The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
September 22, 2019
Genesis 12:1-4; Romans 11:17-24
Today we are looking at the third part of our five-party story. God chooses a family. Now the idea of family can be complicated for many of us. For some, family is not a particularly inspiring or joyful word. But this family we will be talking about today is more than genealogies and 23 and me. This is a chosen family.
Our chosen family can have traditional family members in it, but it also includes the friends who are more committed to us than others. The ones who have stuck by us through things that make them more like family, in our eyes, after the struggle is overcome. A regular friend is someone we know and like to hang out with. Normal friendships come and go. When times get hard, regular friends leave, but when you are part of a chosen family there is a deeper commitment to stay in the relationship through those hard times. Often there is a shared goal or ideals. There is even an expectation that they will help each other become better people. When God puts together a family this is the commitment it is founded on. They will stick together through the hard times and help each other be the best version of themselves.
When God chooses a family, the world is a mess. Humanity has wandered far from God and sin has spread fast and taken a strong hold on creation. God has tried many different ways to get through to humanity.
In fact, by chapter 12 of Genesis we are already on plan E. Humanity has messed the other plans up. Plan A was Eden, Adam and Eve messed that up with a quick snack. Plan B was not to restart everything. Instead God let Adam and Eve live with their new knowledge. That ended up with a flood and Noah started Plan C. Plan C worked for a while, but then humanity tried to invade heaven with a huge tower and God had to send them to different corners of the earth to think about what they had done, Plan D.
God’s original plan hasn’t ever changed, the implementation has just been adjusted. The plan has always been to bless the whole world. The problem is the channels through which God blesses the world keep getting gummed up by sin. So, God gets to thinking again about another way to bring blessings into the world. This time the plan is a family, Plan E. God wants to start a family like none other. A family that would be the example to the rest of the world of what life is like with God.
One group of people on whom God can lavish with blessings, who God can teach to dispense these blessings to others. God will bless this group, this family, so that when the world sees them it will be clear how good and powerful God is. This family will be a bright spot in the middle of a sin stained world. They will learn from God how to spread their brightness just as far and fast as sin can travel. God will give the family a set of rules, the Law, and these rules will help them live in a way that will bless the world.
You may wonder why God doesn’t just remove sin from the earth and get us back to Eden. After the flood, God is not too keen on removing things anymore. There was a lot of loss in the flood that God would rather not repeat. Sin has become so enmeshed in creation it would be hard to clean it up without losing creatures and people God loves. When sin came into the world it did not take hold of 100% of some things and 0% of others. We all have some sin in us and some good. To ask God to take sin out of the world like that (snaps finger)? Well we saw how that worked out in the Avenger movies. No, the solution must be an antidote to counteract the effects of sin, even as sin lives on and thrives.
The formula for that antidote is God’s chosen family. God starts with Abraham and Sarah’s family. It’s small, just the two of them. They haven’t been able to have kids yet, but God promises them they will start a great nation and their descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. This is an incredible blessing for God to give. But that is the plan, to bless the family so they can spread blessings around the world. SO, it’s a good idea to make sure this family grows!
God goes to Abraham and establishes the relationship. The exact reason why God chooses Abraham over every other human is not entirely clear, but I’ll bet is has something to do with the way Abraham responds to God.
When God asks Abraham to leave his home and go somewhere new, Abraham obeys. His willingness to trust God and be a good partner in this plan solidifies his place in God’s family. Abraham is not perfect, he has sin in him too. He has moments where he distrusts God’s promise to give him a son. But every time Abraham wanders, God reminds him of the promises and reaffirms God will continue to bless Abraham and his family so the family can bless the world.
Abraham does have a son and his family grows; God’s family grows.
Now because this family is blessed there are others who see them and want to be a part of that, and guess what? They can join the family. That is the beauty of a chosen family!
It also can get ugly when the family members don’t agree on who can join. This problem pops up in our new testament reading. God’s family is still going strong. It is even stronger since Jesus came to do some extra teaching and defeated death. The family plan is more or less still working. But since Jesus, more and more outsiders want to join the family. And some who were in the family have chosen to leave. There is a lot of confusion about who should be in and who should be out.
This is especially true in Rome. Paul writes to the church in Rome and uses a well-known practice of grafting one plant onto another to show how God’s family works. (Read Romans 11: 17-24).
