Monday, August 30, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Forwardness

Preached on Sunday, August 22

Scripture Readings:
Exodus 13:21-15:3; 1 Corinthians 10:1-22

One of my favorite parts of the Book of Exodus is chapter fourteen verse fifteen: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” For me, a shorter way to say this would be like this: “Stop talking; just go!”

I like this partly because it’s funny. It is as if God expected Moses to know, without being told, that he was supposed to lead his people through the sea. It is as if God expected Moses to know he was supposed to think of the unthinkable and to know how to do the impossible.

This sounds funny to me, but it has its serious side. I can’t help thinking that we are supposed to be able to think of the unthinkable. We are supposed to be able to know how to do the impossible.

Although the word faith is not used here, faith is the key. In fact, if we understand the story of the exodus it will help us to understand what faith is all about. The story of the exodus will correct some of our wrong notions about what faith is.

Moses had a good idea of what faith was. He knew enough about faith so that, when he looked at his people, he could see (and hear) that they didn’t have much of it. Moses said, “Be still.” “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14)

In Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”, Peterson takes the phrase “be still” and makes it say “Shut up!” The minds and mouths of the people of God were running a hundred miles an hour.

They were desperate. They were under attack. They were going to be captured, punished, maimed, raped, and made slaves again. It was questionable whether those who lived would be the lucky ones. Their slavery would be much worse than it had ever been before they had ever dared to hope to be free.

So they were “crying out”. It sounded like blame. It sounded like complaining. But it was much more than that. They were crying, “Help!” And they needed it.

But Moses said “be still”; or “shut up”! Faith is the gift of being quiet. When we are worried, or afraid, or angry, or full of regret there are too many voices jabbering on and on inside us; so many voices that we cannot hear God. We cannot receive the peace of God. We cannot receive the direction of God.

We listen to too many voices, and so we are commanded to silence. We are commanded to “be still” and to “shut up.”

The people of God were in survival mode, but they were not survivalists. A survivalist at least knows how to be quiet and still, and how to keep on going forward.

The people of God would have run off screaming, if there had been anywhere to run off to. There was no place to run.

There was the Egyptian army on one side, and the sea on the other. God’s people couldn’t see anything but unbeatable enemies and impossible obstacles. So the people stood where they were, and yelled, and complained, and blamed others, and they could not hear God speak to them. If they couldn’t be quiet there was nothing else for them to do.

Of course we don’t scream and shout because we are quiet people. It would be impolite. And we would never complain, because we were raised not to do that either; or blame others, or make excuses. Our parents would never let us get away with that.

And yet it is surprising how easy it is for us to live, practically speaking, in a different way than we were raised to do. As grown ups we often feel we have earned the right to do many things our parents would never let us get away with as children. So we do complain, and place blame, and make excuses. But however much right we have to do such things, it is no way to hear the voice of God. It is no way to be able to go forward in the peace of God, and to think of the unthinkable, and to know how to do the impossible.

This is why Paul said that so few of God’s people made it home after passing under the cloud and through the sea. He warned his Christian friends to watch out, because this failure was not as unusual as they thought. It was the common experience. It could happen to them. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Part of faith is the will to be quiet and still, so that God can tell you what you haven’t been able to think of, and to see what you haven’t been able to see, and to do what you think is impossible.

In this life there are possibly times and places where it is the smart thing to scream and shout, or run with all your might. But not on God’s road; not on the road that leads home. Home, and the road home, means connection with God and with other people; being part of what God is doing, building a kingdom, moving toward a new world, a new heaven and earth; and bringing other people along with us to join us and God on the road.

There are ways we need to grow to be people of faith, and hope, and love. There are ways we need to grow to find the life that God has created us for. Part of how we do this is through the art of being still and being quiet.

When we take time to be still and quiet, God can show us the way. There is that verse from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) This is an essential part of faith.

But, when the Lord says to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?” he is talking to Moses who is counseling stillness and quietness. Was Moses being just as noisy on the inside as his people were on the outside? Did Moses only appear to be faithful, when he was actually boiling and trembling on the inside? We do that, don’t we?

Was Moses busy making speeches about being still, and was he in the wrong because he was so busy talking? Churches take such a long time to get around to many things because they talk, and talk, and talk. I do this. And I let my churches do it too. I try to make sure that everyone has their say, and I think this is part of my job.

And it is so much easier to talk than to actually do something. But it is part of faith to know when to stop talking and when to do something.

But there is more to that in God’s message to Moses. “Tell the Israelites to move on.” “Tell them to go forward.” (NIV and RSV) Sometimes we have to go beyond being still and quiet. And we have to do more than just do something. Something is not enough. We have to move on. We have to go forward.

