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.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 11, 2021
Genesis 6:1-8; Romans 8:31-39
The passage from Genesis is hard to hear. God regrets making humanity. It hurts to hear our loving God come to this conclusion because we can relate to the mistakes these humans have made. If these people must face the consequences of their actions, we fear what consequences we will have to face too.
Our fear thrives off of the idea that God’s judgment is punitive. That every wrong step we make here has an equivalent punishment in the afterlife. We assume this is how it will work because it is how human judgment works. Crimes deserve punishments. The story of the flood and Noah is an example of how God’s judgment works. But it is only one of many stories that show us what to expect. Scripture tells us about Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden, Cain’s punishment for killing his brother, Noah, and the flood and hundreds of other moments where we see how divine judgment works.
There are a lot of similarities in these stories, which is good news because we know they aren’t meant to be historical retellings of actual events. Their characters and actions are exaggerated to make the important parts stand out. When we see similarities surface within a writer’s works we can begin to piece together the deeper truths they want us to see.
The first similarity is their sin: the sin of abandoning the identity God gives us and making a new one for ourself. Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noah’s community make the same mistake. They try to make a new identity for themselves. Adam and Eve try to become God. Cain thinks his identity as the oldest and farmer makes him more important than his brother, forgetting that they are both God’s own and beloved. .
In the flood narrative we see this happen too. The author makes parallels between the heart of God and the heart of humanity. God’s heart looks at the state of the world and grieves. Human hearts look at the state of the world and plot and deceive. The hearts of God and human are supposed to be the same. The heart was understood to be the center of a person containing everything that made them who they are which included the image of God. If human hearts were not after the same things as God’s heart they had shifted their identity away from their center, away from the image of God, into something else. They no longer identified as God’s image bearers. They identified more with warrior, seducer, whomever they claimed they were. It was no longer their God-given identity.
The sin that God keeps trying to correct is the sin of not expressing one's God-given identity and instead choosing an earthly title or status marker to be the center of who we are. Losing touch with our purpose and being pulled away from the goodness God created us to be.
If we believe God’s judgment is punitive we will come to the conclusion that the consequence of these sins was the flood. The flood was a punishment of equal share with the sins of humanity. If the flood was meant to tell us about God’s judgment it should be the center of the author's narrative, however, very little time is spent talking about the flood itself. God’s main interaction is with Noah and the work they do together.
Noah and his family represent the truth of God’s judgment. It is not punitive, it is restorative. All of God’s action is centered on Noah; this is where we find God’s judgment enacted. God’s plan is to restore the original intent of creation. God looks at the world and sees the sins, but God also knows that somewhere in each person is the original created goodness. This is the second similarity we find in stories about God’s judgment -- restoration. Adam and Eve deserved death but God found a way to restore what could be restored here on earth and give them another chance. Cain murdered his brother. The equal punishment would have been death, but God finds a way to restore what could be restored here on earth and give him another chance. Through Noah, God proves again it is possible to shift one's identity back to the heart, the image that God made and placed inside them.
Noah is presented as blameless among the people. Scripture does not comment on if he is blameless among God. But if his future actions tell us anything, Noah was a sinner too. He just had a good reputation among his neighbors. So when God steps in and asks him to build an ark, Noah has a lot to lose. He will look like a fool to the neighbors who respect him. All the years of favors and dinner party schmoozing to build up that reputation will be gone. Noah has a choice. Double down on the identity he has created, or let God restore him to his created purpose. Noah choses to do the harder of the two; he listens to God.
The hard labor of building the ark slowly moves Noah away from his earthly identities. He depends more on God to provide and he reconnects with his identity in God as a beloved creation.
After the flood God admits that is not how God wants things to work in the future. No more stepping in and hitting the reset button. Humans are going to have to do what Noah did and work through their sins. They will need to learn how to confess, to ask forgiveness, and examine where their identity is invested during their life and work to center themselves on their God-given identity.
The world operates with this new covenant. A couple of amendments happen here and there, until we get to Jesus. Jesus' death and resurrection is the ultimate proof that God’s judgment is restorative. That every piece of God’s image gifted to us at our creation will return to God. Paul reassures the church of Rome NOTHING can separate US, our core identity rooted in God, the true US. Nothing can separate US from God.
