The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 19, 2021
Exodus 2:5-10; Matthew 6:25-33
It should never have happened. It should never, ever have happened. There is no way that a Princess of Egypt should have picked up a Hebrew child, turned him over to a Hebrew nursing mother, brought him into the palace and named him, Moses, or “son.” This should never have happened for two reasons. First, it should never have happened because the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had commanded that all of his subjects, including his daughter, were to throw all newborn Hebrew boys into the Nile so that they would drown. This command was not a suggestion but an order; an order intended to, slowly but surely, eliminate the Hebrew people. The second reason the princess should not have taken the baby out of the ark in which he was floating was that the Egyptian gods couldn’t have cared less about this child. I say that because in Egyptian religion, people did not matter. They were simply pawns in the great birthing and dying sequence that played itself out generation after generation along the great river. So, our first question of the day is, “Why did the princess do it? Why did the princess save this child?”
The most obvious answer to this question seems to be given to us in the passage. In verse six: “When she opened the ark, she saw the child. He was crying and she took pity on him.” The obvious answer then, is that the princess had pity on the child. To most of us, this would seem appropriate. We have all taken pity on someone; a lost child, someone who is homeless or hungry. This answer resonates with us. Yet I would offer that this is not the correct answer. The correct answer is that the princess cared. I realize that the difference between these two words may seem like nothing more than semantics. But let me explain. Pity is a feeling. Pity is a feeling that can elicited by any number of encounters. As I said a moment ago, it can be triggered by a lost child, hungry people, or those whose lives have been upended by natural disasters. Yet, pity is not action. Let me ask, how many of you have felt pity for someone yet not done anything about it? Caring, on the other hand, as it is used in scripture is not the emotion of someone saying to us, “I really care about you,” meaning they have feelings for us. Caring in the scripture means life-affirming actions.
This definition then leads us to our second question, which is, why did she care? Why was her pity turned into caring? Why was her emotional response to this child turned into action? Again, this would seem to be out of character for an Egyptian princess whose entire life had been lived in a political and religious environment in which all people, much less Hebrew people, had any particular value. Why did she care? I would argue that she cared because she was designed to care. Let me explain. When we read these stories from Exodus, we are not reading them as if they are individual tales told without context. Instead, they are part of the total package of the Torah, the first five books of the scriptures. What this means is that we are reading this story in the context of the opening story of Genesis, where God creates human beings in God’s own image. By creating us in God’s own image, God is creating human beings who are not only capable, but are designed to care because God is a caring God. In other words, if God cares about this world, meaning that God acts in life-affirming ways toward this world, then those who are created in God’s image are designed to do the same. Thus the princess was designed to engage in life-affirming actions.
This concept that God is a God who cares, who acts in life-affirming ways, is at the center of Jesus’ words in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount we read this morning. What Jesus is sharing with those gathered to listen to him is that God does more than feel kindly toward God’s people. God not only knows what the people need when they are hungry and afraid, but, Jesus implies, God will give it to them. God will provide. In so doing Jesus is taking these people back to the great stories of Exodus. Jesus is reminding them that God heard the cries of God’s people in captivity and set them free. Jesus is reminding them that in the wilderness when the people were thirsty, God provided water and when the people were hungry, God provided quail and manna. The God that Jesus represents to those who gather on the mountain is one who cares, who engages in life-affirming actions so that God’s people do not have to worry or be afraid. Instead, they can focus on striving for the Kingdom, which means being people who care, who engage in life-affirming actions.
This belief then leads to our final question of the morning. “If God cares and has designed us and empowered us to care, why is it that so many people don’t care? Why is it that so many people, rather than engaging in life-affirming acts, engage in death-bringing acts?” This answer is complex and multi-faceted. For our purposes this morning I would simply say that over time, the image of God has been diminished in humanity as a whole and in human beings individually. What I mean is this ability to care has been eroded by fear, anger, hate, envy and any other negative attribute you can name. These death-dealing ways slowly but surely extinguish the image of God. Thus, when people are victims of abuse, hatred, anger or are trapped in systems that do them harm, the image of God within them can be hard to find. Yet, as John Calvin reminds us in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the image of God is never completely extinguished. While it may go underground, it can never be fully lost and the possibility that this image can be reclaimed and with it the ability and the impetus to care is always present. The image of God is like the pilot light Cindy and I have in our gas-log fireplace. It is always on, barely seen, yet with some additional fuel, it can create a blazing fire.
This possibility, that the image of God and the call to care can be salvaged is why this church matters. For you see, we are a community of caring. We are a community that is founded upon God’s caring for the world in Jesus Christ. We are a community that is constantly caring here in this building, in the community, the country, and the world. We care through life-affirming actions for those who are homeless, hungry, and in need. And by so doing, we keep the image of God alive and active in ourselves and others. We remind one another that we are to be a people who care. We encourage one another when it seems as if life is beating us down and diminishing God's image within us. So I want to thank you for being that community of caring. I want to thank you because the world needs communities like ours, that not only feel pity for those in need, but do something about it. We care.
My challenge to you for this coming week is this, to ask yourselves, how am I caring for others because the image of God is alive and well within me?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 12, 2021
Exodus 1:8-22; Matthew 18:1-11
Twenty years ago today the skies were silent and empty. All domestic air travel had been canceled. People were trying to rent cars to drive home from distant destinations. We watched in horror as time after time the images of the twin towers collapsing were being burned into our brains. Then there were the ongoing broadcasts of first responders hoping against hope that survivors would be found. There were desperate families seeking loved ones who had gone to work in the towers as if it were another day and had not been heard from. There were the pictures and stories of those who made last minute calls to family before their lives were lost. In all of that we knew we had seen the face of evil. We had seen the face of evil, meaning that we had seen human beings who were willing to kill themselves to extinguish the image of God in other human beings. For that is what evil is. It is the intentional destruction of the image of God in others, meaning that evil can be seen in the taking of thousands of lives at the twin towers, or in the actions of an online troll who uses social media to destroy the lives and reputation of those they don’t like. Evil is about diminishing or destroying the image of God in others.
Almost immediately the questions began. We wanted to find out who these people were who could do such a thing. We wanted to know how these people had evaded detection while training in the US. We wanted to know who recruited them, funded them, and sent them. We wanted to know who was to blame so that we could deal with them appropriately. But the one thing that did not get a great deal of thought was how did these men come to participate in such a great evil. What I mean by this is that these men were not born as haters of the West. They had ordinary childhoods without any great trauma. So how is it that they could be so swept up in Al Qaeda, that they were willing to kill themselves and thousands of people they did not know, whom they had never met, and who had never done them any harm? Or to put it simply, how does evil do this? How does evil grow? I ask, not out of morbid curiosity or for some academic purpose. I ask instead because if we know how evil grows then maybe we can find a way to short circuit its power; to offer the world a counter narrative so that instead of evil there is good.
To discover how evil grows I offer our text from Exodus as a template, because I believe that was its intent. The intent was to help God’s people understand how easy it was for evil to grow and flourish, so they might avoid it. So here is the narrative of the growth of evil. Evil often begins with a single individual who believes that they should possess all power; in this case Pharoah, whom the text implies has taken power by overthrowing his predecessor. Evil grows then through a series of steps. First, the one seeking to consolidate their power needs an “other” or an “enemy” on whom to focus. In this case the “other/enemy” is the Israelite people, and by the way this is the first time the Hebrews are referred to as a people. Second, it is necessary that the “others/enemies” become an object of fear. Pharoah does this well by telling his people that the Hebrews are more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians…both of which are lies. Third, this fear then gives Pharoah an excuse to oppress the Hebrews, which allows the Egyptians to see the Hebrews as less than human. They are more like animals used for labor. Finally, because the Hebrews are less than human it allows Pharoah to propose killing all the male boys, first at birth by the midwives, but then by the entire population. Evil has grown, spread, and infected the entire populace. I would argue that it was this same narrative that was followed by Bin Laden prior to the 9-11 attacks.