Olive farmers would cultivate plants for the best output of olives. They picked plants for their size of fruit, flavor, and color. As they worked with the plants they would run into a common problem: a highly cultivated plant would stop growing olives all together. Plants produce fruit to survive. When a farmer tends to a plant’s every need it can lose its survival instinct. Wild plants are in hyper survival mode and put a lot of energy towards producing fruit. When a cultivated plant stopped producing fruit the farmer could graft cultivated branches onto wild plants and jump start fruit production again.
Paul compares this to God’s family. If gentiles want to join the family, they will not only be welcomed but grafted onto the main trunk of the tree to receive the same blessing as everyone else. And if a branch no longer produces good fruit to bless the world then that branch will be cut away to make room for another producing branch.
Again, we see God’s family receiving blessings, but also being expected to bless others, to produce fruit. Paul warns those who are receiving God’s blessings to not look down their noses at fallen branches. Instead they should be in awe of how God’s family works. Those who were outside the family can be integrated thoroughly into God’s family. He also reminds them that just because someone does not believe now does not mean they will be rejected later. Even if a branch falls off, God can graft it back on at any time.
And here is where I think God’s family gets really compelling. Yes, we are blessed, but there are times we do not feel particularly blessed. Those hard times will come. But if God’s family works like an olive tree it means we are allowed to have a bad season. When we aren’t feeling the sun shining on our branch, the branches around us are still collecting the sun and turning it into food for the whole tree. If I am feeling wilted, I still get fed! I still can produce good fruit because of the nourishment of the trunk.
There will be seasons where we feel like we are accepting more blessings than we are giving but it takes two to make a blessing work: one to give the blessing and one to receive it. Yes, we all want to be the giver, but the system doesn’t work that way. You do your part in the family just as well when you are a recipient too.
If I am in a down season, that does not make me any less a part of the family. What matters is a person’s commitment to the call to be a blessing when the opportunity arises. And blessing others comes in a million forms. A smile, letting someone merge on the highway, sitting and listening to someone, playing with a child, these are all ways to be a blessing and no one is greater than the other. We may feel short on blessings but can still offer these things to others. Blessings are funny things too. The more you give, the more you have.
This week Forbes had a piece about giving back as a good business model. Scott Moorehead is a coauthor of Build A Culture of Good: Unleash Results by Letting Your Employees Bring Their Soul to Work. In this book, Moorehead and his coauthors make a case for promoting philanthropy in the workplace.
Moorehead is the CEO of his family business and started seeing employee turnover skyrocket. He discovered that most employees only saw the business as a paycheck and had not developed a deep sense of loyalty. Moorehead decided the solution would be to connect and give back to the community where the employees lived. This “culture of Good” as Moorehead calls it, has cause their employee turnover to become just half of what peer companies see in a year. And it’s bringing new customers to the cash register. The more you give the more you have.
It seems God was onto something with choosing a family that would live their lives to bless others. Not only does that work help others, it makes for a better sense of self and belonging. It feels good to belong to a family that is committed to creating a culture of good. A family that will help each member be the best version of themselves and support each other through hard times. God’s family wants a culture of good to take over the world and works every day to keep the ripple of blessing moving in the world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 8, 2019
Genesis 1:26-31; 1 John 4:7-12
They were back. Regardless of all the time and money my parents put into their home, they were back. The “they” that were back were cracks in the walls and gaps between the walls and the ceiling. They were there because in Houston, homes are built “slab on grade”, meaning that the land is graded, rebar is laid and concrete poured, much like people do with driveways here in Michigan. The problem in Houston is that the soil is like a sponge. When it gets wet it expands and when it dries up it contracts. In addition, the soil does not rise and fall evenly, so that over the years, the soil under foundations is shifting at different rates, thus twisting and turning the foundation in different directions. Twice my parents had holes drilled in the foundation and piers and jacks put under the house to stabilize it. Both times it failed. So, when my father finally sold his house two years ago, the cracks were still there. I have to say this image has become my perfect metaphor for life. If we don’t have good foundations, cracks are going to appear. It doesn’t matter what part of life we are talking about; relationships, businesses, educational institutions, if they do not have a firm foundation on which to exist, cracks will appear and regardless of our best efforts to fix them, they may crack and fail.