Judgment is not something to fear, but something to look forward to because it means on the day we are judged, the things that make us truly US will survive. The gunk of sin we build around us will fall away, leaving us, that perfect creation God intended.
Let me show you this process of judgment another way.
When we are born we are created with a perfect heart. One God declares to be very good just like God declared it in the garden. It holds our gifts and passions, our capacity to love and the very image of God, all our goodness.
As we grow up we learn things about how God created us, we better understand what makes us unique. As we learn how our unique characteristics work we also find out they can be misused. We hurt others. We hurt ourselves. We support oppressive systems. We assume our race is the best one. We create cultural constructs that tell people they cannot be proud of who they are.
All this stuff becomes a part of us and threatens to pull us out of our center. We start to identify more with this outer mess more than the inner goodness. We say things like: “I am stupid,” “I am unlovable,” “I am never going to get better.” Our identity shifts away from God’s image and into the stuff. The sinful stuff that happens to us or by us.
God knows this is happening. God can see how our mistakes build up and cause us to forget who we are. That is why God looked into the world and grieved. He regretted creating humanity because he felt those pieces of God’s self inside all this and knew those good hearts didn’t deserve it.
God wants us to do the work of unburdening ourselves from these earthly things that try to convince us our identity is anything other than beloved masterpiece, God’s own image bearer.
But this is hard work! It would have been easier for Noah to keep his reputation, throw another party, and die with the rest of humanity. Separating ourselves from the remnants of sin is hard because it forces us to see how far we have let our identity shift. How comfortable we have become not expressing God’s image to the world.
When Amy Julia Becker, the author of “White Picket Fences,” joined us, she told us about how she slowly came to realize the problems her family reinforced by having a black nanny. She told us how deeply her family loved this woman and how she began to see how their love was not perfectly expressed. It was a painful realization. It redefined her entire childhood and family relationships. It was painful, but she committed to wrestling with her privilege. She still wrestles with the issues of privilege but she is less and less fooled to invest parts of her identity in things that are not God. She has privilege; it is a sin of humanity we do not choose to have stuck to us, but if we can endure the pain of divesting our identity from it now we save ourselves from the pain of it later.
Because it will be ripped away from us. God’s restorative justice is going to take all of this away.
Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 3: 14-15: If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
We are all heading for the restoring fire of God’s judgment. In that fire all this gunk made by sin is going to burn away and what remains will be how we all started. Nothing can separate this US from God.
But Pastor Bethany, if God is just going to burn it all away later, why should we work on the gunk build-up now? Why not wait and let God do the work? Because we often fall in love with this stuff: the power, the privilege, the reputation, the titles, We fall in love with our earthly identities and believe they are who we are. When we love these earthly identities too much it hurts to go through that fire to have them burnt away from us. If we can begin that work now, the process of God’s restorative judgment is easier. It also teaches us to trust the restoring process.
When I was younger, if I sat back on my knees they would lock up. It wasn’t painful for them to be locked but if I tried to straighten my legs the pain was excruciating. The first few times it happened it was a whole ordeal of adults trying to help, and me crying. It took forever to convince me to relax and let them pull my leg straight. The minute my leg was straight though, there was no pain at all. Like it never happened. Over time I learned this and I would feel my leg lock and I would calmly push past the pain knowing if I just got it over with I would feel so much better.
When God’s restorative judgment is passed, some things will be excruciating to have pulled away from us because we have invested too much of who we are into maintaining that identity. But the minute we are restored we will feel better than we have ever felt.
