Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Family Dynamics

Genesis 37:1-8, 17b-22, 26-34, 50:15-21
September 24, 2016

            The thought that keeps coming to my mind when I read these excerpts from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that this would be the worst family to share a holiday meal with. Can you imagine it? Joseph, his brothers, their wives, their kids, maybe grandkids have all had a big meal. They are sitting around the table, perhaps drinking a little more wine or tea. The kids have left the table to play or fall asleep. The folks still sitting there are chatting, and as often seems to happen at meals like this, memories and stories from the past are shared.
Stories of boyhood escapades and close calls are told. And as these memories are resurfacing, Joseph coughs and says, “Hey, you remember that time when you sold me into slavery? That was funny.”
            Judah turns to Dan and says, “I told you he’d bring it up before the night was over. You owe me five sheckles.”
Levi drops his napkin and sighs, “This again? When are you gonna let it go?”
            Joseph loses all pretence of this being just another memory says, “Let it go?! You people sold me into slavery!”
            Simeon is exasperated and says, “We were young! We didn’t know what we were doing. And besides that, Rueben is the oldest. He should have stopped us. Blame him!”
            “Me? I tried to stop you! You did this behind my back. They wanted to kill you, Joseph, and I wouldn’t let them.”
            Naphtali adds, “Look, Joe, I know we shouldn’t have done it. I know it was wrong. But you’ve got to admit, you were so annoying. ‘Hey you guys, I had a dream. You bowed down to me. Hey you guys, look at this coat dad gave me.’”
            “It wasn’t my fault Dad gave me that coat. And I couldn’t help what I dreamed. Those dreams were from God, and you know it!”
            Benjamin speaks up, “You think you had it bad? You used me to get at them, Joseph. I never stole anything.”
            Zebulun says, “It’s not like things didn’t work out for you Joseph, Mr.-I’m-a –bigwig-for-Pharaoh.”
            Joseph is outraged. “I don’t care! You shouldn’t have sold me into slavery!”
            Asher tries to make peace, “We said we’re sorry, Joseph. And we really are. You said you forgave us.”
            “I did. But it still makes me mad. You all were just jealous, because I was Dad’s favorite.”
            This is how family dynamics looks sometimes isn’t it? One child seems to be the star, while the others either denounce that, act out against it, or feed into and perpetuate that dynamic. In reality, the dynamics of this family would give any modern therapist pause. The patterns of favoritism and family struggle have been sent into place since Abraham and Sarah. And while I’m starting us off with a little humor, I realize that the story of Joseph and his brothers was not a funny one. Joseph’s story is an extreme example of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. What the brothers did to Joseph was horrible. No one deserves to be sold into slavery. No one deserves to be treated like this by anyone, much less at the hands of brothers.
            These last 14 chapters of Genesis are known as the Joseph Cycle.  These are the final stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith. Last week in the narrative, we read about God’s extravagant promise to Abram. His descendents would be more numerous than the stars. Joseph, Reuben, Simeon, and the rest are the second generation of those descendents and God’s promise.
            A quick review of what has happened in the stories leading up to this one: Abraham and Sarah finally had the son they had been waiting for, the son they had been promised. Isaac, the son of laughter, was born. Immediately after the passage we read last week, Sarah took matters into her own hands and urged Abraham to have a child with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar. According to the customs of that time, Hagar would have been considered a surrogate for Sarah and Abraham. Ishmael was the son born of that union. He was soon to be the older brother to Isaac. He incurred Sarah’s anger by teasing Isaac, and she insisted that Abraham send him and his mother away. Abraham sent them out into the wilderness, and Hagar was convinced they would both die in that wasteland. But God rescued them and promised that Ishmael would father his own nation. 
            Abraham and Isaac seemed to have a solid father and son relationship, except for that brief moment when Abraham was told by God to build an altar and sacrifice Isaac on it.  Abraham was ready to do it, but an angel of the Lord stepped in at the last minute and stopped him, even as he raised the knife to his own child. Isaac grew up and met Rebekah.  They married, and she, like her mother-in-law before her, struggled with infertility.  She and Isaac finally had twin boys; Esau and Jacob.  Esau the older brother was exploited and tricked by Jacob, the younger brother.  Esau also went on to father a nation, but for a long time he was determined to kill his little brother; a desire that was shared by his nephews for their younger brother.