Forwardness is indispensable to faith and to the road home. If home is the family of God, then families are blessed by the ability to go forward, and forwardness is a kind of faith that families nurture in their children and their grandchildren.

God’s people had turned their back to the sea and their faces toward the Egyptians. Moses told them, very wisely, that faith meant facing the Egyptians and seeing what God would do. Faith is facing our fears and seeing what God will do.

But sometimes there must be a forwardness about our faith. Looking at what we fear may not be the same as facing it.

The people of God had a choice of what to face: their enemies and fears, or their impossibilities and obstacles. Moses was very wisely counseling one kind of faith, when God required a very different kind of faith. God had to tell Moses to shut up and just go forward.

I should understand this better than I do, because it is an important part of the story of my life. You know that, by nature, I am impossibly shy, and slow, and awkward, and backward. By nature I can’t do anything in front of other people. I know there must be a lot of other things wrong with me too, but let’s not go into those right now.

I was twelve years old when God first started pressuring me into the ministry. I didn’t give in until I was nineteen, when I realized that the only way I could be happy was to move forward in what I knew God wanted me to do.

I started doing what I needed to do in order to go forward. The problem was that, in so many ways, I was a hopeless case, even as a human being.

Nobody who knew anything about the ministry and anything about me gave me any encouragement at all. They all encouraged me to do something else with my life.
Some people thought that I had a subconscious need for acceptance by others, and that was the real reason for wanting to go into the ministry. But those people neglected to see that my church experience was basically in a church full of conflict, where half the people were in conflict with the other half, and where ministers were usually only accepted by half of the people in the church. For me, church was the very place where I would be asking for trouble and not be happy at all.

Some of the most discerning people recommended that I go and get a life first, and only then should I think about the ministry. I tried that for just a little while (about a year and a half after college) and it was a big relief, believe me. And yet I knew what I had to do. I had to go forward; not the forward that other people recommended, in all their wisdom, but the forward that God kept showing me, in all its impossibility and foolishness (like thinking you could walk through the sea as if on dry land).

Did it work? I don’t know. I have no proof. I still have an awful lot wrong with me. I can’t say that I have changed a bit.

But I would humbly submit that I have grown. I may not have the life that others think I should have, but I am very engaged in life; in my own life, and in the lives of others. I do this because of God; who gave himself to me and for me in Christ.

God has a forward for you and for all his people. God has a forward for the church. When the Lord said that he would gain glory through Pharaoh, and the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, the Lord meant that the people of God would see God’s glory, and know him better, by letting themselves be pushed forward according to the will of God.

We will never really know God or his purpose for us, unless we are willing to think the unthinkable, and do the impossible, and go forward.

The truth is that you may very well not become a different person as a result of this, but you will become your real self. You will become the person you were meant to be all along. And you will not know a different God, but you will know the God who was there, all along, calling and pushing you forward. And this church may never become a different church, but it will truly become the church as it was meant to be; the church as God sees it.

Paul says that Israel went through a kind of baptism under the pillar of cloud and fire that led them through the wilderness, and through the impassible sea. And Paul says that Christ was with them in the food and drink they had in the desert. (1 Corinthians 10:1-3)

The baptism was about Christ as well. Baptism, for us, is a symbol of a spiritual reality, because the new life we have through Jesus comes through his dying for us on the cross and his rising from the dead to give us a new life and life everlasting.

When we come to Christ it is a move forward. And when we keep on living in Christ it means continuing to move forward. In Christ and his cross we die to our self centered life. In Christ and his cross we die to our enslavement to ourselves, and to our sins, and to our past. We die to the barriers we raise between us and God, the barriers between ourselves and others, and the barriers between ourselves and the people God wants us to be.

We die and we rise to that new life because, in Christ, God moves us forward. This is a process that never stops working.

The same thing happened to God’s people at the Red Sea. To think the unthinkable, and do the impossible, they had to die to themselves, and rise, and go forward. It was a baptism.

There is always the chance that we can forget all about the faith involved in going forward, and stop the process. The people of Israel did this many times. It was a lesson they had to learn over and over, and many of them never learned it.

Going forward is a kind of baptism. It is the heart of faith. Forwardness is what faith requires because it is at the heart of being a child of God. It is at the heart of really coming home.

Forwardness is at the heart of God himself, and his plan for us, and his love for us. When we accept and receive his forwardness we have what we need for the road home; the road to life and life everlasting.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Preparation

Preached Sunday, August 22

Scripture Readings: Exodus 4:18-23; Romans 8:1-17

When my mom was a kid she and a friend of hers did an odd thing. She has told the story of it a number of times, and my impression is that she was a young teenager at the time; about fourteen or fifteen years old.

The odd thing about this story is that it seems more like the sort of thing that a boy would do. She and one of her best friends found a way to get into the city drains.