The question then becomes, is there a way in which this progression of evil could be short circuited? Is there a counter-narrative to that of the growth of evil? The answer to these questions is yes and yes. And to find it, we need look no farther than two women, the Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. They are enlisted in Pharaoh’s evil scheme to kill all the male children so that the Hebrew people could not rise against him and so that the girl children could be married to Egyptians and bear Egyptian children. This command of Pharoah left the women with three options. First, they could go along with the narrative of evil and kill the children. Second, they could resign and allow someone else to do the killing. Or three, they could choose to write a new narrative, one of protecting the vulnerable, which is the choice they made. They would lie to the king. They would risk their lives, but they could protect the vulnerable. This is a different narrative because it says that the children are not “others/enemies.” It says that the children and their parents are fully human. It says that these children deserve life and not death. And the women made this choice because they feared God. Fear here does not mean fear of punishment. Fear here means having awe and respect for God. They understood God to be one that cares for every life, Hebrew or Egyptian. In these actions they not only short circuit evil they create a new narrative…the narrative of protecting the vulnerable. This, for those women, is the narrative of those who fear God.
This sermon series is about doing the will of God, and at the heart of God’s will is protecting the vulnerable. I say this not only because of what Shiphrah and Puah did but because protection of the vulnerable is one of the great narratives of Torah and of the life and work of Jesus. We can see this in the Law of Moses, reading from Exodus 22, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan…If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.” The counter narrative of protecting the vulnerable applies to how God’s people are to treat foreigners who live among them, widows and orphans who have no one to protect them, and to the poor who have limited resources. Jesus continues this narrative when he tells the story of the separation of human beings into sheep and goats, with the sheep at God’s right hand and the goats at God’s left hand. Those who sit at God’s right hand are those who have protected the vulnerable hungry by giving them food; the vulnerable thirsty by giving them something to drink; the vulnerable homeless by taking them in; the vulnerable prisoner by visiting them; and the vulnerable sick, by caring for them.
Narratives are powerful. They can shape lives, communities, and nations. The narThe narrative of God, the narrative of God driven by God’s will, is the protection of the vulnerable.rative of evil is that there are “others/enemies” who are less than human and deserve to be diminished and destroyed. It is a narrative that seeks to eliminate the image of God from those to whom God has given it. This narrative helps to rescue and enlarge the image of God in all human beings, by seeing none as the other, seeing none to be feared, seeing none to be oppressed or destroyed, but seeing every person as the object of God’s and our love, compassion, and care. It is this narrative that calls us then to be intentional in our protection of the vulnerable, for the vulnerable are all around us. They can be children in the Foster Care system. They can be adults with disabilities. They can be the poor who are often forced into borrowing from lenders who charge excessive rates of interest. They can be children with inadequate educational opportunities. They can be families who live without health insurance or adequate housing. They can be the homeless who struggle with mental illness, and a lack of support services and affordable housing. They can be those who have come to our nation from Afghanistan seeking a better life.
The challenge for us then is to ask ourselves first, which of these narratives are we choosing? Then ask ourselves second, if I am choosing the narrative of protecting the vulnerable, how am I living that out in my life?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 5, 2021
Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 8:18-30
This coming Saturday will be twenty years since our nation was attacked and the Twin Towers came down with a horrific loss of life. In the days and weeks after that event the nation came together as one, determined not to allow the terrorists to defeat us. Unfortunately, that unity did not last long. Slowly but surely, we began to divide into the competing camps that had existed before 911. And things have only gotten worse and today we are divided over masks, vaccines, abortion, the need for racial reconciliation, the discussion of the history of slavery and race in our schools, climate change, the winner of the 2020 election for president, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Medicaid expansion, welcoming Afghan refugees, voting rights and even whether Covid-19 is real…yes whether Covid-19 is real and kills people. The problem with this level of division is that it is causing people to be angry, depressed, fatalistic, and helpless. And we as a nation are not alone in these divisions; the rest of the world is following suit. The question then is, how are we to respond to these divisions?
The answer to that question can be found in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, is that we are to be a people of patient hope, trusting that God is still working God’s purpose out. Let me unpack this, beginning with the last portion, that God is still working God’s purpose out. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is an attempt to help his readers understand that from the beginning of time God desired a world that lived in harmony, in peace, and in justice. When human beings messed up this harmonious world, God’s purpose became to remake it. This is the core of Romans 8 where Paul writes that creation itself will be “set free from bondage and decay and will obtain the freedom of the children of God” …meaning that creation will be recreated just as those who follow Jesus have been recreated. In other words, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is just a foretaste of the restored creation that God is at work bringing about. And even though there is suffering in the meantime, Paul says it is not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. He encourages the Roman Christians, and us, to not give up hope because God has not given up on God’s own purposeful plans to remake creation.
This assurance of God’s continuing purposeful activity is what is supposed to call us to be people of patient hope. I know that patient hope can sound like passive wishing. But it is not. First, Biblical hope is not a wish. Hope is a belief in the future based on past actions. When Cindy and I decided to have our driveway redone, we did not randomly choose someone online. Instead, we read reviews, asked for references, looked at other driveways the companies had done and then chose a company with a good track record of good work. We had hope then that our driveway would be well done. This the hope Paul is talking about. The hope that God is recreating creation is based on the recreating work that God has already done for humanity in Jesus of Nazareth. The Roman Christians had experienced becoming new people, new creations in Christ. Therefore, they could have hope that God was doing the same thing in creation itself.
The second part of this equation is patience. Patience here is not a passive acceptance of what is, but the willingness to continue working even when things aren’t brought to completion. I have to say that I admire those who do cancer research. Year after year they experiment and run trials hoping that they will find a breakthrough that will cure cancer. They don’t say, “Well if I haven’t cured cancer in a week, then I will quit.” This is patience. Patience is an attitude that Jesus followers are to have as they work for the Kingdom of God. We are to see ourselves as part of a process of recreation in which we may see little progress, but that lack of progress is not to stop us from engaging in Kingdom actions of loving God and loving neighbor.
If we want to see what patient hope looks like all we need to do is look at the life of Joseph. He was a young man called by God to be an agent of salvation. Even so, his brothers hated him, conspired against him, and sold him into slavery. As a slave he was mistreated, forgotten about, and even when he was at his best, ignored. Yet, through all his misadventures, Joseph was patient. He never whined to God that he was being mistreated. He never gave God a timetable or a set of demands. He lived with hope, believing that God’s past faithfulness would, in the end, be made evident in his life. He sums up this patient hope when his brothers, who once again lie to him about what their father had told them, says this, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” This is the kind of patient hope to which Paul is referring. This is the kind of patient hope that we are to have in the face of all the anger, pettiness, and pain we are all enduring. We are to be patient in hope that God is still working God’s purpose out.
The question for all of us this day, as we head toward the 20th anniversary of 911, is to ask ourselves, how am I showing patient hope, trusting that God is still working God’s purpose out?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 29, 2021
Genesis 33:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
The date was April 27, 1994. It is not a date that most of us would recognize or consider of any particular importance. But in South Africa, it is a date on which the nation held its collective breath. It held its breath, because after almost 100 years, Black South Africans would be allowed to vote in a general election. Apartheid had officially ended several years before but this was the moment when the majority Black population would be able to take political power into their own hands. The world was waiting to see if a victory by the African National Congress, or ANC, would usher in a bloodbath of revenge killings against the former white regime and the white populace. This fear was exacerbated by bombing and massacres that preceded the vote. Yet, not only did the vote go smoothly, but the victorious ANC helped to create a constitution that declared that “the pursuit of national unity, the well-being of all South African citizens and peace require reconciliation between the people of South Africa…and that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization…” How would they achieve this lofty goal? They would and did create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
You may be wondering why they would create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than simply a Reconciliation Commission? The answer lies in an understanding of what reconciliation is and how it works. In the simplest of terms, reconciliation is bringing into balance something that is out of balance. Think about balancing your checkbook, or your online bank statement. You want to make sure that the expenses, the income, and the remaining money all balance. This is a simple reconciliation, bringing your account into balance. In terms of human relationships, the same concept applies. Let me offer you an example. Suppose you baked a batch of cookies for company that is coming to dinner. You put the cookies in the cookie jar. Later in the day you go to check on your cookies and the jar is empty. You turn to the only other person in the house and ask, “Where are my cookies?” The answer is muffled by the cookies crumbling in their mouth, but you hear, “Cookies, what cookies?” Your relationship with this other person is now out of balance. Bringing this relationship back into balance requires two parts. Part one is the person must tell the truth that they took the cookies. The second part is that the other person must make you whole…meaning they need to replace the cookies. When these two parts, acknowledging the truth and making wholeness occur, then reconciliation happens, and your relationship can be brought back into balance. We can see how these two parts of reconciliation work in our morning’s stories.