            Jacob ran from Esau, but met God in a dream and Rachel by a well.  Jacob was promised by Rachel’s father, Laban, that he would be able to marry Rachel, but Jacob the trickster was tricked. He thought he was marrying Rachel. He married her older sister, Leah, instead. Jacob was a man of many wives. He married Rachel, but he also fathered sons with Zilhah and Bilpah.  With Leah he had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and eventually Dinah.  With Zilhah he had Gad and Asher.  With Bilpah he fathered, Naphtali and Dan.  And with Rachel, his beloved, he fathered Joseph and Benjamin. 
            A lot of sibling rivalry; a lot of strange and strained family dynamics. Abraham and Sarah played favorites with Isaac over Ishmael.  Isaac played favorites as well, loving Esau more than Jacob. Rebekah favored Jacob.  Finally, Jacob played favorites with Joseph.  That’s our jumping off point today. 
            Jacob and his entire clan have settled in Canaan. The first detail we read about Joseph is that he’s 17 and has been with his brothers, helping them tend the flocks. For some reason, he brings a bad report about them back to Jacob. The text doesn’t mince any words about Israel’s love for Joseph.
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age.” 
Because of Israel’s love for Joseph, he gave him a special coat.  While the traditional interpretation has been “a coat of many colors,” the closer translation is what we read in our text, “a long robe with sleeves.” Why would this long coat with sleeves have been such an extraordinary gift to receive? Why would it have signaled Israel’s favoritism for Joseph, other than he took the time to make only one son a coat? Clothing not only covered and protected one’s person; it signified someone’s position in society. A common laborer wore the clothing of a common laborer. A shepherd wore the clothing of a shepherd. Someone who had a long coat with sleeves probably wasn’t destined for the fields for very long. Besides the impracticality of that kind of garment for shepherding flocks or harvesting crops, it would have been a coat worn by someone with status. Joseph was 17, but his father made it clear with the gift of this coat that Joseph ranked higher, not only in Israel’s affections, but in status and position over his brothers. That favoritism did not go unnoticed, which brings us back to where we started.
The family dynamics that resulted in Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery began long before this brutal action. While we may scoff at the idea of doing something so utterly unconscionable to our siblings, think about how we humans treat other humans. When I was a kid, I was taught that I was a part of my immediate family, but even more I was a member of God’s family. Jill and Brad were not my only siblings, all of God’s children were. How do we treat our brothers and sisters? How do we harm them and they us? How do we respond to the dreamers in our midst?
In the courtyard outside of the Lorraine Motel, now the Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, Tennessee is a plaque. The Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King, Jr. was staying when he went to Memphis to speak in support of the striking Black garbage workers and their demands for equal pay and just treatment. It was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, seemingly putting an end to his great dream for a truly equal and equitable America.
The words on this large stone plaque are a quote from Ralph David Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was quoting these verses in Genesis during his sermon and eulogy at the funeral service for Dr. King.
“They said to one another, behold, here cometh the dreamer … let us slay him … and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
This human family we live in, well our family dynamics are flawed at best. Yet the stories of Genesis, the stories of these families, our families, make up the larger story of God’s promise – God’s promise to them and to us. God’s promise was not impeded or thwarted by the terrible ways our forefathers and foremothers treated one another. It was not stopped by favoritism or anger or jealousy or revenge. It was not held hostage to their flawed ways of being family. God’s promise is not held hostage by our flawed ways either. We humans are capable of wondrous things, and we are capable of great evil. But God’s extravagant and gracious and loving promise to us continues and grows and finds fulfillment in spite of ourselves. That is the great and glorious good news. God works through us, through our family dynamics, to bring about good and love for us, for all of us, for all of God’s family.
Children of God, let us give thanks and say, “Alleluia!”

Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Promises

Genesis 15:1-6
September 18, 2016

            The Grand Canyon has recently been designated as a Dark Sky site. Like a place that has an historical or a wilderness designation, a Dark Sky certification means that this is a place where the problem of light pollution has been addressed; where artificial lights have been changed and refitted so that the night sky, the dark sky, can be seen in all of its glory. Light pollution is so ubiquitous that two-thirds of the world’s population has never seen the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. Light pollution not only affects our vision of the night sky, it causes havoc with the instincts of nocturnal animals and other creatures. Light pollution is wasted energy. As the journalist, who reported on the Grand Canyon’s Dark Sky designation, said, light pollution is one of the easiest fixes. You change the lighting and you fix the problems associated with it. It took two years to find all of the lights installed in and around the Grand Canyon. It will take a few years more before all of the lighting is updated to the right kinds of lights that prevent light pollution. But as a Dark Sky site, a clear night at the Grand Canyon means that stars, planets and the glow of the Milky Way are visible. A Dark Sky gives us back the night sky.
            Abram would have not understood our contemporary problem of light pollution. Everywhere he went was a Dark Sky site. So imagine, if you can, the multitude of stars that were visible to Abram and the glow of the Milky Way that shone down on him when God instructed him to look up at the stars. A lot has happened since the beginning of Chapter 12 when God first spoke to Abram and told him to go.
            “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make you name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
            God said go. Abram went. He went with his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, and their households. The journey to this land God promised was not an easy one. They ran into trouble in Egypt, when Abram told Sarai to tell the Pharaoh that she was his sister, not his wife. He and Lot parted company. God promised Abram again that he and Serai will have a child; they will be the patriarch and matriarch of a great nation. Lot got stuck in a conflict between different kings, and Abram rescued him. Years passed. Many years passed. But God’s promise of a child had yet to be fulfilled. Abram and Sarai grew older and older and older. It was inconceivable that Sarai could ever conceive.
            We come to our moment in their story and the Lord spoke to Abram again. The Lord came to Abram in a vision, a dream, and spoke the words that will be spoken to God’s children again and again. “Do not be afraid.”
            “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
            As I said, years had passed, yet God’s promise of children and nations and blessings must have seemed more distant and more unlikely to Abram than ever. I have no problem believing that Abram was wrestling with doubt. He voiced that struggle to God.
            O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
            One commentator wrote that God’s reply to Abram was as good as saying, “You better change your will.” God reiterated God’s promises of blessings and descendents. Not only did God speak these promises to Abram once again, God employed an object lesson.
            “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” “So shall your descendents be.”
            This was a Dark Sky. Abram would never have been able to count all those stars. It would have taken more than lifetime for him to count the stars that shone above him. That was God’s point. You can’t count the number of stars in the heaven; you won’t be able to count the descendents I will give you. It will be more than you can count, more than you can fathom, more than you can imagine. God’s promise to Abram exceeded the boundaries of Abram’s imagination.
            The final verse of our passage is one that has been quoted and quoted again. “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
            God reckoned Abram’s belief to him as righteousness. God credited Abram with righteousness. Abram believed. God gave him credit for it. It seems simple enough. If we only believe and trust in God’s promises, as Abram did, then we will have righteousness credited to our cosmic account.
            However as I understand it, the Hebrew in this sentence is ambiguous. It could also read that Abram reckoned it to God as righteousness. Our first response to that might be indignation; who is Abram to reckon God with righteousness?! Yet, isn’t that what we do when we take the leap of faith and believe God – when we trust and hold fast to the assurance that God keeps God’s promises. We credit God with righteousness. I believe in God’s promises, even though those promises seem a long time in coming, because I trust that God is righteous. God’s promises are trustworthy. I trust God because God is righteous.  Still, Abram is not perfect in his trust. It will be over a decade before Isaac is actually born. In the next chapter, Sarai gives Hagar to Abram and Ishmael is born to be Abram’s heir. Abram and Sarai give into the temptation to take matters into their own hands. Just as we do. I think the major obstacle we have in trusting God’s promises, in trusting that God is righteous, is that these promises seem situated far off in the unknown and murky future, and they seem in direct conflict with the reality of today.
            Today, it can be hard to trust in God’s promises. Today, it can be tough to credit God with righteousness. Everywhere we turn there is suffering and hatred, warfare and pain, destruction and death. God is righteous, but the present world is not. Yet it is this present that we live in. It is this present that drives us. It is much more expedient to take matters into our own hands, and make our own future. But it seems to me that the opposite of trust is not disbelief, it is control. To trust God does not mean that we just sit around and wait for something divine to happen. Trusting God is not passive. But when I try to control everyone and everything around me; when I try to control and manipulate and dictate how I think my life should be, God very kindly and very firmly lets me fall on my … face.
            Be honest, if you were to look up in the night sky would you believe that the descendents of this congregation will ever be as numerous as the stars? Will we be a church filled with children and young people and new generations once again? Or will we continue childless?
            Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t. I’m not convinced that God’s promises are tailor made to suit an individual congregation, or an individual for that matter. But I do believe that God’s promises are for all of us – all of God’s children. I do believe that God’s promises are bigger and more expansive than anything we can imagine. I do believe that God refuses to give up on us or abandon us or leave us to our own deficient devices. I do believe in the goodness and trustworthiness of God’s promises, even as I struggle with my own doubt. I believe in God’s promises for the future because I remember the ways God has kept His promises in the past. I struggle with doubt, and I wrestle with my faith, and I question God. But when all is said and done, I move forward step by step believing, hoping and trusting that God holds our present and our future in His hands; his righteous, gracious and loving hands. Look into the night sky and know that God’s promises outnumber the stars. May we all reckon God with righteousness and trust in God’s promises.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”

            Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Story of Us

Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-8
September 11, 2016

Well, I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, Tell me where are you going?
This he told me
Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's Farm,
Gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
                                                            Joni Mitchell

            “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” These lyrics are from the song Woodstock. Joni Mitchell wrote them, but the performance of them that I know and love best is by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I’ve listened to this song countless times over the years, but until I started working on this sermon, I’d never thought too much about the line, “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” I’m assuming, and I believe my assumption is correct, that this is a reference not just to Yasgur’s farm or to the Woodstock concert itself, but to the Garden of Eden.
            It’s a nice idea, isn’t it; getting back to the garden, getting back to a time and place when human beings and creation, human beings and God lived in perfect harmony.  Wars were not yet fought. Poverty was not even a concept, much less a reality. There were no isms to overcome; racism, sexism, ageism, etc. Justice was not necessary because there was nothing to cause injustice. If only that snake would have kept his mouth shut. I almost entitled this sermon, “This Is Why I Hate Snakes.” But the snake is only one part of this story.
            That leads to the question I have been asking myself all week; what is this story really all about? I know that theologically speaking, it is about God’s creation and humanity’s fall. It is about original sin, and Adam and Eve’s disobedience. It is the story that has justified centuries of violence toward women because Eve took the first bite of the forbidden fruit. It is the history of humanity’s first bad decision. It is the reason there is a garden to which we are constantly trying to return. It is the story of how Adam and Eve lived in paradise, until the tricky serpent came along, and God’s original children listened to the snake instead of God.
            But was the garden perfect? What do we mean when call something “perfect”? Was it without flaw? Was it a place where no mistakes could be made? If that’s true, then it wasn’t perfect because mistakes were made; hence, why we’re trying to get back to it. If God created it to be perfect, then the snake would not have had the ability to whisper tantalizing suggestions in Eve’s ear. If it were perfect, then Eve would not have considered disobeying and taking the fruit. If it were perfect, Adam would not have stood beside her through all of this and done nothing.
            Maybe the Garden of Eden was not perfect. Maybe God did not create us to be perfect; at least not perfect in the way we understand perfection. God created Adam to be in relationship with God. As one of my friends pointed out in Bible study, God spoke creation into existence. If you read the first account of creation that is what God did. God spoke it into existence. But when it came to Adam, God got his hands dirty. God took the ground and formed Adam. The name Adam is a Hebrew play on words from the word for ground, which is adamah. God formed Adam from the ground, and you would think that if God’s hands formed humanity, then humanity should indeed be perfect, right? Yet Adam and Eve were not perfect. Perfect people do not disobey. They did.
            I loved playing with my dollhouse when I was a kid. I could arrange the furniture anyway I wanted to. I could put the doll family who lived there in any room, have them do anything I chose, say anything I wanted them to say. They were inanimate objects, and they did what I commanded. I guess if God had wanted to create perfection, we would have been created like those dolls. God could move us around where God chose. God could make us do and say what God wanted. But that is not how Adam and Eve were created. That is not how we were created.
            God created Adam to be in relationship with God and with the rest of God’s creation. God created Eve to be in relationship with Adam and with God and with the rest of God’s creation. God created us for relationship. God created us with free will. We were given brains to think and bodies to move and use. We were given the freedom to say, “No.”
            I’ve come to believe, as heretical as it may sound, that the Garden of Eden was not a perfect place – at least not in the way that I have always defined perfection. I believe it was a place of abundance. I believe it was a place where the chaos was kept at bay. Remember, when God spoke the world into being, God pushed back the chaos. But the chaos was not destroyed or eliminated. The Garden of Eden was a place of abundance and safety, but not perfection. The couple and the creatures that inhabited it were also not perfect. Those two free-thinking, imperfect people did what all free-thinking, imperfect people do. They messed up. They acted wrongly. They broke relationship with God. They fell, and they were sent out into the world where the chaos threatened to come rushing in – and often it did. Often it does.
            It seems to me that the story of Adam and Eve is the story of us. It is the story of the human condition. It is the story of broken relationship and the sadness and consequences that follow. It is the story of us. We are Adam and Eve. We continue to break relationship. We continue to make bad choices. We continue to suffer the consequences of our brokenness. It is the story of us.
            How fitting it is, then, that this story of us is chosen for this particular day. Fifteen years ago, on a beautiful September morning, while I held my two-month-old in my arms and watched my two-year-old play on the floor, I and the rest of the country, the rest of the world, also watched in horror as planes flew into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. We heard of another plane bound for Washington D.C. that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. We watched on our televisions as chaos swept back in. We witnessed the moment when families were ripped apart, when parents would no longer come home to their children and children would not be returned to their parents. Our terrible brokenness was on full display. Our human condition had never seemed lower and more wretched. Yet we also saw those who worked to keep the chaos at bay; those who rescued and helped, those who sacrificed their own lives to go in when others were desperately trying to get out. It was a horrific and appalling and heartbreaking chapter in the story of us.
            Fifteen years later, we are still broken. The chaos still threatens to overwhelm us. This is the most rancorous election seasons I have ever been privy to, and I know that I get caught up in and contribute to that rancor. I wonder sometimes, especially when I feel to the depths of my being the hatred and anger that seems all around me, if the story of us will ever have a happy ending; if there will ever be a chapter devoted to peace and compassion, to justice and righteousness. If the writing of this story is left up to us, then I doubt that chapter will ever be written. But the good news is that it is most assuredly not left up to us. Because back when the story of us began, back when we were still in the Garden, back before we listened to that sneaky snake, God created us to be in relationship with one another and with God. We broke the relationship. We broke it and we have suffered and struggled ever since. But God didn’t break the relationship. God did not end it there. God kept trying to help us write the story. We speak of us trying to get back to the Garden, but in reality I believe it is God who is trying to lead us back there; back to relationship, back to abundance of life and love.
            God is still with us, still writing the story of us. In spite of the terrible things we do to one another, God is still pushing back the chaos and calling us to do the same by showing the same love, compassion and mercy to others that God shows us. It seems to me that the story of us is not yet finished, because the story of us is the story of God. We are broken, but God is still creating, still shaping us with his merciful hands; still loving us with his unconditional love. Thanks. Be. To. God. 
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”