They lived in Venice, which is a district of the city of Los Angeles that was built along the beach. In winter, the city periodically has tropical rainstorms, and there is no place for all that water to go. So (many, many years ago) a system of drains was built, under the streets, to capture the water and carry it to the ocean.

These were not sewers. The sewers were completely separate. These were just purely drains. The main drains are big; more than big enough for an adult to walk through without stooping over.

Well, my mom and her friend climbed down into this system of drains and followed it. They didn’t know where they were going, but my mom feels that they must have gone for hours and for miles, until they came out into a large marshy area along the ocean.

Many years passed before she told her parents about this. I remember, as a child, having heard the story before, and then finding myself listening as my mom told her mom the story for the first time. I remember my grandma, my Baci, saying “NO!”

Now, there wasn’t anything immoral about what my mom did. It was just extremely foolish and potentially dangerous; and parents are supposed to protect their children (even their teenaged children) from doing such things. Children know this.

All kinds of bad things might have happened to my mom because she didn’t let her parents protect her. But, looking back, this adventure in the city drains is one of my mom’s cherished childhood memories. It is a story of the freedom of childhood; the story of children who have a home.

The Exodus is the story of God’s people going home to freedom. The odd thing about the story in Exodus is that the home in question (the place that would become known as the land of Israel) was a place where God’s people had never truly lived before. They had lived and wandered all around it, for generations, but they had never truly lived in it. They had always been outsiders looking in.

And after all this wandering on the outside God’s people had gone to live as slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. In a sense, slavery in Egypt was the only home they had ever known. But slaves are perpetual outsiders.

The fact that God had allowed them to spend generations wandering outside their true home; and then (on top of that) the fact that God had led them away from their true home, into Egypt (and then warned them in advance that they would spend centuries there in slavery (Genesis 15:13) is very odd.

Their true home was waiting for them. God really liked the home he intended for them. God described it to Moses as “a good and spacious land; a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:8) But, for a long time, it wasn’t the time to go home.

There are a number of reasons why God didn’t let them live in their true home at once. For one thing, if they had all gone straight home, in the time of Abraham, there would have been no drama; and so there would have been no story. And maybe life is better when it has a story with drama.

For another thing, Abraham and his family, the first generation of God’s people, would have been completely swallowed up by their neighbors and disappeared. Again there would have been no drama and no story to tell.

So the story of the exodus and the road home is the essential story. It is the story of the move from aimlessness to home. It is the story of the move from slavery to home, and freedom, and identity, and character. The exodus is a salvation story. It helps us understand the meaning of what we call salvation.

In the end, the escape from Egypt was part of an escape from death. Slavery is a kind of living death. You can’t be yourself or know yourself when you are a slave.
And death was going on in the struggle between Egypt and God’s people. There were deadly plagues sweeping through Egypt, and the Hebrew people were spared from the greatest of these plagues because of a death.

It was the death of a lamb. In each Hebrew home there was a lamb that each family of the Hebrews sacrificed in order to provide the meal that would be their last meal in slavery; their first meal in freedom. A lamb died, and its blood was used to mark each of their homes, to ward off the plague of death that passed over all the homes in Egypt.

Jesus is the Lamb of God. The cross is the sacrifice of God, himself, who came down from heaven to be a human being in Jesus. He became the lamb who takes away the sins of the world and brings us to home and to freedom.

Home is our Father’s house. Home is where God is. It is heaven. Home is also life lived, here and now, with the freedom that comes from the selfless giving of God.

This is the truth hidden in the message that Moses was sent to give to Pharaoh, king of Egypt. In this message God calls his people his son. The message runs as follows. ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my first born son…. ”Let my son go, that he may worship me.”’ (Exodus 4:22-23)

Real worship is a relationship with God. Worship exists when we are in a living relationship with God in which we are truly free and truly at home. Without God we know nothing of ourselves, or of life, or of home.

The process of finding these things out is like the drama of a great story. Unless we know ourselves as aimless wanderers like Abraham and his family, or as slaves like the Hebrews in Egypt, we cannot understand the freedom that we have been created for.

The Apostle Paul talks about this freedom in his letters. In Romans chapter eight he writes about the slavery we live in when we live our lives separated from God, and the freedom we have been given through Jesus. “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)

In a way, my mom’s adventure (no matter how extremely foolish and potentially dangerous) was a story about home and freedom. There was courage, and mystery in it. There was faith, and hope, and love in it. And this is what it is like to live with God. In some way this is our proper home, and this is also the road home.

At the place where we find Moses, in this part of the Scriptures, he was preparing to lead his people home. And, to do this, he had to return to the place he had left long ago: the place of slavery, the place so far from freedom, the place where his people had lost themselves.

It was a place where he had failed before. It was a place where he and his family would be in danger. It was a place where things could go horribly wrong and many people could be harmed because of him.

