The Principle of Provision

On the evening of February 19, 1982, CBS Evening News correspondent, Bob Schieffer, reported many important stories of the day including President Reagan’s budget, the Polish Solidarity movement, human atrocities in El Salvador, and a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island.  However, a different story seemed to attract as much attention as any of these other stories.

“After a lot of hoopla and millions of tax dollars spent on commercials and other things to tell us why we needed to go metric, it is the metric system that’s about to go,” 

Schieffer said the dismantling of the Metric Board, a board set up to guide America to changing their form of measurement to match the accepted system of most other nations..

You may remember that attempt to change the way we measure things in the early 1980s, or you may remember it from another attempt in the early 1960s, as well as many other moments in our nation’s history.  The switch from a measurement of halves and quarters, and even thirds, is so engrained in our thinking that switching to a measurement system that uses tens to measure is just a too big of leap to make.  The United States, along with Liberia and Myanmar are the only three nations in the world that still do not use the metric system of measurement.

Despite many business that have made the addition of the metric system to assist in their global trade and some remaining traces of our attempts to switch systems – such as the section of Interstate 19 connecting Tucson to Mexico – the only highway in the US to have distance signs in kilometers – we remain a nation that measures differently than most of the world. 

While there was surely a measure of nationalistic pride at stake in the public’s refusal to make the switch, it was mainly because it is next to impossible, as human beings, to switch our ways of thinking.  I admit, I am one of those humans, while I could adapt to seeing Coca Cola measured in liters, I found it impossible to make the switch to metrics when helping my kids with their third grade math. There could not be enough cheat sheets for me to be able to figure out the number of kilometers Joe was going to have to travel if his trip from Denver to Albuquerque was 449 miles. 

As the close of Jesus earthly ministry was coming to a crescendo, and he was beginning to recognize the shadow of the cross looming a short distance ahead, he began to urgently focus on the things his disciples needed to fully understand.  They were going to be the ones to lead the believers and there were certain things they needed grasp. Things like forgiveness and trust, things that would be essential elements of their teaching and leading, but even more, things that they would need to persevere and survive as leaders.

Grace was at the top of that list.  

You may remember singing ‘Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within.  Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.’ Even as we would sing it, a full understanding of Grace was, and is, a difficult concept to fully grasp.  It is even a greater trait for us to absorb and practice.

The precipitating moment that led Jesus to share the parable about grace in our gospel passage for today, was a discussion with his disciples who inquired ‘What are we going to get for giving up everything to follow you?’

It was an extraordinarily blunt, and, I would think, inappropriate, question, yet it was met with no resistance from Jesus, he seemed to understand the measurement system these men automatically defaulted to.  He understood it was difficult to change the measurement systems of our expectations.

He began, and ended, his response with a very odd and difficult to swallow, statement:

‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first.’

A statement that I am sure solicited the same response it would receive today, 

‘Well, that’s not fair!’

If we are the first in line, we expect to be the first to enter.

If we are the first to work, we expect to be the first to be noticed.

If we are the first to raise our hand, we expect to be the first to receive praise.

If we are the first to be born, we expect to be the first to be blessed.

If we are the first, we do not expect to be last.

Even more, if we are last, we are not expecting to be first.

Let’s face it, it is a crazy system of measurement. It may work in heaven but it is preposterous here on earth. But still, it is the measurement system that God uses because it is the driving characteristic of God, it is his undeniable nature.

Grace.

Jesus explained Grace by telling his disciple a parable.  A parable of a system of measurement that was totally foreign to any system on earth.  It was a system designed in heaven, for heaven.

The fact that this alien system was now being used on earth only made sense if you remember that Jesus told his disciples to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is the standard in heaven.

This is why it was essential that these men, who would be the leaders of Jesus’ followers, understood, it was their calling – they were to switch their system of measurement.  They had to understand!

In this parable there was a farmer that had a field that was ready for workers.  The farmer went to the community market square where workers who needed a field were waiting.  The farmer found out the need of the workers, agreed on the measurement of addressing their need and took them to his field.  Later that morning, the farmer recognized that his field had room for more workers so he returned to the market square where he loaded more workers needing a field, in the afternoon, he once again did the same. At five o clock in the afternoon, basically almost quitting time, as we was in the marketplace again, he noticed more workers standing in the square.

‘Why are you not working?’ He asked them.

“Because no one will hire us,’ they said.

He looked at them, this was not an uncommon collection of people to still be looking for work. They were seldom taken to a field.  For all sorts of reasons, these people could never get to a field. Some talked to much while some didn’t talk at all, some didn’t understand, some couldn’t be understood, some looked weird, some were not from around there, some smelled bad, some were just plain odd, some were the wrong gender, while the gender of some was not identifiable, some didn’t fit in, some were trying too hard to fit in, none of these workers met the measurements of the hiring system for being taken to the fields.

This farmer used a different system. These people wanted to go to a field, that was his measurement criteria, so this farmer loaded them up and took them to his field.

At the end of the day, the farmer paid the workers.  As the original workers watched the system of payment, they were liking this system, it surely meant that they were going to be paid more than they had been promised.  They saw that these undesirable workers were paid what they had expected to be paid.  These all day, original workers were shocked, then, at the injustice when they discovered that they were being paid the same as the five pm workers.

“That is not fair, that is not just!’ They loudly complained.

“Are you upset because I am generous?’ The farmer asked, ‘Have I not paid you exactly what I promised?’

Quite honestly, the workers were correct, according to our earthy forms of measurement, the system of this farmer was unjust, it was unfair.

This was Jesus’ explanation of grace. This was the heavenly measurement that was demanded by grace.  A measurement that was not dependent on an amount, a numerical figure, it was about entry into the field.  It was about the need to be in the field.

Much like when Peter wanted to know a number for forgiveness, numbers are our system of measurement.  Now, once again, Jesus is teaching a system that does not depend on numbers, it cannot even be calculated through addition or subtraction.

When the Hebrews were liberated from slavery, they were heading to their field – the field they had been promised through Abraham.  They had been enslaved subtly over generations until the ever increasing brutality of their existence had become their normal.  They did not recognize life outside of Egypt, they didn’t expect freedom to be so difficult, they never imagined that they would think fondly on their lives in slavery, they had not realized that they didn’t really know their God, the God of Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.  

Outside of Egypt, however, they were getting a crash course in ‘God’.  They saw his power as he parted the waters for them to escape Pharoah and his armies.  They began to see God, to really know God, not in his power, but in his grace.  It was in God’s grace that he became personal – he began to be known. 

This is the principle of provision, it is not in God’s power that we know & trust him, it is in his grace.

Oddly, it was because of their complaining that they became acutely aware of God’s presence daily. It was in his response to their complaining about him that he revealed himself to them.

God met them where they had to be met, where they were able to see their need.  Only there would they be able to begin to receive. Only then, could they be able to begin their journey of knowing him.

Grace is a singular trait that governs from within. Grace and pride cannot mutually exist.  Grace fuels God’s pursuit of us as long as we are pursuable. 

‘We are hungry, at least in Egypt we had food. We are tired, at least in Egypt we had rest.  We don’t know what to expect, at least in Egypt we knew what was happening. We are afraid the unknown ahead, at least in Egypt we knew what we had to fear.”

Moses was frustrated, Aaron was tired of dealing with their complaining, God, however, showed his grace through his patience and provision.  He provided them what they needed while giving them a lesson in who he is. Everyday, their food would be there for them, enough for that day. It would be there again the next day, and on weekends, he would give them enough on Friday for two days, to cover the Sabbath, on that day he would give them rest.

This was God’s way of measuring out his provision. God didn’t have a set template of how to respond to needs, nor did he have a set pattern of how to deal with those who were ungrateful.  He didn’t respond with a earthly system of screaming, “I delivered you, I gave you freedom, I welcomed you into the field, I protected you…and still, you are complaining. I am washing my hands of you ingrates!”

Instead, he recognized their cognitive, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual level of development and began there.  He did not say ‘quit complaining’, instead he said, ‘I am going to help you know me, everyday when your food is there, remember, I gave it to you. That is what I do, that is who I am. I see your needs and will meet them.  Trust me, for you will need to know me in the fields where I am placing you.’

Grace takes a lot of unlearning, and then re-learning, and it takes open eyes to understand.  The disciples were not the only ones that need to understand grace.  It is only when we understand grace that we can then begin to grasp God’s presence in our lives. Understanding life in God’s field is dependent on understanding the grace character and grace nature of God.

Jonah missed the full immersion into God’s grace and therefore missed God while he was measuring who should not be benefactors of grace.  His judgement, born out of hatred of a people, replaced the grace of God in his own life. He missed the joy of being in the field.

God is grace, to not know that grace, to not fully ascribe to that grace, to not seek to live in that grace, to not approve of the moments of that grace, to judge who should be in the field of grace, restricts our own immersion in God’s grace.  

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. I can be received gladly or grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes, like a deer at the salt.”

Ann Lamont

Imagine the world if we were to see with the grace vision of God.

Don’t miss grace all around you.

The Forgiveness that Precedes Forgiveness

A slave owed his master almost $500,000.00 dollars in todays equivalent.  Since the man could not pay at the requested time, the master did not take what he could from the man to settle a portion of the debt, but the master actually forgave the debt. That same slave, the one who was forgiven his almost half a million dollar debt, went to a fellow slave who owed him less that $50.00.  When this debtor could not repay, the forgiven debtor refused to offer forgiveness and had him thrown into prison.  Now, when the master of these slaves heard about this, he had the first slave thrown into prison until he his original debt was paid, which was an impossibility.

Forgiveness is an ambiguous practice which, as a concept, has a variety of different forms and interpretations.  There are many different, and often opposing, definitions and uses of the word Forgiveness.  As believers in Christ, it has been exampled and explained to us, it has been given to and, in some traditions, it has been taken away, it is an emotional act, an ‘I’ll deal with it later, or I’ll forget or ignore it’ offering, a long awaited gift, and a difficult and overwhelming barrier. 

As a practice, forgiveness is a shot in the dark, seldom do we even understand our own words when we ask for it or give it to another. On some occasions we assume the power to forgive when the option is not ours.  It is, often, the most difficult to give to ourselves and to receive from another.  We may not feel a need to be forgiven yet we, consciously and subconsciously, we are relieved when it has been granted.

Along with prayer, forgiveness may be one of the two most misdefined, misused, abused, and sincerely abandoned concept and practice in our faith.

One of the most bizarre misuses of ‘forgiveness’ took place during the 2016 presidential elections.  The rumors of infidelities that dogged Donald Trump had been quickly dismissed by his supporters until an audio tape presented him boasting of his own sexual prowess. Evangelical supporters were in a quandary to justify their continued support, soon, the celebrity religious leaders, and others, took up the mantra of ‘we have forgiven him.’ This was not a applicable use of the concept of forgiveness.  Trump did not need their ‘forgiveness’, he never asked for it, truth be told his offense had not been against them – any action on their part was judgment, not forgiveness.  Their dilemma was not a problem forgiveness would solve, however, instead of struggling through their decision of support, they chose to hide behind a failed use of forgiveness. Forgiveness was not theirs’ to give.

Basic Truths about Forgiveness

1. Forgiveness is a concept and it is an action, it is difficult, but it is worth the struggle, and essential to harmony and unity.  