The same is true for our faith; that if our faith does not have a firm foundation on which to stand, it too will crack and perhaps fail. I say this because just like my parent’s foundation was continually stressed, so is our faith. Our faith is twisted and turned by stressful moments in our lives; stressful moments when we deal with difficult relationships and jobs; with vacillating health and illness; with painful layoffs and interviews; with stresses in society of war, recession, politics and uncertainty. Any or all of these can call into question what we believe or why we believe it. It can even cause us to lose our faith, as with one pastor I knew who quit believing in God because of the horrific tragedies that encompassed the world. The question before us then, is what sort of a foundation do we have that will ensure our faith can weather the ever-occurring stresses that life brings? The answer can be found in scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and that answer is, that God loves the world. Yes, the foundation that will support us in all times, if we allow it to do so, is to personally see and experience God’s love for the world and for us. I realize that in the face of what we have witnessed over the past several weeks, shootings, hurricanes, and the like, it might be hard to speak about God loving the world, but if you will walk with me, I hope you will see this that this foundation is present around us and in us.
How do we know God loves us? We know because God has given us this creation. The writer of Genesis makes it clear that this creation is a gift of God intended to supply the needs of every living thing. It is good, meaning that it serves the purpose of bringing forth and sustaining life in all its fullness; in all its richness and diversity. This planet provides us with air to breath and water to drink. It provides us with soil to till and minerals to extract. It provides us with seeds to be sewn and rain to nourish them. This year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings. And while that was an amazing feat, what amazed me as much were the pictures of the earth, this blue-green ball floating in a sea of darkness; a globe teeming with life in the midst of a seemingly endless field of stars and galaxies. We can make God’s love a foundation for our lives when we realize just how miraculous is this creation on which we live. Want to see God’s love…look at the beauty of creation.
How do we know God loves us? We know God loves us because God has given us community. The Genesis’ writer offers us a theological account of the creation of the physical world whose penultimate act is the creation of human beings. The writer states that we are created male and female, and in God’s image. This description is not about who we are to marry or about sexual orientation, it is about community, that we are not made to exist alone. It is a reminder that God did not make isolated individuals who were to live apart from others, but that God created us to be in intimate communion with one another. And one of the great gifts of God according to the Bible is that God did not just create one kind of people who looked and spoke and acted alike. Instead scripture tells us that God created the nations, or in Greek the ethne…from which we get the words ethnic and ethnicities. What this means is that God created us in a wide variety of skin colors, languages, sexual orientations and cultures. And these nations, God’s children, are intended to be a tapestry that is as vibrant as the tapestry of the physical world around us. This vibrant diversity of humanity is what enriches the world. Want to see God’s love, look at the people around you.
How do we know that God loves us? We know that God loves us because God has given us couches. What I mean by that is that God has given us rest. Had we continued reading this passage we would have heard the story of the final day of creation, when God rested. The scriptures read that “on the seventh day God finished God’s creation and rested.” Chances are God was not worn out or tired. Instead God was making clear in the beginning that rest, time away from work, time to enjoy the company of community, time to enjoy this amazing creation, time to give thanks to God, is a gift that we are supposed to take advantage of and enjoy. What that means is that God wants us to take some time and appreciate all that we have been given. God wants us to take some time and experience the love that God offers. God’s love for us is so great that God does not want us to work ourselves to death, but instead to rest and recharge, or to use Biblical language, God wants us to enjoy a sabbath. Want to see God’s love, take a nap and relax.
How do we know God loves us? We know because we can love others. We know because the love we give to others is the love God has given to us. And for us as Jesus’ followers, we trust that the love we have comes through Christ. John 1 puts it this way, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In other words, we know God loves us because we are capable of loving others. In college I was a business major and though I don’t remember much of what I learned I remember two things. First there is LIFO (last in first out) and FIFO (first in first out). This morning I want to give you another four-letter concept, LILO. This is love in, love out. We believe that we are capable of loving others because God loved us; because God has poured God’s love into us. And this means that not only can we love those who love us, but we can love those who are difficult to love. We can do this because this is what God does. God does not just love people who look like us, think like us, speak like us. God loves the world and everyone in it. We can also do this because Jesus told us we can. Jesus speaks about this when he says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…but love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:32, 35) LILO means that we have been given enough love to love God, neighbor and stranger.
Our faith has been given a firm foundation in God’s love for the world. My challenge to you then is to take out your sticky note and write two things on it. First, I want you to consider which of the ways of experiencing God’s love, creation, community or couch, is most meaningful to you and then write it down. Second, I want you to write down the name of a person, or perhaps a group of people that you would not normally love, or find hard to love, it can be their initials, on the sticky note as well. We will give you some time to do this. Then I want you to take these notes home and place them somewhere where you will see them every day. Then as you read them, first give thanks for God’s love that comes to you. But also, to ask yourselves, how can I work to love this person.