Of knowing, not knowing and faith

A sermon delivered at Sugar Grove Presbyterian Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Sunday, July 23, 2017

Please join me in prayer: May the words of my mouth in the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Angry fistThis is a confusing time to be alive, isn’t it? It’s hard to know what to think about anything. Everywhere you turn, people are shouting at each other, saying “I know what I’m talking about, you don’t.” Charges of “liar” are hurled back and forth, facts that challenge one’s point of view are labeled as “fake” or “alternative.”

Now I’m really not going to get into a political back-and-forth, even though I, like everyone else, have some definite ideas about the politics of the day, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Whether you think Donald Trump is doing a great job at “making America great again,” or if you think he is an orange devil who cares about nothing and no one but he and his family, it doesn’t really matter in the long run.

How can I say that, you might ask. Well, because in the end, he’s not in control.

Let’s start by considering Jacob.

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

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.

(Genesis 28: 10-19a)

We all know that Jacob is a pretty sketchy person. He scammed his brother out of his birthright. And that’s just the beginning of what we will find out about him as his story unfolds, but we’re not there yet. At this point in his story, he is fleeing for his life because he knows that Esau has put a target on his back over the whole birthright thing.

To save his life, Jacob has left his family, left everything he knows, and is out alone in the desert. One commentator points out that up until this point in Jacob’s story, there has been no indication any role of faith in his life at all. He hasn’t prayed, he hasn’t talked about God.[1]

Jacob's ladder

And now here he is, all alone, tired, looking for a place to rest. He lays down on the ground and goes to sleep with a rock as his pillow. Not a very good place to be.

We have been given no reason to think that God is even anywhere in his psyche, but suddenly he dreams of a ladder reaching from Earth to Heaven, with angels traveling up and down. And in the dream, as it says in verse 13, “… the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’”

I love his response: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” That’s the line that really sticks with me from this passage: “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

How often is that the case for you? I know it has been that way for me. I’ll just be rocking along, doing whatever I’m doing, thinking whatever I’m thinking, when all of a sudden, I become aware that God is there, God is in the place, and I did not know it.

Here’s a very minor example: One of my co-workers, who just moved to town a few weeks ago, is doing major remodeling to the house she has purchased. It’s not been going particularly smoothly – does any remodel? – and recently it all came to a head as her roof was being replaced. The old roof was down, but the new roof wasn’t on, so the workmen had put those blue tarps over it. Then that night the skies opened up in a deluge. Everything was soaked.

One of her neighbors attends First Morgantown with me, and had told me what had happened the next evening. On the following morning, a Friday, I asked my colleague how she was doing, and it was clear she was having trouble keeping things together. After we talked a few minutes, she said, “I know I must be here for some reason, I just don’t know what it is right now,” and then, “I’m really having trouble with trust right now.”

Now my colleague and I had spoken earlier about her search for a church – she is Presbyterian and has sung in choir; of course I invited her to do the same at First Morgantown, and she had visited one or two times, so I guess subconsciously I knew that she would be open to the suggestion.

But as she left the office, I said, simply, “Why don’t you come to church Sunday?” Well, she did, and on Monday morning, she made a point of thanking me and how being there had soothed her.

God was in my office that Friday morning, and I did not know it.

Before we leave Jacob altogether, one more thing to note. After this moment in the desert, where he recognizes and, in a sense, accepts God, he’s still has issues. It’s not long before he’s engaged in what commentator James Newsome calls “skullduggery” to get Rachel.

“But his life is never again lived apart from God’s claims,” Newsome says. “All of which it is a cogent reminder of the power of the spirit of God to reshape and reorient human life. Jacob was not an entirely new person, neither was he the same old Jacob.”[2]

So there’s Jacob, blissfully unaware, and unexpecting, of God’s presence in his life. Then there’s the writer of Psalms, who couldn’t be more aware:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24

We go from the story of someone who, at first anyway, sees God nowhere, to a poem from someone who sees God everywhere and, as suggested in verse 7, wants to get away: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

The answer of course, is nowhere, which the writer finally acknowledges and asks God to search, know and lead.

This is the logical extension of Jacob’s experience, though, isn’t it? Once we become aware of God, and God’s grace, love and care, it’s easier to experience and recognize God’s presence, even in our workspaces, and, yes, even in our politics.

And even when we do not know it.

I have been struck over the years by the many times little comments, seemingly offhanded remarks, will open eyes or set new courses.