Our first story is one showing the power of personal truth and reconciliation. The back story to our tale this morning is that Jacob and Esau are brothers…twins to be exact. Esau is the first born and as such was entitled to both the birthright of the eldest and the blessing of his father. Jacob, the schemer, however, manages to manipulate his elder brother into giving up the birthright and then with the help of their mother, con their father into giving him, Jacob, and not Esau the blessing. The result is that Esau decides that Jacob must die. Jacob escapes and lives abroad for several decades. Finally, he decides to return home. He has no idea how his brother will receive him, but he understands that if they are to share life together there must be truth and reconciliation. This reconciliation begins with Jacob bowing before his older brother seven times. This bowing is admitting the truth that Esau is the older brother and worthy of the respect that comes with that title. It is a way of saying, “Yes I stole your rightful place in the family from you.” The second step of reconciliation, trying to make the one harmed whole, occurs when Jacob makes his older brother take the goods that are offered. Even though in the end, neither brother fully trusts the other, their relationship is healed enough that when their father dies, the brothers can come together in peace and bury him. Truth and reconciliation brought this relationship back into balance.
Our second story is one of cosmic truth and reconciliation. One of the great questions facing God’s people is how to be reconciled to God. This question presents itself because humanity’s relationship with God is out of balance. It is out of balance because human beings have, as Paul puts it, transgressed. I realize that this word, transgression, seems like a religiously archaic word. Yet if we think about the word in common usage, it makes sense. Suppose you are walking down a path. On your right there is a fence with a sign on it that reads, “NO TRESPASSING.” We know that we are not supposed to hop the fence because either we might get hurt or we might hurt something or someone on the other side of the fence. Yet, there is this great temptation to hop the fence to see what is on the other side. This is what human beings have done. God has set before us the path of life, with fences around us to keep us safe. Yet we jump the fences, we trespass, and this leads to harm for God’s creation and creatures. This fence jumping is what has imbalanced our relationship with God. Step one in reconciliation then is that we admit our trespasses…which is why we have weekly confession.
The second step in reconciliation then is to make God whole…but how? Paul argues that it is impossible for human beings to make God whole, meaning that we can never give God enough to make our accounts balance. Instead, the Apostle argues, God balances accounts for us. God does this through becoming in-fleshed as Jesus of Nazareth, who in an act of infinite love takes all our transgressions upon himself, and in dying on the cross, wipes out our debt to God. In this great mystery, the accounts are balanced, and we are reconciled to God. This balancing can never be fully explained or understood, yet it is a reconciliation that people can experience as a life changing event.
The outcome of this life-changing rebalancing in Jesus is twofold. First, those who take advantage of truth and reconciliation by following Jesus find themselves to be new creations: becoming new people capable of living new lives in which it is possible to love God and neighbor; in which it is possible to walk on the paths God has set before them; and in which it is possible to work toward reconciliation with those around them. The second outcome of this reconciliation in Jesus is that those who take advantage of it are given both the message and the mission of reconciliation. They become ambassadors for God, meaning they are those who can help individuals, families, communities, and even nations discover the healing power of reconciliation. In a sense they, and by extension we, have been entrusted with the most powerful weapon of peacemaking…the power of truth and reconciliation.
The question the world wanted to know in South Africa was, would the peacemaking power of truth and reconciliation work? Would it allow a nation deeply divided with thousands of victims of untold acts of violence and brutality balance their accounts? I wish I could say absolutely it did, but I can’t. I can’t because the jury is still out. For many victims it empowered them to speak the truth of what had happened to them, thus setting the stage for restitution and the rebalancing of their lives. It allowed them to begin to be made whole. For others, it meant that justice was not served for all who suffered, because many perpetrators of violence were able to escape the consequences of their actions. Yet in the end, truth and reconciliation offered, and continues to offer, South Africa an opportunity to heal, to be made whole, and to balance accounts. It is a healing that continues to this day.
We have been entrusted with the most powerful process for bringing relationships back into balance…the power of truth and reconciliation. We have been given reconciliation to help rebalance relationships between individuals, within families, in communities and even in our nation to help heal the divisions that separate us. The question is, will we use it? Will we indeed be those ambassadors? So here is my question for this week, “How am I living into my calling as one entrusted with the ministry and message of reconciliation?”
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
August 22, 2021
Genesis 22:1-14; Luke 16:10-13
The scripture that we are focusing on today from Genesis about Abraham and Issac, may be one of the hardest stories that scripture has to offer us. Its presentation is very matter of fact and largely emotionless. God asks Abraham to do something, and Abraham follows directions without question, finally. Except the thing that God asks this time is shocking. God wants Abraham to take his son Issac to a mountain and sacrifice him. This ask is outrageous! Issac is the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham on day one of their meeting, Issac is the whole reason the partnership exists. Issac is the one through which God’s nation will be established. Isaac's inevitability has been questioned by Sarah, and God laughed at her for doubting. Abraham is rebuked by God for doubting Issac would ever arrive. Isaac is the resolution of the story of Abraham, and NOW…Now God wants Abraham to kill Issac? This is messed up. (I would use stronger language but there are impressionable ears among us.) The nicest way to put it is, “This is messed up.”
For this story to be read this week is equally as messed up. The story of Abraham sacrificing Issac is about how God always provides, but in our current situation it is tough to talk about God always providing. Talking about God’s provision when our world is 20 months into the 7th most deadly pandemic and the end is far from in sight. Sure, let’s talk about God’s provision the very week veterans wrestle with understanding the impact of their service in Afghanistan. When Haiti is looking for loved ones after an earthquake, when the linesmen in our area haven’t seen their families in months because they cannot catch a break while repairing our electrical infrastructure. This is the time we talk about God’s provisions? A time when it does not exactly look like God is doing much providing for anyone.
When we read this story during a time that is as messed up as it is right now it can feel ridiculous that Abraham goes along with God’s request without a single question. For me, the most infuriating part is how calm Abraham is. When God asks him to do this awful thing, when his son begins to catch on and questions him, the only thing Abraham says is “Here I am.” This is a man who in the past has had no problem taking matters into his own hands and defying God’s directions. He had no problem fathering a son by another woman as Sarah remained childless. I feel like we could really use that kind of healthy questioning and proactive effort in this moment instead of just, “Here I am.”
This phrase can be heard in lots of different tones. It could be the timid response of a broken-down man who has tried defying God but now is passively submitting to whatever is thrown at him, (sigh) “Here I am.” But when we look at how this phrase is used in other places in scripture we see that broken-down is not necessarily the right way to hear Abraham’s response.
When we read people saying, “Here I am,” in scripture it is never the cry of a broken, submissive person doing something they don’t want to do. “Here I am,” is the answer of someone ready to listen and partner with God. It is a phrase of trust. The prophets and fathers of our faith say, “Here I am,” because they have learned that is all they need to provide when God asks them to do something, they just need to show up. God provides all the rest of their needs. “Here I am,” is a statement of mature trust in God and glad presence to what God will ask of them.
So Abraham is not broken-down by God. This is not senseless submission. This is a bold statement of a strong partner who trusts their God. Abraham and God have been on a long journey of trust building. They began with a promise. There have been doubts along the way, but the partnership has worked out, and Issac is the promise fulfilled. Abraham has learned not to take things into his own hands but to remain present to what God is doing, hence the response, “Here I am.” Abraham knows the best thing he can do is be present.