We see Moses prepare for this.

The first thing he did was to go to Jethro, his father-in-law, and get his permission to leave, and take his wife and children with him to Egypt. “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt, to see if any of them are still alive.” (4:18)
Now this was only a partial truth. It was a truth that deliberately concealed the truth. Moses wasn’t going to Egypt to see if his family there was still alive.

He would find that out, of course. But he was going, at God’s command, to face the king, and tell the king to let his people go. That was the main truth: the true truth.

The fact that Moses held back the truth is not an example to us. But one good thing was accomplished. Jethro could not talk Moses out of taking God’s road home.

It is possible that other people will try to keep us from finding our true home; the true life that God designed us for. The book of Exodus tells us that, at times, Moses was afraid. (Exodus 2:14) The Letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament, tells us that, because of his faith, Moses was not afraid. (Hebrews 11:27) The point to this is that, when you look at Moses’ life as a whole, you see that Moses faced the king who had the power to kill him and his family and his people. Moses faced his fears. That is the real definition of courage. That is the courage that comes by faith.

When you are young you have to do this all the time. If you don’t face the things you fear, you will never grow up.

You can’t be afraid to take hard and unknown paths. You can’t be afraid to stand up for what is right. You can’t be afraid of what other people think. You can’t be afraid of peer pressure. You can’t be afraid of taking the road less traveled by. If you are afraid, you will lose the most precious thing you possess; which is your own unique personhood which God has given you in his creation and in his death and resurrection for you.

The same is true for all of us as we get older. We have new fears to face, and we must face them, or shrivel up in the face of them.

Moses prepared for the road home by designing his life so that he wouldn’t get talked out of it by others. We must all prepare for the road home by not letting anyone tell us we can’t do it.

Another way Moses prepared for the road home was by taking his family with him. The road leads to that “good and spacious land, flowing with milk and honey:” It leads to God’s freedom in Christ. If we don’t share the road with others, if we don’t help the ones we love to walk this road with us, then we are being afraid again and we are not free at all.

My cousin Don (who is a much better Christian than I am) is a teacher. He has taught remedial classes. Currently he teaches an elementary class. His goal, if I can put this right, is to teach more than facts. He tries to teach kids how to learn, how to solve problems, how to see things through, how to build their sense of positive identity, how to be truly free in God’s sense of freedom.

Paul, in Romans, has more to say about this. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.” (Romans 8:18) Sharing the road home with others shows how ready we are for home ourselves.
Another way that Moses prepared for the road home was by taking his staff with him. Only it wasn’t his staff any more. It was the staff of God. (Exodus 4:20)

The staff was Moses’ shepherd’s staff. He used it to control the sheep. At the fair this month we will see kids using something (a judging stick?) like the staff of Moses to control their animals in the livestock judging.

As a prince of Egypt, Moses may well have had a different staff in his hand; a fancy staff that was more like a royal scepter, and was a mark of his office and his authority. But Moses had lost that staff. That staff was the symbol for a whole way of life that was lost for Moses.

His shepherd’s staff represented Moses’ failure. It represented the story of Moses running for his life and making a new life as a foreigner in a strange land. Moses’ staff represented the story of his life.

After his meeting with God at the burning bush, it was no longer his staff any more. It was the staff of God. In the same way, his own life wasn’t his own life anymore, it was God’s life.

The staff represented the authority of Moses in his new life with God. It represented the same kind of authority that we have as God’s people. Moses had the authority of being a weak, foolish, vain, fallible human being, who was called to a better purpose by the grace of God.

Through Christ, and the dying and resurrection love of God in Christ, we all have this authority to live and to take others with us on the road home. We all have the story of the love of God that empowers us in spite of our weaknesses, and raises us up above our sins and failures.

The staff of God was no magic wand, but Moses would appear to use it as one: to turn it into a snake; to make all kinds of things happen; to part the Red Sea and make a path for God’s people, through the waves, on their way home.

All of us have a story to tell, and a life that has been changed because the Lord has made himself a part of it. This changed life, and this story of a new life, are like a wand in our hand that helps us pass through the waves and the barriers between us and home. We hold that story close to us for its help along the way.

We have a story. We have seen what God has done. We can hold onto it and live by faith.

There is more, but that’s enough for now. There is this preparation. Let us prepare by not letting people talk us out of our journey and our growth on the road. Let us prepare by having the courage of God’s freedom to help others become free. Let us prepare by keeping the story of the grace of God in our lives close to us, as evidence to help us live by faith. Then we will have God’s help for the road to home and to freedom.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Sufficiency

Preached Sunday, August 15

Scripture Readings:
Exodus 3:1-12; 4:1-13
2 Corinthians 12:7-10

The people of God were about to set foot on the road home; but they didn’t know it yet. And they didn’t really know anything about home. Home was nothing but a story. Home was an old, old promise that had never come true.

