. 2010

Foundations: Creation and Fall

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If you want good answers, ask better questions

Has anyone ever really had to teach a kid to ask why?

Nearly every child I have run across and certain every toddler knows how to ask the question of why. It seems as though God simply decided that curiosity was the best method for learning and puts this in the heart of every child around the age of two. What I think happens is our parents either show patience and have foresight enough to realize that this is a good thing or they lose their temper after the fourth or fifth why and say something along the lines of, “If you ask me why so help me I will…”

I think as we get older, this asking of questions becomes a chore for most rather than a sign of an innate desire to understand the world. I know I went off to school and had to ask questions, had to ask them a certain way, and seemed to only be asking for the purpose of checking off an assignment on an ongoing list of assignments until I finally finished with my education. For many, by then the desire to ask questions is worn out of them and they are left with a desire to just have the answers so they won’t have to ask anymore. The certainty of the answer appears to have taken precedent over the wonder of the question.

But I believe there is something wrong with that. I believe that the question is the best way to understand the world around us. I believe good questions lead to good answers and in turn better to better questions. And I believe the kind of question is important as well. If the question is asked with an answer already in mind, we are not really asking a question we are just looking for confirmation that we are right. Good questions, in my opinion, are born of the desire to learn, not the desire to prove that which we think we already know. I think David Dark hits on something in his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything when he says,

I believe deliverance begins with questions. It begins with people who love questions, people who live with questions and by questions, people who feel a deep joy when good questions are asked.[1]

– David Dark, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

For me this has been a good means of learning, that is, when I have been patient enough to remember to ask the questions and taken the time to think of good questions to ask. I think this will be a good means of looking at the foundations of our faith as well, of learning about those things that have become central to our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to God.

What is the story?

Sean Gladding has a great way of illustrated the story of the Old Testament in his book Story of God, Story of Us, where the stories of the Jewish people are recounted by one of the familial patriarchs when the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon. In the story the old man recounts creation and stops and says, “This is how the Story of God begins, and so it is also the beginning of our story.”[2] I think we need to understand that this is definitely one of our founding stories as well as a founding story for Judaism and Islam with some minor differences.

The story itself however, is the same in its basic form for all three: the world is created with man as part of it, man is placed in a garden called Eden or Paradise, man is made part of a covenant with God, man breaks the covenant, God begins the process of restoring covenant.

A quick word about covenant. According to Old Testament scholar Sandra Richter,

“an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance”4 In other words, a covenant was much like a contract.”[3]

God creates the world in Genesis 1 and 2 and then places man (Adam) in a specific place, Eden, with a companion (Eve) to aid him in his tasks. This is the covenant that God establishes: live in the garden, don’t eat or touch the fruit off the one particular tree because if you do you will die. Adam and Eve are tempted to go against the one prohibition of the garden, finally give in to their desire, and Adam and Eve are banished from the garden.

What is the point of the creation/fall narrative?

The great question being answered in the creation/fall narrative is not how did we get here (creation or evolution) but why are we here? Why is mankind as it is and how should we understand our existence?

Walter Bruggemann puts the creation this way, in the simplest terms I can possibly think of: “Creator creates creation.”[4]

  • There is one God (Creator)
  • He is the one who creates (creates)
  • We are the result of that creative act, creation (creation)

So simply put, there is one God, the Creator, who created all of creation. This is the first of what I see as two main points for the creation/fall story. It tells us that there is someone who has carefully crafted all of existence into what we see.

The story also explains to us one of the first important relationships in the story of God and Israel: that of man and God. The relationship begins in what we might call a theocentric, or God centered, world. The man, Adam, takes his place in Eden or Paradise as a part of creation with all of the wonders God has created. He is there “to serve” and “take care of” the creation that God has made by caring for it as God would. Man is of course the only creation of God that bears the mark of being created in the image of God, made to bear the likeness and glory of God. God settled man or Adam (literally: “the soil creature”) there in Eden and gave him someone to serve with, Eve.