2. Forgiveness was not a part of God’s creative process, nor did it need to be, there was no offense, there was no sin. 

3. Forgiveness is a noun and a verb, it is not fully either until it is both. 

4. Forgiveness was born out of human need and perfected by God. 

5. God had no obligation to create anything else.  Love propelled him. God returned to the creator’s bench.

6. Love does that.

Let me briefly explain:

After turning from God humans found themself in a struggle – it was a struggle with their own human offenses. They had been removed from the garden to engage in this struggle.  This struggle would bring them to a realization of their need for God. This is why everything, and almost everyone, in the book of Genesis, is such a mess – it all takes place at the beginning of this human struggle.  As humans attempted to fix their need through might and power, the solution was elusive, they didn’t know where to begin because they were not clear on what they needed – there was no way they could devise a strategy to create it forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is a holy creation, holy creations cannot be created by fallen humans.  We see early attempts at forgiveness, Esau accepts and embraces Jacob, Joseph forgives his brothers – otherwise humans met conflict and offense with a ‘let’s just move on mentality’ which never lasted, or, more often, they just created more offense. Humans cried out to God, they cried out from Babble, they cried out from Ninevah, they cried out from Sodom, they cried out from the home of Jacob, they cried out from deep pit.  There was a need, but the cries of humans were only a shell of their actual need – they needed forgiveness. God still heard their cries – the Father perfected their shell of forgiveness from their need, the son manifested it through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, the Spirit ran with it and made lives whole through forgiveness.  

When mankind chose to turn away from God they, then, turned on each other – the human need for forgiveness was presented. Humans found themselves mentally and physically unable to live with themself and with each other when wrongs done to them, and wrongs done by them, were left to fester inside of them. They also found that this same festering messed, muddled, and mangled their relationships and coexistence with God. Life was difficult at best, and impossible in most situations.

Without forgiveness there cannot be love, without love there cannot be forgiveness – without both of these, there will be no respect. Without respect there cannot not be unity, without unity there cannot be community.

When the early believers began to feel the strain of unforgiveness on their communities of faith, Christ addressed the practice of forgiveness. Peter approached Jesus and asked,

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Matthew 18:21

Peter was attempting to quantify forgiveness, ‘How many times…..?’ Whether this was a low number for Peter, or, if Peter felt that this was a fully appropriate number – no number would have been correct. 

It is not a question that can be given a number, 

it is incalculable.  

‘Without forgiveness, there is no future.’

Desmond Tutu

As Jesus was speaking to community, how to have, and how to maintain, true community. The type of community where members work together to sustain and grow.  

Community is formed on a common center, a town or city is formed on a geographical commonality, a club or organization is formed on a common interest or belief, a church is a community of those with a common faith.

Jesus was preparing the coming church leaders to lead out with this most essential element of their earthly existence.  It would prove to be the most essential building block of the local communities of faith. It was the blueprint for the church.

Peter knew himself, more importantly, he knew people.  Seven times may not have been a low number, it may not have been a holy number, it is quite possible that, in Peter’s assertion, it was going to be a truly arduous number.

At Peter’s question, Jesus answered with the parable of the two unforgiven slaves, both of whom, in the end, suffered. One suffered because he did not receive forgiveness, the other suffered, because he would not give forgiveness.

As I said in the beginning, Forgiveness is an ambiguous concept and an even more ambiguous intentional action.

The absence of forgiveness is blatantly apparent in the first fifty chapters, or 1,533 verses of the bible. Most of the actions of forgiveness we see in the book of Genesis are centered on just two men.  One is the man Esau, who without petition, forgives his brother Jacob of the horrible transgressions acted out in the destruction of their relationship.  The second is the man Joseph, who faced every brutality up to death from his older brothers. It is in the forgiveness given by Joseph, we see visual of how God takes on this essential concept and practice of the human journey.

It is doubtful that you need a reminder of the sins committed by brothers against Joesph.  Their countless, often quickly calculated acts, culminated with the selling of their brother Joseph into slavery. We do not see much of the brothers following their betrayal of Joseph, nor do we truly know any of the mental and emotional suffering that this memory possibly created in them.  We do, however, see the torment surface when they, along with their people, face true physical crisis that requires they travel to a different nation for their own survival.


‘This is because of what we did to our brother, Joesph,’ they began to whisper to each other. ‘We are being punished for our sin.’

We have read of the life and existence of Joseph up to the point, however.  We have not heard of a dwelling on the pain caused by his brothers, rather we see a man who has carried on, in a tradition of doing right, trough very rough, and some surprisingly good times.  When these journey of these bothers, once again, intersects with the life of Joseph we begin to see his forgiveness journey.

The fact that there is not a documented struggle with forgiveness by Joesph towards his brothers, in the midst of a story that details all the other significant aspects of his story – brings us to a conclusion that he had not carried unforgiveness, hatred, or even resentment.

In our Tuesday bible project a couple of months ago, Mitch said (I paraphrase), ‘Joseph was so focused on God’s leading, and his own calling by God, that unforgiveness was not even a factor, there was no room for that to be given a thought.’ His decision had been made – withholding forgiveness, and instead, holding onto resentment and hatred, would have only held him back from God’s call.

As Joseph observed his bothers during the tests he set up, Joseph was not deciding forgiveness, that had already been given, he was, instead, determining the potential of their relationship from this point forward. ‘Could they be trusted?’ ‘Would it work for him to bring them to Egypt to live out out the drought?’, ‘How were the others in his family, especially his younger brother Benjamin, had they been treated properly?’

He was determining the ‘what’ of his future with his family, during his time of non-disclosure.

Eventually, his love would not permit him to hold back his expression of forgiveness.  He could hold it in no longer, it had to come out, he had to embrace each of these that had treated him so poorly.

When he revealed himself to his brothers and acted by proclaiming his forgiveness to them, this did not happen in that moment.  The forgiveness by Joesph of these undeserving bothers preceded this action.  He had already released the forgiveness and now he was acting in a way that released it in them.  But, the forgiveness was not yet complete.

It is in the final chapter of the story of Joesph that we see a human reality, and full circle of forgiveness.  Joseph’s brothers realize, at the death of their father, that Joseph’s forgiveness of them was surely a deceitful display for their father – probably just to reinforce his position of favorite.  

In their own humanness, they expressed the thoughts they had been suppressing since Joseph revealed himself,  ‘Everything that Joesph had done, all that he had forgiven, was not real, it had been an act, there was no way he could have forgiven……we could’t have done that,’ they were thinking.

They had not fully received the forgiveness of Joseph, not because he had withheld it, but because they were unable to receive it.  They were unable to fully accept the forgiveness from Joseph because they were not able to give forgiveness to others, that is the way it works. When we hold on to unforgiveness, when we cannot release our grasp, our hand is closed tight and therefore unable to open up to receive the forgiveness.

Joseph wept because the forgiveness had abruptly halted without his knowledge.  He wept because his brothers had been living in the unforgiven state of their relationship.  Joseph wept for the unforgiven state his brothers had made their home.

This brings us to a full picture of all the realities of forgiveness.

  1. Forgiveness is our own organic choice to let go or hold on. Holding on takes a lot of work, we have to remember, we have to go through the offense over and over again.  In doing this we permit the offense to ferment and grow, negatively impacting every other area of our life. The resentment, hatred, and vengeance that is a biproduct of unforgiveness is a torture and suffering that it, in a very real sense, a self imposed punishment of imprisonment.
  1. Forgiveness frees us to live, unforgiveness reckons us to death in our life.  Much like Ishmael reports of Captain Ahab’s unforgiving grudge towards the whale Moby Dick, climaxing with the death of Ahab in the vengeful pursuit, unforgiveness wraps its rope around our neck and takes us down. 
  1. Forgiveness is not a naive and dangerous forgetfulness. Joseph, who did not withhold forgiveness from his brothers, also did not set him self up to be thrown, once again, into a pit by his brothers.
  1. Forgiveness is seldom easy to receive.  Although the brothers lived ‘in’ the forgiveness of Joseph for several years, at the father’s death it was obvious they had not been able to fully accept it.  We can only fully accept forgiveness when we have freely given forgiveness.
  1. Forgiveness, when fully received, is a blessing to the giver. Only then can a relationship be fully restored and recognized.
  1. Forgiveness is only complete when we are able to see through and past the offending actions.  Joseph says to his brother, each time he presents them with the forgiveness, ‘You intended evil, but God used [your actions] for good.’

In regard to Forgiveness, what is God saying to you?

The Measure of Faith

08.23.20

It took five women to change the course of history.  These five women did what had never been done.  Five women who, as far as we know, did not receive direct instruction from God, still, followed God in the midst of their day to day survival.  Five women took extreme personal risks that they didn’t really have to take.  Five women risked their lives, and, along the way, unknowingly changed the world.  Five women did what their gut told them to do even if it was dangerous, not just for them, but dangerous for those closest to them. Five woman saved the Israelites. Five women saved a group of humans, humans that were a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, a promise of a people, a people we, today, know as the Jews. 

These five women did this extraordinary feat without any fanfare, without any substantial assistance, without any visible concern for their own safety, without support from, or even knowledge by, their community. Five women who simply stepped out and did what needed to be done.  Five women who acted in historic ways, doing so merely out of their daily existence, their daily survival. Five women who were the sounding pistol declaring that the deliverance of the Israelites had begun.  Five women who saved the lineage of Jesus.

Five women in a story that begins with two men. The first, was a newly enthroned ruler, Pharaoh.

This new Pharaoh was on the throne, a ruler who had an Israelite problem, there were simply too many of them, they were like wild animals in the street, and they were multiplying like feral dogs.  This Pharaoh was brutal and had no appreciation for the Israelites.  His ignorance of the history of his own people was staggering, his focus was himself, he was his own god – this was the god that instructed him how to secure his power, how to eliminate threats to his power, how to eliminate ‘problems’ immediately.  His paranoid ‘god syndrome’ fueled existence mandated that he have all the answers needing no assistance, no one could be trusted, no one – anyone could be fired, eliminated, at the drop of a hat, at the hint of unloyalty, at the need of a scapgoat, the only characteristic of a worthy employee was blind acceptance of Pharaoh as ‘god’. His unwillingness to grasp even the most basic aspects of the history of his people led him to act with blatant disregard and reckless abandon.  In a turn from wiser and the more stable rulers before him, he had no appreciation for, or even knowledge of, the Hebrew deliverer Joseph, nor did he have any respect for the God of Joesph and his people the Hebrews, the Israelites. He had no fear of this God who had shown himself in such a mighty way in the history of his people – his fear was of men, not God, a fear of what men could take from him.

The other male, a three month old Hebrew infant, was named Moses.

But, it was five women who were the heroes of this story, they were the first to be called by God, they were the first to take the deliberate and risky actions, they were the first, in this story, and the case could be made that they were the first in all of the Bible stories up to this point, to step out based on a faith conviction that this was actually not really a choice at all – it was life guided by faith. It was their daily life.

Let’s meet these heroes.

We begin with Shiphrah and Puah, two Israelite women, midwives who served their own people, the Hebrews.  They were summoned out of their day to day existence to appear before this Hebrew hating ruler.  Being summoned is seldom a positive for an oppressed person, it is devastating when it come from a brutal powerful ruler.  Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill all of the male children born of Hebrew women.  These two women who had dedicated themselves to God’s calling to bring life into the world, now were given the order to take that life instead.  However, these women were dedicated to their calling, to life, and more than that, they feared God. They disobeyed, and when summoned again, Pharaoh asked why he is still seeing Hebrew newborn boys. These two women in the work of life were now facing their own death, still, they stood their ground, standing on their faith, blaming the quick labor of the Hebrew women, as the reason for their inability to stop these forbidden births.

Two more Hebrew women, Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam, are the next audacious heroes of this story.  Jochebed had nursed and hidden her son, Moses,  for three months after hearing of Pharoah’s edict to put to these Hebrew boys to death by being thrown into the vicious Nile river.  Ironically, the newborn female infants were allowed to live, they were not a threat – Pharaoh had no clue of the threat of his own misogynistic ingrained prejudices were to his power. Jochebed and Miriam hatched a bizarre plan that would only work if God was a part of the action. Jochebed and Miriam, as ordered by Pharaoh, ‘threw’ their beloved Moses, into the Nile River – however, before ‘throwing’ him into the river, they placed him inside a basket that had been retrofitted to float.  They prepared the basket, they put the infant Moses into the basket, and they let go of it into the river, releasing their control, surrendering it into the hands of a God they didn’t really know a lot about.