God’s judgment is not something to fear, it is something to look forward to. It is something we can welcome into our lives today and work to unburden ourselves now. Some of that work is going to hurt. When we realize we have misused our gifts and allowed the stuff to pull us away from our inner goodness, it hurts. It is better to begin that work now and stay aware of what our identity is centered on so that we can be God’s image bearers today. And we can be a little better at it tomorrow, and look forward to the day this work is over and we can be fully us, restored, and forever with God.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 4, 2021
Genesis 4:1-16; Romans 3:21-26
I would like to begin this morning by asking each of you to think of your favorite Disney or Pixar movie. Or if you don’t have a favorite movie with one of those two studios then to just think of your favorite movie. Close your eyes if you need to. Have one in mind? Good, then answer a single question about your movie of choice, does it contain a rescue of some sort? Is its premise that someone is in trouble, or gets into trouble, and someone else comes and rescues them? The rescue could be from a villain or an accident or simply from themselves. Ok, so how many of you have rescue as the theme of your movie? I asked you to think about rescue for two reasons. First, so that you would be aware of what a widespread genre this is in movies and literature. Second, I asked because the concept of rescue is at the heart of both of our stories this morning. Yes, they are both rescue stories, almost like Disney and Pixar, except with one great difference. And that difference is that none of the people rescued in our stories this morning deserves to be rescued. They are not innocents caught up in some villain’s plot. They are guilty as charged. In order to understand this difference in stories, let’s recap both of our lessons.
Story one is the famous Cain and Abel story. Cain is the older brother much beloved by his mother Eve. Abel is the second born and almost an afterthought…which I, as a second child, understand. Cain is a tiller of the ground, which means he works hard tilling, planting, harvesting. He is dependent on a multiplicity of factors, rain, sun, seed as he strives to feed himself. Abel on the other hand, is a shepherd who merely follows his sheep and can move them from pasture to pasture. As the story goes, they both bring an offering to God. Now we are not sure why they do this. There is no requirement as to what or when to bring an offering to God, or even a command to do so. The upshot though is that Abel’s offering, which is offered after Cain’s offering, is accepted, and Cain’s is not. The first son is not happy. In fact, he is furious, and his fury overtakes his reason. Even after God gives Cain a cryptic piece of advice about mastering sin, Cain plots and carries out the murder of his brother. The resulting punishment is that the ground is cursed, Cain is driven from the soil and made an isolated wanderer, likely to fall victim to the next “Cain” he meets. Cain’s life is now at risk, but only because he is guilty of premeditated murder. He does not deserve to be rescued.
Story two is a bit harder to wrap our heads around. This is the story the Apostle Paul tells in his letter to the church at Rome. I say it is a story because, even through the dense theological language, there lurks the story of a good creation gone bad because of Adam’s poor choice in the garden. Included in this story is the call of God to Israel as the community through which God will save this wayward creation, but also Israel’s inability to fulfill this salvation mission. The result of these failures is that both Jew and Gentile have allowed the preexisting conditions we spoke of last week (dissatisfaction, desire and deity), to direct their life choices in inappropriate ways. Dissatisfaction has led to anger and misery. Desire has led to theft, murder and war. Deity has led to the diminishment and enslavement of others. Therefore, just as Cain was guilty of premeditated murder, all human beings are guilty of premediated sins, which bring about harm rather than good. As Paul writes, “For there is no distinction since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” What this verse implies is that all human beings have sinned and so do not deserve rescue either. And yet, in both of our stories, God rides to the rescue.
God rescues Cain by placing a mark on him to protect him. God rescues humanity by sending God’s only Son Jesus into the world that Jesus might be a sacrifice of atonement for our sins. Why does God do this? The answer to this why can be summed up in a single word…grace. Grace, simply put, means unmerited favor. It means receiving a free gift that is undeserved and unearned. It means being rescued when we don’t deserve to be rescued. God does this because this is who God is. God is gracious. God is the creator who loves the creation and desires it be rescued and not ruined. God is the one who acts graciously from the beginning to the end of this book (the Bible). This book is in fact, the greatest rescue story ever told; a rescue story based in grace. And to add one more element of rescue to these stories, God not only rescues us “from” but God rescues us “for.” God rescued Cain from death and for being the creator of cities and civilizations. God rescues us from sin and for becoming a new community of love, peace, and justice. God rescues us from our preexisting conditions and for becoming a people of grace for others.
This morning, on the 4th of July I hope that you will take a moment to ponder the grace that we have received; the grace we have received in the lives offered for the freedoms that we enjoy each day. The freedoms that so many people over the almost 245 years of our nations have given to us that we have been given as a free gift. Then remember the grace that God pours out upon us each day, intending to rescue us from ourselves and for the renewal of the world. My challenge to you on this day is to spend a few moments of each morning, remembering the grace you have you been given, and asking yourself, where can I share this grace with others?