The major twist of the story happens in chapter three: they do that which must not be done. God gives them free reign except that they should not, “…eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” The couple are approached in the garden by the serpent who promises not death from the tree but enlightenment and life,

“You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”[5]

They believe the serpent and we have our first denominational schism. Adam and Eve have broken with the church of God and take a shot at worshiping at the church of self. Their eyes are indeed opened and they now see themselves in a new light, regarding themselves as naked or having themselves exposed in their now broken state before God. They have traded innocence for knowledge and the knowledge they have received is not a knowledge they are capable of handling. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with the pursuit of knowledge. I think everyone should educate themselves as much as they are reasonably able. I am simply saying that Adam and Eve were not prepared to deal with the result of gaining this kind of knowledge about themselves and the universe. Verse 22 of chapter 3 says, “The Lord God said, “The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Putting God’s knowledge of good and evil in the head of Adam and Eve at that time would have been like planting string theory and particle physics in the mind of a toddler. It was beyond them to truly comprehend what they were now about to think about and understand.

God steps in to remake what has been unmade. He gives the inhabitants of Eden a dressing down (the list of consequences for their indiscretion) and then a dressing up (“The Lord God made the man and his wife leather clothes and dressed them”).[6]

Ultimately the point becomes this: God created all that is, man was given a place of being taken care of while taking care of creation, man chose to seek a different way. God made a covenant with man through nature and through relationship and man broke the covenant. God then began the task of restoring covenant.

What makes the creation and the fall part of our story?

This story is not just a story about Adam and Eve; it is a story about you and me. We have been engaged with God as part of creation. We have been entrusted with things to ‘take care of’ in this life. We have been called to hear the voice of God in the quiet of the day. Our problem is the same as that of Adam and Eve: we have broken faith with the Creator. We have disengaged with God and chosen a way of our own making. We take care of the things that are convenient for us to care for. We have been so distracted by the noise of meaningless things that we could not hear God if he were speaking through a megaphone next to our head.

We have broken faith with the Creator and yet the Creator has shown us the way of restoration in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The covenant that was once remade with temples and sacrifices is now made anew in our hearts as we accept the way of life, the rule of life that Jesus has taught us; as we accept the task of taking up the ministry of Jesus in our time and place; as we follow Jesus example and die to ourselves to born anew as disciples of Jesus serving God. We are living out the story of creation each day as we too struggle with the temptation to live a life that is separate and apart from God, seeking our own way and doing our own thing. We live the story as we embrace the covenant.

How do we live out our part of the story?

There is a story that has apparently been told in one of the books of Quaker writer Parker Palmer:

It’s a story about a three-year-old girl who was the only child in her family. But now her mom is pregnant, and this three-year-old girl is very excited about having a baby in the house. The day comes where the mother-to-be delivered, and the mom and dad go off to the hospital. A couple of days later come home with a new baby brother. And the little girl is just delighted.

But after they’ve been home for a couple of hours, the little girl tells her parents that she wants to be with the baby in the baby’s room, alone, with the door shut. She’s absolutely insistent about the door being shut. It kind of gives her folks the willies, you know? They know she’s a good little girl, but they’ve heard about sibling rivalry and all of this.

Then they remember that they’ve recently installed an intercom system in preparation for the arrival of the new baby, and they realize that they can let their little girl do this, and if they hear the slightest weird thing happening, they can be in there in a flash.

So they let their little girl go into the room. They close the door behind her. They race to the listening post. They hear her footsteps move across the room. They imagine her now standing over the baby’s crib, and then they hear her say to her two-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God. I’ve almost forgotten.”

I find that to be a haunting and evocative story, because it suggests that we come from God, and when we are very, very young, we still remember that. We still know that.[7]

We live the story by remembering about God. Remembering that we are part of a covenant relationship with the God who created the very fabric of all existence. Remembering that this covenant is one that was made, broken, and then remade in the very beginning. Remembering that we are a living, breathing extension of that covenant as it was remade in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and ties us, or grafts us as Paul says, to the covenant made with Israel. We remember and we live out the covenant in every moment, every aspect of our lives. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

 

[1] Dark, David; Dark, David. The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (p. 14). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[2] Gladding, Sean. The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible (Kindle Location 235). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Richter, Sandra. The Epic of Eden (p.70) InterVarsity Press. 2008

[4] Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p.17) Westminster/John Knox Press. 2010

 

[5] Genesis 3:4-5

[6] Genesis 3:21

[7] http://www.explorefaith.org/homiliesLent/LentenHomily03.17.03.html

Keep Your Hand on the Plow

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For those who have not already started celebrating, what do you plan to do for Labor Day today and tomorrow?

