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?