Our fifth heroic woman now enters the picture, a woman named Bithiah – an Egyptian, non Israelite, non Hebrew woman who was also the daughter of the brutal and paranoid Pharoah.  She was bathing in the river when she saw a basket floating in the water. Ordering one of her attendants to retrieve the basket she was surprised to find a child neatly tucked into the basket. Bithiah immediately recognized that this was a child of a Hebrew woman, and, presumed that this child had been released into the unpredictable waters of the Nile in order to save the life of this little boy.

It boggles the brain to think of the journey of this outrageous faith engineered plan which called for a mother to save her son by placing him into a basket, then placing the basket into the very river where he was ordered to die, a plan which ended with the child being rescued by the daughter of the very man who ordered the death of this infant, and, ultimately having this child raised in the very palace where this same brutal ruler lived, his own home…..and, all of this, is still decades before this same child, raised in the home of the ruler who sought his death, would deliver the Israelites from the brutally of the following Pharaoh.

We cannot leave this story of these five heroic women without looking at one final act of bravery.  Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam, allowed themselves to be noticed – again, it is best to go under the radar, unnoticed, when you are an oppressed person.  It would be nearly impossible to consider the possibility that Bithiah naively accepted the appearance of Miriam as serendipitous.  In doing this, both of these Hebrews put their own lives, as well as their families and the life of this beloved infant, in jeopardy.  They had allowed themselves to be noticed – this plan of faith required not only risk and release, it required that they place themselves in the crosshairs of a powerful, brutal, and paranoid, ruler.

Five women against a powerful man who was was dismissive and assuredly misogynistic.  Five women who were considered powerless and weak by a ruler that set out to destroy an entire people. Five women who began a movement that resulted in the deliverance of that people. Five women who were guided by faith, five women given the faith to answer the call, five women empowered with the grace to act on the call, five women who changed the world.

Five women whose faith that set the bar for a grown Moses, who, on ten specific occasions would be called upon by God to speak on behalf of God, to confront a man who consider himself to be a god.

So, what is faith? How do we obtain faith? 

We had a family living next to us who had a daughter with a disability from birth.  She was, confined to a wheel chair and, every two years would have to enter the hospital for an extended stay during which she would go through a harrowing physical treatment to attempt to restore her health, as much as possible.  A treatment much like the worst chemotherapy experience that you can imagine.  It was traumatizing for her and her family just to go through this.  She, along with her family, attended a church, where the pastor would often speak of our level of faith being our responsibility, ie. ‘If you are poor it is because you do not have enough faith, if your marriage is failing it is because you do not have enough faith, if your house is too small or you hate your job or your kids are a mess it is because you do not have enough faith,’ and frequently, he would preach in the direct eyesight of this little girl, ‘If you are sick it is because you do not have enough faith’. One Sunday as he began going down the path of this heretical teaching about faith, the siblings of this girl stood up from their seats, and non apologetically moved to the center aisle, turned their sister’s chair around, and pushed her to the exit door.  At the point, the parents, as they shared later, finally realized that they should have done this years before.

When this little girl completed the fifth grade, approaching the summer when it was time for another hospital extended treatment, she explained to her parents that she was ‘done’. She had made the decision to do no more treatments.  When I say ‘ready’ this little girl had a clearer understanding of life and death, of eternity, than probably most adults.  She was truly ‘ready’. The family grieved but understood and honored her decision. By the start of the next school year she had passed away.

This was knowing God enough in life that she was able to trust God in death.  This was having enough faith.

‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.’

Hebrews 11:1-2 (NRSV)

Five problematic words made this statement difficult for us to fully grasp in our English language state of mind, and our own tendency toward a selfish theology when interpreting scripture:

Assurance, Things, Hoped, Conviction, Received Approval

While a greek word study of these two verses written to the early Christians who had a Jewish background would give us a clearer understanding of the meaning of this passage – Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, does a superb job of explaining these words through his translation:

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”

Hebrews 11:1-2

Take a moment to look at, and consider, these words again.

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”

Hebrews 11:1-2 (the Message)

It was this firm foundation that allowed the five women to save the life of Moses. It was the fundamental trust they had in the known but unseen God (actually for one of the women, God was unseen and unknown) that permitted them to accept the risk of saving this life.

It was this fundamental faith that had consistently allowed this little girl to trust God with her life, now leading her to trust God with her death.

As the apostle Paul is teaching the believers in Rome how to be ready to live like the five women who saved Moses, and, how to be community at the same time, he says, 

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

Romans 12:3

This brings us to the issue of ‘Enoughness’.

We are not the master, or developers, of our faith.  We do not grow our faith, we do not strengthen our faith, we do not own our faith, we do not determine our faith. 

Faith is what permits us to answer ‘yes’ to God’s call – whether it is to respond with disobedience to a brutal Pharaoh with a god complex, or to let go of a basket into the Nile River in order to save the life of your child, or to painfully accept your Father’s plan to save the world.  


When God calls, or leads, or intentionally places us on the path where he needs us to be, then it is not a question of ‘Enoughness’, it is not ‘do we have enough faith to answer, or to follow, or to trust’ – it is a question of ‘do we trust the God that we know, to give us the exact needed measure of faith to do what he calls us to do?’.

We end up at Jesus question that Jesus poses to his disciples – ‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’

Jesus was not asking this as a test to see if his disciples had been paying attention in class, nor was it reprimand them for their ‘lack of faith.’ He was asking because he was now heading to Jerusalem, he was at a fork in the road where the direction of his physical journey was lining up with his journey to the cross. While this would ultimately be a solitarily journey that Jesus would have to travel alone, he was fully aware, though, that on the way, his disciples would be at his side.  They would be going as far as they were able to go.  To travel with him the distance they were equipped to travel, they would have to be ready to grab ahold of the measure of faith that God was giving them.  To face the pain and struggles ahead, this faith was going to be essential.

To grasp this faith, they needed to be standing on an unshakable foundation, a foundation of truly knowing God.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Peter

Jesus smiled the smile of the Father, knowing that Peter was ready to face the horror that lie ahead, he would make mistakes, but in the end he would realize that he was standing on a Rock.  Jesus proclaims to Peter, “God has revealed this to you! The father has given you enough faith.”

Our question today is – “Who do you say that Jesus is?”

Hearing Silence

Hearing Silence 08.09.20

They should have known better, almost half of them were fishermen, for heaven’s sake.  They should have been able to glance at the sky and realize that it was not going to be safe, especially since it was going to be dark soon.  When the winds began to pick up it was like everyone had never seen a storm, everyone was yelling out instructions, most had a white knuckle grip on the sides of the boat, it was terrifying.  The waves were pounding the side of the boat, rain was hitting the disciples’ faces for the entire night.

In their defense, it is possible that the weather could have radically changed after they pushed the boat out into the deeper waters.  I asked our resident weather and climate expert this week if it was possible for a storm to come out of no where, a storm that even seasoned fishermen would not be anticipating.  Renee told me about the KAT-a-bat-ic winds that come down off the colder high mountains to the smaller mountains where the temperatures are warming and then to the shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee – stirring up the waves and wind with great veracity. 

So the scared men were mad and frustrated with each other and then at the same time  ashamed of themselves.  Truth was, they were mostly aggravated that they had jumped into the boat in the first place.  A carpenter telling a group of grown men, many who were at home on the water, a carpenter telling this group to jump in the boat, at dusk, and go on ahead. The entire situation was ludicrous!

Some would say this storm was all part of God’s plan to bring the men to a fuller recognition of who Jesus is; an orchestrated weather disaster. However, bad stuff happens –

– when people have a free choice that impacts other people and the creation –

– bad stuff is going to happen. Stuff, that often in the end, we can see how we have grown, and possibly even benefitted from the reality of bad stuff.

In many ways we have recreated God, gentrifying him, so that he is a Genie who pops out of a bottle and makes everything perfect in life – including suspending the given gift of free choice. 

That is not our reality though.  Ten years ago this month we sat in a hospital room for 11 nights with our daughter Grace who had a potentially fatal reaction to a common antibiotic, even in bringing her home we knew we weren’t out of the woods.  A couple of years later, we sat in the surgery waiting rooms four times, and then in doctor’s offices for over six procedures until the professionals were able to figure out the medical solution to a medical issue our son Isaiah had. 

We lose spouses, we watch loved ones slip away, relationships unravel, automobile accidents happen and auto parts break, brother and sister human beings are abused and oppressed, pandemics leave us living in limbo, and plumbing problems cause kitchen sinks to overflow. 

I say that because that was my struggle this week – not that it is in anyway is in the same level as the struggles mentioned before, but it is on the level of most of our struggles.  Our plumber was booked for four days.  I tried again to work the few plumbing miracles I had up my sleeve.  That is when I met Kris Reece.  Kris has a 13 minute Youtube tutorial on how to fix plumbing problems that cause sinks to overflow.  Kris’s plumbing problem was a result of putting cooked pasta in the garbage disposal, I realized that I had put cooked pasta in my garbage disposal. – it was like Kris and I were brothers.  Later, I was reprimanded by my daughter Hannah who reminded me that Duffy Musgrove had told us the dangers of pasta and disposals.  So, I watched Kris, for 13 minutes unclog his disposal, making sure that I would not get half way and realize this was out of my league.  It wasn’t, I unclogged the sink, well, with Kris’s help.  Now, I know how to unclog the kitchen sink, and I know that you don’t put cooked pasta in the disposal. Two lessons from one problem.  I was pretty proud of myself the rest of the day, consider getting a tool belt.  Plus, I learned how to use the plumber’s snake my plumber’s had insisted I purchase years before – Kris taught me how to use that as well. 

Good came out of bad.

I’m not sure Paul was thinking about plumbing problems when he said, 

‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’

Romans 8:28

…but it is the same dynamic.

So the disciples had strong winds, a shallow sea, scary waves, pelting wind, and were consumed with fear  – it was a rough night.  Interestingly, the experience prior to the storm had been positively amazing, the kind of day you talk about for the rest of your life. They had just fed around 10,000 hurting and hungry people, with almost nothing to work with.  One moment the men thought it was time to send the crowd home and the next moment they were collecting baskets of leftovers!

Jesus was exhausted, and still helping the people that delayed leaving, the disciples were on an adrenaline rush, so hopping into a boat was not as outlandish as it sounds.  But still, everyone was disappointed in themselves and each other.

It must be said though, the men were a little frustrated with Jesus – although no one was going to say that. One moment he is conquering hunger and disease, oppression and misery, the next minute he abandoned the disciples sending them to their death in the middle of the sea.

Then, in the punishing storm, just as the fear, anger and frustration were about to hit a boiling point, the disciples were distracted by something even more startling than the storm.  Between the flashes of lightening and the crushing waves, something, or someone, could be seen in the distance – on the water.  Every time the waves would crash the unidentified object or person was visible.  So, as the scared men continued to hold on to the tattered sails and the sides of the water logged boat, screaming in fear, they heard the voice.

“Take heart, it’s me, don’t be afraid.”

“Jesus?”

Then, of course, Peter, yells to Jesus,

“If it is really you, tell me to walk out to you”

Peter was audacious and, most often, annoyingly eager, however, he was the only one thought about walking out to Jesus. The storm was so loud you could only faintly hear Jesus’ response,

“Come.”

We all heard that word, ‘Come’,  everyone looked at Peter, he swallowed hard and stepped out of the boat. From the rocking boat the men watched as Peter navigated the waves.  He was knocked down a couple of times, but he would just get up.  After about three knock downs, he began to look out over the never ending waves often blocking his view of Jesus – his determination and confidence was visibly waning.  He was looking back at the boat and ahead at Jesus trying to decide which would be the most rational direction to go.  No way could he swim in this turbulence. Jesus picked up his pace to get to Peter, pulling him up out to the water.  Jesus grabbed Peter’s hand and pulled him up just as Peter’s head was going under.  As the two men made it to the boat, the waves and wind remained unforgiving – the disciples struggled to pull them in.