We see at this point in Abraham’s life a very high trust of God. Abraham unquestionably trusts that God will provide. He also knows that those provisions don’t always show up in the way we expect or on the schedule we would prefer. Abraham’s calm acceptance of this request shows he trusts God enough to know, as wild as it may seem, it will lead him to something good. Even if he can’t figure out how or what that could possibly be right now.
Even as he trusts God, I think Abraham deeply distrusts this situation. Simply because he is a good dad. He was troubled about sending Ishamel away because his instincts told him he needed to protect his son. There is no way a father, a father who has deeply longed for this child, is calmly taking his son up a mountain to kill him. Abraham’s mind must be screaming at him to stop. There is just no way Abraham with his parental instincts is making that climb without red flags being thrown from every sense inside of him. And yet here he is, seemingly calm, climbing a mountain with Issac at his side.
Every step he takes must be powered by his trust in God.
God has provided in the past. Keep walking. When I questioned God, God provided. Keep walking. God promised to make me a great nation, God has good intentions for me. Keep walking. God said Sarah would have a child, Issac is that promise fulfilled. Keep Walking. God has always shown up in the scariest of times. Keep walking. None of this seems good right now, but I know my God. Keep walking.
At the same time that Abraham deeply trusts God he also distrusts what has been asked of him. This is possible because distrust is not the opposite of trust. We often think that trust is on one end of a spectrum and distrust is on the other, but scans of our brains have proven this is not the case. Studies have looked at how the brain processes trust and how it responds when we distrust something. When scientists take brain scans and show the subject someone they have high trust of, the part of the brain that lights up is the prefrontal cortex - our logic center. This part of our brain takes in info and compares it over time. It checks past experiences, reasons out possible futures, and logically concludes a level of trust we can safely give.
Distrust however is controlled by our amygdala. This is our fear center. This part of our brain reacts quickly and can override all other brain activity. Some people call this our guard dog. The amygdala served us well when life and death threats happened every day. The guard dog would start barking and we would know something was off. The birds had stopped chirping, maybe a predator is nearby. Those clouds look a little too green for a summer afternoon. We should seek shelter. The amygdala senses danger and takes over our response in order to keep us alive. When the guard dog is barking there is something we need to pay attention to.
Since trust and distrust are controlled by completely different parts of our brain it means we can trust something completely and distrust it at the same time. Let me give you an example:On our last trip to our partners in Mexico, our team took a day trip to a cenote (cey-NO-tay). A cenote is a deep cavern that has opened up to the surface and filled with water. They become these amazing swimming holes of freshwater 70 feet deep. The surface of the water is also 80-100 feet from the surface so you have two choices to get into the water. One is to walk down the flights of stairs into the water, the other is to jump in. I am always game to try anything once. I am not afraid of heights, I am a strong swimmer, and I was watching everyone else jump in and 100% of them not only survived but were walking out and doing it again and again. I trusted the jump option. I knew with every fiber of my being I would survive it, it would be fun, and I would feel fulfilled by trying something new. But when I got to the edge of that cliff and looked over into the water my guard dog started barking. The amygdala tried every trauma response to get me to abandon the jump. I fled but walked back, my stomach started to turn, my temperature started to rise. Every red flag that a guard dog could throw up was thrown. And then I jumped.
Even though my guard dog was telling me to distrust this situation, I still had a strong trust in myself and my ability. I was able to override the distrust with trust to achieve the thing I wanted at that moment. Trust and distrust are not opposites; they are on two different continuums. This is why we can trust that God will provide in the midst of global turmoil and personal setbacks, while also wrestling with doubt and grief and anger. Abraham had learned to trust God 100%, so when God asks him to sacrifice the thing of the greatest value in Abraham’s life, all Abraham says is, “Here I am.” He trusts God will provide, but that does not mean his guard dog was not barking for him to turn around.
That walk must have been terrible for Abraham and he made it anyway, fueled by his trust of God. Knowing all he had to do was stay present to how God was going to provide in this messed up situation. Staying present was key, which is why we hear Abraham say, “Here I am,” multiple times. It is a response to someone else but it is also a reminder to Abraham. He says out loud, “Here I am,” and internally he is thinking, “Here I am by God’s good intentions and promises I am here. Here I am. Let's see how God provides for me now.” Every moment of that walk Abraham stays present to the moment and to God’s way of providing.
We should also be clear about what Abraham is not doing. He is not barreling forward trying to get the task done, he is present. He is present enough to pack up the donkey and take help for the journey. He is present enough to notice the mountain God has designated for the sacrifice. He is present, in the moment, all the way to raising the knife, even then he is so present he can notice the shift in God’s request. He hears the voice tell him to stop, and he sees the ram stuck in the bushes.
Imagine if Abraham was too stubborn to stay present. If God gave him this command and he set that in stone, ignoring everything around him. Imagine if Abraham had focused in on the task at hand, only seeing that outcome, being sure he was doing God’s will. Sure of the way God was going to provide and only looking for what he expected to see. If Abraham had done this he would have brought that knife down thinking it was God’s full plan and he would have missed the way God was showing up for him at that moment.
For some people this concept of trusting God puts blinders on them. They are so focused on God providing, especially in the way they expect God to provide, they miss the provisions of the moment.
There is an old tale about a Pastor who trusted in God’s provision unequivocally. One day their town experienced sudden flooding. The sirens started going off and all the news channels immediately reported a mandatory evacuation. The Pastor, who trusted God’s provision, stayed put. In an hour their home was filling with water. A boat came to rescue the Pastor, but the Pastor said, “I do not let fear control my life. I trust that God will protect me,” and they sent the boat away. Shortly after the Pastor found themselves on the roof of their home, waters closing in, they cried out to God to save them. A helicopter heard the screams and threw down a ladder to the Pastor, but they pushed it away saying, “I cannot live in fear of this water. I was not given a spirit of fear. I live by faith in my God’s provision.” Well...the Pastor drowned. And when they got to heaven they yelled at God, “Why didn’t you save me? I trusted you to provide for me!” God replied. “I alerted the local weather center how bad it would be and they set off the alarms with plenty of time for you to evacuate. I sent a boat to get you out. I even sent a rescue crew in a helicopter. What more was I supposed to do?”
God’s provision did not show up in the one way the Pastor wanted, so they were blind to the actual help God was sending. I wish this was just a silly story but this level of blindness to how God provides is everywhere. If Abraham had shut down his logic, closed off his ears to the world, and blindly charged ahead, he would have missed the ram altogether. But Abraham had learned how God’s provisions work.
During the process of building trust with God, Abraham had learned to keep his head up and his eyes open and to not be so stubborn that he misses God showing up with the provision in a way that he didn’t expect.Trusting God and understanding how God shows up for us made it possible for Abraham to obey God even in the most messed up of situations.
There are any number of situations in our lives and in our world that we can categorize as messed up. Things that are setting off our guard dogs who are barking at us to distrust everything around us. The trick is to allow our trust of God to have a say too, so we keep moving and keep our eyes open for the ram in the bush.
If we keep our heads up and our eyes open we begin to notice how God is providing even now. We notice vaccines and masks protecting millions of people. We notice how women are standing strong against Taliban oppression. We notice humanitarian aid pouring into Haiti and out-of-state crews coming to offer relief to those working tirelessly. God does provide.
Talking about God’s provision in a time when we are still walking up that mountain feels disingenuous. When our guard dog is barking it is tremendously hard to engage our trust and say, “Here I am.” But we are a people who trust God will provide, we are a people who sing “How Great Thou Art'' at funerals because we know how God’s provisions show up in our lives. Not in the way we expect, or maybe even the way we want, but in the way we need at that moment.