            Amen.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Cost

Luke 14:25-33
September 4, 2016

            Having a realtor for a significant other has taught me a great deal about real estate. I can talk fairly intelligently about things such as comps, appraisals, and listings, but I’ve also learned about the code of ethics that realtors must follow. One tenet of that code is about the advertising of a property. Whatever is advertised about a property must be true. If a listing says four bedrooms, there better be four bedrooms. But Brent told me that while there is no room for false advertising in real estate, agents are allowed to use what is known as “puffing.”
            Puffing is essentially using adjectives in exceptionally creative manners. If you read that a house is cozy, that probably means that it is tiny. If a house is described as quaint, most likely it’s old. I think charming could be used for both tiny and old as well. If a house is a fixer-up or it is listed as needing TLC, you know that a) it needs a lot of work; and b) you might want to hope there isn’t too strong of a wind on the day you view it.
            These statements are not lies. They are not false advertising. They are puffed. They are adjectives designed to put a good spin on whatever a property has to offer. Although I’d never heard the term, “puffing,” before, I think versions of it are used in other businesses besides real estate. When you are trying to make something sound appealing, you phrase the facts in ways that actually appeal; you puff.
            Some of you have commented on the information cards about the church that Alice and I created. We originally made these to give out to the OBU students at Spotlight on Shawnee, but they are generic enough that we can hand them to anyone who might be looking for a church home. The reason I bring these cards up is because I think that Alice and I did our own version of puffing when we made them. Everything on the card is true. There were no false claims made. But as we talked through what should go on the card, we tried to phrase the information so that it would sound true and appealing – to college students and beyond. We didn’t just write, “We have nice sermons and sweet worship each week.” We wrote that we have “challenging, scriptural preaching and eclectic worship.” You get the idea. It’s not that our facts are untrue, it is that we wanted to list them in a way that would grab someone’s attention: puffing.
            Jesus did not care about puffing. His description of the cost of discipleship would not have made a good ad, and no one would put it on an information card. Jesus did not try to soften or gentle his words. He spoke the blunt, hard truth about the cost of following him.
            “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            That’s not puffing. That’s anti-puffing. Discipleship will not be a time of thoughtful engagement with Jesus, or a challenging opportunity for physical, emotional and spiritual growth. No, discipleship comes with a cost, and the cost will be family. The cost will be friends. The cost will be home and hearth. The cost will even be life itself. If you want to be my disciple, you better count the cost.
            Jesus gave two examples to illustrate how important it was for a potential follower to count the cost. Someone planning on building a tower would sit down and figure out the cost of construction first. If they weren’t to do that, then they would lay the foundation, but run out of money before they could complete it, leaving them vulnerable to derision and scorn from others.
            Or what about a king who plans to wage war on another kingdom? A king with any sense would first calculate the cost of war, and assess the ability of his army of 10,000 to take on an enemy army of 20,000. If his army of 10,000 had no chance of winning against an army twice that size, then the king would send a delegation asking the other king for peace.
            If you wouldn’t build a tower or start a war without counting the cost, Jesus said to the would-be followers, then why would you not count it before following me? Just to make this anti-puffing picture complete, Jesus ends with the words,
            “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
            Let’s see here, if we want to follow Jesus; if we want to become his disciple, we have to hate all of the people that we love. We have to carry this cross. And, we have to give up all of our possessions. 
            Nothing on this list of requirements sounds good. But what bothers me when I read this passage, and others like it, is the hating of the ones I love most. Some commentators explain this as hyperbolic language on Jesus’ part. That is a plausible explanation. However preacher and teacher, Fred Craddock, wrote that a Semitic understanding of Jesus’ cautionary words would not have seen hatred as loathing or despising someone. To hate someone was to detach from that person. It was not a feeling of disgust. It was a detachment, emotionally and physically. If you want to follow Jesus, you’re going to have to detach yourself even from the people you love most in this world. Jesus wanted those potential followers to understand that discipleship was not a part-time commitment. It was not something they could in their spare time. It would require everything: everything they had to give emotionally and physically. Hence, Jesus’ final admonition; if you want to follow me, you’re going to have give up all of your possessions. Material goods make a claim on us just as people do. You have to let all of that go in order to follow him. Anything that stakes a claim on you, other than Jesus, other than a driving, compelling call to follow, has to be let go, given away, released.
            However, what about that other requirement; the one in the middle of Jesus’ words about discipleship – the one about carrying the cross? Jesus spoke words like this before. He had already told potential followers that there would be a cost involved with discipleship. He spoke plainly to the disciples about the Messiah suffering and dying, He even told them that they would also have to pick up their own crosses and follow him. But the crowds around him were getting bigger. Perhaps this message needed to be repeated. Yet, I’m not sure that anyone could fully grasp the implication of Jesus’ words. It is redundant to say that the disciples didn’t. We know that already. We know a lot of things already. We know what it meant for Jesus to set his face toward Jerusalem. That is the context of this passage. He was going to Jerusalem; not only to pick up his cross but to die on it as well.
            But those around him did not know the final outcome. They did not know what would really take place in Jerusalem. Even the disciples, though they tried to understand, were baffled at the idea of a messiah suffering and dying. Death on a cross was a common Roman execution, so that would not have been unfamiliar to them. Yet the idea that Jesus, their Jesus, could die in such a way was probably too much for them to bear.
           But we who know the rest of the story know what comes next. We know exactly what it means to pick up the cross. Or do we? If I ask the question, “What does it mean for you to pick up your cross", what is your answer? Is it a way that we imitate Jesus? Is it about trying to follow in his footsteps? Is it about what will come in the life after this one? Would your answer be one based on resurrection, death defeated, salvation?
            It’s not that any of those answers are incorrect. Yet, maybe we need to stop thinking about the future and figure out what it means for us to pick up our crosses today. I mean right now, this minute. What does it mean for you to pick up your cross? Do you think of your cross as a burden? Or are the burdens of your life keeping you from picking up your cross?  What must we let go so we can carry that cross with both hands, and follow Jesus with open hearts and open minds?
            I know that one burden I have to let go is fear: fear that I’m not good enough, strong enough, able enough, etc. I want to pick up my cross and follow Jesus, but how afraid I am that I can’t do what he asks. That’s my answer to the question today. Tomorrow my answer might be different. It seems to me that this might be the crux Jesus’ question and our answer. Jesus not only told the crowds that discipleship required counting the cost, Jesus was telling them to choose. You have to choose in order to follow me. You have to make a choice to be my disciple. I’ve realized that this choice is not a one-time decision. Choosing is a daily, mindful, intentional task. Everyday, I have to choose. I have to choose to pick up my cross. I have to discern what must be released so I can make the choice in the first place. I have to choose. We have to choose. We have to count the cost, true, but we have to choose in order for that cost to be counted. We have to choose discipleship. We have to choose the cross. We have to choose to follow him.
            The good news, and one that I am reminded of as we gather around this table, is that the choice is ever before us. However we may falter and fall away today, the choice will be there tomorrow, and the even more wonderful good news is that when we choose to pick up our cross, we also choose abundant life and abundant love. And no matter how reluctant we may be to let go of all of the stuff that claims us, God refuses to let go of us.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”