Jesus and Peter crashed onto the floor of the boat, Peter looking wet, scared, and humiliated. Jesus looked wet and strangely peaceful.  A few seconds later, the rain stopped, the wind calmed, and the waves disappeared. It was quiet, eerily silent.  The men all looked at each other, they looked at Peter, then all eyes turned to Jesus.  No one said anything – there was really nothing to say, but you could tell that everyone was thinking the same thing, you could see it in their eyes. Everyone released their grip and fell to their knees. No one spoke because there were no words to describe this moment.  In the silence, they all began to understand that this was not an ordinary human; it didn’t make sense but Jesus was holy.  They were in the presence of God.

Silence.

That was how the men knew that the boat had become a holy place, God was there, God was present.  How odd that it came in silence.  Everywhere Jesus went there had been thousands of loud voices screaming for his attention and now, in the boat, on the calm seas and the peaceful sky, there was silence – that is where the disciples saw God. In the middle of the chaos and fear, in the middle of dire circumstances, there was Jesus, first walking on the deadly waves in the brutal wind, then, in the boat, in the silence, there was peace. God was there.

No one expected silence to be the place where they would see God but this silence had pierced the deafening waves and the unforgiving wind.

It is interesting – the different places that people see God.  For Jacob it was in a multiple overtimes wrestling match, for Moses it was in a burning bush, for Isaiah it was at a funeral, for John, the Baptizer, it happened while he was still in the womb, for the centurion it was at the feet of the bloody cross, for Stephen it was as he was looking up, while being brutally stoned, for Paul it was in blindness on a public highway, for the disciples it was in a boat…and, for the prophet Elijah it was on the side of a mountain just outside the cave where he was scared and in hiding.

Nine hundred years earlier, Elijah was walking on eggshells rather than water, he, too, had seen a miracle in an awe inspiring act of proving God to be God, but now, he had a Jezebel problem.  A Jezebel problem was pretty much the worst problem you could face.  It was the seal of death to anyone that angered Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab.  Jezebel’s anger had no mercy, her power had no boundaries, the fear of Jezebel was the one shared fear in the hearts and minds of everyone, including her husband, the King.  

Elijah received the threatening message from Jezebel and could imagine the veins popping out on her face, he only needed to hear her name to know that she was livid.  Elijah had humiliated her false prophets, he had negated the power of her false gods, and to make matters worse, he had the audacity to do it in such a public way, – it was humiliating, Jezebel didn’t do humility or fear, instead, she was the source of everyone’s fear and humility.

Elijah had run away, he was now hiding in the back of a dark damp cave.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah, in no uncertain terms, outlined his complaints to God. He was disappointed in the people, he was frustrated at the failures of his mission, he was alone and isolated, he was in danger, he was angry at God.

“Go stand outside the cave, I am going to come by.”

God said in a tone that expressed love for, and frustration with, his prophet Elijah.

Elijah was still standing with his arms crossed, and his brow squinted tight, his disappointment and aggravation were on full display. He stood up defiantly, like a child who is angrily and resentifully obeying his parents, positioned half way to the entrance of the cave and not a step closer, Elijah stood his ground. 

A strong wind

began to blow outside of the cave, it even whipped around inside the cave, Elijah took a few small steps back as he began to hear and feel the force of the wind that was actually moving and cracking the mountain.  God was not in the wind.  

Then the ground began to shake,

the walls of the cave began to vibrate, the sound of the earth moving beneath his feet was deafening. Elijah didn’t know if he should retreat further into the cave or if it would be wiser to run outside.  God was not in the earthquake. 

Then, Elijah recognized a burning smell,

the heat began to be unbearable, the flames began to approach the entrance of the cave.  God was not in the fire.

Here, on the mountain where God had appeared in a burning bush to Moses – God, on this day, was not in the fire, the earthquake, or even the wind.  Now, however, there was a new phenomena, there was silence

Not just silence but a ‘sheer silence.’

The kind of silence that demands your attention much like the still silence on the calmed waters of the sea, a silence that drowns out the sound of the water slapping against the sides of the boat, a silence that you actually hear.

There was God, in the silence, it was deafening.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Again, Elijah outlined his complaints. He was disappointed in the people, he was frustrated at the failures of his mission, he was alone and isolated, he was in danger, he was angry at God.

God didn’t reprimand, he didn’t correct, he didn’t try to comfort or encourage, he didn’t walk away, he didn’t forget that he had been the one that called Elijah to be a prophet, he just remained there, in the sheer silence.  

God was present, he was there.

Elijah went outside of the cave and stood in the silence, he stood before God.  Elijah remembered God’s calling, he was reminded of God’s mission, he returned to God’s leading, he rested in God’s loud silent presence. 

The silence was all that Elijah could hear. The silence cleared up Elijah’s vision and strengthened his hearing.

Then, God began to speak. In a very ‘matter of fact’ manner God returned to Elijah’s calling.  God never wavered from the selection of Elijah, he never turned from his confidence in Elijah the prophet.  As Elijah stood in God’s presence, he was ready to return to God’s mission.

As God began to speak, Elijah realized that his previous Jezebel problem was nothing compared to the Jezebel problem he was about to have.  Even here, enveloped in God’s presence, he could see reality, and it was frightening.

Bad stuff was definitely going to happen.

Now, however, he remembered that he wasn’t alone, in fact God reminded him of those who had not turned from God, those he was to continue to encourage and lead.

Oh, bad stuff was bound to happen, Jezebel was going to be angry, she had no idea how audacious Elijah could be.  God told Elijah to anoint new Kings and to begin training his own replacement. Elijah could already see the bulging veins popping on Jezebel’s face, she was going to be livid.  There would be no silence in the palace.

Metaphorically, Elijah was now in the boat with Jesus. He, along with the disciples, would all face other frightening storms, there was sure to be other Jezebels, but now there was peace, there was calm, there was silence.

What is your storm, who is your Jezebel?

Are you gripping the sides of the boat holding on, sure that you will not survive, are you cowering at the thought of a livid Jezebel?  Or, do you realize that Jesus is in the boat, God is outside your hiding place?  What is your focus? How are you listening?

It is all about our vision – what are we looking at? It’s all about hearing – what are we listening for.  Are you looking at the rocking boat and the crashing waves? Are you looking at a furious Jezebel? Or, are you listening for the reminders that Jesus sat in the boat earlier, when he calmed the waters? Are you focused on Jesus’ pulling you up out of the rough waters?

Our hope is an eternal hope – the ways it takes action in the midst of an unpredictable reality are not always what we image or expect.  Hope is the catalyst of faith, it is the affirmation of assurance, it is our power in our struggles, it is the tie that binds, it is Jesus in the boat, it is God outside the cave. 

God is there, when words do not need to be said, God is there.

God is there, when reality unnerves & unsettles us, God is there.

God is there, when we are sinking & the boat is too far, God is there.

God is there, when the rain, & the winds are blinding us, God is there.

God is there, when furor & vengeance waits at our door, God is there.

God is there, when we are exhausted & isolated, God is there.

God is there, when grief & mourning are all we can see, God is there.

God is there, when chaos & turmoil seem in control, God is there.

God is there, when we can no longer see him, God is there.

God is there.

Wrestling til’ Daybreak

08.02.20

In seventh grade there was the group of boys who have already become ‘men’ – puberty for them was a thing of the past. Then there was the other half, like me and most of my friends, who were still a decade or two away from puberty.  Then, there was Matt, Matt experienced puberty prior to learning to walk.

No where was this categorization more obvious than in Physical Education class. Everyday, class would begin the same, when seemingly a 1,000 seventh grade boys would cram into the small locker room to change into our required gym clothes.  Not only was this a challenge because of space, but also, because the past puberty seventh grade men would just walk up and rip the lock off their locker, while the pre pubescent seventh grade boys would be in a panic, scrambling to remember their combination – at the end of class, we would all crowd back into the same locker room to take the required shower all together in the no privacy group shower room. It was terrifying.  Coaches would stand at the exit door to make sure everyone had wet hair before leaving. In between the beginning and the end of class, there was the actual class.  Small, beanpole, frightened boys playing games such as Dodge Ball against huge and hairy men. 

While the Friday Seventh Grade Dodge Ball games were enough to send shivers down the spine of a 7th grade boy….we were unaware of the true evil coming our way – until we did, it all began on a late fall Monday, in third hour.

The Wrestling unit.

The coach had quickly educated us on the first move, this was holding down your opponent or freeing yourself from your opponent. Followed by coach pairing us up with our opponent for the entire wrestling unit. His method of choosing partners is best described as ‘sadistic’.  From the beginning pair up, his strategy was painfully obvious – man against boy. The most terrifying of all pairings came at the moment when coach, sporting an evil smirk, yelled, ‘Anthony’, then taking a long pause to build the suspense, his evil smirk gradually widened as we turned and looked at all men waiting to be chosen. There was only one man left, I had been keeping track. He looked at me, and the fear in my eyes, and then turned to Matt and said ‘Matt, you will be Anthony’s partner.’

Coach was now in his happy place.

As Matt and I were called to the wrestling mat, instead of walking to the center of the mat, Matt walked directly to me. He bent his head down to my ear, remember that Matt was a giant, whispering, ‘I will be in thee floor position.’ At this point it was all semantics for me, on the floor or kneeling, the outcome would be the same.  I had resigned myself to a death on a Monday in late fall on the mat in the wrestling room during third hour.

As we took our positions, I unsuccessfully attempted to hide my fear, coach blew the whistle. Matt quickly rolled out of my grasp – exactly the way Coach had instructed, his next move, however, was a bit more unorthodox.  He rolled to his back, pressed his shoulders to the wrestling mat and yelled, ’Anthony pinned me!’

Coach still had the whistle hanging between his teeth, but now his evil smirk had change to a look of pure confusion.  His joy was gone, his sadistic anticipation of a bloody match, had evaporated in an instant.

Matt stood up, looked at coach, and said, ‘I don’t do wrestling.” He then walked away from the center returning to his seat on the edges of the mat.  

It was a surreal moment as coach raised my hand in the air and instructed me to return to my seat.  The next day we coach announced that we had completed the wrestling unit and would be moving on to the second part of the basketball unit.

Matt was now a hero for all the seventh grade prepubescent boys.

Wrestling is probably the world’s oldest sport, dating back to 3,000 BC.  It was introduced into the ancient olympics in the year 708 BC. My, career in wrestling, began, and ended, on a mat in the wrestling room of West Junior High School of Norman, OK, in the year 1973 AD, during third hour on a late fall morning.

The grandson of Abraham, the son of Isaac, the father of Joseph, was a hard and successful worker, but not really a fighter, or a wrestler, he was more of a runner (as in run away), he was a natural manipulator, an even better deceiver, but, he was not a fighter.  However, he was about to face the most epic of all wrestling matches.   

Jacob was on his way home, it had been 20 years since he had run away from a fight at home, a fight, with his brother which he was sure to lose.  During that 20 years he had married 2 sisters, had children by both wives and servants, had amassed a fortune, and realized that he was a good business man. He had also, for the first time, met his match in Laban, his deceptive and manipulative father-in-law….who had warriors to fight for him.

Jacob had weighed the odds of facing his scheming father-in-law, or, facing his brother Esau, who had surely been nursing a very justified grudge for the past 20 years.

As he secretly snuck out of Laban’s house with his wives, children, servants and possessions, he headed home, on the way, Jacob attempted to soften the anger of Esau by sending daily gifts. As he approached the ultimate face to face confrontation, Jacob delayed the inevitable for one more night.  Continually calculating the potential risks, Jacob split up his family, people, and possessions and hid them safely to minimize his losses. Then, after enlisting the use of all of his strategies of manipulations, Jacob went back to the overnight camp and prepared for a night alone.