A story from my own life: Although I had grown up in the Presbyterian church – youth group, choir, Sunday school, all of that – I guess I had never really connected God with my chosen profession of journalism. (Yes, God choses journalists, but that’s another story for another day.)

When we were members of a small church just outside of Atlanta, I was asked to help with communications during the stewardship campaign. (Journalists always get asked to help with communications.) When it was over, the stewardship chair – a good friend – and I were leaving Sunday school when he turned to me and said, “Good job on the stewardship campaign.”

Like many folks, I’m never comfortable being praised, so I literally and figuratively shuffled my feet and mumbled, “thanks.”

“No, really,” he said. “Not everyone has that gift.”

For him, it was a natural comment, but to me the word “gift” sparked the realization that whatever gifts I had at communication were God-given.

From that moment on, I have tried to honor that gift in my daily work, but also by using those skills to communicate about God’s grace and help others realize being Christian is not about judgment but about love, not about rules but about grace. As the song says, “I love to tell the story, of unseen things above.”

In his letter to the Romans, Paul helps us understand just that:

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:12-25

Now, you could take this passage from Romans 8 and extrapolate some sort of justification for the world going to hell before heaven takes over. I can see that in the text.

However, I – and others – argue that’s not the point. There are really two thoughts expressed that I’d like to lift up.

The first is verse 14: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” I didn’t realize it, but this is probably what was driving my thoughts this past July Fourth when I was motivated to write a blog post I titled “It’s all in how you look at it.”[3]

My point in the post was that perspective is everything; depending on their perspectives and/or experiences, two people can take the very same set of facts, and come to diametrically different conclusions. I say this not to try to justify the phrase “alternative facts;” it has no justification, but to try to understand the results.

My conclusion, essentially, was;

Until both sides — and I’m including myself in this — begin to accept that the “other” might, just might, have a point or at least understand the thought process that goes into a position, we will get nowhere. … I am not suggesting that we abandon principles, but really that we follow a principle found in virtually all religions, the one Christians know as the Golden Rule.[4]

(If you want to read the whole thing, God bless you, and you can find it at at this link.)

I hope we can get to that point as a nation and a world. I hope that we can see that the things that divide us, while not insignificant or unimportant, do not negate that we are all children of God, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

My hope is bolstered by the final verse in today’s readings:

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

That, my friends, is called faith.

One of my favorite hymns is called “We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight.” We’re not singing it today, but one of the verses says: “Help then, oh Lord, our unbelief; and may our faith abound to call on you when you are near and see where you are found.”

This is what I keep trying to remember as I live in the world today. I will not shrink from advocating for what I believe, I will not shrink from opposing what I see as evil, especially in a country as blessed as ours that is today displaying a tendency to turn its back on the “widows and orphans” in our society.

But I will also remember that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” and that God is present in places I do not know. In the end, I hope – have faith – that God will search me, know my heart; know my thoughts and, if there is any wicked way in me, lead me in the way everlasting.”

To God alone be the glory, Amen.

Please join me in prayer:

Good and gracious God, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. And we are not. Help us to remember that you are in the small places as well as the big places. Help us to see You in the “other.” Help us to walk by faith, and not by sight. We ask in the name of your Son, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

[1] Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A, Page 407.

[2] Ibid, Page 408.

[3] “It’s all in how you look at it,” http://johnbolt.com/2017/07/04/its-all-in-how-you-look-at-it/, accessed July 22, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

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It’s all in how you look at it

Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, 2017. It’s comes at a time when our nation is perhaps as divided as it has ever been. As I think about some of the reasons, one word keeps occurring to me: Perspective.

Perspective governs how you see that band of men who raided ships in the Boston Harbor in 1773. If you were an English merchant who had followed the rules and invested money, you’d say that group was a bunch of  thieves and vandals. To others, they were courageous, wily freedom fighters who took action against “The Man.”

And today, we have a whole political movement named after the Boston Tea Party.

We talk about the leadership of George Washington, and laud him as the father of our country. But to others all they can see is a slave-owner, a dealer in human beings.

To some, Robert E. Lee was an honorable man who was loyal to family and tradition, who put aside his personal desires to answer the call to lead the Confederate army. His post-Civil War life, and presidency of Washington and Lee, seem to suggest honor.  But to others, he was a treasonous slave-owner, who led an armed rebellion against the nation and all statues of him should be torn down and removed from places of honor.