For centuries they had been slaves in Egypt. They couldn’t have been at home there! And yet, perhaps, they had grown all too much at home in Egypt.

They had allowed themselves to grow comfortable in a place where they did not belong. They had allowed themselves to grow comfortable in a place, and in a way of life, where they could never hope to be the people they were created to be and called to be by God.

God’s people knew nothing about home. But they were about to set foot on the road that would take them there.

The key to understanding the meaning of home and the road home are the promise of God. Home is wrapped up in the promise God gave to Moses, “I will be with you.” (Exodus 3:12) Our home is the presence of the God who created us and knows the purpose of our creation; the God who knows us through and through; the God who saves us and sets us free; the God who calls us by name.

The truth is that God is our home. That is why heaven will be our home. That is why the new heaven and the new earth will be our home. And that is why we can know what it is to be at home right now.

Life for us, here in this world, is the road home, and home is where God is. But God is here with us on the road: so even the road is our home.

The reason for this is that home is a relationship. Home is a whole network of relationships, but there is a center to it all. The center makes it possible for that whole network to hold together. The center is God, because we are children of God.

Perhaps because I have never been married I see the central relationship of home as parental. I am told that parents never stop being parents to their children, and children never grow out of being their parents’ children. And from my end of it I believe that this is true.

I think about times long ago; of being at home on the road. When I was a little kid, before we moved away from Southern California, my family would go camping for a week or two up north every summer.

My parents would put us kids to bed dressed in tomorrow’s clothes, and wake us up in the dark, and carry us or lead us, bleary eyed, out to the car we had packed the day before. Once in a while I would open my eyes and see the lights on the freeway as we drove north, or the darkness of what they called “The Grapevine”; the winding highway that would take us up into the Central Valley.

It was getting light before we got to Bakersfield, and there, out in the middle of nowhere, is where we stopped for breakfast along the road. There was no freeway there, in those days, and no rest stops.

We used the bushes to go potty. And my mom would open two thermoses and a package of doughnuts. One thermos had coffee for my mom and dad. The other had hot chocolate for me and my sisters.

Somewhere along the way we turned east and started up the hills, and the hills changed from grass to oak trees, and the oaks changed into pines, and we went higher and higher, and the roads got scary because they were only two-lanes and they had no shoulders. You could look straight down for hundreds of feet down the steep sides of those mountain canyons.

Then the road started passing between giant sequoia trees. We were almost there, and then we were.

We chose our spot, and there were sleeping bags to carry, and ice chests to carry, and lanterns to carry, and the box with the tent to carry and set up, and water to fetch and to carry. There was a lot of carrying; a lot of work. We kids worked, and whined, and our work probably wasn’t worth very much; and we were more work than help, for our parents.

Long, long childhood days passed, and it came time for the road again; the real road home. But camp had become our home and we didn’t want to go to our real home.

What a surprise it was when we finally got home and found that we were glad. There were our rooms, and our toys, and our friends. But home was work too.

That old summer road was always home, from the beginning to the end. It was all about freedom from oppression. It was all about my family living at our very, very best together. In spite of us children whining, we were at our most alive on that road. We were in the place where we were at our best creating good memories.

So what do we say about home? It fits the way the Lord described it to Moses. “So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:8)

The land of the sequoias, and the King’s Canyon, and Cedar Grove where we camped, was that good and spacious land for us. It was the end of slavery, but not the end of hard work, and being of help, and caring for others. It was hard beds, and roasted marshmallows, and campfires, and singing. It was the wonders of God’s creations around us. It was the amazing easiness of waking up and getting up, so eager and ready to go, so much earlier in the morning than we ever did at home.

God talked to Moses about home. It was talk about room and freedom, the end of slavery and oppression. Home would flow with milk and honey: not silver and gold, not time-saving and labor-saving conveniences, not games and entertainment, not thrills or pillows. The goats would give lots of milk, but those goats would have to be milked. There were lots of flowering things to feed the bees and give those bees something make their honey with; but the honey would have to be found, and the bees would have to be dealt with.

With Jesus our road home is also about freedom. The love of Jesus gives us the freedom to cross over into the life that we have been created for. Grace makes our lives into a spacious land where we can put our slavery behind us; our dysfunction; our hardened, and broken, and worn-down hearts. But this is work for us, too; to will it and to carry it through.

My old summer road would often make me forget the work that went along with it. Most of all, it took a lot of work on my parents’ part. Being at home on the road was their grace at work for us: it no lark for them.

The road home for the people of Israel was a big challenge: scary and a lot of work. It was about escaping from one of the strongest powers of their day. It was about crossing the desert, where there was no food or water, with thousands and thousands of men, women, children, babies, and livestock. It was about an invasion of the people who were living on the land that was supposed to be their home.