Even with all of his selfish faults, Jacob was a very determined man.  His very name meant ‘one who holds onto his brother’s heel’ – which is what he was doing at his own birth.  Even in the womb he was determined to get, and be, the most of every category.

Back at camp, as Jacob was alone, there was a man who gave Jacob no option but to engage in the epic wrestling match of a lifetime.  It was dark so Jacob could not see who he was against, but the possibilities were endless. It could have been the ghost of his father, Isaac, who Jacob has deceived, or his bother Esau, who Jacob had deceived, or his father-in-law,  Labah, who Jacob had deceived. That was just the top three most obvious choices.  He did not realize it but he was actually about to engage in an all night wrestling match with God.  If the fight had been during the daylight, Jacob would have never engaged, he would have recognized the odds were definitely not in his favor, Jacob would have employed his most successful maneuver, he would have run away.  It was dark though, and Jacob unknowingly, engaged in an epic struggle.

God, being a father, fought like a father. He withheld his own power to match that of his child Jacob. This was not just a struggle of Jacob with God, it was also a struggle for God against Jacob.  In many aspects, Jacob had been in this wrestling match his entire life.  Battling the powers within himself that were constantly at war with what he knew was right.  Choosing to mistreat and mislead loved ones, leaving them with no choice but to compete with each other for his love and attention; the very ones who should have been able to rest in his love and acceptance, his wives and his own children.  Then there were those who love for Jacob was betrayed by his determination to ‘get more’ – his father and his brother.  This was not Jacob’s first wrestling match, but it was his first honest interaction that mattered, this struggle was pivotal and essential in the life of Jacob.

There is something very different in a wrestling struggle and a mere street fight.  In a fight your goal is to destroy your opponent, to a the point that he cannot even rise up as the fight is over – in a wrestling match, your goal is to prevail, to take inventory of all of all your resources, your strengths and your mind, and then use those resources to out maneuver, to out wit, and to out discern your opponent.  In the dark, when you do not know who your opponent is, reading the situation and the powers against you is much more difficult – all you have is your own resources doing all you can to prevail.  

As a sliver of daylight became visible on the horizon and the two men were still struggling, God,  released his power through a gentle touch.  A touch that displaced Jacob’s hip – a touch that broke Jacob, a touch that reveled to Jacob that this was no ordinary opponent.

Let go of me,’ God said to Jacob.

‘I will not until you bless me,’ Jacob replied.

Jacob was beginning to recognize the fullness of this situation.  While getting a blessing had been the goal of his life, he was fearful yet interested in the possibilities of this moment.  This was a transformative moment for Jacob, his struggle now turned inward, no longer being about prevailing but, instead, it now was about coming to terms with himself.  Understanding that his life was meant to be more than just about Jacob, but, quite possibly his life was about something larger.

The Jewish understanding of the concept of ‘blessing’ was not the self-centered, fortune cookie vision, that we have now. A blessing was given so that the blessed would bless others. God was going to bless Jacob so that, in order with the promise that had passed from his grandfather, to his father, and now to him. 

Understanding the full meaning a blessing, and understanding the cultural and religious understanding of the day, is essential for us to understand the transformation taking place in Jacob. A truly selfless spirit had to exist to receive such a blessing, and, until this struggle with God, Jacob did not have such a spirit. This struggle was the nudge, or push, that connected the dots for Jacob, he had an epiphany as the sun rose that morning. He was finally ready and willing to receive the blessing that he had been seeking his entire life.

Jacob used his greatest power, the power that he had been endowed with in the womb, the power to hold on.  As the night-long exhausting wrestling match depleted Jacob’s strength and power, he held on to this opponent. To which his opponent said,

‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’

God to Jacob

It was all very fuzzy but Jacob thought he heard the words ‘striven’, ‘God’, ‘humans’ and ‘prevailed.’  Jacob had no problem with the word ‘striven’ that had been the storyline of his life, a constant struggle with someone, but the words ‘God’ and ‘Prevailed?” 

‘Have I just wrestled with God all night? and, did I win?’

Jacob to himself

As Jacob considered the implications of his opponent’s statement, an opponent who had now withdrawn himself, Jacob began to have, as he allowed, an experience of transformation. He could see beyond himself, he realized his role in the course of the world, he was humbled and depleted, he was broken, he was being rebuilt.  He now walked with a limp, but there was also a change in his countenance, no longer was he dependent on his own wits to survive, life was much bigger now. He was not perfect, there would still be a lot of rough edges but this was at least a partial metamorphosed Jacob. As can be seen in the name he gives to this place, ‘Peniel’, meaning ‘I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ It was a transformation that his life was no longer about prevailing, he wasn’t a prevailer, he was a runner – he had not prevailed, all he had done was to hold onto God, and in the struggle, he had been preserved.

He was now ready to face life, all the unknown, with no guarantees, no assurance of victories or personal gain, no recognition of importance or worth, but now, he was facing life with hope, sustainability, mercy and humility, all grounded on love.

In in order to understand the pertinence of Jacob’s wrestling match with God, to our own lives, let’s jump forward a couple of thousand years.  We end up at a wilderness place with thousands of hungry humans along with an exhausted Jesus and his weary disciples. Jesus has been denied even the shortest of breaks as he has, once again, has seen the oppression, the suffering, and the misery of the people.  His compassion and mercy compelled him to address their needs.  His passion makes it impossible to ignore. His, was a gut response to the needs, it pushed him to release, to heal, to free. There was an everlasting line of needs, one after the other. Jesus lived in the Kingdom of Heaven, even while on earth, a dwelling place that he calls all believers to live in,  a place where the physical needs of others are of priority to address, when the earthly reality is that the Roman Imperial system, as well as the existing religious system, did not see physical needs such as health, hunger, disease, poverty, shelter, abuse, and education as issues of priority.

So, when the disciples suggested that it was getting dark and that it would be best to send the crowds home, Jesus was perplexed.  There were still needs to be met, plus, now the people were hungry.

‘You feed them,’

Jesus to Disciples

‘We do not have anything to give them,’ the confused followers said, ‘we didn’t plan on feeding anyone, let alone a crowd this size.  We don’t have anything! What good can 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread for all these people?’

While what they didn’t have was the earthly focus of the disciples, the kingdom focus of Jesus was on what they did have.  They had a starting point. Jesus took that bread and the fish, and broke it all apart and distributed the small, tiny pieces into the baskets to be passed among the people.

The disciples had to be horrified at the thought of passing these basically empty baskets among the hungry crowd, to a crowd expecting something great to happen. The disciples had to be frustrated.  Jesus needed to rest, the crowds were hungry, the line for help was endless, they were in the middle of no where, it was time to go home.  The disciples were upset, they were struggling, they were in an epic wrestling match.  It was daylight, they could see their opponent, it was the whiny and complaining crowds with all their needs, their suffering, their oppression, their ancestral passing down of this oppression based largely on pigmentation, their nationality, their societal placement, the color of their skin, their enslavement, their poverty, and now their hunger.  They were not prepared and now it was on Jesus, and the disciples to provide.

‘When would this end?’ They questioned.

The more their frustration simmered the more they realized that the crowds were not their opponent, much like Jacob, they were wresting against Jesus, they were wresting against God.

Jesus was the problem, God was the source of this ridiculous situation. If Jesus did not have to stop every time a hurting person appeared this would not have gotten so out of hand.  If only God were to instruct Jesus to dismiss the needs sometimes, if only he would moderate the passionate compassion of Jesus.  Afterall, there were more important and pressing things to get to.

As with all of Jesus miracles, the miracle of creation to this moment of needs and hunger, we do not know the technical details of the abundance of food that filled every person in attendance that day, but we do know that the day ended with an abundance. It could have been a magical moment when the tiny broken pieces strangely multiplied, or it could have been an even more miraculous transformational moment as the people put themselves aside realizing they didn’t have to take more than they needed, or possibly seeing the contribution of the fish and loaves spurred them to realize they also could contribute.  Regardless of the how, the reality is that there was not only enough food there was actually an abundance.

The disciples then realized that their struggle was not with the crowds, nor was it with Jesus, it was with themselves. It was about a struggle with trust that came with living outside of the Kingdom of heaven where earthly things are allowed to hinder us from answering the call of God. Keeping us from addressing issues of injustice, oppression, deep inherited baggage that is more than humans can bear, hunger, sickness, racism, hatred, dismissal, disregard, poverty, and all suffering. All the things that tangle our roots and restrict our sight.

A wrestling match can bring us to transformation if we hold on. A struggle can show us what we have instead of what we do not have.  What is your struggle, what is God bringing into your vision?

With an attitude of willingness to be a part of God’s answer to our prayer, let us pray.

More than Survivors

07.26.20

In the 1991 movie City Slickers, on his 39th birthday, Mitch Robbins (played by Billy Crystal) asks his boss:

Did you ever reach a point in your life, where you say to yourself, ‘This is the best I’m ever going to look, the best I’m ever going to feel, the best I’m ever going to do’, and it ain’t that great?

Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) City Slickers, 1991

His wife insists that he go with his buddies on a cattle drive to ‘Find his smile.’ On the cattle drive, Mitch has a moment with the cattle drive foreman, a crusty, burly, and very non-social, cowboy named Curly (Jack Palance).

Curly : Do you know what the secret of life is? [Curly holds up one finger]  This.

Mitch : Your finger?

Curly : One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean (expletive).

Mitch : But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly : [smiles]  That’s what *you* have to find out.

This, in different forms, is the question we all ask –  ‘What is my one thing?’

Jesus had come to the close of the first two parables of Matthew 13.  Much of the crowds left shaking their heads, muttering ‘Darn Hippee!. The remaining 6 parable, however are for his followers, those who have made the decision to listen and understand. The crowds had largely rejected the message of Christ – the followers had recognize the truth in his words.

Jesus begins by taking us, to a sower who is sowing a tiny mustard seed.  It is the smallest of seeds yet will grow the largest of bushes that basically be a tree.  In its, soon to be, tree state, it will serve as a home to birds and their nests, at the same time, this small mustard seed will also be a source an essential spice for cooking and nutrition.  Within this tiny seed is everything it needs to do all it will be called to do and be.

A woman is making bread, a lot of bread – probably for a celebration. She has 60 pounds of flour which will make about 60 loafs of bread.  She mixes the elements required by her recipe, including a small amount of leaven in with the flour.  Over night, the life in the leaven, rises the dough sufficiently for the bread to be ready for the celebration. A tiny amount of leaven enables the dough, and the cook, to be ready for a feast.

A treasure hunter finds a treasure chest in a field, it is the treasure he has sought his entire career.  The hunter went and sold everything that he owned using all the proceeds to purchase the field, and indirectly, the treasure. Nothing he owned held any value compared to the treasure in the field.  He has sacrificed everything, now he sits in his field with his treasure. The field with the treasure is truly sufficient.

Another individual is a merchant who searches for, and sells, exquisite fine pearls, finds a single pearl which has a great value. He sells everything that he has in order to purchase the pearl.  He is done, he has sacrificed everything he owned in order to do the greatest thing he could do.  He now stands and watches the world with the pearl in his pocket.

A large dragnet is thrown into the sea and dragged along in order to catch all fish.  When the huge full net, containing fish of every kind, is dragged to shore, the destructive fish, those that would destroy the entire catch, are discarded & destroyed.  The net, has done its job, it has gathered all the fish.

The job of the scribe is to find & interpret the law & truth.  He is not only passionate his job, but he is passionate about he truth itself, it is his treasure. He pursuit is not just academic, it is life.

The problem with the question, ‘What is our one thing?’ is that it is too narrow, too shallow.  It merely seeks an answer for our survival.  ‘If I can just get through this day, this week, this year, this pandemic, these protests, the election, this phase, this feeling, this crisis, this…..’ It is merely a survival technique designed to get through life. Jesus’ parables paint a picture of life that is not one of survival.