Most of us like to celebrate by simply taking the day off, after all, that’s what Labor Day is about. I personally try my best to do as little as possible as long as I can help it from the time I get up until I go to sleep on Monday evening. But as with many things, Labor Day started out as something else.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883.

In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. [1]

Labor Day marks the end of the summer season, when people get in the last of their vacation and kids start digging in for the school year. It’s a shopping-baseball-football-barbecue-auto racing weekend when good Southern ladies know to put away their whites until next Easter.

This celebration of laboring reminds me in a way of Sundays. When I stop and think about it, Sunday is a day that we gather together, sing and worship together, pray together, and in the process of all these things celebrate – or sometimes lament – the work and ministry of the previous week. It is a time when we as the body of Christ look back and remember those that created separation between us and those things that brought us closer to God and neighbor.

Another important aspect of Sundays is the encouragement that we get from one another to continue on with the journey. I know for myself there are Sunday mornings that I drag myself into the pulpit. Sundays that remind me of the spiritual adage, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” – and probably a little spongier than it should be. But as I sing and preach and talk to you about your week, celebrate and cry about your joys and concerns, I find myself experiencing a sort of mini-revival in my spirit. It’s the connection between us and the reassurance of the Spirit that recharges the batteries and helps me to be energized and ready for another week of journeying.

But we need to make a distinction that I think Jesus is making here in the text. There is work and there is busy work. There are the things we do for the Kingdom and things we do that look like Kingdom work but aren’t really. I think a story might better illustrate what I am getting at and help us to see the difference.

Busy work versus real work

In my previous life, I was a graphic designer and media artist. Now this kind of work tends to be feast or famine, there is either an obscene amount of work to be done or it is dead as a door nail. One of the things I would do when things go dead was to brush up on my skills and try to learn new things or methods of doing things. One of my favorite things to use was the movie trailer.

Movie trailers are great fodder for visual artists in that they are quick snapshots of a bigger idea – the movie. In marketing, that’s what a logo or an ad is, a snapshot of the bigger idea – the company. So, I would watch movie trailers and look for certain shots or angles to use in the photography in my ads or videos and the titles for new typefaces and ways of creating text.

Some of my employers understood this and could the value of it but one employer in particular wasn’t having it. You produced quantifiable, product worthy art or you were goofing off. Even after an explanation and demonstration of how it had helped me create some the best art I had created for them they still could not see that it was work. I was told that it would be better for me to dust my desk and computer than to be watching TV at work.

I needed to be busy.

Being busy is about being seen – it is working to show others that something, even if it is mundane and seemingly meaningless – is being done. It’s a way of satisfying an anxiousness about justifying ourselves before those who would criticize our work ethic, a means of proving by concrete data that time – and I think in most cases money – is not being wasted.

Working is doing the things that actually need doing, whether anyone knows it or not (quiet disciple). It has real meaning and substance. It is what propels the greater vision, the greater task forward. In my estimation, it is the difference between dusting the computer rather than using it.

The people that Jesus meets along the road in Luke 9 have all found ‘busy work’ to do in comparison to the Kingdom work that Jesus is inviting them to do. They are doing things that are necessary in some sense but in comparison to following in the Way of Jesus they are temporal and to be regarded as secondary.

Let’s take the first man for instance. He is the first to addresses Jesus in their brief conversations. He makes a claim that I know I have made and many others I would think have as well. “I will follow you wherever you go.”

“Lord, send me to the Congo to live in grass hut. Lord send me to the inner city to live in a cardboard box. Lord send me wherever, and I’ll go.” It’s a bold statement to make. It’s a statement of complete surrender, a statement of offering ourselves to service completely in the Kingdom.

Jesus hears the man and as he has done so many times before, responds with challenge. “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.” In other words, to follow me, to do as I do, live as I live, is life of uncertainty. Jesus is an itinerant preacher; no home, no stability, no idea what may come next. For me to follow Jesus is to follow when I am uncertain, when I cannot see the path, or better yet, may not know if there is even a path there. It is a life of faith. Not the kind of blind faith that disregards common sense but the kind of faith that looks for, recognizes, and gets involved with the work of God around us.