Paul was a servant like Moses; sent to call God’s people and lead them home. It was no lark. Many of God’s people in Paul’s time were slaves too. It was a world that worshiped such strange things: strange things like success, and wealth, and wine, and sex, and entertainment. It was a world that laughed at you and made things tough for you if you didn’t play along. It was a world like ours.

The home and the road that takes you there is a wonderful road, but it is not a lark. A week or two in the mountains takes a lot of work. But a life where there is real freedom for you to live in that network of relationships, at your best, and for others to live with you at their best is not easy.

And to really help others to find their way into that life of freedom is not easy either. We can live a holiday life for a holiday, but not for much longer.

And this brings us to the matter of sufficiency. Moses wondered who he was that he should be able to lead his people home to God’s freedom. (Exodus 3:11) There were so many reasons for him to fail. After all, he had failed at the start, when he was a young prince of Egypt and had tried to come to his people’s rescue.

When I perform a wedding, I wonder whether the couple who are standing before me are sufficient for leading each other into God’s freedom. Can they succeed in their mission to help each other to grow as free, and happy, and thankful children of God? Are they sufficient for rejecting all the temptations of self-righteousness, selfishness, unfairness, spite, the competition for dominance? Are we sufficient for this in our families? Are we sufficient for this with our neighbors and community?
And what about the church! Are we sufficient to lead our brothers and sisters in Christ into greater and greater freedom in the grace and love of God that is found in Christ? Are we sufficient as a church to reach out beyond ourselves? Are we sufficient to bring the good news of the road home to those who seem to have such different lives and such different purposes in living?

In this matter, the scriptures tell us “no”, we are not sufficient. If we were sufficient for these things, our message would be about ourselves and about our program for becoming the outstanding and wonderful and amazing people that we are. But we’re not.

The key is in the simple words of the Lord to Moses: “I will be with you.” There is no greater wisdom and no greater joy than to accept our insufficiency and to really understand God’s sufficiency for us.

Our lives are meant to be a living story of the grace of God. This is what the life of Jesus was for. This is what his sacrifice on the cross was for. This is what his resurrection was for.

It is all for us. It is all for grace. It is all for planting the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus in each one of us. The story is all about God whose sufficiency makes it possible for each one of us, and for all of us working together, to be the living proof of the power of the grace of God, in Christ.

Unbeknownst to himself, the Christian named Paul wanted to tell a story about how spiritual, and how holy he was. Then, instead of being a witness to Jesus, he would have become a witness to himself. Jesus took away Paul’s sense of sufficiency and, then (when this loss brought Paul to the edge of desperation), Jesus told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8)

We don’t know for sure what Paul’s source of weakness and insuffiency was.

It may have been people problems. Everything would be going well in Paul’s work. He was guiding people into the new life of the road home. People were learning the new freedom and the transformation that come from Jesus. People were growing in their faith, and in their sense of calling, and their growing together in love. And so many times it would blow up in his face.

There would be people problems; fights, and rivalries, and desertions. People problems would come up and seem to spoil everything. It was enough to make him want to quit. These people problems were a thorn in his flesh.

Paul’s thorn in the flesh that made him feel so weak and insufficient may have been a matter of health. In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul reminded them of the state he was in when he first came to them. “I came to you in weakness, and in fear and in much trembling.” (1 Corinthians 3:3) Writing to the Galatians Paul wrote about the state he was in when he was with them. “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me…” (Galatians 4:13ff)
We all know people who have had something happen to them that makes them completely dependent on others. The longer we live the more we understand how very hard that is; how humiliating (at least at the start) and how frustrating.

There are thorns in the flesh that take all a person’s illusions away. And we are full of illusions about ourselves and our abilities. We are full of illusions even about the gifts of God. We are full of illusions about our sufficiency to take the road home and to bring others along with us, in the freedom of the children of God that comes through Christ.

The bush in the desert was a common shrub, like thousands of others, adapted with thorns and thin and leathery leaves to a life in a in a hard thirsty land. It is hard to see beauty in that desert shrub.

The presence of God in the bush changed nothing about the bush except to make it the center of God’s holy ground. This bush became a place for meeting the grace of God that was reaching out to a defeated man, a failed prince, and his enslaved people.

Our insufficiency is the place where God’s power can be seen. It is the place where the proof can be seen of how we can grow in the freedom of God’s children.
We can grow on our way home, and we can help others on the road with us. We can help them because we are really just like them: insufficient.

God is sufficient, and we can be the living and contagious proof that, just as we are, the presence of God can burn in us, and not consume us. The sufficiency of God can make us and our lives into holy ground.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Help for the Road Home: U-Turns

Preached Sunday, August 8, 2010

Scripture readings: Exodus 2:11-3:6; Acts 9:1-25

The story of the exodus, that takes us through several books of the Old Testament, is a travel story: a story of the road. So is the Book of Acts.