In Romans 8, the apostle Paul wrote very non survivalist statements to the churches in Rome:

‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’

‘You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.’

‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’.

‘all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’

‘If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’

‘we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’

The question is not about our passion, our goal, our hopes, our dreams, our fulfillment, our dependency, our escape, our plan B, who are we, who do we want to be, what do others think of us, our success, it is not really about a ‘one thing.’ The question is a treasure question, a pearl question, a leaven question, a mustard question, a good and evil question, a pursuit of truth question.

It is a,

‘Where am I?’ &

‘Is it where I need to be?’,

question. 

Jesus said:

‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

Matthew 6:21

As Jesus was asked to teach the ‘how’ of praying, he did not send them to their knees with eyes closed and head bowed, no, instead he took them to  where they needed to be as they began to speak to God.

Pray this, ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10

He took them to a place where prayers begin, with God at his place, the place where a making a request is accepting the responsibility and willingness to be the hands and feet of the answer to the prayer.

It is not a location that can be identified by our GPS, it is much more real and pertinent than that.  We are called to live, IN, the Kingdom of Heaven now.

Jesus said to Martha, ‘I AM the resurrection, I AM the Life.’

He told his disciples, ‘I came so that you may have life abundantly.’

He said to those who were attacking him, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’

and, he said to Martha, ‘You are worried and distracted by so many things.’

Jesus invitation is much more than a ‘one thing’, it is not a ‘what’ question but a ‘where’ question.  He is calling us to a life lived in his Kingdom now so that we can reveal the Kingdom to a world that has become at home with the evil in the net. 

So, he prayed,

‘God, may your Kingdom come here.’

Jesus tells us these metaphors, these parables, to help us understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is, the location of the Kingdom here on earth.   It is in the dirt, it is in the kitchen, it is in the field, it is in the pocket, it is in the net, it is in truth.

We are called to the same place Jesus lived on this earth, the Kingdom of Heaven, a place where he frequently suffered but was never despondent, where he was rejected but always held his resolve, a place where he was always at peace even in the midst of chaos and turmoil, a place where he was consistently attacked but never without hope, a place where he was applauded but never arrogant, a place where sacrifice was his calling not survival, a place where he was a conqueror even though it looked like defeat.

In the Jewish tradition – when a boy or a girl reaches the age of 13 they are ready to be a full part of the Jewish community, they are ready to take part in the religious practices and traditions.  This is officially recognized at the celebration of Ba(z)mitzvah for the girls, and Barmitzvah for the boys. It is at this time that their elders will proclaim to them ‘You are now a Woman,’ ‘You are now a Man!’  Much preparation has taken place before this celebration.  The paradox sets in two days later as they return to school where their teacher is still treating them as a child with rules and restrictions that are for children. Here they are, a Man, a Woman, and yet they are still stuck in the world of their childhood.  They are now an adult, yet their adolescent body is screaming ‘I’m barely a teenager!’ They now begin their journey, a journey of an adult in a world of children.

This is what living now in the Kingdom of Heaven is, living in an imperfect world, that ultimately cannot harm us eternally, yet the impacts and restrictions all around intertwine into our life.

We have been caught up in the net, but the evil is still in there with us. We are constantly making the choice of which world we live in.

We choose to be the adult on the playground in the kickball game of life.

As we have journeyed through the prophetic ministries of Isaiah and Jeremiah, I have been horrified by the correlation between then and now. These prophets were screaming truth, at the top of their lungs, and no one was listening.  They were yelling that the religious leaders and the oppressive politicians were in collusion with each other at the expense of all humanity.  The people had settled in and accepted it, they believed the false prophets that were selected, honored, and adored by the religious and political leaders. These false prophets knew that their position could change in a moment if they failed to affirm the leaders decisions, statements, and agendas.  The people stood firm in their support of this deception and danger because it was what the way of the leaders were leading.  All the while, disaster loomed heavy outside the broken down walls of Jerusalem.

As I have immersed myself in the absurdity of this historical reality, which can be impossible not to see that the same tragic absurdity that Isaiah and Jeremiah were addressing is still a dangerous absurdity in our world today.  We have religious leaders who have been selected and appointed by the politicians. We have politicians afraid to step out of line or they will be humiliatingly discarded by their own system. We have words, and concepts, like life, unity, strength and force, safety, military, science, law enforcement, God, Bible, Constitution, Love, and faith used to nurture hate, death, disrespect for life, division, hopelessness, non-accountability, racisim, degradation of human life around the globe, and so much more…it is all waiting for us right outside the gates.

We label those as liberals who do not use our exact words about God’s truth while failing to ponder the depth of God’s greatest call on us.  We label those as radicals who do not conform to our exact interpretations of creation yet we refuse to make the sacrifices needed to care for God’s creation.  We reject those who don’t interpret God’s concern for children in the same way as we do, yet we refuse to accept the personal sacrifice of time, resources, and money required to fully take care of children and, for that matter, all humans.  We have called heretics those who are not in agreement with us on constitutional issues and interpretations, even when those views are often in direct opposition to God’s truth and to the revelation of God seen in Jesus.

We, are not only failing to separating our roots, we have justified the enemy that has sown the seeds of weeds and have welcomed him in along with his tangling weed roots.

Quite honesty, as I have seen this, it has worn on me. Beginning last fall, I could physically feel it.  Last thanksgiving my son Isaiah made the comment to me that he felt like he had an anxiety knot in his chest. I realized that was what I had.  Add to that, a God given blessing of seeing first hand the situation at the border, the pandemic, the protests, the division and arrogance – I allowed my roots to tangle with the roots of the evil inside the net. I have been hesitant to mention these correlations on Sunday mornings to you, and you guys are wonderful! God has often kept me awake all Friday and Saturday nights, or awakened me early Sunday morning, until I very changed the message to the very message he had been calling me to all week.  I had allowed the roots of the weeds and my roots to become very tangled, and I was physically feeling it.

As believers, our dwelling place is in the Kingdom of Heaven now, we are the hands and feet of the Lord’s prayer that God’s will be done on earth – NOW.  Not in an arrogant, hateful, judgmental, condemning way – but in a fruits of the spirit way, in a Micah 6:8 way, in the greatest two commandments way.

We are at the plate, but now as an adult on the childrens’ playground, we know we have the power to conquer, heck, we have the power to kick the ball up to the playground teachers holding their coffee at the other end of the playground, however, we also know that Joey, in right field looking at his phone, will get a bloody nose if we kick it over the first baseline with all the power we know we have, so we act with mercy, justice, love, showing fruits of the spirit, and kick with an intentionality that allows Joey, who hasn’t yet realized that we are an adult and that we are no longer the child, who yesterday, forgot the difference between 1st and 2nd base – we kick it so Joey will have time to realize the ball is slowly rolling his way, put his phone in his back pocket, and run to pick it up throwing it majestically to second base, were Elizabeth, the strongest, coolest, and best athlete in the fifth grade catches the ball, giving Joey his moment as she yells, ‘Good throw, Joey!’  So as the whistle is blown, Joey walks back for afternoon classes, he has had a moment of glory even while the evil is still in the net, not knowing it was thanks to us, but knowing it was a great already a great day.  A moment that will sustain him through the coming humiliation of not remembering that his notebook, containing his homework now being collected, is scattered all over the playground where he left his binder behind the backstop.

We live as we would like others to live, we live in the Kingdom of Heaven while in the midst of the elementary playground.

We suffer in this world that does not match up with where we really live.  We can choose to ignore the realities of this world, the evil that is still in the net, we can live with our noses in the air refusing to soften our power at the plate – because, quite frankly everyone else enjoys the cheers of a homer at the expense of Joey in right field.  Or, we can notice Joey and have mercy and love, we can act with justice for Elizabeth who sometimes does the opposite of yelling ‘good catch, Joey’ , we can show them both, and everyone else on the playground, where we live by how we live in the midst of the net full of evil….Just like Jesus did.  

So, as I have struggled with the ‘anxiety knot’ God has been working with me.  Reminding me as I observe the the evil still in the net, I must not forget where I live, I must not let my roots get tangled in with the roots of the weeds.  The weeds live there, I do not, our weeds do not belong intertwined.  My politics, my vocation, my education, my life must not tangle with the roots of the weeds, tangled roots pull us away from where we really live. In the end, our politics, our education, our vocation, our relationships, all the stuff of life, must be directed by where we live, in the Kingdom –  we can’t allow those things to dictate that we live in the net

The apostle Paul called this ‘Suffering with Christ’ – living in a world that does not match up with where we truly live.

It is the difference between surviving and conquering.

Curley asks, ‘What is Your one thing?’ 

The Spirit asks, ‘Where are you at?’

Paul, a resident of the Kingdom of Heaven, living on the planet earth, put it this way:  

‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Romans 8:38-39

Let us pray.

Deeply Rooted – Pulling Weeds

07.19.20

A farmer planted a field with wheat seed but, as he and his workers slept, an enemy came into his field and planted weed seeds in the same exact places there the wheat seeds had been planted. The strategy was to plant the weeds close enough so the roots would intertwine with the wheat roots. As soon the seeds began to sprout the workers noticed that many of the sprouts were not wheat – they were weeds.  The workers immediately ran and told the farmer about the weeds  – volunteering to start pulling weeds themself. 

The farmer recognized that an enemy had secretly entered the field and sowed the weeds. I’m sure that the workers first thought was not ‘Who would do such a thing?’ Or ‘Who could possibly be an enemy to our master?’ Instead, I imagine that they asked ‘Who would have seeds to grow weeds?” Who would be so vengeful, so calculated, so hateful?

The farmer assessed the situation and told the workers to allow the weeds to grow up with the wheat. He knew the roots of the wheat and the weeds were already tangled.  Pulling the weeds would result in pulling up much of the wheat.

So they waited until the harvest was ready and then pulled the weeds first, bundled and burnt them, and then, they will be free to pull the wheat.

The workers were to wait until the roots of the wheat would be untangled from the roots of the weeds.

I began to study wheat roots this week and quickly became overwhelmed. The roots are intricate and designed to seek out moisture in dry and cracked soil, but the most interesting and applicable thing about wheat root is in the seed itself.  The wheat seed is created with the ability to grow different 2 root systems during the growth process.  The first roots are set to support the system in the immediate stages of development.  This system of roots remains fairly shallow and would be easy fodder for the roots of weeds.  However, once the infant wheat seed stabilizes, the seed begins to grow the second series of roots which grow in a more vertical manner (which helps them seek out moisture), making them more capable of freeing themself from the weed roots.

This helps us understand why the newly sprouted wheat plants would be in danger if they were pulled up early.

After Jesus had told this parable, and had left the crowds, the disciples asked him to explain the meaning.  He explained that he was the sower of the good seed, the field is the entire world, the good seed are the people of God’s kingdom, the bad seeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows the bad seeds is the Devil, the harvest will take place at the end of the age at judgement, and the harvesters will be the angels.

This parable, at first glance, appears to be a call for us to gather the weeds now, and to then burn them – however, the true takeaway is actually the opposite. Pulling up and burning the weeds is not our assignment in this story, and, in fact, according to our mission of not judging or condemning, we are clearly unqualified, and we will never be qualified.

Our job is to join the farmer in the wait; waiting on roots to be untangled and free.

I am not sure there could be a more difficult and frustrating role, honestly, I am ready to pull some weeds.  Weeds that I have identified as putting our loved ones in danger, that are diluting and perverting the gospel, that are dividing us all – even within same faiths, weeds that are choking our love for God and destroying our ability to love all others as we love ourself.

The truth is that this parable is not about pulling or burning weeds, it is not about children of the evil one, it is not about us labeling humans good and evil, but, it is about the expansiveness of God’s grace, it is about the depth of God’s patience, it is about the full definition of what Jesus meant when he said  that ‘God so loves the world’  – the limitless love of God, it is about God’s complete understanding of the human experience.