There is an old preacher’s joke – which means its bad – but I’ll tell it anyway.

A man was trapped on top of his house during a flood and someone paddled up to his roof and stopped.

“Do you need a ride?” asked the man in the boat.

“No, the Lord will save me.” Answered the man on the house and the boat left.

Another boat came by and again the man in the boat asked, “Do you need a ride?”

“No,” answered the man on the house again, “the Lord will save me.”

Finally, a helicopter hovered nearby and a man on a loudspeaker said, “The dam broke upstream. The river is out of control and the water will cover everything in this area in a matter of minutes. Let us get you out of here.”

“No,” said the man. “I have absolute faith that God will rescue me.”

The man of course drowned. And as he went to heaven and stood before God he said, “Lord, I had faith in you, I believed in you. Why did you let me drown?”

“What are talking about?” asked God. “I sent you two boats and helicopter.”

Again, faith is about looking for, recognizing, and getting involved with the work of God that is going on around us.

But there is a second potential disciple in our story. Jesus says, “Follow me,” to another man who responds, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” There is some discussion on what this might mean, when the man speaks of burying his father. It could mean that his father is dying and the man wants to be there to carry out the very important cultural and religious rites that go with a family funeral. It could also mean that his father has just died and he is going now to carry out those practices. In either case, the man is saying I have obligations that I have to take care of first, I have other things, important things to do and then I will follow you.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can say that I have definitely been guilty of this. I knew I was called to the ministry several years, maybe even a decade before I responded to the call. It took me losing a lucrative job and having no other doors open for me to see ministry as the path God had for me to take. I think it’s safe to say that many people use obligations as a means of delaying our discipleship. Things like, “I need to take care of my family,” as we read in the story, or “I need to pay off this or that”, “I need to finish my education” and list goes on from there. We are good at using obligations, things that have some importance before our discipleship.

And what does Jesus say to this, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.” In other words, out of these two important things, the Kingdom is the most important. Let someone else take care of the ritual and cultural obligations, you, if you want to be a disciple, if you want to follow me, you go and live out the message of the Kingdom. As much as Jesus is saying this to the man in the story, he says it to us now. We too, are to put aside those things that we might elevate above the Kingdom and “spread the news of God’s Kingdom.”

Finally, a man calls to Jesus and says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.” In other words, “Jesus I’m going to be a disciple but I have to make sure I get things sorted with what will become a part of my past. I need to make sure that I don’t leave on bad terms and that everything is sorted out before I go.”

Everyone has a past. For some it is a good thing, mostly. For others, it a bad thing, mostly. For most, I would say it’s a mix of those things. I can certainly look back and see things I would like to change but then what if I did? If I had gotten into the Naval Academy out of high school where would that path have carried me? If I had gone into law enforcement rather than marketing, where would I be? I could ask the question a hundred different ways and the truth of the matter is, it’s not important, I can’t change it anyway. Living in the past leads to regret. Living in the future leads to worry. Living in the present, living with Christ in a moment by moment existence right now, leads to a Kingdom life that connects you with the Spirit of God to do the work of God.

There is no Labor Day on the church calendar

I looked on the liturgical calendar and there is no religious observance called Labor Day. It’s not that Labor Day isn’t a good thing. I plan on enjoying it tomorrow with something or other on the grill. But for the Christian, we don’t cease in our labors. Jesus helps us, walks with us, ‘takes our yoke’ in times of trouble, but we never stop being disciples. God calls us to live a life of faith that looks for, recognizes, and gets involved with the work of God around us. He calls us to see our obligations as second to the work of the Kingdom. He calls us to live not in the past or the future, but to walk in the now with him.

Do I rest? Yes. Do I find time for stillness before God? Yes. Do I stop following? Do I take my hand off the plow, so to speak? I think Jesus answers that pretty sharply, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

The question here is about discipleship, am I following Jesus or not? Am I following after Jesus with everything I have – loving God with everything I have and loving neighbor as myself, or am I on holiday. I think what Jesus is getting at here is the idea of overcoming our anxiety by casting our cares on him, following him, rather than chasing after the things of this world and the things which are temporary in this world. I believe his calling is one that asks us to see past the enmeshment of things of that are not focused on the Kingdom and Kingdom life. He says, quite simply, “Follow me.” And in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, let us do so. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history