Keep your head up and eyes open for the way God will provide. And as we continue to walk up this mountain we will be the ones saying, “Here I am. Here I am. Here I am.”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 15, 2021
Genesis 21:8-21; 2 Corinthians 1:1-7
I want to begin this morning with a quote from an article I read by Anton DiSclafani, a professor at Auburn University, “I find myself astonished these days, by my fellow humans’ meanness, their outrageous spitefulness, as if Covid has invaded not only our lungs but also our psyches, the parts of our brains that ask us to care about not only the people we don’t know, but also the people we do. What is she talking about? She is talking about two women on a Southwest flight who demanded that other passengers give up their seats so these two women could sit where they wanted and when the seated passengers would not get up, the women began to scream and curse at them and then tried to drag the other passengers out of their seats. She is referring to people at a school board meeting where anti-masking parents followed a pro-masking parent into the parking lot, pounded on the pro-masker’s car windows and screamed, “We know who you are, where you live, and you will never work in this town again.” She is talking about the fight between pro and anti-mask groups yesterday in Los Angeles where a person was stabbed. The question becomes, where is all this meanness and spitefulness coming from? I would argue it is coming from anger that arises out of a feeling of powerlessness: powerlessness over our health, our jobs, our welfare, and our civil rights. Why anger? Because as human beings, anger makes us feel powerful.
These angry outbursts make us feel powerful. They make us feel as if we have taken control. We are in charge. We are top dog. The only trouble is that meanness, spitefulness and the anger behind them do not actually make us powerful, or in control, or top dog. They are all self-defeating actions. They not only destroy the one at whom they are directed but they destroy the one who is angry. Studies have shown these expressions of anger elevate cortisol levels in the body, which has adverse effects on much of a person’s physiology. And in the end, these expressions of anger tear down rather than build up; destroy, rather than create. I wish I could say that Christians are immune to these expressions of anger, that we listen to Jesus who says that to be angry with another person is to commit murder. But I know that is not true. So, the question becomes, how ought we, as Jesus followers, deal with the anger that comes from feeling powerless? How do we keep from becoming those who are mean and spiteful? One answer among many is comfort.
I realize that such a suggestion sounds a bit odd because when we speak of comfort we usually think of a soft blanket, a cozy fire, and a reclining lounger. But the way I am using comfort is the way the Bible uses it. The Greek word for comfort which we had in our morning’s text is a multifaceted word. What I mean by that is that it contains nuances from a variety of English words. Let me give you a list. The word comfort contains elements of encouraging, exhorting, strengthening, reassuring and always points to a better, positive future. Finally, what we need to understand about comfort in the Bible, is that it has both a vertical and horizontal dimension. We will see how all of this information about comfort works as we explore our two texts this morning.
We begin with our Genesis text. The backstory for our scripture is that, as we discussed last week, Abraham and Sarah had been promised a child. When that child did not appear, Sarah gave her maid, Hagar, as a wife to Abraham. Together Abraham and Hagar had a child named Ishmael. Later, again as we read last week, Abraham and Sarah had a child of their own, Isaac. It did not take long for Sarah to become fearful of Hagar and Ismael. She was afraid that the pair would steal the inheritance she believed belonged to her son, Isaac. The result is that Abraham, after goading from Sarah, and a conversation with God, sends Hagar and Ishmael out in the desert with a little water and sparse provisions. When the water and provisions are exhausted, Hagar casts her son under a tree, walks away and gives up. She weeps and cries out, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” She is feeling powerless and angry. In that moment God comes with encouragement, “Do not be afraid.” God comes with strengthening, “Take the boy by the hand.” God comes with reassurance, “I will make a great nation of your son.” God comes with a positive future, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” God comforts, with the vertical aspect of comfort, that comfort that always comes from God.
Comfort however, especially in the Jesus community is never supposed to simply be a vertical relationship between God and humanity. It is also intended to be a horizontal relationship between human beings. We can see this in Paul’s amazing introduction to his second letter to the church in Corinth. Again, there is a backstory to this letter which is that the church in Corinth and its members are suffering. They are suffering because they are Christians living on the edge of city in which worship of the Roman gods is considered a mark of loyalty to the Empire and worship of other gods is considered treason. Thus, when the Corinthians worship God in Christ, they are setting themselves up for persecution, loss of businesses and ostracism from family and community. Such suffering left the Corinthian Christians feeling powerless and angry, and much of their anger was focused on the Apostle Paul. Regardless of the anger pointed in his direction, Paul opens his letter by reminding his readers that God is a God of comfort to those who are suffering and feeling powerless. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction.”
Paul continues by reminding the church that this comfort has been given to them not only for their own support, but to share with one another. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction. so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” In other words, those who have been comforted by God in Christ are to then comfort others. Comfort is not a possession to be closely guarded but a gift to be given away. And one of the fascinating things about this Greek word for comfort is that it is also the root word for church…the word for “being called out.” So, in essence the church is a to be a community called out to comfort others. And Paul makes this clear when a little while later in the letter he tells the Corinthians to comfort and love someone who had been mean and angry toward him. I want to be clear about one thing though. The more positive outlook here does not mean that all their suffering goes away. This is not a pie-in-the-sky promise. Instead, the positive future is that they are a community grounded in Christ’s salvation, are comforted by God, and are capable of sharing that comfort with others.
This past week I was fortunate enough to lead a memorial service for one of our members, Jim Brophy. When I met with the family, one of his daughters said that every time her father signed off with her on a phone call or video call, he would say these words, “I love you. I am proud of you. You are beautiful.” I see in those words comfort at work. I see encouragement, strengthening, reassuring and a positive outlook for the future. This morning I want us to use those words. And here is how I want us to do so. If you are so inclined, I would like you to repeat after me: God loves me. God is proud of me. I am a beautiful child of God. These are God’s words of comfort to us. God loves me. God is proud of me. I am a beautiful child of God. Then I would like us to take these words with us, and when we meet a friend or family member who is feeling powerless, to offer them these words: God loves you. God is proud of you. You are a beautiful child of God. And hopefully those words can turn powerlessness not to meanness and spitefulness, but to gratitude and grace in these difficult times.
My challenge to you then is to ask yourselves, “How am I allowing God to comfort me, and how am I sharing that comfort with others?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 8, 2021
Genesis 21:1-7; Romans 8:31-39
I want to begin this morning with two stories. Story number one concerns some windows Cindy and I purchased after we bought our home here. The windows in the home were the original 1952 windows through which you could feel the wind blow. We decided to replace them with new double pane windows that came with a 20-year guarantee. About seven years after they were installed, the seal on one of them broke. I called the company, they asked which window it was and said they would replace it in less than a week. I was dubious. Sure enough though, less than a week after my call, an installer arrived, took the old window out and put the new one in…all at no charge. Story number two concerns my parents. The house in which they lived for more than fifty years was built slab on grade…meaning there is no basement. Over time the slab began to shift causing cracks to appear in walls and ceilings. The only way to fix these cracks was to drill multiple holes in the foundation, meaning drilling holes in the floor of the house and then putting in concrete piers. On top of the piers were jacks that would level the foundation. My father did some research and found a company that would do the work at a reasonable price and had a twenty-year warranty on their work. About four years after the work was complete, the cracks returned. My father called the company and requested they return and relevel the foundation. The response from the owner was, “We don’t stand behind our warranty and if you want me to fix the problem you will have to sue me.”
What these two stories have in common is faithfulness, or a lack thereof. I say this because faithfulness, simply put, is nothing more than promises made and promises kept. This definition applies to faithfulness in real life and in the scriptures. Faithfulness always refers to someone making promises and keeping them. What I hope we will see this morning is that faithfulness is a critical Biblical concept for two reasons. First, because only through faithfulness can the kind of world God desires to create become a reality. This is so because faithfulness allows for trust to be built. It allows trust to be built between God and human beings and between human beings themselves. When this trust is built through the keeping of promises, the world becomes a dependable place in which all human beings have an opportunity to love God and one another and to flourish in all that they do. Unfaithfulness on the other hand, creates a broken, fearful, and hurting world. Unfaithfulness creates a world in which every relationship, whether between God and humans, or humans and God are tenuous at best, and everyone is off balance. The second reason that faithfulness is a critical Biblical concept is that it has the power to change people and change the world. We can see this in both of our stories this morning.