It is not about pulling up, it is about untangling and being free. It is about holding off judgement until the last root that is willing to be untangled is untangled.

Let’s begin with a few elements of the parable and Jesus’ explanation.

Let’s start with the sower of the weeds…

The Enemy

The word is used four times in the gospel of Matthew.  Here in 13:35, the Enemy sows the weeds in the field.  Back in 5:43-44, the We are instructed, by Jesus to love our Enemies, and to even pray for them.  The third appearance of Enemy is in 10:36 where Jesus warns the apostles that they will have enemies in their same household, in their families. The final Enemy caution is found in 22:24 where Jesus harkens back to King David where we see these same enemy, the enemy that sowed the weeds, will ultimately be under the foot of Jesus as he is sitting at the right hand of God.

The Sower is identified as…

The Devil

Our next element of the parable comes in the Devil.  Here again, Devil is mentioned 4 times in the gospel of Matthew.  First we see Devil in chapter 4 as Jesus is tempted by the Devil who is tempts him to be allied with the devil instead of God. The 2nd is here in our focus passage where Jesus identifies the enemy Sowing the Weeds as being the Devil.  The 3rd comes in 16:33 when Jesus says to his disciple Peter ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ as Peter attempts to sway Jesus from God’s plan (something Peter does thinking it is the best way to save Jesus). The 4th mention of Devil is found in Matthew 25 as the King is addressing the unrighteous at judgement:

‘Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:41-46

Let’s, now, return to our field full of wheat and weeds.

The workers have correctly identified that the field now has weeds growing alongside the wheat.  However, the farmer is concerned, if the weeds are pulled in the early stages of the wheat root system development, their shallow roots will be intertwined with the roots of the weeds and the risk of killing the wheat is certain.

Since we are not the weed pullers in this parable, nor are we the enemy or the children of the enemy, so what is the call that comes out to us from this parable of Jesus?

The answer is that we have

Root Responsibility

This takes us back to the first parable in Matthew 13 where we found the absolute necessity of having good soil in order to have deep roots. To til our own soil, making it receptive to truth, discerning those forces that will contaminate the soil – this is our unique call.  Removing the toxins of hate and racism, the impurities that prevent our part in achieving justice and freedom in the lives of others, the poisonous particles that lead us to reject truth moving us to complacency, everything that destroy our soil and inhibit our roots.

Tilling the soil is a very individually intentional process. It starts with standing guard over those elements that are permitted into the soil, asking, are we allowing the politics of division, are we welcoming the religiosity of judgement and condemnation, are we seeking and searching for truth, do we love mercy and justice for all, and, are we rejecting lies and deceit?

Are we taking our soil seriously, or have we outsourced it over to others? Are we accepting all the seeds being thrown in our direction or are we seeking to reject the bad seeds from our soil?

And, after that, we ask, ‘do we have tangled roots?‘ and How do we untangle the roots?’

God tells us to ‘wait’…and, in telling us to wait, God has signaled what he does, as we grow deep roots and we work to untangle from the weeds…

God waits.

God’s grace, his guidance, his mercy, his compassion, his hope, and his love, waits, alongside of us and for us.

When the weeds were sown in among us, he didn’t do a risk assessment to determine how many wheat plants it would be okay to lose if the workers were to pull the weeds right away, making a wheat harvest much easier and less costly later, resulting in higher profit. No, every wheat seed was important and valuable, they all were needed in the field.

He waits.

He doesn’t give up on us, he doesn’t ridicule us, he doesn’t condescend towards us, he doesn’t reject us, he doesn’t turn his back on us, he doesn’t replace us, he doesn’t ignore us, he doesn’t dismiss us….He waits.

You see, as God does his job as the sower and the farmer, he addresses the concerns on the surface.  He guards the fields from herbivorous predators and other destructive pestilence.

He, having given us free will, and the power, he waits for us to develop and untangle our roots so we are ready for harvest.

Time to interject Important Note: Jesus told this to those who had the mission of untangling their roots, the very people he was calling to do the personal work.  He further explained it to his disciples who were also called to a work of personal root untangling. And, over two thousand years later, he calls us to the same.  If you are hearing, or reading this, you are not a ‘child of the evil one’.  In fact, one of the first weeds the enemy will try to tangle in your roots is this lie, that you are hopeless and too far tangled, you are not.

See, when we identify growth problems in others, things that we mistakenly judge and condemn as sin, it is actually a much deeper problem – a tangled roots problem.  The same is true for us, tangled root problems.

Throughout this pandemic God has brought world wide tangled root problems to our attention.  There have been two obvious, constant, reminders constantly being thrown before our eyes.  

This past Friday, as I was still struggling through this parable and particularly with God’s primary point for us – Grace Fellowship and all believers, today and in this time – God turned up the volume, literally, the volume on the television news.  The voice was a mayor of a large city in a state where Covid numbers are rapidly rising and surpassing record numbers.  The mayor, looked as though he was in the midst of a campaign rally standing before a large crowd of supporters.  What caught my eye was that he was wearing a mask, something we do not always see in our political leaders.  As the mayor spoke his tone began to change, he dramatically ripped off the mask, and declared that his city would survive without those ‘silly things’.  The audience roared with applause and laughter. 

This mayor, as well as the crowd, has a tangled root problem. They have allowed their roots to become tangled with roots that are not concerned with the health of others which, ironically is causing them to not care about their own health.  They have put their own agendas ahead of truth, they are listening to politicians and to a very agreeable exclusive, and small, group of scientists who are in line with their agenda, instead of those who are risking everything to give us truth.  They have a root problem tangled with roots that is preventing them from loving others as themselves, and, therefore of loving God.

In the northeast Oregon, a church that insisted on continuing in person worship services is tied to 236 positive tests, in West Virginia a church is linked to over 51 positive tests, in San Antonio a church is tied to 50 cases, in Tennessee a pastor said that he stopped counting after hearing of 12 members testing positive following attending in person worship, a Christian camp in Missouri shut down after 82 individuals positive cases were tied to the camp.  All of these outbreaks took place just in the month of June. All of these institutions had taken precautions. All of these had a root problem. Tangled roots caused them to harm rather than to love.

Our White House, this week, demanded that hospitals begin sending their Covid test numbers to the White House instead of the to the CDC. Tangled roots of political agendas, as they often do, have made vital truth even more difficult to find.

The other occurrence that we have seen since the beginning of the Pandemic is the protest all over our nation demanding justice for those American, and humans, of different races.  This is not a new problem, but it is a deeply dismissed and ignored problem. We have responded to the protests by pointing out the rage presented by those dealing with a full ancestry of oppression and racism. They have been killed at a disproportionate rate and have frequently been ignored by our justice system. We respond with comments like, ‘If they would just act differently, if they could be like us…’, if they wouldn’t protest and riot’ – instead of considering the damage of pain and oppression.  Interestingly, we herald the revolutionaries in our own history, who threw tea into the water, tea that would have been one million dollars loss to the owners , George Washington was against this protest. Still he love this story as pivotal in our freedom.

Politicians have recently responded by saying ‘White people have been killed to…’. Which is not only ignorant in its revelation of misunderstanding but also as unChristlike as is humanly possible.

God is waiting for us to untangle our roots,

he is prompting us to recognize our problems beneath the soil by letting us see the problems that are blatant above the soil.  He is lovingly revealing to us the work that is still needed before harvest time.

He is calling us to stop tying to pull the weeds from others based on our own judgmental and condemning perceptions and, instead, check out our own roots.

He is calling us to free our tangled roots from all the evil seeds that are keeping us from the greatest commandments from God.  Love.

God is calling us to Revival

If you grew up in an evangelical church, you have surely heard it prayed ‘God, bring us revival.’  God is bringing us revival, now. This revival does not fit the perimeters that have heard it prayed for however, it will not involve emotional church worship services where great music leads the participants to raise their hands, close their eyes, maybe even drop to their knees in tears.  It won’t involve an outpouring of confession of personal sin or even multitudes coming to know Christ.  It will, however, be very personal, very private.  This Revival involves each of us, that are followers of Christ, to begin untangling our roots. To untangle from the roots of politics, agendas, personal rights, hatred, racisim, selfishness.  It will be a revival of God pointing those out to each of us privately. This revival is already underway – it is time that you and I join in.

God rejoices in unity, the enemy delights in division; God desires peace for us, the enemy seeks to sow chaos in our lives; God passionately encourages us to have good soil and deep untangled roots, the enemy seeks to render our soil toxic and our roots shallow; God desires justice, the enemy incites prejudice, racism, and violence; God is merciful, the enemy is vindictive; God leads us in a life of hope, the enemy leads us to ruin; God is love, the enemy is hate.

God waits patiently until the day when he can say to us,

 ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:32-40

Let us pray.

Thankful for the Seeing Good Moments

 God, we thank you for ‘seeing good’ moments. When we see the extraordinary in the ordinary. In the midst of quarantine and isolation, in these times of protests and economic fears, in dark times when little seems familiar, we recognize your light in the heart, and actions, of others.

God, we have seen the extraordinary in the ordinary of our healthcare workers. Endangering themself and their families through the ordinary act of going to work. Frequently having to isolate from their families & friends. Enduring conspiracy theories & personal rights proclamations, from many of those to  whom they extend mercy.

God, we thank you for our local leaders as they seek to take precautionary measures to protect us from illness and death. They have put their own positions at risk in making the difficult and tough decisions.  They have made decisions that others have been afraid to make.

God, we thank your for our public eduction leaders, teachers, and staff. Jumping into action to do their ordinary jobs in an extraordinary fashion. They have strategized how to resume an ordinary when the ordinary is no longer an option. They now face the risks for self, students and all their families, as they  report back to jobs that will never be the same.

God, we also thank you for the essential works & businesses quickly developing new systems to serve us even when existing systems were no longer usable. They have continued to work, to serve, and to smile, in the midst of the risks and dangers. They have been underpaid, overworked, and almost always, unnoticed.

God, we thank you, we are seeing noticing of others more than ever before,

Just life Christ did with the bent over woman in the temple, the accused woman in the public square, the weak woman in the crowded streets, the ruler who had everything but could give up nothing, the thief hanging on the cross.

God, thank you as we begin to notice beyond skin color, 

We are seeing beyond cultures and actions, beyond nationalities, religions, & practices, we have begun to notice that pain can go deeper than we can comprehend. Pain that reveals itself in ways that distract us from the reality of the devastating impact passed down through generations. 

God, thank you that we continue to see the beauty of your creation in the joy of a pet, the smile of a neighbor, the laugh of a child, the opportunity to help and serve, the expressions of concern and empathy, the masks worn even when not mandated, the hands and feet of those who help after a storm, the privileged standing up for the underprivileged, the different colors that are standing up for each other, the realization of things we don’t need, & what we do need.

Amen

Here and Far Away

In the second half of the 1800s, Presbyterian teacher, author, and musician, Julia H. Johnston, sat down to pen a hymn that would explain the Grace the the Apostle Paul preached to the Churches at Roman, the words became the lyrics for Grace Greater than our Sin: 

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt! Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, There, where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.

Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that will pardon and cleanse within; Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that is greater than all our sin!

Julia H. Johnston

In proclaiming Christ, John said:

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

john 1:15

Grace is a difficult concept to explain no matter who you are speaking with.  The apostle Paul found this to be true as he attempted to teach the concept to the churches at Rome.

Paul was writing to churches that consisted mostly of Jewish believers but a growing group of gentiles (non Jewish believers as well.  It was a difficult concept – receiving something for nothing. It was especially difficult when the learners are accustom to a religousity that sets up many dos and don’t, as well as many gos and don’t gos.  He started was our human condition – using references from the teachings that the Jews would have grown up with: 

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

Romans 3:9b-12

And then Paul expands. 

‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of  the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;  

it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law

Romans 3:19-26, 31

Understand? Everything crystal clear?

Don’t worry it it is all still a little fuzzy, or even hugely fuzzy. It was fuzzy to most of those hearing Paul’s words as well.

Paul, recognized the existing fuzziness, so he illustrated by painting a word picture that most, could identify with.  Ironically, it is an explanatory picture that is possibly even more understandable, and relatable, today.

Paul took the listeners, and he takes us, back to a common figure – Abraham.

Abraham, given the label ‘Father of Our Faith’ by the three major world religions is a difficult individual. Let’s face it, the man used his wife, twice, as a human shield to protect himself.  He gave her away so that his life would be spared.  How is there anything redemptive in a person that would disregard his wife in such a calculated manner.

And, to make this matter more NOT understandable, he is rewarded for doing this – receiving riches from a ruler!

I have to be honest, I spent a lot of time this week trying to redeem the man Abraham, to no avail.

It finally occurred to me, the story of Abraham, is not a story of a saint, it is not  the story of a near saint,  it is a story of a man who needed a lot, I mean a lot, of grace.  It is a story that allows us to see the what grace is and what grace does.

The one thing about Abraham, the thing that puts him into this story, is that he is a man who often sincerely said:

‘Here I am.’

And,  

‘Okay.’

(or at least of verbal or action form of ‘okay’)

That is all that grace needs, ‘Here I am,’ and ‘Okay.’ These are two powerful statement.  “I Am Here’ the opposite of what Adam and Eve said when they hid from God in the garden; the same as what Isaiah said when God called him to be a prophet.  It is a statement of vulnerability.  ‘I Am Here’ just ‘Here’ no where great, and ‘I Am Not Perfect’ but ‘I Am Here.’

It is then, that grace, met by his willingness to say ‘okay’, that God moves him from our ‘Here’ through his own resistance to go to God’s ‘Far Away.’

Grace is not necessary to people who are Saints, it is not needed by perfect people, it is of no consequences to those people who are self sufficient, it is wasted on those who can go through life with a single minded focus that never sways away from God. 

In reality, the raw reality where we all live, none of those people exist, so grace is always needed, always available, and is always the balm that heals our soul.

So, let’s reintroduce ourselves to Abraham:

He gave his wife away to protect himself…..twice.

He owned people, he had slaves. 

He would have definitely have been a target of today’s ‘Me Too’ movement.

He quickly accepted his wife’s hall pass to sleep with another woman.

He sent that ‘other’ woman, and their son, out, surely, to their death.

And, that is just some of what is documented, his first seventy-five years are a mystery.

However,

When his deceased brother’s son needed a new dad, Abraham said, ‘I Am Here’.

When God told him to pack up his family and possessions he said, ‘Okay’.

When God made a ridiculous promise that, in no way, was possible, he said, ‘Okay.’

When he needed to put his own life on the line and risk everything he had to save his nephew, he said, ‘Okay.’

When his son, Isaac said, ‘Dad?’ Abraham said, ‘I Am Here.’

The good does not outweigh the bad by any means.  That is why Abraham gives us the perfect understanding of grace, the grace that he needed, the grace that we need.

The promise from God was made to him that he would be the father of many people and many nations even though his wife was barren and considered too old for pregnancy; He was promised to have a land, even though he was a nomad; He was promised to be a blessing to all, even though his own house was dysfunctional.

Like most of us, Abraham had his safety net, his backups in the case God needed help with his plan.  He had his long time beloved servant Eliezar – Eliezar could be the heir to Abraham, he could birth many people and ultimately a nation – but God said ‘no’.  He still have his loved nephew Lot, but then Lot left, he wasn’t really interested, he had other plans.  

It was at this point that Abraham began to be stressed and distressed.  His back up plans had been rejected or they had withdrawn from being a option.

In the midst of Abraham’s depression, God showed up.  The promise still held, even without Eliezar and Lot.  Only this time, God specified that the son would be a biological son of Abraham.

Abraham said ‘Okay’. It was crazy, it was impossible, it wasn’t going to happen, but Abraham said ‘Okay.’

Now notice, Abraham says ‘okay’ but we are still not to a perfect, saintly Abraham. But, even with what takes place next, God still credits Abraham’s heart felt, and sincere, ‘Okay’ as righteous.

Promise is repeated, grace is extended, that is what grace is, it is not about our actions, it a gift that we don’t deserve.  God received a sincere heart ‘Okay’ from Abraham, grace was offered, grace was given. Even while Abraham was still painfully imperfect. Grace Goes Before Us

Then, there seemed a loophole had been exposed, it seemed that there was a back up plan that Abraham was unaware of.

The servant of his wife, she could be the biological mother and Abraham could be the biological father! It was genius.  And, the best part of this brilliant plan was that it was first suggested by his wife Sarah. How could this fail?!

So he agreed, Sarah agreed, and, of course, the servant Hagar didn’t have to agree.  It would work, and it did work, Hagar had a son by Abraham who was named Ishmael.

But that wasn’t God’s plan.

‘Sarah will be the biological mother of the Son that you have been promised,’ God said.

Then Abraham swallowed hard, and Sarah laughed.

Abraham didn’t say much – after all,  he did still have a back up – there was his son Ishmael outside playing.

But then, Sarah, probably due to the double rejection by Abraham, not to mention how quickly he had a baby with Hagar, Sarah became jealous. Hagar and their son Ishmael were sent away.

Now, no Son, and no back up plan. No safety net.

But then, as Abraham is without a back up plan, and Sarah apparently is without a viable womb – Sarah birthed a son.  To everyone around it was a miracle, a crazy miracle.  The kind of miracle you read about in the line to pay for your groceries.

To God – it was his plan.  It was the most basic requirement of his promise.  A Son.

Abraham and Sarah now have a son.  Neither needs a back up plan or a safety net, they are the biological parents of this promised son.

There is one more thing, and this thing is about Abraham. It is a necessity for Abraham. 

It was time for Abraham to grow into God’s grace. It was time for him to be a man of Faith and to live a life of faith.

God called on Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac 

Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, was fascinated with the story, and person, of Abraham. In 1843, under a pseudonym, Kierkegaard wrote a book titled Fear and Trembling based on Philippians 2:12, ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’. He focused on the inter anxiety, and turmoil, that Abraham must have experienced as he said “okay’ to God’s call to sacrifice the only son he had left and the son that he so deeply loved.  

Kierkegaard, in this book which many thought was an autobiographical account of his own faith, developed the concept of ‘Infinite Resignation,’ which, he says, is the final element in the process of ‘working out your salvation.’  It is the giving up your backup, the one thing that you have held back from God, the one thing that you are unable to surrender to God, the one thing that you withhold from God, the one thing with which you are unable to fully trust God. 

‘Abraham?’

“I am here.’

a conversation between God and Abraham

God knew it was time for Abraham to move from here  to ‘work out his Salvation with fear and trembling.’  He told Abraham that he was to offer his only son, the son that he loved, as a burnt offering, a sacrifice.

We don’t hear Abraham say, ‘okay’, but he did obey.  He got up early and headed to the place, with Isaac, that God would show him.

On the way, as they stopped to prepare, Abraham looked, far away to where he was to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  It was far away.  Far away from Sarah, far away from home, far away from him.  There was no way he was going to get there. However, he still said, ‘Okay.’ 

‘Dad’

‘I Am Here Son.’

‘What will we Sacrifice?’

a conversation between Isaac and Abraham

It was a long journey, far away always is.  The two must have talked about everything, everything except the sacrifice. That was a personal journey for Abraham, Sarah nor Eliezar could share it, Isaac definitely couldn’t.  It was a lonely journey to ‘far away.’

Abraham was ‘working out his salvation’ as he traveled far away, he separated God’s promise and God’s provision.  He asked himself if he trusted God enough, did he have faith enough to trust the promise and surrender the provision?

According to Kierkegaard, ’Infinite Resignation is the last stage before faith, so any who one has not made this movement does not have a full faith, for only in Infinite Resignation does an individual become conscious of his external validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.’.

Simply put, one must give up all of his, or her, earthly possessions and must also be willing to give up whatever else it is that he, or she, loves more than God.

Abraham received God’s grace when he said ‘I am here,’ as well as when he said, ‘Okay,’ to God. He received ‘Grace upon Grace.  It was then that he began his journey of faith, a faith that would carry him through life.  Grace was given long before he reached the point of surrendering everything.

It was then, at the mental surrender, he was truly a man of faith, it was then that the world could look at him at the Father of Our Faith

As Abraham was about to plunge the knife into the body of his dear son, an angel cried out, ‘ABRAHAM!’

‘ABRAHAM! ABRAHAM!’

‘I Am Here’

an urgent conversation between angel and Abraham

Abraham, far away at a place that he never wanted to go to, held the knife steady and said, ‘I Am Here.’

Sure, we know that this was a test from God. Isaac was never going to die.  Abraham probably considered the possibility as well, but to even go through the motions, he had to ask the question, ‘Is this for real?’ He had to make the decision the sacrifice would be offered.

In offering his son, Abraham made the sacrifice.  He was now living by faith in God.

The comparison with God’s giving of His son are there, the painful resignation to surrender that which is most valuable is obvious.

We, however, have much to surrender. All of us, if we have said “I Am Here’ and ‘Okay’ are on a far away journey.  We are called to a sacrifice, God is showing us the way. Not only those things that we hold dear, but also those we hold dear. We have been asked to isolate at home and, when we are out, to wear a mask for the health of others.  It was just a preparatory sacrifice as God, now asks us to sacrifice our long held prejudices and judgements.  Our own way of looking at others, especially those who are different from us and that we do not understand.  We are being called to take the initiative, to not only understand, but to love beyond words.  To become uncomfortable with the status quo of our faith in this current reality, to become unsettled with the contradictions seen in our faith and in the reality of the world – to see the disconnect between the life of Christ then and the life of believers now. 

This turmoil that we are in, in a world that cannot control the disease and the disgruntled protests in the street – It is All Part of God Moving Us Far Away – to a place of Sacrifice.

It all seems very far away. But God’s grace took him there.  This was not something great historically about Abraham, we see little else about him after this story.  But, the life he now lived was fully, and completely lived in faith.  

This far away faith journey was for him, it is what Christ meant when he said ‘I came so that you may have life, and have it abundantly!’

God is calling us, are we ready to say, ‘Here I Am’?

Prayer Together for 06.28.20

God, we are tired, we shouldn’t be, but we are.
 
We are worn out by rising unemployment figures.
We are concerned about surging Covid numbers.
We are already fatigued by political manipulation 
and maneuvering. 
We are weary eyed from staring at our screens.

We are increasingly claustrophobic wearing face masks.
We miss seeing peoples’ faces.
We long for handshakes and hugs. 
We have forgotten what it is to actually go somewhere.

God we are tired, we shouldn’t be, but we are.
We now know that transformation must take place in each of us.
 
We are recognizing our need for empathy
We are striving to see others with a greater depth
and compassion.
We are realizing that we have taken antibiotics 
and vaccines for granted.
We are beginning to grasp the truth that our health is not just about us. 

We understand that rights are a privilege 
that must not be abused.
We connect that our privileges 
must never be at the expense of others.
We know that Loving God and Loving Others requires sacrifice.
We attempt to fathom that your love for us is why you sacrificed your son.

God we are tired, we shouldn’t be, but we are. 
We know that transformation must take place in each of us.
We name our gratitude in order to turn our gaze back to you. 

We trust in you even when we don’t see that you are here.
We trust in you even though we fear what is in the distance.
We trust in you as we follow an unknown path.
We trust in you, because you have always carried us before. 

God we are tired, we shouldn’t be, but we are.
We know that transformation must take place in each of us.
We name our gratitude in order to turn our gaze back to you.
We trust in you because you are our God, you are our Lord.

Amen