            Amen.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Quid Pro Quo

Luke 14:1, 7-14
August 28, 2016

            The movie, Finding Neverland, tells a romanticized version of the story of J.M. Barrie, the author and playwright of “Peter Pan.” In the movie Barrie meets George and Michael Llewlyn Davies, two of the five sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, in London’s Kensington Park. George, Michael and their three brothers were Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan. Barrie befriends the family and becomes a guardian for the boys after Sylvia’s death.
            In the movie, Barrie instructs the play’s promoter to save 25 seats on opening night. Scatter those seats around the house, Barrie told him. Barrie won’t explain why he wants those seats saved, but he insists. The promoter does so reluctantly. On opening night show time arrives, but the mysterious theater goers who were supposed to occupy those seats have not. Barrie and the promoter, Charles, are standing outside of the theater, waiting. Charles is upset and tells Barrie that those 25 seats could have been sold to actual customers. He walks back inside to tell them to begin the play. Barrie still looking out at the street sees the seat holders walking up the sidewalk. 25 children from an orphanage are making their way to the theater, the littlest ones holding hands with the older children. Barrie calls Charles back and tells him that the 25 guests have arrived.
            “Excuse them for being late. It takes them longer to walk, shorter legs.”
            Charles is not happy about the arrival of orphans. Neither are the other members of the audience. We know “Peter Pan,” as a children’s story, but it debuted in one of London’s grand theaters, playing to an even grander adult audience.
            These well-heeled, well-to-do theater goers were not thrilled to be sitting next to orphans. As the ushers show the children to their seats, one gentleman is heard saying to his companion, “Well, at least we got one of the cleaner ones.”
            No one but Barrie wanted the orphans there. They were the unlikeliest and most unwelcome of guests. But as the play began, it was the presence of these little children that produced the real magic. Their delight in the magic and mystery and fun of the play was contagious. The adults, who at first were appalled that they would be sitting next to some parent-less ragamuffin, were laughing and clapping along with the little ones. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces gave them joy as well. Barrie’s writing, the actors’ talent, the crew’s skill all made “Peter Pan,” a brilliant play, but it was the children in the audience that gave the play life.
            I don’t know if this story is based on truth, or if it was only in the movie, but real or not, it is a lovely scene in a lovely movie. I like to believe that it did occur, yet it’s hard to imagine that this kind of generosity to such unlikely recipients would happen in real life – then or now. Giving away free seats would have financial consequences. The children would never be able to pay for them. I doubt the orphanage would have had the financial means either. At first glance, there was nothing that the children could do to return the favor of those seats and that experience. Any thought of quid pro quo was out the window. (Rhyme intended)
            Quid pro quo is doing a favor in order to receive a favor and/or giving something with the expectation of getting something in return. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I’ll do this for you, but you have to do something for me. I assume that quid pro quo is an underlying factor in most of politics. But quid pro quo isn’t confined to the political aspect of our society. Quid pro quo, doing something for someone else in order to receive something else, is a tenet underlying our daily lives. Whether I am aware of it or not, I function with the expectation that when something is done something else will be done in return. This expectation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Returning favors is a way of thanking someone. You helped me out, now I want to help you out.
            However quid pro quo also seems to be a way of keeping score. I invited the Smiths over to dinner five times, but they’ve only invited me once. I win. I did this for that person, but they have yet to respond in kind. I’m going to give them the cold shoulder or hound them or be angry with them or whatever … until they do. Quid pro quo: I do for you; you surely should do for me.
            At first glance, these verses from Luke’s gospel – especially the beginning parable – seem to be more about proper etiquette at a dinner party than parable. Unlike other parables, Jesus did not tell a story about some third person or persons. In this parable, Jesus used second person; you.
            “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
            It’s only in verse 11 that this parable seems to have a theological point. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
            Then Jesus turned to the host and said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
            Outside of the fact that both sets of Jesus’ instructions focus on dinners and banquet tables, I struggled a bit with how the two fit together. If you are a guest, don’t choose a place of honor for yourself. If you are a host, don’t invite anyone to your banquet who could invite you back.
            It seems to me that the common denominator is not just about dinner parties; it is about expectation. When you are a guest, don’t expect that you will occupy any place but the lowest seat at the table. Implied in that is the idea that you don’t expect a seat of honor even if you gave a seat of honor at your table to the person who invited you. Don’t expect to be honored. Choose the humble place.
            And do not invite guests who can do anything for you. Choose the humble ones. If you invite those who can do something for you, you will expect them to return the invitation. Invite those who can do absolutely nothing for you in return. Invite them, fill every seat with the blind, the lame, the crippled, the poor, the least of these.
            In either scenario, do not go into the dinner party with a need for or assuming quid pro quo. As I already said, quid pro quo is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be used in bad ways, but the idea itself is not bad. That is, unless it drives the work and ministry of the church.
            Do we seek out new members because they can help us keep the lights on and salaries paid? Or do we seek out new members so that we can widen our ministry, so that we can share the love of God with an ever-widening circle of people? I know. I know. Without people in the pews, the church will not survive. I know that without people in the pews, I cannot expect a salary. This is the fine line I walk as a pastor. It is my call and my vocation, and it is my job. Quid pro quo.
            Outside of members, do we serve others because we feel called to do so, because we want to live and love as Jesus did? Or do we put conditions on serving others? Do we serve only those we believe deserve it?
            One of my saddest moments in ministry was in a conversation I had with some church folks a long time ago. They were not members of my congregation, but I knew these people well and our ministries merged. A member of their church was starting a brown bag lunch program for children in their community. As you probably know, weekends and holidays are some of the hungriest times for kids who live in food insecure and poor households. School breakfast and lunch programs are often the only substantive meals a child may get in a day.
            I was awed by the fact that this member was starting this program, and I said that to the folks I was speaking with. Their response shocked me. They didn’t want the program to happen. They thought it was terrible. Sure, there were some needy kids out there, but a program like this made no distinction as to who got the lunch and who didn’t. They thought it was a terrible ministry because children who were not actually in need might get a brown bag lunch. They didn’t deserve it. They didn’t need it, so if there was even a possibility that undeserving children might get a free lunch then no children should get a free lunch. Quid pro quo.
            Jesus made it clear that expectation of repayment – whatever shape that repayment might take – was not to be a part of the banquet. There was no room for quid pro quo at the dinner table Jesus described. The only true quid pro quo was from God. Here’s the thing, even God does not respond in kind. We call that grace.
            May we show the grace and love and mercy to others that God shows us, whether it is returned or not. No quid pro quo, but just because.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”
            Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bending the Rules