Our opening scripture about Abraham contains a back story which sets up the story we have before us. The back story is that the world was broken and hurting, and God decided to do something about it. What God decided to do about it was to call forth a couple, Abraham, and Sarah, and through them create a family and then a nation through which God would work God’s restoration plan. Needless to say, in order to have a family and then a nation, offspring would be required. The problem was that Abraham and Sarah were not producing any children. Regardless of how hard they tried, nothing happened. Over the years God would occasionally appear and promise that they would have a child. Eventually both Abraham and Sarah gave up on that hope and ceased believing that God would be faithful and grant them a child. This reached a head when, well after Abraham and Sarah’s childbearing had passed, God repeated the promise. This promise caused both Abraham and Sarah to laugh…to laugh at the absurdity of the promise. Though God had come through with other promises, it appeared God would not come through on this one.
This is where our story begins. Our story begins with an act of almost miraculous faithfulness. God is faithful to Abraham and Sarah, so that even after Sarah is beyond childbearing age, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. And not only that, but Isaac arrived right on the schedule that God had promised. This act of God’s faithfulness changed both Sarah and Abraham…and their relationship to God. God’s faithfulness changed Sarah’s laughter over an absurd promise into the laughter of joy and delight. Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Faithfulness has made her new. The faithfulness of God changes Abraham by bringing forth in him a new level of faithfulness to God. We can see this when Abraham responds to God’s faithfulness with the circumcision of Isaac; an act that says, this child is a child of God. This child is not my child, but a child created in and through God’s faithfulness. These two actions not only deepened and cemented God’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah but would ultimately allow for God’s plan to recreate the world to begin to become a reality. This is the power of God’s faithfulness to change lives and our faithfulness to change the world.
Our second scripture shows us how the power of God’s and Abraham’s faithfulness continued to bear fruit. The back story to this part of Paul’s letter is that the Christians in Rome find themselves struggling. Just as with Abraham and Sarah, all the promises of God seemed delayed. Christ had not returned, their new Jesus community was less than perfect, God’s kingdom had not come. The Roman Christians were also struggling with their own personal failings, with persecution from society, with being ostracized by their families, and with death itself. In other words, they were wondering if God was faithful, if God kept God’s promises. It was against that backdrop that Paul reminded the Roman Christians of God’s faithfulness.
Paul reminds them that in sending Jesus into the world, God had fulfilled the promise given to Abraham, that one day all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring. Paul further reminded his Roman friends that they had indeed been blessed through Jesus, even if life was not always easy. They had been blessed with forgiveness, with Christ’s prayers for them, and with the love of God that never ends. In fact, Paul writes, there is nothing that can separate the Roman Christians from God’s love…even death itself. The response of the Roman church to God’s faithfulness was faithfulness of their own. The church and its leaders would remain faithful to God and Christ through persecution, pain, and poverty, through doubts, difficulties and even death. And that faithfulness helped to not only save the church, but to change the world by launching the church and its message of Jesus into the world. The fact is that we are here this morning because of the faithfulness of those who remembered and experienced God’s faithfulness in Christ and responded with faithfulness over the last two-thousand years.
Faithfulness matters. And I say this not to guilt any of us who might feel that we have not been perfect in the keeping of our promises to God. I say it first in the context of God’s faithfulness to us; that God, regardless of our past, remains faithful to God’s promises of love for us. God never, ever ceases to love us. God’s faithfulness becomes a foundation on which we can build our lives. Second, I say that faithfulness matters, because when we are faithful in our promises to God, we can change the world. When we are faithful to our promises to love God and neighbor, the world begins to look more and more like the renewed creation toward which we and God are working. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I being faithful to God in such a way, that my love for God and neighbor is changing the world around me?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 1, 2021
Genesis 18:16-33; Luke 10:25-37
They looked pitiful. There in one of the sheds were a bunch of seedlings that had outgrown their pots, were withering, and looked like Charlie Brown Christmas trees on life-support. That was one of the sights that greeted our soon to be son-in-law, Brendan, when he began his new job with the Tacoma Parks Department. When he saw them, he had three choices as to what to do about those trees. First, he could simply ignore them. They had obviously been there for a while, and no one was caring for them so why should he be concerned. Second, he could choose to assume that it was someone else’s job to care for them since their health was not part of his job description. Third, he could have mercy on them and do something about the seedlings in order that they thrive, even if no one else cared or had their care as part of their job description. I realize that my use of having mercy on trees might sound a bit odd, but mercy is a rather simple concept. Mercy means taking something or someone who is withering and helping them to flourish. Mercy is taking someone or something that is dying and giving it life. Mercy is taking someone or something that ought to be forsaken and remembering and restoring it. I offer you those definitions of mercy and the three choices before Brendan because they are part of both our stories this morning.
Let’s begin with Abraham. Abraham has been hanging out with God and God muses to God’s self that God needs to go down and see just how bad the people of Sodom are. Evidently the people of Sodom had become known for the kinds of evil that would cause God to get ticked off and want to remove them just like a surgeon removes a cancerous tumor. Abraham is also evidently aware of Sodom’s reputation. At that moment Abraham is faced with the same three choices as were faced by Brendan. First, Abraham could choose to ignore God’s visit to Sodom. After all, he didn’t live there. Second, he could assume that dealing with God and Sodom was someone else’s business…maybe that of some angel or other heavenly being. Or third, he could choose to show mercy by intervening in some way on behalf of the citizens of Sodom.
Our next story is the fictional character that we have come to know as the Good Samaritan. He is a businessman with deadlines to meet and mouths to feed. One day he is headed out on one of the most dangerous journeys in the time of Jesus, traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. While on the way he comes across a badly beaten Jewish man. Again, the Samaritan is presented with three choices. He could ignore the bleeding man because to stop risked the Samaritan’s own life. Second, he could assume that helping the man was someone else’s business. After all the man was a Jew and not a Samaritan and so the Jews should take care of him. Third, he could show mercy by stopping, rendering aid, and caring for the man.
In each of our stories then, the people were confronted by the three choices. Which choice did they make? In each they chose to show mercy. Brendan showed mercy by, on his own time, repotting the trees then transplanting them in local parks; taking trees that were dying and helping them live. Abraham, for his part, showed mercy by intervening on behalf of the people of Sodom so that even the guilty who were on the point of death might live along with the innocent. The Samaritan chose to show mercy by risking his own life and wealth to help bring back from the brink of death a man whom most people would consider to be his enemy. And in each case their choice reflected that which God desires…because God is a God of mercy and desires God’s people to be people of mercy. We know this because in the Abraham story God is willing to show mercy. God is willing to let the guilty go if Abraham can find even ten good people in Sodom. Mercy is God’s nature. We know that God is a God of mercy because when Jesus finishes his story and Jesus asks who acted like a neighbor, meaning who did the will of God by loving neighbor, the religious lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy.” Which, by the way, has always made me wonder why this is not the story of the merciful Samaritan…perhaps because it is easier to be good than merciful?
Each day we are faced with these three choices. We are faced with the specter of those who are withering and dying. Sometimes it is in person when we see someone on the street corner asking for money. Other times it is the children in Foster Care whom Kate and Tom Thoresen remind us need our help. Soon it will be all the individuals and families who will be homeless because of the end of the eviction moratorium. These and tens of thousands of others need mercy. And so we are faced with the three choices; to ignore, to assume helping is someone else’s job, or to show mercy. Which should we choose? Well, my answer may surprise you. Sometimes the answers ought to be to ignore them or to assume that it is someone else’s job. I say this because we cannot bring everyone back to life. We cannot save everyone. We cannot intervene for everyone. We cannot house everyone. Even Jesus could not heal and feed everyone he encountered. The challenge, though, is to not let those two answers of ignoring or assuming others are always someone else’s responsibility to be our only answers. The challenge is to be open to mercy. It is to be open to those moments that God sets before us when we can show the mercy of God. It is to be open to those moments when our abilities and resources allow us to be merciful.
My challenge to you on this day then is this, to ask yourselves, am I open to mercy because I follow a merciful God?
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 25, 2021
Genesis 12:1-8; Revelation 21:1-7
Finally after a sermon on consequences, then idolatry, we have finally come to “covenant.” No offense to consequences or idolatry, but I have been looking forward to this one the most. The concept of covenant is essential to scripture and our faith as Christians.