They are stories about a road home.

Moses and others with him take their people, God’s people, from slavery in Egypt to the home they never knew. They go home to the Promised Land.

In the Book of Acts the disciples of Jesus learn, and grow, and become the church (which is a kind of home). But the church is a home that is made out of people, not a building.

The church in Acts is very much on the road. And the road leads them out into the whole world. Their road home spreads them out like a rising tide; a pretty small tide in their own generation, but one that is still rising and growing in ours.

The story of God’s people, modeled for us in the Scriptures, is the story of a journey home. If we want to be part of that journey it is important to notice that their road home does not run in a straight line. If we want to be part of that story of what God began so long ago, and what God is still doing today, we need to know that it would never be the story that it is without many corrections and many u-turns.

In fact the whole Bible is the account of one giant u-turn. We and the whole world ran away from home (ran away from God) in the Garden of Eden, in the Book of Genesis. We don’t return home until the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, which is also a book of the road home.

The gospel, the good news of God, in Jesus, is the news of an amazing plan on the part of God to engineer the correction of a tremendous mistake; a disastrous and deliberate wrong turn. The first humans, in the form of Adam and Eve, were part of a plan by God to make us children of God by means of intimacy and partnership with him. Adam and Eve took this plan and ran with it in the opposite direction. They decided to bypass the children of God part by engineering their own god-status by means of breaking their ties with God (Genesis 3:4-8); by breaking faith, and trust, and love toward God; by taking their lives in their own hands, and making their lives into a story about themselves. This created a human race, and a whole world, that have not worked well ever since.

God came down from heaven, in Jesus, and shouldered our human life, and pain, and sin, and injustice. God, in Christ, took all the dysfunction that works at the heart of the world; all the dysfunction that makes it (and us) work in vain. God, in Christ took all of this upon himself, on the cross.

In Christ, by faith, we die to that old life and we turn homeward from the depths of our being. We round that long u-turn in the new life that comes from the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.

We are people headed for home, which is intimacy and partnership with God. Home is harmony with others. Home is harmony with the whole world no matter how the world seems to work against us. And home is harmony with our true selves, as God created us to be.

But it all begins with a willingness to die with Christ. It begins with a willingness to come to the end of ourselves and to let the one and only God be the one and only God.

This is not as simple or as easy as it may sound.
Moses, in the Old Testament, and Saul (or Paul as he came to be known), in the New Testament, have a lot to teach us about the importance of u-turns in the story of our own lives as people of faith. Moses and Saul were both people of faith.

Chapter eleven (11:24-27) of the Letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament, tells us that Moses had faith in God long before he met God in the burning bush. This faith enabled Moses to leave his life as an adopted prince of the royal family in order to identify with his real people.

Saul, who became Paul, lived in that odd time of change, that odd first generation of believers. It was the time when the faithful people of Israel were being sorted out by whether they would believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel, the center God’s plan of salvation and transformation for them and for the whole world.

Saul loved the God who had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who had made a covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai. Saul loved the Lord of the covenant enough to fight with all his might against those who endangered the faith of his people. And God had Saul in his sights. Saul was a person who was going to know Jesus.

You never know just who those people might be. But you should know that, whoever they are, God loves them. If we treated everyone in the world as if they were people who were going to know and love Jesus better, then we Christians would be a lot more effective as God’s people. We would truly be people of the good news.

God’s idea of both Moses and Saul was that they needed to know and understand him better; and that they needed to stop, and learn, and listen, and love. What God did with each one of them was to make them stop, and learn, and listen, and love. This is the source of the great u-turn in each of their lives.

Their halt and about face were not their own idea. It wasn’t something they were working on. It wasn’t something simmering on the back burner. It was something that God made possible.

God forced their surrender. God brought them to the end of themselves. Both Moses and Saul had to die to themselves and rise from the ashes into the new life that God would give them.

Both Moses and Saul teach us that God’s own people need to make u-turns. There are times when we have a false confidence. There are times when we are far too proud for our own good, or anyone else’s. There are times when we think we are right; but we have not listened to God except to hear what we wanted to hear, and we have not listened to the people around us who are really wise.

There are times when we go far too far in the wrong direction. We find out the hard way that we have been wrong, and we need to turn around. God meets us on our long detour, and shows us this, and points the way home.