This list can go on and on: the Rockefeller and Carnegie names are today associated with great philanthropy and civic advancement. But their fortunes were built on sometimes unscrupulous business practices, on the backs — and in come cases the bodies — of others. (See Ludlow Massacre and Homestead Strike.) Other great industrialists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries — robber barons like Morgan, Vanderbilt, Duke, Frick, Mellon — are in the same boat

Some people look at a homeless person on the street, and see someone who’s lazy, probably drunk or on some other drug and think to themselves — “Why don’t they straighten up!?”

Others see that same person, and think, “Who knows what series of tragedies led to that situation — health, mental state, personal misfortunes, economics? There but for the grace of God go I.”

And then, there’s Jesus. And Muhammad. And the religions based on their teachings. No need to add detail there.

Perspective.

Perhaps our problem as a nation is that we’ve lost perspective. The only vision we can have is our own. And we can’t even acknowledge that much because our vision is the “right” one, and we are championing the right cause.

Any other way of looking at it — whatever “it” is, we label as idiotic, misguided, uneducated, racist, redneck, fascist, homophobic, mysogonistic, weak, bleeding heart, spineless, gullible, lies, threatening, dangerous, unsympathetic, know-nothingness, treason, whiney, failed — the list goes on.

I acknowledge that nothing riles me as much as my perception that the “other side” does not respect or give me credit for any legitimacy, that does not recognize the perspective I come from. I can get pretty nasty and sarcastic when I get that notion. (See my Twitter feed, especially when it comes to college athletics — and @VP or @realdonaldtrump.)

Until both sides — and I’m including myself in this — begin to accept that the “other” might, just might, have a point or at least understand the thought process that goes into a position, we will get nowhere.

(As an aside here, I am going to try to refrain from demonizing the other. As easy at is to snipe and mock, and as satisfying as it might be personally, I recognize that it does no good, does not persuade anyone to change their point of view and only contributes to an atmosphere of hate and distrust. I also know that this will be hard for me to keep to because so much venom is flying in both directions.)

I am not suggesting that we abandon principles, but really that we follow a principle found in virtually all religions, the one Christians know as the Golden Rule.

Now I recognize that I am coming at this from a liberal point of view — and that liberals tend to be more willing to entertain different concepts. (I’m not being smug or superior here; it’s virtually the definition of liberal.)

But our nation was built on compromise. All of our important historical documents exist because of compromise. But to compromise, one must listen and grant the other a modicum of goodwill.

Isaiah 1:18 says “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” (New Revised Standard Version; some translations have it as “Come let us reason together.”)

Reasoning together, even arguing it out, leads to two or more sides — perspectives  — that become melded into one.

Unless, and until, all of us remember this, our nation will be at peril.

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Of a new commandment and its challenge

(Sermon delivered at Sugar Grove Presbyterian Church in Morgantown, WV, on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017.)

Text Exodus 12: 1-14, John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”The Upper Room

Tonight, we are gathered together as a family, just as Jesus and his disciples were all those years ago, getting ready for a meal. But it’s different, they were in the Upper Room, away from the crowd — perhaps even trying to stay hidden from the authorities, or if not hidden, at least out of the way.

Here, however, we are not in hiding. We are together with “our people,” our friends, family, those with whom we gather every week. And together with our Christian sisters and brothers around the world who are doing the same this evening. We, too, are preparing for a meal – a meal that re-enacts that one of so long ago. But if a stranger came to the door, we would welcome them in. Wouldn’t we?

It had been a tumultuous week in Jerusalem, and things were happening behind the scenes, everyone was on edge. Jesus knew it, he was getting ready. And that’s where we find ourselves tonight.

There is an unbreakable link between the two passages we read this evening. There’s the obvious one: As good Jews, Jesus and the disciples were celebrating Passover as they had been instructed to in Exodus.

The Passover meal – the Seder – is a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, commemorating the preparation for the flight from Egypt. They are to prepare themselves, both nutritionally and otherwise to step out into a new life, one which God had laid out for them, one in which God would take care of them – even if they didn’t realize it yet.

It’s clear from the text also that the community, and taking care of the community, was integral to that preparation. It didn’t matter if you were a large family, or a small family, if you were a rich family or a poor family, you were all supposed to work together to see that all were fed, that all were taken care of, before beginning the journey.