Covenant is not a term we hear often in our daily lives anymore. Today we run into more contracts or agreements which are similar but are a bit more stark compared to how God uses covenants.
When we look at contracts today the reasons two parties come to a table to form a contract often include obvious or not so obvious personal agendas. These agendas usually put an individual's own interests ahead of the interests of their partner even though they have a mutual goal. That is why contracts include extensive outlines of who will do what and how and by when. We try to cover all our bases so our partner knows exactly what our expectations are. It is a happy day when both partners can truly help each other but there is always an edge of “if this stops being mutually beneficial the partnership will dissolve.”
Because that sense exists in our modern contracts, we usually include rules around what will happen if the partnership needs to end. We outline consequences of what will happen if someone does not do what they promised. This protects the interests that brought us to the table to begin with and makes sure we make it out of the partnership at least as good if not better than we started.
All of this means that the two partners can expect a relationship that sits on ice that could break eventually. Some partnerships develop great trust and true friendship. They learn to care for the other’s interests as well as their own and may even let the written rule bend a little when times get hard because they care about the wellbeing of the other. Yet even in these well made partnerships the contract sits somewhere in the back of the relationship ready to be pulled out when things need to be made right again.
We know contracts can change relationships immediately. It's why we caution college students about rooming with their best friends. It’s why we are skeptical of marriages with prenups. We know putting a legally binding contract between two people can fundamentally change the way they interact with one another. The people we read about in scripture felt the same way. They had seen landlords take advantage of tenets. They had seen one partner trick the other into unfair contracts. These traumas lead to a practice called the covenant of the pieces.
The covenant of the pieces ritual was a way for a partner to assure another that they were trustworthy and committed to the success of the partnership. The partner that needed to prove themselves brought an animal to a meeting place, cut it in half and spread the blood in the middle creating a path between the two pieces of the animal. One partner would walk through the middle on this “red carpet” declaring that if they do not uphold their end of the partnership they too could be split in half like the animal was. It was the ultimate “I swear on my mother’s grave” statement made to appease a skeptical partner. It meant the person who walked through the middle took on full responsibility for the success of the partnership.
It is a practice we see God invoke just a few chapters after the initial covenant with Abraham. In chapter 15 of Genesis, just three chapters after God’s first interaction with Abraham, we see Abraham become doubtful of the things God promised. Sarah still has not had a child and Abraham decides to declare Ishmael his heir thinking this is the only way to make God’s promise a reality. God shows up to say “NO.” Sarah will be the one to bear you your heir. Then God asks Abraham to prepare the ritual of the covenant of the pieces. God tells Abraham to bring a cow, a goat, a ram, pigeons and doves to create the covenant path.
Abraham thinks he is the one who is going to have to walk through the middle. He after all is the partner who has shown doubts so Abraham thinks God is asking him to prepare this path to prove to God he is willing to take full responsibility for the covenant. This act will mean that if he strays again and tries to pick a different heir God has the right to cut him in half like the animals. But when Abraham is ready to walk the path he falls asleep and God is the one who passes through the middle. God takes on the responsibility of the covenant.
For people who understood the covenant of the pieces ritual this would have been an astonishing twist. The weaker partner should have walked the path, but it is God, the stronger of the two who doubles down and clearly professes a commitment to the partnership. God takes Abraham’s place and accepts full responsibility for reaching the goals their partnership is working towards.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Sounds like another time in scripture where God shows up to take on the responsibility of the weakness of humanity and takes our place on the cross. God never changes. From the beginning of the covenant with Abraham to the new covenant declared by Jesus, God is the one who bears the full responsibility of our partnership. Knowing full well we will doubt, we will stray, we will not uphold our end of the bargain 100% of the time, knowing all this God repeatedly steps in to say, “I am still committed to our partnership.”
If God were a human, we would be screaming at them to stop making covenants like these. I would be advising God to set some healthy boundaries and begging God to stop letting their partners take advantage of God’s good will. If this was a human-human partnership it would be time for the partners to end the relationship. We simply do not have the mental or emotional resources to handle the kind of abuse that God brushes off daily.
Which is why when we realize we have let God down we often choose to abandon God altogether. It is hard for us to imagine God welcoming us back, forgiving us, and wanting to continue being in relationship with us. Yet that is what God does over and over in scripture and in the lives of people around us.
We can see how humans constantly and consistently fail to be good partners to God. Adam and Eve, Cain, the flood and Babel are all stories about humanity being terrible partners. In those stories, God steps in and corrects the course of human error on God’s own. God creates a new place to live for Adam and Eve when they fail. God admonishes and protects Cain when he fails. God sends a flood to reset the course of creation after humanity fails. God confuses language when the people of Babel fail. God takes full control and redirects humanity after each failure.
With Abraham we begin to see God enact a different strategy. Humans are obviously not responding well when God steps in to fix things so God thinks maybe humans will listen to other humans better. God chooses one particular human family to be the example for the rest. This family will show the rest of the world what it is like to be in partnership with God and will help direct humanity as a whole toward the kind of world God wants for everyone.
Abraham’s family grows and becomes Israel. The covenant is then extended to all the people of Israel. God doubles down on the covenant strategy and declares a covenant with the whole community. Then when that community becomes a nation under the rule of King David, God again renews the covenant. Extending the promises to all the people of that nation.
That is definitely the sugar coated explanation of the covenant partnership. We all know how well humanity keeps their end of the covenant. Abraham doubts God constantly as he waits for Sarah to bear a child. Abraham is not able to bear the blessings of God into the world perfectly. Israel worships other Gods and becomes experts at groaning about any minor inconvenience. They are not able to keep the law perfectly. King David, well he was not a perfect person and did not lead a perfect nation. They were not able to enact God’s justice perfectly even though they had become a great nation.
The covenant strategy should have been abandoned centuries ago, and yet God stayed committed to the success of the partnership. God stays true to the ritual of the covenant of the pieces and every time the partnership seems unsaveable, God recommits Godself to us and to the promises God has made.
These unfulfilled covenants between Abraham, Israel, and David are why we say Jesus is from the family of Abraham so that he can be the one family member who actually brings blessings to the whole world. We also point to Jesus as the faithful Israelite who kept the law perfectly. And Jesus is the King from the line of David to continue the work of justice that David was not able to fulfill. Jesus is the one who can and does uphold humanity's end of the partnership with God.
God takes on all the responsibility to fulfill the covenant when God comes to us as Jesus.
Our representative in the covenant is the one who is the perfect partner. Jesus makes it possible for us to work on being better partners without the fear of God revoking the covenant because of our inability. Jesus solidified the partnership and we are free to follow that example, hopefully getting better and better, closer and closer, to the goal of blessing the world and bringing about justice for all of creation, or as Revelation puts it, when God makes their dwelling place among us.
Our defenses should be sending up red flags by now because the covenant system that God keeps reinforcing is easily taken advantage of. We can recognize a poorly drafted contract when we see it. It is absolutely an arrangement that is easily exploited and humans have been exploiting it from day one (well, day 6 to be exact). It is true that if God takes on all the responsibility of the partnership, humans will bail on their responsibility.
But they were doing that anyway. God stepping in with massive redirections and resets was not changing human behavior. The exile from Eden, the flood, Babel did not fix our rebellion. and in addition to humans not behaving better, God was not feeling fulfilled by being our overlord. God wanted partners.
God got into a covenant knowing we were not ever going to be an equally responsible partner, but God can handle our shortfalls. What Jesus then tries to remedy is the shame and guilt we put on ourselves when we fall short. We expect the partnership with God to work like a human partnership. There is only so much a human can take from a partner before they have to dissolve the relationship and move on. The shame and guilt we feel when we are not good partners with God convinces us God will respond the same way the humans in our lives, and so we turn away and abandon God thinking that we don’t have a chance to fix the partnership.