Both Moses and Saul were smart. A speech by Stephen in the Book of Acts (7:22) tells us that “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” There was a time, after Saul became Paul, when he was on trial and speaking in his own defense, and one of the officers of the court had this warning for him: “You are out of your mind Paul. Your great learning is driving you insane.” (26:24)

Moses and Saul were both smart. At one or more points in their lives they were too smart for their own good, and God had to stop them in their tracks.
There are times when we really are too smart, too clever, for our own good, and our smartness makes us stupid. If we were really smart we would learn and listen even when what we hear seems like nonsense, or like something that may apply to others but not to us.

It may be that we do know something worth following, but what we know is half-baked; half wise and half fatally-flawed. If we don’t listen then God will bring us down until we learn to listen.

Both Moses and Saul were strong people who could get things done.
Moses was raised as a prince in a civilization that had really mastered the art of organization. The Egyptians knew how to do things, and Moses knew how to make things happen.

Moses was a ruler, and having the power of life and death over others was nothing to him. It was his right. It may be that he considered making himself ruler and judge over the Israelites and using them to overthrow Pharaoh. After all, he was a prince.

Paul tells us in one of his letters (Galatians 1:14) that at an early age he had advanced beyond many other people of his own age in the power-structure of the Temple and the Jewish Senate. As a Pharisee, he represented a different party in the Jewish faith that was at odds with the priests of the Temple, but (in spite of this) he had gotten their approval to carry out his plan for persecuting the Christians and killing the most dangerous of them.

Paul was strong. He didn’t hesitate to seek the power of life and death over others. And he had the knack for getting a thing done when he put his mind to it.
Sometimes we are too strong for our own good. We know too well how to get what we want, even at the expense of others, even to the point of using others. This is a turn in the wrong direction. If we don’t stop and turn away from this God will stop us; life will stop us, and show us the horror of what we are. And then God will turn us and point us home.

Both Moses and Saul were people with a good cause. Moses cared about justice. He cared about it passionately and selflessly.

It’s true he cared about the injustices that the Egyptians had committed against his own people. But he cared about justice even when it had nothing to do with him.

When he escaped from Egypt, and was wandering in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, he came across a scene where a group of sisters were trying to water their flock, and a group of men were trying to cut in line. The impression we get from this story is that this was a daily ritual of injustice.

It was strange for the sisters to come home so soon, the day someone finally stepped in to do justice. Moses stopped the men and helped the sisters do their work, even though he had lost the world that was so familiar to him in Egypt.

He cared passionately about justice wherever it was needed, and so he was the follower of a good cause. But God had a better plan for showing his justice to the world.

Saul cared passionately for righteousness. In Philippians (3:5-6) he described himself as: “A Hebrew, born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” This righteousness was the status of being right in your relationship to God; and right in your duties to your neighbors, and to your family, and to the world around you.

According to the letter of the law, Paul was exactly what he was supposed to be, but the law alone is not enough (not even God’s law). Jesus said that our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. (Matthew 5:20)
By this he meant the law of love that no law can enforce. Only the grace of God can empower love.

Paul persecuted the Christians because he was afraid that they would put Israel’s obedience to God at jeopardy. Paul was afraid that, through the Christians, Israel was in danger of losing the covenant life for which God had shaped them throughout their history. He was afraid they would stop being a nation that was humble and faithful before God; a nation that stood for a righteous society.

Paul was the follower of a good cause. But God had a better kind of righteousness in mind.

We might be people of a good cause, and yet we may be so passionate that we cannot hear God’s plan for that cause. G. K. Chesterton said something on the order of, “Reformers are always right about what’s wrong, but they are also generally wrong about what’s right.” For instance there may be ways of helping victims of injustice that take away their God-given freedom. There may be ways of preserving the value of righteousness that take away the virtues of mercy and compassion. You may teach someone to be good by making them a hypocrite. You may teach someone a form of faith that takes away their ability to think and use their brains.

The passion for a good cause may be a wrong turn when the good cause becomes a god in itself. C.S. Lewis wrote about the dangers of adulterating Christianity with other priorities. He called this the temptation of “Christianity-and” or maybe we could call it “Christianity-Plus”. There are things like “Christianity plus Prosperity”, “Christianity plus Positive Thinking”, “Christianity plus My Politics Whatever It Is”, or “Christianity plus the Perfect Church”, or “Christianity plus being Modern or Post-modern”. These other priorities are like false gods.

When a lesser god is mated with the gospel we lose the ability to stop, and learn, and listen with the true and only God. We have made a wrong turn, and we need God to stop us and make it into a u-turn.

The Lord’s Supper is the story of the great U-Turn in a nutshell. The broken bread and the poured out wine tell us of a broken and bloody world, and a life that has taken the wrong turn.

Most of all, they also tell us of the God who came down from heaven in Jesus Christ, to be broken and bloodied on the cross for the hope of the world, to give us the new life that only comes from God. When God comes into our lives through Jesus; and when we stop, and learn, and listen, and love; our lives turn with the power of God who leads us through the great u-turn.