Luke 13:10-17
August 21, 2016

            A book series that I devoured as a child was the autobiographical Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all of them, but my favorite—then and now – is Little House in the Big Woods,” which was the first book in the series. In these books, Laura Ingalls Wilder told the story of her life and her family’s as they moved from Wisconsin, then westward. Little House in the Big Woods is about her early childhood in Wisconsin.
            Wilder wrote about daily life in a small house in the big woods of Wisconsin. While you wouldn’t assume that descriptions of making maple syrup candy in snow or churning butter or listening to Pa play his fiddle were interesting, Wilder made the stories of her childhood fascinating. One of the days she described in detail was Sunday.
            Sundays were difficult for Laura anytime, but they were especially challenging in the winter. They were already stuck in the house most of the time, but Sundays were worse. On Sundays Laura and Mary were clean from their baths on Saturday night. They wore their best dresses and had ribbons in their hair. The girls had to sit quietly all day. They could not run or jump or play any games. Mary couldn’t sew on her little quilt. Laura could not knit the little mittens she was making for her baby sister, Carrie. They could look at their paper dolls, but they could not sew on any doll clothes for them. The girls could hold and talk to their rag dolls, but no playing with them. They could listen quietly while Ma read Bible stories, or stories about exotic animals from Pa’s big book , The Wonders of the Animal World. Laura and Mary were allowed to look at pictures, and Laura liked looking at the pictures in the Bible the best. One of her favorites was the story of Adam naming the animals. Laura liked this picture because Adam was so comfortable, sitting there without any clothes on. She envied Adam not having clothes to keep clean and tidy. I remember reading this description of Sundays as a child and thinking, “I am so glad I live now and not then. Our Sundays aren’t nearly so bad.”
             Our Sundays aren’t nearly so bad. Looking back, I realize that’s a sad way to view the Sabbath. Although I didn’t have the same rigid restrictions that Laura Ingalls Wilder had, I dreaded Sundays when I was a kid. I had to wear a dress. Sunday school wasn’t too bad, but I had to sit through an unending church service that I didn’t understand. I had to be quiet. I couldn’t fidget. There was an altar call every Sunday, but my parents never let me go forward when Brother Bob invited folks to come down. For Laura and for me, Sunday was a day to be endured not embraced. It was a day of rules and regulations. It was more about what you couldn’t do, then about what you could.
            That’s the essence of what we read in our passage from Luke: what you could and could not do on the Sabbath. Only Luke’s gospel tells this story of a woman bent over for almost two decades. It was the Sabbath day and Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. As Luke described it, this crippled woman, bent over from a spirit for 18 years, appeared. There is no indication that she came looking for healing. It would seem she came for the same reason everyone else did – to worship and to obey the laws of the Sabbath.
            But Jesus saw her. He called out to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He laid his hands on her and she stood straight for the first time in a long, long time. When she did, her first response was to praise God. We might expect that this would be the end of the story. Jesus healed; the woman praised, the people rejoiced, the end. But the healing was just the beginning. When the leader of the synagogue saw that Jesus healed the woman, he became angry. The text tells us that he was “indignant,” that Jesus “cured on the Sabbath.” Instead of confronting Jesus, he turned to the crowd and said, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” The irony of this is that the leader did not question Jesus’ healing. He did not question the fact that Jesus had the power to heal, instead he questioned when Jesus healed.
            Although the man did not speak directly to Jesus, Jesus spoke directly to him.
            “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham who Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
            When Moses brought the Law down from the top of the mountain, there were Ten Commandments. But when the people finally began to obey them, they took them from ten to approximately 600; 600 rules and laws and requirements that the people were to strictly follow if they wanted to remain in God’s good graces. Some of the most elaborate rules were the ones that dictated the ways people were to keep the Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath meant no work. However, letting animals starve and thirst was not acceptable either, so they could be tended to without being violation of the Law. But curing this woman would have been seen as work. After all, she had been crippled for 18 years, what’s one more day?
            Yet Jesus called the leader’s reprimand hypocrisy. Whether the Pharisees and the other leaders of the day realized it or not, they had put the well-being of their animals over and above the well-being of God’s children. Jesus called the woman a “daughter of Abraham,” a stark reminder that this woman was an inheritor of the covenant and the promise of God the same as the religious leaders, the same as anyone else. What’s one more day?! Why should this woman wait one more day when she could be cured of an illness that had robbed her of so many years? Jesus was not going to let her wait one more day, no not one more second, when healing could be hers immediately. It was the Sabbath, true, but what better day to cure her, to heal her, than on the Sabbath day?
            This is a healing story, but it also brings up a larger question. What is the Sabbath actually intended for? Is it merely a day in which the rules of what to avoid are even more strenuous? Does keeping Sabbath only mean what you cannot do?
            Most of Jesus’ ministry was about not just bending the rules, but about upending people’s expectations: about the Law, about God, about the messiah. This story is no exception. Jesus not only forced the religious leadership to face their hypocrisy, he turned upside down the meaning of Sabbath. After all, where did the example of Sabbath come from? From God. God created for six days, but on the seventh he rested. Does this mean that God needed a break? Was God tired? Or was this an illustration of God taking what I call a “divine pause.” It was a moment of rest and of pausing, after time spent creating and making and life-giving.
            Nowhere does it say that God rested so that rules and regulations could be fulfilled. Nowhere does it say that God rested so that God might avoid doing the wrong thing. The Sabbath was a divine pause, a chance to exhale, a chance to enjoy what had been created, and perhaps even to imagine what would come.
            But in trying to follow God’s command to keep Sabbath, the people had only created more and more rules. They saw the Sabbath, not as a pause, but as a day of requirement and avoidance. Jesus said, “No.” The Sabbath was not just a day for avoidance; it was a day to be filled. It was a day to be filled with worship, with thanksgiving, with praise for God and God’s good gifts. It was a day to be filled with life. Jesus filled that day by giving life back to this woman who had been bent over for so long. Jesus filled that day by freeing this woman from bondage. And if anything goes against God’s order it is bondage, whether that bondage is physical, emotional or spiritual. Jesus did not reduce the Sabbath to mere avoidance; instead he filled it with life, with freedom, with love. Jesus bent the rules, but he fulfilled the Law. This brought his opponents to shame, but the crowds of people rejoiced.
            What do we fill our Sabbath with? We’re here. We’re worshipping. We are giving praise and thanks. But I wonder if we’re not being called to reexamine our own understandings of Sabbath. I made the point earlier that the leaders, wittingly or not, made the care of animals more important than people. I love animals. I hate animal abuse. I hate seeing any animal, pet or otherwise, harmed. Yet on social media I often see more outrage about the harming of animals than I do about the harming of people.
            I despise animal abuse, but what about the children who are being abused? What about the children who are dying in the ongoing genocide taking place in Syria? What about the women and men who experience violence here and around the world? What about the families that are torn apart? What about the people, God’s people, who are dying without sense or reason? Why should they wait one more day for healing, for freedom, for life?
            I know that we cannot leave here on this day and change the world. But perhaps we can leave it with changed intention. Perhaps we can leave it with new found resolve and determination to participate in God’s work of creativity and giving life. Perhaps we can leave here determined to fill the Sabbath day and everyday with God’s peace and justice by helping to bring God’s children, daughters and sons of Abraham, out of death and into life. Why should anyone wait one more day to live full and healthy lives? What better day than today, the Sabbath, to recommit ourselves, we followers of Christ, to being instruments of God’s peace, justice, wholeness and life? What better day than today to bear God’s love into God’s world?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”

            Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Running the Race

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
August 14, 2016

            Have you ever watched five-year-old kids playing soccer for the first time? If you haven’t, you should find an opportunity to do so. They are so much fun to watch, because they’re just playing for the fun of it. At that age scoring isn’t an issue. There is no sense of one team winning and the other team losing. The kids learn to kick the ball towards one end of the field or the other. And they run. They do a lot of running. All the kids, regardless of team, chase the ball up and down the field. That’s the fun part. They just love to run, and if the ball happens to go where it is supposed to, great. But what is really fun is the running.
            When I was a little kid, I liked to run. I didn’t run with any purpose, other than it was fun. I was a child on the go. My mother used the word, “busy,” to describe me. I was constantly doing something, and running was often the quickest way to get from one activity to the next. Back then, running felt good. There were a lot of kids on my street, and we were always playing games like hide and seek, freeze tag, kick-the-can, etc. Running around in those games, I never worried that I was a fast or a slow runner. I didn’t care if I was caught or if I was ‘it.” I loved to play. I loved to have fun. And I loved running. It was fun.
            When I got older, especially when I hit adolescence, running stopped being fun. I still liked playing games, but running went from something you did just because to something you had to do for points and grades. With adolescence came physical and hormonal changes, and I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – run as fast as other kids. I was generally one of the slower runners. That shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but when we had to run the mile in gym class and our times were tracked, you didn’t want to be a slow runner. There were physical standards that you had to meet. Other kids noticed who was a fast runner and who wasn’t. Running became more about the competition than about the joy. I still had to run, but it no longer felt good.
            A few years ago, I tried to start running for exercise. I do a lot of other exercising, but I really wanted to complete a 5K. However, I soon discovered that running at an older age presented a brand new set of problems. I was not as self-conscious about how I looked running as I was when I was a teenager, but I quickly remembered that I was not a teenager in a whole of other ways. Back in the old days, I would not wake up the next day after a run stiff and sore, practically unable to move. In my childhood, I didn’t worry about bone spurs or other foot problems. I never considered the reality of charley horses waking me up during the night, or shin splints. I felt immune to the tiresome ailments and aches and pains that pop up as you get older. When I was a kid, I ran without worrying about the effects of running. It wasn’t for exercise. It wasn’t to compete. It wasn’t for a grade or to measure up. I just ran to run.
            It would seem that over the years I have developed an antipathy toward running. So why would I choose to preach from our passage in Hebrews? It’s one thing to talk about the heroes of faith, but the last two verses we read are about running; not just any kind of running, but running the race. The preacher in Hebrews seems to be making the analogy that this is a foot race of faith. We run it because we look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” who went before us.
            An initial reading of these verses suggests that our faith is a race we either win or lose. That is the struggle that I have had with these verses, and it is one reason why I considered preaching another passage. It would seem that the preacher is exhorting the Hebrews and us to win this race, win no matter what. The problem that I have with that is not what the preacher said, but with the way these words are interpreted. If faith is a race we run, than is it a competition? Are there winners and losers? Do those who run fastest win the greater prize? Do they reach heaven first? And those who can’t run as fast or can’t run at all? What happens to them? There doesn’t seem to be a consolation prize.
            The trouble is with that word, “race.” It has so many connotations. We talk about life as a “rat race.” The world seems to thrive on competition. Business is a competition. Education is a competition. Climbing that so called ladder to success is a competition. If I reach the top first, I win. Our whole model of success is based on the belief of there being winners and losers. Surely no one wants to be considered a loser, right?
            Yet I’m not convinced that this idea of a competition is what the preacher had in mind when he offered these words. Preacher and scholar, Tom Long, wrote in his commentary on this book that the preacher was preaching to people who were exhausted. They were trying to be faithful, trying to keep going, to keep believing, to keep trusting. But their energy was flagging. Some may have been falling away from the faith, because they were just too tired to go on.
            So, as we read last week and today, the preacher lifts up example after example of people who ran the race of faith before them. They endured hardship and uncertainty. They trusted God, even when it seemed foolish to do so. Some were tortured. Some of the faithful were mocked and flogged. Some were imprisoned. Some suffered grisly, brutal deaths because they refused to be anything but faithful. There are so many examples of faith that the preacher wants to list, but he runs out of time. There are too many of them. But here’s what he wants his congregation to understand. All of these faithful people endured. All of them ran the race, and they didn’t stop running. They ran and they didn’t give up. They ran, even thought most would never see the promise of faith fulfilled – at least not in their lifetime on earth. But still they ran. They ran the race, and now they are the “great cloud of witnesses.” I get the sense that the preacher saw this great cloud of witnesses sort of as divine cheerleaders. They ran their race with faith and perseverance, and now they cheer on the next generations of runners.
            It’s almost as if the race of faith that the preacher describes is not a race where some win and some lose. It is a relay race. Those who have gone before pass the baton of faith to the next set of runners. Each generation takes the baton from the one that has gone before. That baton keeps being passed on and down from faithful to faithful to faithful and so on.
            It would seem that running the race of faith is not about winning or losing, it is about finishing. Sometimes I think I would rather give up and lose, than finish. Finishing takes endurance. Finishing takes perseverance. Finishing requires putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how exhausted I may be.
            And yes, being faithful, remaining faithful, can be exhausting. There are days when I would gladly stay in bed, leisurely read the paper, go to brunch. That’s not just on Sundays either. Being faithful is not just physically exhausting. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Being faithful requires mindfulness and intention. For me, being faithful means that I have to really think about what I do and what I say. Am I being the person God created and called me to be? Am I responding to others as Jesus did? Am I living out my faith, I mean really living out my faith – not just in word but in action?
            It’s exhausting. I want to trust that God’s got this; that I am moving in the right direction. But as I said last week, there is too often a dearth of signs affirming that. Sometimes being faithful is exhausting.
            How fortuitous that this passage falls in the middle of the summer Olympics. I know it may seem that I’m against competition, but it has been exciting seeing the amazing athletes competing in the different sports this past week. And I am exceedingly proud of the Americans who have won medals – especially those in swimming and gymnastics. I have to be honest, watching the women win has been incredible, but all of it has been exciting to watch.
            But one thing has made these Olympic Games are different than in other years; for the first time refugees of different nationalities have competed as one team. They carried the Olympic flag and marched to the Olympic anthem. They are athletes from different places in the world, with one thing in common: they had to flee the country of their birth and now live in no country. They are not only without home, they are without nation. The Olympics did this to highlight and emphasize the plight of refugees, and that the world has not seen a refugee crisis like this since World War II.
            If there are people who understand exhaustion, it is them. If there are people who understand perseverance and endurance, it is them. Some swam to flee the danger and violence in their country. Now they swim at the Olympics. Some ran to flee that same danger and violence. Now they run in the Olympics. These are people who understand that it is not about winning or losing, it is about finishing.
            That’s what we are about today. This race that we are running is not a competition. Running this race does not meant that if the Presbyterians win, that must mean the Baptists lose or vice versa. No, this race we are running is about finishing. We are just trying to run faithfully, to run with trust, to run with hope. Yes, we are exhausted at times, and it would be easy to give in and give up. But we hear the words of the preacher, and we see cross in front of us, and so we keep running. It doesn’t matter if we’re fast or slow, what matters is that we endure. What matters is that we persevere. What matters is that we finish. There is joy in the finishing.
            Let all of God’s children, all of us who are called to run this race, say, “Alleluia!”

            Amen.