And you were to be ready to get on the move immediately.

The telling of the Last Supper takes this as a starting point, and adds significant layers to it.

Let’s take the foot-washing, for example. It is Jesus, the Lord and Master – not a slave – who washes the feet. Does that make you uncomfortable? It does me. (And I’ll tell you a little secret, I’ve never taken part in a foot-washing service, and I can’t imagine that I will. It’s just too, too, well, TOO!)

But that’s the point, isn’t it? “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Jesus told Peter. When you perceive our faith as I do – and that is from an understanding that salvation and faith are not ours to decide on or win – this becomes yet another signal that it’s not our actions, but “washing” by Jesus that makes us “clean,” even if we resist.

And then there is the matter of Judas.

We want to paint Judas as the villain. indeed a colleague and I were talking yesterday about names – mine, obviously, is John, his is David. We both alluded to the Biblical grounding of those names, especially during this particular week. And I said something like “you know, I’ve never heard of anyone named Judas.” I’m sure there must be, but I’ve never heard it.

Why, because “Judas” has come to symbolize betrayal, treachery, any and everything bad. There is, however, one line of speculation that theorizes that Judas was just trying to get Jesus to act, and that he thought that if Jesus was confronted with arrest and torture and death, that he would bring God’s armies to bear against the Romans. I’m not sure I buy that, but in the end it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because Jesus knew what was happening, but Judas was at the dinner.

Jesus knew what was happening, but Judas got his feet washed.

Jesus knew what was happening, but did nothing to restrain Judas or prevent his betrayal.

And the lesson for us: take care of all, even if you think they are evil people.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

That’s so hard today – well, it’s always been hard, I suspect, but seems even moreso today. Our society is so fractured, that there are those who can hardly stand to be in the same room – or on the same planet – with those whom they disagree.

A colleague of mine is very active in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and she just returned from a national meeting. We were commiserating the other day about the divisions in the world, and she told me at her meeting she had learned of one pastor who had turned down a call to a new church because “there were too many Republicans in the congregation.” To me, that is sad commentary.

Another story from her meeting is that one congregation accused a pastor of deliberately choosing a piece of scripture to preach from so he could attack Donald Trump. Of course the scripture was the lectionary reading assigned for the day decades ago, but no matter – they were convinced the pastor had searched for that particular text as a pretext to attack Trump.

Republicans hate Democrats; Democrats hate Republicans; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists. Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists. Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, Baby Boomers, “the greatest generation.” East Coast, West Coast. North, South. Black, white, brown, yellow, red. Mountaineers, Panthers. We could go on and on and on. God help us.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And to me, we should also listen to what this “new commandment” leaves unsaid. It doesn’t command us to be “lovable,” just that we love.

There’s a story that has become a legend in our immediate family. It stems from when we were living in Dallas, Texas, and drove downtown every Sunday to attend First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.

It was around Christmas, and as we started to church that Sunday, we came upon a car parked in a parking lot with its hood up, car parts strewn about the ground, and a sign saying, “Trying to make it to Denver for Christmas.”

Now I confess that I don’t often respond to those kinds of, shall we say “opportunities,” but this time I did, and pulled up into the parking lot, reaching for my wallet as I did.

From the back seat came the voice of an adolescent boy saying, “Don’t do it, Dad, it’s just a scam.” But I did, giving them some amount of money – recollections of the amount vary, but it was something like $20.

And we went on our way.

Then a couple of Sundays later, as we were again headed to church, several miles further down the road there it was: the same car. Hood up. Same car parts scattered around. Same sign.

This time, the voice from the back seat said, “See, I told you so, Dad.”

As I struggled to figure out what to say to maintain my parental superiority, this is what I came up with, guided no doubt by the Holy Spirit: “It doesn’t matter what they do. It matters what you do.”

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

As Christ was partaking of his last meal, communing with his closest friends in a room somewhere in Jerusalem, he knew what was ahead. He knew he would be betrayed. He knew he would be abandoned by those very friends, even Peter – the rock upon whom he would build his church. He knew that he was going to be killed in the most brutal and painful and public way possible.

He knew.

And yet, he fed, he washed, he blessed.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

To God alone be the glory, amen.

Let us pray, good and gracious God, help us to hear and respond to the words of your Son, however imperfectly we may do so. Help us to overcome the evil of hate, so that we may love one another, as we have been commanded. In the name of your Son, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

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