Jesus is proof God wants us back in the partnership. The message of the cross drowns out the message of shame and guilt. We are not too far gone, we have not messed up beyond God’s good graces, God still wants to partner with us so that when blessings and justice prevail we can be a part of the success and share in the celebration when God lives among us again.
So, yes, the covenant God makes with us is easily exploited, but God knows what God got themselves into and they enter the covenant again and again fully and with great joy, because God wants partners and wants to share the victory with us. May we hold our responsibility better each day and never let shame or guilt convince us God wants anything else but to renew our partnership.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 18, 2021
Genesis 11:1-9 ; Acts 4:32-35
Idolatry has gotten a bad reputation...Okay, now that I have your attention let me explain.
Making idols, or producing an image of a god, was originally a way for people to worship their gods as they traveled from resource to resource. When humanity was still largely nomadic tribes, they needed something that represented their gods that could travel with them. Small carvings in stone or wood served their purpose well. These statues bore the image of the god so they could worship wherever they were.
As nations arose that had static centers of power, leaders also wanted their people to worship their image and so they commissioned idols to be made to remind their citizens who was in power. The emperor or pharaoh would put these image-bearing idols strategically around their territory. This served to inform invaders who they would have to deal with if they crossed the border and reminded citizens whom they owed thanks for their safety and to whom they owed taxes too.
Idols were a way to distinguish who belonged to a community and who a person showed loyalty to. If you visited someone and they had a idol of Osiris you knew who they worshiped and maybe found fellowship with someone with a similar belief as you. If a home had the image of pharaoh on their front door, troops knew to pass them by because they were loyal citizens.
This kind of imagery is still seen today. We put our leaders on our money, we build statues to local heroes, and we hang flags outside our homes to show where our loyalties are. The images we surround ourselves with show our values, who we think deserves to be emulated, and gather around common goals. Idols are not innately bad. They are just images of the things we see as valuable enough to display prominently.
There is a reason idols have collected a lot of baggage over the years though. Some of the images leaders have used to inspire loyalty become symbols of the destructive values they encouraged. The swastika is an example of how an idol, one image that represents a leader and the values of a group of people, becomes a symbol of the hate and violence the people who flew that flag embodied. Idols are not bad, until they are used to stand for something evil.
This story in Genesis encourages us to examine what our idols stand for and what is being promoted by their use. In this story we meet humanity when they are still one community, a community that was able to imagine and invent incredible things. In fact, their newest invention is the brick. Before this new technology they were limited by stone. Stone is hard to build with. It needs to be found, moved, shaped, balanced, and placed just right among other stones to make a structure. Bricks though stack very easily. A person can make hundreds of bricks in one day and exponentially increase building potential.
The humans of Babel are so proud of this technology they decide to make a structure that will project who they are into the world. This tower will be the image of who they are, they are powerful and they are innovative. LOOK AT WHAT WE CAN DO!!!!
God however wanted the brick to be used in a different way. God is not opposed to the tower but God can see how consuming the project is going to get. The humans set their sights on heaven. An outrageous goal sure to fail and God knows they will never be satisfied with the tower's results. Once their eyes are set on making a tower that reaches heaven, it will become all consuming. All brick production will be directed to the tower. If anyone wants to use bricks for something else they will be denied access. It will become the focus of all their energy. They could be making stronger homes for their families, or a hospital, or a worship space, but instead humanity hoards the resource into one tower.
Collecting and hoarding resources is not what God wants for humanity. It is not how creativity is supposed to be used. God creates to increase diversity and humanity has lost sight of that by hyper focusing on the tower. God steps in to redirect their behavior. Their language is confused and they are split into groups that then find new places to settle down and create new communities. It is easy to imagine how one group might have taken the technology of the brick and built a great wall that can be seen from heaven. Another group may build a massive library filled with all the knowledge of humanity. Another group could have built a temple to honor God with the new technology. What was going to be one tower now becomes an incredible variety of structures equally as impressive and in line with God’s love of diversity.
God could see how entrapped humanity was going to get in the tower and God knew the potential this new technology had. God wanted to see what humans could do with bricks and so it took splitting us up for us to live into our potential. That is how idols become an issue when they become all consuming. When we hoard resources to feed the idol and turn all our energy to upholding what the idol stands for, we lose sight of potential diversity and new ways to use the resources available to us.
We have come up with a few more amazing technological advances since the brick. I wonder if any of you know what Coca-Cola, Listerine, Slinkys, Play-Doh, and Rogaine have in common. They were all invented with one purpose but allowed diversity to turn them into the successes we know today. Coca-cola was originally intended to help people with morphine addictions and now it's a favorite drink internationally. Listerine was originally a floor cleaner; now we wash our mouths with it. Slinkys were made to stabilise nautical devices until someone accidentally knocked it off the workbench and brought joy to everyone who saw it slink about the work room. Play-Doh was first made as a wallpaper cleaner and now it's stuck in all of our carpet, I mean it's been a childhood favorite toy for many generations. Rogaine was made to lower blood pressure, and while it did that, it also caused increased hair growth.
Imagine our world if any one of these inventors had hoarded their invention and focused all their energy on maintaining their original purpose for their new technology. Thankfully they listened to others and allowed for their vision to shift and diversify. They let others share their ideas and create the products we enjoy today.
When an idol is created it can be an image that rallies community and declares shared values. It can also become a distraction. When we become too invested in maintaining the idol and presenting it a certain way it limits the possibilities for new and better expressions of who we are. That is why this scene from Acts stands in direct opposition to what happened at Babel.
The early church is gathered and they collect their resources but instead of building something big and beautiful to declare to the world “here we are” they meet the needs of their community. They make sure everyone among them is fed. They house and clothe everyone in their community. Everything they have is shared amongst them. If someone is in more need than another, they make sure they get everything they need to be equal to the rest of the community. Nobody has more and nobody has less.
The Roman empire at first did not care what the Christians were doing. They assumed it would be attractive to the poor, soon run out of money and resources, and collapse under the economy of Rome. But it didn’t. And what was worse, it was attracting the rich too! They felt fulfilled by the message of gospel in a way their possessions and power had never been able to make them feel. The Christians kept growing and Rome got scared.
This was a really threatening structure to the empire. If these pockets of Christians could prove that a communal structure like this worked, it meant more pressure on Rome to provide similar social support. Roman emperors did not like the structure of shared resources because frankly it meant they would have less. This fear sparked the organized persecution against the early church. The violence of the colosseum all but wiped out Christians solely because their way of living was disproving the need for empire.
God’s idol was proving more enticing than the emperor's idol.
God’s idol is what the early Christians rallied around. They were committed to the image of God placed in each human being they met. Humanity was God’s idol. By caring for one another they were committed to presenting the image of God in the best way possible. Where they saw sickness they worked to bring health to that image of God. Where they saw starvation or thirst they worked to repair the person so they could better present the image of God.
It was a great offense to smash or deface the idols that bore the image of someone's ruler or god, and the early church took offense when they saw God’s image without proper nutrition, or when they saw God’s image naked, or when they saw God’s image being killed by unjust systems. God placed an image inside of every human that is the idol Christians work to honor.
It is an idol that encourages diversity and ensures equality. When I have something you need, I honor the image, the idol, of God in you by sharing my resources. Then when I am in need, the sharing comes back in my favor. It is a system everything in our world demands we reject because honoring the image of God in every person completely negates the ideals of empire. It is a system we have not yet lived into the full potential of but Babel is yelling at us through scripture in every language imaginable to keep working towards God’s diverse and innovative way of sharing. The tower will never do us any good. Hoarding resources will never be what God wants for us. When we have something of value we must fight the urge to build a tower for our own glory and instead break it apart and share it. Because our God’s image is inside humanity. We must open our eyes to where the image of God is being suppressed and choked out of existence and offer the nourishment it needs to survive.
Where the world creates idols that attract energy and resources, our idol lives in every human being we encounter. The empires of this world will fight against this way of living. They will try to isolate us, make us too busy to notice who is in need. They will make us afraid of the change that will lead to true innovation. The work of restoring God’s image in this world will be hard work, and we will do it anyway.
Until we are one in heart and mind and there are no needy persons among us. Amen.